Who is Abhinavagupta? — with Ben Williams, PhD [2021-07-22]

Speaker View

Gallery View

Audio


In this Café, we welcome Dr. Ben Williams, for an introduction to the writings of the medieval Kashmirian sage Abhinavagupta. Ben is a scholar-practitioner and intellectual historian of Indian religions, including the history of Śaiva tantra, and his dissertation examines the ways in which Abhinavagupta embodies the ideal of an enlightened guru in his autobiographical writings. In Abhinavagupta, Ben illuminates the portrait of a polymathic, cosmopolitan spiritual realizer with ongoing interest and relevance for the post-postmodern yogi and globally curious soul.

As a scholar of Sanskrit, Ben could also help us shed some light on some questions relating to language that arose in @Lisa’s Consciously Evolving Language sessions. And, the resonances between Abhinavagupta and Goethe, whose approach to science we explored in the Wholeness of Nature dialogues, may help us shed more light on the relationship between aesthetics and spiritual perception, since, like Goethe, Abhinavagupta was also a poet, dramatist, and cultural critic, albeit writing in a vastly different time and place. He had some especially interesting things to say about aesthetic experience in the process of spiritual formation.

We might also seek to constellate Abhinavagupta’s thought in relation to other spiritual philosophers who have sought to integrate vast fields of research and inquiry into a synthetic vision that elevates consciousness or prepares it for some fundamental transformation, such as Sri Aurobindo, Jean Gebser, Rudolf Steiner, and Ken Wilber, all of whom we have studied here in the Café to varying degrees. However much we are conversant with or resonate with the specific models these thinkers provide, there seems to be a common pattern in them, which Ben also traces, of consciousness realizing itself through a fullness of intellectual embrace.

Reading / Watching / Listening

Seed Questions

  • Abhina-who? What might an 11th-century mystic have to teach us about spirituality today? Is there a transmission that is still alive in Abhinagupta’s texts, and how does that work across cultures and languages?
  • How does the Sanskrit of Abhinavagupta differ from the English (or German, or Spanish…) we speak today in terms of its ability to hold and convey special forms or insights of consciousness? We have considered how a subject/object split or noun bias could may make it difficult to express certain notions in English; how is it with Sanskrit? Are some ancient languages, as some believe about Hebrew or Chinese, ‘closer to origin’ in some sense?
  • Abhinavagupta paints himself as a Siddha, or fully enlightened guru, whose personal and intellectual embodiment is a fulfillment of his teaching lineage. Yet his example, and the metaphors he deploys in his writings, welcome a pluralism of wisdom streams and aesthetic experiences into the process of spiritual evolution. What inspiration could we draw from Abhinavagupta’s body of work which has become available to us, and what are the limits of that influence or relevance?

Context, Backstory, and Related topics

The immediate prompt for this session, came from an exchange in one of our Wholeness of Nature dialogues, in reply to Lisa…

However, it is also inspired by multiple conversations that Ben and Marco V have had in person exploring historical webs of relationships between art, spirituality, and culture.

This topic is a WIKI and open to revisions…

4 Likes

I do not claim any objective truth or guru status but I am aware of the subtle body and its potent and underdeveloped capacities in our society. I had a friend who died in an accident back in the 70s in New York. A mutual friend has recently gotten in touch with me and sent me a package of our dead friend’s photos, wallet, written messages, etc.

The package arrived yesterday and I spent some time with the objects. I open up, warm heart, cool head, with only one glass of wine. Spent the evening, listening to Braham’s piano trios, communed with the tree in my courtyard and the half moon. Received a very strong vibe, tranquil and free.

