Pratyabhijna is the central doctrine of Kashmir Shaivism and answers the question “Who am I?” Am I just this psychophysical organism, a walking package of billions and billions of cells bound by its limitations, or am I a separate being, free from the limitations of the body? Is freedom my true nature and if so how can I realize this freedom?
Kashmir Shaivism asserts that our real nature is Shiva, which is pure Consciousness (suddha samvit), the absolute state of freedom and perfection. However, due to ignorance we are unaware of our real identity and do not recognize that we are Shiva. The moment we gain this realization, we are free. According to Kashmir Shaivism, our ignorance of the real nature of our Self is the only reason for our human limitations. True knowledge of the Self is a miracle cure for this disease. The question is, “What is the nature of this knowledge of the Self (atma Pratyabhijna)? How does it transform the lives of those who acquire such knowledge?”
Meaning of Pratyabhijna
Pratyabhijna is commonly translated into English as ‘recognition,’ but the word ‘recognition’ does not convey full meaning of the term. Pratyabhijna, meaning ‘Self-recognition,’ implies the remembrance of something already known. For example, having met a person first time, one will recognize the person next time just by remembering his or her appearance. This is ‘recognition’ or Pratyabhijna as commonly understood. However, in Kashmir Shaivism Pratyabhijna is not a matter of recognizing something that is already known, but of coming to know the real ‘identity’ of something that may never have been seen before, or may have been seen many times before, but its identity was not known. Knowledge of the real identity is the key to the doctrine of Pratyabhijna in Kashmir Shaivism.
Kashmir Shaivism provides two examples of Pratyabhijna. In one, the king of a country does not know a certain pundit living in his kingdom. One of the king’s ministers brings the unknown pundit to the king, introduces him and cites his qualifications. The king now knows the full identity of the previously unknown pundit. This is a case of Pratyabhijna.
The second example is that of a betrothed woman, who has not yet seen her husband-to-be. She has developed the feeling of love for him, but has not yet met him. If he happens to stand by her at some place, she will see him no different than any other man, since she does not know who he is. But when his identity is disclosed to her, he suddenly becomes a source of enormous joy for her. This is Pratyabhijna.
Scriptures tell us that we are aware of ourselves only as limited individuals (pasu) while our real identity is Shiva, the infinite Consciousness. Just as the leaves of a tree are part of the tree and not separate plants, all human beings are part of the Self and not separate selves. We do not recognize or know the true identity of ourselves. To use the metaphor of Advaita Vedanta, in dull light we see a rope but mistakenly take it to be a snake. However, in bright light we see the rope as rope and not a snake. Here rope is akin to our real identity (Shiva), snake represents limited individuals, dull light denotes ignorance and bright light indicates knowledge. Thus knowledge is necessary to gain awareness of the real identity of the Self, i.e. Pratyabhijna (“recognition” of the Self).
Knowledge (jnana) and Ignorance (ajnana)
According to Abhinavagupta, there are two types of ignorance. One is intellectual ignorance (bauddha) and the other is innate ignorance (paurusa), i.e. spiritual impurity (mala) or bondage. Accordingly, there are two types of knowledge: lower knowledge (intellectual) and higher knowledge (spiritual). The intellectual ignorance can be removed by intellectual knowledge acquired from the scriptures. The innate ignorance, i.e. the spiritual impurity, cannot be removed by mere intellectual knowledge. Only spiritual initiation (diksha) into the spiritual path (sadhana) and following it sincerely can remove it.
Pratyabhijna is not the mere intellectual knowledge of Shiva, but the actual uncovering of the Self preceded by the removal of impurities (mala), which are responsible for the individualization or limitation of the Self. In this sense Pratyabhijna is purification, but not of the Self or Consciousness, for Consciousness in Itself is eternally pure. It is the purification of the limited self (pasu) or ego. Pratyabhijna is the knowledge or realization of the Cosmic “I” or Shivahood.
Ego is the consciousness of the individual “I” as different or separate from others. It confines one to a particular body and mind and is thus the principle of differentiation and limitation. It can easily be seen that the ego stands as an obstruction to Shiva-realization. In fact the ego is the greatest obstruction. Shiva is the all-pervasive Self that is in perfect unity with all. Ego is just the opposite. It keeps one confined to a particular individuality. As long as the ego persists, one cannot realize one’s true identity (Shivahood). It is only when one breaks out of the ego shell that the limited self becomes one with the all-pervasive Self (Shiva).
Purification of the ego is also called dissolution of the go, which means the disappearance of the limited form of individuality that the Self has adopted. When the wave surrenders its individuality, what is lost is not water but the particular form and name that the water had temporarily adopted. Upon surrender the wave becomes the ocean. In fact, the wave was already one with the ocean; its wavehood was accidental. Once the accidental state is removed, the wave attains its real nature, which is ocean. Similarly the limited self, which is already one with Shiva, surrenders its adopted limited finite individuality and becomes the infinite Shiva, i.e. shines in the pristine purity of its Shivahood. It is said that when ego steps out, God steps in.
The scriptures declare that liberation (moksha) can be attained by knowledge. The knowledge that is referred to is not mere intellectual knowledge, but a deeper knowledge called the spiritual knowledge. However, the intellectual knowledge is also necessary to remove doubts and induce the aspirant to follow the spiritual path to realize one’s true identity.
Pratyabhijna is the total spiritual transformation of the person. This does not mean a literal transformation such as the milk changing into curd. In spiritual transformation the Self does not change nor is anything added to it. Rather it is the purification (removal of impurity or ignorance) of the person, which results in a spiritual change in the person. In this sense purification is akin to cleaning a dirty cloth. When the dirty cloth becomes pure by being washed, it is not transformed nor is anything added to it; there is simply the dirt being removed. We can say that the cloth remains the same but is changed from the impure condition to its natural condition of purity. Similarly, in spiritual transformation the Self attains its real nature, which is already pure and perfect. Thus, Pratyabhijna is not knowledge by description but is direct and immediate awareness or cognition of the Self.