The Living Science of Tantra
According to the most spiritual traditions the desire for worldly pleasures is incompatible with spiritual conquest. You can have either or. This approach results in an endless struggle in those who are drawn to spiritual beliefs & practices but who have at the same time a natural urge to fulfill worldly desires. When there is no way to reconcile the two we try and have both, and become hypocrites.
The tantric approach to life avoids this painful & confusing dilemma by taking the whole person into account – our human as well as our spiritual nature. The literal meaning of ‘tantra’ is to weave, expand, to spread’ and according to tantric adepts, we can achieve true and ever lasting fulfillment when all the threads of the fabric of life are woven according to the pattern designated by nature. When we are born, life naturally forms around that pattern but as we grow ignorance, fear, desire etc tangle & tear the threads.
Tantra sadhana (practice) reweaves the fabric of life and restores it to its original pattern. No other path of yoga is as systematic or as comprehensive. The profound practices of hatha yoga, pranayama, nada yoga, mantra, yantra, ayurveda, astrology etc blend perfectly within the tantric disciplines.
Tantra masters discovered long ago that success in both the outer world & the spiritual realm is possible only if we awaken our latent power. The key to success is shakti – the power of the soul, the power of the divine force within. Those whose shakti is largely unawakened have neither the capacity to be successful in the world nor the capacity to enjoy worldly pleasures. Awakening & using shakti (power of the soul) is the goal of tantra and that is why tantra sadhana is also known as shakti sadhana.
Highly misunderstood, T as a spiritual path emphasizes purification of the mind & heart and the cultivation of a spiritually illuminating philosophy of life. As a science, however, it experiments with techniques whose effectiveness depends on the précis application of mantra & yantra, ritual use of specific materials, performance of tantric mudras, and accompanying mental exercises. These practices can be called formulas – they will yield results if properly applied, regardless of the character, spiritual understanding or intention of the practioner. It is not difficult to find people who have learned to use a few tantric formulas to startling effect. It is far more difficult to find genuine tantric masters and authentic scriptures. Luckily they do exist and by gaining access to them it becomes possible to cultivate an understanding of this complicated path in all its richness.
My Own Quest - My father & forefathers were raja purohitas, the spiritual guides to the royal family of the state of Amargarh in North India. For generations the palace had been attended by tantric adepts who were staunch worshippers & devotees of Shakti (the Divine Mother) and until shortly before I was born they included 24 pandits and tantrics, headed by my father.
One day a saint from the Kabira order arrived at the palace, and the eldest prince and his admirers fell under his influence. As a result they turned antagonistic toward the tantrics and in time their animosity came to focus on one highly advanced practioner who worshipped the Divine Mother in a palatial Shakti temple. His ritual was purely tantric & revolved around the offering of liquor, meat, fish & probably sex, although my father never mentioned it. According to Hindu belief these are impure and thus prohibited so they got the king to call the tantric to court to explain his actions.
He said ‘I do not indulge in liquor but I worship the Divine Mother with bindu (the drop) as prescribed in the scriptures and taught by my master. Someone asked ‘ then why do you lock the door of the temple when you do your so-called worship? ‘According to the tradition, the practice I do must be secret, the tantric replied. ‘Only initiates can participative in this worship. At all others times the door is open to anyone’.
The king was satisfied with the reply but not others. They kept an eye on the tantric and discovered where he got liquor & when he brought it into the temple. They knew the exact time when worship began. Armed with this information the prince & his followers stormed into the temple one night during the worship & pounded on the door of the inner chamber, demanding to be admitted. Caught in the middle of the ritual and unable to complete it properly, the tantric adept prayed to be forgiven for concluding the practice inappropriately.
He then opened the door & the group rushed in, only to find milk in the chalices instead of liquor, vegetarian dishes in place of meat & fish. The tantric said ‘The Divine Mother went out of her way to protect me. What good is this place in which She has to go through such trouble’.
Early next morning he resigned from the service of the king as did several other tantric pandits, those who remained became apathetic. Before long a series of calamities began and within years the kings family’s wealth mysteriously disappeared. Not being born then later I asked my father ‘How do these tantric masters become so powerful, What is tantra? He said in brief ‘ Tantra means worshipping the Divine Mother. Tantrics are her blessed children. Whatever they have is by divine grace of the Divine Mother’. Dissatisfied with the answer I grew up with a fascination for tantra. I found that is had extraordinary healing powers too. I found some villagers who could neutralize the effect of a cobra bite by using tantric mantras. There were also the malis, a group of villagers who knew a ritual involving certain herbs which gave them the ability to cure smallpox.
