The System of Tantra and Related Resources
The word tantra (Sanskrit: तन्त्र) is derived from Tantu, meaning the thread
or the connecting element in the body. The connecting element is God himself, who
is also known as tantu nama who acts as the uniting or connecting aspect of the
whole creation as the bearer of the thread (sutradhari). Tantra may also mean the
spiritual practice related to the body (tan) as opposed to mantra, which is the
practice associated with the mind (tan).
Tantra also refers to any systematic "text, theory, system, method, instrument,
technique or practice.” Just as Sutra literature, the Tantra literature constitutes
spiritual knowledge or knowledge of libeation. Literally it means weaving, which
may be a reference to the transformation or purification of the mind and body into
a perfect vehicle of pure consciousness through the weaving of the esoteric knowledge
of the scriptures into the mind. It may also mean weaving the knowledge of the scriptures
into perfected systems, methods or techniques for liberation.
The word appears in the hymns of the Rigveda such as in 10.71, with the meaning
of "warp (weaving).” It is found in many other Vedic era texts, such as in section
10.7.42 of the Atharvaveda and many Brahmanas. In these and post-Vedic texts, the
contextual meaning of Tantra is that which is "principal or essential part, main
point, model, framework, feature". In the Smritis and epics of Hinduism (and Jainism),
the term means "doctrine, rule, theory, method, technique or chapter" and the word
appears both as a separate word and as a common suffix, such as atma-tantra meaning
"doctrine or theory of Atman (soul, self).”
Panni, the grammarian (fifth century BCE?), explained the meaning of Tantra using
the example of “sva-tantra) as an independent person, who is his own "warp, cloth,
weaver, promoter, karta (actor)". In his commentary (Mahābhāṣya) Patanjali accepted
Panini's definition, discussed it at length. He used the word 18 times, stating
that the metaphorical definition of "warp (weaving), extended cloth" was relevant
to many contexts. He used “svatantra" to mean "one who is self-dependent, who is
his own master and for whom the principal thing is himself.” Probably it may be
one of the earliest interpretations or definitions of tantra. He also offered a
semantic definition of Tantra, stating that it referred to the structural rules,
standard procedures, centralized guide or knowledge in any field which could be
applied to many elements. Scholars of ancient Mimamsa school of Hinduism also extensively
used the term tantra offering various definitions. For example:
Tantra as a system of spiritual practice and means to liberation might have originated
in ancient India along with the development of many ascetic and contemplative practices
and internalization of the Vedic rituals and probably gained momentum in the Gupta
and post Gupta periods. The Atharva Veda which contains many esoteric rituals may
be considered one of the earliest tantric texts. Certain concepts of Tantra are
also traceable in the earliest Upanishads such as the Brihadaranyaka, Chandogya
and Svetasvatara Upanishads, especially in the descriptions about the nadis and
the flow of breath
The rise of tantra might have also coincided with the emergence of theistic traditions
namely Shaivism, Vaishnavism and Shaktism. Many tantric texts centered on Vishnu,
Shiva or Shakti emerged in the early Christian era. In Buddhism, Tantra gained importance
with the rise of the Vajrayana Buddhism. Tantric Hindu and Buddhist traditions influenced
other Eastern religious traditions such as Jainism, the Tibetan Bön tradition, Daoism
and the Japanese Shintō tradition.
Some scholars suggest that certain modes of non-Vedic worship such as Puja might
have their roots in tantric methods of worship. The very construction of Hindu temples
also denotes the influence of Tantra not only on Hindu methods of worship but also
on art and architecture. Our knowledge of Tantra is derived mostly from the Tantric
texts, Agamas and Vedas.
According to Flood, the earliest date for the Tantra texts related to Tantric
practices is AD 600, though most of them were probably composed after the 8th century
onwards. By the 10th century an extensive body of knowledge existed. Regionally,
the tantric texts were mostly composed during this period in Kashmir and Nepal.
They were also called agamas in Shaivism, samhita or Pancaratra in Vaishnavism,
and as tantras in Shaktism.
The Buddhists developed their own corpus of Tantras, which became the textual
basis of Vajrayana. In Jainism, secondary texts suggest a substantial body of knowledge
related to Tantra based on the Surya tradition developed in the western regions
of India. However, the manuscripts were mostly lost and did not survive.
Although Tantra has a long history, it did not gain wider acceptance among the
more traditional minded Hindus, Buddhists and Jains. Those who practiced the right-hand
methods of Vedic worship and Vedic rituals, rejected the Tantra texts. Followers
of Tantra on the other hand used both right-hand (Vedic) and left-hand (tantric)
methods of worship, holding the latter as superior or higher.
For more information on Tantra, you may check the following links.
1. The introduction is adapted from Wikipedia with necessary
modifications and improvements.
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