Introduction to Tantra
Tantra describes itself as an expansion (tan) of the knowledge and practice that liberates (tra) us from suffering. According to the Tantric practitioners, we can achieve true fulfilment only when all the threads of the fabric of life are woven according to the pattern designated by nature.
This tradition possesses the most effective teachings and technologies for human transformation, which is particularly relevant for our time. When you can integrate yourself into the deeper patterns of nature, it can give rise to some astonishing synchronicities.
To step into the world of Tantra is to enter a world of magic and mystery. Mind-expanding philosophy and arcane rights, pantheons of fierce goddesses embodied in mystic syllables, energy diagrams that map the many dimensions of reality, visualizations of power centres within the body, gestures that express the purest forms of consciousness, nectarean experiences of the sheerest ecstasy, wielders of supernatural power, and concepts that challenge the fundamental norms of ordinary society.
– Tantra Illuminated
Tantra regards the revelatory teachings of the Vedas as its starting point—sometimes referred to as the 5th Veda.
However, the Tantric claim to a Vedic origin is controversial and disputed by orthodox Brahmins. They not only deny the Vedic origin of Tantra but consider the Tantric teachings to be corrupt. On the other hand, Tantrics believe that the Vedas have lost their potency in the present age of kali-yuga.
The Vedic practices are powerless as a snake lacking poison fangs or like a corpse, though in the beginning, in the satya-yuga, they were bearing fruit.
In the kali-yuga, the mantras revealed in the Tantras are efficient, yield immediate fruit, and are recommended for all practices, such as recitation, sacrifice, rituals, and so on.
Six Features of Tantra
What is Special About Tantra?
A Unique View
The Tantric view is not evolutionary, that it does not hold that reality will be better or more beautiful at some future point. The whole of divine reality is expressed fully in each moment. The purpose of spiritual practice could not be to attain union with God, for you are already one with the divine. An explosion of joy accompanies the realization that there is nothing to do, nothing to achieve, other than to fully embrace the divine powers that seek to manifest through you by expressing the entirety of your authentic being in the fullness of each moment, in an endless flow of such moments.
All that exists, throughout all time and beyond, is one infinite divine Consciousness, free and blissful, which projects within the field of its awareness a vast multiplicity of apparently differentiated subjects and objects: each object an actualization of a timeless potentiality inherent in the Light of Consciousness, and each subject that plus a contracted locus of self-awareness. This creation, a divine play, is the result of the natural impulse within Consciousness to express the totality of its self-knowledge in action, an impulse arising from love. The unbounded Light of Consciousness contracts into finite embodied loci of awareness out of its own free will. When those finite subjects then identify with the limited and circumscribed cognitions and circumstances that make up this phase of their existence, instead of identifying with the trans-individual overarching pulsation of pure Awareness that is their true nature, they experience what they call “suffering.” To rectify this, some feel an inner urge to take up the path of spiritual gnosis and yogic practice, the purpose of which is to undermine their misidentification and directly reveal within the immediacy of awareness the fact that the divine powers of Consciousness, Bliss, Willing, Knowing, and Acting comprise the totality of individual experience as well—thereby triggering a recognition that one’s real identity is that of the highest Divinity, the Whole in every part. This experiential gnosis is repeated and reinforced through various means until it becomes the non-conceptual ground of every moment of experience, and one’s contracted sense of self and separation from the Whole is finally annihilated in the incandescent radiance of the complete expansion into perfect wholeness. Then one’s perception fully encompasses the reality of a universe dancing ecstatically in the animation of its completely perfect divinity.
– Tantra Illuminated
When you bow, bow deeply before the divine which is in ourselves and in this moment, before the divine which has never been separate from us, before the divine which is not found anywhere other than in ourselves, before the divine which one can never get closer to or farther away from. As long as you imagine a way which separates you from the divine, you are preparing for lengthy wandering, and this wandering will never end, because the more you think you are approaching the divine, the more it will escape you.
Love and Meditation
Tantra is the union of love and meditation.
- Love is the Shakti element, the part we feel and sense and experience.
- Meditation is the Shiva element, the part that sees, that witnesses, the experiencer.
In our normal life Shakti predominates and it is easy to get lost in our experiences. It is the over-identification with each objective experience or thought that causes this. It results in what Buddhists call “suffering”, and it is often what prompts people to look for spirituality or God in their lives.
In monastic life, there is a choice of meditation over love. One reduces external sensation and experience in order to increase meditative awareness. It is a more “Shiva” path and thus generally appeals more to masculine people.
Tantra chooses the union of both. It is an unusual path in so doing, as the majority of spiritual paths follow the monastic way as the highest attainment. But tantra was often known as the householder path.
New practitioners of Tantra often over emphasise the experiences without an equal measure of meditation. It is quite common to get drawn into the experiences of Tantra and neglect the meditation practice.
