By Swati Chopra January 2005 Tantra is the original ‘holistic’ way of life, yoking body, mind and spirit into living life as a whole. Polarities of good and evil, pure and impure, matter and spirit are done away with as unnecessary barriers to a direct experience of cosmic consciousness. With great finesse, tantra uses material reality for spiritual unfoldment. Lets play an associative game. What is the first thing that comes to your mind when you hear the word ‘Tantra’? If you aren’t a practitioner or scholar or one who has delved into Tantra, chances are you will think ‘black magic’, ‘human sacrifice’, ‘skulls and bones’. You will also probably experience an adrenaline rush that screams, ‘Danger ahead. Run!’ This ‘fight or flight’ response to Tantra among most of us in urban India is not surprising. Ghastly news reports of criminal activities like murder and rape by so-called ‘tantriks’ are frequent, as are old wives’ tales of black magic where the villain is invariably an evil ‘tantrik’. Bollywood films and TV serials that portray tantriks as bizarre, crazy and villainous have reinforced this negative image. So that to a lot of us, Tantra feels like a cross between voodoo, the occult, and sorcery—bad stuff done by evil people. For our counterparts in the West, the association is slightly different. Westerners who are ‘into’ eastern forms of spirituality have at some point or another heard of Tantra, and nine times out of ten, it has been in the context of sex. If one Google searches for ‘tantra’ on the internet, an overwhelming majority of websites that turn up on the computer screen promise ‘sacred sex’ and offer steamy pictures of acrobatic sexual positions. So what is Tantra, really? What best describes its practices—sex or sorcery? Since reality is never black or white but most often a synthesis of the two, there are several layers and shades to Tantra that belie a narrow either/or view. The OriginTantra is an ancient wisdom tradition, having possibly evolved from the oldest human culture to inhabit the Indian subcontinent. It is thought to have had its genesis in the Indus Valley Civilization’s worship of Pashupati, an early form of Shiva, and of the fecund, life-nurturing mother goddess. Shiva and Devi later came to form the two ends of the axis around which Tantric beliefs and rituals revolve. Tantra, even though it may not have been called so then, became ‘the other’ stream with the advent of the Aryans and the consequent predominance of the Vedic way of life and worship circa the second millennium BCE. As the star of the Aryan Vedic religion ascended, Tantra receded into the shadows and became a fringe presence for much of the Rig Vedic and later Vedic periods. However it is at the fringes, whether of city, society or religion, that the most exciting spiritual discoveries have taken place through history. Developing the inner life requires solitude and single-pointed concentration, which is why adepts have traditionally retired in enforced isolation to forests and uninhabited mountainous areas. Thus it is believed that during the centuries when Vedic religion and social structure that came with the Aryans were becoming established in a large area of the Indian subcontinent, Tantra was simultaneously evolving as a parallel, ever-widening stream of mystic-yogic practices. Scholar and author Mircea Eliade in his Immortality and Freedom puts forth the view that Tantra did begin to emerge from the underground in provinces that had not been strongly ‘Vedicised’, such as the North-west, Bengal, and the South, by the fourth century CE. Within the space of a few centuries it had attained pan-Indian influence. A number of distinct and independent branches developed, so that one can speak of Mahayana Buddhist Tantra (which exists today in the form of Tibetan Vajrayana, and Japanese Shingon ‘mantra teaching’), Shaiva Tantra (in Kashmir, emphasizing the monistic Vedantic perspective), Nath Tantra (a hybrid Shaiva yogic movement), Shakta Tantra (in Bengal, emphasizing the chakras and kundalini), cosmological Tantra (the Pancharatra movement), Jain Tantra, and even Vaishnava Tantra among devotees of Vishnu and Krishna. Through its ability to fuse with various spiritual traditions that arose in India over the centuries, Tantra has continued till this day. There is no one, undiluted ‘pure’ Tantra, just as there isn’t any one racial constitution of the inhabitants of the Indian subcontinent—it is as much a melting pot product as we are. Instead of being a monolith, it includes a collection of wide-ranging paths and practices, as we see in its untidy history. In this sense, it would be erroneous to call Tantra an underground or fringe element among Indian spiritual traditions. Sure, some of its practices have been esoteric and