It was the feminine who emerged first just as the womb symbolises a new creation, a personification of life. Carrying the universal theme, the archetype of creation and procreation, mythology says our world emerged out of the female essence; the Goddess, the Shakti, the Devi. She has many faces, names, moods and emotions. Each has evolved with a force of will, defining an archetype, an aspect that lies within every woman.
Hindu mythology boasts of a wide range and scope of positive female archetypes that come close to their male counterpart in terms of heroism. The women are as ‘heroic’ as the men in their personality, deeds, their calling and conflicts in their life’s journey. Who is Shiva without Parvati? Or Ram without Sita? What would the Pandavas be without Draupadi? Both men and women are given equal prominence demonstrating well enough that women were on par with men.
Durga, Kali and Draupadi are the figures that come immediately to our mind. Goddess Durga, astride the tiger of patriarchy, is endowed with all the traits, moods and weapons of the male gods to destroy the most powerful demon that none could kill individually. She is often shown stronger than the males.
Goddess Durga, astride the tiger of patriarchy, is endowed with all the traits, moods and weapons of the male gods to destroy the most powerful demon that none could kill individually. She is often shown stronger than the males.
Similarly, Draupadi is the reason for the rise and fall and rise of the Pandavas. She starts the war and wins them their war. Also, Kali , the ultimate destroyer, is another example of the heroic female archetype in Hindu mythology, blood thirsty and vengeful, she annihilates all. Radha the symbol of eternal romance, breaks barriers and boundaries yet is the archetype of love and devotion. Hers is a journey from being the simple village woman, married and older who dares to love Krishna to become the human lover who attains divinity through her unconditional, hopeless love for him.
As women continue to struggle for equality today, thousands year old mythology lists out at least seven archetypal goddesses of empowerment:
PARVATI : MOTHERHOOD
Parvati is the Mother Goddess, essentially gentle and nurturing. Yet she is Shakti, a study in contrast: she is both the goddess of fertility, love and devotion; as well as of divine strength and power. As the wife of Shiva, she is his recreative energy and power or the yoni (womb) i the yoni- linga metaphor. She is the bond that connects all beings and a means of their spiritual release.
DESCRIPTION AND SYMBOLS: She typically wears a red drape with a head-band. With Shiva, she appears with two arms, but alone, she has four, holding a conch, crown, mirror, rosary, bell, dish, farming tool such as a sugarcane stalk, or flowers such as lotus. One of her hands is positioned in the abhay mudra (‘fear not’), for her children – Ganesh on her knee, and Kaartikeya playing close by. She is often depicted near a calf or cow – a source of food.
KALI: THE DESTROYER
She is the destroyer principally of evil forces and is seen as a great protector. Her terrible form notwithstanding, she is considered the kindest and most loving of all the goddesses, forever protective and helpful.
DESCRIPTION AND SYMBOLS: Kali is portrayed either as in the popular four-armed form or the ten-armed Mahakali form, brandishing alternatively a sword or a trishul and a severed head. She is ebony-skinned, her eyes red with fury, her hair long and loose, with small fangs and her bloodied tongue lolling. She is often shown naked or just wearing a skirt made of human arms and a garland of human heads with serpents and a jackal while standing on the calm and prostrate Shiva to temper her down.
Durga means the invincible one. She is the supreme soul, the primordial cosmic energy and as such, having in her the power of creation, existence and destruction. By her, are generated two triads of supreme powers, the male Trimurti and the female Tridevi.
DESCRIPTION AND SYMBOLS: Astride a tiger of societal misogyny, forceful and independent, she is shown carrying weapons – the sword, the spear, the club, Shiva’s trishul, Vishnu’s Sudarshanchakra, Varun’s conch (resounding with Om, killing all negative vibrations), Surya’s bow and arrow, Indra’s thunderbolt and the lotus flower(to awaken the spiritual consciousness)
GANGA: PURIFICATION, HEALTH AND THE LIBERATOR Essentially a river nymph, she is the archetype for purity and wellness. The river Ganga is considered the most sacred of all, personified by the bountiful goddess. Bathing in this river is supposed to facilitate attaining moksha, the liberation from the cycle of life and death. She is also known as the mother, forgiving and compassionate.
DESCRIPTION AND SYMBOLS: Ganga is depicted fair and beautiful, dressed in ethereal white, controlling the makara (a sea animal on which she stands), with water flowing all around her.
As the female form, the female avtaar of Vishnu, she is the symbol of beauty, an enchantress, who maddens lovers to their doom and destruction, thus saving the world. She is the ultimate charmer, who bewitches through beauty and wit, giving the world the pot of nectar of life, the Amrit. In contrast to her erotic femininity, are the apsaras who are the symbols of female sexual power, who use beauty and their bodies essentially to seduce, the femme fatales used by Indra to defeat his enemies.
DESCRIPTION AND SYMBOLS: The word Mohini means moha, meaning ‘to enchant’ and literally means a spell. Always shown as the personification of delusion and maya, she is shown ethereal and breathtakingly beautiful in full finery, decked in gold and glitter.
Also Read: Reimagining Indian Goddesses
SARASWATI: INTELLIGENCE AND INTROSPECTION
She is the goddess of knowledge, music, arts, wisdom and learning. She is a part of the trinity (Tridevi) of Saraswati, Lakshmi and Parvati who help the trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva to create, maintain and regenerate and recycle the Universe.
DESCRIPTION AND SYMBOLS: She is depicted on a river, a reference to her being a river goddess. Dressed in white, seated on a white lotus, or a white swan,(spiritual perfection) she symbolizes light, knowledge and truth and also the experience of the highest reality. She is always associated with white , the colour of purity, non-corruption and the power to discriminate true knowledge, insight and wisdom.
When shown with four hands, they mirror her husband Brahma’s four heads, representing manas (mind), buddhi (intellect), citta (imagination) and ahamkāra (ego). If Brahma represents the abstract, she means action and reality.
The four hands hold a book,( the Vedas) a rosary,( meditation) a water pot (the purifying power to cleanse) and the veena,(creativeness).
LAKSHMI: WEALTH AND FORTUNE
Lakshmi carries with her the universal reality of wealth, fortune and prosperity. As the wife and shakti of Vishnu, she is also a goddess of abundance.
DESCRIPTION AND SYMBOLS: She typically wears a rich red silks embroidered in gold. The owl is her vehicle – to signify work and economic activity in our lives while prevailing in confusing darkness. She is shown either standing or sitting on a red lotus, holding a lotus in her hand (spiritual liberation). Her four hands represent the four goals of human life – dharma( moral duty) kāma (love) artha( wealth) and moksha(liberation). She is sometimes shown with elephants ( work and strength) while the owl is a reminder to refrain from being greedy and blind to knowledge after acquiring wealth. Sometimes, she is shown with a pot of gold or gold coins pouring out of her hands symbolising material as well as spiritual wealth. Her serene face and open hands are in a mudra that signify charity and generosity of giving.
Views expressed are personal. Kavita Kané writes a monthly column, Goddess of All Things, on SheThePeople.TV. She tweets @kavitakane