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Tantric Tattvas


“The God, whose nature is a free consciousness, whose characteristic is the supreme light, due to his own intrinsic nature and as a result of his enjoyment of the sport of concealing his own nature, becomes the atomic, finite self, of which there are many. He himself, as a result of his own freedom, binds himself here by means of actions whose nature are composed of imaginary differentiations. Such is the power of the God’s freedom that, even though he has become the finite self, he once more truly attains his own true form in all its purity.”

Tattva table

Have a look at this table used by Lokanath in his main page on the 36 Tattvas – The 36 Tattvas
Here’s what he says on the page for Sri Javalamukhi Devi :

“These tattvas are the cause of much confusion and are often viewed as if they were an emanationary system. This seems quite incorrect. The first two tattvas are Shiva and Shakti. These two are inseparable. Surrounding them are the three Shaktis of the supreme called Iccha, Jnana and Kriya. It is these three who give rise to all triangles, that is to say to all creation. It is this multitude of Shaktis which collectively is Maya. Maya is limitation through delusion. This delusion is caused by the number of possibilities. Maya Tattva is said to wear five kanchukas or bodices. Two of these are parallels of Shiva and Shakti — limitation in respect of space and time. These two primordial restrictions give rise to three others, which themselves are reflections of Iccha, Jnana and Kriya. The first is limited desire, the second limited knowledge and the third limited activity.

An individual deluded by Maya consists of Shiva and Shakti under the terms purusha and prakriti. Purusha is the embodied Shiva, prakriti the embodied Shakti. Being deluded by Maya, the three primordial Shaktis of Iccha, Jnana and Kriya take the form of ego (ahankar), intelligence (buddhi) and memory or Association (manas). Incarnated in the five elements of space, fire, air, earth and water, the embodied being has five powers to sense, five powers to act, and five Impressions. These together make the 36 tattvas. It is the delusion of Maya which prevents an individual from realising her or his oneness with Shiva-Shakti and the three primordial Shaktis of Iccha, Jnana and Kriya.”

See also The Philosophy of Tripura Tantra

In order to try and shed some light on the 36 Tattvas, I’m going to offer some brief notes on each of the five pentads.

The five verities

The Pure Creation

At the “top level” as it were – the source of everything, is the limitless, utterly transcendent Paramsiva who is beyond all human comprehension and basically, unknowable.
Then there’s Siva as he is understood to manifest himself – the Instrumental Cause of all creation and the one who sets in motion the five fundamental activities which give rise to the world – Emission, Protection, Reabsorbtion, Concealment, and Grace. This form of Siva is held to have a “body” composed of mantras, which can be visualised, worshipped, and meditated upon.


Shiva-Tattva is sometimes conceived as the first “outward” movement of Paramsiva. It is sometimes described as the “static” aspect of universal consciousness – the “support” and root of all things and potentialities in the world.


Shakti-Tattva is the “activity” of Shiva – from Her the rest of the Tattvas arise. There is no real seperation between Shiva & Shakti. Shakti (at this level) is said to be “full of bliss” – sometimes called AnandaShakti.

Will, Knowledge, Action

Related to Shiva-Shakti are the so-called “three corners” – Icchashakti (primal power of Will – also referred to as Sadashiva or Sadakhya), Jnanashakti (primal power of knowledge” – also referred to as Ishvara) and Kriyashakti (primal power of action – also referred to as Sadvidya)

The Limitations of Maya

The ‘Impure’ Creation

The next pentad – which Lokanath groups under the umbrella term of the “limitations of Maya” govern the manifestation of limited consciousness. It is the power of Mayashakti, working through five aspects, acting to “veil” the essential nature of Shiva-Shakti. These are:

Kalaa (action)

Kalaa is the first Kancuka – the Limitation of Action, i.e. the “contraction” of Kriyashakti. Kalaa is the root of notions of limitation (“I can’t do that”) and is the root of Karma.

Vidya (knowledge)

Vidya is the second Kancuka – the Limitation of Knowledge – the contraction of Jnanashakti and the root of erroneous notions of knowing (“I don’t know that”)

Raga (desire)

Raga is the third Kancuka – the contraction of Icchashakti and the Limitation of Will. It is the root of Desire, in the sense of “I need this” or “I lack this” and thus the source of all attachments.

Kaala (time)

Kaala is the fourth Kancuka – the contraction of Anandashakti (“Supreme bliss”) and infuses the erroneous notion of Time.

