Sri Lalitha Sahasrananamam is a revered Stotram. According to legend, it was revealed to the Sage Agastya by Lord Hayagrieva (an incarnation of Sri Vishnu). It gives the term Atma Vidya as one of the names of the Devi (Divine Mother or Mother-Divine). She is commonly known by the name Amma (Kannada/Telugu) and Ambaal (Tamil). She is also Guru (exquisite teacher). The Kena Upanishad narrates a beautiful story as to the Devi revealing herself in the role of the Guru.
Once, in the war between Devas (gods) and asuras (demons, representing the forces of darkness), Brahman (Supreme God) obtained the victory for devas. But the devas became elated and thought; ours, indeed, is this victory. To save them from this vanity, Brahman appeared before them as a Yaksha (Venerable Being). To find out who the Yaksha was, the gods sent first Agni (God of Fire) and then Vayu (God of Wind). Both these gods returned, not being able to ascertain who the Yaksha was.
Then the gods requested their leader, Indra, to obtain the answer. On his approach, the Yaksha disappeared from view. In that very space, Indra beheld the resplendent Uma, the Haimavati (Parvathi, Shiva’s consort), wearing many gold ornaments or the daughter of Himavan, the snow-clad Himalayan mountain).
Uma instructs Indra thus: That Yaksha was Brahman itself. That alone was the origin and base for the entire universe, yourself, other devas and all asuras. That indivisible energy is residing in all beings in varying lots.
Thus goes the story of the Kena Upanishad.
The Devi (Divine Mother) has a special name as Uma Haimavati. She got the name Uma when she presented herself as Himavan’s daughter. The term Haimavati is joined with the term Uma. Haimavati means one who is the embodiment of gold. Haimavati also means that she is Himavan’s daughter.
Devi (Divine Mother) had the form (roopa) of Uma Haimavati even before her appearance as Himavan’s daughter. That form (roopa) taught Brahma Vidya to Indra. That is why Sri Lalitha Sahasranamam refers to her as Atma Vidya.
Bahu Sobhamana = extraordinarily effulgent. Vidhya, spiritual knowledge is the most luminous among all luminous things. It is thus only that the qualification, bahu sobhamana, extraordinarily effulgent, becomes appropriate (Sankaracharya’s commentary).
Just as the flower and the smell, milk and taste, or fire and brightness, the Divine Mother is the power of knowledge, inseparable from Sri Parama Shiva. Likewise she is in an in-separate mode as sister of Sri Narayana. She was Vaishnavi while eliminating the asuras (forces of darkness) as Durga. This Devi (Divine Mother) was born from Yasoda’s womb as Vishnu Maya, during Sri Krishna Jayanthi (birthday celebrations). We worship Durga during the nine nights (navarathri) in the autumn. After the elimination of the asuras, she has to encourage the good and the spiritual knowledge. To celebrate the appearance of the Devi as Jnaanambika, we celebrate another nine nights as Vasantha navarathri in the spring after Sri Rama Navami.
We worship during the spring nine nights as the peaceful Jnaanaambika the same Devi (Divine Mother) whom we worshipped as the fierce Chandika (another name of the Divine Mother) during the autumn nine nights. She eliminates the forces of darkness as Chandika and protects all by teaching the good and spiritual knowledge as Jnaanaambika.
A large wave spends itself by repeated bending. In the same manner, there are some sounds. Many such combinations of sounds are divided into fifty-one letters. These are called “Maatruka”. “Maatru” means mother. The Divine Mother is both sound as well as letters. She is also the Pranava Mantra (inspired words having divine connotation). The letters ah, wu, and ma, combine into the mantra Om. Ah – creation; wu – maintenance; and ma – destruction. Thus Uma combines the three divine functions into herself. So her denomination as such in the Upanishads.
The Divine Mother’s body is made up of musical notes, pleasant sounds, attractive voices – the fifty-one letters themselves form her body. It is made up entirely of knowledge. This knowledge is known as Jnaanaambika (spiritual knowledge personified.)
One should not look upon as constant and permanent, all those changing entities or those subject to destruction. Instead one should learn by intuition and personal awareness to identify the sole entity, which is unchanging and indestructible; one should thus come to know that object apart from which there does not exist separately any other “I” (ego). This is true knowledge. The Divine Mother who bestows this supreme knowledge shines as the most auspicious figure and is the Jnanaambika herself. Let us pray to her always and be blessed with her grace.
In Sri Kanakadhara Stotram, on behalf of poor Brahmin lady, Sri Sankara prayed to Mahalakshmi as Goddess of wealth and solicited a rain of gold. In sloka 16 of this Stotram, Sri Acharya, while praying on his own behalf, looked upon Mahalakshmi not only as the Goddess of wealth but also as Jnaanaambika, that is, as one who dispels all of one’s blemishes.
Sri Kanchi Mahaswami has given a synopsis of Sri Adi Sankaracharya’s “Soundaryalahari.” In sloka No. 57 (Drisa Dragheeyasya), he prays for the Divine Mother to include him (Acharya) in her blessed glance. In sloka No. 84 (Shruteenam Moordhano), he prays to be blessed with her feet being placed on his head. In the former sloka, while asking the Divine Mother to turn her glance graciously towards him, he prays to the Goddess “to include me even (maamapi) in your blessed sight, O Mother!” In the latter sloka, he prays to the Divine Mother “to bless me even (maamapi) with your feet being placed on my head, O Mother!”
Here it is confirmed that the Divine Mother herself is the embodiment of Guru (teacher). According to the Saastraas (scriptures), the teacher’s wooden tongs are permanently on the pupil’s head. In this way, the latter is continuously initiated into studies in his quest for knowledge. The crests of the Vedas (namely, the Upanishads) bear the Divine Mother’s feet as their (head) ornament. Upanishads have another name, viz., Shruti siras (head of the Vedas).
In the Kena Upanishad story, there is a reference to the moral that dispelling pride is the way to spiritual knowledge. Similarly, in this sloka, dispensing all pride and with extreme humility, Sri Acharya has solicited the grace of the Divine Mother’s feet on his head.
The apparent Roopas (shapes) of the Divine Mother are Lalitha, Durga, Bhuvaneswari etc. Her implicit Roopas are all sounds and all voices etc. In particular she is the personification of all Mantras (incantations having divine connotation).
In “Sarasvatya Lakshmya” (penultimate sloka of “Soundaryalahari”), Sri Sankaracharya says:
The devotee of the Divine Mother will be blessed with full wisdom and (its consequential) good character, great wealth and the sense to use it in an ethical manner, most attractive physical beauty and long life and (the implied) good health to enjoy these gifts.
These ideal benefits will lead the devotee to search for inner peace. He will realize the futility of thirsting after wisdom, wealth, beauty of form and long life: Cured of ignorance, he will become disinterested in worldly things and, will ultimately enjoy release from Samsara (constantly repeating cycle of birth and death) and attain Moksha (liberation). That is the Supreme Bliss or the blessings of Jnaanaambika.
P.S: This detailed article was sent to me by Mr. P N Ramachandran. I myself didn’t know the significance of Sri Lalitha Sahasranama. Thanks for taking the time to explain in such detail.
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