Pratybhijjna-From Scriptures to Kashmir Shaivism to Lalla Ded Vakh

By Prof. M.L. Koul

February 2010

The Doctrine of Pratyabhijjna is a highly significant development in the theory and practice of Kashmir Shaivism. It is neither a school of Kashmir Shaivism nor is it a sub-trend within its matrix. The philosophisation of the vision of Agamas became apparent in the seminal work of Shiva-Sutra authored by Vasugupta, a sage and thinker. The Doctrine of Pratyabhijna graduates the philosophical vision of Acarya Vasugupta to the stature of philosophy proper. How Pratyabhijjna  expounded and interpreted the theory and practice of Kashmir Shaivism came to be the essential philosophy of it. It posed philosophical issues, formulated and conceptualised them, forged a system based on required building blocks and used logic to gell and cement the system. It is apt to say that if Kashmir Shaivism is a system of thought, it is because of the rational approach of Pratyabhijjna to the issues of theory and practice as expounded by Kashmir Shaivism.

Pratyabhijjna epitomises the full thesis of Kashmir Shaivism, its architectonics and architecture and logical exploration of that area of knowledge that subordinates empirical and theoretical learning to the cognition of identity with consciousness supreme or Shiva. Being the Central philosophy of Kashmir Shaivism, it is imprinted with the semantics of a man attaining pratyabhijna (recognition) of his real identity. Oft-quoted upanishadic ‘Maha-Vakyas (great sentences) carry a ring of ‘Pratyabhijjna’ hall-marking the identity of man with Brahman, the ultimate reality. ‘I am Brahman’ (aham brahmosmi), “Thou art that’ (tat twam asi) & “This self is Brahman’ (ayam atma brahma) explicitly reveal the identity of self with Brahman. The upanishads are replete with such maha-vakyas (great sentences) which Shaivite scholars of Kashmir and Varanasi acknowledge as ‘pratyabhijjna maha-vakayas’.

The word ‘pratyabhijjna’ with its morphological variations travelled to Kalidas, 5th century poet  and dramatist, who crafted an epoch-making drama titled as ‘Abhijnan Shakuntalam’. The word ‘abhijnan’ fascinated a scholar like Dr. Laxmidhar who went whole hog to interpret it as ‘pratyabhijjna’. In his doctoral thesis, the Birthplace of Kalidas, the learned writer opines that ‘Abhijnan Shakuntalam’ is ‘the allegorical representation of the philosophy of pratyabhijjna’. In elaboration of his thesis he states that Dushyant, hero of the drama, represents Shiva and Shakuntla, heroine of the drama, represents Shakti. The ring, which is a motif of love, used as a dramatic device is the cause that reminds Dushyant of his marriage to Shakuntala. The same is interpreted by Dr. Laxmidhar as Kalidasa’s profound knowledge of the Pratyabijjna Doctrine central to the philosophy of Kashmir Shaivism.


The conclusive thesis of Dr. Laxmidhar that the Doctrine of Pratyabhijjna had gained wide currency in the times of Kalidas, 5th century A.D., is not historically credible. The galaxy of scholars from Kashmir led by Swami Laxman Joo Maharaja, Dr. Balji Nath Pandit and Prof. Nila Kanth Gurtu are on terra firma of history when they place Acarya Vasugupta in the second half of 8th Century A.D. It was his pupil, Siddha Somanand, 9th century A.D. who was the first philosopher of Kashmir Shaivisism to conceptualise the seminal idea of ‘pratyabhijjna’ in his theoretical work titled ‘Sivadrshti’. Siddha Somanand, a seer of tremendous erudition, had received the idea of ‘pratyabijna’ as a legacy from the vibrant Vedantic and Epic sources. It was his feat of genius that he invested the word  ‘pratyabihjjna‘ with a lofty philosophical meaning that gradually morphed as the sublime theme of Kashmir Shaivism at the hands  of philosophical seers like Acarya Utpaldev, Acarya Abhinavgupta and a host of their successors in due line of the same tradition.

