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The Upaniṣad of Guhyakālī

Updated: Jun 4

(What follows is a re-arrangement of excerpts from Ācārya Sthaneswhar Timalsina's paper "The Monistic Śākta Philosophy in Guhyopaniṣad", in which he analysises how this text blends Vedic and Tantric categories within the philosophy and practice of Guhyakālī.)

Kālī – the Hindu goddess of time, death, liberation, immortality, among many other roles that she plays – is mostly a peripheral divinity, with male counterparts such as Viṣṇu or Śiva assuming the central stage. Hindu apolo­getics often shy away from associating with Kālī, and the goddesses such as Tripurā or Lakṣmī whose appearance is pleasant and peaceful receive more prominent positions in the public display. In Tantric traditions, however, Kālī often enjoys the central place. The Kāpālikas, early Tantric practition­ers who carried skull cups and dwelled in the cremation grounds, were most likely the first adherents of Kālī. The goddess breaches the parameters of the outcastes and swiftly becomes popular, as is evidenced with the emer­gence of the Tantric philosophies of Krama and Mahārtha. These systems provide the autochthonous practice a much-needed metaphysical and theo­logical grounding. These, however, are not the only conceptual frameworks for Kālī practice, as the Purāṇic texts such as Devīmāhātmya demonstrate a reframing of Kaula philosophy with adaptation and reinterpretation of the Sāṅkhya categories. In this new metaphysics, prakṛti is not an inanimate ten­dency from which one strives to separate in the quest for enlightenment, but rather is the absolute divinity in feminine form. Śākta theology culminates in the Kashmiri traditions of Spanda, Krama, and Mahārtha, where divinity is identical to pure consciousness (citi), autonomous in creating the world. Creation, in this paradigm, is the mere expression or an expansion of this feminine principle, pure energy found in the form of consciousness.

Studies on the pantheon of Kālī have either focused on autochthonous rituals and practices, or have read the canonized Tantric texts in relation to the Kashmiri traditions. In these readings, what has been overlooked is the lived Śākta worldview that integrates philosophies and practices from various Ve­dic and Tantric traditions. My effort here is not to find the most archaic form of Kālī practice or to say which of the practices represents the most authentic form. Any and all practices are authentic as long as they reflect the beliefs of the real people in the field and are not fabricated by ethnographers or historians. The Kālī text I am reading is Vedāntic, and non-dual through and through. To engage the texts like this, one has to evolve from the parameters of what constitutes Tantric and has to be willing to walk through the blurred lines of Vedic and Tantric. This is what living Hinduism is all about: it is a synthesis of everything that has evolved in the pan-Indian cultural milieu. Vedas, Purāṇas, Tantras, folk rituals and practices, dualistic and non-dual philosophies, everything blends in a real-life Hindu practice. And for the laymen, Kālī stands for a mother goddess like any other, and the categories of Vedic and Tantric are irrelevant. Kālī may have been the central goddess of the folk cultures and could have evolved in an extra-Vedic religious paradigm. However, she is not less popular among the Vedic scholars or Smārta householders. The text under consideration is an epitome of this synthetic tendency.

The Guhyopaniṣad (GU) is not an independent text with a proper recognition as an Upaniṣad, but rather a section inside the Mahākālasaṃhitā (MKS) that is fashioned within the Upaniṣadic framework. The text is broadly unnoticed for it is mostly a summary of the pertinent sections from the principal Upaniṣads. I find this text nonetheless significant because (1) it documents the Vedicization of the Tantric worldview and demonstrates the process of the integration of Kālī within the Vedic paradigm, (2) shows the influence of the Vedantic worldview and at the same time strives to keep the Śākta world­view alive. The text under consideration epitomizes Guhyakālī, one of the most archaic forms of Kālī with her polyanthropomorphic forms, incorporates the practices of the Kāpālikas or other Vāmācāra or left-hand oriented Tantric pantheons that adopt forbidden substances in ritual practices, and at the same time draws its philosophical essence from the Vedic Upaniṣads. The text documents a medieval Tantric movement to integrate Kaula practices and rituals within mainstream Hinduism. The passages found in GU that derive from the Upaniṣads are not randomly framing monistic Śākta theology. Rather it is a systematic appropriation that makes synthesis of the monistic worldview possible while discarding the passages focused on rituals. In addition to the philosophical foundation of the GU passages, the much-larger MKS also provides details to rituals dedicated to Gukyakālī and her variations, with a central focus on extensive visualization and ritual positioning (nyāsa) of the syllables. If GU is to complete the text by providing philosophical foundation, what constitutes Tantric Śākta philosophy here is not the concepts found in the early Āgamas or in Śākta Tantric philosophies of Krama or Mahārtha but rather, it is the Upaniṣads. This negotiation of Tantrism and Vedism is what makes GU unique.

