Mani Rao, translator, Saundarya Lahari: I translate when a text takes hold of me
At the Apeejay Kolkata Literary Festival 2023, Rao spoke about ‘Wave of Beauty’, the English translation of the Sanskrit text attributed to Adi Shankaracharya.
How would you explain the literary and religious significance of Saundarya Lahari to someone who is not familiar with this text?
We all know about the worship of the Mother Goddess, and the numerous legends about Shakti – as Kali, as Chandi, as Durga. Saundarya Lahari is a Sanskrit hymn in one hundred verses – or hundred and three, in some versions – and it identifies Shakti as the ultimate boss. It tells us how the entire universe is nothing but her manifestation, presents a cosmology centered around Shakti, and describes her diagrammatic form (Sriyantra) and perfect physical form.
At the same time, this divine feminine energy is within all of us, for it is also called Kundalini Shakti. Saundarya Lahari describes the path of the kundalini across chakras and the kundalini merges with Shiva in the crown chakra. Of course, it is also a devotional prayer, and the verses are very evocative.
There is one simple way to understand how important or significant a work is especially in Indian religious literatures – who composed it, and how many commentaries does it have? Saundarya Lahari is attributed to Adi Shankara – and there are over 35 commentaries on it over the centuries. I suspect it was just forgotten as an important text, because the Gita and Upanishads and, of course, the Vedas have dominated the scene over the last few centuries.
When and in what context did you first encounter Saundarya Lahari?
I became aware of it when I was dabbling in “spiritual” books and Indian philosophy as a general reader sometime in 2010, and I even translated just a few verses from it. But I never went further.
Later, when I did my doctoral research into mantras, I began to study the experience of vedic mantras in Pune. Within a matter of months, strangely, the clues and leads that I got were all pointing to the mother goddess. My subject changed and I was researching mantra practice in Shakta locations. I met many sadhakas who practised “Srividya.”
I heard anecdotes about how the chanting of Saundarya Lahari and contact with it had led to extraordinary experiences including – as for one senior practitioner called Sheela – visitations from the Goddess herself. Then I began to read it and memorize it, and found that it dramatically impacted my inner life, and produced distinct tremblings and vibrations within my own body. That was the beginning. I met Usha Balakrishnan who told me how she had sung a particular verse of Saundarya Lahari hundreds of times on the phone to heal people.
What made you take on the task of translating it from Sanskrit into English for contemporary readers?
So many reasons! At the basic level, you know how it is – when you experience something surprising and good and transformative in a positive way, when you appreciate something deeply, you want others also to enjoy that.
But also, I was pulled in by the concept of translating a mantra – technically it’s considered untranslatable since the sound is the primary vehicle of results produced by it. I wanted to try to catch some of the syllables or the vibrance, to carry something across.
Of course, there are a number of manuals available in English but they come across as very esoteric. There are prescribed yantras, instructions on japa (repetitions) and erudite commentaries. The sheer beauty of the hymn is lost in some kind of encrusted layer of religious interpretations, so my work was to present what the verses actually say, and informed by my own research into the commentaries.
If you know the Saundarya Lahari, my translation gives you the meaning in a lyrical way. If you don’t know it, you find out about it in English.
Finally – if you want to hear yet another reason – translating is surely a way of bonding with a text. You live with it, you give it voice into your language, and you become like a medium for it.
Did you feel burdened by an added layer of responsibility because people were going to not only read your translation but also recite it as part of their spiritual practice?
When I first translated some verses in 2010, I could not proceed after a point. 10 years later, after my PhD, my own experiences and perhaps a more open self, I was drawn to it again, and found myself absorbed in the mantras. I had no anxieties translating it. I had clarity.
How did your academic training in religious studies and translation theory help you work with this text?
My study of mantras, and vedic and tantric ideas, was crucial as a background. The commentaries for Saundarya Lahari are elaborate and you cannot understand them without first knowing the philosophy of tantra. Even if you do not use Shakta language in the translation, you still need to feel comfortable working with the text. The insider fieldwork I did in tantric communities was basically sadhana – it opened my mind and helped me experience the results of mantra practice.
And translation theory taught me how to formulate a goal, and a method or a system that will achieve that goal, and maintain consistency. Translation is a science and a skill – one has to keep fidelity of the words and concepts in mind, and at the same time, aim to replicate the experience of the source text, and represent it - in a different language, and often into a different culture.
In your introduction, you write, “Many practitioners adhere to the idea that mantras are sounds, effective in themselves, and meanings only help intentionality and focus.” As a translator, did you prioritize sound over meaning, or the other way round?
My primary goal was to catch the meaning. Catching some of the syllables – or even the seed syllables – called bijaksharas – and rhythms was a secondary goal. Sometimes, there were untranslatables such as syllables. In those cases, I tried to recreate in English the elements and effects that a Sanskrit reader enjoys in the Sanskrit.
Translators often consult authors of the original works when they are stuck with certain words or phrases or culturally specific references. You were translating a text composed by Adi Shankara. How would you describe your relationship with his authorial voice?
I considered it as the work of a devotee, and identified with that position. Of course, I was uncomfortable when I observed how the poet’s voice seems like that of a man seeking pleasures even from celestial courtesans. But I told myself that it was just a social context.
The Sanskrit hymn, of course, in Shikarini metre, and with its poetics, is a metrical feat. I admired the heights of poetic imagination, and the realism of the details even in the midst of the most fanciful setting!
Before translating Saundarya Lahari, you translated the Bhagavad Gita. How different were these two experiences from each other, at the level of content and form?
Completely different! Bhagavad Gita is primarily in the voice of Krishna, who declares himself as the all-knowing supreme. Saundarya Lahari is that of an earnest devotee who is pleading for a single compassionate glance from the Goddess.
Gita is more intellectual despite the content about bhakti and the vishvarupa sections. Saundarya Lahari is more emotional and its aesthetic values are intense. I relished Saundarya Lahari much more, and I found that I was creating a mellifluous, lyrical translation.
What are some of the translation projects that you are currently working on?
None! I may never translate again, who knows! Each book – Wave of Beauty, Bhagavad Gita, and Kalidasa for the 21st Century Reader – was a surprise to me. I only translate when a text takes hold of me so much that I have to dive into it. Right now, I am quite content to continue living with and reiterating the Saundarya Lahari. I am also writing some poems, in addition to some essays on Upanishadic sources.
Chintan Girish Modi is a freelance writer, journalist and book reviewer.