It is difficult to trace the history of tantra which is mostly obscure
as in case of the history of religions. Many tantras offer mythical
explanations for their origins, often setting themselves as the given
word of either Siva or a goddess such as Devi. Scholarly depictions of
their origins are often as varied, ascribing tantras to pre-Aryan, Indus
Valley civilizations or similar aboriginal, tribal groups or as integral
part of an Indian cultural fabric. In reality, no definitive accounting
of the origins of tantra can be made owing to the significant
polyvariance of the term tantra in Sanskrit. Tantra, which in its
earliest written form was a distinctly iconoclastic, private, and
esoteric practice, evolved into a number of respected, exoteric orders (sampradaya).
It is convenient, although somewhat false, to group the orders into two
categories: left-handed and right-handed. Left-handed tantras (vaama
marg) incorporate five sacraments (pancamakarapuja) of fish, meat,
parched grain, wine and sexual intercourse into ritual practice.
Right-handed tantras, on the other hand, advocate the visualization of
these antinomian practices. Both groups rejected many aspects of
Brahamanic orthopraxy, most notably the caste system and patriarchy.
Despite this, Tantra was accepted by some high-caste Hindus, most
notably the Rajput princes. Nowadays Tantra has a large, though not
always well-informed, following worldwide.
Tantra exists in Vaisnava, Shaiva, and Shakta forms, among others.
Extolled as a short-cut to self-realization and spiritual enlightenment
by some, left-hand tantric rites are often rejected as dangerous by most
orthodox Hindus. The popular perception of tantra among Hindus espoused
in Indian journalism, equates it with black magic.
Some tantric aspirants simply feel the union is accomplished internally
and with spiritual entities of various kinds. For this reason, almost
all tantric writing has a gross, higher and subtle meaning. This
tripartite system of understanding readily obscures the true purport of
many passages for those without the necessary background or deeper
understandings so crucial to tantra. Thus, a 'union' could mean the
actual act of sexual intercourse, ritual uniting of concepts through
chanting and sacrifice, or realisation of one's true self in the cosmic
joining of the divine principles of Shiva and Shakti in Para Shiva.
According to John Woodroffe, one of the foremost Western scholars on
Tantra, and translator of its greatest works (including the Mahanirvana
"The Indian Tantras, which are numerous, constitute the Scripture
(Shastra) of the Kaliyuga, and as such are the voluminous source of
present and practical orthodox "Hinduism." The Tantra Shastra is, in
fact, and whatever be its historical origin, a development of the
Vaidika Karmakanda, promulgated to meet the needs of that age. Shiva
says: "For the benefit of men of the Kali age, men bereft of energy and
dependent for existence on the food they eat, the Kaula doctrine, O
auspicious one! is given" (Chap. IX., verse 12). To the Tantra we must
therefore look if we would understand aright both ritual, yoga, and
sadhana of all kinds, as also the general principles of which these
practices are but the objective expression." - Introduction to Sir John
Woodroffe's translation of "Mahanirvana Tantra.."
While Hinduism is typically viewed as being Vedic, the Tantras are not
considered part of the orthodox Hindu/Vedic scriptures. They are said to
run alongside each other, The Vedas of orthodox Hinduism on one side and
the Agamas of Tantra on the other. However, the practices, mantras and
ideas of the Atharva Veda are markedly different from those of the prior
three and show signs of powerful non-Aryan influence. Indeed, the
Atharva Veda is cited by many Tantra texts as a source of great
knowledge. it is notable that throughout the Tantras, such as the
Mahanirvana Tantra, they align themselves as being natural progressions
of the Vedas. Tantra exists for spiritual seekers in the age of Kaliyuga,
when Vedic practices no longer apply to the current state of morality
and Tantra is the most direct means to realization. Thus, aside from
Vajrayana Buddhism, much of Tantric thought is Hindu Tantra, most
notably those that council worship of Lord Shiva and the Divine Mother,
A tantra typically takes the form of a dialogue between the Hindu gods
Shiva and Shakti/Parvati. Shiva is known in Hinduism as 'Yogiraj' or 'Yogeshwara,'
'The King of Yoga' or 'God of Yoga' while his consort is considered his
perfect feminine equal. Each explains to the other a particular group of
techniques or philosophies for attaining moksha (liberation/
enlightenment), or for attaining a certain practical result. (Agamas are
Shiva to Shakti, and Nigamas are Shakti to Shiva.)
