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The Main Features of Tantric Thought - Moti Lal Pandit

Tantra is the backbone of most esoteric and neo-gnostic spirituality. The key concepts of this stream within the old Asian religions are therefore crucial to the understanding of what goes on in today’s new religions.



Tantricism, whether Hindu or Buddhist, is that mode of religiosity in which gnosticism, as an esoteric (guhyam) experience of human spirituality, is the central core of religious practice and belief. It is a religious practice which is involved with the mythic consciousness of humanity and with the experimental mysticism. The mystic practices, within the Tantric framework, have been given the transcendent status in terms of literature, and the literature which contains these practices and experiences is said to be of transcendent origin. The esoteric spirituality is reflected in the contents of such texts which are referred to as Tantras. As the entire import of Tantricism is esoteric in nature, it is but natural to assert that Tantricism belongs to the realm of secrecy. It is this secrecy which is the main characteristic mark of Tantricism.

Tantricism as a religious search for meaning is the culmination of yogic experimentation with regard to mind and body. It is a movement of assimiliation and synthesis. It would be wrong to say that Tantricism merely represents a new form of Yoga or religious philosophy. Both Yoga and philosophy, no doubt, play a very important role in Tantricism. But Tantricism is much more than Yoga and philosophy. It is a specific kind of life-style.

As a definite kind of life-style, Tantricism made its first appearance during the beginning of our era. It, however, transformed itself into a pan-Indian religious movement between 600 and 1200 A.D. As a specific religious movement, it has been codified in the texts called Tantras, which have been written in a symbolic or twilight language (sandhya-bhasa). They alone can decode the mysterious language of Tantric texts who have been initiated in the mystic practices of Tantricism by a competent teacher (guru). When we speak of guru as a “competent teacher”, we mean he has achieved and realised all such divine potencies as actualities within which bestow upon him the status of divinity. Thus guru by extension is seen as God-incarnate in physical form.

Being basically concerned with a structure of spirituality whose orientation is esoteric, Tantricism does not aim at establishing its own doctrinal or metaphysical system of thought. It aims at concrete experience of those realities which it thinks need to be experienced or which it has assimilated from the broader framework of brahmanism. What Tantricism aims at is to devise such ways and means which would lead to the realisation of such basis doctrinal principles which it has assimilated either from brahmanism of from Mahayana. The ways or means of Tantricism are of secret nature, and it is the secret nature of Tantric praxis which makes it a fascinating subject of study.

Although from a social point of view, Tantric teachings and practices may seem to be elitistic on account of their secret nature, but from a functional viewpoint they, through the medium of ritual-symbol, appropriate realities, and thereby the realities are experienced concretely. The Tantric idea of secrecy has to be seen as a method of appropriating and assimilating realities whereby the experience of the numenon is allowed to take place concretely.

The method of appropriation may be seen particularly in the context of the Mother-Goddess. The Goddess is seen as the guardian of the fields. She sustains the lives of all creatures. The products of the Earth are not simply as a form of wealth; they manifest the transcendental sacredness of the Goddess. The Goddess, as the divine symbol, is the basis and source of phenomenality. Seen in this role, it is necessary to know the Goddess. The knowledge of the Goddess is possible by enachting the processes of the Goddess. It is through the performance of the ritual that the knowledge of the Goddess os obtained. By appropriating the Goddess, the differentiating categories of phenomenality are transcendented.

Meaning of the term: Tantra


The word tantra has many shades of meaning. The term has been used in a variety of ways. Initially the term was used in a general fashion. The Vedic texts seem to have made use of the term in the sense of a loom, and Panini the grammarian (4th century B.C.) has also used the word in a similar manner. On the basis of the idea of a loom, the grammarians derived the word from the root tan, which is said to mean “to extend”, “to propagate”, and so on. The term, in the context of its root-meaning, has been interpreted to mean “the scripture(-s) by which knowledge is spread”.

The specific and restricted meaning of the term, as applied to the Tantric system of thought and literature, came into existence at a period of history when Tantricism had achieved its distinctive character. It is in this specific sense that the term in the Kamikagama has been used to denote that class of literature which concerns itself with such matters which belong to the transcendental realm and with techniques (mantra) that make it possible to appropriate the transcendental knowledge. The term, in its restrictive sense, refers to a specific class of texts whose subject matter concerns itself with the problem of Reality and with the methods of relaisation. As a technical branch of spiritual knowledge, Tantric texts concern themselves with solving the problems of knowledge concerning the Absolute. In the context of religious practice, the Tantric texts throw light on the spiritual methods (sadhana).

