Tantric culture arose within what one could call the 'Sanskrit cosmopolis', a transcultural formation focused on literary (not spoken), Sanskrit. As such, tantric traditions arose during the early centuries of the common era, developing in Buddhist, Jain and Hindu contexts.
From the early medieval period to the rise of the Delhi Sultanate, the history of India is characterised in political terms by the development of feudal kingdoms and of the increasing awareness of regional identity with the rise of important regional centres focused on temples and the development of region-specific styles of art and architecture.
After the collapse of the Gupta empire and generally from the mid-eighth century, kingdoms such as those of the Rastrakutas in the Deccan, an early form of the Rajputs called the Gurjura-Pratiharas of Malava-Rajasthan, and the Palas of Bengal, were engaged in bitter rivalry; kings and princes pursued policies of military adventurism and an ideology of warfare developed, which became, a facet of the erotic play of king, who was understood as the manifestation of a divinity. The king, as divine, was the male consort of the land represented by the Goddess. Tribal and clan power developed during this period, with Brahmans being given land in return for legitimising the new rulers and instigating a process of Sanskritisation whereby local customs and deities became integrated into the overarching, Brahmanical paradigm.
The vast body of tantric texts however are inseparable from the traditions that gave rise to them. Saiva, Vaisnava and Sakta Tantras were believed by their followers to have been revealed by Visnu, Siva, and the Goddess (Devi), and there were even Tantras revealed by the Sun (Sarya), now lost, whose followers were called Sauras.1
There were also Jain Tantras believed to be the word of Mahavira and, above all, Buddhist Tantras believed to be the word of the Buddha, which became incorporated into the vast Buddhist canon between c. 400 and 750 CE, to this day integral to the living traditions of Tibetan Buddhism. Using the term `Hindu' to refer to the Saiva, Sakta Vaisnava and Saura material is anachronistic as the term was used by the Persians simply to denote the peoples of the subcontinent. The historian Srivara, who was at the court of Sultan Zain-ul-abidin (r. 1420-70) was the first to use the term to distinguish people in Kashmir, who shared certain cultural values and practices (such as cremation of the dead, veneration of the cow, styles of cuisine and dress, or shared narratives) from Muslims (`Yavanas'). And for the very first use of the term in 16th century Bengal, see J.T O'Connell, `The Word "Hindu" in Gaudiya Vaisnava Texts.2 But as Julius Lipner, points out in Ancient Banyan: An Inquiry into the Meaning of "Hinduness" 3 it was not a common designation until the nineteenth century.
But the theistic Tantras and traditions, those of Visnu, Siva and the Goddess, are interrelated and share common structures of practice and belief that can be distinguished from those of the Buddhists and Jains by their proximity to the Vedas, orthodox Brahmanical revelation, and their interpreters. Thus the term 'tantric tradition' refers to those religions, that claimed to develop from textual sources referring to themselves as 'tantras', regarded as revelation, the word of God, by their followers. This diverse tantric revelation must be seen in contrast to the ancient, orthodox Brahmanical revelation or the Veda that the Tantras reject completely or accept as a lower level of scriptural authority.
In contrast to the Hindu Tantras, the Buddhist Tantras do not respond to the vedic tradition but rather look to Mahayana Buddhism and see themselves as a development of it, even though much Buddhist tantric material, the Yogini Tantras, was probably derived from Saiva prototypes.
Arriving at definitions of 'Tantra' and 'Tantrism' has been notoriously difficult and has varied between presenting external accounts of a phenomenon named `Tantrism' and internal accounts of what the term tantra refers to. An important indigenous distinction is between tantrika, a follower of the Tantras, and vaidika, a follower of the Vedas. This distinction operates across the sectarian divides of Saivas, Vaisnavas and so on. The former refers to those who follow a system of ritual and teaching found within the Tantras, in contrast to those, especially the Brahman caste, who follow the Veda as primary revelation or iruti (and so called Srautas), or who follow the later texts of secondary revelation called smrti (and so called Smartas).The issue is complicated, however, by some vedic Brahmans, particularly Smartas, observing tantric rites and some texts in the vedic tradition, namely Upanisads, being clearly tantric in character, `which tantrika authors (Bhaskararaya, for example) consider as confirming the validity of tantric teachings and practices.
