Worship of God as Mother

From Hindupedia, the Hindu Encyclopedia

By Swami Satyasthananda

Of the diverse forms of worship prevalent in India from time immemorial, worship of the Divine Mother has occupied a place of singular significance. This idea of worshiping the Divine as the Eternal Mother has not been developed in any other religion of the world as it has been in the Vedic tradition.

According to Vedanta, when the formless and attribute-less supreme Brahman assumes form with the help of its inscrutable power, maya, it is called Saguna Brahman or Ishvara. There are two aspects to the ultimate Reality: the absolute and the relative. From the absolute standpoint Brahman is impersonal and without attributes, nirguṇa; whereas from the relative standpoint it is saguna, the personal God. Though these two aspects appear to be mutually exclusive, they are in fact identical, much like fire and its power to burn. In India the personal God is worshiped in various forms and is called by various names. This has led to the formation of different sects. To Shaivas, Shiva is the Supreme Deity; to Vaishnavas, Vishnu; and to Shaktas, Shakti manifests as Mother or Devi. Again, according to the different temperaments of aspirants, the same deity is addressed as father, master, friend, beloved, or mother. Sri Ramakrishna always referred to God as ‘my Mother’. The idea of addressing and worshiping God as Mother is a very ancient tradition in India. This idea finds expression in the Vedas and the Upanishads and was further developed in the Puranas and the Tantras.

Origin and Development of Mother-Worship

According to Manu ‘the daughter is the highest object of tenderness’ and ‘the mother is revered a thousand times more than the father’, the adoration of the female principle in the Creation has been in evidence from the very beginning of civilization. Not only has God been looked upon as the feminine par excellence, the Divine Mother, but women have also been looked upon as manifestations of the Divine Mother and have been offered worship at every stage of life—as virgins, as married women, and as mothers. The Divine Mother is not only the mother of the universe; she is also the Eternal Virgin. From remote antiquity, through unrecorded centuries, right up to our own times, the conception and adoration of the feminine principle as Divine has undergone such evolutionary changes that it is difficult to exactly determine how and when the different forms of goddesses originated and developed in history.

The following seem to be plausible reasons for the development of Mother-worship:

  1. the position women enjoyed at home and in society in the days when such worship started, and the position occupied by the mother as the highest of all feminine types at home and in society;
  2. the security the aspirant feels in the natural love and consideration of the mother towards her child; and
  3. the concept that God creates, sustains, and destroys the universe by his Power or Shakti. Swami Vivekananda points out a source in an old Vedic hymn to the Goddess: ‘“I am the light. I am the light of the sun and moon; I am the air which animates all beings.” This is the germ which afterwards develops into Mother-worship. By Mother-worship is not meant difference between father and mother. The first idea connoted by it is that of energy—I am the power that is in all beings.’[1]

In addition, mother-worship is a distinct philosophy in itself. Power is the first of our ideas. It impinges upon man at every step; power felt within is the soul; without, nature. And the battle between the two makes human life. All that we know or feel is but the resultant of these two forces. Man saw that the sun shines on the good and evil alike. Here was a new idea of God, as the Universal Power behind all—the Mother-idea was born.

Activity, according to Sānkhya, belongs to Prakriti, to nature, not to Purusha or soul. Of all feminine types, the mother is pre-eminent. The mother stands by her child through everything. Wife and children may desert a man, but his mother never! Mother, again, is the impartial energy of the universe, because of the colorless love that asks not, desires not, cares not for the evil in her child, but loves him the more. And today Mother-worship is the worship of all the highest classes[2].

Traces of Mother-worship is found in the Indus civilization which is also characterized by urban culture. The female figurines in terracotta found at Mohenjo-Daro are comparable to similar artifacts excavated from archaeological sites Baluchistan, Elam, Mesopotamia, Transcaspia, Asia Minor, Syria, Palestine, Cyprus, Crete, the Balkans, and Egypt. It is probable that this devotion originated from a community of ideas shared by the people of these regions. The generally accepted view is that these figurines represent the real Mother or Nature Goddess, whose worship, under various names and forms and is still prevalent.

