The basis of all Tantrism is the worship of Shakti and Shiva, the female and the male principles. This worship can take the simple form of ceremonies to the village Mothers, goddesses of such great antiquity that their origins are forgotten. Their shrines may be no more than rough stones standing as they have for centuries, or perhaps millennia, in the corners of fields, by old trackways, or on hilltops. Or the ceremonies can be lavish and elaborate, taking place in thousand year old temples, with incense and bells and mountains of flowers. The universal outward symbol of this Sakti-Siva worship is the holy 'lingam' standing in the sacred ‘yoni.’ There can hardly be anyone reading this who is not acquainted with Burton's translation of the Kama Sutra, but in case there is, the words 'lingam' and 'yoni' signify the penis and the vulva, the conjoined creative powers of the goddess and god. Without Shakti there is no Shiva, and no Shiva without Shakti. Shiva is the creative principle, the spark, that arises out of the all-nothingness of the primordial Mother. The lingam and the yoni, joined in perfect balance, symbolize the harmony of the cosmos. These linga-yoni images can be unhewn stones dating back to the Neolithic, or highly stylized and elaborately carved pillars of great size in temple sanctuaries.
If the missionaries considered the linga-yonis to be disgusting obscenities, they were more disturbed by whispered stories of secret sexual rituals. Most of what they knew about these rites was gleaned from the Tantra texts, often by reading between the lines, for the texts are ambiguous, sometimes purposely obscure, and often speak in metaphor. Nonetheless, there was a secret Tantric tradition, which did include ritual sex, mostly with one's own spouse, sometimes with other people's, often involving prostitutes and people of the lowest caste.
Followers of this secret tradition broke caste taboos not only by associating with outcastes, but in accepting a sacred five-fold sacrament of meat, wine, fish, bread and sexual intercourse. This inner tradition was and is a gnostic one, in that it teaches a secret knowledge which leads to a direct experience of God. But unlike the Gnostic sects of Rome and Alexandria, the purpose of Tantra is not so much illumination as release: moksa, freedom from the cycle of endless birth, death and rebirth. In this it is uniquely Indian.
Some Tantric schools, the so-called daksinachari, or "followers of the right-hand path," do not accept the five sacraments in their literal forms. Instead, madya, wine, is seen as symbolic of the knowledge that intoxicates; mamsa, meat, is taken to signify the mastery of speech; matsya, fish, stands for the currents of energy that flow through the body; mudra, parched grain, symbolizes the intense concentration of yogic meditation; while maithuna, the sexual act, is transformed into a meditation on the primal act of creation.
In other circles, the meat, wine, fish and ritual sex were replaced, not with intellectual concepts, but by simple substitutes which were considered harmless from the karmic point of view. Thus wine was often replaced by honey, cow's milk or coconut water; meat by garlic or ginger; fish by buffalo's or sheep's milk; and the sexual act by roasted fruits and shoots.
There can be no doubt, however, that in many circles, the real forms of the sacraments were enjoyed. Well-respected Tantras, like the Kularnava-tantra, emphasize that those who take part in the panchamakara ritual mainly for sexual pleasure or out of mere hedonism only defeat themselves. The senses are to be conquered by leaving nothing unexperienced.
Classical yoga seeks to overcome the distractions of the senses by ignoring them. Tantra, conversely, not only accepts the senses, but assigns them a central role in the quest for gnosis.
Even forbidden acts could be enjoyed by the worshipper, secure in the knowledge that is performed with a pure heart, they incurred no karmic taxes.
Human nature being what it is, any examination of Tantra always dwells on the sexual aspect. But most Tantrics - and there are many different groups who class themselves as practitioners of Tantra - would not regard sex as the most important ingredient in Tantric worship. Just as important is the kundalini yoga, which seeks through posture, breathing and meditation, to raise the body-energy called kundalini through the psychic centres of the spinal column into the brain, where gnosis and liberation are experienced, an achievement which may take a lifetime of practice.
A different kind of yoga, which also involves posture, breathing and meditation, is practiced with ritual diagrams, or yantras, which contain within their lines, angles and dots, the knowledge of a particular deity. The most important of these is the Sri Yantra, which is sacred to Adi Shakti herself and which represents the whole universe and demonstrates its mode of manifestation.
