Living Tantra: Part 1
Sex, drugs, and black magic? Tantra is infinitely more powerful than that. A modern master reveals the truth about this complex and controversial path.
By Pandit Rajmani Tigunait
I was born and raised in the part of North India that has long been a stronghold of tantric practices. My birthplace, Amargarh, lies in a triangle formed by three of India’s holiest cities: Varanasi, Allahabad, and Ayodhya. Varanasi, the city of light, embodies the spiritual traditions of ancient India, including all forms of tantra: Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain tantras; left-hand tantra; right-hand tantra; forbidden tantra; and tantric practices of a purely yogic nature. Allahabad, the city of gods, experiences a big congregation of saints, yogis, and tantrics from every tradition every January and February, and an even larger congregation every 12 years during the Kumbha Mela. Ayodhya, the invincible city of Lord Rama, is the most mysterious of all, for thousands of saints and yogis, mostly practicing right-hand tantra, are hidden behind the walls of hundreds of monasteries and ashrams.
There was a monastery a little more than a mile from my childhood home that was a magnet for wandering sadhus, novice seekers, and adepts. The nearby palace had its own circle of tantrics, pandits, and astrologers. My father was one of them. Growing up in this land I saw pandits debating their views, astrologers making their predictions, and tantrics performing their magical rituals. I saw my father spend hours every day reciting scriptures, meditating on mantra, and worshipping the Divine Mother through rituals and fire offerings.
My own spiritual quest began in an extremely simple way. I was afraid of the ghosts who live in dust devils. Inspired by my mother, I started meditating on Hanuman by reciting 40 couplets dedicated to him to protect myself from these ghosts. But it was only when I heard an amazing story that I became intensely interested in spirituality and understood that tantric practice could help me discover the best in myself and in the world around me.
The raja of Amargarh was fond of the number 24. He had 24 horses, 24 wrestlers, and 24 pandits. One of the pandits was an accomplished left-hand tantric who worshipped Divinity with alcohol and meat. In those days, palace politics were dominated by right-hand tantrics, who condemned using these articles in rituals. Under pressure from them, the raja demanded that the left-hand tantric clarify whether or not he was using these “impure” articles in his rituals. Instead of answering directly, the tantric said, “I do not indulge in liquor. I worship the Divine Mother in a manner prescribed in the scriptures.” This statement annoyed the right-hand tantrics even more. They conspired with the raja to raid the temple at midnight, the time the tantric performed his rituals. They pounded on the door when the tantric was in the middle of his chakra puja, a practice forbidden to non-initiates. Not knowing what else to do, the tantric interrupted his practice and, before opening the door, prayed, “Oh Divine Mother, do whatever you wish.” The crowd stormed in, only to find a chalice filled with milk instead of wine. The tantric, saddened that the Divine Mother had to go out of her way to protect him, resigned from the raja’s court. Many other tantrics followed suit. Soon all kinds of calamities—disease, accidents, and death—began to befall the raja’s family. The royal elephants became deranged and portions of the palace collapsed.
To me everything about this incident—a ritual so potent and sacred it is forbidden to non-initiates, wine turning into milk, and a chain of calamities ensuing from the disruption of a tantric practice—was both fascinating and bewildering. When I asked my father what tantra is and who these tantrics were, he only said, “Tantra is the way to discover the infinite potential of your body, the power of your mind, and the beauty of your soul. Tantrics are the blessed children of the Divine Mother.” Although I was too young to understand the meaning of this answer, the incident at the palace temple was so compelling that it pulled me deeper into the world of tantra.
I began to actively seek out tantrics who practiced special techniques and possessed unique powers. Miracles held a particular fascination so I was thrilled when I met a tantric with an amazing metal bowl. When a theft occurred he would invoke his bowl. The bowl would come to life, rise in the air, float to the place where the stolen objects were hidden, and hover over that spot until the objects were exposed and the recovery acknowledged. I met another tantric who cured cobra bites. Yet another tantric would draw a mandala known as chakra vyuha, show it to a woman in labor, and within minutes the baby would be delivered. I met a sadhu who specialized in the tantric use of herbs. He would invoke the energy of prickly chaff, for example, and give it to a client whose house was infested with cobras. As soon as the client deposited the herb in his house, the cobras would slither out unharmed. A Sufi fakir specialized in the science of jantar (yantra/mandala). He cured nightmares, phobias, and infertility by tying the jantar to a patient’s arm. Experiences with these and other tantrics convinced me tantra was as profound, useful, and rewarding as any other science known to man. But when I went to Allahabad and enrolled in the university, I witnessed events that made me wonder if tantra were merely a combination of trickery and superstition.
