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Ten Mahavidyas : Manifestations Of Cosmic Female Energy

Article of the Month - March 2010
Viewed 56061 times since 15th Mar, 2010

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Srimad Devibhagavatam (Sanskrit Text with English Translation) (In Two Volumes)
Srimad Devibhagavatam (Sanskrit Text with English Translation) (In Two Volumes)




The number and names of Mahavidyas appearing in the Brahaddharma Purana and Maha Bhagavata Purana are almost unanimously accepted. Accordingly, Mahavidyas are ten in number and their names, as appear in these texts, are Kali, Tara, Chinnamasta, Bhuwaneshvari, Bagala, Dhumavati, Kamala, Matangi, Sodashi and Bhairavi. The tradition also has some variants. Niruttara Tantra talks of eighteen Mahavidyas, and Narada Pancharatna speaks of their innumerable forms, at least seventy lacs. Devi Bhagavata also deviates from Maha Bhagavata Purana and Brahaddharma Purana. Devi Bhagavata contends their number to be thirteen and their names as Kalika, Tarini, Tripura, Bhairavi, Kamala, Bagala, Matangi, Tripura-Sundari, Kamaksha, Tuleja-devi, Jambhini, Mohini, and Chinnamasta.





The Ten Mahavidyas - Kali
The Ten Mahavidyas - Kali
Water Color Painting On Cotton Fabric






Kali, the foremost of Mahavidyas, is not merely the first of them but also the prototype of the group. Other Mahavidyas are sometimes considered as only Kali's forms. In general, Kali is perceived as having awful appearance with a figure jet black in complexion, gaunt, wrinkled and ugly-looking. She has repulsive fangs, shakes the world with her laughter, dances madly, wears garlands of corpses, sits or stands on a dead body, usually Shiva's supine figure, feeds herself on fresh human blood and lives in cremation ground. She takes delight in imparting destruction and working for instability.




Bhavabhuti's Malatimadhava With the Commentary of Jagaddhara (Edited with a literal English Translation, Notes and Introduction)
Bhavabhuti's Malatimadhava With the Commentary of Jagaddhara (Edited with a literal English Translation, Notes and Introduction)







However, despite her ugly appearance Kali has not been for centuries the favorite deity merely of violence-edict warriors, thieves, plunderers, insensitive tribes and charmers but also of poets, dramatists, sculptors and others all over the land. By one name or other she features in Kadambari, a play by the seventh century dramatist Banabhatta, in another seventh century work Gaudavaho by Vakpati, and in Malati-Madhava, a Sanskrit classic by the eighth century poet Bhavabhuti.






The eleventh century temple at Padaoli in Morena district of Madhya Pradesh has a large size sculptural panel devoted to her, and the Sikhs' tenth guru Guru Gobind Singh dedicated to her a long narrative poem. The Kali-cult emerged so powerfully in Bengal that it completely transformed its art, textile designing and the character of rituals.

The Dance of Shiva and Kali
The Dance of Shiva and Kali
Miniature Painting on Paper
Artist: Kailash Raj




The tradition perceives black goddess Kali as the power of time for it is her who releases and withdraws it. She signifies abyssal darkness which contains all unknown, all known and all that can be known, and thus she is the ultimate knowledge; it is from this abyssal darkness that all forms rise and into which they disappear and thus she is the ultimate reality. She manifests the truth of contrasts, the death and the sex, the ugly and the beauteous, the timed and the timeless. Kali is personified wrath, whether Sati's or that of Durga, Parvati or of other goddesses. Wrath is not merely her instrument for undoing a wrong. She herself is the wrath, the cosmic rage against a wrong, and this is truly Kali's essence. She does not attempt at winning over the male, his ego, arrogance or wrong, by any bewitching female charms or grace but by obstructing, terrifying and undoing him.



The unpredictable Kali stands on a point ahead of which on one side is the accepted, and on the other, 'not acceptable', loathsome, polluting, feared or forbidden. While she challenges and shatters the accepted, she embodies into her being the polluted, loathed and feared and thus, when meditated on, releases the adept from clutches of conventionality, all that is worn out, has rotted or is rotting, and prepares his mind to accept the reality as a whole, ugly and fierce in special. When invoked and pleased, she endows the Tantrika with such powers as undo every kind of wrong, whether affected by man or by nature in any form whatever.


