- Tantrism is a philosophical and religious stream that can be found in Buddhism, JAINISM, and Hin-duism.Tantrism derives from the term tantra, which in certain usages defines systems and texts that contrast themselves with the Vaidika or VEDIC tradition. While elements common to the tantric traditions can easily be enumerated and analyzed, the boundary between a system that is tantric and one that is not is not so easily defined.Philosophically, most Hindu tantric systems focus on “desire” as a path of liberation. This involves a sophisticated reversal process that transforms what is commonly understood in Hinduism as a barrier to liberation, that is, desire, into an instrument for liberation. This method can be applied to numerous aspects of normative life and tradition that are purposely inverted or ignored in order to harness the “lower” aspects of existence and make them servants of liberation. For instance, a tantric devotee might ritually eat beef, forbidden in normative Hinduism, in order to facilitate realization.To be sure, many “tantric” elements infuse ordinary ritualistic, temple-oriented Hinduism. But the key to identifying tantrism are the distinc-tive rituals and practices that form a complex, usually taught to small groups of adepts by a spe-cial GURU. These rituals and practices are almost always practiced in secret, away from mainstream society. Thus tantrism as a fuller, secret complex contains an element, more or less obvious, that runs counter to the overt “sanctioned” philo-sophical streams.Hindu tantrism seeks both supernatural pow-ers (most often considered a distraction from the goal of liberation) and liberation, worldly enjoy-ment and release from the bonds of birth and rebirth. It does this by embracing what is usually eschewed. It takes the world, which is seen to be nothing but a barrier to liberation, as divine and by fully realizing its divinity learns to be its mas-ter, living in it in the full presence of the divine.For the purposes of transformation, the tran-scendent is often seen as a passive masculine reality, and the feminine is seen as the same tran-scendent power in action. Using the polarity of masculine and feminine tantrics seek to realize both poles, finally embracing a totality that fuses, so to speak, that which is beyond with that which is here, or, more accurately, realizes that the two are already fused.Once one understands the unity of the mani-fest and unmanifest, one also understands that the human is the microcosm of the macrocosm; the human is the universal. The tantric sexual ritual, maithuna, is based on these understand-ings. Sexual intercourse ritually replicates the truth of existence, that the masculine is the tran-scendent divinity and the feminine the immanent divinity, with two human bodies. But this ritual need not be practiced directly; many forms of tan-trism practice maithuna metaphorically or simply understand it at a philosophical level.Hindu tantrism can be understood as a mar-riage of practices and beliefs from the pre-ARYAN Goddess-oriented cults with the larger and more philosophically encompassing Aryan Vedic (but more directly UPANISHADIC) traditions. Tantrism as a distinct tradition has its beginnings with the settlement of the Aryans in fringe areas of India (e.g., Kashmir, Bengal, Tamil Nadu). As the two cultural complexes began to merge in the centu-ries before and after the start of the Common Era (with the Aryan Vedic always retaining its cultural supremacy), the forms of tantric practice began to become formalized.Because of their derivation tantric practices are neither purely Vedic nor purely indigenous, but a fusion of the two. It is well known, for instance, that some contemporary non-Hindu tribal people of India still practice sexual rituals and even orgies in fields to promote agricultural (and human) fertility. This is a very ancient ritual, found all over the world in conjunction with early agriculture. It is based on the understanding that the female is the Earth and the male is the sky (and its rain). The two join in sexual embrace to create the fundaments of life. The use of sexual ritual in tantrism most surely derives from this precise process, but it is philosophically aggran-dized or at least explicitly philosophized (as it may not have been before), as the union of God and Goddess.Likewise it is well known that many subgroups in India, both Hindu castes and