Demystifying Tantra-II: Subject Matter of the Tantras
In the previous article, we had examined the place of Tantra Śāstra in modern Hinduism, and presented the case that Tantra is an integral component of Hinduism at a structural level and pervades the life of an ordinary Hindu in myriad ways across many dimensions. In this essay we will try to understand the aim of Tantra Śāstra by briefly touching upon the underlying metaphysics, and then proceed to analyze the subject matter of the Tantras. We will focus on what Tantra Śāstra entails, so that we can eventually be in a better position to understand and appreciate what it is not.
Usage and Etymology of Tantra
Before analyzing the etymology of Tantra, let us step back a little and examine a few ancient as well as modern “secular” usage of words containing tantra.
- Modern Usage: India as a modern democracy is a lokatantra. Bhāratavarṣa, the Republic of India is a gaṇatantra. In the sense of a nation state, in 1947 India became svatantra.
- Ancient Usage: Adi Shankara refers to Sāṃkhya as a tantra. There are texts like Mātṛtantra and Bhūtatantra, which deal with the technical aspects of the Mother Goddess and ethereal beings like ghosts etc., respectively. Another text is the Aṣṭāṅga tantra related to Ayurveda.
- Usage for Children: Traditionally, Indian children are taught morals and commonsense through the stories of Pañcatantra.
In all these usages, the only sense of the word tantra, which makes sense across the board, is “traditional knowledge” or “science” or “specialism” or “rules”. Thus:
- Lokatantra is the science of people (democracy)
- Gaṇatantra is the science of groups of people (Republic)
- Svatantra is the science of self-hood (independence)
- Mātṛtantra is the set of rules for the worship of Mother Goddess
- Bhūtatantra refers to the rules for dealing with ethereal beings
- Aṣṭāṅga tantra is a text in eight parts about Ayurveda
- Pañcatantra is the science of niti (rightful conduct of life) through five books.
The term Tantra (1) is “applied in several other provinces of Indian literature to a technical ‘expose’ or ‘handbook’, which in a more or less extensive way deals with a certain subject. Sometimes it means little more than ‘tradition’, ‘specialism’”. John Woodroffe explains in his book ‘Shakti and Śākta’ (2) : “A Very common expression in English writings is “The Tantra”; but its use is often due to a misconception and leads to others. For what does Tantra mean? The word denotes injunction (Vidhi), regulation (Niyama), Śāstra generally or treatise. Thus Shamkara calls the Samkhya, a Tantra. A secular writing may be called Tantra.” This is also broadly in line with some of the commonly accepted etymologies of Tantra:
- tantra is supposed to have originated from the root tan (to spread)(3) and therefore tantra is scripture by which knowledge is spread (4)
- Some writers derive tantra from tatri meaning knowledge
- tantra is that body of knowledge which talks about tattva (essence of objects) and mantra (essence of sacred sounds) (5)
- tantra can be explained by splitting its two supposed components, ‘tan’ and ‘tra’, as that which elaborates something of great import connected with mantras and tattvas, which in its turn leads to emancipation or salvation (6).
Over a period of time tantra came to be associated mostly with tantra śāstra, a specialized body of knowledge in the Śaiva, Śākta and Vaiṣṇava domains dealing with spiritual ascendancy and Brahmavidyā.
Monism versus Monotheism
Except for the Śaiva Siddhāntas of southern India, most tantric schools believe in the philosophy of advaita (non-dualism or monism). Advaita literally means “one undivided without a second” and is a philosophical notion unique to India (7), especially Hindu thought. Advaita posits that the entire Universe is one reality, which is also known variously as tat (That), Brahman, Śiva and perhaps God (for the want of a better English term, though not to be confused with Abrahamic God). That reality is abstract, infinite and eternal. Creation and all that we see around us is a projection of ‘That’ reality, having undergone (or apparently having undergone) a two-fold change of “finitization” and “manifestation”, to become perceptible as objects having names and forms:
- By “finitization” (application of limiting adjunct), the Infinite reality becomes (or appears to become) finite
- “Manifestation” converts (or appears to convert), the abstract Reality into categories, which we can comprehend through our five senses and three spatial dimensions. These may be defined by Sāṃkhya with 24 categories or Kashmiri Shaivism with 36 categories.
