Hindu Tantra and Kabbalistic Judaism

There are lots of websites attempting to create parallels between kabbalah and American Tantric chakras. These sites take a chart of ten sefirot and combine it with the new age chakra chart. These chakra charts are part of a modern Western appropriation of Hindu ideas as Western Tantra. They owe their origin to John Woodroffe (1865–1936), writing about tantra under the pen name Arthur Avalon. And from the 1970’s onward tantra became in the Western new age literature the essence of Hinduism as well as a guide to good sex. But let us turn to the historical forms. This is a first attempt and may undergo changes.


The chart above is entirely Western Orientalism. In actual Hinduism, an intention to a higher realm or visualization while performing a ritual is tantra; when a kabbalist intends that a ritual reaches a sefirah that is a similar activity.

Tantra is the name given by scholars to a style of meditation and ritual in which they are combined. The term Tantra literally means woven because in the practice of tantric intentions one is weaving together a religious action with a specific intention. A tantric intention goes beyond the simple intention that one is doing the required ritual in relation to the divine as an intentional act (kamata) or as a commanded act  (samkalpa).  In tantra, one has to have a specific intention during a ritual to a vision or higher realm.

Therefore, when a Jewish text wants one have an intention that goes beyond intention to do a mizvah, a kavvanah for a mitzvah for a sefirah such as the shekhinah or tiferet, it is a form of tantra since it requires one to weave a specific religious action with a specific intention.

The real definition of Tantra, however, is the practices contained in the vast Agamic literature; Tantra is another name for the Agamic literature that contains the basic Temple ritual and daily worship rituals that most Hindu denominations use. Hindu Temples do not follow the Vedas or even the Sutras, rather they follow this vast corpus called the Agamic literature that contains both ritual and intentions.  Most of these works have not been translated into English. There are over 60 major tractates of Agamic literature from the 2nd to 10th centuries- roughly co-terminus with the Talmud, more than all the earlier Hindu texts combined, and hundreds, if not more, of minor tractates.

Trying to understand Hindu ritual without the Agamic literature is like going into a contemporary American synagogue and trying to understand the service using just Leviticus. The Agamic literature has four major realms (1) the rules of Temple buildings (2) ritual worship (3) philosophy of worship (4) the new requirements of intentionality. The word Tantra is used for the latter rules of intentionality.

This post is connected to two related posts that I am working on simultaneously, visualizing in Hinduism and the theism of Shaivism from a Jewish perspective. Visualization and theism are needed to fully integrate this post.

Tantra comes in two main forms. A mainstream traditional form, that is used by ordinary men and women, called the right handed path, requiring a specific vision or intention while performing a ritual.

The second form is used by ascetics, antinomians, lay movements and forgotten cults called the left handed path, which may involve violating mainstream practice by eating meat, drinking alcohol, or impure sex. The latter was picked up by Western Tantra a hundred years ago and now new-age Americans create Tantric sex manuals. But the overwhelming majority of Tantra is just the equivalent of kabbalistic intentions. Some texts call these two forms the outer and inner paths, or limit the term tantra to Shakti Tantra while calling mainstream Vaishnavite Pañcaratra or Shaivite tantra as just ordinary practice.

Shaivism yantra

The leading scholar of Tantra, David Gordon White of the University of California seeking to capture the essence of tantra offers the following definition: “Tantra is that Asian body of beliefs and practices which, working from the principle that the universe we experience is nothing other than the concrete manifestation of the divine energy of the godhead that creates and maintains that universe, seeks to ritually appropriate and channel that energy, within the human microcosm, in creative and emancipatory ways.”

As a list of features:  ritual worship of deities, mantras, visualization of and identification with a deity, ritual use of maṇḍalas, Analogical thinking (including microcosmic or macrocosmic correlation), and the channeling of negative mental states

Tantra can apply to any act when the two aspects of consciousness and matter are combined – purusha and prakriti or their personified forms Siva and Shakti. Tantra works by natural means, based on the Indian system of Samkhya, in which man and nature are separate. At liberation the self becomes distinct from nature and realizes itself to have the divine qualities of Siva but ontologically distinct

Moshe Idel, retired professor of Kabbalah at the Hebrew University, presented the theosophic kabbalah of the sefirot as a series of enchanted chains or a realm of a mesocosmos envisioned between humans and the infinite divine. Medieval pietists studied kabbalah to know how to perform worship and ritual acts with proper intentions and visualizations.  The goal was to theurgiclaly unite malkhut and tiferet as male and female  or to combine other aspects of divine energy. Sometimes the goal was to bring down energy and power (ruhaniyut) and other times the goal was to cleave to the Divine. Idel showed how kabbalists used circles, colors, visualized divine names, microcosmos in their practice.

