Mention the word Tantra to an average Indian and he will probably visualize a disheveled person with bloodshot eyes, smoking ganja, a skull in his hand, sitting in a shamshan ghat and performing some distasteful ritual. Foreigners and the more elite westernized English educated city folks will immediately think of sex and depravity. If you do a search for Tantra on the internet, you will come across a lot of “eastern type” images of people in various sexual positions and so on. This instant association between Tantra and all things ‘immoral’, depraved and wicked has become ingrained in the Hindu as well as non-Hindu psyche, and Tantra has come to be associated with black-magic, animal sacrifices, and other objectionable practices.
In addition to this, a cottage industry of “Tantra Sex” and “Tantra Massage” has grown up in Western countries, especially in the USA, which tries to equate Tantra to soft pornography and sells products and services around this gross and deliberate misrepresentation. This perverted definition of Tantra has spread globally and thus we even have an Australian School of Tantra (Love Works), whose top selling program is “Melbourne Couples Coaching,” which claims to provide “Tantric skills for him for longer lasting sex and Tantric skills for her for more pleasure”!
This is a very serious matter. Most of these notions about Tantra are, of course, grossly incorrect and are demeaning to Hinduism. In this series of essays, I will deal with what Tantra is, what it is not, its relationship to the Vedic theology and metaphysics, various myths and misconceptions about Tantra and finally its relevance in modern Hinduism. I will show how tantra pervades almost all aspects of the life of an average Hindu, many a times, in ways he or she cannot even comprehend.
Esoteric Tantric Practices
Some esoteric Tantric practices like Pañca-makāra (use of meat, cereal, fish, wine and sexual intercourse) or ṣaṭ-karma (the six “magical” rituals) appear to be occult or deviant from mainstream Hinduism. These have also been exaggerated and exoticized by some Western Indologists from a Judeo-Christian background since they tends to look at religion normatively.
However tantra is much more that meat and sex— these are in fact rare and exceptional forms practiced by a few practioners under special circumstances. In the words of the noted Tantra scholar P. C. Bagchi, “It cannot be denied that in some texts there is what may be called black magic, and there are also a few texts full of obscenities; but these do not form the main bulk of the Tantric literature”.
Often the focus on these esoteric practices misses the substance for the shock-value. Relentless focus on self-purification and spiritual development are integral to Tantra Shastra, which includes subtle metaphysics, and advanced yogic practices. In this regard, noted German Indologist Georg Feuerstein rightly says: “The paucity of resources of research and publications on the tantric heritage of Hinduism has in recent years made room for a crop of ill-informed popular books on what I have called Neo-Tantrism. Their reductionism is so extreme that a true initiate would barely recognize the Tantric heritage in these writings. The most common distortion is to present tantric Yoga as a mere discipline of a ritualized or sacred sex. In the popular mind, ‘tantra’ has become equivalent to sex. Nothing could be farther from the truth!”
This is extremely unfortunate, and to a great extent, we Hindus are ourselves to blame, because we have allowed this distortion to persist due our ignorance and lack of interest. Then, there are many self-proclaimed Hindu gurus, who peddle this perverted version of Tantra. Moreover, Bollywood movies with their stereotypical depiction of a lecherous “Tantric Baba” or a cave-dwelling Tantric guru, who can foretell the future through sammohana (hypnosis) and magical prowess, has not helped either; Bollywood has, sadly, poisoned the minds of three generations of film-loving Indians.
An Integral Part of Hinduism
Tantra is an integral component of Hinduism at a structural level just as hydrogen atoms are an integral component of a water molecule (H2O). Tantra “permeates every system of worship in India at the present day, including Vaishnavism”; one cannot segregate it from Hinduism, just as one cannot segregate taste from the food.
