Tantra (Sanskrit: तन्त्र; "weave" denoting continuity; anglicised tantricism or tantrism) or tantram (Sanskrit: तन्त्र) is a philosophy according to which Shakti is usually the main deity worshipped, and the universe is regarded as the divine play of Shakti and Shiva. The word Tantra also applies to any of the scriptures (called "Tantras") commonly identified with the worship of Shakti. Tantra deals primarily with spiritual practices and ritual forms of worship, which aim at liberation from ignorance and rebirth. Tantrism has influenced the Hindu, Sikh, Bön, Buddhist, and Jain religious traditions. Tantra in its various forms has existed in India, Nepal, China, Japan, Tibet, Korea, Cambodia, Burma, Indonesia and Mongolia. Despite reluctance to support a rigorous definition of tantra, David Gordon White offers the following 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.
There are a number of different definitions of tantra from various viewpoints, not all of them necessarily consistent. Robert Brown notes that the term tantrism is a construction of Western scholarship and that:
It is not a concept that comes from within the religious system itself, although it is generally recognized internally as different from the Vedic tradition. This immediately makes it suspect as an independent category.
Rather than a single coherent system, Tantra is an accumulation of practices and ideas which is characterized by the use of ritual, by the use of the mundane to access the supra-mundane, and by the identification of the microcosm with the macrocosm. The Tantric practitioner seeks to use the prana (divine power) that flows through the universe (including one's own body) to attain purposeful goals. These goals may be spiritual, material or both. Most practitioners of tantra consider mystical experience imperative. Some versions of Tantra require the guidance of a guru.
In the process of working with energy, the Tantrika, or tantric practitioner, has various tools at hand. These include yoga, to actuate processes that will "yoke" the practitioner to the divine. Also important are visualizations of deity, and verbalisation or evocation through mantras, which may be construed as seeing, listening internally, and singing power into a stronger state within the individual, resulting in an ever-increasing awareness of cosmic vibration through daily practice. Identification with and internalisation of the divine is enacted, through a total identification with deity, such that the aspirant "becomes" the Ishta-deva or meditational deity.
Tantrism is a quest for spiritual perfection and magical power. Its purpose is to achieve complete control of oneself, and of all the forces of nature, in order to attain union with the cosmos and with the divine. Long training is generally required to master Tantric methods, into which pupils are typically initiated by a guru. Yoga, including breathing techniques and postures (asana), is employed to subject the body to the control of the will. Mudras, or gestures; mantras or syllables, words and phrases; mandalas and yantras, which are symbolic diagrams of the forces at work in the universe, are all used as aids for meditation and for the achievement of spiritual and magical power.
During meditation, the initiate identifies herself or himself with any of the numerous Hindu gods and goddesses representing cosmic forces. The initiate visualizes them and takes them into her or his mind so that she or he unites with them, a process likened to sexual courtship and consummation. In fact, some Tantric monks use females partners to represent goddesses. Also, in left-handed Tantra (Vamachara), ritual sexual intercourse is employed—not for pleasure—but as a way of entering into the underlying processes and structure of the universe.
The Tantric tradition may be considered as either parallel to, or intertwined with, the Vedic tradition. The primary sources of written Tantric lore are the agama, which generally consist of four parts, delineating metaphysical knowledge (jnana), contemplative procedures (yoga), ritual regulations (kriya), and ethical and religious injunctions (charya). Schools and lineages affiliate themselves with specific agamic traditions.
André Padoux notes that in India, tantrism is marked by a rejection of orthodox Vedic tenets. Maurice Winernitz, in his review of the literature of tantra, points out that while Indian tantric texts are not positively hostile to the Vedas, they propound that the precepts of the Vedas are too difficult for our age, and so, for that reason, an easier cult and an easier doctrine have been revealed in them. Some orthodox Brahmans who accept the authority of the Vedas reject the authority of the Tantras. N. N. Bhattacharyya explains:
It is to be noticed that although later Tantric writers wanted to base their doctrines on the Vedas, the orthodox followers of the Vedic tradition invariably referred to Tantra in a spirit of denunciation, stressing its anti-Vedic character.
Tantra exists in Shaiva, Vaisnava, Ganapatya, Saurya and Shakta forms, amongst others. Strictly speaking, within individual traditions, tantric texts are classified as Shaiva Āgamas, Vaishnava Pāñcarātra Saṃhitās, and Shakta Tantras, but there is no clear dividing line between these works, and on a practical basis the expression Tantra generally includes all such works.
