In its ancient form, Tantra revolved around rituals, and lots of them. Everything of importance was done in a ritualistic manner, and the sacred rituals were viewed with utmost respect and reverence. While the most controversial and high profile of these rituals involves sex, Tantrics observed rituals of many types, for lots of different purposes. There were rituals for relieving stress, other rituals for promoting spirituality, and still more rituals for sexual healing and connecting emotionally with one's partner.
Rituals in Tantric History
Rituals of many types have been a central part of Tantric traditions since the very beginning. Most of the common ancient rituals are as old as Tantra itself. In fact, in the early days, this was one of the things Tantra was most famous for. Tantric rituals — especially those involving sex — were a classic hallmark of Tantric practices.
Taoism and Tantra
Rituals were central themes of both Tantra and Taoism in ancient times. These rituals were designed to take the act of lovemaking and transport it to a whole new level — thus elevating the routine sexual union to a higher spiritual plane. Both Taoism and Tantra viewed sexual rituals as the most effective way to transcend physical ecstasy and enter spiritual bliss.
Virtually every traditional Taoist ritual involved a jiao. This was a ritual offering or routine. It was done with a specific goal in mind — for example, to request fruitful crops or seek eternal peace for the soul of someone who recently died.
The Tantric rituals have mainly managed to survive only thanks to the hard work of a few dedicated gurus and yogis in the east, who have carefully recorded, preserved, and passed down these rituals so their importance can live on through future generations.
Ancient Tantric sexual rituals often included many instantly recognizable Tantric hallmarks: chanting and meditation as well as sensual delights such as candles and music, wine, etc.
The Lost Rituals
Unfortunately, some sexual rites practiced by ancient Tantrics are no longer documented in modern texts. Perhaps because they were misunderstood during various periods in history, these acts were often practiced in secret and kept “underground,” remaining both mysterious and magical. People who participated in these rituals were typically sworn to secrecy, and never spoke of the rituals outside of their closed circle, so the specific activities involved in these rituals remained a mystery to everyone except those who had witnessed the events firsthand. The details were passed down almost completely by word of mouth, and many were lost along the way. These rituals were considered so powerful that they were only revealed to a select few. Unless someone was advanced along the spiritual path, they weren't considered ready to partake in such rituals, as it was believed they would get lost in the purely sexual aspects and forget their spiritual purpose.
And then there are other rituals that are deemed too complicated, especially when translated from Tantric texts, to be easily understood by westerners.
Most Tantric rituals had some common central traits, including the use of sacred objects. Great importance was placed upon these items, which include some of the symbols and items mentioned in Chapter 2. For example, the vajra and bell are both frequently part of Tantric rituals, as is the phurpa (a magic dagger believed to help conquer bad spirits).
As you have probably realized by now, Tantrics (like everyone else) practiced rituals of many kinds, including many that were totally innocent and not related to sex in any way. These other rituals may have involved yoga, meditation, chanting, and many other activities that were not controversial in any way. But it is the sexual rituals that have gained the most notoriety and attention. Not surprisingly, these are the rituals that most people are generally the most curious about, and the ones they always immediately associate with Tantra.
It is important to note that to Tantrics, these sexual rituals were much more than just a good time. While it is true that in some cases they may have resembled orgies from outside appearances, they had a much deeper purpose to the people who practiced them. These rituals were seen as a means to an end — the end being the sought-after state of higher consciousness. Participants in sexual rituals were seeking spiritual liberation and wanted to achieve a oneness with the universe. This was their traditional way of pursuing that goal.
Still, there are those Tantric gurus and experts who claim that the ritualistic sexual exploits of ancient Tantrics have been greatly exaggerated or misunderstood. Although many ancient Hindu texts give elaborate directions and descriptions of group sexual rituals, these gurus say these writing were not meant to be taken literally. In their opinion, the passages were meant symbolically, or were translated incorrectly or taken out of context. However, there seems to be ample proof that ritualized sex activities did play a role in Tantric practices.