About the Book
Cobrun Provides a fresh and careful translation from the Sanskrit of this fifteen-hundred year old text. Drawing on field work and literary evidence, he illuminates the process by which the Devi-Mahatmya has attracted a vast number of commentaries and has become the best known Goddess-text in modern India, deeply embedded in the ritual of Goddess worship (especially in Tantra). Coburn answers the following questions among others : is this document "scriptuture?" How is it that this text mediates the presence of the goddess? What can we make of contemporary emphasis on oral recitation of the text rather than study of its written form?. The book is divided into seven chapters. Ch. I Introduction, Ch. II the Historical Setting; Ch. III The Text in translation; Ch. IV The Legacy of a Text; Ch. V Encounter with the Text I-The Ritual and Philosophy of the Arigas; Ch. VI Encounter with the Text II - The Commentaries; Ch. VII Encounters in the Contemporary World. An appendix contains translation of the Arigas. The book contains Notes, Glossary and an Index.
"One comes away from Coburn's work with a sense of the historical integrity or wholeness of an extremely important religious development centered on a "text." The Interaction between the text and later philosophical and religious developments such as those found in Advaita Vedanta and Tantra is quite illuminating.
"Relevant here are the issues of the writtenness and orality/aurality of" scripture," and the various ways by which a deposit of holy words such as the Devi - Mahatmya becomes effective, powerful, and inspirational in the lives of those who hold it sacred.
"Encountering the Goddess is likely to be the standard scholarly translation for years to come.
About the Author
Thomas B. Coburn is Charles A. Dana Professor of Religious Studies and Classical Languages at St. Lawrence University. He is the author of Devi-Mahatmya : The Crystalization of the Goddess Tradition.
All serious writing, I suspect, is in some measure autobiographical.
Whatever subject matter we choose is evidence of ideas that have
somehow caught our fancy, traces of things which we have thought about
for a while. I am aware of such a personal dimension to this book, not
only because of the many people who have contributed to its completion,
but also because it reflects part of my own intellectual odyssey over a
number of years.
Like many of my contemporaries, I was captivated as an under-
graduate by the study of books, particularly historically significant
books, and, among them, the books of religion, especially the Bible.
The detailed study of Jewish and Christian scripture, with its "source
hypotheses" and the like, was intrinsically interesting and challenging.
Finding myself some years later in the process of becoming a compara-
tivist or historian of religion, deeply interested in the great Goddess of
India, I was still drawn to the study of written documents, but with an
uneasiness about the terms of comparison: The status of written records
seemed to vary cross-culturally, but we simply took for granted the
legitimacy, and the significance, of comparing them. Overthe past decade
or so, a fair number of scholars in widely varying fieids have begun to
pay attention to such matters, and this book is, in part, my contribution
to that discussion. Since I introduce some of the issues in the discussion
early on in chapter I, I will not anticipate them here. The following very
general orientation may, however, be helpful.
What we are about is trying to understand the range of attitudes
that we human beings have had toward written documents, particularly
those that have been religiously significant. Not all cultures and times
share the assumptions that we in the modern West have on this matter.
If we were to display the range of opinions along a spectrum, I suspect
that the modern West would fall somewhere in the middle. And I have
candidates for defining the two ends of the spectrum.
At one end sits the old wheelwright described by the Taoist master,
Chuang Tzu. He had criticized his ruler's obsession with "the words
of the Sages," and explained his criticism by talking about why he was
still working in his old age:
When I am making a wheel, if my stroke is too slow, then it bites
deep but is not steady; if my stroke is too fast, then it is steady, but
does not go deep. The right pace, neither slow nor fast, cannot get
into the hand unless it comes from the heart. It is a thing that cannot
be put into words; there is an art in it that I cannot explain to my
son. That is why it is impossible for me to let him take over my work,
and here I am at the age of seventy, still making wheels. In my
opinion it must have been the same with the men of old. All that
was worth handing on, died with them; the rest, they put into their
books .... What you [are reading therefore is nothing but] the lees
and scum of bygone men.
Surely it is hard to imagine a more severe devaluing of the written word
At the other end of the spectrum sits a young woman. In order to
understand her, we must be aware of the great debate that divided Europe
during the eighteenth century over the new and widespread enthusiasm
for reading. On one side were those who feared not just for morality,
but for public health: among the adverse effects were cited "'susceptibility
to colds, headaches, weakening of the eyes, heat rashes, gout, arthritis,
hemorrhoids, asthma, apoplexy, pulmonary disease, indigestion, block-
ing of the bowels, nervous disorder, migraines, epilepsy, hypochondria,
and melancholy.'" On the other side were those who maintained that,
although reading was ill-advised after eating or while standing up, one
could through proper disposition of the body "make reading a force for
good." Neither group, however, disputed the highly physical nature of
the reading process. Our young woman represents what is surely the
ultimate affirmation of such a view, for she '''ate a New Testament, day
by day, and leaf by leaf, between two sides of bread and butter, as a
remedy for fits."?
