I have often been asked -- In what consists the difference between Vedanta and 'Tantra'. This question is the product of substantial error, for it assumes that Tantra Shastra is not based on Vedanta. I hope that, after many years of work, I have now made it clear that the Tantra Shastra or Agama (whatever be its ultimate origin as to which little is known by anybody) is now, and has been for centuries past, one of the recognized Scriptures of Hinduism, and every form of Hinduism is based on Veda and Vedanta. Another erroneous question, though less so, is -- In what consists the difference between Advaita Vedanta and 'Tantra' Shastra. But here again, the question presupposes a misunderstanding of both Vedanta and Agama. There are, as should be well known, several schools of Advaita Vedanta, such as Mayavada (with which too commonly the Advaita Vedanta is identified), such as the schools of the Northern Shaivagama, and Shuddhadvaita of Vallabhacarya. In the same way, there are different schools of doctrine and worship in what are called the 'Tantras', and a grievous mistake is committed when the Tantra is made to mean the Shakta Tantra only, such as is prevalent in Bengal and which, according to some, is either the product of, or has been influenced by Buddhism. Some English-speaking Bengalis of a past day, too ready to say, "Aye aye," to the judgments of foreign critics, on their religion as on everything else, and in a hurry to dissociate themselves from their country's "superstitions," were the source of the notion which has had such currency amongst Europeans that, "Tantra" necessarily meant drinking wine and so forth.
A legitimate and accurate question is -- In what consists the difference between, say, the Mayavadin's Vedanta and that taught by the Shakta Sampradaya of Bengal. One obviously fundamental difference at once emerges. The Agamas being essentially ritual or Sadhana Shastras are not immediately and practically concerned with the Yoga doctrine touching Paramarthika Satta taught by Shamkaracarya. A Sadhaka ever assumes the reality of the Universe, and is a practical dualist, whatever be the non-dual philosophical doctrines to which he may be intellectually attracted. He worships, that is assumes the being of some Other who is worshipped, that is a Real Lord who really creates, maintains, and really dissolves the Universe. He himself, the object of his worship and the means of worship are real, and his Advaita views are presented on this basis. It is on this presentment then that the next class of differences is to be found. What are they? The essence of them lies in this that the Sadhaka looks at the Brahman, through the world, whereas to the Mayavadin Yogi, placing himself at the Brahman standpoint, there is neither creation nor world but the luminous Atma. The Clear Light of the Void, as the Mahayanists call it, that alone is. Nevertheless, both the Advaita Sadhaka and the Advaita Yogi are one in holding that the Brahman alone is. Sarvam Khalvidam Brahma is the great saying (Vakya) on which all Shakta Tantra Shastra rests. The difference in interpretation then consists in the manner in which this Mahavakya is to be explained. Does it really mean what it says, or does it mean that the saying applies only after elimination of Maya and Avidya. Here there is the necessary difference because, in the case of the Sadhaka, the Vakya must be explained on the basis of his presuppositions already given, whereas the Yogi who has passed the stage in which he became Siddha in Sadhana surpasses, by auto-realization, all dualism. The vast mass of men are better warned off discussions on Paramarthika Satta. Whether the concept be true or not, it only leads in their case to useless argument (Vicara), and thus enfeebles them. Shakta doctrine, as its name implies, is a doctrine of power. It is true that Yoga is power, indeed the highest form of it (Yogabala). But it is a power only for those qualified (Adhikari), and not for the mass. I am not therefore here adversely criticizing Mayavada. It is a pity that this country whose great glory it is to have preached Abheda in varying forms, and therefore tolerance, is to-day full of hateful Bheda of all kinds. I say "hateful", for Bheda is a natural thing, only hateful when accompanied by hate and intolerance. Profoundly it is said in Halhed's Gentoo laws that, "contrarieties of religion and diversity of belief are a demonstration of the power of the Supreme. Differences and varieties of created things are rays of the Glorious Essence, and types of His wonderful attributes whose complete power formed all creatures." There is also the saying attributed to the Apostle of God, Mohammed, in the Radd-ul-Muhtar and elsewhere -- "difference of opinion is also the gift of God". In these sayings speaks the high spirit of Asia. There may be political remedies for sectarian ill-feeling, but a medicine of more certain effect in this country is the teaching, "Rama Rahim ek hai". Let us then not only objectively, but in all amity, examine the two great systems mentioned.
