An Interview with Deba Brata Sensharma
by Maryellen Lo Bosco
Although interest in Tantra has been growing in the West over the last decade or two, few people have more than a rudimentary knowledge of the subject, and indeed, too many people have gross misconceptions about this vast body of spiritual science. Tantric practices are probably as ancient as the indigenous peoples of India, but only much later on became clearly defined as a philosophy. From around the 9th century A.D., up to the 15th century A.D., Advaita (nondualistic) Shaivism, one of the major tributaries to the river of Tantra, flourished in the Kashmir Valley and birthed great philosophers and Tantric masters in the school of what came to be known as Kashmir Shaivism.
Although the Muslim invasion of Kashmir effectively wiped out the practice of Tantra there, the scholastic tradition survived and has recently been brought to the West. Kashmir Shaivism is a beautiful and elegant philosophy, but a difficult one to grasp; not surprisingly, there are only a handful of serious scholars writing on Shaiva Tantra. Deba Brata SenSharma is among them. Dr. SenSharma is a student of the late Gopinath Kaviraj, a mystic who was probably this century's leading expert on the Shaiva traditions. Currently Dr. SenSharma is devoting all of his time to writing, after a 30-year career of teaching Indian philosophy and Sanskrit.
|Dr. Deba Brata Sensharma|
He has published The Philosophy of Sadhana, (Albany: SUNY Press, 1990), which examines Tantric sadhana (practice) in the light of shaktipata, or the descent of divine grace, (and will soon publish a new book on Kashmir Shaivism with SUNY). While shaktipata is an implicit idea in the other Indian philosophical schools, it is an explicit and central concept in Shaiva Tantra. Shaktipata in its broadest sense is said to be transmitted through everything that brings us to the spiritual path and moves us closer to the goal. But in the specific context of Shaivism, it is the grace of God that comes through a genuine guru-through initiation and afterwards.
The ultimate goal, according to this Tantric philosophy, is somewhat different from either Yoga or Vedanta. The yogi seeks an end to pain by discerning the difference between consciousness (purusha) and manifestation (prakriti) and to realize his or her identification with purusha, the seer. The end goal of Yoga is kaivalya - sometimes translated as isolation. The Vedantins seek to unmask maya (the root cause of the manifest world, which is called unreal, because it is subject to death, decay, and destruction) and become established in the Self (Brahman, the Real). But the goal of the Shaivists is to recognize their true nature as Shiva (consciousness) and then turn to all of creation and see it as divine.
As a scholar and seeker, Dr. Sensharma had the good fortune to meet a number of saints and sages, including Anandamayi Ma, Hari Har Baba, and Swami Vidyaranya, who along with his teacher, Gopinath Kavaraj, helped shape his spiritual outlook. As he told me during our conversation, "I was, and even now, am like a black bee on the lookout for the spiritual aroma, wherever I may find it." In the interview that follows, Dr. SenSharma talks about some of the central ideas of the Trika school, which is the correct name for the philosophy that has been popularly labeled "Kashmir Shaivism." He also shares some of his experiences with his own teacher.
The ultimate goal of Shaiva Tantra is Self-recognition, or to realize that "I am Shiva." The ultimate goal of Yoga is kaivalya-isolation. Is that different? Do adherents of different philosophical schools have different goals and end up with different realizations?
There is a level to which all these systems go. For instance, the practitioner of Vedanta is interested in realizing his Brahman nature. As soon as he realizes that, the world disappears. That is one idea. The Samkhyan is interested in kaivalya. He wants separation of purusa from prakrti. The Yogi also tries for that. And they get it. But here it is different. In Shaivism it is integration. You want to divinize the entire creation. You want to experience it as if it is your own glory, your own projection. The ideal here is a broader one.
Is the actual experience of a fully accomplished Yogi so different from what a Shaivite practitioner experiences?
