Both Vedanta and Kashmir Shaivism declare that our real nature is Brahman or Shiva (Self or Absolute Consciousness), but we are limited in our consciousness, knowledge, and action due to our “ignorance” of our real nature. This ignorance is referred to by various terms such maya, ajnana, avidya, ‘darkness’ (that obscures Consciousness) and ‘covering’ or ‘veil’ (that covers or veils the real nature of Consciousness).
Ignorance is generally understood as “absence of knowledge,” but it is not actually absence of knowledge; it is “wrong knowledge.” In the classic Vedantic metaphor, when in dull light we see a rope as a snake, we do have the knowledge, but it is of the snake, which is ‘wrong knowledge’—an illusion.
Ignorance is powerful and brings about an extensive change in one’s personality to the extent that one changes from infinite Consciousness to the limited consciousness of the individual self or ego (pasu in Kashmir Shaivism). What is the nature of this ignorance? Abhinavagupta (a 950-1016 AD Kashmiri mystic) says that the cause of ignorance is the sense of “duality” or “otherness.”
In a human body Consciousness rises as a primal thought “I am” or “ego” sense. Due to ignorance, ego identifies with the physical body, calls itself “me” and sees the rest of the world as “other.” The ego causes the sense of duality and differentiates one from the totality or Wholeness (Nonduality). Nonduality is the awareness that the entire universe is one with the Self. Nonduality is the sense of one’s unity with all things and beings in the universe, the state of universal love. Ignorance is akin to a mother who, by an unfortunate turn events, is separated from her children. When at last her children are brought back to her, she does not recognize them as her own children, and takes them to be “other” than her.
The Concept of Mala (Impurity) in Kashmir Shaivism
Ignorance is not a negative state (absence of knowledge), but a positive state of ‘wrong knowledge.’ Wrong knowledge is incomplete or imperfect knowledge of the Self or reality. Wrong knowledge is, therefore, a state of spiritual impurity. Since ignorance is positive impurity, it is called mala, which is a term of the physical world, literally meaning “dirt” or “filth.” However, when applied to Consciousness, mala means spiritual or mental impurity. It is the impurity with which Consciousness in its present limited state (the state of the limited or bound individual) is tainted.
In Kashmir Shaivism, mala (spiritual impurity) is of three types: (a) anava mala, (b) mayiya mala, and (c) karma mala. All three types of impurity are the products of maya, the limiting or veiling principle in Nature.
Primordial Impurity (Anava Mala)
Anava mala means the identification of Consciousness with the limited individuality, i.e. individual self or ego. Anava veils the cognitive and active powers of the Self and thus makes it imperfect and limited in nature. By this impurity, the Self loses its self-dependent power.
It should be noted that Absolute Consciousness does not really become limited. What happens is that the Self mistakes itself for a limited or imperfect being. This is like what happens in a dream. For example, a king, when he becomes a beggar in a dream, does not really become the beggar; he mistakenly thinks that he has become a beggar, as his mind is under an illusion. But this mis-apprehension of his real nature is such that it brings about a virtual change in his existence, and he is a beggar for all practical purposes, as long as the dream persists. Similarly, the Self mistakes itself for a limited person and this misapprehension turns it into a limited person for all practical purposes, as long as the person remains bound by its limited consciousness.
According to Utpaladeva (a 900 AD, Kashmiri mystic), anava mala can be understood in two ways: (a) There is no freedom of Consciousness, and (b) There is no consciousness of freedom. Both of these predicaments are due to the loss of one’s real nature, which is Absolute Consciousness. Freedom (svatantrya), which means the absence of all limitation and imperfection, is the very nature of Consciousness. This freedom of Consciousness is lost in the state of anava, because Consciousness becomes temporarily bound or limited. Anava can thus be understood as the loss of the freedom of Consciousness.