The implication of non-dualism is that, all objects in the universe, whether living or non-living, plants or animals, cells or galaxies, are non-separate from this grand reality. Hence, we are all part of God in the sense of Ultimate Reality, and there is no creation that is separate from the creator. In short, therefore, Hindu philosophy categorically insists that all men are born Divine, by virtue of being a part of the underlying Universal Consciousness. However, on account of the limiting adjuncts, we are not conscious of our underlying divinity and potential. The basic aim of all Hindu religious practice is thus to realize this divinity within us and thereby become one with “That”.
Please note that this is quite distinct from the Abrahamic God (Christian God, Muslim Allah and Jewish Yahweh), who are accepted as Creators and thereby separate from Creation. The Abrahamic God is not abstract, all-pervading or genderless like our Brahman, but rather a violent (8), jealous (9), and anthropomorphic male God, who does not like non-believers (10). During the 14 billion years history of the universe, God has revealed Himself only a few times to a few people (the Prophets) in a rather small geography, the middle-east, within a very narrow span of 1,000 years somewhere between 600 BCE to 600 CE. God, then spread His message through these Prophets and Holy Books were written. That was the final word of God. The Abrahamic God will never reveal himself again ever, and there cannot be any other prophets. Each of these religions thinks that their God is the only true God and all other Gods are false. More importantly, since God in the Abrahamic religions is a category separate and distinct from the phenomenal world, there is no concept of achieving Oneness as in Hindu thought. Hence, all practices like Yoga or Tantra sādhanā, whose aim is to achieve union with the Universal Godhead, is experientially as well as intellectually incomprehensible to the practitioners of Abrahamic religions.
Consequently, the categories of monotheistic Abrahamic religions are not as comprehensive as those of non-dual or dualist Indian faiths. It is this inadequacy of the Abrahamic lens, which has been one of the biggest handicaps and stumbling blocks for understanding and interpreting Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism in religion and culture studies in colonial India as well as in the West today. These deficiencies in Abrahamic categories are a major reason behind most of the distortions and misunderstandings that we see today in Indology. It is exceedingly difficult and perhaps well-neigh impossible for a monotheist (or even an atheist) (11) to comprehend non-dualism and its associated practices like yajña, yoga, homam, pūjā and sādhanā. It is like somebody with a PhD in only Waste Management, trying to understand particle physics directly. Garbage, sewage, drainage and sludge are the only categories he knows, so he will only see filth everywhere and not atoms, and consequently map everything from electron to quarks onto a garbage framework.
Philosophy of Tantra Śāstra
We are now in a better position to understand and appreciate the essential philosophy of the Tantra śāstra . (12)
- Ultimate Reality is Brahman, the Sat-cit-ānanda (Existence, Knowledge and Bliss), and is Infinite.
- That reality appears to undergo a two-fold change on account of Māyā. Māyā is thus the limiting power of Reality by which the unperceivable Sat-cit-ānanda can be intellectually cognized, and which provides us the framework of nāmarūpa (forms and categories), which help us in the very process of cognition.
- It is through Māyā that we perceive all Creation – the Universe, others and ourselves as separate entities. It is Māyā, which makes one think that the creation is distinct from Brahman or that Śiva is separate from Shakti.
- Till this point, both Vedānta and tantra philosophy agree with each other.
- Tantra believes in the Śiva-Shakti nature of Consciousness, that is, in the dual aspect of Consciousness, the Absolute and its creative Power, which are eternally united.
- Spiritual knowledge in tantra is therefore “the knowledge of the whole—of Consciousness as Being and of Consciousness as the power of becoming.”
- Since, creation is real, a sādhaka must immerse himself in action, devotion and knowledge during his sādhanā process
The important differences between Vedānta and tantra are:
- In Vedānta, māyā is neither real nor unreal, and functions only during creation, preservation and destruction phase. Hence neither is creation ultimately real (jaganmithyā), nor are created beings real. True knowledge is thus an undifferentiated consciousness.
- Tantra philosophy believes that both the creation and the jīva are real, and that non-dual reality undergoes real evolution. In this it differs from both Viśiṣṭādvaita and Advaita Vedānta respectively.
