There is a beautiful philosophical explanation of absolute reality and its relation to the world in the Agamas of Kashmir Shaivism. However, it is not very popular like other philosophical schools in hindusim. Yet it is important to understand this aspect of agama and its view towards non duality.
Below is a classical comparison by revered scholar MahamahopadhyAya Sri Gopinath Kaviraj of Benaras (who is well respected by all the sankara mutts and advaitins) which is presented by Sri N C Rastogi one of the scholars of Kashmir Shaivism.
Kaviraj-ji once remarked “in spite of the antiquity of śākta Culture
and of its philosophical traditions, the reason why no serious attempt
was made is said to have been that it was deemed improper to drag down
for rational examination truths inaccessible to the experience of
ordinary man. This reason is not convincing enough, for if the
Upaniṣads could be made the basis of philosophical system, there is no
reason why the śākta āgamas could not be similarly utilized. For the
function of philosophy is, as Joad rightly remarks, to accept the data
furnished by the specialists who have worked in the field and then to
assess their meaning and significance”.
A comparative estimate of Advaita Vedānta and Kashmir Shaivism by
Kaviraj is a classical example of philosophical insight and assumes
enormous significance for proper appraisal of the Shaiva absolutism of
Kashmir. This has in fact helped to bring about distinctive character
of the two excellent systems of thought. the main distinctions may be
recounted as under: Brahmavāda describes Māyā as different from both
real and unreal, and indescribable. The Shaivas hold that this does
not totally eliminate the impression of duality. It is admitted that
Māyāis non-entity, unreal when viewed from the Absolute’s angle and
also that the reality of empirical level has no bearing on the
transcendental principle of Brahman. But the question is: why does
duality appear at all, if there is only one non-dual conscious
principle? To the Vedāntin, pure Brahman is simply the substratum of
the begginingless world-order whose appearance is rooted in the
illusory transformation aka vivarta. To assert that the properties
such as creativity etc., are superimposed upon Brahman, makes it all
the more difficult to grasp as to how the Absolute becomes the finite
being, world or God? There is no denying the fact that there too is
ignorance, Māyā, in the Shaiva absolutism, but its appearance is not
contingent. It represents an Absolute mode occasioned by voluntary
exercise of the Absolutic freedom. By fully exploiting the analogy of
cloud and sun, Kaviraj emphasizes that there is no deviation from its
unobscured nature even when it veils itself by its own power. The
worldly variety is nothing but the reflection or awareness (vimarśa)
of its own being. The manifestation of variety constitutes the nature
i.e., self-being (svabhāva) of the Absolute.
Brahmavādins too admit that the Self has its own nature. In their
view, however, the Self is pure witness or constitutes locus
consciousness (adhiṣṭhāna caitanyātmaka), while īśvaravādins subscribe
to its nature as consisting of freedom, and as agency. Here lies the
major disagreement between the two - a feature proudly noted by
svatantraśabdō brahmavādavailakṣaṇyamācakṣāṇaścitō māhēśvaryasāratāṁ
In fact, the description of the Absolute in both the systems admits of
similar terminology except that Brahman is devoid of Kartr̥tva
(agency), whereas Vimarśa or Kartr̥tva constitutes the Absolute
essence of Paramashiva. The Shaiva absolutists never try to conceal
their attitude towards Brahmavādins. The description of Vedāntin’s
position as Nirvimarśabrahmavāda or Shāntabrahmavāda does not appear
to be laudatory. Shaivas assign Sāmkhya’s Puruṣa and Vedānta’s Brahman
to the lower state of aparāvasthā of the Self. They are not even
prepared to accommodate them in the penultimate (parāparā) state, not
to the talk of the ultimate state of the Self. According to Shaiva
texts, such state has never come up for discussion in the Vedānta
The absence of vigorous affirmation of freedom in the Vedāntic
Absolute compels Kaviraj to conclude, hesitantly though, that
appearance of duality is not actually eliminated from Shankara’s
In the Shaiva monistic tradition the term Advaita denotes eternal
synthesis of the two. In Shankara’s view, Advaita means negation of
the two. Shankara describes Brahman as real and Māyā as indefinable.
He cannot accept Mayā to be real or treat it at par with the Absolute.
That is why the Vedāntic absolutism, according to Kaviraj, is
exclusive and based on renunciation or elimination. Unlike the āgamas,
it fails to become inclusive or all-embracing. In the āgamic view, the
identity of the Absolute and Mayā is automatically established by
showing Māyā as stemming from Brahman and also as real. If we adhere
to the logic of Shankara’s Vedānta, we will have to concede that
Brahman too is unreal and indefinable, because in the condition in
which Māyā is stated to be unreal/indefinable, the knowledge of
Brahman in that stage will be a byproduct of Māyā. Even while assuming
the correctness of Shankara’s premise, ‘of the two opposed to another
like darkness and light’, it may be stated that darkness arises from
light by friction and it is darkness again that culminates in light by
friction. Both are eternally united, both exist totally integrated in
their being. This is what has been pronounced time and again as
Sāmarasya of Shiva-Shakti or attainment of Cit-ananda which marks a
unique feature of Kashmir Shaivism.
Kaviraj goes on enlarging the equation of Cidānanda synthesis.
According to him, the additional peculiarity of the Shaiva absolutism
lies in the fact that it neither advocates the path of ‘dry’
knowledge, nor the path of devotion bereft of knowledge, rather it
lays down a path that integrates knowledge and devotion both.
Logically Bhakti has no place in the ultimate stage of the absolutism
propounded by Shankara. According to him, devotion is basically
duality-centric, and as such does not exist in the Absolutic state on
attainment of knowledge. Needless to say, this devotion is
ignorance-based and instrumental in character.
But, on the contrary, in the Trika philosophy Mōkṣa has been portrayed
as Cidānanda lābha (attainment of Consciousness-Bliss) or
Pūrṇāhaṁtācamatkāra (self-relish flowing from perfect I-hood). Now the
aspect of consciousness (cidamśa) is knowledge and that of bliss
(ānandāmśa) devotion. The perfect I-hood or self-relish which marks
the limit of knowledge, also marks the limit of love or devotion. It
is why it offers congenial ground for synthesis. Here the element of
consciousness i.e., Shiva-state, and that of bliss i.e., Shakti-state,
stand fused together instantly turning it into synthesis of
devotion-knowledge or equipoise of Shiva-Shakti.
Synthesis of the efficient and material causes
By expounding the analogies of Yogin and Māyāvin employed in Tripurā
and Pratyabhijñā, Kaviraj has drawn our attention of the creation of
world as being rooted in the Absolutic will or as being totally
independent of the material cause. Citing a kārikā from Utpala, he
says creation means externalization of the inner content.
cidātmaiva hi dēvō’ntaḥsthitamicchāvaśādbahiḥ |
yōgīva nirupādānamarthajātaṁ prakāśayēt ||
The objective totality exists in the consciousness-Self (cidātmā),
only part of it occasionally gets manifested due to its Will. In the
creation of this kind, the material cause is rendered irrelevant. This
independence from the material cause in the Shaiva absolutism is very
well known in the form of the doctrine of the unity between efficient
and material causes (abhinna nimittōpādānavāda) in Shankara’s Advaita.
Indeed, belief in absolutism presupposes the rejection of distinction
between the efficient and the material. But, since Shankara’s Advaita
hesitates to admit the real agency in the Absolute, the creation turns
out to be an offspring of ignorance, instead of Self-will.