God Shiva Shankar, Goddess Kali. Tantric Artwork Miniature Painting from Hindu Art Gallery. Artist A K Mundhra. January 22nd, 2015.
Tantra can be described as a body of beliefs and practices developed over millennia by loose affiliations of seekers or sadhakas who sought to free themselves from their limitations and become svatantra, “self-dependent.”
Tantra minimizes dogma and maximizes practice; the chief characteristic of the texts known as Tantras is that they generally underemphasize philosophical speculations in favor of productive actions. Much or most of the literary Tantric tradition, including Sri Vidya (worship of the Sri Yantra), is ultimately an outgrowth of the Vedas, but other Tantric traditions, often collectively referred to as Shabari Vidya, originated in non-Vedic sources.
There is no one prevailing belief system of Tantra, no one definition for it, no practices within it so dominant that they can be used to delineate it. No attempt to authoritatively define Tantra can be accurate because Tantra is embodied in multiple living lineages, and within each lineage the actual process of Tantra is peculiar to the individual. Only a few of Tantra’s myriad techniques can be expected to actually deliver its expected results in any particular location, occasion, and person; what generates nectar in one individual may act as poison in another, and what works for you today might not have worked yesterday and may not work again tomorrow.
The word tantra comes from the root tan, “to stretch, extend, spread, weave”, and like weaving tantra is subject to the principle of yukti, defined in Sanskrit as bahu-karana-yoga-ja, “generated from the union of many causes”. Like weaving, which requires the repeated interlacing of threads on a loom in a specific sequence, Tantra requires the repeated interlacing of fibers of energy (shakti) usually in the form of sound, mantra, on a “loom” called a yantra (the best of which, it is said, is the human body) via the specific method (tantra) that the pattern to be generated demands.
Weaving demands a weaver, and Tantra requires a practitioner, a Tantrika, who ideally aims to become “Self-dependent”, relying solely on the Supreme Reality, though many remain oriented to their limited selves and set their aim lower, pursuing goals that are less transcendent and more mundane. Sadly, it is not uncommon for those who attempt to follow the path of Tantra to focus on worldly and often selfish accomplishments, which is why so many in India associate Tantra with black magic, and so many in the West who have heard of Tantra equate it with marathon sexual encounters.
My mentor, the Aghori Vimalananda, who achieved success at a wide variety of Tantric undertakings, always emphasized that Tantra’s sexual and magical rituals are meant only for selected individuals who have matured sufficiently to be able to handle the force of perilous practices. Tantra seeks to free us from servitude, not to make that servitude yet more pervasive and persistent, which will result when sense objects take control of sense organs.
Kali, ca. 1990. Watercolor graphite underdrawing. Artist Y. G. Srimati.
Lakshmi embodies Maya Shakti and manifests in the adhibhautika, the physical, external world; Sarasvati encourages the progressive transformation of Maya into Chit and manifests in the adhyatmika, the world of spirit. Kali exists in the astral world, the adhidaivika realm of impressions, perceptions and images that exists where Chit Shakti sports between the physical and spiritual spheres.
Science of Personality
Only a well-cultivated personality can succeed at Tantra’s most extreme practices, and Vimalananda often defined Tantra as the “science of personality”. Successful practitioners of Tantra learn to navigate their personas adroitly through the sea of the world, steering themselves clear of the currents of personal irregularities, skirting hazardous karmic rocks as they sail into the haven of divine union. Untransformed human individuals are each composed of multiple personality sub-units, sets of personal attributes that permit us to play specific roles in specific situations, as parent, child, boss, subordinate, friend.
Most of us are able to shift from one reality to another as required, but only a mostly-unified personality should dare to enter onto the path of Tantra, for Tantra is shighra & ugra: it employs the extreme (ugra), including the use of intoxicants and rites performed in the smashan (cremation grounds), to obtain speedy (shighra) results. Thus, it is said that it is easier to ride a tiger or stride atop a scimitar than to succeed at Tantra, which was never intended to serve as a starting point on a spiritual journey. Tried and true ways to spiritual achievement are slow and steady; those who wish for faster progress must tackle the dangers inherent in sudden high-speed course changes.