This extract from the beginning of the Yoni Tantra (translated by Mike
Magee) gives an idea of the style.
Seated upon the peak of Mount Kailasa the God of Gods, the Guru of all
creation was questioned by Durga-of-the-smiling-face, Naganandini.
Sixty-four tantras have been created O Lord, tell me, O Ocean of
Compassion, about the chief of these.
Mahadeva (Shiva) said:
Listen, Parvati, to this highly secret one, Dearest. Ten million times
have you wanted to hear this. Beauteous One, it is from your feminine
nature that you continually ask me. You should conceal this by every
effort. Parvati, there is mantra-pitha, yantra-pitha and yoni-pitha. Of
these, the chief is certainly the yoni-pitha, revealed to you from
Because of the wide range of groups covered by the term "tantra," it is
hard to describe tantric practices definitively. The basic practice, the
Hindu image-worship known as "puja" may include any of the elements
Mantra and Yantra: As in all of Hindu and Buddhist yogas, mantras play
an important part in Tantra for focusing the mind, often through the
conduit of specific Hindu gods like Shiva, Ma Kali (mother Kali, another
form of Shakti) and even Ganesh, the elephant-headed god of wisdom
(refer to the Ganesha Upanishad). Similarly, puja will often involve
concentrating on a yantra or mandala.
Identification with deities: Tantra, being a development of early
Hindu-Vedic thought, embraced the Hindu gods and goddesses, especially
Shiva and Shakti, along the Advaita (nondualist Vedic) philosophy that
each represents an aspect of the ultimate Para Shiva, or Brahman. These
deities may be worshipped externally (with flowers, incense etc.) but,
more importantly, are used as objects of meditation, where the
practitioner imagines him- or herself to be experiencing the darshan or
'vision' of the deity in question. The ancient devadasi tradition of
sacred temple-dance, seen in the contemporary Bharata Natyam is an
example of such meditation in movement. The divine love is expressed in
Sringara and Bhakti.
Concentration on the body: Tantrikas generally see the body as a
microcosm; thus in the Kaulajnana-nirnaya, for example, the practitioner
meditates on the head as the moon, the heart as the sun and the genitals
as fire. Many groups hold that the body contains a series of energy
centres (chakra - "wheel"), which may be associated with elements,
planets or occult powers (siddhi). The phenomenon of kundalini, a flow
of energy through the chakras, is controversial; most writers see it as
essential to Tantra, while others regard it as unimportant or as an
abreaction. As it is, kundalini is nothing but the flow of the central
sushumna nadi, a spiritual current, that, when moving, opens chakras,
and is fundamental to the siddhi concept that forms a part of all tantra,
including hatha yoga.
Taboo-breaking: The act of breaking taboos is the definitive feature of
left-hand Tantra. While the breaking of sexual taboos is perhaps the
most recognized of tantric practices, it is not considered generally
beneficial. All tantras state that there are specific levels of
preparation required for breaking taboos. Tantras practiced by
inadequately prepared individuals are considered harmful rather than
beneficial to the practitioner. The normal state of human preparation is
referred to as pasu-bhava (animal disposition). A person in the state of
pasu-bhava is one who regularly eats meat and indulges in intoxication.
They are considered dishonest, promiscuous, greedy and violent. A
fundamental requirement of all tantras is the initial transcendence
beyond this base state.
Tantras prescribe a strict regimen of penance, meditation, sensory
control, cleansing the self of negative thoughts and seeking truth and
justice before an individual can hope to transcend from her or his
natural state. An individual who successfully practices these tasks may
eventually take a vow of viravrata (a hero's vow) to be of vira-bhava
(heroic disposition). The demarcation vira is potentially transient as
it is considered a state of being free of desires.
