Buddhist and Hindu Tantras

An interesting essay. 

Buddhist and Hindu Tantras

by Octavian Sarbatoare (BA USyd)

This paper attempts to create a short but comprehensive argument about Buddhist and Hindu Tantras, their origination, development and practices. Some practical techniques will be given resulted from the philosophy and basic literature are presented where applicable. Various yoga practical techniques are briefly mentioned. A succinct comparative approach between Buddhist and Hindu Tantras is attempted at the end of the work.

The origins of the term Tantra given by Eliade M. (1954, p. 205) is the Sanskrit root tan meaning ‘to expand, to multiply‘. The other half of the word is tra meaning ‘to liberate‘ thus, Tantra signifies ‘liberation by expansion’ (note 1). There is extended literature on Buddhist and Hindu Tantras, the exposition of this literature is beyond the purpose of this paper (note 2).

Buddhist Tantra

It is in the 2nd c. AD that conditions were proper for the development of Tantrism with the raising in India of the Great Goddess cults and her penetration in Buddhism as Prajnaparamita (‘creation’) and Tara, the epiphany of the Great Goddess of aboriginal India. Buddhist Tantra better known as Vajrayana (‘vehicle of Diamond’) was according to Buddhist tradition introduced in Buddhism by Asanga in the 4th c. AD, after Nagarjuna (the celebrated founder of Madhyamika school) had a minor introduction in the 2nd c. AD.  One classification divides Vajrayana in four classes, namely Kriya Tantra, Carya Tantra, Yoga Tantra and Annuttara Tantra. As the Tibetan tradition stipulates, the four Tantras are in relation to the main classes of human characters. Tantrism evolved in two main areas, one in North-West of India bordering Afghanistan, the other in Assam and Bengal. (ibid., pp. 206-207).

There have been various waves of Tantric diffusion into Tibet coming from India. However, Tantras of highly esoteric nature were first introduced during the reign of King Khri-sron lde-btsan (742-797 AD), the most relevant figure being Lo-tsa-ba Vairocana. A large number of Tantras are said to be translated by him. Other scholars like Lo-tsa-ba Rin-chen bzan-po, after finishing their studies in India, brought with them freshly translated Tantric works and new material for further translations (note 3). An important issue was to prove the validity of the Tantric teachings and justify them as teachings coming from the doctrines of Buddha.

An effective ways to justify Vajrayana was to create prophetic lines containing allusions to the advent of the Vajrayana and the names of adepts in the distant future, then attribute these prophecies to Buddha himself. Various Sutras were use to justify the existence of Vajrayana as Buddha has turned The Wheel of the Law of Cause, consequently Vajrayana becoming a product of the turning (note 4). In Kalacakra Tantra, Buddha gives to people a Yoga that is capable to save them from the illness of the Kali Yuga, the ‘dark-age’ of humanity. There Buddha elaborates a parallel between the big Cosmos that is the world around us and the little Cosmos, that is the human body. Thus Buddha explains the importance of sexuality and the control of breath associated with it in order to escape the grip of time (ibid., p. 209). Various other works elaborate on the Tantric principles and practices.

The most celebrated work in Tantric Buddhism is seen to be Guhyasamaja Tantra assigned to Asanga in the 4th c. (ibid., p. 206). This work is quite controversial as outrageous practices like steeling, eating human flesh, etc., are permitted in order to obtain enlightenment. As the work is one at the beginning of the Tantric Buddhism, there is a high chance of various interpolations into the original text as Asanga is seen a personality of great refinement who was unlikely to produce the work entirely that appears to us today. Over centuries, various commentary works on GT were produced for the idea that masters have to explain the meaning behind GT secret form. The chief commentary on the GT in the Tibetan tradition is largely seen to be the Pradipoddyotana by the Tantric author Candrakirti. This work contains forty verses, as edited by Derge Tanjur edition and from the Tantra Vajramala in the Peking Tibetan Tripitaka edition (Wayman, A., 1991, p. 2). They deal with the root of material existence, the knowledge, the senses, and bring some classifications into the matter, thus:
“E” is the Noble Woman (sati) Prajna, the moments of aversion, and so on. This root is designated as the experience in the three worlds.” (1)
“That vijnana (knowledge) called ‘means’ (upaya), attended with begetting of desire, and so on, appears like an emerging bamboo.” (2)
“The vijnana heard here has characteristics of the three lights. This is entirely the root of the prakriti (nature) of the sentient-being realm.” (5)
“While each and every sense organ is going by itself toward its own sense object, whatever be the sense organ and its range, each of them is ‘light only’ (abhasamatra).” (20)

