The Nature of Reality: Tantraloka 1.52-57

Translation of Light on the Tantras chapter one ("The Aspects of Consciousness"), continued: The Nature of Reality. Previous topic: Bondage and Liberation

ज्ञेयस्य हि परं तत्त्वं यः प्रकाशात्मकः शिवः।
न ह्यप्रकाशरूपस्य प्राकाश्यं वस्तुतापि वा ॥ ५२

The ultimate reality of any thing-to-be-known is Śiva (meaning both "God" & "blessing"), i.e. the Light of Manifestation (prakāśa)—for if its ultimate nature were otherwise, it would not be manifest (prākāśya), nor a really existent thing. || 52

My commentary: prakāśa is a very difficult term to translate, but we must understand it because it is the essence of Śiva-nature, according to Abhinava. The meanings of the word include: (adj.) visible, shining, apparent, manifest; out in the open, public; (noun) light, splendor; manifestation; expansion, diffusion. The meanings here group around two distinct concepts in English: light, on the one hand, and appearance/manifestation on the other. These are not distinct in Sanskrit. We can understand the connection between them by considering the fact that only when something is illuminated does its existence become apparent (at least to our visual sense, and 'illumination' must here be understood metaphorically). Light becomes, then, the central metaphor for Awareness in nondual Tantrik philosophy. This is a felicitous choice of metaphor, because it correctly implies that the whole of manifest reality consists of various forms of energy. We can translate prakāśa in the current context as “the Light of Manifestation,” “the Light of Creation,” or even “the Light of Awareness,” since we already understand that it is Awareness that manifests all things and states of being.

Yet even the unreality of any entity has as its sole domain the delightful relishing [of awareness]. Even the concept “This does not exist,” is [an expression of awareness], not something [inert] like a wall. || 53

My comm: camatkāra, the capacity of Awareness to relish itself in any given form, is here equivalent to vimarśa-śakti, the power of reflection, the capacity of Awareness to represent itself in any and every way, endlessly reinventing itself, simply for the joy of doing so.

And this is indeed the Light that shines absolutely everywhere, being manifest as everything whatsoever. Since it can hardly be denied, what is the point of fabricating methods of knowing it? || 54

As for the epistemological modes, they are the vital principle of all things; but the Highest Divinity (= prakāśa) is their ultimate vital principle. || 55

My comm: the "epistemological modes" (pramāṇas) are the three valid means by which we know whatever we actually know: direct perception, inference, and revelation.

For even one whose whim is to refute everything exists in just such a way (i.e., as a manifestation of the Light of Awareness) when he denies that cognition implies a self, saying “It does not appear (bhāsate) so to me!” || 56

My comm: the Sanskrit of this verse is more difficult than the others; this is a method Abhinava uses to force the reader to slow down and consider more carefully what is being said. When we do so, we see that there is a subtle joke here: the nāstika (nay-sayer) who denies that cognition implies a cognizer already demonstrates the existence of the cognizing self through his very denial ("It does not appear so to me"), while simultaneously admitting that he does not recognize the nature of that self ("It does not appear to me"). The word "appear" here, bhāsate, is the words that the Tantrikas use to describe the many "shinings" or manifestations of the One Light. Abhinavagupta is of course thinking of the Buddhists here, but his refutation is delightfully sly and playful. Here we begin to get a sense of his real personality. Students of philosophy will note that this verse anticipates the central insight of Rene Descartes (cogito, ergo sum) but in a different mode -- it is the nonpersonal Light of Awareness whose existence is demonstrated, not the thinking mind, which itself is only perceiveable because it appears within and as a manifestation of that Light.  [Textual note: emend dharmāpi to dharmo'pi, following Jayaratha's commentary.]

In the case of either refuting or establishing the reality of anything, such [Light of Awareness] is the primary thing (i.e., is the pre-existent power of consciousness necessary for any perception or conception); so what could be the propriety or usefulness of [any] epistemological mode with regard to it? || 57

My comm: here Abhinava is simply saying that if we use any method to attempt to know the divine Light of Awareness, we are already one step removed; it is the power by which any method of knowing can operate, and for that reason it cannot be known as an object of consciousness. In other words, you can't see your essential nature as pure Awareness, because by definition it is the point from which all seeing is done. It cannot be objectified. So when you go looking for your "true self", you'll never find it. The one you are looking for is the One who is looking.* Only through being thoroughly disarmed of all your strategies, and totally relaxing all your grasping at self, will you eventually drop into your most natural mode of pure, simple being. Though you cannot see your true nature, you can be it.

In summary, then, all that exists is one, infinite, self-aware field of energy, here called the Light of Awareness. Everything that appears is simply the one Light appearing as that. Nothing is more divine than everything else, for the divine Light is all there is. When you perceive something beautiful, it's simply the Infinite appearing as that; when you perceive something repellent, it's equally the Infinite appearing as that. This is one of the least-understood spiritual principles of the nondual path -- that whatever appears as good, bright, or beautiful, does not express the divine Light any more fully than what appears as bad, dark, or ugly. This doesn't seem so because of the power of your mental conditioning. However, there is no point whatsoever in acting as if it is true before you directly experience its truth (it can even be dangerous to do so). To reach the paradigm where you experience everything as fully expressing the divine Light, you must exercise discernment. This only seems like a paradox before entering that paradigm.

To be continued . . . next topic: "The Nature of God"!

*Thanks to D.R. Butler for this felicitous phrase!