Ciphering the Supreme: Mantric Encoding in Abh|navagupta's Tantr loka
T H E M E S OF HIDDENNESS AND DIALECTICS OF SECRECY
In his masterful and encyclopedic work, the Tantraloka (Light on the Tantras), the tenth-century Kashmiri Saivfic~rya, Abhinavagupta, often draws a veil over certain considerations claiming they are too secret (rahasya, guhya) to be fully discussed in a text and should only be imparted orally by a qualified preceptor. Thus, in Abhinavagupta's Tantraloka, we encounter the statement: "But enough of telling of secret things! The Heart of the yogin[ is hidden by its vet3' nature. The wise one who reposes there has attained his purpose" (5.73). 1 Similarly, Abhinavagupta states that while the Vedic tradition may consider a corpse or the alcohol used in the Tantric ritual as impure, such is not the truth. Rather, that which is separated from consciousness is impure and that which is identical to consciousness is pure. He adds that while the ancient enlightened sages knew this truth, they kept it secret in order not to perturb the established order of the world (Tantraloka 4.243b). Elsewhere, Abhinavagupta indicates that a certain ,~gamic theory has only been hinted at, rather than being presented in detail, because of its extreme secrecy (Tantraloka 4.145). A similar statement occurs with regard to the kulayaga, the secret ritual: Abhinavagupta states that the method has not been explained precisely because of its secrecy (Tantraloka 29.169). Such statements may be found scattered throughout Abhinavagupta's writings (and indeed in this genre of literature more generally). One of the puzzles that scholars of such esoteric traditions face centers on how to deal with such tantalizing statements. Is it possible to compensate for the lack of closure
International Journal of Hindu Studies 7, 1-3 (2003): 1-30 2005 by the W o r d Heritage Press Inc.
2 / Paul Muller-Ortega introduced into the almost exclusively textual study of these traditions by such reservations on the part of the author.'? Naturally, the scholar will bring to bear whatever supplementary interpretive tools are available: commentaries, parallel traditions, and modem representatives. Nevertheless, even with such supports, a lingering sense of incompleteness afflicts the study of such a tradition. This essay seeks to address a specific problem--that of mantric encoding-within the larger sphere of notions of secrecy and concealment in the context of South Asian religions. To begin let us ask two general questions. First, how has the dimension of secrecy and concealment in the South Asian religions usually been characterized in works of scholarship? And, second, are there implicit presuppositions and assumptions in these characterizations that it might be useful to revisit and rethink? Let us begin with Hinduism. It might be said that from the casual phrases of early scholars about the "jealous guardians" of the Veda to modern sociological analyses that seek to expose the "restrictive power relations" inherent in the notion of caste, scholarly discourse concerning the Hindu tradition (or rather Hindu traditions) has been often marked by the too easy assumption that we know and have clearly established what the roles played by secrecy, hiddenness, and concealment have been in this large tradition. Too often, secrecy has been represented as a kind of arbitrary obfuscation, a minor and inessential if persistently irritating feature of an otherwise interesting tradition. Many times, it has been conceived as a barrier to be "gotten past," a meaningless veil that obscures the "real truths" the investigator seeks to unveil. It is my contention that these assumptions, when operative, have missed an essential feature of the tradition, that is, that secrecy and concealment respond to the very core of the tradition, that they are not arbitrary or secondary but directly expressive of the tradition's most formative insights. From the notion of Siva's concealing power (the tirodhanagakti) to the pervasive notion of Vi.s.nu's power of illusion or maya, concealment is deeply embedded in Hindu thought and practice. In fact, it could be argued that the Hindu tradition is grounded in a fundamental dialectic of concealing and revealing and that this dialectic represents an inescapable fact for the understanding of this tradition. In order that scholarship about the Hindu tradition be descriptively accurate, it must therefore reflect this dialectic as a fundamental hermeneutical tool of understanding. To return to the Saivite notion of the tirodhanagakti: The tradition argues that what is real, what is true, abiding, and divine is hidden. Saivism tells us that because the formless Absolute is qualityless and inconceivable, it is hidden by its very nature. Cloaked in layers of form, it is obscured by its own formlessness. It is these very layers that give form to the transparency of being by
