Demystifying Tantra-IV: Shakta tantras, Kaula tantras, Mantrashastra and Nibandhas
In the previous article, we had started an exercise of classifying tantric texts to help us make sense of the diversity of traditions, and to appreciate the commonality between seemingly disparate texts. We had surveyed the Śaiva and Vaiṣṇava Tantric literature and discussed key aspects of the some of the important texts in each tradition and had also looked into the pervasive influence of Tantra in south-east Asian cultures. As we have seen so far, the traditions are diverse and the rituals more so, but at the very core, in terms of metaphysical philosophy, most tantric works are non-dualist and aim at achieving experiential Oneness with the Divine Consciousness. In this article we will continue with this discussion and focus on the very important Śākta tantras – the Kālīkula tantras and the tantras of the Śrīkula tradition. This will be followed by an analysis of the Kaula tantras, a very important, but often misunderstood body of tantric works. We will conclude the discussion by delving into a huge body of technical tantric texts comprising of the mantraśāstras and ritual handbooks known as nibandhas.
A concept related to the Śākta tantras is the Daśamahāvidyā or the Ten Great Knowledge. It would be useful for us to acquaint ourselves with this framework as we delve into the intricacies of Śākta tantras. As per the Muṇḍamālātantra, Toḍalatantra and Cāmuṇḍatantra, the Daśamahāvidyās are  Kālī, Tārā, śoḍaṣi, Bhuvaneśvari, Bhairavī, Chinnamastā, Dhūmāvatī, Vagalā, Mātāṅgī and Kamalā. The corresponding Bhairavas of the Mahāvidyās are respectively Mahākāla, Akṣobhya, śiva (Pañcamukī and Trinetra), Tryambaka, Dakṣiṇāmurti, Kavandha, none (since Dhūmāvati is a widow), Ekavaktra Mahārudra, Mātaṅga śiva and Viṣṇu (Sadāśiva), respectively.
- Kālī is the devourer of Time.
- Tārā or Nīlāsarasvatī is the guide, protector and savior.
- śoḍaṣi or Tripurasundarī, is the beautiful Goddess.
- Bhuvaneśvari is the world mother
- Bhairavī is the Fierce One
- Chinnamastā is the self-decapitated One
- Dhūmāvatī is the widow
- Vagalā mukhī is the paralyzer of enemies
- Mātāṅgī or Ucchiṣṭhācaṇḍālinī, is the one who devours what is leftover
- Kamalā is the One seated on the lotus
According to Vamadeva Shastri , “Dasha Mahāvidyā … reveal the inner workings of both the universe and the psyche, once the veil of appearances is pulled down. They represent the deeper truths of life hidden behind our attachment to the outer form of things. Their messages are sometimes inspiring and sometimes frightening because they represent life itself, but they are always instructive to those who are looking for something beyond the ordinary realm. The ten forms of the Goddess function not merely to teach us superficially or intellectually but to challenge us to look deeper. As great cosmic forces their energies can be difficult to bear and their extreme appearances may jolt us. Their forms are often disturbing they are not meant to be merely pleasant. They are meant like mysteries to enter or shock the mind into awakening. They are not meant merely to console or inspire but to promote within us the deepest search. Their forms are ambiguous, contradictory and paradoxical. They are provocative energies designed to take hold of our minds and through their enigmatic nature neutralize the thought process which keeps us in bondage.”
Śākta Tantras – Kālī tradition
In the Kālī tradition, we come across a number of very important and archaic texts. As per noted Indologist Teun Goudriaan , “a sect called Kālīkula is repeatedly referred to by Abhinavagupta in his tantrāloka; Kālī’s early form as Kālasaṃkarṣiṇī is the object of devotion in several old texts such as the Brahmayāmala, the Devīyāmala, the Mādhavakula and the Tantrāloka itself”. The Kālī tradition describe rites and customs which may appear to be gruesome and are definitely not for the faint-hearted. This is a direct outcome of the underlying representation of Kālī as the destructive aspect of time and as a mother, who will, if required resort to violence to protect her children. This tradition is therefore suited for an aspirant of the heroic nature (vīrabhava), who does accepts the good, the bad as well as the gruesome with equanimity.
