What is Tantra?

Perhaps more than any other continent or country, India is blessed with a myriad of spiritual and philosophical models that have arisen to answer, often by means of personal experimentation, the fundamental questions of life.

Tantra represents the most elaborate theological and metaphysical exposition of the continent.

Though tantra can be found  in many cultures and interlaced with  many world religions, this article will deal with tantra as it has been traditionally  presented  within India itself, in particular within the tantric sect of Kashmiri Shaivism; the central and most advanced exposition  of tantra.

The general term ‘Indian Tantra’ denotes all the teachings and practices found both in the scriptures (called Tantras or Agamas) and passed on orally from guru to disciple. This said, tantra is a system, a philosophy and technology so intuitive and natural to man that its essence can be seen within all genuine spiritual paths, from Taoism, Tibetan Buddhism, Kabbala and Tarot, to the cults of the Ancient Egyptians and even within Christianity.

Tantra is a vast and complex subject and this article will only scratch the surface of the tantrik paradigm, focussing mainly on some of the practical, yogic applications of tantra.

Shiva and Shakti

The basic premise of Kashmiri Shaivism states that Reality is ultimately one though appearing as two. In the same way that a single coin has two sides yet is one thing, ‘all that is‘ seemingly appears  as two components. These are the manifest and the un-manifest, or otherwise stated; energy and consciousness.

Unlike the atheistic and dualistic philosophical model of Samkhya, Tantra has deified these two concepts. Consciousness is known as Shiva and energy is  Shakti.

Shiva is therefore pure, un-manifested latency without form or shape. A void which is paradoxically pregnant with undivulged life.

This still and silent potentiality can be encountered within the human experience as a state where no thought is present, no sensation is present and no sense of individual self is present; an intuition of pure being where all that remains is a deep, intimate sense of universality with no centre.

The Maha Vakyas (great mystical statements) of the great sage Adi Shankaracharaya point to this awesome reality. :

‘I am that’ (Tat Tvam asi)

‘I am identical with underlying intelligence’ (Aham Brahmasmi)

‘The absolute reality is pure consciousness’ (Pragyanam Brahma)

‘I am the Eternal Witness’ (Aham Sakshihi)

Analogously, we could say that consciousness / Shiva is like an unmoving, unchanging observer, a silent witness to his own boundlessness. Shiva is the ultimate ground of all reality whereby all forms of vibration are his expressions. Just as the sun is not separate from its rays, ultimate reality is not separate from its manifestation. Reality is therefore both luminous and self aware.

For this reason Shiva and Shakti are depicted as lovers in eternal sexual union. A beautiful, distinctive emblem that depicts the central Tantrik concept of Prakasha / Vimarsha.

Prakasha  relates to Shiva and means the Light of Consciousness and Vimarsha relates to Shakti and is the Power of Self-Awareness. Vimarsha implies that we are reflections or representations of pure consciousness.

It is worth noting that without humans and the myriad other expressions of creation, Shiva is as though lame, inert; without limbs through which he can experience the joy of Being.

According to the Tantrik philosophy, thought, matter and everything we can perceive through the five senses, including the electrical currents that we feel moving through our bodies, is a love-dance of Shiva and Shakti.

Clearly then Tantra is a life embracing, celebratory philosophy that includes all of creation and the Tantrik practices likewise embrace all of life.

Definitions of Tantra

Tantra could be thought of as a set of hypothesises, spiritual practices and ritualistic actions that through personal effort and experimentation (sadhana)  are designed to direct  the universal energies of the macrocosm into the practitioner (sadhak) . The reason for undertaking such efforts is nothing less than total liberation from ignorance and suffering (Moksha).

One meaning of tantra is ‘to weave’. It is also taught that tantra is like the actual shuttle that moves between the threads when weaving a fabric, correctly implying that tantra can be a device or technology.  The fabric itself represents the universe with all its subtle energies and all the myriad permutations of consciousness. This fabric of reality is like an interconnected matrix, and tantra then is the expansion of our consciousness wherein these interconnections are intuitively and experiential understood… the inner experience that everything is intrinsically woven together and is ultimately one occurrence.

Etymologically speaking, tantra comes from the root Sanskrit words tanoti meaning to stretch or expand and trayati meaning to liberate or free. So tantra (tan + tra) means to expand the frontiers of apprehension beyond the material into the more subtle realms of perception and hence through these increasingly more refined insights, attain spiritual knowledge (jnana) and liberation (moksha).

Despite the exhaustive theory found in the agamic texts, tantra is a practical system. It is called a sadhanashastra, which means that it is a practice-orientated scripture. It is a life embracing system which embraces a vast number of practices to suit all kinds of aspirant, thus, sexuality, love, social life and artistic pursuits are considered vectors of spiritual evolution.

Tantra is simultaneously a precise ritualistic science and a wildly celebratory and  spontaneous expression our of innate human divinity. Spontaneity is encouraged during life and sadhana, however there are certain rituals that require exact precision lest the practitioner fall victim to possession of dark spirits and madness.

Visions of the Divine

There are six orthodox models that make up the bulk of Indian spiritual and philosophical thinking, these are called the darshanas. They recognise the ancient body of spiritual texts, together known as the Vedas, as the ultimate source of spiritual knowledge. (The orthodox [astika] darshanas are: Samkhya, Vaisheshika, Purva Mimamsa, Yoga, Nyaya and Vedanta.) 

There are other darshanas which are considered heterodox (nastika) that include Buddhism and Jainism among others. Tantra however is classed as more of a sub-school of Indian thought as it contains a number of concepts found within the classical darshanas whilst rejecting the Vedas as a  primary source of knowledge.

The important thing to consider is that the darshanas are not merely abstract ideas or concepts conjured up in someone’s mind, they are said to be truths that were actually realised by the sages and rishis who set them forth; revealed scripture.

Darshan is an event in consciousness whereby  there is a heightening of spiritual awareness or spirituality. The word darshana is often translated as “vision of the divine”. This is to say, divine wisdom is directly transmitted to the recipient so that he understands the truths in his own living experience. These experiences of truth were then systematised, sometimes codified and then presented by the ancient sages so that they could be understood and accessed by the common man in practical ways. 

Darshan can be received in deep mediation or in waking conciousness, through transmission of an enlightened master, a text, a specific ritual (puja), a piece of nature such as a mountain or a river and so on. 

In Tantra the World is REAL

Tantra’s emergence, signified a shamanic, goddess worshiping reaction to the masculist Vedic tradition. Tantra was a revolutionary response to the Vedic priesthood, hierarchy and caste system that prescribed which parts of society were fit for sadhana, worship and self liberation (namely, men of high birth) and which were not. Tantriks on the other hand were often subversive, wild women and men committed to a life of God-realisation with little or no care for moral codes, scripture or tradition.

The philosophy and practices of tantra are life affirming and inclusive. So the question begs answering, is tantra dualistic or non-dualistic? In brief, Indian Tantra is a series of both dualistic and non-dualistic technique-rich styles of spiritual practice. The Agamas (the traditional texts of tantra presented as a dialogue between Shiva and Shakti) appear to be both theistic and atheistic, both dualistic and non-dualistic but ultimately the highest teachings of Tantra found in the texts of Kashmiri Shaivism are non-dual: one thing, experienced as multiplicity in appearance only. 

The aspect of the universe that is organic nature; you and I, the food we eat, the earth we walk upon, indeed all the galaxies, all that we can see and feel, is the manifest reality and is therefore vibratory. All things vibrate, hum pulse, dance in and out of existence and this principle is known in tantra as Shakti (or in Samkhya philosophy, an atheistic philosophy which stems from tantra: prakriti.) 

In contrast, that which we cannot see, feel or know on the level of form is know as the realm of pure consciousness or spirit. This can only be fully  experientially ‘understood’ by the adept. It is our essential absolute nature, the unmanifest: known in tantra as Shiva, (in Samkhya, Purusha).

In Vedanta the term maya, meaning illusion or ‘that which appears as real’ is used to describe the manifest dimension of reality. One of the main tenants typically alluded to in this tradition is that only Brahman is real and all else is illusory. However the full dictum presented by Adi Shankaracharya (780 A.D.) is as follows:

“The world is an illusion,

Brahman alone is real,

The world is Brahman.”

In practice however, at least in modern times, the beautifully paradoxical and deeply life embracing tenor of the third line seems to be left out all together. ‘The world is Brahman.’ !

Interestingly Adi Shankaracharya who wrote these lines, remembered by most as the teacher of the purest Advaita Vedanta, was simultaneously very much a tantrik. Towards the end of his life he wrote poems to the Goddess and his text Sri Sundari Lahiri (waves of beauty) contain the essence of the subtlest of Sri Vidya Tantra. In addition, his text Prapanchasara Tantra also contains profound and detailed tantrik teachings.

In contrast to the way most Indian spiritual paths are presented, tantra has a world-encompassing rather than a world-denying character, thus aiming to bring about an inner realization of the truth that “Nothing exists that is not Divine” (nasivam vvidyate kvacit).

There are many schools of Indian tantra, some leaning toward a non dual philosophy and some to a dualistic philosophy. However, one vein that runs through most sects of tantra is that the manifest reality is not denied or called an illusion but is recognized as real.  Shakti is the visible, knowable face of Shiva; the revealed emblazonment of him.

In Tantra Shastra one harnesses Shakti, the vibratory manifest world, in order to transcend it and realise Shiva – pure consciousness prior to form. These tantrik practices incorporate mantra, visualisation, ritual, yoga postures, deity worship, astrology, magic, medicine, science, concentration, sexuality, relaxation and so on, in order to put oneself in resonance with beneficial universal energies which purify the individual and bring about  balance and spiritual upliftment. This along with the expansion of our sense of self into wider and wider dimensions of being, clear the way for the merger of Shakti and Shiva.

The concept of energy merging with consciousness is depicted beautifully by the image of the deity Nataraja, the Dancing Shiva. In terms of kundalini tantra (a yogic application of tantra) Nataraja implies kundalini energy rising along the central energy pathway in the spine (sushumna nadi) until it has reached the crown chakra where Shiva consciousness is symbolically located. When this occurs there is the merger of the individual consciousness (atman) with universal consciousness (para-atman), known as yoga, union. The image of Nataraja represents the dance of the kosmos (god, goddess, all that is, both manifest and unmanifest) where Shakti has merged into Shiva who is usually latent and innate rousing him into wholeness and ecstasy.

Similar to the word yoga, tantra also means the technique that the sadhak employs in order to awaken / merge with the supreme. The various forms of yoga: bhakti yoga, raja yoga, hatha yoga, karma yoga, jnana yoga and so on are outlined in my ‘What is yoga?’ essay.

In tantrik yoga we get acquainted with the subtle energies within us which correspond to the five manifest elements ( earth, water, fire, air and ether) in order to purify and balance our systems and eventually transcend the manifest and remember the original spark of conceptual inspiration from which they came in to creation: Shiva.

The Chakras

In tantra we use the various  energy centres in the body known as the chakras to intuitively access the elements, sometimes through manipulation of the body or breath. For example, in Hatha yoga we use the body through asana (postures), pranayama (control of vital energy), mudra (gestures, attitudes) and bandha (locks), ultimately they all clear the way and lead to Shiva: pure unwavering, unchanging consciousness without form. Whilst Tantrik yogis recognise the supreme reality of Shiva, they simultaneously recognise that ‘he’ is not separate from manifest creation and therefore overtly worship Shakti in a myriad of ways. The tantras are full of stanzas extolling the divinity of women and in both kaulachudamani Tantra & the Brihad Nila Tantra, the koula is instructed to recite a mantra inwardly whenever he sees a woman: 

“Women are heaven; women are dharma; & women are the highest penance. Women are Buddha, women are the sangha and women are the perfection of wisdom.”

A prevalent understanding in many Vedantic, as well as many (non-tantric) Buddhist and other masculist approaches to awakening, is that life, creation and all that is manifest is maya – illusion, and in practice this means that life is often times denied or rejected in favour of ‘the absolute’. In these monasteries and ashrams, we see that the body is not cared for sufficiently, the food is bland and often lacks nutrition, there is very little zeal or colour and the senses are repressed. Furthermore there can be an attitude of male superiority institutionalised by the fact that many sacred texts across a number of traditions directly denounce the inherent value of women.

I remember once hearing the story of a traveller, a western aspirant who walked for miles to meet a famous cave yogi who had been meditating for years in one place and when they eventually spoke, the one thing the yogi said to the traveller was this: ‘women are evil.’ … of all the things he could have said, that was the one insight he chose to share. Sadly, though there are many gems of wisdom and beauty to be found in the Vedic scriptures, also to be found therein is an abhorrent array of male chauvinistic sentiments very much in tune with this yogi’s feelings.

