Tantra and Hinduism, Buddhism and Other Religions

The Śaiva Traditions

Despite the lack of exact knowledge on how Tantra originated, there is enough evidence to indicate that distinct tantric thoughts and practices are derived from the unorthodox Saiva Hindu traditions somewhere around the 5th century. From here onwards, it was transmitted to several other Hindu traditions along with Buddhism. Distinct forms of tantric Buddhism developed after the 7th century. What little evidence we have available points to the 5th century as the most likely date of the emergence of Saiva Hindu tantric traditions. A stone tablet found in Gandhar includes references to tantric practices. The tablet is dated around 423 CE. The inscription on the tablet reads:

“Also for the sake of religious merit, the king’s minister caused to be built . . . this most terrible of abode, strewn with a multitude of (images of) Ḍākinīs (i.e.,) of the Mothers, that drove of joyous over-the-top gang-bangers who are pumped up to the rain clouds (on) the powerful winds raised by the Tantras.”

This tablet is the earliest reference to the terms Tantra and dakini, which is a class of goddesses found commonly in tantric traditions. The literature of Saiva is divided into three paths that are the supreme path, the path of mantra and the path of the clans. The supreme path called atimārga was developed by a bunch of ascetic groups who lived the most frugal of lifestyles possible. It is also widely believed that these groups possessed magical or supernatural powers with the help of which they were able to contextualise the beliefs and practices now called Tantra. These groups were largely formed from the 2nd century onwards.

Amongst these, the earliest tantric tradition was most probably the Śaiva Mantramārga, developed in the 5th century. This tradition was further divided into branches, including the Śaiva Siddhānta tradition. Though this tradition gained traction at an all-India level from the 5thcentury onwards, successive invasions by Muslim forces helped restrict it to South India. This tradition had the distinction of promoting public rituals conducted by priests. The Mantramārga, however, focused on private rather than public worship. This goes on to show the divergences between tantric practices and codes and also the liberalism and flexibility that people had in choosing how they wanted to attain spiritual enhancement.

Another point to note here is that each tantric tradition as devoted to a particular god or goddess. The Mantrapīṭha sub sect of the Mantramārga, for instance, worshipped the deity Bhairava while the Vidyāpīṭha sub sect gave importance to a female deity. The differences in objects of worship also reflected in the beliefs and rituals of the practitioners since each deity was supposed to have some personal characteristics.

Another prominent school of thought within Tantra was the Vidyāpīṭha, which had beliefs about being released from all moral obligations as a result of serving or believing in a particular god. They were preceded and influenced by the Kāpālika tradition which had some unique ideas such as charnel ground being the perfect site for practising Tantra. Female deities were also influential within this school of thought since a large number of practices were connected to female deities including Yoginīs and Ḍākinīs.

This school of thought also had the distinction of having sexual and even extremely violent practices. Though these Tantras are poorly preserved, there is enough supporting evidence to show their popularity during the sixth and seventh centuries. Most of the evidence is circumstantial rather than definitive in this regard with references to ḍākinīTantras and bhaginīTantras Tantras, which were composed by a Buddhist philosopher Dharmakīrti, though the text did not have a foundation in Buddhist beliefs or practices. These texts were centred on violent and sexual practices and thus were influential in the practice of the Vidyāpīṭha school of thought.



The Final Path

The Vidyāpīṭha Tantras had focused mostly on female deities with plenty of transgressive and erotic practices. The only hole that was left was the presence of a male counterpart. This was achieved with the addition of a male hero or adept thus producing the final path within the Saiva tantric practice. This tradition came to be known as the Kaula tradition. The unique features of the Kaula tradition included:

  • Erotic rituals with a female companion.
  • The belief that supernatural powers can be obtained by extracting vital essences of humans with the help of yogic practices.
  • Initiating rituals after consuming a special kind of alcohol.
  • The centrality of states of possession.

By the 9th century, the Kaula tradition was well established and probably dominant. The origins of the tradition might have started a century before that. The Sakta tradition also had roots in the Kaula tradition with the latter itself being divided into four popular sub-traditions. The tradition transmitted in the East placed emphasis on the goddesses Kuleśvarī and Kuleśvara and the male deity Siva. This led to the development of the Trika tradition, which was based around three goddesses: Parā, Parāparā, and Aparā.

