Whatever god you worship, you’re really worshipping Awareness (TA 1 cont'd)

This post continues my translation of the Tantrāloka of Abhinavagupta, the encyclopedic overview of all things Tantrik, written at the very peak of the tradition's success (one thousand years ago). In this section of the text, Abhinava is explaining the inner significance of all acts of worship, and how it is the case that whatever god one worships, one is really worshipping nothing but Awareness. This argument is fascinating, because it reveals that Abhinava, while deeply devotional, is actually atheistic (at least, from a Western perspective).

Impressively, Abhinava advances this argument by means of citations from the Bhagavad-gītā, precisely because that text had (and still has) the broadest base in Indian society (i.e. was accepted as scripture by most sampradāyas). 

The Guru taught [in the Bhagavad-gītã] “Even those devoted to other deities, [if] they worship with faith & trust, are [in fact] worshipping Me alone.” (BG 9.23) [We would say it this way:] those who believe that the specific [deity] they worship is something other than Consciousness, if they keep investigating the object of their awareness [and devotion], [will come to] realize that he/she/it is [in reality] nothing but Awareness (bodha). || Tantrāloka 1.124-5b

In other words, Abhinava is saying that anyone who believes that the deity they worship—whether Krishna or Shiva or Allah or YHVH—is anything but Consciousness itself need only investigate more and more closely that which they are focusing their awareness and devotion on, and in time (if they are devoted to Truth) they will realize that that deity is nothing but a form of their own awareness, which can encompass such a divine archetype, such a mysterium tremendum, precisely because awareness itself is divine, that is, unlimited in its real nature.

Abhinava's commentator Jayaratha cites here in support of the argument a beautiful and intriguing verse from a source now lost to us:

Realize that any knowable is reducible to a mode of knowing; and knowing is an aspect of Awareness. You are Awareness; if this is true, then this world [consisting of knowables] consists of nothing but you. || 

In other words, any object of experience is knowable only in terms of how it manifests within awareness, and therefore as a form of awareness. Since Awareness is the closest analogue to anything like a self, and the knowable world consists of objects of awareness, it is perfectly correct to say that the world consists of nothing but you. This is not to be taken in a solipsistic sense (the world as a projection of your mind), precisely because you are not your mind, but rather the field of Awareness that encompasses and provides the context for both mind and that which the mind cognizes. Abhinava continues:

Thus, since this [Consciousness] is self-revealing, and is the manifestation of an ‘I-ness’ which consists of an awareness intrinsically undivided [by time, place, form, etc.], no ritual injunction can precede it, [since all injunctions] are themselves creations [of Awareness]. || 125

Contrary to what the Vedic ritualists say, the 'I' (which in truth is nothing but the Power of Awareness) cannot be bound by ritual injunctions that specify which rite should be performed where and at what time, because that Awareness-self is prior to and undivided by place, time, and form. That is, it can perceive in terms of those divisions but is intrinsically not limited or defined by them (as demonstrated by our capacity to have conscious experiences of timelessness and formlessness). But now Abhinava gets even more radical: 

Even deities are themselves projections [of Awareness], for they are also knowable entities derived from a cause, namely the Power [of Awareness, citi-śakti]. That Consciousness (samvitti) is simply the [fundamental, nonconceptual, wordless] ‘I-sense’, ever-present and self-revealing. || 126

In other words, the deity you worship is nothing but you. This is true on multiple levels: for example, the way in which you imagine the deity is shaped by your cultural conditioning and psychological needs—but at an even more fundamental level, even if you have a direct experience of God, that experience is simply an expression of capacities inherent in consciousness itself. Whatever the qualities of that mystical experience, they express potencies that inhere within Awareness. And that Awareness is ever-present as the immediate sense of your own Being.

So what are the implications of this for the culture of ritual that was (and is) so deeply embedded in Indian society?