non-Hindu tribal people, worship the Goddess with alcohol, which is a most despised substance in Brahminical Hin-duism. Vedic tradition does record the usage of very small quantities of alcohol in certain obscure rituals, but the drink is in general condemned. It is obvious again that the use of alcohol in certain tantric rituals, in which it is in fact ritually given to the female (the Goddess or SHAKTI) before sexual intercourse, is a remanent of the pre-Aryan traditions.The ritual egalitarianism of tantrism, which does not observe caste divisions in ritual, also is probably a substratum tribal value taken up into the main complex, as mainstream Hinduism itself is highly oriented toward social stratifica-tion. Because the combination of pre-Aryan and Vedic needed philosophical interpretation, certain tantric practices such as the eating of beef can be derived only through philosophical reversal. Non-Hindu tribal people are not beef eaters, but they do eat and ritually use buffalo meat. Beef, of course, became the most forbidden substance for all Hindus. Therefore, the ritual eating of beef in tantric ritual is neither Aryan nor non-Aryan, but a philosophically constructed practice.Perhaps ironically, tantrism as a system only became consolidated after BRAHMIN practitioners had written numerous texts in SANSKRIT to give it a certain orthodox sanction. Because Hinduism itself is a mixture of the same elements as tant-rism, even some of its normative aspects can be said to have tantric roots.Vedic tradition was not associated with place, probably because of the pastoral nature of society in the era of the Vedas. It was also quite clearly aniconic—not using visible, external forms of the divinities. Temple Hinduism, however, is place-based and uses ICONS. It is quite likely that the notions of a specific place that divinities inhabit is a non-Aryan notion. It is undoubtedly the case also that stone or wood images or symbols of divinities are also non-Aryan. It is thus no coincidence that the ritual texts that lay out the principles for temple design, the AGAMAS, are tan-tric in character and form part of the large tantric tradition.The three most important tantric sects are the Vaishnavite tantrics, who have VISHNU as tran-scendent divinity; the Shaivite tantrics, who have Shiva as transcendent divinity; and the SHAKTA tantrics, who have the Goddess as the transcen-dent divinity. The last two are often difficult to distinguish as they use similar terminology and frameworks. The Ganapatyas (worshippers of GANESHA) constitute another, small tantric sect. Historically, there was a group of tantrics called tantrism 437 JSauras or Sun (SURYA) worshippers, but these do not appear to have an active sectarian presence in India.There are numerous textual classifications and subclassifications of tantric groups and practice, but these seem to be more descriptive than prac-tical. Any regional differences that once existed have by now disappeared.The most important tantric system may be that of Kasmiri Shaivism, which has received the most study and has reached the West through teachers such as Swami MUKTANANDA. Gener-ally, there is a tremendous amount of intentional obscuration and abstruseness in tantric texts to protect them from noninitiates. The Kashmiri Shaivite tradition, however, led by exemplars such as ABHINAVAGUPTA, seemed to make an effort to create philosophical systems that could vie with more orthodox or normative systems in the philosophical arena. Therefore, the Kashmiri Shaivite systems seem to be more clear and open than many others.A second important subsystem is the SRI VIDYA Goddess-oriented tradition. This is, in fact, a modified and highly Brahminized tradition whose textual history has begun to attract significant scholarship.Mention must also be made of SAIVA SID-DHANTA, a South Indian and Sri Lankan tantric system. Here, there is a significant body of litera-ture not only in Sanskrit but also in Tamil. In fact, some of the texts originated around 600 C.E.The various systems, while they share a com-mon sexual paradigm to portray the relationship between the manifest and unmanifest worlds, are not philosophically uniform. Kashmiri Shaivism, for instance, is completely non-dual (ADVAITA), or monistic, whereas Shaivite Siddhanta is purely dualistic; one can realize oneself as a “small Shiva,” but Paramashiva, or transcendent Shiva, is beyond the reach of