Common section


800 to 1300 CE


c. 788-820 Shankara, nondualist philosopher, lives in Kerala

c. 975-1025 Abhinavagupta, Shaiva philosopher, lives in Kashmir

1021 Ghaznavid (Turkish) Muslim capital established at Lahore

c. 1056-1137 Ramanuja, qualified nondualist philosopher, lives in Tamil country

1192 Ghorid Muslim capital established at Delhi

c. 1200 Jayadeva lives in Bengal

1210-1526 The Delhi Sultanate is in power

c. 1238-1317 Madhva, dualist philosopher, lives in Karnataka

c. 1300 Shri Vaishnavas split into Cats and Monkeys

In those long-gone days the Valley, which is now simply K, had other
names. . . . “Kache-Mer” can be translated as “the place that hides a
Sea.” But “Kosh-mar” . . . was the word for “nightmare.”iy

Salman Rushdie, Haroun and the Sea of Stories (1990)1

The sea that Kashmir hides (in this wordplay by Salman Rushdie) is the great Sanskrit Ocean of Story, composed in Kashmir, which Rushdie imagines submerged like other flooded lands in the Indian imagination. Kashmir is also the home of several famous debates about the philosophy of illusion, the belief that this world is nothing but a dream—or a nightmare. In this chapter we will consider those debates in narratives about quarrelsome philosophers, philosophical animals, and the recurrent Hindu nightmare of becoming a Pariah or a woman.


Back to the banyan. Again we must double back to take a look at another branch of that tree, the philosophical branch, returning to the era of the beginning of bhakti in South India and the beginning of the Arab presence in India. The chapters on those two themes also provide the historical background for this chapter, which is about philosophy not as philosophy but as part of Hindu myth and ritual, in part because I am no philosopher and in part because that is not what this book is about, two not unrelated considerations. So I will deal with philosophy only when it gets out of the hands of the philosophers and into the hands of the people who tell stories about the philosophers and incorporate philosophical theories into their myths. For philosophy in India is debated in the worship life of ordinary people.

My focus in this chapter will be on the myths that Hindus told about three great Vedantic philosophers, particularly (continuing the theme of inter- and intrareligious dialogue) stories that the followers of one philosopher told about another philosopher, and on myths that apply the philosophy of illusion to caste and gender and to the householder/renunciant tension, since one of the main arrows in the quiver of renunciation is the argument that the material world is not merely a deathtrap but an unreal deathtrap.

Since this approach will ignore many other important philosophical themes, let me at least set the stage by briefly outlining the basic positions of the major schools of Hindu philosophy, the six Darshanas or “Points of View.” These schools had taken root in earlier centuries but became more fully developed from the twelfth century on, in conversation with one another.

1. Mimamsa (“Critical Inquiry”) began with Jaimini (c. 400 BCE) and was devoted to the interpretation of the Vedas, taking the Vedas as the authority for dharma and karma. Jaimini guaranteed the sacrificer life in heaven after death and decreed that women could sacrifice but Shudras could not.2

2. Vaisheshika began with Kanada (c. third century BCE), who presented an atomic cosmology, according to which all material objects are made of atoms of the nine elements: the four material elements—earth, water, fire, and air—plus five more abstract elements—space, time, ether, mind, and soul. In this view, god created the world, but not ex nihilo; he simply imposed order on pre-existing atoms. Shankara called the Vaisheshikas half nihilists.3

3. Logic and reasoning began with Gautama (c. second century BCE, no relation to the Buddhist Gautama) and was an analytical philosophy basic not only to all later Hindu philosophy but to the scientific literature of the shastras.

4. Patanjali’s Yoga-Sutras (c. 150 BCE) codified yogic practices that had been in place for centuries. Yoga assumes a personal god who controls the process of periodic creation and dissolution and is omniscient and omnipotent. This school emphasized exercises of the mind and the body, “including the very difficult exercise of not exercising them at all.”4 It believed that moksha came not from knowledge but from the concentration and discipline of the mind and the body.

5. Sankhya as a philosophy has roots that date from the time of the Upanishads and are important in the Mahabharata (especially in the Gita) but were first formally codified by Ishvarakrishna (c. third century CE). Sankhya is dualistic, dividing the universe into a male purusha (spirit, self, or person) and a female prakriti (matter, nature). There are an infinite number of similar but separate purushas, no one superior to another. 5 Early Sankhya philosophers argued that god may or may not exist but is not needed to explain the universe; later Sankhya philosophers assumed that god does exist.

6. And then comes Vedanta, the philosophical school that reads the Upanishads through the lens of the unity of the self (atman) and the cosmic principle (brahman). Often expressed in the form of commentaries on the Upanishads, on the Gita, and on Badarayana’s Vedanta-Sutras (c. 400 BCE), different branches of Vedanta tend to relegate the phenomenal world to the status of an epistemological error (avidya), a psychological imposition (adhyaya), or a metaphysical illusion (maya). Evil too, which the myths struggle to deal with, and, especially, death turn out to be nothing but an illusion.

The great phase of Vedanta began with three great South Indian philosophers, all of whom were Brahmins.6 A basic schism separated the dualists, who argued that god and the universe (including the worshiper) were of two distinct substances, and the nondualists, who argued that they were of the same substance. Shankara, from Kerala, was a Shaiva exponent of pure nondualism (Advaita) and idealism. Ramanuja, from Kanchipuram (Kanjeevaram), in Tamil country, was a Tamil Vaishnava exponent of qualified nondualism (Vishishta Advaita) and of the religion of the Shri Vaishnavas (see below), who call their tradition the dual Vedanta because it combines the Sanskrit of the Veda with the Tamil of the Alvars.7 Madhva, also known as Madhvacharya (“Madhva the Teacher”), from Kalyan (in Karnataka), was the founder of the dualist (Dvaita) school of Vedanta. The followers, and opponents, of these three philosophers told many stories about them, from which we can gather some of the human implications of their philosophies and the wide range of diverse voices encoded in them. They were the subjects of a body of mythology in the style of the Puranas, which dramatized their views and assimilated those views to the hagiographic and folk traditions. For their philosophies were not limited to an elite circle of intellectuals but deeply affected devotional Hinduism, trickling down through mythology and folklore.