Thorough preparation is essential for anyone who seeks to follow the Tantric trail, and the first step on this path is to locate an experienced, accomplished guru, whose guidance and protection are vital. Such a mentor will evaluate your personal temperament and capacity before tailoring a program specific to and appropriate for you, one for which you are adhikara, and as your proceed along the path with discourage you from any spiritual experiences that might seduce you into believing that you have achieved something of note. The guru’s task is to extricate you from bondage to the Ashta Pasha, the “Eight Snares” that bind us to limited existence: lust, anger, greed, delusion, envy, shame, fear and disgust, that you may die to worldliness and be born again into spirituality. “You will only learn how to love God,” said Vimalananda repeatedly, “after you have learned how to love your guru.” The guru comes only when the disciple is ripe, and Vimalananda always exhorted his students to clean up their personal lives before they set out to search for spiritual guidance.
One of your guru’s chief tasks will be to disabuse you of fond notions, like the idea that profound and permanent changes in your self can be realized simply by strongly desiring them. You cannot expect to master any mundane craft without thousands of hours of practice, and you cannot succeed at Tantra without years of concentrated application to your guru-assigned practice to generate the firm foundation upon which a transformed self can be established.
A firm foundation requires a balanced physiology, for which Ayurvedic and Yogic purification and rejuvenation techniques are advantageous, to make the organism strong and purify each major nadi (ethereal nerve) so that prana (the life force) can circulate effectively through the entire being and energize it. Any transformation requires shakti, power or energy that is has been channeled into capability. All imaginable things and actions arise from, exist in, and eventually return to the the Adya, the Primordial Shakti from which the cosmos has been created, and Adya stands atop the rock of absolute, unchangeable, all-pervasive consciousness. All conceivable cosmoses emerge from the substance and dynamism of Adya, and each of us humans is a microcosm of that macrocosm, each of us also founded on the Rock of Consciousness. Shakti’s nature is to self-identify, and it is this self-identification that makes possible both self-awareness and selfhood. This “I-creating” power is at base the same in every individuality. Adya identifies Herself with the Universal Totality; the shakti of an individual human produces an I-ness that identifies with a human individual.
Chit Shakti & Maya Shakti
All shaktis serve for us either as Chit Shakti or Maya Shakti. Vimalananda explained the relationship between these two shaktis thus: “Chit Shakti (the power of consciousness or subjectivity) identifies with the Unmanifested Absolute, and Maya Shakti (the power of unconsciousness or objectivity) identifies with the World, the manifestation of the Absolute. These two Shaktis cannot exist without one another. Even in the grossest matter there is a spark of consciousness – this is why I say that even rocks are alive – and even in the highest states of consciousness there is a particle of Maya, as long as there is even the least sense of individuality. Once you learn the truth of the universe, you forget your own individuality, and remember your true nature; only then, when you no longer exist, does Maya no longer exist for you.”
Unity and duality exist in every human simultaneously, intelligence and sensation arising wherever Chit Shakti predominates and ignorance and insensibility wherever Maya rules. The more you identify with your individuality, your microcosm, the more your shakti will function as your own personal Maya and the less She will reflect awareness of the macrocosm. As you identify less with your individuality you free your self-identifying power to reflect more of the reality of unalloyed consciousness, to increase her awareness of the One.
The human spinal cord extends consciousness from the brain, the pole of greatest awareness that is called Shiva, to the coccyx, the pole of greatest density. Each bodily cell expresses its own sort of consciousness according to its own capacity. So long as your personal shakti busies itself predominantly with creating and reinforcing your limited human personality by self-identifying with your physical and mental attributes we call it ahamkara (ego).
Chit Shakti (the power of consciousness or subjectivity) identifies with the Unmanifested Absolute, and Maya Shakti (the power of unconsciousness or objectivity) identifies with the World, the manifestation of the Absolute. These two Shaktis cannot exist without one another.
Vintage Indian fine miniature painting on paper. Tantra. Ca. 1970s.
