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Wisdom Goddesses - Mahavidyas and the Assertion of Femininity in Indian Thought
Article of the Month - May 2002 by Nitin Kumar Email the author

There exists in India a group of strange Goddesses, ten in number. One of them is shown holding her own freshly severed head, which feeds on the blood flowing from her headless torso; another holds a pair of scissors while sitting triumphant atop a corpse;

The Mahavidya Chhinnamasta The Mahavidya Tara

a third is depicted as an old and ugly widow riding a chariot decorated with the crow as an emblem. The series continues - an unusual assemblage to say the least.

The Ten Mahavidyas : Dhumavati - The Widow Goddess The Ten Mahavidyas

Birth of the Ten MahavidyasThe story behind their birth is equally interesting and paradoxically of a romantic origin:

Once during their numerous love games, things got out of hand between Shiva and Parvati. What had started in jest turned into a serious matter with an incensed Shiva threatening to walk out on Parvati. No amount of coaxing or cajoling by Parvati could reverse matters. Left with no choice, Parvati multiplied herself into ten different forms for each of the ten directions. Thus however hard Shiva might try to escape from his beloved Parvati, he would find her standing as a guardian, guarding all escape routes.

Each of the Devi's manifested forms made Shiva realize essential truths, made him aware of the eternal nature of their mutual love and most significantly established for always in the cannons of Indian thought the Goddess's superiority over her male counterpart. Not that Shiva in any way felt belittled by this awareness, only spiritually awakened. This is true as much for this Great Lord as for us ordinary mortals. Befittingly thus they are referred to as the Great Goddess's of Wisdom, known in Sanskrit as the Mahavidyas (Maha - great; vidya - knowledge). Indeed in the process of spiritual learning the Goddess is the muse who guides and inspires us. She is the high priestess who unfolds the inner truths.

The spectrum of these ten goddesses covers the whole range of feminine divinity, encompassing horrific goddess's at one end, to the ravishingly beautiful at the other. These Goddesses are:

1) Kali the Eternal Night
2) Tara the Compassionate Goddess
3) Shodashi the Goddess who is Sixteen Years Old
4) Bhuvaneshvari the Creator of the World
5) Chinnamasta the Goddess who cuts off her Own Head
6) Bhairavi the Goddess of Decay
7) Dhumawati the Goddess who widows Herself
8) Bagalamukhi the Goddess who seizes the Tongue
9) Matangi the Goddess who Loves Pollution
10) Kamala the Last but Not the Least

Kali the Eternal Night

Goddess KaliKali is mentioned as the first amongst the Mahavidyas. Black as the night she has a terrible and horrific appearance.

In the Rig-Veda, the world's most ancient book there is a 'Hymn to the Night' (Ratri sukta), which says that there are two types of nights. One experienced by mortal beings and the other by divine beings. In the former all ephemeral activity comes to a standstill, while in the latter the activity of divinity also comes to rest. This absolute night is the night of destruction, the power of kala. The word kala denotes time in Sanskrit. Kali's name is derived from this word itself, as also from the Sanskrit word for black. She is thus the timeless night, both for ordinary mortals and for divine beings. At night we nestle in happiness like birds in their nests. Dwellers in the villages, theirs cows and horses, the birds of the air, men who travel on many a business, and jackals and wild beasts, all welcome the night and joyfully nestle in her; for to all beings misguided by the journey of the day she brings calm and happiness, just as a mother would. The word ratri (night) is derived from the root ra, "to give," and is taken to mean "the giver" of bliss, of peace of happiness.

The Ten Mahavidyas : Tara - The Goddess Who Guides Through Troubles

 

Tara the Compassionate Goddess

 

 

The similarities in appearance between Kali and Tara are striking and unmistakable. They both stand upon a supine male figure often recognizable as Shiva but which may also be an anonymous corpse.

Goddess Kali

 

 

 

 

 

Both wear minimal clothing or are naked. Both wear a necklace of freshly severed heads and a girdle of human hands. Both have a lolling tongue, red with the blood of their victims. Their appearances are so strikingly similar that it is easy to mistake one for the other.

Goddess Tara

 

 

 

The oral tradition gives an intriguing story behind the Goddess Tara. The legend begins with the churning of the ocean. Shiva has drunk the poison that was created from the churning of the ocean, thus saving the world from destruction, but has fallen unconscious under its powerful effect. Tara appears and takes Shiva on her lap. She suckles him, the milk from her breasts counteracting the poison, and he recovers. This myth is reminiscent of the one in which Shiva stops the rampaging Kali by becoming an infant. Seeing the child, Kali's maternal instinct comes to the fore, and she becomes quiet and nurses the infant Shiva. In both cases, Shiva assumes the position of an infant vis-à-vis the goddess. In other words the Goddess is Mother even to the Great Lord himself.

