The Tantric revelation
Like the Vedas, the tantras are considered a revelation of divine origin, the very voice of God, or āptavākya. Different seers or Tantric rishis transmitted their transcendental experience for the benefit of humanity through the lineages of disciplic succession, one generation after another, from master to disciple. Sanat Kumara, Dattatreya, and Parashurama are a few such Tantric sages, among many others. The tantras have been classified into five different categories:
1. Shaiva Tantra, in which Shiva is the master and the disciple is Parvati.
2. Shakta Tantra, in which Shakti is the supreme.
3. Ganapatya tantra, in which Ganesha is the principal deity.
4. Saurya Tantra, in which the sun is the primordial force.
5. Vaishnava Tantra, in which Narayana is the principal deity.
Within these five categories, Shaiva Tantra, Vaishnava Tantra and Shakta Tantra are the ones still active in India. According to Shaiva tradition, their āgamas were revealed directly by Śiva; according to the Vaishnavas, their saṁhitās were received from Lord Viṣṇu; the Śāktas state that their tantras come directly from the Devi, or the Mother Goddess of the universe.
Tantra-yoga and the Vedic religion
Originally, the sacred Tantric wisdom was by chains of disciplic succession, or paramparas, which were parallel or interlaced with the Vedic lineages. The beginning of each lineage goes back to the first Tantric seers or rishis, which were the receptacles of the revelation. The wisdom was personally passed along from master to disciple, generation after generation, in an oral manner. Between the 8th and 12th centuries C.E., the Tantric literature flourished and much of this wisdom was put into writing. The influence of the tantra-śāstra can be seen in many aspects of Hindu life, especially in Assam, Bengal, and Kashmir, as well as in the southern regions of the subcontinent.
There is a great controversy between the different scholars about the origin of the Tantric tradition. Some occult practices recommended by the tantras are contradicting the path proposed by the Vedas. As an example we can quote some of the practices in the Yoni Tantra, the Kumari Tantra, the Niruttama Tantra, the Gupta Sadhana Tantra. We particularly refer to the cinacara practices that belong to the group of tantras mentioned above. Based on this, most of the scholars think that the religion of the tantras is different from the Vedic one. On the other hand, because the roots of most of the elements of Tantric ritualism are found in the Vaidikadharma, many incline to think that the origins of tantra are Vedic. In fact, both the tantras and the practices they imply are divided to Asktika, or Vedic, and Nastika, or non-Vedic. Most of the practices recommended by the tantras belong to the Vedic religion. Even scriptures such as Kulārṇava-tantra (2.10) do not consider tantra to be separate or disconnected from vaidika-dharma, but form the very essence of the Vedic religion as affirmed in the following verse:
“Oh, Devi! After stirring the great ocean of the Vedas and Agamas with the rod of this wisdom, the Kula-Dharma was extracted by me, the knower of the essence.”
And in the verse 2.85, there:
“The Kula-śāstra also has these six limbs (the six Vedic darśanas), therefore, O beloved one, know that Kula-śāstra is of Vedic nature.”
Likewise, according to Bhāskararāya Bhārati o Bhāsurānandanātha (1690-1785), a great master and indisputable authority in everything related to the worship of the Divine Mother within the worship of Śrī-vidyā or the goddess Lalitā-tripura-sundarī, the tantras include the essence of the upaniṣads within themselves.
Similarly, the famous and respected śākta Tantric scripture called Tripura-rahasya states: “This text has been created as a synthesis of the Vedic teachings, the Puranas and other scriptures”. The reality is that the philosophical differences between the pro-Vedic tantras and the non-Vedic ones are minimal. The difference between the two lies in the concession that the non-Vedic tantras grant to the sensual pleasures and the enjoyment of the senses. In other words, the differences between both traditions are more related to their attitude than to the essence of their teachings, whereas the tantras with more of a Vedic inclination choose the path of renunciation.
The Vedic religion includes the path of pleasure and enjoyment called pravritti or bhoga, and the path of renunciation, called nivritti or tyaga. The path of action, which points at the appropriate function of the society, is called karma kanda, and the path of knowledge that leads to renunciation and enlightenment is called jñana kanda. Tantra wisely harmonizes pravritti and nivrtti, bringing enlightenment closer to those who do not take the path of renunciation. Generally, the Vedic tradition considers sense enjoyment to be an obstacle on the path that leads to liberation. On the other hand, according to the path of tantra, enjoyment can be directed towards enlightenment. Just as Patanjali Maharishi points out in his Yoga Sutras:
“Nature, its three qualities, and the derived categories, the elements and the senses, exist for the enjoyment and the liberation of the one who sees.” Yoga Sutras (2.18)
Thus, tantra is a path of liberation that offers a fusion between pravṛtti, or “the positive use of the material conditions,” and nivṛtti, meaning “the renunciation of the material conditions,” harmony between pleasure and renunciation. Consequently, tantra is capable of transforming bhoga, or sense enjoyment, into yoga, just as it is shown in Kulārṇava-tantra (2.23-24):
“O Beloved One, (in other systems it is said that) if someone is a yogi he is therefore not a bhogī (a sensual person), and he who is a bhogī will not be a knower of yoga. The Kula system has both mundane enjoyment and yoga, therefore it is superior.”
So that bhoga is not enjoyed for itself, but for yoga, or union, with the ultimate reality.
“Oh, Kuleśvarī! In Kula-dharma, the mundane pleasures (bhoga) are in fact converted into yoga, sin becomes merit and the world becomes a state of liberation.”
