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Tantra, for real, what is it ?!

Tantra : a fashion trend or a wrong image linked ? Some reduce it to a sexual practice by completely missing the very essence of this spiritual tradition whose origins are rooted in the very heart of Hinduism.

Perhaps, it would be important to start by mentioning that the term "Tantrism" is foreign to traditional India, that it does not exist in the Sanskrit language or traditional Indian language. The term "Tantrism" would therefore be a name purely external to Indian reality that Westerners would have formulated.

Tantra and its context

The term Tantra relates to the root TAN which means "to stretch or extend". It is in this principle of continuity that we can then associate the meaning of the term Tantra with a "system", a theory, a doctrine or a work. The Tantrika approach, in opposition to the vaidika or "Vedic" approach, is developed within sacred texts and scriptures originating from the 5th century.

The extent and variety of the tantric phenomenon make it difficult to define and pinpoint. The writing of Tantric literature would have started in the first centuries of our era and would have continued until today, although the dating of these texts is often non-existent and their geographical origin unknown.

Despite a certain ignorance or confusion present within this immense mass of information, sources from Hindu currents can shed light on the understanding of the development of this tantric phenomenon.

Tantric literature

The main sacred texts are written in Sanskrit and are for the majority Shaivite. Among these Shaivite texts, we find the Atimarga tantras (the external way, reserved for ascetics who seek liberation) and the Mantramârga tantras (the way of mantras accessible to all where one seeks supernatural powers, siddhis, as well as release).

Within the Mantramârga, five currents are distinguished. In particular, the Shaivasiddhânta, the so-called right-hand “dakshina” tantras. Within their texts, the ageamas, four sections describe the Shaivite rules of life: doctrine, yoga, rites and behavior. Particular attention is paid to the rites since only ritual practice allows the follower to move towards salvation. There is no text here on terrifying divinities, ecstatic and transgressive cults, nor on sexual rites or animal sacrifices, unlike the ritual practices described in the tantras of the left current “Vâma”. We find here the tantras of Bhairava, the formidable aspect of the god Shiva, and the shaktitantras dedicated to the worship of the different forms of the goddess Shakti, dividing themselves into tantras of the Trika, linked to the three supreme goddesses, and those of the Kâlîkula, dedicated to forms of Kâlî.

In addition to the Shaivite texts, there are Vishnu texts dating from the 8th to the 14th century and having a doctrinal position close to Brahmanic orthodoxy, dedicated to the worship of Vishnu. Their literature is the Pâncharâtra.

Tantric traditions, beliefs and conceptions

The metaphysical essence in the way of seeing, of being present in the world, of thinking and of living Tantric takes its roots in a vision where the interpenetration of the divine, its omnipresence merges within the very world of humans, of the manifested world. The Tantric vision, especially within the non-dualistic Shaiva traditions, is that of a universe created, supported and totally penetrated by the divine feminine energy, the shakti, which is also present in the human being and which can then be sensed and used.

Within these tantric conceptions, we find the essential role of mantras, meditative and ritual techniques. In fact, the tantrikas, considered hyper-ritualists, give a central place to their ritual practices of worshiping deities or pûja. Rites consist of actions performed bodily by specific gestures and attitudes (such as mudras), always accompanied by speech acts (which can be spoken or simply thought out) so that the practices are experienced and understood in their entirety. Ritual or bodily practice is always underpinned or justified by an ideology or belief. For example, there would be no sexual union or yoga without knowing the meaning or interest of performing these acts, even though the associated spoken word would not have an explicit meaning.

The tantric body

The importance of the body in the world of tantras is fundamental. The practices of a tantrika are said to be somato-psychic where body-mind are inseparable. From the beginning, India has given a special place to the body, as yoga attests. The latter, practiced by the Tantrikas, is based on the essential role of the kundalini, cosmico-divine power present in the body. Like a serpent coiled at the base of the spine, this kundalini energy brings liberation to the Yogi. Indeed, it is through its upward movement along the vertical axis that the Kundalini allows the individual to experience this transcendence. An ancient text said: "there is liberation only for an incarnate being" thus emphasizing the importance of the body in these traditions.

The body is seen as a microcosm and the cosmos as a macrocosm. The two do not separate. To live as a tantrika is to live in an universe fully penetrated by divine energy where the body is immersed in it. A body where supernatural forces and divinities are present, animating and binding it to the cosmos. A body with divine-human structure and life. In the Shaivite traditions of the Kula, deities inhabit the body and animate the senses. The mystical geography is then present within the body itself.

In the Shaivite tradition of the Trika, the Samayadîkshâ initiation rite is a transforming purification of the body and the mind, notably involving stages of transcendence of the body aimed at deifying the latter. Stages of merging of initiate consciousness with divine consciousness and moments of worship of the body identified with various deities are also present. The suspension of the respiratory breath (supplemented by a rise in Prana), the use of mantras and the mental visualization of the entire cosmic manifestation, or tattva, within one's body promotes the emergence of the feeling of total fusion with the absolute. The initiate is caught up in the infinite movement of divine cosmic energy which passes through and infinitely exceeds his human nature. He LIVES cosmically.

