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The Philosophy of Tripura Tantra

Proportionately slight effort is enough for erasing slight vasanas. He whose mind has been made pure by good deeds in successive past incarnations, gains supreme results quite out of proportion to the little effort he may make - Tripura Rahasya, XIX, 65-66, Ramanashram edition

This is another article from the Sarasvati Bhavana Studies series, written by the eminent tantrik scholar Gopinath Kaviraj, which is out of copyright. Here, he deals with the Tripurarahasya, and more especially with the 36 tattvas of the Kaula Shri Vidya and Trika systems. Words which were in Sanskrit in the original have been put into iTrans format.

The Tripurarahasya exists in several English translations.

The Philosophy of Tripura Tantra

By Gopinath Kaviraj

It is a truism that every system of theocratic culture in India has behind it a consistently evolved system of philosophic thought. It is difficult, in the present state of our knowledge, to give a definite idea of the number of such systems in ancient and mediaeval times and even of the extent of literature comprised under each. Continued progress in researches in this field is likely to yield fresh materials favourable to the better understanding of the true history and philosophic value of these systems. The work known under the name of "Tripurarahasya" (Jnana Khanda) forms indeed a highly important document in the history of Indian Philosophy, so far as the system of a section of the Sakta Tantra is concerned, and should be appreciated from that point of view.

The systematisation of Tantric Philosophy, on its Sakta side, does not, seem to have yet been seriously attempted. The Sarva Darsana Sangraha of Madhavacharya ignores the Sakta School altogether. So do the other compendia, earlier and later. (e.g. Saddarsana Samuchchaya of Haribhadra, Sarvasiddhanta Sangraha of Sankaracharya etc.). There are different lines of Sakta culture still in existence and we have reason to believe that some at least of these have preserved the philosophical tradition. The literature associated with the third Mahavidya, named Sodasi or Tripura Sundari is very extensive and presents several interesting feature of Tantrik literature. It is possible to construct a regular philosophy of the school out of the materials available to us and in this work of reconstruction the present treatise will, it is hoped, prove to be substantially helpful.

The Tripurarahasya, which claims to treat of the secrets of the Tripura Culture in all its aspects, is said to consist of three sections - viz. Mahatmya, Jnana and Charya. The Jnana Khanda has been published at Benares in a new edition1. The Mahatmya Khanda, of which (as of the Jnana Khanda) we have an original manuscript in the Government Sanskrit College, Benares, was entrusted for publication to the publishers of the Chowkhambha Sanskrit Series, Benares. The third section is apparently lost, no trace of it having yet been found. It is an extensive work of which the first two sections contain 2163 and 6687 verses.

The work is attributed to one Haritayana and the commentary called Tatparyadipika is from the pen of one Dravida Sri Nivasa, son of Vaidyanatha Diksita, resident of the village of Mahapuskara in the Dravida country. The commentary was composed in 4932 Kali Era (1831 A. D.). The text is in 22 chapters.

The book is in the form of a discourse delivered by Haritayana to Narada. This discourse professes to be a reproduction of the teachings of Dattatreya to Parasurama and claims to be based on personal realisation and reason.

The plan of the work may be thus summed up. Parasurama having heard Dattatreya's lectures on the greatness of the Supreme Deity Tripura Sundari as embodied in the Mahatmya Khanda expressed a desire to the Master to be enlightened on the methods of worship for propitiating the Goddess. He was subsequently initiated in due form into the mysteries of Tripura worship and practiced penances for 12 years, under instructions from his tutor, at a hermitage on the Mahendra Hill in the South. In the course of his spiritual exercises the ultimate problems of life and reality began to trouble his mind, and being unable to reach a solution himself be betook himself to the feet of his Guru for light and guidance. He has already heard a teaching on the subject from Samvarta, the great Avadhuta, on his discomfiture by Rama Chandra in the Treta age, but he had not been able to realise it at the time. He requested the master to explain to him the secrets of Samvarta's lessons, so that his doubts might be dispelled for ever. Dattatreya's response to Parasurama's question, interspersed with Parasurama's cross-questions here and there, constitutes the body of the Jnana Khanda. It would thus appear that the text of the Tripura Rahasya, which embodies the teachings of Haritayana to Narada, represents an old traditional lore of secret science originally revealed by Samvarta and subsequently expounded by Dattatreya to Parasurama.

