India's Sacred Mother Goddess Culture
Dr. Nanditha Krishna
2022년 증산도 후천선문화 국제학술대회 기조강연
INDIA’S SACRED MOTHER GODDESS CULTURE
인도문화에서 본 여신으로서의 성모
Dr. Nanditha Krishna
Director, C.P.R. Institute of Indological Research &
President, The C.P. Ramaswami Aiyar Foundation, Chennai, India
난디타 크리슈나(라마스와미 아이야르 재단 이사장)
Belief in the Mother Goddess is found in most ancient cultures. The development of the worship of the Mother Goddess has been very intriguingly expressed in philosophies, religion, art and literature, assimilating heterogeneous elements which combined to create a body of legends and traditions. The mother was always the central figure in the social structure of every society due to both her economic role and her ability to produce children. Thus, many ancient societies were matriarchal before they became patriarchal.
The Mother Goddess represents the deification of motherhood, fertility, creation and destruction. She is also the Sacred Earth Goddess who embodies the bounty of the earth or nature. She is Shakti, the mystic power, and Prakriti, the Supreme Nature. The Earth Goddess is usually the wife or feminine counterpart of the Sky Father.
The Rigveda takes a mystic line, when it perceives the Sacred Mother as Vach, which, as creative speech, manifests the cosmos and all existing things. In Vedic mysticism, the cosmos and all things pre-exist but are unmanifest. Vach or speech makes them manifest. Of the Vedic hymns, the hundred and twenty-fifth hymn of the tenth mandala (Book) or Devi sukta of the Rig-Veda has been described as the origin of the Mother cult of India. Through self-realisation, she identifies with the Supreme Being (Brahman) and says, “I am the sovereign power (over all the worlds), bestower of all wealth, cognizant (of the Supreme Being), and the first among those to whom sacrificial homage is to be offered; the Gods in all places worship but me, who am diverse in form and permeate everything. Whoever eats food, or sees, or breathes, or hears what is spoken, does it through me; those who do not know me thus perish. Hear, 0 worthy one, what I tell of—which should be known through faith and reverence…I wage war to protect the good, I pervade heaven and earth. I give birth to the infinite expanse overspreading the earth; my birth-place is in waters deep in the sea therefrom do I permeate variously all the worlds, and touch the heaven above with my body. It is I who blow like the wind creating all the worlds; I transcend the heaven above, I transcend the earth below—this is the greatness I have attained.”
The origin of Shakti worship in India goes back to the dim past. The Devi Sukta hymn in the Rig Veda, as well as the Shri Sukta and the Durga Sukta are very well known and they prove that the adoration of the Shakti is not a recent development. The rishi or composer of the Devi Sukta was a woman.
In one of the earliest Upanishads, the Kena Upanishad, Uma, described as the daughter of the Himalayas, appears as a mediator between the Supreme Being and some of the deities.
In the Krishna Yajurveda, Taittiriya Aranyaka, X, 1, Durga is invoked as being of the colour of fire and resplendent by virtue of her tapas or asceticism. In the Shwetashwetara Upanishad, moreover, the doctrine of Maya, now specially associated with Adi Shankara is adumbrated: “Now know Prakriti as Maya and the Great Lord as the wielder of Maya.”
She stands above the world, linking creation with the unmanifest mystery of the Supreme. As Prakriti, she creates, contains and supports all beings. In another aspect, she mediates between the human personality and the Divine nature.
Buddha preached a system of ethics unconnected with the worship of a personal God and sought to keep out of his system all mysticism. Nevertheless, very early in the development of Buddhism, Shakti worship was introduced by the Mahayana School. There is a hymn addressed to the Buddhist Shakti, Pragna Paramita, couched in the following words, which recall the teachings of the Vedanta School: “Om! salutation to Thee, the Unconditioned, the Infinite and the Omniscient.” In course of time, the Buddhist tantras became as elaborate as their Hindu prototypes.
The Catholic Church has given a place to Mary, the Virgin Mother, similar to that of Shakti. The veneration offered to the Virgin Mother, as the most exalted of the Creations of God, is designated as Hyperdulia. There are common elements existing between Hindu Devi worship and Catholic rites such as the sacrament, private upasana or puja, upacharas (bell, light and incense), the rosary for the japa and kavachas (medals and scapulas) and several festivals, fasts and observances of identical character. Shakti worship is quite in harmony with the highest philosophy and even the tenets of modern science. Herbert Spencer asserts that “the Universe, physical and psychical, within us or without us, is a play of force (shakti).”
