For Tantric Buddhism, see Vajrayana. For the texts classified as Tantras, see Tantras.
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Tantra[note 1] is the name given by scholars to a style of meditation and ritual which arose in India no later than the fifth century AD.[1] The earliest documented use of the word "Tantra" is in the Rigveda (X.71.9).[2] Tantra has influenced the Hindu, Sikh, Bön, Buddhist, and Jain traditions and spread with Buddhism to East and Southeast Asia.[3]


Several inconsistent definitions of Tantra exist.


The Tantric tradition offers two definitions of tantra. The first comes from the Kāmikā-tantra:

Because it elaborates (tan) copious and profound matters, especially relating to the principles of reality (tattva) and sacred mantras, and because it provides liberation (tra), it is called a tantra.[4]

The second comes from the 10th-century Tantric scholar Rāmakaṇṭha, who belonged to the dualist school Śaiva Siddhānta:

A tantra is a divinely revealed body of teachings, explaining what is necessary and what is a hindrance in the practice of the worship of God; and also describing the specialized initiation and purification ceremonies that are the necessary prerequisites of Tantric practice.[5]

Prabhat Ranjan Sarkar[note 2] describes a tantric individual and a tantric cult:

A person who, irrespective of caste, creed or religion, aspires for spiritual expansion or does something concrete, is a Tantric. Tantra in itself is neither a religion nor an 'ism'. Tantra is a fundamental spiritual science. So wherever there is any spiritual practice it should be taken for granted that it stands on the Tantric cult."[6]


Modern scholars have defined Tantra; David Gordon White of the University of California offers the following:

Tantra is that Asian body of beliefs and practices which, working from the principle that the universe we experience is nothing other than the concrete manifestation of the divine energy of the godhead that creates and maintains that universe, seeks to ritually appropriate and channel that energy, within the human microcosm, in creative and emancipatory ways.[7]

Anthony Tribe, a scholar of Buddhist Tantra, offers a list of features:[8]

  1. Centrality of ritual, especially the worship of deities
  2. Centrality of mantras
  3. Visualisation of and identification with a deity
  4. Need for initiation, esotericism and secrecy
  5. Importance of a teacher (guru, ācārya)
  6. Ritual use of maṇḍalas
  7. Transgressive or antinomian acts
  8. Revaluation of the body
  9. Revaluation of the status and role of women
  10. Analogical thinking (including microcosmic or macrocosmic correlation)
  11. Revaluation of negative mental states


Robert Brown notes that the term "tantrism" is a construct of Western scholarship, not a concept from the religious system itself. Tāntrikas (practitioners of Tantra) did not attempt to define Tantra as a whole; instead, the Tantric dimension of each South Asian religion had its own name:

  • Tantric Shaivism was known to its practitioners as the Mantramārga.
  • Shaktism is practically synonymous and parallel with Tantra, known to its native practitioners as "Kula marga" or "Kaula".
  • Tantric Buddhism has the indigenous name of the Vajrayana.
  • Tantric Vaishnavism was known as the Pancharatra.

"Tantra" denotes teachings and practices found in the scriptures known as tantras or āgamas; Āgamic is a synonymous adjective.


Golden Age of Hinduism

Tantrism originated in the early centuries of the common era, developing into a fully articulated tradition by the end of the Gupta period. This was the "Golden Age of Hinduism"[9] (ca. 320–650 AD[9]), which flourished from the Gupta Empire[10] (320 to 550 AD) to the fall of the Harsha Empire[10] (606 to 647 AD). During this period power was centralised, trade increased, legal procedures standardised and literacy grew.[10] Mahayana Buddhism flourished, but the orthodox Brahmana culture began its rejuvenation with the patronage of the Gupta Dynasty.[11] The position of the Brahmans was reinforced,[10] and the first Hindu temples emerged during the late Gupta period.[10]

