Worship of God as Mother
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 signifcance. This idea of worshipping the Divine as the Eternal Mother has not been developed in any other religion of the world as it has been in the Hindu tradition and there-fore it represents a unique contribution of Hindu thought to global religious culture.
According to Vedanta, when the formless and at-tributeless 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 ul-timate Reality: the absolute and the relative. From the absolute standpoint Brahman is impersonal and without attributes, nirguṇa; whereas from the relative standpoint it is saguṇa, the personal God. Tough these two aspects appear to be mutually exclusive, they are in fact identical, much like fre and its power to burn. In India the personal God is worshipped in various forms and is called by various names. This has led to the formation of diferent sects. To Shaivas, Shiva is the Supreme Deity; to Vaishnavas, Vishnu; and to Shaktas, Shakti manifests as Mother or Devi. Again, according to the diferent temperaments of as-pirants, the same deity is addressed as father, master, friend, beloved, or mother. Sri Ramakrishna always referred to God as ‘my Mother’. Te idea of address-ing and worshipping God as Mother is a very ancient tradition in India. This idea fnds expression in the Vedas and the Upanishads and was further developed in the Puranas and the Tantras.
Origin and Development of Mother-Worship
In India, where 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 Cre-ation 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 ofered worship at every stage of life—as vir-gins, as married women, and as mothers. Te 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 India’s religious history.
The following seem to be plausible reasons for the development of Mother-worship in India: (i) 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; (ii) the security the aspirant feels in the natural love and consideration of the mother towards her child; and (iii) the concept that God creates, sustains, and des-troys 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 ani-mates all beings.” This is the germ which afterwards develops into Mother-worship. By Mother-worship is not meant difference between father and mother. Te first idea connoted by it is that of energy—I am the power that is in all beings.’
Further: Mother-worship is a distinct philosophy in itself. Power is the frst 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 in India, the mother is pre-eminent. Te mother stands by her child through every-thing. 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 amongst the Hindus (8.252).
We find traces of Mother-worship in the Indus vilization. Tis civilization has been assigned to e third millennium bce, and is characterized by rban culture. Te female figurines in terracotta und at Mohenjo-daro are comparable to simi-r artefacts excavated from archaeological sites Baluchistan, Elam, Mesopotamia, Transcaspia, sia Minor, Syria, Palestine, Cyprus, Crete, the alkans, and Egypt. It is probable that this devo-on originated from a community of ideas shared y the people of these regions. Te generally ac-pted view is that these figurines represent the reat Mother or Nature Goddess, whose worship,u nder various names and forms, is still prevalent India.
The Vedic Period
There is a widespread misconception that the worship of God as Mother is a post-Vedic or non-Vedic actice. But this idea has no basis. Before dealing with the worship of God as Mother in the Vedic period, however, it is necessary to say a few words bout the Vedic concept of the Godhead.
The history of Hinduism can be traced back to the hymns recorded in the Rig Veda. In these hymns we 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 We find the religious poets of the Vedas groping their way towards the Eternal—now marching ahead, now receding, now triumphant, and now dissatisfied—leaving behind them a trail of bro-ken 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 One God faded away into another. Te same epithets had been 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. Te myths of the Vedic Samhitas are unique in attributing the idea of infnity to every one of these gods. Tese deities or devas—Indra Varuna, Vayu, and so on—are frst worshipped 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 on Indian soil, but the germs were there.
Thus in the Vedas we see an early form of monotheism. This practice of invoking individual godsas the highest, the elevation to supremacy of one god at a time, has been termed ‘henotheism’ byMax Müller. Te gods are thus taken up as it were one afer another, raised and sublimated, till each has assumed the proportions of the infnite personal God of the universe. Te 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: ‘Tat Being is one which the wise call by various names as Agni, Yama, and Matarishvan.’
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. Te 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’ (Rig Veda 6.1.5); ‘māteva yadbharase paprathāno janaṁ janam; (Agni) sustains all beings like a mother’ (5.15.4); and ‘vayaṁ syāma māturna sūnavaḥ; (O Usha!) let us be dear to you like sons to a mother’ (7.81.4).
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 guid-ance 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 ad-mitted that the greatness and grandeur of Mother Earth commands reverential praise from her chil-dren, with whom the ofering of songs is the real worship.
Te 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. Tis tradition of Aditi being the mother of the gods is found continued even in the Puranas.
