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What is Tantra? 12 Things to Know About Tantra By Madhu Khanna

March 5, 2021

Amongst the most misunderstood and ambiguous of all ancient Indian knowledge, is the knowledge and practice of the ancient art of Tanta.

Greatly feared and admired, a Tantric is believed to possess tremendous psychic powers, whose spells, curses, or blessings can bring fortune or ruin. Such a person sometimes is also looked upon as a wonder-worker.

From the many sages, scholars, authors, as well as saints and practitioners who have taken up this path – here are 12 things you must know about Tantra!

Tantras come from the Agamas, a parallel school of thought to the Vedas which started in 1500 BC.

 When we look at the sacred literature of India, it can be divided into two different streams. We have the Vedas, which everybody has heard about. Rigveda is the oldest religious sacred text in the world, and with the four Vedas, the Upanishads, the Puranas, the Vendanges… this literature goes on and on.

This comprises the sacred literature of the orthodox Brahmanical tradition, which is the oldest tradition in India, it goes back to nearly 1500 B. C.

Now, running parallel to the Vedas, we have another corpus of texts called the Agamas, and these Agamas are over 108 in number.

Agamas simply mean literature that has come down from tradition, and the Tantras trace their origin to the Agamas. That is not to say that tantric practices are not well aligned to the Vedas, which they in some cases are.

One of the greatest schools of thought that evolved the tantric tradition came from Kashmir, and one of the greatest philosophers of Kashmir, who made a significant contribution to tantric literature and tantric philosophy is Abhinavagupta.

It was sometime around the 10th and 11th century, Abhinavagupta, a great polymath, synthesized all the ancient Tantric traditions and brought them together in one book with 35 volumes known as the Tantraloka.

This was the first time different living streams of Tantra were first synthesized, and given a common form.

There are many, many independent and parallel Tantric schools of thought.

Since being brought together in the Tantraloka, the tantric tradition has had many different groups of people practicing different tantric practices in different parts of India.

For example, the Kashmirian tantras are practiced by the Spanda school, the Krama school, the Pratyabhijna school, the Kula school.

Then there are different schools of tantra in South India, there is the great Shakta tradition, and also the Vaishnava tantras. Vedic deities like Ganesha and Hanuman can also be worshipped through tantric rituals.

 

 

Tantra questions the Brahmanical orthodoxy

 One of the greatest things which tantras have contributed, is that it has given women a very important place in their religious life, which is unique, because all women according to tantra, irrespective of their caste, creed, their geographical locations, irrespective of their age, are incarnations of goddess or Devi.

Orthodox Brahmanical tradition for centuries upheld caste inequality, gender subordination, and repressive forms of asceticism of the body, including the denial of the senses.

Tantric masters changed these precepts and created revolutionary teaching and practices.

For them, renunciation, detachment, and asceticism, by which one may free oneself from the bondage of suffering and thereby recall one’s original entity with the source of the universe, are not the way of tantra.

So these tantrics advocated an alternative path, not by withdrawal from life, but by fullest possible acceptance of our desires, our feelings, and situations as human beings.

So Tantra can be seen as a revolutionary and radical tradition in Hinduism that co-developed as a parallel movement to the Vedas.

Tantric revolution is a culminating synthesis of many philosophical worldviews, contemplative techniques of creative imagination, esoteric and exoteric rituals, yogas, and more.

In a sense, the major gaps and limitations found in the orthodox paradigm of Brahmanical religiosity were reinterpreted, rectified, and replaced in the tantras.

Amongst these, one of the greatest things which tantras have contributed, is that it has given women a very important place in their religious life, which is unique, because all women according to tantra, irrespective of their caste, creed, their geographical locations, irrespective of their age, are incarnations of goddess or Devi.

They are empowered, they can play very powerful religious roles, they can become gurus, they can conduct institutions. The mantra given by a female guru is more powerful according to tantra than a male guru.

Tantrics question the nature of our Ahankara (our ego self) and recognize Vikalpa (all the dualities in life).

All spiritual paths in the world start with basic questions. One is Ahankara or the ego.  What is the nature of our ego-self? Our socially constructed self-image. The ‘I’ in ‘me’, or an identity based on the image we carry of ourselves.

All spiritual paths in the world explore two basic questions. One is Ahankara or the ego.