The essential philosophy is in harmony with the Vedic worldview and whatever differences exist are with respect to very subtle and highly specialized philosophical points. In the words of Swami Samarpanananda:
Tantra is not a unitary system like the Vedas or any of the Hindu philosophies. It is an accumulation of practices and ideas of the Hindus, since prehistoric times. Its birth is rooted in the Vedas; its development proceeded through the Upanishads, Itihasas, Puranas, and Smritis; and its luxuriant growth has been fostered by Buddhism, various minor Hindu sects, and also foreign influences. The vitality and elasticity, thus acquired made tantra enter every house and temple of India and it also made powerful inroads into every country where Indian thought went. What obtains as Hinduism in India and the West, is essentially tantra packaged to suit the need of a particular community or individual.
An important point to be noted is that Puja, the mode of worship that is common in household and temples is essentially Tantric in its origin and development; a yajna on the other hand is a pure Vedic construct rooted in Vedic metaphysics. While there is something known as Puranic Puja, the Puranas themselves have heavily borrowed from the Tantra Shastras.
To be very clear, Tantra as a separate category was introduced by 19th century Indologists, who were unable to grapple with the vast popular body of Hindu (and Buddhist) literature, distinct from Vedas, yet similar in meta-physics and having names ending with tantra, agama and yamala. Till the 19th century, the Hindus themselves never regarded Tantra as anything distinct from Hinduism, barring the extremely objectionable practices or the guhya (secret) practices of certain sects. According to French Indologist, André Padoux, “[Tantra was] so pervasive that it was not regarded as being a distinct system.”
Therefore, the structure of Hinduism today is like that of a DNA’s double-helix; it consists of two strands which are intertwined and inseparable:
- The Vedic strand, which refers to those practices and customs, which grew out of the priestly religion of the Puru-Bharatas and eventually spread across the Indian sub-continent, absorbing and synthesizing elements from various diverse socio-cultural domains.
- The Tantric strand, which refers to those ancient practices and customs which grew out of the fusion of Vedic proper with the Pashupati-Shiva and pan-India, Devi pantheon over many millennia over a wide geographical area across a huge populace.
The Atharva Veda is, in fact, considered a precursor to the Tantras, because many ideas found in the Atharva Veda like the philosophy of Oneness, initiation, chakras, mantra-elements, and also the so-called “magical” elements like Vaśīkaraṇa, Stambhana, etc. were later elaborated in the Tantras. The Tantra texts often refer to ancient revered teachers like Dadhichi, Lakulisha, Kacha and others belonging to a hoary past, who were instrumental in transmitting the knowledge of the Tantras.
Tantra vis-à-vis Veda
To illustrate the relationship between Tantra and Veda, I will give an illustrative example from the field of computer science.
Sergey Brin and Lawrence Page published their path-breaking dissertation thesis in 1998, titled “The Anatomy of a Large-Scale Hypertextual Web Search Engine“, where they presented a prototype of a large-scale search engine making heavy use of the structure present in hypertext. The paper discusses the question of “how to build a practical large-scale system, which can exploit the additional information present in hypertext” and also the “problem of how to effectively deal with uncontrolled hypertext collections, where anyone can publish anything they want.” This paper was widely appreciated in academic circles, and has been cited and referred to numerous times in many peer-reviewed journals, and is considered one of the most path-breaking dissertation papers of the 21st century. It has essentially changed the face of the 21st century. An average person will most likely tear his head in frustration trying to understand what Brin and Page were talking about. However, in ordinary English, the paper discusses the origins and internal workings of the now popular search engine Google.
Now the question is, for someone who wants to learn how to use Google search, will a study of Brin and Page’s dissertation thesis help? Not really, because he needs a “How To” guide with a brief description of each functionality, some illustrative examples, helpful diagrams and FAQ style answers, and not Google’s underlying algorithm. Does this mean that the thesis is useless? Not at all. Both are equally important depending on the intended audience. With this in mind, let us try to understand the nature of the relationship between the Tantras and the Vedas.
