Tantra (Sanskrit तन्त्र, neuter, "tissue, continuum, connection") or tantrism refers to various currents within Indian philosophy and religion that first emerged as an esoteric form of Hinduism and later Buddhism within the northern Mahayana tradition.
The origins of Tantra begin in the 2nd century, with teachings available in full form from the 7th/8th century at the earliest. In Buddhism, it is also referred to as Tantrayana ("vehicle of Tantra texts", compare Vajrayana).
In almost all tantric schools and directions the worship and homage of the female deity is central. Such worship already existed in ancient Vedic times (1750-1200 B.C.). Tantra combines sensuality with spirituality (compare also Neo-Tantra).
Origins and history
According to Poller (2013) magical ideas of the many ethnic groups native to the Indian subcontinent have been incorporated into the Tantras. One can securely trace their methods in India back to the Vedic period (from about 1500 BC).
The magical practices were mainly about making life easier, from influencing the weather (weather spells) to helping with childbirth to war and damage spells. Tantras contain invocations of a large number of gods and spirits by means of mantras, visualizations, special images, objects, the use of colors, scents, music, complicated offerings and the like.
An important categorization or division can be made by distinguishing between Buddhist and Hindu tantras. Both currents appeared almost simultaneously between 500 and 1000 A.D. and influenced each other at that time: after their increasing consolidation, they continued to develop independently.
Tantras were developed and refined in the period between 300 and 800 A.D., so that some concepts experienced their heyday in the period from 800 to 1200 A.D., after which followed a slow process of gradual decline.
The worship of the goddess, symbolized as Shakti, is central to many Tantric schools.
Yoga and Tantra
Texts of the older Upanishads, c. 700 BCE, describe breathing exercises and withdrawal of the senses (pratyahara) into the atman as aids to meditation (dhyana).
The middle Upanishads, written around 400 B.C., mention the term yoga several times and also the essential elements of the later yoga system. Yoga was closely related to the theories developed by the philosophical system of Samkhya and formed its practical continuation.
Originally, yoga was a purely spiritual path, whose main goal was the search for enlightenment through meditation. The many asanas developed only in the course of time. Their primary goal is to strengthen and mobilize the body in such a way that it can remain in the meditation seat - e.g. lotus seat - for a longer period of time without discomfort.
Tantra as a spiritual path not only shows great similarities with yoga, there are also a number of overlaps, so that in the result one can speak of a "tantric yoga".
Classical yoga is based on an ascetic ideal, renouncing everything that distracts from the path, such as pleasures, bhukti (Sanskrit: भुक्ति bhukti) and especially sexuality.
Tantra uses the essential elements of classical yoga, but unlike it, uses the passions and sensual needs as an integral part.
Proprietary elements of tantra, as found in classical yoga, are added, such as simple or complex rituals, meditative visualizations, use of objects with symbolic meaning (images, statues), and even erotic rituals (mithuna rituals).
Buddhist Tantra was consolidated in India by Padmasambhava (8th-9th century AD) and by various Mahasiddhas and their teachings or interpretations: Later, the ideas reached Tibet, where their contents were sometimes greatly altered in confrontation with Tibetan Buddhism.
In Buddhist Tantra, extraordinary skill and virtuosity are to be attained through practice in order to reach a higher state of consciousness. Ultimately, the goal is to reach a state of consciousness that suffers less and thus causes less suffering (dukkha) than the state before the exercises.
Many higher states are described, accompanied by higher powers of consciousness (siddhis) that arise as a result of the practice of the exercises. The methods used in Buddhist tantra were written down in texts that often have in their titles the names of tantric deities.
They were all considered emanations of the Buddha. The deities could be male, female, or a couple in union. Important well-known Buddhist tantras are: Hevajra, Chakrasamvara, Vajrayogini, Yamantaka, Guhyasamaja, Kalachakra, Vajrakila, Guhyagarbha.
The term "Hinduism" is a term coined by Europeans, the British colonial officials of the 19th century, to refer to all spiritual systems native to India, except Christianity and Islam. The term "Hindu" was coined by the ancient Persians, to describe the people living across the Indus River from them.
Modern Hindus prefer the term "Sanatana Dharma" to describe their religion. "Hinduism" arose from the fusion of the polytheistic Vedic-Brahman religion of the Aryan (Indo-European) immigrants in the second half of the 2nd millennium BC with the non-Aryan religions of the Indus Valley, Dravidian South India, and others.
