The Agamas are theological treatises and practical manuals of divine worship. The Agamas include Tantras, Mantras, and Yantras. These are treatises explaining the external worship of God, in idols, temples, etc. All the Agamas treat of (i) Jnana or Knowledge, (ii) Yoga or concentration, (iii) Kriya or making, and (iv) Charya or doing. They also give elaborate details about the ontology, cosmology, liberation, devotion, meditation, philosophy of Mantras, mystic diagrams, charms and spells, temple-building, image-making, domestic observances, social rules, and public festivals.
The Agamas are divided into three sections: the Vaishnava, the Saiva, and the Sakta. The three chief sects of Hinduism, viz., Vaishnavism, Saivism, and Saktism, base their doctrines and dogmas on their respective Agamas. The Vaishnava Agamas or Pancharatra Agamas glorify God as Vishnu. The Saiva Agamas glorify God as Siva and have given rise to an important school of philosophy known as Saiva Siddhanta. The Sakta Agamas or Tantras glorify God as the Mother of the world under one of the many names of Devi. The Agamas do not derive their authority from the Vedas, but they are not antagonistic to them. They are all Vedic in spirit and character. That is the reason why they are regarded as authoritative.
The Tantra Agamas belong to the Sakta cult [Editor: cult means "worship," also "a particular form of worship," from Fr. culte, from L. cultus "care, cultivation, worship,"]. They glorify Sakti as the World-Mother. They dwell on the Sakti (energy) aspect of God and prescribe numerous courses of ritualistic worship of Divine Mother in various forms. There are seventy-seven Agamas. These are very much like the Puranas in some respects. The texts are usually in the form of dialogues between Siva and Parvati. In some of these, Siva answers the questions put by Parvati and in others Parvati answers, Siva questioning. Mahanirvana, Kularnava, Kulasara, Prapanchasara, Tantraraja, Rudra Yamala, Brahma Yamala, Vishnu Yamala, and Todala Tantra are the important works. The Agamas teach several occult practices, some of which confer powers, while the others bestow knowledge and freedom. Among the existing books the Mahanirvana Tantra is the most famous.
Tantra Yoga had been one of the potent powers for the spiritual regeneration of the Hindus. When practised by the ignorant, unenlightened, and unqualified persons, it has led to certain abuses; and there is no denying that some degraded forms of Saktism have sought nothing but magic, immorality, and occult powers. An example of the perverted expression of the truth, a travesty of the original practices, is the theory of the five Makaras (Pancha Makaras);-Madya or wine, Mamsa or flesh, Matsya or fish, Mudra or symbolical acts, and Maithuna or coition. The esoteric meaning of these five Makaras is: "Kill egoism, control flesh, drink the wine of God-intoxication, and have union with Lord Siva".
The Tantras are not books of sorcery, witchcraft, magic spells, and mysterious formulae. They are wonderful scriptures. All persons without the distinctions of caste, creed, or colour may draw inspiration from them and attain spiritual strength, wisdom, and eternal bliss. Mahanirvana and Kularnava Tantras are the important books in Tantra Sastra. Yoga Kundalini Upanishad of Krishna Yajurveda, Jabala Darsana, Trisikha Brahmana, and Varaha Upanishad are useful for getting knowledge of Kundalini Sakti and the methods to awaken it and take it to Sahasrara Chakra at the crown of the head.
The Tantra is, in some of its aspects, a secret doctrine. It is a Gupta Vidya. You cannot learn it from the study of books. You will have to get the knowledge and practice from the practical Tantrikas, the Tantric Acharyas [accomplished aspirants] and Gurus who hold the key to it. The Tantric student must be endowed with purity, faith, devotion, dedication to Guru, dispassion, humility, courage, cosmic love, truthfulness, non-covetousness, and contentment. Absence of these qualities in the practitioner means a gross abuse of Saktism.
