The concept of the Guṇatraya or three Guṇa-s of Prakṛti is traced to the ancient Sāṁkhya school of Indic philosophy, and is remarkable in its wide appeal and application in disciplines across Indic thought. In popular expositions, the three Guṇa-s, namely Sattva, Rajas and Tamas are spoken of as though they are names of “qualities” of mind and matter, where Sattva refers to an illuminative quality, Rajas to an excitatory quality, and Tamas to an obstructive quality. The effort to understand and engage the material and mental worlds in Sāttvika-Rājasika-Tāmasika terms is a distinctly developed Indic worldview with no less scope than the worldview defined in Good-Evil terms that are assumed by default in modernity as a cultural universal. It would be no exaggeration to say that without the notion of what is Sāttvika (in the context of the other Guṇa-s), Indic philosophical discourse on human well-being would have been as stymied as Western discourse would have been without a notion of what is “Good” (as contrasted to “Evil”). The guṇa-based analysis of human experience and the associated practical endeavour of fostering a Sāttvika character form an underlying, throbbing strain throughout Indic thought and praxis.
The Sāṁkhya-derived concept of the Guṇatrayais prominent among the concepts from across Indic philosophical schools which appear in a grand synthesis in theBhagavadgītā. Commentaries on the Bhagavadgītā have been a medium of choice for philosophers to demonstrate distinct theological stances of their affiliated schools, not limited to the Vedānta system where this text traditionally enjoys a central position. The subject of this study is the treatment in Abhinavagupta’s commentarial Gītārthasaṅgraha of the concept of the Guṇatraya as occurring in the Bhagavadgītā. Being part of a tradition of Śaiva commentarial texts on the Bhagavadgītā, itself makes the Gītārthasaṅgraha a testament to continuities and mutual knowledge between sects in the Indic intellectual tradition.Additional motivation to choose the Gītārthasaṅgraha for study, arises from the expectation of a multi-disciplinary interpretation by its polymathic author Abhinavagupta.
As a product of a time when the status of Kāśmīra as the cultural epicentre of Bhāratavarṣa was a living reality, the Gītārthasaṅgraha arguably makes essential reading for understanding the Bhagavadgītā, which throughout history has enjoyed the status of a cultural nerve-centre in the body of Bhāratīya literature.
The primary source for this study is the original text of Abhinavagupta’s Gītārthasaṅgraha published along with an English translation by Sri Venkateswara University Oriental Research Institute in 1985. The text is also available digitally at the Gita Supersite of IIT Kanpur, along with other Bhagavadgītā commentaries which will be considered for comparison with the Gītārthasaṅgraha. A secondary reference is the English translation of the Gītārthasaṅgraha by Arvind Sharma from 1983. The portions of the commentary that are the focus of this study by merit of pertaining to the Guṇatraya in the Bhagavadgītā are:
- The fourteenth adhyāya (BG 14.1-27) expounding on the three guṇa-s (sattva, rajas and tamas) as they relate to the course of the individual soul
- Sections from the seventeenth and eighteenth adhyāya-s respectively on guṇa-based classifications of religious practices (BG 17.7-22) and ofpractitioners’ states and traits (BG 18.19-40)
- Verses containing miscellaneous contextual references to the significance and operation of guṇa-s (e.g., BG 2.46, 3.27-28, 3.37, 7.12-14, 13.20-22, 15.02)
- Guṇa-related glosses for verses that do not themselves explicitly refer to the guṇa-s in the BhagavadgītāCritical Edition (e.g., BG 11.18, 16.1)
- Guṇa-related verses occurring exclusively in the Kāśmīrī Rescension and not in the Critical Edition of the Bhagavadgītā (e.g., Four verses after BG 3.37)
To identify the glosses from the Gītārthasaṅgraha referred here, the corresponding verse or range of verses numbered as per the Critical Edition of the Bhagavadgītā, will be marked thus: “14.9-10” in parentheses will refer to the gloss for verses 9 to 10 in the 14th Chapter. The opening gloss for a chapter, say, the 16th Chapter, will be marked as “16.0”. When a saṅgrahaśloka i.e., chapter-end summary verse is referred, it will be marked thus: “SS 14” in parentheses will refer to Abhinavagupta’s summary verse for the 14th chapter.
