Defining Tantra

Abhinavagupta 15 verses
September 1, 2005

Sanskrit words generally carry multiple meanings. The word “Tantra” is no exception. Here is a handy dictionary-ette with the most important definitions of Tantra.

tantra = A TEACHING Text

One of the primary meanings of “Tantra” is a text: a written teaching. The ancient Tantras from Kashmir and elsewhere in India and Tibet are handbooks written by teachers for their students.

Tantras are written in the form of dialogues between a male and a female aspect of reality, or some form of Shiva and Shakti. They contain View teachings about cosmology and the nature of the Self and instructions for practice.

It’s fun to read Tantras, but you cannot get everything you need to direct your spiritual life from reading books.

Without instruction from a qualified teacher, the full import of the text is obscured. You will have the most success in your practice if you receive teachings from someone who has walked the path before you and can guide you in a more personalized way.

tantra = ritual

Tantra also means “ritual.” Rituals such as puja are expressions of devotion. But they also recalibrate your body, energy, and mind and open you to more direct understanding of reality.

More everyday concepts of knowledge are a core limitation or form of bondage because they are based on dualistic karmic vision.

The View of Kashmir Shaivism is that wisdom is the foundation of all of Reality. And this wisdom always exceeds anything we call knowledge.

We enter into wisdom by becoming established in the natural, awake state. Our conduct will then naturally be expressive of wisdom virtues such as compassion.

Wisdom is knowledge of the nature of reality that we embody in every area of our lives; it is not just facts, or know-how, or ordinary insight.  Ignorance is lack of access to self-knowlege and attachment to dualistic View. Ignorance shows up as our root sense of separation from the world.

At first we may conduct rituals with a more dualistic feeling. When we are more awake, ritual becomes a skillful, dance-like, devotional activity that emerges from our immersion in the continuity of living presence.


One of the oldest known meanings of Tantra is a continuity in the form of a weaving. This derives from the Rig Veda. A weaving is a homology for the Tantrik View of reality as one whole cloth.

The concept of a weaving expresses the paradox that we are simultaneously “threads” and the whole cloth. We have individual experience, but our individual experience arises from a continuity.

Vajrayana, the name for Tibetan Buddhist Tantra, expresses this same paradox. “Vajra” means both adamantine or diamond-like and lightning—something ephemeral and flashing. The base state of reality is an indestructible continuity, yet it flashes forth with all of the appearings of manifest, impermanent life.  “Yana” means vehicle or path.


The word Tantra is a condensation of other words. This is the norm for Sanskrit. Words are collapsible and expandable. “

“Tantra” is a condensed form of  “tanoti”: to expand; and “trayati”: to liberate. We don’t literally expand, but our sense of self becomes unbound or liberated and rediscovers its continuity with the Self

tantra = the means of liberation

“Tantra” also expands into the shloka tanayate vistaryate jnanam anena iti tantra.  This means that Tantra is the method that enables you to discover (enter into) the wisdom that liberates you from bondage.