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.
She is called: Rajarajeshwari, Shodashi, and
Lalita. The list goes on, with certain texts giving us a thousand names for the
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
Altogether, the image overcomes the dualism of
male and female to produce a totality that knows no bounds — a state known as
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.
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
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
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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