Demystifying Tantra-III: Śaiva and Vaiṣṇava Tantras

Demystifying Tantra-III: Śaiva and Vaiṣṇava Tantras

[contextly_sidebar id=”euLkcKuZemLFvF1URNiov2zllkawOGSi”]

The tantra śāstras are an integral part of Hinduism, and provide spiritual practitioners concrete guidelines to achieve spiritual ascendancy. In terms of philosophical outlook, most of the tantras, have a decidedly non-dual outlook. Many of the sādhanā practices like pūjā, meditation and yoga described in the tantra śāstras are rooted in the non-dualist aim of achieving experiential Oneness with the Universal cosmic consciousness [1]. In comparing and contrasting non-dualism and Abrahamic monotheism, we had earlier highlighted the severe challenges encountered by those with an Abrahamic lens (whether theist or atheist) in trying to comprehend tantra Śāstra and its allied practices.

In this essay we will continue our exploration of the tantras and delve into the classification of tantric texts. A classification exercise will help us map out the complete landscape and make sense of the diversity of traditions, and also to appreciate the commonality between seemingly disparate texts. Compared to Vedic studies, an easily accessible, comprehensive and detailed study of all tantric and Agamaic texts, at a comparable scale, is not available.  There is a huge amount of material available in different versions and very few critical editions have been published. Even today, there are numerous manuscripts in Sanskrit and regional languages, both within and outside India, which are yet to be translated. On the top of that, there are many spurious and fake manuscripts, some indigenous and others of foreign origin [2].  Lamenting on the neglect of the systematic study of Tantra Śāstra, Goudriaan [3] says: “The study of Tantric literature has often been neglected in the past… Systematic further investigation into the field is important and urgent; important because of the intrinsic value of this province of Indian literature as the literary heritage of an extremely influential stream in Indian religious history… and urgent, because a great number of manuscripts, neglected by the present generation, is in danger of getting lost.”

Different Systems of Classification of Tantras

The Tantra Śāstra also known as Agamas permeate the life of modern Hindus across the length and breadth of Indian-subcontinent and Southeast Asia. The diversity of these texts is immense – for example a Kāmākhyā Kālī tantra text from Assam appears to be vastly different from a south Indian Śrīvidyā text, both in the diversity of topics and differentiation of outlooks. However, underlying all this diversity are a lot of common themes pertaining to metaphysics, cosmology, epistemology, yoga and meditation techniques. Given the immense landscape with respect to deities, geographies and chronology, before classifying the texts, we need to select a method of classification. Traditionally, there are five major ways of classifying the Tantra texts based on the deity, nature of the texts, Krāntās, Sampradāyas and srotas.

  1. Deity-wise tantra texts can be broadly classified as Śaiva, Śākta, Vaiṣṇava, Saura and Gāṇapatya.
  2. Based on the type of texts, Tantra literature can be classified as [4]:
  • Āgama – Primary tantric texts are normally known as Āgama (and Nigama). They can again be subdivided according to the sect:
    • Śaiva Agamas, which are said to be twenty eight in number
    • Śākta Agamas, which are said to be  seventy seven in number
    • Vaiṣṇava Agamas like the Vaikhānasa and Pāñcarātra
    • Others like Saura and Gāṇapatya sects and general tantra texts
  • Yāmala – Texts which are attributed to realized souls called Bhairavas are known as yāmalas.
  • Damara – These texts are attributed to Śiva’s attendants.
  1. According to krāntā system, Bharatavarsha is divided into three krāntās, each having 64 tantras [5] [6]:
  • Viṣṇu krāntā, comprising the region to the east of the Vindhya range upto Java in Indonesia
  • Ratha krāntā, comprising the region to the north of Vindhya range including China
  • Ashvakrāntā, comprising the region West of the Vindhya mountains
  1. In terms of sampradāya (schools), Bharata is said to have four sampradāya [7]:
  • Gauḍa sampradāya to the east
  • Kerala sampradāya in the middle
  • Kāśmīra sampradāya in the North and West
  • Vilāsa sampradāya found everywhere else
  1. As per the srota system, there are three currents [8] :
  • Dakṣiṇa srota, which is characterized by sattva guṇa, and is further classified according to four pīṭhas, which are vidyā, mantra, mudra and maṇḍala. The yāmala texts belong to this srota.
  • Vāma srota, which is characterized by rajas and includes texts like lalita, siddha, santāna etc.,
  • Madhyama, which is characterized by tamas and includes texts like vijaya, nishvāsa etc.

Different modes of classification yields different sets of texts. Not all the systems are able to account for all the texts. Let me illustrate by taking an example of a text called Brahma yāmala, which is an yāmala text of the Bhairava stream of the Śaiva tradition (specifically Śivaśakti tradition). The knowledge of Brahmayāmala was transmitted via the guru- śiṣya paramparā across geographies over the ages. The first recipient of the divine knowledge was Śrīkaṇṭha, who communicated it to a Bhairava in Prayāga, who in turn taught to other Bhairavas: Krodha, Kapāla and Padma. Padma transmitted the divine knowledge to Devadatta of the Oḍra country. Devadatta had fourteen disciples, who were residents of Madhyadeśa, Saurāṣṭra, Sindhu and other areas [9]. In terms of krāntā, sampradāya and deity, Brahma yāmala has no clear-cut position, but must rather be defined in relation to one or more categories. Therefore, Barhma yāmala describes itself as adhering to the Bhairava srota, Mahābhairava tantra, vidyā pīṭha, and picumata.

Apart from the primary tantra and Āgama texts, there are many specialized tantras, which deal with Ṣhaṭ-Karma, chemistry, astrology and other specific topics. Then, we come across, a major class of very important texts in the nature of mantra Śāstra texts, pūjā digests and compendiums, many of which are the source material for the regular Pūjā books that we use in our homes or temples. Hence, we need a system that spans across all these diverse set of texts. To this end, we will use a classification and enumeration system, given below, based on traditional sources and commentaries, Indian works of pandits like Mahamahopadhyay Gopinath Kaviraj (~1925) and P.C. Bagchi (~1940), modern Indian writings of monks like Swami Samarpanananda and Swami Harshananda, and finally works of Western Indologists like Jan Gonda (1977) and Teun Goudriaan (1981).

    • Śaiva – Sadaśiva (Śivagama), Vāma or Tumburu, Dakṣiṇa or Bhairava
    • Śivaśakti traditions – Yāmala (also part of Bhairava tradition)
    • Śākta – Kālī traditions (Kālī, Kālī Viṣṇu, Kāmākhyā, Tārā and Others), Śrīkula tradition
    • Kula and Other tantras
    • Vaiṣṇava – Vaikhānasa, Pāñcarātra, bhakti-oriented tantras of Kṛṣṇa and Rāma
    • Mantraśāstra
    • Nibandha
    • Others – supernatural, chemistry, astrology, alchemy, etc.,

Tantra, Āgama and Saṃhitā

Tantra and Āgama for all practical purposes can be treated as the same and are used interchangeably in the Tantric literature. However, there are some technical differences, especially in the domain of the Ṣaivāgamas, which we have covered in our earlier essay. The south Indian Śaiva Agamas deal more with practical matters like daily worship, building temples, and installation and consecration of idols, and have lesser dealings in the metaphysical realm. The Śaiva tantras focus more on the metaphysical and mystical aspects of the non-dualist doctrine. Another type of text that we come across is the saṃhitā, which is characterized by a four-pāda (quarter) structure and which we find in both the Śaiva as well as Vaiṣṇava domain. In this context, Goudriaan explains [10] :

“Notwithstanding the differences, we are bound to assume that the Agamas and saṃhitās on the one side and the early Tantras on the other have grown on common ground; that both were originally known in the North of India (although the Agamic and Pāñcarātra literatures were preserved almost only in the South); that both were perhaps not meant as antagonistic, but as complementary to each other; that both Agamas and early Śaiva tantras originated in the circles of those, who were well versed in the speculation on Śiva’s mystic nature and in the symbolic expression thereof (and the quest for identification with it) in ritual and yogic practice.”

Overall, the different types of Tantric texts are tantra, Āgama, saṃhitā, sūtra, upaniṣad, purāṇa, tīkā (commentaries), prakaraṇa, paddhati texts, stotram, kavaca, nighaṇṭu, koṣa and hagiographical literature.

