Origins and the Overview
10.1. The Saptamatrkas briefly referred to, earlier, in Part One in the context of Devi’s battle with the Asuras have indeed a very long history. They have their origins in various myths, legends as also in the beliefs and practices of the distant tribal mores. The Matrkas, perhaps, originated in the tribal traditions and folk cultures. They were the local goddesses who protected the village boundaries and fertility; took care of child growth, diseases, etc. They come in myriad names, forms and attributes.
10.2. The cult of the mother-goddess is woven into the fabric of our social, cultural and religious history. The Mother-goddesses have universal acceptance as well as a local relevance. They find more spontaneous expressions in rural communities. The faith in the mothers or spirits which afflict people, especially the children, is an ancient one; but, its epic forms came later. There are many different myths about the origins of the Matrkas in the Puranas and in the Tantra lore. Different versions of their origins are narrated in Mahabharata, Devi Mahatmya, Linga-purana, Matsya – purana, Bhagavata purana and Visnudharmottara purana.
10.3. There are also attempts to trace back the origin of the Saptamatrkas to hymns of Rig-Veda and to the Indus seals. At several places in Rig Veda there are references to groups of goddesses or maids, in sets of three, seven or ten. But, they have no independent identity and have no distinct functions or names. For instance, there is a mention of Ten young unwed daughters of Tvashta, who together hold the babe, the new-born infant (RV: 3.29.13).There are references to seven red-sisters associated with Agni as his mothers or sisters. But, they are generally interpreted as seven tongues or flames of Agni. And again, there is the group of female deities referred to as mothers who supervise the preparation of Soma (RV: 10.102.4). There is also another set of seven sisters, singing in chorus, who are invoked in charm against poison or snakebite; and who ‘carry away the venom, as far away, as the girls bear the water in their jars’ (RV: 1.164.3). Some have tried identifying these sets of Mothers or sisters as Saptamatrkas. Similarly, the seven female figures on the four seals of the Indus valley are also taken to represent Saptamatrkas.
I, however, reckon that all such readings are mere conjectures. And, both the sets of questions are rather vexed. At the most, the female figures on Indus seals might point to the then prevailing belief system and practices involving worship of female deities.
[The study of Indian religious traditions has to be approached today with some sensitivity and care. Today’s Hindus, Buddhists and Jains have their own traditions of scholarship and study, and their own ways of understanding themselves and their religions. At the same time, Western societies have developed their own modes of understanding Asian religions, both popular and academic, and these undoubtedly have their own ﬂaws and limitations.
It is therefore important to approach this subject-matter, rather cautiously , as if stepping into an unknown large and complex area, At the same time we also need to be unbiased; and, recognize the limits of our knowledge and insight into the very ancient bygone practices of the forgotten periods of pre-history. That problem is exacerbated by the horribly mixed up chronological conjectures based on scanty unreliable evidences. .
Therefore, no single point of view- textual, anthropological, internal or external – can be taken as absolute or primary. All or each of these may have some truth-content. It would, perhaps, be better to take a reasonably balanced view, integrating diverse perspectives. Such an approach, which tries to harmonize the key points of varied perspectives might, hopefully, lead us to broader understanding of the issue.]
10.4. The scholars, generally, are inclined towards the view that the Matrkas perhaps originated in the tribal traditions, as extension of the Mother-Goddess cult dating back to the time-less past. Matrkas, it is said, were originally, the village deities who came from non-Aryan beliefs and practices where they were looked upon as guardians of the house and village, presiding over childbirth and taking care of the children and preventing diseases. And, the village deities were later absorbed into the higher traditions and rendered as goddesses in the orthodox texts.
[The term ‘non-Aryan’ should not be construed to mean aboriginal or savage. We should bear in mind whatever is non-Vedic is not necessarily non-Aryan; and that the Vedic beliefs may not represent the whole of the old Aryan communities. Now, look at it in the other way: idol-worship may not be Aryan; but, it is definitely a part of what is now known as Hinduism. And, Hinduism is enriched by countless tribal cultures and elements that are ’non-Aryan’.]
