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).
Lord Śiva is worshipped in the Paśupati Mukhaliṅga as endowed with four visible faces plus an upward, invisible one. Some times a sixth downward-looking face is also identified. In dialogue with corresponding emanations of the Goddess, each of the faces emanate a stream of tantric wisdom embodied as different Kaula lineages or āmnāyas. The integrated worship of Lord Śiva following sequential initiation in all these streams, the Sarvāmnāya Krama system of Nepal, identifies these āmnāyas with slight different variations depending on the lineage. In our own lineage they are identified as follows:
1. Through Tatpuruṣa, Lord Śiva's eastern face (pūrvāmnāya), is revealed the Trika stream of Kaula tantrism, centered on the goddess Parā.
2. Through Aghora, Lord Śiva's southern face (dakṣiṇāmnāya), is revealed the Śrīvidyā stream of Kaula tantrism, centered on the goddess Tripurasundarī.
3. Through Vāmadeva, Lord Śiva's northern face (uttarāmnāya), is revealed the Kālīkrama stream of Kaula tantrism, centered on the goddess Kāmakalā Guhyakālī (comprehending within Herself the Krama cycle of 12 + 5 Kālīs culminating in Kālasaṁkarṣiṇī).
4. Through Sadyojāta, Lord Śiva's western face (paścimāmnāya), is revealed the Kaubjikā stream of Kaula tantrism, centered on the goddess Kubjikā.
5. Through Īśāna, Lord Śiva's upward face (ūrdhvāmnāya), is revealed the overaching stream of Kaula tantrism centered on the supreme formless Paramaśiva. Here Śāmbhava Vidyā, Mūla Yoginī Vidyā and Mahā Paśupata Vidyā derived from Kubjikā and Tripurā Tantras are worshipped in Ardhanarīśvara form.
6. Through Kālāgnirudra, Lord Śiva's secret donward face (adhāmnāya), are revealed Vajrayāna vidyās such as Vajrayoginī, Vajravārāhī and Mahogratārā.
Lord Śiva also accompanies the Goddess in each of Her forms across the āmnāyas through his various Bhairava forms, comprehending the entire canon of the Bhairavāgamas. See more about the Bhairava practices incorporated in Sarvāmnāya here.
Which Āgama is followed in Sarvāmnāya?
Lord Śiva has five or six faces, with one Goddess in each having dialogue with him, and that dialogue in each case flows as a stream of āgama. The full worship of Lord Paśupati in the form of the Mukhaliṅga thus demands the worship of all these faces and their corresponding goddesses, thus integrating all the Śaiva and Śākta Āgamas. Their synthesis in a system of sequential initiation is what is referred to as the Sarvāmnāya. Still, some particularly prominent āgamas in this tradition are: Siddhayogeśvarīmata, Mālinīvijayottara, Tantrasadbhāva, Vāmakeśvarīmata, Kālasaṁkarṣiṇīmata, Jayadrathayāmala, Mahākāla Saṁhitā, Ciñciṇīmata, Kubjikāmata, among others.
Is that a new system?
The concept of Sarvāmnāya is not new, only that what counts to āmnāya differs based on what texts we consult. Most of the original Kaula Tantras we consult already demonstrate synthesis of the tantric lineages revealed in the four great Kaula Pīṭhas: Kāmarupa, Pūrṇagiri, Jālandhara, and Oḍḍīyāna. Each Pīṭha has its own primary focus. But when you integrate the āmnāyas, you gradually learn the practices that were originally developed in these different schools. One of the primary Āgamas in our own lineage, Ciñciṇīmatasarasamuccaya, alongside some of the earliest of the Kubjikā manuals, suggest that the practice of Trika, Kubjikā, Kalikā Krama, and Tripurā were not discrete. Even the original Śrīvidyā āgama, Nityāṣoḍaśīkārṇava, or the Kubjikāmata, already ground their practice on 4 or 5 (in some Kubjikā cases also 6) transmissions. The synthesis of all this Kaula lineages practiced in a system of sequential initiation, the Sarvāmnāya Krama system, happened in Nepal as early as the XIIth Century.
Isn't such a vast path too much for one person to learn in one lifetime?
Each Āmnāya is so complex, it takes a lifetime to learn - that is correct. Also, it takes many life-times to achieve perfection even in a single Āmnāya. That does not mean that we should not learn the rest. We will see a structure emerging as we learn more Āmnāyas, the same structure, the same complexity, and this will give us a deeper insight into how tantrism works as a philosophy. Do we need to learn all that? There is a clear path for us to learn the entire path; but there is no problem if we don't learn the whole thing. As in a holographic universe, every maṇḍala is complete in itself. If somebody desires to stick to ekāmnāya, the practice of only one transmission, it's as deep and fruitful as any other. Not everybody is cut out to all sādhanā-s; most will center around one kaula deity - Kālī, Kubjikā, Tripurasundarī -, and they do samaṣṭi, blending or integration of the other deities as faces of that favored deity. All these kaula deities can integrate each other that way: there's always a plurality within singularity and singularity within plurality. We do teach in the beginning the five faces of Lord Śiva, giving even beginners some connection to the energy of the five faces that emanate the different āmnāyas; but learning the whole path is not for the everyday sādhaka but for those who want to become ācāryas. Sarvāmnāya shows you how different āmnāyas are integrated together; but that doesn't mean any person needs to learn all the āmnāyas.
What does it mean to be an ācārya?
