Jivana Heyman 0:00
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Anjali Rao 0:31
Welcome to the Love of Yoga Podcast. I'm your host Anjali Rao. This podcast explores the connections between the teachings of yoga for self and collective transformation. We dive into how spirituality and philosophy can ignite social change. I share conversations with folks who are on the frontlines of justice and liberatory movements, thought leaders and changemakers disruptors and healers.
Hello, and welcome to the love of yoga podcast. I'm your host, Anjali Tao. Tantra is one of those ubiquitous words that one often hears in yoga circles. And yet not many know or understand what exactly is and is not Tantra Yoga. Tantra is esoteric complex, arguably one of the most ancient dimensions of Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism. It is often misrepresented and simplified as eroticism and or magic. Today we will be demystifying Tantra with Dr. Shawna Barker taki Verma Varma, who is a historian, educator, social entrepreneur, currently working as a lecturer in Harvard University, and University of North Carolina Wilmington, where she teaches introductory courses on world religion and higher level courses on Hinduism, Buddhism, religion and film and the history of yoga. She's also the co founder of the nonprofit luminary portal. Chanel invests in building communities with individuals from various faith backgrounds, who believe in kindness, compassion, and fulfillment. I'm so excited to have Dr. Shaheen aboard Kotaki Varma on the love of yoga podcast, a very warm welcome to you shravana.
Dr. Sravana Borkataky Varma 2:59
Thank you so much. Anjali,
Anjali Rao 3:01
I'm so excited to have this conversation with you. Could you share a little bit about your journey and your beginnings in India?
Dr. Sravana Borkataky Varma 3:10
I hear Sure. And I want to first begin with thanking you for reaching out and inviting me to this wonderful podcast. I'm from India, from a state called Assam, which is in the north eastern side of India, I refrained from using the term northeast for a variety of reasons. And so originally from there, brought up in different parts of India because my father had a transferable job. So kind of, you know, a complete Indian upbringing wasn't India until 2005. From there, we moved to China. And from China, I came to the United States. So that's kind of been my, you know, life, mappings of science, geography cause mapping in some
Anjali Rao 4:08
difficulty, yes. And how did your real interest in religion germinate? Could you share a little bit about that? And where did how did you land up in academia?
Dr. Sravana Borkataky Varma 4:18
So, you know, and I guess it would be for a lot of listeners, who are South Asians, I say I say this in my classrooms that religion is in our social cultural DNA. It is in in all kinds of fabric that we kind of in it does become our DNA in many sorts then are one. The examples I give is if you were to study grammar in elementary school in India, the stories were woven in or taken in from mythology. If we were studying mats like in a simple, there were five oranges to were taken away. The names are usually names of popular gods or goddesses are my or figures gurus that are, that are everywhere. So I don't think there is a moment in time where religion became a part of me, I think it was always part of the DNA. Having said that, I did I identify myself today as a scholar, practitioner and guide. These are very big terms in the academy, I highly contested terms in the academy, and kind of risky, you know, place to be in especially when you take on this identity in a public sense of the way which I have done because the universities who are like, Wait, we cannot support this, or we cannot support that. And so yeah, there's a lot to be spoken about that. But essentially, it was initiated in the path of what is known as goddess Tantra. It is Shakti Tantra, in karma care. There's a temple in the state of Assam. My first initiation was at the age of about eight, eight and a half. I don't really remember anything of that. That enunciation, I think, where my memories are more of what I heard my parents say happen. So, you know, that becomes your memory. But you know, if I were to really, really peel off those layers, I don't remember much of that day. But my second enunciation was at the age of 15 and a half 16. So I, I religion in me have been pretty much meshed from a very, very, very early formative age.
