[This article is primarily about Agama. Since Agama is closely aligned to Tantra, let’s briefly talk about Tantra before we revert to a discussion on Agamas.]
1.1. The term Agama, primarily, signifies tradition; it is a way of life. Agama represents the previously ordained practices generally held in esteem (Agama loka-dharmanaam maryada purva-nirmita – Mbh 8.145.61).
Agama is also that which helps to understand things correctly and comprehensively, in attaining the highest objective of Man (aa jna vastu samantaccha gamyat ith agamo matah: Pingala-matha).
Agama, according to Jaya-mangala, is a well ascertained (siddam siddau pramanaustu) trustworthy knowledge (shastra aptanam) that contributes to our welfare (hitam) here (vaa tra) and hereafter (para tra cha).
Its authoritative traditions, which command faith, prescribe practices for day-to-day ritualistic life; and, in particular, for a well disciplined course of right conduct and purposeful worship – actions to be followed at each stage of one’s pursuit for attaining his/her ideal of God.
1.2. Agamas (the term Agama literally means wisdom traditionally passed on) have come down to us from the distant past through oral traditions. They are revered as revelations; but, are not essentially treated as part of the Vedas. The Agamas do not derive their authority directly from the Vedas. Yet; they are Vedic in spirit and character; perform Yajnas in the Vedic mode; and make use of Vedic mantras while performing the service.
1.3. It is also true that Vedas and Agamas are intimately related. They represent two aspects of a fundamental question: how to realize the Truth. Veda, it is said, in its primary sense is Knowledge which liberates. Agama is a traditional doctrine grasped in faith. Agama developed the esoteric teaching and practice of the Vedas into external forms suitable for the changing needs of times.
2.1. The argument of the Agamas is that mere knowledge and discussion about That (tat) or the Truth or the Supreme Being will achieve nothing spiritually; and will not liberate, unless it is supported by purposeful action. It points out that just talking about spiritual experience is rather purposeless: ‘mere words cannot chase away the delusion of the wandering; darkness is not dispelled by mention of the word lamp’. What is of prime essence is the actual, direct immediate experience (Sakshatkara) of the Supreme.
And, Truth has to be realized and brought into ones experience. That is not possible unless there is a definite, determined and sustained action (Sadhana kriya) to attain ones ideal of Truth. All must act, who have not achieved.
2.2. The claim of the Agama is that it provides such means of action, as also the technique for realizing and experiencing the sublime ideals eulogized by the Vedas and its associate scriptures of knowledge. Agama assures; its well defined and time-tested methods of Sadhana are indeed the practical applications of the teaching of the Vedas and Vedanta. Here again, it is explained, a single ritual act performed routinely in daily life is rather shallow.
But Sadhana, on the other hand, is an intimate spiritual discipline comprising set of coordinated practices of faith of which rituals form part. Agamika – Sadhana is more comprehensive; it is a sustained and a determined endeavor to realize ones ideal of Truth. Agama, therefore, aptly calls itself variedly as Pratyaksha Shastra, Sadhana Shastra and Upasana Shastra.
2.3. The Agamas promise that if you follow their direction you will achieve Siddhi. They assert; to experience a thing in its ultimate sense is to be that very thing. It is for this reason the ancient faith of Agama has prescribed rituals, which are both symbolic and suggestive, as also a set of disciplines that ensure wholesome, healthy living in body, mind and spirit.
2.4. The Agama is thus a philosophy which not merely argues but acts and experiments. Agama is practical philosophy (prayoga shastra) addressed to ardent aspirants. It combines in itself the exposition of spiritual doctrine as also the means to realize its teachings. Agama provides form and substance to ones faith and to its quest.
Tantra – Agama
3.1. It is perhaps because Agama is unity of a system of thought (or faith) and a body of practices; it has come to be very closely connected with Tantra. It is said; Agama is essentially a tradition, and Tantra is its technique (prayoga). You cannot think of the one without thinking of the other. Agama is the Sadhana part of Tantra. Tantra and Agama cite same set of texts. If Tantra is said to be in greater use in North, Agama is used in South. The Agama texts in South often include the term Tantra in their title.
3.2. The two terms are often used interchangeably.
For instance; an Agamika is also called Tantri. An old Tantric text Pingalamata says that Tantras are Agama with characteristics of Chhandas (that is Vedas). The Agama-Tantra way is as important and as authentic as the Vedic tradition.
The encyclopedic dictionary Shabda-kalpa-druma of Raja Radha Kanta Deva explains: since Agama tries to protect the delicate balance in creation, the learned ones name it as Tantra (tanuthe trayathe nithyam tantra mithi viduhu budhaha).
