There is a considerable misunderstanding among the general public concerning the nature and content of Tantrism. The prevalent belief with regard to Tantric religion is that that it is black magic that is constitutive of it. Tantrism as a religion, particularly in its Kashmirian version, has a rich philosophical heritage, yet it cannot be denied that it sanctions such rituals, like the use of "five M's" (pancamakara-s), which, on moral grounds, can be thought of as representing degeneration. The pancamakara-s are the five M's: madya (wine), mamsa (meat), matsya (fish), mudra (parched beans), and maithuna (sexual intercourse). Apart from such occasional aberrations as the use of five M's, Tantrism as a whole contains a symbolism which, on the surface, may look like mere mumbo-jumbo, but is aesthetically very rich when penetrated deeply. This pregnant and rich symbolism is to be found in the use of Tantric mantra-s and yantra-s as well as in the arousal of kundalini.
The Tantric religious praxis consists of, broadly speaking, in the arousal of the kundalini through the use of mantra-s and yantra-s. It is upon the arousal of the kundalini that a Tantric is expected to have the mystic experience of unity of Being. In contrast to the Upanishadic apophatism, Tantrism espouses a cataphatic knowledge of Reality. Affirmative knowledge of Reality emerges upon the arousal of kundalini, which, like a coiled snake, is said to be lying dormant at the root of the spinal cord. Upon the arousal of kundalini, the individual adept has the experience of merging in the Cosmic Consciousness (para-samvit), which, at the level of theological formulation, is identified with Shiva. (Cf. Lalprasad Singh, Tantra, Delhi: Concept Publishing Co., 1976, p.x).
There are various meanings and definitions to be found in the Tantric literature concerning the term "tantra." We shall not, however, enter into the complexity of the problem; rather our concern will be to find out as to what is the common usage of the term tantra. The word tantra is derived from the root "tan" meaning to "expand." It is from the root-meaning of the term that tantra has come to mean as that form of comprehensive knowledge that terminates in the intuitional experience of Reality, and in terms of which salvific liberation from the samsaric cycle is effected. Tantrism or Tantric praxis enables the adept to have the knowledge of Reality by making use of such liberative devices as mantra-s and yantra-s. It is the esoteric use of mantra-s and yantra-s that makes Tantrism occult (ibid., p.1).
Scholars are of the opinion that the pre-Aryan origins of Tantrism can be traced back to the Indus Valley Civilization. The excavations at Harappa confirm the assumption that Tantrism goes back to the pre-Aryan civilization. Sir John Marshall confirms this belief when he says: "S(h)akti worship was of great antiquity in India. It originated after the Mother Goddess; and it was closely connected with the cult of S(h)iva" (John Marshal, Mohanjo-daro and Indus Civilisation. London, 1931. P. 57). It is, therefore,of no great surprise when S.N.Dasgupta confirms the existence of Tantric elements in the Upanishads, which means that the pre-history of Tantrism is of great antiquity (Dasgupta, A History of Indian Philosophy. Cambridge Univesity Press, 1963. 1:8).
Tantrism as a religion of the Mother Goddess (Sakti) has always been associated with Siva. It is in terms of the dialectical polarity of Reality as Siva and Sakti that Tantrism will formulate its philosophic understanding concerning the bi-unity of male and female as being constitutive of human liberation from bondage. Thus Saivism and Saktism will provide the necessary background for the development of proper Tantrism.
As the Mother Goddess is the center of Tantric esotreric religiosity, so sexuality will be very predominant in Tantrism. Thus aniconic sexual objects, like linga (male organ) and yoni (female organ), will become the center of Tantric worship. In addition to linga-yoni, Tantrism also make use of the swastika as an object of worship. The vertical line of a swastika denotes for a Tantric causal-brahman (karana braman), whereas the horizontal line signifies effect-brahman (karya brahman). The alphabet "ka" of Tantric garland of letters (varnamala) is the seed-mantra (bija-mantra) of the manifest world. The swastika thus is seen as the symbol of victory over that which phenomenality represents (L.P.Singh, op.cit, p.4).
Traditionally it is believed that the real founder of Tantrism is none other than Siva himself. Accordingly Tantrics think of Siva as being the Primordial Teacher (adi-guru) of Tantric lore. As identical with supreme Reality, so Siva is seen to be representing that which is eternal (sadsiva). It is the imputation of eternity onto Siva that ultimately transformed him into what the theists call Eternal God. For a Tantric Siva, thus, is an Eternal God (L.P.Singh, ibid., p.9).
