Introduction to Tantra: Part 1


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!

Shakti is the Face of Shiva

The Vijñāna Bhairava Tantra, one of the more well-known Tantric texts from the Kasimiri Shaivite corpus, opens with the rather severe claim that the highest Reality is beyond comprehension and beyond any designation that we could give it. We don’t need to quibble about the implications of Quantum Mechanics or some of the other stranger discoveries within modern science to have a sense of the truth of this sentiment. One is reminded of the quotation by geneticist J.B.S. Haldine:

“The Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.”

The argument being not just that we don’t understand Reality fully, but that, on some fundamental level, we can’t.

Now this might be rather distressing to those of us who dedicate ourselves to inner work with the supposition that we can “know” ourselves, but the Vijñāna Bhairava Tantra offers us the fortunate caveat: though we cannot describe or really “understand” Reality, we can have direct experience of it and this can have a profound impact on how we prioritize what we do know and understand after that point.

In the terminology of the text, this Highest Reality beyond designation is called Bhairava. Bhairava is a name given to the god Shiva, specifically to the more terrifying and awesome form He might assume. In this context, this can be understood either as a kind of anthropomorphizing or as symbolic imagery. One can look at a picture of “Bhairava” the god-form, but that is quite a different thing from having a direct experience of the “thing” the text is calling Bhairava.

There are perhaps other discussions one could find oneself in about what it might mean to have this experience, but the Vijñāna Bhairava Tantra, being a practical manual, is more concerned with addressing the method by which we might be able to actually achieve it.

Antaḥ svānubhavānandā vikalponmuktagocarā |

Yāvasthā bharitākārā bhairavī bhairavātmanaḥ || 15 ||

One experiences the state of Bhairava when one is entirely free of dichotomizing thought patterns.

So, if Bhairava is beyond all designations, comprehension, and even the contradictions of dichotomizing thought patterns of our limited minds, how can we possibly orient ourselves towards attaining It? In the words of the text: “what is the object of worship and how can it be worshipped?”

The text answers that the action or “power” of something reveals its nature. Fire is known by its light and its heat, by the fact that it burns. In truth, the “burning quality” of fire is not separate from the fire itself, but we sometimes describe it this way for the purpose of more easily understanding it. In Sanskrit, the word used for “power” is “Shakti.”

Śaktiśaktimatoryadvat abhedaḥ sarvadā sthitaḥ |

Atastaddharmadharmitvāt parā śaktiḥ parātmanaḥ || 18 ||

Just as power is not separate from the thing that possesses that power, the supreme Shakti is not separate from the supreme Reality.

Na vanher dāhikā śaktiḥ vyatiriktā vibhāvyate |

Kevalaṃ jñānasattāyāṃ prārambho’yaṃ praveśane || 19 ||

Though the power to burn is not separate from fire, Shakti is imagined to be separate from supreme Reality as a way to experience It.

Now, it may seem that we have merely substituted one problem for another. How exactly are we meant to experience Shakti, the supreme cosmic power of Reality Itself? Shakti is often personified as a goddess, or even “The Goddess,” but this anthropomorphizing might just cause more misunderstandings. The solution is revealed in the next verse:

Śaktyāvasthāpraviṣṭasya nirvibhāgena bhāvanā |

Tadāsau Śivarūpī Svyāt Śaivī Mukhamihocyate || 20 ||

Enter into the state of undifferentiated experience. Through this one identifies with Cosmic Reality and assumes Its form. It is said that Shakti is the face of Shiva.

The key word here is “Nirvibhāga”, which can be translated as “undifferentiated” or “without separation.”

Since this Power and this Reality are not separate from us at any time, it cannot be something “outside” of our ordinary experience. It is, rather, our ordinary experience without the overlay of differentiation and separation, just as intimate to us as anything else. Shakti is always present all around us, we are just laboring under notions of separation and distinction.

This verse does imply a practice of actively dispelling thought patterns of distinction and separation in order to achieve this state of entering into Shakti. As Swami Laksman Ju says,

“When you enter in the state of energy and leave your individual state (you have not to enter in the state of energy for always), you have to throw off the individual state and enter in the energy to enter in the universal state in the end. Because, unless you [throw] off your individuality, universality will not rise, universality won’t take place.”[1]

For some strange reason, the state described here has popularly been translated as “intense experience.” The experience of Shakti might end up feeling rather intense, but intensity is not the distinguishing feature and seems to imply situations or practices that could possibly be rather opposed to the focus and equanimity that would be required. However, the text does use this basis to justify a rather diverse array of practices, the descriptions of which occupy most of its verses.

I allow that it is often rather difficult to translate these concepts from Sanskrit to English and it might be that the use of the word “intense” here does help illuminate the meaning to some. My only hope is that this exposition clarifies some possible misunderstandings and doesn’t create any additional ones!

ॐ शान्तः शिवः शक्तिः

Oṃ Śāntiḥ Śivaḥ Śaktiḥ!

Om Shanti-Shiva-Shakti!

[1] The Manual for Self-Realization