Tantra is that Asian body of beliefs and practices which, working from the principle that the universe we experience is nothing other than the concrete manifestation of the divine energy of godhead that creates and maintains that universe, seeks to ritually appropriate and channel that energy, within the human microcosm, in creative and emancipatory ways. It centers on the process of the appropriation of the universe (as energy) within 'the human microcosm' which implies the notion of correspondence between a human being and the universe: microcosm corresponds to macrocosm. ('Ritually appropriated' energy is often called lcuppalini sakti, which corresponds to the greater sakti understood as the universe, which is the 'concrete manifestation of the divine energy of godhead.')
It tells us that the universe is in fact 'the divine energy of godhead,' that is to say, a living nature: 'Siva without Sakti is but a corpse,' therefore his energy (sakti) must be alive. To appropriate this energy in 'creative and emancipatory ways' implies a transmutation, whether of human subject or of the external world, for creation and emancipation are contrary to a status quo. Whatever has been created and emancipated has been transformed from its previous state. And to 'channel that energy within the human microcosm' refers to the work on ‚lalini sakti’ and her ascent through the Cakras- which process (the 'channeling-) is based on the cultivation of imagination. The 'ritual appropriation' of this energy implies- inter alia- the ritual transmission of tantric knowledge through rites of initiation. See also our detailed, Kaula Tradition case study: Secret Tantric Saiva Siddhanta Initiations.
Increase of knowledge is often based on some sort of comparison and thus in the case of Tantra, earlier authors claimed it is an element of 'Hinduism' where as we pointed out, 'Hinduism' is itself a Western concept. Similarly, if we identify tantra as a form of religion, the translation of cultures is again already happening, for 'religion' is again a Western concept without a hundred-percent befitting equivalent in traditional
(non-Muslim) India. In fact religion, as employed uncritically, might be too broad and in that sense, an imperfect category to be applied to tantra. Whether we conceptualize yogic sadhana as alchemy, magic, the categories in fact better fit with what is termed occultism ("hidden connections"). The term ‚occult’ innitially referred to the syncretic work of Pico de la Mirandola, popularised by the three volume „Occult Philosophy“ by Cornelius Agrippa. (See C. I. Lehrich,The Language of Demons and Angels, 2003.)
Suggesting ‚occultism’ as a category in this case is ofcourse not because of the Christianised neo-Platonist, Kabalistic, and Alchemical (what he termed ‚magic’), content of Pico’s „900 Theses“ (1486), but because Pico’s belief in an “occulta concatenation,” an ‘occult’(hidden) connection, that supposed to have permeated his sycretism. (S. Farmer, Syncretism in the West, 1998, p. x)
For as David Gordon White writes in his pathbreaking book about the Nath Siddhas; "Since India's original fascination with alchemy most probably arose out of early contacts with a China (India was exporting Buddhism to China in this period) whose Taoist speculative alchemical tradition has been developing since the second century A.D., one might conclude that such traditions reached south India via a maritime route." (White, The Alchemical Body, Sidha Traditions in Medieval India, 1996, p. 53.)
Thus, having different roots in Asia ‚Tantric internal Alchemie’ (see also our earlier exposition of the alchemical Waidan and Neidan traditions in China) in contrast to, Greco-Roman beliefs, explained the process of reversal (ulta sadhana) in a pseudo-anatomic* way, the semen allegedly returns to the top of the head, the sakti rises along the spine to meet Siva at the 'summit of the sky,' (thus also an ’ above so below’) turning the world 'upside-down' exept that according to Chinese tradition here importet into India, the mortal yogi becomes an immortal adept. Thus here ‚Magic,’ is a science of the imaginary oriented towards power based on the erotic principle of union.
