Lord Shiva and Shakti

A Brief Introduction to Tantra in Saivism and Hinduism

Edited By Jayaram V

In Saivism, Agamas have as much significance as the Vedas, if not more. They have been the foundation of Shaiva, Tantra and Shakta traditions since the earlies times. Shaivas may not necessarily believe in the Vedas, but they do in the sanctity and authority of the Agamas. The Agamas are foundation to Tantra beliefs and practices in Saivism.

Tantra means

Tantra literally means "loom, warp, weave. The word appears in the hymns of the Rigveda (10.71, with the meaning of warp (weaving, and in many other Vedic era texts, such as the Atharvaveda (10.7.42) and a few Brahmanas. In these texts, the contextual meaning of Tantra is that which is "principal or essential part, main point, model, framework, feature. In the Smritis and epics, the term means "doctrine, rule, theory, method, technique or chapter." The word is also used as a common suffix, such as atma-tantra, maha tantra, etc. The contextual meaning of tantra in different texts is shown in the following table. It amply proves that Tantra has been an ancient practice, although it was confined to mostly to spiritual and ascetic groups.

Period Text or author Contextual meaning of tantra
1700–1100 BC Ṛgveda X, 71.9 Loom (or weaving device)
1700-? BC Sāmaveda, Tandya Brahmana Essence (or "main part", perhaps denoting the quintessence of the Sastras)
1200-900 BC Atharvaveda X, 7.42 Loom (or weaving)
1400-1000 BC Yajurveda, Taittiriya Brahmana Loom (or weaving)
600-500 BC Pāṇini in Aṣṭādhyāyī 1.4.54 and 5.2.70 Warp (weaving), loom
pre-500 BC Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa Essence (or main part; see above)
350-283 BC Chanakya on Arthaśāstra Science;system or shastra
AD 300 Īśvarakṛṣṇa author of Sānkhya Kārikā (kārikā 70) Doctrine (identifies Sankhya as a tantra)
AD 320 Viṣṇu Purāṇa Practices and rituals
AD 320-400 Poet Kālidāsa on Abhijñānaśākuntalam Deep understanding or mastery of a topic
423 Gangdhar stone inscription in Rajasthan Worship techniques (Tantrodbhuta) Dubious link to Tantric practices
550 Sabarasvamin's commentary on Mimamsa Sutra 11.1.1, 11.4.1 etc. Thread, text;eneficial action or thing
500-600 Chinese Buddhist canon (Vol. 18–21: Tantra (Vajrayāna) or Tantric Buddhism[note 3] Set of doctrines or practices
600 Kāmikāgama or Kāmikā-tantra Extensive knowledge of principles of reality
606–647 Sanskrit scholar and poet Bāṇabhaṭṭa (in Harṣacarita[note 4] and in Kādambari), in Bhāsa's Cārudatta and in Śūdraka's Mṛcchakatika Set of sites and worship methods to goddesses or Matrikas
975–1025 Philosopher Abhinavagupta in his Tantrāloka Set of doctrines or practices, teachings, texts, system (sometimes called Agamas
1150–1200 Jayaratha, Abhinavagupta's commentator on Tantrāloka Set of doctrines or practices, teachings
1690–1785 Bhāskararāya (philosopher) System of thought or set of doctrines or practices, a canon

Tantra texts

Flood traces the earliest date for the Tantra texts related to Tantric practices to about AD 600, although according to him most of them were probably composed after the 8th century onwards.[By the 10th century an extensive literature came into existence. The texts were mostly composed during this period in Kashmir and Nepal. They were also called by other names such as Agamas in Shaivism, Samhita or Pancaratra in Vaishnavism, and Tantras in Shaktism. The Buddhists developed their own body of Tantras, which became the basis for Vajrayana Buddhism. In Jainism, also Tantra texts appeared as a part of the Surya tradition in the western regions of India. However, most of these manuscripts have been lost and unavailable in their complete form. Tantic did not find widespread acceptance or approval in Hinduism and remained confined to only a few sects and subsects. The Vedic tradition largely rejected it due to its unconventional and unorthodox approach to spiritual practice and liberation. However, tantra system incorporated many ideas from the Vedic beliefs and practices, holding the Vedic texts at the same time as inferior to theirs.


