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Evolution of Tantra


Nithin Sridhar
Recently Sri Sri Ravishankar reportedly said that self-claimed Swami Nityananda, violated the rules of tantra and misused it. Further he was quoted as saying “"Only a house holder is entitled for tantric sex. Claiming to be a monk and using so many people for one's pleasure is unpardonable, He should have had one partner and announced himself as a tantric guru. It has caused damage to the faith of people in the institution and traumatized many.”

Sri Sri Ravishankar is absolutely right when he says that, Nityananda has misused tantra. The sexual rites in tantra are advised only for Vira (people in whom rajas dominates) and they are forbidden for Pashus, (people in whom tamas dominates) and those who are attached to sexual pleasures. Further, it is true that, Lata Sadhanas (sexual rites) should be practiced with one partner, may be a wife who has the same temperament and competency as him or with a Bhairavi, whom a sadhaka can take as Guru as she is well versed with tantrika practices and can teach him. On this matter Mahakalasamhita, a tantrika text clearly says “As is the competency of the sadhaka (male practitioner) so also that of the sadhika (female practitioner). Only by this is success achieved and not in any other way, even in ten million years”. This clearly establishes that, one cannot have multiple partners and call it as a spiritual sadhana.

This issue leads us to a more serious question, Are tantras all about sex? It seems to be so if one simply browses through internet or media writings. But a straight and simple answer is a
No. The tantric system is vast and complicated. It constitutes various branches and sub branches and various traditions. The use of meat, liquor and sex as part of spiritual practices are suggested only for Vira sadhaks and that too only under Kulachara and Vamachara. Even among them, only a few can really benefit from them. But some of the simple Lata Sadhanas, like Shiva Lata Mudra can be highly helpful to married couples. It can help them to attain detachment and to control the vasanas slowly.

Kularvana Tantra clears all the confusions about the use of sex, meat and alcohol when it states: “Beguiled by false knowledge as propagated, certain persons, deprived of the guru-shishya tradition, imagine the nature of the Kuladharma according to their own intellect. If merely by drinking wine, men were to attain fulfillment, all addicted to liquor would reach perfection. If mere partaking of flesh were to lead to the high state, all the carnivores in the world would become eligible to immense merit. If liberation were to be ensured by sexual intercourse with a Shakti, all creatures would become liberated by female companionship."

To understand, Tantras clearly, one must also try to understand, how they evolved. But, this evolution of Tantras as a separate branch is a highly complicated subject. Many of the old works are not available in manuscript. Many of the tantrika texts has been lost. Moreover, the tantrika system is itself highly unorganized because the tantras developed indigenously in different parts of India and only later they were integrated. But due to this, the tantrika accounts are highly scattered. On one hand we have the Tantric tradition traces itself back to Lord Shiva. The tradition believes that Tantras were first communicated by Lord Shiva, the first Guru and then passed on as tradition. There is mention of tantrika sects in Mahabharata however the currently available oldest tantra manuscripts do not go back more than 1500-2000 years. Most of the manuscripts or their copies currently available are of relatively recent origin. One of the reasons for this could be that the old tantrika systems were discarded when they no longer served any purpose and at same time, new texts, new practices, new branches were added to the tantrika system continuously.

George Feuerstein, in his book 'Tantra: The Path of Ecstasy' present's the ground reality in a nutshell, when he writes: "At one end of the Tantric spectrum we have highly unorthodox practices such as black magic that go against the moral grain of Hindu society (and that of most societies). At the other end we have Tantric masters who decry all doctrines and all rituals and instead applaud the ideal of perfect spontaneity (sahaja). Most schools fall between these two poles; they are typically highly ritualistic but infused with the recognition that liberation springs from wisdom, which is innate and therefore cannot be produced by any external means.”

Position of Tantra with respect to Veda:

It is interesting to note that, contrary to the general view that tantra is opposed to Vedas; Tantra's place themselves on same platform as the Vedas. Tantras call themselves as “Agama” (Revealed) similar to Vedas (Sruti = Heard/Revealed). Further, Tantras are called as “Sruti-shakha-vishesha”, a special branch of Vedas. Some tantra's like Matsyasukta mahatantra and Ghandarva tantra even go to the extent of stating that a practitioner of tantra must be well-versed in Vedas and should be ever attached to Brahman.

