At times, when I talk to people and share my passion of authentic Tantra, while waving my hands and getting goosebumps all over my body, my collocutors often get interested to learn more and ask me for suggestions on how could they also learn this very unknown in the West, very amazing life-transforming science. This article is for all of you, who may have heard about Tantra, and would like to educate yourself a bit, in order to give yourself this simple and powerful gift, hiding in plain sight.
It’s very likely that you encountered the term “Tantra” in the context of Tantric Sex, and if that’s what you’re after, please see my article: How Tantric Is Tantric Sex?, where you will learn the differences between traditional Tantra and Western Tantra (Neo-Tantra). In the current article I will discuss teachers and teachings, related specifically to the authentic Tantra, some of which may integrate Neo-Tantra (Tantric Sex) as well.
Kashmir Shavism and Shaiva Tantra
There existed multiple branches of Tantra over the last 15+ centuries. Since 2008 I have been studying a particular branch, that’s is the most known and studied nowadays in the West and that’s of Kashmir Shaivism, which is a sub-branch of Shaiva Tantra, coming from the masters who lived in Kashmir, India. It’s one of the most known in the West because we had Swami Lakshmanjoo, the last of the masters in the Kashmir Shaivism lineage, share his knowledge with a group of Western disciples, who kept the flame alive after his passing in 1981. I traveled to his Ashrams in Shrinagar, Kashmir and New Delhi * and sadly the local disciples of his don’t really practice the full range of Swami’s teachings, but primarily meet to sing bhajans, and do an occasional conference. It’s the Western disciples, who received the direct transmission from Swami during 70s and 80s and couldn’t help but to continue transmitting the light to the rest of us, who missed that opportunity. I’m very grateful to those few persons who made the preservation of this knowledge their life’s purpose.
footnote *: I had an amazing spiritual experience spending a very brief time at Swami Lakshmanjoo’s Ashram in New Delhi, but I will share that story with you in another article.
Could You Learn Tantra From Books?
Many things can be learned from books. This is not the case with Shaiva Tantra. The reason is very simple. Tantra goes beyond the mind and therefore knowledge can only take you part way, and then you have to drop the mind, and have the ineffable experience of the foundation that lies beyond the mind, the foundation, which most of us can’t see because the mind is in the way. If you’re very lucky, that experience, often called “the grace”, may come to you on its own accord. For most of us however we need to make contact with someone who already have the experience and can transmit it to us. In order to get it you need to find a master, who can transmit it to you. Such master doesn’t have to be a known and recognized “guru”, it could be a beggar on a street, and you won’t know it.
According to the stories written in books, most masters have never given enlightenment (deeksha) to their disciples. If a master deems you ready to receive, he will give you a “seed” transmission that will eventually lead you to your own liberation. This is called the Shaktipat. As I mentioned earlier you could receive one without having a master as well, but it’s less likely to happen. Once that acorn of light sprouts in your heart, you will have no choice (in a good way), but to experience the longing to see that sprout grow into a strong oak of you remembering who you are, and finding the divine ecstasy and love in everything around you. This is not because you will stop seeing bad things as bad, and start seeing everything as good, but because you will be in awe of it all as it is.
Shaiva Tantra is primarily a monistic science 1. Which means that while being on this path, the duality of good and bad, of tall and short, of man and woman, of friend and foe, of day and night, etc. will start slowly dissolving and there will be a transition to the experience of oneness. As long as your mind is attached to the duality of this world, suffering will always be there for you, because anything that comes up has to come down according to the laws of physics. Your mind cannot transcend this duality, because if it could, you would perish very quickly, since if you are one with all, why would you eat or drink of something that is already part of you. Only if you receive the grace and transcend the mind you might be able to continue existing and participating in this dual-by-design world, while knowing the whole time that are you one with all, and at the same time that you’re part of the matrix where you play the game, pretending to be separated 2. Mind you, I have not received this grace, and can only suggest what it might look like, based on my studies and my very minor glimpses into these states. Therefore I could be totally wrong, and moreover, even if I were to experience the full grace, I would not be able to explain it to you. How does one uses a mind to explain to another mind something that’s beyond mind?
footnote 1: please don’t confuse monism with monotheism. monism is the concept of oneness for all of existence, whereas monotheism is the belief that there is only one God.
footnote 2: Ramana Maharshi defined this state as Sahaja Nirvikalpa Samadhi, which is a state of oneness where the experiencer also simultaneously has the full use of the human faculties.
