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The Tantras

An expansion in Hinduism after the eighth century is the rise of a body of texts known as the Tantras. The Tantras are characterized by their secrecy and its oral lessons were traditionally passed from teacher to students through a series of graded initiation. Hindu Tantras point the disciple in the direction of Self-realization, through a unitive encounter with Absolute Reality (Robinson and Rodrigues 158). The Tantras are a system of thoughts or a set of principles and the genre of its texts are based on meditation, rituals and instructions (Banerji 1). The body of texts known as the Tantras have been misinterpreted and misunderstood by Western scholars, but the texts appears not to have been alienated or underestimated by these Western scholars. Instead their seedy and dangerous world has produced a sense of fascination and often, preoccupation and obsession (Urban 8). Sacred utterances, sacred gestures and richly extravagant symbolic constructions may be used as meditative aids (Robinson and Rodrigues 158-159). The Tantras describe the first, golden age as an era filled with spirituality. According to Mahanirvana-Tantra, people were wise and virtuous and the deities were pleased by their practice of Yoga and sacrificial rituals. The people acquired fortitude and power by studying the Vedas [The Vedas are the most revered texts in Hinduism, possessing the status of sruti, divinely revealed teachings (Robinson and Rodrigues153)].  They also acquire courage through meditation, charitable deeds and mastery of the senses. People were good-hearted, happy and prosperous (Feuerstein 5).

The origin and development of the Tantras as a special class of literature and as a special mode of sadhana are ultimately connected to the rise of Saivism and the Pancaratra, the prehistoric Samkhya-yoga providing them with a philosophical background. Although the early recognised literature of the Pancaratra is lost, the literature of this sect and of other contemporary sects are called Tantras. The Pancaratra remained restrained in its development and it is Saivism which supplies a more propitious ground for the development of the Tantras (Basu 55-56). Tantra, though highly inventive, has from the beginning been seen as a continuation of earlier teachings. Therefore, while Buddhist Tantra understands itself as an esoteric tradition going back to Guatama the Buddha himself, Hindu Tantra regards the revelatiory teachings of the Vedas as its starting point (Feuerstein 10). Within the Hindu tradition, the Tantras are composed by the Vaisnava Pancaratra School, the lost Tantras of the Sauras, as well as the more famous Tantras of the Saivities and Saktas. Tantras are found in more almost every corner of the subcontinent, with a powerful hold in the northeast (Bengal, Orissa and Assam) and the northwest (Kashmir). They later spread to the far south (Tamilnadu and Kerala). Buddhist Tantras have spread to not only throughout India, but also to Nepal, Tibet, China and some parts of Southeast Asia (Urban 28). According to the tradition found in the Tantras, Tantras are innumerable. The Nityasodasikarnava says that Tantras are endless in number but records only sixty-four Kaula Tantras. The Saundaryalahari, attributed by some to Sankaracarya, refers to sixty-four Tantras. The numbers are invented but they show that the author of the named Tantra has an elusive idea of the sects and their texts. Tantric texts in their present form belong to the medieval and late-medieval periods (Bhattacharyya 37 and 40).

The practices recommended in the Tantras embrace both elements of enjoyment and renunciation found in karma-kanda and jnana-kanda. Karna-kanda is the path of action which is meant for the preservation and smooth running of the society and jnana-kanda is the path of knowledge which leads man to liberation. Some practices in the Tantras are regarded as mandatory or extremely necessary for spiritual empowerment and are accepted by people with respect as the practices are neither dreadful nor are they secrets. Some other practices of The Tantras are considered obligatory for the attainment of an enlightened life and these practices are looked upon as dreadful and are extremely secretive. There are also some practices which have little or no relation to religion or spirituality and are performed for the fulfillment of some worldly desire or the gratification of some evil motive (Santidev 87-88).

