It is seen that every major religion of the world has a founder, a scripture and a church. Hinduism is the solitary exception to this general pattern. It does not have a single founder or a single book or a single church, though in it great reli-gious leaders, religious books and religious monasteries or organisations are legion.
Although the Vedas have been accepted as the basic scriptures by most of the sects, cults and groups of Hinduism, a number of other religio-philosophical works have appeared over the centuries, many of which have occupied cardinal positions in their cults or sects. The āgamas and the tantras form an important category of literature among these.
Originally, the word ‘tantra’ seems to have meant any science or body of knowledge. Gradually, however, it got restricted to a particular class of literature, a literature primarily devoted to the cult of Śakti or the Divine Mother and containing an amalgam of religion, philosophy, esoteric and occult rites, astronomy, astrology, medicine and prognostications. In this respect, the tantras resemble the purāṇas. Etymologically the word is derived from its two constituents—‘tan,’ to spread; ‘trai,’ to protect—and is supposed to mean any work that spreads or dilates upon many matters like tattvas (fundamental principles) and mantras (sacred words and syllables) and through that knowledge affords protection to the votaries.
Whether the tantras have accepted the authority of the Vedas and hence their subservience to them, or, have furrowed their own parallel and independent path, is a moot point. If the stress on mokṣa (freedom from transmigratory existence) as also the place of honour accorded to the varṇa-āśrama-dharmas (duties based on castes and stations in life) bespeaks of their allegiance to the Vedas, other practices like the pañca-makāras or śavasādhanā (to be explained later) smack of their close association with an aboriginal, non-Vedic, society. It may, perhaps, be safer to assume that though they might have originated as a parallel tradition distancing themselves from the Vedic tradition, later teachers of the schools of tantra might have endeavoured to bring them much closer to the latter, if not integrate them into it.
According to the tāntric texts, the tantras are innumerable. Sometimes they are stated to be 64. The number however, varies from scripture to scripture.
There are several ways of classifying the tāntric texts. According to one tradition, the works in which Sadāśiva speaks to the Devī are called ‘āgamas’ and those in which the Devī speaks to Sadāśiva or Maheśvara, are named as ‘nigamas.’ As per another grouping, they are: dakṣiṇa, vāma and madhyama. A third method groups them into three: divya, kaula and vāma.
A selected list of works that have been printed 1, confining it only to the Devī-cult, may now be given:
Sometimes, mention is also made of two types of tantras, the Yāmala and the Ḍāmara.
The Yāmala group gets its name because it contains the secret conversations between the deity and his consort, who form the couple (yāmala = united, couple). ‘Ḍāmara’ means a goblin, an attendant of Śiva. It also means ‘wonder’. Hence that class of tantras attributed to Śiva and containing wondrous teachings is ‘Ḍāmaratantra’.
The Yāmalatantras are:
Gaṇeśayāmala and Ādityayāmala.
The Ḍāmaratantras are:
Brahmaḍāmara and Gandharvaḍāmara.
There are a good number of other tantras also like Mañjuśrīmūlakalpa and Guhyasamāja-tantra belonging to the Buddhist tradition.
Though there are various kinds of āgamas and tantras, certain features are common to them all. They avow allegiance to the Vedas, and even claim to interpret them to the current age. However, unlike the Vedas, their doors are open to all, irrespective of caste or sex.
The subjects generally dealt with by them are classed under four pādas or steps. They are: Jñānapāda, Yogapāda, Kriyāpāda and Caryāpāda.
The Jñānapāda gives the philosophy or the metaphysics upon which the tantras are based. It is a combination of the Vedāntic and the Sāṅkhyan principles.
The Yogapāda deals with the sādhanās or spiritual disciplines that help an individual aspirant to attain union with the Supreme Self, which is the final goal of life.
Since an individual is a part and parcel of the society and since his spiritual progress is closely allied with that of the society, the tantras give to the society also a way of life, a religion, so that both the individual and the society can progress in harmony with each other. Towards this end, the tantras provide the institution of community worship as in a temple or through a yāga (sacrifice) or through the sacred spots of pilgrimage. These are the topics described in the Kriyāpāda, the third of the series of the four pādas.
Caryāpāda, the last, expounds the rituals and the modes of sādhanās needed in an individual’s life. A code of conduct is also given for the benefit of the tyro as well as the adept.
