Tantra in Western nomenclature has achieved forms of signification independent from its Sanskritic use and has become a somewhat promiscuous category applied to various rituals otherwise not easily classified. In general parlance, tantra indicates the pan-Indic religious system that became emulated in Buddhist, Hindu, and Jain circles, and tantra is often understood as having an erotic component. This entry will discuss the idea of tantra in India and in Central and East Asia.
India and Nepal
The word tantra in India was much more widely applied than might be understood from the modern explanation of its derivation from √tan—to weave. In medieval Sanskrit, the term signifies many forms of complex arrangement and may denote military deployment, a loom, certain forms of ritual, a political culture, a scriptural text emphasizing selected rituals, the pan-Indic religious aesthetic, and so on. In Buddhism, tantra is usually understood to include the use of mantras authorized by a preceptor on a disciple during a complex initiation rite that confers the disciple with the authority to engage in many different kinds of ritual associated with a specific class of buddhas, bodhisattvas, or Buddhist divinities. Included in the rituals are the construction or visualization of sacred circles (maṆḌala), the use of hand gestures (mudrĀ), and the employment of fire sacrifice (homa), all of which may be for the purpose of specific soteriological or nonsoteriological goals. These latter are usually the four ritual actions of the pacification of obstacles, the increase of prosperity, the subjugation of difficulties, and the destruction of enemies; they may be performed for the practitioner's own ends or on behalf of a patron.
However, many of these elements had already enjoyed a lengthy precedent in Buddhist ritual long before the coalescence of mature esoteric Buddhism—to which tantra may properly be applied—in the late seventh and early eighth centuries. It is historically misleading to understand normative MahĀyĀna rituals as tantric in any significant sense, despite the fact that many of them make use of several of the elements eventually included in esoteric Buddhism. Moreover, many of the buddhas, bodhisattvas, and Buddhist divinities that originated in the Mahāyānist ritual environment eventually made the easy transition to the esoteric milieu. The primary difference between normative Mahāyāna and tantric Buddhism is that the latter appropriates an overarching political metaphor of overlordship in this very life, so that the initiation is performed in a manner derived from the coronation rituals of medieval Hinduism. Tantric Buddhism may be understood as a sacralization of the early medieval political and military fragmentation of North India, with its contentious rivalries between feudal clans. Consequently, it expresses an emphasis on secrecy, loyalty, allegiance, and unbreakable trust; on the visualization of self as a divine king (devatārāja) controlling complex spheres of dominion and power (maṇḍala); on new arrangements of vows; and on the use of any means necessary to achieve stated goals or secret ends. All of these items are generally absent from normative Mahāyānist rites.
Thus, replacing the self-sacrificial bodhisattva is the ideal of all-powerful siddha or mahĀsiddha, the perfected being to whom no standards of behavior can apply. Siddhas also employed the methods of medieval sorcerers (vidyĀdhara)—such as the tantric feast (gaṇacakra) involving the sacramental employment of ritualized group sex and the ingestion of illicit substances like meat and liquor—in their search for magical powers. In imitation of the behavior of Śaiva and other ascetics, some siddhas wore ornaments of human bone, carried staffs of distinctive shapes, and frequented cremation grounds or forest areas. Their interest in tribal peoples is a theme in much of the later literature, and some siddhas were known to have spent time among the forest tribes of Central or Eastern India. From them, specific divinities appear to have been appropriated, possibly including Śaṃvara, Heruka, and Jāṇguli. Siddhas were also interested in herbs and drugs, and their use of intoxicants like datura is well attested. The tendency to group siddhas into various numbering systems (84 being most common, but 20, 40, 50, 80, and other numbers are also seen) occurred rather late and reflects Indian organizational strategies.
Siddhas may have been a minority, though, since Buddhist monks are quite frequently represented as Buddhist monastic tāntrikas. Monastic Buddhism apparently tried to displace overt siddha behavior with visualized or covert forms, and we occasionally read of monks becoming siddhas by being expelled from their cloisters for inappropriate behavior. Monks were responsible for domesticating the esoteric method by formulating it as on a continuum with monastic and Mahāyāna vows. This eighth-century hermeneutic was formalized in the triple discipline: The tantric master is expected to practice the vows of the monk (prātimokṣasaṃvara), the bodhisattva (bodhisattvasaṃvara), and the sorcerer (vidyādharasaṃvara). This reading emphasized that the esoteric system was a branch of the Mahāyāna—the mantra-method (mantranaya).
The maturation of tantric Buddhism happened surprisingly quickly. There is no concrete evidence for tantra prior to the late seventh century, and yet all the basic principles were in place a century later. It is also primarily a North and Central Indian phenomenon, with modest contributions from South India or Sri Lanka. The emphasis on pilgrimage sites predominantly found in North and Central India, like the legendary Oḍiyāna (Swat Valley), reflect this reality. Because tantra arose in a culture of fragmentation, there is little textual unity, and the works classified by later authors as tantric may call themselves by other titles: discourse (sūtra), meditative aid (dhĀraṆĪ), secret spell (mantra), incantation (vidyā), ritual (kalpa), as well as tantra. The textual sources gain added complexity through the tendency of later authors to read esoteric directions into earlier Buddhist scriptures and to incorporate these scriptures in their exegesis. Accordingly, the Heart SŪtra is often taken as a tantric text, since it contains a mantra, even though this text predates any tantric Buddhism per se.
Classificatory systems thus had to wrestle with great differences in texts, and consequently there is no unanimity on tantric typology. Perhaps the most basic scheme is that employed by Buddhaguhya and others in the mid-eighth century: Tantras are those that emphasize external ritual activity (kriyānaya-tantra) or those that emphasize internal yogic practices (yoganaya-tantra). The fourfold classification favored by Tibetans has been often cited: Tantras are those that enjoin ritual action (kriyā), behavioral practice (caryā), meditation (yoga), or the highest yoga (anuttarayogatantra). Textual examples include the Susiddhikara (kriyā), the Vairocanabhisambodhi (caryā), the Sarvatathāgatatattvasaṃgraha (yoga), and the Guhyasamāja (anuttara-yoga-tantra). The latter category was often subdivided into two, with the Guhyasamāja being a mahāyoga-tantra and works like the Cakrasamvara classified as a yoginī-tantra. It must be emphasized, though, that there were many other typologies—some with seven or more categories. Neither was there unanimity on which texts actually belonged to which categories, irrespective of the number of categories. Some important texts, like the Mañjuśrīnāmasaṃgīti or the Hevajra, might be classified into two or three categories, depending on the interpretation.
