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Reading the Saundarya Lahari – XII

In twining creepers I see your body,
in eyes of startled does your glance,
in the moon the glow and shadow of your cheek,
in the peacocks’ crested plume your hair,
in the flowing waters’ quick ripples
the capricious frown on your brow,
but no single object holds
an image of your likeness.
Kalidasa, Meghadūta

Desire (kāma) is the will to take possession [of the other] (to make the other oneself). Veiling everything with his desire, the desirer can accomplish everything, since everything has as its ultimate principle desire itself.
Abhinavagupta, Mālinīvijayavārttika (1.281)

Now to verses 21-22 of Saundaryalahari.

Verse 21 is one of many verses in Saundaryalahari which alludes, to varying degrees to the chakra schema (although this text does not use the term Kuṇḍalinī).

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.
(transl. Clooney, 2005, p.52)

As I noted in part iv of this series, some western commentators on Saundaryalahari – questioning the seeming lack of reference to the nāḍīs and other structural elements familiar from texts such as the sat-cakra-nirupana (aka “The Serpent Power”) have asserted that the chakra schema referred to represents a simpler, or less developed account of the chakras.

Norman Brown, for example, in the introduction to his translation of Saundaryalahari points out that the order of the chakras given in Saundaryalahari differs from that found in the Yoga Upanisads, and comments: “If we are to attach any importance to the silence of the Saundaryalahari concerning the nāḍīs and concerning the presence of the cakras and the sahasrāra in the human body and the functions which Tantrism assigns to them, then we might think of the text as operating on a more rational level than does current Tantrism” (1958, pp22-23).

However, the context is different here. I have argued – in previous posts – that Saundaryalahari tends to prioritise a devotional and aesthetic approach to the goddess – and although ritual and yogic elements may be present, they are so to a lesser degree, and often are constrasted with the direct prehension of the goddess through the poem itself. Although one can of course, approach Saundaryalahari as a poem which “encodes” tantric praxis within its verses, I feel that we can gain much by approaching it as an example of kāvya literature (which often features extensive “head-to-toe” – śikh-nak – descriptions of literary heroines in a similar manner to Saundaryalahari) – where poetic adornments, such as the opening line of verse 21: Slender as a streak of lightning are used to promote a particular mood in the speaker/listener. 1

Francis X. Clooney takes the view that whilst the chakra schema is present in the text, it is subordinated to the direct experience or prehension of the goddess: “She is beyond the lotuses taken to symbolise the chakras, and in the end, salvation depends simply on viewing Her” (2005, p165) – which is also suggested in verse 22.

The commentary on verse 21 in Avalon’s translation of Anandalahari, drawing on the commentary of Laksmidhara, places verse 21 in relation to verse 19; stating that whilst the earlier verse speaks of Kāmakalā as the essence of Sun, Moon, and Fire. but states that this identification is a lower or outer dhyana and that verse 21 is the “subtle” (Sūkṣma) form, only obtainable by “the great” – i.e. by those in whose minds impurity and illusion are obliterated. Here, the goddess takes the form of “consciousness” (Citsvarūpā) and is the essence of the the three lights (Sun, Moon, Fire), residing in the sahasrāra – the great forest of lotuses.

In Laksmidhara’s commentary on Saundaryalahari 2 sahasrāra is transcendent to the preceding chakras, and it is through verses such as the above that he builds his case for stressing the validity of “internal worship” as opposed to ritual – in particular, the kinds of ritual he associates with the Kaulacara approach.

Slender as a streak of lightning
The opening line of the verse addresses the goddess in terms familiar from Sanskrit poetics, where lightning is not only suggestive of slenderness (beauty) but also quickness, and fleetingness: wealth for example, is sometimes likened to a flash of lightning.

On to verse 22:

When someone wishes to praise You by saying,
“Bhavāni tvam – You, O lady – cast Your merciful glance on this servant!”
to that person,
even as he says, “Bhavāni tvam – May I become You” –
at that very moment
You grant him the way to innate union,
and he shines with the brilliant crowns
worn by Mukunda, Brahmā, and Indra.
(transl. Clooney, 2005, p53)

Verse 22 is generally considered to be one of the most important verses in Saundaryalahari and how this verse may be read centres on how we interpret this key phrase – “Bhavāni tvam – May I become You”.

Bhava (being, existence, life, all) is an epithet of Śhiva. We might read this as the goddess (who is one with Shiva) is the source of everything, being pleased at being so addressed (i.e. recognised) by the devotee, immediately grants “the way to innate union”.