beyond the pale of ‘acceptable’ social behavior, but its basic philosophy and rituals have certainly leached into mainstream religion. Popular culture over the centuries picked up many Tantric practices, which have today become integral to the practice of Hindu religion. For instance the worship of the goddess, Devi, in her benign and terrible forms, the entire iconography surrounding the Divine Feminine, ritualistic elements like mantras and yantras and so on are some examples of this pervasive influence that continues till today. Creative DyadAll the diverse streams that flow into the river of Tantra hold at their heart the fundamental view of creation as an interplay between Shiva and Shakti, or Purush and Prakriti, the latter also being the Sankhya terms for this dynamic view of reality. Shiva or Purush is pure, all-pervasive consciousness, ‘witnessing everything without aid or instrument, / Steady, immovable, and changeless,’ as described in the Vishnu Sahasranam. Shakti or Prakriti is the primal energy that creates all beings and phenomena, and in whom we exist, studded into the matrix of maya. Though gender distinctions are meaningless at the level of Ultimate Reality, at the level of their participation in creation, Purush or Shiva is held to be the male principle, while Prakriti or Shakti is feminine. Shiva and Shakti can thus be called polar opposites that are thought to be in a constant state of union, the one sustaining the other, and the other nurturing the one. They are visualized as diametric opposites that fit perfectly in one another— cosmic consciousness embedded within the creative impulse. Together, they hold up creation. As Adi Shankara says in Saundaryalahari, ‘Shiva is able to function when united with Shakti; otherwise he is inert.’ This state of cosmic union is the source of the sexual imagery and practices associated with Tantra. Whether it is the Shiva lingam placed on the triangular yoni, the bindu within the triangle in yantras, Kali and other aspects of Devi in sexual union with a prone Shiva, or Tibetan Buddhist yab-yum depictions that show bodhisattvas in copulation with their consorts—they are all artistic interpretations of the mystical state of coupling of Shiva and Shakti. Sexual intercourse between man and woman, then, is seen as an actualization in the human realm of this profound creationary reality, just as all women are aspects of the one Divine Feminine for Tantriks. The goal of human life, then, is for the individual self to seek union with supreme undifferentiated consciousness, to merge in union with the Divine. In fact in some Tantras (scriptures that detail the philosophy and practices of Tantra are also referred to as ‘Tantras’ and are mostly in the form of conversations between Shiva and Shakti), the self is identified with Shiva, and the practitioner is told to direct his effort towards realizing this as truth. The Kularnava Tantra mentions, ‘The individual soul (jiva) is Shiva; Shiva is jiva. When in bondage, it is jiva; freed from bondage, it is Shiva.’ The goal of the Tantra practitioner is to attain this unitive state, and the wealth of weaponry in Tantra’s armor is focussed towards this aim. Yoga of LifeTantra arose from an array of spiritual practices that can be broadly categorized as ‘yoga’, literally, ways of yoking the self with the Divine. In time, Tantra came to be a repository of practices that integrated all levels of human existence—physical, mental, spiritual. Even if the term ‘tantra’ is variously said to mean ‘loom’, ‘to extend’ and ‘to weave’, the sense of integration underlies all these meanings. Pandit Rajmani Tigunait, spiritual head of the Himalayan International Institute, USA, and successor to Swami Rama, defines Tantra using the analogy of weaving. He says, ‘According to Tantric adepts, we can achieve true and everlasting fulfillment only when all the threads of the fabric of life are woven according to the pattern designated by nature. When we are born, life naturally forms itself around that pattern, but as we grow, ignorance, desire, attachment, fear, and false images of others and ourselves tangle and tear the threads. Tantra sadhana reweaves the fabric of life and restores it to its original pattern.’ Tantra utilizes all aspects of human life and being for this integrative purpose. According to Tantra, everything in the universe is perfect as it is; the limitations that exist are within the human ego personality. It is said in the Tripurarahasya: ‘Though in reality there is no bondage, the individual is in bondage as long as there exists the feeling of limitation in him…. In fact, there never has been any veiling or covering anywhere in reality. No one has ever been in bondage.’ To reali
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