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Sri Yantra diagram with the Ten Mahavidyas. The triangles represent Shiva and Shakti, the snake represents Spanda and Kundalini.

Tantra, also called Tantrism and Tantric religion, is an ancient Hindu tradition of beliefs and meditation and ritual practices that seeks to channel the divine energy of the macrocosm or godhead into the human microcosm,[1] in order to attain siddhis and moksha. It arose in India no later than the 5th century AD,[2] and had a strong influence on both Hinduism and Buddhism.


The term "tantrism" or "tantricism" is an anglicism derived from "tantra", used since the 19th century to refer to a complex and broad body of non-Vedic teachings.[3]


According to André Padoux, "Tantrism" is a western term and notion, and not a category that is used by the so-called "Tantrists" themselves.[4][note 1] The term was introduced by 19th-century Indologists who thought that the Tantras were only a very limited aspect of Indian culture.[4] Yet, according to Padoux, "[Tantra was] so pervasive that it was not regarded as being a distinct system."[5]

Robert Brown also notes that the term "tantrism" is a construct of Western scholarship, not a concept of the religious system itself.[6] Tāntrikas (practitioners of Tantra) did not attempt to define Tantra as a whole; instead, the Tantric dimension of each South Asian religion had its own name:[6]

  • Tantric Shaivism was known to its practitioners as the Mantramārga.
  • Shaktism is practically synonymous and parallel with Tantra, known to its native practitioners as "Kula marga" or "Kaula".
  • Tantric Buddhism has the indigenous name of the Vajrayana.
  • Tantric Vaishnavism was known as the Pancharatra.


According to Padoux, the term "tantrika" is based on a comment by Kulluka Bhatta, who made a distinction between vaidika and tantrika forms of revelation. These coincide with two different approaches to ultimate reality, namely a Vedic-Brahmanical approach, and approaches based on other texts.[5]


Tantra Sanskrit: तन्त्र often simply means "treatise" or "exposition". Literally it can be said to mean "loom, warp, weave"; hence "principle, continuum, system, doctrine, theory", from the verbal root tan "stretch, extend, expand", and the suffix tra "instrument".

The Kāmikā-tantra gives the following explanation of the term tantra:

Because it elaborates (tan) copious and profound matters, especially relating to the principles of reality (tattva) and sacred mantras, and because it provides liberation (tra), it is called a tantra.[7]

The 10th-century Tantric scholar Rāmakaṇṭha, who belonged to the dualist school Śaiva Siddhānta, gives another definition:

A tantra is a divinely revealed body of teachings, explaining what is necessary and what is a hindrance in the practice of the worship of God; and also describing the specialized initiation and purification ceremonies that are the necessary prerequisites of Tantric practice.[8]

A survey of the literature yields a variety of uses for the term "tantra", as given in the table.


Scholarly definitions

According to David N. Lorenzen, two different kind of definitions of Tantra exist, a "narrow definition" and a "broad definition."[16] According to the narrow definition, Tantrism, or "Tantric religion," refers only to the traditions which are based on the Tantras, Samhitas and Agamas. This definition refers primarily to a tradition which is primarily based in the higher social classes, which were literate, and lived in or close by urban centers.[16]

According to the broad definition, Tantra refers to a broad range of religious traditions with a "magical" orientation. This includes the upper class texts and traditions, but also practices and rituals from lower social classes, which were less educated, and lived more in the rural areas.[17]

According to David Gordon White,

Tantra is that Asian body of beliefs and practices which, working from the principle that the universe we experience is nothing other than the concrete manifestation of the divine energy of the godhead that creates and maintains that universe, seeks to ritually appropriate and channel that energy, within the human microcosm, in creative and emancipatory ways.[1]


David N. Lorenzen gives the following components of the broadly defined Tantric religion which can be documented:[18]

  1. "Shamanic and yogic beliefs and practices;"
  2. "Sakta worship, especially worship of the Matrkas and demon-killing forms of Hindu and Buddhist goddesses;"
  3. "Specific schools of Tantric religion such as the Kapalikas and Kaulas;"
  4. "The Tantric texts themselves."


André Padoux notes that there is no consensus among scholars which elements are characteristic for Tantra, nor is there any text which contains all those elements.[5] And most of those elements can also be found in non-Tantric traditions.[5] According to Anthony Tribe, a scholar of Buddhist Tantra, Tantra has the following defining features:[19]

  1. Centrality of ritual, especially the worship of deities
  2. Centrality of mantras
  3. Visualisation of and identification with a deity
  4. Need for initiation, esotericism and secrecy
  5. Importance of a teacher (guru, ācārya)
  6. Ritual use of mandalas (maṇḍala)
  7. Transgressive or antinomian acts
  8. Revaluation of the body
  9. Revaluation of the status and role of women
  10. Analogical thinking (including microcosmic or macrocosmic correlation)
  11. Revaluation of negative mental states



According to Brian K. Smith "all [...] attempts at locating the temporal and cultural origins of Tantrism remain theoretical and speculative."[20] According to Andre Padoux, "the history of Tantrism is impossible to write."[20][note 12] Although some elements of Tantra may be quite ancient,[18] Hindu Tantrism as a related complex of religious rituals and practices probably originated c. 500–600 AD.[20][2][3]


