The Duality of Shakti, the Two Faces of Creation
Summary: The essay deals with a few fundamental dualities of Nature and how one may deal with them on the spiritual path.
One of the astounding features of Nature has been that everything manifests in creation in pairs. The whole creation and the entire universe are characterized by it. You have day and night, positive and negative, male and female, pain and pleasure, high and low, heat and cold, birth and death, creation and destruction and so on. You not only have these pairs of opposites, but also a range of states and conditions between the two. They make life complex, but give you the freedom of choice and an opportunity to choose your destiny.
Diversity in Nature arises from her dualities only, which together with the range of conditions, possibilities and alternatives between the two polarities of each, makes existence unpredictable, uncertain, colorful and diverse. Although God is infinite, there are infinite possibilities within each aspect of his infinity. For example, take the numbers. On one hand you have zero, and on the other you have the infinity. Zero itself is infinite because it has neither beginning nor end. Within that range, each number has infinite ratios. Each number has a positive and negative value, and on both sides an odd number can be further divided infinite times by an even number and vice versa. Duality is thus inherent in the entire existence and in the configuration of things. It is also responsible for the complexity and abundance of the material universe.
The duality extends in creation from the tiniest of energy particles to the highest of manifestation. We have for example, Manifested Brahman and Unmanifested Brahman, and Saguna Brahman and Nirguna Brahman. All the duality and diversity manifest in creation because of Prakriti (Nature), who is also known as Shakti or Mother Goddess. Even the duality of Brahman, who is otherwise indivisible and immutable, arises as a projection or reflection because of Nature only. The duality of creation arises from the dualities that are inherent to Nature. The following are a few important, fundamental dualities that are attributed to Nature in our scriptures.
Sambhuthi and Asambhuti
Samubhuthi means the manifested and asambhuthi means what has not manifested. Before the beginning of creation, Mula Prakriti or the Primal Nature is unmanifested (asambhuthi). At the time of creation, a part of it becomes manifested (sambhuthi). Within the manifested component of Nature, you have the further duality of manifested and unmanifested, separated by Time. What has already appeared in creation is the manifested, and what is yet to appear is the unmanifested. For example, the past is manifested, and the future is unmanifested. Take your own body. Your body in its current state is the manifested Nature, whereas the body that will manifest in you in future is the unmanifested Nature (asambhuthi). These two aspects of Nature are also responsible for change, impermanence and the transformative processes of the phenomenal world. As Nature becomes manifested or unmanifested, things and beings appear and disappear.
Gross and subtle
Nature has both gross and subtle aspects, which are also described by some as manifested and unmanifested. For example, matter is gross, whereas energy is subtle. Among the elements, the earth, water and fire are gross, but air and space are subtle. In humans, the physical body is gross, while breath, the mind, the ego, and the intelligence are subtle. At the time of death, the physical body perishes, but the subtle body survives death and ascends into the mid-region along with breath from where they travel further. Our scriptures suggest that there are subtle worlds and subtle planes of consciousness in God’s creation. The heavenly worlds are subtle. The physical and subterranean worlds are gross. The grossness of the bodies arises from the predominance of rajas and tamas, which render them dense, dark, and heavy. The subtle bodies are pure and filled with the light and power of sattva.
Active and Inactive
Nature imparts both movement and inertia to the forms in creation. It is because of Nature that living beings have movement, awareness (sprha), liveliness (tejas), and activity (chaitanyam). In Nature, all actions and movements in life are made possible by desires. They are responsible for the continuation of the worlds and beings and the cycle of births and deaths. The Vedas vaguely suggest that Brahman creates the worlds because of the desire to become many. He created all that we perceive here because he desired abundance of food. Nature remains inactive in inanimate objects. In lower life forms it is partially active. However, in higher life forms it becomes fully active. Among the gunas, tamas is responsible for inertia whereas the other two, sattva and rajas, keep the being active.
Pleasant and unpleasant
Nature has both pleasant and unpleasant aspects. In her pleasant aspects she creates, nurtures and liberates. In her unpleasant aspects she conceals, deludes, destroys, and binds. Hence, in Hindu pantheon we have both pleasant and unpleasant aspects of Shakti and people worship them according to their desires and predominant nature. In her pleasant aspects, Nature is gentle, pleasing, compassionate, assuring and protecting. In her unpleasant aspects, she is fierce, destructive, and chaotic. Both aspects have a role in creation. Together they are responsible for the regenerative, renewal, and transformative processes of Nature, which keep the worlds going.
Bondage and Liberation
Nature binds its own aspects to create aggregates, things and beings. The admixture of the gunas and the five elements in different proportions and combinations are responsible for all the diversity that we find in creation. Nature also binds the souls to its aspects and subjects them to the cycle of births and deaths. Liberation (moksha) is essentially the separation of souls from their bondage to Nature. It is accomplished through a transformative effort, in which the impurities of Nature are suppressed, and the interference of the gunas is minimized. Liberated souls are free from the influence of Nature. However, divine entities and celestial beings are bound to Nature, although they are immortal because they are part of the manifested Nature. Hence, we find that in the Hindu pantheon each god is associated with a Shakti or goddess.
Knowledge and ignorance
Both knowledge and ignorance play an important role in creation. Both have their own positive, and negative aspects. Some types of knowledge are harmful, while some types of ignorance may help the beings stay within their bounds and avoid trouble. Knowledge arises from direct perception, learning, intuition, intelligence or liberation. Of them the awareness that arises from liberation is said to be the highest. In the mortal world, the knowledge of the Self and its liberation are considered to be the highest knowledge, while their ignorance the worst. Ignorance may also arise due to delusion, which in turn is caused by the impurities of the mind and body. When they are removed, knowledge arises. The scriptures also suggest that true knowledge arises by cultivating discernment, which is the ability to distinguish the dualities of life to know which are nurturing and which are destructive. The intelligence of the Self shines brilliantly in a pure and stable mind. Hence, the scriptures emphasize the importance of cleansing the mind and body to become a seer and see things clearly.
