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Reading the Saundarya Lahari – III

Continuing from my last post in this series I will now turn to a brief examination of verse 7 of Anandalahari – which together with verse 8, provides a preliminary dhyana – a meditation/ritual image of the goddess.

Note: I originally intended to cover both verses 7 & 8 in this post, but the examination of verse 7 turned out to be much longer than I expected it to be, so I have decided to cover verse 8 in the next post, which I’ll try and finish as soon as possible.

Lalita Puja 2004In the first post in this series I made the point that Saundaryalahari is not only open to multiple interpretations – for example, from an aesthetic perspective, from the viewpoint of a devotee; and as a ritual manual or “encoding” of esoteric instructions – and that these pluralistic readings of the text do not necessarily exclude each other. A practitioner can occupy them and read across them simultaneously.

Having said that, I do feel that there is a tendency for some of Saundaryalahari’s commentators to prioritise the “esoteric” interpretations of verses over the poetic ornamentation. A common interpretive schema amongst tantric schools (including Sri Vidya) is that of the sthula “physical”; suksma “subtle” and para “supreme” which is frequently hierarchicalised so that the sthula is considered to be the lowest level for understanding the goddess – a kind of worship of the goddess for beginners or the uninitiated. My own approach (see this post) is to take these three modalities as mutually interdependent and productive of each other. Some of the commentaries on Saundaryalahari tend to ignore “poetic whimsy” in favour of (sometimes lengthy) esoteric interpretations of single lines within a verse in order to demonstrate how the text supports a particular interpretive schema – such as the chakra system familiar from texts such as the Satcakranirupana (and I’ll have more to say about that when I look at the relevant verses in Anandalahari). Personally, I find these “esoteric” interpretations to be often less interesting precisely because they ignore the poetic ornamentation of the text and the (erotic) physicality of the goddess’ immediate presence in favour of more abstracted interpretation & discussion – stressing the ascetic/yogic interpretations of the text, rather than the householder/bhakta orientation. (NB: there is another matter here, pertaining to two major divisions in SriVidya – the Samayacara and the Kaulacara – but I will go into that in a future post).

The Poetic Vision
Meera Kachroo (2005) highlights the importance of poetic ornamentation by pointing out how poetic ornamentation and embellishment is not only for the delight of an audience but may be considered a form of worship in its own right, and that flourishes of language can be thought of as signifiers of both the power of the goddess and how that power is expressed through the goddess’ relationship with devotees. She also points to the usefulness of Abhinavagupta’s aesthetic vision, in respect to understanding the power of language use in respect to the Saundaryalahari. Whereas poetic discourse had previously focused on the literal meaning of words (abhidha) and the secondary meaning of laksana such as metaphor and metonymy, Abhinavagupta and his commentator Anandavardhana argue that the “essence” of poetic language resides in dhvani – the “suggestive power” of language, and that this suggested meaning cannot be reduced to any particular word or metaphor within a poem, but arises out of the totality of the work. Abhinavagupta also linked the suggestive power of dhvani to the feeling of rasa (see Rasa theory for a brief discussion) or dramatic “relishing” of an aesthetic object. For Abhinavagupta, rasa becomes a form of bliss (ananda) which arises in the heart of the spectator due to suggestion. Moreover, this feeling of rasa allows the cultivated reader/spectator to move beyond his or her own finite experience of an emotion towards a more encompassing compassion for a mood displayed by an actor on stage or within a text. This experience becomes, for Abhinavagupta, a form of liberation, in which all worldly attachments cease, and the viewer/reader’s subjectivity is dissolved. Unlike moksa – “liberation” however, this aesthetic enjoyment is temporary in nature, and cannot lead to the permanent change in selfhood as occasioned by the moksa produced by sadhana. It can however, be considered a glimpse, or a foretaste of liberation:

“This aesthetic fullness finds its expression only in the realm of duality and dualistic imagings. As we see in the Saundarya Lahari’s imaging of the Goddess in a vast multitude of material ornaments, in a flood of metaphors that encircle her body with all the beauty contained in the cosmos. With Abhinavagupta’s idea of the poetic vision of the world as a fundamentally creative and religious event, envisioning the Goddess through metaphorical embellishment becomes a way of recreating and participating in Her ultimacy.” (Kachroo, 2005, p39)

The poetic language of the Saundaryalahari itself demonstrates the all-pervasive immanence of the goddess; she is present everywhere there is beauty, attraction, desire. Homologising the elements of the natural world (seasons, animals, plants etc.) and related mythological narratives to her body reflects the homology of her body with the entirety of the cosmos. This, Kachroo argues, creates a space and a text for tantrically-oriented devotional practice.

Now onwards to the verses themselves.

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)

Even though I’m not examining verse 8 for the present, I’ve left them together here in order to illustrate how they interrelate to produce the dhyanan of the goddess.

