It is not possible to devise a single, absolutely clear and true definition of Tantra. One reason is because Tantra has enjoyed so many different forms of expression in so many times and places. Tantra has been a pan-Asian tradition for centuries, and it is now becoming a global phenomenon. But Tantra’s diversity of expression is not mere historical accident. The accommodation of diversity is built right into Tantrik View. No aspect of human experience is left out. Tantra uses everything that life is in order to bring about self-realization.
Ultimately, Tantra is about holding the experience of absolute unity and wild diversity together, not about erasing one in favor of the other. Sincere application of Tantrik practices under the guidance of a qualified teacher will open you to being more at ease with not deciding between unity and diversity. You will not need the comfort of definitions that require you to squeeze the chaos and complexity of experience into the little boxes we call “knowledge.”
What I offer here is not a precision definition, but a large, somewhat leaky, container that remains true to the spirit of Tantra. I hope this will be useful to those seeking to orient themselves within the tradition and evaluate the many sorts of ideas and practices that get called “Tantra.”
The practices associated with Tantra such as worship of deities, mantra, yantra, puja, mandala, and hatha yoga existed long before anyone uttered the word “Tantra.” Artifacts of figures seated in yogic poses and other Tantrik images have been found that are thousands of years old.
Tantra only began to emerge as a written tradition around 500 AD in India. But it wasn’t until the 19th century that the word “Tantra” referred to anything other than written texts. Eventually, the word came to describe a tradition (Tantra) and people in the tradition (Tantrikas). The word “Tantrism” is an invention of scholars from the West.
Although it is not possible to define Tantra, we can come up with a short list of Tantrik values that inform the View of the tradition. These values include: an acceptance of the material, phenomenal world as a real, and not illusory, manifestation of consciousness (Shiva) and power (Shakti); a commitment to non-exclusivity of caste, class, and gender; the belief that the human body is our most valuable tool in seeking liberation; the insistence that enjoyment (bhukti) and liberation (mukti) are not mutually exclusive; and the understanding that any conceptual understanding of the world is ultimately limiting.
Most Tantras (the written texts) consist of instructions for meditation and bodily practices aimed at sensitizing and opening the practitioner to a fuller relationship with the world. This is the reason why the Guru-disciple relationship is so central to Tantrik practice. The Guru provides the disciple with an experience of, and a model for, unconditional relationality with everything. The most realized practitioner will experience the entire world as Guru.
The ultimate goal of Tantrik sadhana is full, conscious participation in the world process. In its broadest sense, Tantra is a spiritual technology for completing the human relationship to the cosmos. It is preparation for death by fully realizing, experiencing, and finishing this thing called “being human.” Tantra is not a transcendental practice because it does not urge us to skip over the being human part. The only way out is through, and the way through is full of beauty.
The Tantra of my tradition is from North India. It is a non-dual tradition. In other words, the practices of this tradition lead one to the realization of oneself as non-different from the world. Don’t bother trying to understand this (unless you already do). It can only be truly understood through practice. Just keep it as a concept. The ultimate experience of being in the world that my tradition teaches us to realize is beyond any concepts of duality or non-duality anyway.
Before I end this installment, I want to say a word about neo-Tantra. My teacher made the best distinction between neo-Tantra and traditional Tantra I’ve ever heard: Neo-Tantra ritualizes sex. Traditional Tantra sexualizes ritual.
Traditional Tantrik practice ritualizes every aspect of life in order to place the sadhika (practitioner) in sync with the rhythms of nature. Tantra ritualizes your life from the moment you open your eyes in the morning, throughout your whole day, as you fall asleep, while you are sleeping, and until you open your eyes again the following day. You may practice sexual ritual. You may not. You do not have to do sexual yogas to practice Tantra. And traditional Tantra is certainly not about having better orgasms, unless your goal in this life is to realize yourself as a killer orgasm.
If it is, have at it! There is a wonderful saying in Tantra: It is better not to begin, but if you begin, it is better to finish. Neo-Tantriks may be having fun, but they have not begun to practice Tantra.
When I was desperately trying to find a teacher of traditional Tantra, I remember how frustrating it was combing through so many Internet pages devoted to sex. I knew that Tantra was something much more profound and all-encompassing. And it is. Tantrik practice will pull from you everything you thought you had to offer and then some. No part of you will be left out. No aspect of your life will remain unchanged.
And so it truly begins.
OM Shanti, Shambhavi