1.1. There is a deep archetypal need in the human psyche for a mother. It is said; the Goddess was humankind’s earliest conception of divinity. Among the Shakthas who worship Mother Goddess, the source of all existence is female. God is woman. She is the principle representation of Divinity. She is that power which resides in all life as consciousness, mind, matter, energy, silence, joy as also disturbance and violence. She is the vibrant energy that makes everything alive, fascinating and wonderful. She is inherent in everything and at the same time transcends everything.
1.2. Her true nature is beyond mind and matter; she is not bound by any limitation. She is Arupa. When she is represented in a form, her intense representation is a Bindu the dimension-less point about to expand immensely. The Bindu symbolizes her most subtle micro form as the universal Mother, womb, yoni, creator, retainer as also the receiver of the universe-
1.3. The Goddess in Tantra- as Bindu – denotes what is hidden; the secret, the subtle and the most sensitive. She represents the source of all that is to be known, to be searched and to be attained with dedication and effort; she is Durga. The seeker is drawn by a fascination to know her. She is the mystery and allure of all knowledge. She is at once the inner guiding power, the knowledge and its comprehension. She is Vidya.
2.1. Ordinarily, Vidya stands for knowledge, learning, discipline and a system of thought. But, in the context of Tantra it has an extended meaning. Here, it variously refers to a female deity, to the personification of her consciousness; or to the manifestation of her wide variety of powers in specific forms at different times for different purposes. Her varied forms-dynamic and static- are interpreted as explicit instances of her absolute nature. Devi Durga is described as the Vidya in all beings; as the contrasting kinds of energies that pervade existence (Ya Devi sarvabhutheshu, Vidya rupena samsthita). And each of her Vidya is an illustration of her primordial energy as Adi prakrithi or Adi parashakthi.
2.2. The Devi, in the Tantra represents consciousness functioning at different levels of the universe -inward and outward. She also is the source of diverse principles, energies and faculties which make the manifest and un-manifest universe. When the countless diversity that occurs in nature, in humans and in all existence, is personified they are visualized by the Tantric through idioms that are familiar to him. He views each of that as a specific manifestation of the Devi. He recognizes each expression of her as a Vidya. Those symbolic Tantric visualizations are named Mahavidya, in awe and reverence.
3.1. Though Her Vidya is infinite, for the purpose of Tantric Sadhana, they are usually classified as being ten: Dasha Mahavidya. Each tradition of Tantra has its own set of Dasha Mahavidyas. Generally, the ten important Mahavidyas enumerated in the shaktha upa-puranas – Maha Bhagavata Purana and Brahaddharma Purana- are taken as standard forms (Kali, Tara, Tripura Sundari (Sodashi), Bhuvaneshvari, Bhairavi, Chinnamasta, Dhumavati, Bhagalamukhi , Matangi and Kamala ) .
They are described as the ten great gupta ( secret ) Mahavidyas :
[Kali Tara mahavidya Sodashi Bhuvaneswari / Bhairavi Chhinnamasta cha vidya Dhumavti tatha / Bagala siddha vidya cha Matangi Kamalatmika / Etaaha dasamahavidyaaha gupta vidyaaha prakeertitaaha ].
Further, each of the ten has within itself many layers; each carries many names; and, each form has its own sub-variations.
3.2. Some of the other Devi-related texts count more than ten forms of Mahavidyas. For instance, Narada Panchatantra says there are at least seventy Mahavidyas; the Nirutta Tantra counts eighteen Mahavidyas; and the Devi Bhagavata specifies thirteen forms of Mahavidyas (Kalika, Tarini, Tripura, Bhairavi, Kamala, Bagala, Matangi, Tripura-Sundari, Kamakhya, Tulja-devi, Jambhini, Mohini, and Chinnamasta).
Another Tantric text Mundamaala –tantra names a slightly different set of thirteen Mahavidyas (Kali, Tara, Tripura-Sundari, Bhairavi, Bhuvaneshvari, Chinnamasta, Bagala, Dhumavathi, Annapurna, Durga, Kamala, Matangi and Padmavati).
In certain other lists, some obscure goddesses: Vasali, Bala and Pratyangira are included.
Thus, the numbers, names and their position in the sequence vary from text to text.
3.3. But, all the texts agree that Mahavidyas, whatever is their numbers, names, order of appearance or their diverse forms, all represent the natures of one and the same reality. Kali is included in all the enumerations and she is regarded the Adi (primary) Mahavidya. Each of the other Mahavidya shares some of her characteristics.
