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The 36 Tattvas

The 36 tattvas are representations of the principles of reality and provide a sort of cosmologic map of existence – a map of the conscious being’s experience of reality. The tattvas are like a map of the spiritual journey. They are a map of subtle reality and, thus, a means for us to find out where we are, where we have come from, and how we can get back. What the list of tattvas provides is an ontological map, a map of the various states of being assumed by Consciousness as it congeals itself into the universe – and, in reverse, the process by which it then returns to the state of supreme Siva. What the tattvas chart is the flow of citisakti as it proceeds from its own center, which is both nowhere and everywhere. The map encompasses our life: the beginning point and the ending point and the path inbetween. Ultimately, we end up exactly where we began. In this sense, the spiritual journey is not unlike other journeys in life: we travel somewhere and along the way, we see certain landscapes, experience diffent cultures, meet various people. In the end, we come back home again.
Ther word tattva derives from the root tat, meaning “that” or “that which is,” implying that whatever this term is applied to is as basic a unit as one can find. Tattva means “that-ness.” We often translate it as “principle of reality.” Abhinava Gupta offers this technical definition:
A tattva is that which, by virtue of its reality, enables conscious agents to subsume the categories within it.
The tattvas can be enumerated from the bottom up or the top down. The top down order (Siva to Earth) is the order of creation (srsti-krama) and the bottom up is the order of liberation or the return to Source (samhara-krama).

The first five tattvas are the great elements of materiality, or panca maha-bhutas.
TATTVA #36: Earth (prthvi).
Earth, at the bottom of the tattva hierarchy, is not seen by NST as the “lowest” of the principles, but rather as the most complete; that level of reality in which all the tattvas are fully manifest. In other words, at the top of the tattva hierarchy (Paramasiva-tattva) all the principles are present in potential form, while at the bottom all those potentialities inherent in the Divine are fully expressed. Earth is the principle of solidity, density, resistance, and groundedness. The bija (seed mantra) used to invoke it is lam. All five senses are engaged in perceiving it.
TATTVA #35: Water (apah)
Water is the principle of liquidity. The senses of hearing, touch, sight, and taste are engaged in its perception. The bija is vam.
TATTVA #34: Fire (tejas)
Fire is the principle of combustion and transformation. The senses involved are hearing, touch, and sight and the bija is ram.
TATTVA #33: Wind (vayu)
Wind is the principle of mobility and the primary characteristic of air is the way it moves to fill a partial vacuum, constantly seeking to even itself out. The senses of hearing and touch are engaged in perceiving it, especially the latter. The bija is yam.
TATTVA #32: Space (akasa)
The principle of vacuity and extension in three dimensional reality, which is engaged by the sense of hearing in the sense that sound resonates through space. The bija is ham.
The next five tattvas are the tanmatras or the “subtle elements,” which is to say the properties of things that make them perceptible to our senses. Sentient beings live in a world that is smellable, tasteable, visible, tangible, and audible. By virtue of these qualities, they developed senses corresponding to them.
TATTVA #31: Odor (gandha)
TATTVA#30: Flavor (rasa)
TATTVA #29: Appearance (rupa)
TATTVA #28: Tactility (sparsa)
TATTVA #27: Sound Vibration (sabda)
The next five are the “action capacities” (karmendriyas). These are the five fundamental functions of a human being in relation to his or her environment.
TATTVA #26: Evacuation (bowels)
TATTVA #25: Reproduction (genitals)
TATTVA #24: Locomotion (feet)
TATTVA #23: Manipulation (hand)
TATTVA #22: Speech (mouth).
The next five are the “sense capacities” or jnanendriyas. They are the internal correlates of the five “subtle elements” above, the sensory energies that have evolved in conformity with the manifold sensibility of reality. Since all that really exists is a single field of energy, the senses (even touch) are essentially frequency analyzers that translate vibration into the apparently tangible and static realities perceived by our brain, such as the visual appearance and sound of a thing.
TATTVA #21: Smelling (ghrana)
TATTVA #20: Tasting (rasana)
TATTVA #19: Seeing (caksus)
TATTVA #18: Touching (tvak)
TATTVA #17: Hearing (srotra)
These four sets of five tattvas that make up the lower tattvas may be aligned in the following way to bring out their correspondences more clearly.

