Śrī Mahāṣoḍaśī Dhyānam & Clarifications

श्री महाषोडशी ध्यानम्

There have been many discussions that I have been a part of, on the number of arms (bhuja) associated with Śrī Mahāṣoḍaśī. Here is an analysis of the different interpretations. One may choose what suits best to their tradition and follow the same.

cāpaṁ cekṣumayaṁ prasūnaviśikhān pāśāṅkuśaṁ pustakaṁ
māṇikyākṣasrajavaraṃ maṇimayīṁ vīṇāṁ sarojadvaye |
pāṇibhyāṁ varadā abhayaṁ ca dadhatīṁ brahmādisevyāṁ parāṁ
sindūrāruṇa vigrahāṁ bhagavatīṁ tāṁ ṣoḍaśīmāśraye ||

चापं चेक्षुमयं प्रसूनविशिखान् पाशाङ्कुशं पुस्तकं
   माणिक्याक्षस्रजवरं मणिमयीं वीणां सरोजद्वये।
पाणिभ्यां वरदा अभयं च दधतीं ब्रह्मादिसेव्यां परां
   सिन्दूरारुण विग्रहां भगवतीं तां षोडशीमाश्रये॥

Meaning: She has twelve hands, holds (1) a bow made of sugarcane, (2) arrows made of kadamba flowers, (3) a noose, (4) a hook, (5) a book, (6) a rosary made of blood red rubies and precious gems, displays (7) abhaya (removal of fear) and (8) varadha (giving boons) mudras. She closely holds a veena (a musical instrument) with two hands (9 and 10) and lotus flowers in two hands (11 and 12) one on each side. She is worshipped by Brahmā and other gods and goddesses. She is red in complexion. I surrender unto this Supreme Goddess.

Let us look at the literal meaning of the words –

cāpaṁ = bow.

ca = and

ikṣum = sugarcane

ayam = this one

prasūna = kadamba flowers

viśikhān = arrows

pāśa = noose

aṅkuśaṁ = hook

pustakaṁ = book

māṇikya = rubies

akṣa = seed

asraja = blood red

varam = precious

maṇimayīṁ = gems

vīṇāṁ = wooden musical instrument called vīṇa

saroja = lotus

dvaye = two

pāṇibhyāṁ = hands

varadā = boon gesture

abhayaṁ = fear allaying gesture

ca = thus

dadhatīṁ = bearing

brahmādi = Brahma and other gods (5 Brahmas such as Brahma, Viṣṇu, Rudra, Maheśvara and Sadāśiva).

sevyāṁ = serving

parāṁ = Supreme One (Goddess, Divine Mother Śrī Mahāṣoḍaśī)

sindūra = vermillion

aruṇa = red like the morning Sun.

vigrahāṁ = form

bhagavatīṁ = Divine Mother

tāṁ = thus

ṣoḍaśīm = The 16 lettered one

āśraye = seeking protection

Based on the above literal meaning, the Divine Mother Śrī Mahāṣoḍaśī, does have 12 arms and is holding various objects as described. It is very well known among many learned Śrī Vidyā upāsakās, that the Divine Mother is said to have only 10 arms, as per this meditation verse. To account for the 10 arms instead of the 12, scholars have suggested that She is holding the Vīṇa with Her two lotus like hands (vīṇāṁ saroja-dvaye) and not necessarily another set of arms, to hold a pair of lotuses on each side. It literally comes handy, that the very next verse starts with the word “pāṇibhyāṁ”, meaning hands. But it is very clear that the hands are for the two boon bestowing and fear allaying mudras. It may also be seen as applying to all the objects She is displaying. If we were to interpret that She is holding the Vīṇa with Her lotus hands, then why mention only ‘saroja-dvaye’ (dual lotuses) for holding the Vīṇa and why not ‘saroja-daśa’ (ten lotuses) denoting it to all Her hands holding various objects? The viewpoint is that it is a poetic expression, used as an adjunct to the musical instrument and hence there is no need to mention the same for the rest of Her arms and thereby the need to dispense with holding an extra pair of lotuses in two additional arms. Also, the musical instrument itself requires two hands to play it. All of these attempts in the translation of these verses, appear is some manner to accommodate the 10 arms and squeeze the two lotuses with the other 10 objects.

