Tantra is a Yogic Tradition

Tantra is a profoundly yogic tradition, and the Tantras call themselves sadhana-shastras, or books of spiritual practice. The Sanskrit word yoga means both “discipline” and “union” and can be translated as “unitive discipline.” The typical Vedic yogin was the rishi or “seer,” who envisioned or perceived the reality given voice in the sacred words (mantra) of the hymns. The Tantric esprit continued to evolve through the period of the Brahmanas and Upanishads, as well as the intellectually and spiritually fertile era of the Mahabharata, until it reached its typical form in the Tantras of the early centuries of the common era. Even a short precis of the Tantric view of time, as attempted here, would be incomplete without introducing the Divine Female, or Shakti, in her most starding manifestation as the goddess Kali. The name is the feminine form of kala, meaning “time, ” “death,” and “black.” These three connotations are all fused in the symbolism of the goddess Kali. Black results from the absorption of all colors, whereas white is their copresence. The saintly Ramakrishna, guru of Swami Vivekananda, offered a devotee’s complementary explanation of the name Kali when he remarked, “You see her as black because you are far away from her. Go near and you will find her devoid of all color.” In The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, which chronicles the life and teachings of this great nineteenth-century master, we find the following hymn:

In dense darkness, O Mother, Thy formless beauty sparkles; Therefore the yogis meditate in a dark mountain cave. In the lap of boundless dark, on Mahanirvana’s waves upborne, Peace flows serene and inexhaustible. Taking the form of the Void, in the robe of darkness wrapped, Who art Thou, Mother, seated alone in the shrine of samadhi? From the Lotus of Thy fear-scattering Feet flash Thy love’s lightnings; Thy Spirit-Face shines forth with laughter terrible and loud!

In the Mahanirvana-Tantra (4.29 – 31) the goddess is addressed as the supreme yogini because at the end of time she devours the devourer of time himself, Shiva in his form as Mahakala. The serpent is associated with the mysterious kundalini-shakti, the serpentine psychospiritual energy residing in the human body. Artistic imagination has created numerous variations of Kali’s dread-instilling image. Kali’s devotees, however, experience her as a loving, nurturing, and protecting mother. With tear-filled eyes and a longing heart, they invoke her as Kali Ma, asking her for health, wealth, and happiness, as well as liberation. Like a doting mother, she bestows all boons upon her human children. Sri Ramakrishna, who was a great devotee of the goddess, prayed to Kali for the fruit of all Yogas and, as he confirmed, “She has shown me everything that is in the Vedas, the Vedanta, the Puranas, and the Tantra.”

“Because You devour Time (kala), You are called Kali,” declares the Mahanirvana-Tantra (IV.32). Time, Bondage, and the Goddess Kali 3 9 At the end of time, the great Goddess also swallows up all the myriad forms filling space. Then she alone remains, in intimate union with her divine Beloved, Shiva – until the next Big Bang, when the cosmic egg newly arises from its own ashes. The Feminine Divine and the Masculine Divine are never separate. Consequently Kali’s destructive function is also often attributed to the supreme god Shiva. He is also called Mahakala, meaning “Great Time.” Thus the Mahanirvana-Tantra (5.141) has this pertinent verse, spoken by a devotee of the goddess: I worship the primal Kalika [i.e., Kali] whose limbs are like a rain cloud, who has the moon in her crown, is tripleeyed, clothed in red, whose raised hands are [in the gestures of] blessing and dispelling fear, who is seated on an open red lotus with her beautiful smiling face turned toward Mahakala [i.e., Shiva], who, drunk on sweet wine, is dancing before her.

