Kundalini Awakening as the Union of Shiva and Shakti
Of all the energies we might encounter through the practice of yoga, there is none more potent and transformative than Kundalini Shakti, the primordial power of Consciousness itself.
In a previous article, we explored the nature and various manifestations of this sacred force. Here, we will elaborate on an understanding of Kundalini as an agent of manifestation and reabsorption, a dynamic potency inseparable from Stillness.
The Magnet Model
We can understand the Kundalini phenomenon by comparing the body to a bipolar magnet (muladhara chakra — the pole of matter; sahasrara — the pole of spirit). Intense concentration and breath control lead to an “oversaturation,” which causes an inductive process in the inert pole (i.e., muladhara chakra).
That is, life energy begins to stream from that chakra without depleting itself. The energy released is much more intense and of an “opposite” kind than the energy impacting it.
Yet beyond an understanding of polarity based on energy, in the movement of Kundalini, we can recognize a dance of Shiva and Shakti, Consciousness and Energy.
When this primordial potential of consciousness is awakened, even this supreme polarity dissolves into Oneness.
Kundalini — The Cosmic Womb and the Potency of the Universal Seed
As the innate energy of the transcendent Supreme Reality, Shiva, Kundalini symbolizes the twofold activity of cosmic manifestation and reabsorption.
Kundalini Shakti represents the feminine principle of fertility and, thereby, is seen as the source of all manifestation. As the womb represents the void in which the seed germinates, so Kundalini is the Cosmic Womb of the Universal Seed. This Seed, upon its germination, is emitted as the Universe.
We may explain the relationship between Shiva as Consciousness and Kundalini as its innate energy by using the analogy of the seed. We can compare Shiva to a seed and Kundalini to its potential. When the seed breaks open, that potency comes to life as a new sprout.
It is likewise the case with the universal manifestation of Shiva as the Cosmos. The innate relationship between Shiva and Shakti, Consciousness and Energy, was traditionally anthropomorphized as the Divine Couple, Shiva and Parvati.
The fact that Shiva is manifested as every individual being of the Cosmos means that Kundalini becomes individualized in each being. She lies dormant as the serpent until Her arousal and ascension through the chakras dissolve the personal domain and reveal eternal Consciousness, Shiva.
In this aspect, Kundalini is revealed as the power of cosmic reabsorption into unmanifest Oneness.
Shiva represents the principle of the radiating light of Consciousness (prakasha), yet consciousness without the power of reflection (vimarsha) is as inert as stone. According to Tantra, Shiva is a corpse without Shakti — it is Kundalini Shakti that imparts life to Shiva, and, thereby, She constitutes the life of Shiva. Even in manifestation, the Divine Couple does not remain apart, as one without the other cannot exist.
In iconography, this unity is visualized in depictions of Shiva as half male and half female (Ardhanarishvara), thus expressing the symbiotic union of Shiva and Shakti.
At the philosophical level, the unity of the two is explained by the concept of bhairava. In Sanskrit, bha means “maintenance of the manifest,” ra means “the dissolution of the manifest,” and va denotes “the emission of the manifest.” Bhairava is characterized by the union of the light of Consciousness and its reflection — Shiva and Shakti, Bhairava and Bhairavi. The masculine aspect denotes the transcendence of the Supreme, whereas the feminine aspect denotes its immanence.
Shiva, the essence of all that exists, is also the Lord of Dance (nataraja).
Many Indian sculptures show Nataraja dancing on a lotus pedestal while the demon of forgetfulness lies prostrate at his feet, gazing up at him. Shiva brandishes the fire of reabsorption with one of his many hands — a fire that consumes the limitations of individuality. This free and spontaneous mystical dance takes place in the human heart, which it fills with bliss.
Surrounded by a circle of flames (a symbol of His all-pervading glory), the Lord of Dance, spinning around, carries the entire Universe along in his whirl. The immobility of the vertical axis around which he performs the movement stands in contrast to the intensity of the divine dancer’s gestures. We can recognize the awakened and fully aroused Kundalini in the still and horizontal Serpent King that, in some sculptures, Shiva holds above his head.
Abhinavagupta, the great master of Kashmir Shaivism, states: “Shiva, conscious, free, and of transparent essence, is always vibrating, and this supreme energy reaches to the tip of the sense organs; then He is nothing but bliss, and like him, the entire Universe vibrates. In truth, I do not see where transmigration, a mere echo, could find a place.”