According to Flood, very little is known about who created the Tantras, nor much is known about the social status of these and medieval era Tantrikas. The Tantra pioneers may have been ascetics who lived at the cremation grounds, and hailed probably from probably non-Brahmanical and tribal communities or the worshippers of primordial (Adi) Shiva. Some references to the early tantrikas are found in the Buddhist Pali canon. By the early medieval times, their practices may have found their way into the worship of such deities as goddess Kali and god Bhairava, etc., with offerings of non-vegetarian food, alcohol and sexual substances.

The limbs of Tantra

The knowledge of Tantra is diverse and dispersed into a wide variety of tantric texts and esoteric practices. Hence, as André Padoux noted, there is no consensus among scholars as to which elements are characteristic for Tantra. Since there is no text which contains all its elements, it is difficult to determine it original scope of breadth. Besides, some of its practices are common to other traditions which are non-tantric. Anthony Tribe, a scholar of Buddhist Tantra, identified the following defining features of Tantra.

  • -- Centrality of ritual, especially the worship of deities
  • -- Centrality of mantras
  • -- Visualisation of and identification with a deity
  • -- Need for initiation, esotericism and secrecy
  • -- Importance of a teacher (guru, acharya)
  • -- Ritual use of mandalas (maṇḍala)
  • -- Transgressive or antinomian acts
  • -- Revaluation of the body
  • -- Revaluation of the status and role of women
  • -- Analogical thinking (including microcosmic or macrocosmic correlation)
  • -- Revaluation of negative mental states
  • According to David N. Lorenzen, Tantra practices include the following
  • -- "Shamanic and yogic beliefs and practices;"
  • -- "Sakta worship, especially worship of the Matrikas and demon-killing forms of Hindu and Buddhist goddesses;"
  • -- "Specific schools of Tantric religion such as the Kapalikas and Kaulas;"
  • -- "The Tantric texts themselves."

Practices (Sadhanas)

In tantra, a number of techniques (sadhana) are used as aids for meditation to purify the mind and body to attain absorption spiritual powers and absorption in the Self or Shiva. The ultimate aim is to merge the individual consciousness into the supreme pure consciousness (Vidya) of Shiva. The following practices are deemed important to achieve this sacred goal.

  • -- Dakshina: Donation or gift to one's teacher
  • -- Diksha: Initiation ritual which may include shaktipat
  • -- Yoga, including breathing techniques (pranayama) and postures (asana), is employed to balance the energies in the body/mind.
  • -- Mudras, or hand gestures
  • -- Mantras: reciting syllables, words, and phrases
  • -- Singing of hymns of praise (stava)
  • -- Mandalas
  • -- Yantras: symbolic diagrams of forces at work in the universe
  • -- Visualization of deities and Identification with deities
  • -- Puja (worship ritual)
  • -- Animal sacrifice
  • -- Use of taboo substances such as alcohol, cannabis, meat and other entheogens.
  • -- Prāyaścitta - an expiation ritual performed if a puja has been performed wrongly
  • -- Nyasa
  • -- Ritual purification (of idols, of one's body, etc.)
  • -- Guru bhakti (devotion) and puja
  • -- Yatra: pilgrimage, processions
  • -- Vrata: vows, sometimes to do ascetic practices like fasting
  • -- The acquisition and use of siddhis or supernormal powers. Associated with the left hand path tantra.
  • -- Ganachakra: A ritual feast during which a sacramental meal is offered.
  • -- Ritual Music and Dance.
  • -- Maithuna: ritual sexual union (with an actual physical consort).
  • -- Dream yoga


According to David Gordon White, mandalas are a key element of Tantra. They represent the constant flow and interaction of both divine, demonic, human and animal energy or impulses (kleshas, cetanā, taṇhā) in the universe. The mandala is a mesocosm, which mediates between the "transcendent-yet-immanent" macrocosm and the microcosm of mundane human experience. The godhead is at the center of the mandala, while all other beings, including the practitioner, are located at various distances from this center. Mandalas also reflected the medieval feudal system, with the king at its centre.