Linguistically, the tantras reflect the regionalization of Indian society. They are written in regional or non-standard Sanskrit—often influenced by colloquial expressions or grammar—and some of those composed in Eastern India use vernacular-based literary languages, such as Apabhraṃśa, in liturgical environments. Siddhas would also compose adamantine songs (vajragīti) to express their understanding or to critique others, and they often provided a signature line to identify the author. Consequently, tantric Buddhism returned to the autobiographical voice and the use of non-Sanskritic languages, as had been done in the early days of Buddhist literature but had been largely abandoned under the influence of the classical Mahāyāna.
Ritually, the fundamental meditative ritual became the sādhana, a rite wherein the meditator visualized the buddha or divinity as before him or identical to himself, prior to performing specific activities: recitation of mantras, yoga, fire sacrifice, initiation, tantric feast, and so on. The visualization sequence most often included imagining a royal palace inside a protective sphere, and visualizing a lotus on which is placed a seed syllable (bījamantra), which transforms first into a symbol of the divinity and then into the divinity itself. Thus, the syllable om might turn into a wheel and then into the Buddha Vairocana. If the practice contained a full maṇḍala of buddhas or divinities, the meditator would perform the same act (or an abbreviated version) for each figure. Because the maṇḍala is generated or born, this meditative form is sometimes called the birthing or developing process (utpattikrama).
Many of the later tantras also discuss an esoteric yogic physiology, sometimes called the vajra-body, in which the body contains psychic ganglia that may be represented in the form of wheels (cakra) or other arrangement. Generally, they contain the letters of the Sanskrit alphabet, the vowels (āli) and consonants (kāli), in one or another of many specified combinations. Connecting the ganglia are channels (nādi) through which flows karmic winds (karmavāyu) that are closely involved with the physiological and psychological processes. The letters and winds may also be posited as being the internal representations of external phenomena, so that the meditator's perceptions are a result of the karmic relationship between the microcosm and macrocosm. The channels include a central channel and a left and right channel, eventually branching out into seventy-two thousand subsidiary channels that reach all areas of the body. In different visualizations, often called the perfecting process (sampannakrama), the meditator may imagine a flame below the navel or various lights in the wheels or employ a female sexual partner as a physical aid to harness the psychophysical process. By manipulating the winds that control his psychic processes, the meditator seeks eventually to drive these winds into some area of the central channel, an act that is said to transform the psychophysical winds into the gnostic wind (jñānavāyu). As the process is accomplished, a series of visions emerges, ending in an awareness of the illusory nature of interior and exterior phenomena, with all forms finally resolving into the clear light of ultimate reality.
Central Asia and Tibet
Tantric Buddhism became quickly popular in the areas immediately contiguous to Northern India—Burma, Nepal, Tibet, Nanzhao—and spread into Central Asia and China. Tantric works were eventually translated into the Central Asian languages of Khotanese, Uighur, Tangut, and Mongolian, but Tibet became the most important area of tantric development. Three of the four major Tibetan orders—Sa skya (Sakya)-pa, Bka' brgyud (Kagyu)-pa, and Dga' ldan-pa (Gandenpa)—maintained a more or less conservative approach, following closely the later Indian tantras and other Indian scriptures translated in the astonishing efforts of the eighth through the fifteenth centuries.
The Rnying ma (Nyingma)-pa order, however, continued the Indian culture of scriptural composition rather than the simply the conservation of received Indian works. As a result, the production of tantras in Buddhist Tibet equaled or exceeded the number and volume produced in Buddhist India, and these Tibetan works were collected together with a few important Indian tantras into the Rnying ma rgyud 'bum (Old Tantric Canon), beginning in the eleventh century. Most of these texts claim translation from a non-Tibetan source: from Oḍiyāna, Brusha, India, or
the realm of the goddesses. Many are revealed in the process of the treasure (gterma) phenomenon in Tibet and are said to have been buried physically or spiritually on Tibetan soil by important saints of the eighth- to ninth-century royal dynastic period of Tibetan history.
While the content of many of the works is only beginning to be explored, our catalogues classify the Old Tantric Canon into the standard fourfold division accepted by most Tibetans (kriyā, etc.), with the difference that the Highest Yoga tantras are further divided into three: mahāyoga, anuyoga, and atiyoga. Generally, it is considered that the first two correspond in content to the division of Indian tantras into mahāyoga and yoginī-tantras (while the texts themselves are mostly different) but the atiyoga category is understood to be a Rnying ma category, even though the term was used in India to describe a stage of meditative ritual. In Rnying ma parlance, atiyoga is generally equated with the Great Perfection (rdzogs chen) and its literature is subdivided into three further varieties: the mental class (sems sde), the expanse class (klong sde), and the seminal drop class (snying thig sde). The first of these (mental class) appears to have evolved from the doctrines concerning the mind of awakening (bodhicitta), an important development in seventh- to eighth-century India based on an earlier Mahāyanist idea. The second and third classes, however, are Rnying ma contributions and represent in some sense the flowering of indigenous Tibetan spirituality, although they build on Indian ideas and practices. Atiyoga tantras are also qualitatively different from Indian works by their increased emphasis on doctrinal and philosophical expressions rather than performative ritual systems, so that they constitute some of the more interesting expressions of Buddhist ideology.