Shakti worship is regarded as a Sadhana Shastra or a shastra of realisation and discipline. It is supposed to be a part of monistic thought or Advaita Vedanta and the underlying idea of the cult of Shakti or Divine Power has been described as one of the greatest evolved. Its basic thoughts are that, namely,
that the world is a Cosmos and not a chaos;
that Dharma or World Order upholds this Cosmos;
this Dharma is not imposed from without, but is in the nature of things.
This Dharma demands action in harmony with world processes which include “the law of causality”, according to which the fruit of no action is lost.
Religion and, indeed, all right living, is the upholding of this Dharma.
God, in the Mother form, is worshipped as the Supreme Power, which creates, sustains and withdraws this Universe, and works out this Dharina through and by means of the laws of Karma, transmigration (samsara), evolution and involution. Although God is beyond sex, the power or active aspect of God is called Shakti. Shiva or the male aspect of Divinity is regarded as the unchanging consciousness and Shakti as the developing transforming power manifested in men and matter, through a Trinity of functions --ichha or will, gnana or knowledge and kriya or action. Shakti has been defined as the power by which the Infinite formless consciousness veils itself and limits itself, thus experiencing itself as form.
The essential teaching of the Tantra is that sadhana meansthat “man must rise through and by means of nature and not by a foolish or purposeless rejection of nature.”
Whereas Durga or Uma in her various forms and manifestations is represented as the Shakti of Shiva, the same place is occupied in Vaishnava theology by Lakshmi, and Sarasvati is worshipped as the Shakti of Brahma. Shakti worship makes provision for both sexes, and all castes are included in its ambit. In fact, the honour paid to women in Shakti worship is remarkable and unique. Women are entitled to be Gurus.
The concept of the Motherhood of God is quite consistent with monism or Advaita. Shakti is only symbolically female, because it is the productive principle in nature which is associated with the feminine aspect.
The Shaakta dharma or the dharma of Shakti worship is, as already stated, specially distinguished in the religious development of India for its unsectarian spirit and its provision for all castes and for women.
Each person is a reservoir of power or Shakti, which should be trained in the right type of activity and in practical service. It has been called the Religion of Power and it is based on a philosophy that experiments.
The main scriptures of the Shakti worshippers are the Devi Bhagavatham and parts of the Markandeya, Skanda and Brahmanda Puranas. Commencing with Shankaracharya and coming down to Thayumanavar, various saints and seers have composed hymns and commentaries bearing on Shakti worship. Shaktism has been defined as a dynamic form of the Hindu faith in its mood of synthesis or integration and reconciliation. Durga or Uma is contemplated as the sister of Vishnu, the wife of Shiva and the Mother of Ganesha and Subrahmanya. Thus every important aspect of the Godhead is associated with this Shakti. Shakti is pictured as Saguna Brahman, as the active principle energising the universe.
Mother worship in India has to be viewed in the aspect in which it has deepened the religious consciousness of the people and thus moulded their sense of higher values. It is through this process that it can add a colour and quality to the very culture of the people. The Mother Goddess could stir the life and intellect of the people of the country mainly through the philosophy of Shakti.
The images of the Mother Goddess appeared for the first time in the Indus Valley Civilization and were probably developed by non-Vedic people. Today’s Shakti cult or mother cult, developed when the Vedic Aryans and the non-Vedic and tribal people came together, creating a long process involving the assimilation of various ideas by the Vedic religion which has predominantly male Gods. However, there is a mother Goddess in the Vedas too. So, it is an indication that worshipping the sacred mother Goddess was widespread among the religions of the Indus Valley and Vedic cultures.
To trace the evolution of the worship of the Sacred Mother Goddess, we have to begin with the Vedas which are the earliest written records of the religion, literature and civilization of India.
Aditi is described as the mother of the Gods in the Rig Veda (Devamata). She is also described as the mother of the Universe and this tradition of Aditi being the Supreme Mother of the Gods continues in the later puranic literature also. She is the most influential and important Goddess in the Vedas, being the personification of the sprawling infinite and vast cosmos. She is the Goddess of the earth and sky, the past, present and future, and the Goddess of fertility. She is the mother of the celestial beings, the Adityas. As the celestial mother of every existing form and being, the synthesis of all things, she is associated with space (akasa) and with mystic speech (Vach). She is mentioned more than 250 times in the Rig Veda, out of praise, admiration, and respect. She is the daughter of Lord Brahma, the Creator, who gave her the cosmic egg of creation. Aditi safeguarded it for 1000 years before it was let into the water and began the process of creation.
