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The Kulamarga

An Overview of the Kulamarga

The Kulamarga departs markedly from the Mantramarga. We are offered two distinct cults of their deities, one following the Mantramarga (tantra-prakriya) and the other, seen as more elevated, following the Kulamarga (kula-prakriya). In the latter, instead of the elaborate and time-consuming process of initiation through offerings into a consecrated fire (hautri diksa) seen throughout the Mantramarga, we see initiation through the induction process (avesah) by the Goddess and the consumption of “impure” sacramental substances (caruprasanam, virapanam). We also find sexual intercourse with a consecrated consort (duti) as a central element of private worship (adyayagah), sanguinary sacrifices, and collective orgiastic rites celebrated by assemblies of initiates and women of low caste. These are the two ritual components of Abhinavagupta’s system: Tantra prakriya, the exoteric, normative liturgy of the entire Tantric community, centered on the God Bhairava; and kula prakriya, the secret and esoteric rites of the inner circle of the “clan” of initiates, centered on the Goddess and her proliferation into multiple goddesses. In his exegesis of the kula prakriya, Abhinavagupta sublimates, cosmeticizes, and semanticizes many of its practices into a type of meditative asceticism whose aim is to realize a transcendent subjectivity, but one which is imminent in the world and the Self. In the process, he transforms ritual from a form of doing to a form of “knowing.”

The Kulamarga, also called the Kula Teaching (kulasasanam, kulamnayah, and the like), or simply the Kula, was focused on the propitiation of the Goddess Kulesvari with or without Bhairava (Kulesvara) surrounded by the eight Mothers, and attended by Ganesa and Vatuka, with ancillary worship of the four Siddhas who propagated the tradition with their consorts, ending with Matseyendra (Macchanda) and his consort, Konkana, and the six non-celibate “princes” (rajaputrah) who were the sons of this couple together with their consorts; but this was variously inflected and modified in liturgical systems most obviously by the identity of the central deity.

In an early classification, seen in the Cincinimata, we are told of four forms of the Kaula cult, called the “transmissions” (anvayah) or “teachings” (amnayah), each assigned to one of the four cardinal directions: the Eastern (purvamnayah) associated with the goddess Kulesvari and closely related to that taught in the Trika; the Northern (uttaramnayah) associated with the goddess Kali (Kalasamkarsini); the Western (pascimanamnayah) with the goddess Kubjika and her consort, Navitman; and the Southern (daksinamnayah) with Kamesvari and the goddess known as the Nityas. This last transmission was eclipsed in time by its own outgrowth, the cult of the mild goddess Tripurasundari, also known as Sri Vidya, which eventually became the most widespread and popular form of Sakta worship, surviving with some vigor down to the present day. This was the situation up until the 12th century CE.

The creativity of these traditions was not exhausted. In later times, probably in eastern India after the decline of Buddhism in that region, various goddesses not encountered in earlier Kaula/Sakta sources, such as Syama (Daksinakali), Tara, Chinnamasta, Dhumavati, Bagalamukhi, and Bhuvanesvari, made their appearance in a new wave of Saiva-Sakta scriptural literature, eventually forming with Tripurasundari a fixed repertoire known as the Ten Mahavidya Goddesses, and preserving in the cults of Tara and Chinnamasta two deities of the Buddhist Tantric traditions that had formerly been so strong in the region comprising the modern states of Bengal, Bangladesh, Bihar, and Orissa.

The Kulamarga

Antecedents of the Kulamarga: The Kapalikas and the Cult of the Yoginis

The traditions of the Kulamarga are Kapalika, the basic form of their ascetic observances being that of the skull. The Kapalika background is evident from iconography of the divine couple. Worshipped within an enclosure of cremation grounds, they themselves wear the bone ornaments and brandish the skull-staff of the Kapalika tradition.  The Kapalikas, the ‘skull-men, so called because, like the Lakula ascetic of the higher path, they carried a skull-capped staff (khatviraga) and carried a cranium begging bowl; that is, they had undertaken the ‘great vow ’ (mahdvrata), the penance for Brahmanicide.