Late classical period

After the end of the Gupta Empire and the collapse of the Harsha Empire, power was decentralised in India. Several larger kingdoms emerged, with "countless vassal states".[12][note 3] The kingdoms were ruled by a feudal system, with smaller kingdoms dependent on protection from larger ones. "The great king was remote, was exalted and deified."[13] This was reflected in the Tantric mandala, which could depict the king at its centre.[14]

The disintegration of central power led to religious regionalism and rivalry.[15][note 4] Local cults and languages developed, and the influence of "Brahmanic ritualistic Hinduism"[15] diminished.[15] Rural devotional movements arose with Shaivism, Vaisnavism, Bhakti and Tantra,[15] although "sectarian groupings were only at the beginning of their development."[15] Religious movements competed for recognition from local lords.[15] Buddhism lost its stature, and began to disappear from India.[15]

During this period Vedanta changed, incorporating the Buddhist emphases on consciousness and the working of the mind.[17] Buddhism, supported by the ancient Indian urban civilisation, lost influence to the traditional religions rooted in the countryside;[18] in Bengal, Buddhists were persecuted. However, it was also incorporated into Hinduism when Gaudapada reinterpreted the Upanishads in the light of Buddhist philosophy.[17] This also marked a shift from Atman and Brahman as a "living substance"[19] to "maya-vada",[note 5] where Atman and Brahman are seen as "pure knowledge-consciousness".[20] According to Scheepers, it is this "maya-vada" view which dominates Indian thought.[18]

Spread of Tantra

Tantric movements led to the formation of a number of Hindu and Buddhist esoteric schools. It has influenced the Hindu, Sikh, Bön, Buddhist and Jain religious traditions and spread with Buddhism to East and Southeast Asia.[3]

Chronological use of term

A survey of the literature yields a variety of uses for "tantra":

Appearance of term "Tantra" in scriptures[21]
Period Scripture or author Meaning
1700–1100 BC Ṛgveda X, 71.9 Loom (or weaving device)[2]
1700-? Sāmaveda, Tandya Brahmana Essence (or "main part", perhaps denoting the quintessence of the Sastras)[2]
1200-900 Atharvaveda X, 7.42 Loom (or weaving device)[2]
1400-1000 Yajurveda, Taittiriya Brahmana Loom (or weaving device)[2]
600-500 Pāṇini on Aṣṭādhyāyī Tissue obtained from the frame (tantraka, derived from tantra)
600-300 Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa Essence (or main part; see above)[2]
350-283 BC Chanakya[22] on Arthaśāstra Strategy
300 AD Īśvarakṛṣṇa author of Sānkhya Kārikā (kārikā 70) Doctrine (identifies Sankhya as a tantra)[23]
320 Viṣṇu Purāṇa Practices and rituals (śakti, Viṣṇu and Durgā cults with the use of wine and meat)[24]
320-400 Poet Kālidāsa on Abhijñānaśākuntalam Deep understanding or mastery of a topic[25]
423 Gangdhar stone inscription in Rajasthan[26] Daily practices and rituals of Tantric cult (Tantrobhuta)[27]
500-600 Chinese Buddhist canon (Vol. 18–21: Tantra (Vajrayāna) or Tantric Buddhism[28] Set of doctrines or practices for obtaining spiritual enlightenment (including iconography of the body with cakras, nāḍīs and mantras)
600 Kāmikāgama or Kāmikā-tantra Extensive knowledge of principles of reality (tattva and mantra)[29] and bearer of liberation[30]
606–647 Sanskrit scholar and poet Bāṇabhaṭṭa (in Harṣacarita[31] and in Kādambari), in Bhāsa's Cārudatta and in Śūdraka's Mṛcchakatika Set of practices and rituals, with mandalas and yantras for propitiation of goddesses or Matrikas [27][32]
788–820 philosopher Śankara System of thought, or set of doctrines and practices[33]
950–1000 Bhaṭṭa Rāmakaṇṭha (philosopher)[34] Divinely-revealed set of doctrines or practices concerning spiritual worship[35]
975–1025 Philosopher Abhinavagupta in his Tantrāloka Set of doctrines or practices, teachings or Śaiva doctrine
1150–1200 Jayaratha, Abhinavagupta's commentator on Tantrāloka Set of doctrines or practices, teachings or Śaiva doctrine (as in Tantrāloka)
1690–1785 Bhāskararāya (philiosopher) System of thought or set of doctrines or practices'[36]


Tantra is an accumulation of practices and ideas, rather than one coherent system. Because of the wide range of communities covered by the term, it is problematic to describe tantric practices definitively.


Tantric ritual seeks to access the supra-mundane through the mundane, identifying the microcosm with the macrocosm.[37] The Tantric aim is to sublimate (rather than negate) reality.[38] The Tantric practitioner seeks to use prana (energy flowing through the universe, including one's body) to attain goals which may be spiritual, material or both.[39]

Tantric path

For Tibetan Buddhist ideas, see Anuttarayoga Tantra.

Long training is generally required to master Tantric methods. Pupils are typically initiated by a guru.

A number of techniques are used as aids for meditation and achieving spiritual power:

  • Yoga, including breathing techniques and postures (asana), is employed to subject the body to the control of the will.
  • Mudras, or gestures
  • Mantras: Syllables, words and phrases
  • Mandalas
  • Yantras: Symbolic diagrams of forces at work in the universe
  • Identification with deities

The process of sublimation consists of three phases:

  1. Purification
  2. Elevation
  3. "Reaffirmation of identity in pure consciousness"[38]


Avalon contrasts "ordinary" [40] and "secret ritual[s]".[41] Methods employed by Dakshinachara (right-hand path) interpretations of Tantra differ from methods used in the pursuit of the Vamachara (left-hand path).

Mantra, yantra, nyasa

The words mantram, tantram and yantram are rooted linguistically and phonologically in ancient Indian traditions. Mantram denotes the chant, or "knowledge." Tantram denotes philosophy, or ritual actions. Yantram denotes the means by which a person is expected to lead their life.

The mantra and yantra are instruments to invoke specific Hindu deities such as Shiva, Shakti, or Kali. Similarly, puja may involve focusing on a yantra or mandala associated with a deity.[42]

Each mantra is associated with a specific Nyasa. Nyasa involves touching various parts of the body at specific parts of the mantra, thought to invoke the deity in the body. There are several types of Nyasas; the most important are Kara Nyasa and Anga Nyasa.

Identification with deities

Tantra, as a development of early Hindu-Vedic thought, embraced the Hindu gods and goddesses (especially Shiva and Shakti) and the Advaita philosophy that each represents an aspect of the ultimate Para Brahman or Adi Parashakti. These deities may be worshiped with flowers, incense and other offerings (such as singing and dancing). Tantric practices form the foundation of the ritual temple dance of the devadasis, and are preserved in the Melattur style of Bharatanatyam by Mangudi Dorairaja Iyer.


The deities are internalised as attributes of Ishta devata meditations, with practitioners visualizing themselves as the deity or experiencing the darshan (vision) of the deity. During meditation the initiate identifies with any of the Hindu gods and goddesses, visualising and internalising them in a process similar to sexual courtship and consummation.[43] The Tantrika practitioner may use visualizations of deities, identifying with a deity to the degree that the aspirant "becomes" the Ishta-deva (or meditational deity).[44]

Classes of devotees

In Hindu Tantra, uniting the deity and the devotee uses meditation and ritual practices. These practices are divided among three classes of devotees: the animal, heroic, and the divine. In the divine devotee, the rituals are internal. The divine devotee is the only one who can attain the object of the rituals (awakening energy).[45]

Vanamarga (secret ritual)

The secret ritual prompted Zimmer's praise of Tantra's world-affirming attitude:

In the Tantra, the manner of approach is not that of Nay but of Yea ... the world attitude is affirmative ... Man must approach through and by means of nature, not by rejection of nature.[46]

