Monthly Archives: January 2018

Tantra- A Brief Introduction, Part II

Tantra is an important, practical and popular religious path of Hinduism. It is a repertoire of spiritual practices which is concerned with the application of the science of cosmic principles (tattva) and the science of mystic sound (mantra) with a view to the attainment of spiritual ascendancy1

Classification of Hindu Tantric Literature

According to the tradition found in Tantric texts themselves Tantras are innumerable. The Saundaryalahari refers to 64 Tantras. The Tantraloka of Abhinavagupta states that there are three groups of ten, eighteen and sixty-four Shaiva tantas. In the Mahasiddhasaratantra, India and its adjoining regions are divided into three krantas or divisions namely Vishnukranta (extended from Vindhya hills up to Chittagong and included all places in North-Eastern region), Rathakranta (comprised of the entire area in the North-Western region which lay between the Vindhyas and Mahachina or Tibet) and Ashvakranta (extended from the Vindhyas the southern oceans); each of these krantas is said to has 64 tantras. A number of tantric texts speak of nine or six amnayas or regions- eastern, western, northern, southern, upper and lower- each containing its distinctive texts, cults and rituals. From geographical point of view tantra are divided into four classes, viz. Kerala, Kashmira, Gauda and Vilasa2.

Tantra texts are classified into Hindu, Buddhist and Jaina tantras; Hindu tantras are broadly divided into two classes, Agama and Nigama. In the former Shiva answers questions asked by Parvathi and in the Nigama Parvathi answers questions asked by Shiva. In accordance with the predominance of the deities Hindu Tantras are also classified into Shakta, Shaiva, Vaishnava, Saurya and Ganapatya. The works of Shakta, Shaiva and Vaishnava are called respectively Tantras, Agamas and Samhitas3. Some divide tantric texts into the following group- Agama, Damara, Yamala and Tantra4.

The Damara tantra is dedicated to Lord Shiva and his mystical teachings. Damara has several meaning; it means ‘wonder’, ‘goblin’ or an attendant of Shiva. The Damara tantra includeds Yogadamara, Shivadamara, Durgadamara, Sarasvatadamara, Gandharvadamara, Brahmadamara, etc.5 It is not clear what was the characteristic feature of Damara except that they were preoccupied with magic or exorcism6.

The Yamala tantra contains the secret conversations between different deities and their respective consorts. The word Yamala literally means twins, united or a couple. The Yamala tantra includes texts like Rudrayamala, Vishnuyamala, Brahmayamala, Lakshmiyamala, Umayamala, Skandayamala, Adityayamala, and Bhairavayamala among others7. The Yamala indicate a great development in the tantrika sadhana not only by trying to define for the first time the various tantric traditions but also by introducing a great variety of cults of new gods and goddesses. They open the field of tantric sadhana to people of all castes8. In the Yamalas the sadhana of the Agamas assumes a pronounced character of Shaktism. The religion of Agamas had developed through two channels, one exoteric and the other esoteric. The former continued as a part of Shaivism with greater emphasis on the devotional aspect of the worship of Shiva and Pashupati with a view to attain liberation. The latter centered as Shaktism with greater emphasis on various Shakti cult not so much as to attain liberation but to gain ascendancy and control over the forces of nature, liberation was too small a goal for them. In course of time (around 10th century A.D.) the literature of pure Shavism ceased to be called Tantra and Tantra proper became more Shaktic in character9.

Literature of Vaishnava Tantras

The Vaishnava Tantras are represented by the Pancaratra Agamas and Vaikhanasa Agamas which were originally voluminous in form but unfortunately a considerable part of them has now been lost. The Vaishnava Agamas said to be 108 in number seem to be developments of the Bhagavata and Pancharatra and the Sattvata schools which are mentioned in the Mahabharatha. The differentiation into schools seems to have originally depended on the specific mantra, which was the shibboleth of each school. Thus it appears that the Bhagavatas adopted the 12 lettered mantra and Pancharatras the 8 lettered one. The fundamental ideas and practices of the Bhagavatas have been adopted by the Ramanuja, Madhava and the later schools of bhakti. The 108 Agamas are all called Pancharatra Agamas10.

According to the Narada Pancaratra, ratra means knowledge; hence Pancaratra is a system which deals with five kinds of knowledge, cosmology (tatva), the science of liberation, (muktiprada), of devotion (bhaktiprada), of yoga (yaugika) and pertaining to the senses (vaishesika). According to Ishvara Samhita the religion that was taught by the gods to five sages; Shandilya, Aupagayana, Maunjayana, Kaushika and Bharadvaja, in five successive days and nights came to be known among the people as Pancaratra. According to Padma Tantra the system is so named because just as the sun dispels the night, the Pancaratra dispels the other five systems which are the Yoga, Samkya, Buddhism, Jainism and Pashupata11. Although tradition mention 108 Samhita there are actually mention of more than 215 of which however only very few have been published12.

The well-known Pancharatra Agamas are the Ahirbudhnya Samhita, Jayakhya Samhita, Vishnu Samhita, and Satvata Samhita. Of the Vaikhanasa School only four namely Vaikhanasa Mantra Samhita, Vaikhanasa Grhyasutra, Dharmasutra and Shrautasutra are now available13. Other important works of belonging to Vaishnava Tantras are Ishvarasamhita, Paramasamhita, Paushkarasamhita and Lakshmi Tantra.

Literature of Shaiva Tantras

The literature belonging to Shaiva and Shakta tantricism is extensive. There is a great deal of affinity between these two schools of thought so much so that there is considerable overlapping between them so far as metaphysical theory and ritualistic principles are concerned. It is sometimes very difficult to differentiate between the two schools in the tantric texts belonging to these two schools.

According to traditions the total number of Shaiva Tantras is 28 which include ten Shaivagamas or Shaiva Tantras and 18 Raudragamas. While the Shaivagamas propagate dualistic philosophy the Raudagamas propagate monistic cum dualistic philosophy. The names of these Agamas differ in different texts. Apart from the above texts there is a group of 64 Bhairava Tantras which preach purely monistic Shaiva philosophy14. Some of the important works belonging to the Kashmir school of Shaivism are Abhinavagupta’s Tantraloka, Tantrasara, Pratyabhijnavimarshini and Pratyabhijnakarika; Sivasutra, Malinivijaya, Vijnanabhairava, Rudrayamala, Svayambhuva, etc15.

Literature of Shakta Tantras

There are 77 Shakta Agamas subdivided into five Shubhagamas, 64 Kaulagamas and eight Mishragamas16. The tenets of the Samaya schools are contained in five agamas known as shubhaagama panchaka which are regarded as interpretations of the Veda by Sanaka, Sanandana, Sanatkumara, Vasishta and Shuka. The Mishra literature is contained in eight agamas namely Chandrakala, Jyotsnavati, Kalanidhi, Kularnava, Kuleshvari, Bhuvaneshvari, Barhaspatya and Durvasas17.   Some of the published Kaula works are Kularnava Tantra, Kula Chudamani, Kaulavali, Vamakesvara Tantra, Meru Tantra, Gandharva Tantra, Sambhava Tantra, Rudrayamala, Bramananda Tantra, Sri tattvachintamani, Tantraraja, etc. Works like Kaula Tantra, Kulasasana, Kuladipani, Tantrachudamani, Agamasara, etc are available in manuscript form deposited in different libararies18.  Other important Shakta tantric works include Mahanirvana, Tantraraja, Kalivilasa, Jnanarnava, Sharadatilaka and Varivasyarahasya19.

Tantric Denominations

The Tantra worshippers are divided into various sects and sub sects based on deities worshipped and the ritualistic procedure followed. The Shaktisangama Tantra refers to the sects of Vaishnavas, Shaivas, Ganapatyas, Svayambhuvas, Candras, Pashupatas, Cinas, Jainas, Kalamukhas and Vaidikas. But judged by the number of followers they have we have three major sects, namely Shaiva (worshippers of Shiva), Shakta (worshippers of Shakti or divine mother) and Vaishnava (worshipper of Vishnu) and two minor sects, namely Ganapatyas (worshippers of Ganesha) and Souras (worshippers of Surya the sun god). These sects are once again subdivided into various sub-sects20.

According to Lalan Prasad Singh the Vaishnava, Shaiva and Shakta are the metaphysical schools of Tantra; Avidya, Upavidya and Vidya are the esoteric division of Tantra and Dakshinacara, Vamachara and Madhyamacara the psychological schools of Tantra21.

