The Tantras are a genre of religious literature that shows how to achieve salvation through various esoteric practices, making these texts distinct from other religious literature of India, such as the Vedas or Puranas (Barthakuria 1). Still, ordinary Tantras share some similarity in form to the Puranas, as they theoretically discuss the same five subjects, dealing with the nature of the creation and destruction of the universe, worshipping gods, achieving supernatural powers, and becoming one with the Supreme Being. However, mythological elements are replaced with ritual details (Bhattacharyya 39). A complete Tantra generally has four components: the nature of knowledge (jnana), the concentration of mind and how to achieve this (yoga), temple construction and idol worship in temples (kriya), and religious rites, adherences, and social institutions (carya). One or two of these parts are generally more prominent than the others, depending on the tradition of worship a Tantra belongs to (Thakur 7).
The word tantra simply means “loom” in the Rg Veda and Atharva Veda (Thakur 4). It can be also be derived from the root tatri (to understand) or tantri (to explain). The Pingalamata explains the word tantra as spreading truths and saving mankind from conceding to maya and losing the way to moksa (Barthakuria 2). Probably from the 9th century CE onwards the meaning of tantra changed from “loom” to denoting a genre of literature which involves multiple subjects, ranging from the nature of ultimate truth to practises branded as immoral (Thakur 5). When denoting a type of Sastra, tantra denotes a set of practices, doctrines, magic, metaphysical speculations, etc; it is also taken by some to mean a Sastra that expands on tattvas and mantras (Banerji 1-2). A definition of the word in this sense is given by the author of the Sanskrit lexical work Sabdarthacintamni and follows thus: the word tantra itself simply means “treatise”, not necessarily a religious scriptural work; when referring to religious literature it can denote the scriptures of various divisions of worshippers, namely those of Vaisnavas, Saivas, and Saktas, and further divisions of these (Thakur 6).
Each division of worshippers have their own Tantras, as do the Jains and Buddhists, and there are particular subdivisions among these (Thakur 9). The Tantric texts of the Vaisnavas, Saivas, and Saktas are respectively referred to as samhita, agama, and tantra (Banerji 2). By those traditions which venerate them, the Tantras are regarded as divinely revealed: Vaisnava Tantras by Visnu, Saiva Tantras by Siva, and Sakta Tantras by the Goddess. The Vaisnava Samhitas generally take the form of dialogue with Visnu teaching and answering the questions of Sri or Laksmi. In Saiva Agamas, the dialogue is between Parvati, the disciple who asks, and Siva, the master who answers. Contrastingly, in Sakta Tantras it is Siva who asks the questions and the Goddess who replies; these works are often denoted nigama. Despite this distinction, all share certain characteristics and thus are all often referred to generally as Tantras (Thakur 18-19).
According to the Tantric texts themselves, Tantras are innumerable (Bhattacharyya 37). The Tantras in their current form are mostly from the medieval and late medieval periods, though references to older Tantric works and translations of them can be found in various sources such as inscriptions on temple walls. The Tantric texts available today are largely unpublished manuscripts (Bhattacharyya 40). Though there are few published Tantric texts, they list numerous Tantras, and also give different systems of grouping; for example, the Tantric text Vamakesvarimatam mentions 64 Tantras (Thakur 7). The Sammohana tantra divides the Tantras into six amanayas or traditions, corresponding to the six faces of Siva – looking east, west, south, north, up, and down. Tantras are also organized in accordance to the nature of the sadhana into divya, kaula, and vama, each of these subdivided further as harda (inner) or bayha (outer). Works are also classified geographically (Thakur 9-11). One method of classification is based on the mythological ages (Banerji 4).
