From Upamanyu said: (Mahadeva) Thou art the maker of those declarations that are contained in the Tantras and the Puranas and that are embodied in language that is human. The Mahabharata Anusasana Parva Section XVII
By Swami Nikhilananda, Sri Ramakrishna Math
Tantra – A Way of Realisation
Modern research demonstrates the close affinity of the Tantra system of religious philosophy to the Vedas; Tantra itself speaks of its Vedic origin. In its subsequent development it shows the influence of the upanishads, Yoga, and Puranas. The ritualistic worship of modern Hinduism has been greatly coloured by it, and this fact is particularly noticeable in Bengal, Kashmir, Gujarat, and Malabar.
Reality, according to Tantra, is Chit, or pure consciousness which is identical with Sat, or Being, and Ananda, or Bliss. Thus both Vedanta and Tantra show a general agreement about the nature of Reality, with, however, an important difference which will be presently stated. This Being- Consciousness- Bliss, or Satchidananda, becomes restricted through Maya, and its transcendental nature is then expressed in terms of forms and categories.
According to the Vedas, as already stated, Satchidananda, or Brahman (the Supreme Reality), is in its true nature pure spirit; and maya, which is inherent in it, functions only on the relative plane at the time of creation, preservation and destruction; neither is the creation ultimately real, nor are created beings, for true knowledge reveals only an undifferentiated consciousness. According to Tantra, on the other hand, Satchidananda is called Siva-Sakti, the hyphenated word suggesting that Siva or the Absolute, and Sakti, or its creative power, are eternally conjoined like a word and its meaning; the one cannot be thought of without the other. A conception of pure consciousness or being which denies Sakti, or the power to become, is, according to Tantra, only half of the truth. Satchidananda is essentially endowed with the power of self-evolution and self-involution. Therefore perfect experience is the experience of the whole- that is to say, of consciousness as being and consciousness as power to become.
It is only in the relative world that Siva and Sakti are thought of as separate entities. Furthermore, Tantra affirms that both the world process and the Jiva, or the soul, are real and not merely illusory superimpositions upon Brahman. In declaring that the jiva finally becomes one with the reality, Tantra differs from qualified non-dualism.
Maya, according to Tantra, veils Reality and polarises it into what is conscious and what is unconscious, what is existent and what is non-existent, what is pleasant and what is unpleasant. Through polarisation, the infinite becomes finite, the undifferentiated differentiated, the immeasurable measured. For the same reason, non-dual reality becomes evolved – and this becoming is real and not merely apparent as in Vedanta- into a multiplicity of correlated ‘centres’ or entities of diverse nature, acting and reacting upon one another in various ways.
Some of the centres, such as human beings, evolve the power of feeling, cognition, and will, while others lack such power, there being various degrees of power or lack of power. Some centres, again, are knowers, and some, objects of knowledge; some, enjoyers, and some, objects of enjoyment. The various determining conditions which constitute and maintain a centre, for instance, a jiva, also limit or restrict it, accounting for its actions and reactions. These determinants are the ‘fetters’ (pasa) which weave the whole fabric of the jiva’s phenomenal life. By them it is bound and made to act like an animal, (pasu).
Though reality evolves, by its own inscrutable power, into a multiplicity of centres animate and inanimate, yet in its true nature it always remains pure consciousness, being, and bliss. In the state of evolution, reality does not cease to be itself, though neither the act nor the fact of evolution is denied by Tantra.
Thus a finite centre in any position in the ‘curve’ of evolution never ceases to be a ‘point’ of pure reality through which the infinite opens itself and through which it can be reached. When a jiva faces this point it is none other than reality, and when it turns away from the point and faces the veil of Maya it is finite, conditioned and bound by fetters. Thus in every jiva-centre there are elements of both individuality and infinitude, phenomenality and reality. One direction of the functioning of Maya, called the ‘outgoing current’, creates the jiva-centre with its fetters; a reversal of this direction, called the ‘return current’, reveals the infinite.
Tantra shows the way to change the outgoing current into the return current, transforming what operates as a bond for the jiva into a ‘releaser’ or ‘liberator’. As Tantra says: ‘One must rise by that by which one falls’; ‘the very poison that kills becomes the elixir of life when used by the wise.’ The various impulses and desires associated with the outgoing current form, as it were, the net of the phenomenal world in which the jiva has been caught. Some of these impulses appear to be cardinal or primary knots in this net. The only question is how to transform these cardinal impulses for material enjoyment (bhoga) into spiritual experiences (Yoga): how to bring about the sublimation of desires. If this can be done, what now binds will be reversed in its working, and the finite jiva will realise its identity with infinite reality.