This view is held by both older and newer tantric texts. “Nishvasatattva samhita”, one of the very old tantrika texts available, mentions that tantras are the culmination of esoteric knowledge of Vedanta and Samkhya. This appears to be true because, tantrika system aims at achieving the Spiritual emancipation about which Vedanta and Samkhya speaks about. Pingalamata, another old tantric text says that, tantras are Agama with characteristics of Chandas (that is Vedas).

Among the tantrika texts of recent origin, we find various descriptions about the relationship of tantras and Vedas. Some texts mention mantras and mahavakya's from Vedas (like Prapanchasara Tantra) and some explicitly mention that tantras are part of Vedas (like Meru Tantra). Kularnava tantra says, that Kuladharma is based on Vedas. The same claim is repeated by Niruttara Tantra which calls tantras as fifth Veda and Kulachara the fifth ashrama.

Further, it can be seen that in philosophy and in religious attitude tantras and Vedas are fundamentally same. The goal of both Vedas and tantras seems to be same, viz Moksha. The goal of both Vedic rituals and tantrika sadhana is invoking of gods and achieving liberation. In fact many tantrika practices trace their origin to Atharva Veda. From this point of view, the Tantras emerged out of the Vedic religion and were then developed as a distinct type of esoteric knowledge. The Vedic religion in its essence has survived through the tantras.

Historical Accounts:

Now coming to the development of tantras as special class of literature and special mode of Sadhana we can see that, they are very closely connected to the rise of Shaivism and Pancharatra schools.

It is Mahabharata which makes the mention of the Pashupata (the Shaivist) and Pancharatra (Vaishnavite) schools for the first time. Even though the early canonical literature of Pancharatra is lost, we have one text Satvata Samhita which describes the tantrika system as Rahasymnaya- a secret method of Sadhana. However, Pancharatra School remained restrained in its development and it was Shaivism which provided more prominent ground for development of tantras.

The Mahabharatha says that the Pashupata doctrines were first preached by Shiva-Srikantha. But this Srikantha must have been a human teacher in all probability. This opinion is strengthened because, the old manuscript of tantric text Pingalamata preserved in Nepal speaks of Bhagavat Srinkanthanatha as its author. Lakulisa was probably his disciple. And this Lakulisa and his disciples are mentioned in an inscription of Chandragupta II. From the information present in this inscription, Lakulisa has been dated to be a contemporary of Patanjali, who incidentally speaks of Shiva-Bhagavatas in his Mahabhashya.

From this we can conclude that, Pashupata was the oldest form of Shaivism prevalent in North India. They could be also called as Agamanta Shaivism. The Agamas (the texts) belonging to this school are 18 in number according to one tradition and 28 according to other tradition. The eighteen agamas also called as “Shiva tantras” are: Vijaya, Nisvasa, Svayambhuva, Vatula, Virabhadra, Raurava, Makuta, Viresha, Chandrahasa, Jnana, Mukhabimba, Prodgita, Lalita, Siddha, Santana, Sarvodgita, Kirana, and Parameshvara. Among them, the three agamas, viz Nishvasa, Kirana and Parameshwara are still preserved in Nepal in manuscripts of eighth and ninth centuries.

The next phase is development of tantras is represented by the class of literature called Yamala. There are 8 Yamalas: Rudra, Kanda (Skanda), Brahma, Vishnu, Yama, Vayu, Kuvera and Indra. The 8 Yamalas are communicated by 8 Bhairavas: Svacchanda, Krodha, Unmatta, Ugra, Kapalin, Jhankara, Shekara and Vijaya. What is interetsing to note is, the Original Shiva tantras represent the Rudra or Sada-shiva tradition and the Yamalas represents Bhairava tradition. Also, it should be noted that, Bhairavas were human teachers who had attained complete union and had become Shiva. The two other old texts that belong to Yamala group are: Jayadhrata Yamala, the supplement to Brahma Yamala and Pingalamata is supplement to Jayadhrata Yamala.