Tantra’s body-positive approach is the direct outcome of its integrative metaphysics according to which this world is not mere illusion but a manifestation of the supreme Reality. If the world is real, the body must be real as well. If the world is in essence divine, so must be the body. If we must honor the world as a creation or an aspect of the divine Power (shakti), we must likewise honor the body. The body is a piece of the world and, as we shall see, the world is a piece of the body. Or, rather, when we truly understand the body, we discover that it is the world, which in essence is divine. Because the human body has a complex nervous system allowing higher expressions of consciousness, it is especially valuable. Indeed, the Tantric scriptures often remind students of the preciousness of human life. Thus in the Kula-Arnava-Tantra (1. 16 – 27) Lord Shiva declares: After obtaining a human body, which is difficult to obtain and which serves as a ladder to liberation, who is more sinful than he who does not cross over to the Self? As the Shiva-Samhita (2.1 – 5), a seventeenth-century Hatha Yoga manual composed under the influence of Tantra, states: Within this body exist Mount Meru, the seven continents, lakes, oceans, mountains, plains, and the protectors of these plains. In it also dwell the seers, the sages, all the stars and planets, the sacred river crossings and pilgrimage centers, and the deities of these centers. In it whirl the sun and the moon, which are the causes of creation and annihilation. Likewise, it contains ether, air, fire, water, and earth. All beings embodied in the three worlds, which are connected to Mount Meru, exist in the body together with all their activities. He who knows all this is a yogin. There is no doubt about this.

In the Tantras, which comprise the two broad categories of Agamas and Nigamas, various deities lend their name to the singular eternal Being. For instance, in the Agamas, it is most often Shiva – but also Bhairava, Ganesha (Ganapati), and Vishnu – who is celebrated and worshiped as the Ultimate. In the Nigamas, the pure Being-Consciousness is characteristically remembered in its feminine guise as the Mother Goddess, or Power (shakti), under a diversity of names – Devi, Kali, Durga, Uma, Lakshmi, Kubjika, and others.

A vastly simplified form of the divine intercourse between Shiva and Shakti is the yoni-linga symbol, which can be drawn, painted, or carved. It consists of a round or oval shape in whose center an upright linga is placed. These represent the male and female generative organs and their corresponding creative energies. The yoni (vulva) stands for Shakti, energy, immanence; the linga (“mark” or “phallus”) represents Shiva, consciousness, transcendence. Their juxtaposition symbolizes the creative union as a result of which multiplicity can arise within the simplicity of Parama-Shiva. This particular imagery has also been incorporated into the description of the psychoenergetic center at the base of the spine, the muladhara-cakra. This is the seat of the kundalini, the serpent power, the localized presence of the nonlocal Shakti. The serpent power is depicted as being coiled three and a half times around a shiva-linga. The spiral coils again suggest the inherent dynamism of Shakti. Ontologically speaking, the “polarization” of the ultimate Reality into Shiva and Shakti is the matrix for the opposites experienced at the level of conditional reality. All polarities and dualities – notably male and female – that we can possibly encounter in the world are precontained in the Shiva-Shakti dimension. Psychologically speaking, the unitive relationship of Shiva and Shakti can be understood as a symbol for intrapsychic unity or, in Jung’s terms, the integration of animus and anima. We could say that because Shiva and Shakti are ultimately in perfect union, we are capable of achieving a similar union within our psyche. Conversely, because the ultimate Reality has these two aspects, our psyche also exhibits a feminine and a masculine side. As above, so below. As without, so within. Tantric metaphysics is also a metapsychology with far-reaching practical implications.

The Kaula branch of Tantra


Tantra is strictly an initiatory tradition, which means that its sacred and secret teachings are passed on in the age-old fashion of oral transmission from teacher to disciple. In this respect, Tantra is markedly different from Neo-Tantrism, which is all too often practiced and promulgated by enthusiasts who have not been initiated but have acquired their knowledge largely from books. The Tantric adepts consider initiation (deeksha) crucial to one’s progress on the spiritual path. And for initiation to be truly empowering, it must be granted by a qualified Tantric master. Such a master is known as a guru.