The Vaiṣṇava Pañcarātra Agamas believe in the philosophy of Bhedābheda, which means “simultaneous difference and non-difference”. According to this school, the individual self (jīvātman) is both different and at the same time not different from the ultimate reality known as paratattva (Brahman). The relationship between jīva and brahman is similar to that between waves and ocean or between sparks and a fire.(13)
- Just as one cannot separate the waves from the ocean, so too the jīva cannot be separated from Brahman.
- Just as there are many waves, both temporally and spatially, so too there are many jīvas.
- Just as there cannot be an ocean without waves, in the same way the jīvas are an essential phenomenal reality and a part of Brahman.
- Just as the existence of waves in the ocean in no way diminishes the amount of water therein, in the same way Brahman’s being made up of parts in no way diminishes the perfection of Brahman.
The aim of the Pañcarātra Agamas is also the attainment of knowledge of paratattva, the Highest Reality. However, when the sādhaka realizes “this Brahman or God, the jivas appear to have become one with Him, but do maintain a subtle distinction also”. (14)
The Śaiva Siddhāntas have a distinctly dualistic framework and insist that one can never become a Śiva and at best one can become like Śiva and experience the world in the same way as him. As per this school (15) , the jīva (individual self) is different from Śiva, the Ultimate Reality and this “difference is not in their essence but in their constitution. Their relationship with Siva is not a state of oneness but of sameness… After liberation, the liberated soul knows that its intrinsic nature is that of Siva but that it is not Siva or the Supreme Self. Thus in its liberated state it continues to experience some form of duality, while enjoying Siva (pati) consciousness as its true consciousness free from all bonds (pasas).”
Aim of Tantra Śāstra
The highest aim of the Tantra Śāstras is therefore mokṣa or liberation from bondage. Tantra as a system of thought and practice enables a person to visualize the Universe within himself and to visualize himself as being one with the Universe. Tantra is an inward-looking Science, where both the Subject and the Object is the person himself and hence Tantra can be described as “both an experience and a scientific method by which man can bring out his inherent spiritual power”. (16)
This state of liberation may be achieved by sādhanā, which is the systematic performance of certain rituals and adherence to specific methods of worship and includes:
- Recitation of mantras (bīja)
- Construction of mystical geometric symbols (maṇḍala) and objects (yantra)
- Placement of specific sound-vibrations onto the body (nyāsa)
- Use of certain gestures (mudrā) and meditation on the deity (dhyāna)
- Doing pūjā, performing japa (repetition of mantras) and purashcharaṇa
- Advanced yoga practices
In describing the ritual-orientation of Tantra Śāstras, David Kinsley notes that (17) “by means of various rituals (exterior and interior, bodily and mental) the sādhaka (practitioner) seeks to gain mokṣa (release, liberation)”. The ultimate aim of sādhanā is therefore to “increase concentration and make the mind still. It helps to make an individual detached and become Stitahprajna (stable/equilibrium). But this detachment is neither disinterest towards objects of outer world, nor apathy towards people; instead it is pure selfless love for the whole cosmos without any discrimination or selfish attachment. What actually Sadhana does is to burn away the burden of past karmas that are blocking one’s journey towards the source. Hence, the ultimate end result of any spiritual Sadhana is Jnana (Enlightenment) and complete merger with the Cosmos/God.”(18)
Subject Matter of the Tantras
John Woodroffe in his introduction to the Mahanirvana Tantra says (19) : “The Indian Tantras, which are numerous, constitute the Scripture (Śāstra) of the Kaliyuga, and are as such a voluminous source of present and practical orthodox ‘Hinduism’ … To the Tantras we must therefore look if we should understand aright both ritual, yoga, and sādhanā of all kinds as they exist today, as also the general principles of which these practices are but the objective expression.”
A Tantra traditionally is supposed to cover five (20) or seven (21) topics. The five topics are creation, destruction, worship of Gods, the attainment of all objects and the so-called six magical rites. The seven topics are: Process of creation, dissolution of the Universe, worship of God according to prescribed rules, rules of propitiating all deities, the practice of purascaraṇam, the six practices – ṣaṭkarman and the fourfold dhyānayoga – Yoga of meditation.
