by Maryellen Lo Bosco
It is interesting to note that Dr Sensharma is Bengali and so was his Guru Gopinath Kaviraj... Bengali's who were Tantrics is Kashmir Shaivism. There is a relation between Bengali Baul Tantra and Kashmir Shaivism. The poetry, the philosophy, the technique and the Bhakti..
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.
Dr. Deba Brata Sensharma
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.
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
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
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
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
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 extremelyintense. 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
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
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
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.