Another important Goddess was the earth mother. Prithvi ‘the Vast One’ is the Sanskrit name for the Earth as well as the name of the Goddess in Hinduism and Buddhism. The Rig Veda (168.33) says “great is our mother earth”. She was invoked to bestow luxuriant growth, crops, food and prosperity and redeem human beings from sins and ensure happiness, children and long life. All motherly feelings, affection, generosity and forbearance are attributed to the mother earth of whom the poets were proud to be the children.
Prithvi’s consort is Dyaus Pita, the sky God. In later puranic literature, she is known as Bhoomi (earth) and is saved from drowning in the primeval waters by Lord Vishnu in the form of the boar Varaha.
Book 12 of the Atharva Veda, is an entire hymn to the earth where, it is said, “Truth and greatness, the right and the formidable, consecration, penance, Brahman (the Supreme Being) and sacrifice sustain the Earth; . . . she (the Earth) bears the herbs of various potency—let the Earth be prosperous for us. On her are the ocean, the rivers—the waters; on her all food and plough-fields; on her flourish those that breathe and stir; . . . let that Earth grant us all prosperity. The immortal heart of this Earth, covered with truth, is in the highest firmament—let that Earth assign to us brilliancy, strength, in highest royalty. On her the circulating waters flow the same, night and day, without failure—let that Earth yield us milk; then let her sprinkle us with splendour ... Earth is Mother, I am Earth’s son. . . Thou hast become great, a great station; great is thy trembling, stirring, quaking; great Indra defends thee unremittingly. Do thou, O Earth, make us shine forth as in the aspect of gold let no one soever hate us”.
Lakshmi or Shri is the Goddess of wealth and prosperity. Her origin is traced to the Shri sukta, a collection of verses in the fifth book of the Rig Veda. In the Shri Sukta the Goddess Lakshmi or Shri is described as of the colour of a red lotus, seated on a red lotus and wearing a garland of red lotuses, and is herself called the deity of the lotus (Padma). She is approached to gift her devotees, gold and domestic animals like cows and horses, to give them good health, wealth, a good harvest, beauty, name and fame. Originally, Lakshmi was a harvest Goddess and was identified with the earth in the Aitareya Brahmana. Images of Lakshmi are found in Bharhut and other Buddhist and Jain centres; her image and reference are found in a seal and some inscriptions of the Gupta period. It seems that the worship of Lakshmi as a mother Goddess became established during the Gupta period.
The history of the mother Goddess Lakshmi seems to have taken a bifurcated course. Lakshmi gradually became associated with Vishnu, the all-pervading ultimate Lord, as his Shakti; but she also continues her original nature as the harvest Goddess associated with Mother Earth. She is described in her worship as the presiding deity of the home as well as the corn field. Women worship her as the domestic Goddess of fortune and beauty. In the autumnal worship of the Goddess, her first representative is a branch of a bilva (Aegle Marmelos) tree with which the Goddess is to be first awakened. In the next stage, the representative of the Goddess is the Navapatrika, a female figure made with a plantain tree and eight other plants and herbs. In the worship of this Navapatrika, hymns are uttered in praise of all the plants and herbs separately, identifying the mother Goddess with each of these plants and herbs. The prayer “Shri Ashta Lakshmi Stotram” lists the Ashta (eight) forms of Lakshmi in which all of them are depicted as seated on the sacred lotus. She has been identified with dhana (wealth), dhanya (rice), the staple food of a substantial portion of the Indian sub-continent, gaja (elephants), santaan (progeny), veera (valour), vijaya (victory) and vidya (knowledge). In some parts of the country, she is worshipped in the Navapatrika form referred to earlier.
The philosophic concept of the Mother Goddess Lakshmi is expounded in the literature of the Pancharatra school of early Vaishnavism. Here Vishnu as Vasudeva (the all-pervading Lord) is the Supreme Being who possesses infinite power in the form of knowledge, will and activity. Though ultimately one and the same with the Lord, she presents a semblance of duality in non-duality. In Puranic literature, we have several legends concerning the origin of Lakshmi. Lakshmi is also with the Narayana form of Lord Vishnu, whereby the Lord rests on Shesha the snake, representing the cosmic ocean.
