Skip to navigation | Skip to content

Reading the Saundarya Lahari – I

Tantra is often (popularly) represented in western occult writing as though it were an “outsider” tradition in India, something on the periphery or marginal to the orthodox or “mainstream” forms of Indian religosity – and highly esoteric – something which can only be “decoded” with the correct keys or “initiated” understandings. This view, which I’ve recently argued (Treadwells lecture, October 2011) actually says more about western occultism’s self-representations than any tantric actualities, is something I’ve been trying to counter with much of the tantric-oriented writing I’ve been doing here on Enfolding. Although I’ve made occasional reference to the Saundaryalahari (“Flood of Beauty”) here a couple of times previously (see this post in particular), for this series of posts I’m going to examine this work in more detail, drawing in some of the themes I’ve been outlining in other posts.

orange Sri YantraSaundaryalahari is widely attested to be one of the most famous and beautiful Sanskrit “hymns” praising Tripurasundari Devi as the Supreme Power. It has been approximately dated to the tenth century (possibly before). It is often divided into two sections; the first, comprising of verses 1-41, is sometimes called the Anandalahari – “Wave of Joy”. The first section can be said to be the most clearly “tantric” part of the text, providing dhyanas (visualised scenes of the Devi for meditation/ritual), Her Yantra and Mantra, and locating the goddess within various schemas (i.e. cakras and rays) and extolling the fruits of sadhana directed to Her. The second section is an extensive poetic meditation on the goddess, from her head to her feet.

Rich in insights and imagery, the Saundaryalahari not only contains references to familiar tantric and puranic themes, but also addresses the Devi directly; its core message being that contemplating the Devi in her diverse forms – as a Goddess, as present in oneself and the world – is the superior path. As Francis X. Clooney writes (2005, p156): “The hymn is itself a beneficient utterance; to hear it enables one to draw on the riches latent within it. Sankara’s extraordinary gift intends the widest possible audience: all those willing to look upon Her”.

Although it is ostensibly a “tantric” text of the Sri Vidya school, it can be approached (i.e. read) and interpreted in a number of ways. For instance, it can be approached/enjoyed purely as a literary work; read from a Bhakti (“devotional”) perspective, or treated as a ritual manual. Furthermore, the text can “speak” to – and thereby “produce” different (theological) identities. For example, the Saundaryalahari is often celebrated (helped no doubt by the popular attributation of authorship to Sankara) as an Advaitin text – an interpretation which is bolstered through several commentaries. It is not the case (as is sometimes assumed) that there is one interpretation of the text which is “superior” or more authentic than others, rather that the text lends itself to multiple interpretations and uses – and as a practitioner one can simultaneously appreciate the text as a aesthetic production, as a devotional work, and a set of coded ritual instructions or guidelines. In fact, I would say that the way Saundaryalahari is written implies such a pluralistic approach.

There are many English translations of the Saundaryalahari available – for example Sastri and Ayyangar (1948), Norman Brown (1958), & Francis X Clooney (2005). There is also an extensive commentarial tradition associated with the text (according to Pande, over thirty-five commentaries), one of the most well-known of which is Laksmidhara’s (16th century). The authorship of Saundaryalahari is popularly attributed to Sankara.
There is a great deal of scholarly debate around Sankara’s purported authorship, and some scholars have opined that this is (yet another) example of a tantric work’s authorship being attributed to a respected source; whilst others have suggested that Sankara was involved in some degree of tantric practice.