The Hindu Tantras consider themselves to be revealed teachings delivered by Siva, Visnu or Devi. Paralleling the Upanisadic dialogues between student and teachers, the Tantras are often framed as dialogues between god and goddess, Siva (or Visnu) and Parvati (or Laksmi). She asks questions and he replies. In Sakta Tantras, Siva asks the questions and Devi provides the answers. The oft-depicted images of Siva and Parvati seated beside each other, in which she is nestled next to him, sometimes on his lap, evoke the setting of the teaching scenario of the body of texts known as the Tantras. The gods, who are creators of the cosmos, investigate the meaning of existence, which is an exploration of their own natures (Rodrigues 385-386). The contents of a complete Tantric text may be broadly divided as jnana or vidya, which is knowledge including philosophical and metaphysical doctrines with a monotheistic tendency and sometimes a monistic bias. One contains occultism, including a knowledge of the mystic bias while the other contains formulae and figures. The contents of the Tantras can further be divided as yoga or upaya, which means having mind-control, especially with the object of acquiring magic powers. The contents can further be divided as Kriya, which contains instructions for making idols, for constructing and consecrating temples. Finally, it can also be divided as carya or siddhi, which are rules about rites, festivals and social duties (Santidev 14). Broadly speaking, the content of the Tantras fall into two classes. One philosophical and spiritual, the other popular and practical. The latter includes magic, mandra, mudra, mandala, nyasa, cakra and yankra. The principal aims of the Tantras are liberation and siddhi (Banerji 13). [Siddhi means the acquisition of supernormal powers (Robinson and Rodrigues 159)].

The texts list the rewards, including supernatural powers and liberation from worldly existence that accrue form undergoing initiation and worshiping gods in the ways prescribed. However, these texts are not merely ‘manuals’ for the preceptor, as they also address various theological and cosmological topics. Many of them consists of parts apparently intended for the initiate alongside parts intended for the preceptor. Not only is access to these texts prohibited to the uninitiated, it is also prohibited even for those who have undergone initiation as access is only mediated by one’s guru or preceptor. The genre of the Tantras share several features with Stotras [stotras are hymns of praise] (Leach 24-25). Tantra denotes a particular style or genre of spiritual teachings that affirm the continuity between Spirit and matter (Feuerstein 2).

A good example of the numerous texts of the Tantras is the Gandharva-Tantra. The Gandharva-Tantra is an anonymous text in forty-two chapters. It is stated to have been composed after gathering the essence of other Tantras. Chapter one deals with Yoga, Brahman and the way to liberation through enjoyment. Chapter two speaks of Sati as well as the tantric way to mukti through bhukti (Banerji 176). [Mukti is the freedom from Samsara and bhukti is the enjoyment of wordly pleasures (Rodrigues 95)]. Chapter three introduces Pancami-Vidya and some other vidyas or mantras. Chapter four treats the worship of Devi. Chapter five contains matters relating to Devi-Puja. Chapter six deals with the rights of those opposed to Vedic rites and of women opposed to Tantric practices. Chapters seven and eight deal with the worship of Devi.  Chapters nine to seventeen deal with the worship of gods and deities associated with these worships. Chapter eighteen deals with the rules relating to the offer of certain articles in worship. The next three chapters deal with the worship of Sesika Devi. Chapters twenty-two to twenty-three deal with practices connected with the worship of virgins. This worship of virgins and its effect according to prescribed rules is also dealt with. Chapter twenty-four enumerates the places suitable for worship. Of all places, a lonely spot, devoid of animals is stated to be the best. Towards the end of the chapter, the characteristics of good and bad people have been laid down. The next two chapters are devoted to the discussion on the merits, demerits and the duties of sisya and guru as well as diksa. Chapter twenty-seven to thirty-two deal with the mantras and its different kinds. Chapter thirty-three deals exhaustively with Kulacara. This chapter contains some ethical precepts such as having consideration for women, avoidance of jealousy towards others, observance of the rules of conduct, showing respect towards the family members of a guru and also having the absence of greed for other’s property. The next chapter deals with how devotees, who keep their activities secret, should perform their duties. Chapter thirty-five focuses on Sakti, who is necessary in Tantric sadhana. [Sadhana means spiritual rituals (Rodrigues 321)]. In chapter thirty-six, Devi raises the important question about how a man’s wife’s association with someone who has been declared sinful in other Sastras can be acceptable in a Tantric rite. The same topic of supporting Tantric rites is continued in chapter thirty-seven. The next chapter lays down, among other things, how atman is distinct from the body. Chapter thirty-nine deals with how Siva and Sakti became manifest and the knowledge about them arises. The rest of the chapters deal with the rise and disappearance of speech and the two-fold of mukti (Banerji 176-178).

