Abhinavagupta is widely acknowledged as the foremost exponent of the school of Kashmir Shaivism in India. Combining in himself several pursuits as wide-ranging as those of a spiritual teacher, philosopher, literary theorist and aesthete, Abhinavagupta challenged earlier traditions of knowledge, redefined their conceptual dynamics and brought in his own radically new interpretations that still remain at the core of India’s intellectual history.
Much information on Abhinavagupta is available from his own writings, as well as that of his disciples. Abhinavagupta was born in a family of distinguished scholars and devout followers of the spiritual path. His parents were Narasimhagupta and Vimalakala. From an early age, he was trained in Sanskrit grammar, logic and literature. He had several teachers, the main among them being Lakshmanagupta. He chose a celibate life, and traveled widely, acquired knowledge in different branches of learning including faiths such as Buddhism and Jainism, apart from Shaivism to which he contributed significantly. He also had several students to whom he taught the tenets of Shaivism and aesthetic philosophy. He is said to have chosen his own death by vanishing into a cave in Birwa village on the Gulmarga range, reciting the hymn to Bhairava accompanied by his retinue of 1200 disciples.
Abhinavagupta left behind a large volume of writing—there are more than 40 texts ascribed to him, but unfortunately, almost half of them are not available so far. His work consists of commentaries of works by earlier writers, as well as his own writings. Among them are tantra works, stotra-s (devotional hymns), vivarana (epistemological analyses) texts, manuals on ritual practices, elucidations of established concepts and practices, critical texts and commentaries on poetics, dramaturgy and aesthetics, all of which are original reflections.
Abhinavagupta views the nature of reality from the perspective of philosophical thought in his three works, Bhagavadgitartha-samgraha, Isvara-pratyabhijna-vimarshini and Isvara-pratyabhijna-vivritti-vimarshini. Bhagavadgitarthasamgraha looks at the Gita from the perspective of trika Shaivism and yoga, and has a different point of view from the Advaitic philosophy of Sankara, dualistic thought of Madhva or devotional vision of Ramanuja.
Abhinavagupta’s interpretation of the theoretical, ritualistic and yogic application of the trika (shiva, shakti, nara triad) systems of Kashmir led to his seminal treatise, Tantraloka, considered by many as his most significant contribution to the field of theology. A comprehensive text in 37 chapters, it integrates the basic ideas of the whole tradition of Shaivism including krama, kaula and spanda schools and covering the whole gamut of including the branches of agama, spanda and pratyabhijna.
Abhinavagupta himself was aware of the distinctive quality of his work Tantraloka, but he knew that its complexities are not graspable to everyone. Therefore, the essence of his philosophy is captured in Tantra-sara, an abridged version of Tantraloka. This as well as other texts like Purva-panchika (commentary of Malinivijaya-tantra), revolves around parama-dvyayavada, the concept of supreme theistic monism, the manifestation of the Absolute Principle.
Abhinavagupta's Paramartha-sara is a revised version of Patanjali’s work, through which he illustrates the pre-eminence of the trika doctrine. In the conclusion of the text, Abhinavagupta states, ‘I have kept this Paramartha-sara brief, in one hundred verses. Though it is only one hundred verses in body, in the volume of knowledge it is more than ten million verses.’ Paratrimsika-vivarana deals with the kaula cult of the trika with its worship of the goddess Tripurasundari or Srividya. It deals with the signification of the phonematic energies and their two sequential ordering systems, the matrka and malini. Other works of devotional importance include Paratrisika-laghuvrtti, Paryantha-panchasika, Rahasya-panchasika, Laghvi-prakriya, Devistotra-vivarana and Paramartha-sara. Besides, he has also composed hymns such as Krama-stotra, Bhairava-stotra and Anubhava-nivedana.
Abhinavagupta’s contribution to the fields of aesthetics and literary theory are reflected in his monumental work Abhinavabharati, a commentary on Bharata’s Natya Sastra, and in Lochana (Commentary on Anandavardhana’s Dhvanyaloka). Abhinavabharati is a magnificent edifice providing the both the basis and structure for the evolution of Indian poetics and art experience in general. Abhinavagupta had made adequate preparations for writing this commentary par excellence on the greatest text on aesthetics and performing arts that was produced in India before him i.e. Bharata's Natyashastra, by studying this text and other texts of Kavyashatra at the feet of great masters. In fact, Abhinavabharati is the only available ancient commentary on Natyashastra of Bhratamuni. It not only explains the whole text of Natyashastra, but introduces novel ideas, re-examines the prevailing intellectual traditions and provides interpretations for the existing schools of thought. It is the only gateway for entering the monumental and voluminous Natyashastra as well as for understanding the whole tradition of poetics, aesthetics and philosophy. In fact, this commentary has become an encyclopaedia of Natyashastra studies in the first millenium. The dialogic methodology employed in Abhinavabharati gives Abhinavagupta ample scope to cite the references from Bharata, analyze, interpret and contest the viewpoints of his earlier commentators and establish his own theory unequivocally. His interpretation of the Rasa Chapter (6th chapter) of the Natya Sastra is a classic in terms of its clarity of thought, coherence of logical analysis and candour in expression in its the discussion on the nature of aesthetic experience. Abhinavagupta’s theory of rasa is spectator-oriented and idealistic, emphasizing the power of the imagination, which helps the sensitive spectator to scale the heights of aesthetic delight during a performance. In Lochana, he states that rasa-dhvani relating to a literary work operates through the activation of latent traces of memory in the mind of the reader. His concept of pratibha (intuition born from inspiration) as the motivating force of creativity and its development through the power of good nurturing, and as the resonance in the heart of an ideal reader/spectator has given supremacy to direct experience, be in the case of religion or aesthetic experience, which for him are different facets of the same mental activity.
The greatest achievement of Abhinavagupta in the field of aesthetic philosophy is his view of Shanta Rasa. Before him, Udbhata and Anandavardhana both had accepted Shanta as the ninth Rasa in Shravyakavya and also there had been a long history of discussion on this Rasa amongst the Buddhist and Jaina theorists. However, it was Abhinavagupta who built a philosophical foundation for this Rasa. He perceived Shanta as the ultimate in the process of rasa-realisation. Abhinava refutes various arguments against Shanta Rasa based on his concept of Purushartha and established an invariable link between art experience and the Parama Purushartha, i.e., Moksha.
Works by Abhinavagupta
Iyer, K.A. Subramania, K.C. Pandey and R.C. Dwivedi (eds.). 1986. Isvarapratyabhijna-Vimarsini: Doctrine of Divine Recognition. 3 vols. New Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers.
Krishnamoorthy, K. 1988. Abhinavaguptas Dhvanyaloka Lochana with An Anonymous Commentary. New Delhi: Meharchand Lachhamandas Publications.
Pandit, Mahamahopadhyaya, and Mukund Ram Shastri (eds). 2009. Tantraloka of Abhinava Gupta. 8 vols. New Delhi. India Chaukhambha Publications.
Shastri, Madhusudan Kaul. 1987. Ishvarapratyabhijna-vivritti-vimarshini. 3 vols. Bombay: Kashmir Series of Texts and Studies.