Tantra is also Siddantha-Agama (tantriko jnana siddantah) – an established system of knowledge and practices. Tantra is the process (vidhi) or the regulation (niyama), which amplifies and nurtures knowledge (Tanyate vistaryate jnanam anena iti tantram); it breathes life into forms of knowledge; and , devises methods to realize its aims.
Tantra – what is?
4.1. Kamikagama explains Tantra as a system which expands (vipula) on matters relating to essence (arthan) of philosophy (tattva) and mantra that help to attain liberation :
-tanoti vipula – arthaan tattva – mantra samanvitam; tantram cha kurute yasmad tantram ity abhidhiyate.
Tattva is the study of the Absolute principle. Tantra brings the realization of tattva (tat=That) within ones experience, with the help of Mantra-Sadhana.
Tantra is therefore an intuitional wisdom that liberates (tatra ya ayat tarayet yastu sa tantra parikirtitah).
At the same time, it is said, devotion and complete surrender is the secret of Tantra –Sadhana. And, it is characterized by high regard, implicit obedience and unquestioned faith in the guru.
The term Tan-tra is also understood by analyzing it through its two syllables: tan–a verbal root meaning to stretch, to expand, also to be diffused as light, to weave (with the image of extending the threads which are to be woven) ;and, tra , taken in the sense of trāṇa, the root meaning to save, to protect, to liberate. Thus, it means a system, theory or practice which saves and protects.
The further meaning of tan– is to show, to manifest; to accomplish, perform; to compose (a work). Therefore, Tantra, is also called Āgama (sacred tradition which has come down to us). Abhinavagupta defines Āgama as a fundamental, well-established knowledge (prasiddhi) which underlies the specific traditions and their scriptures and their instructions regarding way-of-life
4.2. Tantra is understood as a system which leads to growth of one’s awareness, higher faculty of reasoning and intuitive power leading to the path of self-realization. In practice, Tantra is a dynamic philosophy which supports life, action, aspiration, knowledge, quest for truth, a path which unshackles the potential of the human mind and helps one to realize the essential unity of all existence.
4.3. Tantra also stands for ritual, in general, wherever there is the concept of duality. The ritual might be external or internal by way of introspection. Ritual is the body tanu in which the spirit of Tantra manifests. Ritual, in fact, is the art of Tantra. It involves elaborate initiation (diksha) ritual; use of symbolic Yantras, mantras and mudra-s (suggestive gestures); and secretive Sadhana. The rituals, here, are symbolic activities which strengthen the aspirant’s conviction and help him to achieve a harmonious relation with his environment in the broadest sense.
All these are meant to fructify in direct experience of his ideal, which indeed is the aim of Tantra as also its justification.
4.4. Another feature of Tantra is the importance it assigns to speech and its power. In the Vedic context speech vak was invested with divine quality. Tantra went a step further and lent the speech energy and power. Its mantras are invariable accompanied by syllabic Bija mantras which are potent with inherent Shakthi. The Bija mantras of Tantric nature are subtle sounds of abstract language which attempt to visualize the un-differentiated divine principle.
4.5. Tantra is a vast and all comprehensive set of disciplines, beliefs systems and practices. In the words of Sir John Woodroffe: ‘tantra, from its very nature is an encyclopedic science… not weighed down by the limitation of words. It is practical; lights the torch and shows the way.’ ‘… Tantra is neither religion nor mysticism but is based upon human experience in the very act of living, as a source of the amplification of consciousness… The Tantra way has been absorbed as a cultural behavior valid for everyone and not merely to an exclusive group or sect’
Tantra – a synthesis
5.1. Tantra is not a single coherent system. It is an accumulation of ideas and practices dating back to pre-historic times. The Tantra synthesizes the various insights of karma, jnana, bhakthi and yoga for the benefit of the ardent practitioner in his endeavor to realize his ideal.
The Tantra works accept the validity of Vedic rituals; the framework of the Universe composed by the dual elements of pure consciousness (Purusha, Shiva) and Prakrti (Shakthi) as put forward by Samkhya; the wisdom (viveka) and detachment (vairagya) of the Upanishads; the purifying disciplines of Raja yoga; as also the passionate love for the Divine as sung in the Puranas. They exhort the aspirant, Sadhaka, to exercise his/her will and strive even as they practise self-surrender, praying for divine grace.
5.2. In addition, Tantra employs numerous techniques which include mantras; Yantras; postures and gestures (nyasas and mudras); offerings of flowers, incense and ritual ingredients; breath control (pranayama); yogic practices (asana, dhyana, dharana) etc. The Tantra promises its followers Bhukthi and Mukthi: wellbeing in the present world and ultimate liberation from sorrows of the world. Tantra, thus aims to attain plural objectives (aneka-muddisya sakrt pravrttis-tantrata).
