Tantric Paths of Spiritual Enlightment

By Devesh Chaudhari

Published on 13-September-2020

Yogic traditions, usually contain two paths: PATH OF DIRECT AWARENESS - formless meditational approaches for direct realization, PATH OF TECHNIQUE - whether meditational or ritualistic, for gradual realization.

Tantra is primarily a form of the second or gradual path. The first is represented in the Hindu tradition mainly by Advaita or non-dualist Vedanta, which aims at the direct realization of the Self as Absolute (Brahman). Buddhist direct paths include Chan and Zen, and Tibetan Dzog Chen, and the Taoists have such practices as well.

However, these two paths are not rigidly divided from one another and are integral parts of the same tradition. Tantra contains, as its higher teachings, direct approaches along the same lines as non-dualistic Vedanta, aiming at immediate Self-realization. Direct approaches also contain, as preliminary or support teachings, the use of techniques. The direct approach is best if we are truly capable of it, but it requires a high level of spiritual maturity.

While techniques have their limitations in that they are bound to the realm of form, they are practical and present methods that can be applied even at the level of a beginner. It is not always possible to silence the mind directly, but it is always possible to repeat a mantra. While we may become attached to the mechanical repetition of techniques, we may also become caught in a purely speculative involvement with “direct” teachings. We may get trapped in the idea of direct awareness when it may be more useful for us to practice a mantra or other technique. Hence there is constant interplay and balance necessary between the two sides of the path as technique and realization.

If one can go immediately to the direct realization then naturally there is no need for techniques. If, however, one cannot go directly to it or cannot abide in it - which is the experience of almost everyone — then techniques can be beneficial. Even if one can abide in direct awareness, the use of techniques like Pranayama may still be useful to give one increased health and vitality. Techniques have benefits for the body and mind that should not be underestimated even if one recognizes their limitations in bringing about direct realization.

Right & Left - Handed Tantra 

Tantra is most commonly divided into two paths:

1. Right-handed Path, Dakshinachara - 2. Left-handed Path, Vamachara

The right-handed path emphasizes meditational and spiritual disciplines and insists on a high degree of purity in conduct and action. The left-handed path employs various sexual practices or the use of meat and intoxicants which are not approved along the right-handed path.

The right-handed and left-handed paths relate to the two main Tantric lineages, the Samaya and the Kaula. Samaya means "according to the rule," which refers to following strict dharmic principles. Kaula means "relating to Kula” or “according to the family,” meaning that it allows local variations. However the Kaula path also mainly follows meditational approaches, and it would be wrong to equate it with what is commonly thought of as left-handed Tantra.

The right-handed path is said to be for “bhaktas" or those of devotional temperament. The left-handed path is said to be for “viras" or those of strong or heroic temperament, which refers to the warrior class (kshatriya). The right-handed approach can be called the orthodox path, or that of those who follow the prescribed rules of conduct, whether for the Hindu social dharma or for yogic practices. The left-handed path allows unorthodox practices which may be outside both the Hindu social dharma and the usual rules of yogic practices. Yet the Kaula path also contains much in it that is part of the Hindu tradition as a whole and is an integral part of it. Buddhist Tantra is based on the Samaya or right-handed tradition.

The right-handed path consists of mantra, Yoga and meditation. Rituals are secondary to it or used only symbolically. It is this tradition that is most common in monastic or Brahmanical circles. Monks renounce their social position and for them ritual, which in Hinduism is generally for the ordinary sacraments of life like marriage, is not necessary. The left-handed path has accepted within itself factors rejected by the right handed path. But it does not consist entirely of these. The left-handed path may merely refer to an emphasis on the Goddess, who is the left side (vama) of the deity, and does not necessarily involve unorthodox practices.

Another distinction is that the left-handed path is said to be the way of ecstasy and the right-handed path the way of peace. Along the way of ecstasy we may be inclined to certain extreme actions as we break through preconceptions and as deep internal energies are released. Yet it is only peace that is lasting. In this chapter we will examine the philosophy and practice of the left-handed path because the main section of this book is devoted to the right-handed path.

