The goal of tantra sadhana is a direct experience of the Divine, which occurs when Shiva (pure consciousness) and Shakti (the creative force of consciousness) unite at the crown chakra.
All tantric practices belong to either the kaula, mishra, or samaya schools, which are indicative of three successive stages in the inward journey. Kaula tantra uses elaborate external rituals, the mishra school employs both external rituals and internal techniques, but the practices of the samaya school are purely internal.
In this, the highest of the three schools, meditation is done only at the crown chakra. The adepts of the mishra and samaya schools rarely discuss their practices, and even if they do, what they say remains a riddle to non-initiates.
Although the philosophy and practices of these two schools are mentioned in many scriptures, no single text gives a complete description. The knowledge of the greater part of these practices is safeguarded by teachers who share it only with qualified initiates.
The only information about tantric practices available to the public at large concerns the practices of the kaula school. The majority of the texts within the kaula school belong to vama marga—left-handed tantra. The texts pertaining to left-handed tantra are couched in symbolic language, which makes them more prone to misunderstanding than the texts of right-handed tantra.
Because this symbolic language has been frequently misunderstood and sensationalized, we’ve chosen to focus exclusively on the left-handed path of tantra sadhana. We hope that putting this information in the hands of the public will make students less credulous and therefore less susceptible to the exploitation by so-called tantric teachers that is so prevalent today.
The practices of the left hand school of kaula tantra that attract the most attention from non-initiates involve the use of wine, meat, fish, and physical union. There is a fifth component, which is less well known: mudra, or physical gestures.
These gestures usually entail placing the fingers and hands in precise positions. The Sanskrit terms for wine, meat, fish, physical gestures, and physical union aremadya, mansa, mina, mudra, and maithuna, respectively. Because all of these words begin with the letter “m,” they are called the five makaras (also known as “the five m’s”), or the panchamakaras.
The Goals (and Contradictions) of Kaula Tantra
Even highly regarded kaula texts, such as those belonging to the school of Kashmir Shaivism, contradict themselves when speaking about the five makaras.
The goal of kaula tantra is to awaken the kundalini shakti so she may unite with akaula, the highest aspect of Shiva, at the crown chakra.
Some passages state that the practitioner must worship Shakti with the five makaras every day or, at a minimum, on all auspicious days, which are defined as the full moon, the new moon, the solstices, occasions of solar and lunar eclipse, the anniversary of specific initiations, and so on. Other passages in these same texts say that the goal of kaula tantra is to awaken the kundalini shakti so she may unite with akaula, the highest aspect of Shiva, at the crown chakra.
This goal is accomplished by a purely internal process of meditation rather than by offering her wine, meat, and so forth. I found that by simply reading the texts it was impossible to know whether the five makaras are compulsory; whether they are to be acted out in the physical world or are purely symbolic; or whether these practices are limited to beginners or are also employed in the more advanced stages.
Further, according to some texts, the practices incorporating the five makaras are quite complex. They require direct instruction from a living master and impose a long list of restrictions on both student and teacher.
Other texts convey the idea that all the student is required to do is to get drunk, chant some Sanskrit verses, become wild, and enjoy the company of Shiva either in a secluded place or at a crowded road crossing.
According to these texts, no restrictions and no discipline are required; simply be spontaneous and do anything you want. How is it possible to resolve these contradictions? The best course seemed to be to seek the answers from authentic practitioners.
The information presented in this article has been gathered in the course of interactions with, and observations of, the lives of tantric adepts. These observations reveal an entirely different picture of left-hand tantra than the one that casual readers find in the cheap books on tantrism that are so widely available.
Gaining Access to the Ritual Worship
A genuine tantric will appear to remain oblivious to your so-called burning desire to learn and practice. Your requests will be ignored no less than seven times—and possibly many more.
Even once you are accepted as a student, the entire practice is never taught at once, but imparted in successive stages. You will not be allowed to watch tantrics doing their practice with the five makaras unless you have been formally initiated and therefore are part of their circle.
If you can find a purnabhishikta tantric who is willing to teach you, he or she will put you through an arduous discipline before you are taught how to worship Shakti with the five makaras.
The only practitioners who have the authority to accept others as students are those who are purnabhishikta, literally “the one who has taken a complete bath.” This refers to a high level of tantric initiation, which is done by a master who is samrajyabhishikta, which means “one who is anointed as the emperor of all kaula tantrics”—and believe me, my friends, there are very few samrajyabhishikta tantrics. There are more purnabhishikta tantrics, although they too are quite rare. Assuming that you can find a purnabhishikta tantric who is willing to teach you, he or she will put you through an arduous discipline before you are taught how to worship Shakti with the five makaras.
This discipline involves a strict schedule of sleeping and waking, exercising, and either fasting or living only on havishyanna—rice mixed with ghee that is left over after the offering to the fire. You will also have to complete a lengthy course of japa—repeating a mantra thousands of times.
In other words, you cannot just walk in and be initiated. This preliminary discipline is so rigorous (you may even call it torturous) that by the time you have completed it, your senses will have lost their taste for pleasure and your mind will no longer find charm in the outer world.
After you have completed this initial practice, you must learn the systematic method of meditating on a yantra (a geometrical figure) and must memorize the numerous mantras which are an integral part of yantra meditation.
You will be taught how to make the wine and how to prepare the meat and fish, and the specific vegetarian dishes that are consumed during the practice. You must also learn the precise methods of arranging the seats which the participants use during the ritual.
These seats are placed on a yantra called the adhara yantra— which is drawn on the ground.