What is Sarvāmnāya Tantra?
The Tantric tradition of Nepal relies upon the āmnāya system. The āmnāya, generally translated as 'transmission', is the directional source of the deities who manifest from the five different faces of Lord Śiva. The central concept of Āmnāya is thus that Śiva, with his five faces, imparts to the goddess in her five corresponding emanations, the secret Tantric teachings. The five-fold emanation of Śiva replicates the early maṇḍala structure with the center and four directions. Āmnāya system integrates various strands of Kaula Tantrism, and the synonyms used to describe this process are the ‘mouth’ (vaktra) of Śiva/Bhairava, or the flow (srotas) of the wisdom imparted by Śiva to Śakti. In this metonymic application, the orientation of the deity’s face indicates a particular direction and the mouth suggests instruction. Among the five faces of Śiva, Sadyojāta is linked with earth, Vāmadeva with water, Aghora with fire, Tatpuruṣa with air, and Īśāna with the sky. In this depiction, the self or consciousness penetrates all the elements. Following the same sequence, the role of Śiva is described in the fivefold actions of creation, sustenance, retraction, concealment, and grace. And the list goes on. The five sequences of Kālī assume the form of five flows (vāha); the goddesses are segmented into five groups with each group containing five divinities, and so on. In all these depictions, directionality is at the heart of divine emanation that parallels the revelation of esoteric wisdom.
Although various groupings of deities are described in terms of ‘transmission’ (āmnāya), the most common one found in pentadic form corresponds to both the cosmic play of Śiva and the epistemic process highlighted in Krama Tantrism. Relying on Śaiva/Śākta monism, this process is depicted as the cosmic play of Śiva where pure consciousness (caitanya) that translates into Śiva assumes the manifestation of the external entities (sṛṣṭi), their sustenance (sthiti), retraction (saṃhāra), inexpressible state (anākhyā), and the luminous form that has procreation dormant within it (bhāsā). Krama Tantrism gives an epistemic twist to this pentadic structure, analyzing it in terms of the cognitive process of revealing (ābhāsana) that refers to the outward flow of consciousness, coloring (rakti) that refers to sense-object contact, cognition (vimarśana) that refers to mental awareness of images, placing seeds (bījāvasthāpana) that relates to mental traces, and dissolution (vilāpana) that describes the eventual retrieval of mind to the primordial nature of consciousness. In this depiction, the cosmic process of Śiva manifesting and retrieving the world parallels the cognitive process of an individual.
In Krama cosmology, each stage embodies the others in their latent form. In other words, the generic deity governing the function of emanation also embodies all other functions in the sequence of emanation, sustenance, contraction, and so on. While the concept of āmnāya or transmission rests upon the notion of krama, there are nonetheless different ways of analyzing this. Following the Trika doctrine, the fivefold sequence of awareness, bliss, will, knowledge, and action, considered as the five powers of the divinity, are manifest in five transmissions. The grouping of deities in different Āmnāyas, although always in flux and lacking a single governing principle, broadly follows the cosmic and epistemic processes addressed above.
The Nepalese Krama initiation system identified as the Sarvāmnāya incorporates various deities from different transmissions in a sequence. When incorporating the lower face, this system is described as having six transmissions, and when the ordinal directions are included, its expanded form is called 'ten transmissions'. Following the Nepalese Tantric tradition, a practitioner is initiated with the mantra of various deities of all the transmissions in order to achieve authority in practicing and initiating in all transmissions. This process is called kramadīkṣa, initiation within a sequence, culminating with complete consecration (pūrṇābhiṣeka).