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Understanding Hindu Tantra

Updated on August 8, 2013
The classic image of the Sri Yantra, symbolizing the power of the Divine Feminine in Tantra
The classic image of the Sri Yantra, symbolizing the power of the Divine Feminine in Tantra
In Hindu conceptions fo the divine, the ultimate is composed of a male/female dyad.  Here Shiva is depicted as physically one with his Shakti.
In Hindu conceptions fo the divine, the ultimate is composed of a male/female dyad. Here Shiva is depicted as physically one with his Shakti.
The seven chakras of the human body.
The seven chakras of the human body.
The yoni.  The symbol of the sacred aspect of the physical feminine in Tantric ritual.
The yoni. The symbol of the sacred aspect of the physical feminine in Tantric ritual.
Image of Tantric ritual.  The symbolism includes decapitation (loss of ego), consumption of blood (intoxication) and sexual intercourse (dissolution of self and transgression of the pure/impure dichotomy).
Image of Tantric ritual. The symbolism includes decapitation (loss of ego), consumption of blood (intoxication) and sexual intercourse (dissolution of self and transgression of the pure/impure dichotomy).
A contemporary artist's painting of energy centers open and interacting in the act of coitus.
A contemporary artist's painting of energy centers open and interacting in the act of coitus. | Source

The goal of the tantric sadhana (practitioner), and the methods which he employs in order to realize it, are unique within the religious and philosophical conglomerate that has come to be known as Hinduism. The Kashmir Saiva tradition, whose practices aim to actualize both moksa (liberation) and bhoga (enjoyment), has a distinct and well-formulated cosmogonic model, in which the infinite and unbounded Shiva manifests himself via his shakti (female actualization principle), coagulating what was once absolute consciousness into grosser forms that eventually solidify into matter. This course of emanation, which is thought to proceed under the control of the feminine portion of the godhead, follows a punctuated path in which successive levels of reality unfold, each reflecting and containing every level that preceded it. Tantric cosmogony, interestingly, directly informs both its conceptions of soteriology and ritual practices, for the human condition – that of constrained existence due to ignorance – can be overcome by reversing the cosmogonic process of manifestation within the microcosmic context of the practitioner’s subtle body. In doing this the unmanifest Shiva, who resides in the crown chakra, is reunited with his shakti, bringing about a state of divinization and, eventually, a constant, open-eyed samadhi (state of realization). Likewise, Kashmir Saiva ritual, which serves as the setting in which these transformations take place, is informed by cosmogony. Paradoxically, while Tantric rituals appear to be subversive and anti-Brahmanical, they are actually very tied to traditional Vedism, for exponents of Tantra believe their tradition truly fulfills the Vedas and reconciles the problems the long-established Vedic rituals have failed to address. This similarity can perhaps be made most lucid by noting Tantra’s elitist, ritualistic, and anti-renunciate ideologies vis a vis bhakti and ascetic traditions.

In order to appreciate the rituals and soteriological schemas of Tantra, one must first investigate the cosmogonic processes that have brought about humanity and its existential plight. Most fundamentally, the Kashmir Saiva tradition claims that “this reality is a unitary, though dynamic, consciousness, omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent, of which the manifold forms of the universe are…projections” (Flood, 2). Within this schema, “manifold forms are projected in a hierarchical sequence from the purest and most subtle to the most impure and solidified” (2). The process of manifestation, however, causes an inverse relationship between solidification and absolute perception/self-knowledge. In other words the “thickening [of consciousness] involves a limitation of perception which is a darkening of the light of pure consciousness…” (56). Conversely then, the more Shiva emanates, the more he “forgets himself,” and it is here where the human subject is located. Beneath the tattva (a cosmological level) of maya (illusion), the human being is subject to the inverse flux of the “five shaktis of the pure course” (59). Thus, instead of experiencing infinite cit (consciousness), ananda (bliss), iccha (intentionality), jnana (cognition), and kriya (action), which are all properties of Shiva, humans instead experience kala (limiting power or particularity), vidya (limited knowledge), raga (passion or impelling desire), kala (time), and niyati (causal restriction or contingency) (59 + Muller Ortega, Aspects of Jivanmukti, 200). However, this seemingly bleak cosmological position of the human being is not entirely without hope, for other aspects of the cosmogonic process have soteriological ramifications that are conducive to liberation and realization.

