I have been a practitioner and teacher of Tantra for about twenty years, and I have been asked the question many times, What is Tantra? It is interesting to notice that while writing this sentence I feel a slight contraction, as I know the common connotations given to the word. You might think I teach how to have more orgasms, how to have superlative sex, how to let the sexual instincts flow, how to get naked in a minute, how to be polyamorous, how to couple up spontaneously to “overcome” inhibitions, or how to have orgies. Well, I am afraid I am going to disappoint you… Instead, I want to reveal the truth and depth behind these controversial teachings.
Tantra Is Love
Tantra has captured the fascination of the Western world, but few Westerners actually know what it means. The origins of Tantra go far back in time, in the beautiful land of India. Some Eastern scholars believe that it originated around the sixth or seventh century A.D. Others affirm that Tantra is an ancient tradition, having its origins in the pre-Aryan period. Even if we cannot assign a definite date to the beginning of Tantra, what is worth mentioning is the great influence of Tantrism on all the great spiritual traditions of India, including Shaivism, Buddhism, Vaishnavism, and Jainism. All these traditions developed a Tantric dimension. According to religious historian Mircea Eliade, there are two main branches of Tantrism: Hindu Tantrism and Tibetan Tantrism.
What Is Tantra?
The word Tantra comes from the Sanskrit root tan, which means “to expand,” “to spread,” or “to stretch,” and tra, which means “instrument.” Therefore, Tantra literally means the “instrument to expand” the level of consciousness from ordinary to extraordinary, with Self-realization as its ultimate goal. Tantra also means a “loom” or “weaving,” which is related to the fact that it teaches that the Universe is a web in which everything is interrelated and interconnected. Although the word Tantra has many meanings, each with its own particular nuance depending on the context, its most significant definition remains: it is an instrument to expand the level of consciousness.
In one sentence, the philosophical and practical system of Tantra can be summed up as: “Nothing exists that isn’t divine.” This is the quintessence of Tantric philosophy. All the features of Tantra have their roots in this vision.
The Divinization of Life
In Tantra, the universe is alive, not illusory. It represents the manifestation of the joyous, free Divine Consciousness in a variety of forms. All manifestation is simply the interplay of Shiva and Shakti, the masculine and feminine. Thus, we can say that Tantra is a world-affirming and body-affirming spiritual tradition. A practical consequence of this view was that householders could aspire to spiritual liberation (moksha), which was not the case in Classical Yoga, where renunciation of worldly life was considered absolutely necessary for moksha.
Tantra dissolves the division of spiritual versus mundane. Every aspect of life is integrated as a tool for spiritual growth. Its practitioners aspire to transcendence in immanence (material existence). But pay attention! This does not mean ordinary indulgence in life. It implies a continuous focus on the divine vision so that life, with all its activities, becomes a launching pad to eternity.
In Tantra, the body is seen as a living temple and sexual energy is seen as divine energy. The body, with all its energies, is considered a divine instrument for spiritual transformation. We can say that the broad approach of Tantra consists of making all ordinary activities sacred.
Tantra is a practical system. That’s why it’s called a sadhana shastra, which means it is a practice-oriented scripture. It is not an instant philosophical system. It is based on the direct experiences and realizations of Tantric sages and it consists of numerous methods to suit different types of followers.
Thus, it is a non-dogmatic system that adapts to the needs of the time. It is a dynamic system that has changed and developed for the benefit of its adepts.
Joy, Love, Happiness, Bliss, and Ecstasy
Tantra has developed as a joyful tradition that embraces all the activities of life as expressions of the Divine. It is not rooted in dogma or the denial of life, even though it promotes a highly ritualistic lifestyle that implies following certain rules and practices. Therefore, Tantra leads to happiness, love, and ecstasy when it is deeply understood and correctly applied.
What Tantra Is Not
Tantra is not sorcery, black magic, or weird practices. Most Tantric texts are filled with cryptic expressions, metaphors, and allegories that present obstacles for the uninitiated and may lead to misunderstandings and misuse. The texts were written in highly symbolic language in order to protect those who are not initiated from misapplying them or using them in a selfish manner. Unfortunately, this has lead to many misinterpretations.
