I was born and raised in the part of North India that has long been a stronghold of tantric practices. My birthplace, Amargarh, lies in a triangle formed by three of India’s holiest cities: Varanasi, Allahabad, and Ayodhya. Varanasi, the city of light, embodies the spiritual traditions of ancient India, including all forms of tantra: Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain tantras; left-hand tantra; right-hand tantra; forbidden tantra; and tantric practices of a purely yogic nature. Allahabad, the city of gods, experiences a big congregation of saints, yogis, and tantrics from every tradition every January and February, and an even larger congregation every 12 years during the Kumbha Mela. Ayodhya, the invincible city of Lord Rama, is the most mysterious of all, for thousands of saints and yogis, mostly practicing right-hand tantra, are hidden behind the walls of hundreds of monasteries and ashrams.
There was a monastery a little more than a mile from my childhood home that was a magnet for wandering sadhus, novice seekers, and adepts. The nearby palace had its own circle of tantrics, pandits, and astrologers. My father was one of them. Growing up in this land I saw pandits debating their views, astrologers making their predictions, and tantrics performing their magical rituals. I saw my father spend hours every day reciting scriptures, meditating on mantra, and worshipping the Divine Mother through rituals and fire offerings.
understood that tantric practice could help me discover the best in myself and in the world around me.
My own spiritual quest began in an extremely simple way. I was afraid of the ghosts I believed lived in dust devils, as was custom in my culture. Inspired by my mother, I started meditating on Hanuman by reciting 40 couplets dedicated to him to protect myself from these ghosts. But it was only when I heard an amazing story that I became intensely interested in spirituality and understood that tantric practice could help me discover the best in myself and in the world around me.
The raja of Amargarh was fond of the number 24. He had 24 horses, 24 wrestlers, and 24 pandits. One of the pandits was an accomplished left-hand tantric who worshipped Divinity with alcohol and meat. In those days, palace politics were dominated by right-hand tantrics, who condemned using these articles in rituals. Under pressure from them, the raja demanded that the left-hand tantric clarify whether or not he was using these “impure” articles in his rituals. Instead of answering directly, the tantric said, “I do not indulge in liquor. I worship the Divine Mother in a manner prescribed in the scriptures.”
This statement annoyed the right-hand tantrics even more. They conspired with the raja to raid the temple at midnight, the time the tantric performed his rituals. They pounded on the door when the tantric was in the middle of his chakra puja, a practice forbidden to non-initiates. Not knowing what else to do, the tantric interrupted his practice and, before opening the door, prayed, “Oh Divine Mother, do whatever you wish.” The crowd stormed in, only to find a chalice filled with milk instead of wine. The tantric, saddened that the Divine Mother had to go out of her way to protect him, resigned from the raja’s court. Many other tantrics followed suit. Soon all kinds of calamities—disease, accidents, and death—began to befall the raja’s family. The royal elephants became deranged and portions of the palace collapsed.
To me everything about this incident—a ritual so potent and sacred it is forbidden to non-initiates, wine turning into milk, and a chain of calamities ensuing from the disruption of a tantric practice—was both fascinating and bewildering. When I asked my father what tantra is and who these tantrics were, he only said, “Tantra is the way to discover the infinite potential of your body, the power of your mind, and the beauty of your soul. Tantrics are the blessed children of the Divine Mother.” Although I was too young to understand the meaning of this answer, the incident at the palace temple was so compelling that it pulled me deeper into the world of tantra.
I began to actively seek out tantrics who practiced special techniques and possessed unique powers. Miracles held a particular fascination so I was thrilled when I met a tantric with an amazing metal bowl. When a theft occurred he would invoke his bowl. The bowl would come to life, rise in the air, float to the place where the stolen objects were hidden, and hover over that spot until the objects were exposed and the recovery acknowledged. I met another tantric who cured cobra bites. Yet another tantric would draw a mandala known as chakra vyuha, show it to a woman in labor, and within minutes the baby would be delivered. I met a sadhu who specialized in the tantric use of herbs. He would invoke the energy of prickly chaff, for example, and give it to a client whose house was infested with cobras. As soon as the client deposited the herb in his house, the cobras would slither out unharmed. A Sufi fakir specialized in the science of jantar (yantra/mandala). He cured nightmares, phobias, and infertility by tying the jantar to a patient’s arm.