At the base of the spinal cord lies the residue of our shakti of individuation, an energy that is our personal fragment of the cosmic power of self-identification and that remains unavailable us so long as our consciousness remains firmly entrenched in the mundane. When ahamkara begins to awaken from its ‘sleep’ of self-delusion it takes on the name Kundalini. Ahamkara connotes Maya Shakti, and Kundalini, Chit Shakti. Ahamkara and Kundalini are two forms of the same power, manifested in opposite directions for opposing purposes.
Vimalananda, who liked to muse that, “Life is just a memory; bitter or sweet, it is nothing but memory,” comments: “Ahamkara, your ‘I-creating’ faculty, continuously remembers you by self-identifying with all the cells in your body and all the facets of your personality. Ahamkara is your personal shakti; she integrates the many parts of you into the individual that you are. You develop spiritually when you can cause ahamkara to realize, little by little, that she is actually She: the Kundalini Shakti. This growing realization gradually awakens Kundalini, and as She awakens, She forgets to self-identify with your limited human personality. Then She is ready to recollect something new.”
Forgetting to merge one’s awareness with external things, said Vimalananda, is the first step in spirituality. Maya Shakti keeps us awake to the world and asleep to the Absolute, while Chit Shakti awakens us to Reality and makes us insensate to worldly things. The consciousness of any living being is conditioned by the matter in which it resides, and the Maya of the matter that makes up our bodies is some of the greatest Maya that humans experience. Maya is the world’s skin, the superficial image of reality that permits us to interact with a world that is too vast for us to fully comprehend. So long as we live the embodied life each one of us participates in the play of Nature, binding ourselves to the world by the ‘things’ we accrete in our personalities.
Requests for mundane boons bind us to limited forms, manifestations of Maya. Those who remain stuck in Maya do so because they fail to redirect their urge to individuation from Maya to Chit; they are carried along by the current of their karmas, and the karmic currents of those near and dear to them. Eyes saturated with Chit see Reality clearly, and eyes impregnated with Maya see Her in a multitude of imperfect ways.
Lakshmi embodies Maya Shakti and manifests in the adhibhautika, the physical, external world; Sarasvati encourages the progressive transformation of Maya into Chit and manifests in the adhyatmika, the world of spirit. Kali exists in the astral world, the adhidaivika realm of impressions, perceptions and images that exists where Chit Shakti sports between the physical and spiritual spheres. One reason that so many rituals of Tantra are performed in the smashan is that in the smashan it is much more difficult to be deluded by Maya‘s skin, and far easier to recall how all the world eventually ends up on a funeral pyre.
Prakriti & Our Nature
The job of Nature (in Sanskrit, Prakrti) is to give form and limits to consciousness, to finitize awareness. In the human context Prakriti represents your ‘first action’ (pra+ krti), the choice of action which you naturally, instinctively make when you are confronted by a need to act. This innate ‘nature,’ which is inborn in each of us, present in our genetic material, controls how we experience the world. Until you have conquered this innate nature, you will have to experience its many limitations, for svabhavo vijayati iti shauryam: “the true heroism is to conquer your own nature”.
What you will get out of your life will depend in great measure on what kind of shakti you invite into it. Lakshmi, the most fixed and pre-determined of these shaktis, is ultimately the most limited, for though Lakshmi can often provide quick results they may also quickly dissipate; “easy come, easy go.” Most humans are stuck in physical awareness, attracted strongly to the Maya of obtainable wealth; many want to gain their prosperity in the quickest, easiest way possible. Relatively few people nowadays are interested in creating knowledge, and very few are interested in locating the essence of knowledge.
It is relatively easy nowadays to possess and transfer the crudest forms of shakti, like money. Obtaining or transferring knowledge shakti is harder work but is still quite doable by most people. Astral shakti, however, the field in which Tantra operates, resists being possessed, transferred, organized, or even understood. It must instead be imaged. Tantra aims to create and bring to life within you an image of your ishta devata, your chosen deity, so that your ishta can evolve you into something new. For this to happen your personal shakti, your Kundalini, must become able to mirror your ishta, and for that to happen your ahamkara (Maya) must be transmuted into Kundalini (Chit). As the concentrated Chit Shakti that is Kundalini awakens within, the Maya of the matter that makes up our bodies, a Maya that steadfastly resists spiritual transformation, finally begins to diminish.
