The origins of Tantrism are obscure. Its roots may go back to autochthonous magic and fertility cults of pre- or non-Aryan India, and certainly Tantrism arose on the edges of Aryan influence in N. India, Bengal, and Assam. In Hinduism, Tantra pervades the theistic traditions of Śaivism, Śaktism, and Vaiṣṇavism. Tantrism also exerted considerable influence on Jainism. In a narrower sense Tantrism refers to doctrines and practices embodied in specific Śaiva and Śākta texts called Tantras.
Tantrism is multilevelled and Tantric texts range from crude magic to the sophisticated metaphysics of theologians such as Abhinavagupta. Certain concepts, however, are common in Tantrism, for instance, the male-female polarity in which Śiva is passive and Śakti active. (Tantric Buddhism reverses this polarity with passive female prajñā and active male upaya.) Tantrism maintains that the cosmos is hierarchical, created through a transformation of Śakti who manifests herself in the form of the tattvas. From a state of union (yāmala) with the Lord she evolves through various subtle levels to impure, gross creation. This cosmic hierarchy is recapitulated in the body which is regarded as a microcosm.
In Tantric sādhana the body is of central importance. Maithuna is of central importance, especially in left-handed Tantra (see below), leading to the Indian definitions of Tantra: mukti is bhukti (‘enjoyment’), yoga is bhoga (‘sensual pleasure’).
Tantric sādhana consists of pūjā (worship) and yoga. In many ways Tantric pūjā follows Vedic pūjā and is of three kinds: nitya, to be performed daily; naimittika, to be performed on special occasions; and kāma, to affect a particular desire.
Tantrism has developed a sophisticated esoteric anatomy comprising of energy centres (cakras) connected by channels (nadis). This anatomy is visualized in Tantric yoga of which there are two important kinds, mantra and laya or Kuṇḍalinī.
An important classification in Tantra is between the right-hand path (daksinācāra) which interprets the five Ms (pañca-mākāra) symbolically, and the left-hand path (vāmācāra) which interprets them literally. Some lefthand sects such as the Śaiva Kāpālikas and the Aghoris live in charnel grounds and are said to have consumed the flesh of corpses and scatological substances in order to achieve perfection and power (siddhi).
Though the development of Tantrism reached its peak about 1000 CE, it has never died out and has exerted considerable influence on modern religious movements such as the Ananda Marga and Bhagavan Sri Rajneesh movement.
For Buddhist tantrism, see also VAJRAYĀNA.
The name of a religious movement that spread throughout India from about the 5th century a.d. It affected not only hinduism but also buddhism and jainism. It was derived from the non-Vedic religion of the country and was connected especially with the worship of the Earth-Mother and her power (shakti ). In contrast with the earlier Vedic religion, which was ascetic and confined to the higher castes, Tantrism was based on the development of the body and its powers and was open to all castes. Its method (sādhana ) was the use of material things—mantras (sacred words), mudrās (symbolic gestures), and manṇḍalas (symbolic designs)—to acquire supernatural powers. Haṭ ha yoga, with its aim of obtaining complete control of the body, was one of its typical products. In some forms of Tantrism great license was practiced, and sexual union was used as a method of obtaining supernatural power.