Besides vedantic and epic sources, Siddha Somanand, was also aware of the Pali version of the lexical word ‘Pratyabhijjna‘ as ‘Paccabinna’ littered over the Buddhist philosophies that dominated the intellectual landscape of Kashmir for a better part of its history. In the Buddhist lexicon the word ‘paccabinna’ denotes conceptual knowledge that is recognised through the tool of a sign, symbol or motif. Possessed of an acumen and discernment of a great theoretician Siddha Somanand treated the Buddhist  philosophies incisively and critically with a view to laying the foundation of Kashmir Shaivism indubitably non-dual. Logic is Sidha Somanand’s excellence. It is manifest from the conceptualisations and formulations that he has ably framed in his philosophical manual called ‘Sivadrishti’. In the annals of Kashmir Shaivism Siddha Somanand has earned tremendous appreciation and recognition as a logician and rationalist par excellence. His approach and premis have always been preferred to the mystical treatment that Ksemaraj, a worthy pupil of Bhagwan Abhinavgupta, has given to the philosophical issues of Kashmir Shaivism. That is why the vibrant Shaiva tradition of Kashmir has not lent much of credence to his work titled ‘Pratyabhijjna Hridayam’ as a work on Pratyabhijjna and its essential theme.

In his ardent quest of source-materials that led to the evolutionary development of the theme of Pratyabhijjna Dr Laxmi Dhar aptly quotes verses from the Nilamatapurana that amply establish the Pratyabhijjna theme, if not in a philosophical sense, but in a sense that appears akin to the theme of Prayabijjna. In his doctoral thesis ‘The Doctrine of Recognition’ Dr. RK Kaw has quoted verses in full from the text of Nilamata purana and has aptly evaluated them as ‘seed ideas’ that served the philosophical fare of Siddha Somanand who transformed them into a full-fledged concept that shaped the whole course of future development in the domain of Kashmir Shaivism.

The high-ranking philosopher of the Doctrine of Pratyabhijjana is Acarya utpaldeva, the celebrated pupil of Siddha Somanand, who deftly built a coherent architecture on the substratum of the doctrine originally conceptualised by his preceptor (sat-guru). Ishvar Pratyabhijjna-Karika is his principal work on the theme of Pratyabhijjna. Written in an aphoristic style he commented on his own ‘Karikas’ with a view to explaining and clarifying his concepts and ‘seed ideas’. This work known as ‘Vritti’, a commentary, is lost in the holocaust wrought by foreign Sufi-Sayyids on the natives of Kashmir. ‘Siddhitrayi’, a trilogy of treaises on philosophical issues like ‘relation,’, ‘time and space’ and ‘Sankhya as a thought model’ is a philosophical work highlighting the ‘Pratyabhijjna’ perspective.

Acarya Utpaldeva is a philosopher, logician and incisive critic of prevalent philosophical systems. He raises issues philosophical, debates theme thread-bare and architects a theoretical structure where in all catergories of thought are cogently synergised. As a seer of exemplary erudition he had comprehensive knowledge and understanding of the Buddhist schools of philosophy, vedantic model of thought, Sankhya and other materialist philosophies. Kashmir Shaivism is a system of thought because of the brilliance of Acarya Utpaldeva as a philosopher having skills in methodologies of debating issues on logical and analytical lines.

In his doctoral thesis ‘The Doctrine of Pratyabhijjna’ Dr. RK Kaw is all plaudites for Acarya Utpaldeva for his remarkable originality of ‘systematising the philosophy of Kashmir Shaivism’ which in essentials is the Pratyabhijjna Doctrine.

In his brilliant introduction to the masterly work of Bhagwan Abhinavagupta, Ishavar Pratyabhijjna Vimarsini, Pt. Madhusudan Koul, the then Director of Research Department, J&K Government, writes, ‘the object of Utpaldeva was, first, to canonise the new system of Shaiva monism and to establish it on philosophical lines, second, to check the Buddhist in-roads levelled against it and lastly, to popularise the system as superior to the other prevailing systems of philosophy’.

The Pratyabhijjna Doctrine would not have acquired heightened philosophical finesse and sophistication had Bhagwant Abhinavagupta, the doyen of Kashmir Shaiva thought, not expounded it with his scintillating philosophical insight and sagacity. His two commentaries on the Pratyabhijjna philosophy are outstanding contributions to the domain of philosophy in general and to the domain of Pratyabhijjna philosophy in particular. In his ‘Laghu Vimarsini’ he dwelt on the semantics of Pratyabhijjna and spelt it out to make it understandable to averages. But, in his ‘Brahati Vimarsini’ he explained and clarified the vital concepts and formulations which Acarya Utpaldeva had neatly delineated on his own ‘Karikas’, styled in aphorisms, about the Doctrine of Pratyabhijjna.

