- 1 What is Tantra?
- 2 Aspects of Tantra
- 3 Practising Tantra
What is Tantra?
Tantra is a word with a rich history, and many different meanings.
The Sankrit word "tantra" come from the root verb "tan", which means "to stretch, to expand". The literal meaning of "tantra" is the warp - the vertically-stretched threads which form the foundation for weaving. For this reason it is often also translated into English "loom", the frame on which the warp is stretched.
The figurative meaning of "tantra" is a principle or doctrine. This creates the connotation that principles and doctrines stretch or expand us in some way. The word is also used to refer to documents which contain principles and doctrines.
Patanjali, an influential author credited with being the first to document the practices of yoga, defined "tantra" as the essence, the main part, or the main source of something. Mediaeval authors included practices, as well as principles and doctrines, in their definition, and noted that the root "tra" means "liberation". Colonial Europeans added a connotation of esoteric, secret, or mystical practices.
There is large difference between what Tantra means to its followers, and what Tantra has been represented as, or perceived to be since colonial era writers began commenting on Tantra. Many definitions of Tantra have been proposed since, and there is no universally accepted definition of Tantra. While some limit Tantra to those practices based on a set of traditional texts, others include any "system of observances" where correspondences between the inner world of the person and the macrocosmic reality play an essential role.
In this wiki, we will take a working definition partway between the two. Tantra is any texts, doctrines, or practices which utilise correspondences between the individual (microcosm) and the Universe (macrocosm), and are based on some aspect of traditional Tantric literature or practice.
Tantra is not a religion; it is a philosophy and a set of practices, which can integrate with any religion, or with atheism.
Tantrism vs Asceticism
The Tantric approach is often defined in contrast with the ascetic approach.
Asceticism is defined as "severe self-discipline and avoidance of all forms of indulgence, typically for religious reasons." Underlying ascetic practice is a form of dualism, in which the material world, the body and its senses are seen as distinct from the spiritual realm, and as a potential distraction or even diversion from spiritual practice.
Tantrism takes the starting position that all of material reality is sacred, because the Divine is immanent in all of creation.
The ascetic seeks to leave the material world at find the spiritual; the Tantric seeks the spiritual in every aspect of the material world.
This non-ascetic approach has made Tantra a controversial path at times when the dominant religion was ascetic in nature. The Tantrics would eat forbidden foods, practice forbidden sexuality, and disregard the "normal rules" of civilised society. Envy and projection from the good folk who were following the ascetic rules often gave Tantrics a "larger than life" persona as dangerous underminers of the social order.
There have been mystic sects in all the major ascetic religions, which have rejected the ascetic philosophy in favour of a more Tantric approach, even though they may have been unaware of the traditions of Tantra. The Kabbalists of Judaism, the Gnostics of Christianity, and the Sufis of Islam all sought the Divine by embracing the physical, rather than rejecting it. Without exception, these mystic sects have been persecuted, marginalised, and regarded with deep suspicion.
Asceticism is a philosophy which requires every individual to be "a house divided" - constantly at war with their own natural mechanisms. The energy required to wage this internal war is not available for resisting the political powers of the world. Tantrics, at peace with their essential human nature, have far more capacity to foment rebellion. This is one reason why Tantric sects have been regarded with such deep suspicion.
Because of their subversive potential, Tantric movements were used for political propaganda purposes by both colonial powers and rebel leaders in India during the decades of the British Raj.
Aspects of Tantra
The origins of Tantra are shrouded in mystery, as elements of Tantra predate any system of writing. Tantric practices were allegedly developed by the indigenous peoples of the Indian subcontinent (primarily the Dravidian people), prior to the arrival and eventual dominance of the Aryan people and their Vedic tradition in the 5th to the 2nd millenium B.C.E.
Elements of Tantric practice were assimilated into the "Vedic" religion, resulting in the mystical Upanishads. There was a revival of interest in Tantric practice in the first few centuries B.C.E., and Tantra became a dominant religious practice in the Indian subcontinent for a thousand years or more. Buddhism incorporated Tantric elements at this time, and carried these elements to Tibet and China as it spread.
Tantra was suppressed by Muslim invaders, European colonising armies, and the Chinese communists. The last remaining direct Tantric lineage exists in Tibetan (Vajrayana) Buddhists living in exile outside Tibet.
To this day, there are gurus and hermits in India who describe themselves as "Tantrics". There is little evidence that these individuals can trace a teaching lineage back to the age of classical Tantra. Their practices differ from those described in traditional Tantric texts. In general, their reputation is low - they are seen by their fellow countrymen as black magicians for hire, rather than as enlightened beings.
In the West, there are individuals who have devoted themselves to studying traditional Tantric texts. Without the assistance of an initiated guru, it is unclear how accurate their understanding of the teachings can be. Traditional texts are often written in symbolic and allegorical terms, and these subtle meanings are the essence of the teaching. However, these individuals can offer something closer to traditional Tantra than can the Neo-Tantrics.
"Neo-Tantra" is a term applied to teachings which were developed after the late 19th century, based on translations into English of a small number of traditional texts. The original translations were made by English colonists in India, and the meaning of the texts was filtered through British prejudices of the time, including misogyny, racism, and homophobia.
Notable individuals who built on these original translations include Aleister Crowley, and early contributor to the development of modern Wicca, and Osho, one of the first "celebrity gurus". Osho was famous for inventing quotes and attributing them to the Buddha. His position was that he would say whatever he needed to say to awaken his followers. Remaining true to the original intent of the traditional texts was not a priority for Osho.
