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The Saundaryalahari has fascinated and puzzled generations of scholars and laypersons; subject to continuing study and debate, till today, such details as the authorship of the 100 verses named the Saundaryalahari remain a matter of contention, particularly among scholars.
While some attribute it to Sankara, others argue that the Saundaryalahari's verses in praise of the Devi cannot have been authored by this staunch Vedantin; some argue that it's value is essentially in the realm of what is loosely called "tantra," while others extend the significance of the Saundaryalahari to include the preoccupations of Vedanta.
Nataraja Guru is unequivocal in his belief that none other than Sankara could have composed this masterpiece of mystical poetry and identifies internal evidence in the verses themselves to support this view.
The detailed commentary views the Saundaryalahari as Advaita Vedanta itself. The absolute Joy of Advaita is presented in a pictorial language, subjectively as ananda, and objectively as saundarya.
An introduction to the life and work of Nataraja Guru could not begin more appropriately than by remembering his discipleship to Narayana Guru. For Narayana Guru's vision and teaching moulded, guided, influenced and inspired the life and work of this disciple, filling his entire life time's study and meditation.
In the autumn of 1968, when Nataraja Guru was all set to start a voyage around the world, he chanced upon a translation of the Saundaryalahari done by Kumaran Asan, one of Narayana Guru's favoured disciples. The work appealed to him but he decided to translate it himself when he "
.remembered in these circumstances that Kumaran Asan might have undertaken this impossible task at the instance of Narayana Guru himself."
Nataraja Guru worked on translation and commentary of the Saundaryalahari for a period of three and a half years, it is has last work and comes at the end of a life dedicated to the pursuit of the Absolute and those familiar with his work will recognize in it a kind of summing up of his life and teachings.
The Saundaryalahari is the most important as well as the most intriguing of the hymns composed by Sankaracarya, and perhaps also his last work. The present commentary by Nataraja Guru is equally intriguing and it is also his last (major) literary work.
Considering that Sankara was a pure Advaitin, it is difficult to think that he would regard writing a lengthy hymn grounded in Tantra as a part of his life mission. Though we do not know much about the situation in which he felt compelled to write the Saundaryalahari, we may assume that this condition arose out of a merging of thought, vision and circumstance.
The situation in which Nataraja Guru felt bound to write the present commentary is similar. In 'Preliminaries', he describes how he took up this task almost immediately after concluding that he has completed his life's work and has decided to set-of on a world tour!
Until the present commentary, the Saundaryalahari was conventionally treated as a Tantric hymn, and interpreted, both in the East and West, on those lines. However, Nataraja Guru thought otherwise; in his vision, the hymn represents Advaita Vedanta in a pictorial language, with the picture being painted on a canvas of Tantra concepts. When the peculiarities of the canvas are mentally negated, then emerges the picture of non-dual Reality, not in a conceptual form but in a perceptual one.
What is the ultimate goal of Advaita Vedanta? It is the unconditioned contentment or ananda that the seeker experiences on realizing her oneness with the total Reality or Brahman an experience that is conceptual in status. In the Upanisads, this Brahman is defined as sat-cit-ananda (existence-consciousness-value experience).
What is saundarya? Though it is an experience of blissfulness, it is more perceptual in nature. Brahman seen as an abstract reality when realized in one's own being leads to an experience of blissfulness all through, equally abstract and conceptual, called ananda. The same Brahman can be perceived as having assumed the form of the perceptual world and the seeker's identity with it leads to an experience equally perceptual. This latter experience could be named saundarya. In other worlds, the conceptual ananda transformed as a perceptual experience becomes saundarya, which may be translated as Beauty.
The ever-changing perceptual world must have a never-changing Substance for its basis. This all-underlying Substance is called sat in Vedanta. Being the source of everything, it is often poetically conceived as the 'Mother' and this poetic imagery is the origin of the practice of Mother-worship, known as Devi puja or Sakti puja. The whole of Tantra lives and moves around this Devi or Sakti. The Devi being the source of the perceptual world, the perceptual beauty of the perceptual world also becomes reduced to the perceptual beauty of the Devi. And this Beauty is the central theme meditated upon in the present hymn.
The perceptual world has a structural perfection of its own. It is but natural to think that this structure and its latent form are implicit in the base Substance of brahman as unconditioned Consciousness (cit) in essence is one of the basic tenets of Vedanta; then this cit must also have the latent structural peculiarities of the perceptual world. This cit, while finding expression as specific forms of knowledge and ideas, must have also reflected in them the same structural peculiarities.
The Devi-from, here meditated upon the universal concrete cause underlying the perceptual concrete universe is also no exception in this respect. Attempt to give some verbal definiteness to this Reality should also have the same structural scheme implicit in it. Nataraja Guru's original contribution to philosophy is mainly in the context of making explicit the structural aspects hidden in the verbal expressions of world scriptures. The commentator, in order to make explicit how the Saundaryalahari is a visual representation of Advaitic vision, resorts to eliciting structural details, both in the form as well as the content of the Devi principle. Familiarity with the structural language will be more helpful in appreciating the line of thought and beauty of this commentary.
Narayana Gurukula first published the Guru's commentary in 1988. Now it is being republished in a new format, re-edited by Swami Vinaya Chaitanya, a direct disciple of Nataraja Guru.
The word for word meaning, a new addition in this edition, has been prepared by Swami Vinaya. Structural diagrams and analysis for the first twenty-four verses, done by the Guru himself and first published in Values (1970-71); as well as the selections from the Yogaraja Upanisad and the Saubhagyalaksmi Upanisad, have been added to this edition as appendices. The translation of the appendices have been done by Dr. Hypatia Chaitanya. In adding these we have only fulfilled the wishes of the Guru.
Several other people have contributed to the preparation of this edition. Scott Teitsworth has contributed an article elucidating key structural features of the commentary. Swami Vyasa Prasad has prepared a comprehensive index and a bibliography. Sebastian Chiri has very ably updated the drawings. The Faculty of Aesthetics designed the cover. C.V. Ramesh and Kala Ramesh have been most helpful, as Always.
D.K. Printworld of New Delhi have taken up the responsibility of bringing out this new edition, as they have done in the case of several other Narayana Gurukula publications. We are thankful to them, especially for their patience and cooperation with our editors.
It is our hope that this commentary will help banish long-standing misunderstandings about the great Advaitin Sankara and this most valuable Advaitic work. May the unitive understanding that permeates the book help humanity regain the peace and joy that is its birthright.
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