An Introduction to Tantra Shastra

Swami Satyananda Saraswati, lecture given at the International Yoga Assembly,Bihar School of Yoga, October 1967, originally printed in YOGA, Vol. 7, No. 10, 1969

Tantra shastra is a secret and most powerful science in the Indian occult tradition. It is a science which Indians have practised for centuries and still do. Although this science was subject to suppression from time to time due to various misunderstandings and allegations, it still lives due to its original operation and method of discovery of the psychic realms.

Tantra shastra as a whole is the system which deals with the techniques, mediums and applications concerning the individual power and knowledge which is said to be at the depth of human consciousness. Usually it is thought that only a sannyasin, a recluse, a celibate brahmachari or a total renunciate can be in possession of psychic powers, that an ordinary householder has no access to those powers which belong to the deeper planes of consciousness. However, tantra shastra proclaims boldly that neither food nor character, social nor marital status, stand in the way of developing such super powers.

While one section of Indian thought propagated the exclusive cult of renunciation in order to develop powers of higher consciousness, the other section believed that the normal progression of life did not present any hindrance. This section gradually evolved into tantra marga while the first developed into the cult of yoga.

In tantra shastra one will find every practice integrated and adjusted with the attitude and behaviour of the average person who is compelled and advised to follow the natural steps of life. Therefore, wine, meat, marital relations, grain and fish are accepted in the general constitution of the shastra. Much misunderstood, this constitution of tantra shastra clarifies that this does not present any obstacle in the awakening of shakti, rather it helps.

In bhakti shastra also the normal progression of life and the demands of nature are not at all denied, rather they are combined and adjusted with life. If one looks at tantra shastra in this light, one finds a happy combination of occult techniques and devotional attitudes. As such it is absolutely necessary that along with esoteric rituals and ceremonies, the practitioner should also surrender to shakti, the divine power.

Worship of shakti

The presiding deity of tantra shastra is Devi, the so-called feminine deity to whom all mantras, mudras and other elements of worship are devotionally dedicated. The act of bathing, dressing, sitting for worship, offering various ingredients, sacrificing animals, cohabiting with husband or wife or companion, accepting the offered foodstuffs and many other acts are performed in the spirit of total dedication and devotion. The sixty-four tantras are thus designated to suit the various temperaments of individuals walking, faltering and advancing on the different levels of human evolution.

The purpose of all tantric systems is one, and that is to evolve and express the mother aspect which is probably the nucleus and centre of total consciousness in living beings, the central sphere of individual awareness which is shakti or energy. Tantra shastra does not confuse this with the so-called maternal instinct, nor does it develop an emotional mother complex. The term ‘matri’ symbolizes the greatest power in man; it does not symbolize the mother in the ordinary sense.

Tantrics are worshippers of shakti even in the case of those who worship Shiva or Vishnu. What is shakti? Shakti is the great process lying almost restless at the deepest sphere of individual consciousness which is capable of creation, progression and destruction. It is that powerful awareness which is lying dormant at present.

Where is shakti? It is in all. It is the left half of shiva. Shiva is consciousness; shakti is energy. Shiva is the tongue; shakti is the power of speech. Shiva and shakti live together, but shiva cannot materialize and become active without the active co-operation of shakti. Therefore, shakti is the subject matter of tantra shastra, whether shakti tantra or shaiva tantra. Although shakti is depicted by a feminine frame, termed as a goddess, described as a beautiful lady, the tantras unanimously declare that shakti is the all-pervading and all-embracing existence in a saint and in a sinner, in a man and in a woman, in a believer and in a nonbeliever.

Tantric sadhana

Tantra shastra has an elaborate and definite scheme of manifesting this transcendental existence in every individual by mantras, yantras, devata, kriyas and mudras, including those most abused five ingredients of tantra. Those elaborate and definite schemes of tantra are employed to develop the deeper individual awareness on the outer plane so that supra-physical faculties can be brought into action. Mantras are meant to create systematic vibrations, yantras are meant to consolidate the energy and other kriyas are to awaken the psychic centres in man.

Tantric sadhana consists of many ways to awaken the kundalini. It is a very powerful method and therefore there is always a possibility of misuse of those powers. The other methods are very tedious, strenuous, time-consuming and far-fetched; there is practically no possibility of misusing powers arising from methods other than tantra. Man does not have the patience to wait that long for the desired awakening, so most aspirants leave their practices half way.

Since tantra sadhana is direct, immediate, convenient, unrigid and palatable, the practitioner achieves instantaneous success in it. Therefore, tantra is a living science in India, not at all obsolete, never dead. There are centres of initiation for serious-minded aspirants where tantric practices are taught. It is practised in absolute secrecy by various groups under the guidance of their own tradition.