Some elements of Tantra may be quite ancient.[18] Some scholars postulate pre-Vedic origins of Tantra.[20] According to Bhattacharya, Tantric elements can be discerned in the Indus Valley Civilization at the 4th millennium BC. Terracotta figurines may be the earliest tokens of the Mother Goddess.[21] These cultures, in their late phase, overlapped with the Harappan culture of the Indus Valley, which may have preserved these proto-Tantric elements.[22] In contrast, the early Vedic religion did not support this kind of Mother Goddess worship,[23] and likewise did not support the Yogic elements of the pre-Vedic north-Indian culture.[24] Nevertheless, a synthesis emerged in which proto-Tantric elements found a place in the Vedic culture.[24] Likewise, Manoranjan Basu postulates pre-Vedic origins of Tantra in the pre-Vedic culture of north-India, including the Indus Valley Civilisation. The confrontation between the two cultures resulted in a synthesis in which proto-Tantric elements survived.[25]

Shamanic and yogic elements

The earliest documented use of the word "Tantra" is in the Rigveda (X.71.9),[9][page needed] but does not refer to Tantric texts or practices. Shamanic and yogic beliefs have been documented already in Vedic times,[18] and became abundant during the second urbanisation (500–200 BC, with the rise of the shramanic movement.[26] A famous passage in the Rig Veda (10.136), which probably dates from the early first millennium BC, describes the "wild muni" (seer) hymn of the Rig Veda. It describes the munis as experiencing "ecstatic, altered states of consciousness" and gaining the ability "to fly on the wind".[18] Several Upanishads, from the middle and early first millennium BC, describe yogic beliefs and practices,[18] which were fully codified by the emerging Buddhist tradition in the 5th century BC.[26][27] The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (comp. c. 400 AD) are an early codification of Yogic practices, which prelude the shift in emphasis of Hatha Yoga, which fully develops the "mystical anatomy" of nadis and chakras.[28] According to Lorenzen, in the 7th century AD the shamanic-yogic component of Tantrism appears clearly in Tantric form in Bāṇabhaṭṭa's Harshacharita and Daṇḍin's Dashakumaracharita.[29]

Worship of female deities

According to Lorenzen, the worship of female deities has a long history in India.[29] Despite its patriarchal character, some Vedic hymns are dedicated to female deities.[29] Other Vedic texts, such as the Mahabharata, also contain references to the cruel manifestations of the Mother Goddess, especially Mahishamardini, who is identified with Durga-Parvati.[29] The earliest depictions of Mahishamardini date from the 6th century AD, indicating the development of the Shakti-worship.[30] Goddess-worship became more tantric with the rise of the seven Matrikas, which are mentioned in the Mahabharata and the early Puranic literature.[30] They are also mentioned in the stone inscription of Visvavarman, which is dated at 423 AD, and often regarded oldest written evidence of Tantrism.[30] Another important mention of the Matrikas is in the Markandeya Purana, an early text of the Shakti worship.[31]

Tantric movement

Hindu Tantrism as a related complex of religious rituals and practices probably originated ca. 500-600 AD.[20][2][3] Stone inscriptions make clear that Tantric deities were already worshipped in the 5th century, and Tantra may have been well established by the 6th or 7th century,[20] by the end of the Gupta period.[note 13]

Tantric sects

The earliest reliable references to the Kapalikas are in Hāla’s Gatha-saptasati (3rd-5th century AD) and in two texts written by Varāhamihira (c. 500–575 AD).[31] In the 7th century AD more references to the Kapalikas appear.[31] Epigraphic references to the Kaulas are rare. Reference is made in the early 9th century to vama (left-hand) Tantras of the Kaulas.[34]


The Hindu Tantras cannot be attested before 800 AD.[20] According to Flood, the earliest date for the Tantras is 600 AD, though most of them were composed from the 8th century onward.[35] By the 10th century an extensive corpus existed.[35] According to Flood, the main areas for the composition of the tantras were Kashmir and Nepal.[36] The Tantric traditions regard the Tantras, also called agamas, to be superior to the Vedas.[35] While the vedic orthodoxy rejected the Tantras, the Tantric followers incorporated the Vedic revelations within their own systems, as revelations of a lower level.[37]

According to Flood, the Tantras probably arose among non-Brahmanical ascetics who lived at the cremation grounds.[38] They were representants of an ascetic ideal which lived among people of lower social classes.[38] By the early medieval times, their practices included the imitation of the gods they worshipped, which they appeased with various gifts such as non-vegetarian food, alcohol and sexual substances. They invited their deities to possess them, meanwhile keeping control and thereby gaining power.[38] These ascetics were supported by low castes living at the cremation places.[38]

Spread of Tantra

Tantrism flourished between the 8th or 9th century and the 14th century.[20] This was a period of great social and economical change in India, which saw the rise of feudalism, and the start of the Muslim era.