5.3. Both the Vedic and the Buddhist scholars were prolific writers on Tantra. One of the reasons that Tantra cannot be precisely defined is that it comprises an astounding number of subjects, each with its own several sub-divisions. The writers on Tantra tried to bring in whatever that was best and interesting in other fields of study. As a result; the Tantra literature grew, spreading over a vast number of subjects, such as: yoga, astronomy, astrology, medicine, alchemy, divination, and so on. Besides that, Tantra turned into an admixture of religion, philosophy, science, superstitions, dogma, psychic exercises and mysticism.
In a way; it could be said that the Tantra literature reflects India’s past cultural history, particularly between the 7th and the 11th century. Despite its flaws, Tantra is India’s unique contribution to world-culture; no other country has produced such a body of literature, beliefs and practices.
6.1. Tantra believes that the culmination of all learning is sakshatkara the direct experience of one’s cherished ideal. It asserts that Truth cannot be attained by mere knowing about it. And, that if the Truth has to be realized and brought into ones experience, it surely needs Sadhana. Tantra claims it provides the means and the technique (upasana-prakriya) for realizing and experiencing that Truth. It is proudly calls itself Tantriko jnata-siddanta an established system of knowledge and practices; as also Sadhana Shastra or Prayoga Shastra, the shastra distinguished by sprit of enterprise and adventure.
6.2. Central to Tantra-faith is the concept of duality that culminates in unity. Shiva the pure consciousness and Shakthi its creative power are eternally conjoined; the one cannot be differentiated from the other.
The Tantra ideology explains the apparent duality of Shiva-Shakthi; Bhairava-Bhiravi; etc as being essentially non-dual (abheda). Their relation is that of Dharma and Dharmin; that is between the object and its properties. Their relation is analogous to that between fire and heat; the Sun and its rays; and, ocean and its waves.
Philosophically, the relation between Shiva and Shakthi is compared to the pure-light of consciousness (Prakasha) and its power of illumination (Vimarsha).
And, Shiva can be attained only through his power (Shakthi); and, Consciousness can be realized by self-reflection or meditative practices (Dhyana)
Shiva-Shakthi are essentially two aspects of One principle. In reality, the whole of existence, the range of manifold experiences in the world are but the expressions of Shiva-Shakthi combine. Shiva (Purusha) does not act by himself, but is inseparably associated with – and influences through – his Shakthi (Prakrti), the dynamic primal energy that manifests, animates, sustains and finally re-absorbs the universe into itself. This Shakthi is all powerful and infinite.
It is only in the relative plane that Shiva-Shakti might appear as separate entities. But, the Reality is unity, an indivisible whole.
6.3. At the core of the Tantra ideology is the faith in ‘upasaka-upasya-abhedha-bhava’, where the worshiper and the worshiped are united. The Tantra mode of practice (upasana –prakriya), it is claimed, leads to the summit of its philosophy where the upasaka comes to identify her/himself with her/his upasya-devata.
[ In India’s spiritual traditions, all teachings and texts are termed Moksha Shastra, the way to liberation. However, liberation the final goal is perceived differently in various traditions.
The common belief is that each person is bound by his ignorance of the nature of the ultimate principle: God, Self et al. Freedom, the attainment of which is the principle goal of human life. And, that is possible by overcoming ignorance by knowledge. How this knowledge may be attained and what it eventually reveals varies from one doctrine to another. But, beneath these diverse faiths there seems to be some coherence which allows for coexistence overlapping faiths and practices.
For instance; in Patanjali’s Yoga–Darshana, which derives its inspiration from the metaphysics of Samkhya , liberation is conceived as separation of the pure consciousness (Purusha) from the inert (non-conscious) matter (Prakrti). For this reason; Raja Bhoja remarks that Yoga is in fact Viyoga (non-union or separation). In the ordinary unenlightened state, Purusha is deemed entangled with matter, forgetting its essential freedom. Patanjali’s Yoga recommends Viveka (discrimination) and Vairagya (dispassion) for separating Purusha from the tangles of Prakrti. The final state is called Kaivalya aloofness (lonesomeness), meaning isolation of pure consciousness.
Tantra on, the other hand, speaks of the ultimate identity of Purusha and Prakrti or Shiva and Shakthi. For Tantra, the world of matter is not inert or non-conscious; but, is a living manifestation of the very same Reality that is also the pure consciousness.]
Tantra – Man
7.1. The individual, according to Tantra, is not isolated but is integrated into the entire cosmic scheme. And, his limited experience is not separated from the Absolute experience. The individual is a miniature Universe. The body is a microcosm of the universe (Brahmande ye gunah santi te tishthanti kalevare); and ‘what is here is elsewhere; and what is not here is nowhere (yadihasti tadanyatra yannehasti natatkvachit).
7.2. Tantra firmly believes; the forces that operate the world are dormant within the person; but, functioning at a different level. It asserts; Man is a spiritual being; and he realizes his full potential when he is awakened. The process of realization is self-discovery, which culminates in true understanding of the self. The purpose of Tantra is awakening the hidden potential in Man to enable him to realize this Reality.