Anjali Rao 7:04
Yes, and I completely understand and relate to what you shared about how religion is so embedded within our viscera. And I cannot we cannot separate the two. So absolutely understand and commiserate with that description. Today, we are talking specifically about tantra. So I want to kind of just focus on discussion, though, I think you you have so much to share in terms of the broader conversations about academia and religion and practicing practice as a practitioner. But today, I want to really focus our conversation on Tantra. For our listeners who perhaps are new to Tantra, how would you describe Tantra? Let's start with that. What are some of the core tenets the teachings of tantra I know, this is a really vast topic. And I also appreciate you too, even, you know, endeavoring to address this is that even one definition of Tantra
Dr. Sravana Borkataky Varma 8:12
is a student student of mine and Harvard Divinity School, in 2020, I think said it very well in the context of Hindu traditions, and then you know, kind of got overlapped into Tantra. And I borrow her definition, she says it's unprintable. And I think that is absolutely true. There is no way for us to know exactly a period of time when this alternate way of beings thinking, ritual space, some call Tantra to be hyper ritual space, I disagree with it vehemently. There are lots of definitions going all the way from governance to people to reading to hyper ritualized space. So, so fairly, so you can understand why there would be so much of confusion with regards to what this is all about. And so, I have come to define Tantra with the root, root tongue, which is one of the meaning of that is weaving. So, I take the metaphor of weaving, and I say, if any ritual philosophical are ways of living, have these four components, then it's Tantra. So the first one is the human body, and the bodily fluids is not rejected. The second is there is a subtle body in play. Now, some can call it subtle feel. Some may call it biofield. Some it doesn't matter what term you're using. saying, but in your understanding of the way you are in the understanding of the way we interact and weave, with all kinds of walls, it could be plants, it could be my colleague next door, it could be my dog, the way we interact and weave with each other, there is another body at play, for sure. And that could be an energy body and a thermal body, any kind of body. So that's my second element. Third is that is intentional. And intentional is extremely important. There is an intentional use of either a mantra, or a mandala and or a yantra. But there is an intentional use of a tool, like a mantra, or, as I said, Mandalorian thread that you're going to now use to intentionally make certain journeys or contacts with the macrocosm with the other side. However, that other side looks like, because you bring magic in your introduction. So I do want to come back to it. So whatever that other side looks like. And the fourth element is, all of this is done with the objective of Jeevan Mukti liberation this lifetime. So this is how I define Tantra. And in this weaving is the central metaphor. How am I weaving my physical body with my subtle body with my divine body, assuming there are so many bodies right here, I'm assuming that not only I'm assuming that's my premise over which I'm building this way of being and living in the system. So now you can see, it can be applied to someone who is who identifies themselves as Christians, or as Buddhists, or SGN, as you said, or Zoroastrian, or even someone who does not take on a religious identity, as long as you are receiving these four elements. And you're operating every day with that intentionality, I believe you are in the tantric path. And that is the definition of Tantra. For me,
Anjali Rao 12:28
that is beautifully, beautifully defined, thank you so much for sharing that it is so succinct, and I know from whatever, you know, whatever, I studied that to even to come to that definition of anything, especially something as complex as contracts, so challenging. So I appreciate this definition so much. I always struggle with, you know, definitions, because definitions have so much of parameters, and who defines that and how it is. And so I always struggle with just very basic definition. So I appreciate this very much. Thank you.
Dr. Sravana Borkataky Varma 13:03
I have to miss share a story here.
Anjali Rao 13:05
Dr. Sravana Borkataky Varma 13:07
So this was part of my PhD candidacy, you know, I finished my exams. And part of the exam for my fourth exam was on contract. And so there was this definition, one question on definition. So you know, you memorize all this for the exam, right? So you, I put all David White said this pedo said that X said that white, so you know how bright all of this, and my advisor tells me at the end of the candidacies that you cannot be a scholar practitioner, if you can't have your own definition, I let you pass the exam. But you cannot, you cannot not have a definition. And I am with you. It took me almost a year to even have the courage. And I think almost another five years to talk about it in public. So I hear you I'm I'm with you very, very challenging,
Anjali Rao 14:00
because I think, you know, definition needs a little bit of simplification. And you need some simplification in the beginning. But then when something is so complex, and something is so ancient and has so many layers of meanings, it's really hard to kind of make it into a nice little one sentence or two, you know, it's challenging.
Dr. Sravana Borkataky Varma 14:18
When you're worried, right, that somebody will critique you.
Anjali Rao 14:21
Exactly, exactly. So appreciate that. I want to just take back to your you know, statement about it being inside of religious frameworks, various religious frameworks, and also pre dating, I would think right tatata Can you share a little bit about the history?
