This article is primarily about the Matrkas the mother-like deities. But, I cannot resist talking about Devi the Great Goddess. Let’s dwell on Devi for a while before we proceed to the Matrkas.
1.1. The concept and worship of God as Mother dates back to the hoary past. And, it continues to represent a very important but intricate aspect of the Indian philosophies, religions, arts and literatures. The faith in Mother Goddess permeates the consciousness of Indian people at all levels. And, it has influenced all segments, emotional aspects and intellectual ideologies of Indian life. Even the Indian landmass is idealized and pictured as Bharat-Mata, as a tall beautiful woman with long flowing hair, dressed in a sari, wearing a crown upon her head and holding a trishul in her hand. The vision of nation as Mother that charged the hearts of the 19th and early 20th century patriots and freedom fighters is epitomized by the immortal anthem ’Vande Mataram’. And, indeed the whole of the earth is looked upon as Dharti-mata.
1.2. But, in essence, the archetype Mother-images don’t really refer to any concrete or physical Mother existing in space and time. But, it truly is a yearning towards an inward image of Mother in our collective psyche. It’s symbolic expressions abound in myths, legends, rites and arts of various types spread over the ages across the regions, sects and sub sects that make what we now call India. They also pervade our private worlds of dreams, fantasies and emotional outbursts, finding their expressions in myriad forms of creative art – the sublime as also the sick. They exist/existed in all classes of societies, matriarchic or patriarchic or otherwise.
[While you read, you might like to listen to Mahalaya rendered by Shri Birendra Krishna Bhadra. Please RIGHT click here:
2.1. Most of the Puranas, it is believed, were rendered into written form by about 250 AD, though the exact periods are not known. The Gupta period (400-600 AD) hailed as the Golden Age witnessed innovations in art and literature. It was the age of revivalism. This was also the period when Puranas were expanded or reinterpreted. This literarily production was ground breaking. It brought the lore of gods and goddesses closer to common people. Each Purana was dedicated to the glorification of a particular god such as Vishnu or Shiva. However, some Puranas devoted exclusive chapters to narrate the legends of the Great Goddess Devi. One such Maha-purana was Markandeya-purana (Ca.250-400 CE). In its Section of thirteen chapters – Devi Mahatmya- it celebrated the glory of Devi as the Great Mother the Supreme Deity.
2.2. Of all the Indian texts, the Devi Mahatmya, in particular, has been instrumental in establishing the all comprehensive nature of the Mother as the Supreme God, Mahadevi – the Great Goddess. Some believe, the text is the starting point for investigating into the nature of feminine transcendence. She is the Power – spiritual, moral, mental, biological, and psychological as well as physical. It is believed that Devi Mahatmya brings together various ancient traditions of female deities and their worship. The Devi Mahatmya celebrates, in particular, the glory of the Mother and her martial deeds. It adulates Devi as the greatest warrior; and rejoices Devi as Chandi the destroyer of evil and its tendencies. She is the protector of the world from demons; and she does so from time to time by assuming various forms. She is also Ambika the mother who protects; and also Durga the goddess who saves us from all sorts of miseries and difficulties. And, it is She who, just as a boat, takes the devotees across oceans of existence (Bhava-Tarini). Her splendour and beauty is sung and exalted by countless other names and forms. The text is the celebration of the limitless powers and the splendour of the Mother Goddess. It affirms its faith that the ultimate power and authority in the Universe reside in Devi. She encompasses and overrides everything in the Universe. She is the ultimate reality. Devi Mahatmya asserts its faith that her Ultimate reality is really the ultimate; and it is not merely feminine.
2.3. The Devi Mahatmya dated somewhere around the fourth- fifth century , also renowned as Durga Saptasati, Durgapatha, Chandi, Chandipatha or Chandi Saptashati, is composed as a long poem of seven hundred verses (Saptashathi) arranged over thirteen chapters which are grouped into three sections: Prathama Charitra, Madhyama Charitra and the Uttama Charitra. It is accompanied by glorious hymns in praise of the Mother Goddess and her Shaktihis who descend upon earth from time to time to rid the world of demons and evil-doers. The Devi Mahatmya cantered on Devi (as mentioned earlier) is originally a section (chapters 81-93) of the Markandeya Purana. The importance of Devi Mahatmya is so huge and its uniqueness so significant that it has come to be recognized as independent of its parent text. Over the centuries, the Devi Mahatmya has acquired a number of subsidiary texts (anga) that are mainly concerned with the ritual worship of the Devi.
