Polysemy in Sanskrit
Sanskrit is famously polysemous, (poly, “many” + sema, “sign”). There are layers and layers of information in each word, with each layer evoking realms of wonder, awe and delight.
The language of this text is so condensed that it is as if you are saying, “Bach, Beethoven, Wagner, Tchaikovsky, Vivaldi, Mozart, Haydn, Chopin” or “Clapton, Hendrix, Jimmy Page, B.B. King, Jeff Beck, Chuck Berry, Santana, Jerry Garcia, The Edge.” Each name evokes the person, their style, their playlist, the memories of where you were when you first bonded with their music, who you were with, who you loved and what you were doing, the live concerts, the recordings, and the way that artist influenced a generation, including other musicians. All that is suggested in a few syllables.
Each verse of the Vijnana Bhairava Tantra is 32 syllables, engineered to convey as much information as possible in as few syllables or characters as possible. It is as they were texting across the centuries, sending a tweet through time.
In addition to the technical information regarding yoga practice, the verses convey images and jokes. When Devi dares her lover to speak the secrets of yoga, she uses the word samshaya (saṃśaya), one of the meanings of which is “doubt.” The primary dictionary definition of the word, however, is “lying down to rest or sleep,” from sam (together) + saya (lying, sleeping), as you can see by looking up the roots in a Sanskrit dictionary or reading Christopher Chapple’s luminous translation of The Yoga Sutras. Saya also means, “a bed, a couch.” This is the second sentence Devi speaks, and already she is suggesting that perhaps they can lie down together and he can tell her all about it.
In Sanskrit, as Michael Coulson points out, “... punning is made possible on a scale inconceivable in a natural language . . . the same words may convey simultaneously the imagery of an idea and the contrasting imagery of a metaphor or simile which comments upon that idea. (Teach Yourself Sanskrit, p. xxii.)
The language abounds in earthy humor and sexual innuendo. When Shiva describes the Yoga of Kissing in Sutra 47 (verse 70) the word he uses is lehana. Usually translated as “kissing,” the actual definition is “the act of licking, tasting, or lapping with the tongue.” To lovers, licking is an utterly different word than kissing. When monks and nuns translate this word, they tend to edit out the juiciness.
When Devi uses the word, bindu, it means “a detached particle, drop, globule,” and also, resonating there to add meaning and humor: “a spot or mark of colored paint on the body of an elephant,” and “a mark made by the teeth of a lover on the lips of his mistress.”
When Shiva uses the words, duḥkhe na sukhe in Sutra 80, the image points to the balance of a wheel and whether it is in or out of balance. Sukha originally meant, “having a good axle-hole, running swiftly or easily.” Kha means “a cavity, cave, cavern, aperture,” and because this is Sanskrit, it also means any orifice of the human body. Dur (dus) is “bad or difficult,” so dukkha is bad space and sukha is good space.
There are images everywhere in the Sanskrit, and I have attempted to use as many as possible so that the visceral experience of the teaching being given can be accessed. Some translations of this text are so abstruse that even if you have been doing one of the dharanas described in a verse for years, you can’t recognize anything. Many words used in this tantra are like signs pointing all over the inner and outer universe. Pranava, the beginning of Sutra 16, refers to OM, and evokes a world of practices with mantra. Pranava can be parsed as pra (before, forward) + nava, (sound, shout, exult): The primordial hum of creation is an ongoing shout of exuberance, always rising, always new – and you are flooded by it always.
Bhakti, the first word in Sutra 98, has a field of meaning having to do with the relation of the part to the whole: “distribution, partition, separation, division, that which belongs to or is contained in anything else, attachment, devotion, fondness for, trust, homage,” and “faith or love or devotion as a religious principle or means of salvation.” This definition echoes beyond itself to more than a thousand years of Bhakti Yoga – distribution of the energies of life, the pang of separation, the longing of the part to feel related to the wholeness, the longing to belong to someone, to belong to God, the mystery of attachment and bonding.
Shakti – or if you prefer, śakti – means power, ability, strength, might, effort, energy, capability, and also “the energy or active power of a deity personified as his wife and worshipped.” Shakti is “the primordial power of the universe, the Divine Feminine.” Libraries of books could be written about Shakti.
Nitya, used in Sutra 109, is often translated as “eternal,” but its full definition is much more personal: “innate, native, one’s own, continual, perpetual, eternal, constantly dwelling or engaged in, intent upon, devoted or used to, the sea, the ocean.”
These terms, and many others, have oceanic semantic fields. I don’t attempt to reduce them to a corresponding word of English in a one-to-one mapping. Rather, I set the mantra-field vibrating and listen for English that hints at the mystery. I chant the Sanskrit of each verse for weeks, until it becomes one with my breath and blood, and then I ask it to sing itself into English. The language of The Radiance Sutras emerges from the lively imagery of these polysemous words.
The wonderful phrase, “unmind your mind,” in Sutra 89, is a comment Lakshmanjoo made in the teaching he gave to John Hughes, Denise Hughes, and Alexis Sanderson in Vijnanabhairava.