The Tantras

An expansion in Hinduism after the eighth century is the rise of a body of texts known as the Tantras. The Tantras are characterized by their secrecy and its oral lessons were traditionally passed from teacher to students through a series of graded initiation. Hindu Tantras point the disciple in the direction of Self-realization, through a unitive encounter with Absolute Reality (Robinson and Rodrigues 158). The Tantras are a system of thoughts or a set of principles and the genre of its texts are based on meditation, rituals and instructions (Banerji 1). The body of texts known as the Tantras have been misinterpreted and misunderstood by Western scholars, but the texts appears not to have been alienated or underestimated by these Western scholars. Instead their seedy and dangerous world has produced a sense of fascination and often, preoccupation and obsession (Urban 8). Sacred utterances, sacred gestures and richly extravagant symbolic constructions may be used as meditative aids (Robinson and Rodrigues 158-159). The Tantras describe the first, golden age as an era filled with spirituality. According to Mahanirvana-Tantra, people were wise and virtuous and the deities were pleased by their practice of Yoga and sacrificial rituals. The people acquired fortitude and power by studying the Vedas [The Vedas are the most revered texts in Hinduism, possessing the status of sruti, divinely revealed teachings (Robinson and Rodrigues153)].  They also acquire courage through meditation, charitable deeds and mastery of the senses. People were good-hearted, happy and prosperous (Feuerstein 5).

The origin and development of the Tantras as a special class of literature and as a special mode of sadhana are ultimately connected to the rise of Saivism and the Pancaratra, the prehistoric Samkhya-yoga providing them with a philosophical background. Although the early recognised literature of the Pancaratra is lost, the literature of this sect and of other contemporary sects are called Tantras. The Pancaratra remained restrained in its development and it is Saivism which supplies a more propitious ground for the development of the Tantras (Basu 55-56). Tantra, though highly inventive, has from the beginning been seen as a continuation of earlier teachings. Therefore, while Buddhist Tantra understands itself as an esoteric tradition going back to Guatama the Buddha himself, Hindu Tantra regards the revelatiory teachings of the Vedas as its starting point (Feuerstein 10). Within the Hindu tradition, the Tantras are composed by the Vaisnava Pancaratra School, the lost Tantras of the Sauras, as well as the more famous Tantras of the Saivities and Saktas. Tantras are found in more almost every corner of the subcontinent, with a powerful hold in the northeast (Bengal, Orissa and Assam) and the northwest (Kashmir). They later spread to the far south (Tamilnadu and Kerala). Buddhist Tantras have spread to not only throughout India, but also to Nepal, Tibet, China and some parts of Southeast Asia (Urban 28). According to the tradition found in the Tantras, Tantras are innumerable. The Nityasodasikarnava says that Tantras are endless in number but records only sixty-four Kaula Tantras. The Saundaryalahari, attributed by some to Sankaracarya, refers to sixty-four Tantras. The numbers are invented but they show that the author of the named Tantra has an elusive idea of the sects and their texts. Tantric texts in their present form belong to the medieval and late-medieval periods (Bhattacharyya 37 and 40).

The practices recommended in the Tantras embrace both elements of enjoyment and renunciation found in karma-kanda and jnana-kanda. Karna-kanda is the path of action which is meant for the preservation and smooth running of the society and jnana-kanda is the path of knowledge which leads man to liberation. Some practices in the Tantras are regarded as mandatory or extremely necessary for spiritual empowerment and are accepted by people with respect as the practices are neither dreadful nor are they secrets. Some other practices of The Tantras are considered obligatory for the attainment of an enlightened life and these practices are looked upon as dreadful and are extremely secretive. There are also some practices which have little or no relation to religion or spirituality and are performed for the fulfillment of some worldly desire or the gratification of some evil motive (Santidev 87-88).

The Hindu Tantras consider themselves to be revealed teachings delivered by Siva, Visnu or Devi. Paralleling the Upanisadic dialogues between student and teachers, the Tantras are often framed as dialogues between god and goddess, Siva (or Visnu) and Parvati (or Laksmi). She asks questions and he replies. In Sakta Tantras, Siva asks the questions and Devi provides the answers. The oft-depicted images of Siva and Parvati seated beside each other, in which she is nestled next to him, sometimes on his lap, evoke the setting of the teaching scenario of the body of texts known as the Tantras. The gods, who are creators of the cosmos, investigate the meaning of existence, which is an exploration of their own natures (Rodrigues 385-386). The contents of a complete Tantric text may be broadly divided as jnana or vidya, which is knowledge including philosophical and metaphysical doctrines with a monotheistic tendency and sometimes a monistic bias. One contains occultism, including a knowledge of the mystic bias while the other contains formulae and figures. The contents of the Tantras can further be divided as yoga or upaya, which means having mind-control, especially with the object of acquiring magic powers. The contents can further be divided as Kriya, which contains instructions for making idols, for constructing and consecrating temples. Finally, it can also be divided as carya or siddhi, which are rules about rites, festivals and social duties (Santidev 14). Broadly speaking, the content of the Tantras fall into two classes. One philosophical and spiritual, the other popular and practical. The latter includes magic, mandra, mudra, mandala, nyasa, cakra and yankra. The principal aims of the Tantras are liberation and siddhi (Banerji 13). [Siddhi means the acquisition of supernormal powers (Robinson and Rodrigues 159)].

