About the Book
This book provides a translation, with introduction, commentary, and annotation, of the medieval Hindu Sanskrit text the Devi Gita (Song of the goddess). It is an important but not well-known text from the rich Sakta (Goddess) tradition of India. The Devi gita was composed around the fifteenth century C. E., in partial imitation of the famous Bhagavad Gita (Song of the Lord), composed some fifteen centuries earlier.
Around the sixth century C. E., following the rise of several male deities to prominence, a new theistic movement began in which the supreme being was envisioned as female, known as the Great Goddess (Maha-Devi). Appearing first as a violent and blood-loving deity, this goddess gradually evolved into a more benign figure, a compassionate world-Mother and bestower of salvific wisdom. It is in this beneficent more that the goddess appears in the Devi Gita.
This work makes available an up-to-date translation of the Devi Gita, along with a historical and theological analysis of the text. The book is divided into sections of verses, and each section is followed by a comment explaining key terms, concepts, ritual procedures, and mythic themes. The comments also offer comparisons with related schools of thought, indicate parallel texts and textual sources of verses in the Devi Gita, and briefly elucidate the historical and religious background, supplementing the remarks of the introduction.
About the Author
C. Mackenzie Brown is Professor of Religion at Trinity University. His previous books include The Triumph of the Goddess: The Canonical Models and Theological Visions of the Devi-Bhagavata Purana, also published by SUNY Press, and God as Mother: A Feminine Theology in India; An Historical Study of the Brabmavivarta Purana.
I was a college freshman when I read for the first time (in English translation) the Bhagavad Gita with its famous dialogue between Krsna and his disciple Arjuna. This text was for me, as it is for many Westerners, a primary initiation into Hindu philosophy and metaphysics. When I eventually chose to go into Hindu studies in graduate school, the Bhagavad Gita and its teachings played an important role in that decision. My views about the Bhagavad Gita, and about the role of texts in general, especially texts of the elite Brahmanical class, have changed radically since my early graduate school days. But back then the Bhagavad Gita was central to me and provided direction for many of my preliminary queries into the Hindu tradition. This orientation was further bolstered when, as a second year Sanskrit student at Harvard, I read the Bhagavad Gita in its original language, under Daniel H. H. Ingalls. I thought, at the time, of someday doing my own translation of the Bhagavad Gita, but, of course, there were already dozens in existence.
Midway through my graduate studies I learned about the existence of other, later gitas, representing the metaphysical and spiritual teachings of various Hindu gods and goddesses and assorted sages. These other gitas were little known in the West and seemed to have little prestige in India, compared to the renown of Krsna's Gita with Arjuna. It is perhaps understandable, then, that I initially assumed, without knowing much about these later gitas and not having read them even in translation, that they must be poor imitations of the "real" Gita, by which I meant the Bhagavad Gita.
By dismissing these other gitas, I was committing an all too common historicist fallacy, defining in my own mind the most genuine and authoritative text or teaching by its age: the most ancient must be the most authentic. Such a historicist perspective soon changed, how- ever as I became more and more fascinated by the rich mythological traditions contained in the Hindu Puranic literature, almost all of which was composed after the time of the Bhagavad Gita. In the Puranas I found a lively and ongoing tradition of mythic and theological reinter- pretation that reflected, and inspired, major transformations within the Hindu tradition. It became obvious to me that what came later in the tradition was often more interesting, more illuminating, and more significant for the actual religious lives of Hindus today, than some of the more ancient and formally revered texts.