Another phenomena centered around a metal bowl, belonging to an old tantric, which could be used to identify thieves. When an object was stolen the villagers would gather, and the bowl would be passed around, when it reached the thief it became so hot that blistered his hand. Years later, when I joined the university, first in Kashi and later in Prayag, I had the opportunity to meet tantrics of such stature that my mind still cannot comprehend them. Among them were Swami Sadananda, Bhagwan Ram Aughar, Bhuta Baba eg. These masters were not interested in performing miracles, yet miracles manifested through them as sparks emerge from a flame. For e.g. snakes, monkeys, leopards followed Damarau Wale Baba as he walked in the jungles of Assam. And when he made a special offering called shiva bali during a special tantric group practice known as chakra puja, a female jackal invariably materialized out of thin air to accept it.
Date Wale Swami, an adept of bagalmukhi, one of the most esoteric tantric paths, was able to immobilize bullets after they had been fired, a feat witnessed by hundreds of people in central India.
During my college years I became so absorbed in the study of logic, Western philosophy and non-tantric schools of Indian philosophy that I began to doubt the miraculous path of tantra and the extraordinary feats that I had seen with my own eyes. It is only when I was initiated by my master, Swami Rama, did my skepticism about the value of rituals & existence of divinity outside myself (such as the one supposed to reside in temples & shrines) become even more entrenched. Soon I witnessed a series of miracles that reawakened my original belief in tantra.
One such event took place when I was with a group of Americans, visiting one of the tantrism’s most famous shrines Jwala Mukhi (to see pictures go to Himachal Pradesh in the photographs section of the site). It was the last day of a nine-day celebration called Nava Ratri and there were thousands of pilgrims in the vicinity. The line to the shrine was atleast half a mile long and barely moving. By the time we squeezed ourselves into the line, we had already drunk all our water and I was worried that my companions not used to the heat would collapse. While I was wondering what to do a gentleman approached me and said with authority ‘You should ask the police to let your group go out of line’. I said ‘Where is the police’. ‘You people follow me’ he instructed. He asked the crowds to make way for us who did so willingly. As we neared the temple we saw the police but our Guide was nowhere to be found.
From that moment on, everything around us appeared to be enchanted. In peace & privacy we paid our homage to the eternal flame, which has been flaring from the walls of that cave for untold ages. Later when I told this story to some learned people associated with the holy shrine they said, with conviction, that the gentleman was wither Guru Gorakhnatha, an immortal sage who lives there or one of the attendant forces of the divine mother. And when I asked my Gurudeva, how something outside of me could be so powerful and real, Swamiji replied ‘Why cannot the divinity that is inside you be outside you too. There is nothing like reality being within or without. The wall between within and without is only for those who are ignorant. The awakened divinity within you helps you find the divinity outside you, and vice versa’.
This is the basis of tantra: Yatha pindande, tatha brahmande – Whatever is in the body is also in the Universe. In various tantric sites discussed later it is still possible to meet adepts in whose presence we can experience the full spectrum of tantra eg curing fever, producing fire from the mouth, awakening kundalini, having a direct vision of the chosen deity, attaining highest illumination through the practice of yantras like Kala&Sri Chakra.
The World of Tantra - the tantric literature is so vast that it would take a thousand lifetimes to practice all the tantric disciplines. The texts are written in Sanskrit with app a 1000 texts written in Pali, Tibetan, Hindi, Bengali & Prakrita) and represent thousands of years of knowledge. All texts have one thing in common – they adopt an integrative approach to sadhana, with the objective of making the best use of all resources, within & without.
Because their scope is all-encompassing tantrics have always discarded conventional standards of morality, ethics, basically anything that is an obstacle to the process of personal growth & discovery. Yet their liberal & scientific approach to personal fulfillment has prevented them from forming a tantric religion. Thus at a social level tantrism refers to a particular way of life, at a philosophical level it refers to shakti metaphysics, and at a spiritual level it refers to a set of techniques for gaining access to the multi-level forces within the human body & the cosmos.
