Tantra (Sanskrit: तन्त्र , "loom, warp"; hence "principle, system, doctrine", from the two root words tanoti "stretch, extend, expand", and trayati "liberation"), anglicised tantricism or tantrism or tantram, is the name scholars give to an inter-religious spiritual movement that arose in medieval India, expressed in scriptures (called "Tantras").

An important characteristic of this movement was that it is a radically positive, world-embracing vision of the whole of reality as an expression of a joyous Divine Consciousness (for example, as the divine play of Shakti and Shiva. Tantric spiritual practices and rituals aim to bring about an inner realization of this truth, bringing freedom from ignorance and rebirth in the process. Though not the case with most Tantric practices, in some schools of "left-handed" Tantra (Vamachara), ritual sexual practice is employed as a way of entering into the underlying processes and structure of the universe.


There are a number of different definitions of Tantra, not always mutually consistent. Robert Brown notes that the term tantrism is a construction of western scholarship, not a concept that comes from the religious system itself. This makes its independence questionable though it is generally recognized by Tantrics as different from the Vedic tradition. David Gordon White suggests its key principle is that the universe we experience is the concrete manifestation of the divine energy that creates and maintains it: Tantric practice seeks to contact and channel that energy within the human microcosm by means of ritual in order to achieve creativity and freedom.


Tantrism originated in the early centuries CE and developed into a fully articulated tradition by the end of the Gupta period. Tantric movements led to the formation of many esoteric schools of Hinduism and Buddhism. It has influenced the Hindu, Sikh, Bön, Buddhist, and Jain religious traditions and spread with Buddhism to East Asia and Southeast Asia.


Rather than a single coherent system, Tantra is an accumulation of practices and ideas, characterized by ritual that seeks to access the supra-mundane through the mundane, identifying the microcosm with the macrocosm. The Tantric practitioner seeks to use prana, an energy that flows through the universe (including one's own body) to attain goals that may be spiritual, material or both. Most practitioners of tantra consider mystical experience imperative. Some versions of Tantra require the guidance of a guru.

Long training is generally required to master Tantric methods, into which pupils are typically initiated by a guru. Yoga, including breathing techniques and postures (asana), is employed to subject the body to the control of the will. Mudras, or gestures, mantras or syllables, words and phrases, mandalas and yantras, symbolic diagrams of the forces at work in the universe, are all used as aids for meditation and for the achievement of spiritual and magical power. During meditation the initiate identifies with any of the numerous Hindu gods and goddesses, visualizes them and internalizes them, a process likened to sexual courtship and consummation. The Tantrika, or tantric practitioner may use visualizations of deities, identifying with the deity so that the aspirant "becomes" the Ishta-deva or meditational deity.


The primary sources of written Hindu Tantric lore are the agama, which generally consist of four parts, delineating metaphysical knowledge (jnana), contemplative procedures (yoga), ritual regulations (kriya), and ethical and religious injunctions (charya). Schools and lineages affiliate themselves with specific agamic traditions. Hindu tantra exists in Shaiva, Vaisnava, Ganapatya, Saurya and Shakta forms, amongst others, so that individual tantric texts may be classified as Shaiva Āgamas, Vaishnava Pāñcarātra Saṃhitās, and Shakta Tantras, though there is no clear dividing line between these works. The expression Tantra generally includes all such works.

Relation with Vedic traditionEdit

Various orthodox Brahmanas routinely incorporate Tantric rituals in their daily activities (Ahnikas). For example, sarvA~nga-nyAsas and kara-nyAsas (tAntric techniques for placing various deities) are part of chanting tracts such as the rudra-prashna of the yajurvEda and viShNu-sahasra-nAma; and gAyatrI-AvahanaM is a common part of Sandhyavandanam in south India. Orthodox temple archakas of various sects profess to follow rules laid out in Tantric texts, for example priests of the Iyengar sect prefer to follow pancharAtra Agamas.

However, it has been claimed that orthodox Vedic traditions were antagonistic to Tantra. André Padoux notes that in India tantra is marked by a rejection of orthodox Vedic tenets. Moriz Winternitz, in his review of the literature of tantra, points out that, while Indian tantric texts are not positively hostile to the Vedas, they may regard the precepts of the Vedas as too difficult for our age, while an easier cult and an easier doctrine have been revealed in them. Many orthodox Brahmans who accept the authority of the Vedas reject the authority of the Tantras. Although later Tantric writers wanted to base their doctrines on the Vedas, some orthodox followers of the Vedic tradition invariably referred to Tantra in a spirit of denunciation, stressing its anti-Vedic character.

Relation to YogaEdit

"Yoga as it has been inherited in the modern world has its roots in Tantric ritual and in secondary passages (pādas) within Tantric scriptures, The practices of mantra, āsana (seat/pose), sense-withdrawal (pratyāhāra), breath-regulation (prānāyāma), mental (mantric) fixation (dhāranā), meditation (dhyāna), mudrā, the subtle body (sukshma shārīra) with its energy centers (chakras, ādhāras, granthis, etc.) and channels (nādīs), as well as the phenomenon of Kundalinī Shakti are but a few of the tenets that comprise Tantric Yoga. While some of these derive from earlier, pre-Tantric sources, such as the Hindu Upanishads and theYoga Sūtra, they were greatly expanded upon, ritualized, and philosophically contextualized in these medieval Tantras."

Shaiva tantra gave us the “Hatha Yoga” manuals, such as the 15th century Hathayoga Pradīpikā and the 16th century Gheranda Samhitā. It is from these manuals that most modern knowledge of Yoga and the subtle body derives.