The historical origins of the cult of Siva are said to be pre-Aryan, going back to the Indus civilization. Even in the Sandarya-lahri (The Wave of Beauty) of Sankara (8th cent. C.E) the pre-Aryan origins of Siva have been confirmed (Saundarya Lahari. Cambridge, Massach., Harvard, 1958. P.78; L.P.Sing, op.cit., p.13). It is as a non-Aryan god that Siva, in opposition to the Vedas, has revealed a new knowledge of salvation that is appropriate to the present degenerate age of darkness (kali-yuga). It is as an ascetic that Siva demonstrated that man can become God through self-endeavour. It is the technique of self-divinization that is constitutive of the esoteric lore of what has come to be known as Tantrism.
Tantric philosophy basically has an orientation that is monistic, and so is accordingly referred to as the Non-Dualistic School of Saivism (Shiva Advaita). According to this system of thought, Supreme Reality (para-samvit) is said to be of the nature of pure consciousness, which is both self-luminous and all-pervasive. As transcendent, Siva is beyond the categories of the thought, and so may be seen to be equivalent to the philosophic Absolute. As immanent, Siva is polarized into male and female principles. As energy (sakti) is innate to Siva, so this energy, at the immanent level, is represented by the female principle, which is spoken of as the Goddess or Devi. Thus Reality, at the religious level of thought, consists of the Couple: Siva and Sakti. On account of innate energy (shakti), Supreme Reality (Parama Shiva) is identified with absolute fullness (purnahanta).
Unlike the Vedantins, the Tantrics think of the world as being real, and not a mere shadow of appearance (maya). The world is real because it represents the manifest condition of Reality. The world, accordingly, is seen to be an aspect of Reality itself. The Tantric theory concerning the manifestation of the world is known as abhasavada, or the doctrine of manifestation. According to this theory, the world is the self-manifestation of the God, and so the world in essence is non-different from God. Upon manifesting himself as the world, God, as it were, empties himself by atomizing himself in the form of entities that are constitutive of the world. It is out of his own absolute free will (svatantrya) that God becomes the world (cf. Gopinath Kaviraj, Tripura Rahasyam. Varanasi: Sarasvati Bhavan Granthamala, 1965. 15:11-12). While manifesting itself as the world, Reality thereby splits itself into subject and object. Inspite of becoming the world, Reality in itself does not suffer from any modification or change. It remains indivisible and same.
The aim of the Tantric Yoga is to realize the absolute state of Siva (Paramshiva). This goal of Tantrism is achieved by awakening the sleeping serpent, or what is called the kundalini. The esoteric methods of mantra and yantra are made use of for the arousal of kundalini. It is the triadism of mantra, yantra and kundalini that constitutes the Tantric spirituality – and this centrality of Tantrism is described by L.P.Singh thus: "Mantra is life, kundalini is the soul and yantra is the body of tantra shastra. Mantra sadhana makes man pure and prepares an esoteric background for the arousal of kundalini, and kundalini sadhana leads to the mystic oneness of Siva and Sakti" (ibid., p.64).
