Masculine and feminine concepts of deity:
the contribution of Kashmir Shaivism
Paper delivered at the Conference
‘A Biblical Odyssey’
”The Hebrew prophets successfully opposed the crude hierogamies of Canaan but in eliminating the image of the feminine from the godhead raised issues which demand a solution. How can the masculine and the feminine effectively be involved in the notion of the godhead? Kashmir Shaivism, an important system of thought which flourished a thousand years ago in Kashmir but was rediscovered only last century, provides some valuable insights into the question. Light and its splendour are imaged forth in the human couple.”
When the Hebrews encountered the fertility cults of Canaan they both copied and decried them. The building of Baal’s house, which can be understood as the chamber for the hieros gamos, the ritual marriage of Baal and his consort,[i] may also have provided the model for the construction of Solomon’s temple, while Canaanite fertility magic may stand behind the libation performed during the feast of Tabernacles.[ii] Amos clearly condemns the ritual prostitution, which occurred during this feast. (Amos 2:7) Deuteronomy (23:18) is even more explicit and implies that the practice had become a feature of Hebrew life. Indeed, the frequent condemnation of the ‘’high places’’ is effectively a condemnation of the fertility ritual of Baal-Hadad and the goddess Astarte. Nevertheless Hebrew society was equally concerned with the fruitfulness of the fields so that Yahweh, in place of Baal and the Queen of Heaven, was deemed to give life. He alone by his word blessed the living creatures and made them fruitful. Unaided he planted a garden in Eden.
The Hebrew prophets rejected the hierogamies and dispensed with the goddesses of Canaan but their very success raises issues in our day. In what sense can both male and female be seen as an expression of the godhead?
I Kashmir Shaivism
Kashmir is best known today as a theatre of conflict between India and Pakistan, but one thousand years ago it experienced a golden age. Buddhism and Vaishnavism and the varieties of Shaivism produced a vast literature. From the valleys of Kashmir Buddhist missionaries journeyed to Tibet and founded Buddhism there a second time in conjunction with missionaries from Bengal. Buddhists were sent in return from Tibet to Kashmir to copy and translate the Sanskrit texts. From Kashmir Shaivasiddhanta works were carried to South India to form the basis of religious practice in Tamil Nadu.
This paper will focus on a branch of Shaivism commonly and inaccurately called “Kashmir Shaivism”. Whereas the Shaivasiddhanta School is dualist and clearly separates the god Shiva from what has become equal to him, Kashmir Shaivism is non-dual and proclaims the identity of Shiva and all things. Every form and event is an expression of his being just as the same dancer expresses himself in his various movements.
Kashmir Shaivism flourished for some two hundred years, beginning with Utpaladeva and reaching through Somananda to Abhinavagupta whose disciple Ksemaraja is the last significant writer. Of these writers Abhinavagupta is by far the most important but only in the nineteen-twenties were his writings transliterated from the sarada script of Kashmir into the better-known devanagari script and published. Only in the sixties and seventies were they translated into a European language, mostly Italian and French, but scholarly interest is growing rapidly.
According to the idealism of Kashmir Shaivism the god Shiva and all reality are none other than consciousness. Just as the banyan tree exists already in its seed, so too all reality is to be found in consciousness, which is personal, aham, ’’I am’. It is pure consciousness, not a consciousness of this or that particular object. It is like a mirror which of itself portrays no image and, therefore, can bear any image on its surface. Consciousness is void and full at the same time.
Consciousness is awareness and it is personal but not individual, for individuality suggests duality and Kashmir Shaivism is non-dual. Neither is it monistic like the Vedanta of Shankaracarya who flourished some two hundred years earlier. On the other hand, consciousness is not ignorant of its own consciousness; light cannot be obscure to itself. The transparency of light to itself is a revelation, which arises spontaneously. Aristotelian concepts of causality do not apply here. This revelation of consciousness to itself is the supreme word, paravac, of which all other words and all other forms of knowledge are a limitation. Consciousness and its supreme word are distinct but not separate.
This revelation is dynamic. The knowledge of the self by the self, the splendour of light is Shakti, which is the Sanskrit term for energy, power, and ability. Thus Shiva and Shakti are to be found at the highest level.
The distinction and identity between Shiva and Shakti is echoed in the teaching of Gregory Palamas, the great fourteenth century Greek theologian, the last of the Greek Fathers, who distinguishes between the essence and the uncreated energies of God[iii] and rejects the jibe ‘ditheist’ made by his opponent Barlaam of Calabria.[iv] The uncreated energy is perceived bodily in the transfiguration of the Christian. To this effect Palamas quotes John Damascene, ‘’the glory of the divinity has become also the glory of the body’’.[v] It is not possible, however, to pursue at this point the parallels between the hesychasm of Gregory Palamas and Kashmir Shaivism.