The Vedic Concept of Godhead

The hyms of the Rig Veda have the most astonishing record of the march of the human mind from the worship of the half-personified forces of nature like free, wind and rain to the realization of the absolute Spirit. The religious poets of the Vedas groping their way towards the Eternal—now marching ahead, now receding, now triumphant, and now dissatisfied—left behind them a trail of broken images, overthrown divinities, and abandoned faiths. Nothing mattered to them except a resolute search for unity.

The gods of popular belief, being only half-personified natural phenomena, gave them the clue that one God faded away into another. The same epithets were thus employed to describe more than one God. When these divinities overlapped so much it was inferred that they must all be one in essence hence the Vedic poets could freely extol one god as supreme at any given time, ignoring the claims of other gods. The Vedic Samhitas are unique in attributing the idea of infinity to every one of these gods. These deities or devas—Indra, Varuna, Vayu, and so on—are first worshiped as gods, and then are raised to the status of the Supreme Being in whom the whole universe exists who sees every heart, who is the ruler of the universe. Again, with Varuna, another idea is perceptible in germ form: evil and fear. On committing evil deeds people become afraid and ask Varuna for pardon. These ideas of fear and sin never really took deep roots in the Vedic soil, but the germs were there.

This practice of invoking individual gods as the highest, the elevation to supremacy of one god at a time, has been termed ‘henotheism.’ The gods are thus taken up as it were one after another, raised and sublimated, till each has assumed the proportions of the infinite personal God of the universe. The same is true of the Vedic goddesses. But this monotheistic idea did not satisfy the Vedic mind. There was an attempt to get behind these powerful gods and grasp the ‘power’ of which they were the manifestations. A well known hymn says: ‘That Being is one which the wise call by various names as Agni, Yama, and Matarishvan.’[3]

It is difficult to pinpoint the origin of the mother goddess idea in the Vedas, but the fact that deities like Aditi and Saraswati are described by rishis as ‘motherly’ shows that the idea of the Mother underlying such Puranic deities as Uma, Durga, Parvati, and Lakshmi is undoubtedly of Vedic origin. The Vedic seer worships divinity in various devotional moods, the most elementary being that of the child towards its mother. We find this manifest in such Rig Vedic phrases as ‘Pitā mātā sadaminmānuṣāṇām; Agni is always father and mother to humans’ [4]; ‘māteva yadbharase paprathāno janam janam; (Agni) sustains all beings like a mother’ [5]; and ‘vayam syāma māturna sūnavaḥ; (O Usha!) let us be dear to you like sons to a mother’ [6].

With the simplicity of a child Vedic seers look upon heaven and earth as Father and Mother and pray to them for protection from sin and guidance in the moral order. It is worth noting that when Mother Earth is invoked or entreated, she is usually invoked with Dyaus, yet it has to be admitted that the greatness and grandeur of Mother Earth commands reverential praise from her children, with whom the offering of songs is the real worship.

The Mother Goddess in the Veda

The Vedic conception of the Mother Goddess is found best represented in Aditi, who is mentioned no less than eighty times in the Rig Veda. She is the mother not only of the gods—deva-mātā—but also of kings, heroes, men, and women; of the entire nature—the manifest as also that which lies in the womb of the future. She is the mistress of the moral order that governs the universe and also the giver of freedom. This tradition of Aditi being the mother of the gods is found continued even in the Puranas.

The ‘Durga Sukta’ of the Taittiriya Aranyaka is one of the most beautiful hymns in the Vedas. Therein Agni is conceived of as the Divine Mother Durga, the resplendent goddess, blazing in her power:

Tāmagnivarnām tapasā jvalantīm vairocanīm'
karmaphalesu justām;
Durgām devīm śaranamaham prapadye sutar-
asi tarase namah.

I take refuge in the Goddess Durga, fiery in her lustre and radiant with ardency, who is the power of the Supreme manifest in diverse forms, residing in actions and their results. O thou skilled in deliverance, you steer us expertly across difficulties; salutations to thee.[7]

In another Vedic hymn Rishi Kushika invokes Night as Mother. She is the daughter of the heaven above, pervades the worlds, protects all beings from evils, and gives them peaceful shelter in her lap, mother as she is. In later Puranic texts Night is described as originating from maya, the creative power of Brahman, and is called Bhuvaneshwari—the sovereign mistress of the worlds. In the Durga Saptashati Mother Durga is given many epithets ending with the word rātri or night—kālarātri, mahārātri, and so on.

