Tantra (Sanskrit: तन्त्र) is the esoteric tradition of Hinduism and Buddhism that co-developed most likely about the middle of 1st millennium CE. The term tantra, in the Indian traditions, also means any systematic broadly applicable “text, theory, system, method, instrument, technique or practice”.
In Hinduism, the tantra tradition is associated with its goddess tradition called Shaktism, followed by Shaivism and Vaishnavism. In Buddhism, the Vajrayana tradition is known for its extensive tantra ideas and practices. Tantric Hindu and Buddhist traditions have influenced other religious traditions such as Jainism, Sikhism, the Tibetan Bön tradition, Daoism, and the Japanese Shintō tradition.
The Hindu texts that describe these topics are called Tantras, Āgamas or Samhitās.
Tantra (Sanskrit: तन्त्र) literally means “loom, warp, weave”. The connotation of the word tantra to mean an esoteric practice or religious ritualism is a colonial era European invention. The term is based on the metaphor of weaving, states Ron Barrett, where the Sanskrit root tan means the warping of threads on a loom. It implies “interweaving of traditions and teachings as threads” into a text, technique or practice.
The word appears in the hymns of the Rigveda such as in 10.71, with the meaning of “warp (weaving)”. It is found in many other Vedic era texts, such as in section 10.7.42 of the Atharvaveda and many Brahmanas. In these and post-Vedic texts, the contextual meaning of Tantra is that which is “principal or essential part, main point, model, framework, feature”. In the Smritis and epics of Hinduism (and Jainism), the term means “doctrine, rule, theory, method, technique or chapter” and the word appears both as a separate word and as a common suffix, such as atma-tantra meaning “doctrine or theory of Atman (soul, self)”.
The term “Tantra” after about 500 BCE, in Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism is a bibliographic category, just like the word Sutra (which means “sewing together“, mirroring the metaphor of “weaving together” implied by Tantra). The same Buddhist texts are sometimes referred to as tantra or sutra; for example, Vairocabhisambodhi-tantra is also referred to as Vairocabhisambodhi-sutra. The various contextual meaning of the word Tantra varies with the Indian text, and is summarized in the appended table.
Ancient and medieval era
The earliest definitions and expositions on Tantra come from the ancient texts of Panini, Patanjali and the literature of the language-focussed, ritual-oriented Mimamsa school of Hindu philosophy.
The 5th-century BCE scholar Panini in his Sutra 1.4.54–55 of Sanskrit grammar, cryptically explains tantra through the example of “Sva-tantra” (Sanskrit: स्वतन्त्र), which he states means “independent” or a person who is his own “warp, cloth, weaver, promoter, karta (actor)”. Patanjali in his Mahābhāṣya quotes and accepts Panini’s definition, then discusses or mentions it at a greater length, in 18 instances, stating that its metaphorical definition of “warp (weaving), extended cloth” is relevant to many contexts. The word tantra, states Patanjali, means “principal, main”. He uses the same example of svatantra as a composite word of “sva” (self) and tantra, then stating “svatantra” means “one who is self-dependent, one who is his own master, the principal thing for whom is himself”, thereby interpreting the definition of tantra. Patanjali also offers a semantic definition of Tantra, stating that it is structural rules, standard procedures, centralized guide or knowledge in any field that applies to many elements.
The ancient Mimamsa school of Hinduism uses the term tantra extensively, and its scholars offer various definitions. For example:
When an action or a thing, once complete, becomes beneficial in several matters to one person, or to many people, that is known as Tantra. For example, a lamp placed amidst many priests. In contrast, that which benefits by its repetition is called Āvāpa, such as massaging with oil. (…) — Sabara, 6th century
Medieval texts present their own definitions of Tantra. Kāmikā-tantra, for example, gives the following explanation of the term 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.
In modern days Tantra has been studied as an esoteric practice and ritualistic religion. There is wide gap between what Tantra means and how it has been represented or perceived as since colonial era writers began commenting on it. According to David Lorenzen, two different kinds of definitions of Tantra exist, a “narrow definition” and a “broad definition”. According to the narrow definition, Tantrism, or “Tantric religion”, refers only to the elite traditions directly based on the Sanskrit texts called the Tantras, Samhitas, and Agamas. Lorenzen’s “broad definition” adds to his “narrow definition” of Tantra, by including a broad range of “magical beliefs and practices” such as Yoga and Shaktism practices.