After the end of the Gupta Empire and the collapse of the Harsha Empire, power was decentralised in India. Several larger kingdoms emerged, with "countless vassal states".[39][note 14] The kingdoms were ruled by a feudal system, with smaller kingdoms dependent on protection from larger ones. "The great king was remote, was exalted and deified."[40] This was reflected in the Tantric mandala, which could depict the king at its centre.[41]

The disintegration of central power led to religious regionalism and rivalry.[42][note 15] Local cults and languages developed, and the influence of "Brahmanic ritualistic Hinduism"[42] diminished.[42] Rural devotional movements arose with Shaivism, Vaisnavism, Bhakti and Tantra,[42] although "sectarian groupings were only at the beginning of their development."[42] Religious movements competed for recognition from local lords.[42] Buddhism lost its stature, and began to disappear from India.[42]

By the tenth or eleventh century Tantra had spread all over India.[36] Tantric movements led to the formation of a number of Hindu and Buddhist esoteric schools, also infuencing the Jain religious tradition.[44] According to Flood,

Tantrism has been so pervasive that all of Hinduism after the eleventh century, perhaps with the exception of the vedic Srauta tradition, is influenced by it. All forms of Saiva, Vaisnava and Smarta religion, even those forms which wanted to distance themselves from Tantrism, absorbed elements derived from the Tantras.[36]

Tantrism further spread with the silk road transmission of Buddhism to East and Southeast Asia,[44] and also influenced the Bön tradition of Tibet.[44]


Tantric Feast, India, Himachal Pradesh, Nurpur, circa 1790
Making of a Tibetan Sand mandala.
A sadhu smoking cannabis.
A modern Shri Vidya adept performs Tantric puja at his home shrine. Kerala, India, 2006.

Tantric ritual seeks to access the supra-mundane through the mundane, identifying the microcosm with the macrocosm.[45] The Tantric aim is to sublimate (rather than negate) reality.[46] The Tantric practitioner seeks to use prana (energy flowing through the universe, including one's body) to attain goals which may be spiritual, material or both.[47]

Tantric teachings are passed on orally in a teacher-student relationship.[48] Initiation by a teacher is necessary for the practice to be successful.[49]


Rituals are the main focus of the Tantras.[50][note 16] Rather than one coherent system, Tantra is an accumulation of practices and ideas. Because of the wide range of communities covered by the term, it is problematic to describe tantric practices definitively.


A number of techniques (sadhana) are used as aids for meditation and achieving spiritual power:[51]

  • Dakshina: Donation or gift to one's teacher
  • Diksha: Initiation ritual in which one receives shaktipat
  • Yoga, including breathing techniques (pranayama) and postures (asana), is employed to balance the energies in the body/mind.
  • Mudras, or hand gestures
  • Mantras: reciting syllables, words, and phrases
  • Singing of hymns of praise (stava)
  • Mandalas
  • Yantras: symbolic diagrams of forces at work in the universe
  • Visualization of deities and Identification with deities
  • Puja (worship ritual)
  • Animal sacrifice
  • Use of taboo substances such as alcohol, cannabis, meat and other entheogens.
  • Prayashcitta - an expiation ritual performed if a puja has been performed wrongly
  • Nyasa
  • Ritual purification (of idols, of one's body, etc.)
  • Guru bhakti (devotion) and puja
  • Yatra: pilgrimage, processions
  • Vrata: vows, sometimes to do ascetic practices like fasting
  • The acquisition and use of siddhis or supernomal powers. Associated with the left hand path tantra.
  • Ganachakra: A ritual feast during which a sacramental meal is offered.
  • Ritual Music and Dance.
  • Maithuna: ritual sexual union (visualized or with an actual physical consort).
  • Dream yoga


According to David Gordon White, mandalas are a key element of Tantra.[1] They represent the constant flow and interaction of both divine, demonic, human and animal energy or impulses (kleshas, cetanā, taṇhā) in the universe. The mandala is a mesocosm, which mediates between the "transcendent-yet-immanent" macrocosm and the microcosm of mundane human experience.[1] The godhead is at the center of the mandala, while all other beings, including the practitioner, are located at various distances from this center.[1] Mandalas also reflected the medieaval feudal system, with the king at its centre.[41]

The godhead is both transcendent and immanent, and the world is regarded as real, and not as an illusion. The goal is not to transcend the world, but to realize that the world is the manifestation of the godhead, while the "I" is "the supreme egoity of the godhead."[1] The world is to be seen with the eyes of the godhead, realizing that it is a manifestation as oneself.[52] The totality of all that is a "realm of Dharma" which shares a common principle.[53] The supreme is manifest in everyone, which is to be realized through Tantric practice.[53]

Mantra, yantra, nyasa

Vajrayana Prayer wheels have tantric mantras engraved on the surface.

The words mantram, tantram and yantram are rooted linguistically and phonologically in ancient Indian traditions. Mantram denotes the chant, or "knowledge." Tantram denotes philosophy, or ritual actions. Yantram denotes the means by which a person is expected to lead their life.[citation needed]

The mantra and yantra are instruments to invoke higher qualities, often associated with specific Hindu deities such as Shiva, Shakti, or Kali. Similarly, puja may involve focusing on a yantra or mandala associated with a deity.[54]

Each mantra is associated with a specific Nyasa. Nyasa involves touching various parts of the body at specific parts of the mantra, thought to invoke the deity in the body. There are several types of Nyasas; the most important are Kara Nyasa and Anga Nyasa.[citation needed]

Identification with deities


The deities are internalised as attributes of Ishta devata meditations, with practitioners visualizing themselves as the deity or experiencing the darshan (vision) of the deity. During meditation the initiate identifies with any of the Hindu gods and goddesses, visualising and internalising them in a process similar to sexual courtship and consummation.[55] The Tantrika practitioner may use visualizations of deities, identifying with a deity to the degree that the aspirant "becomes" the Ishta-deva (or meditational deity).[56]

