Tantra – a unique spiritual system capable of resolving the mystery of Being and its relationship with the world without itself being mysterious, caught in the cobwebs of misconceptions, misled beliefs, clergies’ disapprovals, moralists’ censure, ethical concerns, quakes’ and sorcerers’ misuses and abuses, opposition of the ‘authorised’ – theology, philosophy …, and above all, the centuries long antipathy of Islamic and Christian rulers, has been the subject of neglect, indifference and even aversion for quite some time now. The term ‘Tantra’, often seen personified in the person practising it, the ‘tantrika’, brings to mind’s eye the image of a man with a rugged, coarse, hoary-looking, bearded and wrinkled face, eyes deeply pushed into their sockets, and locks of rough uncouth muddy long hair hung around shoulders. Wearing a long loosely hung black cloak and strings of multi-coloured, multi-shaped and multi-sized beads, stones and amulets, with a bundle of peacock feathers in his hands, he is fantasized as seated against a smoky hearth in a dark murky odorous cell in the suburb of a tribal or backward hamlet, engaged in practices considered to relate to ghosts, evil spirits or other forms of witch-craft and black arts. To so-conditioned a mind, Tantra is a system comprising incredible, primitive, unscientific beliefs, which by inciting blind faith exploits undeveloped or under-developed masses.
Quite strangely, and unbelievably, Tantra, which emerges with such image in common man’s mind now, is India’s earliest, or at the most, one of the two earliest spiritual systems, the other being Vedanta. Being more simple and natural, seeking sublimation of what one is born with, not its negation – the modus of the Vedanta, Tantra dominated India’s spiritual and ritual scene for centuries with all principal theologies – Buddhism, Jainism, and even Vedanta’s offshoot Brahmanism and its components Shaivism, Shaktism and Vaishnavism, practising it as a scientific, technical and spiritual method leading to attainment of self-awareness, and thereby, ultimate knowledge and liberation. Perhaps a pre-Vedic ritual cult practised by Harappan settlers and thus one of the world’s earliest spiritual cultures, the Tantra occupied India’s intellectual domain ever since. Significantly, the number of Tantra-related texts, which began pouring in from early centuries of the Christian era and continued till late eighteenth century, is greater than that of the texts related to any other system of thought, though unfortunately most of them, usually manuscribed as secret documents for individuals, survive now only as allusions occurring in other texts.
Not how the common mind takes, or mistakes it, Tantra has been on censor’s list almost always, or at least after the Vedic asceticism gained prominence, sometimes for psycho-metaphysical reasons and sometimes on grounds of morality. Human mind naturally inclines to obtain what it does not have, seek knowledge of things ‘not known’. This mind disapproves Tantra for the Tantra takes off with the real, instinctive, inborn, inherent in nature, that is, ‘what is’, or ‘that which is the best known’ – the body, nature, desires or whatever. What to Tantra is its basic source to sublimate is to this reasoning mind base and common not worth striving for. Apart, the common notion is that the key to transcendence is in the negation of oneself. One has to negate, relinquish himself to become what he is not; he has to give up what he has to obtain what he does not have. He venerates asceticism, or whatever, because asceticism is above him. He believes that asceticism is close to the ‘achievable’. To reach the ‘achievable’, he is required to acquire first this ‘in-between’ asceticism which is not in him. Asceticism condemns him as a gross common reality – a thing of flesh and bundle of frailties, shows his littleness and commands him to disbelieve himself. Mesmerized he accepts this denunciation of himself more so because he disbelieves himself, because he admits his littleness, because he is too humble to accept his potentials, his ability to sublimate. Grown in a climate of pseudo-religiosity with taboos, prohibitions, all sorts of suppressions, fears… the dilemma of this common mind is that it lives in desires but detests them; it fears emotions, though in them he finds his strength and source of reequipping his energies and releasing tensions; it lives in sex, is born of it, celebrates it, promotes life through it, but fears it. It fears sex, and hence, it fears Tantra because Tantra venerates sex.
Tantra, a spiritual cult in practice for over five thousand years now, is least a philosophy, and hardly a dogma or body of doctrines. It does not claim to uphold any standards of morality, though it is also not immoral. Neither moral nor immoral, Tantra is beyond the ‘moral’. The Western theory of ‘sin’, which overwhelmed entire Indian theology after its contact with the Western world, has never been the domain of Tantra. It does not deal also with models, social or individual. Not ‘what should be’, the primary concern of Tantra is ‘what is’, a sincere and honest acceptance of oneself and the world around – ‘the Truth of the Being’. It is rather a spiritual science that examines experiences of ‘Self’ with the material world and explores man’s inherent energies, spiritual and physical, methods to expand them, and his place and relevance in the cosmos – ‘the ultimate ground of Being’.
