Hindu Tantric Literature

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HINDU TANTRIC LITERATURE . The genre of religious literature known as Tantra exists in all traditional South Asian religionsHindu, Buddhist, Jaina, and folk religions. The Hindu Tantras are also divided into Śaiva, Śākta, and Vaiava. The literature classed as Tantra is not a coherent group of texts, nor are the texts always comprised of any homogeneous materials. Sometimes the name Tantra is replaced by Āgama, Nigama, and Sahitā, especially when the texts want to emphasize their affinity to the Vedas. There is a convention that Śaiva Tantras are called Āgamas, Vaiava Tantras are called Sahitās, and Śākta Tantras are known as Tantras. But there is no regularity in these divisions. Therefore, Tantric literature must be defined as a theistic literature mainly focused on the cult of one or several deities.

Sometimes a single godhead is the focal point of a group of Hindu Tantras, which gave rise to the categories of Śaiva and Śākta. The meaning of the term Tantra is extremely vague; it can just be another name for śāstra the canonical literature of religious teachings and practices. But from the angle of religious history, the word Tantra means a particular genre of religious literature that the Mahābhārata (12, 349, 64) includes among the five authentic doctrines, namely the Pāśupata and the Pāñcarātra. (This group of five doctrines includes Pāśupata, Pāñcarātra, Sākhya, Yoga, and Vedārayaka.)

Thus, Pāśupata and Pāñcarātra were regarded as authentic traditional religions coming down from Vedic literature. It also proves that these two religions were different from the Vedic tradition of religious practice and philosophy. These two names mentioned by the epic most probably included the two main streams of non-Vedic yet generally accepted tradition, the Śaiva and the Vaiava.

Sākhya ontology and the Yoga method of meditation are widely accepted by Śaiva and Vaiava ritual literature; they mainly oppose the Vedic ritual systems and the ideology lying behind them. On the other hand, the early antagonism of traditional Vedic practitioners probably induced these religions gradually to accept some of the Vedic rituals and incorporate quite a number of Vedic mantras. As a result, traditional Vedic scholars like Kumārila and Śakara did not completely reject the Śaiva and Vaiava ideologies.

The ritual mainly advocated by Tantric literature is a system of worship in which, by internal and external ritual acts, the worshiper intends to establish his or her identity with the deity worshiped. With a series of rituals conducted by imagination and by physical actions, such as bhūtaśuddhi, prāa-pratihā, and nyāsa, accompanied by specific mudrās and mantras, the worshiper achieves self-apotheosis. Only then can he or she worship the deity and, through the prolonged practice of one-pointed meditation (samādhi ), achieve his or her soteriological goal. As support of the samādhi, there developed a system of iconography, image making, temple construction (and the science of their maintenance), and various classifications of worship programs, such as daily worship, periodic worship, and special worship. A deity is not only represented in image form but also as maala, yantra, and other aniconic forms. The practice of yoga also took special forms, such as laya yoga and kualinī yoga. Esotericism is the main feature of these rituals, and the ideology underlying access to the system is also exclusive: initiation is compulsory. Tantric literature comprises all these ritual and supplementary materials.

Besides the two main streams, Śaiva and Vaiava, there are other streams worshiping deities such as Śakti as goddess, Sun, Gaeśa, and Skanda. However, the method of ritual worship of these deities more or less follows the earlier model. There are countless Tantras on the worship of the goddess Śakti, designated as the Śākta Tantras. Nevertheless they should be categorized as Śaiva Tantras, because the goddess Śakti is almost invariably connected with Śiva.

The Śaiva canonical texts are divided into two categories, the higher path (atimārga ) and the mantra path (mantra mārga ). The higher path may have gotten its title from some of the antisocial rites and observances followed by its adherents. Originally it was entirely followed by ascetics.

There are two main branches of the higher-path literature. The first is Pāśupata texts, belonging to the sect known by that name, and the second is called the L(N)ākulīśa Pāśupata. The earliest text available is the Pāśupata Sūtras, which is divided into five chapters. It prescribes for its adherents a strict ascetic life and, for a limited period, somewhat antisocial behavior to attract the disapproval of society. This limited period is followed by a period of practicing meditation in total seclusion. The final stage of the practice is carried out at a cremation ground. One important compulsory item of practice is the use of ash for bathing and for a bed. The ultimate goal for the practitioner is salvation (moka ), which means a total cessation of suffering. Kauinya wrote a detailed commentary on this canonical text called Pañcārtha Bhāya.

No text of the Lākulīśa Pāśupata system has survived. However, there is no doubt of its great prevalence in the early period. It must have influenced the emergence of the later sects, the Kālāmukha, Kāpālika, Siddha, and Nātha. Along with the original Lākulīśa sect, all these sects believe in the supreme importance of the human body; its culture (kāya sādhana ) leads to salvation in this life as well as to supernatural powers. These later sects have produced many texts, such as the Kaulajñāna-niraya and the Hahayogapradīpikā. It is considered that Matsyendranātha introduced the Kaula system of antinomian practices, and Gorakanātha the system of Haha Yoga.

The texts belonging to the mantra path, though having basically the same type of ritual system and soteriological concepts, admit both ascetics and householders. Among these texts are the canons of the Śaiva Siddhānta. These are called Āgamas and consist of ten Śiva-āgamas (such as Mgendra-āgama ) and eighteen Rudra-āgamas (such as Niśvāsa Tantra and Raurava Tantra ). Important features of these Tantras are (1) Śakti, as an embodiment of supreme divine power, receives almost no attention; and (2) they do not teach esoteric rituals. The central deity is Śiva.

