The so-called pure universe comprising the top five tattvas is not a place; it is the divine Reality that pervades the whole of the manifest universe. The top five tattvas are essentially a description of God/dess. Though divided into five levels, they are all aspects of the Divine and are referred to as phases of God’s awareness. The differences between them are differences of perspective and emphasis. To reach any of the five tattvas of the Pure Universe is to attain complete liberation and awakening.
Tattva #5: Pure Mantra-Wisdom (Suddha-vidya)
The level of Pure Wisdom is also the level of mantra (besides meaning “wisdom,” vidya is also the feminine word for mantra). The wisdom spoken of here is not any type of intellectual knowledge, but rather the various phases of Siva-Sakti self-awareness expressed in the form of the 70 million mantras – all the mantras that have ever existed or will ever exist. In the tantric tradition, mantras are actually conscious beings, analogous to angels in the Christian tradition. Someone who attains liberation on the level of tattva #5 becomes a mantra-being. We know that this doctrine that mantras are conscious was taken seriously, because the texts tells us that if a guru grants initiation into the Tantra to someone who subsequently falls from the path, then that guru must perform a special ritual to apologize to the mantras for putting them to work needlessly.
It is absolutely crucial to understand that in this tradition, a mantra, its deity, and its goal are all one and the same. Thus, for example, Laksmi’s mantra (Om srim mahalaksmyai namah) is the Goddess Laksmi in sound form; it is her sonic body. Nor is her mantra sometimes separate from the goal from which it is repeated (to cultivate abundance), for it is the very vibration of abundance. So all the various deities of Indian spirituality exist on the level of the Suddha-vidya as phases of Siva-Sakti’s awareness – the many facets of the One jewel. Further, there are countless mantras-beings on the Suddha-vidya level that do not correspond to known Indian deities; perhaps we can suppose that the deities of spiritual traditions exist on this level, insofar as they can be understood as having a sonic forms.
One who reaches liberation on this level sees the entire universe as a diverse array of energies, but with a single essence. She sees no static matter, experiencing everything as interacting patterns of vibration. The wonder of that which she seeks takes precedence over her I-sense, though there is unity between them: “I am this!” (idam evaham).
The divine Power that corresponds to this level is kriya-sakti, the Power of Action, because the primary characteristic of mantras is that they are agents of transformative change (i.e. action).
Tattva #4: The Lord (Isvara)
This is the level of the personal God, God as being with specific qualities, that is, the Deity that can be named in various languages (Krishna, YHWH, Allah, Avalokitesvara, etc). This is the level of reality that most monotheistic religions presume to be the highest. Isvara is a generic, non-sectarian term for God.
The universe that was previously in blur comes into such sharp focus; what was ambiguous is now clear. This level is associated with jnana-sakti, the Power of Knowing, for Isvara holds within His being the knowledge of the subtle patterns that will be used in the creation of the universe. He empowers His regents on tattva #5 (who are all really aspects of Himself) to stimulate the primordial, homogenous world-source (maya, tattva #6) with this pattern, “churning” her so that she begins to produce differentiation of the lower tattvas, starting with the contractions called the kancukas (tattva #7 and below).
At the level of Isvara there is a balanced equality and identity between God and his incipient creation. The Sanskrit phrase used to represent this experience of reality is aham idam idam aham, or “I am This, This am I.” There is a fascinating and purely coincidental parallel here with the self-declaration of the God of the Hewbrew Bible, who when asked for His name (at Exodus 3:14), replied simply, ehyeh Asher ehyeh, ” I am that I am.”
In NST, it is not only God who exists at this level; so do any beings who have reached that same level of awareness. Thus the difference between Isvara and other beings abiding at tattva #4 is one of office, not of nature.
Tattva #3: The Still-Benevolent One (Sada-Siva)
The word “God” is no longer applicable here, for this level transcends any form of a deity with identifiable names or attributes. This is the level on which only the slightest subtle differentiation has just begun to emerge between the absolute Deity and the idea of the universe, the universe that S/He will create out of Him/Herself. Thus, it is the level of iccha-sakti, the divine Will Power, the creative urge or primal impulse toward self-expression. The Sanskrit phrase said to express this experience of reality is aham idam or “I am this,” or “this incipient totality is my own Self,” where there is identity between the Divine and the embryonic universe held within it. The sense of “I” has clear priority, wholly enveloping the “this”; so all beings who attain unity-consciousness with emphasis on the “I” pole abide at this level.
The Sada-Siva-tattva is the first movement into differentiation, for at the level of tattvas 1 and 2, there is absolute non-duality. The divine at this level is called Sada-Siva (eternally Siva) to remind us that even as a universe comes into being through the power of the Will, the Absolute loses none of its divinity; it is “still Siva.”
Historically, Sadasiva is also the name for the high deity of one form of Saiva Tantra, a form that was later surpassed by the worship of the conjoined and co-equal pair of Siva and Sakti. he is also pictured as the form of Siva that sprouts the five faces that speak the five streams of sacred scripture. Thus Sadasiva is sometimes considered the first ray of divine compassion.