In the view of Kamalakar Mishra there are several traditions and sub traditions of Tantra in India, some of which have become extinct and some still living. Accordingly the living traditions are classified under three major denominations namely Shaiva-Shakta Tantra, Buddhist Tantra and Vaishnava Tantra. All the sub trend of Tantrism can be placed under one or the other denomination. For example the Natha tradition of Gorakhanatha and the Aghora tradition of Kinarama can be regarded as branches of Shaiva Shakta Tantra. Similarly the Sahajiya cult of Bengal which might have originated from the Buddhist Sahajayana and later on taken Vaishnava form can be safely classified as Vaishnava Tantra. The Baul tradition of eastern India seems to be a combination of Buddhist Tantra, Vaishnava Tantra and Islamic Sufism. The Kapalika tradition which flourished in the medieval period is now virtually extinct is an off shoot of Buddhist Tantra with a mixture of Shaiva-Shakta Tantra. The cults of Shaiva-Shakta Tantra are divided into two lineages, the Girnari and Newari. Girnar in Gujarat is the seat of Lord Dattatreya and he is regarded as the original leader of Shaiva-Shakta Tantra. The followers of Aghora tradition owe their allegiance to Dattatreya and are called Girnaris. Newar is the sub Himalayan region chiefly Nepal. The followers of Natha tradition are mainly Newari22.

Tantric Buddhism

According to Benoytosh Bhattacharyya the founder of Buddhist Tantrism was Buddha and he was initiated into the mysticism of the Tantra by Sanjaya, a great tantric yogin of the day. The Jatakas speak of Buddha performing miracles. Only the closest disciples of Buddha practiced tantra and the general laity was kept away from it as they had not reached an advance stage of spiritual development. The secret conclaves of the Buddhist tantrics developed into a large underground organization known as Guhyasamajas which practiced the new doctrines in secret (guhya). The teachings of Guhyasamajas emerged as a respectable teaching during the time of Nagarjuna around 300 A.D. and evolved as the Vajrayana school of Tantrism. One of the main teachings of this school was that without suffering the multiple reincarnations and even during one’s birth and by indulging in all objects of earthly enjoyment one could attain Buddhahood. The Guhyasamaja integrated into the system of Vajrayana Tantrism all form of mysticism, various forms of yoga, mystic poses, sacred diagrams, mandala, mantras, dhyani Buddhas and their Shakti deities, etc. While Vajrayana represents the most influential school of Tantric Buddhism, other major schools which evolved are Sahajayana, Kalachakrayana and Mantrayana23.

Difference between Buddhist Tantrism and Hindu Tantrism

Benoytosh Bhattacharyya emphatically states that Buddhists were the first to introduce the Tantra into their religion and the Hindus borrowed them from the Buddhist in later times. In Hindu Tantrism the union of Shiva and Shakti leads to the creation of a new world; while in tantric Buddhism Shakti represents prajna, the supreme knowledge and wisdom and her  union of the male deity Kalacakra does not create a new world but leads to Nirvana, the supreme bliss, knowledge and enlightenment24. Some of the important Buddhist tantric works are Advaya Siddi, Arya Manjusri Mulakalpa, Sambhara Tantra, Guhya Siddi, Hevajra Tantra, Kalacakra Tantra, Mahakala Tantra, Sadhana Mala, etc.25

Schools of Shaiva Tantras

The Shaiva schools are so intimately allied to the Shakta schools that the literature and doctrines of one are quoted as authoritative by the other. The chief characteristic of the Shaiva School is that Shiva is the prominent being and especially in the later developments of these schools, Shakti is almost negligible factor of the cosmos26.

The worshippers of Shaiva are referred under four groups namely Shaivas, the Pashupatas, the Karunikasiddhantins and the Kapalikas. The name Kathakasiddhantins and Kalamukhas are referred in place of Karunikasiddhantins in other sources. The Viraagama refers to four schools of Shaivas as Samaya Shaiva, Purva Shaiva, Mishra Shaiva and Suddha Shaiva. Some Puranas refer to Shaiva sects such as Vama, Pashupata, Soma, Langala, Bhairava, Kapala and Nakula. They were considered as un-Vedic. Gunaratna refers to a number of sub sects like Bharata, Bhakta, Laingika, etc. Other famous Shaiva schools are the followers of Siddhantaagamas and the Lingayats or the Virashaivas in south India27.

The Parameshwara Agama mentions Shaiva sects like Virashaiva, Anandashaiva, Adishaiva, Anushaiva, Mahashaiva, Yogashaiva and Jnanashaiva. Apart from them seven other schools have been enumerated namely Ganapatya, Virabhadra, Bhairava, Sharabha, Nandikesha, Kumara and Paishaca which are again sub divided into several sub sects28. In Kashmir the important Shaiva schools were the Spanda, the Krama and Kula. Abhinava Gupta the founder of the Pratyabhijna School incorporated the teaching of Spanda, Krama and Kula into Pratyabhijna28.

Schools of Vaishnava Tantras

The two important Vaishnava schools are the Pancharatra and the Vaikhanasa. The former is considered as sathvika and superior to Vaikhanasa which is considered as tamasika30.  The Pancharatra School is more liberal in its outlook and practice and tantric practices have exerted a very deep influence on it. The Vaikhanasa School on accounts of its pure Vedic links perhaps arouse earlier than the Pancharatra school and naturally tantric mantras (and yantras) have no role to play in Vaikhanasa31.

Schools of Shakta Tantras

There are three principal schools of Shakta Tantrism namely the Samaya, the Mishra and the Kaula. The Samaya school is concerned with internal worship or meditation. It has nothing to do with external worship or rituals including muttering of mantras, homa and purashcarana. It lays stress on mental performance of the rites which is very difficult and can be known only from the preceptor. Among Samayin are two groups, samanya or general and vishista or special32. The Mishras perform all nitya karmas and worship Devi. The Kaula school is one of the most powerful Shakta schools which occupies a unique position among the left handed Shakta tradition with a history of 1300 years. It was popular in all parts of the country and directly and indirectly influenced the religio-philosophical thoughts of all Shaiva-Shakta schools. According to Kularnava Tantra– The Shaivas are superior to the Vedic, the left handed and right handed Shaktas are superior to the Shaivas, the Kaulas are superior to both left and right handed and there is none which surpasses the Kaulas33. The Kaulas are pure monists who postulate one Supreme Reality which they name as the Supreme Samvit34.

A number of sub schools exist among the Kaulas and the Kaularatnodyota list six schools namely- Ananda, Avali, Prabhu, Yaugika, Atika and Pada. The Kaulajnananirnaya a Tantrik test ascribed to Matsyendranath mention seven distinct schools of Kaula worshippers like Padottistha Kaula, Maha Kaula, Mula Kaula, Yogini Kaula, Vahni Kaula, Vrishnottha Kaula and Siddha Kaula. Jayaratha in his commentary on the Tantraloka mention four Kaula schools like Maha Kaula, Kaula, Akaula and Kula Kaula35. There is also mention of Kaula sub sects like Purva Kaulas, Uttara Kaulas and Kapalikas. The Digambaras are stated to be a sub sect of the Kapalikas while the Ksapanakas a sub sect of the Digambaras36. Another important Shakta school is the Parananda or Paramananda school which is similar to the Samayins in some respects though it is characterized by certain peculiarities. It taboos Nyasas and killing of living beings. Other Shakta schools are the Gaudas, the Kashmira and the Kerala schools37. Though different texts refer to a variety of Kaula schools established by different Kaula teachers in different periods of time each of which is characterized by a particular mode of spiritual discipline, they fail to mention their distinguishing traits. Hence it is not possible for us now to delineate their individual nature38.

Shakti Pitas

According to Devibhagavata and Kalika Purana, Lord Shiva became inconsolable at the death of his wife Sati and after destruction of Daksha’s sacrifice; he wandered over the earth in mad dance with Sati’s dead body on his shoulder. To free Shiva from his infatuation, Brahma, Vishnu and Shani entered the dead body and disposed of it gradually and bit by bit. In some accounts it is said that Sati’s body was severed into pieces by the discus of Lord Vishnu. The places where the pieces of Sati’s dead body fell are said to have become Pitas, that is seats or resorts of the mother goddess in all of which she is represented to be constantly living in some form together with a Bhairava, that is a form of her husband Shiva. We have heard of the enshrining of the teeth, nails and possessions of Lord Buddha in different parts of India and even outside it shores. Hence there may be some truth behind the legends associated with the origins of the Pitas39 .Some of the early Tantras refer to four Pitas namely Kamarupa in Assam, Purnagiri (place not identified), Oddiyana (situated in the valley of the Swat river) and Jalandhara (situated on the highway connecting Tibet with India)40 .But in an 16th century account the four Pitas mentioned are Sharada in modern Sardi in north Kashmir, Tulja Bhavani in Bijapur district of Karnataka, Kamakhya in Kamarupa and Jalandhari near Nagarkot in Punjab41.

