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 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 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.
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.