Abhinavagupta is an important name in Sanskrit literature and Indian philosophy. Most of the serious writings on these subjects mention at least three of his works. One is the encyclopedic treatise on Kashmir Shaivism, the Tantraloka or Light on Tantra. The other two are path-breaking commentaries on fine arts: the Abhinava Bharati on Bharata’s Natya Shastra and the Dhvanyaloka Lochana on poetics. But such texts are little perused today by those other than specialists, and their author remains virtually unknown to the growing public readership interested in ancient Indian culture. The book under review is intended to improve this perspective. ‘Abhinavagupta,’ says its writer, ‘is one of the most extraordinary figures’ in the domain of Indian philosophy, aesthetics and mysticism. ‘It is high time,’ she continues, ‘that his genius got duly recognized beyond the area of his origin and language. For this we need translations of his works and studies which make him accessible outside.’
While Abhinavagupta’s ‘aesthetic theory, based on the Natya Shastra, has become an indispensable method to apply, not only in drama and poetry, but in all fields of the arts, especially music….there are few authors, even in the Indian tradition, who…. combine such an enormous range of subjects and fields with the depth of mystical experience and philosophical insight.’ These words of the learned writer, a distinguished Austrian Indologist and professor of religious studies, are indicative of her effort to place her subject in a wider context. In the foreword to her book, another eminent scholar of India from France wryly observes that ‘Indian philosophers seem to be …fascinated by Sankara’s advaita as if it were the acme of Indian thought….which…it is not.’ This line of thinking is however not pursued in the present book which is an interpretative study of ‘one of the most mature and difficult’ Sanskrit works by Abhinavagupta.
Paratrisika Vivarana is Abhinavagupta’s commentary on the tantric text Paratrisika, one of the several he wrote on various scriptures of the Trika system, now generally known as Kashmir Shaivism. The original Paratrisika, dealing mainly with metaphysical-linguistic conceptions, is a short text of just thirty-seven stanzas, reproduced in the Devanagari script as an appendix of this book. The Paratrisika Vivarana is a longer text in prose with a substantial prologue and epilogue composed in verse. It has been partly translated but mainly explained by the present writer, but not reproduced in Devanagari, perhaps because of its length. Some of the opening and concluding verses have however been transcribed in the roman script which is welcome. Some other verses within the prose text, it is mentioned, are in a so far untranslatable prakrit dialect, and have been excluded from this study.
Following Abhinavagupta’s own usage in his Tantraloka, the present writer has preferred to describe Paratrisika Vivarana with the title Anuttaraprakriya. This has been rendered into English as ‘Hermeneutics of the Absolute’. Hermeneutics, she explains, is ‘the study of the methodological principles which rule over the interpretation and explanation of revelatory texts.’ Her own effort is on the same lines. The aim of the present hermeneutical exercise, she writes, is ‘to make a text and tradition generic cialis discount accessible beyond the historical and linguistic context….discovering its relevance to our present world of the 21st century with its unprecedented contradictions between (material, technological) progress and (human, ethical, spiritual) regress.’ This she has attempted through an interpretation and explanation of the Paratrisika Vivarana in ten chapters, apart from a detailed Introduction and a brief Conclusion.
‘Translating and interpreting a text over a thousand years of history into a completely different historical, cultural, social, psycholo-gical, religious and spiritual context,’ she writes,’is a task which requires a conscious effort, ideally taking into account all those factors which have shaped the original text in the first instance, and which shape our understanding of it today.’ This is indeed a formidable enterprise needing immense specialized, multi-disciplinary knowledge, insight and intellectual stamina in a scholar embarking upon it.
‘The choice before me’, she further says, ‘was to write a scholarly commentary which would be meaningful and accessible only to specialists, or to try to open up the text for the understan-ding of readers interested in the philosophy and spirituality of the tradition of non-dualist Kashmir Shaivism…..I have chosen the second option which tries to give a key to this difficult text.’
The extent of her success is naturally for the perceptive reader to see. The text may admit-tedly be difficult, but the interpretation also is not too easy in the sense that it calls for conti-nuous effort to follow it fully. Prepared for this application of the mind, those interested will find this study adding to their knowledge and appreciation of a subject which certainly deserves to be better known and understood.
For the more general reader, a further focus on Abhinavagupta the person may have added to the interest sought to be attracted towards his work. Some vivid details are available in the Paratrisika Vivarana’s epilogue and also men-tioned and translated towards the end of the book. He was born and lived in Kashmir just over a thousand years ago. His ancestors had migrated there from the plains below two centuries earlier and integrated with the valley’s already vibrant tradition of study and scho-larship. Some details of his teachers and their predecessors are known, as are those of his disciples and their students. Taken together they comprise a remarkable line of learning which also extended outside Kashmir: Abhinavagupta had a guru from Punjab and a devotee from Tamilnadu. The great scholar’s autobiographical verses manifest his affection and esteem for those who preceded and followed him on the road of knowledge. So do the writings of his students, some mentioned in the book. One excluded from it is the Kashmiri satirist Kshemendra, who has described the sage as the ‘rest-jewel of teachers’ and an ‘ocean of wisdom.’ Another student, Madhuraja of Madurai, has a moving verse about him, translated here:
Whatever Abhinavagupta has written,
it is written on the heart;
What other authors of texts have written;
is (as if) written on water.