In medieval India, people cared about philosophy enough to fight about it. The “Conquest of the Four Corners of the World” (dig-vijaya), originally a royal and military concept, then a metaphor for a great pilgrimage tour, also became the term for the conquest of one philosopher by another.8The philosophers fought mostly with words, occasionally with miracles (like the texts that floated upstream in the South Indian contest), more often with (and for) the purses of their patrons, and rarely with fisticuffs. They met on the page or the debating platform, not the battlefield. (Or almost always. It did come to fisticuffs at least once, according to an amazing painting in an illustrated copy of the Akbar-nama , said to depict “the Emperor Akbar watching a fight between two bands of Hindu devotees at Thaneshwar, Punjab, 1597-8.” There is close combat between dozens of yogis and ascetics and devotees of all stripes, shooting arrows from bows and slashing away at one another with swords, knives, and what appears to be anything else at hand.9)

We have already encountered myths about the preaching of false philosophical and theological doctrines, in the course of Shiva’s conflicts with Daksha and Vishnu’s avatar as the Buddha. We have traced a rough (and not precisely chronological) progression of the myths of the Buddha avatar through three stages, from the assimilation of Buddhism into Hinduism, to the antagonistic myths of opposition to a Buddhism on the rise, and then to more appreciative myths about a Buddhism on the wane. Now we encounter a fourth stage, in which Buddhism once again contributed in positive ways to the philosophy of idealism in South India and Kashmir (see below), while much of the former animosity against the Buddhists was channeled into animosity against Shankara, in myths modeled in many ways on the myth of Vishnu as the Buddha. Let us consider some of those myths.


Shankara’s texts speak for his ideas, but the legends about him speak for his life. He is said to have started a reform movement, proposing a moral agenda that could compete with the noble eightfold path of the Buddhists10 (he was, as we will see, sometimes accused of owing too much to Buddhism) and a philosophy that may have been buoyed up by a need to respond to the monotheist philosophies of Islam. Shankara, regarded as a guru and proselytizer as well as a philosopher, is said to have founded the centers of learning (matts) that still thrive in his name in India today; his argument that the phenomenal world of everyday experience and its biological round of birth and death (samsara) was ultimately unreal and the source of our bondage was taken as the basis for a monastic or ascetic life of renunciation (samnyasa).11

But Shankara argued that only Brahmins could renounce,12 and some of the more general animus against renunciation was channeled into hostility against him. While there had been renouncers in Hinduism since before the time the Upanishads mapped out the path of flame and Release, they lacked the institutional backing to become a major force—until Shankara. But Shankara took the idea of formal monastic orders and institutions from Buddhism and reworked it for Hinduism, an action that stirred up some Brahmins like a saffron flag waved in front of a bull. Ramanuja called Shankara a “crypto-Buddhist” (prachanna -bauddha).13

Shankara’s nondualism was challenged first by Ramanuja’s qualified nondualism and, later, by Madhva’s dualism; the followers of Madhva argued that Shankara championed monism because he was so stupid that he could only count to one.14 Nondualism has the disadvantage that you cannot love god or worship god if you are god, or if your god is without any qualities (nir-guna), a technicality that Shankara allegedly ignored when he wrote the passionate, beautiful poems to Shiva that are attributed to him. Nondualists could get around this by worshiping god with a kind of “as if” for the forms “with qualities” (sa-guna): He appears “as if” he were a god with qualities. If, however, you assume that there is a dualism separating you from god and that god has qualities, as Madhva assumes, worship poses no problem.

The hagiographies of Shankara arise at a time when (1) bhakti is rampant, spreading so fast that it even gets into philosophy, like ants at a picnic, and (2) Buddhists and Muslims, as well as Christians in Kerala (Shankara’s home territory), are gaining ground. And so, just as the human avatars were in part a response to the human dimension of Buddhism in an earlier age, Shankara, someone who was, like the Buddha (and Muhammad and Jesus), a human founder of a religion, was the answer now.

Born into a high-caste Brahmin family, Shankara taught and debated with many other philosophers. In his journeys throughout India, his biographies claim, he vehemently debated with Buddhists and tried to persuade kings and other influential people to withdraw their support from Buddhist monasteries. One text depicts Shankara as an incarnation of Shiva, sent to earth to combat Vishnu’s Buddha avatar:


The gods complained to Shiva that Vishnu had entered the body of the Buddha on earth for their sake, but now the haters of religion, despising Brahmins and the dharma of class and stage of life, filled the earth. “Not a single man performs a ritual, for all have become heretics—Buddhists, Kapalikas, and so forth—and so we eat no offerings.” Shiva consented to become incarnate as Shankara, to reestablish Vedic dharma, which keeps the universe happy, and to destroy evil behavior.15

As usual, the heresy goes too far, destroying the allies as well as the enemies of the gods, and must be combated by the intervention of god.