We all know what is normal world-experience in the Samsara. Some through auto-realization have super-normal or "mystic" experience. This last is of varying kinds, and is had in all religions. The highest form of it, according to Mayavada, is Nirvana Moksha, but there are many degrees short of this complete self-realization as the Whole (Purna). But the great majority of men are not concerned directly with such high matters, but with a realization of power in the world. World-experience is called ignorance, Ajñana. This may confuse. It is ignorance only in this sense, that whilst we have normal experience, we are by that very fact ignoring, that is, not having super-normal experience. In super-normal experience again there is no finite world-experience. The Lord Himself cannot have man's experience except as and through man. Avidya means Na Vidyate, that is, which is not seen or experienced. Some speak in foolish disparagement of the world which is our very close concern. As a link between Yoga and Bhoga, the Shakta teaches, Yogo Bhogayate. I am now dealing with Mayavada. Whence does this ignorance in the individual or Avidya, come? The world is actually ignorant and man is part of it. This ignorance is the material cause of the world. This is not ignorance of the individual (Avidya), for then, there would be as many worlds as individuals; but the collective ignorance or Maya. Avidya exists to provide happiness or pain (Bhoga) for individuals, that is normal world-experience. Stated simply, ignorance in the sense of Maya has no beginning or end, though worlds appear and go. What is this but to say that it is in the nature (Svabhava) of the Real which manifests to do so, and the nature of its future manifestation proceeds upon lines indicated by the past collective Karma of the world.
Now, enjoyment and suffering cannot be denied, nor the existence of an element of unconsciousness in man. But the Paramatma, as such, does not, it is said, suffer or enjoy, but is Pure Consciousness. What consciousness then does so? Shamkara, who is ever solicitous to preserve purity of the Supreme unchanging Self, says that it is not true consciousness, but a false image of it reflected in ignorance and which disappears when the latter is destroyed. This is in fact Samkhyan Dualism in another form, and because of this Shaktivada claims to have a purer Advaita doctrine. In Samkhya the Purusha, and in Mayavada the Atma illumine Prakriti and Maya respectively, but are never in fact bound by her. What is in bondage is the reflection of Purusha or Atma in Prakriti or Maya. This is Cidabhasa or the appearance of consciousness in a thing which is in fact not conscious; the appearance being due to the reflection of consciousness (Cit), or ignorance (Ajñana), or unconsciousness (Acit). The false consciousness as Jivatma, suffers and enjoys. According to the Shakta view there is, as later explained, no Cidabhasa.
Now, is this Ajñana independent of Atma or not? Its independence, such as Samkhya teaches, is denied. Ignorance then, whether collective or individual, must be traced to, and have its origin in, and rest on Consciousness as Atma. How this is so, is unexplained, but the unreal which owes its existence in some inscrutable way to Reality is yet, it is said, in truth no part of it. It is Brahman then, which is both the efficient and material cause of ignorance with its three Gunas, and of Cidabhasa, Brahma is the cause through its inscrutable power (Acintyashaktitvat) or Maya-Shakti,
Now, is this Shakti real or unreal? According to the transcendent standpoint (Paramarthika) of Mayavada it is unreal. The creative consciousness is a reflection on ignorance or Maya. It is Brahman seen through the veil of Maya. This is not a denial of Brahman, but of the fact that it creates. A true consciousness, it is said, can have no incentive to create. From the standpoint of the Supreme State nothing happens. Both the consciousness which as Ishvara creates, and as Jiva enjoys are Cidabhasa, the only difference being that the first is not, and the second is under the influence of Maya. Then it is asked, ignorance being unconscious and incapable of independent operation, true consciousness being inactive (Nishkriya), and Cidabhasa being unreal, how is ignorance capable of hiding true consciousness and producing the world out of itself ? To this the only reply is Svabhava that is, the very nature of ignorance makes it capable of producing apparently impossible effects. It is inscrutable (Anirvacaniya).
The Shakta then asks whether this Shakti is real or unreal, conscious or unconscious, Brahman or not Brahman? If it be a Shakti of Brahman, it cannot be unreal, for there is no unreality in Brahman. It must be conscious for otherwise unconsciousness would be a factor in Brahman. It is Brahman then; for power (Shakti) and the possessor of power (Shaktiman) are one and the same.