Classes of devotees

In Hindu Tantra, uniting the deity and the devotee uses meditation and ritual practices. These practices are divided among three classes of devotees: the animal, heroic, and the divine. In the divine devotee, the rituals are internal. The divine devotee is the only one who can attain the object of the rituals (awakening energy).[57]


Defined as a technique-rich style of spiritual practice, Tantra has no single coherent doctrine; instead, it developed a variety of teachings in connection with the religions adopting the Tantric method. These practices are oriented to the married householder rather than the monastic or solitary renunciant, exhibiting a world-embracing (as opposed to a world-denying) character. Tantra, particularly its nondual forms, rejected the values of Patañjalian yoga; instead, it offered a vision of reality as self-expression of a single, free and blissful divine consciousness under Śiva.

The world is real

Since the world was seen as real (not illusory), this doctrine was an innovation on previous Indian philosophies (which saw the divine as transcendent and the world as illusion). The consequence of this view was that householders could aspire to spiritual liberation, where the lay practitioner addressed this goal by consulting Tantric manuals and undertaking various Tantric rituals.

Since Tantra dissolved the dichotomy between spiritual and mundane, practitioners could integrate their daily lives into their spiritual growth, seeking to realize the divine which is transcendent and immanent. Tantric practices and rituals aim to bring about a realization of the truth that "nothing exists that is not divine" (nāśivaṃ vidyate kvacit),[58] bringing freedom from ignorance and the cycle of suffering (saṃsāra).

Tantric visualizations are said to bring the meditator to the core of their humanity and unity with transcendence. Tantric meditations do not serve as training, extraneous beliefs or unnatural practices. On the contrary, the transcendence reached by such meditative work does not construct anything in the mind of the practitioner; instead, it deconstructs all preconceived notions of the human condition. The limits on thought (cultural and linguistic frameworks) are removed. This allows the person to experience liberation, followed by unity with reality.[59]

Evolution and involution

According to Nikhilananda, "being-consciousness-bliss" (or Satchidananda) entails self-evolution and self-involution. Prakriti (reality) evolves into a multiplicity of things but also remains consciousness, being and bliss. Maya (illusion) veils reality, separating it into opposites (conscious and unconscious, pleasant and unpleasant). If not recognized as illusion, these opposing conditions limit (pashu) the individual (jiva).[46]

Shiva and Shakti are generally seen as distinct. Tantra affirms that the world and the individual jiva are real, distinguishing itself from dualism and the qualified non-dualism of Vedanta.[46]

Evolution, or the "outgoing current," is only half of Maya. Involution (the "return current") takes the jiva back towards the source of reality, revealing the infinite. Tantra teaches the changing of the "outgoing current" into the "return current," removing the fetters of Maya. This view underscores two maxims of Tantra: "One must rise by that by which one falls," and "the very poison that kills becomes the elixir of life when used by the wise."[46]


The primary sources of written Hindu Tantric lore are the agama, generally consisting of four parts: metaphysical knowledge (jnana), contemplative procedures (yoga), ritual regulations (kriya) and religious injunctions (charya). Tantric schools affiliate themselves with specific agamic traditions. Hindu tantra exists in Shaiva, Vaisnava,[60] Ganapatya,[61] Saura[62] and Shakta forms, and individual tantric texts may be classified as Shaiva Āgamas, Vaishnava Pāñcarātra Saṃhitās,[63] and Shakta Tantras. The word Tantra includes all such works.[64] The religious culture of the Tantras is essentially Hindu, and Buddhist Tantric material can be shown to have been derived from Hindu sources.[65]

Important texts in Tibetan Buddhism are the Kalachakra tantra and the Guhyasamāja tantra, both belonging to the Anuttarayoga Tantra or Highest Yoga Tantra.[66]

Tantras use twilight language (sandhyā-bhāshā), which makes them inaccessible for those who are not initiated.[67] The term refers to the twilight, a "mysterious time of the day [which is] charged with power".[68] It is a symbolic language, which both informs and illumines the practitioner by creating a rich symbolic context, and conceals the true meaning for those who are not initiated.[68] It uses similes and paradoxes to describe the Tantric experiences and insights,[68] for example vajra ("thunderbolt") = linga ("phallus") = sunyata ("empty" of an inherent essence).[68]

Influence on Asian religions

The 24 Jain Tirthankaras forming the tantric meditative seed syllable HRIM, Gujarat, 1800's.

The Tantric method affected every major Indian religion during the early medieval period (c. 500–1200 AD); the Hindu sects of Shaivism, Shaktism, Vaishnavism and also Buddhism and Jainism developed a well-documented body of Tantric practices and doctrines, and Islam in India was also influenced by Tantra.[69] Tantric ideas and practices spread from India to Tibet, Nepal, China, Japan, Cambodia, Vietnam and Indonesia.[70][71] Tibetan Buddhism and some forms of Hinduism show the strongest Tantric influence, as do the postural yoga movement and most forms of American New Age spirituality.


