Wisdom Goddesses : Mahavidyas and the Assertion of Femininity in Indian Thought

Wisdom Goddesses : Mahavidyas and the Assertion of Femininity in Indian Thought

There exists in India a group
of strange Goddesses, ten in number. One of them
is shown holding her own freshly severed head,
which feeds on the blood flowing from her headless
torso; another holds a pair of scissors while
sitting triumphant atop a corpse;

The Mahavidya Chhinnamasta The Mahavidya Tara

a third is depicted as an old
and ugly widow riding a chariot decorated with
the crow as an emblem. The series continues –
an unusual assemblage to say the least.

The Ten Mahavidyas : Dhumavati - The Widow Goddess The Ten Mahavidyas

Birth of the Ten MahavidyasThe
story behind their birth is equally interesting
and paradoxically of a romantic origin:

Once during their numerous
love games, things got out of hand between Shiva
and Parvati. What had started in jest turned into
a serious matter with an incensed Shiva threatening
to walk out on Parvati. No amount of coaxing or
cajoling by Parvati could reverse matters. Left
with no choice, Parvati multiplied herself into
ten different forms for each of the ten directions.
Thus however hard Shiva might try to escape from
his beloved Parvati, he would find her standing
as a guardian, guarding all escape routes.

Each of the Devi’s manifested
forms made Shiva realize essential truths, made
him aware of the eternal nature of their mutual
love and most significantly established for always
in the cannons of Indian thought the Goddess’s
superiority over her male counterpart. Not that
Shiva in any way felt belittled by this awareness,
only spiritually awakened. This is true as much
for this Great Lord as for us ordinary mortals.
Befittingly thus they are referred to as the Great
Goddess’s of Wisdom, known in Sanskrit as the
Mahavidyas (Maha – great; vidya – knowledge).
Indeed in the process of spiritual learning the
Goddess is the muse who guides and inspires us.
She is the high priestess who unfolds the inner

The spectrum of these ten goddesses
covers the whole range of feminine divinity, encompassing
horrific goddess’s at one end, to the ravishingly
beautiful at the other. These Goddesses are:

1) Kali the Eternal Night
2) Tara the Compassionate Goddess
3) Shodashi the Goddess who is Sixteen Years Old
4) Bhuvaneshvari the Creator of the World
5) Chinnamasta the Goddess who cuts off her Own
6) Bhairavi the Goddess of Decay
7) Dhumawati the Goddess who widows Herself
8) Bagalamukhi the Goddess who seizes the Tongue
9) Matangi the Goddess who Loves Pollution
10) Kamala the Last but Not the Least

Kali the Eternal Night

Goddess KaliKali
is mentioned as the first amongst the Mahavidyas.
Black as the night she has a terrible and horrific

In the Rig-Veda, the world’s
most ancient book there is a ‘Hymn to the Night’
(Ratri sukta), which says that there are two types
of nights. One experienced by mortal beings and
the other by divine beings. In the former all
ephemeral activity comes to a standstill, while
in the latter the activity of divinity also comes
to rest. This absolute night is the night of destruction,
the power of kala. The word kala denotes time
in Sanskrit. Kali’s name is derived from this
word itself, as also from the Sanskrit word for
black. She is thus the timeless night, both for
ordinary mortals and for divine beings. At night
we nestle in happiness like birds in their nests.
Dwellers in the villages, theirs cows and horses,
the birds of the air, men who travel on many a
business, and jackals and wild beasts, all welcome
the night and joyfully nestle in her; for to all
beings misguided by the journey of the day she
brings calm and happiness, just as a mother would.
The word ratri (night) is derived from the root
ra, “to give,” and is taken to mean
“the giver” of bliss, of peace of happiness.

The Ten Mahavidyas : Tara - The Goddess Who Guides Through Troubles


Tara the Compassionate Goddess



The similarities in appearance
between Kali and Tara are striking and unmistakable.
They both stand upon a supine male figure often
recognizable as Shiva but which may also be an
anonymous corpse.

Goddess Kali






Both wear minimal clothing
or are naked. Both wear a necklace of freshly
severed heads and a girdle of human hands. Both
have a lolling tongue, red with the blood of their
victims. Their appearances are so strikingly similar
that it is easy to mistake one for the other.