There is a strong shamanic theme to Tantric practice, in which aspects of the material world are revered as Divine. For example, Tantrics work with the elements - earth, water, fire, air and space - the sun and the moon, the sky, the ocean and the earth, and with animals.
To make abstract aspects of the Universe more accessible, Tantrics create anthropomorphic representations of these aspects. For example, Kali represents time, including the changes which come with the passage of time, even to Death itself. Tantrics do not believe that Kali is a deity like the Christian God or the Islamic Allah. Kali is literally time itself, represented in the form of a woman. Every aspect of Kali's appearance carries information about the nature of time, and our relationship with time.
Using this process, the entire Universe can be represented by ten goddesses, known as the Mahavidyas.
Tantra recognises many correspondences, most importantly, the correspondences between the structure of the Universe (the macrocosm) and an individual human being (the microcosm). Within the human body, Tantra recognises nested correspondences, such as the mapping of trigger points on the hands, feet, or ears to the organs of the body. The entire Universe is represented in the reproductive organs (male or female), and the integration of opposites is represented by sexual intercourse.
Metals, animals, crystals, colours, and sounds all correspond to particular aspects of material reality, and can be mapped to stars and planets, times of the day or year, and part of the human body.
To a Tantric, the Universe is a gigantic fractal representation of itself at every possible scale.
Priority of the Feminine
Tantra recognises the feminine as the supreme power of the Universe. The female body has the power of creation, bringing new souls into the world. Correspondingly, women are revered for their closeness to the power of creation.
For this reason, Tantric practices are very different from the practices of ascetic religions and philosophies, which either disregard the power to create new life as mundane and profane, or attribute that power to the man who "plants the seed".
Tantric practices revolve around the female body, female power, and the worship of the Divine Feminine.
The Divine Masculine is also worshipped, as the abiding, motionless witness to the unfolding of feminine power (Shakti). The feminine is receptive, so the witnessing masculine can influence the shape of the unfolding feminine, simply by holding an intention. Thus, the Divine Masculine and the Divine Feminine are in a constant dance, or sacred sexual union.
Traditional Tantra makes extensive use of rituals. A ritual is a religious or solemn ceremony consisting of a series of actions performed in a prescribed order. Tantric rituals often include yantras, visual representations of aspects of the Universe, and mantras, auditory representations of aspects of the Universe. The frequency of yantras and mantras in Tantric practice has led to the expression "Mantra, yantra, Tantra."
Tantric rituals often include shamanic elements, physical objects which correlate with the aspects of the Universe to be invoked in the ritual, and personifications of aspects of the Universe. Rituals usually start with ceremonial cleansing of participants and the ritual space, and end with some form of meditation or gratitude practice.
Tantrics consider cycles of time to correspond with different aspects of the Universe, so Tantric rituals are often conducted at specific times. The hours of the day correspond with parts of the body and aspects of the Universe, as do the phases of the moon, months of the year, and astrological cycles. Tantric astrologers use this body of knowledge to deptermine the most auspicious time for any given Tantric ritual.
The Influence of Tantra
Tantric influences permeated the Vedas, written in Northern India over several centuries BCE. The Vedas form the basis of the major religions of the Indian subcontinent, Hinduism, with its Sikh and Jain branches. Modern rivalries and the demonisation of "Tantra" under Muslim and British occupation would make modern Vedic scholars reluctant to acknowledge any debt to Tantra.
However, it is easy to see Tantric influences in the Vedas themselves, and in later Hindu practices.
Hatha yoga is a Tantric practice, focusing as it does on the physical and energetic bodies as instruments of spiritual practice. Ascetic traditions minimise the focus on chakras, and explain asanas as a way to prepare the body and mind to sit for long periods in ascetic meditation.
The use of water, earth, flowers, and other symbols of elements, fertility, or, indeed, any use of a physical item to represent an intangible or abstract aspect of the Universe is Tantric in nature. In modern day India, even Christians offer food and flowers at their shrines.
It can be difficult to know where to start when developing a personal Tantric practice.
It is entirely possible to practice Tantra on your own, but there are great benefits in practising with other people, and being part of a Tantric community.
Tantra is a path which will challenge the ego. Whatever obstacles you face in life, you will face in your Tantric practice. If you have issues around trust, they will show up in your attitude to Tantra. If you have problems with mental focus, or with will-power, you will need to address those. If you feel shame about any aspect of your physical being or your natural desires, you will learn to overcome that programming. If you have sexual problems, they will be brought to your attention to be healed.
However, it is all worthwhile. The Tantric path allows you to enjoy all the benefits of a human existence, including good food, close relationships, and extended Tantric orgasms, all in service of a spiritual purpose. Tantric practice inevitably purifies your subconscious mind, giving you more freedom and joy in everyday life, as well as when you are actively practising.
It is not necessary that you practice every aspect of Tantra from the very beginning. In fact, that may not even be possible. What is important is that you begin where you are, with what you have available.
 Tiziana Pontillo; Maria Piera Candotti (2014). Signless Signification in Ancient India and Beyond. Anthem Press. pp. 48–61 with footnotes. ISBN 978-1-78308-332-9.
 Gray, David B. (2016). "Tantra and the Tantric Traditions of Hinduism and Buddhism". Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Religion. Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/acrefore/9780199340378.013.59. Retrieved 2016-10-15.
 Robert Brown (2002). Harper, Katherine Anne; Brown, Robert L., eds. The Roots of Tantra. State University of New York Press. ISBN 0-7914-5306-5.