In as far as this Indian term is known in the West, tantrism is generally linked with mystery and mysticism as well as with sex, magic and hocus-pocus.
Indeed, tantrism is connected with all these and even more. Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, Jainism, Vajrayana, Bönpo, Ayurveda and Shamanism are some of the philosophies, religions and sciences that were somehow influenced by tantrism.
The term tantra may have been derived from old Indian words like tan, which means ‘stretch’, as in stretching a man’s faculties, or tanti, a ‘rope’ for a devotee to hold and secure. In the same line it could come from tantu, a ‘thread’ that composes the fabric of warp and weft, symbolic of two basic tantric principles: male and female. Another derivation could be from tanu, ‘body’ as it is one of the main instruments with which tantrism is practiced.
Tantrism has spread to South, Southeast and East Asia mainly through different forms of Buddhism despite the fact that tantrism is considered older than Buddhism and its principles are even alien to the original Buddhist doctrine.
Tantrism may be rooted in the religions of pre-Aryan inhabitants of India. Yogic practices are already suggested in some of the seals dated to the Indus Valley Civilization of several millennia BC. According to some scholars tantrism was introduced by the Vratyas, a people coming from southwest Iran who travelled through the Indus Valley, leaving traces of their ‘proto-Siva’ cult practice with tribes of the Himalayan foothills, Bengal and Assam in India. In the epic Mahabharata they are identified with drug-addicts, drunkards, poisoners, pimps and credited with magical powers and malignant kinds of sorcery.
There is also a Mongolian or Chinese influence in tantrism. One of the tantric practices is called chinachara, ‘the Chinese way’, brought to India by Bhogar, a South Indian tantric adept and alchemist. From the beginning of the Christian era he ventured into China during which he was initiated into the school of Pieng-tsu and obtained Daoist secrets of sex-magic and transcendental alchemy. Bhogar then returned to India and introduced Daoist techniques, magic, alchemy and medicine known as the chinachara. According to scholars 64 out of the 192 canonical tantras are assigned to Chinese and Tibetan origins.
Tantrism was for most of its existence a pan-Indian phenomenon. It left its marks in Vajrayana Buddhism, spreading from Kashmir to Bengal and Orissa. But it may have been more strongly rooted in Saiva sects like Saktas, Siddhas and Kapalikas as well as in Vaisnava sects of Sahajiyas and Pancharatras, and the sun-worshipping Saurapatas and Soma-Siddhantins or moon-cultists.
Many followers of tantra, called tantrikas, believe that the canon of tantrism was revealed by the Hindu god Siva as a specific doctrine for the present era, the Kali-Yuga. Some Hindu scholars consider tantrism as containing the highest philosophical speculations and metaphysics while others reject it as the grossest obscenities and the wildest superstitions. It revolts against conventional orthodox Vedic schools and stratification of casts. In past times, orthodox Hindus and Muslims have destroyed thousands of tantric manuscripts, claiming they were bathing in obscurity and vulgarity and expressed in a crude Sanskrit. The Kaula sect is considered as extreme left-hand tantric. The name may have been derived from the goddess Kali, or the kula, the ‘family’ of the chosen, or even from kulata, the ‘unchaste women’.
Tantras expand doctrines on the creation and destruction of the universe, the worship of certain deities, spiritual exercises, secret rituals, magical powers and meditation.
Three words in Indian tantrism are related, also phonologically: tantra (the philosophy), mantra (the knowledge through sound) and yantra (the means to leading a tantric existence). As a philosophy tantra claims that the reality (prakriti) is pure consciousness, pure being, pure bliss. This reality however is veiled by illusion (maya), which makes reality appear dual: pleasant and unpleasant, conscious and unconscious… For tantrism there is both dualism and non-dualism; it affirms that the cosmic process and the individual soul are both real. By taking the soul back to the source, the root of reality, tantra reveals the infinite; it liberates from the fetters that maya created.
Through three phases, purification, elevation and reaffirmation of identity, tantra sublimates the relative reality.
Ritual practices, “ordinary” as well as “secret ritual” are designed to help the tantrika on his path to liberation. In the “ordinary ritual” the use of mantras (magical syllables, spells and chanting) and yantras (magical diagrams, mandalas, the use of certain instruments etc.) are generally practiced. These invoke specific deities like Siva and Sakti, who represent aspects of the ultimate god. They are engaged as “ishta devata”, chosen meditational gods, in which the tantric practitioners visualize themselves.
“Secret rituals” surpass the ordinary ones, with practices such as sexual intercourse, even defecation, urination and vomiting. They belong to the Vamachara or left-hand-path and facilitate heightened states of awareness. According to tantric texts, sex can lead to procreation, pleasure and liberation. With regards to the latter, several rituals are prescribed, balancing energies, awakening the kundalini, culminating in a unity of cosmic consciousness.
Another important aspect is necromancy: the preoccupation with death, cadavers, graveyards and cremation grounds. Siva’s incarnation as Bhairava and the Sakti as Bhairavi (Kali, Durga) represent terror and manifest the awesome mysteries of the cosmos, the pain of birth, the panic of living and the uncertainties of death.
Some of the oldest tantras however are of Vajrayana Buddhist origin. The famous “Guhya Samaj Tantra”, literally “the Secret Conclaves”, dates from the mid-seventh century. Another one, the “Manjusri Mulakalpa” was written in the mid-eight century.
Far from the original Buddhist doctrine, the Buddha here is represented in continuous intercourse with the female Tara. Other Vajrayana texts reveal sexual mysticism, the vajra or thunderbolt being synonymous with the male organ and the paradise “Sukhavati” being the female organ, yoni.
The well experienced tantrika can go extremely far in his path through meditation and magic mantras and by drawing psychic mandalas: after having had relationships with another’s wife, a virgin and even one’s own family, the tantrika visits demonesses (dakinis) to finally take pleasure in the wives of the gods.
Finally, attention should be drawn to the fact that many of the diagrams, mandalas and symbols, represented in India are of Jain origin. These never have sexual connotations but deal mainly with cosmographic themes. Jains have always made clear diagrams and maps of the world (Jambudvipa) and the cosmos (Lokapurusa). Jains described in the smallest of detail the macro as well as the micro-cosmos, using notions equivalent to light-years and atoms, long before western scientists discovered them.
Jan Van Alphen
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