What is Tantra? Setting the Record Straight

This article first appeared at tantrikstudies.org.

“Tantra” is now a buzzword in the modern Western world. We see it on the covers of popular magazines and books, usually linked suggestively with the notion of superlative sexual experience. Though almost everyone has heard this word, almost no one—including many people claiming to teach something called tantra—knows anything about the historical development of the Indian spiritual tradition that Sanskrit scholars refer to as Tantra. What these academics study as Tantra bears little to no resemblance to what is taught under the same name on the workshop circuit of Western alternative spirituality. It would take a much longer post to explain why that gap is so wide—it’s a deeply complex issue of cultural mediation and strange misunderstandings. However, my book Tantra Illuminatedpresents a comprehensive overview of the original Indian spiritual tradition that was articulated in Sanskrit scriptures called tantras (which is where the name came from). Why would this be of interest to modern Westerners? There is one outstanding reason: millions of Westerners are today practicing something called yoga, a practice which, though much altered in form and context, can in many respects be traced back to the classical Tantrik tradition.

Yoga is a living tradition profoundly influenced by Tantra, yet has forgotten much of its own history. There is a new wave of work by scholars who are also practitioners, whose goals are to rediscover and reintegrate some of what has been forgotten, clarify the roots of many ideas and practices that are floating around (thereby grounding them and enhancing their richness), and chart clearly the vast and varied landscape of Indian spiritual thought, with a view to what it can contribute to our lives today. For it is certainly the case that most 20th century teaching and writing on Indian thought was either exciting but incoherent and ungrounded (the practitioner context) or systematic but dry, boring, and insipid (the academic context). It’s time to rectify that; and no Indian tradition has been more misunderstood, relative to its deep influence on global spirituality, than Tantra.

You may wonder what the phrase “classical Tantra“ refers to. It identifies the peak period of the Tantrik movement (800-1200 CE) and distinguishes our subject matter from the later Hindu Tantra and haṭha-yoga traditions (both 1200-1800), and also from modern American neo-Tantra (started around 1905 by Pierre Bernard). The classical Tantra that I treat in my book is associated with a specific religious tradition, the religion of Shiva & Shakti, commonly known as Shaivism. Shaivism was practiced all over what is now India, Nepal, Pakistan, Southeast Asia, and Indonesia, and was the dominant religion of India in the medieval period (600-1200). But there is also the important category of Buddhist Tantra; and many of the practices of Buddhist Tantra were directly adopted from the classical Śaiva Tantra (as Sanderson has shown in “The Śaiva Age”). Furthermore, many of the spiritual teachings of Buddhist Tantra (especially those of Dzogchen and Mahāmudrā) are virtually indistinguishable from the nondual Śaiva Tantrik teachings. (In a future post I’ll give an exact definition of nondual Śaiva Tantra; please subscribe here so you don’t miss it.)

From a recent cutting-edge scholarly publication, we find this important statement opening the work: “Tantric scriptures form the basis of almost all the various theistic schools of theology and ritual in post-Vedic India, as well as of a major strand of Buddhism (Vajrayāna). Among these schools, those centered on the Hindu deities Śiva and Viṣṇu spread well beyond the Indian subcontinent to Kambuja (Cambodia/Laos/Thailand), Champa (Vietnam) and Indonesia, while Buddhist Tantrism quickly became pan-Asian.” (Goodall, Sanderson, and Isaacson)

Something I don’t cover adequately in my book is the fact that there IS a form of original Tantra highly visible today, and that is Tibetan Buddhism. But because Tibetan Buddhism is the only form of original Tantra that most people have come across, they don’t realize that many of its most salient features (mantras, maṇḍalas, mudrās, initiation, deity yoga, guru-yoga, and more) are not actually particular to Buddhism, but were part of the pan-Indian Tantrik movement which affected all the religions that were around at that time (Shaivism, Buddhism, Vaishnavism, Jainism, Saurism, etc.).

Though Tantra was a hugely influential spiritual, religious, and aesthetic movement, some “Tantra triumphalists”, like Ramesh Bjonnes (who writes on Elephant Journal, and who has many good things to say), overstate its importance by claiming that it influenced all forms of yoga as well as the Vedas. No professional Sanskrit scholar would agree with this claim. Not all yoga comes from Tantra (since there are many pre-tantrik yogas, such as those seen in the Yoga-sūtra and the Mahābhārata), but it is the case that most of the forms of yoga practiced today can be traced back to Tantra, usually through the intermediary of Haṭha-yoga, the texts of which frequently state their indebtedness to the tantras.

So Tantra is a spiritual movement that influenced the development of most Asian religions. But what is the essence of Tantra, you might ask? How do I know it when I see it? Scholars have debated that question and settled on a list of features (which you can see on p. 33 of my book) rather than a single essence. However, I want to single out one of those features for special mention, since it is this feature that makes Tantra different from all other yogic paths: it is fundamentally world-embracing rather than world-denying, focused on the immanent rather than the transcendent, integrated with everyday life rather than renouncing it . . . in other words life-affirming rather than life-negating. All other forms of yoga are transcendentalist and renunciatory in character, except where they are influenced by Tantra itself. “Transcendentalist” means holding the view that the Divine is beyond what we can contact with our senses, and that therefore one must achieve “higher states of consciousness” to unite with Divine essence. By contrast, nondual Tantra teaches that though the Divine is more than meets the eye, it is also everything the eye can meet (or the ear can hear, etc.). Therefore we don’t seek “higher” states of consciousness, but a more complete awareness of the totality of being here and now, a deeper sense of the miracle of life revealed in every form, feeling, and creature.

That was an attempt to articulate the distinctive essence of Tantra in terms of view, but what about practice? What is the distinguishing mark of the practice? As far as the original tradition was concerned, if you’re not propitiating a Tantrik mantra-deity regularly, you’re not a tāntrika.

To learn more, please read my book!  It is the very first introduction to the philosophy and history of classical Tantra written for a general audience.*

*I will substantiate this claim with reference to the three books that might appear to challenge it. Georg Feuerstein’s Tantra: The Path of Ecstasy presents us with an overview, not of the unique philosophical system of classical Tantra, but rather of those elements of Tantra that were incorporated into mainstream Hinduism. Thus his book may be seen as a good introduction to the post-classical Hindu Tantra of the 13th century onward. The classical Tantrik philosophy presented in my book is related, but considerably different. The second book I am thinking of is Kamalakar Mishra’s Kashmir Shaivism: The Central Philosophy of Tantrism. This covers much classical Tantrik philosophy but does not cover the history and social context of the religion which gave rise to it. Mishra perpetuates the now almost century-old misunderstanding that this tradition was a phenomenon of the region of Kashmīr, whereas in fact, it was a pan-Indian (and eventually pan-Asian) spiritual movement. Thirdly, we have Lama Yeshe’s classic Introduction to Tantra. This lovely little book gives the reader a good sense of the values and worldview and aesthetics of the Tantrik movement, but contains very little in the way of specificity, either of historical development or of the details of practice.