The Tanthric Experiment
But even Gita and Vaishnavism taken together doesn’t express all the dynamic comprehensiveness and integrality of the Vedic spirit but only some aspect of it. The Vedic emphasis on sacrifical action is given the most luminous, clear and practical form in the Gita. The other aspect of the Vedic spirit, that of life-acceptance was also affirmed by Gita but not with the same amount of joy or spiritual positivism as we find in the Vedas. There was still in the Gita some traces of the melancholic spirit of the later Vedantha, reflected for example in that famous verse of the Gita which addresses men “O mortal who has come into this sorrowful transient world”.
This other important aspect of the Vedic spirit, that of joyous acceptance of life, was rediscovered in the Tanthras with an extraordinary creative vigour and boldness that surpasses in some respects even the spirit of Vedic sages. Here we have a spiritual thought and practice which is at once scientific, rational and intuitive, not rigidly systemetised but thrown loosely in the form of symbols, legends, parables, myths, philosophies and systems of practice, bewildering to the ordinary rational mind, sometimes repulsive to the conventional morality, but absorbingly fascinating and highly evocative to the intuitive mind and the feeling heart. Here we have a spiritual philosophy based on an original intuition into the primal Two-in-One in the Absolute, Shiva and Shakthi, the eternal self-existence and self-luminous conscious Being and the creative energy of consciousness inherent in the Being, and a “scientific” conception of the world — world of matter, life and mind — as a creative movement of the Energy of Consciousness.
But the Tanthric philosophy doesn’t have the saw-dust dryness of the modern scientific philosophies. The Energy which gives birth to the world is not an inconscient force or a mathematical abstraction but a living conscious being, the Mother of the Worlds, the all-blissful, all-beautiful, all-gracious and adorable Creatrix of the Universe. World is the blissful Lila or sport or one act-play of the Divine Mother, which she plays within her own consciousness, with many masks, good and evil, beautiful and ugly, herself the player, the play and the stage. The ultimate aim of the Tanthric path is to become a conscious and joyful participant in the cosmic lila of the Mother and the dynamic instrument, Adhikari Purusha, of Her cosmic purpose and will. The tanthric yoga like its philosophy is a loose, flexible and intuitive syntheses of every conceivable form of religious, psychological and spiritual methods; it takes each individual as he is according to his unique nature, temperament, capacity, qualities and evolutionary conditions and tries to provide a system of discipline specific to the unique needs of the individual and the type.
But, unfortunately, in some of the popular expositions of the Tanthras, especially in the west, one of the bold and controversial experiment of the Tanthric Yoga, the so-called “Left-hand” path, Vamana Marga, with its wine and women symbolism, is exaggerated out of proportion and presented as the core of Tanthric sadhana. But in the Tanthric sadhana, the Vamana marga is prescribed neither for the masses nor for the highest type of spiritual seekers but for a special category of seekers who are in between. So to make the “left-hand” path of the Tanthras as the core of Tanthric sadhana is a gross misreading of this great, bold and fascinating spiritual system.
But the most important contribution of Tanthras from the yogic point of view is its famous kundalini yoga. The central idea of kundalini yoga is that our body or the physical being is the base and foundation of all other higher forms of energies and contains potentially within itself all the possibilities of divine perfection.
The kundalini shakthi, according to the Tanthras is the microcosmic expression of the cosmic shakthi or Mahakundalini in the individual. It lies coiled and folded up in the lowest energy center at bottoms of the spine in the human body as potential energy inherent in the sex-fluid. When this bottom most energy centre is activated by Tapas, inner heat produced by concentration, the sleeping kundalini is awakened, uncoils itself, raises upwards, piercing through different higher energy-centres in the body and finally reaches the highest energy-centre in the head where it is said, that the kundalini shakthi is united with Shiva. This is the state of highest beatitude, perfection and liberation for the Tanthric Yogi.
There are, according to the Tanthras, centres in the human body, each of which links the human being to the corresponding levels or planes of the cosmic consciousness. As the kundalini shakthi raises upwards, she opens these centres, enabling the yogi to enter into conscious contact with these higher level of the cosmic planes with its corresponding worlds, beings, psychic and spiritual states and new and greater faculties of knowledge, power, mastery and enjoyment.
The process of this ascension of the kundalini is described in the trantric texts as a progressive reabsorbtion of the grosser into finer elements from earth into water, water into fire, fire into air and from air into the primal ether. This represents a progressive transformation of the physical energy — imaged in the figure of the earth — into finer and finer forms of energy until it is transformed into Ojas, the primal spiritual energy inherent in the ether, Space.
This is the reverse of creative evolution by which spirit become matter by a progressive contracting or condensation of its consciousness-force. The raising of the kundalini shakthi represents the “reevolution” of matter towards the spirit by a progressive and pervasive “decondensation” of the consciousness-force inherent in Matter until it becomes one in nature with its own original status as the consciousness-force of the spirit.
Thus the ultimate aim of Tanthric yoga is the union of the two ends of the being, Matter and Spirit, and the transformation of physical energy into spiritual energy. For the union of ascending kundalini shakthi — who in her unawakened status is primarily a biological energy sleeping in the bottom of the spine — with the Shiva, represents the union of the Spirit and Matter.
