By Scott Shaw
The Sanskrit word Tantra comes from the root Tan, which means to "Expand" or "Extend." When combined with the suffix Tra, Tantra, is translated into "Appear" or "Emerge."
In the modern era, Tantra Yoga has come to be represented, by the unenlightened, as a method of Sexual Yoga and a way to rapidly achieve Siddha "Spiritual powers" through Pranayama and sexual intercourse. The individuals who depict Tantra Yoga from this very limited perspective, attempted to draw on the ancient temple carvings in Khajuraho, India as a source for their misunderstandings. Though these fantastic temples represent a specific element of India's history, they are not the source point for Tantra Yoga.
The origins of Tantraism can be dated to the Harappa (Indus) Civilization which existed between approximately 2,700 and 1,750 B.C.E. This was one of the Earth's oldest civilizations. It was located from North of the Hindu-Kush Mountains downwards through peninsular India.
Early Tantraism attempted to integrate the limited sensory perceptions of the individual with the cosmic forces of the universe. Thereby, creating a unity of duality -- blending the finite with the infinite. Today, Tantraism is more universally known by the schools which came into existence during the sixth and seventh centuries C.E. — reflecting both Hindu and Buddhist ideology. These schools of thought focus on the development of the individual's dormant spiritual powers by means of refined ritual and meditation techniques. In this relatively modern form of Tantraism, it is understood that the Chela "Student" cannot master any Tantra technique without the initiation and guidance of a Guru.
The Vedas are ancient Hindu doctrines composed by Rishis, "Great seerers," who expounded upon their Shruti, "Realizations," in order that Yogis throughout history would possess a guidebook to God Realization. The understanding of modern Tantra Yoga was first detailed in a Vedic scripture known as Agama.
Agama is made up of over two hundred sacred writings and was composed in the seventh century C.E. Though this Veda is much more historically recent than most of the Vedas. It is, none-the-less, the source point for Hindu orientated Tantra Yoga — as this method of Yoga was first outlined in its pages.
Agama is known as the fifth Veda and is divided into three primary sections. Each section prescribes exacting worship techniques for the Hindu Gods: Vishnu, Shiva, and Shakti. The sections are known as Vaishnava Agamas, Saiva Siddhanta, and Sakta Tantra, respectively. The word Tantra, in this case, is interchangeable with the Sanskrit term Shastra or "Holy Textbook."
Agama is a text devised for Kali Yuga, "The Dark Ages." A time period we are currently existing within. This manuscript is understood to be composed for those practitioners who do not possess enough mental focus to practice the more refined forms of Yoga. Thus, the techniques presented within its pages are looked upon as a method for the lay person, as opposed to the true Yogi.
Modern Tantra Yoga
Modern Tantra Yoga is considered by many Pundits as a degenerate form of the Hindu religion rather than a positive ongoing evolution. This is because of the fact that many of its practices employ methods such as smearing cremation ash on the body and meditating near funeral pyres in order to invoke the psychic power of the non-living.
To traditional Yogis these forms of Sadhana appear to be less than pious acts. Though, in all fairness, the stories of the intense spiritual powers developed by Tantrics who have employed these bizarre methods of spiritual practice have been detailed throughout India.
The Two Paths of Tantra
There are two primary paths of Tantra Yoga, Daksincara and Pancamakara. Daksincara, or the Right Handed Path, is the branch of Tantra Yoga where the practitioner devotes his Sadhana to the more formal and less radical aspects of this branch of Yoga. This limb of Tantra Yoga is often referred to as Laya Yoga, "The Yoga of Meditative Absorption."
Laya Yoga teaches methods for its practitioners to dissolve their personality into the essence of the deity Shiva or Shakti.
Pancamakara or the Left Handed Path is the branch of Tantra which modern society has embraced as a Sexual Yoga.
Shakti and Shiva
As detailed, the Sakta Tantra is the source book for Tantra Yoga. Within its pages are elaborate rituals which teach the proper method for worshiping the Hindu Goddess Shakti.
Worshiping the Goddess Shakti came into favor during the fifth century C.E. in India. As far back as recorded history Goddess worship took place on the Indian subcontinent predominately among the lower castes. In the fifth century, however, this form of worship began to take favor with the literate populous, which gave rise to the creation of the Sakta Tantra.
Shakti is the consort of the Hindu God Shiva. Shiva is one of the three gods which make up the Hindu trilogy of Brahma, "The Creator," Vishnu, "The Preserver," and Shiva, "The Destroyer."
The word Shiva literally means, "The Benevolent." His role, based in the Hindu pantheon, is that of the destroyer of the universe. This understanding teaches that the Hindu God Brahma creates, Vishnu preserves. Thus, there also must be the element which deconstructs — this is Shiva.
From a metaphysical perspective, Shiva is understood to be the destroyer of ignorance.
Shakti is a Devi, "Goddess," she is also the embodiment of a very powerful form of psychic energy. It is believed through her worship that Siddha may be developed. These powers are, however, understood to be very temporal and are often times attributed with causing a person to go insane — as most individuals who attempt to gain these powers, without the directions of a Satguru, "True Teacher," have not developed the mental focus possessed by the true Yogi. Thus, they are not prepared to properly interact with this overwhelming energy.
Within the pages of the Sakta Tantra are described four stages of meditative worship to be used in Tantra Yoga: Kriya, Charya, Shakti Maha Yoga, and Anuttara. Each of these evolving practices is designed to systematically bring the aspirant into closer contact with the Goddess Shakti, until they finally become one with her energy.
