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Wisdom Goddesses - Mahavidyas and the Assertion of Femininity in Indian Thought

Article of the Month - May 2002
Viewed 78023 times since 2nd Oct, 2008

...Continued from Page 1

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Chinnamasta - The Self Decapitated Goddess Just as a lotus seat is believed to confer upon the deity seated atop it's qualities of auspiciousness and purity, Kamadeva and Rati impart to the Goddess standing over them the power and energy generated by their lovemaking. Gushing up through her body, this energy spouts out of her headless torso to feed her devotees and also replenish herself. Significantly here the mating couple is not opposed to the goddess, but an integral part of the rhythmic flow of energy making up the Chinnamasta icon.

The image of Chinnamasta is a composite one, conveying reality as an amalgamation of death, creation, destruction and regeneration. It is stunning representation of the fact that life, and death are an intrinsic part of the grand unified scheme that makes up the manifested universe. The stark contrasts in this iconographic scenario-the gruesome decapitation, the drinking of fresh blood, all arranged in a delicate, harmonious pattern - jolt the viewer into an awareness of the truths that life feeds on death, is nourished by death, and necessitates death. As arranged in most renditions of the icon, the lotus and the pairing couple appear to channel a powerful life force into the goddess. And at the top, like an overflowing fountain, her blood spurts from her severed neck, the life force leaving her, but streaming into the mouths of her devotes (and into her own mouth as well) to nourish and sustain them. The cycle is starkly portrayed: life (the couple making love), death (the decapitated goddess), and nourishment (the flanking yoginis drinking her blood).

Bhairavi the Goddess of Decay

KalaratriCreation and Destruction are two essential aspects of the universe, which is continually subject to their alternating rhythms. The two are equally dominant in the world and indeed depend upon each other in symbiotic fashion. Bhairavi embodies the principle of destruction and arises or becomes present when the body declines and decays. She is also evident in self-destructive habits, such as eating tamsic food (food having a quality associated with ignorance and lust) and drinking liquor, which wear down the body and mind. She is present, it is said, in the loss of semen, which weakens males. Anger, jealousy, and other selfish emotions and actions strengthen Bhairavi's presence in the world. Righteous behavior, conversely, makes her weaker. In short, she is an ever-present goddess who manifests herself in, and embodies, the destructive aspects of the world. Destruction, however, is not always negative, creation cannot continue without it. This is most clear in the process of nourishment and metabolism, in which life feeds on death; creation proceeds by means of transformed energy given up in destruction.

Bhairavi is also identified with Kalaratri, a name often associated with Kali that means "black night (of destruction)" and refers to a particularly destructive aspect of Kali.

She is also identified with Mahapralaya, the great dissolution at the end of a cosmic cycle, during which all things, having been consumed with fire, are dissolved in the formless waters of procreation. She is the force that tends toward dissolution. This force, furthermore, which is actually Bhairavi herself, is present in each person as one gradually ages, weakens and finally dies. Destruction is apparent everywhere, and therefore Bhairavi is present everywhere.

A commentary on the Parashurama-kalpasutra says that the name Bhairavi is derived from the words bharana (to create), ramana (to protect), and vamana (to emit or disgorge). The commentator, that is, seeks to discern the inner meaning of Bhairavi's name by identifying her with the cosmic functions of creation, maintenance, and destruction.

Dhumawati the Goddess who widows Herself

Dhumavati - The Widow GoddessDhumawati is ugly, unsteady, and angry. She is tall and wears dirty clothes. Her ears are ugly and rough, she has long teeth, and her breasts hang down. She has a long nose. She has the form of a widow. She rides in a chariot decorated with the emblem of the crow. Her eyes are fearsome, and her hands tremble. In one hand she holds a winnowing basket, and with the other hand she makes the gesture of conferring boons. Her nature is rude. She is always hungry and thirsty, and looks unsatisfied. She likes to create strife, and she is always frightful in appearance.