So the Tanthric system is not a path of negation but a path of affirmation involving a progressive integration and assimilation of the cosmos into the self. It aims at a comprehensive spiritual perfection of which Mukthi or liberation is only one aspect or part of the Goal. The other aspect of the goal is mastery, siddhi, and enjoyment Bukthi — mastery over the energies of Nature and the enjoyment of the cosmic life as blissful leela of the Mother.
The other unique features of the Tanthric religion are the institution of Temple worship and the system of Rituals. Temple in the Tanthric system is not merely a place of communal worship. In its original conception, the institution of temple worship has two distinct aims. Its spiritual aim is to bring down and establish a living spiritual power in the community for the spiritual as well as material progress and protection of the community; its social aim is to create a centre for the religious and cultural integration of the community. For the Temple in ancient India is not merely a religious institution but also the centre of culture, throbbing with cultural activities like music, dance and learning
And finally a note on Tanthric rituals which forms an important part of Tanthric yoga. The Tanthric rituals is not merely a concession thrown to the inferior category of worhippers. They are based on a sound psychological knowledge of the mutual interaction of the body and mind. For the large mass of worshipers who live predominantly in their bodily consciousness and whose emotion and intelligence are not yet sufficiently developed for the practice of inner adoration or contemplation, the physical gesture of rituals can be a very effective means of concentration and opening their consciousness to some glimpse, feeling or intuition into of spiritual reality. And for the higher category of seeker, ritual is a means for invoking the deity or the cosmic energy into the body.
Thus we can see that Tanthras is a bold, catholic and innovative spiritual system which comes very close to a complete recovery of the Vedic Spirit in all its comprehensiveness.
We can find in the Tanthras all the major features of the Vedic Spirit, which were more or less lost in the other yogas, fully recovered and given a new form. We have the same joyous life-affirming spirituality and harmonious balance between this-worldly and other-worldly aims, the same compassionate uplifting hand extended to the common man and the same Vedic emphasis on the psychological and spiritual potentialities inherent in the body or physical being.
But from the evolutionary point of view, the significance of the Tanthras lies in the importance it gave to the body. For the Tanthric Yogi body is not an illusion or a clod of flesh to be despised but a form and the physical manifestation of the divine Mother-power and therefore sacred. And a major part of the Tanthric sadhana aims at making the body conscious of itself as the expression and instrument of the divine shakthi. As John B. Woodroffe, the well-known authority on Tanthras: describes the tanthric stand-point: “The body is Shakthi. Its needs are Sakth’s needs; when man enjoys, it is Shakthi who enjoys through him. In all he sees and does, it is the Mother who looks and acts. His eyes and hands are hers. The whole body and all its functions are her manifestations. To fully realise her as such is to perfect this particular manifestation of Hers in himself” (shakthi and saktha, p.440) Thus to feel the divinity in the body and every activity of the body is the tanthric ideal.
The Indian mythology, what are called in Indian religions as puranas, and the Dharma expounded in them, are based primarily on the Tanthric synthesis but sufficiently diluted to suit the religious aspirations of the comman man or the masses. But the dilution is minimum and the central ideas of the vedanthic and tanthric trandition are preserved intact throughout the rich plethora of symbolic legends, stories and parables. In fact, the Purano-tanthric religion is one of the most creative and innovative movements in the diffusion of spirituality to the masses, a creative tour-de-force in mass-communication.
Two remarkable achievements of the Purana-tanthric religions are first, it was able to communicate effectively and establish successfully in the collective consciousness of the Indian masses most of the central truths of the Indian spirituality and Yoga without much dilution in the process of communication; second, it was able to create a new system of religious symbolism with a deeper and a more cosmic and psychological significance than the purely naturalistic symbolism of the Vedas. This opened the possibility for even the common man to arrive at a deeper, more inward and psychologically concrete religious experience than that of his counterpart in the Vedic period.
Thus, the purano-tanthric religion not only brings-down but diffuses the spiritual possibility into the physical consciousness inwhich most of human mass lives.
The other notable spiritual movement which is not part of the Hindu-Vedic tradition, but very much influenced by it is Mahayana Buddhism. It is a remarkable synthesis of some of the intuitions of Buddhism, Gita and Tantras. For all practical purposes we may say Mahayana is a branch of Vedic – Hindu tradition. For in Mahayana we find more of the catholic, synthetic, flexible and intuitive Spirit of the Hindu-Vedic tradition than the exclusive rationalistic and ascetic spirit of the Buddhism. Sri Aurobindo calls Mahayana as “Hinduised Buddhism” and observes further.
“Gita seems to have largely influenced Mahayanist Budhism and texts are taken bodily from it into the Buddhist scripture. It may have therefore helped largely to turn Budhism, originally a school of quietistic and illuminated ascetics into that of meditative devotion and compassionate action which has so powerfully influenced Asiatic culture.”
But the importance of Mahayana lies in bringing forward to the Indian religious mind a spiritual ideal which is either missing or ignored or suppressed in the Vedic-Hindu tradition. This is the ultra-altruistic ideal of the Bodhisattwa and Mahakaruna, the ideal of the supercompassionate Badhisatwa who is ready to sacrifice his own personal spiritual salvation for the sake of the salvation of humanity. Here we find for the first time in the religious history of the world a complete subordination or even negation of the ideal of individual salvation to a greater spiritual ideal. This higher ideal is likely to be one of the leading ideals of the future spirituality.