Ten Mahavidyas, the charismatic goddesses of Hindu pantheon looked at with great curiosity world over, more than any other group of divinities, are rather the late entrants into ritual-religio-cultural stream of Indian thought and theology. Identically conceived in many things, as a group of divinities having bizarre forms and exotic character, and pregnant with strange magical powers, these goddesses, invariably numbering ten, make a debut at their earliest in around eleventh-twelfth centuries, though it is rather in fourteenth century Shakta texts that their emergence is more decisive and it is here that they are identified as Mahavidyas in unambiguous terms.
These Shakta texts, 'upa' or subordinate 'puranas' as they are called in the scriptural tradition, are largely the collections of hymns – 'nama-strotas', dedicated to each of these goddesses and recited to invoke them for accomplishing a desired objective. These early 'nama-strota' texts reveal iconographic form and basic nature of each of the ten Mahavidyas, and sometimes each one's power to fulfill a prayer. However, in these texts or rather in the entire body of the Mahavidyas-related literature, barring a few narratives in regard to their origin or allusions to their exploits in various fields appearing here and there, an effort at exploring their conceptual aspect, metaphysical meaning, symbolic dimensions or even theological status, hardly ever reveals.
Not that all goddesses of the group had late emergence, the black goddess Kali, lotus goddess Kamala, or even Tara, had very early presence in religious streams of India and were widely worshipped. Kamala is rather a Rig-Vedic deity and as Shri a full Rig-Vedic Sukta has been devoted to her. However, in their role as Mahavidyas, individually and as a group, they make their presence felt from around fourteenth century, or a little early. With a different role and form, something like a post-puranic proliferation of the cult, even Kali, Kamala or Tara emerge as their own anti-models. As a matter of fact, at least in their visual representations the post-Mahavidya iconographic forms of Kali and Tara – horror-striking naked figures standing on Shiva's supine body, so overwhelmed the scenario that their pre-Mahavidya forms were only rarely seen.
In their Puranic models maintaining cosmic order was the primary role of Kali, Kamala, or even Tara; in their forms as Mahavidyas such role in regard to them becomes subsidiary or rather insignificant. In her Mahavidya form Kamala,Vishnu'sconsort in Puranic tradition, is rarely invoked or visually represented with Vishnu, her spouse. In her Mahavidya-transform this Vaishnavite goddess of the Vedas, and Puranas in the Vedic line, seems to tilt, at least in her bearing, to Shaivite side. In their related hymns other Mahavidyas are also lauded as spouses of male gods; however, this spousal aspect in case of them all is weak and insignificant. Too independent to be in a wife's frame, besides gender they have in them little which is consort-like; they all are rather stubborn and over-dominating possessed of, or rather obsessed by, a desire to bend their male partners to their will and to have a final say in everything.
The goddesses of unusual type, all of them are conceived with fearful demeanour and agitating mind, and as destruction-loving, though at times they are also amorous and benevolent, and peacefully poised. In some of them, as in Tripura-Sundari who has been conceived triply, as Tripura-bala – the virgin, as Tripura-Sundari – the beauteous, and as Tripura-Bhairavi – the terrible, such diversity better manifests.
Collectively they seem to represent stages in a woman's life cycle except her motherhood. They are hardly ever lauded or visually represented as mothers or with motherly attributes – a child in arms as have Matrikas, or with breasts filled with milk as has Ambika, Annapurna or Mother-goddess.
Metaphysically interpreted, Mahavidyas represent cosmic reality, both its dynamic and static forms prevailing over all seen and unseen spaces, all directions, as also all elemental regions, summed up as ten. Mahavidyas, ten manifestations of the Divine Female, preside over ten elemental regions of this cosmic reality, as also its absolute nature – dynamic as well as static. In metaphysical terms, Kali, Tara, Bagala, Bhairavi, Tripura-Sundari, and sometimes Chinnamasta represent its dynamics while Dhumavati, Matangi, Kamala and Bhuwaneshvari, its statics.
Mahavidyas, the product of Shaktism, more especially of Tantrika Shaktism, with their strong links with Sati, Parvati and Kali – all Shiva's spouses, are Shaivite in nature, though contrarily, in myths, as well as conceptually, tradition subordinates Shiva to them, not them to Shiva. As a rule they are represented as Shiva's superior. The cult of Shiva's subordination to them has its roots in various myths related to Mahavidyas' origin. In Sati-related myth Sati's will prevails over Shiva, while in Kali-related myth Shiva, fed up with Kali's untidy habits, tries to flee from her but with all exits blocked by her he helplessly submits to her will. Mahavidyas have fierce forms, untidy habits, destructive nature, mystic dimensions and strange magical, meditative and Yogik powers. In most Tantra they are the presiding deities of the Tantrika rituals. Though Mahavidyas are endowed with masculine build too rough and tough for a woman, they often manifest a feminine mind agitating against every type of masculine arrogance, particularly when a male, whether a father or husband, abuses, ignores, slights, or even tries to dominate them. This agitation often transforms into dreadful wrath, which truly defines all Mahavidyas.