The Sakti Tantra is Advaita Vada. It proclaims that Paramatman (Supreme Soul) and Jivatman (individual soul) are one. The Saktas accept the Vedas as the basic scriptures. They recognise the Sakta-Tantras as texts expounding the means to attain the goal set forth in the Vedas.
Tantra Yoga lays special emphasis on the development of the powers latent in the six Chakras, from Muladhara to Ajna. Kundalini Yoga actually belongs to Tantric Sadhana which gives a detailed description about this serpent-power and the Chakras (plexus). Entire Tantric Sadhana aims at awakening Kundalini, and making her to unite with Lord Sadasiva, in the Sahasrara Chakra. Methods adopted to achieve this end in Tantric Sadhana are Japa of the Name of the Mother, prayer, and various rituals.
Guru and Diksha (Initiation)
Yoga should be learnt from a Guru (spiritual preceptor). And this is true all the more in the case of Tantra Yoga. It is the Guru who will recognise the class to which the aspirant belongs and prescribe suitable Sadhana.
The Guru is none other than the Supreme Divine Mother Herself, descended into the world in order to elevate the aspirant. As one lamp is lit at the flame of another, so the divine Sakti consisting of Mantra is communicated from Guru to the disciple. The disciple fasts, observes Brahmacharya, and gets the Mantra from the Guru.
Initiation tears the veil of mystery and enables the disciple to grasp the hidden truth behind scriptures' texts. These are generally veiled in mystic language. You cannot understand them by self-study. Self-study will only lead you to greater ignorance. The Guru only will give you, by Diksha (initiation), the right perspective in which to study the scriptures and practise Yoga.
Qualifications of a Disciple
The qualifications of the disciple are purity, faith, devotion, dispassion, truthfulness, and control of the senses. He should be intelligent and a believer in Vedas. He must abstain from injury to all beings. He must be vigilant, diligent, patient, and persevering. He must be ever doing good to all. All Sadhana should be done under the personal direction of a Guru or spiritual teacher.
Tantra Sadhana [practice]
Bhuta Suddhi is an important Tantric rite. It means purification of the five elements of which the body is composed. The Sadhaka (aspirant) dissolves the sinful body and makes a new divine body. He infuses into the body the life of the Devi.
Nyasa is a very important and powerful Tantric rite. It is placing of the tips of the fingers of the right hand on various parts of the body, accompanied by Mantra.
In Kavacha the one Brahman is invoked by different names in order to protect different parts of the body. For example, Parabrahman is thought of as in the Sahasrara Padma in the head. The Supreme Lord is meditated upon in the heart. Protector of the world, Vishnu is invoked to protect the throat, so that the aspirant may utter the Mantras of his Ishta Devata.
Mudra is ritual of manual gestures. Mudra gives pleasure to the Devatas. There are 108 Mudras. In welcoming (Avahana) the Devata an appropriate gesture is made. In making offering (Arghya) Matsya Mudra is made. The right hand is placed on the back of the left and the two thumbs are extended finlike on each side of the hands. Similarly, there are Mudras for the various acts done during the worship.
Yantra takes the place of the image. It is an object of worship. Yantra is a diagram, drawn on paper. It is engraved on a metal sheet also. A Yantra is appropriated to a specific Devata only. Various Yantras are peculiar to each Devata. They are various designs according to the object of worship. Yantra is the body of the Devata. All the Yantras have a common edging called Bhupura. They have a quadrangular figure with four doors, which encloses and separates the Yantra from the external world.
The Sadhaka first meditates upon the Devata or Deity and then arouses the Devata in himself. He then communicates the Divine presence thus aroused to the Yantra. When the Devata has been invoked into the Yantra by the appropriate Mantra, the vital airs (Prana) of the Devata are infused therein by the Pranapratishtha ceremony. The Devata is thereby installed in the Yantra. The materials used or acts done in Puja are called Upachara. They are sixteen in number, viz., (1) Asana (seating of the Devata); (2) Svagata (welcoming of the Devata); (3) Padya (water for washing the feet); (4) Arghya (water for ablution); (5) Achamana (water for sipping); (6) Madhuparka (honey, ghee, milk, and curd); (7) Snana (bath); (8) Vastra (cloth); (9) Abharana (jewels); (10) Gandha (perfume); (11) Pashpa (flowers); (12) Dhupa (incense); (13) Dipa (light); (14) Naivedya (food) and Tambulam (betel); (15) Nirajana (Arati); and (16) Vandana (prostration and prayer).