One of my professors at the University of Allahabad was deeply involved in the study and practice of tantra. He knew almost all the top tantrics of North India, and most of them respected him and sought his guidance. When he became ill, he attributed his sickness to an advanced tantric practice he had recently undertaken. Seeking a cure, he visited a local tantric, Dr. Kapoor, who gave him a miraculous medicine. Each time he took the medicine, he felt much better for a short time. Once the effect wore off, his symptoms returned, so the professor made frequent visits to Dr. Kapoor, who he regarded as his savior and guide. Three years passed. The professor’s wife became concerned because his symptoms were worsening. She asked me to find out if Dr. Kapoor was really a doctor and a tantric.
In time, I discovered that he had a medical degree, but that people were more attracted to him for his tantric powers than for his knowledge of medicine. He did not charge for his services but people were required to bring him one dose of paan (a special preparation of betel leaves, betel nuts, and tobacco), a packet of cigarettes, and a small amount of money (less than 50¢). Dr. Kapoor had a remedy for everything from physical ailments to psychosomatic illnesses to the problems that may have had their roots in the spiritual realm and previous karmas.
I paid a visit to Dr. Kapoor and found the reception room on the ground floor had such a powerful air of mysticism that a visitor would spontaneously slip into a trance. Dr. Kapoor’s consulting room was on the second floor. The stairway was lit only by a tiny oil lamp, which illumined three skulls on a small altar on the landing. The stairs themselves were dark, even in daytime. The consulting room was filled with the smoke of myrrh. Dr. Kapoor sat on an elaborate altar. On either side were smaller altars, each with a flame and a picture of the goddess Kali. A group of followers and students sat before him in the dim light of these two ceremonial flames. The doctor greeted each newcomer by name and announced the problem that brought that person to him. When he made this proclamation, the audience cheered, “Jai ho! Jai ho!” (Hail! Hail!). By the time I entered his room, I suspected there was something wrong. By the time I left, I was convinced of it.
I investigated further and discovered that many of the “clients” congregating in the reception room on the ground floor were Dr. Kapoor’s agents. Their job was to quietly collect information about the personal life of the clients and pass it on to Dr. Kapoor before the clients went upstairs. Further, the incense smoke contained psychedelic substances, and the people sitting at his feet were drug-addicted courtiers whose job was to enhance the intoxicating atmosphere. Every medicine he gave contained opium, which is why my professor felt better after taking it and why the effects wore off so quickly. Shortly after my professor stopped consulting him—and after decades of successfully practicing “tantric healing”—Dr. Kapoor was arrested for dealing drugs.
This incident forced me to examine the validity of my personal understanding and experiences of tantra. Now, in place of an unquestioning acceptance, I wanted to know the truth about tantra. Are tantric practices as profound, powerful, and fulfilling as they are believed to be? Are tantric practitioners really able to work miracles? Do the consumption of meat, alcohol, drugs, and the inclusion of sex constitute the practice of tantra?
On the bank of the holy Ganges I met a tantric whose popularity far exceeded that of Dr. Kapoor. Everyone knew this tantric was a cannibal. He lived near a cremation ground, and his disciples and followers provided him with human flesh roasted on the funeral pyre. He was always drunk. People criticized his way of life and yet marveled at his spiritual powers. Both his blessings and curses were believed to be infallible. I visited him for several months, risking my life by behaving in a way that would annoy him and draw his curses. I concluded that he was psychotic.
This and many similar experiences made me realize that drugs, deception, cheating, and sexual exploitation constituted a big part of what is called tantra. While I no longer had the same degree of enthusiasm to learn and practice tantra as I’d had before, I did not believe all tantric texts could be wrong or all tantric masters fake.
This belief became a firm conviction one afternoon at the ashram of Swami Sadananda, my beloved spiritual teacher who had guided me during a time when despondency and hopelessness almost engulfed me. He was a wise man with vast experience of both worldly and spiritual life. He lived in austerity—eating little, sleeping little, speaking little. Although he was a great tantric adept, he had shown very little interest in sharing that part of his life.
That particular afternoon, I had just walked into his ashram and had not yet paid my respects when he spoke loudly, “Good, good. You are here.”
