In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Tantra

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • The Subtle Body
  • Tantric Art and Architecture
  • Tantric Ritual
  • Collective Works
  • Dictionaries of Tantra and Tantric Terms
  • “Popular” and “New Age” Tantra
  • Online Resources

Hinduism Tantra
Glen Alexander Hayes
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 April 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 August 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399318-0090


There has been a lively scholarly debate on the nature and origins of Hindu (and Buddhist) tantra since these diverse texts and traditions first came to the attention of colonial administrators and academics. Although the very category and definition of “tantra” have thus been thoroughly contested, the basic term refers to a range of South Asian ritual and philosophical traditions that date to at least the middle of the 1st millennium CE. What is now regarded as “tantra” (derived from a Sanskrit term meaning “weaving” and, hence, “exposition”) can involve any number of distinctive characteristics, including, but not limited to: a gendered cosmogony and cosmology, the necessity of initiation by a guru, special uses of mantras, divinization of the body, ritual sexual intercourse, visualization practices, elaborate pantheons, and transgressive antinomian practices. At the current time, the debate continues as to whether Buddhist or Hindu tantra came first. The earliest European scholarship, as discussed in Urban 2003 (cited underGeneral Overviews), tended to look askance at tantra as “degraded” forms of Buddhism and Hinduism due to the selective uses of sexual and transgressive practices. Thus, late Victorian scholars such as Sir John Woodroffe (see Other Studies of Tantra) tended to “deodorize” and “sanitize” tantra (to use Hugh B. Urban’s terms) to suit their own views of tantra as a “safe” and pure philosophy. It is only in the past few decades that scholars from around the world have begun to translate a wider range of tantric texts and conduct fieldwork among tantric communities, thus showing the incredible diversity of tantric traditions. Some, indeed, like the Saiva Kaula have been quite transgressive and used sexual fluids in their rituals. Others, such as the Śrīvidyā, have reinterpreted the transgressive practices as internal visualizations only, making tantra “safe” for the domestic householder of orthoprax Hinduism. But tantra was also to be discovered as part of the Western “countercultural” and “New Age” traditions of the 20th century, leading to entirely new, decontextualized (and, typically, oversexualized) forms of tantra, which were alluring to the Western consumer of spirituality. In contrast to these “pop culture” representations of tantra, scholars of art history and cognitive science have found that historical tantra provides a rich trove of useful materials for their own research. Finally, thanks to the Internet, there is an astonishing range of “online tantra,” much of it essentially pornographic. However, the Internet has also enabled the creation of many fine scholarly websites and databases for the study of tantra.

General Overviews

Although general studies of tantra date to the early 20th century (see Other Studies of Tantra), most of these reflected Western and Orientalist biases, as well as questionable textual skills. There have been many useful studies of Hindu tantra published since the 1960s. The following represent some of the most useful and comprehensive. Padoux 1987 is perhaps the most concise yet comprehensive English introduction to the subject for any reader, and it covers the major topics well. Sanderson 2007 is a detailed and extensive overview of the diverse Saiva tantric traditions and their gradual development, especially in Kashmir, showing the relationships between Saiva and Shakta teachings, as well as their various philosophical and ritual systems. Padoux 2010 is perhaps the most balanced and comprehensive introduction to Hindu tantra written to date, although it is available only in French at the current time. There is an emphasis on medieval scriptural traditions and orthodox ritual, with a final section on modern-day tantra in India and the West. Brooks 1990 is useful both as a detailed study of a South Indian tantric tradition and as an overview of the characteristics of tantra and the study of tantra. White 2000 is an important anthology of three dozen newly translated tantric texts from a variety of traditions and Asian countries, including a comprehensive overview by White. It amply shows the richness of tantra across cultures and social hierarchies. White 2003 is a fascinating study of the early history of “tantric sex” in early Hindu tantra, focusing on the worship of powerful female deities known as yoginīs. White argues that the basis of “tantric sex” was the exchange of powerful sexual fluids between male practitioners and the yoginīs, rather than the ecstatic experience of ritual coitus as assumed by many modern followers of tantra. Urban 2003 is perhaps the definitive study of the history of the study of tantra, as well as a fascinating overview of “popular” tantra and gurus in the 20th century. It also discusses major intellectual trends in scholarship in the 20th century. Davidson 2002, although focusing on the origins and growth of Buddhist tantra in India, also places Hindu tantra in the larger context of Indian history, politics, and religion. Davidson draws on an extensive range of texts, inscriptions, and archaeological evidence to support his arguments.

