By Swati Chopra
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.
Tantra 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.
All 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 Life
Tantra 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 realize this bondage-less, liberated state, the limited human personality needs to be expanded and refined until it vibrates with Cosmic Consciousness.
Says Robert Svoboda in Aghora: At the Left Hand of God, ‘Tantra is the science of personality…. According to Tantra everyone is ill who is doomed to live with a limited personality. Only those who go beyond time, space and causation to become immortal can be said to be truly in harmony with the cosmos and therefore truly healthy since health is derived both from internal balance and from harmony with the environment…. Tantra aims to replace the limited personality with an unlimited, permanent one.’ Thus Tantra could be called an integrative life-science; it is the original holistic way of life that unites body, mind and spirit into living life as a whole rather than in parts. More importantly, its worldview is truly inclusive. The polarities of good and evil, pure and impure, matter and spirit are seen as unnecessary barriers set up by the conditioned mind to a direct experience of cosmic consciousness, and are thus done away with. In a way, the undifferentiated reality that Advaita talks about, Tantra gives tools to experience. It uses material reality as means for spiritual unfoldment.
Before we get into the techniques of Tantra, we need to know about the unique energic view of reality and the human body that Tantra subscribes to. Since manifest reality arises out of Shakti, Tantra believes every constituent of creation is fundamentally made of energy. Energy is the building block of the Tantric universe. This extends to the human body, which is seen as a repository of immense energy, the most potent part of which lies dormant within most of us at the base of our spines. This concentrated energy, often likened to a coiled snake when asleep, is called the kundalini, and once unfurled, is thought to act as an active connection of the self to cosmic consciousness.
Says Pandit Rajmani Tigunait, ‘Tantric masters discovered long ago that success in both the outer world and the spiritual realm is possible only if we awaken our latent power, because any meaningful accomplishment, and especially the attainment of the ultimate spiritual goal, requires great strength and stamina. The key to success is shakti—the power of soul, the power of the divine within. Everyone possesses an infinite (and indomitable) shakti, but for the most part it remains dormant…. Awakening and using shakti is the goal of Tantra, and this is why Tantra sadhana is also known as shakti sadhana.’
The energy system of the body has other vital components, which include the chakras (energy centers), and energy channels or nadis to facilitate the flow of prana (life force) within the body. Seven main chakras are thought to exist in the subtle, etheric body, which act as ‘transformers’ of cosmic energy into a form that is suitable to meet the energy requirements of the body. When the kundalini is awakened, through various yogic and mantric practices, it is said to rise through the path of the chakras right into the Sahasrara chakra, in the middle of the head, from where it bursts forth as a thousand-petaled lotus, a direct connection with cosmic energy having been established.
Georg Feuerstein, founder-director of the Yoga Research and Education Center, USA, and author of Tantra: The Path of Ecstasy, describes the rising of the kundalini thus, ‘Its (kundalini’s) arrival causes each center (chakra) to vibrate intensely and to function fully…at each center, Shakti works the miracle of a profound purification of the elements (called tattva), rendering them extremely subtle…. The intelligent Goddess power henceforth, or at least for the period of kundalini arousal, takes over their respective functions.
‘The goal of Tantra is to have the kundalini remain permanently elevated to the topmost psycho-energetic center (chakra), which state coincides with liberation. At the beginning, however, the kundalini will tend to return to the chakra at the base of the spine, because the body-mind is not yet adequately prepared. Therefore the practitioner must repeatedly invite the Goddess power to unite with her divine spouse, Shiva, at the top of Mount Kailasa, that is, in the Sahasrara chakra. This will gradually remove the karmic inclination toward identifying with the body-mind rather than Shiva-Shakti as one’s ultimate identity…. Tantra-Yoga aims at dissolving the illusion of being a separate finite entity, and it does so by means of the union of the kula-kundalini with the transcendental principle of akula, or Shiva. When this is accomplished there is nothing that is not realized as utterly blissful. Even the body, previously experienced as a material lump (pinda), is seen to be supremely conscious and suffused with the nectar of bliss and at one with all other bodies and with the universe itself.’
As per the law of conservation of energy in physics, energy can neither be created nor destroyed; one form of energy can be converted into another. Tantric practices can be viewed as methods of energy conversions. Pandit Rajmani Tigunait lists some of these—hatha yoga, pranayam, mudras (hand gestures), rituals, kundalini yoga, nada yoga, mantra, yantra, mandala, visualization of deities, and even includes alchemy, ayurveda and astrology. These are used in Tantric disciplines in various permutations and combinations to effect particular results.
How does this work? The rituals, mantras, asanas and so on are the catalysts that will mold or convert energy according to the motivation of the practitioner. The practices are clear-cut and honed to precision in the Tantrik’s laboratory—his own self. They are composites of various elements like intense visualization, mantra recitation a specific number of times, for instance, and their outcome has been precisely documented by Tantric masters over the centuries.
The three basic tools in this alchemical process of energy conversion are mantra, yantra and tantra. Robert Svoboda describes this process as, ‘Mantra is the energy which moves your vehicle (yantra) according to the roadmap (tantra).’ Mantras provide energy to the mystical diagram, yantra, which in turn acts as a crucible for the process of conversion, according to Svoboda. ‘Yantra contains the energy, reflecting it back upon itself until it can accumulate to that point when as in a laser it, of its own accord, projects itself,’ says Svoboda.
