Differences and Similarities of Tantra, Bhakti and Raja Yoga
Differences and Similarities of Tantra, Bhakti tradition and Raja Yoga
I often get asked by my friends: What is the difference between Tantra and Yoga?
Well I have written an essay on this during my yoga teacher training, so I am going to use it to shed some light on the similarities and differences. This essay had a word limit, so take the information here provided in a thin nutshell only.
This essay discusses the main elements and practices of Tantra in comparison to the Bhakti tradition and the path of Raja Yoga. These three paths, even though philosophically and chronologically are substantially different, share some very similar features with each other. Their practices are part of my everyday life and they complement each other within my yoga practice very well.
Chronologically the Bhakti tradition’s roots stretch back as far as to the 200-100 BCE, starting with the composition of Bhagavad Gita and with the rise of the devotional traditions in the early centuries CE. Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras date back to the 2nd century CE while the first tantric practices come from the period between the 5th to the 7th century. Tan means to expand, weave, Bhakti means devotion, and Raja means king.
The very beginnings of Tantra were covered with darkness and contained obscure practices, such as going to cremation temples and sitting on corpses. Tantrikas at the time were isolated from the society and it was a radical approach. It was not until the 9th century that Tantra got into a period of maturity. The period between the 9-11th century was the rise of many yogas. At that time Tantra had become part of the households. Tantra suddenly brought along the principle that says, that there is another way, other than renunciation. This approach shares the element of courage with the Bhakti teachers, who in order to follow their devotion, are not afraid of being judged. However the main element of the Bhakti tradition –as explained in the Narada Bhakti Sutras- is the supreme love for God, and dedication of all actions to God. The person, who dedicates all his actions to God, loses all his cravings and he only sees God. The Narada Sutras describe 11 aspects of devotion. These eleven aspects describe dedication of one’s beauty, friendship and becoming one with and being separate from God. Tantra says: In order to worship Shiva, become Shiva. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali share a teaching that is similar to the Bhakti approach: the restrained mind is achieved by dedication to the Lord. Tantra says do not be afraid of what is on your mind, go fully into the darkness or light. There’s no need to fully restrain. Hence practices of the 5 M’s use: meat, fish, wine, parched grain, sexual intercourse; in the transmutational practices. The Bhakti practices are based on the abandonment of the sensory objects, just as Raja Yoga, which suggests Pratyahara – the withdrawal of the senses from the objects.
The concept of guru is very important in tantra, and so is in both Raja and Bhakti yoga. However in Bhakti yoga the central importance is on God or a deity. Through devotional practices and visualisations the Bhakta is devoted to God. There is a permanent relationship between the devotee and his divine Beloved – God, maintained through consistent dedication. In Tantra, there are practices – pujas – that invoke Gods and Goddesses, but a guidance of a guru is needed. In Raja yoga, the importance of a guru is also paramount – the guru is someone who guides the yogi through the ups and downs of the journey toward samadhi – and connection with the guru through meditation may give the yogi strength through the challenges.
Tantra with its non-dual approach rejects the renounciant values of classic yoga. Tantra states that nothing exists that is not divine. Whatever is there is fine and it is a reflection of the Divine Consciousness – Parama-Shiva. This Universe is the reflector of God Consciousness and matter exists as reflection – Pratyabhijna. Even the Bhagavad Gita teaches us that we are all Krishnas, we are all divine. Everything exists within the microcosm and macrocosm, contraction and expansion, Shiva and Shakti. On the contrary Raja yoga purifies the mind by calming it down through meditation, according to the second sutra from the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali: “Yogas citta vrtti nirodhah – The restraint of the modifications of the mind-stuff is Yoga” – and without practice nothing can be achieved. The main focus in Raja yoga is on meditation, to achieve liberation – samadhi. Raja yoga is first of all concerned with the mind, then with kriya yoga and the eight limbs of yoga. Tantra is not this black and white. Tantric practices work with the body, prana, dark and light, compassion and desire. Tantra is not afraid of the desires. Through transmutational practices, tantra transforms the Kundalini-Shakti into creative energy. In certain tantrik meditation techniques we observe what comes up and observe it. If this was a meditation from Patanjali, we would say this meditation is not going well; but in tantra – Shakti Upaya works with the mind on a different level. In Bhakti yoga, emotional energy, be it sadness or compassion, it is transformed through practices like Kirtan, Darshan, Satsang and meditation on God, into love for God. From this perspective, then we could say: Bhakti yoga also uses practices that transform energy, and that is transformed into devotional love.
What is the power that moves our mind? Spanda. Prana is also Spanda, but it only manifests at different levels. Everything is vibrational in tantra, the senses, and the emotions. Similarly the Bhakti sutras relate to it as: If there is anger, lust, pride, turn it into God and it will transform. Whilst Tantra uses more direct techniques, like visualisation and heightened sensory awareness in order to deal with the emotional vibrations, Bhakti yoga uses one-pointed love for God. In Raja yoga, the self is transformed through purification as study of spiritual books, Tapas – self-discipline. The mind is tamed as a wild horse. Svadhyaya encourages the study of the Self through inspiring scriptures, like the Bhagavad Gita, Koran and the Yoga Sutras. By study we are meant to transcend the mind and experience. The last part of Kriya Yoga in the Yoga sutras is very similar to the Bhakti principles. It is surrendering to the Supreme Being by dedicating your study, practices to God and you will get back more then what you have put in. Just as the dynamics of energy. Just as good Karma. Svadhyaya explains non-possessiveness. This perspective relates to both Tantra and hugely to Bhakti. Non-possessiveness can be further extended into non-attachment. Kularnava Tantra deals with non-attachment in relation to death. When we give up attachment wholly – Sarvatmana – we gain pure vision and find the right path, on the way towards the Supreme Truth.
Mantras are used in Tantra leading to enjoyment – Bhukti – and liberation – Mukti. The Hamsa mantra for example is the auspicious gift of the Supreme. Ha stands for Shiva – the Purusha and Sa for Shakti – the Prakriti. This mantra represents the female and male at play in Manifestation, contraction and extraction. One would not exist without the other. Shiva is the absolute stillness of Consciousness and Shakti represents the energy or power. Together they symbolize the play of life, dynamics between life and death, stillness and movement, contraction or expansion. Raja yoga calls these elements the sun and the moon. Ha-tha. Prana-Apana balance. The Bhagavad Gita suggests that the energy that flows through the body in meditation produces nectar – amrita – and so the body becomes immortal. The body becomes one with light and illuminates as higher consciousness. From the texts of Kula-Arnava tantra, japa – repetition of mantras will lead us to the moment of absorption – Laya. Ten million mantra recitations equal to one meditation after being initiated through a guru. The mantra repetition must be done with full awareness. The consistency of practice is shared in Bhakti and Raja yogas too. The yoga sutras of Patanjali describe the importance of mantras with repetition too. Through mantras we connect to higher vibration, energy. Mantra repetition gives us psychic power, which sets us on the path toward transcendence.
From the psychoanalytical perspective, tantra gives us tools that allow us to look at our nature from a different point of view, by accepting what is and not forcing to change it. It does have the elements of mysticism too and it does bring in the elements of the Hindu gods. This can be very useful in regards of acceptance of ourselves as we are. Bhakti yoga brings in the element of discipline, playfulness, togetherness and whatever there it is, expressed as an offering for God. Raja yoga brings discipline into our life. It offers samadhi through consistency and purification. Purification practices involve meditation and cleansing. It is important to find the most suitable individual practice and with the guidance of a guru – teacher – to stick with for a longer time. There are various routes towards Samadhi; hence the one that we feel drawn to will be the right one.