The jiva, caught in the outgoing current, perceives duality and cherishes the notions of pleasure and pain, acceptance and rejection, body and soul, spirit and matter, and so on. But if the non-duality of Siva-Sakti alone exists, as asserted by Tantra, all these distinctions must be relative. Thus the distinction between man and woman, the desire for each other which is one of the cardinal desires, and the physical union between them all belong to the relative plane, where a perennial conflict between the flesh and the spirit is assumed, and where a jiva acts like an animal bound by the fetters of common convention. The distinction is a valid one and may even be valuable as long as the jiva remains on the relative plane. The observance of moral and social conventions, however desirable on that plane, does not make the jiva other than an animal.
In order that the jiva may know that it is really Siva (the Absolute), it must resolve every kind of duality and realise the fact that whatever exists and functions on the physical or moral level is Siva-Sakti, the ever inseparable reality and its power. When one realises that the whole process of creation, preservation, and destruction is but the manifestation of the lila, or sportive pleasure, of Siva-Sakti, one does not see anything carnal or gross in the universe; for such a one everything becomes an expression of Siva-Sakti. The special technique of the Tantric discipline is to transform the outgoing current of diversification into the return current of gradual integration, to gather separation, polarity, and even opposition into identification, harmony and peace.
The two currents, however, do not operate singly, one excluding the other; they are concurrent, though the emphasis, which oscillates, is now laid on one and now on the other. Thus in all affirmations of duality and difference, the affirmation of duality and difference, the affirmation of non-duality and identity is immanent, and one sees unities, equalities, and similarities, and not a mere chaos of colliding particles, even when outgoing current functions in the creation and preservation of the universe. Our ordinary experience, too, shows system, though this system reveals to us limited and conditioned identities. In brief, though differentiation is the prevailing feature of the outgoing current, identity is either implicit in it, or conditionally visible.
Let us take the example of a man and woman. Subject to certain limits and conditions, the two in a way can be equated; the difference between them is patent but can be eliminated. Emphasis on the difference, however, constitutes the fetters of man and woman, as is seen in common experience. These fetters will disappear when their real identity and not their pragmatic equality is realised. Hence the question is how to affirm or rather reaffirm an identity which is veiled.
The method of non-dualistic Vedanta is to negate all limiting adjuncts, which it calls unreal, until one sees nothing, but Brahman, or pure and undifferentiated consciousness, in the man and woman. In order to reach the affirmation of oneness, every vestige of duality must be rigorously discarded; in other words, Vedanta asks the aspirants to renounce the world of names and forms. But this is more easily said than done, for such renunciation can be practised only by a few.
Tantra, whose technique is different, prescribes the discipline of sublimation. Physical man and woman, floating along the outgoing current of the cosmic process, are, no doubt, different from each other, but by means of the return current they can be sublimated into cosmic principles and realised as the one whole, that is, Siva-Sakti. In reversing the outgoing current, the aspirant has to ‘bring together’ the complements or poles so as to realise their identity; thus the physical union of man and woman is sublimated into the creative union of Siva-Sakti.
The left hand path of Tantra under certain very stringent conditions, prescribes to the aspirant, or sadhaka, belonging to the ‘heroic’ type to be described later, spiritual disciplines or ritualistic readjustment with woman, and shows how to sublimate the so-called ‘carnal’ act gradually until the experience of the supreme non-dual Siva-Sakti with its perfect bliss is attained. The technique is to make the very same carnal desire which constitutes the strongest fetter of the animal man an ‘opening’ or channel for the experience of Satchidananda. If the right track is followed and all the conditions are fulfilled, the aspirant succeeds in his endeavour.
The Tantric method of sublimation consists of three steps: purification, elevation, and reaffirmation of identity on the plane of pure consciousness.
First, the aspirant must rid himself of the dross of grossness by reversing the outgoing current into the return current. According to Tantra, in the process of evolution, the pure cosmic principles (tattvas) at a certain stage cross the line and pass into impure principles, the latter constituting the realm of nature, which is like a ‘coiled’ curve, in which the jiva (embodied soul) is held a prisoner and where it wanders caught in a net of natural determinism from which there is no escape unless the coiled curve can be made to uncoil itself and open a channel for its release and ascent into the realm of the pure cosmic principles.
Until this is done the jiva remains afloat on the outgoing current, moves with it, and cherishes desires, which are gross or carnal. Whether yielding pleasure or pain, these desires fasten the chain upon the jiva with additional links. Its hope lies in uncoiling the coil of nature that has closed upon it. This is called in the technical language of Tantra the ‘awakening’ of the Kundalini, or coiled-up serpent power, by which one moves from the plane of impure principles to that of pure principles. The head of this coiled serpent is turned downward; it must be turned upward. This change of the direction of the serpent power, which after evolving the jiva remains involved in it, is called purification.
