An Introduction to Tantra: The Yoga of Sacredness ~ Ramesh Bjonnes
Most people in the West think of Tantra as a sacred sexual practice. When studying Tantra in India, however, I quickly learned that Tantra is much more than sacred sex. Like life itself, Tantra can be interpreted and experienced in a myriad of ways. As Tantric author Vimala McClure reminds us, Tantra is not the yoga of sex. Rather, Tantra is ‘the yoga of everything.’ Or, as I like to refer to it, Tantra is the yoga of sacredness.
Some contemporary spiritual teachers explain that the word Tantra means technique. To them, the word connotes a transformative tool, a science, a way of life that brings joy and enlightenment. Others will tell you that the word Tantra means to expand, as in expanding one’s consciousness. Yet others will tell you that the word Tantra means weaving. Tantra to them signifies a kind of spiritual ecology expressed in concepts such as nature’s web of life or the interconnectedness of all that is. Some religious scholars refer to Tantra as a cultural tradition that emerged in the early Common Era within Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism. All these interpretations are partly right. Yet to truly understand the inherent spirit of Tantra, we must go to the root of the word and tradition itself.
If we break down this Sanskrit word into three syllables, we get tan+trae+da. The root verb tan means to expand, and the root verb trae means to liberate. So the etymological meaning of Tantra is that path which leads to expansion and ultimately to liberation. The word Tantra can also be explained as the practice that liberates us from dullness. The reason behind this explanation is that all Sanskrit letters have deep esoteric meaning, and the letter ta is the ‘seed sound’ of dullness.
Tantra, then, has two implications: the path of liberation from dullness and the path of personal expansion and enlightenment. Moreover, a Tantric is someone who practises. And since Tantra is a fundamental and universal spiritual science, Tantric Tantra practitioners can be found, irrespective of religion, wherever there is spiritual practice, wherever there is an attempt to attain spiritual liberation. In other words, even though Tantra as a specific path can be traced back to Shiva, in a more general sense Tantra is found among mystics of all religions, especially within Hinduism, Buddhism, Sufism, Jainism, Zen and to some extent within mystical Judaism and Christianity.
The history of Tantra is much older than Hinduism and Buddhism, in fact, much older than any of the world’s great religions. Early forms of Tantra emerged in the ancient shamanic cultures of Asia at the dawn of civilization more than ten thousand years ago. Deeply rooted in late matriarchal society, the life-affirming Tantra was, according to the Puranas and various teachers of Tantra, systematized by Shiva and his wife Parvati in their oral Agama and Nigama teachings around 7,000 years ago. At that primordial dawn of human society—4,500 years before Buddha and 5,000 years before Christ—Tantra emerged as the world’s most integral way of life. With its own spiritual practice, psychology, science, art and medical system, Tantra was, and still is, an integral path of personal transformation, a transpersonal way of being.
Yet the essence of Tantra is not a belief system, nor is it a formal religion. Tantra is a spiritual practice, a science and a philosophy that expresses the perennial essence of our human quest for spiritual realization. Tantra represents our universal quest for truth within and beyond the world of science and religion. Tantra is also a lifestyle. Based on a spiritual world-view and yogic practices, the Tantric lifestyle helps invoke the sacred in everyday life. In fact, the essence of Tantra— to quench our innate thirst for spiritual union—is at the heart of all yoga traditions. From Taoism to Hinduism, from Jainism to Buddhism, from medieval Kundalini Yoga to contemporary Hatha Yoga, from traditional Raja Yoga to ecstatic Bhakti Yoga, the essence of Tantra flows as a seamless stream of transcendental knowledge. And, in a more general sense, Tantra connotes the experiential and transformative mysticism at the heart of all the world’s wisdom traditions. In that spirit, both the Kali-worshipping Indian saint Ramakrishna and the God-intoxicated Christian mystic St. Theresa of Avilla were Tantrics.
