Exploring Mystery,Rahasya, of the MUrti

Image Source: Wikimedia

By Jayant Kalawar, January 17, 2023

In this post I am extending my thoughts from  my last post on role of VyAkaraNA in our cognitive process . I want to explore how our ancestors embedded their insights into mUrtis and the role that plays in our upAsanA (the sitting in contemplation next to the Divya Shaktis). The mUrtis embed a subtle language to provide a reflection (pratibimba) of the self. What I offer here is my mimAmsA (interpretation) through a few examples.

As I have been chanting the Sri LalitA SahasranAma almost daily over more than a decade, I have noticed that some of the names spring up spontaneously as I go about on my long daily walk or during mundane chores like washing dishes or doing the laundry. Not only do the nAmAs arise as sound, they emerge as a visualization of the imagery being described. There is a contemplation, a soft churning in the mind, that seems to happen. And sometimes a small insight may emerge. Let me give you an example.

Consider the 17th nAmA of Sri LalitA: ashTami chandra vibhrAja daLika sthala shobhitA. Most of the thousand names, indeed thousand mantrAs, seem tongue twisting to start with. Chanting them with the rhythm of the anushThuba chandA helps us perform ucchAraNa to bring out the sounds – and the flower of the seed mantra begins to blossom. As I do SravaNa of the mantrA, manana follows. ashTami reminds me of the tithi on which we celebrate rising of Sri DurgA Devi during NavarAtri. I imagine looking up in the night sky on ashtami and visualizing a clear bright chandra, slightly greater than half. The mantrA helps me visualize that part of the sky as the Devi’s forehead. With just a slight cognitive shift, I visualize the mantrA’s message that space (the brilliantly lit forehead in the sky) and time (ashTami tithi) is one aspect of the Devi’s myriad spandanA. As that visualization arises, I stop breathing for a few moments. Stopping of the prANic connection, even momentarily, has the potential, when spurred by the mantra, of dissolving one into the ephemeral, beyond space-time.

This one mantra, describing the forehead of the Devi’s Murti, has the power to raise one to ephemeral heights!

The Four Hands, Chatur Bahu, of the Devi’s MUrti

Now let’s consider a more sanguine set of mantrAs, which describe another aspect of Sri LalitA Devi’s Murti: nAmAs 7 to 11.

The 7th nAma describes Sri LalitAmbA’s mUrti as one having four arms, chatur bAhu samanvitA. And then 8th to 11th go on to describe what each of the four arms hold.

In the lower left arm, the Devi Murti holds the noose. In the lower right arm, the goad. The upper right arm holds five long stemmed flowers described as arrows and the upper left arm holds a sugarcane stalk. Next time you contemplate Sri LalitAmbA’s MUrti notice the four arms and what they are holding. Our ancestors designed MUrtis meticulously embedding them with compressed insights.

It is an entire epic manifesting before you. Sri LalitA SahasranAma holds the keys to the treasure of knowledge embedded in the mUrti of Sri LalitAmbA.

The 8th nAmA, rAga-swarupa-pAshADyA, describes the noose in the lower left hand. The shape (swarupa) of the noose (pAshADyA) stands for hungry desire (rAgA) to consume. The hungry desire to consume material objects. Such desire becomes a noose around our neck. It is as if we are on a leash and the hungry desire leads us to consume mindlessly. Sri LalitAmbA’s mUrti is designed to enable introspection, as a reflection of ourselves (pratibimbA).

The 9th nAmA, krodha-AkArA-kushojjvalA, describes the elephant goad in the lower right hand. As a pratibimba of ourselves, the goad (kushojjvalA)  is the drive that is made of AkArA (knowledge arising in forms, shapes in space-time) and passion (krodha). Thus, the desire (rAga, a form of IcchA shakti, the kAraNA) transforms into AkArA in space-time (a sukshma manifestation) and results in action in the sthula, through the channel of passion (krodha). As we know, each word in Sanskrit can be and has been interpreted differently (the MimamsA-TarkA process). Here I am using the pratibimba paradigm (a reflection of ourselves), while at the same time staying true to the Shruti: the Devi is IcchA shakti – JnAna shakti – KriyA shakti  swaroopiNi (658th nAmA in the Sri LalitA SahasranAma).

The 10th nAmA, mano-rupekshu-kodandA, describes the sugarcane stalk in the upper right hand. The kodanda (bow, sugarcane stalk) indicates the potential to manifest the shapes, forms (rupa) in the mind (mana). The shapes, forms in space-time which are referred to as AkArA  are acquired by this potential of kodanda to become rupa in the mind. The cognitive process of acquiring the object and transforming into nAma-rupa is represented by the upper right hand of the mUrti.

The 11th nAmA, panch-tan-mAtra-sAyakA, described the 5 arrows of flowers in the upper left hand. The five arrows represent the five senses, which are deployed to go out and acquire the AkArA, the object, to the manas, to transform it into rupa with an associated nAma. Through such nAma-rupa association, meanings begin to be created.

Thus, the four hands of the Devi’s mUrti are designed to reflect back to the upAsakA (the one who sits at the mUrti’s feet in contemplation), the upAsakA’s own nature. The Lalita SahasranAm is a guide to the upAsakA as she / he visualizes Sri Lalita’S mUrti within themselves and begins to become aware how the Devi’s shakti is manifesting within them.

