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Spiritual Traditions

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By Shankara Bharadwaj Khandavalli

There are a variety of spiritual traditions in India. They deal primarily with the nature of soul, God, world and salvation.

The oldest literature available is the Veda. Samhita portion of the Veda contains praises to Devatas and explains the nature of various Devatas, contains the mantras pertaining to them. It is impersonal in nature. The subsequent portions of literature, Brahmanas, Aranyaka and Vedangas are “personal” in the sense that they relate the seeker to Devata, analyze his consciousness and deal with methods and so on.

Smarta and Tantra are the two major traditions, besides Jaina and Bauddha. They are very much overlapping in their practices.

Smarta is more of a framework than a spiritual tradition. It is the Smriti following tradition. Any practice is valid in smarta to the extent that it does not go against the smriti. Smartas follow Srauta completely, and many portions of Agama and Tantra to the extent the practices do not conflict with the guidelines of smriti.

There are a variety of practices in Saiva and Sakta Tantras. Some of them are followed by smartas, some are not. However Vaishnavites by and large, are smarta and they call themselves smarta. There exist practices in Vishnu worship that are non-smarta, esp. in Naarasimha, but they are minor. The Vaishnava Agamas come closer to Brahmana portion of the Veda than Saiva and Sakta Tantras. Moreover the various Vaishnava traditions that developed over time, emphasized only on aspects that have smriti acceptance.

Social Aspect[edit]

May Hari, Lord of the three worlds, whom the Shaivas worship as Shiva, Vedantins as Brahman, the Buddhists as Buddha, the Logicians, clever in the means of knowledge, as the Creator, devotees of the Jaina doctrine as Arhat, and the Mimamsakas as Karma.


Tantras belong to the same framework of society as smritis do. They speak of the same social structure having four varnas, four ashramas and four purusharthas of life. While specifying differences for initiation and practice for persons of different varnas, they also hold that once in the divine sphere varna difference does not apply. This too, is the same take as smarta has on liberated beings and common man.

All the traditions deal with common subjects: spiritual philosophy, metaphysical world view, consciousness studies, study of word/mantra, philosophy of Devata/theology, methods and philosophy of worship. Depending on their nature, some of them stress more on spiritual philosophy while some on methods of worship.

World View[edit]

Old Scientific theories in general are refuted by newer ones, with improved knowledge. In Indian philosophical traditions however, newer world views are improvements over the older ones, and not necessarily refutations of those.

While there are diverse world views in Indian spiritual traditions, one common feature can be observed: they all include “the Additional One” in their enumeration of the world. And that is the eternal. This is one way in which the different theories do not falsify each other but remain diverse and still valid. For instance in consciousness studies, the faculties analyzed are enumerated, while all those that are not, are defaulted to the eternal. If phenomenal-eternal dual is considered, there are four levels – mind, life, matter and eternal. Here “eternal” includes knowledge of eternal too. In Mandukya it is listed as four – gross, subtle, causal and eternal. In panca kosa theory, the subtle is expanded into three levels, while causal is defaulted in eternal. In seven lokas concept eternal is expanded as Ananda, Chit and Sat.

The enumeration of universe too, follows the same pattern. Sankhya expands over its previous schools and enumerates 24 cosmic principles. More recent schools enumerate more tatvas. For instance Tantra texts expand it further, adding 12 more to those listed by Sankhya – making it 36.

Similarly the pranava is said to represent the entire universe, with A, U and M representing creation, sustenance and dissolution – and AUM as the eternal. In later texts like Tantra and Purana, we find an addition to these – pranava is enumerated as A, U, M, bindu and nada representing creation, sustenance, dissolution, veiling and unveiling.

The only major bifurcation of world views is Astika-Nastika, which is based on acceptance of Veda Pramana. Another practical difference between Astika and Nastika darsanas is that the former speak of Atma. However Tantra has more to do with methods, and in many cases the same mantra portion/method is followed by traditions sharing different world views.

While Saiva-Sakta traditions follow Advaita, there are Dvaita and Visistadvaita followers in Saiva as well as Vaishnava. All these in turn, are in smarta as well as non-smarta Tantra. There is no classification of any world view as Vedic or Tantric.

Vidyaranya enumerates 16 darsanas in his Sarva Darsana Sangraha, that include both Astika and Nastika world views. The Astika darsanas include the popular Shad-darsanas, Sankara Advaita, Vaishnava Darsanas like Purna Prajna and Saiva Darsanas like Pasupata, Pratyabhijna and Raseswara.

