Some Notes on Kashmir Shaivism

There are quite a few authentic, integral, deep spiritual traditions in our world.  Each with its own fascinating strengths; each with its own peculiar weaknesses.  We have come in human evolution and development to the point that none seem able to stand  by themselves without a very real diminishment.  All traditions do seem to really need each other in order to cover  those areas of human experience that are not sufficiently explored or even neglected in their own path.  Examples:  Merton’s comments in Asia on how the Tibetans had gone so much further in understanding our mind/consciousness in the spiritual path; and the Dalai Lama’s comment on how much he is impressed with Christianity’s focus on compassion and works of mercy.  

Kashmir Shaivism may well be one of the least known and least appreciated spiritual traditions.  It’s “home ground” is of course Kashmir, a beautiful area in the northwest of India.  With the Himalayas close by, with beautiful green valleys filled with lakes, with a mild climate, it was always an attractive place.  When the Brits controlled India, their top people would vacation in Kashmir or get away from the heat of the south and float on Dal Lake in a luxurious houseboats with servants.  More importantly, for centuries this area was extremely rich in religious traditions.  The Sufis were there; the Buddhists were there; and, yes, that particular form of Hinduism now known as Kashmir Saivism.  

The political situation that developed in the 20th century destroyed most of that.  Kashmir got caught in a violent tug-of-war struggle between Pakistan and India.  In part that is the responsibility of the Brits in the way they left India; in part it is of course more complicated than that.  The tragic thing is that this is only a part of that fierce animosity between certain elements in Islam and certain elements in Hinduism.  Today it is mostly populated by Islamic people, and adherents of Kashmir Saivism will largely be found elsewhere.

India is the home of an incredibly varied religious traditions.  To locate Kashmir Saivism we first note that it belongs in the nondualist camp of spiritualities.  India has been the home of 4 major nondualist traditions:  Madhyamika—basically the Buddhist foundation of all Mahayana paths including Zen and Tibetan Buddhism; Vijnanavada (sometimes known as “Yogachara”); Advaita Vedanta, especially Shankara’s interpretation of it; and finally Kashmir Saivism.  

To be frank about it, I myself am not really attracted by this mode of spirituality.  It obviously is a rich and deep tradition; it obviously still offers something significant to a goodly number of people, both the very educated and also average folks.  But as for myself even as I find a number of very interesting and intriguiging insights within Kashmir Saivism,  I am averse to its complexity; seems so needless to me—same holds for me in regard to Tibetan Buddhism.  If you want to get just a little taste of that complexity dip into one of these books:  Abhinavagupta’s Hermeneutics of the Absolute by Bettina Baumer or The Doctrine of Vibration by Mark S.G. Dyczkowski.  The complexity I am referring to is not primarily one of concepts or ideas—I always enjoy the challenge of understanding deep/difficult lines of thought. No, what I am referring to is a whole religious complex of symbol, ritual, practice, etc.  For one thing, I am simply not attracted by invitations to a panoply of complex meditation practices wherever they be found.  That simply could be just me.  After all, my native tradition of Catholicism can look very complex to an outsider, but being born and educated in it I navigate around that seeming needless complexity to get to the heart of it.   Almost impossible to do with a completely different tradition—unless, like Zen, it already points to that unspeakable simplicity at the heart of all traditions.  Here we can remind ourselves something that Merton pointed out in Asia:  when we get behind all the “complexity” of these various traditions, we find something profoundly and utterly simple which gets covered over by layer after layer of myth, ritual, concepts, even superstition and magic—how true this is of my Catholicism!

Bettina Baumer, whom I mentioned above, is both a world-class scholar of Kashmir Saivism and a devoted adherent.  She gave a talk at a gathering to honor the memory of Abhishiktananda in which she expressed the opinion that he was closer to Kashmir Saivism than to Advaita Vedanta (at least the dominant Shankara interpretation of it).  As Baumer explains it, Abhishiktananda was not really acquainted with explicit Kashmir Saivism, but his relating of his spiritual experience and his read of the Upanishads indicates that he had stumbled on the central teachings of this tradition and would have been more at home in it.   Perhaps, perhaps not.   Abhishiktananda did express his displeasure with Shankara’s treatment of the Upanishads and his teachings: “too much conceptualization.”  He preferred to deal with the Upanishads unfiltered; there he felt he was more in touch with his own nondual experience.  But we do have to consider this:  for Abhishiktananda the focal point and total symbol of what was India’s most valuable gift to western religious consciousness was wholly contained in the figure of the sannyasi.  Shankara himself was a sannyasi, and the whole Advaita Vedanta tradition elevated the figure of the sannyasi into a transcendent symbol.  This is not quite true of Kashmir Saivism.  It does not elevate that kind of external radical renunciation.   There is no “class distinction” between sannyasi and householder; all spiritual work is purely interior.  Yes, the true adherent will live simply, like the last great holy man of Kashmir, Lakshman Joo, but he will not be seen to engage in radical renunciation.  Yes, Lakshman Joo was a vegetarian, was celibate, dressed simply, but certainly lived more comfortably than the sannyasis Abhishiktananda admired.  Abhinavagupta, the great scholar-saint of ancient Kashmir Saivism, was a married man and raised 3 children.  And many of Lakshman Joo’s disciples are married with families.  It’s a different kind of path than the Upanishadic sannyasis.  Just my conjecture, because I have not read this anywhere, but with the mass movement of Islamic people into Kashmir about eight centuries ago, a lot of Sufis came there also.  These may have had a large influence on a lot of Kashmir Saivism because their mode of spirituality is very similar.

