“Something exotic: the contribution of Kashmir Shaivism” to the document Woman and Man: one in Christ Jesus. 2001

“Something exotic: the contribution of Kashmir Shaivism”

to the document Woman and Man: one in Christ Jesus.[1]

John R. Dupuche

Australian Catholic Theological Association Conference,

Sydney, 2001.


The feminine has always been portrayed in the Bible whether as the people of Israel beloved by YHVH in the Song of Songs or as the Church sprung from the side of the crucified Lord. However, the question of the feminine within the godhead is vexed and pressingly demands a solution.

Kashmir Shaivism is the term given to a system of thought developed during the golden age of Kashmir one thousand years ago but which was brought to wider public attention only in the latter decades of the last century. It provides interesting insights into the nature of the godhead conceived in masculine and feminine terms, which do not lapse into the crude hierogamies of Canaan.

Christian theology has always been stimulated by new ideas and philosophies and is today opening itself up to far-reaching changes as it begins its dialogue with the religions of the East.

This paper seeks to show how Abhinavagupta, the leading figure of Kashmir Shaivism, presents the masculine and the feminine in the godhead and to show how this might elucidate the role of men and women the Church.

Consciousness and the revelation of consciousness, light and its splendour, are imaged forth in the human couple. They are further imaged in the proclamation of the Church, which is one in Christ Jesus.



When the Hebrews encountered the fertility cults of Canaan they both imitated and opposed them. Amos condemns the ritual prostitution, which occurred during feast of Tabernacles[2] while Deuteronomy is even more explicit and suggests that the practice had become a feature of Hebrew life.[3] The Hebrew prophets successfully rejected the hierogamies of the gods but their very success raises issues, which demand a solution. How can the masculine and the feminine effectively be involved in the notion of the godhead and so be imaged forth in the Church and its structures?

This paper suggests that the theology of Kashmir Shaivism may have something to contribute to this question.

The method used in this paper consists in first observing a very different theological system and then looking afresh at one’s own tradition so as to perceive things, which a long familiarity has kept hidden. This method does not mean reading into one’s tradition nor finding parallels nor glossing over differences. The contribution of Kashmir Shaivism does not mean adding to Christianity. The method involves seeing if the light of one truth can uncover the light of another.

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. Of the writers within the school of Kashmir Shaivism, Abhinavagupta is by far the most important but only in the nineteen-twenties were his works transliterated from the sarada script of Kashmir into the better-known devanagari and published. Only as recently as the sixties and seventies were they translated into European languages, mostly Italian or French. Scholarly interest is growing rapidly.

  1. Kashmir Shaivism is non-dual:

According to Kashmir Shaivism the god Śiva is 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 a pure consciousness, not a consciousness of this or that particular object. It is like a mirror, which, precisely because it is devoid of any image, can portray every image. Consciousness is therefore void and full at the same time.

Consciousness is awareness and is personal but not individual, for individuality suggests duality and Kashmir Shaivism is non-dual. Neither is it monistic like the Vedanta of the great Shankaracarya who flourished some two hundred years earlier and whose thought still dominates the Indian scene.

  1. Śiva and Śakti:

Consciousness is not ignorant of its own consciousness; light cannot be obscure to itself. The awareness which consciousness has of itself is in fact a revelation and these, like light and its radiance, are distinct but not separate. The revelation of consciousness to itself it is the supreme word of which all other words are a limitation.

This primordial revelation is dynamic, it is energy or, to use the Sanskrit term, is Śakti, the primordial energy so that Śiva and Śakti are to be found at the highest level.

In contrast to the objectivity of Greek philosophy, Kashmir Shaivism is essentially 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 abstract question: ‘’Does God exist?’’ When asked this question, the Buddha was resoundingly silent. One may properly ask: ‘‘What is manifest, what is revealed?’’ to which question each person must answer from their own experience.

Of these two terms, Śiva and Śakti, Śiva is understood as masculine while Śakti is understood as the consort of Śiva so that the masculine and the feminine are deemed essentially to exist at the highest level. Of these, revelation is active while consciousness is passive, so to speak. Śakti is the capacity, freedom, power, activity, and manifestation of Śiva who is active only by virtue of his Śakti.

