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Friday, 5 December 2014

Soundarya Lahari - An Introduction

Bliss is the source of all created beings. Bliss here and beyond is one object universally desired by all creatures. The pleasures experienced by the physical senses of Man are transient and mingled with suffering. Unalloyed and ever-lasting bliss could be experienced only when man gets release from the cycle of births and deaths. This release could be obtained only through a clear and comprehensive knowledge of God, soul and matter. Such knowledge is beyond the view of human physical senses and could be had only from omniscient Veda, the repository of the transcendental wisdom revealed to the pure saintly souls who meditated deep and long to discover the Supreme Truth. The knowledge of the Atman and Brahman could be obtained only study under a teacher, enquiry and cogitation, and intensive meditation on the self as not different from Brahman as elucidated in the scriptures. Meditation on an attributeless all-pervasive Brahman is possible for highly evolved souls who have reached an advanced stage of spiritual progress, through self-control, devotion and divine grace. For the benefit of the less advanced spiritual seekers, the benign Veda has also presented the Brahman with attributes or qualities with a name and form for easy mental comprehension and contemplation.

The great incarnation of Sri Dakshinamurti, Sri Adi Shankaracharya was both the commentator on the three foundational texts of Vedanta and also the founder of the six devotional modes centering on six conceptions of the Supreme Paramatman. Though pure philosophers may find some contradiction in this co-existence of philosophy and allegiance to a personalistic form of worship in one and the same thinker, Indian spiritual tradition finds no such contradiction in such a combination. The Acharya is not a mere mental gymnast like many of the Western philosophers. He clearly demonstrated that Principle and Personality have to go together if man's spiritual life is to move on even keel, that the highly philosophic Atman – Parabrahman doctrine of the Vedanta has to be clothed in a personal conception of the Deity, if it is to be of any significance to the ordinary man. It is only in the light of this peculiarity of the Indian spiritual tradition that we can understand how the Vedantic philosopher par excellence, Sri Adi Acharya could also be the composer of great hymns devoted to the important personalized conceptions of the deity adored as Vishnu, Shiva, Shakti and Ganesha.

Soundarya Lahari is the most important hymn devoted to Parashakti and it forms the fundamental text of the Dakshinachara Shakta cult, propagating the worship of Parabrahman as the Mother of the Universe, with a philosophic background of its own which is Advaitic, but absolutely realistic. Srimadacharya was no professor of philosophy who taught philosophy as an independent subject. His mission was to raise people up including those not capable of grasping his lofty teachings, raising them up, little by little, according to their different levels of maturity and understanding. To those who were incapable of taking the path of Jnana, he imparted instructions in a thorough manner through his Prakarana works and commentaries. He taught others, devotion exhorting them to follow a life of Karma in accordance with their Swadharma.

The Soundarya Lahari eminently shares the characteristics of:

1. A poem describing the finest touches of poetical fancy.
2. A devotional hymn in praise of Mahatripurasundari.
3. A series of secret Mantras and Yantras to be used by the Sadhaka in his Srividya Upasana.
4. An exposition of the Agamas and Tantras, bearing on the worship of Parabrahman in its aspect of Chitshakti, known as Srividya, embodying the underlying principles of Vaidika Dharma and as such having the sanction of the Vedas.

Srimadacharya reveals here, for the intelligent student, the fundamental and subtle truths of Vedanta. Out of compassion for the mediocre intellectual, he has also laid down the path of Bhakti as the means of salvation through Jnana. Soundarya Lahari is the crest of all the devotional poetry he has composed; it also represents the crest (Shikhara) of his poetic genius. The metre in which it is composed is appropriately called `Shikharini' and it has seventeen syllables per foot.

There are thirty-six popular commentaries on this divine hymn. The most celebrated are:

1. Lakshmidharacharya's Lakshmidharaa.
2. Kaivalyashrama's Saubhagyavardhini.
3. Kameshwara Suri's Arunamodini.
4. Ramakavi's Dindima.
5. Akhandananda's Kaivalyavardhini.
6. Gaurikanta Bhattacharya's Anandalahari Tika.
7. Narasimha Swamin's Gopalasundari.
8. Anandagiri's Anandagiriyaa.
9. Nilakantha's Tatparyadipini.
10. Padarthachandrika.