The question of the existence and role of tantra in East Asia has provoked considerable disagreement. While the dissemination of South Asian texts, rituals, and ideas that may be designated as tantric was a major factor in the cultural milieus of China, Korea, and Japan from the eighth century onward, these developments were usually understood as new discursive and ritual extensions of the Mahāyāna. A survey of the Japanese Bukkyō daijiten (Encyclopedia of Buddhism) and the Mikkyō daijiten (Encyclopedia of the Esoteric Teachings) yields almost no references to tantra and the phrase "great teaching king" (da jiao wang) that sometimes served as a translation of mahātantrarāja is rare and occurs mostly in titles of a few Song dynasty (960–1279) translators. The scarcity of the designation is not merely an effect of an ideological rejection of later tantras, such as the Hevajra, by Japanese Shingon orthodoxy. Rather, the absence of a transliterated form of the term tantra in the context of assiduous transliteration of mantras and dhāraṇīs into Chinese underscores the irrelevance of the term throughout most of East Asia. While tantra is missing, mantra, dhāraṇī, siddhi, abhiṣeka, homa, āveśa (induced trance), and so on are well attested both in transliterated and translated forms.
Rather than either trying to apply a South Asian label that East Asians ignored or trying to measure Chinese and Korean religious history by the yardstick of Japanese sectarian developments, we do better asking a different set of questions, questions guided by the vocabulary that is present: Where do the ideas, discourses, pantheon, practices, and texts of South Asian tantra appear in East Asia? Who circulates them and what are the conditions of their reproduction, assimilation, and transformation?
A variety of tantras were quickly translated or summarized in Chinese. By the mid-eighth century the Susiddhikara, the Vairocanābhisambodhi, the Sarvatathāgatatattvasamgraha, and the Subāhuparipṛcchā had been translated, and we have evidence that the Guhyasamāja was known. So too, by the mid-eighth century, rituals to evoke or propitiate deities as diverse as Mārīcī, the lords of the Great Dipper, Buddhoṣṇīṣa, and the various vidyārājas had spread as far as Japan. By the end of the tenth century a version of the Mañjuśrīmūlakalpa and a complete version of the Sarvatathāgatatattvasaṃgraha had been translated into Chinese. By the twelfth century the full range of tantra, ritual manuals, and associated paraphernalia were available.
As in South Asia, in East Asia we find certain distinctive metaphors and practices connected with the circulation and assimilation of these texts. These include the pervasive use of the maṇḍala as an organizing principle and with it, its South Asian derived metaphors of sovereignty, unlimited power or siddhi (both for mundane and soteriological purposes), the notion of mantra, and rites of immolation (including those for pacification, increase of fortune, subjugation, and destruction), initiation, trance, and notions of secrecy. In the broadest sense, what we are dealing with is the afterlife of South Asian originated or inspired iconic discourses and ritual technologies for producing and manipulating the divine and the demonic in tangible form. In practice this adaptation of South Asian forms can range from the consecration of images to the induction of trance through possession, to the assumption of divine identity by the adept. The often trumpeted transgressiveness of tantra is a direct function of its core metaphors of kingship, its assertion of unlimited sovereignty, and the particular social locations of its practitioners. Thus, in East Asia the court was the natural locus of these systems. When located outside the court, "tantra" manifested in the pseudo kingship of siddhas and the occult.
China and Korea
The signature South Asian characteristic of tantra—its extensive application of the kingship metaphor deployed in maṇḍala and enacted in ritual—made it at once a possible threat to the Chinese imperial establishment and then a valued form of legitimation. Thus, the Indian missionary Śubhākarasiṃha (637–735) was initially treated with suspicion by emperor Xuanzong (r. 712–756). He was placed under house arrest, and his Sanskrit texts were impounded. But it soon became clear that the new teachings came along with considerable advances in mathematics and particularly calendrical astronomy, areas that were central to imperial ideology. The polymath monk Yixing (673–727) was assigned to spy on Śubhākaṛasiṃha, as much as to help him in his work of translation and dissemination of the Vairocanābhisambodhi and other mantra (Chinese, zhenyan) teachings, including the Subāhuparipṛcchā. A few years later in 720 c.e. the monk Vajrabodhi (671–741) arrived in the Chinese capital Chang'an (possibly from Śrīvijaya) and soon he and his chief disciple Amoghavajra (705–774) were, if not embraced by the court, at least given permission to translate texts and to take on disciples in exchange for performing ritual duties for the imperial house. Amoghavajra proved himself a valuable ally to the imperial house during the chaos of the An Lushan rebellion (755–763) and he gave emperor Suzong (r. 756–762) abhiṣeka as a cakravartin or world-ruling king. Under Suzong and then under his successor Daizong (r. 762–779), Amoghavajra and his disciples articulated an ideology of dual rulership with the cakravartin supported by his ācārya (religious preceptor) in a pattern remarkably similar to that found in South Asia. Amoghavajra not only produced translations of tantras and ritual manuals, but he also produced updated versions of some Mahāyāna texts, bringing their language into line with the latest esoteric or mantra discourses by adding dhāraṇī and ritual commentaries. The most prominent of these texts was the Chinese Renwang jing (Humane Kings SŪtra), a scripture that melded traditional Chinese and Buddhist notions of rulership. Under Amoghavajra's tutelage the teachings associated with the Sarvatathāgatatattvasaṃgraha permeated much of the court, the military, and many imperial institutions. A ritual arena for homa and other practices was established in the imperial compound. Mañjuśrī replaced Piṇḍola in monastic refectories, large numbers of "tantric" ritual manuals were translated, and permanent altars for homa and abhiṣeka were constructed. Thematically speaking, Amoghavajra's Buddhism was, to borrow the Korean phrase, "State Protection Buddhism," and its most developed ritual dimensions concerned propping up the imperial house, ensuring the health of the emperor, giving succor to its ancestors, helping to keep meterological and cosmic portents favorable, and generally esoterizing monastic establishments that were imperially funded. Although Daizong's successor Dezong (r. 779–805) initially severed lavish patronage to the mantra teachings, he later reversed his decision and supported the last of the great South Asian translators of the Tang, the monk Prajña (734–806?).
