The following excerpt comes to us from the Garuda Purana. The Garuda Purana is a middle puranic text (ca. 600-700 ce) and is composed in the form of a dialogue between Vishnu and Garuda, the divine man-eagle servant of Vishnu. The Garuda Purana is famous as a funerary text because it explains various funerary customs and rituals, and provides detailed accounts of the afterlife in multitudes of heavenly and hellish realms.
After twenty-four chapters discussing life, death, afterlife and rebirth, the Garuda Purana concludes with a chapter entitled An Account on the Law of Liberation which discusses liberation from the cycle of samsara. In this chapter, we find a description of Shiva exalted as the supreme Divine, the Sacchidananda, who is the beginningless, timeless entity. The philosophical purport that follows is very close to Shaivite thought embodied in the earlier Agamas which tended toward dualism (pluralism). The descripition of the individual ("soul") as a spark of the divine which is endowed with beginningless ignorance (anava), and encased in bodies of beginningless karma are clearly doctrines of earlier Agamic thought.
A key feature of earlier dualistic Agamic thought is that the individual entities ("souls" or pashus) existed beginninglessly steeped in anava and karma. But, through repeated cycles of creation, these pashus have the privilege of gaining physical bodies within the field of maya. In gaining physical bodies, pashus can work out their karmas and overcome anava through yogic meditation and with the grace of Shiva, and thus become liberated from individual existence. It is this Agamic principle that is explained in the puranic excerpt below.
It might be somewhat surprising to find this sort of "Shaivite" thought in a so-called "Vaishnava Purana." However, this should not be all that surprising because all schools of Agamic thought came from the same place, and still share all the key features of Tantra - Deity worship, iconography, definite theism, mantra mediation, yantra-mandalas, rituals, initiations, etc. It is only in the second millennium of the common era that we see Agamic schools divide into distinct branches (Shaiva, Vaishnava, Shakta), and further divide into sub-branches based on philosophy.
Aum Namah Shivaya.
Agnideva © 2009. All rights reserved.
The Blessed Lord said:
Listen, O [Garuda], and I will explain to you what you have asked, even by the hearing of which a man is released from the world of change.
There is the Shining One, Siva, who has the nature of Supreme Brahman, who is partless, all-knowing, all-doing, Lord of all, stainless and secondless, Self-illumined, beginningless and endless, beyond the Beyond, without attributes, Being and Knowing and Bliss. That which is considered the individual is from a part of Him.
These, like sparks of a fire, with beginningless ignorance, separated and encased in bodies by beginningless karma, are fettered by forms of good and evil, giving happiness and misery – with nationality of body, length of life, and fortune born of karma. In every life obtained, they have also, O Bird, a higher and more subtle body, the linga(-deha), lasting until liberation.
The unmoving things, worms, goats, birds, animals, men, the righteous, the thirty-three Devas [of the Vedas], and also the liberated, according to their order, having worn and cast aside the four sorts of bodies thousands of times, one becomes a man by good deeds, and if he becomes a knower he attains liberation. The embodied, in the eighty-four hundred thousands of bodies before attaining human birth, can obtain no knowledge of the truth.
Through millions of myriads of thousands of births sometimes a being obtains human birth, through the accumulation of merit. He who, having obtained a human body, difficult to get, and a step to liberation, does not help himself over – who in this world is more sinful than he? The man who, having obtained this highest birth and superior senses, does not understand what benefits the soul is [termed] a “slayer of Brahman”.
Without a body, nobody obtains the object of human life; therefore should he guard his body as wealth and perform meritorious deeds. He should always guard his body, which is the means to everything. Living, he should make every effort to protect it, in view of welfare. A village again, a field again, wealth again, a house again, good and evil actions again – the body never again.
The wise always adopt means for the preservation of the body; even those afflicted with diseases such as leprosy do not wish to give it up. It should be guarded for the sake of duty; duty for the sake of knowledge; knowledge for the sake of Yoga-meditation – then he is soon released.
The Garuda Purana
Chapter XVI: 5-21
Trans. E. Wood and SV Subrahmanyam .