Tara - The Goddess Who Guides Through Troubles

 

 

 

 

The distinguishing feature in Tara's iconography is the scissors she holds in one of her four hands. The scissors relate to her ability to cut off all attachments.

White Tara

 

 

 

 

 

Literally the word 'tara' means a star. Thus Tara is said to be the star of our aspiration, the muse who guides us along the creative path. These qualities are but a manifestation of her compassion. The Buddhist tradition stresses these qualities of this Goddess, and she is worshipped in Tibet as an important embodiment of compassion.

 

 

Shodashi the Goddess who is Sixteen Years Old

The Ten Mahavidyas : Shodashi - She Who is Lovely in the Three WorldsShodashi or Tripura-Sundari is believed to have taken birth to save the gods from the ravages of a mighty and wrathful demon. The tale begins when Shiva burnt down Kama, the god of love, who tried to distract Shiva from his meditation. One of Shiva's followers then scooped off Kama's ashes and formed the image of a man out of them. This man then persuades Shiva to teach him a powerful mantra. By the power of this mantra, one could gain half the might of one's adversary. But because he was generated from the ashes of Shiva's wrath he is transformed into a fierce demon. Intoxicated with his new found power he proceeded to rampage the kingdom of the gods. Apprehending defeat and humiliation, the gods all propitiate Goddess Tripura-Sundari to seek her help. The goddess appears and agrees to help them. Taking the battlefield she heaps a crushing blow on the mighty demon, thus saving the gods.

Iconographically this Goddess is shown seated on a lotus that rests on the supine body of Lord Shiva, who in turn lies on a throne whose legs are the gods Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva, and Rudra.

Shodashi - She Who is Lovely in the Three Worlds

 

 

 

 

 

This is a direct and hard-hitting portrayal of the Goddess dominating the important male deities of the Hindu pantheon, a central belief of the Mahavidya ideology. She is the savior of all, the Last Refuge.

The Mahavidya Shodashi

 

 

 

She holds in her hands a pair of bow and arrows. The bow significantly is made of sugarcane, a symbol of sweetness. Her darts thus are sweetness personified. One of her epithets is 'Tripura-Sundari,' meaning 'One who is beautiful in the three realms.' Another of her names 'Lalita' implies softness. These two qualities give rise to images that depict her as ravishingly beautiful and of unsurpassed splendor.

The word 'Shodashi' literally means sixteen in Sanskrit. She is thus visualized as sweet girl of sixteen. In human life sixteen years represent the age of accomplished perfection after which decline sets in. Indeed sixteen days form the completed lunar cycle from the new moon to the full moon. The full moon is the moon of sixteen days. This girl of sixteen rules over all that is perfect, complete, beautiful. Her supreme beauty too has an interesting story behind it:

Once upon a time Shiva referred to Kali (his wife) by her name in front of some heavenly damsels who had come to visit, calling her "Kali, Kali" ("Blackie, Blackie") in jest. This she took to be a slur against her dark complexion. She left Shiva and resolved to rid herself of her dark complexion, through asceticism. Later, the sage Narada, seeing Shiva alone, asked where his wife was. Shiva complained that she had abandoned him and vanished. With his yogic powers Narada discovered Kali living north of Mount Sumeru and went there to see if he could convince her to return to Shiva. He told her that Shiva was thinking of marrying another goddess and that she should return at once to prevent this. By now Kali had rid herself of her dark complexion but did not yet realize it. Arriving in the presence of Shiva, she saw a reflection of herself with a light complexion in Shiva's heart. Thinking, that this was another goddess, she became jealous and angry. Shiva advised her to look more carefully, with the eye of knowledge, telling her that what she saw in his heart was herself. The story ends with Shiva saying to the transformed Kali: "As you have assumed a very beautiful form, beautiful in the three worlds, your name will be Tripura- Sundari. You shall always remain sixteen years old and be called by the name Shodashi."

Two Mahavidyas - Bhuvaneshwari and ShodashiBhuvaneshvari the Creator of the World

A modern text gives the legend of origin of Bhuvaneshvari as follows:

'Before anything existed it was the sun which appeared in the heavens. The rishis (sages) offered soma the sacred plant to it so that the world may be created. At that time Shodashi was the main power, or the Shakti through whom the Sun created the three worlds. After the world was created the goddess assumed a form appropriate to the manifested world.'

In this form she came to be known as Bhuvaneshvari, literally 'Mistress of the World.'

Bhuvaneshvari thus remains un-manifest until the world is created. Hence she is primarily related with the visible and material aspect of the created world.

More than any other Mahavidya with the exception of Kamala (mentioned later), Bhuvaneshvari is associated and identified with the energy underlying creation. She embodies the characteristic dynamics and constituents that make up the world and that lend creation its distinctive character. She is both a part of creation and also pervades it's aftermath.

