For the benefit of those who do not know about the Paramacharya here is a brief biographical note:
Chandrasekharendra Saraswati Swamigal (1894 - 1994), also called the
Paramacharya, was the sage of Kanchi in Tamilnadu, India, who was so
simple, humble, profound, enlightened, compassionate, scholarly and full of
Grace that he naturally and effortlessly touched the hearts of men and women,
prince and pauper, around the world. Ascending to the Headship of the Kanchi
Kamakoti Mutt at the age of thirteen as the 68th pontiff in the line of
succession from Adi Sankara, he ministered to the needs of the afflicted and
the distressed and spread the message of compassion and of a return to the most
treasured ancient values. After a mission like this full of action for almost
half a century which included a 30-year walking pilgrimage of the entire
A small note on the objective of this digest.
The name ‘Digest’ itself is too much of a claim by this writer, who is currently studying the discourses in Tamil (on Soundaryalahari – a 100-sloka piece, in Sanskrit) of the Paramacharya, in ‘Deivathin Kural’ – meaning, ‘The Voice of God’ – in Tamil, in the sixth volume of the seven-volume series of that name, recorded by and, rewritten in, the inimitable style of, Ra. Ganapathi. Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Mumbai, it appears has published an English summary of this. But instead of trying to read that English version, I decided to test myself whether I had understood at least a part of the Acharya’s thoughts. The best way of testing oneself is to try to communicate to others. There are a number of readers interested in the subject. Some of them know Tamil and probably would have read Ra Ganapathi’s book in the original. Some others may have read the English version. The purpose of this digest is to bring the advaita part (and the relevant questions that arise usually in the discussions that are very common in the discussions on advaita) to the focus and acquaint ourselves with the Paramacharya’s views, wonderful elaborations and comments on the subject. In consonance with this objective, it is not the intention to cover all the slokas even out of the 42, the only ones which the Paramacharya himself has covered in full (he has covered another 37 in part, another 10 just in passing, and has not touched at all the remaining 11, which are sloka Nos.19, 32, 68, 72, 76 to 81, 85). Even within the exposition of a particular sloka, large portions may have to be omitted by me. In spite of all this the ‘Digest’ – contrary to the meaning of the word - is likely to be rather long. It is broken into 20 (only an estimate as of now) web pages (around 5000 words each). Note that the original extends to 744 pages (pp.577 to 1321 of the sixth volume). The attempt shall be made, therefore, to be as brief as possible. But, wherever it is found that the Paramacharya’s already lucidly forceful and simple explanations cannot be ‘digested through a further precis or summary’, one will have to resort to almost a close (or free !) translation of his words as reported by Ra. Ganapathi. And also note that, (1) I, as the digest writer, cannot be expected to dwell on those portions of the discourses that are not reasonably clear to me, and (2) it may be easy to pull out just a sentence here or there from what I write and see wrong or absurd meanings in it; if this happens let us remember to go back to the Paramacharya himself and try to understand his explanations in entirety, rather than spend time at straws in VK’s imperfect digest. With these preliminary words let me start on this venture, which is actually a swAdhyAya-yajna, that is, a yajna of study. May the Paramacharya himself as well as my own Guru and father, (late) Sri R. Visvanatha Sastri, guide me in this endeavour and see that I don’t misrepresent either the Paramacharya or the Soundaryalahari !
On the organization of the ‘Digest’
The entire exposition is by the Paramacharya. So the first person pronoun, wherever it occurs, is his. The ‘I’ of advaita-vedanta is always within quotes. Additional explanations given by Ra. Ganapathi are so acknowledged. Parenthetical remarks by him, like ‘with a smile’, ‘after a small pause’ etc. that all refer to the speaker, the Paramacharya, are repeated, if at all, as they are in the original, within parentheses. My own remarks, if any, shall be properly demarcated. And note that the Paramacharya most often refers to Adi Sankaracharya as ‘Our Acharya’.
A Digest of Paramacharya’s Discourses on Soundaryalahari
“How could Adi Sankara, who preached the jnAna mArga, have promoted this work (Soundaryalahari) of bhakti? It cannot be his,” say some who profess ‘Philosophy’. But our Acharya was not a professor who isolated philosophy as a separate discipline. Having written very profoundly on advaita and its deepest implications in his several Bhashyas and the other works of his, he promoted the spiritual pursuit of the common man by writing and talking about the need to follow one’s swadharma by Karma and Bhakti. His intent was to raise the common man from his own level. For this purpose he went from one pilgrim centre to another all his life and composed hymns after hymns and also established yantras in temples.
