TANTRA demystified-Q and A

  • By Dr. Subhasis Chattopadhyay
  • July 11, 2022
Baba Vamdev with his dog at Tarapith, Birbhum, West Bengal.
  • This Q&A seeks to demystify Tantra and provide deeper meaning to some practices with special reference to West Bengal.

India is a country of diverse traditions. Different regions have different traditions. To the uninitiated and those educated in Western ways, these diverse traditions when viewed superficially, may appear as if these different practices represent different religions or forms of worship. This Q&A seeks to demystify Tantra and provide deeper meaning to some practices with special reference to West Bengal.  


Q1. Is animal sacrifice a part of worshipping Mother Kali?

A1. Yes, it is, within the larger populace of Bengal. Goats are indeed sacrificed at Tarapith and Kalighat.


Q2. What does the word Tantra mean?

A2. Swami Chetanananda wrote in a 2016 article in Prabuddha Bharata, monthly magazine of the Ramakrishna Order since 1896, “The word ‘tantra’ is derived from the Sanskrit root tan, tanyate, meaning ‘to spread’. Tantra means the scripture by which the light of knowledge is spread.” To read full article


Swamiji also wrote, “When we speak of tantra, we think primarily of the sacred books of the Shaktas, worshippers of Shakti, the Divine Mother. Those who follow the Judeo-Christian and the Islamic traditions do not accept God as Mother. In those traditions, God is a male principle. In Hinduism, however, God can be both father and mother.”


Q3. What is left handed and right handed worship in Tantra?

A3. The terms Vamachara and Dakshinachara actually derive from Vajrayana's degraded practices. 


When one of the first monastic disciples of Sri Ramakrishna Paramhamsa, Swami Abhedanandaji, visited Tibet he was aghast at Vajrayana practices. These Vajrayana practitioners had their consorts either on their left, thus the left-handed path or, to their right. Thus, the right handed path of Dakshinachara. Over the centuries, the left-handed path came to be known as the path of secrecy since the five M's are mentioned in this path as being harmful for the practitioner and the world. This is Vamamarga. It is the marga which prohibits consumption of alcohol, the consumption of meat, sexual congress, and even too much emphasis on the external world.


The right-handed path is more commonly known and neither path has anything to do with spiritual or corporeal consorts. These are Buddhist accretions to Shakta Tantra. In reality, the Vamamarga is more attuned to the interior life as expounded by Sri Abhinavagupta in his Tantraloka. The right-handed path is more attuned to public rituals. Pandit Vishwa Kumar wrote in Vishwayoga.com, “Practices of Right-hand Tantra are more orthodox in nature. It focuses on the practices of mantra, yantra, mandala for meditation.” 


It is to be repeated that Hindu Shakta Tantra of either the left-handed path or, the right-handed path has nothing to do with any consort, real or imaginary. 


Also read Tantra and teachings of Kashmir’s Abhinavgupta


Q4. Is animal sacrifice a part of Tantric worship according to our Tantras?

A4. No, animal sacrifices and even eating non-vegetarian food are prohibited for practitioners of the left-handed path in our Tantras.


Q5. Is drinking of liquor allowed within the left-handed path in Tantric worship?

A5. Those who even drink once or on social occasions are prohibited from practicing the left-handed path. For them is the right-handed path. Virachara prohibits drinking of alcohol for those practicing left-handed Tantra.


Q6. How important are chastity and celibacy for those practicing left-handed Tantra?

A6. For neophytes chastity is a prerequisite for practicing Virachara. For advanced practitioners celibacy is a must.


Contrary to popular beliefs, Tantra has nothing to do with physical intimacy and the world.

Maa Chinnamasta at Chinnamasta Mandir, Bishnupur. Pic by author. 

If one observes the Mahavidyas, then it will become clear that Tantra is not antinomian, nor is it a way to hedonism. Mother Chinnamasta stands on a couple engaged in physical intimacy, and She is seen as crushing them under her feet (see pic). Further, she has torn off her own head to feed her followers. The Mahavidyas which includes Maa Tara teach us renunciation and a total distaste for this passing world.

