Tantrism: An Overview

Gustave Courbet, The Origin of the World, 1866

by Dinu Roman


Introductory note:

Some time ago I started a thread of discussion about tantrism (hindu), in my opinion really misunderstood by many so-called practitioners.

Without claiming high expertise, I will attempt to cast a bird's eye view on this science. I would appreciate any intelligent and documented comments.

I am talking about HINDU TANTRA. (even though I don't really see a fundamental difference between hindu and tibetan / buddhist tantra)

TANTRISM is a system of Ideal Monism. Its central position is that there is only One Ultimate Principle, but that this Principle has two aspects, one Transcendent, and the other Immanent. The Tantras explain in great detail the origin of Spirit and Matter; they discuss the nature of the Ultimate Principle; and they explain the cause of the Initial Impulse of Creation.

TANTRA deals with the different aspects of the Supreme Consciousness and practical ways to experience them.

There is no body of traditional literature that has suffered such widespread criticism, from Western and Eastern scholars alike, as the Tantras, due mainly to their highly esoteric character which made it impossible for non-practitioner scholars to obtain adequate information of their true content and to have a deep understanding, through direct experimentaion, of their teachings..

TANTRA considers the Universe as being a MAGICAL REALITY, in contradistinction with VEDANTA, which says Universe is an illusion (MAYA).

TANTRAS deal with all subjects, from the creation of the universe to the regulation of society, and they always have been the repository of esoteric spiritual knowledge and practices, especially the spiritual Science of Yoga.

The TANTRAS accept the VEDAS and are in no way hostile to the Six Darshanas. The purpose of Tantrism is to provide a way for salvation of man during the present age (KALI YUGA). Their principles are of universal application without regard to time or place, temperament or capacity. They maintain and prove that mere philosophical specualtion on the Ultimate Nature of things is not enough to satisfy the spiritual hunger of the soul, no more than a description of a banquet is sufficient to satisfy the physical hunger of the body. Therefore, the Tantras provide not only the principles of speculation, but also the basis for experience; they not only argue, but mainly experiment. They provide a rational foundation for the spiritual exercises of the Yoga Science that will liberate man during ONE lifetime. These practices are referred as SADHANA, i.e. that successful practice which leads to final emancipation of the soul. Throughout their structure, the Tantras place an overwhelming emphasis on the practical aspect of spiritual knowledge.

The stated purpose of TANTRISM is to provide the spiritual dwarfs of Kali Yoga with a means to use their overpowering obsessions and lower passions as a spiritual rocket fuel and to sublimate their animal tendencies into spiritual ecstasies. The very high teachings of the Golden Age of spirituality (SATYA YUGA) are no longer practicable, nobody understands them deeply, they are just dead letter. We are too feeble, too much the slaves of our senses to undertake the austerities of self-discipline as spelled out in the prime VEDIC scriptures. For us a different manual of spiritual liberation, suited to our needs, has been provided - The TANTRAS. The way provided by the TANTRAS must be the reintegration of the two poles of being - Male (+), and Female (-). There is no other way in Kali Yuga.

TANTRA, although monist, postulates and demonstrates, through the exceptional achievements realized by very advanced adepts, the existence of the Unique Absolute as being composed of two essential realities, both eternal but of a complementary nature: SHIVA - The Supreme Spirit, The pure Sentient Consciousness - and SHAKTI - the Nature, the sphere of objectivity. SHIVA is the Ultimate Principle of the Absolute Reality, the Primordial Cause, the Transcendent-Immanent Ultimate Essence. SHAKTI is the totality of the Cosmic Manifestation, the Universe.

SHAKTI impregnates the whole cosmic manifestation as a secret invisible energy. She contains the ocean of possibilities through which SHIVA can manifest.

As polar Realities, SHIVA is the Everlasting Male Principle, the Cosmic Father; SHAKTI is the Everlasting Female Principle, the Cosmic Mother of the Worlds.

