Will the real Vijñaana-bhairava please stand up?

One of the most fascinating, strange, mysterious, compelling practice texts in the history of yoga is the Vijñāna-bhairava-tantra, “The Scripture of the Bhairava who is Consciousness.” Bhairava is a proper name for the awe-inspiring aspect of God, and is the divine name preferred by nondual Shaiva Tāntrikas of 1000+ years ago. 

The unusual character of the text is signalled even in the title itself by the unique usage of the name Vijñāna-bhairava, referring to that Bhairava who is not a visualizable deity with specific attributes, but rather is nothing but the awe-inspiring power of expanded Awareness itself. (More on this below.) Vijñāna-bhairava is understood as the ‘deity’ who mystically revealed the yogic techniques of the Vijñāna-bhairava-tantra (VBT). This post constitutes an introduction to this 1200-year-old text, organizing most of what I have to say about it in one place.

A Brief Introduction

From a corpus that once numbered hundreds of scriptural texts, the VBT is the only revealed Tantrik scripture with a continuous tradition of study all the way down to the present day (apart from the Siddhāntāgamas that are still studied in the far south of India). Here ‘scripture’ refers to a work spoken (or alleged to be spoken) by Śiva himself (īśvara uvāca) or Śakti herself (devyuvāca). In other words, a scripture is directly revealed by God. (In Buddhist Tantra, they are thought to be directly revealed by the Buddha or a celestial Bodhisattva.) Since virtually all the other Śaiva scriptures included complex ritual injunctions, the performance of which was supported by a strong institutional base, their study fell away over centuries of Muslim conquest that destroyed that institutional base. This is the primary reason that in 20th-century Muslim-dominated Kashmīr, the VBT was the only revealed scripture of the Tantrik Age that was still studied and copied.

Below I offer a discussion of the interesting features of the VBT that make it stand out in a history of yoga, let alone of Tantrik yoga. 

An Orientation to the Text and its Practices

An initial examination of the VBT quickly reveals to the reader that he is here dealing with a text whose ideas and presuppositions about the nature of yogic practice are, in some ways, radically different from those of the classical Yoga tradition. The Yoga-sūtra of Patañjali, the prototypical text of classical Yoga, stresses disengagement with the objects of the senses (vairāgya), and an interiorization so complete that yoga scholar Mircea Eliade in all seriousness compared the classical yogin to a vegetable. By contrast, the VBT (written just four centuries after the Yoga-sūtra) often stresses a dynamic engagement with the external world, albeit with a significant shift in awareness or perception regarding the nature of that world. 

In Yoga-sūtra 1.16 we read: ‘Higher dispassion is a total absence of craving for anything material...’, suggesting the cultivation of extreme indifference towards the external world. The VBT, on the other hand, asserts a different perspective, exemplified in the following verses: 

Wherever the mind goes, externally or even internally, it [discovers] nothing but the state of Śiva. Since [that state] is all-pervasive, where else could the mind go? (116) ~ Wherever and whenever awareness of the omnipresent Lord is revealed through the sensory organs, the sense-object [should be contemplated as] having exactly the same nature [as that awareness]… (117)

In fact, this text goes so far as to recommend absorption in the inner states arising as a direct result of enjoying sense-pleasures, including sex, food, drink, and music. (Contrary to popular belief, this is quite a rarity in Tantrik sources, at least Śaiva ones.) The latter is exemplified in verse 73:

The yogin who relishes music and song to the extent that he merges with it becomes filled with unparalleled happiness, attains heightened awareness, and experiences oneness with the Divine. ||

This must be seen as a radical departure from the strenuously ascetic earlier tradition, which asserted that involvement with the objects of the senses inevitably drew the practitioner out of the experience of the true self and painfully entangled him with the vicissitudes of worldly life. However, while illustrating this contrast it must be stressed that the VBT clearly is not advocating simple self-indulgence (which, as our experience verifies, is no path to fulfilment).  Verse 71, for example, specifies that one should become absorbed in the inner feeling of delight arising from external stimuli, rather than the stimuli themselves. Thus the energy of desire, previously seen as a hindrance in sādhanā, is redirected towards the attainment of expanded awareness, as per the terms of the later Kulārṇava Tantra (2.63): “What is called sin becomes a merit when done for a higher purpose.” In this way, the Tantrik tradition asserts that desire itself is not a problem so much as attachment to the belief that desire ought to be fulfilled, and to the belief that satisfaction of desire is the path to happiness. This wrong view arises in connection with the idea that feelings of happiness are caused by or dependent on the stimuli that help to trigger them. This is demonstrably not the case, and thus the essential problem is one of ignorance, not desire. 

