What is Tantra?

What is Tantra?

(My commentary on Linda-Sama Karl’s blog, “What is Tantra” at http://lindasyoga.blogspot.com/)

Baba RampuriThese days Tantra means anything you want it to. In the West, it’s normally a marketing tag for something to do with new age sexuality, or at best, new age psychology. In India, at it’s worst, it is thought of as black magic. Yoga, as practiced in the West, has nothing to do with Tantra as it is practiced in its high and low forms in India. At it’s best, Tantra is the teaching that Shiva gives to Parvati regarding knowledge and immortality. The practice of this involves the connection of Sacred Speech with Knowledge and the corresponding withdrawal from the illusory perception of the world.

Defining Tantra etymologically only tells us about our own thinking, not something as esoteric as Tantra. Etymology lacks context. Imagine never seeing or hearing of “hamburger,” and trying to understand what it is by breaking down the word, itself. Is it someone from Hamburg? or something to do with a town (burg) and pigs (ham), or are we talking about ham as in hamlet and all that implies? And we can take this much further. By the time it becomes a Big Mac, and we try to understand these words without context, we couldn’t be more lost. Experience gives context, and Authority articulates this.

Tantra is scary! It is a very sophisticated, complex approach to self-knowledge that requires an enormous commitment and practice. It is also intimately connected with Indian culture, which is yet another context that cannot be ignored.

Sacred Speech is the basis for Tantra. Speech has been examined, described, and commented upon for 1000’s of years in India. It was discovered in the West a couple of hundred years ago. It has been common in India, for millenia, to analyze Speech into its irreducible elements and use words to connect with the world. We know nothing about this in the West, and yet, before even understanding the basics of Tantra, we’re ready to represent it, teach it, write about it, & market it. Yes, it’s a powerful word, whatever it means.

I see as much connection between Tantra and Modern Hatha Yoga as I do between hamburgers and Shakespeare. While Tantra does have to do with our physical bodies, it is in the sense of our bodies as a fulcrum between the Macro and Microcosms. The practice is not physical, it’s not about body function, movements, ordinary things, but in identifying its constituent parts in a very conscious and mindful invocation of the personalities of nature, what we call Gods and Goddesses. These are not symbols. These are identifiable marks, signs, flags, and cyphers of nature, Her speech and signatures that cannot be reduced, replaced, or substituted for.

This requires an intimacy not available through belief and philosophy, nor through technique, per se. This is not about interpreting or assigning meaning to feelings.  This is not about feeling, but knowledge and power.  By Sacred Speech, I am NOT referring to Sanskrit or to mantras. It’s not based on speculation or even rational thinking, but on discipleship. The Tantric Tradition begins when Shiva instructs his consort Parvati, Who now becomes His disciple, in the Art of Immortality. The Tantric Tradition remains to this day, but still in the form of a very rigorous discipleship under the guidance of an Authority. That is Tantra.

Yoga, “connecting,” is about self-knowledge, and since it is “subject” and “object” that are connected, self-knowledge means all knowledge.

There are countless legitimate paths for the pursuit of self-knowledge. Modern paths based on new principles such as science, and alternative thinking and experimentation are completely legitimate and are a response to the context of the times in which we live. Sometimes more so than traditional paths.

There is also value in taking words from other languages and cultures, but when we do, it would serve us well to remember we have something precious, meaning rare in our expressive content and potential knowledge, and even though we may not fully understand the meaning, by changing the meaning we may lose great value, sometimes, forever.

Goddess bless you all!

Baba Rampuri

sri yantra

Sri Yantra


  1. Dear Baba Rampuri,

    I’ve also been following Linda’s post and others around the traps of late, and I’d like to comment on your post above.

    Right now I’m attempting to put together some posts of my own on Tantra, as someone who has been a student of the path since 2001. But it’s not easy, because Tantra is vast and not simple to describe. It is also quite challenging to express my own experience of this path because of it’s very complexities, and how those complexities are entwined with each sadhakas own individual experiences as they work towards the reality of a non-dual reality…

    “Sacred Speech is the basis for Tantra.”
    >Well, I’d say that is partially true, but far from the full picture. Sacred Speech (in all it’s levels, including non-verbal), as well as Actions are important. Tantra acknowledges this world as real and not a delusion.