Defining the tantras

The word tantra is a combination of two processes, ‘tanoti’ and ‘trayati’, meaning expansion and liberation. The root ‘tan’ stands for the word tanoti and the root ‘tra’ stands for the word trayati. The word tanoti means to stretch, to extend, to elaborate, to expand. The word trayati means to liberate, to free, to separate. So it is clear that tantra is a process of expansion and finally absolute freedom in the highest existence.

Many of the tantras are purely vedic in origin. You can conveniently put them into two progressive categories of shruti (revealed scriptures) and smriti (transmitted by memory). Tantras that have their existence in shruti and follow the vedic tradition implicitly are shrauta tantras. Those tantras having all respect for shruti but which adjust with the ever-shifting social concepts are known as smarta tantras.

The shrauta tantras, that is to say the vedic tantras, were replete with an absolute sense of purity and orthodoxy. As a result, there developed a tradition of moral restraints such as ahimsa or non-violence and the like. However, those who were used to performing animal sacrifices and other such older customs did not agree with orthodox purity or ahimsa. Thus the vedic tantras were naturally divided in the course of time into two groups: one followed the path of ahimsa, the other followed the tradition of animal sacrifices, drinking wine and the like. However, in those days they did not use the word tantra; they used the word yajna. Later, these natural divisions of vedic tantra developed into two main orthodox currents, namely shakta tantra, worshipping Shakti, and shaiva tantra, worshipping Shiva.

Shaktas and Shaivas

Shaivas lived an austere life, which was not enjoined in the original vedic tantra, and they also refrained from sacrifices, wine etc., which was accepted by popular traditions of shaktas. Shaktas continued their system around the concept of shakti, lived a life of comfort and luxury like the vedic worshippers, and pursued the path of sacrifices, wine etc. Due to the pressure of repeated criticism, it became necessary for the followers of shakta tantra to evolve a spiritual philosophy to prove the propriety and effectiveness of their system. Thus the main stream of tantra was divided into three groups.

  1. The refined vedic worship which is widely practised even today in the form of yajnas, rudri and other karmakanda rituals.
  2. The shaiva tantra which systematically developed around the central concept of Lord Shiva with austerity as its backbone, yoga as its creed, renunciation as its policy and samadhi as its summum bonum. Worshippers of this cult can be seen among all sections of Hindus. There are twelve main centres and many temples where shaiva tantra is practised as a daily ceremony.
  3. The shakta tantra which was a kind of original vedic tantra later developed into a classical system of shakti worship. However, they did not discontinue the primitive tradition of sacrifices, wine, fish, honey, marital or extramarital cohabitation, and occult mantras. There are sixty-four main centres or shakti peeths besides numerous temples where shakti tantra is practised in daily as well as occasional ceremonies. There are also sixty-four tantric texts belonging to this stream.

Right and left tantra

It is this tantric tradition which again divides into left tantra and right tantra, or vama tantra and dakshina tantra. Why and how did this division take place? One cannot belong purely to one creed; one is always influenced by the next door neighbour’s thoughts. Some shaktas also realized the glory, purity, nobility and grace of the shaiva system, whose highlights were austerity, purity, yoga and samadhi. As a result they worshipped shakti with the spirit of shaivism and refrained from meat, etc. They became practitioners of right hand tantra. Other shaktas continued their usual practices and were known as the leftist or vama path.

There were those shaivas who were influenced by the behaviour of the shaktas. They felt it was meaningless to perform austerities and yoga practices when the gain was easily obtainable through animal sacrifices, etc. So they combined Devi worship into their system because they found in it the fulfilment of emotion and ambitions. Worshippers of Shiva were not supposed to practise animal sacrifices, etc., but they accepted it and followed the traditions of shakta tantra side by side with the traditions of shaiva tantra.

Reinterpretation of tantric philosophy

This development was spontaneous, though subjected to organization in the course of time. Different creeds were organized but the central purpose remained the same – the awakening of something in man which was unknown but not unheard of. It is true that there might have been people who joined the creed without any spiritual purpose, but such people were very few. Most people in India joined these different traditions with the definite purpose of awakening the sleeping power and harnessing it for a higher purpose.

From time to time each and every system underwent changes and adjustments with reference to the ceremonies and the original elements of worship. While the reference to animal sacrifice etc. was literally accepted in older traditions, in later traditions it came to mean a process of sacrificing the animal in man. Thus came the reinterpretation of tantric philosophy.

