The Power of the Word: double meanings in the Tantraaloka

Many Western yogīs are under the impression that every Sanskrit word has many meanings, and therefore any given Sanskrit verse has innumerable possible interpretations, which gives them license (they believe) to read a verse any way they want. In fact, this is not true, because though Sanskrit words often do have many meanings, only one of those meanings is valid in any given context, and thus each verse has one correct interpretation, though we often can debate about what that interpretation is (that is what the commentators do). Lack of understanding of this leads some non-Sanskritists to believe they can create their own translations of a Sanskrit text by putting the various English meanings of the Sanskrit words of a given verse on a bunch of index cards and then mixing and matching them however they like! (I am not kidding.)

Of course, if a Sanskrit author is very skilled, there may be subtle implications to the arrangement of words that need to be teased out. The power of words to communicate what they do not explicitly say is called dhvani in Sanskrit. But dhvani is only operative in certain kinds of literary works (it is generally assumed to be present only when the author intended it, as in erotically suggestive poetry).* This is not the same as multiple meanings, and certainly does not imply that any meaning the reader chooses is valid. The reader would need to be fluent in Sanskrit grammatical rules to translate correctly.

However, some Sanskrit authors make use of another literary device, called śleṣa or paronomasia. This is something like punning or double entendre (but is not necessarily humorous) -- the author chooses multivalent/polysemous words such that one reads the sentence one way at first, then realizes that there is a whole different way to read the same sentence. Some clue alerts the reader to this secondary reading. The secondary reading is coherent and intended by the author, or else it’s not paronomasia.  Let’s illustrate this by way of the most famous example in classical Tantrik literature, that of Abhinvagupta’s “signature verse” with which he begins his Tantrāloka, his Tantrasāra, and other works.

vimala-kalāśrayābhinava-sṛṣṭi-mahā jananī
bharita-tanuś ca pañca-mukha-gupta-rucir janakaḥ
hṛdayam anuttarāmṛta-kulaṃ mama saṃsphuratāt
|| 1 ||

Meaning 1: The [Divine] Mother is She who is the ground of pure power, radiant with ever-new genesis. The Father is He who is filled [with all the śaktis], maintaining his Light through his five faces. May my Heart, one with the diverse creation flowing forth from the fusion of these two, embodying the nectar of the Absolute, shine!

The verse is obviously about the union of Shiva and Shakti, and how that union gives rise to all manifestation, and how the author experiences oneness with that diverse creation. But the reader is puzzled by one thing: though Shakti is often referred to as the Mother, Shiva is never referred to as the Father (janakaḥ) in this culture. So what's going on here? It slowly dawns on the reader that there is a double meaning in the first three lines. Careful consideration (aided by biographical information collected from the last chapter of the Tantrāloka) yields this secondary meaning, which is autobiographical, being about the author's parents:

Meaning 2: My mother Vimalā is one for whom the birth of Abhinava was a festival of joy; my father is renowned as Siṃhagupta, full [of the state of Śiva]. May my heart, formed from the emissions of the ecstatic state of their union, embodying the nectar of the Absolute, shine forth [through this work]!

In this second meaning, then, Abhinava is obliquely telling us that his parents were awakened beings who conceived him in Tantrik (Kaula) ritual. Rather than spend a lot of space here analyzing the meaning of this wonderful verse, I can refer the reader to an especially brilliant article by Alexis Sanderson, which constitutes the most accomplished article in the field on this verse and perhaps on Abhinavagupta in general: his "Commentary on the Opening Verses of the Tantrasāra". However, for ease of reference, I have created an image which uses color-coding to show the reader precisely which words have double meanings and what those are.

Obviously, I’ve used a single color for a given Sanskrit word and its two alternate translations. Note that the alternate meanings of the words create two distinct coherent wholes; one cannot arrive at valid alternative meanings through mixing-and-matching dictionary definitions according to one’s whim. 

