Kali, Tara and Tripura Sundari
I. Mahavidya Kali
20.1. Kali is Adi Mahavidya, the primary Mahavidya. She is the first and the foremost among the Mahavidyas. Even before the Mahavidya cult came into being, she was a major goddess with large following of devotees immersed in her mythologies, hymns and songs. She is not only the first but the most important of the Mahavidyas. It is said, the Mahavidya tradition is cantered on Kali and her attributes. Kali is the epitome of the Mahavidyas. The rest of the Mahavidyas emanate from Kali and share her virtues and powers in varying shades. The Saktisamgama-tantra says, “All the Mahavidyas, Siddhi-vidyas, Vidyas, and Upa-vidyas, are different forms that Kali assumes”. She is the exemplary Mahavidya; she alone symbolizes the fully awakened consciousness; and she alone reveals the ultimate truth.
20.2. Mahavidyas are symbols of female independence; and, Kali demonstrates that freedom with great abandon. She is never depicted as a submissive consort luring with charm. She is always dominant, striding on the male with a destructive frenzy. She challenges and demolishes the conventional notions about looks, manners and the limited ways of understanding things.
21.1. It is explained that Kali manifests in countless ways, but some aspects of her are more common than others. There are therefore varied descriptions of Kali. Each Tantric and Shakta tradition pictures her in its own light. But all sources tend to agree on her prominent characteristics. Kali is almost always regarded as being dark like the starlit night, with a dreadful appearance, having four arms, holding a bloodied cleaver and a severed head in her left hands, while her right hands gesture blessings (varadamudra) and reassurance (abhayamudra). She is depicted with three eyes, white teeth, garland of fifty human skulls and a girdle of seven severed human hands. Her limbs are adorned with various ornaments. Her tongue hangs out. Her laughter is most fearful. Kali who dwells in funeral pyres stands upon the corpse of a male. She is the auspicious divinity truly worthy of meditation.
21.2. Kali is also pictured in more benign forms. As Dakshinakali, she is portrayed as young and beautiful; gently smiling; standing with her right foot on the supine, ash-besmeared body of Siva, who looks up at her adoringly. Kali in her merciful form is protective, benevolent and a loving Mother who liberates her children.Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa envisioned Kali, his chosen deity, as the love that exists at the very heart of life; and that which endures through both life and death. Kali, he said, appears fearful only when approached through relative forms of existence and through worldly attachments. But when one lets his identities dissolve in the submission to her out of absolute faith and love, she appears as the very fountain of joy.
21.3. Kali is the Supreme Goddess resolving and harmonizing the contrasting attributes of creation and dissolution,. She is the very essence of every existence.All the dualities of life, the light and the dark, the beautiful and the fearsome, are united and reconciled in Kali.
Kali is the symbol of eternal time (Kala) she presides over all stages of the life. Kali is consciousness in motion—the overflowing joy that projects, sustains, and withdraws the universe. And her destruction has a dual aspect; she gives birth to new life as the old one fades away in the darkness of death.
Iconography and symbolism
22.1. Kali is portrayed mostly in two forms: the popular four-armed form and the ten-armed Mahakali form .She is being described as being black or deep blue. The iconography of Kali is rich in symbolisms. It is said, Kali ‘picture is filled with awe-inspiring symbols, but they are not what they appear to be; and their real meaning is in their esoteric significance.
22.2. She is dark like mountains of collyrium. Her Black does not mean absence of color; but the absorption of all colours. It also suggests her immense power of attraction which draws the entire existence into itself. All colours reside in her. In Kali all colors dissolve. All shapes return to shapelessness, dissolved in the all pervading darkness of the eternal night. Her dark color is the ultimate reality in which all distinctions disappear.
22.3. Naked, clad by space, the Digambari is resplendent in her nakedness. She is unrestrained and boundlessness; free from all limitations and all illusions. She is beyond name (nama) and form (rupa) and all conditional existence. Kali’s nakedness signifies her absolute (nirguna) nature.
