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Historical Background of Abhinavagupta’s Tantric Ideas

by Dr. Haramohan Mishra
30th June 2017

Among the exponents of the Agamic works Abhinavagupta shines as the brightest star who interpreted the secret and esoteric ideas contained in them in a unique and unambiguous manner. His writings on Tantra are stupendous where we encounter almost all the concepts of Tantric philosophy and practice which can be beneficially used for understanding any Tantric idea belonging to any school. Not only this, for finding the meaning of spirituality in general, the sublime aspirations of men anywhere in any form, Abhinava’s writings are immensely valuable. If one goes through these lines he is convinced that spiritual pursuits are not mere philosophical speculations nor confined to mere religious beliefs and practices. They are meaningful, verifiable and realizable. The quest for the verities of life and its experiences exhumes a sense of universality transcending divisions of caste, creed, religion and nationality as it is seen in Science, Philosophy and sublime Poetry.  Under the veil of some cultic beliefs and practices which are always associated with religion, one can discover the universal truths. Kashmir Saivism, in some sense or other, along with the Upanisads, is the highest attainment of Indian mind. Its greatness came to be perceptible only through Abhinava’s exposition.

The philosophic outlook of Abhinavagupta was formed by three great streams of Agamic schools, the Trika, Krama and Kaula. He learnt the essence of Trika as interpreted by Somananda and Utpala from his teacher Laksmanagupta and the secrets of Kaula, probably also of the Krama, from the greatest siddha of his time, Sri Sambhunatha. It was from the last of his teachers he learnt the esotery of Tantric sadhana and attained siddhi. He integrated the philosophical concepts and spiritual practices of these three systems which we notice in his greatest work the Tantraloka. But his basic philosophical outlook is supplied by the highly developed system of Trika also called Pratyabhijna as expounded by Utpala. In two of the introductory verses of the Tantraloka he pays glowing tribute to his preceptors: “The pleasant fragrance of samvit emanating as sandarbha-s from Utpala (utpala- a lotus, also his grand preceptor Utpala) endowed with the beauty of knowledge (bodha-sri) of Somananda is diffusing in all directions; I bow before the honeybee, the intellect of my guru Laksmanagupta, humming, as if reveling in its abundance”. The Krama ideas are integrated with it. The Krama was a highly developed form of Saktism prevalent in Kashmir.  But most probably he was not a follower of Kaula, especially the vama marga which is now generally understood by the term Kaula, for which he separately deals with it in a dedicated chapter in the Tantraloka (Ch.29). In the beginning of kula prakriya, he mentions that the entire upasana vidhi is now being stated according to kaula practice which is meant for those who are established in this line. Most probably the Kaula marga as practiced in Kashmir was different from that which was prevalent in Bengal. The term Kaula, in the earliest phases stood for all types of non-dualistic Sakti cults; its meaning got restricted later as to denote only the leftist Tantric practice.

 Interestingly he has given a short deliberation on the various schools of Tantra in the last chapter of the Tantraloka (Ch.37, sl.25-32). He states that the entire gamut of the Tantras can be broadly divided into two, the left and the right, combined which is known as Kaula. All of this is essentially contained in Trika Sastra. However, he clarifies,  the Siddhanta is full of external liturgies; the Right is replete with violent practices; the Left though gives the siddhis are still devoid of merits, full of difficulties and bereft of self-knowledge and emancipation. The only path which is described in the Siddhayogisvarimata and its essence the Malinivijayottara, viz. the Trika, is the best in as much as it offers both jivanmukti and mahabhoga because of one’s union with Siva. As in the first chapter he states that the Malinivijaya is his model in writing the Tantraloka, at the end, he praises it in glowing words (Tantraloka 1. 17-18 also 37.23-25).