*Earlier attemps by Frances A.Yates to suggest a continuity between Renaissance ‘magic’ and modern science, where rejected by Brian Vickers in Occult and Scientific Mentalities in the Renaissance (1984). It is erroneous, he asserts, either to seek any connection between these two distinct systems of thought or to claim that occultism had any kind of positive role in the production of scientific ideas or techniques. His arguments are instructive also in the present context of Tantric ‘anatomy,’ not so much because of the originality of his claims, but because of the vivid manner in which he sets out his compendium of arguments.
Indeed, according to Tantra, yoga is union (eros); yogic work focuses on the imaginal (subtle) body; the fruit of yoga are the powers (sidhis)and thus operates in agreement with the general principles of ‚occult correspondences,’ which are at the root of belief that the whole universe is found within the body.
However, in Tantra, the notion of living nature, exemplified by internally present sakti and by the hindu, is present. Transmutation is present, its essence lying in the process of reversal. Pointing out the element of the practice of concordance White denotes tantra to be a not denominational 'body of beliefs and practices' and refers to tantra's ''regional and vernacular Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain forms in Asia.". (David Gordon White, Mapping a Tradition, 2003, p. 9.) A definition of tantra is thus in essential agreement with the definition of ‚Western esoteric tradition’ as best explained by Olav Hammer in „Claiming Knowledge,“ 2001 who writes,“ For those who are sympathetically inclined, "occult" and "esoteric" denote the nature of beliefs and practices which purport to explore and utilize secret knowledge, for skeptics, "occult" is little more than a synonym of "anti-scientific." (See also Brian Vickers below)
In his introduction to the collection of essays on Religions of India in Practice, Richard H. Davis writes: Tantrics view the human body as a microcosm of the universe, and focus on it as a vehicle for attaining powers and liberation. Through yogic practices and ritual activities the tantric adept seeks to inculcate knowledge physically. Rather than seeking a disembodied escape from bondage or a devotional relationship with divinity, tantrics set as their highest goal the transformation of the body itself into divinity.(Davis, "Introduction: A Brief History of Religions in India," in Religions of India in Practice, ed. Donald S. Lopez, 1995, p. 41.)
The reader will recognize that 'the creative energy of the cosmos' corresponds to the notion of 'living nature,' that 'the human body as a microcosm of the universe' assumes the presence of the principle of 'correspondences,' and that 'the transformation of the body' points to the idea of 'transmutation.' She will also notice the importance given to the 'practices and ritual activities' that are important element of occult attitude, and that like correspondences, imagination, etc.
Of course, instead of claiming exclusivity to either tantra or Western occultism, regional variations of the occult, could be seen as cross-cultural. Taking the terminology with a grain of salt, we may thus speak of exoteric and esoteric in that 'exoterically' speaking, Indian and Western occultism today share certain elements that are the result of historical contacts. As suggested above, Indian alchemists were in contact with Chinese but later, also Islamic alchemical traditions.
For example the Indian sufi tradition of the Shattaris, established in the second half of the fifteenth century, appropriated Indian yogic practices into their regimen. Among Shaikh Muhammad Ghaus's many compositions is the Persian BajJr al-Qayiit ('The Water of Life'), a now-lost Sanskrit text on yoga. White addresses this as follows: "Finally, we know that Muslim physicians, alchemists and mystics were avid for the wisdom of their Indian counterparts, as evidenced by the translation, in the sixteenth century, of a treatise on hafha yoga, attributed to Gor’a, entitled the Aml1aku1f’a, The Pool of Nectar." (Alchemical Body, 106.) And in turn, the idea of an alchemical elixir came to the West, via Islam, in the early Middle Ages.
