Tripura Sundari: The Ultimate Goddess

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Tripura Sundari: The Ultimate Goddess

While many scholars refer to Hinduism as pantheistic — worshiping many gods — this can be an ignorant view. In reality, all the gods and goddesses, along with everything that is and isn’t, are united into one emanation. For Shaktism, a prominent denomination of Hinduism, this uniting, all-encompassing deity is named Tripura Sundari, though she has many names.

Goddess Rajarajeshwari (Framed)

She is called: Rajarajeshwari, Shodashi, and Lalita. The list goes on, with certain texts giving us a thousand names for the goddess.

It might strike some readers as uncommon that a goddess is given this position as the all-enfolding deity from which all others come. But, like so many conceptions of the one god around the world, she encompasses all genders, all species, all states of being. There is nothing that is not represented in her image.

There are perhaps no world religions that have guided more adherents to the worship of a female deity than Hinduism. Shaktism, devotes itself entirely to the devis, goddesses that participate in a pantheon that flows in colorful glory like a rich tapestry through every event in life, between and inside every particle that exists. They use the images of goddesses to describe the magnificent pageantry that is the cycle of creation, preservation, and destruction.

And underneath all those goddesses sits one eternal devi: Tripura Sundari.

 

Goddess Tripura Sundari

When we take time to understand her magnificence, her iconography, and the many tales that have been handed down of her, we begin to approach that most amazing spiritual breakthrough imaginable. To know her is to know liberation from illusion, wha is the goal of seekers in all ages and all places. For that reason, Tripura Sundari must be understood (though we can never fully grasp) and worshiped (though we can never hope to fulfill this duty). Such is the treasure waiting behind the throned devi.

The Meaning of Tripura Sundari’s Name

In Sanskrit, Tripura means three (tri) cities (pura), and Sundari means a beautiful woman. The essence of this can be boiled down to: She who is beautiful in the three states of Consciousness.

The name alone gives us a profound clue into the nature of reality and the importance of this devi — particularly in her three-fold nature. For her domain includes the heavens, the air, and the earth itself. There is no part of the universe that is not hers.

 

Mahadevi's Emergence from Cosmic Void

Just as the trimurti consists of Brahma (creator), Vishnu (preserver), and Shiva (destroyer), Tripura Sundari contains these three powers within herself. She is the total of all. In the realm of existence, she initiates acts, is the very tool used in the act, and the object of the act. Within her, there are no divisions, everything is in perfect unity.

For virtually all religious and mystical traditions, language is vitally important. Consider the example of Abrahamic traditions, where God begins the universe with the auspicious words, “Let there be light.” So too, in Hinduism, is language itself a key to understanding. And so, Tripura Sundari’s three-fold nature also refers to the alphabet from which every possible utterance flows.

That linguistic power has made her very important in the esoteric arts of Tantra. Just as Jewish Kabbalists discover profound insights through scrutinizing the Hebrew alphabet, so too do Tantric devotees unearth endless knowledge by scrutinizing Sanskrit.

She is three-fold again in the way she contains and transcends the three gunas:

●  sattva: goodness, harmony

●  rajas: action, passion

●  tamas: ignorance, slowness

While mortals must find a way to act according to sattva, before finding a way to transcend the gunas, Tripura Sundari is always their source and the place one must travel to to go beyond them.

A spiritual seeker could spend many lifetimes focusing only on the full meaning of Tripura Sundari’s name, and they would move very quickly toward the ultimate goal.

The Shakti of Shaktism

While Shaktism has many devis, they are all, fundamentally, expressions of Tripura Sundari. This is essential. The goddess is not the strongest or the most powerful or the queen of all the deities. Rather, there is nothing that is not her, and she is even all that is no more, is not yet, and will never be.

One popular metaphor that many find elucidating is that of a string of Christmas lights. Each light on the string is a god or goddess. But they can also be people, plants, oceans, and asteroids. All things can be found on this long string of lights. Tripura Sundari is not a light herself, instead she is the electricity that flows through them.

But even this illuminating metaphor (pardon the pun) is not enough. For really, she is also the string and every light when considered together.

In Shaktism, when considering this side of Tripura Sundari, she is referred to as Shakti, from which the denomination gets its name. She is also known as the Mahadevi — the creatrix of the entire universe.

Shodashi Mahavidya with Her Yantra (Tripura Sundari)
But for a human mind to fully grasp a goddess of such magnitude, her image must be broken up into many forms. In this way, we can see all the many sides of her being. The limits of our physical brains will not be able to put all of this together in its entirety, but our souls can gradually move closer to the reality beyond maya, or illusion, that makes division between things (even contradictions) seem true.