Imperial patronage henceforth was spotty. During the early Song dynasty the last group of great South Asian translators, Dharmapāla (963–1058), Dānapāla (fl. tenth century), and Fatian (d. 1001) produced more complete versions of the Sarvatathāgatatattvasaṃgraha, a version of the Guhyasamāja, and a translation of the Śrīvajramaṇḍalāmkaramahātantrarāja. Patronage was, however, sporadic until the Mongols (Yuan dynasty, 1234–1368) and even later Ming (1368–1644) and Qing dynasty (1644–1911) patronage of Tibetan VajrayĀna. Severed from the court and bereft of its natural metaphoric locale at the actual center of power, various elements of the system merged back into the stream of late Mahāyāna while others were simply rolled into Vajrayāna from Tibet. Indeed, the ritual technology associated with these teachings, especially that promising various forms of siddhi and connected with homa and āveśa, had an impact not only on the Mahāyāna in China, but also on Daoism and on local religious traditions. Perhaps more than all the divinities and complex ritual, Chinese traditions—Buddhist and non-Buddhist alike—found the ideology of hiddenness and the aura of the esoteric power of mantra most appealing. The idea of mantra had already been circulating from the second century onward and served as a model for the Brahmā-language of Daoist scripture. An exclusive focus on the short-lived presence of a sectarian tantric or esoteric "school" misses the point entirely. By the twelfth century there were esoteric Chan school transmissions, rites deriving directly from the tantras in use in Pure Land school circles and more generally for the salvation of the dead (the shishi or "distribution" of food to ghosts and the elaborate shuilu or Land and Water Masses). Popular accounts of the ācāryas celebrated their wielding of siddhi in a manner not unlike tales of siddhas found in South Asia and Tibet.
While a polity inspired by and enacted according to the Sarvatathāgatatattvasaṃgraha was made an actuality for some twenty-five years in China, we have no solid evidence that the teaching garnered full institutional support in Korea either under the Silla (668–935) or KoryŎ (918–1392) periods. Although the Samgukyusa (Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms) mentions two esoteric "sects" under the KoryŎ (Ch'ongji or Dhāraṣī school and the Sinin or Mudra school) the reliability of this source is questionable and there is no independent evidence of sectarian "schools." We know of a number of prominent Korean monks who studied with famous Chinese ācāryas—Pulgasaŭi (d.u.) with Śubhākarasiṃha, Hyech'o (fl. eighth century) with Amoghavajra, Hyeil (d.u.) and Ojin (d.u.) with Amoghavajra's disciple Huiguo (?–805)—and it appears that they brought full range of mantra teachings and ritual technology to the peninsula. The first edition of the Korean Tripiṭaka (produced 1029–1089 c.e.) contains the works of the Tang ācāryas as well as those of the Song ācāryas, and we have to assume that there was a ready market for these works among the Korean aristocracy. Apparently the mantra teachings were incorporated into KoryŎ Buddhism much as they had been into Tang and Song Buddhism, as new mantric ritual extensions of the Mahāyāna with new pantheons. While a full sectarian identity for the mantra teachings in the Silla and Koryŏ periods is suspect, we do have ample evidence of the spread of rituals in court circles. These included rites to Mārīcī, Mahāmāyūrī Vidyārājñī, Buddhoṣṇīṣa, Yamāntaka, and rites originating in the Tang and Song dynasties, including Land and Water Masses and rituals for protection of the state connected with the Humane Kings Sūtra and the SuvarṆaprabhĀsottama-sŪtra. As was the case in China, the rise of the Mongols and their influence over the Korean peninsula brought Tibetan lamas and the performance of Vajrayāna rituals to the court in the late thirteenth century. This presence, however, was fleeting.
Although we tend to equate the arrival of the tantras in Japan with KŪkai (774–835) and Shingon, this is not wholly accurate. Indeed, Kukai himself read the Vairocanābhisambodhi before he traveled to China and there is considerable evidence that teachings, texts, and ritual technology originating in South Asia had spread to Japan by the mid-eighth century and were known and in use in both monastic and hijiri (mountain ascetic) circles. The standard story of the foundation of the Shingon school by Kūkai on his return from the Tang court in 805 and the parallel esoterizing of the Tendai sect by SaichŌ (767–822) that resulted in what later exegetes would dub Tōmitsu and Taimitsu, respectively, have recently come under scrutiny and have been shown to be, especially in the case of Kūkai and Shingon, a pious and anachronistic simplification. As was the case for Amoghavajra, Kūkai saw himself as introducing a distinctive inner teaching and a method of discourse and interpretation that extended and completed the Mahāyāna, and much of his work was aimed at and eventually embraced by the established Nara schools. It now appears that the synthesis of a system framed by two mandalas drawn respectively from the Vairocanābhisambodhi and the Sarvatathāgatatattvasaṃgraha was in large part Kūkai's articulation of possibilities present but not expressed in the work of his Chinese teachers. Basing their system on these two texts Shingon apologists distinguish their Esoteric Buddhism (Mikkyō) from the corpus of texts described in the Vajrayāna as anuttarayoga-tantra. Accordingly they see their "pure" esoterism as untainted by influences originating in Śaivite Hinduism. One of Kūkai's most interesting innovations was his insistence that the esoteric teachings were preached directly by the Dharmakāya Buddha (the transcendent body of the Buddha).
But the sectarian history of Shingon and Tendai esoteric Buddhism does not fully capture the effect of the mantra teachings on Japanese culture. Scholars speak of the esoterizing of medieval Japanese culture and some of the most important effects of the tantras in Japan occurred in spite of Shingon's existence as a religious institution. For instance, Kakuban (1095–1143) explored the relationship between Shingon and Shintō, between Mahāvairocana, the great Sun Buddha, AmitĀbha, and Amaterasu, the solar goddess progenitor of the imperial clan. Others explicated Pure Land and Zen in terms of the esoteric teachings. Mantras and dhāraṇīs spread through the culture and language, as did deities (Acala vidyārāja, for instance), and practices (homa). Antinomian tendencies surfaced in the so-called Tachikawa heresy with its promise of various siddhi and its employment of sexual techniques and skull rituals reminiscent of the Kapalikas, and in the Pure Land/esoteric fusion of the "Secret Nenbutsu" (himitsu nenbutsu), which equated sexual action to the intake of breath and the chanting of the Buddha's name. The emergence of Ryōbu Shintō, a tradition that synthesized esoteric and indigenous traditions, is further evidence of the impact of the mantra teachings on medieval Japan. Perhaps the most important influence of the mantra teachings cannot be documented in a cause/effect fashion. It is nonetheless clear that the idea of mantra, of the bīja syllables (they adorn cemeteries and can be found on homa sticks in modern temples), were likely the inspiration for the hiragana syllabary.