Without a teacher, who has great insight into the disciple’s strengths and liabilities, there is the ever-present danger of overestimating one’s spiritual capacity. Western students, who tend to be impatient, easily fall prey to self-delusion. They may practice the pathless path or “direct approach” for years, perhaps after reading a book or attending a talk or workshop, and become convinced they have attained a high state of realization. In reality, their attainment is almost entirely mental. Knowledge of the Truth itself is the way but, as the Kula-Arnava Tantra (1.107) affirms, this way must be revealed by a qualified teacher. This scripture (2.31 – 33) also states: The wisdom of kula shines forth, O Goddess, in a person whose impurities have dwindled through past austerities, charity, sacrifices, pilgrimages, recitation, and vows. The wisdom of kula shines forth, O beautiful Goddess, in one who pleases both you and me because of his devotion to deity and teacher. The wisdom of kula shines forth in one who is pure minded, tranquil, engaged, dedicated to the teacher, very devotional, and hidden [i.e., capable of practicing without drawing attention to himself or herself).

”Who, then, is the Kaula ? Bestowed with the Grace of the Guru, shorn of his evil legacy by means of the initiation, delighting in the worship of the Shakti, he is the true Kaula. In such a fortunate one, does the Knowledge of the Kula take root and grow luminous.”

Tradition speaks of 64 Tantras, though as with the 108 Upanishads this is an ideal figure that does not reflect historical reality. We know of many more Tantras, though few of them have survived the ravages of time. A practitioner of Tantra is called a sadhaka (if male) or a sadhika (if female). Other expressions are tantrika or tantra-yogin (if male) and tantra-yogini (if female). An adept of the Tantric path is typically known as a siddha (“accomplished one, ” from sidh, meaning “to be accomplished” or “to attain”) or maha-siddha (“greatly accomplished one, ” that is, a great adept). The female adept is called siddha-angana (“woman adept,” from anga, meaning “limb” or “part”). The Tantric path itself is frequently referred to as sadhana or sadhan (from the same verbal root as siddha), and the spiritual achievement of this path is called siddhi (with the meaning of both”perfection” and “powerful accomplishment”). Siddhi can refer either to the spiritual attainment of liberation, or enlightenment, or to the extraordinary powers ascribed to Tantric masters as a result of enlightenment or by virtue of mastery. A Tantric preceptor, whether he or she is enlightened or not, is called either an acharya (“conductor,” which is related to achara, “way of life”) or a guru. Thus while Buddhist Tantra understands itself as an esoteric tradition going back to Gautama the Buddha himself, Hindu Tantra by and large regards the revelatory teachings of the Vedas as its starting point. Some authorities have associated it particularly with the Atharva-Veda, no doubt because of that Vedic hymnody’s magical content with the marginal status it has within more strictly orthodox Hindu circles. Then again, the Tantras are sometimes referred to as the “fifth Veda.”

