Devas: Outer, Inner, Both, or Neither?
by Paul Muller-Ortega, PhD

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:

a) To argue that a psychological and esoteric re-mapping of divine entities in a religious system reveals much insight is no doubt one of the "moves" that practically all religious traditions engage in.

b) It does not therefore logically follow from a) that there should be excluded from the worldview of the re-mappers themselves (as well as from our own appropriations of such esoteric re-interpretations) another notion about deities that is a kind of both/and notion: they exist on the "inside" of each of us AND they also exist on the "outside." That is to say, a notion that does not see the re-mapping as necessarily sublating or destructive of the initial stance of understanding about the Gods.

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:

  1. the gods exist (i.e. "outwardly")
  2. the gods do not exist (i.e. "outwardly)
  3. the gods both exist and do not exist
  4. the gods neither exist nor do not exist

All of these can function as "true" or cogent religious assertions, depending on the stance of the one who makes the assertion.

As follows:

  1. The Gods exist ("outwardly"): the initial position of the "naive" and sincere believer.
  2. The Gods do not exist ("outwardly"): the first move of assertion of the inward location of the Gods: the psycho-esotericization of the vocabulary and theology that support stance 1. The Gods are symbols for the divine virtues, the gods are symbols for stages in the mystical ascent; the gods are symbols for locations in the apparatus of the psyche; the Gods are symbols for different moments in the archetypal structures of the absolute consciousness etc etc The entire array of esoteric interpretive overlay of a mystical or psycho-mystical matrix onto the earlier theological assertions about Gods and so on. This stance is understood as a denial of the reality of position #1: it sublates and destructively or reductively re-interprets the Gods as symbolic of psychological realities.
  3. The Gods exist and do not exist: A further nuancing that counterbalances #1 and #2 above and allows both positions to have a place within a larger theological schema. Both are true assertions; they are however assertions about two different realms: #1 is an assertion about the macro-cosmos and #2 represents assertions about the individual's micro-cosmos. (In my example above, I would argue that Abhinava takes this stance rather than taking stance #2. In doing so, he articulates a "temporary" though valid religious stance, one however that he himself will transcend by taking stance #4 below.)
  4. The Gods neither exist nor do not exist: a yet further nuancing that dissolves in non-duality all of the tensions and apparent disparities that exist in #3. This is the ultimate critique of any notion of "existence" i.e., of any notion that anything whatsoever "emerges" into separate, limited being from the ocean of consciousness. This is the "final" or absolute argument: What "exists" is the Absolute. And all relative forms of existence that appear to emerge from such an absolute (including us AND all the Gods) are but composed of the very fabric of such consciousness and are therefore nothing but that consciousness. Hence position #4 states that any attempt to make statements about the "existence" or "non-existence" of anything presupposes a process of "emergence," that never actually takes place; or rather which is perceived and understood by the mature and accomplished mystic as never really, actually to have taken place; and this despite the fact that the very "existence" of the mystic holding such a view or asserting such a stance of non-duality is itself subsumed and sublated by the very stance that is being held. That is to say, even the mystic or theologian or whomever, who makes this assertion does not -- on the face of what is implicit in the very assertion itself -- actually "exist."

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.