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Ronald M. Davidson
Charles D. Orzech
Tantra refers to a variety of religious paths that developed mainly in northern India perhaps as early as the third century ce among Buddhists, Hindus, and Jains, although it took several centuries to achieve widespread influence. Its practitioners seek divine or magical powers, and one of its essential features is an abundance of female symbolism. These include divine females such as Śakti, Kālī, Tārā, Vajrayoginī, and various ḍākinīs and yoginīs, usually depicted in their fierce forms, as well as an emphasis on the pīṭhas (centers of goddess worship) created when pieces of the goddess Śakti's dead body fell off as her husband, the god Śiva, dancing madly in his grief, carried her on his head (Sircar 1973). Additionally, there is the symbolic or actual use of menstrual blood (and semen) in rituals and the valorization of female-identified substances such as Primal Matter (prakṛti), attributes such as wisdom (prajñā), and the energy of the universe (śakti). These last two are also the terms used for goddesses who are worshiped as the consort (Hindu: śakti; Buddhist: prajñā) of a male god or of celestial Buddhas and bodhisattvas.
In the early twenty-first century, Tantra survives among Buddhists in the Himalayan countries of Tibet, Nepal, and Bhutan; in Japan in the Shingon and Tendai schools of Buddhism; among exiled Tibetans everywhere; and among Hindu groups especially in the Indian states of West Bengal, Orissa, and Kerala, as well as in Indonesia. In the Hindu context there are three main Tantric sects, those who worship Viṣṇu/Kriṣṇa (Vaiṣṇavas) as the supreme deity, those who worship Śiva (Śaivites), and those who worship the Goddess (Śāktas, from Śakti). The last two are sometimes hard to distinguish because they are perceived as being inseparable. The Tantric Bāuls of India and Bangladesh respectively emphasize Hindu and Muslim forms of devotion. Both Buddhist and Hindu Tantric practices are also flourishing in North America and Europe.
The Tantric ideal type is the siddha (from the word siddhi, supernatural power) or sādhu (holy man), wandering yogis who are also wonder-workers, and both are also referred to as tāntrikas. Tantric practices (sādhanās) often take place at night and in cemeteries in order to avoid the prying eyes of the noninitiated and to conquer the fear of death. The behavior of tāntrikas is often designed to shock people, to break social taboos that keep people from seeing Ultimate Reality in which there is no right or wrong. There were and are women tāntrikas, but most often the tradition is oriented toward and described from the male point of view.
One of the unique elements of tantric ritual are the "five m's" (pañcamakāra): wine, meat, fish, parched grain, and sexual union (respectively, in Sanskrit, madya, māṃsa, matsya, mudrā, and maithuna). The first four are described as aphrodisiacs and lead up to the fifth, actual or symbolical sexual union. Theoretically, there are two forms of practice: the right-handed path (dakṣiṇāmārga), which uses substitutes for the first four and visualizes the fifth, sexual union, and the left-handed path (vāmāmārga), which imbibes these substances and involves ritual sexual intercourse. In point of fact though, left-handed practice also frequently uses substitutes and visualization. Generally, Indian left-handed practitioners were wandering yogis, while right-handed practitioners were traditional Hindu priests (brahmans). A similar situation arose in Tibet where freewheeling Tantric practices were fairly widespread among nonmonastics, both householders and wandering yogis, while a more rationalized Tantra flourished in the monasteries. There were, however, exchanges between the two groups.
The five m's are forbidden to orthodox Hindus because they are polluting, but the Tantric practitioner, Buddhist or Hindu, ritually uses these forbidden substances to get beyond the concepts of good and evil, forbidden and allowed, and to achieve an experience of the ultimate union of all opposites, even of female and male. In both Hindu and Buddhist Tantra reality is one, but it is understood through a process of conceptual and intuitive polarization, or duality, symbolized in terms of gender. For instance, in Hinduism śiva is conceptualized as passive Intelligence while śakti (energy) is active Primal Matter; from these two everything else in the universe arises, yet they are really one. In Buddhism the gender is reversed into passive prajñā (or insight), which is feminine, and active upāya (skillful means), which is male. In both traditions, though, these poles merge philosophically through the doctrine of the oneness of the universe, experientially through ritual practices, and visually through representations of divine sexual union. Through visualization practices during rituals or meditation the adept seeks to merge with the deities, or the Buddhas, and their consorts. So Tantric practice can be theistic and nondualistic, and it stresses the essential divinity of humanity.
Historically, the vast majority of Tantric practitioners were and remain men, while Tantric texts (tantras) specifically address men as the active ritual participants and refer to women solely as consorts to men. Ritually, women participants are often only passive partners for male adepts, when not actually excluded from parts of the ritual (Bharati 1975), or completely absent as in many right-handed practices where the female is only visualized. In many texts, when ritual sex does occur, the man is instructed not to ejaculate; instead the goal is to reverse the flow of semen and in some cases to absorb the female's sexual fluids, thus enhancing the male's spiritual powers and denying the female any share of the spiritual power thought to be contained in his semen (Hayes 1995). In other words, ritually speaking, actual women are frequently passive, secondary, and/or absent, while symbolic women (e.g., goddesses and other divine women) may temporarily be active but finally they, too, will be absorbed back into the Absolute. Tantra is essentially a theoretical valorization of the feminine, and as such has had very little impact on the lives of the vast majority of Buddhist and Hindu women.
Sexual union, whether enacted or visualized, involves the belief that women inherently possess something men do not. In the Buddhist tradition it is prajñā that advanced male practitioners can access and appropriate through sexual yoga. For female practitioners, men are the source of upāya, which women can access and appropriate through sexual yoga. From the male point of view, which is the dominant view, during sexual union the adept, who will lose any spiritual benefit if he ejaculates, absorbs his consort's red drops (uterine fluids), mixing them with his white drops (semen), which he then absorbs through his penis up through his body to the top of his head (White 1996, Marglin 1986 ). The female's red drops are not necessarily red, as they are also referred to as the vaginal secretion a woman is believed to ejaculate during intercourse—in other words, the female equivalent of semen.
