Tag Archives: Devi-Mahatmya

The Guptavati and Navarna Mantra – Part Two

Continued from Part One


As mentioned earlier, Bhāskararāya Makhin was essentially a Shakta; and was also an ardent Sri Vidya Upasaka. He adopted the Tantra approach in his spiritual pursuit. And, in his Guptavati, he reveres Devi Mahatmya as a mantra of the Devi, embodying her divine presence.

The Tantra School recognizes Vac as the embodiment of the Shakthi. It is the bridge between the physical and the formless Reality. Bhāskararāya approaches the text of the Devi Mahatmya as “the mantra whose form is a multitude of verses (ślokas), consisting of three episodes (caritas), each one describing the glory of one of the three different aspects of the Supreme Goddess – Maha-Kali, Mahālakṣhmī and Maha-Sarasvathi.

[The term Mantra is explained as mananat trayate mantrah; the contemplation of which liberates. It is the harmonious and powerful union of mind (Manas) and word (Vac). It is the living sound, transcending beyond the mental plane. , its relevance is in its inherent Shakthi. Its subtle sounds attempt to visualize the un-differentiated divine principle. Mantra is beyond intellect. Its inner essence has to be grasped in humility, earnestness and faith.

Mantra is said to connect, in a very special way, the objective and subjective aspects of reality. The Mantra, in its sublime form, is rooted in pure consciousness. The Shaiva text Shiva Sutra describes Mantras as the unity of Vac and consciousness: Vac-chittam (ārādhakasya citta ca mantras tad dharma yogataShiva Sutra: 2.1). It is the living sound, transcending beyond the mental plane; the indistinct or undefined speech (anirukta) having immense potential.  In its next stage, it unites harmoniously with the mind. Here, it is union of mind (Manas) and word (Vac).  That is followed by the Mantra repeated in the silence of one’s heart (tushnim). The silent form of mantra is said to be superior to the whispered (upamasu) utterance.

If an idol or a Yantra is the material (Sthula) form of the Goddess, the Mantra is her subtle form (Sukshma-rupa). And, beyond that is the Para, the contemplation, absorption into the very essence of the Devi. And, that leads to the realization (Anubhava) of the bliss (Ananda) of one’s identity with her (Pratyabhijna).

It is said; when one utters a deity’s Mantra, one is not naming the deity, but is evoking its power as a means to open oneself to it. It is said; mantra gives expression to the identity of the name (abhidana) with the object of contemplation (abhideya). Therefore, some describe mantra as a catalyst that’ allows the potential to become a reality’. It is both the means (upaya) and the end (upeya).

The reverse is said to be the process of Japa (reciting or muttering the mantra). It moves from Vaikhari through Madhyamā towards Pashyanti and ideally, and in very cases, to Para vac.

Ordinarily, Japa starts in Vaikhari form (vocal, muttering). The efficacy of the Japa does depend on the will, the dedication and the attentiveness of the person performing the Japa. After long years of constant practice, done with devotion and commitment, an extraordinary thing happens. Now, the Japa no longer depends on the will or the state of activity of the practitioner. It seeps into his consciousness; and, it goes on automatically, ceaselessly and inwardly without any effort of the person, whether he is awake or asleep. Such instinctive and continuous recitation is called Ajapa-japa. When this proceeds for a long-time, it is said; the consciousness moves upward (uccharana) and becomes one with the object of her or his devotion.

The term Ajapa-japa is also explained in another manner. A person exhales with the sound ‘Sa’; and, she/he inhales with the sound ‘Ha’. This virtually becomes Ham-sa mantra (I am He; I am Shiva). A person is said to inhale and exhale 21,600 times during a day and night. Thus, the Hamsa mantra is repeated (Japa) by everyone, each day, continuously, spontaneously without any effort, with every round of breathing in and out. And, this also is called Ajapa-japa.]


Bhāskararāya asserts that the Goddess is present in every word and every sound of the Devi Mahatmya; and, the recitations of these words can reveal her. Thus, he reveres the Devi Mahatmya as a great Mantra-maya scripture, as also an esoteric text on Yoga Shastra and Sri Vidya.

