By Acharya David Frawley (Pandit Vamadeva Shastri)
Tantra and Veda: One Tradition
A number of writers and teachers, particularly in Western academia, have tried to divide the two great traditions of India of Veda and Tantra as different or even contrary. Some Yoga teachers have uncritically taken up this view as well. They see the Vedic tradition as Aryan and patriarchal and the Tantric tradition as non-Aryan and matriarchal. They identify the Vedic tradition with invading Aryans and the Tantric tradition with indigenous Dravidians. They see the Tantric as worshipping the Mother Goddess and the Vedic as rejecting her. They imply that Vedic and Tantric ideas and practices are very different.
Now that the Aryan Invasion theory is severely in question, and the Sarasvati River of Vedic fame, discovered as the main homeland of civilization in ancient India, we should reexamine these views. In my own more than thirty years of studying Vedic and Tantric texts in the original Sanskrit, I have also found remarkable connections between the two traditions.
Vedic and Tantric traditions are one, though with different orientations. The Vedic tradition is an earlier form of the Tantric, which itself is a later development of Vedic practices. Tantric teachings abound in the use of Vedic mantras and the mysticism of the Sanskrit alphabet. They use Vedic fire altars and practices and honor Vedic deities at an inner level. Inner Tantric Yoga reflects the four main Vedic deities of Agni, Soma, Vayu and Surya (the forces of fire, moon, wind and sun).
The easiest correlation to bear in mind between the Vedic and the Tantric is that whereas the Vedas emphasize the Jyotirmaya Purusha, ‘the Being or Person made of light’, the Tantras emphasize the Shaktimaya Devi, ‘the Goddess made of energy’. Yet light and energy as consciousness and force are one. The Purusha of light is one with its energy or Shakti. So the two traditions cannot be separated either. We could call the Vedic Yoga a ‘Vedic Light Yoga’ and the Tantric Yoga a ‘Tantric Energy Yoga’. The two are not only related historically but are complementary in their mantras and practices.
The Vedic view emphasizes the Shiva principle, though often under the abstract forms of Brahman, Purusha and Atman, and in the form of different Vedic deities (like Agni and Soma) which reflect the cosmic masculine energy and light form identified with Shiva. Yet the Vedas also recognize the Shakti principle as Vak or the power of the Divine Word, which is said to be the Veda-Mata or ‘Mother of the Vedas’. The Goddess pervades the Vedas, not so much as a particular deity but as the Vedic mantra itself, though many feminine deities also exist and each Vedic God has his corresponding Goddess!
The Tantric view emphasizes the Shakti principle as the great Goddess but recognizes the light principle with Shiva as ‘Prakasha’ or pure illumination. Tantric Yoga also aims at the realization of Atman and Brahman, defined both as the light and energy of consciousness, Chid-jyoti and Chit-Shakti.
Human and Nature Images
Another difference of orientation between Vedic and Tantric Yoga is that the Vedic deities are first of all powers of nature like Fire, Wind, Sun and Moon. Their human forms or anthropomorphic sides remain vague. They are seldom portrayed in the form of a human figure. Tantric Deities, on the other hand, like Shiva and Shakti, are first of all anthropomorphic figures, with a human body, gestures and ornaments defined and delineated quite clearly and frequently. Yet Tantric deities have a deep nature symbolism with the Goddess and the mountain stream and Shiva as the mountain, for example, so this distinction is only general.
The Vedas center around four great Devatas (principles of light) as Agni (fire), Soma (water and moon), Indra-Vayu (lightning) and Surya (the Sun), as the inner and outer forms of light in the universe. Agni is the power of speech, mantra and the Divine Word. Soma is the power of the mind, meditation and Divine bliss. Indra is the power of perception, discrimination and direct realization of the higher Self. Surya is the supreme light of the Self and the power of life on all levels. Yet each of these forms of light has its corresponding forms of energy as fire energy, lunar energy, solar energy and electrical energy.
Tantric Yoga revolves around these same forces as Sun, Moon, Lightning and Fire. These forces appear as Goddesses in Tantra with Soma, the lunar reflective force, as the Goddess Lalita or Tripura Sundari and the crown chakra and the cosmic mind. Vedic Indra relates to Tantric Chinnamasta as the power of lightning perception in the eyes, the third eye. Surya is the solar power of life and awareness, the Self in the heart, which is Bhadra Kali among the Goddesses. Agni is the Kundalini fire in the root chakra, which is the Goddess Bhairavi and the ultimate power of speech. Vayu or Wind is the general Kriya Shakti force that is Kali in the broader sense as the cosmic Prana.
