Closely connected with the worship of the Goddess is a large connection of writings known as the Tantras. They were composed in the medieval period. These texts are essentially technical manuals for how one may attain liberation and enlightenment through dedication to the Devi. The yogi practice of Tantrism or more simply Tantra is based on the techniques described in these writings.
Tantra practice has become relatively well-known in the West as a manner for improving one’s sexuality. There are even books offered in western countries that teach how to increase sexual pleasure by using Tantric methods. Whether or not these practices are authentic Tantra is debatable, but it is clear that the purpose of Hindu Tantra is not physical pleasure but spiritual bliss and enlightenment. Yet, certain varieties of Tantra seek to attain this happiness in unconventional ways, including sexual ritual.
When westerners think of Tantra they usually think of what is called left-handed Tantra. The so called right-handed Tantra is a worship practice that is not altogether unlike the worship of Vishnu or Shiva, although the Tantric form emphasises the repetition of a special mantra given to the initiate by a female guru.
Both varieties of Tantra are open to males and females of all castes and operate independent of Brahmanic authority. Tantra has had an specially strong influence on the development of the religion of Tibet. It is considered by its practitioners to be an advanced form of yoga. One must master other yogi practices before attempting Tantra, else it can prove dangerous.
What many find scandalous of left-handed Tantra is what others find intriguing. That is its ritual use of certain things that are ordinarily forbidden to Hindus. These elements include the eating of meat, the drinking of wine and sexual intercourse between partners who are not married to each other. Tantra is not the casual practice of these activities, but their deliberate usage for the purpose of enlightenment.
Tantric rituals are practiced in a sacred space in the presence of a guru on a specific carefully determined day. In the first part of the ritual both male and female participants ritually bath, dress and apply cosmetics. They undergo ritual purification through meditation and mantra recitation. Male-female couples then form a circle around the guru and the guru’s partner. The female partner sits on the man’s left, which is the traditional position of the goddess relative to the god. This is the how the practice acquired the name left-handed Tantra.
Then they ritually consume the meat and the wine and eventually end with sexual union. Before each of these activities, mantras are pronounced to consecrate the elements, otherwise they would be highly polluting. Mantras are recited to sanctify the woman as the Goddess. Sexual union then is envisioned as a form of worship and devotion to her.
The Purpose of Tantra
Of the numerous accounts to explain the purposes for these practices, perhaps the most basic is that which argues for directing human desires towards liberation rather than repressing them. This philosophy argues that trying to deny certain desires only empowers them further. Rather than repress potentially harmful impulses, Tantra tries to harness them in service of salvation.
Ritual provides a controlled and highly structured context for indulging forbidden desires. In addition to ritualize sex, this practice serves to awaken a participant’s own awareness of the non-duality of the world. Duality, that is thinking in absolute terms of yes and no, black and white, good and evil; is precisely what keep us from realizing the identity of Brahman and Atman.
These activities are meant to break down the conventional duality we have constructed. To awaken this awareness by bodily as well as by intellectual means is a tremendous aid on the path to enlightenment.
Along these lines, the aspect of ritual sex is regarded as the reenactment of the cosmological union of shiva and shakti. Deva and Devi meet each other. Shiva without shakti is a curse. Shakti without shiva can be overwhelming. The male is unable to appropriate the active feminine powers. And the female can’t appropriate the passive masculine powers. Dualism is thus transcended.
A final theory explains how Tantric yoga arouses the latent energies in what is called the subtle body. This conception tells of a vast power source that resides near the base of the human spine. Hindus call this source the kundalini. Enlightenment can be attained by stimulating the dormant kundalini energy and allowing it to flow through the centers of the subtle body called chakras. Chakras are power centers in the shape of lotus flowers that lie along the spine, from its base to the top of the head. Releasing k allows energy to flow upward, causing the practitioners to realize oneness with ultimate reality.
Worship of the Goddess and Tantric yoga are two ways in which Hinduism really differs from the mainstream religious traditions of the West. Some westerners, however, are coming to regard these Hindu religious forms as embodying some things worth embracing. Some have argued that masculine gods of the western religions are to be balanced with a more consciously appropriated feminine element.
Others see value in viewing the body as a source of revelation and truth. Whether or not the western tradition would be ever find a place for the Goddess as Hinduism has remains to be determined.