The unique feature of Devi Mahatmya is its oral tradition and the intense devotional fervor of its hymns. And, therefore the entire text is revered as a Mantra*. Its popularity is immense. It is recited for averting calamities in life; and at dire times when the country is under threat of attack; as also for overcoming impurities: Mala, Vikshepa and Avarana. And, as the text itself says, it bestows not only temporal prosperity but also illumination by destroying the darkness of Avidya. The recitation of Devi Mahatmya is an integral part of the Devi-worship celebrations performed during Sharad Navaratri and Chandi Yajna; as also of Tantric Sadhana involving Sat-chakra – behda. The Dura-puja festivities commence with the recitation of Devi Mahatmya on the night of the last day of pitri-paksha (the fortnight of the Pitris).
[* Sri Swami Krishnananda explains “The Devi Mahatmya is treated as if it were a Mantra . Each of its episodes (charita) is associated with a Rishi (the sage who visualised it) , a chandas (its meter), a presiding deity ( pradhna-devata), and viniyoga (for japa).He further says that every sloka of the Devi-Mahatmya is a Mantra by itself. For instance, the opening sloka of Devi Mahatmya: “Savarnih suryatanayo yo manuh Kathyate-shtamah” is ordinarily taken to mean “Listen to the story of the king who is the eighth Manu” .But, it is in fact a mantra, he says; and its Tantric interpretation is: “Now, I shall describe to you the glory of Hreem“. The Swami explains; Ha is the eighth letter from among: Ya, Ra, La, Va, Sya, Sha, Sa, and Ha. And add to that ‘Ram’ the Bija of Agni and one hook to make ‘Hreem’. Here, Hreem is the Bija-mantra of Devi; and, is equivalent to Pranava mantra Om. ]
2.4. Devi Mahatmya is not a Tantric text; but is the basic text for the Shaktha cult. The Shaktha theology was derived from the triad of: the primacy of Prakrti as in Samkhya; the monistic Brahman as in Advaita; and, the ritualism of Tantra. It staunchly believes in the supremacy of the female principle. And, it idealizes Devi the Mother Goddess in most abstract philosophical terms as Shakthi the primal energy of all (sarvamayi) that is manifest (jadathmika) and un-manifest (Arupa). She is beyond all forms and gunas, but assumes them to create and operate the world.
At another level, the Shaksthas worship the Devi Durga , who is beyond, as an independent Supreme Divinity. She is the primordial energy and was the first to appear before everything (sarva-sadhya); She is both devoid of form (nirakara) and filled with forms (sakara); She is both manifest and un-manifest; She is the essence of all things (sarva sattva mayi). She creates and governs all existence (Isvari), and is known by various names (nana-abhidana-brut). She is the Mother of the worlds (Jagadamba) and sustainer of the worlds (Jagad-dhatri). Everything in the universe is a minute expression her inscrutable power (Yoga Maya). She is the ultimate goal of yoga. She is the creator of the Trinity: Brahma, Vishnu and Rudra.
For the limited purpose of understanding, the forms of the Mother are said to be three: Para the supreme form which is beyond senses and intellect; Sukshma the subtle formless mantras; and Sthula the physical form. She is also the illusion (Maya) and the redeemer of it. In Shaktha cult, Devi as Vac presiding over speech is the motivating power of every effort in the world. She is the concept of power inherent in gods, humans, animals, vegetation and everything else (bhumarupa).She is seen as one and as many, as it were, but one moon reflected in countless waters.
2.5. The Shakthas therefore adore the Mother Goddess, in love and reverence, as the ultimate reality, as Shakthi the supremely powerful goddess; as the primal cause, the sustenance and the withdrawal of the universe. It said; just as a spider weaves its web out of its own body, the Mother Goddess Devi brings forth the entire universe out of her own body; and, she constitutes every created object (kshetra-swarupa). At the time of the dissolution, she withdraws the whole of the creation back into her womb (vishvagarbha); and there it rests as the seed of the next creation, when it will grow and blossom forth again. With that, the vision of God as Mother became the focus of devotion as also of its philosophical and mystical renderings.