The legend behind Dhumawati's origin says that once, when Shiva's spouse Sati was dwelling with him in the Himalayas, she became extremely hungry and asked him for something to eat. When he refused to give her food, she said, "Well, then I will just have to eat you." Thereupon she swallowed Shiva, thus widowing herself. He persuaded her to disgorge him, and when she did so he cursed her, condemning her to assume the form of the widow Dhumawati. This myth underlines Dhumawati's destructive bent. Her hunger is only satisfied when she consumes Shiva, her husband and who contains within himself the whole world. Ajit Mookerjee, commenting on her perpetual hunger and thirst, which is mentioned in many places, says that she is the embodiment of "unsatisfied desires." Her status as a widow itself is curious. She makes herself one by swallowing Shiva, an act of self-assertion, and perhaps independence.

Dhumavati - The Widow GoddessThe crow, which appears as her emblem atop her chariot, is a carrion eater and symbol of death. Indeed, she herself is sometimes said to resemble a crow. The Prapancasarasara-samgraha, for example, says that her nose and throat resemble those of a crow.

The winnowing basket in her hand represents the need to discern the inner essence from the illusory realities of outer forms. The dress she wears has been taken from a corpse in the cremation ground. She is said to be the embodiment of the tamas guna, the negative qualities associated with lust and ignorance. She is believed to enjoy liquor and meat, both of which are tamsic. Dhumawati is also interpreted by some Tantra scholars as "the aspect of reality that is old, ugly, and unappealing. This is further corroborated by the fact that she is generally associated with all that is inauspicious and is believed to dwell in desolate areas of the earth, such as deserts, in abandoned houses, in quarrels, in mourning children, in hunger and thirst, and most particularly in widows.

 

Bagalamukhi the Goddess who seizes the Tongue

Bagalamukhi Devi

 

The legend behind the origin of goddess Bagalamukhi is as follows:

A demon named Madan undertook austerities and won the boon of vak siddhi, according to which anything he said came about. He abused this boon by harassing innocent people. Enraged by his mischief, the gods worshipped Bagalamukhi. She stopped the demon's rampage by taking hold of his tongue and stilling his speech. Before she could kill him, however, he asked to be worshipped with her, and she relented, That is why he is depicted with her. She is almost always portrayed in this act, holding a club in one hand, with which she is about to strike her enemy, and with the other hand pulling his tongue. In this myth, by stopping the demon's tongue, she exercises her peculiar power over speech and her power to freeze, stun, or paralyze.

 

The Ten Mahavidyas : Bagalamukhi - The Paralyzer

 

 

The pulling of the demon's tongue by Bagalamukhi is both unique and significant. Tongue, the organ of speech and taste, is often regarded as a lying entity, concealing what is in the mind. The Bible frequently mentions the tongue as an organ of mischief, vanity and deceitfulness. The wrenching of the demon's tongue is therefore symbolic of the Goddess removing what is in essentiality a perpetrator of evil.

 

 

 

 

Matangi the Goddess who Loves Pollution

The Chandalas are believed to constitute the lowest strata of the caste hierarchy in orthodox Hindu belief. Associated with death and impurity they have always survived on the fringes of mainstream society. Derogatory in the extreme sense, The label chandala itself has become the worst kind of slur. Thus by disguising herself as a Chandalini, Parvati assumes the identity of a very low-caste person, and by being attracted, Shiva allows himself to be identified with her. Both deities self-consciously and willingly associate themselves with the periphery of Hindu society and culture. The Chandala identity is sacralized therefore, in the establishment of Goddess Matangi. This goddess summarizes in herself the polluted and the forbidden.

The Ten Mahavidyas : MatangiAnother myth related to Matangi reinforces this belief. Once upon a time, Vishnu and Lakshmi went to visit Shiva and Parvati. They gifted Shiva and Parvati fine foods, and some pieces dropped to the ground. From these remains arose a maiden endowed with fair qualities. She asked for leftover food (uccishtha). The four deities offered her their leftovers as prasada (food made sacred by having been tasted by deities). Shiva then said to the attractive maiden: "Those who repeat your mantra and worship you, their activities will be fruitful. They will be able to control their enemies and obtain the objects of their desires." From then on this maiden became known as Uccishtha-matangini. She is the bestower of all boons.