The techniques described in the Sakta Tantra take on the form of elaborate ritualistic worship of her deity and meditation upon a Mandala — an artistic diagram used as a focus of meditation which is created to symbolize Shakti energy.
1) Kriya means "Purification." At this initial stage of Tantra Yoga the Yogi must cleanse his body and mind of all levels of impurity. This process takes place, first, through fasting in order to rid the body of toxins. It then moves forward onto the study of holy scriptures, which pertain to Shakti. Finally, Kriya takes on the form of Japa — reciting specific Mantras, known as Dharanis, which invoke the energy of the Goddess Shakti.
One of these Mantras is, "Om Namo Shakti Namai."
2) Charya means, "Conduct." At this level the Yogi furthers his devotion to the Goddess Shakti through the observance of spiritual virtues. These virtues refer to the observance of Brahmacharya, "Celibacy," and the ongoing, deepening, ritualistic devotion to Shakti through worshiping her deity and continually reading scriptures devoted to her.
3) Shakti Maha Yoga is the "Great Yoga of Shakti." This is where the practitioner internalizes his worship of the goddess. This is accomplished by focusing meditation on an image of the Goddess and then mentally seeing the image enter his body and mind.
4) Anuttara is the stage where the Yogi, "Integrates," with the Goddess Shakti and becomes one with her energy.
Pancamakara or, "The Left Handed Path of Tantra," enlists the taking of five-forms of communions: Mada, "Intoxicate," Mamsa, "Meat," Matsya, "Fish," Mudra, "Seal," and Maithuna, "Sexual Intercourse," in a one after the other ritualistic fashion. This is done in order that the practitioner may transcend traditional consciousness and enter into a state of divine interaction.
It must be understood that the techniques employed by Pancamakara were developed in India over one thousand years ago. These methods were designed to shake the consciousness of the average Hindu to the point where they entered into such an abstract reality that they encounter what is known in Japanese as Satori. Literally, "A kick in the eye." The word Satori describing a rapid and instant illumination.
The first step in this process was the taking of Mada, "Intoxicate" also known as Soma.
In ancient India this referred to the smoking of what is now known as Hashish or Opium. These are both very powerful drugs and immediately cause the alteration of consciousness.
The second stage was the eating of Mamsa, "Meat." To the Hindus of ancient India, who were very strict vegetarians, the eating of meat was such a step away from normalcy that even to contemplate doing it would cause them intense internal debate — as they believed it was murder. This is not the case with the modern Western world, however. Which is why it is one of the primary reasons that the techniques delineated in this ancient school of thought have little mind altering effect on the modern practitioner. Eating meat is very common and causes no emotional upheaval. Thus, it cannot cause the alternation of consciousness.
The third stage of communion was Matsya or the eating of fish. The word Matsya is also the word which describes Vishnu, when during one of his earthly incarnations he took on the appearance of a fish. Thus, not only was the ancient Hindu partaking of something they never ate under normal circumstances, but they were literally consuming God, as well. It is fair to say that the modern Tantric Yogi places little religious significance on the eating of fish.
The forth stage of Tantric communion is Mudra, which means, "Seal." This is the stage where the two partners lock their body into a position where their physical beings become sexually aroused. Instead of immediately performing the sexual act, however, they remain locked in this posture for a period of time and begin to consciously exchange energy. This was commonly performed by breathing in synchronization and reciting a Mantra to the divine mother Shakti in order to maintain their focus on the divine logistics for their physical actions.
The final stage, Maithuna, "Sexual intercourse," took place once it was deemed that their bodies were in spiritual unison and that they could merge their energies with Shakti Mata, "Mother Shakti." This sexual act was performed in such a fashion as to hold back the achievement of orgasm in order to allow the energy of the two participants to create an ongoing interactive flow for a prolonged period. From this, their consciousness was believed to be elevated into the realms of the spiritual.
It must be historically noted that for a Hindu to preform a sexual act with an individual outside the realms of marriage was completely forbidden. To engage in these activities, was not only an unacceptable act to society, but it would have resulted in a person, especially a woman, being burned to death. The Western world is not dominated by this style of sociological constraint. As the act of sex holds no absolute taboo, it does not cause a person to enter into a confused internal reality. Thus, no alteration of consciousness is caused.
Understanding Ancient Tantra
This form of Pancamakara Tantra cannot truly be practiced by a Westerner or anyone who has interacted with and embraced modern society. There are many people who attempt to draw on this ancient tradition and bring it into the modern era. Its essence is lost, however, as the world is a much different place, possessing a completely different set of interpersonal definitions, than it was several centuries ago.
Samadhi and Sex
It has long been argued by religious philosophers that the reason God made sex feel so good is that it would cause the human being to desire sex and, thus, procreate. Pancamakara Tantra, on the other hand, defines the reasoning for the ecstatic feeling associated with sex as a glimpse of Samadhi.
It must be understood that no matter what definition you assigned to the human condition and no matter what path you, as a modern Yogi, choose to travel upon, your focus must be on the unification of your human self, "Atman," with your divine self, "Brahman." This is what Yoga is. As such, any action you take, be it formal seated meditation or sex, your consciousness is placed upon uncovering the veil of Maya and consciously embracing the fact that you are moving towards enlightenment.
An extended chapter on this subject can be found in the book: Yoga: A Spiritual Guidebook
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