The Origins of Tantra

[noun] a Hindu or Buddhist mystical or ritual text.
[mass noun] adherence to the doctrines or principles of the tantras, involving mantras, meditation, yoga, and ritual.

Stories of cremation grounds, skulls and shocking Aghori practices are the legends and myths of Tantra. Few realize that the classification of Tantra as a distinct religious system is a purely western construct, or that the study of Tantra as such began only recently, in the late 1800s.

While Tantra may be alive and well in the West, within India, Tantra is rarely heard of and, when it is, it is most often associated with the occult.

Early western academics studying the history, culture, literature and language of India (Indologists) mistakenly believed the practices and convictions they found in texts called Tantra were different from other, more conventional, Hindu religious traditions. Today, anyone who has studied Hinduism, or has a friend who is Hindu, knows the spiritual traditions of Hinduism are complex and diverse, even within themselves. Therefore, distinguishing any one practice or belief as purely Tantra is a nearly impossible task.

The very nature of Hinduism is both mystical and scientific. To understand Tantra, one must understand Hinduism. While there are also Tantra streams that are Buddhist, it is commonly believed that those, too, arose from Hinduism and, from there, developed into the Tantric Buddhism found in China, Tibet, Nepal and Japan.

What follows is a tragically brief and completely subjective synopsis of Hinduism given for the sole purpose of laying some groundwork for the exploration of the history of Tantra. If you find yourself intrigued by the information, please dive deeper into this vast and colorful religion on your own to get the bigger picture.

Brahman, The Vedas, and Moksha

There are three main elements that compose the core of Hindu belief: Brahman, the Vedas, and Moksha.

Brahman (not to be confused with the Hindu god, Brahma, or the Brahmin caste) is the One Supreme Reality. Brahman defies description, yet exists as everything.

The goal of Hinduism is to reach back to Brahman, the pure spirit of the universe. Brahman is beyond time and space, never began, will never end.

The Vedas are the oldest Hindu scriptures, composed of verses called mantras, which were originally passed down from generation to generation as an oral tradition. The Vedas are considered śruti, which means “what is heard”, rather than smṛti, “what is remembered”. For this reason, it is believed that the Vedas are not a static collection of scriptures, but a living, growing, dynamic communication between the One Supreme Reality and man through sound and vibration.

Moksha is liberation from suffering and the endless cycle of death and rebirth. It is the return to Brahman, the realization of the Self as the One Supreme Being. The new-age spiritual term for Moksha might be “awakening”.

The Defining Points of Tantra

There is great similarity between Hinduism and what we know today to be Tantra. So, what is it that makes Tantra unique? Here are a few points that define Tantra. Even among these, there can be overlap with Hinduism in general.

Tantrics believe enlightenment is possible within one lifetime, while the practitioner is still alive. This is known as Jivanmukti. Within Hinduism, enlightenment is seen as a process that takes many lifetimes.

Renunciation is not a requirement to attain Moksha within Tantrism. Householders, that is, those with wives, husbands, children, homes and careers, can aspire to Jivanmukti. Within Hinduism, the aspirant either becomes a renunciate early in life, or lives the life of a householder and waits until later in life, after children are grown and career goals satisfied, to begin the spiritual journey toward Moksha.In Tantrism, there is no discrimination in terms of caste or gender. In most Hindu sects, spiritual study is reserved for men and then, only men within the Brahmin caste.

Tantric practices revolve around the harnessing of a power, called Shakti, that is both human and cosmic. Tantricas form a relationship with this power and learn to channel it through their bodies to realize their goals, both spiritual and mundane. The modern day, western name for this energy might be kundalini.

The guru is an extremely important part of Tantrism. The guru is the teacher who is both the deity and the student. This is a wonderful example of the Tantric precept that the universe folds in on itself, the sacred and mundane are one and the microcosm is the macrocosm.

Ritual, a set of actions performed for their religious significance and power, is the most basic definition of Tantra.
The use of mantra (sacred sound), yantra (sacred geometry) and asana (specific body positions) are key elements of Tantra.

Diving into worldly desires and engaging in traditionally forbidden activities (eating of meat, drinking of alcohol and ritualized sex, for example ) are seen in Tantra as means to attain spiritual liberation.

Tantra focuses on direct experience of the ultimate through life experience as opposed to representational understanding of the ultimate through conceptual truths.

Prehistoric Tantra

It is impossible to mark the beginnings of Tantra without highlighting Shaktism and the goddess cults – archaeological examples, in the form of goddess figurines, have been dated back to the Upper Paleolithic period (see Harper & Brown, The Roots of Tantra). Colourful stones with natural triangles upon them were also found in the same area and appeared to be of the same era. These stones were the early predecessors of the most sacred of all Tantric yantras, the Sriyantra, the Goddess in geometric form.

Owing to the fundamental significance of the temporal (fertility) and the spiritual (Shakti) of the feminine, it could be likely that these cults existed even before the Upper Paleolithic period and certainly before the Vedas.

Tantric Texts & Neo-Tantra

The first Tantric scriptures date back to the fourth Century CE, though it is commonly believed that the Tantras were very much alive as oral traditions hundreds, if not thousands, of years before. Tantra rose to its height of popularity in India in the ninth or tenth centuries and faded nearly completely out of existence late in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.

Today’s surge of popular interest in Tantra comes to us via the Indian philosopher and mystic, Osho. In the early 1970s and 1980s, Osho delivered several talks on “The Tantra Vision”. These talks revolved around the Vijyana Bhairava Tantra and the lives of the ancient Tantric masters: Tilopa, Naropa, Marpa and Milarepa.

At the Osho ashram in Pune, India, experiential courses were created where individuals could explore Neo-Tantra; a combination of ancient Tantric practices and modern day human awareness techniques.

I hope this brief summary has inspired you to dig deeper, to discover Tantra for yourself. It is a journey that becomes more exhilarating with every step.

“The ultimate goal of human life, according to Tantrism, is to internalize the cosmos and unify the inner vibrations with the outer.” (Gupta, The Roots of Tantra).

About the author: 

Dawn Cartwright is a Tantric visionary, sacred writer, world traveller, and innovator in bio-energetic Tantra fusion. She is the founder of the Chandra Bindu Tantra Institute in Santa Monica, California.

Further Reading: 
  • Translations of some Tantric scriptures are freely available online, below is a short chronological list of texts which contributed to the development of Tantra through the ages:
    • Mahavidya Tantra (4th Century CE)
    • Rudrayamala Tantra (8th Century CE)
    • Laksmi Tantra (9th or 10th Century CE)
    • Kularnava Tantra (10th Century CE)
    • Kalikapurana (14th Century CE)
  • Several books are available which focus on the historical origins of Tantra:
    • Harper & Brown, The Roots of Tantra
    • Wallis, Tantra Illuminated: The Philosophy, History, and Practice of a Timeless Tradition