7.3. Tantra regards human body as a mandala – a matrix of energy; and as a configuration of vital currents (prana-shakthi). It asks the individual to respect his being for it is Isha-para the city where Shiva dwells; to strive for self improvement; and, to keep body and mind healthy.
7.4. Tantra is the cult of householders. It does not encourage renunciation (sanyasa); but at the same time lays emphasis on internal purity and detachment. The view of the Tantra is that no realization is possible by negation or by escape from the world. Tantra asks the aspirants to accept the world as it exists; and not get involved in far-fetched assumptions.
8.1. Tantra believes and says; the tangible world of actual experiences is real; and, it is not in conflict with the ‘other’. Tantra’s approach is thus practical; and, it attempts to be free from conventional perfectionist clichés. Tantra is not ‘other-worldly’ in its outlook. It is against extreme asceticism; and is also against arid speculations.
8.2. Tantra strives to show a way to liberation here in this life whilst in this body and in this world: jivanmukthi. And, that is not achieved by denial of the world, but by sustained discipline and practice while still being in the world, amidst its pleasures. It assures that the tangible world of day-to-day experiences is real; and is relevant in its own context. This world is a passage towards perfection; the visible leading to the invisible. There is no conflict between this world and the ‘other world’. It does not intend to sacrifice the present world to the ‘other world’, but aims to somehow integrate the two into the framework of liberation. Tantra promises Bhukthi and Mukthi: wellbeing in the present world and liberation from sorrows of the world.
Tantra – approach
9.1. In the context of its times, the Tantra- approach was more open and radical. Tantra overlooked the artificial restrictions imposed by caste and gender discrimination. And, it willingly admitted into its common fold (samanya) the women and sudras hitherto kept outside the pale of religious practices. The Gautamiya Tantra declares: “The Tantra is for all men, of whatever caste, and for all women” (Sarva – varna- adhikaraschcha naarinam yogya eva cha).
9.2. Tantra appeals to the common aspirations; and recognizes the urge of natural human desires. It admits the ever ongoing conflict between flesh and spirit. Tantra ideology explains; every human experience bears a subject-object relation, the enjoyer and the enjoyed. It is not feasible either to destroy or to subjugate the object altogether; for any such attempt binds one into a vicious circle from which there is no escape. On the other hand, it is wiser to transform the disintegrating forces into integrating ones.
Tantra makes an amazing statement: even as the object can be overcome only by the object, the desire can be overcome by desire. Hence the Tantra dictum: ‘that by which one falls is also that by which one rises’ (Yatraiva patanam dravyaih, siddhis-tatireva). And, Sri Aurobindo therefore remarks: ‘tantra turns the very obstacles to spiritual realisation into stepping stones.’ This is a truly distinctive feature of Tantra.
[ Lama Yeshe, in his ‘Introduction to Tantra (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2001) says :
Instead of viewing pleasure and desire as something to be avoided at all costs, Tantra recognizes the powerful energy aroused by our desires to be an indispensable resource for the spiritual path. Desire is an energetic fact of life. The magnetic pull towards objects, people, and abstract goals is a universal experience.
Instead of shunning desire, the approach the Tantra is to understanding what desire is.The Tantric practitioners do not turn away from disturbing mental states; but they understand and harness them.
Our goal is the realization of the highest human potential, Tantra seeks to transform every experience into the path of fulfillment]
9.3. The essence of Tantra is direct experience. Tantra sets out its approach through direct action, in contrast to Vedic rituals performed indirectly through the priests. It says: ‘understanding Tantra is by doing it’. Tantra cautions: ‘There is no salvation by proxy; and definitely not through hired priests. Each aspirant has to strive to realize the true nature of self and attain salvation’.
9.4. The Tantra was not so much concerned with the formulation of doctrinal principles as with the realization of a particular experience of the freedom (svatantra), spontaneity (svacchanda) and un-bound consciousness (prakasha). Tantra is a prayoga–shastra that involves activity and experience. It justifies any means that leads to authentic experience.
Such direct experience was called by many names by various groups ; Samarasya (harmony) ; Yuganaddha (sense of union) ; Sahaja (spontaneity) ; Adavya (non-dual) ; and , Khechari (moving freely in the void like a bird ).
In all the voluminous and complex writings of Abhinavagupta the symbolism of Heart (Hrudaya) plays an important role. He perhaps meant it to denote ‘the central point or the essence . His religious vision is explained through the symbol of heart, at three levels – the ultimate reality; the method;and, the experience. The first; the Heart, that is, the ultimate nature (anuttara – there is nothing beyond) of all reality, is Shiva. The second is the methods and techniques employed (Sambhavopaya) to realize that ultimate reality. And, the third is to bring that ideal into ones experience.
