The Fusion of the Mystical and the Aesthetic in Tripurasundarī

Saundaryalaharī (SL), a devotional poem traditionally attributed to Śaṅkara, is one of the most revered and widely read texts with Tantric content. (...) The text is essentially Tantric, with its central theme being the glorification of the goddess Tripurā. Composed in light of Śākta non-dualism, the text integrates elements from Kubjikā practice into Tripurā worship*.

(* Verse 14 explicitly enumerates the ‘rays’ (raśmi) found in the six cakras. This relates to the raśmividyā concept that refers to Ṣaḍanvayaśāṃbhavavidyā, central to Kubjikā practice. Verse 34 identifies the practice of Pareśvara, one of the Śāṃbhava Vidyās that is visualized in the Ājñā cakra. Verse 40, the final verse of the six-cakra practice that concludes with the Mūlādhāra, explicitly refers to Navātman, the Vidyā practiced in the base cakra in the Kubjikā tradition. For discussions on Kubjikā see DyczkowskI 1987, 2000, 2009. Since the text combines both Śrīvidyā and Kubjikā practices, it outlines both the ascending and descending orders of Kuṇḍalinī. See verse 9 for the ascending order and verses 34-40 for the descending order. )

(...) Whether through ritual transformation of self-awareness (the primary focus of the first section of SL) or through embodying the divine in her corporeal form (the focus of the second section), the centrality of physical experience is apparent throughout the text, and it is in this embodied spirituality that the integration of the aesthetic domain occurs within Tantric practice. The term Tripurā, referring to the central goddess described in the text, demonstrates a fluidity that embraces immanence and transcendence at the same time. Even the name reflects this, as the term can be analyzed etymologically as both ‘before or beside the triad’ (tribhyaḥ purā), and as ‘she who dwells in three cities’ (trisu pūrṣu bhavā). The goddess is simultaneously addressed as Sundarī, the beautiful one, invoking her association with aesthetic beauty. The combination of both these names, Tripurasundarī, indicates an integration of the mystical and aesthetic aspects.

The philosophical foundation for the rise of this Śākta paradigm breaks the dichotomy between the immanent and transcendent. Tripurā is beyond the triad and thus transcendent, while dwelling in all three cities. The formless in this depiction is latent with forms, and when given form, they eventually dissolve into the very awareness nature of the body of the goddess. Rather than being exclusive, these transcendent and immanent modes are considered here as interdependent. With the coalesced identity of Tripurā and Sundarī, encountering the divine implies the recognition of aesthetic beauty. This integration highlights the role of language, as the poetic description woven throughout the text is inseparable from the linguistic body of the goddess.

(...) Pioneered by Bharata, the classical aesthetic tradition was advanced with the writings of Tantric aesthetes such as Abhinava or Jayaratha. The central literary devices in this system include ‘ornamentation’ (alaṅkāra), rasa or aesthetic relish, and dhvani, indirect suggestion. Alaṅkāra involves both the form of expression, the very language a poet uses that has characteristics such as rhyming, and literary tropes that relate to content, such as metaphoric and metonymic expressions. Rasa, central to classical Indian aesthetics since Bharata’s writings, identifies the psychological states ingrained with experience, such as erotic, comic, heroic, etc. Bharata outlines eight rasas that emerge with the integration of the emotional states (bhāva). There are eight emotions categorized as ‘dormant’ (sthāyin) and thirty-three collectively addressed as transient (vyabhicārin). In addition to these, there are also some psycho-physical conditions (sāttvika). All of these fall under the category of emotional states (bhāva). To this structure, Abhinava adds ‘peaceful’ (śānta) as an additional rasa. Dhvani or the suggested meaning, on the other hand, relates to the structure of poetic meaning, and is found in the domains of both alaṅkāra and rasa. While one can read SL as a Tantric text, one can also read it as a sublimely nuanced aesthetic document. Every single verse in the text displays one or another literary trope, and many of them are exemplary in their integration of multiple devices. The author of SL, in his effort to materialize the beauty of the goddess Sundarī, creates in words the aesthetic ‘body’ of goddess, replete with devices central to Sanskrit poetics.

