27 Nov 2014

What is Tantra? It ain’t what you think.



The Tantras are not books of sorcery, witchcraft, magic spells, and mysterious formulae...

They are wonderful scriptures. All persons without the distinctions of caste, creed, or colour may draw inspiration from them and attain spiritual strength, wisdom, and eternal bliss.


The title of this post is a bit presumptuous of me, isn’t it? You’re as likely to be completely aware of what authentic Tantrik teachings are as anyone. It’s just that I wasn’t for a long time, and I was one of the many people (non-Indian and Indian) steeped in all the myths, stereotypes, sensationalism, misinformation and confusion about just what were the authentic teachings. It’s for those of us still on the margins of genuine knowledge about these concepts that I’ll proceed with this and the next few posts from the perspective of the person for whom the word “Tantra” continues to evoke a great many things that usually bear no relation to their daily sadhana.

It was about 25 years ago or so, I think. It was around the time people in North America were able to get this new fangled service called AOL (America Online) in their homes. That was the time I first started to try to understand Tantra, the Tantras and things Tantrik (I’ll use the spelling with a terminal ‘k’, as suggested by the academic and tantrika, Christopher D. Wallis in his book Tantra Illuminated, to distinguish between original teachings and newer permutations). I was in a particularly financially strapped period of my life, living on my own in New York City, and I didn’t have money to buy a lot of books or take classes or attend lectures or travel far and wide to hear a bunch of ‘spiritual people’ give talks. So, I did what I could, and started at the library, where I found loads of academic texts. They were basically experts talking to other experts, and I could not break into their conversation. I couldn’t figure out much of what they were saying, and I wasn’t learning a great deal that was practical or useful to me at the time. Reading in the religious philosophy sections of a few different libraries can be heaps of fun (seriously! it can be!), but at that time it was just a dull and dusty experience and, quite literally, it was all Greek (i.e., Sanskrit) to me. So my next step was to start using this brave new tool for human information sharing -- the internet! Yeay! Uhuh. Well, that didn’t work out the way I’d hoped. If you yourself ever typed words like “tantra” into a search engine back in the late 80s or early 90s, you can imagine the variety of exotic and erotic material I found and pretty much nothing else.

Now, not being a prude, I found much of what I came across intriguing and all that information on sexuality and achieving orgasmic union was fine in its own way. It was just not the authentic practice I was looking for. While I did get an eyeful of what some deeply ill-informed people called “tantric,” including more than the fair share of charlatans and con artists, to be fair there were a good many genuine seekers hoping to understand and teach what they knew of the true age-old techniques of meditation and ritual. What many were teaching, though, was more akin to the Kama Sutra than to the Tantras – these two sets of teachings are simply not the same thing.

So, for a few posts, I’ll start trying to unpick what I did eventually learn about authentic Tantra from various amazing teachers in the Hindu tradition (I’m not terribly well-versed in the Buddhist traditions, but will try to share some information there as well).

Let’s begin with some insights from the writings of Swami Sivananda:


Tantra Yoga 

in the words of Sri Swami Sivananda of Rishikesh:

Tantra Yoga had been one of the potent powers for the spiritual regeneration of the Hindus. When practised by the ignorant, unenlightened, and unqualified persons, it has led to certain abuses; and there is no denying that some degraded forms of Saktism have sought nothing but magic, immorality, and occult powers. An example of the perverted expression of the truth, a travesty of the original practices, is the theory of the five Makaras (Pancha Makaras);-Madya or wine, Mamsa or flesh, Matsya or fish, Mudra or symbolical acts, and Maithuna or coition. The esoteric meaning of these five Makaras is: "Kill egoism, control flesh, drink the wine of God-intoxication, and have union with Lord Siva".

Tantra explains (Tanoti) in great detail the knowledge concerning Tattva (Truth or Brahman) and Mantra (mystic syllables). It saves (Trayate). Hence it is called Tantra.

The Tantras are not books of sorcery, witchcraft, magic spells, and mysterious formulae. They are wonderful scriptures. All persons without the distinctions of caste, creed, or colour may draw inspiration from them and attain spiritual strength, wisdom, and eternal bliss. Mahanirvana and Kularnava Tantras are the important books in Tantra Sastra. Yoga Kundalini Upanishad of Krishna Yajurveda, Jabala Darsana, Trisikha Brahmana, and Varaha Upanishad are useful for getting knowledge of Kundalini Sakti and the methods to awaken it and take it to Sahasrara Chakra at the crown of the head.

The Tantra is, in some of its aspects, a secret doctrine. It is a Gupta Vidya. You cannot learn it from the study of books. You will have to get the knowledge and practice from the practical Tantrikas, the Tantric Acharyas and Gurus who hold the key to it. The Tantric student must be endowed with purity, faith, devotion, dedication to Guru, dispassion, humility, courage, cosmic love, truthfulness, non-covetousness, and contentment. Absence of these qualities in the practitioner means a gross abuse of Saktism.

The Sakti Tantra is Advaita Vada. It proclaims that Paramatman (Supreme Soul) and Jivatman (individual soul) are one. The Saktas accept the Vedas as the basic scriptures. They recognise the Sakta-Tantras as texts expounding the means to attain the goal set forth in the Vedas.

Tantra Yoga lays special emphasis on the development of the powers latent in the six Chakras, from Muladhara to Ajna. Kundalini Yoga actually belongs to Tantric Sadhana which gives a detailed description about this serpent-power and the Chakras (plexus). Entire Tantric Sadhana aims at awakening Kundalini, and making her to unite with Lord Sadasiva, in the Sahasrara Chakra. Methods adopted to achieve this end in Tantric Sadhana are Japa of the Name of the Mother, prayer, and various rituals.