The world view as explained by any Astika text follows the same scheme: atma, Brahman, world, their relation, paths to liberation. Some times explanatory of a world view, and some times not, Tantric texts basically follow the same scheme as the Astika darsanas. However their emphasis is more on the practice than enumeration of the world.


The foremost of the subjects in spiritual traditions, is the study of word or vak. Samhita itself is the science of word or Mantra Sastra. The study of Vak is identical to the study of Devatas, since mantra is the subtle body or sound-form of Devata. Saraswati is the presiding deity of Vak and the earliest analysis of Vak is found in Saraswati Sukta of Rig Veda (“Catvari vak parimita padani…”). It says Vak is of four forms; three of them are hidden in the heart while the fourth (turiya or vaikhari) is in the spoken form. However since Samhita’s subject is not “personal” aspect, it does not explain where in the body the sound is produced and how its study is tapas.

Further explanation on this is found in the praises of Ganapati (implicitly as Brahmanaspati and explicitly as Ganapati in Atharva Seersha Upanishad). These four forms are para, pasyanti, madhyama and vaikhari. Vaikhari is the external form of sound that emanates from Vagbhava or throat centre. Madhyama is subtle form that is not externally produced but only heard – anahata. Pasyanti is below that and Para vak is eternal – Ganapati who presides over it, resides at Muladhara. Another Rik “rco akshare parame vyoman yasmin deva adhi visve nishedhuH” also refers to the eternal nature of Vak.

The two ways – from muladhara to vagbhava where Vak manifests from para to vaikhari form and from vagbhava to muladhara where it is realized from vaikhari to para form, are called pravritti and nivritti margas respectively. Ganapati represents nivritti marga.

These four forms of Vak also correspond to the four levels of consciousness spoken of by Mandukyopanishad – gross (vaikhari), subtle (madhyama), causal (pasyanti) and eternal (para).

Further, various subjects evolved that study the different aspects of Vak. The two aspects of Vak are dhvani (sound) and varna (shade of sound or alphabet). The former has two aspects swara and nada. From the latter come all the subjects of language – vyakarana, siksha, nirukta, chandas. The subject that deals with sound-seeds, with a combination of these, is Mantra Sastra.

The same theory of sound is used in all Indian spiritual traditions, including Tantra.

Consciousness Studies[edit]

After realizing that phenomenal world is relativistic, the next stage is realizing that the truth in phenomenal world is determined by state of consciousness of the observer. Therefore study of consciousness is a must in any pursuit of truth.

Thus consciousness study is the next most important subject. It expounds the faculties of consciousness, various levels of consciousness, states of consciousness, the nature of consciousness at each level, the nature of Truth at each level of consciousness and methods to attain those levels.

Consciousness study is applied extensively in the traditions that emphasize on methods and procedures of sadhana, and not just philosophical traditions.

The most comprehensive explanation of the subject is found in Lalita Sahasra Nama of Brahmanda Purana. However it is in Upanishads that we find the earliest explanations.

Mandukya Upanishad explains the four states of consciousness and four faculties. In waking, dream, sleeping states one perceives gross, subtle, causal world respectively. These are said to be the three bodies of jiva. The fourth is eternal and absolute. In Atharva Seersha we find an identical explanation.

Then there are three consciousness qualities – satva, rajas and tamas. The eternal is beyond these.

In later literature, we find a more detailed analysis. The three bodies are further explained in terms of five sheaths of consciousness – physical constitutes the gross and sensuous mental and intellectual make the subtle body. Body is classified as having seven dhatus. Mind is further classified as mind-proper, intellect, memory and ego. The causal being is blissful. Within that there are three aspects – truth, beauty and permanence. These seven make seven planes of consciousness.

The same theory is applied in all the traditions, of Smarta, and Tantra.


Yoga is just one, and the different paths of Yoga differ in the faculties they primarily address. For instance Laya yoga (Patanjala) emphasizes on control of mind through breath. Hatha yoga emphasizes control of mind through control of body. Jnana marga emphasizes more on intellect.

They all aim at transcending physical to reach subtle and subtle to reach causal. Mantra yoga uses sound as the means, to activate nadis of the subtle body, and realize the para through vaikhari, madhyama and pasyanti vak. Laya yoga uses breath control to control the mind, to internalize it and dissolve it in the causal. Kundalini yoga involves awakening Kundalini of the subtle body and through granthi-traya bhedana take Her through the shatcakras to merge consciousness in the causal and eventually eternal. However all the paths are basically the same yoga, in the sense that when one is achieved the others too are. Only the seeker’s concentration is on different means.

