“I only exist in this universe; what second, except myself is there?” So it is declared by what Sanatan Dharma terms as Shakti or Devi, translated in English as the Divine Feminine. The uniqueness of the statement lies not in its content, but in their utterance by a female voice. In Abrahamic religions Godhead is referred to in the male pronoun and though other Non-Abrahamic religions always had goddesses, none of them are Supreme Beings. Hinduism is distinct from other world religions in both having continuous living tradition of worship of Devi and a sophisticated theology where Cosmos itself is female. The focus of this paper is on how in theological expositions She is portrayed as a combination of all aspects of the world, combining contraries in Herself as manifested in the ten Mahavidyas. She births the world and the gods but also embodies chaos. She is the nurturing compassionate mother who protects and loves even the humblest humans. But as the warrior, She gives legitimacy to royal authority. Though She creates, She also destroys and revels in blood. Many feel confusion over the latter image and try to erase them in a fit of religious version of political correctness. I suggest that our ancestors looked at the natural universe and accepted the reality of the world as it is. She is also primordial energy who is not bound to human sensibilities. This completeness is what Devi worship is about and should be celebrated. This vision is also source of empowerment for human women.
(Figure 1: Credit: Pinterest.com – Depiction of ParaShakti as AadiMaya)
I begin my paper with excerpts from two well-known invocations used in worship of Devi as springboard to launch my argument which centres round two points. The first is the invocation where every line begins with Ya devi sarvabhooteshu (Oh Goddess who is everywhere) followed with the refrain Namastasyei namastasyei namastasyei namo namah (We worship her, we worship Her, we worship Her, Hail Her name) which enumerates Her all-encompassing nature. The other is Om Jayanti Mangala Kaali Bhadra Kali Kapalini / Durga Kshama Shivaa Dhaatri Svaha Svadha which is a list of her Names that is linked with Her attributes when she manifests Herself through the ten Mahavidyas. Both tell us about how Sanatan Dharma perceives the universe we inhabit in a distinctly unique way which is different from the typical Western view and also allows this perspective to be female centred, which again is not present in other creeds. It is this that gives the concept of ‘woman’ a larger scope in Hinduism and empowers them.
Ya devi sarvabhooteshu invocation informs us that Devi is present everywhere, making the cosmos the embodiment of the Female Principle. She is Chetanetyabhidiyate, (present everywhere as Consciousness ), BuddhiRoopensansthita (established as Intellect), Shakti RoopenSansthita, (established as Power/Energy ), KhudaRoopenSansthita (established as Hunger), Trishna RoopenSansthita (established as Thirst), Bhakti RoopenSansthita (established as devotion), Matri RoopenSansthita (established as Mother ), Shanti RoopenSansthita (established as Peace), Daya RoopenaSansthita (established as Compassion), Shradhha RoopenSansthita (established as Reverence), JaatiRoopenSansthita (established as Distinction among people and species) Nidra RoopenSansthita (established as Sleep), LaajaRoopenSansthita (established as Shame ), Smriti RoopenSansthita (established as Memory/ sacred law-texts) BrittiRoopenSansthita (established as Occupations), Chaya RoopenSansthita (established as Shadow), Tushti RoopenSansthita (established as Satisfaction), BhrantiRoopenSansthita (established as Error/Bondage), IndriyaanaamAdhistdhatri (Ruler of all sense organs) and Vayaaptidevyai (all pervading). This description of her Presence creates a world view where it is not possible that there is an Absence of Her in anything or any quality. These qualities include those that are conventionally thought to be negative — hunger, thirst, shadow, sleep, error. This is distinct from Abrahamic religions where there is a firm line between Creator and created objects. God created the world but He is not a part of it. God is purely spiritual and cannot be material. This makes it hard for the faithful to see Him: “Verily, thou art a God that hidest thyself” (Isaihah 45: 15, KJV). But in Hinduism there is nowhere She is not. The universe is the embodiment of Goddess. Yet Devi is not simply the material world. She is also pure bliss and consciousness. Thus she is both the phenomenal world and the underlying substratum. In Abrahamic religions, the absence of God makes the natural world inferior by default; but here the natural material world is not inferior because Devi is also prakriti. As such, what we call today ‘environmentalism’ is embedded in proper worship of Devi.