To follow up more on the above, one of Kashmir Saivism ‘s more intriguing and, to me, most attractive aspect is its radical nondualism.  By that I mean something special.  What I am referring to is the push of religious nondualism into relativizing or deconstructing all the dualisms people live by.  Consider this concrete example: the caste system, not as dominant in India as in the past, but still a strong influence on social and religious life in India.  The key adherents of Advaita Vedanta, belonging to the brahmin caste, have traditionally been zealous upholders of the caste system.  It appears that their staunch nondualism is only in regard to the Ultimate Reality, and there are no social consequences to that.  No so with Kashmir Saivism.  Consider these words by the holy man, Lakshman Joo as found on the website run by his followers :

“The fifth significant difference between Kashmir Śaivism and Vedānta concerns the question of who is fit to practice this monistic teaching. Vedānta holds that this teaching can only be practiced by “worthy people” such as brahmins with “good qualities.” In fact, Śaṁkarācārya holds that Vedānta is meant only for saṁyāsins1 and not others. From the Vedāntic point of view, women and other castes are not allowed to practice the Vedāntic system. This point of view, however, is not recognized by our Kashmir Śaivism. Kashmir Śaivism teaches that this monistic thought can be practiced by anyone, man or woman, without the restriction of caste, creed, or color. In fact, our Śaivism teaches us that this thought can be practiced more fruitfully by women than by men.

On this website there is also a full explanation of the difference between Kashmir Saivism and Advaita Vedanta:

In the book previously mentioned, Bettina Baumer has this quote from Abhinavagupta:

“In Trika Sastras, this very activity almost without any curb is worship.  All things are available for the fulfilment of this worship.  The course of knowledge has been described in detail.  Regarding the castes—brahmanas, etc. – there is no fixed principle, for the caste distinction is artificial.  The specification that brahmanas alone are entitled for instruction can convince only the silly herd.”

And Bettina herself:

“This hierarchical sense of inferiority and superiority applies practically in the social realm to the caste system which has no place in Anuttara.  That this is not only a theoretical statement but has practical implications in Trika has been shown in the context of adhikara:  there Abhinavagupta ridicules the restrictions of Sastras to a particular, especially the brahmana caste.”

So…..very interesting…..   Just think of slavery in the Christian context.  Right from its origins.   Amazing to me how St. Paul missed the boat on this point badly, and got early Christianity orientated wrongly on this point, with a lot other implications.  Recall Paul’s argument:  he is thoroughly overwhelmed by the reality of the Risen Christ, and his theological elaboration of the implications is awesome, especially considering the background and culture of the Semitic mindset.  When he comes to this widespread social phenomenon of slavery, he points out that in the light of the Resurrection no one is really a “slave” anymore; there is no second—class citizenship in the kingdom of God.  Good enough, but then in a curious twist of logic he goes on to say that if you as a Christian are a slave owner, treat your slave like a brother in Christ.  Apparently there may be no slaves in the kingdom of God, but here it’s ok even for Christians.  If one failed to get that message, Paul makes it explicit:  Slaves, obey your masters.  And because of Paul’s blindness in this regard, Christianity was saddled with a muddled approach to slavery and other issues for over a thousand years.

Let me quote a few lines from one of Abhinavagupta’s key mystical writings as translated by Bettina Baumer:


From:  Eight Verses on the Unsurpassable

1. There is no need of spiritual progress,

     nor of contemplation, disputation or discussion,

     nor meditation, concentration nor even the effort of prayer.

     Please tell me clearly:  What is supreme Truth?

     Listen:  Neither renounce nor possess anything,

     share in the joy of the total Reality

     and be as you are!

2.  In reality no world of transmigration exists,

      so how can one talk about bondage?

      To try to liberate one free already

       Is futile, for he was never in bondage.

       All this just creates a delusion like that

        of the shadow of a ghost or a rope mistaken for a snake.

       So neither renounce nor possess anything.

       Enjoy yourself freely, resting in your self,

       just as you are!

4.   This bliss is not comparable to that which is experienced

       through riches or wine or even union with the beloved.

       The dawning of that Light is not to be compared

       with the light of a lamp or that of the sun or moon.

      The joy that is felt when one is freed from the burden

       of accumulated differences can only be compared

       to the relief felt while setting on the ground a heavy weight.

       The dawning of the Light is like finding a lost treasure:

       the state of universal non-duality.

Think of the words of Jesus in the Gospel: the treasure buried in the field, the light burden vs. the heavy burden which we carry, etc.  Think of the Sermon on the Mount … it really is only understandable from the standpoint of a nondual spiritual consciousness.  Otherwise we tend to dismiss it as “exaggerated,” or “simply a lofty unreachable goal in this life,” or “idealized ethics” or “symbolic,” or some other rationalization for not letting these words be a real map to our real life.  There’s so much more that could be said along these lines, but I will leave it at that.  Suffice it to say, that among all the teachings of Abhinavagpta that I read and (think) I understand, none is a problem to the heart of the Reality of the Christ.

Some interesting and (to me) appealing notions in Kashmir Saivism:

a.  Anuttara—“the Unsurpassable,” “the Absolute,” “that which has nothing beyond it,” etc.  Perhaps this is “the Father” of the Gospels; perhaps it is the Godhead of Meister Eckhart, etc.  

b.  anupaya— the “no means,” “no-way,” the highest of the four ways of liberation.   You’ll find this idea among the deepest of the Desert Fathers, Zen Masters, Sufis, etc.

c.  pratyabhijna— philosophy of recognition.  “Recognition” of who you really are is the key to all true spiritual paths, and so it is with Kashmir Saivism.  Read the New Testament in the light of this.   There is the way of “recognition”  vs. the way of “achieving” or “earning” or “working for” …..otherwise known as “salvation through works.”

Truly, the tradition of Kashmir Saivism is blessed with a beauty, a power, and a vision that we all can learn from!