The Devi Mahatmya is treated like a Vedic hymn, rik or a mantra.  Each of its episodes (charita) is associated with a Rishi (the sage who visualised it), a Chhandas (its meter), a presiding deity (pradhna-devata), and viniyoga (for japa). For instance; for the first episode (Prathama-charita), the Rishi is Brahma; the Devata is Mahakali; the Chhandas is Garyatri; its Shakthi is Nanda; its Bija is Raktha-dantika; and its Viniyoga is securing the grace of Sri Mahalakshmi. The first Chapter is compared to Rig-Veda.

asya śrī prathamacaritrasya brahmā ṛṣi mahākālī devatā gāyatrī chanda nandā śakti raktadantikā bījam agnistattvam gveda svarūpam śrīmahākālīprītyarthe prathamacaritrajapeviniyoga

Further, it is said that every sloka of the Devi-Mahatmya is a Mantra by itself.  And, the whole text is treated like one Maha mantra.

For instance; the opening sloka of the 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, Sri Swami Krishnananda explains, it is in fact a mantra; 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

[It is said; the first three Slokas of Saptashati give out in code, the Navarna Mantra: o namaścaṇḍikāyai || o ai mārkaṇḍeya uvāca ॥]

Bhaskararaya concludes just as there is no difference between the cause (karana) and the effect (karya); between the object signified (Vachya) and the word which signifies (Vachaka); and between Brahman and the universe ((Brahmani jagat ithyartha, abedho iti seshaha), similarly this Vidya (Devi Mahatmya) of the Devi is identical with her.


The narration of the Devi Mahatmya is interwoven with four elegant Stutis, hymns. While the majority of the verses in the text are in the simpler Anushtup Chhandas, the Stutis are composed in more elegant Chhandas such as Gayatri, Vasantatilaka and Upajati, creating graceful, complex, supple rhythmic patterns when sung with fervour, gusto and reverence.

These four Stutis celebrate the glory and splendour of the auspicious Devi in all her aspects. These sweet, powerful and uplifting hymns are not only devotional and poetic, but are also philosophical and sublime. Bhaskararaya Makhin regards these hymns as Sruti-s (revealed wisdom), the exalted revealed (Drsta) knowledge, equalling the Vedas (apaurueya), rather than as constructed, the Krta by humans.

Bhaskararaya, in his Guptavati, offers comments on 224 out of the 579 verses of the Devi Mahatmya.  The most commented Chapters of the Devi Mahatmya are:  5, 4, 12, 11 and 1, in that order.  These are the Chapters that contain the four celebrated hymns and also the instructions for reciting the Devi Mahatmya.

The four hymns are:  (1) Brahma-stuti (DM. 1.73-87) starting with tva svāhā tva svadhā tva hi vaakāra svarātmikā; (2) the Sakaradi-stuti (DM.4.2-27) starting with śakrādaya suragaā nihate’tivīrye; (3) the Aparajita-stuti (DM.5.9-82) starting with namo devyai mahādevyai śivāyai satata nama ; and, (4) the Narayani-stuti (DM.11. 3-35) starting with Devi prapannārtihare prasīda. 

 [The Brahma-stuti (DM.1.73-87) also known as the Tantrika Ratri Suktam, establishes the Divine Mother’s ultimate transcendence and her identity her as the creator and sustainer and the dissolver of the Universe. She is all compassing source of the good and the evil, alike; both radiant splendour and terrifying darkness. And yet, she ultimately is the ineffable bliss beyond all duality.

In the longest and most eloquent of the Devi Mahatmya’s four hymns, richly detailed Sakaradi-stuti (DM.4.3-27) Indra and other gods praise Durga’s supremacy and transcendence. Her purpose is to preserve the moral order, and to that end she appears as ’good fortune in the dwelling of the virtuous; and, misfortune in the house of the wicked’, granting abundant blessings and subduing misconduct (DM.4.5). ‘Every intent on benevolence towards all’ (sarvo-upakāra-karaāya sadārdracittā DM.4.17), she reveals even her vast destructive power as ultimately compassionate, for in slaying those enemies of the world who ‘may have committed enough evil to keep them long in torment’ (kurvantu nāma narakāya cirāya pāpam – DM.4.18) , she redeems them with the purifying touch of her weapons so that they ‘may attain the higher worlds’ (lokānprayāntu ripavo’pi hi śastrapūtā/ ittha matirbhavati tevahiteu sādhvī –DM.4.19).

The Devas, distressed that the Asuras have re-grouped and once again overturned the world-order, invoke the Devi in a magnificent hymn, the Aparajita-stuti or Tantrika Devi Suktam, the twenty slokas beginning with ‘ya devi sarva bhuteshu , praise to the invincible Goddess , which celebrates her immanent presence in the Universe as the consciousness that manifests in all beings (yā devī sarvabhūteu cetanetya abhidhīyate) . Thereupon the Devi appears on the banks of the Ganga. Her radiant manifestation emerging from the body of Parvathi embodies the Guna of Sattva, the pure energy of light and peace. Later, She takes on multiple and varied forms in the course of the battle with the Asuras.