Finally, a path to liberation through a doctrine of asceticism, such as Vedanta, clearly appeals to very few people in our day and age. Whereas Tantra with all its juiciness and richness sounds like the obvious, even compelling choice for most of us modern spiritual seekers. A big problem lies here when you journey on this road without a master. When an ascetic tries to break away from the temptations of this illusionary world (maya), regardless whether he does it well or not so well, he steadily moves towards his chosen destination. When an beginner Tantric student hears about oneness, great sex, delicious food and happy life as a spiritual path, she embraces it as a concept and believes she is on the right path. Unfortunately very often she goes nowhere. A Tantric path suggests that you can do anything and everything that you like and enjoy doing, but at the very least you need to cultivate a simple awareness, while you engage in anything. Without a teacher, who, out of love, and with a razor sharp discrimination of truth, can point out to you your sweet delusions, it’s very easy to think you’re on the Tantric path, when in reality you are not. There will be no harm done as such, other than slowing you down and directing you away from your longing. I’m sure you have heard that song that goes: “You don’t need a guru, you’re the guru”, which is true only when you reach a certain level of self-realization and oh so not true for someone who is a beginner. At the very least find someone, who is on a similar path and regulartly try to give each other an honest, unapologetic reality check, to help you adjust your course, if you swayed from it. And based on my personal experience I can say with conviction that it’s almost guaranteed that it happens to all of us humans, thanks to our amazingly cunning ego.
What I shared so far is here not to scare or discourage you from pursuing this curiosity of yours. On the contrary — every small step you make studying authentic Tantra (and ideally from a master) adds up. Gradually your life will start having a dramatic shift away from suffering and towards the state of simple unconditional joy and love. I say that out of experience, and those, who know me, can attest to its truth, by observing a dramatic shift in the way I have been showing up in the world over the period of the last 9 years. And I have a long way to go still ;)
While I don’t recommend studying Tantra only from the books, books can be a wonderful support for inspiration, research, self-inquiry, creating a “map” of what’s possible, finding what resonates for you, so that you would know to ask the right questions, to recognize false gurus, etc. And of course once you have been studying with a master and you have your own foundation, more technical books can be used for deepening your knowledge.
Another interesting power of books comes in the form of a special Tantric “technology”, called samyama, where one identifies with the object of her attention and through it becomes like the object. I will not delve into the details of this practice in this context, but will only share the possible outcomes. If you read the words of a master and you surrender to the experience of how your body receives the words you read, you have the potential to receive a direct transmission of the master, who wrote those words, i.e. it’d be almost as powerful as sitting at the feet of that master, while him sharing that same wisdom, you found written down. Regardless whether the person, who wrote the pearls of wisdom, is still in his body or not, the energetic imprint that was created by the original emission will never die, and therefore anybody can tap into it at any time.
Probably one of the best books I have ever read on authentic Tantra that targets beginners and intermediate students of Tantra is: “Tantra Illuminated: The Philosophy, History, and Practice of a Timeless Tradition” by Christopher D. Wallis. I got myself both the audiobook and the printed version. I didn’t know anything about Christopher, when I bought that book, and I was astonished what gem I have found once I started listening to the book. It’s written by a very unique person, who is both a scholar and a practitioner of Tantra, who I can clearly tell, not only is in touch with a direct experience of that ineffable light, which I felt by experiencing my body reverberating with love, as I listened to him narrate the book, but who is also very good at clearly conveying the complicated nuances of these magnificent teachings. If you were to ask about just one book to acquire I’d say this would be the one. I recommend the audiobook, narrated by Christopher, due to the visceral gift of transmission that you get, and the text version for taking it at your own speed, especially for the parts of the book, where complex techniques are “unpacked“, to use Christopher’s term for breaking down and gradually explaining something non-trivial.
