The Recognition Sutras: the story of a miracle

One thousand years ago in the valley of Kashmīr, a great tāntrika, Rājānaka Kṣhemarāja, wrote his masterpiece: the Pratyabhijñā-hṛdayam, which means “the essence of the Recognition philosophy” or “the heart of the teachings on Recognition”—recognition, that is, of oneself as an expression of the universal divine Consciousness. 

The Recognition philosophy is the most fully developed body of teachings in nondual Śaiva Tantra. It arose in Kashmīr in the early 900s and eventually traversed the whole length of India, being especially well studied in the far South as well as the far North. Even back then, it was considered an intellectually challenging philosophy—I think it’s amongst the most intellectually challenging in any language—and so to make the teachings accessible to a wider public, Rājānaka Kshemarāja composed this short work, about fifty pages in the original Sanskrit. It was a concise primer, written, he said, to introduce spiritual seekers to the Recognition philosophy in more approachable, less formally philosophical, language. What he created turned out to be one of the great spiritual masterpieces, breathtaking in its brevity but stunning in its power. It came to be considered equivalent to scripture itself by later generations, because of its undeniable inspiration. Since the text is anchored by twenty key sūtras (aphorisms), my forthcoming translation of it is called The Recognition Sutras

The text itself is extraordinary, but the fact that we’re able to read The Recognition Sūtras today—that it exists at all, in any language, let alone in English—is nothing short of a miracle. 

The Story of a Miracle

The lush and verdant Kashmīr Valley was the original setting for the Recognition school, and one of the key heartlands of nondual Śaiva Tantra.[1] The writings of Tantrik authors from Kashmīr are often collectively referred to as “Kashmir Shaivism,” but this is a modern term, and in fact there was nothing specifically Kashmiri about the Śaiva Tantrik tradition. However, certain schools of thought within nondual Śaiva Tantra, like the Recognition and Spanda schools, did originate in the Kashmīr Valley, where the rulers were faithful patrons of the tradition.

The valley was and is incredibly beautiful, with its towering mountains, hardwood forests, natural waterfalls, and modest homes built from native woods. (See the main image.*) Think Switzerland for its natural beauty and craftsmanship, but with a much richer and more diverse culture that derived from being a meeting point for travelers and merchants from India, Persia, China, Mongolia, Tibet, and Turkestan. In the time of Kshemarāja, Kashmīr was a Tantrik kingdom, which means the rulers were (usually) Tantrik initiates who generously patronized the tradition. At that time there were a number of Tantrik kingdoms in the Asian world, such as Bali, Champa (coastal Vietnam), Angkor Wat (Cambodia), and many more in India and what is now Pakistan. Until just a few years ago Nepāl was such a kingdom, and Bhutan is the last of the Tantrik kingdoms existing today.

As an initiate, the Kashmiri king funded festivals and temples, but also supported philosophical study and spiritual practice, even paying stipends to those philosophers and contemplatives who explored the inner landscape and wrote about their insights (some of these, like our author, were given the title rājānaka to indicate the king’s favor). Given today’s political world, we may find the idea of government funding for spiritual research and writing astonishing, but what is even more impressive, I think, is the manner in which this spiritual literature survived to the present day—though only just.

As with many beautiful places, Kashmīr has been under many rulers. In the three centuries after our author, the Muslims invaded again and again, regularly looting and destroying temples, holy places, and monasteries, believing that all non-Muslim religion was an offense to God. In this period, untold numbers of Śaiva Tantrik manuscripts were destroyed; but many were saved, held by devoted Kashmiri paṇḍit families and passed from father to son. Kashmīr was finally conquered in 1339, after which time ten different Muslim rulers persecuted Shaivism and other non-Muslim religions over a period of 400 years (late 14th to late 18th century).[i] Kashmīr fell into Sikh hands in 1819, and after a Sikh rebellion in British-ruled India of the mid-19th century, the region came into the hands of the British. For political reasons the Brits wanted a Hindu head-of-state—and so for a period that would last 100 years, Kashmīr once again had Hindu mahārājas who would support the study of Śaiva Tantra.

