Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Tantra as Spiritual Devotion

When most of us hear the words “tantra” or “tantric,” we envision some kind of mysterious, sexual cult.  This is how tantra has been depicted in Western media; I think of scenes from the American Pie movies involving Finch and Stifler’s mom. 
 Tantra is not an obscure sex cult from India.  It is indeed from India, and among its many teachings, there are indeed instructions on how to evolve spiritually through elevating one’s sex life to a refined and sublime state.  And yet, there is much more to Tantra than Finch’s chosen method to seduce Stifler’s mom. 
Like Yoga, Tantra is a spiritual and scientific system developed over thousands of years.  According to some scholars, it was first taught in India over 7,000 years ago, but the teachings were all contained within oral traditions.  Certain Indian pandits believe Tantra to be the continuation of the original Indian aboriginal traditions, predating the Indo-European Aryan invasion which brought the Vedic religion to India. 
The specific Tantra teachings are contained within scriptures called Tantras, which date from the 7th century CE, or possibly earlier.  Some of the Vedic scriptures (Vedas) predated the Tantras and contain the teachings of the Rishis, the Aryan sages who formulated questions about the origin and destiny of the Universe.  The Rishis put forward the idea of a Supreme Consciousness rather than a group of multiple deities, and they developed a ritualistic system to enter into a relationship with the Supreme Consciousness. The Aryans and their Rishis were very interested in the spiritual practices of the indigenous peoples of India; these original Tantric practices were introversive as opposed to external or ritualistic. 
The Aryans and the indigenous peoples (the Austrics, Mongolians and Dravidians) were at war, and this period of warfare is depicted in Indian epic tales such as The Ramayana.  It was during this era that the founding father of Tantra, Lord Shiva, emerged; he was named Sadashiva, meaning one who is absorbed in consciousness and whose entire existence is devoted to promoting the welfare of all living beings.  Shiva was an enlightened yogi, and the great Guru or spiritual teacher who founded the Indian system of music and dance.  He also created the Tantric system of medicine that incorporated Ayurveda.  He is sometimes referred to as Nataraj, or Lord of the Dance.  Shiva is known for having introduced the concept of Dharma, a Sanskrit word signifying the innate characteristic, or natural order of all things.  Shiva taught that the innate characteristic of human beings is their thirst for absolute peace; humans need more than the pleasure provided by sensory gratification.  Tantric teachings aim to enable any human being to attain absolute peace. 
Shiva’s wife Parvati asked him many spiritual and philosophical questions, the answers to which are compiled in texts known as the Tantra Shastra (the Tantric scriptures). There are two types of Tantric scriptures: the Nigama contain the principles of Tantra, and the Agama contain the prescribed practices.  Many of these original books have been lost, and of the ones that remain, some have been written in a code language in order to keep the secrets of Tantra off limits for the uninitiated student.  Therefore, many Tantric teachings remain shrouded in mystery and have yet to be clearly explained. 
The Sanskrit word, Tantra, is roughly translated as “expansion leading to liberation,” since the root tan means “expand” and tra signifies "liberation." Tantra prescribes very specific meditation and yoga techniques, but more important than these are its underlying world-view: according to Tantric philosophy, struggle is the essence of life, in that struggle cannot be avoided.  The aim of Tantra is to move from the imperfect to the perfect in the struggle to surpass all obstacles.  The Tantra practitioner will move through three stages in this progression toward highly developed consciousness: i) first, he/she is dominated by basic animal instincts, then, ii) he/she masters the baser instincts and reaches the stage of true human development, and finally, iii) the highest level is achieved, uniting the individual with Divine or Supreme Consciousness.
What I find to be the most beautiful aspect of Tantra is the sacredness of all experience.  “Tantra is the yoga of everything” (Ramesh Bjonnes, The Yoga of Tantric Love: 7 Reasons Why It’s Not Just About Sex).  Tantra is a non-dualistic spiritual discipline embracing all human experience as a pathway to the Divine.  The day-to-day peaks and valleys of human existence are the essence of the spiritual journey; this includes suffering, desire, anger, boredom and vice.  Tantra teaches that we can meet God everywhere, in the good and the bad within and without.  “This knowledge, this wisdom is called Madhuvidya, or honey knowledge, the idea that the bees of Spirit can turn everything we do and feel, even failure, into nectar” (Id.).  Tantra is thus a practice of intense spiritual devotion.  Ideally, the Tantric practitioner will learn to transform primitive or base desires, kama, into spiritual love, prema.  Through embracing all experiences, even physical experiences and the great range of human emotions, Tantric yogis make use of vulnerability as a gateway to receive Divine love and compassion.  “Tantra is seeing love in everything” (Id.) 
I recently made a vow to myself to search for the face of Jesus Christ in everything I see.  This intention is consistent with Tantric practice.  I consider myself a Tantric yogini, because in learning to accept all experience as sacred, I am finding greater depths of love through the encounter of Divine Grace.