Tantra is the name given by recent scholars to a style of meditation and ritual which arose in India no later than the 5th century AD.
The Tantric tradition offers various definitions of tantra. One comes from the Kāmikā-tantra:
Because it elaborates (tan) copious and profound matters, especially relating to the principles of reality (tattva) and sacred mantras, and because it provides liberation (tra), it is called a tantra.
A second, very similar to the first, comes from Swami Satyananda.
Tantra embodies two sanskrit words: tanoti (expands) and trayoti (liberates)… It is the system by which you liberate or separate the two aspects of consciousness and matter – purusha and prakriti or Shiva and Shakti.
A third comes from the 10th-century Tantric scholar Rāmakaṇṭha, who belonged to the dualist school Śaiva Siddhānta:
A tantra is a divinely revealed body of teachings, explaining what is necessary and what is a hindrance, in the practice of the worship of God; and also describing the specialized initiation and purification ceremonies that are the necessary prerequisites of Tantric practice.
Prabhat Ranjan Sarkar describes a tantric individual and a tantric cult:
A person who, irrespective of caste, creed or religion, aspires for spiritual expansion or does something concrete, is a Tantric. Tantra in itself is neither a religion nor an “ism”. Tantra is a fundamental spiritual science. So wherever there is any spiritual practice it should be taken for granted that it stands on the Tantric cult.”
Modern scholars have defined Tantra; David Gordon White of the University of California, Santa Barbara offers the following:
Tantra is that Asian body of beliefs and practices which, working from the principle that the universe we experience is nothing other than the concrete manifestation of the divine energy of the godhead that creates and maintains that universe, seeks to ritually appropriate and channel that energy, within the human microcosm, in creative and emancipatory ways.
Anthony Tribe, a scholar of Buddhist Tantra, offers a list of features:
- Centrality of ritual, especially the worship of deities
- Centrality of mantras
- Visualization of and identification with a deity
- Need for initiation, esotericism and secrecy
- Importance of a teacher (guru, ācārya)
- Ritual use of mandalas (maṇḍala)
- Transgressive or antinomian acts
- Revaluation of the body
- Revaluation of the status and role of women
- Analogical thinking (including microcosmic or macrocosmic correlation)
- Revaluation of negative mental states
Robert Brown notes that the term “tantrism” is a construct of Western scholarship, not a concept from the religious system itself. Tāntrikas (practitioners of Tantra) did not attempt to define Tantra as a whole; instead, the Tantric dimension of each South Asian religion had its own name:
- Tantric Shaivism was known to its practitioners as the Mantramārga.
- Shaktism is practically synonymous and parallel with Tantra, known to its native practitioners as “Kula marga” or “Kaula”.
- Tantric Buddhism has the indigenous name of the Vajrayana.
- Tantric Vaishnavism was known as the Pancharatra.
“Tantra” denotes teachings and practices found in the scriptures known as tantras or āgamas; Āgamic is a synonymous adjective.
Golden Age of Hinduism
The earliest documented use of the word “Tantra” is in the Rigveda(X.71.9). Tantrism originated in the early centuries of the common era, developing into a fully articulated tradition by the end of the Gupta period. This was the “Golden Age of Hinduism” (ca. 320–650 AD), which flourished from the Gupta Empire (320 to 550 AD) to the fall of the Harsha Empire (606 to 647 AD). During this period power was centralised, trade increased, legal procedures standardised and literacy grew. Mahayana Buddhism flourished, but the orthodox Brahmana culture began its rejuvenation with the patronage of the Gupta Dynasty. The position of the Brahmans was reinforced, and the first Hindu temples emerged during the late Gupta period.
Late classical period
After the end of the Gupta Empire and the collapse of the Harsha Empire, power was decentralized in India. Several larger kingdoms emerged, with “countless vassal states”.[note 3] The kingdoms were ruled by a feudal system, with smaller kingdoms dependent on protection from larger ones. “The great king was remote, was exalted and deified.” This was reflected in the Tantric mandala, which could depict the king at its center.
The disintegration of central power led to religious regionalism and rivalry. Local cults and languages developed, and the influence of “Brahmanic ritualistic Hinduism” diminished. Rural devotional movements arose with Shaivism, Vaisnavism, Bhakti and Tantra, although “sectarian groupings were only at the beginning of their development.” Religious movements competed for recognition from local lords. Buddhism lost its stature, and began to disappear from India.
During this period Vedanta changed, incorporating the Buddhist emphases on consciousness and the working of the mind. Buddhism, supported by the ancient Indian urban civilisation, lost influence to the traditional religions rooted in the countryside; in Bengal, Buddhists were persecuted. However, it was also incorporated into Hinduism when Gaudapada reinterpreted the Upanishads in the light of Buddhist philosophy. This also marked a shift from Atman and Brahman as a “living substance” to “maya-vada”. where Atman and Brahman are seen as “pure knowledge-consciousness”. According to Scheepers, it is this “maya-vada” view which dominates Indian thought.
Rather than one coherent system, Tantra is an accumulation of practices and ideas. Because of the wide range of communities covered by the term, it is problematic to describe tantric practices definitively.
Tantric ritual seeks to access the supra-mundane through the mundane, identifying the microcosm with the macrocosm. The Tantric aim is to sublimate (rather than negate) reality. The Tantric practitioner seeks to use prana (energy flowing through the universe, including one’s body) to attain goals which may be spiritual, material or both.