    “I see as much connection between Tantra and Modern Hatha Yoga as I do between hamburgers and Shakespeare.”
    >I see in modern Hatha Yoga the very seeds of what’s possible. Tantra is never far away, even if to access it, one does need to find a guru. But it isn’t as disconnected as you have suggested. At least not here in Australia. I don’t know about the US.

    “The practice is not physical, it’s not about body function, movements, ordinary things, but in identifying its constituent parts in a very conscious and mindful invocation of the personalities of nature, what we call Gods and Goddesses.”
    >I don’t know if I agree with this entirely, because in my lineage, primacy of the body is considered to be one of the foundations of Tantra. Eventually the practice is not about bodily function and movement, but it does have the technology to help a person master those things. And actually, how do we define ordinary versus non-ordinary? Really from my experience and studies, I would say that all these things are one.
    >And yes, deva/devi puja and identification is considered one of the paths of Tantra, but definitely not the only way.

    “The Tantric Tradition remains to this day, but still in the form of a very rigorous discipleship under the guidance of an Authority. That is Tantra.”
    >Well, yes it is. But this again, is not the whole picture. It is possible to gain a lot of knowledge about Tantra these days from books. But ultimately, the transmission needs to be a living thing. Much the same way that a live music show contains something intangible, so it is with passing on a living tradition of enlightened knowledge.

    At least, in my opinion and experience.


  2. Ganesh Baba says “there is tantra in yoga and yoga in tantra.” Although Patanjali may not use the word kundalini, the understanding and use of kundalini is the basic technique of yoga. Tantra and yoga, Ganesh Baba, says, jsut use kundalini in different ways. “The yogi wants to take the highway to salvation while the tantrika prefers to enjoy the byways.” He uses a line from one of Lalon Fakir’s songs to illustrate the essential understanding of Tantra: “How can you know who the father is if you don’t ask the mother?”

    The essential teaching, then, is that Tantra seeks spirit through nature, sees essence through existence, overtly acknowledges the role of the physical in reaching spirit, seeks God through the Goddess.

    Am I oversimplifying his teachings?

  3. very well articulated babaji, as i understand tantrics often adopt a deliberate scary persona to keep away inquisitive spectators & nuisance………guess they are justified for than one reason; because as body frequency increases in sadhak people around subconsciously get disturbed and act as pain

    guess a scary image is anyday better than using powerful siddhis for nuisance control………..plz correct me if m wrong

  4. you do a beautiful tantra together! who is the guru and who is the disciple in the ultimate reality? vibrating in oneness a fundamental frequency of wisdom, love and power.. to enrich the world with the blessings of the primal criative force… sat nam!

  5. Babaji, thank you for this post, and the intention you put into it for us all.

    Sometimes I sit in my backyard, watching a rain storm roll into the area, seeing the clouds gather and feeling the energies change around me, and I think to myself; you are alive and you are calling out to me.

    Sometimes I have the distinct feeling that the storm is speaking to me, not in words that rattle through my brain, but in emotions that sail through my soul.

    That is my only real connection with anything resembling esoteric knowledge, but I feel the weight of your words here, and my soul tells me to trust them.


  6. Dear Svasti,

    Thank you very much for your comment, I appreciate it when people think about these things and take the time to express it.

    This is a good example of the point of my little blog.

    I’m sure there is wonderful tantra in Australia, and people gaining many experiences from it, and perhaps helping people realize a non-dual nature of existence. And I’m sure there are very well thought out techniques, schools of thought, and practices as well. I think its great, certainly better than hanging out in a pub. Same in America.

    I just wonder what it has to do with a Tantric Tradition from India that has been handed down guru to disciple for 1000’s of years. Maybe I was a slow learner and there might be enhanced learning aids today, but it took me probably 20 of my 40 years in an esoteric lineage in India, AFTER I had learned Hindi and Sanskrit, to come to any understanding of Tantra, notwithstanding the slogans and cliches.