the soul in transforma-tional terms. That is, the highest Shiva is eternally distinct from the souls. The system of Bengali Vaishnavite Sahajiya, alternatively, retains the Vaishnavite “quasi-non-dualistic” aspect, repre-senting a third philosophical stream.Tantric systems are divided into two tenden-cies that are referred to as left-handed and right-handed. The left-handed is most probably the original practice. It can be shockingly antinomian or antisocial. The AGHORIS are an example of this. These wanderers eat excrement and in other ways try to outrage people in public arenas in order to use the “reversed” energy to gain supernatural powers.The extreme left-handed practices dating from very early in the history of tantrism have made the word tantric as despised in India as in the normative West. Formalized left-handed practice uses the PANCHA MAKARA, or five forbid-den substances: meat, wine, sexual intercourse, parched grain, and fish. These are combined in a ritual context.Right-handed practice could be considered a Brahminization of the left-handed stream. There, accepted entities or practices are substituted for the “forbidden” ones to align the practice more closely with social norms. This substitution might be a mental visualization of the practice rather than the practice itself; physical substitu-tion, for instance, eating a particular vegetable instead of beef; or complete avoidance of any of the elements in favor of a purely philosophical approach.Some important notions used in Hindu tan-tric practice include SADHANA, or adept practice; DIKSHA, the necessary initiation (distinct from the Vedic initiation); MANTRA, a distinctive usage of mantra practice; YANTRA, abstract designs used for ritual worship and MEDITATION; and MUDRAS, special hand gestures used in conjunction with meditation and ritual. KUNDALINI yoga is by definition a tantric practice and is a central part of many tantric systems. SHAKTIPAT (Shakti ini-tiation) is also a practice done by some tantric gurus, who can transform an adept, or initiate him or her, by merely a touch that transfers the guru’s Shakti, or grace, to the adept. Most tantric sects also develop a range of divinities or special powers that are worshipped only in the context of their particular cult.There is some evidence of tantrism in Jain tradition, mostly limited to the use of tantric style mantras and certain hints of tantric sexuality. No full tantric practice is known to have emerged in JAINISM. This was primarily due to the severity of Jain asceticism, and the nature of reality accord-ing to Jainism, which left no room for pursuit of enlightenment through desire.Further reading: Agehananda Bharati, The Tantric Tradition (New York: Grove Press, 1975); N. N. Bhat-tacharyya, History of the Tantric Religion: A Historical, Ritualistic and Philosophical Study (Delhi: Manohar, 1982); Douglas Renfrew Brooks, Auspicious Wisdom: The Texts and Traditions of Sri Vidya Sakta Tantrism (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992); John Cort, “Worship of Bell-Ears the Great Hero, a Jain Tantric Deity,” in David Gordon White, ed., Tantra in Practice (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2000); Shashibhusan Dasgupta, Obscure Religious Cults (Calcutta: Firma KLM, 1995); Edward C. Dimock, The Place of the Hidden Moon: Erotic Mysticism in the Vaisnavasahajiya Cult of Bengal (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966); Michael Dyczkowski, The Doctrine of Vibration: An Analysis of the Doctrines and Practices of Kashmir Shaivism (Delhi: Motilal Banar-sidass, 1975); Sanjukta Gupta, Dirk Jan Hoens, and Teun Goudriaan, Hindu Tantrism (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1979); Mohanlal Bhagwandas Jhavery, Comparative and Critical Study of Mantrasastra (with Special Treat-ment of the Jain Mantravada) (Ahmedabad: Sarabhai Manilal Nawab, 1944); Paul Muller-Ortega, The Triadic Heart of Siva (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1969); Lilian Silburn, Kundalini, the Energy of the Depths: A Comprehensive Study Based on the Scriptures of Nondualistic Kasmir Saivism. Translated by Jacques Gontier (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1988); Sir John Woodruffe (Arthur Avalon), Introduc-tion to Tantra Shastra, 2d ed. (Madras: Ganesh, 1952); ———, Sakti and Sakta, 6th ed. (Madras: Ganesh, 1965).
Encyclopedia of Hinduism. A. Jones and James D. Ryan. 2007.