For the limited purpose of the discussion here let’s follow the standard enumeration of Ten Mahavidyas as in Maha Bhagavata Purana. But, let me also mention it is not explained why this particular set of ten Mahavidyas has come to be accepted over the other lists. There seems to be an element of randomness in the group formation.
4.1. The origin of Mahavidyas as a group is unclear. There are various explanations based in mythologies of the Mahadevi the Great Goddess and in the Tantra texts. But all explanations seem to suggest that the Mahavidyas, as a group of ten, is of comparatively recent origin; say between twelfth and fourteenth centuries: “a medieval iconographic and mythological expression of an aspect of Mahadevi theology”.
That does not mean all the ten goddesses in the group emerged rather late. The Mahavidyas is a combination three well established deities –Kali, Tara and Kamala; couple of deities that already had marginal presence; and other deities, perhaps of local origin, who figure exclusively in the Tantric Mahavidya cult.
4.2. Among the Mahavidyas derived from the older deities, Kali is the foremost. Though Kali makes her specific appearance in the Devi-Mahatmya as an emanation of Durga, she combines in herself the virtues and powers of many Vedic deities. She inherits the all – pervasive sovereign power and splendour of Devi (RV.10.125); the mystery and darkness of Rathri (RV.10.127.1-8), dark as the bright starlit night who is Mayobhu (delighting), Kanya (virgin), Yosha yuvathi (youthful) , Revathi (opulent), Bhadra Shiva(auspicious) and pashahasta (holding a noose); the mercy of Durga who transports her devotee over all the difficulties ( no adya paarayati durgani visvaha – Nirukta :9.29); the occult power and delusion of Viraj the Maha-Maya , the goddess of heaven (divi maayeva devata) and the Dhirgajihvi (long tongued) ; the death, destruction and dissolution of Nirrti; and the timelessness of Kala. Kali is also one of the seven tongues of Agni (Kali, Karali, Manojava, Sulohita, Sudhumravarna, Suphulingini and Visvaruchi: Manduka Upanishad). Kali is thus associated with darkness, night, time, mystery, fire, and immense power of attraction. She is also the source and the residue of all energies.
4.3. Tara the saviour (Taarini) is as potent as Kali. She is said to be the form that Mahadevi took in order to destroy the thousand-headed –Ravana. Tara has strong presence in the Buddhism (especially the Tibetan Buddhism) and in Jain pantheons also. Among the Mahavidyas, Tara is next only to Kali; and she resembles Kali in appearance more than any other Mahavidya. Tara as Mahavidya is not entirely benign; she could be fierce and horrifying.
4.4. Among the other Mahavidyas, Kamala is the best known and adored even outside the cult. Kamala of the Mahavidya is a reflection of Shri for whom a Suktha of fifteen riks is devoted in the khilani (appendixes) attached to the fifth Mandala of Rig Veda. As Lakshmi she figures not only in the Puranas but also in the Buddhist texts of second and third centuries BCE. The Devi Mahatmya which is a part of the Markandeya Purana celebrates Mahalakshmi as the immense potential (sarva-sadhya) and the mighty Shakthi of Devi, the destroyer of Mahisha. However, as Mahavidya, Kamala is not endowed with all those powers nor does she enjoy the same prestige as Mahalakshmi in Tantra or Lakshmi in the orthodox tradition. Kamala is invoked mainly in rituals seeking wealth, power and hidden treasures. Kamala in her Mahavidya form is associated with Shiva and not with Vishnu.
[In fact, all the Mahavidyas, whatever might be their origins and individual dispositions, are associated with the Shiva cult. As a rule, they are depicted as dominating over Shiva, the male.]
4.5. Sodashi as Mahavidya is also referred to as Tripura Sundari the most beauteous in all the three worlds. She along with Kali and Tara is reckoned as Adi (primordial) Mahavidya. She is associated with sixteen phases of the moon or sixteen modifications of desire. Sodashi as Tripura Sundari, Lalita and Rajarajeshwari are the important goddess in the Sri Vidya tradition. But, as Mahavidya her belligerent aspect as Tripura Bhairavi is stressed.
4.6. Though better known as the goddess of the Mahavidya group, Bhuvaneshwari is related to Prithvi (the Mother Earth) of the Rig Veda (RV: 1.168.33). In the Puranas she is associated especially with Varaha Avatar of Vishnu. Broadly, Bhuvaneshwari, whose extension is the world, represents substantial forces of the material world.