Goddess Tara




The oral tradition gives an
intriguing story behind the Goddess Tara. The
legend begins with the churning of the ocean.
Shiva has drunk the poison that was created from
the churning of the ocean, thus saving the world
from destruction, but has fallen unconscious under
its powerful effect. Tara appears and takes Shiva
on her lap. She suckles him, the milk from her
breasts counteracting the poison, and he recovers.
This myth is reminiscent of the one in which Shiva
stops the rampaging Kali by becoming an infant.
Seeing the child, Kali’s maternal instinct comes
to the fore, and she becomes quiet and nurses
the infant Shiva. In both cases, Shiva assumes
the position of an infant vis-à-vis the
goddess. In other words the Goddess is Mother
even to the Great Lord himself.

Tara - The Goddess Who Guides Through Troubles





The distinguishing feature
in Tara’s iconography is the scissors she holds
in one of her four hands. The scissors relate
to her ability to cut off all attachments.

White Tara






Literally the word ‘tara’ means
a star. Thus Tara is said to be the star of our
aspiration, the muse who guides us along the creative
path. These qualities are but a manifestation
of her compassion. The Buddhist tradition stresses
these qualities of this Goddess, and she is worshipped
in Tibet as an important embodiment of compassion.



Shodashi the Goddess who is Sixteen Years Old

The Ten Mahavidyas : Shodashi - She Who is Lovely in the Three WorldsShodashi
or Tripura-Sundari is believed to have taken birth
to save the gods from the ravages of a mighty
and wrathful demon. The tale begins when Shiva
burnt down Kama, the god of love, who tried to
distract Shiva from his meditation. One of Shiva’s
followers then scooped off Kama’s ashes and formed
the image of a man out of them. This man then
persuades Shiva to teach him a powerful mantra.
By the power of this mantra, one could gain half
the might of one’s adversary. But because he was
generated from the ashes of Shiva’s wrath he is
transformed into a fierce demon. Intoxicated with
his new found power he proceeded to rampage the
kingdom of the gods. Apprehending defeat and humiliation,
the gods all propitiate Goddess Tripura-Sundari
to seek her help. The goddess appears and agrees
to help them. Taking the battlefield she heaps
a crushing blow on the mighty demon, thus saving
the gods.

Iconographically this Goddess
is shown seated on a lotus that rests on the supine
body of Lord Shiva, who in turn lies on a throne
whose legs are the gods Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva,
and Rudra.

Shodashi - She Who is Lovely in the Three Worlds






This is a direct and hard-hitting
portrayal of the Goddess dominating the important
male deities of the Hindu pantheon, a central
belief of the Mahavidya ideology. She is the savior
of all, the Last Refuge.

The Mahavidya Shodashi




She holds in her hands a pair
of bow and arrows. The bow significantly is made
of sugarcane, a symbol of sweetness. Her darts
thus are sweetness personified. One of her epithets
is ‘Tripura-Sundari,’ meaning ‘One who is beautiful
in the three realms.’ Another of her names ‘Lalita’
implies softness. These two qualities give rise
to images that depict her as ravishingly beautiful
and of unsurpassed splendor.

The word ‘Shodashi’ literally
means sixteen in Sanskrit. She is thus visualized
as sweet girl of sixteen. In human life sixteen
years represent the age of accomplished perfection
after which decline sets in. Indeed sixteen days
form the completed lunar cycle from the new moon
to the full moon. The full moon is the moon of
sixteen days. This girl of sixteen rules over
all that is perfect, complete, beautiful. Her
supreme beauty too has an interesting story behind

Once upon a time Shiva referred
to Kali (his wife) by her name in front of some
heavenly damsels who had come to visit, calling
her “Kali, Kali” (“Blackie, Blackie”)
in jest. This she took to be a slur against her
dark complexion. She left Shiva and resolved to
rid herself of her dark complexion, through asceticism.
Later, the sage Narada, seeing Shiva alone, asked
where his wife was. Shiva complained that she
had abandoned him and vanished. With his yogic
powers Narada discovered Kali living north of
Mount Sumeru and went there to see if he could
convince her to return to Shiva. He told her that
Shiva was thinking of marrying another goddess
and that she should return at once to prevent
this. By now Kali had rid herself of her dark
complexion but did not yet realize it. Arriving
in the presence of Shiva, she saw a reflection
of herself with a light complexion in Shiva’s
heart. Thinking, that this was another goddess,
she became jealous and angry. Shiva advised her
to look more carefully, with the eye of knowledge,
telling her that what she saw in his heart was
herself. The story ends with Shiva saying to the
transformed Kali: “As you have assumed a
very beautiful form, beautiful in the three worlds,
your name will be Tripura- Sundari. You shall
always remain sixteen years old and be called
by the name Shodashi.”