I got up in the middle of the night and meditated with the wallet in the palm of my hands… I retuned to a lucid dream state in which I experienced a very, strong contact with a highly ambiguous, terrifyingly beautiful, aggressive intelligence,. It appeared at first as a some kind of insectoid, a crawling creature, like a snail or a slime mold. It became fully humanoid, gray, a gargoyle, that tried to enter into my mouth ( I was located primarily in my dream body fully awake-perhaps you are familiar with such paradoxical phenomena?)and when I resisted he/it turned from something spooky to a very beautiful young man, classic good looks, right out of Michelangelo. Still resistant, I would not let it enter me, and it turned up the energetic display. It demonstrated some high level mimicry. Out of its head streamed, as if captured in transparent, cylindrical shapes, lines of code in a phosphorescent green glow. I was amazed by the virtuoso display of this highly evolved aesthetic intelligence, clearly from another dimension, and with command of a higher technology. Lucky for me, I have good enough boundaries so that I could send it away when it tired to enter through the loose, diaphanous sense of a Self, in motion, with a very fast, high vibration. I felt a force field prevented his assault. We are both ‘in’ and ‘outside’ at once, dependent upon a supportive space and never finally in one space or another. I can’t describe the sounds he made, metallic, like a thousand buzzing bees. I opened my physical eyes and saw it in physcial space, flying around the ceiling of my room and it vanished. I was within the safe portal of the human form. This is, of course, a powerful confirmation from the liminal zones that we have crossed over into another dimension.

I work with a family of prepositions influenced by Bruce Alderman’s work in philosophical grammar. I with Thou, I over Thou, I over It, I into It, It into Me, We over I, I for( or against ME, etc.) It is like the intersections of a turning kaleidoscope, interdependent, overlapping. I would say this entity qualifies as an egregore. I felt it was man made. I told it to go back to hell. This is an oppositional stance I take just to show the entity I can match him energetically. Perhaps, I am too harsh. I am this morning, at a safe distance, in my waking state conformity, sipping coffee, wondering about the magic forces of the night.

This is a description, not an explanation, and I am letting you know, dear friends, that this is not just about being a good story teller or having a vivid imagination. I could never make this shit up. We are, in my partial view, creating a new area of research. For those of us, who may have followed the recent CIA reports on UFOs, and UAP phenomena, I believe we are on the brink of new kind of human, as a presentation of inter dimensional occasions, (such as the one I tracked last night) becomes less stigmatized, as we break out of our materialist, scientistic culture.

I am not claiming an objective truth but a direct contact with immaterial subjectivities. I am trying to formulate this using shared vocabulary and the laws of grammar, subject, object, verb, etc. But language and mind are not the same.

And what do these musings and reflections have to do with Abhinavagupta? Quite a bit actually. He was a great thinker about the Imaginal realms and the Vibratory. These latent capacities, called siddhis, must be approached with care.

This is the kind of language game I am bringing to this Café. I look forward to studying Ben’s work and expanding our creative network.

3 Likes

Sorry, I would have loved to participate today, but the internet gods, once again, conspired against me and banished me from the kingdom. It has taken me the better part of an hour to restore any connection at all.

Trust you had a worthwhile conversation.

3 Likes

We missed you, Ed, and hope you can review the Café video if you get a chance and share a response. We made some good connections.

3 Likes

First of all, I would like to thank Ben as well for finding the time to share his work and his insights with us. Sorry I couldn’t be around for it “live”, but we all know how it is with digital technology: you’re either in, or you’re out.

Contrary to all my expectations, I was able to watch the recording today (and thanks to Marco for making it available to expeditiously). Before getting kicked out of the session, I was only picking up about every second or third word, so it was uplifting to hear complete sentences this time around. It all made much more sense.

Overall, I found the conversation thought-provoking and insightful. I don’t have a whole lot to say, but a couple of questions and thoughts did arise during the listening that I would like to pose and share here. First, a couple of specific questions:

  • For Andrea: you said that Sri Aurobindo wrote Savitri as a transmission, that he rewrote it (or at least relevant sections thereof) in response to the further development of his own consciousness. What was the original language of the text? Did he write it in English, or is the English we read a translation?

