Elements of Tantra in modern day Hinduism

  • By Dr. Subhasis Chattopadhyay
  • November 29, 2022
  • The author explains the Tantric origins of practices like japa, meditation etc. Sanatana Dharma by its intrinsic nature is not mutually exclusive, all is intertwined.

Did you know that the main mode of worship within the Sanatana Dharma is Tantric?

For instance, when I look at a Deity within a temple, the Deity looks back at me. In other words, there is a reciprocity of the gaze. My seeing, that is darshana, is gradually corrected. How I see the world changes over time through this act of reciprocal seeing. To put it technically, the hermeneutic of my cognition is modified through this gaze. This is to say, my perceptions become clearer over time by repeatedly encountering the Deity. This in turn cleanses me of all dross.

So what is happening here?

My exterior perceptions are being cleansed. The process of bhutashuddhi has begun. What is bhutashuddhi? We are made of the five elements, the pancha-bhutas. This means the Yogic process of the divinization of the body has begun which is fundamentally a Tantric method of exterior and interior cleansing.

What are the main methods and goals of worship within the Sanatana Dharma?

They are to approach a non-dual state with the Deity through ritual actions. Putting it technically: the worshipper offers dulia and hyperdulia through liturgical processes till the state of acintyabhedabheda is reached.

What are these rituals which lead to the worshipper becoming one with the One?

Acintyabhedabheda is a Vaishnava concept but it is fundamentally Tantric in its process, that is, in practice. Returning to these rituals, every follower of every sect of Sanatana Dharma has a set of rituals (liturgical practices) which lead her to realise that She is the One. So the aim of all branches of the Sanatana Dharma is to realise the Divinity within.

In day to day worship we see the officiating priests putting flowers on themselves and we find that they have to take ritual baths to purify themselves so that they are fit to worship the Deity. These are all Tantric practices. Putting flowers on oneself is the recognition of the fact that the Deity is within. In all worship, we invite the Deity to reside in the representation of the Deity. Then the officiating priest, invites and recognises the Deity as being within the person of the worshipper. These are all Tantric practices. The name of the Kashmiri branch of Tantra is the ‘philosophy of recognition’. One re-cognises that one is not distinct from the Holy Mother. One re-discovers through Tantra, including Kashmiri Tantra, that one is not stardust but Goddust. 

Every beginner within Sanatana Dharma has to do japa; or tell the beads while uttering a mantra. Be it the Gayatri Mantra or say, Om Namah Shivaya, or Harih Om, or Ram, Ram, Sri Ram or, Aim Hrim Chamundaye Vicche. These are root Mantras.

Tantra in its essence is a system which converts the ordinary human being to a being in touch with the Divine, through continuous use of mantras given by a Guru to the disciple. Tantrics are not ordinary people; while most people tire of saying one round of beads, that is 108 times, a beginner in Tantra has to repeat certain mantras as many as 1 lakh times without a break. This is done to still the mind and to slowly change the perceptions of the worshipper about herself and others. So mantras which are recited by every worshipper within the Sanatana Dharma is also a very profound means of self-transformation and is certainly a Tantric practice. The Mantra is, so to say, brought to life by the Tantric neophyte.

Meditation is another widely known and practised form of worship within our Faith. Meditation is a way of knowing who one is. It is not mere contemplation where one thinks of the life of someone however important. Meditation is neither solipsism; that is, it is not a selfish and narcissistic turning away from the world.

Meditation is a conscious effort to effect an interior cleansing through controlling the mind. It leads to Yoga or Union with the Foundational Being or the Supreme Godhead. This is in keeping with the Rg Vedic injunction to be a god to worship God. So meditation is the way to Yoga and being so, it is Tantric in nature. 

The Tantras according to practising Tantrics predate the Vedas and all known Scriptures. Though this is not the scholarly opinion. Scholars date them from the 7th Century AD onwards. The reality may be that these Tantras were not written down before that time, but were existent well before the first copies we have discovered. Further, there are hundreds of fragments in various parts of the world including Tibet where untranslated Tantric texts are languishing to this day and are yet to be digitised or, even preserved. According to the living lineages of Tantra, contrary to what is taught in universities and other places where people lecture without practising Tantra, the reconstruction of the human mind through meditation is a Tantric practice. One does not need to go anywhere to self-fashion one’s psychic apparatus. The entire aim of Tantric practice is to refashion the human psyche and unite it with the Holy Mother’s psyche. Meditation as a cognition-altering process is entirely Tantric.

