Parā

By Christian de Vietri

“I praise the Supreme Goddess Parā, the Illuminative Insight Intelligence Force of Consciousness, who is the inseparable Yoginī consort of Bhairava, She who makes her abode on the three Lotus seats of the Trident of the Knower, the Knowing Process, and the Known Object." ~ Invocation from the Tantrāloka of Abhinavagupta (translated by Paul Muller-Ortega)

Parā (the Supreme) is the Goddess of primordial Creation, the power of Consciousness to represent itself to itself. She may also be referred to as Parā Devī (the Supreme Goddess), or Parā Vāc (the Supreme Word). This is a sculpture of Parā.Parā is the lineage deity of the Trika tradition of Tantric Śaivism also referred to as Kashmir Śaivism. The valley of Kashmir was once its epicentre. Islamization took place in Kashmir from the 13th to 15th century, leading to the decline of this tradition, and I speculate that artworks from this aesthetically rich and metaphysically profound tradition, including representations of Parā, may have been destroyed during this period, as I have found no examples of representations from that time. Even though the tradition has been through a long process of attrition since the 12th Century, and almost died out, its teachings, practices and philosophy were passed on from guru to disciple through the ages. The last Kashmiri guru associated with the Trika tradition, Swami Laksman Joo, transmitted the tradition to a few Westerners as well as Indians in the decades before his death in 1992. Aspects of the teachings and practices from this tradition were also passed on through Swami Muktānanda, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, and Swami Satyānanda. The tradition barely made it through into the 20th Century and is now undergoing a process of revival.

The Tantric tradition is baroque, effusive, and extremely expressive, with thousands of different deities. According to Tantra, the true nature of Consciousness is so fluid, so multifaceted, and so full of possibilities, that it takes a pantheon of deities to represent the infinite aspects of our own essence-nature. Each deity is like a slice of color on the spectrum of refracted clear light. All of them are in essence that One white light, and all of them offer a way back to that Source, but each appear as a different color, they display a different characteristic of Consciousness, and they offer different maps of that journey back home. Of the many deities that exist within the Tantric tradition, the Trika tradition holds Parā to be Supreme. She is closest to Source, closest to that One light, where the One transitions into the Many, at the nexus point where the formless disperses into the variegated world of form, as the vast array of deities, and as the manifest world. 

When it comes to understanding how to relate to a deity, there are different schools of thought within the Śaiva tradition. Some traditions will say that we should not limit the divine by having a particular form, and we should not do any external ritual, we should do away with all this and we should rely only on our inner experience and just know inside that we are One with God. Other traditions will say that the divine has such beautiful qualities so of course we will express those in art, in language, and we want to express our love for divinity and our willingness to become divine by performing rituals to those outer forms too. The 10th Century Tantric Mahasiddhā Rajānaka Abhinavagupta, in his magnum opus the Tantrāloka, speaks about the role of external ritual and outer forms. It is not specifically prescribed nor is it specifically prohibited. His overall strategy is to interiorize ritual, but he argues for an all-inclusiveness that transcends those traditions that attempt to entirely transcend ritual. So he does not exclude either of the aforementioned positions but rather includes all of them. In creating this sculpture, I have attempted to honor the point of view and the intention of Abhinavagupta. He speaks with great reverence about the Goddess, and about the forms she takes on as deity. At the same time, his overall strategy is to interiorise, to translate external ritual and external form of deity into an inner experience. Our primary focus in the Trika tradition is therefore that inner practice, but at the same time we can also relate to the externalisation of the deity such that it may reflect back to us our own essential divine nature. Abhinavagupta does not suggest abandoning deity forms altogether but rather he tells us how we must aspire to see these forms in ritual, as nothing less than our own liberated identity, collapsing any conception of difference between ourselves and the deity. We can experience the vast array of deities as colors that make up the One light, and as we become, through practice, immersed in the Absolute clear light more fully, those individual colors will become brighter, more luminous, enlivened, relevant, and more and more we will recognise that each expression of divinity as deity is a part of that clear light which contains all expressions. As we focus in on this particular Goddess Parā, on this aspect of the divine, it is essential that at the same time through practice we have deep immersion in the Ultimate light of Consciousness, which is Her Source, and the source of all creation. 

This sculpture of Parā is an externalisation of a deity that, according to the texts of the Kashmir Śaiva tradition, would have been visualised internally. In this process of externalisation we must remember that this is a Goddess from a non-dual tradition, so She is not to be conceived of as something separate from ourselves. The fact of her external materialisation as sculpture (perhaps for the first time) is not intended to invite a new kind of dualistic approach to Her. When we look at Parā, we are to realize that we are looking at a mirror. She is our true nature. She is within us, and all around us. She is an icon of our essence-nature, not separate from us. This is the experience of deity that inspired this artwork and the understanding of deity that I followed while creating it.