A good number of other topics are also dealt with, which may be summarised as follows: authenticity of the āgamas and the tantras based on the Vedas; creation of the world; manifestation of vaikharī-vāk or the spoken word; on the letters of the alphabet; various rites connected with dīkṣā or initiation like the Vāstuyāga; categories of dīkṣā; on homa (fire ritual); various mantras connected with various deities of the Hindu pantheon like Sarasvatī, Śrī or Lakṣmī, Bhuvaneśvarī, Durgā, Viṣṇu, Gaṇapati, Śiva and so on; yantras or geometrical configurations associated with those deities; yogic practices including the descriptions of Kuṇḍalinī and the various cakras or psychic centres and so on.
The philosophy of the tantras seems to be an amalgamation and modification of the principles propounded by the Sāṅkhya and the Vedānta systems. The prakṛti of Sāṅkhya is material and insentient in nature. The māyā of Vedānta, especially of the Advaita Vedānta, is an ‘entity’ that defies all descriptions. However, the Śakti of the tantras is a very real power of Śiva, nay, Śiva himself in his dynamic aspect. All other qualities that are predicated for prakṛti-māyā like its being triguṇātmikā (comprising the three guṇas—sattva, rajas and tamas) and the upādānakāraṇa (material cause) of the world, hold good for the Śakti of the tantras also.
The ultimate Reality is one and only one. It is Śiva or Śakti or Śiva-Śakti and is (‘saṁvit’) of the nature of pure consciousness. The relationship between Śiva and Śakti is like that of fire and its burning power or the word and its meaning. They are two in one or one in two, always inseparable. In the inactive state it is Śiva and in the active state it is Śakti. The former is also called Nirguṇa-parameśvara (the Lord without attributes) wherein the Śakti is inherent and dormant. When this Śakti starts awakening, Parameśvara becomes ‘Saguṇa.’ The first evolute of the process of creation is Śakti. From Śakti proceeds para-nāda (the unmanifest sound or vibration which gives rise to para-bindu, the higher bindu or point). From it proceed the apara-bindu (lower bindu or point, identified with the Śiva-principle), the bīja (identified with the Śakti-principle) and the apara-nāda (the lower sound or vibration) considered as the union of the Śiva and the Śakti principles.
From bīja or Śakti (also called Śabda-brahma, Parāśakti or Paradevatā) proceed the 23 tattvas or cosmic principles, viz., mahat, ahaṅkāra, the ten indriyas and the mind, the five subtle elements and the five gross elements like the earth, water etc. Together with Śakti, they are 24.
From the apara-bindu, identified with Śiva, proceed the five deities viz., Sadāśiva, Īśāna, Rudra, Viṣṇu and Brahmā. By adding seven more principles like puruṣa (the individual soul) and kāla (time), the total number of tattvas is raised to 36.
In the human body, Śakti resides as the Kuṇḍalinī, the power resembling a coiled serpent at the mūlādhāra-cakra, situated at the base of the spine. When roused through proper sādhanās or spiritual exercises, it rises through five more cakras like the svādhiṣṭhāna and the anāhata, and, finally reaches the sahasrāra in the crown of the head, resembling a lotus of a thousand petals. there it merges with Śiva, resulting in mokṣa or liberation for that individual self.
The jīva or the individual soul is none other than Śiva himself, with his freedom covered over or limited by avidyā or nescience, also called āṇava-mala, the impurity that makes him appear small. Through spiritual disciplines, the most important aspect of which is upāsanā or worship and meditation, on Śakti as Devī or Divine Mother, he is liberated, attaining unity with the Deity.
As in the six systems of Indian philosophy, in the tantras also, mokṣa, or liberation from transmigratory existence, is the ultimate goal of life. The tantras have evolved an elaborate system of sādhanās or spiritual practices that cover all aspects of the human personality and life. Only a brief résumé can be attempted here.
The tantras categorically assert the need for taking dīkṣā or initiation from a competent guru or teacher before starting one’s spiritual sādhanās.
A competent guru must be a person of pure parentage and great self-control. He should know the true meaning and essence of the scriptures—the Vedas, the āgamas and related scriptures. He should be an adept in pūjā (worship), homa (pouring oblations into a duly consecrated fire), dhyāna (meditation) and japa (repetition of the divine name). A peaceful disposition and a thorough knowledge of yoga are also necessary.
The tantras also warn against accepting false gurus, who feign erudition and holiness, but are motivated by greed and baser instincts.
