The festival of Navratri is upon us once again, reminding us of what is perhaps the oldest living tradition of worshipping the Mother Goddess in the world. I had earlier written about the Nava-Durga or the nine forms of the goddess that are widely worshipped during these nine days, and as we immerse ourselves in the revelry of Dandiya and Durga Puja, let us take a look at the lesser known Mahavidyas or Wisdom Goddesses.
Nava-Durga are different representations of Parvati and can be enumerated in the order of appearance as Shailputri, Brahmacharini, Chandraghanta, Kushmanda, Skandamata, Katyayini, Kalratri, Mahagauri and Siddhidhatri. In contrast, the Dash-Mahavidyas, are the ten forms of Parvati’s first birth as Sati and are primarily adored by the practitioners of Tantra. These are – Kali, Tara, Shodashi, Bhuvaneshwari, Bhairavi, Matangi, Chhinnamasta, Dhumavati, Bagala, and Kamala.
While the former group represents the goddess as a married woman, the latter is composed of those who are largely independent and unattached. Even when they are depicted with a spouse, they are shown standing or sitting on top of him. Perhaps, they represent the ancient Indian feminist movement that wished to establish worshiping the Goddess at a higher pedestal than that of the male gods unlike their more popular counterparts mentioned above. The only connecting link between the two groups is Ma Kali and accordingly, she is also the foremost amongst the Mahavidyas.
Kali is Aadi or the primary Mahavidya. While she forms just one of the nine forms of Nava-Durga, the goddesses under consideration are all emanations of her and share her qualities in varying shades. She is ‘Timeless’ and her darkness represents the magnetic quality of a black hole that draws everything towards her, devouring and destroying everything with the passage of time. While her worship is prevalent in Bengal and North-eastern states, the second Mahavidya Tara is more popular in Tibet while Tripura Sundari is worshipped in the southern states.
An interesting thing about the worship of these forms of the goddess is the use of Pancha Makaara or the five ‘Ms’ that employ traditionally forbidden elements – Madya or liquor, Maans or meat, Matsysa or fish, Mudraa or fermented grains and Maithuna or ritual sex. By using such traditionally blasphemous items the Tantra worshippers show their belief that the Goddess pervades all that is considered impure just as she does what is traditionally considered kosher. Perhaps this strange form of worship is one of the reasons these goddesses never found much acceptance in the mainstream like the Nava-Durga, but the practitioners of Tantra believe that this is a faster way to attain Siddhis or magical powers that the goddess grants, compared to the traditional Saatvik forms of worship.
Before I go deeper into their individual representations, let me refresh the legend of Sati for the benefit of those who may not be aware of it. As per the story in the Devi Puran, once Brahma’s son Daksh Prajapati prayed to obtain the goddess as his daughter and the Divine Mother acquiesced to his request. But she also reminded Daksh that if he ever disregarded her in any way, she would leave that form instantly. As luck would have it, Sati fell in love with Shiva, one of the only gods that Daksh didn’t really admire and left her home to live at Kailash. Fuming at this disrespect, Daksh organised a grand Yagna in which he invited all the gods and goddesses except his own daughter and son-in-law.
When Sati got wind of it, she began to pester Shiva to take her there so Shiva, perhaps like many other exasperated husbands reprimanded her with the following words:
Janami vagvahirbhutAm tvAmaham dakshakanyake
yatharuchi kuru tvancha mamajyAm ki pratikshase
I know that you are not bound by my orders, so do as you please, why are you waiting for my consent?
Upon hearing Shiva’s strong words Sati lost her temper and realised that having obtained her as his wife, Shiva had forgotten her real powers. She quickly assumed her terrible form of Kali, in which she is dark like the night, naked except for a garland of severed heads, eyes wide open and tongue lolling out, her hair dishevelled and hands holding various weapons of destruction. Shiva, understandably, was stunned on seeing her terrible form and tried to go away from that place but Kali assumed ten different forms to block the ten directions; these same forms are the Dash Mahavidyas.
This story of manifestation of the Mahavidyas is a far cry from that of the Nava Durgas since these are manifestations of an enraged Sati while those were the evolving forms of a benign Parvati. These goddesses are the very antithesis of a traditional housewife and are also almost never associated with motherhood, relieving them of the two most widely expected duties of a woman in society. Let us now see their individual qualities and what they represent.
As mentioned earlier, Kali represents Time, the destroyer of all. She is followed by Tara who resembles Kali more than any other goddess of the group and has a strong presence in Tibetan Buddhism and even Jainism. She is the as yet unmanifested speech that resides in our breath and unlike Kali, who represents absolute freedom from constraint, is a symbol of yogic restraint. She is associated with the power of speech therefore also considered a Tantrik form of Saraswati along with Matangi, another goddess in this group.
