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Reading the Saundarya Lahari – III-2

Continuing right on from the previous post in this series, I will now examine verse 8 of Anandalahari.

There –

    1 in the ocean of nectar,
    2 on the isle of jewels edged by groves of sura trees,
    3 within the pleasure garden of nipa trees,
    4 inside the mansion built of wish-fulfilling gems,
    5 on the couch of Siva’s own form,
    6 on the cushion that is highest Siva
    7 there the fortunate worship You,
    8 O wave of consciousness and bliss.

(transl. Francis X. Clooney)

First then, some general comments on this verse. This kind of scene is a common feature of tantric meditation – for example, this verse from the fourth chapter of the Todala Tantra:

“A wise person should meditate on the nectar whilst retaining the breath, O Paramesani. He should recite Am Hrim Krom Hrim eleven times in the heart region,and then meditate on Om as bringing forth a red lotus. On that he should meditate on Hum, resembling a blue lotus. Then he should turn that into an eye of knowledge, in the midst of the jewelled island, surrounded by golden sand. A mantrin should meditate on this alluring circle of knowledge. In the centre is the wish-fulfilling tree. Under this, he should meditate on himself as being one with Tarini, as bright as the rising sun, the utmost sphere of light, in a place surrounded by beautiful maidens with fans and bells, wafted by a gentle breeze bearing the odour of scent and incense. In the centre he should meditate on a four square dias, adorned with different kinds of jewels. Above that hangs a parasol, made of golden cloth. A mantrin should visualise the jewelled lion throne below this, dearest one. There he should imagine Devi, according to the previously spoken of meditation form mentioned in the Yogasara. Doing pranayama, he should then do rsi nyasa and so forth, including matrka nyasa and hand and limb nyasa. He should clap the hands thrice and, snapping his fingers, should bind the directions.”(transl. Mike Magee)

As I noted in this post, the verse details a royal scene, emphasising the beauty, grace, and power of the goddess. Just as she is adorned by poetic ornamentation, so too the splendour and wealth denoted by her surroundings can be understood as a form of ornamentation. In Rajashekhara’s 10th Century drama Karpuramanjari there is a debate over the necessity of “excessive” ornamentation, during which the dialogue between the king’s jester explains the power of adornment:

“Adornments make the comeliness even of a person who is naturally handsome to unfold itself (to still greater beauty). A certain splendour results from adorning even genuine precious stones with diamonds.”

India has a long tradition of pleasure-groves and gardens, both as areas within royal palaces and common urban spaces. See for example Gardening in Ancient India and The Buddhist “monastery” and the Indian garden: aesthetics, assimilations, and the siting of monastic establishments. Pleasure groves are often described in such a way as to intensify the pleasures and delights to be found therein – which in turn serves to ornament the power of the deity at their centre. The dwelling places of sages and deities tend to be described as idyllic, hyper-intensive spaces of unsurpassed natural beauty; populated by pleasing flowers, animals, trees, birds, rocks, gems, and minerals.

in the ocean of nectar,
The “ocean of nectar” is a common theme in Indian mythology (appearing in Buddhist, Hindu & Tibetan contexts) and relates to the samudra-manthana – the “churning of the ocean”

There are many variations of this myth – in the Mahabharata, Ramayana, and the Puranas. Here’s a quick summary based on the Vishnu Purana. The devas, wearing of their interminable warring with the asuras, approached the great god Vishnu and requested the boon of immortality. Vishnu advised the other devas to enter into an alliance with the asuras to work together in churning the great ocean, which would bring forth the magic gems, herbs, and the nectar (amrita) of immortality. With the help of Brahma and the great serpent Vasuki, the devas and asuras uprooted the great mountain Mandara to use as a churning rod. Vishnu, taking the form of the great tortoise, rose from the depths of the ocean and carried the mountain on his back. The serpent Vasuki wound himself around the mountain as a churning rope, and the devas and asuras pulled him back and forth, churning the great ocean. Many things emerged from the churning – the Moon, which was taken by Siva; parijata – the wish-fulfilling tree; the goddess Lakshmi (Shri); the wine-goddess Sura, of whom the gods were able to drink, but the asuras could not “hold their liquor” as it were, and so one interpretation of asura is “those unable to drink wine”. Also there arose from the ocean the terrible embodiment of poison – Halahala (sometimes kalakuta “the poison of time”) In some versions, Halahala is subdued by Brahma, who causes his body to shatter into myriad fragments. From the scattered fragments of Halahala’s body arise all manner of poisonous animals and plants, and poisons which are claimed by the Nagas. In other versions, Siva subdues Halahala by swallowing him whole, although the poison causes Siva’s throat to turn blue – giving rise to the epithet Nilakantha – “the one who has a blue throat”. Next from the ocean arises Surabhi – the wish-fulfilling cow with her five abundancies (milk, butter, curd, urine and dung); and Dhanvantari – the divine physician of the gods (revealer of the secrets of Ayurveda), bearing the vase of amrita – the nectar of immortality.

Oceans of nectar, milk, wine, etc., turn up frequently in tantric dhyanaslokas. The ocean can signify the all-pervasiveness of the goddess (also unity-in–multiplicity) – that literally, there is no end to her sweetness. The ocean produces resonances with immersion, with plunging into, bathing, drinking in. Ksemaraja declares, in his Sivasutra vimarsini:

“He who by means of this teaching perceives on all sides the universe like a mass of foam in the midst of the ambrosial ocean of consciousness, he is declared to be the one Siva Himself.”

The ocean is also the heart, into the depths of which the practitioner must plunge. The “churning” of the ocean can be thought of as a metaphor for sadhana.

on the isle of jewels edged by groves of sura trees,
Manidvipa – “the isle of jewels” is a celestial place, the home of the goddess, and is superior to all other worlds, and again, is a common theme for sadhana. The Gheranda Samhita instructs practitioners to:

“Let him find in his heart a broad ocean of nectar,
Within it a beautiful island of gems,
Where the sands are bright golden and sprinkled with jewels.

sura can be translated as “divine” or “god” so I am taking “sura trees” as indicating a grove divine or celestial trees. This is vivid imagery, and it is easy to visualise this island, glittering and sparkling. In the Sri Devi Bhagavata the goddess, after the great battle with the demons, bears Brahma, Vishnu and Siva to Manidvipa in her chariot. Here, the gods behold a woman, dressed in red, bearing noose and goad in two of her hands, and giving the twin gestures of dispelling fears and granting boons with the others. She is surrounded by Devis and Sakhis (intimate female companions). Vishnu recognises the woman as Devi Bhagavati and remembers that she is the mother of the gods. As the gods approach the goddess, they are transformed into Sakhis and remain so for a hundred years. They are granted the vision of seeing the whole of the universe contained within the toenail of the goddess. (NB: see Tracy Pintchman’s Women’s lives, women’s rituals in the Hindu tradition for a discussion of women’s companiate sahki rituals).

within the pleasure garden of nipa trees,
Nipa trees (“water coconuts”) are a type of palm tree, bearing clustered fruits, from which can be extracted sugar. Its sap ferments very quickly. There is a doubled effect, I feel, with the references to trees in this verse. Tree-groves can be thought of as boundaries, demarcations between spaces; yet at the same time, tree-groves can be thought of as signalling the multitude of cognitions, rooted in the shared recognition of Devi’s eternal presence. Possibly the “fruits” of these trees signal the fruits (outcomes) of sadhana and their relationship to sugar and sweetness recalling the mind/sugarcane bow.

inside the mansion built of wish-fulfilling gems,
The wish-fulfilling gem – cintamani is another of the magical objects brought forth from the churning of the ocean of milk. It is able to grant all the things that the possessee desires – and hence, is something which is rare and to be treasured when encountered. There are numerous references to the cintamani in Buddhist texts, where it represents the Buddha-nature and the state of awakened mind. It is frequently used as a metaphor for sadhana as both the origin and goal of practice, with mantras, deities, gurus etc., likened to the wish-fulfilling jewel. Thus the Spandapradipika says:

“Other teachings are slow to impart (such perfect) bliss. (Herein is taught the) knowledge of the liberated Self, which is the sole (true) draught of immortality. (Superior to all other doctrines, it is) like ambrosia among medicines or like the wish-fulfilling Gem which has no rival (even) among jewels of great quality, or like the sun that by itself, banishing all darkness, (is the greatest of all) luminaries.”
(Dyczkowski, 1992, p139)

on the couch of Siva’s own form,
on the cushion that is highest Siva
Lalita seated on SadasivaThe goddess reclines reclines on a couch made up of Brahman (south-east), Hari (south-west), Rudra (north-west) and Isvara (north-east) and uses “highest Siva” as a mattress or cushion (sava-vahana). These four gods support the goddess and adore her. The Devi Gita presents a very similar scene to this verse, and has the goddess seated on a throne said to be made of five pretas – Brahma, Vishnu, Rudra and Ishana – and the cushion being the corpse of Sadasiva. According to Brown (1998) these five corpse-deities represent the goddess’s latent powers, inert until they are aroused by her desire. This motif can also be found in other Lalita-oriented texts such as the Lalitopakhyana, Tripura-Rahasya and the Lalita Sahasranama. Brown comments:

“The sofa or seat of of the five corpses situated in the Jeweled Island, unlike the throne of abstract qualities, is associated with the Goddess alone. It dramatically illustrates her utter supremacy over all other gods. The five gods of the sofa represent the chief male deities who oversee the functioning of the cosmos. These five, reduced to “sofahood,” not only symbolize her various functions and subservient powers, but also are mere ghosts (pretas) or corpses until empowered by her sakti.”
(Brown, 1998, p296-297)

According to Thomas E. Donaldson (2001) one of the earliest representations of the supreme goddess as seated upon Sadasiva as a corpse, or “altered” forms of gods can be found in the Kalika Purana and later became a motif in descriptions of the Mahavidyas, and in particular, Kali.

In Lakshmidhara’s commentary (see Tripura Tattvas for some brief notes) these deities represent four Tattvas – maya, suddhavidya, mahesvara and sadasiva.

there the fortunate worship You,
O wave of consciousness and bliss.

The final two lines of this verse make it clear that this place is where the goddess is worshipped by her devotees (“the fortunate”) – that is, in the heart-space and/or the Sri Yantra. She is saluted as a “wave of consciousness and bliss” – a reminder of Anandalahari “Wave of Joy” – and also, the waves of the infinite ocean of milk, which is the infinitude of Devi – the surging forth and drawing back of the waves recalling the emission and reabsorbtion of the universe (see Wot, no circle? for some related discussion).

The esoteric interpretation of this verse is that it is detailing, in various ways, the Sri Yantra. Laksmidhara equates the “ocean of nectar” with the central bindu of the yantra and with the Sahasrara chakra (for Laksmidhara, the Sahasrara chakra exists “beyond” the body) and says that the groves of sura trees represent the five downward-facing triangles of the yantra. By taking the term nipa as “protecting”, Kamesvara relates the “pleasure grove of nipa trees” to the five primary and five secondary pranas and to the gods presiding over the senses – all of which carry and nuture the body.
Another commentator, Narasimhasvamin, compares the srichakra in its entirety with the ocean of nectar; the fourteen-triangled saubhagya-dayaka chakra with the “pleasure garden”, and the two sets of ten triangles with the island of jewels and the garden of nipa trees.The eight-triangled chakra of the Sri Yantra is identified with the mansion of wish-fulfilling gems; the central triangle with the couch, and the bindu becomes Sadasiva.


O great pride of the vanquisher of cities,
with jingling girdle
You stoop under breasts like the frontal globes of a young elephant,
You are slim of waist,
Your face like the autumnal full moon,
in Your hands are bow, arrows, noose, and goad;
may You stand before us! (7)

There –
in the ocean of nectar,
on the isle of jewels edged by groves of sura trees,
within the pleasure garden of nipa trees,
inside the mansion built of wish-fulfilling gems,
on the couch of Siva’s own form,
on the cushion that is highest Siva
there the fortunate worship You,
O wave of consciousness and bliss.(8)
(Transl. Clooney, p50)

Just as verse 7 presents a vision of the goddess in her most alluring, desire-drawing form, so verse eight extends this vision into a scene – situating the Devi within her divine residence – Manidvipa. But Manidvipa. is not merely the dwelling-place of the goddess, it may be thought of as an extension or emission of her maya, generating intensities of affect; sensory engagements with the all-pervading presence of the goddess. Although it appears as an ordered space (pleasure garden/Sri Yantra) the goddess’ abundance – her all-encompassing excess threatens to overwhelm this careful arrangement, drawing the devotee towards the boundary-dissolving collapsing of distinction between self and Devi.

Daud Ali, Courtly Culture and Political Life in Early Medieval India (Cambridge University Press, 2004)
Arthur Avalon Anandalahari (Ganesh & Co., 1953)
Douglas Renfrew Brooks Auspicious Wisdom: The Texts and Traditions of Srividya Sakta Tantrism in South India (SUNY, 1992)
C. Mackenzie Brown, The Devi Gita: the song of the Goddess ; A Translation, Annotation, and Commentary (SUNY, 1998)
Francis X. Clooney, Divine Mother, Blessed Mother: Hindu Goddesses and the Virgin Mary (Oxford University Press, 2005)
Thomas E. Donaldson Iconography of the Buddhist Sculpture of Orrisa, Volume 1 (Abhinav Publications, 2001)
Meera Kachroo, The Goddess and Her Powers: The Tantric Identities of the Saundarya Lahari (MA Thesis, McGill University, June 2005)
Tracy Pintchman (Ed.) Seeking Mahadevi: Constructing the Indentities of the Hindu Great Goddess (SUNY, 2001)
Pandit S. Subrahmanya Sastri and T.R. Srinivasa Ayyangar, Saundarya Lahari (Theosophical Publishing House, 1948)
Vasugupta, Mark S. G. Dyczkowski, The Stanzas on Vibration (SUNY, 1992)