The fundamental concepts of the Trika are there in the Malinivijaya which is distinctly a great work among the Agamas. Utpala, following Somananda whom he mentions as mahaguru, brought to the forefront these concepts and provided the framework for Abhinava in his Isvarapratyabhijna karika, which is undoubtedly the first great philosophical work on pratyabhijna. He gives an extensive philosophical deliberation on jnana and kriya in the previous chapters and then dwells on the key concepts and categories as stated in the Agamas, especially in the Malinivijaya.    However, he does not refer to this work directly. It was through Abhinava’s reference and appreciation that we come to realize the greatness of the Malinivijaya. Almost all the concepts which Abhinava and Ksemaraja developed later were either contained or hinted in this work. The upayas such as sambhava, sakta and anava which both Abhinava and Ksemaraja adopted and standardized are first encountered in the Malinivijaya. Nowhere other than the Malinivijaya is the non-dualistic Saiva cosmology with its thirty six tattva vibhaga proclaimed in a clear and discernible manner. The malini classification of the alphabets which is so important for this school is first encountered in this work which is conspicuous by its absence in other Tantric traditions.   Moreover, this work gives emphasis on the subtle yogic practices free from any objectionable rituals so much associated with Tantra. It is natural that the highly philosophical mind of Abhinavagupta with the best human refinements finds satisfaction in this great work.

  It is notable that Abhinava refers to a number of Tantric texts of which many are not available now. Apart from the non-dualistic Tantric works such as the Malinivijaya, Svacchanda, the Trisirobhairava, the Vijnanabhairava etc, he also refers to some dualistic works such as the Matanga Agama and others. He refers to some works such as the Ratnamala, the Kulaguhvara, the Viravali etc, which may belong to the Kaula system.  However, the Malinivijaya is his model that he integrated with the philosophical views of Somananda and Utpala, indistinctly stated in the Sivadrsti and clearly expounded in the Pratyabhijna Karika. Apart from the Agamic works philosophical works such as the Sivadrsti, the Pratyabhijna kariaka, the Spanda karika, and the revealed Sivasutra shaped his philosophical outlook. It is noteworthy that the Spanda School representing a different line of philosophical interpretation of Kallata and his followers was gradually forgotten. Ksemaraja, following Abhinava’s line wrote his commentaries on the Spanda Karika and the Sivasutra which almost eclipsed the other line of interpretation. However, if we compare his commentaries with other commentaries such as the commentary on the Siva sutra by Bhatta Bhaskara, who traces his line of interpretation to Kallata, it becomes clear that Kallata and his followers had a distinct school of their own.

The Krama was a distinct Tantric tradition in Kashmir, an esoteric practice confined to a group of advanced practitioners. It is also known as Mahanaya, the great path or Mahartha, the great meaning. The Mahanayaprakasa of Sitikantha is the only extant work from Kashmir which stands in evidence of this great tradition. Another work with the same name recovered in parts frequently referred to by Mahesvarananda in his Maharthamanjari of some unknown author belonged to a later period. (Another work bearing the same title written by Arna sinha was not available to the present author for evaluation).   Sitikantha was prior to Abhinava and may be contemporary of Utpala whom he refers to in his work but not in an honorific manner. Abhinava was greatly influenced by this school which is clearly discernible in his works. He wrote the Krama stotra and his principal works contain such concepts which are conspicuous by their absence in the works of either Utpala or Somananda. The most important Krama concepts which both Abhinava and Ksemaraja utilized in their exposition are the panca-vaha and twelve-Kali concepts. It is experiencing the entire process and mechanism of knowledge as a cosmic flow of Consciousness where the differences of knower, knowledge and knowable are obliterated, from the perceiver to the perceived being in the same gigantic cosmic flow.