THE SUBTLE BODY
Tantra uses the body as the means to salvation, and human beings are said to have both a physical body and a subtle body. Cakras (meaning wheel or a circle) are mystical points or centers in the subtle body, and while they can be experienced during meditation, they have no actual physical reality. Most essentially they are both symbols for and stages of spiritual experience that are perceived in physical, mental, and cosmic terms. Five or seven cakras, depending on the system, are aligned along the spine of the subtle body. The verticality of this arrangement describes the understanding that one first activates the cakra at the root in the torso and then gradually ascends up through each one in turn. In Hinduism, activation is brought about by awakening the Kuṇḍalinī, the female serpent power lying coiled and dormant around the first cakra, which is the goddess herself. This is accomplished through esoteric forms of yogic meditation and body postures, especially those that teach breath control and thus control of energy or the life force of the subtle body. Kuṇḍalinī is the energy (Śakti) that enlivens each cakra in order to awaken its powers. As the Kuṇḍalinī rises, the practitioner's consciousness is raised. When it reaches the highest cakra at the top of the head all dualities fall away, and there is only the divine oneness. (Feuerstein 1998).
ḌĀKINĪS AND YOGINĪS
Because visualization is another important part of Tantric practice, there is a rich legacy of Tantric art, including the geometrical designs of mandalas and yantras; major sites such as Khajuraho in India, well known for its highly erotic elements; and goddesses and other divine women. In Buddhist art ḍākinīs represent both the immanence and transcendence of enlightenment as well as the dangers that must be overcome. They can be beautiful, voluptuous, seminude women or terrifying, wrathful animal-headed females. In their most ancient form ḍākinīs were known as malevolent and dangerous demonesses or human witches who fed on human flesh and could inflict all kinds of suffering on humanity. To a large extent, they continue in this guise in Hinduism where they are members of Śiva's retinue in his fierce form known as Bhairava. In Buddhism ḍākinīs were converted into initiation goddesses and guardians of Buddhism. They continue to have an important place in Indo-Tibetan texts, iconography, and rituals. They remain, however, highly ambivalent and therefore dangerous beings. Being initiatory goddesses, they have important salvational roles and they also represent wisdom (prajñā), which they can bestow along with siddhis (supernormal powers). They do this through dreams, visions, or sudden appearances in various forms, such as old, disgusting women; dogs (a despised animal in India); or young, beautiful women. They make frequent appearances in the biographies of Tibetan saints.
Yoginīs are most compellingly depicted in Hindu iconography and temple architecture, where they too represent immanence and transcendence in their ability to cross over between the divine and human realms (Dehejia 1986). Yoginī is the feminine form of the masculine noun yogi, and thus can refer to human women who do non-Tantric yoga or who practice Tantra as well to divine female beings. Sometimes yoginīs appeared as wild, devouring females who would consume the sexual fluids and/or fetuses of their human victims, while at other times they are described as bestowing blessings and powers. As they are absorbed into Tantric practices, the emphasis shifts from women preying on men to men controlling these divine women in order to gain power (siddhi) from them.
Initiates sought worldly powers, such as sovereignty and bodily immortality (jιvanmukti), through direct sexual encounters with the yoginīs. Rituals were established to draw semidivine yoginīs down from the sky into human yoginīs, the Tantric consorts of the male adepts, and roofless, circular temples were constructed to enable their easy descent. Just as female practitioners were believed to be possessed by the semidivine yoginīs, the male adepts were similarly believed to be possessed by semidivine siddhas. In contrast to non-ejaculatory practices, the male adepts would ritually offer the yoginīs their semen, for which the yoginīs exchanged their own sexual discharge. The sexual discharge of the yoginī was understood to be the divine fluid of the universe, and receiving it was the point of the ritual. The male partner was able, following ejaculation, to draw up into himself the sexual discharge of his female partner (White 1996). For their part, the female consorts also gained powers from the exchange; the basic idea is that men fed the yoginīs the bodily constituents they craved, for which the yoginīs bestowed siddhis. The yoginī cult is all about obtaining magical power here and now, not liberation in the hereafter. Varieties of the yoginī cult flourished from the ninth to the twelfth centuries, and in some places it continued into the early sixteenth century, after which the cult and its temples were for the most part abandoned.
Although worshipers of the yoginīs believed in the supremacy of Śakti, the divine energy of the universe personified as the Great Goddess (devī), at the center of their temples there is or was an open shrine dedicated to Śiva, usually in his fierce form as Bhairava. Śiva is the consort of Śakti and has his own powerful cult. The central presence of his shrine, however, is further evidence for the containment of these originally wild, independent goddesses within a male-dominated cult.
The yab yum couple is one of the most ubiquitous images of Tantric Buddhist art. Representing the sexual union of divine beings with their consorts, these images strive to express the oneness of the two necessary elements for the generation of enlightenment—wisdom (Skt: prajñā; Tib: shes rab), a passive female principle, and skillful means (upāya; thabs), an active male principle—joined together on the plane of ultimate reality. The bliss they experience arises from their apprehension of the essential emptiness (śūnyatā; stong nyid) of all existent beings and objects. In Tantric Buddhism the couple is imaged either standing or seated, never lying down. This is in contrast to Hindu images that sometimes depict the goddess Kālī straddling the prone and dead body of Śiva. In the Buddhist tradition, these images are created only for initiates and are meant to be seen only by initiates; they function as supports for meditation and as objects of worship.
Theoretically, the female Buddhist practitioner can mix her partner's semen with the uterine fluids within her body, absorbing and carrying them up to the top of her head, but this requires that he shed a few drops during coitus, or ejaculate, in which case he loses any spiritual benefit for himself. Alternatively, visualization practices allow a woman to visualize herself as a man, and men can visualize themselves as women.
TANTRA IN THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY
The academic study of Tantra began under colonial rule by British administrators and by nineteenth-century Indian reformers who were deeply influenced by Western values. Thus Tantra was filtered through the disapproving lens of Christianity (Urban 2003, p. 179).
