Thursday, November 25, 2010

Cross-Cultural Perspective on Kashmiri Shaivism

In this paper, I will focus on two contemporary western scholars in the field of Kashmiri Shaivism: Alexis Sanderson and Mark Dyczkowski. I believe that their work in the various schools of Kashmiri Shaiva philosophy is of unique value and it forms an intriguing chapter in the history of Indology as an evolving science with cross-cultural aspects. Their writing seems to develop beyond the limits of traditional Indological scholarship and introduces a new set of critical approaches towards the body of Kashmiri tantric texts with a significantly cross-cultural dimension.
These new approaches reflect a more interactive way of working with the material – rather than maintain a set of viewpoints that are somehow fixed ‘outside’ the tradition, they are drawn towards the ways in which it actively reflects upon itself by means of an ongoing and open-ended hermeneutic process. This process consists partly in re-visioning the poetic symbols and principal concepts within the body of tantric texts by successive generations of Kashmiri teachers.
It is also remarkable that these western scholars seem to be themselves interested in such reflective methods of engagement with Kashmiri Shaiva literature - each one has chosen, in his own way, to work closely and intimately with the tradition by initiating a set of critical dialogues that have, as their terms of cross-cultural reference, specific questions about the nature of consciousness and individuality, language and its relation to reality, the phenomenology of perception, etc .
It is my thesis that questions regarding the value of individual subjectivity and the search for a deeper basis of personal freedom and agency in western cultural contexts provide scope for a fruitful dialogue with the systems of Kashmiri Shaivism. The two contemporary scholars I have chosen to look at - Mark Dyzckowski, and Alexis Sanderson – seem to be interested in critical study of a key concept in Kashmiri tantric texts: transpersonal egoity (‘pUrnAhantA’). This concept defines the individual subject or person in terms of a universal and unlimited self that is comprised of a pure and reflective consciousness (‘vimarsa’) which is also active and dynamic (‘Shakti’). ‘Shakti’ is the capacity of consciousness (Shiva) to identify with itself without any limitations as pure egoity (ahambhAvaH or pUrNAhantA) or I-consciousness .
The notion that there is a deeper and more universal level of consciousness which actively underlies the individual personality and constitutes both the self and world of experience, seems to challenge the principles of conventional western psychology with its empiricist bias . However, it also complements and supports more contemporary findings of modern physics as well as developments in the fields of depth-psychology and phenomenology . For scholars like Sanderson and Dyczkowski, this concept of ‘pUrNAhantA’ in Kashmiri tantra is significant not only for understanding the Kashmiri tradition but also as a means of exploring the limits of knowledge about individuality and subjectivity in their own cultures .
Alexis Sanderson began his career in Indology at Oxford University and in 1972 he studied Kashmiri Shaivism with Swami Lakshmanjoo, the last living teacher of this tradition. Alexis understood that he had to approach the Kashmiri tradition in terms of how it actively reflected upon itself – that is to say, the tradition (‘parampara’) was a living force based on the valid experience of each individual exponent:
“The interpretation of the texts was rooted not only in his (Swami Lakshmanjoo) pupilage with his teacher Rajanaka Maheshvara, but also in his own living experience, and if I came on occasions to the opinion that it departed to some degree from the intention of the texts themselves these departures were evidence that the tradition had not declined into a mere repetition of the formulations of the past but was indeed still a living force with the capacity for creative exegesis that enables such traditions to evolve.”
This insight is crucial because it comes from an understanding of the role of the self-reflective individual as agent and actor in the Kashmiri tantric system. The individual self or person (‘kartA’) is here defined in terms of an absolute power of consciousness (Shakti) that actively projects, manifests, maintains, and reabsorbs the entire phenomenal world of experience through self-reflection. In the words of Sanderson:
“The celebrant …was to experience … a twelve-phased retraction of his power of cognition, from his initial self-dichotomisation in which it represents itself as projecting the object external to itself, through the resorption of this object and its own reversion through deeper and deeper levels to its autonomous and universal source pulsing from beyond time and individuality in the emission and resorption of the relations of agent, act and object of cognition that constitute the universe of experience.”
There are several aspects in this vision of the individual subject as Sanderson finds it defined in Kashmiri Shaiva traditions. Firstly, we see that the relation between subject and object, self and world, mind and matter, is here posited very differently from traditional approaches in western science and psychology where there has been a long-standing split between the two realities with the object or the material world existing as somehow dominant . Here, in a reversal of perspective, the subject is not only recognised as prior but also as creative and actively constituting objective reality. Therefore, there is no split here but rather a vision of a reflecting and cognizing subject that actively projects and withdraws phenomena.