Tara in Hinduism: Study with Textual and Iconographical Documentation
Tara in Hinduism: Study with Textual and Iconographical Documentation



Tara, who as a rule is listed as number two among Mahavidyas, is second to none among them except Kali. Not so much in Hindu or Brahmanical pantheon as in the Buddhist, Tara has a much wider presence outside the Mahavidya-periphery. Alike she has an early presence datable to around the fourth-fifth centuries of the Common Era and emerges thus much before the Mahavidya-cult evolved. With an appearance identical to Kali she has always enjoyed considerable popularity and importance in Hindu pantheon, especially among Tantrika deities. In iconographic manifestations, like Kali, the naked bodied Tara is also associated with Shiva and is often represented as standing on his supine body, and sometimes as copulating. Of the Tantra Tara is as potential a deity as Kali. Besides her place in Hindu tradition she is the central deity of the Buddhism, especially the Tibetan, where she is worshipped almost like a national deity. Tara also occupies a significant position and wields considerable influence in Jainism. She has strong Vaishnava links and is claimed to have been created to defeat the thousand headed Ravana.




Not merely in the Buddhist myths that portray Tara as the goddess of tempestuous seas helping the masses wade their path to safety and redemption, even in Hindu and Jain traditions she is revered as the goddess who guides out of troubles and all kinds of turmoil. Almost all theologies equate sea with life, miseries, misfortunes and trials with sea's uncertainties and upheavals, and a being, with the sailor paddling a boat across it. Thus, allegorically Tara, the goddess of tempestuous oceans, is also the goddess who helps the being wade across all difficulties and misfortunes occurring in life and attain salvation. In some texts, Tara is also seen as the potential of re-creation, which equates her with Saraswati possessing such potential in Hindu tradition. In Jain tradition Tara and Saraswati merge into each other. Here Tara has highly diversified role and form. Brahaddharma purana perceives Tara as representing time, the same as does Kali.

The Savior Goddess Green Tara
The Savior Goddess Green Tara
Tibetan Thangka Painting






Apart such similarities, the Buddhist Tara is somewhat different from the Tara in Hindu tradition, particularly the Tantrika. Except rarely, in Buddhism, Tara has been conceived as a benevolent, compassionate, gentle and spirited young woman eager to help her devotees and to protect them from every harm.







On the contrary, as one of the Mahavidyas, which is essentially a Hindu context, Tara is always fierce, often having a form which strikes with horror, and as exceptionally moody and harmful. Wrath is not unknown to Buddhist Tara. She sometimes gets angry and plunders harm. In the like way, though rarely, Hindu Tara is benevolent and compassionate.


The Tantrik Sadhana of Mahavidya Chinnamasta
The Tantrik Sadhana of Mahavidya Chinnamasta
Miniature Painting on Paper
Artist: Kailash Raj



Chinnamasta, one of the three most popular deities of Tantrism, other two being Kali and Tara, seems to have developed out of Vajrayogini cult of Tibetan Buddhism. Vajrayogini, an early Tantrika deity of the Tibetan Buddhism, has a form exactly identical to Chinnamasta. Chinnamasta is a creation of shocking imagery – gruesome decapitation of her own being representing life's cessation for feeding further life, copulating couple under her feet perceived as feeding the goddess with life's energy, blood-consuming nude females and cremation ground all around. In her form she combines life, sex and death, and all in a dramatic and stunning manner manifesting the ages-old idea that they – life, sex and death, are inseparably entwined and are parts of a unified system. Chinnamasta manifests the truth that it is in destruction of life that the life is nourished, that life necessitates death, and that sex is the ultimate instrument of perpetuating more life; and further, that this life would decay and pave the way for death, and then again from death to life. Chinnamasta is thus the symbol of the process of recycle from life to death and back and all in unceasing continuity.