Both Chinese and Islamic alchemical ideas and practices were disseminated to the West. Similarly, tantra has moved between Hindu, Buddhist, Jain and even Muslim traditions in India, and it has traveled from India to Nepal, China, Tibet, and other countries. And during the 20th century, tantra (and yoga), became an important part of the Western occult tradition. In that sense we may speak about the diffusion of esoteric traditions through historical contacts. By establishing links between various traditions, often situated in different countries, the esoteric or occult, also operates as a ‚Globalisation’ of ideas exemplified recently by the worldwide sale of „The Da Vinci Code“ and Harry Potter novels.
similarities between Indian and Western occult disciplines of course lie in the
operations of the human mind, as the driving force behind the construction of
diverse religious (as well as social and scientific) systems. So for example the idea of transmutation follows from the
idea of correspondence between micro- and macrocosm. The reason is that this
correspondence implies the ultimate identity between the two, which means that
human microcosm transforms its initial limited state by becoming one with the
divine macrocosm. The idea of living nature, the idea that the middle ground
between human being and divinity is also impregnated with spiritual value,
necessarily stems from the notion of correspondence. The orientation towards
powers that aim at divinity establishes a formal link with magic.
Needles to say, the occult also termed „Magic“ is only a conceptual grid that, just as any other, makes selection out of the available data on the basis of convergence of elements.
Esoteric or occult thought, according to this view, also operates similarly in various contexts, and this operation is essentially one of internalization. Or no matter how bizarre some religions may appear to us at first sight, they can ultimately be understood as the dwelling of human minds on certain hypotheses concerning nature and existence, wrestling with the perennial mysteries of life, death, good and evil, human purpose,justice, and so forth. Occult thought also typically operates in the symbolic mode, going beyond rigid identifications, finding similarities between differing phenomena of reality and various cultural systems, which results in the practice of concordance. Being an inner aspect of a particular tradition, esoteric teaching - and practice - shares in a number of formal elements of that tradition and it is shaped by the continuing process of historical change. In that sense, the esoteric 'what' differs from case to case; but the esoteric 'how' seems to be common and consistent: emphasis is placed on correspondences, on the role of imagination, the possibility of transmutation, and the presence of living nature. Esoteric traditions also seem to be alike in the ritual means of the transfer of their knowledge, and in the insistence that the ultimate truth (gnosis meaning ‚knowing’) transcends the narrow boundaries of particular denominations and that it may be discovered as an inner aspect of every religion. But the above description at this point, is only a methodological choice, for what comes next.
The Secret Tantra of the the Nath Siddhas.
Imagination is the power that - in addition to breathing exercises, bodily postures, and mantric utterances - 'wakes' up the occult centres of energy within the body and reverses the flow of semen upwards, turning it into elixir.
The Nath Siddhas are an initiatic order and the knowledge of yoga is transmitted only to those candidates who have undergone this ritual. After the initiation, the novices are invested with the large earrings which are the distinctive mark of the jogis and due to which custom they are often called the 'split-eared' or kanphatn yogis.
Initiation represents an essential aspect of the yogic way of life as envisioned by the Nath Siddhas. The secrets of yoga, the proper way of practice, the transmission of the mantra to a disciple, all these elements that make it meaningful and possible are dependant on the successfully underwent ritual of initiation. And the central feature of the Nath Siddhas' ideology is, arguably, the claim that the human body is a replica, a microcosm, of the ontological plenum, the macrocosm. To the degree that Siddhas share the general outlook of Saiva tantrics, the macrocosm is understood as the result of the dynamic relationship between Siva and Sakti; to the degree that their theory is esoteric, these two divinities are assumed to be present within the human body, together with the other constitutive elements of the universe, both metaphysical and phenomenological. The yogic interiorization of alchemical practices is also justified and made possible through the application of the above model: the external and the internal are related and correspondent to each other. The principal dictum that establishes correlation between external alchemy and internal yogic practices is based on the claim, "as in metal, so in the body." (White, Alchemical Body, 5.)