The texts list the rewards, including supernatural powers and liberation from worldly existence that accrue form undergoing initiation and worshiping gods in the ways prescribed. However, these texts are not merely ‘manuals’ for the preceptor, as they also address various theological and cosmological topics. Many of them consists of parts apparently intended for the initiate alongside parts intended for the preceptor. Not only is access to these texts prohibited to the uninitiated, it is also prohibited even for those who have undergone initiation as access is only mediated by one’s guru or preceptor. The genre of the Tantras share several features with Stotras [stotras are hymns of praise] (Leach 24-25). Tantra denotes a particular style or genre of spiritual teachings that affirm the continuity between Spirit and matter (Feuerstein 2).

A good example of the numerous texts of the Tantras is the Gandharva-Tantra. The Gandharva-Tantra is an anonymous text in forty-two chapters. It is stated to have been composed after gathering the essence of other Tantras. Chapter one deals with Yoga, Brahman and the way to liberation through enjoyment. Chapter two speaks of Sati as well as the tantric way to mukti through bhukti (Banerji 176). [Mukti is the freedom from Samsara and bhukti is the enjoyment of wordly pleasures (Rodrigues 95)]. Chapter three introduces Pancami-Vidya and some other vidyas or mantras. Chapter four treats the worship of Devi. Chapter five contains matters relating to Devi-Puja. Chapter six deals with the rights of those opposed to Vedic rites and of women opposed to Tantric practices. Chapters seven and eight deal with the worship of Devi.  Chapters nine to seventeen deal with the worship of gods and deities associated with these worships. Chapter eighteen deals with the rules relating to the offer of certain articles in worship. The next three chapters deal with the worship of Sesika Devi. Chapters twenty-two to twenty-three deal with practices connected with the worship of virgins. This worship of virgins and its effect according to prescribed rules is also dealt with. Chapter twenty-four enumerates the places suitable for worship. Of all places, a lonely spot, devoid of animals is stated to be the best. Towards the end of the chapter, the characteristics of good and bad people have been laid down. The next two chapters are devoted to the discussion on the merits, demerits and the duties of sisya and guru as well as diksa. Chapter twenty-seven to thirty-two deal with the mantras and its different kinds. Chapter thirty-three deals exhaustively with Kulacara. This chapter contains some ethical precepts such as having consideration for women, avoidance of jealousy towards others, observance of the rules of conduct, showing respect towards the family members of a guru and also having the absence of greed for other’s property. The next chapter deals with how devotees, who keep their activities secret, should perform their duties. Chapter thirty-five focuses on Sakti, who is necessary in Tantric sadhana. [Sadhana means spiritual rituals (Rodrigues 321)]. In chapter thirty-six, Devi raises the important question about how a man’s wife’s association with someone who has been declared sinful in other Sastras can be acceptable in a Tantric rite. The same topic of supporting Tantric rites is continued in chapter thirty-seven. The next chapter lays down, among other things, how atman is distinct from the body. Chapter thirty-nine deals with how Siva and Sakti became manifest and the knowledge about them arises. The rest of the chapters deal with the rise and disappearance of speech and the two-fold of mukti (Banerji 176-178).