In contrast to the essentialism of Greek philosophy, Kashmir Shaivism is concerned with revelation. If Greek philosophy and its heirs hold to a doctrine of being, Indian thought holds to a doctrine of revelation. One cannot ask the question: ‘’Does God exist?’’ When asked this question, the Buddha responded with a stunning silence. One may only ask the question: ‘‘What is manifest, what is revealed?’’ to which question each person must answer from their own experience although they can be helped to perceive more fully.
In the Indian legends, Shiva is a male deity while the term shakti is grammatically feminine. In the thinking of Kashmir Shaivism the highest reality is essentially masculine and feminine so that these two elements are deemed essentially to exist at the highest level. Thus, in the rather dramatic and unsettling iconography of India the deity is shown to be half-male, half female, Ardhanarishvara: the half-man half-woman god.
Of these, revelation is the dynamic element while consciousness is passive, so to speak. Shiva is active only by virtue of his Shakti, which is the capacity, freedom, power, activity, and manifestation of Shiva. “Shiva shava” is a well-known expression meaning Shiva is a corpse, “shava”, if Shakti is not present. Thus in another equally striking portrayal, the female deity, Kali, is seen to dance on the prostrate and lifeless form of the god.
At this point one can hear the ancient protest arising from the desert sand of Sinai and repeated almost two thousand years later in Mecca. However, Kashmir Shaivism is not crudely anthropomorphic and proposes that the Unsurpassable reality is consciousness and its revelation, which are the basis of the distinction between male and female.
To complicate matters a little further, consciousness is sometimes understood to be the goddess while the god Shiva is quite simply the void, the totally apophatic of which nothing can be said and which is the ground, so to speak, upon which consciousness rests. The utter darkness of Shiva is the source of unlimited consciousness.
The godhead proceeds to deploy the whole of manifest reality. Just as the Book of Proverbs portrays wisdom at play (Prov. 8:30-31) Kashmir Shaivism speaks of the godhead at play – lila. In one of the most celebrated images from the temple of Cidambaram in Tamil Nadu, Shiva is portrayed as Nataraj, the Lord of the dance. The world is a revelation of Shiva just as the dance reveals the dancer. The world is a manifestation of himself; it is not something other than himself. “The whole world is his shaktis”. Shiva transcends all and yet all consists of him.
The revelation of the self to itself is reflected in the unfurling of the world. The cosmos is a series of manifestations of the primordial revelation, an eddying out, a revelation of revelation. Emanation leads to emanation in a series of births so that the process of manifestation is seen as feminine. It starts from the subject ”I am” and moves through the various means of knowing and ends with the known, the world of objects of which earth is presented as the most inert. Or again, the spontaneous arising of the flower from the stem and of the fruit from the flower is comparable to the spontaneous arising of Shakti from Shiva. Thus the flower and its fruit are visible examples of Shiva and Shakti. Since the whole of reality is a dynamic and changing process, all reality can be understood as the interplay of gods and goddesses.
In the thought of Kashmir Shaivism, the primordial couple, Shiva and Shakti, is found best concretised and realised in the coupling of male and female. If these see themselves as just ordinary man and woman, they will be impure, they will feel confined, inert and powerless and their pleasure will not have the touch of divinity nor will it open their minds to universal consciousness. But if by the grace of Shiva they understand who they really are, then their relationship will be seen as the crystallization, the image, murti, of the supreme couple and their bliss will be boundless.
The world is an emission. It is also a reabsorption. The whole of reality vibrates. Emission and reabsorption succeed each other and indeed co-exist in oscillation. Out of the void, the zero, comes the multiplicity of objects and principles but equally there is a reverse process whereby the multiplicity returns to its source, not so much by a destruction of the universe in the great cosmic cycle of Brahma but by its proper understanding. The process of reabsorption goes in the opposite direction so that the world of objects is subsumed into the means of knowledge and ends in the universal subject, who is all in all. The multiplicity of things is overcome when the yogi understands not only that he is Shiva but also that the whole world is nothing but his Shakti in manifest form. In his meditation the yogi comes to know his essential emptiness and simultaneously perceives the Shakti arising in him and witnesses the panoply of the world springing from her.
The woman occupies an important position in this process. The goddess Kali dancing with her garland of skulls destroys the constructions both material and mental, which are elaborated by the human mind, and so brings her devotee to the transcendent plane. With one hand she cuts down, with the other she blesses. With her great tongue she licks up the lifeblood of this transient world. She both destroys and blesses because she liberates.