Therefore, the Shakta Tantra Shastra says that Shakti which, operating as Cit and Maya, is Cit-Shakti and Maya-Shakti, is real, conscious and Brahman itself (Sarvam Khalvidam Brahma). It follows that Shakti which is Brahman in its aspect as Creator is, in fact, both the efficient and material cause of the world. If the first or cause is real, so is the second or world. If the first be the cause of unreality, it is in itself unreal. But what is real is Brahman. Therefore, the world has a real cause which is not unreal unconsciousness or ignorance composed of three Gunas, but conscious Shakti and Brahman. It, therefore, does away with the necessity for Cidabhasa; for, if real conscious Shakti is the cause of the world, then there is no need for unreal unconsciousness which Mayavada is driven to posit to secure the absolute purity of the Brahman Consciousness.
From the standpoint of Mayavada, the objection to the exclusion of Cidabhasa lies in the fact that, if the world is derived direct from conscious Shakti (as Shaktas hold), then the Supreme Consciousness is made both enjoyer and object of enjoyment. But it holds that, Paramatma does not enjoy and has no need to do so; whilst the object of enjoyment is unconscious. Hence, the trace of Samkhyan dualism, the Atma exerting an influence over Maya by virtue of its proximity only (Sannidhimatrena Upakari). Pure Atma is not itself concerned. Maya receives its influence. This is analogous to what is called in Chemistry catalytic action. The catalytic substance influences another by its mere presence, but remains itself apparently unchanged. Atma is in this sense an efficient but not instrumental or material cause of the world.
As Atma is only Sacchidananda, the world, so long as it is considered to exist, must exist in Pure Consciousness (Atmastha), though essentially it is different from it (Atmavilakshana), and does not exist for its purpose. In Mayavada, the world, from the transcendental standpoint, does not exist and Atma is not cognizant of it. Hence, the question of the cause of Creation is bred of ignorance. So also, is the idea of efficient cause, for it proceeds from a search for the cause of Creation which does not exist. Mayavada, from the standpoint of normal conventional experience (Vyavaharika Satta), speaks of the Shakti of Atma as a cause of Creation, simply to provide the empirical world of the worldly man with a worldly interpretation of its worldly existence. From this point of view, Brahman is looked at through the world, which is the natural thing for all who are not liberated. From the other end or Brahman, there is no Creation nor world, and Atma alone is.
The Shakta may reply to this: Is not your Paramarthika standpoint in fact empirical, arrived at by argument (Vicara) with a limited intellect? If inscrutable power is a cause of the world, it is inscrutable, because the intellect cannot grasp it, though it is known to be Atma. If the latter can show inscrutable power, how can you say that it is incapable of appearing as enjoyer and object of enjoyment? To deny this is to deny the unlimited character of inscrutable power. If it be objected, that Atma cannot be object of enjoyment, because, the former is conscious and the latter unconscious, what proof is there, that such an object is essentially unconscious? It may be, that consciousness is not perceived in it, that is, the material world appears to be unconscious, and therefore unconsciousness comes in somewhere, otherwise it could not be perceived as unconscious. Thus, a school of European idealists hold the Universe to be a society of Spirits of all kinds and degrees, human, animal, and vegetable and even inorganic objects. All are minds of various orders. Even the last are an order, though yet so low that they are in practice not apprehended as minds. The material world is merely the way in which these lower kinds of mind appear to our senses. The world of objects are (to use Berkely's word) "signs" of Spirit, and the way in which it communicates itself to us. Thus, to the Hindu, the Bhargah in the Sun is the Aditya Devata, and the planets are intelligences. The physical sun is the body of the Surya Devata. The whole Universe is an epiphany of Spirit. Matter is Cit as object to the mind, as mind is Cit as the Knower of such object. It is not, however, denied that there is an element of unconsciousness in the material world as it appears to us. But the Shakta says, that Shakti has the power of hiding its consciousness, which is exercised to varying extent; thus, to a greater extent in the case of inorganic matter than in the case of the plant, and the less in the latter than in man, in whom consciousness is most manifest.