The philosophers argue: JnAni says everything is One. But Bhakti can happen only when there is the duality of the devotee and the deity. Therefore, they say, the jnAni can never be a bhakta. These philosophers cannot themselves claim to have the Enlightenment of advaita ! But there have been those who could have so claimed, like the sage Suka, Madhusudana Saraswati or Sadasiva-brahmam. If we carefully study their lives we will know that they were devotees of God in the fullest sense of the word and have themselves written works of Bhakti. Even in our own times Ramakrishna Paramahamsa has been a great devotee of Mother Goddess and Ramana Maharishi has done works of devotion on God Arunachalesvara. Again, on the other side, great devotees like Manikka-vasagar, Nammazhvar, Arunagiri-nathar, Tayumanavar, etc. have themselves been convinced advaitins, and this is reflected in innumerable flashes in their compositions.
If a jnAni should not do a Bhakti composition, then I would say that he should not also do a work of jnAna. Why am I saying this? Let us go back to the definition of a jnAni. ‘ The world is all mAyA; the thinking of people as if they were separate separate jIvAtmAs is nothing but Ignorance’ - with such a conviction through personal experience, they have thrown away that Ignorance as well as its basic locus, the mind, and they live in the non-dualistic state of ‘ ‘I’ am everything’ – such should be the status of the jnAni; shouldn’t it be so? Such a person preaching, or writing a book, even if it be about the subject of jnAna – is it not a contradiction? Unless such a person thinks there is a world outside of him and there are jIvAtmAs outside, how can he think of ‘teaching’? Teaching whom? And when we look at it this way, all those great teachers of jnAna should really not be jnAnis ! What power will there be for such a teaching about jnAna from teachers who are not jnAnis themselves?
On the other hand what do we observe in our experience? Whether it is the teaching about jnAna in the Gita, or the Viveka Chudamani of our Acharya, or the Avadhuta Gita of Sri Dattatreya or the teaching in the Yoga-vASiShTa, or a song of Tayumanavar – even when we just read these we feel we are being taken beyond the curtain created by mAyA to some distant peaceful state of Calm. Just by reading, in one’s spiritually ripe stage, such teachings, there have been people who have renounced the world and reached the state of Bliss-in-one-Self !. If these teachings had not been written from that spiritual apex of Experiential Excellence, how could such things have ever happened?
Therefore, however much by your intellectual logic, you argue whether a jnAni can get bhakti, how the jnAni can do any preaching and so such possibilities cannot exist and so on, these are certainly happening, by the Will of the Lord which is beyond the Possible and the Impossible.
It is only the Play of the Lord that the jnAni, who is non-dualistic internally, appears to do things in the dualistic world. His mind may have vanished, mAyA might have been transcended by him; but that does not mean that the outside world of jIvAtmAs has disintegrated. What do we gather from this? There is a Super-Mind which does all this and in some mysterious way is compering and directing the entire universe. And it also means that it is the same Supra-Mind that is making the minds of men revolve in the illusion of mAyA. It is that Power which is known in advaita scriptures as saguNa-brahman or Isvara. In the scriptures devoted to shakti or Shiva , whenever they call the Actionless nirguNa-brahman as ‘Shivam’ they call this saguNa-brahman as ‘shakti’, ‘parA-shakti’ or ‘ambAL’. Just as that nirguNa-brahman exhibits itself and acts as the saguNa-brahman, so also, it must be presumed, that the enlightened jnAni also does his external actions and that again, is the work of the saguNa-brahman!
What is the path of jnAna? It is the effort through self-enquiry and meditation for the eradication of the mind and vanquishing of mAyA. But the other path is to dedicate oneself and all one’s thoughts and actions to that very parA-shakti (who produced this mAyA on us) with an attitude of devotion. It is like giving the house-key to the thief himself ! However much the parA-shakti may play with you and toss you and your mind hither and thither, Her infinite compassion cannot be negated. Only when we separate and rejoin, we realise the value of that union. To pray to Her for that reunion and for Her to get us back to Her in answer to our prayers – this is the great Leela of Duality wherein She exhibits Her Infinite Compassion ! So when one prays with Bhakti for such release She releases Him by giving Him that Wisdom of Enlightenment.
It is wrong to think that the goal of Bhakti lies in the dualistic attitude of being separate from God. It is by this wrong assumption that people ask the question: How can a jnAni exhibit Bhakti? In the very path of Bhakti wherein it appears there is an embedded duality, the same Bhakti would lead the practitioner to the stage where he will ask: Oh God ! May I be one with You ! This is the subtle point which the questioning people miss. When that stage comes to the devotee, the very parA-shakti known as kArya-brahman or saguNa-brahman will bless him with that jnAna that takes him to the non-dual kAraNa-brahman or nirguNa-brahman.