This legend stresses Matangi's association with leftover food, which is normally considered highly polluting. Indeed, she herself actually arises or emerges from Shiva and Parvati's table scraps. And the first thing she asks for is sustenance in the form of leftover food (uccishtha). Texts describing her worship specify that devotees should offer her uccishtha with their hands and mouths stained with leftover food; that is, worshippers should be in a state of pollution, having eaten and not washed. This is a dramatic reversal of the usual protocols for the worship of deities. Normally, devotees are careful to offer particularly pure food or food that the deity especially likes. After the deity has eaten it, the food is thought of as blessed and returned to the worshipper to partake, and is believed to contain the grace of the deity. The ritual give-and-take in this case emphasizes the inferior position of the devotee, who serves the deity and accepts the deity's leftover food as something to be cherished. In the case of Matangi however, worshippers present her with their own highly polluted leftover food and are themselves in a state of pollution while doing so.

GajalakshmiKamala the Last but Not the Least

Kamala as the tenth and last of the Wisdom Goddesses shows the full unfoldment of the power of the Goddess into the material sphere. She is both the beginning and the end of our worship of the goddess.

The canonical texts are quite specific regarding her iconography:

'She has a beautiful and golden complexion. She is being bathed by four large elephants who pour jars of nectars over her. In her four hands she holds two lotuses and makes the signs of granting boons and giving assurance. She wears a resplendent crown and a silken dress.'

The Ten Mahavidyas : Kamala

 

 

 

 

The name Kamala means "she of the lotus" and is a common epithet of Goddess Lakshmi. Indeed, Kamala is none other than the goddess Lakshmi. Though listed as the last of the Mahavidyas, she is the best known and most popular. Several annual festivals are given in her honor. Of these, the Diwali festival is most widely celebrated. This festival links Lakshmi to three important and interrelated themes: prosperity and wealth, fertility and crops, and good luck during the coming year.

 

 

 

Lord Vishnu with Lakshmi on Sheshnag

The elephants pouring nectar onto her are symbols of sovereignty and fertility. They convey Kamala's association with these highly desirable qualities.

Though equivalent to Lakshmi, important differences exist when Kamala is included in the group of Mahavidyas. Most strikingly, she is never described or shown accompanying Vishnu, who otherwise is her constant and dominating companion in all representations.

In this respect unlike Lakshmi, Kamala is almost entirely removed from marital and domestic contexts. She does not play the role model of a wife in any way, and her association with proper dharmic or social behavior, either as an example of it or as the rewarder of it, is not important in the Mahavidya context. Here a premium seems to be put on the independence of the goddesses. For the most part, the Mahavidyas are seen as powerful goddesses in their own right. Their power and authority do not derive from association with male deities. Rather, it is their power that pervades the gods and enables them to perform their cosmic functions. When male deities are shown, they are almost in supporting roles (literally as when they are shown supporting Shodashi's throne), and are depicted as subsidiary figures.

Conclusion

The Ten Mahavidyas : KaliIt is striking how female imagery and women are central to the conception of the Mahavidyas. Iconographically, they are individually shown dominating male deities. Kali and Tara are shown astride Shiva, while others like Shodashi sit on the body of Shiva which in turn rests upon a couch whose legs are four male deities! Most significantly none of the Mahavidyas is shown as the traditional wife or consort. Even Lakshmi, who is widely known for her position as Vishnu's loyal wife is shown alone. It is also noteworthy that the severed heads that decorate the goddess's bodies are male, as are the corpses that lie beneath them.

Moreover, related Tantric texts often mention the importance of revering women. The Kaulavali Tantra says that all women should be looked upon as manifestations of Mahadevi (the Great Goddess). The Nila-tantra says that one should desert one's parents, guru, and even the deities before insulting a woman.