The other Mahavidyas: Chinnamasta, Bagalamukhi, Dhumavati and Matangi are rarely mentioned except as Mahavidyas. These along with Bhiravi are primarily tantric deities of funeral pyres and grave yards.
4.7. The Mahavidya texts emphasize that though some of the Mahavidyas might bear names resembling other goddesses, they are not the same. Mahavidyas are exclusive powers of distinct Tantric character, are of severely independent nature (not viewed as spouses) and they should be worshipped only in the manner prescribed by the Tantric texts.
5.1. Attempts were made to bring Mahavidyas into the main stream of Shaktha legends through the Devi Mahatmya. The third Canto of the Devi Mahatmya mentions that Mahadevi, the united force of all the gods, in her battle against the demons Shumbha and Nishumbha created multiple groups of female warriors displaying various facets of her ferocious nature. Among the groups mentioned, the Saptha Matrikas and the Nava Durgas are prominent. Devi Mahatmya also refers to a group of goddesses having resemblance with Mahavidyas, though the text does not name them as such.
[But, in the Sahasranama –stotra (garland of thousand names) of the Mahavidyas as given in Sakta-pramoda the names of the Saptha Matrikas and the Mahavidyas have got terribly mixed up.]
There was also a suggestion, elsewhere, that the Mahavidyas emanated from the Nava Durgas.
5.2. The Devi Bhagavata and other Devi related puranas, in general, elaborate on the glory and splendour of Mahadevi the Great Goddess as the upholder of the cosmic order and the destroyer of the demons. But, the Mahavidya tradition is concerned, in particular, with the nature of the many diverse forms of Devi that pervade all aspects of reality.
Appearance and Attributes
6.1. Kali is Adi-Mahavidya, the primary Mahavidya. She is the first and the foremost among the Mahavidyas. She is not only the first but the most important of the Mahavidyas. It is said, the Mahavidya tradition is centered 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.
6.2. The Mahavidyas, as a group, form a most wonderful assimilation of contrasting elements and principles in nature. They all are intensely feminine, asserting the supremacy of the female. One could say they are the ‘anti-model’ of traditional docile housewife. They totally reject every authority and any type of dominance. They aggressively put down and overpower male ego and its arrogance. Their agitation often transforms into dreadful wrath. And that truly underlines the nature of the Mahavidyas.
6.3. Though the Mahavidyas are female they are not depicted as a wife. In the hymns devoted to some Mahavidyas their male spouses are mentioned. But, that minor detail is never stressed, as that is a weak and an insignificant aspect of their individuality. Mahavidyas are also not associated with Motherhood or fertility.
They defy traditional concepts about women. Mahavidyas are symbols of female independence; symbols of the ‘other’ ways of being feminine; the way that threatens the male. They are highly independent, rebellious, and stubborn; and over-domineering as if possessed of ferocious obsession to pulverize and grind the male ego into abject submission. Their wrath burns down every type of male arrogance. Incidentally, it is said, each Mahavidya is so independent and exclusive that she relates only to just a few that are close to her, but not to all the Mahavidyas in the group.
7.1. By all accounts, the Mahavidyas as a group and as individual deities are the most bizarre set of goddesses in any religion or in any culture. The Mahavidyas have fierce forms; terrifying demeanour; agitating minds; strange and exotic characters ; untidy habits; shocking behaviours; and destruction-loving nature. They enjoy strong association with death, violence and pollution. Some of the Mahavidyas are ghoul like deities of cremation grounds and corpses, sporting wild dishevelled hair, hideous features, dancing naked and sometimes copulating with an inert male stretched flat under them. In most cases they preside over strange tantric-magical rituals. It is their outrageous aspects that set them apart from the other deities.
7.2. Mahavidyas are thus a distinctive group of deities. They are far different from the deities worshipped in the polite society. The Mahavidyas giving way to violent emotional expressions are shown as performing loathsome, socially despicable roles, indulging in all that is forbidden in a normal society. And in fact, they challenge the normally accepted concepts and values in an established social order. They bring into question the very notions of beauty, goodness, honour, respect, decency, cleanliness and physical comfort etc.