Before delving into the aspects of Tantric cosmogony that account for and inform soteriological ritual practices, one must address the problem of suffering. Why does pain and suffering exist? Why does the godhead manifest at all and become beings that are ignorant, bound, and fundamentally limited? Kashmir Saivists have a number of answers to these questions. Firstly, “the ultimate reason for manifestation and embodiment is Paramasiva’s spontaneous creativity [and] his power of freedom” (Flood, 45). Additionally, however, the tradition alleges “that Paramsiva assumes bodies…for no reason other than playfulness (krida)” (51). Thus, in the unfolding and simultaneous limiting of his initially unbounded consciousness, Shiva plays with his divine consort through the processes of emanation and dissolution. The goal of the sadhana, then, is to join in this cosmic dance, reuniting Shiva with his sakti within the context of his own subtle physiology. This process is grounded in cosmogonic speculation and give rise to soteriological practices.

The male/female bifurcation of the godhead and the issue of subtle physiology constitute two more fundamental aspects of Tantric cosmogony that have soteriological consequences. Paradoxically, while the godhead is conceived of as being wholly one, it is simultaneously composed of male and female poles, which correspond to the deity’s nirguna (without or beyond aspects) and saguna (with aspects) facets respectively (32). “These ambiguities concerning ultimate ontology are reflected in accounts of cosmogony. On the one hand Shiva is said to manifest the cosmos…yet on the other Shakti is said to manifest the cosmos” (32). However, it is the very “tension between the opposed yet mutually attracting forces of Shiva and Shakti” that account for the creation of the cosmos. As Shiva remains partially inert and removed from the dynamics of manifestation, it is the feminine pole of the divine dyad, his Shakti, that brings about materiality and may be manipulated and placated by the practitioner in order to bring about desired effects. The polarity of Shiva and Shakti, however, “is reiterated throughout [each level of manifestation], particularly within the human body and between male and female bodies” (16). Thus, while “the lower levels [of existence] manifest or coagulate from the higher…[they also] inversely reflect the higher” (55). Hence, inscribed within the very subtle physiology of the human being exists the entire cosmogonic process of emanation, including the dyad of Shiva and Shakti, and it is precisely this fact that allows the practitioner to reverse the cosmogonic process within the microcosmic context of his own body and consciousness in order to reunite Shiva and Shakti and attain liberation and deification.

If the cosmogonic process of manifestation has placed the human subject in a limited and bound state, according to Tantra, it is the very reversal of this process that sets one free. Likewise, just as the cosmos emanates in successive stages, so too does its dissolution follow an orderly progression, as described by Paul Muller-Ortega in his article Aspects of Jivanmukti in the Tantric Saivism of Kashmir. This process narrates the soul’s “ascent to Shiva…in terms of the…seven states (sapta-pramatrs), which ascend out of the zone of objective, dual reality…traverse the zone of contraction, and, break out of it and enter into the pure path, complet[ing] the ascent of the Self and the recovery of its fundamental identity as Shiva” (202). In “the first and lowest state, known as the sakala,” the individual is deluded by ignorance and is subject to transmigration, maya, and the five sheaths that blur the power of the five initially pure shaktis (mentioned above) (202). The second state, “known as the pralayaka”, is characterized by the absence of “perception due to dissolution” (202). Here, the individual is free from the effects of the karma-mala, yet is still at the mercy of both the subtlest impurity (the anava-mala) and the mayiya-mala, which give rise to feelings “of incompleteness” and “notions of distinction and differentiation” respectively (202 + 200). In the third level, called the vijnanakala, the non-perception of the previous stage remains, but now due to “higher knowledge” (202). Likewise, here the “yogin who is on the path towards liberation” is free from the grip of the mayiya-mala, and is described as being engrossed in alternating periods of “extroverted awareness and…inward, appeased, meditative awareness” (202). The fourth level of the suddhavidya-tattva “is an intermediate stage that functions as the threshold of liberation”, for here “the expanded egoity of the consciousness of Shiva is experienced clearly, while…awareness of the world has not been lost” (202-3). As the practitioner continues, “the [former] realization of the unbounded Self [which] overshadow[ed] the objective universe…as false and illusory” shifts in the fifth stage (the mantresvara) to acknowledge “the true intrinsic reality of the objective universe” (203). Now “the objective universe is no longer evaluated as illusory but is rather experienced as an expansion of the intrinsic nature of consciousness” (203). In the sixth level, “that of the mantra-mahesvara[,]…the unbounded Self has swollen to such dimensions as to almost completely overshadow the experience of the so-called objective universe which is gradually being devoured in the abyss of consciousness” (203). This process culminates in the final stage of siva, in which the practitioner’s consciousness is completely free from any trace of “contraction or limitation” and returns “Shiva back to himself completely” (203). These successive states of realization coincide with developments and movements within the subtle body of the practitioner.

