Reading the Saundarya Lahari – XVIII
The one who repeats the fifteen-syllable mantra of Tripurā attains all desires, all enjoyments, conquers all the worlds, causes all words to emerge; achieving identity with Rudra, one breaks through the veil of Viṣṇu and obtains the supreme Brahman.
So to verses 32-33 of Anandalahari. These stanzas are held by all commentators to express the secret fifteen/sixteen-syllable mantra of Tripurā-Sundarī.
Firstly, some thoughts on verse 32:
śivaḥ śaktiḥ kāmaḥ kṣitir atha raviḥ śīta-karaṇaḥ
smaro haṃsaḥ śakras tadanu ca parā-māra-harayaḥ|
amī hṛl-lekhābhis tisṛbhir avasāneṣu ghaṭitāḥ
bajante varṇās te tava janani nāmâvayavatam||
Which Francis X. Clooney renders as:
“Śiva, “power”, “desire,” “earth,” and
“sun,” “cool-rayed moon,” “memory,” “swan,” “Śakra,” and
“the higher,” “death,” and “Hari”:
when these syllables are joined together,
and finished with the triple heart syllable,
they become the parts of Your name,
transl. Clooney, 2005, p54
On face value, we have an arrangement of powers – Śiva, Kama, etc., a “swan” (or sometimes, a goose) and various heavenly bodies somehow combine to make up the name (nāmah) or form of the goddess, as the last lines of the verse indicate.
The various esoteric commentaries on this verse teach that each of the powers – Śiva etc., are indicative of a phoneme or syllable. According to Lakṣmīdhara, Śiva indicates the syllable ka, śaktiḥ (translated by Clooney as “power”) indicates e, kāmaḥ (“desire”) indicates i and kṣiti indicates la. Joining these with the “heart syllable” – which Lakṣmīdhara says, is hrīṃ – the first section of the mantra is thus:
ka-e-i-la-hrīṃ This first section of the mantra is sometimes referred to as the vāg-bhavah – the seed which arises from the voice.
The second section of the mantra is: ravi (“sun”) = ha, śīta-karaṇaḥ (“moon”) = sa, smara = ka, haṃsaḥ = ha, śakra (“Indra”) = la, giving ha-sa-ka-ha-la-hrīṃ This second section of mantra is sometimes called the “king of desire” – kāma-rāja.
The third section of the mantra is: parā = sa, māra = ka, hari = la, which, together with the heart syllable, is sa-ka-la-hrīṃ. This third segment is sometimes called the “seed of Shakti” – śakti-bīja.
Thus the fifteen-syllabled mantra of the goddess (pañcadaśākṣarī) – according to Lakṣmīdhara – is:
ka-e-i-la-hrīṃ| ha-sa-ka-ha-la-hrīṃ | sa-ka-la-hrīṃ 1
Each of these syllables, and the three segments or “peaks” (kūṭas) they make up, has, over time, acquired an extensive range of interpretations and associations – semantic, etymological, literary and symbolic. The commentator Bhāskararāya, for example, provides an extensive, numerological-based proof that the mantra encapsulates – in a compacted, seed-like way, the entirety of the Veda.
Douglas R. Brooks (1992, pp90-91) summarises the major associations of the three mantric peaks as follows:
Mantra kūṭa attributions
|Stage of Sound:||Paśyantī||Madhyamā||Vaikharī||Parā|
|Aspect of Śakti:||Icchā||Jñāna||Kriyā||Parā|
|Cosmos:||Agni (Fire)||Sūrya (Sun)||Soma (Moon)|
|Lalita's form:||Head||Upper body||Lower body|
But what of the sixteenth syllable, which, according to the orthodox, should only be revealed directly by a guru to his or her pupil? For this we need to turn to verse 33:
some people with a taste for great, uninterrupted pleasure
place the triad “memory,” “womb,” and “flourishing”
before your mantra and worship You
with rosaries strung with jewels that grant desires,
they offer hundreds of oblations,
streams of butter from the cow Surabhi
flowing into the fire of Śiva.
transl. Clooney, 2005, p55
According to Clooney: “Memory,” “womb” and “flourishing” suggest desire (smara), the sexual female (yoni) and flourishing (lakṣmī) but in the tantric calculus, they too signify syllables, respectively; klīṃ + hrīṃ + srīṃ. Together, these are taken to compose a single syllable, śrīṃ which is then placed before the fifteen syllables…” (2005, p167). Thus śrīṃ is, according to Lakṣmīdhara (which he reveals in his commentary as an act of compassion to those who desire true knowledge) the ultimate kalā of the goddess.
These two stanzas – situated towards the end of the Anandalahari section 2 of Saundaryalahari – provide an immediate encounter with the goddess solely via the repetition of her mantra-body (i.e. the root ŚrīVidyā mantra) beyond all stereotypical conventions and associations of what She is “like”.
But what does the mantra actually do? This is a much more complex question – which merits a broader discussion of ŚrīVidyā mantra-śāstra and Tantric approaches to mantra in general. I will try and attend to that as soon as possible and return to the pañcadaśākṣarī in a later post.
Arthur Avalon Anandalahari (Ganesh & Co., 1953)
Douglas R. Brooks The Srividya School of Sakta Tantrism: A Study of the Texts and Contexts of the Living Traditions in South India (Ph.D Thesis, Harvard 1987)
Douglas R. Brooks Auspicious Wisdom: The Texts and Traditions of Srividya Sakta Tantrism in South India (SUNY, 1992)
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)
Sergio La Porta, David Shulman (eds) The Poetics of Grammar and the Metaphysics of Sound and Sign (Brill, 2007)
Pandit S. Subrahmanya Sastri and T.R. Srinivasa Ayyangar, Saundarya Lahari (Theosophical Publishing House, 1948)
David Shulman, More than Real: A History of the Imagination in South India (Harvard University Press, 2012)