36 Tattvas: Tantra Meaning and Reality
Definition: "Weaving together of different philosophies for a Way of Life."
Another Definition: "Of Body"
Every definition – regardless of how succinct or elaborate it is – requires a description. “Of Body” comes from the fact that we owe our bodily existence to our biological parents, and for this reason parents are placed higher than gods in some cultures. But when realization dawns upon our growing minds that we are separate and independent of our parents, the existential question of our identity comes into being. We may realize this acutely or superficially, but we start forming our own notion of Self.
‘God as Creator’ was a rather insignificant consideration for these early thinkers. In this context, Tantra states that our being – our existence – is not owed to any God!
Linking our existence to something supernatural and seeking some kind of meaningfulness is the primary purpose of religion. Tantra abstains from this by stating, rather plainly: “I exist.” By the sole act of reflecting on my existence, I exist. Without providing any justification, I am.
And the only proof of my existence is my body! So…‘of body.’
This page describes Shaivism Tattvas that integrate "the body" with its environment giving us a complete description of reality. Thus, Non-Dual Shaiva Tantra (NST) philosophy offers the most comprehensive system of reality perception.
NST's 36 Tattvas: What Reality Really Is!
What is a Tattva? There is no literal or accurate translation of the word “tattva.” In a very superficial way, one can say that a tattva is a thing or an attribute or a form of intelligence. In that context, it is indeed a thing and an attribute and a form of intelligence, all combined into one. You will understand as you read further, but for now simply accept that a tattva is a form of consciousness: when we explore each one of them you will see how even a thing can acquire “intelligence.”
Traditional Yoga propounded the tattvas, but Shaivism Tantra Yoga introduced several additional tattvas taking the number to 36. These 36 Tattvas are described as levels of reality. It’s only for convenience sake that we speak of “Levels of Reality,” because many of these tattvas manifest “outside of ourselves.” In NST, this is an illusion, but we need to isolate the tattvas to be able to understand them.
Therefore, the external tattvas represent the lowest levels of reality, and – as we go higher in the hierarchy – the tattvas also represent deeper levels of reality. Here are the 36 Shaivism Tattvas, from Lower to Higher/Deeper:
Level 36 to Level 32: Earth, Water, Fire, Wind, Space
In tantric tradition, the 5 basic elements of nature are the first and most obvious levels of reality. One must realize that the tattvas are not simply “levels” of reality but also different “forms” of reality, because you really can’t say that Earth is the lowest level so it is less important than Wind or Fire. To understand why these are also attributes, one has to perceive these elements with their associated characteristics: Wind for breezy, cold, forceful, etc.; Fire for heat, burning, energy, etc.; Water for cold, wet, flowing, etc.; and so on. It’s also obvious that each of these doesn’t exist on its own, and will be found in varying combinations in nature. For example, each of these tattvas occupies Space, and Space as a tattva exists within each – even within an atom!
Level 31 to Level 27: Odor, Flavor, Appearance, Touch, Sound
In Tantra, every “thing” has these characteristics in greater or lesser degree. Consider a menu item in a fancy restaurant: besides ensuring that it tastes great, even greater effort is put into making the plate look artistic. And where is the sound? The ambient music obviously! This is a good example to understand how the “tattva of the dish” does not reside merely within the confines of the dish. Similarly, a tattva – any tattva – does not reside only within the confines of the space it is occupying nor only within the one major/striking attribute that it possesses.
There are several realities that can be experienced only through the instruments with which we access them. We can’t understand the reality of something without touching it, and, to touch something, we may need to hold it. Holding that thing will also give us an idea of how firm or flexible, wet or dry, or hot or cold that thing may be. Only when our Hands reach out to hold something do we manage to “touch” it!
Similarly, our Feet take us towards something that we want to experience. Three out of these five levels are controlled by our mind, but the Intestines and the Genitals can have a “mind of their own.” Sexual energy and tantric sex make their appearance because of the sex drive. The Vama Marga even elevates this to the level of sacred sex!
Level 26 to Level 22: Intestines (expelling), Genitals (reproducing), Feet (locomotion), Hands (holding), Mouth (chewing/talking)
There are several realities that can be experienced only through the instruments with which we access them. We can’t understand the reality of something without touching it, and, to touch something, we may need to hold it. Holding that thing will also give us an idea of how firm or flexible, wet or dry, or hot or cold that thing may be. Only when our Hands reach out to hold something do we manage to “touch” it! Similarly, our Feet take us towards something that we want to experience. Three out of these five levels are controlled by our mind, but the Intestines and the Genitals have a “mind of their own.” Rather, they are controlled by the autonomous nervous system, existing and functioning outside of our normal consciousness.