As the innate power of Siva, it is on account of Sakti that the phenomenal manifestation takes place. Upon the actualization of the manifestables, Sakti atomizes herself in each individual as the coiled snake. In figurative terms we may say that the separation of Siva and Sakti gives rise to the manifest condition of the world, and the union of the two denotes the reversal or dissolution of the manifest. The arousal of the kundalini in relation to an individual denotes the recovery of the primal condition, which is that of absolute unity. Thus the sole object of Tantric praxis is nothing else than the arousal of the kundalini. Upon her arousal, she is made to ascend upwards along the spinal cord by penetrating the different mystical centers that are located between the rectum and the head. Upon reaching the topmost mystical center in the head, the serpent power merges in the absolute consciousness, which in religious language is called Siva. There can be no spiritual progress for a Tantric unless this atomized power within is aroused. It upon her submergence in Siva that the individual adept realizes his divinity, which means that each individual is Siva. This divinity of man is expressed thus: "Jiva (an individual) is Siva, and Siva is Jiva; the only difference is that one is in bondage and the other is free (Jiva Sivah, Sivo jivah, sa jivah kevalah Sivah. Sivah pasabandhah smrito jivah pasamuktah sadasiva: Kularnavatantra, p.241). The difference that exists between the individual self and Siva consists in this: The former is in bondage, whereas the latter is not. This difference between the two disappears upon the arousal of the kundalin, as upon her arousal the individual self disappears in the universal or cosmic Self, which is but Siva itself
Mantra is considered to be the most effective esoteric means of realizing the Tantric goal, which is the merger of the individual self in the universal Self (Siva). It is the meditative technique of mantra which helps the adept to overcome the trammels of nescience (maya, avidya). In one of the Tantric texts, Saradatilaka (p.216), mantra is defined thus: mananam visvavijnanam tranam samsarabandhanat, yatah karoti samsiddho mantra ityucyate tatah (Mantra is that incantation which brings the realization of cosmic consciousness and frees one from the bondage of worldliness) . Insofar as the praxis of mantra as a means of liberation is concerned, it is described by Lalprasad Singh thus:
A sadhaka attains the Supreme when he succeeds in establishing parallelism between the rhythms of incantations, the rhythms of ideation and the rhythms of pulsation. With the help of constant ideation of the Supreme and incantation of mantra, mind becomes pure and impeccant. Mantra sadhana is a constant mystic effort to restore equilibrium. In that, a man goes beyond himself. He gives up the consideration of both virtue and ice. He has no frivolity of sex and hunger, nor the self-gratifying sense of sublimity. Losing his own individuality, he becomes one with Param Siva (op.cit., p.80).
From the above description it becomes quite explicit that mantra-s constitute, as it were, the life-force of Tantric praxis. The mystical formulas are made use of for the attainment of soteric goal of liberation, which is characterized by an experience in which differentiated cognitions are dissolved in an indeterminate un-nameable Being. If put in religious terms, it would mean the experience of divinization in terms of which subjectivity is dissolved within the immanent. As the mystical formula has the capacity of leading an adept to the soteric goal of unity, so each letter of the formula (mantra varnamala) supposedly contains within itself such power or energy (sakti) whereby the practitioner is enabled to reach the goal. The garland of letters consists of fifty Sanskrit letters, and each alphabet corresponds to the basic sounds or vibrations of the cosmos. Each letter of the Sanskrit alphabet is considered as a seed-syllable (bija-mantra), which parallels the human instincts. In order to grasp the significance of mantra, one is asked to have a fundamental knowledge concerning the mystical significance of sound (nada).Tantrism has made every effort at developing its understanding concerning sound. As to the esoteric significance of sound L.P.Singh has this to say:
Sound is the first manifestation of Param Siva (Supreme Reality). This is why the effect-brahman is known as sabda brahman (sound-brahman). Sabda in its primary stage is a psychic. The very existence of sabda entails the presence of spanda (vibration, movement). There cannot be sabda without spanda. Spanda is the property of qualified brahman (saguna brahmana). That is why indeterminate brahman (nirguna brahman), where Sakti is dormant, is called non-sounding (a-sabda) and non-moving (ni-spanda).
Concerning the esoteric meaning of sabda L.P.Singh has this to say:
The whole universe is a mass of different waves and vibrations. Where there is action, there is vibration. The relative transposition of any object is called action and the nature of any action is judged by the waves it creates. These waves are known as vibrations. Action is of many varieties, so is vibration. The vibrations of two actions are not the same. No two vibrations are alike. Every vibration has sound and colour. The world is the thought-projection of qualified (saguna) Siva. The creative ideation has vibration. Every vibration is associated with sound. Man cannot catch the supre-mental vibration due to his lack of spiritual development. The first and subtlest vibration is sabda (ibid, p.80).
It is the determinate Brahman or Siva who is seen to be the cause of that which is manifest. The first manifestable that is manifested is the Sabda. Sabda, even in its manifest condition, is non-different from the supreme bindu (primordial point). This Tantric view concerning the determinate Brahman has close affinity with the Johanine theology of Logos, which says that the Word is the first expression of God insofar as creation is concerned (John 1-3). Since it the sabda brahman who is the cause of the manifest sound, so evidently it also is seen as being identical with mantra.