Blue Maa Tara at Tarapith. 

One needs to remember that Swami Saradananda of the Ramakrishna Mission, and one of the first disciples of Sri Ramakrishna Paramhamsa was a Tantric practitioner. It does not need saying that the epochal Avatara, Sri Ramakrishna Paramhamsa who was a celibate and could not bear the touch of worldly people, was a follower of Maa Kali and was a Tantric adept. He had been initiated into Tantra by Bhairavi Bhrahmani.

Swami Saradananda.

Q7. What is Tantra?

A7. Learned tomes (fat books) trace the etymological root of the word Tantra to come up with meanings like weaving (the affairs of the world) and as an upaya (method) for mukti.


Here I give a more real understanding of Tantra as passed on from Guru to disciple within the Shakta heritage of Bengal and Assam.


Tantra is akin to a thousand suns which need to be kept within an equally chilled chamber of the microcosm of the human body in the here and the now. This is what is meant when one says that within Tantra, the microcosm of the body represents the larger world outside, or the macrocosm. Tantra is for all practical purposes a fiery and powerful force which unless abiding in a suitable body, destroys the Tantric first and foremost. That is why it is important for the Shakta practitioner to be chaste and later celibate, to be a perfect practitioner of the disciplines laid out in the Yoga Sutras and in the sixteenth Chapter of the Bhagavad Gita. This is the reason why so many Tantric practitioners simply go insane even beginning Tantric practices.


For instance, one of the cornerstones of Tantric practice is not receiving gifts or money for helping others. In short, aparigraha is necessary to begin practicing this path. Otherwise, greed will enter the practitioner and even before her training in this difficult path begins; it will all be over. All the Yoginis, Yakshinis and other Devis to be encountered in this path will tear to pieces anyone who is unchaste, addicted to wealth and fame. Therefore, it is best to worship all these Devis as Mothers since in reality they are parts of the Mother of this and other Universes.


Anyone interested in anything but mukti from samsara should not practice Tantra.


Self-proclaimed Tantrics fall fastest and first. If Tantra was that easy to practice then how is it possible that even after cheating people of millions of dollars and rupees in the West and India respectively, victims still do not recover from terminal illnesses or the practitioners generally survive by instilling fear in others? If black magic works, then how is it possible that instead of acquiring weapons to defend a nation, one does not have a group of self-declared Tantrics using magic to destroy an enemy nation?


First, any Tantric who is worthy of harbouring the fire of Tantra within himself will not harm anyone and will never use the weapons Tantra provides to him unless our Dharma is at stake and all other means for protecting our Dharma have been exhausted. It is not the job of someone seeking mukti from samsara to harm other nations, or other people. All people are Brahman. Only very rarely should Tantra be evoked to destroy evil which poses an existential threat to our Dharma, and that too, one stresses, when all other means to protect our Dharma have been exhausted. 


Q8. Who taught Tantra to Baba Vamdeb of Tarapith?

A8. Sage Visvamitra. What empirical proof do I have? None. Then how do I write this? Well, there are living lineages of Shakta Tantra. Sage Visvamitra initiated Baba Vamdeb into Virachara and set him up on the panchamundi Asana. 


Q9. Did Baba Vamdeb eat human flesh or eat from the mouth of his pet dog?

A9. It is an advanced Tantric practice to taste human flesh once to prove to the Holy Mother that to the Tantric practitioner sweetmeats and a corpse are the same.


It is not done for the sake of cannibalism but as a mark of being indifferent to the dualities pervading our world. A corpse is just a lifeless combination of chemicals. Nothing more. Baba Vamdeb certainly did not eat human flesh; he ritually tasted it as do advanced and holy Tantrics to this day.


It bestows no special powers; it needs none to be killed. The crematoria staff provide a bit of human flesh which the Tantric practitioner needs to taste. Like they must use a human skull once or twice in their entire lifetimes to drink water from.