Traditionally, the Vedas are a repository of knowledge and refer to that knowledge which had been perceived by Rishis in a higher state of consciousness and codified as Mantra-saṃhitās. However, this knowledge is abstruse, vast and not readily accessible, except to the specialist, who has undergone extensive rigorous training over a long period of time. The technical texts that are available (the Brāhmaṇa) with extensive commentaries and steps, are themselves quite cryptic, complex and detail-oriented and not something that one can suddenly pick up one day and decide to do a Yajna. He or she must have been trained in this science for a long period. The Tantras, on the other hand, are the scriptures through which the knowledge is supposed to be spread. They had been created manifestly to make the abstruse and esoteric knowledge of the Vedas, accessible to all. Vedic texts are texts written by specialists for other specialists, while Tantric texts are texts written by specialists and practitioners for other practitioners.
Tantra plays the same role in a spiritual practitioner’s life that the “How To” guide alluded to above, plays in a Google search learner’s life. The Dissertation thesis mentioned above is the equivalent of the Brāhmaṇas and the Upaniṣads, which are specialized documents meant for specialists who want to gain knowledge. Tantra is therefore a spiritual knowledge of practical nature and is concerned with the application of the principles of tattva (science of fundamental building blocks of nature) and mantra (science of the sound equivalent of deities) to facilitate spiritual evolution. More specifically, the underlying framework of tantra is based on Vedānta and Sāṃkhya, with some differences. Tantra “combines with the ultimate reality of Brahman or Siva, the validity of the world as an expression of His Shakti.” Tantra is therefore the bridge between the Vedic Karmakāṇḍa (rituals) and Darshana (philosophy), and hence Tantras are sometimes mentioned as a part of the Vedas and also called as the fifth Veda.
Sir John Woodroffe (also known as Arthur Avalon) in his book Shakti and Shakta says:
The Agamas are not themselves treatises on Philosophy, though they impliedly contain a particular theory of life. They are what is called Sadhana Shastras, that is, practical Scriptures prescribing the means by which happiness, the quest of all mankind, may be attained. And as lasting happiness is God, they teach how man by worship and by practice of the disciplines prescribed, may attain a divine experience. From incidental statements and the practices described the philosophy is extracted.
Some of the other similarities between Vedic and Tantric metaphysics are as below
- Karmakāṇḍa is common to both Veda and Tantra.
- The idea of giving up a false association with the body is common to Darshana and Tantra.
- Shuddhikaraṇa (purification) of body and mind of Rāja Yoga is found in Tantra.
- Bhakti is common between Purāna and Tantra.
One of the major differences between the Vedic and Tantric mode of worship is with respect to the re-usability of the Mantras. In the Vedic scheme, each desired outcome and each action has a different set of Mantras and corresponding detailed processes. In the Tantric scheme, the same mantra can be used to achieve different aims, only the Sankalpa has to be different.
Today, if you want to do a Pujā at home, you will typically refer to a Nitya Karma text and not a Brahmana or Upanishadic text. These Nitya Karma books will have detailed descriptions of various karmas (nitya, naimitya, etc), methodology and mantras of different Pujās and a collection of Stotrams of various deities. It will not contain a single line of philosophy or esoteric knowledge. Most of these steps of ritual purification, mudrā, nyāsa etc., would have been collated from Tantric manuals, while many of the Mantras will be from the Vedas and Puranas. As an illustration, a typical Nitya Karma Puja guide from the Bengal region today is based on many earlier guides like the 18th century mantra digest Pranatoshini Tantra or the 16th century worship manual Brihat-tantrasara by Krishnananda Agamvagish. Krishnananda himself referred to still earlier Tantric texts, mantra digests and major compendiums like the Prapañcasāra Tantra and śāradā Tilaka Tantra.