It was this new perspective that led me to undertake for my doctoral dissertation a critical analysis of the Brahmavaivarta Purana, a late medieval Krsnaite text detailing the amorous exploits of Krsna with his favorite female companion Radha. I became more and more intrigued by the role of Radha in this work, for here she becomes much more than a human paramour, achieving the status of Krsna's divine consort and chief mediatrix of salvation. It was through this text that I began to take a deep interest in goddess traditions in India. Such a fascination on my part coincided with a general upsurge of scholarly interest in the role of women in religion. Among the gender issues being discussed were the nature and significance of feminine symbolism and imagery, especially as utilized in envisioning the divine, that occurred in various religious traditions throughout the world
My study of the Brahmavaivarta Purana introduced me to another Puranic text which borrowed from it significant portions of its goddess myths and feminine theological views. This other text, the Devi Bhagavata, focuses precisely on the divine as feminine. It was quite natural, then, that my next major research project was an analysis of the Devi-Bhagavata Purana (published under the title The Triumph of the Goddess: The Canonical Models and Theological Visions of the Devi-Bhagavata Purana, by the State University of New York Press, 1990). The theological consummation of this Purana is undoubtedly the final ten chapters (31-40) of the seventh book, and has come to be generally known as the Devi Gita. In the Triumph of the Goddess, I devote a chapter to a historical and theological analysis of the Devi Gita, showing among other things its textual and thematic relation to the Bhagavad Gita. (That analysis has been incorporated in part into the Introduction to this book.) The author of the Devi Gita is clearly indebted to the Bhagavad Gita for many of his themes and motifs. Yet he also brought to his work a broad knowledge of many other important texts of the tradition and a familiarity with major philosophical, theological, ritual, and devotional developments that had occurred since the time of composition of the Bhagavad Gita, possibly some fifteen hundred years earlier.
The Devi Gita struck me at once as an important text from the goddess traditions of India, yet it has been largely ignored by scholars both western and Indian. This very neglect, however, provided me with the opportunity to fulfill, in an unexpected way, my earlier desire to translate "the Gita." Unlike the Bhagavad Gita, the Devi Gita had been translated, to the best of my knowledge, just once into English when I commenced the project in 1990. That earlier rendition, by Hari Prasanna Chatterji, made in the early part of this century, was included in a translation of the whole of the Devi-Bhagavata Purana, making it a bit cumbersome and inaccessible. And the translation suffered innumerable shortcomings, not the least of which was its confusion of the text itself with the one printed Sanskrit commentary on it, by Nilakantha the Saiva. Since 1990, another translation has appeared, by Swami Satyananda Saraswati, inspired by devotion to the Divine Mother Goddess, but showing little concern for the historical and philosophical context of the poem, and frequently misrendering even the most basic and straightforward Sanskrit phrases. (Another translation of the Devi Gita, as part of the Devi-Bhagavata Purana, is planned for the Puranic translations being published by Motilal Banarsidass in its Ancient Indian and Mythology Series. No date of publication for this text has yet been announced.)
In undertaking the translation of the Devi Gita, I have tried to let the text speak for itself as much as possible. But I soon realized that some sort of annotation and commentary would be essential for introducing the text to those readers not thoroughly familiar with Hindu theology and myth. To hear fully what the text is saying, it is necessary to know and understand its various mythic references, technical terms, underlying assumptions, and parallel or contrasting schools of thought. Not even a traditional audience in India would necessarily have been familiar with all these matters, and thus there arose the need for commentaries, such as Nilakantha's. In one sense, then, I am extending the commentarial tradition represented by Nilakantha him- self, doing for an English-speaking audience what this traditional pandit did for his own disciples. At the same time, as an empathetic but critical scholar of religion, I offer various comments on the history and development of the text that would probably not be accepted by a traditional commentator.
Originally I had intended to deal at some length with the living context of the Devi Gita in India today, to examine how the text is currently understood and utilized. As the length of the commentary sections expanded, I realized that I would have to curtail such an inquiry. References relevant to the contemporary practice of Hindus and to present understandings of the Devi Gita are for the most part simply scattered throughout the comments and notes. However, in the introductory comment on the "Navasloki Devi Gita" and in the Afterword, some of these issues are directly addressed.
Much of the information that I do have on the contemporary usage of the Devi Gita was provided to me by Cynthia Ann Humes. In the late 1980s she carried out extensive field work in Vindhyacal, a historic and important center of goddess worship in north-central India, home of the Devi Vindhyavasini, This pilgrimage center is famous for the recitation of goddess texts, especially the Devi Mahatmya, but also including the Devi-Bhagavata Purana. Humes interviewed hundreds of pilgrims regarding their textual preferences and recitation practices. In writing The Triumph of the Goddess, I queried her frequently about the contemporary attitudes toward and usages of the Devi-Bhagavata. In the course of these and later conversations, she indicated consider- able interest in my doing a translation of the Devi Gita. The successful completion of this book owes a great deal to her inspiration and encouragement.