There is no unanimity with regards to the number of Pitas. The Rudrayamala composed earlier than 1052 A.D. mentions ten holy places as the principal pitas42. The Kubjika Tantra speaks of 42 pitas43 while the Jnanarnava Tantra speaks of 50 pitas44 and the Matsya Purana speaks of 108 pitas45.


The Tantrik texts speak of ten Vidyas or cultic goddesses whose worship is commended for health, happiness, wealth and welfare here and liberation from phenomenal bondage hereafter. The ten divinities are classified into-

  1. The extraordinary vidyas (maha vidyas) where the divinities are Kali and Tara
  2. The ordinary vidyas (vidyas) with divinities like Shodashi or Tripurasundari, Bhuvaneshvari, Chinnamasta, Bhairavi and Dhumavati
  3. Adept vidyas (siddha vidyas) where divinities like Bagalamukhi, Matangi and Kamala are worshipped.

The practice of extraordinary vidyas is filled with great risks as the devotee is supposed to exercise great rigour, austerity, persistence and detachment while worshipping the divinities. So also is the case of adept vidyas which involve rituals of a kind that the common man would find extremely ardous and hazardous. The ordinary vidyas are suitable for ordinary aspirants and are considered safe. Each of these Vidyas has a characteristic form and particular dhyana, mantra, kavacha and other details of tantric ritual46.

The gods of Mahavidyas are in fact the manifestations of Shakti or the Great Mother in the process of creation, preservation and destruction of the universe47. The primal (adya) vidya is Kali who is the bestower of direct liberation while goddess Tara is the bestower of knowledge. The third goddess Shodashi is known for her benevolence. Goddess Bhuvaneshwari is conceived of as the protectress of the world while Bhairavi as the goddess who relieves her worshipper from all types of distress. Chinnamasta bestows on her worshippers anything they want and Dhumati is invoked for the purpose of destroying enemies. Goddess Vagala, Matangi and Kamala are goddess of tamas quality and invoked especially in connection with satkarma and allied purpose48.

Texts that dwell in detail on the Mahavidyas are the Tantrasara, Shakta Pramoda, Shaktisamgamatantra, etc49. The lists or depictions of the Mahavidya almost always include Kali, Tara, Chinnamasta, Bagalamukhi, Tripurasundari and Dhumavati, but the others are sometimes excluded. At times well known goddesses such as Durga, Annapurna and Kamakhya may be included in the list and even obscure goddesses such as Vashali, Bala and Pratyangiras are included50.

Both literary and iconographic materials give the general impression that the ten Mahavidyas are different forms of an overarching, transcendent female reality, who is usually referred to simply as the Mahadevi (great goddess)51. An underlying assumption of many Shakta texts is that the highest reality is the Great Goddess and this infinitely great being manifests herself in a wide variety of forms. Many myths in Shakta literature describe a goddess or the goddess as producing other goddesses from her own body. In such cases she often announces that she assumes different forms at different times to maintain cosmic stability, to bless a particular devotee or out of a sense of sport or playfulness. There is evidence that the ten avataras (incarnations) of Vishnu are the model for the ten Mahavidyas as expressions of the Mahadevi that is the Mahadevi represents at least to some extent a Shakta version of the Vaishnava idea52.

Regarding the origin of Mahavidya as a group the first version is that the Mahavidyas are different forms of Goddess Sati, the second version is that they are form of Parvathi, the third version is that they arise from goddess Kali, herself one of the Mahavidya and the fourth version is that they are forms of goddess Durga and the fifth version is that they are said to arise from goddess Shataksi who is identified with Shakambari and Durga53.

Sri Vidya Cult

The Sri Vidya cult is of considerable antiquity and in its origin was a folk cult with a beginning before the formation of the Vedic corpus. But in due course the folk elements and sophisticated Vedic ideas were fused together and the cult assumed its present form. This cult is prevalent all over India and there are regional variations in the practical details of the tradition54.

Vidya usually means knowledge, learning, discipline, system of thought. But in the tantric contest it has an extended meaning and it signifies a female divinity or her power. The mother goddess Durga is described as stationed in all being in the form of Vidya. Adepts of Sri Vidya cult recite a 15 lettered mantra known as panchadasakshari. By adding the secret syllable ‘shrim’ it becomes shodashi (16 lettered). Shodashi literally means ‘the damsel of sixteen years’ and her form is identified with deities like Lalitha, Rajarajeshvari, Sundari, Kameshvari and Bala. According to texts this vidya is called Shodashi as the manta of this vidya consists of 16 seed syllables. The verbal expression of this vidya is the mantra panchadashi or shodashi and the visual expression is the yantra, Sri Chakra. The chief instrument through which the mother goddess is propitiated and the knowledge concerning her as put into practice is Sri Chakra yantra55.

Sri Chakra

The Sri Chakra is the most celebrated and potent yantra mentioned in the Tantra sastra. It is famous as the eternal abode of Lalitha, the mother of grace. Sri Chakra is called the king of Chakras for it contains and sustains all other Chakras in the same way as the Divine Mother, the abiding deity in the Sri Chakra is the source and sustenance of all the gods and goddesses. The Tantra says that the worship of any deity can be conducted in Sri Chakra as this is the foundation, basis and continent of all the other Chakras56. The mere presence of Sri Chakra is believed to confer on the faithful material and spiritual benefits. There are several temples in south India like Kanchipuram, Chidambaram, Sringeri, Kollur, etc. where the worship of Sri Chakra assumes importance57.

Worship through Sri Chakra is more abstract than worship through pratima, image and leads one to the direct perception of the divine form and that is why so much importance is given to the Chakra in Tantric worship. When the Chakra is conceived as the material manifestation of the deity, all the emanations of the deity are also conceived as stationed in the Chakra. The main deity (pradhana) takes abode in the centre of the Chakra while its emanations gather round the pradhana as the parivara devathas. The worship is done to the parivaras and then to the pradhana58.

There are nine Chakras in the Sri Chakra, proceeding from the outermost to the innermost they are Trailokya Mohana, Sarvasaparipuraka, Sarvasankshobhana, Sarvasaubhagyadayaka, Sarvarthasadhaka, Sarvarakshakara, Sarvarogahara, Sarvasiddhiprada and Sarvanandamaya chakras. Each chakra has a colour of its own, a presiding deity, Chakreshvari and a particular class of Yoginis belonging to it. Each chakra has its own mudra devata59.

There are two ways to worship the Sri Chakra, external and internal. In external worship one worship the Sri Chakra by adoring it with leaves of bilva, lotuses or tulsi, flowers, waves lamps in front of it, etc., do the japa of Sri Vidya (panchadashi or shodashi mantra) and recites the thousand names of Lalitha (Lalithasahasranama). In inner worship all these activities are imagined. The followers of Samaya marga install (imagine) the Sri Chakra in the adhara chakra or basic centres in their subtle bodies and conduct the worship of the goddess there60.

Shankaracharya and Sri Vidya cult

It is said that Sri Shankaracharya was initiated in the tantric cult of Sri Vidya at Varanasi and the principal poetic work of this cult Saundaryalahari is ascribed to his authorship; so also tantric works like Prapanchasara and ChintamaniStava. But S.K.Ramachandra Rao says that the authorship of the above works are wrongly ascribed to Shankaracharya and he was entirely ignorant of Sri Chakra. It is probable that Vidyaranya who is regarded as a teacher in Shankaracharya’s line was proficient in the Sri Chakra cult. Associated with the founding of Vijayanagara Empire and with two pontificates, Sringeri and Kanchipuram he was a great spiritual, social and political force in south India. It may be due to his influence that the Sri Vidya cult spread in this part of the country61.

Sri Vidya cult belongs to Vaishnava Tantra

According to Lalan Prasad Singh, Sri is the consort of Vishnu and Sri Chakra is the abode of Vishnu, hence Sri Vidya cult belongs to the Vaishnava Tantra and not Shakta Tantra. Also according to him the Saundaryalahari is a devotional hymn in praise of Sri Chakra and is the canonical literature of Tantric Vaishnavism62.