The Heart here refers, in his words ‘to a sublime experience that moves the heart (hrudaya-angami-bhuta). He calls the third, the state of realization as Bhairavatva, the state of the Bhairava. He explains through the symbolism of Heart to denote the ecstatic light of consciousness as ‘Bhaira-agni-viliptam’, engulfed by the light of Bhairava that blazes and flames continuously. Sometimes, he uses the term ‘nigalita’ melted or dissolved in the purifying fire-pit the yajna–vedi of Bhairava. He presents the essential nurture (svabhava) of Bhairava as the self-illuminating (svaprakasha) light of consciousness (Prakasha). And, Bhairava is the core phenomenon (Heart – Hrudaya) and the ultimate goal of all spiritual Sadhanas.
Abhinavagupta makes a distinction between the understanding that is purely intellectual; and, the one that is truly experienced. The latter is the Heart of one’s Sadhana.
Veda and Tantra
10.1. Veda and Tantra are two life-streams of Indian heritage; are the warp and woof of the Indian culture and traditions. Veda is knowledge and Tantra is cult that aims at liberation. They have enriched our lives in countless ways. Though Tantra is more visible in our day-to-day practices, there cannot be a religious ceremony without the recitation of Vedic mantras. And, hardly any aspect of Indian thought and usage is outside the scope of all embracing twin- influence. The two most ancient mighty rivers of tradition could not have arisen in isolation nor could they have flourished without one influencing the other.
10.2. Actually, if Tantra is seen as opposed to Vedic lore, it is partly because of its being altogether different from it, and also partly because it gives a different, a new interpretation and usage of Vedic elements. This is clearly apparent; for instance, a number of Vedic elements are built into the Tantric Mantra-shästra.
One important distinction between Tantra and the orthodox Vedic texts is that the Tantric revelation is supposed to be open to all, irrespective of caste or sex. This might have come about because of the Vedic culture expanding into new social strata or groups.
And, similarly, the Bhakati cults too remained ‘Vedic’ in spirit while encompassing within its fold all classes and groups of the social structure.
10.3. Yet; in the general perception, the Veda and Tantra are distinct currents of India’s spiritual, cultural and intellectual life. Apparently, the two are not only mutually exclusive but also are opposed to each other. And, the orthodox followers of Vedic tradition tried to distance themselves from Tantric ideologies and stress that Tantra is not a product of Vedic wisdom.
10.4. Though the Vedic and Tantra traditions are often considered as parallel streams or even as intertwined, their mutual relations over the centuries have not always been comfortable. It is rather complex.
10.6. The traditional view is that Tantra and Veda are two distinct strands of Indian cultural fabric. The orthodox assert: ‘Tantra is cult and Veda is enlightened philosophy’ .Tantra, on the other hand, put forth their own arguments.
11.1. In the Vedic tradition, much attention is given to knowledge – the knowledge of gods, of the Yajnas. Its approach to gods is of collective character, involving a number of priests and adepts specialized in each part of the Yajna. The Yajnas are public occasions of great celebration where a large numbers participate enthusiastically.
11.2. The Tantra, in sharp contrast, is highly individualistic in its approach. The Tantric aspirant strives to communicate directly with object of her/his worship; without the mediation of priests. It is a private, one-to-one intimate communication with ones’ ideal. Further, Tantra is upasana-prakriya based in symbolic representations (sanketa prakriya). The Tantra ideology is, often described as ‘symbolic wisdom, directly communicated through the teacher (sanketha-vidya guru-vakthra – gamya).
11.3. Tantra, unlike the Upanishads, does not always require that one should renounce the world in order to engage in the search for deliverance. On the contrary, it endeavors to reconcile deliverance (moksha) with enjoyment (bhoga). One who pursues Tantra is, thus, a bubhukshu (desirous of enjoyment) rather than a mumukshu, who aspire to liberation (moksha).
11.4. The Tantric views the world as the place where salvation is achieved and experienced, while-living (jïvanmukti), the ultimate state for the Tantric adept.
The Tantric does not solely pursue the knowledge that liberates; but, he seeks autonomy and power as well. He stays in the world and strives to controls it by attaining supernatural powers (siddhis). He becomes one with the Transcendental.
11.5. He does not shun earthly desires (in every sense of the word); but does his utmost to harness Kama and bring into service all its related values.
Related to this, and equally characteristic, is Tantric’s concept of the Godhead, where male and female principles are polarized as contrasting energies ; and , the female pole being regarded as that vital energy which pervades and gives life and sustenance to all the elements in existence . His pursuit of deliverance therefore involves tapping and using (or manipulating) this female energy.