8.1. There is another way of looking at their forms that are often disturbing and difficult to bear. This perhaps was the way they were intended to look. Mahavidyas are not meant to be pleasant or comforting. Their ambiguous, enigmatic, contradictory and paradoxical nature and behaviours are intended to shock, jolt and challenge our conceited way of looking at the world that keep us in bondage. They kick hard to awaken us; and point out that the world is really much different from what it appears to be; and it surely is not designed to satisfy our comforting fantasies. Mahavidyas are ‘anti-models’, provocative energies urging us to shed our inhibitions, to discard our superficial understanding of beauty, cleanliness, goodness or the ’proper’ way of doing things. They, in their own weird ways, challenge us to look beyond; and to look deeper and experience what lies beneath the façade of the ordinary world. Some scholars have therefore commented: “The key to the understanding or appreciation of the Mahavidyas lies precisely in their radical or outrageous aspects”.
Thus, in sharp contrast to the tranquil renderings of their abstract forms, the iconographic images of Mahavidyas portray their terrifying aspects and aggressive expressions.
8.2. From an aesthetic point of view Mahavidyas suggest a flight from reality and take you to a totally different world, which is poignant, restless and aggressive. The interesting aspect of the Mahavidyas is that the images seem to have sprung from intuition or from a non-rational source, and yet they bring home the realities of life. Pointing out to reality is in the nature of Tantra outlook. Tantra takes man and the world as they are and not as they should be.
It is said; the images should be viewed in the light of the meanings which underlie and generate the image. In case, the image and its meaning are disassociated, it then becomes a mere repulsive picture.
Blend of contradictions
9.1. The Mahavidyas in general are a strange amalgam of contradictions: death and sex; destruction and creation. In her creative aspect, Mahavidya is an enchantress – ‘the fairest of the three worlds’, radiating her benign powers. In her negative aspect her intensely fierce nature is made explicit by her terrifying features.
But at the same time, every Mahavidya is neither totally negative nor totally positive. Each is a combination of many awe inspiring virtues and magical powers. From the gross descriptions of ferocious deities Kali and Dhumavati it might appear they are devoid of pleasing, benevolent and such other positive virtues. But, their namavalis (strings of one thousand and eight names) sing and praise them as oceans of mercy. In contrast, Kamala, given her association with Shri, surprisingly, carries within her demeanour a few fierce or terrible aspects. The Mahavidyas cannot easily be classified as those that are strictly of fierce (raudra) or benign (saumya) nature.
9.2. A couple of the Mahavidyas are pictured as beauteous, amorous and benevolent. But in the ambience of death and destruction in which they are placed and in the overall context of the Mahavidya tradition, they are meant to be fearsome, demanding submission of the male. For instance, the beautiful goddess Tripura Sundari’s terrible form as Tripura Bhairavi is taken as her authentic Mahavidya aspect. The Mahavidyas, when pleased, might bless an adept; but that is often by destroying or harming or suppressing the adept’s enemies or opponents. Thus destruction is at times the Mahavidyas’ mode of blessing.
The Individual and the group
10.1. The ten Mahavidyas as a group are powerful. But, individually only a few can assert themselves on their own might. The characteristics of certain individual Mahavidya does not coordinate well with the group-characteristics though all the Mahavidyas are said to be emanations from Kali. Further, the texts do not also explain the inter-relation between the Mahavidyas or whether each in some way is connected or related with the others in the group.
The Mahavidya texts, however, hastens to explain that Mahavidyas are indeed a group; and, they all are emanations of the Devi. It is said; each of her Vidyas is great in its own right. The notions of superiority and inferiority among them should never be allowed to step in. All are to be respected alike. The differences among them are only in their appearances and dispositions. And yet they all reflect various aspects of the Devi. The might of Kali; the sound-force (sabda) of Tara; the beauty and bliss of Sundari; the vast vision of Buvaneshwari; the effulgent charm of Bhiravi; the striking force of Chinnamasta; the silent inertness of Dhumavathi; the paralyzing power of Bhagalmukhi; the expressive play of Matangi; and the concord and harmony of Kamalatmika are various characteristics, the distinct manifestations of the Supreme consciousness of the Devi that pervades the Universe.
[The tantric text Mundamala-tantra, however, makes a sub –classification in three levels. (1) Maha-vidya, the extraordinary Vidyas, consisting Kali and Tara; (2) Vidya, the normal Vidyas consist deities Shodashi (or Tripura), Bhuvaneshwari, Bhiravi, Chinnamasta and Dhumavathi; and (3) Siddha Vidya, the Vidya for adepts refers to Kamala, Matangi and Bhagalamukhi. The text does not explain the significance of the three-way classification made or the differences it implies.]
10.2. It is also said that Mahavidyas are indeed various expressions of the Mother: Kali is Time; Bhuvaneshwari is space; the piercing word is Tara; the flaming word is Bhiravi; and expressed word is Matangi. Chinnamasta combines light and sound in her thunderclap; Bhagalmukhi stuns and stifles the flow free flow of things. The luminous desire is Sundari; and the delightful beauty is Kamala.