The treatment of the Guṇatraya in the Gītārthasaṅgraha is here studied from two standpoints:
- Internally with reference to direct mentions of the Guṇa-s (and the state defined by transcendence of the Guṇa-s) by Abhinavagupta within the Gītārthasaṅgraha.
- Externally placing the Gītārthasaṅgrahain the context of otherGītā commentaries, other texts in the Kāśmīra Śaiva tradition, and the tenets of other schools of philosophy.
The source material of the internal review consists ofthe Gītārthasaṅgraha’s Guṇatraya-related glosses, and relevant chapter-end summary verses. The review is organized into two sections, each integrating material from glosses occurring distributed across chapters. The first section summarizes the theoretical understanding of the Guṇatraya framework, with central emphasis on the attainment of an ideal state transcending the Guṇa-s. The practical advice in the verse glosses towards attaining this ideal state, is summarized in the second section.
Theoretical description of the Guṇatraya framework
In the fourteenth chapter of the Bhagavadgītā that is most prominently dedicated to the Guṇatraya, the term Guṇa, in keeping with its meaning of “cord” or “bond”, refers to a mode of binding of the individual soul to a body. That the individual soul has an existence eternally distinct from Prakṛti, and that the body belongs to Prakṛti and not the individual soul, are fundamentalSāṁkhya metaphysical assumptions that are operative in the Bhagavadgītā discourse. The modes of binding of the soul to a body are numbered as three, named Sattva, Rajas and Tamas. Contemporary popular expositions often employ Sattva and Rajas and Tamas respectively as names for the illuminative and excitatory and obstructive “types” or “qualities” of temperaments (of sentient beings) or behaviours (including those of insentient matter). Such contemporary usages also can be understood as ultimately deriving from the Sāṁkhyaschool’s (and the Bhagavadgītā’s) philosophical conception of the Guṇa-s as modes of binding of the soul to a body.
The state of the soul “unbound” from all three Guṇa-s, called the Guṇātīta state, is thus a state where the soul is no longer subject to Prakṛti and hence, no longer subject to phenomena within Prakṛti such as karma and rebirth. The Guṇātīta state is thus a soteriological goal in the scheme of the Bhagavadgītā, and also the focus of Abhinavagupta’s interest in the topic of the Guṇa-s.
The understanding of the Guṇatraya framework presented by Abhinavagupta in the Gītārthasaṅgraha is studied here at three levels of description:
- Individual Guṇa-s
- The Guṇa complex
- The state beyond the Guṇa-s
While these three levels are chosen for purposes of this study, it is evident from the Gītārthasaṅgraha that the author’s interest in an exposition of the Guṇa-s is only in as much as it aids the intellectual understanding and the eventual realization of the Guṇātīta state beyond the Guṇa-s. To Abhinavagupta, what is called the Guṇātīta state is no different from the state of liberation that is the ultimate purpose of the Bhagavadgītā. Accordingly, he assumes the Bhagavadgītā’s coverage of Guṇa-s not as being supplementary to the main stream of the text, but central to it. His glosses of the Guṇa-related verses, even though brief, tend always to highlight their relevance to the attainment of liberation.
The Gītārthasaṅgraha does not have formal definitions of the term “Guṇa” or for each of the three Guṇa-s, either in original formulations or via citations from Sāṁkhya texts. However, the commentary provides aids for aspirants to recognize occurrences of the Guṇa-s as distinct modes of bondage in their experience.
Sattva: The Sattva mode of binding of the soul to a body has purity for its defining characteristic (14.06-08), along with being illuminative and wholesome. It is the cause of the soul’s attachment to happiness and knowledge. Sattva is to be recognized when the senses conduct illumination (14.11-13) with the prevalence of knowledge and learning.
The sanctifying activity of Yajña or Vaidika sacrifice, is Sāttvika if undertaken with equanimity and without the desire for its fruits, and retains its sanctifying quality only when performed thus (17.11-13). The personal disciplines considered as Tapas, are considered genuine only when not vitiated by vanity or ill-will or any intent other than the disciplines themselves, and Tapas thus genuinely undertaken is considered Sāttvika (17.17-19). Dāna or charity too is considered Sāttvika when not vitiated by any intent other than the following of properly understood scriptural injunctions (17.20-22).
