On Bondage and Liberation: Tantraloka 1.22-51

This post continues the translation of Light on the Tantras chapter one (titled “The Aspects of Consciousness”). This section introduces the key concept of two kinds of ignorance, spiritual and mental, and likewise two kinds of knowledge, spiritual insight and conceptual understanding (pauruṣa-ajñāna and bauddha-ajñāna vs. pauruṣa-jñāna and bauddha-jñāna respectively). Abhinavagupta wishes to argue that for spiritual liberation in this life (jīvanmukti), one must have both nonconceptual direct insight into the nature of reality (pauruṣa-jñāna) and conceptual understanding (bauddha-jñāna) that is in harmony with that direct insight. For the latter, the scriptures and their commentaries are necessary, for which reason he argues that Tantra is an inherently scriptural tradition.

The translation below, newly revised and improved (as of June 2019), has little commentary from me; it’s mostly just straight translation, as clear as I can make it. However, commentary on four of the key verses below (22, 24, 31, and 32) can be found here: Tantrik Philosophy for the Layman: the Cause of Liberation. Finally, I wish to gratefully acknowledge the tutelage of Professor Alexis Sanderson, without which I never could have understood this section of the Tantrāloka correctly.

A manuscript from Kashmīr. Language: Sanskrit. Script: Śāradā.

A manuscript from Kashmīr. Language: Sanskrit. Script: Śāradā.

NOTE: This section is written in kārikā-style Sanskrit, which means it is highly terse and elliptical. Material in [brackets] is not speculative, but directly implied by the Sanskrit syntax without being expressly stated. In other words, whatever you see in brackets is an important part of the meaning, and would be similarly supplied by any competent Sanskritist. And now, Part 2 of . . .

श्री तत्रालोकः
Śrī Tantrāloka

by the great master Abhinavagupta

Introduction to the Work: On Knowledge & Ignorance and Bondage & Liberation

(Abhinavagupta here defends the spiritual necessity of study & contemplation.)

To begin with, in our system, it is declared in all the scriptures that lack of awareness (ajñāna) is the cause of saṃsāra (the cycle of suffering) and insight (jñāna) is the sole cause of liberation. || 22

It is taught in this way in the sacred Mālinī-vijayottara: “The [wisdom-masters of our tradition] hold that Impurity is [nothing but] unawareness (ajñāna), and that is the cause of the ‘sprout’ of saṃsāra.”  || 23

With the last phrase [in the verse above], [the scripture] refutes vain speculation concerning [the possibility that] intellectual [knowledge might liberate], [since all of it is] subsequent to [the activation of] saṃsāra [and so cannot address its cause], and states that when there is an absence of this [fundamental ignorance/unawareness], there is liberation (mokṣa). || 24

‘Ignorance’ (ajñāna) does not mean a total lack of understanding/awareness, because that would overextend the scope of the word, and then it would also apply to a clod of earth and suchlike, and there is no cycle of suffering for it! || 25

For this reason, the Śiva-sūtra teaches that ‘ignorance’ is any kind of knowledge that does not entirely illuminate the reality of that-which-is-to-be-known. || 26

This is the teaching demonstrated by the [first] two sūtras, caitanyamātmājñānaṃ bandhaḥ, when reading them both in conjunction and separately (“Consciousness is the Self; knowledge/ignorance is bondage”). || 27

In the first sūtra, ‘Consciousness’ is a word with an abstract ending, [indicating that] it is a reality/being (sat) that is pure autonomy, without other particulars. || 28

But with the second sūtra (jñānaṃ bandhaḥ), referring to ‘knowing’ as either the act of knowing or the means by which one knows, a [subject-object] duality within this pure Awareness is taught. || 29

Through a second reading [of the sūtra, breaking the sandhi to read ajñānaṃ bandhaḥ], it is taught that ignorance is that which manifests duality. Because of its worthlessness, it is called a ‘bond/fetter.’ Thus it can and should be completely eliminated. || 30

There is no liberation whatsoever, higher or lower, other than [the realization of] this autonomous Self-that-is-Consciousness. That is why it [viz., liberation] has not been mentioned separately [in the Śiva-sūtra]. || 31

As for the variously ranked insights [of other systems, which should be ranked in accordance with the fact that they] make manifest more and more full & inclusive [vistas] of the reality of that-which-is-to-be-known [depending on the system], they bring to cessation the various aspects of the cycles of suffering [that they address]. || 32

“I am free of the taint of desire and so on;” “I am the inner void;” “I am free from doership”—these forms of insight, collectively or separately, liberate one only so far [/only from the corresponding forms of bondage]. || 33

The commentator (Jayaratha) says that the three quotes above apply to the claims of the Yogācāra Buddhists, the Mādhyamika Buddhists, and the Sānkhyas respectively. He argues that perhaps some Yogācārins hold the same view as nondual Śaiva Tantra!

Though one may be liberated from the specific limitations [that those systems successfully address], one is in fact not liberated (amukta), because other types of limitation remain. Only one who is free of all forms of separation & limitation is [truly] liberated. || 34

In logic, avaccheda (here translated as ‘limitation’ or ‘separation & limitation’) is the property of a thing by which it is distinguished from everything else. Under avachinna, Apte’s dictionary has “Separated or excluded from all other things by the properties predicated of a thing as peculiar to itself,” and “divided, detached; bounded; particularized.”