The final hymn, the Narayani-stuti (DM.11.3-35) lauds the Devi in her universal, omnipresent aspect and also in the diverse expressions of her powers .Thereupon, the Devi assures to protect all existence and to intervene whenever evil arises.]

These hymns describe the nature and character of the Goddess in spiritual terms:

Bhāskararāya identifies Chaṇḍikā-Mahālakṣhmī with the hymn of the fifth chapter Aparajita-stuti; and, her three forms (Mahākālī, Mahālakṣhmī, and Mahāsarasvatī ) with one of the other three hymns each.


In his introduction to the Guptavati, Bhāskararāya emphasises the role of mantras that produce power when properly employed. Therefore, he focuses, particularly, on the Navarna mantra, apart from the Devi Mahatmya, which itself is regarded as a Maha Mantra.

 The Navarna Mantra or Navakshari mantra, also known as Chamunda Mantra or Chandi Mantra is the basic mantra of the Sri Durga Saptashati recitation. It is also one of the principal (mula) mantras in Shakthi worship, apart from the Shodasi mantra of the Sri Vidya. There is the faith that one who practices the Navakshari mantra with great devotion will attain liberation and the state of highest bliss -(Vicche Navārnak’ornah syān-mahad’ānanda-dāyakah)

According to the Navakshari mantra nivechanam (p24) : Its Rishi is Markandeya;  Its Chhandas is Jagati; Durga, Lakshmi and Sarasvathi are its Devathas; Hram is its Bija ; Hrim is its Shakthi; Hrum is its Kilaka; and, securing the grace (prasada siddhi) of Durga, Lakshmi and Sarasvathi is its Viniyoga.

And, Navarna or Navakshari mantra is chanted as an integral part (Anga) of Chandiparayanam, which is performed while reciting (Purashcharana) the Devi Mahatmya. There is also a practice of the reciting of Durga Saptashati as a part of Navarna Purashcharana. Thus, the Saptashati and the Navarna are mutually related (angangi nyaya).


In the Sri Vidya tradition, the Panchadasi (Pancha-dasakshari) and the Shodasi are the cardinal and exclusive (rahasya) Mantras. The Panchadasi mantra of very potent fifteen letters or syllables (Bijakshara) composed of three segments (kūa) is indeed the very heart of the Sri Vidya Upasana.

Its three as are: Vāgbhava kū of five bīja-s (ka – e – ī – la- hrī,   ह्रीं); Madhya or kamaraja kūa  of six bīja-s (ha – sa – ka – ha – la – hrī,   ह्रीं ) ; and, the śhakti kūa  of four bīja-s  (sa – ka – la – hrī ह्रीं ).

The mantra is composed of a series of individual Bija-akshara (syllables), each having its own identify and association; and, each representing a certain aspect of the Goddess. But, when these Bija-aksharas are taken together, they manifest the subtle form (Sukshmarupa) of the Mother Goddess.

This fifteen lettered Pancha-dasakshari mantra is revered as the verbal form of the Mother Goddess. By adding   to it the secret syllable ś (श्रीं) it is transformed into the sixteen lettered Shodasi mantra. The Bijakshara śrī (श्रीं) is regarded as the original form of the Mother Goddess Sri.

The mantra which till then was dormant becomes explicit by adding śrī (श्रीं); and, the knowledge of her is celebrated as Sri Vidya. It is with this Vidya of Shodasi mantra that the Mother Goddess is worshiped through the Sri Chakra. It is said; this mantra is known as Ṣhoaśī or Shodasa-kala-vidya, because each of its sixteen Bījas represents a phase (kalā) of the moon. It is also said; the verbal expression of her Vidya is the Shodasi mantra; and, its visual expression is the Sri Yantra (Sri Chakra). And, the two are essentially the same.

The Navarna (also known as Navakshari and Chandi Gayatri) mantra of nine syllables is closely related to the extended Maha-shodasi mantra of twenty eight bīja-s of Sri Lalitha tradition. Both are Navarna; as they are worshiped in nine levels (Navaavarana), where the Devi is worshipped in her nine forms. It is described as a mantra that grants the highest bliss – mahad-ananda dayakah.

[The Mahāṣoḍaśī mantra is actually not sixteen; but , it is a set of six kutas ( sections) :(1)  srim, hrim, klim , aim sauh  ; (2) aum hrim srim ; (3) ka e i la hrim ; (4) ha sa ka ha la hrim ; (5) sa ka la hrim ; and, (6) sauh aim klim hrim srim . Thus Mahāṣoḍaśī has twenty eight bīja-s.]