The vision of the Goddess
Saundaryalahari is directed at Tripurasundari Devi; She is the Supreme Power, the creator-sustainer-destroyer of the world. Gods such as Hari (Vishnu), Virinci (Brahma) and Hara (Siva) are players within her drama (I will have more to say about how the text presents Devi’s relationship with Siva in a later post). Devi is both the supreme transcendent power and is immanently present in the world – directly apprehendable to those who are willing to recognise Her presence:

“You are mind, You are air.
You are wind and the rider of wind,
You are water, You are earth,
beyond You as You evolve
there is nothing higher,
there is only You, and
when You transform Yourself by every form,
then You take the form of consciousness and bliss
as a way of being,
O Siva’s youthful one! (35)
(Transl. Clooney, 2005, p159)

At the same time, She is a beautiful, erotic woman, the embodiment of desire (Kama). The verses emphasise Her maternal (caring) and erotic (desiring) qualities – there is no direct reference to Tripurasundari’s exploits as a battle-goddess (which can be found in the Lalitopakhyana) nor is She identified with Kali or Durga, as occurs in the Lalitasahasramana. Saundaryalahari is not so much concerned with extolling the past deeds of Devi, but directly speaks to Devi in the present tense of who is speaking/reading the verses – and frequently addresses Her as “You”.

I noted earlier that the second half of Saundaryalahari is given over to a head-to-toe extolling of the beautiful body of Devi, overlaying her body with mythological themes and a profusion of rich natural metaphors – many of which are common themes in Indian poetics. This is a popular, formal Indian literary set piece called a nakh-sikh varnana – “toe-to-head description”. There is a convention that in the case of goddesses or gods, the poet’s/viewers eyes should first dwell on the divine feet and move upwards, whereas for human beings, the description may begin with the face and move downward. See for example, Keshavdas’ Kavipriya – ‘Handbook for Poets’, chapter fifteen of which discusses this convention:

“Keshavdas says,
Seeing the beauty of a goddess one should describe her from toe to head
But a mortal woman should be described differently: from head to toe.”

Saundaryalahari however, follows the descriptive course from the head of Devi to Her feet. Admittedly, I do not know if this literary convention is commonly inverted (or just ignored) in tantric-oriented poetics, but it could be interpreted as another literary device to underscore that the Devi is an embodied woman as much as She is the all-pervading Goddess – and that she is easily and directly approachable via devotion rather than ritual and ascetic practice.

The embodiment of desire
Just as the world is an emanation of Her beauty and her play (lila,) so too, to apprehend the world – through the modalities of the senses (vision, taste, etc), through speech, and through desire, the devotee can recognise the presence of Devi in all things, in each passing moment – and that very act of recognition is transformative. Just as Her body is homologised with the world/cosmos, it is through bodies that the encounter with the divine becomes comprehensible. She is the Source, the apprehension of, and the fulfilment of desire/bliss in every realm of experience. That Saundaryalahari presents Devi as both desiring and desired is not surprising if we consider the primacy of desire (kama) within the Hindu tradition. From the Vedas onwards, desire is a primary motivating force:

“It is a cosmic force, but not to be understood as a kind of blind energy or impersonal urge. On the contrary, the personal is so much included in the transpersonal element that kama is said to be the first seed of mind, the firstborn of the Absolute and thereafter the loftiest characteristic of all created beings, and more particularly of human beings. Kama is the driving force in any enterprise, the highest of all human qualities. There is one and the same urge stimulating the entire range of reality, one and the same energy pushing the universe to expand – and it is kama.Kama is not a hankering after what is lacking in the individual; it is not an imperfection and thus a cause of suffering. Kama is not the proof that we have not yet arrived, that we are imperfect and enmeshed in unfulfilled longings and unsatisfied urges. Kama is, on the contrary, the perfection of expansion, the quality of creativity, the positive dynamism to be more….”
Raimon Panikkar (1995, pp242-243)

According to Saundaryalahari, Devi is the source of Kama’s power:

“he has no limbs
but carries a bow made of flowers, a bow-string of bees, five arrows,
his servant is spring, the mountain breeze his chariot;
thus armed,
O daughter of the snow-capped mountain,
still he obtains grace only from Your glance, and
by that conquers the world single-handedly.”(6)
(Transl. Clooney, 2005, p50)

