A Concise Introduction to Tantra
1. The definition of the term tantra
Tantra-vidya, or tantra-sastra, is a very special and highly specialized, deeply esoteric and extremely precise knowledge on consciousness expansion (tan/tanoti) towards total freedom (tra/trayate). The goal is utter independence (sarvatantra-svatantra) of a self-realized individual. The origin of tantra is unknown, but it probably goes back to the prehistoric shamanic and matriarchal past where the fertility cults and ceremonies, and the worship of nature spirits and goddesses were still prevalent. In spite of its being heavily influenced by the Vedic culture of India, its original materialism and naturalness is obvious in its philosophy and rituals. Nature is spiritual, and so there is no difference between matter and spirit.
The basic meaning of the word “tantra” is expansion; it is the cosmic innate power (sakti) to extend through the whole of existence, connecting everything with everything. Therefore, tantra is the invisible thread running through all that exists seamlessly binding the Unseen Source with the Seen Reality. Tantra also means dependence and the main idea is to learn how to depend on oneself (svatantra) by means of different tools and techniques, also known as tantra, so that all debilitating attachments to anything outside ourselves could be abolished. One other meaning of tantra is a book, especially a book expounding a secret and secretive knowledge known only to gods and then revealed as pure grace in the divine conversations of the primordial couple, Siva and Sakti, overheard by the accomplished sages (siddha) or taught to them directly by Siva or Sakti.
The aspirant (tantrika), with the help of a trustworthy and competent teacher (guru-deva), should primarily find his/her own technique (svatantra) to develop deeper intimacy with oneself and the world, cut decisively through social conditioning and finally claim his/her innate divinity. The path to be traversed is the one from a tamed beast (pasu) to a powerful personality (vira) and finally to godliness (divya) by overcoming the eight obstacles to divinity: hatred, doubt, fear, shame, aversion, family, status and convention.
2. Embarking on the path of tantra
The basic prerequisite for entering the mysterious world of tantra is a tantric initiation, or (tantrika-diksha), which is a preparatory ritual of consecration by which an initiating teacher (diksha-guru) imparts the essential incentive, knowledge and encouragement to the initiated student (dikshita) before he/she starts his/her personal and personalized practice (tantra-sadhana) of expanding consciousness towards total freedom (sarvatantra-svatantra). It is a symbolic act of dying to the past and being reborn for the future possibility of self-realization (atma-vidya); it is entering into a particular tradition (sampradaya) by the grace of the teacher (guru-prasada) who empowers the student to actually begin investing appropriate effort (sishya-prayatna) into his or her spiritual and human development.
In most tantric traditions, especially in the paradigmatic sakta-tantra, the first and sometimes the only initiation is the one using a mantra (mantra-diksha, or mantropadesa) as the primary means of awakening the aspirant and giving him or her a powerful tool for self-transformation. It is usually the root mantra (mula-mantra) of that particular tradition and/or some other important mantras that are useful for embarking on the slippery and exciting path of self-exploration and self-discovery.
The act of initiation binds the teacher and student into a sacred relationship of mutual trust and respect making possible the key realization that the teacher, student, mantra and the deity are one and the same actuality. This realization happens in this very body (kula) of ours by our awakening to the enormous potential (kula-kundalini) for self-transformation. Our embodiment is actually our enlightenment.
3. The essentials of the tantric practice
Tantra-sadhana, or sakti-sadhana, is a tantric spiritual practice of worshipping and harnessing sakti, the feminine cosmic power enlivening the whole of creation. It is a process of self-empowerment aiming at self-transformation from passive acceptance of what we think is our destiny into active engagement with the world, with the idea or “rewriting our destiny”. The first and last step is the realization that we are power-full, not power-less, and so can actually act and be an active and conscious participant of our lives.
The three principal tools of tantric practice are mantra-japa, yantra-puja and tantra-yoga. Mantra-japa is the chanting of appropriate mantras, especially the seed sounds (bija-mantra) that have a numinous sonic power and multiple layers of deep esoteric meaning. Mantras can be articulated in different ways in different contexts, but the goal is always energizing the whole body with divine powers, with the main intention to experience deep inner silence. Yantra-puja is a ritualistic and meditative worship of sacred diagrams that are essential geometrical forms of the deities. The purpose of it is to identify with the yantra and the deity residing in its center as the dimensionless point (bindu) of all points. Tantra-yoga is a meditative immersion into one’s own Heart to feel the natural union with one’s own Self, which is Godhead Himself, Herself, Itself, all that, none of that or beyond all designation.
Tantric practice is usually divided into external rituals (bahir-yaga) and internal rituals (antar-yaga), which are different forms of visualizing or other meditations also known as manasa-puja, or upasana that usually dispense with all external rituals that mainly serve the purpose of preparing for internal worship. A deity can be adored as an icon, a mystical diagram, a living person or Life Herself. An individual practice is usually highly personalized and progresses under a close supervision of the teacher and the practice can include working with the elements, structure and dynamic of the so called subtle physiology: cakras, nadis, kundalini-sakti, etc.
Collective worship, on the other hand, is often highly patterned and can include sexualized rituals or even some transgressive/antinomian practices for some practitioners depending on the tradition, but a personal and personalized practice is far more important. For these and other reasons, secrecy was an important part of tantric practice. However, it is not really essential for the success of the practice but can be an important element in providing the right context for it.
