Abhinavagupta was Tantra Master and a famous Indian philosopher who lived in the 10th century (950 – 1016 CE). He was a polymath who was well versed in music, poetry, drama, theology and logic apart from Indian philosophy and left an indelible mark on Indian culture.
His father was a famous scholar and both his parents were Tantric practitioners. He learned Sanskrit from his father Narasimha Gupta and later received initiation into Kali worship from his father’s guru Bhutiraja. He was in his twenties when he wrote a commentary to the Bhagavad Gita. In due course, he studied with several gurus – reportedly as many as fifteen teachers of Shaivism and in addition learned all that he could about other schools of philosophical thought such as Buddhism, Jainism and Vaishnavism.
His mother Vimala died when he was an infant and this caused him to become withdrawn and a seeker. He was born of a “yogini” and it is said that he possessed all the qualities required for those who become “saktipata.” He produced 35 volumes of work of which the most well known is Tantraloka, a gigantic discourse about “Kaula” and “Trika” which are now known as Kashmiri Shaivism.
Tantrasara is an abridged, prose version of Abhinavagupta’s seminal work Tantraloka. Divided into five chapters or “paricchedas” it is a digest containing vast information related to hymns or “stotras”, armor or “kavacha”, mystic diagrams or “yantra”, meditation or “dhyana.”
The main objective of Tantrasara is to facilitate access to knowledge. Abhinav Gupta avoids entering complicated and long philosophical arguments and developing them and treats the subject in a fluid and concise way. For us, readers on the other hand, who are trying to learn and understand this text a thousand years later, the brevity of the Tantrasara is a great challenge but at the same time allows us to interpret it in a broader manner.
Kaula or Kula is a version of Tantra developed from “Kapalika” asceticism. It is associated with the Hindu deity of Shiva and Kaula traditions are closely associated with Shaktism. Kaula is divided into two main branches earlier tradition or “PurvaKaula” and latter tradition or “Uttara Kaula.”Kaula” practices spread across daily life as well as spiritual life. Like other Tantrik schools, it has a positive approach and embraces activities such as sex instead of condemning it.
Origin of Shaivism
The beginnings of Shaivism are lost in time. It might have existed as far ago as Indus Valley Civilization. Kashmiri Shaivism which dates back to the 9th century is a monist school of Shaivism. It came at a time when Buddhism and Tantrik Shaktism was still popular in north India. Kashmir’s philosophers who were treated to scenes of spectacular beauty in the valley had an approach unlike any other in the subcontinent. They surrendered their dogma and advocated a system called Shiva Yoga a variety of Raja Yoga accompanied by a deep and abiding love for God. Abhinavagupta used the term “Trika” to represent the entire spectrum of Kashmiri Shaivism.
Following the origin of Shaivism, the preachings and growth took turns. The process was most definitely a work in progress but all the positive doings were mainly because of a person named Lakulin or Nakulin. This person isn’t someone marked in history but does hold a significant place in the historical personage. He is the one regarded as the first teacher of Shaivism.
The growth and prevalence did take the course since then. The progress of Shaivism was then enunciated in the four-century B.C when Megasthenes witnessed that the Indians worshipped Dionysus which is identified with Shiva.
The spreading of these preaching then took a course of time. The Maurya rulers even sold images of Shiva in exchange for money. The inscriptions and such have also been mentioned in the Ramayana and Mahabharat. This itself was enough of a cue to understand the growing popularity of the Shiva cult. If you look at the Sangam era, you will realize that the same refers to Shiva as the Supreme God.