Niyati (Fate)

Niyati is the fifth Kancuka – the contraction of Cicchakti (the Power of Consciousness) and gives rise to the notion of Space (as in “I am here and that is over there”)

NB: Sometimes Mayashakti is regarded as a 6th Kancuka.

In brief, it is Kalaa that is the root of our feelings of being helpless, having limited power & abilities. Vidya gives rise to the experience of limited knowledge & understanding, Raga gives rise to the sense of being weak-willed, at the mercy of attachments & desires; Kaala veils the supreme infinite moment and gives rise to the experience of sequential time; and Niyati veils the supreme all-pervasiveness of consciousness and gives rise to the sense of seperation from all other “things” in the universe.

The Empirical Individual

This next pentad is reminiscient of the Tattvas according to Samkhya comprising of Purusha, Prakriti, Ahamkara, Buddhi & Manas.


Here, Purusha is the individual Siva-spark residing in all beings. It is Siva who has “cloaked himself” with Maya and her Kancukas (whilst at the same time, remaining utterly free and transcendent).


Prakriti is the condition in which the three powers are contracted again, so that Jnanashakti becomes the guna Sattva, Icchashakti the guna Rajas, and Kriyashakti, the guna Tamas.

Siva-as-Purusha “beholds” his Shakti and she now appears to be composed of the three Gunas.


Buddhi is the first evolute of Prakriti – the Intellect. The guna Sattva (the power of knowledge) is predominant. Buddhi is the faculty by which we decide upon a particular course of action. It is the source of discrimination, that gives us the ability to categorise things as one thing or another (i.e. “that is a tree”, “that is a mars bar.”)


Ahamkara’s main quality is that of “self-appropriation” and the guna Rajas (the power of will) is predominant. It is the Ahamkara which gives rise to the “I-identification” with a particular action or concept – “I don’t like mondays”; “I’m taking the rubbish out.”


Manas is sometimes called the “net of thoughts” – it is both the source and the “governor” of the Sense-powers and Action-powers. Manas is predominantly Tamasic ( the power of action). It co-operates with the sense-powers to build up distinct perceptions, and it also builds images and concepts.

As in the Samkhya scheme, Ahamkarana, Buddhi & Manas are collectively referred to as the Antahkarana or “inner organ”.

The Ten Instruments, Five Impressions, Five Elements

The Instruments of Sensing, the Instruments of Action, the Five Impressions and the Five Elements are given the same correspondence as in the Samkhyan scheme:

Sense-Power Action-Power Tanmatras Bhuta
Hearing Speaking Sound Space
Touching Grasping Touch Air
Seeing Walking Form Fire
Tasting Excreting Taste Water
Smelling Generation Smell Earth

The Instruments of Sensing

Otherwise known as the Jnanendriyas, these are the five “powers” of perception (predominantly Sattvic in essence). They are not the sense-organs in the material sense, but the Shaktis that enable those particularised perceptions to occurr.

The Instruments of Action

Otherwise known as the Karmendriyas (predominantly Rasajic in essence) they are the “powers” that enable the modes of action to function. It can be tricky to differentiate between the “power” and the “organ” that carries out that power. Let me give an example. “Grasping” is normally associated with the hands. However, if you’re dexterous, you can also “grasp” with your toes and there’s also the mental concept of “grasping” an idea. So the Action-Power of “grasping” can be understood as the shakti primarily concerning with “grasping” things in the world, however that action is effected.

The Five Impressions

These are the Tanmatras (predominantly Tamasic). We can think of them as basic patterns or impressions which enable us to make sensory distinctions. So the Hearing-impression allows us to recognise Sounds as particular sounds, if that makes sense.

The Five Elements

Also known as the Mahabhutas they are predominantly Tamasic in essence. Again, the five elements do not correspond to the material elements. Earth (privithi) consitutes everything that is solid. Water (apas) constitutes the essence of liquidity. Fire (tejas) is the essence of heat; Air (vayu) is the essence of all that is gaseous; and Space (akasha) is the matrix in which the entire physical world exists.

The “Instruments of Sensing” and the “Instruments of Action” both arise from the activity of Manas – “born” of the Antahkarana’s desire to perceive and act upon the world. By the same token, the Antahkarana “manifests” the Tanmatras and the Mahabhutas in order to have objects to experience and enjoy.