My reflection on this verse — The ‘takeaway’ is this: vigilantly notice how you become internally divided or divided from others, and vigilantly notice what helps you step into your innate wholeness and connection to others. However far you've come, whatever realizations you’ve had, don’t imagine the process is complete until every strategy of separation has been disarmed, every means of ‘protecting’ yourself has been abandoned, and you see with every cell of your being that showing up for what IS, no matter how much it hurts sometimes, is truly the only way.

And, as verse 33 suggests, when you make the spiritual journey personal [“this is what *I* have realized, this is what *I* have overcome”], you are still separating yourself.

That insight (jñāna) into the reality of that-which-is-to-be-known which is completely free of all limitations can never be partial or incomplete in any way: it grants true liberation. || 35

In the teachings of Śiva, it is said that gnosis and ignorance each have two kinds, called personal/innate/spiritual (pauruṣa) and mental/intellectual/conceptual (bauddha, buddhi-gata). || 36

Of these, the innate ignorance is called ‘Impurity.’ Though it arises from Śiva, it is the veiling of one’s [innate] divinity (lit., ‘Śiva-ness’), which consists of fully expanded (pūrṇa) awareness and activity; that is, [this ‘Impurity’] is [nothing but] contracted awareness and activity, incomprehensible to & unconstructed by (avikalpita) the bound soul. This [type of] ignorance is not an aspect of the intellect, because it does not entail mental determination or judgement, or [other mental operations]. || 37-38

(The Sānkhya-tattva-kaumudi describes adhyavasāya as “ascertainment or determinate knowledge as consequent upon the manifestation of the essence of the intellect, when the inertia of the intellect is overcome by the operation of the sense organs in apprehending their objects” (Sinha 1934: 121). At SK 23, adhyavasāya is associated with intellect (buddhi). Commenting on SK 23 in his Kārikā Bhāṣya, Gauḍapāda explains this term as “intellectual determination of the object of perception as belonging to a definite class, such as this is a jar, this is a cloth” (ibid.).)

When a mental determination or objectifying judgement—such as “I know this to be thus”—arises due to a reflection [within awareness] produced in and by the limited soul veiled by the six obscurations (5 kañcukas + māyā), that kind of mental knowledge is [rightly] called ignorance. In this way, mental ignorance and spiritual ignorance each nourish and are nourished by the other [in a vicious cycle]. || 39-40

By contrast, spiritual insight is the expansive nonconceptual awareness had by one who has attained the supreme state once the impressions of his bound condition (paśu-saṁskāras) have withered away. || 41

Intellectual knowledge is here defined as a conceptual cognition in harmony with that expansive nonconceptual knowledge of the Self (ātma-jñāna). It nourishes and is nourished by spiritual insight [in a virtuous cycle]. || 42

On that point, though spiritual ignorance is destroyed by initiation and the practice that follows it, spiritual insight manifests clearly & vividly [only] at the end of one’s body (i.e., at the time of death). || 43

But when the expansion of ignorance on the level of the mind is dissolved by the knowledge appropriate to that level (bauddha-jñāna), then liberation-while-living is in the palm of one’s hand. || 44

Initiation, for its part, is truly liberating [only] when it is based upon thorough intellectual understanding (bauddha-vijñāna) [on the part of the initiating guru, which itself must be based on and linked to nonconceptual spiritual insight, as verified by the scriptures]; therefore, even in that case, intellectual understanding is of the foremost importance. || 45 

And this two-fold distinction applying to both insight and the lack thereof has been made by [a variety of] teachers, beginning with the venerable Kheṭapāla (= Sadyojyoti) in [his commentaries on] the Svāyambhuva, the Raurava, and the Mataṅga-pārameśvara. || 46

(Referring to the classification of innate ignorance & innate insight and mental ignorance & mental understanding. In fact this classification is not found in Sadyojyoti’s works but is found in those of this follower Rāmakantha. The point here is that these authors are from a rival school of dualist Tantra, and Abhinava is arguing that this fourfold classification is a universal Shaiva teaching.)

For mastering in fullness the mental/intellectual understanding characterized by this kind of correct discernment (avasāya), it is scripture that is the primary factor, since [only it] reveals the reality of that-which-is-to-be-known. || 47

Even though the innate spiritual ignorance is destroyed by initiation, [māyic] mental constructs will still persist if intellectual [ignorance] has not [also] ceased. || 48

Since feeling/believing that the mind is the self lasts [for most people] as long as the body exists, but not past its end, liberation occurs [only then] for one whose spiritual ignorance has been removed [by initiation, but whose mental ignorance remains uncorrected]. || 49

But because mental constructs are uprooted upon [total] cessation of wrong understanding, liberation certainly follows just then. This is taught by the Creator in the sacred Niśāṭana-tantra: “[A tāntrika] whose mind is yoked to mental constructs attains God only at the fall of the body; but another [whose mind is not so yoked does so] right then.” Thus scripture is primary in our system. || 50-51

(According to Jayaratha, the full Niśāṭana quote reads: “One whose mind is yoked to mental constructs attains God only at the fall of the body; but one whose mind is free of mental constructs experiences himself as imperishable Śiva, and by the purity of his bhāva, certainly is liberated in this life.” This scripture, whose title means Wandering at Night, is now lost.)

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