Tantra - the paradoxical path

From the things that bring downfall, success arises.(Kularnava 5:48)

“It is not easy to define tantrism.” 1 So says Mircea Eliade, the academic writer on Indian and comparative religion. It is a fact of cultural history that there are numerous Sanskrit writings called Tantras (that is, looms or frameworks), describing paths that involve meditative practices and rituals. But what kind of path are they talking about, and what is its value for the world today?

Terms like “the yoga of sex”, the “way of action”, “India’s cult of ecstasy” are the work of modern writers who have sought to introduce Tantra to non-academic western audiences.2 It is questionable whether any of these phrases does justice to the tantric 3 tradition.

There is, I think, a better way of stating briefly what Tantra is about. Eliade comes close to it when he writes,

“the tantrist... wants to ‘realize’ the paradox expressed in all the images and formulas concerning the union of opposites”.4

Tantra can be thought of as the paradoxical path. It is the path that brings together apparent opposites: the male principle and the female, unity and complexity, discipline and enjoyment, the pleasant and the terrible, self-empowerment and self-surrender.


Only a small fraction of the tantric literature has been translated into English. However, it is not necessary to be fluent in Sanskrit to get a general idea of what the literature is about, for its content is discussed at length in the works of Sir John Woodroffe (Arthur Avalon), and outlines in English of the contents of numerous tantric texts are presented in S. C. Banerji’s Brief History of Tantra Literature (whose modest title belies its encyclopedic character).

Although they also contain elements of philosophy and myth, the Tantras are primarily a sadhana-shastra5, a literature about spiritual practices – a practical literature. Practices described in the Tantras often involve the use of sacred words and forms (mantras and yantras), and are said to lead to various forms of siddhi (success), the greatest of which is mukti, liberation of the spirit from the fetters of maya.

Tantric literature emphasizes the role of the guru as initiator, teacher and embodiment of divinity. The guru may be either a woman or a man. Yet it is acknowledged in at least one major tantric work, the Tantraloka of Abhinavagupta, that people sometimes attain the awareness of the initiate without formal initiation from a guru.

“In such observance, Devi Herself initiates the devotee.” 6

Tantric literature has many subdivisions. To begin with, there are Buddhist Tantras and there are Hindu Tantras. Within the latter group, there are Shaiva works (those which give preeminence to Lord Shiva) and Shakta works (those which glorify the Goddess).

Nonetheless there are themes and concerns common to tantric literature in general, and it is not always easy to classify a particular work as Buddhist, Shaiva or Shakta. For example, the Kaulajñana Nirnaya of Matsyendra Natha is considered a Buddhist Tantra by one modern scholar 7, while another treats it as a Shakta work with affinities to Buddhist Tantra 8.


Is Tantra really about sex? The answer to this question is no and yes. No, in the sense that the Tantras are far from being sex manuals. As the western occultist Francis King sadly admits

“only some 6 to 7 per cent of tantric literature is directly concerned with mystical techniques involving physical sexuality”.9

Yes, in the sense that the polarity of masculine and feminine principles is at the centre of the tantric world view. The male-female polarity is paradox, and is the natural symbol of all paradox. In some forms of Tantra, the physical act of sexual union becomes a sacrament in which a man and woman discover the God and Goddess in themselves and one another.

The mystical value of the female principle is a major theme of tantric literature. Not only Hindu Tantras but also Buddhist ones 10, state that a man requires the help of a woman in order to achieve siddhi. The path requires him not only to honour women in ritual, but also to treat them in a gentle and respectful way at all times.11

The feminine force is also encountered within each individual (man or woman), as kundalini, the female serpent. She is also a universal presence, conceptualized in the Hindu Tantras as Shakti, the Power. Shakti is the active other self of Brahman, the eternal and unchanging Spirit. (One well-known image of the relationship between Shakti and the unchanging Spirit is Kali’s dance on the corpse-like aspect of Shiva.) Tantra sees the everyday world of the senses as Shakti’s playful self-expression.

Tantra is thus at once world-renouncing and world-affirming. It is world-renouncing in that it sees the forms of this world are transient, and therefore in a sense unreal, and as sources of confusion for the human soul. Yet it also sees them as points of contact to the Power, and thus to the Spirit. In this respect it affirms the worth of the world.

Shiva Chandra, the nineteenth century Bengali scholar and devotee of Kali, writes that Tantra “has discovered the hidden path by which one may learn the monistic truth through the dualistic world.” He goes on to compare duality and non-duality to two quarrelling boys who are reconciled by the discovery that their Mother loves both of them.12

Discipline (yoga) and enjoyment (bhoga) are another pair of opposites which Tantra seeks to reconcile. The Kularnava Tantra states that in the tantric path bhoga is transformed into yoga.13 Similarly, the Mahanirvana Tantra says that the tantric sadhaka can experience both bhoga and yoga.14

Depending on one’s perspective, Tantra can be seen either as hedonism or as something close to asceticism. The tantric does not despise the self-discipline of the ascetic, but seeks to use it to enhance and consecrate the life of the senses. Sensual enjoyment is transformed not only by ritual structure, and also, and more subtly, by meditative consciousness. A Kashmiri tantric text, the Vijñana Bhairava, says that such common experiences as listening to music, or having a good meal, or meeting a friend after a period of absence, are fine opportunities for meditation.15

But tantric meditation is not confined to pleasant things. The macabre, as well as the beautiful, is accepted as an integral part of Shakti’s self-revelation. Tantra is about acceptance of death (the principle Freud calls thanatos) as well as about the pleasure principle (eros). This is the principle involved in rituals involving ashes, skulls, and corpses; it is the reason why the cremation ground is considered an excellent site for tantric sadhana.

What is the attitude of the male tantric to the Goddess? Is it an attitude of pursuit or of devotion? Does he want to empower himself by possessing her or does he want to sacrifice himself by surrendering to her? Strange as it may seem, we find both elements in the tantric tradition, and people close to the tradition don’t see them as incompatible. In the words of a Indian biographer of Ramprasad:

“A Tantrika does not know whining -- he asserts his devotion, no mawkishness about it. His prayer is not a petition but a requisition, a pay-order; his absolute surrender is an all-out invasion.”16


Understanding Tantra as the paradoxical path enables us to address an important question which Eliade and other modern writers have left unanswered: the relation between Tantra and the worship of Kali as the Goddess.

Some (though not all) tantric literature praises Kali by name as the greatest of deities, and describes in detail the methods and fruits of her worship. It’s true that other deities and teachers receive attention in the Tantras, among them Shiva, Krishna and the Buddha. However, S.C.Banerji describes Kali as “the most prominent deity in Tantra, especially in Bengal Tantra”.17

The kingdom of Kamarupa, now the Indian state of Assam, is described by Eliade as “the ‘tantric country’ par excellence” 18. Kamarupa also happens to be a place where Kali has been worshipped as the Goddess, in temple rituals supported by kings, at least since the period represented by the Kalika Purana.

Is the association between Kali and Tantra simply an accident of history? Past issues of Ferment have explored the idea of Kali as the paradoxical Goddess. If we can indeed understand Tantra as the paradoxical path, then we begin to see why a traditional tantric like Shiva Chandra writes:

“In my Sadhana is the Mother; in the object of my Sadhana is the Mother; in my Siddhi is the Mother; and in the object which I get by Siddhi is the Mother. She is at the beginning, at the middle, at the end, and beyond the end.”19

Colin Robinson
from Ferment, August 2000
revised and abridged for the Web, 2007

The Sanskrit words at the head of this article are from Vidyaratna, T. (ed); Kularnava Tantra [Sanskrit text]; Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi, 1975.

1 Eliade, Mircea; Yoga: Immortality and Freedom; Princeton U.P., Princeton, New Jersey, 1970; p 200.
2 The phrases in quotes are from the titles of three books: Garrison, Omar; Tantra: the Yoga of Sex; Julian Press, NY, 1964. King, Francis; Tantra for Westerners: A Practical Guide to the Way of Action; Aquarian Press, Wellingborough, Northamptonshire, 1986. Rawson, Philip; Tantra: the Indian Cult of Ecstasy; Thames and Hudson, London, 1973.
3 The Sanskrit word tantrika, which functions both as a noun and an adjective, is shortened to tantrik in modern Indian languages, and is anglicized as “tantric”.
4 Eliade, p 269.
5 Banerji, S.C.; A Brief History of Tantra Literature; Naya Prokash, Calcutta, 1988; p 154.
6 From Banerji’s English outline of the Tantraloka. Banerji p 411.
7 Banerji, p 454.
8 Bagchi, P.C., “Evolution of the Tantras”, in Lokeswarananda, Swami (ed); Studies on the Tantras; Ramakrishna Mission Institute of Culture, Calcutta, 1989; p 20.
9 King, p 32.
10 E.g.The Guhyasamaja. Banerji, p 359.
11 See for instance Avalon A. [Woodroffe J.] ed; Kaulavali [Sanskrit text with English introduction]; Bharatiya Vidya Prakashan, Delhi, 1985; Chapter 10 verses 66 to 69.
12 Woodroffe (ed); Principles of Tantra [English translation of the Tantra-tattva of Shiva Chandra]; Ganesh, Madras, 1986; Vol 1, p 174.
13 Vidyaratna, T. (ed); Kularnava Tantra [Sanskrit text]; Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi, 1975; Chapter 2 verse 24.See also Woodroffe (ed); Principles of Tantra; Vol 2, p153.
14 Avalon, A. (Woodroffe, J.) trans; Tantra of the Great Liberation; Dover, NY, 1972; Chapter 4 verse 39.
15 Singh, Jaideva (ed); Vijñanabhairava [text, translation and notes]; Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi, 1979; verses 71 to 73.
16 Budhananda, Swami; Ramprasad the Melodious Mystic; Ramakrishna Mission, New Delhi, 1982; p 49.
17 Banerji, p vii.
18 Eliade, p 202.
19 Woodroffe, Sir John (ed); Principles of Tantra; Vol 2, p 343.

Text and artwork © Colin Robinson 1995, 2000, 2007

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