By Harshada David Wagner
Tantra, a holistic stream of Indian spirituality, is at times narrowly perceived as being either a magical path to wish fulfillment or an exploration of human sexuality. To correct our vision, we need to look at tantra as a whole, with all its aspects and techniques, as a holistic path to spiritual realization.
Perhaps nothing is more exotic, dramatic and sensational in India’s yoga traditions than is the practice of Tantra. No other approach to yoga has gained such a fascination for the modern mind and it’s seeking of the bizarre, the entertaining and the enigmatic.
Tantra appears to offer both spiritual and worldly success to a superlative degree. It covers not only internal yogic experiences of chakras, lokas and deities, but also has many important healing practices for body and mind. Most notably, it offers special means of heightening sexual pleasure, making money, gaining recognition and defeating one’s enemies—with Tantric methods available for achieving all human desires. There is in Tantra something for everyone, especially those who may be put off by ascetic or renunciate approaches to the spiritual life such as seem to dominate most of the rest of the yoga tradition.
Yet behind this allure of Tantra are deep and profound teachings, including some of the most vibrant currents and detailed practices in the yoga tradition of the last thousand years or more. Though Tantra has much to offer everyone, we must learn to discriminate between real and superficial Tantra, or one can easily fall into its distortions, which are many and much more visible.
Even in India, Tantrikas are often portrayed as great magicians with special powers to overcome difficulties and fulfil our desires using gems, mantras, yantras and pujas to get the gods on our side and remove negative forces and bad karma that get in the way of our happiness. Such Tantrikas may use well-defined systems of knowledge, particularly Vedic astrology and also yoga and ayurveda, and be quite adept in their practices. But often their claim is more personal, relative to their own special powers or siddhis and connections with deities, gurus or even ghosts that can work for us in mysterious ways that circumvent any outer limitations we may be facing.
Some Tantra gurus are considered to be so powerful that their touch or glance alone can grant whatever we wish. They offer us quick and miraculous means to accomplish what our own efforts, karma and destiny appear to deny us. Naturally, this Tantric guru image can be easily exploited. Such gurus can charge a lot or demand our personal loyalty and devotion in various ways. Many Indian politicians have routinely employed such Tantrikas, hoping to use their powers to win elections and defeat their enemies. This magical form of Tantra makes for entertaining stories and good novels, giving it an additional glamour and grounds for exaggeration.
Even genuine gurus may be looked upon with such a vision as being able to grant our desires, though they may not project any magical Tantric image themselves, so much is the human wish for Divine intervention to make our lives better and to have them conform more with what we would like them to be.
This fascination with Tantra is nothing new in human cultures. Tantra is another version of the same old attraction to magic, the occult and ritual that we find to some degree in all cultures and was prominent everywhere in the ancient world. Ancient Vedic rituals, much like modern Tantra rituals, can be employed for all the goals of human life from kama or enjoyment, to victory in battle, to moksha or liberation.
Such an effort to bend cosmic powers to our human wishes occurs even in monotheistic religions. In western religions, prayer has been used in the same way to promote worldly or social well being, like the Christian evangelicals in America performing prayers and church services for the re-election of George W. Bush.
Looking to God—whether in the formless sense, or in the form of various gods and goddesses, or saints and gurus—to fulfil our human desires is one of the first and most common ways of human religious seeking. The undeveloped human ego will naturally first approach God with its own needs, rather than for any real seeking of knowledge or devotion. Tantra provides one of the most elaborate ways of doing this and recognises its value as a first step in getting people onto the spiritual path. Chanting mantras in order to increase our prosperity or find a good partner or any other such personal goal is part of that approach. There is nothing wrong with such practices, but they don’t represent the higher aspects of Tantra or yoga.
Tantra and Sex
Tantra is also famous as the most sexually oriented of yogic approaches. While this can be traced to certain trends in traditional Tantra like the Vamachara and temples like Khajuraho, it is in the West that this vision of Tantra is most pronounced. In the West, a Tantric teacher is usually one who teaches Tantric sex, what is largely a combination of a Tantric ritualistic yogic approach to sex along with the Kama Sutras and New Age psychology. Western Tantric yoga teachers are generally teachers of sexual yogas and may be sex therapists as well. Their claim is to make the experience of sex not only more sacred but also more enjoyable.
Of course, it is in Tantra that we find the most detailed worship of the Goddess, which naturally brings up the image of sex, particularly in this media age. Traditional Tantra is mainly part of the Shakta tradition, which is devoted to the Goddess in all her forms. Western Tantra is similarly part of a revival of the worship of the Goddess, which extends into pagan and indigenous traditions. This side of Tantra also has its place but is exaggerated.
Shakti is not simply about sex, which is but one aspect of cosmic energy particularly powerful in our embodied nature—it is about all the cosmic powers. The great forces of nature such as lightning, sunlight and moonlight are also Shakti, as are the powers of the five elements of earth, water, fire, air and ether. The electromagnetic forces of the physical world and the love-wisdom powers of the psyche are also forms of Shakti. Shakti worship is not simply a worship of sex but an understanding of all these cosmic forces and their workings. Great Tantrikas can work with all the Shaktis of both the external and internal worlds.
We also now find western Tantra gurus, who use Tantra for their own aims, playing on Tantric magical and sexual images. They tend to the approach of the ‘crazy gurus’ that are also found in traditional Tantra. Such unorthodox figures act in ways that are unpredictable, contradictory or even immoral. Being such a Tantrika can be a catch all for doing whatever one wants and acting in as unusual and idiosyncratic manner as possible. It can put the guru above any ethical standard of behaviour, which is hard to achieve these days, when rajas and tamas are so prevalent in our culture.
Kundalini and Chakras
Other aspects of Tantra have come to the West and can be found in modern India as well, but not without distortions. The chakras are a common New Age topic, though these are often portrayed quite differently than in classical yoga. The chakras, which are originally energy centres in the subtle body, are often reduced to a physical formula. They are not looked upon so much as centres of spiritual experience as places of physical and emotional healing. Such ‘chakra healing’ is common in many New Age approaches, including various forms of massage, bodywork, energy work and pranic healing.
While these practices may have their health benefits, they do not unfold the deeper aspects of chakra energy in yoga practice, which require intense sadhana, mantra, pranayam and meditation.
Meanwhile, kundalini is generally reduced to some form of sexual energy, leading to strange emotional states and experiences. Or it is looked upon as a mere natural force to be used in a technological way. Its true nature as the power of consciousness is often overlooked.
This combination of New Age fantasies from the West and an innate Indian need for the magical yogi has created much room for illusion and distortion, if not manipulation and deception. It also causes us to miss the fact that Tantra in the broader sense is a deep, profound, highly spiritual and aesthetic way of understanding the conscious universe in which we live. Real Tantra often gets buried under these glittering allures and exaggerated claims.
Apart from these distortions, we must recognize that Tantra is a complex tradition, with many sides and facets going beyond and even contrary to these popular fantasies. Tantra is interwoven with the spiritual teachings of India and beyond, going back far into ancient history. The popular understanding of Tantra represents only a small part of a vast system of knowledge.
We could compare the state of Tantra with that of yoga, with which it is related. Like Tantra, the physical side of yoga is emphasized—the practice of yogic postures or asanas— even though these represent a small part of classical yoga whose main concern is meditation. We live in a materialistic and media age in which spiritual traditions are recast or scaled down into a physical and sensationalistic model. This may help popularize the tradition but it also easily diminishes and distorts.
Such a sensate image of Tantra may cause some people to want to reject anything Tantric altogether. Certain spiritual groups in both the East and West like to avoid Tantra for this reason. This is a mistake of another kind because it causes them to overlook the positive aspects of Tantra, its wealth of knowledge and practices about all the subtle aspects of yoga, worship of deities, and how to harmonize actions in the human realm with the Divine worlds above.
The real question then is how to separate the deeper and higher aspects of Tantra from the outer and superficial views. Tantra is a precise system of knowledge that provides specific results and much inner transformation if employed correctly. The application of mantras, rituals, pranayam and meditation in Tantric teachings is probably the most elaborate and complete in the entire yoga tradition. Tantra also shows us how to employ such systems as Vedic astrology, vastu and ayurveda for deeper levels of protection and healing, as well as to promote a higher awareness.
Tantra, Mantra and Yantra
It is in Tantra that we find the most detailed explication of the power of mantra, with every syllable of the Sanskrit alphabet precisely defined. It is the beej mantras of Tantra, the Shakti mantras like Hrim and Shrim, which are the most powerful of all mantras. Tantra similarly provides the greatest explanation of the use of yantras or geometrical meditation devices that are important tools of concentration and meditation. For example, the worship of Sri Chakra and Sri Yantra, probably the most important and detailed of all yoga teachings, is the most important Tantric teaching. The entire universe and the subtle body are present in the Sri Chakra. Its worship integrates the individual with all existence.
Tantra is also a good tool for helping people of all traditions reclaim the worship of the Goddess and restore appropriate forms for her worship. As Christianity developed, it rejected and condemned the common pagan worship of the Goddess that had long existed in the West. Even to western Tantra has been added many other forms of Goddess worship in pagan traditions from the Celts to the Greeks, Romans, Egyptians and Babylonians. Yet in these traditions forms of worship, both external and internal, have largely been lost. Tantra helps restore these methods of worship through its understanding of ritual, meditation and iconography.