The śiṣya or the disciple too must possess certain minimum characteristics which will entitle him to spiritual life.
He must be guileless, must aspire after the puruṣārthas (goals of human existence) and be fairly well-read in the Vedas. He should be self-controlled and intelligent enough to understand the teachings of the guru and the scriptures. He should be devoted to his parents, discharge his duties well and avoid all pride of birth or wealth or learning. He must be obedient to the guru and be prepared to sacrifice everything for his sake.
The tantras declare that the guru must test a person before accepting him as a disciple and vice versa.
Though God the Supreme is one without a second, he can and does manifest himself through various forms and emanations, all of which are non-different from him, even as sugar-dolls are all sugar only. The particular form a sādhaka or a votary chooses is his ‘iṣṭadevatā,’ ‘the deity dear to him’. He chooses that form for purposes of meditation and worship. The tantras advocate meditation on and worship of these forms of God since it is much easier for an average human being, than contemplating on the Absolute without name and form.
Each of these devatās has a mantra or even several mantras or word-symbols, which have to be ceremonially received in dīkṣā or initiation from a qualified guru.
Dīkṣā or initiation into spiritual life is so called because it destroys (kṣi = to destroy) the sins of the disciple and gives (dā = to give) knowledge to him. It should be given on a day and time considered to be holy as per the Hindu calendars. Days of eclipses—especially of the moon—are deemed to be extremely holy.
Several varieties of dīkṣā are enumerated in the tāntric works. One of the more well-known categorisations is as follows: kriyāvatī, varṇamayī, kalāvatī and vedhamayī. The kriyāvatī dīkṣā involves the performance of many rituals by the guru. In varṇamayī dīkṣā, the guru infuses the spirit of the varṇas or letters of the alphabet which are associated with Śakti or Devī, in the different parts of the disciple’s body. In the kalāvatī dīkṣā the guru locates the existence of kalās or powers of the pañcabhūtas like nivṛttikalā or vidyākalā, in the body of the disciple, meditates on them and anoints him. In the vedhamayī dīkṣā, the guru initiates the disciple only by the power of his thought.
Sometimes three more varieties are added: sparśadīkṣā (rousing the spiritual consciousness by sparśa or touch), vāgdīkṣā (same by uttering the mantra into the ear of the disciple) and dṛgdīkṣā or cākṣuṣī dīkṣā (arousal of spiritual consciousness by looking intently at the disciple).
Dīkṣā, in a more technical sense, involves a number of rituals like the worship of the Vāstupuruṣa (Cosmic Being) and bali or sacrifice as also abhiṣeka done by sprinkling holy water on the disciple.
Its simplest form is ‘upadeśa,’ giving the mantra as also certain rules and guidance.
The central part of dīkṣā or upadeśa is the imparting of the mantra or the divine word by the guru to the disciple. Etymologically, the word means that which protects (tra = to protect) the person who reflects (man = to reflect) upon it. ‘Protection’ in the spiritual sense means protecting from saṁsāra or transmigratory existence by giving mokṣa or liberation. The mantras may have their source in the Vedas or the purāṇas or the tantras. Since the last group of works deals primarily with the mantras, it is called as ‘mantraśāstra’ or ‘mantravidyā’.
A mantra, according to the tantras, is not just a letter of the alphabet or a combination of such letters into a word or a sentence signifying a particular object. It is the sound symbol embodying the form, the power and the consciousness of the supreme Brahman or its manifestations.
Before creation, Brahman or Śiva is established in his own effulgence—hence called ‘prakāśa’—and inactive. When he starts ‘vimarśa’ or deliberating in himself to create the world, there is a spanda or a throb, which develops into nāda or vibration. This nāda gradually gains in power and then gets concentrated to a bindu or a point. This bindu which contains the Śiva-Śakti principle like a dicotyledonous seed further evolves into Śiva and Śakti principles by the union of which the whole universe comes into being.
As per this description of creation given in some tantras, all created objects (called ‘artha’) with ‘rūpa,’ shape or form, and ‘nāma’ or name have originated from the primeval nāda, which can now be called ‘Śabda-brahman.’ Hence, it is quite reasonable to assume that every mantra is an aspect of this primeval Word or Śabda-brahman and represents as its artha, a god or a goddess, which again, is a manifestation or emanation of that Brahman. In other words, the mantra contains in itself the form and the spirit of the deity, whose mantra it is. This deity is revealed by the proper repetition of the mantra, in course of time.