The Cult of Yogini

The word Yogini has several meanings like a female devotee, sorceress or witch, fairy, attendants of Durga, a name of Durga and the female counterpart of a Yogi63. In some texts the term Yogini is used to denote minor goddesses who are described either as companions or attendants of the Goddess64. The names of the 64 Yoginis contained in the Puranic list suggests that in certain traditions the Yoginis were regarded as varying aspects of the great Goddess who through those Yoginis manifested the totality of her presence65. An important tradition derives the 64 Yoginis in groups of eight from the Ashta Matrakas or eight mothers. From very early times we know that Sapta Matrakas or seven mothers (namely Brahmi, Maheshvari, Kaumari, Vaishnavi, Varahi, Aindri and Narasimhi) as an independent group of goddesses later expanded to eight, nine or sixteen were popularly worshipped all over India66. The main goal in the worship of Yoginis was to obtain a wide variety of occult powers67. These powers were achieved through a series of rites and practices known collectively as Mahayaga68.

According to Kaulajnananirnaya, Matsyendranatha the first of the Natha gurus was responsible for introducing the Yogini cult among the Kaulas. Matsyendranatha must have belonged to a date prior to 900 A.D.69 and archaeological and textual evidence point to the emergence of the Yogini cult to around 9th century A.D70. The cult at one time extended its influence over large portion of India though the existing temples of the Yoginis are found mainly in Orissa and central India71. A Yogini temple is a simple circular enclosure with no roof or a sanctum sanctorum. Within the enclosure and placed in niches in its circular walls are a series of female images generally 64 in number with beautiful bodies but often with non-human heads. These shrines are referred as Chaunsat (sixty four) Yogini temples72.

Genesis of the Yoginis

The origins of the worship of Yoginis can be traced to the worship of village goddesses called grama devatas. In the villages of India each grama devata presides over the welfare of her village. These village goddesses seem to have been gradually transformed and consolidated into potent numerical grouping of 64 acquiring thereby a totally different character. It was tantrism that elevated these local deities and gave them a new form and vigour as a group of goddesses who could bestow magical powers on their worshippers. The philosophy and rituals of these deities were brought together under the heading Tantra and thus given legitimacy in later Hinduism73. Even today in the daily worship of Devi Kamakhya in the temple of Kamakhya in Assam, the names of the 64 Yoginis are recited74.

To be continued


  1. Prabuddha Bharata, vol-121, no.1, January 2016, pp:23,24,158
  2. N.Battacharyya- History of the Tantric Religion, Manohar, 2005, p.51
  3. C.Banerji- A Companion to Tantra, Abhinav Publications, New Delhi, 2007,p.18
  4. Ibid, p.19
  5. Paramahamsa Prajnananda- Jnana Sankalini Tantra, Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Pvt Ltd, New Delhi, 2006, 12
  6. Teun Goudriaan & Sanjukta Gupta- Hindu Tantric and Sakta Literature, Publisher Otto Harrassowitz- Wiesbaden, 1981, p.118
  7. Paramahamsa Prajnananda- cit, p.12
  8. Manoranjan Basu- Fundamental of the Philosophy of Tantras, Mira Basu Publishers, Calcutta, 1986, p.58
  9. Ibid, p.59
  10. T.Srinivasa Iyengar- Outlines of Indian Philosophy, Theosophical Publishing Society, Benares and London, 1909, p.174
  11. Suniti Kumar Chatterji, Edited- The Cultural Heritage of India, Vol-V, The Ramakrishna Mission Institute of Culture, Calcutta, 1978, p.109, see footnotes
  12. Ibid, p.110, see footnotes
  13. Deba Brata Sen Sharma- Studies in Tantra Yoga, Natraj Publishing House, Karnal, Haryana, 1985, pp:7,8
  14. Ibid, pp: 8,9,10
  15. N.Battacharyya- Op.cit, p.308
  16. T.Srinivasa Iyengar- Op.cit, pp:138,139
  17. Narayanaswami Iyer- Sri Vidya, part-II- Upasana, QJMS, 23 (2) 1932, pp:194,195
  18. Deba Brata Sen Sharma, Edited- Matsyendra Samhita, part- I, The Asiatic Society, Calcutta, 1994, p.15
  19. Gaurinath Sastri, A Concise History of Classical Sanskrit Literature, Motilal Banarsidass Publisher Pvt Ltd, New Delhi, p.50
  20. Chintaharan Chakravarti- Tantras, Studies on the Religion and Literature, Punthi Pustak, Calcutta, 1963, p.50
  21. Lalan Prasad Singh- Tantra- Its Mystic and Scientific Basis, Concept Publishing Company Pvt Ltd, New Delhi, 2010, p.131
  22. Kamalakar Mishra- Kashmir Shaivism– The Central Philosophy of Tantrism, Sri Satguru Publications, Delhi, 1999, pp:19,20
  23. Victor M. Fic- The Tantras- Its Origin, Theories, Art and Diffusion from India to Nepal, Tibet, Mongolia, China, Japan and Indonesia, Abhinav Publications, 2003, pp: 43-51
  24. Ibid, pp:53,54
  25. Suniti Kumar Chatterji, cit, pp:233-243
  26. T.Srinivasa Iyengar- Op.cit, p.147
  27. Chintaharan Chakravarti- cit, pp:50-52
  28. Rama Ghose- Parameshwaragama, Shaiva Bharati Shodha Pratishthanam, Varanasi, 2004, p.xxii
  29. Kamalakar Mishra- cit, pp:46,47
  30. Chintaharan Chakravarti- cit, p.57
  31. Varadachari- Agamas and South Indian Vaisnavism, M.Rangacharya Memorial Trust, Triplicane, Madras, 1982, p.74
  32. Chintaharan Chakravarti- cit, pp:55,56
  33. Deba Brata Sen Sharma, Edited- Matsyendra Samhita, cit, pp:3,4
  34. Ibid, p.13
  35. Ibid, pp:10,11
  36. Chintaharan Chakravarti- cit, pp:54,55
  37. Ibid, pp:56,57
  38. Deba Brata Sen Sharma, Edited- Matsyendra Samhita, Op.cit,p.12
  39. C.Sircar, The Sakta Pithas, Motilal Banarsidas, Delhi, pp:6,7; Bose & Haldar- Tantras- Their Philosophy and Occult Secrets, Firma KLM Private Ltd, Calcutta, 1981, p.24
  40. C.Sircar- Op.cit, p.12; Bose & Haldar-Op.cit, pp:23,24
  41. C.Sircar- Op.cit, p.14
  42. Ibid, p.17
  43. Ibid, p.19
  44. Ibid, p.20
  45. Ibid, p.25
  46. K.Ramachandra Rao-The Tantra of Sri Chakra, Sharada Prakashana, Bangalore, 1983, p.vii
  47. Bose & Haldar-cit, p.194
  48. N.Battacharyya- Op.cit, pp: 321-325
  49. David R Kinsley- Tantric Visions of the Divine Feminine: The Ten Mahavidyas, Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, 1998, pp:2,3
  50. Ibid, p.14
  51. Ibid, p.18
  52. Ibid, p.20
  53. Ibid, p.22
  54. K.Ramachandra Rao- Sri Chakra, Sri Satguru Publications, New Delhi, 1989,p.1
  55. K.Ramachandra Rao-The Tantra of Sri Chakra, Sharada Prakashana, Bangalore, 1983,, vii, viii, ix
  56. Shankaranarayanan- Sri Chakra, Dipti Publications, Pondicherry,1979, pp:14,15,16
  57. K.Ramachandra Rao- Sri ChakraOp.cit, p.1
  58. Shankaranarayanan—Op.cit, pp:9,10,12
  59. Ibid, p.47
  60. Ibid, pp:93,96,99,100
  61. K.Ramachandra Rao- Sri Vidya Kosha, Sri Satguru Publications, New Delhi, 2000, pp:179,180
  62. Lalan Prasad Singh- cit, pp: 136,137.97
  63. Vidya Dehijia- Yogini Cult and Temples- A Tantric Tradition, Published by National Museum, Janpath, New Delhi, 1986, p.11
  64. Ibid, p.23
  65. Ibid, p.22
  66. Ibid, pp:27,28
  67. Ibid, p.53
  68. Ibid, p.56
  69. Ibid, p.74
  70. Ibid, p.67
  71. Ibid, p.77
  72. Ibid, p.ix
  73. Ibid, pp:1,2
  74. Ibid, p.78



Tantra- A Brief Introduction, Part I

Tantra is a body of theories, techniques and rituals developed in India in antiquity which later spread to other parts of Asia. There are two fundamental aspects of tantra. The first aspect is its theory of creation which posits that the universe has no beginning and no end and that all its manifestations are merely the projections of divine energy of the creator. The second aspect of the tantra is the belief that the performance of tantric techniques and rituals facilitates access to this divine energy, enabling their practitioners to empower themselves as well as empower others associated with them in the guru-disciple relationship. Thus the knowledge and proper application of tantric techniques and rituals is believed to harness the creator’s cosmic energies to the promotion of the mundane as well as spiritual goals of their practitioners1.

