Kaula or Kula (Sanskrit: meaning "Family" or "Clan") is a type of Hindu Tantrism likely derived from Kapalika or "cremation ground" asceticism, which is associated with the worship of the ascetic god Shiva who is covered in the ash of the dead. Kaula practices are closely related to the siddha and Nātha traditions of Hinduism as well as Shaktism. Kaula may be classified into northern, eastern, southern and western schools across the Indian subcontinent although it sometimes more simply divided into two main branches, Purva Kaula and Uttara Kaula. Philosophically, Kaula is said to represent a unifying connectedness, beneath the various objects, processes and living entities of this world, which may be identified with aspects of the supreme deity, or in some regions the god Shiva.
The Kaula sects are noted for flouting of taboos and social mores as a means of liberation. Such practices were often later toned down to appeal to ordinary householders, as in Kashmiri Shaivism.
The translation of the term Kula in English is considered difficult and has raised some problems for researchers. The basic meaning is "family," "group," "self contained unit". Another meaning of the term kaula is that of a "group of people" engaged together in the practice of spiritual discipline.
Kaula encompasses both daily life and mystical practices. Similarly to other tantric schools, it chooses a positive (affirmative) approach: instead of prescribing self-limitations and condemning various actions, it embraces such actions in a spiritual light. Thus, sexuality, love, social life and artistic pursuits are considered vectors of spiritual evolution. The main focus in Kaula is on practical methods for attaining enlightenment, rather than engaging in complex philosophical debate. Whatever is pleasant and positive can be integrated in its practice.
The principal means employed in the Kaula practice are: the spiritual family, the practice of initiation rituals, the couple (sexual rituals such as maithuna), the body (spiritual alchemy inside one's own body), the energy (shakti) (controlled especially through the use of mantras and mystical phonemes) and the consciousness (seen as the epitome of one's whole being and of the universe itself).
The first phase of development is linked to the attainment of a state of non-duality described as an "absorption into the spiritual heart," nirvikalpa samadhi or experiencing the "uncreated light" of consciousness (prakāśa).
Group practices, which are restricted to the members of a kaula (family), include rituals, festivities, initiations and the secretive tantric sexual union. The purposes of this practice are: the initiation of novices, the expansion of consciousness  and expression of the bliss already attained as participants become more and more advanced.
The key to the effectiveness of group practice is held to reside in the harmony of minds and hearts of the participants. When a compatible spiritual group is created, it can greatly accelerate the spiritual evolution of its members. Abhinavagupta declares that such a group can enter a state of oneness and universal consciousness without effort. He explains this by the notion of reflection (pratibimba), a process of unification, an effortless overflow of spiritual energy.
The relation between a Kaula's parts is realized through mutual reflection. Reflection (pratibimba) is used here in the sense of "containing an image of the other objects inside," a concept similar to that of the hologram. The number of possible interactions and reflections between the members of a Kaula is much larger than the number of elements it contains. Kashmir Saivism declares that each part is in fact Akula (Shiva) in essence; thus there is a connection between the parts through their common Akula substrate. As each part contains Akula, in its essence, it automatically contains everything - this is how the mutual reflection is said to be realized.
Almost half of the Tantraloka is dedicated to rituals, usually evoking the union of complementary sets such as man and woman, a faculty and its object, or inhalation and exhalation. The practice of ritual may involve the construction of a mandala, visualization of a goddess or group of goddesses (Śakti), recitation (japa) performed in a state of "rest inside the creative awareness" (camatkāra), oblation into fire and its internalized version - the burning of the objects and means of knowledge into the "fire" of non-dual consciousness (parāmarśa).
The power of a ritual lies in its repetition. A pure disciple will attain the supreme state even by simply staying for a short time in presence of a guru without any instruction, but less prepared ones need reinforcement and gradual accumulation.
Kaula puts a special emphasis on the physical body in spiritual practice "as a vessel of the Supreme" and, as such, not an obstacle tortured in ascetic practices. Repeated submergence into the state of non-duality is supposed to induce secondary effects on the physical body due to the activity of the spiritual energy (śakti) and may be called tantric body alchemy. Starting from the expanded consciousness of the self (atman), the body (and in the end, the exterior reality too) is infused with the experience of non-duality.
The non-dual, experienced initially only in consciousness, is extended to the whole body. The kaula adept will discover kaulika - the power (siddhi) of identification with the Universal Consciousness experienced in the physical body, generated spontaneously, without any effort (formal meditation, postures - asana, concentration - Dharana and other forms of exertion in yoga). This process is described as the descent of the energy of the non-dual consciousness into the physical. Then consciousness manifests as a free force, entering the senses, and producing extroverted samadhi. At this point, consciousness, mind, senses and physical body are "dissolved" into oneness, expanded into the spiritual light of consciousness.
As a consequence, any perception of the exterior reality becomes nondual. It becomes possible to live submerged in a continuous state of union with Shiva even while performing regular day to day activities. This form of extroverted, all inclusive samadhi is the pinnacle of spiritual evolution, bhairavi mudra, jagadananda or bhava samadhi. The yogi experiences everything as pure light and ecstasy (cit-ananda) and does not feel any difference between interior and exterior any more.
A closely related concept is Kaulika, the binding force of the Kula. The term literally means "sprung in Kula." Kaulika is another name for Shakti, the spiritual energy. Shakti, as described in Kashmir Shaivism, does a paradoxical thing - she creates the universe, with all its diversity and at the same time remains identical to Shiva, the absolute transcendent. Thus, Kaulika is an energy both of spirit and matter. Bridging the two, Kaulika creates the path of evolution for consciousness from ego to spirit.
