The tantric traditions: a brief introduction
Initiatory religions, claiming authority in scriptures called Tantras, rose to prominence in South Asia from the sixth century of the common era onwards. The tantras promise, to their followers, liberation as well as means to accomplish various worldly and supernatural goals. Such means typically required the use of mantras, as well as new forms of yoga, ritual and meditation. The value of quick salvation, achievable in the present life, was often emphasised.
Tantric traditions were not marginal, as can be seen not just from the huge quantity of textual material that their followers produced, but also from the importance which was given to tantric gurus and ritual in the life of kings and of the court. Tantric currents developed within all the major Indic religions, and are represented in the Sanskrit scriptures of the Śaiva Mantramārga, the Buddhist Mantranaya, and the Vaiṣṇava Pañcarātra.
Propagation and influence
Tantric activity in India reached its height in the early medieval period, culminating in exegesis and synthesis that was often of great sophistication. Even in areas where tantric transmissions have now ceased, their influence lingers in the philosophy and praxis of Hinduism, Jainism and other religions.
Some areas of the subcontinent, such as India’s Tamiḻ-speaking South, where a large corpus of Sanskrit texts of the Śaiva Siddhānta continues to be copied and transmitted, still preserve old tantric ways. Among the Newars of the Kathmandu Valley of Nepal, once-common forms of tantric Buddhism and Śaivism persist, both as living traditions and as an exceptional literary heritage. Moreover, much of the literature and liturgy of the Indian Vajrāyana is propagated through the medium of Tibetan translations wherever Tibetan Buddhism is practiced.
The spread of tantric religions across the Indian subcontinent (red) and East, Southeast and Central Asia (rose).
The influence of the tantras was not confined to the subcontinent. Among those Indian religious traditions which spread across Southeast Asia and the Indonesian peninsula, it was mainly the tantric forms of Buddhism, and the tantric schools of Śaivism and Vaiṣṇavism, that became predominant. Tantric Buddhism flourished, moreover, for a time in China and Korea, and the East Asian lineages transmitted within the Shingon and Tendai orders remain part of the Japanese Buddhist mainstream to this day.
The current state of research
During the colonial era tantric traditions first came to the notice of scholars in the Western world, and were ignored by scholarship for a relatively long period. In the early twentieth century, the Kashmir Series of Texts and Studies began gradually to unveil to scholars a number of Śaiva tantric works that originated in Kashmir between the eighth and thirteenth centuries. Meanwhile, the scriptures of Indian Buddhist esotericism went largely unstudied for much of the twentieth century, and those that did receive attention were often studied through translations into Chinese and Tibetan.
Interest has grown dramatically in recent years, and a considerable quantity of secondary literature has appeared. However, many misconceptions persist, and much of the research that is done is not grounded in the original texts. Few of the primary authorities for the tantric religions have been reliably edited or translated. Although the large body of works still surviving in Sanskrit manuscripts has begun to attract more attention it remains mostly neglected. The rigorous study of these texts is a matter of basic and urgent necessity.
The broad approach: studying across traditions
Though the individual traditions of tantra have begun to receive some attention from scholars, they are usually studied in what Michel Strickmann called “hermetic isolation”. The value of a broad approach in which tantric Śaivism, Vaiṣṇavism and Buddhism are studied together has been shown in exemplary fashion by two trail-blazing articles of Alexis Sanderson (1994 and 2001 (PDF documents)). The first demonstrates certain relationships between parts of the Śaiva and Buddhist tantric canons, and the second shows an even wider range of interrelationships, as its self-explanatory title declares: ‘History through Textual Criticism in the study of Śaivism, the Pañcarātra and the Buddhist Yoginītantras’.
By investigating the full spectrum of tantric literature, we will attain a richer and more nuanced understanding of what are in fact closely related, competing traditions. This approach follows naturally from findings that the authors of the tantras themselves frequently reached across sectarian boundaries.