Meaning of Tantra

An investigation of the word Tantra

What does tantra mean? An investigation of the word Tantra. No, it has very little to do to describe sexual practices so often mentioned in the American alternative spiritual scene. Granted, tantra is a buzzword in our modern society, not least because it became popular through the practices just described. But the portion of sexual techniques is vanishingly small and would not deserve to carry the name tantra as a leading image to the outside world. Well, apparently it is true, sex sells.
Let's rather approach the real historical roots of this so exciting and profound teachings, as well as transformative practices of tantra.

Translation of the word Tantra

Tantra is a word that basically summarizes the centuries-old Tantric teachings. It is simply a name describing the practices originating from the tantric scriptures.
The word Tantra comes from the ancient Indian language Sanskrit and translates as "doctrine" or simply "book". To be more precise, the book usually refers to scriptures that are of some sacred degree, or given by a god or goddess. These tantras (sacred texts) have been dated around the 6th century and following. The word agama (to teach what has come down to us) was also used for these texts.
But the word Tantra also clearly indicates a specific (more or less complete) system of spiritual practices and their corresponding texts. So it could also be translated as "a system of spiritual practice (of a divine scripture)".
If one looks in the Dictionary, one finds "loom" or also "warp", which is often (rather wrongly according to the opinion of Christopher D. Wallis) equated with Tantra, but has little to do with it. In the original texts, at any rate, we cannot really find a connection concerning this translation.

So what is the interpretative meaning of the word tantra?

If we try to break down the word into its components and their roots, we already come closer to a meaningful translation. The word origin of the root "tan" means "expand on, elaborate on, propagate" according to Wallis. The root "tra" translates as "save, protect".
In the book "Tantra Illuminated" Wallis writes, quote:

"Because it elaborates copious and profound matters, especially relating to the principles of reality [tattvas] and mantras, and because it saves us [from the cycle of suffering], it is called a tantra."

Or in other words, tantra spreads wisdom which protects us. But like any Sanskrit word, there is more than one meaning. Nevertheless, "tra" could be seen as an apparatus for "tan" expansion. Like a mantra is a device "tra" to work with one's own mind "man".
There are not so many references of early teachers defining Tantra. However, one of these gurus was Rama Kantha (lived about 1000 CE) who defined Tantra (in the commentary to the Saardhatrishati Kaalottara) followed:

Tantra is a divinely revealed body of teachings, explaining what is necessary and what is a hinderance in the practice of the worship of the divine.

Personally, I find the interpretation of an expansion of awareness (which could be interpreted as knowledge) as very appropriate, although it is not directly found in the sources in such a way.

At INEA YOGA Retreat Centre and Yoga School Corfu, Greece we teach Tantra Hatha Yoga in drop-ins, online and on retreats. Write to us if you have further interest in learning this wonderful and transformative practice.

Cedric is head teacher of INEA•YOGA a Yoga School in Corfu, Greece. Check us out to find trainings, retreats and online videos.

Cedric Stein
Cedric Stein
Head Teacher INEA • YOGA

My mission is to create a safe space for you to connect to your inner being. By following your breath, being in the present moment and noticing yourself.

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