The most striking and comprehensive concept of the Divine as Shakti in the Vedas is found in the ‘Devi Sukta’. The whole hymn is an ecstatic outpouring of the realization of Brahman by Vak, the daughter of the sage Ambhrina. Realizing her all-pervasive identity she exclaims:

It is I (as identical with Brahman) who move in the form of the Rudras, the Vasus, the Adityas and all other gods. … I am the sovereign power (over all the worlds), bestower of all wealth, cognizant (of the Supreme Being), and the first among those to whom sacrificial homage is to be offered; the gods in all places worship but me, who am diverse in form and permeate everything. … I give birth to the infinite expanse overspreading the earth; my birthplace is in waters deep in the sea; therefrom do I permeate variously all the worlds, and touch the heaven above with my body. It is I who blow like the wind creating all the worlds; I transcend the heaven above, I transcend the earth below—this is the greatness I have attained.[8]

In the Upanishads

The Mother Goddess makes her appearance in the Kena Upanishad as Uma Haimavati, the power of Brahman. Having defeated the asuras, the devas—led by Agni, Vayu, and Indra—were puffed up with pride. They considered themselves all-powerful without knowing whence exactly their power came. Brahman appeared before them in the form of a yaksa to remove their conceit—to show them that they were not only powerless but they also did not realize this fact. He asked Agni to burn a straw and Vayu to lift it. Both failed. To Indra the yaksa did not even grant an interview. When Indra felt humbled, ‘Knowledge (of Brahman) made her appearance in the form of Uma’, in all her splendor. She told Indra that the yaksa was none other than Brahman, the ultimate Reality, the source of all powers. The Devi Bhagvata dwells elaborately on this legend and records Indra’s adoration of the Supreme Mother through various hymns. According to Shankaracharya and Sayanacharya, the Vedic commentator, Uma, who imparts the knowledge of Brahman is vidyā or ‘spiritual knowledge’ personified.

The Mundaka Upanishad also speaks of seven female powers—Kali, Karali, and so on—personifications of the fames of the sacrificial fire. The Shvetashvatara, a later theistic Upanishad, refers to the ‘innate power of the Supreme, concealed by its own nature’.[9] The sages realized that this power, maya, is none other than Prakriti, or primordial nature, ‘of infinite variety, with knowledge and action as its natural forms’ [10].

In the Epics and Puranas

It is difficult to say with any degree of certainty if any of the ceremonials and worship rituals of the Divine Mother in any of her currently popular forms—Durga, Chandi, or Kali—were in vogue, as we know them today, during the Epic Age of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. In the ‘Balakanda’ of the Ramayana we do get the story of Goddess Uma, the youngest daughter of Mount Himavan, who was married to Rudra and was highly respected by all gods, including Brahma. The Mahabharata also mentions Pradyumna’s worship of Goddess Katyayani and Aniruddha’s hymn to Goddess Chandi. Of particular importance is King Yudhishthira’s hymn to Goddess Durga.[11] This hymn contains some descriptions of the Goddess which we are familiar with from Puranic times. In some recensions of the text we find another hymn to Durga chanted by Arjuna at the instance of Sri Krishna.[12]

Before we deal with the worship of the Divine Mother in the Puranas and Tantras we need to briefly review the origin and development of the idea of Shakti in India. In the concept of Shakti we find a happy blending of two elements, one empirical and the other speculative. On the empirical side is Shakti’s role in Puranic cosmogony. It is a universal human experience that there can be no creation without the union of two elements—the male and the female. By analogy with this empirical fact, the rishis conceived of the role of the primordial Father and primordial Mother in the origination of the universe. The mother held a very important position in many ancient communities; hence it was natural that the Cosmic Mother should become the most important deity. The linga and yoni—representing the masculine and feminine respectively—have been the traditional symbols of Shiva and Shakti since ancient times. In virtually every Shiva temple the deity is depicted in the dual aniconic linga-yoni form representing the eternal union of Shiva and Shakti.

Again, it was observed that all existent objects were associated with intrinsic powers. So the Supreme Being, who is responsible for the creation, preservation, and destruction of the universe, must possess infinite powers to carry out these functions. The very fact of its existence presupposes infinite powers. Though the belief in the powers of the Di-vine is universal, it is lent a special colour in India by the dominant Indian tendency to view this power, this universal energy, as a female counterpart or consort of the ‘possessor of that power’. Thus Shakti came to occupy an important place in the religious consciousness of not only the Shaktas—for whom Shakti is supreme—but also of virtually every other religious sect, including the Shaivas, the Sauras, the Ganapatyas, and the Vaishnavas.