Not everybody can practise the path of jnAna that brings the realisation of the mahA-vAkyas by sravaNa (hearing), manana (thinking and recalling) and nididhyAsana (contemplating). Only when the mind vanishes one can realise the Self as the Absolute brahman. If that is so, the real question is: How to kill the truant mind, which refuses to be subdued, much less vanquished ? The very effort of vanquishing the mind has to be done by the mind only. How can it kill itself ? The palm can slap another; but it cannot slap itself. Though we are thus brought to a dilemma, there is a supreme power which has created all these minds. So instead of self-effort to kill our minds, we should leave it to the parA-shakti and surrender to Her. Instead of falling at the feet of the witness for the prosecution we fall at the feet of the prosecutor himself ! Then She will help us quell the mind; She will grace us with the necessary jnAna.
Either She might totally eradicate your mind and give you the peaceful state of ‘I am shiva’ (shivoham) or She might tell you from within:
“Look, after all, all this is My Play. The Play appears real to you because of mAyA. I shall totally erase that mAyA-view for you. Then you can also be like me, with that calm non-dual bliss inside and having on the outside a mind which is untouched by mAyA. Thereby you can also be a witness to all this worldly Dance. You will thus see yourself in Me and see Me in all the worldly multiplicities. In other words instead of making the mind non-existent, your mind will then be full of Me”
And She might make you just exactly that way. But I know your worry. You constantly worry about the impossibility of transcending mAyA, of eradicationg this worldly vision and of vanquishing the mind. You keep worrying to the extent of almost weeping over it. To such a weiling seeker She replies:
“Why do you worry and weep like this? You are worrying that you cannot discard the world from your view. But you forget that the world was not your making. This Sun and Moon, mountains, trees, oceans, animal kingdom, and the millions of living beings and categories – all this was not created by you.
“When that is so, you are worrying about the little ‘you’ that you are, and you forget that this little ‘you’ also was not your creation. Instead of thinking all this is not only one but one with Me, your mAyA-clouded view makes you think they are all different and distinct. And even that mAyA-view that clouds you, again was not your making!
“My dear child, you are caught up in the
web of the world, a mind and a mAya-cloud
-- all this is My making. Did I not make
“You jIvas have only little fragments of that Power. So if you cannot eradicate the world, the mind and the mAya that I have made, you don’t have to cry over it. It is not in your Power. It has to take place only by My Grace. Come nearer to Me through Devotion ! I shall do the eradication in proper doses for you.
“That somebody is able to control his mind and is able to walk on the path of jnAna – that again is My own Grace. It is I who have granted that privilege to him. What appears as many and different must be seen as one. To crave for that view is what is called ‘advaita-vAsanA’. One gets it only by My Grace”.
(Now the Paramacharya, who has been talking in the words of the Mother Goddess, continues on his own).
There is another novelty here. Even the jnAni who has had the non-dual Enlightenment, still enjoys the play of mAyA. He sees the different things; but knows they are all one. Just as a spectator of a play who is not playing any role in it, the jnAni enjoys the playful novelties of mAyA and revels in his devotion to that parA-Sakthi who is the author of it all. To be keeping such jnAnis in this dual-non-dual state is also the work of Mother Goddess. Mark it. It is not that the jnAni is showing Devotion just for the sake of others only. No, By himself he is indeed thinking
( I think the Paramacharya is here
letting out an autobiographical tip ! -- VK)
‘What a pleasure to witness this dualistic play of the non-dualistic One ! What a multiplicity of beauty, panoramic variety and continuity of Love !’ . Thus revelling in that blissful vision, he continues to pour out his own love (bhakti) to that Transcendental Power from the bottom of his heart. This tribute to the jnAni has been given by the great Teacher Suka himself.
AtmArAmAshca munayaH nirgranthA apy-urukrame;
kurvanty-ahaitukIm bhaktim itham-bhUta-guNo hariH. – meaning,
Those who revel in the Self, even though rid of all attachments,
show a causeless bhakti towards the Lord, just naturally.)
On the one hand the devotee who has yet to get the Enlightenment enjoys the devotional state for the very reason of getting the Enlightenment; on the other hand, the one who is already enlightened and is a jIvan-mukta shows his bhakti for the sake of enjoyment of that bhakti and not for any other reward or purpose.
