Comparing Being and Light in Suhrawardi's Ḥikmat al-Ishrāq and Abhinavagupa’s Anuttara Trika Kula
In examining Suhrawardī’s and Abhinavagupta’s treatment of Light and Being, it seems clear that there are impressive and important parallels. Once one allows for differences of terminology and context, Suhrawardī and Abhinavagupta express a virtually identical doctrine of an ontology of Light in virtually identical terms, buttressed by virtually identical reasoning. Moreover, it is clear that both philosophers understand and affirm Light in terms that are completely in agreement with the Metaphysics of Light as it is understood in its original, Western, context.
For both Suhrawardī and Abhinavagupta, reality is finally and fundamentally Light.
Light is paraṁ tattvaṁ, the ultimate principle, and al-ghanī al-muṭlaq, that which is absolutely rich or full in its reality. Moreover, by “Light” they do not mean a metaphor or symbol of physical light. Rather, just as with Plato, the light of the sun is the analogue of the true Light, which in both systems is defined in precisely the same way. For Suhrawardī, nūr, Light is that which is manifest in itself and manifests others. It is that which is ẓāhir, evident. In fact, it is that which is most evident and the most self-evident, and so is the source of ishrāq, illumination, that is the manifestation, for other things. For Abhinavagupta, Light is identically prakāsa, that which illuminates, brings things into manifestation or makes them evident.
Both philosophers draw precisely the same set of implications from this definition. The first and most obvious are that Light is essentially consciousness. For Suhrawardī, the essential nature of the anwār mojarra, the immaterial Lights is anā’iya, “I”-ness, or ‘ilm bi-dhātihi, self-awareness. For Abhinavagupta, the essential nature of prakāśa is vimarśa: again, self-awareness or reflexive awareness. For both philosophers, consciousness is what brings things in manifestation through its own self-evidence. Thus, consciousness is Light and all entities are, in their most fundamental reality, of the nature of consciousness: all things are Lights.
In terms of metaphysics, this entails for both Suhrawardī and Abhinav Gupta a decisive movement away from a philosophy of Being toward a philosophy of Light. This does not mean that a terminology of Being is replaced with a terminology of Light, nor is “Light” used as a symbol or metaphor for “Being.” Rather, in both cases, it involves the fundamental insight that self-reflective awareness rather than existence is the primary and most self-evident category of reality. An ontology of Being is one that looks to the entities that are manifest as fundamental. An ontology of Light looks to that which makes entities manifest. If Being is taken to be most self-evident, then the philosopher of Light asks—evident to whom? For if an ontology is to be grounded on the self-evidence of Being, then Being, in turn, must be grounded on self-evidence.
From this both philosophers draw the identical conclusion that entities are more real to the extent that they are conscious. For Suhrawardī this means replacing the continuum of the great chain of Being with a continuum of Illumination or Self-Consciousness. In opposition to the Peripatetics, God is not He who has most Being, rather God is He who is most self-aware. Similarly, for Abhinavagupta no entity which is devoid of the Light of manifestation can acquire existence at all, and the more each aspect of manifestation understands itself to be identical with the Light of consciousness, the more real it is. It is the nature of Light to be conscious: to illuminate itself. Entities are more or less real to the extent that they are self-luminous, that is, sentient. It is the degree of consciousness, rather than the degree of existence, that determines how real something is. Since insentient entities are not self-luminous, they do not manifest in and of themselves, but only through another can which is self-luminous. According to Abhinavagupta, it is impossible for anything to arise, that is, become manifest, apart from the light of consciousness. In order to exist, an entity must be manifest, and in order to be manifest, it must be illuminated. But it is the inherent nature of the Light of manifestation to be self-luminous, thus Light formally precedes existence. The recognition of the illuminative nature of consciousness precedes discursive reasoning concerning being.
While insentient entities are themselves brought into manifestation, that is, they are illuminated, they themselves cannot illuminate others, that is, they cannot bring other entities into manifestation or appearance. It is only sentience that can bring other entities into its own field of consciousness. This is an act or power (śakti) which is at once that of knowing and of bringing into being. Both of these activities, which are held in all of the philosophies of Being be separate (where to know and to exist are not the same) are subsumed in both of these philosophies of Light under the single category of illumination. To be manifest in the field of consciousness is both to be manifest and to be manifest.
For both Suhrawardī and Abhinavagupta, this means that the ultimate ground, the supreme Light, was placed beyond both Being and not-Being. In Suhrawardī’s case, this is a recovery of a purer form of Platonism where the ultimate ground, the One or the Good, had been so understood since the works of the Master himself. In the case of Abhinavagupta, this move is more original in terms of the Upaniṣadic tradition, where the question of ontic commitment was less clear-cut. Nonetheless, both philosophers present this ultimate as Light. For Suhrawardī it is nūr al-anwār, the Light of Lights, from which all illumination proceeds. For Abhinavagupta it is an Uttara, a transcendent “It would not be wrong to say that the Pratyabhijña conceives the Ultimate Reality not only as Universal Consciousness but also as Universal Energy”. Also, recall Parmenides: “It is the same thing to think and to be” category (tattva) beyond all categories. In both cases, it is the single supreme Subject, whose self-illumination is the source and cause of all manifestation.