(Figure 2: Credit: Pinterest -Parashkthi as cosmic mother of the Bramhanda)
The invocation also informs us that the ultimate Principle of the world is female. Since it is the mother who carries the child in her womb and gives birth to it, it is only natural to visualize the source of all things to be female. She is literally the mother of the universe in human terms. Here it must be emphasized that she is not simply a mother in the sense of being a supernatural housewife looking after children. She is also independent and autonomous, and not simply known as the daughter or wife of a god. In her leela she has assumed such roles but she is not the appendage of a male relative. As the creator of the universe she had also created those we know as male gods. This vision stems right from the dawn of our civilization in the Rig-Veda. Rig-Veda praises Goddess Aditi, who is the mother of celestials, but that is not her only identity. Her very name means boundless, endless and She covers the whole world (RV 5.46.6). She is the guardian of material wealth and also protectress from sin; she is praised as the giver of peace and asked to destroy enemies (RV 6.18.6-7). Aditi gives birth to the earth, and the earth to sky. Daksha was born of Aditi and then she was born from Daksha. (RV 10.72). She does not have any male consort, so that her children are born due to her own power. This is why the gods as a class are so frequently termed Adityas — they are known by their mother’s identity. Instead of the Sky-Father that is more common in mythology of other countries, therefore, we have a Sky-Mother. She appears as an independent creator goddess who was not overthrown by her children, as we find in other pantheons. Rig-Veda also sings a hymn to Vac / Speech, which is supposedly uttered by herself. Vac is the Queen of all, upholder of gods, giver of wealth and wisdom and happiness, warrior who wars for her people. She has created the world. Her glory exceeds earth and heaven. Thus she is the supreme creator and Law. (RV 10:125). In both descriptions we have female deities portrayed as the Absolute. Nor is this view something esoteric confined to pundits and limited to a certain span of time or geography. If we travel thousands of years forward in Bengal we find the same in popular vernacular literature; in the Gitarambha (opening song) of Annadamangal (circa 17th century C.E) Devi is described ‘Srishti, sthiti, praloy, akriti’ (creation, preservation, apocalypse, form); She has no eyes but can see all, no ears but can hear all, no feet yet can be everywhere. (Bharat Chandra Roy, p.24). In such a theology the male gods are subordinate to Her. That is why in Devi Bhagavatam Bramha, Vishnu, Shiva worship Her as the Ultimate Principle and acknowledge that they themselves are only temporary manifestations of Her gunas. Moreover, when the three gods present themselves before Devi, they are transformed into women and allowed to stay in Her presence only as long as they remain in that form. Indeed, they plead to remain as women so that they can always be with Her. When they leave Her they take up their male personae again. (Volume III: chapters 4-6). Thus the male body itself becomes inferior to the female body. This perhaps again is a logical progression from the understanding that when Devi chooses to incarnate a part of Herself as a goddess or on earth as a human being, her embodied form is that of a woman with all the biological processes that it implies.
