One night Vasugupta, a great sage believed to have lived during the latter half of the eighth century, had a dream in which Lord Shiva appeared. Shiva instructed the sage to visit a nearby mountain called Mahadevgiri, where he would find 77 sutras(verses) under a rock. When he awoke, Vasagupta did as he was told. He found the sutras—they revealed a path to samadhi (spiritual liberation) through a philosophy and a powerful practice of meditation that, together, were known as Tantra—and began to teach them to others.
According to a branch of Tantra called Kashmir Shaivism, that is how one of their central texts, the Shiva Sutras, came about. But great debate surrounds the origins, history, and practice of the complex and at times controversial body of knowledge known as Tantra. “There are widely different Tantric texts,” says meditation teacher Sally Kempton, “and different philosophical positions taken by Tantrikas,” or practitioners of Tantra. One core aspect of Tantric philosophy that’s taught in the West, however, remains consistent: That aspect is nondualism, or the idea that one’s true essence (alternatively known as the transcendental Self, pure awareness, or the Divine) exists in every particle of the universe.
This idea is radically different from those of the other two schools of Indian philosophy that you might hear about in yoga class: Patanjali’s classical yoga (also known as ashtanga yoga, or the eight limbs of yoga), and Advaita Vedanta. Most scholars agree that Patanjali was dualist and therefore believed that the divine, spiritual realm was separate from the everyday world. Vedantists, like Tantrikas, are nondualist, but they perceive the world as an illusion.
If you hear about Tantra in your yoga class, you’re probably learning about Hindu Tantra. (There is also a Buddhist stream, known as Vajrayana Buddhism). Within Hindu Tantra, there are hundreds of branches, schools, and lineages. Some of the better known are Kashmir Shaivism, an umbrella term for several schools that originated in South India; the Kaula School, which views the body as a vehicle for liberation; Shakta traditions that worship the feminine; and radical “left-handed” schools like the modern-day Neo-Tantra School, which has given Tantra its reputation for sex-enhancing rituals.
At the heart of most of these schools lies the idea of awakening kundalini, thought to be a feminine, dynamic energy in the form of a serpent lying dormant at the base of the spine. Many of the ancient Tantric practices focused on bringing that dormant energy to life by moving it upward, through the seven chakra (energy centers) in the body. The majority of students today focus less on a full kundalini awakening and instead concentrate on bringing the subtle body (also known as the “energy body”) into a state of balance.
Like much else in yoga’s history, Tantra’s origins are still debated. Some scholars believe that it began in the Indus Valley (Pakistan and northwestern India) between 3,000 and 5,000 years ago, when the earliest yoga texts, the Vedas, were written. But Tantra did not come into common practice until the fourth century, after Patanjali’s classical yoga flourished.
Excerpts from Yoga Journal Article, Tantra Rising, By Nora Isaacs