Tantra is the name scholars give to an inter-religious spiritual movement that arose in medieval India in the fifth century CE, expressed in scriptures (called "Tantras").
The historical significance of the movement lies in the fact that it impacted every major Asian religion extant in the early medieval period (c. 500 - 1200 CE): thus Shaivism, Buddhism, Vaishnavism, and Jainism all developed a Tantric dimension. Even Islam in India was influenced by Tantra. The geographical impact of Tantric ideas and practices spread far outside of India, into Tibet, Nepal, China, Japan, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Indonesia.
Today, it is Tibetan Buddhism and various forms of Hinduism that show the strongest Tantric influence, as well as the international postural yoga movement and most forms of American alternative spirituality grouped under the New Age rubric.
While the doctrines of Tantra vary too widely to summarize briefly, one of its most salient features when compared with earlier forms of Indian religion is that its nondual forms reject the renunciant values of classical yoga, offering instead a world-embracing vision of the whole of reality as the self-expression of a single, free and joyous Divine Consciousness (for example, see the concept of the world as the divine play of Shiva and Shakti.).
The practical consequence of this view was that householders could aspire to spiritual liberation in the Tantric system, not only monks. Furthermore, since Tantra dissolved the false dichotomy of spiritual versus mundane, practitioners could entail every aspect of their daily lives into their spiritual growth process, seeking to realize the transcendent in the immanent. Tantric spiritual practices and rituals thus aim to bring about an inner realization of the truth that "Nothing exists that is not Divine", bringing freedom from ignorance and from the cycle of suffering in the process.
Though the vast majority of scriptural Tantric teachings are not concerned with sexuality, in the popular imagination the term tantra and the notion of superlative sex are indelibly, but erroneously, linked. It is the case that in the nondual schools that advocated "left-handed" practice, sexual ritual was employed as a way of entering intensifying and expanding awareness and dissolving mind-created boundaries.
Rather than a single coherent system, Tantra is an accumulation of practices and ideas, characterized by ritual that seeks to access the supra-mundane through the mundane, identifying the microcosm with the macrocosm. The Tantric practitioner seeks to use prana, an energy that flows through the universe (including one's own body) to attain goals that may be spiritual, material or both. Most practitioners of tantra consider mystical experience imperative. Some versions of Tantra require the guidance of a guru.
Long training is generally required to master Tantric methods, into which pupils are typically initiated by a guru. Yoga, including breathing techniques and postures (asana), is employed to subject the body to the control of the will. Mudras, or gestures, mantras or syllables, words and phrases, mandalas and yantras, symbolic diagrams of the forces at work in the universe, are all used as aids for meditation and for the achievement of spiritual and magical power. During meditation the initiate identifies with any of the numerous Hindu gods and goddesses, visualizes them and internalises them, a process likened to sexual courtship and consummation. The Tantrika, or tantric practitioner may use visualizations of deities, identifying with the deity so that the aspirant "becomes" the Ishta-deva or meditational deity.
Called the Vamamarga, this branch of Tantra departs from its conventional form or mantra and also from yoga. Secret ritual may include any or all of the elements of ordinary ritual, either directly or substituted, along with other sensate rites and themes such as a feast (representing food, or sustenance), coitus (representing sexuality and procreation), the charnel grounds (representing death and transition) and defecation, urination and vomiting (representing waste, renewal, and fecundity).
Sexual rites of Vamamarga may have emerged from early Hindu Tantra as a practical means of catalyzing biochemical transformations in the body to facilitate heightened states of awareness. These constitute a vital offering to Tantric deities. Sexual rites may have also evolved from clan initiation ceremonies involving transactions of sexual fluids. Here the male initiate is inseminated or ensanguined with the sexual emissions of the female consort, sometimes admixed with the semen of the guru. The Tantrika is thus transformed into a son of the clan (kulaputra) through the grace of his consort. The clan fluid (kuladravya) or clan nectar (kulamrita) is conceived as flowing naturally from her womb. Later developments in the rite emphasize the primacy of bliss and divine union, which replace the more bodily connotations of earlier forms. Although popularly equated with Tantra in its entirety in the West, such sexual rites were historically practiced by a minority of sects. For many practicing lineages, these maithuna practices progressed into psychological symbolism.
When enacted as enjoined by the Tantras, the ritual culminates in a sublime experience of infinite awareness for both participants. Tantric texts specify that sex has three distinct and separate purposes - procreation, pleasure, and liberation. Those seeking liberation eschew frictional orgasm for a higher form of ecstasy, as the couple participating in the ritual lock in a static embrace. Several sexual rituals are recommended and practiced. These involve elaborate and meticulous preparatory and purificatory rites.
The sexual act itself balances energies coursing within the pranic ida and pingala channels in the subtle bodies of both participants. The sushumna nadi is awakened and kundalini rises upwards within it. This eventually culminates in samadhi, wherein the respective individual personalities and identities of each of the participants are completely dissolved in a unity of cosmic consciousness. Tantrics understand these acts on multiple levels. The male and female participants are conjoined physically, and represent Shiva and Shakti, the male and female principles. Beyond the physical, a subtle fusion of Shiva and Shakti energies takes place, resulting in a united energy field. On an individual level, each participant experiences a fusion of one's own Shiva and Shakti energies.
In the modern world following popular authors such as Joseph Campbell helped to bring Tantra into the imagination of the peoples of the West. Tantra came to be viewed by some as a "cult of ecstasy", combining sexuality and spirituality in such a way as to act as a corrective force to Western repressive attitudes about sex.
As Tantra has become more popular in the West it has undergone a major transformation. For many modern readers, "Tantra" has become a synonym for "spiritual sex" or "sacred sexuality," a belief that sex in itself ought to be recognized as a sacred act which is capable of elevating its participants to a more sublime spiritual plane. Though Neotantra may adopt many of the concepts and terminology of Indian Tantra, it often omits one or more of the following: the traditional reliance on guruparampara (the guidance of a guru), extensive meditative practice, and traditional rules of conduct - both moral and ritualistic.
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