Most of our human attitudes toward the written word fall, I suggest,
somewhere between these two extremes. This book is intended, in a
comparative context, to explore some Indian views on these matters.
and also to inquire into Hindu encounters with the Goddess. As we
shall see, the two issues are intimately intertwined.
I am greatly indebted to many people who have contributed to the
writing of this book. Foremost among them are the Hindus with whom
I have read commentaries and had extended discussions about the
Devi-Mahatmya, its liturgy and function: the late Ambika Datta
Upadhyaya, Ram Shankar Bhattacharya, Hrishikesh Bhattacharya,
and A. N. Jani. The substance of our conversations, at various times
and places, was matched only by the personal warmth that accompanied
them. Without them, there would be no book.
During the fall of 1981, J. N. Tiwari provided wise counsel and
keen analysis at an important juncture, as I pursued and refined my
inquiry in Varanasi. The Maharaja of Benaras, H. H. Vibhuti Narain
Singh Kashiraj, was generous in sharing material from his family library
at Fort Ramnagar.
I am grateful to the American Institute of Indian Studies for a
Senior Research Fellowship during 1981-1982, and to the National
Endowment for the Humanities for support during the summer of 1982
at a seminar on "Scripture as Form and Concept." St. Lawrence Univer-
sity has provided a Faculty Research Grant, which took me to India
in the summer of 1987, and several smaller grants in support of com-
pleting this manuscript.
The American Institute of Indian Studies has also provided the
photographs that constitute the figures in chapter 4. Michael Meister,
Kanta Bhatia, and Michael Rosse were gracious in expediting access
to materials in the Institute's archive at the University of Pennsylvania,
as was V. R. Nambiar in sending the photographs from Varanasi. I am
indebted to the Tanjore Art Gallery and the Alampur Museum for
allowing inclusion of photographs of sculptures in their collections,
figures 4.4 and 4.5, respectively, and to Douglas Brooks and the University
of Chicago Press for figure 6.1.
Douglas Brooks has kindly read and commented on parts of this
study, and generously shared his own learning and forthcoming work.
My understanding of Bhaskararaya, in particular, would be much
diminished but for him. Misunderstandings are mine alone. Mackenzie
Brown has also read and offered helpful comments on the manuscript.
I most appreciate the willingness of Cynthia A. Humes to correspond
on the substance of her doctoral dissertation prior to its completion,
and I trust I have not misrepresented her highly promising work .
. Gail Colvin and Laurie Olmstead of the St. Lawrence University
word processing department have, with wonderful good cheer, tran-
scribed my field notes, and cleverly coaxed the final draft of the manuscript
from reluctant software. Jim Benvenuto produced the copy of figures
5.3 and 6.1. Michael Battaglia has diligently constructed most of the
During the years that I have been working on this project, I have
come to learn in unanticipated ways what it means to be a father, and
what to be a son. The experience has been extraordinary, thanks chiefly to
the individuals who make me both of those. It is with deep appreciation,
and love, that this book is dedicated to my parents and my sons. At the
same time, I am mindful that great siblings help enormously in effecting
the continuity between generations. I sense their presence-Judy, Mike,
and Sarah-hovering between the two lines on the dedication page.
It has been my great good fortune for the past few years to keep
company with Leigh Berry. Her contribution to this project has been
to share her wit, good humor, and enthusiasm for whatever it is that
needs doing. That spirit is infectious. It seems as if I've known her
Some fifteen hundred years ago, under circumstances largely
unknown to us, somewhere in northwest India, several thousand words
were arranged into a more or less unified composition. The language
of these words was Sanskrit, and they were arranged in versified form.
