Who was Abhinava Gupta?

Banner photo: Kashmīr Valley

When studying the writings of nondual Śaiva Tantra, there is one figure who stands out above all others, who appears as the very lynchpin of the tradition, who is the convergence point of much that had come before and the source of much that was to come after: the unparalleled master Abhinava Gupta.

This great Tantrik master was active 980–1020 CE in the Kashmīr Valley: that exquisite paradise on earth where, Abhinava wrote, 'saffron flowers scattered everywhere seem to make the earth into a garden for the worship of the three goddesses', that center of learning and literature 'where everyone is either a poet or a scholar, where even warriors are eloquent!' 

Abhinava’s parents were advanced Tantrik practitioners who conceived him in Kaula ritual; he was thus said to be yoginī-bhū, 'born of an awakened yoginī,' and thereby possessing a special capacity for liberation.

1000 years ago today, Abhinava Gupta sent pen to paper for the last time, completing his last great work, a multivolume commentary on the most profound and erudite philosophical text in Indian history (the Stanzas on the Recognition of the Divine). We know the date because he wrote it at the end of his manuscript: the end of the month of Mārgaśīrṣa, in the year 4090 of the Saptarṣi calendar (corresponding to 1015 CE). Temperatures probably hovered just above freezing in the Kashmīr Valley on that Winter Solstice night.  Why do we still remember and revere this man 1000 years later?  What makes him so powerful, so insightful, that some of us alive today would call him our Guru?

Before we jump in to his life story, let me share with you one of my favorite Abhinava verses of all time, so you can drink from the source; and be sure to read to the end for more treasures (all translations in this blog are my own unless otherwise noted):

"Spiritual experience is what we call it when that Divine Reality which we long for spontaneously unfolds within, without a thought-process, suddenly subordinating who you thought you were—which turns out to be a mere reflection in the 'mirror' of your real nature—and continuously revealing ever greater degrees of its glory within the abundant purity of your sacred Heart." (from Light on Tantra)

He blows my mind and opens my heart. Sometimes I can scarcely believe he really lived. But he did, and I love him so much for it. 

I've already published a blog on his justly famous signature verse, in which Abhinava Gupta managed to weave together the key teachings that he would expound over thousands of Sanskrit verses in five great works, including Light on Tantra and The Essence of Tantra. That he did so while simultaneously honoring the special circumstances of his own birth in that same verse, bowing to the siddha and yoginī who conceived him, makes the signature verse one of the most extraordinary literary achievements of the tradition.

The death of Abhinava’s mother, Vimalā, at a young age contributed to his passion for spirituality. Speaking both of himself and his sister Ambā, who lost her husband early, he wrote: "Among people that are assaulted by the power of fate (lit. 'what must be'), an unfortunate and [seemingly] meaningless incident may lead them to the truth of [spiritual] traditions of deep meaning." 

Abhinava learned Sanskrit from his father, Narasiṃha Gupta, and received initiation into the Kālī-worshipping Krama lineage at an early age from his father’s Krama Guru, Bhūtirāja, who had been a direct disciple of the famous Chakrabhānu (see Tantra Illuminated p. 255). In his early twenties, he wrote his first work, a hymn to the divine powers of consciousness personified as the goddesses of the Krama, which is now unfortunately lost. Then he wrote a commentary on the Bhagavad-gītā, which we do have, a work that shows the young Abhinava as learned but still callow, his words lacking the power, precision, and mature wisdom of his later works. However, in that commentary he quotes from a poem he wrote in which he alludes to his early spiritual experiences:

"Taking refuge in the flow of goddess-consciousness (svarasavāhinī, from the previous verse) that has been brought under its own control and that clearly transcends the physical body, the Fire of Awareness (bodhānala) of its own accord suddenly blazes forth without any fuel, sporting spontaneously, accompanied by thrilling sensations, trembling, and tears." (provisional translation)

Elsewhere he tells us that his first spiritual experience came to him while reading poetry: "while engaged in the intense pleasure of aesthetic emotion from poetic works I was spontaneously seized by an intoxicating devotion to the Lord . . ." (TĀ 37.58, translation by Ben Williams) and perhaps the verse above alludes to that experience.

