The Mystical Meaning of Sanskrit (Tantrasaara Chapter Three, Part 2)

This post presents the second part of Chapter Three of Abhinavagupta's Tantrasāra (“The Essence of the Tantras”), titled “Illumination of The Divine Method (śāmbhava-upāya)” (note: chapter titles may not be original to Abhinavagupta). The first part is here. Chapter Three is significantly longer than the previous chapters, and so it is being presented in multiple posts.

This section of Chapter Three presents the profound mystical significance of the phonemes (sound-units) of the Sanskrit language. This section took me literally years to decode, even with the assistance of two great scholars (Paul Muller and Alexis Sanderson) at various points. It presents Abhinavagupta's subtle and (if you can understand it) astonishing teaching on 'linguistic mysticism', that is, how the structure of the Sanskrit language encodes the fundamental patterning of the whole of Reality. A thorough explanation of Abhinavagupta’s revelatory teaching will appear in the forthcoming book version of my translation. In this post, all the words that follow are those of the great master Abhinavagupta (translated by Christopher Wallis—all rights reserved). Enjoy! 



And insofar as the array of Powers of the Highest Divinity establishes & orders the universe, ‘he’ is aware [of himself as that array of Powers].

Amongst those, there are three fundamental Powers of the Highest Divinity: the Power of the Absolute (anuttara), the Power of Intention (icchā), and the Power of Unfolding Insight (unmeṣa). Those very Powers are [expressed and embodied by] the trinity of ‘reflections’ that are the phonemes अ a, इ i, and उ u.

From this very triad, the entire unfolding of the Powers is performed. For repose in the Absolute itself is Awe (ānanda), repose in Intention itself is Sovereignty (īśana),[1] and repose in Unfolding Insight itself is the ‘Wave’ (ūrmi), which is the incipient Power of Action. Those very Powers are [expressed and embodied by] the trinity of ‘reflections’ that are the phonemes आ ā, ई ī, and ऊ ū.  

Of these, the first trinity of reflections (अ a, इ i, and उ u) has a ‘solar’ nature, because their essence consists of the Light of Creation aspect [of Awareness] (prakāśa). The second trinity of reflections (आ ā, ई ī, and ऊ ū) has a ‘lunar’ nature, due to the predominance [in them] of refreshing delight which is the essence of Repose [within Awareness] (vimarśa).

So far there is not even a hint of any objectification. But when an object of possible action enters into Intention and Sovereignty, and can thus be referred to as ‘willed’ and ‘ruled’, then that object has two aspects: as the pure Light of Creation (prakāśa), it expresses as the sound underlying the phoneme र r, and as Repose, it expresses as the sound underlying the phoneme ल l —because the natures of of र r and ल l are illumination (/Fire) and stability (/Earth) respectively.

The object being ‘willed’ and ‘ruled’ is not yet manifest like something external, for if there were a manifested form, that would be a created thing, not the pure Power of Intention or Sovereignty itself. Thus, specifically because of this lack of concrete manifestation, there is continuous sound in र r and ल l, not stopping as with a consonant.

From these [two underlying sounds] we have the fourfold group of phonemes, which are ‘nonbinary’ because they bear the likeness of both (‘masculine’ vowels and ‘feminine’ consonants):  ऋ ṛ,  ॠ ṝ,  ऌ ḷ, and ॡ ḹ.[2]  When the Absolute (a) and Awe (ā) flow into Intention (i), Unfolding Insight (u), Sovereignty (ī) and the Wave (ū), then arise the pair of syllables ए e and ओ o. [Because a + i = e and a + u = o.] In the same way, due to the fusion of the Absolute or Bliss again [this time with e and o], the pair of syllables ऐ ai औ au arise. This very set of four syllables—ए ऐ ओ औ e, ai, o, and au—constitutes the Power of Action [in its different phases of development].

Next, moreover, all that has become an effect of this process, up to the fourfold Power of Action, abides in the form of a point of pure Illumination (prakāśa-bindu)which is the essence of experiential awareness—precisely because it must first re-enter into the Absolute [for a moment] before projecting out into manifestation: this is  अं ṃ (the anusvāra).[3] Next, from that very point of ultimacy, the Emission of the Absolute is born: अः ḥ (the visarga).

Thus the sixteen ‘reflections’ [i.e., the vowels] are said have the nature of ‘seeds’ (bījas); from them arise the [34] ‘wombs’ (yonis), i.e. the consonants. [They are called seeds and wombs respectively because a vowel must be combined with a consonant to ‘conceive’ a syllable.]

Of these, the velar class of consonants comes from the Absolute (a -> k, kh, etc.); the palatal class comes from pure Intention (i -> c, ch, etc.), the retroflex and dental classes arise from objectified Intention (i + ṛ -> ṭ, ṭh, etc. and i + ḷ -> t, th, etc.); and the labial class comes from Unfolding Insight (u -> p, ph, etc.). There are five phonemes in each of these classes due to association with the five Powers.[4]

From the same Power of Intention in its three forms (i, ṛ, ḷ) comes y, r, and l; from Unfolding Insight (u) comes the letter v. From the same threefold Intention comes ś, ṣ, and s. From Emission (visarga, ḥ) comes the letter h. The letter kṣ comes from the combination of two ‘wombs’ [i.e. the first and last consonants, k and s]. 

This is our Lord, the Absolute itself in the form of Kuleśvara, the Lord of the Family of Powers; and He has only One consort, the Familial Power of Emission (kaulikī visarga-śakti), by which the ‘reflections’ of the classes of consonants, due to vibrating through the vowels from Awe (ā) up to external creation (), attain the form of external Principles (tattvas). [SEE CHART BELOW.]

This very Emission (visarga) is of three types: that pertaining to the Individual (āṇava), which is repose of the heart-mind (citta-viśrānti); that pertaining to Power (śākta), which is characterized by the awakening of the heart-mind (citta-saṃbodha); and that pertaining to Śiva (śāmbhava), which is the nature of the dissolution of the heart-mind (citta-pralaya). [Corresponding to ā, aḥ, and h respectively.]

Thus Emission is the singular Power of the Blessed Lord in the birthing of the universe.


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[1] Clarified in the PTv, p. 169: “Desire (icchā) itself is called ī when it seeks to seize [its object] by means of the autonomy of the power of knowledge that is about to emerge.” (trans. Sanderson) So īśana is icchā intensified; the urge to self-extroversion fully accepted.

[2] That is, the likeness of both yoni and bīja, ‘womb and seed’, i.e. feminine consonants and masculine vowels. Being nonbinary, they are also infertile, giving rise to no further vowels, either by sandhi or ‘gunation’. They are also known as the amrtabījas: blissful but like burnt seeds, never to fructify. See TĀ 3.81.

[3] Parallel passage: TĀ 3.110-111 and Jayaratha on same. in the TĀ, this is the Śiva-bindu, taught as the fusion of Sun, Moon, and Fire (knowing, known, and knower, respectively), the undivided prakāśa, the para-pramātā.

[4] Cf. TA 3.148c-150b. The order of the five powers, when looking at the consonant grid, would in be columns from left to right reading kriyā, jñāna, icchā, ānanda, and cit. So Earth is anuttara x kriyā, Water is anuttara x jñāna, and so on.

Abhinavagupta’s summary verse for Chapter Three

The entire world shines here within the Self, just as a complex creation appears in a single mirror. However, Awareness articulates & touches the universe [of its experience] in accordance with the flavor (rasa) of its own self-awareness—no mirror can do that. ||