The Three Malas

The following quote is from the Tantrasara, “Essence of the Tantras”, by Abhinava Gupta written 1,000 years ago in Srinagar, Kahsmir:

 “Consider the following: if living beings suppose themselves to be in a state or condition of bondage, such a supposition on their parts arises entirely as a result of the force of a fundamental thought or state of mind on their parts. Moreover, that very supposition [that they are bound] is itself the cause of their continued condition of transmigratory bondage. However, if an opposite mental state or thought arises, it can expel that thought or mental state which is the very cause of continued transmigration and it can thus be the cause of arising spiritual goodness.“And such a thought or mental state is as follows: That which transcends the entirety of all the principles of reality whose nature is limited and bounded, from the earth principle up to the Shiva principle, that is the Supreme Reality composed only of the unbounded and unlimited consciousness. That is the place where all things are established in their respective differences; that is the vital energy of all; by means of that everything breathes, and that alone am I.”

(Tantrasara of Abhinava Gupta, Ahnika 4, KSTS # 21; Translation © Paul Muller-Ortega; Published in Theory and Practice of Yoga, Knut A. Jacobsen (Ed.), p. 199, 2005)


Joshua Tree Retreat Center sunrise

Suppose (verb) To assume or believe or take to be true; To posit as true for what follows. From the Latin supponere; sub + ponere; to “put-under”. Supposition (n.) a belief that underlies or is the foundation for what follows.

Returning now to exploring my previous post’s question for contemplation: “What is that supposition, the deepest unspoken limiting root-belief that binds the infinite imperishable Self into the limited individual and seemingly separate human self?”

 In the teachings and philosophy of classical Yoga (~ 500 CE) and in the later tantra-yoga of Kashmir Shaivism (~ 1000 CE), both traditions agree on one central and overarching principle: In both of them, the highest and the only true self-identity of every being is Consciousness itself. In classical yoga this is called purusha. In the later non-dual writings it is called atma. I often refer to it simply as the “Self”( with capital S).

This principle is stated with perfect simplicity in the first Shiva Sutra (I.1):

< caitanyam ātma > “ Consciousness is the Self.”

The field of Consciousness is both the universal Self of all existence, and at the same time, our personal individual field of living awareness. This is declared as our true and final identity, the Self. It is that which “I Am”.

All of reality and all of experience arises and is manifest as vibration-forms within the field of Consciousness. For me, this is the most startling, expansive and liberating recognition of all. It turns any limited view of the world upside down (not to mention of modern physics) and grounds reality in its own transcendent Source.

At a universal level, Consciousness is seen as the ultimate reality principle. That of which there is nothing higher (anuttara). It is the underlying ground of all being. And so it is at the individual level: It is within the light of our awareness that all experiences arise and take place. Thus it is called “The Light of Consciousness.” Not the content of our conscious experiences, but the ever-present light of awareness by which that content is seen and known. There can be no experience that does not take place in consciousness. Without that nothing could be known. So it is indeed the “light” of our awareness.

[Note: While the terms “consciousness” and “awareness” are essentially synonymous, I try to use “Consciousness” when referring to the universal aspects, and “awareness” when speaking of the personal. Even though, from the highest perspective, these are one.]

Now, the individual and personal field of awareness, whether called purusha, atma or the Self, was always and is forever perfect and full. It has no limitations. It is completely free and ecstatically whole. It does not need to be “enlightened”. It just needs to be realized and reclaimed as our own core identity.

So how then does our embodiment into a human circumstance of apparent limitation take place? Where has separation, error and limitation of our knowledge come into play? And the resulting suffering in life that results from such limited access to our own highest nature? And why is that condition of limited knowledge and circumstance so persistently arising in relative human life?

Limited knowledge is the cause, the tradition declares. The second Śhiva Sutra declares “jñanam bandaḥ”, “Limited knowledge is bondage.”

