Aparā Devī, Abhinavagupta, and Ignorance


Excerpt from: Quarterly Malini published by Ishwar Ashram Trust, by Prof. Debabrata Sensharma. Art : Aparā Devī, sitting on her consort Navātma-bhairava. Drawing by Ekabhumi Ellik, painted by Carmen Richards.

Ignorance is a truth that all human beings perceive in their life in this world. All schools of Indian philosophical thought take cognizance of its existence in man and discuss its nature as they see it, recognizing that ignorance is universally perceived to be the cause of man’s bondage in his mundane life. A brief survey of the conceptualization of ignorance by some representative orthodox schools of Indian philosophy on the nature of ignorance will help in assessing the unique contribution made to the subject by the most illustrious exponent of Kashmir Shaivism, Abhinavagupta.

We shall begin our study with an examination of how the Nyāya and Vaiśeṣika schools conceived it, because these two schools have been assigned the lowest position in the hierarchy of the schools of Indian philosophy by a well-known Advaita Shaiva writer, Kshemaraja, in his Pratyabhijñahṛdayam (Sutra 😎, where he says: tadbhūmikaḥ sarvadarśana sthitayaḥ, ‘the positions of the various systems of philosophy are only that’.

The Nyāya-Vaiśeṣika writers conceptualise ignorance to be merely negation or absence of knowledge in the percipient subject. Thus, ignorance is, in their view, a negative concept which can be eliminated by acquisition of knowledge: duḥkha-janma-pravrtti-doṣa mityajñānānam uttarāpaye (Nyāya sūtra 1.1.2, and the Nyāya bhāṣya thereon, 15). The Sāṁkhya and the Patañjali Yoga schools look upon ignorance as the resultant of the lack of discriminatory wisdom (viveka-jñāna) in the percipient subject between the sentient (chetana) Puruṣa and the insentient material (jaḍa) Prakṛti (cf. SK vs. 64, p. 476 ff, and Vachasapati Misra’s commentary thereon).

The lack of discriminatory knowledge between these two ultimate components of creation, spirit and matter produces confusion in the mind of the percipient subject, culminating in the false superimposition of the characteristics of the material Prakṛiti on the spiritual Puruṣa. It is obvious that the dualistic Sāṁkhya-Yoga School’s theory of ignorance is positive in character, as opposed to the pluralistic Nyāya-Vaiṣeśika viewpoint, and that ignorance can be destroyed by developing its opposite, discriminatory wisdom, between the two, Puruṣa and Prakṛti. The Shankara Vedāntins conceive of two forms of ignorance, namely, cosmic ignorance (samaṣṭi or mūla ajñāna), and individual ignorance (vyaṣṭi or tūla ajñāna), though their nature and content are held to be identical in essence: idamajñānam samṣṭi-vyaṣti abhiprāyena ekamanekam ca vyavahryate (VS 76).

Cosmic ignorance plays a crucial role in the manifestation of the phenomenal world, while individual ignorance leads to a distorted vision of Reality, thereby causing bondage. Ignorance has been described by the Advaita Vedantins as neither existent (sat) on account of its being sublated by the dawn of true knowledge in the individual being, nor non-existent (asat), as it is experienced by all individuals on the mundane plane; it, therefore, is indescribable (anirvacanīya) in positive or negative terms: ajñānam sadasadbhyam nirvacanīyam triguṇātmakam jñāna-virodhī bhāva-rūpam (ibid 73). Ignorance here has only a phenomenal existence; as soon as one succeeds in elevating oneself to the trans-phenomenal level, ignorance disappears from the experiential horizon of the individual being once and for all.

Against this background of the views of the other orthodox schools, let us now examine the Advaita Shaiva concept of ignorance as conceived by the Advaita Shaiva writers of Kashmir. The earliest references to the concept of ignorance are the two aphorisms in the Śivasūtra revealed to Vasugupta, the founder of the Advaita Shaiva School in Kashmir. The two identically worded sūtras read thus: jñānam bandhaḥ (Śivasūtra 3.2). Kshemaraja, Abhinavagupta’s foremost disciple, says that the word jñānam actually signifies in this context vitiated, or limited, knowledge, which is tantamount to ignorance (ajñāna) (Śivasūtra Vimarśinī 3.2).

This ignorance lies at the root of the bondage of the individual being. When he is enveloped by defilement (mala), technically called āṇavamala (i.e. mala caused by the limitation imposed on the self by the Supreme Lord), then the individual does not experience his true divine nature on account of his being limited and contracted by this self-created limitation or āṇavamala. This lack of knowledge about his true nature is labeled ignorance. Kshemaraja interprets the word jñānam as occurs in the Śivasūtra (3.2) as signifying the knowledge of the self-produced in the citta (internal sense organ, equivalent to antaḥkaraṇa) in the form of its modification (citta-vritti) (SSV 128). Since the citta is universally acknowledged as of the nature of the three guṇas, pleasure (sattva), pain (rajas) and stupefaction (tamas), the knowledge produced in it bears all the characteristics of empirical knowledge. For instance, it implies the experience of duality between subject and object, as also infinite multiplicity.