The Kapalika ascetic was quite the opposite of the respectable Smarta Brahman householder or even Saiva Siddhantin. Yet his doctrines and practices were developed on the basis of Saiva Siddhanta ideology, which lie radically re-interpreted. The Kapalika ascetic lived in the cremation grounds, imitating his fierce deities and appeasing these deities with offerings of blood, meat, alcohol and sexual fluids from ritual intercourse unconstrained by caste restrictions. These were highly polluting activities to an orthodox Brahman and even the sight of such an ascetic would pollute him. While meat and wine were common enough among the lower castes, they were impure for a Brahman. An orthodox Brahman would make only pure, vegetarian offerings to his gods and sexual activity would be constrained by the code of varnasrama-dharma, and excluded from the world of puja. In place of vegetarian food the Kapalika offered meat, in place of milk the Kapalika offered wine. The goal of the Kapalika was power (siddhi) which he thought he could achieve through breaking social taboos, appeasing his deities with offerings which would be anathema to the vedic practitioner, and harnessing the power of his deities through controlled possession.

While the right current Siddhanta modeled their religion on the Vedic prototype that had been dominant in an earlier Indian religion (especially 1000BCE – 400CE), the left current Kulamarga or Kaula emerged out of an equally old but more “populist” stratum of Indian religion, a fascinating and strange shamanistic visionary world of propititation of nature goddesses and animal headed yoginis. This is an area of Indian religion that is not well documented because it was largely illiterate, though we see many signs of its influence on literate religion. This shamanistic world, which was the older cultural background of the Kaula stream thus provided its aesthetic template, involving rituals and power-seeking rites that might seem disturbing, unbelievable, or even abhorrent to us. The sadhaka or ascetic practitioner performed these rites in frightening places such as cremation grounds, using mortuary elements like human skulls and ash from the funeral pyre. The rites invoked group of wild and fierce goddesses, often envisioned as nature spirits (called apsaras, dakinis, matrs, grahis, etc), and were led by a chief goddess or by the firece form of Siva himself – Bhairava.    If the sadhaka’s practice wa successful, the deities appeared to him, at which point he woujld make a blood or sacrificial offfering. Mythologically, he would be accepted by the goddesses and would rise into the sky with them, becoming the leader of their wild band – in other words, becoming like Bhairava Himself.

Around the 9-10th century, a paradigm shift of sorts occurred century, away from these earlier forms of Kaula practice which had involved cremation ground-based asceticism featuring the use of blood sacrifice and alcohol as a means to feeding and satisfying a host of terrible Kula (clan) deities. The emphasis moved away from feeding those ravenous deities towards a type of erotico-mystical practice involving a female horde, collectively known as the Yoginis, led by the terrible male Siva-Bhairava, together with his consort, the Goddess (Aghoresvari, Uma, Candi, Sakti, etc.). The Kaula rites were grounded in the cults of the Yoginis, medieval heiress to the Matrkas (Mothers), Yaksinis (female Dryads), and Grahinis (female Seizers) of earlier traditions who, like them, were often represented as supernatural or preternatural hybrids between human, animal, bird, and plant worlds. These petulant female deities, located at a shifting threshold between the divine and the demonic, were by turns terrible and benign with regard to humans, who traditionally worshipped them with blood offerings and animal sacrifice. Once gratified by said oblations, the Yoginis would reveal themselves as ravishing young women and gratify their human devotees in return with supernatural powers (siddhis), most particularly the power of flight.

64 Yoginis in a Temple

Induced possession by these Yoginis was the prime means to the ends of the Kaula, the “clan-generated” practices, also termed the “clan-practice” (kulacara), “clan religion” (kuladharma), or the “clan generated gnosis” (kulajnana). Kaula practitioners were primarily concerned with worldly powers (siddhis) and bodily immortality (jivanmukti) with the enjoyment (bhukti) of said powers and immortality taking precedence over any ideal of consciousness raising or disembodied liberation from cyclic rebirth (mukti), embraced by more conventional Tantric practitioners. These powers were gained by transacting with the Yoginis, who, in the Kaula context, were also identified with the female ritual consorts of the male practitioner. That is, the Yoginis of the Kaula Tantric tradition were at once regarded as flesh-and-blood women with whom male practitioners interacted, and the devouring semi-divine beings who were the object of their worship cults. In the secular literature, these Yoginis were often portrayed as witches or sorceresses, ambiguous, powerful, and dangerous figures that only a heroic male would dare approach, let alone attempt to conquer. It is for this reason that the fully initiated male practitioners of the Kaula termed themselves Champions or Virile Heroes (Viras); alternatively, they referred to themselves as Perfected Beings (Siddhas), by way of identifying themselves with another order of semi-divine beings, the male counterparts to the Yoginis of Epic and medieval Indian mythology.

