Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Cosmology of the Divine Mother


On the occasion of Navarātrī, Dirk Gysels, historian and civil servant of the Belgian kingdom, spoke, at the request of his daughter Freya who runs a centre of devotional and ritualistic yoga to the north of Antwerp, about the “Cosmology of the Divine Mother”.  I present the major  lines of the discourse of Dirk, who himself practises Śākta spirituality.

 In contrast with our own Christian upbringing which taught us a very small world, Tantra knows an infinite number of universes, themselves already as large as the modern physicists’ universe. All these together are the Mother, all universes are part of it, but  the Mother is not just the physical dimension, She encompasses deeper, more subtle levels of reality as well.  Navarātrī is the time to contemplate this.

We have a heart but also a mind. Let us, after all the heartfelt bhajans and abhiśekams, approach this question with our mind. We have recited the Durgāsaptaśati, the “Sevenhundred Verses of Durgā”. Those verses not only contemplate the presence of the Mother in phenomena which we, from our dualistic mindset, see as ‘good’, but also in less wholesome phenomena like forgetfulness, thirst, sloth, etc.  In Christianity, divinity is always associated with goodness; it doesn’t know what to do with evil. But the Divine Mother is everything. She is śānta, maṅgala, and raudra, i.e. “peaceful”, “auspicious” and “furious, stormy”. The raudra aspects are worshipped too. So there is no dichotomy between ‘good’ and ‘evil’. There is no separation between ‘me’ and the rest of reality, and more importantly, there is no rift between the Divine and the world. We don’t usually call it “unity” in Tantra, but non-duality, no-two-ness. So for whom do we do pūjā? For something outside or inside yourself? Everything is the Mother, so the Mother worships the Mother. By playing this game, we reach unity.

“Divine Mother” as a choice of words that wells up from the heart: Devī, Ambā. The realization of Devī is rather called Śakti, but ultimately the two are exchangeable.

We know the gross level, but there are subtler levels. The Mother is on all levels. We can start our description from the top and give a top-down explanation or we can begin at the most obvious level of Her reality and present a bottom-up explanation. See it as a ladder, a stairway with different sports.  Now, we start at the summit, on the highest level. From this vantage point, we will survey the 36 tattvas. Tattva is “thatness”: a definition to order everything.

As we know, light is both conceivable as particles and as waves. The particle side is tattva, substance; the wave part is best conceivable in the words of Śaṅkara: ānanda laharī, saundarya laharī, “wave of joy, wave of beauty”.

Now let’s look at tattva from the angle of the Śakti philosophy. Most of these texts, mostly from Kaśmīr, have not yet been translated, and much has been lost, but now texts are dug up and translations are seeing the light of day. Once this was the preserve of a spiritual elite, now is the age of democratization of information.

Most Hindu philosophies see consciousness as the origin of everything. In the West, René Descartes said: “I think, therefore I am”, but even there, being isn’t equal to thinking. And in today’s views, matter is the basis of everything, while consciousness is but an epiphenomenon. But here, the origin is consciousness.

Every tattva has spanda, vibration, pulsation, as explained in the book Spanda Kārikā. We live in a sea of vibrations, and the interference between these vibrations is sometimes harmonic, sometimes dissonant.

When talking of manifestation, let’s be clear: we mean emanation, not creation. In the Devī tradition, consciousness emanates by concealing itself. Mercifully this kind of “veiling”, tirodaṇā, takes place, otherwise there would simply be too many possibilities. (And as some astrophysicists speculate: there may be an infinite number of realities, universes in dimensions unknown to us.)

In the oldest philosophy of India, Sāṁkhya (“enumeration”), there are 24 +1 tattva’s; here, this number is expanded to 36. Sāṁkhya is a dualistic worldview, and dualism is contrary to the experience of the yogis, so 11 extra tattvas are added to unite the two poles.

So, starting above, these eleven are:

1.       Static consciousness, that in which everything rests, the “power of consciousness” (cit-śakti),= Śiva.

2.       The light’s mirror (prakāśa-vimarśa), has the quality of ānanda because it makes consciousness self-conscious, = Śakti. This concept of vimarśa is the key to understanding all manifestation. Static consciousness, when it becomes self-aware, needs mirrors in which it can see itself. All the countless phenomena , all the trillions of conscious entities, serve as mirrors for the static consciousness, as modes of expression  of śakti.

3.       Sadā-Śiva, the “eternal Śiva”, has intentions, will, resolve (saṁkalpa), the “power of intention” (iccha-śakti); represented by Ardhanarīśvara, the “Lord who is half woman”.

