Category Archives: b. The Tantras

Mahanirvana Tantra

The Tantras are texts that deal with an assortment of ritual methods used to control and manipulate the cosmic powers, belonging to the literature of the Saktas. The Tantras deal with a wide variety of subject matter such as yoga practice, dharma behavior, the prescribed stages of life, the realms of heaven and hell, and importantly, worship ritual. The Mahanirvana Tantra was composed in the 18th century and is the most well-known Tantra in the west (Payne 53-55). It is regarded as the revelation of Siva, the destroyer of the world and god of the Yogis, to his wife, Parvati, at the summit of Mount Kailasa.

It was on Mount Kailasa that Parvati found her husband, Siva, described sitting silently on the mountain surrounded by a beautiful landscape. The text begins with Parvati asking Siva a question relating to the liberation of beings. Siva’s answer to Parvati is then answered in the chapters of the Mahanirvana Tantra. Siva begins the first four chapters by relating the importance of worshiping Brahman, the ultimate reality. Siva explains when good is done to the universe, He will be pleased, as He is the soul of the universe and it depends on Him (Avalon 3). Siva tells her that by worship of Brahman, there will be no need for any other religious observances (Avalon 4). Due to Siva’s strong affection to Parvati, he tells her more about the Supreme Brahman, and the secrets of worshiping Him by prescribed mantra to attain siddi, the enlightenment and understanding possessed by a siddah, or accomplished one. Siva states that liberation “does not come from the recitation of hymns, sacrifice or a hundred fasts… man is liberated by the knowledge that he is Brahman himself” (Payne 10). Pleased by what Siva has bestowed on her, Parvati asks another question concerning worship of Supreme Prakrti in union with Supreme Brahman. This delights Siva and he spoke unto Parvati how everything in the universe owes its origins and manifestations to the Supreme Prakrti and Supreme Brahman in motion with each other (Avalon 5). He relates the Supreme Prakrti to the Deva herself, informing her that she is everything in all forms and manifestations, and everything is her. Siva explains that success is solely achieved by Kaulika worship, the most supreme doctrine, and the merit achieved by honoring a Kaulika, is enough to protect one from all the harm the Kali Age has to offer (Avalon 5).

In the fifth chapter of the Mahanirvana Tantra, Siva speaks to his wife of the formation of mantras, composed of single letters, syllables, a word, or an entire phrase to make a sacred sound (Feuerstein 191) and the preparatory acts to be done each day. Mantras are creative forces that act upon one’s consciousness when empowered and communicated to a disciple (Feuerstein 191). Siva explains to Parvati that there are countless mantras for worship, presented in the various Tantras but he only states twelve of them, because these twelve are for the pleasure and benefit of all humanity (Avalon 6). After presenting the twelve mantras to Parvati, he moves on to explain worship of Sakti by the five elements, wine, meat, fish, grain, and union of man and woman to attain the position of vira (Bhattacharyya 121). After which he describes placing of the jar, which is called a kalasa, because Visva-karma, son of Brahma, composed it from various parts of each of the Devatas (Avalon 6). He explains the measurements in fingers, and that it is to be made of gold, silver, copper, metal, mud, stone or glass free from any imperfections and on the left side a hexagon enclosed by a circle, enclosed by a square. In detail Siva speaks of the proper worshipping and mantras to be recited important in all power of creation, preservation and destruction of the universe.