SHRI AND BHU
Goddess Lakshmi is the Shakti of Lord Vishnu, the Preserver. In the artistic representations of Lord Vishnu, she is bifurcated as the Goddesses Shri and Bhu, on either side of Vishnu. In these representations, Vishnu retains his aspect of the old Vedic Sun God, and Shri and Bhu stand for two aspects of Lakshmi, the Earth-Goddess, the aspects of prosperity and productivity.
Reference to the worship of Shri is found in the Dharma sutra of Bodhayana. She is referred to in a few verses of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Lakshmi is also identified with Goddesses Shri and Bhu (Bhoomi), the Goddesses of good fortune and earth respectively, and stand for two concepts of the Goddess. Earth and Prosperity are aspects of Shakti, the power associated with God Vishnu.
In the Aitareya Brahmana (S.5) the earth is identified with Shri; in some of the later Upanishads also the earth has been identified with the Goddess Shri or Lakshmi, the Goddess of harvest and fortune. As the Goddess Shri, the earth has been eulogized as the sovereign Goddess and homage has been paid to her. In Puranic literature, the earth has been frequently described as an aspect of Shakti or the Great Power.
The Shri sect of Vaishnavism lays great stress on the mother aspect of Vishnu’s Shakti. Lakshmi stands as an intermediary between God and human beings, making the former compassionate and merciful to the latter.
Bhoomi or Bhu is the Earth, which is the source of food and prosperity. This was a very important aspect of an ancient agricultural society.
In the Ramayana, Sita, wife of Rama, is a symbol of the sacred earth and agriculture. Her name means furrow and she is the daughter of mother earth. She is discovered amidst the furrows and adopted by King Janaka. When she decides to leave the earth, the land opens up and Mother Earth takes her into the depths.
Particular mention may be made of the Goddess Sarasvati, who is one of the most important Goddesses of India still worshipped on a wide scale. Originally, she was an important and sacred river in the Rig Veda, and then she became a river-Goddess.
The historical development of the river Sarasvati took a different course. The hymns in praise of the river Sarasvati in the Rig-Veda and the homage paid to her suggest that there was a latent belief in a presiding deity over the river.
In one verse of the Rig-Veda, Sarasvati has been praised as the best among the mothers, best among the rivers and best also among the Goddesses, and as such she had a share in the oblations offered in the sacrifices.
In the next phase of her evolution, we find her identified with vach or word, and that became the turning point in her evolution as the Goddess of learning not only in India but also in some other neighbouring or eastern countries like Tibet, Java and Japan, where stone images of the Goddess have been discovered. It is philosophically held that the river Sarasvati represents the stream of knowledge of the Eternal One, and as such she is the Logos, the Indian synonym for which is vach, and thus could Sarasvati, the river, be identified with vach. Sarasvati began to evolve as the Goddess of learning and of all fine arts in later times.
Sarasvati is generally described as a snow-white Goddess with white garments, and everything associated with her is white in keeping with her purity. In her most widely accepted icon of the present day, she is seated on a white swan as her vehicle (vahana).
In the age of the Puranas, the tendency was to have the concept of Sarasvati assimilated with the conception of Shakti; as a result, Sarasvati was conceived as a particular aspect of the one all-pervading Power—the Great Mother. The most famous and sacred of all the mantras, composed in the gayatri metre and daily recited many times by brahmins.
She is the wife or the Shakti of Brahma, and as such, she has, like Brahma, the swan as her carrier.
Sarasvati finds a place as an important Goddess in Buddhism as well as in Jainism with varying iconographical details. In later Buddhism, however, she is generally associated with Manjushri, the God of learning. In the Buddhist liturgical texts, she is variously described as Maha Sarasvati, Aryavajra-Sarasvati, Vajravina-Sarasvati, Vajra-Sarada, etc. She presents a variety of names and iconographical differences in Jainism as well.
