An In Depth Description of Tantra and Tantric Practices

Tantra (Sanskrit: tan = expansion; tra = liberation), also called tantric yoga or tantra yoga, is a ritual practice from the Vedic tradition, aimed at spiritual expansion and liberation. In tantra, the emphasis is on the development of human strength, both through meditation and through direct confrontation with difficult conditions for overcoming fears and weaknesses. Tantra is one of the esoteric traditions that are part of Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism. The Buddhist tradition that is strongly influenced by the scriptures of Tantra is particularly vajrayana, also called tantric Buddhism.

The term tantra Yoga (with a large Y) refers to the dharma (philosophy) of tantra. By tantra yoga (with a small Y) is meant the yoga techniques that are part of the practical practice of tantra.

Development of the tantra

There is evidence that the origin of tantra lies in the indigenous spirituality of the indigenous people of India under the Indus civilization (not to be confused with the later introduced proto-vedic religion), thousands of years before the present era. It was only much later that the individual currents would develop, such as the jain tantra, Buddhist tantra, shivottara (post-Shiva) tantra and the poeranic tantra. The Buddhist version of the tantra originated in India in the third century AD, after which it spread to Tibet and the Far East in the eighth century thanks to Padmasambhava, among others, where it is still found today in the many currents of the Vajrayana or Tantrayana ("tantra vehicle").

Tantric practices

Because of the wide range of practices in tantra, it is difficult to describe tantric practices unambiguously. The basic practice can include any combination of the elements described below.

Tantra's specific ideal is not to avoid problems and obstacles, but to take responsibility for one's own life and therefore directly confront and overcome difficulties and conditioned emotions. Spiritual growth is created by transforming all characteristics and tendencies.

In order to achieve this goal, all kinds of meditation forms and ideation methods have been developed. In contrast to most religions, tantra is a science of experience: based on practice. The philosophy consists for the most part of descriptions of practices and has few purely theoretical aspects.

The soft natural form is the selfless intimacy between people. Exercises can make use of mantras (special sounds), yantra's (special forms) and ideations on personal aspects of the Cosmic Consciousness to help focus the microcosm (individual consciousness) on the macrocosm (Cosmic Consciousness).

In fact, there should not be an ultimate goal, as, for example, in the Taoist concept of wu wei. Theoretically it is about merging (symbolically) the fundamental darkness, negativity, femininity (Shakti) into the fundamental light, positivity, masculinity (Shiva). This can be done by bringing up the energy of the kundalini (the curled up snake in the sacrum) through the spine. There the fusion of the male and female energy can take place.

In the selfless intimacy between man and woman, a higher divine consciousness can arise. This unification of the microcosm with the Macrocosm can take place in the highest chakra above the seventh chakra when the crown chakra is opened. Depending on tradition, these practices are dressed up with various supporting practices (such as from yoga) in order to bring and keep body and mind in better balance.

Very important in the more result-oriented "hard" (non-self-explanatory-natural) form of tantra is the guidance within a religious tradition, see kundalini yoga The sudden uncontrolled (lightning) discharge through the sushumna channel can cause damage. The result is madness. The ancient devadasi tradition of the sacred temple dance, which lives on in the contemporary Bharata Natyam, is also an example of a form of meditation from the tantra. Divine love is expressed in Sringara and Bhakti.

Concentration on chakras in the body

Practitioners of tantra generally see the individual mind including the body as a microcosm. According to tantra, the body has a series of seven subtle energy centers (chakra is Sanskrit for wheel or disc), which are the control points of the seven fundamental factors (elements) that shape a person.

By living ethically and purely and/or doing special exercises those chakras can be "purified" and the individual consciousness (microcosm) can become increasingly subtle and thus grow closer to the Macrocosm in order to eventually achieve self-realization or redemption. The highest chakra, the 'Shahasrara' chakra, is the seat of the Supreme Consciousness and is located above the human body.

Tantric Variations

The five main branches within the tantra have developed (painca Tantra), each with its own specialty. These are:

  • shaeva tantra or shaevacara
  • shakta tantra or shaktacara
  • vaeshnava/vishnu tantra or vaeshnavacara
  • ganapatya/ganapati tantra or ganapaticara
  • surya tantra or saoracara

These five tantra forms originated around 1400 years ago when the Puranic doctrine emerged (which would reduce Buddhism in India). Of the shaeva (shiva) tantra, the ganapatya tantra and the saora (surya) tantra hardly any writings have survived today. None of these tantra cults has ever become widespread.

