There are various views on how Tantra emerged in the Indian subcontinent. Some scholars believe it was a parallel development with the vedic religion, while others say it takes its roots from the Atharvaveda through a direct textual connection that might be difficult to pin down.There is also a belief that it came about at a much later date, perhaps around the 5th to 6th century. However even though the texts came later , we cannot precisely pinpoint the exact period when Tantra originated given that a large part of the transmission was oral from guru to sishya. Though geographically speaking the Tantras as we know it today are largely associated with the Eastern parts of India (Kali Kula) and parts of South India (Sri Kula), yet at an ancient time Kashmir played a tremendous role in the development, organization and propagation of this powerful system of upasana. Of particular significance is the development of the Pashupata and Bhairavastrota-s of mantramarga, in whose maturity we find an intense arrangement of Shaktis and Vidya-s that eventually developed into the distinct schools of the two greatest Tantric devis, Kali and Sri.
One of the primary problems in categorizing Tantra shastras is due to the fact that a large portion of the knowledge is transmitted verbally and often through bonds of secrecy between a competent Guru and a shishya. This includes not only the right interpretation of the textual knowledge but also the accumulation of practical knowledge dealing with various applications and procedures which may not be found in any written text. According to the Mahanirvana Tantra, each Yuga or age has its own appropriate shastras. For Satya Yuga it is the Shruti, for Treta it is Smriti, for Dwapara it is Puranas and for the current age of Kali is it the Tantra shastras. Though not widely acknowledged, even a commentator as hallowed as Kulluka Bhatta (commentator of Manusmriti) accords the status of Shruti to the Tantras (vaidikI tAntrikIchaiva dvividhA kirttitA shrutih). There have been many saints of Tantric sampradayas who have attained to the highest states of spirituality as described in these very texts.
“Despite this, the practice of Tantra has always been shrouded in mystery, hidden from the public eye. At the same time notoriously heterodox aspects, which are but one achara or mode of worship, have been presented in an exaggerated format, giving a bad name to this potent form of Sadhana even among many ordinary Hindus. In the last few decades there has been a growing interest in Tantric upasanas and its philosophy, particularly in the West (sparked possibly by the forced dissemination of Vajrayana Tantric knowledge due to China’s political annexation of Tibet). Yet even here, only a small portion of the wide range of practices, specially those dealing with the use of sex or ritually consecrated alcohol, have been taken out of context and presented as the whole definition of Tantra making it more like a holy excuse for indulgence far removed from the original purpose and character of the true Tantric path. Unknown to many ordinary Hindus though, a large part of our basic puja paddhatis are taken directly from or inspired by the Tantras. Even the mantra shastras that are most widespread today in Hindu society are almost entirely from the tantras.
What is Tantra?
Regardless of the etymology of a word, it is the practice and the manner in which it is applied that determines its true meaning for us. Tantra, in this sense, is but an assortment of techniques by which an upasana can be done more efficiently. It does not preclude or rescind more fundamental things like bhakti and shraddha to whatever degree of these a sadhaka is capable of. It assumes a certain standard initial presence of these admirable and necessary faculties in a sadhaka. Yet, it recognizes that mere bhakti is insufficient for progression in sadhana. To bhakti it adds the power of technique to effectively channelize bhakti into producing a concrete result-oriented upasana of a devata. Results, therefore, are vital in any Tantrokta puja.
It is a misconception that all Tantras deal only with Shakti. The central deity could be anyone from Shiva, to Ganapati or even some form of Vishnu (scholars classify the Pancaratra Upasana as Tantras too) and accordingly the texts are named. However in practice, over time ,it is the Shakta Tantras which have gained maximum currency and popular correlation with the term Tantra in general. Shakti both at the philosophical and practical level is absolutely vital in this path.
Shakti as Power
Tantra differs from both the Purva and Uttara Mimamasa of the Vedas, as well as the Yogic systems, not only at the level of practice but also at the level of doctrine. At its depth and heart, the vedantic systems have given practical primacy to the attainment of divine qualities of peace, harmony, bliss, leading upto mukti or liberation and, in some cases, moksha or freedom from rebirth. Therefore they have naturally kept the ideal of a sannyasi or renunciate yati as a greater attainment. The Tantric systems recognize these qualities as divine and desirable no doubt, but add one more component to the mix: Power. It is central to have power in order to lead a meaningful and fulfilling life and for that one must aim not only for mukti, but also bhukti, or enjoyment, for this too in its true origin is of a Divine nature though corrupted in our world much the same way as love, faith, knowledge and wisdom too have undergone a deforming corruption in a world of limitations and ignorance.
