There are seven, or, as some say, nine, divisions of worshippers. The extra divisions are bracketed in the following quotation. The Kularnava Tantra mentions seven, which are given in their order of superiority, the first being the lowest: Vedachara, Vaishnavachara, Shaivachara, Dakshinachara, Vamachara, Siddhantachara (Aghorachara, Yogachara), and Kaulachara, the highest of all. The achara is the way, custom, and practice of a particular class of sadhaka. They are not, as sometimes supposed, different sects, but stages through which the worshipper in this or other births has to pass before he reaches the supreme stage of the Kaula. Vedachara, which consists in the daily practice of the Vaidik rites, is the gross body (sthula-deha), which comprises within it all other acharas, which are, as it were, its subtle bodies (sukshma-deha) of various degrees. The worship is largely of an external and ritual character, the object of which is to strengthen dharma. This is the path of action (kriya-marga). In the second stage the worshipper passes from blind faith to an understanding of the supreme protecting energy of the Brahman, towards which he has feelings of devotion. This is the path of devotion (bhakti-marga), and the aim at this stage is the of it and faith previously acquired. With an increasing determination to protect dharma and destroy a-dharma, the sadhaka passes into Shaivachara, the warrior (kshatriya) stage, wherein to love and mercy are added strenuous striving and the cultivation of power. There is union of faith, devotion (bhakti), and inward determination (antar-laksha). Entrance is made upon the path of knowledge (jnana-marga). Following this is Dakshinachara, which in Tantra does not mean “right-hand worship,” but “favorable” – that is, that achara which is favorable to the accomplishment of the higher sadhana, and whereof the Devi is the Dakshina Kalika. This stage commences when the worshipper can make dhyana and dharana of the threefold Sakthi of the Brahman (kriya, ichchha, jñana), and understands the mutual connection (samanvaya) of the three guna until he receives purnabhisheka(q.v.). At this stage the sadhaka is Shakta, and qualified for the worship of the threefold Sakthi of Brahma, Vishnu, Maheshvara. He is fully initiated in the Gayatri-mantra, and worships the Devi Gayatri, the Dakshina Kalika, or Adya Sakthi – the union of the three Sakthi. This is the stage of individualistic Brahmana-tattva, and its aim is the union of faith, devotion, and determination, with a knowledge of the threefold energies. After this a change of great importance occurs, marking, as it does, the entry upon the path of return (nivritti). This it is which has led some to divide the achara into the two broad divisions of Dakshinachara (including the first four) and Vamachara(including the last three), it being said that men are born into Dakshinachara, but are received by initiation into Vamachara. The latter term does not mean, as is vulgarly supposed, “left-hand worship,” but the worship in which woman (vama) enters that is lata-sadhana. In this achara there is also worship of the Vama Devi. Vija is here “adverse,” in that the stage is adverse to pravritti, which governed in varying degrees the preceding achara, and entry is here made upon the path of nivritti, or return to the source whence the world sprung. Up to the fourth stage the sadhaka followed pravrittimarga, the outgoing path which led from the source, the path of worldly enjoyment, albeit curved by dharma. At first unconsciously, and later consciously, sadhana sought to induce nivrittt, which, however, can only fully appear after the exhaustion of the forces of the outward current. In Vamachara, however, the sadhaka commences to directly destroypravritti, and with the help of the Guru (whose help throughout is in this necessary) to cultivate nivritti. The method at this stage is to use the force of pravritti in such a way as to render them self-destructive. The passions which bind may be so employed as to act as forces whereby the particular life of which they are the strongest manifestation is raised to the universal life. Passion, which has hitherto run downwards and outwards to waste, is directed inwards and upwards, and transformed to power. But it is not only the lower physical desires of eating, drinking, and sexual intercourse which must be subjugated. The sadhaka must at this stage commence to cut off all the eight bonds (pasha) which mark the pashu which the Kularnava Tantra enumerates as pity (daya), ignorance (moha), shame (lajja), family (kula), custom (shila), and caste (varna). When Shri Krishna stole the clothes of the bathing Gopi, and made them approach him naked, he removed the artificial coverings which are imposed on man in the sangsara. The Gopi were eight, as are the bonds (pasha), and the errors by which the jiva is misled are the clothes which Shri Krishna stole. Freed of these, the jiva is liberated from all bonds arising from his desires, family, and society. He then reaches the stage of Shiva (shivatva). It is the aim of Vamachara to liberate from the bonds which bind men to the sangsara, and to qualify the sadhaka for the highest grades of sadhana in which the sattvika guna predominates. To the truly sattvik there is neither attachment, fear, or disgust. That which has been commenced in these stages is by degrees completed in those which follow – viz.: Siddhantachara, and according to some, Aghorachara and Yogachara. The sadhaka becomes more and more freed from the darkness of the sangsara, and is attached to nothing, hates nothing, and is ashamed of nothing, having freed himself of the artificial bonds of family, caste, and society. The sadhaka becomes, like Shiva himself, a dweller in the cremation ground (smashana). He learns to reach the upper heights of sadhana and the mysteries of yoga. He learns the movements of the different vayu in the microcosm the Kshudra-brahmanda, the regulation of which controls the inclinations and propensities (vritti). He learns also the truth which concern the macrocosm (brahmanda). Here also the Guru teaches him the inner core of Vedachara. Initiation by yoga-diksha fully qualifies him for yogachara. On attainment of perfection in ashtanga-yoga, he is fit to enter the highest stage of Kaulachara.
Kaula-dharma is in no wise sectarian, but, on the contrary, is the heart of all sects. This is the true meaning of the phrase which, like many another touching the Tantra, is misunderstood, and used to fix the kaula with hypocrisy – antah-shaktah, vahih-shaivah sabhayang vaishnavahmatah nana – rupadharah kaulah vicharanti mahitale (outwardly Shaivas; in gatherings, Vaishnavas; at heart, Shaktas; under various forms the Kaulas wander on earth). A Kaula is one who has passed through these and other stages, which have as their own inmost doctrine (whether these worshippers know it or not) that of Kaulachara. It is indifferent what the Kaula’s apparent sect may be. The form is nothing and everything. It is nothing in the sense that it has no power to narrow the Kaula’s own inner life; it is everything in the sense that knowledge may infuse its apparent limitations with an universal meaning. So understood, form is never a bond. The Vishva-sara Tantra, says of the Kaula that “for him there is neither rule of time; nor place. His actions are unaffected either by the phases of the moon or the position of the stars. The Kaula roams the earth in differing forms. At times adhering to social rules (shishta), he at others appears, according to their standard, to be fallen (bhrashta). At times, again, he seems to be as unearthly as a ghost (bhuta or pishacha) To him no difference is there between mud and sandal paste, his son and an enemy, home and the cremation ground.”
At this stage the sadhaka attains to Brahma-jnana, which is the true gnosis in its perfect form. On receiving mahapurna-daksha he performs his own funeral rites and is dead to the sangsara. Seated alone in some quiet place, he remains in constant samadhi, and attains its nir-vikalpa form. The Great Mother, the Supreme Prakriti Maha-Sakthi, dwells in the heart of the sadhaka, which is now the cremation ground wherein all passions have been burnt away. He becomes a Parama-hangsa, who is liberated whilst yet living (javan-mukta).
It must not, however, be supposed that each of these stages must necessarily be passed through by each jiva in a single life. On the contrary, they are ordinarily traversed in the course of a multitude of births. The weaving of the spiritual garment is recommenced where in a previous birth, it was dropped on death. In the present life a sadhaka may commence at any stage. If he is born into Kaulachara, and so is a Kaula in its fullest sense, it is because in previous births he has by sadhana, in the preliminary stages, won his entrance into it. Knowledge of Sakthi is, as the Niruttara Tantra says, acquired after many births; and, according to the Mahanirvana Tantra, it is by merit acquired in previous births that the mind is inclined to Kaulachara.
Tantra of the Great Liberation
Translated by Arthur Avalon
(Sir John Woodroffe)