Tantra has been a disruptive force in the world’s religious, cultural, and political institutions ever since its birth and continues to do so today. Tantra is a school of thought that originated in India around the sixth century. It has been linked to several different waves of revolutionary thought throughout history, beginning with its early transformation of Hinduism and Buddhism and continuing through the Indian struggle for independence and the rise of counterculture in the 1960s.
The term “instructional text” comes from the Sanskrit word “Tantra,” which is derived from the verbal root tan, which means “to weave” or “construct.” Tantras are sometimes written in the form of a dialogue between a god and a goddess. This exhibition showcases a selection of the earliest Tantras that have been preserved (see image below). These provide an explanation of a number of different rituals that can be used for invoking one of the numerous all-powerful Tantric deities. Some of these rituals involve yoga and visualizations. They were claimed to grant worldly and supernatural powers, such as long life and flight, together with spiritual transformation, but they could only be attained via the direction of a teacher, also known as a guru.
Many texts included rituals that violated preexisting social and religious norms, such as sexual rites and interactions with forbidden subjects, such as intoxicants and human remains. These rituals were found in many different texts. Tantra posed a challenge to the concept of polar opposites by propagating the idea that everything, including what has previously been considered unclean and dirty, is holy.
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The Rise of Tantra
After the fall of two major dynasties the Guptas in the north and the Vakatakas in the southwest many new kingdoms emerged across the subcontinent during the medieval period in India, which coincided with the development of Tantra. Tantra was used to treat a variety of mental and physical ailments. Despite the fact that this caused governmental instability, it led to a period in which the arts flourished to an extraordinary degree. The tantric religion attracted a lot of powerful rulers because it promised them more power, and a lot of public temples contained tantric deities as guardians.
The Tantric Hindu god known as Bhairava was a part of this. He is most famous for beheading the traditional Hindu god of creation, Brahma, and using his skull as a begging bowl in order to demonstrate the supremacy of the Tantric way. Early practitioners of Tantra, known as Tantrikas, attempted to ‘become’ him by imitating his terrifying and chaotic appearance. Meanwhile, rulers worshiped him in order to strengthen their political positions.
Divine Feminine Power
The worldview of Tantra considers all material existence to be animated by Shakti, which can be thought of as limitless divine feminine power. Because of this, the worship of goddesses exploded in popularity across medieval India. Tantric goddesses challenged the conventional notions of womanhood, which portrayed women as submissive and subservient, via the interweaving of aggressive and sensual power. Their qualities were inextricably linked to the particularly tantric conflict that exists between a motherly and a destructive energy.
The alluring but dangerous Yoginis were shapeshifting goddesses who, depending on their whims, could transform into women, birds, tigers, or jackals. They could also take on any other form that struck their fancy. Tantrikas who had been initiated aspired to utilize their powers, which included the ability to fly, immortality, and control over others. The Yogini that is depicted above is a member of a larger ensemble that was likely enshrined in a Yogini temple in the past. She possesses fangs in addition to her dismembered hand and cobra earring accessories, which she wears.
The allure of Tantra, with its promise of longevity and invulnerability, maintained a hold over those in positions of power between the 16th and 19th centuries, including Rajput, Mughal, and Sultanate rulers. During this time period, India was ruled by the Rajput, Mughal, and Sultanate empires. Hatha yoga, often known as “yoga of power,” was one style of Tantric practise that became particularly well-known over time.