Tantra is a classical Indian philosophy and practice which is often misunderstood, both in India and in the West. It is a complete system for liberation which builds upon the idea that everything we experience is infused with the sacred.
One of the difficulties in understanding Tantra is that it is a system which emphasizes direct experience, rather than mere learning or accumulation of knowledge. Historically, it has often been kept secret, not out of a desire to keep it from others, but because of the possibility of misunderstanding it.
Specifically, Tantra involves working with something that is alternatively called Śiva or Śakti. These are often shown symbolically as deities, but they are actually principles. They are ways of describing the underlying Supreme Reality. Sometimes they are spoken of as if they are opposing poles or two principles behaving in relationship with one another. This is true on one level, but it is perhaps a bit more accurate to say that they are two ways of looking at the same thing. It is difficult, and perhaps impossible, to fully describe Supreme Reality and so we end up emphasizing one aspect of it. Depending on which aspect is emphasized, Supreme Reality may be referred to as Śiva or may be referred to as Śakti.
Supreme Reality is innately aware and conscious and this is what we call Śiva. The word Śiva literally means an “auspicious sign” or a “good omen.” It is the mark in our awareness when this underlying Reality is being experienced directly.
Supreme Reality is also innately energetic and creative and this is what we call Śakti. The word Śakti means “power” or “energy.” It is the sensation and expression of the dynamic pulsation of Reality.
Śiva and Śakti are often expressed as the masculine and feminine forms of the Divine. This has some merit, but it is important to recognize that this has very little to do with the gender roles of our social conventions. Biology is full of gendered expressions of life, for example, but even here very few of these expressions have much to do with our ideas about “men” and “women.”
Tantra argues that this Cosmic Reality can be experienced directly. The experience is not something which can be described very accurately, but it has great utility to one who is interested in knowledge of Self or any kind of inner unfolding. Aside from being a direct experience (we could say gnosis) of Reality itself, Śiva/Śakti makes the practice of meditation much easier since, when this force is coursing through us, meditative states come more naturally and sometimes even spontaneously. Tantra would argue that this Supreme Reality is our natural state, even that it is our true Self.
Śarīrakañcukitaḥ śivo jīvo niṣkañkucaḥ paraśivaḥ I:5
“Śiva cloaked in the body is the individual soul, uncloaked he is the supreme Śiva.” – Paraśurāma Kalpa Sūtra
Tantra is a living tradition that requires direct transmission from a person who has competency with its process to another person who has prepared themselves to receive the experience. This is the initial transmission, which is called Śaktipāta, or “descent of Śakti.” This experience awakens one to the Cosmic Reality and sets them on the path of developing this Śakti within themselves. One can only cultivate what one can recognize and this is why the transmission must happen through an act of Grace. This is why Tantra emphasizes the importance of a true Guru, or teacher, who has cultivated this Śakti themselves and can awaken it in others. We do sometimes receive some kind of Śaktipāta from circumstances in our lives, but this still would require a living teacher to properly align this in us.
Once, the initial transmission and awakening has happened, then the practitioner can find that power again and practice with raising it, projecting it, and absorbing it. This cultivation is what carries the individual’s inner development and where the various “techniques” of Tantra come in. The energy itself is still the primary focus and anything else is a mere accessory to this process. Rituals or specific formulae may or may not be employed, but at least meditation is a must to develop the focus and expansion of awareness necessary to work with this power.
The practitioner may also seek out initiation, called Dīkṣa. Initiation may be into a mantra, a practice, or a lineage. This is a specific kind of Śaktipāta that creates a powerful energetic link within the practitioner. This facilitates connection with the powerful liberated beings that came before, so that one can seek their guidance, blessings, and protection.
Within the body, the Śakti is often referred to as Kuṇḍalinī, meaning “She who is Coiled.” This indicates a kind of potential energy that must be awakened. The “coil” can be likened to an electrical coil. When electricity is run through a coil, it creates a field. The electricity is the awakening of the Suṣumṇa Nāḍī, or Central Channel. The “field” in this case is the Śakti, Śiva, or just the experience of Cosmic Reality.
Next we’ll look into the history of Tantra!