The yogic knowledge is esoteric; it transcends the phenomenal world and probes into the reality that is beyond: Thinking arises from the unthinkable; / Thinking troubles the whole world. / The yogi forgets the thinking, / And immerses [himself] into unthinkable."sl And the ultimate effect of this illuminating knowledge is that it liberates one from 'the strictures of everyday life' which, within the context of the Indian cultural universe, and its spiritual expectations, means that one who has obtained this knowledge is freed from the continuing rounds of births and deaths, from sarpsar. Gorakhnath proclaims: "Above the nose, in between the eyebrows, / I remain fixed day and night. / I will not return to birth in mother's womb, / I will not suck the milk again!
Magic, understood as an integral part of Renaissance culture, becomes marginalized by the advent of Protestant culture, Catholic Counter-Reformation, and secular science, This fact had a direct influence on the development of anthropology and the study of religion.
But first of all, magic is characterized by its orientation toward power. A technique grounded in a belief in powers located in the human soul and in the universe outside ourselves, a technique that aims at imposing the human will on nature or on human beings by using supersensual powers. It is a common perception that magic has an active quality and this is most often the element that distinguishes it from mysticism or conventional religion, which are perceived to be more passive. (See Richard Kieckhefer, Magic in the Middle Ages, 2000.)
Teun Goudriaan, who wrote the only major scholarly monograph on Indian magic, equally asserts that "The essence of magic is a grasp for power." (Goudriaan, Maya Divine and Human: A Study of Magic and Its Religious Foundations in Sanskrit Texts, 1978, 58.) As soon as this is realized, the comparison between the principles of magic and the yoga of the Nath Siddhas, whose whole practice is defmed by the search for power (the siddhis), emerges as obvious and meaningful. Power is related to action, to agency, to doing things, and this practical orientation is congenial to magic. The performance of certain ritual acts - and the belief in the efficacy of such acts - with a view of making use of certain natural laws of cause and effect which are supposed to exist, in order to enforce some result(s) in the mundane sphere desired by the performer or his instructor. Let us also recall that, in Sanskrit, one of the words for magic is karman. Magic is therefore a way of action based on the theoretical assumptions of occultism that is directed toward acquisition of power.
In the end it is imagination however, that breathes life into the microcosm within the body of a yogi and populates it with metaphysical powers and entities. It makes operative the correspondences between semen, breath and mind. Without the employment of the powers of imagination the practice of yoga would lack deeper results. Important part of yogic work is focused on the meditation on and manipulation of the subtle body that is 'created' through a process that may be thought of as the disciplined imagination, and this body may be thus defined as 'imaginal: Paying attention to the principles of esotericism, such as imagination, helps us therefore to understand more fully a vital component in the practice of yoga. It also provides us with a link between yoga and magic. It appears as if the jogis are narcissistic in their 'obsession' with bodily exercises and powers, meditating on the cakras instead of praying to the gods. But, once it is remembered that the cakras correspond to the gods (Siva and Sakti for example), it becomes obvious that to meditate on the subtle 'lotuses' within the body is tantamount to meditating on the deities that dwell within them. In this sense, concentration on the cakras is devotion. This fact is occluded unless the occult principle of correspondences is properly understood, and approach theoretically from a different angle the category of devotion.
The sexuality of the Nath yogis consists in the esoteric 'coupling' of occult energies of the body that are given sexual and gender-specific signifiers. That the human body as a microcosm represents an analogue of the macrocosm is an instance of the esoteric mode of thought, since the link that connects the two is based on the notion of correspondence. In Indian tradition, the human body has been homologized with the universe since Vedic times. The famous cosmogonic hymn (Rig Veda, X, 90) about the sacrifice of the puru’ has the limbs of this primordial man correlated with social classes and cosmic divisions. The correspondence between the human body and the universe is, also, of crucial importance in the medical system of Ayur Veda. Indian astrology recognizes correlation between the human body and the zodiac.
