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Reading the Saundarya Lahari – II

For this post, I’m going to begin a brief examination of some of the themes present in verses 1-41 of Saundaryalahari – often referred to as Anandalahari – “wave of joy”. As I noted in the first post in this series, the Anandalahari is perhaps the most explicitly “tantric” half of Saundaryalahari providing cues for the dhyana (puja image) of the Goddess, Her mantra, yantra and her relationship to organising schemas of Cakras and Rays. For the present, I will concentrate on the first six verses of Anandalahari.

Sri Yantra by Maria StrutzFirst though, a slight digression. Someone recently asked me when Saundaryalahari was first translated into English – and to what extent it may have influenced western occultists prior to the modern era. It’s a difficult question. I did a google search in order to try and find out if there was much in the way of discussion of Saundaryalahari on occult/pagan forums – and there was plenty on Indian forums, as you might expect, but nothing as far as I could find, on western occult/pagan forums. The earliest reference to Saundarya Lahari in western esoteric texts I have seen is in Subba Row’s Notes on the Bhagavad Gita published in The Theosophist (1887). Although there was a French translation available by 1841, as far as I know, the first english translation & discussion of this text was Arthur Avalon’s Anandalahari in 1917. And whilst Avalon’s book The Serpent Power has been hugely influential on, for example, western representations of the chakras, his Anandalahari appears to be less well-known, at least in occult circles. What I did however, turn up though, was evidence that Crowley, towards the end of his life, had “encountered” the Anandalahari.

Henrik Bogdan, whilst discussing Crowley’s influence on modern witchcraft (Brill 2009) – and to what extent Crowley’s magical ideas were influenced by tantra, quotes some correspondence between Crowley and Gerald York about a translation of the Anandalahari which Crowley received from David Curwen in 1945. Crowley appears to have found the MS difficult, and his comments on his experience of Indian esoteric traditions are interesting:

“Naturally I got in contact with this subject quite a lot while I was in India, and on the whole I was repelled, though I had no moral scruples on the subject. I came to the conclusion that the whole thing was not worth while. They do a sort of Cat and Mouse game with you; they give you the great secret, and then you find there is something left out, and you dig up this and go for a long while in a rather annoyed condition, and then you find there is yet another snag. And so on apparently for ever.”
(Bodgen, 2005, p95)

That’s pretty much all I’ve been able to find though. So unless anyone can provide more information, my short answer to this question is that Saundaryalahari hasn’t been much of an influence in the development of western (i.e. European/American) occult thought. If anyone knows differently of course, I’d be very interested to hear about it.

Some things to bear in mind
Firstly, I think its worth mentioning that texts such as Saundaryalahari were primarily written to be spoken/sung and heard. Whenever I begin a meditation using these stanzas, or as I write this post, I like to speak the verses aloud. It makes a difference. Secondly, one of the features of Indian theology which I think Saundaryalahari reveals very well is the fluidity between gods and goddess; how their identities flow into each other (and I wrote a little bit in the previous post about the fuzzy boundaries between Kama and the Goddess). Constantina Rhodes, in her book Invoking Lakshmi makes the salient point that the Devanagari script does not distinguish between lowercase and upper case ligatures, which has the effect of making personal names and common nouns interchangeable. Moreover, she points out that Sanskrit Grammar does not employ definite and indefinite articles:

“whereas in English we may delineate an entire theology hinging on the difference between “God” and “a god” or “the Goddess” and “a goddess,” for example, no such linguistic distinction exists in Sanskrit. …In fact the English language imposes categories of relationship that do not necessarily exist in the Indic consciousness. The Sanskrit word for goddess,” as noted earlier, is devi. When speaking of her in an Indic language, one does not have to identify “the goddess” or “a goddess” in relation to others of her kind. She is simply goddess.” (p19-20)

On then, to the verses of Anandalahari, beginning with 1-3.

