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Abhinavagupta (c.950–1020) was an influential Indian philosopher in the fields of Philosophy, Theology, Dramaturgy, and Aesthetics. His greatest contribution was to what is known today as Kashmir Śaivism.
The little that is known about Abhinavagupta’s life is culled from autobiographical verses in various works, primarily Parātrīśikā-vivaraṇa and Tantrāloka, and also the research of K.C. Pandey. Abhinavagupta was born in a devout Brahmin Śaiva family in or near the town of Pravarapura, now known as Srinagar. His father Narasiṃha was brought from Kannauj (located in today’s Uttar Pradesh) to Kashmir to work for King Lalitaditya (c.750). Abhinavagupta’s mother Vimaia had died while he was just a boy. He had a brother, Manoratha, and a sister, Ambā. While his first teacher was his father, throughout his works Abhinavagupta lists many teachers with whom he studied a wide range of philosophical topics. Since Kashmir at that time was a hub for Hindu and Buddhist thought and debate, Abhinvagupta was well versed in the philosophies of Hinduism, Buddhism, as well as Jainism. Within the Śaiva tradition, he learned Pratyabhijñā philosophy from Lakṣmanagupta, a disciple of Utpaladeva. He was initiated into Kaula philosophy and practices by Śambhunātha, whom he revered greatly. Abhinavagupta states that he reached illumination through the teaching of Śambhunātha. After his period of learning and practice (sādhana), Abhinavagupta became well known as a teacher, author, and commentator. The Kashmiri tradition claims that his disciples were in the thousands. His foremost disciple was his cousin Kṣemarāja, who also became a well-known exegete in the nondual Kashmir Śaiva tradition. Concerning Abhinavagupta’s death, tradition states that he walked into the Bhairava Cave, along with 1200 of his disciples, and was never seen again.
By the end of his life, Abhinavagupta had written about 44 works, of which 23 are extant and the others are mentioned in other Tāntric texts and commentaries. By his own admission, he had studied logic, grammar, aesthetics, and various schools of theology and philosophy. His writings can be generally placed in four categories: Tantra, Philosophy, Devotional Hymns, and Aesthetics. However, these divisions are largely artificial, since all of these areas are permeated by Abhinavagupta’s nondual and soteriological vision. His particular genius is the ability to use this vision in synthesizing and building upon textual traditions of Indian philosophy.
Abhinavagupta and Kashmir Śaivism
Abhinavagupta is known as an authoritative proponent of Kashmir Śaivism. However, Kashmir Śaivism does not refer to one tradition but rather to a group of nondualistic Tāntric Śaiva traditions. These various traditions share common beliefs. For them, Reality is conceived as pure Consciousness which it calls Śiva, and this Consciousness manifests itself as the universe through its innate power (Śakti). It does this through a process of transformation into 36 elements, and this transformation does not affect Consciousness in anyway, therefore nonduality is maintained. Many of these groups also worshipped various goddesses as representations of Śiva’s Śakti. Abhinavagupta wrote commentaries on major Tāntric texts and also wrote his own independent treatises, unifying these various traditions under one particular tradition known as Trika.
Trika is so called because triads feature prominently in its explication of the nature of reality and its praxis. It holds three scriptures as its primary texts, namely, the Siddhayogeśvarīmata Tantra, Mālinīvijayottara Tantra, a short redaction of the Siddhayogeśvarīmata, and the Tantrasadbhāva. The Trika is also known for its worship of the three Goddesses, Supreme (Parā), Middle (Parāparā), and Lower (Aparā), which correspond to the levels of nonduality, quasi-nonduality, and multiplicity. These three levels are further elaborated through another well-known triad, Śiva/Śakti/Nara (the individual). The Trika system consists of elements from both the Krama and Kula traditions, both of which predate Trika texts. In most of his Tāntric writing, Abhinavagupta tried to establish the superiority of Trika over all other Āgamic Śaiva systems . He did this by synthesizing the Krama, Kula, and Trika, as well as two other systems in Kaśmir, the Pratyabhijña and Spanda. The dualistic Śaivasiddhānta system is also important because Abhinava seamlessly blends its rituals with those of the Mālinivijayottara and Svacchandabhairava Tantra, giving them, however, a nondualistic interpretation. His major works in this regard are the Tantrāloka, which used the Mālinīvijayottara as its source, the Tantrasāra, a smaller treatise summing up the Tantrāloka, and the Mālinīvijayottara-vārttika. Early scholars such as K.C. Pandey did not consider the Trika to be a separate system but another term for Kaśmir Śaivism itself. Pandey, however, did not support this idea fully. He concluded that Trika meant the Śaiva system of Abhinavagupta presented in the Tantrāloka . While Trika is the system expounded by Abhinavagupta in most of his work, which helped to put it on firm philosophical and practical ground, Trika did predate him.
