Shakti is the Face of Shiva

The Vijñāna Bhairava Tantra, one of the more well-known Tantric texts from the Kasimiri Shaivite corpus, opens with the rather severe claim that the highest Reality is beyond comprehension and beyond any designation that we could give it. We don’t need to quibble about the implications of Quantum Mechanics or some of the other stranger discoveries within modern science to have a sense of the truth of this sentiment. One is reminded of the quotation by geneticist J.B.S. Haldine:

“The Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.”

The argument being not just that we don’t understand Reality fully, but that, on some fundamental level, we can’t.

Now this might be rather distressing to those of us who dedicate ourselves to inner work with the supposition that we can “know” ourselves, but the Vijñāna Bhairava Tantra offers us the fortunate caveat: though we cannot describe or really “understand” Reality, we can have direct experience of it and this can have a profound impact on how we prioritize what we do know and understand after that point.

In the terminology of the text, this Highest Reality beyond designation is called Bhairava. Bhairava is a name given to the god Shiva, specifically to the more terrifying and awesome form He might assume. In this context, this can be understood either as a kind of anthropomorphizing or as symbolic imagery. One can look at a picture of “Bhairava” the god-form, but that is quite a different thing from having a direct experience of the “thing” the text is calling Bhairava.

There are perhaps other discussions one could find oneself in about what it might mean to have this experience, but the Vijñāna Bhairava Tantra, being a practical manual, is more concerned with addressing the method by which we might be able to actually achieve it.

Antaḥ svānubhavānandā vikalponmuktagocarā |

Yāvasthā bharitākārā bhairavī bhairavātmanaḥ || 15 ||

One experiences the state of Bhairava when one is entirely free of dichotomizing thought patterns.

So, if Bhairava is beyond all designations, comprehension, and even the contradictions of dichotomizing thought patterns of our limited minds, how can we possibly orient ourselves towards attaining It? In the words of the text: “what is the object of worship and how can it be worshipped?”

The text answers that the action or “power” of something reveals its nature. Fire is known by its light and its heat, by the fact that it burns. In truth, the “burning quality” of fire is not separate from the fire itself, but we sometimes describe it this way for the purpose of more easily understanding it. In Sanskrit, the word used for “power” is “Shakti.”

Śaktiśaktimatoryadvat abhedaḥ sarvadā sthitaḥ |

Atastaddharmadharmitvāt parā śaktiḥ parātmanaḥ || 18 ||

Just as power is not separate from the thing that possesses that power, the supreme Shakti is not separate from the supreme Reality.

Na vanher dāhikā śaktiḥ vyatiriktā vibhāvyate |

Kevalaṃ jñānasattāyāṃ prārambho’yaṃ praveśane || 19 ||

Though the power to burn is not separate from fire, Shakti is imagined to be separate from supreme Reality as a way to experience It.

Now, it may seem that we have merely substituted one problem for another. How exactly are we meant to experience Shakti, the supreme cosmic power of Reality Itself? Shakti is often personified as a goddess, or even “The Goddess,” but this anthropomorphizing might just cause more misunderstandings. The solution is revealed in the next verse:

Śaktyāvasthāpraviṣṭasya nirvibhāgena bhāvanā |

Tadāsau Śivarūpī Svyāt Śaivī Mukhamihocyate || 20 ||

Enter into the state of undifferentiated experience. Through this one identifies with Cosmic Reality and assumes Its form. It is said that Shakti is the face of Shiva.

The key word here is “Nirvibhāga”, which can be translated as “undifferentiated” or “without separation.”

Since this Power and this Reality are not separate from us at any time, it cannot be something “outside” of our ordinary experience. It is, rather, our ordinary experience without the overlay of differentiation and separation, just as intimate to us as anything else. Shakti is always present all around us, we are just laboring under notions of separation and distinction.

This verse does imply a practice of actively dispelling thought patterns of distinction and separation in order to achieve this state of entering into Shakti. As Swami Laksman Ju says,

“When you enter in the state of energy and leave your individual state (you have not to enter in the state of energy for always), you have to throw off the individual state and enter in the energy to enter in the universal state in the end. Because, unless you [throw] off your individuality, universality will not rise, universality won’t take place.”[1]

For some strange reason, the state described here has popularly been translated as “intense experience.” The experience of Shakti might end up feeling rather intense, but intensity is not the distinguishing feature and seems to imply situations or practices that could possibly be rather opposed to the focus and equanimity that would be required. However, the text does use this basis to justify a rather diverse array of practices, the descriptions of which occupy most of its verses.

I allow that it is often rather difficult to translate these concepts from Sanskrit to English and it might be that the use of the word “intense” here does help illuminate the meaning to some. My only hope is that this exposition clarifies some possible misunderstandings and doesn’t create any additional ones!

ॐ शान्तः शिवः शक्तिः

Oṃ Śāntiḥ Śivaḥ Śaktiḥ!

Om Shanti-Shiva-Shakti!

[1] The Manual for Self-Realization