Following Tantric Āgamas, initiation (dīkṣa) is structured in a fourfold progressive hierarchy: samaya, putraka, sādhaka, ācārya. Each level of dīkṣā bestows certain rights and responsibilities on the initiate. Ācārya (आचार्य) refers to a Śaiva initiate who underwent the Ācārya-abhiṣeka. He is the one who has undergone all the levels of initiation, is learned in the Āgamic rituals (kriyāpāda) and philosophy (vidyāpāda), as well as observant in the conduct (cāryapāda) and yoga (yogapāda). An Ācārya is “sarvādhikārī”: he is authorized to perform any and all practices taught in the Āgamas, as well as to teach them. One of the unique privileges and responsibilities of the ācārya, therefore, is that he alone can perform dīkṣā for others. Hence, the Ācārya is also known as the guru.
To become a Sarvāmnāya Kramācārya one has to excel in both the Vidyāpīṭha and Mantrapīṭha. One has to explore teachers and learn all different schools of darśanas to excel in Vidyāpīṭha. One has to receive highest form of abhiṣeka by completing the puraścaraṇa in all āmnāyas to excel in Mantrapīṭha. When one has both, one is blessed by the Guru Ācārya as Ācārya.
Is Sarvāmnāya a Śaivite or a Śākta tradition?
While it's true that in some corners one can find exclusive śaivites or exclusive śāktas, each and every level of Sarvāmnāya integrates both śaivite and śākta practices - as indeed they were originally, for Kaula Tantra means union of kula (śakti) and akula (śiva). Śiva allows you to be the retainer of Śakti; if you do not integrate these two types of energies, Vyomavyāpine (He who pervades the void) and Caṇḍī (She who is ferocious in flames of fire), you will get burnt. You need the cooling grace of Lord Śiva to balance and harmonize the energies of the Goddess. This is the Sarvāmnāya premise.
What does "Kaula" mean? Are "transgressive practices" part of this system?
Kula is the 36 categories (tattvas), one who recognizes the kula as his body, "my body is constituted of the 36 categories", he is a kaula. Kaula's fundamental principle is freedom, svātantrya. It means teachers don't enforce students to behave in a particular way; but we can't expect to drink poison as if nothing will happen as a consequence. So students do need to cultivate sattva, clarity of mind and heart, even to be free. Texts, foods, dresses and so on are good insofar as they help us get clarity of mind. Tantras do have practices that violate certain codes at some specific moments; but they are not mandatory, as that would still be contrary to freedom. Also, Kaula is not supposed to be a social identity signal: Kaulas' signs are internal, Kaulas merge in the society they happen to find themselves.
Is Tantra opposed to the Veda?
Āgamas are actually much closer to Vedas than popular beliefs would concede. Tantric teachings practices resonate many of the Vedic teachings and practices - particularly as explained in the Brāhmaṇa and the Upaniṣadic texts. There are two tendencies to distinguish Tantras and Vedas: The Smārta tendency, that creates its own "Vedic" purities and stereotypes all forms of Tantras and Āgamas as 'impure'; and there is also a colonial tendency to split apart Vedas and Tantras. The concepts of mantra, maṇḍala, visualization, prāṇic exercises, fire rituals or libations, nyāsa or installation, mudrā or gestures, complex phonemes, are all common to both Vedic and Tantric practices. Actually, what is called "Vedic" nowadays, the Hindu temple practices, rest on Āgamic architecture and sculpture, Āgamic prāṇa-pratiṣṭha and daily rituals, and so on. In lived Hindu culture, Vedic and Tantric are never opposed or divorced categories. As far as purity and food rules are concerned, these rules are always in the flux, are subject to change, and there are no homogenous rules, whether in the Vedic or the Tantric worlds.
What philosophy constitutes the core of Sarvāmnāya Tantra?
In terms of studies, we are encouraged to study all darśanas. Traditionally, gurus won't teach a supposed higher śāstra if one has not first learned the basic ones - such as Sāmkhya. Most people nowadays discard these śāstras for the sake of learning the higher ones; they're not willing to pick up the fruits and vegetables from the garden, cook and season it, and then only have the ready food. Pandits have to teach the whole system gradually, not just the end product. There's a serious decline in traditional studies everywhere in the world, as people nowadays want fastfood and pre-digested food; while traditional learning of these systems take many many years. And up until the generation of Ācārya Sthaneshwar Timalsina's gurus, traditional learning was still alive, but nowadays less so. Sarvāmnāya integrates all darśanas, considered as particular stations of the mind, not even rejecting Cārvaka, Yogācāra and Mādhyamaka. Still, Trika philosophy is essential here, while Mahārtha is the very core.
Has Trika's living tradition survived in Nepalese Tantra?
Up until the XXth Century, traditional access to the written āgamas used to be conditioned by initiation: i.e., only the initiates had access to them. That means that as long as these āgamas kept being copied out, they were still being practised. It is a well-known fact that many of the ancient Tantric āgamas, including those of the Trika school, are preserved in Nepal. That gives you a sign of how, indeed, direct lineages of practitioners of the Trika Tantras have survived there. Ācārya Sthaneshwar Timalsina was himself taught this living tradition by his nepalese teachers. If you think of Trika as pandits reading Abhinavagupta's commentaries, however, that aspect of the tradition was better preserved in Kashmir, and Ācārya Sthaneshwar Timalsina learned it from the Kashmiri side of his lineage. But if we mean the Trika Tantras themselves, as well as the manuals related to it, they are a very central part of living lineages of Kubjikā and Kālī practice in Nepal. And now, through Vimarsha Foundation, they can live beyond Nepal.