Let us take a moment to assess more thoroughly the incredible awesomeness of this verse. It serves as a kind of nexus point for the whole of Abhinava’s teaching as well as his personal history, and in this, it perfectly expresses an idea that is central to his theology: that the Divine is the transcendent source of all things and, simultaneously, completely immanent as all things—and most especially as self-aware embodied beings. These two modes interpenetrate in balanced dynamism, eternally unified yet arising fresh in every moment of experience. Thus every procreative sexual act of two humans in dynamic balance recapitulates the divine act of the creation (and eternally arising re-creation) of the universe. The difference in the case of Abhinava’s parents is that they were fully aware of this truth and fully embodying it at the moment of his conception (or so he tells us). Thus the two different meanings of the verse are actually expressing one truth in expanded and contracted modes that are reflexes of each other. This is a key teaching in the Spanda and Pratyabhijñā lineages.

The other central and key teachings that are embedded in the verse are these five:

❖ All that exists expresses the nature of the Goddess, who is the stainless ground of absolute Power from which all specific forms of power and energy emanate and into which they return. 

❖ All things and states are aspects of the one Light of Consciousness that continually arises in a dynamic play that expresses the creative intuition of that Light in its self-aware mode.

❖ God is that which gives unity and cohesion to all the diverse powers (śaktis), providing structure for the free-flowing dynamism of the Goddess.

❖ The ultimate Deity, the ultimate Reality, is the fusion of these two (God and Goddess, cohesion and dynamism) as the paradoxical two-in-one: the reality known as the Heart (hṛdaya) or the Essence (sāra), for all creation flows forth from it.

❖ This Heart, when penetrating and pervading every level of our embodiment, is experienced as unsurpassed nectar-sweet joy and eternal life. 

Now let’s turn to Tantrāloka 1.21 (= Tantrasāra 1.3), which also has a kind of paronomasia:

śrī-śambhunātha-bhāskara-caraṇa-nipāta-prabhāpagata-saṃkocam |
abhinavagupta-hṛd-ambujam etad vicinuta maheśa-pūjana-hetoḥ || 21
As an act of divine worship, may all contemplate the lotus of the heart of Abhinavagupta, < its blossom opened by the light falling from the rays of the sun, || its contraction [forever] banished by the wisdom descending from the feet of the illuminator, > [my master] the reverend Śambhunātha. ||

The phrase “as an act of divine worship” is not egotistical precisely because Abhinava knows that the lotus of his individual heart is identical with the universal Heart (as is the case for us all). The part between < > shows the two meanings of the Sanskrit compound bhāskara-caraṇa-nipāta-prabhāpagata-saṃkocam. The double meaning is clearly intended by the author. In fact, strictly speaking, this is not an example of śleṣa but rather a well-constructed metaphor. For the analysis of this verse, the reader is referred to p. 122 and following of the Sanderson article cited above.

Note that the word nipāta (falling/descending) clearly implies śaktinipāta (or śaktipāt), transmission of essence-nature. Abhinava was a Rumi-like figure in that despite all his considerable learning and attainment, it was only when he met the Kaula guru Śambhunātha that he received the descent of grace to which he attributes his full awakening, for which see Tantrāloka 1.16:

śrī-bhaṭṭanātha-caraṇābja-yugāt tathā śrī-bhaṭṭārikāṃghir-yugalād guru-santatir yā |
bodhānya-pāśa-viṣanut-tad-upāsanottha bodhojjvalo 'bhinavagupta idaṃ karoti || 16

The transmission of the Guru-lineage from the lotus feet of the reverend Bhaṭṭanātha and from the lotus feet of the reverend Bhaṭṭārikā (i.e. Śambhunātha and his consort) is the antidote to the poison of the bonds of that which [seems] other than Awareness. Ablaze with the awakeness arising from adoration of & service to that lineage-transmission, Abhinavagupta creates this work (the Tantrāloka).

“Ablaze with awakening” (bodhojjvala) is the closest Abhinava ever comes to declaring the nature of his own state/attainment. And what a beautiful way to say it: his awakening arose from devotion & service (upāsana).

I hope you enjoyed this discussion of double meanings, the nature of Sanskrit translation, the authorship of the Tantrāloka, and the cause of Abhinavagupta's enlightenment!

*(For an example of dhvani, see this famous verse, in which a young woman says to a wandering mendicant: "Wander freely, sādhu, for the little dog that used to annoy you has been killed by a lion which has come to these parts." Obviously, her intended meaning is opposite to what the words actually say: she wants the sādhu to stay away so she can have a liaison with her lover. This is a dramatic example of dhvani; often the suggested meaning is not an opposite one.)