Free «Liberation in the School of Tantra» Essay
In recent decades, interest in esoteric Oriental teachings and practices has been growing in the West. However, because of cultural differences and the specifics of today’s pragmatic epoch, the original meaning of these teachings is often distorted to meet the expectations of the public. It is also the case with Tantra, which has for some reason acquired strong association with sexual practices, while it is a far more complex branch of Hindu spiritual studies. The current research explores the original ideas of Tantra as a religious school and in particular focuses on the way of liberation from a circle of rebirths and suffering that this approach offers to its followers.
Ancient sources say that Tantra originated about seven thousand years ago, though many experts believe that it was formed as a school in the first centuries AD. It was shaped as part of Hindu religion but also covered Buddhism, and had an equally large scale in terms of geography and ethnicity. The first bearers of the teaching were nomadic tribes Aryans, which moved from one place of Asia to another one, which accounts for the fact that Tantra is practiced not only in India, but in Nepal, Bhutan and especially in Tibet.
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The etymology of the word is related to the concept of liberation, which will be discussed further on: “Tan is a Sanskrit root which signifies "expansion", and Tra signifies "liberation."(Vedaprajinananda n.d.). Thus, the origin of the word embodies the main idea of the school: to expand the territory of freedom, this freedom of course being treated in the Hindu religious context.
Aryans were warriors, so their values were mainly confined to honor in a battle. In this sense, their civilization was different from Ancient Greece, for instance, which placed special focus on philosophy. Yet, Aryans had their own culture of wisdom which was passed to ordinary members of society by sages called Rishi. In fact, they were spiritual leaders who searched for higher meaning of human existence and thus shaped the culture and religion of their society.
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Tantra was a secret knowledge of ritual, and the concept of Tantra was reflected in the designation of tantrism or tanticism. The task of a person practicing Tantra is to use special methods of work with his/her physical body, energy and spirit in order to transform one’s personality and purify it. This process of eliminating flaws and becoming perfect helps a person to be free from false ideas and attachments in the material world. As a result of this bond to objects and people, one often forgets his or her true destination, which results in suffering and repeated reincarnation as a human. Because in Buddhism and to some extent in Hinduism this endless circle of rebirths, samsara, means being dependent, it is the major goal of Tantra to liberate a human by making him or her break this painful bond that distances them from their higher self. In other words, the fate of being born as a human is not a reward but rather a punishment, so one has to be conscious of this and look for ways out. Tantra is a tool and concept that shapes consciousness into a new mold. This process requires perfection at all levels including physical body but mainly at the level of subtler energies, which are invisible to an ordinary person.
In terms of its religious doctrine, Tantra is based on the Hindu concept of Universe which states that there is one universal spirit in consciousness, Brahman, which unites all things, people and phenomena into one whole. From this point of view, an individuality in any sense is nothing but illusion, because everything is one. Thus, any property or attachment are illusionary too because one cell of an organism cannot own another one. Having this Universal Soul as a core concept made Hinduism different from the rest of religions of the time because in other religions gods were not so universal, they rather embodied certain functions or elements of nature or everyday life. All this knowledge was first orally transmitted by sages, but in the course of time it was recorded in sacred texts, the Vedas.
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Experts point out that because the school of Tantra has developed spontaneously throughout history, it would be hard to expect it to be a perfectly structured system: “ Tantrism is not a coherent system; it is an accumulation of practices and ideas from various sources distributed unevenly in different times, places, and sects and among individuals (Harper & Brown 2002, p.1). Speaking of Tantrism as a religious doctrine, it is also worth saying that unlike some other religions it did not separate spirit from body, in the sense that the goals in society were not less important that spiritual ones. From this perspective, Tantra is close to Buddhism with its story of moderation and middle path as a key to success. In order to understand why Tantra is so favorable of power and wealth, one can recollect that Hindu and Buddhist traditions worship the leaders of royal origin who are simultaneously spiritual leaders. Unlike Christianity, where wealth of the world is often seen as the opposite to the work of spirit, these religions have a different perspective. It is enough to recollect Buddha who was born as prince or Krishna who incarnated as a son of a king.
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For tantrism, there is no separation between the divine and the mundane, as every object and phenomenon in the universe irradiates the shine of the Whole. In this respect, Hinduism, and Tantra in particular, are very different from most traditional religions that create gods to whom people should pray but who exists in the world that is different from a human one. Instead, an idea of omnipresent divine spirit is suggested, which puts a star, a human and an insect one the same scale. Hence, it is impossible to make good to oneself without making good to others and vice versa. In the same way, if one harms another person or thing, he or she harms the Whole, which means that this harm is aimed at the person who makes it in the first place. This religious outlook creates an absolutely new perspective and new motivation for people to act righteously not because of rules but because of awareness and respect to the Whole.
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Because this concept of unity was crucial to Hindu religion but at the same time it was theoretical, methods were necessary to join the knowledge in terms of personal experiences and insight. Thus, Tantra was born for this purpose, which consisted in worshiping the divine by means of special religious ritual that expanded a range of senses and conscious perception of reality. The final aim was to physically, mentally and emotionally experience this sense of belonging to the universal consciousness, which of course required some regular practice. In fact, Tantra was mainly a product of local Indian population, although Aryans took interest in it and absorbed as part of their culture. This is quite remarkable because they mostly believed that the inhabitants of the country were lower to them in all aspects. Scholars name Sadashiva as a person who influenced the development of Tantra in Hindu religion. His name was meaningful and ran as “He who is always absorbed in consciousness and one whose only vow of existence is to promote the all-around welfare of living beings” (Vedaprajinananda n.d.). He was the one to synthesize singular concepts and rituals of Tantra into a more ordered system, which contributed to increasing popularity of the school.
