The Living Science of Tantra
By Pandit Rajmani Tigunait
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.
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.
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 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.
Growing up in the village I was the fascinated witness of numerous simple tantric practices. For example, there were those in the village who did not seem to possess a profound knowledge of philosophy or spirituality but who had extraordinary healing powers. I saw that some of them could neutralize the effect of a cobra bite by using tantric mantras (a practice still common in the villages today). The instant they heard that someone had been bitten, they considered it their duty to drop everything and rush to the victim’s aid. They never accepted anything in return. This was also the case with the malis, a particular group of villagers who knew the ritual of certain herbs, which gave them the ability to cure smallpox. Like those who could heal snakebites, the malis felt that they were morally obliged to come to the aid of those infected by smallpox and arrest the spread of the disease through their practices by restoring harmony in the atmosphere.
Another tantric phenomenon centered around a bowl which could be used to identify a thief. The technique was simple. If an object was stolen, the bowl would be passed around and when it reached the thief it became so hot that it would blister his hand. Another gentleman, who was not even recognized as a tantric, had yet another metal bowl that served as the locus for his power to find objects stolen by others. To him that bowl was a living entity and every day he worshiped the power contained in it. Everyone but the thieves admired him. If something was stolen, he could invoke the force of that bowl, which would then float through the air to the place where the object was hidden. If the object was buried, the bowl would spin on the ground above that spot.
Years later, when I joined the university, first in Banaras and later in Allahabad, I had the opportunity to meet tantrics of such stature that my mind still cannot comprehend them. Among them were Swami Sadananda, Bhagawan Ram Aughar, Pramath Nath Avadhut, Damaru Wale Baba, Bhuta Baba, and Datia Wale Swami, to name only a few. These masters were not interested in performing miracles, yet miracles manifested through them as sparks emerge from a flame. For example, snakes, monkeys, leopards, and other wild beasts followed Damaru Wale Baba as he walked in the jungles of Assam. Whenever he made a special offering calledshiva bali during a special tantric group practice known as chakra puja, a female jackal would invariably materialize out of thin air to accept it. Datia Wale Swami, an adept of one of the most esoteric tantric paths, known as bagala mukhi, was able to immobilize bullets that had already been fired, a feat witnessed by hundreds of people in central India.
During my college years I became so absorbed in the study of logic, Western philosophy, and non-tantric schools of Indian philosophy that I began to doubt the miraculous path of tantra and the extraordinary feats that I had seen with my own eyes. My enchantment with the academic study of philosophy, which places exclusive emphasis on logic and pure reason, led me to believe that tantric phenomena were mere acts of magic. A little later, when I was initiated by my master, Sri Swami Rama (who himself represented the lineage of Shankaracharya, the founder of Vedanta philosophy), my skepticism about rituals and the existence of a divinity outside me (such as the one which is supposed to reside in shrines and temples) became even more entrenched. For a time, when I was living in Swami Rama’s company, I focused only on such practices that can be validated scientifically and intellectually. But before long I witnessed a series of events that brought me back to my original belief in tantra.
One such event took place while I was traveling with a group of Americans visiting one of tantrism’s most prominent shrines, Jwala Mukhi, in the foothills of the Himalayas. It was the last day of a nine-day celebration called Nava Ratri, and there were tens of thousands of pilgrims in the vicinity. The line to the shrine was at least half a mile long, and it was moving slower than a slug. The sun was hot, even by Indian standards. Understaffed and overwhelmed, the police were managing the crowd by forcing it to move through a maze to reduce the congestion.
By the time our group managed to separate itself from the main crowd in the bazaar and squeeze into line we had already finished our water. I was worried that the Americans, who were not accustomed to such heat, might collapse long before we reached the shrine. While I was pondering what to do, a gentleman approached me and said with authority, “You should go and ask the police. They will let you and the people with you go to the temple without following the line.”
We were so close to the tail end of the line that I did not see any police, so I asked, “What police?”