Many people today have heard of Kundalini, and many set out to awaken Her without an awareness of either how to proceed or what to avoid, and without first preparing themselves for that awakening. But Kundalini is a sleeping serpent, and just as it would be most unwise to awaken a hefty cobra snoozing in your home without first preparing and protecting yourself, so it is most unwise to prod Kundalini into arousal without some preliminary groundwork.
Much of what is “known” in the world about Kundalini is balderdash, including the dogma that there “are” six chakras, when in fact there are different potential numbers of chakras, none of which actually exist until they are created within the sadhaka. Also, when Kundalini awakens completely no ahamkara will remain to identify with the body, which means that the individual must cease to exist on Earth. No incarnate being ever quite becomes wholly spiritual, for some Maya will remain with you so long as you remain embodied. All Kundalini awakenings are thus partial, and the course and progression of her awakening is never the same in different individuals.
Moreover, as Kundalini progressively replaces ahamkara immense intensification of one’s experiences will occur, and in those who are engaged in “seeking their bliss” this can lead to confusion between actual bliss and mere pleasure. Tantra’s reputation for creating sex machines or magicians who promise riches and power rests on the wrong understanding that the Tantric path consists of one episode of ecstasy after another, when in fact the heightening of your pleasure will be matched, and often exceeded, by the depths of the dissatisfaction and pain you will feel in low-pleasure circumstances. Sincere lovers of God know how starkly the pleasure of the Divine Presence appears in the context of separation therefrom.
Bhadrakali within the Rising Sun. Page from a "Tantric Devi" series. Pahari, Basohli or Nurpur, ca. 1660-1670 CE.
One way in which Tantra differs from other spiritual paths is that rather than turn away from embodied reality it works with embodiment to achieve its goals. “Anubhava Siddha Karo!”
The Three Avaranas or Coverings
There are Three Avaranas or coverings that prevent Kundalini from directly perceiving the Ultimate Reality: the Pancha Mahabhuta, the five elements that make up our world; the Tri Guna, the three archetypal qualities that are innate to all creation; and the Shad Rasa, the six tastes. The five elements are the physical obstacles and the three Gunas the mental obstacles that keep us from aligning well with the Ultimate. Our organisms use the six tastes to enable body and mind to communicate with each other.
Encouraging the proper functioning of the three Gunas – sattva, rajas and tamas – is a good way to get the mind to behave properly. When sattva, which means ‘trueness’ or accuracy, functions the mind does the job that it is supposed to do: arrange information taken in from the sense organs into a comprehensible narrative, forward that report to buddhi, the faculty of discernment, and relay the conclusions of buddhi back to the sense organs. Rajas means activity, which is necessary for change. Tamas means inertia, which is necessary for stability. Rajas and tamas become the doshas (corrupting influences) of the mind only when they overwhelm sattva and pursue their own agendas, interfering with what the mind relays to buddhi and adding to or subtracting from whatever buddhi determines. Once sattva is well established, we must let go of our attachment to it as well if we are to create a true harmony of all three Gunas, but until our minds are clear sattva must remain our focus.
Misuse of the mind is the main reason for disease. We can best facilitate sattva and thus clarity of mind by breathing properly and meditating, doing appropriate yoga, removing toxins from the system, aligning with reality, and employing substances and performing actions in general doing anything that promotes equilibrium. that are appropriate for us. Everything we eat causes sattva, rajas or tamas to increase or decrease. Healthy food eaten and digested well will produce metabolites that are agreeable to the brain, thus encouraging the brain to think more clearly. A diet that is improper for you will produce undesirable metabolites, which will muddle thinking and discernment.
