The term Tantra is a term applied today to a broad range of exotic and erotic secular activities ranging from fitness yoga to couple’s therapy to pole dancing. Therefore it’s no surprise Tantra has an enthusiastic, though not particularly well-informed following worldwide. It’s safe to say few neo-Tantrists are aware of Tantrism’s deep significance to Indian spiritual practice, particularly the concept of personal connection with one’s chosen deity, or Bhakti. Puja, mudra, Mantra, chakra, mandala, temple architecture and even Chola Bronzes themselves all owe their existence to Tantric belief and practice.
As a matter of semantics, Tantra (tr; loom, warp, weave) is a term referring not so much to beliefs and practice as it does sacred text. These manuscripts were first transcribed from an ancient oral tradition late in the fifth century as the Agamas and Samhitas (note 1). Considered by Tantrikas as superior to orthodox Vedic Hindu and Buddhist scripture, they transcended association with either religious belief. Tantra takes the form of a conversation between the first yogi (Adiyogi) and their disciple. Depending upon their affiliation, some Hindu Tantrikas believe the guru is Shakti (note 2), Shiva or Vishnu. For instance, in Shakti Tantrism, it is Shakti manifesting as Kali who is the guru and Shiva is the disciple, while within Saivite Tantrism, it is Shiva sharing the wisdom of Tantra with Shakti. Buddhist Tantrikas (Vajrayanists), on the other hand, do not believe God manifests as deities; therefore, their Tantra offers a path to enlightenment through the primordial union of the male principle of compassion and the female principal of compassion. The metaphor for this union in iconography is male and female deities in a face to face sexual position with the female sitting within the crossed legs of the male, depicted in an icon known as Yab-Yam.
Fifteen hundred years ago, Tantrism introduced the revolutionary concept of The Divine Within, the idea that God was not a separate entity, but existed within us all (note 3). Traditional orthodox Hindu worship comprises lengthy Vedic rituals directed towards an abstract manifestation of Brahman, the Ultimate Reality. The formless Brahman manifested in physical form as gods and goddesses such as Shiva, Kali, Vishnu, Krishna, Ganesha and others of the Hindu pantheon, however, the deity was always an ‘other,’ to be approached and worshipped as an unworthy supplicant as it was deemed presumptuous for a mortal to attempt a personal connection with a deity. On the other hand, Tantra believed divinity lay within us, lying dormant until energized through elaborate and lengthy ritual purification and preparation. To orthodox Hinduism, this concept was radical and tested the limits of inclusivity. Therefore, Tantric knowledge remained a closely guarded secret known only to the most evolved gurus, and passed down orally to initiates after years of disciplined study and yogic practice (guruparaṃparā).
The Tantric process of awakening the divinity within began with ritual purification of the body through its symbolic destruction. The deity was then awakened with sacred chants (Mantras), hand gestures (mudras) and the creation of sacred diagrams (yantras or mandalas). The newly awakened deity would then be ritually worshipped. It was believed an elaborate hierarchy of the cosmos was reflected like a mirror within the devotee’s body, particularly male (Purusha) and female (Prakriti) polarity, manifesting as the fearsome couple, Shiva Bhairava and Kali (note 4). Their union within the body was primarily visualized while in a deep meditative state; however, some sects believed only actual sex would lead to liberation (moksha). This sacred union was visualized through intense meditation upon Shakti as the flow of the female cosmic life force (prana) (note 4) from its source at the base of the spine (kundalini) upward through channels (nadi) through energy centres (chakras) (note 5) to the so-called “thousand-petaled lotus” (sahasrara) at the crown of the head, resulting in an intense feeling of spiritual, mental, emotional and physical well-being. The devotional ritual concluded with external worship (puja) of Maha Devi, the Great Goddess, a ritual involving all the senses; sight (an image of the deity), sound (bells and chants), smell (flower and incense offerings), touch (the application of fragrant oils or paste to the image), and taste (offerings of food and sweets). Tantric puja, particularly, became standard practice in all forms of Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism by the sixth century (note 6). This new personal style of devotion revolutionized Hindu worship and came to be known as Bhakti.
The adoption of Tantric-style personal devotion led to the creation of temples, and within them, icons in stone and later in bronze became puja’s focus. Before the emergence of Tantrism, worship took place out in the open, in caves or other primitive shelters. The creation of temples and icons led in turn to these sacred images to be venerated as living beings in rituals resembling those accorded Chola monarchs. Sacred dance within the temples (Bharatnatyam) used the Tantric visual language of hand gestures (mudra) and body positions (asanas). By the time of the Cholas, these temples had evolved to become centres of secular power as well as holy communities of priests, musicians, dancers (note 7), poets, umbrella holders, cleaners and other support staff. The line between the secular and the spiritual began to blur further as sacred icons began assuming the roles of royalty in rites and processions, while conversely, the icons began to appear with the adornment (alankara) and clothing styles of their royal patrons. Icons, temples and puja are now fundamental elements of Indian spiritual devotion, and all have their genesis in Tantric traditions.
By the tenth century, Tantrism was widely and openly practiced throughout the subcontinent, however, some of its more controversial beliefs and practices were viewed with fear, suspicion, and in some cases, abhorrence. The intent of Tantrism’s more esoteric and secretive rituals was to consciously break ancient Vedic taboos, for instance by the ritual consumption of meat, alcohol and body fluids of various types (note 10), adulterous sexual offerings to Kali (note 11), possession and exorcism rites, all flouted Hindu prohibitions and hidden from public scrutiny. Tantric knowledge had always been a sacred trust, kept in strict secrecy and passed down orally from guru to disciple after years of preparation and purification (guruparaṃparā). When transcribed, the more dangerous rituals were written in a type of loose code to ensure their content would be understood only by initiates. The nature of this aspect of Tantric practice and the lengths to which its adherents went to preserve its secrets ensured Tantrism achieved notoriety and mystique spanning centuries.