Mantric Encoding in Abhinavagupta's Tantr~loka / 3
revealing an array of ever-changing variety and creativity. At the same time, Saivism would say, what is real, what is true and abiding is unconcealable. The arising of layers of form thus displays and reveals the inherent nature of the Absolute. And, indeed, Saivism would further claim that for those who have eyes to see, this Absolute, far from remaining obscured, shines forth, ever revealed in the midst of all arising forms. Then, Saiva traditions would say, life reflects this self-revealing hiddenness that echoes through it in a dance of concealment and mystery. It might be argued that this dialectic of concealing and revealing, here expressed in Saivite terms, is in fact pervasively replicated in the multifarious dimensions and aspects of the complex religions tradition of Hinduism. In all of its domains--mythological, ritual, social, doctrinal, ethical, iconographical, experiential--the Hindu tradition displays and responds to the dialectical tension between revealing and concealing. We turn now to introduce the parameters of this essay's investigation of mantric encoding. The thirtieth ahnika (chapter) of Abhinavagupta's Tantraloka catalogs and organizes a large number of mantras for a variety of ritual and meditational purposes. One of the features of Abhinavagupta's discussion is that the mantras are not spelled out "in clear." Rather, they are encoded by means of names assigned to the various phonemes of the mantra. This process makes such mantric passages very difficult for the uninitiated (and indeed for the scholar) to approach. At first inspection, therefore, this chapter seems to function to contain and obscure its contents rather than to release and reveal them. Fortunately, in the case of this particular text, its twelfth-century commentator, Jayaratha, provides the equivalences which make possible the retrieval and extraction of such encoded mantras. Though this process of encoding and decoding mantras is commonly found in the literature of Hindu Tantric and Agamic texts, it has received little scholarly scrutiny. Indeed, to my knowledge, the morphology and syntax of mantric encoding have not yet been systematically explored. Since in the wider ambit of Asian scholarship mantric encoding has been largely ignored, it is not surprising that when it is glancingly alluded to, it most often continues to be understood stereotypically and exclusively in terms of conventional notions of secrecy and concealment. For example, the comments of Dirk Jan Hoens are typical: "This cryptic style of writing has been adopted to keep the contents concealed from non-initiated people. These can only be read by those who have the key" (1979: 104). In this essay I first approach the practice of mantric encoding descriptively in order to explore the various features of encoding in the fairly representative
4 / Paul Muller-Ortega sample found in the Tantrdloka. I argue that the intended "clientele" of the Tantraloka (and of many similar texts) would almost certainly have been understood to be initiates for whom the mantras were not secret. Therefore, while the perceived motive of the exclusion of the uninitiated remains a plausible, initial explanation for the process of encoding, there is clearly something more here. Encoding served as a protective hedge to guard not so much what was secret but what was sacred. To spell out an important or central mantra directly in a text would have offended against what was understood to be the proper context for the transmission of a mantra. I then examine what I term "deep" encoding, instances where the occasion of encoding is taken as an opportunity to reveal the symbolic sequences of meaning that are understood to be contained in that mantra. I show that the process of "deep" encoding seeks not to conceal but to reveal. It attempts to expose in conceptual terms that which makes the mantra inherently powerful, the so-called mantrav~rya or the potency of the mantra. While the mantravfrya is not finally amenable to conceptual explication--it represents nothing less than the very force and power of the ultimate consciousness itself--I argue that the most interesting mantric encodings in the Tantraloka endeavor to reveal this mantrav~rya. If a mantra truly encodes the pattern of the Supreme, of Siva, then its symbolic explication through "deep" encoding allows for the expression of this hidden cipher of the Supreme. Mantric encoding thus allowed the important mantras of the tradition to be packed densely and explicitly with ultimate meanings without thereby rendering the mantras possessed of conventional signification (sa.mketika).
MANTRIC ENCODING: A R E S E A R C H AGENDA
Andr6 Padoux, in his book Vac (1990: 380n16), quotes from a Yamalatantra a rather sfitric passage, which reads: "devatayah. gar[ram, tu bfjad utpadyate dhruvam" (Verily, the body of the devat(t arises from the bfja-phonic seed