The three malas (impurities) constitute our experience of bondage. From the non-dual standpoint, they are not truly stains or an actual substance (as the dualists believe), but simply ignorance, or rather limited perception, which Consciousness has to take in order to become a finite individual, and which it can choose to relinquish at any time. The first and most basic of these is the anava-mala or the “Impurity of Individuality;” the second is mayiya-mala or the “impurity of differentiation;” and the third is karma-mala or the “impurity of action.”

The Impurity of Individuality

The Impurity of Individuality is fundamental because the other two impurities could not exist without it and also because it constitutes the very basis of the limitation that makes us finite beings. This is the fundamental form of ignorance. It consists of a deep, unconscious belief that you are incomplete and imperfect, a tiny insignificant creature, certainly not the Divine. It is the belief that you are limited and powerless, unworthy and meaningless. Even more basically, it is the belief that something is missing or else deeply wrong with you, a belief that prevents you from knowing and revering yourself as the divine. It is likely more accurate to call it pre-conscious for it informs all of our thoughts and perceptions; it is a way of seeing reality held at the deepest level of our individual being. Anava-mala is the primary cause of our suffering, the ignorance from which all other errors of perception stem. Believing that we are incomplete and imperfect and separated from God, which is the most untrue thing we could believe, is the source of our suffering; it does not allow us to experience reality, that is, to access the universal Consciousness that is always flowing in us and in all things and whose nature is freedom and bliss.

We must take care not to misunderstand the word “belief” here. This is not a matter of correcting an intellectual misapprehension or adhering to a correct doctrine. For anava-mala is not a mental construct programmed into us by society. It is the limited sense of individuality that makes possible the whole process of the formation of dualistic thought-forms. Thus, it cannot be countered by merely trying to believe the opposite. You must have the actual experience of purnata – of fullness and completeness in divine perfection – deep within your own being, and you must have it so frequently or powerfully that is displaces anava-mala and becomes your basic reference point for who you are.

The very condition of contracted individuality contains within it the seed of the possibility for expanding back into our natural state of absolute fullness.  Everyone has anava-mala, so as soon as they are self-aware, everyone has the feeling that “something is missing” or “there’s more to life, more to me than this!” The mala-driven perception points to a real truth: that you do not accurately perceive the whole of your real nature. For most of us, the spiritual path begins when we perceive that something is missing, and we realize that it is not romance or money or power or fame that will be able to fill the void within. We become seekers on the path when we feel this acutely and realize that it will only be addressed by a fundamental shift in our very experience of reality. When we begin to feel that there is a reality beyond what we have known or even suspected, beyond what we have been taught to believe – something vast and all-encompassing and deeply real – then we open ourselves to that greater reality. In other words, the process of contraction comes to an end when we no longer believe that our limited experience of reality is all there is to know. At that moment, we begin turning towards expansion, initiating a new arc in the movement of our soul, an arc that will necessarily terminate in the all-encompassing fullness of being that alone can satiate the hunger of Consciousness.

Tradition teaches us that ignorance is the sole cause of bondage: it is taught under the name “impurity” in scripture. When the power of all-encompassing insight arises, it is completely uprooted. With the arising of the full consciousness of the Self, by which all impurity is destroyed, there is liberation.

Abhinavagupta (Essence of the Tantras)

Though it is absolutely true that your belief that there is something wrong with you as you are – or that you are missing something to be complete – is the deepest form of ignorance, it is nonetheless real. Since the ignorance is not intellectual, but rather is the very organizing principle of your limited individuality, only a powerful revelation can begin to dislodge it. This Initiatory Experience is called Saktipata, or the Descent of Power. It is your initial awakening to your real nature. Without it, anava-mala holds sway over your experience of life, and without it, the practices of yoga cannot bear fruit.

Saktipata: The Descent of Power

The Tantras clarify that the Descent of Power is not a literal descent of energy from heaven or some higher place; rather it is an awakening of the divine Power (Sakti) within you that will lead to your ultimate liberation. It is, in fact, more like an ascent than a descent, but the saktipata is used both because it is inherited from an earlier Saiva tradition and because the word “pata” (descent) had the connotation of a sudden, forceful fall, a startling experience that comes out of the blue. Saktipata is unprecedented, a primordial opening to a deeper level of being. Furthermore, the language of descent (or ascent) connotes that the awakening in question truly is a vertical movement, because it takes us out of the endlessly fruitful horizontal circling of our “normal” life, opening us to greater reality.

