Yoga Sutras

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.

The Doṣas & Āyurveda

One of the components of Āyurvedic medicine is the concept of Doṣa. A Doṣa is a physiological principle that operates in our organism. Traditionally within Āyurveda, there are three Doṣas: Vāta, the airy principle of movement, Pitta, the fiery principle of transformation, and Kapha, the earthy principle of substance.

Every person has all three acting within themselves, but different people’s physiologies tend to emphasize some of these processes over others. If these principles are acting in a balanced and harmonious way then we are healthy, but if one or more of them begins to overstep its bounds then we will be on the path towards disease.

How do we recognize these Doṣas? Āyurveda explains that each Doṣa has specific qualities, called guṇas in Sanskrit, that it expresses. They are described in great detail at times, but the Aṣṭāṅga Hṛdayam, one of the primary texts of Āyurveda, gives a nice succinct summation in Chapter 1:

तत्र रूक्षो लघु शीतः खरः सूक्ष्मश्चलोऽनिलः |

पित्तं सस्नेहतीक्ष्णोष्णं लघु विस्रं सरं द्रवम् ||

स्निग्धः सीतो गुरु्मन्दः श्लक्ष्णो मृत्स्नः स्थिरः कफः |

Tatra rūkṣo laghuḥ śītaḥ kharaḥ sūkṣmaś calo’nilaḥ |

Pittaṃ sasneha tīkṣṇoṣṇaṃ laghu visraṃ saraṃ dravam ||

Snigdhaḥ śīto gurur mandaḥ ślakṣṇo mṛtsnaḥ sthiraḥ kaphaḥ |

-          Aṣṭāṅga Hṛdayam, Sūtrasthāna, Chapter 1, Verse 11

It explains that the qualities of Vāta are: Dry, Light, Cold, Rough, Subtle, and Mobile.

The qualities of Pitta are: Oily, Sharp, Hot, Light, ‘fleshy-smelling’, spreading, and liquid.

The qualities of Kapha are: Oily, Cold, Heavy, ‘clay-like’, and stable.

How we see or interpret these qualities is part of the subtlety and assessment practices of Āyurveda.

Which qualities seem to predominate in ourselves? How do they affect our health and our lives in positive or negative ways? Which qualities are predominating in the foods that we eat? These are the kinds of questions that we would look to in Āyurveda.

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