I am indebted to many other individuals for their help in this work. William Eastman, former Director of the State University of New York Press, evinced considerable enthusiasm for the project when I first suggested it to him. Paul Muller-Ortega and Thomas B. Coburn provided early feedback and helpful advice, especially on how to organize the commentary and notes. Andrew O. Fort carefully read and critiqued the sections dealing with Advaita philosophy. David Kinsley furnished me with important background material on the goddess Bhuvanesvari. David Gordon White and Cynthia Humes assisted with the translation of the Hindi prefaces to current printed editions of the Devi Gita. Paula M. Cooey and Rita Gross offered valuable insights into issues of gender, including problems relating to the translation of ancient, androcentric texts. Randall L. Nadeau, Deborah Reason, and Maria Cedargren reviewed portions of the text for overall readability. Patricia Atnip perused the entire manuscript, raising many questions from the perspective of a nonacademic but interested reader that helped me to clarify several of my general interpretive comments. Readers for the State University of New York Press included Paul Muller- Ortega, Thomas B. Coburn, Cynthia Humes, and Tracy Pintchman, whose corrections and suggestions for the final revisions of the text I greatly appreciate.
Special thanks are due to Nagaraja Sharma, associate priest at the Hindu Temple of San Antonio, and devotee of the Goddess. Quite fortuitously for me, Mr. Sharma's teacher and father-in-law is the author of a multivolume commentary, in Kannada, on the Devi-Bhagavata. Nagaraja and I sat together many hours in the temple discussing the grammar, style, mythic background, and theology of the Devi Gita, his father-in-law's commentary close at hand for consultation. I am also greatly indebted to Bala Viswanathan, a member of the Hindu Temple of San Antonio, whose three fine pencil drawings of Bhuvanesvari, made at my request, grace this book.
My gratitude is also due to Andrea Kanten, former Sanskrit student of mine, who entered the Sanskrit text of the Devi Gita into electronic form for reproduction in this book. Maria G. McWilliams, of the interlibrary loan staff at Trinity University, is to be commended for her patience and perseverance in securing obscure texts and articles. Gretta Small and Pat Atnip rendered considerable assistance in proof- reading the galleys. I thank Kay Bolton, copyeditor, and Marilyn P. Semerad, production editor at the State University of New York Press, for their fine help and suggestions. Trinity University's Department of Religion assisted with grants to expedite various stages of my research, and Trinity University provided a semester's leave and a summer stipend to work on this project.
The Goddess and Her Song
The Devi Gita, or Song of the Goddess, presents a grand vision of the universe created, pervaded, and protected by a supremely powerful, all-knowing, and wholly compassionate divine female. She is Maha- Devi or the' Great Goddess, known to her most devoted followers as the auspicious Mother-of-the-World (jagad-ambika, jagan-matr). Unlike the ferocious and horrific Hindu goddesses such as Kali and Durga, the World-Mother of the Devi Gita is benign and beautiful, though some of her lesser manifestations may take on terrifying forms. And unlike other beneficent female divinities such as Parvati and Laksmi, she is subject to no male consort.
This World-Mother is formally addressed as Bhuvanesvari, the "Ruler of the Universe." She resides in her celestial paradise known as Manidvipa, the Jeweled Island, situated at the topmost point of the universe. From there, ever wakeful and alert, she observes the troubles of the world, eager to intervene on behalf of her devotees.
While resting in her island home, she reclines on a sacred throne or couch of remarkable design, composed of five pretas, ghosts or corpses. The four legs are the lifeless bodies of Brahma, Visnu, Rudra, and Isana (the latter two being forms or aspects of Siva), and the seat is the stretched-out corpse of Sadasiva (the eternal Siva). This conception of Bhuvanesvari seated on her Panca-Pretasana (Seat of Five Corpses), marvellously illustrated in Figure 10.1, page 286, reveals her supreme sovereignty, especially over masculine pretensions to cosmic power. Brahma, Visnu, and Siva are the three male deities traditionally associated with creating, overseeing, and destroying the universe. But here, as elements of Bhuvanesvari's throne, they represent her latent Cosmic energies, unconscious and inert, residing under her feet until aroused by her desire. While lounging on this couch at the be- ginning of creation, the Goddess splits herself into two for the sake of her own pleasure or sport-one half of her body becoming Mahesvara (Siva). In such manner she dramatically demonstrates her superiority to all the male gods.