The tantras categorise the mantras as saura (solar) and saumya (lunar). They may be masculine, feminine or neuter. The masculine and the neuter mantras are called ‘mantra’ whereas the feminine mantras are called ‘vidyā’. Mantras ending with huṁ, vaṣaṭ or phaṭ are masculine, those ending with svāhā or vauṣaṭ are feminine and those ending with namaḥ are neuter. The tantras christen certain monosyllabic mantras like hrīṁ or klīṁ as bījamantras or bījākṣaras. Even as a seed evolves in course of time into a mighty tree giving plenty of fruits, a bījamantra also can give—if properly repeated—the siddhi attributed to it, like the revelation of the deity of that mantra.
A mantra, to be effective, should always be received from a qualified guru in a proper way. The tantras describe various processes that help in rousing the power of a mantra and make it effective. A few of such processes are: mukha-śodhana (purification of mouth), jihvā-śodhana (purification of the tongue), aśaucabhaṅga (destroying the impurity of the mantra), nidrābhaṅga (awakening the mantra from slumber) and so on.
They also recommend ten saṁskāras or ritual purificatory processes like dīpanī, which consist in repeating the bīja-mantra seven times, preceded and followed by praṇava (oṁ).
All these have to be learnt directly from a competent teacher and should not be experimented with, by learning them from books.
A theory advocated by the tantras regarding the evolution of śabda or sound, and its corollary, vāk or speech, from the subtle unmanifest state to the fully manifested state is worth mentioning here. When a person speaks, four stages of evolution of speech are involved in it. The speech is first rooted in the mūlādhāracakra as the unmanifest sound. It is then called ‘parāvāk’. When it starts getting awakened and reaches the maṇipūracakra at the navel, it has just started showing subtle vibrations. It is now called ‘paśyantī-vāk’.
On its further rising to the anāhatacakra in the region of the heart, these vibrations have already assumed definite and clear thought-forms. It is then called ‘madhyamā-vāk’. It now comes out as fully articulated speech, the spoken word, called ‘vaikharī-vāk’.
A mantra becomes effective only when its japa is done. That is, it should be repeated a prescribed number of times as per the directions of the guru.
Japa is of three types. It is ‘vācika’ or ‘ucca’ when done audibly. It is ‘upāṁśu’ if done in whispering tones. If it is done mentally, it is ‘mānasa’. The last is considered as the most efficacious.
During japa, the counting of the number can be done either by hand or by a japamālā (rosary). The number recommended can vary. For instance, it can be 10 or 12, 28 or 32 or 108, the last number being the most widely recognised.
A human being is supposed to breathe 21,600 times in a day of 24 hours. Leaving aside half this time for sleep, looking after the needs of the body and contingencies, the breathing during the waking and active state is 10,800 times. Actually the number 108 symbolically represents this 10,800. In other words, a votary is expected to utter the mantra with every breath and the number 108 is a reminder of that ideal.
The tantras deal with puraścaraṇa, an important topic closely related to the japa of a mantra. The word literally means ‘performing or carrying (caraṇa) before (puras).’ Various interpretations have, however, been offered. Perfecting of the procedure of the mūlamantra (the basic mantra of a deity) since it has to be practised before the acts in which it is to be employed is called as ‘puraścaraṇa’ by some works. According to others, the sādhana puraścaraṇa is so called because the deity of the aspirant, pleased by his devoted practice, moves (caraṇa) before (puras) him.
Puraścaraṇa has several constituent elements: dhyāna (meditation on the form of the deity), pūjā (ritualistic worship), japa of the mantra, homa (oblations into the duly consecrated fire), tarpaṇa (satiating the deity with the ceremonial offering of water) and brāhmaṇa-bhojana (feeding brāhmaṇas of good conduct). If any of these constituent elements cannot be performed, it can be replaced by more japa of the mantra as specified in the tāntric works.
According to another method, repeating the mantra one thousand times per day for eight days, starting it on a Tuesday and ending it on the subsequent Tuesday is also puraścaraṇa.
Some works recommend the repetition of the mantra 24 lakhs of times, followed by an offering of 24 thousand oblations of pāyasa or pudding into the duly consecrated fire. By this type of puraścaraṇa, the mantra becomes perfected and confers on the sādhaka whatever he desires.
The puraścaraṇa of a mantra on the days of solar or lunar eclipse, while standing in navel-deep water, is stated to be extremely efficacious.
Certain spots like a place of pilgrimage, the bank of a river, a cave or a mountain-top, seashore or the precincts of a temple are recommended as more suitable for the practice of puraścaraṇa.
All tāntric works emphasize that unless the mantra has been received from a qualified guru in dīkṣā and the sādhanā is done under his guidance, neither puraścaraṇa nor even japa becomes effective.
Pūjā or ritualistic worship of the deity is a very important part of tantra-sādhanā. It forms a part of puraścaraṇa also.
When a respected or a beloved guest arrives in a house, the master of the house receives him warmly and offers him all that makes him comfortable and happy. This is the spirit behind pūjā where the guest is God himself.
In any pūjā, the preliminary processes include saṅkalpa or religious resolve and ceremonial purification of all the items involved in it as the āsana or seat, the vessels and the flowers. Bhūtāpasaraṇa or driving away all the evil spirits that may obstruct the pūjā is another important item. Prāṇāyāma or regulation of the mind through the control of breath, bhūtaśuddhi or purifying the elements that compose the body of the worshipper, nyāsas or placement of the fingers of the hand on the different parts of the body with a view to purifying them, dhyāna or meditation are the other important steps.
However, the cardinal part of pūjā is the ‘upacāras’ or ways of ritual service. In the shortest mode of pūjā they are five only: gandha (sandal paste), puṣpa (flowers), dhūpa (incense), dīpa (lighted lamp) and naivedya (food). In more detailed forms they are raised to ten or sixteen or even eighteen. Some of them are: āvāhana (inviting the deity), pādya and arghya (water for washing feet and hands), snāna (bath), vastra (cloth), yajñopavīta (sacred thread), namaskāra (obeisance) and visarjana or udvāsana (bidding adieu to the deity).
Homa or oblations of prescribed things like ghee into a duly consecrated fire, can be done either independently or as a part of pūjā or even puraścaraṇa. Generally, a yantra or a geometrical drawing representing the deity is drawn as directed, the sacrificial fuel sticks arranged over it and the fire is ceremonially lit. After some preliminary processes of purification, the deity, to appease whom the homa is being done, is invoked into it and the various upacāras are offered. After the saṅkalpa or resolve, in which the purpose and the manner of offering the oblations are stated, the oblations are poured into it with the appropriate mantra. The actual number of oblations can be 8 or 28 or 32 or 108 or even 1008, as stated in the saṅkalpa. The materials considered fit for offering are: ghee, barley, cooked rice, flower, bilva (Aegle marmelos) leaves and a few other prescribed things.
The word ‘yantra’ in its most general sense means an instrument by which anything is accomplished. In worship, it is a diagram drawn or engraved or painted on prescribed materials like metal, stone or paper or even a leaf, that helps one to subdue (yantra = niyantraṇa = subduing) his passions like lust and anger and gain greater concentration.
While a maṇḍala, a geometrical figure drawn with coloured powders, can be used for the worship of any deity, a yantra also called ‘cakra’, is specific only to a particular deity. Every deity of the Hindu pantheon has its own yantra. If the deity is the soul, the yantra is its body.
Apart from the geometrical drawing or pattern that is appropriate to the deity, a yantra also contains its mantra, inscribed at the proper place. The presence of the deity is invoked into the yantra by worship, the procedure of which is very similar to that of a pratimā or image. A yantra wherein the deity has been roused by duly worshipping it, can then be used for any purpose—especially for the fulfilment of one’s desires—sanctioned by the tāntric works.
Transformation of thought is transformation of being. If the various parts of the sādhaka’s body are touched by his fingers and palms with the appropriate mantras, that will induce the presence of the deity in him, thereby transforming him and making him fit for the ritual or the particular process of sādhanā. This is the general principle behind the nyāsas and mudrās.
The word ‘nyāsa’ comes from the root ‘nyas’ (‘to place’). It is generally done by placing the tips of the fingers and the palm of the right hand on the various parts of the body accompanied by parti-cular mantras.
There are several nyāsas out of which a few—the more common ones—can now be described.
Jīvanyāsa is that by which the sādhaka establishes the iṣṭadevatā in the region of the heart and thus becomes one with it.