A Hindutemple is built upon a layout that translates the form and proportions of the human body into architectural design. In yogic and tantric traditions, this correspondence between the body and the cosmos is emphasized. A typical example of this view is offered in a Sanskrit text that is related to the system of hatha yoga, which is the form of yoga most the Siva Salphita, states:
In this body, the mount Meru, is surrounded by seven islands; there are rivers, seas, mountains, fields; and lords of the fields too. There are in it seers and sages; all the stars and planets as well. There are sacred pilgrimages, shrines. And presiding deities of the shrines. The sun and moon, agents of creation and destruction, also move in it. Ether, air, fire, water and earth are also there. All the beings that exist in the three worlds are also to be found in the body; surrounding the Meru they are engaged in their respective functions. He who knows this is a Yogi, there is no doubt about it.
Also the goddesses of clans and land,play a role, see case study:
It should be evident that the notion of the body as the replica of the macrocosm is in its nature esoteric, being based on the principle of correspondence. The fact that this idea is widely attested to cross-culturally and in several historical epochs does not contradict its inclusion within the field of esotericism. Nevertheless, in a certain sense, this is not a 'secret;' in a sense, 'microcosm equals macrocosm' is not in and by itself an exclusively esoteric notion. The important distinction is, however, how does one know this; what manner of knowing are we assuming here? In other words, the quality of knowledge is the issue, not necessarily its content.
The Nath Siddhasascribe a paramount importance to this idea; it is a central assumption of their practice,which is the corporeal practice, or 'the culture of the body,' kiiyii siidhana. They insist, infact, that to know and master the human body - especially in its esoteric aspects amounts to the mastery of yoga, which leads to liberation and immortality. It leads to theattainment of the siddhis, which is to say, to the acquisition of power. The esoteric aspectof the human body is, on the closer analysis, twofold. It consists of the greater world, the cosmos, which is esoterically present within an individual body; and it consists of esoteric aspects of the individual body, that are otherwise unknown to ordinary people, or inaccessible to ordinary sensory perception. The esoteric individual body, in a sense, mirrors the secret and invisible aspects of the natural body, while at the same time it mirrors the totality of the universe.
An elaborate example of this notion is found in a portion of an important Sanskrit text of the Nath yogis, the SiddhasiddhBntapaddhati (3. 1-14):
He who experiences within one's body everything that is movable and immovable [that is to say, everything that exists] becomes a yogin gifted with the knowledge of the body. The tortoise is situated in the soles of the feet [and the seven lower worlds (tala) are placed above it]: Patala in the big toes, Talatala above the big toes, Mahatala in the heels, Rasatala in the ankles, Sutala in the calves, Vitala in the knees and Atala in the thighs. These seven lower worlds are under the dominion of Rudra, the lord of the gods. Within the body, he [Rudra] is Bhav8, the incarnation of anger, or indeed Rudra, the Destroyer of the Fire of Time [kiiliignirudrs].The earth is [situated] in the anus, the atmosphere in the genital region, the sky in the region of the navel. Thus, the god Indra resides in the triple world inside the body. He who controls all the senses (fndriya), he alone is Indra. Maharloka, the 'Great World' is at the base of the spine, Janaloka, the 'World of Generation' in the spinal cavity, Tapaloka, the 'World of Austerities' in the marrow of the spine [and] Satyaloka, the 'World of Truth' is in the flower of the lotus of the root-[cakra]. Thus, the primordial god, Brahma, resides in the fourfold world inside the body as the personification of the pride and self-confidence.
The presence of macrocosmic and spiritual realities within the human body is also made explicit in the following verse: In the fortress of the body There are 900,000 canals. At the tenth door (the 'opening' at the top of the skull, called brahmarandhra- liberated beings are said to exit the physical body though this aperture), the avadhut has undone the lock.In the fortress of the body there are gods, temples,"and Kast. There I naturally met the Indestructible. Says Gorakhnath, Listen o people:Only a few can conquer The fortress of the body.