(The Paramacharya continues to speak the words, as if, of the Goddess):
“Thus I am the One who gives this new Bhakti in the state of jnAna. And I will be the One who will give you that jnAna to you, my devotee, when the time is ripe. Don’t you worry. You have come to Me as your Mother. I will take care of you. The bondage in which I threw you shall be removed from you by Myself. You need not have to keep on crying for ‘Release’. Once you know I am the only One there is, hold on to that steadfastly; there is no question of ‘Release’ thereafter. ‘Release’ from what?
jnAnis think that they will get the Ultimate Peace only when the
duality-awareness goes away from them and let them go their own way of Enquiry
of the Self. When you feel you don’t have the interest or the stamina to go
that way, don’t feel bad or incomplete. Come through the path of Love. See the
multiplicities. But instead of seeing them as different and separate, try not
to forget that the basis of all of them is the single
Thus arises the godly experience that is blessed by the Mother Goddess. By Mother Goddess I also mean the Lord-God, the paramAtmA, and also the individual favourite deity of each of us. It is the same supreme Power that engulfs you into the mAyA, that graces you as saguNa-brahman and also takes you to that blissful state of jnAna.
Finally let me also say this. By the very fact that the jnAni writes a book on jnAna, it must follow that he should also write on Bhakti. For, writing a book means communicating with others. So that means he has accepted the presence of a world of duality in which he has to communicate and educate. The jnAni as he is, must have already ‘descended’ to this world of duality and decided to raise the commonfolk to his level. He who knows that the source of all this duality is that Infinite Compassionate God–principle, would ipso facto have no compunctions for making a hymn of praise for that Ultimate in Its saguNa form. And he also knows that it is that very same Power that prods him on to make this hymn. So where is the contradiction here?
But if you contend that he is writing jnAna works for the benefit of the world – ‘loka-sangrahArtham’ without any ‘kartRtva-buddhi’ -- the awareness of doership – then with the same non-awareness of doership he can write both jnAna works and bhakti works. What and where is the difference? The World-welfare (loka-kalyANam) is the purpose. It is the Lord who is effecting the welfare through the hands and mouth of these chosen jnAnis. And the most efficient way for the jnAni, the Lord knows, to reach the masses, is to propagate hymns of praise of the divine, pilgrimage to holy centers, installation of mystic yantras, and all the way down to ritual worship.
There are three superlative hymns of praise on Mother Goddess in the form of Lalita. Chronologically they are: ‘AryA-dvishati’ (also called ‘lalitA-stava-ratnam’) a 200-sloka piece by Sage Durvasa; ‘Soundarya-lahari’ which is actually made up of two parts – ‘Ananda-lahari’ , a 41-sloka piece brought from Kailas by Adi Sankara and ‘Soundarya-lahari’ the 59-sloka piece composed by Adi Sankara himself, the two pieces together going by the popular name of Soundarya lahari by Adi Sankara; and ‘Panca-shati’ (a 500-sloka piece) by the poet Muka.
Durvasa’s Arya-dvishati gives us a spiritual experience of the presence of the Almighty-Goddess in the very words of AryA-dvishati. In this he describes the complicated structure of the Sri-chakra . The Goddess’s Grace descends on those who read and recite such hymns of praise composed by great devotees who have already merited the descent of Her Grace on them. Durvasa, Adi Sankara and Muka are three such. Such Grace exhibits itself first in the eloquence of these hymns. And the result is, the devotee who revels in the recitation and repetition of these hymns, himself gets that eloquence and flow of language and of speech.
The Goddess gave such an eloquence to Muka. ‘Muka’ means ‘dumb’. We do not know what name he had before. But from the moment he composed the five hundred slokas in Her praise, we have known him as the poet Muka !. Both the AryA-dvishati and the MUka-pancashati bring to our vision the majestic splendour of the form of Mother Goddess like an expert painter’s masterly painting. The third one, the Soundarya-lahari is the crowning glory of all three and of all hymns of praise of the Mother Supreme.
Of Soundaryalahari it may be said that there never was one like it, nor ever will be. It has a perennial charm that does not satiate. And its majestic eloquence is unbeatable. In his bhaja-govindam our Acharya uses very elementary words because it happens to be the alphabet of Vedanta. But here he is describing the undescribable. So he uses words very precisely. Consequently the vocabulary turns out to be difficult. But the words chosen only add to the lilting charm of the poetry that he weaves. The metre used is ‘shikariNI’, meaning ‘that which is at the apex’. It has 17 syllables for each of the four lines.