Another text of the Tantras is called Kalitantra, which belongs to kalikula and it comprises twenty-one chapters. The text of the kalikula, the family of the black goddess, is depicted as the chief of all the mahavidyas in different Tantric sources. The worship of Kali is found at the heart of Kashmir Saivism traditions whose origins can be found in the cremation-ground cults (Thakur 72). Chapter one of the Kalitantra deals with the nature of yoga. Yoga is divided into two kinds Manusa (human) and Daivika (Divine). In chapter two, it is stated that man’s mind is restless and can be calmed by yoga. Therefore, yoga should be practised with care. Chapter three holds that detachment is the calmness of mind that is the means to salvation. Salvation is attained when the mind rests on the highest state which is existent, all-compassing, and is free from the dirt of illusion. Chapter four describes maya (illusion). Maya leads to moha (delusion) which produces the quality of tamas and causes disturbances from which danger arises. The following chapter deals with the means of attaining Brahman. The mind with desire is the seed of the tree of rebirth. Brahman is the seed of the worlds, the essence of everything but Brahman has no seed. If vasana (desire) is suppressed, Brahman is quickly attained. Chapter six describes the means of the acquisition of self-knowledge. The next chapter deals with how reflecting on prana by concentration gives perfect bliss and makes one free from fear and unaffected by adversity and prosperity. Chapter eight deals with the nature of Brahman. It is through action that one gets pleasure and pain. But, salvation is not attainable so long as good and bad actions are not destroyed. Salvation is possible by the knowledge that everything in the world, even a blade of grass, is Brahman. Chapter nine describes the housholder’s life. One should take to this life first. When true knowledge dawns, one should resort to samnyasa (renunciation). The next chapter deals with the nature of Laksmi and the means of worshipping her. Chapter eleven deals with diseases and their causes and the following chapter prescribes cures for these diseases. Chapters thirteen and fourteen deal with the six Tantric rites and the practice of yoga. Chapter fifteen focuses on the eight accessories of yoga and the six means of purification. Chapters sixteen to nineteen focus on the eightfold kumbhaka, gives the mantras relating to Navagraha, lays down the dhyanas of various deities, and sets forth the characteristies of a sadhaka (devotee). The sadhakas are Mrdu, Madhya, Adhimatra or Admimatra-tama. Mrdu-sadhaka has the characteristics of little energy, delusion, evil deed, disease, greed and impatience.  Madhya-sadhaka has characteristics such as looking upon all as equal, forgiveness, self –restraint, desire of merit, pleasant speech and freedom from doubt. Adhimatraka-sadhaka has the features of a firm mind, independence, kindness, truthfulness, physical strength, hopefulness, heroism and faithfulness. Adhimatratama-sadhaka has characteristics of energy, courage, knowledge of scriptures, good memory, freedom from delusion and fresh youth. The last chapter lays down the result of studying or listening to this particular Tantra. It destroys all sins and leads to prosperity (Banerji 199-205). The texts of the kalikula describe morbid rites in the cremation grounds to evoke a goddess and allow the practitioner to accomplish salvation through challenging experience (Thakur 73).

These texts are good examples to show how, like other numerous texts of the Tantras, the focus on meditative instructions is necessary in order to attain spiritual realization in corporation and union with the deities. Tantra is not always confined to gross material objects. It recognizes the three aspects of the deity worshipped. These are Sthula (image), Suksma (mantra) and Para (highest; in this aspect, the Devi is to be mentally apprehended) (Banerji 531). The Tantras are a new revelation replacing that of the Vedas. Likewise, most scholars reject the notion that Tantra originated in the era of the Vedas or earlier (Feuerstein 15).