Through direct experience tantric masters throughout the ages have confirmed that the active & dormant forces in the universe correspond to the forces in the human body, and that the whole universe lies within us. Gaining complete knowledge of this interrelationship is considered to be the highest tantric endeavor. To this end they have experimented with the power of sound (mantra), form, color, and shape (yantra) and have documented their influence both on humans & different aspects of nature. They have studied the subtle properties of the herbs, animals, minerals and have found ways of awakening the forces dormant within them to activate mantra, yantra and power of the mind. And in the process they have discovered how the energies of herbs, minerals, gems, planets correspond to different parts of the human body. These findings ultimately resulted in tantric systems of yoga; sadhana, medicine, astrology and alchemy well documented in tantric texts & allied literature.
As its diversity shows, tantra approaches sadhana holistically, holding that to experience beauty in the fabric of life we must weave together all of its forms & tangled threads. That is why tantric practices consist of a range of disciplines involving body, sense, breath & use of ritual objects, mantra recitation, silent meditation, visualization of deities and meditation on a purely abstract, formless, divine being. The aim is to demolish the illusion that a wall stands between the individual & divine.
FIRE is the center of all tantric rituals, both external & internal. It is fire that transform the gross matter of the herbs & other ritual ingredients offered to it into subtle energy that can be recognized by the corresponding subtle forces residing in the psyche and its counterpart in the cosmos. And this process is governed & guided by the power of mantra, yantra, & ishta deva (a personal form of the impersonal divine being), as well as by our own faith.
Having said that, Tantra is a complex science involving scriptural knowledge & guidance of a competent master. The master knows how to determine the exact time and place for performing the ritual to ensure its maximum potency, and to this end he or she can initiate a student into the appropriate mantra along with its corresponding yantra. By looking into the practioner’s placement in astrological charts, the adept can give precise instructions on how to use herbs, flowers, minerals & grains as part of the fire offering. What is more every practice is accompanied by a cluster of disciplines, which only a true adept can teach with precision. These ordinarily consists of mudras (hand gestures) and nyasas (techniques for synchronizing the different forces of the main and subordinate mantras in one’s body), techniques for creating a harmonious balance between oneself and the forces of the cosmos and techniques connecting oneself with the power of the mantra by means of intense visualization of the deity along with the recitation of a long set of mantras (known as kavacha (armor), kilaka (anchor), hridaya (heart), patala (flower petals) etc.
Forbidden Tantra - There are scriptures that can be classified as ‘applied tantric science’ which contain formulas which ill intentioned tantrics can use for marana (killing), vashikarana (seduction), mohana (manipulating the minds of others), visveshana (creating animosity between two people) and other negative purposes. But even when the purpose is not negative, experimenting with them without the guidance of an adept is like playing with nuclear weapons. That is why the scriptures label them as ‘forbidden tantra.’
An experience that Swami Rama shares in his book Living with the Himalayan Masters illustrates how forbidden practices not only can awaken an extraordinary force but also can materialize it regardless of an aspirant’s intention or purity of heart. Swamiji’s master, Bengali Baba (Babaji) had an old handwritten scripture that he always carried with him. Once when Swamiji was very young Babaji showed him this book, instructing him never to open it. The young Swami could not control himself so one night he started reading it in moonlight. Almost immediately he came across a mantra with a commentary that explained the way to practice & result. Swamiji memorized the mantra, recited it a 1000 times with the auxiliary practices of mudras & nyasas. There were two practices that Swamiji did not know – the invocation & propitiation to Bhairava, and the drawing of a protective circle (Lakshmana rekha) around oneself – but he undertook the practice anyway.
Just before dawn, as he was nearing the end of his practice, Swamiji opened his eyes and saw a gigantic nude women making a fire several yards away from where he sat. Thinking he might be hallucinating he closed his eyes. After a while he opened his eyes – saw an even bigger man, also nude, walking toward the woman & her fire. Swamiji closed his eyes. Next he heard the man ask the women ‘have you cooked my food?’, Swamiji opened his eyes and saw the giant standing next to the fire glaring at him as if saying ‘Why do you not cook him?. Swamiji fainted from fright.
When he regained consciousness it was dawn and his master was standing besides him. So scared was he of the two giants that he fainted again. This happened several times till his mater kicked him in the rear and shouted ‘wake up, I hope you got the lesson’. Swamiji explained to me later that the results of these practices can be so overwhelming that an unprepared student cannot handle their extraordinary force. That is why masters suggest this only to those interested in higher spiritual pursuits rather than in worldly power & pleasure.
