What we are calling Hinduism today is neither purely a Vedic tradition, nor is it purely a folk tradition – it is a complex of Vedic and multiple local traditions. Calling it a purely Vedic tradition, is wrong as there are ample evidences of local traditions which existed in the past and still exist outside the Vedic realm of things. But, calling it a purely folk tradition is only useful to those people who look to exploit the fault lines created by the foreign forces. The Vaidika acharas have been affected by the local traditions and the local traditions have often borrowed some of their practices from the Vaidika, scriptural complex.
This conflict was what was characterized as Aryan-Dravidian divide, that was projected as having a mutually conflicting relationship, but the fact is that these traditions have a more intricate mutual interface and give rise to the Puranic, Agamic and Tantric culture, having a mix of both Vedic and local cultural components.
The two views & two methods
There is a western view of the feminine. It is often characterized by words such as compassion, nurturing, creative, etc. The masculine according to the western world view is characterized by words such as logical, strong, aggressive, fierce, hardworking, etc. These views of the feminine and masculine are often brought into discussion by feminists to ascertain the lacuna in the words associated with each and to show how limiting they are. 
But it will be shown here that that characterization is western and the Hindu characterization of the feminine encompasses both the features listed for feminine and masculine per the western concept. The feminine in Hinduism can be aggressive and fierce while the masculine can be compassionate and nurturing.
When we are talking about an all encompassing view we must incorporate, the folk view as well as the Vaidika scriptural view.
For the scriptural view, I want to use lots of different scriptural evidences throughout the paper to keep it authentic. Here is a brief overview of these scriptural evidences.
Broadly the evidences I am going to provide can be divided into three types.
- Emerging from the ocean of the Vedic Body of Literature (VBL)
- Emerging directly from the Vedas
- Emerging from the Shakteya Tantra tradition of the VBL
For the first type of evidence, Taittiriya Sandhya Bhashyam will be used, for the second type of evidence, the concept of Gayatri Mata as described in the Taitareiya Aranyakam will be used, while for the third and final type of evidence I would like to use two sources.
- The concept of Dasa Maha Vidyas from Pranatoshini Tantram
- Discussion about Gayatri mantra from Mantra maharnavam, which in turn has been a work derived from Gayatri tantram.
The 10 Mahavidyas are usually named in the following sequence: Kali, Tara, Tripura Sundari, Bhuvaneshvari, Chhinnamasta, Bhairavi, Dhumavati, Bagalamukhi, Matangi and Kalatmika.
Each incorporates a different aspect of the feminine. There are two schools of thought on how Dasa Mahavidyas are approached. One is the Cosmic view, where the cosmos has become the Devi and her ten forms.  The second school of thought considers the Dasha Maha Vidyas to be roopas of Mahakali. 
Regardless of which view we take, each of these goddesses has very unique characteristics and purposes. This paper would try to examine how these characteristics are all-encompassing.
Motherly nature of the aggressive feminine – Scriptural.
Each of the goddesses that represent aggression, fury, etc. also have a motherly, compassionate and nurturing nature.
For example, Kali has come into existence to rid humanity of all diseases, end famine and promote health. This is how she takes care of us, her children. 
Another example is according to a Shakteya scripture, Pranatoshini tantra, the Goddess Tara came into existence to heal Shiva after he swallows halahala upon the request of other divine beings at the time of Samudra Manthana.
(Figure 1: Credit: Twitter – Shiva swallows halahala)
In the same way, Chhinnamasta seen as the fiercest of all Dasa Mahavidyas is a representation of self-sacrifice to feed her attendants like a mother would when they become hungry, again according to Pranatoshini Tantra.
Let us examine Kali, Tara and Chinnamasta in detail in the following paragraphs.
Kali is also seen as the divine protector and the one who bestows moksha or liberation. Kali has been worshipped by devotional movements and tantric sects variously as the divine mother, mother of the universe, Adi Shakti, or Parvati. 
Kali as the destroyer of evil:
According to Devi Mahatmyam, she is the one who killed the demon Rakta Bija Asura.