The transmission from the north focused on the goddess Guhyakālī who was thought to be a fierce deity resulting in the development of the Krama tradition, which centred on another fierce goddess Kālī. The Western transmission placed emphasis on the goddess Kubjika who was depicted as hunchbacked. The Southern transmission, on the other hand, focused on the goddess of beauty Kāmeśvarī.

By the 9th century, they had become well established in the region. A modification of these traditions was the Trika and the very similar Krama tradition. In these, the deity and the practitioner were thought to become one during the rituals.

The 10th century saw the development of another school of Śaivism. In modern day terminology, this school is described as the Nondual School of Kashmir Śaivism. According to a famous scholar of tantric practices, Alexis Sanderson, the catalyst behind the creation of this school, was the confrontation between the transgressive Kaula tradition and the conservative. In his own words:

“By the tenth century, the Śaiva scene was dominated by the confrontation of two radically opposed schools: on the one hand, a group of nondualist traditions, principally the Trika and the Krama, and on the other, the dualistic Śaiva Siddhānta. The nondualists, upholding the doctrine that the world and persons are no more than the play of the power of a universal consciousness-self, operated from within transgressive cults “tainted” by the Kāpālika culture of the cremation grounds and the erotic-mystical soteriology of the Kaulas.”

This school was able to integrate components of both the Orthodox traditions and the transgressive and nondualist ones. The conclusion was the creation of a tradition in which transgressive elements were absorbed internally thereby creating a non-dualist system that did not interfere much with conservative opinions. Abhinavagupta was a popular theologian who lived in the 10th and 11th centuries. His commentaries on major texts from the Krama and Trika traditions are still considered very influential. He also wrote on other more generalised topic such as aesthetics and philosophy.

He was the major player in reducing the gap between transgressive and conservative schools of thought, thereby giving us a moderate version of tantric practices and philosophies that can be practised in the modern times. He did this by changing the manner in which people understood the core Kaula practices. He replaced the hardcore transgender practices with softcore contemplative rituals where practice was transformed from external rituals to internal visualisation. This is also the origin of the difference between unorthodox tantric practice called vāmācāra and orthodox practice called dakṣiṇācāra. Buddhist traditions saw a similar development with the increasingly transgressive components of tantric practice being neutralised and made easier for the masses to adopt.

The Nāth Tradition

The Nāth tradition was the final tantric tradition to develop within Saiva tantric traditions. The literal meaning of Nāth is “split-ear” and the complete name of the tradition is Nāth Kānphaṭa tradition. This school of thought grew into prominence during the 12th and 13th centuries and by the time the British conquered India, it was so widespread that yogis were often confused with members of the Nāth Yogi orders. It was started by members of heterodox Saiva renouncing orders who went on to adopt aspects of Buddhism, Sikhism and Islam, though they were mainly Saiva in orientation.

The tantric texts of the Hathayoga tradition were produced by members of the Nāth order, with Gorakhnāth being the most prominent thinker amongst them. Several tantric scriptures were produced by them including Gorakṣasaṃhitā, Haṭhayogapradīpikā and Khercarīvidyā. These texts were composed in or around the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Despite its late development, the Nāth Kānphaṭa tradition has had a profound impact on the modern practice of yoga. Breath control exercises are, in fact, strictly in their domain along with complex yogic exercises designed to transform and retain sexual fluids within the body.


The Śākta Traditions

Sakta traditions are another variation of tantric tradition that focus solely on a female deity called Devi or simply the goddess. The belief is that the Devi can take on many images, but each one of them is a manifestation of a supreme goddess. Sakta traditions encompass both tantric and devotional strands with devotional practice being the dominant one. There exist, however, solid tantric tendencies.

