Abhinavagupta (fl. c. 975 - 1025) was one of India's great literary critics and philosophers. He was a master of the Kula school of Shaivism, but wrote commentaries elucidating various texts and schools of thought. His ability to clarify the meaning of ancient texts through the application of reason and logic, and through his personal experience of religious practice, helped to popularize Kashmiri Shaivism.
His Tantra-Âloka (Light on the Tantras), which appears to have been written after Abhinavagupta had attained enlightenment, is one of the great accomplishments in Indian religious thought and influenced the understanding of the inner meaning of ritual in the Shaiva and Shakta schools for centuries afterward. Abhinavagupta also wrote on aesthetics, music and a variety of other subjects. His two famous commentaries on poetry, drama, and dance, the Locana on the Dhvanyaloka and the Abhinavabharati on the Natyasastra engage almost every important aspect of Indian aesthetics.
Most of the information about the life of Abhinavagupta is gleaned from his own writings. Abhinavagupta was a Brahmin whose ancestors had been distinguished scholars in the court of Kanauj. His ancestor Atrigupta, who was born in Antarvedi, the Doab between the Ganges and the Jamuna, was serving the king of Kanauj Yasosvarman, who was defeated by King Lalitaditya (c. 725 – 761). King Lalitaditya brought Atrigupta to Kashmir along with the booty, and, "in that beautiful city (Srinagar) like that of Kubera's (Alka) in front of the temple of "Sheetanshumauli" (Siva having the moon as his crest) on the Vitasta, the king built for him a spacious house and also granted a Jagir of land to him.”  Abhinavagupta’s grandfather was Varagupta and his father Naramsimhagupta, also known as Cukhala. His family had a long tradition of scholarship and his parents were sincere devotees of Lord Shiva. Abhinavagupa was born in Kashmir around 940 - 950 C.E. His beloved mother, Abhinavagupta, Vimalakala, died when he was still a child.
In Kashmir it is traditionally believed that Abhinava was a Yoginibhu (born of a Yogini). About his family, Abhinava says, “All the members of the family regarded material wealth as a straw and they set their hearts on the contemplation of Shiva.” His uncle Vamana Gupta was an expert in poetics. His father, Narasimha Gupta, taught him Sanskrit grammar, logic and literature. It is said that in his youth, Abhinavagupta learned easily and readily comprehended even difficult philosophical concepts, and his speech was measured and elegant.
Abhinavagupta’s principal teacher was Lakshmana Gupta, but he traveled widely, even outside of Kashmir, to study different Shastras (teachings) under different at least 19 different teachers, including Buddhist and Jaina masters. In his Tantraloka (V11, 205, 206) he says that even though one might be lucky enough to get a teacher who has attained perfection himself and can easily lead his pupil to it, that does not mean one should not approach other teachers for obtaining knowledge of other teachings and other paths. He successively practiced and contributed to the development of each of Kashmir Shaivism’s three great schools, Krama, Trika, and Kula. Abhinavagupta credited the teacher Shâmbhu Nâtha in Jâlandhara, from whom he received the practices of the Kaula tradition, with leading him to enlightenment and true peace.
Later writers refer to Abinavagupta as ‘Abhinavaguptapada.’ The word “pada” is an honorific, but in this case implies another meaning, because “guptapada” means “serpent” (Shesa). ‘Abhinavaguptapada’ would thus mean ‘a new incarnation of Shesha.’ Shesa, the serpent God, was one of the manifestations of Vishnu. Vamana the propounder of Riti school in Indian Rhetorics and commentator of 'Kavya Prakasha' known as "Bala Bodhini" bas Pandit Vamanacharya Jhalikikar, propounder of Riti school in Indian Rhetorics and commentator of 'Kavya Prakasha' known as "Bala Bodhini" alluded to Abhinavagupta as 'an intellectual giant and like a serpent (terror) to his young school fellows." His teachers, who were impressed by his intelligence and keen memory, called him Abhinavaguptapada. Abhinava himself says in Tantraloka (1.50)(Light of the Tantras), “This is the work written by Abhinavagupta, who was so named by his Gurus (elders, teachers).”
Later in his life, Abhinavagupta rose to the position of Acharya [Master] of the Shaiva sects in Kashmir. When Abhinavagupta wrote Tantaloka (The Light of the Tantras) in his early middle age, he seems to have had just a small group of close disciples, almost all of whom were members of his family. He tells us that his brother Manoratha was one of the first to learn from him and that he was later joined by Karna, the husband of his sister Amba. When Karna died prematurely and left Amba alone with their only son, she devoted herself entirely to the worship of Lord Shiva and the service of her brother. Karna’s father, a minister who had left the court to become “a minister of the Lord;” her father’s sister, Vatsalika; and Mandra, Karna’s cousin and close friend, were all devoted to him and served him faithfully. Mandra invited Abhinavagupta to stay in his town outside Pravapura (modern Srinagar) where, in the house of Vatsalika, he wrote his Tantaloka for the benefit of his disciples, who Abhinavagupta tells us at the end of his work, wanted to gain “a perfect knowledge of the Tantras.” Almost all the other disciples he refers to were sons of his paternal uncle, Utpala, Abhinava, Chakraka and Padamgupta and one named ‘Kshema,’ who might have been Kshemaraja, his most distinguished disciple.
