This is a very elegant and scholarly book published by one of the leading publishers of Delhi and authored by one of the most renowned scholars on the Kashmiri Shaivism, herself a disciple initiated into the tradition by Swami Lakshman Joo (1907-1991), the last Master of the Anuttara Trika, to whom the book is dedicated. This is surely a worthy tribute to a remarkable spiritual and intellectual genius, little known even in India outside Kashmir and the relative restricted adherents to his spiritual tradition. Externally the book is extremely well printed in quality paper, large format (cms 24 x 18) and clear print, faultlessly proofread in spite of the abundant diacritical marks, and artistically presented as any reader would expect who knows the author’s sense of beauty and expertise in many of its expressions. The book has an insightful Foreword by Prof. Andre Padoux, “the most eminent scholar in the field of Mantrasastra” as Bettina acknowledges (xii), a model of concise presentation.
The book is basically a philosophical and spiritual commentary on a rather short Sanskrit text, written by the master spiritual philosopher of Kashmir, Abhinavagupta (circa 10th century CE), whom many scholars today rate as a genius equal, or even superior, to the popular Sankaracharya (between 8th and 9th century CE), the poet and theologian commentator of the Upanishads and Brahmasutras. As Bettinaji says, “there are few authors, even in the Indian tradition, who, like Abhinavagupta, combine such an enormous range of subjects and fields with the depth of mystical experience and philosophical insight. . . . Whatever subject Abhinavagupta touches has the fragrance of his own personal experience and understanding. He is thus a perfect example of how allegiance to the tradition, be it the Agamic revelation or the lineage of teachers (sampradaya), does not stifle original thought, but rather nourishes it” (8). These words largely apply also to Bettina’s own work. It would really be interesting to make a comparison between Abhinavagupta and St Augustine!
Three words in the title and subtitle of the book require an introduction. Anuttara designates the Unsurpasable, the Absolute to which “nothing is beyond” (anuttara). Prakriya is a method or hermeneutics. Vivaraoa is a commentary that “unveils” (vi-v°) the secret meaning contained in scriptural texts. The Anuttara prakriya belongs to the fertile genre of Tantra literature produced probably between the 4th and the 8th century CE that formed the basis of the emerging popular religious practices of the post Vedic period. Like other contemporary Tantras, it takes the form of a dialogue between the Goddess (Devi) and Bhairava (= Shiva). This literary form reveals the metaphysical location of the text: it stands between a mere affirmation of Advaita, and the principle of ‘Relation’ implied in the dialogue between the female and the male form of the Divinity. Its orientation will be to uncover the way in which the Vak, the Word, in Sanskrit a feminine noun, descends through four stages to the world of our experience, according to the well-known gestalt of Kashmiri Saivism. This is really an attempt to achieve the difficult merging of Advaita with the Bhakti traditions.
Using earlier commentaries, Abhinavagupta composed this work explaining a ‘revelation’ received by his tradition. In his sense we might call him a theologian and a mystic. The text on which he comments is actually popularly called the treatise of the 30 stanzas, although it contains between 35 and 37 in different mss. The Kashmiri master offers a precious commentary on this short text, and Bettinnaji explains it to us point by point, with deft insight into its psychological, spiritual and metaphysical implications. It is not for me to write a commentary of the commentary Bettina writes on Abhinavagupta’s commentary, much less to evaluate it. Not being initiated in the tradition, I can only present the book and point to what it offers. The book requires much attention and could be a good basis for a postgraduate seminar; but essentially it is rather oriented to personal enlightenment.
The Introduction of about 40 pages gives the necessary information about Abhinavagupta, his tradition, the text commented on and related matter. This is followed by ten chapters commenting on sections of the text and the theology/philosophy underlying it. Chapters 1-7 reaching to about half of the book cover what could be considered the basic philosophical teaching of Abhinavagupta. Here we meet rich comments on sections like the opening benedictory verses of the Tantra, the guru-shishya relation implied in it, the sense of the Absolute (anuttaram), the paradoxical relation of the relative to it on the basis of the ancient dictum sarvam sarvatmaka, which affirms the interrelatedness of all things (84), and the meaning of the ‘heart’ where grace is operative with freedom.
Chapters 8-10 offer us an explanation of the whole system of the Tantra known as Trika. There is first a description of the various levels of manifestation of the Absolute in this world as described in verses 5-9 of the Tantra text. The descent into this world is primarily a descent of Yak, the Divine Word, becoming, so to say, multiplicity. Language will express duality, and out of the Word the world of multiplicity appears. There is here an explicit theology of the Word and language difficult to capture by us who have been trained by Greece to take the ‘Word’ as ‘reason’ rather than ‘language’. We find it difficult to vibrate with the world of sacred syllables, sacred sound, mantras and mudras, and their symbolic expressions in geometrical yantras that make the Divinity present to us. But Bettina patiently introduces us to it provided we are ready to discover different spiritual world than ours. She does it especially in chapter 9, where she presents Abhinavagupta decoding the bijamantra, ‘the seed of the heart’, SAU$ in 16 different ways. This mantra is presented as “The Means of Entry into Brahman.” Here she comments in detail on Abhinavagupta’s teaching on V. 11-18 of the original Tantra, which enable us to reflect on the relation of time to spiritual powers. It includes a rich explanation of the role of memory in relation to the past and the future. The text of this eight stanzas and Bettina’s own translation are offered in the appendices.
The book gave me an insight into the nature of the commentaries in Indian tradition that squeeze out of the sacred texts meanings which the letter by itself would not yield without the help of the living tradition. Bettinaji, herself within the tradition, explains the value of the commentary in terms of understanding the tradition from within and leads us “to the cit-camatkara, or the wonder and joy of consciousness, inherent in every conscious being” (38-9).
This is not a book to read quickly for mere philosophical information. It is a book of spirituality for those who are fairly familiar with the Hindu tradition, the world of interiority and symbolism, and who are willing to be initiated into a strong spiritual tradition.