The Sāttvika mode of knowing tends to perceive a single truth amid a variety of beings (19.20-22). The Sāttvika variety of contentment (which is a basis for restraint in action) is based on the discipline of the body and mind through yoga (18.33-35). The Bhagavadgītā likens the Sāttvika variety of happiness in its state of fulfilment to the calm experienced by abidance in the indwelling soul, but says that it is initially like poison. Abhinavagupta interprets this as referring to the rigours of abhyāsa or spiritual practice that must borne for such inner calm to be attained (18.36-39).
A clarification that Abhinavagupta provides in an instance where “Sattva” occurs with contextual meaning other than as the name of a Guṇa in the source text, is now noted here. The term “Sattva” can be used as a synonym for “Svabhāva” or “fundamental nature” of the aspirant (which may be defined by any combination of Guṇa-s) which determines the course of any action performed with commitment by the aspirant (17.03).
In his opening remarks at the start of the sixteenth chapter, Abhinavagupta simultaneously identifies Sattva with Vidyā or knowledge, and with what is called the Daivī Sampat or divine inheritance that leads to liberation from bondage (16.0). A notable variant reading in Kāśmīra recension replaces the term Śāśvata-dharma-goptā (protector of the eternal dharma) in Kṛṣṇa’s self-description in the Critical Edition, with Sāttvata-dharma-goptā (protector of the dharma of the Sāttvata-s). Abhinavagupta in the relevant gloss interprets the term Sāttvata not as a marker of an ethnic group, but as identifying individuals who have cultivated Sattva and fit to receive the teaching that will bring liberation (11.18).
A state characterized by Sattva, from among all states characterized by the Guṇa-s, is what can be considered as mostly closely resembling (and preceding) the state of liberation which is beyond the Guṇa-s. In the cosmic inverted Aśvattha tree metaphor of the Bhagavadgītā where the Guṇa-s occur among the tangled branches below and the unseen root above is understood to signify a state beyond the Guṇa-s, Abhinavagupta describes the root as praśānta-rūpa or as having calmness for its form (15.02), which the Sattva-guṇa resembles due to its own quality of calmness. This adjacency of Sattva to the state of liberation which is the ultimate ideal of all of Śāstra, implies that the conduct of a Sāttvika individual can have many similarities with that of someone who has attained the Śāstra ideal. Abhinavagupta identifies Saṃyamatva or the quality of restraint as the hallmark of true learning of Śāstra, and observes that the conduct of one with Sāttvika nature has this quality and thus itself carries the weight of Śāstra (17.02).
Rajas: The Rajas mode of binding of the soul to a body has desire for its defining characteristic, and is the origin of craving and attachment (14.06-08). It is the cause of the soul’s attachment to action (karma).
Abhinavagupta devotes detailed glosses for the manifestations of Rajas as Kāma (desire) and Krodha (anger), described in four verses that are absent in the Critical Edition of the Bhagavadgītā but occur in the Kāśmīra recension following Verse 37 in Chapter 3 (3.37). He reiterates the mutual inseparability of Kāma and Krodha, and provides a listing of their shared characteristics and effects, which can help aspirants monitor and respond to the onset of Rajas in their own experience. Kāma and Krodha are described as…
- being imperceptible to the sense organs
- initially, and falsely, seeming to expand happiness
- manifesting as vanity about one’s antecedents and such
- rendering even potentially meritorious actions futile
- having the senses, mind and intellect as their sites of operation
If undertaken out of desire and vanity, the activity of Yajña which otherwise confers lasting benefits, becomes Rājasika and lacks this reliable and beneficial quality (17.11-13). Tapas similarly undertaken is also vitiated (17.17-19). Dāna is vitiated in the Rājasika mode when too little is given (17.20-22).
The Rājasika mode of knowing is directed by considerations of pleasure and displeasure (18.20-22). The Rājasika mode of contentment is not based on the discipline of yoga like the Sāttvika, but on situational reckoning of how much material desires are being met (18.33-35). The Rājasika variety of happiness is always contingent upon contact with objects of desire (18.36-39).
