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Theosophical Encyclopedia

Tantra

The word tantra is Sanskrit for a “loom,” from tan to extend; it became used as a synonym for SASTRA, textbook; in the plural as the Tantras, the word refers to a body of doctrines that found a philosophical expression in Saivism and Saktism, the interplay of consciousness and energy, or Siva, representing the static pole of consciousness, and Sakti its dynamic aspect. There are Hindu as well as Buddhist Tantras. They cover a wide range of subjects including the history of the world, cosmology, psychology, rituals and magic powers, and that inner psychology which shows humans to be spiritual beings and not merely animals. Tantrism is therefore the religious philosophy expounded in the Tantras as a “revelation” which is said to be more suitable to our Kali-yuga, and centers around sakti, the feminine energy or creative principle of existence, called the goddess, of which the great representative is kundalini, the serpent power.

The origin of tantrism is still obscure though it has been traced to the Indus civilization and to the Vedas in so far as the use of sound and therefore of mantras, which as a means of entrance into the higher dimensions of consciousness goes as far back as the Rg Veda (see Vedas). There is a Buddhist tantrism and a Hindu tantrism, both of which have fairly a widespread following. Jainism also accepts some tantric methods, but most certainly not those of the left-hand path. Within Tantrism one distinguishes three paths: the right-hand path (daksina-marga); the left — hand path (vama-marga); and the path of the kaula sect (kula-marga, lit. “best way”) whose existence may date back to the 5th century CE and whose texts reveal an extensive knowledge of the esoteric aspects of the human constitution.

The Buddhist tantras are divided into four classes: kriya; carya; yoga; and anuttara tantras. The first two are concerned with rituals and the second two with yogic procedures. The Tibetan practice of these four divisions relates them to human types for whom they are most suitable. Mircea Eliade suggests that tantrism may have served as the vehicle by which a large number of foreign and exotic elements made their way into Hinduism (Yoga: Immortality and Freedom, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1958, p. 201).

Tantric practices include the physical body as essential to self-realization; the use of the breath as a pre-requisite to the control of prana; and also mental concentration as essential. Concentration is directed to the psycho-energy centers, or CHakras. Sexual rites were employed, especially in the vama-marga, which accounts for the fall into disrepute of Tantrism, especially with 19th century scholars who considered all Tantra to involve such practices. Tantrism goes far beyond this in its approach to the understanding of the human being as a whole, and in its teachings concerning the merging of the positive and the negative polarities in the human being, as well as in its knowledge of the great energy of the cosmos, the serpent power, or kundalini-sakti. Tantra, according to Swami Satyananda Sarasvati, “is a very potent . . . method by which we can realize ourselves in totality and attain union, ultimate freedom and fulfilment” (Kundalini Tantra, 1984, p. 351).

Annie Besant mentions “the enormous mass of literature called the Tantras,” dividing them into three classes, “those that deal with white magic, those that deal with black magic, and those that deal with what we may call grey magic, a mixture of the two.” She points out, “These books have an evil significance in the ordinary English ear, but not quite rightly. The Tantras are very useful books, very valuable and instructive; all occult science is to be found in them. . . . The difficulty is that without a teacher they are very dangerous. . . . So the Tantras have got a bad name both in the West and . . . in India” (An Introduction to Yoga, TPH, 1908, pp. 21-22; 1976 ed., pp. 32-34).

J.Mr./P.S.H./R.W.B.

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