Understanding Tantric Philosophy


I have always had trouble accepting tantric philosophy, for it is never mentioned as a legitimate Indian philosophy in books, not even in your own Seven Systems of Indian Philosophy. Tantra is one of the most important systems of Indian philosophy and spiritual practice. But you are correct: it has never been accorded its rightful place.

From the beginning, the Vedas and the institutions promoting the Vedic cause have held the same place in India as the Bible and the Church hold in Christianity. Six systems of Indian philosophy—Nyaya, Vaisheshika, Sankhya, Yoga, Mimamsa, and Vedanta—accepted the Vedas as the final authority, and thus were called Vedic darshana (Vedic philosophy). Buddhism, Jainism, Charvaka, and Ajivika did not accept the Vedas as conclusive; thus they are called non-Vedic darshana. For hundreds of years philosophers on both sides have held formal debates and fought with each other like soldiers on the battlefield. These intellectual wars were documented and form the basis for what is known today as Indian philosophy.

Tantra, however, neither opposed nor advocated the Vedas. It neither sided with Buddhism, Jainism, or other philosophical and religious groups, nor did it condemn them. Tantrics never involved themselves in debates. Instead, they focused their energy on their main goal: to probe the subtle mysteries of life. In so doing they explored the relationship between human beings, the relationship between humans and all other aspects of creation, and the relationship between ourselves and the invisible forces that govern our lives, both within and without. Tantrics placed a much greater emphasis on practice than on philosophical hypotheses. In fact, they presented philosophical doctrines only when it was necessary to explain their worldview logically and to illumine the psychological and metaphysical meaning of the practices they undertook.

Tantrics were independent thinkers.

Tantrics were independent thinkers. Their loyalty was to truth alone. They did not care whether or not their concept of ethics and morality followed the dictums of any particular religious group. In short, they were radicals; but they welcomed meaningful theories and practices from both Vedic and non-Vedic sources—thus unsettling the partisans of both sides and causing both sides to doubt the tantrics’ integrity. That is why what they believed and practiced has remained hidden.

You once stated that sexual intercourse can be “described as an advanced aspect of tantric sadhana.” How is that possible? Isn’t sadhana supposed to be of a spiritual nature? What I said was, “Tantric texts do mention sexual intercourse, but this practice is described as an advanced aspect of tantric sadhana.” I did not discuss the preparatory steps leading to advanced tantric practices. Prominent tantric texts (such as the Kularnava Tantra, the Maha Nirvana Tantra, and the Rudra Yamala) describe step by step how to prepare oneself for the kaula level of tantric practice, in which maithuna (sex) is one of the five main components of sadhana. These texts also say that nothing is higher than this kaula practice. But only after describing a series of asanas and advanced pranayama (breathing techniques) accompanied by bandhas, mudras, mantra recitation, and visualization do they introduce the kaula practice, which includes the use of alcohol, meat, fish, tantric mudras, and sex. They also warn the practitioner to keep this knowledge utterly secret. They proclaim, “The path of kaula is extremely complex and is impenetrable even by the great yogis.”

In other words, the kaula level of tantra practice is a vast subject. To grasp the subtle mysteries that surround it we have to understand the inner meaning of enigmatic passages in various scriptures—such as this one from the Hatha Yoga Pradipika: “One should always eat the flesh of the cow and drink the immortal wine”; or this one from Shiva’s instruction in the Yoga Karnika: “One should place one’s penis into the vagina of one’s mother and one’s sandals on one’s father’s head”; or Krishna’s statement in the Bhagavad Gita: “I am kama [desire, lust, sensual pleasure], that kama which is not contradicted by dharma.” These statements are not to be taken literally; they all conceal a hidden meaning that is revealed only to those who have been initiated into the practice of kaula.

Hundreds of other esoteric practices are described in the tantric texts, but these and similar passages have captured attention because they involve sex. Throughout history, people have been identifying tantra with sex without bothering to understand that mastering an ever more complex and subtle series of practices—as well as sandhya-bhasha, the highly symbolic language of tantrism—is necessary to reach the point at which one is qualified for these practices. According to the great tantric master Charanananda of Kamakhya, it is only after we have understood the inner meaning of the rasa lila (divine sport) of Krishna and the gopis, as described in the Srimad Bhagavatam, that we can qualify to learn and practice the kaula disciplines.

You also once said “people get uncomfortable” when they are told that, according to the tantric tradition, “life is not suffering and life is not maya.” After all, Lord Krishna, in verse 8.15 of the Bhagavad Gita, declares that the world is full of suffering: “Having come to me, the great souls are no more subject to rebirth, which is transitory and the abode of pain; for they have reached the highest perfection.” Also, in verse 14.3 Lord Krishna validates maya when he states: “My maya is the womb, identical with me, who am the great Brahman; I impregnate that; from there the birth of all beings occurs, O Descendant of Bharata.” Here you have to remember that tantrics neither praise nor condemn scriptures such as the Bhagavad Gita. They do not mind if their experiences do not match the dictums of such scriptures. Tantrics seek liberation in the world, not from the world.

Tantrics seek liberation in the world, not from the world.

I remember a conversation I had long ago with Karapatriji, a great scholar of Vedanta and a swami of the Shankaracharya order. In his public discourses this great man elaborated on the idea that the world is full of suffering, that objects of the world are short-lived, that the world is maya (illusion), and that the goal of life is to extricate oneself from the world of maya, which is full of pain and misery. But in his private life Karapatriji was a practitioner of Sri Vidya, the most sublime and advanced discipline of tantra. According to Sri Vidya, the Divine Mother is the absolute reality, an embodiment of unsurpassed beauty and joy. The world is her manifestation. The relationship between the Divine Mother and the world is that of the ocean and the waves that arise from it and subside in it. So I asked Karapatriji, “Aren’t you practicing hypocrisy by teaching to the public something totally different from what you practice in your daily life?”

He replied, “For ages religions have been telling us life is punishment. It is the result of one’s karma. God lives in heaven, they tell us—somewhere far away. Life here is full of misery, and this misery comes to an end only when we go to heaven. A strong belief in these theories has forced us to form a self-denigrating image of ourselves and of the world: we respect neither ourselves nor the world. Convinced that these religious ideas are valid, we try to escape from the world and from ourselves. We are afraid of life and try to avoid the pain caused by this fear. We attempt to run away from life—but the truth is that life is an integral part of us. How can we run away from ourselves? There is no way out. So we are confused. To reverse this cycle, people must first be taught how to overcome confusion. And that is why in public I place so much emphasis on describing the dynamics of maya—confusion.

But in my private life, I find no maya. To me the whole world is the manifestation of the Divine. I am the child of Divinity. I adore the Divine as my mother. In relation to her, I am not even a renunciate—I am simply her child. She is within me and outside me. I rejoice in her presence. I guide those who aspire to gain this experience on the path of Sri Vidya."

About the Teacher

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Pandit Rajmani Tigunait
Spiritual head of the Himalayan Institute, Pandit Tigunait is the successor of Swami Rama of the Himalayas.... Read more