What is Tantra?

Before we dive into the practice of Tantra, I would like to clarify that it would be almost impossible to cover the topic in just one post. Tantra is a vast field of multiple practices and spiritual traditions and trying to collect them all in one introductory post would be unwise by me. Additionally, I would like to point out, that Tantra is not a game you practice, it is a practice to be taken very seriously, and unlike many aspects of yoga, you should not practice Tantra without the supervision and help of a guru.

A guru who is initiated in Tantra will be the only person who is capable of guiding you through the different experiences, and I provide a word of caution to those who want to practice tantra by themselves; many people have embarked on the tantric journey alone and now have to regret doing so. Tantra is not a game and should be taken very seriously, with the respect that the matter requires.

Now that that's over, let's dive into Tantra.

What is Tantra?

If you’re reading this post somewhere in the west, it is very likely when you hear the word Tantra, the first thing that comes to your mind is sex. However, the reality is, that Tantra has nothing to do with sex. Yes, Tantra as a multidimensional practice has some elements of sex, but the fact is that when sex is practiced in a tantric context it is actually not sex at all. What is practiced in the west in the name of Tantra could be catalogued as Neo-Tantra, but the fact is, that these sexual practices are not even rooted on classical teachings or any aspects of Tantra.

Tantra is a Sanskrit term, that refers to a technique, system, or technology. It is a process to reach a certain accomplishment or siddhi. Tantra has its origins in the Indian subcontinent, at around 300-400 CE. However tantra’s roots date back to many thousands of years. Since its appearance as an esoteric practice, Tantra has permeated into a wide range of spiritual traditions across the indian subcontinent and southeast asia. So tantra, cannot be reduced to a single spiritual tradition. In fact, it could be argued, that many other religions outside the asian continent, count with an element of tantric practice.

The indian subcontinent, has traditionally seen 6 different schools of tantra. These are: Saiva Tantra, the tantra of Shiva; Sakta Tantra, the Tantra of Shakti, Ganapati Tantra, the Tantra of Ganesha, Pancharatra Tantra, the Tantra of Vishnu, and Surya Tantra, the Tantra of the Sun. However, most of these traditions have been lost, and in the common days only Shaiva and Sakta Tantra prevail in India. beyond the indian subcontinent, the most openly practiced form of Tantra is Tibetan or Vajrayana buddhism.

Basics of Tantra

Tantric practices are collected across different texts that receive the name of Tantras. However, many of these texts have been lost, and in fact they do not provide the full picture, or step by step process for the practices. The reality is, that texts only provide hints, or allusions to the practice; where the full process can only be transmitted by a guru who initiates the practitioner into the practice. Tantra can be used for two distinct purposes; to reach moksha or spiritual liberation, or to gain power. In this post, I am going to talk about tantra within the spiritual context.

All tantric practices have one thing in common, which is energy. Through the use of mantras, yantras, mudras, pranayama, and visualizations, the practitioner can gain access to different energies that are often associated with certain deities or divine beings. Whenever the practitioner completes or masters a certain practice, he or she obtains a siddhi which is referred to as an accomplishment. Generally, siddhis are seen as magical powers, but for the tantric practitioner, these are nothing but milestones in the spiritual journey; many texts warn the practitioner about the attachment to siddhis, and how the practitioner must move beyond these in order to be able to progress.

When tantra is practiced for spiritual development, the focus of the practitioner is to raise Kundalini. For those of you who do not know, Kundalini, is a latent or dormant energy that resides in Muladhara or the root chakra. This energy is often depicted as a coiled snake, and it is no wonder that a snake is the form that best represents this energy. When awakened, kundalini not only behaves like a snake through its movement across the different chakras of the central channel, but it can also bite just like a snake does. Kundalini awakening is no joke, and it can leave a very deep scar on those practitioners who are not ready. This is why I always feel reluctant about those yoga teachers or people who quite openly teach different practices for Kundalini awakening. Before working on the awakening of Kundalini, the practitioner must integrate many aspects of its own consciousness, and this can only be accomplished through time and with the company of a guru or legitimate teacher. The reality is, that a genuine guru will always feel very reluctant to initiate you on the practice, regardless of your previous experience. He or she will always look to dissuade you from the practice until you are fully ready.