“Only joined with Power has the God the power to rule,
otherwise He cannot even quiver – and so
You are worthy of adoration by Hari, Hara, Virinci, and all the rest, and so
how dare I
who’ve done nothing meritorious
reverence and praise You? (1)

Brahma gathered the tiniest speck of dust from Your lotus feet
and fashioned a world lacking nothing;
with much effort Indra carries the same on his thousand heads;
Siva pulverizes it and rubs it on like ash.(2)

For the ignorant, You are the island-city of light illuminating their inner darkness;
for the dull-witted, honey streaming from the flower bouquet of consciousness;
for the destitute, a double for the wish-fulfilling jewel;
for those drowning in the ocean of births, the tusk of Mura’s enemy, the boar lifting them up:
that’s how You are.(3)
(Transl. Clooney, 2005, p49)

The first verse states unequivocally that the Goddess is the Supreme Power – the ground of being, that it is she who grants power to Siva, and that she is worshipped by all other deities. Here, Hari is Vishnu, Hara, is a form of Siva, and Virinci is Brahma. Hence the triad of greater gods (and all other deities) serve and support the Goddess – she is their foundation and Her presence pervades them – a point reinforced later in verse 25:

Benevolent one,
may the worship rendered
to the three gods born of Your three qualities
be as worship rendered to Your feet, for
near the jeweled seat on which Your feet rest,
they ever stand,
folded hands adorning their crowns.(25)
(Transl. Clooney, 2005, p159)

Although the goddess is, in some ways, related to Siva, it is clear from the text that she is not subordinate to him – not merely a consort; that she is the all-encompassing reality in which the familiar Siva-Goddess dyad are perhaps only limited expressions encompassed within the body of the Goddess. There’s some lovely imagery here – particularly the idea that Siva “cannot even quiver” without the Goddess. This first stanza is sometimes said to contain the “essence” of Sri Vidya. Kamesvarasuri’s commentary on Saundaryalahari includes fourteen different interpretations of this stanza alone, according to different perspectives and traditions. One could, for example, interpret this stanza as referring to the Sri Yantra – where the upward-pointing triangles are Siva, and the downward-pointing triangles Sakti, the whole inhabited by multitudes of Devis and Devas – all adoring the central bindu which is the essence of the Goddess. Remember that the Sanskrit words that get translated as “goddess” or “god” – devi or deva – derive from the root div which means to play, to shine, to sparkle.

Verse 2 states that the Universe – vast and all-encompassing as it is, was brought into being (by Brahma) from the smallest possible speck of dust from the feet of the Goddess. This same dust-speck/universe is supported by Indra and dissolved by Siva. The triple powers of creation-maintenance-dissolution are insignificant compared to the power of the Goddess. I really like the way this verse plays with scale – the vast universe simultaneously being a tiny speck of dust; a dust-speck out of which all creation flows, which is upheld “with much effort” and becoming, at the end of time, the ash with which Siva decorates his body.

Verse 3 gives the four fruits of devotion to the Goddess. Firstly, she dispells ignorance (avidya) being likened to a “city of light” – possibly the sun, throwing off myriad reflections – arising in an ocean of darkness. I find that image an island-city of light” very easy to visualise; the shimmer and flicker of many dancing lights dispelling darkness brings to mind, for me, the idea that the Goddess shimmers and flickers (Lalita is referred to in some modern texts as the Zig-Zag Goddess). Secondly, she is likened to a stream of honey-nectar which streams from the “flower-bouquet” of consciousness (i.e. sense-experiences). Honey is a familiar metaphor in Indian poetics; honey is sweet; honey-liquor can be intoxicating; it is gathered by bees from many different flowers and so may imply a unitive consciousness arising from diverse experiences. See for example the “honey-doctrine” (Madhu Vidya) in the Brhadaranyaka Upanisad:

“This earth is (like) honey for all creatures and all creatures are (like) honey for this earth. This shining, immortal person who is in this earth, and with reference to one self, this shining, immortal person who is in the body, he indeed is just this self. This is immortal, this is Brahman, this is all.” (II.5.1)

Honey is also often likened to the nectar of immortality. That this honey streams indicates its continual flowing and that the Goddess acts to unify consciousness. Thirdly, the Goddess is likened to Cintamani – the wish-fulfilling jewel which grants the desires of devotees, and fourthly, the Goddess lifts up (i.e. “liberates”) those immersed in the ocean of births – for those drowning in the ocean of births, the tusk of Mura’s enemy, the boar lifting them up refers to the incarnation of Vishnu in the form of a boar, who, after defeating the Asura Hiranyaksha who had submerged the earth in the depths of the cosmic ocean, lifted the earth up on his tusks and restored it to its rightful place. This emphasises that the power of the Goddess to liberate is sudden and forceful, rather than slow and gradual.

Now to verses 4-6.

“The league of gods, other than You,
dispels fear and bestows boons with two hands,
and only You have no need
to make boon-bestowing and fear-dispelling gestures –
by themselves Your feet are able
to protect from fear and bestow boons beyond desire,
as You afford shelter to every world.(4)

You bestow prosperity on those who make obeisance before You,
and thus once, after adoring You
Hari assumed the form of a damsel and fascinated even the
destroyer of cities;
Memory too worshipped You and became powerful enough to
infatuate even great sages,
his frame fit for licking by Pleasure’s eyes; (5)

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 whole world single-handedly. (6)
(Transl. Clooney, 2005, p49-50)

Verse 4 states that the acts of granting boons and dispelling fears – which all other gods grant with their hands, spring effortlessly and spontaneously from the feet of the Goddess for the devotee. There is an implication that the Goddess “affords shelter” everywhere and at all times – one does not have to renew obeisiance to Her through ritual to receive her protection and her boons, and that all worlds have their origin – and meet – at the feet of the Goddess.

Verse five is a little more complex. Beginning with the assertion that Devi grants prosperity (which here signifies beauty of form in addition to prosperity etc.) it is said that it is from the Goddess that Vishnu (Hari) through devotion to the Goddess (meditation, mantra, etc.) acquired the power to assume the enchanting form of Mohini in order to beguile Siva (“the destroyer of cities”). In one Puranic episode, the union of Mohini and Siva produces the god Appaya. This can be read as an instance of the Goddess’ power to beguile and cause desire – even in a great ascetic such as Siva. (Some brief notes on Mohini)
The next line reinforces this: Memory too worshipped You and became powerful enough to infatuate even great sages. “Memory” – Smara (also the act of remembering) is one of the oldest epithets of Kama – desire, and can be found in the Atharva Veda. The relationship between memory and desire is a common theme throughout Indian literary and philosophical works. Again, this line stresses the power of Kama to distract and infatuate “even great sages” who are supposedly immune to such temptations – and there is the inference that Kama’s power too, ultimately springs from the Goddess. In the last line of the verse his frame fit for licking by Pleasure’s eyes; Pleasure is Rati, the consort of Kama. “Formed by droplets of desire literally sweated out of the pores of Daksa’s body, Rati embodies carnal desire and sexuality, a perfect marriage partner for Kama” (Benton, 2006, p29). The action of Kama’s body being licked by Rati’s eyes indicates, I think, the intensity of Rati’s erotic passion for Kama. It brings to mind, for me, the fiery tongues of Agni consuming the sacrifice.

Verses five and six both recall the great story of the burning of Kama by Siva.

Verse six continues to focus attention on Kama – carrying the Sugar-cane bow Spring (again, madhu) is sometimes referred to as “the king of seasons” and as a divine power is often described as the friend or accomplice of Kama. In Kalidasa’s Kumarasambhava Spring is Kama’s accomplice in disturbing the tapas of the forest sages:

In that forest, troubling holy men who were trying
to control their passions through intense tapas,
then, as a source of pride for the God
of Love, The Spring showed himself and unfolded.(24)

When the hot rays of the sun began advancing
north, leaping out of the fixed order of seasons,
the south sent a sweet-smelling wind
out of its mouth like a lover’s sigh of pain. (25)

At once the asoka tree put out flowers
and leaves budding straight from the trunk,
not waiting to bloom when a lovely woman’s
foot with her tinkling anklets touches it.(26)

At the instant The Spring prepared the arrow
of young mango blossoms feathered beautifully
with new leaves, he decorated the arrow with bees
as if they were letters of the love god’s name.(27)
(transl. Heifetz, 1990, p48)

All of the plants and animals of the forest respond to the call of Spring and Kama, and the forest sages themselves are stirred:

As the ascetics who live in Siva’s forest
saw that coming of the spring out of season,
forcing down the urges they felt beginning to stir,
they somehow took control again over their minds.(34)
(transl. Heifetz, 1990, p49)

Impelled by the grace obtained from the glance of the Goddess, Kama needs nothing more than his “soft” weapons – flower-bow, Spring, the gentle, sweet-smelling breeze which announces his coming – to “conquer the world”.

Even in this brief look at these six stanzas there is quite a lot of material for consideration and reflection – without even delving into the “formal” esoteric interpretations of commentators such as Kamesvarasuri or Laksmidhara. As I wrote earlier, the verses of Saundaryalahari clearly point to the fluid boundaries between one deity and another – for example, in verse 5 there is Visnu taking on the form of Mohini – “the enchantress” who is in a sense, identical to the Goddess to whom the verses are addressed. There is more than the obvious gender-shifting going on though. The clue, I think, can be found in the notion of Kama. It would be easy to think of Kama in terms of being “a god of desire”. Yet I think it is more accurate to say that wherever desire is present, Kama is present. So if you feel desire for something, then you experiencing the presence of Kama. Kama is simultaneously a deva, a philosophical category, a feeling. In the same way he is also memory. If one worships Kama then one in a sense, becomes Kama. So too it is with the goddess to whom these verses are addressed. One of her essential qualities is beauty. So wherever there is beauty, she is present. So whenever we experience beauty, desire beauty, recognise beauty in ourselves or others; the goddess is present in us – we share her substance, her essence.

The themes in these stanzas – the calling forth of moods, of shifting patterns of relationships – between devotee and devi, between devi and devas – resound throughout the remainder of Saundaryalahari, building patterns, suggesting tensions, meetings, divergences. In speaking the verses, in listening to another person speak them; memory and desire (Smara) become pivotal, bringing forth meaning and associations; producing the world of the Goddess’ shimmering presence, where she is the knower, the known, and the means of knowing. Words, sounds, and the images they bring forth, together express and embody the immanent presence of she whose nature is threefold.

Arthur Avalon Anandalahari (Ganesh & Co., 1953)
Catherine Benton God of desire: tales of Kāmadeva in Sanskrit story literature (State University of New York, 2006)
W. Norman Brown The Saundaryalahari or Flood of Beauty (Harvard University Press, 1958)
Douglas Renfrew Brooks, Auspicious Wisdom: The Texts and Traditions of Srividya Sakta Tantrism in South India (State University of New York, 1992)
Francis X. Clooney, Divine Mother, Blessed Mother: Hindu Goddesses and the Virgin Mary (Oxford University Press, 2005)
Edwin Gerow A glossary of Indian figures of speech (Mouton & Co;, Netherlands, 1971)
Hank Heifetz, The Origins of the Young God: Kalidasa’s Kumarasambhava (University of Chicago Press, 1990)
Meera Kachroo, The Goddess and Her Powers: The Tantric Identities of the Saundarya Lahari (MA Thesis, McGill University, June 2005)
Saskia Kersenboom, Songs of Love, Images of Memory in: Angela Hobart, Bruce Kapferer (eds) Aesthetics in Performance: Formations of Symbolic Construction and Experience (Berghahn Books, 2006)
Murphy Pizza, James R. Lewis (eds) Handbook of Contemporary Paganism (Brill, 2009)
Constantina Rhodes Invoking Lakshmi: The Goddess of Wealth in Song and Ceremony (State University of New York, 2010)