Tamas: The Tamas mode of binding of the soul to a body has ignorance for its defining characteristic and for its own origin. It binds the soul through negligence, laziness and sleep. In his combined gloss for the triad of verses Bhagavadgītā which lists the defining characteristics of the Guṇa-s, it is to Tamas that Abhinavagupta devotes the most emphasis to call out the danger it poses to aspirants (14.06-08). Specifically, he spells out what negligence, laziness and sleep mean in this context. Negligence refers to squandering human birth which is an extremely hard-earned and exclusive means of liberation of the soul. For emphasis, he quotes a verse appearing in the Yogavāsiṣṭha, whose purport is that all the gems in the world cannot purchase one wasted moment of life, and therefore one who in negligence thus wastes human life is the worst of people. Laziness according to Abhinavagupta refers to delaying performance of good deeds, and sleep refers to a disposition of total lack that is the most wretched course of all.
If undertaken in ignorance of the injunctions of Śāstra and impelled solely by the undiscerning imagination, even the otherwise sanctifying activity of Yajña lacks its sanctifying quality and becomes Tāmasika (17.06). Tapas undertaken with the ill-will towards others (17.17-19), and Dāna undertaken without reverence and in ignorance of scriptural and situational appropriateness (17.20-22) are also considered Tāmasika.
The Tāmasika mode of knowing is unfounded in any reasoned considerations, and driven by habit and impulses (18.20-22). The Tāmasika variety of contentment is founded neither in the discipline of yoga nor in the situational fulfilment of desires, but only in sleep and confusion (18.33-35). The Tāmasika variety of happiness also consists only of sleep, laziness and negligence (18.36-39).
In his opening remarks at the start of the sixteenth chapter, Abhinavagupta simultaneously identifies Tamas with Avidyā or ignorance, and with what is called the Āsurī sampat or demonic inheritance that causes further bondage (16.0).
The Guṇa complex
In the Gītārthasaṅgraha, greater emphasis is given to the three Guṇa-s considered individually than considering them as a single interacting complex which is manifest as Prakṛti. Abhinavagupta recapitulates both in Sāṁkhya view stated in the text of the Bhagavadgītā that Prakṛti is what is engaged in karma (action) and not the individual soul (3.27-28). To reiterate the foundational axiom that the individual soul cannot act by itself but can only experience the consequences of actions occurring due to Prakṛti, he employs the classic illustration of a blind person carrying a lame person, where the blind person who can only move corresponds to Prakṛti and the lame person who can only see corresponds to the individual soul (13.20-22).
The course of the individual soul thus bound with Prakṛti, towards further bondage or liberation, is the context in which the fourteenth chapter presents a description of Guṇa-s as the means of bondage. Throughout the course of life, the Guṇa-s are said to be in a constantly changing state of interplay whereby ascendancy of one of the Guṇa-s is simultaneous with subsidence of the other two (14.09-10). In the source text, the course of future births is said to be determined by which Guṇa is ascendant at the end of life, resulting in rebirth in higher realms if it is Sattva, among those attached to karma if it is Rajas, and among the deluded if it is Tamas. Abhinavagupta, in his gloss clarifies that the Guṇa that should be considered the determinant of the future birth, is the Guṇa in whose periods of ascendance the individual most intensively undertook action throughout the life-span (14.14-15). He argues that assuming the ascendant Guṇa coincident with the time of death would be inconsistent with diversity in future births, on the premise that the experience of the end of life is universally one of delusion or Tamas. It must be noted that the Guṇa-based outcomes thus listed are all after-lives, that is, future births, and thus not to be confused with final liberation which is understood to be not Guṇa-based at all.
Abhinavagupta declares that the summary of the process of reincarnation at the start of the fourteenth chapter devoted to the Guṇa-s, is really an aid to understand what to eventually overcome (14.20). Similarly, he considers the elaborate Guṇa-based classification of action in the eighteenth chapter, as intended to foster adequate appreciation of the complexity of karma, that is, of the modes of Prakṛti, which must be understood and overcome for liberation (18.40). Likewise, The Guṇa-s thus are understood as characterizing the realm of karma including rebirth, and transcending them is thus understood as transcending the effects of karma and rebirth.
The state beyond the Guṇa-s
Abhinavagupta’s summary verse for the Bhagavadgītā’s fourteenth chapter on the three Guṇa-s, is itself indicative of how it is not the distinctions between the Guṇa-s, but rather their transcendence altogether, that is his primary focus. Suffused with the essence of Bhakti, devoid of egotism and confusion, the sage who has gone beyond the Guṇa-s is hailed in this verse as staying constant even amid the stampede of the Guṇa-s (SS 14). The priority given by Abhinavagupta to the transcendence of Guṇa-s over their distinction, is seen also in his combined gloss for five verses where distinct operations of the three Guṇa-s are first reiterated and then what lies beyond the Guṇa-s is said to be immortality (14.16-20). In this combined gloss, he deems the equation of the Guṇātīta state with mokṣa as the only fit import of the entire set of verses, and the repetitions of Guṇa distinctions as fit to be ignored.