Shaiva Tantra

The tantric Shaiva tradition consists of the Kapalikas, Kashmir Shaivism and Shaiva Siddhanta. The word "Tāntrika" is used for followers of the Tantras in Shaivism.[note 17]


Shaiva tantra produced the Hatha Yoga manuals, such as the 15th-century Hathayoga Pradīpikā and the 16th-century Gheranda Samhitā, from which modern yoga derives. The earlier (pre-Tantric) form of yoga, dating back to the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, became known as Raja Yoga:

Yoga as it has been inherited in the modern world has its roots in Tantric ritual and in secondary passages (pādas) within Tantric scriptures. The practices of mantra, āsana (seat/pose), sense-withdrawal (pratyāhāra), breath-regulation (prānāyāma), mental (mantric) fixation (dhāranā), meditation (dhyāna), mudrā, the subtle body (sukshma shārīra) with its energy centers (chakras, ādhāras, granthis, etc.) and channels (nādīs), as well as the phenomenon of Kundalinī Shakti are but a few of the tenets that comprise Tantric Yoga. While some of these derive from earlier, pre-Tantric sources, such as the Hindu Upanishads and the Yoga Sūtra, they were greatly expanded upon, ritualized, and philosophically contextualized in these medieval Tantras.[72]

Vedic tradition

Orthodox Brahmanas incorporate Tantric rituals into their daily activities (ahnikas). Gayatri-avahanam is a common element of Sandhyavandanam in southern India.[73] Orthodox temple archakas of several sects follow rules laid out in Tantric texts; for example, priests of the Iyengar sect follow Pañcaratra agamas.

However, it has been claimed that orthodox Vedic traditions were inimical to Tantra. André Padoux notes that, in India, tantra rejects orthodox Vedic tenets.[74] In his review of Tantric literature, Moriz Winternitz points out that while Indian Tantric texts are not hostile to the Vedas they see them as too difficult for the modern age.[75] Many orthodox Brahmans who accept the authority of the Vedas reject the Tantras.[76] Although later Tantric writers wanted to base their doctrines on the Vedas, some orthodox followers of the Vedic tradition denigrated Tantra as anti-Vedic.[77]

Buddhist Tantra

A Goma ritual performed at Chushinkoji Temple in Japan

Various classes of Vajrayana literature developed as a result of royal courts sponsoring both Buddhism and Saivism.[78] The Mañjusrimulakalpa, which later came to classified under Kriyatantra, states that mantras taught in the Saiva, Garuda and Vaisnava tantras will be effective if applied by Buddhists since they were all taught originally by Manjushri.[79] The Guhyasiddhi of Padmavajra, a work associated with the Guhyasamaja tradition, prescribes acting as a Saiva guru and initiating members into Saiva Siddhanta scriptures and mandalas.[80] The Samvara tantra texts adopted the pitha list from the Saiva text Tantrasadbhava, introducing a copying error where a deity was mistaken for a place.[81]

Western scholarly research

Three-dimensional triangular symbol
The Sri Yantra (shown here in the three-dimensional projection known as Sri Meru or Maha Meru, used primarily by Srividya Shakta sects) is central to most Tantric forms of Shaktism.

John Woodroffe

The first Western scholar to seriously study Tantra was John Woodroffe (1865–1936), who wrote about Tantra under the pen name Arthur Avalon and is known as the "founding father of Tantric studies".[82] Unlike previous Western scholars Woodroffe advocated for Tantra, defending and presenting it as an ethical and philosophical system in accord with the Vedas and Vedanta.[83] Woodroffe practised Tantra and, while trying to maintain scholastic objectivity, was a student of Hindu Tantra (the Shiva-Shakta tradition).[84]

Further development

Following Woodroffe a number of scholars began investigating Tantric teachings, including scholars of comparative religion and Indology such as Agehananda Bharati, Mircea Eliade, Julius Evola, Carl Jung, Giuseppe Tucci and Heinrich Zimmer.[85] According to Hugh Urban, Zimmer, Evola and Eliade viewed Tantra as "the culmination of all Indian thought: the most radical form of spirituality and the archaic heart of aboriginal India", regarding it as the ideal religion for the modern era. All three saw Tantra as "the most transgressive and violent path to the sacred".[86]


Dakshinachara and Vāmācāra

A distinction can be made between Dakshinachara (right-hand path) practices and schools, and Vamachara (left-hand path).

Dakṣiṇācāra, "Right-Hand Path", refers not only to "orthodox" (Āstika) sects, but also to modes of spirituality that engage in spiritual practices that accord with Vedic injunction, and are generally agreeable to the status quo.

Vāmācāra, "left-handed attainment" or "Left-path",[87][88][89] refers to practices or sadhana that are not only "heterodox" (Sanskrit: nāstika) to standard Vedic injunction, but extreme in comparison to the status quo. It is regarded by some as synonymous with the esoteric "Left-Hand Path".

Left-handed and right-handed modes of practice may be evident in both orthodox and heterodox schools of Indian religions such as Hinduism, Jainism, Sikhism and Buddhism and is a matter of taste, culture, proclivity, initiation, sadhana and dharmic "lineage" (parampara).

Sexual rites

Jambhala (Lord of Wealth) in ritual sexual union with consort, Sino-Tibetan, 18th-19th century

Although equated with Tantra in the West, sexual rites were historically practiced by a minority of sects. For practicing groups, maithuna progressed into psychological symbolism.[90] According to White, the sexual rites of Vamamarga may have emerged from early Hindu Tantra as a means of catalyzing biochemical transformations in the body to facilitate heightened states of awareness.[90][page needed] These constitute an offering to Tantric deities. Later developments in the rite emphasize the primacy of bliss and divine union, which replace the bodily connotations of earlier forms.[90] This is clearly seen in Japanese tantra in Shingonshu of Tachikawa-ryu.