Proper diet is particularly significant in the context of the six tastes, the second of the three Avaranas. The Sanskrit word rasa means taste, but it also means water, juice, soup, the sap in trees, blood plasma, semen, and emotion. This equivalence of taste and emotion tells us that while a good way to refine your tastes is by eating the right food and digesting it properly, the achievement of this refinement depends substantially on having healthy emotions and a healthy emotional attitude. Tantra teaches that, since the ordinary person is commonly at the mercy of the permutations of his or her emotions and tastes, a sadhaka should always seek to extract the vital essence (rasa) from each situation and experience and to converting the essence thus extracted into a single flavor of existence, or ekarasa, a single rasa which one can magnify and refine into samarasa, a state of profound composure in which every external action, however pleasurable or painful, generates the same bliss within. A human immersed in samarasa becomes a well-integrated individual, freed from one-sidedness, personal idiosyncrasies, and pointless preferences, one poised to experience paramarasa: the bliss of Undifferentiated Consciousness.
It is through equipoise that the path to the serene ecstasy of samarasa passes, and as we all know maintaining equanimity under all circumstances in today’s world is indeed tricky, particularly because the key to life that works at one moment may no longer even fit the lock in the next. One must therefore follow one rasa relentlessly to create ekarasa, and once ekarasa occurs to then surrender that rasa entirely that it may flower into paramarasa.
Rasa Vidya: The Alchemy of Tantra
Over the centuries many sadhakas have experimented with cultivating both the emotions and tastes via yet another set of rasas consisting of the metal mercury (itself known as rasa) and the associated substances employed with it in the alchemy of Tantra, Rasa Vidya. Properly performed, Rasa Vidya can balance all rasas and refine the five elements, the third set of Avaranas. Vimalananda averred that there is no Tantra without bhuta shuddhi, the active purification of the five elements in the body that is essential if Kundalini is ever to rightly rise. One straightforward way to perform bhuta shuddhi is the simple ritual known as the Panchopachara Puja, the “ritual worship of the five offerings”: a flower for the Space Element, incense for the Air Element, a lamp for the Fire Element, something edible for the Water Element, and Sandalwood paste or an essential oil for the Earth Element. By making these five offerings you symbolically offer the five elements from which you as a limited individual is composed, requesting your ishta devata to purify those elements within you.
This puja becomes even more effective when you can invoke your ishta devata into your body so that the ishta performs the puja through you; the Tantras say, shivo bhutava shivam yajet, which roughly means “only after you become Shiva will you actually be able to worship Shiva”. Tantra thus prescribes ritual worship both to facilitate bhuta shuddhi and to promote the transmutation of your limited personality into the unlimited personality of your ishta. Ritual is also handy for creating a space within which the practitioner can safely make excursions into the astral world and then return safely home to the body for reintegration.
Ritual in Tantra is multifarious, spanning the continuum from the simplest possible expression of intention and ensuing action to extraordinarily subtle, complex ceremonials. Jyotisha, or divination, and Vastu, the science of space, are integral to ritual, as is Svara Vidya or Svarodaya, the science of breath, and nyasa, the placing of mantras on the body to facilitate the deity’s entry thereinto. The words you speak during the ritual will have relatively lesser or greater effects according to which of the four levels of speech – vaikhari, madhyama, pashyanti, and para – you use to speak them. All this is governed by the principle of vinyasa, which in this context means that every action you perform should have a definite beginning, climax, and end, and that the end of one action should serve as an appropriate starting point for the next activity.
One way in which Tantra differs from other spiritual paths is that rather than turn away from embodied reality it works with embodiment to achieve its goals. “Anubhava Siddha Karo!” Vimalananda would periodically bellow: “Perfect Your Experience!” No place for “alternative facts” here, for in a human race soon to be overwhelmed with rampant fakery each individual must ever strive to maintain a firm hold on truth. “It is always best to live with Reality,’ Vimalananda would say, “because if you do not Reality will definitely come to live with you.” The best medicine for the disease of the world, the best way to live with Reality, the best intoxicant of all is free, easy to use, and available at a moment’s notice: the sweet name of God. Om namah shivaya!