Another outstanding feature of classical Yoga is its fundamental doctrine that the Self is attained through the cessation of all mental-emotional fluctuations (Yoga-sūtra 1.2). In this view, thoughts, like radio static, mask the pure, sweet, simple melody of the inner Self and are therefore useless mental detritus when attempting to realize that Self. In stark contrast, if we were to identify one technique as the most dominant and pervasive theme in the VBT, it would probably be that of bhāvanā, a term which encompasses ‘awareness cultivation’, ‘creative contemplation’, and ‘feeling into what is’. In one version of bhāvanā practice, a profoundly refined thought-construct (śuddha-vikalpa) is to be held steadily in awareness. Far from obscuring the state of the Self, this allows the mind to relax and come to rest on a nourishing idea that is in aligned with the true nature of reality until it dissolves into a pure feeling-state corresponding to the truth of the idea contemplated. This remarkable shift again indicates the revolutionary nature of the Tantrik perspective. Examples of bhāvanā are rife throughout the text. In verses 63 and 65, the aspirant contemplates her body and the universe as of the nature of joyful awareness. In 109, she contemplates, “Since I have all the attributes of Śiva, I am the same as the highest Lord.” In 110, one meditates on the thought (and seeks to actualize the corresponding experience): “the energy-waves of the universe have arisen in their various forms from me, Bhairava.” These creative contemplations are not only an methodological innovation over the earlier tradition, but also clearly assert a doctrinal difference: that of nonduality over and against duality. The duality of the earlier classical tradition, of course, was not one of difference between oneself and pure Awareness, but rather an ontological distinction between that Awareness and the world. This is a duality which the VBT blithely disregards, encouraging the aspirant to see Divine Consciousness pulsating in the entire manifest world as much as in her own deepest core. Astonishingly, the VBT is one of the earliest nondual practice texts to appear, yet it exhibits remarkable maturity and sophistication of thought, despite its often simplistic Sanskrit.* This nondual attitude culminates in the final dhāranā, which confidently proclaims that cognition and cognized (knowing and what is known, seeing and what is seen, hearing and what is heard, etc.) are one and the same (v. 137).**

* (The text is difficult to translate not because its grammar is sophisticated, but because its verses are very often allusive and elliptical.)
** (Yogasūtra 1.41 is often read as having the same meaning, especially when interpreted through the lens of later non-dualism. However, when examined carefully, it is apparent that the sūtra is simply referring to the tendency of a mind which has become still to take on the features of the object of meditation or be “colored by what is nearby”; but no state of actual unity of perceiver and perceived is being propounded by the text.) 

Continuity of the Tradition with Earlier Forms

Having described the contrasts between the classical and Tantrik yogas, I must now go back and nuance my simplifications. A peculiar feature of South Asian religion is its reluctance to repudiate earlier strata of the tradition. At the very least, reverent lip service is paid to past masters, and more usually, their doctrines are retained insofar as they can fit into the new system, even if they must be reinterpreted. Thus we see the apparently atavistic survival of a Patañjalian view in the VBT, as in these verses:

Wherever the mind goes, in that very instant let it abandon whatever [it has alighted upon]. Due to having nothing to hang onto, it then becomes ‘waveless’ (i.e., free of fluctuation or agitation). (129)  
Observing a desire suddenly arising, one should lead it to quiescence. It will dissolve into the very ‘place’ from which it arose. (96)

A number of other verses recommend blocking off the senses or introverting awareness (such as 89), as well as dissolving all vikalpas Patañjali-style (such as 108, 115, and more). However, I noted that the survival of these elements was only apparently atavistic, and this is because the text presupposes a methodological theory that reconciles the apparently contradictory approaches. The is the theory of upāya, possibly inherited from Buddhism. According to this theory, a variety of techniques ought to be presented, both introversive and extroversive, thoughtful and thought-less, because of the difference in aptitude and inclination in the variety of practitioners who might use the text. Verse 148 discusses the benefits of “being established in even one of the methods described here”.  Clearly, then, the practitioner is not expected to pursue all or even a majority of the techniques described in the text, but rather to choose those few which work most effectively for him or her, and pursue them assiduously to actualize the promised “fullness, contentment, and perfect plenitude” (v. 148). If we assume that the text was in fact intended as a teaching manual for a guru, not a practice manual for an aspirant (as is likely), then the diversity of techniques becomes even less problematic. The guru, relying on the intuition “that arises through intensity of devotion in one who is dispassionate (about everything but Truth)” (v. 121), would select those dhāranās from the text that are appropriate to the adhikāra—the understanding, aptitude, and readiness—of the individual student. In this context, we should not consider the survival of Patañjalian methods in nondual contexts to be unusual.