[ To explain: What is now called Hinduism was not made; but, it has grown over the centuries by absorbing, transforming and reforming various cult and tribal beliefs and practices, many of which were vague and amorphous. The Hindu culture, philosophy and rituals are greatly enriched by countless tribal cultures. But, all the while it did retain the ancient concept of an all-pervading, Universal entity from which everything emanates and into which everything eventually returns. Some describe Hinduism as an inverted tree or a jungle; but not a strictly planned structural building.
The Hinduism of today is perhaps closer to the religion that existed during the Mahabharata times. But, it is far removed from the esoteric religion of the Rig Veda or the strict Vedic concept propagated by Swami Dayananada Sarasvathi.]
10.5. The Matrkas could be the synthesis of various Vedic and non-Vedic deities having relevance in their regional contexts, worshipped over a long period of time.
11.1. Among the diverse sources of the Matrka cult, the old belief in Balagraha (Baala = child; graha = seizers) is an important one. They are basically a group of nameless fearsome seizers who ‘possess’ or afflict children until their age of five (or sixteen, as per some beliefs). They are seen as threats to wellbeing of children; even having a tendency to steal children (Harti).
[Interestingly, Harati the child-snatcher also figures in Buddhist tales. According to the Buddhist legends, the childless victims of Hariti beg the Buddha to save them from her cruelty. The Buddha then, it is said, arranges to hide away Harati’s child in a secret place. After having lost her child, Harati in desperation, searches all over the earth – in the cities, villages, forests, mountains, rivers and islands etc. She even searches in the kingdoms of gods and Demons. At the end, after exhausting all other options, she appeals to the Buddha for help in retrieving her lost child. He points out that her suffering is insignificant compared to the combined suffering of all the mothers whose children she killed. She agrees, though reluctantly, to give up her nasty habit of snatching away the children; and also promises to protect children, henceforth. At that, the Buddha returns her child, safe and sound. Thereafter, Hariti becomes a disciple of the Buddha and joins the Sangha. Harati in Buddhism becomes a spirit (Yakshi) of fertility, childbirth, motherhood, and the protector of children ;and also a Yakshi of healing.
These tutelary deities or spirits, including Nagas, Pisachas and Yakshas, are derived from Lower Tradition. These are also addressed as goddesses, because, interestingly, the concept of Deva or god embraces all supernatural beings. It is said; all beings right from Brahma down to Pisachas are ‘gods’ (Brahmadayah Pisachanta yam hi deva upasate).
11.2. The Balagraha spirits are said to dwell in cross-roads, in cemeteries, on mountains, in caves, and on trees (vrikshi). Adorned with diverse kinds of ornaments, strange attire and speaking verities of languages they strike terror in the hearts of foes. They are feared because they are believed to endanger foetuses or infants; to hinder as also to aid conception, birth, ailments and protection of children. These deities perhaps symbolized the mixture of exhilaration, anxiety and fears of the risks associated with pregnancy; the innocence and joy of childhood; the horror of infant mortality; and the bewildering mystery in which these joys and fears are shrouded. At another level, they personified the faith in tremendous powers of the folk deities to nurture or to destroy. The Balagraha were, naturally, feared and respected. And, the worship practices, prayers and offerings submitted to these spirits during formal rituals were motivated, mainly, by the anxiety and preoccupation with progeny; the propitiation of fertility and warding away of forces inimical to children.
[The ancient medical practitioners such as Charaka and Shushruta (Ca. 400 – 200 BCE) as also Vagbhata (Astanga-samgraha) deal with the diseases that afflict the children [K (a) umAratantra]. Some of the kumAra ailments are inherited while the others that cause disturbance of mind, depression and other psychic conditions are acquired from apparently unknown causes which defy explanations. The Uttara Tantra of a latter period (chapters 27 to 29) prescribes medicines (oshadhi) to combat the kumAra afflictions, in addition to mantra-s (mantra prayoga) and ritual oblations, to appease the offending Bala graha-s (bhuta vidya).]
12.1. The Balagraha tradition seemed to prevail even during the Kushana period. But, The Kushana period (1st to 3rd century) was also the age of assimilation of various beliefs, concepts and practices surrounding the diverse types of deities. In this process, the Balagraha deities from Lower Tradition got entwined with the many legends surrounding the birth of Skanda or Kumara or Kartikeya. The Balagraha beliefs played a pivotal role in the formation of motif of mother and child. The Kushanas as also Yahudeya warriors who brought down Kushana Empire were worshippers of Skanda. And, the tutelary deities Lokamatas associated with Skanda gained upward mobility from folk traditions.