On certain nights of the lunar month and solar year, Kaula practitioners would assemble on cremation grounds, or at “clan mounds” or “seats” (pithas), “clan-mountains” (kula-parvatas) or “fields” (ksetras). These gatherings were called “mingling” (melakas, melanas, melapas), involving the union of male and female initiates, of Yoginis whose presence and interaction with their heroic (Vira) or perfected (Siddha) male counterparts was the sine qua non of Kaula practice.

At these gatherings the Yoginis would descend from the sky to meet their male consorts awaiting them on the ground. These Yogini’s flight was fueled by the man and animal flesh that was their diet; however, the Siddhas or Viras, by virtue of their own practice, were able to offer the Yoginis a more subtle and more powerful energy source. This was their semen (virya), the distilled essence of their own bodily constituents. The Yoginis, gratified by these offerings, would offer their form of grace to the Siddhas or Viras. Instead of devouring them, they would offer them a counter-presentation of their own sexual discharge, something these male partners would have been as needful as the Yoginis were of male semen. Why? According to the Kaula tradition, the Godhead externalized himself (or herself in the Krama) in the form of a cluster of 8 great goddesses, who in turn proliferated into the multiple circles of feminine energies (usually 64) that was the Yogini entourage. These semi-divine Yoginis and the human women who embodied them carried in their bodies the germ plasm of the Godhead, called the “clan nectar” (kulamrta), “clan fluid” (kuladravyam), “vulval essence” (yoni-tattva), the “command” (ajna), simply the “fluid (dravyam), or the “clan” (kula). While this divine essence naturally flowed through women, it was considered absent in males. Therefore, the sole means by which a male could access the flow of the supreme godhead at the elevated center of the mandala, the clan “flow-chart,” was through the Yoginis who formed or inhabited its outer circles.

Yogini Mandala

Only through initiation by and continued interaction with the Yoginis could these male practitioners access the fluid essence and boundless energy of the godhead. It was therefore necessary that male practitioners be “inseminated” or more properly speaking “insanguinated,” with the sexual or menstrual discharge of the Yoginis – rendering the “mouth” of the Yogini their sole conduit to membership in the clan and all its prerequisites. Here, the “mouth” of the Yogini was her vulva, and “drinking female discharge” (rajapana), the prime means to fulfill the male needs. Therefore, the erotico-mystical practice, the “Tantric sex” practiced by the Kaula practitioners, mainly involved the drinking of these power substances that were sexual fluids, either through mutual oral congress or through a form of genital sex called vajroli mudra (urethral suction) by which the male partner used his penis as a straw to suck up the sexual discharge of the female partner. The ending of this encounter was the much coveted ability of flight, which was later to be internalized and reinterpreted along the means of experiencing God-Consciousness, but which more likely reflected the seeking of supernatural power among the Kaula.

Since its origins, the Kaula has essentially consisted of a body of techniques for the control of multiple, often female, beings, both for one’s own benefit and as tools to use against others. These may be reduced to three principal types: 1). Mantras, acoustic formulas that, when enunciated properly under the proper conditions, control said beings; 2). Techniques of possession, in which the same beings act through one’s own body; 3). The gratification of these beings through sacrificial offerings, with or without the transformative medium of vedic fire. In this last case, the supreme offering is none other than the bodily constituents of the practitioner himself. Here, human practitioners make the supreme sacrifice of their own person, moving the Tantric deity to reciprocate with untold powers and supernatural enjoyments. It is these three types of practice that have constituted the Tantric mainstream in the history of South Asian religions.

