In Pranakriya’s program, Understanding The Hatha Yoga Pradipika, Yoganand Michael Carroll provides valuable insight into the way the practice of yoga unfolded from antiquity to modern life. Studying the evolution of Tantra and yoga will inform our practice and our teaching with the original intention of yoga.
Tantra, a Sanskrit word, at its root means to weave. The rites and rituals of Tantra weave together a variety of practices with the intention of uniting the human with the divine. Steeped in mythology, Tantric rituals involved deities, mantra, mudra, yantra, chakras, meditation, secrecy, and coded language. They arose as a counter-cultural movement in response to the prescribed practices of the ruling class.
For perspective, a sense of the complexity and depth of India’s history is essential. It’s one of the first and greatest civilizations with a colorful past dating back to the earliest traces of human life. Think prehistoric era, Bronze Age, Iron Age and Medieval periods. Early farming and herding techniques developed on the sub-continent and, over hundreds of years, cities, urban areas, and settlements were established. Ancient India experienced the rise and fall of empires and, along the way, gave birth to Jainism, Buddhism, Tantra, and Hatha Yoga.
Though there is little record of the roots of Tantra, some scholars believe it developed during the Vedic Age(c. 1700 BCE – c. 500 BCE), a time when the sacred Vedic Sanskrit texts were compiled. “…people focused on ritual, poetry, and transcending the mind through intense focus. During this time, holy men and women were said to have magical powers and practiced strenuous physical feats to overcome the body, which they considered an obstacle to enlightenment.” (The Little Book of Yoga (2014), Chronicle Books, p. 13).
The later Vedic period, and beyond, saw the birth of the founders of Jainism and Buddhism and the establishment of classical Sanskrit. Kingdoms rose, empires fell and ultimately, the Gupta Dynasty (c. 320-550 CE) came into power. This era would become known as the Golden Age of India.
As the Gupta Empire unified India, Vedic culture and Sankhya philosophy were codified into early Hinduism with simple rituals, prayers to nature Gods, Vedic hymns and rites of purification. It was an imposed system on what was formerly an assortment of rituals and observances practiced in various city-states.
When the Gupta Dynasty crumbled, chaos ensued, particularly in the spiritual arena. With the disintegration, many branches of practice developed with some including penance-like rituals. Tantra flourished around the 5th Century CE and the practices could be extreme.
I mentioned earlier that Tantra was counter-cultural. Vedic practices were often about purification. If you’d mingled with a lower caste, eaten a forbidden food or done anything that was considered impure, you’d likely have to pay a Brahmin priest to prescribe cleansing rituals. Tantrics turned this upside down and could prescribe a ritual such as rubbing yourself with feces, eating forbidden food, or having sex with members of a lower caste. Can you see how this would challenge everything an aspirant believed and practiced? Tantric teachers wanted to lead seekers to the dark side, to the extent that was appropriate, and then bring them back.
The body was thought of as an obstacle to enlightenment and a source of suffering. “Basically, anything and everything was possible as spiritual practice and spiritual work” – Yoganand Michael Carroll. Ultimately, the practices that survived coalesced into Tantra.
“Learning how to work with the energies of mind and body is the core practice of Tantra yoga.” Michael Stone – The Inner Tradition of Yoga
I’ll explore more about Tantra in my next blog. In the meantime, check out The British Museum’s website and YouTube channel for a peek at their current exhibition: Tantra enlightenment to revolution.