Two Mahavidyas - Bhuvaneshwari and ShodashiBhuvaneshvari
the Creator of the World

A modern text gives the legend
of origin of Bhuvaneshvari as follows:

‘Before anything existed it
was the sun which appeared in the heavens. The
rishis (sages) offered soma the sacred plant to
it so that the world may be created. At that time
Shodashi was the main power, or the Shakti through
whom the Sun created the three worlds. After the
world was created the goddess assumed a form appropriate
to the manifested world.’

In this form she came to be
known as Bhuvaneshvari, literally ‘Mistress of
the World.’

Bhuvaneshvari thus remains
un-manifest until the world is created. Hence
she is primarily related with the visible and
material aspect of the created world.

More than any other Mahavidya
with the exception of Kamala (mentioned later),
Bhuvaneshvari is associated and identified with
the energy underlying creation. She embodies the
characteristic dynamics and constituents that
make up the world and that lend creation its distinctive
character. She is both a part of creation and
also pervades it’s aftermath.

The Mahavidya BhuwaneshvariBhuvaneshvari’s
beauty is mentioned often. She is described as
having a radiant complexion and a beautiful face,
framed with flowing hair the color of black bees.
Her eyes are broad, her lips full and red, her
nose delicate. Her firm breasts are smeared with
sandal paste and saffron. Her waist is thin, and
her thighs, buttocks, and navel are lovely. Her
beautiful throat is decorated with ornaments,
and her arms are made for embracing. Indeed Shiva
is said to have produced a third eye to view her
more thoroughly.

This beauty and attractiveness
may be understood as an affirmation of the physical
world. Tantric thought does not denigrate the
world or consider it illusory or delusory, as
do some other abstract aspects of Indian thought.
This is made amply clear in the belief that the
physical world, the rhythms of creation, maintenance
and destruction, even the hankerings and sufferings
of the human condition is nothing but Bhuvaneshvari’s
play, her exhilarating, joyous sport.


Chinnamasta the Goddess who cuts off her Own

One day Parvati went to bathe
in the Mandakini River with her two attendants,
Jaya and Vijaya. After bathing, the great goddess’s
color became black because she was sexually aroused.
After some time, her two attendants asked her,
“Give us some food. We are hungry.”
She replied, “I shall give you food but please
wait.” After awhile, again they asked her.
She replied, “Please wait, I am thinking
about some matters.” Waiting awhile, they
implored her, “You are the mother of the
universe. A child asks everything from her mother.
The mother gives her children not only food but
also coverings for the body. So that is why we
are praying to you for food. You are known for
your mercy; please give us food.” Hearing
this, the consort of Shiva told them that she
would give anything when they reached home. But
again her two attendants begged her, “We
are overpowered with hunger, O Mother of the Universe.
Give us food so we may be satisfied, O Merciful
One, Bestower of Boons and Fulfiller of Desires.”

this true statement, the merciful goddess smiled
and severed her own head. As soon as she severed
her head, it fell on the palm of her left hand.
Three bloodstreams emerged from her throat; the
left and right fell respectively into the mouths
of her flanking attendants and the center one
fell into her mouth.

After performing this, all
were satisfied and later returned home. (From
this act) Parvati became known as Chinnamasta.

In visual imagery, Chinnamasta
is shown standing on the copulating couple of
Kamadeva and Rati, with Rati on the top. They
are shown lying on a lotus.

There are two different interpretations
of this aspect of Chinnamasta’s iconography. One
understands it as a symbol of control of sexual
desire, the other as a symbol of the goddess’s
embodiment of sexual energy.

