Tantra and the Teachings of Abhinavagupta

December 11, 2014    BY Linda Johnsen

Over the past decade I’ve talked with many yoga students across the United States, from New York to San Francisco, and I’ve found that many of us have similar issues about our spiritual practice. Here are the kinds of things I hear over and over:

“I have a really hard time motivating myself to go to work in the morning. My job has nothing to do with spiritual life; it feels empty to me.”

“My boyfriend has been practicing yoga for six years and doesn't want to get married. He says yoga teaches it’s important not to get attached.”

“I used to be interested in politics and what was going on in the world. These days I’m much less involved because I know now the world is nothing but an illusion.”

“I’ve been meditating since I was twenty but I’m still tormented by desire. I keep thinking of things I want: more sex, more success, more money. Then I feel guilty!”

“I’m not sure if the form of yoga I’ve been practicing is right for me. My friend goes to another yoga center and says the techniques they teach there are much better.”

“My meditation teacher keeps talking about self-realization. But I strongly believe in God. Where does God fit in with meditation?”

These are not new problems—yoga practitioners have been dealing with these issues for centuries. A thousand years ago one of the greatest and most influential yogis of all time produced a great body of literature that addressed these problems in a practical way. His name was Abhinavagupta. He was the consummate master in a field of spirituality much discussed but little understood here in the West: Tantra Yoga.

Abhinavagupta was born in Kashmir to an illustrious family of scholars around 950 C.E. He was brilliant, and so passionate about learning that he sought out the best teachers of his time. Later he would advise yoga students, “Be like the bee that gathers pollen from many flowers and then makes its own honey. Learn from the greatest masters you can find, then practice and assimilate what you’ve learned.”

Today we think of Kashmir as a battlefield, but a thousand years ago it was a haven of religious tolerance where Buddhist, Jain, and numerous different Hindu schools flourished together in an atmosphere of mutual respect. Abhinavagupta steeped himself in the wisdom of these traditions, but he finally joined the lineage that resonated most deeply with his intelligent and passionate nature: the tantric tradition of Kashmir Shaivism.

Around 800 C.E. the Shiva Sutra, a set of aphorisms explaining the essential nature of consciousness and how you can experience it for yourself, was revealed to a north Indian sage named Vasugupta. Expanding on the Shiva Sutra, Vasugupta composed the Spanda Karika, which describes the limitless power of awareness and what happens when you master it. These two classics deal respectively with Shiva, the “male” or passive element of reality, and Shakti, the “female” or active component of the universe. To understand these teachings you need to keep in mind that while Western religions tend to picture the Supreme Being exclusively as male, in India it is seen as both male and female. Eternal pure awareness is called God in this system, while the ability of consciousness to know itself and to manifest the cosmos out of itself is described as the Goddess.

Vasugupta had an ambitious agenda. He taught his disciples how to achieve two important goals: to become fully divine and to become fully human. To him these were not mutually exclusive. In fact, to become a truly successful and fulfilled human being meant to connect at the deepest level possible with the full range of power innate in consciousness itself, unfolding the divine potential hidden in every human soul. However, like the Yoga Sutra, Vasugupta’s aphorisms were succint, compact, and difficult to decipher. Abhinavagupta’s contribution was to explain and illustrate these principles in his numerous books, among them The Trident of Wisdom, The Ocean of Tantra, and the encyclopedic The Light of Tantra (Tantraloka)—one of the great classics on yoga. To appreciate Abhinavagupta’s perspective on spiritual practice, we need to understand how he views consciousness and its special powers.

He taught his disciples how to achieve two important goals: to become fully divine and to become fully human.

Consciousness and Creative Power

The goal of Kashmir Shaivism is to become divine. But what would it be like to be God? Some yoga students, especially those who’ve studied Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra, or Vedanta philosophy as taught by Shankaracharya, may imagine the Supreme Being as pure consciousness without an object, undisturbed awareness that rests eternally in its own perfect nature. But there’s one glaring problem with this picture, Abhinavagupta points out. If reality is nothing but pure awareness, it’s hard to explain how the universe came into existence. Somehow we’ve got to account for the fact that we’re not experiencing just the rapture of consciousness itself; we’re also experiencing all the things that clutter it, like noisy neighbors and computer crashes and lousy weather.

Patanjali would respond that the cosmos we experience around us exists entirely outside our consciousness. It’s just external matter/energy that our higher self observes, but never actually interacts with. Liberation means turning our awareness away from the external world, including our own body (which after all is also made of matter/energy) and remaining totally focused on pure, passive awareness alone.

Abhinavagupta rejects this view. He does not believe two separate absolutes—consciousness (purusha) and matter/energy (prakriti)—exist apart from each other. He says there is only one supreme reality, and it includes our bodies and our world. There is a fundamental unity connecting everything, he tells us, that is both the source and final end of everything in the cosmos. Consciousness and matter/energy are not separate, but two ends of one undivided spectrum, like two poles of a single magnet.