    Finding a tantric guru is easy, there must be a hundred pages or more on Google; finding a lineage with the goods is a different story, as anyone who has spent time in India involved with this would tell you. And finding a lineage in which English is spoken can turn out to be a long quest. Acceptance in an esoteric tradition anywhere is not a given, contrary to popular culture. Lots of cash always helps, but even a true seeker of knowledge requires a great deal of perseverance to be accepted in elite circles, which is the nature of tantric tradition.

    The fact of the matter is that regardless of claims of independence or autonomy, Tantra comes from India, is an Indian thing, even an Indian word. Its appearance in Australia and the West in popular culture was by means of representation. Mainly books, at best written by well educated academics who translated collected texts with no exposure to the context of their authors, at worst written by people with little understanding of Indian Culture, using sex as a marketing tool for either their product, service, or ideology.

    There are some quite wonderful books out there written by some wonderful people, Mark Dykowsky, David Frawley, and several others. Their books are well informed, well written, and enlightening. But reading them, studying them, believing in them has nothing to do with becoming a tantric.

    A Speech of function, of operation, of connection with a largely unseen world (which is the nature of Tantric Speech) is translated into a Speech of ideas and concepts in competition with each other. Not Hindi to English, or anything quite so simple.
    We may be entertained and enlightened by the idea-generating power of the information, but with a lack of the context a tradition provides, the ideas generated have no connection with the thing itself. Our current discourse is largely defined by a fierce competition among ideas, beliefs, narratives, and brands, and our Speech is likewise the means by which this happens. The Tantric doesn’t have to believe in anything except maybe that his lineage is legitimate.

    Let’s talk about the primacy of the body. In a number of India’s Wisdom Traditions that have, of course, spilled into Indian culture, we understand the human body to be around for a maximum of 100 years, and that towards the end of its existence, it often becomes troublesome. And we service it well as our home during this kind of existence. We look to take advantage of our consciousness having density, the corporeality of human existence. But we also understand it is a necessary limitation of our true nature which is beyond duality. We think of liberation as the final goal of human life, and we live our life mindful of that ultimate goal.

    I’ll be blunt. The West is obsessed with physical culture, and has superimposed a physical culture on top of yoga. We want yoga teachers who work out with weights, not who will teach us the secrets of our inner being. We want to make Tantra physical culture as well, it’s much easier that way, and much more fun… I guess.

    1. Yes! “A Speech of …connection…is translated into a Speech of ideas and concepts in competition with each other.” Thank you for putting this mistranslation into words! It is all around me and so is a part of me too. In this context, rather than link us to the whole, words become weapons used to separate us from the whole. Speaking becomes an act of war, rather than of love. To be in this war zone is not fun!

      Tantra is an Indian word and yet it was born out of experience that is everyone’s birthright: full participation in Reality. The means to this participation is available outside of India. It is here to be found. Tantra is in the midst of translation and it is through the real connection between a teacher and a student that living words arise. Words of infinite value that hopefully, one day, will not be rare.

  7. Sat nam. I am so grateful to read your high perspectives dear friends. Today walking to one of the yoga studio where I teach in Paris, I thought again about “Ashtanga Yoga” as it is known and marketted all over the world, included India, and I wondered, as says Rampuri ji, if the original sense of this practice “Ashtanga” would be lost forever.

    “In the days the Siddha stands thus in Self control
    Radiant as the Sun,
    If he obtains the rare vision of the True Being
    Golden becomes his body
    Dead his sens organs
    And he visions the shakti
    That likes a tender vine appears.”
    Tiromoolar, 689

  8. I may reveal my ignorance as I join this discussion, but I am not ashamed to be lacking understanding. I feel I may learn and comprehend and that is enough for me over time.