It is an erroneous dual supposition or belief, says the svatantra-yoga teachings:    First is the mistaken belief that what is not our true self is taken to be our true self. This is referring to the physical body, to the limited mind, to our thought-forms, ideas and identifications with what is limited and temporary (such as our professions, possessions, group identities etc.)  Then the second mistaken belief is the corresponding false supposition by which we fail to know what is our true Self: Our transcendent imperishable Conscious Self; That which we can come to know by direct personal experience through deep introversive meditation. This is the Light of Consciousness: the Self.

There are three primary mechanisms of contraction or limitation of knowledge. They are called the three “malas”. These are the means by which the unlimited Self is “bound” into the play of circumstances with the character of ordinary human life and suffering. Mala in Sanskrit is often translated as “stain”. But I find it can best be understood as forms of erroneous beliefs and thoughts. The three are the anava-mala, the mayiya-mala and the karma-mala. These are the dimensions of the “ignorance” or limited knowledge of our true nature. They exist only in our body and mind. And they veil or conceal the fullness and perfection of what we already are as purusha, the Self.

The anava-mala is the root of all of it. Anava means “small”, atomic or infinitesimal. It is the result of our transcendent Self becoming embodied as a limited human being. It feels very, very small. It feels like a big mistake. We arrive in this life and feel somehow incomplete and imperfect because we are not in touch with our fullness and universal nature. It is the primordial inferiority complex. And everyone has it. It is intrinsic to being a limited human being living a mortal human life. And, as one of my teachers put it, “It is the most untrue thing that we ever could possibly believe.”

The progressive untangling and release of the anava-mala through a life process of study, yogic practices, and refinement of our knowledge until the “erroneous supposition” is clearly viewed and released from our self-identity, is rightfully called “Self-realization”. That is the path of liberation. And it is indeed a heroic endeavor. The process begins only when we are touched, at some point in our life, by the call of Grace. That is the initial awakening.

The other two “malas” arise as a direct result of the anava-mala, the mala of diminution. The second, the mayiya-mala, is the error of distinction or of discrimination. It is the habit of mind and judgment that sees otherness and differentiation: me vs. not-me. It says “This is higher and that is lower. Other persons and groups are seen as separate and different. Every form of separative distinction is the thought-habit of the mayiya mala. It is that which isolates us.

Yes, differences actually do exist and are manifest in the relative dimensions of life. But there is an overarching and more fundamental unity underlying all things and beings at the most subtle and transcendent levels of reality. That “unity-consciousness” is the transcendent and permanent recognition that progressively comes into living focus. “Difference” is then seen to arise and exist only within a much great preponderance of “non-difference”.

The third mala arises directly from the first two. Out of the pervasive experience of smallness or diminution (anava-mala), and of being separate and distinct (mayiya-mala), arises the feeling that we are acting as isolated and distinct agents. This sense of individual “agency” accompanies all of our actions in most persons’ lives. It says: “It is I alone who is performing my actions.” Separative perception does not recognize that the entire universe is acting through and with us. Our actions are not separate from the whole. This supposition that we act as separate agents is called the karma-mala. It is the error of limited action. It is “arrogation”, taking on the operation of the universe as being our own. There is a subtlety here: This does not negate nor deny our absolute freedom to act. We are completely free in the Self. Freedom is fundamental and intrinsic to Consciousness. “Svatantra” means literally “self-weaving”. But when we act the whole universe acts in concert with us. Our own wholeness cannot be breached.

These three dimensions of limitation are the foundation of how the universal unbounded Consciousness becomes embodied as an individual sentient being. Untangling these erroneous suppositions of the three malas through meditation and progressive refinement is a path to direct knowledge towards liberation and the highest fulfillment. For me, this perspective provides a sort of roadmap for my practices and unfolding progress in life.


2 thoughts on “The Three Malas

  1. Thank you, Susan. I was striving to be simple and uncluttered in conveying this useful perspective. (Yet I’m not sure I succeeded in that!) I do appreciate your friendly encouragement.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s