Banerji, Sures Chandra (1988) A Brief History of Tantra Literature. Calcutta: Naya Prokash.

Basu, Manoranjan (1986) Fundamentals of the Philosophy of Tantras. Calcutta: Mira Basu Publishers.

Bhattacharya, N.N. (1987) History of the Tantric Religion. New Delhi: Manohar Publications.

Feuerstein, Georg (1998) Tantra: The Path of Ecstasy. New Delhi: Shambhala Publications.

Leach, Robert (2014) “A Religion of the Book? On Sacred Texts in Hinduism.” The Expository Times, Vol. 126, Issue 1. Pages 15-27. Web. 5 March 2014.

Robinson, Thomas and Hillary Rodrigues (2006) World Religions: A Guide to the Essentials. Michigan: Baker Academic.

Rodrigues, Hillary (2007) Hinduism – The Ebook. Journal of Buddhist Ethics Online Books.

Santidev, Sadhu (2000) Encyclopedia of Tantras. New Delhi: Cosmo Publications.

Thakur, K. Manoj (2001) The Tantras: An Introductory Outline. Delhi: Worldwide Publications: An Imprint of Book Land Publishing.

Urban, B. Hugh (2007) Tantra: Sex, Secrecy, Politics and Power in the Study of Religion. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Private Limited.

Woodroffe, John George (1980) Introduction to Tantra S’astra. India: Ganesh and Company.



  • The Contents of the Tantras.
  • Saivism and its influence on the Development of the Tantras.
  • Jnana, Yoga, Kriya and Carya in Hinduism.
  • Ritual Practices in the Tantras.
  • History of Tantra Literature.
  • Practice of the Sadhana.

RELATED WEBSITES   books/unpublished_manuscripts/making_sense_tantra/pt1/making_sense_tantra_01.html


Article written by: Udoh, Nseobong Martins (April, 2015), who is solely responsible for its content.

History and Fundamentals of Tantra

Like the Veda, Tantra was primarily the way or means to understand the mysteries of life and universe, somewhat akin to the old Pythagorean concept of “philosophy” which was “contemplation, study and knowledge of nature” (See Bhattacharyya 1). The scope of Tantra is wider than that of Agama as Tantra is varied in character and deals with as many as twenty-five subjects, such as Brahman, The Chakras, Karma, Yoga and the principles of creation [(Basu, 1-2). The term Agama covers only seven of the said twenty-five subjects, especially the revelation side of knowledge]. “Tantra” is derived from the root tan, to spread (Sastri 2). Etymological interpretations of the word Tantra, as found in the ancient texts, clearly and conclusively point out that originally, the term Tantra had no special religious or metaphysical significance (See Bhattacharyya 1). In the Vedic texts the word Tantra occurs in the sense of a loom [Rgveda; X.71.9; Artharveda, X.7.42; Taittiriya Brahmana, II.5.5.3. Panini derived the word tantraka (V.2.70), meaning a cloth taken away from the loom, from Tantra]. Tantra nowadays comes to mean the way of realizing the true nature of Brahman, and is conceived as a moksa-sastra [(Bhattacharyya. 14) Moksa-sastra meaning a scripture meant for liberation from worldly fetters. Not only the followers of Tantra, but those of other quasi-materialistic systems as well-like the Jains, the Sankhyas, the Mimamsakas, the Nyaya-Vaisesikas, etc., which came more or less close to a mechanistic conception of nature-could not free themselves from the influence of this concept of moksa]. It is not known precisely when Tantra originated. It is given the status as sruti in some works and is stated by Harita in Kallukabhatta’s commentary on Manu [(Sastri 7) Srutisca dvividha prokta vaidiki tantriki tatha. Manu (ii. I)]. Tantric concepts can be compared to the Chinese principles of Yin and Yang, symbolizing the positive and negative forces. In the 19th century Western scholars of Indian religious systems regarded Tantra as a degraded form of Hinduism which consisted of the most barbarous, repulsive, and obnoxious elements [H.H. Wilson, Essays and Lectures on the Religion of the Hindus, London 1862, Vol. I, pp. 248-257; M. Monier-Williams, Indian Wisdom, London 1875, pp. 501ff; Brahmanism and Buddhism, London 1891, pp. 191 ff; E.W. Hopkins, Religions of India, Boston 1885, pp 489-492; etc. The use of animal food and spirituous liquors, indulged to in excess, is the rule of these strange ceremonies, in which Sakti is worshipped in the person of a naked woman, and the proceedings terminate with the carnal copulation of the initiated, each couple representing Siva and Devi, and becoming thus for the moment identified with them].

