Tantras

From Hindupedia, the Hindu Encyclopedia

By Swami Harshananda

Every major religion has a founder, a scripture and a church or temple. Hinduism is the solitary exception to this general pattern. It does not have a single founder or a single book or a single church, though great religious leaders, religious books and religious monasteries or organisations are legion. Although the Vedas have been accepted as the basic scriptures by most of the sects and groups of the religion, a number of other religio-philosophical works have appeared over the centuries, many of which have occupied cardinal positions in their sects. The āgamas and the tantras form an important category of literature among these. Originally, the word ‘tantra’ seems to have meant any science or body of knowledge. Gradually it got restricted to a particular class of literature, a literature primarily devoted to the sect of Śakti or the Divine Mother containing the following topics:

  • An amalgam of religion
  • Philosophy
  • Esoteric and occult rites
  • Astronomy
  • Astrology
  • Medicine
  • Prognostications

The tantras resemble to the purāṇas in this aspect. Etymologically the word is derived from its two constituents ‘tan,’ to spread; ‘trai,’ to protect and is supposed to mean any work that spreads or dilates upon many matters like tattvas[1] and mantras[2] and through that knowledge affords protection to the votaries.

Overview of Tantras

Whether the tantras have accepted the authority of the Vedas and hence their subservience to them or have furrowed their own parallel and independent path, is a moot point. If the stress on mokṣa[3] and the place of honor accorded to the varṇa-āśrama-dharmas[4] bespeaks of their allegiance to the Vedas, other practices like the pañcamakāras or śavasādhanā[5] smack of their close association with an aboriginal, non-Vedic society. It may be safer to assume that though they might have originated as a parallel tradition distancing themselves from the Vedic tradition, later teachers of the schools of tantra might have endeavored to bring them much closer to the latter, if not integrate them into it.

Tāntric Literature

First Group

According to the tāntric texts, the tantras are innumerable, sometimes stated to be 64. The number however, varies from scripture to scripture. There are several ways of classifying the tāntric texts. According to one tradition, the works in which Sadāśiva speaks to the Devi are called ‘āgamas’ and those in which the Devi speaks to Sadāśiva or Maheśvara are named as ‘nigamas.’ There are many other tantras also, like Mañjuśrimulakalpa and Guhyasamāja-tantra belonging to the Buddhist tradition.

Second Group

As per another grouping, they are:

  1. Dakṣiṇa
  2. Vāma
  3. Madhyama

Third Group

A third method groups them into three:

  1. Divya
  2. Kaula
  3. Vāma

Yāmala group

Sometimes, mention is also made of two types of tantras, the Yāmala and the Dāmara. The Yāmala group gets its name because it contains the secret conversations between the deity and his consort, who form the couple.[6] The Yāmalatantras are:

  1. Brahmayāmala
  2. Viṣṇuyāmala
  3. Rudrayāmala
  4. Lakṣmiyāmala
  5. Umāyāmala
  6. Skandayāmala
  7. Ganeśayāmala
  8. Ādityayāmala

Ḍāmara Group

‘Ḍāmara’ means a goblin, an attendant of Śiva. It also means ‘wonder’. Hence that class of tantras attributed to Śiva and containing wondrous teachings is ‘Ḍāmaratantra’. The Ḍāmaratantras are:

  1. Yogadāmara
  2. Śivadāmara
  3. Durgādāmara
  4. Sārasvatadāmara
  5. Brahmadāmara
  6. Gandharvadāmara

Other Works

A selected list of works that have been printed, confining it only to the Devi-sect are:

  1. Īśāna-gurudeva-paddhati
  2. Kāmakalāvilāsa
  3. Kaulāvalinirnaya
  4. Kulacudāmani-tantra
  5. Lalitāsahasranāma
  6. Mahānirvāna-tantra
  7. Mantramahodadhi
  8. Nityāsodaśikārnava
  9. Pārānandasutra
  10. Prapañcasāra
  11. Śaktisañgama-tantra
  12. Śāradātilaka
  13. Satcakranirupaṇa
  14. Saundaryalahari
  15. Tantrābhidhāna
  16. Tantrarājatantra
  17. Varivasyārahasya

Contents of the Tantras in Brief

Classification of Topics

Though there are various kinds of āgamas and tantras, certain features are common in all. They avow allegiance to the Vedas, and even claim to interpret them to the current age. However, unlike the Vedas, their doors are open to all, irrespective of caste or sex. The subjects generally dealt with by them are classed under four pādas or steps. They are:

  1. Jñānapāda - The Jñānapāda gives the philosophy or the metaphysics upon which the tantras are based. It is a combination of the Vedāntic and the Sāṅkhyan principles.
  2. Yogapāda - The Yogapāda deals with the sādhanās or the spiritual disciplines that help an individual aspirant to attain union with the Supreme Self, which is the final goal of life.
  3. Kriyāpāda - Since an individual is a part and parcel of the society and since his spiritual progress is closely allied with that of the society, the tantras also give to the society a way of life, a religion, so that both the individual and the society can progress in harmony with each other. Towards the end, the tantras provide the institution of community worship like a temple or through a yāga[7] or through the sacred spots of pilgrimage. These are the topics described in the Kriyāpāda, the third of the series of the four pādas.
  4. Caryāpāda - Caryāpāda, the last, expounds the rituals and the modes of sādhanās needed in an individual’s life. A code of conduct is also given for the benefit of the tyro as well as the adept.