Buddhist TantraEdit

In Buddhism, defined as a scripture taught by the Buddha describing the Vajrayana practices.[

According to Tibetan Buddhist Tantric master 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. "

Evolution and involutionEdit

Linguistically the three words mantram, tantram and yantram are related in the ancient traditions of India, as well as phonologically. Mantram denotes the chant, or "knowledge." Tantram denotes philosophy, or ritual actions. Yantram denotes the means by which a human is expected to lead his life.

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, pure being, and pure bliss. In this process of evolution, Maya (illusion) veils Reality and separates it into opposites, such as conscious and unconscious, pleasant and unpleasant, and so forth. If not recognized as illusion, these opposing determining conditions bind, limit and fetter (pashu) the individual (jiva).

Generally speaking, the Hindu god and goddess Shiva and Shakti are perceived as separate and distinct. However, in Tantra, even in the process of evolution, Reality remains pure consciousness, pure being and pure bliss, and Tantra denies neither the act nor the fact of this process. In fact, Tantra affirms that both the world-process itself, and the individual jiva, are themselves Real. In this respect, Tantra distinguishes itself both from pure dualism and from the qualified non-dualism of Vedanta.

Evolution, or the "outgoing current," is only half of the functioning of Maya. Involution, or the "return current," takes the jiva back towards the source, or the 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 methodEdit

The Tantric aim is to sublimate rather than to 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 Dakshinachara (right-hand path) interpretations of Tantra are very different from the methods used in the pursuit of the Vamachara (left-hand path).

Ritual practicesEdit

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 ritualEdit

The ordinary ritual or puja may include any of the following elements:

Mantra and yantraEdit

As in other Hindu and Buddhist yoga traditions, mantra and yantra play an important role in Tantra. The mantra and yantra are instruments to invoke specific Hindu deities such as Shiva, Shakti, or Kali. Similarly, puja may involve focusing on a yantra or mandala associated with a deity.

Identification with deitiesEdit

Tantra, as 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 worshiped externally with flowers, incense, and other offerings, such as singing and dancing. But, more importantly, these deities are engaged as attributes of Ishta Devata meditations, the practitioners either visualizing themselves as the deity, or experiencing the darshan (the vision) of the deity. These Tantric practices form the foundation of the ritual temple dance of the devadasis, and are preserved in the Melattur style of Bharatanatyam by Guru Mangudi Dorairaja Iyer.

Secret ritualEdit

Called the Vamamarga, this branch of Tantra departs from its conventional form or mantra and also from yoga. 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 (representing food, or sustenance), coitus (representing sexuality and procreation), the charnel grounds (representing death and transition) and defecation, urination and vomiting (representing waste, renewal, and fecundity). It is this sensate inclusion that prompted Zimmer's praise of Tantra's world-affirming 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."

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 ritesEdit

Sexual rites of Vamamarga may have emerged from early Hindu Tantra as a practical means of catalyzing biochemical transformations in the body to facilitate heightened states of awareness. These constitute a vital offering to Tantric deities. Sexual rites may have also evolved from clan initiation ceremonies involving transactions of sexual fluids. Here the male initiate is inseminated or ensanguined with the sexual emissions of the female consort, sometimes admixed with the semen of the guru. The Tantrika is thus transformed into a son of the clan (kulaputra) through the grace of his consort. The clan fluid (kuladravya) or clan nectar (kulamrita) is conceived as flowing naturally from her womb. Later developments in the rite emphasize the primacy of bliss and divine union, which replace the more bodily connotations of earlier forms. Although popularly equated with Tantra in its entirety in the West, such sexual rites were historically 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 for both participants. 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 sexual act itself 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 individual personalities and identities of each of the participants are completely dissolved in a unity of cosmic consciousness. Tantrics understand these acts 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 one's own Shiva and Shakti energies.

Western viewsEdit

The Sri Yantra (shown here in the three-dimensional projection known as Sri Meru or Maha Meru used mainly in rituals of the Srividya Shakta sects) is central to most Tantric forms of Shaktism.

The Western world has been marketing Tantra as an erotic experience rather than as a religious practice. The core belief system of Tantra is not being practiced as it has been originally taught. Parts of its practice are being combined with the sexualized society in the Western world therefore losing its spiritual purpose.

“Beyond its Kaula sources and High Tantric philosophy, modern-day Tantra which is sustained in the religious life of South Asia is concerned with anything but the “mind-blowing sex” of modern Western interpretations.” (Custodi, 2003)

“Tantra has also become an object of fascination in the popular imagination, where usually it is defined as “sacred sex” and often is confused with Eastern sexual manuals such as the Kama Sutra and Western occult traditions such as Aleister Crowley’s “sex magick.” As we can see on the shelves of any book store, Tantra pervades Western pop culture, appearing in an endless array of books, videos, and slick web sites.” (Urban, 2003)

“It is a "discipline" in an entirely different sense of the term — not an investigation of one topic among many, but rather a personalized spiritual training requiring that practitioners commit every aspect of their lives toward the process of their enlightening. There are a multi-tude of varieties of tantric practice, many of which do not involve any sexual activity, but all of which are intensely focused on the spiritual-erotic dimensions of our humanity.” (Barratt & Rand, 2007).

This type of spiritual development requires a deeper understanding of the belief system itself. It cannot be learned by merely reading a book. The practices are traditionally taught by gurus and cannot be learned without great discipline, guidance and preparation.

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