A long line of Acaryas in the un-interrupted tradition of Kashmir Shaivism enriched and reinforced the conceptual frame of Pratyabhijjna philosophy through their scholarly works, and elaborate commentaries on the theory and praxis of the Prayabhijjna philosophy. New concepts were framed, old ones were subjected to revaluation and re-appraisal and new dimensions were added to the main philosophy of Pratyabhijjna. The theoretical frame was made more comprehensive and cohesive and empirical segment of the Pratyabhijjna philosophy was given a new orientation and thrust. The Acaryas who in deed and word were men of form divine included well-known seers like Ksemaraj, Yogaraj, Jayarath, Sivopadyaya and Bhaskaracarya. The list would remain incomplete if the name of Swami Laxmanjoo Maharaj is not mentioned. His immense contribution to Pratyabhijjna philosophy and its wide propagation deserves separate study and appreciation.

Acarya Somanand on Pratyabhijjna

In Sivadrsti Acarya Somanand refers to the concept of Pratyabhijjna as ‘a simultaneous act of perceiving some aspects of a thing and remembering all aspects of it in totality as perceived or cognised in the past’ (V 118-120). He morphs the same statement to the level of philosophy for recognition of Supreme Realty of Shiva, the immanence of whom is within the grasp of every ordinary individual. But, the other attributes of Shiva like His omniscience and omnipotence are not within the range of his experience because of the limitations that wrap his being. But, he has heard about these attributes of Shiva from many others within the orbit of his contact who are well-versed in the corpus of scriptures. So, his memory retains impressions of Shiva’s inherent attributes other than His pervasion in all objects around the world. The moment an individual perceives one attribute of Shiva through his random observations in the world he comes to remember other attributes of Shiva that are already implanted on his memory plate. In Pratyabhijjna two simultaneous acts of direct perception and remembrance are integrated and unified. Says Acarya Somanand-

tasmat samgraha ekya vastu shaivam vyavasthitam

tatha sumran yogat cha samaryate kim tathavidham

yadrk drashtam drashtata syat athwa jnanam etat

drsta sumanyoke stihe tad-uppadyate

tatha sa prabyabhjjnat sa eva ayam  iti sithiti (Sivadrshti)
Acarya Utpldeva on Pratyabhjjna

In the second and third karikas of Ishvar Pratyabhijjna Karika Acarya utpaldeva controverts the polemics of his critic who is critical of Pratyabhijjna thought by informing him that Maheshvar (Lord) has the absolute sovereign powers of cogntiion and action and is in no need of proofs (pramanas) to establish His being as such. But, a Jiva, who is Shiva only, has forgotten his intrinsic powers of freedom to cognise and act because of delusion (moha-vashat). Pratyabhijjna is to realise his inherent powers of cognition and action which otherwise he has forgotten and thus are dormant or unrealised. writes Acarya Utpaldeva–

Kartari Jnatari sia-atmanya adi sidhe mahesvare

ajadatma nishedham va siddhim va viddeht kah

kintu moha-vashat drshte anupplakshyate

shakhtya avishkarnen iyam pratyabhijjna updashyate

Karikas-2 & 3 IPK

Bhagwean Abhin-avagupta on Pratyabhijjna

Bhagwan Abhinavgupta delineates ‘Pratyabhijjna as ‘Maheshwar (sovereign Lord becoming) manifest now as it was always so before.’

Writes the Acarya, ‘tasya mahehvarasya pratyabhijjna pratipam atma abhimukhena prakashah pratyabhijjna’. After dwelling on two vital words of ‘pratipam’ and ‘abhimukhena’, Dr R.K. Kaw concludes that Pratyabhijjna is an act of cognition ‘facing oneself of what was forgotten’.