In the Kaula and Vamachara schools of tantra the pańca makara (5 M's)
ritually/sacramentally broken in order to free the practitioner from
binding convention are:
Mudra (parched grain)
The "sacramental" or ritual breaking was only for the vira practitioner,
not the divya or pasu. The pasu would misunderstand and get caught up in
the literal act while the divya will have already progressed beyond and
not need the literal act to understand the inner meaning.
There also exist tantric schools that substitute innocuous items for the
taboo substances and acts, claiming that literal interpretations of the
pańca makara miss the inner truth of the rite.
Tantra in the
Tantra is used in the West as a general term which relates to sexual
practice as a spiritual evolutionary scheme. There are in fact many
different approaches as to how this manifests in American society - and
also examples of the same development in Europe (see further down).
There have been many civilizations which have deified sexuality as the
most approximate expression of cosmic love or God. Regardless, the point
is that tantra is moldable. It changes with each moment and environment.
It especially depends on the nature of the practitioner.
In traditional pockets of Tantric practice in India, such as in Assam
near the venerated Hindu temple of Kali, Kammakha, in parts of West
Bengal, in Siddhanta temples of South India, and in Kasmiri Shiva
temples up north, Tantra has retained its true form. Its variance in
practice is seen where many tantrics are known to frequent cremation
grounds in attempts to transcend their worldly attachment to life, while
others perform still more arcane acts. But what is common to them all is
the intense secrecy in which their rituals are kept and the almost
godlike reverence paid to the Guru, who is seen as the pinnacle of
Tantra. It would be safe to say that every single Hindu Tantra Yogin in
India is a Shiva and/or Shakti worshipper, and the more wide-spread
practices to which all Hindus commit themselves, like pooja and worship
through devotion, are maintained while more occult yogic practices
involving sacred rites continue. Tibet too has a very strong Buddhist
Tantric background which continues, albeit many have been transplanted
to monasteries in India, and claims to be a right-hand path, in contrast
to the more varied Hindu counterparts (that include both left and
Tibetan Tantra or Vajrayana flourishes in America and other countries in
a relatively pure and genuine, if somewhat attenuated form, under the
guidance of many Tibetan teachers either of the first or second
generation to escape from Tibet. There are hundreds of Tibetan Buddhist
centres outside Tibet and India, primarily in the Americas and Europe,
but also in eastern countries such as Malaysia, Taiwan, Russia and
others. Practices in these centres, with Tibetan gurus or those trained
directly by them, emphasize the true Mahayana ideal of rapidly gaining
the enlightenment that characterizes a Buddha entirely dedicated to the
purpose of relieving the suffering of others. This is claimed to be the
Bodhisattva ideal of Mahayana Buddhism represented historically and
mythologically by Avaloketishvara, Tara and others, as well as today in
the person of the Dalai Lama and other Tibetan teachers. In the Tantric
or Vajrayana aspects of this system, harnessing the energies of the
body, emotions and mind, including, joy, wrath and sexual energy, is not
an end in itself but a potent means to the ultimate goal of realizing
the true nature of reality, emptiness or Shunyata, thus attaining
complete spiritual enlightenment and relief from the endless
dissatisfaction of life, and using the power thus gained exclusively to
help others do so as well.
Modern Tantra may be divided into practices based on Hinduism and
Buddhism. The form of Hindu Tantra popularly practiced In America is
said by Hindu Tantra traditionalists to represent a mutilated and
extremely narrow-minded, sensationalist approach encompassing only a
misguided thinking about "sacred sexuality," with little reference to
its true practice. Traditional Tantrists say their practice involves
much more than mere wizardy or sexual titillation: like the rest of Yoga
(Hindu), it requires self-analysis and the conquest of material
ignorance, often through the body, but always through a pure outlook of
the mind. 'Real Tantra' is about transforming one's sexual energy into
spiritual progress, and has nothing to do with 'sex just for fun'. Those
without a guru or lacking in discipline of the mind and body are unfit.
It is telling that a Tantrica in West Bengal, a devotee of the Hindu
goddess Kali, once said that "those most fit for Tantra almost never
take it up, and those least fit pursue it with zeal."