Tantra consists of a large number of sects and subsects, which have characteristically different rituals and modes of spiritual practice. This seems a little confusing and contradictory to those who are not familiar with the implications of tantra. Basically, of course, all the sects follow the same path, for the differences, even those that seem the greatest, are merely different ways of expressing and eventually experiencing the same thing. However, one must be careful in making generalities about tantra, for it is so easy to make one definite statement about tantra only to find that the opposite is clearly written in some obscure tantric text. This must be the case for as we have already said, tantra has embraced many systems witbin its fold throughout the ages. Having said this, however, we can say that tantra can be divided into five sects, according to the deity which is worshipped and the basis of their sadhana. These are as follows:
Remember that the presiding deity can be worshipped in many aspects. For example, Shakti has hundreds of different traditional aspects, all of which can be included in shakta sadhana.
The tantric texts are often called agamas, and less often nigamas. The texts of the shaiva and shakta sects are generally given in the form of a dialogue between Shiva (deva) and his consort Shakti (devi). Where the questions are posed by Shakti and the answers given by Shiva, the texts are known as agamas. In an ancient text called the Agamadvaita Nirnaya it states: “An agama is so called because it proceeds from the mouth of Shambhu (Shiva) and is conveyed to Girija (Shakti, his wife), having first been approved by Vasudeva (Vishnu).”
Shiva plays the role of the spiritual teacher (guru) and Shakti plays the part of the disciple (shishya). Sometimes, however, Shakti acts as the teacher, as she does, for example, in a scripture called the Nigama Kalpadruma. In this case the scripture, (shastra) is called nigama. In the Agamadvaita Nirnaya it also says: “Nigama is so called because it emanates from Girija (Shakti) to be heard by the ears of Girisa (Shiva), having been approved by Vasudeva (Vishnu).” Thus, in the case of nigamas, Shakti is the guru. What we have so far said applies mainly to the shaiva and shakta sects. This form of dialogue between the teacher and the disciple is significant for it shows the importance of the guru-disciple relationship. This is a fundamental aspect of tantra. The texts of the other sects are also usually called agamas though the form is not a dialogue between Shiva and Shakti.
Let us briefly consider the five main sects.