The Mahavidya represent ten different aspects of the One Truth – the Divine Mother is adored and approached as 10 distinct cosmic personalities.
Devadutta Kali writes in the Power of Consciousness that “the highest spiritual truth is that reality is One. That reality, when personified as the Divine Mother, expresses itself in countless ways. The ten Mahavidya, or Wisdom Goddesses, represent distinct aspects of divinity intent on guiding the spiritual seeker toward liberation. For the devotionally minded seeker these forms can be approached in a spirit of reverence, love, and increasing intimacy. For a knowledge-oriented seeker, these same forms can represent various states of inner awakening along the path to enlightenment.”
The Mahavidya represent ten different aspects of the One Truth – the Divine Mother is adored and approached as 10 distinct cosmic personalities. A story from the Shakta-Maha-Bhagavatha-Purana narrates the origin of the dasa mahavidya. Sati, daughter of Daksha Prajapthi is madly in love with Shiva and marries him against her father’s wishes. Daksha, an arrogant and angry ruler decides to conduct a yagna to which he invites all gods except his son-in-law Shiva. This angers Sati greatly as she sees it as an insult to her husband and makes up her mind to attend the yagna. She goes to Shiva seeking his permission but he refuses to let her go stating that even if she went, the fruit of the yagna would remain inauspicious.
Sati is very angry with Shiva at what she perceives to be an affront to her intelligence and wishes to show him her own power. She assumes the shape of the Divine Mother in all her might. Shiva begins to fear and tries to escape her wrath. She appears in ten different forms guarding each of the ten directions. These Goddesses jointly subdue Shiva’s resistance and Sati goes on to attend the sacrificial ritual.
Each of these forms of the Divine Mother have been given a name, story, quality and their own mantras.
KALI – the first in the series of the Wisdom Goddesses represents the power of consciousness in its highest form. She is Adi –Mahavidya or the primary Vidya. She is beyond Time and Space and seen as a “Devourer of Time” and worshipped as the very essence of the Brahman.
Kali is at once the supreme power and ultimate reality – bringing home the fundamental tantra tenet that consciousness and the power of consciousness are both the exact same thing.
The first transcendent cosmic power takes away all darkness and fills us with the light of wisdom, hence she is the very embodiment of Jnana Shakti. She symbolises the power of transformation. The rest of the Mahavidya emanate from Kali and reflect her virtues, powers and nature in varying shades.
TARA – the Goddess is variously understood as “a star” who is beautiful but perpetually self combusting. She is seen as guide and protector who helps her devotees “to cross” the ocean of worldly existence. Tara symbolises everything in the cosmos that is absolute, unquenchable hunger that propels all of life. She therefore symbolises the gracious liberator.
Tara’s symbolism is often related to death but in its broadest sense as the death of the ego – she removes the mistaken notions we have of our own identities.
LALITA TRIPURA SUNDARI – one who is “most beautiful in the three worlds”. The three worlds could variously be described as:
- The three states of sleeping, waking and dreaming
- The three aspects of humanity – physical body, the causal body and the astral body
- The three aspects of the Universe – Matter, energy and thought
- The three aspects of energy – Iccha Shakti (the energy of will), jnanashakti (the energy of knowledge) and kriyashakti (the energy of action)
Tripurasundari is also known as Lalita or one who plays. The Hindu spiritual tradition asserts that the whole of creation is nothing more than a beautiful, charming game, or play of the Divine Mother.
Tripurasundari is shown with four arms holding five arrows of flowers, a goad, a noose and a sugarcane bow.
The 5 arrows symbolise our 5 senses
The goad represents repulsion
The noose stands for attachment
The sugarcane bow is an analogy for the mind.
She symbolises our need to purify our awareness and cleanse the mind of unworthy thought. She also symbolises wealth.
Lalita Tripurasundari has three manifestations: Sthula, or descriptive as in an image; Sukshma or subtle as in a mantra; and para or transcendent as in a Yantra. The yantra asscociated with this form of Devi is the Sri Yantra (also known as Sri Chakra) which is the subject of study of this book.