Arthur Avalon states that the Panchatattva,[note 6] Chakrapuja and Panchamakara involve:

Worship with the Pañcatattva generally takes place in a Cakra or circle composed of men and women... sitting in a circle, the Shakti (or female practitioner) being on the Sadhaka's (male practitioner's) left. Hence it is called Cakrapuja. ...There are various kinds of Cakra – productive, it is said, of differing fruits for the participator therein.[41][48]

Avalon provides a number of variations and substitutions of the Panchatattva (Panchamakara) "elements" or tattva encoded in the Tantras and tantric traditions, affirming a direct correlation to the Tantric Five Nectars and the Mahābhūta.[49]

Sexual rites

Although equated with Tantra in the West, sexual rites were historically practiced by a minority of sects. For practicing groups, maithuna progressed into psychological symbolism.[50]


According to White, the sexual rites of Vamamarga may have emerged from early Hindu Tantra as a means of catalyzing biochemical transformations in the body to facilitate heightened states of awareness.[50] These constitute an offering to Tantric deities.

Religious aims

Later developments in the rite emphasize the primacy of bliss and divine union, which replace the bodily connotations of earlier forms.[50] When enacted as enjoined by the Tantras, the ritual culminates in an experience of awareness for both participants. Tantric texts specify that sex has three distinct purposes: procreation, pleasure and liberation. Those seeking liberation eschew orgasm in favor of a higher form of ecstasy. Several sexual rituals are recommended and practiced, involving elaborate preparatory and purification rites.

The sexual act balances energies in the pranic ida and pingala channels in the bodies of both participants. The sushumna nadi is awakened, and kundalini rises within it. This culminates in samadhi, where the individual personality and identity of each participant is dissolved in cosmic consciousness.

Tantrics understand these acts on multiple levels. The male and female participants are conjoined physically, representing Shiva and Shakti (the male and female principles). A fusion of Shiva and Shakti energies takes place, resulting in a unified energy field. On the individual level, each participant experiences a fusion of their Shiva and Shakti energies.[51][52]


Defined as a technique-rich style of spiritual practice, Tantra has no single coherent doctrine; instead, it developed a variety of teachings in connection with the religions adopting the Tantric method. These practices are oriented to the married householder rather than the monastic or solitary renunciant, exhibiting a world-embracing (as opposed to a world-denying) character. Tantra, particularly its nondual forms, rejected the values of Patañjalian yoga; instead, it offered a vision of reality as self-expression of a single, free and blissful divine consciousness under Śiva or Buddha-nature.

The world is real

Since the world was seen as real (not illusory), this doctrine was an innovation on previous Indian philosophies (which saw the divine as transcendent and the world as illusion). The consequence of this view was that householders could aspire to spiritual liberation, and were the practitioner addressed by most Tantric manuals.

Since Tantra dissolved the dichotomy between spiritual and mundane, practitioners could integrate their daily lives into their spiritual growth, seeking to realize the divine which is transcendent and immanent. Tantric practices and rituals aim to bring about a realization of the truth that "nothing exists that is not divine" (nāśivaṃ vidyate kvacit[53]), bringing freedom from ignorance and the cycle of suffering (saṃsāra).

Tantric visualizations are said to bring the meditator to the core of their humanity and unity with transcendence. Tantric meditations do not serve as training, extraneous beliefs or unnatural practices. On the contrary, the transcendence reached by such meditative work does not construct anything in the mind of the practitioner; instead, it deconstructs all preconceived notions of the human condition. The limits on thought (cultural and linguistic frameworks) are removed. This allows the person to experience liberation, followed by unity with reality.[54]

Evolution and involution

According to Tantra, "being-consciousness-bliss" (or Satchidananda) entails self-evolution and self-involution. Prakriti (reality) evolves into a multiplicity of things but also remains consciousness, being and bliss. Maya (illusion) veils reality, separating it into opposites (conscious and unconscious, pleasant and unpleasant). If not recognized as illusion, these opposing conditions limit (pashu) the individual (jiva).[38]

