Have you ever wondered about the Vedic and the Tantric tradition? If they have the same root? Any similarity or differences, what are they trying to achieve, how they come into existence etc.? If you do, then maybe you will like reading this.
Many scholars are still debating as which one came first and which one later or if both came at the same time. For some, it is entirely two different traditions. Some people identify the Vedic tradition as Aryan and Tantric tradition as Dravidian. Some think the Tantric tradition worships Mother Goddess but Vedic tradition rejects her, which is not true. As the greatest scholar of Vedic tradition, Shankara was also a great Tantric, worshiped Mother Goddess towards his last days and gave amazing Tantric text called - Sri Saundrya Lahiri.
In reality, both Vedic and Tantric systems are part of one great tradition. However, there are few differences in their approaches. Sometimes it is hard to demarcate the differences as both are so intermingled. As there is no definite evidence to clearly demarcate so scholars try to give their viewpoints based on the evidence and information they came across. In most cases, they agree that both systems were passed down and taught through oral tradition for thousands of years, and were put into writing much later. But they do not agree about time.
Some scholars conclude that Vedic tradition is an earlier form of Tantric tradition, which is a later development of Vedic practices. For example - Atharva Veda (one of the four Vedas) is technically a tantric text, which was added as fourth Veda later, it mentions the hymns of Rig Veda as well as about magical powers and practices, thus containing both Vedas and Tantras.
The knowledge, methods, and techniques of both the Vedic and the Tantric system overlap, but the emphasis is different. So here are some of the major differences.
1. Knowledge: It is said that knowledge of Vedas revealed to the Sages or Rishis during meditation practices and later compiled collectively, whereas knowledge of Tantra was revealed by Shiva and Shakti to his disciples. Many tantric texts are the conversation between Shiva and Shakti and heard by the Sages or Rishis. In either case, both were initially revealed and heard by Rishis, and thus termed as Shruti (means something heard by inner ears). Vedas are also called Nigama and Tantras as Agama. Agama means that which has come to us. Both systems have four sections. Vedas has – Samhitas (hymns), Brahmans (rituals), Aranyakas (theologies) and Upanishads (philosophy). Tantra has – Jnana (philosophy), Yoga, Kriya (rituals) and Carya (code of conduct).
2. Orientation: The Vedas emphasizes on “Jyotirmaya Purusha” – the being or person made of light, the Tantras emphasizes the ‘Shaktimaya Devi’ – the Goddess made of energy. Though there is a different emphasis, light and energy are complementary to each other. There cannot be light without energy, and there cannot be energy without light. It’s like you cannot separate the heat from the fire. As stated above, the most revered Vedic scholar Shankara, a proponent of Advaita Vedanta, also worshipped Shakti and provided both Vedic and Tantric texts.
3. Deities: The Vedic tradition emphasizes on Agni, Indra, Rudra, Surya etc. it’s more like masculine energy and light from it, though many names of God are mentioned in the Vedas, technically it invokes the Shiva (light) Principle. Tantric tradition more focuses on Shakti (energy), though it also has other masculine deities such as Shiva, Vishnu, Ganesha, and Surya. But common thread between them is, Veda also recognizes the Shakti principle, the power of divine word (Vac), Veda Mata or Mother of the Vedas. In Vedas, Ushas is the most celebrated goddess along with Aditi, Prithvi, Ratri, Sarasvati, and Vac. As you can see both have similar deities but emphasized differently.
4. Importance: In Vedas, more importance is given to the knowledge of gods, and of the Yagnas. It involves priests for doing certain Yagnas. Thus, the Vedic approach is more collective in nature, but the Tantra is highly individualistic. A Tantric teacher is required for teaching the knowledge, tools, and techniques but tantric strives to communicate directly and worship without the mediation of priests.
5. Mantras: Vedic mantra are used for rituals but tantric mantras are used for both ritual and meditation purposes. There are so many mantras used in Tantras are Vedic mantras.
6. Social Division: The Vedic traditions instituted the caste system for society to function, by dividing the roles and responsibilities based on individual inclination but later it was misused by priests for power. Tantric system revolted against the division and did not employ any division based on social class or caste. There was an era when such division and play of power created the downfall of the Vedic system and gave rise to the Tantric system. But later Shankara brought it together and created a system for the balance.
7. Dual vs Non-dual: The Vedas emphasizes the abstract forms of the Ultimate Reality in the universe as - Brahman. Tantric practitioner starts with duality with Purusha and Prakriti (based on Samkhya philosophy) called it as Shiva and Shakti, but gradually moving up and finally merging them together as one – a form of Ardhanarishvara (half man and half woman) represented as duality merging into one. So, on the highest level in Tantric tradition, Shiva is the pure consciousness in which Shakti abides as his energy. There is no separation between the two. Thus both system accepts one supreme reality.
8. Idealistic vs Practical: The Vedas are considered to be very refined, measured, full of idealism and restrains. The study of Vedas appears a reason-based, contemplative approach, focused on the inward journey and subdued. The poetic words and images appear more esoteric in nature and life-denying. But on the other hand, the Tantras are earthier in nature, autochthonous and vibrant. The expression of tantra is more outgoing, effervescent, spontaneous and joyous. The Tantric culture of images are the creation of enjoyment, celebration & deep understanding, hence appear more practical and life-affirming.
Bottom line is both systems take different approaches but merge into ONE ultimate reality – Pure Consciousness. Many people think that present day of spiritual practices in India is based on Vedas. But in reality, a majority of the rituals and practices are based on Tantra and partly on Vedas. Both Tantra and Vedas are important systems of Indian philosophy.
So in summary, Tantra glorifies individual power and the practices, whereas Vedas emphasizes on collective power and rituals. However, both share a common goal of self-realization.