Overview on Topics

A good number of other topics are also dealt with, which may be summarized as follows:

  • Authenticity of the āgamas and the tantras based on the Vedas
  • Creation of the world
  • Manifestation of vaikhari-vāk or the spoken word
  • The letters of the alphabet
  • Various rites connected with dīkṣā or initiation like the Vāstuyāga
  • Categories of dīkṣā
  • Homa[8]
  • Various mantras connected with various deities of the pantheon like Sarasvatī, Śrī or Lakṣmī, Bhuvaneśvarī, Durgā, Viṣṇu, Gaṇapati, Śiva and so on
  • Yantras or geometrical configurations associated with those deities
  • Yogic practices including the descriptions of Kuṇḍalinī
  • Various cakras or psychic centers
  • Others

Philosophy of the Tantras

Sāṅkhya and the Vedānta Systems

The philosophy of the tantras seems to be an amalgamation and modification of the principles propounded by the Sāṅkhya and the Vedānta systems. The prakṛti of Sāṅkhya is the material and insentient cause in nature. The māyā of Vedānta, especially of the Advaita Vedānta, is an ‘entity’ that defies all the descriptions. However, the Śakti of the tantras is a very real power of Śiva, Śiva himself in his dynamic aspect. All the other qualities that are predicated for prakṛti-māyā like its being triguṇātmikā[9] and the upāḍānakāraṇa[10] of the world, hold good for the Śakti of the tantras also.

The ultimate Reality is only the one, Śiva or Śakti or Śiva-Śakti. It is the nature of pure consciousness. The relationship between Śiva and Śakti is like that of fire and its burning power or the word and its meaning. They are two in one or one in two always inseparable. In the inactive state it is Śiva and in the active state it is Śakti. The former is also called Nirguṇa-parameśvara[11] wherein the Śakti is inherent and dormant.

When the Śakti starts awakening, Parameśvara becomes ‘Saguṇa.’ The first evolute of the process of creation is Śakti. From Śakti proceeds para-nāda.[12] From it proceed the apāra-bindu.[13] the bija[14] and the aparanāda[15] considered as the union of the Śiva and the Śakti principles.

From bīja or Śakti[16] proceeds the 23 tattvas or cosmic principles, viz., mahat, ahaṅkāra, the ten indriyas and the mind, the five subtle elements and the five gross elements like the earth, water etc. They number to 24 including Śakti. From the apāra-bindu, identified with Śiva, proceed the five deities viz., Sadāśiva, īśāna, Rudra, Viṣṇu and Brahmā. By adding seven more principles like puruṣa[17] and kāla,[18] the total number of tattvas is raised to 36.

Śakti in the Human Body

In the human body, Śakti resides as the Kuṇḍalinī, the power resembling to a coiled serpent at the mulādhāra-cakra, situated at the base of the spine. When roused through proper sādhanās or spiritual exercises, it rises through five more cakras like the svādhiṣthāna, the anāhata and finally reaches the sahasrāra in the crown of the head, resembling a lotus of thousand petals. There it merges with Śiva resulting in mokṣa or liberation for that individual self. The jīva or the individual soul is none other than Śiva himself, with his freedom covered over or limited by avidyā or nescience, also called āṇava-mala, the impurity that makes him appear small. Through spiritual disciplines, the most important aspect of which is upāsanā or worship and meditation on Śakti as Devi or Divine Mother, he is liberated, attaining unity with the Deity.

Sādhanās as Depicted in the Tantras

As in the six systems of philosophy, even in the tantras, mokṣa or liberation from trans-migratory existence is the ultimate goal of life. The tantras have evolved an elaborate system of sādhanās or spiritual practices that cover all the aspects of the human personality and life. It is as follows:

Guru

The tantras categorically asserts the need for taking dīkṣā or initiation from a competent guru or teacher before starting one’s spiritual sādhanās. A competent guru must be a person of pure parentage and great self-control. He should know the true meaning and essence of the scriptures the Vedas, the āgamas and related scriptures. He should be an adept in pujā,[19] homa,[20] dhyāna[21] and japa.[22] A peaceful disposition and a thorough knowledge of yoga are also necessary. The tantras also warn against accepting false gurus, who feign erudition and holiness, but are motivated by greed and baser instincts.

Śiṣya

The śiṣya or the disciple too must possess certain minimum characteristics which will entitle him to spiritual life. These characteristics are:

  • He must be guileless, must aspire after the puruṣārthas[23] and be fairly well-read in the Vedas.
  • He should be self-controlled and intelligent enough to understand the teachings of the guru and the scriptures.
  • He should be devoted to his parents, discharge his duties well and avoid all pride of birth or wealth or learning.
  • He must be obedient to the guru and be prepared to sacrifice everything for his sake.
  • The tantras declare that the guru must test a person before accepting him as a disciple and vice versa.

