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Kashmir Shaivism: The Super-Theory of Consciousness

The Shaiva siddhanta pioneered in Kashmir and elaborated by Acharya Abhinavagupta can be considered the super-theory that encompasses all Bharatiya darshanas. Its technical name is trika-siddhanta. Its uniqueness and beauty lies in providing a comprehensive framework with an all-encompassing taxonomy to explain the nature of the universe from consciousness to matter in one sweep. It also can explain the myriad perspectives of other darshanas as partial grades of realization of the one Truth. It covers in decreasing grades of awareness – saiva, shaakta, vyaakarana, shankaraadvaita, vishishtaadvaita, paancharaatra/vaishnava, saankhya, nyaaya, jaina, bouddha, christian, islamic, charvaka and modern materialistic perspectives.

The perspective of trika-siddhanta is called Parama-advaita, distinct from other flavors of advaita out there. It interestingly matches with what Sri Aurobindo propounded, though he never talked about trika in his works.

The sum total of trika-siddhanta is summarized beautifully in the following sutra

स चैको द्विरूपस्त्रिमयश्चतुरात्मा सप्तपञ्चकस्वभावः ॥

सः च-एकः द्विरूपः-त्रिमयः-चतुरात्मा सप्त-पञ्चक-स्वभावः ॥

It is one, and yet it is two; it consists of three, has a quadruple being, and is seven, five, and seven times five in its nature. There is only one that is chit, pure awareness. That is parasiva.

It appears in two forms, the observing awareness and the observed universe – purusha and prakriti. The key is, the substance of both is the same, namely, chit. The words used to describe these forms are prakaasha / awareness and sankocha / contraction. Hence the universe is a contraction or self-limitation of chit.

An apt analogy is icebergs floating in the ocean. An iceberg is a condensed form of the material of the ocean. Similarly, everything in the Universe is chit solidified.

Trimaya: The Three Powers of Consciousness

Chit further subdivides into three i.e. three types of self-limitation of the original power of chit called the three malas / impurities – aaNava, maayiya, kaarma. The powers of chit are chit, aananda / delight, icchaa / will, jnaana / knowhow, kriya / energy. The three malas are the contractions of the three shaktis.

AaNava mala is self-limitation of the icchaa shakti or infinite will to become a limited form or identity with limited icchaa/will. This causes the limited ego or ahamkaara.

Maayiya mala is the self-limitation of the infinite awareness jnaana shakti to constrict its awareness to a limited field and separating itself from the rest of Itself. Such a limited awareness is what we call the buddhi or intellect.

Kaarma mala is self-limitation of omnipotent power or kriyaa shakti to a contracted power leaving behind its omnipotence. Such a limited power of experience and action or sankalpa shakti is what we call the manas.

AaNava mala makes us feel incomplete, maayiya mala makes us feel ignorant, and kaarma mala makes us feel incapable. These limitations of the chit‘s infinite icchaa, jnaana and kriyaa shaktis are the basis for the play of multiplicity in the Universe.

Chaturaatma: The Four Building Blocks of Universal Substance

While the building blocks of all functions animating the universe are three – icchaa / will, jnaana / knowhow and kriya / energy, what is the substance the universe and its objects are made of? These are four: shuunya, praana, puryashtaka and shariira.

The first ingredient is Shuunya or void, the pure passive silent witness self that is the substrate underlying everything in the Universe. The second ingredient is praana or animating life force that brings dynamism and change. The third ingredient is the eightfold scaffolding (puryashtaka) material from which all substance is built. These eight are – ahamkaara / ego or separative identity, buddhi / intellect or perceiving agent, manas / experiencing and acting agent, and finally the five tanmaatras or building blocks of the panchabhuutas or five primal elements.

The tanmaatras are 1) shabda / vibration or flux or continuous variation in density, 2) sparsha or persistence  in the variation causing resistance 3) rUpa or form which is a persistent pattern of density, 4) rasa or affinity/attraction between forms to coagulate into collections, and 5) gandha or persistent behaviors also called properties that characterize the enduring nature of forms.

Sapta-pramaatas: The Seven Grades of Perception

Trika siddhanta explains how the infinite consciousness called chit or parasiva contracts or condenses into the Universe as we know it in seven steps of descent of awareness, called the sapta-pramaatr-bhuumikas. To help make this explanation more relatable, I will use a running example of a human trying to enact becoming a log of wood. The point is that he is pretending to behave like a log voluntarily. Pramaata means perceiver. Sapta-pramaatr-bhumikaa means seven realms or grades of perceivers.