The name Parasurama stands eminent among the votaries of Tripura. The Kalpa Sutra, treating of the secrets of the Tripura worship in ten Khandas and containing 335 Sutras, is attributed to Parasurama who is described as a scion of the family of Bhrgu, a disciple of Shiva and the son of Jamadagni and Renuka. This description of Parasurama implies that the Parasurama of the Tripura Rahasya is believed to be identical with the author of the Kalpa Sutras, though Pandit A. Mahadeva Sastri has, perhaps rightly questioned this identity2. The tradition has it that Dattatreya was the author of a Samhita work in 18000 verses which was known under his own name (viz. Datta Samhita). Parasurama studied the extensive work and, to bring its contents within easy reach of students, summarised it in a body of Sutras distributed into 50 sections (Khandas). This contained 6000 Sutras, The Samhita and the Sutra were both summed up, in the form of a dialogue between Dattatreya and Parasurama, by Sumedha (pupil of Parasurama). This tradition is found recorded in the Tripurarahasya, Mahatmya Khanda.

It is evident that the work of Sumedha, who was of the Harita family and consequently known as Haritayana, is really to be identified with the Tripurarahasya itself rather than with the Kalpasutras of Parasurama as Laksmana Ranade has done3, because the Parasurama Kalpa Sutra is not in the shape of a dialogue between Datta and Parasurama and is not attributed to Sumedha, whereas the Tripurarahasya has the form of a similar dialogue) 4and is ascribed to Sumedha Haritayana.

The line of Tripura worship is represented by several teachers. We have already referred to Dattatreya, and Parasurama. The names of Durvasas, Agastya, Lopamudra and several others may be added in this connection. Durvasas is associated with the authorship of a mahimnaH stotra of the Goddess, where he is described in the colophon as sakalAgamAchArya. Nityananda, who wrote a commentary on the above Stotra, says that Durvasas inter alia, Krodha Bhattaraka is really identical with Siva Himself, who is the Master of the teachers of all the Agamas (sakalAgamAchAryachakravatI.m), as born from the womb of Anurapa.

The Supreme Goddess is variously named - as Tripura, Sundari Lalita, Sodasi, Sri Vidya, Kamesvari, etc. She is called Tripura, in as much as Her Body consists of three Saktis, viz. Brahma, Vaisnavi and Raudri.5 The Tripurarahasya speaks of Her in the following terms:

tripurAnantashaktyaikyarUpiNI sarvasAxiNI .
sA chitiH sarvataH pUrNA parichChedavivarjanAt.h ..

The partial appearance of the Self as thus occurring is known as bAhyAvabhAsa, because such appearance implies the manifestation of what may be described as empty space which is other than the Self. Remembering that Chaitanya is all-embracing and can have nothing outside it - for if there were any such thing it would not shine out and would therefore be non-existent - what is popularly called the external is indeed only a reflection on Chaitanya as on a mirror. When the universe comes into being it does so as only an image within the unique Self. The universe as such is varied but underlying it is the pure and simple unity of Chaitanya revealing itself to the eye of diligent search (anusandhAna). The manifestation of the universe, due to the Free Will (svAtantrya) of the Absolute, is thus a process of Abhasa, - and for the initiation of this process nothing beyond the play of the Will is needed. The material and efficient causes, supposed to be necessary for every product, are held unnecessary.

The peculiar metaphysical position of the Tantra consists in the theory of Abhasa, which is consistent with this position. It rejects the Vivartavada of Neo-Vedanta, because the world is not originally a false appearance due to Error. It is real in the same way as an image is real, but it has no existence apart from the medium in which it is manifested. Its existence is only the existence of the medium. To the Vedantist the world appears as such to the ignorant owing to his ignorance and in the last analysis it is resolved into Maya which is not identical with Brahman and is material; but to a Tantrist the world is real and is expression of the Chit Sakti or Free Will of the Lord and is really spiritual in essence like the Lord Himself. In the last resort it turns back into the Chit Sakti which is never withdrawn, for the Will (svAtantrya) remains, even after the world has disappeared. The Vedanta system has had to fall back on the doctrine of Vivarta, because it denies in a sense svAtantrya to Pure Chaitanya. The first stadium of creation is thus an Abhasa. The second stage which represents the subsequent condition shows how the Chit Sakti, already appearing (AbhAsamAna) in the Pure Chaitanya, further progresses. Maya emerges on the scene now and the Vivarta is the logical outcome. The third stage marks how Maya becomes productive. This is the Parinama or Evolution which gets on till the bhutas spring into manifestation. The fourth stage which represents creation out of the bhutas is known as Arambha or physico-chemical process of genesis. From the supreme stand-point of Tantra, however, the entire Creation is an Abhasa.