The myths from this period reveal that it wasn’t only non-Hindus in conflict with Shankara; Mimamsa philosophers and other Vedanta schools also apparently had tense relations with Shankara, some of which turned on the question of renouncing desire and sexuality:


The Mimamsa philosopher named Mandanamishra had a wife, Bharati, who challenged Shankara to a debate about the art of love, about which he was woefully ignorant, since he had always been chaste, a renouncer. Stymied by a question about sex, he asked for time out and took on the body, but not the soul, of a king who had a large harem, to the relief both of the exhausted king and of the unsatisfied women. After a month of pleasant research and fieldwork, Shankara returned to his philosophical body and won the argument. Both Bharati and her husband then became nondualists.16

This tale contrasts sex and renunciation in such a way that the renunciant philosopher is able to have his cake and eat it, to triumph not only in the world of the mind (in which, before this episode begins, he wins a series of debates against the nonrenouncing male Mimamsa philosopher) but in the world of the body, represented by the philosopher’s wife (not to mention the harem women who clearly prefer Shankara to the king in bed). This double superiority—for it appears that, like Shiva, this Shankara stored up impressive erotic powers during his years of chastity—rather than the inherent power (or relevance) of nondualism, is apparently what persuades both the philosopher and his wife.

Renunciation took its toll on parents as well as partners, and this story addresses that issue:


As a young boy of eight, Shankara is said to have vowed to become a renouncer, to the dismay of his mother, who kept postponing the moment when she would give him her permission. One day while he was bathing in a river a crocodile grabbed his leg. He shouted out, and his mother came to the riverbank. As he was presumably going to die right away, and this was his last chance to achieve Release, the only hope was for him to become a renouncer there and then. His mother agreed, whereupon the crocodile let him go. He became a renouncer but promised his mother he would be with her during her last days and perform her funeral rites, which he did.17

This is a story about the need to compromise, to satisfy the concerns of family as well as renunciation—parents want to see their grandchildren—but it is built upon an old story that had been told before to make very different points. The Rig Veda (10.28.11) mentions crocodiles that drag people away by their legs; the bodhisattva (in a Jataka story carved at Amaravati) and Vishnu18 are said to have rescued an elephant whose leg had been grabbed by a crocodile, and the Shaiva saint Cuntarar (the same one said to have contested with the Jainas) saves a Brahmin boy from a crocodile. It is easy to see how this story could have been picked up and adapted to the needs of the hagiographers of Shankara.


The chain of sectarian myths does not end with Shankara. Many stories are told about Ramanuja’s clash not with disciples of Shankara but with other Shaivas. Ramanuja is said to have challenged the Shaivas in a great temple in Andhra Pradesh; he won not by debate but by the god’s action in “picking up and wearing the Vaishnava emblems, while leaving the Shaiva emblems unused on the floor.”19 On another occasion, the Chola king, a Shaiva, tried to make Ramanuja sign a declaration that there was no god but Shiva, but Ramanuja sent two of his disciples, one of them dressed to look like him, in his place; when one of them made a pun on the word “Shiva,” the king ordered both men’s eyes put out. Ramanuja escaped to Mysore, where he is said to have converted the Hoysala king from Jainism to Shri Vaishnavism and persuaded him to endow a number of Vaishnava temples with lands that had previously belonged to many Jaina temples.

There are also stories of Ramanuja’s actions against Muslims, as when he went to Delhi to help recover the lost image of Ranganatha: he found the image, cried, “Beloved son!” and the image jumped into his arms.20 Ramanuja is also said to have defeated a thousand Jaina ascetics in a debate involving a contest of miracles, whereupon the Jaina monks committed suicide rather than convert. 21 The martyrdom by blinding, the miraculous debate, and the deaths of thousands of Jainas are reminiscent of other South Indian tales told about Shaiva saints, and these about Ramanuja are equally mythological: The historical record documents no mass suicides (or, for that matter, miracles). Most of the kings of that era were not fanatics but supported Shaiva, Vaishnava, Jaina, and Buddhist institutions, nor is there any evidence that the Hoysala king was originally a Jaina or withdrew his supported from the Jainas.22 But the stories have survived for centuries.

Shankara’s followers often came into conflict with the followers of the Vaishnava philosopher Madhva, who is said to have accomplished a number of miracles, some of which were also attributed to Christ in the New Testament: walking on water,23 feeding many with a few loaves of bread, calming rough waters, and becoming a “fisher of men.”24 Madhva (or his hagiographers) may have been influenced by Christians, who had been established, since at least the sixth century CE, in Kerala and at Kalyan (in Karnataka), Madhva’s birthplace. But it is Buddhism, rather than Christianity, that figures officially in Madhva’s conflict with Shaivas. For Madhva placed another new twist on the myth of the Buddha avatar, substituting the Shaiva scriptures for the Buddhist doctrines: Citing a Puranic text in which Shiva agrees to teach false doctrines,25 Madhva said that Shiva composed the Shaiva scriptures at Vishnu’s command, in order to delude humans with false doctrines, to destroy the true religion (the worship of Vishnu), to reveal Shiva, and to conceal Vishnu.26 And this was just the beginning:27


At the beginning of the Kali Age, the earth was under the sway of Buddhism. Then an ogre named Manimat was born as a widow’s bastard’s son, named Sankara [sic]. He seduced the wife of his Brahmin host and made many converts by his magic arts. He studied the shastras with Shiva’s blessings. The depraved welcomed him and the antigods hailed him as their savior. On their advice, he joined the Buddhists and taught Buddhism under cover of teaching the Vedanta, and he performed various wicked deeds. His doctrines were like those of the Materialists [Lokayatas], Jainas, and Pashupatas, but more obnoxious and injurious. His followers were tyrannical people who burned down monasteries, destroyed cattle, and killed women and children. He had people whipped because they were not Vedic and converted others by force. When he died, the god of the wind became incarnate as Madhva, to refute the teachings of Manimat-Sankara .28