  • For Ben: you mentioned that the earliest Vedic tradition reserved Sanskrit for ritualistic texts. Were all such texts sung or intoned? You intoned the verses from Abinavagupta, based primarily on the rhythm of the text itself, but you mentioned that there are other intonation methods. I would be interested in knowing a little more about the foundational relationship between Sanskrit and “song” (to use a general term), if you could say something about that.

And now, a couple of general observations and remarks:

  • Your remarks, Ben, on “cosmogenesis” and “phonomatic emission/emanation” were particularly intriguing for me. Even though you were only able to roughly outline the notions, it struck me that there is a potentially significant overlap with the work that Stan Tenen is doing at the Meru Foundation on the Hebrew alphabet. (We have done a couple of CCafés on this; in case you are interested, you can find them here and here. Tenen’s contention, supported by a large body of research and cooperation with rabbinic scholars, is that the letters of the Hebrew alphabet are self-defining, self-sounding, and represent, as revealed in the Torah, the basic building blocks of Creation. What is more, the model he discovered relates strongly to both Arabic and Greek, both of which are considered sacred languages by some. The model allows not only for reading and intoning the text, but for gesturing and even dancing it as spiritual exercises (cf. Steiner’s eurhythmy). This is, I suppose, a variation on the Sanskrit tradition you spoke of, but enclothed in a primarily Hebrew metaphor (the Arabic and Greek connections need to be explored by others). The parallels to logocentric approaches (be they Christian, which you mentioned, or more philosophical, cf. Georg Kühlewind who came out of the Steinerian tradition) jump right out at one. The idea that the cosmos was perhaps created by sound/word/speaking/etc. appears to rather universal. This would make for a rich follow-up session, should we ever find the opportunity to chat about it further.

  • Generally speaking, I found the overview of your dissertation as engagement with Abinavagupta fascinating as it fits into what I’m detecting as a developing body of rethinking and revaluation that seems to be manifesting. Peter Kingsley suggested we revisit Parmenides and re-think the early Greeks; Henri Bortoft strongly suggested that we revisit and perhaps rethink both Aristotle and Plato (whereby Bergson and Whitehead also made cases for a revaluation of Platonic thought). Your dissertation takes a special look at a relatively unknown thinker, and in this regard, parallels Marc Gafni’s Radical Kabbalah (which I just started leafing through and in whose front matter our InfConv Cosmonauts Heather Fester and Marco Morelli both received honorable mentions) looks at a virtually unknown 19th century Kabbalist R. Mordechai Lanier. Lanier, like Abinavagupta reversed, or perhaps inverted, traditional teachings in a sense, opening thereby heretofore unrecognized revelations toward spiritual realization.

  • Finally, I was very much taken by your remarks on the notion that it is “language all the way up”. The intense conception of language as much more than a mere medium of everyday communication reminded me strongly of Hans-Georg Gadamer’s philosophical hermeneutics which penetrates the phenomenon much more deeply than the interpretation-centered approaches of, say, Schleiermacher or Dilthey (or even Derrida, for that matter). One of Gadamer’s more well-known but cryptic assertions is “Being that can be understood is language.” (Later in life, he “revised” this to “Being that can be understood begins to speak to us,” but that is a different discussion.) This, too, is a conception that goes far beyond our everyday understanding of language. Also, Paul Ricoeur’s phenomenological hermeneutics deals quite specifically with how it is we understand texts and what constitute texts independent of their original authors. This could be an fascinating avenue of conversation around the question that you raised, namely, how is it that a text can accomplish a transmission, even if that might not have been the original intent of the author. Both Gadamer and Ricoeur (along with more recent thinkers, like Richard Kearney and GB Madison) have done some excellent work on how it is that we (humans) can overcome time and space (Ricoeur calls is distancion) and grok something written from “somewhere” that has practically nothing to do with wherever the reader happens to find themself.

And so, those are my initial questions, reactions, and observations. Again, thanks for taking the time to share. Looking forward to more.

3 Likes

Sri Aurobindo was sent to England for his education at the age of seven and was a brilliant student at Cambridge. All his writing is in English.

3 Likes

Thanks for this, Andrea. That is what I thought, but I wasn’t sure.