Here wine did not mean anything except the amrit or nectar which is produced internally through certain esoteric methods. Again maithuna did not mean cohabitation as is generally understood. It meant an act or a state of union between the individual and the collective consciousness, jivatman and paramatman. Thus the whole picture changed.

Further, mantra did not mean vedic mantras, audible pronouncements. Mantra came to be understood as a process of contemplation on an esoteric sound in order to break through the fetters of the lower consciousness. The root man means a process of contemplation, and tra means freedom, liberation, elimination, release and the like. So, mantra came to mean a process of chanting certain syllables in a particular way in order to bring about the fusion of empirical existence with transcendental existence.

Thus the entire philosophy of tantra undergoes a process of sublimation. Although you will not find any change in the mantra “I offer this animal” that is recited, the attitude becomes sacrificing the animal instinct in human awareness. Lord Shiva becomes Pashupati or ‘master of the animals’. While the worshipper chants the mantra of sacrifice, he becomes aware of the possibility of mastering the animal instinct.

How to kill that animal and how to transcend the lower awareness? It is possible that one can soar high in spiritual life without suppressing the natural life one has developed through the course of evolution. Here tantric sadhana becomes a true life boat. It does not ask anyone to deny the natural demands of life. You have to spiritualize them and thus exhaust the samskaras. If you cannot give up your old habit of drinking, it does not matter. You continue it as an ingredient of your tantric worship.

A non-ethical system

People in general are intellectually ethical. This is a condition in every part of the world. The intellect is clouded by the socialized ethics of the world. At the same time everyone is violating this philosophy. A large percentage of the world population is always indulging in what it considers to be unethical and immoral. Consequently, everyone without exception is suffering from self-imagined agonies. This is where psychological and psychosomatic diseases have their origin.

Tantra advises us not to consider these acts as immoral and unethical, but to accept them and spiritualize them. When you know that everybody is leading a particular kind of life, indulging in wine, women, meat-eating, etc., what is the use of asking them to renounce everything for fear of hell or for the sake of heaven? It is sure that neither fear of hell nor craving for heaven can make one renounce the pleasures of life. Rather it creates conflicts and psychological cobwebs in man’s personality.

The point is how one should utilize these and other natural expressions of individual consciousness for higher awakening. Tantra shastra has definite methods, techniques and rules for practising the fivefold items, unknown to many mystic traditions in the annals of ancient and modern history. The professional teachers of ethics and morality, the self-styled preachers and devotees of ahimsa will never accept this view of tantra. But it has been proved absolutely that everyone, whatever their weaknesses, has equal opportunities to develop the spiritual power within. Such a person will march through tantric sadhana and sooner or later find himself on the path of yoga. This is what everybody wants.

Elements of tantra

There is a great similarity between tantra shastra and yoga shastra. In both you will find references to asanas, pranayamas, mudras, bandhas, chakras, nadis, dharana, dhyana, kriya yoga, kundalini yoga, hatha yoga, mantra yoga, jnana yoga, etc. The practices of khechari, shambhavi, vajroli, uddiyana and the like are an integral part of tantra shastra. In the sixty-four tantras there are hundreds of such methods meant for highly developed as well as undeveloped individuals. Each tantra can be said to have been created to suit a limited number of temperaments.

There are written tantras as well as unwritten tantras. Written tantras number sixty-four, but unwritten tantras are unnumbered. They are an oral tradition and are only taught to those disciples in whom the guru finds great understanding and a few more simple qualifications. Even today there are such teachers in India who are well versed in this oral system of tantra and who continue to pass on this great knowledge through their disciples. This traditional oral system is more powerful, portable and easily available, but it is not an easy task to discover the teachers of this tantric system.

Methods of worship

Tantric worship is a kind of ritual in which various aspects of reality are accepted. It is the general belief that worship of those deities creates great receptivity and awakening in the psychic world of man and thereby the worshipper receives abundant blessings.

The science of mantras is so precise and scientific that it creates an awakening in the psychic fields. Therefore, mantra shastra is the foundation of tantra shastra. The various provinces that are lying in the inner space of man are always in tune with those vibrations, which a powerful mantra is capable of creating. Therefore, a mantra which belongs to the tantric tradition is a very powerful tool. It may or may not have any intelligent meaning, but it is capable of piercing through the various states of psychic consciousness.

The method of worship in tantra is not only devotional; it is scientific and preplanned so that the worshipper has to remain conscious of each ritual at every step. As such he cannot perform the worship mechanically. The process of guiding the awareness is fully defined and he must remain aware of what he is doing. He has to employ mantras, mudras, bhavana and kriyas during the practice. Therefore, the method of worship brings about a fineness in the state of individual awareness.