It is not exactly known when Tantra originated, though the Atharva Veda is said to foreshadow the Tantras as it contains Tantric elements of black and white magic. The first explicit reference to Tantric literature is seemingly found in the Bhagavata-purana, which some date no later than 800 CE (Banerji 6-7). There is evidence of Buddhist texts that speak of themselves as Tantras, distinct from orthodox Sutra belief, emerging before the 6th or 7th centuries CE. There are strong similarities between the content of these early Buddhist Tantras and Tantras of the Hindu religion, particularly regarding the Saiva Tantras. Hindu Tantras, however, do not emerge until the 9th or 10th century CE. The majority of these Tantras had originally been written in Sanskrit, and there are Tibetan translations preserving many Buddhist Tantras (Rodrigues 293). The region where Tantra originated is not precisely known either, though Kashmir may have been the birthplace of Tantras of the agama classification. Tantric works may have been first produced in Bengal, as many manuscripts in Bengali script are available there, particularly old Buddhist Tantras (Banerji 10-11). Important Tantric manuscripts have been preserved in Kashmir and Nepal, which were the main geographical areas for Tantra in the medieval period. Assam and Bengal were also important regions, and the Tantras ultimately spread farther south. Many Tantric texts were translated to Tamil and used in south Indian temples for liturgies (Thakur 31). Followers of the Tantric religion treat the Tantras as secret, and the interest in avoiding publicity from scholars and the general society contributed to many Tantric texts being lost over time (Barthakuria 183-184). Though there are varying views on the origin of the Tantras and how they were spread throughout India, Jayaratha, who commented on Abhinavagupta’s Tantraloka, states the Tantras originated in Assam, the home of the famous temple Kamakhya (Tantrapitha Kamakhya) from which Tantra likely spread (Barthakuria 4-5).
Tantric literature deals with a wide variety of material, from religious matters such as deity worship to prescribing cures for diseases and ways to injure enemies. For the latter subjects the Kamaratna is a potent example, full of mantras concerning such “folk elements” (Barthakuria 16-17). The Tantras assert that the Vedic practices are too difficult for this age, and thus allow people to follow their natural inclinations; the Tantras state that mukti (salvation) is attainable through bhukti (enjoyment). The texts stress the maintenance of health and preservation of body, for the highest power is contained in the body and it is the optimum means of sadhana (Banerji 59-60). In general, the content of the Tantras can be sorted into two classes: the philosophical and spiritual, and the popular and practical (Banerji 13). The religio-philosophic aspect, particularly in the agamic works, largely follows much of Sankhya philosophy (Thakur 20). The human body is accepted as divine, and is stated to contain the cosmic hierarchy within it. This refers particularly to the male deity, often Siva, and the female principle, the Goddess Kundalini which is also Siva’s consort and Sakti. Within the Tantras, the union of Siva and Sakti within the body is the symbolic expression of liberation (Thakur 24). A pervasive aspect of Tantric literature is the sexual representations invoking this imagery of male and female principles being united (Rodrigues 295). The Sakti Tantras describe the supreme force of the universe, Sakti, as imparting consciousness even unto Siva (Barthakuria 2); the Todala Tantra states that if Siva is separated from Sakti he will be reduced to a corpse, but he is never detached from her (Barthakuria 62).
The other main class of content, that of the popular and practical, deals with sadhana and involves various practices and ritual matters such as mantra, mandala, yoga, and kundalini and cakra, through which one could achieve supreme bliss and attain supernatural powers or siddhi (Thakur 24). The most significant focus of the Tantras are concerning kundalini and cakra (Thakur 29); the texts prescribe mantras for use in awakening the Kundalini Sakti (Serpent Power) within the body, guiding her up through the six cakras inside the body, and uniting her with para-Siva (the Supreme Self) (Barthakuria 7-8). All Tantric texts make mention of the pancatattva or pancamakara (the five makaras) which pertain to the union of Siva and Sakti: madya (wine), mamsa (meat), matsya (fish), mudra (finger-pose), and maithuna (sexual union) (Thakur 25). Another interpretation of mudra in this context means parched grain or a female sexual partner (Rodrigues 301). Some Tantras recommend substitutes for the five makaras, for example the Kaulavali-nirnaya suggests buffalo or sheep milk in place of fish (Banerji 20). Most Tantras emphasize the incomprehensible power that mantras possess (Banerji 22). The Tantras mention various modes of sadhana, seven according to some texts and nine according to others, which have a hierarchical organization with each succeeding method being superior to the one previous (Banerji 30). Some Tantras divide gurus into various classes, report suitable guru characteristics and proper sisya-guru relations, and describe various forms of diksa (Banerji 33-35). The Tantras were composed in a context of living oral tradition and teachings of the guru, thus the importance of the guru in Tantrism. Specifically, the Kularnava tantra states diksa is essential in achieving moksa, but there is no diksa without a guru, and additionally the mantras are useless without the guidance of a guru (Thakur 19).
