Understanding Tantra in detail

By editor - 24.1 2020

What Tantra Is - First let us be very clear on what Tantra is and is not.

Tantra/ Agamas are a broad class of religious Hindu works. They are mostly based on the Vedas and accept the authority of the Vedas. They contain philosophical speculation as well as concrete practices to apply the philosophy. The practices are quite elegant and elevating in many instances. However in some cases, and not all, these practices have taken hideous forms . But the essential philosophy is more or less in harmony with the Vedic World View. The difference with respect to Vedas lies in some of the methods and subtle points of differences in philosophy.

What Tantra Is Not

There is a misconception among people that Tantra is all about “bad things” like black-magic, animal sacrifices, sexual excesses and drinking liquor and that it is something distinct from daily Hinduism. The word “Tantra” in fact carries a negative overtone which is why a lot of people do not take up its study. An average Hindu has very little, in fact, no idea what Tantra is all about and thinks that Tantra has no relevance to his daily Hindu duties.

While it is true that sexual excesses, graveyard practices, black magic etc are a part of Tantric practices(Vama Marga ), they are but a small part of certain sects of the various Tantric schools, in the same way that animal sacrifices in Yagna and drinking of Soma were an aspect of the Vedas. Any religion or philosophy has its good sides as well as bad sides. However in the case of Vama Tantra unfortunately the focus has been primarily on these negative aspects. Lord Shiva has also mentioned folowing the path of Vama Marga leads one to hell if he is not “divya”  or ” vira ” . This is the reason many unqualified people take the degraded forms of Vama Marga and fall down.

Tantra is therefore not only black-magic and erotic practices. It is much much more.

Tantra is in fact an essential part of Hinduism and pervades almost all aspects of the life of an average Hindu in ways he or she cannot even being to comprehend.

Tantra and Hinduism

Hinduism as we know today is essentially Tantric in nature built upon a Vedic super-structure. The daily Puja’s that we do at home – practices like Bija Mantra, Anga Nyasa, Kara Nyasa – all these are Tantric concepts. The dhyana mantras that we use during Pujas – many of them are derived from Tantric texts. The fact that a person could meditate on God at home and did not require an expensive Yagna is a Tantric concept. Allowing all caste access to meditate on God has been a Tantric initiative.

On the other hand, a Yagya is a pure Vedic concept. The only practice among Hindus that is more or less purely Vedic is the Aryan-Hindu marriage ceremony.

Tantra is not a unitary system like the Vedas or any of the Hindu philosophies. It is an accumulation of practices and ideas of the Hindus since prehistoric times. Its birth is rooted in the Vedas; its development proceeded through the Upanishads, Itihasas, Puranas, and Smritis; and its luxuriant growth has been fostered by Buddhism, various minor Hindu sects, and also foreign influences. The vitality and elasticity thus acquired made tantra enter every house and temple of India and it also made powerful inroads into every country where Indian thought went. What obtains as Hinduism in India and the West, is essentially tantra packaged to suit the need of a particular community or individual.

The main difference between vaidika and tantrika sastras is in structure; vaidika sastras deal with gotra (family) whereas the tantrika sastras are open for one initiated into them by a guru.

Age of Tantric Texts

Various puranas themselves we find mention made both of the Vaidiki and Tantriki forms of worship.
Buddha himself condemned the tantric worships of brahma, indra, vishnu, katyayani, Ganapati and others.
After Buddha, we find Buddhists themselves began to have their own innumerable Tantras. They veritably began to worship innumerable deities such as Adi Buddha, Prajna Paramita, Manjushri, Tara, Arya Tara and so on.

Thus the roots of Tantric practices are definitely pre-Buddhistic as well as pre-Puranic, that is their origination happened much earlier than ~ 500 B.C.E although many texts have been written later than that.

The Tantric World View
The Tantric world view comprises three broad classes of works – Tantra, Agama and Yamala.