Pointing to a young man sitting before him, he said, “A couple of years ago, this man came to me crying that he was going to die in the next few days. When I asked him how he knew that, he told me about a vivid dream. I tried to console him but he argued that so far all of his dreams had come true. He had sent telegrams to his family members, and many of them were with him when he visited me. When I failed to convince him he wouldn’t die soon, I invited his death and told him to talk to it face-to-face. Upon hearing directly from the mouth of death that he would live for a long time, his fear vanished. He completed his engineering degree, and here he is, visiting me with his family, alive and healthy.”
The young man and the people with him nodded in confirmation. I was totally unprepared to hear about such a powerful tantric feat from Swami Sadananda. It was not his style to acknowledge his spiritual accomplishments so publicly, let alone appear to boast about them. I felt he was using this incident as an opportunity to talk about a subject he had been avoiding for many years. As soon as the young man and his family left, I asked, “Swamiji, what was that all about? How could you invite someone’s death and make it talk face-to-face with someone who is alive?”
He replied, “In fact, I invoked chaya purusha and guided the young man to learn about his future, including the time of his death.”
“Swamiji, how unfair!” I exclaimed. “Visitors come and for them you invoke chaya purusha so they can be free of the fear of death. You call me your beloved disciple, a slice of your own heart. . .”
Swami Sadananda chuckled. “Why do you want to see magic? Why don’t you become a magician yourself?”
“Thank you,” I said, and he immediately got up and walked toward the sandy beach of the Ganges. I followed. Without expecting any response, he began speaking. “Every seeker goes through a stage of confusion, doubt, and skepticism. Distinguishing the real from the unreal is not an easy task. However, once it’s done, it’s a great accomplishment. Light and shadow go together. So does what is genuine and fake. Tantra is a great science. With tantra you can see the mind—its visible and invisible forces. With tantra you can see how this world is the mind’s magic, and the mind is your greatest friend—a friend who accompanies you all the way to your final destination.”He stepped into the river, washed his hands and face, sipped water, and asked me to do the same. Afterward, I followed him onto the beach. Now Swami Sadananda began to explain, “Chaya purusha is a unique tantric practice. The first stage of the practice involves gazing at one’s shadow. Depending on the power of your concentration, it may take a few days, a few months, or even a few years to complete this first step. Gaze at your shadow for as long as you can without blinking. A time will come when you cannot see your shadow. Look at the sky and you will see the outline of your shadow in white. First, this white shadow will be on the far horizon. With practice, it will keep coming closer and will become increasingly vivid until it is as if another you is standing in front of you without touching the ground. As the second and final step of the practice, you infuse this shadow with prana (the life force). You can talk to it as though you were talking to your second self. Today, I’m going to show you yourself through my yoga shakti. You may pose any question; it will answer you.”
He asked me to stand with the sun at my back. It was around four in the afternoon so my shadow and I were almost the same size. As guided by him, I fixed my gaze on the neck of my shadow for a few seconds, then looked at the horizon. There I saw a white negative of my shadow. I was amazed. Then I became excited as the shadow began moving toward me. It became overwhelming when I began to see myself clearly—the same face, the same eyes, and even the same clothes. The shadow floated through the sky and stopped four or five feet in front of me. I became disoriented and began to feel myself in both bodies—the one on the ground, the other in the air. One began to look at the other, yet a single sense of I-am-ness pervaded both bodies. With this experience, an unbearable fear descended. I began to question: Who am I? The one standing on the ground or the one hanging in the air? How could I be in two places? I felt like screaming. I did not want to be in two places—I wanted to be in the body that stood on the ground. I felt an enormous pressure in my head from my desire to be in the body below and my unwillingness to be in the body above. But I did not know how to make it happen.
I heard Swami Sadananda say, “Remember, it is a chaya purusha created by me. You are neither this body nor that one. For the time being, however, tell yourself that the body on the ground is yours and it is you. The one in the air is just a chaya purusha. Compose yourself—I am with you. You can ask three questions about anything you wish. The chaya purusha will answer you.”
His voice took away my fear, and my courage and curiosity returned. I asked, “How were you created? How did I feel myself in you? And how do you know more about me than I do?”
The chaya purusha spoke, “This form [body] is an extension of the mind born of asmita [pure I-am-ness] of the one standing next to you.”
Looking at Swami Sadananda, the chaya purusha then said, “It is his sankalpa [determination] that made room in this body for your mind. With that mind came all your desires, attachments, and everything else you identify with yourself. Thus you felt you were in me. The mind that occupies the biological body is totally dependent on the senses, brain, and nervous system. It is always preoccupied with one thing or another. It busies itself counting things in the outside world and has forgotten how to see what lies within. But the mind placed in this body is free from all those limitations and thus can see all that which is normally obscured.”