Though the paths of Tantra & Yoga are contrary, they do intersect at some common philosophies and goals. During his discourse on Vijnana Bhairava Tantra, Osho tries to differentiate between these two paths by saying, "Yoga is suppression with awareness; tantra is indulgence with awareness."
As Robert Svoboda attempts to summarize the three major paths of the Vedic knowledge, he exclaims:
|“||Because every embodied individual is composed of a body, a mind and a spirit, the ancient Rishis of India who developed the Science of Life organized their wisdom into three bodies of knowledge: Ayurveda, which deals mainly with the physical body; Yoga, which deals mainly with spirit; and Tantra, which is mainly concerned with the mind. The philosophy of all three is identical; their manifestations differ because of their differing emphases. Ayurveda is most concerned with the physical basis of life, concentrating on its harmony of mind and spirit. Yoga controls body and mind to enable them to harmonize with spirit, and Tantra seeks to use the mind to balance the demands of body and spirit.||”|
...each one of us is a union of all universal energy. Everything that we need in order to be complete is within us right at this very moment. It is simply a matter of being able to recognize it. This is the tantric approach.
Linguistically the three words mantram, tantram and yantram are related in the ancient traditions of India (as well as phonologically). Mantram denotes the chant, or "knowledge." Tantram denotes philosophy, or ritual actions. Yantram denotes the means (or the machine) by which a human is expected to lead his life.
According to Tantra, "being-consciousness-bliss" or Satchidananda has the power of both self-evolution and self-involution. Prakriti or "reality" evolves into a multiplicity of creatures and things, yet at the same time always remains pure consciousness, pure being, and pure bliss. In this process of evolution, Maya (illusion) veils Reality and separates it into opposites, such as conscious and unconscious, pleasant and unpleasant, and so forth. If not recognized as illusion, these opposing determining conditions bind, limit and fetter (pashu) the individual (jiva).
Generally speaking, the Hindu god and goddess Shiva and Shakti are perceived as separate and distinct. However, in Tantra, even in the process of evolution, Reality remains pure consciousness, pure being and pure bliss, and Tantra denies neither the act nor the fact of this process. In fact, Tantra affirms that both the world-process itself, and the individual jiva, are themselves Real. In this respect, Tantra distinguishes itself both from pure dualism and from the qualified non-dualism of Vedanta.
Evolution, or the "outgoing current," is only half of the functioning of Maya. Involution, or the "return current," takes the jiva back towards the source, or the 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 aim is to sublimate rather than to negate relative reality. This process of sublimation consists of three phases: purification, elevation, and the "reaffirmation of identity on the plane of pure consciousness." The methods employed by Dakshinachara (right-hand path) interpretations of Tantra are very different from the methods used in the pursuit of the Vamachara (left-hand path).
Because of the wide range of communities covered by the term tantra, it is challenging and problematic to describe tantric practices definitively. Avalon (1918) does provide a useful dichotomy of the "Ordinary Ritual" and the "Secret Ritual" .
The ordinary ritual or puja may include any of the following elements:
As in other Hindu and Buddhist yoga traditions, mantra and yantra play an important role in Tantra. The mantra and yantra are instruments to invoke specific Hindu deities such as Shiva, Shakti, or Kali. Similarly, puja may involve focusing on a yantra or mandala associated with a deity.
Tantra, as 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, such as singing and dancing. But, more importantly, these deities are engaged as attributes of Ishta Devata meditations, the practitioners either visualizing themselves as the deity, or experiencing the darshan (the vision) of the deity. These Tantric practices form the foundation of the ritual temple dance of the devadasis, and are preserved in the Melattur style of Bharatanatyam by Guru Mangudi Dorairaja Iyer.
Secret ritual may include any or all of the elements of ordinary ritual, either directly or substituted, along with other sensate rites and themes such as a feast (representing food, or sustenance), coitus (representing sexuality and procreation), the charnel grounds (representing death and transition) and defecation, urination and vomiting (representing waste, renewal, and fecundity). It is this sensate inclusion that prompted 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 also provides a series of variations and substitutions of the Panchatattva (Panchamakara) "elements" or tattva encoded in the Tantras and various tantric traditions, and affirms that there is a direct correlation to the Tantric Five Nectars and the Mahābhūta.
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 ardent advocate 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 Tantra (in particular Shiva-Shakta) tradition.
Following Sir John Woodroffe, a number of scholars began to actively investigate 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."
As Tantra has become more popular in the West it has undergone a major transformation. 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 pop-tantra 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. 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.
Urban goes on to say that he himself doesn't consider this "wrong" or "false" but rather "simply a different interpretation for a specific historical situation."