Richard Payne states that Tantra has been commonly but incorrectly associated with sex, given the popular culture’s obsession with yet repugnance of intimacy in colonial prudish Victorian values. Tantra has been labelled as “yoga of ecstasy” driven by senseless ritualistic libertinism. This is far from the diverse and complex understanding of what Tantra means to those Buddhists, Hindu and Jains who practice it.
Tantra traditions are manifold, spanning several religious traditions and cultural worlds, thus it is a significant challenge to come up with an adequate definition. To its practitioners, Tantra is defined as a combination of texts, techniques, rituals, monastic practices, meditation, yoga, ideologies that are freely selected based on personal preference, or master-disciple developed, or guru-revealed.
In other contexts, Tantra means a system or methodology in Indian traditions. Tantra, for example, are manuals and texts that specify design, architecture, construction and symbolism rules for icons, temples and various arts. These texts, states Gavin Flood, contain representation of “the body in philosophy, in ritual and in art”, which are linked to “techniques of the body, methods or technologies developed within the tantric traditions intended to transform body and self”. Hindu puja, temples and iconography are tantric in nature.
The term “tantrism” is a 19th-century European invention that was not present in any Asian language.
Robert Brown defines Tantrism as an apologetic label of Westerners for a system that they little understand that is “not coherent” and which is “an accumulated set of practices and ideas from various sources, that has varied between its practitioners within a group, varied across groups, across geography and over its history”. It is a system that gives each follower the freedom to mix Tantric elements with non-Tantric aspects, to challenge and transgress any and all norms, experiment with “the mundane to reach the supramundane”.
Tantra typically refers to a methodically striven system, voluntarily chosen specific practices which may include Tantric items such as mantras (bijas), geometric patterns and symbols (mandala), gestures (mudra), mapping of the microcosm within one’s body to the macrocosmic elements outside as the subtle body (kundalini-yoga), assignments of icons and sounds (nyasa), meditation (dhyana), ritual worship (puja), initiation (diksha) and others. Tantrism, adds Goudriaan, is a living system that is decidedly monistic, but with wide variations, and it is impossible to be dogmatic about a simple or fixed definition.
According to Padoux, the term “Tantrika” is based on a comment by Kulluka Bhatta on Manava Dharmasastra 2.1, who contrasted vaidika and tantrika forms of Sruti (canonical texts). The Tantrika, to Bhatta, is that literature which forms a parallel part of the Hindu tradition, independent of the Vedic corpus. The Vedic and non-Vedic (Tantric) paths are seen as two different approaches to ultimate reality, the Vedic approach based on Brahman, and Tantrika being based on the non-Vedic Āgama texts. Despite Bhatta attempt to clarify, states Padoux, in reality Hindus and Buddhists have historically felt free to borrow and blend ideas from all sources, Vedic, non-Vedic and in the case of Buddhism, its own canonical works.
One of the key differences between the Tantric and non-Tantric traditions – whether it be orthodox Buddhism, Hinduism or Jainism – is their assumptions about the need for monastic or ascetic life. Non-Tantrika, or orthodox traditions in all three major ancient Indian religions, hold that the worldly life of a householder is one driven by desires and greeds which are a serious impediment to spiritual liberation (moksha, nirvana, kaivalya). These orthodox traditions teach renunciation of householder life, a mendicant’s life of simplicity and leaving all attachments to become a monk or nun. In contrast, the Tantrika traditions hold, states Robert Brown, that “both enlightenment and worldly success” are achievable, and that “this world need not be shunned to achieve enlightenment”.
The Keśin hymn of the Rig Veda (10.136) describes the “wild loner” who, states Karel Werner, “carrying within oneself fire and poison, heaven and earth, ranging from enthusiasm and creativity to depression and agony, from the heights of spiritual bliss to the heaviness of earth-bound labor”. The Rigveda uses words of admiration for these loners, and whether it is related to Tantra or not, has been variously interpreted. According to David Lorenzen, it describes munis (sages) experiencing Tantra-like “ecstatic, altered states of consciousness” and gaining the ability “to fly on the wind”. In contrast, Werner suggests that these are early Yoga pioneers and accomplished yogis of the ancient pre-Buddhist Indian tradition, and that this Vedic hymn is speaking of those “lost in thoughts” whose “personalities are not bound to earth, for they follow the path of the mysterious wind”.
