Where Tantra still Thrives
Tantrics have never involved themselves in religion but the myriad techniques they have developed for enhancing the quality of spiritual life have so proved so potent that tantrism has influenced every aspect of life in India & neighboring countries. But tantrics have shunned the spotlight preferred seclusion in remote places offering only bare necessities so that only sincere students are attracted to them. To avoid intrusion into their privacy they have deliberately adopted bizarre behavior & assumed socially unacceptable experience e.g. tantrics at Geru Talab carried human skulls pretending to use them as bowls in order to instill fear & a sense of disgust in visitors.
Thus over time these remote sites became laboratories for tantra sadhana. Originally mathas or ashrams, over time the energy by intense & prolonged practices conducted there became so concentrated that they came to be regarded as shrines. Disciples & devotees erected monuments in honor of their masters.
As years rolled by, the monuments & temples began to attract archeologists & visitors who knew nothing about the history of the adepts & nature of practices undertaken. Pilgrims focus on the monument itself unaware that the actual shrine is not one particular spot, but the entire locale – a stretch of riverbank, hilltop, and mountain valley or tract of forest. Unfamiliar with the dynamics of energy that vibrates throughout the area at a subtle level, they pay homage to the deity in a temple.
Some shrines have been occupied for thousands of years and there the energy is so well polarized that if we live in the vicinity & undertake a compatible practice we are naturally immersed in that stream of energy & glide toward the goal almost without effort. Other sites like Prayag, have been the hub of hundreds of tantric practices, and thus within a radius of a dozen of miles or about any sadhana would be fruitful. And because thousands of devout practioners & pilgrims visit Prayag every year, they perpetuate the concentration of spiritual energy there. As a result this city is called Tirtha Raja (the lord of all shrines).
If we visit a variety of shrines we will find that each has its own unique characteristics, and practicing there will bring us its own specific revelation. Inexperienced students believe that the different schools of tantra are antithetical. They mistake a particular technique for the sum of tantra and have no way of resolving apparent contradictions among different disciplines. But after coming into contact with a variety of teachers they realize that the contradictory practices are appropriate in a specific context & the opposite in others and that specific practices are meaningful at different levels of sadhana.
Tantric scriptures & practices are rarely documented in a systematic or comprehensive manner. And until we understand the context in which reference to particular practices are made we will find contradictions among different tantric texts. In some practices, for e.g. use of meat & liquor is compulsory, in others it is prohibited.
Those with only a superficial knowledge of tantra will also find a contradiction between left-hand and right-hand paths. Because left-hand tantrics do not hold conventional standard of ethics & morality in high regard there is the general impression that in addition to consuming fish & meat in their practices, they drink liquor & have sex as part of their rituals. Conversely, it is believed that right-hand tantrics are people who maintain high standards of morality & ethics & condemn practices/rituals of left hand. It is thought that they are more spiritual than the left hand tantrics. This sense that there is a sharp dichotomy between the two paths was not prevalent before writings books became a profession, it has been written & perpetuated by those who have neither studied the scriptures thoroughly nor visited tantric shrines to observe how aspirants from both paths study & practice under the guidance of masters.
The Shrines as Teachers - there are 17 locations where tantric shrines are located namely Prayag, Kashi, Kamakhya, Chhinnamastra, Vindhya Vasani, Chitrakut, Maihar, Datia, Khajuraho, Ujjain, Girnar Hills, Malabar Hills, Rishikesh, Sri Nagar, Kali Matha, Chandra Vadani & Purna Giri.
1. The apparent contradiction between the left & right paths can be resolved by visiting Kamakhya shrine in Assam & doing practices there. This is a shrine where animal sacrifice is still practiced – but the atmosphere is permeated by an overwhelming air of compassion. The protector all living beings, the Divine Mother consumed flesh, Bhairava – the giver of mental clarity & spiritual illumination is pleased by the offering of clarity. Tantrics here talk as if they invariably include sex as the fifth & last step in their sadhana, but in reality they observe celibacy. Anyone who is not familiar with the basic metaphysics of tantra will find the experience here disorienting. Conversely if they come prepared they will experience the dance of the destructive & creative aspects of divinity.
The habit of getting distracted is the greatest obstacle of an extended stay here. The next obstacle is an attraction to miracles. The tantrics who deliberately perform miracles, however, are shielding the true adepts from aspirants who are merely seeking power & pleasure. If you are not distracted by miracles you are a master. This is one of the rare sites where you can find tantric adepts of all ten of the esoteric paths known as the maha vidyas.
2. Chhinnamasta in the jungles of Ram Garh, Bihar is the locus for tantric sadhana inspired by the goddess Chinnamasta, a manifestation of the divine mother. The shrine consists of a small temple but the area within a radius of several miles is known for miraculous occurrences. Chhinnamasta represents the energy of transcendental consciousness, and in her personified form she is represented as a decapitated women who holds a sword in her right hand & her own head in the left. On her left & right two other goddesses are drinking the blood that spouts from her neck. Adepts have figuratively speaking beheaded themselves in order to find an eternal place at her feet.