In time, Abhinava studied with many gurus—more than fifteen Śaiva teachers in all, plus teachers of logic, exegesis, Buddhism, Jainism, and Vaishnavism. He had a passion for learning! He received direct transmission from masters in the Trika, Pratyabhijñā, Krama, and Saiddhāntika lineages, a transmission which authorized him to teach in those lineages. He tells us that it was sweet nectar to offer them the service (sevā) which effected their favor. (TĀ 37.63) He describes himself as a bee, going from flower to flower, collecting the nectar of each of these branches of the tradition in order to make them all into the sweetest honey. (TĀ 13.335) But it was not until he met his true master (sadguru) that his realization was complete. It is said in the Kaula tradition that full awakening can only be transmitted by a guru who has himself attained it. This guru, for Abhinava, was a man named Śambhu Nātha. Their meeting was like that of Rumi and Shams, for Abhinava was already an expert scholar of the scriptures and not lacking in spiritual experience. Yet something was missing: the final descent of grace (śaktipāta), triggering the complete and permanent expansion into all-encompassing blissful nondual awareness, expressed and grounded in embodiment.

Śambhu Nātha, a master of both forms of the Trika (Kaula and non-Kaula), came to Kashmīr from the great śakti-pīṭha or holy place of Jālandhara, in the Puñjab. It was to this master that Abhinava attributed his Self-realization, and thus he praised him before all his other teachers. For example, introducing both his two major works on Tantrik philosophy and practice (Tantrāloka 1.21 and Tantrasāra 1.3), he invites the reader to study the text by saying:

"As an act of divine worship, may all contemplate the lotus of the heart of Abhinava Gupta, its blossom opened by the light falling from the rays of the sun — that is to say, its contraction forever banished by the wisdom descending from the feet of the illuminator, [my master] Śambhu Nātha." (For more on this verse go here.)

 Imaginative depiction of Abhinava Gupta by an unknown artist.

 Imaginative depiction of Abhinava Gupta by an unknown artist.

However, we should note that though Abhinava loved all his teachers, in the end it was the inner Guru who reigned supreme in his heart: he describes his enlightenment (more precisely, his abiding in nondual awareness) in these terms: as 'delighting in my own inner being' (svātmārāmaḥ) and relishing 'the sweetness of being in constant service to, and adoration of, Reality itself', using the very same phrase, sevā-rasa, that he previously used with reference to serving his gurus.

Having come fully into his attainment, Abhinava then wrote his mature works. All of these are written from the perspective of the Trika, which was his primary reference point due to the influence of his sadguru Śambhu Nātha. However, Abhinava maintained his commitment to the teachings of the Krama, incorporating these as the esoteric core of his theology. His primary works include his Commentary on the Mālinīvijaya, notable for its mystical explanation of the origin and nature of the Śaiva canon (published as Abhinavagupta's Philosophy of Revelation); his commentary called Unfolding the Thirty Verses of Parā (published as A Trident of Wisdom); his multi-volume commentaries on the philosophical masterpiece Stanzas on the Recognition of the Divine, and most notable of all, his magnum opus, the Tantrāloka — Light on the Tantras. (The last two masterworks have not yet appeared in English, though they are extensively studied in academic circles.)

When discussing why he wrote these works, he said it was for three reasons: out of a desire to serve, because of the command of his sadgurus, and because, as he puts it, "Sometimes, one who wishes to dance must take his own instrument down off the wall." (TĀ 37.71) 

Illustration of Abhinava Gupta by Elke Avis, based on Madhurāja's 11th-century description.

Illustration of Abhinava Gupta by Elke Avis, based on Madhurāja's 11th-century description.

The influence of Abhinava Gupta, while not widespread, went deep. The Kaula Trika/Krama synthesis he presented was compelling enough to have been adopted by a number of other lineages. Not only that, other Śaiva schools, like that of the Śrīvidyā, formulated their thought along the lines of Abhinava and his disciples. This influence was felt even in other Indian religions: the Tantrik Vaiṣṇava scripture called the Lakshmī Tantra clearly borrowed ideas from The Heart of the teachings on Recognition by Abhinava’s disciple Kṣemarāja.