Although the categories, terminology, and details of the process differ, the way in which the universe is produced out of the supreme Light is fundamentally the same in both systems. It results from emanation, understood as the interplay between the Supreme Subject and the inherent objectification that occurs when it regards Itself in the mirror of its own reflexivity. Thus, in the illumination system, the Light of Lights emanates the Proximate Light which, understanding itself as an object of emanation as such, to that extent loses the pure subjectivity of the Supreme. In doing so, the Proximate Light in its turn continues the outpouring of the Light into manifestation through the planetary intelligence and Platonic forms in which the Light is progressively veiled. In the same way, in Kashmiri Śaivism the reflexive interplay between pure subjectivity and reflected objectivity among the pure śivatattvas at the level most proximate to the Unmanifest begins the progressive development of the impure tattvas in which the veils of māyā obscure the Light from Itself in manifestation.98 98 In keeping with the differing contexts of their respective traditions, both the categories of manifestation and the details of how they are parsed in the emanating process differ. Thus, for example, in Suhrawardī, the Light of Lights as Supreme Subject is understood to be involved directly in the emanation process. In Abhinavagupta, and Uttara stands above it, as it were. I contend that these differences, while significant, are primarily contextual and the essential insight of manifestation as the interplay of subjectivity and objectivity is the same in both systems. This idea is developed throughout succeeding chapters of this study.
The differences between the two systems are best understood as reflecting the differing philosophical contexts in which each historically emerged. This can even be seen in the way that iconographic symbolism appears. In this regard, this first thing to note is that it appears in both systems in a highly abstract form. The Śiva that appears in the works of Abhinavagupta is not the Śiva of the epics or purāṇas. His predominant iconography is that of Light, which when it reaches the level of an Uttar becomes completely abstract. Nor is the Goddess much fleshed out beyond her pre-eminence as śakti. Similarly, in Suhrawardī’s philosophical works the identification of the Zoroastrian amnesia spent with the Platonic forms is essentially mentioned rather than used in any substantive way. Yet insofar as iconography exists at all in their works, it illustrates the traditional contexts in which each philosopher is working. Suhrawardī and Abhinavagupta, to reiterate the point yet once again, move from a philosophy of Being to one of Light. The terms under which this shift is undertaken will necessarily vary according to the conceptual structure of the metaphysics that is being amended and reformed: Ḥikmat al-Ishrāq necessarily differs from Anuttara trike kula because Peripateticism differs from Advaita Vedānta and Sāṃkhya. Working within the inherited philosophical context of a Peripatetic system that incorporated profoundly Aristotelian elements resulting in a doctrine of the primacy of existence (asālat al-wujūd), Suhrawardī
Abhinavagupta’s (or, finally, the Lord Śiva’s) project of recovery or restoration takes place in reference to an entirely different problem of Being— that of the incoherence of both the Sāṃkhya and Advaita Vedānta in posting the active production of the principles of existence without any reference to the dynamic activity of consciousness whereby manifestation actually occurs. Thus the introduction of and emphasis upon the fundamental powers (śakti) of will, knowledge, and action expressed as forms of the primordial Goddess and infusing the categories of being (tattvas) with the effulgent radiance of the Supreme Subjectivity. Literally, “whatness” from Ar. māha, “what.” Cf. quiddities from L. quid. The Latins learned their Aristotle at the feet of the Islamic Peripatetics.
However, it may be worth mentioning that the emanative relationship that exists in his system between the Light of Lights and the Proximate Light was sometimes understood and expressed in the Platonic tradition in terms of the receptive activity of a Divine Feminine Principle, e.g as World Soul or Logos or Sophia or even the Receptacle (Dillon passim). This is analogous to the relationship of Śiva to the Goddess as Śakti at the level of the śivatattvas.
The goal and purpose of both systems are identical. Suhrawardī and Abhinavagupta both engage in philosophical discourse not for its own sake but in support of mystical attainment. For Suhrawardī, discursive (baḥth) philosophy is subordinate to intuitive. For Abhinavagupta the purpose of reasoning (Sattar ka) is to support and in fact enable liberation (jīvanmuktiḥ).
These considerations all indicate that with regard to the first element of the doctrine of the metaphysics of Light—the ontological—the answer to the research question posed in this study is clearly in the affirmative. Both Suhrawardī and Abhinavagupta understand and affirm Light and Being in terms that are completely in agreement with the doctrine of the metaphysics of Light as it is understood in its original Western context, that is, that “Light, then is not a mere metaphor for the unsayable, but a concept which names intelligible reality properly and fittingly”.