There is a strong association between the Saiva and the Sakta traditions, with the Sakta tradition having its textual roots in the goddess-oriented Kaula and Vidyāpīṭha traditions. Therefore, the Kaula tradition can be called both a Saiva tradition and a Sakta tradition. Another key point is that the emphasis in both these traditions is on the intrinsic sexuality within each person rather than erotic rituals. Contemporary tantric scholar Goodriaan describes it as “bisexual, bipolar divinity within one’s own body.” This divinity is represented as the union of a male deity such as Siva or Vishnu with his wife called Sakti. The difference between these two traditions, therefore, lies on the choice of deity rather than beliefs or practices.


The Sakta tradition is not solely dependent on the Saiva tradition for inspiration. Worship of female deities has been practised in South Asia throughout history. Even though numerically few goddesses are mentioned in the Vedas, development in Hinduism over time led to goddess worship gaining ground as exemplified by the Puranas, which are third in the category of holy Hindu books.

The Kaula Tantras are the basis on which the later Sakta tradition rests. The Kaula Southern transmission, in particular, is of extreme historical importance since it consists of the Tantras of the clan of the goddess Śrī. Likewise, the Eastern and Northern transmission are also historically important since Tantras of the goddess Kālī originated from here. Over time, these became the most popular tantric traditions practised by a large number of people. The goddess of the Southern transmission was considered a symbol of beauty and eroticism, which led to the creation of the Sri Yantra mystical diagram, which is perhaps the most famous artistic representation of Tantra. The diagram consists of nine interlocking triangles depicting the unison of gods and goddesses.



Other Hindu Tantric Traditions

Hinduism is a vast and varied platform for different ideologies and beliefs. Some scholars tend to consider Hinduism to be an umbrella term for all the religions of the subcontinent other than Islam. Since Hinduism and Hindu philosophy is open to absorbing different ideas and beliefs, it is natural that some ideas will overlap and a single influential idea will be present in one way or another in every other idea and philosophy.

The Vaisnava tradition of Hinduism, for example, is more closely aligned with the Bhakti philosophy while still containing elements of tantric traditions. The Pāñcarātra sect, on the other hand, is much more closely aligned with tantric traditions than any other Hindu philosophy. The sect came to prominence in the 5th and 6th centuries and held Vishnu in the highest esteem while producing tantric works of some repute. This sect and the tantric tradition derived from it have a collection of 108 tantric texts to their name. In the belief of the sect, tantric texts were so important that Vishnu himself came in his human form, known as Narayan, to reveal them. The exact dating of these texts is, however, difficult due to a lack of reliable commentaries and preserved manuscripts. There is also evidence of influence from Saivism on Pāñcarātra scriptures. In turn, Southern tantric traditions belonging to Saivism were influenced by the Pāñcarātra traditions.

The medieval period of Indian history saw the revival of some strands of tantric practice. The most prominent amongst these was the Vaisnava tradition originating from Bengal. It flourished in the region between the 16th and 19th centuries and greatly impacted religious beliefs. The idea behind this school of thought was that each individual possesses divinity exemplifying the divine couple Rādhā and her husband, Krishna. This tradition was able to absorb and amalgamate different tantric traditions belonging to both Hinduism and Buddhism into a single Vaisnava framework.


Hindu Tantra in Global Contexts

While Hinduism and Buddhism share tantric practices and beliefs, the two religions are fundamentally different. Hinduism largely remained restricted to the Indian subcontinent with a minimal presence beyond the borders. One exception to this general rule was the period between the 5th and 11th centuries during which people in Southeast Asia were exposed to both Hinduism and Buddhism. Cambodia and Vietnam saw the first influences of Saiva tantric traditions gaining ground in the kingdoms of Chams and Khmer. Indonesia was also exposed to Saiva tantric influences as can be seen through the numerous tantric shrines and temples in Java, which is an island of Indonesia. The island of Bali in Indonesia is another exception, having a majority of Hindu population, which is extremely devoted to tantric practices.

In the modern era, increased globalisation allowed people-to-people contact between countries to increase resulting in exposure for people in the UK and other Western countries towards tantric traditions. Hindu gurus in the 20th and 21st centuries took with them knowledge of tantric beliefs and practices to Europe and the Americas. The increasing South Asian diaspora communities have also allowed exposure towards tantric practices to increase. A large number of such gurus have gained prominence abroad and even set up permanent ashrams for disseminating knowledge of Hindu tantric traditions and allowing practitioners an open space to hold rituals. These centres not only serve the diaspora community but also cater to a large number of converts to Hinduism.


Influence on Buddhism

While not as rich, Buddhist tantric traditions are much better preserved than Hindu ones. This was mainly due to the large network of Buddhist missionaries serving almost the entire globe since the beginning of the religion. Since Buddhism became popular outside of its home base of India, Buddhist tantric texts were translated into multiple languages, especially Tibetan and Chinese, which allowed these ideas to spread more rapidly.

Despite glitches in the knowledge, contemporary scholars have of the origins of Buddhist tantric traditions, most of the evidence points towards the 7th century as the beginning point of the practices. According to modern understanding and research, the first work on Buddhist tantric traditions was the Awakening of Mahāvairocana Tantra (mahāvairocanābhistaṃbodhi-Tantra). This manuscript was compiled around the 7th century and was taken to China by the Chinese pilgrim Wu-Xing in 680 CE. There is also a record of the pilgrim writing a commentary on the new teaching of mantra taking shape in India.

The most plausible explanation for the emergence of Buddhist tantric traditions is the development of magical literature in Mahāyāna Buddhist sects. This development occurred over several centuries culminating in the eventual emergence of tantric traditions. For at least 2 hundred years, Buddhist scholars allegedly produced works related to magical formulae called dhāraṇī along with rituals in which these spells were to be used. Over time, these practices were refined further so much so that they took the shape of the modern esoteric sutras and Tantras.

Most of the early Buddhist tantric texts are nothing more than collections of magical rituals that were believed to procure worldly gains for the practitioner. This feature of tantric texts is quite similar to Saiva tantric texts that were compiled around the same time. Greater sophistication was achieved in tantric traditions from the 8th century onwards. The added practices included union with a deity through a secret method that would eventually culminate in the achievement of Buddhahood. The main focus of these traditions was on texts that later came to be known as Yoga, Mahāyoga, and Yoginī Tantras. Saiva tantric traditions greatly influenced the budding Buddhist tantric scriptures and practices.

The Buddhist YoginīTantras are a prime example of this influence. Like Saiva traditions, this school of thought focused on female goddesses such as Dakinis or Yoginis along with featuring antinomian practices that were considered outside the boundaries of normal moral practices of the time. The main source of inspiration for this school of thought was the Saiva Vidyāpīṭha scriptures. The growing Buddhist tantric traditions spread far and wide within a short period of time. East and Southeast Asia were the major recipients of these tantric teachings only a few decades in the making. A major catalyst for this phenomenon was the large amount of trade and diplomatic exchanges between China and India between the 7th and 8th centuries. This was done through both overland and maritime routes so that greater contact was achieved at the local and the national level.

Other prominent schools of thought were the Sarvadurgatipariśodhana and Trilokavijaya mandalas, whose influence can still be felt in the architecture and culture of Java Island in Indonesia. Even a Central Asian monk known as Amoghavajra is reported to have said that a new manuscript of eighteen additional Tantras had been developed in India and which he intended to translate into Chinese. This goes on to show the massive amounts of development being conducted in tantric practices during the 7th and 8th centuries.

Buddhist traditions could not get a solid foothold in China despite being well established during the Tang dynasty. This was mainly due to the official persecution conducted by the Chinese Emperor Wuzong in the 9th century. However, Buddhist tantric traditions were able to survive in the countryside for a much longer period of time. Tibet was introduced to Buddhist tantric practices during the 8th century immediately after East and Southeast Asia were introduced to them. Buddhism itself is thought to have reached the region almost a century earlier.

Buddhist scriptures started getting translated into Tibetan during the 7th century and carried on for the next several centuries with the support of the royal government. There is plenty of evidence for the existence and translation of tantric manuscripts in Tibetan. The most solid piece of evidence is the preserved tantric manuscripts at Dunhuang along with royal catalogues of the time detailing the incursion and spread of tantric beliefs and practices.

