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Reading the Saundarya Lahari – IV

Following from the previous two verses (examined in the last two posts – (see Reading the Saundarya Lahari – III-2 for summary) which together, produce an image of the goddess for dhyana) verses 9-10 shift focus suddenly towards what seem to be, at first glance, expositions of the goddess in relation to the chakras. Verses 9 and 10 are often interpreted in relation to various yogic accounts of Kundalini. Some contemporary commentaries on Saundaryalahri take this as a cue to go into long, detailed expositions of Kundalini schemas. I’m not going to do that, however.

So to verses 9-10.

“You pierce earth in the muladhara cakra,
water in the manipura cakra,
fire in the svadhistana cakra,
wind in the anahata cakra and the ether above that, and
mind in the cakra between the brows;
thus you pierce the entire kula path
and then take pleasure with Your Lord
in the secrecy of the thousand-petalled lotus. (9)

You sprinkle the evolved world
with a stream of nectar flowing from beneath your feet, and
from the resplendent abundance of the nectar moon
You descend to Your own place
making yourself a serpent of three and a half coils,
and there you sleep again
in the cave deep within the foundation. (10)
(translation, Francis X Clooney, pp50-51)

What’s immediately apparent is that Manipura (“city of jewels”) is the 2nd chakra, although the hierarchy of the five Mahabhutas is the same as that given in many discourses on the ordering of the Tattvas (see Tantric Tattvas). Some commentators see this as a mistake, perhaps caused by scribal recopying of the text. However, given that the previous verse, situates the goddess’ divine residence – Manidvipa – at the centre of a vast ocean, I’d interpret Manipura as being identified with Manidvipa.

As Norman Brown points out (1958, pp20-21) many of the features commonly associated with the chakra schema made familiar through texts such as Sr John Woodroffe’s translation of the circa-16th Century Sat-Chakra-Nirupana Tantra (first published in 1919) – nadis, susumna, assignation of sanskrit letters etc, are absent from the verses of Anandalahari. He proposes that this could be taken as indicating that the cakra schema used in Anandalahari. represents a “simpler view of the ideas of kundalini and the chakras” and that the Saundarya Lahari represents a “simpler body of doctrine” than later tantric teachings. This is certainly a possibility, although there are of course many variations on the chakra schema found in tantric and yoga texts.

It is not clear, as Francis X. Clooney (2005, pp164-165) notes, whether the chakras are points in the goddess’ own body, or centres of power within her domain (the universe). It is often assumed that the verse presents this process occuring in the body of the devotee, but I am inclined to follow Clooney’s suggestion and leave it ambiguous, given the propensity of Saundaryalahari to blur the distinctions between bodies which I have noted in previous posts. The sense that the chakras “belong” to the goddess (i.e. they are coterminous with her body – the universe) is reinforced by verses 36-41. For example, verse 36, in Clooney’s translation begins “I salute the supreme Sambhu who abides in Your ajna chakra”. Further, Clooney points out that the “traditional knowledge” (i.e. of the goddess’ relationship to cakra schemas) “is evoked to assert Devi’s superiority over it, as the elements and chakras are correlated as Her domain and a path for ascent and descent … She is beyond the lotuses taken to symbolize the chakras, and in the end salvation depends simply on viewing Her” – which he feels is implied by verse 21:

Slender as a streak of lightning,
the essence of sun, moon, and fire;
though seated in the great forest of lotuses,
You stand high above even the six lotuses;
if great souls in whose minds impurity and illusion are obliterated
look upon You,
they gain a flood of highest delight.(21)

In contrast to some contemporary commentaries, which tend to present Saundaryalahari as poetry which “hides” esoteric yogic secrets, Clooney suggests instead (p166-167) that the chakra schema is accepted, yet subordinate to the goddess – and that: ” Contemplating the cakras is a purification most plausibly taken as propaedeutic to the grand visualization that
occupies the hymn’s latter portion, the Flood of Beauty.” In Laksmidhara’s commentary, verse 9 points to the transcendence of Sahasrara (where Suddhavidya and Sadasiva are united) to the other chakras.

On “piercing”
“Piercing” the elements – denoted by terms such as bhittvā – to pierce, split, or penetrate is a familiar phrasing from yoga and alchemical texts. Like the ritual practice of bhutasuddhi, the “gross” elements (bhuta) that make up the physical world are collapsed or refolded into the “subtle” elements (tanmatra) which are their source and essence. One might also think of “piercing” in this context in terms of getting to the heart of something.. As a poetic metaphor it can imply a sudden, penetrating insight or a revealing moment. James Mallinson (2010, p27) makes a connection between hathayoga practices such as mahavedha – “the great piercing” and the tantric vedhadiksa – “piercing initiation” – the transfer of divine, or vital power between a guru and initiate. David Gordon White (1996) makes the same connection (p303):

“This same term, vedha, is employed in (1) a form of tantric initiation involving a transmission of vital fluids from teacher to disciple, (2) the hathayogic piercing of the cakras as well as in a particular technique (called mahavedha, the “great penetration”) employed to that end, and (3) the alchemical transmutation of base metals into gold.”

thus you pierce the entire kula path
Interpreting this line very much depends on how one reads the “entire kula path”. The term Kula is, at its simplest, translated as clan, family, or multitude. Bhaskararaya, in his Saubhagyabhaskara for instance, says that the Kula path refers to that which is obtained through a lineage and one’s family. “the kula path” is also sometimes interpreted as indicating the muladhara-sushumna axis.

Verse 10 is concerned with the goddess recreating the phenomenal world through her grace or action. The goddess’ “stream of nectar” that flows from her feet is a familiar metaphor from many texts (tantric and otherwise). It also recalls the title of the whole poem – “the flood of beauty”. Several verses in Lalitasahasranama identify the goddess as both source and the flow of nectar). The Nityasodasikarnava (“Ocean of the sixteen Nitya goddesses”) says: “When she flashes forth from Her triangular base, of twisted form, She breaks through the sphere of the Siva sun, and causing the lunar sphere to overflow, She is refreshed with supreme bliss created by the stream of nectar emanating from there.” “Nectar” has a very wide range of identifications – ranging from the nectar of immortality – amrita (see previous post for a recap) or the supreme joy or bliss of the realization of nondual awareness, to the reception of wisdom from a guru. We can also relate the tasting of the nectar to other to the tasting of rasa (sap or juice) and accompanying metaphors of love and sustenance. Generally, I would say that “nectar” functions metonymically, bringing together a wide range of domains relating to both attainment and experience of immersion in the divine.

At the end of the verse the goddess, having poured forth the phenomenal world from the plenitude of her being, rests – being identified with Kundalini-sakti.

Verse nine recapitulates the ascension of the goddess from differentiation to unity, a process sometimes referred to as samhara whilst verse ten details the descent-process by which the goddess creates (and maintains) the worlds – srsti. (see Practice notes: Wot, no circle? for some related discussion).

Arthur Avalon Anandalahari (Ganesh & Co., 1953)
Douglas Renfrew Brooks The Secret of the Three Cities: An Introduction to Hindu Sakta Tantrism (University of Chicago Press, 1990)
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)
Meera Kachroo, The Goddess and Her Powers: The Tantric Identities of the Saundarya Lahari (MA Thesis, McGill University, June 2005)
James Mallinson The Khecarividya of Adinatha: A Critical Edition and Annotated Translation of an Early Text of Hathayoga (Routledge, 2010)
Paul Muller-Ortega The Triadic Heart of Śiva: Kaula Tantricism of Abhinavagupta in the Non-dual Shaivism of Kashmir (SUNY, 1989)
Pandit S. Subrahmanya Sastri and T.R. Srinivasa Ayyangar, Saundarya Lahari (Theosophical Publishing House, 1948)
Rajmani Tigunait Sakti: The Power in Tantra A Scholarly Approach (The Himalayan Institute Press, 1998)
Annette Wilke Recoding the Natural and Animating the Imaginary. Kaula Body-practices in the Parasurama-Kalpasutra, Ritual Transfers, and the Politics of Representation in István Keul (ed) Transformations and Transfer of Tantra in Asia and Beyond (Walter de Grutyer, 2012)
David Gordon White The Alchemical Body: Siddha Traditions in Medieval India (University of Chicago Press, 1996)