It is said; the Sadhaka prays to Kali to grant him virtues of : the generosity of Chinnamasta; the valour in battle of Bagalamukhi; the wrath of Dhumavati; the majestic stature of Tripura Sundari; the forbearance of Bhuvanesvari; and control over enemies like Matangi.
10.3. There are other explanations which came up much later. Kali is said to represent unfettered absolute reality; Tara an expanded state but yet bound by the physical; Bhagalamukhi the fierce concentration; Kamala and Bhairavi with satisfaction of physical wellbeing and worldly wealth; while the other Mahavidyas symbolize the worldly needs and desires that eventually draws into Kali.
11.1. Some of the Vidyas have common characteristics. For instance: Kali, Chinnamasta, Bhagalmukhi and Dhumavathi are characterized by their power and force – active and dormant. Tara has certain characteristics of Kali and certain others of Sundari. And she is also related to Bhiravi, Bhagalmukhi and Matangi in aspects of sound-force (sabda) express or implied. Sundari, Bhuvaneshwari, Bhairavi, Matangi and Kamalatmika have qualities of light, delight, and beauty. The Tantra speaks of Kali as dark, Tara as the white; and Sundari as red.
11.2. But, the explanations offered, in most cases, contradict the others. The Mahavidyas and their natures cannot easily be categorized into well defined types. There is no convincing unified view of the Mahavidyas as a group. And there is no theory that satisfactorily binds together the all the ten Mahavidyas (we shall talk a little more of that later in the post).
We shall talk about each one of the ten Mahavidyas, separately, in fair detail, later in the subsequent parts of this post.
12.1. As said, The Mahavidyas are not goddesses in the normal sense of the term. The worship of Mahavidyas – as a group- is generally not temple oriented; and, there is no pilgrim centre (Tirtha) associated with the Dasha Mahavidyas- group. They are also not associated with prominent geographical features such as hills, rivers, river-banks or trees. Except for a Mahavidya temple in the funeral Ghats of Cossipore near Calcutta there are, perhaps, no temples dedicated exclusively to the worship of Mahavidyas as a group. However, the pictures of Mahavidyas are painted on the walls of Devi temples. They are also depicted as decorative figures surrounding the centrally located figure of Devi -Mahishasuramardini -Durga, sculpted for worship during Navaratri. There are temples dedicated to the prominent Vidyas such as Kali, Kamakhya and Tara, as in the case of other Hindu or Buddhist goddesses; and their temple-towns are well known Tirthas. As for the other Mahavidyas who are not well known outside the group (Dhumavati, Bagalamukhi and Chinnamasta) there are just a few temples dedicated specially to them.
As regards Kamala and Sundari, the temples (especially in south India) are dedicated only to their benign, most beautiful and magnificent aspects as Lakshmi; or Tripura Sundari or Sri Rajarajeshwari who is the presiding deity of the Sri Vidya tradition.
In northeast, in Bengal the cult of Kali is supreme. In far north and northwest in Tibet and Kashmir regions the cult of Tara is popular. In the South the Vidya of Sundari, Sri Vidya is vogue. Lakshmi is commonly worshipped. Thus, the whole of India is soaked in the adoration of the Mother: the might of the kali, the wisdom of Tara, the beauty of Sundari and the grace of Kamala.
12.2. The worship of one Mahavidya might differ from that of the others. The Tantra texts (say, SaktisamagamaTantra) specify which path should be taken in worshipping a particular Mahavidya. For instance, the worship of Kali, Kamakhya , Tara, Bhairavi, Chinnamasta, Matangi and Bagala involve strongly individualized left-handed tantric rituals, rooted in their specific Mantras and Yantras, conducted in secrecy. The worship of these divinities requires great rigor, austerity, devotion, persistence and a sort of ruthless detachment. The left-handed worship- practice of Mahavidya is very difficult and is filled with risks and dangers. Its practice is not considered either safe or suitable for common householders, as it involves rituals that cannot be practiced normally.
The text mentions that Shodasi, Kamala and Bhuvaneshwari prefer right-handed worship practices.
The text , at the same time, clarifies that both the paths are appropriate .And Mahavidya could be worshipped in either manner depending upon the inclination and the nature of the worshipper.