Abhinavagupta points out that in our actual experience awareness is much more than the simple, passive inner witness mentioned in the Yoga Sutra. Every meditator knows that no matter how still your consciousness becomes, at some point images, thoughts, and desires spontaneously well up in the field of your awareness. This, says Abhinavagupta, is because consciousness is inherently creative; it basks in its own radiance, constantly filling itself with every kind of content and taking genuine delight in its own endless productions.

According to Abhinavagupta, if we want to understand the nature of the Supreme Being we need only to look into our own nature. Jiva, the individual soul, is a smaller version of Shiva, the Supreme Soul, because we, like our maker, are conscious, creative beings. And just as it is our innermost nature to be creative and active, to will and to desire, to know and to enjoy, so it is the nature of Divine Being to freely and consciously manifest the universe through an act of supreme will.

According to Abhinavagupta, if we want to understand the nature of the Supreme Being we need only to look into our own nature.

“And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light,” says the Bible. Abhinavagupta’s form of Tantra Yoga agrees that through its limitless creative power and will, Shiva, the Supreme Being, can effortlessly project a universe into existence just as we can make a fantasy lover or an imaginary tropical beach instantly appear in our mind’s eye. But while the Bible seems to suggest the universe exists outside of God, Abhinavagupta explains the universe doesn’t exist apart from Shiva anymore than the images in our dreams exist outside ourselves.

Think about it. When you’re dreaming you may experience yourself as an Antarctic explorer lost in a blizzard. Suddenly your mother appears with a thermos of steaming French Roast coffee and you find yourself in a comfortable chalet. You experience yourself as an individual in that dream, yet the coffee, your mother, even the entire continent of Antarctica were nothing but projections of your own power of awareness.

“In just this way the entire universe composed of limitless objects appears all together in the Supreme Consciousness,” Abhinavagupta wrote. The Supreme Being, though it is intrinsically unitary, is able to split itself into subject, object, and the process of the subject knowing the object just as we do when we dream. And it does this from outside of time and space and without ever ceasing to be omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent.

Why does Shiva do this? The Supreme Being brims with rapture, Abhinavagupta explains, spilling out of itself with joy. Shiva is consciousness (chit) which doesn’t merely take things in passively but has the ability to reflect back on itself, to know itself (vimarsha). This self-knowledge is the source of infinite delight (ananda). This bliss in turn is the source of creative activity (kriya). When Shiva’s limitless awareness expands out across itself the universe comes into existence and we, as figments of Shiva’s imagination, experience ourselves as individual entities moving through a world that Shiva’s will holds in place. When Shiva withdraws its awareness back into its silent depths the universe subsides into perfect tranquility, as the images in our minds do when we fall into a deep state of sleep.

What evidence is there that all this talk of Shiva’s experience is anything more than words? Abhinavagupta cites the experience of cosmic consciousness reported by mystics in many different spiritual traditions and tells us that in vastly expanded states of awareness the greatest saints and yogis actually experience themselves as Shiva. They feel their consciousness widening until it embraces the cosmos, which they feel vibrating with bliss and self-awareness. The distinction between their own I-consciousness and Shiva’s melts away and they merge into infinity.

What evidence is there that all this talk of Shiva’s experience is anything more than words?

Five Veils of Consciousness

Needless to say, most of us are not presently experiencing ourselves as Shiva. Why not? When Shiva wills to create, Abhinavagupta explains, it wraps a portion of itself in five kanchukas (cloaks or veils). The first is vidya, or knowledge. From Shiva’s perspective, however, knowledge is limiting. Shiva contains everything within itself all at once. But in order to know anything in particular consciousness needs to look at each item one by one. So it wraps itself in vidya, which is the ability of the infinite to know the finite. Now the immeasurable reality can be measured by our limited minds. Instead of knowing everything, however, we perceive reality in tiny fragments fed to us by our senses.

The second veil is kala (pronounced ka-lah), the ability to deliberately perform specific actions. Shiva’s activity is always joyful, spontaneous, perfect, and purely good. Each of us retains a sense that we should be able to just wish things into existence; that if we willed it hard enough, we’d have whatever we wanted. This deep sense that our will has the power to instantly create new realities is a vestige of the Shiva consciousness still within us. But in our personalities Shiva’s immense power is obstructed by kala, which forces us to do one thing at a time instead of everything all at once.