The Paramārthasāra (Essence of the Highest Truth) is an important independent treatise on the Trika by Abhinavagupta. The main effort of this text is to serve as an introduction to Trika, with a special reference to jīvanmukti (awakened living). While on the surface the Parmārthasāra acts as an introduction, Abhinavagupta depends on the second-sense or twilight (sāṃdhyābhāṣā) that, when properly understood, reveals the esoteric teachings and of the Trika system at within the text’s commentary, Parmārthasāra-vivṛtti, by Abhinavagupta’s disciple Yogarāja .
Abhinavagupta based his tenth-century text on an earlier sixth-century text, known by the same name. This suggests not only that there was a shared corpus of texts between the North and South, but also a shared philosophical and practical basis among the numerous traditions then present in Kashmir . Nonetheless, Abhinavagupta’s work is not a commentary or altered version since only a quarter of the original 105 verses can be found in the text. The remaining verses are purely Abhinavagupta’s own genius in presenting his form of Trika Śaivism.
Synthesis of the Pratyabhijñā and Spanda Systems
Abhinavagupta also furthered the development of the Pratyabhijñā philosophy. The Pratyabhijñā is a philosophical system based upon the nondual idea of the limited self recognizing its true nature as Consciousness, i.e., Śiva. In the introductory verse of his Īśvarapratyabhijñā-vimarśinī, Abhinavagupta describes the Pratyabhijñā as a part of the Trika framework. By the tenth and eleventh centuries, Tāntric Śaivism’s quest for power and counter-brahminical practices were being interpreted in more socially respectable terms and its teachings began to appeal increasingly to lay practitioners . Pratyabhijñā fostered such a transition by using highly philosophical and anti-Buddhist discourse .
Abhinavagupta’s exegesis of Pratyabhijñā themes, such as epistemology and ontology, follows Utpaladeva, the pupil of Somānanda, in his Īśvarapratyabhijñākārikā. Abhinavagupta strengthens Utpaladeva’s arguments, particularly against the Buddhists of the Yogācāra tradition. He bases his arguments on the logic of the Nyāya and the linguistics of Bhartṛhari. Both Utpaladeva’s and Abhinavagupta’s development of a philosophical groundwork for nondual Śaivism helped establish the tradition in the intellectual debates of the time, giving it more credence within Brahminical circles. Their efforts in this regard have parallels in the more rationalistic strains of Western philosophical theology .
Abhinavagupta also made a contribution to the understanding, and practices, of the Spanda system. In his unique synthesis of Tāntric traditions, Abhinavagupta states in his Tantrasāra that each tradition calls the dynamic power (Śakti) of Consciousness (Śiva) by various names including vibration (spanda). In his commentary on the Parātrīśikā, a text of major importance in in the Trika, Abhinavagupta sees the vibration of Consciousness as the very heart of Consciousness . According to his commentary, Parātrīśikā-vivaraṇa, the Parātrīśikā belongs to the Anuttara Trika, the highest nondual teachings of the Trika. The text and its commentary broadly deal with the nature of the Absolute (anuttara), the relation of its Śakti as language and Reality, including the important nondual Śaiva mantra Sauḥ, and its practice .