Yoga is more of method than philosophy or theology, and hence its mention is found more in texts that concentrate on methods.

Mantra Sastra implies mantra yoga, and is central to all the upasana oriented schools in Smarta, Srauta and Tantra.

Kundalini yoga is visible more in post-Vedic literature – Puranic and Tantric. Since Purana is more theological than method-prescribing in nature, the subjects are visible in the description of Devatas. Vishnu of Veda becomes Ananta Sayana, Kartikeya/Kumaraswamy becomes Shanmukha in Purana and so on. These explain how the symbols that were earlier representatives of Mantra method later came to symbolize Kundalini along with Mantra method. In Tantra we find a more explicit mention of Kundalini, since the text deals more with methods and procedures than Purana does. This holds for all the Tantric texts, Vaishnava, Saiva, Sakta and others.

Vaishnava schools are more Bhakti-oriented and stress more on the Yama-Niyamas such as Asteya and Isvara Pranidhana, than other schools. Looking at the fact that the old Vaishnava schools dealt extensively with Mantra and Yoga while the later schools went the Bhakti-way, it can be interpreted that this is more of a reaction against the stress in other schools on other limbs of Yoga in Shadanga and Kundalini Yogas. The siddhi and sakti aspects of sadhana assumed more emphasis and the necessary emphasis on basic conduct and Yama-Niyamas was lacking. Any vision is a product of its times, and the emphasis on any aspect is a reaction to the prevailing conditions.

Smarta and Yoga[edit]

Smarta-Pauranika worship does not exclude kundalini yoga. However it is implicit and not explicit. Anyone well versed with the terminology of Kundalini yoga can understand that the central theme, trimurty of Purana means the granthi-traya. Many of the stories around them, are applicable in that sense. And prohibiting Brahma from receiving worship is a fairly explicit hint to the smarta approach of not meditating on brahma granthi/muladhara. Even in case of Kumaraswamy whose six faces feed on the breasts of six mothers/krittikas/shatcakras, there is no explicit meditation on muladhara. Saubhagyalakshmi Upanishad too, does not talk directly of brahma granthi while it speaks of the other two.

The explicit meditation on muladhara in smarta is in the context of mantra yoga, while worshiping Ganapati as Para Vak.

For that matter, the smarta and Pauranikas have almost always been implicit about kundalini yoga itself, and not just muladhara. There is another reason for this, apart from the yogic one. Kumara- Ganapati are seen as pravritti-nivritti margas (not in the sense they are referred to in karma yoga), and nivritti marga has usually received higher priority in the vedic/puranic/smarta system. Kaumara is a relatively smaller tradition in shanmatas, for the same reason.

This is one of the most fundamental differences between smarta and tantric sadhanas.

However, contrary to the smarta take on this, Adi Sankara bridged this difference by his explicit mention of meditation on all the six major cakras including muladhara (Saundaryalahari). And in this case he put tantric aspect in smarta rather than the other way round. This is just one of the many samanvayas he did across traditions. He also brought emphasis back to the upward/pravritti/kundalini marga. For instance he equates the four forms of mukti with worship of the Mother at four centers – salokya, sameepya, sarupya amd sayujya at anahata, visuddha, ajna and sahasrara respectively (Mukambika stuti). In this stuti however, we see that he has organized the stuti in the typical smarta way – starting from Manipura instead of Muladhara.

Bhava pradhana bhakti and nama japa, Mantra yoga, Laya yoga, Kundalini yoga are difficult in the increasing order. In smarta they receive encouragement in decreasing order. For this reason their mention becomes more and more implicit.

In total contrast with this, Tantra expressly goes the kundalini way. It is not for a layman (with respect to spiritual practices of course). It needs training of senses, basic understanding of the mechanism of mantra or subtle body dynamics, and quite a few other things. Which means it is for an advanced and serious sadhaka. In Tantra there is no hesitation about any method, for the same reason. The tantric yogi is not implicit about muladhara, the way smarta practitioners are. Whether it is sexual or any other natural phenomenon he makes it a tool in sadhana unlike the way common man is trained in the pauranika/popular religion.