Over the ensuing centuries, these words attracted to themselves a number
of designations, the most popular being Devi-Mahatmya and Durga-
Saptasati. The former designation may be translated "The Specific
Greatness (or Virtue) of (the) Goddess," while the second means "Seven
Hundred (Verses) to Durga." Through the years these words have been
elaborated upon in a variety of ways, in both word and deed, in com-
mentary and liturgy. They have been inscribed on individual hearts.
that is, they have been memorized. They have been written down in more
graphic form, in manuscripts. Eventually they appeared in printed
editions. Judging from the volume of the manuscript evidence. these
particular words have been enormously popular through the centuries.
and they remain among the best known devotional words in contem-
porary India. If we were to conceptualize this kind of phenomenon by
saying that virtually all cultural and religious traditions generate and
preserve artifacts of various sorts, then clearly the De vi- Mahatmya has
been one of the major verbal artifacts that has been left in the Indian
What shall we make of this fact? How shall we do justice to these
particular words, composed in a specific time and place. leaving an
enormous legacy within India proper, beckoning contemporary
Westerners who would understand a culture other than their own, and-
we should particularly note in a global environment that has recently
been paying increased attention to' matters of gender-presenting an
intrinsically arresting view of ultimate reality as feminine?
A great deal clearly depends on who is meant by the "we" that is
asking these questions.
In presenting the matter in this way, I should indicate immediately
that this book is not primarily concerned with the complex and fas-
cinating matter of "point of view" that has so claimed the attention of
artists and humanists, and humanistic scholarship, in recent years. It
is not a venture into literary criticism. It is neither intended as an inquiry
into philosophical theology, nor is it meant to contribute directly to
that area of scholarly discourse known as hermeneutics. There has been
a great deal of interest lately in how one ought to interpret texts.
particularly religious texts. This discussion is perhaps most readily
associated with the names of Martin Heidegger, Paul Ricoeur, and Hans-
Georg Gadamer, joined now by many others. and the debate will. no
doubt. continue for some time. I have listened to these discussions with
interest, and it may be that those who are engaged in them will find
something worthy of attention in the current volume. But by training
and inclination I am neither philosopher nor literary critic. The interests
that have led me to the current study lie elsewhere.
There are, in fact, three such interests.
Foremost among them has been a desire to contribute in some way
to what is surely one of the massive revolutions of our day, that is.
the way in which we think and behave with regard to matters of gender.
While there remain those who would think of recent developments in
the study and experience of women as a fad. I am of the persuasion that
something of great historical moment is afoot here. I have followed the
various intellectual and social dimensions of this revolution with great
interest and concern. though I recognize that I am not necessarily the
best person to press the case here, or elsewhere. for the importance of
feminist concerns. What I can admit to, however. is the sense that on
this matter. as elsewhere, careful scholarship has important contributions
to make. both intellectually and humanistically. And so I have done
some research. part of which has already appeared as a book, directed
largely at scholars in Indian studies. examining the crystallization of
the Hindu Goddess tradition.' The sense has persisted, however, that
there are issues running through this research that would be of broader
interest. This sense has been reinforced by my students, especially the
women, with whom I have shared excerpts of my own translation of the
Devi-Mahatmva. Their reports of what it did for them -particularly
its tremendous enrichment of their dream-life-have encouraged me
in the current undertaking. That undertaking is to make available an
English translation of the Devi-Mahatmva that for the first time pays
careful attention to historical factors in the composition. translation.
and interpretation of the text. It is also the first translation in nearly a
century by someone who is a native speaker of English." In this under-
taking. I shall not attempt to identify implications for the gender
revolution beyond offering an occasional suggestion. To do more would
require a competence I cannot claim. I am content here to lay a
foundation with this translation. and invite others to draw out the further
ramifications for our thinking about matters of gender.
There is a second revolution that is also now on the horizon. and it
constitutes my second interest. This revolution deals with the way in
which we think about the place of books in religious life. It therefore has
a very direct bearing on what is involved in the translation of a written
document. It is hazardous to attempt description of a movement that is
barely under way. but the basic issue might be put as follows.
At first glance. it appears obvious that the religious traditions of
the world have scriptures. Virtually all of the major traditions. and
many of the minor, have left literary deposits. produced written
documents. and the mere fact of their "writtenness" invites comparison
between one tradition and another. The logic behind F. Max Muller's
massive editorial undertaking at the end of the last century-the
publication in English translation of the fifty volumes of the Sacred
Books of the East-is a compelling one. A similar logic runs through
much contemporary thinking. both popular and scholarly. In recent
years. a style of religious life has emerged. on a very broad scale. in
which the defining feature is commitment to the content of a particular
book as ultimate truth. as "God's Word" in a quite literal sense. The
most vivid instances, perhaps, are found in the Christian tradition. but
they have their parallels elsewhere: the phenomenon is a global one. In
academic circles, too. fascination with the written word persists. Not
only do we focus upon written materials in our teaching and research.
but we also carry this fascination over into our own conviction about the
very nature of truth. by identifying "publication." appearance in print.
as the criterion of worthwhile knowledge.
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