A process of transplantation is taking place whereby a tradition with a specific pantheon of deities that once had its roots in 10th Century Kashmir is now being carefully studied, authentically practiced, and thoroughly revived in various parts of the world. Swami Laksmanjoo imparted to us the universality of Kashmir Śaivism in his statement “Trika Philosophy is meant for any human being, without restriction of cast, creed or color”. In this spirit I am intending to serve the legitimate evolution of Kashmir Śaivism both in its homeland of Kashmir and throughout the world in those places where it is experiencing a renaissance. 

In the practice of Kashmir Śaivism we make pilgrimage to the sacred Heart of Consciousness. We are eventually to experience the divine everywhere at all times, while embodied. Though this sculpture will be installed and used at particular sites, it is intended to serve as an access point to the practitioner’s geographically independent inner temple which is beyond time and place. In the words of Śaiva scholar/practitioner/teacher Paul Muller-Ortega: “This body is the machine created by the divine for the recognition that the divine will have of itself in the innermost temple of the Heart”.

I have attempted, with the utmost respect and sensitivity, to create an artwork that is an authentic extension of the living tradition of Trika Śaivism, accessible to humans now and into the future. For Kashmir Śaivism, the senses are not seen as something we are to be systemically divorced from (as is the case in other traditions) but rather they offer a way in to experiencing the divine. In this case, the external form provides access via site into an experience of Parā. The sculpture is an anthropomorphic visual representation of the creative power of Consciousness that is also intended to be that power in essence. Seeing the deity is in effect being seen by Her. It is intended to lead one back into an experience of Parā within oneself, to a state of complete centredness and fullness, as the essence of Consciousness. This sculpture not only represents the Goddess Parā faithfully according the descriptions of Her in the sacred texts of the Kashmir Śaiva tradition, and accurately according to the rules of traditional sacred art, but it is also an object that is intended to convey an experience of Her directly. This has been done by framing the process of creation ritually, within the context of sādhana, and by honouring Her power as the process through which everything comes into being. The result is a condensation point of Her virtues in the form of an object that others can come into contact with and unveil those same virtues within themselves.

There are three main virtues of the goddess Parā that I would like to mention here - pratibhā, icchā, and camatkāra. Abhinavagupta uses the term pratibhā as another name for the Goddess and as Her primary quality. A single equivalent word for pratibhā does not exist in English but it could be translated as creative inspiration, intuitive insight, and divine knowledge. It is the sudden flash of insight that compels the poet to put pen to paper, or the vision like lightening from beyond that seizes the painter. It is the underlying impulse that inspires a bird to sing, and it is the innate intelligence in the newly born kitten that moves it towards the mother’s teat. It is not just a simple human capacity but rather an inherent primordial force that exists in and as the manifest world. The macrocosmic force of the Goddess Parā moving through microcosmic channel of the human body is what moves all great artists. It can easily be corrupted by the artist if his mind takes possession of it, as this divine quality of reality is not the product of the mind. The artist, who in his process honors the Goddess Parā - the originating impulse, the guide, and the essence of creativity, that artist will create art which touches the core of being, the Heart, and offers access to the Ultimate.

Icchā is the first emergent impulse to act in accompaniment with inner wisdom pratibhā. It is the primordial urge, the initial stirring, of the unconditioned Will to manifest. It is the motive force of Consciousness, without which nothing would arise, and everything would remain static, formless, unmanifest. This is pure impulse, beyond the mind, autonomous, free, joyful. Icchā is the desire of Parā to experience herself for no other reason than to delight in Her own creativity, because it is who She is, it is Her nature. In the act of creating She simply revels in Her own authenticity. At the level of the individual, this power of Consciousness remains veiled if there are judgments, personal desires, mind-generated fantasies, or self-serving intentions. These are contractions that are the result of an illusory sense of separation. Once they are released, and we move in the direction of expansion rather than contraction, our desires become one with the greater desire of Consciousness, we begin to want what the Goddess wants and as our lives align with this greater Will we experience the ever-expanding harmony and joy that is Her nature.