In the rather dramatic and unsettling iconography of India the female deity is often seen to dance on the prostrate and lifeless form of the male deity. Or again, in another equally striking portrayal, the godhead is portrayed as half-male, half female.

  1. Emission:

The godhead proceeds to deploy the whole of manifest reality. Śiva is Nataraj, the Lord of the dance. Just as the dance reveals the dancer, and doesn’t exist apart from him so too the world is a revelation of Śiva himself, and is not something other than himself. Śiva transcends all and comprises all.

The revelation of the self to itself is reflected in ever widening circles, revelation revealing itself in further revelation. Emanation leads to emanation, in a series of births, so to speak, with the result that the process of manifestation is seen as essentially feminine. Or again, the spontaneous arising of the flower from the stem, for example, and of the fruit from the flower is comparable to the spontaneous arising of Śakti from Śiva. Accordingly the flower and its fruit are visible examples of the divine couple. Reality is a dynamic and evolving process so that all reality can be understood as the interplay of gods and goddesses. For that reason, the great gopurams, or entrance towers of the South Indian temples, which teem with deities, represent the one deity in all its manifestations.

  1. Man and woman:

It is above all the individual man and woman who manifest the primordial light and its splendour. If they see themselves as individual, as nothing more than this man and this woman, their pleasure will be mundane and opaque and will not have the touch of divinity nor open their minds to universal consciousness.

  1. Reabsorption:

Kashmir Shaivism has a dynamic view of reality. The world is a vibration for it is both an emission and a reabsorption. Out of the void, out of the zero, comes the multiplicity of objects and principles and equally, in a reverse process, the multiplicity returns to its source when the yogi understands not only that he is Śiva but also that the whole world is nothing but himself in manifest form. This is his moment of “liberation while still alive”.

The feminine occupies an important position in this process. For example, the goddess Kālī 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.

Or again, the woman is considered to be particularly attuned to her own nature and its powers. Her cry of delight springs from an experience of bliss so that the cry is a revelation. The man who perceives the exclamation is swept along by it and carried into the following silence and proceeds to its very source, the bliss which caused it, and so comes to the transcendent level. In this way the woman reveals the godhead and initiates him into it. She brings him to his essential nature so that he sees her and all the expressions of reality as an expression of his own self. This is the true reabsorption, which is not the elimination of the world but the perception of its unity in one’s own self.

II         Word and Spirit:

What follows is an attempt not to express Kashmir Shaivism in Christian terms but to show how the light of Kashmir Shaivism helps to break open the Gospel. However, I will sign post the steps of the argument with headings taken from Kashmir Shaivism.

Sign post 1: Kashmir Shaivism is non-dual.

Christianity is monotheistic but not monist. It is Trinitarian but not tritheistic. It proposes the reconciliation of all things in the one saviour who unites in himself all things and by whom God becomes all in all. Yet this unity does not preclude diversity. The three Persons of the Godhead are not three individuals. Christianity is non-dual.

Sign post 2: Śiva and Śakti:

The Gospel is proclaimed not when it is accurately expressed but when it bears fruit. Words may be spoken but the Word is received only if the Spirit leads a person to say: Yes ‘’Jesus is Lord’’.[4] The two Paracletes are needed, Jesus who is the first Paraclete and the Spirit who is the ‘’other Paraclete’’,[5] who is free[6] and freely moves[7] with the power of a mighty wind,[8] uncontrollable as fire[9] and flood, dynamic, unconstrained, whose presence means freedom from all law,[10] the Spirit who undermines all structures[11] and all the temples made by human hands, the Spirit who cannot be defined but only experienced.

The theology of the Spirit is significantly weak, especially in the Western Church perhaps precisely because the Spirit is not contained by language. The Spirit has been reduced to a relationship and an attitude, even if it were love, an instrument, an influence, hardly a Person, hardly God. The disputes of the fourth century centred largely around the incarnate Word and Gregory of Nazianzen, who clearly states the divinity of the Spirit, warns against too close an investigation of the Spirit lest frenzy be the result.[12] Yet if the Spirit of freedom is seen indeed as blowing where it will, as spontaneous, controlled neither by the Church[13] nor by the Father and Son, but, according to Richard of St Victor, beloved by the Father and Son, condilectus,[14] a new dynamic becomes evident. If the Spirit is seen to be in harmony with the Word[15] but transcending the Word, positive theology is reduced in value whilst the role of experience, theoria, and negative theology is enhanced.

