The Culture Of Tantra


Origins of Tantric Thinking

Tantra and tantric thinking have their roots solidly in both Hindu and Buddhist theology and are many thousands of years old. However, there has often been confusion around tantra and it’s teachings, with people from all parts of the world understanding, or perhaps mis-understanding, the teachings as everything from a path to ultimate enlightenment and liberation of the soul with the earth and universe, to secret dark arts associated with sorcery, sex magic and sexuality hedonism.

What doesn’t help is that the culture associated with Tantra is extremely diverse, combined with the fact that as a popular way of thinking it effectively died out in around 1000-1100 AD with the rise of Islam and other faiths. This has led to it being mis-quoted, eve n abused in some quarters, while also giving it an air of mystery which has seen it rise in popularity in the recent past particularly in the west and in “new age” lifestyles and ways of thinking.

As a way of thinking and a culture, tantra first emerged in the ancient past in Hindu theology. While there is some debate as to when this occurred, many believe it happened around the time of the original Hindu sages.

 It was probably during the first millennium, AD, that Hinduism itself gre out of the Vedic traditions and became, as we know it today, classical Hinduism. From this, Tantra emerged as a way of thinking and although there may be some evidence that tantra was around well before the rise of this major Indian religion, it is unlikely. So, from this root, Tantra grew borrowing elements of Yoga, Meditation and other body-centred practices into what it is today.

Alongside Hindu thinking, which is a polytheistic religion, Tantra c an and does have a relation to many different gods and goddesses. However, it is most closely aligned to Shiva and as a result his Shakti, or Devi. Representing the male, and the female, and the energy within the universe. 

The word “Tantra”

As we’ve been studying for some time, and reading and learning from others, we have come across many different meanings, or so called meanings, of the word Tantra. As with many ancient words, it seems there are different explanations. But, from what we have found, it is derived from two words in the Sanskrit language. Tattva meaning the science of the cosmos. And Mantra, to mean the science of sounds and vibrations. Which could be interpreted as energy. Thus, combined, Tantra basically means the study of the energy of the universe and, in particular, how it relates to us as individual beings.

In the English language, the term ‘tantric’ simply means related to the tantras, as in the scriptures themselves (if such a thing really exists as it is so diverse and from so many sources). A person who is a devotee of tantric thinking and the tantras is known as a tantrika.

Tantra and tantric sex are about the combining of male and female energies to create a new whole union.

Tantra and tantric sex are about the combining of male and female energies to create a new whole union.

In his book, A Survey of Tantric Hinduism for Historians of Religion, André Padoux says:

The word “Tantrism” is assuredly a Western creation. India traditionally knows only texts called Tantras. These texts, moreover, fall far short of covering the entire Tantric literature; nor are only Tantric texts called Tantras. India also knows the word tantraśāstra, “the teaching of the Tantras,” as well as the adjective tāntrika, “Tantric,” which is opposed to vaidika, “Vedic,” thereby placing a new form of revelation and rites against Vedic tradition and rites.

From another scholar, Teun Goudriaan, it is claimed that tantra is the systematic quest for salvation or for spiritual excellence by realizing and fostering the bipolar, bisexual divinity within one’s own body.

That is not to necessarily be taken as literal, so don’t get exicted or turned-off by the phrase bisexual there. It means the combination of the male and female energies of the universe to create a whole. Teun Goudriaan does on to say that there are a number of different “tantric elements” that characterise the path to practice, including distinct paths of practice (sādhana), the use of mantras and mandalas, visualization, transmutation, sublimiation, the worship of the deities, distinct initiation ceremonies, and yogic practices involving the subtle body.

Shiva and Shakti are the most prominent deities in tantric thinking.

Shiva and Shakti are the most prominent deities in tantric thinking.

Deities within the Tantric Space

As mentioned above, with Tantra being related to Hinduism, and that being a polytheistic religion, Tantra can and does have many deities involved. But by far and away the most prominent are Shiva and Shakti. The male and the female.

Tantric types and terminologies

To the devout, there are 18 so called Agamas, which are referred to as the tantras of Shiva. These are ritualistic in nature. Within this set of Agama, there are three distinct traditional spaces.

  • Dakshina

  • Vama

  • Madhyama

Which represent the elements of Shiva’s female side, Shakti.

The Dakshina tradition, characterized by the sattva branch of tantra is essentially for good purpose. The Madhyama, characterized by rajas, is of mixed nature, while the Vama, characterized by tamas, is the most impure form of tantra.

It’s all about the body

The human body in tantric thinking is seen as the microcosm representing the universe. As such, rituals around the body and the experiences it can provide as key to the thinking. For some, this is tantric sex and sexual pleasure. For others, such as the Kaulajnana-Nirnaya practitioner in India, it is pain through prolonged meditation upside down on the head ti represent the lunar cycle, and fire to represent the sun and stars.

Kundalini energy, located in the root chakra or Muladhara Chakra, is key to tantra and tantric sex.

Kundalini energy, located in the root chakra or Muladhara Chakra, is key to tantra and tantric sex.

As the chakras are contained within the body also, the energy associated with them has physical properties and. Can be manipulated through the body and it’s experience. In particular, Kundalini energy, which is located at the root chakra as it’s source close to the genital organs of the penis, or lingam in men, and vagina (vulva) or yoni in women, it is the closest to the ground and the one we sit on the most so often closest to earth as a grounding charka. This energy is controversial and seen by many tantrikas as essential to our understanding of practice. Kundalini can be seen as a flow of energy known as sushumna nadi, which can move between open chakras and is fundamental to many things, including yoga of the Hatha variety.