The accusation that Shankara seduced the wife of his Brahmin host may be an allusion to the story of Shankara’s vying with the Mimamsa philosopher’s wife on the subject of erotic seduction (and using his magic arts to sleep with a king’s wives), and the accusation that he pretended to be teaching Vedanta when he taught Buddhism is a product of the recurrent suspicion of Buddhist elements in Shankara’s brand of Vedanta. In this text, Manimat joins the already extant Buddhists (instead of founding them, as Vishnu as Buddha does), reverses the incarnation of Shankara (who is now an avatar not of Shiva but of an ogre named Manimat), and is followed by a third avatar, of the god of the wind as Madhva.iz The idea that the gods are sent to corrupt the antigods (as in the myth of the Buddha avatar), combined with the implication that the resulting heretics are antigods (or related to antigods in some way), undergoes a major reversal: The antigods now are not the ones who are corrupted but the ones who do the corrupting. The Madhvas’ identification of Shankara as an antigod is particularly harsh in light of the fact that the Madhvas, almost alone among Hindu philosophers, believe that antigods and heretics are doomed to eternal damnation in hell. Finally, this corruption takes place, as usual, in the Kali Age, and the Madhvas take advantage of this to pun on the name of their enemy: Shankara (“he who gives peace,” an epithet of Shiva given to many Shaivas) becomes Sankara (also written sam-kara), a word that denotes indiscriminate mixture, particularly the breaking down of barriers between classes that is the principal sign of the advent of the Kali Age. In keeping with this name, Sankara is said to be the bastard son of a widow.29


One of the philosophical reactions against the excessive hierarchy of the caste system was to devise (or, rather, to revise, for it began in the Upanishads) a philosophical system devoid of hierarchy, indeed of any distinctions at all: monism (which assumes that all living things are elements of a single, universal being). But many of the Vedantic philosophical orders organized themselves into groups that were in fact highly hierarchical (for example, as we have seen, Shankara excluded Shudras) and often intolerant of other orders.

The monistic philosophers asserted that there was one truth, which they knew, and so they proceeded to proselytize. Logically, Hindu universalism (of the sort that assumed that all religions have access to the truth) should have led polytheistic Hindus to the belief that there was no point in trying to convert anyone else to Hinduism, yet this was not always the case. Orthoprax Vedic Hindus certainly made no efforts to proselytize, assuming that you had to be born a Hindu to be a Hindu. But some of the Vedantic Hindus, lapsing into the shadows of orthodoxy,ja argued that theirparticular brand of monism was more monistic than thine and did indeed proselytize. And although proselytizing is not in itself necessarily intolerant, it does close the open-ended door of pluralism.


The quarrels of these great South Indian philosophers had repercussions throughout India, particularly in far-off Kashmir. It all began with two South Indian sects that expressed their doctrines primarily through animal metaphors.


One movement for which animal metaphors were central was the Shaiva Siddhanta, which arose at this time in South India to cast a net of theory around some of the unrulier aspects of bhakti. Among other things, it theologized the doctrine of accidental grace.

The philosophy of Shaiva Siddhanta traces its roots back in a general way to the devotional hymns that the Shaiva Nayanmars had written from the fifth to the ninth century. That tradition found its way up to Kashmir, to become one of the elements of Kashmir Shaivism in the ninth century CE. But then Tirumular, a mystic and reformer, is said to have come from Kashmir to South India to found the Shaiva Siddhanta philosophical school, and othersjb systematized the doctrines of the Nayanmars. The Shaiva Siddhanta in Kashmir had taken elements of Kashmir Tantrism and fused them into a householder’s religion,30 and the Southern Shaiva Siddhantins continued and intensified this transformation. It thrived under royal Hindu patronage and in powerful temple centers, reinfused with Tamil bhakti and transformed, in effect, from a philosophy into a powerful religious culture that thrives there today. Though the Shaiva Siddhantins paid lip service to the Vedas, they rejected caste (or, rather, they were open to everyone but women, children, the old, the mad, and the disabled31) and asceticism, and believed, like the Virashaivas, that the body is the true temple of Shiva. Theirs was a separate sect, established in Shaiva temples, into which members had to be initiated.32 Like other aspects of bhakti, it spread north, reinfusing the Kashmir Shaivism that had in part inspired it.

In conscious opposition to the idealism and nondualism of both Shankara and Kashmir Shaivism, which regarded god and the soul as one and the universe as illusory, the Shaiva Siddhanta was a realistic and dualistic philosophy. It taught that the lord (pati) was not identical with the soul but connected to the soul (pashu [“the sacrificial or domesticated animal”]) by a bond (pasha), as a leash connects a dog (the ultimate bhakta) to its owner. The bond consists of Shiva’s will and his power of illusion (maya), the illusion made of the universe of all mental and material phenomena—phenomena that, in contrast with the teachings of pure idealism, were real because they were divine.33 Just as in Tantra Shiva makes some people heretics in the first place so that he can ultimately enlighten them, so in Shaiva Siddhanta he makes people into beasts so that he can release them from the condition of beasts; he deludes people in order to reveal their beast nature, lust and hatred, and then he releases them from that nature. The bond, which was the functional equivalent of bhakti in connecting the worshiper to the god, had negative as well as positive valences.34

The central metaphor of the Shaiva Siddhanta became so well known in Hinduism that it was eventually adopted for uses far from its original meaning for the theologians who coined it, uses such as the literalizing of the metaphor in the actual sacrifice of a beast in a snare. For animal sacrifices continued to take place despite the growing force of the doctrine of nonviolence; the philosopher Madhva (like Manu before him) encouraged Hindus to substitute animals made of dough for real animals in sacrificial rituals,35 and his need to make this suggestion, again, suggests that animals were still being sacrificed. The Agni Purana prescribes an animal sacrifice in the course of the initiation of a Vaishnava pupil by his guru, but it cloaks the ritual in euphemisms derived from the Shaiva Siddhanta:


Enter the temple of worship and worship the image of Vishnu while circumambulating him to the right, saying, “You alone are the refuge for Release from the snares that bind the beasts sunk in the ocean of rebirth; you always look upon your devotees as a cow looks upon her calf. God of gods, have mercy; by your favor, I will release all these beasts that are bound by the snares and bonds of nature.” When you have announced this to the lord of gods, have the beasts enter there; purify them with the chants and perfect them with fire. Place them in contact with the image of Vishnu and close their eyes.36

“Close their eyes” is a euphemism for killing the sacrificial animals: the Vedic texts used a different euphemism, speaking of “quieting” the animal. The killing is said to give the beast ultimate Release, here equated with release from the snares (or noose, or bonds) that we know from Shaiva Siddhanta terminology. In this text, however, these philosophies are embodied in an actual rather than a metaphorical beast and a real snare.


