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Tantra (tŭnˈtrə) [key], in both Hinduism and Buddhism, esoteric tradition of ritual and yoga known for elaborate use of mantra, or symbolic speech, and mandala, or symbolic diagrams; the importance of female deities, or Shakti; cremation-ground practices such as meditation on corpses; and, more so in Hindu than in Buddhist tantra, the ritual use of wine, meat, and sexual intercourse. Tantric practices use both ritual and meditation to unify the devotee with the chosen deity. In Hindu Tantra, practice is graded into three types, corresponding to three classes of devotees: the animal, i.e., those in whom the guna, or quality, of tamas (darkness) predominates; the heroic, those in whom the guna of rajas (activity) predominates; and the divine, those in whom sattva (goodness) predominates (see Hindu philosophy). The practice of the heroic devotee entails actual use of the five elements, called the five m 's: fish ( matsya ), meat ( mamsa ), wine ( madya ), aphrodisiac cereals ( mudra ), and sexual intercourse ( maithuna ). The animal devotee, not yet ready for the heroic practice, performs the rituals with material symbols; for the divine devotee the rituals are purely internal and symbolic. The object of the rituals, attainable only by the divine devotee, is to awaken kundalini energy, which is identified with Shakti, and merge with the Godhead. In Buddhist Tantra, or Vajrayana, in contrast to the Hindu, the female principle of "wisdom" ( prajna ) is seen as static, whereas the male, or "means" ( upaya ), is active. In Buddhism, rituals that appear to break basic moral precepts have for the most part been dropped, but the complex meditation practices have been retained.

See Y. Hakeda, Kukai (1972); A. Wayman, The Buddhist Tantras (1973); A. Bharati, The Tantric Tradition (1975); F. D. Lessing and A. Wayman, Introduction to the Buddhist Tantric Systems (2d ed. 1980); T. Goudriaan and S. Gupta, Hindu Tantric and Shakta Literature (1981); D. Brooks, The Secret of the Three Cities (1990).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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