The central argument of this paper is that the process of describing the beauty of the goddess is a technique for transforming a commonsense awareness into a mystical one. Language mediates this process: the select poetic expression, with the beautiful body of the goddess as the target, does not end in mere depiction of her physical beauty, as it culminates with the poetic beauty (saundarya) of the text. This is exactly where the aesthetic domain meets the esoteric domain, with ‘aesthetic beauty (saundarya) being a means to reach to the ‘beautiful one’ (Sundarī). In this process, the text mirrors the divine body by incorporating the aesthetic beauty.

(...) The description of the beautiful one (Sundarī), along these lines, mirrors the inner beauty of Tripurā. In this process of describing her beauty with an incorporation of the qualities of beauty outlined by classical aesthetes, the text transforms into the body of the goddess. The embodiment of divinity, vivid in this depiction, embraces both emotional and cognitive domains. Language and sensory modalities are very much active and creative in this process of experiencing the divine that is both transcendent and immanent. Even recitation of the verses filled with literary tropes that describe the divine in the flesh, the very process through which the divine form is grasped and experienced, is entwined with language and somatic experience. The distilled beauty expressed in the stanzas that refer speciically to the limbs of the goddess’s body are themselves the limbs of the text. In this way the text transforms into the divine body.

(...) The integration of beauty and bliss in SL corresponds to the practice of Tripurā. Tripurā demonstrates her lavish nature and the practices centered on her are identified with the order of the Gandharvas that involves the assertion of pleasure, ornamentation and fragrances, and contemplation instead of asceticism. The ritual manuals explicitly state that not only is the goddess sensuous, even her practice involves sensuality. This physicality is fundamental to constructing the divine image as the aesthetic beauty materialized, and parallels the construction of SL as an embodiment of the divine beauty in poetic language. This position opens up the possibility of self-recognition through the bliss experienced in realizing the corporeal beauty of the goddess. Just as the language describing the beauty of the goddess and the metaphors suggesting aesthetic bliss parallel esoteric experience, these qualities are integral to ‘experience’ itself. In this depiction, just as all cognitive moodes are permeated with awareness, all instances of cognition in the same way involve the sense of aesthetic pleasure. The two names of the text, “waves of bliss and beauty,” describe this very intertwined nature of Tripurā practice.

(...) This fusion of Tantra and poetics becomes possible with the afirmation of the body, and finding the divine as immanent and the self as embodied. Encountering the dazzling form of Tripurā in SL parallels the recognition of the self: in essence, the self that is the heart of aesthetic experience is in itself the fundamental nature of beauty. Here the boundary of inside and outside dissolves, as the beautifully described form of the goddess mirrors the beauty within, and what constitutes the sacred is the pristine and beautiful aspect of the self.

(...) It is reasonable to conclude that SL constitutes three bodies of the goddess: the first section identified as Ānandalaharī generates the esoteric experience through ritual visualization, mantras and maṇḍalas, philosophical speculation, and the practice of cakras and Kuṇḍalinī. This section is linked with the surge of bliss that occurs through the rise of Kuṇḍalinī, and the relation of this passage to mystical bliss is explicit even in the very title of the text. We can consider this as the mantra body of the goddess which is concealed within. The constituents of this body are mantras and maṇḍalas. The second section of the text that is also identiied as Saundaryalaharī (the name through which the entire text is known) brings to prominence the corporeal presence of the goddess. Above all, the text, replete with literary ornaments, constitutes the aesthetic body of the goddess. By transforming ordinary language to the aesthetic one, the text thus mirrors Sundarī or the ‘Beautiful One,’ and in this sense, the text becomes the metaphoric body of the goddess. Furthermore, the text is not merely descriptive. It is performed, as singing in melody is inseparable from the process of comprehension. The text frequently acts as a hypertext, assuming divergent readings through adoption of mystical and literary perspectives. Above all, each of the verses is used as a mantra that cannot be reduced to its literal translation. In essence, the divine body depicted in the text is identical with the text itself.