Historical perception

According to David Gordon White, the first western accounts of Tantra, written by colonial missionaries and administrators, presented Tantric practices as "particularly abominable excrescences of South Asian superstition."[91] In response to these mischaracterisations, three sorts of responses arose:[92]

  1. Denial that such practices exist, or are part of Hinduism;
  2. Emphasis on "the refined ("right-handed") philosophical speculation that grew out of preexisting ("left-handed") Tantric practices;"
  3. Using this misinterpretation for commercial profits, presenting Tantra as a sexual exercise.

Popularisation in the west

Following the first Tantric presentations, popular authors (such as Joseph Campbell) brought Tantra to the attention of Westerners. Although Neotantra[93] uses some concepts and terminology of Indian Tantra, it often omits one (or more) of the following: reliance on guruparampara (the guidance of a guru), meditation and moral and ritual rules of conduct.

As the interest in Tantra has grown in the West, its perception deviates remarkably from the Tantric traditions. It was seen as a "cult of ecstasy", combining sexuality and spirituality to correct Western repressive attitudes towards sex.[94] Hence for many modern readers Tantra is now synonymous with "spiritual sex" or "sacred sexuality," a belief that sex should be recognized as a sacred act capable of elevating its participants to a higher spiritual plane.[95]

Responding to criticism of modern Western Tantra, Geoffrey Samuel, a historian of Indian and Tibetan Tantra writes:

‘Tantra’ as a modern Western sexual and spiritual practice, however complex and contested its origins in Asia, was and is more than a fringe phenomenon of the 1960s and 1970s counterculture. On the contrary, it took up themes of considerable depth and significance within Western culture, and synthesized them creatively with borrowings from Buddhist and Hindu sources. Its slow but steady growth since the 1970s suggests that its potential has not yet been exhausted, and I would contend that to dismiss it as an empty and superficial expression of the “spiritual logic of late capitalism” is to miss the possibility of a development of real value.[96]

According to author and critic of religion and politics Hugh Urban:

Since at least the time of Agehananda Bharati, most Western scholars have been severely critical of these new forms of pop Tantra. This "California Tantra" as Georg Feuerstein calls it, is "based on a profound misunderstanding of the Tantric path. Their main error is to confuse Tantric bliss... with ordinary orgasmic pleasure.[97]

Urban says he does not consider this "wrong" or "false", but "simply a different interpretation for a specific historical situation."[98]

See also

Hindu tantra

Buddhist tantra (Vajrayana)

Related topics


  1. Tantric texts are also often not being called "Tantras."[4]
  2. The dates in the left column of the table refer to the appearance of that tradition, even before its transcription, according to the date recognized by most scholars. The table does not include the texts traditionally considered as tantric texts with the exception of Tantrāloka.
  3. Also known by the name of Kautilya, Vishnugupta, Dramila or Angula.
  4. Sures Chandra Banerjee, says [Banerjee, S.C., 1988]: "Tantra is sometimes used to denote governance. Kālidāsa uses the expression prajah tantrayitva (having governed the subjects) in the Abhijñānaśākuntalam (V.5).
  5. Considered to date the first epigraphic evidence of a tantric cult.
  6. Also known as Tantrayāna, Mantrayāna, Esoteric Buddhism and the Diamond Vehicle.
  7. Tanoti vipulān arthān tattva-mantra-samanvitān / Trāṇaṃ ca kurute yasmāt tantram ity abhidhīyate
  8. "Banabhatta, the Sanskrit author of the 7th century, refers, in the Harshacharita to the propitiation of Matrikas by a tantric ascetic." (Banerjee 2002, p.34).
  9. Śankara uses the term Kapilasya tantra to denote the system expounded by Kapila (the Sānkhya philosophy) and the term Vaināśikā-tantra to denote the Buddhist philosophy of momentary existence. (This is also partially reported in Avalon, A., 1918, p.47.)
  10. Belonging to the dualist school of Śaiva Siddhānta.
  11. Bhāskararāya uses the term "tantra" to define the Mīmāṃsā śāstras, which are not at all Tantric in the sense used here, so this demonstrates that "tantra" can be used in Sanskrit to refer to any system of thought.
  12. Andre Padoux (1987), Tantrism: An Overview. In: The Encyclopedia of Religion, edited by Mircea Eliade, vol. 13, pp. 272–274. Cited by Brian K. Smith.[20]
  13. The Gupta period was the "Golden Age of Hinduism"[32] (ca. 320–650 AD[32]), which flourished from the Gupta Empire[33] (320 to 550 AD) to the fall of the Harsha Empire[33] (606 to 647 AD). During this period power was centralised, trade increased, legal procedures standardised and literacy grew.[33]
  14. In the east the Pala Empire[39] (770–1125 AD),[39] in the west and north the Gurjara-Pratihara[39] (7th–10th century),[39] in the southwest the Rashtrakuta Dynasty[39] (752–973),[39] in the Dekkhan the Chalukya dynasty[39] (7th–8th century),[39] and in the south the Pallava dynasty[39] (7th–9th century)[39] and the Chola dynasty[39] (9th century).[39]
  15. This resembles the development of Chinese Chán during the An Lu-shan rebellion and the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms Period (907–960/979), during which power became decentralised end new Chán-schools emerged.[43]
  16. Compare Joel Andre-Michel Dubois (2013), The Hidden Lives of Brahman, page xvii-xviii, who notes that Adi Shankara provides powerfull analogies with the Vedic fire-ritual in his Upanishadic commentaries.
  17. Isabelle Onians, "Tantric Buddhist Apologetics, or Antinomianism as a Norm," D.Phil. dissertation, Oxford, Trinity Term 2001 pg 8: "Tantric Buddhism" [...] is not the transcription of a native term, but a rather modern coinage, if not totally occidental. For the equivalent Sanskrit tāntrika is found, but not in Buddhist texts. Tāntrika is a term denoting someone who follows the teachings of scriptures known as Tantras, but only in Saivism, not Buddhism [...] Tantric Buddhism is a name for a phenomenon which calls itself, in Sanskrit, Mantranaya, Vajrayāna, Mantrayāna or Mantramahāyāna (and apparently never Tantrayāna). Its practitioners are known as mantrins, yogis, or sādhakas. Thus, our use of the anglicised adjective “Tantric” for the Buddhist religion taught in Tantras is not native to the tradition, but is a borrowed term which serves its purpose."