The Mahavidya BhuwaneshvariBhuvaneshvari's beauty is mentioned often. She is described as having a radiant complexion and a beautiful face, framed with flowing hair the color of black bees. Her eyes are broad, her lips full and red, her nose delicate. Her firm breasts are smeared with sandal paste and saffron. Her waist is thin, and her thighs, buttocks, and navel are lovely. Her beautiful throat is decorated with ornaments, and her arms are made for embracing. Indeed Shiva is said to have produced a third eye to view her more thoroughly.

This beauty and attractiveness may be understood as an affirmation of the physical world. Tantric thought does not denigrate the world or consider it illusory or delusory, as do some other abstract aspects of Indian thought. This is made amply clear in the belief that the physical world, the rhythms of creation, maintenance and destruction, even the hankerings and sufferings of the human condition is nothing but Bhuvaneshvari's play, her exhilarating, joyous sport.

 

Chinnamasta the Goddess who cuts off her Own Head

One day Parvati went to bathe in the Mandakini River with her two attendants, Jaya and Vijaya. After bathing, the great goddess's color became black because she was sexually aroused. After some time, her two attendants asked her, "Give us some food. We are hungry." She replied, "I shall give you food but please wait." After awhile, again they asked her. She replied, "Please wait, I am thinking about some matters." Waiting awhile, they implored her, "You are the mother of the universe. A child asks everything from her mother. The mother gives her children not only food but also coverings for the body. So that is why we are praying to you for food. You are known for your mercy; please give us food." Hearing this, the consort of Shiva told them that she would give anything when they reached home. But again her two attendants begged her, "We are overpowered with hunger, O Mother of the Universe. Give us food so we may be satisfied, O Merciful One, Bestower of Boons and Fulfiller of Desires."

ChinnamastaHearing this true statement, the merciful goddess smiled and severed her own head. As soon as she severed her head, it fell on the palm of her left hand. Three bloodstreams emerged from her throat; the left and right fell respectively into the mouths of her flanking attendants and the center one fell into her mouth.

After performing this, all were satisfied and later returned home. (From this act) Parvati became known as Chinnamasta.

In visual imagery, Chinnamasta is shown standing on the copulating couple of Kamadeva and Rati, with Rati on the top. They are shown lying on a lotus.

There are two different interpretations of this aspect of Chinnamasta's iconography. One understands it as a symbol of control of sexual desire, the other as a symbol of the goddess's embodiment of sexual energy.

The most common interpretation is one where she is believed to be defeating what Kamadeva and Rati represent, namely sexual desire and energy. In this school of thought she signifies self-control, believed to be the hallmark of a successful yogi.

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Article Reviews

  • Found the article interesting, but was somewhat disappointed at the abrupt conclusion of the closing paragraph; in the final analysis, all variation & modification however it may be viewed by the prevalent time & thought is shakti with a place & purpose beyond & before and in parallel there exists the existance that is the unchanging Truth reaching of which is the ultimate aim; to do so, distinct realms of expression & modification need exploration with reverence and such pursuits with knowledge leads the aspirant to the ultimate which is that only is ever there, and from which and because of which all that is variation manifests. Calling it a mere escape route to free thinking casts a doubt on the validity of the vidya itself and takes away from the genuinity.
    - SivaMallik
    11th Jun 2007
  • These articles do in fact make interesting read...... However these are neither authentic or accurate.... Anyone attempting to learn Hinduism or Indian religion better refer Wikipedia, where there are some correct articles..... I have gone through a couple of Nitin Kumar's translations of Sanskrit slokas to English...... Neither were the slokas in Sanskrit, nor were they translations.... Indian religions at NO point, has referred to anything related to SEX such as a vagina or phallus to Gods or Godesses as described in various articles here.....

    - KVR
    9th Feb 2007
  • Thanks for this great site. I just Googled "Mahavidyas" and here they are. I couldn't remember all of them (I had forgotten Matangi), so this information is very welcome. I really like the images here. I do feel a bit confused about the statement that Kali is very frightening; she has always been incredibly beautiful and infinitely sweet to me anyway.