White essentially argues that “tantric” sex was a means of transmitting esoteric knowledge through the transmission of sexual fluid from the mouth (vulva) of the Yogini, which served to initiate the practitioner into the Kaula lineage via fluid gnosis or sexually transmitted messages.

Veneration of the Yoni

The Early Kaula

Kaula is sometimes referred to as the whole left side of Tantra, – the non-dual, transgressive, goddess-worshipping side, but within this general rubric, there was also a specific lineage grouping called Kaula, what we have been calling the Kulamarga. It is headed by the semi-historical, semi-legendary figure of Macchanda Natha (Matseyendra) “Lord Fisherman,” possibly of the 8th century. Macchanda is one of the most highly revered masters of the Tantra, considered a maha-siddha in both Saiva and Buddhist camps and has even been made into a deity in Nepal’s Kathmandhu valley, which still celebrates an annual festival in his honor, though they have long since forgotten his teachings.

In the original sources, he is revered as the avatar or revealer of the Truth in the fourth and current age of the Kali Yuga.  He was from Kamarupa (modern Assam) in the Far East, but must have traveled widely, for we know that his partner and consort was nick-named Konkanamba, “the Mother from Konkan,” a place on the western coast of modern Bombay. Unfortunately, her name is not as well remembered as that of her partner’s, even though the two were originally praised as a pair of awakened masters. They worshipped Siva and Sakti as a conjugal pair, under the names Kulesvara and Kulesvari (Lord and Lady of the Family). Later practitioners influenced by Kaulism often used those names for whatever specific forms of Siva and Sakti they worshipped.

Macchanda (a.k.a. Matseyendranatha) was a siddhi who incorporated the teachings of a the Kapalikas and their associated Yogini cult into his Kaulajnananirnaya (KJnN), for which reason he is exalted, in later works, as the founder of the Kaula. The KJnN is arguably a foundational text of the Kaula dated to around the 9th or 10th century. This final derivation of the Kaula is termed the “Fish-Belly.” In a mythological account, we read of Bhairava, having transformed himself into a fisherman, retrieving the Kaula scriptures from the belly of a fish. The other motif of the fish belly is suggestive of the evocative and sexual practices of the Yogini Kaula because the belly expands and contracts like the sexual organs.


Macchanda and Konkanamba are said to have had twelve sons. Six became celibate ascetics and six became married householders. It was the latter six whom Macchanda and Konkamba initiated, transmitting to them their wisdom-teachings. Interestingly, the names of these six sons are not Sanskrit, but rather are associated with tribes beyond the pale of normal Indian society, thus alluding to early shamanic origins of the Kaula teachings. These six sons (together with their consorts) became the six heads of six lineages, called ovallis. The lineages developed into specific clans, which maintained networks of lodges near sacred sites around the subcontinent and had special hand-signals so members could recognize each other. The name of the six clans were Ananda, Bodhu, Avali, Orabhu, Pada, and Yogi, and their members, accordingly, had names ending in one of the six clan names.

This “original” Kaula lineage is not included amongst the nine main samparadayas that we will discuss because it is not a separate school in the same sense, with its own sectarian doctrines and specific cult of worship. It was rather a particular way of practicing the Tantra, with a greater emphasis on the sensual, and its real significance lay in the profound influence it exerted on some of the left current schools, so that in time two variants of some sects were acknowledged. For example, there is the Trika of the Mantramarga and the Kaula Trika of the Kulamarga.  This influence served to counter the transcendentalist emphasis seen in some parts of the tradition, for what characterized the Kaula above all else was its emphasis on the primacy of the body and on the immanent aspects of the divine. A totally practice-based lineage, it taught the use of sensual experience as a springboard into divine Presence. Therefore it is solely within the Kaula influenced lineages that sexual rites were practiced and that transgressive substances were both offered to God and consumed by the offerer (as is considered necessary in a non-dual view that “walks the talk”).