Hatha Yoga, or bodily postures, which is the most known and practised branch of Yoga, is again Tantric in origin.

For instance, the Gheranda Samhita and the Haṭha Yoga Pradipika are both Tantric texts. They both insist on the regulation of breathing and not its observation only; the original purpose being to not increase lung-capacity but to cleanse the subtle channels of energy which constitute the human body. These channels are mistakenly confused with lymphatic nodes or veins or even nerves. They are not part of the gross body at all.

These Yogic postures over time practised with the right intentions Divinize the body and make it fit for both the descent of Power and the rising of Power (Shaktipat and the Ascent of Kundalini respectively). One should note here that Shakti or Power is not a feminine entity, nor is it an attribute of God, but God Herself. Because the English language is binary in nature, and does not admit to the principle of the excluded middle, one has to use gendered textual registers like She. So to return to our subject at hand, Hatha Yoga with its various cleansing techniques is very much a Tantric bhutashuddhi technique. One does not do Pranayama to become fit, one does that to become interiorly fit. The pleasant side effect of Pranayama done right is that one actually gets healthier with deep breathing. So whoever does Hatha Yoga anywhere in the world, Tantric practises for exterior and interior cleansing are being done.

Note that Beginners in the path to Tantra are taught to do certain breathing exercises for years before they are initiated as a Tantric.

To sum up, Tantra initially stresses on ritual worship, on mantras and on Hatha Yogic practices with the sole aim of attaining a Union with the Godhead. This is a very monist or an Advaita-Vedantic standpoint. We are then all proto-Tantrics; our mode of being-in-the-world is Tantric. It is another matter that those called to Tantra do all these and more for years before they are given the permission by their Guru to practise Tantra. This brings me to the last point for today.

Sanatana Dharma insists on finding the right Guru.

A Guru is not a mentor or a spiritual guide. The Guru is all these and more. The Guru alone can give instruction about the path of the seeker and which mantras and rituals to use or abstain from. Reading hundreds of books does not help anyone till one realises that the Guru is indeed God. Not a metaphor for God. This is the standpoint of all followers of the Sanatan Dharma. This is not an offshoot of the Bhakti Movement in mediaeval India. It is a Tantric idea.

None can become a Tantric by repeating mantras at random; or by reading the existing Tantras or by willing to become a Tantric. One's own efforts can make a person a social activist running an NGO, but Tantra insists that at the right time, through the interactive effects of Karma and time, one meets the right Guru and it is up to the Guru to initiate  within a particular lineage, a particular candidate. Each situation is unique. 

While all other branches of our Dharma prioritise the Guru in the psycho-spiritual development of the disciple; it is in Tantra that without the Guru no progress is possible. It is a knowledge system which is entirely based on the Guru. It is a Guru-centric vidya. This too the living lineages of Tantra in India assert is a huge influence on the entire Faith community. So when Sri Toṭakacarya wrote his song on the Guru; he was following whether he knew it or not; a Tantric mode of worship. Now wonder then that all the monasteries founded by Adi Shkaracharya have as their patroness a Mahavidya. If you happen to be a follower of the Sanatana Dharma, you happen to be a practitioner of Tantra whether you know that or not.

We end with the caveat that while Tantric influences are to be found throughout  Sanatana Dharma, Tantra as a discipline is distinct from mainstream Sanatana Dharma and is mostly unknown to even those who teach Tantra in Indology classes. And that is the way it should be. This author corresponded with well-known authors of Tantra and watched hours of YouTube lectures on Tantra. More often than not the speakers are speaking of something which they have not experienced. Even the interpretation of key Tantric texts have been done through cognition which is not free from the power of samsara.

Om Shri Gurubhyo Namah.

Also read by author

1. What is Tantra-FAQ

2. How I became a Tantric

3. What is Shaktipat

To read all articles by author

Author Subhasis Chattopadhyay has a Ph.D. in American Literature from the University of Calcutta. His reviews from 2010 to 2021 in Prabuddha Bharata have been showcased by Ivy League Presses. He has qualifications in Christian Theology and Hindu Studies and currently teaches English Literature in the PG and UG Department of a College affiliated to the University of Calcutta. He also has qualifications in Behavioural Sciences

Also read

1. Vigyan Bhairav Tantra

2. Introduction to Tantra

3. Tantra and Teachings of Kashmir’s Abhinavgupta

4. Tantra and its misconceptions 

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