Bhagwan Abhinavagupta makes it amply clear that the recognition of Mahehshvar (sovereign Lord) is not in reality recognition of some-thing that is not already known. In fact, recognition of Maheshvar was within the range of experience but is forgotten (Jnantasya api visumritasya eva chaditasya eva purnah). A seeker in quest of ‘atma pratyabhijjna’ (self-recognition) is already aware of his innate reality but has forgotten it because of his own deluding powers. He takes that as his real ‘Self’ which actually is his ‘not-self’. When he removes this veil of delusion, he cognises his original reality as Shiva. He is Shiva because he in his origins is Shiva. His experience of being a Shiva was already known to him. So, Bhagwan calls it, ‘bhat-bhasman anusandhatmika…’

Two Illustrative Examples

Bhagwan Abhinav-agupta has given two examples to explain the concept of ‘Pratyabhijjna’.

There is a lady who has been betrothed to a man. She has not met or seen him. She has started loving him and is love-laden. Her fiance, somehow, stands before her and is one among many others. She is unable to locate him, much less recognise him. Finally a man reveals the identity of the one she is betrothed to. She realises that he is her fiance who will be her husband in future. The revelation gives her lots of pleasure. This is what pratyabhijjna is.

In another example a king has heard of a pandit and his achievements in the Shastras and other segments of knowledge. But, the king has not seen him and therefore does not know him. Another pandit in the king’s court fetches him to the court and reveals his identity to the king. Thus, the king recognises his identity as the same Pandit about whom he had heard from many sources. It is also a case of pratyabhijjna.

Pratyabhijjna and Intellectual Knowldge.

Kashmir Shaivism does not discount but appreciably recognises the part that intellectual knowledge plays in the process of Pratyabhijjna. All the philosophers who moulded and structured the philosophical discourse of Shaiva thought have written prolific tomes on issues relevant to it. As an article of faith they hold that all forms of knowledge emanate from Shiva as the source. It is testified by the fact of Shiva lucidly answering all the metaphysical questions posed to Him by His ever-inquisitive consort, Parvati.

Intellectual knowledge gained from diligent studies in scriptures, varied forms of thought and other segments of learning shape the temper of an aspirant, broaden his perspectives on life and world, deepen his understanding of metaphysical ontological and epistemological problems, cultivate his aesthetics, dispel his doubts and deepen his knowledge relating his field of study and more than most, purify his mind for a spiritual awakening. Mundane knowledge though classed as ‘apara’ knowledge is not rejected as negative but is accepted as a step in the attainment of self-recognition. Though widely accepted as positive yet intellectual knowledge is not in any way what we call self-recognition (pratyabhijjna).

‘Pratyabhijjna’ can be had when an aspirant removes his crippling limitations that are caused by three ‘dirts’ (malas) lexically known as anava-mal, mayiya-mal and karma-mal. These limitations shrink and inhibit his inherent powers (shaktis) of cognition and action. He sees things but does not see them in depth. He has perceptions and knowledge, but are limited in range and scope. His limitations get reflected when he perceives the world apart from him. In his basics he is Shiva with all the attributes of freedom, omniscience and omnipotence. But it is the ‘self-veiling’ act that has reduced him to a ‘Jiva’ or ‘Anu’ in Shaiva parlance. Under the initiation and guidance of a preceptor (sat-guru) or through impartation of a ‘mantra’ or by grace (shaktipat) he comes to recognise himself as Shiva with all his intrinsic powers. It is no sea change or transformation (parinamvad). It is a simple change of condition that makes a ‘jiva’ or ‘anu’ to intuit his ‘Shiva condition’. He is free from all limitations. He is in close harmony with the outside world. In fact, he intuits all that is outside him as his own pulse of emanation. He experiences Shivahood right in the world as a living and existing individual. He is ‘Jeevan mukhta’. As a ‘self-recognised’ soul he lives an unfettered normal life and with an awakened sense of social responsibility he urges and guides others to prepare for attainment of ‘self-recognition’. His condition is that of ‘loftiness’, ‘sublimity’ and ‘elevation’ with a deepened sense of commitment to fellow-beings.

