by Rod Stryker – Sept 25, 2000
FIRST, A NOTE FROM ROD…
I have taught yoga and meditation for more than 20 years. My teachers were disciples of some of India’s leading Yoga masters of the past century, including: Paramhamsa Yogananda, Swami Sivananda, Ramana Maharishi, and Barhati (known as the Shakespeare of India). I was schooled in the holistic science of yoga, which saw that the postures, though an incredibly valuable part of the tradition, were barely the tip of the yogic iceberg. Rather than being an end in itself, Asana serves a much larger system, which if used correctly has the potential for moving a human being not just beyond stress, but to the far reaches of fulfillment and self mastery. This approach integrates physical postures, breathing, meditation, Ayurveda, and a seemingly endless body of diverse practices and knowledge. My teachers called it Tantra. I knew Tantra to be the science of weaving spiritual experience into the fabric of everyday life, as well as, the ultimate and most life-affirming expression of yoga.
Today more Americans are practicing Asana than ever before. To the millions doing it, it is more than just a fad. They do it because it works. But, are they getting as much out of yoga they could? How much are today’s students accessing the deeper practices and principals that could have an even more powerful and beneficial effect on their lives? Many of today’s teachers have been trained only in the physical practices. What are the consequences? What of their students who have to turn to books or non-yogic sources for meditation and spiritual teachings? Finally, what is this vast and sacred science of Tantra that holds so much potential? As I have traveled the country teaching in recent years, I’ve asked both students and teachers to consider these questions. That is why I asked to interview Panditji Rajmani Tigunait. I first became familiar with his voice by reading his Inner Quest column in this magazine. I was immediately impressed and intrigued. It was clear that he was a man of unique scholarly authority, and at the same time his answers consistently displayed a practical and caring concern for those he was teaching and for the teachings he was illuminating. It has been my experience that there are not many who teach the way they live and do so while fulfilling the highest intent of the teachings. I felt I was becoming acquainted with a rare find.
I began studying with Panditji two years ago. His teachings, those of the sacred Tantric tradition of Sri Vidya, included the Tantra I learned before meeting him and inspired me to a new level of experience in my own life, practice, and teaching. I wanted to interview Panditji in order to address some of my concerns as I see yoga’s growth being shaped more by popular culture than by legitimate authority and teaching. The following is excerpted from our nearly three hour conversation.
R.S: Much of my own teaching is dedicated to clearing away the myths and misconceptions about Tantra. When you define it for students, what do you tell them?
PRT: Tantra is a system of inner and outer exploration. The literal meaning of the word “Tantra” is “system,” and in a spiritual context Tantra is the system of philosophy and practices which puts together all possible means and resources to explore the inner and outer dimensions of life. Tantrics try to make the best use of all the means and resources available in our inner world as well as in the outer world. That is why they have incorporated the information available in Ayurveda, herbology, numerology, and astrology, into their practices, as well as visualization practices associated with color, shapes, and forms; breathing exercises; physical exercises; mantra, Yantra, mandala, meditation on the personified forms of gods and goddesses; and meditation on purely abstract forms of the divine.
R.S: Some writings describe Tantra as the source of Hatha yoga, saying that in response to the aestheticism of the Vedas, Tantrics developed ways to tap into the energies of the body, which they recognized as precisely the same energies that pervade the universe. Is there a link between Tantra and Hatha yoga?
PRT: There is definitely a link. In fact, if you really look into Tantric literature you’ll find that Tantra can be linked to anything, any aspect of philosophy, any school of philosophy, any school of practices in India and surrounding countries. Tantric literature is so vast that you can find any kind of practice that you want to find. But it is only in recent centuries that people began to distinguish Tantric knowledge from the knowledge flowing from the Vedas. Before that they were recognized as two parallel flowing sciences: Agama and Nigama. The Vedas (Nigama) place more emphasis on rituals centered around fire practices, while Tantra, that is Agama, emphasizes all forms of rituals and meditative practices and also includes Yantras, Mandalas, gems, and herbs.
But if you really look at the nature of Tantric practices you don’t see much difference between Tantra, classical yoga, and Vedic practices. Tantra is the most comprehensive, systematic form of philosophy and practice. It is inclusive rather than exclusive, and therefore Hatha yoga practices can be linked to Tantra.
