Tantrism: An Overview

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The term tantrism is a nineteenth-century western invention, coined to refer to what were considered to be a body of heterodox religious teachings, first discovered by European scholars in Indian works called Tantras. Although there is no term in any Asian language for tantrism, it continues to be applied by scholars to a bewilderingly diverse array of esoteric precepts and practices attested across much of South, Inner, and East Asia from the sixth century ce down to the present day.

The most salient phenomena common to all tantrisms are the use of maalas, mantras, and ritual practices in order to map, organize, and control a universe of powerful beings, impulses, or forces in pandemonium. Here, it is important to note that the specifically tantric use of maalas, mantras, and initiations first emerged in India as a religious response to or reflection of a situation of anomie. With the fall of the imperial Guptas in about 550 ce, much of the Indian subcontinent was plunged into a centuries-long period of feudalism, in which multiple, shifting political "centers" were in constant flux, passing under the control of a series of often low-caste rulers whose claim to dominion over a territory was, from the standpoint of orthodox religious polity, illegitimate. In order to legitimate their power, these newly arisen rulers called on a variety of religious specialists to ritually consecrate them with tantric mantras, transforming them into divine kings, and their conquered territories into equally consecrated maalas of royal power. Ronald M. Davidson has encapsulated this feudal dynamic:

In the medieval military culture, the apotheosis of the king served his strategy of divine right to the assumption of power, irrespective of his actual lineage. However, the process of divine royalty conversely implied the royalty of divinity, so the apotheosis of rulers entailed the feudalization of the gods. [T]he great and local deities of the period occupied positions in metaphysical space analogous to the positions controlled by their devotees in terrestrial space, with all the attendant rights and responsibilities. At the same time, lesser divinities became understood as representatives of the imperial divinity, who protected them in a complex exchange of divine services, just as the vassals owed allegiance and loyalty to the monarch through the exchanges of goods, services, land, and booty. (Indian Esoteric Buddhism, 2002, pp. 7172.)

When one bears in mind the Indian feudal context within which tantrism emerged out of preexisting Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain religious systems, a number of specifically tantric terms and practices become comprehensible. These include the use of mantras (secret spells) as "weapons" (śastras ), "missiles" (astras ), and "armor" (kavaca ); ritual practices of "binding the directions" (dig-bandhana ) as a means to securing a consecrated space from invasion by demonic forces; the construction of tantric maalas on the model of fortified palace-citadels; multiple associations of tantric goddesses with warfare; the bearing of royal weapons or scepters (vajras ) by tantric initiates; the tantric "acts" (karmas ) of pacification, subjugation, immobilization, enmity, eradication, and liquidation; and the narrative use of the language of conquest (both military and sexual) in tantric discourse in general. Here, the original tantric practitioner par excellence was not the traditional religious specialista Brāhma priest or a Buddhist or Jain monkbut rather the king, as exemplary member of the laity. Much of the early history of tantrism is intertwined with the emergence of a new type of lay religious specialist, "shamanic" ascetic practitioners who identified themselves, through their supernatural powers, with royal gods and divine kings. To these latter, they offered a variety of services and products, including spells and potions for the control of women, the attainment of wealth, and the annihilation of enemies; spirit possession; magical healing and manipulation of the dead, demons, and other entities; future-telling; and so on. In Hindu and Buddhist circles, these tantric supermen were called "Perfected Beings" (Siddhas, Mahāsiddhas ) and "Virile Heroes" (Vīras ); among Śvetāmbara Jains, the "Teachers" (Sūris ) of the Kharatara Gaccha sub-sect have played an analogous role.

Geographical Spread of Tantrism

The origins of tantrism are Indian. All authentic tantric lineagesof deities, scriptures, oral teachings, and teachersclaim to extend back to Indian scriptures. The founders of every major tantric tradition, school, or sect either trace their guru-disciple lineages back to an Indian source, or are considered to be incarnations of bodhisattvas whose cults first arose in India. The exploded pantheons of tantrismprincipal multi-headed and multi-armed deities proliferating into maalas of families or clansare generally Indian, or at least traceable to Indian prototypes. The great bulk of tantric legends concerns Indian Siddhas and Mahāsiddhas. The hieratic language of tantrism generally remains the Sanskrit of medieval India, so that for any lineage-based tantric body of practice to be considered legitimate in Chinese, Japanese, Korean, or Tibetan tantric traditions, its translated root text has had to be traceable back to a Sanskrit original. In these translated sources, mantras whose efficacy resides in their sound shapewill not be translated, but rather frozen (at least in theory) in the original Sanskrit. Furthermore, Sanskrit characters form the basis of the hieratic siddham script employed in Chinese and Japanese tantric maalas and texts. The yogic practice that is so central to tantrism is also of Indian origin (albeit influenced by Daoist techniques).