One of the aspects of the esoteric thought related to the world-view of the Nath Siddhas lies in the occasional symbolic understanding of the founding adepts of the school and their internal projection onto the subtle body of a yogi. Matsyendranath and Gorakhniith, aside from their historical identities, sometimes also stand as symbols for spiritual achievements and ranks within the Nath hierarchy. Accordingly, a yogi may become a Gorakh if he reaches adequate spiritual level and attains appropriate powers. For example, a sabad consisting of a set of yogic riddles, ends with the statement, "Whoever can answer what has been asked, he is Gorakh.“ In the Nath literature the word Niitha (which originally means 'the lord') has sometimes been used with an ontological significance and there is sometimes a tendency to interpret the names of the Naths, particularIy of Matsyendra and Gora, as some transcendental states of mind or soul attainable through the practice of yoga.( See also Debabrata Senshanna, ed., Matsyendra Sarphita; Ascribed to Matsyendramitha, Pt. 1, 1994, 34: "hence Macchanda, Matsyendra were not personal name but an appellative of some siddhas who reached a particular stage in the mystic realisations.")
At another level, Matsyendranath and Gorakhnath are also esoterically present within the subtle bodies of their disciples and they may be accessed, as mediators of insights, through the practice of yoga. The very first sabad in the Sayings of Gorakh makes reference to this teacher as an eternal child engaged in the spiritual discourse at the level of topmost cakra: "At the summit of the sky, a child is speaking. / What kind of a name could it be given?'.
In this way, the process of internalization seems to establish the esoteric identity between Siva and Matsyendra or Gorakh and an individual yogi, in whose subtle body all of these are present, in addition to Sakti (in the form of kundalini).
The Nath Siddhas thus believe that the cranial vault, for which they use code words 'heavenly circle', 'emptiness', 'empty', or the 'Moon,' is the locus of the elixir which, in ordinary circumstances, drips down through the spinal column until it gets destroyed by the 'Sun' in the gastric fire and through the seminal emission. This process is the principal cause of aging and death, and its reversal - set up, for example, through the process of kundalini yoga - makes possible the achievements of both metaphysical and practical goals. That is to say, the Nath yogis attain the spiritual goal of yoga (samadhi) as well as the practical goal of acquisition of the elixir of longevity and immortality by 'drawing upon hidden or concealed forces (in this case Kundalini) in nature or the cosmos'. (See Lilian Silbum, Kundalini: The Energy of the Depths , 1988), especially pp. 121-33, which deal with the Nathist conceptions and practices.)
Concentration on the nerve-centres known as Cakras, in this case is said to confer on the Yogi superhuman powers. The emphasis is on the process of reversal (ulta sadhan), by which ''the yogi succeeds in reversing the natural trends of aging, disease, and death, and channels his energy, seed, and breath upward, against the nonnal flow of bodily process. Not only does the energy, the sakti, move upwards towards the uppennost ckakra, and not only does the breath move up 'from the toes to the topknot', but even the Moon eclipses the demon Rahu, reversing in this manner the ordinary course of events in which it is Rahu who swallows the Moon, causing its eclipse. This signifies that the yogi has changed and liberated himself from the course of ordinary events - a 'sign of success'.
Thus the sabad refers to initiation as an opening into the knowledge of the secret aspect of the body, through the mastery of which, freedom from the continuous rounds of births and deaths is secured. It is an axiom of yogic lore that the human body is a potential instrument of liberation and of the acquisition of power, once its secrets are learned and mastere through appropriate practices:
How can Yogis, who do not know the six centres (cakra), the sixteen props, the 3,00,000'channels,' and the five sheaths (vyoma) in their (own) body, attain perfection (in Yoga)? How can those Yogis, who do not know their own body (as) a house of one column (with) nine doors, and (as presided over by) five tutelary divinities, attain perfection (in Yoga)?
As we mentioned before, there are also striking similarities with both the Buddhist Tantras as practiced in Tibet and the above plus also with the Daoist mountain schools where the visualizations were said to bring 'immortality'.