Another South Indian movement, this one devoted to Vishnu rather than Shiva, used an animal analogy, and a maternal metaphor, to express a fork in the road to salvation. This was the Shri Vaishnava sect, which took shape when, in support of the rising sectarian movement of devotion to the child Krishna, Vaishnava theologians in the early medieval period (900-1300 CE) in South India established new scholastic and monastic lineages.37 In the fourteenth century they branched into the Cat school (Tenkalai, in Tamil) in the south and the Monkey school (Vadakalai) in the north of the Tamil country.38 Originally a split about a theological belief, epitomized by these two animals, it was caught up into the clash between two separate monastic centers vying for the control of temples, a dispute in which the king played a major adjudicating role:39 Two Vijayanagara royal agents established the Cat school, and the priest of another king established the Monkey school by setting up a temple at Tirupati.

In the Monkey school, the devotee actively clings to god, who saves him through his grace, just as a baby monkey clings to its mother as she moves through the trees. In the Cat school, by contrast, the devotee is passive and is saved through grace alone, as kittens allow a mother cat to pick them up by the scruffs of their necks and carry them without any effort on their part. Indeed the Cat devotee should not make any effort, should go limp as a kitten, since any effort would simply get in the way of the mother cat. The passive, accidental bhakti of the Cats toward the grace of god was echoed in the doctrine of accidental grace toward unrepentant sinners in the theology of the later Puranas.

Both Cats and Monkeys value bhakti, but less than they value prapatti (“surrender”), jc an idea that may owe something to the Muslim idea of surrender (which is what Islam means). Members of the Monkey school, who regarded themselves as twice born people liberated through ritual devotion, sometimes said that the Cat school was designed for the lower castes, because they were not allowed in temples and hence were unable to perform the rituals and could be liberated only through surrender. They therefore regarded Cat bhakti as necessary for those castes, like the Tantras in the Puranic view.


Another important philosophical animal was the illusory snake that was really a rope. For the Vedantins, the claim that the world is unreal does not mean that it is entirely unreal in the way that the son of a barren woman (a favorite Vedantic example) is unreal. There is, in some sense, a rope, and, at a deeper level, brahman does in fact exist. The error lies, rather, in our perception of the rope as something it isn’t (the snake).

Unlike other topics that only erudite Indian philosophers wrestled with, illusion got into the very fabric of Hindu culture, so that just about everyone knows about maya and the difficulty of telling a snake from a rope. Maya (from the verb ma [“to make”]) is what is made, artificial, constructed, something that seems to be there but has no substance; it is the path of rebirth, the worship of gods with qualities (sa-guna). It is magic, cosmic sleight of hand. Maya begins in the earliest text, the Rig Veda (1.32) in which the god Indra (the first great magician; magic is called Indra’s Net [indra-jala]) uses his magic against his equally magical enemy Vritra (for all the antigods are magicians): Indra magically turns himself into the hair of one of his horses’ tails, and Vritra magically conjures up a storm. Magic illusions of various sorts play a crucial role in the ValmikiRamayana, in the shadow Sita of later traditions, and in Hindu thinking across the board.

As we have seen, the idea of darshan, of seeing the god and, more important, of knowing that the god sees you, is central to Hinduism and accounts for the extraordinary emphasis on the eyes in Hindu mythology. It was therefore a brilliant move of nondual Vedanta to reverse the valence of vision/sight/gaze by making the image of false seeing—of classically mistaking a rope for a snake or a piece of shell for a piece of silver—an enduring trope for the larger mistake of taking the visual world to be the real world. Nondualists imagined gods to be without any visual form or physical qualities (nir-guna) but to take on, for various reasons, apparent visual form and physical qualities (sa-guna) so that we can worship them. The gods themselves produce the illusion, just as they produce the deluding texts in the story of the Buddha avatar.

The Upanishads speak of four stages of consciousness: waking, dreaming, dreamless sleep, and “the fourth,” the supernatural, transcendent state of identity with brahman.40 Waking is the most distorted image of brahman, furthest from it; dreaming is a bit better, dreamless sleep better yet. To be enlightened is to realize that the stage of waking is the illusory end of the spectrum and to begin to progress toward the fourth stage. Or to put it differently, to realize that the stage of waking is the illusory end of the spectrum is to realize that dreaming is more real than is conventionally understood.41 It is no accident that the word svapna in Sanskrit means both the physical state of “sleep” (the English word is a cognate of the Sanskrit) and the mental construct of “dream”; there is no difference between matter and mind.

Mistaking one thing for another, such as a rope for a snake, is easily rectified upon closer inspection, but the recollection of our false mental state before we took that second look may trigger our acknowledgment of the far more important mistake that we make all the time, in taking the material world to be real (brahman) when it is merely maya. When you realize that the snake is not a snake but a rope, you go on to realize that there is not even a rope at all.


