The history of Tantra

Leora Lightwoman explains how Tantra evolved into its present day form

Tantra is not a religion, although Tantric symbology and practices have emerged throughout history in all religions and cultures. Representations of the sacred union of the masculine and feminine principles, and the non-duality of this “sacred inner marriage” can be found as far back as 2000 BC in the Indus Valley civilization and the Egyptian old kingdom. Tantric principles are inherent in mystical Judaism (Kabbalah), Christianity and Sufism. Chinese Taoism is another strand of Tantra.

Tantra most obviously emerged in India, between 300 and 400 CE, when the first Hindu and Buddhist Tantric texts were written down, as poetic metaphors pointing to oneness and Divine love. These first writings were purposely obscure so that only initiates could understand them. Before that time, Tantric teachings were closely guarded and transmitted orally from master to disciple only after long periods of preparation and purification.

Tantra reached its climax in the 11th and 12th centuries, when it was practiced widely and openly in India. Tantra refuted the prevalent notion that liberation could be attained only through rigorous asceticism and by renunciation of the world. Tantrikas (tantric yogis) believed that human suffering arises from the mistaken notion of separation. It advocated celebration of the sensual and through so doing transcendence of the physical.

Tantra has been and still is practiced in three main forms: the monastic tradition, the householder tradition and by wandering yogis. Whereas Hinduism had many rules and laws, including strict divisions of caste, Tantra was totally non-denominational and could be practiced by anyone, even within daily life.

Thus meditations on weaving, for example, could be practiced by weavers, as they contemplated the interwoven and undifferentiated nature of existence, whereas mediations on eating, drinking and lovemaking could be practiced by kings and queens.

With the invasion of India in the 13th century came widespread slaughter of Tantrics and destruction of their manuscripts. Tantra went underground, where it has predominantly remained since. Tantric Buddhism was notably preserved in the monasteries of Tibet. After the Chinese invasion of Tibet, when monks and nuns were murdered and manuscripts destroyed, those who escaped have found ways to sensitively disseminate this knowledge more widely.

It is customary to divide Tantric paths into two sectors. Those where the individual practitioner works with his/her own sexual energy, mostly internally, are called “right-handed” paths or “white Tantra”. Then there are Tantric approaches that do involve direct sexual contact between love partners, and these are called “left-handed” Tantra or “red Tantra”. These terms, however, are themselves part of a more modern system of classification.

In the west, today, traditional Tantric practices can be found within the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, and via the Kundalini and Kriya yoga schools, all of which are right-handed paths. There is also the Taoist tradition, which has only slightly been modified, and this is a left-handed path. Daniel Odier was initiated by Lalita Devi in the Himalayas, in the lineage of Kasmimir Shaivism.

The main practices that he teaches are sitting meditation, the “tandava”, a form of very subtle free movement, where practitioners contact more and more refined states of the “divine tremoring” a resonance with the essence of life, and Kashmiri energy massage.

Traditionally, Tantric masters did not advertise themselves, and this is mostly still true today. Many exist, particularly in India, and I am sure in the west too, but you will not find too many Tantric masters via the internet!

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