Comparing the Integral Yoga and Tantric Yoga

While Sri Aurobindo recognizes the “bold and larger” nature of the Tantric system, he also distinguishes it from the methodology and goals set forth for the integral Yoga itself. With regard to the integral Yoga he states: “This starts from the method of Vedanta to arrive at the aim of the Tantra. In the tantric method Shakti is all-important, becomes the key to the finding of spirit; in this synthesis spirit, soul is all-important, becomes the secret of the taking up of Shakti. The tantric method starts from the bottom and grades the ladder of ascent upwards to the summit; therefore its initial stress is upon the action of the awakened Shakti in the nervous system of the body and its centres; the opening of the six lotuses is the opening up of the ranges of the power of Spirit. Our synthesis takes man as a spirit in mind much more than a spirit in body and assumes in him the capacity to begin on that level, to spiritualise his being by the power of the soul in mind opening itself directly to a higher spiritual force and being and to perfect by that higher force so possessed and brought into action the whole of his nature. For that reason our initial stress has fallen upon the utilisation of the powers of soul in mind and the turning of the triple key of knowledge, works and love in the locks of the spirit; the Hathayogic methods can be dispensed with,–though there is no objection to their partial use,–the Rajayogic will only enter in as an informal element. To arrive by the shortest way at the largest development of spiritual power and being and divinise by it a liberated nature in the whole range of human living is our inspiring motive.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Four: The Yoga of Self-Perfection, Chapter 1, The Principle of the Integral Yoga, pg. 586

Knowledge, Will and Faith

The central conception of the Yogic paths based in Vedanta is that there is a silent consciousness that is separate from the active energy of the creation, and that consciousness can be realised and thereby provide Knowledge and Liberation from the bondage of action in the world. The active energy, in the form of Nature or Prakriti, is considered to be something of an illusion that binds us into an unreal set of relationships and holds us in ignorance of our true self and ultimate reality.

The central conception of the Tantric paths holds that the executive energy that creates the entire world of manifestation is real, and that through the identification with and worship of that Energy, or Shakti, ultimate knowledge and realisation can be achieved.

Sri Aurobindo’s integral viewpoint finds that each of them has seized upon one major aspect of the Truth, but that the complete realisation and liberation must harmonize the two poles into one. “But in the integral conception the Conscious Soul is the Lord, the Nature-Soul is his executive Energy. Purusha is of the nature of Sat, conscious self-existence pure and infinite; Shakti or Prakriti is of the nature of Chit,–it is power of the Purusha’s self-conscious existence, pure and infinite. The relation of the two exists between the poles of rest and action. When the energy is absorbed in the bliss of conscious self-existence, there is rest; when the Purusha pours itself out in the action of its Energy, there is action, creation and the enjoyment or Ananda of becoming.”

The enjoyment takes place through force of consciousness, Tapas. “The eventual omnipotence of Tapas and the infallible fulfilment of the Idea are the very foundation of all Yoga. In man we render these terms by Will and Faith,–a will that is eventually self-effective because it is of the substance of Knowledge and a faith that is the reflex in the lower consciousness of a Truth or real Idea yet unrealised in the manifestation. it is this self-certainty of the Idea which is meant by the Gita when it says, …’whatever is a man’s faith or the sure Idea in him, that he becomes.’ ”

The Taittiriya Upanishad points out “One becometh as the unexisting, if he knows the Eternal as negation; but if one knoweth of the Eternal that He is, then men know him for the saint and the one reality.” (Sri Aurobindo, The Upanishads, Taittiriya Upanishad, Brahmanandavalli, Chapter 6, pg. 270)

The integral approach recognises both poles that make up the totality of existence and thus, can find a way to accept the truth of Vedanta and the truth of Tantra without ultimate contradiction.

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Introduction: The Conditions of the Synthesis, Chapter 5, Synthesis, pp. 38-39

The Essential Principles of Tantric Yoga

If we recognize that the Vedantic tradition focuses on the realisation and achievement of Knowledge through the various paths of Yoga, in most cases through the abandonment of the outer life in favor of the inner spiritual contemplation and Oneness, we quickly can discern the fundamental difference in approach taken by the Tantra, which uses the manifested Energy in Nature, Prakriti, as the means and focus of the tantric realisation.

Tantra recognised a deep truth that was mostly obscured in the other paths; namely, that Nature is real, and it provides us an access point to the deeper spiritual realisations. Sri Aurobindo describes the essence of the Tantric insight: “But in Tantra it is rather Prakriti, the Nature-Soul, the Energy, the Will-in-Power executive in the universe. It was by learning and applying the intimate secrets of this Will-in-Power, its method, its Tantra, that the Tantric Yogin pursued the aims of his discipline,–mastery, perfection, liberation, beatitude. Instead of drawing back from manifested Nature and its difficulties, he confronted them, seized and conquered.”

Along the way, Tantra ran into several issues that created the subsequent concerns about this path. The first of these was the proliferation of “techniques’ (as we also saw in the review of Hatha Yoga or Raja Yoga) which tended to overshadow the core principles over time. Second, and perhaps more importantly, the method chosen by the Tantra laid the practitioner open to various forms of self-deception caused by the fulfillment of desires, which diverted the attention from the true goal and attainments sought by the Tantra in the purity of its vision. This is what led to the later abuses of the “left handed path” and the disrepute in which many hold the Tantric tradition.

Nevertheless, if the goal is to achieve a true synthesis of yoga, and to realise our Oneness with the Divine, not only in some aloof “beyond” but also in the very forms and activities of life, the insights provided by Tantra are an important and valuable aspect which must be integrated.

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Introduction: The Conditions of the Synthesis, Chapter 5, Synthesis, pg. 38

Introduction to the Path of Tantric Yoga

The Tantra has been widely misunderstood as a path of spiritual development. Sri Aurobindo points out that “Nevertheless, in its origin Tantra was a great and puissant system founded upon ideas which were at least partially true.” The concept behind the Tantra was that all energies and powers of life were divine and therefore, the courageous embracing of all aspects of life could lead to a divine realisation. There were unfortunately some who interpreted this as a license for all manner of practices, as Sri Aurobindo describes it “…a method of self-indulgence, a method of unrestrained social immorality.” This is what caused the widespread controversy about Tantra itself.

In its essence, the Tantric path is not limited to what has become known as the “left-handed path” (Vamamarga). There is also a “right-handed path” (Dakshinamarga), and of course, the popular idea of the left-handed path does not represent it in its actual underlying sense.

“In the ancient symbolic sense of the words Dakshina and Vama, it was the distinction between the way of Knowledge and the way of Ananda,–Nature in man liberating itself by right discrimination in power and practice of its own energies, elements and potentialities and Nature in man liberating itself by joyous acceptance in power and practice of its own energies, elements and potentialities.”

The power of this path stems from its open-eyed acceptance of the divine Power of Nature and a willingness to accept the Divinity in all of Life. The Tantra, rather than embracing an other-worldly abandonment of life, dives into and accepts life.

The core principles are sound, but the practice over time deteriorated as it became an excuse for indulgence and untransformed fulfillment of desires of various sorts. “But in both paths there was in the end an obscuration of principles, a deformation of symbols and a fall.”

There is still much that can be learned and appreciated from a truer understanding of the essence of Tantra.

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Introduction: The Conditions of the Synthesis, Chapter 5, Synthesis, pp. 37-38