Discrimination and the gradual steps of acquisition are briefly stated in verse 25 thus:
“Thought (citta), thought derivative (caitasika), and nescience (avidya), are also called respectively Insight (prajna), Means (upaya), Culmination (upalabdhika), as well as Void (shunya), Further Void (atishunya), and Great Void (mahashunya).”

The result of knowledge and practice by sadhaka (practitioner) is further states in verse 26 thus:
“Then, knowing the differences of the prakriti and the Light, one should engage in the carya, abandoning the body of works (karmakaya), he would obtain the diamond body (vajradeha).”

Although Pradipoddyotana writings claims to bring light into the knowledge of GT it was not easy to comprehend the dense specific terminology of the cryptic verses.

A broader terminology was later employed once Tantra spread in many areas thus encountering different local cultures. It has to intermingle with local practices, as has happened in parts of Tibet, China and Japan. Particularly in Tibet are such practices known as Nying-ma (‘Old Translation Order’). Elaborated practices were used for requiring external preparations in a rigorous manner. A practitioner needed strong motivation and certain conditions to fulfil before being introduced to the secrets.

Internal preparations were also of great importance, mind’s set-up towards the goal, the cutting of attachment, devotional attitude towards one’s preceptor (Guru), etc., were essential.  The vision was of greater and greater perfection, as sadhaka progresses from one step to the other, the mastering of meditation being an essential tool. This is how lama Khetsun Sangpo Rinbochay spoke at a gathering in Dharmsala, India during 1972 about a certain disciple Mi-la-re-ba who failed to bring awareness into his practices (Rinbochay Sangpo, K, 1996, p. 187):
“When Mi-la-re-ba was first taught the Great Perfection, he thought he could attain Buddhahood without meditation. He remained relaxed without meditating, and thus attained no mental development. Therefore when his lama tested him and found that he had no progress, he said, ‘I have made a mistake. Though the Great Perfection is indeed inconceivable, you are too lax and not fitted for this easy doctrine. You will have to proceed with great difficulty on the gradual path.”

In Japan, Tantrism has adopted the form known as shingon mikkyo (better known as shingon) meaning ‘true word of secret teaching’. The secret teaching refers to Mantrayana, and all the techniques that employ Mantra (magic formula) practices in an extended ways. Japanese Tantric Buddhism was systematised by Kukai (774-835) known also as Kobo Daishi. His version of Buddhism is based on Mahayana philosophy of Madhyamika and Yogacara. Its purpose was the integration of man with Dharmakaya Mahavairocana (that is Buddha himself), through symbolic and iconographic representations and Tantric practices of mantras, mudras and various yogic meditation techniques (Kiyota, 1978, pp. 27-29).

Hindu Tantra

In Hinduism, the raising of the Mother cults propitiated the religious ascendency of Shakti, the cosmic force. Shakti as epiphany of the Great Goddess becomes a central point of Hindu Tantra. As representative of the mysteries of creation, the Great Goddess became the personification of the feminine principle. Her union with Shiva representing the embodiment of consciousness was the key point of spiritual liberation, the Tantric way. Thus, two distinct branches of Hindu Tantras emerged, the right-hand path known as Dakshina Marga and the left-hand path, known as Vama Marga. While Dakshina Marga is based on worshipping by chanting and various means of devotional attitude, Vama Marga, along with devotional expressions, does allow the usage of sexual union (Maithuna) (note 5) as a fundamental practice to obtain enlightenment.

Tantric scriptures give various accounts of why Tantra is considered a valid spiritual way of self-realization or liberation (Mukti). Accounts of the prevalence of the Kali Yuga point out Tantra as a major tool towards enlightenment. During Kali Yuga Tantra appears to play an important role during this decadent age. Lord Shiva Himself describes the framework of Kali Yuga thus: “For the benefit of men of the Kali Yuga, men bereft of energy and dependent for existence on the food they eat, the Kaula (i.e. Tantra) doctrine, O Auspicious One! is given” (Avalon, 1972, p. 194; Ch. IX., 12). Furthermore, Lord Shiva proclaims that “In this age the Mantras of the Tantras are efficacious, yield immediate fruit, and are auspicious for Japa, Yajna, and all such practices and ceremonies. The Vedic rites and Mantras which were efficacious in the Satya Yuga, have ceased to be so in this.” (ibid., pp. 16-17; Ch. I., 14-15).