12.2. The Kushana period sculptures depict groups of female deities in varying numbers having animal or human faces and carrying children .These figures came to be recognized as Matrka images. Their sculptures combined in themselves mutually opposing features: the maternal protection and the destructive wrath. These divergent aspects were symbolized by the child in their lap and by the weapons of war they carried. But, one of the major problems with the Kushana sculptures is in relating them to the goddesses portrayed in the texts.
13.1. The Gupta kings(400-600 AD)had a special affinity towards Skanda the Commander of the godly forces (Deva-senapati). The Gupta warriors adopted Skanda, the war god, as their mascot. Some of their kings took the names of Skanda. It was during the reign of Skanda Gupta (455- 467 AD) and Kumara Gupta (473-476 AD) that along with Skanda, the Devi and other goddesses associated with him gained prominence. A full-fledged goddess pantheon was brought forth. Various folk and tribal goddesses, each with a distinct nature and form, were absorbed into the ambit of the Devi lore; and, they all converged to project one Great Mother Goddess Mahadevi. In another manner, various powerful and personified individual goddesses came to be regarded as her emanations.
13.2. During the Gupta period, a link was forged between Skanda, Kartikeya or Kumara and the Matrkas as his foster mothers. In the process, the Matrkas as also the other folk and tribal goddesses were elevated into the Higher Tradition. The Matrkas were raised to the nobility of court goddesses. And, their myths and legends were rendered into Sanskrit texts. Their iconic forms were standardized and developed into sculptural /iconographic depictions. Powerful and innovative images of the seven mothers started appearing in various sculptures. Saptamatrkas, as a group, were depicted as beneficent goddesses but yet associated with fearsome aspects. In their individual portrayals only their benevolent aspects were projected.
It is said; one Mayuraksha, a minister of Visvavarman (contemporary of Kumara Gupta (473-476 AD), built a temple in honour of the seven divine Mothers. The repeated appearances of Saptamatrkas in the Gupta period emphasize their importance in the religious life of its common people.
13.3. The continued acceptance of the Matrkas as worship worthy deities over long periods is also evidenced by their mention in Dramas and other texts of even the earlier periods. For instance, in poet Bhasa’s (second century BC to second century AD) unfinished play Daridra-Charudatta (Charudatta in poverty) and in its elaboration Mṛcchakaṭika (The Little Clay Cart) scripted by Sudraka (second century BC) there are scenes depicting worship of Matrkas. And, Natyasastra of Bharata, also around second century BC, recommends worship of Matrka, Natya-mata, as a part of consecration of the stage and the play-house (natya-griha). And in much later times, it is said, the early Kadambas of Banavasi (345–525 AD) and their subordinates the early Chalukyas (543–753 AD) worshipped Matrkas. Later, Banabhatta’s monumental poem Kadambari (606–647 AD) also refers to Matrka worship by the forest dwelling tribes Shabaras. And, mentions that their chieftain was an ardent believer of mother goddess Katyayani. Incidentally, the Shabara tribe played an important role in the political history of ancient India. They aided the foundation of Maurya Empire (see Visakhadatta’s Mudra-rakshasa).
14.1. When you look back, you find that during the Kushana period along with the acceptance of Skanda and different mothers into the Vedic fold it also led to taming of the dangerous Balagrahas through the infant. The Kushana figures were inspired by the mother and child motif of the Balagraha traditions. The Gupta period improved upon the Kushana figures and rendered them into classy sculptures naming them as Saptamatrkas. The Ayudha-purusha the arm-bearing guards of the Kushana figures were replaced during the Gupta period by Ganesha and Veerabhadra. The concept of Saptamatrka was however derived from Devi Mahatmya and Puranas, where the Saptamatrkas are basically ferocious looking female warriors. They are fundamentally different from the Balagraha deities that hinder the child. Yet, the Saptamatrka sculptures were patterned after the Balagraha depictions. Conceptually, the Saptamatrka of the later traditions have nothing or very little to do with Balagraha. Amidst these contradictions, it is the child that links the three traditions.