A typical Tantric-oriented world view involves:

recitation of mantras or bijas
construction of geometrical cosmic symbols (mandala)
the making of appropriate gestures (mudra)
the assignment (nyasa) of powerful sounds or syllables on the body
meditation on the deity (dhyana)
Deity worship (Puja)

In short Sadhana is a key feature of Tantric practices.



Dakshin Marga and  Vama Marga :
The Brahma Yamala, a Tantric text  says there are three currents of tradition: dakshina, vama, and madhyama. These are characterized by the predominance of each of the three gunas; sattva, rajas, and tamas. According to this text, dakshina is characterized by sattva, and is pure, madhyama, characterized by rajas, is mixed, and vama, characterized by tamas, is impure. The Tantras of each class follow a particular line of spiritual practice.
Dakshina Marg:
The Dakshina Marg of the Agamas/Tantra are followed by the 4 bonafide sampradayas mentioned in Padma Purana namely Sri, Nimbarka , VishnuSwami, Madhava sampradayas and is recommended in Kaliyuga. They follow the Pancharatra Agamas. Dakshina Marga is not risky and is open to all .
Sri Vidya is also a Dakshina marga tradition according to many .  We are not sure if any Saiva tantra parampara falls in this category.
Vama Marga:

Vamachara is particularly associated with the pancha makara  or the “Five Ms”, also known as the pancha-tattva. In literal terms they are: Madya (wine), Mamsa (meat), Matsya (fish), Mudra (cereal), and Maithuna (sexual intercourse).  Mudra usually means ritual gestures, but as part of the five Ms it is parched cereal.

Vamachara traditions place strict ritual limits on the use of these literal forms and warn against non sanctioned use. If so used they encourage the person to sin. Practitioners of vamachara rituals may make symbolic substitutions for these literal things, which are not permitted in orthodox Hindu practice. The fact that tantric practices can be done without involvement with the literal pancha-makara is emphasized by Swami Madhavananda, and said to have been practiced by numerous saints.

Worship of Bhairava (Shiva), Kali and most of the  Devi forms are a part of Vama Marga. Preta(Ghost) worship also falls in Vama Marga .

Vama Marga is very secret due to its tamashik nature.

Misrit Marga: 

This is a mixture of Dakshina and Vama marga .


Samyachar , Kaulachar, Mishrachar:
These are three tradition of the saktas
Samyachar:  The Sadhak who  does Sri Vidya Sadhana following the vedic rituals falls in the category of Samyachar.  It is also Dakshina Marg . Tripura Sundari as worshiped in 10 Mahavidyas is a separate process and does fall in Kaulachar .
Kaulachar : Those who are the knowers of the 64 tantras , mahamaya and Shabat tantras fall in this category. It is Vama Marga.
Misrachar:  Those who follow a mixture of Samyachar and kaulachar falls in this category.

Gaudiya Vaisnavas and Tantra tradition :

Gaudiyas follow Pancaratra which belongs to daksina marga. It’s a way of arcana, murti worship and yogapith yantra mental worship. They don’t practice vama marga (‘sexual tantra practiced by Sahajiyas and others .  Gaudiya Vaisnavism teaches tantra (Pancaratra) marga. It’s quite a complex subject. Here’s a brief intro.

In the Bhagavata Purana tantra is mentioned several times. In 1.3.8 Narada is credited with founding the “Satvata-tantra”, which is identified by the commentators as Pancaratragama. This is pretty much the consistent interpretation given throughout, in the few places that the word comes up. In 11.3 there’s a discussion of both Bhagavata-dharma and Karma, which is divided into Vaidika and Tantrika portions. This duality (veda-tantra) comes up more than once in the Bhagavata (e.g. 8.6.9, 11.5.28, 11.11.37, 11.27.7, 11.27.26, 11.27.49, 12.11.4), reflecting concerns in South India about these two paths as in need of synthesis. Yamunacarya’s Agama-pramanyam is the principal reflection of this conflict.

In 11.5.31-32, where the Kali yuga avatar is introduced, it says “nana-tantra-vidhanena“, which Sridhar Swami glosses “kalau tantra-margasya pradhanyam darzayati,” meaning that this text is meant to show that the Tantric path is predominant in the age of Kali.