The third form of Tripura Sundari is also known as Shodashi since she is depicted as a young girl of sixteen. Like most Mahavidyas, she dominates her male counterpart and sits on the chest of Shiva, while four major gods support her throne as its legs. The fourth form is Bhuvaneshwari whose realm includes the Bhur, Bhuvah And Svaha or the earth, atmosphere and the heaven therefore she is the embodiment of Space. While Kali creates events in time; Bhuvaneshwari creates objects in space. The two goddesses therefore form a basis of this whole universe!
Out of all these goddesses, Chinnamastika is perhaps also the most disturbing one. She stands naked having chopped off her own head with her own sword, holding it in her left hand. Three jets of blood spurt out of her bleeding neck, with the central one going into the mouth of her own head while the other two are lapped up by her two companions – Dakini and Varnini. Many people are frightened at seeing this form and wonder how could a goddess look like this!
But that is the very purpose of Tantra – to shock one out of the sense of what is acceptable and what isn’t and make the practitioner aware of the futility of these distinctions when death is standing at your door. Chhinnamasta’s chopping of her own head signifies the discarding of ego which is the first step for spiritual awakening. The three streams of blood represent the three nadis of Yoga and their consumption signifies the understanding of its highest principles. She stands on top of Kamdev and Rati, the Hindu god of love and his spouse who are making love, showing that creation and destruction form a continuous cycle of life.
Bhairavi is named after Shiva who is also known as Bhairav in his fierce form. She is therefore the destructive force of nature and represents the slow yet steady process of decay and death that is occurring every moment. Dhumavati takes it a step ahead where the goddess is an old and ugly widow who wears dirty clothes and holds a winnowing basket and a bowl of fire in her hands. She favours the unmarried and the widowed and leads to an aversion towards worldly pleasures. Like Chhinnamasta, her representation also represents much more that meets the eye – the bowl of fire indicates that all things are eventually destroyed while the winnowing basket depicts the power of discrimination that separates the real stuff from the chaff.
The next form is of Bagalamukhi who has the magical power of Stambhan or the power to paralyze a person into silence. She holds a club in her right hand with which she beats a demon, while pulling his tongue out with her left hand. In a way, she is the opposite of Tara, both being goddesses of speech. While Tara helps the devotees speak correctly, Bagalamukhi leaves them gasping for words.
The ninth form of Matangi is named after her father Matang Rishi who was born a chandal or an outcaste. It is interesting that this group includes the members of society that were traditionally not included in social gatherings. Dhumavati being a widow and Matangi a Chandalika has no bearing on their importance for the devotee and the latter is also known as Mantrini who blesses her devotee with the magical powers of mantras. She holds a parrot in one hand while the other hands hold a skull, a chopping blade, and an ornate veena respectively. Clearly, her purpose is to reconcile the contradictions of art and warfare for the devotee who is interested in both.
Finally, we come to Kamala, who is clearly linked to Lakshmi yet, is different from her in many respects. She is flanked by elephants showering water over her from bejewelled pots, holds lotuses in her hands and is bedecked with jewels, however, she is not the spouse of Lord Vishnu. Kamala is therefore the Tantrik version of Lakshmi who is invoked for seeking wealth and hidden treasures. It is interesting to note that while both the Nava-Durga and the Dash-Mahavidyas are representations of Shiva’s wives, their ultimate form is that of Lakshmi. This order shows that whatever a person’s initial predisposition, the ultimate aim is to approach the property of goodness and tranquillity, leaving behind the aggression and violence.
The Mahavidyas as a group reflect the various attributes of the Supreme Goddess in a way that they do not depend on their spouses. Kali generates Time and Bhuvaneshwari manifests Space; Bhairavi represents entropy while Dhumavati is detached passivity; Chhinnamasta represents the force of action while Bagalamukhi denotes the power to stop movement. Tara represents sound force, Matangi represents the power of the arts and Kamla and Sundari represent riches, beauty and desire. May this Navaratri the Ten Mystic Wisdom Goddesses bless us all with the power to say and do what is right and the intellect to discern the difference!
Dr Vineet Aggarwal lives and works in Mumbai and is the author of popular online blog ‘Decode Hindu Mythology’ and the books ‘Vishwamitra’ and ‘The Legend of Parshu-Raam’. His literary repertoire covers topics from politics to poetry and travel to terrorism but his favorite genre remains the amalgamation of science with religion.
Views are the author’s own. Lead image credit: Youngisthan; other images: Dr Vineet Aggarwal