The term "Hinduism" combines numerous historical and ideological traditions that appeared with the Vedic culture (early Vedic period 1500-1000 B.C.) as the successor to the Indus cultures (c. 3000-1800 B.C.; Amri, Nal, Quetta, Kulli, and the most important, the Harappa culture) and took its characteristic form at the beginning of the 1000 A.D. The term "Hinduism" is used to describe the religion of the Indus.
The origins of Hindu Tantra lie in various influences of the early Middle Ages in India. These are the South Asian demonological tradition, local and folk influences, and the influences of religious sects such as the Pashupatas, who introduced new religious rituals and teachings that were non-Vedic.
Medieval Tantra often served to legitimize a king who was from lower castes or of foreign origin through rituals that were not available to him in Vedic Orthodox ritual.
In this way, Hindu tantra has incorporated practices aimed at the ritual transformation of the practitioner into a god-king who rules a pantheon of gods and demons and whose palace is located in the center of the mandala. Despite this reference to a ruler, few Tantrics were kings.
In rural areas and in Indonesia, Tantrism strongly resembles shamanistic religions. Tantrics here are tasked with controlling hordes of demons that can have harmful effects on people, the home environment, and agriculture. For this purpose, the tantric "rulers of the spirit" are invoked in possession trances, exorcisms and spells are performed.
These also take place with the help of incantations and spells. Likewise, there are rituals and sacrifices. These forms of tantrism are local and regional and have little theoretical or doctrinal aspect.
Early Tantric literature refers to a greater extent to this demonology, and in certain texts, in which different layers can be discerned, metaphysics and practice are first attached to these practices in relation to spiritual goals.
These metaphysical and spiritual teachings were reserved only for the elite of the Tantrics, among whom they were put into practice. Such elites included kings, aristocrats, and certain Brahmin groups.
Therefore, the teachings of Tantrism reflect the concerns of such elites, such as aspects of power and the acquisition of worldly and spiritual supernatural power. Tantric teachings refer, for example, to power relations between humans and supernatural beings, but equally to soteriological, ontological, and metaphysical reflections.
From the 8th century A.D. onwards, a tantric canon thus emerged, which - written in Sanskrit - was created and received by these elites.
These writings all belong to sectarian Hinduism, that is, they can be classified as Vishnuism, Shivaism or Shaktism, and it is always one of the forms of the main deities, Vishnu, Shiva or Shakti (Devi), which is superior to a divine hierarchy as the highest deity.
The main sects of this form of Tantrism are:
Schools and sects of Kashmiri Shivaism such as Krama, Trika, Shrividya Shaiva Siddhanta the Shakta-Kubjika sect the Vishnuit Shakta Sahajiya school and other regional sects Vishnuit pancaratras.
The various Tantric sects often have common deities, such as Kali, Chamunda, and Svacchanda Bhairava (a form of Shiva) in Kashmir, as well as Tripurasundari, who is worshipped in Kashmir, Tamil Nadu, and Nepal.
Mythologies of Tantra, deity worlds, and metaphysics abound throughout Tantrism. The mythology is often depicted in sculptures and paintings depicting deities, supernatural beings, demons, and tantrics. A distinctive feature of this tantric art is that the sexual act is often depicted.
Despite the abundance of deities and entities, the focus of tantric teachings is not on a polytheistic pantheon, but rather on the individual having a relationship with the One, namely the supreme deity. This relationship is metaphysically called Bhedabheda (unity in diversity).
It is this oneness that is said to lead to Jivanmukti (liberation). Tantric practices seek both to have power over supernatural beings or to have power bestowed upon them, and to realize that these deities and beings are ultimately one with the transcendent self of the supreme deity, which is also the self of the tantric practitioner.
In this sense, tantric metaphysics refers to emanations of the divine. These emanations are referred to 36 tattvas (categories) in most tantric teachings, which are derived from the 25 tattvas of the Samkhya teachings.
These 36 tattvas refer, for example, to deities, states of consciousness, vibrations of mantras, the yogic energy body, and guru lineages. In this context, these tattvas are seen as unities emanating from the supramundane to the everyday world.
An internalization of these tattvas then takes place in tantric practice through yoga and meditation, mantras and visualizations. In the history of tantra, such has been particularly significant for Indian culture that contemporary yoga (e.g., hatha yoga and kundalini yoga) emerged from these tantric practices in the 9th to 12th centuries.
Hindu Tantric Literature
The term tantra originally referred to a genre of literature, tantras or agamas, that is post-Vedic.
Hindu tantra literature generally comes in two main forms. Either they are revelatory texts by anonymous authors, often in dialogue form between deities such as Shiva and Kali or Vishnu and Lakshmi, or they are texts by individual authors who have written commentaries, compendia, or guides to revelatory scriptures in tantra literature.