The Theme of Pratyabhijjna

The non-dual Shaivites of Kashmir hold that ‘Pratyabhijjna’ always denotes and connotes ‘atma-pratyabhijjna’ (self-recognition). ‘Self’, therefore, is the genreric theme of ‘pratyabhijjna’. ‘self’ is not the ordinary self of a Jiva. It is identical with the Highest Lord (Maheshvar). In the Bhaskari it is clearly put that ‘self’ remains established in a Jiva on the basis of self-experience, reason and scripture (evam sva samvedana uppatya agam siddham maheshvar rupam atma svarupam). Maheshvar as the Highest Reality is well-within the experiential range of a Jiva. As he is wrapped up under the layers of delusion or darkness or limited knowledge (mita-jnan), the self comprehends itself as the duality and multiplicity of the world. In Parmarth-Sar Bhagwan Abhinavaupta writes:-

ajnan timir yogat ekam api svam svabhava atmanam,

grahya-grahak nana veichitrena avabudhyat!

‘Self’ is eternal and self-luminous (sva prakash). It is self-proved (svayam siddha). As all forms of knowledge shine in its light, no reason based knowledge can establish its luminosity (prakash). ‘Self’ is consciousness, which is free to create the world of objects out of its own essence. ‘Self’ as such is transcendental and immanent too. As per the Shaiva thought ‘Self’ through its own absolute freedom (svatantrya), assumes a limitation that causes loss of freedom to cognise and act. A Jiva living in the objective world takes body, breath and ego as his real Self. ‘Pratyabijjna’ is to cognise his essential nature of Shivahood which he has forgotten under the impact of assumed limitations.

‘Pratyabhijjna’ as per the world-view of Shaiva masters is knowledge (Janan). But it is not the same knowledge that we take pains to acquire from multiple sources of discursive knowledge. It is the knowledge which in the words of Dr. Kamlakar Mishra is ‘an awakening, enlightenment or rising to a higher level of awareness or consciousness’. ‘Pratyabhijjna’ is the real knowledge as it is knowledge of the ‘Self’, atma jnan, which is beyond the subject-object dichotomies of the world and is deeply rooted in an integrated vision that perceives everything in the world of multiplicity as its own expansion or emanation. The state of ordinary knowledge is that of limited knowledge or circumscribed vision or awareness. But the state of ‘Pratyabhijjna’ is that of ‘bodh’, illumination or enlightenment. Though ‘pratyabhijjna’ is intuitional, yet it is a sustained intuition, a sustained enlightenment. A self-recognised soul, who is a Shiva, continues to bask in the light of consciousness (bodh-prakash). He loves all humans of all grades and stations in life because he sees them all as his own projection (abhasa). He is the real seer, rishi, acarya above all trivial and tribal affiliations and linkages, His perception of love is not that of ‘obedience’ but that of universal variety as is epitomised in the Vedic dictum, ‘Vasudaiva Kutumbakam’.

‘Pratyabhijjna’ is to recognise that the real nature (svabhava) of ‘Self’ is ‘Prakash and Vimarsh, which is termed as Shiva’. ‘Pratybhijjna’ is to cognise oneself as Shiva as that is the stuff of one’s being.

Pratyabhijjna in Lalla Ded Vakh

Lalla Ded was s Shaiva-yogini with her gaze rivetted to the goal-post of ‘atma pratyabhijjan’ (self-recognition). Going through the mill of yogic practices under the tutelage of a prescient preceptor, she had stilled her ‘chitta’, purified it (chitta samskar) and harnessed all the potentials of her psycho-physical frame to awaken her initiative processes for recognition of her intrinsic nature of Shiva. Through initiation and intellectual knowlege (baudik jnan) she was able to identify the deluding energies that wean away a man from the path of real knowledge and keep him entangled in dualities of the world. Lalla Ded transcended all that symbolises ‘not-self’ and what remained was her real ‘Self’ which she recognised as her fundamental essence.

As an initiated Shaivite Lalla Ded was well-groomed in the fact that she was possessed of all the six attributes that feature the sovereignty of Shiva. Yet she was aware that she was unable to act out her inherent attributes because of the limitations that engulfed her total being.

Says Lalla–

yimai shey che timai sheya meya

shyam gata che byan tats

yohai byan abeed che ta mea

cha shyan sami ba sheyi mushyas

When she set herself onto the path of self-quest she fought anger (krodh), greed (lobh) and ravenous eating (ahar) as markers of ‘not-self’ that distract and disturb the mind (man) of a seeker. Though body is a vehicle for spiritual enlightenment, Lalla Ded discarded the penchant for identification of her real ‘Self’ with body, breath and subject object apprehensions through intellectual clarity and courses in yoga. Pratyabhijjna dawned on her after the veil of delusion (moha) was cut as-under and removed.