In fact, the influence of Krama on Abhinava is not properly evaluated by his modern exponents as a thorough study of the tenets of this school is not yet done. The entire sakta upaya discussed by Abhinava in his Tantraloka is the proliferation of the Krama view. It is notable that the simple sloka of the Malinivijaya expressing the sakta upaya only states a type of bhavana to which Abhinava added a lot of meanings which reoriented its priorities in the Krama line (Malinivijaya, 2.22).  The vigor and dynamism of Krama sadhana along with its esotery were infused into the simple bhavana and gave it a new meaning. Explaining the esotery of perception through the twelve powers of Consciousness, he describes it as a top secret for which it was not made explicit. Jayaratha makes it further clear by stating that this doctrine of Trika is the sodara (born from the same womb) of Krama naya (krama-naya-sodarata asya darsanasya) (Jayaratha’s comm. on Tantraloka, 4.148). Commenting elsewhere, he even dwells on, in details, the lineage of Krama teachers. Likewise, Ksemaraja, in the Pratyabhijnahrdaya, gives an alternative meaning of panca-krtya apart from its meaning in the Trika system (Pratyabhijnahrdaya, 10-11). It is noteworthy that the alternative meaning which he describes as a rahasya or secret is nothing other than the krama theory of grasping of the visaya by samvit. Both Abhinava and Ksemaraja keep in esteem the Krama School and frequently mention it to be a rahasya (secret, esoteric). Jayaratha was also a practitioner of Krama which he stated explicitly in many places. Abhinava’s great love for Krama sadhana is clearly discernible from his concluding remarks in the end of his exposition of sakta upaya in the Tantraloka-“The splendid displays of samsara disappear for a man who takes repose in this esoteric sacrifice as a bulk of ice melts in the scorching summer. There is no need of prolixity or of explaining the utmost secret; only one Abhinavagupta is capable of performing such an esoteric yaga (anybody who is not equal of Abhinavagupta is not capable of it).”(Tantraloka, 4. 277-278).  It is noteworthy that, according to the Krama theory, the process of experience is conceived as a partial visaya-grasa, consuming of the sense-objects by the samvid-devis manifesting as different senses; this process culminates in alamgrasa where the entire world with all its differences is consumed or devoured by the Supreme Consciousness, Kalakarsini or kali at the end. This is the rahasya krama yaga referred to by Abhinava as the culmination of sakta upaya.

Whether it is Trika or Krama the basic philosophical overview is the same. Both these systems are non-dualistic; for both, the Supreme Consciousness is the ultimate reality which manifests as the manifold things of the world. In both their conception the individual is no other than Siva, the Supreme Consciousness. For both of them, the non-dual reality though bereft of difference manifests as Siva-Sakti combine. Both of them are sadhana-intensive. However, it seems that the philosophic aspect was more developed in Trika where as the Krama remained more or less an esoteric way of practice. It seems that Abhinava was acquainted with the Tripura Agamas but he did not follow them. Later on Tripura cult which is also known as Srividya, very close to Kashmir Saivism in its world view, became a dominant form of worship in Kashmir. Jayaratha even wrote a commentary on Vamakesvara Tantra known as Vamakesvarimata-vivarana belonging to this school. Surprisingly Srividya is also widely popular in South India. Its close proximity with Kashmir Saivism is a matter of research and it is to see which part of India actually influenced the other.

Abhinava is silent on the then political scenario of Kashmir even though some of his friends and relatives were from the aristocracy associated with the royalty. He mentioned Yasaskara as the king of Kashmir whose minister was Ballabha. Ballabha’s son Sauri was also a minister who relinquished his ministerial post later preferring a spiritual life. His son Karna was a friend of Abhinava and probably married Amba who was the sister (may be a cousin of Abhinava). Mandra, another minister’s son was a friend of Abhinava whose Aunt Vatsalika provided shelter and looked after him when writing his magnum opus Tantraloka. Vatsalika happened to be the sister of Sauri and Abhinava had great admiration for her. Even though he was associated with ministerial families, with an attitude of renunciation and non-attachment, he was indifferent to royal patronage. It is not surprising that the greatest exponent of the spiritual and intellectual heritage of Kashmir does not find mention in Kalhana’s Rajatarangini.               
                  The Tantric ideas and categories which Abhinava adopted were contained in earlier texts. But his greatest contribution is their interpretation without which they remained a mess of disarrayed ideas and absurd practices. With an unsurpassable dexterity of philosophical understanding and an uncanny spiritual wisdom he brought out the Science of Tantra lying hidden in these abstruse texts and gave it a systematic form. In him is blended the philosophical wisdom of Somananda and Utpala with the exalted sadhana of Sambhunatha where the best Agamic traditions, the Trika and the Krama (with Kaula) reach their culmination.

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