Shaeva tantra

In summary, the Shiva Cult means that all outwardly directed life expressions are diverted to the inner world to eventually culminate in Shivasamadhi or the Unification with the Supreme Being. Because hardly any competent masters remain, the original characteristics of the shaeva tantra have been watered down. There are, however, the derived forms, such as the Siddhantacara, Vamacara and Kulacara, which are practiced in both Hindu and Buddhist tantras schools. There is also the rajadhiraja yoga in which the purest form of the shaeva tantra is processed.

Shakta tantra

This cult emphasizes transforming the static principle (tamasika shakti) to the moving principle (Kalika Shakti) and then back to the pure principle (Bhaeravi Shakti) and finally withdrawing it and merging it into the spiritual radiance (Kaoshiki Shakti or Mahasarasvati).

Vaeshnava tantra

Vishnoe is the all-pervading principle. The essential characteristic of the Vishnucultus or Vaeshnavacara is to realise the all-pervading Vishnu. Someone who practices this cult in a devotional way sees Vishnu in everything and everyone in the world instead of the limitations or peculiarities of the various individual expressions.

Ganapati tantra

Until the Puranic period in India there was still worship of the group leader as in the ganapativada, vinayakavada or ganeshavada. During the Puranic period this worship was transformed into a real cult with the worship of the leader of the universe (the Cosmic Consciousness). So in the ganapati tantra one tries to satisfy the group leader or ganapati.

Saora tantra

This cult originates from the Brahmins of Shakadviipa (present-day Uzbekistan, Greek name Sacdonia). They came to India quite late and were astrologers and teachers in Ayurveda. Saora means "someone who worships the sun god (Surya)". When it became a real cult, people started to see the sun god as the Father (creator) of the universe. This cult hardly got followers in India.

Tantra in Hinduism

Because tantra has existed alongside the Vedic religion for thousands of years, all kinds of aspects of the tantra have penetrated to Vedic Hinduism (and the Vedas). One difference with Vedic Hinduism is that the diksha or initiation is open to everyone, regardless of one's origin or status and that there are no castes within the tantra. Because the tantra has much more direct methods than the Vedic approach and moves outside the caste system (with its Brahminese priestly caste), the tantra occupies a somewhat separate place within Hinduism.

Tantra in Buddhism

The Theravada tradition contains no tantric elements. The Theravada generally takes a more conservative attitude towards changes in the content of the original teachings of the Buddha, and the scriptures in which they are preserved (the Pali-canon). The Mahayana, however, had a more open attitude to the introduction of new concepts and writings, which could complement or deepen the teachings of the Buddha.

Because of the practical nature of tantra and because it was less associated with the vedic religion, it was integrated into Bengali Mahayana Buddhism by Bengali Buddhists in the third century, after which this new form of Buddhism spread to India and other countries. In Buddhism, the tantra can be found today in Vajrayana, which occupies an important place in Tibetan Buddhism, but can also be found in China (Chen-Yen) and Japan (Shingon).

The current Mahayana, which is practiced in countries such as Taiwan and Korea, does not contain explicit tantric elements. Here the Tantra has become much more of a vision of life. Thus there is a tantric kitchen, way of architecture and urban planning, education and didactics, healing and guidance of people (Swedana), emotional body work and (Sweda).

Right-handed and left-handed tantra

Where the left-handed tantra believes that the individual need not be bound to what is considered socially acceptable, this is the case with the right-handed tantra. The sometimes extreme expressions of the left-handed tantra explain the distrust that exists among vedic priests and within the Buddhist Theravada tradition towards everything related to tantra. In India, the small minority of left-handed tantra practitioners is almost entirely outside of society.

In Europe and especially in the Netherlands, thanks to the sexual inhibition, since the 1960's a special attention for one of the partial aspects of left-handed tantra has arisen. The right-handed tantra emphasizes the control and transformation of the sexual energy that is dangerous for spiritual development.

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