Thus, ritual injunctions are mandates, their three aspects [as analyzed by Vedic exegetes] brought into being [by Awareness in its contracted & conditioned state] to impel [religious activity]. These [Vedic] deities, Indra and so on, [by the exegetes’ own admission] are preceded by the [Vedic] injunctions [to worship them], [and their existence] is established only by those [very injunctions]. || 127

Abhinava is cleverly using the Vedic exegetes' own arguments against them, because they hold that the Veda chronologically and ontologically precedes the creation of the known world, including all its deities. He goes on:

But ‘I-awareness’ (aham-bodha) is not like that [for it is the precondition of all cognition and action]. Those who continue to see only the perceptible aspects [of Awareness] as primary [do not realize that] though they are perceiving It, they fail to know It. [For this reason the Guru said] “They do not know Me as I really am; and thus they become confused & go astray.” (BG 9.24) |Now, “going astray” means attaining a limited & separate state. Thus he taught: “Worshippers of the gods go to the gods, whereas my devotees come to Me.” (BG 7.23) || 128-130

In other words, most people can't see the forest for the trees: though they are never seeing anything but a form of their own Awareness, they objectify those forms, imagining them to be separate and independent entities. To support this argument, Abhinava cites the words of Krishna, understanding Krishna to be speaking as the voice of fundamental Awareness itself. The true cause of confusion in life and the feeling of being lost, limited, and alone is not knowing our own true nature (“they do not know Me as I really am”). Krishna even implies (in the second citation above) that he is not a god, but something else—Awareness itself. Now we get the clinching argument:

But those who realize the [illusory] nature of objectivity directly know the reality of Consciousness, [even] in that context [of apparently separate deity], [and so they] “come to Me” [that is, enter the real ‘I’], though they are devoted to those [deities]. For everywhere in this [scripture], the word ‘I’ or ‘Me’ signifies nothing but Awareness. || 131-132a

In a brilliant hermeneutical move, Abhinava invites us to read the Gītā in a radically different way that recasts the meaning of the entire text: everywhere we read Krishna saying ‘I’ or ‘Me’ (which happens frequently throughout), we are to understand it from a first-person perspective. Since ‘I’ is the first-person pronoun, we should read it that way! Krishna is speaking as the voice of our very own Awareness, our essence-nature, our fundamental being. What if we read other religious texts in the same way? For example, what happens when you read the first-person pronoun as applying to yourself in Jesus' (alleged) statement "No one comes unto the Father but by Me"?

Abhinava is arguing that those who transcend the perception of their Deity as an object of consciousness separate from themselves suddenly realize that the Deity is a mirror, an icon of their own essence-nature. Abhinava points out the Krishna himself acknowledges this:

For example, with the words ‘[I am] the experiencer’ and ‘[I am] the Lord’ (in BG 9.24) he indicates that the sacrificer and the one sacrificed to [are both of aspects of a single Consciousness]. || 132b

Since, as Krishna teaches, ‘I’ denotes both the worshipper and the one worshipped, all worship is simply the One worshipping itself. 

What [truly] being said [here in the Gītā] is that the Awareness of the worshipper itself is not other than that being worshipped. There is no [divine] form whatsoever that is other than [Awareness], for [if there were] it could not be called a ‘divinity’ [according to the definition thereof given above].|| 133

When you stop and really think about it, how could you really believe in a deity separate from your own awareness? Such a deity would be merely a mental abstraction. And that abstraction too could be nothing but an aspect of your awareness. No matter how lofty your imagination or experience of the divine, it cannot be anything but a manifestation of your own awareness. You can't get outside of awareness. But it's crucial not to confuse mind and awareness. This View is not saying that everything is a figment of your imagination. The divine Awareness that gives rise to everything in this universe—trees, mountains, galaxies, bugs—also gives rise to your imagination. Mind/imagination is one of the many manifestations of Consciousness, not its source.

Your imagination, your thoughts, and all that you perceive 'objectively', are equally a manifestation of the One. And in truth, at the fundamental level, you are the One.

You are not your concept of the One. You are not your idea of the One. You are the One from which concepts, ideas, and experiences flow forth. 

To be continued in the next post: The Nature of Awareness (Tantrāloka 1.134-139)