The sixth chapter of the text Parvati asks Siva about the Pancha-tattvas and the appropriate worship of the Deva. The Pancha-tattvas, or five elements, are given in sacrifice to propitiate the Deva (Avalon 7). Siva declares that there are three kinds of wine, made from molasses, rice, or the juices and flowers of plants, that are first tattva and no matter how it has been made, is equal in the worship of the Deva. The second tattva is meat from three kinds of animals, those of the earth, sky and water. Siva explains that to please the Deva it does not matter where or by whom the animal was killed, so long as the animal being decapitated is male and not female (Avalon 7). The third tattva is three kinds of fish, ranked in superiority and quality due to their bones. Fish with the most amount of bones, considered inferior, must be well fried before being offered to the Devi. Parched food is the fourth tattva and contains three categories. Superior food is white rice, barley and wheat all fried in butter, the middle being a fried paddy, and the most inferior food consists of any fried grain that is not contained in the superior category (Avalon 7). After explaining the first four features, Siva looks unto Parvati and says “O Great Devi! when the weakness of the Kali Age becomes great, one’s own Shakti or wife should alone be known as the fifth tattva”(Avalon 7). Thus, making sexual union between man and women the fifth and final Pancha-tattva. Before revealing the mantras to Parvati, Siva warns her that man who offers these sacrifices to the Devas without proper purification will not please the gods and one will go to hell for it (Avalon 7).

The seventh chapter of the Mahanirvana Tantra Siva addresses the Goddess Kali as the supreme yogini, for at the end of time she devours Siva, the devourer of time himself (Feuerstein 35). Kali, who’s name relates to the words “time” and “death”, is the dark goddess and the Destroyer. Siva recites a hymn to Parvati, containing the Hundred Names of Kali, all beginning with the letter Ka, entitled Adya-Kali-Svarupa. By worshiping Kali and repeating her Hundred Names, one will enjoy a happy life and becomes suffused with the presence of the Devi (Avalon 8). Only when one is in the presence of the Goddess, does he reach the hearts of women, attain his desires, conquer his enemies, master his caste and enjoy good fortune. For once she suffuses him “there is ever victory, and defeat never” (Avalon 8).

Parvati asks Siva in the eighth chapter to hear of the castes, the prescribed stages in life, and the mode they should be observed in, having just heard the different dharmas and union with the Supreme. Siva tells her in the Kali age, there are five castes, Brahmana, Kshatriya, Vaishya, Shudra and Samanya (Avalon 9) and each of these castes has two stages of life. He begins first by describing the householder stage, with devotion to Brahman. He tells Parvati the importance of pleasing one’s mother and father, raising obedient and educated children, being kind to neighbors and cherishing his wife, so she will be ever devoted to him. Siva after explains the exclusive mantras to be performed only by the twice-born, and the other mantras to be used for the lower castes. Siva relates to Parvati the duties of the king, that he is to watch his subjects and protect his people and describes the manner in which he should present himself. The king is to be the courage of his warriors, highly knowledgeable, discriminatory, and honorable, but never arrogant, when awarding both reward and punishment (Avalon 8). Agriculture and trade, are only appropriate for the vaishya class and all acts of negligence, laziness, untruthfulness and deceit should be avoided. Finally, servants should be clean, skillful, alert and careful, they should treat their master with the uttermost respect as the servant should be aspiring for happiness in this world and their next incarnation.

In the ninth chapter of the Mahanirvana Tantra Siva explains the ten kinds of Purificatory Rites, or sangskaras to Parvati. He tells her that each caste has their own specific rites that need to be performed to purify the body. These ten ceremonies deal with the events of conception, pregnancy, birth of the child, naming of the child, the child’s first view of the sun, its first eating of rice, tonsure, investiture and marriage (Avalon 10). Following the introduction of the events for the ceremonies, Siva recites all the sangskara mantras to Parvati. After listening to the mantras, she inquires about the rites dealing with funerals, Vriddhi Shraddha and Purnabhisheka, thus beginning the tenth chapter of the Mahanirvana Tantra. Siva informs Parvati of the importance of offering Pinda, a cooked ball of flour, butter and seeds, along with repeating the mantras to please the ancestors. The Vriddhi Shraddha is the ritual performed during special occasions to get the blessings of the ancestors, and the Purnabhisheka is the rite of initiation (Avalon 11). Siva presents the funeral rites and mantras to Parvati, explaining the period of uncleanliness dependent on the caste system. Brahmanas are unclean for ten days, Kshatriyas twelve days, Vaishyas a fortnight, Shudras and Samanyas are unclean for an entire month (Avalon 11).

