The Tantra Show Artwork
Season 1 - Episode 2

What is Tantra?

30 min - Talk


Dr. Svoboda shares a talk on Tantra. With the many different interpretations and definitions of Tantra, including many common misperceptions, he begins by sharing what Tantra is not. He then explores the definition of the word itself and what it means to begin to follow the path of Tantra.
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Aug 14, 2017
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The question of what is tantra is a lot more difficult to answer than the question of what tantra is not. What it is not is some sort of homogenous or monolithic or unified religion or doctrine or scheme. It was during the 19th century that Westerners and those aligned with their sense of academics took the evidence that they had collected in the context of tantra and came up with the concept of tantrism as if it was something that was a concept that had existed prior to their creating it, which it had not. No one even knows exactly where tantra came from. No one even knows the extent to which it can be said to have come from either the Vedic revelation or as a reaction to the Vedic revelation.

There has for a long time for millennia most likely been a continuous competition for the attention of thinking people in India between trying to maintain tradition and trying to evolve and transform tradition to fit with the requirements of a time and space that have modulated themselves according to the karmas of everybody involved that have promoted changes to change that is inevitable in human experience. The original Vedas were very experiential but as time passed they became more and more codified into rituals that became more and more stratified and calcified until a reaction occurred to them. That reaction at one end of the continuum was a very Sanskritic reaction and so we have some tantras that are very Sanskritic and at the other end of the continuum they were completely nonsense critic even if they occasionally use some mantra that might have originally arisen from that other tradition. Sometimes that is called shabara or shabara representing a not part of the Vedic organization of civilization society. So there has been a wide variety of opinion about tantra even today the people who study it do not have one definition that everyone can agree on.

And for this purpose I think it's useful to go back to the word itself. If you look in the Sanskrit dictionary you will find that first of all tantra means the loom on which something is woven, the warp, the thread that is used to weave and the weaving itself. So tantra is related to the production of something from certain raw materials those raw materials being the loom, the thread and the weaver. So right there we know that what tantra is about is about the creation of things. One of the words that arises from the same root, the root tanu is tanu which means among other things the body, the thing that is woven, the thing that is produced on the loom with the warp and the weft of prana, of the life force.

Another meaning of tantra is the essential part of something, the main point of something, the framework of something. So it is a one at one remove from the actual physical world loom and production procedure because if you want to get cloth you can't just go in and be very random and spontaneous and express yourself and just kind of move everything together. You have to employ an actual technique, a procedure that will encourage all of those threads to get aligned in the proper way if you want to come up with something that is useful and meaningful. And the third level of meaning of the word tantra is that it is a doctrine, a method, a technique. So really this is very close to what we think of when we think of tantra as a practice that involves a spiritual means and potentially spiritual ends.

The most famous grammarian of Sanskrit was named Panini and he apparently lived roughly the 500 years before the Christian era began, 500 BC-ish. And in one of his writings he discusses the word sua tantra, sua means self. So he says that that which is sua tantra is self dependent, it's independent of the requirements of relying on other things. In fact he specifically says that someone who is sua tantra is someone who is his or her own warp or cloth or weaver. So someone who is weaving himself or herself with prana, with a particular plan or map or pattern or template that is assisting them to be woven or rewoven depending on how you want to look at it.

So action is one key to the understanding of tantra. It is not a matter of sitting quietly and employing the practice of removing your awareness from everything that is not the supreme in order to get to the supreme. It's a matter of taking yourself at the place where you happen to be and performing actions on yourself, performing employing functions, performing processes in order to create a transformative effect. In order for this to occur there is a necessity for there to be adequate energy. Any kind of loom that you are going to use in order to create a piece of cloth is going to require energy, either the energy of your legs to press the treadle that will cause things to move and the energy of your arms to move things around or if you have a mechanized loom then you are going to need some sort of solar or wind or petroleum or some sort of energy to provide you the motive force in order to cause that weaving to occur.

If you are trying to be sua tantra, if you are trying to reweave yourself then you are going to need personal energy, personal power. You are going to need shakti for yourself. And that personal power is something that you must accumulate and you must hold onto until it gets to the critical mass that is necessary to create the transformation that you desire. So one definition of tantra that we could employ if we wish to and why not, it's a definition that we are not going to try to hold onto. It's a definition that we are going to let go of to the extent that it is not useful and hold onto it to the extent that it is.

So we could define tantra as a process that involves the accumulation of shakti via some technique or procedure particularly when it involves a devata. So the word shakti means energy. What specifically in the specific context we will come to a little later. The word devata literally means a shining thing. A devata is an ethereal being, sometimes they are called gods and goddesses.

But my mentor who employed different definitions of tantra according to the point that he was trying to make would sometimes describe tantra as the science of personality. And what he would say is that the average human being is born with a relatively speaking clean slate. Certainly it's not clean because you are bringing all kinds of tendencies and some scottas and what have you from your past. But then you as an average human being get involved with the patterns that you pick up from your family and from your clan and from your society and nowadays from your media. And this guides your personality to be created to knock off all the rough edges so you become something that is able to cooperate with the consensus reality as it exists in your locale at the time that you are existing.

The problem is that if you want to do something different you can't simply remain in the consensus reality or as my mentor used to say, you either have to stay with the herd of sheep or you have to try to run away from the herd and you should be prepared that if you try to run away from the herd there is going to be a lot of energy, a lot of force trying to bring you back to the herd, trying to keep you in that consensus reality, trying to keep you in the barrel of crabs which are notorious for dragging their friends down when they are trying to get out of the barrel. So you are going to need extra energy for that and you are going to not only require energy, you are going to have to have a direction in which you want to go. So here you have a limited personality which is kind of tawdry because it is after all a human personality which has picked up all kinds of bad habits from all the consensus reality people that have all these bad habits that you are being exposed to, you don't know any different and pretty soon there you are. But once you realize that wait, this is not where I want to be, then you have to start moving in an opposite direction. It is very useful and possibly essential for you to have something to move towards, to have a goal to which you are moving.

And in the tantras very usually that goal is a devata, a divine personality, a personality that is no longer limited by the limitations that you and I have, the most important one being that we are all mortal and will at the very most live to be 120 years before we disintegrate and are no longer present and our personalities disintegrate as well. Whereas these devatas, these deities have been co-created with the help of human awareness but they have had plenty of centuries and sometimes millennia to develop to co-evolve with humans. They have gained great vitality. They have established their own existence in this archetypal world or the astral plane or whatever you want to call it, the non-physical aspect of reality that is an essential part of the physical aspect of human reality that we all experience. And so when you work with the devata, which is a much more permanent personality, it's still evolving but it's evolving at a much more even and also slow pace than a human personality has the potential to evolve.

The devata is much more stable than you are. It's much more refined than you are. And the devata has a much better alignment with and relationship with the supreme reality which should be the direction in which you're trying to get if you're using tantra for the right purpose. So we want you to accumulate energy for the purpose of being able to employ that energy to first mirror, with the help of your mirror neurons, first mirror that deity, eventually then request the deity to possess you and eventually be taken over by the deity altogether. This is what tantra is fundamentally all about.

The ultimate goal of the tantras is the same as the ultimate goal of the raja yogi or the jnana yogi or the bhakti yogi and that is to get to the supreme reality. One of the big differences, especially the difference between tantra and let's say jnana is that the jnana yogi is trying very hard to turn away from manifested existence, to bring all of the awareness into the microcosm, away from the macrocosm and then bring it all back to the original singularity from which the universe was generated. So that is called yoga. And the mainstream practitioner of this kind of yoga is very much against the concept of what we call in Sanskrit bhoga, which means enjoyment, consumption, participating in the external world. So a big difference is that from the point of view of tantra there is no reason necessarily to simply separate oneself from the possibility of bhoga, of enjoyment of the world because according to tantra the fundamental basis of all manifestation is desire.

One of the greatest of the yogis who has ever lived in India was named Nyaneshwar Maharaja. His samadhi is located 21 kilometers away from the city of Pune and he was very great for many reasons, not least the excellent commentary on the Bhagavad Gita that he wrote, which is officially called the Bhavrata Deepika but is more usually known as the Nyaneshwari. But he is also well known for the fact that he had experienced both bhakti and jnana and tantra. His own guru was his own brother who was not a yogi, a tantric. And Nyaneshwara in addition to his commentary on the Gita wrote another couple of treatises, one called the Amritanubhava, which means both the nectar of experience and the experience of nectar.