13.1. Though some of the Mahavidyas are worshipped in their temples, the private places marked out in the cremation grounds seem to be favoured places for tantric rituals, especially in the case of Kali, Tara, Bagalamukhi, Chinnamasta and Dhumavati. In the extreme forms of this class of worship (vamachara) the deities, the Sadhakas and the ritual practices are associated with blood and corpses. Their worship is characterized by the pancha tattva or pancha makaara (five ‘Ms’) –rituals performed employing five forbidden or highly polluting elements: madya (liquor), mamasa (meat), matsysa (fish), mudraa (ritual gestures or parched grains causing hallucinations) and maithuna ( sex).
By partaking the polluted and forbidden things the Sadhaka affirms his faith that there is nothing in this world that is outside the goddess; she pervades all; and within her there are no distinctions of ‘pure’ or ‘impure’. He attempts to erase ‘the artificial – manmade’ distinctions and be one with his goddess.
Todala Tantra, a tantric text, interprets the nature of the five elements (pancha tattva) in various ways. It explains that Devi can be worshipped at different ‘levels’. As per the text, these five elements carry various esoteric interpretations according to the nature of worship undertaken: tamasika (pashvachara), rajasika (vichara), or divya (sattvika sadhana).
[Sri Ramakrishna however emphasized and demonstrated that madya, maithuna and intoxicating substances are indeed not necessary in tantric-sadhana.]
14.1. The Mahavidya texts – such as Tantrasara, Sakta-pramoda and Shakthisamgama-tantra – elaborately narrate the various mythical origins and the legends of the Mahavidyas. They provide exhaustive iconographic details of each of the Mahavidyas. They also speak of the worship details, yantras, mantras and astrological (jothishya) as also yogic significances of the Mahavidyas. But, sadly, they do not spend much time in explaining the principles, the logic and the conceptual aspects which lie beneath the bizarre appearances of the Mahavidyas, or their metaphysical significances and meanings, or their symbolisms. It therefore becomes rather difficult to explain the outrageous appearances and habits of these goddesses: why one goddess adorns herself with garland of skulls, another dress herself with severed body parts, and why the third delights in cutting off her head letting the sprouting streams of blood fall into the mouth of her own severed head. There are also the ones who seated on a corpse pluck out a demon’s tongue, another who straddles an inert male stretched on a funeral pyre, and yet another who loves to be worshipped with rotten and polluted things. Why would anyone care to worship a sulking old widow riding a crow?
Unless we are willing to look deeper we are likely to be trapped in the maze of hideous appearances and repulsive behaviours.
I have tried to put together a few explanations I know and some others I came across. I am sure there are many more. What I say here is as I understood it; and that could be inadequate or wrong. But, before we get into Mahavidyas per se we need to talk of few other things.
15.1. The Mahavidya faith, some say, originated as a rebellious cult intolerant of the Brahmanical puritan notions of ‘pure-impure’, ‘good-bad’, ‘right-wrong ’and ‘beautiful-ugly’ etc. It attempted to erase the distinctions between the sublime and the profane; between ‘ the noblest and most precious’ and the ‘basest and most common ‘. It was, however, not a religious movement. In fact, it arose out of a strong desire to break free and be independent of all abstruse metaphysical speculations and religious faiths.It is based upon human experience and in the very act of living. The Mahavidya cult defies religion and tradition. It is neither Hindu nor Buddhist in its origin, though it later influenced the Tantric traditions of both the regions. In the words of Sir John Woodroffe: (It) is neither religion nor mysticism but an empirical-experiential method. It is practical, it lights the torch and shows the way. Its approach to life is anti ascetic, anti-speculative and entirely without conventional perfectionist clichés.
Mahavidya cult originated outside the establishment; and in due course it was absorbed into tradition. But, it managed to retain its own independent outlook.
15.2. The Mahavidya cult primarily signified the return to the indigenous tribal faiths and beliefs in magic formulas, initiation rites, scarifies and above all to the worship and glorification of the female principle. It was the way to ‘rediscover the mystery of woman’. The early set of deities was perhaps formed by bringing together tribal goddesses; some of them well-known while most others were minor and obscure. In the life of the women of the tribes clouded by death, suffering and neglect, these tribal deities represented their aspirations of life, the timeless youth, the body – energy and the desire to be free of male domination and yet to produce, for which sex was essential.