In chapter eleven Siva introduces the expiatory rites, and explains to Parvati the types of sins and their accompanying punishments. Siva tells her that there are two types of sin, both which lead to pain, sorrow and disease. The first sin is one that leads to injury of one’s own self, and the second being one which leads to injury of others. Siva informs Parvati that men who sin and who are not purified by the form of punishment or expiation will be doomed to hell, and will not be incarnated into the next world (Avalon 12). In this chapter of the Mahanirvana Tantra Siva recites no mantras to Parvati, alternately he explains each sinful act one could perform and the accompanying punishment for each caste. The twelfth chapter entitled “An Account of the Eternal Immutable Dharmma” is the outline for the regulations which deal with property, inheritance and wealth. Siva explains to Parvati of the inheritance hierarchy, and how it is to be distributed among the living members of the family or the spouse’s family. Siva tells her of the rules in agriculture, mercantile transactions and other monetary dealings so that they may be deemed Dharmmic (Avalon 13). At the close of the chapter, to enforce the greater purpose of the accounts of Dharmma, Siva claims “The Lord protects this universe… Therefore should one act for the good of the world” (Avalon 13).

In the final two chapters of the Mahanirvana Tantra Siva reveals the installation and worship of the Devata and Shiva-linga. Siva tells Parvati that all beings have qualities of the goddess Kali, and to worship Kali one must form images in adherence to her. Siva says that there are two types of men, those who act with a view to the fruits of action, and those who act without a view to the fruits of action and the latter will attain final liberation (Avalon 14). He recites the mantras of this chapter to Parvati, dealing with the worship and meditation of Vastu and Dhyana. Siva concludes the thirteenth chapter by telling Parvati that by worshipping the gods with immense devotion and act, without a view of reward, will be released from rebirth (Avalon 14). In the final chapter, Parvati asks Siva to tell her of the distinct features of the four classes of Avadhutas. There are two kinds of Shaivavadhutas and Brahmavadhutas, either purna or apruna, meaning perfect and imperfect, respectively. The first three classes practice yoga, have enjoyment, and are liberated. The fourth chaste is known as the hangsa, and does not touch metal nor women (Avalon 15).

The Mahanirvana Tantra is described as noble work, probably produced in the latter half of the eighteenth century in Bengal, and belongs to the left hand school (Payne 55). Until the twentieth century, the Tantras had not been seriously studied or translated in the west, and there was little access to the religious materials in them. The Mahanirvana Tantra was translated to English by Arthur Avalon in 1913, and has since gained much more recognition in western cultures. The Mahanirvana Tantra is known as the Great Tantra because it contains all the Dharmmas, while the others deal with one subject only. The Lord Siva tells Parvati in the conclusion of the Tantra that man who knows the book, knows also the three worlds of past, present and future, and by worship of the Tantra will be liberated (Avalon 15). “What further shall I tell Thee of the greatness of the Mahanirvana Tantra? Through the knowledge of it one shall attain to Brahma-nirvana” (Avalon 15).


Avalon, Arthur (2010) Mahanirvana Tantra of The Great Liberation. Whitefish: Kessinger Publishing.

Avalon, Arthur (1918) Shakti and Shakta. London: Luzac & Company.

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

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

Payne, Ernest A. (1997) The Saktas: An Introductory and Comparative Study. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers Pvt. Ltd.

Woodroffe, John (1980) Introduction to Tantra Sastra. Madras: Ganesh & Company.

Related Readings

Avalon, Arthur (2010) Mahanirvana Tantra of The Great Liberation. Whitefish: Kessinger Publishing.