But there had been much destruction and much sacred knowledge had been lost; the new Hindu kings ruled a population that was 95% Muslim. When Sir Pratāp Singh Sāhib Bahādur assumed his throne in 1885, there were only about forty Śaiva brahmin families left in the region. Fortunately, these families held a substantial number of manuscripts of original Tantrik texts (scriptures, commentaries, and original works, including The Recognition Sūtras); but most of them did not well understand the content of these texts. As a Rajput Hindu, King Pratāp Singh was aware of the treasure trove of scriptures that had been preserved under Muslim rule through painstaking recopying for six centuries.

His Highness Sir Pratāp Singh Sāhib Bahādur, Mahārāja of Kashmīr from 1885 to 1925

His Highness Sir Pratāp Singh Sāhib Bahādur, Mahārāja of Kashmīr from 1885 to 1925

Singh’s government engaged representatives from the remaining Brahmin families to gather these original manuscripts: written on birch bark, partially eaten by ants, rotting in moldy attics. Almost no one had been actually reading these scriptures. The scholars compared multiple manuscripts of each work in an (often unsuccessful) effort to correct any errors that had crept in over the centuries of copying, and thereby created rough editions for publication. Between 1911 and 1947, the government published about fifty works of Śaiva Tantra, all in the original Sanskrit, as the Kashmir Series of Texts and Studies (KSTS). The Recognition Sūtras (or Pratyabhijñā-hṛdayam) is one of these fifty. This catalogue of texts constitutes only about 3% of the Tantrik literature that once existed. Another ~20% exists in handwritten manuscript form only, held in government archives (see below). About 75% of the original body of literature has been lost, probably forever. Fortunately, many (but not all) of the really important and valuable sources survived, since they were copied more frequently, and some of these sources were published in the KSTS series.

An example of a Sanskrit manuscript from Kashmīr, partially eaten by ants.

An example of a Sanskrit manuscript from Kashmīr, partially eaten by ants.

So in the early 20th century, the Kashmīr government had stacks of these printed Sanskrit books, commissioned by the king, that virtually no one in Kashmīr actually read (since the Kashmiri paṇḍits, by and large, were no longer scholars or tāntrikas). Fifty texts comprising eighty volumes of Sanskrit from an tradition that influenced all of Asian spirituality, but now obscure and forgotten by the world. Did these texts contain valuable material? In 1947, when India attained independence and the series finished publication, no one knew really knew of their value aside from the handful of scholars who edited them. However, someone in the Kashmiri government of the time thought universities in the West might appreciate having them, and so KSTS sets were mailed to various universities around the world. Onto the shelves they went, where they immediately began collecting dust.

This means that in the 1960s when interest in Eastern spirituality boomed in America, these encyclopaedic texts of the spiritual life were just sitting there in university library stacks, awaiting discovery. Some of the students at these universities, influenced by the Beat Generation’s appreciation of Indian spirituality, were meditating, experiencing awakenings, and hearing Hindu teachings laced with Tantrik philosophy (though that wasn’t known at time) from the likes of Swāmī Satchidānanda and Maharishi Mahesh Yogī. A few of these students were so captivated that they signed up to study Sanskrit so they could better understand the roots of the spirituality they had been exposed to. One of these young Sanskrit scholars was my former teacher Paul Muller-Ortega, who heard Maharishi speak at Yale as a freshman. The Maharishi lectured on a couple of Śaiva Tantrik texts, like the Śiva-sūtras, so later when Paul’s graduate school mentor pointed him toward the dusty KSTS volumes on the library shelves, feeling they might be important, Paul became utterly fascinated with them, and is still working with them forty years later.

Others, like my mentor Alexis Sanderson of Oxford, were drawn by intellectual curiosity more than spiritual yearning. Sanderson, like some other young European Sanskritists interested in Śaiva Tantrik philosophy, journeyed to Kashmīr in the 1970s, so that he could learn directly from the last living guru of the Trika branch of the tradition, Swāmī Lakṣman-jū.[ii] Sanderson read all eighty volumes of the KSTS with Lakṣhman-jū, then realized that to have the deep understanding he craved, he needed to turn to the original manuscript sources, which were far more numerous. Fast forward forty-four years: Sanderson has now read literally thousands of crumbling handwritten manuscripts and published over 2000 pages of ground-breaking academic work showing that Shaivism was the dominant religious tradition of the Indian subcontinent for a thousand years (about 400-1400), and that its esoteric Tantrik component had an incalculable impact on all the other Indian religions, especially Buddhism.[iii] Sanderson's first student, Mark Dyczkowski, has published some of the most well-known studies of Tantrik philosophy. 

