What Is Tantra? By Sri S.N. Sastri
Note from the Editor: The following article appeared last year on the Advaitin list at Yahoo groups and was written by Sri S.N. Sastri, one of the moderators of the Advaitin list. It appears here with very minor edits. Sastri-ji is a brilliant and respected scholar of many schools within Hinduism with a special interest, focus, and expertise on Advaita-Vedanta. Some biographical information and the names of books Sastri-ji has written is given at the end of the article.
The Path of Tantra
There has been a lot of ill-informed criticism of the Tantra with the result that it has been very much misunderstood.
Those who wish to know what Tantra really is, are advised to study the works of Sir John Woodroffe (also known as Arthur Avalon) on this subject.
Sri John Woodroffe was a Judge of the Calcutta High Court during the British rule in India. He made a thorough study of Tantra and came to be accepted as an authority on the subject by even traditional Indian Pandits.
Here are some points from his Introduction of the work entitled “Principles of Tantra”.
In India, philosophy and religion are mingled in a way which the West has not known since the age when philosophy was held to be Ancilla Theologiae.
We have in the Tantra the recognition of the fine principle that this doctrine and its expression in ritual are for all, whatever be their race, caste or sex.
The Hindu Shudras (so called untouchable caste) and woman are under none of the Vaidik bans in the Tantric approach to spirituality.
The Tantra calls woman ‘Shakti’. Shakti is the Goddess. To ill-treat a Shakti is a crime. On this ground the mahAnirvANa Tantra forbids sati (the self-immolation of the wife in the funeral pyre of her husband). It says:” O kuleshAnI, a wife should not be burnt with her dead husband. Every woman is Thy image. That woman who in her delusion ascends the funeral pyre of her lord shall go to hell”. (Ch.X, verses 79-80).
A woman can be a Guru, and initiation by her achieves increased benefit.
The main subjects of Tantra are mantra and sAdhana in all its forms. The kulArNava Tantra says: “For each yuga a suitable shAstra is given– in satyayuga shruti; in treta smRiti; in dvApara the purANas; in kali the Tantra.
Tantra has been said to exist in the Veda as the perfume exists in the flower. While the theoretical portion of the gAyatri tattva is contained in vedanta, the practical and ritualistic portion is in the Tantra.
If it be argued that the Tantra is of recent origin because it provides for the worship of shakti, then the same would apply to the purANas, mahAbhArata, and even the vedas and upanishads. In the veda there is the sarasvati sUkta, in the yajurveda the lakShmi sUkta and in the Rigveda the devi sUkta.
MAdhavAcharya, the commentator on the vedas, has, in dealing with the Patanjali darshana quoted passages from the Tantra shAstra with reference to the ten forms of samskAras prescribed therein. The bala and atibala mantras mentioned in rAmAyaNa, bAlakANDa, are tantrik and the mode of acquiring them is given in the Tantra shAstra.
Just like the vedas, the Tantras have no author, but have emanated from the mouths of shiva and His consort pArvatI. Those which came from shiva are known as ‘Agama’ and those that came from pArvati are known as ‘nigama’.
The worship performed in temples is mainly Tantrik.
shruti is of two kinds— Vaidik and Tantrik.
About the Author Sri S.N. Sastri
Shri S.N.Sastri is a former member of the Indian Revenue Service. He retired as Member, Central Board of Direct Taxes, Government of India.
He has authored the following books:–
1. Commentary in English on Narayaneeyam, a devotional work in Sanskrit by the devotee-poet Melpathur Narayana Bhattatiri who lived in Kerala in the 16th century A.D– Published by Central Chinmaya Mission Trust, Mumbai- 72.
Second Edition- Jan 2005. Pages 761. Price Rs. 160. Contains the slokas in Devanagari script, word-by-word meaning, and detailed explanatory notes. Available at all the centres of Chinmaya Mission all over the world.
2. Commentary in English on Satasloki of Sri Adi Sankaracharya– Published by the author. Price Rs. 80.
3. Commentary in English on Hastamalakiyam of Hastamalaka, one of the four disciples of Sri Adi Sankara– Published by the author. Price Rs. 25.
Books 2 and 3 can be had from Jayalakshmi Indological Book House, 6, Appar Swamy Koil Street, (opp. Sanskrit College), Mylapore, Chennai- 600 004. Tel: 24990539.
He has edited the English translation of a monumental commentary in Malayalam on Narayaneeyam, published by The Bhaktaranjini Trust, Bangalore-94. Price Rs.800.
He has written articles on Vedantic topics which have been published in various journals.
Some of the articles written by him are posted on his website.
. These articles are written in simple language, avoiding all technical jargon. They can be easily understood even by persons who have not had any exposure to Vedanta.
Shri S.N.Sastri can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org and at email@example.com.
Tantra means different things to different people and none of those opinions are necessarily right or wrong since there are no definitive sources on what tantra is or what makes someone a tantrika. The best definition I can come up with for tantra is a non-dualistic spiritual path which seeks to use the presence of the manifested world in order to ultimately reach towards that which has not been manifested.