Remember, Tantra evolved in the midst of a repressive culture, one that kept people of lower castes subjugated through cultural bias, devalued women, and saw the body and the mind as an evil enemies to be overcome. Life was very hard for people who were not males of the Brahman caste, or kings and princes. Anything that could suspend the everyday worries and concerns of the masses would be welcomed. Tantra offered a path to people who had no other means to experience joy. The path included rituals; the rituals included the Five-M’s.

The Pancha-Makara were ways to cleanse and transcend the mind. Each “M” stands for a particular practice:

  • Madya or wine
  • Matsya or fish
  • Mamsa or meat
  • Mudra or parched grain
  • Maithuna or sexual intercourse

In our Western culture today, these five practices seem rather mundane and unremarkable. But a thousand years ago, this was quite shocking to conservative society. The use of alcohol was frowned upon by virtually all religions. The adoption of the non-harming ethic in Jainism and Buddhism was carried into Vedanta, [1] which had become the most common belief system in India at the time Tantra was flowering. Non-harming, or ahimsa, meant being vegetarian; no meat or fish was to be consumed. Mudra, in this context, is not the practice of seals, or gestures; it is speculated this meant the use of drugs. [2]

The final practice is one that has given rise to most of the misunderstandings about Tantra – sexual intercourse. The first misunderstanding arises due to the existence of two very different schools of Tantra: the right-handed school, and the left-handed school. The right-handed school believed that the Pancha-Makara were to be interpreted symbolically. One did not actually drink alcohol, eat meat, or get high. Instead, one used the imagination to simulate the effect of such a practice, in order to transcend the ordinary world. The left-handed school disagreed, believing that each practice was indeed meant to be actually performed.

To appreciate the effect of the Pancha-Makara today, we would need to adapt them to suit today’s culture. Today eating meat, drinking alcohol, engaging in freely available sexual relations, or indulging in drugs does not shock us. These don’t jar us out of our normal state of mind. To understand the intent of the Five-M’s, we would have to change these to practices that are not only cultural taboos in today’s society but are things that we would find personally revolting to do. If a spiritual school existed today that required you to ingest live maggots, and then publicly perform ritual incest with your grandmother or grandfather, that school would quickly gain a reputation similar to the one Tantra was tarnished with for centuries. [3]

Due to the misunderstandings about the less commonly practiced left-handed school of Tantra, and due to the fact that anyone, regardless of gender or class could practice Tantra, both the right-handed and left-handed schools were driven underground. Remember, Tantra is really trying to free and raise shakti energy so that living liberation can be achieved. The tantrikas were not indulging in the Pancha-Makara for simple pleasure. In fact, during maithuna, orgasm was not allowed. And besides, there were many other Tantric practices that didn’t involve any of the Pancha-Makara. Pranayama and physical exercises had no stigma in and of themselves. But they were guilty by association.

  1. — Vedanta is the major branch of Hinduism, and arose out of the Upanishads.
  2. — Obviously if mudra comes from a root word meaning delight, drugs would be a good way to be delighted. Even today ganja and bhang (marijuana) are quite popular in India.
  3. — Please note: This is not to suggest Tantra promoted incest! In fact, it was always very clearly stated that sexual relations with one’s mother was never allowed. (However, the women participants in such sexual rituals were generally older and more experienced in the ceremonies than the men.)

(Next: Hatha Yoga )