Shiva and Shakti are generally seen as distinct. Tantra affirms that the world and the individual jiva are real, distinguishing itself from dualism and the qualified non-dualism of Vedanta.[38]

Evolution, or the "outgoing current," is only half of Maya. Involution (the "return current") takes the jiva back towards the source of reality, revealing the infinite. Tantra teaches the changing of the "outgoing current" into the "return current," removing the fetters of Maya. This view underscores two maxims of Tantra: "One must rise by that by which one falls," and "the very poison that kills becomes the elixir of life when used by the wise."[38]


Main article: Tantras

The primary sources of written Hindu Tantric lore are the agama, generally consisting of four parts: metaphysical knowledge (jnana), contemplative procedures (yoga), ritual regulations (kriya) and religious injunctions (charya). Tantric schools affiliate themselves with specific agamic traditions. Hindu tantra exists in Shaiva, Vaisnava,[55] Ganapatya,[56] Saura[57] and Shakta forms, and individual tantric texts may be classified as Shaiva Āgamas, Vaishnava Pāñcarātra Saṃhitās,[58] and Shakta Tantras. The word Tantra includes all such works.[59]

Influence on Asian religions

The Tantric method affected every major Indian religion during the early medieval period (c. 500–1200 CE); the Hindu sects of Shaivism, Shaktism and Vaishnavism (and Buddhism and Jainism) developed a well-documented body of Tantric practices and doctrines, and Islam in India was also influenced by Tantra.[60] Tantric ideas and practices spread from India to Tibet, Nepal, China, Japan, Cambodia, Vietnam and Indonesia.[61][62] Tibetan Buddhism and some forms of Hinduism show the strongest Tantric influence, as do the postural yoga movement and most forms of American New Age spirituality.


Vedic tradition

Main article: Vedic

Orthodox Brahmanas incorporate Tantric rituals into their daily activities (ahnikas). Gayatri-avahanam is a common element of Sandhyavandanam in southern India.[63] Orthodox temple archakas of several sects follow rules laid out in Tantric texts; for example, priests of the Iyengar sect follow Pañcaratra agamas.

However, it has been claimed that orthodox Vedic traditions were inimical to Tantra. André Padoux notes that, in India, tantra rejects orthodox Vedic tenets.[64] In his review of Tantric literature, Moriz Winternitz points out that while Indian Tantric texts are not hostile to the Vedas they see them as too difficult for the modern age.[65] Many orthodox Brahmans who accept the authority of the Vedas reject the Tantras.[66] Although later Tantric writers wanted to base their doctrines on the Vedas, some orthodox followers of the Vedic tradition denigrated Tantra as anti-Vedic.[67]

Shaiva Tantra

Main article: Shaivism

The tantric Shaiva tradition consists of the Kapalikas, Kashmir Shaivism and Shaiva Siddhanta. The word "Tāntrika" is used for followers of the Tantras in Shaivism.[note 7]


Shaiva tantra produced the Hatha Yoga manuals, such as the 15th-century Hathayoga Pradīpikā and the 16th-century Gheranda Samhitā, from which modern yoga derives. The earlier (pre-Tantric) form of yoga, dating back to the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, became known as Raja Yoga:

Yoga as it has been inherited in the modern world has its roots in Tantric ritual and in secondary passages (pādas) within Tantric scriptures. The practices of mantra, āsana (seat/pose), sense-withdrawal (pratyāhāra), breath-regulation (prānāyāma), mental (mantric) fixation (dhāranā), meditation (dhyāna), mudrā, the subtle body (sukshma shārīra) with its energy centers (chakras, ādhāras, granthis, etc.) and channels (nādīs), as well as the phenomenon of Kundalinī Shakti are but a few of the tenets that comprise Tantric Yoga. While some of these derive from earlier, pre-Tantric sources, such as the Hindu Upanishads and the Yoga Sūtra, they were greatly expanded upon, ritualized, and philosophically contextualized in these medieval Tantras.[68]