Most of us live in a mental world of our own making to such an extent that we are not well grounded in the sensual world. When we do pay attention to it, we see it through glass, darkly filtering it through our mentally constructed world. This is why the Tantra stresses sensual meditations – meditative savoring of food and music, as well as slowed down and ritualized acts of refined awareness like the Japanese Tea Ceremony (Chanoyu) – that allow us to cultivate our ability to allow the senses to experience their objects fully. When fed properly, the “goddess” rewards you by suffusing your awareness with aesthetic rapture, increasing your capacity to experience beauty. The whole world becomes more vivid and real, more radiantly lovely, more full of life-energy, not the relatively dull and lifeless world perceived by one living in their own mental world, or the insubstantial shadow-world perceived by a transcendentalist meditator. The latter are the worlds of one who starves the goddess of the senses.
The next three tattvas are aspects of the mind, or antah-karana.
TATTVA #16: Mind (manas, faculty of attention and sense-processing)
The manas is the common functional mind, processing and synthesizing the data collected by the senses. It is also the faculty of attention, and thus it is the manas that needs to be gently trained and lovingly disciplined when learning to meditate.
TATTVA #15 Ego (ahankara, identity-constructor)
The ahankara is the part of the mind that identifies what is “me” and “mine.” It appropriates certain things and experiences, assimilating them into its constructed sense of identity. Simply put, it is what you think you are. So the ego declares that, “I am fat,” “I am thin,” “I am clever,” “I am stupid,” “I am independent,” I am a victim,” and every other “I” statement. The aggregation of all of these thoughts constitutes the egoic identity. The egoic identity is a fictitious construct, consisting primarily of self-images that persist because they are believed and attached to. Each such self-image is based on a particular moment or moments of past experience that generated a mental construct (vikalpa) that was taken as a static reality. Thus the ego is essentially a fiction, because all that really exists is the flux phenomenon in each present moment. It seems real because you believe in it, and belief shapes experience.
Ego, then, is a persistent contraction of awareness in the form of a collection of self-images that causes suffering through artificial self-limitation.
Since it is part of the inherent dynamism of consciousness to pulsate continuously through cycles of expansion and contraction, whenever we get “stuck” in one or the other, we lose alignment and experience suffering. The ego should be a fluid entity, but instead becomes a static prison.
The ego is not the enemy. It is not to be annihilated, but rather purified and infinitely expanded. Since the ego simply means “what you think you are,” expanding it means expanding your sense of self, including more and more in your self-definition. Ultimately, when the ego expands infinitely, you experience all things in yourself and yourself in all things. There are no more boundaries to selfhood. When you experience all beings as part of yourself, you naturally act with compassion and wisdom. This is the state of purno’ham vimarsa, which can be translated several ways: “the perfect ‘I’ consciousness,” or “the awareness that ‘I am full and complete’” or “the awareness that ‘the real I encompasses everything.” It is the state of complete all-inclusive expansion. Just as the mass of any object accelerated to the speed of light increases to infinity, in the same way when the ego reaches the state of complete expansion, it merges into the ocean of consciousness.
TATTVA #14: Discerning Faculty, Intellect (buddhi)
This is the most important mental faculty for all schools of yoga philosophy. The buddhi is the faculty of reason by which we formulate conceptions and make decisions. It is the power of imagination. It is the faculty of discernment by which we decide what is beneficial for us and what is not. Abhinava argues that discernment (tarka) is the highest of all the practices of yoga, and the only one that leads to liberation. The most important form of discernment on the spiritual path, he tells us, is discerning between what is to be held close and what is to be laid aside – that is, what is ultimately benificial for us and what is not.
And there’s the rub: what gaurantee do we have that the buddhi is accurate in its discernment? In fact, we have ample evidence of its inaccuracy, for many times we choose what we think is beneficial, and it turns out not to be so. Of course, this is not as huge a problem as it seems because of the path of Tantric yoga, most “mistakes” become advantages when regarded as growth opportunities. But since the learning from some mistakes is harder and more time consuming than others, we wish to constantly refine and improve our ability to choose what is benificial, and thereby increase our efficiency of movement on the path. Why does that seem so difficult?