Because Tantra is such a complex tradition, its teachers have early on looked for ways to categorize it in order to make it more easily comprehensible. Thus they invented the idea of lineage traditions (amnaya), seats (pitha), and currents (srota). The best known division of the Tantric heritage is into the three categories of right-hand path, left-hand path, and Kaula path. These roughly correspond to a particular mode or style in which Tantra is practiced. The right-hand path (dakshina-marga) is what can be called conventional (samaya) Tantra. In particular, this approach understands the Tantric core ritual of the “five substances” (panca-tattva) in a symbolic rather than literal manner. The word dakshina means both “right” and “south.” This is readily explained by the fact that when facing east (the cardinal ritual direction), south is on one’s right. According to one tradition, all teachings issued from the five faces of Shiva, and some classical authorities undertook to assign certain Tantras to each face. All these schemas, however, are woefully inadequate when we look at the tangled historical reality of Tantra. The so-called left-hand path (vama-marga), connected with the north, is frequently characterized as revolving around the acquisition of siddhi in the sense of “perfection” (i.e., liberation) and “power “. There is a particularly strong magical current running through the schools of the left-hand path. Almost all the Tantras of this branch have been lost, and we know some of them only by name. The left-hand schools are those that are farthest removed from mainstream (Vedic) Hinduism, occupying the margins of Hindu culture and society. The right-hand path (dakshina-marga), symbolically associated with the south, has in many ways stayed close to the Hindu orthodoxy. It avoids extremist practices and seeks to uphold the Vedic social order. It is also known as dakshina-achara or “right-hand conduct.” According to the Prana-Toshani (7.4), everyone belongs to this path by birth and can enter the left-hand path only through proper initiation, but this idea is not universally accepted. For instance, the Kula-Arnava-Tantra distinguishes seven types of “conduct”: 1. veda-acara – the Vedic way of life (orthodox Brahmanism) 2. vaishnava-acara – the way of life of the Vishnu worshipers 3. shaiva-acara – the way of life of the Shiva worshipers 4. dakshina-dcdra – the right-hand approach 5. vdma-acara – the left-hand approach, which especially involves sacred intercourse with a consecrated woman (vama) 6. siddhanta-acara – the Siddhanta way of life, which is defined as a higher form of the left-hand path, emphasizing inner worship 7. kaula-acara – the Kaula approach, which is introduced as the highest form of spiritual practice and as a synthesis of the left-hand and right-hand schools of Tantra. These seven types form a ladder of spiritual competence, with the Kula or Kaula approach at the apex. “There is nothing superior to kaula,” declares the Kula-Arnava-Tantra (2.8). O Goddess! The kula is the most secret of secrets, the essence of essence, the highest of high, given directly by Shiva, and transmitted from ear to ear. (2.9)

The Kaula branch of Tantra originated perhaps in the fifth century CE and achieved great prominence three or four centuries later. It represents a synthesis of the dakshina- and vama-marga and produced a significant number of adepts and numerous scriptures, many of which, however, have been lost. This lineage of transmission (santati) is made up of many schools and subschools, which are still inadequately understood. An important early Kaula school, that revolving around the worship of the goddess Kubjika, has produced many Tantras, of which over eighty are known by name. The name comes from the Sanskrit word kubja, meaning “crooked,” a reference to the coiled energy of the kundalini in its potential state, prior to awakening.

What marks the Kaula branch of Tantra is a strong presence of the shakti element in both theory and practice. One manifestation of this is the teachings about the serpent power (kundalini-shakti); another is the fact that women have always played a significant role in Kaula circles both as Tantric consorts and, more significantly, as initiators. According to one classification, the Kaula tradition is divided into Yogini Kaula and Siddha Kaula schools; the former is transmitted by female adepts and the latter by male adepts (siddha). Kaula features can also be found in many other Tantric traditions, notably the Shri-Vidya tradition of South India and the Krama tradition of Kashmir. An important Tantric cult is that of the sixty-four Yoginis, to whom several circular temples are dedicated. The best-known temple is the one located at Khajuraho, where it is the oldest structure, dating back to 600 – 800 CE.