Hugh B. Urban (2001) “The Path of Power: Impurity, Kingship, and Sacrifice in Assamese Tantra.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion. Vol. 69, No. 4 pp. 777-816. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Pechilis, Karen (2016) “Bhakti and Tantra intertwined: the explorations of the Tamil Poetess Karaikkal Ammaiyar.” International Journal of Dharma Studies 4: 2. doi:10.1186/s40613-016-0024-x

Related Research Topics

  • The Saktas
  • Hindu God Siva
  • Hindu Goddess Parvati
  • The Tantras

Related Websites

This article was written by: Emily Sim (Spring 2017), who is entirely responsible for this content

The Tantras

The Tantras are a genre of religious literature that shows how to achieve salvation through various esoteric practices, making these texts distinct from other religious literature of India, such as the Vedas or Puranas (Barthakuria 1). Still, ordinary Tantras share some similarity in form to the Puranas, as they theoretically discuss the same five subjects, dealing with the nature of the creation and destruction of the universe, worshipping gods, achieving supernatural powers, and becoming one with the Supreme Being. However, mythological elements are replaced with ritual details (Bhattacharyya 39). A complete Tantra generally has four components: the nature of knowledge (jnana), the concentration of mind and how to achieve this (yoga), temple construction and idol worship in temples (kriya), and religious rites, adherences, and social institutions (carya). One or two of these parts are generally more prominent than the others, depending on the tradition of worship a Tantra belongs to (Thakur 7).

The word tantra simply means “loom” in the Rg Veda and Atharva Veda (Thakur 4). It can be also be derived from the root tatri (to understand) or tantri (to explain). The Pingalamata explains the word tantra as spreading truths and saving mankind from conceding to maya and losing the way to moksa (Barthakuria 2). Probably from the 9th century CE onwards the meaning of tantra changed from “loom” to denoting a genre of literature which involves multiple subjects, ranging from the nature of ultimate truth to practises branded as immoral (Thakur 5). When denoting a type of Sastra, tantra denotes a set of practices, doctrines, magic, metaphysical speculations, etc; it is also taken by some to mean a Sastra that expands on tattvas and mantras (Banerji 1-2). A definition of the word in this sense is given by the author of the Sanskrit lexical work Sabdarthacintamni and follows thus: the word tantra itself simply means “treatise”, not necessarily a religious scriptural work; when referring to religious literature it can denote the scriptures of various divisions of worshippers, namely those of Vaisnavas, Saivas, and Saktas, and further divisions of these (Thakur 6).

Each division of worshippers have their own Tantras, as do the Jains and Buddhists, and there are particular subdivisions among these (Thakur 9). The Tantric texts of the Vaisnavas, Saivas, and Saktas are respectively referred to as samhita, agama, and tantra (Banerji 2). By those traditions which venerate them, the Tantras are regarded as divinely revealed: Vaisnava Tantras by Visnu, Saiva Tantras by Siva, and Sakta Tantras by the Goddess. The Vaisnava Samhitas generally take the form of dialogue with Visnu teaching and answering the questions of Sri or Laksmi. In Saiva Agamas, the dialogue is between Parvati, the disciple who asks, and Siva, the master who answers. Contrastingly, in Sakta Tantras it is Siva who asks the questions and the Goddess who replies; these works are often denoted nigama. Despite this distinction, all share certain characteristics and thus are all often referred to generally as Tantras (Thakur 18-19).

According to the Tantric texts themselves, Tantras are innumerable (Bhattacharyya 37). The Tantras in their current form are mostly from the medieval and late medieval periods, though references to older Tantric works and translations of them can be found in various sources such as inscriptions on temple walls. The Tantric texts available today are largely unpublished manuscripts (Bhattacharyya 40). Though there are few published Tantric texts, they list numerous Tantras, and also give different systems of grouping; for example, the Tantric text Vamakesvarimatam mentions 64 Tantras (Thakur 7). The Sammohana tantra divides the Tantras into six amanayas or traditions, corresponding to the six faces of Siva – looking east, west, south, north, up, and down. Tantras are also organized in accordance to the nature of the sadhana into divya, kaula, and vama, each of these subdivided further as harda (inner) or bayha (outer). Works are also classified geographically (Thakur 9-11). One method of classification is based on the mythological ages (Banerji 4).

It is not exactly known when Tantra originated, though the Atharva Veda is said to foreshadow the Tantras as it contains Tantric elements of black and white magic. The first explicit reference to Tantric literature is seemingly found in the Bhagavata-purana, which some date no later than 800 CE (Banerji 6-7). There is evidence of Buddhist texts that speak of themselves as Tantras, distinct from orthodox Sutra belief, emerging before the 6th or 7th centuries CE. There are strong similarities between the content of these early Buddhist Tantras and Tantras of the Hindu religion, particularly regarding the Saiva Tantras. Hindu Tantras, however, do not emerge until the 9th or 10th century CE. The majority of these Tantras had originally been written in Sanskrit, and there are Tibetan translations preserving many Buddhist Tantras (Rodrigues 293). The region where Tantra originated is not precisely known either, though Kashmir may have been the birthplace of Tantras of the agama classification. Tantric works may have been first produced in Bengal, as many manuscripts in Bengali script are available there, particularly old Buddhist Tantras (Banerji 10-11). Important Tantric manuscripts have been preserved in Kashmir and Nepal, which were the main geographical areas for Tantra in the medieval period. Assam and Bengal were also important regions, and the Tantras ultimately spread farther south. Many Tantric texts were translated to Tamil and used in south Indian temples for liturgies (Thakur 31). Followers of the Tantric religion treat the Tantras as secret, and the interest in avoiding publicity from scholars and the general society contributed to many Tantric texts being lost over time (Barthakuria 183-184). Though there are varying views on the origin of the Tantras and how they were spread throughout India, Jayaratha, who commented on Abhinavagupta’s Tantraloka, states the Tantras originated in Assam, the home of the famous temple Kamakhya (Tantrapitha Kamakhya) from which Tantra likely spread (Barthakuria 4-5).

Tantric literature deals with a wide variety of material, from religious matters such as deity worship to prescribing cures for diseases and ways to injure enemies. For the latter subjects the Kamaratna is a potent example, full of mantras concerning such “folk elements” (Barthakuria 16-17). The Tantras assert that the Vedic practices are too difficult for this age, and thus allow people to follow their natural inclinations; the Tantras state that mukti (salvation) is attainable through bhukti (enjoyment). The texts stress the maintenance of health and preservation of body, for the highest power is contained in the body and it is the optimum means of sadhana (Banerji 59-60). In general, the content of the Tantras can be sorted into two classes: the philosophical and spiritual, and the popular and practical (Banerji 13). The religio-philosophic aspect, particularly in the agamic works, largely follows much of Sankhya philosophy (Thakur 20). The human body is accepted as divine, and is stated to contain the cosmic hierarchy within it. This refers particularly to the male deity, often Siva, and the female principle, the Goddess Kundalini which is also Siva’s consort and Sakti. Within the Tantras, the union of Siva and Sakti within the body is the symbolic expression of liberation (Thakur 24). A pervasive aspect of Tantric literature is the sexual representations invoking this imagery of male and female principles being united (Rodrigues 295). The Sakti Tantras describe the supreme force of the universe, Sakti, as imparting consciousness even unto Siva (Barthakuria 2); the Todala Tantra states that if Siva is separated from Sakti he will be reduced to a corpse, but he is never detached from her (Barthakuria 62).

The other main class of content, that of the popular and practical, deals with sadhana and involves various practices and ritual matters such as mantra, mandala, yoga, and kundalini and cakra, through which one could achieve supreme bliss and attain supernatural powers or siddhi (Thakur 24). The most significant focus of the Tantras are concerning kundalini and cakra (Thakur 29); the texts prescribe mantras for use in awakening the Kundalini Sakti (Serpent Power) within the body, guiding her up through the six cakras inside the body, and uniting her with para-Siva (the Supreme Self) (Barthakuria 7-8). All Tantric texts make mention of the pancatattva or pancamakara (the five makaras) which pertain to the union of Siva and Sakti: madya (wine), mamsa (meat), matsya (fish), mudra (finger-pose), and maithuna (sexual union) (Thakur 25). Another interpretation of mudra in this context means parched grain or a female sexual partner (Rodrigues 301). Some Tantras recommend substitutes for the five makaras, for example the Kaulavali-nirnaya suggests buffalo or sheep milk in place of fish (Banerji 20). Most Tantras emphasize the incomprehensible power that mantras possess (Banerji 22). The Tantras mention various modes of sadhana, seven according to some texts and nine according to others, which have a hierarchical organization with each succeeding method being superior to the one previous (Banerji 30). Some Tantras divide gurus into various classes, report suitable guru characteristics and proper sisya-guru relations, and describe various forms of diksa (Banerji 33-35). The Tantras were composed in a context of living oral tradition and teachings of the guru, thus the importance of the guru in Tantrism. Specifically, the Kularnava tantra states diksa is essential in achieving moksa, but there is no diksa without a guru, and additionally the mantras are useless without the guidance of a guru (Thakur 19).