The most common interpretation
is one where she is believed to be defeating what
Kamadeva and Rati represent, namely sexual desire
and energy. In this school of thought she signifies
self-control, believed to be the hallmark of a
successful yogi.

Chinnamasta - The Self Decapitated GoddessThe
other, quite different interpretation states that
the presence of the copulating couple is a symbol
of the goddess being charged by their sexual energy.
Just as a lotus seat is believed to confer upon
the deity seated atop it’s qualities of auspiciousness
and purity, Kamadeva and Rati impart to the Goddess
standing over them the power and energy generated
by their lovemaking. Gushing up through her body,
this energy spouts out of her headless torso to
feed her devotees and also replenish herself.
Significantly here the mating couple is not opposed
to the goddess, but an integral part of the rhythmic
flow of energy making up the Chinnamasta icon.

The image of Chinnamasta is
a composite one, conveying reality as an amalgamation
of sex, death, creation, destruction and regeneration.
It is stunning representation of the fact that
life, sex, and death are an intrinsic part of
the grand unified scheme that makes up the manifested
universe. The stark contrasts in this iconographic
scenario-the gruesome decapitation, the copulating
couple, the drinking of fresh blood, all arranged
in a delicate, harmonious pattern – jolt the viewer
into an awareness of the truths that life feeds
on death, is nourished by death, and necessitates
death and that the ultimate destiny of sex is
to perpetuate more life, which in turn will decay
and die in order to feed more life. As arranged
in most renditions of the icon, the lotus and
the pairing couple appear to channel a powerful
life force into the goddess. The couple enjoying
sex convey an insistent, vital urge to the goddess;
they seem to pump her with energy. And at the
top, like an overflowing fountain, her blood spurts
from her severed neck, the life force leaving
her, but streaming into the mouths of her devotes
(and into her own mouth as well) to nourish and
sustain them. The cycle is starkly portrayed:
life (the couple making love), death (the decapitated
goddess), and nourishment (the flanking yoginis
drinking her blood).

Bhairavi the Goddess of Decay

and Destruction are two essential aspects of the
universe, which is continually subject to their
alternating rhythms. The two are equally dominant
in the world and indeed depend upon each other
in symbiotic fashion. Bhairavi embodies the principle
of destruction and arises or becomes present when
the body declines and decays. She is also evident
in self-destructive habits, such as eating tamsic
food (food having a quality associated with ignorance
and lust) and drinking liquor, which wear down
the body and mind. She is present, it is said,
in the loss of semen, which weakens males. Anger,
jealousy, and other selfish emotions and actions
strengthen Bhairavi’s presence in the world. Righteous
behavior, conversely, makes her weaker. In short,
she is an ever-present goddess who manifests herself
in, and embodies, the destructive aspects of the
world. Destruction, however, is not always negative,
creation cannot continue without it. This is most
clear in the process of nourishment and metabolism,
in which life feeds on death; creation proceeds
by means of transformed energy given up in destruction.

Bhairavi is also identified
with Kalaratri, a name often associated with Kali
that means “black night (of destruction)”
and refers to a particularly destructive aspect
of Kali.

She is also identified with
Mahapralaya, the great dissolution at the end
of a cosmic cycle, during which all things, having
been consumed with fire, are dissolved in the
formless waters of procreation. She is the force
that tends toward dissolution. This force, furthermore,
which is actually Bhairavi herself, is present
in each person as one gradually ages, weakens
and finally dies. Destruction is apparent everywhere,
and therefore Bhairavi is present everywhere.

A commentary on the Parashurama-kalpasutra
says that the name Bhairavi is derived from the
words bharana (to create), ramana (to protect),
and vamana (to emit or disgorge). The commentator,
that is, seeks to discern the inner meaning of
Bhairavi’s name by identifying her with the cosmic
functions of creation, maintenance, and destruction.

Dhumawati the Goddess
who widows Herself

Dhumavati - The Widow GoddessDhumawati
is ugly, unsteady, and angry. She is tall and
wears dirty clothes. Her ears are ugly and rough,
she has long teeth, and her breasts hang down.
She has a long nose. She has the form of a widow.
She rides in a chariot decorated with the emblem
of the crow. Her eyes are fearsome, and her hands
tremble. In one hand she holds a winnowing basket,
and with the other hand she makes the gesture
of conferring boons. Her nature is rude. She is
always hungry and thirsty, and looks unsatisfied.
She likes to create strife, and she is always
frightful in appearance.