Even Swami Sivananda of Rishikesh who was a famous proponent of Vedanta is known to have written to one of his male disciples advising that if the disciple were to see a woman he should ‘turn and run in the opposite direction.’ ! (In those days nearly all of Sivananda’s sannyasins were males and were certainly celibate.) Whilst this may have been sound advice given the context of the individual disciples process at that time, it still demonstrates one of the underlying characteristics of the Vedantic approach; avoidance of engaging in certain activities, thought to be of a lower, less spiritual vibration.

So clearly, in the orthodox Vedic traditions (as well as other world traditions) the body, senses, sexuality and so on, are in practice, frequently renounced and repressed, instead choosing to work with the higher vibration, seemingly more spiritual energies. Many yogis such as Sivananda have practiced these very strong Vedantic austerities with amazing results and he was no doubt an advanced being for his time and cultural setting but consciousness is shifted and both his way and his enlightenment seem very antiquated and incomplete in the modern, Aquarian age of spiritual awakening.  

From the tantric perspective, this transcendent path implies an emphasis on working with the higher chakras and not engaging directly with the lower ones. There are stories of yogis who have developed the higher chakras to incredible levels without a care for the lower chakras. (Ken Wilbur elucidates this beautifully  through his integral model of personal development where there are various lines and quadrants representing the different aspects of growth, some of which can be highly developed in an individual whilst simultaneously others can be completely stunted. ) For example there is the story of Totapuri, a powerful yogi and the guru of Ramakrishna Paramahamsa who one day displayed his fury in front of his disciple when a man walking past stopped to light his cigarette from Totapuri’s dhuni (sacred fire), where they were performing rituals. Totapuri flew into a rage and chased the man away. Ramakrishna seeing this behaviour was surprised to see that his guru still possessed so much rage and chastised him for it. So Totapuri chose to overcome his anger by purifying his manipura chakra and from that day on lived a life free of anger. The point is, he didn’t necessarily need to do this as his realisation of  absolute truth was already in place, but he chose to when he realised that this would in fact be in some way a further progression for the soul – and in order to please his disciple. This just goes to show how a master can have access to and abide predominantly in the absolute ‘state’ and yet simultaneously be very much unfinished at a human level.

Tantra says ‘start where you are at‘ and in the modern world, we are generally absorbed in the lower centres and the trappings thereof, so this is where we begin and this is why the path of tantra seems more fitting and practical to the western aspirant. In tantra we use the level at which we are already living without denying or suppressing anything and start our spiritual path from there. 

In pure Vedanta the chakras and the subtle elements are not approached as directly or as deliberately as we would do in yoga and tantra. However, inadvertently and unavoidably the chakra system is at play. Roughly speaking through study of the holy scriptures one will activate ajna chakra, through prayer the heart opens (anahata chakra is purified). Similarly through devotion one opens and purifies the heart, through chanting, emotions can be purified and one is inadvertently working with the throat, heart and other chakras, through meditation and insight one is activating ajna chakra and so on. 

Our chakras are routinely and unconsciously activated in the day-to-day activities of life, so of course they are powerfully activated by deliberate spiritual practice. Other traditions may not use the terminology of tantra or have knowledge of the chakras but nevertheless, according to the tantric perspective, the chakras are nevertheless activated. For example in Christianity, by singing and praying for god, or reciting the prayer of the heart or  contemplating the sacrifice of Jesus, anahata chakra will inevitably be activated and perhaps purified.

Without calling it anahata chakra (or using the mantras for anahata or visualising it’s colours) or even conceiving of such a thing as a chakra, the reality is that if one sings, prays and pours out one’s heart for God (in any form) one will feel energy in anahata. Eventually your heart will be bursting with devotion, with what is called in yoga bhakti.  More about chakras and bhakti later.

Significantly, the lower chakras which can be a storehouse of negative emotions including anxiety, depression, shame and so on, are not directly addressed in Vedanta or in many other spiritual paths which favour transcendental approach. This is probably due to the fact that life and ones place in society was much simpler in ancient times than it is now with all of stresses and pressures of modern living, we have problems now that simply could not have been conceived of back in time. The modern ego is more complex and the contribution of modern western psychological approaches have been an important factor in the efficiency of traditional spiritual ‘technologies’ for dealing with the disturbances of these lower centres. These approaches align very well with the tantric approach of embracing everything and leaving no stone unturned and most modern day proponents of tantra agree that this so called ‘shadow work’ is an imperative aspect of the tantric path.

Without Mantra there is no Tantra

Sanskrit is said to be the first language and according to the ancient yogis and seers, the fifty four sounds of the Sanskrit alphabet are expressions and permutation of Pranava, (the one primordial sound: Aum). The ancients tell us that Aum is the vibration that ignited manifestation as previous to this event  all there was was pure potentiality; a primordial void. This latency was pregnant with creative energy unexpressed, and Aum is the expressed vibratory resonance, when the one appears as two. From the initial void, Shiva and Shakti appear. 

The bible has a similar creation myth ‘first there was the word and the word was god and the word was with god’ implying that creation began with a sound vibration. As in a plethora of other theologies.

This universal, cosmic sound, Aum, is called a bija mantra or seed syllable and all of creation, the manifest and the unmanifest (Shiva and Shakti) are expressed within the symbol and the sound of the vibration Aum.

Shiva and Shakti are most commonly known as the male and female god and goddess; Shiva depicted as the blue skinned yogi sitting in constant meditation and Shakti as a beautiful sari clad goddess in continual motion. However, prior to the seers’ darshan of these images (mandalas) it is said that Shiva and Shakti existed only as subtle vibrations expressing their abstract meaning. When expressed in sound these subtle vibratory currents were approximated by the sounds ‘Shiva’ and ‘Shakti’. The same applies for the various other (so called) Hindu deities such as Krishna, Durga, Ganapati and so on. 

Carl Jung gave a succinct and modern interpretation of the pantheon of Hindu deities which ameliorated the western world’s understanding of the value of the tantrik traditions. He explained that the deities were aspects of the universal psyche and are therefore aspects of our own psyche; part of us. Parts of our psyche create, parts destroy, parts seek out untruth, parts enjoy beauty; and for each there is deity represented in mantric, yantric and mandala form.