The two oldest Upanishadic scriptures of Hinduism, the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad in section 4.2 and Chandogya Upanishad in section 8.6, refer to nadis (hati) in presenting their theory on how the Atman (soul) and the body are connected and interdependent through energy carrying arteries when one is awake or sleeping, but they do not mention anything related to Tantric practices. The Shvetashvatara Upanishad describes breath control that became a standard part of Yoga, but Tantric practices do not appear in it. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali are an early codification of Yogic practices. Later, according to Lorenzen, these early Yoga-related ideas develop into Hatha Yoga, and then diversify into the “mystical anatomy” of nadis and chakras of Tantric practices. The 7th century CE the shamanic-yogic component of Tantrism appears clearly in Tantric form in Bāṇabhaṭṭa’s Harshacharita and Daṇḍin’s Dashakumaracharita.
In contrast to Lorenzen, other scholars such as Mircea Eliade consider Yoga and the evolution of Yogic practices to be separate and distinct from the evolution of Tantra and Tantric practices.
David Gordon White suggests Vedic Srauta texts mention offerings to goddesses Rākā, Sinīvālī, and Kuhū in a manner similar to a tantric ritual. Frederick Smith – a professor of Sanskrit and Classical Indian Religions, views Tantra to be a parallel religious movement to Bhakti movement of the 1st millennium CE. Tantra has been an esoteric, folk movement without grounding that can be traced to anything in Atharvaveda or any other vedic text.
According to Flood, the earliest date for the Tantra texts related to Tantric practices is 600 CE, though most of them were probably composed after the 8th century onwards. By the 10th century an extensive corpus existed. The Buddhists developed their own corpus of Tantras, which became the textual basis of Vajrayana. In Jainism, secondary texts suggest a substantial Tantra corpus based on the Surya tradition developed in the western regions of India, but complete manuscripts of these have not survived into the modern era.
Among the Hindus, those belonging to the Vedic orthodox traditions rejected the Tantra texts, the Tantric followers incorporated the Vedic ideas within their own systems considering the Tantras as the higher, refined understanding of older ideas. Some considered the Tantra texts to be superior to the Vedas, while others considered them complementary:
The Veda is the cow, the true Agama its milk. — Umapati, Translated by David Smith
According to Flood, very little is known about who created the Tantras, nor much is known about the social status of these and medieval era Tantrikas. The Tantra pioneers may have been ascetics who lived at the cremation grounds, possibly from “above low-caste groups” states Flood, and these were probably non-Brahmanical. These Hindu renouncers and ascetics trace back to far more ancient traditions, and they are mentioned in the Buddhist Pali canon. More recently, their practices may have included the imitation of the deities such as goddess Kali and god Bhairava, with offerings of non-vegetarian food, alcohol and sexual substances. According to this theory, these practitioners would have invited their deities to avesha mam (enter me), then reverted the role in order to control that deity and gain its power. These ascetics would have been supported by low castes living at the cremation places.
Major Tantric texts had been written by the 10th century, particularly in Kashmir, Nepal and Bengal. By the 10th or 11th century, Tantric texts had been translated into regional languages such as Tamil, and Tantric practices probably had spread across South Asia. It was broadly influential, with Flood describing it as follows:
Tantrism has been so pervasive that all of Hinduism after the eleventh century, perhaps with the exception of the vedic Srauta tradition, is influenced by it. All forms of Saiva, Vaisnava and Smarta religion, even those forms which wanted to distance themselves from Tantrism, absorbed elements derived from the Tantras. The Tantras generally take the form of a dialogue between (…) — Gavin Flood, An Introduction to Hinduism
The 13th-century Dvaita Vedanta philosopher Madhvacharya wrote copious commentaries on then existing major schools of Indian philosophies and practices, and cited the works of the 10th century Abhinavagupta considered as a major and influential Tantra scholar. However, Madhvacharya does not mention Tantra as a separate, distinct religious or ritual-driven practice. The early 20th-century Indian scholar Pandurang Vaman Kane conjectured that Madhvacharya ignored Tantra because it may have been considered scandalous. In contrast, Padoux suggests that Tantra may have been so pervasive by the 13th century that “it was not regarded as being a distinct system.”