The legend behind Dhumawati’s
origin says that once, when Shiva’s spouse Sati
was dwelling with him in the Himalayas, she became
extremely hungry and asked him for something to
eat. When he refused to give her food, she said,
“Well, then I will just have to eat you.”
Thereupon she swallowed Shiva, thus widowing herself.
He persuaded her to disgorge him, and when she
did so he cursed her, condemning her to assume
the form of the widow Dhumawati. This myth underlines
Dhumawati’s destructive bent. Her hunger is only
satisfied when she consumes Shiva, her husband
and who contains within himself the whole world.
Ajit Mookerjee, commenting on her perpetual hunger
and thirst, which is mentioned in many places,
says that she is the embodiment of “unsatisfied
desires.” Her status as a widow itself is
curious. She makes herself one by swallowing Shiva,
an act of self-assertion, and perhaps independence.

Dhumavati - The Widow GoddessThe
crow, which appears as her emblem atop her chariot,
is a carrion eater and symbol of death. Indeed,
she herself is sometimes said to resemble a crow.
The Prapancasarasara-samgraha, for example, says
that her nose and throat resemble those of a crow.

The winnowing basket in her
hand represents the need to discern the inner
essence from the illusory realities of outer forms.
The dress she wears has been taken from a corpse
in the cremation ground. She is said to be the
embodiment of the tamas guna, the negative qualities
associated with lust and ignorance. She is believed
to enjoy liquor and meat, both of which are tamsic.
Dhumawati is also interpreted by some Tantra scholars
as “the aspect of reality that is old, ugly,
and unappealing. This is further corroborated
by the fact that she is generally associated with
all that is inauspicious and is believed to dwell
in desolate areas of the earth, such as deserts,
in abandoned houses, in quarrels, in mourning
children, in hunger and thirst, and most particularly
in widows.


Bagalamukhi the Goddess who seizes the Tongue

Bagalamukhi Devi


The legend behind the origin
of goddess Bagalamukhi is as follows:

A demon named Madan undertook
austerities and won the boon of vak siddhi, according
to which anything he said came about. He abused
this boon by harassing innocent people. Enraged
by his mischief, the gods worshipped Bagalamukhi.
She stopped the demon’s rampage by taking hold
of his tongue and stilling his speech. Before
she could kill him, however, he asked to be worshipped
with her, and she relented, That is why he is
depicted with her. She is almost always portrayed
in this act, holding a club in one hand, with
which she is about to strike her enemy, and with
the other hand pulling his tongue. In this myth,
by stopping the demon’s tongue, she exercises
her peculiar power over speech and her power to
freeze, stun, or paralyze.


The Ten Mahavidyas : Bagalamukhi - The Paralyzer



The pulling of the demon’s
tongue by Bagalamukhi is both unique and significant.
Tongue, the organ of speech and taste, is often
regarded as a lying entity, concealing what is
in the mind. The Bible frequently mentions the
tongue as an organ of mischief, vanity and deceitfulness.
The wrenching of the demon’s tongue is therefore
symbolic of the Goddess removing what is in essentiality
a perpetrator of evil.





Matangi the Goddess who Loves Pollution

Once Parvati, seated on Shiva’s
lap, said to him that he always gave her anything
she wanted and that now she had a desire to visit
her father. Would he consent to her visiting her
father, Himalaya, she asked? Shiva was not happy
about granting her this wish but eventually complied,
saying that if she did not come back in a few
days, he would go there himself to ask for her
return. Parvati’s mother sent a crane to carry
Parvati back to her family home. When she did
not return for some days, Shiva disguised himself
as an ornament maker and went to her father’s
house. He sold shell ornaments to Parvati and
then, seeking to test her faithfulness, asked
that she have sex with him as his payment. Parvati
was outraged at the merchant’s request and was
ready to curse him, but then she discerned with
her yogic intuition that the ornament vendor was
really her husband, Shiva. Concealing her knowledge
of his true identity, she replied: “Yes,
fine, I agree. But not just now.”

