See Y. Hakeda, Kukai (1972); A. Wayman, The Buddhist Tantras (1973); A. Bharati, The Tantric Tradition (1975); F. D. Lessing and A. Wayman, Introduction to the Buddhist Tantric Systems (2d ed. 1980); T. Goudriaan and S. Gupta, Hindu Tantric and Shakta Literature (1981); D. Brooks, The Secret of the Three Cities (1990).
Tantra (Sanskrit: तन्त्र ; "weave" denoting continuity), tantricism or tantrism is any of several esoteric traditions rooted in the religions of India. The tantric movement has influenced the Hindu, Bön, Buddhist, and Jain religious traditions. Tantra in its various forms has existed in South Asia, China, Japan, Tibet, Korea, Cambodia, Burma, Indonesia and Mongolia. Although he cautions against attempting a rigorous definition of tantra, David Gordon White offers the following definition:
Tantra is that Asian body of beliefs and practices which, working from the principle that the universe we experience is nothing other than the concrete manifestation of the divine energy of the Godhead that creates and maintains that universe, seeks to ritually appropriate and channel that energy, within the human microcosm, in creative and emancipatory ways.
...each one of us is a union of all universal energy. Everything that we need in order to be complete is within us right at this very moment. It is simply a matter of being able to recognize it. This is the tantric approach.
It is not a concept that comes from within the religious system itself, although it is generally recognized internally as different from the Vedic tradition. This immediately makes it suspect as an independent category.
Rather than a single coherent system, Tantra is an accumulation of practices and ideas which has among its characteristics the use of ritual, the use of the mundane to access the supramundane and the identification of the microcosm with the macrocosm. The Tantric practitioner seeks to use the prana (divine power) that flows through the universe (including one's own body) to attain purposeful goals. These goals may be spiritual, material or both. A practitioner of tantra considers mystical experience or the guidance of a guru imperative.
In the process of working with energy, the Tantric has various tools at hand. These include yoga, to actuate processes that will "yoke" the practitioner to the divine. Also important are the use of visualizations of the deity and verbalisation or evocation through mantras, which may be construed as seeing and singing the power into being. Identification and internalisation of the divine is enacted, often through a total identification with a deity, such that the aspirant "becomes" the Ishta-deva or meditational deity.
The Tantric tradition may be considered as either parallel to, or intertwined with, the Vedic tradition. The primary sources of written Tantric lore are the agamas, which were generally composed in four parts delineating metaphysical knowledge (jnana), contemplative procedures (yoga), ritual regulations (kriya) and ethical and religious injunctions (charya). Schools and lineages affiliated themselves with specific bodies of these agamic traditions.
André Padoux notes that in India, tantrism was marked by a rejection of the orthodox Vedic notions. Maurice Winernitz, in his review of the literature of tantra, points out that while the Indian tantric texts are not positively hostile to the Vedas, they propound that the precepts of the Vedas are too difficult for our age, and that, for that reason, an easier cult and easier doctrine have been revealed in them. Some orthodox Brahmans who accept the authority of the Vedas reject the authority of the Tantras. N. N. Bhattacharyya explains:
It is to be noticed that although later Tantric writers wanted to base their doctrines on the Vedas, the orthodox followers of the Vedic tradition invariably referred to Tantra in a spirit of denunciation, stressing its anti-Vedic character.
In contrast, the modern author Swami Nikhilananda wrote not only of the close affinity with the Vedas, but also that the development of Tantric thought shows the influence of the Upanishads, the Puranas and Yoga.
Tantras exists in Shaiva, Vaisnava, Ganapatya, and Shakta forms, amongst others. Strictly speaking, within individual traditions tantric texts are classified as Shaiva , Vaishnava , and Shakta Tantras, but there is no clear dividing line between these works, and on a practical basis the expression Tantra is used generally for this class of works.
In this relative dimension, Shiva and Shakti are perceived as separate. However, in Tantra, even in the state of evolution Reality remains pure consciousness, being and bliss, though Tantra does not deny either the act or fact of this evolution. In fact, Tantra affirms that both the world process itself and the individual jiva are themselves Real. In this, Tantra distinguishes itself both from pure dualism and from qualified non-dualism of Vedanta.