It seems that a native of Madurai, an ancient city of the Tamiḷ country, came 2,000 miles to receive initiation from Abhinava. This man, named Madhurāja, wrote a beautiful description of Abhinava as part of a set of verses he composed for meditation on his guru. The stylized nature of this “pen-portrait” has led scholars to question whether or not Madhurāja really met Abhinava; but I would argue that following standard literary forms in his paean to Abhinava hardly disproves that an actual meeting took place. And we do know for certain that Abhinava’s teachings were known in the Tamiḷ region shortly after his passing. Madhurāja’s description of Abhinava follows, in Paul Muller-Ortega’s translation:

"Out of his deep compassion, [Śiva] has taken a new bodily form as Abhinava Gupta and come to Kashmīr. He sits in the middle of a garden of grapes, inside a pavilion [adorned with] crystal and filled with beautiful paintings. The room smells wonderful because of flower garlands, incense sticks, and oil lamps. It is constantly resounding with musical instruments, with songs, and with dancing. There are crowds of yogīs and yoginīs, realized beings, and siddhas. . . . In the center of the room there is a golden seat from which pearls are hanging. It has a soft awning stretched over it as a canopy. Here sits Abhinava Gupta attended by all his numerous students, with Kṣemarāja at their head, who are writing down everything he says. . . . Abhinava Gupta’s eyes are trembling in ecstasy. In the middle of his forehead is a conspicuous tilaka made of sacred ashes. He has a rudrākṣa bead hanging from his ear. His long hair is held by a garland of flowers. He has a long beard and reddish-brown skin. His neck is dark and glistening with musk and sandalwood paste. Two dūtīs stand at his side holding refreshments [wine etc.]. . . . He wears a silken cloth as a dhoti, white as moonbeams, and he sits in the yogic posture known as vīrāsana. One hand is held on his knee holding a japa-mālā and his fingers make the mudrā that signifies his knowledge of the highest Śiva. He plays on a resonating lute (ektār) with the tips of his quivering fingers of his lotus-like left hand."

Image based on Madhurāja's description, with Dal Lake in the background.

Image based on Madhurāja's description, with Dal Lake in the background.

Let us close with three of Abhinava's most beautiful verses. He composed these, he tells us, for use in his own personal daily practice; how fortunate we are that he shared them!  They are brimming with love, devotion, intensified awareness, and poetic feeling.

1. "Those initiated into the inner teaching worship You as the experience of the ultimate joy that flashes into view when they immerse themselves in the radiance that is the true upsurge of creation." (trans. Sanderson) or "Those who know the secret tradition worship You with the vision of supreme nectar that comes into play when they immerse themselves in the radiant light flowing forth from the ultimate state." (my trans.)

2. "Day and night, O Lord, I shall purify the inner worship ground with a shower of the ‘wine’ of aesthetic rapture and then worship You and Your consort in the shrine that is my body, with flowers rich with the perfect fragrance of the Self, contemplating them as one with its reality as I take them in imagination from the priceless chalice of my heart that brims with the liquid nectar of Your bliss." (trans. Sanderson)

3. "I shall place this triple universe with the sap of its diverse experiences on the ‘wine press’ of my heart cakra, and bear down upon it with the weight of insight. The awareness that flows forth is the ultimate nectar that ends [fear of] death, old age, and rebirth forever. With this ultimate offering I shall gratify You constantly, pouring it into the fire of deepest radiance." (trans. Sanderson)

If you're anything like me, you're melting by now, tasting the nectar of awakened consciousness and the grace of the siddhas.  Happy Abhinava Gupta anniversary!  Continued in Part Two: Abhinava Gupta's writings.

The Tantrik Studies blog features many posts by myself on the writings of this great master. In celebration of this 1000th anniversary, I invite you to explore them:

The Power of the Word: Double Meanings in the Tantrāloka 

The Opening Verses of the Tantrāloka

Tantrāloka: On Bondage and Liberation

Tantrik Philosophy for the Layman: What is Liberation?

Tantrāloka: The Nature of Reality

Tantrāloka: The Nature of God

Tantrāloka: The Nature of God/dess

Tantrāloka: God is the Self -- the Secret Teaching of Triśirobhairava

Tantrāloka: The Divine Name -- Bhairava

Tantrāloka: The Divine Names -- Deva, Pati, Shiva

Tantrāloka: Universal Patterns of Energy