Shakti and Shakta

by John Woodroffe | 1929 | 243,591 words

A collection of papers and essays addressing the Śakti aspect of the Śākta school of Hindu philosophy by John Woodroffe, also known as Arthur Avalon....

Chapter XVI - Matter and Consciousness

[Short Summary of Address delivered at the Dacca Sahitya Parishat, June 1916.]

THE subject of my lecture to-day is Consciousness or Cit, and Matter or Unconsiousness, that is, Acit; the unchangeing formlessness and the changing forms. According to Śākta Advaitavāda, man is Consciousness-Unconsciousness or Cit-Acit; being Cit-Śakti as regards his Antarātmā, and the particularized Māyā-Śakti as to his material vehicles of mind and body. The reason that I have selected this subject, amongst the many othem on which I might have addressed you, is that these two ideas are the key concepts of Indian Philosophy and religion. If they are fully understood both as to their definition and relations, then, all is understood so far as intellect can make such matters intelligible to us; if they are not understood then nothing is properly understood. Nor are they always understood even by those who profess to know and write on Indian Philosophy. Thus, the work on Vedānta, of an English Orientalist, now in its second edition, describes Cit as the condition of a stone or other inert substance. A more absurd error it is hard to imagine. Those who talk in this way have not learnt the elements of their subject. It is true that you will find in the Śāstra, the state of the Yogīdescribed as being like a log (Kāśtavat). But this does not mean that his Consciousness is that of a piece of wood: but that he no more perceives the external world than a log of wood does. He does not do so because he has the Samādhi consciousness that is Illumination and True Being itself.

I can to-night only scratch at the surface of a profound subject. To properly expound it would require a series of lectures, and to understand it in its depth, years of thinking thereon. I will look at the matter first from the scientific point of view; secondly, state what these concepts mean in themselves; and thirdly, show how they are related to one another in the Sāṃkhya and the Māyāvāda and Śaktivāda presentments of Vedānta doctrine. The Śaktivāda of which I deal to-night may be found in the Tantras. It has been supposed that the Āgamas arose at the close of the age of the Upaniṣads. They are Śāstras of the Upāsanā Kāṇḍa dealing with the worship of Saguṇa Īśvara. It has been conjectured that the arose partly because of the declining strength of the Vaidika Ācāra, and partly because of the increasing number of persons within the Hindu fold, who were not competent for the Vaidika Ācāra, and, for whomo some spiritual discipline was necessary. One common feature distinguishes them; namely, their teaching is for all castes and all women. They express the liberal principle that whilst socially differences may exist, the parth of religion is open to all, and that spiritual competency and not the external signs of caste determine the position of persons on that path. Ishvara in these Āgamas is worshipped in threefold forms as Viṣṇu, Śiva, Devī. Therefore, the Āgamas or Tantras are threefold, Vaiṣṇava, Śaiva and Śākta, such as the Pancarātra Āgamas of the first group, the Śaiva Siddhānta (with its 28 Tantras), the Nakuliśa Pāśupata, and the Kashmirian Trika of the second group; and the alleged division into Kaula, Miśra, Sāmaya of the third group. I express no opinion on this last division. I merely refer to this matter in order to explain what I mean by the word Āgama. The Śaktivāda, however, which I contrast with Māyāvāda to-day, is taken from the Śākta Āgama. By Māyāvāda I mean Śaṃkara’s exposition of Vedānta.