As per the Āmnāya system, there are six deities associated with Shakti in different directions. They are Pūrṇeśvarī in the east, Niḥśeśvarī in the south, Kubjikā in the West, Kālī in the north, śrīvidyā in the upper direction and the Buddhist Vajrayoginī in the lower direction. In most of the Kālī tantras, the conversations between Shiva and Devi usually takes place in a cremation ground and in a fearsome setting. Some of the important Kālītantras are Yonigahavara, Kālīkulārṇava tantra, Kaṇkālamālinī tantra, Jhaṃkārakaravīra, Mahākālasaṃhitā, Kālī tantra, Kālajñāna tantra, Kumārī tantra, Toḍala tantra, Siddhalaharī tantra and Niruttārā tantra.
The Kālītantras have many rites which at a first glance appear to be singularly outlandish. They are meant only for the vīra sādhakas, a special category of spiritual aspirants (comprising perhaps less than 1% of all aspirants), and not for all practitioners. To the uninitiated as well as to someone from a different world view, many of the practices may appear quite incomprehensible, and thus most kālī tantra texts have been prone to gross misinterpretations. For example, the Mahākālasaṃhitā describes a rite known as Shivabali (offering to the jackal) and which would appear to be distinctly bizarre to someone, who is not conversant with the underlying Oneness metaphysics. In this rite, the heroic practitioner, at midnight, deep in the forest or cremation ground, makes an offering to a jackal and performs Pūjā in order to obtain extraordinary powers. This rite has been portrayed in scholarly works as primitive and barbaric. However, even this seemingly strange practice is deeply rooted in the non-dualist metaphysics, for the Mahākālasaṃhitā very clearly says: “The jackals should not be despised, because they are manifestation of the Goddess; Kālikā in the form of a jackal, arrives in own person” .
n this tradition, Kṛṣṇa is shown as Kālī’s son. Some of the important texts in this tradition are Kālīvilāsa tantra, Utpatti tantra, Kāmadhenu tantra and Nirvāṇa tantra. Interestingly, the Kālīvilāsa tantra, has a special rite for the conversion of a śūdra to a vaiśya. This is quite contrary to the claim of a rigid and inflexible so-called “caste system” as propounded by British Indologists and parroted by modern day social scientists and “South Asian” experts. More importantly, tantras in this tradition, categorically prohibit the usage of alcohol or meat or animal sacrifices.
Kāmākhyā is an important manifestation of Kālī, who is worshipped in the famous Kāmākhyā temple in Kamrup district of Assam. The Kāmākhyā temple is among the most important of the 51 Shakti Peethas and is a very important pilgrimage site, being traditionally the eastern-most boundary of India’s sacred geography. Two important works in this tradition are Kāmākhyā tantra and Yoginī tantra. The Yoginī tantra is a very famous work and is a “precious source of all kinds of legendary, semi-historical and topographical traditions about the Goddess, written in simple but agreeable Sanskrit; in short, one of the most readable Tantras.”
Tārā and Others
Tārā is the second Mahāvidyā and a manifestation of Goddess Kālī. Famous tantras in the Tārā tradition are the Tārā tantra, Kaula tantra, Matsya Sūkta / Tārā Kalpa and Samayā tantra. The Muṇḍamāla tantra deals with the worship of the ten Mahāvidyās together as well as individually. The Sāṃkhyāyana tantra deals with the worship of Bagalāmukhī (or Vagalā), a very famous regional Goddess in eastern India. Other important Kālī tantras are the Nīlā tantra, Nibandha tantra, Vīra tantra, Māyā Tantra, Kātyāyani tantra, Kālānalatantra and Vārāhī tantra.