Śaiva Tantras

The Śaiva Tantras are vast and varied and have some important texts like Amṛteṣaṭantra or Netratantra, Netragyanarṇava tantra, Niḥśvāsatattvasaṃhitā, Kālottārā tantra, Sarvajñānottārā tantra and others. According to Abhinavagupta, Kashmiri Śaiva trika philosophy, which deals with the core essence of the ultimate universal reality, was transmitted through a series of ten Ṣaivāgamas, eighteen Raudrāgamas and sixty-four Bhairavāgama texts [11]. The Śaivagamas, which are ten in number are distinctly dualistic or pluralistic in their outlook as they posit three fundamental realities pati, paśu and pāśa. The remaining eighteen Agamas are in between monistic and pluralistic in their metaphysical outlook [12].

Vāma Āgama

Tumburu is a special manifestation of Śiva with four shaktis, Jayā, Vijayā, Ajitā and Aparājitā. The vāmasrota was quite popular even in south-east Asia (Kambuja and Indonesia) till the 10th century CE. Vāma Āgama supposedly contain works of Kāpāla, Kālamukha and Aghora among others. Some of the important vāmagama texts are śiraśchedatantra, Vīṇāśikhatantra, Sammohanatantra, and Nayottārātantra. Other texts belonging to this category are Bhairavī, Vīnā, Vīnāmaṇi, Damara, Atharvaka, many of which are now lost.

Dakṣiṇa Āgama

According to tradition [13], the dakṣiṇa Āgama issued from the right mouth of Śiva. Dakṣiṇāgama texts can be divided into four pīṭhas, the vidyā, mantra, mudra and maṇḍala. The tantras belonging to the vidyāpīṭha are Yoginījāla, Yoginīhṛdaya, Mantramālinī, Āghoreṣī, āghoreśvarī, Krīḍāghoreśvari, Lākinīkalpa, Māricī, Mahāmāricī and Ugravidyāgaṇa.

Śaiva siddhānta tradition

The Śaiva siddhānta tradition of Southern India is based on the Śaivagama and the raudrāgama tradition, which are believed to have been revealed by Śiva’s five mouths Sadyojāta, Vāmadeva, Aghora, Tatpuruṣa and Īśāna. They have a total of twenty eight texts.


  • Dualist School of aivāgamas
      • Sadyojāta  proclaimed the kāmikā, yogaja, cintya, kāraṇa, ajita
      • Vāmadeva proclaimed the dipta, sukṣmā, sahasra, aṃsumāna, suprabheda
  • Dualistic-cum-monistic school of Raudrāgamas
      • Aghora proclaimed the vijaya, niḥśvāsa, svāyaṃbhuva, anala, vīra
      • Tatpuruṣa proclaimed the raurava, makuṭa,  vimala, candra jñāna, bimba
      • Īśāna pronounced the prodgītā, lalita, santāna, sarvokta, pārameśvara, kiraṇa, vātula, siddha
  • Other Āgama texts belong to the sects of Pāśupata, soma and Lākula (Nākula)

Yāmala Tradition

The yāmalas represent the Bhairava tradition of the Śaiva domain. The Bhairavas are believed to have been human teachers, who through their spiritual practices attained liberation during their lifetimes and became Śiva-like in their purity. These eight spiritual giants were Bhairavas: Svaccanda, Krodha, Unmatta, Ugra, Kapālin, Jhaṅkāra, Śekhara and Vijaya and they transmitted the knowledge of the eight principal yāmalas to human-kind through the guru-śiṣya paramparā.

  • The eight main yāmalas are rudra yāmala, skanda yāmala, brahma yāmala, viṣṇu yāmala, yama yāmala, yāyu yāmala, kubera yāmala and indra yāmala.
  • Two other important yāmalas belonging to the Bhairava tradition are the piṅgalāmata yāmala and the jayadhrata yāmala.
  • Other secondary yāmalas are the lakṣmī yāmala, gaṇeśa yāmala, candra yāmala, śakti yāmala, svaccanda yāmala, ruru yāmala, ṣiddha yāmala and the atharvāṇa yāmala.

