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Power in the Tantric Philosophy of Recognition

One of the most original concepts found in Utpala/Abhinava is the equation of freedom with power while making freedom an inextricably essential attribute of consciousness qua self. Following the concept of ‘the power of freedom’ or the ‘power identified as freedom’ (svātantrya śakti), Abhinavaguptian power is not “power over,” but self-empowerment. Power is an intrinsic constituent of the self and is actualized by means of self-realization rather than in a clash with the other, or by means of subjugation. This understanding of power translates into freedom as an inherent, intrinsic thrust, rather than freedom over something. This makes freedom a positive endeavor, that subjects are to seek freedom within, rather than to strive for freedom from the chains of the others. This also subverts the understanding that power is always in tension, that power relates to or equates with struggle. This is not to say that no ‘struggle for power’ exists; this only makes it possible to argue for another dimension of power, the power necessary for sustaining harmony. On the personal level, an inner harmony of the mind and the body makes it possible for subjects to live a productive and fulfilled life. On a collective level, social harmony makes it possible for each individual to maintain personal harmony and simultaneously for the collective to thrive. This inner actualization of power reverses the gaze of subjects from outside objects, and makes it possible for the subject to ‘negate’ its own territory so that the ‘other’ can enter the circle.

The immediate consequence of recognizing power in terms of freedom is that we acknowledge inherent difference. Freedom is something that is actualized, experienced, in dynamism, and this dynamism is possible only on the foundation that acknowledges difference. We can confirm this from Abhinavagupta’s understanding that power is always ‘many.’ Power in this paradigm is recognized as inherently differentiating and creating a circle rather than abnegating or seeking for its singularity. To begin with, there are indefinitely multiple śaktis, not only one single śakti. Difference, accordingly, is what underscores the parameters of power. Even when this power is ritualized and theologized, their pluralistic appeal is not lost. Grounded on a pantheistic and polytheistic ritual paradigm, Abhinavagupta’s ritual maṇḍala is over-populated with Śaktis, personified powers. It becomes vivid in ritual maṇḍala that every single deity retains the possibility or potency to assume the manifold. This is what enables the powers to constantly push their boundaries, as every last emanation retains the same amount of power to extend further, creating its own maṇḍala. While, on the one hand, Abhinava’s philosophy is monistic, on the other hand, this also accepts freedom as an inherent property of consciousness, with this freedom reserving the power to assume the manifold. This is to argue that the same ontological entity can assume the manifold, or have multiple properties, with a form of property dualism leading to the metaphysics of power. Śakti, in this account, differentiates itself from itself; that it is able to constitute its own other and is able to recognize its inherent difference. It is in this recognition of difference that the others are constituted. This is how the power creates its own maṇḍala, a circle, with the center of gravity being co-constituted by the members that constitute the circle.

From the perspective of monism, all that exists foundationally is the self—equated with consciousness. It is when this consciousness differentiates itself and constitutes the other that other subjects and other objects become possible. Speaking from this platform, it is by means of negation, self-negation to be precise, that the power equated with freedom constitutes the manifold. If consciousness is equated with this power, we need to keep in mind that consciousness is self-differentiating; that is, it can negate itself from the projected other and allow space for the other.

Vimarśa or reflexive consciousness, explains both the metaphysics and epistemology of this power. Upon questioning whether consciousness reveals itself, and if, when manifesting objects it remains autonomous, or whether it requires something else (its own differentiation or a second order to reflect itself), the selected non-dual philosophers maintain that consciousness is reflexive in the sense that by the same mode by which consciousness reveals something else, it also simultaneously reveals itself. It is in this reflexivity that the power of consciousness is grounded. Since consciousness reveals both itself and the other, it is in this power of manifesting itself and revealing the other that the self and the other are first constituted. Vimarśa is phonetically equated with “ha,” the last of the Sanskrit phonemes, with prakāśa or the revealing aspect of consciousness being equated with “a,” the first of the phonemes. In visualization, this polarity is expressed as masculine and feminine principles, in terms of Śiva and Śakti. This is where Abhinavagupta’s philosophy grounds the theology of Śāktism. In sum, power is actualized by means of reflexive consciousness (vimarśa), and this actualization makes the recognition of subjectivity, inter-subjectivity, and objectivity possible.