Due to the similitude that exists between Man and Universe, these two Ultimate Realities have their reflection in every human being.

The aim of TANTRA is to provide the necessary procedure to discover these Realities within the practitioner's being and to realize the fusion between them and their Cosmic correspondents. In this way, the YOGIN achieves KAIVALYA, a permanent state of perfect autonomy and transcendental self-mastery. In other words, when the YOGIN knows the Cosmic SHIVA through his human SHIVA, he attains the highest state of consciousness and expanded awareness, known in YOGA as SAMADHI.

This is but the first step toward enlightenment. The second step is the outward journey from the Infinite, from the state of pure beatitude, to the finite, overflowing, in a supreme abundance, the bliss of the Supreme upon everything that is manifested. This Truth was beautifully expressed in a symbolical manner in TABULA SMARAGDINA, a Cabalistic text:

"From the Earth [this mysterious energy] rises to the Sky, then returns to the Earth, encompassing the Higher and the Lower Powers. In this manner you obtain the greatest and the most perfect glory. From now on, all the Powers of Darkness run away from you."
The supreme state is not attained by turning away from the world (which is the attitude of other spiritual systems that consider the world as an illusion) but by realizing that the Absolute manifests in all things. Its skillfull means teach how to use the appropriate Teaching for the particular circumstance.

TANTRA envisions the Universe as an extremely complex, multi-dimensional web of invisible energies. This Science permits the controlled expansion of consciousness beyond the web of illusory appearances and thus liberates us from ignorance. TANTRA is also called VAMA MARGA, i.e. The Left Hand Path, due to the fact that women, who are of lunar influence, negative polarity or the left, play an essential role in this Science. However, The Way which is recommended here is not at all made of negations or austerities as in most other spiritual systems, but of pleasure and beatitudes. TANTRIC tradition puts forth clearly that the state of harmonious integration and spiritual freedom can be obtained only through direct experience, gained by passionate and detached living of everyday life. The inferior levels of consciousness cannot be efortlessly controlled and successfully surpassed unless fully and frantically, intensely and totally, lived in the whole plenitude of their power.

Pleasure is not an end, but a way to reach Divine Consciousness.

In this respect, TANTRIC texts say that nobody will be able to obtain spiritual perfection using difficult and boring (for our Kali Yuga mentality) techniques. Perfection can be easily realized using the wise fulfillment of all wishes. The very same processes that for others could cause decay or death, venom or evil, can be used wisely and firmly for spiritual uplifting and transformed into a miraculous cure of the soul.

"One can fall due to the earth, another one can, without doubt, raise himself with the help of the earth."

Another text says:

"If a man is a YOGIN, he does not enjoy sensual pleasures; while one who enjoys them cannot know YOGA. That is why the KAULA (a TANTRIC School) way, containing the essence of sexual enjoyment and YOGA, is superior to all paths. In the KAULA approach, sexual enjoyment turns into YOGA directly. What in conventional religion is considered sin, [when practiced our way] becomes meritorious."
Another version of the same text:
"In other systems, neither a YOGI can take to the enjoyments of the world (i.e. he cannot be a BHOGI; nor a BHOGI who is in the midst of worldly enjoyments can be a YOGI. But in the path of KAULA, both YOGA and BHOGA have a happy union. KAULA DHARMA is BHOGA and also YOGA; what apparently is a sin, here is turned into a force for God; and the SAMSARA becomes a means for release."
In the TANTRIC tradition, YOGA (union with God) is simultaneous with the passionate living of worldly delights, leading to the state of enlightenment through the supernormal powers (SIDDHIS), which are obtained through practical application of these special procedures. These powers serve a definite purpose in the way of attaining the Supreme.

The TANTRIC philosophy itself includes in its theory all the levels of the Universe and gives a paramount importance to astronomy, biology, parapsychology, anatomy, meditation, medicine, music, art and even sexuality. In fact, the sexual experience, considered to be a unification of the Everlasting Male (+) and Everlasting Female (-) principles, has a very important place in TANTRIC techniques and procedures which are often profoundly erotic.