This power is Her Avidya Murti, just as consciousness is her Vidya Murti. Nothing then in the material world is absolutely unconscious, and nothing is perfectly conscious. The Vidya Murti ever is because as consciousness it is the own nature or Svarupa of Shakti. The Avidya Murti which conceals consciousness, appears in Creation and disappears in dissolution.
The Mayavadin may however ask, whether this Avidya-shakti is conscious or unconscious. It cannot, he says, be the latter, for it is said to be Atma which is conscious. How then can it conceal itself and appear as unconscious P For, nothing can be, what it is not, and the nature of consciousness is to reveal and not to conceal. If, again, consciousness on account of its concealment, is incapable of knowing itself, it ceases to be consciousness. The reply is again that this also is empirical argument, based upon an imperfect idea of the nature of things. Every one knows that there is consciousness in him, but at the same time he recognizes, that it is imperfect. The Mayavadin seeks to explain this by saying, that it is a false consciousness (Cidabhasa), which is again explained by means of two opposites, namely, unconsciousness, which is an unreality to which Cidabhasa adheres, and true consciousness or Atma, which, by virtue of its inscrutable power, acts as efficient cause in its production. This theory compels its adherent to ignore the world, the limited consciousness and Shastra itself in order that the perfection of Atma may be maintained, though at the same time, Shakti is admitted to be unlimited and inscrutable. The Shakta's answer on the other side is, that there is in fact no false consciousness, and essentially speaking, no unconsciousness anywhere, though there appears to be some unconsciousness. In fact, Mayavada says, that the unconscious appears to be conscious through the play of Atma on it, whilst the Shakta says that, really and at base, all is consciousness which appears to be unconsciousness in varying degrees. All consciousness, however imperfect, is real consciousness, its imperfection being due to its suppressing its own light to itself, and all apparent unconsciousness is due to this imperfection in the consciousness which sees it. Mayavada seeks to explain away the world, from which nevertheless, it derives the materials for its theory. But it is argued that it fails to do so. In its attempt to explain, it brings in a second principle namely unconsciousness, and even a third Cidabhasa. Therefore, the theory of Shaktivada which posits nothing but consciousness is (it is contended) a truer form of non-dualism. Yet we must note, that the theories of both are made up with the imperfect light of man's knowledge. Something must then remain unexplained in all systems. The Mayavada does not explain the character of the Shakti of Atma as Efficient cause of creation, and the Shakta does not explain the character of the Shakti of Atma which, in spite of being true consciousness, hides itself. But whilst the Shakta difficulty stands alone, the other theory brings, it is said, in its train a number of others. The Mayavadin may also ask, whether Avidya Murti is permanent or transient. If the latter, it cannot be Atma which eternally is, whereas if it is permanent, liberation is impossible. It may be replied that this objection does not lie in the mouth of Mayavada which, in a transcendental sense, denies creation, world, bondage and liberation. The latter is a transition from bondage to freedom which presupposes the reality of the world and a connection between it and that, which is beyond all worlds. This, Shamkara denies, and yet acknowledges a method of spiritual culture for liberation. The answer of course is, that transcendentally Atma is ever free, and that such spiritual culture is required for the empirical (Vyavaharika) need of the empirical self or Cidabhasa, for empirical liberation from an empirical world. But, as all these conventional things are in an absolute sense "unreal," the Mayavada's instructions for spiritual culture have been likened to consolations given to soothe the grief of a sterile woman who has lost her son. (See J. N. Mazumdar's paper read before the Indian Research Society on the Philosophical, Religious and Social Significance of the Tantra Shastra (July 31, 1915), to which I am here indebted.)
