Among the most important goddesses of the Mahāvidyā pantheon, Mahatripura Sundari certainly ranks high. Known also as Ṣoḍaśī, Lalita, Kamesvari she is considered equal to Kali and Tara in granting liberation to the sincere devotee. Of course, traditionally the worship of Tripurasundari has been concentrated more in the south of the Vindya hills, and form a vibrant and self-sufficient path known to its followers as SriVidya, wherein this form of the goddess is equated with Adi Shakti.
One school of thought believes that Tripuri was already a well-established goddess in Kashmir and South of India, with earliest references to Srividya appearing in the Tamil classic Tirumantiram, before she was inducted in the Mahāvidyā pantheon. Of particular importance is the impact of the legendary Acharya Adi Shankara’s texts celebrating Lalita Tripurasundari which, it is reasonable to conclude, must have played a significant role in popularizing the impact of this goddess in South India. The Sri Yantra, which is a yantric representation of the whole mandala of Tripurasundari, and arguably the most complex of all Hindu yantra-s, is installed in many temples as well as worshiped by individual devotees.
The Beneficent, The Beautiful
The name Tripurasundari means the (most) beautiful (Goddess) of the three cities. One may ask which cities and that opens up a wide range of interpretive possibilities. Some Yogi-s tend to believe that the three cities referred to in the name represents the junction points of the three most important nadi-s or subtle channels inside the sukshma sharira of the individual: ida, pingala and susumna. By some accounts they meet at the Agya chakra, and as per some other texts they meet at the sahasradala padma above the head. Either way, it is this juncture where, once chit-shakti gets sufficiently concentrated, releases a sense of tremendous, unassailable bliss in the seeker that is regarded as the ever beautiful, eternally beneficent domain of Maha Tripurasundari. There is also another school of interpretation of the name where Tripura or the three cities represent the worlds of bhu, bhuva and swara, which all humans inhabit, and Sundari is the supreme beauty of these realms. But why beauty? Maybe because the true secret of life, beyond all the friction and tussle lies an endless search for that great harmony of existence, ananda, the most natural condition of being and its innermost secret. Her mantra is also formed by three clusters, in cognizance of her name as Tripuri. More esoteric texts like the Kamakala-vilasa stipulate that her name signifies three types or colors of bindu: red, white and mixed representing all the polarities of physical desire, making implicit her omnipresence and omnipotent. In a more vedic line of interpretation, Tripura may also represent the three planes of existence, bhur, bhuva and svah – the physical, vital and mental layer, on which the goddess has perfect control.
Alternately, she is also referred to as Kameshwari – She who is of the nature of desire, or more appropriately, the source of desire, for desire is psychological the seed which governs both individual and collective existence. Even moksha starts as a desire in the human heart, until finally, by the grace of the goddess, the seeker learns to transcend all desires. In the heart of the Sri Yantra lies the inverted triangle known as Kama Kala which represents Shakti in her triple forms, while the varna-s reside on the sides of the triangle implying that all mantras are finally born form this root of mantras. Inside the Kama Kala lies the bindu or dot, which is the closest approximation of the unmanifest Reality. Mahatripurasundari is therefore the personification of the Shakti that links the unmanifest Siva to the world of creation, unfolding the creative universe through the engine of desire, and in doing so she also diffuses herself or emanates 16 different kala-s (part manifestations) who are her own aspects but can function as independent shaktis within the experiential totality of the Sri Yantric universe. But Bindu or dot has other connotations too in the world of Tantra sadhana. It also refers to the male virya, while the triangle of shakti at the heart of the mandala can symbolize the Yoni, and together these lead to new creation! Philosophically as well as practically in the shastra of mantra-s, bindu leads to the anusvāra (literally after-sound) or the nasalized sound which is of primary importance in single-syllable beeja-s, just as bindu changes to nada and proceeds with the creation of manifested universe. The Yogi or sadhaka inturn traces the reverse path back from manifestation into the nada and finally merges his chit-shakti into the bindu. Details of the construction and philosophy of Tripurasundari and particularly the Sri Yantra comes to us from a section of the Vamakeswara Tantra known as Yogini Hridaya (heart of the Yogini). This text defines Tripura as Brahma, Vishnu, and Isha; and as the energies desire, wisdom, and action, thus ascribing the epithet Ichchha-shakti-jñana-shakti-kriya-shakti-svaru-pini to her.
Another popular aspect, and one which is of great importance in the Mahāvidyā tradition, is the form of Tripurasundari known as Sodasi, a 16 year old girl. Some say that the number 16 also relates to the 16 kala-s of the Devi, as well as symbolizes the beauty and variety of desires of a young girl for after all Tripurasundari, as we have seen, is also Kamesvari. The Ṣoḍaśī Tantra describes her as the light in the three-eyes of Shiva, as visualized in an intimate embrace with Mahakala, while her seat, asana, is carried by other deities. But there are other descriptions of Sodasi too where she is described as a virginal goddess, ripe with desire. It must be mentioned here that the tradition of Srividya as well as the mantra of Ṣoḍaśī has many more categorizations with two primary lineages known as hadi and kadi, but these must always be learnt from a competent guru. This essay will not go into details of these two streams. Using the Tantric dictum that mantra is in itself the form and shape of the deity, the sodasaksari mantra of the Vidya is considered equal to the goddess Herself in the form of Ṣoḍaśī. The great commentator Bhaskararaya mentions that Ṣoḍaśī sprang from the Muladhara of the great Mother, and proceeded through the stages of Para, Pasyanti, etc. and emerged from Her mouth as vaikhari; and that is how this stream was transmitted from guru to shishya. Unlike in proper SriVidya traditions, Ṣoḍaśī is the specific aspect of Tripurasundari that is most revered as a Mahāvidyā.
The famous Yoni piTha of Kamakhya is worshiped by devotees and considered to be an abode of Mahatripurasundari. Some texts though identify her as Kali (Kalikapuran), and some even a Tara, but this is seen as the peculiar and unique power of Ṣoḍaśī to manifest herself as the chief of KaliKula devata-s depending on the affinity of the individual seeker(s). The name Kamakhya – goddess of desire – bears an undeniably link to the form of Mahāvidyā that best generates and governs the mechanism of desire in world-creation and world-sustenance. Goddess Kamakhya is described as a young girl of 16, having a reddish hue, manifesting 12 arms carrying lotus, trident, sword, bell, discus, bow, arrows, club or scepter, goad, shield and two bowls and skulls. She is seated on a lotus that emerges from the navel of a supine Shiva, who lies on top of a lion. This is a very unique iconography that is not found with any other form of Shakti, anywhere in India. Since a very ancient time Kamakhya has been the epicenter of Tantra sadhana across North India, and perhaps among the four greatest Shaktipithas of ancient India. Its associated symbolism of being the Yoni piTha, womb of creation, makes it even more prized and revered in all Tantric Mahāvidyā parampara-s. The worship in the temple is entirely Tantrokta, including offerings of bali, homa, and in some cases even Karana – ritually sanctified alcohol and other panchamakara rites.
There is a popular story that the Shakti of Goddess Kamakhya was established on that hill by Narakasura, son of Varaha Avatar of Vishnu, who captured the place by driving out Danavas. Naraka was eventually killed by Krshna. Meanwhile Vasistha, unable to succeed in the sadhana of Mahamaya is said to have uttered a terrible curse on Kamakhya that would have obscured this Shaktipeetha permanently, had not Shiva intervened and modified the curse with his power so that it gets executed but only partially, in deference to the fact that Vasistha was a Brahmarishi and so his words should not be falsified entirely. As a result of it Kamakhya was lost and forgotten for many centuries, and then rediscovered again in a peculiar manner. Koch king Viswasingha had lost his kingdom and was running away from his enemies when he took shelter in the Nilachala Parvat. There he found an old tribal woman who predicted to him that if he gave an animal sacrifice at a specific spot, he will not only defeat his enemies but also regain even greater glory. The king did so and a few months later when the predictions came true, Viswasingha, his son Naranarayan and the great Koch general Chilarai started digging at the specific spot where the sacrifice was performed and there they came across a cave with a natural water-flow which is the sanctum sanctorium of the present temple. A gathering of scholars from Kashi were invited to take a look and after mutual consultation they unanimously agreed that this was that legendary temple of Goddess Kamakhya which had been lost in time. The second part of Vasistha’s curse was that no vedic method will be used for worship of Mahamaya in this place, and that still holds true to this day. Hence Kamakhya became the epicenter of Tantra sadhana.
There is a mysticism and supernatural power associated with Kamakhya pitha whose popular influence was so tremendous that historian E.A.Gaits records in his book, “A history of Assam”, a quote from the Tabaqat-i-Nasiri to the effect that in “1337 Muhammed Shah sent 100,000 horsemen well-equipped to Assam, but the whole army perished in the land of witchcraft and not a trace of it was left.” This created such a fear psychosis that it took some effort for Aurangzeb to gather an Army ready to attack the Ahom kingdom. Sikh Guru Tegh Bahadur was asked to accompany the army so that he could counter the magical influence of the Tantrik practitioners, many of whom were Yoginis and Bhairavis, who would perform rituals in and around the Blue Mountain of Kamakhya with the explicit aim of defending the kingdom against foreign attackers. Fittingly, some scholars believe that Vātsyāyana is said to have composed his famed treatise on sexuality, the Kamasutra, in the area around the temple. Legendary Nath Siddha Matsyendra is also believed to have spent a lot of time in Kamarupa composing various Vamacari Tantrik compendium texts containing details of various esoteric sadhanas.
According to the text of Ṣoḍaśī Tantra, she is the light that emanates from the eyes of Shiva, she is all that is perfect, beautiful, harmonious and worth of desire. Another legend associated with Kamakhya is the story of Shiva burning down Kamadeva with his third-eye, only to revive him without a body as ananga – one without a body – on the request of Shakti. For without desire the world will vanish into oblivion. It is perhaps another way of restating that desire, or Kama, cannot be tied to a physical object or form but is rather a psychological force in its origin before it translates into a desire for something concrete. If Kali is amavasya, Ṣoḍaśī is purnima. While Kali may represent the path of negating falsities and conditioning leading to liberation, Ṣoḍaśī is the full, conscious plunge into the beauty of the world of names and forms, until this knowledge of the world distills into liberating wisdom. Another way in which this is understood is that Kali is the ultimate governing force of the invisible astral worlds, Ṣoḍaśī is the fuel that runs the visible world of creation. And Tara is the bridge between these two polarities of wisdom. Of course for a siddha, that is one who has attained to a communion with any of these forms, knowledge of both the visible and the invisible is adequately received along with the self-sufficient power and guidance to navigate these worlds without coming to harm. Probably this is why in the earliest documents on Mahāvidyā sadhana only these three forms were recognized as truly Mahāvidyā s or Great Wisdoms, capable of leading the seeker to a perfect state of liberation while manifesting the Power of the form, while rest were all vidyas or specific knowledge for the purpose of application.
Another temple where Ṣoḍaśī is worshiped in the Mahāvidyā tradition is the Tripura Sundari Temple in Udaipur, about 55 kilometers from Agartala, in the state of Tripura. Here a vigraha of Kali, which legends say was discovered by a King in a dream, is worshiped as the 16 year old Ṣoḍaśī. The temple structure has a curved shape leading to its popular reference as the Kurma Pitha (tortoise pitha).
Ṣoḍaśī sadhana for the purpose of siddhi is possible only under the auspices of a qualified Guru, for many of the vital secrets of sadhana are often passed traditionally in paramparas and cannot be understood if one merely reads a book or an article. However there is also a popular tradition wherein Mahāvidyā s can be invoked for a comparatively lesser and immediately result, particularly for placating a really negative graha influence. Ṣoḍaśī upasana is said to control the harmful effects of Budha, if a really malefic placement of the graha is found in the horoscope. For one desirous of her highest upasana and siddhi, but without a Guru would do best to have a devotional reverence for this form, and probably when She so Wills it, an appropriate master will be found who can initiate the seeker into the mysteries of Mahāvidyā traditions.
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(This article was published by IndiaFacts in 2018)
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