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Reading the Saundaryalahari – an aside

As an “interlude” before moving on with my reflections on further verses of Saundaryalahari I want to discuss the matter of the Samayacara and Kaulacara divisions in Srividya practice, as mentioned in a previous post.

Contemporary commentaries on Saundaryalahari sometimes make a distinction between two “schools” of Sri Vidya – Samayacara and Kaulacara – often stressing the superiority of the former over the latter.

This distinction originates with Laksmidhara, the circa-sixteenth century commentator on Saundaryalahari. Laksmidhara is opposed to Kaulacara – condemning it for its emphasis on “external worship” in contrast to his own Samayacara approach, which holds that internal worship of the sricakra is superior. Further, Samayacara is Vedic, whilst Kaulacara is deemed to be non-Vedic in orientation. Laksmidhara also claims that Kaulacara worship the goddess placed in the muladhara, whilst Samayacara practitioners worship Siva-Sakti in the sahasrara cakra. According to Samayacarins, worship of the goddess in the six chakras below the sahasrara is unfruitful. Samayacarins create the sricakra according to the srstikrama (moving outwards) method, in which there are four triangles with their apexes pointing upwards and five with their apexes pointing downward. Kaulacarins create the sricakra according to the samharakrama (moving inwards) method – which has five triangles with apexes pointing upwards and four with their apexes pointing downwards. There are other distinctions, based around which groups of texts are deemed to be authoritative, and the degree of importance placed on the sixteen nityakalas (see Tigunait, 1998 for further elaboration).

Such a distinction however, is somewhat one-sided, with only Laksmidhara (and those who follow him) being keen to exalt his own position and to condemn the Kaulacara approach.. Laksmidhara makes Kaulacara synonymous with Vamacara, and Samayacara with Daksinacara. Prior to Laksmidhara’s intervention, samaya was used to denote general rules pertaining to the conduct of initiates in terms of ethics, doctrine, and ritual. According to Annette Wilke (2012) Laksmidhara’s intervention not only brought about a new Srividya school, oriented towards “inner worship” (and favoured by both Sankaracaryas and Smarta Brahmins) but also created a “split” between Kaula and Samaya modes of practices which had not existed previously.

S. Subrahmanya Sastri and T.R. Srinivasa Ayyangar for example, in the introduction to their translation of Saundaryalahari (1948) distinguish between two forms of practice: “the Internal” which worships Siva-Sakti in the centres of energy of the human body without ritual or ceremony – being intended for advanced practitioners, and “the External” – intended for the “less evolved” which makes uses of yantras, mantras and other ritual elements, and features the acquistion of siddhis and the “gratification of specific desires”. Internal worship is Samaya-marga, which “does not, in any way, run counter to Vedic principles.” External worship however, is identified with Kaula-marga, which

“has, in the course of time, afforded scope for the inclusion of vulgar practices (Vamacara) smacking of Kapalika and Ksapanaka usages, appealing to the venal side of human nature … Hence this work is appropriately called the Saundarya-lahari, the Flood of Beauty, washing out in its torrent the filfth accumulated in the Kaula-marga and restoring the purity of the Sri-Vidya in relation to its external forms and ceremonies.”

(Note: I’m not sure what Sastri and Ayyangar are referring to with the use of the term “Ksapanaka” here – the only usage of this term I’ve come across is with reference to naked Jain ascetics.)

This interpretation is, I think, clearly influenced by colonial-era representations of tantra – and Kaula-oriented practices in particular – as “degenerate” deviations from Vedic orthodoxy (sometimes attributed to the onset of the Kali Yuga) and merely excuses for self-indulgent and immoral behaviour.

Douglas Brooks (1992) remarks that “Later Srividya Kaulas do not seem to be aware of Laksmidhara’s strict identification of methods by schools or at least evince no interest. Bhaskaraya passes over the issue as a factional dispute and discusses both methods of conceptualising the sricakra with equal deference.
Laksmidhara’s sectarianism is, once again, unaccounted for in other scriptural sources, suggesting that he describes practices and interpretations familiar to his region, current to his times, or peculiar to his lineage” (p25). In his The Secret of the Three Cities (1990) Brooks states that in contemporary Srividya, the internal/external practice distinction is blurred – and that self-proclaimed Samayins do perform external ritual although they reject any of the “potentially controversial Kaula elements, such as the pancamakaras.” He says that contemporary Samayins desire to admit practices which are tantric – “in the sense of being esoteric knowledge” but seek at the same time to distance themselves from tantra’s association with anti-Vedic social ethics. He also points out that contemporary Kaula srividya adepts who belong to conservative, high-caste communities tend to either omit the more more controversial aspects of Kaula practice or adopt “harmless” ritual substitutes for the pancamakara – the so-called “five M’s”.

Tantra – as is so often pointed out – can be difficult to organise around fixed distinctions (for example, whether a text is Vedic or non-Vedic in orientation) and the boundaries between different schools and lineages is often fuzzy (see Jottings: on defining tantra for a discussion of problems of definition). The situation is further complicated by Srividya texts such as the circa-17th century Parasurama-Kalpasutra (see Wilke, 2012) which identifies itself as a Kaula text and aligns itself with Vedic practice & ethics (although the Veda is subordinated to its own teachings).

Douglas Renfrew Brooks The Secret of the Three Cities: An Introduction to Hindu Sakta Tantrism (University of Chicago Press, 1990)
Douglas Renfrew Brooks Auspicious Wisdom: The Texts and Traditions of Srividya Sakta Tantrism in South India (SUNY, 1992)
Pandit S. Subrahmanya Sastri and T.R. Srinivasa Ayyangar, Saundarya Lahari (Theosophical Publishing House, 1948)
Rajmani Tigunait Sakti: The Power in Tantra A Scholarly Approach (The Himalayan Institute Press, 1998)
Annette Wilke Recoding the Natural and Animating the Imaginary. Kaula Body-practices in the Parasurama-Kalpasutra, Ritual Transfers, and the Politics of Representation in István Keul (ed) Transformations and Transfer of Tantra in Asia and Beyond (Walter de Grutyer, 2012)