Being the fundamental aspect of Shaktism, Tripura Sundari represents a current embodiment of a worshiping practice that stretches back at least 11,000 years. Archeological discoveries have found that the Indus Valley Civilization contained very similar practices as modern day Shaktism. While there have certainly been developments over that enormous length of time, worship of the divine feminine in the region dates to the Upper Paleolithic.

That’s an inconceivable timescale. And it points to the inconceivability of Tripura Sundari herself, as well as the unfathomable length of time she has existed — continuously bringing existence into being before returning the universe to darkness.

Iconography of Tripura Sundari

In the 18th Purana, the Brahmanda Purana, there is a holy text titled Lalita Sahasranama. It is considered one of the most important texts in the entire history of human spirituality, and Shaktism gives it particular prominence in their worship of Durga, Lakshmi, Parvati, Kali, Bhagavati, among other devis.

It is in the Lalita Sahasranama that we find one of the most important descriptions of Tripura Sundari. In a hymn to the goddess, she is described as being enthroned as a queen, covered in radiant jewels, with the marks of a married woman. Her figure is that of the divine feminine, and she wears a crescent moon on her forehead. Her smile transfixes all, especially Kameshwara, lord of desire. Under her throne sit five Brahmas.

10" Goddess Rajarajeshwari (Tripura Sundari) | Brass Statue | Handmade | Made In India
It is also common to see icons of the goddess sitting on a lotus flower atop the god Sadashiva, who lies supine over Brahma, Vishnu, Isvara, and Rudra.

Still other depictions have her wearing tiger skin, being made of crystal, and using the Himalayas as her throne.

Her weapons, held sometimes one in each of her four hands, include the noose, the goad, the arrow, and the bow.

There are still other frequently used motifs, but they all project the same thing: the goddess is at the heart of all being, and her magnificence is staggering, truly unimaginable. But still artists strive to capture her glory — leading to incredible art.

The Sri Yantra

While depictions of Tripura Sundari are often of the traditional, anthropomorphic kind, she can also be visually conceived of using an esoteric sigil.

In Hindu Tantra, the image of Tripura Sundari is contained within the Sri Yantra. This image works as a diagram of divinity. By meditating on its form and contemplating the mysteries within, devotees are able to pierce through the veil of maya and overcome the limits of their own rational mind. When this is done repeatedly over a long period of time, it is a great tool for the Tantric practitioner to get to know the goddess on a level that other, more “realistic” images are not able to convey.

The Sri Yantra is created with four upward pointing and five downward pointing triangles. The upward pointing triangles represent masculine energy and Lord Shiva. These overlap each other, rising up to meet the downward pointing triangles, which represent feminine energy and Shakti. In the center is the bindu, the point from which the entire universe came from. It is the void at the center of creation that makes everything possible.

 

Shri Yantra (Mother of All Yantras)

Altogether, the image overcomes the dualism of male and female to produce a totality that knows no bounds — a state known as Advaita.

Surrounding this intricate pattern (to get a sense of the intricacy, the overlapping triangles create 43 new triangles, something the human eye has difficulty taking in all at once) are two rings of lotus petals that buttress the central design. The first ring contains eight petals, while the second contains sixteen. Beyond this is the temple design with four doors, one facing each cardinal direction. The doors can also be seen as containing one of four traditional elements in Hinduism: fire, water, air, and earth. The fifth, ether or void, is represented by the bindu at the center.

It is a magnificent sight to behold. It is at once illuminating yet ever mysterious. There are many things this image of Tripura Sundari can teach, and it does not come at one point in time. But gradually, it works to bring you inside the riddle of existence.

What We Can Learn from Tripura Sundari

To worship this goddess is difficult. While avatars like Krishna give us a very human-like access point to the sacred, Tripura Sundari seems so infinite as to be impossible to encounter. And yet, we encounter her everyday. In fact, we are her.

This change of thinking has profound effects on the devotee. The struggle to perceive the infinite in every finite thing and action radically shifts your view of what it means to be alive, to be here right now.

But the change is a valuable one, and it isn’t impossible to attain. This goddess asks us to be patient, to gather our understanding bit by bit, to not rush the process.

If this still proves too difficult, you can find comfort in knowing that all the other deities at hand — ones that we might have an easier time getting a handle on to communicate with and experience — are still, in their essence, Tripura Sundari.

And if Shaktism is not your calling, if the set of practices and traditions are not your path, remembering its feminine centered godhead is still rewarding. For it reminds us that to be everything, one holds both Brahman and Shakti at once, just as each holds both the feminine and masculine at once in their true nature.

These are spiritual devotions and insights that surely cannot be attained in a single lifetime. But they are so rich, so overflowing with value, that we are compelled to reach for them. Tripura Sundari’s totalizing being washes over us, sweeps us away like a current in the ocean. And once it takes us out to open water, we do not find ourselves lost but truly, and for the first time, found.

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