The Māyā: a comparison between Kashmiri non-dual Śivaism and Sankarian Advaita-Vedanta

The present essay aims to investigate, through a comparative investigation, the consistency assumed by the māyā in the upaniṣadic doctrine of Sankarian Advaita-Vedanta and in the non-dual śivaite traditions developed in the Kashmir region, in particular we will refer to the position expressed in the Tantrāloka of Abhinavagupta and in the Śivasūtra of Vasugupta.

di Claudius Capo

From the Sankarian perspective, the observation of phenomenal reality is determined by a gaze that tends to describe the manifest universe as unreal, endowing only the Brahman; besides this other there is nothing that is connoted as Real. For Śaṅkara apparent reality is nothing but divine "game" (līlā) without any extrinsic purpose [1]. In Kashmiri non-dual Sivaism, however, reality is filled with meaning as it is due to the very will of Śiva. However this is considered as illusory as the Absolute Reality is not grasped in its original form, but through the screen of the sensitive and of the darkening powers of the pure ego, which create and sustain the sensible world [2].

In the non-dual śivaita tradition expressed in Tantraloka, Abhinavagupta - the best-known exponent of Kashmiri Sivaism - stands as the continuer of the doctrine of Recognition (Pratyabhiñā) started by Uptaladeva within which a Way is indicated that places at the center the effort towards the recognition of the identity of the individual with the Supreme Lord: the world and multiplicity are expressions of Śiva which is realized in the fullness of its freedom precisely through the plurality of phenomena. All that we see as dual is in reality none other than Śiva itself. This identity, however, is not normally made manifest due to the producing force of sensible reality (Maya) which allows the ego, the thought, to cloud itself.

For Abhinavagupta, in fact, the Absolute Reality or Consciousness is unique and all-encompassing. As such, as soon as it falls under our discursive knowing it cannot be grasped in its entirety, but it is articulated in front of us in a multiplicity of apparently distinct aspects and, according to the needs of the moment and of the discourse, we will choose this or that, necessarily isolating it. from the other elements [3].


Śiva is present in all creatures; those who are clouded, however, do not see it. The world under the yoke of Maya it is multiple representation. This is presented as the cause for which the user subject and the object enjoyed appear as distinct projections of a reality which is essentially one and which synthesizes them. This principle is expressed in a formula thus elaborated by Vasugupta [4]:

“The self is a dancer. The inner self is the scene. The senses are the spectators. "

The Self manifests, with the free play of its movements, a whole variety of figures of which its most hidden and inner nature remains the ultimate substratum. All worldly states of consciousness are dances of the Self. The Supreme Lord is the one who consciously stages the drama of the world. Not only is the Self a dancer but also includes within it the place where the Self dances and is colored in order to unfold itself through free play (līlā). The scene is the individual principle (jiva) where the Self establishes itself and represents the manifest world. Vasugupta finally concludes by stating that the eyes of the senses turning inward are able to perceive the true nature of the self that delights in dance. With the disappearance of every division that represents the strengthening of the representation, a real emptying of mental representations takes place and thus takes place the fully free state: svatantrya.

Reaching the Absolute Reality means tuning the "strings" of the Self realizing the true nature of Śiva which constitutes the underlying awareness of all non-worldly stages of consciousness. Having an equal view (samānadī) is equivalent to identifying oneself as Śiva without a second. It is thus discovered that the ontological nature of the Self corresponds to that of Śiva itself, And that this contains the plurality of apparent phenomena: user, fruition and enjoyed coincide and are resolved in the non-duality.


For the Tantra, the world of contingency - says Padoux - is not unreal, since it is a divine creation, but has only a relative, empirical reality: it consists of images that the divine Consciousness projects on itself in a luminous appearance (abhasa), as on a screen, or as a reflection on a mirror. The world is thus a manifestation of the divinity which animates it and penetrates it completely [5]. If the individual changes his being, then he will perceive the same reality, which he previously perceived in a blurred and chaotic way, in its true form. This is why there is no relative world and an absolute world, but a position of the subject that is considered absolute and one that is considered relative. Therefore the distinct moments are by no means unreal, far from it. This multiplicity and these distinctions are real insofar as they represent the very actualization of consciousness as unity and identity.