Not only do the various strands of the tradition co-exist in an early mediaeval text like VBT, sometimes they syncretistically merge in a manner that indicates a thoughtful dialectic on the part of the anonymous author.  A good example is verse 94:

Contemplate thus: “There is no ‘mental apparatus’ within me, consisting of the mind, ego, etc.”—through the absence of mental constructs [of selfhood based on ephemeral mental operations], one becomes free of such constructs [and will abide as pure awareness].  

Here we see an almost paradoxical reconciliation of classical yogic practice with the later Tantrik tool of bhāvanā, for the aspirant is to use the mind to contemplate the mind’s non-existence! The instruction to concentrate on its own non-existence is clearly intended to cause a Zen-like ‘short circuit’ of the mind, resulting (for one who has the adhikāra) in the pure awareness described.  This is a good example of the pragmatic experimentalism of the text, which benefitted from the diversity of possible methods in the early mediaeval period.

Sectarian affiliation

The VBT has affliation to a specific Tantrik lineage, a fact obscured by almost all its translators. It teaches an esoteric form of the Trika in which a single deity, Parā Devī (lit., ‘supreme Goddess’) is venerated as Bhairavī, the consort of Bhairava. Thus the text also has Kaula affliation, since it is the Kaula tradition that worships the consort pair of Bhairava and Bhairavī. However, in this scripture, both these names are used to refer to states of expanded consciousness or inner fullness, with Bhairavī being used more for states of activated energy (śakti), and Bhairava being used for states of total stillness and quiescence (śūnya). The great nondualist author Kṣemarāja wrote a beautiful verse explaining why Supreme Consciousness is appropriately referred to with the name Bhairava, which you will find at the beginning of my translation document to be mailed out next week. 

The text seems to exhibit a strong Buddhist influence, for one of the most common themes is meditating on the ‘voidness’ (śūnya) of things: the inside of the body as empty space (48), the space of the heart (45, 49), the senses as voids (32), and the whole universe as pure open spacious expansive void within which awareness roams freely. Yet this apparent Buddhist influence is not a form of syncretism, for the scripture maintains throughout a theology of Śiva-Śakti, where Śiva is defined as unbounded spacious awareness (or aware spaciousness) and Śakti as various forms of energy. One can be a means of accessing the other, for they are inseparable, like fire and its heat (v. 18-19). But the primary teaching of the text is to access the nonconceptual space of Śiva (pure Awareness) through the energy of Śakti (v. 20-21).

Despite the text’s strong Goddess-orientation, ultimately the goal it presents is one of abiding in the pure, spacious, open, still Ground of Being that is named as Śiva or Bhairava (see v. 139, where the goal of the text’s practices is made explicit). The VBT frequently stresses that the state it seeks is wide open and free of any mental constructs, even if a mental construct was used to get there. The text repeatedly articulates a ‘subitist’ goal of accessing the natural state of awareness that results from dissolving all thought-constructs and feelings into their source and ground.

Unusual or atypical techniques easily integrated with everyday life

I have already mentioned the fact that the text teaches (or alludes to) specific esoteric techniques of inner yoga which require an expert’s explanation to perform correctly. Let’s close this introduction by taking note of the VBT’s more unconventional techniques for entering into expanded and intensified states of consciousness, techniques that are not traditionally considered yogic, except in lineages influenced by the VBT. These techniques include:

  • gazing at a blank wall, a vast open space, or the clear blue sky and letting awareness become likewise open and clear (vv. 33, 60, 84);

  • becoming aware of the space between thoughts (v. 61);

  • meditating on the liminal state between waking and sleeping (v. 75);

  • gazing at the pattern of sunlight on the floor and becoming absorbed in its silent play (v. 76);

  • contemplating that the sky is in your head (v. 85);

  • just quietly repeating the vowel ‘a’ (v. 90);

  • accessing intensified awareness through the pain of a piercing (v. 93);

  • spinning around and around and falling down (v. 111);

  • simply sitting and doing “nothing” (non-conceptual meditation).