15. It is in the Puranas that the Matrkas find their definite forms and acquire distinct personalities. Most of the Puranas, it is believed, came to be written by about 250 AD, though exact periods are not known. During the Gupta period (400-600 AD), hailed as the Golden Age, innovations were made in art and literature. In the words of Ananda Coomaraswamy “it was indeed the classic phase of Indian art, at once serene, energetic and voluptuous”. It was an age of revivalism. This was also the period when Puranas were expanded or reinterpreted. This literarily production was ground breaking; bringing the lore of gods and goddesses closer to common people.
15. 1. The one myth that is of great importance in the conception of Saptamatrka is the recurring battles between the Devas and Demons. The conflict is so fundamental that the theme persists as a central motif throughout the evolution of the orthodox religion and particularly that of the Shaktha sect. The conflict finds its reflection in a variety of shades of interpretations. It also provides legends explaining the origin of various groups of deities such as: Dasha Mahavidya; Navadurga; Matrkas and others. The appearance of the Saptamatrkas to assist Devi in her battle with the Asuras, as detailed in Devi Mahatmya (a portion of Markandeya purana), is one among the many versions of their origins associated with battles against the Demons. Here, Matrkas arise from different parts of Devi; and are described as militant, ferocious, goddesses of the battlefield having sinister as well as propitious characteristics. After the battle, the Matrkas dance drunk with their victim’s blood.
15.2. According to another version, during the battle against demons Shumba and Nishumba, the Matrkas emerge from the bodies of gods- Brahma, Vishnu Shiva, Skanda and Indra.
15.3. As per the narration in Matsya Purana, Shiva created the seven Matrkas to assist him in his combat against the demon Andhaka. After the battle, the Matrkas go on a rampage destroying the beings of the world. The destructive Matrkas are eventually pacified by the benign goddesses created by Lord Narasimha.
15.4. In the Suprabhedagama it is said these seven Matrkas were created by Brahma the purpose of killing the Demon Nirrita.
15. 5. Varaha Purana carries an interesting sidelight. It mentions that the Matrkas were created from the distracted mind of goddess Vaishnavi while she was trying hard to meditate. These Matrkas are described as lovely looking attendants assisting the goddess on the battlefield.
15.6. Similarly, in the battles carried out by Skanda –Kartikeya as the Supreme commander of the Army of Devas, replacing Indra, Mahabharata (Book 9; Shalya parva; Section 46) mentions that as many as ninety-two or more female warriors assist him (Please click here for the list); and fight the demons along with him. Among the unwieldy group of female warriors were a cluster of goddesses – Matrkas. Some of these Matrkas are described as having youthful lovely form, cheerful demeanour and fair skin; while the others were having long nails, large teeth and protruding lips, striking terror. They all were valiant like Indra in battle.
16.1. Apart from such wide-ranging narrations which are related with battles, there are other accounts connecting Matrkas with Skanda. In one of the legends associated with Skanda detailed in the Vana-parva (215.16) of Mahabharata, the Matrkas known as Lokamatas are a host of ferocious and terrifying beings sent by Indra to kill the infant Skanda, shortly after his birth. They function as a group and all references to them are as a group. They are inauspicious beings with loathsome qualities and untidy habits.
16.2. The subsequent episode related with Skanda (in the same text) mentions that the Matrkas emanated from the sides of Skanda when struck by Indra’s thunderbolt. Skanda divides the host of fierce goddess into Shiva (auspicious) and A-Shiva (inauspicious) groups. Yet all were said to be of rather malicious nature.
16.3. Yet another version mentions them as Krittikas, the desolate wives of six sages (Rishi) driven out by their husbands; and then adopted by Kartikeya as his foster mothers. They come to be known as Maha -matrkas.
Malevolent nature of early Matrkas
17.1. Most references in Mahabharata state that the Matrkas are inauspicious; and are dangerous to children. Though they eventually serve Kartikeya as his mother, their initial task was to kill him.