It is not correct to say that Hatha yoga has evolved from Tantric traditions alone. Look at the practices described in the Yoga Sutra chapter 3. They are purely Tantric and are elaborated on in Tantric texts. Patanjali simply mentions them. There are many such. Even a couple of practices described in Yoga Sutra chapter 1, Sutras 34, 35, 36, meditation on the heart center, meditation on different parts of your tongue, are elaborated on in Tantric texts. So Patanjali certainly drew on existing materials. He was trying to provide the most comprehensive information for the seekers, but it is totally up to the seekers to find the actual practices related to those disciplines.
R.S: Most people these days are coming into the world of yoga through asana. From the Tantric perspective, why does doing asana make you feel better?
PRT: It unblocks energy which then starts flowing everywhere throughout the body. All your limbs and organs, including your nervous system, brain, and mind, are nourished, so you feel good, especially when asana is followed by a relaxation practice. That automatically induces a kind of meditative state.
R.S: What is the relationship between Tantra and sex?
PRT: The sexual aspect of Tantra has been blown out of proportion. From a great pool of knowledge, teachers have picked up a single bucket of water and packaged that one tiny bucket in small bottles to sell in the market. Tantric texts do mention intercourse, but this practice is described as an advanced aspect of Tantric Sadhana. In fact, the Sanskrit word for “sex” is Maithuna, which means “the state where two become one, where duality dissolves into non-dual awareness.” There are prerequisites a seeker has to fulfill before venturing into the Tantric practices that include maithuna. Among them, mastery of the pranic force is the most important. One must gain this mastery by practicing advanced techniques of pranayama.
If seekers could have access to the vast range of teachings, they would recognize when something specific is being taken out of context and being taught in a general context. They would know that spiritual life is more enriched when its different components are taken as a whole, rather than presented in fragments.
R.S: Do you think students who are currently doing exclusively physical postures and getting a lot from them, should bother with Tantra or the deeper practices of yoga?
PRT: Only if they are interested. If students want to learn more, grow more, and gain more knowledge and find the next level of fulfillment, then it is important that they explore. If they are content, then that’s fine. If their goal was only to learn the postures, that’s okay.
The thing is that Hatha Yoga ultimately culminates in raja yoga, Jnana yoga, Tantra yoga, and Kundalini yoga, and people may not be aware of that because they have not studied thoroughly. For example, if you only read chapter 1 of the Hatha Yoga Pradipika [a classical text of Hatha Yoga], you think that Hatha Yoga is only physical exercise. Not until chapter 3 does it start becoming spiritual. And only in chapter four does it become a purely Tantric text, discussing alchemy and different kinds of meditative states. Hatha yoga is not complete in itself. Certainly it is a very, very important step in personal growth. But if you stop at Hatha yoga, then it means that, according to you, the body is the final reality. Everyone becomes old, and dies. And if they have not found the reality within, the immortal self, they die with a great deal of dissatisfaction. If you want to prevent that, if you want to enjoy your old age gracefully and depart from this world joyfully, then you had better gain more knowledge than just what the postures can give.
R.S: I’ve heard you speak about tearing down the walls between mundane and spiritual experiences. Can you elaborate on that here?
PRT: Many religious and spiritual traditions tend to drive a wedge between the mundane and the sacred. Most of the spiritual traditions today condemn the mundane and emphasize the sacred. Tantra regards this as self-defeating. As long as we have body, mind, and senses, we cannot ignore their demands. The natural tendency in all living beings is to seek happiness. A great deal of happiness is associated with the comforts, conveniences, pleasures, and enjoyment of the worldly objects at the physical, emotional, and mental levels. This is natural. If you cannot escape from your own tendencies then you must find some way of using those tendencies in your favor and still continue growing in your spiritual path. The best way is to enjoy the objects of the world without drowning in that enjoyment.
According to Tantrics, the goal of life is not solely Moksha, so-called liberation from the world; rather the goal of life is both Bhoga and Moksha. Enjoy the best that nature has to give you. Enjoy all the objects of the world but don’t become a slave to them. And as far as seeking enlightenment or liberation is concerned, seek liberation in the world, not liberation from the world. Liberation from the world is not possible.
The Tantric approach is to live in the world as the master of yourself and the master of your surroundings. Have both Bhoga and Moksha at your disposal and use your Buddhi, use your discriminative power, to figure out to what extent worldly pleasure and worldly enjoyment is healthy for you. And figure out at what point denying yourself these things becomes suppression and creates problems within you. Lead a balanced, healthy life. Make the best use of all the resources that nature has given you within and without. Then you will have ample time and energy to explore what else is to be explored out there.
R.S: Isn’t the phrase, “What is not here is nowhere and what is here is everywhere”?
