The Nature of God/dess: Tantraaloka 1.68-81

This is part of a series of posts translating Chapter One of Abhinavagupta’s 1000-year-old masterpiece called “Light on the Tantras” (Tantrāloka). This post continues from the previous passage on The Nature of God

The truly correct precept [with regard to Śiva] is that He is united exclusively with the Power of Autonomy (svātantrya-śakti). The fact that He is said to have many powers follows from [and is ultimately equivalent to] His inseparable union with that one Power. || 68

Indeed, the power(s) of any entity is [simply] its [singular] innate nature as conceived [variously] by its perceivers. Thus, it is unitary, though we understand it as possessing multiple powers. [And the Divine is just the same.] || 69

So the beautiful forms of the Divine are conceived by knowing subjects variously—but how could that indicate an actual division [within Its nature]? Is it the case that the fire’s capacity to burn and its capacity to cook mean it has a dual nature? || 70 

Yet we cannot in truth say that [difference] does not exist, for this shining manifestation includes everything (even apparent duality). So there is some reality to the difference between God and his Power (śakti). || 71 

For Power (śakti) is that which, due to its oneness [with God], generates an abundance of powers innate to itself; we also call it the Goddess. Though manifesting in this way, her ultimate nature is Other [than anything which can be conceptualized in human terms]. || 72 

My commentary: the Goddess appears in many forms, for there are many Powers of Awareness; all these forms are valid, yet Her ultimate nature cannot be encompassed by any human conceptualization.

And likewise, through his [Power of] Freedom, God can and does manifest—with undiminished power—as the ‘created entity’ [one visualizes] in meditative contemplation (bhāvanā) and other practices, appearing in the mirror of the Knower—the awareness [of the individual practitioner] that is [one with] His own. || 73 

My commentary: We can and do experience the Divine through our spiritual practices, even though they are based in culturally-created forms, because through the power of his Freedom (svātantrya-śakti), Divine Consciousness (aka Śiva) appears in the 'mirror' of the individual's awareness, since that awareness is in reality inseparable from Śiva's.

Note: my understanding of this somewhat obscure verse (and the following one) have benefitted from Mark Dyczkowski's as-yet unpublished translation. See also the parallel passage in Stanzas on the Recognition of God (Īśvara-pratyabhijñā-kārikā I.5.16), which Abhinavagupta’s commentator Jayaratha quotes, since Abhinava likely had it in mind: “The Lord, due to His freedom, creates a nondual Self with such forms as Īśvara in [the practitioner’s] meditative contemplation and other practices, and thus can carry out practical activity [such as meditation on Himself in that form].” Abhinava comments on this verse (in his ĪPvv), saying, “The objective component of differentiated representations created by the Highest Divinity -- such as Īśvara, the Self, etc. -- makes them able to become the object of meditation, worship, teaching and so on, and, on the other hand, their unveiled subjective component ensures the attainment of their true nature.”

Therefore, whichever means (lit., ‘face’) He manifests through—though He remains partless—is a Power (śakti). Thus this succession (krama) from Power to [the Divine Consciousness] which holds [all Powers] is clearly a reality. || 74 

Abhinava is probably referencing the Vijñāna-bhairava-tantra here (verse 20), which teaches that Śiva can only be accessed through one of the many forms of Śakti. Though the ‘faces’ of the Divine, or the methods to access it, are many, it remains One and indivisible (anaṃśa).

And in the sacred Kiraṇa-tantra, [we find this issue addressed] in its question-and-answer section: “Belief (anubhāva) is but a mental construct, [and] the mind cannot approach God; but without knowing God, how could there be [any seeking or giving of] initiation?” The answer follows: “The experience (anubhava) of hunger and the like is not at all a mental construct, for it is not derived from the mind. Though it is not perceptible to the sense of taste or [hearing], one may directly know a tree because it possesses an appearance (rūpa). In the same way, a mental construct [may lead one to] apprehend God [in one of His comprehensible aspects such] as Resonance (nāda), Point (bindu), etc.”  || 75-77 