In that sense LalitAmbA’s mUrti is a yantra, an artifact, embedded with language designed to help us contemplate and understand our cognitive processes as spandanA and how the mAnav spandanA is one of the myriad spandanA of the Devi. As I have shown here through a few examples, guides to open up the mystery, the rahasyA, of each mUrti, are accessible through sravaNa and manana of the corresponding sahasranAmAs[i].

[i] Those, among readers of this article, who wish to research more I would suggest LalitA-SahasranAmA with BhAskararAyA’s Commentary, English Translation (Translated by R. AnanthkrishNa Sastry), The Adyar Library and Research Center, Chennai, 600020, India, 2010. While it is titled as Commentary, it may be more appropriately described as a meticulous compilation of multiple interpretations of each nAmA by many mimamsakAs over millennia. It is a treasure trove of contemplation for upAsakAs.

Musings on VyAkaraNa

With the Devi’s Blessings. Cover art by Jayant Kalawar 2018.

By Jayant Kalawar, January 4, 2023

The last few weeks (of 2022) has seen a great deal being written about VyAkaraNa in international media, including social media. VyakaraNa, the systematized knowledge of the grammar has been used to structure Samskrit bhAshA in at least the last 2500 years or so. That VyAkaraNa became  a topic of popular conversation tells us more about how materialist vision of the world (“Employing this interpretation, he found the Panini’s “language machine” produced grammatically correct words with almost no exceptions”[i]), rooted in the so-called European Enlightenment of about 500 years ago, continues its movement to assimilate “pre-modern” knowledge produced by humans for millennia[ii]. Indian Samskrit academics raised objections that the research work by Mr Rishi Rajpopat, a graduate student at Cambridge Univeristy, UK, had not yet been peer reviewed[iii], but did not contest the description of PaNini’s “language machine” – a reductive materialist description of VyAkaraNa. It seems to me that the lens being used, in the current conversation on all sides, to describe MahArishi PaNini’s systematized knowledge (ShAstra), is a materialist one.

So how to notice VyAkaraNa with an integrated lens of the VedA, rather than the narrower materialist lens? The version of VyAkaraNa as described in MahArishi Panini’s AshthAdhAyi may be seen as an articulation of the bridge that humans use in their cognitive process, of perceiving the world, understanding it and responding to it. There were many versions of VyAkaraNa. The AshthAdhyAyi got traction and became standard usage.

Where does VyAkaraNa fit into the human cognitive process as the VedA teaches us, the process by which humans make sense of the world? At its root, human awareness capacity (Chaitanya) has a disinterested observer component (Sakshi). The Sakshi becomes AhamkArA, an interested player, one with skin in the worldly game, through a process of forgetting (vismarA), its true nature. The AhamkArA plays the role of the cognizer in the game, a pramAthA. PramAthA acquires data on the many objects in the world through IndriyAs (sense functions of seeing, hearing etc). To make sense of object data it has gathered it applies pramANa, structured ways of making meaning (one may call them algorithms in this particular desh-kAl-paristhiti in 2023). The manas is the platform used to process the acquired data. The challenge then is to be able to make meaning out of the processed data and communicate it out to fellow humans so that it makes sense to them as well. Sharing of the meaning produced in manas. That requires standardization. That is where the role of VyAkaraNa comes into play. It helps classify meanings of words produced in the manas in the form of structured sounds (shabda). Such shared classifications help us share common understandings of the world. And therefore act together in it.

Our ancestors developed many different interpretations (MimamsA) of each word of the VedA. They constructed different models, darshanAs, to explain the world, based on these many different interpretations. And they argued and synthesized and differed (tarkA). But one thing they all accepted was to use the standard VyAkaraNa so that they could have some chance of understanding each other.

So one such interpretation of the human cognitive process articulated, especially in Kashmir Shaivism, is ParA-Pashyanti-MadhyamA-Vaikhari. Where Vaikhari is the spoken word, uccharaNa. It is also where data on the objects is acquired by IndriyAs. MadhyamA is where the data is processed and meaningful images are generated. VyAkaraNa plays the role of bridging between MadhyamA and VyAkaraNa.

Another parallel interpretation is Sharira Traya: Sthula-Sukshma-KAraNa. VedAntins favor this interpretation (even as the Advaita VedAntins rush in to remind us that Sharira Traya is unAtma, asat!). One can map prameya (and vaikhari) to sthula, pramANa (and madhyamA) to sukshma and pramAtha-SAkshi (and ParA-Pashyanti) to KAraNa.

I will drop this one as I end my musings on VyAkaraNa: the beej AksharAs enable connection directly from Vaikhari (Sthula) to Pashyanti (Sakshi, KAraNa), by-passing madhyamA (manas). Mantras are designed using beej AksharAs for this purpose. That thought opens up the contemplation of Sthula Sharira in terms of chakrAs which emanate particular spandanA corresponding to beej AksharAs. Hence some AcharyAs may say that when it comes to mantrAs, do not look for meanings. Meanings are produced in the madhyAmA, which the mantrAs help us to avoid, while connecting directly to pashyanti (this by-passing helps to get us towards nir-vikalpa, madhyamA being the node which produces vikalpa).

I will leave this short note here for contemplation and conversation.

[i] https://www.bbc.com/news/articles/cg3gw9v7jnvo

[ii] https://www.guardian-series.co.uk/news/national/23192289.student-solves-sanskrit-grammatical-problem-puzzled-scholars-centuries/

[iii] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zyw21VpHXto