Creation and Aum

Though no one really has a good explanation for creation, great yogis have postulated, perhaps unconvincingly, that creation occurred due to some dynamic kosmic vagary to create. Allegorically speaking, Shiva in order to see and celebrate the glory of himself, expressed himself through Aum and as Shakti, and she created

This point is expressed beautifully in the Bhairava Vijnana Tantra: ‘Shakti is the face of Shiva’. Shiva is the initial spark of conception and Shakti is the manifestation and actualisation of this spark. Shiva cannot do anything by himself, he just is and it is his Shakti (his energy) who creates, who destroys, who throws her webs of creation and manifestation (or maya / illusion as Vedanta calls this). Shiva we can say is like a rock who sits steady, solid, unmoving in meditation, he is the unmanifest, and his consciousness gives her the strength and inspiration to create. Without Shiva, Shakti would be untamed, ferocious, unintelligible, pure dynamism, energy and force: pure Shakti like a trillion lighting strikes going off all around the universe at once, totally untamed and undirected. It is Shiva’s power of concentration, conceptualisation and control that allows Shakti to express herself in coherent manifestations of form: the oceans, the trees, the various planets, the galaxies. Without Shakti, Shiva is consciousness without form, unmanifest, inert and unchanging, without Shiva, Shakti is chaotic and without structure.

So the question arises, why did he bother? Why create? Why bring the unmanifest into manifestation? The tantrik perspective might postulate that it is all just a game, a lila, a play. A celebration of separateness and then of the coming together, a Kosmic game of hide and seek. Implying that the meaning of life is to move from our material understanding and perception of reality to an expanded state of consciousness where we realise the true nature of our being; consciousness itself prior to form or any division. Where in Kashmiri Shaivism, this is called Shiva, in the Vedas our true essence is called Satchitananda: pure being, pure consciousness, pure bliss. Our job as tantriks is to come home to Shiva, to return to the absolute source of being, allowing the manifest, creative aspects of our selves to lead us there. This is often referred to as the ascent and one of the important aspects which makes tantra distinct from other paths is that it equally emphasises the descent which must follow. That is to say, the awakening to the formless absolute prior to manifestation is integrated into the individual, the human dimension of one’s being, and this purifying descending current of consciousness roots out any remaining vasanas (conditioned psychic tendencies). This process is not necessarily as linear as as it sounds here and it seems that the depth of ones access and absorption into the absolute determines the depths and breadth to which they can subsequently bring this into their humanity. However as mentioned, this does not mean that one with a deep realisation of the absolute will be predisposed or have a willingness (or the skills) to begin this descending embodiment. Many yogis are (what Robert Bly in his book ‘Iron John’ would call) bird men; ascenders who’s feet hover above the ground and whose heads are in the clouds.

The Laws of Correspondence and Resonance

As mentioned earlier, many mantras are short and direct. They are succinct and punchy like ‘klim‘, ‘srim‘, ‘dum‘ and so on. They are like subtle vibratory keys that unlock potential energies. They correspond with chakras, deities, natural forces, planets and so on.

Aside from bija mantras there are numerous extended mantras which use strings of sounds from the Sanskrit alphabet. Similar to bija mantras, these correspond with certain energies and forces of nature and the psyche. For example Tripura Sundari is the aspect of Shakti which is beauty, Kali is Shakti as time, Mahakala is the aspect of Shiva which is death, Mrityunjaya is the furious aspect of Shiva and so forth.  Each of these deities have corresponding invocatory vibrations just as every padlock needs a key so that it can spring open. Uttering bija mantras or longer mantras such as these, puts the yogi in resonance with these very beneficial and spiritualising energies. There are mantras for longevity, for health and healing, for good fortune, for increasing one’s intelligence and so on.

There are many uses for mantra – there are mantras for longevity, health and healing, good fortune, increasing one’s intelligence, connecting with various elements, gaining material prosperity, heat and so on. There are even mantras for killing. A famous Western author and tantrik Arthur Avalon in one of his books tells of a moment where his teacher, upon noticing a scorpion close to his leg, utters a single bija mantra killing it in an instant. 

Just as radios waves are all around us, unseen, so too, there exists a plethora of other unseen energies of varying frequencies all around us. The vibratory current of every feeling, thought, element, planet, sound or any other concept we can conceive of (and no doubt many that we cannot) are existent on some subtle dimension of being and are equally available to the initiated. 

There is a central tenet in tantra which says that whatever exists in the macrocosm (the universe around us) must necessarily exist within the microcosm, the human unit. We can call this the principle of correspondence.

The degree to which we perceive these phenomena depends upon our individual constitution and in order to ‘pick up’ any kind of energy we must be either consciously or unconsciously tuning in to their bandwidth so to speak; just as a radio can tune in to a particular radio frequency. It is important to consider that the radio frequencies do not belong to the radio, they are quite separate from it. Similarly wind does not belong to a sail boat but simply propels it along. The sailboat does not carry any fuel to propel itself, it does not store and use the wind, it is impossible but instead the sails of the sailboat catch the wind and utilise it to move the boat forward.

Similarly, the yogis tell us that energy does not belong to the human organism or in fact any organism. For example, just as the function of heat is found in the universe, so too there is the function of heat within us and the heat which we generate internally depends upon the degree to which we correspond with the macrocosmic vibration of heat. We must make ourselves resonate at a similar frequency to the energy of heat so that we fall in sync with it and then ‘charge up’ from it. This is an example of what we can call the law of resonance.

Resonance is when two similar systems that are operating independently to one another yet vibrating at similar frequencies, come into proximity with one another, correspond with one another energetically and eventually come into sync through a transfer of vibration. Think of the last time you met someone you resonated with, one (rather dry) way to describe the reason for this is that your subtle bodies were simply vibrating at a similar frequency to one another and that feeling of being in sync is what gave you the experience of connection.

Think of the beautiful harmonies created when many voices sing together, or the ways in which a room full of pendulum clocks will eventually sync together, or the way that when groups of women live together for extended periods of time their monthly cycles come in to sync (often further synchronised with the coming of the full moon, especially within groups living a natural, healthy life), all of these examples, according to tantra, are due to the law of resonance.