Iṣtadevatā

Though God, the Supreme is one without a second, he manifests himself through various forms and emanations, all of which are non-different from him just as sugar-dolls are all sugar only. The particular form a sādhaka or a votary chooses is his ‘iṣṭadevatā,’ ‘the deity dear to him’. He chooses that form for meditation and worship purposes. The tantras advocate meditation and worship of these forms of God since it is much easier for an average human being than contemplating on the Absolute without name and form. Each of these devatās has a mantra or even several mantras or word-symbols, which have to be ceremonially received in dīkṣā or initiation from a qualified guru.

Dīkṣā

Dīkṣā or initiation into spiritual life is so called because it destroys[24] the sins of the disciple and gives[25] knowledge to him. It should be given on a day and time considered to be holy as per the religious calendars. Days of eclipses, especially of the moon, are deemed to be extremely holy. Several varieties of dīkṣā are enumerated in the tāntric works. One of the more well-known categorizations is as follows:

  • Kriyāvatī - The kriyāvatī dīkṣā involves the performance of many rituals by the guru.
  • Varṇamayī - In varṇamayī dīkṣā, the guru infuses the spirit of the varṇas or letters of the alphabet which are associated with Śakti or Devī, in the different parts of the disciple’s body.
  • Kalāvatī - In the kalāvatī dīkṣā the guru locates the existence of kalās or powers of the pañcabhutas like nivṛttikalā or vidyākalā, in the body of the disciple, meditates on them and anoints him.
  • Vedhamayī - In the vedhamayi dikṣā, the guru initiates the disciple only by the power of his thought.

Sometimes three more types of dīkṣā are added:

  1. Sparśadīksā - rousing the spiritual consciousness by sparśa or touch
  2. Vāgdīkṣā - same by uttering the mantra into the ear of the disciple
  3. Dṛgdīkṣā or cākṣuṣī dīkṣā - arousal of spiritual consciousness by looking intently at the disciple

Dīkṣā involves many rituals like the worship of the Vāstupuruṣa,[26] bali or sacrifice and also abhiṣeka done by sprinkling holy water on the disciple. It's simplest form is ‘upadeśa,’ giving the mantra along with certain rules and guidance.

Mantra

Etymological Meaning

The central part of dīkṣā or upadeśa is the imparting of the mantra or the divine word by the guru to the disciple. Etymologically, the word means that which protects[27] the person who reflects[28] upon it. ‘Protection’ in the spiritual sense means protecting from sansāra or trans-migratory existence by giving mokṣa or liberation. The mantras may have their source in the Vedas or the purāṇas or the tantras. Since the last group of works deals primarily with the mantras, it is called as ‘mantraśāstra’ or ‘mantravidyā’.

As per Tantras

A mantra, according to the tantras, is not just a letter of the alphabet or a combination of such letters into a word or a sentence signifying a particular object. It is the sound symbol embodying the form, the power and the consciousness of the supreme Brahman or its manifestations. Before creation, Brahman or Śiva is established in his own effulgence, hence called ‘prakāśa’ which is inactive. When he starts ‘vimarśa’ or deliberating in himself to create the world, there is a spanda or a throb, which develops into nāda or vibration. This nāda gradually gains in power and then gets concentrated to a bindu or a point. This bindu which contains the Śiva-Śakti principle like a dicotyledonous seed further evolves into Śiva and Śakti principles by the union of which the whole universe comes into being.

As per this description of creation given in some tantras, all created objects[29] with ‘rupa,’ shape or form, and ‘nāma’ or name have originated from the primeval nāda, which can now be called ‘Śabda-brahman.’ Hence, it is quite reasonable to assume that every mantra is an aspect of this primeval Word or Śabda-brahman and represents as its artha, a god or a goddess, which again, is a manifestation or emanation of that Brahman. In other words, the mantra contains in itself the form and the spirit of the deity, whose mantra it is. This deity is revealed by the proper repetition of the mantra, in course of time.

The tantras categorize the mantras as saura[30] and saumya.[31] They may be masculine, feminine or neuter. The masculine and the neuter mantras are called ‘mantra’ whereas the feminine mantras are called ‘vidyā’. Mantras ending with hum, vaṣaṭ or phaṭ are masculine, those ending with svāhā or vauṣaṭ are feminine and those ending with namabi are neuter. The tantras christen certain monosyllabic mantras like hrim or klīm as bījamantras or bījākṣaras. Just as a seed evolves in course of time into a mighty tree giving plenty of fruits, a bījamantra also can give the siddhi attributed to it if repeated properly, like the revelation of the deity of that mantra.

For the efficacy of a mantra, it should always be received from a qualified guru in a proper way. The tantras describe the various processes that help in rousing the power of a mantra and make it effective. Few of them are:

  • Mukha-śodhana - purification of mouth
  • Jihvā-śodhana - purification of the tongue
  • Aśaucabhaṅga - destroying the impurity of the mantra
  • Nidrābhaṅga - awakening the mantra from slumber
  • Etc.

