Saturday, December 15, 2007

Atimarga and Mantra-marga

The worship of Shiva-Shakti is exceedingly ancient, and is traced back to a time before recorded history. The written history of organized Shaivism tells us of two broad paths: the higher path (Atimarga) and the path of mantras (Mantra-marga).

The Atimarga is termed as such because its adherents believed that their path led straight to liberation (sadyo mukti) without any intermediate states in higher planes of existence. The Atimarga was a path for ascetics and generally meant living a life of a recluse. The Atimarga branch belonged to and was developed by Pashupatas, who early on formed orders of Shaivite ascetics. The Mahabharata epic, composed over a period of time between 200 BCE to 200 CE, declares that the Pashupata along with Veda, Sankhya, Yoga and Pancharatra (early Vaishnava) are the five systems that embody essentially the same knowledge (XII.349.64). Pashupatism is thought to have had its own set of Agamas, yet very little has survived to our time.

In 1940, one of the Pashupata Agamas called the Pashupata Sutras was rediscovered and published. The Pashupata Sutras, our primary source of firsthand information on Pashupatism, is credited to Acharya Lakulisha (ca. 100 CE). Acharya Lakulisha reformed the Pashupata system, its theology, philosophy, practice, and provided guidelines for entrance and behavior of Pashupata ascetics. Acharya Lakulisha made such an impact on Pashupatism that after him, the system came to be called Lakulisha-Pashupata, and he was regarded as an “incarnation” of Shiva. While Pashupatism itself has not survived to the present time, Pashupatism has provided the basic Shaivite doctrine, iconography, mythology, symbology and Vedic framework for all schools of Shaivism that were developing alongside, or have developed since. In fact, much of the Puranic literature connected with Shaivism was originally composed by Pashupata ascetics.

Mantra-marga, the other major path of Shaivism, was likely developing alongside Atimarga early on, and in time overcame, but retained some characteristics of the Atimarga. Unlike the Atimarga, the Mantra-marga believed its path to lead to liberation not directly but in a stepwise manner (krama mukti). The Mantra-marga is termed as such not because it is exclusive in using mantras as part of its ritual and practice, but because it taught that the stepwise progression to liberation occurred through mastery of mantra-siddhis (i.e. the individual gained special powers and raised himself to higher levels in other planes of existence as he progressed toward liberation). In the Shaivite systems of today, we find several technical terms involving the word “mantra” for the individual being who has raised himself to higher planes of existence such as mantra-pramatrin, mantreshvara, mantra-maheshvara, etc. The major difference between the Atimarga and Mantra-marga was however that the Mantra-marga, or at least some its branches, was open both to renunciants and to householders.

Over time, the Mantra-marga became highly prominent and developed a very large corpus of Agamic literature. Based on the Agamic literature followed and on the primary form of Shiva worshipped, the Mantra-marga bifurcated into two primary branches: the Siddhantika and the Kapalika-Kaula. The former was primarily focused on Sadashiva and the latter on Bhairava. The Siddhantika branch gave rise to 28 Agamas (10 Shiva Agamas and 18 Rudra Agamas). The Kapalika-Kaula branch gave rise to 64 Agamas (Bhairava Agamas including the Yamalas). Both branches produced hundreds more Agamas which were termed Upa- or subsidiary Agamas, as well as a body of secondary texts of interpretation written by various Acharyas (teachers). The prominence given to Shakti by the Kapalika-Kaula branch gave rise to Shaktism as a semi-independent religion (this is a highly controversial), which in turn went on to produce its own canon of Tantric texts. Since Shaktism has retained its relationship with the Kapalika-Kaula branch, part of the Tantric canon of Shaktism is in common with the Bhairava Agama canon of Shaivism.

Today, the Siddhantika and Kapalika-Kaula branches of Mantra-marga Shaivism are represented by Saiva Siddhanta and Trika Shaivism, respectively. Although the two branches have philosophical and ontological differences, much of the foundational doctrine is the same, and is shared with Shaktism. All the sects and branches of Shaivism and Shaktism, despite their differences and divisions, are united inseparably under one set of central theological principles. They all have in common the most basic belief of absolute oneness of Shiva-Shakti.

Aum Hrim Namah Shivaya.

Agnideva © 2007. All rights reserved.

Related post: Tradition of Shiva.


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