The Yoginis, worshiped as deities, were originally probably female adepts and initiators into the secrets of Tantra. Their number is as highly symbolic as the sixty-four Tantras said to exist according to some texts. The sculptures of the Yoginis are arranged in a circle around the central image of Shiva (either as an anthropomorphic statue or in the abstract form of a linga). Some scriptures also mention sixty-four Bhairavas (forms of Shiva) and sixty-four Kalas (aspects of the supreme Goddess). Thus the number 64 is as meaningful and sacred to Tantra as the number 108 is to other Hindu traditions. One of the great masters of Kaula Tantra was Matsyendra Natha, who is credited with founding the Yogini Kaula branch. He also is traditionally held to be the teacher of Goraksha Natha, the creator of original Hatha Yoga. However, the two masters appear to have been separated in time by several centuries. Unless we assume the existence of another adept by the name of Matsyendra who lived in Goraksha’s era, we are left with the yogic feat of mind-to-mind transmission as the only other explanation. The term kula has twenty or so distinct lexicographical meanings, the primary ones being “group,” “family,” or “multitude.” Technically, kula refers to the ultimate Reality, which is beyond the transcendental principles of Shiva and Shakti. But many schools and texts employ the term kula to denote the “cosmic family,” that is the manifest universe and the power inherent in it, namely, Shakti. As the Mahanirvana-Tantra (7.97 – 98) states: The individual psyche (jiva), the principle of nature, space, time, ether, earth, water, fire, and air are called kula. O Primordial one! Kula-acara is practicing formlessness (nirvikalpa) by recognizing the Absolute {brahman) in them, which produces virtue, wealth, pleasure, and liberation. Similarly, akula, meaning “that which is not the kula” is sometimes used to refer to the Shiva principle, as opposed to the supreme Being as such. The word kula can also stand for the state of union between Shiva and Shakti and, by logical extension, to the bliss arising from this union. Finally, the esoteric group in which the Kaula teachings are practiced also bears the name kula. According to Abhinavagupta’s Tantraloka (29.29), the founder of Kaula Tantra was the adept Macchanda (alias Mina). He may have been an Assamese ruler associated with the Tryambaka branch of early Tantra and is sometimes identified with Matsyendra.

“The Kundalini is ever the Master of Yoga”

The square of eight, or sixty-four, occupies an even more profound position in the field of Tantra. Although the Yogini tradition of early medieval times also produced temples featuring forty-two and eighty-one Yoginis, the bulk of tantric temples have venerated sixty-four yoginis. A representation of the sixty-four Yoginis is found on the ancient Khechari Yantra. Each of its sixty-four petals represent one of these ancient feminine deities of Tantra, the Yoginis. Within this yantra is also obscured the sacred geometry of Kriya Babaji, the reviver of Kriya Tantra Yoga for this age.  Babaji’s yantra is a bindu, centered in a triangle, and encompassed by a square, surrounded by a circle. This sacred geometry has often been associated with the root chakra. Within the Khechari Yantra, Babaji’s triangle is shrouded within, and as a portion of, the hexagram star. There can be no doubt that the Khechari Yantra is rich with mystic symbolism. Its very name, transcribed from the mystical mudra of tongues tip, suggests its esoteric importance as unbounded space itself. (Kha=space)/

The sixty-four practical techniques (kriyas) of trance and transformation correspond with the Yogini energies within nature, all of which interact together to produce spiritual growth when the appropriate catalyst is available. Their purpose is to pull souls out of illusion. This is precisely the significance of both the sixty-four hexagrams seen in the Taoist tradition as well as the sixty-four yoginis of the Shakti Tantric tradition. The Tantric literature itself is said to be composed of sixty-four spiritual books, also referred to as Tantras.  In this sense, the word tantra conveys the meaning of “canonical manuscripts”. The sixty-four sacred texts of Kaula Tantra are enumerated in classical texts such as the Vamakeshvara-tantra.

Similar references in classical literature includes the sixty-four yogic induced paranormal powers (siddhis), the sixty-four divisions of the arts (kalas), and, within the ancient Saiva Siddhanta tradition, the sixty-four saints (nayanars). There are also sixty-four forms of Bhairava, sixty-four tantric mudras, as well as sixty-four siddhas, beyond even the 18 Maha Siddhas, which are more commonly celebrated, and so on.

This sacred number is intimately associated with power and life itself. In the Indian classic, Mahabharata, Lord Krishna fired sixty-four arrows and in a separate skirmish, Bhishma’s armor was pierced sixty-four times. The Aitereya Brahmana speaks of the sixty-fourth and final step into the heavenly world.

