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Devi: A Journey Through Texts and Contexts

Article of the Month - May 2007
Viewed 70219 times since 2nd Oct, 2008

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Whatever the mode of her origin, attributes or aspects, the Puranas, at least the earlier ones, saw Devi as the personified sole female energy of the cosmos, the comprehensive dynamic principle, and the universe as its manifestation. In its original application, the term 'Devi' was not a common noun as it became in later usages. As the Devi-Mahatmya has it : 'MahalakshmirMahakali saiva prokta Saraswati, Ishvari punyapapana sarvalokamaheshvari' (Part 3, Chapter Vaikrtika Rahasya, verse 25); that is, 'She herself is proclaimed as Mahalakshmi, Mahakali, and (Maha) Saraswati, the great ruler of all worlds, reigning over the virtuous and the wicked'. She is thus one but, as proclaims the Devi-Mahatmya, is also three, that is, she combines three in her, similar to the universe, which appears to be one but is three-aspected comprising 'tamas', 'rajas' and 'sattva', i.e., inertia, dynamism and luminosity. The equation of sage Markandeya is simple. Metaphysically, the Devi has been perceived as the one dynamic principle that the universe manifested in its oneness. In her forms as Mahakali,


Eighteen Armed Mahalakshmi
Eighteen Armed Mahalakshmi





















and Mahasaraswati







manifested the cosmic diversity, i.e., the three elemental components of the phenomenal universe - 'tamas', 'rajas' and 'sattva', which not only work as instruments of creation but also underlie all subsequent activities of creation, sustenance and dissolution. Devi defines the totality of cosmic energy, while Mahakali, Mahalakshmi and Mahasaraswati define its 'vyastis', individual aspects of this cosmic energy, which are 'tamas', 'rajas' and 'sattva'. The Puranas, thus, saw her as both, one and many.

The abstract principle of Devi's unity, which texts like Devi-Mahatmya contemplated, seems to have confined, however, to rhetoric and metaphysical discourses alone. Her aniconic verbal concept little suited the devotional mind and least, a shrine, which had by now a well-evolved tradition of iconic deities. Not in the course of time but in the very beginning, Devi's three formal manifestations - Mahakali, Mahalakshmi and Mahasaraswati, were her more accepted forms. Even the Devi-Mahatmya, which advanced the principle of Devi's unity, treated each of her manifest forms independently. When personalising these forms, the Devi-Mahatmya conceived for each of Mahakali, Mahalakshmi and Mahasaraswati a different set of iconic imagery, anatomy, attributes, kind of role and personality type. The Devi-Mahatmya has for each of them an independent 'Dhyana', meditative hymn devoted to her. The text also classified into separate chapters the verses devoted to Mahakali, Mahalakshmi and Mahasaraswati and their exploits against evil forces. Not long before, the term 'Devi' reduced to a common noun, to mean goddess, defining either or all of Mahakali, Mahalakshmi, Mahasaraswati and other subsequently evolved deities in different pantheons.

Mahakali - The Goddess Who Rules Over Time
Mahakali - The Goddess Who Rules Over Time


The ten-armed and three-eyed Mahakali has been conceived with ten faces and ten feet. She has a complexion sparkling like a sapphire. She carries in her hands sword, discus, mace, spear, bow, iron club, sling, human head and conch. In her form as Mahakali, Devi was instrumental in eliminating the demons Madhu and Kaitabha.





The lotus-seated Mahalakshmi has been personalised with eighteen hands and the coral-like radiant complexion. She has been conceived as carrying in her hands prayer beads, ax, mace, arrow, thunderbolt, staff, lance, sword, shield, conch, bell, wine-cup, trident, noose and discus Sudarshana. It is in her form as Mahalakshmi that the Devi killed Mahishasura.



Effulgent like the moon shining at the edge of a cloud, the eight-armed Mahasaraswati has been acclaimed as the support of the three worlds. She has been conceived with lotus-like hands and as the one who came forth from the body of Gauri to destroy Sumbha and other demons. She holds in her hands bell, trident, plough, conch, mace, discus, bow, and arrows.

Warrior Maha Saraswati
Warrior Maha Saraswati




Thus, whatever her manifest form, the Devi was perceived initially as the destroyer of evil and the promoter of good.





Simhavahani Mother Goddess Durga (Sheran Wali Mata)
Simhavahani Mother Goddess Durga (Sheran Wali Mata)




In later Puranas, the roles of the three Devi-forms, Mahakali, Mahalakshmi and Mahasaraswati widely changed. The aniconic Devi of the Devi-Mahatmya was now iconically realised Devi and demon-slaying attributes of her Mahalakshmi and Mahasaraswati forms, slaying Mahishasura or Sumbha, merged with this new Devi form. She was now the principal demon-slaying goddess assuming whatever form, four, eight, ten or eighteen armed, the prevailing situation required. This form was known by various names, Mahishasura-mardini and Durga being the most prominent among them. Lion was now invariably her vehicle.





Devi Creates Goddess Kali out of Her Own Being
Devi Creates Goddess Kali out of Her Own Being




Mahakali, better known as Kali, was contemplated as one of her aspects. For accomplishing an object Devi created Kali out of her own being.





Matrikas and Mahavidyas Battling Against Demons
Matrikas and Mahavidyas Battling Against Demons




She also created her 'shaktis', subordinate powers. In the course of time many of these subordinate powers entered the Brahmanical pantheon as minor but independent 'devis'.










With her own distinction Kali soon emerged in the devotional mind and tradition of faith as an independent divinity, and even if an aspect of Devi, it was as significant as her Mahishasura-Mardini, Durga and Parvati forms. In the entire pantheon, Devi came out with the widest role, most multifarious personality and the largest range of iconic and anthropomorphic formations. As Kali she was ferocious, as Durga, valorous, and as Parvati, Uma or Gauri, lovable and incomparably beautiful.




She represented in her being both light and darkness and destruction and sustenance. If black complexioned Kali represented darkness and destruction, the gold complexioned Parvati, Uma or Gauri, light and love, and Durga, sustenance, which she effected by annihilating evil that sought to destroy life and cosmic order.



The Most Sacred and Auspicious of All Divine Forms
The Most Sacred and Auspicious of All Divine Forms






The male dominated angle of later Puranas conceived Devi as Shiva's consort and his feminine aspect. These Puranas perceived in Shiva the proto lover and in Uma or Parvati, Devi's other aspect, his creative faculty and timeless love-companion and his half.







Cosmic Form of Goddess Durga
Cosmic Form of Goddess Durga






Mythically, Parvati was the daughter of Himalayas, and as such, represented humble sublime aspect of creation, which as Himalayas' daughter was her inherent nature. As Durga, she slew demons and eradicated evil, but different from the ferocious looking Kali, she has been conceived with a benign look, feminine softness and an abhaya, fearlessness, granting gesture.





Kali, Mahakali or Shmashana-Kali
Kali, Mahakali or Shmashana-Kali





Kali, in all forms, Shamshan-Kali, Mahakali, Chandi and others, has been seen as the horror-striking destroyer of the universe.




Severed human heads comprised her garland, skull, her bowl, fresh human blood, her drink, and blood-smeared naked sword, her weapon. She roamed in cremation ground and exalted she danced over corpses.

Worshipping Goddess Kali
Worshipping Goddess Kali







Of Devi's all forms Kali has always been the most widely worshipped divinity of Indian masses enshrining altars even in remotest tribal hamlets.






The Annihilation of Rakta Bija
The Annihilation of Rakta Bija


Her role in assisting Devi, Durga of myths, in eliminating demon Rakta-bija is one of the best-known Kali-related legends. Under a boon from Rudra, there grew a new Rakta-bija demon wherever a drop of blood from the body of Rakta-bija fell. As the Puranas have it, before Rakta-bija became invincible, Durga separated her 'tamas', ferocious aspect and created Kali out of it. Kali devoured each drop of Rakta-bija's blood before it fell on the earth.



The demon-slaying aspect of Mahalakshmi was the first to disappear. Such aspect of Mahasaraswati continued for a longer time but not with the prior fervour. In her demon-slaying form, she was conceived with an iconography identical to Durga, though unlike Durga she wore white costume and had no regular vehicle. This form of Mahasaraswati was widely known as Sharda and was highly worshipped in northern and central India during medieval days. Mahakali continued in her demon-slaying role, though the over-all Puranic perception in regard to her had largely changed and sometimes widened. She still represented dissolution, destruction, death and decay but far more than that she now personified in her being horror, awe and loathsomeness. She still slew demons but mostly when summoned by Devi to accomplish an assigned target, and to such extent she was her subordinate. Whatever its status in concurrent linguistics, the term 'Maha', which formed first half of Mahakali, Mahalakshmi and Mahasaraswati, was reduced to a mere adjectival suffix and was widely dropped from their names reducing them to Kali, Lakshmi and Saraswati. Now the suffix 'Maha' was used with their names only rarely to connote a particular form or aspect, not a name in general.



Goddess Lakshmi
Goddess Lakshmi




Not merely that the adjectival suffix 'Maha' was dropped, the late concept of Lakshmi was altogether different from the Mahisha-slayer Mahalakshmi. Lakshmi, a blend of Indus Mother goddess and Vedic 'Sita' both in iconography and spirit, was conceived as the sustainer, who bestowed bliss, prosperity, wealth and material happiness, yielded good crop and abundant grain and represented magnificence and beauty in life. Lotus, elephant, pot and a four-armed anatomy emerged as the essential elements of her iconography.



Jain Form of Lakshmi
Jain Form of Lakshmi






Not an aspect of Devi, Lakshmi was one of the three major female divinities revered alike in Buddhism, Jainism and different Brahmanical sects.







Vishnu Lakshmi - The Divine Couple
Vishnu Lakshmi - The Divine Couple







She was linked with Vishnu as his consort and feminine aspect that helped him sustain the universe.






Padmavati, A Transformation of Lakshmi
Padmavati, A Transformation of Lakshmi







In the course of time there emerged her other forms, Padmavati, Gaja-Lakshmi and Mahalakshmi, and names, Shri, Kamala, Dharini, Vaishnavi, Narayani, Vishnu-priya, Rajalakshmi, Chanchala and so on.














Saraswati, representing creation, too, emerged as the Divinity independent of Devi and completely different from Mahasaraswati or Sharda. Lotus-seated and swan-riding Saraswati was conceived as the instrument using which Brahma rendered creation. She was hence dually perceived in Puranas, first as Brahma's creation, and hence, his daughter, and, secondly, as the feminine component of creation, and hence, his consort.





Goddess Saraswati on Her Swan
Goddess Saraswati on Her Swan





She has been addressed also as Brahmani, and as such carries most of Brahma's attributes. She represents supreme wisdom and all-knowing intellect and nourishes all creative faculties, arts, music, dance and literature. Elegantly bejeweled and gracefully costumed the four-armed Saraswati carries in her hands vina, book, rosary and pot. Lotus and swan, aspects of her iconography, symbolised purity and chastity, which she symbolised.





References and Further Reading:

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

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