The Pasupata ascetic had to be a Brahman male, who had undergone the high-caste initiation ceremony. Although he could become a Pasupata from any stage of life, his high-caste status was still important in his religious practice in so far as he should not speak with low castes nor with women. Indeed one passage of Kaundinya's commentary on the Pasupata Sutra speaks in misogynistic terms of women as the temptresses of the ascetic, who creates madness in him, and whose sexuality cannot be controlled by scripture. The Pasupata ascetic had to be a Brahman and had to be celibate (brahmacharya), though he was nevertheless disapproved of and rebuked by some Vedic, Smarta texts such as the Kurma-Purana.
The Pasupatas seem to have been very much on the edges of orthodox householder society, going beyond the four stages to a fifth, 'perfected stage' and spurning Vedic householder injunctions on purity and family life. Yet, unlike many other Shaiva groups, the Pasupata never completely abandoned or explicitly rejected Vedic values, wishing to see his tradition as in some sense the culmination and fulfillment of Vedic life rather than its rejection. Liberation from karma and rebirth occurred at death: a liberation which was conceptualized as acquiring the qualities of omniscience and omnipotence. Although ultimately this liberation was through the grace of Rudra, some effort on the part of the Pasupata was needed. This took the form of a vow or observance (vrata) which involved a spiritual practice (sadhana) in three developmental stages.
Among the three stages that are to be followed, the first involved the ascetic living by a Shaiva temple, covering himself in ashes while avoiding bathing in water, and worshipping the deity through dancing and singing, meditation on five mantras sacred to Lord Shiva, laughter and temple circumambulation. The second stage was to leave the temple, remove external signs of his cultic affiliation, and behave in public places in anti-social ways such as acting as if deranged, snoring loudly while not being asleep, and even acting as if crippled. This behaviour was to invite the abuse of passers-by in order that their merit or good karma would be transferred to the ascetic, while his bad karma would be transferred to those who had abused him. The third and final stage was to withdraw to a remote place, such as a cave or deserted house, in order to meditate upon the five sacred mantras and on the syllable 'om'. When this meditation could be achieved effortlessly, he finally withdrew to a cremation ground where he lived from whatever he could find and ultimately died gaining union with Rudra.
Apart from these, there were various sub-divisions among the Pasupatas, the most important of which was the Lakula. These were ascetics who accepted the doctrines of the Pasupata Sutra, though they were more extreme in their ascetic practices and rejection or transcendence of Vedic injunctions than the other Pasupatas. Part of the Lakula order were the Kalamukhas who flourished from the ninth to thirteenth centuries and about whom the information is gained mainly from south Indian epigraphic evidence. They were prevalent in Karnataka where they were superseded by the Lingayat sect in the thirteenth century. The Kalamukhas had their own temples and, in spite of strongly heterodox elements in their practices, such as worshipping Rudra in a pot filled with alchohol and covering themselves in the ashes of corpses rather than cow-dung, they regarded themselves as being within the Vedic fold.
In contrast to the higher path (ati marga) which was thought to lead straight to liberation, the path of mantras (mantra marga) leads to liberation via the acquisition of magical powers and experiencing pleasure in higher worlds for initiates. Within this general category are a number of traditions and ritual systems can be divided into two broad categories, the Shaiva Siddhanta and non-Siddhanta systems which incorporate a number of other groups and texts. All of these traditions within the path of mantras revered as authoritative revelation a vast body of texts known as the Agamas and Tantras, texts which were regarded as heterodox by the strictly orthodox Vedic tradition. Even so, many of these texts came to infiltrate orthodoxy and came to be revered as authoritative even within Smarta circles. The traditions of the path of mantras are known as the 'tantric traditions', for their revelation comprises the Shaiva tantric texts. Before going on to examine the traditions of the mantra marga, we need first to make some general points about the tantric revelation, the Agamas and Tantras.
The religious culture of the Tantra is essentially Hindu and the Buddhist tantric material can be shown to have been derived from Shaiva sources. There is a substantial body of Jain Tantras and there was a corpus of Tantras to the Sun (Surya) in the Saura tradition. The tantric texts are regarded as revelation, superior to the Veda, by the traditions which revere them: the Shaiva Tantras are thought to have been revealed by Shiva, the Vaishnava Tantras by Lord Vishnu and the Sakta Tantras by the Goddess, and transmitted to the human world via a series of intermediate sages. Tantric Shaiva groups would regard their revelations as the esoteric culmination of Vedic orthodoxy, while Buddhist Vajrayanists would similarly regard their Tantras as the culmination of Mahayana Buddhism.
The Tantras generally take the form of a dialogue between Shiva and the Goddess (Devi, Parvati, Uma). The Goddess, as the disciple, asks the questions and Shiva, as the master, answers. In the Vaishnava Tantras (i.e. Pancaratra Samhitas) the dialogue is between the Lord (Bhagavan) and the Goddess Sri or Laksmi. In some Tantras focused on the Goddess - those of the Sakta tradition - it is Shiva who does the asking and the Goddess who replies. This narrative structure reflects the importance and centrality of the guru in Tantrism. As the Goddess receives wisdom from Shiva, or in some cases vice versa, so the disciple receives wisdom from his or her master. The meanings of the Tantras are often obscure and it must be remembered that they were compiled within the context of a living, oral tradition and teachings given by the guru. The Tantras often regard themselves as secret, to be revealed by the guru only with the appropriate initiation which wipes away the power of past actions.
Traditionally the Tantras should cover four topics or stand on four 'feet' or 'supports' (pada), namely doctrine (vidya- or jnana-pada), ritual (kriya-pada), yoga (yoga-pada) and discipline or correct behaviour (carya-pada), though only exceptionally do the texts follow this scheme. While there is divergence over doctrine and each tantric system regards itself as superior to the others, there are nevertheless common elements, particularly in respect of spiritual practice (sadhana) and ritual: practice cuts across doctrinal distinctions.
Although the outer or higher path (ati marga) does have the Pasupata Sutra, it may be the case that it did not have its own distinctive revelation relying, rather, on the scriptures of other traditions while regarding itself as transcending all scriptures. The revelation of the path of mantras (mantra marga), on the other hand, comprises all the Shaiva Tantras; a vast body of texts belonging to a number of groups. The most important distinction with the path of mantras is between the tradition known as the Shaiva Siddhanta on the one hand, and non-Siddhanta groups, or the teachings of Bhairava (Bhairava-sastra), on the other. These are themselves subdivided into a number of traditions. There are twenty-eight Tantras of the Shaiva Siddhanta (divided into ten Shiva Agamas and eighteen Kudra Agamas) and numerous Bhairava Tantras.