Moreover, bhāva is a complex term often used to denote an emotion or mood – often an intense passion, or love, although “emotion” in the western, psychological sense, is at best a limited interpretation. The root is bhū – to be, or to become. Bhāva, in this context, indicates a intensification of mood. June McDaniel (2004, p50) explains: “Bhava combines possession and devotional love, allowing the possessed person to retain consciousness in the midst of the goddess’s power and presence. It shows intense love of a deity, and a person’s humility and willingness to submit to the goddess. ” She says that her informants (two women, one a tantrika, the other, a sannyasini) called this state ekatmika bhava, or unified atma, in which the person’s atma becomes united with the deity’s personality and essence. … Though this state resembles possession trance in many ways, it might be better described as a form of mystical union through love, for the individual soul remains present and fully conscious. This bhava is a highly respected state.”

According to David Shulman (2012, p121), bhavāni is a homonym, which can mean “O Goddess, you…” (a vocative) or a first-person imperative, hence “I must (or “I would”) become you”. here, the speaking “I” becomes – at once – a “you”. The implication here, according to Shulman, is that when the goddess, compassionate to her devotees, hears this phrase, she acts upon it. So this phrase, when articulated (spoken or otherwise) instantiates the intersubjective fusion between devotee and goddess.

Bhavāni also carries the implication of the meditative process by which a practitioner visualises a deity and identifies with it – the foundational assertion being that by intense identification (often with a deity) – a practitioner causes something to be “brought into being” or to come to pass). This is a central concept in many tantric texts. Bhāva is not merely the act of imagining something, but an intense emotional engagement 3 – a practice of self-cultivation of a particular attitude – one of total openness towards her which pleases the goddess, more than ritual efficacy alone. The Bṛhannīla Tantra says:

“[Even doing] much mantra recitation, fire ceremonies and many ways of afflicting the body etc. through austerities, without bhāva, o Goddess, the mantra gives no results. By bhāva one attains enlightenment and strengthens the clan. By bhāva the lineage is strengthened; by bhāva one does the spiritual practice for the clan; [if one doesn’t have bhāva] why do the various nyāsa, why the various bodily purifications; why do worship if bhāva doesn’t arise?” 4

With the above in mind, I want to return to these lines from verse 21:

if great souls in whose minds impurity and illusion are obliterated
look upon You,
they gain a flood of highest delight.

To be sure, we might take the phrase “in whose minds impurity and illusion are obliterated” as an injunction to perform ascetic practices of sense-withdrawal and restraining desire, attachments, ego, and so forth. In On the adoration of the senses – I I made some brief observations on Abhinavagupta’s Bhagavadgītārthasaṃgraha with respect to his commentaries to chapter three of the Bhagadvadgītā. Let’s take a closer look at verses III.10-13 and Abhinavagupta’s commentary. Firstly, verses III.10-13:

“The Lord of creatures (Prajāpati), who is the highest reality (Paramātmā), created his creatures together with action. He told them that generation of progeny is only possible through action (karman). He also declared that action (karman) would grant either liberation or bondage to living beings. Liberation to those who act without attachment to the fruits of action and bondage to those who are attached to the fruits of action. (10)
Through yajña you should nourish the gods and those gods will nourish you, By nourishing one another you will attain the highest good. (11)
Nourished by yajña, the gods will give you the desired enjoyments. But he who enjoys these gifts without offering anything in return to them is merely a thief. (12)
The good men, who eat the remains of the yajña, are released from all sins. On the other hand, sinners who prepare food for their own sake eat their own sins.” (13) 5

In his commentary on the above, Abhinavagupta states:

“It is said that those who desire to attain liberation should enjoy the objects of the senses. The word gods (devāḥ) stands here for the function of the sense organs that possess a playful nature. In the śāstras dealing with the secret texts, gods are known as the Lords of the senses. You should satisfy these gods through action by engaging in the enjoyments of the objects of the senses as appropriate. When satisfied, these gods (in the form of the sense organs) will grant you liberations (apavarga), according to the level on which you are established in your own self.

Thus, continuous exchange of two contradictory experiences, i.e. gratification of the senses, which brings satisfaction, and samādhi, in which sense organs are reduced to one’s own ātman, quickly bring the highest good. This is because these two experiences are mutually helpful. The highest good, however, is the experience of the highest reality (Brahman), in which the distinction between these two experiences is eliminated.
This is a means not only for attaining apavarga but also for achieving perfection (siddhī).