Tantrism has persisted and quite often thrived across much of Asia since its Indian origins in the middle of the first millennium of the common era. Its practitioners have lived in India, China, Japan, Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Korea, and Mongolia, as well as in the "Greater India" of medieval Southeast Asia: Cambodia, Burma, and Indonesia. The medieval history of South Asian Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism is saturated with tantrism. In Hindu India, the Pāñcarātra, Gauīya Vaiava, Sahajiyā, Pāśupata, Kāpālika, Śaiva Siddhānta, Siddha Kaula, Yoginī Kaula, Krama, Trika, Śrīvidyā, Paścimāmnāya, Nāth Siddha, and Śākta movements, orders, and sects have all been tantric or heavily colored by tantrism since the medieval period. Medieval Jain tantric works such as the tenth-century Jvālinī Kalpa resembled coeval Hindu and Buddhist Tantras in every way but for the names of the deities who were the objects of their ritual practice. Although Buddhism disappeared from the subcontinent in the thirteenth century, India (including present-day Pakistan) was the cradle of Buddhist tantrism in its Mahāyāna, Mantrayāna, and Vajrayāna forms, which were exported into Mongolia, Nepal, Bhutan, China, Korea, Japan, and Tibet. Certain of the Yoginī Tantras of early Buddhist tantrism originated in the Swat Valley of present-day Pakistan, and the tenth-century Kālacakra Tantra, an important Vajrayāna work, was likely written by an author living in the same region. Tibetan Buddhism is nearly entirely a Vajrayāna tradition: this applies to the four major existing schools (the Rnying ma [Nyingma] pas, Bka' brgyud [Kagyu] pas, Sa skya [Sakya] pas, and Dge lugs [Geluk] pa), as well as to specific forms of practice, such as Rdzogs chen (the "Great Perfection" practice unique to Nyingma). The ritual of the medieval Chinese state was tantric, and China was the medieval changing-house for nearly every Buddhist tantric tradition transmitted to Japan, Korea, and Mongolia. In China, tantrism has persisted, since the twelfth century ce, within Daoist ritual practice. In Japan, all of the eight traditional schools of Buddhism have a tantric pedigree: of these, the Shingon and Tendai schools have persisted as Japan's most successful exponents of "Pure Buddhist Esotericism." In Southeast Asia, Cambodian inscriptions indicate the presence of Hindu tantric specialists there in the early medieval period; the medieval kings of Bali underwent Hindu tantric initiations, and present-day Balinese Hinduism continues to display its Indian tantric origins.

From 1642 until the exile of its Dge lugs (Geluk) pa leadership in 1950, Tibet was a tantric Buddhist theocracy. Today, the constitutional monarchies of Nepal and Bhutan are the world's sole surviving "tantric kingdoms," with their state ceremonial comprised of tantric liturgies and rituals and nearly all of their deities tantric. One of these, Bhairava, is a tantric god found in every part of Asia, and worshipped in a tantric mode by Hindus, Jains, and Buddhists alike. Similarly, the originally Indian tantric gods Tārā, Ambikā, Akobhya, Mahākāla, Gaeśa, Avalokiteśvara, and Skanda, as well as numerous groups of multiple tantric deities, are found throughout much of Asia.

Fundamentals of Tantric Practice

Tantric practice consists of a set of ritual and meditative strategies for accessing and appropriating the energy or enlightened consciousness of the absolute godhead that, coursing through the universe, infuses its creatures with life and the potential for salvation. Humans in particular are empowered to realize this goal through strategies of embodimentthat is, of causing that supreme energy, essence of nirvāa, or quality of buddhahood to become concentrated in one or another sort of template or grid (a maala or mantra, the human body, or a ritual structure)prior to its internalization in or identification with the individual microcosm. This they may do by appropriating elements of this world (which is real and not an illusion) such as words, images, bodies, and substances, into rituals that collapse subject and object, thereby projecting them into a realization of their inherent buddha nature or Śiva-self.

Drawing on its feudal Indian origins, tantrism also remains a body of practice with explicit this-worldly aims: the control of all of the beings located in the universal power grid, including lesser gods, living people, the dead, animals, and demons. While much of tantric practice has become sublimated into tame forms of "pure esotericism," it must be recalled that the great volume of early tantric texts were devoted to sorcerythat is, to magical techniques for controlling other beings against their will. Such remains the primary goal of tantrism as it continues to be practiced on a popular level throughout much of Asia.

The key to understanding tantric practice is the maala, the energy grid that represents the constant flow of divine and demonic, human and animal impulses in the universe, as they interact in both constructive and destructive patterns. This grid is three-dimensional, in the sense that it locates the supreme deity (god, goddess, celestial buddha, bodhisattva, or enlightened tīrthakara )the source of that energy and ground of the grid itselfat the center and apex of a hierarchized cosmos. All other beings, including the practitioner, will be situated at lower levels of energy/consciousness/being, radiating downward and outward from the elevated center point. Because the deity is both transcendent and immanent, all of the beings located at the various energy levels on the grid participate in the outward flow of the godhead, and are in some way emanations or hypostases of the deity himself (or herself).

