Tantra is the name given by scholars to a style of meditation and ritual which arose in India no later than the 5th century AD. The earliest documented use of the word “Tantra” is in the Rigveda. Tantra has influenced the Hindu, Bon, Buddhist and Jain traditions and Silk Road transmission of Buddhism that spread Buddhism to East and Southeast Asia.
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. It could also mean 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.”
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.
The term “tantrism” is a construct of Western scholarship, is 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 Vajarayana. And Tantric Vaishnavism was known as the Pancharatra.
“Tantra” denotes teachings and practices found in the scriptures known as tantras. 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). During this period power was centralized, trade increased, legal procedures standardized 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.
The disintegration of central power led to religious regionalism and rivalry. Local cults and languages developed, and the influence of “Brahmanic ritualistic Hinduism” diminished. Religious movements competed for recognition from local lords. Buddhism lost its stature, and began to disappear from India. Tantric movements led to the formation of a number of Hindu and Buddhist esoteric schools. 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.
The Tantric aim is to sublimate (rather than negate) reality. The Tantric practitioner seeks to use energy flowing through the universe, including one’s body) to attain goals which may be spiritual, material or both. A number of techniques are used as aids for meditation and achieving spiritual power: Yoga, including breathing techniques and postures is employed to subject the body to the control of the will. Mudras, or gestures; Mantras: Syllables, words and phrases; Mandalas; Yantras: Symbolic diagrams of forces at work in the universe; and identification with deities. There is also the process of sublimination which consists of three phases: (a) Purification; (b) Elevation and (c) “Reaffirmation of identity in pure consciousness”
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 specific Hindu deities such as Shiva, Shakti, or Kali. 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.
Tantra, as a development of early Hindu-Vedic thought, embraced the Hindu gods and goddesses and the Advita philosophy that each represents an aspect of the ultimate Para Brahman. 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. The deities are internalized as attributes of Ishta devata meditations, with practitioners visualizing themselves as the deity or experiencing the vision of the deity. During meditation 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 meditation deity.
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). Later developments in the rite emphasize the primacy of bliss and divine union, which replace the bodily connotations of earlier forms. When enacted as enjoined by the Tantras, the ritual culminates in an experience of awareness for both participants. Tantric texts specify that sex has three distinct purposes: procreation, pleasure and liberation. Those seeking liberation eschew orgasm in favor of a higher form of ecstasy. Several sexual rituals are recommended and practiced, involving elaborate preparatory and purification rites.
Tantrics understand these acts on multiple levels. The male and female participants are conjoined physically, representing Shiva and Shakti (the male and female principles). A fusion of Shiva and Shakti energies takes place, resulting in a unified energy field. On the individual level, each participant experiences a fusion of their Shiva and Shakti energies.
Since Tantra dissolved the dichotomy between spiritual and mundane, practitioners could integrate their daily lives into their spiritual growth, seeking to realize the divine which is transcendent and immanent. Tantric practices and rituals aim to bring about a realization of the truth that “nothing exists that is not divine” bringing freedom from ignorance and the cycle of suffering. Tantric visualizations are said to bring the meditator to the core of their humanity and unity with transcendence. Tantric meditations do not serve as training, extraneous beliefs or unnatural practices. On the contrary, the transcendence reached by such meditative work does not construct anything in the mind of the practitioner; instead, it deconstructs all preconceived notions of the human condition. The limits on thought (cultural and linguistic frameworks) are removed. This allows the person to experience liberation, followed by unity with reality.
According to Tantra, “being-consciousness-bliss” entails self-evolution and self-involution. Reality evolves into a multiplicity of things but also remains consciousness, being and bliss. illusion veils reality, separating it into opposites (conscious and unconscious, pleasant and unpleasant). If not recognized as illusion, these opposing conditions limit the individual.
Yoga as it has been inherited in the modern world has its roots in Tantric ritual and in secondary passages within Tantric scriptures. The practices of mantra, seat/pose, sense-withdrawal, breath-regulation, mental fixation , meditation, mudrā, the subtle body with its energy centers and channels, as well as the phenomenon of Kundalinī Shakti are but a few of the tenets that comprise Tantric Yoga. While some of these derive from earlier, pre-Tantric sources, such as the Hindu Upanishads and the Yoga Sūtra, they were greatly expanded upon, ritualized, and philosophically contextualized in these medieval Tantras.
As Tantra has become more popular in the West, it has undergone a transformation. For many readers Tantra is 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. Although Neo-tantra uses many concepts and terminology of Indian Tantra, it often omits one of the following: reliance on the guidance of a guru, meditation and moral and ritual rules of conduct.
The most important aspect of the tantric path is to ‘use the result as the Path’; which means that rather than placing full enlightenment as a goal far away in the future, one identifies with the indivisible three vajras that is, the enlightened body, speech and mind of a Buddha. The practitioner focusses on and identifies with the resultant Buddha-form or ‘meditation deity’.
In order to achieve this self-identification with the yidam, much symbolism, ritual and visualization is used in Buddhist tantric techniques. Tantric techniques may initially appear to consist of ritualistic nonsense; however, it should only be practiced on the basis of a thorough understanding of Buddhist philosophy and strictly following the traditions.
Secrecy is often a cornerstone of tantric Buddhism, simply to avoid harm to oneself and to others by practicing without proper guidance. Full explanation of tantric symbolism and the psychology of the practice is forbidden to the uninitiated, which can easily lead to misunderstanding and dismissal by those who have not been initiated. Mandalas are used as an aid in realizing the inner ground: External ritual and internal sadhana form an indistinguishable whole, and this unity finds its most pregnant expression in the form of the mandala, the sacred enclosure consisting of concentric squares and circles drawn on the ground and representing that adamantine plane of being on which the aspirant to Buddhahood wishes to establish himself. The unfolding of the tantric ritual depends on the mandala; and where a material mandala is not employed, the adept proceeds to construct one mentally in the course of his meditation.
Death yoga is another important aspect of Tantra techniques. It is the accumulation of meditative practice that helps to prepare the practitioner for what they need to do at the time of death. At the time of death the mind is in a state that can open the mind to enlightenment, when used very skillfully. There are three stages at which it is possible to do this; at the end of the death process, during the in between period and during the process of rebirth. During these stages, the mind is in a very subtle state, and an advanced practitioner can use these natural states to make significant progress on the spiritual path. The Tibetan Book of the Dead is an important commentary for this kind of traditional practice.