When the gods in the form of sense organs are pleased with the enjoyments offered to them through sacrifice (yajña), then they will become present in the objects of one’s meditation. When this operation takes place, the objects of the enjoyment (become present before us) through the sense organs, and can be experienced through memory, desire (saṃkalpa), or meditation, etc.
Because of the fact that the sense organs give us the objects of enjoyment, we should give the same back to them. If however, one does not reciprocate and fails to give back to them for their own enjoyment, then such a person is a thief.

[…] Those who enjoy the objects of enjoyment just as their duty following the śāstric injunction, and who take them only as intermediate activities which do not give any independent results; and who ‘eat’ (aśnanti) (that is, established in the very heart of their consciousness) ‘the remains’ (avaśiṣṭam) (which is food characterised by the bliss created as a result of abiding in one’s own innermost heart) of ‘sacrifice’ (yajña) (which is characterised by the gratification of the groups of gods in the form of sense organs); these kinds of people who desire the enjoyment of objects just as a means to achieve that bliss (of being established in one’s own self) are freed from both good and bad impressions. On the other hand, those who under the influence of ignorance mistake the enjoyment of gross objects as the highest and therefore think, “We are doing everything for our own sake”, such people are stained by the good and bad impressions.” 6

Alexis Sanderson 7 summarises Abhinavagupta’s perspective as:

“When the objects of the senses are seen as things outside consciousness, to be appropriated and manipulated by the subject, then the senses are no more than the instruments of the state of bondage; but when the subject abandons this appetitive style of perception he experiences the objects of his senses within consciousness, as the content of the cognitions that perceive them rather than as their cause. This shift from the appetitive to the aesthetic mode of awareness is seen by Abhinavagupta as the divinization of the senses themselves, or rather as the recognition of their divine nature as projections or avenues of the blissful but egoless consciousness which is the underlying identity of all awareness. Gratified by this reintegration of objectivity – where before they were starved by brahminical restraint and fastidiousness – they liberate consciousness into the realization of its all-containing radiance and transparency.”

Taking up a Śakta perspective, I would say that to be ‘established in one’s heart’ is a process of cultivating the attitude (or ‘recognition’, pratyabhijnā) that the goddess is the source of all experience – that she is the divine agent; that she and one’s Self are the same. In so doing, all experiences – such as sensory engagements, bodily enjoyments etc., – are offered back to her (recognising that they depend from her) – their play is an expression of her play. Recalling that she is the embodiment of Kāma 8, then all desires originate from her, and should be offered back to her without reservation or expectation. As verse 27 of Saundaryalahari says:

Prayer — my foolish words;
sculpture — all my hand gestures;
circumambulation — my going about;
mode of oblation — my eating and so on;
deep reverence — my lying down;
dedication of self — my complete happiness:
whatever of mine shines forth — let it all be the same as worship of you. 9

Arthur Avalon Wave of Bliss: Anandalahari (Ganesh & Co., 1953)
Loriliai Biernacki, Renowned Goddess of Desire : Women, Sex, and Speech in Tantra (Oxford University Press, 2007)
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)
Csaba Kiss, “The Matsyendrasaṃhitā: A Yogini-centred Thirteenth-century Text from the South Indian Śambhava Cult in, Lorenzen, Muñoz (eds) Yogi Heroes and Poets: Histories and Legends of the Naths (State University of New York, 2011)
Owen Lynch (ed) Divine Passions: The Social Construction of Emotions in India (University of California Press, 1990)
June McDaniel Offering Flowers, Feeding Skulls : Popular Goddess Worship in West Bengal (Oxford University Press, 2004)
Boris Marjanovic (transl.) Abhinavagupta’s Commentary on the Bhagavad-Gita: Gītārtha Saṃgraha (Indica Books, 2002)
Alexis Sanderson, Meaning in Tantric Ritual (pdf, 4mb)
Chandra Rajan (transl.), Kalidasa The Loom of Time (Penguin Books, 1989)
David Shulman, More than Real: A History of the Imagination in South India (Harvard University Press, 2012)
Pandit S. Subrahmanya Sastri and T.R. Srinivasa Ayyangar, Saundarya Lahari (Theosophical Publishing House, 1948)
Raffaele Torella Liberation From Passion vs Liberation Through Passions (Shimla Lecture II, 2012)


  1. see Some reflections on heart practice for some related discussion.
  2. see tripura-tattvas for some notes
  3. see Kiss, 2011, for further discussion
  4. quoted from Biernacki, 2007, p118
  5. Marjanovic, 2002, pp86-88
  6. Marjanovic, op cit. pp86-88
  7. 1995, p87
  8. see Saundarya Lahari-I
  9. Transl. Clooney, 2005,p54