By Teun Goudriaan and Sanjukta Gupta
Published by Otto Harraasowitz, Wiesbaden - 1981
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What is, after all, a Tantra? The term itself is vague; it is applied in several other provinces of Indian literature to a technical “expose” or “handbook” which in a more or less extensive way deals with a certain subject. Sometimes it means little more than “tradition”, “specialism”, for instance in the word Bhutatantra “the lore of exorcism of spirits” or Matrtantra “the set of rules for the worship of Mother goddesses”.
A similar meaning can be assumed when Tantra- serves as the first member of compound titles: Tantra-sadbhava “The Real Essence of Tantra”. One could also speak of “the Tantra of Siva” or of Devi. Only in the course of tradition seems the term to have undergone a specialization towards denoting individual religious texts of Saiva and especially Sakta denomination.
It would on the other hand be a serious error to hold that the whole of Sakta Tantric literature would be called Tantra. The use of titles is much too varied for that, although there has certainly been a tendency at work to increase the incidence of “Tantras” by simply putting the word behind other titles. In this way, Kularnava became Kularnavatantra; Tantraraja became Tantrarajatantra; Vinasikha was henceforth known as Vinasikhatantra; and so on. Even digests and commentaries might be subjected to the process: Umananda’s Nityotsava is called Nityotsavatantra in some Mss., while Ksemaraja’s commentary Uddyota “Elucidation” on the NT obtained the title Uddyotatantra in one Ms.
The historical position of the term Tantra in the Tantric tradition is therefore not entirely clear and we may assume that it only gradually came to be closely affiliated with Sakta and Sakti-oriented Saiva literature. Besides, “Tantra” is often scarcely distinguished from “Agama”.
The Bhagavatapurana (4, 24, 62) alludes to people who are experienced in Veda as well as Tantra and the Sanskrit commentary by Sridhara explains tantra by agama. In some older Tantric sources, the earlier literature of the school is referred to as “Agama". Some Saiva Agamas must have been transmitted for some time in the North of India as Tantras, while even Pancaratra Samhitas could be denoted by the latter.
A tantric form of the Hindu Goddess Kali. Folio from a book of Iconography, Nepal, 17th century.
Credit: Los Angeles County Museum of Art
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