Our sages and saints of Kashmir have, over the centuries, nourished Kashmir and the rest of the Indian subcontinent with their rich theological debates and enriching spiritual discourses, the like of which are rarely seen in any other place in the world. Their teachings, treatises, poems and revelations and philosophies have been so effective in molding the religious and spiritual thought process of millions of people to such an extent that even today the richness of their influence is clearly visible. The depth of their thoughts, the intense tapasya and unparalleled capacity to look beyond the visible spectrum, has ensured the immortality of their teachings and of their own selves. It will be interesting to find out if any place in the world has produced so many giants of their respective fields as Kashmir has done.
Abhinavagupta followed and preceded spiritual masters like Attrigupta, sangamaditya, Ananandvardhana, Vasugupta, Bhatta Narayana, Bhaskara, Kallatachayra, Somadeva, Utpaladeva, Kshemaraja, Somananda, Lal ded, and many more between the eighth century and fourteenth century CE. Many consider him to be the greatest in the line of these sages who illumined the path of spiritual regeneration that Kashmir witnessed during this period.
Born in the family of scholars and mystics, Abhinavagupta devoted himself to the study of various schools of religious philosophy. He was born in the glorious family of Attrigupa 200 years after him. It is believed that he studied these philosophies and various forms of fine arts like, music, art, literature, drama, etc., from as many as fifteen Gurus, who were the greatest teachers and masters of his time. From his father, Nasimhagupta, he learned grammar; from Lakshmangupta, he learned Pratyabhijanasastra; and Sambunatha initiated him into the meditative practices of Kaula Sect. Abhinavagupta acknowledged in his writings with reverence the role of his nine teachers in shaping his future.
One of India’s greatest philosophers, Abhinavagupta is considered to be the foremost authority on Shaivism and its mysticism. In fact, he is rightfully described as the Shankaracharya of Kashmir Shaivism. Besides being a theologian, musician and philosopher, he also wrote on mysticism and logic, leaving an indelible mark on the culture of India. Though he wrote extensively, only few of his writings survived. It is said that he authored 42 books, out of which only 20-22 have survived. There are nearly 248 manuscripts of the Master available in various libraries, spread all over India. What is even more intriguing is that his works contain references to more than 100 religious scriptures, which unfortunately are now extinct. It is interesting to note that the manuscripts of his works have been found deep down in Kerala. His Tantraloka or ‘Light of Tantras’ is considered as one of the greatest works on Indian theology.
Abhinavgupta was a genius who molded many philosophies and modes of meditation to create one single form or a holistic philosophy. The varna system in the ancient period might have been created to run the affairs of the society smoothly. But, over a period of time, it divided the society, which turned into Bhharat Varsha’s biggest bane. Abhinavgupta insisted on treating a Brahmin and a Shudra at same level, because both are actually on the path of Shiva. He emphasized that in the path of devotion, there is no lower and a higher birth. According to some thinkers, he anticipated by centuries the ideas that were later propounded by Kant, Hegel and Schopenhauer. His description of this “undifferentiated and ineffable” night of Shiva as “Light of all lights, darkness of all darkness”, is a symbolism of the Mystical Night that had the stamp of Uttapaladeva on it and served as an inspiration to Lalleshwari, much later. In India or elsewhere it is difficult to find such a fusion of these diverse forms of knowledge in a single master.
Abhinavagupta’s final journey is believed to be around 1025 A.D., as there is a common belief that he, along with 1200 of his disciples, entered into a cave located in village Beerwa (originally Bhairawa), south of Gulmarg, while reciting a prayer. They never returned. It is believed that they achieved Shivaloka (God realization) through conscious exit from the body. The prayer that Abhinavagupta and his followers recited while entering the cave, has achieved great significance as a sacred hymn, and is recited on important religious occasions, particularly on Shivaratri.
Abhinavgupta left behind a number of disciples, numbering nearly 10,000 in Kashmir alone, of whom the most outstanding were Ksemaraja, Ksemendra and Madhuraja. The tradition continued to the present century through Swami Lakshman joo. The land of Kashmir, abode of Mother Goddess Sharda, has been a fountainhead of India’s culture and religious thought. Abhinavgupta is its biggest and greatest proponent.
I hope this issue serves to highlight the contribution and relevance of Abhinavgupta to the modern times, when Kashmir and rest of the world is riven with violent conflicts and inability of people to live in peace with each other.
– Col. Tej K Tikoo