The Tantric Path: The Journey Back to Cosmic Roots
------ © Dr. Satya Prakash Choudhary
The journey back to the Cosmic roots can be done by two sadhana paths. The Direct/Vedantic and the Tantric paths
1. Advaita/Vedanta/Direct path : Direct realization of one's true nature by meditation on the Upanisadic Mahavakyas. This is the path of Gnana, true knowledge. The emphasis is on the distinction between the self and non-self. The cause of all misery is traced to ignorance (Agnana) which vanishes only when supreme knowledge dawns. This is the path advised by Advaita, a school of Vedantic thought.
2. Tantra/Agama/Indirect path: This path is an indirect one and generally uses a variety of meditations, rituals, symbols etc., for gradual realization. This is the path of technique. Innumerable techniques are there for all kinds of men and women. Since the direct path requires a high level of spiritual maturity, it is the second path that suits most of us. Reality is grasped by a series of gradual experiences through a process of conceptual and intuitive awareness. Reality is a flow of ever-changing forces. By means of various techniques in accordance with the innate principles of universal harmony, it is possible to absorb the illusoriness of life and transmute it into a Conscious Reality. This is the path of Tantra. Quite often some teachers actually prescribe a mixture of both the direct and the indirect paths.
The essence of Tantra is Vedic while the myths and deities are Puranic in origin. Present day Hinduism, it should be noted, is a mixture of all these approaches. In fact, a lot of it is closer to practical tantra than we imagine. The principal Vedic deities like Prajapati, Indra, Agni, Varuna, Soma etc., are not really an integral part of popular modern Hinduism. There are almost no temples to these Vedic deities in India today, while all the key deities popular in present day India- like Shiva (the auspicious and the destroyer), Vishnu (the sustainer), Saraswati (patron Goddess of learning), Durga, Kali, Lalita (all aspects of Sakti) who are more Tantric and Puranic in origin- have hundred thousands of temples throughout India. Most of the scriptures today are at root Tantric, if not in source at least in aspiration. It is hard to differentiate between the vedantic and tantric traditions today, in present day Hinduism, as they are intricately woven into each other. To say that Tantra came later and influenced the Vedic (vedantic) tradition, is far from the truth. Both the traditions seem to have existed since ancient times, influencing each other. Today even an orthodox advaitic parampara like the sringeri math, prescribes agamic (tantric) practices for its followers. Thus both the Tantric and Vedic (vedantic) traditions are co-existent and often intricately linked.
Here I have to tell you more about the much-misunderstood tradition of Tantra.
The word Tantra is made up of two words: tanoti and trayati. “Tanoti” means to expand to stretch, to extend while “Trayati” means to liberate or free. Therefore Tantra (tan+tra) means to expand one's experience and awareness of everything till all boundaries cease, till our consciousness becomes one with the Cosmic, and thus attain liberation.
Tantra is actually a compendium of many other systems; it encompasses a wide selection of the different aspects of human life. Its nebulous beginnings lie in the mist of pre-historical times. It grew slowly and developed spontaneously as man moved through and lived in the various bygone ears. It was not thrust on man, but developed naturally in response to man's needs, maturing with man as he adapted to new situations and adopted new ways of living. It is a system that adapts according to the needs of the times. In fact, it is a tantric belief that old tantric texts will face away and new ones will always be written to replace them. The essence remains the same, but the expression and relationship to prevalent social conditions will be different. Tantra has changed through the ages, not remaining attached to fixed dogma. It is still growing and adapting itself in the new age, and will continue to mould itself to man's needs in the coming ages.
Tantra teaches knowledge and experience of the macrocosm through the microcosm. It utilizes the material to tune into the non-material, the known to reach the unknown; the manifest to know the un-manifest. It is a practical path that teaches us how to fully know and use the world we live in, as well as to full in tune with higher consciousness.
Tantra is an open spiritual tradition that accepts all useful practices and insights including the wordly. It is world-affirmative, granting a reality to the external world however, affirming its reality as consciousness. Thus Tantra does not deny the external world as totally non-real. It is sympathetic to the immediate needs. Tantra starts where you are. Tantra. Tantra shows us how to accept ourselves, how to openheartedly accept life as it is, allowing us to not only accept our limitations, but work through them. In fact a true Tantric master makes you use the very limitations, your weaknesses as stepping stones. As the Kularnava tantra says, “One must rise by that which one falls”.