The Reformation of the Kaula

By the late 9th century the Kaulas were often highly educated people and refined aesthetes and sometimes were connected to the royal court. Still, they had to deal with an earlier scriptural tradition that at times emphasized otherworldly magical rites, some of which were offensive to Indian society. You see, ancient India was a deeply traditional society in which there was no possibility of simply rejecting an earlier layer of one’s tradition. If the earlier tradition did not fit the current paradigm, it had to be reinterpreted. This is precisely what the more sophisticated Kaulas of classical tantra did. They did not take the shamanistic rites described above literally; rather, they argued that the wild goddesses were expressions of the various energies of the human mind and body. The mortuary symbols were taken to represent transcendence of the ego and the attachment to body-based identity. When the ego is suspended, they taught, external objects lose their otherness and shine within consciousness as the flavors of pure aesthetic experience. The goddesses of the sense-energies are gratified by this offering of “nectar” and thereby converge, fusing with the practitioner’s radiant and expansive awareness. He thereby experiences himself as a single mass of blissful consciousness. Finally, flying through the sky as Bhairava himself, was taken to indicate an awe-inspiring divine state in which the liberated practitioner flies free in the sky of pure awareness, unbound by ordinary limiting cognitions, but still embodied, (i.e. possessed of his senses and faculties).

This process of reinterpretation (sometimes called “hermeneutics”) is central to all religions. The important thing to understand is that from inside the religion, it has no quality of artificiality. Rather, the interpreters believe that they are simply drawing out the real, deeper meaning of early scriptures, the meaning that God had always intended. (This is not to say that the sophisticated Kaula interpreters totally rejected those ascetics who chose to pursue cremation ground ritual and power-seeking; such ascetics, who had become the minority, were benignly tolerating as something like an eccentric and socially inappropriate cousin, embarrassing at times, but still part of the family).

So the sophisticated and literate expression of the left-current of non-dual Saiva Tantra “purified” the shocking or repellent elements of earlier goddess worship, not by rejecting them but by reinterpreting them as the elements of an interior spiritual experience. These Kaulas were great aesthetes, especially in Kashmir, where the left current flourished. For them, the highest state of consciousness was that of camatkara, that is, wonder or aesthetic rapture, the experience of amazement at the raw and vivid beauty of embodied existence. Their “aestheticization” of earlier tradition fit in well with their non-dualist beliefs; now they could confront even the most apparently horrific states of death and so-called impurity as aspects of their own divine inner being, aspects of the total beauty of existence. You can see this perspective in certain varieties of tantric art, depicting fierce yet benevolent deities.  Fierce deities are an exclusive characteristic of the non-dual type of tantra.

Abhinavagupta, marginalized the ritual of fluid exchange and sublimated it into wider body of ritual and meditative techniques. These techniques were designed not to threaten the purity regulations that were requires for high caste social functioning. These theoreticians eliminated the major goal of those “hard core” practices – the transformation and consumption of sexual substances to gain supernatural powers – by interpreting such antinomian practices metaphorically and switching the goal post from siddhis to the expansion of consciousness, now viewed as the cultivation of a divine state of mind homologous to the bliss experienced in sexual orgasm. This was a revisionist Tantra form orthopraxy to orthodoxy, from doing to knowing. Thus, for example, the drinking of female menstrual discharge became abstracted into a program of meditational mantras.

For all intense and purposes the Kaula disappeared in the 12th and 13th centuries, with a catastrophic break in most of the guru-disciple lineages, a break most likely occasioned by the progressive Muslim conquest of north India. Thereafter, it is only appropriate to speak of Tantric or Kaula revivals.


  1. Sanderson, Alexis. “Saivism and the Tantric Traditions” in The World’s Religions. Hardy, F., Clarke, P., Houlden, L., and Sutherland, S. (Eds). Routledge Press, London, 1990.
  2. Sanderson, Alexis. “The Saiva Age – The Rise and Dominance of Śaivism during the Early Medieval Period.” In The Genesis and Development of Tantrism. Einoo, Shingo (Ed). University of Tokyo, Tokyo, 2009, pp. 41–349.
  3. Samuel. Geoffrey. The Origins of Yoga and Tantra: Indic Religions to the 13th Century. Cambridge University Press, NY, 2008.
  4. White, David Gordon. Kiss of the Yogini: “Tantric Sex” in its South Asian Contexts. The University of Chicago Press, IL, 2003.
  5. Wallis, Christopher. Tantra Illuminated: The Philosophy, History, and Practice of a Timeless Tradition. Anusara Press, TX, 2012.