The spirit of Tantra implies a dynamic effort to overcome the dominance of Avidyamaya, the forces of ignorance and lethargy that keep us away from doing the inner work needed to attain transformation and enlightenment.
These dynamic, physical, mental and spiritual efforts can be carried out in largely three ways and are characteristic of the three main paths of Tantra.
1. The Right-hand Path
Termed Dakshina Marga Tantra in Sanskrit, this so-called Right-hand Path attempts to overcome Avidyamaya, or ignorance and darkness, through the use of idols, devotional chanting and prayer to the Gods and Goddesses. It is imperative on this path of Bhakti Yoga to realize that the symbolic representations of the Divine are just gateways to the Spirit realm.
They are internal archetypes of the mind and Spirit realm. Religious people with a pre-rational mentality often interpret their symbols and ideas literally. This is a potential limitation with such worship. It can lead to religious literalism and, even worse, to fundamentalism and dogmatism.
People on this path also tend to pray to receive boons from God, rather than to praise the Divine with chants, music and poetry in order to feel oneness with God. So, in order to harness the spiritual potential of this path most effectively, it is important to understand these potential trappings.
Yet even for those of a rational or even transrational (mystical) state of mind, such as the great sage Ramakrishna, there are subtle aspects of this popular path to consider.
Ramakrishna, who was famous for his worship of Mother Kali, or Shakti, and who worshiped Her as a gateway to the realm of pure Consciousness, achieved high states of spiritual enlightenment, but not the most sublime state of nirvikalpa samadhi, or complete enlightenment.
It was only when the naked wanderer and Tantric guru Totapuri initiated him in the practice of nondual mantra meditation that Ramakrishna attained oneness with Cosmic Consciousness. He did so after Totapuri pressed a piece of glass into his forehead, gave him a mantra, and told him to concentrate his mind in that point.
Then, by piercing through the dualistic veil of Goddess Kali, Ramakrishna attained nirvikalpa samadhi, or nirvana. He remained in this mystical trance for three days continuously, a state that Totapuri himself had taken many years to attain. After that seminal experience, Ramakrishna was, according to his closest disciples, able to move in and out of this exalted world of nondual bliss with effortless grace for the rest of his life.
2. The Left-hand Path.
Termed Vama Marga Tantra in Sanskrit, this path attempts to overcome the deceptions of Avidyamaya by “any means possible” but sometimes without a clear goal of attaining yoga, or spiritual union.
This path is legendary for its highly advanced sexual practices and the explicit use of occult powers. Hence, it is also often considered a path of Avidya Tantra, or the kind of occult magic common in shamanism. The main challenges on this path are the many temptations for misusing one’s physical and psychic desires and powers.
Some Tantric adepts on this path claim they have transcended all worldly attachments while making a show of doing whatever they wish—they may drink heavily; they may have sex with multiple partners; they may live in poverty or riches.
While some gurus on this path are enlightened and authentic teachers, it is nevertheless a risky path. Fraught with many contradictions and dangers—both for student and teacher—this path has many pitfalls and often lacks any clear ethical or cultural customs to be guided by.
In some schools of Left-hand Tantra, however, a disciple will follow strict codes of discipline and morality until he or she is allegedly enlightened and ready to lead the unconventional life of a Crazy Wisdom teacher.
Because the Left-handed Path appeals to our contemporary excesses of sex, ego, fame and entertainment, it is often this path’s gratuitous excesses that are labeled Tantra in the West. In reality, this path is quintessentially not representative of Tantra, and its exaggerated practices are not required.
3. The Middle Path
Termed Madhya Marga Tantra in Sanskrit, this so-called Middle Path is the most common school of Tantra Yoga. It originated with Shiva and has been further advanced throughout the ages by various gurus and adepts.
It is generally considered the most mindful and dependable path. This middle path toward realizing the spiritual effulgence of Brahma removes Avidyamaya’s veil of ignorance through an integrated and balanced set of physical, mental and spiritual practices. Some also refer to this as The Direct Path since it employs mantras and visualization techniques to focus the mind to go beyond the mind and into a state of pure, flowing meditation.
Nondual sages such as the revered Ramana Maharishi and Nisargadatta can be said to promote a direct path to realization. While their path is generally considered more Vedantic than Tantric, the directness of the teachings of I am That, of meditating on the idea that I am Divine, I am Brahman, I am Spirit—that practice is essentially Tantric.
They advise us to inquire into our own deepest self, into our own state of pure being by bypassing the analytical mind and its false sense of egoic self.
But to achieve this state of pure Being is not as easy as it sounds. It is much easier to think that you have achieved pure Being, to have an intellectual idea of what that means, than actually to be in a state of pure Being. The Tantric Middle Path circumvents this spiritual dilemma in a radical yet indirect way: by focusing the mind through meditation on the breath with a mantra.
While using the breath and the sonic sound and meaning of a mantra to still and focus the mind’s chatterbox, you gradually transcend the mind itself. To use the mind to transcend the mind, a seemingly contradictory practice, represents the real essence of Tantric transformation.
In this practice, one is essentially combining the various limbs of asthanga yoga—pranayama (breathing exercise), pratyahara (sense withdrawal), dharana (concentration), and dhyan (flow meditation)—and, if gracefully attuned to the possibility, samadhi (blissful absorption, or union)
According to contemporary sages as Swami Satyananda and Shrii Anandamurti, the Ashtanga or Raja Yoga practices of Patanjali are essentially Tantric. It is for this reason the Tantric Hatha Yoga texts, such as the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, Shiva Samhita and Gheranda Samhita would advise people to also practice Raja Yoga.
In addition, Tantric meditation also employs chakra and yantra visualizations as well as devotional chanting and dancing.
Dr. Chris Kang is a Tantric practitioner who holds a doctorate in Religion and has written extensively on Tantra and Buddhism. Once, during an e-mail exchange we had about Tantra, he emphasized yet another equally crucial element in Tantric meditation: to use the meaning of the mantra to direct the mind’s attention toward its own nature.
That is, we are not simply focusing or stilling the mind in one-pointed awareness, but also clarifying and sharpening our awareness so that it sees and knows directly the ultimate nature of the mind itself. This type of insight is possible because the mantra’s meaning activates the mind’s innate reflexivity and catapults the conceptual mind beyond itself and into its underlying, blissful luminosity.
Hence, our awareness sees and knows itself by becoming itself in its natural state.
Mantra ideation facilitates this process. Deep breathing, or pranayama, in combination with a mantra, is another practice that aids in the process of accessing the deep waters of spiritual illumination, since pranayama makes it much easier to concentrate and thus facilitates the mind accessing its own spiritual luminosity. In addition, Tantric meditation also employs chakra and yantra visualizations as wells as devotional chanting and dancing.
In addition to these three paths, there are broadly five different schools of Tantra that developed during the early Middle Ages, thousands of years after Shiva.
These are the Shakta, Vaesnava, Shaeva, Ganapatya and Saura Tantra schools. Moreover, when Jainism and Buddhism flourished in India, various branches of Buddhist and Jain Tantra, developed, which again sprouted many independent branches.
The early Middle Ages also spawned such fabled paths as the Left-handed Aghora Tantra—today popularized in the West by the books of Robert Svobodha—as well as the well known Buddhist Vajrayana Tantra.
By this time, many Tantric schools had synthesized with the Vedic tradition, and Shiva Tantra lost some of its original form until it again was revived during the 20th century by teachers such as Swami Satyananda and Shrii Anandamurti.
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Ed: Bryonie Wise
Photo: Meta B