The Tantric sadhana is open to all; men and women, young and old. It accepts no caste system. Since Tantricism is open-minded, it has penetrated all the major Indian religious denominations like Vaishnavism, Shaivism, Jainism and Buddhism. Because of open-door policy, Tantricism has succeeded in influencing, in one way or the other, every segment of society.

General Features of Tantricism


Basic to Tantricism is a non-dualistic system of philosophy and such mystical practices which terminate in the highest state of consciousnbess. Tantricism is not simply characterised by psycho-physical techniques of meditation; rather it stands for the affirmation of the world, and firmly is of the opinion that the Divine is within the human body. It opholds the view that there is a basic identity between the microcosm (man) and the macrocosm (Absolute). This assertion denotes that all forms of empirical expressions are apparent, and therefore have no ontological status in themselves. Although firmly believing in don-dualism, Tantricism has introduced a relative dualism to account for the existence of phenomenal categories. The relative dualism, at the phenomenal level, is explained in terms of Shiva-Shakti dyad or polarity. At the practical level of praxis, Tantricism seeks the fusion of the two in terms of which the transcendental bliss (maha-sukha) is experienced.

Shiva, in its transcendental aspect, is viewed as pure Being (praksha), whereas Shakti is considered to be the dynamic power (vimarsha) of Shiva and in terms of which the phenomenal manifestation takes place. Shakti as creative power is co-essential with Being. The unity of Shiva-Shakti, at the phenomenal level, is depicted in terms of the loving embrace of the Divine Couple. The intention of this image is to show the fundamental unity of Reality. It is this very image of the Divine Couple which is, at the phenomenal level, made use of in the context of man-woman relationship. Both of them are seen to be essentially of one essence. Due to phenomenalisation of Reality, this essential unity is experienced in terms of separation. To elaborate the transcendental unity, Tantricism has an elaborate system of spiritual praxis and by the practice of which one is expected to experience the essential unity of Being within. At the same time the essential nature of Being is seen also in terms of Becoming, for without Shakti there is nothing left in Shiva.

The Absolute as Shiva is said to have the inherent powers of will, knowledge and action. It is Shakti aspects of Shiva which constitutes these triple powers. What it amounts to saying is that Shakti is the creative power of the Absolute, and as such She is seen to be the creatrix of the universe. In so far as the manifestation of the Many is concerned, it takes place through definite stages of manifestation. The stages of manifestation of the Absolute are spoken of as the “categories of existence” (tattva). It is the categories of existence which constitute the cosmos, and they are said to be thirty-six in number.

The Absolute is said to be of the nature of Awareness (cit). The empirical world is seen to be nothing else but Awareness in a limited form. Shakti, as the creative power of the Absolute, both reveals and conceals Reality. By concealing Reality, She expresses herself in terms of differentiation. The revelation of Being comes to be when the categories of differentiation are transcended. In its manifest form the Absolute as Shakti is experienced in its individualised form, and is known as kundalini (the coiled one). It is in its kundalini form that Shakti is said to be lying in a dormant state in the human body, and it is the aim of Tantric praxis to awaken her.

Tantric praxis has close affiliation with rituals. Although there are some Tantric teachers, like the leading Buddhist Tantric Sarha (8th century A.D.), who condemn ritual and ritualism, Tantricism in general, however, feels its need in the context of its sadhana. The Tantric praxis has been divided into two schools, namely, the right-hand school and the left-hand school. In the Tantric ritual the use of five ingredients is essential, and they are: wine, meat, fish, fried beans and sexual intercourse. They who belong to the right-hand school make use of the symbolic substitutes for the above ingredients, whereas the adherents of the left-hand make no such pretense. The aim of the first four ingredients is to stimulate the practitioner, whereas the last one signifies the culmination of the entire ritual process. The sexual intercourse, at the physical plane, gives intense joy to the couple. By means of copulation the adept wants to arrive at that joy which is transcendental in nature. It would, therefore, be wrong to say that sexuality is used as a means of self-indulgence. The sexual act is used for the realisation of eternal joy and bliss.