“You people follow me,” he replied, asking me to tell the group to ignore everyone and simply stay behind us. He went ahead, shouting, “Hey, move! Let these people through.” And as he walked, the crowd opened, giving him and those following him room to pass. I was so busy keeping the group together that I had no time to wonder why the crowd was parting so willingly in his presence.
As we neared the temple we finally met the policemen, and our guide instructed me to talk to them. By this time I realized that something mysterious was going on, so I tried to watch him while I initiated a conversation with the police. Other members of the group were watching him too. But as soon as I spoke, he disappeared right before our eyes.
From that point on, everyone around us appeared to be enchanted. When we arrived at the main hall, the police and the temple authorities blocked the line. They let the pilgrims already inside the temple go out, and then asked us to enter through the exit passage. In peace and privacy we paid our homage to the eternal flame, which had been flaring out from the walls of the cave for untold ages.
Later, when I talked about this incident to some of the learned people associated with that shrine, they told me with unshakable conviction that the gentleman was either Guru Gorakhnatha, an immortal sage who lives there, or one of the attendant forces of the Divine Mother. And when I asked my gurudeva (who always taught “Look within and find within”) if this was a mass hallucination or, if not, how something outside of me could be so powerful and real, he replied, “Why can’t the Divinity that is inside you be outside you too? It is everywhere. Due to the age-long sadhana of the adepts, the Divine Force dwells in such places in a condensed, concentrated, and vibrant form.
“There is nothing like reality being within or without,” my gurudeva continued. “The wall between within and without is only for those who are ignorant. The Divinity awakened within you helps you find the Divinity outside you, and vice versa.” This answer allowed me to comprehend the basic premise of tantra: “Yatha pindande, tatha brahmande—Whatever is in the body is also in the universe.”
Tantric sites—such as Kamakhya in Assam; the Chinnamasta shrine in Bihar; Datia, Khajuruho, and Ujjain in central India; Pashupati Nath in Nepal; and Kali Math, Sri Nagar, Bhairav Ghati, Tunganath, Kedarnath, and Chamunda Devi in the Indian Himalayas—are the living abodes of tantra. Here we can meet adepts in whose presence we can experience the full spectrum of tantra—from tantra for healing scorpion stings, curing fever and psychosomatic diseases, and producing fire from the mouth, all the way to tantra for cultivating retentive power, awakening kundalini, having a direct vision of the chosen deity, developing clairvoyance, and attaining the highest spiritual illumination through the practice of yantras such as Kala Chakra and Sri Chakra.
The World of Tantra
With the exception of approximately a thousand texts in Pali, Prakrit, Tibetan, Hindi, and Bengali, tantric texts are written in Sanskrit. This literature is so vast that it is almost impossible to study it all, let alone practice a significant fraction of it, although a true adept might be able to practice all the tantric disciplines in a thousand lifetimes. This vast body of literature represents the cumulative knowledge of masters over millennia, and by the 10th century a.d. the volume of tantric literature had become so huge and varied that scholars did not know how to categorize it. Because some sort of system was required, different approaches were adopted—some based on geography, others on the religious flavor of the texts, and still others on the ritual objects used in the practices. All tantric texts and the techniques they describe, however, have one characteristic in common: an integrative approach to sadhana, with the objective of making the best use of all available resources within and without.
Tantrics discarded the standards of morality, ethics, and purity set by religionists if those standards were found to be obstacles to the process of personal growth and self-discovery. This tendency set them apart from the religion in which they were born. Yet their liberal and scientific approach to personal fulfillment prevented them from forming a tantric religion. Thus tantrism at a social level refers to a particular way of life, at a philosophical level it refers to shakti metaphysics, and at a spiritual level it consists of a set of techniques for gaining access to the multilevel forces within the human body as well as in the cosmos.