Sometime later, Parvati disguised
herself as a huntress and went to Shiva’s home,
where he was preparing to do evening prayer. She
danced there, wearing red clothes. Her body was
lean, her eyes wide, and her breasts large. Admiring
her, Shiva asked: “Who are you?” She
replied: “I am the daughter of a Chandala.
I’ve come here to do penance.” Then Shiva
said: “I am the one who gives fruits to those
who do penance.” Saying this, he took her
hand, kissed her, and prepared to make love to
her. While they made love, Shiva himself was changed
into a Chandala. At this Point he recognized the
Chandala woman as his wife Parvati. After they
had made love, Parvati asked Shiva for a boon,
which he granted. Her request was this: “As
you [Shiva] made love to me in the form of a Chandalini
[Chandala woman], this form should last forever
and be known as Uccishtha-matangini (now popularly
known as Matangi).”

The key to this legend is the
essence of the word ‘Chandala.’ The Chandalas
are believed to constitute the lowest strata of
the caste hierarchy in orthodox Hindu belief.
Associated with death and impurity they have always
survived on the fringes of mainstream society.
Derogatory in the extreme sense, The label chandala
itself has become the worst kind of slur. Thus
by disguising herself as a Chandalini, Parvati
assumes the identity of a very low-caste person,
and by being attracted, Shiva allows himself to
be identified with her. Both deities self-consciously
and willingly associate themselves with the periphery
of Hindu society and culture. The Chandala identity
is sacralized therefore, in the establishment
of Goddess Matangi. This goddess summarizes in
herself the polluted and the forbidden.

The Ten Mahavidyas : MatangiAnother
myth related to Matangi reinforces this belief.
Once upon a time, Vishnu and Lakshmi went to visit
Shiva and Parvati. They gifted Shiva and Parvati
fine foods, and some pieces dropped to the ground.
From these remains arose a maiden endowed with
fair qualities. She asked for leftover food (uccishtha).
The four deities offered her their leftovers as
prasada (food made sacred by having been tasted
by deities). Shiva then said to the attractive
maiden: “Those who repeat your mantra and
worship you, their activities will be fruitful.
They will be able to control their enemies and
obtain the objects of their desires.” From
then on this maiden became known as Uccishtha-matangini.
She is the bestower of all boons.

This legend stresses Matangi’s
association with leftover food, which is normally
considered highly polluting. Indeed, she herself
actually arises or emerges from Shiva and Parvati’s
table scraps. And the first thing she asks for
is sustenance in the form of leftover food (uccishtha).
Texts describing her worship specify that devotees
should offer her uccishtha with their hands and
mouths stained with leftover food; that is, worshippers
should be in a state of pollution, having eaten
and not washed. This is a dramatic reversal of
the usual protocols for the worship of deities.
Normally, devotees are careful to offer particularly
pure food or food that the deity especially likes.
After the deity has eaten it, the food is thought
of as blessed and returned to the worshipper to
partake, and is believed to contain the grace
of the deity. The ritual give-and-take in this
case emphasizes the inferior position of the devotee,
who serves the deity and accepts the deity’s leftover
food as something to be cherished. In the case
of Matangi however, worshippers present her with
their own highly polluted leftover food and are
themselves in a state of pollution while doing

In some rituals she is known
to have been offered a piece of clothing stained
with the menstrual blood in order to win the boon
of being able to attract someone. Menstrual blood
is regarded as taboo in the performance of religious
functions, but in the case of Matangi these strict
taboos are disregarded, indeed, are flaunted.

the Last but Not the Least

Kamala as the tenth and last
of the Wisdom Goddesses shows the full unfoldment
of the power of the Goddess into the material
sphere. She is both the beginning and the end
of our worship of the goddess.

The canonical texts are quite
specific regarding her iconography:

‘She has a beautiful and golden
complexion. She is being bathed by four large
elephants who pour jars of nectars over her. In
her four hands she holds two lotuses and makes
the signs of granting boons and giving assurance.
She wears a resplendent crown and a silken dress.’

The Ten Mahavidyas : Kamala





The name Kamala means “she
of the lotus” and is a common epithet of
Goddess Lakshmi. Indeed, Kamala is none other
than the goddess Lakshmi. Though listed as the
last of the Mahavidyas, she is the best known
and most popular. Several annual festivals are
given in her honor. Of these, the Diwali festival
is most widely celebrated. This festival links
Lakshmi to three important and interrelated themes:
prosperity and wealth, fertility and crops, and
good luck during the coming year.