Various Tantrika hymns invoke Chinnamasta as Digambari – nude, symbolically the one with no coverings of illusion, and as full-breasted, suggestive of the motherhood being ceaseless in her and of her role as the eternal preserver. She wears a garland of severed human heads symbolising wisdom and power and sometimes a pair of shears or a sword. Texts have prescribed for her blood red complexion with which she symbolises life in its incessant flow. In her usual iconography she holds her severed head in her left hand. One of the three jets of blood that spurt from her neck streams back into the mouth of her own severed head, and other two, into those of the yoginis – Dakini and Varnini, all suggesting that death nourishes life and thus the process of recycle continues. The copulating couple under the feet of the goddess is usually Kamadeva, the personified sexual desire, and his wife Rati. Chinnamasta, standing on their backs draws from the couple, as also from the lotus on which the couple lies, life's energy and channels it for perpetuating more life.

Amongst all Devi forms, even Durga and Kali who sustain and promote life from the sacrifice offered to them by their devotees, Chinnamasta destroys her own life to sustain and promote it beyond her in forms other than her. More than Annapurna or Shatakshi who only gives, Chinnamasta is one who receives life from the copulating couple and with far greater vigour passes it on to others and is thus a greater giver and more accomplished model of cosmic unity – the life that the lovemaking couple represents, the death which reveals in decapitating herself and the nourishment which manifests in feeding the flanking yoginis.


Other seven Mahavidyas, namely, Sodashi or Tripura-Sundari, Bhuwaneshvari, Bhairavi, Dhumavati, Bagala, Matangi and Kamala, have relatively limited role and significance both in Tantrika practices as well as worship traditions.

Tripura Sundari
Tripura Sundari
Miniature Painting on Paper
Artist: Kailash Raj



Sodashi, also alluded to in some texts as Tripura Sundari, the most beauteous in three worlds, and as such having three forms defining three stages – Tripura-bala, the virgin, Tripura-Sundari, the beauteous, and Tripura Bhairavi, the terrible, is perceived as one with timeless youth and beauty, though not without frowns or angry looks. She is sometimes seen as the embodiment of sixteen modifications of desire and at other time as one created to arouse Shiva to sexual activity so that his creative powers could stimulate the world. In Hindu pantheon she seems to have emerged in around eleventh-twelfth centuries and had perhaps a few temples too, with one at Tehara near Bheraghat, Jabalpur, in Madhya Pradesh, devoted to her. Like Kali and Tara, Tripura-Sundari is also perceived as swaying all gods, though perhaps with her paramount beauty, not by Kali-like superior power. This superior position of Sodashi reflects in her iconography in which Brahma, Vishnu, Rudra and Indra or Yama are represented as supporting on them the throne on which she sits as its four legs.



Mahalakshmi (Kamala) the Last but Not the Least (Ten Mahavidya Series)
Mahalakshmi (Kamala) the Last but Not the Least (Ten Mahavidya Series)
Water color Painting on Patti Paper
Artist: Rabi Behera





The lotus goddess Kamala as Shri makes a debut in the Shri Sukta in the Rig-Veda; as Lakshmi she has considerable presence in Buddhist sculptures datable to third-second century B. C. to second century A. D. and in Hindu pantheon and Puranas all through from fifth-sixth century onwards. The Devi-Mahatmya part of the Markandeya Purana has devoted to her a full Canto by the name Mahalakshmi. As Mahavidya she does not enjoy the same prestige as she enjoys as Lakshmi in worship tradition. As in Vaishnava tradition, Kamala is invoked in Tantrika rituals for riches, especially the hidden treasures of bygone days.






Dhumawati the Goddess who widows Herself (Ten Mahavidya Series)
Dhumawati the Goddess who widows Herself (Ten Mahavidya Series)
Water color Painting on Patti Paper
Artist: Rabi Behera




Like Chinnamasta Bagalamukhi, Dhumavati and Matangi are rarely mentioned except as Mahavidyas. They are broadly Tantrika deities and are seen mostly in Tantrika contexts. Except that in some of the Tantrika pithas – seats, such as at the Pitambara Pitha, Datia, in Madhya Pradesh, where Dhumavati has her independent shrine, an individual structure devoted to any of them, or even a smaller one of the status of a sub-shrine, is a rarity. At some Tantrika pithas these goddesses along with other Mahavidyas are carved or painted, inside or outside, on the sanctum walls of the main deity shrine. In Himalayan regions such representations are more common. Bagala, the goddess with a crane-like face, gold-complexioned and elegantly attired and bejewelled, is a powerful Tantrika deity who paralyses and thus destroys all negative forces that obstructs adept's progress or well being. Toothless Dhumavati with long pendulous breasts, having pale complexion, wearing white but mudded attire, and riding a crow-driven cart, manifests unsatisfied desires and hence has been conceived as a widow. She has a large crooked nose and quarrelsome nature and uses diseases as her weapon to punish the wicked.



