Tantra: A New Understanding

Tutor: Prof. Gavin Flood
Start date: 16 January 2022


Tantra has attracted wide interest over many centuries. Some have criticised it as immoral, while others have hailed it as life-affirming and liberating.

The Indologist Monier-Williams, famous for his Sanskrit-English dictionary, said that the Tantras are ‘mere manuals of mystics, magic, and superstition of the worst and most silly kind,’ while the twentieth century guru Osho said that it was an experience beyond words.

The Sanskrit word ‘tantra’ refers to texts regarded as revelation from God (Śiva at first) that arose in the early medieval period. This new religion spread quickly and attracted the patronage of kings, spreading to South-East Asia and even into China and Japan.

To this day, Tantric traditions thrive in India and Nepal and we will trace their development into the modern world.

In this course we reflect on what the Tantric traditions are, their origin, formation, core texts and practices, and what they mean for us today.

This course is prepared by Prof. Gavin Flood, FBA, OCHS Academic Director, and author of The Tantric Body.


Course Video

Videos are one of the most important parts of an online course.

Our courses offer two distinct types of video.

  1. Video on demand. Core videos for your course available to watch at any time. Audio versions are also available for download.
  2. Live Zoom sessions. We have six Zoom sessions open to all our students. These cover a range of topics. They let you explore other areas of study, and to meet tutors and students from other courses. Recordings are also made available after the session has ended.

Tantra: A New Understanding


Session One: The Tantric Revelation

Tantra needs to be understood within the culture from which it arose. What was Hinduism like in the 7–11th centuries? How does Tantra define itself? What are its main texts? What is the difference between a follower of the Tantras and a follower of the Vedas?

Session Two: Śaiva Siddhānta


We now delve into the main Tantric tradition – Śaiva Siddhānta (teachings of Śiva). This was a householder religion that did not reject orthodoxy but added its own rites in the belief that the guru guaranteed liberation and/or pleasure and power in higher worlds.

The Śaiva Siddhānta developed its own scriptures and maintained a distinction between self, God, and world. Originating in Kashmir the tradition spread throughout India and is still present in the South where it became deeply influenced by Tamil bhakti traditions.

Session Three: Unorthodox Tantric Traditions

Tantra is mostly known for its unorthodox practices, its divinisation of and use of sex in its rituals.

In this session we will examine how practices regarded as polluting arose within the traditions focussed on the Goddess and Śiva in his ferocious form as Bhairava. These traditions – sometimes referred to as Kashmir Śaivism – rejected the Veda. Sex, blood rituals, and cremation ground asceticism were part of these traditions.

Session Four: Tantra in the Land of Viṣṇu

Tantra came to be adopted by other traditions, partly because of its success in attracting patronage of the powerful. The more orthodox religion of Viṣṇu adopted Tantra and developed a tradition called the Pāñcarātra.

Texts such as the Jayākhya-saṃhitā were influenced by Śaiva philosophy and follow the same pattern of worship and yoga. Here we look at the divinisation of the body and the worship of God in the heart in this tradition.

We will also look at how Tantra later influenced the worship of Krṣṇa in Sahajiyā religion.

Session Five: Case Study – The Netra-tantra

Eye mantra from the Netra-tantra to vanquish obstacles

In this session we focus on the Netra-tantra as way of understanding how these texts are studied.

This is a Śaiva text that was very popular in Kashmir from around the eighth to eleventh centuries CE and was copied for a king of Nepal in 1200. It is about how the eye of Śiva – and the eye mantra – protect us from demons and free us to realise our identity with Śiva.

Session Six: Philosophies of Tantra

In this session we examine two distinct philosophies.

On one hand we have the dualist philosophy of the Śaiva Siddhānta that maintains an eternal distinction between self and a wholly transcendent God.

On the other, we have the non-dualist tradition of Kashmir Śaivism that maintains an identity between self and God. We will examine Abhinavagupta’s famous arguments in support of non-dualism against the dualists and the Buddhists. In the Recognition (Praytyabhijñā) school the goal of life is the realisation that I am Śiva who is pure consciousness.

Session Seven: Tantra Today

Tantra today

Kumari: Living goddess in Nepal

Tantric traditions are still thriving and sects such as the Aghoris adopt the unorthodox practices of the earlier Tantric traditions. The worship of the Goddess is also of major importance in Nepal and Assam and we will examine these traditions and how they are affected by modernity.

Lastly, we look briefly at Tantra in the West and modern Tantric gurus in the age of the internet.

Related courses

Philosophy of Yoga | Shaivism | Rethinking Tantra: Online Weekend School


Course delivery is 100% online

7–9 weekly sessions

Study in your own time

Your tutor is available by email and forums

Communicate online with your fellow students

All course materials are delivered via the web

Student forums with tutor participation

Recorded lectures available in video and mp3 format

All required lecture notes included

Audio interviews with specialists in Hindu Studies

Supplementary materials taken from the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies teaching and research programme

Assessment is optional and is on the basis of successful completion of a single essay of 2000 words, with the exception of our Sanskrit courses which are assessed on weekly course work.

Courses can be completed in as little as seven weeks. There is a final deadline for essays or course work of twelve weeks from the beginning of the course.

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