We do not know whether Tantra was imported into India or exported from India to other countries. Tantric influence is clear far beyond the limits of India. China and Tibet are the two most prominent places beyond India which reveal the influence of Tantra. Several Sanskrit Tantras are preserved only in Chinese and Tibetan translations, the original works being lost. Evidences are available that Tantric philosophers and scholars from India visited China and Tibet (See Sastri 67). When considering foreign influence of Tantra, it deserves notice that, according to the Sammoha-tantra, goddess Nila-Sarasvati was worshipped at a place supposed to have been included in Mongolia (See Sastri 77). In Bengal and Orissa, especially, Tantrism exerted a tremendous influence on Vaisnava ideas and practices. The Tantric goddess, Ekanamsa, was able to find her way into the Vaisnava religion as the consort of Krsna. Her image between Krsna and Balarama can be seen in the sanctum of the Ananta-Vasudeva temple at Bhuvaneswar (See Bhattacharyya 253). The origin and development of the Tantras as a special class of literature and as a special mode of sadhana are ultimately connected with the rise of Saivism, and the Pancaratra, the ancient Samkhya-Yoga supplying them with a philosophical background (See Basu 55). The Tantric practice of the offering of blood and flesh by the sadhaka (an aspirant, seeker) out of his own body might have developed from the idea of self-immolation found in sarva-yajna or from the Vedic idea that the sacrificer is to be looked upon as the pasu or animal to be sacrificed (See Sastri 95). Although these Tantric practices cannot be directly traced to the Vedic tradition, they seem to be later developments of some or the other Vedic rites.

Ethically the Tantras are said to be directive principles that help formulate what is good and what is bad in the social context (See Basu 362). So as long as there is a world to live in, and consciousness to know and survive, the Tantras will remain in some form or another. The Tantras believe in the principles of polarity both in its original and derivative forms. (Basu 367) There is a technical term in the Tantras, viz., “sadadhva” which means “six-ways,” and it is said that those who have understood it have realized the secret of the Tantras (Basu 402). The Mother Goddess figurines, scenes on seals and ritual objects, notably large stone lingas, give glimpse of Tantric survivals of magica fertility rites that formed the basis of primitive Tantrism, and of the deities arising out of them (Bhattacharyya 159). The existence of a Male Principle is not inconsistent with the cult of the Female Principle. We find that the Male Principle has some part to play although it is described as “the connotative of static existence and dissociated from Sakti or the Female Principle, and is no better than a corpse [(Bhattacharyya, 159-160)]. According to the Tantric view, the act of creation is due to the union of the Female and Male Principles, the former being the more important functionary (See Bhattacharyya 225). According to the Tantras, there are different grades of consciousness working through the different layers of being. The Tantric concept of unconsciousness covers not only the total range of consciousness but also that which goes beyond the ordinary reach of consciousness (i.e., the super-conscious and the cosmic-conscious) (See Basu 535).

The story related in the pages of numerous Tantric works was supposed to be so repugnant that, excepting a few, “most scholars had condemned them avoided the field of study. These scholars had equated Tantra with the degraded forms of Hinduism supposed to be the legacies of uncivilized aboriginal cultures [Bhattacharyya, 27-29)].