As thus realised She is the Eternal and supreme Truth beyond all limitations consequent on time and place. She is the essence of Chaitanya and is called Lalita owing to Her transcendent charms. The Sakti Sangama Tantra observes that it is this Lalita which assumes the form of Krsna as Purusa. 6

Sundari is one of the ten Mahavidyas (Mundamala Tantra, Patala 1). It is said (Ibid) that the ten Vidyas combined form a Mahavidya, but Sodasi is a Mahavidya by Herself. The Todala Tantra (Patala 1) calls Maha Tripura Sundari by the name of Panchami with Siva (five-faced) as Her Bhairava. The Sakti Sangama however (Purascharyarnava, pp 13-14) makes Lalitesvara Her Bhairava. This is different from Tripura Bhairava (or Vikarala, the companion of Chhinna) and Ghora Bhairava (i. e. Kala Bhairava, the companion of Dhumavati).

The system teaches that the Supreme Reality is of the nature of Pure Intelligence, which is self-luminous and unaffected by the limitations of time, space and causality. It has absolute freedom (pUrNa svAtantrya) in as much as its Power or Will (sa.mkalpa) is unrestricted. This Power is really identical with the Essence of Chaitanya and remains either involved in it or expresses itself as its inalienable property. In the technical phraseology of the Shastra it is known as Vimarsa or Krpa, and is an eternal attribute of Chaitanya. The freedom referred to above implies that the Essence of Consciousness is free from vikalpas and is fundamentally distinct from matter. The Chaitanya is free, as it does not depend on anything else for its own revelation of matter.

The Power exists in a two-fold condition. What is generally known as creation or dissolution is in reality consequent on the manifestation of this Power or on its abeyance. It always functions, but its function is sometimes (e. g. during the creative period) expressed as the manifestation of the Universe till now absorbed in and identified with the Essence of Reality and at other times expressed as self-manifestation alone.

The Supreme Reality of the Agamas would thus seem to differ in a sense from the Brahman of Vedanta. Though both are essentially of the nature of Intelligence there is a fundamental distinction between the two. The Absolute of the Tantra is endowed with Power which is held to be identical with Itself and by virtue of which It is described as the Free Agent (svatantrakarttA). Freedom to act forms the essence of Chaitanya. In other words, according to the Tantric viewpoint, Siva and Sakti are aspects of one and the same Reality. But in the current non-dualistic school of Vedanta Brahman, which as in this Tantra is described as of the nature of Pure Consciousness, is no better than an action-less Locus (adhikaraNa), on which the Power, which is attached to It mysteriously and is neither identical with nor distinct from It, plays. It is conceived as a Pitha or passive background in relation to the active power operating on It. The Sakti, called Maya in the Vedanta School, is not thus of the nature of Brahman but is material (anirvachanIya), though it is held to be, of course mysteriously, subservient to it. But as conceived in the Tantra Sakti or Pure Freedom is absolutely non-material. The term Chit Sakti used to denote this power implies its spiritual essence.

What in the Tantras is known as vAhyAbhAsa or the manifestation of a non-ego (anahambhAva) within the Pure Ego (shuddhAtma) but appearing as external to it is tha Radical Nescience (mUlavidyA) of Vedanta. This non-ego is the so called Avyakta (Unmanifest) or Jada Sakti (Matter). But the Freedom or the Spiritual Power (Chit Sakti) of the Lord, as described in the Tantras, is beyond the Nescience referred to above, and to this Power the Advaita Vedanta seems to be a stranger.

In as much as the Avidya itself or the Material Power is a product of the Spiritual Power which is the ultimate source of all existence there is no discrepancy in the statement, often found in Tantric Literature, that this Power has three distinct states of its existence: -

(a) During the universal dissolution when the Self is free from all vikalpas the Sakti exists as Pure Chit Sakti or Chit Prakrti.

(b) When the vikalpas are on the point of merging - when though there is no vikalpa as such there is yet a tendency in the direction of vikalpas - the Sakti is called Maya Sakti or Jada Prakrti.

(c) But when the vikalpas are fully developed and materiality becomes dense the Sakti appears as Avidya.

It has already been observed that the appearance of the universe follows upon the self-expression of the Divine Power and the Cosmic End follows from the withdrawal of the self-same Power.

After the period of Cosmic Night is over the Will of the Lord, in co-operation with the mature adrsta of Jivas, manifests only partially, as it were, the Essence of the Self, whereby the Self is revealed as limited.