The same process of return can be experienced in a more pleasant way. Again the woman is essentially involved because she is considered to be particularly attuned to the nature of things. A woman’s cry of delight, for example, springs spontaneously from her experience of bliss so that the cry is a revelation of the highest state. The man who attuned to the exclamation is swept along by it and carried into the following silence and proceeds to its very source, the bliss that originally caused it, and comes to the transcendent level. In this way the woman reveals the godhead and initiates her partner into it. She brings him to his essential nature. She makes him to be what he really is so that he sees her and all the expressions of reality as a manifestation of his own self. This is the true reabsorption, which is not the elimination of the world, but the elimination of its fragmentation.
The same can be applied to any significant experience in whatever domain. The knowledge that concerns Abhinavagupta is not mere information about facts but the knowledge, which puts a person in contact with their essential nature. Mere data is the sort of knowledge which pertains to what he calls ‘bonded animals’’, to those who do indeed know where to find the chaff bag and walk in circles, who pull the mill stone but get no where. Such knowledge is profoundly absurd. Abhinavagupta seeks the knowledge, which leads to liberation and a universal bliss, jagadananda, a relationship of freedom and intimacy with every being. Such knowledge can be found in any situation, whether in the analysis of the stars or in the work of every day, but it is a knowledge, which so pleases the faculties that a person is taken into the knowledge of what transcends all knowledge. The authentic guru, even if he teaches the rules of grammar or the principles of mathematics, gives the knowledge, which leads to liberation.
It may be helpful to look at two texts, which give illustrate some of these points. The first text will deal with the couple considered either as a human couple or as the divine couple. The second text will present the divine couple as inter-personal.
In praise of the couple
At the start of his greatest work, the Tantraloka, and of its summary, the Tantrasara and of another major work, the Paratrimsikhavivarana, Abhinavagupta places a poem of homage which can pointedly be read either as praise of Shiva and Shakti or as praise of his parents, Vimala and Narasimhagupta.[vi]
In praise of his parents:
“[My] mother, Vimala, delighted in giving birth to [her son] Abhinava[gupta]; and my father, a man whole and entire in himself, gloried in the name Narasimhagupta [lit. panca-mukha].May my heart, proceeding from the radiant emotion of their union, shine forth as the embodiment of matchless nectar.”
In praise of Shiva and Shakti:
“The Mother is great with ever new [abhinava] emanation based on the purest [vimala] creative power; and the Father, plenitude itself, conceals [his] splendour by means of [his] five faces [panca-mukha].May my heart, proceeding from the radiant emotion of their union, shine forth as the embodiment of matchless nectar!”
The ambiguity of the stanza is intentional. The relationship of Shiva and Shakti is expressed in the union of male and female and above all in the union of his parents, so that the stanza is high in their praise. They were effectively Shiva and Shakti when they conceived him. The union of male and female, when undertaken with the mentality Abhinavagupta proposes in his writings gives rise to the experience of the godhead. Furthermore, from the union of Shiva and Shakti the whole world derives just as from the union of his parents Vimala and Simhagupta, Abhinavagupta is born who sees himself as summing up in himself the whole of reality. No false modesty here!
Shiva and Shakti as interpersonal
The relationship of Shiva and Shakti is investigated briefly in the work called Paratrimkshikavivarana in terms, which are not repeated elsewhere in his writings. It is a significant passage.
Paramesvari, by being addressed in the second person [O Goddess, Listen!] is clearly said to be Shakti by nature. ….
Whatever is confined only to itself has only an insentient form, … as in the phrase: “’the jar is standing”. ….
However, that which is appears as ’’this’’ by the fact of being addressed, its separate ‘’it-ness’’ is encompassed by the ‘’I-ness” of the addressor – when designated by the word ‘’you’’, acquires the form of Shakti, as in the phrase: “you are standing’’. …
Considering, by means of wonder at his own undivided ‘’I’’, the other person’s wonder and freedom at his undivided ‘’I’’ – … – he addresses him, i.e. he designates him in the ‘’second person’’, with ‘’you’’. ….
Again, whenever there is an experience of ‘’I’’ in undivided wonder and absolute freedom – as in the phrase ‘’I am standing ‘’- there is a manifestation of the venerable Para, [the goddess, the shakti].
The first line reads: ‘’Paramesvari, by being addressed in the second person [O Goddess, Listen!] is clearly said to be shakti by nature.‘’ With striking brevity, Abhinavagupta identifies the Shakti as the second person, you” and by implication identifies the first person, “I”, aham, the self, with Shiva. In other words, Shiva and Shakti are essentially related as ‘’I and Thou’’.