It was basically a tribal cult, the followers of which came from lower strata of the society. The leaders of the cult were invariably women; and the Gurus who initiated the adept into the cult were often Sudra women. They played an active role and acted as intermediaries between the adept and the goddess. The women coming from lower strata of society were considered ideal for engaging in its ritual worships, as they were not conditioned by social or ethical taboos; and they enjoyed certain freedom and detachment. Thus, its cult practices cut across the class and social boundaries. Because of its non-sectarian spirit, concept of God as woman, acceptance of Sudras in all rites, assigning a position of honour to women and recognizing them as Gurus, and its strong faith in local customs and rituals, Mahavidya cult gained wide acceptable ; and it spread even into orthodox traditions.
16.1. As the Mahavidyas gained popularity it was absorbed into Shakta Tantric tradition. Its theme was expanded, elaborated in upa (subsidiary) puranas by linking them to legends of the Devi and Shiva. The Puranas asserted that the ten Mahavidyas are indeed the manifestations of ‘ten great mantras’, for a ‘mantra’ and ‘vidya’ are the same. The Sanskritized texts formalized the worship practices by structuring it in three levels: pasu (animal), vira (heroic) and divya (divine).Attempts were also made to provide these goddesses with mythological backgrounds, theological status, metaphysical meanings, and symbolic representations. But, their numbers differed according to the disposition and preferences of each text. It varied from ten to seventy; but, finally settled down at ten. How or why those ten goddess were chosen to form the group of Mahavidyas was not explained.
It is perhaps because of the random nature of the group, it has now become difficult to offer rational explanation/s that satisfactorily explain and bind all the ten Mahavidyas into a cohesive unit.
17.1. The Mahavidya cult found strong resonance in the Shakta Tantric School which reveres the Goddess as the Supreme. The Mahavidyas could readily fit into its scheme. The central theme of the Shakta Sadhana is identification with his goddess. Simply put; the aim of the Shaktha Tantric is to become one with the goddess. According to its logic, if one is able to become the goddess, one can obtain that which she possesses, be it knowledge or wealth or magical power or the power to annihilate ones enemies. But, if one has to become the goddess one has necessarily to be rid of all sorts of inhibitions, conceits and prejudices that imprison his mind. That is to say; kill the ego and become nothing but the feminine goddess.
17.2. Tantra identifies the power of Shakthi with the Absolute or the One. The female principle is all important because it offers the key to creative life and salvation. A woman is seen as the reflection of female principles; and she, therefore, becomes an object of worship and veneration in the Tantra-Shakta -Sadhana. In the rituals – Kumari Puja or Shakthi Upasana- the woman is treated as an image of the goddess; she no longer is an ordinary woman. That is to say; the woman is symbolically transformed into a goddess through rituals. In his attempt to be one with the goddess, in spirit, the male aspirant will also have to awaken and realize the female principles latent in him. He learns to sublimate his lower-nature and attune it to that of the goddess. Only by becoming a woman in spirit and consciousness can a Shakta hope to attain his goal. In the last stage of the Shaktha-sadhana the worshipper and the worshipped become one.
17.3. Towards this end he employs physical, mental, ritualistic and occult techniques. But, in its extreme stages the technical and esoteric aspects of the rituals prescribed by the class of Shakta practices we are now discussing become grotesque and socially not-acceptable. Because, as a way of asserting his faith that all existence is pervaded by the goddess and there are no distinctions of ‘pure’ or ‘impure’ within her, the Shakta erases the ‘the artificial – manmade’ demarcations of beauty-ugliness, cleanliness –polluted, or goodness-profane etc . In fact, he overstates his intensions by resorting to whatever that is repulsive or that which is looked down by the ‘gentle society’. In the process, an intense Shakta adept overrides moral judgments and social customs; and discards attachment to accepted notions and ethics.
Thus, the left-hand Shakta Sadhana of the Mahavidyas which does not respect the social morality or the conventional standard of ethics is , by its very nature, rebellious. It defies society, religion and their authoritative patriarchal system designed by the orthodox Bramhanical traditions.
17.4. The Shakta texts explain that such breaking away from approved social norms, roles and expectations is the primary way to stretch ones consciousness beyond the relative world of contradictions. It is here the bizarre ‘outsider’ goddesses, the Mahavidya, have their relevance. By accepting what is forbidden or marginalized as one of the realities of life the adept may gain a new perspective to life and existence. It might liberate him from the inherited, imposed and narrow prejudices, and transform him into a liberated person. The Mahavidyas are thus states of awakening.
There is no single unified theory
18.1. As said earlier; many explanations are offered to interpret the nature of the Mahavidyas and to bind them into a definite scheme. In each case, the explanations offered hold good for three or four Mahavidyas but not for all the ten as a group. There is no consistent unified theory that explains the group of ten. Let’s briefly look at some of those explanations.