3.1. The middle episode of the Devi Mahatmya describes how, in a long drawn battle, the gods having failed to overcome the powerful demon Mahisasura, realized their inadequacies. Thereafter, the great gods willed into existence the blazing power in the form of the magnificent Great Goddess Durga by uniting their vital energies (tejas).In Durga, the diverse energies of the gods converged to form a single totality, a resplendent goddess in her own right.
3.2. Devi Mahatmya (DM: 2; 9-17) narrates, with awe and wonder, how a supremely powerful goddess was created from the combined anger of the gods: from the face of Vishnu filled with intense indignation as well as from that of Brahma and Shiva sprang forth fierce heat. From the bodies of Devas headed by Indra issued forth a resplendent lustre. All this brilliant light unified into one blazing pile of light like a glowing mountain throwing out flames in all directions, filling the whole space and beyond. Then that matchless splendour of light transformed itself into the Great Goddess, enveloping the three worlds by her brilliance (DM: 2.9-12).
Her face was produced from the light of Shiva; her hair from that of Yama; her arms from the lustre of Vishnu; her breasts from that of the Moon; her bust from that of Indra; her thighs and legs from that of Varuna. The three eyed goddess adorned with the crescent moon, jewels, ornaments, garments, garlands and rosaries of gems and beads, all offered by various Devas was resplendent in her majestic grandeur. She held auspicious weapons and emblems in her multiple arms.
The Devi Mahathmya, with awe and wonder; and with an overwhelming feeling of reverence, admiration, fear, describes the grand, sublime and extremely powerful spectacle of the Devi in her manifestation as Mahalakshmi destroying the demon Mahishasura. In a narration filled with divine longing and fascination, Devi Mahathmya describes the terrible battle. The Great Goddess fought the demon Mahishasura for nine days starting from prathipath (the first day of the brighter half) of the month of Ashvayuja; and killed the demon on the tenth day Vijaya-Dashami ending his reign of evil and terror. Her victory symbolizes the victory of good over evil.
Her golden body blazing with the brilliance of a thousand suns, seated on her lion, Chandi as Mahalakshmi the most spectacular personification of lethal divine anger and of all cosmic energies sets forth to battle the Demon Mahisha the King of Asuras who was himself a combined power of demons; and who had taken control of the minor gods. Riding a lion into battle, Durga the great warrior goddess slew the buffalo by cutting off its head and then she destroyed the spirit of the demon Mahisha as he emerged from the buffalo’s severed neck. It is through this mighty act that order was established in the world.
4.1. In the Third episode of the Devi Mahatmya, according to one version (DM: 10; 2-5), Durga brought forth from herself multiple groups of female warriors displaying various facets of her ferocious nature. Among the groups mentioned, the Sapta Matrkas 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. A fiery burst of energy emerging from Devi’s third eye takes the dark skeletal form of goddess Kali. With her huge mouth and enormous tongue she ferociously laps up Raktabija’s blood, thus preventing the uprising of further demons. In this version, Kali is described as Matrka. And, after she overpowers and beheads Chanda and Munda, Kali is celebrated as Chamunda. Kali and the group of Matrkas destroy the forces of the demons Shumba and Nishumba.
4.2. The Asura Shumba taunts the Goddess for winning a battle with the help of these other goddesses: “O Durga, you are puffed up with the pride of strength. Do not be haughty; you are exceedingly proud but you are indeed fighting with the strength of others”. The Devi retorts and declares: “I am all alone in the world here. What other is there besides me, O you wild one? See that these goddesses are my own powers entering into myself.”