    For many years now I have taught a process of becoming more fully aware, by decompressing and enlivening the physical and pre-physical energies. I have called the main method used in this process, either by me or by the student, of moving energy between the internal and external realities, "breath tantra." This seemed instinctively correct~ I instinctively named it so. I still feel that describing the movement of outward to inward, inward to outward, being to becoming, becoming as unity, as a breath tantra, is correct. I think of breath tantra as eternal, and without national context. I am not speaking of pranayama or pratyahara. If I am speaking within a historical or cultural context, it feels more like prakriti, if we can access prakriti. I know Baba has said this is not about sanskrit, and I do not mean it that way either. It is nearly impossible to describe this.

    This idea and practice seemed very inside of me, very old to me, as if I knew this and so have others, for thousands of years everywhere, called different names in different cultures.

    I will not mind if I am wrong, and will await correction or education, if I am. But I felt compelled to speak. As I understand it, breath tantra is unlimited in enlivening and extended human consciousness and vitality.

    shantih. Ferol

  9. Baba,

    I have now read your other replies and I would like to withdraw my post. May I? I do not wish to create confusion within the context of your discussion. You are speaking of a full Indian spoken lineage of experience. I was not speaking of that unless through previous life. Perhaps I was, but please do not post my comment. It dilutes your discussion.

    Shantih. Ferol

  10. Also I will share with you that while people tend to come to me for physical healing, I view their visit as an opportunity for integrative balance, and only focus on their physical nature because they completely lack a language for dialogue and experience in what I am doing.

    My goal is about their nature dwelling within their body, and how that nature may become more vital in its experience of everything. When people feel something has changed in their physical self, they wonder and ask questions. I have used my breath tantra to arouse their shakti and make them more inwardly aware. I hope you do not find my use of these terms offensive, Baba. It is how I think of them as I learn, and they are approximate terms for very inward experiences.

    I offer breath tantra for people as a gateway experience to awareness. So many of the people I work with live only in their bodies, or only in their thinking, or their emotions, not experiencing themselves as together within themselves, in dynamic. When they feel something expand or change physically they pay attention and wonder. They experience themselves differently.

    Having read all of your posts now I see that I am one of the Westerners who has appropriated these terms and ideas for use in non-Indian ways. Strangely, I thought I was true to a real tradition with this, but did not remember where I learned it. Ferol

  11. Thank you so much for this amazing blog on Tantra!

    I am in the embryonic stage of my learning about Tantra.

    I was not "looking" for a GURU but Shakti clearly had something else in mind as she assumed this particular form and dragged my sorry butt to a Guru 10 years ago (LOL).

    Since that day I have been contemplating what has happened. On one level I experience a vast and continuing expanding and anchoring of Awareness. This is marvelous and mysterious. I believe this gift I have received and nurtured through the practices has marked the beginning in many ways of my Life.

    I do not have the good fortune of an 'upanishad' or sitting near by my Guru to learn more about my lineage and this has been both painfully confusing and ultimately a lesson in coming into harmony with what is.

    I read an article about you almost 3 years ago that sparked an indescribable recognition- that has lead me to this blog.

    I am grateful for your book and for your LIGHT. I am so grateful for this 'cyber' conversation.

    with deep respect


  12. Babaji:
    You have spoken frankly to the West and I hope our ears are open. Our materialistic culture has almost completely detached yoga from its tantric roots such that many people want a yoga teacher "who isn't pushing religious conceptions" of yoga. Ashtanga, hot, weight yogas – all are inferior imitative derivatives in the West. I would liken this trend of yoga without the tantra to trying to learn to swim without getting in, or near, the water. There's virtually no one in the West who is willing or "has the goods" as you've so elegantly put it above.

    Here's Babaji's key for those in the West who think they've got some "authentic" tantra: "finding a lineage with the goods is a different story, as anyone who has spent time in India involved with this would tell you. And finding a lineage in which English is spoken can turn out to be a long quest." If Westerners can't really find/access tantra in India, then nearly all of the forms we have in the West are degraded as well.

    Thanks for setting it straight! 🙂

    Don't kid yourself. Just because you are blissful learning about tantra's metaphysics doesn't mean you have practiced tantra. Our Western forms of materialistic yoga are akin to "swimming theory" ir imitative swimming rather actual swimming in the stream.

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