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Reading the Saundarya Lahari – XIV

“I bow always to she who is the very self
of Brahma, Vishnu and Rudra,
the real form of the three gunas!
I bow always to she who is the form of moon,
sun and fire, her eyes restless with desire!
I bow always to she who is the very self of Brahma,
Vishnu and Siva, bestower of liberation whilst living,
Giver of knowledge and consciousness!”
Matrikabheda Tantra (transl. Mike Magee)

Now to verse 25 of Saundaryalahari.

Benevolent one,
may the worship rendered
to the three gods born of your three qualities
be as worship rendered to Your feet, for
near the jeweled seat on which Your feet rest,
they ever stand
folded hands adorning their crowns.
(transl. Clooney, 2005, p53)

Verse 25 continues to emphasise the supreme status of the goddess in relation to the gods as stressed in the previous verse (see previous post).

may the worship rendered
to the three gods born of your three qualities
be as worship rendered to Your feet

Here, the poet affirms that in worshipping the feet of the goddess, the devotee is, at the same time, rendering worship to the three deities – Brahmā, Visṇu and Śiva – and that these deities are emanations of her “three qualities” – i.e. the guṇas. Several epithets of the goddess in Sri Lalita Sahasranama identify her with the guṇas – for example, she is called “triguṇātmikā” – the embodiment of the 3 guṇas. This identification of trimurti – Brahmā, Visṇu and Śiva – with the three guṇas (Brahmā with sattva, Visṇu with rajas and Śiva with tamas) is found in many of the Puranas, but the concept that the goddess is both the embodiment of, and transcendent to, the guṇas is a later development from the guṇas as they are presented in Sāṁkhya.

On the guṇas
The three guṇassattva, rajas and tamas (purity, passion, darkness) are key elements of the Sāṁkhya school of philosophy, as the constituents of prakṛti. 1

Briefly, Sāṁkhya posits that primordial (nonmaterial) undifferentiated reality – mūlaprakṛti – innate to which are the three guṇas in a state of equilibrium. When mūlaprakṛti is disturbed by the puruṣa (“witness”) new principles – tattvas – take form via a process of evolutionary becoming or unfolding (which is reversible) gradually differentiating into a multiplicity of objects and material states. 2

Sāṁkhya posits a dualistic opposition between the quiescent-conscious Puruṣa and the active-insentient Prakṛti; and the soteriological aim of liberation for the practitioner is kaivalya (“aloneness”) – the realisation of Puruṣa as independent of mind-body; differentiated from Prakṛti. According to the Sāṁkhya-Kārikā (composed by Iśvarakṛṣṇa and dated to the 2nd century CE) the function of Prakṛti is to “reveal” Puruṣa. Towards the end of this text (verse 59) Prakṛti is metaphorically imagined as a beautiful female dancer, observed by the witnessing (male) Puruṣa:

“Just as a dancing girl retires from her dance after performing for the audience, in the same way Prakṛti retires after exhibiting herself to the Person.”

Lorillliai Biernacki (2007, p3) ironically explains this process: “As she dances, her physical charms seduce the male spirit, puruṣa, into the web of māyā, an unending circuit of desire, birth and death. The purpose of her dance, actually, is to finally dance him into boredom. She helps him to understand his true nature by dancing and dancing until his desire to watch this beautiful woman dance finally reaches a point of satiation. He gets bored with the dance, and recognising this, she gracefully withdraws.” 3

In the Sāṁkhya-Kārikā the activity of the guṇas is likened to that of a flame, as the three guṇas – although distinct from another, co-operate to produce an effect. Verses 12-13 explain the qualities of the three guṇas – sattva is named prīti-atmaka (“one whose nature is pleasure”); prakāśārtha (“one that serves to manifest”) and prakāśaka (“illuminator”). Rajas is aprīti-atmaka (“one whose nature is pain”); pravṛttyartha (“one that serves to activate”); upaṣṭambhaka (“stimulating”) and cala (“moving”). Tamas is viṣādātmaka (“one whose nature is lethargy”) and varaṇaka (“enveloping”). 4

The guṇas were also used to classify and order human emotions, activities and different types of living being. In the Manu Smṛti, jñana (“knowledge”) and prīti (“pleasure”) are stated to be sattvic in quality, whilst rāga (“attachment”), dveṣa (“hatred”) and duḥkha (“misery”) are rajasic; and ajñāna (“ignorance”) and moha (“delusion”) are tamasic in quality. The practice of austerities and restraint is said to be sattvic; self-indulgence is rajasic, and covetousness, laziness, etc., are said to be tamasic in nature. The Manu Smṛti also lists different orders of creatures in relation to their nature as characterised by the guṇas.

Gradually, over time, the guṇas were homologised with other triads, such as the three śaktis (jnana, iccha, artha), or the “three states” (waking, dreaming and dreamless sleep). A key text in the development of Sakta theology is the Devī-Māhātyma (thought to have been composed between 500-600 CE) which establishes the goddess as the primary power:

“By you this universe is borne, by you this world is created. By you it is protected, O Devi and you always consume it at the end. O you who are always of the form of the whole world, at the time of the creation you are always the creative power, at the time of the sustenation you are always of the form of the protective power, and at the time of the dissolution of the world, you are the form of the destructive power. You are the supreme knowledge as well as the great nescience, the great intellect and contemplation, as also the great delusion, the great devi as also the great asuri (1.75-77).”