It is from this bodily basis that speech, tantric sex, asceticism and spirituality can then be approached. Far from a view where sex would be seen as a sin, in India sexual energy is seen as a force that can either be held in order to maintain and increase its potency or be used in order to transcend the empirical self and to free the limits of life on Earth, to access the divine.

Sexual dimension and transgressive cults

The Kâma principle is welcoming and enjoying the diversity of the world and its pleasures. However, Tantric life is not a search for pleasure since the Tantrikas know that there is a beyond of pleasure, that this is an opening to something else. Thus, ritual sexual practice is more than a story of sex or a search for pleasure, but is a means of accessing the transcendence of the self, going beyond the limits of the self, acquiring a modification of states of consciousness, to acquire supernatural powers (siddhi) or to achieve a total fusion with the divinity. Sex is not a drive to give in, but a force to dominate.

However, the place of sexual practices within Tantra is not as important as one might think, in particular due to the complexity and transgressive nature of the rites kept secret. It is especially within the non-dualistic Shaivite traditions that we find this special, esoteric, sacral transgressive teaching.

Transgressiveness was, for these traditions, an essential trait that defined them in relation to others, because these transgressive practices represented in particular the rejection of the rule of duality (dvaita) of the pure and the impure (orthodox Brahmanic rules). It was therefore, among other things, an expressive mark of rejection of the rules of caste society. Breaking the rules and therefore plunging into the forbidden, allowed the tntrika to transcend himself in order to obtain power or salvation in this world.

The transgressive cults were related to the formidable deities, notably the Yoginîs, who are the so-called fierce and terrifying goddesses who represent personalized forms of Shakti, embodiments of divine Energy. In addition to the cults and adorations dedicated to these Yoginis, their power and spirit could be experienced in the body of the tantrika itself. Indeed, by an identification of the individual consciousness with that of the unlimited supreme divinity, the tantrika then reached a supernatural dimension giving him the possibility of living the siddhis or supernatural powers. In particular, during these sexual rites, the female partners of the Yogis embodied the Yoginis allowing the Yogi either the fusion with these deities or the production of the sexual secretion, which was then offered as an oblation to the divinity and then to consume for the acquisition of a transcendence and a deification of the Self.

A form of sexual union, particularly transgressive in terms of its elements and its setting, prescribed by certain texts, must take place at night in a cremation place, the partners being seated on a corpse. In addition to a particular external climate, an internal state is sought in order to strengthen sexual exaltation and tension towards the absolute through ritual acts performed, mantras uttered or even mental representations of divinities.

Within Tantrâloka, we find the most complete account of a sexual rite, the Great Kuka sacrifice, a secret rite "reserved for masters and disciples who have reached the top" and therefore to a very small number of initiates. The practitioner must be an accomplished being "siddha" or hero "vîra", master of his kundalini and his senses. The female partner of the rite must have spiritual qualities of the same order as the yogi in order for their union to reach the goal: to dominate the divine energies animating the body and the spirit in order to reach the experience of the absolute. It is liberation and not pleasure that the actants of the rite seek. The two partners must first revere each other, awaken their "energy wheels", that is, their chakra, in order to create a sensory and spiritual state. They are supposed to become intensely aware of their essence, to arrive at a state of vibrating bliss "spanda" where sensual intensity and transcendence of all sensation unite. This sexual union and ritual bodily action, of the yogi and his partner, which leads them to fusion in the absolute, is notably designated by the term Mudrâ.

However, transgressive practices are not always present in ritual sexual unions, even Shaivites. Indeed, cases of coitus occur without ejaculation. It is therefore no longer a conquest of power or access to transcendence but a controlled use of the force of sex. To avoid any seminal loss is to keep your strength. The yogi will reach the intensity of orgasm and will feel united with the divinity without losing any of its substance.

Indeed, the power and the vitality, of the male practitioner, are drawn from the woman since she represents the force, the shakti. She therefore holds the power that man can draw from her. The woman is therefore a powerful source, protective mother but potentially formidable and dangerous if the man lets escape his secretions, his strength.


Thus the Western and American Tantric vision of a search for pleasure of the senses and of sex, of the cult of the body and of money seems far removed from traditional Indian teachings. Indeed, the many tantric movements or centers that flourish today only reflect a selective appropriation of Indian elements. It is like Western Tantrism, that is, according to our needs. The spiritual DIY of the Western adept therefore sets aside the theo-anthropocosmic vision of the world and of the human being, that is to say of a global vision of the universe felt as a place of both divine and human, transcendent, immanent and embodied. It is also to set aside the theologies, pantheons and rituals that constitute the basis or foundation of the vision of a true trântrika.


Understanding André Padoux's Tantrism

Uma Dinsmore-Tuli's Yoni Shakti

Light on Tantras by Lilian Silbum and André Padoux


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