There comes a moment in the existence of an embodied soul when it is done with the phase of contraction, and begins to turn inward towards its own expansion. This turning may take place deep inside your being and you may not even be aware of it at first, but things that used to seem exciting (wealth, friends, getting high, sexual conquests) no longer seem to “do it for you.” This world-weariness is a necessary step in opening to a deeper reality. The longer the gap of time between the subtle turn inward, towards expansion and the occurrence of Saktipata, the more intensely felt the awakening is. So, some people receive a very intense Saktipata, consisting of a mystical experience of their oneness with all reality, or of their true nature as unborn, uncreated, eternal essence, or of all reality bathed in a Unitary light of compassionate love, or of energy shooting up their spine and exploding, or of waves of bliss surging in their body and so on. Others receive a Saktipata so subtle that it is almost imperceptible. The difference between the two is that one person waited longer for their Saktipata, and thus their longing (conscious or unconscious) became even more intense and thereby, when the conditions were right, triggered a more intense awakening. (It’s just like firewood – the longer it dries out, the more quickly and completely it catches fire when a flame comes near). The awakening is the same in both cases, insofar as it sets the person irrevocably on the path to total integration with divine reality. The person with the imperceptible Saktipata also has her life transformed, but because she didn’t wait for it as long, her belief that worldly enjoyments might fulfill her is stronger, and thus she draws a less intense Saktipata on her. (Note that this doctrine corrects the false view that those with more intense Saktipatas are more spiritual or special or worthy). The important thing is that, in both cases, an awakening has occurred.

If you’ve had an imperceptible Sakitpata, you might wonder whether it has happened at all. The most significant thing about it, again, is not the experience but its effect on your life. There are certain “signs” of awakening. One of the most important is subtle but significant: when you close your eyes, take some slow, deep breaths and turn your attention inwards, there is immediately a sense of Presence, a sweetness with just being with your inner self. Those who have not received Saktipata have little patience for turning within; they don’t see the point, for they don’t sense the Divine there. Furthermore, those who have received the Descent of Power manifest substantial changes in their lives, including some of the following:

  • Finding worldly forms of fun less satisfying
  • Fascination with spiritual teachings, even if you don’t understand them
  • Being drawn to eat healthier foods or otherwise honor your body
  • Feeling respect or reverence towards spiritual teachers or others who have dedicated themselves to the path
  • Spontaneously arising  tears of gratitude
  • The unleashing of your creative capacity
  • Effectiveness of mantras
  • Significant benefits from yoga and meditation
  • Increased vulnerability and sensitivity
  • Finding it harder to relate to friends with no spiritual sensitivity
  • When you read the words of a great spiritual master, they resonate on a deep level of your being, and you “get” them, even if you can’t explain them.

The experience of Saktipata gives a taste of what the final state is like. It is a temporary immersion – whether for a few moments or a few days – into our true nature. From this perspective, we can see things as they really are: one infinite light of Consciousness vibrating at different wavelengths in a joyous interconnected dance. Often it takes the form of experiencing oneself as profoundly connected to the Divine in some way. People who receive a strong Saktipata often make the mistake of believing that they are now enlightened. This mistake can be very hard on the person’s loved ones, and if s/he clings to it, it can even occasionally bring about a psychotic break that takes some time to heal. It is important to see the value of what you have received, while retaining the humility of realizing that the gift of grace is simply to show that the fully expanded state is real and worth striving for, it is not the final attainment.

The Unfolding of One’s awakening

In fact, you need to be shown that the goal is worth striving for precisely because of how challenging the path can be. In order to complete the process of expanding back into the fullness of your divine nature, you will have to let go of everything that you think you are. You will have to let go of every image and idea you have of yourself, the “positive” ones as well as the “negative” ones. Why is this so? Because the state of all-encompassing fullness and wholeness (purnata) that is the goal of the path – your already existent ultimate nature – is by definition one in which you experience that pattern of the whole reality that exists within you, and that your identity is not defined by one part more than any other. In other words, to experience identity with the all-encompassing divine Absolute, you must necessarily relinquish identification with some limited aspect of it – that aspect you habitually call “me.” It is your clinging to your limited identity that is precisely what prevents you from experiencing the Whole within yourself.

When I say we have to let go of “positive” self-images as well as negative ones, I do not mean to imply that you discard your positive virtues; rather, that you let go of the story about yourself that is based on those virtues. This is necessary because the self-image that you are a “good” person carries with it a raft of “shoulds” that ironically prevent you from expressing your innate nature in a way that is organically responsive to the actuality of the present situation. Your real virtue is not based on a story about yourself; it is a natural expression of your essence-nature.