Mahavidyas have strange contradictions. They are individualistic in nature, yet their identity better reveals as a group. Many forms with diverse nature as the Mahavidyas are, they are essentially the manifestations of one Divine Being. They are truly the concrete expression of the idea of many forms of the One. Some of the Mahavidyas with their association with cremation ground, corpses and destruction represent death on one hand, and with their naked figures sometimes engaged in copulation with an inert body lying under them represent sex and fertility on the other, and thus a strange synthesis of opposites, the death and the sex – cessation and creation. In an ambience where death and destruction reigns, Mahavidyas represent what defines the life, the timeless youth, the body's kinetic energy and the desire to produce, of which sex is the incessant source, and the creation. The benevolent ones, Mahavidyas bless an adept but often by destroying or harming someone, one of their adept's enemies or opponents, thus destruction being often Mahavidyas' mode of blessing.
The broad meaning of the term 'Mahavidya' is 'great knowledge'. In its wider sense the term might be taken to mean complete, supreme, absolute, or ultimate knowledge. Tantrikas claim that ten Mahavidyas stand for 'ten great mantras', for a 'mantra' and 'vidya' are the same. They assert that a mantra is the deity manifest as the deity, at least in Tantrika way, does not emerge unless invoked through a mantra. They claim that the deity emerges from the mantra if it is correctly pronounced. Not merely the deity's vehicle, mantra is her body, being and essence. Thus, even if the deity exists beyond it, it is in the mantra dedicated to her, defining her form, attributes and powers, that she becomes manifest and is realised.
Hence, ten mantras are ten manifestations of the deity – the Divine Female. Such Tantrika thesis is just the extension of the ancient Indian cult of the 'shabda-brahma' which claims 'shabda' – sound, to be the essence of the total reality – the Ultimate that the term 'Brahma' defines. The mantra – the sound condensed into sacred syllabic utterance, manifests thus an aspect of the Ultimate, and ten mantras, Ultimate's all ten dimensions. Under another sound-based Indian theory of Sphota – explosion of sound, which claims sound to be the manifestation of cosmic power, this Tantrika assumption is interpreted in a slightly different way. If a Mahavidya is a mantra, the most intense condensation of sound, and as mantra she manifests one aspect of cosmic power, ten Mahavidyas – the ten mantras, manifest cosmic power in aggregate. Under yet another theory, Mahavidyas are sometimes seen as the source of ultimate knowledge – all that is to be known. It views Mahavidyas as representing transcendental knowledge, summed up into ten stages or objects, each of which one Mahavidya represents.
As regards the origin of Mahavidyas, the tradition has five myths in prevalence; however, among them the one that relates to Sati, Shiva's consort and the daughter of Daksha Prajapati, one of the Brahma's sons, is the main and more widely known. Other four relate to Parvati, Kali, Durga and Sharakshi, identified also as Shakambhari. The Sati-related myth emerges with pre-eminence in Brahaddharma Purana and Mahabhagavata Purana. Myth's versions appearing in later texts are almost identical to them.
Sati, the daughter of Daksha Prajapati, had married Shiva against the will of her father who had great dislike for Shiva. For such act of Sati Daksha was as much annoyed with his daughter and had split all ties with her. Once, Daksha Prajapati organised a great yajna – sacrifice. He invited people from far and wide but to slight Shiva and Sati did not invite them. Shiva felt insulted but was indifferent to it. However, Sati, not in a mood to forgive her father for the insult, decided to go to her father's house and disrupt the yajna. Her anguish was so deep that when Shiva forbade her from doing it, her wrath turned from her father to him. Besides accusing him of neglecting her and thrusting his decisions upon her, in fury her limbs began trembling and eyes – turned red and bright as if emitting fire.
Frightened Shiva closed his eyes but when he opened them, he was dismayed to see standing before him a woman with a fierce form. The moment he looked at her, she began growing old. Her feminine charms began disappearing, and her arms, branching into four. She had disheveled hair, fiery complexion and a lolling tongue moving from one side to other over sweat-smeared lips. She wore a crescent as her crown. Except what a garland of severed hands covered her figure was naked. Her form blazed and from it emitted brilliance of a million rising suns. With her laughter she shattered the earth and filled with awe the world from one end to other. Frightened Shiva tried to flee from one direction to other but a burst of laughter obstructed him on every side, and dismayed and frightened he submitted. To further ensure that he did not slip the woman, obviously Sati's transform, filled all directions around him with ten different forms. These ten forms of Sati were ten Mahavidyas. On his query Shiva was revealed their names and also their identity by Sati herself in some versions of the myth as Sati's friends, and in other, as her own forms. A frightened Shiva allowed her to join her father's yajna and do as she chose. The rest of the myth is the same as in other contexts. In annoyance an insulted and disgraced Sati jumped into Daksha's yajna and destroyed herself as well as the yajna.
Parvati-related myth is largely the creation of oral tradition prevalent in Tantrika world. Parvati was Sati in her re-birth after she had killed herself in the course of the yajna that her father Daksha Prajapati had organised. Broken by Sati's death Shiva had decided not to marry again. However, Parvati, by her great penance, subdued him to marry her. She was thus his second wife. One day Shiva decided to leave Parvati. Parvati prayed him not to go away from her but he did not concede. Finally, Parvati transformed herself into ten forms and with them blocked all the ten doors of the house and foiled his attempt to leave. Interpreted in Tantrika way the allegory suggests that the body is the house, Shiva, the self, ten doors, body's ten openings – two eyes, two ears, two nostrils, mouth, anus, penis or vagina, and 'brahmarandhra' – an aperture at the top of the head, and Parvati's ten forms with which these ten doors were blocked, the ten Mahavidyas. Allegorically, with the help of Mahavidyas the adept can lock self into the body ensuring long life.
Kali-related myth is a more recent tradition appearing in a section of contemporary vernacular Tantrika literature. As the myth goes, in Sata or Satya-yuga, Shiva lived with Kali. One day Shiva declared that he was tired of Kali's untidy habits and would not live with her anymore. Kali did not react nor stopped him from doing so. Shiva went away and roamed from one place to other; however, wherever he went he found a form of Kali facing him. Not Kali alone, nine other forms, many of them identical to Kali, encountered him. The Shakta tradition acclaims that from his encounter with these forms Shiva attained ultimate knowledge – 'maha vidya' in its ten forms. He realised that in one form or the other the Great Goddess was present everywhere and at all times. These forms thus became known as Mahavidyas.
Some iconographic representations, in many of which the centrally located Devi, usually Mahishasuramardini Durga, has Mahavidyas surrounding her, link the origin of Mahavidyas with Mahadevi's battle against demons. In one set of illustrations such demon is Mahisha, and in other, these are Shumbha and Nishumbha. As various myths contained in the Devi-Mahatmya and other early Puranas have it, once the mighty demon Mahisha, or identically the demons Shumbha and Nishumbha, defeated gods and ousted them from their land. Unable to confront them gods approached Brahma who disclosed that no male shall ever be able to kill these demons. Thereupon gods approached Mahadevi and prayed her for rescuing them and their land from the notorious demons. Mahadevi promised them to help and waged a war against demons. As the third Canto of the Devi-Mahatmya has it, too formidable to defeat, Mahadevi created her own different forms, mainly Sapta-Matrikas and Nava Durgas for confronting them. Shumbha challenged Mahadevi to combat him singly which she accepted adding that her battle companions were just her different forms. The third Canto also mentions creation of a group of goddesses having resemblance with Mahavidyas, though the text does not name them as such. However, the tradition developed from various iconographic representations of Mahavidyas contends that it is either from Nava (nine) Durgas, that is, nine plus one, or from the group of goddesses mentioned in the third Canto that the concept of Mahavidyas evolved.
In yet another myth the origin of Mahavidyas is linked with Shatakshi, the goddess having one hundred eyes. Shatakshi and demon Durgama related myth occurs in the Devi-Bhagavata Purana. Once upon a time, demon Durgama gained control over the universe and forced gods into subservience. They appealed to Mahadevi to redeem them from Durgama's clutches. On their prayer Mahadevi appeared in a female form having one hundred eyes. The pitiable plight of gods, human beings and the earth moved her to tears. She produced from her body fruits and vegetables and distributed them among the starving beings suffering from drought. This gave her Shakambhari name. After so relieving the mankind, gods and all beings she resorted to arms against demons and a fierce battle ensued. In its course the goddess created several groups of subsidiary goddesses, Mahavidyas being among them. Around its concluding part the text alludes to Mahadevi as Durga, obviously for defeating demon Durgama.
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