PRT: Yes, that is the core of Tantric philosophy. Yata brahmande, tata pindande: That which is here in this body-mind organism is out there and that which is not here is not out there. There is a perfect equation between human existence and the external world. Therefore make your own body and mind a measuring stick to explore what is out there. And while you are exploring what is out there, create a harmonious balance within yourself and the world around you.
R.S: One of the most profound elements of Tantra is the way it addresses the causal link between subtle energy and consciousness. The teachings assert that the degree to which we experience Moksha and/or Bhoga is a measure of our energy. By extension, if our energy is cultivated correctly, then knowing “heaven on earth” becomes a certainty.
PRT: Yes, it becomes a living experience, you are not simply philosophizing. That energy is at your disposal. Then all these metaphysical principles that we are talking about become a living experience.
R.S: Many spiritual traditions decry the mind as negative, calling it the enemy of spiritual experience. Yet much of Tantra involves consciously using the mind for constructive, transformative purposes.
PRT: According to Tantrics the mind is not negative. It is like a child: innocent, energetic, pure, benign. If you keep telling a child, “You are ugly. You always make mistakes. You don’t know how to behave,” that child will become depressed and rebellious and will begin to fight you. The mind is like that.Tantra says the mind is the best tool you have. Rather than fighting the mind, work with it and let it work with you. Heaven, hell, right, wrong, vice, virtue, positive, and negative, why not transform the entire mind and let it become a paradise in every respect? Why not create an environment where the negative forces become friendly with the divine forces? In Tantra’s most comprehensive system, Sri Vidya, all the different forces of Mind, positive and negative, have been visualized as goddesses. Thus even the “negative” tendencies become sources of spiritual illumination.
[Rod: This is where the Vipassana question seems to fit best. . . .]
R.S. Teaching yoga has become a business in America. The bigger the class, the more teachers you train, the more money you make. Can you comment on how personal practice and teaching fit into spirituality and service?
PRT: First you have to do the practice yourself, for your own benefit. Before you become a teacher you have to become a living light to yourself(a living light that cannot be extinguished even by big storms. For that, you have to be fully grounded in your own personal practice.
If you are teaching others without practicing yourself, then somewhere, deep down, a part of you tells you that you are a hypocrite, that you are living off yoga as a commodity(as if you were selling carpets or furniture. And if you still go on teaching, you will be cultivating self-hatred. Your own spiritual growth will decline and the light within you will keep getting dimmer and dimmer. That is why a spiritual teacher must practice.
Once you know yourself as a genuine seeker, and when your own inner chamber is quite enlightened, then comes the natural unfoldment of pure love and compassion and a genuine desire to serve others. You realize that by serving others you are actually serving God. The realization comes that the purpose of your life is to give whatever you have received from your own teachers, from the tradition, and from God’s grace.
It is the natural, spontaneous response to the urge of the inner light that pushes you outward, and you start teaching. At that stage another thought automatically comes: “How can I be instrumental in lighting more lamps and bringing light to the world?” and you begin exploring the best way to serve others.
The scriptures say that the best way to serve others is to serve nature. Having students, creating books, tapes, and videos, is fine, but that kind of service is still finite. Its scope is limited. When you also start serving the earth, water, fire, air, rivers, mountains, the soil, clouds, and space itself, you become the best servant of God. You are now acting on the prayer, “Anything I have, anything that is good in me, may it become part of nature, so that all vegetation becomes healthy and content and those that eat the vegetation become healthy and happy.” In this way you are putting your spiritual energy into the food chain. And everybody(those whom you know or do not know(automatically becomes the recipient of your selfless love and service.
That is how the great concepts of Yagna(the grand fire rituals and collection of long-term group meditations(came into being. You go on inspiring others to meditate, to sit, talk, walk, and think together in a harmonious manner. Your friends and everybody else join hands in doing group practices to directly purify the clouds so that there is healthy rain. Healthy rain will remove the weaknesses of our soil and allow healthy vegetation to grow. Insects, animals(the entire food chain(will eat pure food, which brings good health and purification of mind. Creation at large becomes healthier and happier. That is how you contribute your service to creation, thereby serving all and serving God.
R.S: I tell students, “If your interest is in physical postures and techniques, then group classes and attending yoga conferences will be fine. There are many teachers capable of teaching those. But if you’re interested in unfolding spiritually, you need that rare kind of teacher or guide who can reach more than just your mind or body.” How crucial is having that kind of teacher?