The importance of these Yamala's is in the fact that they for the first time describe the various tantric Traditions and introduce cults of new gods and goddess. They give a well developed Tantric pantheon.

Brahma Yamala gives a nice account of transmission of tantrika knowledge. Ishvara (Shiva) first communicated it to Srikantha, who passed it to various disciples. One of the recipients was Bhairava who passed it to Krodha, Kapila and Padma, And Padma to Devadutta and Devadatta to 14 of his disciples. Further, Yamalas mentions different tantric traditions based on Srotas(Currents). The three currents are Dakshina (Sattva), Vama (Rajas) and Madhyama (Tamas). Among the names of Human teachers who promulgated these tantras, Usanas, Vrihaspati, Dadachi, Lakulisa, Sanat kumara are few important ones.

Now coming to the two supplements of Yamalas mentioned before. Jayadratha Yamala and Pingalamata mentions much greater variety of tantras and sadhanas. Pingalamata mentions two classes to tantras: Kamarupi (being in Assam) and Uddiyani (North west-Swat valley). The Jayadhrata yamala mentions large number of Shakti cults, like cults of Kalika, Shankarshani, Charchika, Gahaneshwari, Vajravati, Bhairavadakini, Saptakshara, Siddhilakshmi etc.

These supplements indicate a very important development in evolution of Tantras. It indicates the new orientation in tantric culture, viz Sadhanas of Agamas assume in them a more pronounced character of Shaktism. Now, the tantrika system seemed to be developed through two different paths the exoteric, which continued as pure Shaivism and Esoteric which continued as Shaktism. Whereas the goal of Shaivism was only Liberation, the goal of Shakta was not just Liberation. They wanted to gain ascendancy over the forces of nature and to carry on the experiments and exploring in order to gain the detailed knowledge of working of Cosmos. In a sense, salvation became a too small a goal for them. But, this is not to suggest they did not pursue Moksha, but only that they pursued other things too. These supplementary literature shows that, the Tantras became Shakti in character from that time.

Buddhism also developed its tantric aspect by this time. According to Tibetian evidence, Buddhist Tantras came into existence after the time of Dharmakirthi. Their origin as distinct class of literature and mode of Sadhana may be placed in 7th century. They developed in three different forms viz Vajrayana, Sahajayana and Kalachakrayana. From about 10th and 11th centuries, there began a very complicated period of development of tantras. The Brahmanical and Buddhist sects merged and mixed with each other to some extent as Buddhism declined and all that remained was a mystic form similar to Shaktism in essence. This fusion gave birth to new forms of esoteric religion.

The detailed picture of the Brahmanical tantras of this period is given by Sammohana tantra. It speaks of nine kinds of Kalikas. It also speaks about many special cults, one of Jaya, three cults of Sudnari, two cults of Tara, three of Kali, one of Chinnamasta, two of Dhumara and Matangi and two of Sidhavidya. It further mentions two cults of Vaishnavas, two of Sauras and five cults of Ganapatyas. The text also speaks about Amanyas and Geographical classification of tantras. They divide it into 4 classes viz Kerala, Kashmira, Gauda and Vilasa. The six amanyas that are mentioned are Purva-eastern, Dakshina-south, Pashchima-western, Urdhva-upper and patala-nether. It also divides tantras into three classes viz Divya, Kaula and Vama according to nature of sadhana (whether Sattva, rajas or tamas) and each of it has two sects: Bahya-external and Harda-intenal.

The Sammohana tantra text also gives number of principal and subsidiary tantras in various regions: China: 100 principal, 17-subsidiary; Dravida: 20, 20; Jaina: 18, 20; Kashmira: 100, 10; Gauda: 27-principal, 16-subsidiary. It further mentions various Vidyas or cults. Some of the goddesses in these cults mentioned were: Aindri, Gayatri, Brahmavidya, Ardhanarishvari, Matrika, Sarasvati, Tripura-Bhairavi, Shulini, Mahavidya, Chamunda, Raja-rajeshwari, Srividya, Kalika, Tara, Chinnamasta, Dhumavati etc.