A great deal of the Western understanding of Hindu Tantra centered on the dark and fearsome goddess Kālī. Kālī is usually depicted in a dynamic pose that suggests continual movement, with black skin, a bright red tongue sticking out of her mouth, four arms, a voluptuous, nude body ornamented by a necklace of decapitated heads, and a short skirt of severed arms. She is destructive, sexual, and redeeming—an all-powerful goddess who slays demons, resides in cremation grounds, and gets drunk on the blood of her victims. In India she accepts blood offerings, meaning animals are sacrificed to her, yet she is familiarly and lovingly referred to as Ma (mother) by her devotees. The early-twentieth-century nationalist movement reclaimed her ancient image as a war goddess and reinterpreted her preference for receiving the sacrifice of a white goat to mean a white person. Other Hindu groups have denied or reinterpreted the confrontational aspects of Kālī, especially her fierceness, sexuality, and martial nature. For example, in Bengal, in northeastern India, her image has been softened and beautified, she is thought of as the cosmic mother, and animal sacrifice to her has been somewhat marginalized. Further south in Orissa Kālī has been reinterpreted to encourage female self-control and self-restraint, an interpretive move that enables men to maintain their sense of male superiority and their social power over women while acknowledging female power as the supreme force in the universe, but only when encapsulated by self-restraint.
Recent Western feminist interpretations of Tantra, especially those of Miranda Shaw (1994) and Rita Gross (1993), suggest it is a liberating spiritual path for Western women, which indeed it may very well be, especially for women who are comfortable with vivid heterosexual imagery. Part of the appeal of Tantra for feminists is its emphasis on practices that use and thereby seem to affirm, the body—often the locus of negative views about women in other traditions, including Hinduism and Buddhism—and on desire as a spiritually liberating force. Not all women converts are feminist, however, and some are quite hostile to the goals of feminism, which they see as conflicting with their spiritual goals (Klein 1995). At the same time, a broader spectrum of Westerners has appropriated Tantra as a spiritual path that affirms sexuality or as a depository of sexual expertise that can be exploited for personal pleasure.
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Tantra refers to a family of esoteric religious cults originating in South Asia at an uncertain time, probably between 600 b.c.e. and 300 c.e. Because these were secret traditions, they had no formal institutions, scriptures, or visible exemplars at their inception. These cults probably revived aspects of pre-Vedic civilization, with an emphasis on the mother-goddess, yogic practice, and spiritual transformation with shamanic overtones. Eventually, tantra became mainstreamed (600–1000 c.e.), first in Buddhism and then in Hinduism, as powerful religious movements that revitalized their entire traditions. But because of esoteric elements, including unconventional methods, sexual symbolism and iconography, and a requisite bond of vow between guru and disciple, tantra has often been misunderstood by the more conservative elements of their root traditions and by other religions, especially outside of India.
Tantra is a Sanskrit word that means "continuity," and it refers most formally to a group of ritual scriptures, attributed to the Buddha or to Hindu masters. These texts appeared in manuscript form between 600 and 900 c.e. and were indecipherable, for they were written in "twilight language" (sandhābhāsa), a highly symbolic esoteric dialect that could not be interpreted without initiation and the personal guidance of an authorized guru. These texts, whether Buddhist or Hindu, spoke of the continuity of inherent sacredness of all aspects of the world, no matter how defiled they might appear. The tantras outlined the path to liberation through inner transformation, which included spiritual, psychological, and physical dimensions.
Although tantric traditions probably had common roots in Indian culture, the Buddhist and Hindu assimilations of tantra quickly developed quite distinct qualities, reflecting the basic views, sensibilities, and paradigms of liberation specific to each. Even when these traditions have a common iconography and symbolic language, the actual meanings and practices differ greatly from tradition to tradition. For example, though many Hindu tantric traditions focused on a powerful goddess, Śaivite traditions emphasized the male deity with a powerful but ultimately subordinate consort. Vaiṣṇava tantric traditions see the śakti goddess as the creative aspect of the male godhead; Śakti cults elevated the goddess to supreme status as Mahādevī, the "great goddess." Buddhist tantra spread throughout Asia but met reluctance in East Asia. Only Shingon survives in Japan, in a highly truncated form. The premier tantric Buddhist tradition developed as the "diamond vehicle" Vajrayāna in Tibet, where it was preserved in unbroken lineage until the Chinese invasion and Tibetan diaspora in 1959.
Tantra in America
With the rise in popularity of Asian meditation traditions in the late 1960s and 1970s, Buddhist and Hindu tantric gurus introduced their respective traditions to American students. Among the variety of tantric teachings, two will be discussed: Siddha-yoga, taught by Swami Muktananda; and Tibetan Vajrayāna, taught first by Ven. Chögyam Trungpa, Rinpoche. Each teacher was a traditionally trained, highly respected representative of his Asian tantric tradition; each was a pioneer in introducing tantra to American students; and each paved the way for further tantric teachings to be disseminated. At the same time, these charismatic, riveting gurus attracted controversy as they experimented with how to introduce tantric teachings in an American environment.
Swami Muktananda, the spiritual successor of Nityananda of Ganeshpuri, first toured the United States in 1970 with two American students, Ram Dass (also known as Richard Alpert) and Rudi (Albert Rudolph). Then and on successive tours, he boldly adapted a hallmark teaching from tantra's secrecy, the śaktipāt, a direct transmission that awakened the spiritual energy (śakti) dormant at the base of the spine in the subtle yogic body. When it is awakened, it becomes the kundalinī, which dramatically moves snakelike up the spine, awakening all the spiritual centers and opening the student to spiritual fulfillment. Muktananda's programs provided a context for this experience, and eventually Siddha Yoga centers were created to teach meditation and support spiritual development based on śaktipāt. Muktananda energetically continued his U.S. tours until his death in 1982 at the age of seventy-four. His American spiritual successor is a young woman who served as his translator, the former Malti Shetty (b. 1955), now empowered as Gurumayi Chidvilasananda, known for her spiritual depth, charisma, and continuation of her guru's śaktipāt transmissions.