22.4. Her three eyes govern the three forces of creation, preservation and destruction. They are also said to represent the sun, moon, and fire; the three modes of time (kaala): past, present and future which she governs.
22.5. Her garland of fifty human heads is said to represent the fifty letters of the Sanskrit alphabet (varnamala), as also the power of her mantra, symbolizing her as the repository of power and all knowledge. The girdle of the seven severed human arms that circles her waist is said to represent the versatility and the freedom of choice inherent in all beings.
22.6. Her laughter is the expression of her absolute domination over all existence. It mocks at those who in folly of their vanity try to oppose her.
22.7. Kali’s four arms represent the complete circle of creation and destruction, which is contained within her. Her two right hands dispel fear (abhaya) and bestow boons (varada); assuring salvation. She holds out the promise of transformation. With her sword she cuts the knots of doubts (samshaya) and eight types of delusions and negative traits (hatred, doubt, fear, shame, back-biting, conformity, arrogance and status consciousness - Kularnava Tantra). It is also the sword of wisdom and discrimination (viveka) that cuts through ignorance and destroys falsehood. The freshly severed head of a demon dangling from her left hand is the small ego, the false identities, the crippling limitations that bind human thinking.
23.1. In the hierarchy of manifestations, Kali stands at the highest, the most abstract aspect of divinity. All the dualities of life, the light and the dark, the beautiful and the fearsome, are united and reconciled in Kali. To reach her one has to abandon all prejudices, inhibitions; and discard all attachments, even the attachments to ideas and concepts.
Kali Kali Mahakali Kalike Papanasini
Kreem Kreem Kreem Hum Hum Hreem Hreem Dakshine Kaalika
II. Mahavidya –Tara
24.1. In the group of the Mahavidyas, Tara comes next to Kali. Tara closely resembles Kali in appearance. And just as Kali, Tara too displays gentle (saumya) or fierce (ugra) aspects. She was a prominent goddess well before the Mahavidya cult came into being. Tara has a much wider presence outside the Mahavidya periphery, especially in the Tantric traditions of both Hinduism and Tibetan Buddhism. The Tantra regards Tara as potent as Kali. Tara also figures in Jainism. In the Vaishnava lore Tara was one of the goddess who fought along with Durga to defeat the thousand-headed Ravana.
24.2. In all the three traditions, Tara the blue goddess is a guide and a protector; and helps to tide over the stormy sea of troubles and turmoil of life (Samsara-tarini). She is Tarini, deliverer or saviour; one who saves guides and transports to salvation. Tara is the deity of accomplishments and is often propitiated by business persons for success.
24.3. Tara is associated with the speaking prowess. And, some texts equate Tara to Sarasvathi the goddess of learning; and call her Neela (blue) Sarasvathi seated on a lotus. As she is the goddess of speech, she is related to breathe that manifests sound. Breath is the primal sound of life. Breath in which the sound originates is the carrier (transporter –Tarini) of knowledge conveyed through the sound of speech. Tara is the un-manifest speech that resides in breath and consciousness.
24.4. In contrast to the Buddhist Tara who is described as a benevolent, compassionate, gentle and spirited young woman, eager to help and to protect, Tara as Mahavidya is a rather fearsome goddess striking terror. She is also moody and harmful. But at times, Tara-Mahavidya can also be benevolent and compassionate.
25.1. Tara is described as seated in the pratyalidha asana on the chest of a corpse stretched on a white lotus; she is supreme and laughing horribly; holding cleaver, blue lotus, dagger and bowl; uttering the mantra Hum. She is of deep blue colour; her hair is braided with serpents, she is the Ugra-Tara. Her tongue is always moving. Her forehead is decorated with ornaments made of bones. She bestows magical powers. A noticeable feature of Tara’s iconography is the halo of light that surrounds her head. And, rising above her head is the ten headed serpent Akshobhya (the unperturbed or unshakable) symbolizing her yogic powers.