Sometimes it is different. It all depends on what you want. Let me illustrate with an example. There is a term, moksha (liberation), or mukti (freedom), which is used repeatedly in all the systems. But there is another ideal: "amritatva" (literally, "that is the nectar," which refers to the nectar of immortality). The Upanishads say amritatva is the ultimate goal of life. The Upanishads use this word 52 times, but use the word moksha only twice. Why? Are the two ideals, moksha and amritatva, the same or different? What I feel is that they are not the same. Moksha is based on negation. You want to negate what is unreal (maya-or the world as we normally perceive it) and live in the real (Brahman, or the Self). That is the goal of Vedanta philosophy. But in striving for amritatva, you want extension of yourself. You want to enjoy the bliss underlying the creation. Everything should appear to you as if it is of the nature of Brahman.
There is a famous mantra occurring in the Rig Veda, which loosely translated means, "The air, the breeze which is blowing, is giving bliss. The water is oozing bliss. The entire universe is full of bliss." I consider this to be a superior idea. You want to divinize the entire creation, to taste its bliss nature. You want to integrate it. That is what Shaivites want. I feel that this idea of amritatva is far more comprehensive and more significant than becoming Brahman and losing one's identity.
M. P. Pandit and others say that Shankaracharya (founder of nondualistic Vedanta) later in his career turned more toward Tantra and that, in fact, the ritual in the maths (monastaries) is Tantric. Saundaryalahari, a Tantric text in the school of Shaktism, is attributed to Shankaracharya. Do you agree?
Shankara's main purpose was to remove the influence of Buddhism and Mimamsa, his two rival philosophies. For that he took to dialectics-tarka. He had a double approach: one for the samnyasins (renunciates who had left the world) and one for householders. He had two kinds of disciples also. And for the householders, he had a different thing to say, which is seen in his Dakshinamurti Strotra, which is nothing but Shaivism, and his Saundaryalahari, which is based on a Tantric outlook. So I fully believe that in practice he was a follower of Tantra. But in preaching to samnyasins-because his main purpose was to interpret the import of the Veda, which people had forgotten-Shankara taught Vedanta, the essence of the Upanishads.
One of the central ideas in Shaivism is the concept of spanda-"the doctrine of vibration"-which holds that the universe is born out of primordial vibration. Can you define spanda and how it is related to mantra science, which also seems to figure prominently in Tantric schools?
It is difficult to explain this concept briefly, but it can be said that divine Shakti, an integral aspect of Shiva, functions ceaselessly to reveal the divine glory of the Lord, both as transcendent being and also simultaneously as the cosmos. The incessant activity of Shakti (consciousness made manifest) is called spanda-vibration or pulsation, or it is sometimes called urmi, which means web. Physicists tell us that several particles like electrons, protons, neutrons, etc., moving round the nucleus in an atom cause vibration or pulsation. The atom has infinite energy locked up inside it, which keeps on dancing within. In the same way, pure consciousness (Shiva) has Shakti ever-vibrating in its bosom. The dance of Shakti occurs during creative involution, when that energy is thrown out and creates the cosmos. The Yogis experience spanda as waves of bliss, a rasa (juice), oozing from the core of Shiva.
Mantra is ultimately related to this idea. Actually, divine, vital energy is encased in mantra, which is not just an aggregate of phonemes. Mantra is a seed that contains the totality of divine Shakti. When the guru gives a mantra to a disciple, he awakens that latent potency, which may actually be experienced by the disciple during initiation. It is like a seed planted in the disciple's udhara (mind-body organism) which, if carefully nurtured, develops into a full-fledged tree of spiritual realization.
Here's a quote from Mark Dyczkowski's The Docrtine of Vibration: "The closer we come to experiencing the moment in which the impulse to action arises, the more directly we come into contact with the concrete actuality of the present and the authenticity of our being." Could you elaborate on that?
Actually, he's speaking of kshana. There are two opposing forces. If you explain it in terms of pranayama, there are two pranas-prana and apana (upward and downward moving energies in the subtle body). When prana and apana are equalized, then sushumna (the central "nerve" channel in the pranic body) opens up. That moment. If you can catch that moment, you can experience infinity. That is what it means. That's also in the Yoga Sutra. It's called nitya-vartamana-the eternal present. It is in Christianity also, this eternal present. In Sanskrit it is called kshana. This is the same as kundalini awakening.