They also recommend ten saṅskāras or ritual purification processes like dīpanī, which consist in repeating the bija-mantra seven times, preceded and followed by praṇava.[32] All these have to be learnt directly from a competent teacher and should not be experimented with, by learning them from books. A theory advocated by the tantras regarding the evolution of śabda or sound and its corollary, vāk or speech, from the subtle unmanifest state to the fully manifested state is worth mentioning here.

When a person speaks, four stages of evolution of speech are involved in it. The speech is first rooted in the mulādhāra-cakra as the un-manifest sound. It is then called ‘parāvāk’. When it starts getting awakened and reaches the maṇipuracakra at the navel, it has just started showing subtle vibrations. It is now called ‘paśyanti-vāk’. On its further rising to the anāhata-cakra in the region of the heart, these vibrations have already assumed definite and clear thought-forms. It is then called ‘madhyamā-vāk’. It now comes out as fully articulated speech, the spoken word, called ‘vaikhari-vāk’.

Japa

A mantra becomes effective only when its japa is done. That is, it should be repeated a prescribed number of times as per the directions of the guru. Japa is of three types.

  • It is ‘vācika’ or ‘ucca’ when done audibly.
  • It is ‘upāihśu’ if done in whispering tones.
  • If it is done mentally, it is ‘mānasa’.

The last is considered to be the most efficacious. During japa, the counting of the number can be done either by hand or by a japamālā.[33] The number recommended can vary. For instance, it can be 10 or 12, 28 or 32 or 108, the last number being the most widely recognized. A human being is supposed to breathe 21,600 times in a day of 24 hours. Leaving aside half this time for sleep, looking after the needs of the body and contingencies, the breathing during the waking and active state is 10,800 times. Actually the number 108 symbolically represents 10,800. In other words, a votary is expected to utter the mantra with every breath and the number 108 is a reminder of that ideal.

Puraścarana

The tantras deal with puraścaraṇa, an important topic closely related to the japa of a mantra. The word literally means ‘performing or carrying[34] before puras.’ However, various interpretations have been offered. Perfecting of the procedure of the mulamantra,[35] since it has to be practiced before the acts in which it is to be employed is called as ‘puraścaraṇa’ by some works. According to the others, the sādhana puraścaraṇa is so called because the deity of the aspirant, pleased by his devoted practice, moves before him. It has several constituent elements:

  • Dhyāna - meditation on the form of the deity
  • Pujā - ritualistic worship
  • Japa of the mantra
  • Homa - oblations into the duly consecrated fire
  • Tarpaṇa - satiating the deity with the ceremonial offering of water
  • Brāhmaṇa-bhojana - feeding brāhmaṇas of good conduct

If any of these constituent elements cannot be performed, it can be replaced by more japa of the mantra as specified in the tāntric works. According to another method, repeating the mantra one thousand times per day for eight days, starting it on a Tuesday and ending it on the subsequent Tuesday is also puraścaraṇa. Some works recommend the repetition of the mantra 24 lakhs of times, followed by an offering of 24 thousand oblations of pāyasa or pudding into the duly consecrated fire. By this type of puraścaraṇa, the mantra becomes perfected and confers on the sādhaka whatever he desires.

The puraścaraṇa of a mantra on the days of solar or lunar eclipse, while standing in navel-deep water is stated to be extremely efficacious. Certain spots like a place of pilgrimage, the bank of a river, a cave or a mountain-top, sea-shore or the precincts of a temple are recommended to be more suitable for the practice of puraścaraṇa. All the tāntric works emphasize that unless the mantra has been received from a qualified guru in dīkṣā and the sādhanā is done under his guidance, neither puraścaraṇa nor japa becomes effective.

Pujā

Pujā or ritualistic worship of the deity is a very important part of tantra-sādhanā. It forms a part of puraścaraṇa also. When a respected or a beloved guest arrives in a house, the master of the house receives him warmly and offers him all that makes him comfortable and happy. This is the spirit behind pujā where the guest is God himself.

In any pujā, the preliminary processes include saṅkalpa or religious resolve and ceremonial purification of all the items involved in it as the āsana or seat, the vessels and the flowers. BhutāpaŚaraṇa or driving away all the evil spirits that may obstruct the pujā is another important item. Prāṇāyāma or regulation of the mind through the control of breath, bhutaśuddhi or purifying the elements that compose the body of the worshiper, nyāsas or placement of the fingers of the hand on the different parts of the body with a view to purifying them, dhyāna or meditation are the other important steps. However, the cardinal part of pujā is the ‘upacāras’ or the ways of ritual service. In the shortest mode of pujā they are five only:

  1. Gandha - sandal paste
  2. Puṣpa - flowers
  3. Dhupa - incense
  4. Dīpa - lighted lamp
  5. Naivedya - food

In a more detailed forms, they are raised to ten or sixteen or even eighteen. Some of them are:

  1. Āvāhana - inviting the deity
  2. Pādya and arghya - water for washing feet and hands
  3. Snāna - bath
  4. Vastra - cloth
  5. Yajñopavita - sacred thread
  6. Namaskāra - obeisance
  7. Visarjana or udvāsana - bidding adieu to the deity