The Five Forbidden Things 

Left-handed Tantra prescribes use of the five forbidden things. They are also called the five “M-s” or “Makaras." They are:

  1. Maithuna, sexual union 
  2. Mada, wine (and other intoxicants) 
  3. Mamsa, meat 
  4. Matsya, fish 
  5. Mudra, parched grains (or money) 

Partaking of these items is forbidden or restricted in the codes of conduct followed by most Yoga traditions in India, as such things are considered to have a long term tamasic or dulling effect upon the mind. Hence it is clear that their usage is part of an exceptional path. In Tantra these items are offered to the deity as part of worship. Tantra, even of the left-handed path, does not recommend their ordinary usage for self-enjoyment. While these substances are not pure, the act of offering them to the deity purifies them and allows them to aid in spiritual growth.

Left-handed Tantra is itself divided into two traditions, the "symbolic" versus the "literal” tradition, depending on whether the forbidden. substances partaken of are actually physical or mere metaphors.

The Symbolic Tradition 

The symbolic tradition uses the five forbidden things only as symbols. Intercourse is the union of Shiva and Shakti, the cosmic male and female forces within the psyche. Intoxication is partaking of the bliss of pure consciousness. This inner formulation of the left-handed path is in har mony with the right-handed path. It is only the literal formulation of the left-handed path, not the left-handed path itself which differs from tradi tional Yoga.

All religions contain symbolic approaches, and they are common in yogic traditions. When the Vedic God Indra is lauded as eating three hundred buffaloes and drinking three lakes of wine, or when he is said to kill his own father, this is a dramatic symbolism. The meat and wine refer to the conquering of the senses. The father to be killed is the ego. When Buddhists are asked to kill the Buddha, it is a symbolic gesture, obviously not to be taken literally, meaning that we should break our attachment to the outer form of the teacher. In fact much of the strange symbolism found in Tantric texts — like sexual union with one's mother - could hardly be taken literally! The mother symbolizes the Kundalini, in which one is to merge.

The yogic tradition as a whole has never been attached to mere words or names and forms. The use of strange or symbolic utterances is common in yogic teachings to provoke deeper inquiry within the mind. To take these things literally is to miss their point altogether.

The Literal Tradition

Left-handed Tantra includes a tradition of using the five forbidden things as part of sacred rituals. The use of the five forbidden things may be recommended as a preliminary practice for individuals who are looking to transcend body-consciousness as the ultimate goal, but who are seeking to do it by degrees. As going beyond the senses is a difficult goal for anyone to achieve, certain intermediate steps can aid in the process. This is the main reason that such practices are done in traditional Tantra.

It is hard to give up our attachments directly, particularly when we come from a materialistic culture. Attachments are the products of many births and are genetically ingrained within us, as well as being constantly reinforced by the environment. There is also an organic process of growth for the soul. We may have to experience certain things before we are capable of going beyond them. One of the ways to transcend a desire is to turn it into a sacred action and offer it up to the Deity.

Some Tantric teachers consider that forbidden actions or substances, like the five forbidden things, have their place when used occasionally in order to break through attachments, particularly the attachment to purity. In the yogic tradition there are three gunas or qualities that bind the soul. Attachment to Tamas, which is darkness and dullness, includes attachment to sex or intoxicants. Attachment to Rajas, which is activity and turbu lence, includes attachment to willful spiritual practices or to self-expres sion like art and music. Attachment to Sattva, which is purity, consists in attachment to the idea of being holy and to a life-style of purity.

Those attached to Sattva are not really free, but caught up in the appearance of being spiritual people. The idea of purity becomes a subtle obstacle to their further spiritual growth. There are instances when Tantric teachers encourage such disciples to do something forbidden — some thing Rajasic or Tamasic — in order to break the disciple's attachment to Sattva. This may not consist merely of the five forbidden things. It may consist of drinking unclean water, meditating in a cremation ground, or otherwise breaking the rules of purity, caste and custom.

This method is most appropriate for those individuals attached to Sattva (purity), like traditional Hindus or Buddhists with their rules, restrictions and conservative social customs. In modem Western culture we are attached to Rajas and Tamas (drama and sensation). In our case, Tantric methods to break attachment to Sattva are seldom needed because it is not Sattva that we are attached to! Such methods appeal to our basic urge to indulge further in Rajas and Tamas or drama and sensation, and will cause our attachments to increase. Thus the application of this method does not seem appropriate in our circumstance, though it may have its validity in other settings. Those who use the methods of left-handed Tantra as such occasional shock treatment generally follow right-handed Tantra and are not in favor of any widespread use of these methods.