4.3. In the final battle against Shumba, Devi absorbs into herself Kali, the Matrkas as also the countless others, and stands alone for the final battle. The Devi affirms: “Through my power I stood here in many forms; all that has been withdrawn by me (into myself) and now I stand alone.” (DM: 10; 2-5)
4.4. It is said; the assertion made by the Devi in the Devi Mahatmya was inspired by the powerful hymn Devi Sukta or Vac Sukta or Vac-Ambhrni-Sukta of the Rig-Veda (RV.10. 10.125) , regarded by most as the origin or the catalyst of worship of God as Mother. The highly charged hymn is, in fact, an ecstatic exclamation by Vach or Rishika Vagambhrina (the daughter of the sage Ambhrina) who identifies herself with Devi. This hymn is the most magnificent chant singing the almighty glory of the feminine principle, Devi the Supreme all-pervading Divinity. The Devi proclaims with great authority:
” I am the sovereign Queen, the bestower of all wealth, the most thoughtful, the first of those who merit worship, and the foremost of those to whom the sacrificial homage are submitted. The gods in all places worship me. I enter many homes; take numerous forms and permeate everything. Whoever eats, breaths, sees, speaks or hears does it only through me. They know it not, but yet they all dwell in me. Listen, I make the man I love exceeding mighty; make him a sage, a Rsi and a genius. I wage the war to protect the good. I blow like the breath of life creating all the worlds. I give birth to infinite expanse overspreading the earth. I transcend the heaven and yonder, the earth below and all the worlds. I, in my mighty grandeur, hold together all existence”.
5.1. The Great Goddess combines in herself the multiple powers, energies (tejas) that flowed from of all other gods. And, She, the warrior fighting for the defence of the divine order, is described as “filling the three worlds with her splendour, bending low the earth with the force of her strides, scratching the sky with her pointed diadem, shaking the nether worlds with the twang of her bowstring and standing there filling the ten directions of space with her thousand arms” (DM: 2:37-38).
5.2. Mahadevi in all her mystical embodiment of power in all its myriad forms is ferociously magnificent (Rudra-manohara) Chandika the ‘violent and impetuous one’. After the battle, Chandika the mother of all the worlds quaffed a divine drink again and again, and laughed, her eyes becoming red (DM: 3.34).
6.1. In some battles, Chandika, in her full might, fights as herself; but in some other battles, she creates her own forces of female warriors such as Kali of most terrifying aspect as also Matrkas and others. And in some others, all her diverse forms combine back into her.
6.2. The Devi Mahatmya, generally, adores and addresses this full form of Devi which is the totality of all the diverse energies as Chandika the ferocious. And occasionally calls her out by various other names and titles, such as Ambika, the nurturing mother; as Durga the saviour; and, as Mahadevi the Great Goddess. In the Devi-kavacha attached to the Chandi, the Devi as Nava Durga is described as Shailaputri, Brahmacharini, Chandraghanta, Kushmanda, Mahagauri, Skandamata, Katyayani, Kalaratri, and Siddidhatri.
Devi Durga is also worshiped as Nava Durga in her nine other splendorous forms as : Nilakanthi (bestower of wealth and happiness ); Kshemankari (bestower of health and wellbeing); Harasiddhi (one who confers attainment of desires) ; Rudramsha –Durga ( the counterpart of Rudra riding a lion ); Vana Durga (the goddess of bountiful nature); Agni Durga ( bright and glowing like fire); Jaya Durga (resplendent goddess of victory and bestower of Siddhis ); Vindya Vasini Durga (the goddess who resides atop the green mountains of the Vindhya region with her ride lion standing beside her); Ripu-mari –Durga (fierce destroyer of enemies and their followers) and Mahishasura mardhini (Destroyer of Mahisha demon).
She also shares some appellations with the creator goddess such as Sri, Prakrti and Mahamaya. There are a host of other names of varied descriptions. Devi is the confluence of all opposites; and she encompasses all the ambiguities inherent in nature.
7.1. One of the most amazing facets of Devi, as narrated in Devi Mahatmya, is her independence and sovereignty. After the battle is won, the great warrior goddess does not return to the gods. She remains a supreme goddess in her own right. She is entirely separate from the gods and is able to produce further powers of her own. She as Shakthi also differs from the Vedic or the other the puranic goddesses. The Devi is not depicted as a consort. In fact she bears no special relationship with anyone other than with her devotees. She does not depend on male support for carrying out her ventures; but manages her male role herself. Nor does she lend her power to a male god. But, she rather assumes his powers to perform her own heroic deeds. The gods gave up their inner strength, fire and heat to create her; and in doing so they gave up their potency to her. At the end, the gods submitted to Devi (namaste sharanyey Shive) praying to her to protect and establish Peace and order in the world. (DM- chapter 11; Narayani-stuti).