In a later text, the Devī-Gita (itself a part of the Devī-Bhāgavata) the goddess assumes the powers – and is the source of the powers of the trimurti (Brahmā, Visṇu and Śiva). She brings the world into being through the power of her maya (Devi-Gita 3.1-4) and she is also prakṛti – manifesting in her higher forms as Māhālakṣmī (sattvic power), Mahāsarasvatī (rajasic power) and Mahākālī (tamasic power). These forms of the goddess not only reflect cosmological processes, but also form the very basis of the social order. Although the great goddess of the Devī-Bhāgavata may grant her devotees a vision – darśana – of herself. this is rarely of her fullest, transcendent nature, but rather, one of her ‘lower’ enamations or guṇa-forms. Bhāskararāya’s eighteenth-century commentary on the Devī-Māhātyma states that “She [Devī) is … predominantly sāttvikī, but for the sake of removing daityas, 5 she appears in the forms of tamas, rajas, and sattva.” Brown (1990) comments that the goddess appears in all her forms – including the horrific and the destructive, in order to protect the world (see Brown, 1990, p140-142).

As the tantric traditions developed, the Mahādevī emerged as the goddess who was both the embodiment of Prakṛti and transcendental to it – hence she is said to be both saguṇa and nirguṇa. Prakṛti – the immanent ground of experience – emerges as a consequence of the goddess multiplying herself – into, for example, Śiva and Śakti (as two indivisible aspects of the same reality). Here the soteriological goal of liberation has changed dramatically from that of “classical” Sāṁkhya – rather than a process of progressive withdrawal from Prakṛti – there is a stress on liberation via engagement with and through the world: the Bṛhannīlatantra says, for example:

“Not by the application of ritual procedures, not by knowledge, not by the Vedas, nor by the lineage of gurus (gurukrama); Not by ritual baths, nor by tarpaṇa, nor by giving charity – none of these whatsoever. The self is only known by Prakṛti” (20.47, quoted in Biernacki, 2007, p221).

This sentiment is echoed in the first verse of Abhinavagupta’s Anuttarāṣṭikā: “What is then, tell me, the supreme Reality which is absolutely certain? Listen: neither reject nor accept [anything], share joyfully in everything, being as you are.”

In Śakta tantric soteriologies, the “dancing girl” of the Sāṁkhya-Kārikā has, we might say, moved to stage-centre; present everywhere (particularly in all female beings) as śakti – dwelling in the island of gems (see post III-2); both the efficient cause of creation and the embodiment of creation and differentiation.

Returning to Saundaryalahari verse 25 then.

Benevolent one,
may the worship rendered
to the three gods born of your three qualities
be as worship rendered to Your feet, for
near the jeweled seat on which Your feet rest,
they ever stand
folded hands adorning their crowns.

Here, the three male gods are subordinate to the goddess – they are depicted as standing in continual respectful devotion to her, near her footstool – as might lesser rulers in relation to a great queen. In worshipping Brahmā, Visṇu, Śiva one is really worshipping the feet of the Devī – an intimation that not only is she the agentive power of these three gods, but that one may approach her through them.

Stuart Abbott, Lynn Foulston Hindu Goddesses: Beliefs and Practices (Sussex Academic Press, 2009)
Arthur Avalon Anandalahari (Ganesh & Co., 1953)
Loriliai Biernacki, Renowned Goddess of Desire : Women, Sex, and Speech in Tantra: Women, Sex, and Speech in Tantra (Oxford University Press, 2007)
C. Mackenzie Brown, The Triumph of the Goddess: The Canonical Models and Theological Visions of the Devi-Bhagavata Purana (State University of New York, 1990)
C. Mackenzie Brown, The Song of the Goddess: The Devi Gita: Spiritual Counsel of the Great Goddess (State University of New York, 2012)
Francis X. Clooney, Divine Mother, Blessed Mother: Hindu Goddesses and the Virgin Mary (Oxford University Press, 2005)
K.V. Dev (ed) The Thousand Names of the Divine Mother: Sri Lalita Sahasranama, with Commentary (Mata Amritanandamayi Center, 1996)
Mike Magee The Matrikabheda Tantra (Metaplume, 2011)
Tracy Pintchman The Rise of the Goddess in the Hindu Tradition (State University of New York, 1994)
Tracy Pintchman (ed) Seeking Mahadevi: Constructing the Identities of the Hindu Great Goddess (State University of New York, 2001)
V Ravi Lalita Trishati (Manblunder, 2013)
Patrick Olivelle (transl.) The Law Code of Manu (Oxford University Press, 2009)
Pandit S. Subrahmanya Sastri and T.R. Srinivasa Ayyangar, Saundarya Lahari (Theosophical Publishing House, 1948)


  1. guṇas is not restricted to Sāṁkhya however, and has has many layers of meaning (and enumerations) according to how the term is used – for example, in poetics, grammar, politics, ayurveda, etc.
  2. see Tattvas in Samkhya for some related discussion.
  3. Biernacki, as with other commentators on the gendering of Prakṛti as “female” have highlighted the way this text supports an objectification of women as both sources of bondage and male pleasure. The extent to which Prakṛti and Puruṣa represent social genders though, is a matter of some debate.
  4. It should be remembered that the schema given in the Sāṁkhya-Kārikā did not remain static over time, nor was it necessarily dominant. Rather, we would do better to think of a plurality of Sāṁkhya traditions – some more theistic than others. The Kapilagītā for example, is a theistic blend of Sāṁkhya, yoga, and Kṛṣṇa theology.
  5. ‘demons’, such as Mahiṣa.