For Tibetan Buddhist ideas, see Anuttarayoga Tantra.
Long training is generally required to master Tantric methods. Pupils are typically initiated by a guru.
A number of techniques are used as aids for meditation and achieving spiritual power:
- Yoga, including breathing techniques and postures (asana), is employed to balance the energies in the body/mind.
- Mudras, or gestures
- Mantras: syllables, words, and phrases
- Yantras: symbolic diagrams of forces at work in the universe
- Identification with deities
The process of sublimation consists of three phases:
- “Reaffirmation of identity in pure consciousness”
Avalon contrasts “ordinary” and “secret ritual[s.] Methods employed by Dakshinachara (right-hand path) interpretations of Tantra differ from methods used in the pursuit of the Vamachara(left-hand path.)
Mantra, yantra, nyasa
The words mantram, tantram and yantram are rooted linguistically and phonologically in ancient Indian traditions. Mantram denotes the chant, or “knowledge.” Tantram denotes philosophy, or ritual actions. Yantram denotes the means by which a person is expected to lead their life.
The mantra and yantra are instruments to invoke higher qualities, often associated with specific Hindu deities such as Shiva, Shakti, or Kali. Similarly, puja may involve focusing on a yantra or mandalaassociated with a deity.
Each mantra is associated with a specific Nyasa. Nyasa involves touching various parts of the body at specific parts of the mantra, thought to invoke the deity in the body. There are several types of Nyasas; the most important are Kara Nyasa and Anga Nyasa.
Identification with deities
Tantra, as a development of early Hindu-Vedic thought, embraced the Hindu gods and goddesses (especially Shiva and Shakti) and the Advaita philosophy that each represents an aspect of the ultimate Para Brahman or Adi Parashakti. These deities may be worshiped with flowers, incense and other offerings (such as singing and dancing). Tantric practices form the foundation of the ritual temple dance of the devadasis, and are preserved in the Melattur style of Bharatanatyam by Mangudi Dorairaja Iyer.
The deities are internalized as attributes of Ishta devata meditations, with practitioners visualizing themselves as the deity or experiencing the darshan (vision) of the deity. Duringmeditation the initiate identifies with any of the Hindu gods and goddesses, visualizing and internalizing them in a process similar to sexual courtship and consummation. The Tantrika practitioner may use visualizations of deities, identifying with a deity to the degree that the aspirant “becomes” the Ishta-deva (or meditational deity).
Classes of devotees
In Hindu Tantra, uniting the deity and the devotee uses meditation and ritual practices. These practices are divided among three classes of devotees: the animal, heroic, and the divine. In the divine devotee, the rituals are internal. The divine devotee is the only one who can attain the object of the rituals (awakening energy).
Vamamarga (secret ritual)
The secret ritual prompted Heinrich Zimmer‘s praise of Tantra’s world-affirming attitude:
In the Tantra, the manner of approach is not that of Nay but of Yea… the world attitude is affirmative… Man must approach through and by means of nature, not by rejection of nature.
Worship with the Pañcatattva generally takes place in a Cakra or circle composed of men and women… sitting in a circle, the Shakti (or female practitioner) being on the Sadhaka’s (male practitioner’s) left. Hence it is called Cakrapuja. …There are various kinds of Cakra – productive, it is said, of differing fruits for the participator therein.
Avalon provides a number of variations and substitutions of the Panchatattva (Panchamakara) “elements” or tattva encoded in the Tantras and tantric traditions, affirming a direct correlation to the Tantric Five Nectars and the Mahābhūta.
Western Modern Tantra
Following the first Tantric presentations, popular authors (such as Joseph Campbell) brought Tantra to the attention of Westerners. Although Neotantra uses some concepts and terminology of Indian Tantra, it often omits one (or more) of the following: reliance on guruparampara (the guidance of a guru), meditation and moral and ritual rules of conduct.
As Tantra has become more popular in the West, it has undergone a transformation. It was seen as a “cult of ecstasy”, combining sexuality and spirituality to correct Western repressive attitudes towards sex. Hence for many modern readers Tantra is now synonymous with “spiritual sex” or “sacred sexuality,” a belief that sex should be recognized as a sacred act capable of elevating its participants to a higher spiritual plane.
Responding to criticism of modern Western Tantra, Geoffrey Samuel, a historian of Indian and Tibetan Tantra writes:
‘Tantra’ as a modern Western sexual and spiritual practice however complex and contested its origins in Asia, was and is more than a fringe phenomenon of the 1960s and 1970s counterculture. On the contrary, it took up themes of considerable depth and significance within Western culture, and synthesized them creatively with borrowings from Buddhist and Hindu sources. Its slow but steady growth since the 1970s suggests that its potential has not yet been exhausted, and I would contend that to dismiss it as an empty and superficial expression of the “spiritual logic of late capitalism” is to miss the possibility of a development of real value.
According to author and critic of religion and politics Hugh Urban:
Since at least the time of Agehananda Bharati, most Western scholars have been severely critical of these new forms of pop Tantra. This “California Tantra” asGeorg Feuerstein calls it, is “based on a profound misunderstanding of the Tantric path. Their main error is to confuse Tantric bliss… with ordinary orgasmic pleasure.
Urban says he does not consider this “wrong” or “false”, but “simply a different interpretation for a specific historical situation.”
We agree, modern times require modern interpretations. Jeff & Rose <3