If you’d like to start with easy reading, that may inspire you to learn more, the following two books, with excellent story telling by Daniel Odier, would fit well in that category:
- Daniel Odier – Desire – The Tantric Path to Awakening
- Daniel Odier – Tantric Quest – An Encounter With Absolute Love
“Omar V. Garrison – Tantra – The Yoga of Sex” is also very accessible to complete beginners.
“Tantra: The Cult of the Feminine” is a fantastic book by Andre Van Lysebeth, which explores the history of humanity and shows how women used to play a major role in most societies, and that it’s only in the recent times, men became in charge of the world as we know it.
Alain Danielou’s “Shiva and the Primordial Tradition” gives insights on where Shaivism fits into the Western world, including a discussion on sacred sexuality.
The following books are more serious and give you more technical insights on Tantric Shaivism, while being very accessible to beginners:
- Swami Shankarananda – The Yoga of Kashmir Shaivism – Consciousness is Everything
- J. R. Picken – Creator, Protector, Destroyer
Georg Feuerstein’s books are slightly of a drier and more scholarly style, but nevertheless are of an excellent content.
Work with metaphysical mandalas, called yantras, is a big part of Tantric practice. Harish Johari in “Tools for Tantra” teaches the science of using yantras, and includes a large set of beautifully constructed yantras. Part of the book is accessible to beginners, the rest of it is for more advanced adepts.
If you like arts, Tantra practitioners left behind a lot of beautiful artifacts and there are many many books displaying and discussing those. Here are a few to start with:
- Ajit Mookerjee, Madhu Khanna – The Tantric Way – Art, Science, Ritual
- Ajit Mookerjee – Tantra Asana
- Philip S. Rawson – Tantra – The Indian Cult Of Ecstasy
- Philip S. Rawson – The Art of Tantra
If you are already versed in the foundation of Shaiva Tantra and would like to explore concrete techniques, that you can adopt in your daily life, I’d recommend exploring Vijnana Bhairava Tantra. Please see my article: 112 Ways to High States of Consciousness Without Doing Anything Special – The Secrets of Vijnana Bhairava Tantra, which contains recommendations for the different translations and interpretations of this trove of treasures.
If you are an advanced practitioner, for more serious study, the following authors are recommended. Albeit some of them wrote on other topics, besides Shaivism. They are listed in alphabetical order:
- Alain Danielou
- Alexis Sanderson
- Andre Padoux
- Bettina Baumer
- Boris Marjanovic
- Christopher D. Wallis
- Christopher Tompkins
- Daniel Odier
- David Gordon White
- David Peter Lawrence
- Dominic Goodall
- Gavin Flood
- Gudrun Buhnemann
- Jaideva Singh
- John R. Dupuche
- John Woodroffe (Arthur Avalon)
- Lilian Silburn
- Loriliai Biernacki
- Lorin Roche
- Mark Dyczkowski
- Mike Magee
- Moti Lal Pandit
- Navjivan Rastogi
- Raffaele Torella
- Shaman Hatley
- Swami Chetanananda
- Swami Lakshmanjoo
- Swami Muktananda
and many others. There are also many excellent works written in French, Italian and German, if you speak those languages.
Some of the book authors listed above created magnificent video training programs, which makes it possible for you to come as close to the masters as possible, without leaving the comfort of your home. Some of those include:
- Mark Dyczkowski’s Tantraloka study and other discources
- Swami Lakshmanjoo’s teachings via Universal Shaiva Fellowship and Lakshmanjoo Academy
Recently I’ve been slowly advancing through the Tantraloka video discourses by Mark Dyczkowski. I find those a bit difficult to follow because of the lack of focus on the subject at hand. Yet, any sidetracking Mark embarks on during his teachings is usually insightful and thought provoking. Mark did an amazing job translating Tantraloka to English. It is considered to be one of the most important Shaiva Tantra teachings by Abhinava Gupta, a true master and genius from many centuries back in time. Mark hasn’t completed the discourses yet — this Tantra is very long and complex even for the advanced students. You can buy the study recordings on his website.