They do not drink alcohol from human skulls. This is again a ritual showing the discarding of fear and the restoration within oneself of the conviction that water in a human skull tastes as bad or as good as water in a pitcher made of gold. As for sharing food with one’s pet dog, yes, Baba Vamdeb had no problems in eating from the mouth of his pet canine. This again is a non-dualistic practice proving to the world that Mother Kali is in a dog as She is in all human beings.


The Chandi states that (Chandi is from the Devi Purana recited at Durga Puja and various Shakti Pujas) the Holy Mother is in all things, at all times, and everywhere. She is in all the elements or bhutas found in this and other universes. Normally, if anyone tries to eat from the jaws of a pet dog, either one will get inadvertently bitten or get a disease from the dog. So, do not try these things. Tasting raw human flesh too might lead to infectious diseases.


The key phrase in the foregoing discussion is that these practices are for advanced Shakta Tantric adepts who are otherwise strict vegetarians.


Q10. Whose samadhis are at Tarapith?

A10. Sage Bamdev and other sages like the late Sri Shankari Baba. They had not been cremated but following their lineages they have been interred there. So, when one walks through the main crematorium of Tarapith, one walks over their bodies. Sri Shankari Baba lived in a small hole within the cremation grounds.


Q11. Why has Tantra come to mean hedonism and all other sorts of perverse practices?

A11. Nobody really reads the Tantras. They are stuck at the cliched five Ms (Panchamakaras). They do not know that within the left-handed path there is a strict prohibition against the five Ms. Virachara means to be strong enough to give up the five M s. Not indulge in them.


They are not chosen by Shaktih to practice Tantra and hence they do not meet the right Guru. The Katha Upanishad has much to say about whom the Grace is given to become a special servant of the Holy Mother. 


Without the right Tantric Guru, one will simply wallow in hedonism.


Tantra and its association with black magic and physical intimacy, so advertised in the West and now in India, involves big money. Therefore, vested interests will not allow Tantra to easily come out as it really is, within our lives.


Though we need to note that most Hindu practices are Tantric in nature.


When one does murti puja, one is practicing Tantra. When one does Japa, one is following a Tantric practice. When one seeks to be one with the One as instructed in the Upanishads, they are following Tantric injunctions. Not for nothing that Acharya Shankara installed Shaktis in His monasteries and wrote on Mother Tripurasundari.


Christian missionaries could relate to Vedanta and its dualistic iterations and Vedanta’s celibate followers. They mistook monism for monotheism. They mistook qualified monism or vishistadvaita for theism and they found the iconography of Tantra and its rituals to be baffling to say the least. So, Tantra fell into disrepute. 


This Christian and colonial interpretation has presented to the Western world a very nasty picture of Tantra. Further, Western anthropologists and historians continue to apply structuralist pressures on Shakta Tantra. Thus, the essence of Tantra as the main mode of Hindu worship is now lost and we have Tantra associated and confused with truly evil practices.


Om Harih Om


This post is dedicated to my Guru who is a Bhairava and has become one with the One.


Also read by author

1. How to become a Tantric

2. Being with a Tantric

3. What is Shaktipat

4. Left-hand Tantra – Vama Marga


Author Subhasis Chattopadhyay has a Ph.D. in American Literature from the University of Calcutta. His reviews from 2010 to 2021 in Prabuddha Bharata have been showcased by Ivy League Presses. He has qualifications in Christian Theology and Hindu Studies and currently teaches English Literature in the PG and UG Department of a College affiliated to the University of Calcutta. He also has qualifications in Behavioural Sciences.

To read all articles by author


Also read

1. Tantra – a much misunderstood path to liberation

2. Shakti – The Supreme Mother Goddess in Hinduism

3. Worship of God as Mother in Indian Tradition

4. Where Tantra still thrives by Pt Rajmani Tugnait

5. Vigyan Bhairav Tantra

6. Sixty-Four Yoginis

7. Shakti Worship and Selfhood in Kashmir

8. Album Kamakhya Mandir, Assam

9. Album Karni Mata Mandir, Bikaner

10. Meaning behind Erotic sculptures in Khajuraho

Neither this article or pictures contained herein are to be re-published without written permission of www.esamskriti.com  

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