Typical subject-matter of a Tantra text (22) :
- Philosophical Background – Speculation on the nature of the Absolute, cosmogony, the equivalence of the microcosm and the macrocosm, discussion on jñāna and philosophy, metaphysics, cosmology, the concept and mode of liberation
- Mantra Śāstra – Creative nature of sound and word, The power of speech, mantrodhāra
- Types of initiation– construction of and initiation into mandala, construction of yantras
- Yoga especially Kundaliniyoga and symbolism, four fold practice of yoga, meditation
- Daily and special pūjā at home or temple, devotion, image making
- Advanced practices for the initiated, mantra purascaraṇa
- Gaining super-normal powers, ṣaṭkarman
- Rules of conduct, domestic rites and rituals, kriyā, charyā
- Deities and their exploits
In addition to cosmogony, mantra creation and other theoretical matters, a typical Śaiva Agama or Vaiṣṇava Samhita text will deal more with kriyā and charyā based topics like (23) :
- Construction of temples, Installation of images
- Temple worship
- Ceremonial bathing
- Public festivals
French Indologist, Andre Padoux, while talking about the doctrinal aspects of Tantra, describes it as (24) “an attempt to place kama, desire, in every sense of the word, in the service of liberation . . . not to sacrifice this world for liberation’s sake, but to reinstate it, in varying ways, within the perspective of salvation. This use of kama and of all aspects of this world to gain both worldly and supernatural enjoyments (bhukti) and powers (siddhis), and to obtain liberation in this life (jivanmukti), implies a particular attitude on the part of the Tantric adept toward the cosmos, whereby he feels integrated within an all-embracing system of micro-macrocosmic correlations.”
Earlier we had touched upon the close relationship and overlap between the Veda and Tantra in present day Hinduism. We had shown that the Vedas are intended for specialists, while Tantras are meant for spiritual practitioners. In this article, we have journeyed further into the realms of tantra practices and acquainted ourselves with the philosophical aspects of Tantras. We have attempted to get an intellectual insight into the stated aims of tantra Śāstra of achieving experiential Oneness with universal consciousness (or to become Śiva-like in the case of Śaiva Siddhāntas). Delving into the subject matter of tantras, we see that the texts discuss a variety of sādhanā constructs like pūjās, homams, maṇḍalas, mantras, yantras, stotrams and kavachas. They also discuss advanced meditation techniques, gaining “supernormal” powers, domestic rites, daily duties, social matters and numerous other things.
Swami Satyaswarupananda, while discussing Tantric Sādhanā in Prabuddha Bharata, very rightly observes (25):
Tantra, it has been pointed out, is the soul of Hindu spiritual practices. Its wide acceptance— consciously or unconsciously—is the result of its eclectic and pragmatic nature. The tantras contain within them ‘the essentials of the Vedic sacrifices and oblations, and the essence of the monotheistic philosophy of the Upaniṣads, of the Bhakti cult preached by the Purāṇas, of the Yoga method propounded by Patañjali, and of the mantra element of the Atharva-Veda. … The Tāntric mode of Sādhanā, which combines in it Yoga and Bhakti, mantra and homa (oblation), jñāna and karma, prove beyond doubt that Tāntrism can be best studied as the synthesis of all that was good in the various forms of Sādhanā in vogue and, as such, its claim to be the shortest route to the summum bonum, and its promise to its adherents of the easy and speedy attainment of the end, are perhaps justified.’
However, over the last 200 years and especially in the last 50 years, as a consequence of colonial rule as well as post-colonial South Asian studies in the West, and on account of certain socio-political and divisive forces both within and outside India, the meaning of tantra has undergone a drastic change from “technical spiritual knowledge” to ritualized sex and perversions. This is a serious matter which we will fully explore in the latter part of the series. However, to fully appreciate the dynamics of these external forces and how they work, we would first need to deepen our understanding of the tantra Śāstra in general, including the underlying metaphysics, which we have covered to a certain extent.
In the next part we will focus on the full breadth of tantric texts and try to classify the texts into logical groups, and then focus on some of the important representative works of each group. This will help us in two ways. First, we will be able to get a firm handle on the full tantric landscape. Second, it will give us some clear understanding of the norms and deviations. Armed with this awareness of the tantric kurukṣetra, we will be in a good position to grasp and discern the divisive forces at work.
Aiyangar, M. D. (1950). Tantra Sara Sangraha (With Commentary). Madras: Government Oriental Manuscript Library.