(Figure 3: Credit: Pinterest – Depiction of Trigunatmika Shakti)
Such a theology makes it obvious that Hinduism cannot be inherently misogynistic. If it presumed that women were inferior by their very nature, then the very idea of omnipotent, omnipresent Devi who is the Creator would not have germinated. Western feminists themselves grasp this — “ In this regard, the Hindu creation narratives that share this vision stand in contrast to those like the biblical accounts of creation in the book of Genesis, where the participation of a female agent in cosmogony is so remarkably absent” (Pintchman, 2001, p. 81). Similarly, respect for the female body as such would have been unthinkable. For example, in Judaism a central morning blessing thanks God for being born a man specifically: ‘Shelo Asani Isha’ (Blessed are you Lord… for not making me a woman). Though in modern times this prayer is often changed or a corresponding line inserted by women, yet the clash between feminism and ancient orthodox values cannot be ignored. Yet this is not something any Hindu male is asked to thank the gods for. In Christianity an equally influential verse had been: “Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection. But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence. For Adam was first formed, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived was in the transgression.” (Timothy 1: 2:11-14, KJV); and apparently even after the world would be destroyed on Judgement Day the discrimination would continue in heaven: “These are they which were not defiled with women; for they are virgins. These are they which follow the Lamb whithersoever he goeth. These were redeemed from among men, being the first fruits unto God and to the Lamb.” (Revelations 14: 4, KJV). Hinduism does not forbid a woman to have religious authority over a man and one’s place in heaven/moksa depends on one’s merits. In Islam there are no female prophets since Allah always chose the more ‘suitable’ gender who is not burdened with a menstruating and child-bearing body to spread his message. Hinduism however has a continuous tradition of women who are equivalent of Prophets. In all three of the abovementioned religions, God though ideally genderless, is always God the Father; there cannot be any concept of God the Mother (God can be compared in his compassion with a mother, but He is always like a mother and never Mother-God), since women are of secondary importance. Even when there had been religions that worshipped goddesses in the past in the Western world as in Greece and Rome, such goddesses were under the dominion of a masculine king of gods. That again is not surprising since the general belief summed up by Aristotle was that the fully developed human is male, the woman being an incomplete man and “we should look upon the female state as being as it were a deformity, though one which occurs in the ordinary course of nature.” (1949, p 461). But in Hinduism, the female principle always reigns supreme. If this was not widely accepted, then it would not occur to anyone, specially the men who worshipped Devi and faithfully transmitted Devi Bhagavatam to imagine that the male biological body can be a hinderance to knowing the Presence of Absolute Truth. The very fact that the men accepted the story referred to earlier, demonstrates that any talk of ‘toxic masculinity’ does not fit in with the Hindu context as a whole. Indeed, when it is believed that Devi menstruates because she is female and this is one attribute that is shared by human women but not by men, we realize that hatred or contempt of the female biological processes are conspicuous by their absence. Even when male gods are worshipped as the Ultimate, it is made clear that She is the Shakti or energy that animates them. In Brahma she is the power of Creation visualized as Saraswati, in Vishnu the power of preservation as Lakshmi and in Shiva the power of destruction as Parvati/Durga/Kali. In iconography these Shaktis are presented as wives of the gods, but they are wives only in the sense that the gods cannot be conceived separately from them. Without this Shakti working through them the Great Gods can do nothing by themselves. Similarly, the lesser male gods are also moved by this Shakti and are helpless and powerless if Shakti deserts them. Therefore, though in society, many men might look down upon women as mere commodities and slaves, it is not a universal truth that defines Sanatan Dharma. On the contrary it is acceptance of power of women that is the bedrock of Hinduism. It is this understanding that empowers Hindu women and that is why we had so many women scholars, religious leaders and warriors throughout history.