“There are dull-witted people who are confused themselves and throw the multitude of creatures into confusion. Having bound them fast with fetters, they bring them under subjection with tall talk of their qualities. Having thus seen creatures who are simply carriers of the burden of gurus and their blind followers, I have prepared a trident of wisdom in order to cut asunder their bondage.”
The date of Abhinavagupta’s death is estimated at around 1025 C.E.. According to Kashmiri tradition, he entered a cave while reciting the Bhairavastava along with 1,200 disciples, and was never seen again. This cave, alleged to be his burial place, is located at "Birwa" village some five miles from Magam on the Gulmarg range.
Abhinavagupta is considered the greatest exegetical theologian of the Shaiva tradition in the medieval period. A prolific and polymathic writer, he is credited with the authorship of as manyas fifty works, only some of which survive to the present day. The two most important philosophical writings were the Parâtrimshikâ-Vivarana and the Tantraloka. Parmarthsara, a philosophical composition of 105 verses, was supposed to be based on the Karikas of Shesha. Other philosophical works were Tantrasara, Gitartha-Sangraha (commentary on the Bhagavad Gita), and Parmarthasara. In addition to his philosophical discussions, he wrote contributed to rhetoric with his commentary on Bharata's Natya Shastra (Abhinavabharati), poetics with his commentary on Anandavardhan's Dhvanayloka (the Locana), aesthetics, drama, dance, and linguistics. His work is more of a commentary on and elaboration of existing schools of thought than an original system. He wrote from his personal experience and used reason and logic to explain the meaning of ancient authoritative texts, treating them in a realistic way and making them understandable to the people. In this way he popularized the Pratyabhijna school of Shaivism, which had been introduced by Somananda and Uptala.
In his commentary on the Bhagavad Gita, Gitarthasangraha, Abhinavagupta emphatically declared that freedom from all miseries can be obtained by seeing Him (Paramshiva) in everything and everywhere, and not by renunciation of the world. The impending battle between Pandvas and Kaurvas is interpreted as the race between Vidya (knowledge, perception) and Avidya (ignorance, blurred perception).
The Tantraloka or Light on the Tantras, which appears to have been written after Abhinavagupta had attained enlightenment, is one of the great accomplishments in Indian theology. It weaves together citations from dozens of authoritative scriptures, into a monumental twelve-volume encyclopedic work. The many quotations in the Tantraloka appear to have been cited from memory. Its discourse moves among the realms of rigorous logical philosophy, scripturally-grounded theology, and personal mystical experience. It influenced theological thought and the understanding of the inner meaning of ritual in the Shaiva and Shakta schools for centuries afterward. Tantrasara is a brief prose summary of Tantraloka, which is written in metrical form. Both are based on Malini Vijayatantra, belonging to the Agama school. (The Agamas are believed to be ancient revelations emphasizing the doctrine of liberation through Jnana (knowledge) and Kriya (action).)
Pratyabhijnavimarshini and its larger edition Viviriti belong to the Pratyabhijna (recognition) school of Shaiva Shastra as propounded by Utpala Deva and originated by Somananda. Both Vedanta and Shaivism professed the same goal: "the removal of veil of ignorance." While in Vedanta the negation of facts of experience was the requirement for realization of the self, Shaivism taught that the self was realized through embracing the facts of experience and recognizing itself in every aspect of the universe. Abhinavagupta defined the term "Pratyabhijna" as: “Recognition of that supreme self is by coming face to face with what was forgotten through effulgence (of consciousness).” Abhinavagupta explained cognition as taking place “when the past perception and the present perception are revived (by the object coming in full view)." Ahbinavagupta explains the apparent contradiction between unity and plurality by saying that in essence, objects are internally one consciousness, but externally, at the illusory level, they are differentiated by physical characteristics.
Among Abhinavagupta’s contributions to aesthetics is his analysis of eight types of rasa (the emotional experience of poetry or drama). He explored how the appreciation of art, music, poetry and literature was heightened by the removal of moha (ignorance), and how their beauty was enhanced through knowledge of Brahman.
Contemporary pânditas and spiritual personages recognized Abhinavagupta as the spiritual head of all the Shaiva schools and as an incarnation of Bhairava (Shiva) himself. On the authority of contemporaneous writers whose works have survived, Abhinavagupta apparently showed all the signs of a fully realized master: he demonstrated unswerving devotion to Shiva; possessed the mantra-siddhi or power of mantras; had control over the elements; was capable of fulfilling any desire; and had spontaneous knowledge of all the scriptures.”
"Abhinavagupta has made the blazing Sun of commentary [on Tantra] manifest that is bent on extirpating the darkness of misleading, wretched commentaries lacking the refinement of good teaching and tradition … [and] by its flashing lustre, melts the coagulated stream of innumerable bonds." Somanda on Abhinavagupta.
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