Original Home of Tantra

Eastern India was the birth place of Tantric sadhana and from there it travelled to other parts of India and Nepal. According to Jayaratha (12th century A.D.) a commentator of Tantraloka of Abhinavagupta, Kaula Tantras are said to have issued from Kamarupa in Assam2. Some eminent scholars including Winternitz think that Bengal was the cradle of Tantra based on the following facts-

  • Worship of Kali, the most prominent tantric deity is most widespread in Bengal.
  • A large number of Shakti Pitas (holy resorts of Shakti) are in Bengal. Kamakhya (in Assam) was a strong hold of Tantra.
  • A largest number of Tantric manuscripts have been found in Bengal and
  • It is believed that Tantra was introduced in Tibet and China from Bengal through Buddhism and Tantric sadhana in Nepal appears to have been influenced by Tantric devotees of Bengal3.

Meaning of Tantra

Tantra is a Sanskrit word meaning rule and regulation, system or administrative code. For example the word Shasana Tantra means a system of government. Taking in this light, Tantra would come to mean a branch of knowledge which will offer a systematic and scientific method by which the spiritual powers inherent in man can be brought out and human life may be blessed with a glimpse of reality and attain salvation. Tantra also stands for Shastra meaning a code which is meant to govern the activity of man in all their aspects4. The expression Tantra is also a generic name applied to Aagama, Tantra and Samhita which are theological treatises discussing the codes of discipline and worship among different sects of religion along with their metaphysical and mystical points of view5. Derived from the root ‘tan’ meaning ‘to spread’, in religious sense Tantra mean ‘the scripture by which knowledge is spread’6.

Contents of Tantra 

The Tantras contain an amalgam of religion, philosophy, superstitious dogmas, rites, astronomy, astrology, medicine, prognostications, etc7. The Hindu tantra works present two sides, one philosophical and spiritual, the other popular, practical and more or less magical which relies on mantras, mudras, mandalas, nyasas, chakras and yantras as physical means to realize one’s identity with the supreme power or energy by concentration and as conferring extraordinary powers on devotees8. Regarding the contents of the Tantra, the Varahi Tantra gives a long list of 24 topics which include the following; the creation and dissolution of the world, classification of deities, description of tirthas (holy places), laws and duties for people in their different ashramas (stations of life), prescription of rules for vows, distinction between pious and sinful deeds, description of different psychic centers in the physical body, use of different Yantras (mystical diagrams), etc. A perusal of the long list of contents in any Tantra text shows their encyclopedic nature. But most of the Tantra being short in size do not cover all of these topic9.

Tantra and Aagama

The word Aagama or Aagamana means inductive experience. Aagama also means that which come, that is the knowledge which arises from within the self when spiritual impurity is removed. Aagama also means that which come by tradition. The two words Tantra and Aagama taken together mean a fully and logically worked out discipline or body (tantra) of knowledge that has come down by tradition and that is originally based on inductive experience (aagama) of the seers10 Aagama is that wisdom spoken by Lord Shiva to Parvathi. All available Aagamas contain a fourfold content-

  1. Vidya Pada- section dealing with metaphysics,
  2. Kriya Pada- section dealing with rituals,
  3. Yoga Pada- section laying down modes of spiritual disciplines and
  4. Charya Pada- section prescribing the daily routine of a spiritual seeker11.

The word Aagama and Tantra are often used as synonymous terms and there is also no distinction in respect of their essential teachings. The Aagama have been divided into Sat Aagamah or orthodox which accept the authority of the Vedas and Asat Aagamah or heterodox which do not accept the authority of the Vedas12. The Aagamic scriptures as a whole have branched out in three main currents, the Shaiva, the Shakta and the Vaishnava sastras or scriptures13. Usually the sastras of the Shaivas is referred as Aagama, that of Shaktas as Tantra and that of the Vaishnavas as Samhita14.

Thought the terms Tantra and Aagama are used synonymously the scope of Tantra is wider than that of Aagama as the former deals with as many as 25 subjects whereas the Aagamas covers only seven of the said 25 subjects15 According to Varahi Tantra the Aagamas contain seven topics that includes origin and dissolution of the world, modes of worship of deities and modes of spiritual disciplines, purificatory rites and practice of magical rites called satkarmas namely marana- vanquishing enemies, ucatana- ruining of adversary, vashikarana- subjugation of enemies, stambhana- paralyzing enemies or inimical forces, vidveshana- causing hostility in enemies and svastyayana- rites for obtaining peace and prosperity16.

Antiquity of the Tantras

It is difficult to determine the exact time when the word tantra came to be employed in the sense in which it is used in the so called tantra literature nor is it possible to decide what people first introduced its principles and practices or where they first arouse17. Dr. Bhattacharya says that the Buddhist were the first to introduce the tantras in their religion and that the Hindus borrowed them from the Buddhist in later times. But there is hardly any evidence of any Buddhist tantrik work before 650 A.D. except perhaps the Guhyasamajatantra and Manjushrimulakalpa, both of which contain late elements. There is evidence of the prevalence of tantra and shakta worship in India long before the 7th century A.D.18 Hence the question whether Buddhist tantra were prior to the Hindu tantras or vice versa is difficult to decide. It appears probable that both arose nearly about the same time19. The Amarakosha composed around 500 A.D. is silent on the Tantras and so also the Chinese pilgrims who visited India during 400-700 A.D. make no reference to Tantra literature. It seems safe to assume that the Tantras did not take a define shape before seventh century though many mantras and hymns which they include may be of very much earlier date. The existing works on Tantra and commentaries written on them belong to the period 7th century to 18th century A.D.20

At the same time orthodox scholars believe that the Tantras may have existed from the time of the Vedas or may be even older than the Vedas. Of course the language of the Tantric texts presently available is the post Vedic Sanskrit systematized by Panini, which might suggest that Tantras are post Vedic. But almost all the traditions in ancient India existed first in oral form and were handed down from guru to disciple or from generation to generation. Hence it is reasonable to believe that the Tantra philosophy existed in oral form from the time of the Vedas if not earlier and was only written down after the time of the Vedas21

Founder of Tantra

The founder of Tantra is Lord Shiva. He is known as Adi Guru, a great ascetic (Maha Yogi) and a great Tantrika (Maha Kaula). He attained occult power through Tantra sadhana22. Lord Shiva was skilled in chemistry and medicine and was known for his yogic powers. He resided in the vicinity of Himalaya Mountain and his religious outlook was non-Vedic. He was a champion of the poor, diseased and the tyrannized. He made no distinction between the high and low. He had numerous followers all over India who were designated as Asuras, Rakshasas and Danavas by the Devas (Manavas). These followers of Shiva constantly clashed with Devas and caused hindrance to the sacrifices of the Brahmanas. Sati the daughter of Daksha a king who ruled a part of Himalayan territory fell in love with Shiva and married him though opposed by her father. Once when Sati heard that her father was performing a sacrifice, though uninvited she wished to attend it. At the venue of the ceremony Sati was humiliated by her father who used offensive words against Shiva. Unable to bear the humiliation Sati swooned never to regain her senses. When Shiva heard this he was furious and in rage desecrated the sacrificial ground. All these incidents mentioned in the Puranas are interpreted as a revolt against the domination of Brahmins and their sacrificial modes of worship. After this incident there was reconciliation between the followers of Vedic religion and followers of Shiva and the latter was included one among the Trinity and yoga prescribed as a method for spiritual advancement. Gradually the popularity of Tantra increased among all class of people23.