(Figure 4: Credit: galleryofgod.com- Depiction of Mahalakshmi Chandika)
The second invocation Om Jayanta Mangala Kaali tells us about the paradoxical nature of Devi — she is at once gentle and fierce, creative and destructive. She is Jayanti (victorious), Mangala (Auspicious), Kali (Destroyer) , Bhadra Kali (Gentle), Kapalini (skull garlanded), Durga (difficult to attain), Kshama ( Forgiveness), Shivaa (Bliss), Dhaatri (upholder of worlds), Svaha (sustainer of gods), Svadha (nurturer of ancestors). The list continues also enumerating the demonic creatures she had destroyed for the welfare of the world and how the gods worship her feet. She is adored by Brahma and Krishna and Shiva. She is the protector on this earth and grants moksha to her devotees. Throughout the entire hymn runs the refrain “Rupam dehi jayam dehi yasho dehi dvisho jahi” (bestow on me beauty, victory, fame and destroy my enemies). Though many people argue that rupam, jayam, yasho and dvisho jahi are to be taken symbolically as they have a spiritual meaning, there is no reason why we should ignore the literal meanings as well: as stated before Devi is of this world as well and is manifested in all our instincts. That is why Devi is worshipped as the Dasha Mahavidyas, each form indicating one facet of the whole. So she can be simultaneously presented as Shodoshi/Tripura Sundari, ( a sixteen year old beautiful girl), Bhuvaneshvari (ruler of the world), Kamala (prosperity and fertility), Matangi (giver of knowledge), Bagalamukhi ( destroyer of enemies and bestower of boons), Kali (Destroyer), Tara (Warrior Goddess and Protector) , Bhairavi (Ferocity), Dhumavati (the widow goddess who swallowed up her husband Shiva representing everpresent Hunger and misery), and Chhinnamasta (Goddess who beheaded herself to drink blood). Here we have Devi standing for the good things of life with placid kindly expression as well as the more terrifying ones. Chinnamasta in particular appear to stand for the endless cycle of universe itself. She is depicted with her severed head drinking blood gushing from her own beheaded neck while two streams of blood feed her attendants while trampling on Kama (desire) and Rati (satisfaction). The couple beneath provides energy that moves upwards and flows out through her wound over the whole world and then returns to Her. This is after all how the universe operates: an endless cycle of energy flowing, building the material world, dissolving it, rebuilding and re-dissolving. In this way there is no aspect of the universe left out, even if we human beings feel uncomfortable about them. That is what the origin myth of the Mahavidyas describe. According to one story Siva became incensed with Parvati and tried to leave her; Parvati then manifested her ten forms in ten directions so that wherever Siva turned she was present; each manifestation taught Siva an essential truth until he finally realized that She is everywhere in all forms. In the second story Siva forbade Sati from attending Daksha’s sacrifice but she displayed her ten forms and subdued him. In both stories Mahadevi is present as the manifold aspects of the universe from whom there can be no escape. Our ancestors did not see any incongruity in presenting Her in such contradictory – and in some cases even gruesome images. The reason is there are no such incongruities. She is a Mother-Goddess, but not just motherly. She is a ferocious warrior who sends out her embodied Shaktis to harrow the battlefields. It is simply that such violence is also a part of the natural order and is required to restore balance when powerful evil threatens the earth.
(Figure 5: Credit: Pinterest – Depiction of Dashmahavidyas serving Mahashodashi)
However, I also postulate that Mahadevi as destroyer of evil and granter of victories is only part of the reason she is portrayed as blood thirsty and worshipped with blood. Since She not only creates and sustains, but also destroys, it is only natural that She should also be portrayed as a destroyer. The universe is awe-inspiring in its beauty, from the starry firmament to the mountains, to oceans and the vibrant colourful life that surrounds us. But we also know that it is equally frightening, governed by forces beyond our control. When earthquakes and floods ravage the earth, when storms lash down, when nature is red in tooth and claw then it becomes obvious that if there is a Creator then She cannot possibly be only a serene indulgent one. This explains as well the image of Devi as drinker of blood. I suggest that our ancestors looked at the natural universe and accepted the reality of the food chain — life survives by feeding on other life. It is only natural therefore that the Goddess’ creation should also be Her food. It is for this reason that village-goddesses are also fierce ones who can be appeased only by sacrifices. That is why when we look at the Dash Mahavidyas in the Tantric tradition, each image is different representing one of the immutable principles of the cosmos without which it cannot exist. The point is that Mahadevi in her Ultimate form is not only spirituality, salvation, peace, material comfort and good (to humans) things of the world, but also chaos, lust, hunger, death. There is no need to feel that one must explain away these images in esoteric terms because they do not seem to be ‘modern’ or to excuse them to the Westerners who think them to be debased and repulsive – the images are, I repeat, far truer to the universe and life-as-it-is, than in the other dominant religions today. The Goddess and Her creation are one and that is what the worship of Mahadevi is all about.
