Abhinavagupta’s contribution to the Tantric Tradition
The complexity and richness of the Tantric tradition and its teaching has led to the emergence over the years of a wide variety of misconceptions about the nature of its practices and philosophies. Among the general public today it can even be said that very few truly understand the Tantric Principles and even fewer apply them correctly. This remains true despite the ever growing popularity of Tantra in todays cultural environment. In searching for the essence of Tantra, one scholar and master stands out above all others, Abhinavagupta.
Abhinavagupta’s contributions to the understanding of the Tantric philosophy is of the highest value and is indispensable to the student of Tantra. Since the knowledge of Tantra is often expressed in a symbolic form or language it can often become confusing and at time unintelligible. Tantra is well known for its symbolism and often these symbols cannot be understood without the clues originating within the tradition itself. Abhinavagupta belonged to that tradition and studied with various illustrious gurus, who helped his efforts to produce a coherent and consistent corpus of Tantric knowledge. Therefore the intricate symbolism of the Tantra presented by Abhinavagupta are both rooted in the tradition as well as shaped by his brilliant insights.
Abhinavagupta presents the potentially difficult and confusing philosophies of the Tantras in a coherent way that makes the Tantric position logical and rationally acceptable. What is complex in Tantra Abhinavagupta makes simple and that which is esoteric and mystical becomes rationally understandable.
The precision and clarity with which Abhinavagupta collated the Tantric philosophies and the ingenuity which he used to clarified their position had an enormous impact on the Tantric thinkers who followed after him. The insights and beauty of which makes them still relevant today. His name Abhinava, which means ‘novel’ or ‘new’ becomes literally meaningful.. Abhinavagupta is ‘ever new’.
Abhinavagupta also provided a unifying thread which tied together the different sub-trends within the Kashmir Shaiva tradition, weaving them into the complete whole of the Trika philosophy of Kashmir Shaivism. During the time of Abhinavagupta there existed four main traditions, the Spanda, Krama, Kula and Pratyabhijna schools.
The Spanda school is know for its emphasis on the dynamic aspect of consciousness, technically called spanda or krya in Sanskrit. This school advocated catching the threads of spontaneous activity as a path towards self realisation. The Krama school advocated the successive steps in which the self, or Shiva would manifest itself in the form of the world or worldly forms. It would teach the ways to make use of these forms to progressively reach the Self. The Kula school promoted the unity of Shiva and Shakti which is symbolically expressed in the union between a man and a woman. It aimed at Self-realisation through the ‘left handed path’ one of the main components of which is the sublimation of sexual energy into pure and universal love.
The Pratyabhijna school placed it’s emphasis on the knowledge (jnana) of Reality and promoted Self-realisation through the recognition of ones unity with all beings through universal love. Pratyabhijna means both the removal of ignorance (being the sense of duality) as well as the awareness of ones complete unity with all things and all beings.
Abhinavagupta uses the thread of Pratyabhijna as a unifying theory to stitch together the patchwork of sub-trends within Kashmir Shaivism into a single quilt. Pratyabhijna becomes the central philosophy in which all the other forms are unified and made clear. He highlights that Spanda or Shakti is another name for the natural dynamism of Shiva (consciousness).