The quality of being “suffused with the essence of Bhakti” mentioned in the summary verse for the fourteenth chapter, is treated by Abhinavagupta not as an incidental one but as a fundamental requisite for an aspirant to attain the Guṇātīta state (14.26). The premise here is that an aspirant who is dedicated entirely to Bhagavān (who is unbound by Prakṛti’s Guṇa-s) in total Bhakti, is not dedicated in the slightest part to the fruits of karma and thus no longer subject to the modes of bondage which the Guṇa-s are.
The detachment that accompanies total bhakti and is demonstration of liberation, is understood to be from the fruits of action and not from action altogether. Mokṣa is declared by Abhinavagupta to be realizable in the form of guṇātīta-vṛtti (i.e., action transcending the Guṇa-s). This is consistent with the principle that Mokṣa does not demand renunciation of all fruitive action, but discerned action without attachment to fruits suffices to attain it (14.16-20). Terminologically, the term Sannyāsa is held to represent renunciation of all fruitive action, and Tyāga is held to represent detachment towards the fruits of performed actions (18.02). Tyāga is thus both a means to the Guṇātīta state, and the conduct of one who has approached that state (SS 17). Though the Bhagavadgītā lists types of Tyāga characterized by each Guṇa, Abhinavagupta states that ultimately, true Tyāga can only be the attribute of a Tyakta-guṇa-grāma who has shed the clutches of the Guṇa complex (18.04-11).
In a description that stands out in grandeur, Abhinavagupta writes of one who is a Guṇa-tritaya-saṅkaṭa-uttīrṇa-dhī, one who has gone beyond the crisis posed by the three-fold Guṇa-s, in communion with the reality that is designated as “Om Tat Sat” (17.23-27). Noting that all components in that triple designation all ultimately point to the Supreme Reality called Śabda Brahman, he first spells out what each element in the triad proximally symbolizes.
- Om represents the literal and active application of Śāstra throughout the embodied lifetime.
- Tat, by virtue of being a pronoun not bound to any single object, represents non-attachment to particular fruits of action.
- Sat, as the operative term in “Sat-kāra”, represents an attitude of reverence.
The supremely calm presence of Om-Tat-Sat is what is beheld by one who is Guṇātīta, while in the midst of Yajña, Dāna and Tapas which all occur in a desireless way as if they are the radiant dance of a sanctified body, not plagued by such questions as “What?”, “Whom?”, “When?”, “Where?” and “How?” (17.23-27).
Practical implications of the understanding of the Guṇatraya
Throughout the glosses in the Gītārthasaṅgraha which present the Guṇātīta state as the ideal to attain, practical advice for aspirants towards attaining this state can also be found. In the pathway towards the Guṇātīta state of liberation, key preparatory stages involve the overcoming of Guṇa-s opposed to Sattva, and a key marker of advancement is the ability for action without attachment to results. As aids for evaluating and furthering progress along this pathway, Abhinavagupta provides verbal affirmations to recapitulate understanding and maintains resolve. These affirmations, whose style may seem remarkably contemporary to reader’s today, are compiled approximately ordered by the stage in the pathway where they will benefit practitioners.
Pathway to the Guṇātīta state
Though the glosses in the Gītārthasaṅgraha pertaining to the Guṇātīta state are more descriptive and didactic, an overall programme for aspirants seeking to overcome the modes of bondage can be discerned throughout.
Avoiding negligence of the opportunity that human life represents, and avoiding laziness in undertaking good deeds, are prerequisites for progress (14.06-08). The periods when Sattva dominates experience are when the aspirant must engage most intensively in action since it is the cumulative effect thus accrued that will most influence future progress (14.14-15). Sattva being thus sufficiently operative is needed even to access the guidance needed for progress towards liberation, since it is to the Sāttvika ones that the teaching is most readily accessible (11.18, 16.0, 18.40). All efforts towards liberation must be undertaken with detachment to results and without a sense of doership (14.23-25, 17.02, 18.02). Such detachment towards the results of action is not attainable on its own, but only as an outcome of devoting oneself entirely to Bhagavān (verily Brahman) who is beyond the modes of bondage (14.26). Such devotion is declared by Abhinavagupta to be the mūlabhūtopāya or indispensable fundamental means to the attainment of the Guṇātīta state of liberation. Abhinavagupta recommends developing such devotion through contemplating on Brahman as Bhagavān whom one can serve wholeheartedly, over contemplating on Brahman as a being which is quiescent like we are in deep sleep (14.27).