Some sampradayas  are  more concerned with ritual, Some with  bhava. Both acknowledge that the other path complements their own (as Rupa Gosvami does in Bhaktirasamrtasindhu 1.1.11), but they nevertheless give prominence to one or the other. This Visvanatha Cakravarti clearly points out in 11.3.33. Gaudiya Vaishnavas give prominence to raganuga bhakti and its advanced processes also mentioned in the  Pancharatras like Sanat Kumar Samhita. However to  attain a steady state of Raganuga bhajan one needs to follow the favourable angas of vidhi bhakti which are also angas of Pancharatras . The function of vidhi is mentioned in Padma Purana quoted in Bhaktirasamrtasindhu 2.8:

smartavyaH satataM viSnur
vismartavyo na jAtucit
sarve vidhi niSedhAH syur
etayor eva kiGkarAH

All vidhis should be understood as servants of two principles: constant remembrance of Visnu without ever forgetting Him.

tathA ca viSNu-yAmale
kRte zruty-ukta-mArgaH syAt tretAyAM smRti-bhAvitaH
dvApare tu purANoktaH kalAv Agama-sambhavaH 5.4

And also in Visnu Yamala
In Satya Yuga the path was to follow the Srutis, in Treta the Smrtis, in Dvapara the Puranas and in Kali the Agamas. (quoted in Haribhaktivilasa 5.4)

However it is not confused with the Yuga dharma Harinama . or the vidhis.

In earliest times people followed the Sruti for their practice/rituals and perfomed Vedic homas as well as meditation which are recommended in the Sruti (Upanisads). Then later Smrti texts became more prominent with their rules. The Puranic influences on ritualism came after that. Nowadays we don’t see Srauta ceremonies much at all, everything is Agamic/Tantric.

Ānanda Tīrtha the founder of Madhva line has written in his commentary on Mundaka Upanishad:

dvapariyair janair viṣṇuḥ pancarātrais ca kevalam kalau tu nāma-mātreṇa pujyate bhagavan hariḥ

“In Dvāpara-yuga, Vishnu is exclusively worshiped according to the principles of the Pancharatra Scripture, but in this age of Kali-yuga, the Supreme Lord Hari is worshiped only by the chanting of his Holy Name.”

dvAparIyair janair viSNuH
paJcarAtrais tu kevalaiH
kalau tu nAma-mAtreNa
pUjyate bhagavAn hariH

In the Dvapara-yuga people should worship Lord Visnu only by the regulative principles of the Narada-pancaratra and other such authorized books. In the age of Kali, however, people should simply chant the holy names of the Supreme Personality of Godhead. (Narayana Samhita)

Jiva Gosvami had stated in his Paramātma Sandārbha, Annucheda 17, forming part of six principal Sandārbhas, or philosophical treateses of Gaudiya Vaishnavism, that, “Seeing that the imperfect scriptures in the modes of passion and ignorance bring only a host of troubles, and also seeing that the original Vedas are very difficult to follow properly, and thus being very dissatisfied with both of these, the all-knowing scripture authors affirm the superiority of the Pancharatras, which describe the pure absolute truth, Narayana, and the worship of the Lord, which is very easy to perform.”

In the same Sandārbha Jiva Gosvami states  that god himself, Svayam Bhagavan, had spoken the Narada Pancharatra, which is accepted as a pramāṇa [critical evidence] by Gaudiya scholars.

pañcarātrasya kṛtsnasya vaktā tu bhagavān svayam

Q: Can you give an example of a Tantric Mantra given by a Hare Krishna Guru?

A: One is astaksara Gopala mantra explained in Urdhvamnaya tantra which also includes Gaura mantra.  There are other mantras also which are not to be disclosed.

Q: Does a Vaishnava Tantric Mantra use Tantrik Bija (seed)?

A: Klim (Visnu tattva), srim (Sakti tattva) and aim (Guru tattva). Bija for Kali is krim. She’s not worshiped by Gaudiyas.