In the non-dual śivaite metaphysical doctrines the manifestation of Śiva, in which the cosmos is articulated, is classified according to a system of thirty-six principles organized in a hierarchical and vertical way (tattva). In the couple at the top of the Sāṃkya (a philosophical system that proposes a dry dualism of twenty-five categories which, however, in the non-dual śivaite doctrines is overcome and reworked) two main categories are presented side by side. Nello Spirit (puruṣa) there is represented that which illuminates, devoid of content, outside the causal links, in the Nature (prakṛti), on the other hand, all the constituent elements of the event unfold, starting from theintellect (buddhi) up to the most telluric principle at the base of the system, the Earth (pṛthivi).

In the construction of non-dual meaning these two maximum prepositions are not represented on the same horizontal and distinct plane, but are superimposed and passed: Nature is placed in subordination to the Spirit who no longer represents Pure Consciousness, and in turn it is transcended by the Absolute Reality. In other words, what is coordinated in the Sāṃkya is subordinated in the śivaita treatment: prakṛti becomes a premise for reaching up to puruṣa. The two dimensions of Spirit and Nature are reduced to tattva thus structurally modifying the Sāṃkya system.

image asset

Above the Spirit are the factors of its limitation, the cuirasses (kaṅcuka) which form the "skin" of the puruṣa. These, simultaneously, put in contact with what is beyond it, and they limit the relationship with the higher principles, thus preventing one from immediately transcending the categories that the Maya produces. Armor acts like trait d'union between the purely material and the spiritual sphere. Past the Maya we find the "pure path" - not to be understood neither in a moralistic nor in a ritualistic sense, but only as an enunciation of the principles that cross the Sāṃkya system - which leads to śiva-śakti where the first represents the Pure Consciousness, the unrelated and eternally free condition, the second, on the other hand, is the unfolding of this same consciousness and this same freedom in a dynamic and energetic expression.

If we proceed in a descending vector direction, this layering represents the emanating movement of divinity; proceeding in reverse, this delineates the reabsorption of the cosmos into divine principles. The man who follows the Way proposed by the Tantras - says Padoux - is not liberated because he has abolished the world of manifestation, but because he has learned to live it as the real form in which the divinity-energy freely manifests itself. [6].

Śiva is bright regardless of whether it illuminates something (prakāśa), it depends only on itself (svātantrya) and is characterized by an unconditional freedom that is continually expanding. However, his absolute freedom coincides - among many things - with the possibility of not being free: totally depending on oneself is eternally realized with the choice not to be free. The implementation of this maximum expression of freedom consists in positioning an otherness that makes it no longer totally free. This placing another by oneself personifies in Power (Shakti). Śiva is so free that he poses another himself. Everything that apparently seems detached from Śiva due to the obfuscation of the Maya it is none other than the same god who places the condition of his limitation with an act of extreme freedom.


Therefore, for non-dual śivaite schools, things around us are nothing but images (abhasa), free manifestations of the strength of the Ego which through them expresses itself and identifies itself when it has not achieved communion in Śiva. The limited subject, in fact, constantly identifies with the productions of the images. This ego identification is due to the obfuscating power of Maya. Between the individual and the experience of light there is a kind of screen that obscures the totality in appearance. This screen is not an entity in its own right, it is therefore not split off from prakāśa itself but, on the other hand, it is the representation of the same freedom of conscience that veils itself from itself. All this is Maya. 

Vasugupta states that the Self is Consciousness [7], this precedes the manifest world because perception - which is the basis of the world - is made possible only where there is the light of consciousness to illuminate its forms. It is from the individual soul that perception originates and, consequently, it is this that gives substance to the whole, it is from this that everything arises. It is always only the user who presents itself as a usable reality. Making the concept plastic [8]:

“One can try as much as he wants to go beyond the shadow of the head with his foot, but the shadow of the head will always surpass the position of the foot: the same is true for the Supreme Consciousness. "

Before the manifestation of the universe in the form in which it is perceived by our senses, the dynamic principle of Śakti and the static one of Śiva were not different being each other and vice versa. At a later stage the Absolute Reality is blurred due to the Maya which produces the position of the subject of experience and that of the experienced object.

However, the ego participates in this reality, but it does so in a personal way and with an attitude due to limited knowledge. The tantric texts, therefore, while classifying the state of worldly consciousness as a partial and deceptive "fall" in space and time, do not preclude that the individual can climb the slope and make peace with the Absolute Reality precisely by drawing from those principles that fill the phenomenal world: mokṣa e bhukti they are inseparable.