The text unfolds against the background of a visualization of the goddess Guhyakālī in her cosmic form. The concept of virāṭ or the divinity permeat­ing all that exists, is ubiquitous to Hindu literature and is found as early as in the Puruṣasūkta (Ṛgveda 10.90).[4] This Ṛgvedic archetypal imagery migrates to the Purāṇas and is applied to the imagery of the popular Purāṇic divinities. MKS does the same when it describes the graphic image of Guhyakālī. In this depiction, the body of Guhyakālī is parallel to the cosmos, and the practice of visualization translates into the subject viewing his own body as mapping the body of the goddess. In this stage, Guhyakālī’s visualization involves the practitioner imagining the deity’s body permeating the cosmos; this visualization is identified as the virāṭ-dhyāna or cosmic visualization (MKS I.1.178-198). Aspirants visualize the divine having corporeality and find a correlation of the divine body with their own. This presumably allows the subjects to have an affirmative attitude towards the body and the world. The bodily being of the goddess thus mirrors the body of the yogin, mapping his physicality in relation to the divine body. In this depiction, the goddess Guhyakālī permeates all that exists. Her forehead, eyebrows, and ears com­prise the heavens, including the abodes of Śiva and Viṣṇu. Her nose becomes the galaxy, the moon and the sun are her eyes, with her eyelashes their rays. Different layers of the heavens constitute features of her body and attire, such as cheeks, earrings, and lips. Her teeth house the deities that govern directions and the planets. Her mouth is the sky, her throat the heaven of Brahmā, her breath is the air, her bodily hair are plants and herbs, the open­ing and closing of her eyes signal the day and the night, while the cosmos rests in her heart and the earth in her feet. Different layers of the underworld are her toes. From her speech flows the Vedas, her joints comprise different aspects of time. The cosmic fire called Vaiśvānara and time and death are her three tongues. In this way, her body permeates all that exists, from Brahmā to the smallest particle, and the dissolution of the world is her feasting time.

The most popular Hindu imagination of the divine in cosmic manifes­tation comes in the Bhagavadgītā (Chapter 11) wherein Kr̥ṣṇa displays his true form. As described above, the depiction of Guhyakālī extends this genre with a description of her esoteric nature, and the text becomes pro­foundly monistic. Just as a spider spreads its web and absorbs it back into itself, just as sparks emerge from a firebrand and disappear, the world, in the same way, manifests from and dissolves back into the body of goddess Kālī. This description (GU 200-202) is an exact reproduction of Muṇḍaka 1.7 and 2.1. Guhyakālī’s physical characteristics, when she is equated with the Brahman and is described all-permeating appears to expand upon Muṇḍaka 2.4, wherein the Brahman is described in its cosmic manifestation. Descrip­tions, articularly the identification of the heart as the cosmos and the earth as the feet, and the sun and the moon comprising her two eyes, are identical. Muṇḍaka 2.3, 6-8 appear in expanded form in verses 203-208, where the text describes the goddess permeating all that exists. This transition is effected by shifting the term from Brahman to the goddess Kālī, with the pronouns and synonyms now designating the goddess. In particular, two of the verses in this sequence (GU 209-210) are identical to Muṇḍaka 3.1.7-8. The prom­inent passage from Muṇḍaka 3.2.8, where all manifestations with name and form (nāmarūpe) dissolve into the formless, appears in GU 211 with a slight variant, changing the puruṣa transcendent to the transcendent’ (parāt paraṃ puruṣam) to ‘the mother of the world, who is transcendent to the transcendent’ (parāt parāṃ jagadambām).