Vaiṣṇava āgamas

The Vaiṣṇava Agamas, also known as the Vaiṣṇavatantras include the popular Pāñcarātra and Vaikhānasa traditions, along with lesser known tantras of Kṛṣṇa, Rādhā, Gaurāṅga and Rāma. According to the Sammohana tantra, the latter group includes 75 tantra texts, 205 upatantras, 8 saṃhitās, 1 Yamala, and 2 Damaras [14], but perhaps many of those works are lost and no longer available to us.

Pāñcarātra saṃhitā

Pāñcarātra literally means five nights (pañca: five, rātra: nights) and refers to that esoteric knowledge taught by Keshava (viṣṇu) to Ananta, Garuda, Vishvaksena, Brahma and Rudra over five nights. Swami Harshananda [15] says that since Pāñcarātra “teaches five kinds of knowledge, it is called Pancharatra. These are tattva (cosmology), muktiprada (that which gives mukti, or liberation), bhaktiprada (that which confers devotion), yaugika (yoga) and vaishayika (objects of desire). Or, alternatively, since it teaches about the five aspects of God (called Purushottama)—parā (highest), vyuha (emanation), vibhava (incarnation), antaryāmin (indweller), and archa (form of worship)—it is called Pancharatra.”

Traditionally, there are one hundred and eight Pāñcarātra saṃhitā texts. There are five such lists of hundred and eight texts with some variances, and hence the total number of saṃhitās in existence could have been two hundred and ten. However, many of these works have not been studied owing to a variety of reasons. Gonda [16] explains that “over thirty of the texts extant remain in manuscript form, but many works survive only in fragments; others have not been found or recovered. There are no doubt many works still surviving in libraries yet to be identified with at least some of the titles occurring in the lists.” While the Pāñcarātra texts are called saṃhitās, they also include the important work Lakṣmītantra. Pāñcarātra texts form an important part of the Śrīvaiṣṇava sampradāya.

An important text is the Ahirbudhnya Saṃhitā [17], having 3880 verses in the anuṣṭubh metre. Spread over 60 chapters, it specifically propounds the mystery of Sudarśana, the wondrous discus of Lord Viṣṇu as given by Ahirbudhnya (Śiva) to Nārada and narrated by Durvāsas to Bharadvāja. The text describes the nature of Ultimate Reality Nārāyaṇa, and its two aspects, the active aspect kriyāśakti and the material aspect the bhūtaśakti, and how the world is created as the configuration of sattva, raja and tamas changes. Similar to other texts in this genre, it talks about mantras for meditation and worship, characteristics of the ācārya (preceptor), śiṣya (disciple) and dīkṣā (initiation), yantras, yoga, astras (supernatural weapons), and mantras for curing diseases of body and  mind.

Some of the other important pāñcarātra texts are Jayākhya saṃhitā, Pārameśvara saṃhitā, Pauśkara saṃhitā, Pādma saṃhitā, Nāradīya saṃhitā, Haṃsaparameśvara saṃhitā, Vaihāyasa saṃhitā and Śrīkālapraā saṃhitā.

Vaikhānasa Āgama

The Vaikhānasa sampradāya are a community of temple priests, who are ordained by birth to be priests. They base their spiritual practices on the Vaikhānasa Agamas. The founder of this sect is believed to be Vikhanas, a spiritual giant, who is considered to be an incarnation of Viṣṇu. He gained divine knowledge through his spiritual practices and passed it on to his four disciple’s Marīci, Atri, Bhṛgu, and Kāśyapa. Important texts which have survived are as follows [18]:

  • Anandasaṃhitā and Jayasaṃhitā of Marīci;
  • Khilādhikāra, Kriyādhikāra, Prakīrṇādhikāra  and Yajñādhikāra of Bhṛgu;
  • Jñānakāṇḍa of Kāśyapa;
  • Uttaratantra (or Samūrtārcanādhikāra) of Atri.