According to tantrics, the human body is the apex of creation, which is why gaining complete knowledge of the human body and how its active and dormant forces correspond to the forces of the cosmos is the highest tantric discovery. Through their own direct experience, hundreds of masters confirmed the tantric premise that whatever is in the cosmos can also be found in a human being because the whole universe lies within every human. (In other words, God created humans in his own image.) Thus tantric adepts throughout the ages have involved themselves in exploring hitherto uncharted ground. They learned which particular herbs, minerals, and metals correspond to a specific part of the body or to its functioning forces. They experimented with the power of sound (mantra), form, color, and shape (yantra), and discovered how they influence both humans and the different aspects of nature. They studied the subtle properties of animals, herbs, and minerals, and found ways of awakening their dormant forces to activate mantra, yantra, and finally the power of mind. In the process they discovered how the energies of herbs, minerals, gems, planets, and constellations correspond to different parts of the human body. These findings resulted in the development of tantric systems of medicine, astrology, and alchemy.
The diversity of topics discussed in tantric literature leads us to the conclusion that tantra is a holistic approach to sadhana, holding as it does that to experience the beauty and joy contained in the fabric of life we must weave together all its constituent threads. That is why tantric practices normally consist of a range of disciplines involving the body, senses, breath, mind, the use of ritual objects, mantra recitations, silent meditation, visualization of deities, and meditation on a purely abstract, formless Divine Being. The goal is to demolish the illusion that a wall stands between the individual and the Supreme, creating the false impression that internal and external reality are mutually exclusive.
The study of tantra is neither complete nor fruitful without the esoteric knowledge of fire. Tantric practices invariably consist of rituals, both external and internal, and the center of all ritual is fire. It is fire that transforms the gross matter of the herbs and other ritual ingredients into subtle energy that can be recognized by the corresponding subtle forces residing in the psyche or in its counterpart in the cosmos. The transformation of matter and energy and its effect on us is governed and guided by the power of mantra, yantra, and Ishta Deva (a personal form of the impersonal Divine Being which is crystallized by our will and the conviction of the master), as well as our own faith. That is why tantric rituals, accompanied by a fire offering and performed in a precise tantric manner, help the practitioner achieve the desired goal quickly and easily.
Pitfalls and Shortcuts
But this is not a simple matter. Tantra is a complex science requiring not only extensive scriptural knowledge but also guidance from a competent master, who knows the potency of time and place and their relationship with cause and effect. An adept well-versed in tantric scriptures can create a perfect structure for spiritual practice by initiating a student into a mantra along with its corresponding yantra. By looking into the practitioner’s planetary placement, the adept can give precise instructions as to how specific herbs, flowers, minerals, and grains can be used as part of a fire offering to expedite the practice. Every such practice is accompanied by a cluster of disciplines, which ordinarily consists of mudras (hand gestures),nyasas (techniques for synchronizing the different forces of the main and subordinate mantras in our body), techniques for creating a harmonious balance between ourself and the forces of the cosmos, and finally techniques connecting ourself with the power of the mantra by the means of intense visualization of the deity and the recitation of a long set of mantras known as kavacha (armor), kilaka(anchor), hridaya (heart), patala (flower petals), etc.
Finding a tantric master and preparing to undertake these practices is difficult. Those who know the practices rarely teach them, and attempting to learn from those who do not know is useless and may be injurious. And because many tantric practices are scientific, requiring only a precise technique in order to yield results (and thus yield these results regardless of whether or not a practitioner’s intentions are pure), such practices can be used for destructive and selfish purposes.
The portion of the scriptures which can be classified as “applied tantric science” contain the formulas which ill-intentioned tantrics could use for marana (killing),vashikarana (seduction), mohana (manipulating the minds of others), andvidveshana (creating animosity between two people), to name a few. Experimenting with these practices is like playing with nuclear weapons, and the scriptures have labeled such disciplines “forbidden tantra.” In order to discourage misinformed and unprepared students from undertaking these practices, the adepts warn, “An aspirant should not even open and read the scriptures containing these practices (prayoga shastra) without the permission and guidance of a master.”