Level 21 to Level 17: Nose, Tongue, Eyes, Skin, Ears
The sense organs are supposed to be our direct contact with reality. In Tantra, these are the gateways to the spiritual path for every tantric practitioner and many kriyas or cleansing rituals exist to ensure that these tattvas are kept healthy. Each of the sense organs gives us a different sense of reality not a better one! Dogs have about 300 million olfactory receptors compared to about 6 million in humans. Does this mean that a dog’s sense of olfactory reality is so many times more than ours? Yes, and that in itself implies a different sense of reality - not only in terms of magnitude but also in terms of ‘qualia’ of the dog’s subjective experiences. A quale (singular of qualia) is a subjective experience by a person, but, when it is expressed in words, it becomes objective, because the experience has been represented in the form of words that everyone understands.
The idea of qualia is also expressed: Every human experience is different but is reduced to a common word or phrase. By reducing our experiences to words, we are reducing reality not only for others but also for ourselves. If each one of us had a private language, then our experiences would be infinite.
But Ludwig Wittgenstein has already shown how a private language is impossible. Hence, tantric practices place great importance on action so that one can experience reality for oneself. They also stress on exploiting the sensual world for its own sake. Our 5 Senses have been stunted by education and society, so meditative indulgences of these senses is necessary for the complete realization of our Self. Not surprisingly, this has been taken as a license for all kinds indulgences leading to addiction and spiritual corruption.
In this context, tantric sex is not about sexual acts but about sexual meditation. Tantric sex teaches diversity in love - not a diversity of lovers. In short, tantric sex is about sacred meditation!
Be warned: if you cannot draw the line between meditative “tasting” and licentious indulgence, then don’t even bother to start. Once addiction sets in, you may not even realize it, denying your addiction till it ends in insanity, imprisonment (in a jail or mental institution), or death! In Alcoholics Anonymous , this is a common refrain: “The idea that somehow, someday he will control and enjoy his drinking is the great obsession of every abnormal drinker. The persistence of this illusion is astonishing. Many pursue it to the gates of insanity or death.”
The Living and The Non-Living!
Did we miss “the living” on the way from the external to the internal? From the EXTERNAL to the INTERNAL! From the non-living to the living? Every school kid knows the difference between living things and non-living things! Please refer to the textbooks of primary schools, and you will find living things and non-living things . The highlight is mine, only to show how pathetic our educational system is. Anyways, this is how a deficient educational system begins to prejudice our mind. In Tantra, there is no distinction between the living and the non-living, because the stress is not on things but the intelligent space that all entities occupy. That space is the space of the mind and of consciousness, implying that unfettered, enlightened consciousness exists in a continuum from the perceived object to the one perceiving the object. The following levels will further clarify this concept.
Level 16 to Level 12: Mind, Ego, Intelligence, Instinct, Consciousness
It’s important to mention here that Yoga – as it is practiced in physical exercises – also includes the training of mental faculties. For example, in many Yoga Schools specific asanas (yogic postures or poses) are associated with specific mental faculties. One yoga asana may teach us humility while another yoga posture may teach us devotion. Shaivism Tattvas offer different levels of realities to enable association with a yoga technique or method.
This is one’s ability to pay attention. Focusing your mind to pay attention to something, to concentrate on a task, etc. is at the level of the mind.
This is one’s ability to create an idea of Self and form an image of the Self. I create the image of My Self! But the Ego diminishes as we grow older. Unlike what most people think, an egoistic person has a small ego, so behaves in a manner wherein he/she has to protect what little he/she has retained. A child on the other hand has a massive ego, because it possesses everything it sees or perceives. The infant owns everything! Everything belongs to it! Not having any sense of material possession, this sense is nothing but an expression of its consciousness residing in every object or creature it perceives. A doll or a warm blanket is as living as a parent. A pet is identical to itself.
However, as the infant grows, the idea of Self starts getting limited by its experiences. A fire is painful, a beetle is bitter, mud is distasteful… these unpleasant experiences get imprinted and lead the child to form the idea of “not me” or “painful/unpleasant” thing. By adding to the list of “not me” the idea of “me” gets refined but also gets limited. In the modern world - especially in the Western industrialized societies - ego often creates the biggest barrier to self realization.
Shaivism Tattvas offer the egotist the opportunity to become the Supreme Ego!
This is our common understanding of “intelligence.” When the idea of “me” starts becoming separate from “not me” a mechanism needs to create the distinction. This is the intelligence which has the ability to differentiate between things. Thanks Howard Gardner, we know of 8 (probably even 9) distinct intelligences that have a specific origin in the brain. Psychologists and educationists suspected these separate intelligences but it was only after Gardner (Frames of Mind) confirmed it that we became aware of these different intelligences.