A scholar like Sanderson, trained in comparative approaches to religion and philosophy, can see how the existent split between subject and object has carried with it a repressed sense of fear and anxiety that is an inhibitory force upon the agency of the individual subject or ego . The tantric vision of an integral self, for Sanderson, has a significant potential for deepening insights into prevailing paradigms of individuality and personhood in modern western sociology and psychology. His approach also opened headway in interpreting the deeper religious and social role of impurity, complementing both in Tantric ritual and to the history of religions generally.
We can also see that according to Sanderson, the self as defined in Kashmiri tanric traditions is not a fixed entity or substance (‘dravya’) but is constituted in the term of pure energy or power – it is absolutely relational in essence. The relationship between the actor, act, and object of cognition is a continuum or flow from which these three terms of reality arise as distinct aspects of experience. The relational self is envisioned as a vibrating pulse (‘spanda’) that is the movement of consciousness without pause or break. Such a concept offers a unique possibility for cross-cultural exchange because of its innately reflective character where dialogue and relationship between ‘self’ and ‘other’ are constitutive aspects. Sanderson applies this concept of the self as a hermeneutic tool by attending closely to the highly individualized and differentiated forms of expression within the historical and living tradition. In his research he goes through gradations of historical development by looking attentively at each distinct ‘parampara’ within the broader context of Kashmiri Shaivism in order to get the real picture of the category of person .
The next scholar I would like to examine is Mark Dyczkowski whose books and articles on the ‘Spanda’ school or ‘doctrine of Vibration’ are considered to be classics in the field. Mark Dyczkowski seems to be unique in his approach to the subject of tantra because he has chosen to live in India for most of his life and to assimilate and absorb aspects of a living tantric tradition into his scholarly work. At the same time, Dyczkowski brings to this tradition a set of critical perspectives and a methodology that are anchored in western disciplines of modern psychology, phenomenology and philosophy.
As a scholar interested in exploring more esoteric aspects of Kashmiri tantric traditions, Dyczkowski chose to focus on the ‘Spanda’ school or ‘doctrine of Vibration’ because he saw a potential here for an alternative set of perspectives than those established within classical Hindu views of self, identity and personhood . The main concept here again is of ‘Shakti’, or a living power, that animates and infuses a field of pure consciousness, known as Shiva, with the ability to create and manifest the entire phenomenal field of experience . According to this doctrine, the universe is pure pulse or dynamic energy and exists only in interrelational, and not in exclusive, or substantial, terms. In other words, there are no fixed entities apart from consciousness, but only a flow of reflective or cognitive action that continually relates between a field involving three main aspects: the subject or perceiver, the act, and the object of perception.
For Dyczkowski, this mystical and philosophical tradition holds a special value and significance because here the individual subject or perceiver is recognized in terms of an absolute capacity, or power, for self-awareness, (‘vimarsa’). As well, the self in the ‘Spanda’ school is defined as an actor (‘kartR’) or an agent who freely manifests all objective experience through an unlimited potential for creativity. This notion of freedom and sovereignty of the individual subject as pure actor seems to be critical for Dyczkowski’s understanding of tantra. As a scholar interested in western phenomenologies of individuality and personhood, like those developed by Heidegger and Merleau Ponty , Dyczkowski finds in the ‘Spanda’ paradigm of the individual self as actor and reflective consciousness (‘vimarsa’) a critical dimension which can complement and deepen his own cultural approaches. As Dyczkowski says:
“Kriyaa is vimar"sa. So he (Abhinavagupta) combines cognitive linguistics with his theory of ritual action - both held together in the essential creative (indeed at each instant cosmogonic) activity of consciousness. From his point of view consciousness is unaffected by all this activity because it is its agent - not because, as the sAmkhya say, it does nothing - or as the nyAyikas say consciousness is just a quality of the Self.”
As we see here, there are two features of the tantric subject and agent (‘kartA’) that are of compelling interest to Dyczkowski from a cross-cultural perspective. First is the notion of an absolute freedom (‘svatantraH’) that sheds light on more restrictive paradigms of self and subjectivity in western philosophy and psychology such as those of Heidegger and Freud. Secondly, the conscious subject - ‘Shiva’ - is viewed as an artist who freely creates objective reality as an end in itself rather than as a limited means . Both of these aspects provide room for critical dialogue with prevailing views of self and autonomy in western cultures.
In conclusion, it seems that Dyczkowski and Sanderson have engaged with the Kashmiri Shaiva tantric tradition and its concept of absolute agency, or ‘kartA’, in ways that allow for a multiplicity of critical perspectives and approaches. They both recognise the value of a hermeneutic process by means of which the central symbols and visionary ideas in the tantras can be reflected across historical time and cultural space. Their own work is part of this process. In many ways, the most vital contributions to tantric studies in our time are being made in western academic contexts as is testified by the rising growth of publications and university courses on this popular subject.

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