So, Kundalini Shakti is nothing but Shiva’s vibration, the vibrant wave of emanation. At the same time (because the two movements happen simultaneously, in the eternal Now), it is the more and more subtle vibration of reabsorption in Pure Existence, a supreme-frequency vibration (para spanda).
We note that these affirmations about Shiva do not refer to an external deity but the very essence of our being, the Heart. Therefore, these words and metaphors remind us of the eternal reality of our Being and the revelatory power of Kundalini Shakti, which is our most intimate and subtle aspiration to Truth, beyond all thoughts.
Kha — The Supreme Void of the Heart
The Paratrimsika of Abhinavagupta defines the Heart as the Essence of the Self, of Bhairava, and of the supreme Shakti, who is identical with Him. In the center of the Heart is a void free from duality, called vyoman or kha, and it is identical to the initial vibration, spanda. According to Abhinavagupta, this eternal, peerless Heart is the still and vibrant center of Consciousness, a universal receptacle wherein all the universes are born and withdrawn.
Abhinavagupta continues: “From kha (the supreme void) surges forth the non-dual state of bliss where one attains the pure vibration (spanda), and to attain the spanda is to attain efficiency.”
Similarly, the still and ever-pure mystical Heart, whose pulsation (spanda) energizes all that is living, is also the resting place of Light and of still-undifferentiated Self-awareness. All aspects of creation are, in fact, nothing but rhythms of the divine energy and its all-pervading vibration.
Because of this, Kashmir Shaivism does not oppose matter and spirit, body and soul, microcosm and macrocosm, but recognizes one original rhythm propagating freely from level to level.
Reintegrating the Divided Levels of Existence
In Her dormant condition, Kundalini deludes us by concealing Her essence of universal Self. However, when we turn inward, these same energies allow us to unveil the noble realm of Oneness. Thus, through the stirring of Her powerful energy, we begin to dwell at the junction of the twofold movement of emanation and reabsorption and are returned to primordial Oneness, the supreme tremor of the universal Heart.
In churning the energy on every level, starting from the lowest, Shiva absorbs the divided energy, turning it inward by a series of withdrawals to the initial vibration of the peaceful Center. When all the rhythms have merged into the great rhythm (para spanda) of Consciousness united with Energy, we realize the identity of Shiva and Shakti.
The awakening and ascension of Kundalini is, therefore, a successive process of reintegration of the various levels, withdrawing into one another like Russian matryoshka dolls, one fitting into the other. At every stage of the withdrawal, everything is reduced to its essence, a neutral point (bindu), as Kundalini rises from chakra to chakra through sushumna nadi.
Returning to the Primordial Rhythm of Life
“The Heart within which everything shines gloriously and which is shining everywhere, is the one flashing light, the supreme Heart. … O awakened ones, adore this Heart, the universal emission, spanda, vibrating within the heart of the sushumna in the great bliss of union.” –Paratrimsika
Kundalini attunes all the discordant rhythms of the limited individual, thereby revealing the primordial rhythm of spanda. Thus, the human being is freed and attains the undifferentiated power that confers to each of those rhythms its respective efficiency — for efficiency, whatever its specification, is none other than virya, a balance between two opposite poles or movements.
Hence (as we have mentioned), according to the tradition of Kashmir Shaivism, the practice of Kundalini consists in discovering the junction point (the still Center) between two poles and becoming firmly established there, at the very heart of the pulsation.
When breathing, the perfect equilibrium between the ingoing and outgoing breaths is obtained through the “equinox” practice. This practice suggests the same awareness of madhyama prana, the neutral point between inhalation (symbolically associated with the winter solstice and the Heart) and exhalation (symbolically associated with the summer solstice and sahasrara).
Virya, virility, draws its potency from the pure vibration, spanda, of centeredness. The heroic being (vira) is settled in Pure Awareness at the junction between pure and impure, or between the excitation and relaxation of the sexual rhythm, for example.
Duality Dissolves in the Heart
Thus, behind all the rhythms of life is the same vibration permeating the body and the Universe, the same power — Kundalini — reverberating on every level, from the highest mystical power experienced in the form of spanda to common virility.
The experience of Kundalini is a turning inward and an attunement of all the energies to recapture that primordial rhythm. The passage from duality to unity is realized through the pure, all-dissolving fire of spiritual effervescence.
At every stage, the balance of the two opposite polar movements of the rhythm harmonizes the corresponding energy, which becomes unified and vibrant. The churned energy, Kundalini, begins to tremble and rises to the place of its initial stirring, the peaceful still Center, the Heart.