by Acarya Vedaprajinananda Avadhuta
Tantra is the original spiritual science first taught in India more than 7000 years ago. Tan is a Sanskrit root which signifies “expansion”, and Tra signifies “liberation.” Thus, Tantra is the practice which elevates human beings in a process in which their minds are expanded. It leads human beings from the imperfect to the perfect, from the crude to the subtle, from bondage to liberation.
The development of Tantra is intertwined with the development of civilization in ancient India. During the time when Tantra emerged as an important spiritual practice, India was passing through a crucial historical period. In the Northwest nomadic tribes from central Asia, the Aryans, began to enter the country which they named Bharata Varsha (the land which nourishes and expands human beings). Although the Aryans were a nomadic warrior culture, amidst them there were certain sages known as Rishis who began to ask the basic questions about the origin and destiny of the universe.
These sages presented oral teachings, which were later compiled in books known as The Vedas. In these teachings they put forward the idea of a Supreme Consciousness, advancing beyond the previous concepts of a world in which many deities were thought to animate the forces of nature. They also developed a system of prayer and worship in order to enter into a relationship with this Supreme Consciousness, but their practices were mostly of an external, ritualistic nature.
In India the Aryans encountered and began to fight with the indigenous peoples – the Austrics, Mongolians, and Dravidians. They considered these races to be inferior to them, and in the epic tales of India such as The Ramayana, these races are depicted as monkeys and demons.
However inferior these races were considered to be, the Aryans were very much interested in the spiritual practices which the indigenous peoples of India were practicing. The spiritual approach of the non-Aryans was Tantra and it differed from the Vedic practices of the Aryans because it was fundamentally an introversive process rather than an external ritual. Many Aryans began to learn the Tantric system of spiritual development, and later Vedic books were influenced by Tantra.
During this epoch of warfare between the Aryans and non-Aryans, a great personality was born. His name was Sadashiva which means “He who is always absorbed in consciousness and one whose only vow of existence is to promote the all-around welfare of living beings”. Sadashiva, also known as Shiva, was a great spiritual preceptor or Guru. Although Tantra was practiced before his birth, it was he who for the first time gave humanity a systematic presentation of spirituality.
Not only was he a great spiritual teacher, but he was also the founder of the Indian system of music and dance, which is why he is sometimes known as Nataraj (the Lord of the Dance). Shiva was also the founder of Indian medicine, and presented a system known as Vaedyak Shastra. In the social sphere too Shiva had an important role to play. He introduced a system of marriage in which both partners accepted a mutual responsibility for the success of the marriage, irregardless of caste or community. Shiva himself was of mixed parentage, and by marrying an Aryan princess he helped to unite the warring factions of India and gave them a more universalistic social viewpoint. Because of these social innovations Shiva has been called the father of human civilization.
Shiva’s greatest contribution to the birth of civilization was to introduce the concept of dharma. Dharma is a Sanskrit word which signifies the “innate characteristic” of something. What is the innate characteristic and specialty of humans? Shiva explained that a human being wants more than the pleasure provided by sensory gratification. He said that the human being is different from plants and animals because what he or she is striving for is absolute peace. This is the goal of human life, and Shiva’s spiritual teachings were aimed at enabling any human being to attain this goal.
Like most ancient teachings, Shiva’s ideas were first taught in an oral form, and only later were they transcribed into books. Shiva’s wife, Parvati, used to ask him various questions regarding the spiritual science. Shiva replied to these questions, and the compilation of these questions and answers are known as the Tantra Shastra (Tantric scriptures). There are two types of Tantric scriptures. The principles of Tantra are found in books known as Nigama while the practices of Tantra are contained in books known as Agama. Some of these ancient books have been lost and others are indecipherable due to their having been written in a code language designed to keep the secrets of Tantra away from the uninitiated; thus the ideas of Tantra have never been clearly explained.
In his commentaries on the Tantra Shastra and in his book about the life and teachings of Shiva, Shrii Shrii Anandamurti has presented some of the basic ideas found in the ancient teachings. One of the most important elements in Tantra is the relationship of Guru and disciple. Guru means “one who can dispel darkness” and Shiva explained that for spiritual success there must be a good teacher and a good disciple.
Shiva explained that there are three major categories of Guru. The first type is a teacher who gives a little bit of knowledge but does not follow up the lessons. That is, he or she may leave and the disciple is then left alone without guidance. The second or middle level is one who teaches and then guides the disciple for a little while but not for the complete period needed by the disciple to reach the final goal. The best type of teacher according to Tantra is one who gives a teaching and then makes continued efforts to see that the disciple follows the instructions and finally realizes the ultimate state of human perfection.
The qualities of this highest guru are further enumerated in the Tantra Shastra. The guru is one who is tranquil, can control his mind, is humble and modestly dressed. He earns his living in a proper way and is a family man. He is well versed in metaphysical philosophy and established in the art of meditation. He is one who knows the theory and practice of imparting the teaching of meditation. He loves and guides his disciples. Such a guru is called Mahakaola
But even if there is a great teacher, there must also be someone who can absorb his lessons. The Tantra Shastras describe three different categories of disciples. The first type is compared to a glass which is placed in the water with the mouth facing downward. While it is in the water it appears to be full but if it is lifted out of the water it becomes empty. This is like a student who practices well in the presence of the teacher, but after the teacher leaves, the student discontinues the practice and cannot apply the teachings to his or her every day life. The second type of disciple is like a glass placed in the water at an angle. It also appears to be full when it is immersed, but when it is raised out of the water it loses most of the water. This disciple is one who practices in the presence of the teacher but after a while he or she practices less and less and finally discontinues the spiritual way of life. The third kind of disciple is the best of all and is symbolized by a glass which is immersed in the water in an upright position. While in the water it is completely full and when it is taken out of the water it remains full. This kind of student practices in the presence of the master and continues the practice even if he or she is physically separated from the teacher.
