The Trika-Krama Synthesis of Abhinavagupta

AbhinavaGupta is the seminal figure in the story of Kashmir Saiva Tantrism. His genius was to synthesize hundreds of seemingly disparate Tantras (scriptures). By the year 950, the many Tantras had shared themes, practices, and vocabulary, but not much doctrinal agreement, coherence, or systematic thinking. Near the end of the 10th century, AbhinavaGupta wrote his magnum opus, Light on the Tantras (Tantraloka) and in this and other associated works he created the theological structure that makes sense out of the vast and diverse corpus of the tantric tradition. He was able to demonstrate that there is a single, coherent View (darsana) of reality that can be derived from them.

This View can be summarized by the organizing equation 3+1, which I will explain below. Almost everything about Abhinava and his synthesis can be derived from this model and this is not surprising, for the model is provided by the very name of the school of tantra with which he is most associated: the Trika or “Trinity,” whose central teaching is that the triad of the individual soul (Nara), Shakti, and Shiva are, in reality, three expressions of an undifferentiated unity, the timeless ground of all Reality, known as the Heart of Being.

In every experience, there are three factors: 1). the thing known or perceived, 2). the means by which it is known, and 3). the knower. These three are expressed in every sentence that articulates conscious experience, even the most basic, such as “I see a pot.” But the three factors of experience are, upon deeper investigation, realized as three aspects of a dynamic process by which Consciousness reflects on itself in the form of an apparently different and distinct object of awareness. They are the three flowering buds of a single root, as it were, and it is language that fools us into thinking that there are really three separate things. This is why spiritual practice MUST go beyond the realm of language and the mind, since that realm conditions us to experience dualistically.

Similarly, the three primary powers of Consciousness-in-form, those of Willing (iccha), Knowing (jnana), and Acting (kriya), are to be understood as the expression of the fundamental ground in which they inhere, which is – to approximate in words – formless, autonomous Consciousness, blissful through reposing in itself (cidananda). The ultimate ground is your ever-present true nature, the Deity-Self revealed by the scriptures, whose primary purpose is to point you to its realization. Abhinava’s powerful articulation of this ultimate truth was stunningly captured by Alex Sanderson’s summation of deity through Abhinava’s eyes.

(Deity is) the absolute autonomy of a non-individual consciousness, which alone exists, containing the whole of reality within the bliss of a dynamic “I”-nature, projecting space, time, and the interrelating fluxes of subjective and objective phenomenon as its content and form, manifesting itself in this spontaneous extroversion through precognitive impulse (iccha), cognition (jnana), and action (kriya) as the three radical modes of an infinite power.

There are three different means to liberation – focused on body, heart-mind, and spirit respectively – that bring one to the realization of precisely the same ultimate reality because they derive from and are rooted in that very reality, the nameless Fourth, which simultaneously transcends them and yet is present in them, constituting their essence.  In every example of the 3+1 pattern, the +1 is the same, it is the One that gives rise to all the triads.

We can also see this pattern in Abhinava’s interpretation of the Spanda, which is a lineage of teachings that refer to the innate dynamism or vibrancy of Consciousness. It is the dynamic core of the Light of Consciousness, which creates the pulsating appearance of movement that is ultimately motionless. By meditating on the spanda, one penetrates through the Shakti state to the non-dual ground (+1) in which the triad of individuated Consciousness (Nara), Shiva, and Skati, which coincide in undifferentiated reality. All three modes are expressions of the non-dual ground, the nameless Fourth.

Some see reality as inherently dualistic – that distinction is ultimately real (the bheda view). They do good works and worship a separate almighty God that they hope will bless them with His grace. Others see distinctions that are subsumed within a greater unity, with distinction and unity having equal weight in experience (the bhedabheda view). They cultivate spiritual knowledge and relish beautiful things as a vibration of Consciousness. Still others see completely non-dualistically, that is, seeing difference as unreal or only very superficially real, with unity absolutely dominant in experience (the abheda view). They reject all practice, subtle and gross, and dwell in the immediate, intuitive insight of the transcendent “I” nature. So, where does the +1 come in? This is the key to understanding the ultimate consummation of tantric philosophy. You see, the non-dual view just mentioned excludes the dualistic view, seeing it as simply wrong. It is not an all-inclusive non-duality, and it lends itself to transcendentalism, a major pitfall of the spiritual path. Therefore, Abhinava presented a View called paramadvaya, “the supreme non-duality.” This view includes both duality and non-duality as valid experiences and levels of perception. Non-duality transcends duality, but the “supreme non-duality” transcends the transcendent. How can we understand this paradox? The supremely non-dual nameless Fourth is simultaneously transcendent and immanent: it englobes, includes, and emanates as ALL these different views. It is the all-inclusive Heart of reality, the dynamic power of Consciousness (cidananda), which articulates every possibility, becomes everything, and yet is no-thing.