In yoga philosophy, the buddhi is impaired in its function, by the presence of what are called samskaras, or the subliminal impressions of past experiences. In common Sanskrit usage, a samskara is literally an impression, like a footprint in the sand at the beach. Now, if there are a series of deep footprints and other impressions in the sand, when the tide comes in and the water flows over them, it will flow differently than if the sand were perfectly smooth. In precisely the same way, when the energy of reality flows through your mind, it is affected by the deep impression of past experiences that are lodged there, and thereby flows differently. Thus based on our experience of the past, we formulate projections and make assumptions that too often are misaligned with the reality of the present. Our brains are good at pattern-matching – perhaps too good, for even a superficial resemblance of the current situation to a past situation will cause us to unconsciously assume that the present is like the past in most or all of its details. This act of unconsciously projecting the past onto the present is the primary reason we are unable to be aware of the reality of the current situation as it is, and thereby make good choices.
The spiritual path is very much about developing clear vision, about cultivating the ability to see things as they are. In classical yoga philosophy, the practices of yoga (especially meditation) have the primary purpose of dissolving the samskaras in order to bring about this clear vision, and the clear discernment that results from it. The analogy that is often given is that of polishing a dirty mirror. When, through yoga, the mirror of the buddhi become clear, it can perfectly reflect the light of the divine self. Thus, the more we practice yoga, the more accurate our intuition and discernment becomes. Sometimes people think great yoga masters can read minds or have other psyhic abilities. In fact, they just see without obstruction, something so rare in our world that it seems like a magical power. And indeed, knowledge is power – the only kind that cannot be taken away. A master with a purified buddhi can always see the most benificial course of action in any given sitaution, giving him or her a great power to change situations and uplift human beings.
Finally, we should note that in tantric philosophy, the buddhi is not lcoalized in the brain but extends throughout the body. Thus, samskaras of different kinds are distributed throughout the body, and can be released by the physical as well as the mental practices of yoga. We exprience the buddhi on different levels of the body; for example, when we speak of a “gut instinct,” we refer to an aspect of the buddhi’s intentionality associated with the very deep, unconscious samskaras, subjectively associated with the viscera; however, without the practice of yoga, the gut instinct in which we place so much trust might lead us badly astray.
TATTVA #13: Secondary Materiality (prakrti)
Prakrti, sometimes translated as “nature,” sometimes as “materiality,” really refers to the entire physical universe of matter/energy. Note that the Sanskrit word reflects the knowledge that matter is simply energy, albeit moving at a much lower vibration. In the human microcosm, prakrti refers to the body/mind field. Just as matter and energy are aspects of each other, the body and mind are not separate, but on a continuum: the mind is the subtlest aspect of the body, and the body is the most tangible manifestation of the mind. This is why dis-ease in the mind affects the body and vice versa.
Prakrti can also refer to the unmanifest field of primordial materiality at the beginning of the universe out of which all lower tattvas are created. In this form, prakrti consists of perfect balance of the three gunas, or qualities of nature: sattva (lucidity and lightness); rajas (energy and passion); and tamas (darkness, heaviness, and inertia). These three gunas recombine in various proportions to create tattvas 14-36 (above). The field of prakrti, then, is everything that can become an object of consciousness (i.e. everything except tattvas 1-12). However, note that in tantra, prakrti is defined as “secondary materiality” because there is a higher principle, Maya, which is the primary source of the universe.

TATTVA #12: Individual “Soul” (purusa, the knowing subject, the Self, the witness, pure consciousness, the embodied knower of the field; = atman, jiva).
The purusa sits at the top of the hierarchy of tattvas in the system of Sankhya and the classical yoga of Patanjali. For those non-tantric systrems, it is the ultimate principle, a transcendent reality: spirit as opposed to matter/energy. They propose that there are a plurality of divine souls (each sentient being having his own), that are not part of one overarching conscious entity. For tantric philosophy it naturally follows, the purusa is not the highest principle for it does not express an all-encompassing view. Rather, purusa is correctly understood as a contracted form of the universal Consciousness, defined as Siva veiled by the five types of limitation (kancukas). In some systems of Indian philosophy, the individual soul is a permanent entity, but in tantric saivism, it is a phase of contraction, and every contraction gives way to expansion – in this case, expansion back into the absolute fullness of unlimited divine Awareness. So, the individual soul is not permanent, it is a wave on the ocean of Being. But how does Siva, the absolute Consciousness, manifest itself in the form of an individual like you? By concealing itself with five “veils.”
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). H0wever, 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 tantra. Maya 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.
The Pure Universe (Suddhadhvan)
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.
SOURCE: Wallis, Christopher. Tantra Illuminated: The Philosophy, History, and Practice of a Timeless Tradition. Anusara Press, The Woodlands, TX, 2012.