Tantrik Yoga and the Chakras

Yoga is the deliberate, technical application of these tantric principles and it is said by Swami Satyananda that tantra is the mother and yoga is the son; a practical and methodical expression of tantra, an empirical science.

By practicing yoga we can put ourselves in deliberated resonance with certain universal energies, we do this systematically, depending on our needs, blockages and psychology. To further the radio analogy; in order to pick up the frequencies around us and then put ourselves in resonance with them we require first some kind of aerial and secondly some kind of tuning device.

It is clearly expounded in the tantrik texts (such as the Spandakarana) that our energy centres, the chakras are our antennae. So the main purpose of the chakras is to collect the energy frequencies from the atmosphere around us. According to yoga, the chakras are the plexus within our energetic body where the energetic (pranic) pathways cross over in the densest concentration. They are also psychic centres which correspond with all phenomena in all of creation; from the forces and elements of the universe to very abstract frequencies such as thoughts and feelings and subtle elements like colours, smells, sound vibrations and so on. Within the chakra system nothing is left out, everything that exists within the universe is represented within man. This is expressed poetically in a number of traditions: according to Kabbalah, ‘whatever is up is down, whatever is down is up, thus rounding up the miracle of the wholeness’ . In Sufism it is said: ‘Man is a small universe and the universe is a big man’ and in the Bible, ‘man is made in the image of God’. 

Multiple theologies seem to agree that we are holographic copies of the universe and most esoteric, mystical, practice rich branches of these spiritual systems agree that we can put ourselves in deliberate resonance with its energies.

It is our focussed awareness that acts like the tuning device. By focussing our mind with pinpoint accuracy and unwavering concentration for prolonged periods at specific chakras we begin to resonate with the beneficial energies we are aiming to receive and charge ourselves with these energies. Tantric yogic practices orient towards the balancing and purification of these subtle elements within us.

Whether it be Hatha Yoga, Mantra Yoga or other tantric practices, ultimately by working with these energies, the individual can become purified and balanced, clearing the energetic pathways (nadis) and the energy centres (chakras) so that kundalini Shakti can eventually rise. 

The chakras correspond with the various elements, starting with earth then water, fire, air then ether, each element becoming more subtle as we move up through the chakras. Ether does not refer to the material element of ether, it is the space within which the other elements are held, it is very subtle. Once we reach Ajna chakra, located in the centre of the head, the energies become so subtle they become spiritual energies.

Part of Kundalini Tantra deals with sublimating gross energies, that is to say heavier, denser energies (such as earth energy) into the more refined spiritual centres. 

Some forms of raja yoga such as kundalini, hatha and kriya yoga are the expression of tantra which work with the chakras and energies but not all tantric forms of spirituality are technical or work so mechanically, for example bhakti yoga, which is predominantly the yoga of directing ones emotions to the divine.

Bhakti and your God

Based on the above exposition, it is no wonder that many people perceive tantra as being merely a technology for shifting energies from lower centres to higher centres, (as in kundalini tantra or kriya yoga). This is part of the yogic expression of tantra however it is not the totality of tantra. Swami Satyananda an enlightened tantric yogi and bhakta said that just as spaghetti is bland without the sauce so is yoga tasteless without bhakti and it seems that every Indian saint or yogi who ever lived agreed in one way or another, even the Jnanis.

Bhakti, is a vritti: a form of content within consciousness, and it is fundamental to tantra. Bhakti is the juice; it is the oil between the cogs which gives tantra its magic. Without bhakti, spiritual practice can become tasteless, dry and without real meaning.

Bhakti generally requires an understanding of God in form and it is the yoga of devotion to the divine represented in that form. Tantriks usually worship the forms of Shiva and Shakti though there is a myriad of other gods to choose as one’s Ishta Devata (chosen form of god). 

In a sense, tantra is the science of goddess worship because the manifest reality is Shakti and by honouring her and working with all energies rather than working with some and against others we are worshipping the divine feminine in all her colours. Within tantra there are many sects who have a variety of presiding deities: Vishnu, Shiva, Surya, Ganapati and so forth. However it is observable that in the majority of tantric ceremonies and rituals in India it is Shakti in all her myriad manifestations that are favoured and worshipped above all other forms. There is a specific Goddess cult within tantra where shakti is worshipped and invoked in various ways, called  Maha Vidya or Sri Vidya. In this practice, over a series of years the yogi is initiated into various energies such as Kali, Tara, Tripura Sundari and so on and their mantras, yantras and various forms of ritual are utilised to connect and activate those energies within the aspirant. 

In other theistic spirituals paths God is worshipped without form, for example in Islam and its mystical offshoot, Sufism and in some paths within the Vedantic culture. So what is the advantage of worshipping God in form?

It is impossible for a human to conceive of, visualise or understand Brahman (God/Goddess/all that is) as a concept. It implies being everything, and nothing at the same time, a massive transcendent void, omnipresent, omnipotent and formless. It is rather nebulous, abstract and conceptual… how can we worship a concept? Then the question arises (perhaps from the mouths of certain Advaitans): Why worship anything at all? To which there is no logical answer as bhakti is beyond logic, beyond the mundane mind and comes from somewhere fundamentally deeper and more mysterious. It is a inner yearning that either you have or you do not, it cannot be learned or understood, it must arises spontaneously as an intense longing to surrender one’s ego completely in and as an offering to the divine and merge with her…

There are a myriad forms of the divine that can be worshipped and in many ways. According to the text called the Bhakti Sutras, traditionally there are nine forms of bhakti. The most common form with westerners who have taken up the path of bhakti yoga is chanting devotionally. This is known as kirtanam, the chanting or singing of the names of the guru or the Ishta Devata (chosen form of God). In India the most common form of bhakti is Archanam, ritualistic worship by making offerings to the Ishta Devata. It is carried out by householders and monastics alike and is the most common expression of yoga that has survived through the ages. In fact despite most people’s perception that Hinduism is an expression of Vedanta, what is commonly practiced as ‘Hinduism’ (though this is a very problematic term as it describes a whole bundle of separate sects and cults based around a myriad of scriptures, darshanas and doctrine) in India is predominantly tantric in essence with a strong emphasis on Archanam. However with true bhakti, the most important thing is the attitude with which the rituals are performed. If they are performed with little real awareness, or in order to ask for money, favours and so on then this is not true bhakti as the intent is selfish rather than submissive; a subversion of Archanam for fulfilling human desires.