When the twenty-year old Chögyam Trungpa, Rinpoche, fled Tibet in 1959, he had been under rigorous monastic training in Vajrayāna Buddhism since the age of seven. In 1970 Trungpa came to the United States, already fluent in English and Western ways from his years of study at Oxford. Almost immediately he began publicly teaching tantra but in American idiom, without the transmissions and practices that usually characterize the tradition. Instead, he called it an "open secret" that was the naked truth, a "spiritual atomic bomb," accessed through formless sitting meditation. He also spoke of the Tibetan tradition of "crazy wisdom" (yeshe chölwa), fearless wisdom that appears crazy only in the eyes of a confused, enslaved world. Eventually, with his students, he became more traditional, introducing vows and commitments, ritual practices, and textual study, laying the foundations for a thoroughly American Buddhist tantra. At his death in 1987, Trungpa left behind an international network of Vajradhatu (now Shambhala) Meditation Centers and a fully accredited university, Nāropa Institute, in Boulder, Colorado. His spiritual successor is his Tibetan son, Ven. Sakyong Mipham, Rinpoche, who blends his Asian and American heritages in a style more traditional than his famous father's.
Like their Asian forebearers, these tantric gurus sometimes attracted controversy because of their unconventional teaching methods, requirements for unquestioning devotion, or secular lifestyles, which were considered "unspiritual" in an American religious context. Critics suggested that tantra was not appropriate for an American context and should be shunned in favor of more gradual, scholastic, or conservative methods from the Asian heritage. Both teachers remained undaunted by these criticisms, confident that the American context was perfect for tantra because of the intelligence, spiritual aptitude, and ambition of American students. Still, their tantric successors have faced a variety of obstacles in the American setting, including sexual harrassment lawsuits, attrition or schism among members, and an aura of scandal which often surrounded their Asian predecessors.
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A science or sadhana (spiritual practice) based on a vast collection of religious and occult Hindu scriptures that emphasize the shakti (energy of the deity), usually called kundalini, which comes from the goddess. The scriptures are generally in the form of a dialogue between the god Shiva and his wife Parvati. In treatises where Shiva answers the questions, they are called agama; where Parvati answers it is a nigama.
The tantra scriptures represent a cumulation of knowledge dating to ancient times. The majority of texts are written in Sanskrit, but are also found in Pali, Prakit, Tibetan, Hindi, and Bengali. They are considered encyclopedias of esoteric wisdom, covering topics such as creation and destruction of the universe, worship of the gods, spiritual disciplines, rituals, occult powers, and meditations. The tantras also discuss the subtle anatomy of the body including the chakras (spiritual centers) and the connection paths between them through which the kundalini energy travels. The tantras are also supposed to be specially relevant to Kali Yuga (the present age of devolution).
As vast and varied as the scriptures appear, however, they all have one characteristic in common: "an integrative approach to sadhana, with the objective of making the best use of all available resources within and without." Tantra can be considered the holistic approach to spiritual practice.
In opposition to traditional Judeo-Christian and aesthetic Eastern practices, Tantra does not seek to sublimate the flesh to the spirit, the physical to the metaphysical. Instead, tantra seeks to reintegrate all aspects of life, to "dissolve boundaries we've created, the separateness, the diconnectedness and become more connected with all of life."
Since the tantra's purpose is to integrate all aspects of life, it is a practice where numerous varieties of sciences can blend: hatha yoga, pranayama, medras, rituals, kundalini yoga, nada yoga, mantra, yantra, mandala, visualization of deities, alchemy, Aryurveda, and astrology can all comfortably fit within the realm of tantra. But because so many intricate sciences and techniques can be employed, it is usually advised that the tantra is studied under a competent master, who can lead the student through the complex weave of ideas and procedures.
In the West, tantra is often identified with sexuality and sexual practices. Tantric ideas are often used to help individuals and couples transform love making into a more satisfying experience, on the physical, emotional, and spiritual realm. By integrating the male and female aspect of the individual and the couple, tantra is used to raise the sexual union to a reflection of the mystical union between the shiva and shakti aspects of the divine.
A popular knowledge of tantric anatomy came to the West through Theosophy. Western scholar Sir John Woodroffe (1865-1936) wrote several pioneering books on tantra and translated tantric scriptures under a pseudonym, Arthur Avalon. The various systems of tantric yoga based on the tantras have spread in the West through the twentieth century.
Avalon, Arthur. The Serpent Power. London: Luzac & Co., 1919.
——. Tantra of the Great Liberation (Mahanirvana Tantra). London: Luzac, 1913. Reprint, New York: Dover Publications, 1972.
Chakravarti, Chintaharan. Tantras: Studies on Their Religion and Literature. Calcutta, India: Punthi Pustak, 1963.
Feuerstein, Georg. The Shambala Guide to Yoga. Boston & London: Shambala, 1996.
Greenwell, Bonnie, Ph.D. Energies of Transformation. Valencia, Calif.: Shakti River Press, 1990.
Mookerjee, Ajit. Tantra Art. New York: Random House, 1971.
Mookerjee, Ajit, and M. Khanna. The Tantric Way: Art, Science, Ritual. New York: Graphic, 1977.
Rawson, Philip. Tantra: The Indian Cult of Ecstasy. London: Thames & Hudson, 1974.
Tigunait, Pandit Rajmani "The Living Science of Tantra," Yoga International (May 1998): 22-29.
Williams, Stephen. "Tantra: An Introductory Dialogue with Raymont Powers C.T.T." Gentleman's Quarterly, August 1997, http://home.earthlink.net/-raypows/INTERVIEW.HTM.
Tantras take the form of a dialogue between Śiva and the Goddess (Devī). Either the Goddess asks questions and Śiva replies (āgama), or vice versa (nigama). The distinction between āgama and nigama can also refer to that between Tantra and Veda. The most important Śākta Tantras are the Nityaṣodaśikārṇava, the Yoginīhṛdaya, the Tantrarāja, the Kulārṇava, all written between 1000 and 1400 CE, and the 18th-cent. Mahānirvāṇa Tantra. See also TANTRIKA; TANTRISM.
Tan·tra / ˈtəntrə; ˈtan-/ • n. a Hindu or Buddhist mystical or ritual text, dating from the 6th to the 13th centuries. ∎ adherence to the doctrines or principles of the tantras, involving mantras, meditation, yoga, and ritual. DERIVATIVES: tan·tric / -trik/ adj. tan·trism / -ˌtrizəm/ n. tan·trist / -trist/ n.