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There is an issue to modern researchers of Tantra: many of its core texts were lost, while others are impossible to decipher because they were encoded in a secret language for the knowledge not to be spread outside the select circle. The scriptures were classified into two groups: Nigama (concepts) and Agama (practice of Tantra). Sadashiva was a person who wrote a book and is believed to summarize the doctrine of Tantra: Tantra Shastra. According to historians, he transmitted his knowledge orally at first, but then his answers to his wife’s questions were recorded in this book. She mostly asked him about the structure of the Universe and the place of a human in it, so he described the laws according to which every element functions in relation to other ones. Shiva reintroduced the notion of dharma, which is thought of as the essence of any object or any being. In other words, everything in the Universe is created for a certain purpose, which is innate to that object. Whenever an object is misused, this breaks universal harmony. Yet, no object will break these laws as a person who does not act in accordance with his or her dharma. For a human being, dharma means destination, a higher meaning of life for which he or she was born on the earth. Tantra states that divergence from dharma is the main cause of people’s unhappiness and slavery. It is Tantra task to get a person back on track of dharma, which will eventually help to break the vicious circles of rebirths. So, this is the basic idea of liberation which a person can achieve by reuniting with the universal soul and one’s own destination. This is achieved by practice of rituals, meditations and energy gaining practices instructed by Tantra.
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One of the ideas that Tantra suggests as a way to perfection is having a guru, or a teacher. This way of passing knowledge directly from one person to another is considered to be the most prolific as it requires maximum concentration and spiritual awareness. The Tantra Shastra gives a critical account of teachers who exist, stating that there are really few good gurus, who would follow the disciple until the end. The lowest caste of guru provides some knowledge but do not track the success of its implementation by a disciple. The best gurus are totally involved in communication with a disciple and are not only open about knowledge transmission but also take care in the final result. There are several qualities of a perfect guru, Mahakaola, ascribed to him by Tantra: “The guru is one who is tranquil, can control his mind, is humble and modestly dressed. He earns his living in a proper way and is a family man. He is well versed in metaphysical philosophy and established in the art of meditation. He is one who knows the theory and practice of imparting the teaching of meditation. He loves and guides his disciples” (Vedaprajinananda n.d.). At the same time, having a good teacher is not enough, as it is at a student’s will that learning takes place. The sacred texts identify three types of disciples depending on their readiness to absorb and implement knowledge. It is stated that most people tend to be extravagant with what they get from a guru and spill out most of the precious knowledge that is transferred to them.
There are five practices on which Tantra was known to be based. The first one is called Madya, meaning “wine”. It stands for the practice that an advanced practitioner can experience and it is compared to tasting divine nectar. For less advanced people, it referred to drinking alcohol, which was a bad habit to work with. Unlike the approach of yoga, Tantra suggests continuing a bad habit with a spiritual intention to leave it until it goes away. In the same way Shiva instructs about Mamsa, “meat”. If one is not ready to exclude it from food without violence and painful self-restraint, that it is better to continue eating it with blessing until one is mature enough to quit the habit. For those who have already made progress in Tantra and see the spiritual meaning in rituals, mamsa means taking control of speech. Matsya, “fish”, is another practice, literally instructs on eating habits too but is a metaphor of a breathing practice Pranayama, which is also used in yoga. This is related to knowledge of Ida and Pingala, the two channels of energy that run through a human body, and which can help balance the percentage of masculine and feminine energy. As a result, the state of calm and harmony can be achieved, which is necessary for obtaining further knowledge. Next comes Mudra, which places the focus on environment of a person who wants to grow stating that it is necessary to be surrounded by people who will help one progress not degrade. Finally, Maethuna is the last of the M- concepts suggested by Tantra. It is related to sexual energy and instructs a person about how to achieve enlightenment through sexual practices used as spiritual ones. To beginners, Shiva says that they have to gradually get accustomed to an idea that sex is not a physical but a spiritual practice, and that it should be controlled. The practice for advanced disciples of Tantra is having Maethuna in a couple, which is eventually aimed at achieving the unity with the supreme soul.
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One of the aspects worshiped by Tantrism is femininity as a source of power. A woman is often seen as a guru in some branches of Tantrism, while she is seen as a source of energy anyway. The cult of divine femininity is one of those elements of tantrism that are often misinterpreted in a sexual way. However, femininity and masculinity in tantrism are treated not only in sexual context, and not even in gender context. It treats a person as a unity of the masculine and the feminine, which is able to start an act of creation within any personality. The harmony and purity of these two energies in a human are responsible for stability, as well as for growth. It is enough to recollect the images of Hindu gods to understand the importance of these two aspects, as their dual belonging to masculine and feminine is often stressed.
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Thus, liberation is the ultimate goal of Tantra, which is based on Hindu religion vision of the Universe and the place of humans in it. It uses the idea of a universal soul which encompasses all human beings and objects, thus stating that there is no separation between anyone or anything. Tantra uses the concept of dharma as an ultimate essence of any unit of this whole which has to work in favor of the whole. It has several instruments which help a person achieve perfection including meditation, cooperation with a guru, spiritual, energy and breath practices.