Buddhist Tantra

Main article: Vajrayana

Vajrayana includes scriptures written by the Indian Mahasiddhas.[69] According to Tibetan Buddhist Tantric master Lama Thubten Yeshe:

...each one of us is a union of all universal energy. Everything that we need in order to be complete is within us right at this very moment. It is simply a matter of being able to recognize it. This is the tantric approach.[70]

Western views

John Woodroffe

The first Western scholar to seriously study Tantra was John Woodroffe (1865–1936), who wrote about Tantra under the pen name Arthur Avalon and is known as the "founding father of Tantric studies".[71] Unlike previous Western scholars Woodroffe advocated for Tantra, defending and presenting it as an ethical and philosophical system in accord with the Vedas and Vedanta.[72] Woodroffe practised Tantra and, while trying to maintain scholastic objectivity, was a student of Hindu Tantra (the Shiva-Shakta tradition).[73]

Further development

Following Woodroffe a number of scholars began investigating Tantric teachings, including scholars of comparative religion and Indology such as Agehananda Bharati, Mircea Eliade, Julius Evola, Carl Jung, Giuseppe Tucci and Heinrich Zimmer.[74] According to Hugh Urban, Zimmer, Evola and Eliade viewed Tantra as "the culmination of all Indian thought: the most radical form of spirituality and the archaic heart of aboriginal India", regarding it as the ideal religion for the modern era. All three saw Tantra as "the most transgressive and violent path to the sacred".[75]

Modern world

Following these first Tantric presentations, popular authors (such as Joseph Campbell) brought Tantra to the attention of Westerners. It was seen as a "cult of ecstasy", combining sexuality and spirituality to correct Western repressive attitudes towards sex.[76]

As Tantra has become more popular in the West, it has undergone a transformation. For many readers Tantra is synonymous with "spiritual sex" or "sacred sexuality," a belief that sex should be recognized as a sacred act capable of elevating its participants to a higher spiritual plane.[77] Although Neotantra uses many concepts and terminology of Indian Tantra, it often omits one (or more) of the following: reliance on guruparampara (the guidance of a guru), meditation and moral and ritual rules of conduct.

According to author and critic of religion and politics Hugh Urban:

Since at least the time of Agehananda Bharati, most Western scholars have been severely critical of these new forms of pop Tantra. This "California Tantra" as Georg Feuerstein calls it, is "based on a profound misunderstanding of the Tantric path. Their main error is to confuse Tantric bliss ... with ordinary orgasmic pleasure.[78]

Urban says he does not consider this "wrong" or "false", but "simply a different interpretation for a specific historical situation."[79]

See also





  • Second Revised Edition
  • Second Revised Edition
  • First Indian Edition, Kant Publications, 2003.
  • Second revised reprint edition. Two volumes. First published 1927 by the University of Calcutta.
  • Timalsina, S. (2012). Reconstructing the tantric body: Elements of the symbolism of body in the monistic kaula and trika tantric traditions. International Journal of Hindu Studies, 16(1), 57-91. doi: 10.1007/s11407-012-9111-5


Further reading

  • Tantric Hieroglyphics I (April 1960) by S. Srikanta Sastri, Quarterly Journal of Mythic Society
  • Tantric Hieroglyphics II (July 1960) by S. Srikanta Sastri, Quarterly Journal of Mythic Society
  • Tantric Hieroglyphics III (Dec 1974) by S. Srikanta Sastri, Quarterly Journal of Mythic Society
  • Tantric Hieroglyphics IV (March 1975) by S. Srikanta Sastri, Quarterly Journal of Mythic Society
  • Smith, Frederick M. (2006). ISBN 0-231-13748-6.

External links

  • DMOZ

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