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The Concept of Sunya From Buddhism to Kashmir Shaivism to Lalla Ded

By Prof. M.L. Koul

All credible evidences from the annals of Kashmir history establish that Kashmir was a pivotal centre of Buddhist thought and learning. To counter the narrow philosophical positions of Hinyana Buddhism it was in Kashmir that the doctrinal positions and theoretical mould of the Mahayana Buddhism were formulated and shaped out. A galaxy of Buddhist scholars of great eminence who were Kashmiri in their origins or had settled in Kashmir from other parts of India contributed their speculative faculties to the enunciation of the contours of Mahayana Buddhism and enriched its thought-content by shaping out its structures. All concerted efforts were made to disseminate the thought to a number of countries beyond the margins of the native country. The Mahayana thought in its debate of Reality, Soul and Human destiny had marked features of synonymity with the mainstream thought of India.

Mahayana thought over a period of time branched off into two thought divisions of Madhyamik and Vijnanvad. In the pages of Buddhist thought Madhyamik is also designated as Sunyvad because of its core philosophy about sunya. Nagarjun, a great celebrity in the realms of Buddhist thought, founded the Madhyamik school through his work named as 'Madhyamik-Karika. In his seminal work Nagarjun rejects the idea of an object existing or not-existing permanently or temporarily. He as a way out sought for a mean or middle-path. Being an expert dialectician he searched for causes for things that were existing. His postulations were startling as the world for him did not exist and was nothing but void, and emptiness. Things that exist are inherently lacking in substance. Anything that depends on a cause to exist has no existence and reality of its own.

In the words of stcherbabsky, "A dependent existence has no existence, just as borrowed money is no real wealth."

The mainstream Indian philosophical thought was wary to accept the stipulations of Nagarjun and characterised it as a philosophy of voidism or nihilism. All affirmative schools of thought put the thesis of Nagarjun to a scathing criticism and dismissed it as destructive.

It was Dr. T.R.V. Murti who in his highly acclaimed work, Buddhism, gave a new orientation to the very concept of Sunya as propounded by Nagarjun. He forcefully argued against those scholars who had interpreted sunya as voidism, emptiness or sheer nihilism. As per Dr. Murti, Nagarjun never thought of sunya as voidism, emptiness or nihilism. He places Nagarjun's sunya atpar with Brahman in Vedanta, or Vijnan in Vijnavad. Sunya, to him, is a metaphysical reality or a metaphysical concept. As Madhyamik is an absolutism, Dr. Murti calls sunya its metaphysical reality.

Dr. Murti maintains that sunya is a being that lies behind the world of relativity and conditioned existence. As a metaphysical being it is neither relative nor conditioned. He further states that world is sunya because it is relative and has no independent existence of its own.

'Sunyata' is another concept that is popular with the voidists. The critics of voidism understand it in the sense of negation. But, it, in fact, means negation of all views and even its own view.

Despite the wide-spread range of Buddhism in Kashmir, the popularity of Shiva's worship and many broad conceptualisations about popular religion never ceased to be. Being the most tolerant religion of the world religions, Buddhism was never in conflict with other forms of religions and their variegated methodologies of worship. Though a popular creed in Kashmir, Buddhism with its non-soul doctrine and sunya-like nihilistic conceptions failed to appeal to the spiritual impulse of Kashmir. The result was the churning of an affirmative strand of thought that evolved as a reaction to the formulations of the Buddhist thinkers. With Shiva as its core concept the new thought drew upon the philosophies of Sankya, Vaishnavism and Buddhism to weave its own harmonised pattern planked on non-dual structures. As a monistic absolutism it re-cycled old metaphysical and epistemological issues and evolved new approach and premis to yarn its world-view logically and coherently. Sunya as a vital Buddhist concept was appropriated, and was oriented in a manner that appeared absolutely at variance with its original Buddhist trappings and semantics.

The non-dual thinkers wedded to Shaivism put the Buddhist thesis of sunya to a thorough and incisive debate in all its ramifications. What emerges from the contours of their debate is that sunya as a metaphysical concept can be acceptable and accorded the same position that Brahman in Vedanta has. They appear to have no serious objections to place sunya even at par with Vijnan in Vijnanvad. But, they have far-reaching reservations to treat sunya at par with the metaphysical Reality of Shiva who has the pre-eminent attribute of 'Swatantrya', which is perfect freedom to act and know. Because of the attribute of 'Swantantrya', Shiva is 'Chaitanya' and sunya is lacking in this essential attribute. So, they evaluate sunya as a lower level of reality which they are unable to accept as the absolute Reality that Shiva encompasses.