When we come to the numerous goddesses worshipped in Hindu society it again becomes obvious that female power is honoured and celebrated. The natural world is full of female divinities from Prithivi, to Usas to Aranyani to Ganga to Manasa. In human society every lineage has a kuladevi, who must be pleased to bring prosperity and happiness to the family. But the goddesses are not limited to looking after the welfare of the home alone but extend to the public sphere. Lakshmi is the giver of wealth and is worshipped by all householders. But she is also associated with the government in her function as Rajlakshmi: she fills the Treasury and guarantees the overall well-being of the state. Saraswati is the goddess of learning, arts and culture even when the practitioners are male. Goddesses are the presiding deities of numerous villages, cities (as in Meenakshi Puram where Meenakshi is the ruler though she has Shiva as her husband and Kolkata’s patroness is Kali), and states (as in Tripura and Assam). Again, as the paramount ruler and protector doing what male gods are too feeble to do, the Goddess in her fierce aspects had always been connected with royal authority and the reign of the kings were legitimized by claiming her favour just as Bhavani according to folktales gave Her sword to Shivaji validating his kingship. There are warrior goddesses in plenty and even today, soldiers in the Indian army worship the various fierce aspects of Mahadevi before going to battle. In Hindu thought, both the natural world and civilization would not be possible without the presence of the female principle. Such a plethora of goddesses and a Supreme Female principle embedded in the culture itself lay the groundwork for woman empowerment. A few real life examples should suffice. The Bhauma-kara dynasty ruled over large parts of modern day Odisha and some portions of modern day West Bengal during 9th and 10th centuries, before foreign invasions had wracked those regions. Among their rulers they list seven queens who took the titles of Parameshwari indicating they were sovereign monarchs and not consort queens. All except one had married into the royal family and thus had no direct claim to the throne. Yet these women gained the throne in preference to male members of the royal family and the nobles and people accepted their rule. This would not have been possible in a truly patriarchal culture as defined by Western sociologists or by women conditioned to think themselves as inferior. But it becomes possible if one is brought up in a thought system where the Ruler of the Universe is a female: therefore, royal power can be wielded by women independently and legally. The same mentality prevails in acceptance of the religious status of women like Mirabai and Akka Mahadevi. In field of culture there are numerous women poets and writers and philosophers from Vijjika to Chandrabati, Binabayi to Visvasadevi. Again, women could be warriors – Empress Rudramma Devi of Kakatiya dynasty and Takka Devi of Chalukya dynasty both were generals who led armies directly in battle. The fact the latter gained the sobriquet of ‘rana-bhairavi’ is direct evidence that the fierce warrior goddesses predisposed the Hindu mentality into accepting that women can be soldiers and command men in military actions. Thus the presence of Devi and her incarnations as various goddesses gives openings for women that had been utilized in the past and is once again a source of empowerment for women today. There is no intrinsic need for a woman belonging to Sanatan dharma to look at the West for role models; our own civilization provides plenty of examples and encouragement.
(Figure 6: Credit: Pinterest -Kamakhya devi Of Assam (Kaamaroop))
It is equally important for contemporary Hindu woman to analyze the feminine component in other religions as well so understand where the uniqueness of Sanatan Dharma lies. There is no doubt that most other religions are relentlessly patriarchal. In Judaism, the only female element in connection with God is the comparison of the nation of Israel to a bride, God to the husband, and any worship of other gods to adultery; whenever the nation would turn to gods/goddesses in surrounding lands, the prophets would call her a whore. In Christianity, Mary holds a special place of reverence as theotokos or bearer of God; as centuries passed She has come to be regarded as the Queen of Heaven and the Saviour in her role as Mother of God; however she is always subordinate. In Catholicism she is not a part of the Trinity, and in Protestant sects she is simply a patient and passive figure incapable of initiating any action in the way Devi can. Again, as she is considered to be unique among women, she cannot offer any model of empowerment for women. Similarly, in Islam there is simply no female generative power. There is the concept of Mothers of Muslims, but they are so only by the virtue of being wives of Muhammad. Fatimah is deeply venerated by Muslims and her descendants are designated as ‘Sayyids’, but again, her status is solely based on being the beloved daughter of Muhammad. In non-Western, non-Abrahamic religions, as in Sumer, Babylon, Mesopotamia, Egypt there have always been goddesses with real function and importance in the pantheon but goddesses as a class were of inferior rank to male gods as a whole. Even when there were Creatrix goddesses they were later supplanted by male gods. Powerful goddesses unshackled to a male consort were not regarded as a model for women to follow. Even Goddess Inanna who granted sovereignty over the land was an outcaste. The man she chose as her beloved became the legitimate king, yet as a female who exercised choice and according to stories walked alone on the road at night, she remained an outsider not accommodated in social sphere. Thus even other polytheistic religions did not have a female deity as the supreme authority. It is only in Hinduism that we have both the personal goddess and cosmic mother who have no male consort.