Sri Aurobindo explains this difference in his Synthesis of Yoga:
“But it [Tantra] does not stop short with an effective assembling of the different powers of these specific Yogas. In two directions it enlarges by its synthetic turn the province of the Yogic method. First, it lays its hand firmly on many springs of human quality, desire, action and it subjects them to an intensive discipline with the soul’s mastery of its motives as a first aim and their elevation to a diviner spiritual level as a final utility. Again, it includes in its objects of Yoga not only liberation (mukti), which is the one all-mastering preoccupation of the specific systems, but a cosmic enjoyment (bhukti) of the power of the Spirit, which the others may take incidentally on the way, in part, casually, but avoid making a motive or object. It is a bolder and larger system.”
Relationship with Sankhya and Vedanta
Looked at from the Samkhya viewpoint, something which many scholars have pointed out, Tantra takes the bifurcation of the Purusa andPrakriti but renames it as Ishwara and Ishwari or Shiva and Shakti, and then diverges from the Samkhya prescription thereon. In Samkhya, the upasaka is initially at the mercy of Prakriti swaying him in every direction like a ship tossing in rough waters. He is therefore advised to detach himself from the world progressively and develop an inner reality closer to the Purusatattwa. Finally, when this inner condition gains sufficient maturity, the sadhaka or yogi has stationed himself in the purusha consciousness and experiences freedom, at least psychologically. The Tantras however insist not only on inner freedom but also a state of fearless, triumphant living through attainment of power, bhukti, in the external world. Perhaps no other system of sadhana has taken the upanishadic dictum of “Sarvam Khalvidam Brahma“ (everything is Brahman) more literally and seriously than the Tantras. The religious and secular are not separate in this scheme; neither are the Divine and the world of manifestation. This is precisely why Shakti tattwa takes greater prominence in the Tantrika world than Shiva or the Purusa Tattwa.
The Tantras do not consider the world as Maya or a lower indeterminate evolute from a transcendental purity, but rather the main playground of Shakti, the worldly manifestation of the singular Divine Power, veiled to the average human consciousness, that creates, sustains and destroys. Her grace is absolutely mandatory for any attainment, spiritual or secular, by any entity from the great gods to the asuras. It does not bother about the transcendent too much; the here and now is what pervades the thinking of most Tantric systems and upasanas that are in vogue.
A Reworking of the Ritual Praxis
Accordingly, a ritual is useful or not in so far as it can produce some present-worldly benefit which may be perceptible via the subtle senses and also the gross senses, rather than promising otherworldly postmortem benefits like rebirth in some higher loka or attainment of the moksa alone, which may be good, but insufficient when seen from the Tantric viewpoint of fulfilled living via application of Divine Power in the world around. This forms a core difference between the Vedic Purva Mimamsaka ritualism and Tantric ritualism. It has been a point of great fights and debates between KaulaTantric Sampradayas, especially of East and North, and Vedic Sampradayas with the latter branding the former as Nastika (one who has no faith in the Vedas), while the former would call the Vedas as snakes without poison, implying elaborate rituals without concrete perceptible results. Accordingly the Kaula tantra-s even formed a hierarchy of acharas or behaviour modes according to which upasakas are classified where Vedacara was given the lowest status while Kaulacara was considered as the pinnacle of achievement. There are other Tantras too which emerged later on and have a sympathetic view of the Vedic knowledge, but the general idea was that the Vedas are for a different yuga and ineffective now, hence Shiva in his compassion revealed the Tantra shastras.
Analysed objectively, the differences that Tantras had was more with the Vedic ritualism and less with the core Upanishadic knowledge except the definition of Maya as adhered to by some Vedantic Sampradayas. Tantra therefore was an entire reworking of the ritual praxis of sadhana, a new path and system of hyper-ritualistic upasana taking into consideration the present realities of life, but with clear, practical goals in mind . The ultimate goal and final pinnacle is Shakti or Divine Power that has created, sustained and destroyed universes. It is this Shakti that is the focal point of Tantra, instead of an abstract transcendental Being. And who is this Mahashakti that is the recipient of all Tantric veneration? She is none other than the personification of the executive power inherent in the Brahman.
Sir Aurthur Avalon who first popularized the Tantras to the outside world translates these lines from a Hymn of Mahakalarudra to Mahakali which best captures the high essence of the Kaula Dharma:
“I torture not my body with penances.” (Is not his body Hers? If man be God in human guise why torment him?) “I lame not my feet in pilgrimage to Holy Places.” (The body is the Devalaya or Temple of Divinity. Therein are all the spiritual Tirthas or Holy Places. Why then trouble to go elsewhere?) “I spend not my time in reading the Vedas.” (The Vedas, which he has already studied, are the record of the standard spiritual experience of others. He seeks now to have that experience himself directly. What is the use of merely reading about it? The Kularnava Tantra enjoins the mastering of the essence of all Scriptures which should then be put aside, just as he who has threshed out the grain throws away the husks and straw.) “But I strive to attain Thy two sacred Feet.”