Significance of Shodashi (Tripurasundari)
Tripurasundari is sometimes spoken of as an adimahavidya, or primordial wisdom goddess, which puts her in the company of Kali and Tara as representing one of the highest experiences of reality. She is not the ultimate, absolute, or nirguna state devoid of all qualities; still, she represents the experience of consciousness in a high state of divine universality.
Her other names include Sodasi, Lalita, Kamesvari, Srividya, and Rajarajesvari. Each of these emphasizes a particular quality or function.
According to the description in her dhyanamantra, Tripurasundari’s complexion shines with the light of the rising sun. This rosy color represents joy, compassion, and illumination.
Tripurasundari has four arms, and in her four hands she holds a noose, a goad, a bow, and five arrows. The noose indicates the captivating power of beauty. The goad represents the ability to dissociate from ego-based attachment. The bow represents the mind (manas), and in this case it is no ordinary bow but one made of sugarcane. The five arrows, representing the five sensory faculties (jnanendriyas), are made of flowers. In other words, what we perceive and cognize is by nature good, sweet, juicy, and delightful. The world is a place of beauty, to be savored and enjoyed. To reinforce that idea, a profusion of jeweled ornaments adorns Tripurasundari’s body, symbolizing not only her splendor but also her inexhaustible abundance.
Tripurasundari is often shown sitting on the recumbent body of Siva, who rests on a throne. Siva is the absolute consciousness-in-itself, the sole reality and support of everything that has name and form. On that sole support sits Tripurasundari, who is Sakti. This is a graphic illustration of the great Tantric teaching that without Siva Sakti would have no being, and without Sakti Siva would have no expression. Consciousness and its power are one.
The four legs of Tripurasundari’s throne are the gods Brahma, Visnu, Rudra, and Mahesvara. Brahma is the power of creation or cosmic emanation (srishti); Visnu, of cosmic maintenance (sthiti); Rudra, of destruction, dissolution, or withdrawal (samhara). In a distinctively Tantric addition to this threefold activity, Mahesvara symbolizes the divine power of concealment (nigraha). When the nondual reality makes manifest the finite many, the infinite One becomes hidden from our awareness. Conversely, Siva, in the form of Sadasiva, is the power of self-revelation (anugraha), also known as divine grace. When we go beyond the appearances and division of name and form, we again experience the ineffable divine unity that is our true being. These five deities—Brahma, Visnu, Rudra, Mahesvara, and Sadasiva—represent Tripurasundari’s five divine activities (pancakritya).
In the Sakta Tantra, it is Mother who is supreme, and the gods are her instruments of expression. Through them she presides over the creation, maintenance, and dissolution of the universe, as well as over the self-concealment and self-revelation that lie behind those three activities. Self-concealment is the precondition as well as the result of cosmic manifestation, and self-revelation causes the manifest universe to dissolve, disclosing the essential unity.
With this in mind, the eighteenth-century commentator Bhaskararaya proposed that the name Tripurasundari should be understood as “she whose beauty precedes the three worlds,” meaning that she is divinity in its transcendental glory. However, the name is usually taken in an immanent sense to mean “she who is beautiful in the three worlds.” Present here is the idea of a triad, a grouping of three that plays out in many different aspects of the phenomenal world.
The triangle is the dominant motif of Tripurasundari’s yantra, the Sricakra. The innermost triangle represents the first stirrings of cosmic evolution. This takes place within divine consciousness. Pure, nondual consciousness is aware of nothing other than itself, for there is no other. It is pure subjectivity—the ultimate “I” (aham). As we learn from the Upanishads, the One, seeing itself alone, declares, “Let me be many; let me propagate myself.” Within the pure awareness of “I” (aham) arises the idea of” this” (idam). Now we have subjectivity and objectivity within the same singular reality of consciousness. And where there are two, there is always a third—the relationship between the two. Hence, the triangle of the knowing subject, the known object, and the act of knowing that relates them.
Tripurasundari represents the state of awareness that is also called the sadasivatattva. It is characterized as “I am this” (aham idam). Cosmic evolution is the outward flow of consciousness (pravritti). Spiritual practice reverses that flow, so for the yogin this stage is a very high level of attainment, close to final realization. In this state a person experiences the same sense of selfhood felt within his or her own heart as pervading everything. This experience of the Self in all beings, called sarvatmabhava, takes one beyond the confines of the individual ego to the realization that “I am all this.” This is the level of awareness known in the Tantra as sadasivatattva. This direct experience of the Divine simultaneously in oneself and throughout the whole of creation results in a feeling of universal love (visvaprema). One who lives in this exalted state of oneness feels no separation from others and therefore becomes a fount of compassion.
Even in our ordinary state of consciousness, Tripurasundari is the beauty that we see in the world around us. Whatever we perceive externally as beautiful resonates deep within. That is the meaning of the flower arrows and the sugarcane bow. Deep within dwells the source of all beauty, that ultimate truth of which the outer world is only a reflection, of which our experience is a recognition. True beauty lies not in the object perceived but in the light of awareness that shines on it and makes it knowable. One who lives mindful of Tripurasundari abides in a purity of consciousness and experiences a joy that can be tangibly savored. Yet if the creation is wonderful, how much more wonderful must be she who created it.
For the unenlightened the world appears imperfect. Perfection is wholeness and unity, but the world appears to be a vast assemblage of diverse parts. The unity of the divine cause is veiled by the multiplicity of its effects. We perceive beauty but feel also the pain of its fleetingness, forgetting that the source of beauty lies indestructible in the heart of our awareness as the Divine Mother, Tripurasundari.
Her sadhana is therefore the purification of our awareness—cleansing the mind of unworthy thoughts and the patterns of thinking that underlie them, recognizing beauty everywhere, seeing the miraculous in the commonplace, and rising to the conviction that nothing is alien to ourselves. As the Upanishads teach, “All this universe is truly Brahman” (sarvam khalv idam brahma); so too is this Self (ayam atma brahma).