Idel distinguishes between the magical-ecstatic kabbalah that seeks power and experience  from the  theosophic kabbalah that seeks union with the divine. In a similar manner the anthropologist Geoffrey Samuels- distinguishes between those tantra intentions that give power and pleasure in the higher worlds as opposed to those that help with liberation.

A unity of the Tetragrammaton and Lordship, better known as a unity of tiferet and malkhut is similar to a union of Siva and Shakti. This intention finds its latter institution as the prefatory statement before ritual in a post –Lurianic world Leshem yichud Kudsha Brich-hu u’Shekhinteh “In order to unify the Holy One Blessed be He and his Shekhinah.”

A yihud is similar to the common tantric preface to worship of the need to unify Shiva and Shakti, where the ritual performer unifies the great deity Shiva and His consort Shakti, the male and feminine principles.  I must note at this point that most followers of Shavism, consider this unity two parts of the same divine. There is only one single theism centered on Shiva and all consorts, family members, and entourage are considered aspects of the one god Shiva. I will come back to explain this in a latter post.  So they are asking for the unification of the male and female  divine energies as mapped out on a celestial realm, with microcosm correspondences on the body and the ritual.

Tantra converts ritual into acts that change the cosmos and require an intention to effect the unity, so too Kabbalah converts mitzvot into mysteries. The concept that “God needs human worship” (avodah tzorech gevoha) is basic for Nahmanides, Bahye and later Nefesh HaHayyim.  For example, Sefer Ha-Bahir: Why is [a sacrifice] called a korban? Because it brings close [mekarev] the forms of the holy powers… And why is it called a “pleasant smell”?… “Pleasant” [nihoah] is nothing other than descent, thus it is said, ‘and he descended’ {Lev. 9:22]

Visualization of light and flames

An example of tantric meditation on light is Jayakhya Samhita.  Similar to Kabbalistic meditation, the practitioner should see the image as the size of the world, glowing and it is to be done while saying the appropriate mantra

Meditating on the god whose form is flames, whose splendor is like a thousand suns, covered with millions of flames, spewing flames from his mouth, [the practitioner] should fill the entire universe up to the World of Brahma with that [visualization]. He should flood the directions, making them blaze with the splendor of his mantra, and meditate upon the entire circle of the earth baked, like a clay pot, by the fire of his mantra,  [The practitioner] should join the five letters…] in sequence together with five other letters.

Compare the Jewish kabbalist Isaac of Acco 13th Century-Meirat Eynayim

You should constantly keep the letters of the Divine Name in your mind as if they were in front of you, written in a book with Torah (Ashurit) script.  Each letter should appear infinitely large…………..When you depict the letters of the Divine Name in this manner, your mind’s eye should be directed toward the Infinite Being (Ein Sof). .. Your gazing and thought should be as one. This  is the mystery of true attachment..  You may ask why one should bind this thoughts to the Tetragrammaton more than any other name.  The reason is that this Name is the cause of causes and the source of all sources.  Included in it are all things, from Keter to the lowliest gnat.  Blessed be the Name of the glory of His kingdom forever and ever.

The tantric meditation cited above Jayakhya Samhita continues with a promise of lack of sickness or death. It shows that even after cleaving to the infinite the soul is distinct, as in Kabbalah.

Having made [himself] indistinguishable from him [the Lord], the soul is the agent of undiminished action. In this way he has produced a body that is supreme in liberation and enjoyment, having the appearance of pure crystal, bereft of old age and death.

The Body

One of the leading experts on the normative tantra, Gavin Flood, in his book The Tantric Body explains tantra as the weaving together of the  material and mental and through this practice that may involve yoga, ritual, reading, visualization- the body is formed into a pattern. Flood finds the one thing that tanrtras have in common is that they are read on the body, all share “entextualization of the body” They also work by placing desire in the service of the ritual word to gain  power and  energy.

The Sixteenth Century Rabbi Hayim Vital describes a unification (yihud) that treats the limbs of the body as corresponding with the ten sefirot of Kabbalah. One visualizes and focuses on an image of ten versions of the Divine name that vary based on ten vowel signs. These names correspond in his system to the cosmology of ten sefirot and the human body. If accomplished correctly, then one gains supernal merit, powers, and blessing. Esoteric practices such as Lurianic Yihudim are near identical to the Hindu concept of Tantra, where one visualizes unities that bring divine energy into the human microcosm.