Tantra addresses the more mundane problems, by helping to solve some problems through occult knowledge, and in the process, tries to raise the individual awareness gradually towards the higher, towards a transformation, which is its actual goal. It is the alchemy of transformation- of transforming the lower into the higher. Tantra being essentially a mystic affair, ordinary language cannot express the teaching effectively. Hence a unique style of writing was evolved using “symbolic speech”. No doubt, all could read this “Sandha bhasha (often translated as “twilight language”), but few could understand it. This “enigmatic language” is a distinct feature of Tantra.
Intricately woven into the theory of Tantra is the practical aspect of Tantra as a technical path. Tantra is concerned with providing us tools to practically experience the truths that Tantra declares. Yantra, mantra and Tantra, the three main aspects of the path, usually go together. The tantra is the teaching and yantras and mantras are its tools. Frequently one comes across another tool of Tantra, which is similar to the Yantra, -the Mandala. Thus Tantra makes use of various tools like mantras, yantras and mandalas. While a yantra is a geometric representation, a mandala is a visual iconographic or pictorial representation of the same energy. The linear designs (yantra) are more common to Hindu Tantra while there seems to be a preference for the mandala in Buddhist Tantra. But both the mandala and the yantra are seen in Hindu Tantra, the former generally adoring the roofs of sacred places and the latter for ritual worship.
Just as an equation in mathematics is represented by a graph, the mantra can have a corresponding Yantra. The risis of ancient India were able to “see” the truths of the universe through meditation, and rendered them as mantras and yantras. Most of these patterns reflect either a specific attribute of the Supreme Divinity or the Divinity in its entirety. The entire phenomena of creation, preservation and destruction are reflected in some of these geometrical patterns. In-fact, these Yantras (when constructed accurately) are capable of generating a tremendous force that every time the adept looks at it, he or she experiences Creation itself!
“As body is to the soul and oil is to the lamp, a yantra is to the deity”
– Kularnava Tantra ( V.86 )
The yantras are the dwellings of the Gods. The Sanskrit word “Yantra” derives from the root “yam” meaning to sustain, hold or support the energy inherent in a particular object or concept. Simply, a yantra is just an “instrument” or “tool”. In the art and science of spirituality, Yantras are tools of transformation, which aid in meditation, heighten awareness and help in a transformation of our energies. Mahat, (Cosmic Intelligence) the greatest casual force, possesses all sound and light forms. Tantra uses its radiance in the form of lines of light to give form (through the yantra) to deities, who often correspond to the possible phases of psychic unfoldment, in the individual soul's journey back to the cosmic source. They are a synthesis and harmony of the diverse and some times conflicting energies of the human psyche.
The images and symbols used by Tantra are not randomly selected, but very precise. Thus when a specific deity or mantra or yantra is chosen by a jyotishi after a careful analysis of the chart, or by your guru through in‘sight', it is like a tailor made plan, a road map, for the individual's journey back to the cosmic roots. Does that mean that one cannot seek to do it in any other way? No. The other paths of Gnana (a more direct path that requires a high level of spiritual maturity), or Karma (Work done with a Nimitta bhava, without attachment to results), or Meditation, or Bhakti (spiritual love/devotion), are all good. But as stated earlier, the path of technique is said to be the easiest. The ishta devata or any personal deity selected is also part of the same process. (please refer my article on ‘Sacred Myth' and archetypes for an explanation of the various forms of gods with reference to archetypes).
The gulf between the parent Cosmic consciousness and the individual consciousness disappears with the aid of the Tantric tools. The tools of Tantra help the individual to recover the lost unity and assume the nature of the original Cosmic consciousness. The tools of Tantra make use of precise, vital images and symbols to awaken the lost memory of our true nature. When this memory is awakened through a series of dreams, visions and other experiences, which the practice of Tantra evokes in the consciousness of man, one realizes the identity of his inner self with the whole, eventually melding with the cosmos.