Tantra ( from Sanskrit: meaning to " weave" denoting continuity), tantricism or tantrism is any of several esoteric traditions rooted in the religions of India. It exists in Hindu, Bönpo, Buddhist, and Jain forms. Tantra in its various forms has existed in India, China, Japan, Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Korea, Cambodia, Burma, Indonesia and Mongolia. David Gordon White, while cautioning against attempting a rigorous definition of what is a protean practice, offers the following working definition:
"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".
In the west, early European Orientalists originally reviled Tantra as a subversive, antisocial, licentious and immoral force that had corrupted classical Hinduism. On the other hand many today see it as a celebration of social equity, sexuality and the body.
Rather than a single coherent system, Tantra is an accumulation of practices and ideas which has among its characteristics the use of ritual, energy work, in some sects transgressional acts, the use of the mundane to access the supramundane and the identification of the microcosm with the macrocosm. The Tantric practitioner seeks to use the divine power that flows through the universe (including their own body) to attain purposeful goals. These goals may be spiritual, material or both.
A practitioner of tantra considers mystical experience or the guidance of a Guru imperative. In the process of working with energy the Tantric has various tools at their disposal. These include yoga ~ to actuate processes that will yoke the practitioner to the divine. Also important are the use of visualizations of the deity and verbalisation or evocation through mantras ~ which may be construed as seeing and singing the power into being; identification and internalisation of the divine is enacted ~ often through a total identification with a deity, such that the aspirant 'becomes' the deity , the Ishta-Devata.
There are three main schools of Tantra: Mishra Tantra, Kaula Tantra and Samaja Tantra.
Samaja Tantra is also called "the right-hand path". Adepts of Samaja Tantra practice meditation on the Sahasrara chakra. They also learn about chakras, nadis and pranas.
Adepts of Mishra Tantra practice meditation and physical practices the aim of which is to open the Anahata chakra.
Kaula Tantra is also called the "left-hand path". Adepts of Kaula Tantra meditate upon the Kundalini force. They make use of outer (usually sexual) practices to open the Muladhara chakra.
According to Swami Rama practices of the Kaula Tantra path are often overused in a harmful way by the novice or aspirant.
The philosophy of Tantra is based on any collection of the 92 Śrutis, the Tantras. Tantra exists in Vaisnava, Shaiva, Ganapatya, and Shakta forms, amongst others.
The Tantric tradition, or Tantrika Parampara, may be considered as either parallel to, or intertwined with, the Vedic tradition (Vaidika Parampara). Swami Nikhilananda wrote not only of the close affinity with the Vedas, but also that the development of Tantric thought shows the influence of the Upanishads, the Puranas and Yoga. Tantra itself speaks of its origins. For example, the Tripura Rahasya, one of the central texts of Shakta Tantra, says "This text has been created by summarising the teachings of the Vedas, Puranas and other scriptures."
Reality as Shiva-Shakti
According to Tantra, Reality is pure consciousness (chit), which is considered to be identical with both being (sat) and bliss (ananda). In Tantra, this being-consciousness-bliss or Satchidananda is enshrined as Shiva~Shakti, a conjoined term conveying the inseparable nature of Shiva (the Absolute) and Shakti (the power of creation). In Tantra, any conception of the Divine which does not include Shakti, or the power to become, is considered to be incomplete.
Evolution and involution
According to Tantra, being-consciousness-bliss or Satchidananda has the power of both self-evolution and self-involution. Reality evolves into a multiplicity of creatures and things, yet at the same time always remains pure consciousness, being and bliss. In this process of evolution, Maya (illusion) conceals Reality and separates it into opposites, such as conscious and unconscious, pleasant and unpleasant, and so forth. These determining conditions if not realised as illusion; bind, limit and fetter (pashu) the individual (jiva).
In this relative dimension, Shiva and Shakti are perceived as separate. However in Tantra, even in the state of evolution, Reality remains pure consciousness, being, and bliss, though Tantra does not deny either the act or fact of this evolution. In fact, Tantra affirms that both the world process itself and the individual jiva are themselves Real. In this, Tantra distinguishes itself from pure dualism as well as from the qualified non-dualism of Vedanta.