If you want to cultivate the power & wisdom that will enable you to conquer ego & offer the best of yourself to your fellow beings then you must visit this place. But you must be ready to be beheaded symbolically (and perhaps even literally) for you gain immortality only after you have resurrected. And the yogic techniques of leaving the body without being dying & entering another body without being born (parakaya pravesha) are a speciality of the adepts belonging to this school.
3. Banaras – Kashi - is another hub of tantric mystery but walking through the streets of this city you find if you know how to search. Kashi is an excellent destination for those who are genuinely interested in learning from scratch & those who are intellectually well versed in tantric principles & are keen on gaining direct experience. Beginners will find a teacher while the familiar will find the spiritual energy emanating from any of the shrines, which may become a living guide. To such aspirants the divine force comes in some form, human or non-human & such a blessed aspirant knows whether such experiences are genuine or illusory. Problems await the intermediate group, those who have read little but have not done any practice.
There is another reason why knowledge of scriptures is crucial. To those who have read acclaimed tantric texts (eg netra tantra, tantraloka, rura yamala, praprancha sara & Sri Vidyarnava) Kashi is a tantric paradise. They can for e.g. walk directly to the shrine of Ganesha, receive his blessings, and then proceed to Kala Bhairava and with his permission enter the city of light (which spiritually speaking is situated at the tip of Shiva’s trident – a city beyond the realm of earth). With clarity & confidence they can walk into the temple complex of Kamaccha and by following the left-hand path of tantra gain experience within a few months, which might take years to gain elsewhere.
A little distance from Kamaccha lies the famous shrine of Krim Kunda belonging to the aughar tradition. Here the flame lit by Baba Kinaram several hundreds years ago is the living teacher and under its guidance you may undertake the practice outlined in Swacchanda Tantra. The result, as promised, is that you will attain the privilege of being guided by Bhairava, the most vibrant form of Shiva. Adepts belonging to this tradition are experts in solar science (surya vijnana).
Once you have gained access to the inner circles of tantrics in any of these places you will discover that the spirit of their city awakens at night.
4. Vindhya Vasani, foothills of Vindhya - is the abode of the combined forces of Lakshmi, Saraswati & Kali. The temples of these three goddesses form the three corners of a triangle, and the area encompassed by this triangle is like a Yantra. Each temple is associated with a unique form of tantra sadhana. At the corner known as Kalikhoh, Kali is worshipped in a left-hand fashion, Sarasvati is worshipped in a right hand fashion in the spot known as Astabhuja and Lakshmi is worshipped in a way that combines both paths at the temple known as Vindhya Vasani.
Tantric aspirants seeking results of a magical nature seek Kali, seeking retentive power, sharpened intellect and success in fine arts resort to Sarasvati, seeking wealth resort to Lakshmi. The area adjoining Ashtabhuja is where you will find practioners of the forbidden tantra. But if you travel into the mountain towards Gerua Talub & Moltia Talab you will encounter tantrics of a mysterious nature that cannot be put under any category. (recall we met Bhuta Baba here). Although the mountains in the vicinity are rocky you can clearly feel the presence of the living masters as you approach the little monuments built in honor of the adepts who have here taken bhuni samadhi (the practice of voluntarily casting off the body underground) with the determination to undertake a prolonged meditation.
5. Chitrakut - here the ashram of Sage Atri & Mother Anasuya situated on a bank of the Mandakini river, is as vibrant today as it was thousands of years ago. Among the group of sadhus called vairagi, who dominate this locale, you will find tantric adepts practicing disciplines associated with the tradition of Dattatreya, the master of masters. Through their practice these adepts have so charged a hill in this region that it is known as Kamada Giri, the wish-wielding mountain. You can clearly sense divinity manifesting through every aspect of nature, granting the grace & guidance necessary for a successful sadhana.
6. Maihar - south in the Vindhya mountains lies this shakti shrine. This is a site of miracles. Faithful pilgrims flock here to receive the healing grace of the goddess Matangi, known locally as Maihar ki Devi, and tantrics intent on cultivating healing power & creativity in the arts find this shrine most suitable to their practice.
7. Datia - although not well known, one of the most mystical tantric shrines lies here, a small town near Jhansi in Central India. The site is associated with Bagalamukhi, one of the ten great goddesses. The queen of forbidden tantra, she embodies the power of immobilization. Her tantric name, Brahmastra (literally ‘the supreme weapon’) is an indication of the unimaginable power contained in this particular sadhana. There is no higher tantric practice for cutting asunder the snares of ignorance & taming the inner beast. (ego)
8. Khajuraho - is a tantric site i.e. different from the rest, it consist of more than a dozen temples, whose walls are covered with erotic statues of yogis & yogins performing various tantric mudras. Due to its sensual appeal it has been overrun by tourists from India & abroad so you may not encounter tantrics at this site today. But if you have a basic background in tantrism you will find that the walls picture tantric practices that incorporate the use of liquor & sex. A tour through the complex will leave you with the impression that tantra is a path of sexual insanity or that is a way of transforming this natural urge into a spiritual means.