Many of the above techniques invite the practitioner into nirvikalpa states, that is, states which are largely or entirely free of thought-constructs and mental chatter. 

Some of the teachings of this peculiar scripture cannot even be called techniques; rather, the text invites us to notice daily-life opportunities for accessing an expanded state of awareness that we might otherwise let slip by. These verses are even more unusual teachings in to find in a Sanskrit scripture (Tantrik or not), though we take their recommendations for granted in today’s spiritual culture (but rarely practice them). We are invited to immerse ourselves in:

  • the feeling of wonder from watching a magic show (v. 66);

  • the aftermath of an orgasm (v. 69);

  • the arising of inner delight when savoring fine food and drink (v. 72);

  • listening to the vibration of live instrumental music or becoming one with the joyous feeling of a song (v. 73);

  • the repetitive gentle rocking motion of a swing or a carriage (v. 83);

  • what we find when we follow intense emotions back to their source and ground (v. 101);

  • the energy of sharpened and heightened consciousness in any intense experience (v. 118).

Though this scripture was atypical, it was also seminal, for it laid the groundwork for a ‘gnostic’ version of Tantrik Yoga, in which traditional ritual could be overcoded with gnostic meaning, or dispensed with altogether for with sufficiently high adhikāra (aptitude/qualification).  Thus we must be absolutely clear that this text was aimed at those who had already mastered the ritual and more basic forms of yoga. This is proven by verses 144-151, which would not be meaningful for anyone who was not familiar with the rituals mentioned and reinterpreted in those crucial closing verses (translated in the pdf you will receive next week if you’re on my email list!).  

Existing translations of the VBT

Today there are at least a dozen published translations of the VBT, whereas the vast majority of the Tantrik scriptural corpus remains untranslated. It would be more accurate to say there have been a dozen attempts to translate the VBT, none of which have been very successful, for reasons we will come to. These translations range from Jaidev Singh’s mostly accurate but inaccessible version to Lorin Roche’s poetic rendering that has almost no connection to the ideas and practices of the original text, yet poses as a translation because Roche believes he has a kind of mystical connection to the original scripture that allows him to transmit its essence without knowing the Sanskrit language. (Though Roche has a substantial Sanskrit vocabulary, one must understand the grammatical rules of a language in order to translate from it!) In between these two extremes we have a very mixed bag, including the Bihar School’s disappointing translation, let down by the author’s poor grasp of Sanskrit syntax, and Dmitri Semenov’s little-known but surprisingly good attempt at a practitioner-friendly translation, which despite its mistakes (this author too has poor Sanskrit) demonstrates that the author has had some success in practicing the scripture’s subtle techniques. We also have Osho’s version, which contrary to the belief of his devotees and fans, was not translated from the Sanskrit but rather was based on Paul Reps’ 1957 poetic version (also Roche’s and Odier’s main inspiration), which itself was based on Lakṣman Jū’s extemporaneous orally delivered rendering of the text. (And note that Swāmī-jī’s English was relatively poor, and Reps had no knowledge of Sanskrit.) These two versions—Osho and Reps—are therefore on the Roche end of the spectrum: though Reps was a fine poet, one cannot retrieve the original practices from his version. Of all these versions not translated directly from the original Sanskrit, Odier’s is easily the best.

We also have a couple of published translations that purport to be by Swāmī Lakṣman Jū, the last living guru of the Trika in Kashmīr (d. 1992), but in fact Swāmījī never wrote a translation, but rather gave extemporaneous explanations of the text’s dhāraṇās, explanations which were often somewhat vague in the English he had available to him. This was also because those verses that alluded to specific technical details of Shaiva Tantrik yoga were largely opaque to him, the practices of those yogas having mostly died out in Kashmīr before his time. (In general, devotees of Lakṣman Jū will not admit to this, often holding their guru to be infallible or very close to it.) For the evidence that supports this assertion, see Sanderson’s masterful article on Lakṣman Jū’s place in the Kashmirian tradition. So, gentle reader, be aware that when you open up the Lakṣman Jū translation published by Indica, you are actually reading Bettina Baumer’s translation followed by Lakṣman Jū’s extemporaneous, orally delivered explanation of the verse in question. Baumer had to do a balancing act between the literal meaning of the Sanskrit and the way Lakṣman Jū was interpreting it, and the result is problematic though not without value. 