What is the nature of our ego-self? Our socially constructed self-image. The ‘I’ in ‘me’, or an identity based on the image we carry of ourselves.

Now, this identity as we all know is constructed by our socio-cultural complexes. For instance, I am Madhu Khanna, I study here, I live here. This is what I call our socially and culturally constructed identity, Ahankara, ego, the ego-self, the image which we carry day-to-day.

Now, what these traditions are telling us is that this identity we carry, the ego-self, is very different from our transpersonal self.

By transpersonal I mean that there is a self-identity beyond the ego, and all these cultures, all these traditions, whether tantra or bhakti or, yoga, introduce you to go beyond the ego, beyond ego-consciousness, because ego consciousness is not the true self.

The second concept which is extremely important to understand, any spiritual path, is that of what is known in Sanskrit as Vikalpa.

What is Vikalpa? It’s differentiated consciousness, fragmentation of the spirit, fragmentation of the mind because each of us is assaulted by dualities of all kinds.

‘Sam Sarati iti Samsara’, what it means is that birth itself brings in duality, and the greatest duality in life is life and death. Life is pitted against death… we all love our life, but who wants to die?

We all love ecstasy and joy and to be happy, but who loves sorrow? We all love life of courage and laughter, but who likes fear and hate?

So similarly, we are assaulted by dualities in our life. Dualities of violence and non-violence, male and female, selfishness and compassion, purity and impurity.

These dualities exist throughout our lives, and these dualities are also part and parcel of tantric darshan.

It is only when we begin to understand the nature of these dualities, the nature of the fragmented self, nature of egoism, nature of what constitutes the true self, the self which goes beyond limitations, then we are on the spiritual path of tantra.

Tantrics believe in the concept of ‘Shiva Shakti’

While Shiva is the moon, Shakti is the moonlight. Shiva is fire, Shakti is heat.  Shiva and Shakti are related to each other as a seed is related to a tree. Their sambha or their relationship is known as bhāvabandhana, which means they can never be separated.

For Tantrics the quintessential key concept is that the world is permeated by Shiva and Shakti, and this great cosmic energy can be manipulated, can be awakened, and can be revitalized in this very body.

The whole universe from atom to star is permeated by cosmic, by unity, by just one monotheistic reality that permeates the whole of creation.

Nothing exists that is not Shiva and Shakti, and according to them, there is one single self-luminous principle of Prakasha and Shakti.

Shakti is nothing but the energy of consciousness, and it is this Shakti, who is always in unison with Shiva. But to understand its constituents, we have to know that Shakti is one who constitutes the phenomenal world.

Shakti is the creative power, whereas Shiva is the stag principle, the male principle of the cosmos. They are one, they are opposites, but yet one.

‘Shiva Shakti’, that the tantras speak about, is everywhere. She is in every atom, she is in this whole cosmos, in our senses, in the galaxy spheres, the whole universe is nothing but Shakti and an embodiment of vibrations of Shakti.

It is said that while Shiva is the moon, Shakti is the moonlight. Shiva is fire, Shakti is heat. Shiva and Shakti are related to each other as a seed is related to a tree. It’s like a seed exists for the tree, and the tree would not flower fully if there was no seed.

In the same way, Shiva and Shakti are interrelated. Their sambha or their relationship is known as bhāvabandhana, which means they can never be separated.

Tantrics believe in the power of Shakti that permeates all realms of life

Shakti in tantric rituals, tantric world view, and tantric practice has many forms. Shakti can be very subtle, or she can be very gross.

She appears as a great goddess, and because she is linked with the universe and the phenomenon, she is an active principle. All that changes and transforms, is the divine, is the force of Shakti. If Shakti was not there, then there would be no universe.

Also as she embodies a whole of creation, Shakti can be benign, as we find in many goddesses of India, or she can be terrorific. She can have both forms, Rudra (terrorific) and Soumya (benign), because she is the whole of creation, and creation is rooted in duality.

This duality also is presented and depicted in beautiful images of Devi or the goddess. Here we have two very powerful images. One is the image of goddess Durga, golden and fair-skinned goddess Durga, and we are all aware of later Durga.

That a fierce battle occurred between Durga and demons, and when Durga encountered the adversary, the benign, good Durga takes a new form, and out of her brow, it is Kali.

