25 Sep What is Tantra?
The term tantra and the tantric traditions of Hinduism and Buddhism have been subjected to a great deal of misunderstanding in both India and the West.
There is a diverse range of attitudes toward the tantric traditions, ranging from their emic understandings as paths to liberation to the relatively widespread associations of the tantric traditions with sorcery and libertine sexuality.
Likewise, tantric traditions are also extremely diverse, which has made it difficult to develop a definition broad enough to cover the various tantric traditions without being overly broad. There have also been many attempts to discern the origins of the tantric traditions.
While there is very little evidence supporting the hypothesis that any of the tantric traditions existed before the 5th century ce, there have been attempts to trace back these traditions much earlier, to the time of the Buddha or the ancient Hindu sages, or even back to the Indus Valley civilization. In overviewing various attempts to date these traditions, it appears that the first tantric traditions to emerge in a distinct form almost certainly first emerged in a Hindu context around the mid-first millennium ce.
An overview of the history of tantric traditions, then, should begin with a survey the development of the Hindu tantric traditions, from the mid-first millennium ce up to the colonial period, when tantric traditions in South Asia generally entered a period of decline, followed by a renaissance in the 20th century.
The historical appearance of Buddhist tantric traditions occurs a few centuries later, during the 7th century. Buddhist tantric traditions were strongly influenced at their inception by preexisting Śaiva Hindu traditions, but they also drew on a growing body of ritual and magical practices that had been developing for several centuries, since at least the 5th century ce, in Mahāyāna Buddhist circles. The spread of tantric traditions quickly followed their development in India.
They were disseminated to Nepal; Central, East, and Southeast Asia; and also, much later, to the West. Tantric Hindu and Buddhist traditions were also a significant influence on a number of other religious traditions, including Jainism, Sikhism, the Bön tradition of Tibet, Daoism, and the Shintō tradition of Japan.
The tantric traditions of Hinduism and Buddhism have been simultaneously infamous as well as poorly understood.
Due to the strong association of tantric traditions with magical practices, and of the so-called “left-handed” (vāmācāra) tantric traditions with sexuality and violent ritual practices, the tantric traditions have, over the past few centuries at least, been associated with black magic in India.
Tantric traditions have had a tremendous impact on the practice of Hinduism that is now poorly appreciated by most Hindus; the term tantra is now best known in South Asia in the compound tantramantra, which is the equivalent in modern languages such as Hindi to “abracadabra” or “hocus-pocus” in English, terms that originated in Western magical practices that now designate “mumbo-jumbo, nonsense, gibberish”2 and “magic, trickery, or sleight of hand,”3 respectively.
The title Tantra Mantra was given to a recent Hindi horror film featuring black magic.4
The term tantra in modern Indian languages “is frequently used to conjure notions of effective black magic, illicit sexuality, and immoral behavior.”5
Western scholars of Indian culture and history often treated tantric traditions with disdain, using its alleged degeneracy as an excuse to ignore this important aspect of Asian religious history.6
The erotic and transgressive practices and the focus on female deities that characterized the Vidyāpīṭha tantras were further developed in a final “path” of Śaiva tantric practice, the Kulamārga or “Path of the Clans,” the clans here referring to the clans of yoginīs into which the initiated male adept or “hero” (vīra) sought entry. This tradition of practice was widely known as the Kaula tradition. According to Alexis Sanderson this tradition shared five features with the earlier Kāpālika and Vidyāpīṭha traditions that set them apart from other Śaiva traditions:
- Erotic ritual with a female companion
- Sanguinary practices for the propitiation of the fierce gods Mahābhairava/Bhairava and Cāmuṇḍā
- The notion that supernatural powers may be attained through the extraction by yogic means of the vital essences of living beings
- Initiation through the consumption of consecrated liquor
- The centrality of states of possession37
The Kaula tradition was clearly established by the 9th century and may have originated a century or so earlier. It also was the matrix from which the closely related Śākta tradition developed. It developed four well-known subtraditions. The Eastern transmission focused on Śiva and the goddess as Kuleśvara and Kuleśvarī.
From it developed the Trika tradition that focused on a trio of goddesses: Parā, Parāparā, and Aparā. The Northern transmission featured the fierce goddess Guhyakālī; from it developed the Krama tradition, focusing on the goddess Kālī. The Western transmission took the hunchbacked goddess Kubjikā as its central deity, while the Southern transmission focuses on the beautiful goddess Kāmeśvarī or Tripurasundarī.38
These traditions were well established in Kashmir by the 9th century. Particularly important were the nondual Trika and Krama traditions that see no ultimate distinction between the deity and practitioner.39