Tantra and Yoga

Tantra and Yoga

By Eric Baret

Q: I heard you say that Tantra is not a Sanskrit word, so can you tell me what is the origin of the word?

Eric Baret: Actually, it is a Sanskrit word, but there is no word for Tantrism. Tantra basically means book. Again, you have many Tantras in India. Some Tantras, like the Tanka Tantra, are not tantric, while other texts which are not called Tantra are tantric.

Tantrism as such is a 19th century invention. It has very little meaning. It was popularized by Rajneesh and such. After the Tibetan people were thrown away of Tibet, tantric Buddhism became popular, and people mixed Hindu and Buddhist tantra, which really have nothing to do with each other. So, the word Tantrism became known then. Before that, it was very hardly used.

And we cannot define exactly what is Tantra. As for Kashmir Shaivism, it is a modern expression too, it doesn't exist in Sanskrit, because it contains all kinds of teachings. Some are dualistic, some are nondualistic. Even one single master like Abhinavagupta has written texts, and taught, from different points of view. There is Trika, which he put at the top, but also Kaula, Pratyabijna, Krama, Mata, which all were written from different angles and used by different teachers. Abhinavagupta wrote these texts from different point of view, because there is no contradiction. Like as a bee takes nectar from different flowers, so can the student receive from all these teachers.

To come back to your question, Tantra has no meaning as such. What we call tantrism in the West is a very modern invention, which has very little to do with Eastern tantrism. Even with the latter, we need to know which tantrism we talk about, where from and at what period of history of India. Because there is a huge difference between the Bauls of Bengal, the tantrism of Kerala, the tantrism of Benares, the Nath tantrism, and the different tantrisms of Kashmir. So they are beautiful words with very little meaning.

Q: Okay. So, is it similar to the word yoga? I remember you were saying something like modern yoga is an invention of the modern times.

Eric Baret: Yes, and it's not a scoop. We all know that modern yoga comes from Western gymnastics, and from India too of course, but the emphasis on the asanas is an extremely late thing, and you can prove that, because if you travel all over India, you will never see an asana position represented in a temple, except for the sitting positions: padmasana, swastikasana, shivasana, and vajrasana. I defy anybody to show me a middle-age mayurasana, bujangasana, or shishrasana. In Indian temples, you can find everything. All the mudras, all the martial arts movements, everything is described in Indian temple iconography, everything except yoga asanas. Even circus acrobatics, but no asanas. Why? Because asanas were never important. The point of asanas was basically, as the old Patanjali knew, to come to a stable, quiet, comfortable position. To be able to sit quietly, most people need to practice all the other asanas to prepare their body, their knees, their back etc., but as such, asanas were never thought of as very important. It was actually considered sort of vulgar to practice asanas in India, a bit like in Japan it was considered vulgar to practice karate. Japanese aristocrats did not practice karate, they practiced Iaido, the sword tradition. Karate was for the coolies, the taxi drivers, the servants. Similarly, in India, asanas were for low caste people. The emphasis was to come to a sitting position, to be able to be open to life. Yes, the asanas were certainly taught, but they were never really important. The first text about asanas are from the late Middle Ages, 13th, 14th century. We have little detail before the 16th, 17th century. So, what you call modern yoga, with the accent on the asanas and body work is very modern. This is no criticism. For most people it is perfectly proper. It's like the sun salutation, which we know is something invented in the early 20th century for the schools, to make people more alert physically, which has nothing to do with yoga. A yoga asana is something you stay a long time in, with no movement, it's not ritual gymnastics.

So modern yoga is modern, it has its beauty, it has its intelligence, but it's not part of a tradition. Kashmiri yoga is very different from that. We don't use the body, we listen to the body, so there is no striving, there is no tension. The body is used as a tool to open to listening, not as a way to reach something. Modern yoga is very functional for most people. Most people are interested in staying fit, not in listening to the deeper layer of life, so everything has its right place.