25.2. Between Kali and Tara there are some similarities as also some differences. As said earlier, Tara’s physical appearance resembles that of Kali. Like Kali, she has three bright red eyes; has four hands holding sword or head chopper, a scissors, a severed head and a lotus; wears the garland of skulls; is richly is bejewelled and has snakes for ornaments; dances on a corpse. Both Kali and Tara are strongly associated with death and dissolution; both stand upon inert male figure. And, both are associated with Shiva. Brahaddharma purana mentions Tara as representing time, just as does Kali. Whereas Kali is the power of time (kala) that inexorably causes all created things to perish, Tara is associated with fire, and particularly the fires of the cremation ground.
25.3. There are also differences in the depiction of the two goddesses. Tara’s complexion is blue whereas Kali’s can be black or deep blue. Tara holds a bowl made from a scull in one hand, a pair of scissors in another, a blue lotus in the third hand and an axe in the fourth. The scissors and sword in the hands of Tara are tools to remove the ego, the sense of mistaken identity that defines, limits, and binds. They are not weapons of death and destruction. Tara is draped in tiger skin around her waist; and is not naked unlike Kali who symbolizes absolute freedom. Unlike Kali, whose hair flows loose and wild, Tara’s hair of tawny colour is carefully bunched into a topknot (jata). Whereas Kali’s hair represents absolute freedom from constraint, Tara’s is a symbol of yogic asceticism and restraint. Kali represents the highest form of wisdom or liberating knowledge; and Tara is related to the discipline of yogic practices.
Pratyalidhapade Ghore Mundalamala Pasovite
Kharve Lambodari Bhime Ughratara Namostu Te
Om Hreem Streem Hum Phat
III. Mahavidya –Tripura Sundari
26.1. Tripura Sundari (she who is most beautiful in all the three worlds) also known as Sodasi (the girl of sixteen) is usually listed as the third Mahavidya following Kali and Tara .Tripura Sundari is one of the Adi (primary)Mahavidyas .She was a well known Tantric deity even before she was grouped with the Mahavidyas. The goddess is depicted in three forms: Tripura Bala (the young virgin; Tripura Sundari (the beautiful) and Tripura Bhairavi (the terrible).The last mentioned aspect – Tripura Bhairavi - is emphasized in the Mahavidya cult. While, her other two aspects are central to the Sri Vidya tradition rooted in the worship of Sri Chakra. In Sri Vidya, Tripura Sundari is celebrated as Lalitha, Rajarajeshwari, Kameshwari and Mahatripura Sundari the most magnificent transcendental beauty without a comparison in three worlds, the conqueror of three levels of existence. Each of these forms emphasizes a particular quality or function. In Sri Vidya, the Goddess is worshiped in her benign (saumya) and beautiful (soundarya) aspects, following the Sri Kula (family of Sri) tradition (sampradaya). Sri Vidya is still flourishing, particularly in South India.
26.2. It is said; Sundari as Sodasi of sixteen years is at a delightful stage of a woman’s life. Her nature is to play, to seek new experiences, and to charm others to her. Her innocence attracts all towards her .The other explanations mention: she is called Sodasi because the mantra of her Vidya is composed of sixteen seed syllables (bija-akshara: ka e i la hrim; ha sa ka ha la hrim; sa ka la hrim; and srim). Another explanation sates that the number sixteen is also associated with sixteen her individualized aspects, kalas or sixteen phases of moon (Shodasha kalaa). And, therefore this Vidya is also known as Chandra-kala- vidya, the wisdom of the lunar digits. The Bija-aksharas are invoked as forms of the Mother goddess. But, in the Mahavidya cult, Sodasi is also seen as the embodiment of sixteen modification of desire.