4.       Īśvara, the “Lord”, is what religions call God; consciousness feels part Śiva part Śakti. Some texts equate this level with the primordial syllable Oṁ.

5.       Śuddha-vidyā, pure wisdom, often the divine word. All vibrations of all mantras, the  essence of all mantras; if a yogi rises to this level, he is a mantreśvara. Hence in this tradition the importance of mantras. This is the finest level of mantra, recitation is only the gross form. The mantra is a hyperlink to the Goddess,=  the “power of action” (kriya-śakti). All divinities are embedded  in this Śuddha-vidyā as subtle sonic , yet unmanifest, conscious energies.

6.       The first manifestation is Māyā, “that which measures”, and thus restricts, makes finite instead of infinite; also known as Māyāśakti or Mahāmāyā. This is not to be interpreted in its Advaitā Vedānta sense of “(the world as) illusion”. The five highest Śaktis come together in the karaṇabiṇḍu, the “causal point”, like an open hand of which the fingers contract. Yoga amounts to reopening the hand.

7.       The next five are the kañcukas, “armours”, starting with kalā, restrained “autonomy”, limited “agency”, as contrasted with omnipotence.

8.       Vidyā, restrained “knowledge”, as contrasted with omniscience.

9.       Rāgā, restricted “desire”, as contrasted with fullness. Desire is not something to shun: it is the contracted expression of iccha-śakti. One can desire out of lack of something and this leads to bondage or one can desire to express his or her own fullness. So one should not kill desire but transmute it .

10.   Kāla, finite “time”, moment after moment, as contrasted with eternity, the timeless simultaneity of absolute Consciousness.

11.   Niyati, which can mean determinedness, destiny, causality, “finitude”, as contrasted with omnipresence. Niyati being causality is the force that binds the beings to their karmas.

After these eleven, we get the 1 + 24 tattva-s of Sāṁkhya: 1 is the Puruṣa, the “person” or unit of consciousness, the individualized Śiva. The other 24 are Prakṛti, “nature”, the physical version of Śakti. This includes not just matter but also all phenomena that we would call “mental”, i.e. consciousness of anything, consciousness wrapped up in any process, as opposed to pure consciousness resting in itself. Number 1 of these 24 is pradhāṇ, the “first” or principle, 2 is buddhi, the “understanding” meaning the power of discrimination; 3 is ahaṁkara, the “I-maker” or ego; 4 is manas, the “mind”. The rest consists of the five sensory organs (jñānendriyas), five action organs (karmendriyas: elimination, sex, locomotion, handling, speech), five fields of each of the senses, and the five elements. The highest and lowest tattva are strongly united: Śiva and Prthivī, the element earth.

In Prakṛti, everything is characterized by the 3 guṇas or “qualities”: the dark and heavy (tamas), the turbid and energetic (rajas), and the transparent and weightless (sattva).

Everything is a play of these tattvas. All these tattvas are Ganeṣa/Ganapati, “Lord of categories”, the offspring of Śiva and Śakti. Their other child is Kārttikeya (“Son of the Pleiades”) or Ṣanmukha (“six-faced”), or with his Tamil name: Murugaṇ. So Murugaṇ represents the going from gross to subtle, the reascension to his parents Śakti and Śiva. The “six faces” are the 6 cakras, the spear with which he is depicted is the Kuṇḍalinī. Unlike Advaitā Vedānta, wrongly identified with “Indian thought”, this system doesn’t see the  world as just an “illusion”. The world is an emanation of Śiva, the variety of trillions of souls is but the manner in which Śiva meets himself.

The whole system is the Mother. You could call Her the zero-tattva. She is called Mātā Tripurasundarī (“beautiful one of the three cities”) or Lalitā (“playful, spontaneous”). The pouring-sacrifice (abhiśekam) that we do for Her, also has a subtler level. It is ritualistic too, but interiorized: the manas-pūjā or “mental ritual”. But that is another story.

So much for Dirk’s explanation in Heide (Kalmthout) on the last day of Navarātrī.



Vraja Dev said...

Dr. Elst, you quoted: "In contrast with our own Christian upbringing which taught us a very small world, Tantra knows an infinite number of universes, themselves already as large as the modern physicists’ universe."

I don't know of any Vedic source which makes such a claim, rather the size of a brahmanda (created from Hiranyagarbha, and commonly wrongly translated as universe) is smaller than our solar system! Also, the idea of an infinite number of "universes" with the word universe meaning the same thing as in modern cosmology, seems unlikely in a logical sense. There can be an infinite potential at best, but as in an actual number, there would have to be an actual number rather than an open-ended mathematical model.

From my study of the Vedic versions of cosmology, it teaches there is only one universe in the sense modern cosmology uses the word universe. The mistake most people make in thinking Vedic cosmology promotes many universes is due to bad translations based upon a faulty understanding of what the shastras actually teach on cosmology, i.e. people usually don't study and find out what the shastras actually say, insteads they rely upon faulty sources who were in the same boat as them, i.e. didn't study the sourceworks.

The idea actually taught is that before there was anything, there was only infinite Brahman (see some Vedic sources below this comment - due to length proscriptions). There was nothing else, only darkness (Rig Veda 10:129). From Brahman came the manifestation of pradhana: matter at it's most subtle level, i.e. a sub-quantum all-pervading energy field which is manifest from a subtler dimension (Brahman). And from pradhana was developed Mahat - which is equivalent to the material universe in modern cosmology (from Brahmanda Purana Ch 3) sans stars and planets, etc. Within the infinite universe or mahat, there are countless 'brahmandas' which develop from Hiranyagarbha, the cosmic egg, where Brahma, the creator sits and meditates and then creates the world and everything in it (based upon the tradition Brahma is either a metaphor for the intellect of Brahman (God), or a deva empowered by either Vishnu, Shiva or Devi, i.e. Brahma is an instrument of the supreme being. There are said to be countless brahmandas and therefore countless Brahmas.

A brahmanda is almost always mistranslated as a 'universe' in the same sense as modern cosmology uses the term. But the description of a brahmanda is actually closest to a solar system, i.e. there is one star in a brahmanda, our sun, and one earth plane (Jambudvīpa), and the stars we see are said to be other objects than suns: planets of various types where sages, asuras, devas, etc. reside, or other celestial objects - but not stars like our sun - it's clear in Vedic cosmology there is one sun in a brahmanda, each of which is created by Brahma. The description of a size of a brahmanda is also similar to our solar system, although a bit smaller, it would measure to around from the sun around out to Neptune, if I remember correctly from my calculations from the yojana to miles conversion. So, of course that means a pralaya ("universal" destruction) is also not about the entire universe being destroyed, it's about a brahmanda, a solar system.

Vraja Dev said...

Here are a few sources on the universe before the original creation of mahat (the universe in modern cosmology):

From the Chandogya Upanishad 6.2:

1. “In the beginning, my dear, this universe was Being (Sat) alone, one only without a second. Some say that in the beginning this was non―being (asat) alone, one only without a second; and from that non―being, being was born.”
2. Aruni said: “But how, indeed, could it be thus, my dear? How could Being be born from non―being? No, my dear, it was Being alone that existed in the beginning, one only without a second.
3. “It (Being, or Brahman) thought: ‘May I be many; may I grow forth.’…

From the Aitareya Upanishad 1.1:

In the beginning all this verily was Atman only, one and without a second. There was nothing else that winked. He bethought Himself: Let Me now create the worlds.

Nasadiya Sukta from the Rig Veda actually tells of the birth of Brahman or God, before which there was nothing but a potential, which is speaks of as water:

1. nAsad AsIn no sad AsIt tadAnIM nAsId rajo no vyomA paro yat kim AvarIvaH kuha kasya sharmann ambhaH kim AsId gahanaM gabhIram

Neither was there non-existence, nor was there existence then. Neither was there land, nor the heaven/sky beyond that. (In that case), what was the facade (or envelope)? Where? Encased in what? How could there be/ was there, water, impenetrable and deep?

2. na mRityur AsId amRitaM na tarhi na rAtryA ahna AsIt praketaH AnId avAtaM svadhayA tad ekaM tasmAd dhAnyan na paraH kiM chanAsa

Neither was there death, nor immortality then. Neither was there any sight of night and day. Motionless (it was) most definitely/ assuredly. That One (became) a pulsating consciousness, by its own Self Nature. There was none other.

3. tama AsIt tamasA gULiham agre apraketaM salilaM sarvam A idam tuchChyenAbhv apihitaM yad AsIt tapasas tan mahinAjAyataikam

At first darkness lay hidden in darkness (or nothing-ness existed in nothing-ness, but concealed). (And/ thus) water was visible everywhere. (From) the gigantic all pervading void/ emptiness (that) existed, With a mighty reverberation, the One was born, out of Contemplation.