In the corpus of esoteric Tantras, Śakti as goddess and consort of Śiva occupies an important position. These are divided under two headings, those belonging to the seat of mantras (mantra pīha ) and those belonging to the seat of vidyā (vidyā pīa ). The Tantras belonging to the mantra pīha are called Bhairava Tantras. The dominant deity is Śiva bhairava (the terrifying). According to some traditions, there are sixty-four Bhairava Tantras. The Svacchandabhairava Tantra is one of the most important texts of this group.

The Tantras belonging to vidyā pīa are often centered on a dominant female deity, Śakti, and are divided under two headings, Yāmala Tantras and Śakti Tantras. Of these two groups of Tantras, the former teaches the cult of a couple; that is, the ferocious Bhairava and his consort Śakti, the ferocious goddess Bhairavī. Picumata-brahma Yāmala is one of the important Tantras of this group. It teaches secret rites of a sexual type, and the position of Śakti and her human representative, the practitioner's female partner, is exalted. Although these Tantras have moved away from strict ascetic practices, the influence of the Kāpālika tradition is quite conspicuous. The teaching is full of esoteric features; the skull cup, disheveled hair, and other symbols point to the cremation ground as the cult's ideal location.

Another interesting Tantra is the Jayadratha Yāmala. This introduces the cult of the goddess Kālasakaraī, the "Destroyer of Time." This deity is not terrible in form but more like a warrior goddess, adopting the Kāpālika symbolism of holding a skull cup and wearing a deerskin. The Tantra then proceeds to describe more esoteric rituals and iconography of the goddess Kālī. The text possibly represents stages of the development of Kālī's cult, including the twelve Kālīs.

Śakti Tantras are so called because of the ascendancy of Śakti over Śiva, both in the iconography and in the main mantra of the central deity. Here is the esoteric worship of Śakti in three hierarchic stages. The supreme one is the goddess Parā śakti. The śakti Parāparā stands in the middle of the hierarchy and possesses the characteristics of both the supreme Śakti and the lower śakti, who is the goddess Aparā śakti. The latter comes close to the empirical level. A fourth one, who is both the aggregate of all three śaktis and the one who transcends them all, then joins this tradition of three śaktis. Of the three śaktis, Parā is an aspect of the transcendent one. Parā heralds the advent of creation. These three śaktis constitute the core of this cult called the triadic cult (Trika). The Siddhayogeśvarīmata Tantra, the Mātsadbhāva Tantra, and the Mālinīvijayottara Tantra belong to this early triadic cult. The iconographic details of the supreme goddess Parā indicate that she is the deity who is the supreme Gnosis and is identified with self-realization.

The development of the Kaula system saw a waning of the ascetic ideology from the original Kāpalika concepts. A text like the Kulārava Tantra makes this clear. Though dominated by Śakti, the cult accepts the transcendental Śakti, Parā, to be totally united with Śiva, and the pair is enclosed by the three śaktis arranged in a triangle. There are two streams or lineages (kula ) of the Kaula system, Kālikula and Śrīkula. The former presents the cult of Kālī, and the Kubjikāmata Tantra belongs to this stream. It deals with the cult of the beautiful goddess Śrī. The Yoginīhdaya Tantra and the Nityaoaśikārava Tantra are among those that belong to this cult.

The Krama school of Śakti Tantras propagates the kaula style of worship of Kālī. The Devīpañcaśataka belongs to this school. This system later influenced many goddess cults and produced many Tantras, such as the Mahākāla Tantra.

Two more streams must be mentioned: the Mahāvidya Tantras and the Cīnācāra Tantras. The Toala Tantra and the Śaktisagama Tantra belong to the former group, whereas the Mahacīnācāra Tantra and the Nīlasarasvatī Tantra belong to the latter. The Siddha Avadhūta and the Nātha sects also continued to produce Tantras, such as the Dattātreya Samhitā and the Goraka Sahitā.

The Vaiava Tantras generally belong to the Pāñcarātra sect. According to its own tradition, these texts are divided into four categories, Āgama, Mantra, Tantra, and Tantrāntara. This early Vaiava sect focused on the Vāsudeva form of Viu as the godhead. As the name suggests, Vāsudeva is the patronymic of the god Ka, who was a human incarnation of Viu. The Pāñcarātra philosophy and ritual practice have influenced all Vaiava sects. The Mahābhārata records the sect's three main features: aversion to animal sacrifice, the acceptance of Vāsudeva as the supreme god, and unconditional loyal devotion to Vāsudeva, the only way to remove all human sufferings. There are many Pāñcarātra Tantras. The adherents of the sect hold three texts to be the earliest and the most important, the Sāttvata Sahitā, the Jayakhya Sahitā, and the Paukara Sahitā. The supreme god is the transcendent Vāsudeva/Nārāyaa, and Lakmī is his inseparable Śakti. The fourfold emanation of Vāsudeva, Caturvyūha constitutes the essence of the Pāñcarātra cosmogony.

See Also

Tantrism, article on Hindu Tantrism.


Dyczkowski, Mark S. G. The Canon of the Śaivāgama and the Kubjikā Tantras of the Western Kaula Tradition. Albany, N.Y., 1988.

Goudriaan, Teun, and Sanjukta Gupta. Hindu Tantric and Śākta Literature. A History of Indian Literature, vol. 2. Wiesbaden, Germany, 1981.

Smith, H. Daniel. A Descriptive Bibliography of the Printed Texts of the Pāñcarātraāgama, vol. 1. Gaekwad's Oriental Series no. 158. Baroda, India, 1975.

White, David Gordon. The Alchemical Body: Siddha Traditions in Medieval India. Chicago, 1996.

White, David Gordon. Kiss of the Yoginī. Chicago, 2003.

Sanjukta Gupta (1987 and 2005)

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