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Introduction to Hindu Scriptures

Part 5


The Tantras

Note: This is the final part of the five part series on Introduction to Hindu Scriptures.


Side by side the Vedic discipline, Hinduism has another parallel set of disciplines called the Tantras. The word "tantra" is derived from the combination of two words "tattva" and "mantra". "Tattva" means the science of cosmic principles, while "mantra" refers to the science of mystic sound and vibrations. Tantra therefore is the application of cosmic sciences with a view to attain spiritual ascendancy. In another sense, tantra also means the scripture by which the light of knowledge is spread: “Tanyate, vistaryate jñanam anena, iti Tantram”.


There is a common misconception that Tantra is the name only of the Scripture of the worshippers of Shakti (the Shaktas). Actually each of the Hindu religious groups has its own tradition of sacred literature, and based on it, the Tantras are divided into three classes, namely: Shaiva Agamas (worshippers of Shiva), Shakta Tantras (worshippers of Shakti), and Vaishnava Agams (worshippers of Vishnu).


Although we find separate sects depending on the worship of Shiva or Vishnu, the scriptures point out that Mahavishnu and Sadashiva are one. In the Sammohana Tantra (Ch. VIII) we find these words: “Without Prakriti the Samsara (World) cannot be. Without Purusha true knowledge cannot be attained. Therefore both should be worshipped with Mahakali and Mahakala. Some speak of Shiva, some of Shakti, some of Narayana (Vishnu). But the supreme Narayana (Adinarayana) is supreme Shiva (Parashambhu), the Nirguna Brahman, pure as crystal. The two aspects of the Supreme reflect the one in the other”.


Agama and Nigama Texts

The scriptural texts of Tantra are usually in the form of dialogues between Shiva and Shakti (Parvati). The Dialogues where Shiva is the speaker giving spiritual teachings and Parvati (Shakti) is the listener are called Agama texts. On the other hand, where Parvati plays the role of teacher and Shiva the listener, the texts are called Nigama. Thus Agamas are those, which are revelations advocating the paths of spiritual practice while Nigama are the traditions describing the forms of actions (karma), spiritual practice and knowledge.


The Agamas are divided into three main groups depending on whether the “Ishtadevata” (the form of the God) worshipped is Shakti, Shiva or Vishnu. The first is the Shakta Agama, the second the Shaivagama, and the third the Vaishnava Agama or Pancharatra.


The Agamas are not themselves treatises on Philosophy, though they impliedly contain a particular theory of life. They are what are called Sadhana Shastras (practical Scriptures) prescribing the means by which happiness may be attained. Since lasting happiness is God, they teach how humanity may attain a divine experience by worship and by practice of the disciplines prescribed.

Vedas of Brahmanic schools were prohibited reading and hearing in the olden days for non-Brahmins and women; but Agamas had no restrictions: they were available for servants, maids, women, Sudras (the lowest in the caste system) and anyone who wanted to hear or read. There are 28 Agamas and 108 Upagamas (minor). The Saktas have 77 Saktagamas. They are called Sadhana Shastras: anyone can seek happiness (Bliss) by following Agamic prescriptions. The Tantra Sastra have three parts: Sadhana, Siddhi and Darshana. There are no hypotheticals, arguments, vacillations and conflicts.

The seven characteristics of the Agama texts

The seven characteristics of the Agama texts, according to the “Varahi Tantra” are:
Creation, dissolution, offering made unto deities, all spiritual practices, recitation of mantras (purashcharan), the spiritual practice of six actions (shatakarma) and the Path of Meditation (Dhyanyoga).


The Atharva Veda is considered to be one of the prime Tantrik scriptures.


There are three distinct tantrik traditions — Dakshina, Vama and Madhyama. They represent the three "shaktis" or powers of Shiva and are characterized by the three qualities ("gunas") - "sattva", "rajas" and "tamas".


The four sects namely Pashupat, Shaiva, Kalamukh and Kapalik are known as Maheshvar. Their original religious and theoretical texts of doctrines are called the Shaiva agams. All the three schools of thought - duality (dvait), non-duality (advait) and duality-non-duality (dvaitadvait) are found in the Shaiva agams. According to Vayu Samhita, Ch. I. 28 Shaiva agams are of two kinds, Shrauta and Ashrauta. Shrauta is Shrautisaramaya and have two kinds, Svatantra and Itara. Again, Svatantra is first divided into ten kinds and then Siddhanta of eighteen kinds. This is the Shaivasiddhanta Agama with 28 Mula Agamas and 207 Upagamas. On the other hand Itara is Shrutisara with numerous varieties.


The Pancharatra Agama is considered as the representative of all the other Vaishnav Agams. This Agam lays emphasis on the principle of surrender. It advocates knowledge of five things - the supreme principle, worldly experiences, the Final Liberation, yoga and the material world. The number of scriptural texts pertaining to these Samhitas is 250; of them Brihad-Brahma, Ishvara and Gyanamritasara Samhitas are particularly noteworthy.


Tantras delve into such subjects as:

1. The Supreme Spirit
2. Creation
3. Maintenance and dissolution of the universe
4. Origin of gods and their worship, of men and beings
5. The other worlds including heaven and hells
6. The seven centers in the body
7. The four stages of man (ashrama)
8. Laws and dharma
9. Sacraments
10. Mantra, Yantra, Mudra, and Sadhana
11. External and internal purification, worship of Devatas, panchattatvas
12. Consecration of temples, lakes, wells, houses etc
13. Temple rites and rituals
14. Glorification of Tirthas (holy sites)
15. Duties and privileges of kings
16. Japam, Vratam, magic, meditation and yoga
17. Law, medicine, and science.

Thus, Tantra is an all-inclusive religious system, which is capable of helping man at all levels of spiritual growth. It has spiritual disciplines suitable for people from the highest cultural level to the lowest.


The Tantra literature is vast. Among the 64 prominent texts, we can mention Mahanirvana, Kulasara, Prapanchasara, Kularnava, Rudra Yamala, Vishnu Yamala, Brahma Yamala, and Tantraraja.



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