 The full Kiraṇa-tantra passage that Abhinava is referring to here reads as follows:

“Garuḍa asked: ‘How can the Śiva-tattva be Void (śūnya), when the Void is not perceptible to the senses, and no reality can [be said to exist if it] be beyond direct perception?’ (1)

The Lord replied: ‘Māyā is to be discarded, and God is to be grasped; the grasper is the soul (puruṣa), it is taught. God is empty (śūnya) of the qualities of māyā, because He is free from Impurity (mala) and the state of being bound (paśu). (2) He is called Void not in the sense of non-existence but in that of being utterly free of the need for anything outside himself. Without sāttvik qualities, He/It would be like a temple without a god. (3) The Point, the Resonance, and Power are all considered [aspects of] the Void. For the sake of stabilizing the mind, there will always be fixed forms [such as this]. (4)

It is beyond the senses, due to being exceedingly subtle; [but] one may know [It] through merging with the subtle Power. The Power of Knowing is held to be the very thing known, because it is [simply] the knowledge of it [there being no actual 'objective' reality]. (5) Can one not have an experience of something beyond the senses? The mind, [or] a belief (anubhāva) is perceptible, just as hunger and thirst are clearly apparent [despite being beyond the five senses].’ (6)

Garuḍa said: ‘A belief arises from a thought (vikalpa), and a thought is mental. Thus, something mental is knowable, something non-mental is formless [and thus not knowable]. Without knowing the Reality [of God], how can a teacher give initiation? That matter/goal must be thoroughly known, and it cannot be thoroughly known [by the mind].’ (7-8)

The Lord said: ‘A thought need not arise for the experience of hunger and [thirst to be known]. A thought has an object for its substrate, but that object need not be something like a pot. (9) A subtle mental construct (vikalpa) may merge with the Power of the Void. Having done so, one is free from otherness. Therefore, one is said to be freed from the mind. (10)

Due to the contact of one’s senses [with their objects], there is cognition, there is [the appearance of] a doer, there is a mind, action, and a sense of self.  God must be attained (śivaḥ sādhyaḥ), [and] the Lord can be understood in this [same way], though it may be through but one quality. (11) Just as a tree can be grasped as directly perceivable, simply through its appearance, though its taste etc. are not known, in the same way, due to the Power of Knowing, the Lord is known through the sense of His reality (tattva-bhāva), though without perception through the normal five senses. . . . (12-13) The Void, which has such a nature, is to be known through one’s Guru, through the scriptures, and in oneself.” (14ab)

It is taught that Śiva has many śaktis, since the great extent of [his] diversity encompasses [the Sixfold Path of] cosmic powers (kalās), principles of reality (tattvas), and worlds (bhuvanas), and phonemes, mantras, and words; [the five divine acts of] creation, stasis, dissolution, concealment, grace, and more; as well as the Fourth state. All this is the unfolding of the many Powers of God. || 79 

Abhinava here enumerates some of the fundamental categories of Tantrik Śaiva thought. The Sixfold Path of Reality, consisting of kalās, tattvas, worlds, and phonemes, mantras, and words, is discussed on pp. 164-5 of Tantra Illuminated (see also verses 56-57 of the VBT)The Five Acts of God are discussed on pp. 111-123 of the same book; the Fourth State is found on p. 179.

So too the states of waking, dreaming, and deep sleep, and other [states] beyond them—all constitute the abundant mass of ‘waves’ of the infinite Freedom of that Lord. || 80 

The [Seven Perceivers, i.e.] the Mahāmantreśvaras, the Mantreśvaras, the Mantras, with Śiva at the head [of all them], and the Vijñānākalas, Pralayākalas, and Sakalas (embodied beings), are [also nothing but] all-pervading powers of Śiva alone. || 81

The Seven Perceivers are covered in detail in chapter three of my book The Recognition Sūtras

This translation of the Tantrāloka continues in the next post, which spectacularly concludes Abhinava’s discussion of ‘the Nature of God’ with a secret teaching from a lost Tantra.