Buddhist Tantric texts develop Tantra within the overall structure of the Buddhist philosophy. These texts are largely found in areas where Tantra thrived, namely Tibet and Nepal (Bhattacharyya 57-58). One of the earliest surviving Buddhist Tantras is the Guhaysamaja which apparently was comprised prior to the 7th century CE. It mainly deals with yoga and also with mandalas, and its principal purpose is to explain the unknowable reality and how to realise it. This text puts forth that the truth is the oneness of the universe or vajra, and details a short and fast method for attaining supernatural powers and realising Buddhahood. It even allows for the killing of animals and practices such as incest (Bhattacharyya 61-62).

The great Tantra writer Abhinavagupta constructed, on the basis of many earlier works, the Tantraloka, “a magnum opus of saiva-sakta philosophy” (Thakur 13). A famous Saiva Tantra is the Mrgendra Tantra, while the Gautamiya Tantra and the Gayatri Tantra are important Vaisnava Tantras. One example of a Sakti Tantra is the Yogini Tantra composed in the 17th century CE in Assam; in fact the Tantras of Assam belong solely to the left path Sakta school of Tantrism (Barthakuria 5-7). The Yogini Tantra is not only a religious text but also a source on the history of Assam, mentioning various wars and describing periods of Mughal and Muslim occupation of the area (Barthakuria 41-42). It recounts several legends, some related to the birth of the famous epic character Naraka and his ascent to the throne of Kamarupta, and also legends dealing with the worship of the goddess Kamakhya (Barthakuria 45), such as Kali (who is Goddess Kamakhya) defeating the demon Kolasura in the form of a little girl; this legend is related to the important religious ceremony of kumaripuja where Kamakhya is worshipped in the temple in the form of a kumari (little girl) (Barthakuria 47). This Tantra holds Siva and Parvati at the supreme position and its contents are provided through dialogues between the two. Despite the high position of these deities in the text, the Yogini Tantra also identifies Visnu as a great god, having a major role in the legend of Naraka, although possessing a lower status than Siva (Barthakuria 49-50). This is reflective of the high position Visnu occupied in the religious life of Assam, and the text gives elaborate details about his worship (Barthakuria 55). The Yogini Tantra imparts the most supreme position to Mother Goddess Kamakhya and describes elaborate worship of her, including precise instructions for bathing the deity, such as prescribing mixes of milk, curd, honey etc. and the use of flowers and jewels, and also relates the beneficial results of these practices (Barthakuria 66-67). The text advocates specific sacrificial offerings the different classes can present to the goddess, including animal sacrifice which can be practiced by all classes; specific regulations regarding the age, number, and kind of animals are given (Barthakuria 68-69). This Tantra also imparts rules for diksa, such as the worthiness of guru and disciple, and auspicious periods for its performance. It distinguishes between the diksa of worldly people and relating to such activities, and the diksa related only to salvation (Barthakuria 91).