Finally the question remains: Why would one wish to worship a goddess such as Kali, Chinnamasta, Dhumawati, Bhairavi, or a Matangi, each of whom dramatically embodies marginal, polluting, or socially subversive qualities? These goddesses are both frightening and dangerous. They often threaten social order. In their strong associations with death, violence, pollution, and despised marginal social roles, they call into question such normative social "goods" as worldly comfort, security, respect, and honor. The worship of these goddesses suggests that the devotee experiences a refreshing and liberating spirituality in all that is forbidden by established social orders.

The central aim here according to Tantric belief is to stretch one's consciousness beyond the conventional, to break away from approved social norms, roles, and expectations. By subverting, mocking, or rejecting conventional social norms, the adept seeks to liberate his or her consciousness from the inherited, imposed, and probably inhibiting categories of proper and improper, good and bad, polluted and pure.

Living one's life according to rules of purity and pollution and caste and class that dictate how, where, and exactly in what manner every bodily function may be exercised, and which people one may, or may not, interact with socially, can create a sense of imprisonment from which one might long to escape. Perhaps the more marginal, bizarre, "outsider" goddesses among the Mahavidyas facilitate this escape. By identifying with the forbidden or the marginalized, an adept may acquire a new and refreshing perspective on the cage of respectability and predictability. Indeed a mystical adventure, without the experience of which, any spiritual quest would remain incomplete.


References and Further Reading

  • Danielou, Alain. The Myths and Gods of India: Vermont, 1991.
  • Frawley, David. Tantric Yoga and The Wisdom Goddesses: Delhi, 1999.
  • Jansen, Eva Rudy. The Book of Hindu Imagery, The Gods and their Symbols: Holland, 1998.
  • Kinsley, David. Tantric Visions of the Divine Feminine: New Delhi,1997.
  • Walker, Benjamin. Encyclopedia of Esoteric Man: London, 1977

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  • 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.
    by SivaMallik on 11th Jun 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
    by Bob on 8th Dec 2006
  • I really loved this article, very informative and somewhat gripping. It makes me want to learn more. Good work.
    by Jessica on 16th Aug 2006
  • Very nice and clear. Now I understand the forms of Mother in the Sri Lalita Sahasranama a lot better.
    by Aisha on 15th Jul 2006
  • This article is even better than any of the internet articles purporting to explain the Dasa Mahavidya.
    by Shakti Devi on 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
    by Babitha on 26th Jun 2004
  • Thanks , now i do understand why & how sadoshi became TRAPURASUNDARI!!
    by Ashok on 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
    by raghu on 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.
    by chana (chanashappiness@earthlink.net) on 13th Jan 2004
  • Fascinating articles, would like to go deepar in mahavidays,what are chances,
    really mind blowing.
    by vimal on 10th Oct 2003
  • this is a good article
    by chauhanjanak on 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.
    by John on 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.
    by Rajesh on 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.
    by Karen on 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).
    by renie devi on 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.
    by Ian on 23rd May 2002
  • Mahavidyas and the Assertion of Femininity in Indian Thought
    by Jens on 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.
    by Ian on 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.
    by Ian on 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.
    by Katy on 17th May 2002
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Mahavidya Bagalamukhi with Yantra
Madhubani Painting on Hand Made Paper treated with Cow Dung
Folk Painting from the Village of Madhubani (Bihar)
10.0 inches X 14.0 inches
$50.00$37.50
Mahavidya Bagalamukhi with Yantra
Mahavidya Tara with Yantra
Mahavidya Tara with Yantra
Madhubani Painting on Hand Made Paper treated with Cow Dung
Folk Painting from the Village of Madhubani (Bihar)
10.0 inches X 14.0 inches
$50.00$37.50
Mahavidya Tara with Yantra
Mahavidya Matangi with Yantra
Mahavidya Matangi with Yantra
Madhubani Painting on Hand Made Paper treated with Cow Dung
Folk Painting from the Village of Madhubani (Bihar)
Artist Vidya Devi and Dhirendra Jha
14.0 inches X 21.0 inches
$85.00$63.75
Mahavidya Matangi with Yantra
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