The Essence of Tantra: Introduction

This post presents the first section of Abhinavagupta's Tantrasāra ("The Essence of the Tantras"), namely, its introduction (upodghāta). I've been working on this text for sixteen years, and finally have reached a translation that I'm satisfied with. I think it's clear enough as to need little explanation.

However, let me give this brief orientation: after completing his monumental Tantrāloka ("Light on the Tantras"), circa 1000 CE, Abhinavagupta discovered that his encyclopedia of Tantrik philosophy and practice was simply too vast, detailed, and complex for most of his students, and so he composed the Tantrasāra, which by comparison is powerfully focused and laser-sharp, giving, as promised, the real pith and marrow (sāra) of Abhinava's thought and his scripturally-derived insights. 

Abhinava begins with his signature verse, the same one that appears at the beginning of his Tantrāloka and other works, and then dives straight in. His introduction, the complete text of which is below, serves as an orientation to the reason and purpose for the Tantrasāra's composition — and that purpose is nothing less than your total spiritual liberation. (Please note: all the words that follow are those of the great master Abhinavagupta, translated by Christopher Wallis.)

Tantrasara - The Essence of the Tantras


Many are unable to plunge into the vast “Light on the Tantras”; therefore, may all listen to this work, “The Essence of the Tantras”, composed in straightforward language. || 2

As an act of revering the Divine, may all contemplate this lotus of the heart of Abhinava Gupta, its blossom opened by the light falling from the rays of the sun; that is to say, its contraction has been forever banished by the wisdom descending from the feet of the illuminator, my guru Śambhunātha.[1] || 3


According to our View, insight (jñāna) is the one and only cause of spiritual liberation, because only insight antidotes ignorance (ajñāna), which is the one and only cause of bondage.

Now there are two kinds of ignorance, which we call ‘mental’ and ‘personal’. The first, mental ignorance, is of two types: essentially, lack of understanding and wrong understanding. The second, ‘personal’ ignorance, is simply the ignorance implicit in the sense of separate individuality; it is the contracted manifestation of Awareness that is the basis for the formation of all distorted mental constructs. That alone is the root cause of the cycle of suffering (samsāra). We will explore this topic further in the chapter on ‘Impurity’ (mala).

Of these two, personal ignorance can be removed by [Tantrik] initiation and the spiritual practice that initiation makes possible. However, initiation itself is not possible when mental ignorance—characterized by a lack of that discernment derived from diligent effort—continues to exist. This is because initiation, which consists of purification of the tattvas and unification of the soul with Śiva, necessarily has as its prequisite a clear understanding of what ought to be abandoned and what ought to be cultivated [on the part of both guru and prospective initiate].

Thus it is specifically insight of the level of the mind, consisting of discernment derived from diligent effort, that is most important initially. If that very insight is repeatedly cultivated, it eradicates personal ignorance as well, because the regular practice of conceptual awareness (vikalpa-samvit) culminates in the end in non-conceptual direct experience.[2]

The insight that most ought to be cultivated is the right understanding that pertains to everything in every way (that is, that which is true in all times, places, and circumstances):

That one’s real nature (ātmā) is in truth Divine (śiva-svabhāva),[3] which means that it is the nonconceptual, uncontracted Light of Consciousness made manifest (avikalpa-asankucita-samvit-prakāśa).[4]

This insight is based on scripture; and only the Śaiva scriptures are a completely reliable means of knowledge, precisely because they accept, with discernment, the defensible doctrines taught in other bodies of scripture,[5] and because they explicate a view of reality that is more all-encompassing than that taught in those doctrines, a view that furthermore is established through reason [rather than dogma].[6]

Thus, the wisdom taught in other systems’ scriptures liberates one from bondage, but only to a certain extent, not from all of it. By contrast, the Śaiva scriptures do liberate one from all bondage. This scriptural canon consists of five ‘streams’, traditionally divided into ten Śiva Āgamas, eighteen Rudra Āgamas,[7] and sixty-four Bhairava Tantras.[8] The scriptures of the Trika are the essence of all of these, and the Triumph of the Garlanded Goddess (Mālinī-vijaya) is the essence of them.

The teaching contained in that scripture can be grasped once it is accurately summarized. For one who has failed to grasp the true nature of things, there is no possibility of liberation nor of liberating others, since those possibilities belong only to one with well-cultivated & well-practiced insight. Because well-cultivated & well-practiced insight is the root-cause of the highest goal of human life, this work, the Tantrasāra, is undertaken to aid in its attainment.

[Summary verse for the Introduction]:           

It is traditionally said that ignorance is the cause of bondage; it is taught under the name ‘impurity’ in scripture. When holistic insight arises, its power completely eradicates that ignorance. The consequent rise of the awareness of the Self that is freed from [even the illusion of] ‘impurity’ is liberation. Therefore, by means of that scripture [the Mālinī], I will clarify the entire truth to be known [by those who seek liberation]. || 4
~ ~ ~

Key points in the Introduction:

  • Insight/realization is the sole cause of liberation.     
  • The root cause of the cycle of suffering is ignorance, specifically the false sense that individuality = separation (pauruṣa-ajñāna) and the various mental constructs (vikalpa) that arise from it.  
  • Removing the fundamental ignorance is contingent on the cultivation of clear mental discernment (tarka) regarding what is to be let go of and what is to be held close (heya/upādeya).    
  • The central insight to be cultivated by all is that one’s innermost being is Śiva, which is the Light of Consciousness, i.e. nonconceptual and uncontracted awareness and its innate power to manifest objects. 
  • The teachings of the Mālinī contain the essence of all the Śaiva scriptures and are conducive to liberation; and these are presented clearly in the Tantrasāra.
  • Full awareness of the real Self is liberation (or at least, the first and most fundamental phase of liberated awareness, ānava-samāveśa).


[1] Sanderson’s translation of verse three is perhaps more beautiful than mine and just as accurate: “As a lotus closed in the night is unlocked by the light as the rays of the sun fall upon it, so the heart of my awareness was freed of its contraction by the power of my guru Śambhunātha. Now I reveal it. If you would worship Maheśvara you have only to know its nature as your own.”

[2] I.e., any discursive conceptualization (positive or negative) that is constantly repeated will become so internalized that it becomes the non-conceptual terms of one’s immediate experience.

[3] Or: “has God for its essence”.

[4] Or, if we read vikalpa- with some of the MSS, then we have “the Light of Consciousness, uncontracted by differential awareness” or “a manifestation of the [One] Consciousness, uncontracted by ideation.”

[5] Vaiviktya, ‘with discernment’ (Sanderson translates: “as having their own limited scope”): this means that the Śaiva scriptures accept the key doctrines of other systems, but deny their claim to ultimacy, assigning each to an appropriate level of the cosmic hierarchy, and interpreting them in consonance with the coherent Śaiva picture of reality. See The Recognition Sutras, chapter 8.

[6] Though in this kind of context yukti usually means “reason, argument, proof” it is also possible that here Abhinava means it in the sense of “method”, and this latter interpretation appears in a marginal gloss in one of the text’s manuscripts: “[this tradition points towards a reality established by] a superior and distinct method (yukti), i.e. the realization of the Knower through an investigation of that fundamental awareness (pramā) which is the ground of everything ‘internal’ (such as emotions) and ‘external’ (such as colors).”

[7] Such as the Niśvāsa, the Svāyambhuva, the Kirana-tantra, etc.

[8] Such as the Svacchanda-bhairava-tantra, the Netra-tantra, etc.