In one word-what is tantra? Freedom. Freedom from limitations which are self-imposed. By familiarising the mind with states of lesser and lesser limitations-through the body, mind and speech/actions, we evolve- and that is what Tantra (Tantra Yoga) is all about.
Irreverent evolution unto circles of ever expanding consciousness. At the end stage of the practice of Tantra the individual is absorbed into the continuum of universal consciousness. This continuum in itself is the universe and its experience as well. This is Tantra.
As per the Sandhi, or the morphological combination of the individual morphemes, Tantra, made up of two morphemes, Tan and Tra, means ‘Expand Continuously across 3’. Expand what? Expand our experience or way of being, our way of seeing. And across what kind of 3? The 3 directions of Time and the 3 planes of the ability to know, ability to will and the ability to do or put into action.
As can be expected of any scientific method, the system of Tantra Yoga is composed of steps (Tantra Yoga Kriyas), each of which is replicable by anybody who wishes to employ them. The proofs of the steps being employed are experiential and internal in nature. The effect of the practice of Tantra Yoga Kriya is not just internal but also external-in this it differs markedly from other spiritual schools. The change in external events wrought by the practice of Tantra may be considered to be the external proofs albeit the fact that concentration on these external events is a sure path to self destruction on the razor edge path of Tantra Yoga.
How Tantra Yoga Evolved
Tantra Yoga historically originated in three distinct areas and schools. The first was the Shakti/ Mother Tantra school of ancient Kamarupa, present day West Bengal-Assam region. The second school of Tantra Yoga was the Sri Vidya / Auspicious Wisdom school, which was related to the Mother Tantras and was practiced in ancient Keraputra-today’s Kerala. The third and last was the Shiva/ Father Tantra school of Tantra Yoga developed in ancient Odhiyana, present day Kashmir.
The peak of Tantric development was achieved in the centuries 5th Cent B.C.to 5th Cent A.D coinciding with the teaching of the Buddha and the rise of the Mauryan dynasty with it’s liberating influence on a society made stagnant through social discrimination based on an arbitrary caste system. In these 1000 years Tantra Yoga went from being a largely animist tradition to one which had perfected the highest levels of knowledge associated with the intricacies of human consciousness. In its relentless search for experiential truth, Tantra Yoga had uncovered the secret path to universal consciousness that could be practiced and experienced by one and all. From this achievement, the MahaSiddhas-Great Accomplishers, the original 84 progenitor saints of Tantra developed the skillful means to make this living wisdom available to the different types of humanity by teaching the same truth through various methods.
With a reversion back to the caste based system of the inherited varnas/ social classes, India took a great leap backwards from the 6th Cent AD onwards, once the overarching creative impetus of the Ashokan Maurya dynasty had ebbed. Now, the kingdoms that comprised ancient Bharat once again were in the hands of the caste Brahmins and the Kshatriyas and all the spiritual and social systems that did not believe in caste based discrimination were effectively banned. This ban of course sounded the death knell for both Buddhism and Tantrism in India as both did not believe in the caste structure of social discrimination.
Fortunately for future generations of humanity, the Tantras were still preserved in the 6th Cent AD in the great Buddhist universities of Nalanda and from here the great attempt to preserve the Tantra Yogas for posterity began.
Generations of tantric masters , starting with the celebrated Padmasambhava transmitted the great lines of Father and Mother Tantras over a period of 5 centuries, from the 7th to the 11 th centuries to committed students from the most geographically isolated region in Asia-the great Himalayan eyrie of Tibet. Here, in the mountain fastness of Tibet, the Indian masters saw with their Minds Eye that the Tantras would be safe from the centuries of destruction that were soon to overtake most of the Indian lands-starting from the Mongol raids to the Mughal conquest and then the British conquest of India.
And untouched Tibet preserved, developed and spread the Tantras to an extent that both Tibet and Bhutan were to become the worlds first and only Tantric/ Vajrayana Kingdoms, which lasted for 14 centuries till Maoist China finally invaded Tibet. Then India gave refuge to Dalai Lama and the entire refugee people and tantric practitioners of Tibet and so Tantra, in its purest form has now come back to India to be spread from here to all corners of the world. There are now centers of Tantric learning and practice, initiated by the Tibetans and the Bhutanese and their global student community established all over the world.
This is not to say that Tantra Yoga disappeared from India wholesale. Kula tantra practitioners continued in West Bengal and Assam and the Agamas and Atharva Veda based orders made sure that forms of Tantra were preserved in other parts of India, particularly Kerala and Orissa as well-but Tantra as a cohesive system of evolution was largely discarded within India as it broke down to its simpler versions offering ritualistic accomplishments of goals.
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