Tantra is an ancient yet vibrant spiritual science. It is unique in that it takes the whole person into account. Other spiritual traditions ordinarily teach that desire for worldly pleasures and spiritual aspirations are mutually exclusive, setting the stage for an endless internal struggle. Although most people are drawn to spiritual beliefs and practices, they have a natural urge to fulfill their worldly desires. With no way to reconcile these two impulses, they fall prey to guilt and self-condemnation or they become hypocritical, or both.
The tantric approach to life avoids this pitfall. The literal meaning of “tantra” is “to weave, to expand, to spread,” and according to tantric adepts, the fabric of life can provide true and everlasting fulfillment only when all the threads are woven according to the pattern designated by nature. When we are born, life naturally forms itself around that pattern. But as we grow, our ignorance, desire, attachment, fear, and false images of ourselves and others tangle and tear the threads, disfiguring the fabric.
Tantra sadhana (spritual practice) reweaves the fabric, restoring the original pattern. No other path is as systematic and comprehensive. The profound sciences and practices pertaining to hatha yoga, pranayama, mudras, rituals, kundalini yoga, nada yoga, mantra, yantra, mandala, visualization of deities, alchemy, Ayurveda, astrology, and hundreds of esoteric practices for engendering worldly and spiritual prosperity blend perfectly in the tantric disciplines.
The goal of tantra is awakening and using shakti.
Long ago tantric masters discovered that to be successful externally or internally we must first awaken our latent power, for only those who are strong and blessed with great stamina reach the final goal. The key to success is shakti—the power of soul, the power of the divine force within. Although every individual possesses an infinite and indomitable shakti, most of it remains dormant. Those whose shakti is largely unawakened have neither the capacity to be successful in the world nor the capacity to enjoy worldly pleasures. Similarly, without shakti, we can neither find spiritual illumination nor rejoice in it. Thus tantra sadhana is shakti sadhana. Awakening and using shakti is the goal of tantra.
Unfortunately a large number of tantric enthusiasts in both the West and the East mistakenly identify tantra as the yoga of sex, black magic, witchcraft, seduction, and an amalgam of techniques for influencing the minds of others. This is due, at least in part, to the fact that tantra is both a spiritual path and a science. As a spiritual path it emphasizes purifying our mind and heart and cultivating a spiritually illuminating philosophy of life. As a science, it experiments with techniques whose efficacy depends on the precise application of mantra and yantra, ritual use of specific materials, and the performance of tantric mudras and accompanying mental exercises.
In layman’s language, such practices can be thought of as tantric formulas. They will yield a result if properly applied regardless of the character, spiritual understanding, or intention of the practitioner. When this scientific aspect of tantra falls into the hands of charlatans it is inevitably misused, giving tantra a bad name. Fortunately, however, there are still tantric masters and authentic scriptures to undercut such false and distorted notions and make it possible for us to gain a better understanding of this sublime path.
The Mystery of Tantra
My own quest began when as a child I heard the story of a tantric phenomenon that had taken place in our village. My father and his forefathers before him were raja purohita, the spiritual guides to the royal family of the state of Amargarh in north India. For generations the palace had been attended by tantric adepts who were staunch worshipers and devotees of Shakti (the Divine Mother), and around the time I was born the palace was patronized by twenty-four pandits and tantrics, headed by my father.
When a saint from the Kabira order visited the palace one day, the eldest prince and his admirers became his followers. Under the influence of this saint, the group developed feelings of animosity toward the tantrics and their practices. In time, their ill will came to center on a highly advanced tantric who worshiped the Divine Mother in a palatial Shakti temple. His practice was purely tantric and centered around the offering of wine, meat, fish (and probably sex, although my father never mentioned it). The zealous group around the eldest prince watched this adept constantly, criticizing him mercilessly. “He is creating an unclean, impure environment in the palace,” they would say. “How can anyone justify indulgence and orgies as spiritual practices? It is total nonsense. We should inform the king.”
Eventually the tantric was called to the court to explain his actions. He said, “I do not indulge in wine but worship the Divine Mother with bindu [‘the drop’], as prescribed in the scriptures and taught by my master.”
Attempting to pin him down, someone asked, “Then why do you lock the door of the temple when you do your so-called worship?”
“According to the tradition, the kind of practice I do must be secret,” the tantric replied. “Only initiates can participate in this worship. During the normal worship of the deity, the door is open to everyone.”
The king found this explanation acceptable and the assembly was adjourned, but the zealots did not give up. They kept an eye on this adept; they knew exactly when and from where he got the wine and how he brought it into the temple. They also knew the exact time he began his worship with the wine and other ingredients which, according to Hindu belief, were impure and therefore prohibited. Armed with this information, the prince and his followers invaded the temple one night during the secret worship and demanded to be admitted. Caught in the middle of the ritual, the adept prayed to be forgiven for concluding the practice inappropriately, adding, “Mother, I am your child. Please do as you wish.”
He opened the door and the group rushed in, only to find milk in the chalices instead of wine, and vegetarian dishes instead of meat and fish. They stormed out in frustration. “The Divine Mother went out of her way to protect me,” the tantric thought when they were gone. “What good is this place in which She has to go through this unnecessary trouble?”
Early the next morning the adept resigned from performing spiritual and religious services for the royal family, as did several of the other tantric pandits. Those who remained became apathetic. Before long, a series of calamities began—fatal accidents and diseases befell the royal family and disputes arose among them. Portions of the newly built palace began to collapse. Within a few years all the family’s wealth mysteriously disappeared and the section of the palace that remained standing was infested with rats and snakes and overrun by pigeons.
I asked my father, “What is tantra and how do these tantric masters become so powerful?”
I was not yet born when this incident took place, but I vividly remember the run-down condition of the palace and the misery of the remaining members of the royal family. I was so intrigued by the story that on several occasions I asked my father, “What is tantra and how do these tantric masters become so powerful?” In response he would either not reply at all or answer only briefly, “Tantra means worshiping the Divine Mother. Tantrics are her blessed children. Whatever they have is but the grace of the Divine Mother.” This simple answer did not satisfy me, but it did inspire me to explore the mystery of tantra further.
Pandit Rajmani Tigunait
Spiritual head of the Himalayan Institute, Pandit Tigunait is the successor of Swami Rama of the Himalayas. Lecturing and teaching worldwide for more than a quarter of a century, he is the author of fourteen books, including his recently-released The Secret of the Yoga Sutra, and his autobiography Touched by Fire: The Ongoing Journey of a Spiritual Seeker.