Before imparting these techniques, masters lead their students through a series of tests to ensure that the student has purified his or her mind and heart and is interested in higher spiritual pursuits rather than in worldly power and pleasure. Those who pass such tests then practice the “forbidden” aspect of tantra as a means to discover the Divine within. And because they are intent on attaining wisdom, peace, and everlasting happiness, qualified aspirants use these sophisticated tantric practices to subdue the forces of ego, anger, hatred, desire, and attachment. Eventually they graduate from this intermediate level of practice and embark on the most sublime of all tantric paths: kundalini and Sri Vidya.
The tantric method of awakening kundalini is entirely different from, and far superior to, any other. Scriptures, such as Rudra Yamala, explain step-by-step the method of awakening kundalini, piercing all the chakras, and ultimately experiencing the union of Shakti and Shiva in the crown chakra in a safe, easy, quick manner that is delightful from beginning to end. This process of experiencing the full range of the manifestation of divine beauty and bliss, both at the personal and cosmic level, is most clearly delineated in the tantric discipline known as Sri Chakra. Sri Chakra is imparted through the sublime philosophy, metaphysics, and multilevel tantric disciplines known as Sri Vidya, the embodiment of tantric wisdom. In Sri Vidya, all tantric practices from the simplest to the most complex are found in the patterns of Sri Chakra. Here a student of tantra learns how to operate at every level of existence simultaneously and to enjoy life in its fullness. A Sri Vidya adept is found to be simultaneously tender and stern, and is able to enjoy the best of worldly objects yet remain completely detached—a princely mendicant.
In the same year that we visited the temple at Jwala Mukhi, our group went to a site in the northern tip of the Vindhya range, known as Vindhya Vasani, to view a full solar eclipse. For me the greatest attraction in the surrounding mountains was Gerua Talab, reputed to be a stronghold of tantra sadhana. This is the spot where two adepts had recently left their bodies in a yogic manner, and we were eager to see whether other yogis of that caliber were still residing there.
When we arrived, we found the place to be simple and peaceful. As we gathered under a tree, a bizarre-looking man clad in black approached us. His name was Bhuta Baba (Ghost Baba). He asked us who we were and what had brought us there, sitting down on a wooden cot as the group surrounded him. He appeared to be very learned but his bizarre behavior contradicted this. It was evident that he was trying to get rid of us. Each time I translated a spiritual question or asked his guidance in locating the spot where the yogis had left their bodies, he made fun of spirituality and the process of birth and death. Yet as the group remained humbly persistent, he became somewhat more agreeable. At this point someone asked him, “What is the most important thing an aspirant must observe?”
“Food,” he replied in Hindi as I translated. “You become what you eat.”
“So you mean vegetarian food?”
He laughed. “You people are naive. See? If you eat chicken you will think and behave like a chicken. If you eat beef you will think and behave like a cow. But if you eat human flesh, you will think and behave like a human.”
I hesitated to translate this, but he insisted. By this time I had sensed that he was a tantric adept belonging to the esoteric aghora tradition. So before I translated the last sentence I told the group about the uniqueness of that tradition and the deliberately bizarre lifestyle that its followers adopt. I also reminded them of the unbelievable power and wisdom these adepts often acquire through their sadhana. Then I turned to the Bhuta Baba and asked him to explain why human flesh is the best food. At this, his behavior changed abruptly.
“It doesn’t matter,” he said kindly. “Tell me, what can I do for you?”
Then he began to reveal a fragment of his infinite knowledge. Any question we asked was answered to our full satisfaction. Finally someone asked, “To be successful in both worldly and spiritual endeavors we need a one-pointed and clear mind. Can you tell us how to develop concentration and retentive power?”
He got up and went to get the Sri Chakra. Pointing at its second circuit, he said, “By meditating on this, one can gain the power of concentration.”
The same person then asked, “Can you tell us how to meditate on this circuit?”
With a smile, he said, “Do you want to know everything all at once? Keep something for another day.”
With that he walked away, leaving us to ponder the breadth and depth of tantric wisdom and how much humanity might benefit from this science if it were studied and practiced sincerely and systematically.
Pandit Rajmani Tigunait, PhD, is spiritual director of the Himalayan Institute and a regular columnist for Yoga International.