This strong belief in Shakti has fostered a popular synthesis of such apparently contradictory philosophies as Sankhya, Vedanta, Vaishnavism, and Tantra. The Sankhya speaks of Purusha and Prakriti as two independent ultimate realities whose interaction is of the nature of an object and its witness, the ‘accidental’ contact of Prakriti being a mere attribution on the unattached Purusha. In the Puranas and related popular religious literature, Prakriti is plainly conceived of as Purusha’s female counterpart, and the Prakriti and Purusha of the Sankhyas become identified with Shakti and Shiva in the Tantras. Similarly, in Vedanta the principle of maya is viewed as the Shakti of Brahman. In later popular religious traditions these pairs came to be identified with such deities as Vishnu and Lakshmi, Rama and Sita, and Krishna and Radha.

Though we have traced the origin of Mother-worship to the Vedas as well as to pre-Vedic cults, it is in the Puranas and the Tantras that the concept of Shakti as Mother Goddess attained remarkable development. We find many of the feminine deities of the Vedas and the Upanishads gradually becoming the Supreme Goddess in the Puranas and the Tantras. Such relations may be traced between the Vedic Goddess Ratri and the Puranic deities Kali and Parvati. In the Brihaddevata Devi Vak is addressed as Ratri, Saraswati, Aditi, and Durga.[13]

In the vast and varied corpus of Puranic literature, where the abstract principles of the Vedas and the Upanishads are manifested in more concrete forms, Shakti appears in the form of such deities as Chandi, Durga, Jagaddhatri, and Annapurna. The voluminous Devi Bhagavata is devoted to the celebration of various exploits of the Great Goddess. Another important Shakta text is the Devi Mahatmya or Durga Saptashati, also known popularly as Chandi. Comprising thirteen chapters from the Markandeya Purana, this text elaborates upon the concept of Shakti as the Great Mother and the highest Truth through allegory and is regarded as the most sacred text of the Mother-worshipers of India.

In the Chandi the goddess has been mainly styled ‘Devi’, but she became well-known in later times as Durga. The epithet ‘Durga’ has been variously interpreted in Puranic and Tantric literature, the central idea being that of the Mother Goddess who saves us from every misery and affliction, from all danger and difficulty. She is also called Chandi, the fierce goddess, in which form she incarnates herself for the purpose of destroying the asuras whenever they threaten the mental peace and heavenly dominion of the devas. Durga is also worshiped as Annapurna or Annada, the giver of food, and as Jagaddhatri, one who upholds the world. In spring she is worshiped as Vasanti, the spring goddess. In the ‘Devi Kavacha’, an auxiliary of the Chandi, the Devi is conceived of in nine forms, Nava-durga: Shailaputri, daughter of the mountains; Brahmacharini, dwelling in Brahman; Chandraghanta, who has the moon for her bell; Kushmanda, the fertile; Skandamata, mother of the war god Skanda; Katyayani, the daughter of Rishi Katyayana; Kalaratri, the dark night of dissolution; Mahagauri, the light of knowledge; and also conceived of in three forms according to the preponderance of each of the three gunas: of sattva, Maha-saraswati; of rajas, Maha-lakshmi, and of tamas, Maha-kali.

The ten Mahavidyas are another set of representations of the Devi. Their origin is narrated in connection with the legend of Shiva and his consort Sati. Sati’s father Daksha undertook a big sacrifice and invited all the gods to attend it. But he deliberately chose to ignore his son-in-law Shiva because of his rustic habits and disheveled appearance. Shiva, of course, did not feel offended, but Sati did. She decided to visit the sacrifice and disrupt it. Shiva was not willing to permit this. Sati’s anger increased and she assumed the ten largely fearsome forms of the Mahavidyas: Kali, Tara, Shodashi, Bhuvaneshwari, Bhairavi, Matangi, Chhinnamasta, Dhumavati, Bagala, and Kamala. Scholars are disposed to think of the ten Mahavidyas as different local deities who were later associated with and assimilated into the great Mother Goddess tradition through legend and theology. The sadhakas, on the other hand, would take them as different aspects of the same Great Mother Shakti suited to the tastes, temperaments, and mental levels of spiritual aspirants.