Vyāpakanyāsa, performed by passing the hands all over the body from top to bottom, helps him to feel the presence of the deity as pervading the whole body.
In mātṛkānyāsa, which is done with the letters of the alphabet, the various letters are placed mentally in the cakras or psychic centres of the body (antarmātṛkā-nyāsa) and also in other limbs outside (bahirmātṛkānyāsa) thereby feeling the competence to know Śabdabrahman in himself.
In pīṭhanyāsa, the internal seat (pīṭha = seat) in the region of the heart, is made fit for the residence of the deity. Sometimes, the word is interpreted as establishing the various Śakti-pīṭhas (places of pilgrimage sacred to the Devī or Śakti, such as Kāmarūpa [in Assam] or Jālandhara [in Haryana]) inside one’s own body in a subtle way.
In ṛṣyādinyāsa, the ṛṣi or the sage, the chandas or the Vedic metre and the devatā or the deity are remembered and homage is paid to them.
In karanyāsa and aṅganyāsa, the fingers of the two hands (kara = hand) and the limbs of the body (aṅga = limb) like the heart and the head, are sanctified to make them fit for worship and meditation.
Like nyāsas, mudrās also find an important place in the tāntric rituals. The word mudrā is interpreted as that which pleases the deity and makes its heart melt out of compassion for the votary, and hence grant his desires (mud = pleasure, drav = to melt, rā = to give).
In a technical sense the term ‘mudrā’ has several meanings:
However, it is used widely in the sense of poses of fingers or of hand or hands in relation to worship and meditation.
Some of the more common mudrās are:
Dhenumudrā, goyonimudrā and nārācamudrā are some of the other, more commonly used, mudrās.
The number of mudrās as given in the tāntric works and even purāṇas, differs considerably. The number varies from 9 up to 108.
Brahman and Śakti are like the two sides of the same coin. The external world is the creation of Śakti associated with Brahman. Inside the bodies of human beings Śakti takes the form of Kuṇḍalinī.
Kuṇḍalinī is the basic energy of the entire human being. It is generally pictured as a coiled serpent (kuṇḍali = serpent) lying asleep at the base of the spinal column, called as ‘ādhāracakra’ or ‘mūlādhāracakra’. When it is roused by proper sādhanās under the guidance of a competent guru, it passes through the brahma-nāḍī of the suṣumnā canal, pierces through the various cakras, ultimately reaching the sahasrāra, where it gets united with Śiva.
According to the works on tantra, there are three nāḍīs (canal-like structures for the flow of prāṇic energy) in the region of the spinal column. In its centre passes the suṣumnā and to its right, the piṅgalā. The iḍā is on the left. Iḍā and piṅgalā are intertwined over the spinal column. Inside the suṣumnā is the vajriṇī nāḍī. Inside it is citriṇī and brahmanādī is the inmost. While in the dormant state, the Kuṇḍalinī lies at the bottom of the mūlādhāra closing the brahmanāḍī with its mouth.
The cakras are so called since they are circular in shape (cakra = wheel or disc). They are actually psychic centres of consciousness and power, situated in the sūkṣmaśarīra or the subtle body, corres-ponding to certain parts of the physical body. The ādhāracakra or the mūlādhāra is situated at the base of the spine behind the anus. The svādhiṣṭhāna is at the root of the sex-organ. The maṇipūra is at the navel. The anāhata is at the region of the heart. The viśuddha is at the throat. The ājñā is between the eyebrows. The sahasrāra is in the top of the head. These cakras are likened to lotuses, each with a certain number of petals, colour and certain mātṛkās (letters of the alphabet as mantras) inscribed on them. The petals are the nāḍīs or subtle nerve channels, which surround and function through each of these centres.
The table gives the details of cakras at a glance.
These six cakras together are collectively called ‘ṣaṭcakras’ and the piercing act of the Kuṇḍalinī is designated as ‘ṣaṭcakrabheda’.
The sahasrāra of thousand petals situated at the top of the head is the seventh cakra and is the destination of Kuṇḍalinī.
When the Kuṇḍalinī is roused, the mūlādhāra lotus rises up, and opens its petals. After the Kunḍalinī leaves it, it assumes its original position as a bud hanging downwards. This procedure applies to all the other cakras also. After reaching the sahasrāra, the Kunḍalinī comes back to its original place. Repeated practice of the Kuṇḍalinīyoga will result in the flooding of all the cakras with amṛta or nectar of bliss, ultimately resulting in mukti or liberation.