Experiences with these and other tantrics convinced me tantra was as profound, useful, and rewarding as any other science known to man. But when I went to Allahabad and enrolled in the university, I witnessed events that made me wonder if tantra were merely a combination of trickery and superstition.
One of my professors at the University of Allahabad was deeply involved in the study and practice of tantra. He knew almost all the top tantrics of North India, and most of them respected him and sought his guidance. When he became ill, he attributed his sickness to an advanced tantric practice he had recently undertaken. Seeking a cure, he visited a local tantric, Dr. Kapoor, who gave him a miraculous medicine. Each time he took the medicine, he felt much better for a short time. Once the effect wore off, his symptoms returned, so the professor made frequent visits to Dr. Kapoor, who he regarded as his savior and guide. Three years passed. The professor’s wife became concerned because his symptoms were worsening. She asked me to find out if Dr. Kapoor was really a doctor and a tantric.
In time, I discovered that he had a medical degree, but that people were more attracted to him for his tantric powers than for his knowledge of medicine. He did not charge for his services but people were required to bring him one dose of paan (a special preparation of betel leaves, betel nuts, and tobacco), a packet of cigarettes, and a small amount of money (less than 50¢). Dr. Kapoor had a remedy for everything from physical ailments to psychosomatic illnesses to the problems that may have had their roots in the spiritual realm and previous karmas.
I paid a visit to Dr. Kapoor and found the reception room on the ground floor had such a powerful air of mysticism that a visitor would spontaneously slip into a trance. Dr. Kapoor’s consulting room was on the second floor. The stairway was lit only by a tiny oil lamp, which illumined three skulls on a small altar on the landing. The stairs themselves were dark, even in daytime. The consulting room was filled with the smoke of myrrh.
Dr. Kapoor sat on an elaborate altar. On either side were smaller altars, each with a flame and a picture of the goddess Kali. A group of followers and students sat before him in the dim light of these two ceremonial flames. The doctor greeted each newcomer by name and announced the problem that brought that person to him. When he made this proclamation, the audience cheered, “Jai ho! Jai ho!” (Hail! Hail!). By the time I entered his room, I suspected there was something wrong. By the time I left, I was convinced of it.
I investigated further and discovered that many of the “clients” congregating in the reception room on the ground floor were Dr. Kapoor’s agents. Their job was to quietly collect information about the personal life of the clients and pass it on to Dr. Kapoor before the clients went upstairs. Further, the incense smoke contained psychedelic substances, and the people sitting at his feet were drug-addicted courtiers whose job was to enhance the intoxicating atmosphere. Every medicine he gave contained opium, which is why my professor felt better after taking it and why the effects wore off so quickly. Shortly after my professor stopped consulting him—and after decades of successfully practicing “tantric healing”—Dr. Kapoor was arrested for dealing drugs.
I wanted to know the truth about tantra. Are tantric practices as profound, powerful, and fulfilling as they are believed to be? Are tantric practitioners really able to work miracles?
This incident forced me to examine the validity of my personal understanding and experiences of tantra. Now, in place of an unquestioning acceptance, I wanted to know the truth about tantra. Are tantric practices as profound, powerful, and fulfilling as they are believed to be? Are tantric practitioners really able to work miracles? Do the consumption of meat, alcohol, drugs, and the inclusion of sex constitute the practice of tantra?
On the bank of the holy Ganges I met a tantric whose popularity far exceeded that of Dr. Kapoor. Everyone knew this tantric was a cannibal. He lived near a cremation ground, and his disciples and followers provided him with human flesh roasted on the funeral pyre. He was always drunk. People criticized his way of life and yet marveled at his spiritual powers. Both his blessings and curses were believed to be infallible. I visited him for several months, risking my life by behaving in a way that would annoy him and draw his curses. I concluded that he was psychotic.
This and many similar experiences made me realize that drugs, deception, cheating, and sexual exploitation constituted a big part of what is called tantra. While I no longer had the same degree of enthusiasm to learn and practice tantra as I’d had before, I did not believe all tantric texts could be wrong or all tantric masters fake.