It will not be out of place here to mention the denouement of the story of Daksha’s sacrifice. Sati goes to the sacrifice and, unable to stand the insult heaped on her husband, ends her life by entering the sacrificial fire. On getting the news of Sati’s demise, Shiva is beside himself with grief and starts roaming the universe with Sati’s corpse on his shoulder. Fearing that Shiva’s grief and anger would ruin the worlds; the gods approach Vishnu for help. Vishnu, the ever-merciful protector of the universe, quietly approaches Shiva and with his discus dismembers Sati’s corpse into fifty-one pieces. Relieved of the corpse, Shiva manages to overcome his grief, while each of the fifty-one places where parts of Sati’s body fall become sacred to the worshippers of Devi.

The Durga Saptashati gives us a glimpse into the nature of the Divine Mother in the hymn addressed to her by Brahma, the Creator:

You are verily that which cannot be uttered specifically. You are Savitri (the liberating mantra) and the supreme mother of the gods.

By you this universe is borne, by you this world is created, by you it is protected, O Mother Divine, and you always consume it at the end. O you who are (always) of the form of the whole world, at the time of creation you are of the form of the creative force, at the time of sustentation you are of the form of protective power, and at the time of dissolution of the world, you are of the form of destructive power. You are the supreme knowledge as well as the great nescience, the great intellect and contemplation and also the great delusion. The power of good is yours; the power of evil too is yours.

You are the primordial cause of everything, bringing into force the three gunas—sattva, rajas and tamas—you are the dark night of periodic dissolution. You are the great night of final dissolution and the terrible night of delusion. You are the goddess of good fortune, the ruler, and modesty, intelligence characterized by knowledge, bashfulness, nourishment, contentment, tranquility and forbearance. Armed with various weapons you are terrible. Again, you are pleasing, yea, more pleasing than all the pleasing things and exceedingly beautiful. You are indeed the Supreme Empress, beyond the high and the low. And whatever, or wherever a thing exists, conscient or non-conscient, whatever power all that possesses is yourself.[14]

This is the soul-enthralling conception of the Divine Mother who is worshiped with great éclat in autumn. This autumnal worship of Mother Durga is especially prominent in Bengal. In the image used for this worship she is usually portrayed in the form of Mahishasura-mardini, slayer of the demon Mahisha—who took the form of a buffalo, as narrated in the Chandi. The Devi has a lion for her vāhana, vehicle, and is accompanied by her daughters Lakshmi and Saraswati—or her companions Jaya and Vijaya—as well as her sons Ganesha, the giver of success, and Kartika, the commander-in-chief of the gods. Kali is another popular goddess whose special annual worship is performed on the new moon night after the autumnal Durga Puja.

In the Tantras

The conception of God as Divine Mother attained its fullest flowering at the hands of the Shakta followers. They not only developed the elaborate forms and rituals connected with Shakti-worship, but also gave a pro-found philosophical basis to their faith and practice. The vast Tantra literature represents not only the various cults and ritualistic practices of Shaktism but also its religious ideology and philosophy. It would not be incorrect to say that in Shaktism Mother-worship attained its culmination.

According to the Shakta philosophy enshrined in the Tantras, the ultimate Reality as pure un-changing Consciousness is called Shiva, and its power, appearing as the flux of mind and matter in Creation is known as Shakti—the Cosmic Power or Primordial Energy. Shiva is pure Being, devoid of all relativity. Shakti is the active Personal Being and includes all individual souls. The opening verse of the Saundaryalahari reads: ‘Shiva, when he is united with Shakti, is able to create; otherwise he is unable even to move.’ Shiva and Shakti have been described as prakāśa, light, and vimarśa, reflection. The first semblance of relationship appearing within the Absolute is termed vimarśa; this is the source of the world of distinctions. Vimarśa or Shakti is the power latent in the Absolute, the pure Consciousness.