Tattva #2: The Power / The Goddess (Sakti)
In the traditional tattva hierarchy, Sakti is #2, but in the non-dual school, care is taken to emphasize that Siva and Sakti switch places, for they are two sides of the same coin. That is, neither Siva nor Sakti has priority – it is a matter of which aspect is dominant in any given experience.
The word Sakti literally means “power, potency, energy, capacity, capability.” In NST, all powers are worshipped as goddesses, or rather as form of the Goddess (Maha-Devi). Sakti can no more be separated from Siva than heat can be separated from fire. All forms of energy are Sakti, and since matter is energy, the whole manifest universe is seen as the body of the Goddess, and the movements of all forms of energy are Her dance.
The term sakti is often used to specifically denote spiritual energy, or God’s transformative power. In these scriptures, this meaning is often conveyed with the special term rudra-sakti, which refers to the primal, awe-inspiring divine Power that flows though us in spiritual experience. An infusion of this divine Power is called rudra-sakti-samavesa, where samavesa refers to the spiritual experience comprising an expansion of consciousness, a dissolution of the boundaries between self and other, a sharing of self-hood with God/dess and/or the with the whole universe, and often a blissful influx of energy.
Tattva #1: The Benevolent One (Siva)
In the context of NST, Siva is not the name of a God. Rather, the word is understood to signify the peaceful, quiescent ground of all Reality, the infinite silence of a transcendent Divinity, or, in the poet’s phrase, the “still point at the center of the turning world.” While Sakti is extroversive, immanent, manifest, omniform, and dynamic, Siva is introversive, transcendent, unmanifest, formless, and still. Siva is the absolute void of pure Consciousness. (To be more accurate, Consciousness is never absolutely still, so on the level of the Siva-tattva, there is what Abhinava calls kimcit-chalana, an extraordinary subtle movement, an imperceptible and exquisitely sweet undulation).
Siva is the ground of being, that which gives reality its coherence. His nature is beyond any qualities, and is, therefore, difficult to express in words; however, he is described as the coherence and unification of all the various Saktis. Thus, he is called sakti-man, the one who holds the Powers, or rather “holds space” for their unfolding. However, since Siva is literally nothing without the Powers of Consciousness, Bliss, Will, and so on, it is usually Sakti that is worshipped as the highest principle in NST. Siva is that which grounds and coheres the various powers; He is the Lord of the Family (kulesvara), the center axis of the spinning wheel of the Powers. As the coherent force, Siva hardly has an insignificant function, but as he is not as an embodiment of potency himself, he is less likely to attract worship in a spiritual system that is focused primarily on the empowerment of its adherents.
The previous paragraph defined Siva primarily as spaciousness, the hosting space for the energy that is called Sakti. This space/energy polariy is the one given in a Trika text called the Vijnana-Bhairava-Tantra, among other sources. We should note that in other contexts, the roles are defined differently. For example, the influential Recognition School (a subset of the Trika) defines Siva-Sakti as the two complimentary aspects of one divine Consciousness: Siva is the Light of Manifestation (prakasa), also known as the Light of Consciousness (cit-prakasa), and Sakti is blissful self-reflective awareness (vimarsa). This pairing is sometimes concisely abbreviated as cid-ananda (Awareness-Bliss). In this way of understanding Siva-Sakti, He is the illuminative power of Consciousness that manifests and shines as all things, and She is the power by which that same Consciousness folds back on itself and becomes self-aware and thus can enjoy itself. While new students of the Trika often want a a simple, cut and dry definition of the polarity of Siva and Sakti, the tradition does not offer one. Indeed, as this paragraph has shown, we get different definitions within the very same school. These need not be seen as contradictory, however, for the ultimate reality of Siva-Sakti transcends all thought; the diverse explanations are just varying orientations or angles of approach to that one Reality, serving different students in different contexts.
In other schema, that of the radical Krama school, Siva disappears entirely, for there the two aspects of the One are represented as different facets of one Goddess: the indescribable Void of absolute potential, the formless ground of all reality (Siva’s usual role) is represented as the dark and emaciated, terrifyingly attractive Goddess, Kali, who devours all things and makes them one with Herself; and the infinite Light that encompasses all things and beings with loving compassion and insight is represented as white and full bodied Goddess, Para, overflowing with boundless nectar. But, Abhinava Gupta stresses, these apparent opposites (black and white; empty and full) are simply the two forms of the one Great Goddess. The Krama school simply wishes to avoid the inevitably dualistic implications of Siva-Sakti as two beings joined together.
How to reconcile these two different presentations? The answer is simple: they need no reconciliation, for they are each perfectly fitted to the system in which they occur; and the absolute Reality beyond words can be represented by any of these schemas or by none.