It should be now clear as to why Tantricism accords great importance to the well-being of the body. The human body is seen to be the container and receptor of divine potencies, and as such is considered to be the best medium for realising freedom in terms of the bliss of non-dual Reality. It is in this context that Tantric symbols can well be appreciated, as most of the symbols, being sexual in con­notiation, denote freedom from physical sexuality by appropriating, through deification, the absolute bliss of freedom.

Take the case for example, of cakras (the mystical centres in the body). It is believed that at the base of the spine is the root-chakra. In the middle of the cakra is a yellow square, which represents the element “earth”. Within the square is a triangle, representing the Goddess. In the centre of the triangle is a linga, and the linga represents the male aspect of Reality. The Goddess, who is represented by the earth and by the triangle, is again represented in the form of kundali or kundalini. The Goddess is shown, in her sleeping form, as a serpent coiled around the linga. While in sleep, the Goddess as the serpent covers the opening of the linga.

It will, however, be a gross mistake if this entire imagery is interpreted in sexual terms. The triangle and the linga, indeed, represent the male and female aspects od Reality, and therefore may be seen as representing sexual imagery. Sexuality in itself, however, does not explain the symbolism of the root-chakra or muladhara. Most of the Tantric symbols or images have a cosmic significance, as, for example, the image of the triangle and of the serpent represent the primal state of Becoming. The downward-shaped triangle is the most abstract symbol of the Goddess; it expresses her overlordship over the universe. The earth represents the content of motherhood, and therefore is seen as the source of life. The snake is the symbol of the mystical time, of time before time began. The sleeping kundalini may be seen to represent the state of inertia. The sleeping kundalini and her covering the opening of the linga tells us that the Goddess is the source of life which has not yet become manifest. We are informed that the root-cakra is comprised of matter, sound, odour, and apana breath. There is also the presence of Kandarpa, the god of love, in the cakra. As the god of love, it upholds the souls as Jivesa. It is an imagery which agrees with the assertion that which is umanifest has the possibility of manifesting itself. As far as the Goddess as yoni in the form of a triangle is concerned, it expresses the idea of kamarupa. Kamarupa is the symbol of that which has become manifest.

The arousal of kundalini is of utmost importance on Tantricism. Kundalini, when aroused, moves upwards by penetrating the six cakras along the spinal cord. There are channels along the spinal cord, and the most important ones are the ida and pingala, representing the sun and the moon, life and death. The channels have also been identified with the life-sustaining rivers. The polarity of the ida and pingala also demonstrate the fact that polarities always do not express themselves in terms of male-female duality. It becomes clear that Tantric symbolism is very complex, and therefore must be studied with care. Each image or symbol has many shades of meaning. At the phenomenal level, the images may have a bearing; at the transcendental level the sexual polarity of male-female is totally transcended.

The nature of Spanda


Tantrics think of Reality to be essentially vibrant, that is, the essential nature of Reality is said to be characterised by spanda. The Absolute of Tantricism is not a passive being. It believes that the Absolute has within the sentient beings engage themselves in the process of knowing and doing. Spanda is that aspect of Reality by the power of which it carries out within consciousness many psycho-physical movements of finite beings. The movements of the finite beings within consciousness have not to be construed as the movements of consciousness, as the nature of spanda is blissful. It is the state of turya in which the blissful nature of spanda is realised. The transconscious state is said to be characterised by divine revelation.

The term spanda is derived from the root spadi: “to move a little” (kimcit calana). As such spanda is understood as a spontaneous activity of pure consciousness. It always shines forth as I-consciousness. The Absolute is said to be Godhead on account of its Shakti. One of the essential aspects of Shakti is spanda, which, having a constant rise and fall, is the basic of creation as well as for its dissolution. The concept of spanda has been explained in various ways. It has been described as sphuratta (twinkling), ghurni (dizziness), urmi (wave), matsyodari (to throb like a fish when out of water).

