The 36 tattvas

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Chart of the 36 tattvas in Kashmir Shaivism

In Kashmir Shaivism, the 36 tattvas describe the Absolute, its internal aspects and the creation including living beings, down to the physical reality. Tattvas divide into three groups: Ashuddha, or impure (material, sensorial, the organs of action, the mind and the ego), Shuddhashuddha, or pure-impure (the soul and its limitations) and Shudda, or pure (internal aspects of the Absolute). The impure tattvas are the domain of objectivity and duality, the pure-impure tattvas are the domain of knowledge and the pure tattvas are the domain of transcendental unity and non-differentiation.

The five mahābhūtas[edit]

The five mahābhūtas are the ingredients of the physical world. They represent the final point of manifestation, where light (Prakāśa) is condensed into matter, yet the mahābhūtas remain identical with Shiva.[1]

The five tanmātras - subtle mediums of the sensations[edit]

While mahābhūtas are the basis for the material world, sensations and perceptions are but limited aspects and views of it, in no way able to fully describe it. We cannot actually perceive the reality, all we can access are limited "bands" of information that form a description of reality. This restriction however applies only to the limited beings (jiva, or aṇu). For one who has gone beyond māyā, in the realm of the pure tattvas, there can be direct perception of reality, because as one's self is Ātman, so are the external objects. In such a state an enlightened being can perceive the world beyond the five senses (direct perception), in a state of diversity in unity and unity in diversity. Another way to put it is that he then recognizes (Pratyabhijña) himself (Atman) in any object. These bands of information are the five tanmātras. Being closer to the subject than the physical reality, tanmātras are more elevated than mahābhūtas and are described as their source of creation.[citation needed]

The five karmendriyas - organs of action[edit]

Karmendriyas represent both the physical organs and the corresponding subtle (astral) organs of action, specific to activity in the astral plane.

As their name says, karmendriyas are karman indriyas, that is internal organs that create karma. They are connected directly to the manas tattva and represent its solar, active function. The jñānendriyas (sense organs) represent the lunar, passive function of manas. The harmonious activation of pāyu tattva is essential for obtaining control of such an energy. This is why many techniques involving pāyu tattva are methods of awakening of kundalini energy:

  • aśvini mudrā – the horse gesture
  • mulā bandha – the root lock
  • śakticalana mudrā – moving the shakti
  • mahamudra – the great seal (from hatha yoga)
  • siddhasana, an important asana where the heel is pressing the perineum or anus[2]

The term upastha means sexual organs, 'the part which is under' or lap. Upastha tattva means the power of procreation and sexual enjoyment, or the generative organ.[3]

Pada Tattva represents both the physical organ of locomotion and the subtle energetic structures associated with it. Between the seven force centers it is associated with Manipura Chakra[4] and in the hierarchy of 36 tattvas it is a superior octave of tejas tattva.

Symbol of devotion[edit]

The foot is seen in Hinduism as a symbol of devotion. The custom of venerating guru's feet is a clear message of acceptance and submission – by placing the foot of the master (lowest part of his body) on the head of the disciple (highest part of the body), the disciple assumes a totally receptive position, which is essential for the process of initiation. A variant of this practice is venerating the feet of a deity, for example Shiva, Vishnu or Buddha (buddhapada):.[5][6]

Articulation of speech[edit]

In Kashmir Shaivism each class of phonemes is correlated with specific mantric energies of the sound.[7] The full sequence of phonematic energies is called mātṛkā and contains 50 sounds, associated with the letters of the Sanskrit alphabet. On a cosmic scale, the creation of the universe is described in Kashmir Shaivism as an evolution of sound, a descending process originating from the level of logos (pārāvak). Each phoneme represents a stage in the process of evolution, a tattva, a world in itself. Sounds are associated with energies and ultimately with aspects of consciousness. The magical power of sounds and words is derived from this association with energy (śakti) and consciousness (śiva). The study of these energies is an essential part of Kashmir Shaivism.[8]

Speech as a creative power[edit]

Vak tattva plays a major creative role in the human being as the instrument of speech and as such, the origin of the interior world of thought. Speech acts as a mirror of the exterior reality, duplicating everything that exists outside into the mind. The word is the vehicle of the limited ego, ahamkara. The word as such is an imperfect tool though, because while it can reflect the exterior reality it always approximates. For example, when we say I saw a man we don't say much - what kind of man, what impressions did he give us, etc. The word is just an abstraction from reality. Thus language is at the same time a tool and an obstacle in knowledge.[9]

As the self is expressed in three levels, ego, soul and spirit, so is speech expressed in three different ways:

  • at the level of the ego (ahaṃkāra), speech is fully differentiated; it includes madhyamā vāk and vaikharī vāk, thus the vehicle of speech is the word itself
  • at the level of the soul (jivātman, or puruṣa in Kashmir Shaivism) language is not ruptured from its real signification any more; it can be described as paśiantī vāk, the language of mantric syllables, symbols and non-sequential instant knowledge (intuition).
  • at the level of the Ātman, language is expressed as supreme word - parāvak; in term of sound, it is represents silence;[10] here there is only one single reality and one single meaning and it is described in a multitude of concepts, all approximative, as conscious light (prakāsa-vimarṣa), compact mass of consciousness and beatitude (cid-ananda-Ghana), supreme freedom (svātantrya), atemporal vibration (spanda) and the spontaneous flash of conscious light that projects objects into reality (abhāsa). Thus at this level there is absolutely no difference between the word and its significance.

Word as a medium for spiritual initiation[edit]

In most spiritual schools, speech is the preferred medium of spiritual initiation. Sometimes written word is used, but the most secret initiations are traditionally transmitted "from mouth to ear". Oral teachings are usually reinforced through repetition (ritual) to become a spiritual foundation.[11]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ The Pratyabhijñā Philosophy, G.V.Tagare, 2002, pag. 25
  2. ^ Kundalini Yoga, Swami Sivananda, free online version at
  3. ^ Introduction to Kashmir Shaivism, Gurudev Siddha Peeth, Ganeshpuri, 1975, pag. 33
  4. ^ Panels of the VIIth World Sanskrit Conference: Kern Institute, Leiden, August 23–29, 1987, Johannes Bronkhorst, pag. 58
  5. ^ Relics of the Buddha, John Strong, pag. 85
  6. ^ Theory And Practice of Yoga: Essays in Honor of Gerald James Larson, Knut A. Jacobsen, pag. 239
  7. ^ Para-trisika Vivarana, Jaideva Singh, pages 89,106
  8. ^ Vāc, The Concept of the Word In Selected Hindu Tantras, André Padoux, page 147
  9. ^ "Jnānam bandhaḥ", The Shiva-Sutra Vimarsini of Ksemaraja, P.T. Shrinivas Iyengar, page 5
  10. ^ "God speaks into silence and his word creates", Silence, the Word and the Sacred: Essays, E. D. Blodgett, pag. 15
  11. ^ Silence, the Word and the Sacred: Essays, E. D. Blodgett


  • Lakshman Joo, Swami (1988). Kaśmir Śaivism.  pag. 1
  • Eliade, Mircea. Theory and History of Religion.  cap. 6 and 7
  • Singh, Jaideva (1979). Siva Sutras: The Yoga of Supreme Identity. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidas.

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