For our study, Tripurasundari will be the main focus as she is also known as the adimahavidya or the primordial wisdom goddess who resides in the SRI CHAKRA.
BHUVANESHWARI – the Goddess as World Mother, bhuvana means “this living world” and isvari means ruler. She embodies all the characteristics of the cosmos. She is identified with the manifest world and all that we experience within it. The entire Universe is said to be her body and all beings are ornaments of her infinite being. She carries all the worlds as a flowering of her own Self-nature.
The symbolism of Bhuvaneshwari, who is all pervasive and completely identifies with the Universe is an invitation for us to cultivate an attitude of universality. She represents the power of openness and infinite expansion, of equanimity in spirit and profound peace that contains in it all things and that cannot be disturbed.
BHAIRAVI – the fierce and terrifying aspect of Devi, also called Shubhamkari, good mother to good people and terrible to the bad ones. She evokes terror and fear and is seen seated on a headless corpse in a cremation ground with four arms holding a sword of knowledge and a demon’s head while two arms are shown in mudras- one abhaya mudra (which teaches us to have no fear) and the other varadamudra (one that grants all boons).
Bhairavi symbolises the maternal instinct to protect offspring. She destroys ignorance and helps us overcome the negative forces that exist within ourselves and at the same time manifest our material desires.
CHINAMMASTA – the self-decapitated Goddess. The Panchatantra Grantha tells the story of Parvati who once goes to bathe in the Mandakini river with her two close friends. As the day passes, the friends get hungry and ask Parvathi for food. She keeps putting them off until their demands grow incessant. At one point, she laughingly cuts off her head using her fingernail and blood spurts out in three directions. The two friends drink in the blood from two founts, while Parvati drinks from the third fount. The severed head symbolises liberation but the most symbolic message of this form of the goddess is that we all possess a rare courage needed to make the ultimate sacrifice.
The blood spurting from her neck represents prana (cosmic life force) which sustains her own life as well as that of all other beings in the Universe.
Chinnamasta can also be
interpreted as an awakening of the kundalini in each one of us as we rid
ourselves of our mistaken identities and overcome limitations that hinder our spiritual progress.
DHUMAVATI – the one made of smoke. This transcendent power shows us that a dark side of life is very much a reality we all have to confront. She is made up of smoke – that which is dark, polluting and conceals the truth – the worst facets of humanity. This form of the Divine Consciousness is associated with poverty, hunger, thirst, anger, all aspects of living which everyone wishes to avoid.
Dhumavati stands for the corrosive power of time that robs us of all that which is valuable to us –loved ones, beauty, vigour, vitality. The lesson of Dhumavati is to understand the transient nature of all experiences. She is a great teacher who reveals the ultimate knowledge of the universe and teaches us to cultivate a sense of detachment from our senses.
BAGALAMUKHI – the one who paralyses enemies. This form of Devi smashes misconceptions and delusions (enemies of spiritual growth). Tantra Shastra describes her as sitting on a golden throne in the middle of an ocean. Though generally depicted as a goddess with a human head, she is also shown as having the head of a crane in some iconography.
She stops all motion at the appropriate time and silences the mind. She is praised as the giver of siddhis and riddhis (supernatural and magical powers) to her devotees who seek her with sadhana.
MATANGI – the tantric form of Goddess Saraswathi, is another ferocious aspect of Devi. The Dhyana mantra of Brhat Tantrasastra describes Matangi as seated on a corpse wearing red garments and red jewellery, carrying a skull and a sword in her two hands. Worship of Matangi is said to give her devotees the ability to face the forbidden, transcend pollution of the senses and lead him to gain supernatural powers for attaining worldly goals and ultimately salvation. Meditation on Matangi is prescribed especially to gain control over enemies, attract people and acquire mastery over the arts.