Dr. Sravana Borkataky Varma 14:45
So what we know is and there are again, this is very, very contested, right? But essentially, what we know is within the Hindu tradition, there are so Many different paths, different schools, to be to, to live the life that you want to live, right? I mean, you have the puppy Ma, you have, you can go Sheva or you can be a chef right? You can be a Sherpa. And even within that, not everybody goes on the tantra path. What we know and I do not some books, actually a lot of books at one point of time, you will find them to state that Tantra is higher path. I don't like to use that because the minute we say that, that means we're saying there's a lower path can there is there is this concept that Tantra is not for everyone, it is for a particular persona and a mindset and you need to be at a certain level to be on the tantra path, because it's kind of considered as an express path. By saying all of this, what we are implying is there's a slower path, there are people who are not, you know, intellectually capable, I find them to be very, very discriminatory and I find them to be highly problematic. So, how I understand the history is, by the time we come to what fifth century see especially the Gupta period, by this time, what we see is between the yoga circles between the Sheva and the ShockPad circles, which is the Shiva followers and the goddess followers, we see there is a distinct alternate path that people are now talking about, we also see that in Tibetan Buddhism, and there is a lot of interaction between you know, in the Himalayan region between the different religions. So, what we find is, there is an alternate path that comes about that path again gets split into dakshina Chara and Varma Chara the right path and the left path. So there is again, you know, further division, but it becomes an alternate path. To understand the the weaving, right, it comes back the connections we have with the universe with the cosmos with the prom Han. You know, how are these interactions? How are these connections built in, and that becomes a way of being a way of living. And of course, everything else from there becomes different than our different scriptures, then you're studying that there are different lineages, then there are different rituals. And as I said, even within the tantra part, no matter if you're a shutter, or a Sheva or a bash, never there is the right and the left split. So you know, it kind of keeps getting split and split andsplit.
Anjali Rao 17:52
And obviously, this is we're talking only about the Hindu Tantra, when you're talking about VI, Shiva and Shiva and Shakta. And right.
Dr. Sravana Borkataky Varma 18:00
I'm absolutely talking only about the Hindu Tantra because then we as we know, we do have contrast, and very visibly. So in Tibetan Buddhist traditions, the four schools name, the look, Chaka, and Cargill, you can see they have Nigma in my I'm not an expert in Tibetan Buddhism. But what I find is the NEMA text and the way the Nina ritual space and ritual texts interact, maps very beautifully with how the path is understood in coma cat for example, the lineage that I come from, so it kind of it's a very good lineage mapping when it comes to understanding the philosophy, why you're doing what you're doing, what is the purpose, and what we also find is in, in Schachter Tantra, a lot of the checks, we kind of it was an oral tradition. So by the time we come to the written part, I, some of it got lost. Also, some of it actually, majority of us is very Phallocentric written by men, for men, by men, and so on and so forth. So as a as a practitioner, and as a scholar, I find studying some of the texts that come from the Nima tradition, which is in Tibetan Buddhism, helps me understand some of the texts that I'm otherwise having to look at in Sanskrit, or in Bengali, which I find very, very difficult sometimes to even understand what is it that you're trying to even get that so? Let's go ahead. Oh,
Anjali Rao 19:45
sorry. I was just gonna say is it because the Tibetan Buddhist texts were in English and what are the languages and why is it so accessible for people like us right now? Or you, rather.
Speaker 3 19:57
Yeah, I would say me accessible for me because I find there are teachers who are still who come from schools and have studied with teachers and lineages that have stayed on and those lineages and schools are very well preserved. And there's the texts that trainings are well preserved. When I see people in common care tradition, for example, I haven't found another teacher who can claim to have, excuse me, claim to have that kind of lineage training that that is rooted in Scripture. And, you know, and history and practice. So there is that kind of a gap between the two traditions and but as I said, this is just for me, I'm not saying that's applicable to all.
Jivana Heyman 20:57
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Anjali Rao 22:05
And just for a clarification for our listeners, the reason why we have the challenges to preserving the the traditions because it was oral was because also off what reasons I just want you to make sure we are clarifying that also,
Dr. Sravana Borkataky Varma 22:24
um, many reasons. And here, we are still only talking about tantra in South Asia, we have not talking about the transmission and what happens to Tantra in North America, for example. So we are not we have not even thought to that. But when we look at look at this one secrecy, there is this concept in tantra that once you're initiated, you're never supposed to share anything that you've been taught, unless you have been given permission to do so. So that's one, two comes men by men for men, three Tantra does get a very bad reputation. In by the time we come to 1700s, more so in the 1800s it gets into this very bad reputation of black magic, what are they doing? This is not Hindu tradition, they're all lunatics. And they're all into all kinds of, you know, weird rituals. So what happens is, there's a lot of rejection and reduction of Tantra. So Tantra, again, over like 300 400 years goes more and more and more in the background. And as that habit anyway, it had that layer of secrecy, then comes the rejection from the Hindu elite, especially. And so with, you know, Hindu reform movements and Hindu elite rejection, we lose even more knowledge, even more of the transmission. So today, really, it's only in few pockets. And I always tell this to my listeners, and to my students, be very careful before signing up with the teacher and do your due diligence, just because they're saying they know what they're talking about. There is no way of knowing if they really know what they're talking about. So there is there is a lot of muck that gets created in Tantra.