It has been noted that according to Tantric cosmogony each successive level of manifestation both reflects and contains every higher level. Thus, the human body, which is one of the grossest layers of manifestation, contains within it a subtle matrix wherein Shiva and his Shakti reside. This “inner map…consists of seven psychic vortices visualized as circuits (chakras) or lotuses spaced along the vertical axis of the subtle body, the susumna…” (91). Likewise, “they represent the seven planes of ascent and provide the internal mechanism through which the adorer works out his unity with the cosmos” (92). The highest chakra, which is called sahasrara and is located at the crown of the head, and is the abode of Shiva, who under normal circumstances is separated from his divine consort, his shakti, located at the “root chakra” at the base of the spine (91). Thus, when the individual is unaware of his divinity, the kundalinisakti (the Goddess power within the subtle physiology) “is described as a sleeping serpent” (91). However, as one slowly realizes one’s identity as that of Shiva, the kundalinisakti awakens, shifts her role from the “cause of bondage[,] insofar as manifestation caused by Shakti is the cause of bondage” to that of the liberator (Flood 264-5). “She begins to ascend [the susumna] like a fiery serpent breaking through…the chakras to unite with Supreme Shiva…” (handout 94). After the bliss and dissolution of separateness that accompanies the rise of the kundalinisakti, she descends once more, each time purifying and untangling karmic knots that have accumulated at various chakras throughout one’s many lifetimes. However, if one continues yogic practices, and stays on the spiritual path, it is thought that one can achieve a permanent condition of realization while still alive. The one who achieves this, known as a jivanmukta, has moved beyond merely cultivating an inward samadhi and embraced the deeper and more expansive vision of samavesa sadhana, “in which the yogin bathes in all moments in the perception of unbounded consciousness” (Muller Ortega, Becoming Bhairava, 219). In this state of “divinized…physical embodiment…the practitioner [has found] a way to entice the divine pulsation of consciousness into revealing itself at all times, in all experiences, and under all circumstances” (220 + 225). Because of this the “jivanmukta is considered beyond the reach of the varnasramadharma” (196). Additionally, “the process of sense perception becomes itself a channel for the discovery of that which is ordinarily beyond the reach of the senses – the infinity of Shiva”, which no doubt informs the “Tantric attitude of non-renunciation” (196). Clearly then, the Kashmir Saiva tradition’s conception of cosmogony directly informs its soteriological speculations and practices in which the external process of manifestation is reversed within the context of the subtle physiology, freeing the practitioner from a bound existence and catalyzing the realization of his identity with Shiva. While these are characteristic and central beliefs of Kashmir Saivism, it is equally crucial to note the importance of the ritual context in which these realizations occur and are initiated.