Homa

Homa or oblations of prescribed things like ghee into a duly consecrated fire, can be done either independently or as a part of pṅjā or even puraścaraṇa. Generally, a yantra or a geometrical drawing representing the deity is drawn as directed, the sacrificial fuel sticks arranged over it and the fire is ceremonially lit. After some preliminary processes of purification, the deity, to appease whom the homa is being done, is invoked into it and the various upacāras are offered. After the saṅkalpa or resolve, in which the purpose and the manner of offering the oblations are stated, the oblations are poured into it with the appropriate mantra. The actual number of oblations can be 8 or 28 or 32 or 108 or even 1008, as stated in the saṅkalpa. The materials considered fit for offering are:

  1. Ghee
  2. Barley
  3. Cooked rice
  4. Flower
  5. Bilva[36] leaves
  6. A few other prescribed things

Yantra

The word ‘yantra’ in its most general sense means an instrument by which anything is accomplished. In worship, it is a diagram drawn or engraved or painted on prescribed materials like metal, stone or paper or even a leaf, that helps one to subdue[37] his passions like lust and anger and gain greater concentration.

While a maṇḍala, a geometrical figure drawn with colored powders, can be used for the worship of any deity, a yantra also called as ‘cakra’, is specific only to a particular deity. Every deity of the pantheon has its own yantra. If the deity is the soul, the yantra is its body. Apart from the geometrical drawing or pattern that is appropriate to the deity, a yantra also contains its mantra inscribed at the proper place. The presence of the deity is invoked into the yantra by worship, the procedure of which is very similar to that of a pratimā or image. A yantra wherein the deity has been roused by duly worshiping it, can then be used for any purpose, especially for the fulfillment of one’s desires sanctioned by the tāntric works.

Nyāsas and Mudrās

Transformation of thoughts is the transformation of being. If the various parts of the sādhaka’s body are touched by his fingers and palms with the appropriate mantras, that will induce the presence of the deity in him, thereby transforming him and making him fit for the ritual or the particular process of sādhanā. This is the general principle behind the nyāsas and mudrās. The word ‘nyāsa’ comes from the root ‘nyas’.[38] It is generally done by placing the tips of the fingers and the palm of the right hand on the various parts of the body accompanied by particular mantras. There are several nyāsas out of which a few, the more common ones, can now be described. Jīvanyāsa is that by which the sādhaka establishes the iṣṭadevatā in the region of the heart and thus becomes one with it.

Vyāpakanyāsa, performed by passing the hands all over the body from top to bottom, helps him to feel the presence of the deity as pervading the whole body. In mātṛkānyāsa, which is done with the letters of the alphabet, the various letters are placed mentally in the cakras or psychic centres of the body[39] and also in other limbs outside[40] thereby feeling the competence to know Sabdabrahman in himself.

In pīṭhanyāsa, the internal seat[41] in the region of the heart, is made fit for the residence of the deity. Sometimes, the word is interpreted as establishing the various Śakti-pīṭhas[42] inside one’s own body in a subtle way.

In ṛṣyādinyāsa, the ṛṣi or the sage, the chandas or the Vedic metre and the devatā or the deity are remembered and homage is paid to them. In karanyāsa and aṅganyāsa, the fingers of the two hands[43] and the limbs of the body[44] like the heart and the head, are sanctified to make them fit for worship and meditation.

Like nyāsas, mudrās also find an important place in the tāntric rituals. The word mudrā is interpreted as that which pleases the deity and makes its heart melt out of compassion for the votary and hence grant his desires.[45][46][47] In a technical sense, the term ‘mudrā’ has several meanings:

  1. Pose of hand as in dance or in pujā
  2. Posture of the body as in Haṭhayoga
  3. As one of the five makāras, it means various kinds of grains mixed with ghee
  4. A woman companion of the tāntric sādhaka

However, it is used widely in the sense of poses of fingers or of hand or hands in relation to worship and meditation. Some of the more common mudrās are:

  1. Āvāhanamudrā used to invite and welcome the deity in pujā
  2. Kurmamudrā used in meditation on the deity
  3. Avaguṇṭhanamudrā and matsyamudrā used in offering food in pujā to the deity.

Even the grāsamudrā and prāṇādi-pañcamudrās. Dhenumudrā, goyonimudrā and nārācamudrā are some of the other more commonly used mudrās. The number of mudrās as given in the tāntric works and even purāṇas, differs considerably. The number varies from 9 up to 108.

Kuṅdalini and Cakras

Brahman and Śakti are like the two sides of the same coin. The external world is the creation of Śakti associated with Brahman. Inside the bodies of human beings, Śakti takes the form of Kuṇḍalinī. Kuṇḍalinī is the basic energy of the entire human being. It is generally pictured as a coiled serpent[48] lying asleep at the base of the spinal column, called as ‘ādhāracakra’ or ‘mṅlādhāracakra’. When it is aroused by proper sādhanās under the guidance of a competent guru, it passes through the brahmanāḍī of the suṣumnā canal, pierces through the various cakras, ultimately reaching the sahasrāra, where it gets united with Śiva.