Imperial patronage resumed in the 10th century when the King is recorded to have sent more than a dozen Buddhist monks to Kashmir to receive further training in tantric practices. Rin Chen Bzang Po is the most well known of these monks as his works of translation created a new wave for the spread of Buddhism in the region.


Influence on Other Religious Traditions

Zen stones in water

Hindu and Buddhist tantric traditions also influenced other religions and cultures within South Asia and beyond. Since tantric traditions trace their roots to South Asia, religious groups present in the region were naturally impacted the most. These included Sikhism, Jainism and, to a lesser degree, Islam. The Shinto tradition and Daoism were also influenced by Buddhist tantric traditions. The Bön tradition in Tibet was perhaps most influenced by Buddhist tantric teachings, transforming the whole landscape of spiritual knowledge and rituals. Tantric rituals also became popular in the West during the 20th century in what came to be known as the “New Age” spiritual movement.

Jainism did not witness any changes in its core teachings. However, several Jain authors wrote detailed commentaries on several tantric rituals and mediations from the 8th century onwards. Jainism’s interest in tantric philosophies and practices was born more out of people’s own desires rather than any theological similarities. Another reason why this could not be done was due to the Jains’ strict emphasis on celibacy for monks and nuns, which meant that none of the transgressive practices and rituals could be employed. Prominent tantric texts produced by Jains include Bhairavapadmāvatīkalpa, which was compiled in the 11th century. As the name suggests, this manuscript was heavily influenced from the Saiva Sakta traditions.

One area where theological influences were adopted was the borrowing of goddesses from the Saiva Mantra marga tradition. The practices were modified somewhat so that compliance with Jain moral teachings could be achieved. For example, animal sacrifices were not conducted for the gods and goddesses since the Jains were strict vegetarians. Tantric yoga was another avenue in which tantric principles were used for meditative purposes. Sufi Muslims in Bengal and other areas of India were known for developing a variation of tantric yoga influenced by the Nāth and Sahajiyā Vaisnava traditions. The Sufis translated the concept of subtle body movements into Islamic categories.

Sikhs were also known for adopting tantric yoga practices. Harbhajan Singh Khalsa was a popular advocate of these practices. He was responsible for introducing Kundalini Yoga to Europe and America. According to Yogi Bhajan as he was popularly known, his practice lineage went as far back as Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh religion. Though there is little evidence to support this claim, contemporary scholars believe that there might have been small groups of early Sikhs who practised some forms of tantric yoga secretively and as a form of experimentation.

Buddhist tantric incursions into China in the beginning of the 8th century also influenced the local religious ideas prevalent amongst the masses. There was already a tradition of borrowing of ideas between the Daoist and Buddhist communities in China. Several components and practices of Buddhist tantric philosophies were adopted by the Daoist traditions. In turn, tantric Buddhists also adopted ideas from the Daoist practice such as the veneration of Big Dipper constellation. The interesting part of these exchanges was that each religious philosophy grew to new heights as practitioners found different ways of worshipping the same deities. Likewise, the Shinto tradition in Japan was also heavily influenced by tantric practices. The goma ritual of making offerings into a sanctified fire is a prime example of that.

As mentioned before, the Bön tradition of Tibet was excessively transformed as a result of coming into contact with Buddhist tantric traditions. In fact, the Bön tradition itself came to be known as a separate tantric tradition. As before, the exchange of ideas and rituals was two-way with both the Bön tradition and Tibetan Buddhism borrowing from each other. The former also developed a scriptural canon based on Buddhist models along with borrowing several tantric practices.

Finally, increased interest in Tantras in the Western world has allowed for the creation of several spiritual traditions that are adaptable to the Western way of life. Buddhist and Hindu tantric traditions are the major drivers behind this trend. While some of these groups are managed by Indian saints, several have been started by Western practitioners including Pierre Bernard, Aleister Crowley and Nik Douglas. The tantric traditions started by these practitioners include the Tantric Order, Ordo Templi Oreintis and New Tantric Order respectively. These traditions have had to make tantric practices and rituals adaptable in the changing environment.