It is important to note that the term Siva or “God” never loses its importance in the tradition, though some might construe the more refined philosophies of NST as atheistic because they wholly repudiate the notion of God as a separate person, a “guy in the sky” or indeed anything separate from your essence-nature as dynamic free Awareness. Yet it is significant that these very traditions continue to use the term “God” and its synonyms (mahesvara “Great Lord,” and paramesvara “Supreme Divinity”). Tantra does not seek to dispense with the love and devotion that is inspired by this personalizing and anthropomorphizing of the Absolute because it is a path of intimate relationship. At the same time, remember that the tradition gives us a beautiful non-dual definition of the word “God.”
…in actuality it is the unbounded Light of Consciousness, reposing in its innate Bliss, fully connected to its Powers of Willing, Knowing, and Acting, that we call God. – Abhiniva Gupta, Essence of the Tantras.
It is the context of this definition that we may understand such scriptural statements as “Nothing exists that is not God.” But here we are anticipating the next segment: for “beyond” even tattva #1 is that which unfolds all the tattvas, from 1 to 36, within itself as the expression of its blissful self-awareness.
Tattva #0: The Heart (Siva/Sakti in perfect fusion) – Paramasiva
This secret tattva, taught only in the non-dual tantric sources, is the key to understanding the whole philosophy of NST. It is #0 because it does not crown the hierarchy, for as we have seen, the “highest” tattva is absolutely transcendent Siva. But the Ultimate Principle (paramartha), tattva #0, is not transcendent; for to transcend is to go beyond, and thus, exclude. In non-dual understanding, the Ultimate must be that which simultaneously transcends and encompasses all things. It is the supreme paradox for it expresses itself as the very substance of all things while simultaneously being something more than simply the sum of all perceptible levels of realities. This absolute principle cannot be written in the tattva list, for it pervades the whole as the indefinable essence of all things, manifest and unmanifest. It is absolutely incomprehensible by the mind.
This whole universe is One Reality – unbroken by time, un-circumscribed by space, unclouded by attributes, unconfined by forms, inexpressible by words, and impossible to understand with the ordinary means of knowledge. – Abhiniva Gupta, Essence of the Tantras.
This all-pervasive and ultimate Reality, subtler than the subtlest, beyond the highest transcendent Siva and yet closer to you than your own breath, equally present in the most sublime refined pure awareness of infinite openness and in the scent of the foulest excrement, its radiantly beautiful divine nature tainted though it shines equally in the form of all that is called pure and impure – this is what NST calls the Heart (hridaya) or the Essence (sara) of Reality. This is also known as Paramasiva. He also gives it more mysterious names, citing the scriptures: he calls it Visarga (the Absolute Potential), Spanda (the Vibration), Urmi (the Wave), Drk (the resounding silence), and Yamala (the Couple: the perfect fusion of Siva and Sakti as one). It is this same ultimate principle that is worshipped in radically non-dual Goddess tantra as Kali Kala-sankarsani: the radiant Dark, the resounding silence, the Devourer of Time – which is meant the timeless ground of the cycle of creation, stasis, and dissolution.
This is the doctrine of the higher non-duality (paramadvaya) which subsumes both duality and ordinary non-duality. It is all-encompassing, including even duality as a level within the Real, whereas ordinary non-duality simply negates duality as wrong or false. But duality is a level of reality, an undeniable experience, and a meaningful realm of discourse, so no system is complete that simply denies it. And just as duality is superseded, and subsumed, by the all-encompassing truth of non-duality, that too is superseded, and subsumed, by the all encompassing truth of higher non-duality.
This Heart, this Vibration, this Essence, is the light by which all things are illuminated, the reality by which all things are real. It is the omnipresent divinity, manifest equally in all things. Philosophers tend to object to the articulation of the nature of reality, saying that if everything is equally divine, the word “divine” loses its meaning because something has value only in opposition to something that doesn’t. While this objection is perfectly rational, it is operating on a level of understanding that, for the tantrika, is superseded by the immediate mystical experience that initiates share – an experience in which everything is indeed perceived as equally suffused with beautiful divine radiance, in which total freedom and the joy of being permeate the entire sphere of perception, and in which no phenomenon whatsoever can be perceived as anything less than absolutely perfect. This vision of reality has been labeled “trans-rational” because of the fact that it cannot be fully understood by the mind, despite the fact the one who has had the experience usually considers it the most intensely real experience of their life. (Even this experience, though, is merely a pointer to the state of abiding in oneness with the ground of reality, which is not an experience per se, since all experience comes and goes. Nothing can be said in words about the non-state of nirvana, permanently abiding in the Heart of reality).
This is not to say that in this expanded mode of perception, everything is considered the same. In fact, diversity is very much a part of the aesthetic mode, as this way of seeing celebrates all things as different expression of one reality. In fact, every thing is beautiful to the tantrika precisely because it expresses the One principle differently. Every sentient being is worthy of reverence because he/she expresses his/her Godhood in a unique manner, never seen before and never to be seen again.
The spiritual experience of one Divinity pulsating joyously in all that exists, as well as paradoxically present in the repose in the non-state of complete stillness and emptiness, is considered a gift of divine grace. Yet it can only be fully understood, cultivated, and firmly rooted as abiding realization through spiritual practice.