The Tantric Tradition
Three Gunas ~ Three Approaches
Tantra: “Non-Vedic beliefs and practices that emphasized the existence in man of divine powers that could be activated and experienced by means of special spiritual procedures.” (The Hindu Religious Tradition, 112; cf. IH, 269-71)
Tantra homologizes the human body to the cosmos, thereby often regarding the individual as a microcosm that mirrors or even — seeming paradoxically — “contains” the Totality or the Absolute. Thus body-mind practices and the manipulation of matter and energy serve the purpose of fully realizing one’s relationship to the Absolute. The Absolute is generally regarded as expressing itself through male and female principles (e.g. Siva and Sakti), which are intrinsically present at various grades of manifestation in all things. Thus sexual representations, invoking the imagery of uniting these male and female polarities, are widespread in Tantric literature, ritual, and symbolic art. The feminine component, in its aspects both as goddesses and women, is held in high regard in Tantra. The feminine embodies the dynamic dimension of the polarity; it is the power (sakti) through which the cosmos is brought into manifestation, and the energy through which the practitioner (sadhaka) may attain siddhis [spiritual powers] as well as liberation. Tantric body-mind practices may involve such elements as: mastery of sacred gestrures (mudra); elaborate visualizations of deities; the awakening of latent cosmic energies within the body (e.g., kundalini yoga); and may include fierce, fear-inducing forms of asceticism (such as over-night meditations in cremation grounds) or unconventional rites (such as ritual sexual intercourse). Energy-matter manipulations often involve the production of sacred sonic vibrations (mantra), and the application of sacred geometry in the construction of two-dimensional cosmographs (yantra, mandala), or three-dimensional ones, such as temples (mandapa), or divine images (murti). The techniques of invoking, worshipping, and dismissing divine presences in these material forms (i.e., puja) are also integral to Tantra. (IH, 272)

Three types of Tantric practice corresponding to the three gunas (from the Samkhya system of philosophy):
  • sattva (purity/goodness): knowledge
  • rajas (passion): action
  • tamas (darkness/inertia): bhakti
I. Kundalini Yoga
Appropriate only for the “divine” or “godlike” (divya) man
in whom the quality of sattva (“purity”) predominates.
[Kundalini Yoga] entails awakening a dormant energy that resides at the base of a key channel within the body. Hindu psycho-phsiology envisions the body as being composed of numerous sheaths. Among these, a subtle body sheath exists vaguely superimposed on the visible physical body sheath. This subtle body (suksma-sarira) contains tens, if not hundreds of thousands of pathways through which vital energy (prana) flows. The three most important of these pathways (nadi) are the susumna, the central channel, which is flanked by two other nadis: the ida and the pingala. These nadis intersect each other at certain energy centers located along the susumna. There are seven well-recognized energy centers, wheels, or vortices (cakra). The lowest cakra is the muladhara (root-support), located approximately at the perineum of the physical body. One might imagine that Sakti in its most limited state of manifestation resides, as if dormant, in the muladhara cakra. The dormant Sakti is sometimes likened to a coiled serpent. Through various purification and activation techniques aligned with hatha yoga practice, the dormant kundalini energy is awakened and induced to move upward through the central channel, the susumna nadi. As it does so, it opens the otherwise closed channel and activates the various energy vortices, or cakras, along its route. The activation of each of these cakras allows for the unrestricted flow of vital energy, or prana, through the innumerable channels (nadi) that emanate from that cakra, into various parts of the subtle body. Each such cakra activation is believed to confer various powers on the practitioner.
To induce the flow of kundalini into the various cakras, complex meditative visualizations may be performed. Each cakra is visualized within its appropriate location as a lotus of a certain color, with a particular number of petals, associated with a parituclar deity, a mantric seed syllable (bija), a gross element, such as earth or water, a socmogram (yantra), and so on. ... As kundalini moves upward, practitioners are expected to gain more understanding of their true natures. Finally, the kundalini sakti is induced to attain its final abode when it reaches the sahasrara (thousand-fold) cakra, envisioned as a thousand-petalled lotus pointing downward, and located approximately at the crown of the head. Here Siva is said to reside. In the sexual language and symbolism of Tantra, the goddess Kundalini is sometimes described as uniting with Siva in a sort of cosmic erotic union, resulting in an unsurpassable, unending bliss. A nectar of immortality (amrta), generated by their sexual union, is said to flow downward, its taste transforming the spiritual practitioner forever. Attainment of this state is moksa(IH, 275-6)

Guru Pathik Teaches Aang
How to Open His Cakras
II. Chakra-Puja (Circle-Worship)
Appropriate for the “heroic” man (vira) in whom
the quality of rajas (passion) predominates.