According to the works on tantra, there are three nādīs[49] in the region of the spinal column. In its center passes the suṣumnā and to its right, the piṅgalā. The iḍā is on the left. Idā and piṅgalā are intertwined over the spinal column. Inside the suṣumnā is the vajriṇī nāḍī. Inside it is citriṇī and brahmanādī is the inmost. While in the dormant state, the Kuṇḍalinī lies at the bottom of the mulādhāra closing the brahmanādī with its mouth.

The cakras are so called since they are circular in shape.[50] They are actually psychic centres of consciousness and power, situated in the sukṣmaśarīra or the subtle body, corresponding to certain parts of the physical body.

  • The ādhāracakra or the mulādhāra is situated at the base of the spine behind the anus.
  • The svādhiṣṭhāna is at the root of the sex-organ.
  • The maṇipura is at the navel.
  • The anāhata is at the region of the heart.
  • The viśuddha is at the throat.
  • The ājñā is between the eyebrows.
  • The sahasrāra is in the top of the head.

These cakras are likened to lotuses, each with a certain number of petals, color and certain mātṛkās[51] inscribed on them. The petals are the nādis or subtle nerve channels, which surround and function through each of these centers. The table gives the details of cakras at a glance. These six cakras together are collectively called ‘ṣaṭcakras’ and the piercing act of the Kuṇḍalini is designated as ‘ṣaṭcakrabheda’. The sahasrāra of thousand petals situated at the top of the head is the seventh cakra and is the destination of Kuṇḍalinī.

When the Kuṇḍalinī is aroused, the mulādhāra lotus rises up and opens its petals. After the Kunḍalinī leaves it, it assumes its original position as a bud hanging downwards. This procedure applies to all the other cakras also. After reaching the sahasrāra, the Kunḍalinī comes back to its original place. Repeated practice of the Kuṇḍalinīyoga will result in the flooding of all the cakras with amṛta or nectar of bliss, ultimately resulting in mukti or liberation.

Table of Cakras

Name Location No. of Petals Color Matrkas Elements Bijakṣara
Mulādhāra Perineum 4 Blood-red va, śa, ṣa, sa Pṛthī or Earth Lam
Svādhiṣtāna Base of genital organ 6 Vermillion ba, bha, ma, ya, ra, la Ap or water Vam
Maṇipura Navel 10 Blue ḍa, ḍha, ṇa, ta, tha, da, dha, na, pa, pha Tejas or fire Ram
Anāhata Heart 12 Red ka, kha, ga, gha, ña, ca, cha, ja, jha, ña, ta, tha Vāyu or air Yam
Viśuddha Throat 16 Smoke-grey All the 16 owels Ākāśa or ether Ham
Ājñā Middle of eyebrows 2 White ha, kṣa Beyond the elements Mahat - Om

Some Allied and Relevant Topics

Classification of Ācāras

The tāntric literature encompasses a very vast area of subjects. Differences exist not only on the relative importance of the subjects but also on the subjects themselves. Presented below are some of the more commonly accepted concepts. These works present seven types of ācāra or modes of sādhanā as follows:

  1. Vedācāra
  2. Vaiṣṇavācāra
  3. Śaivācāra
  4. Dakṣiṇācāra
  5. Vāmācāra
  6. Siddhāntācāra
  7. Kaulācara

However, these seven are more commonly grouped into two, the Dakṣiṇācāra and the Vāmācāra. The words may mean the ‘right-hand path’ and the ‘left-hand path’; or the ‘favorable path’ and the ‘path involving vāmā or woman.’

Worship in Different Ācāras

  • Worship of the deity Dakṣiṇakālikā, following the Vedic modes of worship and sādhanā and even belief in the varṇāśrama system, characterize the Dakṣiṇācāra.
  • Vāmācāra needs some explanation and elaboration. It is called as ‘Cīnācāra’ also, since the sage Vasiṣṭha is said to have introduced it after learning it from the Buddha in Cīnadeśa,[52] where it was prevalent.
  • Another name commonly attributed to it is ‘Kaulācāra’ or ‘Kaulamārga’.
  • Kula’ means ‘Śakti’ and the name itself is derived from the fact that the worship of Śakti is predominant in this system of sādhanā.

However, other interpretations are also offered for the word kula and Kulācāra.

Significance of Tattvas in Worship

The pañcatattvas or pañcamakāras are:

  1. Madya - wine
  2. Mānsa - flesh
  3. Matsya - fish
  4. Mudrā - parched grain
  5. Maithuna - coition

They are the most essential parts of this sādhanā system. They are meant for the sādhakas of the vīra-type,[53] that too under the strict supervision of a competent guru. The vīra-sādhaka is one who has risen to much higher levels of spiritual evolution and hence has great self-control. However, gross abuse of these five tattvas by the lowest of the sādhakas of the paśu-type with un-sublimated animal passions, has earned a bad name for the whole system, aver some of the tantras. This has led to some of them inventing harmless substitutes like coconut water for madya, garlic for mānsa or brinjal for matsya and so on; or even give highly symbolic interpretations[54] to the same. Later writers have strongly condemned these abuses and tried to restore the purity of the system.