These relate to practices and principles of Tantrism. Most of these texts were written between the 8th and 12th centuries. This literature is referred to as the Tantra Shastra.
While the revelatory texts are not overly elaborate in terms of Sanskrit, the Tantra Shastras contain particularly high-level texts. The Tantra-Shastras deal with a wealth of different contents.
They refer, for example, to mantras and stotras, instructions for performing rituals, doctrinal teachings, philosophy, commentaries, and hagiographies.
For the most part, tantric literature is classified as either Shivaism, Vishnuism, or Kaula (Shivaism-Shaktism).
Vishnuistic tantras are often called samhitas, while Shivaistic tantras consist of agamas, tantras, and samhitas.
The Shaiva-Shakta texts bear a plethora of different names besides the title 'Tantra', e.g. the Tripura Upanishad or Jayadratha Yamala. Kaula Tantra is the name given only to those texts that are accessible to initiates.
Texts related to the tantric scriptures, some of which have the same content, include the texts of hatha yoga, Indian alchemy, and some Puranas such as the Agni Purana and the Kalika Purana.
Tantrism is a doctrine of knowledge based on the inseparability of the relative and the absolute. Tantrism emphasizes the identity of the absolute and phenomenal worlds. The goal of Tantrism is to become one with the Absolute and to know the supreme reality.
Since this reality is believed to be energetic in nature and the microcosm and macrocosm are interwoven, Tantrism performs external actions as a reflection of internal psychic states.
Since mind and matter are not considered completely divorced, Hindu Tantrism is this-worldly affirming and uses psycho-experiential techniques of self-realization and experience of the world and life, the elements of which are to be experienced as positive dimensions in which the Absolute reveals itself.
Tantra thus presents itself mainly as a spiritual and mystical path based on metaphysical assumptions.
Contemporary Tantrism dates back to the 17th century and presents itself as a collection of ritual techniques that refer to divine entities, often goddesses, to achieve various powers. The goals of Tantric rites are bhukti, power over this world, siddhi, supernatural powers, and jivanmukti, liberation through deification.
Tantrism is steeped in occult and magical ideas. Ritual and cult are very prominent, as following esoteric gradual paths to knowledge and enlightenment is central to religious practice.
Of importance is the initiation (diksha, abhisheka) and the subordination of the disciple (cela) to a knowledgeable teacher or master (guru) who helps him on the spiritual path.
The main elements of Tantrism are:
The representation and visualization of spiritual principles through sexual symbolism, as it is believed that the polarities active and passive, or female and male, form the universe through their interaction. Shiva, the male principle, is considered passive and Shakti, the female principle, active.
The system of subtle energy centers (chakras) and channels (nadis) on which yogic and meditative practices are based, such as physical Kundalini yoga, visualization of deities, or sexual union:
Working with geometric symbols such as mandala and yantra as expressions of the macrocosm and microcosm.
The work with mantras and mudras The transformation of the body centers into spiritual places through mantras and symbols
The infusion of magical ideas According to the following subdivision, for each of the four ages there are scriptures that regulate the respective rituals and practices. Accordingly, the rules of the Shruti, the Vedas, apply only to the golden age (Sat-Yuga), the rules of the Agamas (Tantras) only to the present iron age (Kali-Yuga).
Agamas (Tantra) Puranas (Hindu mythology) Shruti ("the heard", the Vedas with the Upanishads) Smriti ("the remembered", law texts)
Shaktism is closely interwoven with Indian Tantrism and is one of the three main branches of Hindu religious systems, along with Shivaism and Vishnuism. From the 10th century CE, Shaktism also became tantric.
Practices such as pujas (Sanskrit, f., पूजा, pūjā, [puːʤɑː]), offerings, and meditation became intermingled with the esoteric content of tantrism, especially including tantra yoga.
In this, physical and spiritual techniques are used: Meditation, Japa, Mantras and Yantras as well as Asanas and other physical exercises. Shakti is seen here as Kundalini and each chakra is equated to a goddess.
Tantrism is often, but not exclusively, associated with Shaktism, the worship of the divine mother, Devi or Shakti, who is the expression of the creative power of God, hence of creation itself.
In contrast to pure Advaita-Vedanta, which views creation as an illusion - Maya - the Tantric sees it as an expression of the power of God - Shakti, the Goddess - and worships her as Mahamaya or Mahadevi.
The Tantric does not view the sense world as negative, but uses it to reach union with the Divine.
