The Roots of Tantra
Tantra is an ancient body of beliefs that has been held sacred by many groups of people throughout history. It was a widespread practice in ancient India and Tibet. Its influence was also felt as Tantric ideas and practices spread to other regions such as Egypt and China. Tantra was very prevalent between the seventh and thirteenth centuries.
Tantra is a term that is most commonly used to refer to this philosophy of beliefs directed at forming a spiritual connection with the universe. The term also refers to the sacred writings related to those beliefs. However, other types of written Hindu documents — such as those related to scientific, medical, and astrological topics — are sometimes also referred to by the general term of Tantras.
It can be tricky to try and trace the history of Tantra because much of it is shrouded in secrecy. This was partly because it was misunderstood. Tantra was often perceived as involving sorcery or black magic. To the uninformed, casual observer of early times, it may have just looked and sounded like a lot of hocus-pocus. But Tantra was a private, personal practice that wasn't commonly discussed openly in public.
In ancient Hindu, the word Tantra often referred to the joining or connection of two forces. Sometimes sexual terms or depictions were used to illustrate this, but it often really had nothing to do with actually having sex.
In many cases, the teachings and traditions of Tantra were passed directly from guru to student verbally (sometimes with the help of nonwritten aids such as art, music, etc.), so there weren't a lot of written materials to be saved for posterity. This is unfortunate, as those early Tantric gurus probably had a lot of impressive wisdom to offer. Modern-day Tantrics could likely benefit greatly from the lessons these early pioneers could have shared. This scarcity of written records also makes it more difficult to pinpoint exact milestones in the evolution of this sacred art.
It is generally accepted that Tantra dates back at least 3,000 years, originating in India. Over the years, Tantra in various forms has also been practiced in many other areas of the world, including Tibet, China, and Korea.
Hindu Tantric Traditions
According to Hindu lore, the Tantras came from communications between Shiva and Shakti very long ago, probably at least 2000 B.C. or earlier. Some of these conversations were overheard and passed along from gurus to their students, and eventually were documented in written form.
Some people believe the earliest roots of Tantra date all the way back to branches of Hinduism called Shaktism and Shaivism. These religions were based on the worship of Shakti and Shiva in their many forms.
Hindu and Buddhist Tantra both place an emphasis on rituals — specifically, rituals involving sex, food, and wine. Many of these rituals would also frequently involve dancing, music, and other forms of entertainment. (For more on rituals see Chapter 12.)