The Sanskrit word TANTRA literally means “warp (on a loom)”, or “extension”. It proceeds
from the verbal roots TAN – “to stretch, expound”, and TRA – “to save”, which give further hints
upon the other meanings of the word TANTRA.
This name is applied both for a certain category of texts of the Oriental spirituality, and for
the doctrine, and teachings which they contain. However, the Tantric texts, the TANTRA-s – and
there are several hundreds of them: proper TANTRA-s, SHIVA AGAMA-s, VISHNU SAMHITA-s,
SHAKTA NIGAMA-s, etc. – are written in a kind of “code language”, so that without an oral
explanation from a competent GURU, a lot of passages are bound to remain unclear. Moreover,
there are still many untranslated, and secret Tantric texts under the dust of forgotten, or
private libraries. All these, plus the extremely varied, and complicated nature of Tantrism
renders the manipulation of a single definition almost impossible. That is why, it has been found
useful to sketch some of the main features of the Tantric system in a detailed manner.
CHARACTERISTICS OF TANTRISM
1. TANTRA YOGA offers an alternative, and practical individual road to salvation, called a
SADHANA, beside the Vedic one which is often deemed to be antiquated. It is important to remark
here that the true Tantric SADHANA is accessible to people of any caste, social status, age,
women as well as men, householders as well as ascetics.
2. The TANTRA-s are presented as the most fit form of teaching for the men of KALI YUGA,
that is for the people of the “dark age”, in which we live today. KALI YUGA is often connected
with the “iron age” of the Greek mythology, and with the “age of the wolf”, of the Northern Edda,
deemed to have exactly the same meaning. Therefore, nowadays, when the spirituality is declining
while man is desperately trying to reintegrate himself in a spiritual reality, it is stated that
TANTRA is the last, and best way of salvation.
3. TANTRA has a rigorous metaphysical basis, of a very non-dualist nature. However,
according to its opinion an intellectual knowledge is not enough, but there is need of direct,
personal experience, which becomes possible only through the agency of SHAKTI, the power, the
intense energy. The concept of SHAKTI, the feminine energy is the specific colour of the entire
4. TANTRA recognizes, and expounds mundane aims besides spiritual emancipation, as a lawful
goal for a practiser. Its aim is to transform the adept in a kind of super-man, who not only has
liberated himself of the Universe, reaching Enlightment, but also – alike the Supreme Lord
Himself – is able to rule over it, and control its secret forces. This involves that Tantric
methods are applicable for various sorts of practical accomplishments, including astrology,
medicine, parapsychology, alchemy, and magic. Many written sources are pre-occupied with the
description of supernatural abilities (SIDDHI-s), and the ways to attain them. There remains
however, always a connecting thread between the magical, and the spiritual.
5. The eminent place given to the energy entails a brilliant revalorisation of the body.
This is not meant with the sense of object of idolatry, like in the contemporary world, but as
necessary instrument, unavoidable premises of the spiritual realization. This is due to the
perpetually reminded analogy between the macrocosm, and the microcosm, which is the human body:
“What is here is everywhere, what is not here is nowhere”. A consequence of this fact is the
appearance of the HATHA YOGA system in the Tantric schools; system which has as goal neither
the “health”, nor the “well-being”, as it is commonly believed.
6. TANTRA teaches the practice of a special variety of YOGA, destined to transform the
animal instincts and functions, by creating an upward movement in the body, along the energy-
channels, NADI-s, and through the centre-s of force, CHAKRA-s. The process is most commonly
expressed as “raising the KUNDALINI“. Connected with this YOGA is the elaboration of a subtle
physiology, in which the microcosm of the body is homologized with the macrocosm, and the world
of the gods.
7. TANTRA emphasizes the metaphysical, and operative importance of the feminine principle.
The Woman, the Goddess, SHAKTI represents for the TANTRIKA-s the universal Power, the energy of
bondage and Liberation, who veils and reveals, blinds and illuminates; the world is her toy, and
her mirror. Therefore we encounter here a genuine revalorisation of the woman, and perhaps the
only spiritual path that acknowledges a total equality between the two sexes, at all levels.
The importance of the female manifestations extends on all the levels of the experience, from
daily life, till metaphysics.
8. Important are also the speculations upon the mystic nature of speech, and its constituents; the existence is assumed of a phonic creation, parallel to the material phenomena. These revelations are connected with the sounds of the Sanskrit alphabet.
9. This has been developed concretely in the very frequent use of generally short, unintelligible formulas, called MANTRA-s and BIJA-s, correlated with various supernormal powers, and levels of consciousness by means of definite Yogic procedures, and which make the object of cosmic symbolism. Actually, the MANTRA-s are the most efficient instruments, according to TANTRA, and therefore the overwhelming majority of the Tantric texts deals to some extent upon this topic, and its secrets.
10. The general use of other concrete devices, like geometrical designs (YANTRA-s), symbolical representations (MANDALA-s), gestures (MUDRA-s), for the practical accomplishment or expression of metaphysical principles. The supernatural worlds are approached by specific methods of meditation (DHYANA), visualization, worship, etc.
11. The Tantric teachings are structured on several levels, depending on those to whom they address; the traditional texts assert the existence of three different human types: the “divine” one (DIVYA), that practically doesn’t exist any more in our age, the “heroic” one (VIRA), which is the best for the Tantric initiation, though rare, and PASHU, “the herd of the Gods”, the “animal”, that swarms in our dark age. Only the VIRA-s, say the tantric texts, the heros liberated of fear, hate, and absurd shame are qualified for receiving the full of the Tantric revelations, while the others receive an adequate SADHANA, which will first gradually bring them to the heroical condition.
12. Addressing to heroic beings, TANTRA is not so very concerned with theology, or common moral. It is not a trite anarchism that we are talking about, but the need for transcending some of the appearances of the illusory world, for reaching the strongest awakening. Very often the Tantric texts themselves over-emphasize this side, for banishing the narrow-minded aspirants, by the use of a symbolical language: “to pet the breasts of your sister” means to arouse the SHAKTI in ANAHATA CHAKRA, “to put the LINGAM (penis) in the maternal cavity” means to pierce the root-CHAKRA, and so on.
14. TANTRA emphasizes the absolute necessity of initiation by a qualified spiritual guide, or teacher (GURU), and on constantly following his (or her) directions for spiritual practice. That is why, the Tantric texts use a special set of terminology, inaccessible for the outsiders, and whose “key” is handed over orally by the GURU.
15. In TANTRA there often appears an ambivalence of the divine and human existence, as complementary aspects of the same awesome, grandiose reality.
16. There is also a far-fetched categorization of the reality, especially in the symbolism of the numbers, and speech, which leads to the mysterious science of the breath, and TATTVA-s, and to connections with the ancient alchemical processes of the SIDDHA-s, and the body culture of the HATHA YOGIN-s.