Inauguration of New Method of Worship

The advent of Mahesha or Ishwara as a prominent figure or conception of divinity marks an epoch in ancient Hindu civilization. A new method of worship and a new methodology were inaugurated which developed into the Tantras and the tantric system. Music, art, literature, yoga; were all getting a new life and a new form. Henceforth every department seems to start with the name of Iswara and his consort. The goddess becomes markedly prominent in the shape of Durga and Kali. The old gods Mitra, Varuna, Indra, Aswins were subordinated and gradually became mythological beings shorn of their divine importance24.

In the old method of worship the fire god is the duta or messenger and offerings were thrown to the fire were carried to different gods. In the new method Avahan, Dhyana, Shodashapachara, Dharana, Nyasa and Kshamaprarthana were introduced. The mythology as disclosed in the Vedas is quite different from the new mythology of the Tantras and Puranas. The new mythology deals principally with Shiva, Durga, Kali, etc. and does not deal principally with the Vedic deities. Goddesses became very prominent in the shapes of Dasamahavidya; all being different manifestation of Shakti. In the old method of worship prayers or hymns to divinity consisted mostly in asking for worldly boons and pardon as also for moral advancement. The new method of worship consisted of contemplation of divinity and merging of the smaller individual self into the higher ego (Brahman)25.

 Characteristics of Tantra

  • Tantra Shastra is meant for all classes irrespective of caste, creed, sex and all could be given spiritual initiation.
  • Tantra Shastra is primarily a sadhana shastra and it affords to all freedom to be engaged in spiritual practice according to one’s competence and shows the practical method which would qualify the spiritual aspirant (sadhaka) to proceed along the higher path of knowledge; knowledge in terms of experience as distinguished from intellectual theorizing alone26.
  • The most significant character of the Tantra is to synthesize all the facts apparently opposed to each other. Tantra Shastra embraces all the view points of the Indian mind right from the black magic of the occultist to the highest peaks of karma, bhakti, upasana and jnana yoga of the rishis, munis, siddhas and saints27.

Philosophy of the Tantra

The philosophical foundation upon which Hindu Tantrism rest is the Sivadvaita school of Hinduism which maintains that the Supreme Reality is Shiva himself, being a Pure Consciousness, which is self-luminous, all pervading, eternal and absolute. Shiva is endowed with a Shakti (a female principle) which is a part of Him and eternally coexisting in Him. Their collective name is Param Shiva representing two aspects of the Absolute, one transcendent and static Shiva and the other immanent and dynamic, the Shakti28.

The essence of Tantra philosophy is the attainment of the supreme unification of Self with Parama Shiva. This state of self-realization is both an enjoyment and liberation. To a Tantric sadhaka world is nothing but the manifestation of Reality. With the gradual ascent to God-path, one experience Him both in animate and inanimate objects. This realization of divine presence puts an end to all physical, mental and spiritual sufferings and inspires one to live up to the ideal and glory of man. According to Tantra the world is neither an illusion nor reality. Tantra put emphasis on the spiritual realization with ignoring the material aspect of life29. According to S.K.Ramachandra Rao Tantra is primarily a practical discipline and its philosophy was never crystallized. The need was never strongly felt and much of the instruction was oral and situational. Some of the Tantric texts like Saradatilaka do deal with philosophical matter, but these accounts are neither systematic nor consistent. It is hard therefore to define and describe what may be called the Tantra philosophy30.

 Factors favouring the rise of Tantra

The origin and development of the Tantras as a special class of literature and Tantras as a special mode of sadhana were intimately connected with the rise of Shaivism and Pancaratra movement31. The Tantra form of sadhana probably came into special prominence when on the one hand, the elaborate details enjoined by the Vedic sacrifices taking a long time to be performed could not be accomplished by the people of feeble attainments and when on the other the Upanishadic method of acquisition of transcendent knowledge surpassed the intellects and equipment of the common people. The Puranas were at this time preaching the bhakti cult in order to place before the masses an easy method capable of being grasped and followed by all. Then the Tantras offered themselves to the people containing within them the essentials of the Vedic sacrifices and oblations, the essence of the monotheistic philosophy of the Upanishad, the bhakti cult preached by the Puranas, the Yoga method propounded by Patanjali and the mantra element of the Atharva Veda32

Tantra preached the principle of mukti (liberation) through bhukti (enjoyment) and did not advocate the repression of natural human propensities. It also did not advocate its adherents to give up eating meat and drinking wine and in the observance of Tantric rituals there was no caste restriction, all these factors gave rise to the popularity of Tantras33.

The development of Tantric Hinduism reached its zenith in Bihar, Bengal and Orissa under the Pala kings who ruled these parts of eastern India from 760-1142 A.D., in Kanyakubja under the Pratihara kings from 800-1019 A.D. and in Bundelkhand under the Chandella kings from 950- 1203 A.D.34

Was Tantra an alternate to Vedas?

What was the necessity of Tantra to emerge when there was Veda and many Vedic based scripture like Dharmasastra and the six philosophical treatises? This was because the elitist sastras failed to satisfy the aspirations of the common men particularly the shudras and women. In the post-Vedic scriptures, shudras and women were marginalized. They were denied the right to perform sacrifices and to participate in other religious observances. Moreover as life became busier and living more complicated, people felt the need for easier ways of devotion than the elaborate rituals. The orthodox Brahmanical scriptures demanded self-mortification and renunciation as stepping stones to liberation. This stifled the people’s natural inclination for enjoyment of sex, drinking wine and eating meat, etc. All these reasons led to the composition of Tantras, which provided easier methods of devotion without denying the satisfaction of natural human propensities35. As Tantra was a collective expression of numerous tribal and regional cults36 it could be termed as an alternative religion of the commoners as against the Vedas which was the religion of the elitist.

According to S.S.Suryanarayana Sastri from a very early stage in the history of Indian philosophical speculation there would seem to have been two currents of thoughts, the Vedic and the Agamic (Tantric), apparently independent and antagonistic. The Mahabharatha mentions Pancaratra (Agama texts of the Vaishnavas) as one among the various kinds of religion, the other being, Samkya, Yoga, Vedas and Pashupatas37.

The smrti texts based on the Vedas repudiated the Pancaratra doctrines as they initiated and admitted within their sect even women and Shudras38 Badarayana in his Brahma Sutras refutes the Pashupata and the Pancaratra Agamas39. Similarly the Agamic schools rejected the authority of the Vedas. The Anandabhairava Tantra declares-‘A wise man should not elect as his authority the words of Vedas which is full of impurity, produces but scanty and transitory fruits and is limited. He should instead sustain the authority of the Shaiva scriptures. Abhinavagupta in his Tantraloka remarks-‘That which according to the Veda is a source of sin leads according to this doctrine (Tantra) directly to liberation. In fact all the Vedic teaching is dominated by Maya40. In Mahanirvana Tantra Shiva declares- ‘The fool who follow other doctrines heedless of mine is as great a sinner as a parricide or the murderer of a Brahman or of a woman. The Vedic rites and mantras which were efficacious in the first age have ceased to have power in this age. They are now as powerless as snakes whose fangs have been drawn and are like dead things41. The Kularnava says ‘Mukti does not result from the study of the Veda nor by the study of shastras, it results from correct knowledge alone which is imparted by the teaching of the guru and which confers mukti42.

Differences between Tantras and Vedas

  • The Vedic ritual is propitiatory and sacrificial while the Tantra (Agamic) ritual consists essentially in devote worship of and personal communion with the deity.
  • The study of Vedas is restricted to certain castes while the doctrines of Tantra could be studied irrespective of sex or caste.
  • The Vedic worship is mainly sacrificial while the Tantric method of worship involves idols, symbols and meditation43
  • The Brahman of Vedic thought is static while the Brahman (Siva) of the Tantra is dynamic44
  • Tantra is a cult and the Veda a religio-philosophical school
  • Tantra is for salvation of the soul and the Veda for the enrichment of mind45
  • Vedic knowledge comes mainly through the process of revelation whereas the Tantric knowledge comes mainly through experiences46.