This tendency of holding the rivers as mothers, coupled with the tendency to deify them, seems to have been responsible for the origin and development of the worship of the river-Goddesses of India. The river Ganga (Ganges) is ceremoniously worshipped as a Mother Goddess. A series of legends in the Puranic Age have made the Ganga a full-fledged mother Goddess, associated in one way or another with the Trinity—Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, and it is sincerely believed by a large section of the Hindus even today that one will attain eternal peace if one can pass the last few hours of one’s life half-immersed in the waters of the Ganga. Hindu custom consigns the ashes of the cremated body to the holy water of the Ganga. The river Yamuna is associated with the heavenly cowherd Krishna, who lived on the banks of the Yamuna. All the rivers – Godavari Narmada, Kaveri, etc. - are Goddesses and therefore sacred. The Brahmaputra is the only male river.
The Sacred Mother Goddess has been mainly styled as the Devi, i.e. the great Goddess; but the Devi became well known in later times as Durga. The name Durga has variously been interpreted in the Puranic and Tantrika literature, the import of which is that she is the Mother Goddess who saves us all from all sorts of miseries and afflictions—from all sorts of dangers and difficulties. Durga is also called Shakti and is worshipped as the principal aspect of the Mother Goddess. She is one of the most popular and widely revered deities, associated with protection, strength, motherhood, destruction and war. She fights evil and demonic forces that threaten peace, prosperity and Dharma, the Law of Righteousness. In the worship of Shakti, we see the coming together of the ancient cult of the Mother Goddess, still revered in several local forms in Indian villages, Tantric rituals and the more sophisticated forms of Devi worship. Nearly every Indian Village Goddess is identified with Shakti, although the folk forms undoubtedly supersede her Shakti identification. The Durga Stotra in the Mahabharata details her attributes of mother, daughter, sister and the great saviour, by which the Shaktas came to revere her. The Aiyastava of the Harivamsha describes Devi and her worshippers, the Shavaras, Barkaras and Pulindas, ancient indigenous tribes.
The Devi Mahatmya of the Markandeya Purana finally brings together the entire cult picture of the great Goddess. The description in the Markandeya Purana vacillates between the description of Shakti as the formless, Supreme, all-pervading principle and her various finite forms. She is described as holding the citrus, mace, shield, skull cap, skull cup, sword, trident and severed head, um various combinations. She rides the lion, the tiger. She slays the buffalo demon and can be blood-thirsty. Her milder aspects are as Parvati (mountaineer), Uma (light), Gauri (yellow), Jaganmata (mother of the world).
In her more terrible aspects, she is Kali, adorned with the skulls of demons, Chandi (fierce) and Bhairavi (terrible). As Durga, she rides a lion or tiger and holds a trident or trishula. As Mahishasuramardini, she rides the lion and kills the buffalo demon. In her early images on coins, she stands on a lotus with a lion beside her. Later, she is depicted in her Mahishasuramardini form. There is a gradual metamorphosis from a Goddess killing the buffalo with her trident to a Goddess seated on a lion killing a buffalo demon with her trident. It is believed that the lion association was influenced by Ishtar (Nana, Maria), the great Babylonian-Assyrian Goddess of fertility and war, whose symbol was the lion.
She inspired Adi Shankara to compose the Soundaryalahari, a sublime offering to the noblest qualities of creation.
The battle between the Mother Goddess and the buffalo symbolises the battle between the food-producing Dravidians and the pastoral tribes of pre-Dravidian India who worshipped the buffalo God. The latter was defeated and this victory is symbolised by the Goddess killing the buffalo-headed demon.
Durga’s association with the tiger goes back to Mohenjo Daro, where the tiger is on several seals, standing by a female figure seated on a prickly tree, probably the shami or khejarli (Prosopis cineraria), known as kotran in Tamil. Durga is known as Kotravai in Tamil literature, the Goddess of the desert (palai).
AMBIKA and SHAKAMBHARI
There are several names for the Goddess Durga. As Goddess Ambika, she is the autumn, which betrays the fact that she was originally a harvest Goddess; and when Ambika became identified with Durga, the autumnal worship of the Goddess became a widespread custom. An epithet of Durga is Shakambhari, which means ‘the herb-nourishing Goddess.’
UMA - PARVATI
In the Atharva-Veda, we find a hymn (6. 38) addressed plainly to the great mother Goddess (Devi): that the great Goddess is the underlying brilliance and power in everything, and that she is the mother even of Indra, the mightiest of the Gods. The Goddess was named Uma, meaning tranquility. Uma is qualified by the word Haimavati, which may historically be interpreted as belonging to the mountain Himavat, i.e. the Himalayas.