But Tantrism was much more than taboo-breaking attacks upon the old Vedic Hinduism. Modern values were expressed a thousand years ago as respect and equality for all and veneration of the Divine Feminine. While none of these beliefs endeared Tantrism to orthodox Hinduism or Buddhism, tolerance (note 12) and inclusiveness (note 13) were, and are, hallmarks of India’s cultural and religious values and, even though Tantric practice stretched these values to their limit, it did not break them. As long as its practitioners were discrete and its rituals were out of the public eye, Tantrism was tolerated, though never openly encouraged. This uneasy relationship remained unchanged until Muslim invaders arrived in the 13th century when Tantrism was ruthlessly suppressed, it’s followers slain and its manuscripts destroyed. South India was spared the worst of these depredations, however (note 14), and over time Tantra’s less controversial beliefs and practices were absorbed into Hindu practice. Muslim invaders never got over the Himalayas, and Buddhist Tantra survived for a time in Tibet, but a pogrom by occupying Chinese troops in the early 1950’s effectively put an end to Tantrism. Today very little formal Tantric knowledge is known, creating an environment where the term Tantra is freely exploited by self-styled gurus.
Tantric belief also laid the foundation of yogic practice. It believes that with proper meditation, mudras and asanas, divine creative energy (Shakti) flows as prana within the human body. Energy centres (chakras) in the body are aligned along the spine, and when prana flows between the chakras through channels (nadis), the spiritual, mental, emotional and physical well-being of the mind and body is maintained and balanced.
Note 1 – The term Tantrism is Western in origin and born of misconception and assumptions from non-Hindu scholars. To practitioners, it was simply the warp and weave of the fabric of their spiritual belief and practice. Tantra and sutra are terms which are also used interchangeably, tantra being the cloth and sutra being the sewing of that cloth. When referring to Tantra here, I use the past tense because, for all intents and purposes, Tantra as a defined system of belief and practice is a spent force. The Tantric spirit lives on, however, through its profound influence upon religious life throughout Asia.
Note 2 – Tantra’s core belief is Shakti as the dynamic creative energy of God. The male principle is cognitive, the female is dynamic, and both are co-equal and interdependent.
Note 3 – Hinduism, particularly as practiced during the Chola period, embraced stimulation of the senses as gifts from the gods. The Cholas saw little difference between the ecstatic bliss of sexual union with one’s beloved and the spiritual union between the worshipper and beloved deity. Both resulted in a mystical, blissful, out of body experience.
Note 4 – Prana and Shakti’s force of life are considered by many to be one and the same, hence the powerful connection between Tantra and Shakti.
Note 5 – Chakras are aligned along the spine and associated with colours, elements, planets or occult powers. Chakras draw in prana by spinning around their axes and holding it in their respective sphere to maintain and balance the spiritual, mental, emotional and physical well-being of the mind and body.
Note 6 – The adoption of Tantric ritual, and particularly puja, was given further impetus when the first poet-saints (nayanars and alvars) began writing and performing devotional hymns and poems dedicated to their chosen gods and goddesses. Possibly inspired by Tantrism, their devotion was emotionally charged, at times even overtly sexual.
Note 7 – These dancers were known as devadasi and dedicated to temple service for life. On the walls of the great temple complex of Brihadisvara Temple in Tanjore are inscribed the names of 400 devadasis, with their addresses.
Note 8 – Of these texts, it is the Shilpa Shastra that guides the craftsmen (sthapathi) who create the exquisite Chola Bronzes.
Note 9 – A key element of Shakta Tantra is the belief that women are filled with the creative energy of Shakti and, therefore, spiritually more powerful than men. With its strong belief in equality between genders, in today’s terms, Tantrikas could be said to be feminists.
Note 10 – Menstrual blood was considered to be especially power due to its association with feminine creativity.
Note 11 – Anyone participating in the sexual ritual who lapsed from the psychic state of oneness with the divine (preman) into the reality of the moment could expect hellish consequences.
Note 12 – Indian spiritual beliefs were always eager to embrace new ideas to remain relevant. For instance, as Hinduism spread across the sub-continent, it absorbed local beliefs and deities under the overarching principle of Brahman, the Ultimate Universal Soul. All deities and their associated beliefs and practices were deemed facets of Brahman and, therefore, seamlessly absorbed into Hindu doctrine.
Note 13 – For example, the great Chola king and devout Saivite, Rajaraja Chola I, bore the cost of building and maintaining over 500 Buddhist monasteries within the Chola homeland.
Note 14 – In 1311, Muslim invaders reached the former Chola homeland. They only stayed a hundred years but had plenty of time to strip the temples of their bronzes, melting them down to cast cannon. Hundreds of Chola Bronzes were saved though by being buried in the earth and behind false temple walls; however, the locations of many were forgotten with time. Today lost hoards are discovered from time to time, but after such a long period of spiritual neglect are no longer deemed sacred and so find their way into museums or private collections. There was at least one instance though where an icon was discovered near its original home in a village temple. The local priest gave it a wash, put it back in the temple, reconsecrated it and carried on as though the intervening 700 years had never happened.