Tantra consists of a large number of sects and subjects having characteristically varying rituals and practices. However, basically they all follow the same path, for the difference lies only in the mode of expression. Tantra can be divided into live main sects according to the presiding deity: Vaishnavas or Vaishnavites worship Vishnu, Shaivas or Shaivites worship Shiva, Shaktas worship Shakti, Sauras worship the sun, and Ganapatyas worship Ganapati. The presiding deity can be worshipped in many aspects, Shakti for example having hundreds of traditional forms, all of which can be included in Shakta sadhana.
Tantric texts are called agamas and nigamas. Those of the Shaiva and Shakta sects are generally given in the form of a dialogue between Shiva and his consort Shakti. Where the questions are posed by Shakti and answers given by Shiva the texts are known as 'agamas'. Shiva plays the role of the spiritual teacher or Guru and Shakti that of the disciple. Sometimes, as in the Nigama Kulpadruma, Shakti acts as teacher, then the shastra is called 'nigama'. In the case of nigamas Shakti is the Guru.
The presiding deity of this group is Vishnu who is said to sustain the universe and to incarnate whenever mankind is in spiritual and material need. The Vaishnavas include a vast number of people in India, although today very few would admit to following the path of Tantra. This sect has been absorbed into the main stream of Hinduism in which it is probably the must popular and widely practised path. It is mainly the path of devotion and has thousands of beautiful and stirring devotional songs.
The literature of the Vaishnavites is commonly called the 'Pancharatra' (five nights), so called because the sect is associated with five special nights of worship and ritual during the year, said to be auspicious on the spiritual path. Supposedly, it consists of 108 agamas but the actual number is not certain. According to the 'Sammohanan Tantra', Vaishnava literature consists of 75 tantras, 205 upa tantras and various yamalas and damaras. The tantras and upa tantras are intended for the spiritually receptive (sattvic), the yamalas for those more active in nature (rajasic), and the damaras for those who who lack any spiritual aspiration whatsoever (tamasic). Most of the Pancharatra texts have been lost or destroyed. Among those still available are the 'Vishnu Rahasya' and the 'Mahasanatkumar Samhitas'.
This group personifies consciousness in the form of Lord Shiva who is the substratum from which the manifested world arises by the action of Shakti. It tends towards renunciation. The basic philosophy of Shaivism is the same as the Shaktas, that the absolute Brahman is both static and dynamic. It is all pervading, transcendental and dynamic The static is Shiva and the dynamic is Shakti and the entire created universe is no more than the play of Shakti. Therefore, the whole world is not really an illusion but an expression of Shakti.
Shaivites worship the static aspect whereas the Shaktas worship the dynamic aspect. The practices of Shaivism are based on the static aspect whereas the Shakta practices are mainly based on the dynamic, manifested aspect, but the end is the same.
There are various schools of Shaivism of which the main are Northern Advaita, also called Kashmir Shaivism and Trika; and Southern Shaivism, also referred to as Shaiva Siddhanta. Other sects include nathas, kramas, bhairavas, etc. The aim of Shaivism is to dissolve all mental modifications so that one can see that which is beyond thought. Yoga in its many forms is the very essence of practical Shaivism, and probably the most important mantra is 'Shivoham' (I am Shiva) which is repeated at the heart centre.
It is held that there are 28 traditional texts of Shaivism revealed by Shiva but they are not readily available and have possibly been destroyed. The southern Shaiva school has produced many elevating and inspiring texts, combining the highest philosophy with overwhelming devotion. The Shiva Rahasya, the essence of Shaivism, is a masterpiece, especially the section entitled the Ribhu Gita. The tantric text Tirumandiram outlines the precepts of Shaiva-Siddhanta and clearly states that the Vedas and agamas only differ on their emphasis of practice.
Kashmir Shaivism has also produced tantric texts combining the highest thought with practical application. Its principal scripture is the Shiva Sutra (science of Shaivism) and is said to have been revealed to the great seer Vasugupta in the eighth or ninth century. It fully encompasses the Sankhya philosophy and maps out the path of evolution of the manifested universe from the absolute to the material. It states that both Shiva and Shakti originate from the absolute which they call Parasamvit. Kashmir Shaivism has also produced many other books such as Paramarthasara, Vijnanabhairava, Pratyabhijnahridaya and Shivastotranali (the Hymn of Shiva).
The Shaktas base their practices on the worship of Shakti, the cosmic power that creates, sustains and eventually withdraws the universe. Individual consciousness is rooted in and is Shiva, whereas the body and mind are manifestations of Shakti. Therefore, the sadhana of the Shaktas is concerned with purification and use of the body, mind and material world in order to tune in with the underlying consciousness. It believes that, through the manifestation of Shakti in one's own body and mind, one can attain the supreme experience. Whereas the Shaivites renounce the world of objects, the Shaktas say the world should be used and enjoyed. The endpoint is the same - transcendence.