Now, with reference to the scientific aspect of the subject, I show you that in three main particulars, modern western physics and psychology support Indian philosophy, whatever such support may be worth. Indeed, Mr. Lowes Dickinson, in an acute recent analysis of the state of ideas in India, China and Japan observes that the Indian form of religion and philosopliy is that which most easily accommodates itself to modern western science. That does not prove it is true, until it is established that the conclusions of western science to which it does conform are true. But the fact is of great importance in countering those who have thought that eastern ideas were without rational foundation. It is of equal importance to those two classes who either believe in the ideas of India, or in the particular conclusions of science to which I refer. The three points on this head are firstly, that physicists, by increasing their knowledge of so-called “matter,” have been led to doubt its reality, and have dematerialized the atom, and, with it, the entire universe which the various atoms compose. The trinity of matter, ether and electricity out of which science has hitherto attempted to construct the world, has been reduced to a single element—the ether (which is not scientific “matter”) in a state of motiion. According to Sāṃkhya, the objective world is composed of the Bhūtas which derive ultimately from Ākāśa. I do not say that scientific “ether” is Ākāśa, which is a concept belonging to a different train of thought. Moreover the sensible is derived from the supersensible Ākāśa Tanmātra, and is not therefore an ultimate. But it is important to note the agreement in this, that both in East and West, the various forms of gross matter derive from some single substance which is not “matter.” Matter is dematerialized, and the way is made for the Indian concept of Māyā. There is a point at which the mind cannot any longer usefully work outward. Therefore, after the Tanmātra, the mind is turned within to discover their cause in that Egoism which, reaching forth to the world of enjoyment produces sensorium, senses, and objects of sensation. That the mind and senses are also material has the support of some forms of western philosophy, such as that of Herbert Spencer, for he holds that the Universe, whether physical or psychical, is a play of force which in the case of matter we experience as object. Mind as such is, he says, as much a “material” organ as the brain and outer sense-organs, though they are differing forms of Force. His affirmation that scientific “matter” is an appearance produced by the play of cosmic force, and that mind itself is a product of the same play, is what Sāṃkhya and Vedānta hold. The way again is opened for the concept, Māyā. Whilst, however, Spencer and the Agnostic School hold that the Reality behind these phenomena is unknowable, the Vedānta affirms that it is knowable and is Consciousness itself. This is the Self than which nothing can be more intimately known. Force is blind. We discover consciousness in the Universe. It is reasonable to suppose that if the first case is of the nature of either Consciousness or Matter, and not of both, it must be of the nature of the former and not of the latter. Unconsciousness or object may be conceived to modify Consciousness, but not to produce Consciousness out of its unconscious Self. According to Indian ideas, Spirit which is the cause of the Universe is pure Consciousness. This is Niṣkala Śiva: and, as the Creator, the great Mother or Devī. The existence of pure consciousness in the Indian sense has been decried by some thinkers in the West, where generally to its pragmatic eye, Consciousness is always particular having a particular direction and form. It assumes this particularity, however, through Māyā. We must distinguish between Consciousness as such and modes in consciousness. Consciousness is the unity behind all forms of consciousness, whether sensation, emotion, instinct, will or reason. The claim that Consciousness as such exists can only be verified by spiritual experience. All high mystic experiences, whether in East or West, have been experiences of unity in differing forms and degrees. Even, however, in normal life as well as in abnormal pathological states, we have occasional stretches of experience in which it becomes almost structureless. Secondly, the discovery of the subliminal Consciousness aids Śāstric doctrine, in so far as it shows that behind the surface consciousness of which, we are ordinarily aware, there is yet another mysterious field in which all its operations grow. It is the Buddhi which here manifests. Well-established oocult powers and phenomena now generally accepted such as telepathy, thought-reading, hypnotism and the like are only explainable on hypotheses which approach more nearly Eastern doctrine than any other theory which has in modern times prevailed in the West. Thirdly, as bearing on this subject, we have now the scientific recognition that from its materia prima all forms have evolved; that there is life or its potency in all thing: and that there are no breaks in nature. There is the same matter and Consciousness throughout. There is unity of life. There is no such thing as “dead” matter. The well-known experiences of Dr. Jagadish Bose establish response to stimuli in inorganic matter. This response may be interpreted to indicate the existence of that Sattva Guṇa which Vedānta and Sāṃkhya affirm to exist in all things organic or inorganic. It is the play of Cit in this Sattva, so muflled in Tamas as not to be recognizable except by delicate scientific experiment, which appears as the socalled “mechanical” response. Consciousness is here veiled and imprisoned by Tamas. Inorganic matter displays it in the form of that seed or rudiment of sentiency which, enlarging into the simple pulses of feeling of the lowest degrees of organized life, at length emerges in the developed selfconscious sensations of human life. Consciousness is throughout the same. What varies is its wrappings. There is, thus, a progressive release of Consciousness from gross matter, through plants and animals to man. This evolution, Indian doctrine has taught in ita 84 lakhs of previous births. According to the Hindu books, plants have a dormant consciousness. The Mahābhārata says that plants can see and thus they reach the light. Such power of vision would have been ridiculed not long ago, but, Professor Haberlandt, the well-known botanist, has established that plants possees an organ of vision in the shape of a convex lens on the upper surface of the leaf. The animal consciousness is greater, but seems to display itself almost entirely in the satisfaction of animal’s wants. In man, we reach the world of ideas, but these are a superstructure on consciousness, and not its foundation or basis. It is in this modeless basis that the various modes of consciousness with which we are familiar in our waking and dreaming states arise.

