धनुः पौष्पं मौर्वी मधुकरमयी पञ्च विशिखाः
वसन्तः सामन्तो मलयमरुदायोधनरथः।
तथाप्येकः सर्वं हिमगिरिसुते कामपि कृपां
अपाङ्गात्ते लब्ध्वा जगदिदमनङ्गो विजयते॥
dhanuḥ pauṣpaṁ maurvī madhukaramayī pañca viśikhāḥ
vasantaḥ sāmantou malayamarudāyodhanarathaḥ|
tathāpyekaḥ sarvaṁ himagirisute kāmapi kṛpāṁ
apāṅgātte labdhvā jagadidamanaṅgo vijayate||
Meaning: (not verbatim) “O! Daughter of King of mountains clad with snow! In spite of limbless Manmatha, equipped with (fragile in nature) a bow made up of flowers, its string made up of bees, five flower arrows, spring season as his minister, breeze filled with the fragrance of sandal trees as his chariot, conquers the entire world all alone, just because of Grace from the corner of Your eyes.”
The poetic parlance conceived by Śaṁkarācārya is incomprehensible in this verse and he conveys whatever he wanted to convey in an extremely subtle manner. The verse grossly expresses that concupiscence is far more powerful than the potent weaponries. Manmatha has tender weaponries such as a bow made up of flowers and whose sting is made up of honeybees that come to the flowers in the bow to drink the nectar. He has five flower arrows, which are naturally fragile. Honeybees not only come to the flowers in the bow, but also for the flower arrows. Generally, honeybees come in groups to eat the nectar in a flower. But, Śaṁkarācārya says that these honeybees come in a line, thereby forming the sting for the flowery bow of Manmatha. Honeybees in a line, forming the sting of the bow refers to the discipline required for the spiritual aspirants. Flower bow and arrows indicate tenderness and bees mean attraction. Manmatha does not operate in all the seasons to cast his spell but chooses only the spring season, the season of growth, when flowers bloom and whose fragrance is carried by the cool breeze that goes past the sandalwood trees. Bees become more active because of the pleasant and fragrant breeze. Thus this stanza grossly speaks about the powerful tools at the hands of Manmatha to divert the attention of great sages and saints to the world of physical attraction. Normally, a great sage falls prey to physical attraction only due to the circumstances. The point driven home is that when great sages and saints fall prey to the acts of inducement of Manmatha, nothing needs to be said about those who are attached to the worldly affairs.
Generally, Manmatha is said to have a bow made up of sugarcane. Even many of the forms of Devi are depicted with sugarcane bow and flower arrows. What is the difference between these two weaponries – flower bow and sugarcane bow? The difference lies in the form. Only when sugarcane is crushed, one gets its juice. But in the case of flowers, only honeybees can find and taste the nectar in the flowers, not others. Further, honeybees do not go to sugarcane, though it has more quantity of juice and sweetness than flowers. The five flower arrows refer to pañca tanmātra-s or rudimentary subtle elements sound, touch, sight, taste and smell. Manmatha can operate through these five subtle elements which are extremely powerful and have the capacity to effectively crumble the mind. Therefore, it is imperative that this verse has both gross and subtle interpretations and the subtle interpretation is meant only for the highly realized souls and not for the common man. As far as the common man is concerned, the interpretation is that Manmatha acts only through the blessings of Devi. But subtly, Śaṁkarācārya cautions the highly evolved souls not to fall victim to the acts of Manmatha, as this could pull them down to the material world, causing the painful process of births and deaths.
The first thought that comes to our mind is the choice of flower bow instead of the traditional sugarcane bow. Sugarcane has harder surface and bees cannot penetrate the hard exterior of sugarcane. Bees though highly active in nature due to the enormous amount of glucose they consume in the form of honey in various flowers, yet they do not take anything except the nectar in the pollens of flowers. They stay focused only on the honey in the flowers. They do not have any secondary thoughts. Secondly, sugarcane is the gross form of nectar whereas the honey in the pollen is highly subtle in nature, which is visible only to honeybees. They leave the sugarcanes alone, and go after the invisible nectar. This clearly explains the intention of Śaṁkarācārya that not only this verse, but many other verses of Saundaryalaharī is meant only for the realized souls. Another possibility is that he could have probably meant to mean that She can be realized subtly like the invisible honey of the pollens and this could be the reason why he has replaced sugarcane bow with flower bow.
A comparison can be drawn to Lalitā Sahasranāma 10, which is manorūpekṣu-kodaṇḍā (ikṣu means sugarcane), which says that She is having a sugarcane bow (kodaṇḍa) in Her hand. There it was explained that sugarcane is the mind and when the sugarcane is crushed, juice is obtained, where juice refers to the Self. In other words, when the mind is crushed, Self is realized. Kāmeśvarā and Kāmeśvarī both have sugarcane bows in their hands. But, Śaṁkarācārya says that there is no necessity to even crush the sugarcane to realize the essence, which is readily available in the pollen grains. Those, who have spiritual knowledge, follow the method that honeybees follow and those who do not equip themselves follow the procedure followed for extracting sugarcane juice. The difference is between rituals and meditation. In meditation, Self is realized not only quickly but also without undergoing physical pains.
Śaṁkarācārya issues a subtle warning to the highly evolved souls saying that concupiscence is not good for ultimate liberation. There were many instances, where great sages and saints were distracted by celestial women. He says that though Manmatha is invisible and operates only with his flimsy weapons and inconspicuous spring season as his minister and invisible and fragrant breeze as his chariot, he can cause irreparable damage to the spiritual life of a sage or saint as Manmatha operates subtly through the five tanmātra-s. Here, Śaṁkarācārya talks about the mind, which is subtle in nature and at the same time, can easily be afflicted with sensory pleasures. Mind always is susceptible to sensory organs and their inputs. In order to subjugate the mind, one has to disconnect his senses from the external world, which is almost impossible. Alternatively, one has to have a strong will to fight against the mind which needs to be pervaded by Her thoughts. When the mind is perpetually connected to Her, inputs from the material world are relegated, as such a person always remain the in the state of bliss. He not only sees Her internally, but also looks at all the objects as Her form. His individual consciousness is now merged with the universal Consciousness.
Manmatha is nothing but a form of māyā created by Her. She only resurrected Manmatha without form, after he was burnt by Śiva. She has decided to use him to test the will power of sages and saints. If one is able to pass this test, She takes him to the next stage says Lalitā Sahasranāma 727, Śivajñānapradāyinī. When She is pleased, She imparts the knowledge of Śiva, the Supreme. When one realizes Śiva, that is the end of his spiritual journey. He is liberated from transmigration.