Tree of knowledge

The Tree of knowledge

The power of spanda 

Abhinagavupta, master of Kashmir Shaivism, was born into a Brahmin family noted for their deep devotion towards God and an inclination for intellectual pursuits. His mother, Vimalā (Vimalakalā) died when Abhinavagupta was just two years old; as a consequence of losing his mother, with whom he was reportedly very attached, he grew more distant from the world and focused all the more only on the spiritual endeavour., After his mother’s death, his father Narasimhagupta favoured an ascetic lifestyle while raising his three children. He had a cultivated mind and a heart “outstandingly adorned with devotion to Mahesvara” (in Abhinavagupta’s own words). He was Abhinavagupta’s first teacher, instructing him in grammar, logic and literature.

Magical birth: The term by which Abhinavagupta himself defines his origin is “yoginībhū” — “born of a yoginī”. In Kashmir Shaivism and especially in Kaula it is considered that a progeny of parents “established in the divine essence of Bhairava” is endowed with exceptional spiritual and intellectual prowess. Such a child is supposed to be “the depository of knowledge”, who “even as a child in the womb, has the form of Shiva“, to enumerate but a few of the classical attributes of his kind. Abhinavagupta had a brother and a sister. The brother, Manoratha, was a well-versed devotee of Shiva. His sister, Ambā (probable name, according to Navjivan Rastorgi), devoted herself to worship after the death of her husband in late life. His cousin Karna demonstrated even from his youth that he grasped the essence of Śaivism and was detached of the world. His wife was presumably Abhinavagupta’s older sister, Ambā, who looked with reverence upon her illustrious brother.

Ambā and Karna had a son, Yogeśvaridatta, who was precociously talented in yoga (yogeśvar implies the meaning of “lord of yoga”). Abhinavagupta also mentions his disciple Rāmadeva as faithfully devoted to scriptural study and serving his master. Another cousin was Ksema, possibly the same as Abhinavagupta’s illustrious disciple Ksemarāja. Mandra, a childhood friend of Karna, was their host in a suburban residence; he was not only rich and in possession of a pleasing personality, but also equally learned. And last but not least, Vatasikā, Mandra’s aunt, got a special mention from Abhinavagupta for caring for him with exceptional dedication and concern; to express his gratitude, Abhinavagupta declared that Vatasikā deserved the credit for the successful completion of his work.

The emerging picture here is that Abhinavagupta lived in a nurturing and protected environment, where his creative energies got all the support they required. Everyone around him was filled with spiritual fervour and had taken Abhinavagupta as their spiritual master. Such a supporting group of family and friends was equally necessary as his personal qualities of genius, in order to complete a work of the magnitude of Tantrāloka.

Abhinavagupta lived in Kashmir about the end of the tenth and beginning of eleventh centuries A.D. A versatile genius he injected new meaning into Shaiva philosophy. He was born in the Valley of Kashmir in a family of scholars and mystics and studied all the schools of philosophy and art of his time under the guidance of as many as fifteen (or more) teachers and gurus. In his long life he completed over 35 works, the largest and most famous of which is Tantrāloka, an encyclopedic treatise on all the philosophical and practical aspects of Trika and Kaula (known today as Kashmir Shaivism). Another one of his very important contributions was in the field of philosophy of aesthetics with his famous Abhinavabhāratī commentary of Nāyaśāstra of Bharata Muni.

As an original thinker he shattered to pieces the established belief that laid heavy emphasis on caste and gender restrictions in relation to spiritual practice. He took to task those philosophical systems, which held the prerequisite that spirituality required rigorous discipline systems which made the quest for enlightenment the legitimate right of a chosen few. He abhorred the idea that spiritual revelation was only possible in a purely monastic surrounding, or that those caught in the householder way of life had to wait till the last portion of life before they could fully give themselves to spiritual pursuits. This idea was best expressed by Abhinavagupta in one of his concluding verses of Patanjali’s Paramarthasara:

O my devotees! On this path of supreme Bhairava, whoever has taken a step with pure desire, no matter if that desire is slow or intense; it does not matter if he is a Brahmin, if he is a sweeper, if he is an outcast, or if he is anybody; he becomes one with Para-bhairava.”