The appearance of limitation is thus the emergence of not-self, known as Avidya or Jada Sakti, called also by the name of Void (shUnya), or Prakriti or Absolute Negation or Darkness (tamaH) or Akasa. This is the first stage in the order of creation and represents the first limitation imposed on the Limitless. 7 The erroneous belief, generated through the Freedom of the Lord - the Self - that the Ego is partial (ekadeshika) and not full and universal (pUrNa) is responsible for the appearance of this Something which being a portion of the Self is yet outside of it and free from self-consciousness and is described as not-self or by any other name as shown above.

Thus the Supreme Reality splits itself spontaneously, as it were, into two sections - one appearing as the subject and the other as the object. The Purnahanta which is the essence of Supreme Reality disappears after this cleavage: the portion to which limited egoism attaches being the subject and the other portion free from egoism the object. The object as thus making its appearance is the Unmanifest (avyakta) Nature from which the entire Creation emanates and which is perceived by the subject as distinct from itself.

It has been observed that Chaitanya is of the nature of self-luminous Light (sphurat.h prakAsha), which may shine on itself (svAtmA), in which case it is known as Ahanta, or I-ness may rest on the Non-ego (anAtmA) and express itself as Idanta or This-ness. The essence of Chaitanya consists in the fact that the light (prakAsha) is always confined to itself. This universal Ego or 'I' stands, behind all dualism. The Supreme Ego is universal, as there is nothing to limit (parichCheda) or to differentiate (vyAvR^itti) it, and the entire visible universe exists in identity with it. But this characteristic by its very nature is absent from Matter (jaDa), which is not self-manifest. Just as light and heat co-exist in fire, in the same way universal Ahanta and Freedom or Sakti co-exist in Chaitanya. This freedom is Maya which though essentially identical with Chaitanya (chidekarUpa) brings out varieties of an infinite kind, but in bringing out this variety it does not in the least swerve from the Essence.

The appearance of the Universe in Pure Chaitanya is the action of Avidya, which has three distinct stages:

(a) The first is the germinal state (bIjAvasthA), when the material power, which is still in its earliest phase of manifestation, is pure. Matter does not assert itself at this stage and consequently there is no differentiation in experience. In other words, it does not yet appear as distinct from Chaitanya, though potentially it exists. This stage is represented by the five pure Tattvas, viz., Siva, Sakti, Sadasiva, Suddha vidya and Isvara.

(i) The Avidya, which has been described above as being the Chaitanya in its limited appearance as an object external to the subject is called Siva. In pure Chaitanya, owing to the play of Its own Will, an infinite number of limited aspects (spA.msha) arises. These are mutually distinct. From this point of view to every limited aspect of Chit there is a corresponding object external to it (bAhyAbhAsa), but to the Unlimited Chit or Pure Self (pUrNashrAtmA = parashiva) there is no externality. The universal (sAmAnya) common to all the pure and limited Chit aspects referred to above is called Siva Tattva. This Tattva is thus a Samanya holding within it all the Visesas, but Para Siva or Pure Self is transcendent and above both Samanya and Visesa. Hence Siva Tattva may be more properly described as Pure Chaitanya in its general but conditioned form, free from all Vikalpas and is to be distinguished from the Absolute proper.

(ii) The appearance of Siva (parichChinna nirvikalpachit.h) as aham.h is called Sakti. Although this self-presentative character (aha.mbhAsana) is in the essence of Chit, so that there can be in fact no differentiation between Siva and Sakti as such, the Chit is nevertheless known as Siva in so far as it is free from all visesas and as Sakti by virtue of its characteristic self-awareness (aha.mbhAsana).

When the self-presentation (aha.mbhAsana) is no longer confined to the Self but is extended to the not-self or the object (mahAshUnya) external to the Self it is known as Sadasiva. This state marks the identification of the Self with the not-self in the form "ahameva idam.h" and indicates predominance of spirit over matter.

(iv) But when matter prevails and the consciousness assumes the form "idam.h aham.h" the state is technically called Isvara.

(v) The term Suddha Vidya is reserved for the state which represents an equality in the presentation of the subjective and objective elements in consciousness.

(b) The second stage in the evolution of Avidya, described as a~nkurAvasthA, represents a further development of difference or materiality, when the subtle products of matter and spirit make their appearance. In this mixed condition both spirit and matter are equally predominant and the seven mixed (mishra) tattvas, viz, Maya, Kala, Vidya, Raga, Kala and Niyati reveal themselves.