Tantra accepts that in fact everything is Divine. Therefore, it does not reject anything in us, any aspect of our reality, but it tries to accept, transform and purify everything. In this way, it does not reject this world for another, it does not renounce happiness here with the objective of obtaining happiness thereafter, as it is expressed by the Mahā-nirvāṇa-tantra (2. 20):
“There is no other path like that of tantra, which is the cause of liberation and realization of happiness, in this world and the next, which is both for liberation and happiness.”
Tantra does not reject the part in order to search the Whole because it is a holistic wisdom that invites us to discover the “macro” by watching the “micro,” the eternal from the temporal, the One from the diverse, the ocean through the drop, the Whole from the individual, and in the bosom of this world, the transcendental.
We could say that within the Tantric context, bhoga is merely superficial, as it includes tyaga or renunciation. So much so, that the Tantric sadhana includes both elements of enjoyment from the karma kanda and those of renunciation with knowledge and understanding from the jñana kanda. If we deeply study both the Vedic and the Tantric paths, we will see that the Tantric sadhana comprises both bhoga, or “enjoyment”, and tyaga, or “renunciation”.
The fact that both traditions are orthodox and accepted as śrutis is confirmed by Kullula Bhatta, the great commentator of Manu:
“The Vedic and the Tantric (paths) are known as two kinds of śruti.”
Both traditions have maintained parallelism without conflict throughout many generations. The extreme proximity of both traditions is because there was never any real, essential conflict between Tantrism and Vedism. There are those who even refer to the Tantric scriptures as the fifth Veda; that is, a transcendental revelation that carries on the teachings of the four traditional sacred Vedas.
The division between the two systems is found in the Tantric liberalism in face of varnashrama dharma, or the Vedic caste system, which allows access to the highest peaks of knowledge only to the Brahmin class.
The Vedic religious system, based on the puranas and the severe rules, laws and regulations of the smritis, failed to interest the working public. For a householder who works most of the day in order to maintain his wife and children, it was practically impossible to dedicate the same time and energy to his spiritual life, as a Brahmin could. This explains the attraction to the path that was taught by people of the same social class, with simple and less complicated practices toward the chosen deity, the acceptance of the guru or spiritual master, the respecting and liberal attitude towards the woman and the indifference towards the varnashrama dharma caste system.
The above mentioned factors helped popularize Tantra among members of the inferior castes, out of which great masters flourished, such as the five great masters of the nātha traditions, referred to as ādi siddhas. As an example, both Matsyendranātha and Gorakṣanātha were fishermen, and Hāḍi was a stable cleaner. The Tantric masters rarely demanded that their disciples and followers renounce their families or work to adopt monastic life, but generally encouraged them to continue their crafts honestly, and through those, attain liberation. They imparted their teachings to a public of workers and artisans, laborers and farmers, who were considered to be inferior, creating a conflict with the Brahmanism.
The liberal spirit of the Tantric revelation did not consider patriarchy, etiquette or formality to be necessary in regard to the religious experience. Some of the most relevant differences were its attitude to women and classes that were considered inferior. However, although both traditions disagree on a superficial level, they agree in the essential aspects.
Different practices gradually began to appear out of the Tantric revelation and its literature, along with teachings that did not receive official Vedic recognition, which were expressed in the rituals and beliefs of Auls, Bauls, Sahajiyās, Kāpālikas, Nāthas, Lokāyatas and some other systems. Apart from its attitude in the field of ethics and society, the abovementioned systems share the importance they give to the body, which ceases to be considered as an instrument of sin, and is accepted as a micro-cosmos that holds clues for the realization of the Truth. This attitude was very adequate for the development of a system such as hatha-yoga. In the Tantric vision, enlightenment is not conceived as the objective of human life, or puruṣārtha, but as liberation while alive, or jivan mukti.
Popular worship and its beliefs, rituals and ceremonies became impregnated with the Tantric current, evidently because of its proximity to the classes, which were considered low within the varnashrama dharma.
Gradually, Tantrism continued to penetrate each and every aspect of the Vedic tradition, transforming it into a Vedic-tantric religion, to which we now refer to as Hinduism. We find many characteristic Tantric elements in temples, mythology, yoga, medicine, rituals and sanatana dharma ceremonies.
Lord Kṛṣṇa points out in the Bhāgavata Purāṇa:
iti me tri-vidhomakhaḥ
“One must worship me carefully, choosing one of the three methods through which I accept sacrifices: the Vedic, the Tantric and the mixed.” Bhāgavata Purāṇa (11.27.7)
By the practice, or ācāra, of the mixed path, or miśra, Lord Kṛṣṇa refers to Hinduism, where we find both Vedic and Tantric elements mixed together. Nowadays, it is already impossible to refer to a Tantric influence over vaidika dharma as if it was two separate entities. Miśra is an organic unit, a Vedic-tantric religion called Hinduism. There is no doubt that what we call Hinduism today is a Tantric religion as much as it is Vedic. Many people can be surprised by the fact that practices such as hatha-yoga, with its asanas and pranayama, owe much more to tantra than to the Vedic tradition.
In all yogic traditions of Vedic origin, we find the Lord, or Purusha, as the consciousness that watches and governs, whereas in Tantrism it is prakriti, or “the energy of nature”, which actively dominates the universe. Tantrism chooses to accept nature instead of withdrawing from it to avoid its difficulties, whereas within Hinduism we see each aspect of God with his corresponding Shakti, or feminine counterpart.