The practice of forbidden tantra may or may not result in inner illumination but they do unveil the mystery of the life force, which manifests in numberless forms. And they can help us see through the forces of matter & mind and attain a glimpse of the radiant divine being who shines both inside & outside us. They can help us subdue negative forces within us and help us achieve our goals.
The Highest Form of Knowledge - The highest tantric practices are the ten schools of maha vidya (the great knowledge) of which Sri Vidya is the most complete & comprehensive. The practices related to other nine-maha vidyas are subsumed, directly or indirectly, in Sri Vidya.
The goal of Sri Vidya is to give the aspirant a direct experience of the primordial force or shakti that holds all the cells & molecules of the body in place. The vibration of this life force animates all creation, all forms of energy & matter emerge from it. By unveiling the mystery of this life force, Sri Vidya adepts are able to understand the relationship between the body & mind, between humans & plants, and ultimately between the microcosm & macrocosm.
Why Deity worship - When the adepts discovered how to access this shakti and the domain of matter & energy animated by it there were able to pinpoint the precise nature & characteristics of the force governing our anatomy and physiology and other aspects of nature. And to communicate this knowledge to those who had not the direct experience, tantrics referred to these forces as ‘deities’ explaining that any deity (force) that dwells within us also dwells outside us.
The tantrics also developed another method of communicating their knowledge, yantras or diagrams that express a practice visually – they are equations expressed in the language of geometry. There are hundred of yantras, simple & complex. The most comprehensive of all is Sri Yantra (also called Sri Chakra), which contains the entire doctrine & practice of Sri Vidya. See diagram 1 below.
Infinite Knowledge - Adepts who have mastered Sri Vidya are the rarest & most mysterious tantric masters. Because they have become one with the life force, they have no predictable personality. Just as the life force assumes different roles in relation to different aspects of creation, these yogis take on different personas in response to different situations in the world around them. I saw this at Jwala Mukhi and Vindhya Vasani a site situated at the northern tip of the Vindhya mountain range. We went there to view a full solar eclipse but the greatest attraction for me was Gerua Talab reputed to be a stronghold of tantra sadhana. It is also the spot where two yogis had recently left their bodies in a yogic manner & we were eager to see if advanced yogis still lived there.
We met one Bhuta Baba who seemed a learned man but who wanted to get rid of us. But we were persistent; someone asked him ‘What is the most important thing an aspirant must observe?’ Food he replied, you become what you eat. He answered all questions to our satisfaction. Someone asked him ‘to be successful in both worldly & spiritual endeavors we need a one pointed & clear mind. Can you tell us how to develop concentration & retentive power? He got up and returned with the Sri Chakra.. Pointing at its second circuit, he said, “By meditating on this, one can gain the power of concentration”.
The whole group including myself was spellbound by Bhuta Baba’s discourse on why sound & light are the primordial forces of creation & how they related to mantra & yantra. Quoting tantric scriptures, he explained that sound pollution is the deadliest form of pollution, for it contaminates the most subtle element of creation: space – the medium in which everything else exists. Further expounding on tantra metaphysics, he explained how sound pollution could be removed through the mantra & précis tantric rituals. I was overwhelmed to discover his knowledge of solar science, because he was also adept in Sri Vidya, which is essentially chandra vijnana (the lunar science), and it is rare that the same adept would be master of both.
I knew another saint by the name Swami Sadananda who lives on the banks of the Ganga on the outskirts of Prayag. Even today people remember him for his extraordinary knowledge of botany, alchemy, ayurveda & astrology, which he blended in such a way, that all of these sciences took on tantric overtones. Scientists & philosophers of the Allahabad University were fascinated by his knowledge of the spiritual properties of plants (a subject unknown outside tantric circles).
These & other interactions with tantric masters, together with study of their scriptures made me realize that nothing is impossible for a tantric. I came to see tantra as a highly refined & sophisticated science. It contains an overtone of mystery only for those who do not understand the interconnectedness of all aspects of creation. Because the knowledge in the tantric books is incomplete I also know that the missing links can be forged only by working under the guidance of a living master. However, it is hard to recognize them, the genuine ones. A comprehensive knowledge of the scriptures will help you distinguish a master from a pretender, and then you will be able to wholeheartedly commit yourself to practice under someone’s guidance.