KAMALA -The Lotus Goddess; the “Tantric Lakshmi” is a form that holds the promise of wealth, prosperity and well being. She sits holding a loyus with two hands and bestowing blessings with the other two. The lotus is a recurrent symbol in the Hindu tradition of the manifest Universe. It grows from murky water but brings forth beauty and fragrance. In the same way, it is possible for us humans with our restricted material body, amidst all the pollution of life, to rise above and emerge as Divine Consciousness.
Kamala symbioses the unfolding of inner consciousness much like the petals of a lotus. She is worshipped in the hope of bringing material wealth. The lesson from Kamala is to see the beauty in everything around us and to understand that true wealth is only achieved when it is shared with others selflessly.
Undoubtedly, the Mahavidya as a group with its individual dieties depict some of the most unusual, fierce, strange and vivid Gods ever portrayed in any major world religion or culture. The forms are radically different from the benign and beautiful gods worshipped in “cultured” society. They challenge accepted norms of social order with their outlandish behaviour, grotesque bodies, ugly faces and bizarre habits. These outrageous manifestations are meant to shock us and compel us to look beyond our comfort zones. The disturbing and distressing aspects force us to look deeper into our own selves to identify our shortcomings and show us for what we are, not what we are meant to be. By rejecting and subverting conventionally accepted norms, it seeks to expand awareness to liberate the mind from inhibitions and prejudices.
An interesting aspect of the Mahavidya is that even though they are all about the power of the feminine principle, the deities are not shown as wives (although spouses are named in a few forms) or as mothers.
It is natural to wonder about the reason why our ancient seers divided all great knowledge into ten diverse aspects. Vedic scholars have indicated that it was an effort to drive home certain important points:
- The Divine Mother is Absolute, ineffable and unmutable, beyond Time and Space
- In the act of creation, she subjects herself to constraints of Time and Space.
Time is an aspect of prakruthi (Nature) and one of the 36 tattvas or principles of creation. However, as a concept, it is a creation of our intellect based on our sensory perception. It is a part of “Maya” or illusory state in which we all exist. For the Divine Consciousness, there is no division of time – there is only the present moment, a continuous and undivided state of existence.
Space is vast and beyond our comprehension. It is infinite, without beginning or end. To simplify matters, we divide it into ten cardinal directions – East, West, North, South, SE, SW, NE, NW, above and below.
- Knowledge is one but understood in ten different ways based on our five sense organs and five organs of action – skin, eye, ear, nose, tongue, mouth, foot, hand, anus and genitalia
- Truth is one but we perceive it in various facets, shapes, forms and meanings.
S. Shankaranarayanan says in his article on The Ten Great Cosmic Powers: “Each has a particular Cosmic function and leads to a special realization of the One Reality. The might of Kali, the sound-force of Tara, the beauty and bliss of Sundari, the vast vision of Bhuvaneshwari, the effulgent charm of Bhairavi, the striking force of the Chinnamasta, the silent inertness of Dhumavati, the paralyzing power of Bhagalamukhi, the expressive play of Matangi and the concord and harmony of Kamala are the various characteristics, the distinct manifestations of the Supreme Consciousness that has made this creation possible. The Tantra says that the Supreme can be realised at these various points.
Each one of the Mahavidya holds individual significance as Brahmavidya and together as a group they contain all the wisdom of the Universe – of past, present and the future and all potential that ever existed or will exist. A true learner who seeks with devotion will be guided and inspired to find the spiritual strength and capability lying dormant within him to have his life’s dreams manifested through a study of these great systems of knowledge.
The forms of Kali and Tara re considered the only two Mahavidya. Bhairavi, Bhuvaneshwari and Chinnamasta are called Vidya, Dhumavathi, Bagalamukhi, Matangi and Kamala are called Siddhi Vidya and Tripurasundari is called Sri Vidya.
Sri Vidya is found in the Rig Veda as Sri Sukta and the Brahmanda Purana contains a comprehensive description of Sri Vidya, its method and philosophy. Saundarya Lahiri, a hymn consisting of one hundred verses expounding the virtues of Lalitha Tripurasundari is considered the most beautiful and profound explanations of Sri Vidya.
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