Tantras of Kṛṣṇa, Rādhā, Gaurāṅga and Rāma

The Gautamīya tantra is a very famous Vaiṣṇavatantra work which describes the ritual worship of Kṛṣṇa, and has been extensively cited and commented upon later by scholars like Mukundalal, Radkakrishna Goswamin, and Radhāmohana. It is a very important text for the Gauḍiya Vaiṣṇava sampradāya as well as for the puja system of Sri Jagannath in Puri in Odisha. In thirty four chapters, it talks about Krishna mantras, description of Vrindavana, meditation on chakras and Kundalini Yoga, among other topics. Gautamīya tantra says [19] that Śrī Kṛṣṇa, who is very affectionate toward His devotees, sells Himself to a devotee, who offers merely a tulasī leaf and a palmful of water and that the transcendental goddess Śrīmatī Rādhārāṇī, the direct counterpart of Lord Śrī Kṛṣṇa is the primeval internal potency of the Lord. This bhakti-oriented tantra recommends that for a sannyāsī, who has no home, worship of the Deity within the mind is appropriate.

Other important texts are:

  • The Bṛhadbrahmasaṃhitā from the Nāradapāñcarātra focuses on the worship of Kṛṣṇa as the beloved of Rādhā.
  • The Māheśvaratantra is a Vaiṣṇava tantra presented as a dialogue between Śiva and Pārvatī. It specifically deals with Lakṣmī’s manifestation as Ramā and Rukmiṇi.
  • The Sātvatatantra is a bhakti-style tantric text intended for the Sātvatas or Bhāgavatas.
  • Rādhātantra (or Vāsudevarahasyam), and Kṛṣṇayāmala
  • Īśānasaṃhitā and Ūrdhvāṃnāyasaṃhitā deal with worship of Kṛṣṇa as Gaurāṅga
  • Agastyasaṃhitā and Dāśarathīyatantra for Rāma worshippers.

Incidentally, the Gītā Dhyānam, which millions of Hindus chant every day before commencing with Bhagavad Gītā pāṭha, is believed to be from the Vaiṣṇavīya Tantrasāra.

Short Note on Śiva as Tumburu and Śiraścheda Sādhanā of Cambodia

Interestingly, the Jayadhrata yāmala and the Vīṇāśikhatantra prescribes a specific mode of sādhanā called śiraścheda, which is no more in vogue today, but was quite popular till early 9th century even as far as Kambuja (Hinduized Cambodia) and Bali in Indonesia. Many modern Hindus may not be aware that an important factor behind the spread of Hindu culture throughout south-east Asia was the popular demand for tantra vidyā in those areas. There was a constant flow of highly trained Brahmin tantric adepts like Hiraṇyadāma and Kaundiṇya, who migrated from India to different parts of south-east Asia and imparted knowledge of specialized modes of worship like śiraścheda to local priests, many of whom were in fact earlier Indian migrants.

The Sdok kak Thom inscription in Thailand alludes to this mode of worship and explains the iconography and the philosophy. According to Chirapat Prapandvidya [20], “It begins with an invocation to Śiva, who is described as the one whose real nature is ātman (Supreme Reality), which cannot be expressed in words, but its existence can be inferred by the fact that it pervades the whole bodies of living beings and causes their sensual organs to function. He is further invoked to protect the whole universe with his three eyes, which are the moon, the sun and fire. Those, who see the real nature of ātman, see him clearly in all respects.”

This inscription talks about the Devarāja tradition of Shiva in ancient Cambodia. The tradition started [21] in 802 CE under the reign of King Jayavarman II, when a Brāhmaṇa named Hiraṇyadāma from India accompanied “His Majesty, and His Majesty’s guru, into the depths of the moss-laden forests of Mahendraparvata”. Hiraṇyadāma, then disclosed the mysteries of Devarāja, so that “the king [could] become the cakravartin, or universal ruler.” He taught to Śivakaivalya, the royal priest, four texts, which embodied this esoteric knowledge, namely, Vīṇāśikha, Sammohana, Śiraścheda and Nayottārā.

The Vīṇāśikha is an extremely important work as it is perhaps the only available document concerned with the [22] “Tumburu tradition or Vamasrotas within early Tantric Saivism. About one thing there should be no doubt: the Vīṇāśikha was conceived in India and was brought, together with the other mentioned texts of the Vamasrotas, to South East Asia, where it was taught and written down by Saiva religious specialists… Besides the reference in the Sdok kak Thom inscription, we find several allusions to Tumburu in Sanskrit hymns and fragments from Bali, which partly must go back to an early period of Hindu influence in Indonesia.”