4. The goal of tantra
The union of Siva and Sakti (siva-saktyaikya) is both the final goal of tantra and the underlying truth of existence. Namely, the universe comes as the union of opposites, as the interplay between polarities, and tantra-sadhana, or tantric practice is a conscious participation in that mystery, wholeheartedly and compassionately. And, ultimately, it is not even the question of participation because that presupposes duality whereas all that exists is actually one reality when the mind is not dividing that reality into opposites, fragmenting it into disconnected pieces. So, the point of tantric practice is reaching that point (bindu) of the overall unity (aikya) of all that exists by dissolving the divisive and divided mind (mano-laya, or bindu-bhedana) into the indivisible and undivided wholeness (ekatva).
The most immediate union of opposites, of siva and sakti, is the very act of breathing, the interpenetration of exhale and inhale, the very precondition of maintaining life in each living organism. The division of reality into the body and soul is the next powerful union. Then there is the polarity of male and female that brings a new life into existence, and also the tension between the individual and the world. And finally, there is the imagined polarity between the human being and God. These are the primary focus of tantric interest and engagement, and they form an intricate web of interrelatedness that tantra wants to understand and employ to achieve both material prosperity (bhukti) and spiritual liberation (mukti).
Therefore, the main tool of tantra is yoga, the process of unifying all that is broken into separate pieces so that actual union can be clearly felt at Heart and all duality transcended by transcending ordinary distracted consciousness (citta) in order to plunge into concentrated pure awareness (cit). When that happens, there is nothing but non-duality (advaita), powerful consciousness/conscious power (cichsakti) and bliss (ananda). This can happen from inside out through an individual practice of yoking siva and sakti as consciousness and power of the living organism healing from within or it can happen from outside in through relationship, especially male-female polarity as a careful cultivation of true intimacy and healthy sexuality, love and freedom.
Ultimately, there is no way into reality. Spontaneous abiding in our natural condition of peaceful power and powerful peace (sahaja-yoga) is perfectly enough and is already happening as ourselves, as Mother Nature, as Father Cosmos and their Eternal Union. Nothing is needed for us to be happy; we are happiness itself when all the seeking is over and nothing but actuality of being alive here and now remains. And that is the union of all opposites, including the ultimate one: the union of life and death.
5. An example of a vital and contemporary tantric tradition
There are many different traditional forms of Hindu, Buddhist and Jaina tantra, and some of the lineages are still in existence in India and elsewhere. Of the five most important streams of Hindu tantra – saiva, sakta, vaishnava, ganapatya and saura – sakta-tantra is the most vital and most representative one today, developed mostly within two schools: kali-kula (the worship of the goddess Kali, mostly in the north of India) and sri-kula (the worship of the goddess Sri Lalita, mostly in the south of India). Sri-vidya-sakta-tantra is a form of sophisticated tantra focusing on the worship of the Great Goddess Sri Lalita Ma, the lovely and playful goddess of love and light as opposed to (and compatible to) Sri Kali Ma, the fierce and black goddess of transformation and dissolution. Sri-vidya means “auspicious/benevolent/enlightening wisdom” and it points directly to the very essence of that old tantric tradition and is also one of the many names of Sri Lalita Devi, even the name of Her principal mantra. Her full name is Sri Sri Sri Rajarajesvari Brahma Vidya Parabhattarika Lalitambika Mahatripurasundari Devi Mata. She is all red, majestically beautiful and deeply compassionate. In her four arms she holds the symbols of her divine power: five flowery arrows representing the alluring force of the five senses, a sugarcane bow representing the attractiveness of the mind, a noose representing attachment and an elephant goad representing self-mastery. Her childlike form is Sri Bala, her mature form is Sri Mahashodasi and her crone form is Sri Tripurabhairavi. The three goddesses that are very close to her are Sri Rajasyamala, Sri Varahi and Sri Pratyangira.
Traditionally, Sri Lalita is worshipped by means of her fifteen-syllable root mantra (sri-pancadasi-mula-mantra), her yantra, or sri-cakra, and her tantra, which is a ritualistic and meditative process of connecting her mantra and her yantra with the body of the worshipper (sadhaka). She is actually the Heart of each human being, the very life force pulsating in us as the breath, heartbeat and sexual attraction. The idea is to identify with Her through ritual worship (puja) and appropriate meditation (sri-vidyopasana). However, the worship usually starts with adoring Her anthropomorphic icon (murti/vigraha) by visualizing Her (dhyana-bhavana) in one’s Heart (hrdaya) and then surrendering to Her with all one’s Heart.
At the highest level, Sri Lalita bestows spiritual liberation (moksha) and is the highest and finest art of love (kama-kala) based on all-encompassing compassion (sahrdayatva). She is the primordial and paradigmatic practitioner of yoga (yogini), the giver of yoga (yogada), the one that can be reached through yoga (yogya) and so She readily grants bliss through yoga (yogananda). And, above all else, She is the great ruler of those who have mastered themselves through yoga (maha-yogesvaresvari). In essence, She is the goddess of yoga and She promotes yoga as the utter union with Her as Mother, Woman, Nature, Cosmos and the Source of All Existence. She is easily approachable and very kind; by Her very presence She teaches us to be kind to ourselves, other living things and the whole of creation. She abides in the center of sri-cakra as the “genetic code of the cosmos” and shines forth as the spark of all Life in the infinite depths of our human Heart, which is nothing but Divinity, Sri Lalita Mahadevi Ma Herself!
om hrim om hrim om hrim
om sri matre namah
om aim hrim srim lalita maha-tripurasundaryai namah
om sri amrtananda guru-murtaye namah
sri gurubhyo namah
harih om tat sat