The godhead is both transcendent and immanent, and the world is regarded as real, and not as an illusion. The goal is not to transcend the world, but to realize that the world is the manifestation of the godhead, while the "I" is "the supreme egoity of the godhead." The world is to be seen with the eyes of the godhead, realizing that it is a manifestation as oneself. The totality of all that is a "realm of Dharma" which shares a common principle. The supreme is manifest in everyone, which is to be realized through Tantric practice.

Mantra, yantra, Nyasa

The words mantram, tantram and yantram are rooted linguistically and phonologically in ancient Indian traditions. Mantram denotes the chant, or "knowledge." Tantram denotes philosophy, or ritual actions. Yantram denotes the means by which a person is expected to lead their life. The mantra and yantra are instruments to invoke higher qualities, often associated with specific Hindu deities such as Shiva, Shakti, or Kali. Similarly, puja may involve focusing on a yantra or mandala associated with a deity. Each mantra is associated with a specific Nyasa. Nyasa involves touching various parts of the body at specific parts of the mantra, thought to invoke the deity in the body. There are several types of Nyasas; the most important are Kara Nyasa and Anga Nyasa.


One of the goals of Tantra is to fuse one’s own identity with that of the chosen deity, who is usually Shiva or Shakti, to the extent one begins to think, feel and act as the deity itself. It is usually achieved through various spiritual practices and through visualization in which the attributes of the chosen deity (ishata devata) are superimposed upon oneself through meditation and concentration. It goes on until the identification is complete and the ego is completely dissolved alter ego of the deity, whereby the aspirant becomes one with the deity in body and mind and in all the four states of consciousness namely wakeful, dream, deep sleep and transcendental states.

Tantra in Hinduism

In Hinduism, the tantric traditions are found in Shaivism's Shaiva Siddhanta and the Mantrapīṭha (Bhairava-centred), and in Shaktism's Vidyāpīṭha and the Kulamārga traditions. The Tantra texts of the Vaishnava tradition are the Pancharatra, and typically called the Agamas in the Vaishnava traditions. The term "Tantra" in Hindu genre of literature is usually used specifically to refer to Shakta Agamas. The Agamas literature is voluminous, and includes 28 Shaiva Agamas, 77 Shakta Agamas (also called Tantras), and 108 Vaishnava Agamas (also called Pancharatra Samhitas), and numerous Upa-Agamas.

Some Tantra texts in Hinduism are Vedic and others non-Vedic. Agama traditions include Yoga and Self Realization concepts, some include Kundalini Yoga, asceticism, and philosophies ranging from Dvaita (dualism) to Advaita (monism).

The means of worship in the Hindu Tantric practice differs from the Vedic form. While the Vedic practice of yajna there are no idols and shrines, in its Tantric traditions, idols and symbolic icons with puja are the means of worship. Temples, symbolism, icons that remind the devotee of attributes and values are a necessary part of the Agamic practice, while non-theistic paths are one of the many alternate means in the Vedic practice. This, however, does not necessarily mean that Tantra-Agamas and Vedas are opposed, according to medieval era Hindu theologians. Tirumular, for example, explained their link as, "the Vedas are the path, and the Agamas are the horse.”

Each Tantra-Agama text consists of four parts.

  1. 1. Jnana pada, also called Vidya pada – consists of doctrine, the philosophical and spiritual knowledge, knowledge of reality and liberation.
  2. 2. Yoga pada - precepts on yoga, the physical and mental discipline.
  3. 3. Kriya pada - consists of rules for rituals, construction of temples (Mandir); design principles for sculpting, carving, and consecration of idols of deities for worship in temples;[141] for different forms of initiations or diksha. This code is analogous to those in Puranas and in the Buddhist text of Sadhanamala.
  4. 4. Charya pada - lays down rules of conduct, of worship (puja), observances of religious rites, rituals, festivals and prayaschittas.

The Tantra-Agama texts of Hinduism present a diverse range of philosophies, ranging from theistic dualism to absolute monism. This diversity of views was acknowledged in Chapter 36 of Tantraloka, the 10th century scholar Abhinavagupta. In Shaivism alone, there are ten dualistic (dvaita) Agama texts, eighteen qualified monism-cum-dualism (bhedabheda) Agama texts, and sixty four monism (advaita) Agama texts. The Bhairava Shastras are monistic Tantra texts, while Shiva Shastras are dualistic.

Source: This article has been partially adapted from Wikipedia article on Tantra under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License

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