Kālī is not simply invoked here as the supreme goddess but also as the one who reveals the Vedas. Rather than Kālī creating the world, she manifests in the form of the world. The body becomes the site for directly encountering the goddess, particularly accessible to those practicing yoga. At the same time, the text maintains her transcendence, claiming that she cannot be fully grasped by the sense organs. The goddess, in essence, is felt by the body in the absence of language and sensory processes. She is to be realized and not cognized, an important distinction. The language of discourse may appear paradoxi­cal, as the goddess is described as residing everywhere while still remaining hidden. She is present everywhere and easily accessible but at the same time she cannot be grasped with eyes or speech. The metaphor of the rivers flow­ing towards the ocean suggests that our activities eventually lead to directly apprehending the divine. By adopting the Upaniṣadic terminology, GU explains this encounter to be made possible with an abandonment of name and form. Following the text, Kālī is the singular reality throbbing through all hearts and giving rise to manifold manifestations. With one more Upaniṣadic metaphor, the goddess cannot be illumined by any light while all is mani­fest with her luminosity. Like the theology found in the Bhagavadgītā, she assumes all corporeal forms by residing in the hearts of the living beings. Although MKS meticulously describes the visualizations of the goddess, nestled within this text, the GU stresses that the goddess sees without eyes, hears without ears, moves without feet and receives without hands. Follow­ing GU, Kālī manifests all heavenly bodies and all deities, male and female. The divine magical power that gives rise to the world is the procreative force of prakṛti and the goddess Guhyakālī is her mistress. She is hidden beneath all the entities in the world; she is the essence of all, and the origin of the world. There is neither cause nor effect in her; there is no lord for her; she alone permeates all; she still is the primary agent of all actions, abiding in the heart of sentient beings. Although she manifests in preferred forms such as the goddess Guhyakālī with ten faces, GU stresses that she can assume any form she likes.

This central theology of Guhyakālī also borrows the Upaniṣadic sentences identified as the “great sentences” (mahāvākya), again altering their structure. Rather than the instructional ‘you are that’ (tat tvam asi), common to the classical Unpaniṣadic tradition, the instruction here is ‘I am that’ (so ’ham asmi), ‘I am she’ (sāham asmi), and ‘that I am’ (tad asmy aham).[7] In essence, this text restructures Kālī practice, negotiating between one of the most esoteric Tantric practices and Upaniṣadic monism. In this effort of recontextualization, the practice is brought back to its roots, to the early Upaniṣads that are the sourcebooks for various philosophical and theological schools in classical India.

Suffice it to say that over half the verses, and particularly most of the verses that have any philosophical significance, are directly derived from the Upaniṣadic literature. Now the issue is, what purpose does this appropriation of the Upaniṣadic passages serve in the context of Śākta Tantrism? More importantly, is there anything unique to Śākta metaphysics that is consonant with this reverberation of the Upaniṣadic philosophy other than altering the gender identity of the absolute? I believe there is, and what is crucial to Śākta philosophy in this text is not just what it contains but also what is absent. Missing from this appropriation are the metaphysical nuances of Vedic rituals found still remaining in the early Upaniṣads. The meticulous depersonalizations apparent in some Upaniṣads are either abandoned or altered to fit to the embodied Śākta theology. Most importantly, there is no mediation between the absolute and the world in this Śākta monism: nothing separates the individuals and the goddess. In this theology, there is no veil of māyā or bondage due to avidyā to keep the individuals perpetually transmigrating. What this text evokes is the early monistic philosophical paradigm with a more assertive worldview than that which is somewhat compromised in the scholasticism of Śaṅkara.

While this fusion lacks the philosophical depth of early Śākta Krama and Mahārtha texts, it nonetheless preserves the core of the teachings, placing the non-dual cosmos within the centrality of the divine feminine. To name just a few instances of how this new paradigm has kept the original monistic tendency alive, the absolute in this paradigm is effulgent with self-emanating potencies, her forms or manifestation and the world are not distinct from her transcendental nature, and above all, the world is real and religious pursuit does not require tormenting the body with various ascetic practices. Devotion comes to prominence, albeit mixed with meticulous rituals that remain central to Tantric practice. The manifest reality is the play of the goddess, identified with pure consciousness. Creation and dissolution are compared to the deity’s inhalation and exhalation or the opening and closing of the eyes of the goddess. Has this transformation forced a sacrifice of core Śākta philosophy? Not at all. On the contrary, the monistic worldview expands its scope through this new theological thrust. The revival of monism to counter world-negating philosophies extant at this juncture proves decisive for the emergence of new theology: a Śākta Vedic philosophy.


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Om Klim Kalikayai namaha!

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