The Word and the Spirit are complementary. The Spirit springs from the Word[16] and in turn the Spirit reveals the Word.[17] The Word breathes forth the Spirit[18] and in turn the Spirit makes the Word fruitful. Thus Word and Spirit imply each other. The revelation of the unseen God is not confined to Jesus alone but is also the work of the Spirit who freely and spontaneously reveals the revealer. If the Spirit is not communicated, the Word has not been preached. If the Spirit is not experienced, the Christ will not be known and so the Father will remain hidden and redemption has not occurred.

There is a widespread illusion that official means valid, that law-making is fruitful, that public means received and that a decree is an event; that structures will be effective and that legitimacy comes from tradition. This attitude leads to a suppressed anger and indeed quenches the Spirit[19] for it ignores the Spirit who alone makes the seed fertile. That alone is real which leads to the real, the One who alone is necessary.

Sign post 3: Reabsorption

The experience of preaching shows this clearly. On the one hand, if the Spirit is not roused, the speaker will be reduced to silence and struck dumb. The Spirit, more delicately than Kālī yet just as effectively, dismisses useless words and undermines pointless structures, for the Spirit is a consuming fire.[20] The proclamation may be given but it is made real by its reception. On the other hand, when the Spirit is roused in the listener and reveals the truth of the Word the listener comes to know the unseen God. On perceiving this, the speaker in turn is caught up in the experience of the listener and also comes to the knowledge of God and gives thanks in wonder. Thus the listener initiates the speaker and together they are wrapt in the knowledge of the Unknown, for the Spirit is a warming fire.[21]

Sign post 4: Emission – man and woman

The title of the Document begins with the phrase Woman and Man. Can Word and Spirit be concretised, crystallised into male and female? Caution is needed here since masculine and feminine are not simply equivalent to male and female, if according to Karl Jung, animus and anima are found in different degrees in both men and women. Likewise, masculine and feminine are not the anthropomorphic forms of Word and Spirit. Nevertheless it is increasingly being said that there is a resemblance, a significant linkage between male and the Word on the one hand, and female and the Spirit on the other.

III        The document

In what way is this all too brief presentation of Kashmir Shaivism relevant to the document: Woman and Man: one in Christ Jesus? How do the few comments on the relationship of Word and Spirit advance the purpose of the document?

The title of the Document quotes the phrase: ‘‘one in Christ Jesus’’ and seeks to break down something of the profound dualism which inhabits Christian theology, for despite the hymn of Colossians,[22] division is still maintained between heaven and earth, God and man, nature and grace, faith and reason, Church and State. The phrase “One in Christ Jesus” is taken from St Paul’s ringing words: ‘’There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, man nor woman: all are one in Christ Jesus’’[23] by which Paul opposes the common idea that the Jewish male, who bore the mark of the covenant with Abraham, was God’s favourite. The phrase does not suggest uniformity as the Document states.[24] Rather, all are one by the coincidence of opposites.

The document is aware of this and Executive Summary speaks of the “complementarity and mutuality”[25] of men and women, a point made again elsewhere in the report[26] but not explained at any length. Later on the document goes on to say: “The relationship between men and women is complex, and being still little understood, calls for more scientific study and reflection in the light of the gospel.”[27] This paper wishes to make a small contribution to that huge and complex task.

Using the methods of the social sciences,[28] this remarkable[29] Document sets out in great detail the present activity of women and shows a controversial[30] ground swell of desire for them to move out from ancillary roles[31] and to become involved in the activity of the Church at its very heart, in decision-making, in leadership and in the celebration of the sacraments.[32] The proposals are very practical and involve slotting into already existing roles and no doubt bringing a feminine approach to them in a spirit of collaboration.[33]

“Structures are experienced as male-dominated, hierarchical and authoritarian … A fixation on rules and regulations a rigid and unbending manner, and a lack of compassion and openness to dialogue were frequently cited characteristics of a Church in need of renewal.” [34]

I would like to make a few comments.

Firstly, Church structures are servants of the Gospel and therefore must reflect both Word and Spirit and must continually be restructured. Indeed, might one not also say that structures, like language, must now be destructured. Only under the impact of the feminine will the institution of the Church become a community, which transcends organisation and which alone is the image of the kingdom. The model for the Church is not the Roman Senate or the Board of Directors but the family.

Secondly, the Word, when it is divorced from the Spirit becomes just law and therefore sterile. The more the Magisterium of the Church is inspired the more will the Spirit accept what is pronounced.

Thirdly the most fruitful context for the Word is not conflict, which has so often provided the stimulus for solemn pronouncements, but rather communion, a dialogue of charity where ready listening elicits speech and the inspired speech rouses the listener.

Is there not a role precisely in having no particular role but in ranging over every role, in pointing out the ineffectiveness of certain proposal and in showing where the future lies,[35] in expressing the Spirit’s dismay [fn.??] or showing the Spirit’s approval?[36] Indeed, is there not a value in being the symbol of the Spirit? Is this not precisely the role of women?

In conclusion:

Kashmir Shaivism sees the masculine and the feminine pre-existing in latent form in the godhead and attributes a high role to the feminine element, the Śakti. May we not learn much from that tradition in sensitising ourselves to the Spirit and understanding the role of women in the Church. If men and women, Word and Spirit are seen to be complementary and necessary to each other, the Unseen One will be known who speaks from the heart of the fire, saying: ‘’I am’’.


[1] Woman and Man – One in Christ Jesus. Report of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference Research Project on the participation of women in the Catholic Church of Australia. ISBN 186371782x

[2] Amos 2:7.

[3] Dt 23:18.

[4] I Cor. 12:3.

[5] Jn 14:16.

[6] 2 Cor. 3:17.

[7] Jn 3:8.

[8] Acts 2:2.

[9] Lk 3:16.

[10] Gal 5:18.

[11] Acts 4:31.

[12] Grégoire de Nazianze, Discours 27-31. Introduction, texte critique, traduction et notes par Paul Gallay. Paris: Les Editions du Cerf, 1978. No. 31.8, p. 291.

[13] Acts 8:39.

[14] Cf. Richard de Saint Victor, La Trinité. Introduction, traduction et notes de Gaston Salet. Paris: Editions du Cerf, 1959. Bk. 3.11, 19; Bk. 6.6.

[15] Jn 16:13.

[16] Jn.15:26.

[17] I Cor. 12:3.

[18] Jn 20:22.

[19] 1 Thessalonians 5.19.

[20] Mal. 2:19.

[21] Mal. 2:20.

[22] Col.1:15-20.

[23] Gal. 3:28.

[24] Woman and Man: one in Christ Jesus p. vii.

[25] Woman and Man: one in Christ Jesus p. vii.

[26] cf. Woman and Man – One in Christ Jesus p. 394.

[27] Woman and Man – One in Christ Jesus p. 31.

[28] Woman and Man – One in Christ Jesus p. 368.

[29] Cf. Woman and Man – One in Christ Jesus p. 222.

[30] Woman and Man – One in Christ Jesus p. 373.

[31] Woman and Man – One in Christ Jesus p. viii.

[32] Woman and Man – One in Christ Jesus p. viii.

[33] Woman and Man – One in Christ Jesus p. 387.

[34] Woman and Man – One in Christ Jesus p. 382.

[35] Acts 16:6-7.

[36] Jn. 6:27.

About interfaithashram

Rev. Dr. John Dupuche is a Roman Catholic Priest, a senior lecturer at MCD University of Divinity, and Honorary Fellow at Australian Catholic University. His doctorate is in Sanskrit in the field of Kashmir Shaivism. He is chair of the Catholic Interfaith Committee of the Archdiocese of Melbourne and has established a pastoral relationship with the parishes of Lilydale and Healesville. He is the author of 'Abhinavagupta: the Kula Ritual as elaborated in chapter 29 of the Tantraloka', 2003; 'Jesus, the Mantra of God', 2005; 'Vers un tantra chrétien' in 2009; translated as 'Towards a Christian Tantra' in 2009. He has written many articles. He travels to India each year. He lives in an interfaith ashram.
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