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Devi: A Journey Through Texts and Contexts

Article of the Month - May 2007
Viewed 77607 times since 2nd Oct, 2008






The Vedic seers, despite their strong monotheistic perception of the Divine and cosmic unity, deciphered on the very outset the two aspected character of existence and creative process, one being the male and other, the female. When the Rigveda acclaims that 'he who is described as male is as much the female and the penetrating eye would not fail to see it', it admits the factum of the outward duality of existence.





Under the Rigvedic perception the maleness and the femaleness are contained within a single frame but they are nonetheless two attributes of the 'contained'. The Vedic literature, the Vedas and Vedic commentaries - Brahmanas, Aranyakas and Upanishadas, and post-Vedic scriptures have invented numerous metaphors to elucidate this Vedic mysticism and define outward duality of the universe in terms of its intrinsic unity. All these efforts only further affirm the factum of apparent duality, which characterises existence. Not such mystic duality alone, the Vedas have directly alluded to a number of operative attributes, male and female, having cosmic dimensions and role, deified them and sometimes even personalised. Thus Vedas themselves contained the 'seed' of personalised male and female divinities.



Usha, the Goddess of Dawn
Usha, the Goddess of Dawn





Principal female attributes that the Vedas identified as operating upon the cosmos were Vak, Ushas, Sita, Ratri and others. The Upanishadas identified them as Prakriti, the Nature, and Maya, the illusion. The Upanishadas considered the materially manifest existence nothing more than Maya. Allusions to Sita, the furrow-line, which subsequently symbolised the patron-deity of agriculture, and Ratri, the night, are just casual. Vak and Ushas are alluded to more decisively. The Vedas perceived in Vak - a synonym of Vani, that is, speech, the divine instrument, wherein the unmanifest manifested, and in Ushas, the dawn, the instrument that brought to light what darkness enshrouded.




Mother Goddess in Terracotta from the Indus Valley
Mother Goddess in Terracotta from the Indus Valley






The Vedas have also alluded to human females, Aditi, the mother of gods with god-like divine status, and Diti, Ila and a few others. Though no hymns are attributed to, or rites ascribed, the Vedas allude to Mahimata, Mother earth, similar to the deity that Harappans worshipped as Mother goddess, with deity-like reverence.







Purusha and Prakriti
Purusha and Prakriti






In subsequent metaphysics, Prakriti and Maya were contemplated sometimes as the material aspect of Creation, and sometimes as the counterpart of Purusha, Self, that the Self enlivened.






Goddess Saraswati in a Swan Sari
Goddess Saraswati in a Swan Sari







Ushas lost its divine status, but long after during the Puranic era, Vak seems to have re-appeared as Vagdevi or Saraswati, the presiding deity of knowledge, arts and music.






Goddess Lakshmi
Goddess Lakshmi





Not easy to trace the evolution, the form of Lakshmi, at least in her initial iconographic representations, seems to have evolved, sometimes around the third-second-century B. C., conjointly out of the verbal connotation of the Vedic Mahimata, attributes of Sita, and the iconographic vision of Indus Mother goddess. Lakshmi represented fertility, riches, prosperity and benediction.








Durga Slays the Demon Mahishasur
Durga Slays the Demon Mahishasur




What the Vedas had in the 'seed' form, the Puranas not only magnified to its optimum but also personalised its each aspect in very specific terms and with a specific image. In the Vedas, what comprised the part of the creative process or was an attribute of the cosmos, emerged in the Puranas as an operative force with a goal before. Where the Vedas, or even Harappan dweller, sought mere benediction, the Puranas assigned, besides benediction, a specific role, more specifically the elimination of evil forces and effecting dissolution, something which the Vedas did not meditate on.





Devi the Mother Goddess and Her Three Children
Devi the Mother Goddess and Her Three Children






This Puranic attribution emerged in the course of time as the key role of the female energy, the Divine female, the Devi, operating in and pervading upon the cosmos. In almost no time this multi-aspected Divine Female had, in scriptures, arts and more so in folk mind, more massive presence than had the Great Trinity.