Nor does this process of letting go of everything you think yourself to be, entail abandoning your roles and responsibilities in life. For what is at issue is not whether you are a wife/husband, a mother/father, a doctor, janitor or so on, but whether you identify yourself as that alone – and thus define and limit and circumscribe your experience of reality through those identifications. In other words, you don’t need to run away from all those responsibilities to attain liberation, because liberation in the tantric sense means going from the experience of being trapped in your life situation to the experience of continuously perceiving that you are the infinite creative Light of divine Presence, joyously playing the role of wife/husband, mother/father and doing so in service of all beings. The metaphor of an actor in his or her role is perfect here: does an actor feel miserable playing a role on stage, even the part of a tragic figure? No, because he knows that he will relinquish the role, that he is not bound to it, and that he will return to what he has never forgotten: his real identity. Imagine what your life would look like if you were experiencing joy in all of your roles, if you retained a wordless awareness of your fundamental, expansive all-encompassing, complete, and perfect nature even as you went about performing the most mundane of tasks.

So, the whole process of sadhan, walking the spiritual path, is the process of removing anava-mala, the Impurity of Individuality, of limited identity and lack of wholeness. Its final removal is the state of liberation. Though it is the primary “stain” or obscuration of the transparent light of our being, preventing our clear vision, it is also the beneficial nagging sense of missing something important that prompts us to seek and find the Truth. So, as always in tantra, nothing is downright bad: everything, even the anava-mala, serves a divine purpose.

The Impurity of Differentiation

The Impurity of Differentiation is that form of ignorance that causes us to perceive dualistically, that is, to see differences, but not the underlying unity.  It is the mayiya-mala that causes us to feel separate from all other beings, and from that which we perceive. The fundamental form of the mayiya-mala is subject-object differentiation. This means that you perceive the objects of your awareness as something separate and different from yourself. This wrong view leads either to a sense of the world as a persecuting threat or as a source of things to acquire. This is ignorance, for anything that exists within your consciousness is necessarily an aspect of yourself. True seeing is seeing all beings within yourself and yourself within all beings. Only when we are focused on the most superficial layer of reality does difference seem to the most fundamental reality.

Imagine a massive continent with many mountains mostly submerged under an ocean, but with many of the mountain peaks poking above the surface of the water. A person who has never gone below surface would see those mountains as separate and unconnected islands, but someone who made the effort to explore the inner depths of the ocean would realize that there was only one landmass, extruding at various points in the air. In the same way, all manifest, conscious beings are extrusions into the tangible world of the singular, continuous Being that alone exists. In truth, that one Being has become the ocean of the tangible, perceptible world as well. The analogy that is often used in the original tradition is that all perceptibles constitude the single body of that one Being, and that all perceivers constitute its one soul.

A person who is not aware of this truth will see an object of her perception as something separate from her. But in reality, anything you perceive is nothing other than a vibration of conscious energy within your awareness. The consequences of not realizing this are tremendous. When you perceive other beings as different and separate from you, you do not bother to understand things from their point of view, failing to realize that to do so would also give you insight into yourself. (Every interaction you have with another person is a mirror.  Anytime you have a reaction, an emotion, or a feeling during that interaction, the mirror is reflecting something inside of YOU.) In an us-versus-them view of things, you might even consider the other an enemy and feel justified in killing him if he opposes your interests. By contrast, when you are in the process of overcoming mayiya-mala, you realize that another human being, even one whose actions you condemn, is no different from you, only with different pressures, programs, and life circumstances. You might have done the same thing in his shoes. Seeing this truth, condemnation gives way to compassion. When you begin to see through mayiya-mala, you see all beings as holding up a mirror to yourself. The initial awakening of your innate divinity –Saktipata– makes it far easier to break through the false us-versus-other dichotomy engendered in mayiya-mala.

If you are having a hard time seeing the other as yourself in another form, that simply means you must expand your sense of self, and take hold of the realization that the capacity to do both wonderful and terrible things exists within you and the other person to exactly the same degree. Overcoming mayiya-mala does not mean believing that all people are the same or that all are equally good. It means seeing the reality that all entities are different forms of the same thing, each subject to unique conditions. You can stay grounded in the Real by grasping that there is only one substance to reality and that it can manifest in an infinite variety of different forms. Of course, though all beings are God, some are highly contracted forms of God, expressing the divine power of self-concealment by perpetuating ignorance and suffering. Seeing all beings as equally Divine does not mean equally approving the actions and viewpoints of all beings. It is vital that this particular point be understood with crystal clear clarity.

Ultimately, releasing the ignorance of mayiya-mala means seeing that differentiation is not and never was a problem. For tantrikas, seeing difference in the context of greater unity does not mean devaluing difference but rather celebrating it as the very source of beauty itself. The power of maya is finally experienced as the power by which divine consciousness loves itself in the particular manifest form of you.

