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;
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 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 truths.
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 Head
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 is mentioned as the first amongst the Mahavidyas. Black as the night she has a terrible and horrific appearance.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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 it:
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."
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.
Bhuvaneshvari'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.
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."
Hearing 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.
The 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).
Creation 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 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.
The 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.
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 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.
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.
Another 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 so.
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.
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 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.
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.
It 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.
This article by Nitin Kumar - Exotic India