What is tantra?
Tantra is a complex subject which, broadly speaking, covers many of the spiritual traditions that have been associated with both Hinduism and Buddhism for over a thousand years. Essentially, Tantra can be boiled down to a body of thought that concerns certain rituals, conceptions, and religious devotion. It takes many forms, including things like temple architecture and philosophy. Tantra is a term that can be roughly translated as 'weave'. As such, it can be seen as a system of connecting things so that they make more sense as a whole.
Where did Tantra originate?
To begin with, Tantra is a Sanskrit word that appears to have been first coined in the fifth century BCE by Panini, a scholar who lived in what is now modern India. He used the term svatantra to mean an independently minded or self-contained person. Since the Sanskrit word for self is sva, Tantra – by implication – must mean someone who is self-dependent or his own person. In the sixth century CE, his ideas took off, most notably within the Mimamsa school of Hinduism, known for its focus on yoga and philosophy, notably the philosophy of language. Buddhist texts that address Tantra date back to the first century of the common era. The American Pierre Bernard is generally credited for making the concept more widely known in the West in the twentieth century.
How does Tantra meditation work?
There are a number of techniques associated with tantric meditation. These are known as sadhanas. Yoga is one such sadhana, as is the use of mudras, or hand gestures. Another technique associated with tantric meditation is yatra, or going on a pilgrimage, as well as the use of repetition in words and phrases or mantras as they are better known. Singing devotional hymns is another practice that is considered to be a sadhana in many tantric traditions.
Can Tantra help with sex?
Many people associated Tantra with sexual practices because of the work of the aforementioned Bernard. Indeed, his focus on tantric sex has led to some people imagining that Tantra is solely to do with sexual behaviour without understanding its wider spiritual connotations. That said, sex and eroticism is part of Tantra, although it is mostly absent in the Jain tradition. In the tantric world view, sex can be a pathway toward spiritual enlightenment, and it is probably fairer to view it in this light than as a form of sexual therapy.
How is Tantra practised?
As mentioned, sadhanas are a big part of gaining spiritual power via meditation in Tantra. However, there is no single way that you could ever describe it as being practised because it is so diverse. In some traditions, analogical thinking is encouraged and, in others, you will encounter more emphasis on identification with certain deities, such as Vishnu, for example. In Buddhism, it is the Vajrayana school that teaches most about the practice.