Stages of Tāntric Sādhaka

A tāntric sādhaka has to rise from the level of the paśu to that of the vīra and then to the divya[55] state. If a vīra-sādhaka has cultivated the divine virtues by great effort, they are most naturally and effortlessly revealed in the divya-sādhaka. One who is an adept in the Kaulācāra and has reached the summit of realization is called a ‘paramahañsa’ and he has transcended all the rules of conduct normally prescribed for the lower sādhakas since he is able to see the divine Śakti in all.

Samayācāra

Another ācāra that is often mentioned in the tāntric works is the Samayācāra, which is distinguished from the Dakṣiṇācāra, the Vāmācāra and Kaulācāra. In this tradition, the Devī is called ‘Samayā’ and she personifies the very import of the Vedic tradition. Hence Samayācāra is the conduct in accord with the Vedic tradition and for all the practical purposes, can be identified with the Vedācāra listed among the seven ācāras. In this school, Śiva and Śakti are equally important. Stress is laid on the antaryāga or internal worship and the rousing of the Kuṇḍalinī through successive stages of upāsanā or meditation. Worship of the Śrīcakra or Śrīyantra is an important aspect of this school. The Samayācāra is sometimes called the ‘Kādimata’ also. This takes us to another topic connected with the Śrīcakra.

Śrīcakra

The Śrīcakra is a yantra formed by five inverted triangles and four straight triangles as also diagrams of several petals of lotus, with a dot in the centre and some lines at the extremities. It represents the Devi and the gradual evolution of creation from her, associated with Śiva. When the Śrīcakra is built up in a three-dimensional form, it is called ‘meru.’ Worship of the meru is considered even better than that of the yantra. The worship of the Śrīcakra is invariably associated with Śrīvidyā, initiation into which is a must for any sādhaka of the Samayācāra. ‘Vidyā’ means ‘mantra’. ‘Śrīvidyā’ means the mantra associated with the Śrīcakra. It is also called ‘pañcadaśākṣarīmantra’ since it contains pañcadaśa or 15 letters. In the most common form, they are distributed into three units of 5 letters, 6 letters and 4 letters. In this, the very first letter of the first unit is ‘ka.’ Hence the Samayācāra which lays great emphasis on the repetition and use of this mantra, is called ‘Kādi-mata’, the school advocating the mantra beginning[56] with ka. The sage Agastya is said to be the promulgator of this school.

Hādi-maṭa

As against this, there is the ‘Hādi-maṭa,’ the school attributed to Lopāmudrā[57] which stresses the importance of another pañcadaśākṣarī mantra that begins with the letter ‘ha.’ The difference between the two versions of the pañcadaśākṣarī is in the number of effective letters used. Whereas the former has seven letters, the latter has only five.

Ṣoḍaśākṣarī-Mantra

A ṣoḍaśākṣarī-mantra is also in vogue where the sixteenth letter[58] is ‘śrīih,’ the other 15 letters being the same. The Samaya tradition uses two more words antaryāga and bahiryāga. The latter consists of worshiping the Śrīcakra in the traditional Vedic way with all the upacāras or ingredients. The former is the meditation on the unity of the goddess and the Śrīcakra, the world and the Śrīcakra, the body and the jivātman and also the alphabet and the goddess.

Śavasādhanā

One of the strangest, but abominable, tāntric practices mentioned in some of the works is the śavasādhanā or the ritual of the corpse. The corpse of a healthy person who has just died is secured, washed and anointed. The sādhaka has to sit upon it and meditate on the Devī at midnight, on a new-moon day. If he survives the terrible experiences, he will attain siddhi or command over every aspect of life. Some scholars believe that this śavasādhanā was a typical and clumsy remnant of a primitive belief or ritual connected with death and revival.

Śaktipithas

There are several places of pilgrimage associated with Śakti or the Mother- goddess. They are called ‘Śaktipithas,’ or the seats of power,[59] associated with Śakti. A ritual visit to these places is said to confer great religious merit.

Legend behind Śaktipīṭha

The number of such pīṭhas seems to have grown gradually from 4 to 51 or even 108. However the number seems to have got fixed at 51 in course of time. There is an interesting paurāṇic legend behind the formation of these Śaktipīṭhas. When Satī-Dākṣāyaṇī immolated herself in the sacrificial shed of Dakṣa[60] since he had humiliated her and her husband Śiva, Śiva carried away her body. Being inconsolable, he started roaming about the world, with the dead body on his back. Then Viṣṇu, at the behest of the gods, started cutting that body by his cakra or discus so that Śiva might overcome his infatuation. Wherever pieces of that body fell, that place became a place of pilgrimage associated with Śakti, a Śaktipīṭha.