Abhinavagupta’s ideas were radical for his time, but since he spoke from the level of direct experience no one was capable of refuting him. Having achieved the eight great siddhi powers he clearly exhibited the six illustrious spiritual signs: unswerving devotional attachment to Shiva; full attainment of mantra siddhi; control over the five elements; capacity to accomplish any desired end; complete mastery over the science of rhetoric and poetry; and the spontaneous dawning of knowledge of all philosophies.

Kashmir Shaivism is a monistic philosophy. Its basis is that there is only one ultimate reality, the Self-luminous eternal Being called Paramshiva, who abides in the form of existence-consciousness-bliss. The entire objective universe that is perceived through the senses is permeated by the rays of pure consciousness or chit-shakti, which is inherent in and inseparable from Him. Paramshiva and the individual being are one, and to consciously realise through meditation this, is the essence of the doctrine of Kashmir Shaivism.

There are two dimensions to Paramshiva — one that transcends the universe, prakasha and the other that operates through it, vimarsha. They are two sides of a coin, always remaining in a state of perfect coexistence with each other. Prakasha, the self-revelation principle, illuminates the entire universe. Vimarsha is the dynamic aspect that makes use of this divine light to analyse Itself. This self-observation of Paramshiva brings into being the immediate awareness of ‘I’. It is this pure ‘I-consciousness’, vimarsha to which is attributed the manifestation, maintenance and re-absorption of the universe. Vimarsha, therefore, is referred to as Parashakt, the Supreme Power. Ultimate reality, apart from being the universal consciousness, is also the universal psychic energy or power. This is why it is perceived as both transcendent and immanent.

The prakasha aspect of Paramshiva is the passive phase of consciousness, a phase of potentiality, which in technical terms is called pralaya, re-absorption. Here the entire universe with its myriad diversities gets dissolved and is re-absorbed by the universal consciousness. In pralaya, the period of potentiality, the universe remains dormant in the same way as the characteristics of a papaya tree are dormant in the papaya seed. But once the period of latency, pralaya, comes to an end, the seeds of the universe begin to germinate and consciousness gets activated. This active phase of consciousness is also referred to as srishti, the manifestation of the universe.

In each phase of action, seeds of potentiality are created that germinate during the passive phase of consciousness with the purpose of setting in motion the next phase of action. A complete cycle comprising creation, srishti and dissolution, pralaya of the universe is known as a kalpa, that is said to exist for 4,320,000,000 human years, which is then followed by yet another cycle. Consciousness thus eternally alternates between two phases, rest and action –– prakasha and vimarsha.

The dynamic aspect of the Ultimate Reality, vimarsha, is explained by Abhinavagupta, in terms of the principle of spanda. According to him, spanda is unobjectified desire, which leads consciousness to feel incomplete; it is the first stage of consciousness before it crystallizes into the reasoning process. Spanda is the throb of the ecstasy of Paramshiva, the Divine creative pulsation, the ceaseless force, from which emanates the entire universe. Spiritual dynamism without any movement is what operates as the causa sine qua non of all movements.

Spanda is the dynamic power that pours out the potentialities held in the infinitude of Paramshiva and throws up forms out of the formless depths of the Eternal Being. “All the forms and names that people the universe are self-deployings of the spanda shakti. Each is a diverse self-formulation of this power, brought into being, maintained and withdrawn in the process of Her cosmic play with the Eternal Being, Her Lord, Paramshiva”.

Source: Excerpts from “ , Guru Abhinavagupta Five
short Biographies, and Abhinavagupta : Indian traditions and World Culture.”


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