Early Western scholars like for example M. Eliade during the 1950’s presented Tantrism in terms of a list of characteristics, such as locating a bipolar energy within the body, while others have offered more precise definitions. So for example the thesis presented by Ron Davidson in the context of tantric Buddhism is that the central `sustaining metaphor' of the Mantrayana, or tantric Buddhism, is that the path of the practitioner is akin to the path of the king on his way to becoming an overlord (rajadhirdja) or universal monarch (cakravartin), expressed through the forms of consecration, self-visualisation, mandalas and ‘esoteric acts'.4
Davidson's account of Tantrism in terms of power is important and it is surely germane to point to the political dimensions of the tantric practitioner that have been generally neglected or ignored (probably partly due to the clear separation of `politics' from `religion' that has, rightly or wrongly, characterised Western scholarship). The practitioner, in Davidson's reading of the texts, seeks to assume kingship and exercise dominion. We could, however, read this in a slightly different way, that the central tantric metaphor is indeed, as Tsong-ka-pa identified, divinisation and that the model of kingship - the king undergoing consecration and so on - is in fact the king becoming divine. The divinisation of the king through ritual consecration is directly akin to the divinisation of the icon in a temple and the divinisation of the practitioner in daily ritual (or even the divinisation in possession). More fundamental than the metaphor of kingship is the metaphor of transformation into a deity. The idea that to worship a god one must become a god is a notable feature of all tantric traditions, even ones which maintain a dualist metaphysics.The empowering of the body, which means its divinisation, is arguably the most important quality in tantric traditions, but a quality that is only specified within particular traditions and texts.
Becoming divine is an ancient trope in Indian civilisation. With reference to the consecration of the vedic king, it is fundamental `that the worshipper becomes one with the god to whom the worship is addressed. Tantric ritual reflects this general idea but is text- and tradition-specific in terms of content and in the explicit focus on the divinisation of the body as the enactment of its revelation.
The practitioner in ritual contexts becomes divine such that his or her limited subjectivity is transcended or expanded and that subjectivity becomes coterminous with the subjectivity of his or her deity, which is to say that the text is internalised and subjectivity becomes text-specific. This is clearly in line with Tsongka-pa's understanding in a Buddhist context and also makes sense in a theistic `Hindu' one.5
While the idea of liberation as becoming one with the absolute (brahman) has a long history in Brahmanical thinking from the Upanisads, the ritual construction of the body as the deity through the use of magical phrases or mantras is proto-typically tantric.6
In a broader sense, the tantric traditions are examples of forms of practice and reflection handed down through generations which locate themselves historically by reference to a foundational text or group of texts, believed to originate in a, transcendent source. This is, of course, true of many traditions including Islam, Judaism and Christianity, as well as vedic tradition. But while this is a general point, it is nevertheless an important one, for processes of identification and entextualisation can be identified within wider scriptural traditions that are also typical of tantric traditions.
Scriptural traditions all developed before modernity and before the Kantian understanding of the self as an autonomous agent; an idea that connects with the notion of the citizen who has civic responsibilities yet who remains distinct from the social body and an individuality that comes to stand against tradition. In scriptural traditions, such a notion has been alien, and the self is an index of a tradition-specific subjectivity, formed in particular ways in conformity to tradition. In scriptural traditions, the self is constructed through ritual and the development of a tradition-specific interiority or variable indexicality that is not individual in the contemporary, de-traditionalised sense (characterised by fragmentation and alienation). Scripture-sanctioned rituals serve as identity markers for communities in medieval India, and, although these boundaries can be transgressed, such transgression always assumes their existence.
The self in such communities is bounded by text and ritual. Such a tradition-specified self, develops philosophy as a craft or techne and needs to develop his or herself into a particular kind of person if he or she is to move towards a knowledge of the truth about his or her good and the human good. Tantra thus can itself be seen in terms of techne, and the suffix tra expresses the means or instrument of an action expressed by a verbal root. Thus as mantra might be rendered `instrument of thought, so tantra might literally be taken to mean `method or instrument of extension', perhaps with the implication that it is the self or body that is extended to become coterminous with the divine body.
In other words, the tantric body is encoded in tradition-specific and text-specific ways. The practitioner inscribes the body through ritual and forms of interiority or asceticism, and so writes the tradition on to the body. Such transformative practices are intended to create the body as divine. This inscribing the body is also a reading of text and tradition. Indeed, the act of reading is of central importance in the tantric traditions. The fact that the texts were written is important and has sometimes been underestimated in focusing on orality/aurality in the transmission of texts.
The (sanskrit) texts were intended to be read and heard by those with the requisite authority, to be brought to life, and to be performed. The importance of the written word here is evident from the commentaries upon the primary texts by the later tradition. The importance of reading the texts is further suggested by the presence of ritual manuals (paddhatis), `cookbooks' that served to instruct and remind practitioners about how to undertake particular kinds of performance and about particular tenets of a system. The tantric body, constructed as a public act (even if limited in its public nature through secrecy), is in turn `read' by traditional practitioners in so far as some tantrikas wore external signs of their cultic affiliation while others disparaged such signs, retaining their tantric affiliation as 'secret'; such secrecy is an overcoding of the body.
