History of tantra
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 Tantra):
“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, Kali.
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 affection.”
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 below.
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 pañca 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 pañca makara miss the inner truth of the rite.
Tantra in the modern world
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 right-hand practices).
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.”