These (daily) observances are, loosely speaking, a mixture of vedantic and tantric practices whereby specific ritualistic forms of worship are undertaken, known as puja. Performed correctly, this is where the pujari (priest) and lay people alike use certain paraphernalia and offerings in a very particular, scientific way in order to access and activate certain energies / invoke certain deities. By carrying out certain rituals, powerful and beneficent energies can be unlocked and activated and felt potently by those present often bringing about a shift in consciousness. During puja one may use specific flowers, incense, crystals, herbs, metals and materials such as milk, ghee, honey and so on to adorn deities in their mandala and yantra form.

Forms of God can be represented as mandala or devamurtis (Deva: God, murti: image). Murtis are depictions of God in human (or quasi – human) or animal form (statues of this kind are seen everywhere in India), of which there are hundreds, each one with its specific meaning, story and energy that it represents.

Though these energies and deities are constantly with and in us, we need mandala as a tangible symbol in order to invoke the energy of that deity into our lives, in this case, our devotion is the tuning device and the ritual is the antenna.

The oldest book known to mankind is the Rig Veda. Its first stanza is dedicated to Agni, fire. Similarly, in tantra, fire is an important device for worship as it is said to be the link between man’s consciousness and the universal consciousness. It therefore has the ability to convert material offerings into psychic components. The practice of havan or agni-hotra is a fire puja using specific mantras and materials that are fed to the fire (known as samagrih – a mixture of herbs and spices) as an offering and to invoke beneficial energies. The fire is placed on top of a geometric design etched into the sand or carved into copper; a yantra which is a mathematically sophisticated representation of the deity. These very specific scientific techniques act as a key that unlocks and activates certain universal energies, which are beneficial to those participating in, or present at the ritual and the world at large. This is all part of Archanam bhakti.

Bhakti is a yoga which comes naturally to man and in a sense it is the easiest yoga, after all doesn’t a baby worship and yearn for its mother and are not one’s parents as Gods to a young child? So if we have had this experience in infancy then surely bhakti is already an instinctive part of the human psyche. 

Generally speaking, for us as humans, worshipping god in form is more natural to us than worshipping God without form. It is difficult for example to conceptualise the energy of learning, knowledge, wisdom, creativity and music. Instead the seers personified this energy as Saraswati; a beautiful woman in a white sari playing a rudra veena, (a large Indian instrument) with a book in front of her representing learning. Or how do we put ourselves in resonance with abundance and prosperity? For this we have Lakshmi, the goddess of abundance represented as a beautiful goddess in a red sari with gold coins eternally flowing from one of her hands. There is an almost endless pantheon of deities which represent the various aspect of the universe, all of which can be accessed through the practices of tantra. 

Sexual Tantra

For centuries, tantra has been misunderstood in both the west and the east. To this day, in India tantra is commonly associated with black magic, curses and seemingly aberrant behaviour involving corpses, cremation grounds and the underworld. Whilst these and other highly skilled and risky kinds of practices can be found in Vama Marga (left path tantra), they are not as abominable as they sound, mostly being performed to benevolent and beneficial ends. 

Whilst most Hindus have this unsavoury misconception of tantra, in fact the majority of ‘Hindu’ practices and the deities most commonly worshipped in India, come directly from tantra rather than from the Vedas as usually thought (it is not common to see temples to Indra or Agni but  Kali and Shiva temples abound).

Similarly erroneous, in the west the word tantra is taken to mean a kind of pseudo-spiritual sexual practice involving a variety of new age techniques such as eye gazing, free form dancing, genital massage and dry humping (for want of an alternative phrase). 

Though all these things can be beneficial to ones personal and sexual development, in and of themselves it is ambiguous whether or not these practices are distinctly tantric, just as washing the dishes, or having sex are not patently tantric and their link to what was traditionally called tantra by the gurus and ancient texts in India is tenuous at best. 

This said however, in the context of tantra as a way of being, it is the attitude with which any endeavour is carried out which dictates its tantrik authenticity and the tantrik masters of yore were truly radical in their teachings, prescribing anything that works for the individual student including no doubt all of the above and more. As we have said, tantra is a life affirming doctrine so necessarily, it not only includes sexuality but elevates it to one of the highest forms of worship.

So in this context, tantra is a sacred attitude of deep reverence and intimacy with all of life. It is a deeply sensual and intimate conscious participation with the intensity of the moment in whatever it presents, however seemingly banal. The tantrik masters of both India and Tibet spoke of how one should savour the simplest of acts as if they were a form of worship, whether it be walking on the earth, listening to music, drinking a cup of tea, breathing into the depths of ones belly or having sex. These activities become consecrated and conscious, elevating the spirit beyond the mundane, psychical plane to the higher reaches of consciousness.

So by this definition almost anything can be tantrik. The problem is however, the practices involving sexual energy are rather advanced and even more so those practices that involve more than one person, such as maithuna (sacred sexual practice) so in reality what tends to happen is that nearly all modern day ‘tantra’ / neo-tantra activities miss the mark and further solidifying body image, ego identification and narcissistic pleasure seeking. To some degree this is down to the intention and level of consciousness of the individual facilitator and the individual practitioner. 

Whilst traditionally sexuality played a part in certain aspects of ‘left path’ tantra (Vama marga), it is a small aspect within the full paradigm of tantra. That the west has taken the word tantra and emphasised and subverted one aspect is of little wonder given our pre-occupation with and debased use of sexuality. 

A big piece that is generally missing in sex is the aspect of devotion, which is imperative in sexual  tantra. It is said that every time a man makes love to a woman, Shiva makes love to Shakti but without true surrender, devotion, consecration and sublimation, this magical aspect of the love-making act is lost. The sexual act is reduced to a physical expression of an animalistic impulse. Ken Wilber and David Deida speak beautifully of the three levels at which we can engage in sex: our awareness can be just with the gross, with the astral and gross or with the astral, gross and casual bodies.

In order to be conscious of these subtle and devotional aspects one must expand one’s awareness by embodying the archetype that your gender dictates. If Shiva is to unite with Shakti then the male must become Shiva, one must see oneself as Shiva and at the same time one must transmute one’s partner – to see her as Shakti. Then love making can become a form of worship: the play of consciousness and energy.