Śākta Tantras – Śrīkula tradition
The Śrīkula tradition deals with the worship of Śrī or Lakṣmī in the form of Tripurasundarī, who is considered to be the “foremost benign, beautiful and youthful, yet motherly manifestation of the Supreme Shakti”. The Śrīkula tradition is “characterized by a high degree of technicality cultivated in order to serve an intellectualistic desire for subtle symbolism. It is clear that the initiates should develop also a capacity for sustained creative meditation.” The lineage of Śrīkula sādhakas trace their origins to the sampradāya founded by ādi Śaṅkarācārya. In the context of the ten Mahavidyā, Tripurasundarī is also known as Ṣoḍaśī.
The tantras associated with the Śrīkula tradition are:
The tantras associated with the Śrīkula tradition are:
- Vāmakeshvara tantra, which is a compendium of two independent, but related texts Nityāṣoḍaśīkārṇava and Yoginīhṛdaya. The Nityāṣoḍaśīkārṇava also known as catuḥśati talks about the Śrīchakra and the Śrīvidyā
- Tantrajā tantra also known as Kāḍimata tantra provides a detailed survey on all aspects of the Śrīvidyā tradition in three thousand six hundred shlokas spread across thirty six chapters of hundred shlokas each.
The Yoginīhṛdaya is supposedly the best authoritative work on the Divine Mother’s inner worship. Traditionally, there were twelve schools associated with this worship of which only Kāmadeva and Lopāmudrā schools survive. The book is divided into three paṭalas dealing with chakra, mantra and Pūjā of the Supreme Goddess. Other texts are Jñānārṇava tantra, Śaktisaṃgama tantra, Vidyārṇava tantra, ānandārṇava tantra, ānanda tantra, Paramānanda tantra, Kuloḍḍīśa tantra and Gandharva tantra.
The śrīcakra is a yantra of nine interlocking triangles that surround and radiate out from the central (bindu) point, and can be represented both two dimensionally as well as three dimensionally. Gopinath Kaviraj says :
“The Chakra… represents the Supreme Divine power as manifested in the form of the Universe, gross, subtle, as well as causal. The Chakra consists of nine triangles, five with vertices downwards and four with vertices upwards. The former represents the creative aspect of Power and is called ‘Shakti’, whereas the latter, called Fire stands for its destructive phase.”
The śrīcakra is a creation of intricate beauty and divinity, and is a perfect example of the transcendental Universal Reality being projected onto worldly realms, and is a continuation of ideas of the Infinite in finite (tat tvam asi) that we see in the Vedas. Subhash Kak says, in this regard:
“The Śrī Cakra is an iconic representation of the deepest intuitions of the Vedas. It represents both the recursive structure of reality and also expresses the fact that Nature and Consciousness are interpenetrating”. 
While exploring the antiquity of the śrīcakra, he has shown that the śrīcakra can be historically traced to the Śvetāśvatara Upaniṣad, thereby debunking the so-called dichotomy and tension between Vedas and Tantras, which has been popularized by many Western Indologists . Kak says:
“The identification of the Śrī Cakra in Śvetāśvatara Upaniṣad goes against the scholarly view that the Śrī Cakra is a post-major-Upaniṣadic innovation, and, if accepted, this calls for a revision of the history of the development of Tantra… It must be stated that within the Yogic tradition, it has always been believed that Tantra is a part of the Vedas itself. In the Devī Sūkta (Ṛgveda 10.125), the Goddess describes herself as supreme. In the Śrī Sūkta of the Ṛgvedic hymns (appendices), the goddess Śrī is associated with prosperity, wealth, and fortune, and she is spoken of as deriving joy from trumpeting elephants.” 