The philosophy of illusion was developed in a particularly imaginative and brilliant way in the eleventh and twelfth centuries in Kashmir, with heavy input from South India. We have noted the communication back and forth between North and South India in the development of bhakti, Tantra, and the Shaiva Siddhanta. The extreme idealist position in the philosophy of illusion was developed by the Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna, who is said to have been born a Brahmin in South India, converted to Buddhism, moved to Kashmir (where his school of idealism flourished during the Kushana period), and, when Buddhism came under attack in Kashmir, moved back to South India. Shaiva philosophers in Kashmir combined all these elements, including the Buddhist ideas, with the monistic ideas of Shankara and fused them into a new philosophy of their own, known as Kashmir Shaivism, also called the Recognition (Pratijna) school.42 A key figure in this movement was the great Shaiva philosopher Abhinavagupta (975-1025), who was also largely responsible for developing the right-hand householder form of Tantrism. Jettisoning the dualism of Shaiva Siddhanta (while retaining much of its ritual), Kashmir Shaivism was relentlessly monistic.

Kashmir Shaivism had died out in Kashmir by the end of the twelfth century, in large part because of a hostile Muslim presence there,43 and Shaiva Siddhanta went back south, taking its dualism with it. But other traditions developed in Kashmir in this period not in spite of but because of the foreign presences there. The school of the Muslim philosopher Ibn ‘Arabi (1165-1240), who argued that all that is not a part of divine reality is an illusion, is said to have had a major influence on Hindu philosophy at this time, while in return the use of heterosexual love as a symbol for divine love in a few Sufi scriptures from the Mughal period may have been inspired by Kashmiri Tantrism.44

Located as it is on the northern border of India, Kashmir is close to the Central Asian strongholds of Buddhism (whose philosophers developed their own major doctrines of illusion) and a number of Muslim (Turkish and Arabic) cultures with highly developed storytelling traditions that rivaled those of ancient India. Eventually a brand of idealist philosophy that was already a mix of Buddhism and Hinduism married a brand of storytelling that was already a mix of Hinduism and Islam, enlivened by a dash of Abhinavagupta’s writings on the artistic transformation of the emotions. It was here, therefore, and at this time that the great Indian traditions of storytelling and illusion blossomed in the text of the great Ocean of Story (Katha-sarit-sagara) and, above all, in theYoga-vasishtha (in full, the Yoga-Vasishtha-Maha-Ramayana or “The Great Story of Rama in Which Vasishtha Teaches His Yoga”). This text heavily influenced the collection of stories often called the Arabian Nights, a constantly shifting corpus with narrative traces as early as the tenth century, probably put together in the thirteenth century. Another, later contribution from Hinduism to Islam was made when the great Mughal emperor Akbar had the Yoga-vasishtha translated from Sanskrit to Persian; Nizam Panipati dedicated his abridged Persian translation to the crown prince Salim, who (when he became the emperor Jahangir) commissioned a new, illustrated translation.45 The book became so famous that there were Persian and Arabic satires on it.46

That Kashmir Shaivism was called the Recognition school is not irrelevant to the main theme of the Yoga-vasishtha narratives, which turn on an individual’s recognition of his or her own identity and ontological status. But the glory of the Yoga-vasishtha is that it transforms a rather difficult philosophy into a series of engaging narratives.jd It all goes back, like so much else, to that fork in the road in the Upanishads. For Vedantic thinkers like Shankara, following the path of Release meant awakening from the dream of the material world to the reality of brahman. The twist that theYoga-vasishtha adds is that you cannot wake up from the dream, because it may be someone else’s For householders on the path of rebirth, Release means staying asleep but being aware that you are dreaming. This is also the message of a large corpus of myths in which kings, beginning with Indra, king of the gods, become enlightened, wish to awaken (that is, to renounce material life), but must be persuaded to renounce even the wish to renounce, to remain engaged in life with the major distinction of understanding that it is an illusion. It is a variant of the final advice that Krishna gives to Arjuna in the Gita (though the Yoga-vasishtha arrives at that point after a very different journey): Continue to act, though with a newly transformed understanding of the unreality of actions and therefore without the desire for the fruits of actions.

The frame story of the Yoga-vasishtha presents the text as an episode that Valmiki left out of his version of the Ramayana; it claims to fill in the supposed gaps in the older text on which it purports to be based, just as many folk versions of the Ramayana actually do.jf It frames the story in terms of the ancient tension between the householder life and the truth claims of renunciation. The Yogavasishtha takes the form of a long conversation between Rama and the sage Vasishtha, at a moment when Rama has returned from a pilgrimage in a state of depression and madness (or so his father and the courtiers describe it): Rama says that anyone who says, “Act like a king,” is out of his mind, that everything is unreal, that it is false to believe in the reality of the world, that everything is just the imagination of the mind. Rama’s father consults two great sages (always get a second opinion), Vishvamitra and Vasishtha, who assure him that Rama is perfectly right in his understanding of the world, that he has become enlightened, and then offer to cure him.47 That is, they promise to remove his depression and make him socially functional, while leaving his (correct) metaphysical apprehensions unimpaired.


The Yoga-vasishtha tells a tale about another king who returns from renunciation to rule his kingdom and, along the way, realizes the illusory nature of both sex and gender:


Queen Chudala and her husband, King Shikhidhvaja, were passionately in love. In time, the queen became enlightened and acquired magic powers, including the ability to fly, but she concealed these powers from her husband, and when she attempted to instruct him, he spurned her as a foolish and presumptuous woman. Eventually the king decided to seek his own enlightenment and withdrew to the forest to meditate; he renounced his throne and refused to let her accompany him but left her to govern the kingdom.

