One thousand years ago in the valley of Kashmīr, a great tāntrika, Rājānaka Kṣhemarāja, wrote his masterpiece: the Pratyabhijñā-hṛdayam, which means “the essence of the Recognition philosophy” or “the heart of the teachings on Recognition”—recognition, that is, of oneself as an expression of the universal divine Consciousness.
The Recognition philosophy is the most fully developed body of teachings in nondual Śaiva Tantra. It arose in Kashmīr in the early 900s and eventually traversed the whole length of India, being especially well studied in the far South as well as the far North. Even back then, it was considered an intellectually challenging philosophy—I think it’s amongst the most intellectually challenging in any language—and so to make the teachings accessible to a wider public, Rājānaka Kshemarāja composed this short work, about fifty pages in the original Sanskrit. It was a concise primer, written, he said, to introduce spiritual seekers to the Recognition philosophy in more approachable, less formally philosophical, language. What he created turned out to be one of the great spiritual masterpieces, breathtaking in its brevity but stunning in its power. It came to be considered equivalent to scripture itself by later generations, because of its undeniable inspiration. Since the text is anchored by twenty key sūtras (aphorisms), my translation of it is called The Recognition Sutras.
The text itself is extraordinary, but the fact that we’re able to read The Recognition Sūtras today—that it exists at all, in any language, let alone in English—is nothing short of a miracle.
The Story of a Miracle
The lush and verdant Kashmīr Valley was the original setting for the Recognition school, and one of the key heartlands of nondual Śaiva Tantra. The writings of Tantrik authors from Kashmīr are often collectively referred to as “Kashmir Shaivism,” but this is a modern term, and in fact there was nothing specifically Kashmiri about the Śaiva Tantrik tradition. However, certain schools of thought within nondual Śaiva Tantra, like the Recognition and Spanda schools, did originate in the Kashmīr Valley, where the rulers were faithful patrons of the tradition.
The valley was and is incredibly beautiful, with its towering mountains, hardwood forests, natural waterfalls, and modest homes built from native woods. (See the main image.*) Think Switzerland for its natural beauty and craftsmanship, but with a much richer and more diverse culture that derived from being a meeting point for travelers and merchants from India, Persia, China, Mongolia, Tibet, and Turkestan. In the time of Kshemarāja, Kashmīr was a Tantrik kingdom, which means the rulers were (usually) Tantrik initiates who generously patronized the tradition. At that time there were a number of Tantrik kingdoms in the Asian world, such as Bali, Champa (coastal Vietnam), Angkor Wat (Cambodia), and many more in India and what is now Pakistan. Until just a few years ago Nepāl was such a kingdom, and Bhutan is the last of the Tantrik kingdoms existing today.
As an initiate, the Kashmiri king funded festivals and temples, but also supported philosophical study and spiritual practice, even paying stipends to those philosophers and contemplatives who explored the inner landscape and wrote about their insights (some of these, like our author, were given the title rājānaka to indicate the king’s favor). Given today’s political world, we may find the idea of government funding for spiritual research and writing astonishing, but what is even more impressive, I think, is the manner in which this spiritual literature survived to the present day—though only just.
As with many beautiful places, Kashmīr has been under many rulers. In the three centuries after our author, the Muslims invaded again and again, regularly looting and destroying temples, holy places, and monasteries, believing that all non-Muslim religion was an offense to God. In this period, untold numbers of Śaiva Tantrik manuscripts were destroyed; but many were saved, held by devoted Kashmiri paṇḍit families and passed from father to son. Kashmīr was finally conquered in 1339, after which time ten different Muslim rulers persecuted Shaivism and other non-Muslim religions over a period of 400 years (late 14th to late 18th century).[i] Kashmīr fell into Sikh hands in 1819, and after a Sikh rebellion in British-ruled India of the mid-19th century, the region came into the hands of the British. For political reasons the Brits wanted a Hindu head-of-state—and so for a period that would last 100 years, Kashmīr once again had Hindu mahārājas who would support the study of Śaiva Tantra.
But there had been much destruction and much sacred knowledge had been lost; the new Hindu kings ruled a population that was 95% Muslim. When Sir Pratāp Singh Sāhib Bahādur assumed his throne in 1885, there were only about forty Śaiva brahmin families left in the region. Fortunately, these families held a substantial number of manuscripts of original Tantrik texts (scriptures, commentaries, and original works, including The Recognition Sūtras); but most of them did not well understand the content of these texts. As a Rajput Hindu, King Pratāp Singh was aware of the treasure trove of scriptures that had been preserved under Muslim rule through painstaking recopying for six centuries.