Considerable speculation exists about the authorship of this work. The tradition says that Srimadacharya brought the first forty-one verses from Kailasa. During the course of his pilgrimages, he transported himself to Kailasa and had the Darshan of Sridevi and Sri Parameshwara. At that time, Parameshwara gave him five Sphatika (crystal) Lingas and Sridevi gave him a sheaf of palm leaves. The palm-leaf manuscript contained a hymn of one hundred stanzas to the Supreme Parashakti. The five Lingas, each one of them, are Ishwara's own form. These are the five Lingas that Srimadacharya installed later in Sringeri (Bhogalinga), Kanchi (Yogalinga), Kedara (Muktilinga), Nepal (Varalinga) and Chidambaram (Mokshalinga). Just as the Lingas are the form of Ishwara, the stanzas of the palm-leaf manuscript themselves constitute Amba because her very form is that of Srividya mantra. The hundred stanzas chiefly contained matters relating to Srividya Upasana. the one who gave, the one who received, the object that was given (Brahmavidya as Soundarya Lahari), they were all one and the same. Here is the perfect example of Advaita. Nandikeshwara interrupted him when he was bringing the entire hundred Shlokas granted to him by Shiva along with five Lingas, and in the scuffle that ensued, Srimadacharya managed to take the first forty-one shlokas, to which he added the remaining fifty-nine.

The first forty-one Shlokas deal with subtle ideas of Mantra Shastra, Kundalini Yoga and the esoteric worship of Sri Mahatripurasundari, also known as Srividya. We do not know what the original hymn from Kailasa contained after the first forty-one stanzas. May be it dealt with additional matters pertaining to Mantra Shastra, subtle and esoteric elements of it, that are not available to this world of mortals and fit only for the divine world. Above all, only by making Srimadacharya compose the second part that it could be brought home to people that he and Parameshwara were the joint authors of the work. This would make them realize that both Shankaras are one and the same. There is nothing wrong in even ascribing the entire work to Srimadacharya even if we think that the first forty-one stanzas were brought by him from Kailasa. These stanzas had been inaccessible to us. The Rishis did not create the Vedic mantras. The sounds that eternally existed in space were grasped by these divine saints and presented in a form audible to us. Every mantra is known after a particular Rishi on account of the fact that it was revealed and propagated by him. Following this logic, the first forty-one stanzas of the hymn, which constitute a mantra Shastra may well be known after Srimadacharya it was he who brought them from Kailsa to be propagated in this world. There is nothing wrong in ascribing the work by the Shankara of Kailasa to the Shankara of Kalati since the two happen to be same.

Some authorities say that these verses had been inscribed on the walls on Shiva's abode in Kailasa with which Shiva is said to have ridiculed Saraswati, who claimed the authorship of this poem. It is also believed by some that Pushpadanta, the Yaksha known famously as the author of Shiva Mahimna Stotra, caused them to be inscribed on the Maha Meru Mountain, which Sri Gaudapaadaachaarya memorized and handed over to Srimadacharya. Yet another tradition ascribes the inscription on the walls of Kailasa to Ganesha. Tradition also says that this divine hymn appeared from the effulgence of the teeth of the primordial Shakti, Sri Lalita Parameshwari, and attributing its authorship to Vashini and other deities of speech.

In the 108 names of Srimadacharya traditionally addressed in worship, the name "Soundaryalaharimukhya Bahustotra Vidhayakaya namaH" supports the authorship of Sri Shankaracharya. The first forty-one verses are found inscribed on the walls of the temple of Sri Sugandhakuntalamba, in the temple of Sri Matrubhuteshwara on the rock in Tiruchinapalli, in Tamilnadu and tradition also has it that Srimadacharya had them inscribed there on his way to Rameshwaram. Tradition also has it that he completed the poem and sang all the hundred verses of the poem before Sri Akhilandeshwari in Tiruvanaikoil, who's Tatankas were installed by him. The tradition that Srimadacharya could have been the composer of this Shakta hymn becomes even more credible when we find weighty authorities, also of the past, supporting his authorship of Prapanchasara Tantra. Amalananda Yati – the author of Chaturvarga Chintamani, Sayana, his brother Madhava, Raghava Bhatta – the commentator on Sharadatilaka, Nilakantha, Appayya Dikshita, Bengali Pandits Raghunandana, Kishna Chandra Agamavagisha, Lakshmidhara and other commentators mentioned above, Sri Bhaskaracharya and Umanandanatha are some of the authorities who support this tradition. The weighty authority of all these ancient and accepted writers will have to be blindly set aside if the tradition regarding Acharya's authorship of this poem is to be seriously doubted.