The practice of Vama Tantra (known also as Kaula Tantra) doctrine becomes a rite of passage, a way to overcome the ‘dark age’ of the present humanity, its followers known as Tantrikas could be named spiritually accomplished persons. This is how MNT describes those followers of Tantra doctrine living in the Kali Age:
The Kali Age cannot harm those who are purified by truth, who have conquered their passions and senses, who are open in their ways, without deceit, are compassionate and follow the Kaula doctrine. The Kali Age cannot harm those who are devoted to the services of their Guru, to the lotus of their mothers’ feet, and to their own wives. The Kali age cannot harm those who are vowed to and grounded in truth, adherents of the true Dharma, and faithful to the performance of Kaulika rites and duties.” (ibid., p. 53; Ch. IV, 57-59).

Therefore, the conquering of passions and senses is of primal importance. What makes the Tantric spiritual path most unusual in comparison to other spiritual direction is that the instrumentality of human senses is used to master them, diminish their power and eventually eradicate their craving for fulfilment. Thus the quest for liberation starts by taking care of the body. All bodily functions are to participate in the process of awakening, the ascetic behaviour being rejected. 

A Tantrika (of the left path) could be ritually engaged in the Panca Makaras practices (“the five M’s”) a form of Upasana (‘ritual worship’) using Madya (wine), Mamsa (meat), Matsya (fish), Mudra (parched cereals) and Maithuna (sexual union) as its ingredients. For advanced stages of spiritual practice the Panca Makaras are symbolically describing as different stages in the Pranayama practice i.e. Pranayama, Pratyahara, Dharana, Dhyana and Samadhi. Thus the result behind Panca Makaras ordinary meaning is the transcendence of human addictions by using the very objects of addictions in the initial stages. Such practices were subject to specific Tantric rituals. 

This is how Mookerjee & Khanna (1993, p. 165) describe the ideas behind the Tantric ritual:
” In all respects the ritual is confined to being an expressive encounter in visible and intelligible forms, in a relationship which yields satiety through a series of personifications, transformations, visualizations, identity and transference rituals. As the ritual gather momentum the play of creative imagination and feeling are brought into focus by empathy; through this apprehension, both the male and the female partners are seen ‘anew’ by each other and they move together towards the fulfilment of unity”. Furthermore, “The ritual is performed with a partner who is considered the reflection of Shakti, and unless the adept has the attitude of complete surrender to the object of his worship, in this case the female participant who plays the role of the divine energy, the practice of asana (the sexual position) cannot be successful.”

Tantra doctrine allowing sexual practices is portrayed as a vehicle of transcendence. The Yogic techniques are extensively used for being interrelated with Tantric practices. It is in Hindu Tantra that the concept of kundalini is firmly established.

Kundalini is seen as the evolutionary energy as power/ force resting at the base of the spinal column where it is described as being coiled three and a half times around svayambhu linga. When kundalini is raised up through the sushumna nadi the higher levels of consciousness are experienced as the cakras are activated until kundalini reaches sahasrara cakra in order to be united with Shiva, the end of journey. This can be a terrifying experience. Swami Satyananda Saraswati of Deoghar (1985, p. 119) gives a basic kundalini experience as kundalini (known also as ‘the serpent power’) arises thus:
“The serpent power is filled with divine powers at the time of awakening; when aroused it remains in an angry mood; in its waking, the state of the individual self is suppressed; in that state, the force moves unobstructed. At the time of its awakening, visions of gods are seen; visions of spirits are seen; the past is seen, impurities are visualized.”

Furthermore when kundalini merges in sahasrara “great peace and contentment are experienced; the sadhaka feels full within; no desires remain; no actions remain; no attachment, no sentiments” (ibid., p. 120). Avalon (1975, pp. 282-283) describes what follows thus:
“After union with Shiva, kundalini makes Her return journey. After She has repeatedly gone to Him, She makes a journey from which, at the will of the yogi, there is no return. Then the sadhaka is a jivanmukta.” (note 6).