The tāntric literature encompasses a very vast area of subjects. Differences exist not only on the relative importance of the subjects but also on the subjects themselves. An attempt will now be made to present briefly at least some of the more commonly accepted concepts.
These works present seven types of ācāra or modes of sādhanā as follows: Vedācāra, Vaiṣṇavācāra, Śaivācāra, Dakṣiṇācāra, Vāmācāra, Siddhāntācāra and Kaulācara. However, these seven are more commonly grouped into two, the Dakṣiṇācāra and the Vāmācāra. The words may mean the ‘right-hand path’ and the ‘left-hand path;’ or, the ‘favourable path’ and the ‘path involving vāmā or woman.’
Worship of the deity Dakṣiṇakālikā, following the Vedic modes of worship and sādhanā, as also belief in the varṇāśrama system, characterise the Dakṣiṇācāra.
Vāmācāra needs some explanation and elaboration. It is called as ‘Cīnācāra’ also, since the sage Vasiṣṭha is said to have introduced it after learning it from the Buddha in Cīnadeśa (Tibet or China), where it was prevalent. Another name commonly attributed to it is ‘Kaulācāra’ or ‘Kaulamārga’. ‘Kula’ means ‘Śakti’ and the name itself is derived from the fact that the worship of Śakti is predominant in this system of sādhanā. However, other interpretations are also offered for the word kula and Kulācāra.
The pañcatattvas or pañcamakāras viz., madya (wine), māṁsa (flesh), matsya (fish), mudrā (parched grain) and maithuna (coition) are the most essential parts of this sādhanā system. They are meant for the sādhakas of the vīra-type (heroic type), that too under the strict supervision of a competent guru. The vīra-sādhaka is one who has risen to much higher levels of spiritual evolution and hence has great self-control.
However, gross abuse of these five tattvas by the lowest of the sādhakas, of the paśu-type (with unsublimated animal passions) has earned a bad name for the whole system, aver some of the tantras. This has led to some of them inventing harmless substitutes like coconut water for madya, garlic for māṁsa or brinjal for matsya and so on; or even give highly symbolic interpretations (for e.g., madya = intoxicating knowledge of God; maithuna = union of the Kuṇḍalinī with Śiva and so on) to the same. Later writers have strongly condemned these abuses and tried to restore the purity of the system.
A tāntric sādhaka has to rise from the level of the paśu to that of the vīra and then to the divya (divine) state. If a vīra-sādhaka has cultivated the divine virtues by great effort, they are most naturally and effortlessly revealed in the divya-sādhaka.
One who is an adept in the Kaulācāra and has reached the summit of realization is called a ‘paramahaṁsa’ and he has transcended all the rules of conduct normally prescribed for the lower sādhakas since he is able to see the divine Śakti in all.
Another ācāra that is often mentioned in the tāntric works is the Samayācāra, which is distinguished from the Dakṣiṇā-cāra, the Vāmācāra and Kaulācāra. In this tradition, the Devī is called ‘Samayā’ and she personifies the very import of the Vedic tradition. Hence Samayācāra is the conduct in accord with the Vedic tradition and for all practical purposes, can be identified with the Vedācāra listed among the seven ācāras. In this school, Śiva and Śakti are equally important. Stress is laid on the antaryāga or internal worship and the rousing of the Kuṇḍalinī through successive stages of upāsanā or meditation. Worship of the Śrīcakra or Śrīyantra is an important aspect of this school.
The Śrīcakra is a yantra formed by five inverted triangles and four straight triangles as also diagrams of several petals of lotus, with a dot in the centre and some lines at the extremities. It represents the Devī and the gradual evolution of creation from her, associated with Śiva.
When the Śrīcakra is built up in a three-dimensional form, it is called ‘meru.’ Worship of the meru is considered even better than that of the yantra.
The Samayācāra is sometimes called the ‘Kādimata’ also. This takes us to another topic connected with the Śrīcakra. The worship of the Śrīcakra is invariably associated with Śrīvidyā, initiation into which is a must for any sādhaka of the Samayācāra. ‘Vidyā’ means ‘mantra’. ‘Śrīvidyā’ means the mantra associated with the Śrīcakra. It is also called ‘pañcadaśākṣarīmantra’ since it contains pañcadaśa or 15 letters. In the most common form, they are distributed into three units of 5 letters, 6 letters and 4 letters. In this, the very first letter of the first unit is ‘ka.’ Hence the Samayācāra which lays great emphasis on the repetition and use of this mantra, is called ‘Kādi-mata’, the school advocating the mantra beginning (= ādi) with ka. The sage Agastya is said to be the promulgator of this school.