The process of integrating multiple metaphors establishes the divine body of unparalleled beauty. In this creative poetic vision, literary tropes constitute the divine body: the face of the goddess is a lotus, with the goddess’s neck being compared to its stalk; her ornaments are compared to the tangle of lotus roots. This depiction of beauty is inseparably linked to the text itself, as the poet’s choice of words not only allows him to weave the metaphors but also to inscribe the mantras. This piece represents the most perfect expression of language: it represents the absolute even when it says it cannot describe it. It is vividly demonstrated in the text by the application of suggestion (dhvani) in every mode of expression that language is not merely a device of literal representation. This depiction of language evokes an early representation, where word and meaning are compared to Śakti and Śiva. In the case of LS, Śakti is both the source and the target: Śakti as speech is the sourcce and Śakti in her esoteric form is the target. In this light, a new framework is needed to ground speech that defies conventional understanding.

SL integrates mystical experience with the aesthetic one, as the same passage functions for both. While the mantric body of the goddess is linked to transforming commonsense experience to mystical one, the text itself that incorporates literary tropes and suggestions as a means to the desired end of aesthetic pleasure. The text is written for the connoisseur of both Tantra and aesthetics, and reading it just to serve a literary or Tantric purpose discredits its merits. On the surface, the poet praises the goddess through describing the divine limbs and ornaments. This process, however, is not distinct from the metaphoric expression and the application of alaṅkāra or dhvani. When revealing multiple layers of meaning through primary or secondary indications or through suggestion, what is discovered is not just what is referred to, but also the innate experiencing mode of awareness. Since this realization underlies all the cognitive modes, there is no instance of cognition that is not endowed with self-awareness, the target meaning of the poem. This understanding cannot be reached without accepting the world-airming Śākta philosophy that grounds the embodied nature of mystical experience. Following this philosophy, all modes of bliss - not just the aesthetic bliss - are the manifestations of the very self described in terms of ‘awareness and bliss’ (cidānanda).

(...) SL is thus poetry for aesthetic experience and an Āgama for esoteric Tantric practice. With its focus on Tantric yoga in the first part identiied as ĀL, verses of the text elevate the experience of bliss from a limited bliss of self-awareness to the bliss that encompasses all that exists (jagadānanda). This process coincides with spelling out the mantras, as confirmed by many classical commentaries. The esoteric domains involve the discourse on cakras and Kuṇḍalinī, integral to Tantric yoga. This meditative practice supports the inward flow of the mind.

The visualized body of the goddess, in this metaphysics, is not a device to reach to some transcendent experience that rests on rejecting language and form. On the contrary, the divine body and immanence as suggested by it, stand on their own as modes of the highest experience. This metaphysics does not reject transcendence. The text evolves on the framework of Trika, that the self or Śiva as simultaneously immanent and transcendent, the union of Śiva and Śakti in this depiction, or the transformation of Śiva to the body of the goddess, vividly exemplifies this. The experience of bliss and beauty culminates in the experience of the goddess’s beautiful body, her carnal presence. Diferent mechanisms function in this transformative experience. While the experience of bliss unfolds the transcendent by means of a gradual low of bliss in diferent stages of mystical surge, the experience of beauty relies on immanence. On one hand, what is beautiful is the transcendent nature of the goddess Tripurā - she who is beyond the triad - while on the other, where the beauty is found is in the flesh. Instead of placing transcendent and immanent experiences as oppositional, this perspective views them as complementary and simultaneously possible. With the example of ‘waves’ found in this description, the experience of transcendence is compared with knowing the ‘ocean,’ and immanent experience is compared with seeing ‘waves.’ Just as seeing the waves does not prevent knowledge of the ocean full of waves, in the same way, experiencing corporeal beauty does not preclude the highest esoteric experience. This position makes the dualism of mind and body irrelevant, grounding the transcendent self-experience within the periphery of embodied experience.

The text, following this argument, does not just describe the goddess but instead embodies her. Rituals directed towards the goddess, along the same lines, do not invoke the deity but confirm her corporeal presence. In the case of SL, the language of the text and its conscious flow of metaphors and metric articulation, are integral aspects of Trika, wherein the absolute is realized through both transcendent and immanent experience. What transforms the common words to the divine body is its aesthetic representation. The goddess is the beautiful one (Sundarī), and what embodies beauty (the words) stand for the divine body. Literary tropes of alaṅkāra and suggestion (dhvani) thus mirror the very body and the self of the goddess. This platform grounds both the aesthetic and esoteric experiences.


"Text as the Metaphoric Body: Incorporation of Tripurā in Saundaryalaharī"

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