The Five Elements of Chakra-Puja
    • madya (wine)
    • mamsa (meat)
    • matsya (fish)
    • mudra (parched grain)
    • maithuna (sexual intercourse)
The Brahmanical approach to purification is prohibition: “the five m’s” are dangerous, so they are forbidden. This is the approach also in the orthodox yoga of Patanjali, which begins with vows of continence, purity, and austerity and goes on to a withdrawal of the senses and elimination of sense-contact with the world. Tantra, however, is the religion for the Kali Yuga when men’s self-discipline is weak. It advocates not the denial or suppression of natural qualities, including sexual impulses, but their use as ritual means. This is the sahaja-yana, the “natural way,” suitable to the Kali Yuga. Annihilation of sexual impulses in particular is considered by Tantrics as unnatural and impossible; the wise approach, the easy way, is to transform them by ritual means and use them to gain release. (The Hindu Religious Tradition, 129; cf. IH, 277)
Cakra-puja is anything but an orgy. It is a difficult religious ritual requiring long training, and has as its purpose not the free gratification of desires but their redirection into worship. The worshipers sit in a circle, men and women alternately, with each man’s female partner seated on his left (the position of goddesses in relation to gods). The leader of the ritual sits in the center with his female partner, his Sakti. The wine and food are consumed first, with recitation of mantras to establish the Sakti nature of the elements consumed. The elements viewed ignorantly as wine, meat, and so on are dangerous, but the elements as Sakti are pure. So too with the female partner in sexual intercourse, the final stage in the ritual. Mantras are recited to establish the female partner as Devi. This process, called aropa, “attributing,” is crucial to the ritual, for if the partner is not recognized totally as Devi the male is performing an impure act. Once the identity is established, the male worships the female as Devi, performing puja to her as he would to the Goddess present in an image. Sexual intercourse with his partner is then the culminating act of devotion, the union of the worshiper with the divine Power. (The Hindu Religious Tradition, 130)
By ritually embracing the polluted or “left hand” aspects of life, Tantra seeks to move beyond the dualisms that characterize spiritual ignorance and bondage. The Absolute, the source of all creation, is regarded to be free from such distinctions, and it is, therefore, incumbent on the Tantric practitioner to embody the non-dual nature of the divine. (IH, 276)


III. Temple Worship
Appropriate for the person of “animal” (pasu) nature,
who possesses an abundance of tamas (darkness/inertia).

Passing through the “feet” of God, worshipers enter the invisible sheath of God’s body inside the outer wall. ... The one, three, or five temple walls enclosing the linga’s inner sanctum signify the sheaths of the yogi’s body that his consciousness had moved through when it made its upward journey to rest in a region corresponding to the place above his nose and between his eyes. That entranced consciousness in the yogi’s forehead corresponds to the temple’s inner sanctum or “womb,” and the Lord Siva dwells inside both.
          The “womb” brings us to the One before anything existed. The trope explaining the One is a king whose queen give birth to his realm and sovereignty by gestating a son that is a “rebirth” of both the father and the mother. In his formless essence, god the One is thought of as androgynous, like a king and queen enthroned as a unified pair. As that formless One, he is pure consciousness, she is primordial matter; he is intention, she is enactment; he is resolve, she is victory. The Goddess is Siva’s energy-that-is-grace (arul-sakti), the Sakti who, when he wills it, transforms the androgynous One into a mode that is both with and without form, represented by the linga standing in the yoni. The androgynous linga-yoni inside the temple’s “womb,” resembling a fetus inside the uterus, is a transformation of both king and queen. That square and dark inner sanctum called the “house of the embryo” (garbhagrha) or “womb” is liturgically infused with Siva’s Sakti, which is why only the pure may enter it.
Once the One has been transformed into the primordial parents, they interact to give birth to themselves over and over in multiple forms, becoming in the process time and space and all the worlds. This is the “emission” or “creation” of the universe. Architecturally, the temple represents that process by the way manifold icons and walls appear to unfold from the “womb” outward to the outer wall and the gateway, like an artist sketching the yogi’s body by beginning from his head and measuring down to his feet.

Returning to the trope of the palace, when worshipers have had their audience and walk away from the throne room and pass out through the palace gateway, they walk through the emanation of the universe. Likewise, when they walk into the palace toward the throne room, they symbolically walk through the reabsorption of the universe into the primordial parents residing in the throne room. Their walking inward and outward, moreover, corresponds to the movement of the yogi from waking consciousness into entranced consciousness and then out of it again. (Religions of India in Practice, 306-7)

Tantric Buddhism