A mother, enshrining some kind of divinity, and a consort, who always stood by his side, formed man's earliest perception of woman and obviously it influenced his idea of the Divine female. In the Great Goddess, he perceived the protective mother and someone who he could assume as his strength, someone who belonged to him. This personalness characterised his ties with the Devine Female. He did not have such intimate feelings for a male god. In the earliest forms of Puranic invocations of the Goddess, performed reciting hymns of worship and homage, this passionate intimacy is often revealed. When invoking her in her entirety, describing her beauty, limb to limb, these hymns did not stop short of anything, not even in their appreciation of her feminine parts. In the Tantrika way, the process was further intensified. When the Tantrika made, through his 'sadhana', penance, the Devi's energies enter into his being, he also had the Devi merge into him. She kindled his entire being, all his energies, even sex. This led the Tantrika to experience a fervent passion, a maddening desire or even 'lust' for her, though differently, this passion or 'lust', being born of the worshipful attitude, could only be the purest in its kind intending no dishonour to the deity.



The Highest Shakti (Shrimad Devi Bhagavatam, Book Twelve, Chapter 8)
The Highest Shakti (Shrimad Devi Bhagavatam, Book Twelve, Chapter 8)






Whatever the Vedic vision or man's initial perception of woman, the Puranic transformation of the Divine female was altogether different, vigorous, operative and humane, and comprised the most complex aspect of the Divine image. The Puranas perceived the Divine female sometimes as Adi Shakti, primordial energy,





Sadasiva with Shakti
Sadasiva with Shakti







which like Sadashiva always prevailed, and at other times, as female power, which came into being out of gods' combined lustre, summarily, their creation. In both cases, she was not only possessed of powers superior to those of gods but was also the object of their worship.





The Gods Pay Homage to Goddess Lakshmi
The Gods Pay Homage to Goddess Lakshmi

The primitive Divine Female, Harappan or Vedic, appears to have been a mere iconically or verbally realised non-operative boon giver. Puranas transformed her into an operative force, humanised and wove around her abundant myths and innumerable personality aspects. She emerged in Puranas in myriad of forms and manifestations, eradicating evil and doing acts of benevolence. She was perceived as representing all forms of vitality, strength, might, power, force, proficiency, dynamism and all operative faculties. Vengeance and even violence, too, were her aspects. She was seen as operating in and on all manifest or unmanifest things, both, as their holder and their dynamic principle. Puranas saw her as manifest nature, as also the absolute consciousness, thinking mind, universal intellect and controller of senses. Thus, the image of the Divine female, as it had shaped in devotional mind, was a mix of metaphysics, myths and lingering pre-historic ritual practices and imagery.



The Srimad Devi Bhagavatam
The Srimad Devi Bhagavatam






Devi Bhagavata is the foremost of scriptures that consider Devi as the Adishakti, the divine power that preceded all things, all beings and all gods.







Devi Bhagavata records a number of episodes that reveal her priority over Trinity and her superior divine powers. Hayagriva, a demon with a horse-head, with an ambition to conquer death, made a thousand years long rigorous penance. Pleased by it Devi appeared and wished to accomplish what he desired. Hayagriva prayed her to grant him immortality. Devi persuaded him to ask for anything but immortality, for everything, live or dead, which was composed or entered a material form, was destined to decompose and decay. Hayagriva conceded and revised his prayer to have a death at the hands of none but Hayagriva, a horse-headed one, thinking that he would not kill himself. The prayer was granted. Practically, this rendered him invincible. His excesses and atrocities had now no limits. Gods and Brahmins were his chosen targets. Around then, gods had been performing a thousand years long 'yajna' with Vishnu as the presiding deity. Before the final offering, they went to Vishnu to invite him for accepting the 'havya', offering, but were shocked to find, instead of him, his headless torso lying on the ground. Helpless gods began wailing, but Brahma consoled them and invoked Veda-Shakti, the Devi, to reveal who had done this misdeed and to undo it. Brahma extolled her as the Creator of the universe who created all beings, including him, Vishnu, Shiva and all gods. He proclaimed that it was her will to create that transformed into the cosmos and Vishnu and Brahma were its mere operative agents. Hence, she alone could revive Vishnu. To the delight of gods, the all-knowing and all-accomplishing Devi appeared. She revealed how a trivial act of Vishnu incited Lakshmi to curse him and lose his head, though this too was not without an end. The Devi asked Brahma to find a horse-head and implant it on Vishnu's torso, which having been done, Vishnu revived.

Vishnu as Hayagriva
Vishnu as Hayagriva







Now with a horse-head, he too was Hayagriva who could kill Hayagriva, the demon, which, being commanded by the Devi, he did.