17.2. The malevolent nature of the Matrkas is also seen in several passages of Bhagavata Purana, where they are listed under Ugras, Rakshasas, Pisachas, Bhutas and other dangerous kind of beings (BP: 2.10.37-39). Elsewhere in Bhagavata Purana they are mentioned along with Bhutas, Dakinis, Vetala , Pretas and Pisachas and other terrible beings as parts of Shiva’s entourage (BP:10.83.6.ff). They are commonly understood as dangerous groups of female spirits or goddesses.
17.3. In the same vein, another list of ten female sprits is mentioned. All of them serve inauspicious purposes and have hideous forms tormenting children until they are sixteen years of age.
Unfolding of the Matrka cult
18.1. The various accounts of the Puranas if taken together suggest an evolution, assimilation and the gradual unfolding of the Matrka worship. Their association with Skanda enabled the upper mobility of the tutelary goddesses. And, as Skanda began to assume an independent godhead status in the neo-Vedic pantheon, the Matrkas came to be increasingly associated with Ambika or Durga whose cult was gaining ascendency during the ideological consolidation that was taking place during the Gupta period. During the process of assimilation, over a period, the groups of untamed destructive female forces were reformed and brought into the broad theological view cantered upon the concept of Shakthi. The Vedic preoccupation with number seven (the concept of heptads) crept in, and the Matrkas were crystallized into Saptamatrka, a group of seven goddesses. Thus, the innumerable tutelary mother goddesses who were accepted into the family of Skanda were supplanted by the new standard seven mothers. The names of the previous mother goddesses gradually faded into background and finally disappeared. The Saptamatrkas are thus the systematized and refined forms of the earlier Matrkas
19.1. The Krittikas and others were not regarded as worship worthy goddesses. The Puranas also do not specifically recognize them as powers though they assert that all feminine principles are aspects of Devi.
19.2. Therefore, the concept of Saptamatrka as Shakthi was not derived from these Puranas. It came up through another source, which is the Tantra ideology. The study of the development of Shakthi cult might enable us to locate the origins of the Matrka concept in that tradition. Here, the embodiment of potent feminine forces (shakthi) are generally named matr or matri; and in group as matrgana. They are called Matrka (mata iva), meaning mother (matr)-like (ka). The term Matrkas, therefore, generally refers to groups of mother-like deities. They are the personified energies of the gods (Deva Shakthi) and are described as universal mothers (vishvasya mataraha).
9.3. In Tantra, Matra also refers to the letters of the alphabets that are regarded as 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 is believed that the fifty-two alphabets of the Sanskrit language emanated from the Mother (matrka-mayi); 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. The invoking of the Mother –Matrika Nyasa – along with the five elements is a significant ritual. It is meant to emphasize that you belong to the Mother; and you are sanctified by her presence in you.
[* For the purpose of daily recitations, each of the fifty-one alphabetic letters (Matrika) is extended , in the given order, into a name of the Devi: Amrita, Aakarshini, Indrani, Iishani, Uma, Urdhva-keshini, Ekapadini , Aishvari, Omkarini, Aishadhantika, Ambika, Aksharatmika , Kalaratri, Khatita, Gayatri, Ghantadharini, Narnatmika, Chanda, Chaya, Jaya, Jhankarini, Jnanarupa, Thankahasta, Thamkarini , Damri, Dhamkarini, Namini, Tamasi, Thamini , Dakshayani, Dhatri , Nanda, Parvati, Phatkarini, Bandhini, Bhadrakali, Mahakaya, Yashasvini, Rakta, Lambobosti, Varada, Shashini, Sarasvathi, Hamsavathi, and Kshamavathi.]
19.4. Another explanation is also based in the structure of the Devanagari alphabet. First is the (a) group (varga) which contains the vowels, then the (ka), (cha), (ta), (ta), (pa), (ya) and (ksha) groups. It is believed; the seven mother goddesses (Saptamatrka) correspond to the seven consonant groups (Vargas); and, when the vocalic (a) group is added, the eight mother goddesses (ashtamatrkas) are obtained.
In this grouping, Brahmi is associated with ka-varga, Maheshwari with Cha-varga, Kaumari with Ta-varga, Vaishnavi with Tta –varga, Varahi with Pa-varga, Indrani with Ya-varga and Chamunda with Ksha-varga. It is said, the eighth Matrika, Mahalakshmi is the presiding deity of A-varga.