That is, while some tantric traditions overtly reject vedic tradition and normative, caste and feudal society of medieval India, most must be seen as adding their own writing of the body on to the traditional vedic writing or as reconfiguring the vedic tradition in terms of the tantric. We see this, for example, in the Saiva traditions of Kashmir accounted for by Abhinavagupta (c. 975-1025 CE). For him, tantric rites were supererogatory to vedic practice. The body, the vedic body, is overwritten by the practitioner who constructs a tantric body through a further superimposition of rites and the internalisation of a tantric ideology. Thus, in his famous statement (probably a standard saying), Abhinavagupta writes that externally one follows vedic practice, in the domestic sphere one is an orthodox Saiva, but in one's secret life one is a follower of the extreme antinomian cult of the Kula which involves the disruption of the vedic body through ritual transgression of vedic norms and values.
There is much speculation about the origins of Tantrism. On the one hand the origins have been seen in an autochthonous spirituality or Shamanism (see below) that reaches back to pre-Aryan times in the subcontinent, yet textual historical evidence only dates from a more recent period. While certainly there are elements in tantric traditions that may well reach back into pre-history - particularly the use of skulls and the themes of death and possession.
Tantrism as I pointed out, must however be understood as a predominantly Brahmanical, Sanskritic tradition with its roots in the Veda. In his book on the origins of Indian civilisation, Bernard Sergent has argued that our main resources for understanding the past are linguistic and archaeological.7 There is no early archaeological evidence for tantric traditions beyond the common era, and while there is textual evidence for a cremation ground asceticism as far back as the time of the Buddha, as well as tantric-like goddesses in the Veda, the specificity of the tantric revelation appears more recently in the history of South Asia.
However traditions are constantly reconfigured in the light of contemporary situations and there is no reason to think that the tantric traditions are any different. While of course receiving forms of practice and ideas handed down from the past, the Tantras at the time of their composition were a new revelation that transcended the older, vedic texts.
Second/the tantric traditions are regarded as a revelation from a transcendent source and the texts describe the `descent of the Tantra' (tantravatdra) from a pure, divine origin but becoming eroded in the course of its descent to the human world, where it is sometimes presented as a particular (visesa) or esoteric revelation for the few with the qualification (adhikdra) to receive it, in contrast to the exoteric, vedic scriptures. Third, the Tantras need to be seen in a `scale of texts' in which a text is positioned in relation to others usually in a hierarchy. Tantras thus, present themselves in a scale of revelation, relegating other traditions to lower levels of this revelation and reading the earlier traditions through the lens of their own revelation. There is a high degree of intentionality in the scale of Tantras such that if a text does not deal with the details of a particular topic, it is assumed that this is covered elsewhere.
Finally, we need to understand the anonymous Tantras (and some related texts with named authors) as having a composite authorship, and so when speaking about the intentionality of a text or `author' of a text we are not speaking in terms of authorial intention in the usual sense. To give an example, we can say that according to vedic exegesis, the Mimarnsa, revelation is a system of signs that points to a transcendent meaning. This revelation has no author, and so that transcendent meaning must be understood in terms of its inner intentionality and is therefore self-validating. Nyaya, by contrast, refuted the atheism of Mimamsa and proposed God as the author of the Veda. The Tantras are closer to the Nyaya perspective and are interestingly defended by the Nyaya philosopher Jayantha Bhatt.
Next, in part 2 of this series I will turn to various issues like Kingship, the purification of the body, possesion and and most important the secret, inner practices.
As for a not entirely un-related subject see also: Searching for Ancient Spirits in Asia P.1: November 2006, the Supreme Court in Nepal ordered an inquiry into whether the tradition of worshipping a "living goddess" has led to the exploitation of girls. We investigated the true history of Child Mediums in Asia.
Searching for Ancient Spirits in Asia: Research Report P.2.
1. See Alexis Sanderson, “Saivism and the Tantric Traditions”, in S. Sutherland (ed.), The World's Religions, London, 1988, pp. 660-704.
2. Journal of the American Oriental Society 93/3,1973, PP. 340-44.
3. Religious Studies 32,1996, pp. 109-26.
4. Davidson, Indian Esoteric Buddhism: A Social History of the Tantric Movement, Columbia University Press, 2002, p. 121. Tantra as a quest for power has also been emphasised by Brunner in 'Le sadhaka, personnage oublie de l'Inde du Sud', Journal Asiatique, 1975, PP. 411-43.
5. Tsong-ka-pa, Tantra in Tibet: The Great Exposition of Secret Mantra, trans. and ed. J. Hopkins, vol. 1, London,1977, pp. 64-6.
6. See also Satapatha Brahmana 188.8.131.52-5 about the self becoming divine, passing from men to the gods. Julius Eggeling (trans.), The Satapatha Brahmana, vol. 1, Sacred Books of the East, vol. 12, Oxford, 1982.
7. Sergent, Genese de l'Inde,Paris, 1997, p.10.