This makes the text all the more interesting for me. English has been called a lot of things, but never a sacred language, that’s for sure. That Sri Aurobindo would choose this particular language to write a transmission text gives me, at least, pause for thought. It does speak to something that Ben mentioned in the CCafé, namely that the seer, the adept, the poet possibly taps into Language that they then bring to manifestation or expression in the text. This is a very different notion of language than we generally have in mind when we use the word, but one with which I resonate very strongly.

2 Likes

Although he admired Sanskrit as the carrier of the most sacred, Sri Aurobindo had great reverence for Shakespeare, Milton and the Romantic poets. He also knew the French Symbolists who were his contemporaries. I believe he was well aware that his audience would be aware of these influences and his performance is a curious hybrid, drawing upon many traditions. English, of course, is the great borrower from all languages and now that it is so global many other culture’s use it adroitly to bring out different kinds of resonances. Achebe said that in order to write for Nigerians he had to write in a language they all understood.

In his Future of Poetry Sri Aurobindo tracks this evolution. He had a complex childhood, raised in England with no contact with his family or culture, he had a thorough grounding in Western Literature. His father wanted to Westernize him. It is curious how Sri Aurobindo studied Vedic literature as an outsider. An Integral impulse is very apparent in his political activism, as he was critical of both Ghandi and Hitler. He also chose a French woman to run his ashram.

3 Likes

Greetings Ed,

It reminds me of Ben’s story about Neem Karoli Baba asking a disciple, “Have you had your breakfast?”
Since these enlightened beings are infused with what I would call Divine Consciousness, every word or gesture however trivial these might be, are direct expressions of That and create a significant experience for the receiver.

It was like that with The Mother.

Andrea

3 Likes

A few years into his stay in Baroda, Sri Aurobindo turned to a yogi for instruction. Within three days he had achieved a (permanent) silent mind. In his later years Sri Aurobindo’s eyesight deteriorated. Nirodbaran became his scribe. He would hear Sri Aurobindo in a soft lilting voice dictate verse after verse as if downloading the poetry directly from above.

3 Likes

This is My Felt Sense of Engaging with this Conversation & Everyone !

You Can't Stop The Waves #2

3 Likes

This was a remarkable moment for me, too, Ed. I wonder: Is it only the “sacred languages” which could be premised, or have their origin, in cosmic song? Have modern languages lost (or never possessed) this capacity? Or does it have to do with the way we use or relate to language?

I think Savitri is a good example of mantric poetry, which transmits the consciousness of Aurobindo through cognitive vibration, in English. Through reading, and especially reading out loud, we enact this consciousness according to our ability to resonate with the meaning of the words, which is not merely given but depends on our preparation as readers.

The performance is akin a musical ensemble bringing a classical concerto to life, but lending our vocal chords to the text, while adding our riffs, meta-comments, and questions in between sections. The concerto is in the performance; its ‘being’ is in its own production, reception, repetition, ripple effect. It echos in consciousness and sub-consciousness, yet also on a higher plane—it becomes a resonant attractor.

Yet the possibility of bringing a musical or linguistic performance into experiential being depends upon there being the notation or language for this purpose, or that it is stored in physical memory of some sort, neurons or electronic/quantum bits, such that the performance, (re-)enactment, transmission, or emanation can occur. Or is it? Not only, ‘Who is Abhinavagupta?’ but ‘Where is he?’ might be an interesting question to ponder.

3 Likes

Being perhaps as curmudgeony as I am, I have always held a certain skepticism regarding the notion of (specific) “sacred languages”. Generally, such are considered “ancient”, in some sense of the word, but I’m not sure precisely what that term really means. Perhaps it is merely my (post)modern bias, but claims of “sacredness” smacks of ethnic exclusivity, with which I admittedly have a problem. Having said this, I must admit that I find the Meru evidence rather convincing that there is something exceedingly deep going on in Ancient (there’s that word again!) Hebrew, but what intrigues me even more is Tenen’s findings that the same (or very similar) principles in all likelihood apply to both Arabic and Greek (at least as revealed in the Quran and the New Testament). This is, I believe, strong evidence against the ethnic exclusivity thesis, perhaps even a statement that the “sacred” aspect may be inherent in language itself. Of course, that depends greatly on what we understand under the notion of language.