Tantra offers such a wealth of images as the Dasha Mahavidya or Ten Wisdom Forms of the Goddess, and the many forms of Kali and Durga. Tantra provides the most detailed information on the visualization of such deities, their forms, ornaments and weapons and how to use them. Tantra contains an important tradition of sacred art, with a deep understanding of symbolism and precise rules of depiction.
Tantra preserves the great festivals of the Goddess like Navaratri and Durga Puja. Tantric sacred sites from Kamakhya in Assam to Kamakshi in Tamil Nadu preserve not only a tradition of Goddess worship but also a living connection with the Goddess in nature.
Tantra is perhaps the main current in Indian spirituality of the last thousand years or more and helps us understand its entire movement. Most of modern Hinduism and even much of Buddhism and Jainism is Tantric. There is a strong Tantric element to the Sikh faith, if one looks deeply. Tibetan Buddhism is largely a Tantric form, taken up from Indian Tantrikas in Bengal and Bihar. Such a Buddhism of mantras, mandalas, deities, yoga and meditation is much closer to Hindu Tantric and Vedic disciplines than it is to the older Buddhism of Sri Lanka and Thailand.
Traditional Tantra has a strong ascetic and monastic form. Special Tantric worship of different forms of the Goddess go on in the major Shankaracharya Muths in India, using powerful mantras, yantras and rituals. Adi Shankara himself was not only the most famous teacher of Advaita but also one of the most important Tantric teachers. His great poem to the Goddess, Saundarya Lahiri, remains perhaps the most important Tantric text that is used for Sri Chakra worship.
South Indian Agamic temple worship is Tantric in this broader sense. The entire Shakta tradition or worship of the Goddess in India is Tantric. Most of Shaivism is Tantric. There exist Tantric elements in Vaishnava and other traditions too.
Tantric teachings have been important for most of the main gurus of modern India since Ramakrishna and Vivekananda, including Sri Aurobindo, Shivananda, Anandamayi Ma and many others. Ganapati Muni, the chief disciple of Ramana Maharshi, was another great Tantric yogi. Yet this tradition is even older. The main yoga gurus over the past thousand years or more have been mainly Nath yogis, who are Tantric Shaivites, starting with Goraknath and Matsyendra Nath. Such Nath yogis were the founders of the Hatha Yoga tradition as well as many important approaches to Tantra.
Adi Shankara, Jnanadeva, Abhinavagupta, and many other great Hindu teachers of the medieval period honored Nath yogis. Even the teachings of modern yoga guru, Krishnama-charya, are attributed to tradition stated by one Nath muni. This means that without understanding real Tantra it is hard to understand yoga.
In fact the best way to understand real Tantra is as an expanded form of Raja Yoga. Like the Yoga Sutras and in more detail Tantra teaches asana, pranayam, pratyahara, dharana, dhyana and samadhi, but providing many more specific forms and techniques. It gives the details on mantras and methods that are only alluded to in the Sutras.
We can also explain real Tantra as a yogic approach to science and art. In this regard there is a cross over between Vedic and Tantric sciences in such disciplines as ayurveda, jyotish and vastu. Tantra is the basis of the rasa shastra or the alchemical side of ayurveda and much of ayurveda’s psychological treatments.
Tantra uses the rules of jyotish for determining favorable times for ritual, pujas and so on. Tantric architecture and temple building develops from vastu. In fact it is in Tantra, contrary to modern academicians who fail to see the obvious connection, that we find the most detailed applications of Vedic teachings of ritual, mantra, yajna, puja and meditation.
Whether we like it or not, Tantra is and will remain a dominant force not only in Indian but also in world spirituality. While we can recognize the place of popular and New Age forms of Tantra as a point of entry into these teachings, it is important to recognize the broader and deeper scope of real Tantra, which is more than these flights of imagination and may be quite different from them.
Tantra is the practical and energetic application of all the yogic wisdom of life, time, space and energy. If you approach it with the right intention, it can offer you much more than the fulfillment of your desires, it can help you gain the supreme goal of life of realization of the entire universe within your own awareness!
Dr David Frawley (Pandit Vamadeva Shastri) is the author of over 20 books and several courses relating to yoga, ayurveda and Vedic astrology. Indian versions of his books are available through Motilal Banarsidass, including his Tantric Yoga and the Wisdom Goddesses. He is currently the director of the American Institute of Vedic Studies.
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