Buddhist Tantric texts develop Tantra within the overall structure of the Buddhist philosophy. These texts are largely found in areas where Tantra thrived, namely Tibet and Nepal (Bhattacharyya 57-58). One of the earliest surviving Buddhist Tantras is the Guhaysamaja which apparently was comprised prior to the 7th century CE. It mainly deals with yoga and also with mandalas, and its principal purpose is to explain the unknowable reality and how to realise it. This text puts forth that the truth is the oneness of the universe or vajra, and details a short and fast method for attaining supernatural powers and realising Buddhahood. It even allows for the killing of animals and practices such as incest (Bhattacharyya 61-62).
The great Tantra writer Abhinavagupta constructed, on the basis of many earlier works, the Tantraloka, “a magnum opus of saiva-sakta philosophy” (Thakur 13). A famous Saiva Tantra is the Mrgendra Tantra, while the Gautamiya Tantra and the Gayatri Tantra are important Vaisnava Tantras. One example of a Sakti Tantra is the Yogini Tantra composed in the 17th century CE in Assam; in fact the Tantras of Assam belong solely to the left path Sakta school of Tantrism (Barthakuria 5-7). The Yogini Tantra is not only a religious text but also a source on the history of Assam, mentioning various wars and describing periods of Mughal and Muslim occupation of the area (Barthakuria 41-42). It recounts several legends, some related to the birth of the famous epic character Naraka and his ascent to the throne of Kamarupta, and also legends dealing with the worship of the goddess Kamakhya (Barthakuria 45), such as Kali (who is Goddess Kamakhya) defeating the demon Kolasura in the form of a little girl; this legend is related to the important religious ceremony of kumaripuja where Kamakhya is worshipped in the temple in the form of a kumari (little girl) (Barthakuria 47). This Tantra holds Siva and Parvati at the supreme position and its contents are provided through dialogues between the two. Despite the high position of these deities in the text, the Yogini Tantra also identifies Visnu as a great god, having a major role in the legend of Naraka, although possessing a lower status than Siva (Barthakuria 49-50). This is reflective of the high position Visnu occupied in the religious life of Assam, and the text gives elaborate details about his worship (Barthakuria 55). The Yogini Tantra imparts the most supreme position to Mother Goddess Kamakhya and describes elaborate worship of her, including precise instructions for bathing the deity, such as prescribing mixes of milk, curd, honey etc. and the use of flowers and jewels, and also relates the beneficial results of these practices (Barthakuria 66-67). The text advocates specific sacrificial offerings the different classes can present to the goddess, including animal sacrifice which can be practiced by all classes; specific regulations regarding the age, number, and kind of animals are given (Barthakuria 68-69). This Tantra also imparts rules for diksa, such as the worthiness of guru and disciple, and auspicious periods for its performance. It distinguishes between the diksa of worldly people and relating to such activities, and the diksa related only to salvation (Barthakuria 91).
The Kamakhya Tantra has certain features that distinguish it from other Assam Tantras. The greatness of Mother Goddess Kamakhya is described in the first chapter, as it is designated that all permanent and impermanent things of the universe stem from her, and that her devotees can achieve all the goals of human life (Barthakuria 169). She is the Supreme Being, the Sakti of Siva, and through proper worship of her, which in this Tantra is related to individual worshippers rather than in temples or festivals, one can achieve realization of the Supreme Reality and ultimately obtain salvation. The Kamakhya Tantra indicates four kinds of salvation or mukti, namely salokya, sarupya, sayujya and nirvana. The most highly desired state is nirvana, where the soul unites entirely with the Supreme Being (Barthakuria 171). The text indicates various specifications for worship of Kamakhya, essentially requiring the five makaras and also detailing diagrams and mantras for use in meditation or dhyana upon the goddess (Barthakuria 172). This Tantra also references three groups of worshippers or sadhakas, which are divya, vira, and pasu, with those of the divya class stated as the best sadhakas and the pasu ranking lowest. Though they are described as good men living the ideal life of a housekeeper, the Kamakhya Tantra bars pasu worshippers from any Tantric diksa (Barthakuria 173-174).
