Tantra in the Early Vedic Tradition

Breath control

by Jayaram V

This essay traces the origin and aspects of tantra in early Vedic tradition, which is one of the oldest traditions of Hinduism.

Tantra literally means a warp or a loom, or a system of weaving the body, using the web of pure and energized chakras and nadis (energy channels. A person is pure and enlightened to the extent his energies are pure and vigorous, and his body is in harmony with his mind. Tantra aims to accomplish these sublime aims through various "weaving" techniques. The word "tantra" also has other meanings such as an uninterrupted order or sequence, a framework of rites and rituals, a rule, a doctrine or theory, a religious teaching, a sacred text or treatise, dependence, and so on.

The ultimate aim of tantra is self-realization through self-purification. Some prefer to call it Tantra yoga. This seems to be a modern practice. Historically, yoga methods are used in the practice of tantra, as in the case of hatha yoga. However, it is doubtful where tantra was ever a part of any yoga system. Tantra and Yoga belong to different belief systems, although some traditions may employ the best of both for best results. In this essay we will examine how the ideas and practices of tantra entered Vedism, which was the dominant tradition of ancient India and which is now an integral part of Hinduism.

Early interaction with Vedism

The origins of tantra are obscure. It is difficult to believe that it suddenly appeared in the later Vedic period without antecedents and prior development. Just as several religious beliefs and practices of ancient India were integrated into Vedic tradition, despite their independent origins, some beliefs and practices of tantra might have independently developed while some developed due to the interaction with other belief systems such as Vedism and Buddhism. It is also difficult to draw a clean line between these two components due to lack of proper evidence.

Earliest references to the idea of tantra in the Vedic literature suggest that rudimentary forms of tantra might have been practiced in the early Rigvedic period by remote ascetic groups outside the Vedic fold. They were probably a part of the Shramanic traditions of ancient India.

Some of their beliefs and practices might have entered Vedism during its geographical expansion into the plains of India through the early theistic traditions that were already prevalent in the region such as Shaivism, Vaishnavism and Shaktism. Their followers worshipped personal gods and local deities with prayers, supplications, offerings, sacrifices, magical and domestic rituals, seeking liberation and freedom from suffering and adversity. All these, including tantra, are now an integral part of Hinduism.

Another possibility was that tantra might have begun as an esoteric practice among a few ancient, ascetic traditions, and was subsequently adapted by other traditions, including Vedism, Buddhism and Jainism, with necessary modifications and adjustments to fit into their respective belief systems. The practice of worshipping Mother Goddess, performing fertility rites seeking progeny, and worshipping spirits, trees, plants, animals, serpents, water bodies, rivers, mountains and other natural objects were prevalent in India since ancient times. Such fringe practices might have also contributed to the development of tantric ritual and spiritual beliefs and practices.

Before the appearance of tantra, the Vedic tradition had a rich body of sacrificial rituals, known as kamya karmas, which had similar characteristics as those of tantra. They were prescribed by the Vedic tradition for the householder as a part of their obligatory duties and to fulfill their desires. Their essential purpose was to facilitate morality, duty, cooperation and social justice, and ensure the order and regularity of the world.

The Vedas contain several hymns and sacrificial rites and rituals, each meant to obtain specific results in particular areas. M. Bloomfield classified them into nine categories. Vedic people practiced them to obtain specific results such as peace and prosperity, rains, good harvest, freedom from afflictions, strength and vigor, name and fame, victory over enemies, expiation, siddhis or powers, control over one’s destiny, death and destruction of rivals, cures for ailments and snakebites, charms to attract opposite sex, and so on.

Tantras offered similar rituals and with similar promise, or an alternative to the time-tested methods of the Vedic religion, holding better promise. Having additional knowledge and proficiency in a new branch of knowledge gave the Vedic priests an added advantage to compete with others and attract more patrons. It enhanced their professional image, power and prestige and their sources of income. Such possibilities in a world where numerous traditions competed for attention and membership might have helped them expand their repertoire of ritual knowledge and increase their wealth and chances of success.

A similar development might have happened in the spiritual field. Several beliefs and practices of tantra might have entered the renouncer and householder traditions Vedism as it grew in complexity due to the integration of new ideas and practices such as the internalization of sacrifice as a yoga practice, the Ashrama system and the expansive growth of the Upanishadic wisdom, coupled with the emergence of rival traditions. They questioned its established practices, encouraging the Vedic seers and scholars to search for alternative solutions to achieve quicker and better results.