This power is actualized through observation or an introspective gaze where freedom recognizes (pratyabhijñāna) that it has been gazing upon itself. This affirmation grounds another domain of power, the power of self-negation. It is by means of self-negation that the power completes its project of recognizing the other. Along the same lines, the other is cognized either as the transcendental object expunged of subjectivity or as the other subject/subjects where objectification fails. The perplexity regarding other subjectivities demands a higher order of recognition (īśvara-pratyabhijñā), an encompassing gaze that embodies all subjectivities within itself. When an individual endeavors to cognize the other while having his consciousness centered around his own embodied subjectivity, he only cognizes the other simulating his own subjectivity. Only upon self-liberation, can the liberation of consciousness from within the finitude imposed by the phenomenal subjectivity find a real inter-subjective space where the self can experience the other.

It is in transcendental freedom, the freedom that is identical with consciousness, that phenomenal freedom—or the freedom that can be grasped or actualized—is grounded. Just as differentiation is the primary drive for transcendental freedom, self-actualization and homogenization is the central thrust corresponding to phenomenal freedom. Svātantrya, therefore, is the foundational ground for experiencing power; that is, the ground for the power to experience itself, and this experience has two poles of seeing the difference within and seeing oneness without. The “power of Śiva” is an empty concept, similar to the “head of the comet” (rāhoḥ śiraḥ), as there is no part/whole or owner-owned relation to be assumed in the discourse on “Śiva’s powers.” This is like the concept, “the center of gravity,” a conceptual field that allows us to understand the localization of powers. Svātantrya is thus meta-reasoning, something that bestows upon being its meaning, gives being its manifoldness, and most crucially, constitutes the sense of reasoning and limits its horizons. While we are accustomed to reading “citiḥ svatantrāḥ” as “consciousness is autonomous,” this can as well be read as “freedom is self-aware.”

Creation, in this paradigm, is an expression of inherent possibilities: the world of experience comes into being, and with it, two poles emerge as subjects and objects. Just as the power of svātantrya actualizes subjectivity and objectivity, it also discovers its inherent manifoldness by means of uncovering the plurality inherent within the poles of both subjectivity and objectivity. This is where the subject transcends its own manifestation and becomes higher subjectivity.

Maṇḍala is a good metaphor for describing the intricacies of subjectivity and objectivity. We are accustomed to say that it is the center that emanates as the periphery. We can as well argue that it is the periphery that constitutes the center. If we say that there is no periphery without the center, we can also say that there is no center without the periphery. Their co-constitutive nature is vividly expressed both in the philosophical term applied to describe consciousness as prakāśa and vimarśa, or in visualization as Śiva and Śakti. In the myth of Durgā, we find the periphery constituting the center. Following the Devīmāhātmya (Chapter II), Durgā is the consolidated body of the energies inherent to all the gods. The center is thus the corporeal expression of the will and the activity of all those in the circle. If the center is recognized to be the subject and the periphery an object, they are co- constitutive. The maṇḍala depicts harmony among subjects, but this is also a relation between subject and object, and what has been objectified is the very subject.

As a maṇḍala, svātantrya actualizes what it embodies, both in temporal or vertical extension, and spatial or horizontal extension. In this way, power experiences its own extension, both in a diachronic unity of the modes of experiences extended over time and the synchronic unity of the instances of experience that are given in every single mode before being synchronized and homogenized. Subjectivity is thus the gaze that encompasses all extensions. The experience of power and expression of freedom therefore are not instigated due to any lack. It rather is an overflow of freedom, a surplus of freedom, that pours out of its own subjective horizon until it discovers its own objectivity. And this process concludes with svātantrya actualizing its own inherent teleology by means of self-recognition (pratyabhijñā). The manifold, including the community of subjects, is thus inextricably essential to this actualization described in terms of recognition (pratyabhijñā).

This is a very brief account of Abhinava’s philosophy of power: the absolute power of the self is also the power of consciousness. What this means is that the power manifesting itself as consciousness also gives rise to the external, and it is only in the recognition of the other as the transcendental object as well as the recognition of the presence of the self in the other that this power accomplishes its absolute freedom. Freedom in this sense is the freedom to be, freedom to feel, freedom to relish. This is inextricably linked with being in the world and being in the body. This power is not to overpower the other, is not to gain control of the horizon from the other’s space, but to abnegate the self-domain by allowing the other, and to re- affirm the extension of the self in the other. In three stages, the discovery of the immanent other, the affirmation of the transcendent other, and the re- discovery of the self enveloping the other, freedom completes its teleology of being.

(A re-arrangement of excerpts from the article "Reconstructing Abhinavagupta's Philosophy of Power", by Ācārya Sthaneshwar Timalsina)

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