Q: How does a Vaishnava Tantric mantra accord with your claim that Vaishnavas accept that Tantra is for vidhi or rituals while Vedas are for bhava?

A: Our main (vaidika) mantra (aka Hari nama) is Hare Krsna mahamantra given in Kalisantarana Upanisad and other texts. The tantrika portion of our practice – arcana – is of a supportive nature. That survives from Dvapara yuga and is valid during the yuga sandhya.

dvAparIyair janair viSNuH
paJcarAtrais tu kevalaiH
kalau tu nAma-mAtreNa
pUjyate bhagavAn hariH

In the Dvapara-yuga people should worship Lord Visnu only by the regulative principles of the Narada-pancaratra and other such authorized books. In the age of Kali, however, people should simply chant the holy names of the Supreme Personality of Godhead. (Narayana Samhita)

Q: What are various bija mantras?

A: Varada Tantra lists bija mantras: 1. Haum should be used to worship Siva; 2. Dum stands for Ma Durga; 3. Krim stands for Ma Kali; 4. Hrim stands for Ma Bhuvanesvari; 5. Srim stands for Devi Lakshmi; 6. Aim stands for Ma Sarasvati; 7. Klim stands for Mahesvari; 8. Hum stands for Devi; 9. Gam stands for Mahesvari (Ga means Ganesha); 10. Glaum stands for Ganesha; 11. Ksraum stands for Nrsimha; 12. Strim stands for Mahesvari

Since Aim stands for Ma Saraswati it explains why ‘aim’ is also used for three of the eight main sakhis (astasakhis) of Sri Radha. One of them will be the origin of Vaikuntha (Adi) Sarasvati:

“At His [Visnu’s] left side they saw beautiful, charming, and fair Goddess Sarasvati, who held a flute, vina and book in her hand, who was the queen of the higher planets, and who was knowledge personified.” (Brahmavaivarta Purana 4.6.79)

“O Radha, in My form as eternal Lord Narayana I will return to Vaikuntha with Laksmi and Sarasvati.” (Brahmavaivarta Purana 4.6.256)

Other original forms of devas are there as well: “In the centre [of Vaikuntha] reside the deities of fire, sun and moon, Kurma-avatara, Ananta Sesa, and Garuda, the master of the three Vedas. The Vedic hymns and all sacred mantras also stay in that holy place, which is made of all the Vedas, and which is known in the Smrti-sastra as the yoga-pitha.” (Padma Purana, Uttara-khanda 256.23)

Varada Tantra is Sakta tantra since it attributes klim to Mahesvari. In the Gautamiya tantra its meaning is given as follows:

klim-karad-asrjad visvam
iti prana sruteh sirah
la-karat prthivi jata
ka-karaj jala-sambhavah

i-karad vahnir utpanno
nadad vayur ajayata
bindor akasa-sambhutir
iti bhutatmako manuh

(The Upanisads state that) the universe was created from the syllable klim. Water was produced from the k, earth from the l, fire from the i, air from m, and ether from the dot. This mantra is therefore fivefold.

ka-karah purusah krsnah
i-karah prakrti radha

las canandatmakam prema-
sukham tayos ca kirtitam
nada-binduh samiritah

K is Krsna with His personal form of eternity, knowledge and bliss. I is His energy Radha, who is the eternal Queen of Vrndavana. L is celebrated as the blissful happiness of love. M is the sweetness of the bliss occurring when They kiss. (Brhad-gautamiya-tantra)

Q: What is Yogapith practice?