However, evolution or the 'outgoing current' is only one half of the functioning of Maya. Involution, or the 'return current', takes the jiva back towards the source or root of Reality, revealing the infinite. Tantra is understood to teach the method of changing the 'outgoing current' into the 'return current', transforming the fetters created by Maya into that which 'releases' or 'liberates'. This view underscores two maxims of Tantra: "One must rise by that by which one falls" and "the very poison that kills becomes the elixir of life when used by the wise."
The Tantric method
The Tantric method is to sublimate rather than negate relative reality. This method of sublimation consists of three phases: purification, elevation and the "reaffirmation of identity on the plane of pure consciousness."
Because of the wide range of communities covered by the term tantra, it is hard to describe tantric practices definitively. The basic practice, the Hindu worship known as puja may include any of the following elements.
Mantra and yantra
As in other Hindu and Buddhist yoga traditions, mantra and yantra play an important part in Tantra for keening the mindstream and bodymind. The mantras and yantras as instruments, invoke specific Hindu deities such as Shiva and Kali Ma. Similarly, puja may involve focusing on a yantra or mandala associated with a deity.
Identification with deities
Tantra, being a development of early Hindu~Vedic thought, embraced the Hindu gods and goddesses, especially Shiva and Shakti, along with the Advaita philosophy that each represents an aspect of the ultimate Para Shiva, or Brahman. These deities may be worshipped externally with flowers, incense, and other offerings; but, more importantly, are engaged as attributes of Ishta Devata meditations, the practitioners either visualizing themselves as the deity or experiencing the darshan (vision) of the deity. In Buddhist tantra, this process is known as the practice of the Yidam or Deity Yoga.
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. As in the yoga tradition, a series of energy centres (chakras ~ "wheels") may be used as concentration points and may be associated with elements, planets or occult powers (siddhi).
Sexual rites may have emerged from early Hindu Tantra as a practical means of generating transformative bodily fluids. These constituted a vital offering to Tantric deities. Sexual rites may also have evolved from clan initiation ceremonies involving the transaction of sexual fluids. Here the male inititate was inseminated or insanguinated with the sexual emissions of the female consort, sometimes admixed with the semen of the guru. He was thus transformed into a son of the clan (kulaputra) through the grace of his consort. The clan fluid (kuladravya) or clan nectar (kulamrita) was conceived as flowing naturally from her womb. Later developments in the rite emphasised the primacy of bliss and divine union, which replaced the more bodily connotations of earlier forms. Although popularly equated with Tantra in its entirety in the West, a minority of sects practised sexual rites. For many practicing lineages, these Maithuna practices progressed into psychological symbolism.
In Tantra one may go beyond the sexual plane of existence only by its complete acceptance; utilising it and spiritualising ones innate sexual tendencies towards greater awareness. The tantras recognize several approaches as methods for conditioning aspirants prior to sexual meditation. The guru takes into account individual proclivities and spiritual achievement. The guru usually considers the path appropriate only for certain individuals whose temperament and self control will enable them to forego sexual indulgence — a necessity, if the act is to serve as a tool to transcend identification with the mortal body. As with other tantric practices the presence of a guru is a paramount and essential condition.
When enacted as enjoined by the tantras the ritual culminates in a sublime experience of infinite awareness, by both participants. The Tantric texts specify that sex has three distinct and separate purposes — procreation, pleasure and liberation. Those seeking liberation eschew frictional orgasm for a higher form of ecstasy, as the couple participating in the ritual, lock in an ecstatic embrace. Several sexual rituals are recommended and practised. These involve elaborate and meticulous preparatory and purificatory rites. The act yields a balance of energies coursing within the pranic ida and pingala channels in the subtle bodies of both participants. The sushumna nadi is awakened and kundalini rises upwards within it. This eventually culminates in samadhi wherein the respective individualities of each of the participants are completely dissolved in the unity of cosmic consciousness. Tantrics understand the act on multiple levels. The male and female participants are conjoined physically and represent Shiva and Shakti, the male and female principles. Beyond the physical, a subtle fusion of Shiva and Shakti energies takes place resulting in a united energy field. On an individual level, each participant experiences a fusion of their own Shiva and Shakti energies.