    Again,
    thank you
    - Bob
    8th Dec 2006
  • I really loved this article, very informative and somewhat gripping. It makes me want to learn more. Good work.
    - Jessica
    16th Aug 2006
  • Very nice and clear. Now I understand the forms of Mother in the Sri Lalita Sahasranama a lot better.
    - Aisha
    15th Jul 2006
  • This article is even better than any of the internet articles purporting to explain the Dasa Mahavidya.
    - Shakti Devi
    8th Mar 2006
  • Thanks for preaching all the differences between the Devis which such devotional work.I would appreciate if you could send me few prayers or more topic based on Kollur Mookambika Devi, as I am a grate devotee of Devi.Thanks
    - Babitha
    26th Jun 2004
  • Thanks , now i do understand why & how sadoshi became TRAPURASUNDARI!!
    - Ashok
    10th Apr 2004
  • Please write on the article "KRITYA" if somebody knows about that. Let me know if there are articles to read about kritya sadhana
    - raghu
    23rd Mar 2004
  • da information is great, yet know THAT the beautiful Goddess Path awakens, reveals, and delivers one into one's own perfect, pure, innerSelf. Immersed in Love's Perfect Love, one lives forever in the Bliss of the Self. Some gifts one might offet to one'sSelf, the Mahavidya, (and Nature), are an abundance of Grace, surrender to one's own Heart, a willingness to Love only Love, and the practise of saying "Thank-You" (no matter what seems to be happening). One may someday find one'sSelf Drenched in Grace, Living in the Splender of one's own Heart, seeing only Love, knowing only Love...having become what one has loved...and THAT is pure Love, and THAT is perfect Love...and THAT is one'sSelf.
    Love -me.
    - chana (chanashappiness@earthlink.net)
    13th Jan 2004
  • Fascinating articles, would like to go deepar in mahavidays,what are chances,
    really mind blowing.
    - vimal
    10th Oct 2003
  • this is a good article
    - chauhanjanak
    17th Aug 2003
  • Thank you so much for your great site on the Mahavidyas. It is nice to find the real Tantra being talked about. Tantra is a path to Vedanta.
    - John
    30th Jul 2002
  • Really Spellbinding.. !!
    Great article .. I just strayed on to the article and found myself stuck to it. The Conclusion was really educating.
    Great work Nitin.
    - Rajesh
    9th Jul 2002
  • Thanks for wonderful and in depth article. You have added some ideas to our studies of the Mahavidyas.
    Ian - other than naming them as two attendants, Jaya and Vijaya from the article, I don't know who they would be in Nepal. Thank you though for drawing my attention to the Chi Namaste element in Chinnamasta's name - I have been studying her for over a year and never noticed!!
    Keep up the great Tantric articles.
    - Karen
    2nd Jul 2002
  • I would like some art/pictures of Mookambika devi of Kollur. She is a ssociated with a story of Shankaracharya.
    Om, Renie Devi. (all women are goddesses).
    - renie devi
    2nd Jun 2002
  • I should have pointed out that the red Kali figure who appears to transform through the self-sacrifice of Chhinnamasta into a Bodhini is actually the Buddhist deity Vajravarahi (a form of Vajrayogini), apparently transformed into Shakti when trampled underfoot by herself as Chhinamasta.
    - Ian
    23rd May 2002
  • Mahavidyas and the Assertion of Femininity in Indian Thought
    - Jens
    21st May 2002
  • One thing I forgot to mention about my icon of Chinnamasta. Apart from their 3rd eye, the god and goddesses are not, apparently in their cosmic (multilimbed / -headed) forms. Except for Shiva, who would seem to have six buttocks peeping from beneath his tiger-skin, suggesting the cosmic nature of the sexual energy in the image.
    - Ian
    18th May 2002
  • I have a Nepalese icon of Chinnamasta in the Tibetan style which I greatly love. It features a pair of female supporters to the central trio whose identity I'd like to know. One is dark blue (possibly representing the Goddess's shadow) and the other red (as is the decapitated form of the goddess) and may represent her reflection both are carrying skullcups which catch some of the blood from the decapitated body. There are two attendant forms of the goddess to the central icon - a female Buddha in lotus position and dhara mudra (the only figure without the 3rd eye) in the upper right of the picture and a dancing red Kali in the lower left, suggesting that the act of self-sacrifice represents a spiritual transformation. I take it the paler red form of the goddess who lies atop the supine Shiva is another form of Kami. (I note that the halo of Chinnamasta and the Kali figure is Kami's usual green colour). It is probable that the popularity of Chinnamasta in Nepal is related to the pun "Chi Namaste" - greeting the Life Force. The entire central icon is represented in flames, suggesting the rite of suttee, and floats on a giant lotus on a lake. The sky in the image is a dark brown paling to gold as it meets the horizon - suggestive of either smoke or doom. Despite the rich polychrome of the piece, there are 4 ritual colours which stand out in the piece which correspond to the 4 excrescences - Shiva's white (representing sperm), Chinnamasta's red (representing blood), the yellow of the flames (representing urine), and the brown of the sky (representing manure).

    Also, I'd like to add the iconographic cross-fertilization of these images with the Durga Mahishasuramardini (Great Demon Slayer) where the goddess is Durga and Nandi becomes the possessed buffalo with Shiva the Demon.
    - Ian
    18th May 2002
  • I found this article fascinating. I'm still learning about Indian religions and the depth of it all is truly mind blowing. These aticles are a pleasure to read.
    - Katy
    17th May 2002
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