19.5. Kashmir Shaivism (around eleventh century) explains Matrka as the binding energy that makes it possible to understand words or symbols strung together as language. Its text Siva Sutra defines Matrika as ‘the ground of all knowledge ’(jñānādhisthāna mātrikā- Shiva Sutra:1-4).Matrika is the subtle force behind thought and speech.
19.6. One of the fundamental concepts of Kashmir Shaivism is that our mind, in the form of words, concepts, and ideas, is the source of bondage and suffering. And, as long as we do not understand the true nature of matrika, we are bound by worldly actions and feelings , without ever really understanding the source of their power over us.
19.7. Another Tantra-text Lakshmi Tantra declares “Matrika is the source of all mantras, the origin of all sciences and the soil from which all the principles, all the sages and all knowledge are born.” Matrika Shakthi is the power of sound that is the matrix of the cosmos; and manifests as the letters in the alphabet.
Tantra Shastra says that Devata and Mantra composed of letters (Matrika), are indeed one. Matrika is Shakthi and Shakthi is Shiva.
19.8. In Tantra, Matrika chakra formed by the group of letters is based on the understanding of the essential power of the word; and by regarding the word as god. Each letter, Matrika, is a power in its own right. Each is a microcosm that holds within it the macrocosm. That is the reason; the whole of Matrika chakra is looked upon by some as the primal alphabet, the essence of all alphabets. And, from this alphabet, according to this tradition, the whole universe arises.
It is also said; in the Matrika Chakra, the sixteen vowels from ‘a’ to ‘ah’ represent the energies of Shiva. And their unity with Matrika ‘m’ creates the universal mantra of Shiva ‘aham’.
19.9. And in Shaktha traditions, Matrkas, the sounds, their vibrations and the combination of vibrations interacting with one another is regarded as Matrika Shakthi the creative energies that manifest. All things are forms of creative energy, the Shakthi, which is never separate from Shiva, the Absolute.
As regards the Saptamatrkas, in particular, it is said; they represent the seven seed (bija) sounds, comprising five pure-vowels (a, i, u, r, lr) and two compound vowels (e and o).
19.10. Durga the great goddess and the Saptamatrka share certain common features; and also have certain differences. Both were created by the Will of the Gods; and both are the feminine aspects of the energies (tejas) of the Gods. However, in Durga the diverse energies converge to form a unified powerhouse; while in the case of Saptamatrkas various energies remain independent though bound into a group. The seven goddesses are not consorts of male gods, but are the independent aspects of Devi.
20.1. Thus, it is the Shaktha and Tantra ideology, its magical rites and esoteric exercises that provide a distinct significance and life to the cult of Matrkas. In the Tantra, Matrkas emphasize the primacy of the female over the male principle. Usually, they are known as a group; and, are visualized primarily as Shakthi’s potent power of male gods. Their numbers are often indeterminate; although some texts mention them as five, seven, eight, eleven or sixteen. They have common attributes and forms associated with the auspicious and, often, with the inauspicious. The various references and epithets of goddesses in the later Vedic and Tantra texts belong either to the sphere of militant goddesses or to the benevolent motherly, fertility deities.
21.1. The Saptamatrka symbolisms were rationalized in the Tantra and Yoga theories. The infant who nestles in the lap of each Matrika is indeed the Sadhaka in care of the Mother. He is reborn at each stage of his pursuit. The weapons held by the goddesses are symbolic of the wars waged on ego and ignorance, as the Sadhaka strives to overcome them.
The Sadhakas such as Ramaprasad and Sri Ramakrishna described themselves as children in the lap of their mother. Even while the mother is angry the child clings to her for love, warmth and protection. In the words of Ramaprasad; you can never separate the bond between a child and a mother. Though she beats it, the child clings to its mother crying, “mother, oh mother”.
21.2. The infant was also seen as a symbol of the benign energy needed to counteract and balance between the negative and the positives forces
21.3. Varaha Purana interpreted the Matrkas as symbols of Atma Vidya or spiritual wisdom that fought against the dark forces of ignorance embodied by the Demon Andhakasura.