Parā is considered, within the context of the Trika tradition, the highest principle of reality, completely out of the mind’s reach, yet at the same time we experience Parā at every moment as our own self-awareness, present in all things. She is perhaps most fully and expansively expressed in the state of camatkāra. Camatkāra is sheer wonder, awe-struck surprise accompanied with the joy of a fully expanded utterly free-flowing state of self-awareness. We can experience this when seeing an incredible sunset, or watching a beautiful film, or listening to a beautiful piece of music. It is Parā’s power of absolute freedom (svātantrya-śakti) and her power of self-awareness (vimarśa-śakti) that gives rise to this state of sudden and complete expansion. Consciousness becomes suffused with such beauty and jaw-dropping rapture that time itself seems to stand still, or more accurately the illusion of time falls away. As we are swept up in aesthetic delight the egoic sense of a separate self becomes completely irrelevant, and we are able to live, see, experience, and be that which is eternal, and divine. When we have an aesthetic experience that moves us deeply, our engagement with others shifts, from an everyday, mundane, worldly (laukika) interaction to a non-worldly (alaukika) interaction. In this moment of camatkāra the relative distinction between being the experiencer, the acting of experiencing, and the object of experience dissolves away and we become One. We realise if only for a moment that we were never separate from the artistic form being relished, nor from the act of relishing. We are left speechless, our vantage point changes, we are uplifted, we are filled with a sense of deep comprehension, profound connection, a universalisation, because we are moving beyond the confines of the mind, beyond our limiting conceptions of a separate self, and into Union with the supreme source and inherent divinity of all things. For Abhinavagupta, the aesthetic experience and the yogic experience are analogous. In the state of camatkāra, which I hope this artwork may engender, we are able to experience Parā as both transcendent beyond words yet utterly present, immanent, and real to our awareness. We experience wonder from beyond while at the same time we are here, present, in the world.  During the aesthetic experience there is an intensification of the Goddess’ presence, however his presence is ultimately is not fleeting nor confined to the experience of a particular object. We are eventually to realise that this state is ever-present in our moment-to-moment awareness, this wonder is an innate quality of Being. Being itself is beautiful, vibrating, vivid and intensely delightful. In the words of Abhinavgupta (translated by Christopher Wallis):  

“She is the primordial Word, the very essence of the highest reality, pervading all things and eternally in motion: She is simply luminous pure consciousness, vibrating with the greatest subtlety as the ground of all being.”  

From the perspective of modern science, we have been able to in a sense visualise, with data and photography, what Abhinavagupta is talking about here. According to currently accepted scientific theory, right at the beginning of the universe, everything was homogenous, like a kind of blended soup without variation. Within this undifferentiated field there were tiny fluctuations in temperature. Theoretically those minute variations expanded out, clumped together, becoming more and more differentiated, eventually resulting in the highly varied aspects of the manifest world we can experience and name today – clouds, grass, hills, metal, dog, etc. We can see those slight variations in the CMB (Cosmic Microwave Background Radiations) map recently produced by the European Space Agency, who on their website state: 

“This multi-colour all-sky image of the microwave sky has been synthesized using data spanning the full frequency range of Planck, which covers the electromagnetic spectrum from 30 to 857 GHz. The grainy structure of the CMB, with its tiny temperature fluctuations reflecting the primordial density variations from which the cosmic web originated, is clearly visible in the high-latitude regions of the map, where the foreground contribution is not predominant.” 

What we are looking at of course is an abstract representation, but from the perspective of the non-dual Śaiva tradition, the subtle pattern being alluded to in the upper and lower parts of the image IS the Goddess Parā.

Investigating how this deity relates to contemporary discoveries in science is intriguing, but it is not what originally inspired the work. The impetus to create the sculpture arose from sustained practice, sincere devotion, and direct experience with the Goddess. Conceptual understanding came afterwards. Through practice, an intense identification with the virtuous display of Parā developed, and a kind of mutual possession took place which in effect dissolved the feeling of separation between the deity and I, and fundamentally changed my personality. It was not an idea per se that emerged from this process, but rather a deep and silent pull to create in service of this divine feminine force, a feeling that came with such delight and certitude that it was impossible to resist. I set about creating the artwork to reflect back to myself what I had experienced, and to create a doorway into that experience for others. There was no sense of logic in this, no need to convince myself, only a feeling of pure rightness, which simultaneously began to transform the total matrix of inferior and limiting conceptions about creativity that had been informing all my artistic pursuits up until then.Parā is described in the sacred texts of Her tradition as having a body crystal. She is described in this way in the Tantras because She is so close to Source, beyond the perception of the senses. Like crystal She is pure, subtle, luminous and all encompassing. She is the very first glimpse of the immanent that emerges in union with the transcendent, before even color is born. Crystal is of course a medium through which the One white light can be diffracted, dispersed, and as observed as the many, the full spectrum of colors. Parā, the Supreme Goddess, is that power which reflects the great light of consciousness into individuality and multiplicity, the incredible diversity of forms that is the manifest reality as we experience it. She also offers the way back to wholeness, to unity, to that One white light which is our true nature. The sphere is important in terms of Tantric iconography because it is an absolute form, without corners or edges. The sphere has no face to stand, so it is filled with latent dynamism in that sense, with infinite possibility and potential for movement in any direction. As we deepen with our practice and as we ‘spiritualise’, we dissolve limiting conceptions and rigid conditioning, we move more and more from a ‘square world’ to a ‘round world’. This form reminds us of that place of essential unity, which is our nature, unconditioned, pure, free of mental constructs, completely open.