The first forty-one stanzas, known as `Anandalahari' or the `Flood of Bliss' constitute Mantra Shastra. Only a few can understand and follow them in practice since very stringent rules are called for their observance. This part contains mantra yoga as well as Kundalini yoga. Even the slightest error on the part of the practitioner in the observance of these Yogas can have adverse effects. One cannot be careless in worshipping the Mother. She sports in many ways. Though she has laid down harsh rules for worship, involving severe discipline, she has also prescribed easier ways of Sadhana. Each way of worship has to be practiced strictly in the manner prescribed. Worshipping in temples, singing Bhajans, reciting Stotras or hymns, singing devotional musical compositions, listening to inspiring selections from the Smriti, perhaps these are the easy ways of worshipping Amba.

If a devotee thinks that these are not enough and wants to take up other ways of worship like Japa, Yoga and Srichakra Pooja, believing he can practice them in any manner he likes, without the required discipline, Amba would consider it sheer wantonness on his part. The difficult ways of Sadhana in the worship of Amba should be left to those few who are capable of practicing them.

Even though the later half is devotional in nature, this part also has great Mantrik potency. Each of the hundred stanzas of Soundarya Lahari can be recited as a mantra and each yields its own separate fruit. Just as all that Midas touched became gold, all the words spoken by Srimadacharya are mantras. While all his utterances have imbued with the potency of the mantras, Soundarya Lahari and Subrahmanya Bhujangam stand out in the list. It was when he fell ill once that he composed Subrahmanya Bhujangam. He believed that if he fell ill, it was for the purpose of his composing a hymn that could be recited by all for relief from their afflictions. The Subrahmanya Bhujanga Stotra is a mantra treatise and reciting it is a remedy for all diseases. Apart from curing various illnesses, this hymn Soundarya Lahari cures the greatest of ills, Samsara.

Among the praise of Sri Lalita Tripurasundari, the Aryaa Dwishati, also known as Lalita Stavaratna by Sage Durvasas, Muka Shankara's Panchashati and Soundarya Lahari are very important. In chronological order, Arya Dwishati comes first, followed by Soundarya Lahari and then by Panchashati. The Soundarya Lahari thus occupies, among the three, a central and commanding position. The Aryaa Dwishati is so called because it has two hundred stanzas devoted to Devi. It is composed of a rare metre called `Aryaa'. Besides, the subject of the hymns is also Aryaa, that is Amba. Durvasas, the Krodha Bhattaraka, is a well-known Srividya teacher with a variety of Srividya mantra named after him. To this day, the Navavarana Pooja in Kanchi Kamakshi Sannidhi takes place according to `Chintamani Kalpa', a manual authored by this great sage exclusively for the worship of Sri Kamakshi, the Supreme physical manifestation of Sri Mahatripurasundari. That Amba manifested in his speech would be evident to those who read Dwishati. In his hymn, Durvasas has described in detail, Kameshwari in the form of Sri Rajarajeshwari, seated to the left of Sri Kameshwara on the Srichakra Mahabindu, adored by all the deities in the enclosures.

Sri Kamakshi blessed a deaf and dumb devotee with the grace that flowed naturally from her Supremely beautiful eyes. The moment he received that grace, he brought down a shower (Ananda Vrishti) of five hundred stanzas in praise of Sri Kamakshi. Muka Panchashati is incredibly sweet. Soundarya Lahari too has sweetness, but added to it is its depth, its profundity. Among Srimadacharya's devotional works, Bhaja Govindam is the simplest and the easiest to understand. The Soundarya Lahari is different; it is natural that it should have a number of somewhat difficult words since precision is called for in conveying thoughts of a subtle nature. When a great sculptor creates a divine image in a spirit of devotion and dedication, it would seem as if the deity so sculpted truly dwells in the mage. It is in this manner that Srimadacharya has composed the hymn, from an exalted plane, delighting himself again and again in the presence of Amba, in her endless beauty. And, throughout, he is moved by a spirit of dedication realizing as he does that his perception and understanding of Her and the words that pour out from his heart in describing her are but her own gift.

The result is that the hymn itself becomes an image of Amba that is worthy of being extolled in a hymn of beauty. He creates words out of syllables, he strings together the words into the feet of the stanza, and then he connects together the stanzas to form an entire poetical work of devotion, like a garland of lovely flowers. If there is nectar in the actual flower, the sweetness arising out of our aesthetic appreciation of this poem is nectar to our mind.