21.4. The Tantra-text Tantra-raja-tantra (27; 56 ) relates Matrkas to eight types of vices or inauspicious emotions like envy, pride, anger etc: “Brahmi of pride (mada); Maheswari of anger (krodha); Vaishnavi of greed (lobha); Varahi of envy (asuya); Kaumari of attachment (moha); Aindri of jealousy (matsarya); and Chamunda of depravity (paisunya); and the eighth Yogeshwari represents lust (kama)”. Vishnudharmottara Purana and Varaha Purana (17.33-37) also carry similar narrations.
But, Tantra-raja-tantra (36; 15-16) at another place identifies Brahmi with the primordial desire to create (Kama);Maheshwari with the tendency to degenerate and dissipate (krodha);Kaumari with the youthful longings to be and to enjoy (lobha);Vaishnavi with power to fascinate and delude (moha); Varahi with pride and arrogance (mada);Indrani with jealousy and envy (matsarya);Chamunda with urge to sin (papa) and hurt (abhichara); and , Mahalakshmi with doing good (punya) for selfish reasons.
21.5. In Tantra and Yoga rituals the Matrkas are worshipped with prayers to suppress and overcome the evil tendencies that obstruct the progress of the devotee .Thus, Matrkas and Yoginis perform vital roles in the Diksha rituals of the adepts.
21.6. In the Sri Vidya tradition, the Matrkas are regarded as the guardians and are seen as residing in the second line of Bhupura of Sri Chakra, in each direction. They are the guides, protectors and removers of obstructions .The the Sadhaka worships and prays to them as she/he enters into Sri Chakra on her / his way seeking identity with the Great Goddess.
21.7. Mahanirvana Tantra however regards the Matrika –Trinity of Brahmi, Vaishnavi and Maheshwari in an entirely different light. They are worshipped as three aspects of Goddess Gayatri. It asks the Sadhaka : “In the morning meditate upon Her ( Devi Gayatri) in Her Brahmi form, as a Maiden of ruddy hue, with a pure smile, with two hands, holding a gourd full of holy water, garlanded with crystal beads, clad in the skin of a black antelope, seated on a Swan (56). At midday meditate upon Her in Her Vaishnavi form, of the colour of pure gold, youthful, with full and rising breasts, situated in the Solar disc, with four hands holding the conch-shell, discus, mace, and lotus, seated on Garuda, garlanded with wild-flowers (57-58). In the evening meditate upon Her Maheshwari as of a white colour, clad in white raiment, old and long past her youth, with three eyes, beneficent, propitious, seated on a Bull, holding in Her lotus-like hands a noose, a trident, a lance, and a skull (59-60). [Mahanirvana Tantra -Translated by Arthur Avalon (Sir John Woodroffe)-1913]
22.1. In Yoga, the seven mothers are the symbols of progress as the Sadhaka aims to refine his consciousness. Each Matrkas is identified with a level of existence, a state of consciousness and Chakra, the energy centres in the subtle body. And, each associated with an alphabet (Matra) is a Matrika Shakthi. They are viewed as parallels of Sat-chakras raising the consciousness to the seventh point- the Sahasrara. The seven padmas (lotus) along the shusumna are visualized as the seven seats of feminine power (shakthi) –the Kundalini. To pass from one Matrika to the next is to be born afresh. To reach and surpass the seventh mother is his final birth, that of non-birth which is the release (moksha).
[The Tantric Buddhism also adopted Saptamatrikas in its practices. The powers, attributes and functions of the Buddhist Matrikas are in line with those of their Vedic counterparts. The composite figures of seven-mothers appear in Nalanda. And, the Buddhist goddesses Vajravarahi and Marichi are believed to have their origins in Varahi the Matrika.
Similarly, the Jain mother-goddesses having names of Chakreshvari, Ambika, Padmavathi and Sidhayika are similar, in nature, to Matrikas.]
Conflicts and resolutions
23.1. Taken together, over a long period, one can see that the Matrkas are dichotomous personalities. There are layers and layers of their identities. They are complex deities who bring together the opposing concepts of death and fertility; autonomous female warriors and consorts; protective mothers and those who endanger children. And, later they are transformed into spiritual guides and protectors.
