Skip to navigation | Skip to content

Reading the Saundarya Lahari – XIII

“She is thus the beginning and end of the process of divinization, enabling all beings, gods and humans, to become more, even up to a final blissful immersion within Her. To participate in Her bliss, novice practitioners – including attentive readers – must assent to a gradual but ultimately complete deconstruction and enhancement of their own bodies, sensations, pleasures, and relationships. One loses all of this, regains it, and then is able to see Her directly and completely. The key to entering Her world seems to be a combination of reverence, intellect, and intense curiosity, which together make deepening interior vision possible.”
Francis X. Clooney, Divine Mother, Blessed Mother: Hindu Goddesses and the Virgin Mary p177

“She the primordial Śakti who excels all and who in Her own nature is eternal, limitless bliss, is the seed of all the moving and motionless things which are to be, and is the pure mirror in which Śiva experiences Himself.”
Kāmakalāvilāsa verse 2

Now for some brief notes on verses 23-24 of Saundaryalahari.

Verse 23:

After you’ve taken the left side of Śiva’s body
Your mind is still unsatisfied,
So I wonder if you’ve taken the other half too:
after all,
Your form appears entirely red,
it bends a bit on account of your breasts
Your eyes are three,
Your forehead marked with the crescent moon.
(transl. Clooney, 2005, p53)

Just as verse 22 (see previous post) stressed the intersubjective becoming of devi and devotee, verse 23 stresses the fusion and indivisibility of the goddess and Śiva – with an obvious nod in the direction of Ardhanarishvara -to the extent that her form displays the features commonly associated with those of Śiva – “his” three eyes, and the crescent moon. Once again, her form is red in colour (see Saundarya Lahari – IX for related discussion) and I feel that we might imagine here, that the poet is responding to the goddess’ shimmering form – within which “hints” of Śiva’s subsumed presence – such as the three eyes, or the crescent moon – momentarily appearing, as though in an overlapping montage or holograph. Such shifting visualisations – indicating poetic bewilderment, uncertainty and multiple possibilities – recur throught the text, and we should always bear in mind that the goddess is the supreme agent here – that, through the verses, we are drawn into her world, where every detail of her form suggests a wealth of sacramental imagery; where each encounter generates appropriate moods and insights.

Some commentaries explain the line that the goddess’ form “bends a bit on account of [her] breasts” as referring to the goddess’ maternal, nurturing capacity. This is certainly a possible interpretation, yet as I have noted previously in this series (see Saundarya Lahari – VI) there is a tendency on the part of some contemporary commentators of Saundaryalahari to avoid or underplay the sensuous or erotic mood – the Śṛṅgāra rasa which permeates and powers Saundaryalahari impelling the fusion of devotee and devi (verse 22) as much as it does the nondifference of the goddess and Śiva (verse 23). After all, the Lalitā-sahasranāma gives her the epithet Śṛṅgāra rasa sampūrņā – “She who is the embodiment of the mood of love” (v376).

Verse 24:

The Arranger brings forth the world,
Hari sustains it,
Rudra destroys it,
The Lord conceals it and makes his form disappear as well,
But Śiva, ever first, graces all this,
Obeying the command of Your subtly knit, fresh, gentle brows.
(transl. Clooney, 2005, p53)

Again, this verse stresses the supremacy of the goddess – that the cosmological tattvic processes (Brahma – creation; Hari, i.e Viṣņu – preservation; Rudra – destruction; Iśvara – obscuration; and grace – Sadāśiva) all depend from her – that she is the ultimate agentive power. In the Lalitā-sahasranāma, devi is called Panca pretāsanāsīā (v249) – “She who sits on the seat formed by five corpses” (i.e. Brahma, Viṣņu, Rudra, Iśvara, Sadāśiva).

The five powers (pancakṛtyas) of Śiva are a central theme in Śaivite soteriology – both in terms of the tattvic cycles of emission (sṛṣṭimārga) and reabsorption (samhāramārga) and structuring principles in ritual. Ritualised divinisation, for example, homologises the five pancakṛtyas with parts of the body of the devotee.

Both these verses reiterate the opening statement of Saundaryalahari (see Saundarya Lahari – II and Saundarya Lahari – III-2) that although the goddess is Śiva’s consort, he is dependent on her, and that she is adored by the gods, and that their power to act derives from her.

Arthur Avalon Anandalahari (Ganesh & Co., 1953)
Arthur Avalon Kāma-Kalā-Vilāsa (Ganesh & Co., 1961)
Francis X. Clooney, Divine Mother, Blessed Mother: Hindu Goddesses and the Virgin Mary (Oxford University Press, 2005)
Vidya Dehejia, The Body Adorned: Sacred and Profane in Indian Art (Columbia University Press, 2013)
K.V. Dev (ed) The Thousand Names of the Divine Mother: Sri Lalita Sahasranama, with Commentary (Mata Amritanandamayi Center, 1996)
Ellen Goldberg, The Lord Who is Half Woman: Ardhanarishvara in Indian and Feminist Perspective (State University of New York, 2002)
Meera Kachroo, The Goddess and Her Powers: The Tantric Identities of the Saundarya Lahari (MA Thesis, McGill University, June 2005)
A.K. Ramanujan Speaking of Siva (Harmandsworth, 1973)
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)