Tantra, which often is termed Tantra Yoga, cannot be divorced from the inner essence of its own spiritual heart, from the experience of Bhakti, the expression of spiritual love, As a cultural expression, we find the Bhakti path in Vaishnava Tantra and in the ecstatic chants of the Bauls of Bengal. American poet Robert Bly aptly describes Bhakti Yoga as the path where ‘the bee of the heart stays deep inside the flower, and cares for no other thing’.
This focus on passionate love is integral to Tantra as it turns desire and attachment, the very antidotes of spiritual liberation, into an alchemical fuel for love and the emancipation of Spirit by worshipping all as God. Thus the bee of the heart goes so deep into what it loves that it transforms into love itself. To become that love is the goal of the love-intoxicated path of Tantra.
Tantric love is about creating spiritual oneness and union. Tantra is about feeling connected to the spiritual essence of the universe. And what is this essence? It has many names: God, Spirit, Godhood, Tao, Allah, or simply The One. In Tantra, this essence is called Brahma, or Cosmic Consciousness. And this Brahma is composed of Shiva and Shakti, the dual expressions of Brahma, just like light and heat are inseparably one with fire, yet also its dual expressions.
Shiva is Brahma as pure Cosmic Consciousness, and Shakti is Brahma as Cosmic Creative Energy, the force behind creation, the force that created you and me. Shiva and Shakti, like a wave and a particle in quantum physics, are never separate. They are always together, always the same. They are simply two different expressions of the same universal Brahma. Remembering these primal aspects of the world, we open up to see and experience oneness in duality everywhere. We open up to feelings of spiritual connectedness and love.
The primal, evolutionary force of Shakti—which is both real and symbolic—is that which inspires us toward illumination and wisdom. Yet the same force has the capacity to blind us, to drive us away from truth and self-realization. In other words, the duality of wisdom and ignorance, Vidya and Avidya Shakti, exists at the very root of creation and life itself. Thus, no matter at which stage we are on the spiritual path, there is always the possibility of making mistakes. Hence, there is always a need for spiritual vigilance, always a need to transcend our own limitations and ignorance; a need to personify a deep, spiritual morality.
Our challenge is to go beyond the illusion of Avidya Shakti. When we take up that challenge, we are inspired to reach our natural state of spiritual being. And when we live and breathe from that state, we are supported by the spiritual power of Vidya Shakti. Then we will experience more and more synchronicity, harmony and vitality in our life. Still, after the spiritual light has awakened us, we must be vigilant in embracing our own weaknesses, our own shadow, without denial or suppression. Tantra is thus a dynamic path and urges us to stay awake in the light of our spiritual being at all times.
The path of Tantra is about experiencing spiritual bliss, to soak the human heart with divine Spirit. Thus, it is often said that Bhakti Yoga, the path of ecstatic love, is the best and safest path. This Yoga of Love is beautifully exemplified in the life and poetry of Rumi, who said, ‘The taste of milk and honey is not it. Love instead that which gave deliciousness.’ In other words, love that which is within and beyond all physical forms and expressions. Love that which is within and beyond food, sex, fame, and money. As the Tantrics will say, when you cultivate love for that which gives you all that is delicious in life, namely Brahma, you will eventually experience love in everything. That is the spirit of Tantra. That is the alchemy of Tantric love.
This, then, is the path of Vidya Tantra—the path that leads us to experience the unity of Shiva and Shakti in our own hearts and minds, and, hence, to the realization of Cosmic Consciousness everywhere.
(This article is excerpted from the upcoming book Tantra: The Yoga of Love and Awakening to be published soon by Hay House India.)
Ramesh Bjonnes is the co-founder of the Prama Institute, a holistic retreat center in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina and the Director of the Prama Wellness Center, a retreat center specializing in yoga detox by incorporating juice fasting, ayurveda, and yoga to cleanse, relax and rejuvenate. Bjonnes is also a writer, yogi and workshop leader. He lived in India and Nepal in the 1980s learning directly from the traditional teachers of yoga and Tantra. He has taught workshops in many countries and is the author of Sacred Body, Sacred Spirit (InnerWorld) and the upcoming Tantra: The Yoga of Love and Awakening (Hay House India) He lives and practices in an eco-village in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina.