Text as Text, Text as Deity: Reconciling Textual Traditions with Devotion

Text as Text, Text as Deity: Reconciling Textual Traditions with Devotion

Before going on to the essay proper, a number of points and clarifications should be noted by the reader:

a. A disclaimer is in order. This article is written from the perspective of someone with a self-understanding as a ‘traditionalist Hindu’ in three primary senses:

  1. Firstly, I identify with a particular stream/branch of Hindu tradition (smārta) I have inherited by way of lineage and personally adhere to, which is generally considered an orthodox (in respect of belief in the authority of the veda) and orthoprax (insofar as the actual practices are largely dictated by texts, recognizing themselves, and recognized, by consensus, by others, as subservient to the veda) system. Practices are not merely restricted to ritual acts in the context of worship but also pertain to the spheres of moral conduct and private behaviour.
  2. I also identify myself as a ‘traditionalist Hindu’ in a larger sense that I identify, as sacred and traditional, a broad class of texts apart from the veda (known as śruti or “that which is heard”) and its ancillary, dependent texts known as the smṛti (“that which is remembered”); such texts which are, on the whole, concordant and conformant with the teachings of the śruti and smṛti. Many of these texts would belong to categories known as ‘āgama’ or ‘tantra’, though not all āgama-s or tantra-s would be so concordant (and would promptly have to be rejected or heavily qualified at the very least).
  3. In the broadest sense, I identify with a wide range of practices that includes non-textual, oral, village-centred traditions which have been “remembered” as being inherited within a family and directly from one’s ancestors and/or shared by a community and again, “remembered” as shared practices which have always been done “that way”. This is important to understand as, for myself as well as anyone using the above self-descriptors, there is a hierarchy of traditions within the Hindu dharma, and there are certain norms, values and ways of thinking inherited by us in our respective traditions. For instance, it is axiomatic that, in matters pertaining to a particular school or sub-school, the respective śāstra (scripture) will be accorded the highest respect. This and other axioms are what inform the present essay. These axioms are what separate a hoary and rooted ‘traditionalist’ reading of Hindu dharma of antiquity from many modern and [what the author firmly holds to be] distorted readings of Hinduism (“anyone can do anything” or “devotion is all that matters”). The author thus emphasizes here that this is not a “generic” piece speaking on behalf of all of Hinduism, but speaks on behalf of a particular group of traditions adhering to a specified set of values and norms.

b. Having clarified that, it is imperative that the term ‘text’ in the title should be briefly but clearly defined. The term, ‘text’, in the context of this essay, does not only denote the text of a sacred prose work or metrical poetry consisting of metrical verses but would also be used to refer to a mantra (rendered as ‘incantation’). To put it in other words, ‘text’ could refer to any sacred text in the broadest sense possible; regardless of its length, irrespective of whether it is strictly oral or written, regardless of whether it is prosody or poetry or an irregular composition or whether it is grammatically meaningful or not (many mantras are just syllables strung together; having no semantic meaning, though not meaningless outside the semantic context).

c. The article will make significant, if not heavy, use of Saṃskṛta (Rendered as Sanskrit in English) quotes and the reader, if interested in pronunciation, is advised to familiarize him/herself with the IAST scheme of transliteration. There will be a few quotes in Tamiḻ (‘Tamiḻ’ is rendered rather unhelpfully in English as Tamizh or Tamil) Translation will be provided for every quotation. Also, for convenience, anglicized plural forms of Saṃskṛta words will be used. For instance, the plural of ‘deva’ (deity) will be spelled as ‘deva-s’, instead of using the grammatically correct plural form from Saṃskṛta. This is to standardize the endings of the plural terms used in this essay so that the reader can identify them with ease.

d. As a final and essential note, the essay will cover certain traditions in Hinduism as well as the sub-schools within a particular tradition, apart from ritual and theological concepts unique to these traditions. While every effort will be made to explain these concepts so as to make them accessible to the reader, the reader has to be reminded that the essay cannot fully capture the nuances and technicalities of the traditions given that such an endeavour would require the surveying of a vast body of texts, that is beyond the scope of the article. Furthermore, any possible insight the reader may obtain from this essay may not be applicable to traditions within Hinduism which do not rely on texts.

Sacred texts, as one can understand, often enjoin various ritual acts upon their intended audience (initiates or lay devotees) with respect to specific deities the practitioner is expected to or aims to propitiate. Sacred texts and deities (as we ordinarily understand them) are, in many cases, mutually affirming. Thus, it is often the case that the sacred text (or the lore) is that which originally reveals the deities to us. However, it is equally reasonable that the devotee’s loving inclination towards the deity, that is, devotion, is what impels him towards the sacred texts in the first place. Thus, in the context of the relationship between the deity and a devotee, texts may seem to be an intrusive presence. Consequently, a key issue of interest that may confront the practitioner of any polytheist religion at some point in time would be the apparent conflict between adherence to ‘correct’ ritual performance as laid down in the texts and personal devotion (bhakti).

Personally, as an outsider to the Western polytheist traditions, I must confess that I am not certain about the exact manifestation of this conflict, or of the depth of the conflict if there is one. Nevertheless, I had come across debates in the Western Heathen sphere between the reconstructionist and non-reconstructionist groups on issues such as syncretism, the role of Unverified Personal Gnosis (UPG) vis-à-vis the lore, etc. There is also a tendency in some circles to view the privileging of the oral/written lore (the ‘texts’) over lay gnosis as a manifestation of the Christian (particularly Protestant) overculture. Some even hold that such a privileging of texts over personal devotion or even communally agreed practice (which nonetheless may contradict the lore/text) is the result of the Protestant concept of Sola Scriptura.[1]

While being conscious of the irreconcilable differences between our polytheisms and their monotheism is an indispensable virtue, it is important to note that our religions are not necessarily the polar opposites of monotheism. Therefore, we cannot generalize that all non-Abrahamic/monotheist religions have no textual traditions where texts command an irrevocable authority and hold the single most important place. This essay seeks to offer some insight into the place of texts in certain important traditions within Hinduism where sacred texts occupy a very esteemed place and where ritual action is expected to conform to the relevant texts of those individual traditions.

This, then, leads to the following set of questions, which I understand to be critical. From a polytheist perspective, when we speak of a sacred text or sacred lore, what do we understand by it? We understand authority when we see it in everyday life. We associate it with legitimately established offices and officeholders, and invoke theories such as the social contract to explain the relationships between a society, the rules and those appointed to make and/or enforce the rules. But what about sacred texts which are held to be authoritative? How do we understand the sacredness of something deemed as authoritative? Conversely, what do we make of the authority of something deemed as sacred? This essay attempts to offer some insight into, if not a complete and concrete response to, these questions with a perspective from Hinduism, in particular from the āgamika tradition.[2]

We start with a particular school within the very broad, Śaiva tradition. Now, the term Śaiva literally means, ‘of or pertaining/belonging to the deity Śiva’ and this commonality is what loosely holds together the diverse conglomerate of Śaiva texts, sects, sub-sects and unorganized lay groups under the same umbrella; i.e. the centrality of the worship of the deity Śiva. Within this vastly diverse Śaiva tradition, we have a particular school called the siddhānta, and the texts of this school would be known as siddhāntāgama while the followers would be known as siddhāntin-s or saiddhāntika-s, though I prefer the latter term. Both terms would mean, ‘āgama-s belonging to the siddhānta [tradition]’. Among the siddhāntāgama-s, one of the most important texts would be the kāmikāgama. To appreciate this importance in the practical sense, it is essential to understand the fact that a large number of Śiva temples in the Southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, including several renowned pilgrimage sites, are built and consecrated and ritually function as per the siddhāntāgama-s, even today. The siddhāntāgama-s are divided into two categories: 1. mūlāgama-s (mūla meaning primary,  hence ‘primary āgama-s’), numbering twenty-eight (all of which are extant in the form of manuscripts, if not edited and published), and 2. upāgama-s (secondary āgama-s), numbering some 200 (most of which are no longer extant).

The consecration of a liṅga (an icon representing Śiva) in a temple that is to be built is a long and complex process spanning over many days. It begins with ploughing the land (karṣaṇa) on which the temple is to be built and ends with the final installation (pratiṣṭha) of the liṅga in the sanctum sanctorum (innermost shrine) of the temple.

An interesting passage is seen towards the end of the very first chapter, known as the tantrāvatārapaṭala (literally, “the chapter on the descent of the tantra”), which begins many āgama texts by describing the circumstances in which the text in question has ‘descended’: i.e. from the deity concerned himself in a chain of transmission, eventually reaching certain privileged sages. That passage is as follows:

yadyapyeko bhavedvaktā śrotṛbhedādanekadhā ||

karṣaṇādipratiṣṭhāntaṃ mūlenaiva samācaret |

kṛtañcedupabhedena kartā bhartā vinaśyati ||

“Even though the speaker be one (for all Śaiva āgama-s are ultimately revealed by Śiva alone), they (the āgama-s) are manifold, on account of the differences among those who hear it.

Beginning with the ploughing [of the land, as stated earlier] [and] ending with the installation, [all activities] should be accomplished through the mūla (the mūlāgama-s, primary āgama-s).

If done as per the upabheda (secondary variations, referring to the upāgama-s, secondary āgama-s), both the doer [of the rite] (here, referring to the person who sponsors and thereby “performs” the temple consecration, though the actual rites would be executed by the priests authorized to do the rites) and the lord/master (referring to the king of the country where this defective performance takes place) will perish!”

The passage then continues:

kevalaṃ yajanaṃ proktamupabhedairviśeṣataḥ |

pratiṣṭhādyaṃ tu mūlaiścet aṣṭāviṃśatibhirvaram ||

yena tantreṇa cārabdhaṃ karṣaṇādyarcanāntakam |

tena sarvaṃ prakartavyaṃ na kuryādanyatantrataḥ ||

kārayedanyatantreṇa noktaṃ cettu viśeṣataḥ |

“Only [matters of] worship [are] particularly spoken [of] by the secondary variations (upabheda-s i.e. the upāgama-s). But [with respect to activities beginning with] installation and others; if [spoken] by the mūla (primary) [āgama-s], the twenty-eight are superior.

By which tantra (one of the twenty-eight mūlāgama-s), [the activities] beginning with ploughing [and] ending with worship have been commenced, by that [tantra alone], all should be completed/arranged, [he] should not [do by] another tantra.

He shall do with another tantra (another text), if a special matter is not spoken [in the tantra he started with].”

And a few verses later, the text introduces a concept prevalent in the āgamika texts, the concept of tantrasaṃkara (the mixing of tantra-s). Now, one may think that tantrasaṃkara refers to the mixing of tantra-s belonging to the same system, as discussed in the above verses we just saw. However, the term is ordinarily used to describe the mixing of two different systems. The text thus says:

śivasiddhāntatantreṇa prārabdhaṃ karṣaṇādikam |

na kuryādanyaśāstreṇa kuryāccettantrasaṃkaraḥ || 3/113 ||

tantrasaṃkaradoṣeṇa rājā rāṣṭraṃ ca naśyati |

“Once the activities beginning with ploughing have commenced with a Śivasiddhānta tantra (that is, a text belonging to the siddhāntāgama, which we have been discussing now),

he should not do it with another śāstra (another treatise/scripture). If he does [with a śāstra from outside the siddhānta tradition], tantrasaṃkara [will result].

By the fault of tantrasaṃkara, both king and country will perish.”

The concept of tantrasaṃkara is not unique to the Siddhānta School of the Śaiva tradition. One finds it in the Vaiṣṇava tradition as well. Just as the “Śaiva” umbrella covers sects and schools which have Śiva or a particular form of Śiva as the central focus, the term “Vaiṣṇava” covers sects and schools which have the deity Viṣṇu as the central focus.

Within the Vaiṣṇava system, one has the Pāñcarātra School, which like the siddhānta Śaiva school, also treats of the building of temples, installation of images, practices of initiates, etcetera; albeit from a Vaiṣṇava standpoint. Now, within the pāñcarātra system, certain texts recognize sub-schools called siddhānta-s.[3] A particular text of the pāñcarātra school (or, what we would call a pāñcarātrāgama), known as the pādma saṃhitā, goes one step further and warns against the mixing of sub-schools within the same tradition:

tantreṇāpi tathā yena karṣaṇādikriyā kṛtā

tenaiva sakalaṃ kāryaṃ na tantrāntaravartmanā

tantrāntare’pi kathitamanuktaṃ grāhyameva hi |

siddhāntasaṅkaro na syāttantrasaṅkara eva ca ||

“By which tantra the ploughing (karṣaṇa) and other activities are done;

By that [tantra], all [actions] are to be done; not by the way of a different tantra.

That which is said in a different tantra (kathitam) [but] not said before (anuktam); that is verily admissible.

There should not be siddhāntasaṅkara (mixing of the siddhānta-s; that is, the internal schools of the pāñcarātra); nor tantrasaṅkara (the mixing of tantra-s).” (In this context, the mixing refers to mixing of rituals from the pāñcarātra and rituals from a text outside the system.)

Now, one may wonder, how can one take these ritual texts seriously from a ‘devotional’ standpoint? With such strictly defined boundaries and contours, where sub-schools within the same school are prohibited from mixing, how can this intricate system of ritual be reconciled with the idea of deities and devotees interacting freely in the context of a personal, devotional relationship? Indeed, it seems to be a veritable ritual laboratory where skilled ritualists are assembling and connecting the ritual components carefully and avoiding ‘mix-ups’, in order to make the ‘circuit’ work. (Imagine a bulb lighting up as you read this bad metaphor).

This is actually a far more serious problem than it appears to be and one that plagues all polytheisms, whether it be Hinduism with its long, continuously upheld rituals or modern polytheist reconstructionisms. Texts, rituals, ritual objects and mantras (or incantations and hymns in a non-Indic context) are undergoing the process of desacralization, due to deep-seated Abrahamic biases which have been internalized by us (Hindus and other polytheists). One observes this tendency manifesting in varied forms: “Why do we need to believe in texts when all that matters is ‘devotion’?”, “It is just a ritual”, “It does not matter how you pronounce or intonate a mantra, the gods/God only care about your devotion/sincerity”, “These are just inanimate objects. Divinity/God lies within you” and many others of a similar persuasion. This nebulous, rhetorical invocation of “devotion” and the vague, monotheist ‘God’ hiding behind the gods—in many modern circles, ‘God’ is exclusively preferred to ‘gods’—slyly masks the essential desacralization happening in the background.

In essence, when we make the above statements, we are concentrating divinity or sacredness in a single, defined entity as its sole locus while simultaneously rejecting the existence of any sacredness outside this particular being. In contrast, the unabashed polytheism of our textual lore and ancestral wisdoms asks us to have an ever-expansive notion of sacredness.

Depending on available lore and the entity or object one is dealing with, the consequent rituals and liturgy will definitely vary in form, but we recognize the sacredness which dwells in that entity, object, words, etc. A consequence of this sacredness is that the objects (ritual tool, manuscript, icon/idol of a deity, etc.) or the mantras are not to be understood as mere inanimate, non-living objects or sounds. They are deities embodied in the form of objects or sounds. When one receives a mantra from an ācārya/guru (a teacher), having received proper initiation, and recites every letter of it with caution and competence, he is manifesting that very mantradevata (mantra-deity) in his mind and body, and receives the grace of that deity in the form of sound. The same goes for the very texts themselves.

kāmikaṃ pādayugmaṃ syādyogajaṃ gulphameva ca |

cintyaṃ pādāṅguliḥ proktaḥ kāraṇaṃ jaṅghikā bhavet || 3/93 ||

vātulaṃ vasanaṃ proktaṃ śivadharma tripuṇḍrake |

kalpañcaiva tu saṃyoge śivadharmānulepane || 3/100 ||

bimbaṃ puṣpe ca mālye ca siddhāntena niveditam |

tantrātmakaśarīreṇa mantramūrtimayena tu || 3/101 ||

eteṣāmupabhedaiśca sādākhyaṃ mūrtimat sthitam |

“The kāmika as feet (of Śiva), yogaja verily as [his] ankles

The cintya his toes, the kāraṇa his thigh/shank

The vātula his clothes, the Śivadharma (the dharma of Śiva, referring to the way taught in the siddhāntāgama-s as a whole), the three stripes [of sacred ash] (worn on a devout śaiva’s forehead):

The preparations [of various ritual substances], the unguents [laid down for anointment of the deities] in the Śivadharma;

The images (the various forms of deities taught in the texts), the flowers and garlands, and that which is offered [as food to the deity] with [the rites and mantras of] the siddhānta; [all these]

With a body whose self is the tantra, with [a body] made up of forms of mantras

[And] the secondary āgama texts (upāgama-s) [with their tantra and mantra portions];

[Consisting of all of the above] stands the form called sādākhya (another name of Sadāśiva).”

And this is not just the self-description of the āgama-s. In the 9th century, the Tamiḻ Śaiva saint Māṇikkavācakar sings, “Āgamamāgi ninṟaṇṇippāṉ tāḽvāḻka,”[4]

“Hail the feet of the one (Śiva) who, becoming the āgama, stood and became intimately sweet.” (The single term aṇṇippāṉ has two connotations: ‘he becomes closer’ and ‘he becomes sweet’; so I combined both meanings and rendered it as ‘intimately sweet’.)

The āgama here is an object of very intimate devotion. It is not a mere ‘book’ or ‘text’. The āgama texts are part and parcel of the very body of the deity; the āgama-s are how the deity makes an intimate connection with his bhakta (devotee). The devotional texts of these saints, so highly venerated by devotees even today, speak, again and again, of the deity becoming ‘mantra and tantra’: “Mantiramun tantiramum āṉāy poṟṟi” (the last word is pronounced as ‘potri’): “Hail the one who became mantra and tantra”![5]  (The singular mantra and tantra are references to the two categories of mantra and tantra; referring to each plurality of mantra-s and tantra-s by a singular term.)

Now, we ought to link this fresh understanding of the “text” as an object of loving devotion back to the system of rules and restrictions found in the āgama, some of which we noted above. How do we understand the prohibition of using upāgama-s (secondary āgama-s) for activities such as ploughing, building of temples, etc? Or the prohibition of using even a mūlāgama (primary āgama) when one has already begun rituals with another mūlāgama? When we refer to the understanding of the āgama texts as part of the body of the deity, the answer becomes apparent. I must confess that the following is not directly found in any extant text or discussion but an understanding that I synthesized after some reflection. Just as there may be a hierarchy of deities within pantheons or that of classes of deities, there is also a hierarchy of texts. Just as it would be awkward and even outright reproachable for one to offer worship to attendant deities without any regard for the primary deities, likewise would it be to act in this way with respect to texts.

Say that one has contemplated a particular ritual for a deity and has properly begun it. If, halfway during the ritual, the worshiper changes his mind and uses the same ritual objects and offerings for another deity, either of the same or a different pantheon, as if the previous deity was utterly disposable at one’s whim and fancy, how awful would it be? I can imagine the readers to be filled with horror and disgust. Likewise, having begun a ritual with a particular mūlāgama, it would be equally horrifying and disrespectful to set it aside for a text of the same or a different tradition. The metaphor works rather consistently and beautifully. We approach our texts with the same reverence we would our deities as the texts are, ultimately, deities themselves.

Having discussed the idea of text (āgama, tantra) as deity or part of the deity’s body, this will be a good place to take note of the sophisticated understanding of mantras one finds in the āgama texts. If mantra-s are not mere sounds, what are they? What is the relationship between a deity (deva), mantra, the worshiper and the ritual itself? The following two verses from the vidyāpāda of the sarvajñānottara āgama—many āgama-s are divided into one or more of four sections or pāda-s, one of which is the vidyāpāda, the wisdom-section which often delves deep into philosophical questions pertaining to ontology, metaphysics, epistemology and soteriology—offer an insight into this question:

yasya yādṛgvidhaṃ rūpaṃ vṛtaṃ tasyaiva tādṛśam |

tādṛśopyupacārastu mantradevānurūpataḥ

śāstropadiṣṭamārgeṇa yathārūpaṃ prakalpayet |

tathā rūpo bhavenmantrastataḥ karmaprasādhayet

“Of whomsoever (of whichever deity), whatever type of form is chosen, a form such as that,

Such [form] indeed is [to be meditated upon in] the upacāra (offering of various honours and substances during worship); in accordance with the mantra and deva.

By the way advised [in the] śāstra, as is the form [chosen for worship], [so must] he (the worshiper) prepare.

That [very] form should be the mantra; thereafter he should [set out to] accomplish the karma (the rituals).”

So, where did these mantras come from? What is their ultimate purpose in the soteriological scheme of things? Here is where the Śaiva vision of mantras attains a height of beauty touched by very few traditions. The mantras are not mere sounds floating around in the abstract. They are highly enlightened and they are perceptive of the impermanence, death and decay filling this material universe of vicissitudes, and they respond to it. The following short passage from the raurava āgama, one of the twenty-eight mūlāgama-s, gives a precious insight into the raison d’etre behind the manifestation of mantra-s:

saptakoṭyastu mantrāṇāṃ Śivavaktrād vinihsṛtāḥ

yāh sādhaka mahāmāyā pāśavicchittihetavaḥ

tā janmamṛtyukhacitāṃ pitāmahakṛtāmimām |

sṛṣṭiṃ dṛṣṭva aiśvarīṃ mūrtiṃ praviṣṭāh punareva hi ||

antarhitāmstān anaghān mantrarājeśvaraḥ prabhuḥ |

dadhāra bhagavān īśo lokānām hitakāmyayā ||

“Of mantras, seventy million [in number], from the mouth of Śiva, [there was a] springing forth.

Whichever mantras are the means for cutting [asunder] the bonds [due to the] great delusion (māyā);

Those [mantras], seeing this birth-and-death-filled, this pitāmaha-created creation[6], have again[7] entered into the forms [given to them by] aiśvarī (the power of Śiva).

[The mantras] concealed and free from evil/sin, the lord mantrarājeśvara sustains them (the mantras); bhagavān īśa (Śiva) [gives these mantras] desiring the good of the worlds.”

It would be rather complex to go into a full-fledged discussion of how souls are appointed as mantra-s. It has to be noted that in the Hindu tradition, souls are co-eternal with the supreme deity (whoever one identifies that as) and, thus, the supreme deity does not create souls just for the purpose of appointing them as mantra-s. In other words, mantra-s are chosen from the pool of souls currently embodied in the material universe, consisting of us humans, animals and souls from other worlds. Souls bound by fetters are divided into three classes. However, a full discussion of these three classes is highly technical and thus, regrettably, beyond the scope of this essay. A great individual among us, fully devoted to Śiva and the āgama, freed from the three bonds of āṇava (egotism), accumulated karma and delusion (māyā), may be promoted to the status of a mantra one day!

Coming back to the seventy million mantra-s, they are divided into two halves. What are these two halves? The mṛgendra āgama sets the context for an explanation of the two halves. It describes in detail the creation of deities called Vidyeśvara-s (eight in number) and Mantreśvara-s (one hundred and eighteen). The former are the ultimate overlords of all mantras, maṇḍala-s (ritual diagrams) and everything required for the upliftment of souls. The latter consists of the overseers of the one hundred and eighteen worlds existing in the material cosmos, through whom the seventy million mantras, residing in a transcendental plane, are able to confer grace on beings residing within the 118 worlds (which includes ours). To this end, the mantra-s work as two halves. As the mṛgendra āgama explains:

prayoktṛdehasāpekṣaṃ tadardhamakhile’dhvani | kṛtvādhikāraṃ sthityante Śivaṃ viśati seśvaram ||

vinādhikaraṇe nānyat pradhāna vikṛter adhaḥ | kṛtvādhikāramīśeṣṭam apaiti svādhvasaṃhṛtau

“Dependent on the bodies of agents/actors (the teachers, the ācārya-s who use/employ the mantra-s to confer initiations, do private worship or temple worship for the welfare of others), [the second] half of them [are] in the entire realm [of the material universe]; having executed [their] authority, at the end of existence [of the material universe with all its worlds], they enter (merge with Śiva [along] with the Īśvara-s (Here, referring to the Mantreśvara-s).

Without a support (referring to the ācārya-s mentioned just above) or others (perhaps referring to the idols/icons in which the mantra-s are installed and thus bless worshipers coming to see it in the temple), [the first half of the mantra-s acts] below the pradhāna vikṛti (a technical way of referring to śuddhavidyā); having executed [their] authority as per the will of Īśa (Śiva), they disappear at the dissolution of their own plane.”

Below the plane of śuddhavidyā (pure wisdom) is this material universe made of māyā. So, the first/top half of the mantra-s (thirty-five million), as far as I understand from the commentarial tradition, is able to confer its blessings on souls residing within the material universe while remaining in its own transcendent plane. As I noted before, the categorization of souls and mantra-s is an extremely complex and technical pursuit by the śaiva-s.

There is another account of how the mantra-s may be liberated. The above would suggest that the mantras are liberated at the end of the time-cycle. The following account would suggest that the mantra-s get liberated in a step-by-step manner. In other words, one of these seventy million “sounds” eventually becomes exhausted and exasperated with holding such high offices and powers. Having become indifferent to those offices and thoroughly dispassionate, that mantra desists from its duties and its office is taken up by the next mantra in line. It may seem as if these two accounts are contradictory but certain thinkers have already reconciled these two positions. However, due to the limited scope of this essay, we would not be able to discuss that in detail here. As for this second account, let us see what the pauṣkara āgama states:

aṣṭāvanantasūkṣmādyāḥ yathāpūrvaṃ guṇādhikāḥ | atisaundaryalāvaṇyā akṣīṇamanasas sadā || vidyā vidyāhvayaṃ prāptās saṃkhyāyās saptakoṭayaḥ | praśāntakaluṣās sarve mahātmāno’mitaujasaḥ ||

eteṣāṃ yasya vairāgyamupajātaṃ mahātmanaḥ | kim etena adhikāreṇa śreyasaḥ paripanthinā || iti taṃ parameśāno malapākamapekṣya saḥ |

svecchayaivānugṛhṇāti muktivyaktyarthayādṛśā || tato muktyarthamāsannaṃ kaniṣṭhaṃ tatpade vibhuḥ | niyunaktyanugṛhyānyaṃ tatpade niyunaktyapi ||

“Eight [Vidyeśvara-s]: Ananta, Sūkṣma and others; each preceding one possesses one more [divine] characteristic; they are of tremendous beauty and loveliness, they are of an ever-undiminishing mind. The Vidyā-s (another name for the mantra-s) have attained [the plane of the] Vidyā (referring to the transcendental śuddhavidyā plane discussed above); they number about seventy million. With their impurities extinguished/abated, they (the seventy million) are all great souls, of boundless strength.

Of them (the mantra-s), whose dispassion has originated, [that one] is a great soul; “What with this authority (high office of being a mantra), obstructing the [greatest] good?” Thus, [seeing this dispassion for authority], Parameśāna (Śiva), considering that mantra’s [highly] mature state; he,

of his own will, confers grace on any mantra closest to mukti (liberation); furthermore, the one in the smallest proximity for obtaining mukti, the lord [places that mantra] in the place [previously held by the mantra which just got liberated]. He appoints [a mantra] for liberation; he appoints another [mantra] for that [vacant] position.”

It is indeed a magnificent vision. An analogous instance from real life, which is rather crude but the best I could think of and relate to, would be the case of graduate teaching assistants during my days as an engineering student. Doing their postgraduate studies, they are, nonetheless, obliged to instruct the undergraduates. In the Śaiva ontological scheme of things, the mantra-s can, perhaps, be likened to these teaching assistants.

This tremendously sophisticated concept explains why āgamika temples have to observe certain rules. The mantra-s are the ones occupying the idols in the temples and conferring the blessings we seek. Though they are freed from metaphysical ‘impurities’, they have a residual sense of ego or what the texts call adhikāra mala or ‘impurity of authority’. They still think of themselves as agents holding offices of authority, albeit that they are fully aware of the fact that they are agents entirely for the sake of Śiva. The mantra-s would not confer grace on those who disrespect restrictive injunctions pertaining to ritual purity or violate prohibitions pertaining to authority to perform temple rites and initiations. Ultimately, the mantra-s and the attitude we ought to display towards them become an issue of faith and not one of hermeneutics or destructive reasoning. Thus, the raurava āgama gives a good piece of advice to the aspirant:

na mīmāṃsyā vicāryā vā mantrāḥ svalpadhiyā naraiḥ |

pramānamāgamaṃ kṛtvā śraddhātavyaṃ hitaiṣibhiḥ ||

sarve mantrātmaka devāh sarve mantrāḥ śivātmakāḥ |

śivātmakamidaṃ jñātvā Śivamevānucintayet ||

“Not by mīmāṃsā (the Hindus’ hermeneutical framework for interpreting a given text) are the [doctrines of] mantra-s to be inquired into; nor by men of little intellects;

Making the āgama as authority, with strong faith, [it should be approached] by those who seek good;

All devas have mantra-s as souls; all mantras have Śiva as their soul;

Knowing all these [mantra-s] as having Śiva as soul, let him (the one reading this āgama and initiated into it) meditate verily on Śiva.”

Though this understanding of mantra-s as beings is most pronounced (if not unique) in the Hindu tradition and especially the Śaiva systems, it is the author’s firm conviction that others too can benefit from these insights. After all, the raurava āgama does speak of mantra-s being distributed by Śiva across lands and languages and with that quotation, we proceed to conclude our essay:

yāvanto rudradevāśca rakṣoyakṣa maheśvarāḥ |

tāvan mantrāh samākhyātas teṣām samkhyā na vidyate ||

deśabhāṣā nibaddhaśca divyākṣarapadairyutāḥ |

sarvajñāḥ sarvagāh śuddhāḥ sarve sarvajña bhāvitāh ||

“As many rudra-s, deva-s, rakṣa-s and maheśvara-s are there,

that many mantra-s are enumerated; of them (those mantras), the count is not known.

[By] land [and] language, [the mantra-s are] fixed and connected with divine akṣara-s (letters) and pada-s (words);

[The mantras are] omniscient, omnipresent, pure; all [of the mantra-s] are established in the omniscient ones.”

And the incantations and spells used by the Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, Chaldeans and others of the hoary heathen past, as well as the hymns and prayers revived for use among Western polytheists, may very well be these mantra-s. In that case, the above discussion may have offered some of you an insight into how a polytheist ought to revere, not just the forms of deities as commonly understood, but also the texts and incantations themselves as verily divine beings.

Notes and References


[2] The āgamika tradition is based on texts known as the āgama-s. However, it is very important to understand that these texts do not belong to a single school; the āgama-s can be classified into broad traditions based on deity. Each deity-based āgamika tradition can be further sub-divided into schools based on differences in ritual praxis, stances on questions of ontology, soteriology and metaphysics, and faithfulness to śruti and smṛti as defined in points (i) and (ii) of the disclaimer (a) above.

[3] (Not to be confused with the siddhānta discussed earlier, which is a Śaiva usage and nothing to do with the current case. The term “siddhānta” literally means ‘that which has been established’ and is often translated as ‘doctrine’)

[4] A transliteration of the verses can be found here: The reader may have noticed that I combined the words slightly differently. The original runs as follows: ākama mākiniṉ ṟaṇṇippāṉ tāḷvāḻka (Contrast with above). The reason for the amendment is that, in Tamiḻ classical poetry, the declension or negational suffix of a noun may be combined with the next word. I prefer to split and recombine the words so as to make it grammatically more accessible for any potential reader.

[5] For a translation of the whole verse, you may refer to this:

[6] The term ‘pitāmaha’ literally means grandfather, a reference to Brahma, who creates the material cosmos with its universes, worlds and life-forms.

[7] The use of ‘again’ is to imply that the mantras take these divine forms when the creation-cycle begins once again.

The article was first published at Walking the Worlds in the Winter issue of 2017 and has been republished with author’s permission.

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Angirasa Srestha

The author is a 27-year-old student, born in the land known as Bhārata, where the Hindu dharma was born, raised all his life in the Southeast Asian City-State of Siṃhapurī, and currently reading law somewhere in the Western lands; a keen student of the myriad of traditions within the vast ocean of Hinduism as well as fellow polytheist traditions.