The story of Rakta Bija goes like this:
Out of the surface of her (Kali’s) forehead, fierce with frown, issued suddenly Kali of terrible countenance, armed with a sword and noose. Bearing the strange khatvanga (skull-topped staff), decorated with a garland of skulls, clad in a tiger’s skin, very appalling owing to her emaciated flesh, with gaping mouth, fearful with her tongue lolling out, having deep reddish eyes, filling the regions of the sky with her roars, falling upon impetuously and slaughtering the great asuras in that army, she devoured those hordes of the foes of the devas. 
(Figure 2: Credit: DeviMahatmaya – Rakthabeeja Vadha)
Kali as mother:
Despite Maa Kali’s origins in battle, she evolved to a full-fledged symbol of Mother Nature in Her creative, nurturing and devouring aspects. She is referred to as a great and loving primordial mother goddess in the Hindu tantric tradition. In this aspect, as mother goddess, she is referred to as Kali Ma, meaning Kali Mother, and millions of Hindus revere Her as such. 
She is seen as the destroyer of germs and diseases which are in the form of Asuras, in turn protecting her children, us. Other forms of Kali popularly worshipped in Bengal include Raksha Kali (form of Kali worshipped for protection against epidemics and drought), Bhadra Kali and Guhya Kali. Kali is said to have 8, 12, or 21 different forms according to different traditions. The popular forms are Adya kali, Chintamani Kali, Sparshamani Kali, Santati Kali, Siddhi Kali, Dakshina Kali, Bhadra Kali, Smashana Kali, Adharvana Bhadra Kali, Kamakala Kali, Guhya Kali, Hamsa Kali, Shyama Kali, and Kalasankarshini Kali. 
Tara is attested in the Kalika Purana’s 61st, 79th and 80th chapter. She is often described in these chapters as a fierce deity, holding kartrī (knife), khaḍga (sword), chamara (fly-whisk) or indivara (lotus) and a single matted braid over her head. She is dark in complexion, tall, with a bulging belly, wears tiger pelts, with her left foot on the chest of a corpse and her right foot placed on a lion or between the thighs of the corpse. She has a terrifying laugh and is fearful. The Goddess Tīkṣṇakāntā, who is also considered a form of Tara in the Kalika Purana is also dark with a single braid (ekajaṭā) and is pot-bellied.  She is also described as the form of the Atharvaveda (atharvavedaśākhinī).  Her most famous centre of worship is the temple and the cremation ground of Tarapith in West Bengal, India. Her three most famous forms are Ekajaṭā, Ugratara, and Nīlasarasvatī. 
(Figure 3: MahaVidya Tara)
Tara as the aggressive feminine:
The icon of Mother Tara is three-eyed and Chaturbhuja, holding potent weapons as sword, dagger, blue lotus and a drinking cup in her hands. She stands over a corpse on burning flames of funeral pyre. Serpent anklets and a serpent on crown are visible which clearly dates back to the time of the 11th-century Tantrik text Sadhanamala Tantra. 
Tara as mother:
The goddess as guide and protector, or the one who saves, she offers the ultimate knowledge which gives salvation. She is the goddess of all sources of energy. The energy of the sun is also a grant from her. She is manifested as the mother of Lord Shiva after the incident of Samudra manthan to heal him as her child. 
A story from the Shakta Maha-Bhagavata Purana and the Brihaddharma Purana (13th century) narrates the creation of all mahavidyas, including Chhinnamasta. The story is as follows: Sati, the daughter of Daksha, is the first wife of the Shiva. When she and Shiva are not invited to the fire sacrifice organized by her father, she feels insulted and insists on attending the ceremony, despite Shiva’s protests. After futile attempts to convince Shiva for his consent, the enraged Sati assumes a fierce form, transforming into the mahavidyas, who surround Shiva from ten cardinal directions. As per the Shakta Maha-bhagavata Purana, Chhinnamasta stands to the right of Shiva, interpreted as the east or the west; the Brihaddharma Purana describes her as appearing to the rear of Shiva in the west. 
Chinnamasta as the aggressive feminine:
The main goal of Chhinnamasta’s worship is to cause harm to your enemies. She is prescribed to be worshipped for subjugation or enchantment of men and women (vasikarana), annihilation of foes (uchchatana), someone’s death (marana) and causing hatred or hostilities between friends (vidveshana)..