The first and highest level is called Siva where one sees only himself as pure awareness or chit. BTW, chit is an untranslatable word. Awareness or consciousness is only one aspect of its meaning. In the Siva pramaataa bhumikaa, the only experience is aham-taa or I-ness. There is no perception of a second thing, even though they exist. In our running example, the perception is I as a human being, not at all as a log that I pretend to be.

The second level of perception is the icchaa or will of myself / aham to manifest the universe – this / idam. This is still a step away from conceptualizing what to manifest. In this stage, there is a predominance of aham-taa I-ness with a tinge of idam-taa or this-ness. This is called mantra-maheshvara state, and the tattva is sadaasiva. In our running example, I experience myself as a human being with a stirring of the urge to enact log-ness.

The third level of perception called mantreshvara is when I see myself as both the perceiver – aham and the universe-ness – idam as a concept. In the running example, I see myself as a human being with a simultaneous experience of log-ness. The universe is a reflection of myself in a particular conceptual form. The log is a stiffened form of myself, the fully independent form-maker. This is the realization of shabda brahman of vyakarana darshana. This is the aham-idam state i.e., I am this.

The fourth level of perception called mantra is awareness of the universe as an interplay of primal building block concepts/entities combining into objects. These entities are mantras. In our running example, I conceptualize log-ness as comprised of rigidity, straightness and other properties of a log.

Each mantra is a perception of the one truth from a different standpoint or aspect. It is aware of itself as a part of the one truth.

The fifth level of perception called the vijnaanaakala is one step below the mantra level wherein the oneness with truth is absent, and the entity considers itself as separate from others. Its awareness of others is complete but identity with others is missing. In our running example, I identify myself as a log concept but am aware of other possibilities.

The sixth level of perception called pralayaakala is where I am a separate concept waiting to manifest at an opportune condition, and unaware of other possibilities.

Finally, the seventh level of perception is a manifest isolated concept in all its ignorance and isolation from the Truth, which is the Universe and ourselves as we perceive normally. In the running example, I truly believe that I am a log and not a human acting like a log.

Pancha-kanchukas – The Five Armors that Perpetrate Multiplicity

In order for the Unitary chit to manifest multiplicity, it has to limit its power to act in multiple compartments that remain separate. This compartmentalization happens along five dimensions called pancha-kanchukas or five armors.

The infinite kriyaa shakti which is all-capable, sarva-kartrutva, becomes limited in capability, called kalaa. The infinite jnaana shakti which is all-knowing, sarvajna, becomes limited in knowledge, called vidyaa. The self-complete icchaa shakti which is all-encompassing will, restricts itself to a limited craving or raaga for things it considers outside its grasp. As a side-effect, it creates two more limitations of itself in time and space – kaala and niyati. These are contracted forms of timelessness and all-pervasion. These cause chit to restrict itself to a point in time and space.

The 36 tattvas

Finally, chit manifests as the 36 tattvas that saankhya talks about as the building blocks of the manifest universe. The Samkhya and Vedanta both acknowledge the concept of tattvas, which are fundamental elements used in creation. Saankhya identifies 25 tattvas, excluding any divine element. Trika, on the other hand, recognizes 36 tattvas, with Tattvatita tattva, Pure consciousness considered the highest, followed by the Siva tattva. These tattvas serve as significant points of entry for aspirants seeking to reach Parama Śiva, with the ascent starting from the grossest element, earth, and progressing to the subtlest, Parama Śiva.

The classification of tattvas includes the five great elements, the Pañca-mahābhutās, followed by the five tanmātras, five karmendriyas, and five jñānendriyas. Additionally, there are internal organs, including mind, intellect, and ego, as well as Prakṛti and Puruṣa. Puruṣa is subject to six bondages, known as Ṣaṭ Kañcukas, which limit his understanding of his true nature.

The tattvas progress from objective to subjective elements, culminating in the realization of pure subjectivity and the Absolute, Parama Śiva. The number 36 holds profound symbolic significance, elucidated by Acharya Somananda. According to Lord Shiva tradition, these 36 tattvas, emphasise unity and harmony among all Yogic traditions. Beyond its numerical value, 36 carries deeper meanings, reflecting the all-encompassing Supreme Reality. When multiplied by 10, it yields 360, signifying completeness and the totality of existence, akin to the days in a year or degrees in a circle.

Symbolically, 36 represents man’s and the world’s revolution or completion of the circle of life, returning to the original point of departure. This spiritual revolution isn’t a regression to the past but a rediscovery of the ever-present truth that sustains all life. Urgently needed in the modern world, it aims for the establishment of divine life on Earth.

Moreover, when the digits of 36 are added together, they yield 9, the number called as ‘Nava’ symbolizing new beginnings. This hints at the advent of a new order rooted in the eternal principle of unity and harmony, as ordained by Shiva at the dawn of time.

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