The Impurity of Action

The Impurity of Action, or karma-mala, refers to the bondage of karma. As long as the first two malas are active, you will see yourself as a limited, separate being who must strive to give yourself every advantage at any cost. This viewpoint naturally gives rise to volitional actions with repercussions that will further enmesh the actor in bondage. The cycle of action that is motivated by ignorance and corresponding reaction is called karma. Only those actions performed out of ignorance and grasping create karmic repercussions.

The primary forms of that ignorance are attachment and aversion. Attachment is the conviction that we need something outside of ourselves (success, a partner the right job, approval, etc.) to be fulfilled. Aversion is the same vibration, only inverted: the conviction that we cannot be fulfilled until certain things are eliminated or avoided. When we are driven by attachment and aversion, the more extreme our actions become. The more extreme the beliefs motivating our actions, the greater the karmic repercussions. Only actions that arise spontaneously as an expression of our essence-nature, without personal motive of gain or loss, have no binding karmic repercussions.

Karma can seem a very heavy doctrine: since we have committed so many karmic actions in the past and continue to do so in the present, how can we possibly overcome the burden of their consequences? The masters of Saiva Tantra saw that worry about enormous burden of past life karmas was a real barrier in people’s spiritual practice. So, they devised an initiation ceremony (called diksa) that was said to purify people of all their past-life karma destined to bear fruit in future lives, leaving only karma of this life intact. Whatever the reality of this metaphysical claim might be, the psychological effect of this ceremony is undeniable: it makes people feel that liberation within this very life is within reach – and, because Consciousness creates reality, it became so. The simple fact that if you had to heal and process every karmic trace within your being in order to reach the goal, liberation would be impossibly distant. Therefore, there is only one viable solution in the tantric view: stop being the person to whom those karmas apply. Once you fully relinquish the identity of the one who generated the karmas and to whom they tenaciously stick, you are free. Such a solution is not a shortcut on the path, because from the spiritual point of view, you only need to go through as many karmas as you personally need to go through in order to reach the point of fully dedicating yourself to the process of dissolving your limited self back into God. That is to say, this is not a system in which you need to be punished for every “bad” thing you’ve ever done; for if your truly stop being the person who performed those sorts of actions, the karmas no longer apply to you.

The best way to overcome karma-mala is to address the root from which it arises: become thoroughly convinced that there is nothing outside of yourself that need be added to make you complete, nor is there anything that need be subtracted to make you pure. This state of profound love and respect for your own being will, if achieved even in part, make it easier for you to perform actions without any selfish grasping motive and thus be free of karma. It should be noted that an action can make you feel good and still be done without selfish motive; the question is whether it spontaneously wells up from your Heart as a natural expression of your authentic nature. It is the root, not the fruit, of the action that makes it selfish or not. If you are able to determine and de-stabilize mayiya-mala, the belief of yourself as separate from other beings and objects, then karma-mala will naturally start to fall away as well. Only if you see others as separate from you could you consider your own needs without considering theirs. So, the long and the short of the tantric view on this is this: Don’t worry about karma. Focus on the more fundamental malas and karma will take care of itself.

Finally, everything comes back to anava-mala. Only if you are experiencing yourself as cut off from the Divine – unworthy, incomplete, and imperfect – can the other two malas even operate. If a being manages, through much effort, to remove mayiya-mala and karma-mala without removing anava-mala, then he is called Vijnanakala, one who is nearly liberated, but remains stuck on the threshold of true liberation, unable to surrender his limited identity. Vijnanakala literally means “one who is free of the limitation of the two malas by means of his own insight,” but who, denying the grace of an even greater divine power than his individual soul, remains bound by the final impurity. Such a one transcends maya but remains forever, as it were, at the gates of heaven, barred from the entry permitted those who cast aside identification with their limited self; who realize that only one Being has ever existed; and who know their embodied form was merely a temporary part He played, a dance She danced.

When you see yourself clearly, there comes a flash of recognition: you are a microcosmic expression of precisely the same divine powers that create, maintain, and dissolve this whole universe. When you experientially realize that the same beautiful and awesome powers that orchestrate the intricate and wondrous display of this entire creation are flowing within you, creating you even as you create with them, providing the very foundation of your whole experience of reality, there is a profound shift. Your fear and pettiness drop away as you harmoniously fall into the dance of life energy, realizing that you have been the only one who has ever limited your potential. An explosion of joy accompanies the realization that there is nothing to do, nothing to achieve, other than to fully embrace the divine powers that seek to manifest through you by expressing the entirety of your authentic being in the fullness of each moment, in an endless flow of such moments.

SOURCE: Wallis, Christopher. Tantra Illuminated: The Philosophy, History, and Practice of a Timeless Tradition