Tantric ritual aims “to court the elusive Shakti, the power of Shiva, and to invite the descent of this power into the awareness of the practitioner” (Muller-Ortega, The Power of Secret Ritual, 41). Specifically, the visarga-shakti (Emissional Power) is invoked, which “represents the central divine dyad…[and] manifests the worlds of transmigrational experience…and at the same time…reabsorbs these worlds…” (44). As opposed to his orthodox, Brahmanical counterparts, the tantrika attempts to utilize this force not to perpetuate the cosmos and maintain its manifestation, but conversely, collapse the cosmos (and thus consciousness) back into its unified state, “render[ing] all things back to Shiva” (52). In order to undo the social and cosmological reality practitioners have become accustomed to, Tantric ritual seeks to deliberately transgress common collective norms. However, these practices are also legitimized on the basis of theological and cosmogonic conceptions. For example, “ritualized sexual union” is believed to “physically embody the dyadic wholeness of Shiva” (45). Hence, maithuna (sexual union) not only serves to break down one’s social conceptions of self, but also mirrors the cosmogonic process of dissolution (which is played out within the practitioner’s consciousness) where Shakti reunites with Shiva, causing experiences of “ecstasy [in] the liberated being…” (47). Similarly, Tantric ritual employs madya (intoxicating drink) for transformative purposes. Substances, such as wine, that “are perceived to effect a transformation – be it physical, mental, or moral” are commonly deemed dangerous and to be avoided (Douglas Brooks, Auspicious Wisdom, 153). This transformative power, however, is harnessed within the sacred context of ritual, wherein the sadhana “obviate[s] [wine’s] usually polluting effects” (154). Thus, “by dealing with all substances as manifestations of divine power, Srividya [(a form of Tantra)] sees ritual as a process by which one relocates or readjusts substances…” for the purposes of realization (154). It seems then that “prohibited substances not only allow one to overcome the conventional distinction between pure and impure but also to effect the transformation of the impure into the pure” (158). Thus, by sanctifying all aspects of reality, the tantrika revels in all facets of manifestation (bhoga), which have been robbed of their negative effects and alchemically employed for liberative purposes, while simultaneously transcending ordinary human experience and its transmigrational consequences (moksa). Interestingly though, while Tantric ritual appears to be very far removed from Brahmanism, it is in fact very closely linked to traditional Vedic ritual practice and speculation.

Obvious differences exist between the practice of Tantra and the traditional norms of Vedic Brahmanism, the first and most obvious being the fact that “Tantrics retain and then subordinate conventional views of purity and pollution in an expanded system of hierarchy,” as mentioned above (155). However, it is important to note that “Srividya’s ritual ideology not only assumes but depends on a brahman-dominated view of purity and impurity even while it deliberately defies traditional brahman boundaries” (159). The popularity of Tantric practice, even among Brahmans, is perhaps due to the “partial failure of Vedic ritual to produce [its] stated results,” that of reconciling the two extremes of “what is” and “what should be” (150). “The Srividya rituals seek to overcome disjunction, chaos, and meaninglessness…not merely by continued affirmation and repetitive practice,” but instead by grounding personal realizations in “experiences that claim to fulfill the promises of immortality, unconditioned bliss (ananda), and prosperity in this world” (160 + 170-1). Thus, the “Srividya Tantric is able to press the argument that Tantric rites fulfill the Vedic legacy because they are essentially similar in form” but that they also “declare completely fulfilled” what “Vedic ritual postpones or declares to be present but ‘unseen’ (apurva)” (175 + 167). The fact that a ritual’s results are immediate and knowable allows one to correct errors before death and experience liberation “within the realm of ritual actions” (171). Tantric ritual can thus be understood as an elaboration of Vedic ritual, reconstituting and reshaping it in order to better serve the needs of humanity during the kali-yuga (final period of cyclical time in which humanity is particularly depraved and liberation quite difficult). The close connection between Tantric and Vedic ritual can perhaps be better appreciated when viewed alongside renunciate and bhakti (devotional) movements.

