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.
Tantra is a holistic approach to sadhana, holding that to experience the beauty and joy contained in the fabric of life we must weave together all its constituent threads.
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.
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.