While Sri is the presiding deity of the Sri Vidya; Chandi is the Goddess of the Chandi Vidya. There is also a view which asserts that the Chandi Vidya is the older tradition and, the Sri Vidya is its refined form.  In some places (for instance, in Kanchi), both Chandi Navarna and Sri Vidya worship procedures are followed.

Bhāskararāya, a dedicated Sri Vidya Upasaka, in his Guptavati equates Chandi with the Supreme Goddess Devi who indeed is the Brahman, the Supreme non-dual reality. He regards the Chandi Vidya as the Navarna Vidya, which corresponds to the Vidya of Sri Lalitha.

navarna mantra

The Navārna-mantra (Śrī Chaṇḍi Navākṣharī Mantra) is composed of the following syllables:   Om aiṁ hrīṁ klīṁ cāmuṇḍāyai vicce  ऐं ह्रीं क्लीं चामुण्डायै विच्चे ॥ 

The syllables of the Navārna mantra are taken from the first line of the Mahāṣoḍaśī mantra —   śrī – hrī – klī – ai – sau ( श्रीं ह्रीं क्लीं ऐं सौः)

The Shakthas have an immense faith that Navarna mantra has the power to bestow liberation (Mukti).

Bhaskararaya mentions that this mantra has been explained in of the Shaktha Upanishads the Devī-Atharva-Śira-Upaniṣhad  (Devi Upanishad) of which he quotes the first verse “I am of the very same form (Svarupini) of the Brahman’. I am an aspect of Brahma. From me this Universe, in form of Prakriti and Purusha, is generated; which is both void and non-void.

sābravīt- aha brahmasvarūpiī  matta praktipuruātmaka jagat  śūnya cāśūnyam ca

I am both bliss and non-bliss. I am knowledge and non-knowledge. I am Brahma and non-Brahma (the non-manifest state called A-Brahma). I am the five primordial principles and non-principles. I am the whole perceived Universe.

aham ānandā qnānandau  aha vijñānāvijñāne  aha brahmā brahmaī veditavye  aha pañcabhūtānyapañcabhūtāni  ahamakhila jagat 3

The Devi Upanishad or Devi Atharvashirsha Upanishad explains the Navarna mantra Om ai hrī klī cāmuṇḍāyai vicce:

  1. Om – the Pranava Mantra represents the Nirguna Brahman; 2. Aim – is the Vakbija the seed sound of Mahasarasvathi—the knowledge that is consciousness. – Chit; 3. Hreem –the Maya Bija the sound of Mahalakshmi – the all pervasive existence. —Sat; 4. Kleem – is the Kamabeeja the seed sound of Mahakali – the all consuming delight – Ananda; 5. Chamunda – the slayer of the demons Chanda and Munda, representing passion and anger ; 6. Yai– the one who grants boons; 7. Vicce– in the body of knowledge, in the perception of consciousness.

The Chit, Sat and Ananda are involved in the creation in physical, vital, and mental aspects – as Anna, Prana and Manas. They all are integrated into Chamunda Devi.

[The meaning of the Navarna mantra is said to be : ‘O the Supreme Spirit Mahasarasvathi, O the purest and most propitious Mahalakshmi, O embodiment of joy Mahakali, to achieve the highest state of knowledge we constantly meditate upon You. O Goddess Chandika who embodies the three formed Mahasarasvathi-Mahalakshmi-Mahakali, obeisance to you! Please break open the tightened knot of ignorance and liberate us’]

māyā brahmasūstasmāt aṣṭha vaktrasamanvitam / suryo ̕vāma śrotra bindu sayukta ṣṭātttīyaka । nārāyaena samiśro vāyuścādharayuk tataḥ / vicce  navārako ̕ra syānmahadānandadāyaka 20


Bhaskararaya explains: Even Brahma and the other Devas do not know her real form; and, therefore, she is called Ajñeya. We do not find its limit, so she is called Ananta. We cannot find the meaning, so she is called Alakshya. Her birth is not known, so she is called Aja. She is found everywhere, so she is called Eka, the One. She has taken up all the various forms, so she is called Naika. Because of this she is called these various names.

yasyā svarūpa brahmādayo na jānanti tasmāducyate ajñeyā 

yasyā anto na labhyate tasmāducyate anantā  yasyā lakya nopalakyate tasmāducyate alakyā 

yasyā janana nopalabhyate tasmāducyate ajā  ekaiva sarvatra vartate tasmāducyate ekā 

ekaiva viśvarūpiī tasmāducyate naikā  ata evocyate ajñeyānantālakyājaikā naiketi 23


 As regards the Mantra aspect of the text, Bhaskararaya, following the Sri Vidya tradition, regards the Navarna mantra as the subtle form (sukshmarupa) of the Goddess.   For Bhaskararaya, the Bijaksharas of the mantra are the more accessible forms of the Goddess’s ultimate form as Brahman.