Kama – the bodiless (“he has no limbs”) is destroyed by the burning gaze of Siva (as recounted in the Siva Purana and Kalidasa’s Kumarasambhava) – and this narrative is recalled in a later stanza:

“O daughter of the mountain,
the mind-born one plunged himself into the deep pool of Your navel,
his body enveloped by the flames of Hara’s anger,
and from there rose a creeper of smoke:
people say it is Your line of down,
O Mother.” (76)
(Transl. Clooney, 2005)

– which implies that Kama has merged (or returned) into the body of Devi – again suggesting that the experience of kama is impelled by Devi (many of her epithets suggest this); that all desire emanates from Devi; in particular, through Her gaze or glance:

“Daughter of the king of the unmoving mountain,
To whom would the ridges between Your eye and ear not convey
The eagerness of the bow of that god whose arrows are flowers?
Your passionate glance travels sideways
From the corner of Your eyr and along the path of hearing,
And there it gleams,
Suggesting the mounting of an arrow.”(59)
(Transl. Clooney, 2005)

An earlier sloka illustrates the power of Devi’s glance to impell desire:

“If an old man,
unpleasing to the eye and impotent in play,
falls within the range of Your glances
then hundreds will run after him,
all the young women,
locks disheveled,
clothes falling from their breasts,
girdles bursting with force,
fine garments slipping down.”(13)
(Transl. Clooney, 2005)

A fairly common trope within tantric-oriented texts is that one of the fruits of practice for the male practitioner (and the majority of texts do reflect a male perspective) is that women will become attracted to him (Loriliai Biernacki describes this aptly as “James Bond Syndrome”). This verse is expressing something different. Some commentators have taken this verse to indicate that anyone (or anything), no matter how outwardly unattractive will – once favoured with Devi’s glance – become an attractor; become desirable. However, there is more. The “old man” can be interpreted as referring to Siva in his ascetic mode – and again stressing that Siva’s power to attract, ultimately, comes from Devi. Possibly, the verse is referring to the well-known narrative (see for example, the Linga Purana) wherein Siva seduces the wives of the Sages in the Deodar Forest.

The verse also higlights the speed and suddenness with which desire can flood a person; the power of a sudden and overwhelming infatuation which causes one to throw caution to the wind and no longer rely on the conscious self-presentation represented by fine clothes and coiffure. There is also a hint here of a larger theme within Saundaryalahari – that to be favoured by Devi; to open oneself to “the flood of beauty” is superior to all other paths and practices. The verse can also be read as a confirmation of the mutuality between a single, inert, absolute figure (the old man/Siva) – and dynamic multiplicity (the hundreds of running young women/multipleSaktis).

In the next post in this series, I’ll take a closer look at some of the themes present in verses 1-41 – the Anandalahari.

Loriliai Biernacki Renowned Goddess of Desire: Women, Sex, and Speech in Tantra (Oxford University Press, 2007)
Douglas Renfrew Brooks, Auspicious Wisdom: The Texts and Traditions of Srividya Sakta Tantrism in South India (State University of New York, 1992)
Norman Brown, Saundaryalahari or Flood of Beauty (Harvard University Press, 1958)
Francis X. Clooney, Divine Mother, Blessed Mother: Hindu Goddesses and the Virgin Mary (Oxford University Press, 2005)
Meera Kachroo, The Goddess and Her Powers: The Tantric Identities of the Saundarya Lahari (MA Thesis, McGill University, June 2005)
Govind Chandra Pande Life and thought of Śankarācārya (Motilal, 1994)
David R. Kinsley Tantric Visions of the Divine Feminine: The Ten Mahavidyas (University of California Press, 1997)
Raimon Panikkar, The Vedic Experience (Motilal, 1995)
Pandit S. Subrahmanya Sastri and T.R. Srinivasa Ayyangar, Saundarya Lahari (Theosophical Publishing House, 1948)

Web Sources
Saundarya Lahari online translation by P. R. Ramachander