Tantrism is a movement in HINDUISM, BUDDHISM, and to a lesser extent JAINISM. The basic goal of Tantrism is to appropriate the creative energies of the universe. To reach this goal, practitioners visualize cosmic powers and ritually participate in cosmic processes. Tantrism often deliberately transgresses limits and inverts established orders. As a result, other traditions have at times looked upon it with disdain.
It is generally difﬁ cult to write a history of religions in India. It is even more difﬁ cult to write a history of Tantrism. Tantrism has generally been practiced in secret.
Tantrism may have its roots in local, popular practices. Hindu and Buddhist Tantrism seem to have come into existence in India by the end of the sixth century C.E. During the next one thousand years, Hindu Tantrism was at its height. Its practitioners wrote important Tantric texts, such as Tantras (handbooks of doctrine), Agamas (RITUAL manuals), and Samhitas (collections). These texts use Sanskrit, the language of learned BRAHMINS. Therefore, Tantrism probably developed among the religious elite. Temples built during this period also reveal prominent Tantric inﬂ uence. The famous temples at Khajuraho (950–1050 C.E.) are good examples.
By about 1500 Tantrism was beginning to lose its creativity. But in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Europeans and North Americans started taking an interest in Hindu Tantrism. Their interest stimulated a minor revival in India.
In Buddhism, Tantrism is seen as a speciﬁ c yana or “vehicle,” the Vajrayana, “Diamond Vehicle,” or Mantrayana, “Mantra Vehicle.” Vajrayana was common in India during the eighth century when Buddhism spread from India to Tibet. It became the dominant religion of Tibet. That country eventually housed a vast store of Buddhist Tantric texts. Vajrayana was also exported to China. In fact, some of the earliest Buddhist Tantric writings are in Chinese. From China Kukai took Tantric Buddhism to Japan. There it became Shingon, a school still popular today.
Because it is a movement found in several different religious contexts, Tantrism does not have a single coherent body of thought. Furthermore, many Tantric texts are written in what is known as “twilight language,” a symbolic language whose full signiﬁ cance cannot be understood except with the help of a code revealed only to the initiated.
There are, however, some common Tantric themes. One theme deals with the creative duality between male and female. Tantrism often gives the female the higher place. Another theme concerns the links between the macrocosm or structure of the universe and the microcosm or structure of the human being. Finally, Tantrism often conceives of liberation as reuniting the male and the female into one.
In Hindu Tantrism the ultimate Godhead is formless. But on a less than ultimate level the Godhead is sexually dual, having both a male and a female form. The female form, known as Sakti or the god’s power, is responsible for the creation of the world. At the same time, Sakti is the source of liberation. When Sakti reunites with the male principle, the original unity is restored.
According to Hindu Tantrism these macrocosmic processes ﬁ nd their reﬂ ections on the microcosmic level. In the human person Sakti is generally imaged as a coiled serpent asleep at the base of the spine (KUNDALINI). When the serpent is aroused, it rises and eventually unites with the masculine principle at the top of the skull. When it does so, the result is liberation.
VAJRAYANA BUDDHISM uses different ideas. Before Vajrayana arose, MAHAYANA BUDDHISM had developed a pantheon of Buddhas and BODHISATTVAS. Vajrayana carried this process further. It identiﬁ ed even more Buddhas and bodhisattvas, assigned them feminine consorts or counterparts, and delighted in images of the wrathful and the horriﬁ c. Vajrayana also linked the macrocosm and the microcosm. It identiﬁ ed the various Buddhas and bodhisattvas with different parts of the body. A person followed the path to liberation by visualizing these various beings and thereby acquiring their powers. In fact, one might say that in Vajrayana, Buddhists imagined themselves as enlightened beings in order to achieve enlightenment and do so more quickly.
At a more abstract level. Vajrayana sees liberation as a union of male and female. In Buddhist Tantrism the female in PRAJNA, “wisdom.” The male is upaya, “skill is means,” that is, a person’s ability to practice the Buddhist path. The union of the two, wisdom and the ability to practice, eventually produces enlightenment.
Both Hindu and Buddhist Tantrism make heavy use of ritual diagrams (YANTRAS and MANDALAS), ritual sounds (MANTRAS), and ritual gestures (MUDRAS). These diagrams, sounds, and gestures vary from tradition to tradition, but they are all thought to embody the powers of the universe. In both Hindu and Buddhist Tantrism the diagrams, sounds, and gestures allow practitioners to acquire sacred power and ultimately to achieve release. Practitioners acquire the power of these diagrams, sounds, and gestures by meditating on them.
To construct and use a mandala is a relatively benign act. Tantrism is also known, however, for a variety of rituals that deliberately invert established order and transgress normal bounds. Such acts require special control, for the goal is not to enjoy forbidden fruits. It is to use the things of the world to conquer the world, to overcome desire by acting out what desire demands and yet remaining untouched by desire.
Perhaps the best known system of such rituals are “the ﬁve elements” found in Hindu Tantrism. These elements are also called “the ﬁ ve m’s,” because the Sanskrit word for each starts with the letter “m.” The ﬁ ve are wine (madya), meat (mansa), ﬁ sh (matsya), parched grains (mudra), and sexual union (maithuna). Like Hindu Tantrism, Buddhist Tantrism recognizes sexual rituals. Such rituals call for extreme concentration. If they are performed to fulﬁ ll carnal desires, the consequences are drastic.
Tantrism is a religion of small, private, secret groups. For that reason, it is difﬁ cult to know how many people practice it. The basic organization is that of a teacher (GURU) and disciples.
The ﬁ rst ritual is initiation. In initiation, members join the group. They swear to maintain secrecy, and they begin their training in the secrets of Tantrism. In the course of Tantric practice they allegedly attain various supernormal powers.
There have been many attempts to classify different Tantric groups. Perhaps the most common classiﬁ cation distinguishes right-handed and lefthanded Tantrism in Hinduism. Right-handed Tantrism limits itself to the use of mandalas, yantras, mantras, and mudras. Left-handed Tantrism practices ritual acts that are otherwise forbidden.
Although Tantrism strictly speaking is conﬁ ned to small groups, its inﬂ uence has been great. Much of present-day Hinduism contains some Tantric elements. For example, all Hindu temples are built on mandalas. In Tibet, Vajrayana produced a vibrant national religion. Its leader, the DALAI LAMA, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989.