Though Singh is the only published translator who bothered to study the Sanskrit commentaries on the text and factor them into his translation (which is kind of shocking, given the importance granted to commentary by the original tradition), his translation does not work for 21st century practitioners because even though he understands the practice being described in about 80% of the verses (in my rough estimation), he usually does not express himself in a form of English that a modern reader can use to accurately practice the technique given. Additionally, like Lakṣman Jū, he forces the text to fit into the schema of Abhinavagupta’s three upāyas, a schema certainly unknown to the VBT’s author.

The current situation

So we’re left with the amazing fact that despite the enormous interest worldwide in Tantra and Tantrik Yoga, we don’t have a single accurate and accessible translation of the only Shaiva Tantrik yoga scripture to survive the ravages of time as a living document. (~As opposed to scriptures that are currently studied only by academics. Some of these are now thankfully being published in annotated English translation, though so far the publications are almost exclusively of Saiddhāntika tantras. See the publications of the EFEO/IFP, supervised by Dominic Goodall — this is the only organisation in the world actively translating and publishing Shaiva Tantrik scriptures.) Of course, we do have some accurate and accessible translations of Buddhist tantras (see, e.g. David Gray’s Cakrasamvara-tantra), but since these draw on and borrow material from the Shaiva tantras that preceded them, sometimes distorting that material (for the evidence of this, see Sanderson’s monumental piece The Śaiva Age), translations of those Shaiva tantras are more pressing. 

This situation becomes even more shocking when you realize that the VBT is one of our earliest texts to present kuṇḍalinī practices (see, e.g., verses 28-31 and 35). Despite the widespread interest in kuṇḍalinī, there is still no study of the origins and early usage of the term. Anyone attempting to research it will find information almost exclusively based on late (post-classical) materials and modern reinventions. (For example, Yogi Bhajan’s ‘kuṇḍalinī yoga’ has no relation at all to anything we find in the Sanskrit manuscripts.) Due to the decline of interest in rigorous academic study in mainstream culture, we have literally tens of millions of people interested in something that is still not well understood due to a total lack of thorough studies on the subject by anyone fluent in both Sanskrit and English. (Because there are precious few such people, and an enormous number of worthwhile projects, amongst which the "kuṇḍalinī question" is a particularly knotty problem to tackle.)

Though I am not yet prepared to do an intertextual study on kuṇḍalinī, I have undertaken the difficult task of producing a translation of the VBT that is both accurate and accessible. This translation will be published in 2019, the 101st anniversary of the text’s first publication in Sanskrit. I will be consulting the commentaries, as well as drawing on my own experience, checked against the experience of living masters who practice and teach these subtle techniques. 

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UPDATE: I have heard from two prominent scholar-practitioners who are preparing their own versions of the VBT. I am hoping that 2018-9 will see the fruition of all this work!

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In conclusion, I present Mark Dyczkowski’s classification of the categories of practice in the VBT. Markji has an unpolished translation of the text available on his website (last I checked). 

  • Breath: 24-27, 55, 64, 154

  • Kuṇḍalinī: 28-31, 35

  • Dvādaśānta: 50-51, [55]

  • Senses: 32, 36, 67, 77?, 89, 117, 136

  • Sound and Mantra: 38-42, 90-91, 114

  • Void: 43-48, [49], 58-60, 120, 122

  • Universe (or absence thereof): 53, 56-57, 95

  • Body (or absence thereof): 46-48 (overlaps with Void), 52, 54, 63, 65, 93, 104, 107 [Note: I disagree with many of these being categorized as Body]

  • Heart/Center: 49, 61, 62

  • Pleasure: 68-74, 96

  • Light & Dark: 37, 76, 87, 88

  • Sleep & Dream [& Liminal states]: 55, 75, 86

  • Practice with the body: 66, 78-79, 81, 82, 83, 111

  • Gazing: 80, 84, 85, 113, 119-120

  • Equanimity: 100, 103, 123-4, 125-6, 129

  • Knowledge/insight: 97-99, 105, 106, 112, 127, 131

  • Intense sensations and emotions: 101, 115, 118

  • Where the mind goes: 33, 34, 92, 94, 108, 116, 128, [138]

  • The ‘magic show’: 102, 133-5, 137

  • The Supreme Lord: 109-110, 121, 132