Category Archives: a. History and Fundamentals of Tantra

History and Fundamentals of Tantra

Like the Veda, Tantra was primarily the way or means to understand the mysteries of life and universe, somewhat akin to the old Pythagorean concept of “philosophy” which was “contemplation, study and knowledge of nature” (See Bhattacharyya 1). The scope of Tantra is wider than that of Agama as Tantra is varied in character and deals with as many as twenty-five subjects, such as Brahman, The Chakras, Karma, Yoga and the principles of creation [(Basu, 1-2). The term Agama covers only seven of the said twenty-five subjects, especially the revelation side of knowledge]. “Tantra” is derived from the root tan, to spread (Sastri 2). Etymological interpretations of the word Tantra, as found in the ancient texts, clearly and conclusively point out that originally, the term Tantra had no special religious or metaphysical significance (See Bhattacharyya 1). In the Vedic texts the word Tantra occurs in the sense of a loom [Rgveda; X.71.9; Artharveda, X.7.42; Taittiriya Brahmana, II.5.5.3. Panini derived the word tantraka (V.2.70), meaning a cloth taken away from the loom, from Tantra]. Tantra nowadays comes to mean the way of realizing the true nature of Brahman, and is conceived as a moksa-sastra [(Bhattacharyya. 14) Moksa-sastra meaning a scripture meant for liberation from worldly fetters. Not only the followers of Tantra, but those of other quasi-materialistic systems as well-like the Jains, the Sankhyas, the Mimamsakas, the Nyaya-Vaisesikas, etc., which came more or less close to a mechanistic conception of nature-could not free themselves from the influence of this concept of moksa]. It is not known precisely when Tantra originated. It is given the status as sruti in some works and is stated by Harita in Kallukabhatta’s commentary on Manu [(Sastri 7) Srutisca dvividha prokta vaidiki tantriki tatha. Manu (ii. I)]. Tantric concepts can be compared to the Chinese principles of Yin and Yang, symbolizing the positive and negative forces. In the 19th century Western scholars of Indian religious systems regarded Tantra as a degraded form of Hinduism which consisted of the most barbarous, repulsive, and obnoxious elements [H.H. Wilson, Essays and Lectures on the Religion of the Hindus, London 1862, Vol. I, pp. 248-257; M. Monier-Williams, Indian Wisdom, London 1875, pp. 501ff; Brahmanism and Buddhism, London 1891, pp. 191 ff; E.W. Hopkins, Religions of India, Boston 1885, pp 489-492; etc. The use of animal food and spirituous liquors, indulged to in excess, is the rule of these strange ceremonies, in which Sakti is worshipped in the person of a naked woman, and the proceedings terminate with the carnal copulation of the initiated, each couple representing Siva and Devi, and becoming thus for the moment identified with them].

We do not know whether Tantra was imported into India or exported from India to other countries. Tantric influence is clear far beyond the limits of India. China and Tibet are the two most prominent places beyond India which reveal the influence of Tantra. Several Sanskrit Tantras are preserved only in Chinese and Tibetan translations, the original works being lost. Evidences are available that Tantric philosophers and scholars from India visited China and Tibet (See Sastri 67). When considering foreign influence of Tantra, it deserves notice that, according to the Sammoha-tantra, goddess Nila-Sarasvati was worshipped at a place supposed to have been included in Mongolia (See Sastri 77). In Bengal and Orissa, especially, Tantrism exerted a tremendous influence on Vaisnava ideas and practices. The Tantric goddess, Ekanamsa, was able to find her way into the Vaisnava religion as the consort of Krsna. Her image between Krsna and Balarama can be seen in the sanctum of the Ananta-Vasudeva temple at Bhuvaneswar (See Bhattacharyya 253). The origin and development of the Tantras as a special class of literature and as a special mode of sadhana are ultimately connected with the rise of Saivism, and the Pancaratra, the ancient Samkhya-Yoga supplying them with a philosophical background (See Basu 55). The Tantric practice of the offering of blood and flesh by the sadhaka (an aspirant, seeker) out of his own body might have developed from the idea of self-immolation found in sarva-yajna or from the Vedic idea that the sacrificer is to be looked upon as the pasu or animal to be sacrificed (See Sastri 95). Although these Tantric practices cannot be directly traced to the Vedic tradition, they seem to be later developments of some or the other Vedic rites.

Ethically the Tantras are said to be directive principles that help formulate what is good and what is bad in the social context (See Basu 362). So as long as there is a world to live in, and consciousness to know and survive, the Tantras will remain in some form or another. The Tantras believe in the principles of polarity both in its original and derivative forms. (Basu 367) There is a technical term in the Tantras, viz., “sadadhva” which means “six-ways,” and it is said that those who have understood it have realized the secret of the Tantras (Basu 402). The Mother Goddess figurines, scenes on seals and ritual objects, notably large stone lingas, give glimpse of Tantric survivals of magica fertility rites that formed the basis of primitive Tantrism, and of the deities arising out of them (Bhattacharyya 159). The existence of a Male Principle is not inconsistent with the cult of the Female Principle. We find that the Male Principle has some part to play although it is described as “the connotative of static existence and dissociated from Sakti or the Female Principle, and is no better than a corpse [(Bhattacharyya, 159-160)]. According to the Tantric view, the act of creation is due to the union of the Female and Male Principles, the former being the more important functionary (See Bhattacharyya 225). According to the Tantras, there are different grades of consciousness working through the different layers of being. The Tantric concept of unconsciousness covers not only the total range of consciousness but also that which goes beyond the ordinary reach of consciousness (i.e., the super-conscious and the cosmic-conscious) (See Basu 535).

The story related in the pages of numerous Tantric works was supposed to be so repugnant that, excepting a few, “most scholars had condemned them avoided the field of study. These scholars had equated Tantra with the degraded forms of Hinduism supposed to be the legacies of uncivilized aboriginal cultures [Bhattacharyya, 27-29)].

Modern Tantra may be divided into practices based on Hinduism and Buddhism. The form of Hindu Tantra popularly practiced in America is said by Hindu Tantra traditionalists “to represent a mutilated and extremely narrow-minded, sensationalist approach encompassing only a misguided thinking about ‘sacred sexuality,’ with little reference to its true practice” (Sastri 517). In traditional pockets of Tantric practice in India, Tantra has retained its true form. Its variance in practice is seen where many Tantrics are known to frequent cremation grounds in attempts to transcend their worldly attachment to life, while others still perform more unacountable acts. But what is common to them all is the intense secrecy in which their rituals are kept and the almost godlike reverence paid to the Guru, who is seen as the pinnacle of Tantra (See Bhattacharyya 382).


Basu, Manoranjan (1986) Fundamentals Of The Philosophy of Tantras. Calcutta: Mira Basu Publishers.

Bhattacharyya, N.N. (1982) History of the Tantric Religion. New Delhi: Manohar Publications

Sastri, Gaurinath (2002) Rituals and Practices of Tantra: Vol 1 and Vol 2. New Delhi: Cosmo Publications.

Fic, Victor M (1922) The Tantra: Its origins, theories, art, and diffusion from India to Nepal, Tibet, Mongolia, China, Japan and Indonesia. New Delhi: Abhinav Publications.

White, David Gordon (2001) Tantra in Practice. 1st Indian Edition. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers

Feuerstein, Georg (1998) Tantra: The Path of Ecstasy. Boston: Shambhala, South Asia Editions

Garrison, Omar V (1964) Tantra: The Yoga of Sex. New York: Julian Press

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Article written by Neil Schultz (April 2006), who is solely responsible for its content.