The Kamakhya Tantra has certain features that distinguish it from other Assam Tantras. The greatness of Mother Goddess Kamakhya is described in the first chapter, as it is designated that all permanent and impermanent things of the universe stem from her, and that her devotees can achieve all the goals of human life (Barthakuria 169). She is the Supreme Being, the Sakti of Siva, and through proper worship of her, which in this Tantra is related to individual worshippers rather than in temples or festivals, one can achieve realization of the Supreme Reality and ultimately obtain salvation. The Kamakhya Tantra indicates four kinds of salvation or mukti, namely salokya, sarupya, sayujya and nirvana. The most highly desired state is nirvana, where the soul unites entirely with the Supreme Being (Barthakuria 171). The text indicates various specifications for worship of Kamakhya, essentially requiring the five makaras and also detailing diagrams and mantras for use in meditation or dhyana upon the goddess (Barthakuria 172). This Tantra also references three groups of worshippers or sadhakas, which are divya, vira, and pasu, with those of the divya class stated as the best sadhakas and the pasu ranking lowest. Though they are described as good men living the ideal life of a housekeeper, the Kamakhya Tantra bars pasu worshippers from any Tantric diksa (Barthakuria 173-174).

It has been argued that much of Indian chemistry had been derived from information contained in the Tantras, particularly by the renowned chemical scientist Acharya Prafulla Chandra Ray (1861-1944) (Bhattacharyya 19).  However, there are very few surviving Tantric texts that deal directly with scientific subjects; no medical texts are extant, though a few dealing with alchemy remain. In the religious Tantras there is some scientific information, but it is viewed from the abstract metaphysical and religious approach inherent in these texts. There is, however, in the surviving Tantric literature information on the content of these largely lost scientific texts, and the names of many of these are known (Bhattacharyya 16-17). These Tantras deal mostly with medical preparations of mercury. In the Gupta manuscript of the Kubjikatantra, Siva speaks of mercury as being his generative principle and of its usefulness when “killed” six times. This work also alludes to alchemic processes involving mercury. One notable Tantric alchemy text is the Rasaratnakara of the author Nagarjuna, who is dated to the 8th century CE, and deals with the purification of minerals, particularly the fixation or “killing” of mercury (Bhattacharyya 19-20).

Generally speaking, the Tantras depict the Vedic tradition as being inferior or at least insufficient, providing only a basis for the greater truths of Tantra, whereas the Tantras encompass a more refined understanding of Vedic teachings (Rodrigues 293). It is claimed within an early Dharma Sutra text classification scheme that both Vedic and Tantric srutis exist, and indeed, Tantric literature has arguably been more influential than the Vedas in shaping the Hindu religion. Within the orthodox belief, however, Tantric scripture’s claim to sruti status is not accepted (Rodrigues 43). Correspondingly, the teachings of the Tantras were originally rejected by the orthodox tradition; however, by the 11th century CE the practices conveyed by the Tantric texts had influenced all of Hinduism, aside from the strictest Vedic adherents (Rodrigues 293). In fact, many from the Brahmin class actually wrote Tantric treatises, and also took part in Tantric practice (Banerji 153-154). Women and sudras are generally barred from practicing the Vedic religion, but the Tantras provide a religious structure inclusive of these groups, within which initiation is often available to them. Furthermore, women predominantly hold a distinguished position within Tantric worship (Barthakuria 19). Yet, it is unclear how the teachings of the Tantras actually impacted the lives of women within Hinduism during the flourishment of Tantra (Rodrigues 302). The Tantras are infamous for their erotic elements and practices such as consumption of alcohol and meat, and have been criticised for their endorsement of sexual promiscuity. However, the majority of the content in the Tantras is more sober in nature and covers material from a wide variety of subjects (Thakur 31-32). In general, the Tantras offer a non-Vedic path for practitioners of various Hindu religious sects through the altered modes of worship so acclaimed by the Tantric texts (Bhattacharyya 31).









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Samuel, Geoffrey (2008) The Origins of Yoga and Tantra: Indic Religions to the Thirteenth Century. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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


Urban, Hugh B. (2003) Tantra: Sex, Secrecy, Politics, and Power in the Study of Religion. Berkeley: University of California Press.



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This article was written by: Kara Valgardson (Spring 2017), who is entirely responsible for its content.

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.

RELATED WEBSITES   books/unpublished_manuscripts/making_sense_tantra/pt1/making_sense_tantra_01.html


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