Sadhakas are of three kinds, viz., Pasu (animalistic), Vira (valorous), and Divya (divine).
The Pancha Tattva
The Pancha Tattva is essential for the worship of Sakti. The Pancha Tattvas are wine (Madya), meat (Mamsa), fish (Matsya), parched cereal (Mudra) and sexual union (Maithuna). As they all commence with the letter M, they are vulgarly called Pancha-ma-kara or five M's. The Pancha Tattvas stand for drinking, eating and propagation. The Pancha Tattvas, the five elements of worship destroy great sins, Maha-pataka-nasanam.
The Pancha Tattvas have not always their literal meaning. The meaning differs according as they refer to the Tamasic (Pasu), Rajasic (Vira) or Sattvic (Divya) Sadhanas respectively.
Wine may be wine; or it may be coconut water or it may mean God-intoxication or the intoxicating knowledge of Brahman or the Absolute. Wine is a symbol to denote the Supreme, eternal Bliss of Yoga knowledge, or knowledge of Atman (Atma-jnana).
The union of Siva and Sakti in the upper brain centre known as Sahasrara or thousand-petalled lotus is Maithuna.
Mamsa (meat) is the act by which the aspirant consecrates all his actions to the Lord.
Matsya (fish) is that Sattvic knowledge by which the Sadhaka sympathises with the pleasure and pain of all beings.
Mudra is the act of abandoning all associations with evil which leads to bondage.
Wine is fire; flesh is air; fish is water; cereal is earth; sexual union [Maithuna] is ether.
Milk, ghee, honey are all substitutes for wine. Salt, ginger, sesamum, white beans, garlic are substitutes for meat. White brinjal, red radish, masur (a kind of grain) and red sesamum are substitutes for fish. Paddy, rice, wheat and grain are Mudra. Offering of flowers with the hands formed with a particular Mudra is Maithuna [pairing, coupling].
The Sadhaka thinks that he has got a Deva body. This is Bhuta- Suddhi. Various Nyasas are performed. Mental worship is performed of the Devi who is thought of as being in red raiment seated on a red lotus. Her dark body is like rain-cloud. Her forehead is shining with the light of the crescent moon. Japa of Mantra is then done. Thereupon there is external worship.
Sexual intercourse by a man with a woman who is not lawful to him is a sin. The Vaidika Dharma is very strict on this point. It forbids not merely actual Maithuna but Ashtanga or eightfold Maithuna namely Smaranam (thinking upon it), Kirtanam (talking of it), Keli (play with women), Prekshanam (making eyes at women), Guhya-bhashanam (talking in private with women), Sankalpa (wish or resolve for sexual union), Adhyavasaya (determination towards it), Kriyanishpatti (actual accomplishment of the sexual act).
A Tantric can have copulation [Maithuna] with his wife. He calls his wife his Shakti. Wife is a house-goddess Griha-lakshmi or Griha-devata united to her husband by the sacramental Samskara of marriage. She should not be regarded as an object of enjoyment. She is his partner in life (Ardhangini). The union of a man and his wife is a veritable sacred scriptural rite.
Tantra Yoga is the saving wisdom. It is the marvellous boat which takes man safely to the other shore of fearlessness, immortality, freedom, and perfection, when practised with understanding under personal guidance of well-established Tantric Guru.
Quoted from "Bliss Divine" and "Tantra Yoga, Nada Yoga and Kriya Yoga" by Swami Sivananda.