Sexual tantra is a way to merge with God through surrender to and service of your partner. Without bhakti, there is no tantra and without an intense yearning to know the truth of who you are, to transcend the mind and realise God, the practices of pseudo-sexual tantra can become a distraction and a form of self-indulgent pleasure seeking, so it is important to have the right intentions when treading this path.

Kundalini Tantra and Sexual Union

Some of the techniques taught in western tantra however, can be very useful and powerful, having their basis in meditations from the tantric texts (often interpretations of practices from the Vijnana Bhairava Tantra or sexual practices which involve energy, chakra and nadi awareness) but so often the element of bhakti is missing along with other fundamental aspects such as sexual continence (non-ejaculation) and sublimation (raising energies from the lower regions). 

According to tradition, for true maituna practice, kundalini must be awakened and Kechari must be drinking amrita from the pericarp of the head, meaning ones elongated tongue should be lodged deep into one’s skull passing the nasal canal to receive a kind of sacred nectar that is said to flow with the awakening of kundalini. This is very advanced and all other sexual tantric practices are really preliminary preparations for this true tantric occurrence. 

According to tantra and many other traditions, without prana shakti (chi, qi etc.) we would be dead. We are made of Shakti and also have Shakti running within us, sustaining us. She is prana (life force energy) and exists within us as the five pranas which take care of all our bodily functions. Each prana has it’s own particular function and we need them all; to digest, to breath , to move and so on but also within us exists another expression of Shakti. This is a primal and powerful source of Shakti known as Kundalini Shakti, consisting of a vital, sexual-spiritual energy.

She is a purely energetic force residing around the root chakra, close to the tailbone. When she is bound to the individual mind she is expressed as ahamkara ‘I feeling’ but when the little ego is transcended and kundalini is therefore no longer bound, she rises up to meet with Shiva. According to tantra, kundalini ma lies dormant like a coiled serpent until we are purified and balanced enough for this energy to rise. This said, some advanced forms of tantra such as Aghora work in far more mysterious and dangerous ways and care nothing for purity as we know it, having transcended the material energies of the three gunas.

So in a mechanical, yogic sense, we purify the body, the chakras, the nadis (energy pathways / meridians ), unlock the granthis (psychic knots that inhibit kundalini from rising) and eventually kundalini ma can begin to rise. This must be done in a gradual, systematic way and many yogis have warned against incorrect or haphazard practices which could cause kundalini to rise before the individual’s system is ready to handle such a force, otherwise it would be like plugging a low wattage light bulb into an extremely high power source. Psychic fuses can be blown which could result in serious repercussions such as nervous break down, insanity or even death.

Sometimes during yoga practice we experience rushes of energy up the spine: cool, tingling, or hair raising experiences. This experience can also occur spontaneously during very emotive situations such as when singing bhajans or during meditation or love-making. This we can say is some permutation, some subsidiary essence of kundalini, nothing like her full and intense expression. It is pleasurable and gives us some idea of how energy can move through Shushumna Nadi (also know as Meru Danda) – the energy pathway that runs within the spine.

This is partly why love-making can be such a powerful form of yoga because the added dimension of external polarity; the masculine working with the feminine which is created by being joined with a partner, heightens the experience of rising energy through the body and makes for a very unique practice which may not be achieve so readily working alone.

When one comes into resonance with ones partner and works to purify chakras and raise energy together, one can become so sensitive that it is possible to feel into one another’s bodies. Just as we can feel energy rising up our own spines, through the practice of sexual tantra it is possible to become so attuned that we feel energy rising up our partner’s spine as if that body were an extension of our own (see David Deida’s publications for more on this). It is even possible to astrally leave one’s own body and enter in to the body of one’s partner. It must be remembered though that none of this is done for pleasure alone, it is a disciplined form of advanced tantric sadhana and is for the purpose of awakening and worship. Many texts speak of the importance of having transcended one’s lower nature and purified even the primal desire to have sex before one is ready for such advanced practices. 

Tantric Yoga

When we say that a form of yoga is tantric what do we mean? Hatha yoga for example, is a tantric form of spiritual practice because it engages the manifest dimension (see ‘What is Yoga?’ essay for full definition). It begins with the body and energies therein, to attune with subtle universal energies and then ‘reach’ the un-manifest. 

However the fact that hatha yoga is a form of sadhana (spiritual practice) seems to have been lost in nearly all modern hatha yoga classes where yoga is taught as a kind of aerobics or callisthenics and the focus is very much physical rather than spiritual. Awareness and concentration upon the spiritual aspects are not emphasised in favour of gaining flexibility, strength and having perfect alignment. By focussing in the physical body we can definitely attain some stillness and heightened awareness but the spiritual dimension is missing. 

Swami Satyanada said that awareness is the alpha and the omega of yoga and that without awareness there is no yoga. Which begs the question; awareness of what? The muscles, ligaments and skeleton as commonly taught? The breath ? The stretch? 

Tantra requires the appreciation of both Shiva and Shakti which in Hatha yoga means there must be awareness of the spiritual dimension as well as the physical. Traditional tantrik systems deal predominantly with the spiritual dimension. If we forget that yoga is a form of sadhana and is an expression of the tantrashashtra (i.e. It is an application of the tantrik principles) then it is questionable whether the term yoga is even applicable for these kinds of modern extrapolations.

According to some of the traditional tantric texts, known as the agamas or tantras, whilst practicing asana the focus of attention should be on the activation of the particular chakras and the movement of the prana within ones system, whilst also recognising and harnessing various universal energies. The yogi can become sensitive to earth energy rising up into the body or cosmic energy descending down into the body and so on. Rather than being focussed solely within the physical body in ‘Heart of Tantra’ we focus mainly in the energetic body.

Even in the Yoga Sutras, a text of raja yoga, Patanjali says that during asana (meaning in this case a seated posture), the yogi’s focus should be on the universe.

Yoga says that man possesses five bodies (koshas), each vibrating at a different speed. Each kosha signifies a more refined dimension of consciousness, the first being the physical body known as annamaya kosha; the body or sheath made of food (anna). The second one being the body made of prana (energy), this is pranamaya kosha which pervades the physical body and extends beyond it for a few inches.