The Slaying of Madhu and Kaitabh
The Slaying of Madhu and Kaitabh

The Devi's similar status reveals in the event related to demons Madhu and Kaitabh. Vishnu was in a phase of sleep to prevail for a thousand years. In the meantime, out of the wax, releasing from his ears, were born two demons, Madhu and Kaitabh. Soon after, the demons attacked Brahma seated on the lotus emitting from Vishnu's navel. They chased Brahma from one place to other. Brahma recalled and invoked the omnipresent Devi, the Mother of them all, and prayed her to wake Vishnu. Devi appeared and woke Vishnu. Vishnu had a five thousand years long battle with Madhu and Kaitabh but was unable to kill them. At last, he invoked Devi and acting on her guidance was able to slay the two demons.


Infant Krishna
Infant Krishna






Far popular is the legend in which Devi enables Vishnu to know himself and his cosmic role. After the Great Deluge, Vishnu, as child, emerged upon the oceanic surface floating on a fig leaf.






Dismayed he questioned, 'who am I, who created me and created what for'. Suddenly, horizons echoed with a voice - 'all that is, it is me; nothing but me alone is eternal and prevails beyond time'. When locating the source of the voice, in his vision appeared a heavenly female with four hands carrying in them a conch, disc, club and lotus. Divine costume and ornaments adorned her figure and twenty-one celestial powers stood in attendance. Vishnu instantly realised that she was none but the Adi-Shakti, Devi, and paid her homage.



The Birth of Devi
The Birth of Devi

Devi Mahatmya in the Markandeya Purana and other texts relate her origin to the elimination of Mahishasura, a mighty demon who once ruled the earth. The ambitious demon desired to conquer the heaven, too. He sent words to Indra, heaven's ruler, to either accept his suzerainty or face him in battle. Indra preferred war but he and his gods could not face Mahishasura and fled. Under a boon from Brahma, Mahishasura was invincible against all males, men, demons or beasts. Gods, led by Indra, rushed to Brahma. Finding himself helpless, Brahma took them first to Shiva and then to Vishnu. Hearing of Mahisha's misdeeds, from Vishnu's countenance burst a blazing divine lustre. He turned towards Shiva, and then Brahma, Agni, Surya, Indra and all other gods. A similar radiance began bursting from the faces of them all. This divine lustre amassed into a huge mount of radiance covering the entire sky. Out of it revealed gradually a female figure, first, her head, then breasts, waist, thighs and legs. From Shiva's lustre was formed her head; from Yama's, her hair; and from that of Vishnu, Moon, Indra, Brahma, Sun, Vasu, Kuber, Prajapati, Agni, Twilight, and Vayu, her arms, breasts, waist, feet, toe-nails, finger-nails, nose, teeth, eyes, brows, and ears. She had eighteen arms and a three-eyed face. The celestial creation had unique lustre not known or possessed by any god ever before. Filled with gratitude, all gods prostrated and worshipped the divine creation, Devi, the Great Goddess.

Goddess Durga as Mahishasur-mardini
Goddess Durga as Mahishasur-mardini



Out of his trident Shiva created another and presented it to the Devi. So did Vishnu, Varuna, Agni, Yama, Vayu, Surya, Indra, Kubera, Brahma, Kala, and Vishvakarma. They offered to her their disc, conch, dart, iron rod, bow, quiver full of arrows, thunderbolt, mace and drinking pot, rosary and water pot, sword and shield, battle-axe and a number of amulets respectively. Besides, Ocean brought for her glittering jewels, Shesha, a necklace inlaid with celestial gems, and Himavana, his lion for her vehicle. On behalf of gods, sage Narada narrated to the Devi all about gods' miserable plight and Mahishasura's atrocities and prayed her to kill him. In a fierce battle she killed the demon and earned for her the epithet 'Mahishasura-mardini', now almost her other name.




Devi Mahatmyam: (Glory of The Divine Mother)
Devi Mahatmyam: (Glory of The Divine Mother)






Though sage Markandeya has widely used the term 'Devi' to denote this Female Divinity, but his emphasis is largely on her demon slaying aspect, and epithets like Chandika, which he has used not less than twenty-seven times in the Devi-Mahatmya, reveal his mind and its image of the Devi.






Continued in Page 2

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  • I love to read your pieces about God as Feminine in the Hindi tradition. There's lots more on god as mother here -- www.mother-god.com It's well worth a visit!
    by Mary on 17th Jul 2007
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