Reading the Saundarya Lahari – XI
“Likely, o beloved, [by meditating on Devi] in the form of Kāmakalā emerged in the sprout of madana, with the light-circle of the rising sun, a luminous body with an expanding flame top. She exists while gulping all the beings manifested to enjoy the world.
Existing in I-ness, keeping herself within her own supreme glory, and manifesting successively down to the ground of kāma, which is within the body, manifesting in two forms whilst being alone.”
Nityāṣoḍaśikārṇava, 4.34 – 4.37 (transl. Lidke, 2000)
Now to verse 20 of Saundaryalahari:
Whoever contemplates You in his heart,
O essence of ambrosia,
abundant and radiant like an image carved in moonstone,
will quell the pride of serpents
as if he were the king of birds,
he will cure those afflicted by fever,
with the streaming nectar that showers from his glance.
(transl. Clooney, 2005, p.52)
At first glance, this verse seems simple enough – that one who places the goddess in the heart 1 (and thus achieves the intersubjective fusion with the goddess) possesses her power (siddhi) over snakes, and can cure afflictions – fevers – with a glance.
Again, there is the stress on the moonstone-radiance of the goddess 2 implying that one who identifies with the goddess obtains and reflects her powers and qualities – and in this instance, the cooling and refreshing powers of the moon. 3 Also, this verse stresses the power of the glance as both benevolent (curing fevers) and powerful (“quelling the pride of serpents”).
The “king of birds” is obviously a reference to Gāruḍa, whose aversion to serpents (nagas) is well known. Gāruḍa’s geneology, and his early rivalry with the nagas is dealt with at some length in the Mahabharata. Gāruḍa is most often known as a form of Viṣṇu – and in particular, his vehicle or mount; but as Michael J Slouber (2012) points out, Gāruḍa’s popularity crosses sectarian and religious boundaries and his association with relief from misfortunes – and in particular, snakebite or poison – seems to have grown from around the 4th century AD onward.
Tantric digests mention 28 Gāruḍa tantras issuing from Sadāśiva’s eastern face (Tatpuruṣa) although, according to Mark Dyczkowski (1989) no Gāruḍa tantras have as yet been recovered. Both Dyczkowski and Slouber point out that these Gāruḍa tantras are considered as predominantly Śaiva – rather than Vaisnava – in orientation, and are thought to be concerned mainly with magical remedies for snake-bite and poisons. Slouber mentions other texts – such as the Kāśyapasaṃhitā – a text dealing with snake bites and cures making use of the Gāruḍamantra; and the Jayadrathayāmala – a Sākta text which features forms of Kāli mounted on Gāruḍa. 4
Dyczkowski points to a tantric influence in the Gāruḍapurāṇa and quotes a Gāruḍa dhyana from chapter 197 of the Gāruḍapurāṇa:
“To be successful in all [your] undertakings, remember [that you are] Bhairava who is Garuḍa. [Contemplate yourself as Bhairava] who has ten arms and four faces. … To destroy snakes contemplate [yourself] as Garuḍa, awesome and frightening. At his feet lie the hells, the quarters are his wings, he bears on his chest the seven heavens and the universe (brahmāṇḍa) on his throat while his head contains all space. Garuḍa, the Lord of the World, is Śiva himself who bears Sadāśiva with [his] three powers in his topknot. In all your undertakings think of Garuḍa brilliant like the Fire of Time, his body Mantra, his face frightening, devouring, three-eyed and his form terrible, the destroyer of snakes and poison. Having performed the projection in this way, whatever one thinks becomes [easily] attainable and man becomes in truth Garuḍa. Seeing him, ghosts, spirits, yakṣas, snakes, gandharavas, rākśasas and all the fevers are destroyed.”
This sequence in itself illustrates the chaining of indentifications in order to acquire powers: the practitioner identifying with Bhairava who is, in turn, identified with Gāruḍa. It also illustrates how – when the ritual focuses on Gāruḍa – various attributes that one might usually associate with Śiva are attributed to him. Again, this “collaging” of supreme attributes and powers is a common feature of tantric (or tantric-influenced) ritual.
In verse 20 of Saundaryalahari the goddess is praised as the essence of amṛta – the divine ambrosia or nectar which grants immortality (frequently homologised with Soma, truth, consciousness, etc.) and sovereignty to the gods. Hence, she is, by her nature, the antithesis of all poisons and afflictions. 5
This verse could also be interpreted as alluding to the yogic transformation of Kuṇḍalinī from her poisonous state (i.e. sleeping) to her nectar-showering union with Śiva. The Śrītantrasadbhāva says:
“O well-formed Umā, wrapping itself inwardly around the bindu of the heart, it slumbers there in the form of a sleeping serpent and is aware of nothing at all. That goddess, placing in her belly the Moon, Fire, Sun, stars and fourteen worlds, (sleeps) like one affected by poison. O beloved, She is awakened by the resonance of supreme awareness and churned by the spontaneous rolling (bhramavega) of Śiva’s seed (bindu) within Her. Pierced (in this way), that subtle power of Kuṇḍalinī is aroused, accompanied initially by brilliant sparks of light.”