The manifestation of Kaulika proceeds from the absolute (anuttara) in the process of cosmic creation (mahasristi). Thus Kaulika should not be seen as mere energy, or just the link between matter and spirit, but also identical to the absolute. Even if she is the dynamic aspect of the absolute, she does not rank lower than Shiva, her divine consort.
The sexual practices of the Kaula schools, also known as the the secret ritual, are performed with a so-called external Shakti (sexual partner) as opposed to the purely meditative practices which involve only one's own spiritual energies (the interior Shakti). The role of the sexual Kaula ritual is to unite the couple, yogini (initiated woman) and siddha (initiated man), and induce one in the other a state of permanent awakening. This achievement is made possible by the intensity of their love.
In their exalted state, the two become absorbed into the consciousness of the spiritual Self. Becoming united on all the levels, physical, astral, mental and even in their consciousness, they reconstitute the supreme couple of Shiva and Shakti. "The couple (yamala) is consciousness itself, the unifying emission and the stable abode. It is the absolute, the noble cosmic bliss consisting of both Shiva and Shakti. It is the supreme secret of Kula; neither quiescent nor emergent, it is the flowing font of both quiescence and emergence." (Tantraloka)
The Kaula sacrifice is reserved for the few, the elite who can maintain a state of Bhairava (spiritual illumination) in sexual union. Other couples, even if they reproduce the ritual to the letter (as perceived from outside), if they do not attain the Bhairava consciousness, are merely engaging in a sexual act.
"Initiation by the mouth of the yogini, known as (yoginī-vaktra)," is a method by which the adept unites with a purified yoginī (advanced female practitioner) and receives the unique experience of the illuminated consciousness. He is to see her as both his lover and guru.
The energy generated during the tantric sexual act is considered a form of subtle emission, while the act of ejaculation is considered a form of physical emission. In Kashmir Shaivism, the energy of emission (visarga śakti) is considered to be a form of ānanda (bliss).
Depending on the orientation of one's consciousness, introverted or extroverted, emission can be of two kinds: rested and risen. In Śānta, the rested form of emission, focus is absorbed just on one's own Self in an act of transcendence. In Udita, the risen form, the focus is projected on the Self (Atman) of one's lover - a state associated with immanence.
Santodita - beyond udita and śānta - is the uniting form, cause of both śānta and udita emissions. Santodita is described as universal bliss (cidānanda), undivided consciousness, kaula (the group of two as one) and an "outflow of the pulsation of Shiva and Shakti." This kind of translation from the physical act to the mental and to consciousness itself is a characteristic of the tantric world view.
Mantric meditation is the most common form of tantric practice. In the Kaula system, this practice is associated especially with the group of phonemes. The 50 phonemes (varṇa) of the Sanskrit alphabet are used as "seed" mantras denoting various aspects of consciousness (cit) and energy (śakti). The group (kula) of Sanskrit phonemes form a complete description of reality, from the lowest (earth) to the highest (Śiva consciousness) level.
The ritual "setting out" of the phonemes imitates the emanation of the cosmos from the supreme I-consciousness of Śiva. In another ritual, the phonemes are identified with specific zones of the body through the practice of nyāsa, infusing the body with spiritual energy. This mystical state of culminates in the kaula of the body - perfection of the ensemble of organs, senses and mind - and such a being is known as a siddha (accomplished one). The adept attains a form of bodily enlightenment where, through the power of mantras, one comes to recognize the divinities within the body.
Initiation into mantric practice is based on a transfer of power and the link (lineage) of the heart. The word or phoneme is not useful in itself, as it does not have efficiency unless the disciple received his initiation from an authentic master.
While the manifest reality is described as Kula (a variant form of the term Kaula), the unifying factor, the Deity, is termed Akula. "A" means "beyond," or "non," thus "Akula" is "beyond kula." As the substrate of all manifestation is Akula, such is also the basis of any Kula. So Kula families are united by a common substrate, the transcendent Akula.
In every one of its instances, on various levels of the universe, Kula is a contraction (saṃkoca) of totality, thus in each Kula there is a contracted form of the universe, a contracted form of Shiva (Akula) himself. Such an affirmation has been popularized under slogans like "Consciousness is Everything" in some recent Kashmir Shaivism related publications for the larger public.
Often at the highest level of reality Shiva and Shakti form the supreme couple, or the ultimate Kula (family). Shiva, under various names (anuttara - absolute, prakāśa - uncreated light, cit - supreme consciousness, Akula - beyond the groups of manifestation), or Shakti, under a similar plethora or names (Vimarsa - reflection in consciousness, Visarga - creative energy that emits the Universe, Kundalini - fundamental energy of the body, spanda - atemporal vibration, Kauliki - that which is "sprung" in Kula). The two are always in indissoluble union in a perfect state of bliss. Ultimately there is no difference between Shiva and Shakti, they are different aspects of the same reality. The supreme "family" by definition spans both manifestation and transcendence.
In Kashmir Shaivism, Supreme Consciousness (Cit, identical to Akula) is considered to be the substrate of manifestation. Consciousness is the ultimate principle, the monad of the universe, always present as substrate in every external object, be it gross (physical), subtle (mental) or subtlest (relating to the causal body or soul). Thus external world, body, mind and soul are considered kindred parts of the whole, concretisation of the supreme consciousness. From this perspective, Kula is the totality of manifestation, in gross, subtle and supreme form. Even if Cit is not directly involved in the process of manifestation (as it is said to be unmanifest), it is always present in every possible facet of manifestation. Thus, it is said to be the substantial cause of manifestation (manifestation is made of Cit, "like pots are made of clay") and also the efficient cause ("like the potter is the efficient cause in the activity of creating pots").
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