Delusion and reality
Prakriti is also known as Maya (delusion). She wields the power of Maya to delude beings and subject them to ignorance whereby they cannot perceive the hidden reality. Because of delusion beings cannot recognize their spiritual selves and pursue worldly desires, which bind them to the mortal world. Isvara, the lord of the universe is said to be the wielder of Maya. With the help of Nature, he casts the net of Maya upon the world and beings and subjects them to delusion, while he remains concealed, whereby beings cannot know the true nature of existence or the presence of God in the manifested worlds. The truth is that only the Supreme Self is real and the rest is either his projection or creation. Not only beings but also the worlds are subject to delusion according to their relative importance and status in the hierarchy of things. Thus, the darkest worlds are farthest from reality and remain steeped in delusion, while the opposite is true in case of the sunlit worlds in the higher realms.
Creation and destruction
Creation and destruction are two important functions of Nature, which according the scriptures have God as their source. The duration between the two determines how long a phenomenon manifests in the world. In the mortal world the duration between the two is much shorter. Hence, things and beings age and decay rapidly. In the worlds of gods, it is much longer. Hence, they live for eons. Nature, Brahman, and individual souls are eternal and indestructible, without a beginning and an end. However, some aspects of Nature are destructible. The function of destruction is symbolized in Hinduism as the god of Death, who is described as the ruler of the mortal world. None can escape from him except through liberation. What separates creation from destruction is preservation, in which forces of life and death, or creation and destruction, are balanced and regulated.
Dependent and independent
In creation you will find both dependent and independent aspects. Brahman is independent, while the rest of his creation is dependent. According to some traditions Nature and individual souls are also independent. All independent entities of existence are eternal. In contrast, all manifested things and beings are dependent. Depending upon their place in creation, they are relatively subject to various degrees of dependence or independence. The words and beings are created in such a way that they cannot exist on their own. They need support and are interdependent. For example, humans depend upon gods for protection, and gods depend upon humans for nourishment. All the worlds and beings depend upon God for support, while in beings the Self is the support for both the mind and the body. The essence of liberation is overcoming all dependence and becoming free. However, to achieve liberation human beings have to perform obligatory duties towards those who depend upon them. Hence, the five daily sacrifices or offerings are prescribed for them.
Cause and effect
The duality of cause and effect is the most fundamental of all the dualities of Nature. Brahman is without a cause, whereas Nature is both cause and effect. According to Hinduism, existence does not arise from nonexistence. God is the source of all creation. He is the cause of all causes, but he is not subject to any cause or effect. Effects of Nature are hidden in their causes. Hence, there is predictability to natural events and the laws of Nature. However, due to the influence of Gunas, causes do not always produce the same effects. Hence, there can be numerous variations. It is difficult to explain why certain causes manifest or do not manifest, or why they produce certain effects. There are also divergent opinions about how causes become effects. The various schools of Hinduism suggest that causes may become effects due to transformation, manifestation, projection, reflection, superimposition, or delusion. Karma is an effect. It is the effect of desire-ridden actions. Bondage is also an effect, which arises from karma. So are delusion, ignorance, rebirth, and existential suffering. Hence, the scriptures urge humans to cultivate detachment and perform desireless actions, renouncing their fruit. Cause and effect are responsible for the diversity and impermanence of the worlds and the divisions of time. Individual souls are immutable, which means that they are free from the duality of cause and effect.
Good and evil
Both good and evil play an important role in creation. The purpose of evil is either to create suffering or teach important lessons to help people progress on the path of liberation. The Upanishads suggest that only Brahman and the individual souls are immutable and impervious to evil. The rest are vulnerable to evil influences and tendencies. In the body, all the organs are susceptible to evil intentions and actions, except breath, the only purifier. With the help of breath one can cleanse and purify the mind and body. The scriptures affirm that living for oneself or performing desire-ridden actions with selfish intentions is demonic, while offering all actions and their fruit to God is divine. The divine and demonic qualities arise in creation due to karma and the influence of gunas. Demonic qualities result in spiritual downfall. One should therefore remain guarded against them, by cultivating purity and practicing virtue on the path of righteousness.
Dealing with the dualities
The dualities of Nature cannot be suppressed or separated. You may make intelligent choices about them using your discretion, but it will not free you from the consequence of your choices or from your actions arising from them. The dualities coexist. When one manifests, the other remain latent. In the shadow of happiness, sorrow, pain, or pleasure lurk their opposites. Hence, in Hinduism followers are advised to rise above both attraction and aversion and become equal to them. Sameness to the dualities of life is the highest virtue. It is the essence of spirituality, which leads to peace and stability, and eventually to liberation. The following are standard approaches to deal with the dualities of life.
- One should cultivate discernment (buddhi) to see things clearly, and know how bondage and delusion arise and how to escape from them.
- Desires are responsible for attraction and aversion to the pairs of opposites. One should cultivate detachment towards all sense objects by withdrawing the senses and the mind from them through renunciation and take refuge in the Self, offering all actions to him.
- Sameness towards the pairs of opposites is the highest of virtues. He who conquers his mind and senses through the practice of yoga remain the same to them. He is neither disturbed by what happens nor causes any disturbance to others. He is the dearest to God.
- The duality of knower and the known is responsible for delusion and ignorance. When it is transcended through spiritual effort, one becomes free from bondage and attains all knowing awareness.
Suggestions for Further Reading
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