However, though the Goddess is female, she transcends man-made categories of gender. I think here a distinction needs to be made between what the West regards as masculine and feminine qualities and what Devi represents. Instead of manifesting only nurturing qualities (as with Magna Mater like Cybele or Astarte or Frigga) or masculine dominance (as with Athena and Artemis and the fatal Morrigan), all qualities are present in her. This is also where I think most Western scholars get it wrong when they divide Hindu goddesses into categories of consort goddesses and independent goddesses. Since their culture is void of any female centred vision of the cosmos and the only available model is that of the dominant husband and submissive wife, they automatically think that a goddess is either an obedient consort or outside normative boundaries. They lack the cultural learning that Devi who is beneficent (as in Annapurna pouring out food to Shiva-as-beggar) is at the same time identical to Kali who treads on her husband’s corpse like body. Similarly one cannot draw a sharp distinction between the goddesses of Nature and goddesses of civilization – the two are not mutually exclusionary, being understood as aspects of the same Devi. Another possible reason is that they try to apply the same lens here through which they are accustomed to studying ancient goddesses who were worshipped before patriarchal monotheisms wiped them out. Those female deities can be studied and classified with a clinical gaze because they are ‘dead’. But Hindu worship of Devi is a continuous living experience and flourishing even as the scholars study it. The various goddesses might be worshipped in different ways, with or without a male consort and have separate back stories where male gods can be in authority over them or are obedient to them, but in the end they are all aspects of the same Adyashakti or Primal Power that creates, sustains and destroys the universe with the male gods themselves in it. Such a female voice uttering the statement that She is the Lord of all is what makes Hinduism unique and requires a different kind of analysis, particularly gender analysis, than is customarily available in academic circles.
(Figure 7: Credit: Hindupad.com -Annapoorna Pouring food as Bhiksha to Shiva)
In conclusion therefore, if the relationship between Hinduism and empowerment of women is to be seriously studied, then the vision of Cosmos-as-female should be at the centre. There is no opposition of male and female as such — rather the male is absorbed in the maternal principle. Devi is portrayed as a combination of all aspects of the world, combining contraries in Herself. It is this all-inclusive nature of the Goddess I want to emphasize since it matches the reality we see around us and is frankly far more logical than what we find in other religions. This is why I insist on using the term Mahadevi or Devi instead of Mother-Goddess. In English terminology Mother-Goddess implies only a loving nurturing nourisher, or in Rita Gross’ words, “infinitely fertile, perpetual birth-giver” (1978, p. 284). But Mahadevi is, as I hopefully demonstrated, more than that even while containing that aspect within Herself. Consequently, such an understanding of the world makes Hindu women feel strong and not think of themselves as only victims. Situated in society, they are necessarily tied to males: biologically as daughters and sisters and mothers and also as wives if they marry. But these are not limiting roles; they become limiting only due to social construction. They must not forget that they are personifications of Shakti of the Ultimate. Of course, such a view does not diminish in any way the constraints, sufferings and atrocities that are visited on women in our society by men who function from a patriarchal mindset. But it is imperative to comprehend that a woman is empowered through what the vision of Devi as etat vyapa sthiti jagat (pervades and sustains) has to offer.
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