Another example of Abhinavagupta’s synthesis in creating an overarching Trika system is his stance on samāveśa. Though samāveśa is an important term in nondual Tāntric traditions, there is no consensus on its meaning. Commentators and modern scholars have described it in various ways, but all agree that it is an advanced experience of one’s true nature (svabhāva). Samāveśa is mentioned in foundational texts such as Mālinīvijayottara. One interpretation of samāveśa is that it means possession. Many early Tāntric rites and practices had as their goal “possession” of the deity. The image presented is that of male and female practitioners shaking and whirling in the cremation grounds surrounded by wine and other articles of their transgressive rituals. But, as noted earlier, by the tenth and eleventh century, nondual Śaivism was undergoing a natural transformation, making it more acceptable to the society it once rebelled against. Somānanda begins his Śivadṛṣṭi by describing his merger with Śiva, pointing to the disappearance of his limited sense of self in the all-pervasive Self of Śiva. Somānanda’s disciple Utpaladeva extends this meaning of samaveśa in his poetry by using it to describe not only his own recognition (pratyabhijñā) with the Divine, but also seeing the manifested world as such.
Abhinavagupta, in his unique fashion, follows traditional usages and develops it further using samāveśa in various ways. Within his Tantrāloka, he keeps its connection to that of possession through Tāntric ritual and use of mantra, but also, like his predecessors moves toward a sense of immersion in an abstract sense of transcendence and he claims this to be the highest realization of the term . Using the Mālinīvijayottara as his guide, Abhinavagupta uses samāveśa (sometimes using the equal term āveśa) as the goal and the means (upāya). Yet in his Pratyabhijñā commentary, Īśvaraprtyabhijñāvivrtivimarśinī, he claims that while essential to a nondual vision, samāveśa is not the ultimate attainment since it involves a sense of duality, a merging into, or possession of, something seemingly other. For Abhinavagupta, even the idea of oneness must be transcended .
Hymns and Poetry
Like many of his predecessors, Abhinavagupta wrote devotional poetry. For the nondual Tāntrika exegetes, this was not a break from their ideology, but rather their devotion was also of a nondualistic nature. In his poetry, such as Bhairava Stotra, Abhinavagupta never misses an opportunity to declare that he and the God he is praising, Śiva, are one. As the infinite light (prakāśa), Śiva, shines as the whole manifold universe, therefore for Abhinavagupta devotion is part of Śiva’s play (krīḍā), manifesting as the devotee and the object of devotion. Nonetheless, he stresses that devotion is to be approached with an understanding of oneness (aikyabuddhi) between worshipper and worshipped.
Abhinavagupta also uses his poetry as a vehicle for conveying nondual Śaiva teachings. In his Dehasthadevatācakra Stotra, he writes how everyday experiences of sights, sounds, sensations, and thoughts are the flowers of worship to the senses’ presiding goddesses (śaktis) who abide in Śiva himself. In one of his well-known poems, Anuttarāṣṭikā, Abhinavagupta gives instruction on the practice of reaching the highest realization, a practice that is deceptively easy, but meant only for the most adept practitioner . The practice consists in letting go of both grasping and aversion, pleasure and pain, and seeing the Infinite as expressing itself in everything.
Abhinavagupta’s Views on Contemplative Practice
In his most famous work, the Tantrāloka, Abhinavagupta divides all contemplative practice (sādhanā) into four basic methods or approaches (upāyas) for attaining the nondual Śaiva realization, based upon a scheme of mystical absorptions (samāveśa). They are Anupāya, Śambhava, Śākta, Āṇava. Abhinavagupta claims he learned these approaches from his teacher Śambhunātha and that he himself realized the highest levels of consciousness through these methods. Each approach consists of their own set of practices. Abhinavagupta explains that Anupāya, literally “free of methods,” is not a true approach since there are no practices involved. A practitioner is simply told of his/her true nature and immediately experiences it due to the force of grace (śaktipāṭha). Abhinavagupta is quick to mention that since such highly qualified people are rare, most need to follow a form of practice from the three other upāyas. The other three upāyas are normally stated from the most to the least profound. Though Abhinavagupta prescribes three methods, there is no hierarchy, but rather each method is suited for a practitioner’s own ability and temperament. The differences in the three other methods are mainly differences in the approach and the amount of effort each practitioner must exert .