The Narayani Stuti, narrated in chapter 11 of the Devi Mahatmya, is sung with great gusto charged with intense devotion and a blessed sense of fulfilment. The verses 13 to 21 of Narayani Stuti are dedicated to Matrkas – Brahmi, Maheshwari, Kaumari, Vaishnavi, Varahi, Narasimhi, Indri, Shivaduti, and Chamnda. In salutations to the Matrkas, the verses describe, in brief, the splendour, virtues, powers and vahanas of these deities which are but the aspects of the Maha Devi, the Great Mother Goddess.
Salutations to you Oh Narayani who assumes the form of : Brahmi riding celestial Chariot Yoked with Swans; Maheshwari adorned with the moon , riding the Great Bull and holding the trident; Kaumari of great virtue holding the powerful spear, surrounded by peacocks , cocks and bears; Vaishnavi the most excellent holding shankha , chakra , gadha and the dhanus; Varahi appearing as a ferocious Boar sporting awesome tusks , rescuing Mother Earth from her distress; Narasimhi as lioness in fearsome rage , destroying the enemies and protecting the three worlds; Indri the glorious queen of thousand eyes , destroyer of the Demon Vritra , in all her splendour decorated with a diadem and holding a blazing thunderbolt; Shivaduti roaring loudly who sent Shiva himself as messenger and destroyed the Demons; and, Chamuda the most ferocious and invincible with dreadful face and sharp protruding fangs , adorned with garland of severed heads, the destroyer of Demons Chanda and Munda.
7.2. The Devi Mahatmya, at another level, glorifies the Goddess as the ultimate creative force of the Universe. She no longer is a goddess created by the united energies of other gods, but is the supreme power having the Universe as her form; she is the supreme consciousness, the supreme knowledge, the supreme memory, the great delusion as also the one who grants liberation from delusion. She is the consciousness, the principle of knowledge and perception through which all of the existence, real or apparent becomes known. She is the Shakthi, the womb (Hiranyagarbha) the source of everything , the origin of the phenomenal world; and one who gives manifest forms to other divine energies Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. Without her, the gods are inactive, and nonexistent. She is the supporter of the world, the cause of its maintenance and its dissolution.
Another text, the Devi Bhagavata Purana, declares she is present everywhere, right up from the creator god Brahma, down to a blade of grass (DBP: 1.9.31-32). She proclaims to Vishnu that she is everything that is seen (DBP: 1.15.52).
7.3. The Yoga believes that the Great Mother is manifest in two polar extremities. One: on physical plane, where she seems shrouded by her own created matter, coiled and asleep. The other is: the fully awakened state, the highest state of bliss and illumination, which is one and the same as Shiva the Supreme consciousness. She is Kundalini-shakthi. She is realized in the microcosm as the ultimate goal of yoga.
7.4. Thus, in the Devi Mahatmya , the Devi is depicted in varieties of ways : as the creation of the gods , brought forth by uniting their energies – as an independent goddess who produces further powers of her own – as the culmination of all the feminine powers of the past , present and future – as the Great Mother Goddess who gives manifest forms to all the gods including Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva – as the Supreme Goddess , the ultimate creative force of the Universe – as the supporter of the world, the cause of its maintenance and its dissolution – and , She is verily the Brahman.
8.1. The Chandipata is recited by the devotees with great fervour and reverence in glory of Devi and her all- pervasive power and majesty. It is an act of intense love and devotion; and indeed is regarded as the very fulfilment of one’s existence. Apart from that, there are various symbolisms associated with the exploits of the Devi.
8.2. The Chandi depicts conflicts between the Devi on one side and the prominent Asuras on the other .It seems like an allegorical representation of the continual battles between the divine and the demonic in the human. Her adversaries represent the all-too-human impulses arising from the pursuit of power, possessions and pleasure; and from delusions of self-importance. They are, in particular, described in the traditional texts as eight evil dispositions which corrupt human nature and prevent entry of pure light.
8.3. The Devi’s battle field is indeed the human consciousness. Therein, every dominant passion or instinct produces its special array. The deep rooted passions and prejudices within us often seem indestructible. When one is killed the other one rises up instantly – just as Rakthabija whose every drop of blood regenerates host of similar demons. Our passions and instincts whenever they find they are in danger of being eradicated or suppressed change their form, appearance, colour and sublimate, trying to disguise and escape , or even try to justify their existence.