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 White 2000, p. 9.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Einoo 2009, p. 45.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 White 2005, p. 8984.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Padoux 2002, p. 17.
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 Padoux 2002, p. 18.
  6. 6.0 6.1 Harper & Brown 2002, p. 1.
  7. Wallis 2012, p. 26.
  8. Wallis 2012, p. 27.
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 9.3 9.4 9.5 Banerjee, S.C., 1988.
  10. Bagchi, P.C., 1989. p.6.
  11. Banerjee, S.C., 1988, p.8
  12. 12.0 12.1 Joshi, M.C. in Harper, K. & Brown, R., 2002, p.48
  13. Wallis, C. 2012, p.26
  14. Banerjee, S.C., 2002, p.34
  15. Wallis, C. 2012, p.27
  16. 16.0 16.1 Lorenzen 2002, p. 25.
  17. Lorenzen 2002, p. 25-26.
  18. 18.0 18.1 18.2 18.3 18.4 18.5 Lorenzen 2002, p. 27.
  19. Williams 2000, p. 197–202.
  20. 20.0 20.1 20.2 20.3 20.4 20.5 20.6 20.7 20.8 Smith 2005, p. 8989.
  21. Bhattacharya 1992, p. 158.
  22. Bhattacharya 1992, p. 158-159.
  23. Bhattacharya 1992, p. 159.
  24. 24.0 24.1 Bhattacharya 1992, p. 160.
  25. Basu 1986, p. 5-8.
  26. 26.0 26.1 Samuel 2010.
  27. Bronkhorst 1993.
  28. Lorenzen 2002, p. 27-28.
  29. 29.0 29.1 29.2 29.3 Lorenzen 2002, p. 28.
  30. 30.0 30.1 30.2 Lorenzen 2002, p. 29.
  31. 31.0 31.1 31.2 Lorenzen 2002, p. 30.
  32. 32.0 32.1 Michaels 2004, p. 40-41.
  33. 33.0 33.1 33.2 Michaels 2004, p. 40.
  34. Lorenzen 2002, p. 31.
  35. 35.0 35.1 35.2 Flood 2013, p. 158.
  36. 36.0 36.1 36.2 Flood 2013, p. 159.
  37. Flood 2013, p. 158-159.
  38. 38.0 38.1 38.2 38.3 Flood 2013, p. 161.
  39. 39.00 39.01 39.02 39.03 39.04 39.05 39.06 39.07 39.08 39.09 39.10 39.11 39.12 Michaels 2004, p. 41.
  40. michaels 2004, p. 41.
  41. 41.0 41.1 White 2000, p. 25-28.
  42. 42.0 42.1 42.2 42.3 42.4 42.5 42.6 Michaels 2004, p. 42.
  43. McRae 2003.
  44. 44.0 44.1 44.2 White 2000, p. 7.
  45. Harper 2002, p. 2.
  46. 46.0 46.1 46.2 46.3 Nikhilananda 1982, p. 145–160.
  47. Harper 2002, p. 3.
  48. Feuerstein 1998, p. 85.
  49. Feuerstein 1998, p. 86.
  50. Feuerstein 1998, p. 124.
  51. Feuerstein 1998, p. 127-130.
  52. White 2000, p. 9-10.
  53. 53.0 53.1 White 2000, p. 10.
  54. Magee, Michael. The Kali Yantra
  55. Cavendish, Richard. The Great Religions. New York: Arco Publishing, 1980.
  56. Harper (2002), pp. 3–5.
  57. "The Columbia Encyclopedia (2008), ''Tantra''". Authenticate.library.duq.edu. Retrieved 26 April 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  58. Wallis, Christopher (2012). Tantra Illuminated: The Philosophy, History, and Practice of a Timeless Tradition. p. 468.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  59. Timalsina, S. (2012)
  60. Bhattacharyya, pp. 182–88.
  61. Bühnemann.
  62. Swami Niranjananda, The Tantric Tradition. Yoga Magazine, March 1998
  63. For Pāñcarātra Saṃhitās as representing tantric Vaishnavism, see: Flood (1996), p. 122.
  64. For terminology of Āgamas, Saṃhitās, and Tantras, see: Winternitz, p. 587.
  65. Flood, Gavin. D. 1996. An Introduction to Hinduism. P. 158
  66. Hopkins 1999, p. 16.
  67. Feuerstein 1998, p. 133-134.
  68. 68.0 68.1 68.2 68.3 Feuerstein 1998, p. 133.
  69. Hatley, Shaman (2007). "Mapping the Esoteric Body in the Islamic Yoga of Bengal". History of Religions 46.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  70. Einoo, Shingo (ed.) (2009). Genesis and Development of Tantrism. p. 117.CS1 maint: extra text: authors list (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  71. Sanderson, Alexis (2004). "The Śaiva Religion Among the Khmers".<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  72. http://thefoundationforyoga.web.officelive.com/default.aspx
  73. "SriPedia Sandhyavandanam". Ibiblio.org. Retrieved 26 April 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  74. Padoux, André, What do we mean by Tantrism? in: Harper (2002), p. 23.
