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The Origin and History of Tantra

The word "Tantra" comes from the root tan, to "extend", "continue", multiply".  "Tantra" means "what extends knowledge" [1]

Some Indian pandits and Western scholars argue that Tantra constitutes the continuation of the original Indian aboriginal tradition (especially the Dravidian), which predates the coming of the Indo-European Aryan invaders and their Vedic religion (2nd millenium b.c.e.).  According to this theory, the ritualistic Vedism and the yogic-mystical aboriginal tradition co-existed independently for some time.  But the Aryan political takeover, and intermarriage with the native population, resulted in the Dravidian religion being assimilated into the Vedic the result of the merger being the mystical Hinduism of the Upanishads.

Growing out of this yogic tradition, Tantra appears in provinces that had not been strongly Vedicised: e.g. the Northwest, Bengal, and the South (Eliade, Ibid p.201) in the fourth century of the common era.  Within the space of a few centuries it had attained pan-Indian inflence.  A number of distinct and independent branches developed, so that one can speak of Mahayana Buddhist tantrism (Tibetan Vajrayana, "adamantine vehicle", and Japanese Shingon "Mantra teaching") Shaivite tantrism (in Kashmir, emphasising the monistic Vedantic perspective), Natha tantrism (a hybrid Shaivite yogic movement), Shakta tantra (in Bengal, emphasising the chakras, kundalini, and occult practices), cosmological tantrism (the Pancharatra movement), Jain tantrism, and even Vaishvana tantrism (among devotees of Vishnu and Krishna).

This was the period of classical Tantra, which lasted for some centuries.  Nowdays Tantra remains as a living tradition only among the Tibetan people (Vajrayana Buddhism), or at least was until the Chinese communist invasion, although strong traditional remnants also occur elsewhere - for example in areas of India and in Japan.

Although we often hear the word "Tantra" nowadays in the various alternative religions that have recently sprung up in the West, such as the teachings of the various Gurus - Rajneesh, Muktananda, etc - this has little to do with the original movement


[1] Eliade, Yoga, Immortality and Freedom, p.200]

cover cover cover
Yoga, Immortality and Freedom
by Mircea Elieda
Tantra in Practice
by David Gordon White
The Alchemical Body: Siddha Traditions in Medieval India
by David Gordon White

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content by M.Alan Kazlev
page uploaded 25 February 1999, most recent update 16 April 2007