This goddess Kali, is the image, is the terrorific form of Durga, who is a condensation of Durga’s anger. She leaves blood on the battlefield, and the army of demons is laid low.

So what we can see here are the two faces of Shakti. We have the terrorific or the benign, and both these dramatically opposite psychic traits form part and parcel of the embodiment of Devi or goddess.

Tantra believes in the power of the Goddess, the ultimate personification of Shakti, or cosmic energy.

When we look at the goddess of earlier, of the Brahmanical fold, we have Sita, Parvati, Saraswati, and Laxmi. We find that these goddesses derive their power because they are linked with very powerful husbands.

So, Laxmi gets her power with Vishnu, and Parvati through the god Shiva. I am giving you the Puranik view.

But when we come to the tantras these goddesses become enormous. In the sense they have sovereign powers, they even create the whole trinity, because so much power is embodied in their persona as they are the ultimate personification of cosmic energy.

As an example, above is the icon of the goddess Tripura Sundari, who is worshipped in South India, and Kashmir, amongst other parts of India.

You see her seated on a throne made out of five gods. Now we don’t see these kinds of images in early Hindu traditions.

You have the four legs of the throne, Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva, Ishwara, and the plank is Sadashiv, and she is in blissful union with them.

So what the iconographer is trying to tell us, is that, look here is a goddess who is beyond the male gods, and these male gods represent the five elements of creation which are earth, water, fire, air, and ether, and she is beyond, and this is one way of showing, and indeed, she is worshipped in her icon and she is also worshipped in her mandala or the Sri Yantra.

So, we can see how distinct tantras are in their iconography of the Goddess, in their literature, in their world view, and their theology.

Tantrics believe that our body is beyond the atoms that make it

Tantric yoga consists of awakening this cosmic energy that lies within us and causing it to ascend. According to Yoga texts, 72,000 psychic channels in our body get activated when we do Kundalini yoga.

Another concept that is relevant to the understanding of the tantra, is the notion and the divinity of the body, and the notion of the microcosm.

In daily life, when we look at our body, our understanding of the human body is materialistic. In the sense, we only understand, we only know the medical body, we know our material body.

But the tantrics would say that there is a body beyond the skin, there is another body in us, which is the body of energy, and that’s what tantra is all about.

What they are saying is that from an atom to a star, whatever exists in the universe, exists in this body. Whatever exists outside the body, is also in the universe.

There is kind of an analogical homology between the two, and the tantras have created the maps of the subtle body, to describe this philosophy.

According to them, linked with our material body, which we are all aware of, there is a divine body or etheric double.

That body is known as ‘Sukshuma deha’, which means a subtle body, is also called the ‘Divya deha’, the divine body, and sometimes it is also called ‘Siddh deha’, or the body which is accomplished, which is the body which has all the spiritual powers, and those powers can be manifested in many different acts.

So, ‘Siddh deha’ is one which is the body of power or energy in its fullest accomplishment, and this body which the tantrics are talking about, this cannot be identified by the surgeon, because around our body we have many magnetic fields, and many layers of energy.

This body in that sense is ahistorical, it’s trans-historical, it’s beyond space and time, and tantra yoga consists in harnessing the energies, the cosmic energies, in this very body and aligning them with the larger magnetic fields of the planets, and the larger cosmos.

So it consists of literally bringing the universe into yourself, bringing the powers of the universe into this body, and with this theory as a background, they have created the yoga practices as well as their rituals.

Tantrics believe in the power of the Kundalini

 What is Kundalini? Kundalini is the name given to the Shakti or the cosmic energy that lies dormant in all of us. Its symbolic form is a serpent that lies coiled at the root chakra of the subtle body.

Tantric yoga consists of awakening this cosmic energy that lies within us and causing it to ascend. According to Yoga texts, 72,000 psychic channels in our body get activated when we do Kundalini yoga.

As our Kundalini Shakti becomes more and more dynamic, it harmonizes with all our other energies, and there is a very definite transformation in the body itself. Even the chemicals of the body change, and then the Yogi is meant to have attained a state of Siddhi.

So this Kundalini Shakti is the main energy that the tantrics accept, and they also manipulate it, they awaken it. They know the methods and techniques of arousal of Devi Kundalini, and she is a goddess.