Anjali Rao 24:36
And I think this is a good sort of a segue into our next my next question your what are some of the misunderstandings here in the in the North American population that you encounter when you say you are a scholar or a practitioner of Tantra? What are some of the misunderstandings that you have to always clarify?
Dr. Sravana Borkataky Varma 24:58
Yes, and it is so exhausting. I should have a tattoo on my forehead. I'll give you an example. So I was teaching a course at yogic studies. And we were trying to advertise the course through Facebook. Right? And Facebook blocked me. And because Facebook and kept sending me emails saying you are, you're selling pornography. And I was like, wait, what? I said, How did you learn? How did it I've joked I said, I did not know I'm a porn star. Yeah, right. So that is how problematic it is. That is at how fundamental level we're talking about. In the modern West, Contra is synonymous to sex, sexual fulfillment, or cheese, longer orgasms, and so on and so forth. Right. So there is a preconceived notion that the minute you're talking about goddess, so you can try this put the algorithm of Goddess Tantra and some kind of course, in Facebook, the Facebook will throw you out right. And, and this is reality, this is what happens with with Tantra. And what happens further is there is an anime I wish Tantra was not common between the two ways of being is Neo Tantra because they took the term Neo Tantra I as a scholar, I do not reject Neo Tantra. I do not say that is there is no merit to it. Who am I right? Actually, I mean, how I say it is, if something benefits someone, who am I to say that's not right, or that is wrong, or that is not this or that is not that I don't think that's my place. My objection is we have a shared term called control, and new Tantra or California Tantra, as I jokingly call is what gets understood as Tantra which is sexual fulfillment. That is in the West, in the in South Asia Tantra gets associated with black magic. So, you can see how on both sides, we are talking about a sliver sliver of a sliver of a sliver, that becomes the identity. Now, none of these are not sliver of a sliver of a sliver, the part of the larger Tantra, cosmology and epistemology and, and it is the contract world. But it's a sliver of a sliver of a sliver. But in South Asia, it becomes all black magic. And in North America, it becomes all sex. And that's what happens with Tantra. Right?
Anjali Rao 28:08
Absolutely. That's beautifully said. I think what you know, I absolutely hear you on not shaming anyone or not, you know, blaming anybody for or stopping anybody or censoring anyone. That's not the point of the conversation at all. And we have to hold the tension that by only offering a sliver of a sliver of a sliver, you're really not sharing the complexity, the wholeness and the old dimensions of a very ancient and traditional lineage based practice. So I think that is what is one of the big issues is that that's what I'm hearing, am I right?
Dr. Sravana Borkataky Varma 28:54
Absolutely. And very sacred, right. So for someone like me, it's my way of being. It's very secret for me, it is not something I'm studying. As my profession, of course, it's my I also I'm a professor of in the country. So yes, of course, it's my profession, but it is extremely sacred to me, it's my cellular identity. So when you kind of take my cellular DNA and make it into either black magic, or into sex, that is where I think appropriation happens, right? You are not appreciating, you're not acknowledging you are kind of taking a very reductive and sometimes it's the dominant narrative that is kind of ridiculing and diminishing and dismissing a whole tradition. And that's what happened with the Hindu reform movement. And before that, you know, there were many currents before but by the time we come to the 1800s that That's what happens. We are completely dismissing Tantra and completely rejecting it without acknowledging what it is all about, of why it is there. Because that magic becomes the black magic, whatever that means, becomes the narrative in South Asia. And, and here it's sex. Yes.
Anjali Rao 30:23
Yeah, thank you. Thank you for sharing that. And if we were to study this, you know, you mentioned that you, you, you share with your students and your listeners, always be very discerning about who you learn Tantra from, what would be some of the pointers for people who want to study more, because this sounds like a path of liberation that is mired in sort of mystery and mysticism. And yet it seems very approachable in some ways, because, you know, all the things that you mentioned about what are the elements of Tantra, its metaphysics, as well as your everyday life as well as rituals as well as mantras. And so how would we go about choosing a teacher? How would we go about honoring and, you know, appreciating this lineage? What would be some of your recommendations?