These two types of yoga, although essentially Tantric, are not the preserve of any one class or caste in Hinduism, or even of Hinduism itself The Mahayana Buddhism of H.H. the Dalai Lama, is Tantrism of the most sophisticated kind. This may seem hard to reconcile with cutting chickens' throats over old, weathered goddess stones, or sacrificing a goat to Kali, yet it is act Tantra. The more closely we examine Tantrism and those who practice it, the more confusing the picture becomes. Tantra, like Hinduism, is not a clearly defined system of belief and practice, but a melange of worship, ritual, meditation, superstition, magic, sexual ritual and the highest forms of spiritual yoga. There are even Vaisnava Tantras, known as samhita. So intimately interwoven is Tantra in the everyday worship of India that even in temples that do not consider themselves Tantric, the content of the rituals is purely brahmanical, but their form and structure is Tantric.
Who practices Tantra? In one sense, the not-very-useful answer is: "everyone." But if we confine ourselves to those who speak of themselves as Tantrics, we encounter time and time again the name of the 'Kaula' sect. There are many older schools and sects of Tantrism, including as we have observed, worshippers of Visnu. However, it the Kaulas with whom Tantrism in the form in which it is most widely known, is inextricably associated. The name comes from 'kul', 'family', according to some because the Kaulas honored Shiva-Shakti as a 'family' of deities, or emanations of the Supreme Being. The Kaulas were strongly represented in Assam, Bengal and Kashmir and many of the Tantric texts are specifically addressed to them.
The texts from which the various Tantric sects drew their ritual and moral instruction were written, mainly in Bengal, Orissa, Assam, Kashmir and Tibet, over a period ranging roughly from the fourth century AD to the present. Said to have been expounded by Shiva and the great Mother as fit teachings for the fourth and final Hindu age - the Kali Yuga, era of degeneracy and destruction - the texts contain advice to the sadhaka, or Tantric worshipper, on every conceivable subject: cosmology; astrology; different types of men and women; the significance of the chakras or psychic centres in the body; the nerves and channels through which the prana or viral life energy flows; methods of raising kundalini energy through the chakras; various types and forms of worship, including mantras (charms to be muttered) and yantras (abstract meditational designs); rituals involving the worship of the goddess in the form of virgin girls; of the yoni-puja or womb-worship; the rites of purification to be carried out before sexual worship positions for meditation and sexual practice; prayers and poems to the goddess and her consort; basic health care and how to bring up children. Their magic spells sometimes had unexpected uses, as we read in the Brhad-vimansastra, a hitherto untranslated text on flying machines which is said to date ill from the medieval period:
"Only those who have had the knowledge of Mantra, Tantra (and twenty other skills here omitted for brevity) taught to them personally by a guru are fit and proper persons to pilot a flying machine."
The author quotes the Mahamaya-tantra and other Tantric texts as sources from which the secret doctrines may be learned. The Mahamaya-tantra does indeed contain spells for flying, taking a bird's shape and travelling to any place on Earth. It also promises the ability to espy holes in the ground, perhaps marking spots where other, less talented sky-striders came to grief.
What all Tantras have in common is that they are scriptures for the common folk, unanimous in rejecting the elitism of caste Hinduism. This is in part a reflection of tic that the great Mother Goddess and her consort Shiva have dark aboriginal origins, and were for a long time not admitted to the Vedic religion. It is not difficult to see how the subtle philosophizing of the ascetic Upanisadic tradition was lost on the uneducated Indian masses.
Tantra offered them a sort of tabloid religion, full of fun, enjoyment, magic and properly awe-inspiring ceremonial. One modern devotee of the great goddess, quoted by Thomas Coburn in his work on the Devi-Mahatmaya, explains why he refuses to permit brahmanical commentators to come between him and the fifteen-hundred-year-old proto-Tantric text.
"The commentators claim to worship the Goddess, saying to her "Hello, Mother," and praising her beauty, but then proceeding to reduce her to mere thought (cit) and sound (sabda). In doing this they destroy her beauty...A genuine devotee would never write a commentary. If he or she had to write something, it would be less desiccated and analytical, more an ebullient expression of love."
This is a message that will strike a sympathetic chord with every Hindu villager in India. After all, the Mother has been worshipped in their homes and fields for thousands of years. The Upanisadic influence lies lightly on the countryside. The Tantras, powerful in their devotion to the goddess, with their promises of liberation from the torment of endless rebirth, of occult powers to be won, and in their frank enjoyment of worldly pleasures, exercised a strong appeal for the masses excluded by birth and caste from the higher levels of Vedic worship. As a result, they were often strongly condemned by the brahmanical hierarchy.
Visit the author's website at www.indrasinha.com