Why is shaktipata given so much emphasis in Tantra?
Shaktipata is the turning point in the spiritual life of an aspirant. Without it there is no ascent, no going over to the other side of maya. It is a divine dispensation. It may come anytime, to anyone. It may come with your knowing it; it might come without your being aware of it. Though other schools of spiritual thought do not explicitly say so, they too admit the necessity of approaching a spiritual master for initiation in a particular path of sadhana.
Is shaktipata transmitted when you receive any kind of initiation, even though you may not be aware of it?
Yes. If you go to a guru, he may touch you, he may not touch you, or he may just see you. You can sometimes get mantra initiation even in a dream. In Varanasi (Benaras), we used to go to Hari Har Baba. People used to approach him freely, but he would never speak a single word. He would never look at you. But there were people who received a mantra from him.
You've explained in your book that when a guru gives shaktipata, he or she doesn't vary it according to the aspirant. The intensity of this "descent of divine grace" is actually determined by the sadhaka-according to that person's ability to receive it or absorb it. Can you elaborate on that?
Actually, shaktipata descends uniformly on all people. It is always coming; it's a continuing process. It's not received by people with the same intensity because of their incapacity to hold it. Now if I have the capacity to hold very intense shaktipata, I can get it. If I don't have that, I will only get a little. Shaktipata is always available, because Shiva is supposed to perform his five kriyas (functions) eternally, and dispensing grace (anugraha) is one of these functions. So shaktipata is eternal, looking at it from His point of view. From our point of view, we are not aware of it, because we have not prepared ourselves to receive it. But unless we receive shaktipata, we cannot begin our spiritual journey. That is said again and again in the texts.
Is it possible for a guru to make a mistake with shaktipata-to give it where it shouldn't be given?
Then he's not a guru, because unless he's commanded by Lord Shiva, how can he give shaktipata? It is the Supreme Will that works through the guru. The guru is only the agent. He cannot say on his own, "I'm going to give it to you." There are cases when people go for shaktipata, and the guru says "No, I'm not the right person to give you shaktipata, you have to go to some other place." I know of someone who went to Anandamayi Ma. She said, "I cannot give you anything, you have to go to another." And there he received it.
You've said that shaktipata can sometimes be received directly from God, without the intervention of a guru. In what instances might that happen?
It's rare. Such shaktipata is the utkrishta-tivra (extremely intense) variety. The moment you get it, you lose the body.
Wouldn't the recipient have to be somebody who has already done a lot of intense practice, someone who's already quite purified?
It may be because of that, you never know. Changes can be going on inside of you that you are not aware of. Even if you have not done sadhana previously, it may still manifest suddenly. You may not have done anything in this life. There are many instances like that. Anandamayi Ma didn't go to any guru. It developed from within. In the beginning, people thought that she must be mad-God-intoxicated, some people thought.
But Anandamayi Ma didn't leave her body . . .
It was not extremely intense. In such cases, the person won't leave the body. One will continue, because one has a purpose. Actually, God wanted her to live, so that she could give the message to suffering humanity.
After receiving shaktipata, what's the responsibility of the guru, and what of the student?
The guru takes entire charge of the disciple. He will continue to help and guide him. Dr. Kaviraj told me how he had received initiation from Swami Vishuddhananda. Dr. Kaviraj was very particular about doing his practices at certain times. He always did one practice at dusk. But one day he got busy talking to somebody-teaching somebody-and he forgot that it was time for worship. His wife came to remind him and saw he was engaged. Then she went to the room where he did his practice to light the lamp. But she found somebody sitting there! She shrieked, and then that somebody-a white looking figure-dis-appeared. He went through the window. Kavirajji rushed into the room and asked her what happened. She said, "I saw somebody there who looked like Swami Vishuddhananda." Immediately, Kavirajji realized that his guru had come to do his duty! When he related this incident, he explained to me that the guru always does that, if he's a true guru.
So what's the disciple's duty?
To obey the guru and do what he is told to do.
In your book you speak of the three malas-bodies or coverings-that have to be destroyed in order to achieve liberation. Can you elaborate on that in light of the theory of karma and reincarnation?
