Introduction to Tantra: Part 2, The History of Tantra

The History of Tantra

Tantra as a designated practice arose within India in the first few centuries of the common era. It prospered into the medieval period when Yoga started to become dominated more by the practices of Haṭha Yoga, which will be explained next.

The precise arrival of Tantra is difficult to fully know since much of the practice remained secret to non-initiates throughout its entire history. It may have existed much earlier and threads of it or its prototypes can be seen earlier. It is clear that Tantra represented the emergence of a kind of respect for the folk and indigenous practices of the rural and village people in India. Its roots are in practices which are incredibly ancient, but which would have been considered primitive or savage by the dominant priestly hierarchies. The golden age of Tantra in India thus reflects a time where the authority and power of these priestly classes were being challenged.

This can even be seen in some of the names and stories of the most famous Siddhas, or accomplished Tantric adepts.

Matsyendranātha is said to be the founder of the Kaula lineage, one of the lineages that remained the most distant from the Vedic authorities. He was said to be a fisherman who was swallowed by a fish one day. The fish brought him to the bottom of the ocean where he heard Śiva and Devī (The Goddess, a name for Śakti) explaining the details of Tantric Yoga. He used this knowledge to survive inside the belly of the fish until he returned to land and perfected his Yoga and taught disciples. His name means “Fisherman Lord.” He had many disciples, which included householders and renunciates.

His most famous and renowned disciple was Gorakṣanātha. Matsyendra was traveling through a village and a woman approached him, telling him she had been unable to conceive a child. She asked if he would provide her with a blessing that would allow her to do so. He handed her a seed and told her to plant it and went on his way. She thought he must have been fooling her and so threw the seed away into a heap of cow dung. When Matsyendra returned some time later and inquired after her son, she told him what she had done. He went to the dung heap and pulled out a perfectedly healthy baby boy and told her that if she didn’t want him, he would take him to be his disciple. He became Gorakṣanātha, whose name means “Cowherder Lord.” Gorakṣa is generally said to have been a renunciate and to have primarily taught to other renunciates.

Fishermen and cowherders were among the lower castes within Indian society and so these names can be seen as a way of mocking the rigid caste system of the Vedic priests. The tantric masters were regarded with suspicion at first, but when their attainments had been clearly demonstrated, they became highly respected within mainstream society and even acknowledged by the existing authorities.

During the golden age of Tantra within Indian society, many even enjoyed royal patronage. This allowed for the writing of many Sanskrit texts which recorded their beliefs, practices, and history. Most of the written record of Tantra comes from these kind of texts, though much more was probably known and practiced without being written down or disseminated publicly.

Tantra thus emerges as a distinct phenomenon and disappears back into the background, but its foggy beginnings and far-reaching influences allow it to merge to some degree with the more universal stream of practitioners across the world who have sought and cultivated the energy and awareness of Supreme Reality. There is only one Reality, even if it has been expressed and worked with in varying ways in different times and places. Tantra can thus claim some heirship with any who have rejected conventional modes in favor of a more direct and refined experience of that Reality.