The primary elements of Śaiva Tantrik yoga—including cakras, the ‘energy body’, kuṇḍalinī, prāṇāyāma, mantra, mudrā, and deity yoga—have not only survived, today they pervade the entire world of modern yoga, albeit often in highly simplified or distorted forms, accompanied by a near-total ignorance of the tradition from which they are derived.

So, this treasure trove of spiritual literature just managed to survive into the digital age; today hundreds of these texts existed in digital form (but still untranslated), backed up all over the world. It’s possible that without the publication of the KSTS series—which only happened through the historical accident of the British needing a Hindu king to rule Muslim Kashmīr to preserve their balance of power—no one would have taken any interest in the spiritual philosophy of Śaiva Tantra, which one hundred years ago was considered obscure, difficult, and not particularly worthy of study by the few scholars who were aware of it.[iv] We are fortunate indeed that this formerly secret knowledge was transmitted to the world before the Śaiva tradition evaporated in Kashmīr. In 1991 the last Kashmiri guru of this tradition, Swāmī Lakṣhman-jū, died. The following year, virtually all the remaining Hindu families left Kashmir in an veritable exodus driven, at least in part, by fear. Now Kashmir is wholly in Muslim hands—1,002 years after the first Muslim incursion by Maḥmūd of Ghazni in 1014. Of course many of the Muslims who live there nowadays are gentle and kind people, unaware of the devastation wrought by some of their ancestors.

Now that I’ve outlined the history of transmission (in a grossly simplified way, of course), what about the teachings themselves? Why should we study them? What relevance could they have for our modern technology lives? Great relevance, as it turns out: many of the teachings that most captivate modern yoga practitioners come straight out of Tantra, but have lost the context within which their full power can be felt. Tantrik teachings that are translated without benefit of understanding the coherent and comprehensive spiritual tradition from which they spring become reduced to what I think of as “bumper stickers” or fortune-cookie platitudes—vague, ambiguous statements like We’re all connected and It’s all one Consciousness and You create your own reality. Hearing such a phrase, you might well wonder, "What does that really mean? Is it more than just a New Age feel-good affirmation? How does one experience the reality that this phrase glibly alludes to?"

Understood in the proper context, the teachings of original Tantra are not at all vague or nebulous. They precisely map intricate structures of awareness and pay impeccable attention to detail in answering fundamental questions like What is the basic nature of a human being? Is consciousness a static witness or a dynamic process? How do we acquire valid insight, undistorted by our past conditioning? Does awareness create reality? How do we become free of suffering? Careful answers to these questions informed by direct spiritual realization is the gift we have received from the Tantrik sages like Kṣhemarāja who composed or transmitted these texts. This gift has passed through the loving hands of those who are reviving and resuscitating this tradition today on the level of its most subtle transmission. The energy of that transmission has not been lost; I know because I myself, and many others I know, have been fortunate to receive it.  Jai Ho!  इति शिवम् iti śivam!  May it be for a blessing.

Want to know more about these powerful teachings? Here is a 35min free video that introduces you to the wisdom of The Recognition Sutras

* Main photo credit: Pahalgam Valley, Kashmir, by KennyOMG

[1] Śaiva means ‘the religion of Shiva,’ and, by extension, of Shakti. ‘Tantra’ refers to a innovative system of spiritual practice that flourished in South Asia for centuries.

[i] Though fortunately, five rulers during this period were opposed to persecution of brahmins, providing a welcome respite. See Sanderson’s 'History of Hinduism in Kashmir' handout from his lecture of 17 April 2010 as well as his detailed article “The Hinduism of Kashmir,” available from alexissanderson.com.

[ii] For the Trika, see pp. 234-47 of Tantra Illuminated.

[iii] For both points, see Sanderson’s monumental “The Śaiva Age,” published in Genesis and Development of Early Tantrism, edited by S. Einoo.

[iv] However, many aspects of Tantrik yoga and ritual were being studied one hundred years ago, by the pioneering scholar-practitioner John Woodroffe (pen-name: Arthur Avalon); but these East Indian sources did not include the philosophical texts under discussion, which were preserved almost exclusively in the far North (Kashmīr, Puñjab, Nepāl) and South (Kerala, Karṇātaka, Tamiḷ Nādu).