The meaning of the term tantra
The Sanskrit word tantra has been interpreted in several different ways. Among the main meanings it has been given, we find those of a philosophical conclusion, or siddhānta; a branch of the Vedas, or śrutiśākhā; a group of duties, or itikartavyatā; a specific composition, or prabandha; and a particular śāstra or śāstraviśeṣa.
As siddhānta: In certain contexts, it refers to the different darśanas, or orthodox metaphysical schools. It is possible to find expressions such as Kāpila-tantra or Gautama-tantra related to the schools attributed to Kapila and Gotama, respectively. In turn, Jaiminīya-tantra is the term that Bhāskarāya chooses to name the Mīmāṁsā system. In the Tantrādhikāri-nirṇaya by Bhaṭṭoji, the names Pūrva-tantra and Uttara-tantra are used to refer to the Mīmāṁsa and Vedānta systems respectively.
As śrutiśākhā: It is repeatedly verified that the term tantra is often used to refer to a specific śāstra. For example, we can see that in the Mahā-bhārata, Ādi-parva (99.45), the expression tantra is used to designate certain Vedic systems such as the Nyāya-śāstra or the Dharma-śāstra.
“Oh Kausalya, I am narrating the dharma-tantra (dharma-śāstra) to you, listen to me.”
Śaṅkarācārya uses the term in his Śārīraka-bhāṣya to refer to the śāstras, also including the smṛtis in his list of tantras.
Sometimes we see the word tantra used in the sense of “dominion.” For example, in the Abhijñānaśakuntalam (5) Kālidāsa uses the expression prajāḥtantrayitvā or “having mastered the topics.”
The Vedas (Rig Veda 10.71.9, Atharva Veda 10.7.42) relate the word tantra to a loom. In the Taittiriya Brahmana (22.214.171.124), the term is given the same meaning.
Some scholars derive the word tantra from tanu or “body,” referring to the fact that this path dedicates special attention to the body.
According to pandit H.P. Shastri, tantra means to “shorten” or “abbreviate,” implying “to reduce” or “compress.”
Others relate it to the root trai, which means “to save,” and the term tantra is then interpreted as “that which saves its followers.”
Other sources remind us that the word tantra is composed of two different verbal roots, tan and tra: tan from tanoti, which means “to expand or extend,” and tra from trāyate, which signifies to liberate or rescue. According to the meaning of these two words, tantra means expansion and liberation: an expansion at the level of consciousness and liberation in the energetic aspect.
Our conscious life develops within very narrow limits. All we consider as I and mine belongs to the conscious world that is found within those bounds. The expansion of these limits allows us to experience life not only from within the borders of the mind and senses. Tantra offers a very rich sadhana composed of linguistic symbology in the form of mantras and the visual aspect of yantras. This sadhana is meant to prepare practitioners in every aspect to expand mental objectivity itself.
On the other hand, trayate means “liberation,” suggesting the liberation of those in captivity. Tantra specifically refers to the liberation of the divine energy as kundalini shakti, which lies dormant in the first chakra. Kundalini is the shakti, or creative divine energy, which is situated in the human being.
It is the representation of the evolution of the Goddess who enlivens the entire universe. In light of the above, the term tantra refers to salvation and enlightenment, which consists in the expansion of consciousness. The Pūrva-kāmikāgama (3.29) refers to the term tantra in the following way:
“That which expounds many meanings, addresses the Truth and its mantras, and has the power to rescue us from danger, is called tantra, because it saves us.”
According to this definition, tantra is a wisdom that grants protection or saves. It protects the tantrika (‘one who practices tantra’) from falling into the claws of illusion through the Tantric sadhana, which keeps him directed towards the ultimate reality. In the same way, it protects the tantrika from both physical and mental ailments. In some cases, it even functions as therapy. As an example, we can bring up hatha-yoga, along with its wealth of psycho-physiological practices. The Sanskrit dictionary Sabdakaipadrum refers to the term as a medicine and as well as a doctrine. That is, tantra saves the tantrika through both knowledge and therapy, implying the intimate unity between the mind and the body. We cannot deny the Tantric roots of Hindu medicine.
Finally, let us not forget that the word tantra also means “to weave,” referring to the action of harmonizing, fusing, or uniting, which is synonymous with yoga. This last meaning encompasses the tantric vision of life, according to which all the phenomena we experience do not exist as separate entities, but rather are reciprocally interrelated in such a way that the people, objects, and situations that we perceive comprise a much broader reality than we experience at first sight.
Unfortunately, there are many who mistakenly believe that tantra consists in the cheap literature of magic and spells. Quite the contrary, it is about a sophisticated religious and spiritual path that leads its sincere followers to enlightenment through the cultivation of internal power.