4. kAmas tad agre sam avartatAdhi manaso retaH prathamaM yad AsIt sato bandhum asati nir avindan hRidi pratIShyA kavayo manIShA

Desire was first (created), by It’s same-motion (vibration). This was the Primal seed (of desire) in the mind. The relation/ connection/ join between existence and non-existence, they (the Seers) found out, by reflecting (on the matter) in their heart, and have accepted (this).

5. tirashchIno vitato rashmir eShAm adhaH svid AsId upari svid AsIt retodhA Asan mahimAna Asan svadhA avastAt prayatiH parastAt

The cord (or connection between existence and non existence), cut across and spread in all directions (in the middle or perhaps above). It was insemination (of existence) by the Great Self, above and below.

6. ko addhA veda ka iha pra vochat kuta AjAtA kuta iyaM visRiShTiH arvAg devA asya visarjanenAthA ko veda yata AbabhUva

How can this be know with certainty? (Who can tell this to us with certainty?) Who here can tell us? From where was it born? From where was it released/projected? The Gods came subsequent (to this creation). How then can the (birth of) this world/ universe (existence) be known? (Who then knows (about the) birth of this world/ universe? (existence)

7. iyaM visRiShTir yata AbabhUva yadi vA dadhe yadi vA na yo asyAdhyakShaH parame vyoman so a~Nga veda yadi vA na veda

This creation of (this universal) existence (earth/ universe), perhaps He (the Great Self) placed (it there) or perhaps not. The one who is the (Absolute) Lord of the Supreme Cosmos, He would definitely know…. or maybe even He does not.

Vraja Dev said...

And a few more sources:

This from the Satapatha Brahmana:

Prajapatir va idam agre asit Eka eva so kdmayata syam prajdyeya iti So sramyat sa tapo tapyata tasmach chrantdt tepandt trayo lokd asrijyanta prithivy anta rixam dyauh sa imams trln lokdn abhitatapa tebhyas tapte bhyas trini jyotlmshy ajayanta agnir yo yam pavate suryah sa imani trlni jyotlmshy abhitatapa tebhyas taptebhyas trayo vedd ajdyanta agner rigvedo vayor yajurvedah surydt sama vedah sa imams trln veddn abhitatapa tebhyas taptebhyas trini sukrany ajdyanta bhur ity rigveddd bhuva iti yajurveddt svar iti samavedat Tad rigvedenaiva hotram akurvata yajur vedena ddhvaryavaih samavedena udgltham yad eva trayyai vidyayai sukram tena brahmatvam uchchakrama

Prajapati was formerly this universe [i.e. the sole existence].

Being alone he desired may I be, may I become. He toiled, he performed austerity.

From him, when he had so toiled, and performed austerity, three worlds were created―earth, atmosphere, and sky. He brooded over [i.e. infused warmth into] these three worlds.

From them thus brooded over three lights were produced,―fire, this which purifies [i.e. pavana, or the air] and the sun. He brooded over these three lights.

From them so brooded over, the three Vedas were produced,―the Rig veda from fire, the Yajur veda from air, and the Sama veda from the sun. He brooded over these three Vedas.

From them so brooded over, three seeds [or essences] were produced―bhur from the Rig veda, bhuvah from the Yajur veda, and svar from the Sama veda.

Hence with the Rig veda, they performed the function of the hotri; with the Yajur veda, the office of the adhvaryu; with the Sama veda, the duty of the udgatri; while the function of the brahman arose through the essence of the triple science [i.e. the three Vedas combined].

From the Jaiminiya Brahmana 2.244:

prajapatir va idam agre asit | nanyam dvitiyam pasyamanas tasya vag eva svam asid vag dvitiya sa aiksata hantemam vacam visrje | iyam vavedam visrsta sarvam vibhavanty esyatiti

Now, this (world) existed as Prajapati at the beginning. Seeing that there was no second, other (than him) – but his speech did exist as something belonging to him; his speech was a second – he reflected, “Look, I am going to release this speech. Now, this (speech), once released, will continue to develop into all this (world).

ShankaraBharadwaj Khandavalli said...

Vraja Dev,

Brahman is one - does not necessarily mean there is one world/universe. See Devi Bhagavata.

aronite said...

This brilliant vision springs absolutely from the highest ranges of reasoning mind.

The intuitive grasp of the significance of Divine Mother as a cosmological conception is sheer crystalline insight.

The way it is renederd to us cherent steps is vintage Koendraad Elst.

aronite said...


The way it is rendered to us in coherent steps is vintage Koenraad Elst!