The idea of japa or repetitive chanting of mantras and supplicatory hymns to appease the deities and attain specific powers or results, the practice of kundalini, contemplative practices which involved the visualization of chakras and deities, immobilizing the mind and body, the knowledge associated with sounds and the alphabet, knowledge of chakras and nadis, the concept of tattvas, gunas and maya, and several healing methods that are now a part of Ayurveda are some of the areas where tantra might have left its mark in the growing knowledge and influence of the Vedic tradition.

Some of the ascetic sects who were mentioned in the Vedas might have practiced some form of esoteric knowledge that was not mainstream but important enough to attract attention. The Rigveda mentions ascetic people such as the Kesins (the long-haired ones), Vratyas (practitioners of penances) munis (the silent ones), mundakas (the shaved ones) and sannyasis (renouncers) who strived for liberation,  often using harsher methods including self-mortification. However, there is no reliable evidence to suggest that they practiced tantra or were aware of it. They belonged to renouncer traditions and lived in seclusion, practicing some of form of ancient yoga or contemplative life.

The practice of tapah, which is mentioned in several Vedic texts, epics and the Puranas and which was practiced by both humans and demons could be one of the earliest forms of tantra and may be even precursor to classical yoga. It was a contemplative and ascetic practice, which involved the observation of austerities and penances to purify and elevate the mind and body, using self-control as the means to generate spiritual heat (tapah) in the them.

The practice of tapah resulted in the transformation and sublimation of sexual energy (retah) into physical vigor (tejah) and mental brilliance (medha). It promised to give its practitioners spiritual powers or attainments (siddhis) to control elements, natural order of things and obtain desired results with the help of prayers, mantras and thought power. Tapah, celibacy (brahmacharya), virtuous living or right living, mind and body purification through control, concentration and contemplation formed the roots of India's contemplative and spiritual practices and the foundation of renouncer traditions, which resulted in the flowering of several ascetic (shramanic) movements around 600 BCE.

Tantra and the Vedic spirituality

It is evident from the earliest Upanishads such as the Brihadaranyaka and Chandogya that new theories and techniques regarding breath, liberation, internalization of Vedic rituals, contemplative practices, postures, the doctrine of karma, transmigration of souls, nadis, mystic syllables, etc., were entering Vedism through numerous outside influences. The new knowledge became the true knowledge (vidya) in the eyes of the Upanishadic seers compared to the ritual knowledge which was rejected by them as ignorance (avidya) or inferior knowledge.

The Vedic seers in the light of the new knowledge urged people to turn their attention away from the world and look within themselves to contemplate upon their pure and essential self, which they described as eternal, indestructible and free from duality and delusion. While acknowledging the transience of all phenomena, they elevated the body into a sacred field of Prakriti. They viewed it as a microcosm in itself hosting all the divinities and representing whole creation, where God and his projection (Purusha and Prakriti) enacted their play and where one could spiritually grow and experience oneness by overcoming that fundamental duality. They also alluded to the possibility of gaining supernatural perfections (siddhis), miraculous healing powers which only gods like Asvins conjure up, the ability to concoct magical potions and medicines to heal and resurrect life or replace and implant body parts or overcome chronic ailments.

We also find in them a further expansion of ideas and concepts about the nature of reality and existence. One of them was that dualities permeated the whole creation, and the body was the not-self, in contrast to the self, where the true knowledge of the Self was concealed behind a cloud of objectivity and duality. They regarded the body as the field of Maya and the abode of shaktis where energies streamed through subtle channels to keep the beings alive and active. The idea of prana and its ability to purify and energize the body and connect us to the source also gained ground, which was subsequently integrated into the predominant philosophies and belief systems of the time including Buddhism and Jainism.

New ideas regarding the states of consciousness and their respective importance also emerged. For example, the Mandukya Upanishad speaks about the four states of consciousness namely the wakeful state (jagrat), the dream state (svapna), the deep sleep state (susupti) and the transcendental state (turiya). These four states subsequently became the basis of many tantric beliefs and practices, which focused upon bringing the transcendental, blissful turiya into the other three states and experience it uniformly in conditions. A similar development took place with regard to the presence of subtle chakras or energy centers along the spine in the body and the ascent of kundalini from the lowest chakra to the highest.