11.6. Another contrasting feature is that the Tantric sects have always been small groups of initiated ascetics; and, there is a very strong allegiance to the Guru and to his tradition (Guruparamparä).
dhyānamūlaṃ guror mūrtiḥ pūjāmūlaṃ guroḥ padam | mantramūlaṃ guror vākyam mokṣamūlaṃ guroḥ kṛpā || Kulārṇava Tantra 12-13
The form of the Guru is the root of meditation. The feet of the Guru are the root of worship. The word of the Guru is the root of the mantra. The grace of the Guru is the root of liberation.
11.7 The Tantric mode of worship (Puja) is dominated by very complex ritualism and worship of an image or a chart (mürti, bera, and Yantra), in contrast to the Vedic Yajnas.
11.8. Another characteristic feature of Tantra, in all its forms and tendencies, is the one related to speech and its powers. While the Vedas did recognize the divine quality of speech and, assigned it a central role, the Tantra, in addition, infused into it exceptional power and energy; and, made it a very vital component of Tantric worship.
Tantra is origin of Vedas ?
12.1. There are other assertions that try to bind the two traditions together by saying that Veda and Tantra are braches of a single system. For instance; Kulluka Bhatta (15th century), one of the commentators of Manava-Dharmasastra (2.1) states that Sruti or the revealed word is twofold: Vaidiki and Tantriki (vaidiki tantriki caiva dvividha sruti kirtita).
12.2. There is another saying which declares that Veda is, indeed, a branch of Tantra. The Agama texts state that the discipline known as Tantra is twofold in nature: Agama and Nigama (agamam nigamam chaiva tantra-sastram dvividha matham). Here, Nigama stands for Veda and Agama is a system of practices inspired by Tantra ideology.
13.1. Some Tantra-texts go a step further and assert that Vedas originated from Tantra ideology .For instance; Narayaniya-tantra claims that the Vedas were derived from the Tantra-sources: Rig Veda from Rudra yamala; Yajur Veda from Vishnu Yamala; Sama Veda from Brahma Yamala; and Atharva Veda from Shakthi Yamala.
13.2. The assertions that the Vedas come within the scope of Tantra or that the Vedas originated from Tantra are rather intriguing; and it is very unlikely. Narayaniya-tantra, mentioned above, is of recent origin (c.14th century); and it might have overstated its position in order to elevate the Tantra School. It is very unlikely that Veda originated from Tantra.
Tantra perhaps developed largely outside the establishment and in the process developed its own outlook and approach to life, away from the conventional purist clichés.
Tantra – Veda – compatible
14.1. Some texts of Tantra acknowledge that Vedas are of great antiquity and are highly revered. Tantra accepts the authority of the Vedas; and assures it is not in conflict with Veda or any other recognized Shastra. For instance; Kularnava Tantra says (2. 85,140,141) that Kuladharma is based on and is inspired by the Truth of Veda (tasmat vedatmakam shastram viddhi kaulatmakam priye).
14.2. The Tantra School explains that if one gets the impression that Tantra is opposed to Vedas, it is partly because its approach is different, and also partly because of it attempts to give a new interpretation to Vedic elements. Tantra argues; it essentially teaches the same tenets as the Vedas. It is, in fact, the culmination of the philosophies of Vedanta and Samkhya. The difference of Tantra lies in its method and certain subtle points of philosophy.
14.3. Tantra calls itself the driving force spreading the light of knowledge (Veda): ‘Tanyate, vistaryate jñanam anena, iti Tantram’. The Tantra School points out that the Samhitas (mantra portion of Vedas) and the Yajna- rituals are entwined.
The mantras of Rig Veda and Sama Veda are concerned with offering Yajnas to various deities.
The hymns of Yajur Veda, in the main, are about the actual performance of the Yajna.
Above all, the Atharva Veda along with its mystic invocations is also about the practices known as abhicara the practical applications for medicinal, magical and other purposes.
The Samhita associated with the practical aspects Yajnas was elaborated in the later Brahmana texts. It is therefore argued that the Brahmanas are, in fact, the Tantra of the Vedas.
15.1. The tantra ideology projects itself as the natural evolution of the thought process. The Upanishads are appendices to the Brahmanas which, as already said, constitute the tantra or technique of the Vedas. The older Upanishads, it said, adopted the Vedic deities and concepts for purposes of esoteric meditation. But soon, the later Upanishads took up to Mantra shastra or Varna sadhana, yoga and Yajna. Characteristically, a bulk of them is attached to the Atharva Veda having direct affinity with the Tantra, in aim and content and even in form. The Tantra School argued that Tantra-ideology is thus at the core of the Vedas. Pranatoshini tantra claims: ‘Veda is an extension of Tantra’.
15.2. Vedas may not have originated from Tantra. But, there appears to be some substance in other arguments of Tantra School. Over the centuries, the movement of all thought process has been from the general to the particular, from esoteric to the more explicit. It is the progression from principles and theories to their practical applications; simulating the relation between science and technology.