In sum, preparation for the Guṇātīta state consists in overcoming negligence and laziness, and acting in a manner compatible with cultivation of understanding (yielded by Sattva). The Guṇātīta state is attained through action undertaken wholeheartedly as devotional service, with clear understanding of the separation of the soul from the modes of bondage, and with total detachment to fruits.
Verbal affirmations for aspirants
A pedagogic device deftly employed by Abhinavagupta to help aspirants adopt dispositions compatible with their progress (and avoid dispositions incompatible with their progress) in a timely and situation-appropriate way, is the crystallization these dispositions into readily memorized and recalled sentences. In style, these sentences resemble what are called “self-reminder quotes” in contemporary popular culture. Below, such sentences are presented as affirmations for potential use by aspirants treading the pathway to the Guṇātīta state of liberation. Please note that “Say” below is to be read as “Say silently to yourself…”, and “Do not say” is to be read as “Take care not to think…”
Say “This effort is an occurrence in my body, according to the nature of the body and senses, and I don’t seek the results of it.” while undertaking any effort during everyday life and social transactions (14.23-25).
Say “These are only bodily states, which cannot perturb me.” when the Guṇa dominating your experience alternates between Sattva and Rajas and Tamas (14.20).
Say “What do I gain by this indulgence? Let me abide joyfully in the soul always!” when the motivation for engaging in new actions presents themselves (18.33-35).
Do not say “May the world think of me highly thus!” while engaging in activities considered virtuous (17.11-13).
Do not say “I am the doer!” while undertaking any effort, prompted by habit or supposed practical necessity (18.26-28).
Abhinavagupta also summarises the attitude of those who show disbelief or derision towards a sincere aspirant into a single question, for the aspirant to recognize during social congress and respond appropriately. When someone who is infused with Bhakti and engaged in performance action with detachment towards its fruits is asked “Why do you persist in this fancy?”, the aspirant should not respond with arguments, and simply maintain in silence their devoted attitude internally and diligence to tasks externally.
The external review is cued chiefly by Abhinavagupta’s terminological and conceptual allusions in his Gītārthasaṅgraha glosses to a variety of philosophical schools including his own Pratyabhijñā Śaiva school, besides the schools of Yoga and (Pūrva-) Mīmāṃsā. While it is Vedānta exponents whose Bhagavadgītā commentaries have been more voluminous and visible historically, the comparison presented here is of limited scope, intended only to highlight the most salient differences in approach from the Gītārthasaṅgraha on the topic of Guṇa-s.
Context of Kāśmīra Śaivam
The language of the Pratyabhijñā Śaiva school (commonly referred to as Kāśmīra Śaivam), of which Abhinavagupta is among the best-known exponents, can be seen employed in some of the glosses examined in this study. The verse where Kṛṣṇa describes his role in the origin of the phenomenal world is strikingly rendered in Pratyabhijñā Śaiva terminology in the gloss (14.03). It is rendered as a statement of Īśvara, the primal Puruṣa, who declares having manifested as saṃsāra (the phenomenal world) as a means of anugraha (grace) for individual beings, via His own Vimarśa-śakti (inseparable potency for self-awareness). In his gloss for the next verse, Abhinavagupta identifies respectively as Bhagavat-śakti and Śaktimān what the verse calls the “womb” and the “seed-giving father” of all of creation (14.04). Earlier in the Gītārthasaṅgraha, he declares that the Guṇātīta state, which he deems no different from the state of Bhagavān, is not attained without Śakti-pāta, as the descent of empowering divine grace is called in Pratyabhijñā Śaiva terminology (7.12-14). Abhinavagupta’s exposition of the designation of the supreme state as “Om Tat Sat” also contains a Pratyabhijñā Śaiva parsing, where Om symbolizes the phenomenal world subsided into quiescence in the Supreme Being, Tat represents the icchā-svātantrya or Free Will of the Supreme Being, and Sat represents the same Supreme Being as manifest in the world.