And in that he said that the reason why the universe exists is that the supreme reality for reasons that we cannot know, other than to say that it is Leela, that means the divine play that is beyond the capability of humans to fathom, to comprehend, that the reason that the universe exists is because there was a desire on the part of the universe to experience itself. And in the same way that a human being cannot see his or her face without employing a mirror or a pool of clear water or still water or something similar, in that same way the universe, the supreme reality required a mirror in which to experience itself and that mirror is the manifested universe. Each one of us is a mirror for that supreme reality. And as such we need to mirror the entire reality and part of the mirroring of that reality is to acknowledge to ourselves that in the same way that the supreme reality was created by that desire to experience itself, the relative reality that is a human being was created by the desire of the mother and the father to come together for a moment of union. So from union we came to separation, from separation we go back to union.

It is this continuous movement from the one to the two to back to the one that characterizes all manifested existence. So because desire is at the root of everything that we experience, because desire is at the root of the universe itself and of our very existences, it's important not to pretend that we can eliminate all desire simply by saying that we're turning away from it. That has to be something much more profound than simply existing on some sort of plane of advanced rationality. It has to be at a much more physiological, a much more based in the actual subatomic quantum world experience, and that's what Tantra is very much interested in. So Tantra believes that yoga and bhoga are both important, that you have to experience the world to some degree.

You have to experience intelligently. You can't use this as an excuse to think that, oh, I'm going to follow the path of Tantra, and Tantra is all about sex, which means I will go out and enjoy all the sex I possibly can. No, that's not the point. The point is you need to examine what's going on with yourself, and if at all possible, have someone to assist you, have a mentor who can assist you with those blind spots which are inevitable in you, and guide you in the right direction, so that you can go from you as an individual being the enjoyer of whatever it is that you are experiencing in the world, to permitting the devata, the deity that you're worshiping, to be the enjoyer through your organism of what you're experiencing in the world. Then instead of it all being about you, I'm going to have this, I'm going to do this, it's all about me, it's all about I am allowing whatever is coming in my direction, good and bad, to be experienced by the devata that I am focusing on, attempting to turn all of my attention in that direction for the purpose of getting eventually to my goal, which is the supreme reality.

This is why it is said in a tantra, Shiva Bhutva Shivam Yajait, which means one should only worship Shiva after one has become Shiva. It could also be interpreted to mean, ain't no way you're going to be able to worship Shiva until you done become him. This sets up a certain degree of conundrumicity, because I'm not Shiva right now, but I'd still like to worship him. If I don't worship him, how am I going to turn into him? We understand that.

The point is that it's going to take practice, and this practice we call sadhana. You're going to try to do the thing that you're not able to do right now, but you're going to try to create a samskara, not an undesirable samskara that you create when you are fantasizing or when you are allowing yourself to be motivated by these underlying desires that you have not yet digested very well. No. You have decided the path that you're going to follow, and you notice that there is no road there, so you get your shovel, and slowly you're going to create a road for yourself. Who knows how long it will take?

It doesn't matter, because the important thing is you want to get there. And of course, there are going to be some challenges along the way. One of the big challenges is being able, especially nowadays, to accumulate sufficient shakti for the purpose of self-transformation. We'll come to that again in a bit. But right at the moment, the question is, just imagine that you had some extra shakti.

All of a sudden, it's the same kind of thing as if you had some extra money, because really money is shakti. Money is the ability to do something in the context of commerce, to buy, to sell, to invest, to lend. So money is power in this context. Beauty is power. Knowledge is power.

There are many different kinds of powers. Some things that represent large amounts of power at some times in the world represent less impressive accumulations of power at other times. The shakti in our bodies, which we call prana, the Chinese call qi, it's the life force. This is a natural physiological energy. It is the physiological energy in all protoplasmic living beings.

But when we go away from that basic fundamental energy, we can go in many different directions. It's sort of like basic fundamental energy and applied or relative or derivative energy. And what happens is, as you either have been gifted or born with or created through the sweat off your brow or whatever method, been able to accumulate some energy, it is often the case that that energy will go to your head. It has been said that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. So it's very easy for you to start feeling a certain amount of strength when you are accumulating energy.

