Indian philosophy is primarily driven by one question: "What am I?" Or, more precisely, "What reality lies behind the 'me' thought?"
Over one thousand years ago, a sophisticated school of Tantrik philosophy (called the Recognition school) developed a doctrine that the self has five 'layers' — those of body, heart-mind (chitta), life-force (prāna), void (shūnya), and Consciousness (samvit). We may picture this five-layered self like a Russian doll, except for the crucial fact that each layer is permeated by those interior to it. That is, the heart-mind pervades the body, life-force pervades the heart-mind and body, the void pervades life-force, mind, and body, and the nondual Power of Consciousness pervades the whole. (This teaching is explained beginning on page 92 of my book Tantra Illuminated.)
In this model, all suffering is said to derive from exclusive identification with one or more of the four outer layers of the self. In other words, the cause of all suffering is not experiencing yourself as you really are. For example, primary identification with the body, expressed in such statements as “I am fat/thin, I am pretty/ugly,” where the 'I' is equated with an impermanent state of body, conceals the true nature of the self as the ever-present awareness which makes possible any and all 'I'-statements. Though body-identification is a major cause of contracted awareness (i.e. suffering), even more common is mind-identification. That means believing that the contents of your mind—your thoughts and feelings—tell you about who you really are, about the nature of your self. This is a critical error, for clear introspection reveals that thoughts and feelings are culturally conditioned and constantly changing, yet there is an inner Knower which witnesses these mental/emotional phenomena, and this Knower has been the same throughout your life. Indeed, without such continuity, there would be no reality behind the term 'I'.
In other words, we pay much more attention to the conditioned, ephemeral, fluxing contents of consciousness than to consciousness itself, despite the fact that consciousness is the one constant in our experience and thus the best candidate for our fundamental nature. We are virtually obsessed with the contents of our minds, yet they tell us only about how our mind has been conditioned, and nothing about our real Self.
However, if we observe not the contents but the form of mental/emotional phenomena, we see clearly that thoughts and feelings are simply vibrations of energy. The field within which they vibrate is Awareness. The strange and self-limiting error that we make is to pay more attention to the contents of awareness, than to the nature of the ever-present field in which they arise and subside. This Awareness, like the light of the sun, equally illuminates and pervades all things without judgment, and is therefore divinized as Goddess Awareness (bhagavatī saṃvit) in nondual Tantra, and metaphorically compared to a loving mother who accepts all her “children"—all the contents of consciousness—equally.
Spiritual experience is also explained in terms of this model of the five-layered self. Samāveśa, which means immersion into your true nature, is defined in this way:
“'Immersion' means experientially realizing that the unconditioned Power of Consciousness is the true Knower and Actor, and that the other layers of the self, such as the mind and body, are merely attributes of that Power.” (Stanzas on the Recognition of the Divine 3.2.12)
This means that the Consciousness which is the core of your being in truth pervades every level of embodiment, and these levels are correctly seen as the dynamic self-projection of that Consciousness into form. In other words, divine Consciousness radiates into manifestation, or coagulates into form, as the progressively denser layers of embodiment (void, prāna, heart-mind, and body).
This model of the five-layered self is also the basis upon which Tantrik philosophy critiques other systems of thought and practice. For example, it argues that the Void (śūnya) or transcendent Emptiness taught as the ultimate reality in some Buddhist systems is in fact the penultimate reality. It cannot be the ultimate reality, for by definition it excludes other realities, such as the dualistic perception of the ordinary waking state. The dynamically vibrating Power of Consciousness, by contrast, is all-encompassing, excluding nothing. It is simultaneously transcendent and immanent, just as present in the smell of shit as in the most sublime state of expanded awareness. Only by being centered in that Consciousness as the ultimate reality can one experience one's infinite spacious formless Presence at the same moment that one is participating fully in the everyday details of 'ordinary' life.
We may now explain the view of the Recognition school vis-à-vis other schools of Indian philosophy. The argument hinges on the notion that whatever level of the self (or reality) you believe to be ultimate determines how far you can progress in the process of awakening to your true nature.
The eighth sūtra of The Recognition Sūtras introduces this teaching in this way: “the philosophical positions held by all the various schools are 'roles' adopted by the one Consciousness as the levels of its self-expression.” (tad-bhūmikāḥ sarva-darśana-sthitayaḥ)
Unusually, other views are here not denigrated or condemned, but rather seen as more or less incomplete levels of the self-expression of the one divine Consciousness. Each view is valid up to a certain point, i.e. within a certain domain, and strays into error only in regarding itself as final and complete. In his commentary on his own sūtra (given above), Rājānaka Kṣemarāja identifies the position of each school in terms of the model of the five-layered self, telling us that:
since the view of the Materialists is that one’s real identity consists only in the body—qualified by the accidental fact of consciousness, which is a mere epiphenomenon—they master no level of being beyond that of the physical body.
Others, like the Logicians and some Buddhists, master the mind but remain stuck there, since they believe that 'I' refers to nothing beyond the stream of cognitions.
Others (such as the haṭha-yogīs) master the prāṇa or life-force but go no further.
Some Buddhists (e.g. the Madhyamikas) immerse themselves in the level of the Void and remain there.
Some Vedāntins, because they hold that all that exists is One, touch the Core of Reality but do not penetrate to its absolute dynamic center (since they deny that dynamism is inherent in Consciousness).
To sum up, the final limit of your progress on the path is determined by the view of reality (and selfhood) that you hold — for you naturally do not seek to go beyond whatever you consider to be the ultimate. The only exception to this rule is made possible by the intervention of the power of Grace (i.e., śaktipāta), which can reveal a deeper reality even to one who doesn’t believe in its possibility. (See the relevant discussion in Tantra Illuminated.)
Kṣemarāja concludes his discussion in this way:
Thus, all these roles of the Blessed Lord — who is Awareness, absolutely One — are manifested through His freedom, and are differentiated by their degree of revelation or concealment of that autonomy. Hence, there is only One Self which pervades all of this.
As for those of limited views, they have been caused to adopt false identification with various limited aspects of that One through the spontaneous play that expresses the Will of that One.
— excerpted from my forthcoming book, The Recognition Sūtras, a translation and exposition of the Pratyabhijñā-hṛdayam of Rājānaka Kṣemarāja
For a comparison of this teaching to the Vedāntic doctrine of the five koshas, see the next post.
Addendum: Context of this teaching
The Indian religion that worships the one divine Absolute under the name Śiva is called Shaivism. Practitioners of this religion are called Śaivas. [Includes Śakti, increasing emphasis on her over time.] We have evidence of the existence of this religion (and state support of it) from the beginning of the common era. Around the year 500 ce, a new phase of the religion begins with the revelation of a new body of scripture called tantras. Each of these tantras presented a more-or-less complete system (tantra) of practice conjoined to a well-developed cosmology. Each lineage of teachers would follow a single tantra, supplemented when necessary from related tantras. This phase of the religion, which we call Tantric after its scriptures, centered on an unprecedented doctrine, that of a uniquely powerful ritual of initiation (dīkṣā) which was said to destroy all the karma that stood in the way of the initiate attaining complete liberation from the cycle of suffering in this very life.
In time, beginning around the ninth century, a sophisticated Śaiva philosophy arose, inspired by the scriptures and the experiences of practitioners. A spiritual debate ensued between those who interpreted the scriptures dualistically (teaching that God, the soul, and the universe are all distinct), and those who interpreted them nondualistically (teaching a total unity of being, i.e. that the divine Power of Consciousness alone exists). One of the most important nondual Śaiva philosophies to develop was called the Pratyabhijñā or Recognition school.