Reconciliation between Tantra and Vedas

At first the Vedic tradition and the Tantric tradition were almost irreconcilable. Each camp looked upon the other as antagonistic, perverse and purposeless. If the Puranas proclaimed that the Tantras were prepared only in order to confound the wicked the Tantras like Kularnava claimed that a Tantra is like an honourable house wife while the Veda with its accessories like Puranas and shastras is like a common harlot. The orthodox view projected mainly by Kumarila (early 6th century) holds that Tantra was meant for the degenerate, the uneducated, the fallen or the infirm and that its rituals were fraught with dangers of all sorts. But the Tantrik enthusiasts held and hold even now that the Vedas being antiquated cannot lead to much good. There was obviously a struggle for ascendance and each tradition geared itself up to meet the needs of both the folk and the elite. And in the process inevitably each modeled itself after the other, assimilated the attractive particulars of the other and attempted to secure the authority and support of the other. The Tantrik adherents sought to show that Tantra had Vedic foundation, Vedic sanction and Vedic authority. The Vedic puritans took over many of the hand gestures (mudras), spells (mantras) and magic designs (mandalas) the Tantriks employed together with their method of exposition47.

The reconciliation between the two divergent traditions was partly effected by the orthodox authorities affiliating the Tantra to the Saubhagya kanda of Atharvaveda and the Tantrik writers relying heavily on Vedic texts like Taittiriya Aranyaka and describing their scriptures as continuation of the Upanishadic traditions. The Vedic rituals adopted numerous Tantrik details and the Tantra abandoned its cruder ideology in favour of the austere aspiration of the Upanishads48.

 Attempts to Sanskritise Tantra

Although later authors of Tantric texts and commentators on these texts sought to base their doctrines and commentaries on the Vedas, Tantra remained a separate branch of knowledge quite outside the pale of Vedic tradition. This was due to the fact that in the ideological conflict between the two tradition, the Veda and Tantra, the latter held its own although many of its theoreticians mostly Brahmins covertly or openly supported the Vedic tradition and fabricated the Tantra in the Vedic lines. In spite of all sorts of Brahmanical interpolations, grafting and handling, Tantra clearly rejects the varna system and patriarchy and in the field of religion, all external formalities in regard to spiritual quests49.

Seeds of Tantra in Atharva Veda

At Mohenjodaro a seal have been discovered with a figure in yogic posture and surrounded by animals and is identified with Shiva. Also a number of conical stone, shell and clay pieces have been found which is identified as a Linga. Similarly a number of terracotta figurines of a female figure have been found which is identified with mother goddess50. All these show that Shiva and mother goddess were worshipped during the time when the urban civilization at Harappa and Mohenjodaro were flourishing. This implies that Tantra flourished during that period as Shaivism and Shaktism are the two aspects of Tantra. Shaktism represents the beginning of Tantra sadhana and Shaivism is the culminating point of the spiritual march51. The urban civilization which flourished at Harappa is identified with the Atharavan phase of the Vedic civilization and this has led scholars to believe that the Atharva Veda as the basis of all the tantras, especially those connected with the worship of the mother goddess. The Sammohana Tantra asserts that without the worship of Kali or Tara there can be no practical application of Atharvan charms and spells52.

The Atharva Veda is an inestimable source of knowledge of the actual popular religion of ancient India and for its populist character had been for centuries tabooed in the upper echelons of the society dominated by the sacerdotal class53. This Veda is quite different from the Rig Veda in content and form and hence was not recognized as a revealed scripture (Sruti). The word trayi which is used to signify the Vedic scriptures does not recognize the Atharva Veda as the fourth Veda. Panani the grammarian of India describes the Veda as trayi and Dayananda Saraswati the founder of Arya Samaj condemn the Atharva Veda as a heretical literature54. As the name of the seers who composed the Atharva Veda did not figure in the traditional lists of the Vedic seers (anukramanis), for long the Atharva Veda was denied the status enjoyed by the trayi55. It was only after the insertion of about 1/7th part of the Rig Veda and associating mythical sages as authors with it did the Atharva Veda get elevated as the fourth Veda56. The Atharva Veda mainly deals with the Tantric cult and covers all the branches of Tantrism. Atharva Veda is a compendium of Vidya Tantra which propagates the philosophy of Brahma Vada and Upavidya Tantra which deals about charms and sorceries57.

Tantras and Puranic Dharma

Among the followers of Vaishnavas and Shaivas were a section of Brahmins who while believing in the worship of Vishnu and Shiva as a means to attain salvation also looked upon the Vedas as authorities, attached great importance to varnashrama dharma and the smrti rules and did not like to give them up. The Puranic Dharma originated from these classes of people who were also the authors of the various Puranas58. As the Trantrics preached ideas and practices which often went against the Brahmanical ones, the early Puranas denounced the Tantras as Mohana Sastra59 and the Tantra scriptures as inferior and tamasi. They agreed that Shiva had revealed the Tantras but his reason for doing so was to delude the apostate and distract him from the true path. In Varaha Purana Rudra himself denounces the Pashupatas and the other followers of the Shaivagamas as given to mean and sinful acts and as addicted to meat, wine and women60.  In chapter 15 of Kurma Purana it is said that the great sinners the Pancaratrins were produced as a result of killing cows in some other birth, that they are absolutely non-Vedic and that the literature of the Shaktas, Shaivas and the Pancaratras are for the delusion of mankind61.

But from about the end of eighth century or the beginning of ninth century A.D. the Puranas began to recognize the Tantras as one of the authorities on religious matters. Tantric mantras and performance of Nyasas and Mudras were introduced in diksha (initiation ceremony), consecration of images, performance of sandhyavandana, and the Yantra as a medium of worship was also recognized. This recognition must have been effected by the great spread of Tantricism among the people including even the Buddhist62 The Devi, Devibhagavata and the Kalika and large portions of Narada Purana are extensively Tantric63

Both Tantras and Puranas are didactic and sectarian. As a rule Tantras contains less historical and legendary matter and more directions as to ritual. While the Puranas approve of Vedic rites as well as other, for which they give directions, the Tantras insist that ceremonies other than theirs prescribed are useless64

 Reasons for Tantra to acquire a negative image

  • Tantras do not believe in caste and creed. Tantric social system runs counter to the rigid Vedic system of caste and creed. There is no place for a Brahmin priest in tantric sadhana. That is why Brahmins started a tirade against tantras and declared the followers of tantras as outcaste65.
  • Another main cause for the apathy towards Tantra was the baseless Aryan bias. Earlier scholars equated Tantra with the so called degraded forms of Hinduism supposed to be the legacies of uncivilized aboriginal cultures. To these learned western scholars just as the Englishmen came to India with a civilizing mission, so also in the past aboriginal Indians were civilized by the Aryans who came from outside. To them whatever is noble and praiseworthy in Hinduism is found in the so called Aryan tradition that is the Vedic texts and Brahmanical literature and all the barbarous and degraded aspects attributed to Tantras are derived from the uncivilized non-Aryans. This idea was also shared by the learned Indians who belonged mostly if not exclusively to the upper strata of society who took pride in thinking of themselves as direct descendants of the great Aryan race66.
  • The practice of Panchamakaras involving wine and women which was considered as obnoxious and revolting and the inclusions of the six magical rites called Satkarmas in the Agamas led people develop a negative attitude towards Tantras.
  • In course of time for some people, Tantric practices became exclusively self-indulgent. Excessive drinking and promiscuous sexual unions marked their so called rituals. As Tantra attaches importance to guru and gurus being hereditary, sometimes a worthless and avaricious son of a guru led to denegation of Tantra. This led western and Indian scholars to believe that obscenity was the soul of this cult and even patriots like Bankim Chandra Chaterjee viewed Tantra as a misguiding principle which offered only wine and women in the name of religion67.