Sabda brahman as mantra is identified with Om or Omakara, and Om, in turn, is identical with the primordial sound, which is none else than Param Siva. Om, thus, is viewed as the seed of all sounds, and so is the collective expression of all sonic sounds. As such Om is the primordial sound (para-vak). Since Om is identical with the Absolute, so it is the substratum or basis or ground of all that there is (Netra-tantra, vs. 129).
Om as supreme mantra consists of three letters, namely, A.U.M, representing creation, its maintenance and destruction respectively. The letter A is the seed-syllable of creation, and so embodies sabda brahman, whereas the letter U represents the preservation of the created, and so encapsulates Visnu. Finally, we have the letter M. This letter is the seed-syllable of destruction, and so respresents Rudra or Siva. All the three forms of creation, preservation and destruction are considered by the Tantrics as aspects of Supreme Siva. As the totality of all sound, so Om as mantra is chanted and recited. As to its real significance, Philip Rawson writes the following:
Om is the whole world… past, present and future… all is Om… whatever else transcends time… is Om. And so by joining the breath to Om on may go aloft the Susumna… two Brahmans may be meditated on, the sounding and the soundless. The soundless revealed only by sound… the sound-Brahman is OM. Ascending by it one reaches an end in the soundless, passing beyond sound, men vanish in the supreme soundlessness, the unmanifest Brahman. There they lose all qualities, becoming indistinguishable like juices blended into honey… the sound- Brahman is Om. Its peak is tranquil, soundless, fearless, beyond sorrow, blissful, immovable… at the apex of the crystal column of the Susumna. The point at which consciousness touches the ultimate through sound comes at the end of the long-drawn, skull-penetrating vocalization of this seed-mantra of the cosmos, the sharpest vibration of the nasal hum with which Om is concluded, written in the Sanskrit alphabet as a dot. Here merge the points of sound and light, indescribably fine and small, but also comprehending the whole world of manifested things in cosmic history (The Art of Tantra. Delhi, 1973. 196).
Insofar as the number of mantra-s is concerned, they are innumerable. According to Svacchanda Tantra, the number is said to be as many as seven coreres, that is, seven million (Svacchanda Tantra, 1:40). The most powerful mantra-s, according to the Kularnava Tantra, are the Siddha-mantra-s, or the mantra-s that terminate in the acquisition of powers (Kularnava Tantra, p.15). A mantra, however, becomes the vehicle for salvation or power only when it is, through initiation (diksa), transmitted by a Guru. It is Guru who, as it were, impregnates a mantra with supernatural power. A mantra is powerless and ineffective if not received from a Guru (Mrigendra Tantra, ch.2, p.41). The Saradatilaka-tantra has classified mantra-s into three types: (1) The masculine mantra-s, (2) the feminine mantra-s , and the neuter mantra-s. The masculine mantra-s end with hum and phut, and the presiding deities of such mantra-s are always male god. Insofar as the feminine mantra-s are concerned, they end with double tha, and their presiding deities are female goddesses. The neuter mantra-s always end with namah (Saradatilaka, p.46).
In addition to mantra, Tantrics make use of a yantra for the purpose of arriving at liberative experience. A yantra, thus, constitutes the soul of Tantric praxis. A yantra is an esoteric method whereby an adept is enabled to develop his concentration. As a mystic diagram, a yantra signifies such mystical powers which are not available to a consciousness that is bound to objectivity. (see L.P.Singh, op.cit., p.110).
As a mystic diagram, a yantra represents both a cosmogram and a psychogram. It is in terms of meditative visualiation that a yantra is made use of. There are various types of yantra-s, depending upon the mode of meditation. It is by making use of an appropriate yantra that the adept attains success in realizing deep concentration, and thereby introversion of consciousness. Some of the yantra-s are the Sri yantra, Kali yantra, Rama yantra, etc. However, the best yantra, according to Tantrics, is the human body. In order to explain the symbolism of yantra, we shall take into consideration Sri yantra.
The Sri yantra is a geometerical design, which depicts as to how the process of creation occurs. When used in meditation, it is used in reverse direction with the intention that the concentration of mind shifts from the outer rim into the central one. In metaphysical terms, the yantra depicts the erotic dimension of Reality, and it is on account of eros that the creational emission is actualized. There is a dot (bindu) in the center of the diagram, which represents the First Principle. If viewed from a human point of view, the dot represents the creational dissolution, and for the yogi it denotes the realization of his divinity in terms of which he disappears in the Absolute. From a creational perspective the dot splits itself into two: male and female principles, represented respectively by Siva and Sakti. The splitting of the dot is represented by the two dots one upon the other, and these two dots are to be found enclosed within a triangle apex downward. This idea of Reality becoming the two is already foreshadowed in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad where we read:
He was alone; he did not enjoy; himself one alone does not enjoy; he desired a second and become like man and woman in close embrace. He made this self of his into two. Therefrom came husband and wife. Later he desired, let my wife be; may I be born as many; may I possess things; may I perform acts; this was his desire. (Quoted in Rawson, op.cit., p.74).
