Resplendent, perfect, enjoying great happiness because He rests in his own Self, abundantly provided with willpower, consciousness and instruments of action, full of limitless shaktis, free of all dualistic thought-constructs, pure, peaceful, free from appearance and disappearance, it is in Him, Paramashiva, the supreme tattva, that the world of 36 principles appears.

– Abhinavagupta

Tattva means ‘thatness’ or principle, reality; it is the very being of a thing.

Kashmir Shaivism describes the manifestation of the universe in great detail—a process whereby the one undivided Consciousness (Shiva) opens out and becomes the divided (and beautifully diverse) universe we perceive. This process has 36 stages or tattvas, each one a little denser than the one before. The first tattvas have the highest, purest vibration. They are unobstructed Consciousness and light. Descending through the tattvas, the light darkens, things become more veiled, dull, ignorant and heavy. At the conclusion of the process, we have a material universe. Here, Maya, the mysterious principle of veiling and separation, has full sway.

Because Consciousness is the only one substance in this universe, each of the 36 tattvas is nothing but Consciousness vibrating at particular frequencies and behaving in specific ways. Even at the most dense stages, all the previous, higher tattvas are still present, though not explicit. The divine realm of grace is never remote. At every point and in every condition man has access to higher Consciousness, higher tattvas, by an inner movement of his attention. This is an important point—the creation of the universe is conceived of as an opening out—not a linear movement, but a movement from the centre to all points on the periphery. Meditation is thus a glance towards the centre, a ‘getting in touch with’ the purest vibrations of Consciousness.


Why 36 Tattvas?

A little historical knowledge illumines this point. Kashmir Shaivism adopted an already existing analysis made by the Samkhya tradition, which outlined 25 tattvas. Samkhya, which traces itself to the sage Kapila who lived at the time of the Buddha (500 B.C.), is neither materialist (everything is matter) nor idealist (everything is Consciousness). Instead, it is dualist: it says that the universe is made of matter and Consciousness. This is a perfectly logical statement, since on a practical level there is a clear dualism between the outer world of materiality and the inner world of awareness. The Shaivite masters acknowledged the truth of this dualism, but contended that there was a higher monistic truth. To describe it they added 11 more levels at the top of the chart, beyond Samkhya, thus making the total 36.

What’s so Important About Them?

In India, philosophy is also called darshan, because it is not merely a mental construct but a way of ‘seeing’ ultimate reality. The vision of Kashmir Shaivism is more than optimistic. It says you can overcome suffering by yoga, meditation and knowledge. Therefore, it is said that the disciplined study of the tattvas will bring you closer to your own God consciousness. Yoga means ‘union’ and union with the Oneness is achieved through knowledge—by a deep love for that knowledge of God. When you study these sequences of elements you are reading the manual of how you created this universe.

The tattvas can be enumerated from the bottom up or the top down. The top down order (Shiva > Earth) is the order of creation. The bottom up is the order of liberation, or return to source. At the top of the tattva hierarchy (Shiva Tattva) all the principles are present in potential form, while at the bottom all those potentialities inherent in the divine are fully expressed.

We should remember that the Tattva structure is a map and while maps have something to do with reality they are not the same as reality.

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Three Sections

Kashmir Shaivism divides these 36 tattvas into three main parts: the pure, the pure-impure and the impure tattvas.

1. Impure

Creation is the eternal play of opposites. The impure tattvas relate to that level of experience based on duality. This is the normal experience of a human being.

How can there be so much wonderful variety, if it wasn’t infinity itself that became finite?

– Mark Dyczkowski

2. Pure-Impure

The pure-impure tattvas relate to a higher order of experience. Differentiation and multiplicity exist—a world of forms—but the underlying unity is clear. The Shaivites describe this as an experience of the universe as one’s own body. It is not the experience of a separate person—but of God.

3. Pure

Finally, the pure tattvas refer to Consciousness in its pristine form. Here the world of objects has totally disappeared. There is no world, but only vibrating Consciousness. This level is attained by yogis who reach nirvikalpa samadhi. However, when a realised yogi operates in the world, this is called sahaja samadhi, or natural samadhi. Here, he remains in a middle state in which duality is perceived but rendered harmless. The world of objects exists, but one rests in absolute peace, joy and unity. The attainment of this state is liberation, and said to be the final the goal.

Five Energies of Shiva

Tattvas one to five represent the divine realm of perfect experience, pure Consciousness. There are different changes that happen within that realm, but unity and divinity are never lost. Shiva, tattva one, is transcendent Consciousness. He is the Brahman of the Veda, pure light. Tattva two is Shakti, Shiva’s consort. Here the pure light becomes active, creative and self-reflective. Without Shakti, Shiva is incomplete and ineffectual. With Shakti, the universe teems with creativity and abundance. By seeing Shakti as the dynamism of God, Shaivism separates from Vedanta whose highest principle is inactive.

Shiva and Shakti are not really two. They are God and His power, the light and self-awareness, yin and yang, male and female. You could say that these first five tattvas are different roles or aspects of God. Still, there is only One. He is not lost; He has not forgotten who He is.

By enumerating five divine or pure tattvas instead of one, the Shaivite masters give us a fuller and more varied portrait of the Absolute. Here are the different moods of Shiva: Shiva as perfect will {tattva three), Shiva as pure wisdom and light {tattva four), Shiva as omnipotent activity {tattva five).

The Act of Concealment and Diversity

The first five tattvas represent divine Consciousness. Then there is maya, or contraction. Shiva, who is perfect oneness, suddenly becomes separate. At tattvas one and two, Shiva and Shakti are joined in a perfect, harmonious dance. But down at tattvas 12 and 13, we have purusha and prakriti. Each of us is a purusha and each of us has a prakriti, or a world. Purusha and prakriti are really Shiva and Shakti in disguise. When maya impacts Shiva and Shakti they become purusha and prakriti. This is revealing: Samkhya begins with purusha and prakriti. Shaivism tells us the hidden history of the pair by bringing in the new tattvas. In a kind of prequel to their earthly career, we learn that this somewhat distressed couple is of divine birth. How did they get the way they are now? It is the effect of maya.

The Tattvas

Earth #36

Even though Earth is at the bottom of the tattva hierarchy, it is not seen by the Tantrikas as the lowest of the principles, but rather the most complete: that level of reality in which all the tattvas are fully manifest.

Earth element is the principle of solidity, density, resistance, and roundedness.

  • Senses: Hearing, touch, sight, taste, and smell.
  • Bija mantra (seed-syllable): Lam.

Water #35

Water is the principle of liquidity.

  • Senses: Hearing, touch, sight, and taste.
  • Bija mantra (seed-syllable): Vam.

Fire #34

Fire is the principle of combustion and transformation.

  • Senses: Hearing, touch, and sight.
  • Bija mantra (seed-syllable): Ram.

Wind #33

Wind is the principle of mobility. The primary characteristic of air is the way it moves to fill a partial vacuum, constantly seeking to even itself out.

  • Senses: Hearing and touch.
  • Bija mantra (seed-syllable): Yam.

Space #32

Space is the principle of vacuity and of extension.

  • Sense: Hearing.
  • Bija mantra (seed-syllable): Ham.

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