The Tantra does not subject itself to intellectual problems or metaphysical enquiries as do Vedanta and other early traditions of thought, in the subcontinent and beyond, perceiving the ‘Being’ and the world as ‘maya’ – illusion, unreal, mere shadow of the ‘Real’, or as things removed from their original identity. Questions as to 'why' or 'whence' are not the areas of tantrika deliberations. On the contrary, the Tantra accepts all actions as they are, transmuting them into inner awareness, and further into a creative evolution, all desires, into the vehicle of transcendence, and all energies, into the ultimate means of liberation. Tantra, by believing in the principle enunciated in the Vishvasara Tantra – 'What is here is everywhere; what is not here, is nowhere' (Yadhihastitadanyatra yannehasti na tatkvachit), aims at realising 'the known', and dismisses efforts of running after 'the unknown'. Thus, Tantra is the technique of harvesting inherent energies of body and mind by their acceptance. It is a process of elevating what one is born with. It identifies the ‘Being’ in the Being itself, not in its negation or non-acceptance, but rather in its fuller acceptance.
On practical side Tantra is a kind of body rituals consisting of action, method and technique leading to the attainment of liberation. Tantra takes a path different and sometimes diagonally opposite to that which the Vedanta or asceticism takes. For going beyond oneself and the world, Tantra does not require the ‘sadhaka’ – seeker, to fight and eliminate himself and the world around as do Vedanta and asceticism; the tantrika ‘sadhaka’ goes beyond him through indulgence into himself and the world, and deeper the indulgence more subtle and sooner his liberation. Suppression is not the way of Tantra. On the contrary, it harnesses the inherent, magnifies it and at times even multiplies, though not without awareness which is the essence of Tantra. It does not accept duality as asserts Vedanta. Tantra asserts only ‘as is’, not ‘as can be’. Hence, dissolution or negation of ‘what is’ to become 'what can be' is not the method of Tantra. Under Tantra, what seems to separate dissolves of its own and emerges the ‘Undivided Whole’. It is different with the Vedanta. In the Vedanta, one is required to relinquish 'what one is’. Only then his ‘new version’ could emerge. Tantra does not seek negation of natural self, body, instincts, desires, or whatever, so that 'the new’ is born. In the Vedanta and all ascetic practices which it inspires, one is obliged to discover the ultimate action in absolute inaction, one's new birth in one's extinction, a life beyond this life, a Moksha, Liberation, beyond this world. Such conflicting duality is not Tantra’s lore.
Struggle, conflict, opposition to nature, negation of what one is ... are not the methods of Tantra. Tantra discovers 'the Ultimate' in 'what one is’. In the Tantrika way, the 'Ultimate' is the growth, to which the ‘sadhaka’ can subject himself. An Israeli commonplace would well illustrate the point. Once a man met a friend after some twenty-five years. After exchange of courtesies he asked him about his eldest son Harry. His friend’s face glowed. He said that Harry was a poet of great eminence; people hear him spell-bound; and, he is likely to be honoured with Nobel Prize any time in years to come. No less was his satisfaction over his second son Benny who was a politician likely to reach the Prime Minister’s office in some years. However, pain and discontentment shrouded his face the moment he narrated the plight of his third and the last son Easy who was a mere tailor with no such bright future as had his other two sons. However, he admitted that family was getting its bread from Easy’s earnings and that out of some of his savings he had expanded his business from a shop where he worked alone to a factory where over a dozen persons earned their livelihood. Easy is Tantra’s theme. He is ‘as he is’, and from ‘what he is’ is all his growth. He is a reality and as real is his growth. His brothers are not living in the present and the future they are dreaming of is beyond their reach and realisation. Present is Tantra’s lore. A denial of present is a denial of all hopes of growth, material or spiritual.