Theoretically the answer may be sufficient, though this may not be allowed, but the method can in any case, have full pragmatic value only, in exceptional cases. Doubtless to the unliberated Mayavadin Sadhaka, the world is real, in the sense, that it imposes its reality on him, whatever his theories may be. But it is plain, that such a system does not ordinarily at least develop the same power as one, in which doubt as to the reality of things does not exist. In order that instruction should work, we must assume a real basis for them. Therefore, the Tantra Shastra here spoken of, deals with true bondage in a true world, and aims at true liberation from it. It is Shakti, who both binds and liberates, and Sadhana of Her is the means of liberation. Nothing is unreal or false. Shakti is and Shakti creates and thus appears as the Universe. In positing an evolution (Parinama), the Shastra follows Samkhya, because, both systems consider the ultimate source of the world to be real, as unconscious Prakriti or conscious Shakti respectively. The Shakta takes literally the great saying, "All the (Universe) is Brahman" -- every bit of it. Mayavada achieves its unity by saying, that Jivatma = Para matma after elimination of Avidya in the first and Maya in the second. Ignorance is something neither real nor unreal. It is not real in comparison with the supreme unchanging Brahman. It is not unreal, for we experience it as real, and it is for the length of the duration of such experience. Again, Shaktivada assumes a real development (Parinama), with this proviso that the cause becomes effect, and yet remains what it was as cause. Mayavada says that there is transcendentally no real change but only the appearance of it; that is, the notion of Parinama is Maya like all the rest.
The Tantra Shastra deals with true bondage in a true world, and aims at true liberation from it. Atma binds itself by the Avidya Murti of its Shakti, and liberates itself by its Vidya Murti. Sadhana is the means whereby bondage becomes liberation. Nothing is unreal or false. Atma by its Shakti causes the play in itself of a Shakti which is essentially nothing but itself but operates in a dual capacity, namely as Avidya and Vidya. Creation is thus an epiphany of the Atma, which appears and is withdrawn from and into itself like the limbs of a tortoise. The All-Pervading Atma, manifests itself in many Jivas; as the world which supplies the objects of their enjoyment; as the mind and senses for the attainment of the objects; as ignorance which binds; as knowledge which liberates when Atma ceases to present itself; as Avidya; and as Shastra which provides the means for liberation. Shaktivada affirms reality throughout, because, it is a practical Scripture for real men in a real world. Without such presupposition, Sadhana is not possible. When Sadhana has achieved its object -- Siddhi -- as Auto-realization -- no question of the real or unreal arises. In the Buddhacarita-kavya it is said (cited in Hodgson "Nepal," 45) that Sakya being questioned on an abstruse point, is reported to have said, "For myself I can tell you nothing on these matters. Meditate on Buddha and when you have obtained the supreme experience (Bodhijñana) you will know the truth yourself." In these high realms we reach a point at which wisdom is silence.
After all man in the mass is concerned with worldly needs, and there is nothing to be ashamed of in this. One of the greatest doctrines in the Shakta Tantra is its Bhukti Mukti teaching, and it is not less great because it may have been abused. All systems are at the mercy of their followers. Instead of the ascetic method of the Mayavadin suited for men of high spiritual development, whose Ascesis is not something labored but an expression of their own true nature, the Kaula teaches liberation through enjoyment, that is the world. The path of enjoyment is a natural one. There is nothing bad in enjoyment itself if it be according to Dharma. It is only Adharma which is blamed. Liberation is thus had through the world (Mokshayate Samsara). In the natural order of development, power is developed in worldly things, but the power is controlled by a religious Sadhana, which both prevents an excess of worldliness, and molds the mind and disposition (Bhava) into a form which, at length and naturally, develops into that knowledge which produces dispassion (Vairagya) for the world. The two paths lead to the same end. But this is itself too big a subject to be developed here. Sufficient be it to repeat what I have said elsewhere.
"The Vira does not shun the world from fear of it. He holds it in his grasp and wrests from it its secret. Then escaping from the unconscious driftings of a humanity which has not yet realized itself, he is the illumined master of himself, whether developing all his powers or seeking liberation at his will."
As regards the state of dissolution (Pralaya) both systems are at one. In positing an evolution Tantra follows Samkhya because both the two latter theories consider the ultimate source of the world to be real; real as unconscious Prakriti (Samkhya); real as conscious Shakti (Shakta Tantra). In the Mayavada scheme, the source of the world is an unreal ignorance, and reveals itself first as Tanmatras which gradually assume the form of senses and mind in order to appear before Cidabhasa as objects of enjoyment and suffering. The Tantra Shastra again, subject to modifications in consonance with its doctrine, agrees with Nyaya-Vaisheshika in holding that the powers of consciousness which are Will (Iccha), Knowledge (Jñana) and Action (Kriya) constitute the motive power in creation. These are the great Triangle of Energy (Kamakala) from which Shabda and Artha, the forces of the psychic and material worlds, arise.