The first body arises out of Shiva's putting limitation on Himself. He is Shiva and He wants to be jiva (consciousness embodied as a human being). He wants to be pashu (a fettered being). And in order to be pashu, He has to negate His divine, absolute nature. He does that freely. He imposes limitation on Himself. When Shiva becomes pashu, He has no body. Then He comes under the influence of maya and the five kanchukas (limitations). They also enwrap Him and limit Shiva's powers of omniscience, omnipresence, and so forth. He then takes monadic form and is oblivious to His divine nature. Then comes karmamala, the third covering. The residual impressions of karma done by all jivas constitute this covering. These impressions lie in one place. They stick to the spiritual monads (chidanus), compelling them to assume gross physical bodies.
How do they get attached to a particular jiva?
I'm talking about the first creation. Karmamalas are there from the previous cycle. You get a body in accordance with the karma seeds attached to the chidanu, and then you are known as shakala-embodied being. A sadhaka can, through spiritual practice dissolve the second and third coverings, but only shaktipata can destroy the first-anavamala.
According to this system, if you start at the lowest rung, in terms of sadhana, is it possible to achieve liberation in this life?
Yes. It all depends on the intensity of shaktipata.
But how do you get shaktipata? You say, according to how much you can contain, so it's all back on the sadhaka again!
Actually, there are two standpoints. From the standpoint of Shiva, shaktipata is always available. From your standpoint, you are not receiving it. Something is wrong.
Definitely! Something is wrong somewhere!
Yes. Then you have to think in terms of sadhana. You have to see how you can get it.
So you always have to do sadhana. You really can't get around that?
No. But from Shiva's point of view, shaktipata is always there.
What are the actual practices? It would seem that for the more advanced practices, in which you simply have to recognize yourself as consciousness, that you'd need an extremely sharp and purified mind. Does that presuppose that you've already prepared yourself?
Yes. You have to purify your mind-not in all cases, but in most cases. Even to receive shaktipata, you have to prepare yourself to hold it and make proper use of it.
Are some of the practices similar to classical yoga?
Yes, mantra japa . . . all these practices are necessary to progress. asanas are very important, because they help in meditation and in achieving perfect concentration, but Shaivites do not consider them indispensable. The same is true of other classical yoga practices. Pranayama is given a very important place in this scheme of sadhana.
If you receive very mild shaktipata, you have to compensate by your efforts for the mild intensity. You have to put in more effort. But without shaktipata, you cannot progress. You cannot reach a certain level. Unless you receive shaktipata, you cannot enter into that world of spirituality.
The Shaivites are not narrow-minded. They draw ideas freely from classical yoga, mantra yoga, hatha yoga, and so forth. Their philosophy of life is based on an integral vision of truth. Their aim is not negation of this mundane world, but its transformation into the divine play of the supreme consciousness, or Shiva.
There's a lot of emphasis in the Trika school, as well as other schools, on bhakti (devotion). Some people have trouble with that. Why is devotion important? How does it help?
Actually, the devotee and devoted are not two, from the ultimate standpoint. But it is difficult to concentrate on your own self, because the self is not visible. You have an image, and you concentrate on that. Ultimately, when you reach that, when you can identify with that, you will see that the image is nothing but yourself. Devotion is an intermediate step. Devotion may also be easy, if you have that inclination of mind. But the image is also nothing but Shiva.
Do you think it's possible to achieve Self-realization without practicing bhakti?
Bhakti is not necessary for all. Ultimately, bhakti will also disappear, because for whom will you have bhakti?
In the West, some people have become fascinated with some of the more sensational Tantric practices-such as using sex, wine, and so forth as part of ritual. Do any genuine practitioners in India actually engage in these rituals?
Very few. If they do, they do not come out in public. Actually, these practices are not meant for all-it is said again and again. They are meant for those who understand the symbolism. These rituals are symbolic. Unfortunately, people read about these things in books and misunderstand or misuse them.
Such texts speak in sandhyabhashya-which means the twilight language. It has one meaning to ordinary people and another meaning to initiates. Sri Aurobindo says that the Vedas use this kind of language. When the Vedas speak of agni, for example-it's not material agni-material fire.