The Shaiva position vis-a-vis Shiva is that He is absolutely free and has no constraints in matters of willing, knowing and acting. In existentialist parlance He can be said to be ‘condemned to freedom’. It is out of His absolute freedom that Shiva assumes a limitation and turns into a living individual, existing, breathing, making choices and decisions. Such an act, kriya in Shaivite parlance in no way impairs His absolute  sovereingty or transcendance. In fact, His sovereignity lies in creation. Matya Skakti is His own energy whcih He harnesses at will for this act. Through this energy Shiva forgets Himself only to assume limitation of an individual.

Lalla Ded is in full know of the transcendance of Shiva in which state there are no ‘I’ and ‘thou’ relationships, subject-object dischotomies and no ideas to contemplate on. Shiva’s transcendance is total equilibrium and quiescence. She calls Shiva as ‘sarvakreyi’, all-doer. He forgets Himself to get shrivelled into a limited individual

Conveys Lall–

tsu na bo na dheya na dyan

gava pania sarva-kreyi mashith

Lalla Ded had known it as a theoretical tenet, but she realised it thruogh Shaiva-Yoga only to become wise by recognising her own, reality as Shiva. Thsoe who do not know their own essence as Shiva are blind and remain entangled in the meshes of ignorance or limited knowledge.

Says Lalla–

anto dyuthukh kenh na anvya

gayi sath layi par pashith

The limitations that Shiva assumes through His own sovereignty are lexically known as malas (dirts) in Kashmir Shaivism. Three forms of malas wrap up an individual in layers of limitation inhibiting the inherent potentialities of an individual as Shiva. Anavamala, mayiyamal and karma mal impair his divine faculties of ‘fullness’, omniscience’ and ‘one-ness’.

As a caged being he lives in the empirical world of name and form. The very empirical life impels him to soar above the dualities of the world. It may be at the behest of Shiva’s grace (shaktipat) or sat-guru (shaiva guru). The limitations (malas) that are inhibiting, crippling and impairing are in any case to be curbed, burnt (as Lalla says) and finally removed even to the last vestiges. In fact, removal of dirts is the gate-way of Pratybhijjna.

As an inquisitive seeker Lalla Ded was naturally conscious of her caged existence in the empirical world. Taking that as a reality she took to Shaiva-Yoga trajectory to transcend her limitations. She burnt the dirts coiling her heart and slew her passions through meditating on her own intrinsic Shivahood and as a last act surrendered herself to Shiva’s grace (Shaktipat) for removal of ‘anava mal’. It earned her name as a ‘tapasvini’ or a ‘yognini’ and that remained her identity down the ages.

Says Lall–

mala vondi zolum

kama morum

telli lalla nava drama

Lall Ded cleansed her mind (man) of the dirts (malas) staining it. It shone dazzlingly like a mirror that is dust free. Her clean mind as the plank made her soar into a state of self-recognition (pratyabhijjna). Recognition of Shiva within her microcosmic frame underscores her own condition of Shivahood.

Says she–

makris mala zan chalum manas

ada labum zanis zan

Having realised the mission of self-recognition Lalla Ded is blithe and rapturous. She is all through new as a result of ‘bodh jnan’ or enlightenment (sva prakash). Her body and mind in complete purity are totally soaked. Her chitta has come to the state of chitti (consciousness divine) and she perceives all objects in the world as her own emanation (abhasa) and all forms of nature in the same way of her own projection.

Says Lalla Ded

Chyath navai chandrama novuya

zalmai dyuthum navam novuya

yana pyatha mea tan man novuya

tana lalla bo navan navai chyas

Lalla Ded’s objective in pursuing spiritual path was only to get merged into Shiva, thereby losing her identity as a separate pole. It is also called moksa (liberation) from the pains and agonies of birth and death that ensue because of one’s own karmas actions committed in previous lives. Lalla Ded, therefore, was a liberated soul, one who had recognised her essential essence as Shiva and become an inseparable part of Shiva or consciousness supreme.

Says Lalla-

Su yali dyuthum nishi panas

sorui sui ta ba no kenh