The Sacred Texts Beyond Our Grasp
Today we call it “Tantra” — and what we mean by that can vary, sometimes widely. (See also: “The Heart of Tantra” and “Origins of Tantra”)
But there was a time when “Tantra” basically meant: “book.”
“A Tantra” or “The Tantras” referenced a book or the collection of books that contain the wisdom of the ancient lineages.
But there is no collected edition, no “Bible” of Tantra, and it would be wrong to think of them that way. Although often composed as a dialog between Shiva and Shakti (in her specific form as Kali, or other goddesses), these were not holy scripture given by the divine… these were artistic and mystical “cliff’s notes” to an oral tradition.
It is useful to contrast tantra with sutra.
Sutras were short aphorisms and collections of aphorisms. The literal translation of sutra is ‘thread’ — and these can be viewed as a thread of insight and wisdom, tightly wound and compactly transmitted. Sutras are worthy of deep consideration, meditation, with layers of meaning. Sanskrit, the ancient language of sutra and tantra, lent itself to multiple interpretation, and in the very most artful writing, all of the possible interpretations were intended.
The “Yoga Sutras of Patanjali” is one well-known collection of sutras in the contemporary world because of the re-invention of yoga for western audiences.
Within the tantric tradition, there were sutras also, most famously the Shiva Sutras.
But what really defined the spiritual reform movement and style of practice that eventually became called tantra were the books of wisdom that were called tantras, in very intentional juxtaposition with sutras. The literal translation of tantra is ‘loom’ or ‘weave.’ The tantras, we may expect, are not independent aphorisms, individually worthy of study, but a weaving of full teaching.
The essence of the lineages and traditions was that they were esoteric — secret. So, the tantras themselves are not obvious. They are intended to be companions to the oral teachings. Cheat sheets to the practices. Reminders. Mystical inspiration in coded language, akin to the alchemical language of medieval Europe.
An uninformed reading of the original tantras — where that is even possible, as very few have been translated into English — is not necessarily elucidating.
Like the sutras, the delicate, artful, multiplicity of interpretation of the Sanskrit requires deep linguistic and cultural understanding to offer anything like the kind of wisdom that were invested in their composition. The commentary on a single verse from a single tantra can blossom into scores of pages considering dozens of possible readings.
Some tantras were not intended to be in the hands of people outside their own lineage, and were written in such a way as to reduce comprehension for those without initiation.
Other tantras may have had the role of advertisement or spiritual enticement. They enumerate the benefits of a lineage, but only offer a tiny introduction to the practices that the lineage offers.
For english speakers, very few of the many tantras have been translated, and of those most are either poor translations, or frustratingly incomplete. There is some access via commentaries, but there is no comprehensive or even thorough access to the original tantras.
This is a disappointment, but it is not the end of the road.
An important thing to understand about ancient tantra is that it was a rejection of the authority of scripture, and in many respects a rejection of authority across the board. Tantra rejected the restriction of highest wisdom to a priestly caste, and threw open the doors to all sincere practitioners. It rejected ancient and received wisdom in favor of personal experience and directly transmitted awakening. Tantra considered pure intellectual understanding as an efficient path to true liberation. Tantra was focussed on results. On the living wisdom of practitioners, communities, and the radiance of awakened women and men to transmit and invigorate others without restriction of caste, religion, language, ethnicity, or profession.
Accordingly, as intensely exciting as the study of the source texts can be, this should not be considered a pre-requisite for actually leaping into the waters of tantra.
Through commentaries, and the through living lineages, and through the pieced-together “rediscovery” of whole teachings through disparate traditions, the essence of tantra has been rediscovered and recreated, and new traditions are forming based on the tenets, values, fundamental practices and core teachings.
Although books on tantra abound, some more true to the ancient traditions than others, the true transmission is still a living one: from those who live it to those who desire to claim their power, their freedom, their whole and healthy life, their own awakening from the dream of the ordinary, material world and the rat race of cultural expectations.