The confusion on 10 or 12 arms is also elevated for the reason that the dhyāna śloka-s don’t mention the exact number of arms, leaving us to interpret freely and pushing us into the arms of the guru, to make the correct interpretation!

Of late, there has been another tantric variation of this dhyānam, with the variation of the word ‘sarojadvaye’, changed to ‘urojadvaye’ (उरोजद्वये). The word ‘uroja’ means ‘breasts’ and ‘dvaye’ is ‘two’.

This leads us to interpret the phrase ‘vīṇāṁ uroja-dvaye’, which translates to, “She is holding the Vīṇa close to Her chest or heart (or in alignment) and playing with Her two hands”.  This seems to be the most logical interpretation in the context of 10 arms, while the poetic expression of two lotus like hands playing the vīṇa, as the most popular and widely accepted version. It could be possible, that the tantric expression of ‘uroja’ may have changed to a more widely acceptable ‘saroja’ at some point of time in history, as Śrī Vidyā became more mainstream with the Vedic precepts. The reverse argument may also be applied to suit the needs of the tantrics. It is to be noted that Śrī Vidyā is tantric by origin and adopted widely across Vedic and Tantric lineages.

The dhyānam would then be the following –

cāpaṁ cekṣumayaṁ prasūnaviśikhān pāśāṅkuśaṁ pustakaṁ
māṇikyākṣasrajavaraṃ maṇimayīṁ vīṇāṁ urojadvaye |
pāṇibhyāṁ varadā abhayaṁ ca dadhatīṁ brahmādisevyāṁ parāṁ
sindūrāruṇa vigrahāṁ bhagavatīṁ tāṁ ṣoḍaśīmāśraye ||

चापं चेक्षुमयं प्रसूनविशिखान् पाशाङ्कुशं पुस्तकं
माणिक्याक्षस्रजवरं मणिमयीं वीणां रोजद्वये।
पाणिभ्यां वरदा अभयं च दधतीं ब्रह्मादिसेव्यां परां
सिन्दूरारुण विग्रहां भगवतीं तां षोडशीमाश्रये॥

Salutations to the Supreme Divine Mother Śrī Mahāṣoḍaśī, in whom we seek protection by surrendering ourselves fully! May we meditate upon Her ten arms, holding a sugarcane bow (1), arrows made of kadamba flowers (2), bearing a noose (3) and a hook (4), holding a book (5) and a mālā rosary made of blood red rubies and other precious gems (6), holding a vīṇā in two arms (7 and 8) and playing it close to Her chest, displaying the boon bestowing vara (9) and the fear dispelling abhaya mudras (10). She is served by Brahma and other primary deities and is vermillion red in Her complexion.

The sugarcane bow represents the sweetness of the cerebral fluid (aṃṛta) that gets generated in deep meditation. The five arrows She holds represent the five natural elements (pañcabhūtā-s) of air, ether, water, fire and earth, as well as the five senses of perception at the subtle level (tanmātrā-s). In terms of the states of mind, the sugarcane bow is the pure mind and the five flowery arrows denote the world—these are held separately, not connected, hence denoting the upasaka’s state of detachment. The noose helps in drawing the devoted ones back to Her, when one loses faith and hope in times of crises and She comes to their aid. The hook can be used to tame the wildest of emotions within us and calm us down. In terms of the states of mind, the gestures of removal of fear and granting boons, is a reference to the removal of the notion of the other and thus bestowing bliss of an undivided state of mind. The ruby and gems beads rosary, represents that She is accessible through prayer using Her most sacred and precious mantras, which may be obtained from a well versed guru. The book represents all knowledge, material and spiritual that is accessible to Her devotees and which can be gained through sādhanā and devotion. The musical instrument Vīṇā that She plays with two of Her arms/hands and plays close to Her heart, generates all the subtle vibrations that fill the entire Creation and also represent the various seed syllable bīja mantras of all deities, who are also part of Her creation! The boon bestowing Vara mudra fulfills all our desires and wishes, to an extent that is much greater than we can ever imagine (vāñcā-samadikam - Her grace is unfathomable). The fear dispelling abhaya mudra removes all our fears and misgivings, by means of Her infinite grace. The red complexion denotes the passionate rajasic disposition and Her disposition towards granting Her devotees with fulfillment and complete joy in worldly and spiritual pursuits.