23.2. Sometimes, they are described feminine forces who derive their names and attributes from male gods; hence, they are taken to imply the coexistence of male and female principles. Yet the female is dominant. Matrkas, unlike the consorts of male gods, are relatively independent goddesses. When portrayed individually they are depicted as benevolent and graceful mother-like goddesses. But, in group they appear as warriors.
23.3. Among the sets of contradictions that are bundled together within the Matrkas is the manner they are depicted in sculptures. There is an obvious mismatch between their descriptions in the Puranas and their depictions in sculptures. The icons are hardly related to the narrative content. The Matrkas of the Puranas are basically militant, ferocious, blood-drinking warriors on the battle field, assisting Devi, Shiva or Skanda in their battles against the Demons. They are not referred to as mothers; nor is there a reference to their ‘motherly-qualities’. Yet, in their sculptural portrayals they are depicted as benevolent, caring mothers. Their motherliness is often emphasized by the playful attitude towards the children they carry on their laps. These Mothers are radiant and graceful and expressive, conveying a refined simplicity. At the same time, the Ayudhas they hold imply quite a different kind of attributes. There is basic conflict in their projection right from their earliest stages. And, yet their associated symbolisms are retained; and there is harmony in their overall structure and countenance.
23.4. Thus, over the ages, in the course of their long and protracted stages of evolution, the Matrka deities acquired a wide range of ideological, literary, visual and ritual representations. They have become an integral part of the religious and historical process of the Indian society. Initially they were feared as being inauspicious or sometimes even as dangerous spirits; but later, they were the guardians or benefactors, the mothers who watch over children with care and concern. They also came to be worshipped as guiding divinities on the way to ones spiritual attainments. That became possible, perhaps, because they managed to harmonize several sets of contradictions; and internalized varied conflicts at each stage of their development. Their character and nature too modulated to be in tune with the context of different periods.
23.5. Conflicts and resolutions mark the story of their evolution from tribal –folk deities to the guardian Shakthis of Tantra and Sri Vidya. They epitomize the coexistence of disparate elements and stages of religion from primitive to the sophisticated.
24.1. The formative stages of the Saptamatrka cult unfold at the beginning of Kushana period and during the Gupta period. The Matrkas gained importance in the Higher Tradition during times of Kushanas (1st to 3rd century). And, during the reign of Guptas (3rd to 6th century) the Matrkas were elevated as foster-mothers of Skanda; and upgraded to court goddesses. They are brought into orthodox fold through various Puranas. They are grouped into the auspicious number of seven (Saptamatrkas) and rendered into worship worthy goddesses.
24.2. In the medieval periods the numbers and names become standardized. In this period, they take on the names and characteristics of the male gods. Despite their names and associations with the male gods they are not treated as consorts of male gods; but are regarded as extensions of Devi herself. Their appearances and dispositions too get modified. Matrkas are, now, no longer warrior deities or those spirits that harm children; but are goddesses and benign guardians who act as guides in Tantric Sadhana. They are recognized as inherent powers residing in the major Devas (Deva Shakthis); and, are worshipped for spiritual uplift (Mukthi) as also for earthly comforts (Bhukthi).
24.3. They as an auspicious group of seven (Saptamatrkas) are depicted on temple walls. The Pallava temples (7th – 8th century) like Sri Kailasanatha carry panels of Sapta Matrkas. The later Chola temples continued on the tradition by depicting them in rows or in panels either standing or dancing, flanked by Ganapathi on one side and Veerabhadra or Shiva on the other.
25.1. The evolution from the Balagraha deities to the conceptions of varied Matrkas of Kushana period; then to the court goddess of the Gupta era; and then on to the Saptamatrka divinities of the medieval times is viewed as a natural process. It is a process of shift from Lower Tradition towards the worship of Shakthi as the embodiment of energies inherent in the gods and in all nature. The Saptamatrka worship further evolved within the Shaktha sect through its theologies of Higher Tradition. The developments within the Tantra and Yoga ideologies accorded greater importance to Saptamatrkas.
25.2. The Matrkas, however, lost much of their significance and position in the popular religious practices during the middle centuries. But, they continued to appear in temple panels and niches. Today, they linger on the fringes of the Hindu pantheon.
In the next part let’s take a look at the textual sources and references to Matrikas.
Continued in Part Three
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