I sculpted Her form using a 3d modelling program, following the iconographic and iconometric rules of the Newar sacred art tradition, in a ritual manner appropriate to this deity, in a ritually purified space, in alignment with the rhythms of nature, and by referring to the dhyana ślokas (visualization descriptions) from the Tantras and 10th Century texts by Abhinavagupta and his disciple Kṣemarāja where she is described. It is necessary to incubate the work like this, because my own sense of self is reconfigured while making art of this nature, and I am seeking to create functional objects that are reliable reference points that are liberative in character for other people to use in their practice. Once I had sculpted Her digitally, the medium I used to translate Her form into crystal is Light. I converted the model's surface into billions of tiny data points in virtual space. Then a laser was used to send beams of light to each of these points at the center of the crystal. At the focal point of each beam of light a tiny occlusion in the crystal is created so that Her form becomes visible when light from the outside refracts through these occlusions. She is described in the scriptures of Her tradition as having a crystal body, luminous like sunshine on snow, so this is the method that came to me to approximate this, sculpturally. This way of depicting her felt appropriate because it captures both her quiescent nature and her effulgent nature and shows that She is at the edge of what can be described or depicted. In crystal She is Union with Śiva, and emerges subtly from this primordial spaciousness as joyous creative impulse.Though the Shilpi Shastras (sacred texts about traditional sculpture) mention crystal as one of the materials appropriate for sculptures of deities, I must admit that I have departed from tradition in my process, because traditionally sculptures would have been hand carved. This sculpture was in a sense hand carved, but virtually, using computer software, and the form was then transposed digitally into the crystal. The use of digital tools for the creation of sculpture is new territory for the sacred art of the East, one that I hope in time will prove beneficial for the longevity of the tradition.  Given the evolutionary speed and widespread adoption of 3D modelling and 3D printing, there is no doubt that the future of three-dimensional form creation is digital. This therefore is a contemporary methodology that aligns with the technical possibilities of the current era, taking into account the forward progression of sculpture, while at the same time honouring the past.The sculpture combines both the anthropomorphic and the geometric forms of Parā - underneath the sphere is a crystal cube containing the yantra of Parā, called the Mandala of the Trident and the Lotuses. This Yantra is a further subtilisation of the deity, traditionally used as an explanatory diagram for the visualisation practice of Parā as well as for the process of initiation. 

It is important to note that the form of this deity is not something I have invented myself. I have encoded the dhyana ślokas (visualization descriptions) of Parā back into iconographic form using the aesthetic vocabulary of the Asian sacred art tradition. In the descriptions below I have articulated the meanings of the various features, from the non-dual perspective of the Trika tradition.

