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Vāmācāra (Sanskrit: वामाचार, Sanskrit pronunciation: [ʋɑːmɑːcɑːrə]) is a Sanskrit term meaning "left-handed attainment" and is synonymous with "Left-Hand Path" or "Left-path" (Sanskrit: Vāmamārga). It is used to describe a particular mode of worship or sadhana (spiritual practice) that is not only "heterodox" (Sanskrit: nāstika) to standard Vedic injunction, but extreme in comparison to the status quo.
These practices are often generally considered to be Tantric in orientation. The converse term is dakṣiṇācāra "Right-Hand Path", which is used to refer not only to "orthodox" (Āstika) sects but to modes of spirituality that engage in spiritual practices that not only accord with Vedic injunction but are generally agreeable to the status quo.
Left-handed and right-handed modes of practice may be evident in both orthodox and heterodox schools of Indian religions such as Hinduism, Jainism, Sikhism and Buddhism and is a matter of taste, culture, proclivity, initiation, sadhana and dharmic "lineage" (parampara).
Nomenclature and etymology
N. N. Bhattacharyya explains the Sanskrit technical term Ācāra as follows:
"[t]he means of spiritual attainment which varies from person to person according to competence.... Ācāras are generally of seven kinds -- Veda, Vaiṣṇava, Śaiva, Dakṣiṇa, Vāma, Siddhāṇta, and Kaula, falling into two broad categories -- Dakṣiṇa and Vāma. Interpretations vary regarding the nature and grouping of the ācāras. It is generally held that those who participate in the rituals of Five Ms belong to the category of Vāmācāra."
Vāma means "pleasant, lovable, agreeable" and Dakṣiṇa means "south". Facing the rising sun towards east, Dakṣiṇa would be the right side. For this reason, the term Vāmācāra is often translated "Left-hand practice", while Dakṣiṇamārga is translated as "Right-hand practice". An alternate etymology is that it is possible that the first word of the expression Vāmācāra is not vāma or "left", but vāmā or "woman". N. N. Bhattacharyya notes that a main feature of the Tantras is respect for the status of women as a representation of Shakti, and that if this was the original conception underlying Vāmācāra the opposing term Dakṣiṇācara may have been a later development.
Vamachara is particularly associated with the pancha-makara or the "Five Ms", also known as the pancha-tattva. In literal terms they are: Madya (wine), Mamsa (meat), Matsya (fish), Mudra (cereal), and Maithuna (sexual intercourse). Mudra usually means ritual gestures, but as part of the five Ms it is parched cereal.
Vamachara traditions place strict ritual limits on the use of these literal forms and warn against nonsanctioned use. If so used they encourage the person to sin. Practitioners of vamachara rituals may make symbolic substitutions for these literal things, which are not permitted in orthodox Hindu practice. The fact that tantric practices can be done without involvement with the literal pancha-makara is emphasized by Swami Madhavananda, and said to have been practiced by numerous saints.
Barrett (2008: p. 161) discusses the "charnel ground sadhana" of the Aghori pracitioners in both its left and right-handed proclivities and identifies it as principally cutting through attachments and aversion in order to foreground inner primordiality, a perspective influenced by a view by culture or domestication:
The gurus and disciples of Aghor believe their state to be primordial and universal. They believe that all human beings are natural-born Aghori. Hari Baba has said on several occasions that human babies of all societies are without discrimination, that they will play as much in their own filth as with the toys around them. Children become progressively discriminating as they grow older and learn the culturally specific attachments and aversions of their parents. Children become increasingly aware of their mortality as they bump their heads and fall to the ground. They come to fear their mortality and then palliate this fear by finding ways to deny it altogether. In this sense, Aghor sādhanā is a process of unlearning deeply internalized cultural models. When this sādhanā takes the form of shmashān sādhanā, the Aghori faces death as a very young child, simultaneously meditating on the totality of life at its two extremes. This ideal example serves as a prototype for other Aghor practices, both left and right, in ritual and in daily life.