Uma or Parvati, the Indian Mountain Goddess, seems to be the basis of the Puranic magna mater, with whom most of the other mother Goddesses, mostly indigenous in origin, were associated, or with whom, most of them merged themselves. The evolution of the idea and philosophy of Shakti greatly helped this process of identification and unification. As the Shakti is fundamentally one, the mother must also be one; the mothers were necessarily intermingled and unified. Uma or Parvati as the consort or the inseparable counterpart of Lord Shiva seems to have attained wide prominence by the beginning of the Christian era. Uma Maheshwara drew almost universal respect in India as the primordial Father and Mother. Kalidasa began his great epic Raghu-vamsha with a salute to Parvati-Parameshwara, the Mother and Father of the universe, who are said to be eternally and inseparably related to each other. In the Kumara-sambhava he narrates how Uma obtained Mahadeva as her husband through austere penances. Thus she was the Jaganmata. In this work of Kalidasa, we come across other popular names of Uma, viz. Gauri (yellow) and Aparna (during her penance for Lord Shiva, not taking as her food even the leaves—parna—that fell from the trees).
In the Kumara-sambhava, we find reference to Daksha’s daughter Sati attending a Vedic sacrifice arranged by her father, to which her husband Shiva was not invited, and committing suicide because of the insult offered to him by her father, with the determination of becoming the wife of Shiva in her next birth. When the great Mother, in her incarnation as Sati, daughter of Daksha, threw away her body as a protest against her father’s insulting her husband, Mahadeva (the great God) took the dead body of his beloved consort on his shoulder and began to roam about in the three worlds, mad in grief. This disturbed the universe, creating chaos, to prevent which Vishnu came forward with his weapon of discus and from behind the great God cut the body of the Mother Goddess Sat! into fifty-two pieces, which fell in fifty-two places of India, thus making them great centres of Mother worship. This legend also seems to be another attempt at assimilating all the mother Goddesses of India into one—the great Goddess. Accordingly, in her next birth as Uma, she obtained Shiva once more as her husband by dint of austere penance.
ANNAPOORNA and KATYAYANI
Durga is the great mother Goddess whose worship during the autumn is called navaratri, when she is worshipped for the first three days as Durga, the next three days as Lakshmi and the last three days as Sarasvati. This season is one of the most celebrated religious festivals of Hindus. She is worshipped also as Annapurna or Annada—the Goddess of rice and food and the presiding Goddess of Benares. During the spring she is worshipped as Vasanti, the spring Goddess. The autumnal worship of Durga is celebrated all over India, especially in Bengal, as Navaratri (nine nights). In the annual worship of the Mother, her earthen image is especially constructed for the occasion, the Mother is generally represented as Mahisha-mardini, or as trampling and killing Mahishasura (the buffalo-demon). The lion is her vehicle. Thus she becomes Katyayani, the warrior.
Durga or rather the Devi of the Puranic period has assimilated within her all the prevalent mother Goddesses of India, most of whom were indigenous local Goddesses. In some of the Puranas the Devi is said to be worshipped in one hundred and eight names in one hundred and eight sacred places all over India. In some texts, there is an attempt at enumerating a thousand names of the Goddess. Even a cursory glance at these lists will convince one that some of these names represent the different attributes of the Goddess, while others point to the fact that they are local Goddesses later on generalized and merged in one great mother Goddess.
In her more terrible aspects, she is Kali, the popular Mother Goddess of Bengal. In the south of India, her temples are situated deep in the forest or outside the village. Women appeal to her to protect their husbands who have gone to war. Kali, the popular mother Goddess of Bengal, is worshipped daily in many old temples. Her annual worship falls on the dark night of the new moon ( mavasya) about three weeks after the autumnal worship of Mother Durga.
Shakti as the great mother and the highest truth has found an elaborate exposition in the Devi-mahatmya (glory of the Goddess) section of the Markandeya Purana, and this portion of the Purana, consisting of thirteen chapters (81-93) is regarded as the most sacred text of the Mother worshippers of India, known as the Chandi. She is also called Chandi—the fierce Goddess, as she incarnates herself whenever occasion demands for the purpose of destroying the demons who may threaten the mental peace and the heavenly domain of the divine beings. The Chandi is full of battles between the Mother on one side and prominent demons with their hosts on the other. The whole thing is but an allegorical representation of the continual war that is going on within, between the divine and the demoniac in man. Every dominant passion or instinct has its special array—a truth symbolized by the chief demons and their respective armies. Our passions and instincts change their form and colour and try to escape in disguise. This has been illustrated by the story of some of the demons changing their shape when challenged by Shakti, the divine Power. The other fact is that so deep-rooted the passions and the instincts are in us that they often seem to be indestructible, since one that is killed is replaced at once by another, and so on. This is well illustrated by the Goddess’s fight with the demon Raktabija, from whose every drop of bloodshed on the ground sprouted a demon with fresh vigour and ferocity. It is the awakening of the Mother within, that is, full consciousness of the divine Power working in and through him, that makes a man strong and surcharged with the immense power of God.
