VAK: FOUR LEVELS
OF THE WORD
The Self-Expression of the Goddess, by Christopher D. Wallis (Hareesh)
The name of this newsletter is Vāc (“the Word”), so it seemed only appropriate to contribute something about that subject as it is understood by classical Tantrik philosophy. In the tradition of the Trika (by which term I refer to the nondual Trika as expounded by the Pratyabhijñā lineage of Kashmir), the concept of the Word is absolutely central; indeed, the whole bedrock of the Trika doctrine is a kind of linguistic mysticism. As the greatest master of the Trika, Abhinavagupta, says: “For us, the totality of sounds is the highest Divinity itself, and the goddess of the alphabet is his Power.” This emphasis on language makes sense when you know that the supreme Goddess of the Trika, Parā, is in fact the secret Tantrik expression of the goddess ordinarily called Sarasvatī; for her full name is in fact Parā Vāc, “the Supreme Word”. In this brief article I will describe the four levels of the self-expression of that Goddess. Having known Her, the texts say, nothing remains to be known.
The first of the four levels, Vaikharī, is the level of ordinary everyday “corporeal” speech. It functions on the level of duality, and in it, object-awareness is predominant. This discourse in which we engage every day is, in this philosophy, just the tip of the iceberg. It is constantly informed by deeper levels of discourse, and can point us towards those deeper realities. In other words, ordinary speech is shaped by how we think; how we think is shaped by our deep unconscious beliefs about reality; and those in turn are expressions of the singular divine consciousness that freely chooses to express itself in a rhythm of contracted and expanded forms. In light of this, the way you speak expresses the pattern of your consciousness. If change is desireable, then, we Tantrikas seek that transformation not in terms of superficial programmatic adjustments of our words to conform more successfully to social sanction. Rather, we seek shifts on the deepest level of our awareness that then express themselves naturally through the dance of our thoughts and words. So words do matter, not in terms of themselves but of what they signify, what they reveal about the way we are encountering and understanding our world. Additionally, they are forms of action, by which we effect or inflict change on the world around us.
The second level, then, is Madhyamā Vāc, the level of thought. Here the process of knowing is predominant. This is the arena in which the mind formulates its thought constructs—the forms of verbal symbolization that we then superimpose on reality, forcing it to fit these predetermined molds. Yet this is also the level of contemplation and imagination, expansive forms of inner discourse that move us closer to our natural state of freedom and presence. Our thought constructs (vikalpas) limit the range of possibilities for how we experience any given reality; yet cultivating purified thought constructs (those aligned with the organic flowing patterns of awakened consciousness) can by the same token expand our range of possibilities.
This is very difficult to do, however, if we are not also working on the third level, the Paśyantī or “Visionary” level of Vāc. This is the level where subjective awareness is dominant, a level beyond ordinary discourse, where the vibrations of thought and feeling are entirely wordless. It is the level of precognitive Will [icchā]. On this level, there is no differentiation of space and time, and sound and light too are synesthetically fused. Yet the Word is active here too, though it is condensed and concealed. For this is the level of our pre-cognitive, deeply held beliefs about reality, woven into our sense of self and all the stronger for being wordless. This level is called Visionary because the pattern held here powerfully shapes our vision of reality, structuring our thought on the Intermediate level and our words on the Corporeal level. This then is the dwelling place of our deepest saṃskāras, or subliminal impressions of past experience, which constantly provide the template for our mental and physical engagement with reality. This is the level of deep healing, where our goal is to create a pattern in awareness that perfectly aligns with the cosmic divine pattern. There are three methods to penetrate to this level.
The first is to repeatedly cultivate purified thought constructs on the Madhyamā level. This method is carefully and beautifully explained by the mahāsiddha Abhinavagupta in “The Essence of Tantra”. The second method is meditation, where by accessing the Witness Consciousness that characterizes this level, we create a healing space of awareness in which old saṃskāras are automatically released. The third method is mantra-japa, which begins on the Vaikharī level where not much benefit is experienced, but if sufficiently practiced, it becomes subtler and subtler until it purifies all three levels of speech, eventually leading us to the highest. When the Paśyantī level is purified, the unobstructed light of divine Will Power directs us to realization of our ultimate nature.
That ultimate nature is the Supreme Word [Parā Vāc]. The foundation of all language, thought, feeling, and perception, Parā is a divine mystery, for despite being the highest principle of reality, we have all experienced Her as our own expanded self-awareness. She is not some mystical state stowed away in a void, but rather the singular all-encompassing vibration by which all things move and sing. Srī Abhinavagupta describes Parā Vāc in this way: “She is the primordial, uncreated Word, the very essence of the highest reality, pervading all things and eternally in creative motion: (she is simply) luminous pure Consciousness, vibrating with the greatest subtlety (as the ground of all Being).” He goes on to say that everything—stones, trees, birds, human beings, gods, demons—is a harmonic vibration of that one supreme Word. Her dominant powers are svā the power of absolute Freedom, and the power of self-awareness. She is most fully expressed in human experience in the state of chamatkāra, the state of fully self-aware ecstasy where consciousness is suffused with the rapture of extreme beauty, vibrating with wonder and awe. This state, absolutely expansive and wordless, transcendent yet completely engaged with the reality present in awareness, reveals to us how the Goddess Parā can be simultaneously the transcendent source of all things, yet completely immanent in all things. She suggests to us, then, that ultimately we can experience exquisite beauty in each aspect of human existence: in stillness and change, in death and birth, in growth and decay, in pain and in happiness.