Matangi - The Outcaste Goddess (Ten Mahavidya Series)
Matangi - The Outcaste Goddess (Ten Mahavidya Series)
Water color Painting on Patti Paper
Artist: Rabi Behera








Matangi, usually a beautiful young woman with dark or black complexion, spreads music and education enabling human beings to acquire liberating wisdom. She manifested the power of domination.







The tradition considers her as an outcaste goddess.

Goddess Shri Bhairavi Devi
Goddess Shri Bhairavi Devi
Miniature Painting on Paper
Artist: Kailash Raj



Bhairavi, capable of multiplying herself into infinity of beings and forms and broadly a fierce goddess, the consort of Bhairava, has been conceived identically to Bhairava, both in form as well as mental frame. She has complexion as bright as a thousand rising suns. She wears garland of skulls and garments made from skins of demons she killed and she has her feet and breasts covered with blood.




Mahavidya Goddess Bhuwaneshvari
Mahavidya Goddess Bhuwaneshvari
Miniature Painting on Paper
Artist: Kailash Raj






Though better known as the goddess of the Mahavidya group, Bhuwaneshvari is also known in context to Vishnu's boar incarnation and a few other myths. Broadly, the large breasted and pleasantly smiling Bhuwaneshvari represents substantial forces of the material world and is revered as one the world is whose extension.







Except Kali, Tara and Tripura-Sundari, as also Kamakhya, a Mahavidya in some texts, who are in worship from early times the tradition of Mahavidyas' temple worship has never been not in prevalence. The Mahavidyas are usually the objects of Tantrika worship of which there are many methods, the more popular among them being Vamachara path characterised primarily by the Pancha tattva, or pancha makara – the ritual performed by five forbidden or highly polluting things, namely, meat, fish, wine, 'mudra', a type of grain that has hallucinogenic properties, and intercourse with a woman.







Shrimad Devi Bhagavata, Chaukhambha Sanskrit Pratishthan, Delhi

Devimahatmyam, tr. By Devadatta Kali, Delhi

Dahejia, Vidya : Devi, The Great Goddess, Washington D.C.

Menzies, Jackie : Goddess, Divine Energy, Art Gallery, NSW

Kinsley, David : Hindu Goddesses, Delhi

Hawley, J. S. & Wulff, Monna Marie (ed) : Devi, Goddesses of India, Delhi

Rosen, Steven J. (ed) : Vaishnavi, Delhi

Mookarjee, Ajit & Khanna, Madhu : The Tantrika Way, Boston

Kanwar Lal : Kanya and the Yogi, Delhi

Daljeet Dr., and Jain, P. C. : Indian Miniature Painting, New Delhi

Jain, P. C. : The Magic Makers, New Delhi

Upadhyaya, Padma : Female Images in Museums of Uttar Pradesh and Their Social Background, Delhi

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  • i will like to know the detailed mystical meaning of these vidyas
    by shafira hosein-maraj on 22nd Feb 2013
  • Namaste,

    Great thanks for your site and message both. Hinduism ia the religion above all others. Christianity etc could be regarded as the derivative and narrated variant of great knowledge of Cosmic Hierarchies...

    However It could really be usefull to point up one fact that confirms the ABSENCE OF CONTRADICTIONS between world religions. There are our planetery hierarchy as the small unit of cosmic hierarchies (from small systems to larger ones). So those worshiping to Lord Shiva -- great cosmic demigod -- simultaneosly praise Christ (the representative of planetary hierarchy) and vice versae: serving pure devotee (Chist) worships also cosmic demigods as well.
    What so there would be in contradiction?

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