The Five Shells or Veils (kancukas)

Though we have been proceeding from the bottom up, it doesn’t make sense to discuss the kancukas that way, so we will proceed to tattvas 7 through 11 and then move on to 6. The five kancukas unfold directly from Maya (tattva #6) and are veils that contract Siva’s self-awareness into that of the limited individual (jiva). However, in the original tantric tradition, the understanding is this: Siva first contracts himself down to a single point of awareness, shedding his omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence completely. Then, in order to manifest as a sentient being, he equips himself with five limited capacities. These are the five kancukas, meaning “shell” or “armor,” for these are the qualities necessary for experience and action in the world of duality. However, it is true that kancuka can also mean “covering,” and the most common way of presenting the kancukas is as the coverings that conceal  the fullness of divine reality. Thus, we can say that Siva + kancukas = jiva (individual).

Tattva #7: Limited Power of Action (kala)

This is the fundamental kancuka; the others all follow from God’s self-imposed limitation on his power of action, his omnipotence. Note that kala does not mean “powerlessness,” but rather “limited power.” Kala is in fact that principle which animates the individual soul’s capacities to a greater or lesser degree. Each of the five kancukas is a limited form of the Divine Power. We seek to cultivate them and expand them with sadhana (spiritual practice). Thus kala in its fully expanded form is simply the omnipotent kriya-sakti, or the Power of Divine Action. On the spiritual path, we are waxing from a mere sliver of divine power toward the total fullness of our capacity to express our innate divinity.

Tattva #8: Limited Power of Knowledge (vidya).

The second veil is not ignorance, but incomplete knowledge. The problem of this kancuka is not that we know nothing, but that we know a little bit and think that this is all we need to know. The “shell” (kancuka) of vidya protects us by allowing us to understand something about our world, but when we believe that we know what life is like, that we have an understanding that is complete except in the trivial details, when in fact we are seeing only a small fragment of the true reality, we disallow the possibility of divine illumination.

When a man looks on the horizon of his own knowledge and believe that he sees the horizon of knowledge itself, he is truly lost.

Yet, this very limited knowledge that binds us to a contracted experience of what reality is, is itself simply a limited form of the Divine Power of Knowing, jnana-sakti. Thus, it is usually not the case that what we know about life is wrong, but rather that it needs to be situated in a larger context, integrated into a more encompassing vision. The tantrika seeks to ever expand their understanding, which may be why this power is also called unmesa-sakti, the Power of Unfolding. This unfolding is fueled by our intention and our practice of self-aware reflection, supported by the contemplation of the Tantras. In the expansion of our limited power of knowledge, we seek to move beyond words to an inner knowing, an embodied experiential knowledge that the word-based understanding of the intellect can only approximate.

Tattva #9: Desire (raga)

When fully expanded consciousness contracts into the form of an individual, it experiences itself as incomplete and imperfect, and therefore desires whatever it thinks it needs for completion. This desire is called raga, and is thought of as a non-specific craving for worldly experience. It is non-specific in the sense that it is a craving for something not quite known that gets rationalized as a specific desire based on each person’s unique life experiences (i.e. love, sex, admiration, money, power, etc). But in fact all craving is truly craving for only one thing: the fullness of divine Consciousness. Therefore, when any other desire gets fulfilled, it is found to be unsatisfactory – the craving still remains.

The literal meaning of the word raga is “color,” for like dye these desires saturate and even stain the mind, influencing how we see things and people. In the Tantra, desire is not a problem but an opportunity to follow the desire back to its source and to realize that what we really crave is fullness, wholeness – that we will be satisfied by nothing less than knowing (and being) God. Thus we come to understand that raga is the limited form of the Divine Power, iccha-sakti, or the Power of Will, the deep impulse to express the fullness of our authentic being. From this perspective, desire can teach us about those areas of life in which we many need to expand and express ourselves more fully and authentically. We can choose to activate our iccha-sakti in those areas, flowing forth our intentionality from a place of fullness, not of lack. But as long as you are ignorant of the true nature of desire, as long as you believe that possessing something outside of yourself will somehow permanently or completely fulfill you, you will continue to experience an insatiable void, an emptiness that cannot be filled, and an inexplicable angst that will burden you until the end of your life. It is primarily this raga, or craving for more, that propels us into the round of samsara, but again, raga should be not be rejected, but transmuted. In the mythological tales, even Lord Shiva had an addiction to gambling and wine, a craving that he transformed into an addiction to “shattering the fear of being in all worlds.” The first step in such a transmutation is tracing desire back to its source and realizing that your longing is longing for divine fullness, letting that longing soften your heart and compel you to seek true connection to the One.