Also, in anava, one is not aware of the freedom or perfection that is one’s real nature. The freedom or perfection already exists, but one does not recognize it. These two difficulties of the individual self, i.e. the loss of the freedom of Consciousness and the non-cognition of freedom or perfection occur simultaneously and function in vicious reciprocity. It is like the case of the rope-snake illusion, when one sees the snake because one does not see the rope, and one does not see the rope because one sees the snake in its place. In anava, one is not aware of one’s real nature because one’s real nature is not at the forefront, and one’s real nature is not at the forefront because one is not aware of it.
Impurity of Duality (Mayiya Mala)
Mayiya mala causes the sense of duality or difference in us, the sense that one is different or separate from the rest of the world or that one’s fellow beings are “other” than oneself. As seen above, anava mala limits an individual self to one particular individuality. Consequently one becomes cut off from the rest of the world; one cannot feel to be one with all. This apparent separation from the totality causes the sense of difference in us, i.e. “me” and the “other.’ Thus it can be seen that mayiya mala originates from the anava mala.
Why is the sense of difference an impurity (mala)? The answer is that whatever obstructs our real nature or takes us away from our real nature is an impurity. Our real nature is pure and perfect, and whatever taints it or makes it impure is mala. In our real nature we are one with all existence, which is a state of supreme love. But the sense each of us share is that one is just a limited personality, and not one with all; this obscures our nature and causes our purity and bliss to disappear.
Impurity of Action (Karma Mala)
Karma mala means the impurity pertaining to one’s karma (action). When due to anava mala one becomes limited and imperfect, one naturally feels want or lack in oneself. In order to fulfill this lack or want, one performs voluntary action by exerting one’s freewill. This voluntary action falls in the ethical realm of good and bad or virtue and vice (punya and papa), involving the reaping of moral fruit according to the Law of Karma. Abhinavagupta says that Karma mala comes when the doer (worldly person) is in the state of ignorance and imperfection (anava mala), has the sense of duality (mayiya mala), and performs action in the form of virtue and vice, which leads to the next birth for reaping the fruit of one’s actions. Since one has to reap the fruits of one’s actions (good or bad), one has to take a new birth, and thus karma is the cause of the cycle of birth and death (samsara). Thu karma mala also originates from the anava mala.
Obstruction to Self-realization
The ego sense is the main obstruction to the realization of the Self. To use an analogy, a wave is separated from the ocean because it takes an individuality; otherwise it is nothing but water or the ocean. The water takes a particular form (rupa) and the name (nama) “wave” is given to it. The nameless and formless water has taken a particular name and form (nama-rupa). But what is the significance of this nama-rupa? It is not a reality, for the reality is water or ocean. The wave cannot become the ocean as long as it maintains its individuality. It is only when the wave loses its individuality that it becomes completely one with the ocean. The moment the wave subsides, it becomes what it really is—the ocean.
Likewise, the ego is a nama-rupa that the Consciousness takes on, and the moment ego disappears through Self-realization, the individual consciousness (i.e. individual self) merges into the ocean of the universal Consciousness or the Self is realized.
Just as electricity manifests as light in a glass bulb, infinite Consciousness (Brahman or Shiva) manifests as primal thought “I am” (body consciousness) or “ego sense” in a human body. For this reason, the “I am” is sometimes called the light of Consciousness. Due to anava mala, the first product of maya, the “I am” or ego identifies itself with the physical body and assumes a particular individuality, which is called by various names such as the individual self, soul or pasu (term used in Kashmir Shaivism). The individual self, whose true nature is infinite Consciousness, loses cognitive and active powers of the Self, and thus becomes limited and imperfect in nature.
Having identified itself with a particular individuality, the individual self further becomes the victim of mayiya mala, the second product of maya, and develops the false sense of duality, i.e. one takes one’s own person alone to be oneself and seeing the rest of the world as “other.” This is another name for selfishness.
The work performed by the individual self in the state of ignorance and imperfection is karma mala, the third product of maya. Such work is subject to the Law of Karma and one has to reap the fruits of one’s actions (good or bad) and take birth in endless cycles of death and rebirth in the physical world (samsara). Thus, ignorance binds the individual self to the life in the samsara until he or she attains Self-realization (moksha) and thereby realizes its true nature.