Here, sexuality forms only the basal, prima facie of its techniques. It is subjected to a rigorous discipline, because it is known that the secret of Life lies in controlling the sexual energy.

To understand the TANTRIC attitude toward sexuality requires a totally open mind and a reversal of perspective. Accustomed as we are by a puritanical mentality to seeing sexuality as a "sin" to be avoided and ashamed of (or, in any case, to keep it "secret" because of its "impurity"), we have all the chances to consider TANTRIC Love as being a defiant assault on conventional morality and thus to miss completely the tremendous spiritual value of such a perspective. In order to understand it, we must first come to view the human dimension as vibrating in identity with the sacred, divine aspects of Creation. From this sacred perspective, sexuality is seen as re-producing at a smaller scale the continuous and beatific interaction of a Cosmic process which is manifesting the entire Universe from the Absolute Reality. In this new vision, "sin" disappears (it never existed, anyway!), being replaced by pure beatitude and total love. Sexual union is thus a form of meditative discipline with profound psycho-mental and spiritual effects.

Therefore there is no obscenity or pornography but only sublime symbolism and refined beauty. The figure of a man and woman coupled in sexual union is not thought impure or sinful. On the contrary, it is considered to be a veritable sacrificial rite. The male worshipper has an attitude toward the woman which is different from that of an ordinary person performing the sexual act. The woman is transfigured into a living symbol and earthly manifestation of the Divine Mother of the Universe (PARA SHAKTI). Likewise, for the woman, man represents a vital embodiment of the Everlasting Male Principle (SHIVA). The sexual beatitude raised at the transcendental level of an extraordinary psychic experience with a spiritual character reflects, then, the ineffable happiness of a subtle cosmic nature, known in YOGA as ANANDA (i.e., cosmic beatitude) and in TANTRA as SAMARASA (i.e., the savor of equality).

Retention -- the untold secret

It is important to emphasize that TANTRA YOGA substantiates its techniques of spiritual development on the perfect yet efortless control of the sexual energy . Traditional texts say semen contain consciousness as the ova contains primordial creative energy. Here the point is to return to the practitioner the enormous amount of raw sexual energy in such a way that this subtle energy may be sublimated and its efficiency used for higher purposes, i.e. psycho-mental and spiritual.

Being in perfect physical, emotional and mental health is a must for approaching any of the sexual practices of TANTRISM. Modern civilization leaves its mark on our integrity, so we need to open up and to re-learn to experience as intensely as possible our senses. While it is true that cultivating the sensory awareness, here being included different techniques of amplifying the sexual pleasure and of opening up to experience deep sexual orgasm, can be a useful preparation for TANTRA, these incipient techniques are not TANTRA yet if they are not accompanied by a total, yet effortless, control.

The Science of the ancient Sages (SIDDHAS) teaches that the sexual reproductive power (the Life Force) can be transmuted into superior forms of energy called OJAS and TEJAS. The practitioner causes his seed to rise up to his crown center (SAHASRARA), where it becomes transformed into SOMA, the Nectar of Immortality. Through the TANTRIC procedures, the semen is took over by the lymphatic system. The lymphatic system consists of the fluid (lymph) that bathes the tissues, being similar in composition with plasma. The lymph contains white cells involved in the immunity system of the body. These white cells produce antibodies, special substances which attack the foreign organisms (microbes, etc.) and render them harmless. Through the lymphatic system, the semen reaches the brain (CORPUS CALLOSUM) where it is processed into extremely subtle energies (OJAS and TEJAS) used by the higher mind. As the physical brain needs oxygen and proteins to function properly, the higher mind (superconsciousness) needs big quantities of OJAS and TEJAS energy. The TEJAS energy is that energy which produces the halo around the saints' head. The OJAS energy is that energy which confers an extraordinary vigor, power and virility.