(Figure 4: Credit: Wikipedia – Mahavidya Chinnmastika)
Acarya Ananda Jha, the author of the Chinnamasta Tattva, prescribes her worship by soldiers as she embodies self-control of lust, heroic self-sacrifice for the benefit of others, and fearlessness in the face of death.
Chinnamasta as the mother:
While other fierce Hindu goddesses like Kali depict severing the heads of demons and are associated with ritual self-decapitation, Chhinnamasta’s motif reverses the ritual head-offering, offering her own head to the devotees (attendants) in order to feed them. Thus, she symbolises the aspect of Devi as a giver, like Annapurna, the goddess of food, and Shakambhari, the goddess of vegetables, or a maternal aspect. The element of self-sacrifice is the symbol of “divine reciprocation” by the deity to her devotees. As a self-sacrificing mother, she symbolises the ideal Indian woman. 
(Figure 5: Credit: Bhagawankiphoto – Sri Annapoorneshwari
The seer Ganapati Muni associated the Mahavidyas with prakasha (“Light”) and nada (“Sound”) in stages of creation. Chhinnamasta is the violent interaction between the Light and the Sound enabling creation. Chhinnamasta severing her own head is interpreted symbolically of the disconnecting of the source and the manifest creation, similar to cutting the umbilical cord between the mother and the new-born. Further, Chhinnamasta is associated with thunder and lightning, interacting light and sound forces. Her epithet, Vajra Vairochani (“radiant like the vajra”), is linked to the vajra (thunderbolt) and its divine master – Indra, the king of heaven and the god of rain, thunder and lightning. 
While Kali, Chhinnamasta, Bhairavi and Bagalamukhi are representations of concepts such as aggression, fury and protection from enemies, Tripura Sundari, Bhuvaneshvari, Dhumavati, Matangi and Kalatmika represent the beauty, love, compassion and the motherly nature of the feminine.
The aggressive nature of the motherly feminine, Scriptural.
Tripura Sundari, Bhuvaneshvari, Dhumavati, Matangi and Kalatmika who represent concepts such as beauty, love, compassion and the motherly nature of the feminine all carry weapons.
A small detour: While there is a popular view of Hinduism that widows are mistreated in Hinduism, Maa Dhumavati is a goddess in the form of a widow. She is described as a giver of siddhis (supernatural powers), a rescuer from all troubles, and a granter of all desires and rewards. She is seen as auspicious for bachelors and bachelorettes. At Varanasi even married people worship her.
Ultimately, she is seen as the void in between dissolution and creation according to many Tantra scriptures. I cannot find a more celebratory stance of widowhood.
(Figure 6: Credit: Bhaktiisshankti – Mahavidya Dhoomavati)
The motherly nature of the aggressive feminine, folkloral.
In the village goddess sects of South India goddesses like Atalamma, Pusalamma and Pochamma are seen as the deities who can cure the disease chicken pox in children.
The goddesses are quite ferocious looking wielding all sorts of weapons, etc., but they nurture the sick and give life.
The aggressive nature of the motherly feminine, folkloral.
When a farmer is beginning to plant the first seeds in his land, he takes the seeds to the same temples to get them blessed by goddesses like Pochamma, Yellamma.
Being a researcher from Hyderabad, I would like to provide a few more details about Pochamma at Hyderabad:
(Figure 7: Credit: Yellammapoochamma.com – Yellamma at Balkampet t in Hyderabad)
One of the famous temples of Renuka Yellamma Thalli is located at Balkampet in Hyderabad where every year in Ashadha month Yellamma Kalyanothsavam is celebrated with thousands of pilgrims performing special rituals to get the blessings of Renuka Yellamma Thalli. The Murti of the goddess, interestingly, is 10 feet deeper than the ground level. There is also a well in Balkampet Yellamma temple complex and some devotees believe that the water in the well heals all ills. Therefore, a bath here is supposed to purify you of all disorders and skin diseases. This holy water is called ‘Theertham’. An Akhand Jyoti is also present in the temple that was lit during the renovation. 
The same goddesses are seen as both devatas of dissolution or Laya activities like disease, and creation or srishti activities like blessing a land to be fertile.
Brahma and Shiva are both imbibed in devi. The balance between both is Vishnu and hence Trimurtis exist within devi. This view of devi or amman is folkloral and is observed in all village goddess worshipping cults, all over India.
Dasha Mahavidyas – folk village goddesses of South India
“There is a great folk-classical interface between both an example being the Dekalamma of Andhra and Telangana is in fact Chhinnamasta, depicted in the exact same way”
Again, I would like to provide a few more details about the research I have done about Dekkalamma.
There is a Dekkalamma devalayam or temple in Secunderabad, Hyderabad. [footnote 1]
The temple was built in the 18th century. Devotees believe that one should have enough luck to visit this historical place. As the Telugu festival of Bonalu starts this place is fully decorated with lots of flowers, flower garlands and week after week people throng to the temple in hopes of getting a darshan till Ashadha month of the dharmic Calendar is finished. A unique aspect about the temple is laksha kumkuma archanas or the offerings of kumkum 1 lakh times are conducted by women devotees right within the garbha gruha.
The logical nature of Feminine – 1
(Figure 8: Credit: Pinterest – Veda Mata Gayatri)
Gayatri Mata is seen as the essential “life giving force in nature” – But, she is also the goddess of logic. Taittirīya Araṇyaka Pariśiṣṭa 10.25, has the following lines –
PrāṇĀpāna Vyānōdāna Samānā SaprāṇĀ ŚvētavarṇĀ SāṅKhyāyana Sagōtrā Gāyatrī |
Chaturvigṃ ŚatyakṣArā Tripadā̍ ṣAṭKu̠KṣI̠ḥ Pañcha-śīrṣŌpanayanē Vi̍Niyō̠Ga̠ḥ ||
If this beautiful mantra is unfurled one will understand the layers and layers of encryption and logic hidden within it. This Mantra is in Stuti of Gayatri Mata.
Here the seer is describing Gayatri as:
white-colored (Sanskrit: śvetavarṇā),
having the gotra of sage Viswamitra (Sanskrit: sānkhyāyanasa gotrā),
composed of 24 letters (Sanskrit: caturviṃśatyakṣarā),
three-footed (Sanskrit: tripadā),
six-bellied (Sanskrit: ṣaṭkukṣiḥ),
five-headed (Sanskrit: pañcaśīrṣaḥ) and
the one used in Upanayana (Sanskrit: Upanayane viniyogaḥ)
As mentioned in Taittiriya Sandhya Bhashyam, the three feet of Gayatri are supposed to represent the first three vedas (Ṛk, Yajus, Sāma).
The six bellies are supposed to represent six directions, where in the primary directions are north, east, west and south along with the two more directions, ūrdhva (up) and adhara (down).
The five heads represent five among the Vedangas, namely, VyākaraṇA, ŚikṣĀ, Kalpa, Nirukti and JyotiṣA.
By citing from Gayatri tantra, the text Mantramahārṇava gives the significance of Gayatri’s 24 letters as the 24 saktis, again goddesses representing different elements of nature.
24 Śaktis of Gayatri – They are: 1. Vāmadevī, 2. Priyā, 3. Satyā, 4. Viśwabhadrā, 5. Vilāsinī, 6. Prabhāvatī, 7. Jayā, 8. Śantā, 9. Kāntā, 10. Durgā, 11. Saraswatī, 12. Vidrumā, 13. Viśālesā, 14. Vyāpinī, 15. Vimalā, 16. Tamopahārini, 17. Sūkṣmā, 18. Viśwayoni 19. Jayā, 20. Vaśā, 21. Padmālayā, 22. Parāśobhā, 23. Bhadrā, and 24. Tripadā.
The position of the panchashirshas, used in Upanayana is in such a way that they can be used to draw two triangles and then create the Shri Yantra, the most significant Yantra in Hinduism, again dedicated to Shri the ultimate feminine that rules the universe.
Gayatri is the literal worship of encryption, logic and complex thought in stark contrast with the western view that these qualities are supposedly masculine.
Sandhyavandanam – as a practice of eco-feminism
Sandhya is one of the goddesses of the Hindu Pantheon.
(Figure 9: Credit: Oncekrishnasaidblogspot – Sandhyavandan)
Sandhya Vandanam a literal hour long practice is the only practice of its kind that echoes the so called modern movement of eco-feminism.
All nature worship elements are combined with worshipping the feminine in nature – and a whole ritual is dedicated to this.
The ultimate task of any spiritual practice is moksha. One good question is, whether moksha is masculine or feminine? As per Hindu moksha traditions, moksha of any sadhaka is characterized by the sadhana.
Manidweepam – A beautiful feminine world
Vaishnavas go to Vaikuntha, Shaivas go to Kailasa. So where do Shakteyas go?
Manidweepa! It is that place that they attain when they get liberated from the cycle of birth and death and go beyond the duality of swarga-naraka.
It is an entirely feminine world where even if the practitioner is a man, he gains the divine body of a female and worships devi.
A description of Manidweepa can be found in the Srimad Devi Bhagavatam.
SDB 12.10.03:04 original Sanskrit:
सर्वदो निजवासार्थ प्रकृत्या मूलभूतया ।
कैलासादधिको लोको वैकुण्ठादपि चोत्तमः ॥
गोलोकादपि सर्वस्मात्सर्वलोकोऽधिकः स्मृतः ।
नैतत्समं त्रिलोक्यां तु सुन्दरं विद्यते क्वचित् ॥
(In the very beginning, the Devi Mula Prakriti Bhagavati built this place for Her residence, superior to Kailaska, Vaikunta and Goloka. Verily no other place in this universe can stand before it. Hence it is called Manidvipa or Sarvaloka as superior to all the Lokas)
— Canto 12, Chapter 10, Verses 03:04
(Figure 10: Credit: TeluguBharata – Srimat Tripurasundari in Manidweepa)
During the beginning of time the Tridevas – Brahma, Vishnu and Rudra did not know who they were and what their purpose was. At this time a flying chariot appeared before them, and a heavenly voice directed them to board the chariot. As the Tridevas boarded the chariot and it started flowing with mind’s speed and took them to a mysterious place, which was an island of gems surrounded by an ocean of nectar and pristine sylvan forests. No sooner did they step out of the chariot than the Tridevas were transformed into women, much to their astonishment. While they explored the island they came across an imperial city protected by nine enclosures and guarded by fierce Bhairavas, Matrikas, Kshetrapalas, and Dikpalas. As they entered the city they were amazed by its prosperity and soaring infrastructure and finally reached the Imperial Palace known as Chintamani griha, guarded by Yoginis. For this was Śrīpūra (alias Devipattana), the capital of Devi Bhuvaneshvari, the empress of Manidweepa, the abode of Adi Parashakti. When they entered the palace they witnessed Devi Bhuvaneshvari, the queen of all worlds.
Her complexion was red. She had three eyes, four arms, braided hair and was clad in red ornaments. She wore a garland of lotuses and her body was anointed with red sandalwood paste. She held a goad and a noose with her left hands, while her right hands displayed abhaya and varada mudras. She was decked with ornaments and wore a crown with a digit of the crescent moon as crest jewel.
(Figure 11: Credit: Pinterest – Bhuvaneshwari Mata)
She was seated on the left lap of Bhuvaneshvara Mahadeva, who was of white complexion, wore white garments, and was decked with ornaments. His hair was matted and was decorated by a crescent moon and Ganga. He had five faces each with three-eyes, and four arms, holding a trident and a battle-ax while displaying varada and abhaya mudras. Before creation, while intending to the sport, the devi Bhagavati divided her Body into two parts and from the right part created Bhuvaneshvara.
The divine couple was seated on Panchapretasana, a throne which had Paramashiva as plank while Sadashiva, Ishvara, Rudra, Vishnu and Brahma were five legs. They were being served by many Yoginis, some fanning them, some holding mirror, some offering betel leaves flavored with camphor, some offering a drink made by mixing honey, ghee, and coconut water. Some were ready to dress Bhuvaneshvari’s hair, some ready to do makeup, some busy stringing garlands while some singing and dancing to entertain devi.