Even reputable scholars have made mistakes in the interpretation of Tantric texts. The most frequent error arises when metaphorical language is taken literally. Often, this results in inappropriate meanings being assigned to the texts. Consequently, Tantra has become associated with “abominable practices” such as sacrificial rituals, incest, manipulation, etc. Genuine Tantric spirituality has nothing in common with witchcraft, black magic, or the weird practices of certain sects (which may be deviant or shocking but are often mistaken for deeply spiritual Tantric doctrine).
As an example of the symbolic language employed in the Tantric texts, ida, pingala, and sushumna nadis (the three most important subtle energy channels) are referred to as the Ganges, Yamuna, and Sarasvati rivers.
Tantra Is Not Sex
In the Western world, Tantra generally means sex. The term Tantra is strongly linked to superlative, ecstatic sex, even though the vast majority of Tantric teachings do not refer to sexuality. Indeed, in left-hand Tantra (the path that uses sexual energy), lovemaking rituals are used to go beyond the mind and enter higher states of consciousness. But, this does not define Tantra. Tantra is not concerned with sexuality or its suppression. Sexuality and lovemaking are seen as a divine means for spiritual growth. Tantra does not promote them for ordinary gratification.
So why, in the West, is Tantra commonly understood to mean great sex? The answer is simple: so-called Western Tantra was not introduced by Tantric sages, but by Western travelers who encountered Tantric practices on trips to India. Of course, after centuries of Christian domination and suppression of sexuality, encountering a system that perceives sexual energy to be as normal as any other energy and offers practices that enhance and harness this energy was something very precious and willingly grasped. Unfortunately, the sexual practices were removed from the devotional and ritualistic context of the Tantric tradition and they received the materialistic touch of the Western mind. However, Tantra has maintained the dignity that it deserves.
Tantra Is Not Primitive Polytheism
Tantra has been judged to be primitive polytheism because of the numerous feminine and masculine deities that are worshipped in the tradition. But, it is necessary to take a closer look to see that Tantra is not an idol-worshipping tradition. In Tantra, the goddesses and gods are just personifications of universal subtle energies. Tantric practitioners understand that all the deities are pointers to the ultimate Truth, called Brahman (the Absolute) in the Hindu tradition.
Tantra and the Dawning of Oneness
Tantra is a practical system, deeply devotional and highly ritualistic. It was designed to help us reach the goal of moksha. Tantric rituals are the means to train in the Tantric vision—to see and experience all of life and its energies as divine manifestations. To embody the quintessence of Tantra, “Nothing exists that isn’t divine,” doesn’t mean to intellectually understand it, but to live it. This equates to Self-realization.
In light of the above, my approach regarding left-hand Tantra is a devotional and ritualistic one. I am dedicated to teaching men and women how to see themselves, their sexual energy, and the practice of lovemaking with Tantric eyes—through which everything is sacred. I teach how to use our magnetic, powerful sexual energy for Union. We explore how deep, intense love blurs the boundaries of individuality and allows the dawning of Oneness.
Let’s delight in the words of the great Tantric master Abhinavagupta:
“In the divine abode of the body, I adore you, O God together with the Goddess, day and night. I adore you continuously washing with the sprinklings of the essence of my astonishment the support of all that has been made. I adore you with the spiritual flowers of the innate being; I adore you with the priceless goblet of the Heart, which is full of the ambrosia of bliss. The triple world, full of various tastes and flavors, is cast into the apparatus of the nexus of the Heart. I squeeze it, casting it down from on high with the great weight of the spiritual discrimination. The supreme nectar of consciousness, which removes births, old age, and death, flows gushing from Thy. Opening the mouth wide I devour it, the supreme oblation, like clarified butter, and in this way, O Supreme Goddess, I gladden and satisfy you day and night.”
Antoaneta is a senior Hridaya teacher serving at our center in France.