A sacred offering of the beauty of ‘Saundarya Lahari’ – in English

Mani Rao’s translation of the devotional poem ascribed to Adi Shankara does justice to its manifold aims

GN Bureau | January 31, 2023


#poetry   #literature   #Saundarya Lahiri   #Adi Shankaracharya   #spirituality   #Religion  
Inside Adi Shankara`s cave at Shankaracharya Temple in Srinagar (Photo: Divya Gupta via WikiMedia/CreativeCommons)
Inside Adi Shankara`s cave at Shankaracharya Temple in Srinagar (Photo: Divya Gupta via WikiMedia/CreativeCommons)

Saundarya Lahari: Wave of Beauty
Translated from the Sanskrit by Mani Rao
HarperCollins, 218 pages, Rs 399

‘Saundarya Lahari’, usually ascribed to Adi Shankaracharya, has a unique status among the religious-spiritual works of Hinduism.

The popular ones among them, the ones known widely and read or recited by generations – in Sanskrit or later languages, are usually hymns to various gods, which would place them in the Bhakti Yoga. Many works of Jnana Yoga, especially those with Advait Vedanta at the core and supposedly composed by Shankara, also enjoy a significant readership. An amalgamation of these two paths is not uncommon either. But a work of Tantra is a rarity.

‘Saundarya Lahari’ has that rare distinction of being a poem that can be read as purely devotional or as an arcane Tantrik text. In about a hundred verses, it is also a marvelous poem, with a rich variety of literary devices at play.

Mani Rao, a poet in her own right, is also a spiritual seeker, and is thus ideally placed to render both the sacred and the literary aspects in a translation. After the English-language translations of the Bhagavad Gita and selections from ‘Mahakavi’ Kalidas, she has come out with an English version of ‘Saundarya Lahiri’.

***
Verse 24

The universe:

Brahma creates
Hari preserves
Rudra destroys

Isha dissolves all of them
And his own body

The primeval Sadaashiva
Restores it all
On cue—

The quick flick of
Your eyebrow-tendrils

***

While there have been numerous translations of this well-known work, this is probably the first that has a poet’s touch. Rao’s excellent introduction is helpful, placing the poem in context, and preparing the reader for the best reading experience. Equally helpful are the explanatory notes. In this near-perfect edition, what one might have wished for is unpacking the Tantrik subtext, or at least more hints in that direction, along with an introduction to Tantra. This edition, however, is for a first-timer reader in English of this work, who can then explore the text in more depth with suggestions for further reading.

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