Thus, as we can see, Tantra is an essential constituent element of Hinduism and pervades almost all aspects our lives. While Vedas provide knowledge and illumination, the Tantras provide a practical “how to” guide to spiritual aspirants to gain spiritual ascendancy. Tantra philosophy accepts an all-pervading Ultimate Reality and subscribes to the Samkhya cosmology and thus presupposes the philosophy of the Vedanta and Samkhya. However, there are some fundamental philosophical and technical differences between the Vedic and Tantric streams, some of which we have covered. In the words of Swami Samarpananda:
The tantras successfully worked out the synthesis of karma, jnana, bhakti, and yoga for the benefit of practitioners in achieving ultimate union with the supreme Reality. Being a product of the spiritual cross-currents of Hinduism, it sucked into its domain everything connected with religion that was to be found anywhere in India. In turn, it churned out numerous spiritual insights that were beneficial for humankind.
Despite being such an integral part of Hinduism, Tantra continues to be misunderstood and misrepresented. Sir John Woodroffe said in 1913: “of all the forms of Hindu Shastra, the Tantra is that which is least known and understood, a circumstance in part due to the difficulties of its subject-matter and to the fact that the key to much of its terminology and method rest with the initiate.”
In his book Shakti and Shakta, he says of the Tantric rituals: “How profound Indian ritual is, will be admitted by those who have understood the general principles of all ritual and symbolism, and have studied it in its Indian form, with a knowledge of the principles of which it is an expression. Those who speak of ‘mummery,’ ‘gibberish’ and ‘superstition’ betray both their incapacity and ignorance.” So, the logical question is that if Tantra is such an integral part of Hinduism, then why is there so much ignorance about it? Why do most people associate Tantra with marginal practices alone? Given that Tantra is a major component of Hinduism, what can we do to reclaim our heritage and disassociate it from the perverted depiction of Tantra, especially in the west?
These are some of the question we will explore in the rest of the series. We will delve into the classification of tantras. We will explore in details the practice of Pañca-makāra and ṣaṭ-karma, which are in a way, the source of many confusions and misinterpretations. Finally, we will try to understand how we, the modern English educated Indians, have inherited and internalized over many generations, the experiences, challenges and prejudices of early 20th century Indologists, as they attempted to study, classify and deconstruct a pluralistic “pagan” faith with sophisticated philosophy, through a colonial history-centric exclusivist Abrahamic lens.
 (Swami Lokeswarananda, 2010, p. 7)
 (Sivaramkrishna, 2010)
 Swami Madhavananda in (Swami Lokeswarananda, 2010, p. 5)
 (Swami Samarpanananda, 2010)
 Padoux, André (2002), “What Do We Mean by Tantrism?”
 (Talageri, 2016)
 Unlike Vedanta which considers creation as apparent, Tantra posits that non-dual Reality undergoes real evolution using the Samkhya categories.
 (Swami Lokeswarananda, 2010)
 (Woodroffe J. , 1918, p. Chapter One Indian Religion As Bharata Dharma)
 (Swami Samarpanananda, 2011)
 (Swami Samarpanananda, 2010, p. 275)
 (Woodroffe, 1913, p. Introduction)
 (Woodroffe J. , 1918, p. Chapter One Indian Religion As Bharata Dharma)
Sivaramkrishna, M. (2010). Tantra Today: Blind Spots and Balanced Studies. Prabuddha Bharata, 282-288.
Swami Lokeswarananda. (2010). Studies on the Tantras. Kolkata: Ramkrishna Mission Institute of Culture.
Swami Samarpanananda. (2010, 4). The Tantras: An Overview. Prabuddha Bharata, pp. 269-275.
Swami Samarpanananda. (2011). Tantra Philosophy and its Practices (Bengali). Belur: Ramakrishna Vivekananda University.
Talageri, S. (2016, 5 7). Two papers by the Renowned Indologist P.E.Dumont. Retrieved from Shrikant G Talageri: http://talageri.blogspot.in/2016/05/two-papers-by-renowned-indologist.html
Woodroffe, J. (1913). Mahanirvana Tantra Translated by Arthur Avalon. Kolkata.
Woodroffe, J. (1918). Shakti and Shakta. Kolkata.
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Subhodeep Mukhopadhyay is from a data science background and his research interest includes history, religion and philosophy. He is the author of “The Complete Hindu’s Guide to Islam” and “Ashoka the Ungreat”.