In the Indian context, the Veda in the distant past was highly idealized poetry inspired by awe and wonder of the surrounding nature and a yearning for a true understanding of the mysteries of the Universe.
The Upanishads that followed took up the germ ideas hidden in the philosophical hymns of the Vedas and expanded them into series of discussions.
The Puranas conserved and propagated the exoteric ritualistic aspects of the Vedas through the medium of wonderfully delightful legends that common people could relate to and enjoy.
The Tantra brought into its fold the esoteric teaching and practice of the Vedic mystics; the techniques of Yoga; and the sense of absolute surrender and intense devotion to ones ideal as extolled in the Puranas .It synthesized all those adorable elements and turned them into forms of worship-practices (archa) designed to satisfy the needs and aspirations of ordinary men and women of the world, in their own context.
The growth and development of Indian thought resembles the imagery of the inverted tree – of which our ancients were very fond – with its roots in the sky and its fruit-laden branches spreading down towards the earth.
15.3. It is said; the Vedas represent distant past; the Smrti-texts represent middle-times; and, the Puranas represent mythical past. And today, it is the Tantra and Agamas that are most relevant. Some Tantra-texts even remark that Vedas had become too distant and rather outdated because of their extreme (viparita) age. Its roots are lost in the distant antiquity; its intent is not easily understood; and, its gods and its rites are almost relics of the past. The men of the present age no longer have the capacity, longevity and moral strength necessary to carry out Vedic-karma-kanda. And, therefore Tantra, says, it prescribes a special sadhana or means of its own, to enable common people to attain the objectives of Shastra. Therefore, Tantra claimed, it arrived to rejuvenate the Vedic texts and also to rescue men from the depths of depravity.
Tantra – Veda – reproachment
16.1.In fact, the relationship between the two traditions is complex. There is obviously nothing Tantric in Vedic literature. Although Tantra rejects the authority of the Vedas, a number of Vedic elements have not only survived in Tantric texts, but also, sometimes, have been developed intensely. Moreover it seems that from a certain period onward , Vedic elements were introduced or added into the Tantric works—Tantras or Ägamas—in order to lend them an aura of respectability ; and, also to render them more acceptable within the orthodox circles.
Thus, instead of denying the import of the Vedas entirely, the Tantra contrasted itself from the Vedas, rejecting some of its elements while preserving, developing, and reinterpreting certain others.
16.2. Although Tantra and Vedic traditions started on divergent approach, in course of time there was reproachment between the two; and the two came closer. Tantra called itself the culmination of esoteric knowledge of Vedanta; and, came to be known as a special branch of Veda: Sruti-shakha-vishesha. It even said; the Vedic religion in its essence has survived and spread to common people through Tantra. The Tantra texts assert that the Tantra-Sadhaka must be a pure person (shuddhatma), a true believer (astika), and must have faith in the Vedas.
16.3. Tantra drew many details from Vedic and Yoga traditions and adopted many more with suitable additions and alterations. Its originality lies in the manner it organized various components into a creative, imaginative pattern. The Tantra in general simplified the Vedic rituals and made greater use of esoteric symbols.
For instance; although the celebrated Gayatri mantra (3.62.10) of Rig Veda is dedicated to the Vedic solar deity Savitr, it was adopted by Tantra as the representation of the Mother Goddess. The Dhyana-slokas portray the picture of a goddess. The repetition of the Gayatri is preceded by mystic syllables known as Vyahritis which are similar to the Bija-aksharas of Tantric meditation.
16.4. Similarly, the hymn of benediction from Rig Veda (1.89.6) was adopted for worship of Shakthi. Kaula rites were interpreted through the imageries of the Yajna.
Tantra developed texts in the mode of Vedic scriptures. For the worship of gods – Ganesha, Karthikeya and Vishnu – the Sama-Vidhana-Brahmana prescribed the collection of hymns known as Vinayaka Samhita (S. V. 4. 5. 3. 3), Skanda-Samhita (S. V. 3. 2. l. 4) and the Vishnu-Samhita (S. V. 3. l. 3. 9), respectively.
Some say; Vedic elements were introduced into Tantra texts to lend them greater acceptance, an air of authenticity and respectability.
17.1. In a like manner, the Vedic tradition admitted within its fold the Samkhya and Yoga Schools aligned to Tantra ideology. The orthodox texts accommodated the concepts transformed from Tantra.
For instance; the ancient Vedic mantra Savitri was accepted as the Mother – goddess (asya maata Savitri: Manu.2.170).
And, Chandogya Upanishad (3.12) glorified Gayatri as being that which exists right here, that which sings (gayati ) and saves (trayati) all things in their Reality.