The Shaiva thinkers seriously object to the voidist position of rejecting the world as emptiness or void. The world, to them, is neither insubstantial nor momentary. In their thought-model Shiva pre-exists as a being and Shakti is His becoming and their unicity is the absolute reality. If Shiva is real, so is His Shakti. As per logic, that what is real will generate or emanate real. Real generating or emanating unreal is logically preposterous. The Shaiva thinkers are loud in their assertion that world and objects in the world are real as they are one with the light of consciousness. If they were not to appear or illumine in the light of consciousness, they would not exist at all.

The non-dual shaivites are unanimous is rejecting the Buddhist thesis of monetariness as it reduces all manner of experiences, fleeting and abiding, to mere nothingness. As emphasised by them, the concept of momentariness dismisses all possibilities of making judgments and establishing contact through expression and communication.

In the annals of philosophy it is well-known that no new thought is totally new. What appears as new has ideas, concepts and stipulations from that what is dismissed as old and jaded. The non-dual thesis of Kashmir Shaivism as already mentioned has strands from Shaiva Siddhant of South of India, Sahajyani Buddhism, Sankhya and varied philosophies of Vaihsnavism. Sunya as a concept has been incorporated from Buddhism, especially its variant called Madhyamik. The Shaivite thinkers have modified sunya to reinforce and strengthen their own philosophical positions and fundamental thesis of monism. The Buddhist meanings and trappings of sunya have been totally discarded and given a new orientation in sync with the core philosophy of non-dual Shaivims. The very definition of sunya has been altered as 'shunyam ashunaym iti ukhtam which in translation  means 'shunya is said to be ashunya'. It is not an inexplicable riddle. The definition makes it clear that sunya is not void or emptiness. What we call sunya does contain something lying in a state of total mergence.

The Shaivites translate sunya as 'abhava', which when broken up becomes 'a + bhava' meaning Shiva and world or objects lying in His consciousness. Sunya, to them, is in no case or condition as what the Buddhists call void or emptiness. Sunya is what the Shaivites call 'sad-bhava' which marks the presence of world or objects, but in a state of total mergence.

The following verse explains the Shaivite position on sunya:-

ashunaym shunyam iti ukhtam, shunyat abhava uchyate,

abhava satu vigyeyo yatra bhava layam gata

It conveys that sunya is asunya, not the condition of sunya, void or emptiness. Sunya means abhava (in translation), which again means a state in which objects (bhavas) lie in a condition of absolute mergence (in Shiva's consciousness supreme, the objects are there, but not in their name and form, but in a state of absolute dilution indistinguishable from Shiva's consciousness supreme also called 'maha-vyom'.

Sunya in the vakhs of Lalla Ded

Lalla Ded had a strong theoretical knowledge of the tenets of non-dual Shaiva philosophy of Kashmir. She was fortunate enough to have a preceptor (guru) like Sidda Srikanth, popularly known as Syada mol, who happened to be in the line of the tradition of Shaiva acharyas. Besides theoretical studies Lalla Ded as demanded by the thought itself was initiated in the Shaiva praxis by the same preceptor. As her mystical experiences reveal she was put on the path of higher ascension and had to achieve Sivahood through the Shaiva-yoga which her venerated preceptor had introduced to her dose by dose, step by step.

As Lalla Ded was a Shaiva practitioner she happened to experience some such states where she felt that she neither belonged to the world of objects nor had the spiritual flashes that would have satiated her yearnings of attaining identity with Shiva. Such of her conditions are termed as sunya which every initiate has to experience while working out Shaiva praxis under the guidance of a Shiva-guru, a realised soul.

After rummaging all the available verions of Lala Ded's vaakhs I was able to find out seven vaakhs in which Lalla Ded has made an explicit mention of sunya, a state she had to experience before achieving the state of self-recognition. She was an ardent follower of the Shaiva precept of 'Shivo Bhutwa Shivam Yajet'.

Lalla Ded ardently worked out the Shaiva Yoga, the practices prescribed in it. A situation emerged when the external world appeared to get absorbed in her own self and the imbalance between subject and object appeared to disappear and all got merged into sunya (void). It is a stage in her spiritual evolution and not the situation in which she finally attained Sivahood. She even ascended the state of sunya when she had felt that the world of name and form had risen to absorption. What was left was the state of anamaya which in Shaiva parlence means the condition of supremacy of the luminosity of consciousness supreme carrying the stir (spand) to create and absorb. The experience intensely felt by Lalla Ded has been grippingly conveyed in the vaakh:

‘abhyas savikas layi wothu

gaganas saghun myul samistrata!

Sunya gol ta anamaya motu

yuhuy wopadesh chuy bata !!