Kundalini is the Goddess energy as it manifests in the human body. Unless we consciously surrender and collaborate with it, it remains on the most subtle level of existence, sustaining us through the agency of the life force (prana) but never entering our field of awareness. Through self-purification and an appropriate course of disciplines, we can benefit from it more immediately by inviting it into our life as a powerful transformative force. In its hidden state, the kundalini is said to be sheer potentiality. This is only relatively correct, for the Goddess energy is always active on our behalf, maintaining all the subtle energetic processes that underlie our physical and mental structures and functions. In its awakened state, however, the kundalini is an incredible agency of transformation, spiritual growth and Self-realization or enlightenment. As the Rudra-Yamala (2.26.41) affirms: “The kundalini is ever the master of Yoga.” In the same scripture (2.26.21 – 22) the serpent power is called the “mother of Yoga” and the “bestower of Yoga.”

The Shiva-Samhita (3.31 – 32) also states that when the nadis have been purified, certain signs will manifest: The body becomes harmonious (sama) and beautiful and emits a pleasant scent, while Awakening the Serpent Power the voice becomes resonant and the appetite increases. Also, the yogin whose subtle pathways are thoroughly cleansed is always “full hearted,” energetic, and strong. The Hatha-Yoga-Pradipika (2.19) mentions leanness and brightness of the body as indications of a purified nadi system, though there have been adepts with an awakened kundalini who were corpulent. The Hatha Yoga texts and Tantras also mention that the inner sound (nada) becomes audible to the practitioner, manifesting in progressively subtler form. Now the sadhaka is like a finely tuned instrument and ready to engage the higher processes of Tantra, leading to the activation of the serpent power. As Sir John Woodroffe noted, the divine Energy is polarized into a static or potential form called kundalini and a dynamic form (called prana). The latter is responsible for maintaining all the life processes that make embodiment possible. The former is the infinite pool of Energy coiled into potentiality at the base of the central pathway.

The lowest psychoenergetic center: This cakra is the normally closed plug hole to the infinite storehouse of Energy (and Consciousness). In the Hatha-Yoga-Pradipika (3.111 – 1 2), we find the following stanzas: One should arouse that sleeping serpent by seizing its tail. Then that shakti, awakening from her slumber, forcefully rises upward. One should seize the reclining serpent by means of paridhana and, while inhaling through the solar channel, every day cause her to stir for about ninety minutes, both morning and evening. The practice mentioned here is known as shakti-calana (stirring the power). It is done by contracting the sphincter muscle and by applying the throat lock (jalandhara-bandha) while holding the breath, which causes the prana and apana to mix and “combust,” thereby driving the life force upward into the central channel. Manthana (churning) is another term used in the texts to describe the process of forcing prana and apana to “combust ” by means of breath retention (kumbhaka) and most intense concentration. The ascent of the Goddess power in the body is associated with the progressive dissolution of the elements, a process that is called laya-krama (process of dissolution) or laya-yoga (discipline of dissolu tion. In the present context, the technical term laya refers to the resorption of the elements into the pretemporal and prespatial ground of nature (prakriti-pradhana). That this esoteric process has often been misunderstood can be gathered from the following comments in the Hatha-Yoga-Pradipika (4.34) They say “laya, laya,” but what is the nature of laya? Laya is nonremembrance of the sense objects because the tendencies (vasana) do not arise again. This stanza from the pen of the adept Svatmarama indicates that the yogic process of microcosmic dissolution brings about a dramatic change in the mind, for it wipes clean karmic seeds stored in the subconscious. This is the purpose of all higher processes of Yoga, for only when the karmic seeds are burned completely is their future germination rendered impossible and liberation ensured. Kundalini is the ultimate, translocal vibration – Shakti – affecting the space-time continuum more directly in the form of the yogin’s or yoginis localized body-mind. Its supervibration radically transmutes the constituents of the body-mind, ultimately creating a transubstantiated or divinized body (divya-deha) endowed with extraordinary capacities that transcend the laws of nature as we know it.

Source : Tantra: Path of Ecstasy, Georg Feuerstein