It is to be noted that the pairs of the sugarcane bow and arrows, noose and hook, book representing knowledge and rosary indicating prayer or sādhana, two hands on the musical instrument Vīṇā, to generate sound vibrations and the final pair of boon bestowing and fear dispelling gestures, complement each other and thus represent the various dualities manifested in the Creation. She is therefore in all the dualities and is also both Śiva and Śakti, representing the static and dynamic states of the super-consciousness or Brahman.

The deities Brahma (Creator) represented in the South-East direction, Viṣṇu (Preserver) represented in the North-West direction, Rudra (Destroyer) in the South-West, Maheśvara or īśvara (Annihilator) in the North-East and Sadāśiva (resurrector) as the bed (upper direction), are all part of Her Creation and have their respective roles and duties to perform on a continual basis. She is seated above them, to indicate Her Supremacy as the Super-consciousness and She is the embodiment of both Śiva and Śakti. The same is also experienced as the five states of wakefulness, sleep, dreaming state, deep sleep, the fourth state of turīya or individual consciousness or ātma and finally the Super-consciousness Itself as turīyātīta.

She is simply the unmanifested super-conscience or the singular reality, that descends as the manifested super-consciousness. She is thus depicted as seated on top of Sadāśiva. She is simultaneously within the manifested and manifested super-conscience as well as within the entire Creation as well. There is simply nothing but Her alone, including the virtual reality Mahāmāyā, which She pervades and thus creates the perceptions of duality, triads etc.

There is yet another meditation verse, that goes this way –

śrī mahāṣoḍaśī dhyānam (श्री महाषोडशी ध्यानम्) –

samvartānala koṭi nīrada rucāṃ pāśāṅkuśm-āśugān

khaḍgam muṇḍm-abhayaṃ aikṣvarī-varaṃ aṣṭābhir-bāhubhiḥ

kāmeśāna-śavopari-sthitāṃ-sadā-tryakṣāṃ vahantīṃ-parāṃ

śrī-cintāmaṇi-bīja-rāja-vapuṣīṃ dhyāye mahāṣoḍaśīṃ

सम्वर्तानल कोटि नीरद रुचां पाशाङ्कुश्माशुगान्

खड्गम् मुण्ड्मभयं ऐक्ष्वरीवरं अष्टाभिर्बाहुभिः ।

कामेशानशवोपरिस्थितां-सदा-त्र्यक्षां वहन्तींपरां

श्रीचिन्तामणि-बीजराजवपुषीं ध्याये महाषोडशीं ॥

Let us meditate upon the Divine Mother Śrī Mahāṣoḍaśī, who oversees the dissolution of the Creation as Kāli, present in the midst of the engulfing infinitely brilliant fires of the cosmic dissolution (involution of the entire Creation or the Great Crunch called pralaya). She displays the noose (pāśa) [1] and a hook (aṅkuśa) [2], as well as arrows (āśugān) [3] and a sword/cleaver (khaḍgam) [4], a severed head (muṇḍam) [5], the fear dispelling abhaya mudra [6], a sugar cane bow [7] and the boon bestowing vara mudra [8]. She bears eight arms and bears the above mentioned arms to aid in the process of dissolution. She is always with Her consort Kāmeśvara (infinitely compassionate One) and seated on top of a corpse (Sadāśiva) and is three-eyed (activated ājñā cakra) and is the Supreme Divine Mother! She is to be invoked and witnessed by the invocation of the Śrī Cintāmaṇi bīja rāja (seed syllable, considered to be the regent and representative of the wish-fulfilling divine gem!), which is the combination of the two bīja-s hsauḥ (ह्सौः) and s-hauḥ (स्हौः) [shaum̐ḥ (स्हौँः)].