Next comes raga, attachment to or desire for something. Shiva doesn’t want anything because it already contains everything. But when we forget that deep inside we’re all Shiva, then we begin to imagine there are things outside ourselves we want or need (just as when we dream we think it is something other than the projection of our own consciousness). Raga can lead to endless grief. For example, many of us long for the perfect lover, but there’s only one of those—and its name is Shiva. We continually search for the perfection that exists only on a higher plane of consciousness here in the physical world, which is only a flickering reflection of the true reality. It’s as if we’re trying to have a fulfilling relationship with a handsome lover’s image in a mirror rather than turning around and seeing the true lover himself.

The fourth covering is niyati, the laws of cause and effect that operate within the confines of space. Unlike Shiva, whose actions are completely natural and spontaneous, we ordinary folk consciously choose to act, usually with specific goals in mind. But our voluntary and often selfish actions leave us subject to the laws of karma. Actions we deliberately undertake, as self-conscious beings, shape our destiny, which further limits our vast potential.

The fifth limiting condition—kala—is spelled the same in simplified transliteration as the second veil, but it is pronounced differently (kah-la), and refers to time, rather than to the ability to perform actions. We, however, experience ourselves in one particular time and place. For us the past comes before the future. Great yogis who align themselves with Shiva consciousness can perceive events of the distant past or even the distant future as if they’re happening in this very moment because, for Shiva, they are.

Four Stages of Spiritual Practice

According to Abhinavagupta, if we could shake off these five veils of consciousness we would experience ourselves as all-knowing, all-pervading, all-powerful, purely good, and ever-present. This sounds like a tall order, but for students sincerely interested in exploring higher states of consciousness this is not as impossible as you might think. Abhinavagupta outlined four stages of spiritual practice that can help us remove the five cloaking principles and actually experience Shiva’s unlimited state for ourselves.

These practices also gradually burn away karmic blocks that obstruct the flow of spiritual illumination.

The vast majority of yoga students are already working with at least some of the practices of the first stage. This level is called kriya upaya, which means “physical techniques.” These include hatha yoga postures, breathing exercises, selfless service, ritual worship, pilgrimage, fasting, and other techniques involving our body and physical actions. These outer actions lay the groundwork for more advanced inner practices by strengthening and purifying our nervous system so that our physical brain becomes capable of hosting higher states of awareness. These practices also gradually burn away karmic blocks that obstruct the flow of spiritual illumination. And they help generate new, healthier attitudes toward life, enthusiasm for spirituality, as well as the intense inner focus necessary to succeed in our inner work.

The second stage is called shakta upaya, or “techniques involving mental energy.” These include study, contemplation, visualization, meditation, and working with mantras mentally. They sharpen concentration and clean out the mental debris that clutters our thought life so that we can focus on our Shiva nature without so many inner distractions. Shakta upayas are the homing beacons that help us zero in on the reality that lies concealed beneath the five veils.

The third stage is shambhava upaya, or “techniques involving the use of will.” The last stage helped us identify the center of consciousness within ourselves. Now, through a concerted effort of will, we remain balanced at that center. This doesn’t involve doing anything or even thinking anything. Instead we continually monitor our awareness, noting whenever our attention shifts away from our center and gently nudging it back. We go beyond the states of waking, dreaming, and sleeping into turiya, the fourth state of consciousness so highly praised by yogis. Once turiya is mastered we live life consciously, dream lucidly, and even remain alert during the state of deep sleep.

The final state is anupaya, which means “the non-technique.” At this point there’s no effort at all. We simply relax into our inner being continually, resting in our true nature. At this level we enter a superhuman state of consciousness called turiyatita, which means “even beyond turiya.” Abhinavagupta’s descriptions of what this is like sound like science fiction and yet the reality of this condition has been attested to by many advanced yogis. At this level the distinction between us and Shiva dissolves. We feel ourselves pervading all of space; the universe itself becomes our body. We can sense anything that’s happening anywhere. If we sense that anyone is in distress, through the merest flicker of our will we can send comfort and aid. Abhinavagupta says that masters of this caliber can create their own universes if they want to. And indeed the yoga tradition is full of accounts of Buddhas and other great siddhas who actually manifest new heaven worlds which other souls can visit.

At this level the distinction between us and Shiva dissolves.

Active Spiritual Life

According to Abhinavagupta, cosmic consciousness is the birthright of every human being. We have only to uncover the Shiva in ourselves. But while we’re in the process of doing this we can also be fulfilling the second goal of Tantra Yoga: to be fully human. Abhinavagupta encourages us not to run away from life but to embrace it. Material life is not an illusion, he tells us, nor is it spiritually polluting. The densest rock is as much an expression of Shiva as the holiest saint, even though the goddess of self-awareness displays herself much more openly in the saint than in the stone. Nature and indeed all natural processes including our desires are sacred and deserve our respect. Our bodies and minds are the tools Shiva uses to explore itself in infinite detail. Our desires are natural expressions of Shiva’s own life force. When we fully respect the Shiva nature in ourselves and in everyone else, too, we will automatically express our desires in a healthy, humane, and ethical manner. To do anything that harms or selfishly uses others would deny their Shivahood. Therefore you find that saints, those people most closely attuned with the divine in themselves, treat everyone around them with the utmost respect. They actually experience their innermost self as Shiva, the Self of all beings.