The knowledge arising in the citta involving two distinct poles of experience, the knower and the known, is instrumental in the experient’s bondage. He is then subject to transmigration in the world. Kshemaraja quotes a verse from the Tantrasadbhāva, now lost, in his commentary, the Śivasutra-vimarśinī: “Confined to sattva, rajas and tamas (the three guṇas), and knowing only that (object of knowledge) which the senses can seize, the embodied being wanders about in the world, moving from one body to another” (ibid).

Abhinavagupta adds another dimension to the Advaita Shaiva conception of ignorance by postulating two distinct kinds of ignorance as existing on two different levels in the personality of embodied beings. These are spiritual ignorance and intellectual ignorance, or pauruṣa ajñāna and bauddha ajñāna respectively. He describes the salient features in the Tantrāloka (Sadānanda in VS 1.22-23) and the Tantrasāra (āhnika I).

According to him, as the Supreme Lord Paramashiva imposes limitations (sañkoca) on Himself of His free will (svecchaya) to become the universe consisting of an infinite number of subjects (pramāta), objects of experience (prameya), etc., which indeed are only His self-manifest forms on the mundane plane. His self-experience of His absolute nature (viṣvvottīrṇa rūpa), in the form of absolute I- experience, or pūrṇahantā, ceases.

This self-experience of the Supreme Lord is thus named because it expresses his fullest nature (paripūrṇa svabhāva). When the Supreme Lord is said to voluntarily assume limitation (sañkoca) to become the world, a split is created, as it were, in his self-experience (svātma-parāmarśa) as a result of which he begins experiencing Himself in the first instance as the exponent or subject symbolized by aham (I-experience), and the void (śūnya), and then subsequently as the exponent or the subject (aham) and the object of experience (idam, or not-self appearing to fill up the void or śūnya, as it were). All this happens in the course of the Supreme Lord’s involution (avaroha) as the universe.

It is held that the notion of not-self (idam) appears for the first time in His self-experience (parāmarśa), which then is experienced by him only as His self-extended form (sphāra), not different from him. His ‘truncated’ self-experience, as aham (I-experience) instead of pūrṇahanta (integral I-experience), caused by His voluntary act of self-limitation (ātma-sañkoca) resulting in the appearance of idam or not-self in the background of I-experience, Abhinavagupta designates by the term pauruṣa ajñāna (spiritual ignorance).

Abhinava defines pauruṣa ajñāna as atmani anātmabodha, or the experience of not-self (anātma uridam) in the self (ātma). The locus of this self-experience is the percipient subject’s mirror of consciousness (citta-darpaṇa), with the consciousness serving as the reflecting medium for all his self-experiences. Since this self-experience is produced prior to the creation of citta or intellect, during the manifestation of the world, it is held to be beyond the reach of the citta or the intellect. Abhinavagupta, therefore, posits that pauruṣa ajañāna, or spiritual ignorance, being an offshoot of the Supreme Lord’s act of assuming limitation in the course of His self-manifestation as the universe, cannot be eradicated by a limited embodied individual through his personal efforts in the form of practice of spiritual discipline (sādhana).

Ignorance can be destroyed only by the Supreme Lord through the infusion of His grace into His form of the embodied individual, technically called śaktipāta.
The second kind of ignorance, bauddha ajñāna (intellectual ignorance), is created in the intellect or buddhi upon the Supreme Lord’s being enveloped by māyā, and residual impressions of karma floating in the sphere of māyā, called māyīyamala and kārmamala, in the course of His self-manifestation as the universe.

Abhinavagupta describes bauddha ajñāna as experience in the form of self in the not-self (anātmani-ātmabodha). It is said that the Supreme Lord, existing on the mundane level in the form of a spiritual monad following His act of self-limitation, is enveloped by māyīyamala (defilement in the form of māyā), with his self-experience as pure subject (aham) becoming completely concealed, allowing only his experience of not-self (idam) to remain unaffected by the veil of māyā (māyīyamala). This happens on the level just below the śuddha vidyā tattva in the sphere of māyā. A vacuum is created in the self-experience of the subject once again after eclipse of the I-experience (aham).

Since worldly transactions are not possible in the absence of a subject or agent, the Supreme Lord, in the course of his self-manifestation as the universe, creates the experience of the subject by superposing the experience of the empirical subject on the not-self (idam or anātma). As a consequence of this super-imposition, ego-experience (ahaṁkāra) is created, which takes place in the intellect of the embodied individual. Since the ego-experience is created on the mundane level solely for carrying out worldly transactions, Abhinavagupta treats it as a conceptual one (vaikalpika), with the intellect of the individual being its locus.

Abhinavagupta therefore holds intellectual ignorance responsible for the creation of ego-experience. As such, it cannot be gotten rid of until and unless the experience of the self in the real self (ātmani ātmabodha) arises in the intellect of the individual being. He calls this experience the spiritual knowledge (pauruṣa jñāna) that arises in the spiritual seeker with the annihilation of āṇavamala as a consequence of infusion of Divine Grace, śaktipāta, in the embodied individual. The practice of spiritual discipline cannot accomplish this task. Hence, śaktipāta, or the descent of Divine Grace, is invested with so much importance by Advaita Shaiva writers, especially Abhinavagupta.

– Prof. Debabrata Sensharma

[Courtesy : Quarterly Malini published by Ishwar Ashram Trust ]