Tattva #10: Time (kala)

The fourth of the pre-requisites for embodied experience is Time. Instead of a timeless simultaneity for absolute Consciousness, for which the entire universe is a single complex creation including all times, embodied beings generally experience time at the slow crawl of one second per second. This also means that we experience time sequentially, with one thing following another in a process of continual change (though some sources tell us that change is mere appearance and what really happens is that the Goddess Kali devours the whole universe in each instant and then recreates it anew in a slightly different form, hundreds of times each second).

We are often burdened by our awareness of the past and future – endless regrets and hopeful expectations, worry and anxiety – yet it is because of that very awareness that we can grow. The very thing that causes us suffering is also the means of our fulfillment once we shift our attitude toward it and our understanding of it. We do not seek to be entirely in the present moment the way animals are, with no conscious awareness of past and future. Rather, we seek to be centered in the present moment, aware of our past behind us and our future ahead of us while being free of the four modes of escaping the experience of now – guilt/regret, nostalgia/reverie, fantasy/daydream, and anxiety/worry.

When you look at this chart, you’ll acknowledge stress and dis-ease caused by guilt and worry, but think there is nothing wrong with nostalgia and fantasy. Yoga psychology challenges this notion, telling us that losing ourselves in fantasy is as detrimental to us as being obsessed by worry because fantasizing is equally effective in removing us from full awareness of the present. The present is what is real, and it is what we are called to respond to. In fact, the only way your hopes for the future can ever become a reality in the present is by careful attention to the details of the present-moment reality. A more accurate perspective would be to accept that there is no future per se, but only a constantly flowing present, which though close and reverent attention, reveals its divinity to the yogi. In this way, we can learn to experience ourselves as a whole being, with our past and future part of our present, without grasping toward either. In this way, we can become free of the net of time, entering into eternally flowing simultaneity (nityodita).

Tattva #11: Causality (niyati)

Niyati is the force that binds us to our karmas; it is the law of cause and effect that ensures that we reap what we sow. Because of niyati, you are certain to experience the results of your own karmic actions and no one else’s. A karmic action is a morally charged action motivated by a desire to attain or avoid a specific result. When we learn to perform actions unattached to the final outcome, those actions have no karmic charge and therefore do not bind us, whatever the result may be. Thus, the liberated being is no longer bound by niyati, fate, and is free from karma, though he or she may still undergo the fruits of karmas accrued before liberation.

Niyati is also associated with specific places (desa), because it is your unique set of karmas that determines your location. That is, because of your karmas, you are born on the Earth, living where you do and not in another city, country, or planet. Thus, the inverse of niyati, or rather its full expansion, is all-pervasiveness or non-locality.

Tattva #6: Maya

Now we come to the top of the hierarchy of manifest reality, the highest principle that is not the Absolute itself. In other traditions, maya means illusion or delusion, but not so in tantraMaya is the “world-source” (jagad-yoni), the Divine’s power to project itself into manifestation. It is also the power of differentiation, by which the One appears to be many. Maya is not given a negative valuation in tantra, even though it does, in a sense, delude us into seeing duality where there is only unity; for seeing dualistically is a necessary part of the process of Self-exploration that the Divine has freely chosen by manifesting a universe in the first place. Maya is the power the Divine uses in the creative expression of its nature. The paradox of maya is that it is the power that creates the apparent differentiation that causes so much trouble and is the same power that God uses to glorify Himself. Maya is the form of the Goddess that constitutes all manifest reality, blessing us with the opportunity for the more challenging – and therefore deeper – realization of unity-in-diversity. Look around you right now and see a flash of the truth: everything that is happening is Her play. Just as we form different ornaments out of pure gold and call them earrings, bracelets, anklets, and so on, in the same way all things of the universe are made from one substance, the energy-body of the Goddess, and differ from one another only in name, form, and function – not in essence.