The Nature of Bondage


What is bondage? What is its cause? Bondage is ignorance and its cause is ignorance. Ignorance does not mean the absence of knowledge. Ignorance denotes a state of knowledge which is insufficient, imperfect and erroneous. As such ignorance means a knowledge which is finite in nature. Ignorance is said to be of two kinds: innate and intellectual. The innate ignorance expresses itself in terms of which an individual experiences himself to be a limited being. The experience of limitation impedes the awareness of the Infinite. The intellectual ignorance expresses itself in terms of limitedness of all forms of conceptual knowledge. A finite being develops space-time bound conceptions about himself, about his nature and capacities. This limited conceptual knowledge teminates in the identification of the Self with objects which are finite. It is an ignorance which is characterised by mental confusions concerning one’s true nature.

As far as knowledge is concerned, it too is said to be of two kinds: innate and intellectual. The correct form of knowledge is said to be that which stems from the mystical intuition. Mere intellectual knowledge is not considered to be an authentic form of knowledge, as it is dependent upon the mental concepts. The mystical or conceptual knowledge comes to be when the finite ego remains no more. It is a knowledge which rises from the experience of consciousness (samvid) as pure awareness. It is this knowledge which terminates in liberation, or, what is called liberation-in-life (jivan-mukti). So, according to Tantricism, liberation from bondage basically means the acquirement of intuitive knowledge.

According to Tantricism, the individual being, as a microcosm, is the manifestation of the macrocosm, and so accordingly is infinite and perfect I-consciousness. It is because of ignorance that the individual being takes the finite entities as the source of the Self. It is this superimposition of finitude upon the infinite Self which is called bondage.

The Nature of Liberation


The content of bondage is characterised by the wrong conceptions concerning the real nature of the Self. Freedom from this erroneous knowledge comes to be when correct understanding is given rise to. They gain the state of mystical intuition who follow the right path of Yoga. Through the practice of Yoga an adept recognises himself to be eternally free, one with the Absolute.

It is this recognition of the Self as identical with the Absolute which is spoken of as liberation. The liberated person lives in the phenomenal world in so far is it is his lot to live. At the end of his phenomenal journey, the liberated one achieves total identity with the Absolute.

There is, however, a higher state of liberation which the yogi can have in this very life, and it is spoken of as that of total absorption (samavesa). It is an experience in which the yogi has an unexpected experience of identity with the Absolute I-consciousness. While being conscious of his individual identity, the yogi experiences as if his consciousness is being transmuted into the Absolute I-consciousness. This experience enables the yogi to recognise that he is none other than the Absolute I-consciousness. At the end of the worldly journey, two courses are open to the yogi: either to submerge in the Absolute I-consciousness or to take a divine form and be born again for the upliftment of people.

There is another type of liberation also, which is spoken of as the krama-mukti, that is, liberation by stages. It is a liberation in which it is the grace of the Lord which works. Grace, however, does not lead to total liberation. While practising Yoga, the adept does not easily develop such possibilities which may enable him to realise liberation in one go. After death, he however reaches some divine abode the deity of which helps him in the elimination of impurities. The adept, stage by stage, moves to different but higher divine abodes whereby he ultimately reaches a state in which identity with the Absolute I-consciousness is realised.

Tantric Praxis


Tantric praxis or sadhana is very complex and is constituted by such practises which bear fruit only if received from a competent teacher. These practises may be seen as a practical guide for the attainment of supernatural state of freedom. The most important aspects of Tantric praxis are mantra, yantra, mudra, nyasa etc.

Mantra is the heart of Tantric praxis. The term mantra is derived from the root man: “to reflect”. By adding the suffix tra, the result is not lexical but esoteric, in that the term is made to mean as “deliverance.” The term, in extended sense, has been defined as “a means of liberation through the power of thought.” Mantra in Tantricism is seen to be the main means of knowing and realising the Transcendent, and so accordingly the Absolute is identified with the Word (shabda = logos).

From this identification it was easy to conclude that the mantra is the manifestation of the Absolute. It is thus Sound, in the form of words, which, on the one hand, gives rise to articulated Sounds and, on the other hand, makes the knowledge (artha) of the differentiated objects possible. The rise of the Sound in the Absolute has distinct stages of development, and they are:

1: para-vak. It is a stage in which the Sound is unmanifest.

2: pashyanti-vak. It is a stage in which the Sound begins to form an image or an idea.

3: madhyama-vak. It is a stage of manifestation in which the Sound appears in the form of thought.