Durga Mahishasuramardini, picture of the Guler School by an unknown artist of the early 18th century

Shakti is the Absolute personified, Consciousness that becomes a subject and also passes over into its opposite, the non-self or the object. If Shiva is cit, Consciousness, Shakti is citi-śakti, the formative energy of consciousness. Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva perform their respective functions of creation, preservation, and destruction in obedience to Shakti. In the perfect experience of anandaShiva and Shakti are indistinguishable; the two coalesce into one Being. Shiva answers to the indeterminate Brahman in a state of quiescence; Shaktis determinate Brahman—endowed with icchā, will, jñāna, knowledge, and kriyā, action—that projects the whole objective universe. Shiva and Shakti are one, since power is inherent in existence. But though they are identical, there is an apparent difference between them from the phenomenal stand point. Brahman in its transcendental aspect does not change, but as Shakti, it does. This Shakti or Primordial Energy goes forth in a series of emanations which the Tantras term tattvas, of which thirty-six are described.

The Tantras also speak of three states of the Divine Mother:

  1. parā, the transcendental, which is beyond mental categories;
  2. sūksmā, the subtle which is embodied in the mantra; and
  3. sthūlā or gross, which is the form she takes to guide and help devotees who worship her and meditate upon her. The Divine Mother can assume various forms to meet the spiritual needs of devotees. The Mahavidyas are ten such forms, each with distinctive attributes. The Durga Mahishasura-mardini, picture of the Guler School by an unknown artist of the early 18th century

The Ten Mahavidyas

  • Kali, also called Shyama, is three-eyed, dark complexioned, fierce, and irascible. She sports a garland of decapitated human heads and a girdle of severed hands, and holds a decapitated head and a bloodied cleaver in two of her hands, while the other two arms gesture bestowal of boons and fearlessness. She is given many other epithets according to the predominance of certain attributes: Smashana-kali dwells in cremation grounds, Raksha-kali guards against famine and epidemics, Bhadra-kali is her benign form that can be worshipped in homes, Guhya-kali and Siddha-kali are objects of adoration for advanced practitioners of Tantric disciplines, and Maha-kali is the cosmic form of the deity.
  • Tara, as described in the context of the Mahavidyas, is much like Kali. She is dark, short, and large-bellied, wears a tiger skin and a necklace of severed heads, sports her hair in a single braid, and stands upon a burning pyre. Her worship was especially popular in Kashmir. She is also revered as an important deity—in such forms as Sita-tara, Shyama-tara, Pita-tara, Nila-tara, and Khadiravani-tara—in Mahayana Buddhism.
  • Shodashi is the benign form of the Devi—a beautiful girl of sixteen with a ruddy complexion, worshipped from Kashmir to Kerala. In her the divine power reached its fullness. Her name signifies this fullness of beauty and grandeur— much like the full moon displaying all its sixteen parts. Because of her beauty and grandeur she is also known as Tripurasundari and Rajarajeshwari. Nearly fifty forms are attributed to her, which shows her wide popularity.
  • Bhuvaneshwari is another benign form of the Devi. Her sattvic nature is reflected in her bright complexion. Her control of the elements is represented by the noose and goad that she holds, and her grace by the fruit in her hand.
  • Bhairavi has a red complexion, sports a garland of severed heads, and holds a rosary and a book in two of her four hands, the other two bestowing boons and fearlessness. Siddha- bhairavi, Tripura-bhairavi, and Bhuvaneshwara-bhairavi are some of the other names of this deity. She is associated with Batuk-bhairava as her consort.
  • Chhinnamasta stands naked in the cremation ground with a blood-stained scimitar in one hand and her own severed head—drinking the warm blood gushing from her headless trunk—in the other.
  • Dhumavati is visualized as a pale, tall, elderly, edentulous, querulous widow, with disheveled hair and dirty clothes. Afflicted with hunger, she holds a winnowing basket in her hand and is seen astride a crow.
  • Bagala is golden hued with the head of a crane. Seated on a lotus she has a noose and a thunderbolt in two of her hands. She holds an enemy by the tongue while chastising him with a club. According to the Sammohana Tantra she manifested herself near the Haridra Lake in Saurashtra, in response to Vishnu’s penance to help quell a storm that threatened to destroy the worlds.
The Goddess Kali, by Richard B Godfrey, 1770
  • Matangi or Sumukhi, manifested on earth when the Devi was propitiated by Rishi Matanga, according to the rahma Yamala. Dark coloured, she is seen seated on an ornamented throne, has the crescent moon on her forehead and wields a noose, a goad, a sword, and a shield in each of her four arms.
  • Kamala is the goddess of prosperity—and is thus a manifestation of Lakshmi. She is golden-hued and exquisitely beautiful and is described as seated on a red lotus, holding lotuses in her hands, and attended by elephants pouring out pitcherfuls of water over her.

