Tantra vs Vedanta

Tantra vs Vedanta

By Eric Baret

Q: Could you explain the difference between Tantra, Vedanta and Kashmir Shaivism?

Eric Baret: In a way, one could say that the Vedanta is a concretization of the Veda. Vedanta means the end of the Vedas. So historically there is this first revelation in India, maybe 1,000 years BC, whatever. The four Vedas end with what we call the Upanishads, which consist of the philosophical aspect of the Vedas. And so, the Upanishads are called the Vedanta, the end of the Vedas. There are five Vedantas, including three very important ones, Madhva, Ramanuja, and Shankaracharya; the dualistic, dualistic-nondualistic, and nondualistic Vedantas.

One could say that, perhaps 2,000 years later, Tantrism has been like a second revelation for India. Of course, the dating is very approximate, because Hindu Tantras are not dated, contrary to Buddhist Tantras. So as much we have dates for the Hevajra, or Chakrasamvara, the early Buddhist Tantras, we don't have dates for the early Hindu Tantras like the Brahmayamala Tantra, the Rudrayamala Tantra, or the Vijnanabhairava Tantra. But let's say they happen in the early Middle Ages.

So, actually there's no difference in a deep sense, because they all talk about your inner freedom. The difference will be that the Vedantic teaching is part of classical Hinduism, which means it does respect the Varnas [social classes], the different steps of life, all the interdiction of the Vedas and so on. Tantra questions these elements.

We could say that the Upanishads talk about the essential, while Tantra talks about the expression of the essential in everyday life, in time and space. There is no difference. The Upanishads are not deeper than the Tantras, but the Tantras will explain how to transpose your understanding of the Upanishads. In a way, nonduality, as presented by the Upanishads, is an insight. When this insight has opened your heart, it will spread through body and mind, in space and time. How this spreading happens is the realm of the Tantras. The Tantras will talk about all walks of life, while Upanishads concentrate on the metaphysical.

For Jean Klein there was no opposition, there was no hierarchy between the two of them. I know that some scholars, like Liliane Silburn, often oppose Vedanta and Tantra, for the same reason as Abhinavagupta, which is one of the main, or the most famous, exponent of Tantra, often criticized Shankara. But he criticized the Buddhists as well. One must understand that in India, criticizing somebody doesn't mean criticizing the soul of their teaching, but it's just a way to express your own point of view. Abhinavagupta criticized the Buddha, and then gave him as an example. He criticized the Yoga Sutra, then used Patanjali as an example. So again, in India, criticizing doesn’t mean scorning the other teaching, it's just a way to explain more clearly your own. All Indian gurus have criticized other teachings. Shankaracharya did the same, there is no contradiction in India. All six Darshanas hold different points of view, and Tantras, which can be considered a seventh Darshana, as Raffaele Torella said, are just a different way to approach the same thing.

You could say that Tantra is the application of nondual experience. That is why, for example, bodywork has an important place in some tantric schools, even though this is not very clearly expressed in the texts. We only have the Vijnana Bhairava Tantra, and a few others, which give some examples of application of this nondual experience.

So, there's no actual opposition. And of course, Kashmir Shaivism is part of Tantra. Tantra is a very global word, and it has widely different meanings. One would like to say that Tantras are the books which describe Tantrism, but that’s not even true. There are some Tantras, like the Tanka Tantra, which are not tantric, and there are some tantric texts, like the Agamas, which are not Tantras. We don't want to go into a discussion of what is Tantra, because Tantra has different meanings in different moments in history and in different locations, from Assam to Tamil Nadu to Kerala to Kashmir to Uttar Pradesh to Bengal. There are many tantrisms in India, not to mention tantric Buddhism.

For us, for Jean Klein, Tantrism was an expression of nonduality in everyday life. It was an approach of this nondual feeling in affective relations, in sexual relations, in the way you eat, you move, you breathe, you sleep, in the way we explore all our emotional states, all of which is very much rooted in the texts we mentioned, the Vijnana Bhairava Tantra, or in some other Tantras where the accent is put on experience, on openness towards emotion, as a direct way to understanding.

And that, in a way, is the difference between the Vedas and the Tantras.  Vedas and Upanishads rely on a kind of direct intuition, and reject, relatively speaking, emotions. Whereas Tantra emphasizes emotion much more than thinking. Even when Abhinavagupta said that dhaka or sadhaka is a direct way to understanding, he doesn't mean sadhaka as a thinking process, but as an intuitive process, a direct openness, a direct intuition of awareness.

So, for us there is no difference. Jean Klein would say that Advaita is for exceptional people, and Tantra is for simple people. As we are generally very simple, myself included, Tantra is a more functional way. For some people with extraordinary qualifications, the direct Advaita of the Upanishads is a beautiful approach, but for most of us simple people, Tantra is much more democratic. That's more or less the way Jean Klein would express it.

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