Both Vedic and Tantric Yogas teach how to awaken these four light and energy centers in the body. The fire in the three lower chakras (particularly the root chakra); the Moon in the three higher chakras (particularly the crown chakra); the Sun in the heart; and lightning working through the third eye as the general power of Shakti or energization. The Tantric Agni-Soma or Shiva-Shakti Yoga is another form of the Vedic Agni-Soma ritual on an internal level. Tantric Yoga which aims balancing Agni and Soma as Shiva and Shakti is a form of the Vedic Yoga.
Between Veda and Tantra on a practical level there is also no real difference. Each has various levels of practices from the mundane to the transcendent. Even the Vamachara or left-handed path of Tantra, often denigrated as non-Vedic for its more sensate approach, has its counterpart in Vedic practices involving ritual use of intoxicants, meat or sacred sexual, as well as the use of rituals and mantras for achieving the ordinary goals of life like wealth, progeny or victory over one’s enemies. Tantra commonly employs Vedic mantras, fire rituals and other Vedic symbols even along its left-handed approaches.
Yet both Tantra and Veda contain and emphasize the right-handed approach or approach of dharma which emphasizes a sattvic or pure life-style. They both share a common goal of Self-realization and have many teachings aiming at direct awakening into the Absolute.
Shakti and the Vedas
The Vedic rishis all honored Shakti, which is primarily Vak Shakti or the ‘power of the Divine Word’. Their mantras are the manifestations of Shakti and carry the power of all creation and the secrets of cosmogenesis. The Rigveda itself is a creation of Kundalini Shakti, which is the power of Vak or Divine Speech, as it manifested at the beginning of this particular world age, but not merely in individuals but in great families of seers or Rishis. The Rigveda itself is perhaps the greatest mantric effusion of Kundalini Shakti at a collective level.
The Shakti of the Vedic hymns is the strongest of all stotras or Sanskrit hymns, reflecting the very rhythms of cosmic creation and the thousand syllables of the crown chakra. Yet bija mantras like Hrim and Shrim are more defined in Tantra and the Tantric bijas are the strongest of all bijas, the primal sounds behind the universe. The Vedas reflect the metrical power of Sanskrit, whereas Tantra reflects the power of Sanskrit seed sounds.
Kashmir Shaivism, perhaps the most comprehensive Tantric philosophy, contains an elaborate system of relating the letters of the Sanskrit alphabet to all the cosmic principles from the Absolute to the earth element. It views the Sanskrit letters as the Shaktis and the Mothers (Matrikas) through which everything in the universe is energized.
The older Vedic tradition contained a similar emphasis on the Sanskrit alphabet and letters, though many of the details have been lost. According the Vedas generally, as in the Chandogya Upanishads, the vowels relate to Indra (Purusha) and the consonants to death (Prakriti). In the Aitareya Aranyaka the sibilants or s and h sounds are said to relate to Prana. This is a corner stone of the Kashmir Shaivite view as well. The great system of Kashmir Shaivism with its deities, mantras, pranas and tattvas reflecting the Sanskrit alphabet is a formulation of the older Vedic model.
Shiva, if we look deeply, is the Supreme Deity of the Rig Veda and its four main light forms as Agni, Soma, Surya and Indra (Vidyut). This statement may seem unusual, if not absurd, for those used to thinking that Vedas and Agamas are different or that Shiva is not a Vedic deity, because his name and form is not much present there. The problem is that such views only look superficially at the names and forms not to the inner content and energy of the Vedas.
Shiva is often called ‘Agni-Somatmakam’, meaning that ‘he has the nature of Agni and Soma’ as fire and water and all the other dualities that the two represent. Agni is his fierce or Rudra form. Soma is his blissful and linga form. Shiva is also regarded as Surya or the Sun, the pure light, Prakasha. As Prana, Shiva is also Vayu. He is Indra as the lord of perception and the power of mantra.
Shiva is the background deity of the Rigveda of which the other four main deities are but forms or manifestations. On one hand, they are facets of Shiva. On the other hand, they are like the sons of Shiva, which are his manifestations, with Rudra as the great father God in the Rigveda. The Vedic Yajna is itself the Tantric Yoga as an outer ritual, worship of the outer fire. Tantric Yoga is the Vedic Yajna internalized, worship of the inner fire of the Kundalini. The worship of Shiva maintains many Vedic forms of fire worship, use of Vedic mantras and communion with nature. Shaivites mark themselves with the sacred ash or Vibhuti from the fire. The Rudram, the most famous chant to Shiva, which is found in the Yajurveda, makes Shiva’s identity with the Vedic sacrifice very clear.
In our future books, articles and teachings we will be exploring these two great forms of Yoga as the Vedic Light Yoga and Tantric Energy Yoga, particularly from a more practical side. Bringing out these two great Yogas and their connections will help us create a new and more powerful inner Yoga today that can use both light and energy to transform us from within.