The Origins of Tantra

Matthias Rose
Mar 12, 2015 · 8 min read

Tantra has always had a broad range of meanings and teachings. It is not possible to think of tantra as a single practice, philosophy, teaching, or path without encountering people who disagree with you. Nonetheless, this word ‘tantra’ does refer to something coherent and meaningful. To help get a handle on what the heart of tantra is, let’s look at how it came to be.

The term itself, tantra, is actually a sly little pun.

To understand this pun, you must first understand the word sutra. The word tantra came into use at a time when Buddhism, Jainism, and the various Vedic traditions we now call Hinduism were dominant in India. A core part of each of these religions were sutras — key texts. Perhaps the most famous sutra is the Kama Sutra, the courtly book of love and erotic arts that, by the way, is completely unrelated to any flavor of tantra. Another famous sutra is the Sutra of Patanjali, which continues to inspire yogis to this day. Etymologically, sutra has the literal meaning of ‘thread’. A sutra is a thread of thought, a particular line of thinking. (Some suggest, less persuasively, that sutra refers to the thread that bound the volumes of palm leaves the books were written on.)

If a sutra is a single thread of thinking, a tantra is the whole system of thought. The literal meaning of the Sanskrit word is ‘loom.’ Not just the cloth, but that machine on which cloth is made! That’s some one-upsmanship right there.

Originally, sutras were books, while tantras were teachings that could only be transmitted directly from teacher to student. It being a largely literate society, it was not long before books appeared. Cryptic little guidebooks, reference manuals. Cliff notes versions of the oral teachings. And these booklets also became called tantras. Sutras increasingly came to mean canonical scriptures at the heart of religion, while tantras were summary versions of oral teachings associated with particular teachers.

Initially, there was no particular commonality to the content of the teachings.

We turn to the sixth century. In Western Europe, the Roman Empire had fully disintegrated. The memory of stability and prosperity inspired every local warlord. Ignorance and illiteracy reigned supreme. But in India it was a time of cultural renewal, wealth, and intellectual advancement. One of the most vibrant practices to sweep the sub-continent had its origins in the Kashmir valley, in the North. This rich land was a cultural melting pot, but had particularly ancient religious traditions worshiping Śiva and Śakti — Śiva as the essence of consciousness and Śakti as the essence of power. Another use of the ‘loom’ metaphor, then, may be weaving of Śiva and Śakti with other ‘threads’ of Vedic culture, as well as the Buddhism and Jainism that were also thriving in this valley during this time.

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A traditional fertility shrine.

In weaving together Śiva and Śakti, some facets of these ancient traditions are particularly important. These were oral traditions, so by definition, transmission required a direct teacher-student relationship. These religions probably derived from a shamanic, matriarchal society within the Dravidian cultural milieu. They honored the feminine as the heart of the meaningful teaching. Women were often the most influential and powerful teachers. These traditions offered powerful rituals and ceremonies to mark points of transition in the growth of practitioners. There was a deep and important connection to nature. Perhaps most importantly, these were not abstracted or separated from the people’s everyday life. There was no priestly class, no monastic tradition.

The teachings that began to spread throughout India had a powerful attraction to a populace that was increasingly well-off and had a strong middle class. This prosperous middle class was by and large left out of the caste-conscious religions of Vedic origin and the monastic-male Buddhism. Moreover, unlike the well-established and increasingly scholarly traditions, these teachings were vibrant, immediate, and taught that enlightenment was available right now, in this life. No reincarnation needed. The divine was seen not as an abstract and distant deity or collection of deities, but an all pervasive presence, that each of us are not just part of but — intriguingly, the whole of. The difficult Buddhist concept of nothingness was re-interpreted as a universal and omnipresent consciousness. Drawing on Buddhism, the physical world was understood as illusion — but not as deception. Rather, each of us, and all the physical world around us, are equal differentiated projections of consciousness itself. As we expand into an awareness of the universal non-duality, we comprehend the illusionary nature of our otherness — from each other, from the world around us, from the divine.

The whole of these teachings, which continued through the duration of the classical era, came to be called Tantra. Thousands of independent and individual teachers solidified into core lineages, with some diversity but even more commonality.

Kashmir Shaivism came to be yet another religion in the rich stew of India over the next few centuries. But the influence of tantra extended to much of what we now call Hinduism, to most of Buddhism, with a special and distinct survival in the Vajrayana Buddhism of the Himalayas. Tantra was seen as a spiritual practice, some would say a spiritual science, independent of any particular religion, but adaptable to all.