The Kulārṇavatantra is a very important and popular text in this category. It gives a detailed and systematic exposition on various aspects of the Kaula sects. According to M.P. Pandit: “It calls upon man to wake up to the rare privilege that has been given to him, e.g. human birth in which the being becomes conscious of himself and is offered a choice: a choice between stagnation and rapid progression towards his Godhead.” These group of texts have been a source of tremendous misinterpretation, because they talk about the usage of wine, meat and sexual union during certain practices. However, all the texts very categorically state that these practices are meant for a very specific group of initiated practitioners only. M.P. Pandit concludes: “In unambiguous terms, he is told that a wine-drinker is different from the drinkers of ecstasy; the union of delight is between the ascending Sakti and the presiding Lord above, and not between man and woman. In issuing these warnings, the adepts of the Tantra would seem to have anticipated the modern turn of mixing up sex with spirituality. It is a pity that a text like this has not received adequate publicity in the west, where tantra-enthusiasts are on the wrong track.”
The Mahānirvāṇa tantra is another very famous text expounding the sādhanā of Brahman, both in nirguṇa and saguṇa form. A unique feature of the mahānirvāna tantra is its detailed treatment of inheritance laws, caste rules and marriage traditions. The text has been appreciated for “its internal coherence, the sincere exertion to communicate a message, its reasonably correct language, the clearness of its style, and its didactical competence”.
Some of the other important tantras are the Kulacūḍāmaṇitantra, Kulārṇavatantra, Guptasādhanatantra and Mātṛkābhedatantra. Other tantras dealing with mystical speculation, yoga and other miscellaneous topics are Jñānasaṃālīnītantra, Brahmasandhānam, Mṛtyuñjayatantra, Cintāmaṇitantra, Bhūtaśuddhitantra, Sarasvatītantra, Gāyatrītantra, Yonitantra, and Gurutantra.
The mantraśāstra compendiums are by far the largest category of tantric texts available today in circulation, and even historically they have been the largest body of tantric works. Texts belonging to this category are the source books of most of the mantras used in nitya karma and pūjā manuals that we find in various parts of India today. Goudriaan says: “The larger part of Tantric literature consists of more or less systematically arranged descriptions of the contents of the tradition or of certain parts of it. These ‘digests’ do not claim to be revealed; their authors usually mention their own names and sometimes give particulars about their life and doctrinal position in introductory or concluding stanzas. They often quote profusely from earlier sources of which they as a rule give the titles.”
Typically the mantra compendiums deal with the following subjects:
- An account of the original development of the phonic emanation of the divine
- General rules of how to deal with mantra
- Initiatory ritual
- The rules of purascaraṇa
- Discussion of individual mantras
Well known ancient texts like Prapañcasāra and the śāradatilaka belong to this category. These texts are famous for their literary merit, the artistic rendering of the text, the flawless utilization of Sanskrit as a medium for transmitting esoteric and mystical concepts, the lyrical quality of their metrical form and use of kāvyas. Some of the important works in this category are given below .
- Prapañcasāra tantra and its commentaries and Ṭīkās
- Vivaraṇa by Jñānasvarūpa, another Vivaraṇa attributed to Padmapāda
- Sambandhadīpikā by Uttamabodha
- ṭīkā by jagadguru
- Tattvapradīpikā by Nāgāsvāmin
- a Vyākhyā called Vijñānoddyotinī
- Prapañcasārasaṃgraha by Gīrvāṇendra Sarasvatī
- Śāradatilaka tantra by Lakṣmaṇa Deśikendra
- Padārthadarśa by Rāghavabhaṭṭa
- śabdārthacintāmaṇi by Premanidhi Pant
- Harṣakaumudī by śrīharṣa Dīkṣita
- Gūḍhārthadīpika by Trivikramajña, and one by Mādhava
- Mantrayantraprakāśikā by śīrapāṇi
- Mantramuktāvali of Paramahaṃsa Pūrṇaprakāśa
- Mantramahodadhi of Mahīdhara
- Mantradevaprakāśikā of Viṣṇudeva
- Mantrakamalākara of Kamalākara Bhaṭṭa
- Mantraratnākara of Yadunātha Cakravartin
- Mantramahārṇava of Mādhava Rāya Vaidya, very popular in western India
- Tantrasāra of Kṛṣṇānanda āgamvāgiśa, a very important text in eastern India
The nibandha texts are very important tantric works dealing with ritual worship and daily pūjās. Almost all pūjās done today whether at home or temples or community centers are based on some nibandha text. Nibandhas generally cover the following topics:
- Characteristic of an ideal guru and śiṣya
- Nityakarma and nityapūjā (daily worship)
- Naimittika pūjā (special worships)
- Special pūjās and sādhanās
- Mantras and puraścaraṇa
- Rules about the ṣaṭ karma
Nibandha texts are numerous and all-pervasive. Some of the important nibandha texts are given below.