Contributions of Tantra

  • Tantra is the oldest and the most scientific religion of the world. It is the first spiritual faith laying down ethical norms to be strictly observed for the spiritual enlightenment and integrated development of society68.
  • Tantras endeavored to provide a common platform for differing and wrangling sects of Vaishnavas, Shaivas and others by putting forward Devi as the object of worship for all69.
  • The Tantra placed women on a footing of equality with men and accorded them an exalted position. She could play the role of a guru and in certain tantric rites was worshiped as Shakti70.
  • The orthodox Brahmanical scriptures by compartmentalization of society into four castes and by rigorous divisions of the people into higher and lower classes fostered animosity among them. There was an upsurge for leveling down this invidious discrimination. Tantra came forward to reduce the rigours of the caste system and put more premium on merit than the accident of birth71.
  • The murder of a woman is regarded as a heinous crime by Tantrists and they denounced prostitution and burning of widows and allowed remarriage of girl widows72.
  • The popularity of Tantra compelled the orthodox Brahmanical sastra to incorporate Tantra practices. For instance the Tantric concepts of mandala, mudra, yantra, the mystic bija mantras like hrim, krim, kumara puja, etc. crept into the traditional works of the Brahmanas. Similarly Buddhism was also deeply influenced by Tantras73.
  • Tantra developed a system of medical treatment for diseases affecting men, women and children. As the human body was considered essential for Tantric sadhanas, various drugs both herbal and chemical were prescribed for the preservation of youth and virility and for the treatment of diseases; so also medicines for rejuvenation and destroying the effects of various kinds of poisons74.
  • Art and architecture was also influenced by Tantra. There are many images of various Tantric deities particularly of Kali in her different forms. Many temples sculptures particularly of Orissa and south India show an abundance of tantric motifs. Several temples in south India worship Sri Chakra, the yantra associated with the Sri Vidya cult. There are also painting of Kali and other tantric deities as also of mandalas, mudras, yantras and Kundalini75.
  • The rational and liberal outlook of Tantras made it popular in foreign countries like Tibet, Nepal and Cambodia. Thus Tantras played an important role in the spread of Indian religious concepts abroad76.
  • The living Hindu religion of today is essentially Tantric. Even a few genuine Vedic rites that are preserved and are supposed to be derived straight from the Vedas, i.e. the Sandhya have been modified by the addition of tantric practices.77 The rituals of the temples based on Agamas have replaced the Vedic yajnas.78

To be continued


  1. Victor M. Fic- The Tantras- Its Origin, Theories, Art and Diffusion from India to Nepal, Tibet, Mongolia, China, Japan and Indonesia, Abhinav Publications, 2003, pp: 23,24
  2. Lalan Prasad Singh- Tantra- Its Mystic and Scientific Basis, Concept Publishing Company Pvt Ltd, New Delhi, 2010, p.6
  3. Sures Chandra Banerji- The Cultural Glory of Ancient India, D.K.Printworld (P) Ltd, New Delhi, 2000, pp: 112,113
  4. N.Bose & Hiralal Haldar- Tantras – Their Philosophy and Occult Secrets, Firma KLM Private Ltd, Calcutta, 1981,p.20
  5. Gaurinath Sastri, A Concise History of Classical Sanskrit Literature, Motilal Banarsidass Publisher Pvt Ltd, New Delhi, p.47
  6. N.N.Battacharyya- History of the Tantric Religion, Manohar, 2005, p.20
  7. P.V.Kane –History of Dharmashastra, Vol V, part –II, Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, Poona, 1962, p.1049
  8. Ibid, p.1057
  9. Prabuddha Bharata, vol-115, no.6, June 2010, p.373
  10. Kamalakar Mishra- Kashmir Shaivism– The Central Philosophy of Tantrism, Sri Satguru Publications, Delhi, 1999, p.36
  11. Prabuddha Bharatacit, pp:372,373
  12. Nando Lall Kundu- Constructive Philosophy of India, Vol-II (Tantra), Published by Nando Lall Kundu, Calcutta, p.24
  13. Ibid, p.31
  14. Gaurinath Sastri- cit, p.47
  15. Manoranjan Basu- Tantras- A General Study, Published by Shrimati Mira Basu, Calcutta, 1976, p.1
  16. Prabuddha Bharatacit, pp:372,373
  17. P.V.Kane- Op.cit, p.1033
  18. Ibid, pp:1039,1040
  19. Ibid, p.1038
  20. Earnest A Payne- The Shaktas: An Introduction and Comparative Study, Cosmos Publication, New Delhi, 2004, pp:52,53
  21. Kamalakar Mishra- cit, p.14
  22. Lalan Prasad Singh- cit, p.8
  23. N.Bose & Hiralal Haldar- Op.cit, pp:26-29
  24. Babu Dhanapati Banerji- The Evolution of Rudra or Mahesha in Hinduism, QJMS, Vol-X, April 1920, No.3, pp:221,222
  25. Ibid
  26. Manoranjan Basu- cit, p.25
  27. Ramakant Sharma Angiras- Trilogy of Tantra, Natraj Publishing House, Karnal, Haryana, 1989,p.3
  28. Victor M. Fic- cit, p.27
  29. Lalan Prasad Singh- cit, p.43
  30. S.K.Ramachandra Rao- Tantra Mantra Yantra, The Tantra Psychology, Sri Satguru Publication, New Delhi, 2008, p.57
  31. Studies on the Tantras– Ramakrishna Mission Institute of Culture, Calcutta, 1989, p.10
  32. Subodh Kapoor- Short Introduction to Shakta Philosophy, Cosmo Publication, New Delhi, 2008, p.68
  33. Sures Chandra Banerji- The Cultural Glory of Ancient India, D.K.Printworld (P) Ltd, New Delhi, 2000, p.121 and P.V.Kane-cit, p.1077
  34. Victor M. Fic- cit, p.42
  35. S.C.Banerji- A Companion to Tantra, Abhinav Publications, New Delhi, p13
  36. S.K.Ramachandra Rao- Tantra Mantra Yantra, The Tantra Psychology, p.19
  37. S.Suryanarayana Sastri- The Sivadvaita of Srikantha, University of Madras, 1930, p.1
  38. Surendranath Dasgupta- History of Indian Philosophy, vol- III, Cambridge University Press, 1952, pp: 19,20
  39. S.Suryanarayana Sastri- Op.cit, p.1
  40. Mark S.G. Dyczkowski- The Canon of the Shaivagama and the Kubjika Tantras of the Western Kaula Tradition, Motilal Banarasidass, New Delhi, 1989, p.9
  41. Earnest A Payne- cit, pp:50,51
  42. P.V.Kane- Op.cit, p.1083
  43. S.Suryanarayana Sastri- Op.cit, pp:5,7,8
  44. Vishwa Nath Drabu- A Study in the Socio Economic Ideas and Institutions of Kashmir (200 B.C. – A.D.700), Indus Publishing Company, New Delhi, 1990, p.233
  45. Lalan Prasad Singh- cit, p.12
  46. Kamalakar Mishra- cit, p.5
  47. S.K.Ramachandra Rao- Tantra Mantra Yantra, The Tantra Psychology, p.12
  48. Ibid, p.13
  49. N.N.Battacharyya- Op.cit, pp:21-23
  50. B.N.Luniya- Life and Culture in Ancient India, Lakshmi Narain Agarwal, Agra, pp:51,52
  51. Lalan Prasad Singh- cit, pp:2,3
  52. Srikantha Sastri- Tantri Hieroglyphics, QJMS, vol-51, No.1, April 1960, p.11
  53. S.C.Banerji- A Companion to Tantra, p.13
  54. Lalan Prasad Singh- cit, p.22
  55. S.K.Ramachandra Rao-The Tantra of Sri Chakra, Sharada Prakashana, Bangalore, 1983, p.3
  56. Sanjay Sonawani- Origins of the Vedic Religion And Indus ghaggar Civilization, Book Tango, 2015
  57. Lalan Prasad Singh- cit, p.23
  58. R.C.Hazra- Studies in the Puranic Records on Hindu Rites and Customs, Abinas Press, Calcutta, 1940, pp:193,203,204
  59. Ibid, p.260
  60. Mark S.G. Dyczkowski- cit, p.10
  61. Surendranath Dasgupta- cit, p.19
  62. R.C.Hazra- Op.cit, pp:260-262
  63. Mark S.G. Dyczkowski- cit, p.8
  64. Earnest A Payne- cit, p.50
  65. Lalan Prasad Singh- cit, pp: 139,140
  66. N.N.Battacharyya- Op.cit, p.43
  67. N.N.Battacharyya- Op.cit, p.41 and Sures Chandra Banerji- Op.cit, p.123
  68. Lalan Prasad Singh- cit, pp: 11,12
  69. P.V.Kane- Op.cit, p.1092
  70. P.V.Kane- Op.cit, p.1092 and Sures Chandra Banerji- Op.cit, p.120
  71. S.C.Banerji- A Companion to Tantra, Abhinav Publications, New Delhi, 2007,p.13
  72. Earnest A Payne- cit, p.59
  73. Sures Chandra Banerji- cit, p.122
  74. Ibid, pp:121,122
  75. Sures Chandra Banerji- cit, pp:122,123 and S.K.Ramachandra Rao- Sri Chakra, Sri Satguru Publications, New Delhi, 1989,p.1
  76. Sures Chandra Banerji- cit, p.121
  77. P.T.Srinivasa Iyengar- Outlines of Indian Philosophy, Theosophical Publishing Society, Benaras and London, 1909, p.130
  78. Ibid, pp:124,128