It is difficult to determine when and how the Vedic tradition derived these ideas, or how the knowledge of the Agamas and Tantras emerged. Surely, somewhere amidst all this great churning in the Indian subcontinent, in the secret circles of ascetic groups and away from the preening opinions of judgmental minds, tantra evolved as a distinct body of knowledge and techniques and gained followers in each of the traditions of which it became an integral part. As a result, today we have many tantras such as Hindu tantra, Buddhist Tantra, Shaiva Tantra, Vaishnava Tantra, Shakti Tantra, etc.

According to Lorenzen, the ideas of "mystical anatomy" of nadis and chakras were originally Vedic and subsequently incorporated into Tantra. However, there is no indisputable evidence to corroborate it. It is possible that in the early stages of the development of India's spiritual traditions, Yoga and Tantra developed independently and interdependently, deriving their knowledge and methods from each other and from various other native traditions and sources. The might have grown exponentially after both were integrated into Vedism, and devotional and ritual worship of Shiva, Shakti and Vishnu became an intergral part of Vedic tradition.

Right-hand and Left-hand methods

Tantra has often been singled out as an unconventional, left-hand practice. It is erroneous and misleading, because with regard to methods and practices, tantra is not distinct from the Vedic tradition or the other sectarian traditions of Hinduism, of which it is an integral part. The left-hand methods are unconventional and involve the use of meat, sexual union, alcohol, cremation-ground rituals, etc.

The right-hand methods are more conventional and traditional, and thereby more acceptable for those who are morally inclined. Tantra is more controversial because some of its left-hand methods are extreme and receive negative publicity. Their shock value is visible and spiritual value is hidden. Hence, people draw mistaken notions. In contrast, although Vedic tradition has both methods, its left-hand practices and rituals do not attract as much criticism or attention. You may be even scoffed or censored if you dare to speak about them. There is also a tendency to ascribe right-hand methods to the Vedic tradition and left-hand methods to tantra.

The truth is that Vedic tradition has both methods, which are validated by the Vedas themselves. Just as Tantra, it is a complex, multidisciplinary approach which aims to strike a balance between the temporal and spiritual needs of people, accommodating as many approaches and methods as possible to broaden its scope and appeal, often setting aside the moralistic and restrictive view of the orthodoxy. The following points support the premise.

  1. In remote antiquity, Vedic people performed animal and human sacrifices and offered animal meat to gods during fire sacrifices. The worshippers offered sacred meat to the sacrificial fire and shared it as the remains of the sacrifice.
  2. The idea of devotional worship is rooted in the idea of devotional self-sacrifice (bhakti) in which one offered oneself (bhakta) as food to the deity (bhokta).
  3. The Vedas identify the enjoyment of sexual pleasure (kama) as one of the chief aims (purusharthas) of human life. They also prescribe many sexual rites to obtain progeny or facilitate the transmigration of souls to the next life or attract the opposite sex.
  4. Vedic people practiced Soma rituals in which the intoxicant drink or the leafy extract called Soma was offered to appease the gods who were addicted to it. The remains of the sacrifice in this case too was consumed by the worshippers to experience trance and altered states of consciousness.
  5. Sexual union was a part of several complex Vedic sacrifices such as Ashvamedha. The eldest queen of the king was expected to participate in it.
  6. The Upanishads extol the union between a man and woman as a sacrifice in itself. They describe the symbolism of sexual union in graphic detail.
  7. The Vedas, especially the Atharvaveda and some Sutra texts contain methods to practice charms, black magic, sorcery, bewitchment and other rajasic and tamasic rituals. Some are meant to cause death and destruction of targeted groups or enemies or rival lovers.
  8. The god of Death (Yama or Kala) is invoked in many Vedic rituals. The Upanishad describe him as a fierce god, a howler, with voracious appetite. Some of the funeral ceremonies prescribed in the texts can be performed only in the cremation grounds or upon the body before it was cremated.
  9. The Vedas prescribe several ceremonies which have to be performed in the night.
  10. Vedic ceremonies involve the use of several objects and images, which are used to perform mock sacrifices instead of the real ones.
  11. The sacrificial pit where fire is kindled is a geometric object. Just as the yantras it is energized and purified with mantras and prayers.
  12. The Vedic gods are pleasure loving, who often engage in questionable acts including adultery and seduction. Their world symbolizes sensual enjoyment.

While in the Vedic traditions such methods were primarily used for wish fulfillment and personal gains, in tantra they were mainly practiced to enhance one’s spiritual powers or attain liberation. The Vedas also caution to people to avoid them since they lead to sin, rebirth and suffering rather than liberation.

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