Abhinava Gupta's writings

Banner photo: Śrīnagara, where Abhinava Gupta lived, with the sacred hill of Śārikā-parvata in the background

This is a follow-up post to "Who was Abhinava Gupta?" In this post I discuss some of Abhinava's major writings, after presenting a new translation of his Fifteen Verses on Awakening (Bodha-pañcadaśikā). I translated from the critical edition prepared by Christopher Tompkins, as well as borrowing a few felicitous phrases from his translation (though we differ on some points).

There is a radiance that remains undimmed through all moments of light and darkness; the One within, the end of all light and all darkness. || 1

That One is the Highest Divinity, the innate essence of all beings and states; for all that comes into being is nothing but the expression of its sovereign Power. || 2

The Goddess (Energy) never wants to be separate from the One who holds Her; they are eternally one Being — as inseparable as fire and its heat. || 3

That Lord is none other than Bhairava, whose role is to sustain (bhṛ) the world;
for through his Power, everything exists as a reflection in the mirror of the Self. || 4

That Supreme Goddess (Parā Devī) is none other than his longing to be intimately aware of his own nature, whose fullness & perfection in all beings is neither trifling nor significant. || 5

This God is eternally eager for the sweetness of love-play with this Goddess; [through it,] the Lord simultaneously accomplishes the wonderfully varied creations and dissolutions [of all the objects of our experience]. || 6

This Absolute [Consciousness] which accomplishes what seems impossible has autonomous sovereign awake awareness as its nature. || 7

It is said that the defining feature of insentience is a limited power of illumination; so Awareness is distinct from insentience by the fact that it is unlimited. || 8

Thus, [the cycles of] creation and dissolution are innate [to Awareness], existing as subdivisions of its innate power of Freedom; as expressions of its true nature. || 9

For within these [cycles] there exist an infinite variety of painful and pleasurable worlds: higher, lower, and parallel [to this one] -- [all] aspects of this [unrestrained power of freedom to create]. || 10

The state of being ignorant of all this is itself a construct of that Freedom. The cyclical flux [of this autonomous Being] is indeed terrifying to those who are unconscious. || 11

By what means [does one overcome ignorance]? Through His grace? Through the power of a mantra? Through the testimony of your guru? Or through the scriptures of the Supreme Lord? || 12

Recognition of the nature of reality is divine liberation. That state of fullness experienced by the awakened ones is taught to be jīvanmukti (living liberation). || 13

(Commentator adds: Liberation is the manifestation of one’s innate freedom, bursting with wonder at the experience of the sense of ‘I’ encompassing everything, i.e. recognition of the nature of reality as unsurpassed consciousness.)

These two states — bondage and liberation — both derive from the nature of the Highest Divinity; they are indivisible — one implies the other — for there can in reality be no division within the Highest Divinity. || 14

Thus one should cultivate & cherish Bhairava, dwelling within the trident-and-lotus-throne whose prongs are the powers of Willing, Knowing, and Acting. || 15

(For notes on the critical edition see below.)


Abhinava lived in the cosmopolitan capital city of Śrīnagar (then called Pravarapura). When his disciples and friends entreated him to write the Tantrāloka, he agreed and accepted their invitation to move out of the capital to a quieter village in the valley, a village where all the inhabitants were faithful devotees of Shaivism ("even children and cowherds render service to God in this place," he enthused). In this unnamed location, in a house provided by a former government minister who had retired to devote himself to religion, Abhinava composed his great work, securing for himself a place in the world of Tantrik spirituality as prominent and significant as that of St. Thomas Aquinas in medieval Christianity.

The purpose of writing the work, he said, was to “teach the truth of the Tantra through logic and revelation. By attaining the light (āloka) of that system, people may engage in all their actions joyously.”

The Tantrāloka is a monumental explication of Tantrik practice and philosophy in over 5,800 verses. It is encyclopedic in its scope though not organized like an encyclopedia, for instead of just enumerating theories and practices, it brings them all into a coherent framework in which everything has its place and everything makes sense in relation to the whole. It is, then, an awesome work of synthesis, which presents to the reader a vision of Śaiva Tantra as a unified system: far-reaching in its scope, powerful in its cohesion, and complex yet clear in its interrelations. To accomplish this synthesis, of course, he has to explain apparent contradictions amongst the scriptures, which were originally addressed to differing audiences in varying periods. He does so by creating a hierarchy of understanding. For example, he explains that dualism is a valid view of reality at one level of understanding and development and that, therefore, God compassionately revealed the dualistic scriptures for those who could not yet comprehend or relate to nondualism. 