This results in an excess of experiences which causes suffering, being emotionally overwhelmed, and feelings of chaos and confusion. These effects can all be brought into balance with a simple meditation practice—a little time just watching the thoughts and emotions passing by without getting involved at all.
Likewise, one can also experience an imbalance of too many masculine-style practices such as meditation. If this is not balanced with experience and connection to others then one may become stiff, withdrawn and have a lack of empathy.
It is up to you to choose, as a practitioner, what balance you need to bring to your life. If you feel cut off from life, the Shakti practices can open you up. If you are overwhelmed with life’s experiences, then the Shiva practices such as meditation will bring more awareness and steadiness into your daily experiences. In certain Tantric practices, you meditate upon the movements of Shakti, within your own body. So your own meditative awareness (Shiva) meet and unites with your energy (Shakti).
Non-duality: Everything is God
According to most spiritual traditions, the desire for worldly pleasures is incompatible with the spiritual quest. You can have the treasures of this world, they say, or the treasure of the spiritual world but not both. Tantrics believe that pleasure can be sacred. The taste of food, the moment of sexual touch, the transporting joy felt when hearing beautiful music, the blissful experience of losing ourselves in movement or in the sight of beauty–any of these can open us to the divine ecstasy at the heart of life.
Shiva pervades everything without being different from anything. How can anything be other than Shiva? The Parashakti Chiti spreads everywhere in the universe. She is matter in material objects and Consciousness in conscious beings. It is She who is sporting everywhere. How can there be anything different from Her? In the universe that is only Chiti’s play, what can be impure or unclean?
– Swami Muktananda
Tantra, unlike Vedanta, says that this world is not an illusion. Rather, everything we see is God. Vedanta claims that the world we see does not exist. It says it is an illusion and tells us to renounce, give up and reject. Its approach is neti-neti, ‘not this, not this’. Tantra, on the other hand, is life-positive. The Tantric approach to life avoids this painful dilemma by taking the everything into account—our human nature as well as our spiritual nature. As opposed to the more traditional Vedanta, the point of Tantra is not to forsake the world in search of the spirit but to bring the world into the spirit, to discover, in fact, that the world is spirit.
This is the state called non-dual, in which we can simultaneously experience the diversity of the multiverse and recognize that none of it is different from Awareness itself.
– Sally Kempton
As the scriptures repeat over and over again, the Tantric masters enjoy both spiritual realization and enjoyment in the world. For they directly experience the identity of nirvana and samsara. Having found their true centre, they do not get lost in the sensory world but know how to enjoy it as a manifestation of the Divine.
Like worldly people, O Lord, may I thirst more for sense objects, but may I see them as Your body, without any notion of difference! Whether through immense joy or through anguish, whether from on a wall or in an earthen jug, whether from external objects or from within, reveal yourself to me, O Lord!
– Utpaladeva (Kashmiri adept) sings to Shiva
Think of the body as full of all pathways to enlightenment. The body is all deities. When you contemplate the body as divinity itself, you find liberation.
If the Divine is everywhere, it must also be present in the body. India’s more ascetic traditions have typically looked upon the body as an inconvenience, even an obstacle, to nirvana. The notion that the body is a bag of filth was common in the earlier teachings. The Tantric masters had a different attitude towards the body.
Those who let the body decay, destroy the spirit;
and they won’t attain the powerful knowledge of truth.
Having learned the skill of fostering the body,
I foster the body, and I nurtured the soul.
Formerly I thought that the body was foul.
I saw that there was Ultimate Reality within the body.
The Perfect One has entered the temple of the body.
I protected and preserved my body.
The Big Question
If everything is God and already perfect, then why do we feel separate from each other? Why are we here? What is the purpose of this universe?
The Tantrics believe that Lord Shiva has purposely forgotten or concealed himself, so that one day, he can recognize or reveal his true nature again. This is a constant cycle of hide-and-seek, concealment and revealment (see Kashmir Shaivism).
We’ve unconsciously allowed our minds to be programmed with illusions of separation and perceived limitations, just so that we could become deeply motivated some day to investigate the truth of our immortal cosmic essence. By accepting that our mission is to transcend these illusionary limitations we can stop fighting with them, and truly enjoy our time here on Earth. When we stop struggling and battling ourselves from within, trying to micromanage our experience, we can truly enjoy the entire ride.
– Jafree Ozwald
The Tantras are usually in the form of a dialogue between Shiva and Shakti. Shakti asks questions and Shiva gives the answers. At the highest level, the reader understands the oneness of Shakti with Shiva. She is supreme Consciousness, His own power of Self-reflection.
Self who is the natural state of all existents, who is self-luminous, amusing Himself with question-answer which is not different from Himself, and in which both the questioner (as Devi) and the answerer (as Bhairava) are only Himself, enjoys Self-reflection.
- My favourite book on Tantra is Tantra Illuminated.