Broader Aspects of Tantra
Apart from these old and new distortions, we must recognize that Tantra is a complex tradition, with many sides and facets going beyond and even contrary to these popular fantasies. Tantra is interwoven with the spiritual teachings of India and beyond, going back far into ancient history. The popular understanding of Tantra, not only in the West but even in India today, represents only a small part of this vast system of knowledge.
We could compare the state of Tantra with that of Yoga, with which it is related. Like Tantra, the physical side of Yoga is emphasized - the practice of yogic postures or asanas - even though these represent a small part of classical Yoga, whose main concern is meditation. We live in a materialistic and media age in which spiritual traditions are recast or scaled down into a physical and sensationalistic model. This may popularize but it also easily diminishes and distorts.
Such a sensate image of Tantra may cause some people to want to reject anything Tantric altogether. Certain spiritual groups East and West like to avoid Tantra for this reason. This is a mistake of another kind because it causes them to overlook the positive aspects of Tantra, its wealth of knowledge and practices about all the subtle aspects of Yoga, the worship of deities and how to harmonize actions in the human realm with the Divine worlds above.
The real question then is how to separate the deeper and higher aspects of Tantra from the outer and superficial views. Such fantasy approaches to Tantra obscure the fact that real Tantra is a profound science. Tantra is a precise system of knowledge that provides specific results if employed correctly. The application of mantras, rituals, pranayama and meditation in Tantric teachings is probably the most elaborate and complete in the entire Yoga tradition. Tantra also shows us how to employ such systems as Vedic astrology, Vastu and Ayurveda for deeper levels of protection and healing.
It is in Tantra that we find the most detailed explication of the power of mantra, with every syllable of the Sanskrit alphabet precisely defined. It is the bija mantras of Tantra, the Shakti mantras like Hrim and Shrim that are the most powerful of all mantras. Tantra similarly provides the greatest explanation of the use of yantras or geometrical meditation devices that are important tools of concentration and meditation. For example, the worship of Sri Chakra and Sri Yantra is probably the most important and detailed of all the Yoga teachings. The entire universe and the subtle body are present in the Sri Chakra.
Tantra is also a good tool for helping people of all traditions reclaim the worship of the Goddess and restore appropriate forms for her worship. As Christianity developed it rejected and condemned the common pagan worship of the Goddess that had long existed in the West. Even today there is no Goddess in the western Protestant traditions and the only Goddess for the Catholics is Mother Mary, who technically speaking in Christian theology is no Goddess or Divine Mother at all but simply just the Mother of Jesus. To western Tantra has been added many other forms of Goddess worship in Pagan traditions from the Celts to the Greeks, Romans, Egyptians and Babylonians. Yet in these traditions forms of worship, both external and internal, have largely been lost. Tantra helps restore these through its understanding of ritual, meditation and iconography.
Tantra offers such a wealth of images as the Dasha Mahavidya or Ten Wisdom Forms of the Goddess, or the many forms of Kali, Durga and Sundari. Tantra provides the most detailed information on the visualization of such deities, their forms, ornaments and weapons and how to use them. Tantra contains an important tradition of sacred art and iconography. Tantra preserves the great festivals of the Goddess like Navaratri and Durga Puja. Tantric sacred sites from Kamakhya in Assam to Kamakshi in Tamil Nadu preserve not only a tradition of Goddess worship but a living connection with the Goddess in nature.
Tantra is perhaps the main current in Indian spirituality of the last thousand years or more and helps us understand its entire movement. Most of modern Hinduism and even much of Buddhism and Jainism is Tantric. There is a strong Tantric element to the Sikh Dharma if one looks deeply. Tibetan Buddhism is largely a Tantric form, taken up from Indian Tantrics in Bengal and Bihar. Such a Buddhism of mantras, mandalas, deities, yoga and meditation is much closer to Hindu Tantric and Vedic disciplines than it is to the older Buddhism of Sri Lanka and Thailand.
Traditional Tantra is not just about sex either. It has a strong ascetic and monastic form. Special Tantric worship of different forms of the Goddess go on in the major Shankaracharya Maths in India, using powerful mantras, yantras and rituals. Shankara himself was not only the most famous Advaitic teacher but also one of the most important Tantric teachers. His great poem to the Goddess, Saundarya Lahiri, remains perhaps the most important Tantric text that is used for Sri Chakra worship.