Tantric worship does not begin in the temple nor does it end there. It begins the moment you rise up from your bed and every action thereafter is guided by the rules of tantra. During the process of worship, every item of tantric ritual brings the awareness into active operation. At the end of the worship the aspirant meditates on Shiva and Shakti.

Tantric meditation is absolutely guided and therefore it gives the sadhaka a greater facility to overcome the problems of the mind. He does not have to think of the next step and naturally the intellect is made to retire. This is a very important event in spiritual life. The guru and tantric methods alone can help one to come out of this intellectual strangulation.

The entire programming of meditation helps the aspirant to practise for long hours. When you meditate on a particular deity, you need a program for the individual awareness to follow without any intellectual processes being involved. Again, yantras and mantras are so designed that they are able to create an image and excite the movement of consciousness in the psychic fields. These elements of tantra guide the awareness into different planes of consciousness.

Tantric guru

A lot has been said about the necessity of a guru in the path of yoga. In tantric sadhana the guru is the first and most indispensable element. Selection of the guru is the foremost item in tantric sadhana. The female guru is considered to be very powerful. Wherever there is a custom of traditional tantric initiation, the mother becomes the initiating guru. This custom is popular in certain parts of Bihar where the mother becomes the guru of the tradition. For the fulfilment of any tantric worship, initiation from a female guru or bhairavi is sought. Initiation by bhairava is very powerful.

However, the selection of a guru for tantric initiation is really a difficult job for the simple reason that such gurus do not make themselves known at all. Therefore, initiation into tantra depends on the guru, while the disciple has only to prepare himself. When the guru feels that the disciple is ready, then he initiates him into the tantric tradition. As such, the problem of finding a proper guru for tantric sadhana should not arise at all. When the disciple is ready, the guru will be shown.

The tantric guru may be a sannyasin or a householder, but what is wanted is that he is proficient in his art and does not use the power for evil purposes. Although a householder guru can have the authority to impart the knowledge, yet it should not mean that one can become a guru just because he is a householder. Since the householder is accepted as a responsible member of society and has a great understanding of the average person, he is also allowed to act as a guru provided he knows the science.

In India, brahmins who know this art and give initiation live the life of an average householder. However, one must remember that the married life of a Hindu brahmin, and still more that of a spiritually-minded Hindu brahmin, is glorious, disciplined and self-controlled. There is a great difference in ideals, outlooks, practices and results in the lives of a Hindu householder and an average western householder.

Even if such a guru has two wives, it does not matter. The shastras sanction such marriages in extraordinary cases when the question of progeny is involved. However, such a guru devotes himself fully to the practices of tantra sadhana while he has disciples to take care of his material needs.

Sadhana in the burial ground

Sometimes a very ugly picture is painted of a tantric sitting naked in a burial ground with human skulls and drunken women. In fact, tantra is far from this. Witchcraft also should not be mistaken for tantra, although the practitioner of tantra may develop certain powers. Since the cemetery and burial grounds, lonely forests and midnight hours are good for silent and uninterrupted meditation, tantra shastra advises such places. When the mind is given an atmosphere, then the mental tendencies become much quieter.

In deeper states of meditation when the conscious mind loses its grip over the autonomic system, inherent fear springs up and there is an explosion of psychic contents in the form of symbols from the collective unconsciousness. Even as situations in life are able to stimulate the lower psyche in individuals, likewise the solitude, quiet and mysterious atmosphere of the burial ground is able to develop the mystic and occult contents of one’s deeper personality.

There is no better place in the world for meditation than the burial ground, where the mind as a whole develops awareness of fleeting life, meaningless efforts, death and many more valuable realizations. Sometimes the aspirant used wine in order to eliminate the first phase of fear. However, this sadhana is a ceremony to stimulate the mind and brain to dive deep into one’s own self. When you practise tantric worship in the burial ground, you have to practise the whole initiation in that heightened mental state for hours together and try to disassociate the psyche from matter in different phases of awareness.

When the consciousness of the aspirant dives deep into various layers of individual consciousness, it has to overcome fears, forms, images and schizophrenia and finally establish itself in a state of tranquillity. When the tremendous collective unconscious becomes manifest, the ego is separated from matter and the thing is seen face to face as a reality.

Cohabitation versus brahmacharya

Cohabitation, whether marital or extramarital, is not an essential part of tantra. You can practise tantra with your wife if you have one, with another companion, or without anyone if you are a brahmachari. For Hindus, marriage is a dharma as much as brahmacharya is a great accomplishment. While a married householder fulfils a great dharma, a brahmachari attains the higher state of existence.