If a practitioner after being given the teaching that everything is Consciousness does not experience spontaneous awakening, he is taught the Śambhavopāya (the means of Śiva), which consists in meditation on the purely subjective “I”-consciousness that remains unchanged in all states of cognition. This leads to the “nirvikalpa” state of mind, which is free from conceptions and distractions. For those who find the Śambhavopāya too difficult, the second method, Śāktopāya (means of Śakti), is given. Śaktopāya involves focusing on the vibrations (spanda) of universal manifestation and mental processes. The final method is that of the individual (āṇavopāya). Āṇavopāya consists in practices that deal with the body, such as manipulation and control of breath (prāṇa) and energy (kuṇḍalinī).
This classification of contemplative practices within the Tantrāloka had a strong impact on how the nondual Śaiva tradition would continue to talk about contemplative practice and interpret major texts. Abhinavagupta’s disciple Kṣemarāja uses this classification scheme for interpreting major texts of the tradition, most importantly the Śiva sutras, Spanda karikas, and Vijñana-bhairava Tantra.
Through his works, Abhinavagupta also addresses the importance of sādhanā. In the Parātrīśikā-vivaraṇa and Īśvarapratyabhijñā-virti-vimarśinī, he mentions two main reasons for contemplative and ritual practices. Though it is true Śiva’s grace is needed, for Abhinavagupta the performance of sādhana is all part of the play (krīda) of Śiva, who takes the roles of both student and guru.
Abhinavagupta on Aesthetics
Though Abhinavagupta’s ideas on aesthetics can be found in his various works, it is mainly in Dhvanyālokalocana and Abhinavabhāratī that his theory of aesthetics is formulated. In order to understand how Abhinavagupta’s theory of aesthetics was developed in these two commentaries, it is important to take into account his main influences – namely, Bhartṛhari and Bhaṭṭanāyaka. Abhinavagupta agreed with the ancient grammarian Bhartṛhari’s view that creation began with primordial Speech (śabda-brahman), a viewpoint also found in the Vedas and Brāhmaṇas . Within the Pratyabhijñā system, this Speech is Śakti (Śiva’s power) which manifests the world and is identical with self-recognition . For Abhinavagupta, it is also this power that makes scriptures (āgama) and chants (mantra) effective.
Another concept in the area of language that is important in both Abhivagupta’s aesthetics and philosophy of recognition is illuminating insight (pratibhā). Within the latter, pratibhā reveals the connection of language and Consciousness (saṃvid). Similarly, in his aesthetics, pratibhā is a function of the poets mind, revealing the appropriate words, and their meaning, for a particular rasa. For the poet, pratibhā comes about from momentary contact with Consciouness.
Another Kashmiri aesthete that had an influence on Abhinavagupta’s own theory of aesthetics was Bhaṭṭanāyaka (tenth century CE). Abhinavagupta disagreed with some of Bhaṭṭanāyaka’s ideas and he played off these differences to explain his own theory . One such important example is the difference concerning the qualia of aesthetic experience. For Bhaṭṭanāyaka, the experience of rasa is comparable to the joyful experience of Brahman (Brahmānanda), whereas for Abhinavagupta, though the aesthetic experience is higher than the material everyday experience, it is not equivalent to the highest realization. This distinction between an aesthetic experience and the experience of one’s true nature is an important one for Abhinavagupta.