In all of this, the Tantrik’s own motivation is crucial, for the energy by itself as well as the processes for amplifying and directing it is neutral. There are no in-built regulators within either the energy or the process, and thus the great responsibility that is placed upon the practitioner. If he so chooses, he may use the techniques for accumulating personal power (siddhis) and use them for self-gratification.
Warns Svoboda, ‘Wisely used, siddhis can accelerate one’s spiritual evolution. Commercialized, siddhis bind one down more firmly to the wheel of cause and effect.’
The Tantric methodology is alchemical, using subversion and transformation as its tools, rather than transcendence and deliberate detachment. Energy is energy, it is neither good nor bad. Tantriks will source all of the body’s energy, whether it is locked up within negative emotions or it is the phenomenal energy that is released during sexual orgasm, and use it to power the expansion of the limited self.
A Tantrik will not look to control or get rid of afflictive emotions; rather, he will transform its nature in a kind of spiritual alchemy.
Perhaps this is why Tantra is regarded as the medicinal poison among spiritual paths. It uses poison as medicine, and therefore requires the practitioner to be balanced and in control of himself always. This is also why if the spiritual path is a razor’s edge, Tantra is the double-edged sword—sharp and merciless to pretender and falterer. Littered with siddhis and physical attainments, and opportunities for sensual gratification aplenty, it is the essential trickster path. Much of the negative perception of Tantra is due to wrong identification of the path solely with its practices and because of practitioners who have lost their balance along the way.
Vimalananda, Svoboda’s guru and a master of Aghora, a path that is radical even by Tantric standards, is quoted in Aghora: At the Left Hand of God, ‘Nothing is inauspicious to an Aghori. He can do sattvic (pure) sadhana very easily, because he develops obsessive love for his deity. But sattvic people have a hard time with Aghora sadhana because the find tamas (the dark aspect) hard to control…. All other paths to knowledge have traps—once you learn a little it goes to your head, and you remain just on the outside of the truth, never making the final renunciation. The ego of knowledge is the worst trap of all. But there is no such danger in Aghora because you throw everything away in the beginning…. There is only one requirement—your mind must be absolutely firm. There of course lies the problem. To maintain a firm mind while a beautiful female spirit dances lasciviously on your top of your body is the test of a real man. You have to die while still alive; then you can succeed at Aghora.’
Because of the danger of misrepresentation and misunderstanding, a lot of Tantrist knowledge is preserved within an elaborate symbology, complex diagrams, and obscure ‘twilight language’—forming a complex code that is known only to adepts. Most teachings are thus indicative rather than direct, and the written scriptures are said to always omit one or two aspects of the practice that are crucial to the attainment of the desired result. This is the reason why Tantra has never been, nor can it ever be, a mass movement. It is a way of inner evolution, using techniques learnt in conjunction with a guru who is learned in the discipline.
Cautions Pandit Rajmani Tigunait, ‘Finding a Tantric master and preparing to undertake these disciplines is difficult, and attempting to learn from those who do not know them is useless and may even be injurious. Those who do know the practices rarely teach them because many of the practices, like scientific experiments, require a precise technique in order to yield results. And if the practitioner’s intentions are not pure, some practices can be used for destructive and selfish purposes.’
Tigunait gives examples of formulae in Tantric scriptures that can be used for negative purposes like marana (killing), vashikarana (seduction), mohana (mind manipulation), and so on. Apart from these, there are some non-negative formulae that should never be done without a master.
‘Experimenting with them without the guidance of an adept is like playing with nuclear weapons. This is why the scriptures label them ‘forbidden Tantra’,’ says Tigunait.
Right and left
Often a lot of the ‘forbidden’ aspect of Tantra has to do with what have come to be classified in popular perception as vamachara, or left-hand practices of Tantra. One popular classification of Tantric practices is according to the three elemental characteristics—sattva, rajas, and tamas. So that there is red Tantra (rajas or heat, fire, restlessness, anger), black Tantra (of tamas or darkness, ignorance, stagnation), and white Tantra (sattvic, pure, moderate, divine).
Corresponding to this hierarchisation, 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.
Thus the right and left aspects of Tantra are also according to the journey from the gross to the subtle, from the external to the internal. Rajmani Tigunait presents this classification in his book, Tantra Unveiled. He speaks of three categories—samaya (purely meditative), kaula (employing external objects and practices), and mishra (a combination of both inner and outer practices). The progression is mostly from the external to the internal, which happens with gradual refinement of consciousness until the body becomes the yantra and the ritual fire is lit within the mind where the sacrifice is one’s ego, and the only union desired is oneness with the Supreme.
For that which is external is internal too. Each object and phenomenon casts many shadows, and we may connect with the level that resonates most with us. In Tantra comes alive the ancient adage Yatha pinde, tatha brahmande—that which is within is also without. The body is the microcosm, a perfect reflection of the microcosm of the universe, and the attunement of the former with the latter is what Tantra aims at. To get the Tantric perspective, you need to squint your eyes a bit and get the bigger picture. If you get too literal, you will misunderstand and find yourself holding the sharp edge of the sword.
Finally, there is no practice, no ritual. To get to that place of truth, of consciousness blasted open, you need to be in perfect balance with this giant play of energy that is the cosmos. Shiva lies inert in Shakti—so does one needs to just be, the centre in the activity, the still point at the vortex.
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