The Vijnana Bhairava belongs to the most important Hindu tantras. This text is unique among the tantric literature because of its concentration on meditative practice and spiritual experience. It looks like a manual of practitioners who collected the most important spiritual exercises and experiences. In fact, the tantra is connected with the oral tradition of the famous , Siddhas, literally, “realized, perfected beings,” and it gives us a glimpse of the earliest stages of this movement.
The text contains 112 “means,” traditionally called dharanas, or “methods of union” (yukti) with God. The text makes it clear that everything can become a means to attain the supreme reality. No aspect of life is excluded from it, since the very core, the deep dimension of all, is God. It may be the one-pointed view of the empty sky, the intense experience of joy, of eating, of sexuality, of music, of intense surprise—in every moment there can occur this sudden “tilting” of the picture, and the subtle, hidden dimension of reality becomes visible. This happens also in great fear, bitter sorrow, or intense pain, because these states spontaneously can direct consciousness to one-pointedness. The text describes the goal of all these means as attainment of “pure consciousness” or, as the title says, the “[mystical] knowledge of Bhairava” (vijnana bhairava).
Other descriptions are: becoming one with Shiva, merging in God, and revelation of God. Bhairava is here the name of the ultimate reality, which is both transcendent (the Shiva-aspect) and immanent (the aspect of the goddess Shakti, Shiva’s energy). In Christian terms, we would call this highest goal unio mystica.
At this point Christians may object: Can this highest aim be reached by methods? In spite of old prejudices about “self-salvation,” the main factor in this tradition, too, is grace (anugraha). Without the free play of God’s grace, represented by his energy or spirit (“Shakti”), there can be no fulfillment. This becomes clear even by the structure of the verses itself: A verse describes very briefly a certain means, then there is a gap, and then the verse says: “one becomes Bhairava oneself” or uses a similar expression.
The famous secret language of the tantras makes the difficulties in understanding the text insurmountable. Therefore, the oral commentary tradition is indispensable, as Abhinavagupta says in one of his own commentaries: “One cannot say everything in a book.”
For anyone who wants to deepen his or her spiritual path this book can be helpful because of the detailed explanation of the exercises or experiences. Its wide range—whether the exercises concern breath, emptiness, awareness in eating, running, or listening to music—makes it possible for everyone to find his or her individual approach.
The book is a contribution to a contemporary spirituality, which we are urgently looking for—beyond a refuge from the world or getting lost in the world. It offers a view of life that suspends the borders between the sacred and the profane, the separation between God and world, without being a mere pantheism. As Utpaladeva, the grand-teacher of Abhinavagupta, exclaims in his hymns: “On what site do you not dwell? What exists that does not exist in your body?” It represents a spirituality that doesn’t neglect the universe, the body, sexuality, or the ordinary life of mortals (which is in fact so extraordinary), but discovers God with all and in all of it.