View espoused in the Brahma Yamala
The Brahma Yamala, a Tantric text (though oriented from a right-handed Vaishnava perspective), says there are three currents of tradition: dakshina, vama, and madhyama. These are characterized by the predominance of each of the three gunas; sattva, rajas, and tamas. According to this text, dakshina is characterized by sattva, and is pure, madhyama, characterized by rajas, is mixed, and vama, characterized by tamas, is impure. The Tantras of each class follow a particular line of spiritual practice.
Iconography and tools of the left-handed trade
Beer (2003: p. 102) relates how the symbolism of the khaṭvāńga that entered Vajrayana, particularly from Padmasambhava, was a direct borrowing from the Kapalikas of Shaivism who frequented places of austerity such as charnel grounds as a form of vamacharin spiritual practice.
The form of the Buddhist khatvanga derived from the emblematic staff of the early Indian Shaivite yogins, known as kapalikas or 'skull-bearers'. The kapalikas were originally miscreants who had been sentenced to a twelve-year term of penance for the crime of inadvertently killing a Brahmin. The penitent was prescribed to dwell in a forest hut, at a desolate crossroads, in a charnel ground, or under a tree; to live by begging; to practice austerities; and to wear a loin-cloth of hemp, dog, or donkey-skin. They also had to carry the emblems of a human skull as an alms-bowl, and the skull of the Brahmin they had slain mounted upon a wooden staff as a banner.These Hindu kapalika ascetics soon evolved into an extreme outcaste sect of the 'left-hand' tantric path (Skt. vamamarg) of shakti or goddess worship. The early Buddhist tantric yogins and yoginis adopted the same goddess or dakini attributes of the kapalikas. These attributes consisted of; bone ornaments, an animal skin loincloth, marks of human ash, a skull-cup, damaru, flaying knife, thighbone trumpet, and the skull-topped tantric staff or khatvanga.
- Bhattacharya, N. N. History of the Tantric Religion pp. 81, 447. (1999) ISBN 81-7304-025-7
- Kaal Ugranand Saraswati differentiating “traditional Vamamarga” from conceptions of the word “vamamarga” Archived July 13, 2011, at the Wayback Machine.
- Tantra, Vamamarga (The Left Handed Path: Kaula sadhana)
- Bhattacharyya (1999) pp. 368-69.
- Bhattacharyya (1999) p. 113.
- Bhattacharyya (1999) pp. 81, 447.
- Bhattacharyya (1999) pp. 294, 296-7, 423-25.
- Mahanirvana Tantra of the Great Liberation
- Tripurā Upaniṣadbhāsya, v. 15.
- Bhattacharyya (1999) pp. 86-7.
- Brooks (1990) p. 113.
- Madhavananda, Swami. "The Tāntrika Mode of Worship" in: Prabhananda, Swami (2000), p. 5.
- 'Aghora' in Monier Williams Sanskrit-English Dictionary [Online]. Source: (accessed: Tuesday February 9, 2010)
- Barrett, Ron (2008). Aghor medicine: pollution, death, and healing in northern India. Edition: illustrated. University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-25218-7, ISBN 978-0-520-25218-9. Source: , (accessed: Monday February 22, 2010) p.161
- Bagchi, P. C. "Evolution of the Tantras" in: Prabhananda (2000) pp. 13-14.
- Beer, Robert (2003). The handbook of Tibetan Buddhist symbols. Serindia Publications. ISBN 1-932476-03-2, ISBN 978-1-932476-03-3 Source:
- Bhattacharya, N. N. History of the Tantric Religion. Second Revised Edition. Manohar Publications, Delhi, 1999. ISBN 81-7304-025-7
- Brooks, Douglas Renfrew. The Secret of the Three Cities: An Introduction to Hindu Shakta Tantrism University of Chicago Press, 1990. ISBN 0-226-07570-2
- Macdonell, Arthur Anthony. A Practical Sanskrit Dictionary. Munshiram Monoharlal Publishers. 1996 Edition. ISBN 81-215-0715-4
- Prabhananda, Swami. Studies on the Tantras. The Ramakrishna Mission Institute of Culture. Second Reprint Edition, 2000. ISBN 81-85843-36-8