Tantra, is the science of knowing the infinite in and through the finite - the limited world of form. It teaches knowledge and experience of the macrocosm through the microcosm, of the unlimited by means of the limited, of supreme consciousness through individual consciousness. Through Tantra, which encompasses all aspects of life, we can use the world as a stepping stone to go 'beyond' and discover our divine nature. Thus the objective universe is utilised as a launching pad into the eternal.
Tantra is a practical system - 'sadhana, shastra', a practice-orientated scripture, and its purposes is to impart spiritual illumination to each and every individual by any means suitable. The philosophical concepts of Tantra reach the loftiest heights in this effort to express the inexpressible, to make comprehensible that which cannot be grasped by the ordinary consciousness. Yet it has not lost touch with practical application. It comprises a vast number of practices to suit all personality types, combined with the highest concepts realised by the tantric sages in deep meditation, throughout the ages. As a science it does not ask the practitioner to accept anything at face value. Validity must be proved through personal experience. This is the tantric essence.
Tantra is a universal system. Though there may be local differences, the basic premise is the same, that for the sake of understanding, worship and spiritual sadhana, existence is divided into two principles: manifest and unmanifest or Shakti and Shiva. This concept of Shiva (Consciousness) and Shakti (Cosmic Mother) does not depend on time, place and race, but is deeply ingrained in man's collective psyche. Tantra has carried this symbology and tradition from time immemorial to the present day as an expression of the deeper realisation of man.
The word 'tantra' is made up of two words, 'tanoti' and 'trayati'. 'Tanoti' means 'to expand, stretch or extend', and 'trayati' means 'to liberate or free'. So Tantra means expanding one's awareness, extending the frontiers of the mind beyond the mind in an effort to attain spiritual knowledge and liberation.
Tantra is also known as 'tantrica', 'kauladharma', 'kaulica' or 'kaula'. The word kaula is derived from the word 'kula' which means family, society or community. It also means 'the cosmic power of manifestation' (Shakti), and 'akula' means consciousness (Shiva), Therefore the kaula path is that which unites Shiva and Shakti cosmic union or nirvana. The system of kaula implies simplicity of living combined with harmony between inner and outer surroundings, and acceptance of others. The dormant cosmic power in man is often referred to as 'kulakundalini'. So kauladharma is a system for unleashing the cosmic forces (kundalini or Shakti). Those who follow the path of tantra are called tantrics, kaulas or kaulicas.
Tantra is a compendium of many systems encompassing the entire span of human life and activity. It deals with man's body, emotions, psyche, mind and spirit; with his work, play, thought, devotion, and interaction at all levels. The "Varahi Tantra" classifies the main subjects of Tantra as: consciousness; the creation and destruction of the universe (shristi and pralaya), worship of deities (devi or deva puja), classification of beings, astronomy and astrology, different levels of awareness (lokas), nadis and chakras, laws and duties in society, sacramental rites (samskaras), consecration of the forms of deities, mantra, yantra and mandala, mudra, sadhaka, pooja, consecration of houses and wells etc., description of shrines, yoga maya sadhana (magic), diksha, yoga, medicine of many types, including ayurveda, and science. Tantra also included alchemy, the art of living a fruitful and blissful life, and the use of sexual energy as a means to unfold higher awareness.
It is said that at one time 14,000 tantric tests existed, but now only a few remain, as most of the traditional tests have been lost or destroyed. However, the scope of Tantra is still vast, covering every aspect of man's life from early morning to late at night, and from birth to death. It intends to make life more harmonious and blissful in every action and situation, and is for everyone from housewife to sannyasin. It teaches full knowledge and utilisation of the world around us in an attempt to 'tune-in' with higher consciousness. Practical Tantra is summed up by three main aspects: tantra (meaning the rules, principles, and the actual system), mantra (the vehicle of consciousness) and mandala or yantra (the form of consciousness). Within these three is included everything in the material universe. In fact, everything around us, including ourselves, is composed of mantra and yantra.
No definite date can be assigned to the beginning of Tantra. It was not invented or formulated as such and its nebulous origin lies in the mists of prehistory. It did not arise through the inspiration of one person, as did Buddhism, Jainism or Christianity, but grew slowly throughout the ages along with man's experimentation into himself and the world around him. It developed in all parts of the world but did not follow a fixed pattern of growth, varying according to local circumstances and the influence of different tantric sages or yogis. So many tantric texts appear to contradict each other, but the essence is the same.
The starting, point of Tantra is that one should be tolerant of the views of others, for differences are only superficial, and seemingly opposing viewpoints generally lead to the same truth. Because of its attitude of tolerance and understanding, Tantra slowly encompassed and fused together various beliefs, forms of worship and techniques. A diversity of thought arose in Tantra because it opened its arms to embrace a wide range of seemingly contradictory and mutually exclusive systems. It made no attempt to eradicate antagonistic beliefs but incorporated all. This altitude of tolerance can only arise when a system grows naturally in an environment of openness, joy and freedom, devoid of dogma, and when it brings the experiences it promises, which Tantra does.
Tantra is widely held to be based on the Vedas but there is much evidence to suggest that the roots of Tantra predate them, just as it appears Tantra existed in Europe long before the writing of the Bible. It is probably safest to say that the origin of both the Vedas and of Tantra are lost in the depths of prehistory. Tantra must have existed long before it was written down. It is difficult to see how it arose directly from the Vedas as the texts are so different. Both systems have their use, and both can bring about harmony in all spheres of life, leading to transcendence.
Tantra is not a stagnant system but adapts itself to the needs of the time. It is the tantric belief that old texts on Tantra will fade away and new ones will always be there to replace them. The essence of the texts will remain the same but the expression and. relationship with prevalent social conditions will be different. Tantra has changed and been developed throughout the ages. It has not remained attached to a fixed dogma, and this is its beauty. It continues to grow and adapt itself in this present era and will continue to mould itself to man's needs in the future.