Further, many of the later Upanishads of sectarian character are about Tantric subjects. The recital of Vedic hymns now accompanies the various worship-rituals of Tantric nature. There cannot a religious ceremony without the recitation of Vedic mantras .And, the Vedic rituals are preceded by purification rituals like achamana, pranayama etc which are adopted from Tantra and Yoga.
Tantra – Impact
18.1. The living religion of Hindus, as practiced today, is almost entirely Tantric in nature. The Tantra doctrine and worship- rituals woven into Indian culture are now an integral part of Indian religions. The Hindu, Buddhist and Jain ideas, beliefs, and practices of worship are permeated with Tantra. The Tantra ideology continues to form a part, in one form or other, of all Indian spiritual practices. The common worship practices – from the lowest to the most advanced – both at home or in temples is, almost entirely, based in the Tantra philosophy of duality, in its outlook and in its approach to god. Except for Vedic Yajnas, every religious sect in India uses tantric modes of worship for its rituals and spiritual practices – both external and internal.
18.2. In today’s world, it is the Tantra that has greater impact on socio religious cultural practices than the Vedas. Despite its blemishes and the abuses it received, Tantra is the most popular mode of worship conducted at homes and in temples. It provides comfort to the devotees through its ritualistic, philosophical, and mystic aspects. The scholars hold the view: what we today have come to appreciate as Indian culture and religion is more influenced by the subtle character of Tantra than the Vedas.
19.1. The reasons for growing influence of Tantra are not far to seek. Its importance is heightened mainly because of the fading influence of the ancient Vedic texts.The precepts of the Vedas (say, maintaining various ritual fires at home) have become too difficult for our age. The stipulations for conduct of Vedic Yajnas have become rather impractical in the present context. The life-styles prescribed for Vedic practitioners have also become outdated; and are difficult to follow. The Vedic ideals, its gods and its view of the prospects in after- life seem too distant. The idealism of Upanishads and its contemplative philosophy are ethereal; and are beyond the ken of common people. The legends vividly narrated by the Puranas sound fantastically unrealistic.
19.2. The common people yearn for a relation with the object of their worship. They need a god to love, to devote, to highly respect, to submit or even to fear. They look up to a god who loves and rescues from difficulties; protects the good; and punishes the evil. The devotee prays for happiness, success and enjoyment in the world. At the same time she/he also has a resolve (sankalpa) for mukthi, the ultimate-good.
People need something concrete, simple, and yet attractive to worship and to address their prayers. Tantra practices lead men and women to seek the divine with the help of bera, murti and other forms whose shape is symbolic. Tantra, in its simple form, with its dualistic approach; its sense of devotion, dedication and complete submission to the chosen deity (ishta-devata) fulfils the deepest desire of all. Tantra seems an easier cult with easier doctrine. At another level, it lends various ritual practices – mental and physical- meditation, visualization, invoking the presence of the deity in one’s body (nyasa), mantras and mudras all aiming to achieve identification with the object of their worship.
20.1. Sir John Woodroffe, the greatest exponent of Tantra-vidya in recent times, in his lectures on ‘Tantra Shastra and Veda’, summed it up excellently with a remarkable statement:
The application of Tantric principles in worship-rituals is a question of form. And, all forms do change with the passage of time. Accordingly, the structure and content of worship-rituals are context-sensitive. And, they vary from region to region and from time to time to satisfy the needs of the age and the aspirations of worshipers in accordance with the degree of spiritual advancement of the body of men who practice it.
Tantra and its rituals might therefore undergo changes over a period. But, the ancient and sturdy foundations of Veda and Vedanta on which Tantra rests will remain unaltered and unaffected.’
20.2. The Agama –Tantra tradition is as important and as authentic as the Vedic tradition. Tantra despite, its variations, is a specific system within the general system of Hinduism. The relevance of Tantra in the life of common people of today is mainly through worship practices carried out at homes and temples following the procedures laid down by Agamas. Agama is the Sadhana part of Tantra. The two permeate the religious life of most Hindus.
Let’s talk of Agamas in the next part.
Continued in part two
References and Sources
1. A Companion to Tantra by S C Banerji ; Abhinav Publications (2007)
2. Tantra: its mystic and scientific basis by Lalan Prasad Singh ;Concept Publishing Company (1976)
3. Tribal roots of Hinduism by SK Tiwari ; Sarup & Sons (2002)
4. The Tantric way by Ajit Mukherjee and Madhu Khanna ; Thames & Hudson (1977)
5. Agama Kosha by Prof. SK Ramachandra Rao ; Kalpataru Research Academy (1994)
6. The Perspective of the Tantras By K. Guru Dutt
7. Tantra Shastra and Veda by Sir John Woodroffe
8. The Tantras: An Overview by Swami Samarpanananda
9. Evolution of Tantra by Nitin Sridhar