PRT: There will be two problems if you don’t have such a teacher. Number one, you may not have access to the inner circle of the teachings-these cannot be properly documented in books. And if somehow you do have access, there are so many varieties and subtle differences among different teachings and techniques that you might be confused about which one is correct, which one is not, and which one is perfectly right for you.
An even bigger problem is this “transmission” idea. That is not possible without a teacher. My own teacher, Swamiji [Swami Rama], kept saying that ultimately you must light your own lamp. “The teacher is boat,” he would say, “Not more than that. Don’t be dependent on the teacher. Once you have crossed the river then there is no need to carry that boat.” For twenty years I kept hearing that from him.
In one sense, what he was saying was very meaningful: “Don’t be dependent on the teacher. Don’t use the teacher as a crutch. And don’t be fooled by a teacher. Don’t fall in trap of a teacher.” But it was also in contradiction to the scriptures, which say that the teacher is very important, the teacher is the inner guide, the one who lights your inner light. In the light of that inner light you will have better understanding of the teacher in the outside world. And the teacher’s qualifications, love, compassion, selflessness, are such powerful virtues that you naturally have a deep respect and love for your teacher.
Despite all these things, I still did not really understand the value of the teacher. I thought that whatever Swamiji wanted to teach me he had already taught me. When I went to see him on November 11, 1996, just two days before his death, he gave me the most precious, most fulfilling gift he had ever given me. It is totally indescribable. Even if I wanted to describe it, a few million words, a few hundred thousand pages would not be sufficient. Since then my love for him is totally different, and my understanding of the teacher is totally different. I will say that without a teacher the transmission of knowledge is not possible at all. It’s totally impossible. Without a teacher inner unfoldment is almost, if not utterly, impossible. I did not have that kind of feeling before November 11th. But now I have no doubt about what the scriptures are saying: Be at the feet of the masters and learn from them. What they teach you through words is less effective and less important than what they teach you in silence.
You know, Rod, after that I lost any sense of qualification or non-qualification when looking at students. Since then I have begun to understand the meaning of selfless love. A teacher is a purely selfless soul who has nothing personal left in his life. Anything and everything that he or she has totally belongs to the students and to this world. And once that happens, that person is not even a person anymore. That person is just pure space. Anybody can bask in it.
R.S: Thank you for describing, in such a personal way, what I would say is the lost treasure of our modern approach to yoga. And now, last but not least: When I stand in front of people as a tantric and say things like, “According to this tradition life is not suffering and life is not maya,” people get very uncomfortable because so many spiritual orientations give people the sense that life is suffering, and the only deep and lasting pleasure is in silence. It’s a radical thought that in the spiritual world life may actually be beautiful. I know you teach this as one of the necessary shifts in our worldview as we progress spiritually, so what would you want people to consider as they look at the world?
PRT: “The world is maya.” “The world is a miserable place.” This bothers me. It is just the one-sided experience of certain individuals and certain groups. But as far as the yoga tradition goes, and here I’m talking about all the different schools of yoga: Vedanta-oriented, Samkhya-oriented, Tantra-oriented, in all these different schools I found one common statement: Isha vasyam idam saravam. “This whole world has come from God, exists in God, is pervaded by God, and every single action here is motivated and guided by God.”
If this world has come from God, exists in God, is pervaded and illuminated by God, how can you call this world a miserable place? Or a source of pain? Certainly there are lots of people experiencing misery. But it is possible to say that this world is a source of misery only if this world has come from miserable source. Only if God himself is miserable, which by definition is contradictory, can the world be a source of misery.
But if the world has come from God and God is an embodiment of Satchitananda, pure existence, pure consciousness, pure joy, then this world cannot be really the source of misery. There must be something wrong in our attitude. There must be something wrong in the way we interact with this world. Otherwise, this world cannot be the source of misery. Certainly, the tantrics would laugh at this: do you think God is such a terrible, being that he (or she or it) will create this world so that we suffer in it? What’s the intention behind creating this world? According to tantrics it’s lila. It’s that this world evolves from the absolute divine being, and when the absolute divine being thinks of experiencing its fullness, the world comes into existence. So this world is an extension of the divine being. This world is not something that evolved from some non-divine existence in order to create troubles and problems for the divine being. According to Tantrics, the entire concept of Moksha [liberation], is to find the joy and happiness here and form the philosophy of life and learn the techniques to experience the joy and beauty that is inherent in this world, that is inherent in life itself.
Life is not a punishment. Life is a gift. And the inability to experience life as a gift is called bondage. According to Tantra, you must consider the world meaningful. You must work hard to find that meaning. You can do it only when you develop the positive attitude that this world itself is divine.