The relationship of guru and disciple is very important and is a key feature of Tantra. The path of spirituality has been described as being as thin as a razor’s edge. At any moment it is possible to deviate from the path and then it is very difficult to reach liberation. The guru is always there to love and guide the disciple at all stages of the practice.
Shiva was a Mahakaola, but after his death there was a lack of teachers of the same stature and Tantra fell into decline. Some of the teachings were lost and others were deformed. Today Tantra is shrouded in mystery and there are many misconceptions about it. To understand the source of these misconceptions it is important to examine the 5 Ms. These are spiritual practices beginning with the letter M. When Shiva first taught he gave teaching according to the development of the student. He saw that certain people were at a level in which they were dominated by animal passions and others were at a higher stage of development. He gave different practices depending on the qualities of the disciple.
The first M is known as Madya. It has two meanings. One meaning of madya is “wine”. For those people who were dominated by physical instincts Shiva instructed them to continue drinking wine, but he showed them how to control the habit and then finally leave it. For those at a higher level of development Madya has another meaning, it refers not to wine but to a divine nectar. Each month the pineal gland secretes a fluid known as amrta. A yogi who has purified his mind and practices fasting can taste the fluid and experience the profound effect of the fluid on his whole being, which has been described as a state of bliss. Thus, there is both a crude or material interpretation of Madya and a subtle or spiritual understanding of the term.
Another of the five Ms is Mamsa. One meaning of Mamsa is meat. For those who ate much meat, Shiva told them to continue to take it with a spiritual idea and finally to control the urge and quit the habit. For the subtle practitioner of Tantra, mamsa refers to the tongue and the spiritual practice of controlling one’s speech.
Matsya, the third of the Ms, refers to fish. For the physically minded practitioner Shiva applied the same instruction regarding fish as he did with wine and meat. In spiritual or subtle Tantra the “fish” refers to two subtle nerves which run up the body, starting at the base of the spine and crisscrossing each other and ending in the two nostrils. These nerves are known as the ida and pingala. By the science of breath control, Pranayama, the currents of the nerves are controlled and the mind becomes calm for meditation. This is the Matsya of the spiritual practitioner.
Another of the Ms is Mudra. Mudra has only a spiritual significance and there is no physical or crude practice associated with it. Mudra means to maintain contact with those who help us to make spiritual progress and to avoid the company of those who might harm our development.
The last of the Ms, Maethuna, is the one which has caused the most confusion regarding Tantra. Maethuna means union. In its crude sense it means sexual union. For those who were dominated by the sexual instinct Shiva told that the sex act must be done with a spiritual idea and that gradually this instinct must be controlled. For the more advanced practitioners, those who were practicing subtle or spiritual Tantra, Shiva taught another practice of Maethuna. In this case “union” refers to the union of individual consciousness with Supreme Consciousness. In this case the spiritual energy of the human being, lying dormant at the base of the spine, is raised until it reaches the highest energy center (near the pineal gland), causing the spiritual aspirant to experience union with the Supreme.
The Ananda Marga yoga of today is based on the spiritual and subtle interpretation of the 5 Ms.
One of the distinctive aspects of subtle Tantra is the introversive method of meditation. The concept of mantra is of key importance in the Tantra idea of meditation. “Man” means “mind” and “tra” means “that which liberates”, thus mantra is a particular vibration which liberates the mind.
The ancient yogis experimented with sound vibration and began to utilize special sounds which they found useful in the process of expansion of mind. They found that there are seven principle psycho-spiritual energy centers in the human body. They further learned that there are 50 sounds which emanate from the centers. These sounds are found in the alphabet of Sanskrit, and certain combinations of the sounds were used in ancient processes of concentration and meditation. During Tantric meditation the meditator is concentrating on the mantra and trying to keep only one sound vibration (and its associated idea) in his or her mind. Constant repetition of the mantra leads a practitioner to higher states of consciousness.
Not any sound can be chosen at random for use in meditation, rather there are certain qualities which the mantra must possess in order for it to be effective. First of all the mantra must be pulsative, that is, there will be two syllables which are repeated in synchronization with the inhalation and exhalation of breathing. In addition the mantra must have an idea associated with it. The general idea of the mantras used in meditation is that “I am one with the Supreme Consciousness”. The mantra thus helps the individual to associate his or her own individual consciousness with the totality of consciousness in the universe.
The final characteristics of the mantra is that it must create a certain vibration which acts as a link between the individual vibration of the meditator and the vibration of the Supreme Consciousness. As people are not all alike, the mantras which are used in meditation are also not all alike. The meditation teacher chooses a mantra which matches the particular vibration of the individual and can link this individual vibration with the universal rhythm of the Supreme Consciousness.
Tantra is more than just a collection of meditation or yoga techniques. There is a particular world-view associated with it. According to Tantra, struggle is the essence of life. The effort to struggle against all obstacles and move from the imperfect to the perfect is the true spirit of Tantra.
In this movement from imperfection to perfection, there are three basic stages an individual passes through. In the first stage, the person is dominated by animal instincts, but in the next stage he or she gains control over these instincts and reaches the state of true human development. Finally, by constant struggle and effort, a state is reached where the human being becomes godlike. Tantra thus has an optimistic worldview. It shows how each individual is moving in a cosmic circle from a state of less developed consciousness to the most highly developed status.