This is particularly the case with the tantric guru, the preceptor from whom a practitioner receives instruction and initiation, and with whom tantric practitioners frequently identify the godhead at the center of the maala. Here, the guru, as an already fully realized or empowered tantric being, plays a pivotal role, linking the human with the divine. In certain tantric traditions, the male guru's female consortvariously called the Yoginī, ākinī, "Action Seal," or "Lotus Maiden"is equally exalted as she is identified with the supreme female godhead. It is in this particular context that sexualized ritual may be brought to the fore in tantric initiation: the female consort, as the embodiment of the divine, transmits to the initiand the transformative energy and wisdom of the godhead through her sexual emissions, which are considered to be liquid gnosis. In this way, the initiand becomes a member of the divine family or clan of both his guru and the godhead at the center of the maala.

Crucial to the initiation process as well as to many other types of tantric practice is the notion that within the gross body of the human microcosm there is a subtle, yogic body that is the mesocosmic replica of the divine dyad, the supreme godhead in its male and female manifestations. This body, comprised of energy channels and centers, drops and winds, is itself a maala : viewed from above, the vertical central channel of the subtle body would appear as the center point of the maala, with the various energy centers aligned along that channel being so many concentric circles, wheels, or lotuses radiating outward. As such, initiation and all forms of yogic practice involve, once again, an effort on the part of the practitioner to return to the elevated center point of the emanated maala. Movement toward the center, effected through a combination of external ritual and internal meditative practices, basically entails harmonizing one's own energy or consciousness level with that of the (deities of the) circle in which one finds oneself. First encountered as obstacles, these divine, demonic, or animal impulses are eventually overcome, and transformed into positive sources of energy that carry one closer and closer to the deity at the center. Alternatively, one may, having overcome them, also coerce those same potentially destructive lower-level beings to do one's bidding, through various ritual technologies.

The Institutionalization and Domestication of Tantrism

As its sociopolitical contexts have changed, so too has the content of tantrism, with persons from a broader range of society appropriating and adapting its rituals and their attendant metaphysics to their specific needs and aspirations. In general terms, this has taken the form of an institutionalization of tantrism by Hindu Brāhmas and Buddhist monks on the one hand and, on the other, the domestication of its base from lay elites (kings, aristocrats, and Siddhas) to wider strata of householder society. In spite of periodic reformations or revivals of "primitive" tantrism in various parts of the Asian world, both of these trends have had the effect of draining tantrism of its original specificities, of making institutional forms of tantrism look more like the broader, conventional, or orthodox religious contexts in which they have been embedded.

Many of the original tantric masters understood speech to be a performative act, and intentionally subverted conventional language in their teachings and use of mantras as a means to effect a breakthrough in their disciples' perception of reality. Among their disciples were members of the literati, who committed these speech acts into writing, writings that were in turn anthologized, codified, commentated on, and systematized into texts and canons of texts. Tantric mantras, which were originally secret spells for coercing a wide range of supernatural entities into doing one's bidding, became "semanticized" into the phonematic manifestations of powerful gods and compassionate buddhas, who could be accessed through the mantras ' proper pronunciation. The term mūdra ("seal"), which originally referred to the sealing together of male and female bodies in sexual union, came to refer to complex hand and finger positions to be maintained while meditating, or to the parched grain that Hindu practitioners consume as a tantric sacrament. The homa fire sacrifice rituals of early tantrism, which often involved the offering of human and animal blood and gore to ravening demonic entities, became sublimated into either yogic practice or the meditative burning away of impediments to liberation or salvation in the fire of gnosis. More fundamentally, the tantric ritual arena came to be sealed off from the powerful but dangerous entities and forces of the original tantric universe, with the pandemonium of the real world walled out from the quiet center or the monastic cell or household shrine.

Orthodox Hindu and Buddhist hermeneutical strategies neutralized the heterodox and heteroprax content of early tantrism by interpreting it in a variety of ways. On the one hand, much of what was objectionable in the externals of tantric practice was internalized into yogic, meditative, or imaginative techniques. On the other, such practices were marginalized into the purview of a limited elitethe Siddhas and Vīras of tantric legend and their emulatorswith more conventional, devotional, salvation-oriented practice recommended for the religious mainstream of monks, priests, and householders. Here, there was a trade-off between danger and efficacy, purity and power in the world, in which circumspection was strongly advised to all but a select few. It was the dangerous content of the early tantric rituals that most distinguished them from those found in the orthodox Buddhist Sūtra literature and the Hindu Vedas: but for those who dared to undertake them, and transact in prohibited substances (sexual fluids, unclean or proscribed food) with problematic beings (outcaste women, minions of the spirit world) through heterodox practices (sexualized initiation rituals, sorcery), self-transformation could be instantaneous rather than the result of several lifetimes of practice.


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