Being aware of the entire upanishadic ouvre of literature Lalla Ded has woven a superb allegory to explain the three functions of Param Shiva who creates, maintains and assimilates the universe. For the purpose she mentions Shiva who is the horse, Keshav who is the saddle and Brahma who is the sitrrups. The horse in the allegory is the 'trigunatmac horse' and Param Shiva alone having the attributes of 'anahat, kha swaroop, shunyalai’ is capable of riding it.

Anahat, Kha-Swaroop, Shunyalai, aham-vimarsa and nada-binda have philosophical meanings and need be studied in the light of the thought Lalla Ded was thoroughly cultivated by her preceptor.

As per the Shaiva texts Bindu is the undifferentiated, luminous and eternal consciousness supreme. Nada is the Shakti, the potency to manifest what lies in the Bindu. Bindu expands from Chitta-kala to anand-shakti, Iccha Shakti, Jnan Shakti and Kriya Shakti.

Many unrelated meanings have been attributed to anahat. What Lalla Ded means by anahat is related to Bindu and Nada. Anahat is 'pranav', Om, an unhindered and eternal sound, which is Bindu when in a state of unity with Param Shiva and Nada when in outward expansion.

Kha-swaroop and shunyalai are the attributes of Param Shiva who is beyond time and space and is the abode of sunya which means that in the consciousness of Shiva the world of objects lies in a state of total mergence.

Lalla Ded conveyes:

Anahat Kha-Swaroop, Sunyalai

Aham-Vimarsa Nada Byand Yas Von

As a Shaiva practitioner Lalla Ded merged her two breaths, pran and apan, into the Sushmana-nadi, also known as madhyanadi, which is considered as having a sunya like condition. She realised that the outward world had ceased to be for her and the state of duality was not a reality. In this psychic condition of having broken with the outward world she experienced a new state of having lost her not-self, which till then was under the delusion of taking it as her real self. With his experience as her sheet anchor she felt that the lotus of self-luminosity was about to enfold and bloom.

The following vaakh conveys the same felt-experience:-

Sunyuk madan kodum panas

mea Lalli roozam na bodh na hosh

Vazay sapnis panai panas

ada kami hili phol Lalli pamposh !!

Kashmir thought of Shaiva non-dual is a philosophy of positive affirmation and has in no uncertain terms rejected all forms of asceticism. Lalla as evidenced by her vaakhs has lived a life of high moral values in which avaricious greed, lust and insatiable eating have no place. Greed, lust and indiscriminate indulgence in pleasures of eating signify attachment of an individual to the things that he takes for his real self. That is why Lalla says that vain imaginings are to be abandoned and petty desires are to be slain. It never means that she is preaching for any form of asceticism. Her emphasis is to abandon any form of attachment that encases the real self of an aspirant. Lalla exhorts to concentrate on Shiva, which will pave his way to the attainment of a state where he will get merged in Sunya, a name for transcendental Shiva in which the world and its objects lie in a condition of absolute dilution. The following verse is meaningful in this context:-

Loob marun sahaz vetsarun

drogu zanun kalpan trav !

Nishe chuy ta duru mo garun

sunes sunyah milith gauv !!

Before Lalla Ded achieved her spiritual state of serlf-recognition she had followed many a course to act out their efficacy and usefulness in achieving her destination. She had studied Tantras, especially Bhairav Tantras and the practices prescribed in them. She utilised all her learning from them and took to mantras, worked them out and marched ahead. She felt that what she had achieved through Tantras and Mantras was that she had purified her chitta, limited form of chitti, consciousness supreme. After purification of her chitta, which was there but was free from the disturbance brought about by subject-object relationship, Lalla Ded attained the state of an aspirant, who has attained a loftiness of spiritual hue and is in ecstasy where nothing remains, but her own self stripped of all malas of attachment and duality. She in this lofty state merged into sunya, transcendental Shiva in whom the world of objects remains submerged in an undifferentiated form.

Lalla Ded sings:

Tanthar gali tai manthar motse

manthar gol tai motseyi chyath !

Tseth gol tai kenh ti na kune

sunes sunyah milith gauv !!

Sunya to Lalla Ded has come from non-dual thought of Kashmir, Shaivism which in turn had appropriated it from Buddhist thought. As a superb poet she sang it in vaakhs couching her intensely-felt experiences. Being a philosophical concept, Lalla Ded communicates the states of sunya that she had experienced  during the course of her spiritual evolution. She is a great poet because she makes her felt experiences the stuff of her verse-sayings. Her poetry is great because she is philosophical in what she conveys and pours out.

Source: Kashmir Sentinel



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