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What is Tantra?

Originating in South Asia in approximately the fifth century CE, Tantric texts constitute a body of literature that teaches certain ritual activities and disciplines to initiated practitioners. These texts offer both specific guidelines for meditative practices as well as particular worldviews and philosophies that aim to transform the practitioner's outlook and response to the world. In general, each Tantric text addresses a primary deity, detailing how to invoke the deity through the use of sacred syllables (mantra) and visualization practices that incorporate abstract geometric images (maṇḍala). The results of performing such actions, according to practitioners, include both the achievement of magical powers or 'perfections' (siddhis) as well as self-realization.


Tantra is a generic term that involves various esoteric practices of the Hindus, Buddhists and Jains. Frequently, we find that some of these practices cross religious boundaries, so that even the deities, the rituals oriented toward those deities, and the results anticipated from such practices appear identical. Nevertheless, what distinguishes these disciplines is the overaching philosophical framework within which these seemingly identical practices are embedded. It is due to the internal philosophical diversity of this discourse, the complexity of its rituals, and inaccessibility of contemplative practices, that a unitary understanding of Tantra has eluded, and continues to elude, Western scholars.


Some of the most salient features of Tantric discourse include the concept that the world is directly linked with the human body and that both are composed of the same cosmic energy. If this connection is recognized, so the texts claim, the human body and mind can interact with and affect the course of cosmic events. Many Śaiva and Śākta Tantras embody a monistic worldview wherein the central deity emanates in the form of the world. Thus, such traditions reject the oppositional dualism between matter and consciousness or body and self. Tantras are generally understood to be world-affirming: the bliss and consciousness that occur in cognitive and somatic experiences are in fact quintessential to Tantric transformation. These Tantric practices not only alter the subject's perception of reality, but they are also claimed to be effective in inducing or altering certain somatic states.


Foremost among Tantric practices is visualization or the formation of a mental image. Tantric rituals begin with the aspirant mentally 'seeing' various syllables and mantras in his own body. The practitioner imagines the syllables transforming into the image of the deity, then envisions the body of the deity either within the various centers of his body or in his mental frame of awareness. In some cases, he also visualizes specific geometric designs that correlate with the divine body. In these rituals of visualization, the body of the deity is viewed or imagined at the center of a maṇḍala or in the heart of the aspirant, with her associate deities being visualized in the surrounding area. As the sequence of visualization proceeds, the aspirant mentally enlivens the image or assumes it to be alive and performs ritual offerings. The goal of this complex practice is to experience the oneness of the aspirant, deity and all that exists. In his mental space, the practitioner perceives the world as if it is emanating from the deity and then being reabsorbed within her. What is explicit in the visualization process is an attenuated focus on the mind in creating reality, as the encounter with the deity occuring in the course of visualization is considered as real. This process of creating and manipulating mental images requires a heightened degree of cognitive attention.


What is common to all Tantric visualization practices is repeating mantras while actively imagining the divine bodies or geometric designs called maṇḍalas. In order to create experiences that are felt to be real, Tantric practices relies on bringing to mind both image and speech. In the context of visualization, when images are recalled, the texts or mantras are actively attained, and when texts are played simply out of memory, images are recalled. What is unique to this model is the activation of different cognitive processes at the same time.


Speech is the primary device of visualization in Tantras. Rather than simply recalling words, visualization practice uses mantras as a template for contemplating various other categories. Further imprinting the process of recollection, mantras are not just simply 'heard', remembered, or brought forth through recall, but rather, they are mentally situated in different parts of the body and 'seen' as images. Speech and image merge in a single cognitive domain, as the speech becomes very subtle at the stage of paśyantī. This level of speech, following grammarians and Tantric philosophers, merges speech and vision, where words are 'seen' in the screen of the mind. Meditations upon speech meticulously cultivate subtle states where the 'sound' aspect of words collapses and are merely observed. In this state, language-like description and picture-like codes are merged and perceptual and auditory modalities become one.


Thus, Tantric images resemble cognitive maps that integrate information acquired through various perceptual modes. The process whereby the practitioner generates deity images and performs rituals by means of visualization parallels the mechanisms involved in spatial cognition, including the acquisition, organization, utilization, and revision of our awareness about spatial environments. These processes of spatial cognition are integral to everyday decision-making and common to cognitive behavior. Essentially, what Tantric traditions do is they ritualize these common cognitive aspects and embed them in a precise and coherent system of praxis. Tantric practice involves imagination, manipulation of images, integration of different inputs in a single cognitive domain, activation of a particular emotion that corresponds to the cultivation of a specific image called to mind, retention of the projected images for particular span of time, and integration of complex cosmologies and philosophies during the course of visualization.


Besides prescribing rituals, Tantric practitioners often provide their own commentary upon these highly systematized processes, thereby offering sophisticated meta-reflections on under-examined aspects of ordinary human cognition only recently identified by cognitive scientists. These reflections help us understand the parameters in which such rituals were carried out. In turn, the manuals of visualization and practitioner’s reflections upon their own practice offer us first-hand information on altered states of consciousness, and provide insight into deeper phenomenal states that are hard to observe objectively in the laboratory. Linguistic and contemplative philosophies provide the backdrop for much of Tantric practice. Indic philosophers such as Bhartr̥hari and Abhinavagupta, the latter being one of the greatest theorists of Tantric practice, offer analysis that not only helps to explain the presuppositions of Tantric rituals, but also provides valuable insight into the nature of the human mind.


The most exalted among Tantric philosophies, the system of Pratyabhijñā, weaves everyday experiences with the broader agenda of self-realization, and instances of consciousness are viewed in this paradigm as similar to the rays of the sun. The self, the central deity, or the center in a maṇḍala, all stand for this transcendent reality that makes the immanent possible. Tantric Kaula philosophy equates kula with the body. The Trika system, the basis of the philosophy of Abhinavagupta, gives the triadic imagery of the goddesses Parā, Parāparā, and Aparā, as the basis of the central emotional states. The embodied self is also the emotional self and the consciousness addressed by engaging the body also pressupposes emotions. Recognition of the self, along these lines, is not a dissociation of the embodied and emotional domains of the self. On the contrary, the self that is recognized is very much embodied, emotional, and complete. Described in terms of the recognition of completeness (pūrṇatā-pratyabhijñā), this self-realization acknowledges the body and emotion as essential to being conscious.



(A re-arrangement of excerpts from "Tantric Visual Culture: A Cognitive Approach", by Sthaneshwar Timalsina)





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