  75. Winternitz, volume 1, p. 587.
  76. Flood (1996), p. 122.
  77. Bhattacharyya, p. 20.
  78. Sanderson, Alexis. "The Śaiva Age: The Rise and Dominance of Śaivism during the Early Medieval Period." In: Genesis and Development of Tantrism,edited by Shingo Einoo. Tokyo: Institute of Oriental Culture, University of Tokyo, 2009. Institute of Oriental Culture Special Series, 23, pp. 124.
  79. Sanderson, Alexis. "The Śaiva Age: The Rise and Dominance of Śaivism during the Early Medieval Period." In: Genesis and Development of Tantrism,edited by Shingo Einoo. Tokyo: Institute of Oriental Culture, University of Tokyo, 2009. Institute of Oriental Culture Special Series, 23, pp. 129-131.
  80. Sanderson, Alexis. "The Śaiva Age: The Rise and Dominance of Śaivism during the Early Medieval Period." In: Genesis and Development of Tantrism,edited by Shingo Einoo. Tokyo: Institute of Oriental Culture, University of Tokyo, 2009. Institute of Oriental Culture Special Series, 23, pp. 144-145.
  81. Huber, Toni (2008). The holy land reborn : pilgrimage & the Tibetan reinvention of Buddhist India. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. pp. 94–95. ISBN 978-0-226-35648-8.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  82. Urban (2003), p. 22
  83. Urban (2003), p. 135
  84. [page needed]: See Arthur Avalon, trans. Tantra of the Great Liberation: Mahanirvana Tantra (London: Luzac & Co., 1913); Avalon, ed. Principles of Tantra: the Tantratattva of Shriyukta Shiva Chandra Vidyarnava Bhattacharyya Mahodaya (London: Luzac & Co., 1914–16); Woodroffe, Shakti and Shakta: Essays and Addresses on the Shakta Tantrashastra (London : Luzac & Co., 1918)
  85. Urban (2003), pp. 165–166
  86. Urban (2003), pp. 166–167
  87. Bhattacharya, N. N. History of the Tantric Religion pp. 81, 447. (1999) ISBN 81-7304-025-7
  88. Kaal Ugranand Saraswati differentiating “traditional Vamamarga” from conceptions of the word “vamamarga” Archived 13 July 2011 at the Wayback Machine
  89. Tantra, Vamamarga (The Left Handed Path: Kaula sadhana)
  90. 90.0 90.1 90.2 White 2000.
  91. White 2000, p. 4.
  92. White 2000, p. 4-5.
  93. Feuerstein 1998, p. xiii.
  94. For "cult of ecstasy" see: Urban (2003), pp. 204–205.
  95. For "Tantra" as a synonym for "spiritual sex" or "sacred sexuality," see: Urban (2003), pp. 204–205
  96. Samuel, Geoffrey; Tantric Revisionings, New Understandings of Tibetan Buddhism and Indian Religion, p. 360
  97. Quotation from Urban (2003), pp. 204–205.
  98. Urban (2003), pp. 204–205



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Further reading

  • Samuel, Geoffrey (2010), The Origins of Yoga and Tantra. Indic Religions to the Thirteenth Century, Cambridge University Press<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Harper, Katherine Anne; Brown, Robert L., eds. (2012), The Roots of Tantra, SUNY Press<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • White, David Gordon (1998). The Alchemical Body: Siddha Traditions in Medieval India. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • White, David Gordon (2003). Kiss of the Yogini: "Tantric Sex" in its South Asian Contexts. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Davidson, Ronald M. (2003). Indian Esoteric Buddhism: A Social History of the Tantric Movement. New York: Columbia University Press. ISBN 81-208-1991-8.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • McDaniel, June (2004). Offering Flowers, Feeding Skulls: Popular Goddess Worship in West Bengal. New York: Oxford University Press.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Mookerji, Ajit (1997). The Tantric Way: Art, Science, Ritual. London: Thames & Hudson.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Smith, Frederick M. (2006), The Self Possessed: Deity and Spirit Possession in South Asian Literature, Columbia University Press, ISBN 0-231-13748-6<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

External links