What is Tantra?
That’s a question that clearly has a growing number of people interested. Google reports nearly 2,240,000 people a month globally are asking that very question online. I’ll give you some basic answers based on what my Indian guru taught me on tantra, my own research, and more importantly, I think to all knowledge and understanding, personal experience.
Tantra we may vaguely understand as some form of spiritual path which originated in India some 5000 years ago from perhaps the more liberal and less literal of the Hindu thinkers of the time. The Tantric texts themselves are many and varied in content and scope and only a fraction of them deal with sexuality specifically. In fact, Tantra may also be understood as the precursor to what we now practice in Yoga. Many of us may only know of it thanks to the Western, sexuality-focused, Neo-Tantra that is taught more commonly where white folk seem to gather (my attempt at a humorous way of saying “people of European descent”).
Tantra, according to my Hindu, scripture-focused, research-oriented, Indian guru was, well, everything, but he literally translated it practically to mean “of the body”. He seemed to be a bit reluctant to go into details given India’s history with Tantrics, which I encourage you to explore on your own. If we examine it linguistically, Tantra, is a Sanskrit word. It translates as तन्त्र , “loom, warp”; hence “principle, system, doctrine”, from the two root words tanoti ”stretch, extend, expand”, and trayati ”liberation”
When we factor all these things together we get a sense of what Tantra is actually about and that it is indeed a broad philosophy, difficult to abbreviate. If we could abbreviate it, what we might say is, at its source, Tantra is an understanding that the highest planes of existence are in fact non-dualistic in nature. Furthermore, it is a set of practices within a system which uses the experience of the senses themselves as a means to achieve liberation or enlightenment. To make it more succinct, it uses the finite to experience the infinite.
This is seemingly opposite of what most people in this world understand as a spiritual path. It requires no cave, church, temple, mosque or ashram for, worship, prayer, meditation, penance, and austerity. It requires no bloodletting for sin, the very of idea of which has no place in its non-dualistic framework. It requires no authority outside of your own capacity for the awakened experience of life in all of its bliss and horror. It sees no clear distinction between the worldly or secular life and a spiritual one. What it does require of us is the ability to see everything as part of the whole; the inter-connectedness within all life, cosmic or terrestrial, to ourselves.
Tantra, as a practice, allows us to begin to let go of the limiting beliefs that lock us into static and rigid forms of identity which are, whether we like it or not, ultimately temporary. These can include, but are certainly not limited to our jobs, race and culture, our gender, our body, our brain, and so on. This is the beginning of liberation. It is the preface and precursor of nearly all self-help philosophies going back, as far as we can tell, at least 5000 years, though I personally think it goes back much farther than that. If we look past the modern language and peer behind the curtain a bit, we would see clearly that all these new self help gurus are in some way ripping off and watering down tantric concepts.
Though the language is different, the essence of the message is the same. That message plainly put is:
You are not ONLY your brain and body; the world is not ONLY material form and matter. It is this other aspect of our infinite nature that, if tapped into, reveals in us an experience of absolute liberty. In fact it is, in some form, what nearly all the mystical versions of our more well known and rigid religions believe; Sufism, Kabbalah, Buddhism (Buddha himself was raised a Hindu), Gnosticism, to name the most well known. Joseph Campbell broke the ideas into two basic camps: The Personal Transformation Model and the Authority/Obedience Model. I don’t think I need to explain which is which, or which one seems to cause less conflict in the world but that is another article.
Tantra, the Tantric path, tantric sexuality are all terms used to describe a system or method of using the body and, in fact, all form in an aware, mindful way as a means towards enlightenment. This is contrary to the renunciation of worldly form. In fact, Tantra, one might argue, is not so hung up on form as to make it something one NEEDS to renounce. Tantra has a decidedly less literal way of looking at the world than other forms but, to be clear, Tantric practitioners can certainly be considered renunciates of a sort. For a true follower of the Tantric path what is actually being renounced is the attachment to transient form, of which all form is, while not excluding the usefulness of form to move us consciously and blissfully through this material world and, when fully realized, in a state of absolute freedom.
Perhaps some of you have associated the term Tantra with a color. Kundalini is keen on White Tantra, The Neo-Tantrics would classify what they do a Red Tantra, and the rare, dark, rebel soul out there may nefariously call what he or she does Black Tantra, which sounds ever so sinister, yes. Truth be told, the power of Tantra is like that of a knife. A knife is as it is directed by the consciousness of its handler. Tantra itself just is. It has no agenda. It is we who bring forth an agenda from it. Be it so called good, bad or neutral. As practitioners, it is we who must bear the sole responsibility for what we bring forth through its usage. No mystery, just simple cause and effect. For an even more in depth article on Tantra check out the one here written by Yoga Journal’s Todd Jones. I’ve also included a list of books that have had an enormous impact on my own journey. Peruse their table of contents and see if anything sings out to you as well.
This is a wonderful video on the teachings of Alan Watts regarding the process of awakening. Well worth the listen.
As always, please comment and share your own experiences of the journey.