The Shaktis depict Shakti in a vast number of forms. She is widely known as Kali, Tara, Devi, Tripura Sundari, Bhairavi, Saraswati, Lakshmi, Durga, etc. The Shaktas worship everything in the world, for every object from the tiniest atom is a manifestation of expression of the cosmic Shakti. To the Shaivites she is the consort of Shiva; to the Vaishnavites the wondrous splendour of the heart of Vishnu, and to the Shaktas she is the Mother of the universe. The different goddesses represent different aspects of this cosmic power.
The literature of the Shakta sect is extensive. It includes Kularnava, Kamadhenu, Kubjika, Tantraraja, Varahi, Nila, Jnanarava, Gayatri, Yogini, Rudra Yamala and the Bhutashuddhi tantras to mention only a few. The Kama Sutra, Kama Ratna and other texts concerning sexual relations and techniques can also be included among Shakta literature. One of the most recent and comprehensive tantric texts is the 'Maha Nirvana Tantra' (supreme liberation of enlightenment), which covers a wide range of subjects including metaphysics, philosophy, and everyday life, as well as spiritual guidance.
The 'Maha Nirvana Tantra' deals with the creation and destruction of the universe, the mode of liberation from ignorance, the nature of Shiva and Shakti, the worship of Brahman and the celestial beings, and describes the various lokas or levels of existence. It is mainly orientated towards practice and deals extensively with rituals, mantras, yantras, japa, Yoga and other forms of sadhana.
Traditionally there are 64 texts of the Shakta sect ranging from the 'Mahamaya Shambar' to the 'Devimata Tantra'. They deal with sadhana done in the graveyard (in the 'Yogini Balashambhar'), methods of fulfilling desires (in the 'Brahmayamala', 'Vishnuyamala', etc.) as well as practices for knowing and experiencing the supreme (in the 'Brahmi Tantra', 'Mahashmari Tantra', etc.). Many are concerned with the methods of influencing and controlling the internal and external world through the use of mantra. A number of texts are intended primarily for sannyasins including the 'Purvamnaya' and 'Pachimamnaya Tantras'.
The sauras worship the sun. Though they may appear to worship the physical sun, the real object of worship is that of which the sun is but a symbol - the absolute or Brahman. In the same way that the material sun illuminates and sustains the solar system, so the supreme illuminator sustains and is the source of everything seen and unseen, known and unknown. Furthermore, the material sun is an indicator of the power of Shakti operating throughout the universe and a symbol of the light of consciousness or Shiva. This sect has its roots in the depths of time, for the sun has always been venerated by different cultures throughout the ages. Many regard it as mere Nature worship without understanding its deeper significance.
Yet the sun is an obvious symbol of natural power. Even the most primitive man could feel the power of the sun, could gaze in awe at the ruing sun and glimpse briefly the power of the spiritual sun shining through his inner being. For them, no other religious system was really necessary.
The followers of sun worship in India are found mainly in Assam, Orissa and Bengal and there is a word famous temple in Konarak, Orissa which is dedicated to Surya. Without the material sun, nothing could live. In the same way, nothing could exist without Brahman, the light of consciousness (Shiva) and the power of manifestation and sustenance (Shakti). Worship of the sun is an obvious, yet beautiful way of venerating the transcendental through means of a symbol. However, this sect has almost faded away as a distinct sect to present-day India.
The Ganapatyas venerate Ganapati or Ganesha, the elephant deity, son of Shiva and Parvati, who represents the undemanding which conies through the mind. In other words, it is through consciousness and its manifestation (Shiva-Shakti) that one gains mental understanding. Followers of this sect are more prevalent in western India. Huge precessions are entirely devoted to the veneration of Ganesha. However, this sect has really ceased to be a distinct tantric group as such, and has been absorbed into the mainstream of Hinduism.
Ganesha is an aspect of the absolute and is widely worshipped throughout India in almost all Hindu rites and ceremonies. Worshippers invoke Lord Ganesha before commencing any important undertaking, for nothing can be achieved without mental understanding. This applies to everyday duties as well as enlightenment. Ganesha is the controller of all accomplishments: without the grace of understanding nothing can be achieved. It is for this reason that he is such an important deity, for without mental understanding, how can anything be initiated or successfully carried out?
Ganesha is traditionally regarded as being the scribe of many of the important scriptures of India, including the tantras. When Shiva, Shakti, Krishna or any other deities, together with the rishis, seers, etc., discoursed, Ganesha wrote everything down. He represents the higher understanding that must accompany all scriptures before they can be written down and utilised by the reader. Ganesha is invoked at the beginning of many of the tantric texts: 'Shree Ganashaya Namaha' - 'Salutations to the blessed Ganesha'. This is to encourage correct understanding by both writer and reader. There is a well-known text called the 'Ganesha Tantra'.
This system of Tantra is simple, direct and yet sublime and can lead to spiritual heights. It is by invoking and focussing one's powers on mental understanding (personified by Ganesha) that one can actually bring about a high level of understanding in oneself. All that is required is the overwhelming need to know; a need that springs from the very depths of one's heart. This is the same as worshipping Ganesha, providing one understands the significance of Ganesha, From this understanding illumination will arise.