In the preface to the 1985 edition of the Gītārthasaṅgraha, S Sankaranarayanan notes that Abhinavagupta accords to the Bhagavadgītā the status of Ādi-siddha-sūtra or ‘primal established formulation’ (which no other Kāśmīra Śaiva of such eminence is said to have done). He also notes that Abhinavagupta cites the Bhagavadgītā in his doctrinal texts such as the Paramārthasāra, Tantrāloka and Īśvarapratyabhijñāvivṛti. One such instance is the quotation of Verse 27 of Chapter 14 in the Īśvarapratyabhijñāvivṛti, glossing the occurrence of the word aham (“I”) as meaning “that wherein the Supreme Bliss of Brahman abides”. An instance is also provided from the Tantrāloka of a verified paraphrasing of a Bhagavadgītā verse, wherein Abhinavagupta in Tantrāloka 28:326-27 describes the Guṇa-determined course of souls as per Verse 18 of Chapter 14 of the Bhagavadgītā. S Sankaranarayanan also notes how it is reasonable to assume that Abhinavagupta had read the Bhagavadgītā commentaries of his Kāśmīra Śaiva predecessors Bhāskara and Rāmakaṇṭha, and that the relative brevity of the Gītārthasaṅgraha may itself be due to a recognition of these preceding works dealing with the same subject matter at length.
Context of other Indic Schools
A distinguishing feature of any Indic philosophical school is the attitude it adopts towards the authority of the Veda in matters of human salvation. Addressing the apparent conflict between two declarations in the Bhagavadgītā, namely that the content of the Veda is the Guṇa-based, and that a state beyond the Guṇa-s must be sought, Abhinavagupta provides clarifications that defend the status of the Veda (02.46). He clarifies that the Veda itself is not a cause of bondage despite being called Guṇa-based, but only Vaidika activities undertaken with a desire for fruits are. He clarifies further that any declaration in the Bhagavadgīta of the Veda as an inadequate instrument of liberation specifically applies only to those still in bondage of the Guṇa-s and not to those in the Guṇātīta state who understand how to desireless pursue Veda’s injunctions for liberation. While glossing the verse distinguishing Sannyāsa (renunciation of all actions) and Tyāga (renunciation of the fruits of all actions), Abhinavagupta chooses to defer to the Pūrva Mīmāṃsā exegete Bhaṭṭa Bhāskara on the practical matters of how these categories apply in the case of actions enjoined by the Veda (18.02, 18.03).
Use of terminology from the Yoga school as expounded in the Yogasūtra (YS) of Patañjali, which shares the basic conceptual framework of the Saṁkhya school, is extensive in Abhinavagupta’s glosses on Guṇa-s. Arjuna’s question of whether a Guṇātīta state is at all possible is likened to the question motivating the entirety of Yogaśāstra, namely, whether the citta-vṛtti-s (YS 1.02) or modes of the mind can be ceased (14.21). The Bhagavadgītā’s use of the term kleśa to describe what afflicts Rājasika objectives (of knowledge or action), is interpreted according to the definition occurring in the Yogasūtra (YS 2.03) by Abhinavagupta (18.23-25). The kleśa called abhiniveśa (YS 2.09), which is an attachment to overall process of living as an individual, is distinguished from attachment towards specific objectives (of knowledge or action) in the Rājasika mode (18.33-35). Abhiniveśa is also implicated in the Tāmasika mode of knowing that is driven by habit and not reason (18.20-22).
The Vedānta schools which treat the Bhagavadgītā as a foundational text have expectedly generated the most commentarial literature on the text. Unlike comprehensive commentaries in the Bhāṣya genre by Vedānta exponents like Śaṅkara and Rāmānuja, the Gītārthasaṅgraha is in a genre of summary expositions and is hence shorter in length and without glosses for every single verse. The Gītārthasaṅgraha’s approach to the topic of Guṇa-s stands out with respect to influential Vedānta commentaries in many respects including the following.
- The Bhagavadgītā’s coverage of the topic of Guṇa-s is not treated as part of an assortment of miscellaneous topics supplementary to the text’s main message, but treated throughout as a means of reiterating the main message itself, namely the attainment of salvation.
