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Reading the Saundarya Lahari – IX

“The understanding of Śaivism can only aspire to objectivity if it includes a sincere effort to see how things are in the subjective perception of its practitioners. One has to be able to enter into the spirit of their world, to be with them intimately, to see what they are saying and why they are saying it, to go beneath the surface of their texts. There has to be empathy.”
Alexis Sanderson

In the opening post to this series examining Saundaryalahari I noted that, as a text, Saundaryalahari “works” in a variety of ways: it can be read simultaneously as a literary work (Kavya); as a ritual manual (prayoga), as a work of devotion (bhakti) and as a text which hides/encodes tantric “secrets”.

When Saundaryalahari is sung, recited, listened to, contemplated upon, these multiple registers coalesce, offering a vision/encounter with the goddess (Tripurasundari Devi). As hymn or prayer, Saundaryalahari opens, points the way to – a direct encounter with Devi – an encounter which requires and produces transformation in all whom it touches. To speak, to hear, to contemplate Saundaryalahari is to enter into a direct relation with Devi – to attend Her and be attended to by Her.

Now, to verses 17-18 of Anandalahari.

Verse 17

whoever contemplates You along with the stimulators of words-
the goddess Vaśinī and others resplendent like slivers of moonstone-
becomes the author of great poems
filled with words well crafted in style and
sweet with the fragrance
that wafts from the lotus mouth of the goddess of speech.
(transl. Clooney, 2005, p52)

Verse 17 recalls the theme introduced in verse 15 (see previous post) focusing on Devi’s Sattvik qualities and her gift or siddhi of poetic excellence and eloquent speech.

Why is speech counted amongst the siddhis? I have been fascinated with this idea ever since I first began reciting Mike Magee’s translation of the Ganesa Upanisad, which features the line “He who sprinkles Ganapati with this becomes eloquent”. Mastery of speech is a central concern in the tantric traditions, ranging from mantras to the homologisation of the Sanskrit alphabet with parts of the body, from the deities who are said to embody speech to the numerous sadhanas in contemporary tantric manuals which promise vak siddhi – so that whatever one speaks, becomes true. But poetic excellence – “becoming the author of great poems” suggests to me a special relationship between poetry and the experience of the goddess – it is a theme that recurs several times throughout Saundaryalahari.

There is a close relationship between speech, the experience of divinity, and the power of words in Indian religious and literary praxis.

From the time of the Rg Veda on, a central concept in Indian poetics is that of pratibhā as the primary power or cause of poetry. Pratibhā – frequently interpreted as “illumination” – is an immediate and timeless flash of insight; not unlike a yoga-cognition, it is both a perceptual power; the grasping of the essence of things, and the process by which such essences could be embodied as text. It is through pratibhā that, as it were, the poet’s images come to life. The fifth-century poetician Bhartŗhari, as David Shulman points out uses pratibhā to explain how one can immediately explain an utterance (or sentence) “in a single unitary flash that goes far beyond any analytical or logical concern with the individual building-blocks of syllables and words … and their interpretations” (2012, p81).

Vladimir Braginsky quotes the 11th-century poetician Mahihabhatta’s exposition of pratibhā:

“The objects [of poetry] are revealed by the words which flow from the artist’s pratibhā. When he sits in concentration considering word and sense which are in harmony with his dominant poetic mood, there suddenly wells up in him an insight which is in touch with the essence of things; that is pratibhā. It may be identified with the third eye of Shiva by which the god sees all things past, present and future. The poet’s imagination seizes the individual qualities of things … and represents in fit words such a vision of reality.”
(Braginsky, 2013, p108)

Pratibhā is generally considered by the poeticians to be divine in origin – that it is the special gift of Devi (or Shiva-Bhairava) as the goddess of Speech (Vac or Sarasvati) and is synonymous with sakti.

“whoever contemplates You along with the stimulators of words-
the goddess Vaśinī and others resplendent like slivers of moonstone-
becomes the author of great poems”

These three lines present a sadhana and its fruits – that is to say, the contemplation of Devi surrounded by the eight vagdevatas or deities of speech arrayed within the Sarvarogaharachakra of the Sriyantra (see Post 5 in this series for a brief exposition of the deities of the Srichakra). The phrase resplendent like slivers of moonstone indicates that the emanatory forms of Devi (here, the 8 divinities of speech) share in her all-pervading radiance, defracting her essence. There is an implication that those who can discern the essence of Devi within the myriad glittering, dazzling lights she emits (i.e. the universe) become great poets. 1

filled with words well crafted in style and
sweet with the fragrance
that wafts from the lotus mouth of the goddess of speech.

Great poetry is not only pleasing and well-crafted, but shares the essence of Devi. 2 In attending to (speaking, listening, contemplating) great poetry, a person (particularly the rasika aesthete or the bhāvaka, who knows how to listen) can experience the fullness of Devi.

Verse 18

If someone recollects the entire earth and sky bathed in redness,
the radiance of the rising sun,
the lustrous graces of your body-
then who among those courtesans whose songs are like arrows,
and also like Urvaśī glancing shyly like the timid wild deer,
would not be ruled by such a one?
(transl. Clooney, 2005, p52)

This verse returns to Devi in her Rajasic modality.

If someone recollects…
Practice,from a tantric perspective, can be understood as a form of “recollection”. Gavin Flood, in The Tantric Body (2006) points out that a verb often used with respect to visualisation is smŗ (“to remember”) which he explains not only refers to the memory of something in the past, but also the holding of an image in the imagination (2006, p178). In The Ascetic Self (2004), Flood writes: “The body expresses the tradition and embodies or enacts the memory of tradition through the subjective appropriation of tradition, through remembrance of the goal, which is also a reclaiming of origin” (p80). For Flood, the Tantric body (of the practitioner) is shaped in accordance with tradition and tradition is performed through the body.

bathed in redness…
Redness tends to signify passion; it is the colour associated with spring (vasanta) – when the blossoming flowers are likened to the arrows of the love-god, Kama – whose bodiless essence, we should recall, has been subsumed by the goddess. It is the season most associated with the erotic sentiment – śŗṅgāra – or “mood of love” which is called the “king of rasas.

…who among those courtesans whose songs are like arrows,
and also like Urvaśī glancing shyly like the timid wild deer,
would not be ruled by such a one?

Again, this verse stresses the intersubjective fusion of devotee and Devi. But does this verse merely indicate that the goal of this practice causes courtesans and “celestial nymphs” to be attracted to the practitioner? Whilst this is a common theme in tantric texts, some contemporary commentators on this (and similar verses in Saundaryalahari) tend to object to such an interpretation (see post 6 for some related discussion).

One way to interpret this verse is that – as the practitioner moves towards this intersubjective fusion with Devi (Shulman refers to this as the “engoddessing” of the devotee) the practitioner’s awareness takes on that of the goddess – just as the the rising sun “colours” the earth and sky with its redness, so the awareness that everything parkates of the nature of Devi pervades the entirety of the devotee’s consciousness.

But what of the ganikas – the courtesans whose songs are like arrows, and
also like Urvaśī…
? I’d suggest that these lines maintain the poetic theme of the previous verse if only because the doings of the ganikas (“courtesans”) is a popular theme in Kavya literature, as indeed is the apsara Urvaśī. The story of her love for a mortal king first appears in the 10th Mandala of the Rg Veda (10.95). Different versions of this tale appear throughout the Puranas, Ramayana and Mahabharata and it is the subject of Kalidasa’s famous play, Vikramorvaśiyaṁ – “Urvaśī won by Valour”. 3

The position of the ganika – an elite courtesan – to some extent the female counterpart of the nagaraka (see Kamasutra-III) is somewhat ambivalent. Whilst she is praised for her beauty, charms, and accomplishments in the various arts, the fact that her favours can be bought for money means that her social respectability was limited (Singh, 2008, p506-507). Yet Kavya literature often extols the virtues of courtesans; Doris M. Srinivasan (2006) for example, observes that in a Sanskrit farce of the seventh century A.D. attributed to King Mahendravaram I, it is an ascetic Brahmin, rather than a courtesan and her entourage, who is the butt of ridicule, and that Somadeva’s 11th-century Ocean of Story contains the tale of a courtesan who’s sensuality and magnaminity -and in particular, her “loyalty, constancy, and selfless love” captures the heart of a king, who asks her to to live with him (p166). 4

Kavya literature also shows “great poets” enjoying the pleasures of wealth, food, and women – and occasionally as Rao notes (in Pollock, 2003, p406) there is the suggestion that some were good poets “because they were good lovers”. Doris Srinivasan cites a seventeenth century Telegu padam in which the poet, in the persona of a courtesan “voices his own longing for a personal experience with god:”

Don’t you know my house
garland in the palace of the Love God
where flowers cast their fragrance everywhere

Don’t you know the house
hidden by tamarind trees,
in that narrow space marked by the two golden hills?

That’s where you lose your senses,
where the Love God hunts without fear.”
(quoted from Srinivasan, 2006, p168)

I’d suggest that the expression that the “courtesans, whose songs are like arrows” (bearing in mind, as always, that we are dealing with translation & interpretation here) suggest again, a relationship between them and the goddess who has subsumed or appropriated the desire-causing capacity of Kama’s arrows, which she is sometimes visualised as holding, along with the sugarcane bow. Perhaps there is an implication that these courtesans are kin to the apsaras in their relation to Devi – her sakhis or companions, and thereby bearers of pratibhā.

Finally, what of the deer?

…glancing shyly like the timid wild deer
The forest deer turns up a lot in Sanskrit literature, often in the context of enticement or desire. In the Ramayana for example, Ravana sends a golden deer to Sita; Rama and Lakshman go off in search of the deer, thus setting the stage for Ravana’s subsequent abduction of Sita. In Kalidasa’s Shakuntala, King Dushyanta is engaged in a deer hunt when he comes across the forest hermits, and the female hermit for whom the play is titled. An early epigram attributed to Bhartŗhari says:

Girls with the startled eyes of forest deer,
And fluttering hands that drip
With sandal-water; bathing-halls with clear
Deep pools to float and dip.

The light moon blown across the shadowy hours,
Cool winds, and odorous flowers.
And the high terraced roof – all things enhance
In Summer love’s sweet trance.
(transl.P.E. More, 1898)

Vladimir Braginsky The Comparative Study of Traditional Asian Literatures: From Reflective Traditionalism to Neo-Traditionalism (Routledge, 2013)
Francis X. Clooney, Divine Mother, Blessed Mother: Hindu Goddesses and the Virgin Mary (Oxford University Press, 2005)
Gavin Flood The Ascetic Self: Subjectivity, Memory and Tradition (Cambridge University Press, 2004)
Gavin Flood The Tantric Body: The Secret Tradition of Hindu Religion (I.B. Tauris, 2006)
Meera Kachroo, The Goddess and Her Powers: The Tantric Identities of the Saundarya Lahari (MA Thesis, McGill University, June 2005)
Sreenath Nair, Saundarya: the Concept of Beauty in Indian Aesthetics in Meyer-Dinkgrafe (ed) The Future of Beauty in Theatre, Literature and the Arts (Cambridge Scholars Press, 2005)
N.C. Panda (ed), Saundaryalahari of Sri Sankara Bhagavatpadacarya with the Commentary of Laksmidhara Translated by S.S. Sastri & T.R.S. Ayyangar (Bharatiya Kala Prakashan, 2009)
Sheldon Pollock (ed) Literary Cultures in History: Reconstructions from South Asia (University of California Press, 2003)
Pandit S. Subrahmanya Sastri and T.R. Srinivasa Ayyangar, Saundarya Lahari (Theosophical Publishing House, 1948)
David Shulman More than Real: A History of the Imagination in South India (Harvard University Press, 2012)
Upinder Singh A History of Ancient and Early Medieval India: From the Stone Age to the 12th Century (Pearson, 2008)
Doris M. Srinivasan, Royalty’s Courtesans and God’s Mortal Wives: Keepers of Culture in Precolonial India in Martha Feldman & Bonnie Gordon (eds) The Courtesan’s Arts: Cross-Cultural Perspectives (Oxford University Press, 2006)
Anthony K. Warder, (ed) Indian Kavya Literature: volume 3: The early medieval period (Sudraka to Visakhadatta) (Motilal, 1977)


  1. A recurring image in Sankrit literature is that moonstones sweat or ooze liquid (water, nectar) when touched by the moon’s rays.
  2. as indeed does all that is beautiful and pleasing.
  3. Is Urvaśī particularly given to shy glances? I confess I don’t know enough about how she is presented in the various versions of her tale to comment.
  4. An earlier positive portrayal of the courtesan is found in the the Buddhist Jakatas tell that a learned and wealthy ganika – Ambapalli – impressed by a meeting with the young Siddhartha (who refuses the invitation of the king in her favour), offered large portions of wealth to support the new Buddhist movement.


  1. Dan Lowe
    Posted January 12th 2014 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

    Been thinking a lot about the karmadriyas lately. This helps put the power of speech into a much wider context. Thanks!

  2. suryantana
    Posted January 23rd 2014 at 1:46 am | Permalink

    thanks for your kindness to share this latter..may ananda always be with us…