Therefore the Sammohana tantra presents a picture which is very much different from the one present in Shiva tantras of Agamanta Shaivism. It clearly establishes that tantras had assumed a complete Shaktic character, assimilated a very large number of cults of various origins and thus established a well developed and complicated pantheon of goddesses (All representing different aspects of Shakti). This state of things must have been attained by 14th century, when this Sammohana tantra seems to have attained its final form. From here, the later tantras compiled just added to the number of vidyas, mantras and mandalas and many of the old cults were either forgotten or discarded.

Now coming to the division of tantras into:
  • Divya
  • Kaula
  • Vama
Some definite information is available about the origin of Kaulas. According to Kaulajnananirnaya (which is a very old text), the Kaula class was introduced by Matsyendra Natha, even though strictly speaking he founded only one school of Kaulas called Yogini-Kaula of Kamarupa. The text also mentioned other Kaula schools: Vrsanotta, Vahni, Kaulasadbhava, Padorrishtha, Mahakaula, Siddha, Jnananirniti, Siddhamrita, Sristi, Chandra, Shaktibedha, Urmi and Jnana kaula. By eleventh century, Kaula schools had firmly established themselves comprising number of sects.

It is interesting to note that Yogini Kaula of Matsyendra Natha had a syncretic character. This resulted in growth of two esoteric sects: Nath sect that had a tinge of Shaivism and Sahajiya that had a tinge of Vaishnavism. Matsyendra Natha was himself, the founder of Nath sect. He also founded the Hatha Yoga. Further, he is also regarded as first of the Siddhas by Buddhists under the name Lui-pada. It is believed that, he learned everything from the First Guru, Adinatha-Lord Shiva himself. Two other sects originated in this period, Avadhuta and Bhaul.

Geographical Account:

Now, coming back to the geographical division of tantras, Sammohana Tantra, as mentioned before, divides tantras into 4 classes:
  • Kerala
  • Kashmira
  • Gauda
  • Vilasa
Kerala is said to prevail from Anga to Malava, the Kashmira class from Madra to Nepal, Gauda from Silahatta to Sindu while Vilasa is found everywhere. Further, Mahasidhashastra tantra divides Bharata varsha into three areas viz Vishnu Kranta, Ratha kranta and Ashwa kranta. Shakti-mangala tantra says, land east of Vindhyas up to Java is vishnu kranta, land north of Vindyas upto maha-china is Ratha kranta and rest of place to west is Ashva kranta.

From the above accounts it becomes clear that, Kashmira, Kerala and Gauda (Bengal) are the three most prominent zones where tantras flourished. In Bengal, Tantrika system had always been prominent. And influence of Vedic culture had been minimal. But the tantrika system here is also very much different from that of Kashmira and Kerala. It is the center of Kulachara, with its seat at Kamarupapitha, where upasana of Kali is pursued. So, in the region of Gauda, KaLi-kula is dominant. In the Kerala School, we have the worship of Tripurasundari, that is, Sri-Kula is dominant here. But in Kashmira School, both the forms of worship are in evidence. The philosophical aspect of Tantras dominates in Kashmira, the practical in Bengal, while in South we have a mixture of both.

No account of evolution of tantras is incomplete without mentioning about influence of tantras in other countries. Sammohana tantra, speaks of tantrika practices in countries like Bahlika, Kirata, Cina, Mahacina, Kamboka, Huna, Yavana, Gandhara, Nepala etc This does not mean, Indian tantras were present in all those places, (even though in some places they were indeed present), but just that some kind of esoteric practices similar to Indian tantras were present in those countries. This should give an idea about how tantrika system is vast and has integrated itself with every aspect of Hindu way of life.

  1. Evolution of Tantras, by P.C.Bagchi, The Cultural Heritage of India, Vol. 4: The Religions, Ramakrishna Mission Institute of Culture, Calcutta, 1956
  2. The spiritual heritage of India: Tantras by Govinda Gopal Mukherji, Studies on the Tantras, Ramakrishna Mission Institute of Culture, Kolkata, 1989
  3. Tantrika Culture among Buddhists by Benoytosh Battacharya, The Cultural Heritage of India, Vol. 4: The Religions, Ramakrishna Mission Institute of Culture, Calcutta, 1956