Why Yoga Doesn't Work . . . and Why it Does (Tantrasaara Chapter Four, Part 2)

This post presents the second part of Chapter Four of Abhinavagupta's Tantrasāra (“The Essence of the Tantras”), titled “Illumination of the Empowered Method (śākta-upāya)”. The first part is here. Chapter Four is significantly longer than the previous chapters, and so it will be presented in multiple posts.

I've been working on this text for over sixteen years, and finally have reached a translation that I'm satisfied with. Like Chapter Three, Chapter Four requires explanation, and that explanation will appear in the forthcoming book version of this translation. In this post, all the words that follow are those of the great master Abhinavagupta (translated by Christopher Wallis—all rights reserved). Enjoy! 



The ones who are able to ‘enter’ their ultimate nature are those who have been ‘pierced’ by a divine Descent of Power (śaktipāta) that became stable, and who therefore are able to refine & purify their conceptual understanding (vikalpa) of the nature of reality with the support of an authentic tradition (sad-āgama) and instruction by a teacher of Reality.

An objection might arise here: In that case, would not the ‘highest reality’ be reducible to a [mere] concept? Not at all, because the beneficial conceptual understanding [exemplified earlier] is effective merely in dispelling the ‘scent’* of duality [and once it has accomplished that, it can dissolve]. But by contrast the highest Reality is self-manifest everywhere as everything [or, self-manifest in its entirety in everything]. Thus conceptual understanding can neither help it manifest nor undermine it in any way.

Among those who have received śaktipāt, sound reasoning & discernment arises spontaneously for one who has been pierced by a very strong Descent of Power, for such a one is [said to be] ‘naturally perfected’ (sāṃsiddhika[1]). Such a rare individual [needs no formal initiation or consecration, for s/he] is said to be “initiated by the goddesses” [of his or her own awareness].

For another person, [lacking the discernment that arises spontaneously from the very strong Descent of Power], it is achieved through intensively contemplating the scriptures & traditional teachings (āgama). This and more will be discussed in detail in Chapter 11, Illumination of the Descent of Power.  

Now the function of a teacher is to explain the scriptures & traditional teachings; and the function of those teachings is to give rise to the kind of conceptual understanding that can serve as a foundation for the continuous unfolding of unimpeded and unswerving insight. It is just such a continuity of conceptual understandings of this kind that we define as ‘sound reasoning & discernment’ (sat-tarka).

And it is precisely this that is also called ‘contemplative meditation’ (bhāvanā, also ‘creative contemplation’, ‘realization’ etc.), for through it something that actually exists but appears not to because it is imperceptible is ‘realized/reified’ (bhāvyate) by making it perceptible.

In our way, none of the Aids to Yoga (a.k.a. ‘limbs of yoga’) is a direct means [to liberation] apart from this sound reasoning & discernment (sat-tarka) that manifests Pure Wisdom (śuddhavidyā, one of the levels of awakened liberation). The class of Yamas beginning with nonviolence, the class of Niyamas beginning with discipline (tapas), the class of Breath Extension Exercises (prāṇāyāma) beginning with deep inhalation, and so on: since all these relate only to specific objects [of consciousness], what could be the possible use of them with regard to Consciousness itself? Even Sense-withdrawal (pratyāhāra) can only exalt the level of the faculties [of consciousness]. Even Concentration, Meditation, and Absorption (dhāraṇā, dhyāna, samādhi), being accomplished in the successive stages of practice, [merely] confer on the meditator the state of identity with the object of meditation.

Practice (abhyāsa) cannot possibly be effective with regard to the supreme Reality that is one’s divine essence-nature (śivātma-svasvabhāva). For practice is nothing but taking a possibility arising in Consciousness and actualizing it within the prāṇa, mind, or body—such as the practice of weight-lifting, comprehending the subject-matter of any particular branch of learning, or dancing [respectively]. But in Consciousness itself there is nothing that could be added to it nor removed from it. How, then, could there be any point to practice?

If it be objected “What then is the point of reasoning (tarka)?” [i.e., “How could that bring about the attainment of the goal?”], it has already been stated here that it is only a way of removing the scent of duality and nothing more. Or rather, even in worldly life, what ‘practice’ really means is that any given aspect [of oneself]—the body, mind, etc.—manifests in a desired form and suppresses other possible forms; for the true nature of all such aspects is Awareness and thus they can take on any form.[3] But in the case of the ultimate Reality, there is nothing that need be or can be removed, as I have said. 

Even the ‘scent’ of duality itself is not a distinct actual entity, but rather is merely the lack of insight concerning one’s own nature. Thus, when it is said that the removal of duality is accomplished through conceptual understanding, this is what is really meant: one’s ultimately real nature (paramārtha-svarūpa), illuminating itself, gradually forsaking its condition of ignorance—which it freely took on of its own accord—shines forth in these three stages: turning towards expansion, then expanding, then expanded. [Note: the word vikāsa, here translated as ‘expansion’, also means ‘blossoming’, ‘opening’, and ‘growth’. It’s the perfect word for spiritual unfolding!]  It simply the nature of the Highest Divinity to reveal itself in this way.

Therefore, none of the ‘Limbs of Yoga’ are a direct means to the goal, though they may support discernment [in which case they are indirect means]. Accurate discernment & insight (sat-tarka) alone is a direct means to that [goal of awakening & liberation].


[IMPORTANT NOTE: Abhinavagupta’s argument here must be read in its wider context lest we misunderstand him. Clearly, he does believe that yogic practices can indeed support and foster the discerning insight that leads to liberation, for he teaches yogic practices in the very next chapter! Unsurprisingly, given his argument above, Abhinava teaches that those yogic practices must be conjoined with understanding of how they metaphorically depict the nature of Reality/Consciousness (one might say that for Abhinava, yogic practice is a form of art.)

Additionally, in the Tantrāloka, he allows that even when yogic practice does not foster sat-tarka, it still might be helpful to remove impediments on the path, such as doubt and fear. in Tantrāloka verse 4.98, he writes: “On the other hand, in our view, since [Consciousness] clearly consists of everything, including prāṇa, mind, and body, even practice which remains on those levels can [sometimes] successfully remove impediments [to liberation], just as one who wishes to leap must first overcome fear of falling.”]

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* ‘scent’ of duality: perhaps i should have translated it as ‘stench’ of duality! —Abhinava is trying to convey that duality isn’t actually real, it’s just a wrong way of seeing things that is analogous to a smell that gets all over your clothes and can be washed out.

[1] Also means ‘natural’ as in “he’s a natural”, as well as ‘self-existent’. A modern example of a sāmsiddhika guru such as Abhinava describes is Bhagavān Nityānanda.

[3] Any form, that is, determined within Consciousness equipped with its three basic Powers of Willing, Knowing, and Acting.

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Abhinavagupta’s summary verses for Chapter Four

A bound soul who has any of these convictions—‘I am dense, I am inert matter,’ or ‘I am completely bound by my karma,’ or ‘I am impure,’ or ‘I am a pawn of others’—may seek to attain the steady conviction of the opposite of these views. If s/he succeeds in this, s/he immediately becomes the Lord whose body is the whole universe and whose soul is Consciousness. || 8 [4.1]

In whatever manner such a conviction may be attained, a Tantrik yogi should cultivate it at all times. He should not allow his perspective to become divorced from the real nature of things and thus be led into doubt by the mass of foolish teachings in the world. || 9 [4.2]