When you have personal power, it's very common for you to start thinking about what you might do with that power. Not that I would like to continue bringing the power inside and use it to refine, refine, refine, burn, burn, melt, melt, coagulate, dissolve, dissolve, coagulate, transform, transform, and continuously become subtler and subtler moment by moment. It's more likely that because your sense organs are still externally focused that what's going to happen is you're going to feel like you have some power and start to think, what can I do with it externally instead of internally? And there are usually two basic things that you can do wrong, which will very commonly get you caught in something that will make it difficult for you to continue making progress during this process that you have set in motion. And these two things are you can often get caught in the means that you are employing or you can get caught in the ends that you are employing.

So when you get caught in the means, this is where the concept of tantra as basically a good sex yoga comes from and that is because the experts who have composed various texts and treatises on tantra examined all the different methods that individuals could use to accumulate energy. And so they examined all the different methods that were employed by various yogis and they examined all the different methods that were related to organisms in any other context. And so they noticed that there were a number of potential sources of energy that had the potential to provide large amounts of energy but also had the potential to create great difficulty. And this is why that they created a ritual to facilitate the containment of the energy in a positive way so that the energy would be able to be concentrated and focused and accumulated until critical mass could be reached. But because some of these things are such powerful liberators or activators of energy including particularly but not limited to sex and intoxicants, it's not uncommon for someone who starts out on the path of following practices of sexual tantra to completely get overwhelmed by the sexual energy which was created by nature to encourage two people to mate, to procreate actually, to provide a new individual to maintain the continuity of the human race.

To take that energy that is moving, it's focused very enthusiastically in an external form and to get that to move internally is a difficult thing. But when you can do that then that is a very, it's an energy that has the potential to be extremely transformative. In the same way, intoxicants change the way in which your awareness is able to perceive the world and if you can employ this judiciously you have the potential to get good results. Otherwise you do like a lot of the so-called tantric babas you find in India do which is you sit around smoking the chillam all day and talking about how enlightened you are. Very tedious.

The other way of getting caught is let's suppose that in fact you don't get caught in those things you get to where you're going to go and you will find that you start to be able to do things that you weren't able to do before. And the problem with this is sometimes those things are not things that you really should be doing and this is why we find that in places like India and in other places where people have for many centuries or much longer have been creating rituals for the purpose of doing things that are not very nice which we can collect together under the general rubric of black magic we find that people get caught in this because you think ha, I can perform this tantric ritual, I will make this devata happy or this angel happy or this mokul or whatever it is and I will be able then to get fame or money or women or whatever it is I'm looking for or I'll be able to damage people or I'll be able to take them over to do one of the so-called shakt karma, the six actions that are associated with tantra, maran, mohun, uchartan, vidweshen, stamban, washikaran, which creating discord, killing people, etc. So this is how people often will go in the wrong direction when they have been able to temporarily and initially digest the energies that they've been trying to work with or maybe they even don't go in that dark direction, they go in a better direction, they get even more energy and then people start to identify that they have accumulated something and the people who have less energy start coming in their direction and start saying how great they are and pretty soon they're drinking their own kool-aid and pretty soon they have become intoxicated with fame, which is a very dangerous thing to be intoxicated with. So the potential pitfalls along this road of tantra are many and this is why it is said that riding a tiger is child's play compared to it because I personally have never ridden on a tiger but I can only imagine that if one was on a tiger riding it and if you attempted to dismount from the tiger you'd need to think hundreds of times exactly of what your exit strategy was going to be, which is why my mentor used to say if you're going to work with tantra you should be like a snail walking on a razor blade. You walk very, very carefully on that razor blade, you move only as fast as you can go so you are not slicing through your very, very tender flesh and then we can hope that there will be some positive result.

Om Namah Shivaya.


Seb P
Thank you for sharing :)
Karen Rennie
This is amazing. Many abstract concepts so beautifully explained, while retaining the purity of the ideas. Thank you!
Marlene K
I love these talks !
Steve L
Interesting and informative
Rose L
Thank you! I learnt so much from this talk.
Rose L
Thank you! I learnt so much from this talk.
Hoda G
2 people like this.
I like the foundation and the clarity that begins to clarify what Tantra really is...thank you.
Luna C
3 people like this.
wow, this information are so difficult to find, especially explained so simply. thank you.
Kira Sloane
Luna, yes. Dr. Svoboda is extraordinary. 
Sara S
Well, I don't know if this is my path, but it is a path to explore

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