Right Hand vs Left Hand of Tantra

Today, all tantric practices have been divided into two opposite extremes called the right hand path or left hand path of tantra. However, the reality is, that there is no such thing as right- or left-hand path of Tantra; there is only Tantra. Yes, there is a variation on the nature of tantric practices, but to split these practices in two, only creates confusion, and duality between what is acceptable or not acceptable.

Traditionally, the right hand path of tantra has been used to describe those tantric practices that are acceptable by society. When the tantric practice looks at cultivating satwic or pure elements of the practitioner’s consciousness, it is called right hand Tantra. These practices include but are not limited to the practice of pranayama, some yoga asanas, the use of mudras, mantras and visualizations. On the other hand, when the tantric practice looks at radically transmuting the practitioner’s consciousness, it is called the left-hand path of Tantra. These practices focus on the transmutation of all the Sattvic, Rajasic, and Tamasic qualities of the practitioner, and generally take place in Samshana or cremation grounds. In these practices, the practitioner makes use of Tamasic elements such as intoxicants, human flesh from dead bodies, and other elements that may be deemed as inappropriate by society in general. The key difference between both paths, is that the right hand path is a slow but steady approach to liberation. On the contrary, the left hand path, is the fastest but most dangerous route to enlightenment. The left hand path is only for a few practitioners who are able to handle the radical transmutation of consciousness.

The Nine Limbs of Tantra

There are 9 limbs or stages of evolution in the tantric journey which are called Nava Acharas. These stages are: Vedachara, Vishnavaichara, Saivachara, Dakshinachara, Vamachara, Agorachara, Yogachara, Siddhantachara, and Kaulachara. The practitioner who is initiated on the tantric path, will not necessarily start his journey on the first stage. This will depend on his or her nature, and his or her guru will determine the most optimal stage.

The first three stages, Vedachara, Vishnavaichara, and Vaivachara work on creating harmony between the practitioner and his environment, as well as the cultivation of faith, and the purification of emotions, mind and speech. Knowledge or Jnana Yoga is also cultivated in this stage by increasing the practitioner’s awareness.

The fourth stage Dakshinachara, looks at integrating all the previous stages, and the implication of the practitioner in the world without getting entangled in it. Dakshina means involvement in the world and reflects the practices of the right hand path of Tantra.

The fifth stage or Vamachara marks the starting point of the inward journey of the practitioner. Vama means separation from the world or to look in the opposite direction. Practices at this stage start to reflect the known left hand path of Tantra, which is not accepted by wider society. In this stage the vamachari looks at breaking the boundaries of the physical. These practices are taken further on the next stage; Agorachara.

Aghora represents the fearless state in Tantra. Aghora means that which is gentle or not terrible. In this stage the aghori looks to break down the duality of maya or illusion, and performs different rituals in samshana or cremation grounds. The reason why the Aghora path is widely misunderstood is because we as a society have placed labels on absolutely every object. Everything we come across falls on one side of the spectrum. Everything is either good or bad, acceptable or unacceptable. But if in reality there is no duality, the only way to break polarity is to perform those things that are deemed as bad or unacceptable. This is why the aghori takes reality to the extreme by practicing those things that are considered tabu or unacceptable.

Once duality has been broken, the next three stages Yogachara, Siddhantachara, and Kaulachara of the tantric path look at establishing the practitioner in union. It is at these stages where the practitioner becomes a liberated one, or Jivanmukta. When the practitioner has established himself in the last stage, or Kaulachara, his motivation as a liberated being is no other than to help other practitioners in the path to liberation.

Tantra and Sex

Tantra does not equal sex, and sex does not equal Tantra. When trying to understand the place sex occupies in tantric practice, it is key to take into account that while common people would see sexual intercourse as a path to pleasure and indulgence; the tantric practitioner does not see sex in such way. He or she sees sex as a process of energy expansion, that has nothing to do with pleasure and the senses. However, in order for the practitioner to move beyond sex, his or her Kundalini must be active and have moved beyond lower planes of existence. This is why traditionally; tantric sex has only been practiced by advanced practitioners who have moved on to higher planes of consciousness.

If you want to test if you’re ready for such practices try to look at the image of a naked man or woman, and carefully become aware of your internal state of being. If you feel arousal or your mind starts thinking about intercourse, then you have not moved beyond sex. So, what is taught today in the west in the name of Tantra is not Tantra. It is a form to create awareness about sexual practices that attracts the attention of a hypersexualized society that we’ve become.