So to verse 7. I’ll go through it line by line:

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

O great pride of the vanquisher of cities
This first line indicates Siva – “the vanquisher of cities” – an epithet which recalls the well-known story of how Siva destroyed the three cities built by the sons of the Asura Taraka. Here’s a quick summary. The three sons of Taraka, through the practice of austerities, gained from Brahma several boons, the greatest of which was to create three flying cities of gold, silver and iron. They also asked for immortality, but Brahma refused them. He also prophesied that after a thousand years, the three cities would become as one, and Siva would destroy them with a single arrow. The demons then created a magical lake which revived any demon thrown into. Immortal and undefeatable in battle, the demons terrorised the worlds, plundering cities and defeating the gods. Eventually, Siva is persuaded to act against them, and when the three cities come together, destroys them with a single arrow from his great bow.
There are many versions of this tale, one of the earliest versions of which can be found in the Karna Parva of the Mahabharata. In some versions of this story, the demons dwelling in the three cities are “deluded” from the worship of Siva by Visnu, who takes the form of Buddha.

According to Woodroffe, the Sanskrit aho-purusika, whilst popularly interpreted to denote “pride” is used here in the sense of consciousness of one’s self and that this first line indicates that Siva becomes conscious of himself by seeing himself reflected in the goddess’ body.

with jingling girdle
The goddess wears the Kanchi – a belt-like garment worn around the waist, formed from single or multiple strings of beads or bells which jingle when she walks. In Sanskrit poetry, the jingling of waist & ankle-beads arouses romantic feelings in lovers. The charming quality of the bells worn by the goddess is similarly stressed in this verse from the Lalitopakhyana:

“Anklets and other ornaments on her feet produce a charming tinkling sound. The sound of her bangles is likewise charming. Her lower legs have subdued the pride of the Love’s arrow quiver. Her thighs bear a complexion like that of an elephant’s trunk and forelobes or a plantain tree.

What is important in this line, according to Sastri and Ayyangar, is that the “jingling” sound is one of the “internal sounds” – nadas heard by yogis, as detailed in texts such as the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, Siva Samhita or the Gerhanda Samhita (see Beck, Sonic Theology for a fuller discussion of this topic).

You stoop under breasts like the frontal globes of a young elephant
Here, the poet is calling attention to the goddess’ breasts – and the fact that they are large – but why are they likened to the “frontal globes of a young elephant”? Comparing a woman’s breasts to an elephant’s cranial lobes is a conventional simile (upama) found in Sanskrit poetry. For example, this poem by Bharuga (date unknown, from Ingalls, 1965, p170):

“Your breasts, oh slender maid,
resemble an elephant’s cranial lobes
You are as it were, a pool
shaken by the elephant, Youth, who plunges therein.”

Other popular elephant similes include the likening of a woman’s gait to the slow walk of elephants, and the comparison of a woman’s thighs to an elephant’s trunk. Sanskrit poetic conventions generate a highly idealised image of women, whereby every feature was perfect, and compared to a feature of the natural world, which the female form tended to surpass. Vidya Dehejia (2009, p29) comments: “Poetry read aloud in courts, dramas performed for select audiences, and art admired by an elite audience all transported one into an idealised world where women and men, queens and kings, goddesses and gods were all beautiful, young and nubile. Youth, beauty, and the ability to attract others translated into power and authority, whether in the earthly or the divine sphere.” Lee Seigel (1987) points out that this particular simile is sometimes used with comic effect to link two incongruous realms of experience, citing an occurrence within the Gitagovinda in which Krishna, during a battle with the war elephant of Kamsa, looks at the elephant’s forehead and “was reminded of Radha’s swollen breasts. He broke out in a sweat and closed his eyes.”

A humorous use of this simile is employed later in the Saundaryalahari in verse 72, where the infant Ganesa, about to drink milk from the goddess’ breasts, becomes confused and, thinking that the globes on his head have become transposed onto the body of the goddess, touches “his own frontal globes with his trunk – thwack!”

Similarly, classical Sanskrit verses describing the breasts of a goddess or beautiful women frequently stress their weight, which causes her to bend forward. In the context of the Anandalahari this line signals not only the physical perfection of the goddess (according to Indian classical standards of beauty) but also her power to attract, provoke desire, and capture the attention of the devotee.

You are slim of waist,
Your face like the autumnal full moon,

Again, narrowness of waist in women is a common poetic and sculptural convention in India, as is the comparison of a woman’s face to the moon – and in particular, the autumnal full moon – a comparison also frequently made in the context of describing gods & goddesses (Krishna’s face is sometimes said to surpass the brilliance of the autumn moon). India’s autumnal period (aproximately mid-October to December) is relatively free of clouds, allowing the moon to shine brightly and clearly; it is also the time of ripening for rice and sugarcane, the blooming of lotuses in ponds, and the time when birds prepare to depart.

This line hence stresses the radiance of the goddess’ face to the devotee.

in Your hands are bow, arrows, noose, and goad;
These are the four weapons held by the goddess. She carries in her lower left hand the Sugarcane Bow – in her lower right hand, the five flower-arrows (Kamala, Raktakairava, Kahlara, Indivara, and Sahakara); in her upper left hand the noose (Pasa) and in her upper right hand the elephant-goad (Ankusa). These four weapons are expressed across the three modalities – that is to say, they have a gross (Sthula) form – their outward appearance; in the Subtle mode (Suksma) they are seed or root-mantras; and in the Para “Supreme” form the bow is manas – “mind”; the five arrows are the five tanmatras; the noose is the principle of attachment, and the goad – the principle of aversion. The bow & arrows depend on the activating-power of Kriyashakti, the noose, Icchashakti and the goad, Jnanashakti.

This table summarises these relationships.

Root mantra
BowSugarcaneThamManas (mind)Kriyashakti
Five ArrowsFlowersMantraFive TanmatrasKriyashakti
Kamala (lotus)Dram
Raktakairava (red oleander)Drim
Kahlara (white or red lily)Klim
Indivara (blue lotus)Blum
Sahakara (mango flower)Sah

The Sthula modality is the image of the goddess and her weapons as given in the verse, the Suksma modality is the goddess in the form of sound (obviously this is a difficult concept, which I’m not going to go into in depth for the present) and the Para modality interprets the weapons in terms of the Tattva schema. For some brief notes on mind and tanmatras within the Tattva schema see tantric tattvas. The noose (Pasa) is identified with raga – attachment, and the goad (ankusa) with dvesa – aversion. Together, mind, tanmatras, attachment and aversion generate and maintain all phenomenal transactions.

These expressions of Para can be interpreted in a wide variety of ways. For example, Lalita’s bow is sometimes described as rigid – indicating that mind must remain steady, despite the continual flow of sense impressions. The five arrows are sometimes said to be soft at the feather-end and sharp at the point – indicating that sense-experiences can be both pleasurable and painful. Attachments (the noose) have a binding quality, whilst the goad represents the withdrawal of mind from being bound up (by the noose) in sense-experiences or the development of discrimination. Such interpretations stress the yogic orientation – or at least, the idea that sadhana necessitates a withdrawal from the bonds of samsara.

However avesa can also indicate a state of possession, or the power to enter another’s body (Smith, 2006). The Kulanarva Tantra (v88) says:

By means of concentration, this great joy causes god possession (“devavesa”). This stage is called the vision of brahman (brahmadhyana), and it is visible through horripilation (and other such symptoms).

Hence my own summary of the power of Lalita’s four weapons would be that the bow (mind) and five modalities of experiences (the five sense-arrows) allow us to realise that the world is full of joys and delights, and it is through these delights we can unite with the all-pervading presence of the goddess; that with the noose, the goddess draws us towards her, into that ecstatic body-blurring union, and the goad propels us towards Vidya (wisdom-knowledge).

may You stand before us!
This is simple enough – the devotee desires to see the vision of the goddess in the form of the preceding lines of the verse. Sastri and Ayyangar however, interpret this line as an instruction to meditate upon this representation of devi in the heart (hridaya-kamala). Meditating upon forms of the goddess as residing in one’s own heart is very common in tantra practice.

So, to summarise then, this verse invokes a vision of the goddess, emphasising her most alluring, desire-drawing qualities; a vision which draws the devotee towards delight and the ecstatic recognition of union with the goddess through all that is beautiful and charming in the world.

Arthur Avalon Anandalahari (Ganesh & Co., 1953)
Guy L. Beck Sonic Theology: Hinduism and Sacred Sound (Motilal, 1995)
Douglas Renfrew Brooks Auspicious Wisdom: The Texts and Traditions of Srividya Sakta Tantrism in South India (SUNY, 1992)
W. Norman Brown The 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)
Vidya Dehejia The Body Adorned: Sacred and Profane in Indian Art (Columbia University Press, 2009)
Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty The origins of evil in Hindu mythology (University of California Press, 1976)
Daniel H Ingalls An anthology of Sanskrit Court Poetry (Harvard University Press, 1965)
Meera Kachroo, The Goddess and Her Powers: The Tantric Identities of the Saundarya Lahari (MA Thesis, McGill University, June 2005)
Les Morgan Croaking Frogs: A Guide to Sanskrit Metrics and Figures of Speech (2011)
Paul Muller-Ortega, The Triadic Heart of Siva: Kaula Tantricism of Abhinavagupta in the Non-Dual Shaivism of Kashmir (SUNY, 1989)
Lee Siegel Laughing Matters: Comic Tradition in India (University of Chicago Press, 1987)
Frederick M. Smith The Self Possessed: Deity and Spirit Possession in South Asian Literature and Civilisation (Columbia University Press, 2006)
Pandit S. Subrahmanya Sastri and T.R. Srinivasa Ayyangar, Saundarya Lahari (Theosophical Publishing House, 1948)