There is no doubt that the "true" reality or status of the "Gods" is the subject of much theologic-interpretive debate in practically all religious traditions. The notion of an initial (though not necessarily prior in time) "naive" stance that posits the reality of separately and outwardly existing, superhuman beings, is then gradually remapped or esotericized by the overlay of various forms of esoteric meaning and interpretation that reveals to the initiate the "true" meaning of these beings. So the naive believer who enters the shrine believes somehow that the deity both resides outwardly, "in" the shrine, and in some kind of unimaginable but physically outward or separate space ("heaven"). However, the initiated" priest/whatever gently but in a superior way rejects and perhaps corrects such naive views.
The move away from the naive perspective (though again these things do not happen this way necessarily in time: these are an attempt at the depiction of a series of logical movements in religion) believes itself to be more sophisticated and takes an esoteric approach that radically denies the "externality" of the Gods and internalizes the "outer." It thus reveals the Gods and their attributes as a map of inner mental and psychological processes. These processes can and do encompass the functioning of so-called ordinary awareness, but also and often more interestingly are thought to depict the stages in the evolution of consciousness, particularly the ascent of mystical consciousness toward whatever goal of mysticism a particular tradition envisions.
These two stages exist in practically all religious traditions, though, in fact, it may be that at some point the "logical" order above is actually reversed, and one begins with the sophisticated, esoteric viewpoint of a charismatic founder or revealed scripture which is then appropriated and "stepped down", so to speak, to be made accessible and comprehensible to the naive beginner, and, in the process, may be understood by the sophisticated to be distorted, misunderstood, or damaged.
The history of religions actually shows us that the above two stances do not fully encompass in a satisfactory way what is going on in most sophisticated religious traditions, particularly if these are understood as two mutually exclusive religious perspectives, the second of which "sublates" or radically undermines the reality of the first.
In my own studies of the great Shaivite theologian and Maha Siddha from medieval Kashmir, Abhinavagupta, I have long posed this question to myself: when Abhinava refers to Shiva is he referring to a deity in the naive sense above or is he referring to some psychological reality of the functioning of the human mind and spirit? Of course, there is no doubt as one reads the texts of Abhinava to notice that he is involved in a radical process of esoteric re-interpretation of traditional Shaivism. While the earlier sadhakas of the radical left-handed Tantra believed themselves to undergo violent possession by Goddesses external to them, Abhinava insists on a re-mapping of the entire panorama of these "lesser" understandings of tantric sadhana into the "inner" domain of consciousness. Hence, the notion of the shakti-cakra or vortex-wheel of consciousness that Abhinava proposes: Bhairava (a form of Shiva) seated at the center of the adepts consciousness pulsates outward rays of light which take the shape of the various forms of the Goddess (in this case Kali). The adept is to envision and discover this Shakti-cakra as the most fundamental description of the true reality of consciousness etc etc. Thus, in this situation neither "Bhairava" or "Shiva" or "Kali" are being understood in any exoteric or outward sense. They name the fundamental structures of the very consciousness of the adept who is to discover, unfold, and explore these potentialities within hir-self. Thus, for Abhinava, "Shiva" is not usually the name of a superhuman deity in the "naive" sense above, but is rather a term he manipulates with great dexterity to refer to the indescribable and paradoxical abyss of the absolute consciousness within which the limited and contracted forms of individual consciousness take shape.
However, that this re-mapping and transformation of the exoteric religious vocabulary into the esoteric processes of Shaivite meditation takes place, does NOT necessarily mean that the notion of Shiva (or more precisely of various subsidiary forms of Shiva) as separate superhuman beings of a godly sort disappears. To the contrary, side by side with such patently esoteric and psychological (or psycho-spiritual) re-mappings of Shiva, Bhairava and Kali, there appear in the Tantraloka repeated references to various kinds of divine beings whom Abhinava clearly (or at least apparently to this reader) means us to understand in the so-called "naive" or "external" way.
So even in the religious world of someone as esoterically inclined and as hyper-sophisticated
as Abhinava, there appears to be the idea that the Gods actually ALSO do exist
outwardly (granted, in some more sophisticated and nuanced way, but still in
not that different a version from the initial "naive" notion of such
gods that exists in the ordinary practitioner worshipper.) Hence, the so-called
"naive" position that we began with above, turns out, upon entry even
into this most sophisticated world of esoteric Tantra, either not to be any
longer so naive, or at a minimum, to represent a still present piece of the
Tantric worldview: the Gods actually do exist as superhuman and unimaginably
powerful beings: and that that stance is not any longer "primitive",
naive, or uninformed. It is simply the acceptance that this universe also contains
such beings as "Gods" within it. So for Abhinava it does not appear
incongruous that just as the Absolute consciousness appears to have split itself
into the various individual forms of human consciousness that inhabit our universe,
so too that supreme consciousness has actually (though still apparently) split
itself or allowed for there to evolve within itself vast numbers of "divine"
life-forms that constitute the reality of the Gods.
All I am saying is the following:
I write this with some energy and yet a great degree of hesitancy. I have struggled
for years to coordinate in my mind my growing sense of the accuracy of what
I say above to the writings of Abhinavagupta. Of course, there are many ways
to try to counter such an attempt at interpretive complexity and nuancing. Is
he writing in the "voice" of the naive believer at places and hence
he adopts a vocabulary and approach that matches their naïve predilection
for an actual outer divinity to actually exist? Perhaps. But I think the situation
is much more complex. In his world, at least, it is never either/or; it is always
both/and. I think that there are at least four potential or logical "stances"
that might be taken on this matter.
To delineate them I resort to my own appropriation of the Buddhist tetralemma:
All of these can function as "true" or cogent religious assertions,
depending on the stance of the one who makes the assertion.
Particularly in the case of Abhinava, he is often mistaken as making assertion
#2 above, when, in fact, I take him to be making a much more sophisticated and
encompassing non-dual assertion #4 (while also taking stance #3 in much of his
writing.) To say this is NOT to deny that he engages in an extensive process
of psycho-esoteric re-mapping. However, he does so in the midst of a stance
of non-duality that would never require him to make such re-mappings as exclusively
sublating of the position of stance #1.
I believe that such confusions of level are to be found in many interpreters of religious traditions (whether the interpreters are "internal" theological interpreters or "external" scholarly interpreters). These interpretive confusions are of various kinds:
I would argue that the "initial" move toward esotericization represented by stance #2 has been many times confused by interpreters with the much broader, encompassing and inclusive move toward a "mature" esotericization that is represented by the non-duality of stance #4 (which will come "later" in the text, tradition, or collective understanding.) Thus, the full range of the esoteric re-mapping of a particular tradition is foreshortened in the understanding of the interpreters.
Stance #4 itself has been often misunderstood as constituting a sublative and destructive stance, when in actual practice we find (again, for example in Abhinava) that after making potently non-dual statements on the lines of stance #4 in his early sections of the Tantraloka, he goes on to make statements throughout that text that reveal him as firmly entrenched in the usefulness of stance #3, and often, sounding an awful lot like he buys into stance #2. Stance #3 has often been misunderstood as being incompatible with stance #4, when as I have just said, both stances are often present as "moments" of interpretation.