It has been argued that much of Indian chemistry had been derived from information contained in the Tantras, particularly by the renowned chemical scientist Acharya Prafulla Chandra Ray (1861-1944) (Bhattacharyya 19). However, there are very few surviving Tantric texts that deal directly with scientific subjects; no medical texts are extant, though a few dealing with alchemy remain. In the religious Tantras there is some scientific information, but it is viewed from the abstract metaphysical and religious approach inherent in these texts. There is, however, in the surviving Tantric literature information on the content of these largely lost scientific texts, and the names of many of these are known (Bhattacharyya 16-17). These Tantras deal mostly with medical preparations of mercury. In the Gupta manuscript of the Kubjikatantra, Siva speaks of mercury as being his generative principle and of its usefulness when “killed” six times. This work also alludes to alchemic processes involving mercury. One notable Tantric alchemy text is the Rasaratnakara of the author Nagarjuna, who is dated to the 8th century CE, and deals with the purification of minerals, particularly the fixation or “killing” of mercury (Bhattacharyya 19-20).
Generally speaking, the Tantras depict the Vedic tradition as being inferior or at least insufficient, providing only a basis for the greater truths of Tantra, whereas the Tantras encompass a more refined understanding of Vedic teachings (Rodrigues 293). It is claimed within an early Dharma Sutra text classification scheme that both Vedic and Tantric srutis exist, and indeed, Tantric literature has arguably been more influential than the Vedas in shaping the Hindu religion. Within the orthodox belief, however, Tantric scripture’s claim to sruti status is not accepted (Rodrigues 43). Correspondingly, the teachings of the Tantras were originally rejected by the orthodox tradition; however, by the 11th century CE the practices conveyed by the Tantric texts had influenced all of Hinduism, aside from the strictest Vedic adherents (Rodrigues 293). In fact, many from the Brahmin class actually wrote Tantric treatises, and also took part in Tantric practice (Banerji 153-154). Women and sudras are generally barred from practicing the Vedic religion, but the Tantras provide a religious structure inclusive of these groups, within which initiation is often available to them. Furthermore, women predominantly hold a distinguished position within Tantric worship (Barthakuria 19). Yet, it is unclear how the teachings of the Tantras actually impacted the lives of women within Hinduism during the flourishment of Tantra (Rodrigues 302). The Tantras are infamous for their erotic elements and practices such as consumption of alcohol and meat, and have been criticised for their endorsement of sexual promiscuity. However, the majority of the content in the Tantras is more sober in nature and covers material from a wide variety of subjects (Thakur 31-32). In general, the Tantras offer a non-Vedic path for practitioners of various Hindu religious sects through the altered modes of worship so acclaimed by the Tantric texts (Bhattacharyya 31).
REFERENCES AND FURTHER RECOMMENDED READING
Banerji, Sures Chandra (1988) A Brief History of Tantra Literature. Calcutta: Naya Prokash.
Barthakuria, Apurba Chandra (2009) The Tantric Religion of India: An Insight into Assam’s Tantra Literature. Kolkata: Punthi Pustak.
Basu, Manoranjan (1986) Fundamentals of the Philosophy of Tantras. Calcutta: Mira Basu
Bhattacharya, Narendra Nath (1982) History of the Tantric Religion: A Historical, Ritualistic, and Philosophical Study. New Delhi: Manohar Publications.
Bose, D. N. (1956) Tantras: Their Philosophy and Occult Secrets. Calcutta: Oriental Publishing Co.
Chakravarti, C. (1963) Tantras: Studies on Their Religion and Literature. Calcutta: Punthi Pustak.
Chattopadhyaya, Sudhakar (1990) Reflections on the Tantras. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.
Goudriaan, T., and S. Gupta (1981) A History of Indian Literature 2: Hindu Tantric and Sakta Literature. Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz.
Harper, Katherine Anne, and Robert L. Brown (eds.) (2002) The Roots of Tantra. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Rodrigues, Hillary (2016) Hinduism – The Ebook. Journal of Buddhist Ethics Online Books, Ltd.
Samuel, Geoffrey (2008) The Origins of Yoga and Tantra: Indic Religions to the Thirteenth Century. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Thakur, K. Manoj (2001) The Tantras: An Introductory Outline. Delhi: Worldwide Publications: An Imprint of Book Land Publishing.
Urban, Hugh B. (2003) Tantra: Sex, Secrecy, Politics, and Power in the Study of Religion. Berkeley: University of California Press.
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This article was written by: Kara Valgardson (Spring 2017), who is entirely responsible for its content.