A: It means the sacred meeting place of Radha Krishna. It is mentioned in Govinda lilamrita 21.94, with reference to the Vedas, and in Sankalpa kalpadruma 52 by Visvanatha Cakravartipad.

yam AgamajJAH pravadanti yaM hareH
priyA-gaNaH keli-nikuJjam Aha ca (94)

evaM-vidhaM taM sthala-rAjatallajaM
govinda-saMsmArakam Atmano guNair
vIkSyAparAdhA sa-sakhI-tatir mudam (95)

In the beneath of kalpa-druma tree there is a palace that Lord Krsna’s jeweled throne situated in a sacred place, which in the agama-sastra explain that Lord Krsna have multitude pastimes with gopis in this groves, it is said also that in this monarch of all places, excellent pastimes of happiness of Cupid happening in the temple for the sacrifice, and by reminding of seeing Lord Govinda personally one will attain the qualities of Srimati Radharani and Her gopi friends, with host of joy. (Govinda lilamrita 21.94-95)

vRndAvane sura-mahIruha-yoga-pITha-sim-hAsane sva-ramaNena virAjamAnam
pAdyArgha-dhUpa-vidhu-dIpa-catur-vidhAnna-srag-bhUSaNAdibhir aham-paripUjayAni

As You sit with Your lover on a throne under a desire tree in Vrndavana, I will worship You by offering You padya, argha, incense, camphor, lamps, garlands, ornaments, and four kinds of food. (Sankalpa kalpadruma 52)

Yogapith is also described by Rupa Goswami in his Laghu bhagavatamrita 2.258-283.

It is a yantra, a ritual diagram in the shape of an 8-petalled lotus flower. Brahma samhita 5.3-4 similarly mentions sad-kona (hexagram) yantra with petals occupied by Krsna’s sakhis (saktis), expansions of Sri Radha. (This yantra is also seen on some Tibetan images of deities, in the whorl of the lotus on which the deity stands.) The throne and lotus are mentioned in Brahma samhita 5.26 and Gopalatapani Upanisad 1.18:

Brahma said: The Lord’s altar should be a golden lotus with eight petals. Within that lotus should be placed two triangles and the mantra klim krsnaya namah, the Kama-gayatri (klim krsnaya govindaya gopijanavallabhaya svaha), and the ananga-gayatri (kamadevaya sarva-jana-priyaya sarva-jana-sammohanaya jvala jvala prajvala prajvala sarva-janasya hrdayam me vasam kuru kuru svaha) should be written there. Then anga should be offered with the sula-matra (astraya phat). Then one should worship the Lord’s expansions, beginning with Rukmini, the devotees headed by Indra, the devotees headed by King Vasudeva, the devotees headed by Arjuna, and the devotees headed by Indranidhi.

Baladeva Vidyabhusana comments: This is described in the Padma Purana: “O Narada, placing the Lord on His altar, I worship Him with prayers, incense, lamps, arghya and other gifts.”

Another mention is also in one of our pranama mantras:

preSThAlIbhiH sevyamAnau smarAmi

In a temple of jewels in Vrndavana, underneath a desire tree, Sri Sri Radha-Govinda, served by Their most confidential associates, sit upon an effulgent throne. I offer my humble obeisances unto Them. (AbhidheyAdhideva PraNAma, Caitanya caritamrita 1.1.16, 2.1.4, 3.1.6)

This practice has been developed into an elaborate ritual, involving two diagrams, one of Navadvip and one of Vrindavan, in which you have to offer so many articles like sandal pulp and flowers to so many characters inside the diagram. In the whorl of the lotus are Radha-Krishna and each of the petals houses one sakhi; under each sakhi serves again one main manjari. There is a mirror-model of Navadvip, where Mahaprabhu stands in the whorl, surrounded by all His associates. The practise has been elaborated upon by Gopal Guru Goswami and Dhyanacandra Goswami of the Vakresvara Pandit parivara.

Next mention is found in Urdhvamnaya Tantra where Sri Siva tells Sri Parvati:

karnika-madhya-bhage tu pitham ratnamayam param
panca-tattvanvitam tatra gauram purata-sundaram
ye dhyayanti janah sasvat te tu sarvottamottamah

In the middle of that whorl (Antardvipa) is the topmost sacred seat of jewels, Shri dhama (Mayapura). There resides the Supreme Personality of Godhead, the handsome golden Gaura in His five features (Panca-tattva). They who always meditate on Lord Gaura in Mayapura are the most exalted of all exalted souls.