The Tridevas witnessed millions of universes each with their own Tridevas, in the sheen of Lalita/Bhuvaneshvari’s toe-nail. Some were getting created by Brahma, some getting sustained by Vishnu while others getting annihilated by Rudra.
Bhuvaneshvari enlightened the Tridevas with her greatness. Bhuvaneshvara is Brahman while Bhuvaneshvari is Brahmashakti. Though they appear distinct, both are of the nature of one another. Bhuvaneshvara is Adipurusha while Bhuvaneshvari is Mulaprakriti. To help Trayambaka perform his three-fold lila, first devi created the beautiful form of Gopala Sundari/Krishna. Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva were born from his body. Thereafter goddess Radha created two shaktis called Saraswati and Lakshmi. Bhuvaneshvari created goddess Durga shakti of shiva.
Brahma with Saraswati created a cosmic egg and Rudra with Uma split it, exposing the pancha bhootas. Brahma with Saraswati fashioned the universe from pancha bhootas, and Vishnu and Lakshmi sustain it. At the end Rudra with Kali will annihilate the universe so that Brahma and Saraswati can start afresh.
Once, Lord Brahma, Lord Vishnu and Lord Shiva were involved in an argument about who is the most powerful and supreme of the three. Their debate became so intense that it disturbed the peace of the heavens and worried the Gods. That was when the beautiful goddess stepped in to intervene and cease the dispute. She took the trinity of gods to her idyllic abode and led them to her beautiful chamber. There, Goddess Bhuvaneshwari enlightens them that she is the creator of the entire universe as it is created out of her and ends in her. She is responsible for protecting it from evils. She has created many elements and gave life to all the gods, sages and all living beings.
She had also created many worlds, such as Satya-loka, where Lord Brahma lives. It is the most supreme place of all the worlds where the inhabitants are free of life and death cycle. Then Tapo-loka came into being, where the soul, including the body, resides. The inhabitants there wait for Satya-loka to take shape. Gyana-loka then was formed where the place had the presence of ascetics who were the inhabitants. Mahar-loka came into being where after the harsh penances, the sages and ascetics have a place to live. The sages who live in that place have the power equal to gods. That is why all the sages live in that place. Then comes Ananda-loka, which is Svarga-loka, which is the residence of gods and virtuous beings. Next, Bhuvar-loka was formed where the sun and planets are positioned. After Bhuvar-loka came Bhuloka/Bhumandala, where mortal and other living beings live.
The worlds beneath earth came into being, the first being Atala-loka in which is the home of revelry and all the wealth of the planets accumulated there. Then came Vital-lok, where the beings of the earth stay there to mine gold and other elements. Just like Atal-lok, Vital-Lok is centered around earthly riches. Then through King Bali, the king of demons, Sutala-lok came into being. Talatala came into existence and below that, Mahatala was Naaga-loka, the home of all serpents and snakes. Further down below is the realm of demons and monsters, named Rasatala. Finally, below all the worlds, then originated Patala where Vasuki, the king of snakes lives. This is the foundation of all the other realms.
Then, Brahma, Vishnu and Mahadev witnessed millions of universes each with their own person, in the sheen of Bhuvaneshwari’s toe-nail. Some were getting created by Brahma, some getting sustained by Vishnu while others getting annihilated by Rudra. Bhuvaneshwari enlightened the Tridevas with Her greatness.
Thereafter, Goddess Bhuvaneshwari gave her Shaktis – Saraswati to Brahma, Lakshmi to Vishnu, and Gauri to Shiva. She informed Trideva that her Shaktis that they are given will help them create and preserve the world, and when the appropriate time comes, it will be destroyed completely so that a new creation can be started afresh by Brahma and Saraswati. 
Antascharati Bhuteshu, Guhayam, Vishwamurtishu
That which is all pervading, is found in the caves of the world spreading its light – the feminine. To be more precise, the feminine in Hinduism and only in Hinduism.
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- As part of my research, I visited this temple and found many interesting things.
Feature Image Credit : istockphoto.com
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