Significance of Śaktipīṭhas

Each of these 51 Śaktipīṭhas is associated with a letter of the alphabet, a part of Satī’s body, an aspect of the Devī, a corresponding aspect of Śiva, identified with a modern place in the present-day India-Pakistan-Bangladesh region and a special tāntric attainment that can be got by sādhanā there. For instance, the Kāśmīra-pīṭha[61] is associated with the letter ‘u’. It is the place where Devi’s left ear or neck fell. Mahāmāyā is the goddess and Trisandhyeśvara is the god. Fulfillment of whatever mantra is repeated here, is the attainment.

Famous Śaktipīṭhas

Some of the other famous Śaktipīthas are:

  1. Hiṅgula in Baluchistan[62]
  2. Karavīra in Kolhapur[63]
  3. Vārāṇasī[64]
  4. Jvālāmukhī[65]
  5. Kāmākhyā[66]
  6. Janasthāna[67]
  7. Prabhāsa[68]
  8. Jālandhara[69]
  9. Kanyakāśrama[70]
  10. Ujjayinī[71]
  11. Kāñcī[72]
  12. Trisrotā[73]
  13. Kālīpīṭha[74]

Conclusion

The tantras are a neglected branch of scriptures. Whether they originated as an off-shoot of the Vedic religion or were a parallel tradition developed by the brāhminical hierarchy or were ‘imported’ from China and Tibet which have undoubtedly enriched the religion in all its aspects, especially in the field of rituals and spiritual practices. Hence serious attempts should be made to properly edit and publish many of these works which are still lying in the manuscript forms in the libraries of the institutions and individuals.

References

  1. Tattvas means fundamental principles.
  2. Mantras are the sacred words and syllables.
  3. Mokṣa means freedom from trans-migratory existence.
  4. Varṇa-āśrama-dharmas means duties based on castes and stations in life.
  5. Śavasādhanā is to be explained later.
  6. Yāmala means united or couple.
  7. Yāga means sacrifice.
  8. Homa means fire ritual.
  9. Triguṇātmikā means comprising the three guṇas named sattva, rajas and tamas.
  10. Upāḍānakāraṇa means material cause.
  11. Nirguṇa-parameśvara means the Lord without attributes.
  12. Para-nāda means the unmanifested sound or vibration which gives rise to para-bindu, the higher bindu or point.
  13. Apāra-bindu means lower bindu or point, identified with the Śiva-principle.
  14. Bija means identified with the Śakti-principle.
  15. Aparanāda means the lower sound or vibration.
  16. Śakti is also called Śabda-brahma, Parāśakti or Paradevatā.
  17. Puruṣa means the individual soul.
  18. Kāla means time.
  19. Pujā means worship.
  20. Homa means pouring oblations into a duly consecrated fire.
  21. Dhyāna means meditation.
  22. Japa means repetition of the divine name.
  23. Puruṣārthas means goals of human existence.
  24. Diksi means to destroy.
  25. Dā means to give.
  26. Vāstupuruṣa literally means Cosmic Being.
  27. Tra means to protect.
  28. Man means to reflect.
  29. These objects are called ‘artha’.
  30. Saura means solar.
  31. Saumya means lunar.
  32. It means ohm.
  33. Japamālā means rosary.
  34. It means caraṇa.
  35. Mulamantra means the basic mantra of a deity.
  36. He is Aegle marmelos.
  37. Yantra means niyantraṇa which implies subduing.
  38. Nyas means ‘to place’.
  39. It is called antarmātṛkā-nyāsa.
  40. It is called Bahirmātṛkānyāsa
  41. Pīṭha means seat.
  42. They are the places of pilgrimage sacred to the Devī or Śakti, such as Kāmarupa in Assam or Jālandhara in Haryana.
  43. Kara means hand.
  44. Aṅga means limb.
  45. Mud means pleasure.
  46. Drav means to melt.
  47. Rā means to give.
  48. Kuṇdali means serpent here.
  49. Nādīs means canal-like structures for the flow of prāṇic energy.
  50. Cakra means wheel or disc.
  51. Mātṛkās means letters of the alphabet as mantras.
  52. It means Tibet or China.
  53. It means heroic type.
  54. These interpretations refer to madya as intoxicating knowledge of God; maithuna as union of the Kuṇḍalinī with Śiva and so on.
  55. Divya means divine.
  56. It is called ādi.
  57. Lopāmudrā was the wife of the sage Agastya.
  58. Soḍaśa means 16.
  59. Pīṭha means seat.
  60. He was her father.
  61. It is in the Amarnāth Cave.
  62. It is now in Pakistan.
  63. It is in Maharashtra.
  64. It is in Uttar Pradesh.
  65. It is in Punjab.
  66. It is in Assam.
  67. It is in Nasik, Maharashtra.
  68. It is in Girnar hills in Gujarat.
  69. It is in Haryana.
  70. It is in Kanyākumarī temple, Tamil Nadu.
  71. It is in Rudrasāgar, Madhya Pradesh.
  72. It is in Śivakāñcī, Tamil Nadu.
  73. It is in West Bengal.
  74. It is in Kālīghāt temple of Calcutta.
  • The Concise Encyclopedia of Hinduism, Swami Harshananda, Ram Krishna Math, Bangalore