Modern Tantra may be divided into practices based on Hinduism and Buddhism. The form of Hindu Tantra popularly practiced in America is said by Hindu Tantra traditionalists “to represent a mutilated and extremely narrow-minded, sensationalist approach encompassing only a misguided thinking about ‘sacred sexuality,’ with little reference to its true practice” (Sastri 517). In traditional pockets of Tantric practice in India, Tantra has retained its true form. Its variance in practice is seen where many Tantrics are known to frequent cremation grounds in attempts to transcend their worldly attachment to life, while others still perform more unacountable acts. But what is common to them all is the intense secrecy in which their rituals are kept and the almost godlike reverence paid to the Guru, who is seen as the pinnacle of Tantra (See Bhattacharyya 382).


Basu, Manoranjan (1986) Fundamentals Of The Philosophy of Tantras. Calcutta: Mira Basu Publishers.

Bhattacharyya, N.N. (1982) History of the Tantric Religion. New Delhi: Manohar Publications

Sastri, Gaurinath (2002) Rituals and Practices of Tantra: Vol 1 and Vol 2. New Delhi: Cosmo Publications.

Fic, Victor M (1922) The Tantra: Its origins, theories, art, and diffusion from India to Nepal, Tibet, Mongolia, China, Japan and Indonesia. New Delhi: Abhinav Publications.

White, David Gordon (2001) Tantra in Practice. 1st Indian Edition. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers

Feuerstein, Georg (1998) Tantra: The Path of Ecstasy. Boston: Shambhala, South Asia Editions

Garrison, Omar V (1964) Tantra: The Yoga of Sex. New York: Julian Press

Related Topics for Further Investigation



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Notable Tantra Related Websites

Article written by Neil Schultz (April 2006), who is solely responsible for its content.

Related Readings (General Studies on Tantra)

Banerji, S. C. (1992) New Light on Tantra. Calcutta: Puthi Pustak.

_____ (1977) Tantra in Bengal: A Study of Its Origin, Development and Influence. Calcutta: Naya Prokash.

Basu, M. (1986) Fundamentals of the Philosophy of Tantras. Calcutta: Mira Basu.

Bharati, Agehananda (L. Fischer) (1965) The Tantric Tradition. London: Rider and Company.

Bhattacharya, B. (1988) The World of Tantra. New Delhi: Munshiram Mahoharlal.

Bhattacharyya, N. N. (1982) History of the Tantric Religion. Delhi: Manohar.

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, S. (1978) Reflections on the Tantras. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Feuerstein, Georg (1998) Tantra: The Path of Ecstasy. Boston: Shambala

Goudriaan, T., and S. Gupta (1981) Hindu Tantric and Sakta Literature. History of Indian Literature 2, fasc. 2. Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz.

Gunther, H. V. (1976) Yugan??dha: The Tantric View of Life. Reprint. Boulder: Shambala.

Gupta, S., D. J. Hoens, and T. Goudriaan (1979) Hindu Tantrism. Handbuch der Orientalistik. B. Spuler (gen. ed.) Leiden: Brill.

Nagaswamy, R. (1982) Tantric Cult of South India. Delhi: Agam Kala Prakashan.

Strickmann, M. (ed.) (1981) Tantric and Taoist Studies in Honor of R. A. Stein. Brussels: Institut Belge des Hautes ??dudes Chinoises.

Urban, Hugh B. (2003) Tantra: Sex, Secrecy, Politics, and Power in the Study of Religion. Berkeley: University of California Press.

White, David Gordon (ed.) (2000) Tantra in Practice. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

_____ (2003) Kiss of the Yogini. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Woodroffe, John (Arthur Avalon) (1960) Principles of Tantra. Madras: Ganesh & Co.

_____ (1963) Mahanirvabatantra: The Great Liberation. Madras: Ganesh & Co.

_____ (1963) Introduction to Tantra Sastra. Madras: Ganesh & Co.