Tantrism further spread with the silk road transmission of Buddhism to East and Southeast Asia, and also influenced the Bön tradition of Tibet.
Sex and eroticism
The Tantra texts and tantric practices involve a wide range of topics, mostly focused on spiritual topics, and not of sexual nature. However, states Gavin Flood, Tantrism is more known in the West as being notorious for its antinomian elements, stereotypically portrayed as a practice that is esoteric eroticism and ritualized sex in the name of religion, one imbued with alcohol and offering of meat to fierce deities. This portrayal is not limited to the Western imagination, however. Jayanta Bhatta, the 9th-century scholar of the Nyaya school of Hindu philosophy and who commented on Tantra literature, stated that the Tantric ideas and spiritual practices are mostly well placed, but it also has “immoral teachings” such as by the so-called “Nilambara” sect where its practitioners “wear simply one blue garment, and then as a group engage in unconstrained public sex” on festivals. He wrote, this practice is unnecessary and it threatens fundamental values of society.
Douglas Renfrew Brooks, for example, states that the antinomian elements such as the use of intoxicating substances and sex were not animistic, but were adopted in some Kaula traditions to challenge the Tantric devotee to break down the “distinctions between the ultimate reality of Brahman and the mundane physical and mundane world”. By combining erotic and ascetic techniques, states Brooks, the Tantric broke down all social and internal assumptions, became Shiva-like. In Kashmir Shaivism, states David Gray, the antinomian transgressive ideas were internalized, for meditation and reflection, and as a means to “realize a transcendent subjectivity”.
In most Hindu and Buddhist Tantra texts, extreme forms of sexual ritualism is absent. In Jain tantric text, this is entirely absent. Yet, emotions, eroticism and sex are universally regarded in Tantric literature as natural, desirable, a means of transformation of the deity within, to “reflect and recapitulate the bliss of Shiva and Shakti”. Kama and sex is another aspect of life and a “root of the universe”, in the Tantric view, whose purpose extends beyond procreation and is another means to spiritual journey and fulfillment. This idea flowers with the inclusion of kama art in Hindu temple arts, and its various temple architecture and design manuals such as the Shilpa-prakasha by the Hindu scholar Ramachandra Kulacara.
André Padoux notes that there is no consensus among scholars as to which elements are characteristic for Tantra, nor is there any text that contains all those elements. Also, most of those elements can also be found in non-Tantric traditions. According to Anthony Tribe, a scholar of Buddhist Tantra, Tantra has the following defining features:
- Centrality of ritual, especially the worship of deities
- Centrality of mantras
- Visualisation of and identification with a deity
- Need for initiation, esotericism and secrecy
- Importance of a teacher (guru, acharya)
- Ritual use of mandalas (maṇḍala)
- Transgressive or antinomian acts
- Revaluation of the body
- Revaluation of the status and role of women
- Analogical thinking (including microcosmic or macrocosmic correlation)
- Revaluation of negative mental states
According to David N. Lorenzen, Tantra practices include the following:
- “Shamanic and yogic beliefs and practices;”
- “Sakta worship, especially worship of the Matrkas and demon-killing forms of Hindu and Buddhist goddesses;”
- “Specific schools of Tantric religion such as the Kapalikas and Kaulas;”
- “The Tantric texts themselves.”
A number of techniques (sadhana) are used as aids for meditation and achieving spiritual power:
- Dakshina: Donation or gift to one’s teacher
- Diksha: Initiation ritual which may include shaktipat
- Yoga, including breathing techniques (pranayama) and postures (asana), is employed to balance the energies in the body/mind.
- Mudras, or hand gestures
- Mantras: reciting syllables, words, and phrases
- Singing of hymns of praise (stava)
- Yantras: symbolic diagrams of forces at work in the universe
- Visualization of deities and Identification with deities
- Puja (worship ritual)
- Animal sacrifice
- Use of taboo substances such as alcohol, cannabis, meat and other entheogens.
