There are moments of intellectual achievement that are beyond measure. They deserve recognition and engagement. In any reckoning of Indian intellectual history, one figure whose achievement is almost unparalleled is Abhinavagupta. Although usually described as a Kashmiri Saiva philosopher, the range of his work and its originality defy easy classification. He lies at the centre of so many currents of intellectual thinking: Aesthetics, literary criticism, dramaturgy, music, tantra, yoga, devotional poetry, cognitive science, emotions, philosophy of mind, language. His incandescent brilliance transformed every subject he touched. His writing provides glimpses of his own persona. And that is how we know he lived almost exactly a millennium ago. There are plans to commemorate his millennial centenary. There is no question that substantive engagement with him is essential, not just as a matter of history, but as intellectual inquiry in its own right. But the challenges of doing so also shed light on our intellectual environment.
This is not the occasion, nor do I have the competence, to expound on his range of works, from the Dhvanyaloka-locana to Paratrisika Vivarana. His conceptual fecundity is absolutely astonishing, piling up one fine distinction upon another to illuminate time-worn problems. There are many reasons why he is such a transformative figure. He makes a powerful argument that the literary, dramaturgical, even sensual, ecstasy and religious experience are integrally related. The idea was not, as some commentators have claimed, to infuse the aesthetic with religious significance. It was, rather, to formulate a unified theory of consciousness that underlay different modes of experience.
To grossly simplify, his description of the literary experience even of a reader — where we lose or abstract away from our own location in time and space, our own utilitarian justifications, and transcend our ego since our interests are not at stake, and yet at the same time we are responsive — is paradigmatically linked to religious experience. This move itself had radical consequences. It infused the ordinary plenitude and vibrancy of the world with significance; it showed that the religious experience was not cut off from ordinary experience but an aspect of it; and rather than placing “religious” experience at the summit of a hierarchy, it placed emphasis on the movement and recovery of all that underlies experience. Roberto Calasso once said that “every true philosopher thinks but one thought; the same can be said of a civilisation.” If the enigma of “consciousness” is that great thought of this civilisation, then Abhinavagupta is its deepest articulator. He is a pathway into self-discovery.
Abhinavagupta has every soteriological ambition that philosophers in the Indian tradition have had. But he combines them with an unusual sense of our embodiment as creatures. There is an unusual sense of humanity that runs through his commentary on the Gita, a far cry from the cold metaphysical sternness of Shankara. He is decidedly more egalitarian, less devoid of sectarian imperialising than many others. His contributions to the philosophy of language, the relationship between Word and World or perhaps more accurately, the World as Word, brought about a paradigm shift in thinking about language. His re-articulation of the idea of rasa as something involving not just the properties of a text, but the subjectivity of the agent, was something like a Copernican moment in Indian aesthetics. Arindam Chakrabarti, in a brilliant essay “You, I and the Tranquil Taste of Freedom”, has also recovered Abhinavagupta’s account of freedom, and more importantly of an understanding of self in relation to others. There are too many reasons to engage with, and celebrate and stretch our sense of self with Abhinavagupta.
The task of making his millennial centenary meaningful is not going to be easy. For centuries, he survived largely in the portals of south Indian Saivite tantrism; the recovery of the full range of his texts was largely a product of the pioneering efforts by scholars like K.C. Pandey in the 1930s. There is no question that he is difficult, not in the sense of being unclear, but in the sense that any philosophical enterprise that touches on fundamental questions is. He is for deep-sea divers, not for those who skate on surfaces.
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One central problem for the modern reader is the problem of translation. While projects like the Murty Classical Library are now creating new benchmarks, the knotty problem of translating Indian philosophical texts has still not been addressed. Scholars like Jaidev Singh have done a heroic job of translation. But there is a more general problem with translations of Indian philosophical texts. For instance, even non-Greek readers can get a vivid sense of and use Greek texts in ways in which it is impossible to use translated Sanskrit texts.
And finally, there is the question of intellectual distance. Different generations will put different texts to different uses. Modern readers are embarrassed by references to tantrism and yoga. But there is a kind of intellectual dishonesty in marginalising some central problems of consciousness, because of an a priori or ideological resistance. There is a tendency to approach these texts for instrumental reasons: They are markers of “national” pride — or in Abhinavagupta’s case, to use him as a prop in a contested Kashmiri identity. The question of engaging with this tradition is also not just a matter of finding a pedigree for particular ideas. In fact, one thing reading Abhinavagupta does for you is that it unsettles ideas about what tradition is. In some ways, for this tradition, texts are not sources of authority. They are rather the medium in which problems and arguments are expressed. The engagement with past texts is not the search for authority or authenticity; it is to find a language in which we can articulate our experience.
Or there is the lazy use of these texts, episodic citations that make us feel we have ticked off the Indian tradition box, or claimed modernity inhered in India. But then, as Chakrabarti wrote, to “honestly study the thread of his arguments is a form of self-transforming meditation, a tasting of the tranquillity of repose.” To confront Abhinavagupta is to confront an intellectual relentlessness about self-knowledge that our frenzied world has lost.