South Indian Agamic temple worship is Tantric in this broader sense. The entire Shakta tradition or worship of the Goddess in India is Tantric. Most of Shaivism is Tantric. Yet even Tantric elements are there in Vaishnava and other traditions.
Tantric teachings have been important for most of the main gurus of modern India since Ramakrishna and Vivekananda, including Aurobindo, Shivananda, Anandamayi Ma and many others. Ganapati Muni, the chief disciple of Ramana Maharshi, was another great Tantric Yogi. Yet this tradition is even older. The main Yoga gurus over the past thousand years or more have been mainly Nath Yogis, who are Tantric Shaivites, starting with Goraknath and Matsyendra Nath. Such Nath Yogis were the founders of the Hatha Yoga tradition as well as many important approaches to Tantra. Nath Yogis were honored by Shankara, Jnanadeva, Abhinavagupta, and many other great Hindu teachers of the medieval period. Even the teachings of modern Yoga guru, Krishnamacharya, are attributed to tradition stated by one Natha Muni. Without understanding real Tantra it is hard to understand Yoga.
In fact the best way to understand real Tantra is as an expanded form of Raja Yoga. Like the Yoga Sutras and in more detail Tantra teaches asana, pranayama, pratyahara, dharana, dhyana and samadhi, but providing many more specific forms and techniques. It gives the details on mantras and methods that are only alluded to in the Sutras.
We can also explain real Tantra as a yogic approach to science and art. In this regard there is a cross over between Vedic and Tantric sciences in such disciplines as Ayurveda, Jyotish and Vastu. Tantra is the basis of the rasa Shastra or alchemical side of Ayurveda and much of Ayurveda’s psychological treatments. Tantra uses the rules of Jyotish for determining favorable times for ritual, pujas and so on. Tantric architecture and temple building develops from Vastu. In fact, it is in Tantra, contrary to modern academicians who fail to see the obvious connection, that we find the most detailed applications of Vedic teachings of ritual, mantra, yajna, puja and meditation.
So whether we like it or not, Tantra is and will remain a dominant force not only in Indian but in world spirituality. While we can recognize the place of popular and New Age forms of Tantra as a point of entry into these teachings, it is important to recognize the broader and deeper scope of real Tantra which is more than these flights of imagination and may be quite different from them. Tantra is the practical and energetic application of all the yogic wisdom of life, time, space and energy. If you approach it with the right intention, it can offer more than the fulfillment of your desires, it can help you gain the supreme goal of life of realization of the entire universe within your own awareness!
Recent popular or New Age spirituality in the West, which is now coming to India, looks in many respects like a new form of Tantra, making use of both its occult and spiritual sides. New Age spirituality includes the exploration of a whole range of energetic practices through the body, senses and mind, both for achieving personal and spiritual goals, as well as a recognition of the Goddess. It appears to be an extension of Tantric openness and experimentation into the technological age, but with a consumerist and hedonistic approach. While there is much that is creative or insightful in it, particularly relative to health and healing, there is also much wishful thinking. It is seldom based upon any deep study of traditional teachings but mainly on a
For most people in the Western world, Tantra means sex. Tantra is commonly associated with special sexual practices, different sexual postures, and sexual rituals. This does represent an aspect of Tantra and of Hindu thought, such as is found in the Kama Sutra, the Hindu manual of sexual love. While Tantric teachings mention such practices, it should be noted that they are not its main focus, nor are they necessary parts of Tantric Yoga, the main practices of which, like all true yoga traditions, is mantra and meditation. Many Tantric texts contain no references to sexual practices. Others mention them as preliminaries or as only one possible line of approach. Yet others regard them as mere metaphors or symbols.
The broad approach of Tantra contains ways to turn all ordinary activities - including breathing, eating and sleeping - into rituals or sacred actions, but this does not mean that Tantra is promoting such activities for ordinary gratification.
Though Tantra does contain sexual Yogas, it is wrong to think that Tantra is limited to them. In the same light Tantric art, which has an erotic appearance, is meant as a depiction of the higher forces of consciousness through which the primal forces of life can be transformed. It is not a glorification of ordinary sexuality, though it is unafraid of this force and is able to see the cosmic power working behind it.