18.2. The Mahavidyas in general are said to possess terrifying forms. But, the two Mahavidyas Sodasi and Kamala are not pictured in frightening forms. There is also a method of grouping of the Mahavidyas as falling under the category of either fierce (raudra) or benign (saumya) forms. But, that explanation too is found wanting as the Mahavidyas combine in themselves both types of dispositions. Similarly, Mahavidyas are said to exercise magical powers and create conflicts among people. But, it is only Bagalamukhi who is strongly associated with such disturbing magical powers; the other Mahavidyas are not known to posses exclusive magical powers; and such delusions are not associated with Kamala.
18.3. There are also explanations attempting to classify the Mahavidyas as those falling under the three Gunas (sattva, rajas and tamas) or three colours (white, red and black) or three dispositions (amorous, angry and benevolent) . But, these classifications also do not satisfactorily explain the natures of all the ten Mahavidyas.
18.4. Another way of classifying the Mahavidyas is to treat them as dynamic or static principles in nature. The Mahavidya shown as standing or striding over or dominating a male figure is identified as dynamic aspects (Kali, Tara, Bagala, Bhairavi, Tripura-Sundari, and sometimes Chinnamasta) ; while the others are identified as static aspects (Dhumavati, Matangi, Kamala and Bhuvaneshvari). This classification is primarily based on how the Mahavidya is depicted in icons or in pictures; and it seems to have come about at a much later stage when iconographic features of the individual goddesses were developed. It may, perhaps, also be an idea imposed by the Shakta theology on the Mahavidyas. But, many of the Mahavidyas are dynamic and static depending upon their disposition at different times (e.g. Sundari, Tara, and even Kali).
18.5. One other explanation mentions that Mahavidyas represent stages in a woman’s life. While Sodasi, Bhuvaneshvari and Matangi are the sixteen year young girls; Dhumavati the old widow is at the other end of life; and the rest fall in between. But there is little or no mention of Motherhood of the Mahavidyas.
18.6. Another explanation interprets Mahavidyas as stages or hierarchical states of consciousness associated with the seven chakras of the Kundalini yoga. But the problem with this interpretation is that the chakras are seven and the Mahavidyas are ten; and there is no clear gradation among the Mahavidyas to rank them in a particular order.
18.7. Some Tantric texts (Guhyatiguhya tantra, Mundamala tantra and Todala tantra) identify the ten Mahavidyas with the ten Avatars of Vishnu: Kali with Krishna; Tara with Rama; Bhuvanesvari with Varaha; Chinnamasta with Narasimha and so on .But , each text carries its own matching-list . In any case, the idea seems overstretched and is not convincing.
18.8. Alain Danielou in his ‘Myths and Gods of India’ calls the Mahavidyas as ‘the objects of transcendental knowledge’. He explains the Mahavidyas by corresponding them to the ten hours of the night. But he divides the ten hours of night as five aspects of Shiva and five aspects of the Goddess: “The whole cycle of existence, like that of our day-night can be divided into ten main parts… Five aspects of Shiva and the five aspects of the Goddess united as day and night”. His explanation too relies on ‘ten numbers ‘which, of course, is not very significant in the Mahavidya-theme. The other is that Shiva is marginalized in the Mahavidya cult. Shiva represents the male who is suppressed. Alain Danielou’s explanation does not therefore seem very convincing.
18.9. I agree with David Kinsley when he says: “We seem to have no entirely satisfactory key to understanding the connection among the Mahavidyas. Perhaps the best we can hope for is to combine all the possibilities we have or some sub sections of them , in our efforts to discern the coherence of the group, to understand how such curious mix of goddesses have come together to form the ten Mahavidyas”(Tantric visions and Divine Feminine).
19.1. The Mahavidyas, in any case, are powerful goddesses that provide a totally different but realistic perspective of life .Though it asserts the female superiority, it opens a vista and a field of experience for all. By subverting or rejecting the conventional social norms and morality it seeks to expand the awareness of the adept and liberate her or him from narrow prejudices and inhibitions that imprison the human mind. By becoming one with the goddess she or he is set free; and is rid of attachment to all identities that carry names, forms and attributes.
In the instalments to follow let’s briefly talk of each Mahavidya, separately. In the next, let’s start with the three prominent Mahavidyas: Kali, Tara and Tripura Sundari.
– Kali, Tara and Tripura Sundari
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 picture are taken from internet