Roughly between the beginning of the Christian era and the tenth century A.D., many local and indigenous Goddesses from the social sub-strata found a place in the Hindu pantheon, and by a process of generalization, both religious and philosophical, were fused together and treated as aspects of the one universal mother Goddess. It is not, therefore, a fact, as is sometimes wrongly conceived, that the many mother Goddesses are later emanations from the one mother Goddess; on the contrary, the one mother Goddess of the Puranic Age seems to be a consolidation of the many mother Goddesses—a consolidation brought about by the philosophy of Shakti.
After summer, the first rain makes Mother Earth ready for conceiving the next crop. Villages in many parts of India abound with local village deities, popularly known as Gramadevatas, who are most frequently female deities. It has been suggested that probably many of these represent some form of Mother Earth originally worshipped by the non-Aryan aborigines. The Devi Mahatmyam says that the Goddess Parvati took seven forms to kill the demons. These forms were adopted as Village Goddesses to protect the villagers from epidemics and natural calamities. The village Goddesses can be grouped as follows:
Goddesses of rain and fertility
Protective boundary Goddesses
Rain being a perennial problem in the Deccan, Goddesses of Rain are the most popular and have the maximum number of temples to their credit. They include
Mari Amman. Mari means rain and she was called Muthu Mari: Muthu means pearls and Muthu Mari Amman means the prosperous rain Goddess. However, the word muthu was also connected to small pox and she became the dreaded harbinger of disease who had to be propitiated to prevent calamities. She is known as Shitala Devi in North India, a much-feared deity.
Ponni Amman is the rice Goddess of Tamilnadu. The word Ponni is also another name for the river Kaveri. She is regarded as an incarnation of Bhu devi.
Isakki is a corruption of the Jain yakshi. She holds a baby in her arms and is blood-thirsty, standing on a man. This is an irony, for the Jains are the greatest proponents of ahimsa.
Protective boundary Goddesses are believed to protect the village boundary from evil forces. They include
Ellai Amman. Ellai means boundary and she is represented by the milestone which demarcates the boundary between two villages.
Sapta Matrikas or Seven Mothers, who protect tanks and, when the water levels rise, call the villagers to protect the bund. They are called Sapta Kannimaar or seven virgins in Tamilnadu.
Pidari prevents cholera and is invoked to ward off evil.
There are also Goddesses of the coastline, such as
Manimekalai is described as the Goddess of the sea in the epic in her name.
Angala Parameshwari is the guardian of fisherfolk who install her in temples along the coast.
Meenakshi, the fish-eyed, who is associated with fishing communities.
Kanika Parameshwari, who protects the trading community from the waves.
In time, many Village Goddesses were upgraded into full temples with Vedic rituals. The best examples are Meenakshi of Madurai, Kamakshi of Kanchipuram, Mari Amman of Samayapuram and Karumari of Thiruverkaadu.
Village Goddesses generally owned the local sacred grove, a forest which could range from five to five hundred hectares, and a pond or river nearby. People protected them out of fear and reverence for the Goddess, who, in turn, ensured their food and water safety. A custom common all over India is the gifting of votive offerings of terracotta animals – especially horses – to the Mother Goddess.
THE PRINCIPLE OF SHAKTI
In the Indian idea of Shakti, we find a happy blending of two elements, one empirical and the other speculative. On the empirical side, the idea of Shakti is associated with the idea of cosmogony. It has been the uncontradicted experience of people from the dawn of his understanding that there cannot be any origination whatsoever unless there is the union of the two—the male and the female. Human analogy was naturally extended to the origination of the universe as a whole, and thus man came to the idea of the primordial Father and the primordial Mother. As we have seen, in the primitive condition of society the mother held the most important position, and thus the cosmic mother became the most important deity.