Comparative approach and conclusion

Buddhist and Hindu Tantras have distinct terminology although the basic roots are similar, that of the cults of the Great Goddess. The two Tantras evolved separately. The Hindu Tantra maintained various practices of Dravidian and aboriginal India, the populations Aryans encounter during their advent in India. 

In own turn the Buddhist Tantras absorbed a variety of local practices by spreading from Tibet up to Japan. A central issue in Buddhist Tantra was the justification of its practices from the doctrines of Buddha, that is a spiritual emanation from a founder of a religion, whereas Hindu Tantra did not need for such a justification, being a credo without founder. 

Hindu Tantra had an interrupted tradition enriched by the culture of Aryans, being confined within India only. The Buddhist Tantra was modified by the influence of local cultures where is has landed, either in Tibet, China or Japan. That is why there are many forms of Buddhist Tantras, whereas the Hindu Tantra is without doubt more homogenous. 

I hope this paper made a good argument by giving valuable information for the readers to pursue future studies (note 7).


1. tanyate, vistaryate jnanam anena iti tantram

2. Excellent information on Tantra literature can be found in Banerji, S.C. A Brief History of Tantra Literature, Naya Prakash, Calcutta, 1988

3. Ref. Samten G. Karmay in his article King Tsa/Dza and Vajrayana p. 192 in Strickmann, M. (1981)

4. Ref. Samten G. Karmay in his article King Tsa/Dza and Vajrayana p. 197 in Strickmann, M. (1981)

5. Maithuna Lit. ‘coupling, union’ is the symbolic union of Shakti (energy) and Shiva (consciousness) It has three Rupas (forms) namely Sthula, Sukshma and Karana. The Sthula Maithuna (gross union) is the sexual union, the Sukshma Maithuna is the union of Pranas (energies), the Karana Maithuna is the union of Kundalini Shakti with Shiva as a culmination of Tantric practices.

6. jivanmukta i.e. a person liberated while still alive

7. For future studies a good recommendation is Hopkins, J. is The Tantric Distinction, An Introduction to Tibetan Buddhism, Wisdom Publications, London, 1985.
For deepening the Buddhist Tantra a work of reference is by Wayman, A.
The Buddhist Tantras, Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd., London, 1973.
For Tantra in Tibet the readers should consult Samuel G. (ed.)
Tantra and the Popular Religion in Tibet, International Academy of Indian Culture and Aditya Prakashan, New Delhi, 1994.
For learning the usage of symbols in Tantra an excellent publication is by Khanna Madhu,
Yantra, The Tantric Symbol of Cosmic Unity, London, Thames and Hudson Ltd., 1994
For basic principles of Tantra an authoritative work is by Woodroffe J. Sir (alias Arthur Avalon),
Principles of Tantra Part I and Part II, Madras, Ganesh & Company, 1991


Avalon A. (tr.), Tantra of the Great Liberation (Mahanirvana Tantra), New York, Dover Publications, Inc., 1972

Avalon, A. The Serpent Power, Dover Publications Inc., New York, 1975

Eliade, M. Le Yoga, Immortalité et Liberté, Payot, 1954

Kiyota Minoru, Shingon Buddhism: Theory and Practice, Buddhist Books International, Los Angeles-Tokyo, 1978

Mookerjee A. & Khanna M., The Tantric Way, Art, Science, Ritual, London, Thames and Hudson Ltd., 1993

Rinbochay Sangpo, K. Tantric Practice in Nying-ma, Snow Lion Publications, New York, 1996

Satyananda Saraswati, S. Taming the Kundalini, Satyananda Ashram, Gosford, 1985

Strickmann, M. (ed.) Tantric and Taoist Studies, Institut belge des hautes études chinoises, Bruxelles, 1981

Wayman, A. Yoga of the Guhyasamajatantra, Motilal Banarsidas Publishers, Delhi, 1991


GT Guhyasamajatantra
MNT Mahanirvana Tantra

Copyright © 2001 and subsequent years by Octavian Sarbatoare – Australia

This article is copyright-protected. The author grants the right to copy and distribute this file, provided it remains unmodified and original authorship and copyright is retained.


~ by James Myoe on December 21, 2007.

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