So feeling the physical heart beating in your chest is very different from turning your awareness to anahata chakra, the heart chakra, or to Hridayakash the subtle energy field of the spiritual heart. Anahata chakra along with all the chakras does not exist in the physical body alone and certainly there is no physical organ called a chakra though there are glands close to most of the chakras which correspond to the functioning of each chakra. The chakras are said to exist in the pranic body (which permeates the physical body) and extend into the more subtle bodies. By focussing on the energies and the chakras, we put ourselves in resonance with certain beneficial universal currents which exist not only at the level of the pranic body but also at more and more subtle layers as they move through the various sheaths of our being. Think of russian dolls with energy centres passing through each layer.

The third kosha is Manomaya, the dimension of the lower mind, incorporating intellect, reason, concept and memory. The fourth body is Vijnanamaya kosha which is the body of higher knowledge, intuitive awareness and abstract understanding. The most subtle body is anandamaya kosha. It is essentially a body of pure universal light in the realm of spiritual bliss, beyond the reach of language.

All these bodies exist within the realm of Shakti and being able to perceive an underlying stillness and witnessing consciousness beneath and pervading these subtle energies is the awareness of Shiva, the formless. Without both there is no yoga.

Within a ‘tantrik’ system of yoga one can use a number of tools for resting deeply in the present moment and being with what is. One may simultaneously focus on the subtle inner breath to move deeper into awareness of the energetic aspects of the practice. One may use the breath as a crutch to access and penetrate the chakras by consciously placing one’s awareness on this vehicle. 

The Vijnana Bhairava Tantra expresses another wonderful way in which the breath can be used. It can be applied in meditation, daily life or in hatha yoga practice to access the formless (Bhairava and Bhairavi are none other that Shiva and Shakti) :

22-23. O supreme God! You who bear a trident and a garland of skulls, how to reach the absolute plenitude of the Shakti which transcends all notions, all descriptions and abolishes time and space? How to realize this non-separation from the universe? In what sense is it said that the supreme Shakti is the secret door to the state of Bhairava? Can you answer in common language these absolute questions?

24. The supreme Shakti reveals herself when inbreath and outbreath are born and die at the two extreme points, top and bottom. Thus, between two breaths, experience infinite space.

25. Between inbreath and outbreath, between stopping and going, when breath stands still at the two extreme points, inner heart and outer heart, two empty spaces will be revealed to you: Bhairava and Bhairavi.

26. With a relaxed body when exhaling and inhaling, lose your mind and perceive your heart, the energy center where the absolute essence of Bhairava flows.

When you have breathed in or out completely, when the breath movement stops on its own, in this universal lull, the thought of “me” disappears and the Shakti reveals herself.

28. Consider the Shakti as bright, subtler and subtler light, carried upwards through the lotus stem, from center to center, by the energy of the breath. When it subsides in the upper center, it is Bhairava’s awakening.

29. The heart opens up and, from center to center, Kundalini rushes up like lightening. Then Bhairava’s glory is manifested.

As well as special attention to the breath, ‘The Heart of Tantra’ yoga system places a special importance on mantra above the other two mainstays of tantra; yantra and mandala. The use of mantra whilst putting our bodies in particular shapes is a unique and powerful aspect of tantrik hatha yoga. 

Similarly by focussing in specific chakras and visualising specific geometric shapes, the potency of our practice is increased. During a class we may visualise simple yantras or mandalas at the chakra points or perhaps a candle flame moving along the spine in rhythm with the breath. 

Where the mind goes prana flows, so during hatha yoga or yoga nidra we may visualise energy moving around the body in various circuits in order to bring beneficial vibrations into the body, intensify the activation of particular chakras and purify the energy pathways known as nadis. For example whilst practicing uddiyana bandha (the abdominal lock for sublimating the lower energies up to the higher centres) we visualise energy rushing from the lower chakras up to the higher chakras, we feel this energy move and some will visualise it as light or colour. Whilst performing padahastasana, (a standing forward bend) instead of focusing on the stretch in the ham strings, the rotation of the legs, the elongation of the spine, or the lift of the pelvic floor as one may do in other yoga styles, we may visualise roots extending from out feet and fingers tips deep into the core of the earth and with each breath inhaling great waves of healing telluric / earth energy up the legs to mooladhara chakra, along the body and then down the arms, expelling stagnant, waste energy back into the earth to be purified. With each rotation we visualise our root chakra throbbing and expanding with energy, being purified and balanced by the light of our conscious presence. We maybe focus directly into mooladhara chakra itself and watch a certain colour, or visualise the residing deity of mooladhara or specific archetypal symbols which correspond with mooladhara.

Whichever tantrik technique we employ, the purpose is to move into the more subtle aspects of the human personality, beyond the confines of the physical body, mind or emotions. So in a ‘Heart of Tantra’ class we may practice hatha or raja yoga but the focus is often on moving very deeply into a state of stillness, fixed in the subtle depth of our conscious presence and using a subtle form of self investigation; an intuition into  ‘Who am I?’, ‘What am I?’. This jnana yoga approach is sometimes employed whilst a specific chakra is activated or whilst focussing within the spiritual heart, head space or belly. Accord to many enlightened masters, this subtle inner enquiry method leads to our consciousness becoming rooted in the unmanifest, freed from a purely material existence, one with ShivaShakti.

‘The Heart of Tantra’ yoga system

First and foremost, Yoga is an empirical science of awakening. This implies that we must first know and experience that we are in some way asleep and start our exploration towards truth from there. ‘The Heart of Tantra’ is most valuable for those who with the burning desire to answer the fundamental questions of life such as ‘Who am I?’ and ‘What is reality?’ and this system is suited to those whose lives are guided by this inner movement. Once one becomes serious about needing to know Truth, it seems our individual path towards awakening then oscillates between the pain of realising the extent of our unconsciousness to the joy of inner peace and surrender.

Often people come to ‘The Heart of Tantra’ yoga system in order to simply have more inner peace or overcome a particular condition, illness or psychological disturbance. It is my experience and observation that all these benefits can be achieved through consistent holistic yoga practice and these initial obstacles are often gateways or invitations to look towards the deeper questions and tread one’s spiritual path.

‘The Heart of Tantra’ is an integral system of yoga for the development of one’s physical, mental and spiritual personality. If you are looking to improve the strength and flexibility of your body, to heal or calm the mind, then these benefits should definitely occur but it is not the full scope of the practice. In fact we can say these are a welcome by-product, the true value of this system being found within the experience of the subtle expansion of one’s consciousness into realms far beyond the mundane world: an experience of inner peace, a subtle perception of inner stillness and liberation from the fetters of the mind.

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