9. Ujjain - is a hub of many tantric traditions. Mahakala, the devour of time or the destroyer of death, presides over all deities residing here but other traditions are found too. For ages Ujjain was the center of astronomical research, where tantric sadhanas studied the nature & movement of stars & planets & discovered the connecting links between the celestial realm & the human body.
The walls & ceiling of the Hara Siddha Gauri temple in Ujjain are like a living library. Here you will find an elaborate Sri Chakra with hundreds of deities depicted in their personified form. A visit here is equivalent to several years of study in a library. 500 yards away from the Kala Bhairava temple is the shrine of Vikranta Bhairava, a place famous for the quick acquisition of startling siddhis or supernatural powers. Here, in the dead of the night, tantrics who are lovers of the destructive force celebrate the eternal sport of the creator.
10. Girnar Hills - is close to Junagarh in Gujarat. Tantric masters here are unique in their ability to combine alchemy with tantric practices.
11. Hills of Malabar - in South India. The tantrics living here are characterized by their knowledge of Shakti Sadhana, esp Sri Vidya. The majority of them are householders who adhere strictly to the puritan values of orthodox Brahmins, and in their system of tantra the use of liquor, meat is not permitted. Here right hand tantra is practiced in its purest form.
AND finally, if you go to the Himalayan region in North India you will find the full spectrum of tantra. Every village has a shrine, a guardian deity, a set of practices to propitiate this deity. Whether they know or not the way these villagers connect with the deity is purely tantric. They lack access to tantric scriptures but they follow family traditions, which have passed down for generations. To them the local deity is part of family and they grow up with the belief that they themselves are an integral part of nature’s family, like the plants, animals, rivers and mountains. Villagers who know the scriptures consider the same deity to be the manifestation of the highest truth.
These different levels of understanding both the Divinity & the purpose of life have led to different approaches for gaining Her grace & guidance. This is how the tantric practices have become so diverse. To express their love & devotion to the Divinity some offer vegetarian food, others goat or simple tantric practices like offering incense, flowers, water. Those who are familiar with the symbolic meaning of yantras, have developed more elaborate rituals. They know that different components of the yantra represent the invisible forces of individual & collective consciousness, so they incorporate the visualization & worship of yantra into their practices. A more evolved person has a purely meditative approach to tantra & aims to experience oneness with the primordial Divinity without any ritual involvement at all.
12. Sri Nagar - practices & method of worship vary from village to village. About 100 kms from Rishikesh on the way to Badrinath is a town called Srinagar (means Sri Vidya, city of tantric goddess) because long ago hundreds of tantric adepts esp those belonging to the tradition of Sri Vidya did their practices there. The most significant shrine in this area is not a temple but a huge boulder lying in the riverbed on the town outskirts. It is regarded as a living Sri Yantra, the most complex of all yantras. Here tantrics propitiated the Divine Mother in the form of Sri Vidya.
13. Purna Giri -in the Almora district of Kumaon, Uttaranchal is famous for tantric practices of the samaya school. The tantrics do not employ any external means to awaken the primordial Shakti within; their method is purely meditative. The mountaintop itself is the shrine and pilgrims who need a focus for their devotion pay homage to an ancient tree growing on the mountaintop. It is one of the main pilgrimage sites for tantric adepts of the Shankarachrya order, and the practices undertaken do not involve any rituals. The goal of the practices is pure spiritual illumination without the slightest trace of worldliness. According to the scriptures, this shrine corresponds to the sahasrara chakra or crown center, of the principle centers of consciousness within the body.
In contrast, rituals are a necessary component of the practices undertaken at the Kamakhya shrine in Assam for that shrine is associated with the first & second chakras: hunger, fear, desire & urge for sense gratification. Those urges have been to be dealt with directly, in a manner that actually involves the senses; so transforming them into a spiritual means is the inner purpose of the rituals performed at Kamakhya. If this has not been accomplished there is no point in doing sadhana at Purna Giri.
All of the shrines discussed in this chapter are centers of tantric practice & discipline. Their role is central. If you wish to acquire authentic knowledge, grounded in direct experience, you cannot overlook these shrines. The energy of these shrines is not confined to a particular structure rather, the space in the vicinity of a shrine is charged with energy. Tantric practioners who know how to tap this energy can connect it with the corresponding energy within their own body & mind. And because space is indestructible, it makes no difference if temples are constructed or destroyed.
One of the names for Banaras, now a congested city of still Ananda Vana (forest of bliss). The collective consciousness of the place does not register bricks, political tension because such happenings have no effect on the space, which is filled with divine consciousness. Seekers associate with that eternal Banaras – Kashi – the City of Light.