Tantra exists in 2 types- The orthodox Dakṣiṇācāra followed by āstika sects and the unorthodox and extreme Vamachara followed by nāstika sects. So what are the differences between the practices of these 2 types of Tantra? Do both these paths involve meat eating, alcohol consumption and sex? Is Vamachara only practiced in Shakta traditions?
The sadhana of panchamakara is very a deep, secret and extensive subject. But since you don't have any backgrounds i am keeping my answer elementary and short.
According to the levels of advancement a Tantra sadhaka has the seven paths or stages (called as the AchAras in scriptures).
From the lowest (level of difficulty) to the highest (the highest is to be followed by the most advanced level devotee) they are:
VedAchAra, VaishnavachAra, ShaivachAra, DakshinAchAra, VAmAchAra, SiddhAntachAra and KulAchAra.
Of these seven stages , its only in the last three stages ( VAma, SiddhAnta and Kula) the use of panchatattva (or pancha makara ) is prescribed. For the first four stages it is not allowed or prescribed.
SarvevyashchottamA VedA Vedebhyo Vaishnvam Param | Vaishnvaduttamam Shaivam ShaivAddakshinmuttamam || DakshinAduttamam VAmam VAmAth SiddhAntamuttamam | SiddhAntAduttamam Kaulam KaulAth Parataram Na Hi ||
VedAchara is the most excellent. But better than VedAchAra is the VaishnavAchAra. Better than VaishnavAchAra is ShaivAchAra. Better than ShaivAchara is DakshinAchAra. Better than Dakshinachara is VAmAchAra. Better than VAmachAra is SiddhantAchAra. Better than SiddhantAchAra is KaulAchAra. And there is nothing superior to KaulAchara.
KulArnava Tantram, Ullasha 2, Verses 7,8.
And here is in very brief the descriptions of these seven acharas:
In this achara the devotee performs sakAma (with desire of achieving some specific goals) Puja of the Aradhya Devata by following the methods prescribed in Vedas and other Veda mulak scriptures like Smritis, Puranas etc.
In this achara the devotee follows the rules laid down in the Vedachara and worships Vishnu. He offers all his karmas to Vishnu and always visions Vishnu in everything. In this achara the sadhaka has to follow some rather strict purity-impurity rules.
In this achara the devotee follows the Vedachara rules to worship Shiva-Shakti. Here the devotee sees Shiva in everything.
There are more than one definitions for this particular achara.
1) In ancient times Dakshninamurthy Muni adopted this path and that's why its so called.
2) Dakshina means favorable. So, Dakshinachara is the favorable conduct. In other words, by following the conduct , the Devas and Pitrus become favorable to us, Devi is pleased and becomes favorable to us is the Dakshinachara.
This achara is the first propounder of Vira & Divya bhava. In this achara, following the rules of Vedachara, the devotee worships Parameswari.
There are again many explanations for this achara.
1) One famous and adept Yogi's name was VAma. From him VAmAchAra.
2) In Parashurama Kalpasutra's commentary, Kaundilya assigns the meaning Sreshta or the best to VAma. So, the path followed by the best Yogis or sadhakas is the VAmAchAra.
3) Again VAma's one meaning is Viparita or the opposite. In traditional doctrines Nivritti (or renouncing objects of pleasures) is believed to be the path to moksha or liberation. The path which believes in just the opposite doctrine (that is that moksha can be achieved by indulging in pravrittis too, in a prescribed manner) is called VAmAchAra.
4) A deeper Yogic explanation- The Shakti which lies latent in the Muladhara when awakened and made to move up , it, on its way of uniting with Parashiva situated in the highest chakra, or the sahsrara chakra, encircles each of the six chakras in VAmAvarta (that is in an anti clockwise fashion) and assimilates in itself all the varnas which are situated on those chakras. After samadhi, the kundalini shakti, again comes down , and now it encircles each of the chakras in Dakshinavarta (or in a clock wise fashion). And the achara that teaches us the method of moving the kundalini shakti upwards towards Parashiva in Vamavarta is called VAmAchara.
In this stage the devotee tries to arrive at a fixed opinion (or decision) by making a comparative analysis of Bhoga & TyAga. That's why it is called Siddhantachara. Here the devotee performs the sadhana as prescribed in the previous achara i.e the Vamachara but here more importanace is laid on Anataryoga (or inner Yajna). As a part of Antaryoga BahirYoga (or external worship) is also conducted. Here the devotee always contemplates on nityasuddha (ever pure) Atma or the self. The devotee of this achara has already seen both the Dakshina (Nivritti) and Vama (Pravritti) paths. Upon reaching this stage the devotee's mind becomes more calm and stable and he nears the Kulagyana or Brahmagyana stage.
Akulam Shiva Ityuktam Kulam Shakti PrakirtithA | KulAkulanusandhAnAnnipunAha KaulikAh Priye ||
Shiva is AKula. Shakti is Kula. One who is adept in investigating the relation (Samarasya) between Kula and Akula (i.e between Shiva & Shakti) is a Kaulika.
KulArnava Tantram, Ullasha 17, Verse 27.
This the highest path in Tantra. In Mahanirvana Tantram its stated that Jiva, Prakiti Tattva, Dik, KAla AkAsha, VAyu, Teja, Apa and Kshiti are called Kula. The achara that teaches us to have Nirvikalpa Buddhi ( a state of non dual one-ness) in the Kula is Kulachara or Kaulachara. It is the provider of Brahma Gyana and giver of both bhoga and moksha.
In Tantra there are three kinds of devotees- the Pashu ( animal or the one in bondage), the Vira (heroic) and the Divya (divine).
The sadhana of pancha makaras is strictly prohibited for the Pashus. Pashus are the ones who are still engrossed in good-bad, purity-impurity like dualities.
It is clearly stated in many Tantra texts that if a Pashu, who discrimantes and is Tamasik, does sadhana of panchamakra, then that invariably brings about his downfall.
Pancha Tattva sadhana is only suitable for advanced level Tantrikas who are jitendriya (won over senses), have mind fixed on Adavita and free from all kinds of dualities.
To understand the basic difference between a Pashu and the other two, i quote the following verse spoken by Lord Shiva in Sri MAtrikA Bheda Tantram:
Jivasya Bhojanam Devi BrAntireva Na Samsayaha..
That the Jiva does the bhoga is a myth without doubt.
Now, the Pashu is the one who believes that its the Jiva who does the bhoga and eats etc and that it is different from Shiva (or the self).
But, both the Vira and Divya know that its the Kundalini Shakti who feels all the pleasures and not the Jiva. They imagine the Kundalini Devi extended from the mulAdhara to the tip of their tongue.
A, similar idea is embedded in the following Veda mantra:
No eva aham odanam, no mam odanah, odanaha eva prAshit.
I have not eaten the food (odana), nor the odana me. Odana has eaten the odana.
Atharva Veda 11.3.30-31.
The Divya and Vira devotees have likewise beliefs. They thus obtain liberation. And, they are the only ones who are fit to perform the pancha makara sadhana. Pashus are not. Pashus get janmantara or births after births. They can be born in heavens too but they don't get moksha.