Another text of the Tantras is called Kalitantra, which belongs to kalikula and it comprises twenty-one chapters. The text of the kalikula, the family of the black goddess, is depicted as the chief of all the mahavidyas in different Tantric sources. The worship of Kali is found at the heart of Kashmir Saivism traditions whose origins can be found in the cremation-ground cults (Thakur 72). Chapter one of the Kalitantra deals with the nature of yoga. Yoga is divided into two kinds Manusa (human) and Daivika (Divine). In chapter two, it is stated that man’s mind is restless and can be calmed by yoga. Therefore, yoga should be practised with care. Chapter three holds that detachment is the calmness of mind that is the means to salvation. Salvation is attained when the mind rests on the highest state which is existent, all-compassing, and is free from the dirt of illusion. Chapter four describes maya (illusion). Maya leads to moha (delusion) which produces the quality of tamas and causes disturbances from which danger arises. The following chapter deals with the means of attaining Brahman. The mind with desire is the seed of the tree of rebirth. Brahman is the seed of the worlds, the essence of everything but Brahman has no seed. If vasana (desire) is suppressed, Brahman is quickly attained. Chapter six describes the means of the acquisition of self-knowledge. The next chapter deals with how reflecting on prana by concentration gives perfect bliss and makes one free from fear and unaffected by adversity and prosperity. Chapter eight deals with the nature of Brahman. It is through action that one gets pleasure and pain. But, salvation is not attainable so long as good and bad actions are not destroyed. Salvation is possible by the knowledge that everything in the world, even a blade of grass, is Brahman. Chapter nine describes the housholder’s life. One should take to this life first. When true knowledge dawns, one should resort to samnyasa (renunciation). The next chapter deals with the nature of Laksmi and the means of worshipping her. Chapter eleven deals with diseases and their causes and the following chapter prescribes cures for these diseases. Chapters thirteen and fourteen deal with the six Tantric rites and the practice of yoga. Chapter fifteen focuses on the eight accessories of yoga and the six means of purification. Chapters sixteen to nineteen focus on the eightfold kumbhaka, gives the mantras relating to Navagraha, lays down the dhyanas of various deities, and sets forth the characteristies of a sadhaka (devotee). The sadhakas are Mrdu, Madhya, Adhimatra or Admimatra-tama. Mrdu-sadhaka has the characteristics of little energy, delusion, evil deed, disease, greed and impatience.  Madhya-sadhaka has characteristics such as looking upon all as equal, forgiveness, self –restraint, desire of merit, pleasant speech and freedom from doubt. Adhimatraka-sadhaka has the features of a firm mind, independence, kindness, truthfulness, physical strength, hopefulness, heroism and faithfulness. Adhimatratama-sadhaka has characteristics of energy, courage, knowledge of scriptures, good memory, freedom from delusion and fresh youth. The last chapter lays down the result of studying or listening to this particular Tantra. It destroys all sins and leads to prosperity (Banerji 199-205). The texts of the kalikula describe morbid rites in the cremation grounds to evoke a goddess and allow the practitioner to accomplish salvation through challenging experience (Thakur 73).

These texts are good examples to show how, like other numerous texts of the Tantras, the focus on meditative instructions is necessary in order to attain spiritual realization in corporation and union with the deities. Tantra is not always confined to gross material objects. It recognizes the three aspects of the deity worshipped. These are Sthula (image), Suksma (mantra) and Para (highest; in this aspect, the Devi is to be mentally apprehended) (Banerji 531). The Tantras are a new revelation replacing that of the Vedas. Likewise, most scholars reject the notion that Tantra originated in the era of the Vedas or earlier (Feuerstein 15).



Banerji, Sures Chandra (1988) A Brief History of Tantra Literature. Calcutta: Naya Prokash.

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

Bhattacharya, N.N. (1987) History of the Tantric Religion. New Delhi: Manohar Publications.

Feuerstein, Georg (1998) Tantra: The Path of Ecstasy. New Delhi: Shambhala Publications.

Leach, Robert (2014) “A Religion of the Book? On Sacred Texts in Hinduism.” The Expository Times, Vol. 126, Issue 1. Pages 15-27. Web. 5 March 2014.

Robinson, Thomas and Hillary Rodrigues (2006) World Religions: A Guide to the Essentials. Michigan: Baker Academic.

Rodrigues, Hillary (2007) Hinduism – The Ebook. Journal of Buddhist Ethics Online Books.

Santidev, Sadhu (2000) Encyclopedia of Tantras. New Delhi: Cosmo Publications.

Thakur, K. Manoj (2001) The Tantras: An Introductory Outline. Delhi: Worldwide Publications: An Imprint of Book Land Publishing.

Urban, B. Hugh (2007) Tantra: Sex, Secrecy, Politics and Power in the Study of Religion. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Private Limited.

Woodroffe, John George (1980) Introduction to Tantra S’astra. India: Ganesh and Company.



  • The Contents of the Tantras.
  • Saivism and its influence on the Development of the Tantras.
  • Jnana, Yoga, Kriya and Carya in Hinduism.
  • Ritual Practices in the Tantras.
  • History of Tantra Literature.
  • Practice of the Sadhana.

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Article written by: Udoh, Nseobong Martins (April, 2015), who is solely responsible for its content.