It’s obvious! If it’s not, you are not human. But even as an alien you will have some alien instincts. Jokes aside, instincts are perhaps the most obvious aspects of our consciousness. If one ignores them, then they remind you by slapping you in the face. Here is an instinct that you may not be familiar with: even kids who are born blind - and have never seen someone smiling - will smile when happy. So smiling is an instinct… smile more!
In most Yoga Systems, this is the highest form of “experience” but not in Non Dual Shaiva Tantra. A simple form of Tantra meditation will reveal that that this tattva has many diverse manifestation. Stating the obvious, consciousness is that framework within which the other tattvas reside. For any form of reality to be expressed – objectively of subjectively – consciousness must be present as a platform on which reality expresses itself. It is the vessel within which reality is contained, and if you ask, “What about the reality outside the vessel?” then consciousness will expand and contain that too. Therefore, if you think about the earth, then the earth resides within your consciousness; the minute you think of the moon, then the moon too is enveloped. Go on to the galaxy, and your consciousness expands to include that too. In short, your consciousness is limited only by how far you want to go.
I have mentioned it somewhere else: The farther you go into space, the deeper you go into your mind – in this case, we need to replace the word ‘mind’ with ‘consciousness.’ At this stage, we begin to differentiate between “awareness” and “consciousness”: we separate the two and understand that awareness is another manifestation of consciousness at lower levels of the tattvas.
Level 11 to Level 7: Cause and Effect, Time, Desire, Knowledge, Action
Level 11: Cause and Effect
Our Level 14 Intelligence helps us distinguish between things and processes. It observes and draws conclusions from those observations. It sees an act and the effect of that act and makes universal statements about the same. It sees that every action has a reaction and decides that that action will always cause that reaction! So we all know about “cause and effect” and our lives run on it. However, we never stop to think what the cause of a particular action was. If I light a match and take it to firewood (action), the wood will catch fire (reaction). But why can’t I consider lighting of the match as a reaction? What was the cause? Why did I light the matchstick? OK! I was feeling cold. Why was I feeling cold? Because it is cold outside? Why is it cold outside? Because it is winter? And so on… The whole business of cause and effect crumbles because of this endless regression into causality. However, it is vital for navigation through our daily life!
Level 10: Time
To be more precise, this level deals with our perception of the forward movement of time. If it starts raining at 3 pm and continues to rain for an hour, we say that it rained for an hour. We can’t travel back in time; except of course in Science Fiction! This is the forward march of time and we seem to be bound by it. However, every experience of reality is subject to how advanced the human being is. From my visualization, I can recreate the experience; I can go back in time. If I have practiced enough tantric meditation, I can even “feel” these sensations of a recreated experience! Even objectively speaking, there are no empirical parameters on which we can state that one's experience of something or some event is fixed in time. So there is nothing to stop me from going back to that experience. While objective time moves forward, my subjective experience travels back!
When tantriks say that they can travel in time, this is what they mean. Their experience (because of visualization and vivid meditation techniques) is as real as when they had it in the past. Some literature evens states that the past experience is “more real” because it is bereft of the external physical environment which dilutes the stimulus.
Level 9: Desire
The strongest desire expressed is the intimacy of sex life. This does not need any explanation, but here is a fresh perspective: Most spirituality is ascetic in its nature. I remember someone telling me that spiritual awakening is possible only through chastity and poverty! When he first said it, I thought he was joking, because it really is a good joke. The system of Shaivism Tattvas exhorts you to dump this kind of crap! There are many esoteric explanations of the origins of desire, and I will let them stay esoteric. Desire - especially sexual intimacy - is a natural state for any higher order creature and ignoring it, or negating it, only leads to pathological states of the psyche. We should indulge our desires! When indulged correctly, they can actually become a part of our spiritual practice. They can never become addictive and are actually satiated. Elaborate tantric rituals exist for the sex act and even for foreplay. Using sex within the context of tantric practice, actually leads to existential satisfaction and even healing.
Level 8: Knowledge
According to traditional Tantra, all knowledge is limited! When you realize that knowledge is nothing but the overlap of beliefs and truths, then all personal knowledge is a matter of convenience. It does not reflect objective reality nor does it pacify the trained subjective mind of the tantrik. Obviously, only an idiot knows everything; a wise man knows how much he does not know… which is quite a lot! A tantrik is conscious of the totality of truth in the microcosm of a second!
Level 7: Action
My interpretation of this tattva is “movement.” According to Howard Gardner, we have 8 or 9 different intelligences that can be mapped to different parts of the brain. Of these 8/9 intelligences, Bodily Kinesthetic intelligence is one of them, and sports people, dancers, and others like them have cultivated this intelligence to a greater extent. But all humans have this intelligence to greater or lesser degrees, and this is a super-mind that expresses reality in the form of movement. Once again this is not classified as an intelligence but as an moment of reality that is manifested through physical actions or “movements” of the body.