The poetry composed by a great sage like Srimadacharya in a state of ecstasy aroused by his perception of the Divine and during moments of self-forgetfulness is a product of Divine inspiration. Acharya says in the hundredth verse: "Mother, this, your hymn, is made up of your own words". This hymn, besides being the product of divine grace, is itself capable of conferring grace on us. Those who actually saw Acharya for even just a second must have received their blessings the moment they cast their eyes on his holy feet. The world had the rare fortune of having Srimadacharya's Darshan only for a period of 32 years. He must have been, out of his immense compassion, anxious that even after the end of his incarnation, people must have the benefit of his teachings. That is why he has gathered together all his grace, compressed and packed it so to speak, in his poems, hymns and songs that keep blessing people generation after generation. Through Soundarya Lahari, we receive the wave of grace of Srimadacharya. To people reading Soundarya Lahari, any number of hidden or inner meanings will reveal themselves according to their perception, maturity, learning, nature and standing in life. The term `Soundarya Lahari' occurs in the third of the stanzas describing Amba's beautiful form, from had to toe. The Srichakra constitutes of forty-three triangles. Since the Bindu is also seen as a triangle, the number becomes forty-four. The Srichakra is not only the residence of Sridevi, it is indeed her form as a diagram i.e. her Yantra Swaroopa. With the 41^st stanza, Acharya concludes with the part describing mantra Shastra. Even though he depicts Amba's form in a manner that all people can take delight in without difficulty, he gives a hint of his interest in, and incomparable devotion to the Shastra and Srividya also by hinting at her Srichakra form in the 44th stanza, in which he uses the term `Soundarya Lahari' to describe the flood of beauty that Amba's form is.

To one of his compositions consisting of a hundred verses, Acharya gives the name `Shivanandalahari', which yields the meaning, "The stream of joy associated with Shiva". The name `Shiva' is explicitly mentioned here. But in this set of hundred, no such prefix has been used to denote that the hymn is about Amba. The title is merely `Soundarya Lahari', which means the flood of beauty; it is not `Amba Soundarya Lahari' or `Devi Soundarya Lahari'. The fact is soundarya or beauty itself means Amba. When we refer to beauty of other gods and goddesses we have to specifically mention their names. But the source of their beauty is Amba; the material or commodity out of which their beauty has been made is Amba – Amba is the root of all beauty. That which makes all beautiful things beautiful, all beautiful creatures beautiful, that which is the be-all and end-all of everything that is beautiful is the beauty of Amba. The beauty of Amba alone is beautiful. So, while speaking of Amba's beauty, we do no have to specifically use the word `Amba's' before `beauty'. Ten names of Sridevi are mentioned as the graces of Devi – Dasha Maha Vidyas. The Shastra relating to Sri Mahatripurasundari is spoken of as, "Sundari Vidya". Among all forms of Amba, she is the most gentle, the most beautiful, hence the name `Sundari'. "I have had the vision of so many deities. But I have not seen anywhere a beautiful form like that of Sri Mahatripurasundari", these words spoken by Sri Paramahamsa Ramakrishna are to be found in a book on him.

It is not in the title of the hymn alone that the name Mahatripurasundari does not figure; throughout the text also it does not. Not in a single stanza out of one hundred do we find `Mahatripurasundari' mentioned even once. None of the names that particularly denote the presiding deity of Srividya is mentioned in it.

Actually there are also very few of the names of the other forms of Amba used in this hymn. Among them, the most frequently seen are those of Girisutaa and Himigirisutaa. Names like Shivaa, Bhavani, Uma, Parvati, Chandi occur in one or two places. We come across names such as Janani, Amba and Devi which names can be used to denote any female deity and are not appellations specially signifying Parashakti inseparably united with Parameshwara. An important part of devotion is muttering the names of the deity one worships. Nama Rasa is the Rasa or delight derived by the devotee from such muttering of the divine names. Kavita Rasa is the aesthetic pleasure gained from poetic descriptions, from poetic fancy. If Nama Rasa is predominant, it will be at the expense of Kavita Rasa. It must have been Amba's resolve that the hymn must be permeated with Kavita Rasa. That is why not much importance is given to the different names of Parashakti.