Abhinavagupta stresses the point in sentence 3. He cites the process of addressing some person who is turned away, for example, and of bringing them into a personal relationship. That which appears as ‘’this’’, as some object, is addressed, is designated by the word ‘’you’’ and becomes Shakti. This is a quite ordinary human experience. On the one hand, a person who is ignored experiences embarrassment, and may even feel treated as so much rubbish. By contrast, in the Bible, Yahweh is said to call his people by name so that they enter into covenant with him and move from slavery to freedom. Abhinava adds: ‘’By the mere fact of being addressed, its separate ‘’it-ness’’ is encompassed by the ‘’I-ness’ of the addressor.’’ Freedom calls to freedom, a fact which Jean-Paul Sartre, the great Existentialist philosopher, by contrast, cannot admit. For him there cannot be two subjects but only subject and object. Thus in his novel La Nausée, he describes a scene where the protagonist of the novel spends time observing someone in the park and in so doing relishes his sense of freedom. As the observer he feels free while the object of observation, precisely because it is observed, remains fettered and bound. However, just as he entertains this thought he notices that someone else has been watching him and so robbing him of his freedom. It is a moment of nausea, which Sartre then goes on to analyse. In short, for Sartre only one person can be free, freedom cannot be shared, intimacy is impossible. For him “Hell is other people.” Abhinavagupta, however, sees the relationship of Shiva and Shakti essentially as a participation in freedom. Sentence 4 reads: ‘’Considering, by means of wonder at [his own] undivided ‘’I’’, the other person’s wonder and freedom at his undivided ‘’I’’ … he addresses him, he designates him in the ‘’second person’’, with ‘’you’’. ….
The climax comes when the interlocutor is so incorporated into the speaker that there is only one Self, ‘’I am’’. This identity does not mean that the “Thou” is annihilated but that there is not the slightest separation or duality. The revelation “I am” is the spontaneous arising of the supreme Shakti.
Although the passage from which this these few phrases are taken is very short, it is enough to show that in the mind of its author the relationship of Shiva and Shakti is interpersonal, not solipsistic. The godhead is thus relational, ‘’I and Thou’’, a communion. The implications of this for Trinitarian theology are considerable.
Does Kashmir Shaivism successfully present the concepts of masculine and feminine in the godhead? Is this just another example of the Indian tendency to absorb all the gods into one’s chosen divinity, reinterpreting the various realities as just the manifestations of a higher reality which transcends them and makes them irrelevant, in the way that the various great religious figures in human history, the Buddha, the Christ, are interpreted as avatars of Krishna. Again, is the linkage of light with Shiva and the masculine on the one hand and the splendour of light with shakti and the feminine on the other so tenuous as to be useless? Furthermore, does this not seem to make only the feminine a reflection of the masculine? Again, how real is it to see the feminine as active and the masculine as passive? Nevertheless Kashmir Shaivism shows, more convincingly than the hierogamies of Canaan, how the masculine and the feminine can represent the divine heart.
The account of creation given in Genesis 2 describes how the man made from clay moves on from his work as a gardener tending the trees to the act of knowing and naming all the living creatures. The process of creation is not complete, however, until he falls into a deep sleep. As long as he remains active the process cannot successfully be concluded. Therefore he is made dormant and from his prostrate body the woman springs. Only then does the man cry out ‘’this at last is bone from my bones and flesh from my flesh’’. When the divine breath is poured into the clay model lying on the earth, the man becomes a living being. When the woman arises from the figure, Adam breaks into speech and makes covenant, person to person. The process of creation is brought to perfection and all is subsumed into their union so that there is one body, one self.
[i] Gray, The Legacy of Canaan, Leiden, 1965, p.51 note 3 in A Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture, revised edition, New York, Thomas Nelson, 1975. [first published, 1953 ]
[ii] Gray, The Legacy of Canaan, p. 53.
[iii] This distinction had been foreshadowed by one of the Cappadocians, Gregory of Nazianzen. Daniélou, ‘Mystique de la ténèbre’, p.1873 It has striking resemblances to the distinction between Shiva and shakti in Kashmir Shaivism, a subject for investigation which far exceeds the bounds of this brief essay.
[iv] Palamas, Triads, p.81.
[v] Homily In Transfigura.12, PG XCVI, 564B quoted in Palamas, Triads, p.78. See also Palamas, Défense III.1.19, Vol.II, p.595.
[vi] Jayaratha, the 13th century commentator, makes this clear.