In Vajrayana Buddhism the related set of practices are known as Karmamudra, the 'Action Seal', and is only sometimes included in the Six yogas of Naropa. Due to monastic vows it is generally only visualized. The maithuna is called yab-yum in Tibetan. Sushumna, is perceived as blue and called Avadhuti in Sanskrit. It is said to carry the wisdom prana (Yeshe or Rigpa in Tibetan). The karmic channels, ida and pingala, are respectively the white right channel, Rasana, and the red left, Lalana. Some sources affirm that they are the converse for women, some non-heterosexual and gender-fluid individuals.
Western views of Tantra
Sir John Woodroffe
The first Western scholar to take the study of Tantra seriously was Sir John Woodroffe (1865–1936), who wrote about Tantra under the pen name Arthur Avalon. He is generally held as the "founding father of Tantric studies." Unlike previous Western scholars, Woodroffe was an apologist for Tantra, defending Tantra against its many critics and presenting Tantra as an ethical philosophical system greatly in accord with the Vedas and Vedanta. Woodroffe himself practised Tantra as he saw and understood it and, while trying to maintain his scholastic objectivity, was considered a student of Hindu Tantric (in particular Shiva-Shakta) tradition.
Following Sir John Woodroffe, a number of scholars began to actively investigate the Tantric teachings. These included a number of scholars of comparative religion and Indology, such as: Agehananda Bharati, Mircea Eliade, Julius Evola, Carl Jung, Giuseppe Tucci and Heinrich Zimmer.
According to Hugh Urban, Zimmer, Evola and Eliade viewed Tantra as "the culmination of all Indian thought: the most radical form of spirituality and the archaic heart of aboriginal India", and regarded it as the ideal religion of the modern era. All three saw Tantra as "the most transgressive and violent path to the sacred." Zimmer praised Tantra as having a world-affirmative attitude:
"In the Tantra, the manner of approach is not that of Nay but of Yea ... the world attitude is affirmative ... Man [sic] must approach through and by means of nature, not by rejection of nature".
Tantra in the modern world
Following these first presentations of Tantra, other more popular authors such as Joseph Campbell helped to bring Tantra into the imagination of the peoples of the West. Tantra came to be viewed by some as a "cult of ecstasy", combining sexuality and spirituality in such a way as to act as a corrective force to Western repressive attitudes about sex.
As Tantra has become more popular in the West it has undergone a major transformation, which has made Modern Tantra, or the New Age interpretations of Tantra, more properly called Neotantra, different from the original Tantric traditions of India. For many modern readers, "Tantra" has become a synonym for "spiritual sex" or "sacred sexuality", a belief that sex in itself ought to be recognized as a sacred act which is capable of elevating its participants to a more sublime spiritual plane. Though Neotantra may adopt many of the concepts and terminology of Indian Tantra, it often omits one or more of the following; the traditional reliance on guruparampara (the guidance of a guru), extensive meditative practice, and traditional rules of conduct - both moral and ritualistic.
According to one author and critic on 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 or neo-Tantra. This "California Tantra" as Georg 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".
He goes on to say that he himself does not consider neo-Tantra "wrong" or "false" but rather "simply a different interpretation for a specific historical situation."
Shambhavi Saraswati gives a description of the difference between real Tantra and Neotantra:
"Neo-Tantra ritualizes sex. Authentic Tantra sexualizes ritual".
For three Tantric practitioners (two well-known and one lesser-known), see the Dalai Lama (Buddhist), Shri Ramakrishna (Hindu) and Shri Gurudev Mahendranath (Hindu).