Dr. Sravana Borkataky Varma 31:24
The first thing would be to do some self study, because Tantra is so broad, and there are so many lineages, and then it is so spread across so many religious traditions that I think just self study is the first one, I would say just pick up books, you know, by Andrew Purdue, or David Gordon White has an excellent book called, it's an edited volume called contra in practice. I think it has some 3738 chapters, it's it, there are lots of chapters there. But what it does is it will give you that should be a step one, just kind of get oriented to what you're talking about. Then comes persona, what is your persona? What kind of a person are you I use someone who is more attuned to studying a text, I use someone who is more attuned to learning it as you're doing. And again, I'm not saying these are either or everything is it becomes an but there is a dominant flavor, and that dominant flavor needs to match your persona. I don't think anybody should have Okay, I am not a teacher who goes and says you need to follow this and you need to follow that. I don't think that's my place. So so I you know, kind of do some self reflection, I feel someone who is more textual based, who likes to study texts, analyze texts, then comes which what kind of tantra would you like to study? Would you like to explore Shiva, the path of Shiva? Would you like to explore the path of the Goddess? Would you like to explore the path of Vishnu? Or would you like to do a Buddhist Tantra? Would you like to do Gen Tantra? Which one would you like to do? Right? And then again, allow yourself time to try a few things. I know all of this does not go very well with the what I call the microwave generation. That's what I call my students. It's all instant, right? I mean, everything needs a two minutes, I'm like, okay, then you will get in a microwave meal. You're not gonna get us pot roast, you want a pot roast, it's gonna take eight hours, right? And maybe 20 hours of marination. Yes, what I'm saying is a very slow process. But essentially what that will do is the more you take time preparing, and sifting and pivoting and sifting, you will learn on your path. Once you land on a path, you will be surprised how given up, other layers will come up. You some need a teacher, some do not need a teacher, it's a myth to say that I must take an association, I must do this, I must do that. No, there are people who do a great job of going in with a very specific question to a particular teacher, or a particular philosopher, or a particular lineage, they get that answer. They come out the process, then they go again. Right. So everybody is different. And that's what I would say. One has to do, but unfortunately, what I find a lot of people wanting to do like this Express thing like nobody wants to do the reading. Nobody wants to do the thinking. Nobody wants to do the sifting. They just want me to tell Oh, go Hear that's irresponsible. That's that's highly responsible. So that's kind of my answer. Yeah, it's not a microwave solution.
Anjali Rao 35:12
I love it. I love it. I love the whole analogy on the microwave and the pot roast and marination. I totally understand. And that's a really well thought out. Answer. So thank you for sharing that. I think we're coming towards the end, though, I think you know, you and I can have many conversations on this topic. And I would so so love for you to come back another time to talk specifically about, you know, chakra Tantra, which is your lineage? How would we keep in touch with you? And what are some of the work? What are some of the work that you were doing, which we can learn from study from any books that you've written, I would love to share it with our listeners.
Dr. Sravana Borkataky Varma 35:57
Thank you, that's very generous of you. I'm someone who believes in making everything accessible. So the best way to keep track of what's happening is my website, which is sravana.me, M E. So it's my first name, dot M E. There are three four different sections, there is a written section where you will get pdf of anything that gets published. There was spoken section, so podcasts and any other lectures that I do I make it available. So I think that would be one of the best ways to get information on. On what what I'm doing that I find book projects in different stages right now. So again, as they come up for sale, there will be the information will be there on my website. I'm also on Facebook and Instagram and I the my social handle is Barack Obama speaks. So that's my last full name speak. So I should you should be able to find me there.
Anjali Rao 37:03
Excellent. And we cannot wait. I know I cannot wait to read some of your books, and the work that you're doing. Thank you so much Shauna for coming and having this conversation with us. It's been really illuminating. And, you know, clarifying on so many levels on something that has been a part of conversations and so misunderstood. So thank you so much for your sharing and your generosity.
Dr. Sravana Borkataky Varma 37:31
Thank you. Thank you for inviting
Anjali Rao 37:39
thank you for being here for this conversation. Peace support our work at accessible yoga Association by becoming an ambassador, or checking out our studio at accessible yoga.org