The commonalities that defined tantra included: direct relationship of teacher to student, embodied mindfulness, ritual as a means of deepening awareness, rejection of arbitrary religious and cultural rules, acceptance of all people (caste, nationality, language, gender), direct unmediated access to (or participation in, or embodiment of) the divine, a belief in body and the sensual experiences of the body as part of the path to the divine — not as a distraction from the divine.

There is some debate as to the prevalence and importance of sexuality in the teachings of embodied mindfulness and in the rituals of classical tantra. But it was undoubtedly present. One manual teaches the discovery of unity with the divine in the bliss of orgasm. In another case, one of the most influential teachers of the Krama lineage, Cakrabhānu, was imprisoned and branded for corrupting the Brahmin class of his town with his licentious rituals.

The writings that have survived are inconclusive on this point; but the writings that have survived are deeply, profoundly philosophical teachings from highly educated Brahmin class scholars who adopted the tantric practice. Moreover, these profound thinkers honored the tradition of their teachers by keeping the secrets of direct transmission secret. Like the mystery cults of ancient Greece, we can only surmise what happened behind the veils.

The classical position of practitioner and consort. Do not assume the male is the practitioner!

However, the art and architecture that survived are not so inconclusive.

The temple architecture of Vajrayana Buddhism, a direct descendent of tantric teaching, are vivid with imagery of the lingam (penis), the yoni (vulva & vagina), and deities locked in carnal embrace. Illustrations from the tantric tradition often show practitioner and consort in sexual union. Note also that it is often assumed that the male is the practitioner and the female is the consort, but this is increasingly seen as a misunderstanding. Men and women were equal practitioners in tantra, and the great teachers were often female (while the great writers were often male).

Classical tantra largely died out in the 1100's. Islam arrived in India. Buddhism retreated, and tantric practice largely disappeared. It survived in diminished form in three key ways: Vajrayana Buddhism of the Himalayas, the Brahmanic Śri Vidya lineage of southern India, and in Hatha Yoga. Vajrayana Buddhism did not carry on the all-inclusive aspects of tantra, but preserved many of the key texts, rituals, and philosophical teachings within a Buddhist (and highly deity-driven) context. Śri Vidya was sanitized of most or all rule-rejecting aspects of the tantra, but preserved philosophy and ritual within a Vedic context. Hatha Yoga preserved the practical teachings and practices of embodied mindfulness, but without much of the philosophical depth or any of the ritual elements.

Eight to nine hundred years later, Tantra has sprung back to life, with all the diversity, vibrancy, and ferment of its early blossoming. How did this happen?

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Sheela-na-gig — a mysterious but prevalent form of carving on churches and cathedrals from the middle ages.

European spirituality already had a tradition of sacred sexuality and sexual mysticism before connecting with the spiritual traditions of India, Tibet, Nepal, China, Mongolia, and Japan. It was really in this meeting of the minds that contemporary tantra came to life. Inspired by the classical teachings of the tantric texts, western sexual mysticism reconstituted itself and reformulated its thinking, incorporating the understandings of energy, mindfulness, and breathwork with the spirituality of the passionate divine.

Tantra was reborn.

Some schools and teachers align themselves with the spiritual teachings of classical tantra and a recovery of Kashmir Shaivism. Others are spreading forms of Vajrayana simplified and adapted for a Western lifestyle. Śri Vidya has reclaimed its tantric origins. Yoga teachers discovering the sexual dimensions of their craft have reconstructed the tantra that birthed it. The iconoclastic guru Osho (Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh) developed and taught his own understanding of tantra, which gave birth to what is often called ‘neotantra.’ Other teachers, perhaps most notably David Deida, are starting with tantric principles as a foundation for their own unique lines of teaching. In some of these teachings the relevance and role of sexuality is the very heart of the teaching. Others vocally reject this as “not real tantra.” Interestingly, if you abstract out the prominence of sexuality, you find that same commonality at the heart of all these tantras: a focus on the teachings and personal transmissions of a gifted spiritual teacher; embodied mindfulness and practice; an emphasis on ritual; an openness to people of all genders, sexual orientations, backgrounds, religious beliefs, nationalities; teachings of direct access to and experience of a universal divine presence.

In many ways, our culture is a remarkable mirror to the prosperous India of the sixth century. It should not be at all surprising to find a similar diversity of teachings with such a beautiful resonance to the tantras of classical india.

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Painting by Natasha Dakini —

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