The desire, according to this Upanishad, is at the center of creation – and this desire actualises itself as the female principle. Creation for Tantrism does not mean that it occurred in the past. Rather creation is a continuous process. Upon actualizing itself as male and female, the world is emitted, and thereby is made the place where the bliss of joy may be experienced. The dot in the triangle denotes the process of creation: the former representing semen, whereas the latter, female generative organ (yoni). It is the Goddess who embodies the principle of femininity. The first expansion of creation in time, thus, is the dot and the triangle, the symbols of the Divine Couple or Dyad. The triangle with a dot in it represents the first act of manifestational evolution. The second stage in the process of manifestation, as initiated by the Divine Couple, is characterized by the generation of four pairs of triangles, each pair one pointing upwards, and the other downwards, representing thereby respectively male and female principles. All the triangles represent the manifestational expansion, or what we call "going forth" from the first triangle, like a "flash" and its developed "reflection" (prakasa and vimarsa). It is thus the original five female and four male triangle that give rise to the circuit of other triangles, thereby pointing out the emergence of various forms of consciousness and of creation in a world that is on the move. This is how L.P.Singh has described the triangles:
The Sakti triangles denote the five dhatus, namely, skin (tvac), blood (asri), flesh (mamsa), fat (medas), and bone (asthi). (Insofar as Siva triangles are concerned, they) stand for bone-marrow (majja), vital fluid (sukra), life-force (prana), and individual person (jiva). The division has been from a microcosmic point of view. >From the macrocosmic point of view, the Sakti triangles stand for the five vital functions, the five senses of knowledge, the five senses of action, the five subtle and five gross forms and the mind. The Siva triangles represent the four higher tattvas (categories of existence), viz., Maya, Sudhavidya, Mahesvara and Sadasiva (op.cit., p.110).
The Sri yantra to a Tantric is represents the Divine Abode, as it is in it in which Siva (Kamesvara) and Sakti (Lalita) reside in an undifferentiated unity. The dot (bindu) is enclosed by an inverted triangle, denoting thereby the three divine powers of will (iccha), knowledge (jnana), and action (kriya). As the abode of the Divine, Sri yantra is not only meditated upon, but also is worshipped. From this description of Sri yantra we come know how important mystical diagrams are to a Tantric.
Mostly people think that Tantrism is a religion of moral debasement. This conclusion is arrived at on account of the use of the five M's within the Tantric ritual. The five M's, which the Tantrics make use of in their rituals, are wine (madhya), meat (mamsa), fish (matsya), parched rise (mudra), and sexual intercourse (maithuna). L.P.Singh explains as to why these five ingredients are used by a Tantric in his ritual worship:
Wine stands for the pineal nectar contained in the Ama Kala. Madhya sadhana means the drinking of that pineal nectar in the mystic process of unification of the Kundalini Sakti with Param Siva…. The spiritual oneness of the male (Siva) and the female principle (Sakti) is called the maithuna sadhana. It is called yoga or union. However, tantra does not believe in false asceticism. Copulation with one's own wife under strict spiritual discipline is a part of tantric sadhana. Tantra recognizes that sex and hunger are inherent in man, but they can be sublimated (ibid., p.173).Tantrics were very careful in categorizing people who could engage in ritualized sex. There are, according to Tantrism, three types of people: Ordinary people (pasu) who are linked to animals on account of their being bound (pasa), the heroic (vira) who have overcome the ordinariness of existence, and the godly (daivi). The people of first and last category are prohibited from engaging in the ritualized sexual intercourse. It is the heroic ones who alone can engage in this ritual. It is therefore not right or correct to say that Tantrism believes in hedonists. Tantrics make use of sex for the purpose of transcending it. The accusation, that Tantrism promotes debasement of sex, is not correct. The possibility, however, of misusing sexuality exists.