The next step is called elevation: the order in which the cosmic principles move along the outgoing current must be reversed with the starting of the return current. Ascent is to be made in the reverse order to that in which the descent was made. The aspirant must raise himself from the grosser and more limited elements to the subtler and more general ones until he attains to the realisation of Siva-Sakti. The last step is the reaffirmation in consciousness of his identity with Siva-Sakti. This is the general framework of the method of sublimation into which can be fitted all the methods of sublimation followed by the dualistic, non-dualistic, and other systems of thought.
What is Kundalini?
The spiritual awakening of a sadhak is described in Tantra by means of the symbol of the awakening and rising of the Kundalini power. What is this Kundalini? Properly understood, it is not something mystical or esoteric, peculiar to Tantra, but the basis of the spiritual experiences described by all religious faiths. Every genuine spiritual experience, such as the seeing of light or a vision, or communion with the Deity, is only a manifestation of the ascent of the Kundalini.
Let us try to understand the Kundalini with the help of an illustration from classical physics. There are two kinds of energy associated with a piece of matter: potential and kinetic, the sum total of which is a constant. The kinetic energy, which may be only a fraction of the total energy, is involved in the movement or action of a body. According to Tantra, the Kundalini, in the form of cosmic energy, is present, in everything, even in a particle of matter. Only a fraction of it, like the kinetic energy, is operative, while an unmeasured residuum is left, like the potential energy, ‘coiled up’ and untapped at the ‘base root’. It is a vast magazine of power, of which the operative energy, like the kinetic energy of the particle, is only a fraction. In the jiva-centre, also, are both this potential energy of the Kundalini, which is storehouse of the energy of the body (physical, subtle, and causal), and also the active energy of the Kundalini, which accounts for the action and movement of the jiva.
The coiled-up Kundalini is the central pivot upon which the whole complex apparatus of the body and mind moves and turns. A specific ratio between the active and the total energies of the kundalini determines the present condition and behaviour of the bodily apparatus. A change in the ratio is necessary to effect a change in its present working efficiency by transforming the grosser bodily elements into finer. A transformation, dynamisation, and sublimination of the physical, mental, and vital apparatus is only possible through what is called the rousing of the Kundalini and its reorientation from ‘downward facing’ to ‘upward facing.’
By the former the physical body has been made a ‘coiled-curve’, limited in character, restricted in functions and possibilities. By the force of the latter it breaks its fetters and transcends its limitations. This is the general principle. But there are various forms of spiritual discipline by which this magazine of latent power can be acted upon. Faith and love act as a most powerful lever to raise the coiled-up Kundalini; also the disciplines of Raj-Yoga and Jnana-Yoga. The repetition of the Lord’s name or a holy mantra, and even music, help in this process. Tantra recognises all this.
The student of Tantra should bear in mind the psychological aspect of the process of the ascent of the Kundalini, which is more of an unfoldment, expansion, an elevation of consciousness than a mechanical accession to an increased and higher power. The aim of waking the Kundalini is not the acquisition of greater power for the purpose of performing miraculous feats or the enjoyment of material pleasures; it is the realisation of Satchidananda.
The passage of the awakened Kundalini lies through the Sushumna, which is described as the central nerve in the nervous system. A kind of hollow canal, the Sushumna passes through the spinal column connecting the base centre (Chakra) at the bottom of the spine with the centre at the cerebrum. Tantra speaks of six centres (Chakras) through which Sushumna passes; these centres (Chakras) are so many spheres or planes, described in Tantra as different-coloured lotuses with varying numbers of petals.
In the ordinary worldly person these centres (Chakras) are closed, and the lotuses droop down like buds. As the Kundalini rises through the Sushumna Canal and touches the centres, these buds turn upward as fully opened flowers and the aspirant obtains spiritual experiences. The goal in spiritual practice is to make the Kundalini ascend from the centres, which are lower and more veiled to those which are higher and more conscious. During this upward journey of the Kindalini, the jiva is not quite released from the relative state till it reaches the sixth centre or plane, which is the ‘opening’ for pure and perfect experience. At this sixth centre (the two-petalled white lotus located at the junction of the eyebrows) the jiva sheds its ego and burns the seed of duality, and its higher self rises from the ashes of its lower self. It now dies physically, as it were, in order to be able to live in pure consciousness.
The sixth centre is the key by which the power in the thousand-petalled lotus in the cerebrum, which is like the limitless ocean, is switched on to the little reservoir which is the individual self, filling the latter and making it overflow and cease to be the little reservoir. Finally the Kundalini rises to the lotus at the cerebrum and becomes united with Siva, or the Absolute, and the aspirant realises, in the transcendental experience, his union with Siva-Sakti. The opening of the petals of the thousand-petalled lotus, which endows the illumined person with omniscience, is equivalent to the functioning of all the brain cells of a yogi in samadhi.