Chaim Vital  who writes in his Shaarei Kedushah about the true body as the spiritual body. “It is understood by discerning people that a person’s body is not the actual person; the body is merely a garment the soul wears… The same way that a tailor will make physical garment in the shape of a body, G-d similarly made the body, which is the garment of the soul, in the shape of a soul, with 248 limbs and 365 tendons … (corresponding to) 248 spiritual limbs and 365 spiritual tendons… (Or prior to this in the Zohar II, p. 162b)

Chart of 16 different meditations- corresponding to mantras and 15 days of lunar month.



Vedic practice like to make charts, Mandalas, concentric circles and a god’s eye map of reality. Śrī Vidyā   is a Hindu Tantric religious system devoted to the Goddess as Lalitā Tripurasundarī (“Beautiful Goddess of the Three Cities”).In the principally Shakta theology of Śrī Vidyā the goddess is supreme, worshiped in the form of a mystical diagram (yantra), a central focus and ritual object composed of nine intersecting triangles, called the Sri Yantra or śrīcakra. The nine realms are further arranged as 43 smaller triangles with a boundary of eight levels.  While having none of the same numbers as the kabbalah, it is still a similar path of meditative focus and visualizations.The divisions and sub-divisions are similar in idea to kavvanot of Safed, with sefirot within sefirot.

sri meru yantra

Guru Worship and Hasidic Rebbes

I am not going to deal in this post with the vast range of Bengali and Kashmir tantra, but I do want to include one of the tantra made famous as one of Arthur Avalon’s 1916 translations of Shakti Tantra.

This one is called Secrets from the Kularnava Tantra (c1150) teaches a tantra of guru devotion in which the guru is like a deep well from which one can and should draw forth wisdom and blessings, taking advantage of his rare presence to advance oneself on the spiritual path.   The scripture opens with a single question posed by Shakti, the Mother of the universe, as to how all souls may attain release from sorrow, ignorance and birth. The theistic singular God Lord Siva answers, speaking out the verses of the Kularnava Tantra stating that one can only be liberated through the guru and that  the devotee should worship the guru’s feet.

Lord Siva said: There is One Real. Call it Siva. All embodied souls, jivas, all the born creatures, are portions of Me, like sparks of the fire. But human birth is the most important, for it is then that one becomes awake, aware of his state of bondage and the necessity of release. It is then that one is in a position to take steps for his liberation from bondage’s hold.

Humans have a self-will and are not totally subject to the impulses of nature, as are other creatures. The world you reach after the physical body is shed is determined by the level of consciousness reached while in the body. So, as long as the body lasts, exert yourself towards the goal of Liberation

All fear of distress, grief, avarice, delusion and bewilderment exist only as long as one does not take refuge in the satguru. All wanderings in the ocean of births, called samsara, fraught with grief and impurity, last as long as one has no devotion to a holy Sivaguru.

Worship of The Holy Feet- The uninitiated may wonder why the feet of holy ones are so reverently worshiped in the Hindu faith. According to tradition, the totality of the satguru is contained within his feet. All nerve currents terminate there. The vital points of every organ of his bodies inner astral, inner mental and soul are there. Touch the feet and we touch the spiritual master. Mystics teach that the big toe on the left foot exudes the most grace. ..

The connection and binding of oneself to the Zaddik is essential to the Hasidic movement. The visualizing of the Rebbe as a practice starts in the earliest Hasidic texts such as the 18th century Yosher Divrei Emet by Meshulam Feivish and continues into the 21st century as a practice in both Satmar and Lubavitch.  However Hasidim, as far as I know, do not especially seek to touch the Rebbe’s feet.

To take one example of these practice, let us look at  Rebbe Nachman of Breslev, who, similar to a Guru,  is the source of connection and referred to as the nachal novea mekor chochma – ”the flowing river, source of wisdom” [Proverbs 18:4]

The essential reason we travel to the true tzaddikim is in order to merit to teshuvah—to return to God—whatever our circumstances may be. However, if someone travels or goes to a Rebbe for any self-serving reason, such as to receive from him some sort of prestige or public position, he utterly fails to draw close to the tzaddik; for he is traveling there for his own glory. Rather, the essence of drawing close to the tzaddik is when one’s intention is for God alone—so that the tzaddik may draw him closer to God and bring him back from the spiritual straits into which he has fallen. (Reb Noson of Breslov, Likutey Halakhos, Hil. Shabbos 7:21 (abridged) Translated by Dovid Sears)

Reb Noson of Breslov (Likutey Tefilos II, 28) pleas for a leader who will be an aspect of Moses to redeem the people since they cannot do it themselves.