Goudriaan, T., & Gupta, S. (1981). Hindu Tantric and Sakta Literature. Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz.
Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. (2016, Jul). Bhedabheda Vedanta. Retrieved from Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (IEP) A Peer-Reviewed Academic Resource: http://www.iep.utm.edu/bhed-ved/
Jayaram, V. (2016, July). Siddha Saivism, Philosophy and Practices. Retrieved from Saivism.Net: http://www.saivism.net/sects/siddha/siddhasaivism.asp
Mookerjee, A. (1971). Tantra Art Its Philosophy & Physics. New York: Random House.
Mukherjee, G. G. (2010). The Spiritual Heritage of India : The Tantras. In S. Lokeswarananda, Studies on the Tantras (pp. 46-67). Kolkata: Ramakrishna Mission Institute of Culture.
Sridhar, N. (2010, November). Understanding Hinduism: Sadhana. Retrieved from Erudition: http://nithinsridhar.blogspot.in/2010/11/understanding-hinduism-sadhana.html
Swami Harshananda. (2003, January). The Pancaratra Agamas- A Brief Study. Retrieved from eSamaskriti The Essence of Indian Culture: http://www.esamskriti.com/essay-chapters/The-Pancaratra-Agamas~-A-Brief-Study-1.aspx
Swami Samarpanananda. (2010). The Tantras: An Overview. Prabuddha Bharata, 269-275.
Swami Satyaswarupananda. (2010). Editorial. Prabuddha Bharata, 267-268.
White, D. G. (2000). Tantra in Practice. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Woodroffe, J. (1913). Mahanirvana Tantra Translated by Arthur Avalon. Kolkata.
Woodroffe, J. (1918). Shakti and Shakta. Kolkata.
- (Goudriaan & Gupta, 1981, p. 7)
- (Woodroffe, Shakti and Shakta, 1918, p. Chapter 3)
- tanyate vistāryate jñānam anena iti tantram
- tanoti vipulān arthān tattvamantra samanvitān
- (Mukherjee, 2010)
- The closest to Shankara’s Advaita Vedanta in the Western hemisphere is Spinozism, a monistic theory presented by 17th century Portuguese-Dutch philosopher, Baruch Spinoza
- As to those who reject faith, I will punish them with terrible agony in this world and in the Hereafter, nor will they have anyone to help. Quran (3:56)
- Do not worship any other god, for the LORD, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God. (Exodus 34:14)
- If your brother, the son of your mother, tempts you in secret or your son, or your daughter, or the wife of your embrace, or your friend, who is as your own soul saying, “Let us go and worship other gods, which neither you, nor your forefathers have known.” Of the gods of the peoples around you, [whether] near to you or far from you, from one end of the earth to the other end of the earth; You shall not desire him, and you shall not hearken to him; neither shall you pity him, have mercy upon him, nor shield him. But you shall surely kill him, your hand shall be the first against him to put him to death, and afterwards the hand of all the people. (Devarim Deuteronomy 13:7-10)
- Atheism is not a universal concept. Atheism is closely tied to Abrahamic theology, being simply a rejection of the notion of a Creator God. All Hindus are intrinsically atheists because we don’t buy the Creator God theology. An atheist is not the same as a nāstika. A nāstika is one who does not accept the Vedas as a pramāṇa, like the Jains and Buddhists.
- (Swami Samarpanananda, 2010, p. 273)
- (Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2016)
- (Swami Harshananda, 2003)
- (Jayaram, 2016)
- (Mookerjee, 1971, p. 11)
- (Swami Satyaswarupananda, 2010, p. 268)
- (Sridhar, 2010)
- (Woodroffe, 1913, p. Introduction and Preface)
- (Aiyangar, 1950)
- sṛṣṭiśca pralayaścaiva devatānāṃ yathārcanam। sādhanañcaiva sarveṣāṃ puraścaraṇameva ca॥ ṣaṭkarmasādhanañcaiva dhyānayogaścaturvidhaḥ। saptabhirlakṣarṇauyuktamāgamaṃ tāntrikaṃ viduḥ ।
- (Swami Samarpanananda, 2010)
- (Goudriaan & Gupta, 1981, p. 8)
- (White, 2000, p. 8)
- (Swami Satyaswarupananda, 2010, p. 267)