The Aspects of the Goddess (Tantrasaara Chapter Four, Part 4)

This post presents the fourth 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, the second part is here, and the third part is here.

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 extensive explanation for full comprehension, 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! 



In this system, the Highest Divinity has as its essence all-inclusive expanded Awareness, and its Power is this very inclusive wholeness (pūrṇatā), denoted by utterances in the scriptures such as: the Totality (kula), Potency (sāmarthya), the Wave (ūrmi), the Heart (hṛdaya), the Essence (sāra), Pulsation (spanda), Pervasive Power (vibhūti), the Goddess of the Three (Trīśikā), the Black One (Kālī), She Who Devours Time (Kālī Sankarshinī), the Fierce One (Caṇḍī), the Word (vāṇī), Experience (bhoga), Perception (dṛk), and the Constant One (nityā). Each name denotes an activity of Divine Consciousness related to its meaning, such that She may be meditated upon in one or another of these aspects and so become seated in the heart of each meditator.

This all-inclusive expanded Awareness manifests through clearly seeing the fact that all Powers [belong to it and cohere in it].[1] And its Powers are innumerable. Enough to say—its Powers constitute the whole of reality. How could all these Powers be taught?

Like this: the whole of reality is encompassed by three primary Powers. She by whose power the Highest Divinity manifests, perceives, and supports all this, from Śiva to Earth, as pure undifferentiated Awareness is its sacred Transcendent Power, Parā-śakti. She by whose power it manifests, perceives, and supports all this as diversity within unity—like elephants and other creatures appearing in a single mirror—is its sacred Intermediate Power, Parāparā-śakti. She by whose power it manifests, perceives, and supports all this as pure differentiation, characterized by mutual separation [of subjects and objects], is its sacred Lower Power, Aparā-śakti.

The anthropomorphized representation of the three central Powers, Parāparā, Parā, and Aparā. Art by Ekabhūmi Ellik, appearing in Tantra Illuminated by Christopher Wallis.

She by whose power it devours this threefold process,[2] holding it within himself alone as unified awareness, is simply the Blessed Goddess Śrī Parā—denoted [in this transcendent aspect] by other names, such as the revered Mātṛsadbhāva (‘Mother Existence’/ ‘The Essence of All Knowers’ / ‘The Essence of all Mothers’), Kālakarṣiṇī (‘She Who Devours Time’, aka Kālī) or Vāmeśvarī (‘The Goddess of Beauty’/ ‘She Who Emanates’, a central Goddess of the Krama lineage).[3]

These four Powers operate freely in three modes each: emission, stasis, and resorption. Thus there are twelve. [The three Trika goddesses plus the transcendent fourth mentioned in the previous paragraph multiplied by the three phases just mentioned equals twelve aspects of the Goddess, personified as the twelve Kālīs described below.] To explain [please note that Abhinavagupta does not give the secret names of the twelve Kālīs in the text—I have supplied them below for the curious reader]:

  1. First, Consciousness projects (kalayati) an entity or state entirely internally. (Sṛṣṭikālī)

  2. Then, perceiving (kalayati) it as something distinct from itself, it becomes passionate (rakti-) towards that very entity. (Raktakālī)

  3. Then, wishing to reabsorb it within, it begins to internalize (kalayati) that very entity. (Sthitināśakālī)

  4. And then it alternately creates and devours a doubt/hesitation that constitutes an obstacle to the absorption of that entity.[4] (Yamakālī)

  5. The element of hesitation devoured, it withdraws (kalayati) the object-aspect into itself by reabsorbing it. (Saṃhārakālī)

  6. Then it contemplates (kalayati) its intrinsic nature itself: “This capacity to reabsorb [the entity or experience] is my nature.” (Mṛtyukālī)

  7. Then, while pondering (kalana) its intrinsic nature as the capacity to reabsorb, it perceives (kalayati) something remaining as a subliminal impression, but then perceives something [else, i.e. another subliminal impression] reduced (avaśeṣatāṃ kalayati) to pure Consciousness. (Rudrakālī / Bhadrakālī)