The Devi, the supreme Goddess, in all her kindness and love, confronts the demons of ego and dispels our mistaken idea of who we are. Paradoxically –it is she who creates the delusion in the first place; and it is she alone who awakens us to our true being. It is the awakening of the Mother-consciousness within that makes us strong enough to overcome the evil.
[ Devadatta Kali in his commentary and translation of the Devi Mahatmya (In Praise of the Goddess and the Veiling Brilliance) visualizes the Great battle that the Devi fought as the very reflection of the various facets our inner consciousness. Devi, of course, is the Supreme Self; the gods being the positive aspects such as mind, consciousness; and, the Demons are indeed the obstacles, frustrations and failures that we strive to overcome.
According to him, the battle is about regaining nature of one’s true self; and overcoming the sense of loss, limitation and dispossession. The main characters that figure in the narration are all afflicted by dispossession; the king is disposed of his realm by his scheming rivals; the merchant is dispossessed of his wealth by his greedy relatives; and, the gods are driven out of the heaven by the Demons. We the readers, also face in our lives defeat and dispossession. It is the grace of the Devi that helps us all to overcome the obstacles and regain our true nature.
The Devi Mahatmya, he says, is about understanding the process of the working of our mind; and, the very nature of our lives. One thought succeeds the other in an endless sequence; we are ever distracted, restless and forget out true self. The text is about being aware of the working of our mind; conquering the restless process of our mind ;and , attaining equanimity and peace.
It is the celebration of the sense of divine, beauty, wonder and joy that ultimately pervades the Devi Mahatmya.]
8.4. Since we are talking here about the Matrkas the mother-like deities lets also briefly look at their symbolisms associated with the Mother.
In Tantra, the letters of the alphabets are the perceptible forms or the aspects of the Mother; and hence are termed as Matrkas, the mother-like who attend on the Great Mother and approximate her to some extent. It believed that the fifty-two alphabets of the Sanskrit language emanated from the Mother; and she takes the name in every one of them. During the ritual worship of the Mother, her presence is invoked in the body of the Sadhaka through a procedure known as anga-nyasa or consecration of the different parts of the body. It is meant to emphasize that you belong to the Mother; and you are sanctified by her presence in you.
9.1. The goal and the summit of the Tantric-sadhana is the identity with the Mother divine. It is to feel and to experience you are no longer separate but truly a child and a part of her consciousness. She is always in you; and you in her. It is a stage as Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa explained: a simple, natural and constant experience that all your thoughts, seeing and actions, and your very breathing and existence comes from her and are hers. You realize , see and feel that you are a person formed by her power out of herself, put out from her for play and yet always safe in her .You are indeed a being of her being, consciousness of her consciousness , force of her force and Ananda of her Ananda. And that is the true significance and essence of Mother-worship.
In the next part let’s take a broad look at the Origins, history and development of the Matrkas.
Continued in Part Two
References and Sources
The iconography of the saptamatrikas: by Katherine Anne Harper: Edwin Mellen press ltd (1989-10)
Saptamatrka Worship and Sculptures by Shivaji K Panikkar; DK Print World (1997).
The Roots of Tantra by Katherine Anne Harper (2002)
Hindu Goddesses: Vision of the Divine Feminine in the Hindu Religious Traditions by David Kinsley; (1987)
Tribal Roots of Hinduism by SK Tiwari; Sarup and Sons (2002)
The Portrait of the Goddess in the Devī-māhātmya by David Kinsley
The Little Goddesses (Matrikas) by Aryan, K.C; Rekha Prakashan (1980)
Goddesses in Ancient India by P K Agrawala; Abhinav Publications (1984)
The Tantra of Sri Chakra by Prof. SK Ramachandra Rao; Sharada Prakashana (1983)
Sapta Matrikas and Matrikas
The mother goddess in Indian sculpture By Cyril Veliath
Some discussions on the Skanda – Tantra and Balagrahas
The Mahabharata of Krishna –Dwaipayana Vyasa (Book 3, Part 2) Section 229
Devis of the first enclosure
All pictures are from Internet