The Great Goddess is both wholly transcendent and fully immanent: beyond space and time, she is yet embodied within all existent beings; without form as pure, infinite consciousness (cit), she yet dwells each month in the sacred shrine of Kamakhya in Assam during her menses. She is the universal, cosmic energy known as Sakti, and the psychophysical, guiding force designated as the Kundalinl (Serpent Power) resident within each individual. She is eternal, without origin or birth, yet she is born in this world in age after age, to support those who seek her assistance. Precisely to provide comfort and guidance to her devotees, she presents herself in the Devi Gita to reveal the truths leading both to worldly happiness and to the supreme spiritual goals: dwelling in her Jeweled Island and mergence into her own perfect being.
Less well known than the Bhagavad Gita (The Song of the Lord) both in India and the West, the Devi Gita nonetheless serves, for certain Hindus who see ultimate reality primarily in terms of a divine and beneficent mother, as the supreme scripture, complementing and completing all others. Indeed, the Goddess herself in the Devi Gita frequently quotes from the Bhagavad Gita, as well as from other Hindu scriptures, but with the understanding that all such passages ultimately point to her as the Absolute.
The gitas of the Goddess and of the Lord are songs in a rather special sense: as philosophical and devotional poems in the form of dialogues between a divine teacher and her or his disciple(s). In the Bhagavad Gita, It is the Lord Krsna who responds to the queries of the dejected and reluctant warrior Arjuna as he is about to enter an internecine struggle with a rival family clan. This struggle between the Pandavas (Arjuna's clan) and the Kauravas is the subject of the great Hindu epic, the Mahabharata, of which the Bhagavad Gita is a small part. The Bhagavad Gita, placed in the tension-filled moments just prior to the beginning of battle, focuses on the various moral and spiritual dilemmas faced by Arjuna. Krsna, serving as Arjuna's charioteer, surveys with his despondent student the two armies drawn up for battle and reveals the necessity of the war and of Arjuna's participation in it. In the process Krsna explains the nature of existence, human nature, and the solution to human suffering, summarizing in due course the major religious ideals of Hindu culture.
In the Devi Gita, it is the World-Mother Bhuvanesvari who ex- pounds similar metaphysical truths to her devotee, the Mountain King Himalaya, in the midst of an assembly of gods. While the occasion for the Devi's revelations is ostensibly prompted by a crisis in the fortunes of the gods, their celestial home being overrun by the demon Taraka and his army (briefly described in chapter 1), the dramatic, epic context of the Bhagavad Gita is largely missing. The real motivations behind Himalaya's questions to the Goddess are simply his own devotion to her and his desire for liberating knowledge. His thirst for spiritual wisdom is quite disconnected from any specific impending worldly (or celestial) catastrophe.
The revelations of the Goddess in the Devi Gita, like those of Krsna in the Bhagavad Gita, take two complementary forms: the disclosure of her primary visual or iconic manifestations (darsana), recounted in chapters 1 and 3, and her teaching (upadesa), constituting the bulk of chapters 2 through 10. Her explanations of creation and other cosmological matters are the focus of chapters 2 and 3. Her exposition of the various spiritual disciplines, such as the paths of knowledge (Jnana Yoga), psychophysical training (the Eight- limbed Yoga of Patanjali and Kundalini Yoga) and devotion (Bhakti Yoga), are the concerns of chapters 4 through 10. These teachings elucidating the human predicament are themselves illuminated by the iconic displays, which serve to reveal various aspects of the divine personality of the Goddess and her relationship to the world and humankind.
The manifestation of the Goddess in her highest iconic form, as the lovely, four-armed Bhuvanesvari, clearly emphasizes her benign nature. The most detailed visual description of Bhuvanesvari in the Devi Gita (1.31-41) stresses her divine beauty and charm, her compassionate face, and her gracious disposition. She is dressed in red, the color of auspiciousness and life. Prominent among her identifying marks are her three playful eyes and her four hands, two of which carry a noose and goad, the other two gesturing her beneficence and granting of fearlessness. A modem devotee affirms that these "four hands represent dharma, artha, kama and moksha;" that is: her eagerness and power to bestow the four chief ends of human existence (virtue, wealth, pleasure, and liberation).
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