26.3. As regards Tripura Sundari, three is her dominant number. Her name is taken to mean: “she who is beautiful in the three worlds” or “she whose beauty transcends the three worlds”. She is Trividha Shakthi : Baala, Sundari and Bhairavi. The three cities (tri-pura) symbolize body, mind and consciousness. The triangle is the main motif of Tripura Sundari carrying various symbolisms: three fold process of creation, preservation and destruction; the three syllables of her mantra; three gunas and three colours; three states of awareness etc
27.1. It is explained that Mahavidyas as a group belong to the Kali-kula (family of Kali) as Kali is the most prominent Mahavidya. Kali-kula generally is opposed to the conservative Brahmanical tradition, which ‘denies the experience of the Goddess’. Kali –kula is aligned to Shakta mode of worship. Further, some aspects and dispositions of Kali, the Adi Mahavidya, are shared by all the other Mahavidyas. For these reasons, Tripura Sundari, though she basically belongs to Sri-kula, as Mahavidya (Tripura Bhairavi), displays traces of aggression (ugra) and horror (ghora). The Mahavidya Tripura Sundari (Bhairavi) is described as timeless youth, beautiful but frowning rather angrily. The Mahavidya text Sodasi- tantra –shastra describes her, at places, as ‘frightening, wild and perhaps dangerous’. The most unusual depiction of Tripura Sundari appears in the Vamakeshwara-tantrawhere she is smeared with ashes, wears tiger skin, ties her hair in a knot over the top of her head as a jata, carries a skull; and holds a snake, a trident and a drum. She has a large bull as her vehicle.
27.2. Tripura Sundari as Mahavidya combines in herself the determination of Kali, the knowledge of Tara; and her own beauty and grace. And, following the core ideology of the Mahavidyas, Tripura Sundari, like Kali and Tara, exercises her domination over the male. She sits on the chest of Shiva, while the four major gods support her throne as its legs.
Though Tripura Sundari is an Adi (primordial) Mahavidya, she is not regarded as representing the highest state or absolute of reality (as Kali does). But, she represents a relative state of consciousness characterized by “I am this” (aham idam).She is related to yoga and heightened awareness (consciousness).
28.1. Tripura Sundari is glowing like rising sun spreading delights of joy, compassion and knowledge. She is depicted as a beautiful young girl of sixteen, of red and golden complexion, having four arms holding a noose, a goad, a sugarcane bow, and five flower arrows. She is richly adorned with ornaments. She is sometimes shown seated on a lotus emerging out of the navel of Shiva, who is reclining below her. At other times she is seated on the chest of reclining Shiva or sitting on the lap of Shiva (Kameshwara). They are on a pedestal supported by the gods Brahma, Vishnu, Rudra, and Indra. An aura of royalty distinguishes her demeanour and her attributes.
28.2. As regards the symbolisms associated with the ayudhas she holds: the noose symbolizes attachment, the goad signifies repulsion, the sugarcane bow is like the mind and the arrows are the five sense objects .The other explanation says: the noose indicates the captivating power of beauty ;goad , the ability to dissociate from attachments; the bow , the mind (manas);and the five flower arrows, represent the five senses (jnanendriyas).The reclining Shiva represents dormant consciousness Sadashiva tattva (the ever auspicious but inert principle of consciousness) ; and Tripura Sundari is Shakthi.
Om Aim Hreem Shreem Sri Lalita Tripurasundari Padukam Poojayami Namah
Om Aim Hreem Shreem Sri Lalita Tripurasundari Padukam Poojayami Namah
Next – Part Three
Bhuvanesvari, Chinnamasta and Bhairavi
Sources and references
1. Tantric Visions and Divine Feminine by David Kinsley.
2. Ten Mahavidyas: Manifestations of cosmic female energy by Dr. PC Jain and Dr. Daljit
3. The Dasa (ten) Mahavidyas
4. Dus Mahavidyas: the ten forms of the Devi by Saipriya Viswanathan.
5. The ten Mahavidyas by Hancock-Jaime
6. The Tantric way- Art, Science and Ritual by Ajit Mookerji and Madhu Khanna
7. Mahavidyas by Veeraswamy Krishnaraj
The pictures are taken from internet