The question then arises as to the relation of this principle of Form with Fomlessness; the unconscious finite with infinite consciousness. It is noteworthy that in the Thomistic philosophy, Matter, like Prakṛti, is the particularizing or fintizing principle. By their definition, however, they are opposed. How then can the two be one?

Sāṃkhya denies that they are one, and says they are two separate independent principles. This, Vedānta in its turn, denies for it says that there is in fact only one true Reality, though from the empirical, dualistic standpoint there seem to be two. The question then is asked, Is dualism, pluralism, or monism to be accepted? For the Vedāntist the answer of Śruti is that it is the last. But, apart from this, the question is, Does Śruti record a true experience, and is it the fact that spiritual experience is monistic or dualistic? The answer is, as we can see from history, that all high mystic experiences are experiences of unity in differing forms and degrees.

The question cannot be decided solely by discussion, but by our conclusion as to the conformity of the particular theory held with spiritual experience. But how can we reconcile the unity of pure consciousness with the plurality of unconscious forms which the world of experience gives us? Vedānta gives various intellectual interpretations, though experience alone can solve this question. Śaṃkara says there is only one Sadvastu, the Brahman. From a transcendental standpoint, It is, and nothing happens. There is, in the state of highest experience (Paramātma), no Īśvara, no creation, no world, no Jīva, no bondage, no liberation. But empirically he must and does admit the world or Māyā, which in its seed is the cosmic Saṃskāra, which is the cause of all these notions which from the highest state are rejected.

But is it real or unreal? Śaṃkara says it is neither. It cannot be real, for then there would be two Reals. It is not unreal, for the world is an empirical fact—an experience of its kind, and it proceeds from the Power of Īśvara. In truth, it is unexplainable, and as Sāyana says, more wonderful than Cit itself. But if it is neither Sat nor Asat, then as Māyā it is not the Brahman who is Sat. Does it then exist in Pralaya and if so how and where? How can unconsciousness exist in pure consciousness? Śaṃkara calls it eternal, and says that in Pralaya, Māyāsattā is Brahrnasattā. At that time, Māyā as the power of the ideating consciousness, and the world, its thought do not exist: and only the Brahman is. But if so how does the next universe arise on the assumption that there is Pralaya and that there is not with Him as Māyā the seed of the future universe? A Bīja of Māyā as Saṃskāra, even though Avyakta (not present to Consciousness), is yet by its terms different from consciousness. To all such questionings, Śaṃkara would say, they are themselves the product of the Māyā of the state in which they are put. This is true, but it is possible to put the matter in a simpler way against which there are not so many objections as may be laid against Māyāvāda.

It seems to me that Śaṃkara who combats Sāṃkhya is still much influenced by its notions, and as a result of his doctrine of Māyā he has laid himself open to the charge that his doctrine is not Śuddha Advaita. His notion of Māyā retains a trace of the Sāṃkhyan notion of separateness, though separateness is in fact denied. In Sāṃkhya, Māyā is the real Creatrix under the illumination of Puruṣ ̣ a. We find similar notions in Śaṃkara, who compares Cit to the Ayaskāntamani, and denies all liberty of self-determination in the Brahman which, though itself unchanging, is the cause of change. Jñāna Kriyā is allowed only to Īśvara, a concept which is itself the product of Māyā. To some extent the distinctions made are perhaps a matter of words. To some extent particular notions of the Āgamas are more practical than those of Śaṃkara who was a transcendentalist.

The Āgama, giving the richest content to the Divine Consciousness, does not deny to it knowledge, but, in its supreme aspect, any dual knowledge; spiritual experience being likened by the Bṛhadāranyaka Upaniṣad to the union of man and wife in which duality exists as one and there is neither within nor without. It is this union which is the Divine Līlā of Śakti, Who is yet all the time one with Her Lord.

