PROGRESSIVE STAGES IN ĀCĀRA – Introduction to Tantra

Arthur Avalon

There are seven, or, as some say, nine, divisions of worshippers. The extra divisions are bracketed in the following quotation. The Kulārṇava-Tantra mentions seven, which are given in their order of superiority, the first being the lowest: Vedācāra, Vaiṣṇavācāra, Śaivācāra, Dakṣiṇācāra, Vāmācāra, Siddhāntācāra, (Aghorācāra, Yogācāra), and Kaulācāra, the highest of all. 

The ācāra is the way, custom and practice of a particular class of sādhakas. They are not, as sometimes supposed, different sects, but stages through which the worshipper in this or other births has to pass before he reaches the supreme stage of the Kaula. 

Vedācāra, which consists in the daily practice of the Vaidik rites, is the gross body (sthūladeha), which comprises within it all other ācāras, which are, as it were, its subtle bodies (sūkṣma-deha) of various degrees. The worship is largely of an external and ritual character, the object of which is to strengthen dharma. This is the path of action (kriyā-mārga). 

In the second stage the worshipper passes from blind faith to an understanding of the supreme protecting energy of the Brahman, towards which he has the feelings of devotion. This is the path of devotion (bhakti-mārga), and the aim at this stage is the union of it and faith previously acquired. 

With an increasing determination to protect dharma and destroy adharma, the sadhaka passes into Śaivācāra, the warrior (kṣatriya) stage, wherein to love and mercy are added strenuous striving and the cultivation of power. There is union of faith, devotion (bhakti), and inward determination (antar-lakṣa). Entrance is made upon the path of knowledge (jñāna-mārga). 

Following this is Dakṣinācāra, which in Tantra does not mean “right-hand worship,” but “favourable” – that is, that ācāra which is favourable to the accomplishment of the higher sādhana, and whereof the Devī is the DakṣiṇaKālikā. 



This stage commences when the worshipper can make dhyāna and dhāraṇā of the threefold śakti of the Brahman (kriyā, icchā, jñāna), and understands the mutual connection (samanvaya) of the three guṇas until he receives pūrṇābhiṣekā. 

At this stage the sādhaka is Śākta, and qualified for the worship of the threefold śakti of Brahma, Viṣṇu, Maheśvara. He is fully initiated in the Gāyatrī-mantra, and worships the Devī Gāyatrī, the DakṣiṇaKālikā, or Ādyā Śakti – the union of the three Śaktis.

Up to the fourth stage the Sādhaka followed pravṛtti-mārga, the outgoing path which led from the source, the path of worldly enjoyment, albeit curbed by dharma. At first unconsciously, and later consciously, sādhana sought to induce nivṛtti, which, however, can only fully appear after the exhaustion of the forces of the outward current. 

In Vāmācāra, however, the sadhaka commences to directly destroy pravṛtti, and with the help of the Guru (whose help throughout is in this necessary) to cultivate nivṛtti.

The weaving of the spiritual garment is recommenced where, in a previous birth, it was dropped, on death. In the present life a sādhaka may commence at any stage. 

If he is born into Kaulācāra, and so is a Kaula in its fullest sense, it is because in previous births he has by sādhana, in the preliminary stages, won his entrance into it.

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