  • Brooks, Douglas Renfrew. The Secret of the Three Cities: An Introduction to Hindu Śākta Tantrism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990.

    A detailed study of a South Indian goddess-centered Hindu tantric tradition as well as an English translation of an important 18th-century Sanskrit tantric text. Good analysis of the history and complex practices of Śrīvidyā Shakta tantra. Includes a glossary of tantric terms, and an analysis of the mystical diagram called the śrīcakra yantra. Suitable for upper-level undergraduates.

  • Davidson, Ronald M. Indian Esoteric Buddhism: A Social History of the Tantric Movement. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002.

    Although Davidson’s work focuses on the origins and development of Buddhist tantra in India, his study is so rich and comprehensive that it also addresses the growth of Hindu tantra as well. Of special note are chapters 2, 4, and 5, which address issues of tantra and kingship as well as the growth of tantric institutions and popular movements.

  • Padoux, André. “Tantrism: An Overview.” In Encyclopedia of Religion. Vol. 14. Edited by Mircea Eliade, 272–274. New York: Macmillan, 1987.

    Arguably the most comprehensive and concise scholarly overview on tantra. Considers basic beliefs and practices of Hindu tantra, as well as issues of geography, sectarian variations, and pantheons. Padoux provides a very accessible entry for the general reader, but also explores subtleties of practices and available knowledge of history.

  • Padoux, André. Comprendre le tantrisme: Les sources hindoues. Paris: Albin Michel, 2010.

    The most balanced and comprehensive introduction to Hindu tantra written to date. Heavy emphasis on medieval scriptural traditions and orthodox ritual, with a final section on modern-day tantra in India and the West. In French.

  • Sanderson, Alexis. “The Śaiva Exegesis of Kashmir.” In Tantric Studies in Memory of Hélène Brunner. Edited by Dominic Goodall, and André Padoux, 231–443. Pondicherry, India: Institut Français de Pondichéry, 2007.

    A technical and detailed overview of the diverse Saiva tantric traditions and their gradual development, especially in Kashmir. Shows the relationships between Saiva and Shakta teachings, considering their various philosophical and ritual systems. Requires some background knowledge of Hinduism. Extensive use of unpublished manuscripts by a leading scholar in the field.

  • Urban, Hugh B. Tantra: Sex, Secrecy, Politics, and Power in the Study of Religion. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003.

    DOI: 10.1525/california/9780520230620.001.0001

    A definitive study of “tantra” in the history of religions and scholarship. Examines the interplay between Asian and Western, and popular and scholarly, ideas regarding tantra. Sees tantra as one aspect of dynamic cross-cultural dialogue. Considers pioneering figures like John Woodroffe, scholars like Mircea Eliade, and recent gurus like Swami Muktananda. Detailed treatment of “New Age” tantra.

  • White, David Gordon. Kiss of the Yoginī: “Tantric Sex” in Its South Asian Contexts. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003.

    A comprehensive study of the yoginīs in the Kaula traditions of medieval Kaula tantric sexual ritual practices. Using his own translations from a number of sources, White reveals the powerful exchanges of sexual fluids that were believed to take place between male adepts and the wild, encircling yoginīs.

  • White, David Gordon, ed. Tantra in Practice. Princeton Readings in Religions. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000.

    A wide-ranging anthology of thirty-six new translations of different types of tantric texts from Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, and even Islamic traditions, most previously unpublished. White’s valuable “Introduction” (pp. 3–38) provides keen insights on overall characteristics of tantric history, practice, and scholarship, especially the fading role of Asian kingship in upholding tantric traditions and rituals. Intended for undergraduates and above.

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