Everything that has existed, existed by virtue of its power or powers. God, who exists as the creator, preserver and destroyer of the universe, must possess infinite power through which He creates, preserves and destroys the universe. In fact, His very being presupposes infinite power by virtue of which He Himself exists. This belief in the power of God is a universal belief, but what lends it a specially Indian colour is the dominant tendency of the Indians to view this power or universal energy as something like a female counterpart of the possessor of this power. This power or shakti, conceived as a counterpart of the possessor of shakti, is recognized as the consort of the possessor. This is responsible for the fact that not only among the Shaktas (believers in Shakti in whatever form as the supreme deity) but in almost all other religious sects—Shaivas (believers in Shiva as the supreme deity), Sauras (believers in the Sun God as the supreme deity), Ganapatyas (believers in Ganesha as the supreme deity) and Vaishnavas (believers in Vishnu or his incarnations as the supreme deity)—an important place is occupied by Shakti. There is seldom a God or a semi-God of India of the Puranic Age for whom a consort has not been conceived as the inseparable Shakti. The same has been the case with all the Gods, semi-Gods and demi-Gods of the later phase of Mahayana Buddhism.
A strong belief in Shakti has brought about a popular synthesis among contrary philosophies like Samkhya, Vedanta, Vaishnavism and Tantricism. Samkhya speaks of Purusha and Prakriti as two independent and ultimate beings whose interaction is, in fact, a mere attribution resulting from the accidental contact of the two. In the Puranas and similar other popular religious literature, Prakriti is plainly conceived as the female counterpart of Purusha, and as such the two reals have been practically identified with Shakti and Shiva of the Tantras. Just in a similar manner, the principle of maya (illusion) of Vedanta has been conceived as the Shakti of Brahman. These pairs have again been identified with Vishnu and his Shakti, Lakshmi or Shri, with Rama and Sita, and still later with Krishna and Radha. Thus, in popular religious belief, Shiva-Shakti of the Tantras, Purusha-Prakriti of Samkhya, Brahman-Maya of Vedanta, and Vishnu-Lakshmi, Rama-Sita and Krishna-Radha of Vaishnavism all mean the same.
Sir R. G. Bhandarkar has rightly remarked, “In the account here given, it will be seen that there is one Goddess with a number of different names. But the critical eye will see that they are not merely names, but indicate different Goddesses who owed their conception to different historical conditions, but who were afterwards identified with the one Goddess by the usual mental habit of the Hindus.” Many of the Goddesses are but different Shaktis, associated with the different Godheads of India, including Varaha (the Boar-God) and Narasimha (the man-lion God). Some of them are probably added from the stock of the aboriginal non-Aryans. Thus, for instance, the Goddess Chamunda is perhaps a non-Aryan blood-thirsty Goddess, as early references to her would show.
The Sacred Mother Goddess, manifests herself through all the bio-motor activities which we call the life-process, and through the laws of Nature. It is because of this that in the hymns to the great Goddess we find that she is the mantra for offering oblations to the Gods and the fathers; she is the pranava (Om) and its three component parts (a, u, and m); she is the gayatri and the subtle mantras that escape vocal articulation; she is the almighty Power solely responsible for the creation, preservation and destruction of the universe. She is the supreme knowledge (mahavidya) and great mental vigour (mahamedha). She is grace in everything that is graceful; she is the real power in everything that is powerful; she is the vigour in our intellect; she is the giver of our nourishment; she is contentment, peace of mind and forbearance. She is fierceness in war and contest, and again she is in the tenderest of our sentiments. She is prosperity in the house of the honest, and ruin in the house of the evil-minded; she is in all our wisdom and merit; she is in all our ignorance and vice; she is in Brahma, the first created and the greatest, and she is equally in the smallest of insects; she is in our highest state of liberation and bliss; she is in the worst state of bondage and suffering; she shines in the best of smiles, and she darkens everything by the most terrific frowns.
The Divine Feminine is the Sacred Mother who created life and also took it away, who protected the good and destroyed evil.
The author of the Devi Mahatmyam (XI.3) says
“O Goddess, who removes the sufferings of those who take refuge in thee, be gracious!
Be gracious, O Mother of the whole world;
Be gracious O Lord of the universe; protect the universe.
O Goddess, thou art the lord of all that is moveable and immoveable.”
Thus the worship of the Sacred Mother Goddess in India has a continuous history since Vedic times.