The Śākta exposition appears to be both simple and clear. I can only sketch it roughly—having no time for its detail. It is first the purest Advaitavāda. What then does it say? It starts with the Śruti, “Sarvam Khalvidam Brahma.” Sarvam = world; Brahman = consciousness or Saccidānanda; therefore this world is in itself Consciousness.

But we know we are not perfect consciousness. There is an apparent unconsciousness. How then is this explained? The unmanifested Brahman, before all the worlds, is Nirguṇa Śiva—the Blissful undual consciousness. This is the static aspect of Śiva. This manifests Śakti which is the kinetic aspect of Brahman. Śakti and Śaktimān are one; therefore, Śiva manifests as Śiva-Śakti, Who are one and the same. Therefore Śakti is consciousness.

But Śakti has two aspects (Mūrtti), wiz., Vidyā Śakti or Cit-Śakti, and Avidyā Śakti or Māyā-Śakti. Both as Śakti (which is the same as Śaktimān) are in themselves conscious. But the difference is that whilst Cit-Śakti is illuminating consciousness, Māyā is a Śakti which veils consciousness to itself, and by its wondrous power appears as unconscious. This Māyā-Śakti is Consciousness which by its power appears as unconsciousness. This Māyā-Śakti is Triguṇa Śakti, that is, Śakti composed of the three Guṇas. This is Kāmakālāwhich is the Triguṇātmakavibhūti. These Guṇas are therefore at base nothing but Cit-Śakti. There is no necessity for the Māyāvādin’s Cidābhāsa, that is, the reflection of conscious reality on unconscious unreality, as Māyāvāba says. All is real except, in the sense that some things endure and are therefore truly real: others pass and in that sense only are not real. All is Brahman. The Antarātmā in man is the enduring Cit-Śakti. His apparently unconscious vehicles of mind and body are Brahman as Māyā-Śakti, that is, consciousness appearing as unconsciousness by virtue of its inscrutable power. Īśvara is thus the name for Brahman as Śakti which is conjoined Cit-Śakti and Māyā-Śakti.

The Mother Devī is Īśvara considered in His feminine aspect (Īśvarī) as the Mother and Nourisher of the world. The Jīva or individual self is an Aṃśa or fragment of that great Śakti: the difference being that whilst Īśvara is Māyāvin or the controller of Māyā, Jīva is subject to Māyā. The World-thinker retains His Supreme undual Consciousness even in creation, but His thought, that is the forms created by His thinking are bound by His Māyā, that is the forms with which they identify themselves until by the power of the Vidyā Śakti in them they are liberated. All is truly Sat—or Brahman. In creation Śiva extends His power, and at Pralaya withdraws it into Himself. In creation, Māyāis in itself Consciousness which appears as unconsciousness. Before creation it is as consciousness.

Important practical results follow from the adoption of this view of looking at the world. The latter is the creation of Īśvara. The world is real; being unreal only in the sense that it is a shifting passing thing, whereas Ātmā as the true Reality endures. Bondage is real, for Bondage is Avidyāśakti binding consciousness. Liberation is real for this is the grace of Vidyāśakti. Men are each Centres of Power, and if they would achieve success must, according to this Śāstra, realize themselves as such, knowing that it is Devatā which thinks and acts in, and as, them and that they are the Devatā. Their world enjoyment is His, and liberation is His peaceful nature. The Āgamas deal with the development of this Power which is not to be thought of as something without, but as within man’s grasp through various forms of Śakti Sādhanā. Being in the world and working through the world, the world itself, in the worlds of the Kulārṇ ̣ ava Tantra, becomes the seat of liberation (Mokṣāyate Saṃsāra). The Vīra or heroic Sādhaka does not shun the world from fear of it. But he holds it in his grasp and wrests from it its secret. Realizing it at length as Consciousness the world of matter ceases to be an object of desire. Escaping from the unconscious driftings of a humanity which has not yet realized itself, He is the illumined master of himself, whether developing all his powers, or seeking liberation at his will.

[As M. Masson-Oursel so well puts it (Esquisse dune histoire de la philosophie indienne, p. 257) “Dans le tantrisme triomphent une conception immanentiste de l’intelligibilité, L’esprit s’assigne pour but, non de se laisser vivre mais de se créer une vie digne de lui, une existence omnisciente omnipotente, qu’il maitrisera parce qu’il en sera auteur” (by Sādhanā).]

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