Forbidden Practices as the Direct Path

This brings us to the tradition which uses the practices of left-handed Tantra as a means of direct realization. We may observe that this group is a minority even among the followers of left-handed Tantra.

Such Tantrics holds that ordinary human indulgences can be regularly applied, at least for a certain period, as a means of spiritual realization. Yet even among them there is variation in their views. Some allow sexual union, for example, but do not prescribe taking meat, which involves violence to animals. As the principle of ahimsa (non-violence) is strong in all yogic traditions, actions involving violence to any creatures are seldom approved of. Such Tantric masters claim that by taking our indulgences to an extreme we can see their limitations and go beyond them. Or they may claim to be able to harness the energies of negative emotions, like wrath or lust, to transform us on a deep level of the mind.

Some Tantric masters may claim that they have transcended all rules and are able to do whatever they wish — that sensual indulgences cannot bind them. Some of these teachers may have their disciples follow strict codes of purity even when they themselves do not. Others may allow their disciples to indulge, even in extreme ways, under their guidance. Such teachers, acting in an unorthodox or unspiritual manner, may claim to be breaking our attachment to mere appearances and preconceptions about spiritual teachers that blind us to the real truth inside ourselves.

I do not want to state that such a path is not possible. However, I would emphasize that it is a rare and dangerous approach which deprives us of the safeguards designed to protect us along the spiritual path. Moreover, this approach definitely caters to human weaknesses and can easily be exploited. It can be used to justify ordinary human indulgences, or to encourage indulging in them on an abnormal scale. It appeals to the excesses of our age: sex, violence and entertainment. Even those who teach this approach usually consider it to be a dangerous path, not suitable for many people, though many may find the idea of it appealing (which is generally a sign that such a path is not suitable). It is wrong to think that such a path is characteristic of Tantra or that true Tantra requires it.

The Third or Direct Path

A third Tantric path exists, which is the Tantric version of the direct path. Sometimes, the third path is regarded as the higher part of the right-handed approach (or even the left-handed approach). On this path the yogi gives up outer ritualistic forms of worship, recognizing their flaws. Any outward, formal, or substance-oriented action can keep the mind bound to the external world. While such actions purify our minds, to take them as our primary practice cannot take us far along the path of realization.

The yogi also gives up internal forms of worship like the chanting of mantras which constitute the right-handed path. These too have their rules and regulations which are cumbersome and can attach the mind to mental activity. The highest yogi merely inquires into his own nature and be comes one with the True Self — which is the real meaning of searching out the lotus feet of the Mother. This highest Tantric path is the path of Self-inquiry, or Atma-vichara, which is also the highest Vedantic path. It consists of tracing the I-thought back to its origin in pure awareness. All of our thoughts originate from the I-thought. However, this I in its true nature is unknown to us because we are always associating it with some transient quality or object like the body, or whatever we are identified with in the form of “I am this" or "This is mine." Discarding the object portion from the I-thought, we can discover our true nature which transcends all objectivity and the limitations of time and space that objectivity requires.

Yet as this is the highest path, few are really able to tread it, and most who approach it do not go beyond the mere concept of it. We can easily speculate about the Higher Self, but it is quite another thing to actually still the mind. Such speculative thought can be a trap. It is no substitute for real practice, and is inferior to the practice of mantra in its ability to calm the mind. In fact, some yogis think that unless one is proficient in the practice of mantra, one will not have the proper concentration for true Self-inquiry.

The lesser paths, though they have their limitations, are often more realistic to tread. Usually we need to do some daily preliminary rituals. We also may need to do mantras to develop the power of attention, which may take years to perfect, before direct meditation approaches are viable. Even if it is possible for us to engage in direct meditation, mantra remains helpful as a support practice. Mantra develops the mental force to allow us to proceed with meditation. While recognizing the value of the highest teachings, we should understand how to approach them. Even those who can practice deep meditation spontaneously may find that their practice is stronger if rituals and mantras are included in their daily regimen.

The Tantric approach is very practical. We should do the highest practice that we are really capable of, but not overlook anything that might be helpful, however apparently insignificant. We should not attach our selves to inferior practices, but we should do what is possible for us, even if it is a very simple ritual or just being careful with our diet. The form is not what matters but increasing the energy of our consciousness in our daily lives. The methods of Tantra, though form-oriented or ritualistic, have the same goal of Self-realization as direct meditation approaches, and serve to lead us to these higher practices.