Traditional Vedic practices, Tantric ritual, bhakti, and Upanisadic contemplation all seek “the goal of immortality” (173). Fascinatingly, as counter to traditional Brahmanic values as Tantra may seem, it is in fact much closer to established Vedic ideology than either bhakti movements or renunciate philosophies heavily influenced by the Upanisads. Firstly, while “Tantrics, like renunciates, reject caste[, they] do not imagine themselves outside the caste structure of Hinduism. Tantrics view their own caste-defying ritualism, rather than renunciation, as the correct complement to the worldly life, which allows them to consecrate every aspect of existence, even those normally considered impure and pollutive (156). Clearly, “the Tantric method is not [composed of the] renunciation of distinctions and worldly involvements but rather [the] transgression of them” (155). Secondly, Tantric practice upholds the centrality, efficacy, and importance of ritual and ritual specialists, which both bhakti movements and renunciates scorn. “Whereas bhakti frequently bypasses the ritualist and can be disdainful of specialized knowledge, Srividya reappropriates an ideology of ritual that centers on acquiring a gnostic expertise without sacrificing either theism or devotion” (173). In this way “Srividya creates an alternative to anti-ritualist devotionalism and to the Vedanta that rejects ritual efficacy in favor of pure gnosticism” (173). Thus, it “preserves the prerogatives of the ritualist, and claims to fulfill the Vedas by combining external and internal sacrifices” (173). Additionally, as mentioned passively above, there exists an elitism within Tantra (between the Tantric and non-Tantric), which “can be considered [an] extension, or rather [an] elaboration, of the principles of Vedic elitism,” another ideological tenet that both renunciates and bhakti movements attempt to eliminate. Paradoxically then, it seems that while transgressing and internally subverting traditional Vedic norms and social injunctions, Tantra is also dependent on, and elaborates, Vedic ritualism and elitism, as opposed to renunciate and bhakti traditions which strive to bypass or exterminate these aspects completely.

In order to fully comprehend the practice of Tantra one must start by analyzing their cosmogony. Within the Kashmir Saiva tradition there exists three central aspects of the cosmogonic process that inform Tantric ritual and soteriology – 1) that the manifestation of Siva’s infinite consciousness proceeds in successive stages, the higher of which are more subtle and less coagulated than the lower, grosser levels, 2) that there exists a male/female bifurcation within the godhead, the male portion of which is likened to nirguna Shiva and the female portion of which is considered to be his saguna Shakti, and 3) that each successive level of manifestation (which includes human beings) contains and reflects the upper levels. This unique view of humanity’s cosmological place informs Tantra’s soteriological practices, which allows the initially bound human subject to raise the Goddess power, in the form of the kundalinisakti, and reunite her with Shiva within the microcosmic context of the practitioner’s subtle physiology. This process, which reverses the cosmogonic course of emanation, follows a sequential pattern that results in the sadhana’s realization of his identity with the godhead, granting him both enjoyment of worldly pleasure (bhoga) and freedom from its transmigratory effects (moksa). These spiritual tenets are central to Tantra, and are heavily tied to the tradition’s ritual aspect, wherein transgressive acts are performed in order to dissociate the practitioner from his social ego and harness the visarga-sakti’s regressive power, attempting to dispel ignorance and render the tantrika’s consciousness back unto Shiva. Interestingly, while Tantra appears to subvert and contradict Vedic injunctions, it is thoroughly dependent on them, and considers itself to be fulfilling the promises traditional Vedic ritual has failed to keep. This can be especially noticed in Tantra’s elitism, ritualism, and anti-renunciate attitude, aspects that keep Tantra paradoxically closer to traditional Brahmanism than either traditions of bhakti devotionalism or Upanisadic renunciation.

Wonderful Book on a school of Kashmir Saivism

An indispensable resource in the study of Tantra. Your best bet is a college library unless you want to spend lots of $$$

Great compilation of works on Tantra

Another wonderful compilation

The central work of probably the world's foremost scholar of Tantra


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