After eighteen years she decided to visit him; she took the form of a young Brahmin boy named Kumbha [“Pot”] and was welcomed by the king, who did not recognize her but remarked that Chudala as Kumbha looked very much like his queen, Chudala. After a while the king became very fond of Chudala as Kumbha, who instructed him and enlightened him, and she began to be aroused by her handsome husband. And so Chudala as Kumbha went away for a while. When she returned, she told the king that a sage had cursed her to become a woman, with breasts and long hair, every night. That night, before the king’s eyes, Chudala as Kumbha changed into a woman named Madanika, who cried out in a stammering voice, “I feel as if I am falling, trembling, melting. I am so ashamed as I see myself becoming a woman. Alas, my chest is sprouting breasts, and jewelry is growing right out of my body.” Eventually they married and made love all night.

Thus they lived as dear friends during the day and as husband and wife at night. Eventually, the queen changed from Chudala as Kumbha as Madanika to Chudala and told the king all that she had done. He embraced her passionately and said, “You are the most wonderful wife who ever lived!” Then he made love to her all night and returned with her to resume his duties as king. He ruled for ten thousand years and finally attained Release.48

Chudala wishes to be her husband’s mistress both in the sense of lover and in the sense of teacher, schoolmistress. She has already played the first role but is now denied it, and he refuses to grant her the second role, without relinquishing the first. She succeeds by destabilizing gender through a double gender transformation.

The double woman whom she creates-Chudala as Kumbha as Madanika—is her real self, the negation of the negation of her femininity; the jewelry that actually grows out of her body is what she would have worn as Queen Chudala at the start of the story. This double deception works well enough and may express her full fantasy: to be her husband’s intellectual superior under the sun and his erotic partner by moonlight. But since the two roles belong to two different personae, she wants to merge them and to play them both as her original self.

The playful juggling of the genders demonstrates both the unreality of appearances and the falsity of the belief that one gender is better than the other or even different from the other. This extraordinary openness to gender bending in ancient India may be an indirect benefit of the rigid social order: Since other social categories are taken for granted, the text can use them as a springboard for gender role-playing. But the roles, when we look closer, revert to the rigid categories in the end. Chudala has to become a man to teach her husband, and she has to become a woman again to sleep with him. In the Hindu view, Chudala is like a man to begin with, aggressive, resourceful, and wise. Moreover, the relationship between Chudala and the king is never the relationship of a real husband and wife. She is a magician; in other times and places she might have been called a witch. She functions like a Yogini (she can fly) or perhaps even a goddess, giving him her grace and leading him up the garden path of enlightenment, setting up a divine illusion and then revealing herself to him as the gods reveal themselves.

Eventually Chudala repairs the split between kama and moksha by revealing the illusory nature of both sexual love and renunciation. Like Rama in the frame of the text, the king comes back to his duties as king. As she has gone from female to male to female, he has worked through his own double transformation from kama to moksha and back to kama.


Two other tales from the Yogavasishtha deconstruct caste as the tale of Chudala deconstructs gender, taking as the central, transformative experiences the demotion of first a king and then a Brahmin to Pariahs. The first, the tale of King Lavana, is relatively straightforward, though it begins to challenge the linearity of time and consciousness; the second, the tale of the Brahmin Gadhi, goes further in blurring the line. They are rather long stories, but I will summarize them as briefly as I can, one by one:


There was a king named Lavana, who seemed to fall into a trance one day while gazing at a horse; when he regained his senses, he told this story: “I imagined that I mounted the horse, which bolted and carried me far away to a village of Pariahs [Chandalas], where the low branch of a tree swept me off the galloping horse. I met a Pariah girl, married her, raised two sons and two daughters with her, and lived there for sixty years; I forgot that I had been a king. Then there was a famine, and as I was about to throw myself into a fire so that my children could eat my flesh and survive, I awoke here on my throne.” The courtiers were amazed. The king set out the next day, with his ministers, to find that village again, and he did. He found an old woman there who told him that a king had come there and married her daughter, and then there was a famine and everyone had died. The king returned to his palace.49

The king is “carried away” by the bolting horse, a motif taken from the theme of royal addiction to hunting as well as from the recurrent metaphor of a horse as sensuality out of control. The existence of a village, and people, that we at first assume to exist only in the king’s imagination but that then leave evidence that others can see (the old woman mentions a number of very specific details from the king’s life among the Pariahs) poses a serious challenge to our concept of the limits of the imagination. Lavana seems to seek public corroboration, first in the courtiers and then in the woman in the village, of the truth he knows by himself. The text sets these paradoxes within its own Kashmir Shaiva metaphysics: The mind imposes its idea on the spirit/matter dough of reality, cutting it up as with a cookie cutter, now into stars, now into gingerbread men, now into a palace, now into a village. It makes them, and it finds them already there, like a bricoleur, who makes new forms out of objets trouvés. In the end, the king returns to his original life, even though he believes that his other life is just as real (or, as the case may be, unreal); this return is part of the lesson that Rama must also learn.

The theme of the king who becomes, or dreams that he becomes, a Pariah (or vice versa) has an ancient provenance in India.50 One of the early Upanishads describes the paradigmatic dream in these terms: “When he dreams, he seems to become a great king. Then he seems to become a great Brahmin. He seems to enter into the high and the low.”51 (The “low” would be the Pariah nightmare.) And the theme of kings actually becoming Pariahs or tribals is refracted in the episodes in both the Mahabharata and theRamayana in which the king (Yudhishthira, Nala, Rama) is exiled among the common people before he can ascend his throne, to learn how the other half lives. The actual banishment and the dream of banishment are combined in the Markandeya Purana tale of King Harishchandra, who is (according to the Yoga-vasishtha) Lavana’s grandfather:


King Harishchandra was cursed to become a Chandala, and he lost his wife and son. He lived for years as a Chandala and one night dreamed that he was a Pulkasa [another Pariah caste], born in the womb of a Pulkasa woman; when he was seven years old, some Brahmins, annoyed with him, said, “Behave yourself. Harishchandra annoyed some Brahmins and was cursed to be a Pulkasa.” Then they cursed him to go to hell, and he went there for a day and was tortured. He was reborn as a dog, eating carrion and vomit and enduring cold and heat. The dog died and was then reborn as a donkey, an elephant, a monkey, a tortoise, wild boar, porcupine, cock, parrot, crane, and snake. Then he was born as a king who lost his kingdom at dice and lost his wife and son. Finally he awakened, still as a Chandala, working in a cremation ground. One day he met his wife carrying his dead son to be cremated; he and his wife resolved to immolate themselves on their son’s pyre. Just then Indra and Dharma came there, revived the son, and took all three of them to heaven.52

We can see the seeds of the story of Lavana here, but without the Kashmir Shaiva frame: A curse, rather than a meditation, turns Harishchandra into a real, rather than dreamed, Pariah, though within that real life he also dreams as Lavana dreams. In both stories, the death of the son and the decision to enter the fire trigger the awakening. But in this text, which is framed by samsara and bhakti, the final release is not moksha but physical transportation to heaven, the sensuous heaven of Indra. (We can also see a South Indian bhakti thread in the child whom the gods pretend to kill but then revive.) The curse destabilizes caste to a certain extent: If someone can be cursed to become a Pariah, the Pariah you meet might have been a king even in this life. The philosophy of illusion further destabilizes it: Not even a curse but just a dream could change you. In either case, caste is not necessarily part of your inalienable substance, the way that the dharma texts say it is.

In the end, Harishchandra and his wife do not return to their original life, as Lavana does, but leave both the earthly dream and the earthly reality, the royal pleasures and the Pariah horrors. In this, they are more Buddhist than Hindu, and indeed the story of Harishchandra may have influenced and/or been influenced by the Buddhist Vessantara Jataka, which tells a very similar tale.53 (Another shared Hindu-Buddhist theme appears when Lavana plans to feed his children on his own flesh, a theme we know from the Hindu-Buddhist stories of the rabbit in the moon and of King Shibi.) The more basic Buddhist paradigm, however, is the life of Gautama Shakyamuni himself, the Buddha, who (according to the Pali texts) leaves his luxurious palace in order to live among the suffering people and never returns; this plot is the very opposite of the Hindu myths of this corpus, in which the king almost always returns.54

A nicely self-referential moment occurs when the Brahmins, not recognizing that the Chandala they are talking to is Harishchandra, tell him his own story. But they make him a Pulkasa rather than a Chandala, as Harishchandra himself does in his dream. For the repetitions are never quite alike, and one sort of Pariah may mistake himself (and be mistaken by others) for another sort of Pariah. These variations become more vivid still when the Yoga-vasishstha tells a story that both is and is not like the story of Lavana, the story of Gadhi:jg


There was a Brahmin named Gadhi, who lost consciousness one day as he bathed in a river; he saw himself reborn as a Pulkasa, within the womb of a Pulkasa woman. He was born, grew up, married, had children, and became old. All of his family died, and he wandered until he came to the city of the Kiras, where the king had died, and the people made him the king. But after eight years an old Pulkasa from the village identified him as a Pulkasa; the people fled from him, and he threw himself into a fire and awoke in the water of the river. He went home and lived as before, until one day another Brahmin came and told him that in the city of the Kiras, a Pulkasa had become king for eight years until he was exposed and killed himself in a fire. Then Gadhi went and found the village and the city of the Kiras and found all just as it had been reported. He went back to his life as a Brahmin.55

When we set the stories of Lavana and Gadhi side by side, each sheds light on the other, forming a double image of mutually illuminating similes. Lavana is a king who dreams that he is a Pariah and then goes back to being a king. Gadhi is a Brahmin who dreams that he is a Pariah who becomes a king, is unmasked as a Pariah, and turns back into a Brahmin. It might appear that Lavana takes up the Gadhi story at midpoint, a king who remembers that he has been a Pariah. King Lavana travels (or imagines that he travels) to another place, where he lives another life until he awakens again as a king. This also happens to Gadhi, in the middle part of his story, though in the other direction: As a Pariah, he travels to another place and becomes a king. This shared, inverted episode is, however, framed by another in Gadhi’s life, in which he dies, is reborn, and experiences an entirely new life, beginning as an embryo. And this frame casts back upon the Lavana story the implication that he too may have a frame, that a Brahmin may have dreamed that he was Lavana who dreamed that he was a Pariah. Gadhi finds out that his memories of the dream were true, but they are not his memories; they belong to someone else. What is real for Lavana becomes a simile for Gadhi, and what is real for Gadhi is merely a simile for Lavana. One man’s reality is another man’s simile.

The transformations take place differently: King Lavana is never reborn but merely travels to another place; Gadhi, by contrast, does not travel or fall into a trance but actually dies (or imagines that he dies), is reborn, and experiences an entirely new life, beginning as an embryo. On the other hand, Lavana actually succumbs to amnesia and forgets that he was a king, while Gadhi as a Pariah remembers quite well who he was and merely pretends to be a king. The fact that Gadhi is a Brahmin, with special spiritual powers, is highly significant; he remains in mental control throughout and especially at the end, in ways that the king, the victim of his passion (such as his mesmerization by the beauty of the horse), does not. But whatever the status of the protagonist, the text eventually erases the distinction between having an adventure and imagining that you have had an adventure, since in either case the events of the adventure leave physical traces that can be corroborated before witnesses.

The assumptions of Kashmiri Shaiva idealism are very different from those of the average Euro-American reader. More vividly than any argument, the text performs the proposition that our failure to remember our past lives is a more intense form of our failure to recapture our dreams. More than that, it erases the distinction between the reality status of a dreamed (or experienced) episode within a single life and a dreamed (or experienced) episode of total rebirth; the distinction between forgetting that you are a king and pretending to be a king; and, finally, the distinction between the consciousness of a king or Brahmin and a Pariah.

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