- Prayashcitta – an expiation ritual performed if a puja has been performed wrongly
- Ritual purification (of idols, of one’s body, etc.)
- Guru bhakti (devotion) and puja
- Yatra: pilgrimage, processions
- Vrata: vows, sometimes to do ascetic practices like fasting
- The acquisition and use of siddhis or supernormal powers. Associated with the left hand path tantra.
- Ganachakra: A ritual feast during which a sacramental meal is offered.
- Ritual Music and Dance.
- Maithuna: ritual sexual union (with an actual physical consort).
- Dream yoga
In Hinduism, the tantric traditions are found in Shaivism’s Shaiva Siddhanta and the Mantrapīṭha (Bhairava-centred), and in Shaktism’s Vidyāpīṭha and the Kulamārga traditions.
The Tantra texts of the Vaishnava tradition are the Pancharatra, and typically called the Agamas in the Shaiva traditions. The term “Tantra” in Hindu genre of literature is usually used specifically to refer to Shakta Agamas. The Agamas literature is voluminous, and includes 28 Shaiva Agamas, 77 Shakta Agamas (also called Tantras), and 108 Vaishnava Agamas (also called Pancharatra Samhitas), and numerous Upa-Agamas.
The means of worship in the Hindu Tantric practice differs from the Vedic form. While the Vedic practice of yajna there are no idols and shrines, in its Tantric traditions, idols and symbolic icons with puja are the means of worship. Temples, symbolism, icons that remind the devotee of attributes and values are a necessary part of the Agamic practice, while non-theistic paths are one of the many alternative means in the Vedic practice. This, however, does not necessarily mean that Tantra-Agamas and Vedas are opposed, according to medieval era Hindu theologians. Tirumular, for example, explained their link as, “the Vedas are the path, and the Agamas are the horse”.
Each Tantra-Agama text consists of four parts:
- Jnana pada, also called Vidya pada – consists of doctrine, the philosophical and spiritual knowledge, knowledge of reality and liberation.
- Yoga pada – precepts on yoga, the physical and mental discipline.
- Kriya pada – consists of rules for rituals, construction of temples (Mandir); design principles for sculpting, carving, and consecration of idols of deities for worship in temples; for different forms of initiations or diksha. This code is analogous to those in Puranas and in the Buddhist text of Sadhanamala.
- Charya pada – lays down rules of conduct, of worship (puja), observances of religious rites, rituals, festivals and prayaschittas.
The Tantra-Agama texts of Hinduism present a diverse range of philosophies, ranging from theistic dualism to absolute monism. This diversity of views was acknowledged in Chapter 36 of Tantraloka, the 10th century scholar Abhinavagupta. In Shaivism alone, there are ten dualistic (dvaita) Agama texts, eighteen qualified monism-cum-dualism (bhedabheda) Agama texts, and sixty four monism (advaita) Agama texts. The Bhairava Shastras are monistic Tantra texts, while Shiva Shastras are dualistic.
Many tantric traditions developed within Buddhism, these are also called the Vajrayana traditions. The tradition has been particularly prevalent in Tibet and Nepal. The Buddhist Tantric practices and texts developed between 5th to 7th century CE and this is evidenced by Chinese Buddhist translations of Indian texts from that period preserved in Dunhuang. Buddhist Tantric spells and ritual texts were translated by Chinese Buddhist scholars six times and these spells appear in multiple texts between 5th and 8th century CE.
Various classes of Vajrayana literature developed as a result of royal courts sponsoring both Buddhism and Saivism. The Mañjusrimulakalpa, which later came to classified under Kriyatantra, states that mantras taught in the Shaiva, Garuda and Vaishnava tantras will be effective if applied by Buddhists since they were all taught originally by Manjushri. The Guhyasiddhi of Padmavajra, a work associated with the Guhyasamaja tradition, prescribes acting as a Shaiva guru and initiating members into Saiva Siddhanta scriptures and mandalas. The Samvara tantra texts adopted the pitha list from the Shaiva text Tantrasadbhava, introducing a copying error where a deity was mistaken for a place.
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”. 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. Woodroffe practised Tantra and, while trying to maintain scholastic objectivity, was a student of Hindu Tantra (the Shiva-Shakta tradition).