The transmuting of the semen's energy into OJAS and TEJAS does not take place only in men. Women who practice TANTRA YOGA realize the transmutation of that energy which produces the ova and the menstrual cycle. These energies are transformed into OJAS and TEJAS exactly as in the men's case. As a result, the menstrual cycle becomes scarce or even disappears completely, and the ovulation process slows down or even stops. Nevertheless, when the conception of a baby is desired, the energies are permitted to accumulate at the pelvic area, the ovulation returns to normal and the menstrual cycle appears again.

Another important characteristic of the Tantric Way is that spiritual growth is realized through extreme intensity of energy (SHAKTIPATA) spontaneously born during the passionate living of intense emotions, including both sexual and non-sexual emotions. The Supreme Existence reveals itself instantaneously during the tumult of violent emotions such as extreme terror, vivid curiosity, deep compassion, total anger, profound pleasure.

"In order to penetrate into the Supreme Reality, everything that is at hand is to be considered as a modality; because, as the TRIKA system puts it, the human being must not submit to any restrictions (in order to attain the Supreme)".

A secret TANTRIC text

When controlled and directed by a lucid mind, this paramount intensity of the extreme emotions creates the instantaneous welding of all levels of the human being (physical-sexual, emotional and mental-spiritual) which are normally disconnected and therefore acting independently. Thus, the practitioner becomes aware of the inner abyssal power that lies within himself and starts to bring it to the surface. The transcendence of the inferior levels of consciousness is realized through an exceptionally frantic living of every moment of everyday life. In this way, the duality disappears into the flashing unity of the Supreme Consciousness, without change (NIRVIKALPA).

TANTRISM uses therefore the Way of Energy (SHAKTOPAYA - the descent of SHAKTI) as a tool to reach the Ultimate. Tantrism has a unique approach to enlightenment and transcendance. In Tantric vision, augmenting the intensity of one's feelings, pleasures, desires, natural instincts (burning ardor, strong passion, turbulent excitement, etc.), IN A SPECIAL STATE OF MIND (this state of mind is lucidity and DETACHMENT) become a powerful aid that make for a heightened consciousness, concentrate spiritual force and lead to liberation of Self and to union with the Absolute. TANTRISM teaches to its students that, while being in a state of perfect detachment and clarity of mind, raise your enjoyment to its highest intensity and then use it as a spiritual rocket fuel.

In this vision, there is no good and bad, no lower and no higher. There is only energy (SHAKTI). It is purely our inner attitude that determines the morality of an action. Humans have two choices: to let this energy rule their life - and then they are its slaves - or to effortlessly control it through the TANTRIC techniques - and then they become the masters of it. TANTRISM knows that the secret of life and death lies in controlling effortlessly the sexual energy, which is the prima facie, the basal aspect of human beings. Sexuality is subjected to rigorous discipline, being used to conquer lower desires. This is the profound meaning of BRAHMACHARYA - the third YAMA. The person who practices successfully BRAHMACHARYA is called BRAHMACHARIN = one who uses material bliss to attain spiritual bliss.

At the time when an emotion - such as love, etc. - rises to the climactic point, senses automatically cease to function, and Consciousness shines clearly.
SPANDA KARIKA, a Tantric text.
Therefore, at the time of the rise of an emotion, the YOGIN becomes introvert and ends the emotion by withdrawing the internal senses from the object (which caused the rise of that emotion) and by focusing the energy of emotion toward the Ultimate.

In the sexual union of two partners that resonate with each other, ANANDA (bliss) becomes manifest. Resting the mind (Self) in it leads to the identity (SAMADHI) with the Ultimate. When, on account of the satisfaction of the senses (that the sexual union produces) the ANANDA (bliss) aspect emerges, the two partners rise above the senses and experience the unity of SHIVA and SHAKTI - Consciousness and Energy. For reaching this, the flow of the vital energy is send up to the crown of the head (SAHASRARA).

- Dinu Roman