Nondualism, then, is both a higher understanding and experience that one can progress to. However, Abhinava argues that his own view is that of paramādvaya or “supreme nondualism.” This is the view that simultaneously encompasses and subsumes both dualism and nondualism, the view that goes completely beyond the notion of “levels of understanding.” It is the inexpressible experience of the totality of reality in which no perspective is excluded, for each is seen as fitting into the pattern of a greater whole. 

However, it is very clear that in Abhinava’s view, one must carefully ascend through ever more refined levels of understanding in order to reach that all-inclusive state of no-levels. One cannot attempt to leap straight to that realm, lest all understanding decay into incoherent relativism. 

The Tantrāloka was such a significant work that Abhinava chose to rewrite it twice, for the benefit of those who were less highly educated in the complexities of Indian philosophy. The first rewrite was The Essence of the Tantras (Tantrasāra), a work mostly in prose with key summary verses at the end of each chapter. The main purpose of the Tantrasāra is to summarize the Tantrāloka, but the ever-fresh Abhinava also adds some new material. I would argue that the Tantrasāra is a more important work for those with a practical interest in the Tantra, for by mostly leaving aside the discourse of intellectual/logical debate that we see in the Tantrāloka, Abhinava was able to write in a more tightly focused and powerful manner, with (in my experience) every phrase resonating with Truth. The tone of the work is precisely what one would expect if, having discovered that the Tantrāloka was too difficult for most people, Abhinava thought to himself, “Okay, let’s get down to the essence (sāra) of what really matters here.” The result feels more like a transmission than a dissertation.  I am happy to announce that I will publish the Tantrasāra in my own translation in 2017.

Following the Tantrasāra, Abhinava composed the shortest recension of this material by taking just the summary verses of the Tantrasāra and giving a short commentary on each. This work is called the Tantroccaya. None of these works is available yet in English apart from the Tantrasāra, which has been recently published by Rudra Press. The first five chapters of the Tantrāloka are published in a good French translation (by Andre Padoux) and the whole work in a flawed Italian translation by Raneiro Gnoli. We expect an English translation from Pandit Mark Dyczkowski soon.

Abhinava’s final major works of Tantrik philosophy were his commentaries on Utpala Deva’s Stanzas on the Recognition of the Lord mentioned earlier. Abhinava also composed a number of exquisite devotional-cum-philosophical poems, such as the Hymn to Bhairava and Fifteen Verses on Awakening (the poem that began this post). 

Finally, we should note that Abhinava was quite a renowned philosopher of aesthetics, writing a number of works on what makes art beautiful and affecting, works that were (for the most part) separate from his spiritual writings. He specialized in the study of poetry, and his most important work in that area was his commentary on Light on the Theory of Suggestion (Dhvanyāloka), an earlier work of profound significance in the study of aesthetics. In Abhinava’s erudite and thoughtful commentary, he analyzes the nature of aesthetic experience in terms of how it comes about, what it signifies, and what are its various dimensions. His exposition of the nine rasas or “flavors of aesthetic experience” has become quite famous. Indeed, his work in this area is better known amongst academic Sanskritists than is his spiritual material.

(Notes to the Bodhapañcadaśikā: Verse 2 accepts the Ed’s reading -bhāvāṇām in pāda a; verse 4 accepts the reading svātmādarśe in pāda c; verse 5 translates in such a way as to avoid deciding between the readings yasya (Ed.) and yasyā (KSTS); verse 10 retains the reading yat from the KSTS over the Ed.’s hi, and retains aṃśāś over the Ed’s īśāś, but accepts the Ed’s reading sukhaduḥkham iti bhavet in pāda d; verse 11 accepts the Ed’s readings of svātantryopakalpitam in pāda b, and jaḍānām yas tu bhīṣaṇaḥ in pāda d; verse 12 accepts the Ed’s reading prasādavaśād in pāda a and upāyataḥ in pāda d; and verse 15 accepts the Ed’s read of icchākryā- in pāda a.)