- Kriyākalpataru of śaktinātha Kalyānakara
- Kaulāvalīnirṇaya of Jñānānandagiri Paramahaṃsa
- śāktanandataraṃgiṇī of Brahmānanda Giri
- śāktakrama of Pūrṇānanda
- śrītattvacintāmaṇi of Pūrṇānanda
- āgamakalpadruma of Govinda
- āgamakalpalatikā of Yadunātha
- āgamatattvavilāsa of Raghunātha Tarkavāgīśa, and āgamachandrikā of Rāmakṛṣṇa
- Tantrachintāmaṇi of Navamīsiṃha
- Prāṇatoṣiṇī of Rāmatoṣaṇa Vidyālaṃkāra
- Others like Śhivarahasya, Śaivakalpadruma etc.
It is quite evident that the tantras are a vast body of religious and spiritual literature, covering a large number of subjects like intricate spiritual speculation, meditation on complex geometric shapes, worshipping the divine in the dead of the night in a fearsome cremation ground and so on. Each of these paths are valid, and no path is less valid than the other. Such multiplicity of spiritual practices is in fact the hallmark of Hinduism. To say that only one path is correct and others are false is a typical trait of monotheistic faiths like Christianity and Islam, and leads to intolerance and terrorism. However, this freedom does not mean that it is a free for all. The Tantric texts are very categorical as to which type of practitioner should engage in what practices, and who should not.
Today, we may be disdainful of the so-called “sexual” nature of certain practices, but we must also remember that our objection to the erotic is nothing, but colonial Victorian prudishness, which we Hindus have internalized over the last five to six generations. We will conclude the exploration of tantric texts in the next part with a brief study of some popular tantras, which deal with the attainment of superhuman faculties and powers. We will then deal with the vexed issue of ritualized sex, meat eating, alcohol usage in tantric worship and other “magical” and “supernatural” tantric rites.
Avalon, A. (1965). Kularnava Tantra. Delhi: Motilal Banarasidass.
Goudriaan, T., & Gupta, S. (1981). Hindu Tantric and Sakta Literature. Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz.
Kak, S. (2010). The Great Goddess Lalitā and the Śrī Cakra . Retrieved from ikashmir.net: http://ikashmir.net/subhashkak/docs/SriChakra.pdf
Kaviraj, G. (1963). Yogini Hṛdaya with commentaries of Dīpikā of Amṛtānandaand Setubandha of Bhāskara Rāya. Varanasi: Varanaseya Sanskrit Vishwavidyalaya.
Kaviraj, G. (1987). Notes on Religion and Philosophy. Varanasi: Sampurnananda Sanskrit Vishwavidyalaya.
Shastri, V. (2016). Dasha Mahavidya. Retrieved from Sri Kamakoti Mandali: https://www.kamakotimandali.com/srividya/dasha.html
- (Kaviraj, 1987, pp. 163-170)
- (Shastri, 2016)
- (Goudriaan & Gupta, 1981, pp. 75-76)
- Please refer to earlier parts of the series for an indepth exploration on Non-dualism/ monism, pluralism and monotheism.
- (Goudriaan & Gupta, 1981, pp. 79-80)
- (Goudriaan & Gupta, 1981, p. 86)
- (Goudriaan & Gupta, 1981, p. 58)
- (Kaviraj, 1963)
- (Kak, 2010)
- We have discussed this aspect in detail in the first part of this series.
- (Avalon, 1965, p. Preface)
- (Goudriaan & Gupta, 1981, p. 99)
- (Goudriaan & Gupta, 1981, p. 130)