(quoted from Dyczkowski, 1992, p73)
Dyczkowski explains (footnotes 16-17, p200-201) that the three “great lights” (Moon, Fire, Sun) can be take here as the three modes of knowledge (subject, object, and means) whilst the stars indicate differentiated perceptions. Kuṇḍalinī-śakti is said to sleep “like one affected by poison” due to the all-pervading power of ignorance. Jaideva Singh, in his commentary to Pratyabhijnāhṛdyam (1982) suggests that saṁsāra is likened to poison (viṣa) as vis also means “to seperate, to disjoin” – hence saṁsāra disjoins us from the highest reality – i.e. Śiva. So Kuṇḍalinī-śakti in her sleeping (coiled) form maintains the all-pervasive nescience which is the essence of saṁsāra. Lilian Silburn (1988, p15) explains the the coiled vs uncoiled states of kuṇḍalinī:
“Just as the snake, an object of dread because of its poison, stands as a symbol of all evil forces, as long as she lies motionless within us, Kuṇḍalinī is related to our obscure, unconscious energies, both poisoned and poisonous. However, once they are awakened and under control, these same energies become effective and confer a true power.
Kuṇḍalinī resembles a snake also in the way that she emits her venom. When it wants to bite, the serpent swings around, forming a circle with its tail for a support. Once it stands erect it is no longer dangerous at all. In the same way, as soon as Kuṇḍalinī uncoils and rises – straight like a staff – to the top of the head, not only does she become harmless, but as the evil nature of her power is transformed, she proves to be a priceless treasure.
When all the effects of the poison have been eliminated, glory and power begin to permeate the whole body, as expressed by the term viṣa, with its double meaning: pervasive “poison” bringing about death, and also “all-pervasiveness,” that of the nectar of immortality (amṛta).”
Given that verse 21 of Saundaryalahari is also commonly interpreted as making allusions to the goddess Kuṇḍalinī and the chakra schema that she is so often associated with, and the esoteric readings of the previous verse, I feel that it is appropriate to read v20 in this manner.
Arthur Avalon Wave of Bliss: Anandalahari (Ganesh & Co., 1953)
Francis X. Clooney, Divine Mother, Blessed Mother: Hindu Goddesses and the Virgin Mary (Oxford University Press, 2005)
Mark S. G. Dyczkowski The Canon of the Śaivāgama and the The Kubjikā Tantras of the Western Kaula Tradition (Motilal, 1989)
Mark S. G. Dyczkowski (transl.) The Aphorisms of Siva: The ŚivaSutra with Bhāskara’s Commentary, the Vārttika (State University of New York, 1992)
Jeffrey S. Lidke, The Goddess within and beyond the Three Cities: Śakta Tantra and the Paradox of Power in Nepāla-Maṇḍala (Ph.D Thesis, University of California, Santa Barbara, 2000)
Pandit S. Subrahmanya Sastri and T.R. Srinivasa Ayyangar, Saundarya Lahari (Theosophical Publishing House, 1948)
Lilian Silburn Kundalini: The Energy of the Depths (State University of New York, 1988)
Jaideva Singh Pratyabhijnahrdayam: The Secret of Self-recognition (Motilal, 1982)
Michael J Slouber Carrying God: Merely a Mount or Independent Deity? (Journal of Vaishnava Studies, v.21, no.1, 2012)
David Gordon White The Alchemical Body: Siddha Traditions in Medieval India (University of Chicago Press, 2007)
Michael J Slouber is pursuing extensive research into the Gāruḍa tantras. His website – Gāruḍam gives access to some of his published works and his M.A. thesis on the Kriyākālaguṇottara – an early Śaiva text which deals with both snakebites, poisons, and curing possession by Bhῡtas.
- see Heart Practice II for related discussion. ↩
- see Saundarya Lahari – IX ↩
- For some related discussion on coolness in relation to fevers, see my two posts on Sitala ↩
- Occasionally, Gāruḍa is situated as a student or initiate of Śiva – for example the Kiraṇa-tantra which is cast as a dialogue between Gāruḍa and Śiva. ↩
- See Saundarya Lahari – III-2 for a brief summary of the samudra-manthana – “churning of the ocean” by which the gods obtain amṛta. ↩