In the dualistic orthodoxy (the Siddhanta sect), worship of the linga (stone idol representing Shiva) is taught, with the intention of coming to see it as embodying the whole universe; but in the Kula and similar systems, linga-worship is forbidden, so that one may come to see the universe as one’s own body. But here in the all-inclusive (way of supreme non-duality) what reason could there be for requiring the ritual or forbidding it? – Abhinava Gupta, the Tantraloka.

No practice is specifically enjoined, because it is not a guaranteed means of access to Siva (for a given individual), and no practice (even a dualistic one) is specifically prohibited, because it can do nothing to divine or diminish that (divine) Reality. For the Lord is all-encompassing, so injunction and prohibition are merely differential constructs within his nature. They cannot compromise that nature itself. – Abhinava Gupta, Tantraloka 4.271-2.

He is essentially saying that no single practice can be universally enjoined or prohibited for all practitioners. Each person must have a committed practice, but each practice must be carefully tailored to that person’s constitution, psychology, and desired goal.

Here (i.e., on this “level” of practice) there is no purity and no impurity, no dualism or non-dualism, no ritual nor its rejection, no renunciation and no possession…all the observances, rules, and regulations (found in the other Tantras) are neither enjoined or prohibited in this way. Or, everything is enjoined and everything is forbidden here! In fact, there is but one commandment on this (higher path), O Queen of the Gods: the yogi is to make an effort to steady his awareness on reality. He must practice whatever makes this possible for him. – Malinivijayottara Tantra.

We have seen how the 3+1 pattern applies to the phenomenology of experience, to the primary powers of Consciousness, the methodology of practice, the primary lineages, Spanda practice, and the nature of reality. Abhinava had a powerful motivation for articulating this pattern: it is, in essence, the fruit of synthesizing the two primary traditions that he inherited – the Trika and the Krama. Initiated into the radically non-dual Krama as a young man, but attaining the final goal through the grace of a master of the Trika, he was obviously compelled to integrate the teachings of both into a greater harmony.

There are three goddesses of the Trika that embody the three aspects of experience: Knower, Knowing, and Known (they also embody the powers of Willing, Knowing, and Acting, which correspond to these three). These three are seen, in the Trika/Krama synthesis, as emanations of the Supreme Goddess, sometimes known as Matrsadbhava, which means both “the essence of all mothers” and “the essence of all knowers.” She is also identified by Abhinava as Kali Sankarsani, and this is the name of the high goddess in the Krama tradition. She is the Nameless, timeless ground, the ultimate all-consuming Power of Awareness into which dissolution itself dissolved. She is called the Fourth, for She is the ground of the threefold process of Creation, Stasis, and Dissolution that applies to all things. She is the ultimate emptiness, the no-thing-ness that is simultaneously complete fullness. Integrating Her into the theology of the Trika provides the +1 of the 3+1 pattern.

Central to the Krama is the worship of the phases of Awareness in the form of the twelve Kalikas or emanations of Kali. Abhinava argues that these twelve goddesses arise through the confluence of the three aspects of experience (where knower, knowing, and the known = the three Trika goddesses) with the four phases of the Krama: Creation, Stasis, Dissolution, and the Nameless ground. Putting them together, we have (3×4=12) he twelve Kalikas.

We are multiplying the three aspects of experience by the four sequential phases (krama means “phase”). For example, the first of the twelve Kalis is Srstikali, and her essence expresses the creation (or rather emission) of the object of experience. The second is Raktakali, the persistence of the object of experience. And so it goes, all the way to the twelfth Kali, who is the Nameless ground in which the Knower dissolves. Thus the series of twelve also constitutes a map for the involution of consciousness to its final resting place, the mind’s faculties having been withdrawn into the individual subject, the individual subject having been withdrawn into  the transcendent Subject, and that having been withdrawn into non-subjective pure Awareness (the twelfth Kali). Abhinava considers the twelve Kalis to be the primary circuit of power (sakti-cakra) in the analysis of Awareness’ innate power of self-expression. All other circuits or deities are to be seen as condensations or amplification of this primary circuit.