Te ‘Durga Sukta’ of the Taittiriya Aranyaka is one of the most beautiful hymns in the Vedas. Terein Agni is conceived of as the Divine Mother Durga, the resplendent goddess, blazing in her power:
Tāmagnivarṇāṁ tapasā jvalantīṁ vairocanīṁ karmaphaleṣu juṣṭām; Durgāṁ devīṁ śaraṇamahaṁ prapadye sutar- asi tarase namaḥ. I take refuge in the Goddess Durga, fery 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 de-liverance, you steer us expertly across difficulties; salutations to thee.3
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.
Te most striking and comprehensive concept of the Divine as Shakti in the Vedas is found in the ‘Devi Sukta’. Te whole hymn is an ecstatic out-pouring 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 frst among those to whom sacrifcial homage is to be ofered; the gods in all places worship but me, who am diverse in form and permeate everything. … I give birth to the infnite 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.
In the Upanisads
Te 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 pufed up with pride. Tey considered themselves all-powerful without knowing whence exactly their power came. Brahman appeared before them in the form of a yakṣa 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 lif it. Both failed. To Indra the yakṣa did not even grant an interview. When Indra felt humbled, ‘Knowledge (of Brahman) made her appearance in the form of Uma’, in all her splen- dour. She told Indra that the yakṣa was none other than Brahman, the ultimate Reality, the source of all powers. Te Devi Bhagvata dwells elaborately on this legend and records Indra’s adoration of the Supreme Mother through various hymns. Ac-cording to Shankaracharya and Sayanacharya, the Vedic commentator, Uma, who imparts the know- ledge of Brahman is vidyā or ‘spiritual knowledge’ personifed.
The Mundaka Upanishad also speaks of seven female powers—Kali, Karali, and so on—personi-fcations of the fames of the sacrifcial fre. Te Shvetashvatara, a later theistic Upanishad, refers to the ‘innate power of the Supreme, concealed by its own nature’.5 Te sages realized that this power, maya, is none other than Prakriti, or primordial na-ture, ‘of infnite variety, with knowledge and action as its natural forms’ (4.10; 6.8).
In the Epics and Puranas
It is difcult 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. Te Mahabharata also mentions Pradyumna’s worship of Goddess Katyayani and Aniruddha’s hymn to Goddess Chandi. Of particular importance is King Yudhish-thira’s hymn to Goddess Durga.6 Tis hymn con-tains some descriptions of the Goddess which we are familiar with from Puranic times. In some re-censions of the text we fnd another hymn to Durga chanted by Arjuna at the instance of Sri Krishna.
Before we deal with the worship of the Divine Mother in the Puranas and Tantras we need to briefy review the origin and development of the idea of Shakti in India. In the concept of Shakti we fnd a happy blending of two elements, one empiri-cal and the other speculative. On the empirical side is Shakti’s role in Puranic cosmogony. It is a univer-sal 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. Te mother held a very important pos-ition in many ancient communities; hence it was natural that the Cosmic Mother should become the most important deity. Te linga and yoni—rep-resenting 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 Su-preme Being, who is responsible for the creation, preservation, and destruction of the universe, must possess infnite powers to carry out these functions. Te very fact of its existence presupposes infnite powers. Tough 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’. Tus 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. Te 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 litera-ture, Prakriti is plainly conceived of as Purusha’s female counterpart, and the Prakriti and Purusha of the Sankhyas become identifed with Shakti and Shiva in the Tantras. Similarly, in Vedanta the principle of maya is viewed as the Shakti of Brah-man. In later popular religious traditions these pairs came to be identifed 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 fnd many of the feminine deities of the Vedas and the Upanishads gradually becom-ing 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 ad-dressed as Ratri, Saraswati, Aditi, and Durga.
In the vast and varied corpus of Puranic litera-ture, 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. Te voluminous Devi Bhagavata is devoted to the celebration of various exploits of the Great God-dess. Another important Shakta text is the Devi Mahatmya or Durga Saptashati, also known popu-larly 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-worshippers of India.