The worship of Shakti is classified under two main heads: paśvācāra and vīrācāra. Different spiritual exercises are prescribed by the Tantras for different groups of aspirants. Paśvācāra is the code of conduct for aspirants with marked inertia and ignorance, and vīrācāra for comparatively advanced votaries with significant ambition and energy.

The Kularnava Tantra gives a more elaborate classification of Tantric practice:

  1. vedācāra,
  2. vaiṣṇavācāra,
  3. śaivācāra,
  4. 'dakṣiṇācāra,
  5. vāmācāra,
  6. siddhāntācāra,
  7. kaulācāra.

Each successive stage represents a more advanced practice—the kaulācara being the culmination of Tantric discipline. The first three stages comprise paśvācāra, the two next virācāra, while the two final stages represent divyācāra, the state of the siddha or adept. Vedācāra lays stress on the cultivation of cleanliness of body and mind. Aspirants in this stage are to rise early in the morning—two hours before sunrise—and practise meditation and prayer. They should honour the spiritual guide with prostrations, practise japa of the Divine Mother’s mantra, meditate on her as seated on the thousand-petalled lotus in the crown of the head, worship her with the prescribed accessories, and contemplate the Supreme Power with undivided attention. Purity is the watchword of vaiṣṇavācāra. It lays stress on cultivation of devotion and vigilance in performance of one’s duties. Aspirants in this stage are to practise continence in thought, word, and deed and give up jealousy and hypocrisy. Śaivācāra emphasizes cultivation of jnana, besides the primary disciplines of the earlier stages. Dakṣiṇācāra aims at consolidating the gains of the three preceding stages. In this stage the sadhaka practises worship of the Divine Mother with offerings and meditation on her divine form in the dead of night. With vāmācāra begins the more difficult practice of renunciation in the midst of objects of enjoyment. In this stage the guru introduces the sadhaka to esoteric practices involving flesh, wine, and women as objects of veneration. Siddhāntācāra involves devoted worship of the Divine Mother at night with offerings purified by the mystic power of mantras. By this means even objects previously considered impure may now be offered to the Divine Mother. It is in this stage that the aspirant arrives at a definitive understanding of the relative merits of the paths of enjoyment and renunciation. Kaulācāra is the stage when the Divine Mother or Brahman becomes a reality to the aspirant. The kaula, as the aspirant is now called, can worship the Divine Mother without consideration of time, place, or ritualistic details. Kaulas often behave in peculiar ways. At times they may appear insane, at other times ghoulish—their diverse divine moods manifesting through weeping, laughter, singing, and dancing. Established in same-sightedness, they view clay and sandal paste, friend and enemy, palaces and burning ghats, money and grass as being the same. They are so immersed in the thought of the Divine Mother that other objects and thoughts have no place in their minds.

Shakta theory and practice are closely associated with the mystical dimensions of yoga. The deep study of the power of sound as manifest in sacred syllables and mantras is an important contribution of the Shakta system. Śabda, the eternal Word, is none other than Shakti. It manifests the objective world through its primal creative momenta termed nāda, bindu, and bīja. Every letter of the alphabet is imbued with the power of Shakti; and mantras— words or phrases framed from these letters in accordance with their inner powers—are important means for accessing Shakti. Every mantra is a divine creation, and the whole body of mantras is identical with Shakti.

Tantra also tells us that within the human frame there are numerous subtle channels of power called nāḍīs. The most important of these is the suṣumṇā, spanning the spinal column from the sacral plexus to the crown of the head. Along the suṣumṇā are important centres of power called cakras, represented by mystical lotuses. The first of these, the mūlādhāra, is at the base of the spine. It houses the dormant Shakti called kundalini, coiled round the primordial linga, representing Brahman, like a serpent. Shakta yogic practices activate the kundalini and induce it to ascend through the suṣumṇā. As the kundalini passes through each of the cakras it provides the sadhaka with unique spiritual experiences and powers.