For me, language is something akin to ontologically fundamental, not limited to human beings, but certainly constitutive of them in some way (i.e., human language to some extent “defines” what it means to be human). I most certainly do not believe that language is a “system of systems”, or anything along those lines. To my mind, this is – to put it in Gebserian terms – a purely Mental (structure of consciousness) understanding of language, a Johnny-come-lately conception that can be very useful in certain (analytical, practical) circumstances, but it is a rather superficial way of looking at the phenomenon. It’s all about leaves, but completely misses the roots. Rather, I am haunted by the Gadamerian notion that “Being that can be understood is language.” I tend to agree with what Ben said of the Indian sages: "it’s language all the way ‘up’ (as he phrased it, to which I would add, ‘and all the way down’). And, even more importantly, it is related very closely to whatever Life is … I think language has much more in common with organisms than it does with systems.

English is, for me at least, a particularly interesting case, as it is not even a “real” language, so to speak. It is, when seen historically, a mish-mash of at least three Germanic dialects, overlayed and infused heavily with Norse and Old Danish and completely saturated by a heavily Norse-influenced dialect of French which opened itself to word-coinages and borrowed translations from Latin and Greek during the rise of an empiricist and scientific way of thinking. It’s a Heinz-57 mutt of a language, when you get right down to it, but … it is nevertheless language, and as such, it taps into, or partakes of, the essence or nature of all languages. In Taking Appearance Seriously, Bortoft describes this quite effectively. He speaks of children learning language “chinesely”, if they are Chinese, or “englishly”, if they are Brits or Americans or Australians (all with their own variations, of course). In other words, there is an innate capacity in us humans (thus far, in agreement with Chomsky, for example) to learn (human) language, and what we learn is, seen closely and precisely, a particular manifestation of language, namely our “mother tongue”, as it is called, but what we learn shares with all other particular manifestations of language that “languageness” which informs language itself. In Goethean terms, it’s all leaf and whichever specific language we initially learn is that leaf as stamen or pestle or leaf or whatever.

And here I think you are onto something significant. I couldn’t agree with you more. Part of the essence of language (if essence is even the right word, but it seems to fit this particular context), is its “sacredness”, that is, it’s “cosmogenetic” quality, it’s “phonomatic-emissive potentiality”, if you will. This is what I think Sri Aurobindo was tapping into, resonating with, giving expression to. It is obviously not an everyday aspect of everyday language, but it is there in potentio, to be sure, and it can be given expression under the appropriate and relevant conditions. This is, to my mind, the aesthetic dimension, the artistic dimension, of language that sometimes is, but most often is not, picked up on by many language artists. (Whereby, I would go so far as to say that I think Edward Hopper was pointing to something important when he remarked that, “If we could say everything in words, we wouldn’t have to paint,” or something to that effect.) That is, “languageness” may well extend beyond the lingual, even if linguality is a significant (but not sole) feature of “language”. As you note, the aspects of sound, music, and song are worth our special attention here. It may be a matter of the best words in the best places, but more than content-based meaning is involved. There are other meaning-full dimensions of language, and the aural is certainly one of them.

We know that the Hebrew has developed such a notation (the so-called “cantillation marks”) and includes them in the text of the Tanakh. I personally think that the original development of phonetic alphabets was an attempt to encode this. We have, of course, come a long way since then and we may have gotten very far off track in the process. Once again, we are faced with the challenge of re-discovering what might have been lost, or perhaps we are being challenged to re-invent the means to do this, or perhaps we “only” need to re-learn what “language” actually is and allow it to “teach” us how it functions (this is a derivative lesson to be learned from the Meru work, I believe, which work is showing us how language plays out in our current dimensionality). Ben mentioned his own technique for “knowing” how to intone the text, but pointed out that there are other accepted techniques. The Roman and Orthodox liturgies are “noted” as well, if I’m not mistaken. In other words, there is work that has been and is being done to sort some of this out.