- There is no preoccupation with establishing either Jñāna or Bhakti or Karma as a superior means of liberation. Liberation is said to need acquiring the requisite Jñāna by cultivating Sattva, detaching from the bondage modes and adhering to Bhagavān through Bhakti, and performing Karma in this detached mode.
- In the glosses for Chapter 18, considerable investment is made in providing working definitions of the entities (e.g., karma, buddhi, dhṛti) that are given Guṇa-based characterizations (18.20-39). This is unlike other commentaries where the meanings of these entities are typically assumed to be their common lexical meanings, and the primary effort is in expounding on and justifying the Guṇa-based characterizations.
The Gītārthasaṅgraha is striking in its economy and simplicity, especially considering the prodigious scholarly output of Abhinavagupta in a variety of disciplines including Tantra and Indic aesthetics. A reader familiar with Abhinavagupta’s broader corpus but unfamiliar with the Gītārthasaṅgraha, may be surprised to discover that his treatment of the Guṇatraya here is not loaded with a surfeit of elaborations or examples drawing on the epics or on Sanskrit drama. An instance of minimalism on the part of Abhinavagupta is how his commentary simply skips Verses 7 to 10 in Chapter 14 of the Bhagavadgīta on Sāttvika, Rājasika and Tāmasika food preferences, which latter-day expositors tend to treat as an occasion for extended exposition with a surfeit of examples. Such apparent omissions however do not detract from Abhinavagupta’s intent of clearly highlighting the path beyond bondage by the Guṇa-s, undistracted by the endless possibilities of multidisciplinary exploration of the ways in which Guṇa-s bind. The polymathy of Abhinavagupta here is not expressed through an anxious display of encyclopaedic erudition, but through the mature application of such erudition to aptly choose what details to ignore in the interest of highlighting central ideas.
While the Pratyabhijñā Śaiva affiliation of Abhinavagupta is not concealed in the Gītārthasaṅgraha, the work is free of any exclusionary claims or disparagement of other schools. Even in this short commentary, Abhinavagupta gives a list of criteria for determining when an intellectual endeavour deserves the dignity of being called Śāstra, which reveals his intellectual magnanimity as a model for anyone engage in honest scholastic endeavours regardless of discipline or affiliation (17.02). According to him, an intellectual endeavour to deserve being counted as Śāstra must be…
- unsullied by aggressive sectarianism and prejudice
- arrived at with the confidence that free awareness provides
- based on correct awareness and acknowledgement of Reality, from its unitary primordial presence as Praṇava (Śabda-Brahman), to its variegated presence as Vāk
Abhinavagupta’s interpretation of the Guṇa-s in the Bhagavadgītā has informed the study of this text in the Kāśmīra Śaiva tradition well into modern times. An instance can be found in a lecture recording and transcript from 1978 where Swami Lakshman Joo, speaking on Verses 6 to 8 of Chapter 14 of the Bhagavadgītā, employs this discourse to emphasize the same immediate action item for aspirants that Abhinavagupta did a millennium before him: to overcome negligence and laziness in doing good deeds.
The Gītārthasaṅgraha’s treatment of the Guṇatraya with the objective of realizing the Guṇātīta state, is simultaneously an authentic Kāśmīra Śaiva and unmistakably pan-Indic expression of a vision of human salvation, with an undiminished appeal right to the present day to scholars and seekers alike.
Sankaranarayanan, S. (1985). Śrīmadbhagavadgītā with Gītārthasaṅgraha of Abhinavagupta Part 1: Text (1st ed.). Sri Venkateswara University Oriental Research Institute.
Sankaranarayanan, S. (1985). Śrīmadbhagavadgītā with Gītārthasaṅgraha of Abhinavagupta Part 2: Translation (1st ed.). Sri Venkateswara University Oriental Research Institute.
Śrīmad Bhagavadgītā. (n.d.). Gita Supersite Developed and Maintained by IIT Kanpur. https://www.gitasupersite.iitk.ac.in/srimad
Sharma, A. (1983). Abhinavagupta Gītārthasaṅgraha Translated with an Introductory Study. EJ Brill, Leiden.
Hughes, J. (2022). How does Sattvaguna bind the individual in Kashmir Shaivism. Lakshmanjoo Academy. Retrieved 2022, from https://www.lakshmanjooacademy.org/how-does-sattvaguna-binds-the-individual/
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