As Tantra does not discard present, so it does not discard the world. Its negation, or equating it to some kind of transcendental nothing would only leave behind a vacuum, and the very ground of the Being would be lost. Hence, Tantra, instead of its negation, transforms it into the vehicle of liberation, or rather perceives no gap between the two – the world and the liberation. It is the transcendence, not death, which is needed, and the Tantra perceives in the ‘Being’ that consists of great mystery and many multi-dimensional energies the most potent vehicle to take off for such transcendence. ‘Now’ and ‘here’, not ‘then’ or ‘there’, and all pains associated with ‘now’ and ‘here’ that prick and keep the mind alert leading it to awareness, are Tantra’s guiding principles. Not withdrawal or rejection, total or at least the fullest possible acceptance of oneself, one’s all energies, desires, feelings, and even weaknesses that one has as a human being is in the Tantra the path to transcendence. Once the Being moves with any of its energies, deep sensitivity and love, coupled with awareness and understanding, each desire becomes its vehicle to go beyond, each energy, a stepping stone, body, a temple, and world, 'Nirvana' – final extinction. It is that state of sublimation where one experiences God as his own Self, as his own true being, as he is – the absolute state of self awareness.
Tantra perceives Creation as the ’Undivided Whole’. Not Tantra alone, all streams – cosmological, metaphysical or philosophical, claim that man shares with the cosmos all its five constituents – earth, sky, fire, water and air. Thus, man is the micro-miniaturized form of the cosmos. Summarily, the human body is microcosmic sample of the universe and is thus its representative form. Both Hinduism and Buddhism contend that the entire drama that takes place in the universe is repeated in human beings for the man and the universe are the same.
They assert that the Void – Cosmic Consciousness and man’s mind are identical. As in Cosmic Consciousness so like a mirror in man’s Mind things spring up and also disappear. The Tantra exploits this human body as its ’yantra’ – instrument, which when in absolute command of elements within helps command elements of cosmos beyond, and thus, the cosmos. The Tantra asserts that the human body comprises four aspects : ’nirvana’, ’sambhogya’, ’dharma’ and ’sahaja’, that is, illusory body, paradisal body, body, and innate body, respectively. These four bodies correspond to four planes of reality, namely, ’kaya’ – physical, ’vak’ – verbal, ’chitta’ – spiritual, and ’jnana’ – knowledge. These are ’chitta’ and ’jnana’ that help sublimate ’kaya’ and ’vak’ and lead to the attainment of liberation. In some tantrika systems human body is contemplated as consisting of five sheaths, namely, ‘Annamaya’ – the tangible physical body, ‘Pranamaya’ – the vital air, (third and fourth) ‘Manomaya’ – the eternal element of joy in man, and ‘Anandamaya’ – the bliss.
Paradoxically, the term Tantra, used with absolute unanimity as a singular noun, as if denoting a single doctrine or principle, denotes a huge body of tantrika methods, hundreds in number, each with a specified system and independent status, often designated as an independent Tantra. Time has obscured many of them, however, something like 108 Tantras still survive. As the tradition has it, at the beginning of the ‘Kalpa’ – Age, Shiva himself narrated to Parvati 108 methods of kindling inherent energies through ‘kundalini’ – dormant coiled power. As acclaimed, it was out of these 108 methods that the 108 Tantrika systems, or Tantras, grew. It is said that once when meditating on one of these methods Parvati’s mind reached the axis of the Great Void. She was amazed to see that a deity enshrined the axis of the Great Void and the other moment she saw herself transforming into that deity, and Shiva’s blissful form bending over her. His face glowed with the lustre of creative energies. He revealed that the ‘One’ in him desired to ‘be many’. They united in bliss and the Void exploded with energies, radiant and colourful. The friction of ‘Yoni’ and ‘Lingam’ – female and male organs, produced ‘Nada’ – the supersonic sound, first loud and then low, and the Void echoed with it.
Heat of passion that transpired initially turned it dark, loud and inaudible, and out of it emerged ‘tamas’ – ignorance. Then the divine will to create prevailed and now it was low and audible, and out of it emerged ‘sattva’ – purity. After the passion calmed and body’s movement regulated, there emerged ‘rajas’ – activity. And, finally, emerged the ‘cosmic seed’, the semen, that transformed into ‘bindu’ – dot, and out of it grew all forms, time, to span these forms, and space, to accommodate them, and thus the entire universe.
A myth, obviously a subsequent addition, it is nonetheless key to Tantra’s root and basic structure. Tantrika’s stage is still the same universe, carved out the Great Void, the axis of which Shiva’s consort Shakti enshrines, and where the act of copulation – union of male and female principles which the metaphysician perceives as the union of ‘Prakriti’ and ‘Purusha’ – matter and spirit, Tantrika, as of Shiva and Shakti, and the devotee, as of ‘Linga’ and ‘Yoni’, is incessant.
Shakti who enshrines universe’s axis and is the source of joy and creation is Tantra’s presiding deity.
It is, however, Shiva’s bliss and desire to create that the act of copulation and thereby explosion of energy and creation takes place.
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