I first studied Abhinavagupta’s teachings with the late Kamalakar Mishra, Professor at Banaras Hindu University. Dr. Mishra emphasized how practical this expanded state of awareness really is. “It’s not an otherworldly value,” he taught, “but the ground of overall success in life. All talent and all power to work efficiently and gracefully in every walk of life comes from Shiva, the Self, just as all the electric power that moves fans and lights lightbulbs comes from the powerhouse. All creativity, artistic or otherwise, springs forth from the Self. Therefore, the more a person is in line with the Self, the more the power flows. Thus a person of Self-realization will be a better teacher, a better philosopher, a better scientist, a better leader, a better businessperson, a better manager.”

If Abhinavagupta were here today I believe that, based on his tantric perspective, he’d have some sensible advice for the yoga students I’ve spoken with:

For the yogi who practices in this tradition it wouldn’t make sense to say that while she’s sitting in meditation she’s living spiritually but when she goes to work her spiritual life shrivels. It could be true that she needs to find a job that’s more fulfilling, but it’s not true that there’s any ethical line of work that’s less than spiritual. The employees we work with and the customers we serve are aspects of Shiva who deserve our attention and respect. Every situation we find ourselves in becomes a practicum for cultivating Shiva consciousness.

Yoga students don’t need to turn their backs on relationships to be spiritual and shouldn’t say they need to cultivate “non-attachment” in order to avoid commitment or responsibility. Shiva is not just consciousness, it’s also bliss, and that bliss finds expression in loving, supportive human relations.

Nor is the world a bitter illusion we ought to shun. Our world is the play of Shiva and within that play each of us has been assigned a role. Active engagement with the world, helping make it a better place, is a worthy and important practice for yoga students.

Shiva is not just consciousness, it’s also bliss, and that bliss finds expression in loving, supportive human relations.

There’s no need to beat yourself over the head because you experience desires. Accept them as healthy expressions of the life energy of the universe itself. But direct them carefully and respectfully and without unrealistic expectations.

For the student who worries her spiritual practices might not be as effective as someone else’s, Abhinavagupta would advise her that there are many different levels of yoga practice. Each is specifically designed for the particular stage of development a student has reached so far. He’d probably suggest that she honestly identify whether her primary focus is physical, mental, or spiritual, and begin working with the practices that are right for her. Abhinavagupta also strongly believed in the ability of qualified teachers to help us along the spiritual path. He would encourage her to search for a Self-realized guru from an authentic lineage. Once she’d made a commitment to that particular path, she should stick with it, he’d say.

Responding to the student who wonders what part God has to play in yoga, Abhinavagupta would no doubt point out that in the West “God” is a divisive word. Religions here insist their god is the true one, and everyone else’s is false. Therefore teachers from India often avoid that word. But yoga teaches there really is only one Divine Being, whatever name you call it, and that by cultivating Self-realization each of us grows closer and closer to that Supreme Being.

Twenty-five years ago I was involved in intensive study of the Yoga Sutra with my meditation teacher, Swami Rama of the Himalayas. The states of consciousness it described seemed so advanced that I was shocked when one day Swamiji referred to this classic text as “just a primer. The real yogis,” he said, “work on much higher levels.” He was a practitioner of Sri Vidya, a yogic tradition that honors the Great Goddess, or power of consciousness, and is closely allied with Abhinavagupta’s tradition. It was startling to learn that while the Yoga Sutra leads us to the stage of Self-realization, many yogis proceed from there to the still higher level of God-realization. Classical Yoga leads to the experience of your innermost being. The Tantra Yoga of Abhinavagupta leads to the experience of the innermost being of the entire universe.

Abhinavagupta was more than an accomplished scholar; he was a mahasiddha—a yogi of the first magnitude. At the close of his life he disappeared into a cave near Srinagar to perform intense yogic disciplines. According to legend, twelve hundred of his students entered the cave with him to devote the rest of their lives to uninterrupted meditation in the presence of this great master. The clarity of his vision and his remarkable willingness and ability to explain the highest states of consciousness—and how to actually attain them—distinguish Abhinavagupta as one of the most brilliant and generous spiritual teachers in the history of yoga.

Linda Johnsen
Linda Johnsen, MS, is the author of numerous books including Lost Masters: Sages of Ancient Greece and Meditation Is Boring? Her most recent book is Kirtan! Chanting as a Spiritual Practice. Visit her at ThousandSuns.org.