  8. Then it reabsorbs (kalayati) the wheel of the 12 faculties,[5] making them one with its realization (kalana) of its nature. (Mārtaṇḍakālī)

  9. Then it also absorbs (kalayati) the ‘lord’ of the sense-faculties (the ahaṃkāra).[6] (Paramārkakālī)

  10. Then it also withdraws (kalayati) the constructed, dualistic (māyīya), limited subject (i.e. individuality).[7] (Kālāgnirudrakālī)

  11. It withdraws (kalayati) the [universal] Subject too, which is on the threshold of abandoning [all trace of] contraction and excited to reach full expansion.[8] (Mahākālakālī)

  12. Hence it withdraws (kalayati) even that (fully) expanded aspect [into the absolute formless ground]. (Mahābhairavacaṇḍograghorakālī)

These twelve Blessed Goddesses that are Consciousness, revealing[9] [themselves] to multiple knowers or even to one, in configurations of twos or threes or (other combinations), all at once or gradually, revolving like a wheel; manifesting themselves externally also as the cycles of the twelve months, the twelve phases of the sun, the twelve signs of the zodiac, and other sets of twelve,[10] all the way down to the series of twelve pots, twelve painted cloths, and other items used in ritual. They nourish the autonomy of the Lord of the Circle (Manthānabhairava) and are to be known by [variations on] the name Śrī Kālī, since they go, project, know, reckon, enjoy, resonate, and merge things and beings into themselves [as per the various meanings of the verbal root √kal].

As my esteemed Krama Guru the revered Bhūtirāja said:

“Because She projects and because She knows, and because She is the projected and the known, She is called Kālī . . .”

This teaching may be examined in more detail here and there in various works I have written, such as my commentary on the Krama-stotra (the *Krama-keli), the *Prakaraṇa-stotra, and so on. For my revered Guru said that something highly secret & esoteric should not be related in a single place, nor should it be kept entirely hidden.

Thus all that has been said above concerning worship, fire-offerings, mantra repetition, disciplined observance, and yoga must be understood in terms of the Great Lord [in the nondual sense of that term taught here].

For all others look upon that which is to be let go of—from Viṣṇu to Śiva—as if it were the level of reality to be cultivated & attained, i.e. as if it were Paramaśiva, the Absolute. And that false view must necessarily be relinquished by those who seek the highest truth in their practice (anuttara-yogis). Vidyādhipati’s great passion in his Hymn to Experience was in relation to this very point.

[NOTE from CW: Though the hymn in question has not survived, three verses quoted from it by other authors establish Vidyādhipati’s view: that Paramaśiva is not solely transcendent, but is also, and more importantly, the very substance of experience itself—that is to say, the immanent. As Douglas Brooks paraphrased, “The Divine is more than meets the eye, but it’s also everything the eye can meet.”]

[ . . . to be continued!]

~ ~ ~

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. || [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. || [4.2]


[1] Read sā cāsya samagra-śaktitā-

[2] Text not secure; emendation necessary, see MSS

[3] see TĀ 4.176-177.

[4] Here, according to Jayaratha’s commentary ad TĀ 4.151, awareness oscillates between inhibition (about resorption) and its absence. Jayaratha gives a rather amusing and earthy analogy to this kind of oscillation, intended to demonstrate to us that the oscillation is between expansion and contraction: he cites the example of how the vulva of a female donkey pulsates (praspandate) at the end of a piss (presumably to get the last drops out).

[5] Five faculties of perception, five faculties of action, plus the faculties of judgement (buddhi) and selective attention (manas).

[6] That by means of which individualized consciousness represents itself as the agent of its cognitions and actions.—AS ~ As well as the faculty that generates more detailed self-images.—CW

[7] End of stage 10 = pūrnāham-vimarśa / pūrnāhantā.

[8] “In stage 11 this state of the universal self dissolves into the pure, undivided light that is the absolutely transcendent state of the subject.”—Alexis Sanderson

[9] udaya-bhāginī

[10] e.g. 12 Sanskrit vowels, 12 śaktis, 12 finger-widths (dvādaśānta), etc.