Āgama Hindu Dharma is the name of the religion practiced by Hindus in Southeast Asia, especially in Indonesia. The very fact that Southeast Asian Hindus prefixed their religion with the word Āgama shows how integral tantras are to Hinduism. The massive, rapid and peaceful Hinduization of south-east Asia during the early years of CE, can be attributed to the flow of the knowledge of Āgama Śāstras from India and the continuous migration of Indian tantric sādhakas from different parts of India to Thailand, Cambodia and Indonesia. Within mainland India, tantra sādhanā and metaphysics, deeply influenced Jainism, Buddhism and even the Ismaili Nizari sect of Shia Islam. In terms of geography, tantric influence is seen in China, Tibet, and Southeast Asia and even as far as Japan.

In the next article, we will discuss the Śākta Tantras and the two important schools: the Kālīkula and the Śrīkula. We will also delve into the Daśamahavidyās and understand their significance. Later, we will study very important tantric works dealing with mantra śāstra and ritual handbooks known as nibandhas.


Bagchi, P. (2010). Evolution of the Tantras. In S. Lokeswarananda, Studies on the Tantras (pp. 7-28). Kolkata: Ramkrishna Mission Institute of Culture.

Gonda, J. (1977). A History of Indian Literature Vol II. Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz.

Goudriaan, T. (1985). The Vinasikhatantra A Saiva Tantra of the Left Current. Delhi: Motilal Banarasidass.

Goudriaan, T., & Gupta, S. (1981). Hindu Tantric and Sakta Literature. Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz.

Harris, T. (2005, June). Thailand’s Yoga Master Claimed his Khmer root. Retrieved from AsiaFinest:

Prapandvidya, C. (2010). Śaivism in Thailand as Recorded in Inscriptions and Old Documents from Sixth Century to Early Ayudhyā Period. The Journal of the Royal Institute of Thailand, 44-59.

Swami Harshananda. (2003, January). The Pancaratra Agamas- A Brief Study. Retrieved from eSamaskriti The Essence of Indian Culture:

Swami Harshananda. (2006). Vaikhanasa Agama. Vedanta Kesari, 252-255.

Swami Harshananda. (2016, July). Ahirbudhnya Saṃhita. Retrieved from Hindupedia:

Swami Samarpanananda. (2010). The Tantras: An Overview. Prabuddha Bharata, 269-275.

Vaniquotes. (2016, July). Gautamiya-tantra. Retrieved from Vaniquotes:


1.The southern Shaiva Siddhanta Agamas are dualistic, and the aim of yoga and meditation in their tradition is to experience not “Oneness” but rather “Sameness”. In other words, a realized Shaiva Siddhantin Master will be able to experience the world as Shiva would, but he will not “merge” with Shiva, as say a Kashmiri Shaiva or Shakta practitioner would.

  1. It is believed that quite a few “manuscripts” with serious distortions were produced by British colonial administrators and Christian missionaries in the 20th century to present their Judeo-Christian point of view and/or to vilify Hinduism and paint its practices as primitive, barbaric and superstitious.

3 .(Goudriaan & Gupta, 1981, pp. 2-3)

4 .(Swami Samarpanananda, 2010, p. 271)

5 .Mahāsiddhasāra tantra

6 .Śaktimañgala tantra

7 .Ṣaṭ sambhava rahasya

8 .(Bagchi, 2010)

9 .(Bagchi, 2010)

10 .(Goudriaan & Gupta, 1981)

11 .(Goudriaan & Gupta, 1981, p. 13)

12 .(Gonda, 1977, p. 181)

13 .(Bagchi, 2010, p. 16)

14 .(Swami Samarpanananda, 2010, p. 271)

15 .(Swami Harshananda, 2003)

16 .(Gonda, 1977, p. 40)

17 .(Swami Harshananda, 2016)

18 .(Swami Harshananda, 2006)

19 .(Vaniquotes, 2016)

20 .(Prapandvidya, 2010)

21 .(Harris, 2005)

22. (Goudriaan, 1985, p. 27)

Disclaimer: The facts and opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. IndiaFacts does not assume any responsibility or liability for the accuracy, completeness, suitability, or validity of any information in this article.

Subhodeep Mukhopadhyay

Subhodeep Mukhopadhyay is from a data science background and his research interest includes history, religion and philosophy. He is the author of "The Complete Hindu’s Guide to Islam" and "Ashoka the Ungreat".