The Prasādapara bīja is hsauḥ and Paraprasāda bīja is shauḥ (shaum̐ḥ). These bīja-s consist of the letters ‘ha’ and ‘sa’ that represent the combinations - The sun (ha) and moon (sa), warmth (ha) and coolness (sa), inhalation (sa) and exhalation (ha), prāṇa, akasha (ha) and vayu (sa), as well as Śiva (ha) and Śakti (sa). The letter ‘au’ represents ‘anugraha’, meaning the eternal grace of the Divine. Finally, the bindu (m̐) and the visarga (ḥ) represent liberation and the culmination of our spiritual quest.

Śrī Cintāmaṇi bīja is also rkṣmryām̐ (र्क्ष्म्र्याँ). The letter ‘r’ is the agni bīja which generates the drive to achieve, signifies wealth and achievement of supernatural powers as well. The letter ‘kṣ’ offers ultimate protection and safeguarding of all our achievements and ensures progress in all our pursuits. This bīja is composed of two bījas “ka” signifying cit śakti or pure consciousness and “ṣa”, signifying māyā śakti, which is the cosmic virtual reality surrounding the consciousness and giving it the impression that it’s an independent being and also providing the cognitive faculties to recognize the Creation around it and fully masking the Absolute Truth, that it is none other than the pure super-consciousness Itself and not the body or mind! The letter ‘r’ once again offers all its benefits. The letter ‘m’ is Mahākāla, who represents timelessness and ensures that our destiny changes and helps us progress in our pursuits. The bīja “ma”, also signifies the individual soul or consciousness (jīva), that has the intrinsic quest to realize the Divine by acquiring the ultimate knowledge that can lead towards self-realization and ultimate liberation and is also the means for its salvation. The letter ‘y’, signifies the air (vāyu) element and is the essential breath (prāṇa) that is required for survival. The letter ‘ā’ represents expansion of our consciousness in our journey to merge into the super-conscience. The bindu ‘m̐’ represents removal of all misery and attainment of salvation.

Cintāmaṇi also represents the letter ‘ka’ (क), signifying that She is to be invoked, using the kadi mantra associated with Her. Likewise, as seen above, the letters ‘ha’ associate with the hadi tradition and ‘sa’ with sadi. She is therefore attainable by any and all traditions of Śrī Vidyā.

The references to the arms are similar as in the previous śloka. We do see the cleaver to remove the ego and thus liberate us from the causal body called kāraṇa śarīra The severed head represents our exit from all the three bodies - gross (sthūla śarīra), subtle (sūkṣma śarīra) and causal (kāraṇa śarīra).

There is a four armed meditation verse also from the scripture called śākta pramoda, that goes like this –

ṣoḍaśī dhyānam (षोडशी ध्यानम्) -

bālārka maṇḍalā bhāsāṃ caturbāhāṃ trilocanām

pāśāṅkuśa-śarāṃś-cāpaṃ dhārayantī śivāṃ bhaje

बालार्क मण्डला भासां चतुर्बाहां त्रिलोचनाम् ।

पाशाङ्कुशशरांश्चापं धारयन्ती शिवां भजे ॥

Salutations to the Divine Mother Śiva-Śakti Herself, manifested as Ṣoḍaśī devi, who is red in complexion like a newly risen sun at dawn, bearing four arms and is three-eyed. She displays the noose (pāśa) [1] and a hook (aṅkuśa) [2], as well as arrows (śarām) [3] and a bow (cāpaṃ) [4].

The significance of the weapons is, as mentioned in the previous verses.

Conclusion –

She is simply the imperceptible and cannot be described in any manner. The purpose of the dhyāna, is therefore to challenge the mind and the intellect, which paint everything as images, to venture beyond and allow the ātma or consciousness within us, to discover Itself as the manifestation of the super-conscience. The means we adopt, the objects we perceive and everything else is simply Her alone. She can be described as pure bliss that should be experienced. May these dhyāna śloka-s allow us to experience and discover our own true reality!

This article is written by Krishna Vallapareddy and can be contacted at Krishna@manblunder.com