When you think of the word “religion,” what comes to mind? Candles flickering in darkened chapels, cheerful baptisms, or ancient texts in dead languages? Sure, those images are pretty good. But how about disgusting bodily fluids and revolting lovemaking practices? Some types of Tantra, a variety of Hinduism often associated with the goddess Kali, enjoin practitioners to participate in some of the the most disgusting acts imaginable. And new research suggests that there might be important biological reasons for these behaviors. Specifically, disgusting acts transgress people’s innate biological desire to avoid pathogens, thus forcing a religious confrontation with death. (Warning: this article isn’t for the easily nauseated!)
It’s the most troublesome fact about life on Earth – it ends. The fact that everyone has to shuffle off this mortal coil is often described as one of the most important roots of religious questioning and belief. The resurrection of Jesus in Christian belief, for instance, is a famous example of the religiously defiant response to death (1 Corinthians 15:55: “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?”). Meanwhile, in Buddhist and much Hindu thought, the overcoming of the cycle of death and rebirth known as Samsara similarly represents a victory over the ugliness and horror of the grave. And Islam promises resurrection at Judgment Day and Paradise for believers.
But whether we’re bound for Nirvana, Heaven, or just the ongoing carbon cycle, our fragile animal bodies have some important tasks they need to accomplish first. Namely, they need to stay alive and healthy long enough to meet a mate, have kids, and raise them to adulthood successfully. That’s the basic evolutionary task of life. And the fear of death is an important tool in evolution’s toolkit, because it keeps us from doing dumb things like fighting tigers bare-handed or jumping off cliffs to see what happens. (As a rule, people who provoke unsuspecting tigers don’t survive very long.)
However, there’s another emotion that may be even more important for keeping us alive – disgust. An emotion we share with animals as diverse as chimpanzees and domestic cats, disgust tells us when we’re doing something that’s likely to make us sick or expose us to parasites that could harm or kill us. For example, rotten food is disgusting because it’s crawling with nasty fungus and bacteria; if you eat the moldy science experiment in the back of your fridge, you’re going to regret it. And evolutionary scientists argue that bodily emissions like menstrual blood and feces disgust most people for the same reasons. Disgust is an important evolutionary widget, preventing us from poisoning ourselves with pathogens.
But certain types of Tantra, a group of loosely related Hindu religious practices, demand that followers expose themselves to precisely the icky substances and disgusting situations that are the least evolutionarily adaptive. Typically centered on the goddess Kali – herself a goddess of death, usually depicted wearing a belt of severed arms and a necklace of skulls – Tantric worship practices can literally involve ingesting feces, semen, phlegm, and menstrual blood (although most varieties are more innocuous than this). They also famously can include skin-crawling varieties of ritualized sex, sometimes with a menstruating partner who is from a different social caste and who is idealized as a mother figure – thus symbolizing incest.
Now, this might just seem like a disgusting, strange, and marginal cult, best ignored or left to the back pages of obscure religious studies periodicals. But Thomas B. Ellis of Appalachian State University thinks differently. In fact, in an article published recently in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Ellis claims that the biologically disgusting practices of Tantra are actually manifestations of the purest, most fundamentally religious impulse of all: to overcome death.
Ellis draws on research showing that many taboos and cultural practices, as well as innate biological reactions, seem to serve the purpose of helping humans avoid encounters with illness-producing substances and situations. Disgust, as mentioned above, prevents us from exposing ourselves to bacterial, viral, or parasitic infection. And sexual mores and taboos often serve to minimize disease exposure and to maximize the immune strength of offspring. This is why incest is a universal no-no among human cultures – the more closely related the parents are, the weaker a child’s immune system is likely to be, and the more likely the child is to die before reaching adulthood.
Finally, as unpleasant and reprehensible as it might be, outgroup hostility and distrust probably actually served to protect our ancestors from nasty germs and illnesses carried by other tribes. Think about it: what’s one of the first things that happens when one human group moves into another’s territory? Members of two groups promptly start dropping dead from each other’s pet illnesses, that’s what. (The most famous example of this grisly trade relationship, of course, is the total decimation of the American Indian population by smallpox in the 16th century.) So it makes sense for evolution to program humans to be wary of people who do things differently, look strange, or belong to foreign groups – strangers often carry illnesses our bodies don’t have immunities to.
So let’s look at Tantra again: Tantric practitioners of what’s called the “left-hand path” often consume bodily secretions like feces, phlegm, and menstrual blood during rituals, and occasionally participate in ritual sexual encounters with menstruating women who are from different social castes. (Practitioners of the “right-hand path” might do these same things symbolically, but not literally.)
It’s hard not to see that every single aspect of these ritual practices is biologically maladaptive. Consuming others’ bodily secretions and wastes is a surefire way to pick up infection and illness. And of course sex with a menstruating partner is completely unproductive, biologically speaking. Finally, the fact that the ritual sex partner is generally from a different caste is a big rule-breaker: consorting with people from different groups is precisely what our biological emotional drives try to keep us from doing, to minimize harmful exposure to strange germs.
Why this weird biological reversal in Tantra? Ellis argues that it is the very disgust reaction itself that elicits the most intense fear of death, because disgust is an emotion that prevents our bodies from being compromised. But our bodies wouldn’t need such protection if theyweren’t going to die. Therefore, disgust is, quite literally, a visceral reminder of our own mortality. And there’s hard research to back up this claim: research subjects who have been shown disgusting pictures report more thoughts of death than subjects who have viewed innocuous images (see here for more).
Tantra, therefore, is an anti-disgust program. The most horrifying of Tantric practices actively rebel against biological reality. Our biological nature compels us to stay safe and healthy, and produce healthy offspring. Tantra forces practitioners to do exactly the opposite. But since it’s biological reality that perpetually keeps reminding us we’re going to die, by rebelling against that reality Tantric practitioners are also rebelling against death. According to Ellis, this is the Tantric victory: by refusing to obey biology’s rules for life, Tantra practitioners are asserting that they don’t need to obey biology’s rules for death, either. It’s a whole-package thing.
Of course, this is all symbolic. But rigorous psychological research into the fear of death, often described in terms of “terror management theory,” provides evidence that these psychological processes are actually important drivers of human behavior. If disgust reminds us of our mortality and predicts fearful, protective behavior, then Tantra’s defiance of disgust is a powerful claim that we can overcome that mortality. Whether that claim is correct or not, it’s a striking example of the lengths humans will go to confound death, and the tools religions offer us to help our quest.