Therefore we should remember that its practices are meant for a trained man, while doing a comparison between Tantric and other practices. A sect has been known textually as, ‘sampraday’, ‘samaya’, and ‘prasthana’.


Development of theology is another important subject.

The major devatas worshiped are same in all the Astika traditions, though in different forms and in different methods. The Vedic devatas like Indra are found in the early Tantric texts. The later forms are of Vishnu, Siva, Sakti, Ganapati, Kali and so on. Their tatva is established in Veda however they developed into wide schools subsequently in the Puranic and Tantric literature.

For example the Tatva of Rudra is described similarly in Veda as well as subsequent literature – Purana and Tantra. However we can observe that Rudra, Vishnu become Pradhana devatas in Purana and are not just their Vedic tatvas but more than that. They become “complete” Gods or Isvara, all other Devatas are whose aspects. Thus Sri Maha Vishnu of Purana is Vishnu of Veda, along with aspects of Aditya, Suparna and Indra. (For instance Suparna’s Vamanatva and Trivikramatva are explained in Vamana Avatara of Vishnu, His bird-form assumes Garuda, the vehicle of Vishnu.). Similarly Siva as described in Purana is Rudra of Veda, along with aspects of Soma, Vayu and Indra. Devi tatva as explained in Purana and Tantra, is found in Aditi and the nature of Agni in Veda.

Further, Aditi is the prototype of Bhuvaneswari, the Sakta Maha Vidya. Also, the central beeja of Bhuvaneswari Vidya, the Hrillekha, is the one of Aditya loka. Besides, Bhuvaneswari tatva underlies most of the Sakta Vidyas. Devi also has close resemblance to Agni of the Veda, as the Iccha Sakti (Lalita Upakhyana).

The Mantra Vidyas for various devatas that smartas worship are found in Veda as well as Tantra. Further, some of the central mantras of Tantric Vidyas are directly Vedic verses – for example Pasupata, Mrutyujnaya, Jatavedasi Durga.

In Veda there is a distinction between devata tatva/mantra and application. That Tantra has more to do with practice, is evident from the fact that even the main mantra portion in Tantra contains beejas that are primarily meant for application - hum, phat, vashat, bhindi, chindi, vicce, svaha, vashat etc. In Veda the "application" or "prayoga" beejas are found more in non-samhita portion. Their presence in samhita is minimal. Besides Samhita, we find the compositions of Mantra Vidyas in the Brahmana, to some extent in Upanishads, and in Kalpa Sutras.

Mahanyasa Khanda of Baudhayana is a classic example of the usage of Vedic mantras in the “tantric” way. Many of these compositions/verses such as Ajapa are found in Tantras too.

The form and qualities of Devata are determined by the beejas used in the Mantra. Once the tatva of the Devata is established, the same Devata is worshiped in multiple forms – those are variants of the mula, additions of beejas that determine those forms. For instance Siva – is worshiped in forms like Bhairava, Dakshinamurty, Pasupati, Mrutyunjaya, Isana and so on. Each of these, is in turn a set of Vidyas – there are multiple forms of Bhairava and so on. It is in Tantra texts that we find the ocean of Vidyas in each of these. However they are worshiped across traditions, and not exclusively by “Tantrics” or “Smartas”.

In case of Vaishnava Agamas, one can clearly see that the texts are not a “different school” from the Veda, but those that serve the purpose of worshiping the same “Vedic Gods”, by elaborating the upasana methodology and philosophy, expound the methods and procedures for idols and temples, and so on – in short the whole subject of practice of worship of the Devatas. This applies in general to any Tantric text.

However in Sakta, we can observe that this is not totally true. Sakta Tantras have practices that are not just developed within the framework of Vedic society, but outside it too. Some of the Devatas like Gauri, Durga and Bhadra Kali are found directly in Vedic literature. Some forms like Tripura Sundari are found in Puranic as well as Tantric literature. However there are also Vidyas like Tara that are specific to Sakta Tantra. It is said that Taresi Vidya is an import from Bauddha. Besides, the practices like Ceena krama, Maha Ceena krama and Divya Ceena krama in Vamacara, as their names suggest, are imports.

But the fact remains that Bauddha is not exclusive or totally separate from Sanatana Dharma when it comes to practices – there are overlapping vidyas and practices in these and exchanges too. And the practices as such, are “practices” – there does not have to be a change of world view for those practices to be a part of Sakta – it has not made Sakta Tantra anything that the Astika darsanas are not.