The divine Mother herself, according to these teachings, is present in the human body as Kundalini energy, which lies coiled at the base of the spine and, coming to life, rises to open the various chakras (wheels - subtle energy centers) on its way and finally to be united with Shiva, the male aspect of God, the Noumen, in the uppermost chakra, the Sahasrara.
All the main gods, according to the tantra system, reside in the human body, usually in the center of the chakras. Just as Shiva and Shakti are united in the Ardhanarishvara (half man, half woman), the right half of each human is male and corresponds to Shiva, while the left half corresponds to Shakti.
Since all the main gods of Hinduism have a female counterpart, there is also a corresponding tantric direction depending on the sect:
Vaishnavacara (Vishnu Tantra, Vishnu is the Ishtadeva). Vedacara (Veda, keeps the Vedic precepts, uses Vedic mantras, Agni is the main deity - Ishta-Deva)
Shaivacara (Shiva-Tantra, Shiva is the Ishtadeva) Shakta tantra is divided into Dakshinacara (right path, observes the conventional religious precepts) Kaulacara
Vamacara (left-hand path, breaks religious taboos) In left-handed tantra, the Vamacara, the five Vedic articles of purification are consciously reversed, in the worship of the five M's, the pañca-makāra:
Because of maithuna in particular, tantra has fallen into disrepute and in the West is mistakenly identified almost exclusively with sexual practices.
However, these practices are only performed by certain sects, the Vamacharas, and even there only by a circle of people, the Viryas, in a fixed ritual context. Similar acts were and are partly performed in China in Daoism and sporadically in the tantric form of Tibetan Buddhism (Anuttarayoga Tantra).
Thus, the Dakshinacara followers have replaced the five M's with other substances or practice them only symbolically or not at all.
For example, the Samayacara of the Shri Vidya tradition, which has found its way into the conservative Shankaracarya order especially in South India, condemns all these practices and does not meditate on chakras below the navel.
In Shri Vidya, the Dasa Mahavidyas are mainly worshipped, the ten great goddesses, Kali, Tara, Tripurasundari, Bhuvaneshvari, Bhairavi, Chinnamasta, Dhumavati, Bagalamukhi, Matangi, Kamala.
They are all aspects of the one Goddess, and the sadhaka (practitioner) gradually approaches wholeness through the worship of these aspects. A special role for the Shankara tradition is played by the goddess Sharada (another name for Sarasvati or Tara), the goddess of wisdom and learning, since for the Advaita, knowledge, Jnana, is the path to liberation.
Indicative of almost all Tantrics are the meaning of mantras (sacred word sounds), bijas (monosyllabic word sounds), yantras (diagrams), mudras (yogic postures, gestures), nyasa (energizing various parts of the body), bhutashuddhi (purification), kundalini yoga, kriya (movement and breathing exercises), carya (religious and social precepts), maya yoga (magic).
Tantra is always practice-oriented, which is why tantric practices have been incorporated into almost all Hindu traditions. All tantric traditions also have in common the precept of secrecy of the teachings and the importance of the guru as the mediator of the tantric teachings. Traditionally, tantra cannot be learned in a course or through books.
In India, regions where tantric cults are still particularly alive include Assam, Bengal, Odisha, Maharashtra, Kashmir, Rajasthan, the northwestern Himalayas, and parts of southern India.
Tantra is a path of mindfulness. In the Indian tradition, a distinction is made between a tantric path according to its methodology: the one based exclusively on meditation, energy work and spiritual worship is called the right-hand path or right-handed tantra. The path that additionally involves sensuality, sexuality, and passion is called the left-hand path or left-handed tantra.
the Dakṣiṇācāra (Sanskrit: दक्षिणाचार dakṣiṇācāra) or right-hand path, is a direction of Hindu tantra with purifying rituals and strict discipline in the process, which demands absolute devotion to the divine mother (Shakti) in her manifold forms.
the Vāmācāra (Sanskrit: वामाचार vāmācāra) is the unpurified, questionably perilous path of the left hand, integrating sexual practice and passionate action.
Reception in the West
In the Western world, Tantra has been increasingly received since the beginning of the 20th century, but mainly shortened to sexual aspects, which are by no means central in classical Tantra.
An important role was played by the British occultist Aleister Crowley, who had no in-depth knowledge of Indian Tantrism, but nevertheless identified it with his sexual-magical practices.
Today, Tantra is mostly offered in the West as Neotantra, in which the Hindu or Buddhist contents have receded into the background in favor of an optimization of the ability to orgasm and a striving for sexual-spiritual wellness. Tantra is a form of sexual magic.