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Practice notes: on the garland of names

“What you’ve done can’t be helped;
the day is almost over.
On a jeweled island
Siva sits in Siva’s house.
Contemplate Her always.
Prasad says,
Durga’s ambrosial name liberates.
Repeat it without ceasing;
drench your tongue in nectar.”
Ramprasad Sen (trans. Rachel Fell McDermott)

Reciting the “garland of names” of a deity (namastotra) has been a core part of my tantra practice for the last thirty-odd years, but until now, I’ve never tried to write about it. If I’m doing solo puja, (or sometimes, just walking around) I usually do mental or quiet recitation, but for group puja, I think doing a call-and-response works very well – where one person recites an epithet and all others present recite it back. This is fun, particularly if a verbal slip or the occasional humourous epithet elicits laughter. As one develops one’s own intimate relationship and understanding of a deva, one can of course, introduce epithets of one’s own (“salutations to the goddess who is fond of shopping”) but I admit I have a fondness (and a deep respect) for the traditional epithets from texts such as the Lalitasahasramana or the 108 Salutations to Ganesa.

If you read the 108 Salutations to Ganesa you’ll see that some of them recall various attributes associated with Ganesa (for example, “Salutations to him with ears like winnowing fans”) whilst some focus on the boons bestowed upon the devotee (“Salutations to the bestower of fulfilment”) and others relate to His mythology (“Salutations to the one with a single tusk” recalls the Puranic tales which explain why Ganapati only has a single tusk) or point towards Ganesa’s transcendent (limitless) form (“Salutations to the manifestation of the unmanifest”). Any of these epithets can be extended through contemplation on their meaning, and some namastotras have extensive commentaries interpreting and discussing them. (Sometimes, in group puja, as a prelude to the recitation of epithets, we like to relax a bit and relate some of the puranic tales which relate to the goddess or god who we are peforming puja for, which again helps bring some of the associations to the fore.)

Stotra -from the Sanskrit root stu – “to praise, extol, celebrate” is of course an ancient form of Indian literary genre, and the uttering of epithets praising a deities’ attributes, deeds and qualities, as well as requesting boons can be found in Vedic stotras, as well as in Epics such as the Mahabharata. From the period of the Vedas, it is speech which is considered to be the primary creative power – when the gods utter the names of things, they come into existence. As Jan Gonda notes: “Sacred words or words uttered in a ritual context as well as the names of the deities that represent them are not empty things; they have life and a highly characteristic power of their own, a decisive power, and the one who utters such words, or the divine name, sets power in motion.” (Pusan and Sarasvati, p34). From the Vedas onwards, there is a strong theme that reciting the name(s) of a deity will bring the devotee under that deity’s protection

The practice of namastotra is generally considered to be efficacious for anyone who desires to enter into a close relationship with a particular deity – reciting the epithets, attributes and deeds associated with that deity allows the contemplation of the diverse and multitudinous facets of that deity, and encourages inter-identification between oneself and the goddess or god – recalling the tantric idea that “to worship a deity, one must become a deity.” So in a sense, when one is reciting the epithets of a particular devata in puja, one is also addressing them to oneself. In tantric texts, the recitation of the garland of names is generally considered to be pleasing to the deity they are addressed to (and some texts give epithets that various goddesses or gods are particularly pleased by), and as a form of practice, to bring both material benefits via the favour of the deities being so addressed, the attainment of siddhi and liberation. For example, the Vaikrtika-Rahasya, (a section of the Devi-Mahatmya) after offering instructions for uttering the Saptasati-stotra of the Goddess, says that “A man should please the Goddess daily with this stotra; [such a] man wins dharma, artha, kama and moksa.” It’s hardly surprising that one of the siddhis frequently mentioned in tantric texts is that of eloquent speech! Stotras are also, to an extent, similar to mantras, insofar as they can be used to empower substances (such as ash) for use in healing or other magical acts. Generally, the greater the act, the more repititions are recommended by various texts.

A great deal has been written about speech in relation to tantra – I don’t want to go into such complexities at the moment, but a couple of good books for anyone interested are Andre Padoxu’s Vac: The Concept of the Word in Selected Hindu Tantras (SUNY, 1990) and Guy L. Beck’s Sonic Theology: Hinduism and Sacred Sound (Univeristy of South Carolina, 1993).

Elisabeth Anne Bernard, in her monograph Chinnamasta: The Aweful Buddhist and Hindu Tantric Goddess (Motilal, 2010) makes an interesting link between the recitation of names (in this instance, Chinnamasta) and Abhinavagupta’s aesthetic theory of Rasa (some introductory notes on Rasa). Drawing on Abhinavagupta’s statement that a spectator to a play, in contemplating an actor’s depiction of a particular sentiment, becomes absorbed by it, she writes:

“…a sensitive reader can be affected by the repetitions of the names by sympathetically responding to her myriad manifestations, her paradoxes, her exploits, her limitless energy to protect, to help, to be kind, etc. One can become overwhelmed, forget oneself and experience the bliss of Chinnamasta. By reciting Chinnamasta’s names one can experience the bliss of Chinnamasta and unconsciously identify with Chinnamasta or experience her essence.”(p57)

She then goes on to discuss which of the nine rasas are dominant within the namastotra of Chinnamasta’s 108 names. However, interesting though that is in itself, I feel that Bernard’s comment about the (speaker) forgetting oneself through being overwhelmed with the myriad images and associations provoked through recitation is definitely something I have experienced in the performance of puja – sometimes to the point that it is sometimes difficult to continue, through the storm of associations and emotions evoked through chanting the names of the goddess. In a recent Kali Puja, incorporating the worship of ten Mahavidyas, I became so disorientated that I apparently performed two installations of Baghlamukhi into the Yantra! It has taken me a long time to appreciate how, just the simple recitation of a deities’ epithets – their immanent presence through the myriad forms of the world can propel me towards the direct experience of their transcendental vastness – and back again.
The continual inter-identification made (in this instance through repetitive speech acts – where the very act of speaking itself involves an inter-identification with the deity) between particular aspects or instances of the deity and one’s self as well as other constituent world-elements – and by extension, the deity-world as a totality via a seemingly endless web of homologies; can be thought of as a kind of possession, albeit a different form of possession than that which occurrs when one seeks to inter-identify with a particular instantiation (“persona” perhaps) of a deity. I’ll come back to this complex issue at some later date, but I thought I’d just introduce it here. (see mantra-bodies for some related discussion on speaking mantras).

Recitation can be done anywhere, and requires nothing more than a good memory, the willingness to extemporise when required, and occasionally, the fortitude to struggle through the feeling that the top of one’s head is about to unscrew!