[tuhn-truh, tan-]
Tantra, in both Hinduism and Buddhism, esoteric tradition of ritual and yoga known for elaborate use of mantra, or symbolic speech, and mandala, or symbolic diagrams; the importance of female deities, or Shakti; cremation-ground practices such as meditation on corpses; and, more so in Hindu than in Buddhist tantra, the ritual use of wine, meat, and sexual intercourse. Tantric practices use both ritual and meditation to unify the devotee with the chosen deity. In Hindu Tantra, practice is graded into three types, corresponding to three classes of devotees: the animal, i.e., those in whom the guna, or quality, of tamas (darkness) predominates; the heroic, those in whom the guna of rajas (activity) predominates; and the divine, those in whom sattva (goodness) predominates (see Hindu philosophy). The practice of the heroic devotee entails actual use of the five elements, called the five m's: fish (matsya), meat (mamsa), wine (madya), aphrodisiac cereals (mudra), and sexual intercourse (maithuna). The animal devotee, not yet ready for the heroic practice, performs the rituals with material symbols; for the divine devotee the rituals are purely internal and symbolic. The object of the rituals, attainable only by the divine devotee, is to awaken kundalini energy, which is identified with Shakti, and merge with the Godhead. In Buddhist Tantra, or Vajrayana, in contrast to the Hindu, the female principle of "wisdom" (prajna) is seen as static, whereas the male, or "means" (upaya), is active. In Buddhism, rituals that appear to break basic moral precepts have for the most part been dropped, but the complex meditation practices have been retained.

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.

According to Tibetan Buddhist Tantric practitioner Lama Thubten Yeshe:

...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.


There are a number of different definitions of tantra from various viewpoints, not all of them necessarily consistent. Robert Brown notes that the term tantrism is a construction of Western scholarship and that:

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.

Evolution and involution

According to Tantra, being-consciousness-bliss or Satchidananda has the power of both self-evolution and self-involution. Prakriti or 'reality' evolves into a multiplicity of creatures and things, yet at the same time always remains pure consciousness, being and bliss. In this process of evolution, Maya conceals Reality and separates it into opposites, such as conscious and unconscious, pleasant and unpleasant, and so forth. If not realised as illusion, these determining conditions bind, limit and fetter (pashu) the individual (jiva).

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."

The method

The Tantric aim is to sublimate rather than negate relative reality. This process of sublimation consists of three phases: purification, elevation and the "reaffirmation of identity on the plane of pure consciousness." The methods employed by the Dakshina Marga (right-hand path) are very different from the methods used in the Kaula Marga (left-hand path).

Ritual practices

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" .

Ordinary 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:

Mantra and yantra

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.

Identification with deities

Tantra, being a development of early Hindu-Vedic thought, embraced the Hindu gods and goddesses, especially Shiva and Shakti, along with the Advaita philosophy that each represents an aspect of the ultimate Para Shiva, or Brahman. These deities may be worshipped externally with flowers, incense, and other offerings, such as singing and dancing; but, more importantly, are engaged as attributes of Ishta Devata meditations, the practitioners either visualizing themselves as the deity or experiencing the darshan (vision) of the deity. These Tantric practices used to form the foundation of the ritual temple dance of the devadasis, and were preserved in the Melattur style of Bharatanatyam by Guru Mangudi Dorairaja Iyer.

Secret ritual

Secret ritual may include any or all of the elements of ordinary ritual either directly or substituted along with other sensate rites and themes such as a feast (food, sustenance), coitus (sexuality, procreation), charnel grounds (death, transition) and defecation, urination and vomiting (waste, renewal, fecundity). It was this sensate inclusion that fueled Zimmer's praise of Tantra as having a world-affirmative attitude:

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.

In Avalon's Chapter 27: The Pañcatattva (The Secret Ritual) of Sakti and Sakta (1918), he states that the Secret Ritual (which he calls Panchatattva, Chakrapuja and Panchamakara) involves:

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.

Sexual rites

Sexual rites of Vama Marga may have emerged from early Hindu Tantra as a practical means of generating transformative bodily fluids. These constituted a vital offering to Tantric deities. Sexual rites may also have evolved from clan initiation ceremonies involving the transaction of sexual fluids. Here the male initiate was inseminated or insanguinated with the sexual emissions of the female consort, sometimes admixed with the semen of the guru. He was thus transformed into a son of the clan (kulaputra) through the grace of his consort. The clan fluid (kuladravya) or clan nectar (kulamrita) was conceived as flowing naturally from her womb. Later developments in the rite emphasised the primacy of bliss and divine union, which replaced the more bodily connotations of earlier forms. Although popularly equated with Tantra in its entirety in the West, sexual rites were practiced by a minority of sects. For many practicing lineages, these maithuna practices progressed into psychological symbolism.

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.

Western views

Sir John Woodroffe

The first Western scholar to take the study of Tantra seriously was Sir John Woodroffe (1865–1936), who wrote about Tantra under the pen name Arthur Avalon. He is generally held as the "founding father of Tantric studies. Unlike previous Western scholars, Woodroffe was an apologist for Tantra, defending Tantra against its many critics and presenting Tantra as an ethical philosophical system greatly in accord with the Vedas and Vedanta. Woodroffe himself practised Tantra as he saw and understood it and, while trying to maintain his scholastic objectivity, was considered a student of Hindu Tantric (in particular Shiva-Shakta) tradition.

Further development

Following Sir John Woodroffe, a number of scholars began to actively investigate the Tantric teachings. These included a number of scholars of comparative religion and Indology, such as: Agehananda Bharati, Mircea Eliade, Julius Evola, Carl Jung, Giuseppe Tucci and Heinrich Zimmer.

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.

In the modern world

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.

Hindu Tantric practitioners

See also

Hindu tantra

Buddhist tantra

Other related topics



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  • Avalon, Arthur (1972). Tantra of the great liberation - Mahanirvana Tantra. New York: Dover publications.
  • Bhattacharyya, N. N. (1999). History of the Tantric Religion. New Delhi: Manohar. Second Revised Edition
  • Bühnemann, Gudrun) (1988). The Worship of First Indian Edition, Kant Publications, 2003.
  • Harper, Katherine Anne (ed.); Robert L. Brown (ed.) (2002). The Roots of Tantra. State University of New York Press.
  • Nikhilananda, Swami (1982). Hinduism: Its meaning for the Liberation of the Spirit. 2nd, Sri Ramakrishna Math.
  • Norbu, Chögyal Namkhai (1999). The Crystal and The Way of Light: Sutra, Tantra and Dzogchen. Snow Lion Publications.
  • Saraswati, Swami Satyananda (2000). Sure Ways to Self Realization. Yoga Publications Trust.
  • Urban, Hugh (2003). Tantra: Sex, Secrecy, Politics, and Power in the Study of Religions. University of California Press.
  • Wangyal Rinpoche, Tenzin; Dahlby, Mark (1998). The Tibetan Yogas of Dream and Sleep. N.Y.: Snow Lion Publications.
  • White, David Gordon (ed.) (2000). Tantra in Practice. Princeton University Press.
  • Winternitz, Maurice (1972). History of Indian Literature. New Delhi: Oriental Books Reprint Corporation. Second revised reprint edition. Two volumes. First published 1927 by the University of Calcutta.
  • Yeshe, Lama Thubten Introduction to Tantra:The Transformation of Desire. 2001, revised, Boston: Wisdom Publications.

Further reading

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