4: vaikhari-vak. It is the last stage of manifestation in which the Sound manifests itself in an articulated form.

As the Sound is seen to be but the manifestation of the Divine, so the mantra, as a combination of Sounds, is the carrier of all divine powers and potentialities. Thus the Tantric use mantra for altering the states of consciousness by internalising it through yogic meditation. It is the belief in the divine quality of the mantra which gave rise to such mystical formulas which are called as seed-formulas (bija-mantra). The most celebrated seed-mantra is said to be Om. This seed-mantra is said to contain all the possible and actual sounds of the cosmos. The other bija-mantras are, for example, krim, ram, etc. Also every mystical centre or cakra is said to have its own bija-mantra.

A mantra may be said to represent that process of meditation in which the meditator is able to project that which the mantra contains. The process of projection of the mystical Sound is called nyasa. It is a ritual process of projection whereby the divine powers are both invoked and established in the various parts of the body. The adept meditates on that divinity which he wants to appropriate. The process of appropriation comes to be by meditating on the mystical formula and by touching the various parts of the body.

Apart from mantra and nyasa the other important constituent of Tantric praxis is the yantra. A yantra or a mandala functions as an aid to visualisation in meditation. While in meditation, the adept projects the mental image by visualising a yantra or a mandala. A yantra is both a cosmogram and a psychogram. As a cosmogram, it represents the basic structure of the cosmos. It depicts the cosmic manifestation, in a geometric design, of the Many from the One. A yantra consists of a diagram which is either drawn or engraved on a piece of metal, wood, stone, etc. A Sriyantra, for example, consists of nine triangles, five apex up, and four apex down. It is the geometrical design of a yantra which the yogi internalises. A yantra is visualised either from inside or from the centre of bindu. Non-functional remain mantra, nyasa and yantra without the use of mudra (gesture). It is mantra, dhyana and mudra which together bestow perfection upon the Tantric praxis. According to the great Tantric philosopher of Kashmir, namely, Abhinavagupta (11th century A.D.), the term mudra is derived from the roots mud (to delight) and ra (to yield). This interpretation would mean that the yogi achieves his mental repose by realising self-integration through the process of mudra. A mudra, therefore, may be said to constitute the physical representation of a mantra. The yogi, when engaged in mudra, activates the mind, speech and body, which means the three different ways of realising the Self.

The main purpose of all the constituents of the Tantric praxis is to arouse the sleeping serpent power (kundalini) within. Tantrics think that kundalini, in its individualised form, remains in a dormant state at the base of the spine, called the root-cakra. In the Goraksa-samhita kundalini is described in the following terms:

“The serpent power, forming an eightfold coiled above the bulb, remains there all the while covering its face, the opening of the door to the Absolute. Through that door (that is, sushumna) the safe door to the Absolute is reached. Covering with the face that door, the Great Goddess is asleep. Awakened through the buddhi-yoga together with the mind and the wind (that is, prana), she rises up through the sushumna like thread and needle.”

The arousal of the kundalini takes place when the yogi blocks the going and coming down of the life-force through ida and pingala. Once aroused through the practise of pranayama, the kundalini heats up, and there is an internal mechanism by the release of which She moves upwards by piercing the six mystical centres. She ultimately reaches the centre at the crown of the head and there the reunion of the individualised cosmic power (kundalini) with Shiva takes place. This experience of union not only emancipates the yogi from the clutches of samsara, but also enables him to experience pleasure (bhukti) at the level of the body. From all this it becomes clear that Tantricism, while affirming the reality of life, has a soteriology which is eschatological in character, in that the aim is to return to the primal state of Being.


Moti Lal Pandit

was born in Kashmir in 1948. In his student years he felt attracted to Christianity and converted to Roman Catholicism. After finishing his Magistrate degree in Philosophy, English Literature, and Sanscrit, he studied Vedanta at the Chinmayananda monastry in Bombay and Kasmir Shaivism. He is a renowned researcher in Sancrit texts and has authored several books, among them the widely acclaimed In Search of the Absolute, Shankara’s Concept of Reality, The Religio-philosophical History of Shaivism, Towards Transcendence and Being As Becoming. In 1986 he delivered the Gurudev Ranade Memorial Lectures on at the Academy of Religion and Philosophy in Belgaum.