Tantra is a Sanskrit word that, like the term yoga, has many distinct but basically related meanings. At the most mundane level, it denotes “web” or “woof.” It derives from the verbal root tan, meaning “to expand.” This root also yields the word tantu (thread or cord).
Whereas a thread is something that is extensive, a web suggests expansion. Tantra can also stand for “system,” “ritual,” “doctrine,” and “compendium.” According to esoteric explanations, tantra is that which expands jnana, which can mean either “knowledge” or “wisdom.”
The paucity of research and publications on the Tantric heritage of Hinduism has in recent years made room for a whole crop of ill-informed popular books on what I have called “Neo-Tantrism.” Their reductionism is so extreme that a true initiate would barely recognize the Tantric heritage in these writings. The most common distortion is to present Tantra Yoga as a mere discipline of ritualized or sacred sex. In the popular mind, Tantra has become equivalent to sex. Nothing could be farther from the truth!
I have looked at a number of these popular books on what one well-known Tibetan lama once jokingly referred to as “California Tantra. “One time I even sat through half of a thoroughly uninspiring and essentially pornographic video presentation on Neo-Tantrism. In each case I was left with the overwhelming impression that these Neo-Tantric publications are based on a profound misunderstanding of the Tantric path. Their main error is to confuse Tantric bliss (an-anda, maha-sukha) with ordinary orgasmic pleasure. Indeed, the words “pleasure “and “fun” are prominent catchphrases in the Neo-Tantric literature. These publications may conceivably be helpful to people looking for a more fulfilling or entertaining sex life, but they are in most cases far removed from the true spirit of Tantra. In this sense they are sadly misleading, for instead of awakening a person’s impulse to attain enlightenment for the benefit of all beings, they tend to foster narcissism, self-delusion, and false hopes.
Hindu iconographers have made various attempts to depict in three-dimensional form the zero-dimensional relationship between Shiva and Shakti. One popular image is that of Ardhanar Tshvara (lit. “Half-Woman-Lord”), which is sometimes wrongly described as hermaphroditic. The left half of this figure is depicted as a female with one ample breast, while the right half is depicted as a male, often holding Shiva’s trident. Obviously, this image is only a very imperfect depiction of the “union” between Shiva and Shakti, which is a seamless continuity of Consciousness and Power within one and the same Reality. Even the term “polarity” does not describe this transcendental situation accurately. A somewhat more fitting analogy would be that of a hologram that yields one image when viewed from a certain angle and another image when viewed differently.
The same limitation inherent in the Ardhanarlshvara image also applies to Tantric paintings or statues depicting Shiva and Shakti in intimate embrace. Usually voluptuous Shakti sits astride her beloved’s lap, wrapping hersel faround him like a creeper in what the Tibetans call the yab-yum (mother-father) position, face turned blissfully upward. This graphic motif suggests sexual love, which makes sense, since for many people sexual union affords the only experience of unity. When they lose themselves in the arms of their lover, they experience at least a semblance of the ego-transcending consciousness of the Tantric adept. It is therefore not surprising that so many Neo-Tantrics in the West look upon Tantra as a sexual discipline promising pleasure beyond all expectation, mostly in the form of prolonged or multiple orgasms. Neo-Tantrics seek to emulate the divine couple but typically forget that the union between Shiva and Shakti is transcendental and therefore also asexual. The fruit of their union – and hence also the goal of Tantra Yoga – is not bodily orgasm, however overwhelming, but perpetual bliss far beyond anything the human nervous system is capable of producing.
A third motif of ten exploited in paintings and sculptures is that of the reclining Shiva, with Shakti (mostly in the form of the fear-instilling goddess Kali) towering above him, with weapons in her hands, a garland of skulls around her neck, protruding tongue dripping with the blood of her victims. This image gives us the most penetrating glimpse into the Shiva-Shakti symbolism. Here Shiva is depicted with a massive erection, yet with a body besmeared from toe to crown with ashes, clearly suggesting that he is indifferent to his sexual arousal and the world at large. The pale, almost translucent white color of his skin suggests the luminosity of the Divine. It is no accident that he resembles a corpse, lying in what is called the corpse posture (shava-asana), for the image strongly points to a practice at the very heart of Tantra that many Western observers have found rather disquieting. This is the old custom of left-hand tantrikas to receive initiation from a female adept in the graveyard. The Tantric male practitioner emulates Shiva, who is dead to all passion and pure Consciousness. Even his blood is turned to ashes – a symbol of utter dispassion.
A vastly simplified form of the divine intercourse between Shiva and Shakti is the yoni-linga symbol, which can be drawn, painted, or carved. It consists of a round or oval shape in whose center an upright linga is placed. These represent the male and female generative organs and their corresponding creative energies. The yoni (vulva) stands for Shakti, energy, immanence; the linga (“mark” or “phallus”) represents Shiva, consciousness, transcendence. Their juxtaposition symbolizes the creative union as a result of which multiplicity can arise within the simplicity of Parama-Shiva. This particular imagery has also been incorporated into the description of the psychoenergetic center at the base of the spine, the muladhara-cakra. This is the seat of the serpent power, the localized presence of the non local Shakti. The serpent power is depicted as being coiled three and a half times around a shiva-linga. The spiral coils again suggest the inherent dynamism of Shakti.
Another strong image that is widely used in Tantra to depict the complementary relationship between Shiva and Shakti is the shri-yantra. Here the five upward-pointing triangles represent Shiva, the four downward-pointing triangles Shakti. Their interweaving, giving rise to a total of forty-nine triangles, stands for cosmic existence as a whole.
What is significant for the present discussion is that in Hindu Tantra Shakti plays the active role, whereas Shiva, although aroused by Shakti’s love play, remains passive and cool. He manifests the absolute stillness of Consciousness; she expresses the unlimited potency of Power or Energy. Together they symbolize the play of life and death, creation and annihilation, emptiness and form, dynamism and stasis. This interplay is found on all levels of cosmic existence because, as we have seen, it preexists in the ultimate Reality itself. As we move down the ladder of cosmic existence – from the transcendental to the subtle to the coarse levels of manifestation – the transcendental “polarity” increasingly becomes one of stark oppositions. The Sanskrit texts refer to the dvandvas (two-twos), which are pairs such as light and dark, hot and cold, moist and dry, but also praise and blame, fame and obscurity, and so on. Tantric practitioners must learn to master these by raising their consciousness from the material plane to the transcendental dimension of existence, which is characterized as nirdvandva, or beyond all opposites.