What Is Tantra?
Depending on whom you ask, tantra is the yoga of sex, black magic, complicated rituals, worship of frightful deities, meditation on yantras and mantras, alchemy, or a means for tapping into the mystical powers of the body. There is some truth in all these things—tantra is a vast trove of esoteric wisdom embracing medicine, astrology, philosophy, and spiritual practice. The applications of tantra range from cures for snake bite or smallpox to finding stolen jewelry, gaining worldly powers of all kinds, or attaining the highest spiritual wisdom. Perhaps because of this range of applications, tantric practices are widespread throughout the Indian subcontinent. Tibetan Buddhism, the philosophy of Kashmir Shaivism, and shakti sadhana (worship and practices centered on the Divine Mother) are all examples of the diverse faces of tantra.
In tantra, the whole can be seen and experienced in the partial; the partial is an expression of the whole.
These various traditions share a worldview, summarized in the Sanskrit aphorism Tatha brahmande, yatha pindande (“As in the macrocosm, so in the microcosm”). According to tantra, the whole can be seen and experienced in the partial; the partial is an expression of the whole. In the manifest world’s diversity of forms, each form contains the blueprint of the whole. It is this underlying structural and functional resonance between the universe at large and any small part of it that is the foundation for tantric practices. Tantric practitioners make use of this understanding to effect changes in circumstances in their own inner world and in the larger world.
Shakti: The Power in Tantra
The means for creating changes in the fabric of life rests with access to shakti. Shakti is all the forces at work in the universe at large, including our body and mind. The unique aspects of these forces are also referred to as shaktis or yoginis, and the tantric tradition delineates their unique characteristics with names or images that allow us to communicate and relate to them. You can think of shakti as consciousness infused with creative power. Tantrics understand that the universe is consciousness, and everything that exists—from stones to stars, slugs to human beings—has some level of consciousness. “You are the dark blue butterfly, the green parrot with red eyes, the thundercloud, the season, and the seas,” extols the tantric seer Shvetashvatara in praise of the divine. “Without beginning you simply are, pervading all, you from whom all worlds are born.”
Tantric ears are attuned to a world that is full of wonder and possibilities.
In contrast to the modern Western view of nature as a mindless resource to be exploited, for tantrics the forces of nature and the natural world, including human beings, are embodiments of the divine. Tantric ears are attuned to a world that is full of wonder and possibilities, infused with divinity and constantly creating itself in many lokas (levels of existence). It is those subtle lokas that tantric rituals and practices are designed to reach. The many tools and techniques of tantra are intended to interact with the presiding forces—those numberless shaktis—in both the microcosm and the macrocosm. Whether with ritual, worship, meditation, or yoga, tantric practices are designed to access the subtle dimensions of existence, connect the inner and outer worlds, and maneuver circumstances to suit the practitioner’s goals—for example, the birth of a child, rain to nourish parched fields in a faraway country, or moksha (self-realization and ultimate freedom).
Tantra: Path of Transformation & Fulfillment
Seeing the world as infused with divinity, tantrics recognize and respect the negative, fierce, destructive forces as well as the nurturing, loving, beautiful forces. To a tantric, nothing in the world is inherently good or bad—everything is merely shakti (power infused with intelligence) flowing in a particular direction. The practices of tantra are about directing that flow to the advantage of the practitioner, or to accomplish what the practitioner intends to accomplish. In that sense, tantra is the spiritual science of skillfully harnessing the inner forces of desire that arise in the body and mind, invoking and directing the right shaktis for the job at hand.
The ritualistic paths of tantra (kaula marga), its meditative paths (samaya marga), and a mixture of the two paths (mishra marga) utilize the tools of mantra, yantra, and the powers of the body, mind, and senses to awaken and concentrate shakti. Mantras are subtle vibrations which restructure energetic patterns, reweaving the fabric of manifestation. Yantras (geometric figures) act in a similar way to provide a locus and organizational pattern for shakti. The ultimate yantra is the human body—the locus for the expression of the vast range of divine powers and the capacity for self-realization. The tantric traditions have developed the concepts of kundalini shakti and the chakras, and have elaborated the practices of asana, pranayama, bandhas, and mudras. These practices are designed to awaken and harness shakti in the body and mind, transforming latent potential energy into powerful active energy.
The ultimate yantra is the human body.
The tantric paths all connect the practitioner to points of potential where transformation of some kind can occur, whether in the subtle inner world of personal karma, the material world of collective experience, or both. “You are a citizen of two worlds,” Swami Rama was fond of saying. He would go on to explain that we are trained to maneuver in worldly life, but have little training to navigate the inner world, or indeed, little awareness of how the inner world controls our destiny. For all of us interested in a life of fulfillment—both worldly and spiritual—there are no better tools than those of tantra.
A Tantric Glossary
Intrinsic concept in all aspects of tantra; creative principle of existence, the feminine active power of a deity; the Divine Mother; the vibrant self-conscious energy through which the whole universe evolves.
Spiritual discipline that leads to the realization of the divine force within.
Vibrant, active life force; awakened aspect of the primordial pool of consciousness and energy; the life force, resulting in vigor, self-confidence, and insight.
Pool of infinite potential at the core of our being; dormant prana; latent vitality; dormant potential energy in all living beings; the primordial divine force which resides in the human body in latent form and can be awakened with yoga.
Geometrical form of Sri Vidya; a yantra which is a complete map of the microcosm and macrocosm.
Literally, “auspicious wisdom.” A shakta (Divine Mother) tantric tradition and path to ultimate realization.
A revealed vibration/sound used for meditation or to effect change on the subtle level.
Geometric patterns used in rituals and meditation that provide a locus to concentrate and focus shakti.
Forces of consciousness with both psychological and cosmic counterparts. The powers in the deeper levels of instinctual and intuitive consciousness. Often understood as goddesses ruling over the forces of nature and the forces within us, both negative and positive.