Shaiva Tantra Workshops and Retreats
There are several masters and scholars who teach Shaiva Tantra workshops and facilitate retreats around the world. Here is a non-exhaustive list of such:
- Bettina Baumer
- Christopher D. Wallis
- Igor Kufayev
- Lorin Roche
- Mark Dyczkowski
- Paul Muller-Ortega
- Swami Khecaranatha
- Swami Vivekananda Saraswati
- Vivek Desai (Swami Muktananda lineage)
Most travel to various countries to teach, so please check their websites for their latest offerings.
In person I have only taken Kashmir Shaivism foundation workshops and advanced trainings with Swami Vivekananda Saraswati, while studying at Agama Yoga. Taught by an engineer, those are very powerful transmissions of both the content and the “magic”. These deeply moved and inspired me to continue on this path most likely for the rest of my life.
Shaiva Tantra Schools
There are few places in the world, where you can immerse yourself in Shaiva Tantra Yoga studies full time, and which will require you to relocate there for the duration of the studies. These include:
- Agama Yoga (Koh Phangan, Thailand) and its branches around the world, founded by Swami Vivekananda Saraswati. This is where I spent 3.5 years, which took to complete their full Tantra Yoga program and multiple other trainings and retreats provided in parallel with the main curriculum. If you’re of an engineering mindset, like I’m, you’re going to have a blast there. Hint: the founder is an Electrical Engineer by education (just like me). I must add that everything changes over time, so I hope that if you decided to go there now, you will find it just as good as it was when I studied there or better. I left in 2012.
- MISA and its branches, founded by Gregorian Bivolaru, who is both a very controversial figure, and a very powerful master. Agama Yoga’s founder was originally trained at MISA. I’m not sure what their website is.
- Swami Shankarananda’s schools in Australia. I personally don’t know anything about that school. His book on Kashmir Shaivism listed earlier is an excellent one.
All the listed above schools are surrounded by various degrees of scandals and controversies, from minor ones to huge legal cases. Don’t flush the baby with the dirty waters though, research before you go and don’t drop common sense when you engage in any activities. If it doesn’t sound right to you, don’t engage.
One of the unusual things that Tantra teaches is that an enlightened master can still be quite a misfit for the rest of the world. That’s why, on any serious Yoga path, it’s recommended to go slowly, at all times working on your character, so that when you get to oneness your ego won’t be very difficult to be around. This is because in Tantra everything gets amplified many-fold, so whatever gifts you have when you start on that path, become even bigger gifts over time and whatever imperfections you possess become just as big.
The other very important trait a Tantric adept is recommended to develop is discrimination, spiritual and worldly. Because without one, both the spiritual and worldly journeys can be much more difficult than they ought to be.
note: this article is a work in progress and will probably never be complete, since I can’t possible know of all offerings out there in the world. I hope that there are still some amazing Tantric Masters who do their practice in remote caves and forests and the world doesn’t even know about their existence. And that one day, they will come out of their retreat and share their gifts with those for us who seek to be close to such masters and learn from them.
If you would like to recommend any additions please do so via the comments below. Thank you.
Main illustration in this article: Sabasana. Seated upon the corpse (“discarded personality”), wearing the “Mahamudra” symbolic ornaments (Crown, Ear-rings etc.) the Yogin-ascetic holds the Skull (Kapala) of Renunciation and wields the sword and shield, cutting off all discriminating thoughts, Nepali manuscript, 18th century : (Private Collection). Source: Nik Douglas – Tantra Yoga (1971).
Tags: books, retreats, tantra, teachers, workshops
Thank you for writing this comprehensive guide to this important tradition of tantra. Namaste
Excellent article about shaiva tantra ! I didn’t knew anything about this way.
Very helpful reflected summary.
Thank you very much for all your contributions, Stas.
(I will definitely pass on the link to our students…)
Thank you for taking your valuable time to create such a detailed resource. Much appreciated!
Thank you so much Stas! You answer many of my questions. I just got Tantra Illuminated and a world is opening. I am a long term yoga student and teacher but i kept feeling unsure about the origin of practices. Now I am hooked on the shaiva tantra path and your suggestions for reading and other searches are very valuable. I will look at more of your posts too.
I’m glad you found it useful, Aleid