With this, the chaya purusha began to float away and finally dissolved on the distant horizon. With no words to express myself, I followed Swami Sadananda as he walked to a nearby banyan tree. We sat down in the shade and Swami Sadananda said, “There are tantrics who have mastered the science of chaya purusha. With the help of chaya purusha they predict the future or materialize an object out of thin air. Using the power of chaya purusha they perform miracles. I showed you chaya purusha not because it is the most important aspect of tantra and not because you need to practice it. I showed you so you will open yourself to comprehending the vast range of tantra.
“Just as there are enlightened people and ignorant people, there are enlightened tantrics and ignorant tantrics. Just as there are good trades and bad trades, there is good tantra and bad tantra. A science by itself is neither good nor bad. What makes it good or bad is how it is applied. These days people often associate tantra with black magic, voodoo, drugs, alcohol, and sex. Tantra has become synonymous with immorality and orgies. That represents only the dark side of tantra.
“The bright side of tantra is supremely enlightening, revealing, and empowering to body, mind, and soul. For untold ages people have been using it to heal themselves and to heal their families and societies. Yogis have used it to accelerate their practice and reach their goal with fewer obstacles. Ayurvedic practitioners have used tantra to make their medicine and healing techniques more effective. Businessmen have used tantra to succeed in their business. In the olden days, kings and emperors used tantric practices to invite rain and to enhance the fertility of the soil. It is well known that astrology without tantra is lifeless. Spirituality without tantra is just a matter of faith and is meaningful only to believers.
“Over millennia, tantrics have invented numberless applications of tantric knowledge. Some of those applications appear lofty and others trivial. You must not forget that everything in life—from the loftiest to the most trivial—has its rightful place. Educated Tibetan lamas apply tantra to protect themselves from the greatest enemies—ignorance, egoism, anger, hatred, jealousy, and greed. Shepherds in Tibet apply tantra to protect their sheep and goats from wolves and disease. Learned sadhus and saints apply tantra to cultivate love for themselves and love for God. But ignorant priests practice tantra to influence the minds of their followers so that their loyalty remains undivided. Yogis apply tantric wisdom to awaken their kundalini shakti so that they become adept in the field of yoga. But a person of limited knowledge uses that same tantric wisdom to awaken that same shakti in a pendant, only to become a voodoo man. People sell a diamond for the price of cheap glass for the same reason people practice tantra for a cheap experience—because they don’t know any better.”
Intrigued, I asked, “Swamiji, what is tantra really? What are its dynamic principles? How can we learn and practice tantra systematically?”
Swami Sadananda answered, “Tantra is an embodiment of the highest form of healing and enlightenment. Healing occurs when our body, breath, mind, and consciousness work and support each other in a harmonious fashion. When they are disjointed and struggle to function without much mutual cooperation, we fall sick, become old, and die. Tantra is comprised of techniques for reconnecting our body, breath, mind, and consciousness, allowing them to work and support each other. Enlightenment occurs when karmic impurities, mental stupor, intellectual confusion, and emotional turmoil do not block the flow of our inner light. Tantra is comprised of techniques that burn our karmic impurities and make our mind clear, our intellect sharp, and our emotions peaceful.
“The secret of tantra lies in its ability to integrate everything. For ages people have been fighting an unending war—the war of good and bad, right and wrong, virtue and sin, heaven and hell, sacred and mundane, freedom and bondage. Caught in this war, monks and householders, clergy and laymen, politicians and philosophers, men and women, poor and rich, and businessmen and those fully committed to inner life are equally miserable. Tantra has a remedy for this misery. This remedy works because a tantric seeks freedom in the world, not from the world. Here the sacred and the mundane are held together in harmonious balance. Worldly success and spiritual development go hand in hand. It is a joy-driven path. It is a path of active participation in life. It is not a path for those who seek salvation after death, but a path for those who seek health, wealth, peace, and happiness while living in the world.
“That’s enough for today. We’ll talk later about your questions about the dynamic principles of tantra and how to learn and practice tantra in a systematic and methodical manner.”
Watch clips of Pandit Rajmani Tigunait lecturing on mantra.
Pandit Rajmani Tigunait, PhD, is the spiritual head of the Himalayan Institute. A teacher, lecturer, Sanskrit scholar, and author, he has practiced yoga and tantra for more than 30 years.