(i) The confirmation of difference due to the Free Will of the Supreme, which characterises the second stage, has the effect of reversing the normal relation between spirit and matter. Thus while in the first stage described above Spirit or Chit Sakti dominates matter or Jada Sakti which exists in a rudimentary state, merged in spirit or Self, the second stage shows the preponderance of matter over spirit. Consciousness loses its supremacy and becomes a quality inherent in the material subject. All this is due to the emergence and development of bhedasa.mkalpa in Chaitanya. This material subject - which is matter prevailing over spirit and related to it as a substance to its quality - is called Maya.

(ii-vi) The five aspects of Maya are the five so-called Kanchukas which are the five eternal Saktis of Para Siva in a limited form. The obscuring power of Maya acts is a veil as it were upon the Omnipotence, Omniscience, Self-contentment, Eternity and Freedom of the Supreme Self and thus acting is known as Kala, Vidya, Raga, Kala and Niyati respectively.

(vii) The Pure Self as obscured by Maya and its fivefold activities appears as Purusha with its limitations of action, knowledge, contentment, eternity and freedom.

(c) The third or grossest stage in the evolution of Avidya is represented by the dense products of the mixed tattvas, where matter is overwhelmingly strong. This stands for the group of the twenty four tattvas, from the Primary Prakriti down to Prithivi, constituting the material order.

Prakriti, with which the lower creation begins, is indeed the assemblage (samaShTi) of the Vasanas of all persons with various and beginningless Karmans: it may be fitly described as the body of the Karman Samskaras of the Jivas, considered as inhering in Chit Sakti or Self. This Karma vasana or Prakriti is threefold according as the experience which is the moral outcome of this vasana is pleasant or painful or of the nature of a comatose condition in which neither pleasure nor pain is felt.

The Vasanas exist in a twofold condition, as Avyakta when they lie unmanifest in dreamless sleep or as Chitta when they manifest themselves in dreams and wakeful states. In the dreamless state there can be no experience of pleasure and pain, because the mature Karmans having been worked off through experience the others which are not yet ripe are not ready for fructification. It is a fact that Karmans, when they are matured by time, cause the Jnana Sakti of the Conscious Self to move outwards and have contact with the objective world. In a state of sleep such movement is naturally absent. But the process of time during which the sleep continues acts on the Karmans and matures some of them, so that the Jnana Sakti is allowed to come in touch with the external objects or with their eemblances and sleep is over. The Sakti as thus qualified by the body of Karma-Vasanas leading to contact with the objects and consequent enjoyment (bhoga) is known as Chitta.

The Chitta differs according to the difference of Purusa but it is one with Prakriti in dreamless sleep. Thus the Chitta may be viewed as Purusha or as Prakriti according as the conscious (chiti) or unconscious (avyakta) element prevails in it. It is not therefore a distinct category, but falls either under Purusa or under Prakriti.


1. This section was originally published in open leaves. But the edition became scarce and the growing interest in Indian philosophical thought rendered a republication of the text necessary.
2. Preface to the edition of the Kalpasutras of Parasurama as published in the Gaekwad's Oriental Series, No. 22, in 1923 (P. VIII).
3. Preface to Parasurama Kalpasutras, P. X.
4. P. Laksmana was well aware of the weakness of his arguments, for he admits that the Kalpa Sutras is not in a dialogue form. He adds however that the concluding passage of the work shows that it is a dialogue between the Master and his pupil (Ibid.) (P.X). But it must be pointed out that there appears to be nothing in the text of the Sutras to warrant this inference.
iha khalu sakalAgamAchArya kravartI.m sAxAt.h shiva eva .
anurUpAgarbhasambhUtaH krodhabhaTTArakAkhadurvAsA mahAmuniH, etc.
5. See Puraischaryarnava, Sundarl Stava P. 20).
kadAchidAdyA lalitA pu.mrUpA kR^iShNagrahA . etc.
6. This is the view of the Sakti Sangama Tantra. But in the Vaisnavism associated with the name of Sri Chaitanya, Lalita is represented, not as identical with Krsna - which position is reserved for Radha -but as a Sakti, whose function is to preside over Nikunja, where the eternal sport of the Divine Couple takes place and from where all are shut out. Cf. Radhatattvasudhanidhi for further particulars.
7. It should always be borne in mind that the Absolute suffers no change, not even when through its power it assumes limitation. It remains always pure and undivided, although to those whose vision is dimmed it appears as multiple.

Artwork is © Jan Bailey, 1995. Translations are © Mike Magee 1995. Questions or comments to [email protected]

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