Through the descriptions of the Goddess’s form that make up the latter 59 slokas, he brings ambaal right before our mental eyes in all Her majesty, grace and splendour and overwhelms us by the bliss which the very words and metaphors pour on us. Just as a master-sculptor dedicates each movement of his chisel to the object of his sculpture, he transforms each word, as it were, by his own spiritual experience of the Goddess and thus in turn we readers feel the words themselves constitute the Goddess.
It is not only blissful poetry, but blessed poetry. Such blessedness arises not because of any flowery language, but by the fact the Acharya is himself blessed ! ‘Mother, this hymn is nothing but a composition of yours in your own words’ (‘tvadIyAbhir-vAgbhiH tava janani vAcAm stutir-iyam’ – Verse no.100), says he in the concluding line. Inspirations of great saints and sages, not only benefit mankind by their inspired poetry, but bring to successive generations, an inspired contact with the great men, even long after they have passed away. Thus our Acharya in enabling us to have a ‘darshan’ of the Goddess herself, gives us, in addition, a ‘darshan’ of himself !
The concept of ‘intense’ devotion does not care for the language used, or for the manner of worship. It is the intensity of devotion and depth of feeling that matter. But getting that intensity and depth is the most difficult thing. That is exactly what eludes us. Now that is where the beauty of such blessed poetry like ‘Soundaryalahari’ excels. Whether you understand it or not, whether you pronounce the words correctly or not, the very attempt itself of reciting it produces in you the needed bhakti! This is the word-power of the words of such blessed poetry. The vibrations of the words give us all the material and spiritual success. We have only to keep the objective of bhakti steadfast in our minds. Everything else just follows.
Of all the stotras that our Acharya has done, it is the Soundaryalahari that is the topmost. The aShTottara-nAmAvaLi of the Acharya has the nAmA ‘soundarya-laharI-mukhya-bahu-stotra- vidhAyakAya namaH’ meaning: ‘prostrations to the one who composed many stotras with soundaryalaharI as the prime one’. Of the bhAshyas that he wrote, ‘brahma-sUtra-bhAshya’ towers supreme; of his expository works, ‘viveka-chUDAmaNi’ is prime and of all his works of bhakti, the Soundarya-laharI tops the list.
SundarI, the beautiful, is Her name. Tripura-sundari or mahA-tripura-sundari both derived from the root name, SundarI, is the Goddess propitiated by the great mantra called ‘shri-vidyA’. Of the many names of ambaal, such as PArvatI, durgA, KALI, BAlA, BhuvaneshvarI, etc., it is the sundari name that goes with ‘RAja-rAjesvari’, the Queen-name of all the scriptures that talk of and dwell on the Mother Goddess. Sage Ramakrishna has said: I have seen many forms of Gods and Goddesses; but I have never seen one more charming than ‘Tripura-sundari’ ! The word ‘soundaryam’ pertains to SundarI and means ‘The Beauty’.
But the beauty of it all is, that the name ‘Tripura-sundarI’ or any of the other (synonymous) names of the same form, namely, ‘LalitA’, ‘RAja-rAjeshvarI’, ‘KAmAkshI’ or ‘KaAmeshvarI’ do not occur anywhere in the text, including its title ! Even the other descriptive names of the Goddess like ‘hima-giri-sutA’ (daughter of Himalaya mountain), or simply, giri-sutA, shivA, bhavAnI, umA, satI, pArvatI, chanDI – occur only at one or two places. General attributed names, like ‘jananI’, ‘mAtA’, ‘ambA’, ‘devI’ meaning either ‘mother’ or ‘goddess’, -- which commonly go with all feminine deities -- occur at a few more places, but even they are few.
While he begins with ‘shivaH-shaktyA’, the most potent name of ambaal, namely ‘shakti’, gets mentioned. ‘Shakti’ means ‘power’. It is the absolute brahman’s power or energy that ambaal personifies. So this name tells everything about the Goddess. And it comes in the very beginning, but never after.
(In sloka no.32, the word ‘shakti’ appears
but there it is a code-word for a syllable in ambaal’s mantra).
Finally, one more point regarding occurrence of names. The role of a woman has three stages: as daughter, as wife, as mother. The last two roles certainly do get mentioned very often in stotras pertaining to a feminine deity. But the Soundaryalahari uses the daughter-reference such as ‘himagiri-sute’, ‘tuhina-giri-kanye’, more often. And again, when the first part of 41 slokas ends, he ends by referring to ‘janaka-jananI’ , the mother-father role of both Isvara and IsvarI of the whole universe.
Acknowledgement of Source Material:
Ra. Ganapthy’s ‘Deivathin Kural’ (Vol.6) in Tamil published by Vanathi Publishers, 4th edn. 1998
Ó Copyright of English summary. V. Krishnamurthy