However, evolution or the 'outgoing current' is only half of the functioning of Maya. Involution, or the 'return current', takes the jiva back toward the source or root of Reality, revealing the infinite. Tantra is understood to teach the method of changing the 'outgoing current' into the 'return current', transforming the fetters created by Maya into that which 'releases' or 'liberates'. This view underscores two maxims of Tantra: "One must rise by that by which one falls" and "the very poison that kills becomes the elixir of life when used by the wise."
Because of the wide range of communities covered by the term tantra, it is challenging and problematic to describe tantric practices definitively. Avalon (1918) does provide a useful dichotomy of the "Ordinary Ritual" and the "Secret Ritual" .
Because of the wide range of communities covered by the term tantra, it is challenging and problematic to describe tantric practices of the ordinary rituals definitively. The ordinary ritual or puja'' may include any of the following elements:
As in other Hindu and Buddhist yoga traditions, mantra and yantra play an important part in Tantra. The mantras and yantras are instruments to invoke specific Hindu deities such as Shiva and Kali. Similarly, puja may involve focusing on a yantra or mandala associated with a deity.
In the Tantra, the manner of approach is not that of Nay but of Yea ... the world attitude is affirmative ... Man must approach through and by means of nature, not by rejection of nature.
Worship with the Pañcatattva generally takes place in a Cakra or circle composed of men and women... sitting in a circle, the Shakti [or female practitioner] being on the Sadhaka's [male practitioner's]left. Hence it is called Cakrapuja. ...There are various kinds of Cakra -- productive, it is said, of differing fruits for the participator therein.
In this chapter, Avalon also provides a series of variations and substitutions of the Panchatattva (Panchamakara) "elements" or tattva encoded in the Tantras and various tantric traditions and affirms that there is a direct correlation to the Tantric Five Nectars and the Mahābhūta.
When enacted as enjoined by the tantras the ritual culminates in a sublime experience of infinite awareness, by both participants. The Tantric texts specify that sex has three distinct and separate purposes — procreation, pleasure and liberation. Those seeking liberation eschew frictional orgasm for a higher form of ecstasy, as the couple participating in the ritual, lock in a static embrace. Several sexual rituals are recommended and practiced. These involve elaborate and meticulous preparatory and purificatory rites. The act balances energies coursing within the pranic ida and pingala channels in the subtle bodies of both participants. The sushumna nadi is awakened and kundalini rises upwards within it. This eventually culminates in samadhi wherein the respective individualities of each of the participants are completely dissolved in the unity of cosmic consciousness. Tantrics understand the act on multiple levels. The male and female participants are conjoined physically and represent Shiva and Shakti, the male and female principles. Beyond the physical, a subtle fusion of Shiva and Shakti energies takes place resulting in a united energy field. On an individual level, each participant experiences a fusion of their own Shiva and Shakti energies.
According to Hugh Urban, Zimmer, Evola and Eliade viewed Tantra as "the culmination of all Indian thought: the most radical form of spirituality and the archaic heart of aboriginal India", and regarded it as the ideal religion of the modern era. All three saw Tantra as "the most transgressive and violent path to the sacred.
Following these first presentations of Tantra, other more popular authors such as Joseph Campbell helped to bring Tantra into the imagination of the peoples of the West. Tantra came to be viewed by some as a "cult of ecstasy", combining sexuality and spirituality in such a way as to act as a corrective force to Western repressive attitudes about sex.
As Tantra has become more popular in the West it has undergone a major transformation. For many modern readers, "Tantra" has become a synonym for "spiritual sex" or "sacred sexuality", a belief that sex in itself ought to be recognized as a sacred act which is capable of elevating its participants to a more sublime spiritual plane. Though pop-tantra may adopt many of the concepts and terminology of Indian Tantra, it often omits one or more of the following; the traditional reliance on guruparampara (the guidance of a guru), extensive meditative practice, and traditional rules of conduct - both moral and ritualistic.
According to one author and critic on religion and politics, Hugh Urban:
Since at least the time of Agehananda Bharati, most Western scholars have been severely critical of these new forms of pop Tantra. This "California Tantra" as Georg Feuerstein calls it, is "based on a profound misunderstanding of the Tantric path. Their main error is to confuse Tantric bliss ... with ordinary orgasmic pleasure.He goes on to say that he himself does not consider this "wrong" or "false" but rather "simply a different interpretation for a specific historical situation.