Tantra is perhaps the oldest, and the youngest form of yoga practised today. It is generally held to have been developed around 1500 years ago, c500CE, but in fact almost without exception the teachings of Tantra can be found to have existed since earliest times. Many scholars of east and west suggest the teachings of tantra date back to the preAryan era of the original tribal peoples and Dravidian culture of south India. As is so often the case, in Tantra we appear to have fundamental teachings repackaged for modern times. Revelatory teachings such as these are known as `shrutis`.
The word `tantra`, is based on the concept of expansion, extension, a loom and a web. As such it brings into the teachings all those aspects of yoga which are known as the astanga – the limbs of yoga described in the writings of Patanjali and others; the yama, niyama, asanas, pranayama, etc. However Tantra is unique in its attention to ritual, including aspects such as astrology and numerology, and particularly the recognition of the physical body as a part of the Divine creation. Where earlier forms of teaching had regarded the body as a `bag of filth` to be discarded as worthless, Tantra treasures the body and the senses as a way of connection with God.
Tantra is said to have developed specifically as being suitable for the dark age of Kali which we are said to be in. In this era (yuga) human kind is said to be in a state of serious and terminal decline morally and spiritually. It is said that with our fall into this abyss of morality etc we are no longer capable of achieving the spiritual results of earlier civilisations in the pre and Vedic eras.
A number of aspects separate Tantra from other forms of traditional yoga, notably the recognition of the feminine principle – shakti. Such is this importance that tantrism is divided into three main forms in turn honouring Shiva, Shakti or the two equally. The concept of a `kundalini` force, rising through the central axis of the spine, has created a whole body of teaching around the `chakras` and their relevance.
Much of the teaching is to be found in the written `tantras`. Many of the original writings are now thought to be lost, but many remain. The two of most significance are perhaps the `Mahanirvana-Tantra` and the `Kula-Arnava-Tantra`. However in all forms of yoga and esoteric teachings prime importance is placed on the value of oral transmission via a teacher or guru. Tantra can be studied academically but until there is guru/shishya (or chela) initiation it is regarded as no more than factual learning.
In yoga it is said that, ` when the time is right the teacher (guru) will appear`. This is particularly so in Tantra.