Let us know which path to follow in search of a true leader such as Moses. Owing to our profound lowliness and weakness today, when the inner light of our faces no longer shines, no one can help us except that exceptional master and true leader who will be an aspect of Moses our teacher, one who will also be able to illuminate us with holy perceptions so that we might reach the true goal, which is to know and perceive You through the entire panorama of Creation.

Cultural Integration

Historian of Tantra David White states that Tantra was the predominant religious paradigm for over a millennium- divination of the body. Tantra influenced bhakti, popular religion, devotionalism and Vaishnavism completely blurring the lines between tantra and non-tantra. So too, Kabbalah was the predominant religious paradigm that influenced the Jewish liturgy, the performance of the rituals and the worldview of Judaism.

7 responses to “ Hindu Tantra and Kabbalistic Judaism

  1. Another wonderful post. A few additional thoughts:

    With regard to the body, Tantra and Tantric derived practices do a bit more than weave; in Hatha Yoga, a Tantra-derived practice, the goal is to actually unite Shiva and Shakti in one’s own “energetic” or “subtle” body(Sukshma Sharira) “by means of the now well known Kundalini Shakti. This was introduced to the West by what was perhaps Avalon’s most famous book, The Serpent Power. By means of of asana, pranayama, etc one brings the Kundalini energy up thru the chakras where it unites with Shiva in the crown, or Sahasrara chakra. This Tantric goal, and not “flexibility”, “calmness” etc is THE goal of Hatha Yoga, as stated in all the classic texts.

    Tantra not only blurred the lines among various Hindu practices; it also, to some extent , blurred some lines between Hinduism and Buddhism as well, as a number of Buddhist Tantric groups, such as Vajrayana, developed alongside the Hinfu ones and were quite similar. For more on this, see the volume on Tantra by the late and sorely missed Georg Feuerstein.

  2. There seems to be more of a split between abba and ima personas in Jewish religious leadership post holocaust. Maybe this is because of a loss of innocent un-selfawareness.

  3. Fascinating post. Alan can you tell us anything about this very suggestive image:
    Thank you.

  4. The image we know as the Mogen David, the Jewish star, is not unique to and did not originate with Judaism. It is the image of the heart chakra in the yoga system. Images can be found in India in which the OM symbol is incorporated into the center of the “Jewish Star”. It looks like there is some other yantra-type image in the middle of the star in question. Likewise, the swastika is a traditional image in Indian spirituality, which was appropriated by Hitler. Swastikas and Jewish stars are both quite common around India.

  5. I am a little confused by some of your comments which appear to contain mixed messages, at least as I read it. You seem to be critical of Avalon’s work, indicating it is not authentic Eastern thought, but rather an invention of Western Orientalism, relating it, apparently with disapproval, as being embraced by New Age proponents. It appears that one of your objections might be a semantic/labeling issue, that real Eastern tantra has to do with an approach to ritual, and doesn’t have anything to do with Avalon’s description of the kundalini process and description of the chakra system (although you do not use the word “kundalini”). I agree that there are aspects of what is called “tantra” that relate to ritualizing what might otherwise be deemed mundane activities, including, but not limited to, the sexual act, which the West tends to obsess over as the only subject of tantra. And I tend to agree that what Avalon describes is more often labeled as the “kundalini” system and process. However, I believe there are also many variations of authentic Eastern traditions that relate tantra to the concept of Shiva and Shakti being in union, then separating, which separation causes the appearance of Maya, of the dimension of relativity (involution), and the spiritual process of the movement of Shakti to reunite with Shiva by rising up through the spine and chakras as spiritual growth (evolution). In any case, it appears to me that Avalon’s work is divulging information gleaned from and guided by genuine Eastern sources, and is not just an invention of Western Orientalism. Certainly, movements like Theosophy may have taken the Eastern sources and incorporated a Western spin onto them, as noted by Avalon, but it seems to me that Avalon’s work stays true to its Eastern sources, whether it is called “kundalini” or “tantra”.

  6. Avalon’s work is true to its sources, and I totally agree with Steve Gold. It was Osho who took tantrik works and represented them as a celebration of personal expression and freedom of an individual. Avalon is not a poetic, sexy, laced with jokes easy to read book, but a real attempt to convey the depth and beauty of the tradition by someone who genuinely appreciated the system and studied with respectable Tantrik masters in India.

  7. @Steve Gold thanks for your comment. And yet the ancient Lilium Candidum of Israel resembles a six pointed star. Hence, שׁוֹשָׁן (shoshan) lily, may be cognate with שֵׁשׁ (shesh) six. Google image search Capernaum Synagogue (Israel 2nd century CE).

    “I will be as dew unto Israel; he shall blossom כַּשּׁוֹשַׁנָּה as the lily” (Hosea 14:6).

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