Tantrics believe that the body is composed of five mandalas, or five sheaths or layers.

Tantrics look to understand the interrelationship of the magnetic fields of these five sheaths, to be able to transient egoism and duality, and ultimately reach a state of enlightenment, and enlightenment in tantric terms is the fusion of Shiva and Shakti as one. It’s a total fusion, it’s enjoying the state of unity, where the mind is not fragmented.

They say that we have the physical, the tangible body, which is Annamaya kosha. Beyond that, we have the Pranamaya kosha, or the body of energy, because they link the body with the breath.

Beyond the Pranamaya kosha, that is the third level, you have the Manomaya, which is the mind-body, the cognition, the cognitive body, which thinks, and which is involved in all kinds of activities linked with the mind.

Then beyond that, the fourth is the Vigyana deha, Vignanamaya kosha, which is the intuitive body, and beyond that, the fifth and final body is Anandamaya kosha or the body of bliss.

So what the Tantric sages tell us is that these five enclosures within us, out of these the first three, or first four for some, are linked with us. They will disappear when the body disappears when we die. But the two other levels which are very subtle, continue even after death.

Tantrics look to understand the interrelationship of the magnetic fields of these five sheaths, to be able to transient egoism and duality, and ultimately reach a state of enlightenment, and enlightenment in tantric terms is the fusion of Shiva and Shakti as one. It’s a total fusion, it’s enjoying the state of unity, where the mind is not fragmented.

So in the tantras what we read as the ultimate state, is the fusion, or the unity of Shiva and Shakti, when there is no fragmentation of the mind, there is no Vikalpa, there is no duality, where all duality ends, and where the yogi or the practitioner begins to relish the unity of the fusion of the two, which is blissful.

Tantrics believe in the seven chakras

The lowest is the Muladhara chakra, which is at the base of the spine, and as we move up next is the Swadhistana chakra. Both the Muladhara and Swadhistana chakras are linked with the ego-sense and the dualities that we confront in our lives.

Swadhistana chakra is also linked with sensual pleasure, desire, unconscious attachment, ego-sense, fertility, and human relationships.

As we move to the Manipura chakra, which is the navel center. The navel center is the center of affirmation where sublimation of desire takes place, and when that happens, the ego is burnt.

It is also linked with the element of fire, whereas the first two chakras, the first chakra is linked with the element earth, and the second is with water.

So earth and water then get extinguished in the Manipura chakra, which is burning away of the ego and dualities, and fragmentation of consciousness.

As we move on up to the Anahata chakra, it is the chakra of love, compassion, centering of consciousness that takes place.

Then from there, we move to the Vishuddhi chakra, which is on the level of the throat, and there you have the divine inspiration of knowledge, and this reversal of this gross energy, higher wisdom, an affirmation of freedom, and experience of flashes of unity.

Anja chakra is the chakra of discrimination, and this is the place assigned to the Guru. It is at this point the guru transforms all that is gone on below in the lower chakras, and finally, this is a two-petal lotus of discrimination.

Then as we move to the highest plain which is the Sahasrara chakra, where Shakti gets united with Shiva. It is visualized as a thousand petal lotus.

Tantra is a Path of Power, and there are Three Ways to Learn Tantra

It is said that Tantra is a path of power, force, and energies that lie in the cosmos. It is said that once tantric powers begin to manifest, Siddhis come into play.

These can include the Siddhi of healing, the Siddhi of knowing, Siddha of Astro travel, which is leaving your body and roaming around in galactic phases, and meeting maybe other great gurus, because the tradition believes that the gurus don’t die, they exist in invisible form, and if they exist in invisible form, they will be somewhere in the atmosphere.

So, many gurus do Astro travel, dream travel, and this then with some sadhus and sages, becomes almost a part of their daily rituals.

But the question arises that these powers are not to be used negatively, because a Yogi has power, doesn’t mean that he has the power to destroy. His aim or his prayojan is to empower people with his knowledge and to give them the experience of unity.

In the words of ancient Tantric scholar Abhinavagupta, there are three ways of learning the great tradition of Tantra.

The first is with Shastratah or learning from books, scriptures, and other learning materials.

The second is with Gurutah, or a Spiritual Teacher, Guru, or Guide, while the third is with Swatah, or when the energy comes directly to you, without any intervention of any guru or any scripture.

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