from Passionate Enlightenment: Women in Tantric Buddhism
Tantric Buddhism was the crowning cultural achievement of the Pala period India (eighth through twelfth centuries) and an internationally influential movement that swept throughout Asia, where it has survived in many countries to the present day. Tantric Buddhism arose when Mahayana Buddhism was enjoying a period of great philosophical productivity and intellectual influence. Flourishing monastic universities offered a life of study and contemplation but also provided a direct route to tremendous wealth, political influence, and social prestige.
A monk who enjoyed a successful academic career might be given land, servants, animals, buildings, precious metals, jewels, furnishings, art, and the privilege of riding on an elephant in official processions Admiring patrons offered these gifts as tokens of their esteem and as a way to gain religious merit. One monk was even offered the income from eighty villages by an enthusiastic royal patron. The monk declined.
Building upon the great achievements of Mahayana philosophy, yet impelled by a spirit of critique, Tantric Buddhism arose outside the powerful Buddhist monasteries as a protest movement initially championed by lay people rather than monks and nuns. Desiring to return to classical Mahayana universalism, the Tantric reformers protested against ecclesiastical privilege and arid scholasticism and sought to forge a religious system that was more widely accessible and socially inclusive. The Tantrics believed that self-mastery was to be tested amidst family life, the tumult of town and marketplace, the awesome spectacles of a cremation ground, and the dangers of isolated wilderness areas. The new breed of Buddhists also insisted that desire, passion, and ecstasy should be embraced on the religious path. Since they sought to master desires by immersion in them rather than flight from them, the Tantrics styled themselves as "heroes" (vira) and "heroines" (vera) who bravely dive deep into the ocean of the passions in order to harvest the pearls of enlightenment. In consonance with Tantra's daring assertion that enlightenment can be found in all activities, sexual intimacy became a major paradigm of Tantric ritual and meditation.
The Tantric revolution gained popular and royal support and eventually made its way into the curriculum of monastic universities like Nalanda, Vikramasla, Odantapur, and Somapur. These institutes of higher learning were patronized and attended by both Hindus and Buddhists. They featured philology, literature, medicine, mathematics, astronomy, and art, as well as the "inner sciences" of meditation, psychology, and philosophy. While the monasteries served as the institutional strongholds of the faith, wandering lay Tantrics carried Buddhism to the villages, countryside, tribal areas, and border regions, providing an interface at which new populations could bring their practices, symbols, and deities into the Buddhist fold. Practices that had great antiquity in India's forests, mountains, and rural areas, among tribal peoples, villagers, and the lower classes, were embraced and redirected to Buddhist ends. The renewed social inclusiveness and incorporation of an eclectic array of religious practices reshaped Buddhism into a tradition once again worthy of the loyalty of people from all sectors of Indian society. Tantric Buddhism drew adherents from competing faiths, expanded geographically into every region of the Indian subcontinent, and continued outward on a triumphal sweep of the Himalayas, East Asia, and Southeast Asia.