Lord Vishnu with Lakshmi on Sheshnag

The elephants pouring nectar
onto her are symbols of sovereignty and fertility.
They convey Kamala’s association with these highly
desirable qualities.

Though equivalent to Lakshmi,
important differences exist when Kamala is included
in the group of Mahavidyas. Most strikingly, she
is never described or shown accompanying Vishnu,
who otherwise is her constant and dominating companion
in all representations.

In this
respect unlike Lakshmi, Kamala is almost entirely
removed from marital and domestic contexts. She
does not play the role model of a wife in any
way, and her association with proper dharmic or
social behavior, either as an example of it or
as the rewarder of it, is not important in the
Mahavidya context. Here a premium seems to be
put on the independence of the goddesses. For
the most part, the Mahavidyas are seen as powerful
goddesses in their own right. Their power and
authority do not derive from association with
male deities. Rather, it is their power that pervades
the gods and enables them to perform their cosmic
functions. When male deities are shown, they are
almost in supporting roles (literally as when
they are shown supporting Shodashi’s throne),
and are depicted as subsidiary figures.


The Ten Mahavidyas : KaliIt
is striking how female imagery and women are central
to the conception of the Mahavidyas. Iconographically,
they are individually shown dominating male deities.
Kali and Tara are shown astride Shiva, while others
like Shodashi sit on the body of Shiva which in
turn rests upon a couch whose legs are four male
deities! Most significantly none of the Mahavidyas
is shown as the traditional wife or consort. Even
Lakshmi, who is widely known for her position
as Vishnu’s loyal wife is shown alone. It is also
noteworthy that the severed heads that decorate
the goddess’s bodies are male, as are the corpses
that lie beneath them.

Moreover, related Tantric texts
often mention the importance of revering women.
The Kaulavali Tantra says that all women should
be looked upon as manifestations of Mahadevi (the
Great Goddess). The Nila-tantra says that one
should desert one’s parents, guru, and even the
deities before insulting a woman.

Finally the question remains:
Why would one wish to worship a goddess such as
Kali, Chinnamasta, Dhumawati, Bhairavi, or a Matangi,
each of whom dramatically embodies marginal, polluting,
or socially subversive qualities? These goddesses
are both frightening and dangerous. They often
threaten social order. In their strong associations
with death, violence, pollution, and despised
marginal social roles, they call into question
such normative social “goods” as worldly
comfort, security, respect, and honor. The worship
of these goddesses suggests that the devotee experiences
a refreshing and liberating spirituality in all
that is forbidden by established social orders.

The central aim here according
to Tantric belief is to stretch one’s consciousness
beyond the conventional, to break away from approved
social norms, roles, and expectations. By subverting,
mocking, or rejecting conventional social norms,
the adept seeks to liberate his or her consciousness
from the inherited, imposed, and probably inhibiting
categories of proper and improper, good and bad,
polluted and pure.

Living one’s life according
to rules of purity and pollution and caste and
class that dictate how, where, and exactly in
what manner every bodily function may be exercised,
and which people one may, or may not, interact
with socially, can create a sense of imprisonment
from which one might long to escape. Perhaps the
more marginal, bizarre, “outsider” goddesses
among the Mahavidyas facilitate this escape. By
identifying with the forbidden or the marginalized,
an adept may acquire a new and refreshing perspective
on the cage of respectability and predictability.
Indeed a mystical adventure, without the experience
of which, any spiritual quest would remain incomplete.

References and Further Reading

  • Danielou, Alain. The
    Myths and Gods of India: Vermont, 1991.
  • Frawley, David. Tantric
    Yoga and The Wisdom Goddesses: Delhi, 1999.
  • Jansen, Eva Rudy.
    The Book of Hindu Imagery, The Gods and their
    Symbols: Holland, 1998.
  • Kinsley, David. Tantric
    Visions of the Divine Feminine: New Delhi,1997.
  • Walker, Benjamin.
    Encyclopedia of Esoteric Man: London, 1977
  • This article by Nitin Kumar – Exotic India

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    page uploaded 12 July 2004