Ardhanarishvara, a composite androgynous form of the Hindu God Shiva and his consort Parvati (also known as Devi, Shakti, and Uma in this icon).

Find Out the Real Story Behind Tantra. Hint, It’s Not All About Sex

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You may have heard that Tantra is full of obscenities or that it has something to do with black magic. Forget that. As a matter of fact, Tantra involves practices such as yoga, meditation, and the reading of sacred texts - elements that are common in other religions. Different traditions within Tantra choose to focus on different combinations of these practices, but they are certainly not focused on practicing any ‘dark arts.’

Tantra is an esoteric tradition found in Hinduism and Buddhism. Although Tantra is found in these two religions, its influence extends beyond them and can be seen in other Eastern religions as well. In modern times, this term is also used by various New Age religions, though their practices may have little to do with the original movement.

Vajrayana Prayer wheels have tantric mantras engraved on the surface.

Vajrayana Prayer wheels have tantric mantras engraved on the surface. (Steve Evans/ CC BY 2.0 )

Tantra Unites Ideas   

The word ’Tantra’ literally means ‘loom’ in Sanskrit. There are several differing explanations as to what this word means. According to one source, this name is supposed to be a pun, and in order to understand the joke, one has to first understand the word ‘sutra’. The key texts of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism are known as sutras, a word which also meant ‘thread’. Therefore, if a sutra is a single thread of thought, then Tantra would be the loom that produces these threads of thoughts into a whole system of thoughts.

As a comparison, another source suggests that Tantra is a combination of two words, ‘tattva’ and ‘mantra’, which mean the science of cosmic principles and the science of mystic sound and vibration respectively. In other words, Tantra may be regarded to be “the application of cosmic sciences with a view to attain spiritual ascendancy.”

The 24 Tirthankaras form the tantric meditative syllable HRIM, Gujarat, 1800's

The 24 Tirthankaras form the tantric meditative syllable HRIM, Gujarat, 1800's. ( Public Domain )

The Rise and Diversity of Tantra

During the course of the 1st millennium AD, Hinduism developed from the ancient Vedic tradition into the Classical traditions of Hinduism. It was during this period that Tantra first developed within Hinduism. Although there is little historical evidence pointing to when Tantra first emerged, there is no hard evidence that Tantra was in existence prior to the middle of the 1st millennium AD. Tantra drew elements from Vedic ritual traditions, as well as from yogic and meditative traditions, both of which were also being developed in Buddhism and Jainism during that period of time.

Like other religious practices, the various traditions within Tantra also possess their own set of scriptures. The followers of the different traditions believe that their sacred scriptures were divinely revealed to them. For each tradition, however, the deity (or deities) differs. Followers of the Saiva tradition, for example, claim that their sacred scriptures were originally teachings given by Shiva to Devi, his wife, and then transmitted to human sages such as Matsendranath. As a comparison, followers of some Buddhist Tantra traditions believe that their sacred texts were taught by timeless cosmic buddhas to their followers. In any case, the sages to whom the sacred texts were revealed lived between the 7th and 13th centuries, during which most of the sacred texts of Tantra were written.

A Tantric Goddess (Public Domain) and a Tantric Form of a Hindu Goddess, possibly Indrani. 

A Tantric Goddess ( Public Domain ) and a Tantric Form of a Hindu Goddess, possibly Indrani. ( Public Domain)

Rising, Falling, and Rising Again

The traditions of Tantra then spread across India, and became popular, especially amongst the growing middle class. On the one hand, Hinduism was caste-conscious, and on the other, Buddhism was male-monastic oriented. These were the two major religions in India at that time, and Tantra offered a third alternative for those left out of the other two. Furthermore, the teachings of Tantra traditions were vibrant, and certain difficult concepts were re-interpreted into something more comprehensible, which would have been appealing to many.

The original traditions of Tantra mostly died out around the 1100s, when Islam arrived in India. It was preserved in a diminished form, however, in three different schools, the best-known being Vajrayana Buddhism, which was practiced in the Himalayas, and then spread to other parts of the East. The other two are the Brahmanic Sri Vidya lineage of southern India and Hatha Yoga.

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