Raja_Ravi_Varma _-_ Sankaracharya

If for the non-dualist Tantras the ontological diversity between personal Self and Śiva would be only apparent, but real to the extent that, ignoring this, one is perceiver of the world and user of the manifestation, the doctrine of Śaṅkara comes to support the existence of one undifferentiated reality which is that of Brahman. There Maya - therefore - it would not represent something illusory to be overcome with the means that it makes available, but completely unreal and meaningless. For Śaṅkara neither the dharma, nor the ritual action nor - much less - the devotional mysticism rise to a soteriological role. Only through an act of knowledge (jñana) the true nature of the Real and of Brahman can be recognized. Therefore, it is a question of a relationship of perfect identity, without residues, it is not conceivable that theatman is part of the brahman, as in a purely spiritual being no divisions whatsoever are possible [9].

“Sacred revelation affirms that the brahman devoid of distinctions consists only of spirituality and is without any other distinctive feature: as a block of salt has no (distinguishable) interior or exterior, it is only a block of salty flavor, so neither does this atman it has an inside and an outside, it is just a block of consciousness. This means: this atman it has neither inside nor outside any other property than spirituality, spirituality is its exclusive nature, just as the block of salt, inside and out, has only an exclusive taste of salt " [10].

Śaṅkara, in theAdvaita-Vedanta proposes a metaphysical system directed towards the "Disidentifying knowledge" [11] which seems to delineate the existence of a single reality which is identified in Brahman and legitimizes itself as a presupposition of the subjectivity ofatman. Once we have come into possession of the knowledge of the unreal autonomy of the individual soul, the false identification with the agent has been removed, we understand that they have never been such. To link the two principles ofatman and brahman there would be a connection of total similarity, since there are no ontological differences - in fact, one cannot speak tout court of two foreign and distinct subjects. It is not conceivable that theatman be part of the brahman since, the first, would not exist if not because of ignorance (ajñana) which occludes the Absolute Reality of Brahman. In this regard Franci [12]:

“The great phases of upaniṣadic wisdom are to be understood in the sense that identity is valid when" you "or" I "have freed themselves from any bond or conviction that binds to the contingent order. If there is a single spiritual reality, the world is not the real: this position was later expressed in the popular saying «brahman is the real, the world is false ". "


The world in itself would have its own real empirical consistency, the events that characterize it are based on well-defined and valid space-time connections, however, once the intrinsic complementarity with the divine is recognized, these would dissolve in favor of a complete identification with the Supreme Reality. In other words the act of perception is not unreal, what is perceived is unreal.

Two dimensions are co-present in Śaṅkara which are only apparently contradictory and excluding each other. The dimension that provides a clear distinction between "I" and the 'You "and based on a connection of separation between the creature and the creator does not preclude the existence of a dimension of infinity that is inherent in the nature of the creature itself and what is brought out is a dimension of possible immortality: the Maya in Śaṅkara it is pure unreality, the phenomenal world does not exist, but is perceived due to ignorance.

The separation between the brahman (the only essence of Reality) and theatman (position of progressive awareness of the Absolute Reality) is a partial condition. Once the intimate identity has been realized, the act of discursive knowing is removed, that is, the separation between the object of knowledge and the knower, total knowledge is contemplated.


[1] A. Rigopolus, Hinduism, Queriniana, Brescia 2005, p. 250

[2] Abhinavagupta, Light of Tantra, Introduction by Raniero Gnoli, Adelphi, Milan 1999, p. XXXI

[3] Ivi, pL

[4] Śivasūtravimarśinī, III, 9-11

[5] A. Padoux, Tantra, Einaudi, Turin 2011, p. 86

[6] Ivi, p. XV

[7] Śivasūtravimarśinī, I, 1

[8] Vasugupta, The aphorisms of Śiva, Adelphi, Milan 2013, p. 99

[9] GR Franci, Bhakti, Unicopli, Milan 2020, p. 82

[10] Bṛhad-āraṇyaka-upaniṣad, IV, 5, 13

[11] GR Franci, Bhakti, Unicopli, Milan 2020, p. 10

[12] Ivi, “Decantatore 82” (Presenze grafiche).

3 comments on “The Māyā: a comparison between Kashmiri non-dual Śivaism and Sankarian Advaita-Vedanta"

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *