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Reading the Saundarya Lahari – VI

Devi & YantraThere are many “origin stories” for Saundaryalahari. As I noted in a previous post, the text is traditionally ascribed to Sankaracarya. One of the origin stories has Sankara visiting Siva’s home on Mount Kailasa, where he notices a divine book lying on Siva’s throne – a treasured possession of Parvati. Sankara picks up the book and hastens towards the exit, but is prevented from leaving by Siva’s doorkeeper – Nandikesvara. He and Sankara fight over the book, and Sankara manages to get away with the first portion of the book – the Anandalahari – to which he later adds another 59 stanzas of his own. In another version, Sankara finds the entirety of Saundaryalahari inscribed in stone on Mount Kailasa (having been carved by Nandikesvara who overheard Siva eulogising the goddess with them) but the goddess erases the words, so that Sankara (again) – only memorises the Anandalahari section. These origin stories make a clear distinction between the Anandalahari and the remainder of the poem.

There are also versions where Sankaracarya composes Saundaryalahari following the teaching of his own guru, Gaudapadacarya ( the Sri Vidya text Subhagodaya is sometimes attributed to Gaudapadacarya). Other Commentators, such as Rama-kavi, attribute authorship of the poem to Siva himself, and there is also an origin where the goddess Sarasvati claims to have composed the entirety of the poem, but Siva merely laughs and points to the slopes of Kailasa, where the whole text is inscribed.

So then, to verses 12-13:

“Your beauty is such,
O daughter of the snow-capped mountain,
that the foremost poets, Virinci and others,
strain to match it in some way,
and so too immortal maidens
eager to see you
travel by their minds
along the path to union with that mountain Lord
so hard to attain just by asceticism. (12)
(Transl. Clooney, p51)

Verse 12 begins with a reminder of the inexhaustible beauty (saundaryam) of the goddess. She is addressed with the epithet: “O daughter of the snow-capped mountain” (Tuhina-giri-kanye) – the snow-capped mountain, of course, is the Himalayas. The inexhaustible, all-encompassing beauty of the goddess is stressed by the idea that “the foremost poets” – and “Virinci and others” – Virinci being a reference to Brahma and “the others” (possibly referring to other gods); “strain to match it in some way”. The gods are identified as poets.

On Beauty
Sreenath K Nair (2005) points out that Saundarya is often translated as “beauty” – from the adjective sundar which is a compound of su (“pleasant” or “well”); and und -(“to soak”). So Sundar can be interpreted as “soaked pleasantly” or “well-soaked” – “something that makes you delight and wets your heart” (p154) and that in classical Sanskrit, saundarya is a “subjective perception of an object” which is, in itself, sundar – beautiful. Hence saundarya is both an experience, and a state of consciousness. From the time of the Upanisads, beauty has been conceptualised as a manifestion of the divine – as an experience of ananda (“bliss, joy, delight”). A commentary on the Atharvasira Upanisad declares that: “Whatever is striking in nature, whatever feeling or being is charming and joy-giving, in short, whatever object is beautiful – all are so many manifestations of God.”

This experience – or prehension of beauty, arises from the expansion of shakti; the pulsating, shimmering, unfolding dynamism which is the cosmic dance of Shiva; or the goddess playing hide-and-seek with herself. In his Tantraloka, Abhinavagupta uses the term anandarasa (“beauty of ecstasy”) to indicate the state of consciousness in which all differences collapse, and in which saundarya is realised:

“when all objects turned towards (consciousness) unite and merge together, then the mind dissolves along with all its limitations because it has been absorbed in fullness with Siva (supreme consciousness).
Tantraloka, 3. 211-213

“and so too immortal maidens
eager to see you
travel by their minds
along the path to union with that mountain Lord
so hard to attain just by asceticism. ”

The second half of verse 12 refers to “immortal maidens” (amara lalanah) who “travel by their minds” in their eagerness to see the goddess. There is an implication here, I feel, that these “immortal maidens” do not have to “strive” to glimpse the goddess, either by poetry or for that matter, by ascetic practices in the same way that male ascetics do. These “immortal women” may be Apsaras and possibly female companions (sakhis) of the goddess – her extensions or entourage (in a similar way that Siva is extended/accompanied by his entourage of gannas) who wish to see the goddess, as though through Siva’s eyes.

If an old man,
unpleasing to the eye and impotent in play,
falls within the range of your glances
then hundreds will run after him,
all the young women,
locks dishevelled,
clothes falling from their breasts,
girdles bursting with force,
fine garments slipping down.” (13)
(Transl. Clooney, p51)

In the first post in this series I made the following observations about verse 13 – that it illustrates the power of the goddess to impell desire through her glance – a kind of darsana. Whilst some commentators have taken this verse to indicate that anyone (or anything), no matter how outwardly unattractive will – once favoured with Devi’s glance – become an attractor; become desirable. The “old man” can be interpreted as referring to Siva in his ascetic mode – and again stressing that Siva’s power to attract, ultimately, comes from Devi. Possibly, the verse is referring to the well-known narratives (see for example, the Linga Purana) wherein Siva seduces the wives of the Sages in the Deodar Forest or the tales in which beautiful apsaras disrupt the ascetic practices of sages. Sir John Woodroffe (aka “Arthur Avalon”, 1953, p18) notes that some commentators interpret verse 13 (together with verses 18 & 19) as references to madana-prayoga – what might be termed “love magic” and thus tend to play down the erotic, overwhelming power of the goddess as a means to liberation.

The verse also higlights the speed and suddenness with which desire can flood a devotee; the power of a sudden and overwhelming infatuation which causes one to throw caution to the wind and no longer rely on the conscious self-presentation represented by fine clothes and coiffure – in a manner which is reminiscient of the Gopis in the Bhagavata Purana. The verse can also be read as a confirmation of the mutuality between a single, inert, absolute figure (the old man/Siva) – and dynamic multiplicity (the hundreds of running young women/multiple Saktis).

Both of these verses point to a recurrent theme within Saundaryalahari – that to be favoured by Devi; to open oneself to “the flood of beauty” is superior to all other paths and practices.

Arthur Avalon Anandalahari (Ganesh & Co., 1953)
Douglas Renfrew Brooks, Auspicious Wisdom: The Texts and Traditions of Srividya Sakta Tantrism in South India (State University of New York, 1992)
Sarah Caldwell Waves of Beauty, Rivers of Blood: Constructing the Goddess in Kerala in T Pintchman (ed) Seeking Mahadevi: Constructing the Identities of the Hindu Great Goddess (State University of New York, 2001)
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)
S. La Porta & David Shulman (eds) The Poetics of Grammar and the Metaphysics of Sound and Sign (Brill, 2007)
Sreenath K. Nair Saundarya: The Concept of Beauty in Indian Aesthetics in D.M Dinkgrafe (ed) The Future of Beauty in Theatre, Literature and the Arts (Cambridge Scholars Press, 2005)
Pandit S. Subrahmanya Sastri and T.R. Srinivasa Ayyangar, Saundarya Lahari (Theosophical Publishing House, 1948)
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)