The very first of the one hundred stanzas opens with the words, "ShivaH shaktyA yukto". Here, we find an extremely significant name of Amba pertaining to Shakti. Amba is the energy or power of Parabrahman. This name, which occurs in the very first stanza, is not repeated again in the hymn. There are three stages of development in the life of a woman and these are characterized by three important relationships. At first, she is the daughter of her parents. Then she is the wife of her husband; and, finally, she is the mother of her children. Although the hymn refers to very few names of Amba, it does refer to names of hers that are appropriate to the three stages mentioned above. That it speaks of her as the wife of Lord Parameshwara and as the mother of the entire creation and the cosmos is not particularly noteworthy; such references are plentiful in any composition on Sridevi, written in any language. Among the many uncommon and novel features of Soundarya Lahari is the fact that it has more names conveying the idea of her being a daughter than of her being a mother or wife. She is called Girisuta because she is called the daughter of the mountains i.e. Parvataraja Himalaya. The mother of the entire world and the trinity is also the mother of Himavan, but yet is his daughter! It was in remembrance of this wonderful phenomenon, in the thought of turning mother into daughter, that Srimadacharya has included more names of Amba denoting her position a daughter. Also, Himalaya signifies Prithvi Tatva or the element earth, which happens to be the element present in Moolaadhaara Chakra. Since Sridevi, who is non-different from Kundalini Shakti has her abode in this Chakra, she is referred to as Himagirisuta.

Though Amba is the very embodiment of love, affection and compassion, she is also the Supreme queen Rajarajeshwari, the omnipotent one who subjugates all the worlds and rules over them. In Rahasya Nama Sahasra of Sri Lalita, the names coming immediately after `Srimata' are Srimaharajni and Srimatsimhasaneshwari, indicating the authority wielded by her. We refer to the name of the queen only when absolutely necessary, but otherwise refer to her as `Your Majesty'. Since she is the very Self that pervades the entire creation, every being knows her as `I'. Thus, there would be no need to actually refer to this well-known queen with various names. This is one of the reasons Srimadacharya uses very few of her rather well known names.

As we know, the first part of this hymn is referred to as `Anandalahari'. When we merely say `ananda', it means the bliss of Amba. But what or who is Amba? The `Chit' or knowledge aspect of Sri Parameshwara, who is `Sat'. Thus, the truth of Vedanta is indicated here that all experience of bliss derived from Jnana or knowledge. The many types of ananda that we experience are through the reflection of this `Chit'. The ultimate point of such experience is the non-dualistic bliss we experience by our being dissolved in this Chit and becoming the very form of Jnana. Amba is rooted or is the very personification of this Jnana too. In the Sahasranama it is mentioned that the bliss known to Brahma, Vishnu and others is but a drop of the bliss of Amba. That is why the first part of this hymn is called simply `Anandalahari' without the name of Amba being added.

In portraying the physical form, there is one order for male deities and another for female deities. The former have to be depicted from the feet to the head. This is known by various names: Paadaadi Keshaantam, Aapaadamastakam, Nakha-Shikha paryantam etc. the reverse order is observed for female deities: from the tresses of hair, the poet goes on portraying the forehead, the eyes and so on down to the feet. This is Keshaadi Paadaantam. This order is adopted in the first part of Sri Lalita Sahasranama and Soundarya Lahari. The qualities or attributes of Amba are not different from her form. This hymn is also not something that is separate from her. Just as her infinite auspicious qualities have assumed a Keshaadi Paadaanta form through the parts of her body, the very Keshaadi Paada description of her body constitutes her verbal form.

While concluding a devotional composition, it is customary to mention the specific fruits or rewards to be gained by reading the same. It is called `Phala Shruti'. In the concluding stanza of the Soundarya Lahari, Srimadacharya says in all humility that it was out of unthinking rashness on his part that he composed the hymn to Amba using a few words from her own verbal cosmos. Also, the Acharya, instead of mentioning the benefits to be obtained by reciting this hymn, speaks only of the fruits yielded by worshipping Amba. Why has he done so? Two reasons may be mentioned. Since the Acharya does not possess the least trace of ego, he is averse to claiming that the hymn composed by him has the power to bring rewards. The second reason is the hymn itself is the form of Amba, her verbal personification. So to read it or recite it is to worship her. When the work extolling Amba is itself her embodiment, the fruits yielded by reciting it must be the same as those yielded by worshipping her. Can anyone in this creation be even minutely successful in describing the fruits obtained by worshiping Amba?


On the organisation of the posts 

One sloka per post in Devanagiri with transliteration and meaning in Tamil and English, Beneficial Results of reciting each sloka, reference from Abhirami Andhadhi/Sri Lalitha Sahasranamam and A Digest of Kanchi Paramacharya’s Discourses on Soundarya Lahari (from Sri Ra.Ganapathy's 'Deivathin Kural').