And “where” this might be, as you ask, might also be an aspect of this well worth pondering.

3 Likes

Three O’clock in the Morning in/for this Particular Organism Receiving these Leaves of Words,Feelings,Thought-Formations, & Vibrational Sounds, " Moved to Respond":

Forest Breathing:

Breathing in Water:

Moving-Breathing:

Take a Quiet Walk

3 Likes

Where is he? He is a vibration happening within the intervals between the Subtle/Causal/Physical. It might help to think about the four fold structure of the levels of speech from which the Kashmir Shaivism tradition emerged.

“The four levels of speech correspond to waking state, dream state, deep sleep state and the state of turiya, the transcendent witness. The fully awakened are not asleep but wide awake, they are not unconconsious. They can see through all the levels and beyond… We are constantly crossing psychic thresholds, sometimes upward, sometimes downward towards the external world. Shiva revels in both the ascending and descending movements, a perspective beyond the limits of time and space”- Abhinavagupta and the Four Levels of Speech, George Franklin

A fictional account of this experience is given in the opening section of my story, In the Crack, published in our Journal and linked below. When I shared this story with Eric Wiess ( may he rest in power) said my story was a powerful example of what he was defining as trans-physical senses. Trans-physical senses are beyond the basic five or six the 3D oriented waking state is constrained by . Eric said we have at least fifty subtle senses. I think that is a conservative estimate. Artists of all kinds are quite familiar with liminal zones. You have to use language artfully rather than be used by language to fit the world in pre-given categories. Reality is intrinsically queer.

" The Tantric body is both physical and non physcial. A hybrid entity, it presents a cross over status containing both…the hybrid body enables the use of the immaterial, quasi-spiritual element of the body as a vehicle for attaining supernormal powers."-Loriliai Biernacki

A delightful riff on musical grammar and language by an integral thinker. If it don’t sing and dance it is not Integral, yet. Too much Integral thinking is about pre-given categories that can be memorized in an afternoon. But get to Carnegie Hall you have to actually practice.

Clean Language is a practice that can get to the bliss underneath the 3D timespace box most person’s speech and writing come out of. The Symbolic level ( metaphor, analogue, narrative) give rise to matter/energy. PSI , Quantum theory, Third Order Systems theory are crossing over in a trans-rational fashion. This is what current UFO studies are focusing attention upon.

4 Likes

Throughout this conversation about the relationship between reality and language, Terrence McKenna keeps coming to mind because of how eloquently (and weirdly) and he focused on the reality-creating, manifesting, and constituting nature of language in the psychedelic experience and (by extension) consciousness itself.

In the beginning was the Word… this is not news, but it also remains one of the most conveniently forgotten fundamental facts of existence. How we conceive of the world—including the most scientifically rigorous or poetically fantastical ways—remains predicated on how language makes it possible for us to conceive of anything whatsoever.

This is true as long as we understand that language is not merely a matter of words, semantics, mental referentiality, but effective vibration. It is energetic transfer infused with mind. Through language, mind encounters mind and makes sense of others and itself through a system of common differences defined through sound, visual cue, and other senses.

There are thousands of McKenna videos on YouTube, this one is average but on point:

In other videos, he talks about other-dimensional beings and the strange communicative sounds they make in the liminal zones of the ‘heroic dose’ level psychedelic experiences. But the video above is a more rational take on the difference between the physicalist and (for lack of a more precise term) shamanistic or poetic conceptions of the relationship between reality and language.

Whether or not English is a sacred language, I think we can agree that it is world-constitutive at the time in history. I tend to think consciousness will use whatever words, sounds, or objects (signs of any kind, including physical mechanisms) at its disposal to create a reality it desires, respond to a meaningful signal, or get a point across.

2 Likes