The Shaktas have also developed the use of mystical diagrams—yantras or maṇḍalas, often engraved on metal plates—ritual gestures or mudrās, and ritual procedures for sacralization of the human body, nyāsa, using mystic syllables called bīja. Each of the deities worshipped by the Shaktas has an associated yantra, which is usually placed in the centre of a lotus-diagram with the bīja of the particular goddess inscribed a certain number of times on each petal. The Sri-cakra is one such yantra representing the orb of the earth, the nine triangles within it denoting the nine continents. In the centre is the dot or bindu representing Shakti as presiding over the cakra. These yantras are as efficacious in manifesting the deities as mantras. To the Tantric, the consecrated yantra is none other than the deity itself.

Great Worshippers of the Divine Mother

From the very beginning, great men and women have been devotees of the Divine Mother. Sri Rama worshipped Devi Durga on the eve of his fight with Ravana. Rukmini worshipped Durga and sought her blessings for her marriage with Sri Krishna. Shankaracharya, the great Advaitic philosopher-saint, is well known not only for his commentaries on Advaitic texts, but also for his soul-stirring devotional hymns to the various gods and goddesses. He composed several hymns in praise of the Divine Mother and also installed the images of the goddesses Kamakshi and Sarada at Kanchipuram and Sringeri. His lucid exposition of the concept of Shakti is manifest in his hymns:

Śivaḥ śaktyā yukto yadi bhavati
śaktaḥ prabhavituṁ
na cedevaṁ devo na khalu kuśalaḥ
Atas-tvām-ārādhyāṁ hari-hara
praṇantuṁ stotuṁ vā
katham-akṛta-puṇyaḥ prabhavati.

Shiva is able to project this universe only if he is united with Shakti, otherwise the Deva is not even capable of moving. Therefore, how can those who have done no meritorious deeds ever strive either to worship or praise you who are worshiped even by Hari, Hara, Brahma, and others?[15]

Bhavāni tvaṁ dāse
mayi vitara dṛṣṭiṁ sakaruṇāṁ
iti stotuṁ vānchan
kathayati bhavāni tvam-iti yaḥ;
Tadaiva tvaṁ tasmai
diśasi nija-sāyujya-padavīṁ

To the devotee desirous of thus praying to you: ‘O Bhavani, please cast your compassionate glance on me, your servant’, even as he begins saying ‘O Bhavani’ you bestow on him sāyujya, union with your feet—the sāyujya that is illumined by the crowns of Vishnu, Brahma, and Indra[16].

In modern times Shakti worship has especially flourished in east India. The songs of such Tantric adepts as Ramprasad and Kamalakanta not only reveal an exquisite poetic sense but also deep philosophical insights about Tantric practices born of their own realizations. This process reached its culmination in Sri Ramakrishna, who showed how the Divine Mother could become a living reality in our lives, and also in Sri Sarada Devi, whose acceptance of the fruits of Sri Ramakrishna’s sadhana in the form of Devi Shodashi and the wonderful expression of motherhood in her life show us how this divine motherhood can actually manifest in human form for the all-round uplift of society. In this sense they represent the fulfillment of the worship of the Divine Mother that has captured the Indian mind for millennia.


  1. The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, 9 vols (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1–8, 1989; 9, 1997), 6.146.
  2. The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, 9 vols (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1–8, 1989; 9, 1997), 8.252
  3. Rig Veda, 1.164.46.
  4. Rig Veda 6.1.5
  5. Rig Veda 5.15.4
  6. Rig Veda 7.81.4
  7. Taittiriya Aranyaka, 10.1.65.
  8. Great Women of India, ed. Swami Madhavananda and Ramesh Chandra Majumdar (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1993), 60–1.
  9. Shvetashvatara Upanishad, 1.3.
  10. Shvetashvatara Upanishad 4.10, 6.8
  11. Mahabharata, ‘Virata Parva’, chap. 6.
  12. Mahabharata, ‘Bhishma Parva’, chap. 23.
  13. Brihaddevata, 2.74–9.
  14. See Swami Budhananda, ‘Worship of God as Mother’, Vedanta Kesari, 49/6 (October 1962),251.
  15. Shankaracharya, Saundaryalahari, 1.
  16. Shankaracharya, Saundaryalahari, 22.

  • Originally published as "Worship of God as Mother in the Indian Tradition" by Prabhuddha Bharata March 2009, April 2009 editions. Reprinted with permission.