Though Abhinavagupta disagreed that aesthetic experience is the same as a mystical experience, he did view the former as a way to reach the latter. Such a view is found within his development of Bhaṭṭanāyaka’s theory of aesthetic sentiments known as universalizations (sādhāraṇīkaraṇa). Universalization is identification with the dramatic world, transcending a sense of limited self . While emotions may be common to everyone, the experience of rasa lifts a qualified spectator, called a sahṛdaya (literally “one with heart”), into a pure experience, transcending the sense of self, and therefore the taste of aesthetic enjoyment (rasāsvāda) itself, leading to a savoring of the mystical experience (brahmāsvāda). This development allows Abhinavagupta to incorporate nondual Tantric theology, such as a unitive cognitive act leading to the flashing forth of the immanent and transcendent aspects of Śiva/Śakti, into his theory of aesthetics .
Abhinavagupta also contributed to the theory of aesthetic suggestion (rasa-dhvani). In his commentary on Ānandavardana’s Dvanyāloka, Abhinavagupta agrees, and further develops, that one function of language is suggestive meaning (dvani). He states that the suggestion of a sentiment (rasa) conveyed by an actor or author does not create the sentiment, but rather the sentiment arises from latent impressions (vāsanas) within one who is sensitive enough to experience it. The joy of experiencing the various rasas comes from the bliss of the Absolute (Brahmānanda-sahodara). Abhinavagupta explains this by adding a new rasa to Bharata’s original eight rasas in the Nāṭyaśāstra – namely, śānta-rasa (peaceful sentiment). Śānta-rasa, Abhinavagupta explains, acts as the foundation for all other rasas (such as love, anger, fear), much like the thread of a jewel necklace. Further, as an experience, śānta-rasa gives the sahṛdaya a temporary glimpse of the pure self (ātma-svarūpa) .
Abhinavagupta makes use of many accepted theories of his day and through a tour de force crafts his own interpretation, thereby showing the connection between the aesthetic and spiritual realms. His aesthetics is based on nondual Śaiva cosmology, as shown in the benedictory verses to his commentary Abhinavabhārati, where he invokes Śiva in the form of the cosmic principles (tattvas). Abhinavagupta begins each chapter of Bharata’s Nāṭyaśāstra with a verse to Śiva as one of the 36 tattvas, thereby connecting the subject of each chapter to Śaiva cosmology . By doing so, he shows that the microcosmic world of literature and performing arts is mystically based on the same macrocosmic manifestation of the universe. Abhinavagupta also uses the similes of the world drama (krīḍā) and wonder (camatkāra) to show the interconnectedness of aesthetics and theology. It is the Power (Śakti) of Śiva, which is not different from him, that expresses itself as a sense of wonderment and intuitive insight (pratibhā), both spiritual and aesthetic. Such expressions are brought about not only by pleasurable experiences but also by painful ones.
Within his commentaries on aesthetics, Abhinavagupta also explicates Kashmiri Śaiva concepts, at times through his own poetical verses. This is seen in the Dhvanyālokalocana itself, where, in order to explain a type of suggestion, vastu-dvani, he quotes his own Tantrāloka (v. 1.332). This verse, Abhinavagupta states, literally tells of beautiful scenery being criticized as brutish by those who are themselves brutish, yet the suggestion (dhvani), and therefore the real meaning of the verse, describes the state of one who has “rolled back the curtains of darkness,” i.e., has realized that everything is Śiva, yet lives a seemingly dull life which brings scorn from the worldly minded .
Modern Scholarship on Abhinavagupta
Modern scholarship on Abhinavagupta began around the late nineteenth century when Western Indologist, such as Georg Brühler and Aurel Stein, collected numerous manuscripts on Kaśmir literature and history, much with the help of local pandits and kings. Out of these texts emerged, the works of what came to be called Kaśmir Śaivism and of Abhinavagupta. Early work consisted of organizing and translating these manuscripts, many of which are still waiting to be translated. Throughout the twentieth century, both Indian and various Western scholars continued research into Abhinavagupta and his systemization of nondual Śaivism. Most recently, scholars are further raising awareness in India of Abhinavagupta’s contribution to South Asian philosophy and aesthetics through various academic and religious conferences.
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