As against this, there is the ‘Hādimata,’ the school attributed to Lopāmudrā (wife of the sage Agastya) which stresses the importance of another pañcadaśākṣarī mantra that begins with the letter ‘ha.’
The difference between the two versions of the pañcadaśākṣarī is in the number of effective letters used. Whereas the former has seven letters, the latter has only five.
A ṣoḍaśākṣarī-mantra is also in vogue where the sixteenth letter (ṣoḍaśa = 16) is ‘śrīṁ,’ the other 15 letters being the same.
The Samaya tradition uses two more words—antaryāga and bahiryāga. The latter consists of worshipping the Śrīcakra in the traditional Vedic way, with all the upacāras or ingredients. The former is meditation on the unity of the goddess and the Śrīcakra, the world and the Śrīcakra, the body and the jīvātman as also the alphabet and the goddess.
One of the strangest, but abominable, tāntric practices mentioned in some of the works is the śavasādhanā or the ritual of the corpse. The corpse of a healthy person who has just died is secured, washed and anointed. The sādhaka has to sit upon it and meditate on the Devī at midnight, on a new-moon day. If he survives the terrible experiences, he will attain siddhi or command over every aspect of life.
Some scholars believe that this śavasādhanā was a typical and clumsy remnant of a primitive belief or ritual connected with death and revival.
There are several places of pilgrimage associated with Śakti or the Mother-goddess. They are called ‘Śaktipīṭhas,’ seats of power (pīṭha = seat), associated with Śakti. A ritual visit to these places is said to confer great religious merit.
The number of such pīṭhas seems to have grown gradually from 4 to 51 or even 108. However the number seems to have got fixed at 51 in course of time.
There is an interesting paurāṇic legend behind the formation of these Śaktipīṭhas. When Satī-Dākṣāyaṇī immolated herself in the sacrificial shed of Dakṣa (her father)—since he had humiliated her and her husband Śiva—Śiva carried away her body. Being inconsolable he started roaming about the world, with the dead body on his back. Then Viṣṇu, at the behest of the gods, started cutting that body by his cakra or discus so that Śiva might overcome his infatuation. Wherever pieces of that body fell, that place became a place of pilgrimage associated with Śakti, a Śaktipīṭha.
Each of these 51 Śaktipīṭhas is associated with a letter of the alphabet, a part of Satī’s body, an aspect of the Devī, a corresponding aspect of Śiva, identified with a modern place in the present-day India-Pakistan-Bangladesh region and a special tāntric attainment that can be got by sādhanā there. For instance, the Kāśmīra-pīṭha (in the Amarnāth Cave) is associated with the letter ‘u’. It is the place where Devī’s left ear (or neck) fell. Mahāmāyā is the goddess and Trisandhyeśvara is the god. Fulfilment of whatever mantra is repeated here, is the attainment.
Some of the other famous Śaktipīṭhas are: Hiṅgula in Baluchistan (now in Pakistan); Karavīra in Kolhapur (Maha-rashtra); Vārāṇasī (in Uttar Pradesh); Jvālāmukhī (in Punjab); Kāmākhyā (in Assam); Janasthāna (in Nasik, Maharashtra); Prabhāsa (Girnar hills in Gujarat); Jālandhara (in Haryana); Kanya-kāśrama (in Kanyākumarī temple, Tamil Nadu); Ujjayinī (in Rudrasāgar, Madhya Pradesh); Kāñcī (in Śivakāñcī, Tamil Nadu), Trisrotā (in West Bengal) and Kālīpīṭha (Kālīghāṭ temple of Calcutta).
The tantras are a neglected, or even misunderstood, branch of Hindu scriptures. Whether they originated as an offshoot of the Vedic religion, or were a parallel tradition developed by those opposed to the brāhminical hierarchy, or were ‘imported’ from China and Tibet, they have, without doubt, enriched Hindu religion in all its aspects, especially in the field of rituals and spiritual practices. Hence serious attempts should be made to properly edit and publish many of these works which are still lying in the manuscript form in the libraries of institutions and individuals.