Marital union is not unholy, yet it pricks the conscience. How then can one practise tantra when both acts are to be performed at night? How can one overcome the feeling of guilt and nervousness due to excitement. The practitioner of tantra will have to spiritualize the marital act and make it an item of tantric worship, so that he remains free from the emotional concomitants of the act.

Wise people included the marital act in the scheme of tantra in order to avoid the guilt complex, the animal nervousness, the psychological after-effects, the forgetfulness of spiritual purpose, and finally to establish a deeper bond of union between husband and wife in the psychological, social and spiritual fields. That is why maithuna is not outside but inside the scheme of tantra. It should not be considered as unspiritual since it opens certain portions of the posterior pituitary gland and removes toxins stored up in the sexual organs and elsewhere.

The practices of tantra are done at different periods: at night, in the early morning, at home, in the burial ground, in the company of husband or wife, with other companions, or alone. It all depends on the evolution of the practitioner. While the beginner may be asked to perform the worship at night with his wife, later on he and his wife may have to do the practice individually and live a life of spontaneous brahmacharya.

Brahmacharya is not renounced by tantra, rather it is enjoined, but not straight away. It comes in stages. When one is established in spontaneous brahmacharya, then one is allowed to practise or worship in the burial ground or any other such place. After that one is allowed to practise in the morning hours when there is absolute steadiness in the atmosphere as well as in the mind.

Tantric worship in the burial ground is also enjoined for women, but it is not a collective worship in the company of husband or wife; one has to practise individually. Morning worship of tantra is enjoined for husband and wife, but they have to practise individually. Only the preliminary worship for husband and wife, guru and disciple, male and female is enjoined for both and must be practised together.

So, a tantric is not a wild looking man with a bottle in one hand and a woman in the other, with a hideous face, dirty appearance, deep red clothes, bloodshot eyes and a terrifying personality. Those who have this image in their minds are ignorant of the truth. A real tantric is a saintly personality, a yogi who is practising yoga in a different way for the development of that spiritual power which is hidden by layers of ego. Tantra is a much easier way, a path most people can walk upon. The tantric system has come to be misused and abused, and therefore misinformed people have developed vague and false images of the tantric, and impostors are exploiting their self-styled definition of tantra.

A natural process of self-realization

If I could tell you the details of tantric worship, the definition of deities, the science of mantra, the psychic capacity of the bija mantra and its use, the methods of meditation, the place, time and companions of worship, then you would at once understand that tantric sadhana is so powerful that not only the vagrant mind can be brought under control, but the higher elements of consciousness can also be subjugated.

Shiva and shakti have individual as well as collective existence. They are the supreme awareness in every being. A complete manifestation of shiva and shakti is termed samadhi by yogis, whereas vaishnavas call it Vishnu darshan. Shiva is unqualified awareness in every being and shakti is matter holding and manifesting the said awareness. Shakti directs the three gunas so that the individual awareness can function.

Shakti is maya, illusion, and avidya, ignorance, also. When the worshipper is propitiating shakti, he is actually progressing through the path of pratyahara, the withdrawal of sense awareness. The process of cessation of the modifications of the individual consciousness is complete when the awareness of shakti is revealed. The state of higher consciousness is easily obtainable by the process of shakti worship.

Vedanta is a sublime philosophy but it is purely intellectual. The practices of jnana yoga are negative, pessimistic, egoistic and purely mental. Raja yoga is a complete system but it makes a lot of demands on the individual to the extent that it produces numerous introverts, neurotics and inhibited personalities. Although it is an incomparable path in other ways, it lacks understanding of the average person.

Bhakti yoga is the easiest path, but the problem is that it has no systematic blueprint for inner evolution and it is full of impossible concepts of ethics, morality, purity, orthodoxy and incorrigible arrogance. Tantra, on the other hand, is a smooth way for everyone, and does not lay down a list of don’ts. It has practices for every individual at different points of evolution. Whether you are a vegetarian or a non-vegetarian, a brahmachari or married, high born or low born, selfish or unselfish, a seeker of moksha or siddhis, it is tantra shastra which gives you a way for yourself. Even sannyasins can practise tantra sadhana and develop higher powers and utilize them for the good of mankind. Mahanirvana Tantra is the tantra for sannyasins, brahmacharis and hermits.

All those who have not succeeded in their sadhana even though years have elapsed should accept the tantric way of realization. In Kali yuga, when minds are no longer pure, habits have degenerated, passions have burst out, faith in God is just a habit and life has become completely material, it is tantra that is the way for spiritual aspiring souls of both east and west.