In the Chandi the goddess has been mainly styled ‘Devi’, but she became well-known in later times as Durga. Te epithet ‘Durga’ has been vari-ously interpreted in Puranic and Tantric literature, the central idea being that of the Mother God-dess who saves us from every misery and afiction, from all danger and difculty. She is also called Chandi, the ferce goddess, in which form she in-carnates herself for the purpose of destroying the asuras whenever they threaten the mental peace and heavenly dominion of the devas. Durga is also worshipped as Annapurna or Annada, the giver of food, and as Jagaddhatri, one who upholds the world. In spring she is worshipped 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 dis-solution; 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 represen-tations of the Devi. Teir origin is narrated in con-nection with the legend of Shiva and his consort Sati. Sati’s father Daksha undertook a big sacrifce and invited all the gods to attend it. But he deliber-ately chose to ignore his son-in-law Shiva because of his rustic habits and dishevelled appearance. Shiva, of course, did not feel ofended, but Sati did. She decided to visit the sacrifce 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, Bhu-vaneshwari, Bhairavi, Matangi, Chhinnamasta,Dhumavati, Bagala, and Kamala. Scholars are dis-posed to think of the ten Mahavidyas as diferent local deities who were later associated with and assimilated into the great Mother Goddess tradi-tion through legend and theology. Te 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 sacrifce. Sati goes to the sacrifice and, unable to stand the insult heaped on her husband, ends her life by entering the sacrificial fre. On getting the news of Sati’s de-mise, 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 dis-members Sati’s corpse into ffy-one pieces. Re-lieved of the corpse, Shiva manages to overcome his grief, while each of the ffy-one places where parts of Sati’s body fall become sacred to the wor-shippers 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 specif-cally. 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 Di-vine, 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 know-ledge as well as the great nescience, the great intel-lect and contemplation and also the great delusion. Te 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 fnal disso-lution and the terrible night of delusion. You are the goddess of good fortune, the ruler, modesty, intelligence characterized by knowledge, bashful-ness, nourishment, contentment, tranquillity 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, con-scient or non-conscient, whatever power all that possesses is yourself.
This is the soul-enthralling conception of the Divine Mother whom Hindus worship 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 bufalo, as narrated in the Chandi. Te Devi has a lion for her vāhana, vehicle, and is accompanied by her daughters Lakshmi and Saraswati—or her compan-ions 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 afer the autumnal Durga Puja.
In the Tantras
The conception of God as Divine Mother at-tained its fullest f owering at the hands of the Shakta followers of Hinduism. They not only developed the elaborate forms and rituals con-nected with Shakti-worship, but also gave a pro-found philosophical basis to their faith and practice. Th e 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 f ux 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, ref ection. The first semblance of relationship ap-pearing 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.
Shakti is the Absolute personif ed, Conscious-ness 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 forma-tive energy of consciousness. Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva perform their respective functions of creat ion, pre servation, 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, willjñāna, knowledge, and kriyā, action—that projectsthe 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 trans cendental aspect doesnot change, but as Shakti, it does. The is 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: (i) parā, the transcendental, which is beyond mental categories; (ii) sūkṣmā, the subtle which is embodied in the mantra; and (iii) sthūlā or gross, which is the form she takes to guide and help devotees who worship her and meditate upon her. Th e Divine Mother can assume various forms to meet the spiritual needs of devotees. The Mahavidyasare 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.
• 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: (i) vedācāra, (ii) vaiṣṇavācāra, (iii) śaivācāra, (iv) dakṣiṇācāra, (v) vāmācāra, (vi) siddhāntācāra, (vii) 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 spirant. 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 its very beginnings Hindu civilization has given birth to great men and women devoted to 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 of the Hindu pantheon. 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 spanditum-api; Atas-tvām-ārādhyāṁ hari-hara virincādibhir-api 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 worshipped even by Hari, Hara, Brahma, and others?10
Bhavāni tvaṁ dāse mayi vitara dṛṣṭiṁ sakaruṇāṁ iti stotuṁ vānchan kathayati bhavāni tvam-iti yaḥ; Tadaiva tvaṁ tasmai diśasi nija-sāyujya-padavīṁ mukunda-brahmendrasphuṭa- mukuṭa-nīrājita-padām.
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 (22).
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. Te Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, 9 vols (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1–8, 1989; 9, 1997), 6.146. 2. Rig Veda, 1.164.46. 3. Taittiriya Aranyaka, 10.1.65. 4. Great Women of India, ed. Swami Madhavananda and Ramesh Chandra Majumdar (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1993), 60–1. 5. Shvetashvatara Upanishad, 1.3. 6. Mahabharata, ‘Virata Parva’, chap. 6. 7. Mahabharata, ‘Bhishma Parva’, chap. 23. 8. Brihaddevata, 2.74–9. 9. See Swami Budhananda, ‘Worship of God as Mother’, Vedanta Kesari, 49/6 (October 1962), 251. 10. Shankaracharya, Saundaryalahari, 1.