  • The three flowers atop the trident are Her power of Will, Her power of Knowledge, and Her power of Action.
  • She looks human but she is not human. She is a patterning of Consciousness adopting human characteristics, allowing us to approach Her for our benefit in a form we can relate to.
  • She is youthful because the principles She embodies are ever-fresh.She is beautiful because She has the power to attract and we are being encouraged to embrace Her virtues.
  • She has a perfect body without bone or muscle because and She is pure infinite Being which does not decay.
  • She is partially naked because She is so pervasive that it is impossible to cover Her, like trying to cover the moon. 
  • She sits on a lotus because, like the lotus that blooms above water, She arises with immaculate purity from beyond to meet us at the surface of the manifest world.
  • She is clad simply because her nature is subtle.
  • She is seated because Her presence is stable.
  • She is symmetrical because Her worship is safe. 
  • She is deep in meditation because She is transcendence with the potential for manifestation. 
  • Her legs are crossed because she is very close to Source. 
  • Her legs do not touch the ground because she is difficult to reach, much spiritual practice is required to attain Her blessing.
  • Her arms are long because She extends Her infinite compassion which originates in the Heart.
  • She wears a five-pointed crown because She is adorned by the 5 elements, which originate from Her.
  • She has a tear-drop shaped gem atop Her hair because She is the perfection of Wisdom.
  • She wears a moon in Her hair and Her left leg crosses in front of Her right because Her practice is lunar.
  • Her moon is just a sliver because the moon is the mind, and at the Parā Tattva there is no-mind, She is beyond the mind, but a sliver of mind is required to express the inexpressible.
  • She has three eyes because with Her third She can see the non-dual.
  • Her large breasts are Her generosity, Her compassion, Her effulgence, and Her ability to nurture. They are not a matter of personal preference or projection, but an important iconographic trope that signifies Her fullness. She is so full that She is overflowing. If She were only just full there would be no manifested world, but She brims over and becomes ALL that is tangible to our senses. 
  • She is saturated with the totality of all knowledge and pregnant with the possibility of all sound.
  • Her ribbons flow because She is the Source of the Universe, and like the Yoni She is the birthing of auspicious blessing energy. 
  • Her scarf and her clothes flutter because She is the innermost vibrancy of consciousness, the subtlest pulsation of the formless into form, scintillating with invisible energy She awakens that inner aliveness within you.
  • The ribbons around Her throat and crown and heart vibrate because She is the Goddess of Speech. 
  • The items She holds in Her hands are Her attributes, Her qualities, and Her blessings.
  • She holds them loosely because She expresses Her power gently.
  • She holds the sacred scriptures in Her left because She bestows liberative Knowledge – Sat Tarka.
  • She holds the mālā in Her right because She offers the practice, bestows the mantra, and is the essence and source of all mantra.

Comparing the iconography of Parā with that of Sarasvatī, we can see they share attributes in common - the palm leaf manuscript, and the crystal mālā. For an initiate into the Trika, Sarasvatī is understood as the more accessible and exoteric public face of the esoteric Tantric deity Parā which traditionally one would only have access to via initiation. There are many temples to the commonly known Sarasvatī, but Parā is known only by those who look for her, followers of the Trika tradition. This layering between inner and outer is mirrored of course in the very nature of the deities themselves. Goddess Sarasvatī is the pre-immanent Goddess of art, of music, of writing, of study, of wisdom, of language. She is associated with the river Sarasvatī.  Like a river, She is all that “flows”. What then are the qualities that lie beneath this flow and a priori to it? Before beginning a work of art or writing or music, one must be moved by an initial impulse to act – icchā – and guided by intuitive insight – pratibhā. This, the sacred heart of Sarasvatī, is Parā. When an artist is seized by the unconditioned urge to create she makes contact with her innate nature as Parā. This subtlest of movements is not an energy that comes from the mind, but from a much deeper place, from Universal will, which is beyond the matrix of an individually assembled identity.We find parallels to Parā, also known as Parā Vac “The Supreme Word”, in the ancient Greek concept of “logos” and in the Gospel of John, which says “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God”. When we refer to Parā as the Supreme Word though, we are speaking in non-dual terms about the underlying innate intelligence of the Universe which is Consciousness. Parā is not a principle that is separate to Consciousness, like the theory of intelligent design in which an independent god/architect builds the world. She is the innate subtle underlying patterning of reality itself. In the words of Mark S.G. Dyczkowski icchā . This is what the sculpture points to, beyond the anthropomorphic and geometric form that is meeting us in the form of art. The capacity Consciousness has to manifest the material world in myriad possible ways, by virtue of the Goddess Parā, is the same capacity Consciousness has to mirror that manifestation in thought, in language, in art, in music, so that it may delightfully experience itself as itself. That is why a life lived consciously and fully, in which we refine our knowledge and experience of (and as) the Ultimate, is in itself a work of art.

Acknowledgements 

This sculpture and the accompanying text would not have been possible without the generosity and guidance of Charles Ekabhumi Ellick and Christopher Hareesh Wallis. Several teachings that I received orally from them have been woven into this essay. Two drawings in particular were used as reference during the creation of the sculpture – one by Charles Ekabhumi Ellick and another drawing by an unnamed Nepalese illustrator who drew images for Mark Dyczkowski’s Manthanabhairavatantram book. It is by the grace of the Goddess this work came into being and I offer it back to Her with gratitude for all that She teaches me in Her process. I ask forgiveness for any errors I have made in the translation of Her Will into form. May this work be of benefit to all.


More information at www.christiandevietri.com

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