What is meant there is the fire of consciousness. Sri Aurobindo explains this in his beautiful introduction to the Hymns to Mystic Fire. This was the practice in ancient times, to speak in twilight language. And in Tantra, you find the same thing.
Tantric practice often involves ritual. Are such practices suitable for Westerners?
Ritual cannot be performed by reading a book. You have to perform ritual as directed by the teacher. So ritual has a place. But it has to be undertaken under the supervision of a teacher. Tantric rituals are not meant for everyone. Unless you have a guru, you cannot practice these rituals. Mostly if there is someone who knows, he doesn't say so, and he won't teach you.
What's a Tantra for the West?
The problem is, where will you find a guru who knows Tantra? They are not easy to find.
Can you tell us a little about your teacher, Gopinath Kaviraj? Was he a Tantric?
I went to Kavarajji for academic purposes, and was with him for seven years. When I started working on Kashmir Shaivism, I had great difficulty in following the texts. No translations were available in those days. One day, somebody told me, "There is one Gopinath Kavirraj who can help you in this matter."
I told him I was doing research on Kashmir Shaivism and gave him my topic. He said, "Forget about your research; you have to study some texts with me." Then, for five years or more, he taught me certain texts. He would explain only a very small section of text-but he would speak on it for five hours and not allow me to take any notes.
No tape recorder?
No tape recorders were allowed in those days! He would go on speaking. Then he would ask me, do you have any questions? How could I have any questions after five hours! In between, he would ask questions sometimes, to find out whether I was attentive or not.
After five years passed, he said, "Now tell me the topic you want to work on." He gave me this advice: "Never compare the metaphysical formulations of one school with another. That will lead you nowhere. No two schools have the same outlook, the same starting point, so don't try to compare." And I think that is very good advice. Comparisons are misleading.
Sometimes, he used to talk to me about other sadhakas whom he'd met. Sometimes he would give me dictation about them. So that is how I learned something from him. He was very kind to me. He was himself a great sadhaka who had developed the highest intuitive wisdom, through his sadhana. He came in contact with many great people and gained spiritual insights. He never revealed his spiritual experiences to anyone. My own insight into the domain of spirituality was shaped by his, to a large extent. He gave me the right perspective.
Was his guru a Tantric?
I don't know, but he told me an interesting story about one of his teachers. I was wondering one day, how could he go so deeply into the Yoga Sutra? I had never seen such explanations anywhere. Kavarajji told me that he got that knowledge when he was a student from one Shivarama Kinkar Yogatrayananda, whom he met in Banaras. Shivarama was a householder who wanted to study the Yoga Sutra, but he could not find a suitable teacher. And he decided, out of a sort of dejection, that he would give up his life. "Such a beautiful scripture," he thought, "And there's no one to teach it."
But one early morning after he made this decision, he saw a beautifully illuminated form in his room. He got up from his bed immediately. He was surprised at first and thought he might be dreaming. Then that illumination took the shape of a human being-a risi. That risi told him: "You want to study the Yoga Sutra? All right. I am Patanjali. I will teach you." And he brought the book. They just went on turning over the pages. They did not even read it. But he understood it, and he got all that was contained in it--what we call the secret of Yoga. He got it. And Kavirajji had the good fortune to study the Yoga Sutra with that sadhaka.
Do you think that Tantric sadhana-or, let's say, even Yoga saadhana-is more difficult for Westerners-because the cultural embodiment is so different? Yoga is difficult for anyone, but are there additional hurdles for someone who grows up in the West?
There are no hurdles. There have been saints in Christianity, and their realizations were almost of the same kind. Kavirrajji took great interest in them. He used to mention them, because he knew German and French. He studied the medieval, Catholic saints, and he saw no difference. The Sufi saints also had similar experiences. Spirituality is one thing you cannot fake. It is only earnestness that
It is possible for Western people to follow this particular path, because all that is required is purity of mind and body and a sincere desire for spiritual upliftment. I personally know Western people who have advanced to a great extent. What is required is genuine longing, faith, and patient waiting for the descent of divine grace.