Bhaskararaya analyses the Navarna-mantra, dedicated to the Great Goddess Chamunda, syllable-by-syllable, beginning with Chamundayai. He explains that the power of the mantra is particularly associated with the recitation of the name Chamunda.

In his introduction to the Guptavati, Bhaskararaya explains the etymology of the name Chamunda. Here, he differs from the explanation provided in chapter seven of the Devi Mahatmya.

According to the text of the Devi Mahatmya, Kali is celebrated as Chamunda after she overpowers and beheads Chanda and Munda.

śiraścaṇḍasya kālī ca ghītvā muṇḍameva ca prāha pracaṇḍā aṭṭahāsa miśra mabhyetya caṇḍikām 7.23॥

The Devi, then, declares that since Kali presented her with the heads of these two demons, she would henceforth be renowned in the world as Chamunda – cāmuṇḍeti tato loke khyātā Devī bhaviyasi .Thereafter in the text, Kali and Chamunda become synonyms.

Yasmāc-Caṇḍa ca Muṇḍa ca ghītvā tvamupāgatā  Cāmuṇḍeti tato loke khyātā Devī bhaviyasi  7.27

Bhaskararaya Makhin, however, interprets the term Chamunda, differently, as: ‘chamum, ‘army’ and lati, ‘eats’; meaning that Chamunda is literally ‘she who eats armies’—a reference to Kali as Chamunda who drinks the blood of the army of the demon Raktabija.

jaghāna raktabīja ta cāmuṇḍā apītaśoitam sa papāta mahīpṛṣṭhe śastra saghasam āhata 8.61

He then proceeds in his comments on the mantra by elaborating on the first three syllables (Bijakshara): Aim, Hrim, and Klim, by resolving the complex expressions into simpler or more basic ones: marked by analytical reasoning. He brings into the discussion the concepts and the symbolisms of the Sri Vidya traditions.

Here, he explains; the Mahadevi Chamunda, in her integrated form (Samasti) is of the nature of the Brahman- Brahma-svarupini. And, the three Bijaksharas in the Navarna-mantra symbolize the diversified (Vyasti) form of the Devi:  as Aim (ऐं) for Mahalakshmi; and, Hrim (ह्रीं) and Kilm (क्लीं) for Mahasarasvathi and Mahakali, respectively. And again, the essential nature of the Devi as Sat-Chit-Ananda (being, consciousness, and bliss) is associated with each of her forms: Mahalakshmi (Sat); Mahasarasvathi (Chit); and Mahakali (Ananda).

Again, it is said, these three goddesses are the presiding deities of the three Episodes of the Devi Mahatmya, while the text itself is the body of the Devi Chamunda, the Mahadevi. Thus, the divisions and the Chapters of the Devi Mahatmya are but visible (Sakara) the constituents (anga) of the Devi Chamunda, who herself is beyond attributes (Brahma-svarupini).

Thus, Bhaskararaya relates the Vyasti goddess, their corresponding Bijamantras, their symbolisms and sounds, to the most subtle, secretive aspect of the Supreme Goddess. As regards the Vyasti goddess, he follows the explanations given in the Devi Upanishad. But, as said earlier, he differs on its explanation of the term Chamunda.

Here, the Mahadevi Chamunda, in her integrated form (Samasti) is of the nature of the Brahman- Brahma-svarupini. She combines in herself her other diversified (Vyasti) forms of Mahalakshmi (Aim); Mahasarasvathi (Hrim); and, Mahakali (Kilm). And again, the essential nature of the Devi as Sat-Chit-Ananda (being, consciousness, and bliss) is associated with each of her forms: Mahalakshmi (Sat); Mahasarasvathi (Chit); and Mahakali (Ananda).


Bhaskararaya, however, offers a rather lengthy explanation on the final term of the Navarna mantra:’ vicce’.

He points out that the term vicce might, at first instance, might look as though it is untranslatable. But, one would appreciate its significance when its etymology is correctly understood.

Bhaskararaya begins his explanation of vicce, by equating it with the Sanskrit word ‘manch’—meaning ‘to grow’ or ‘to move’. He remarks; though the term vicce is rather unusual, yet it has been in use in the Shakta tantric tradition. For instance, he says, the mantra of Bhagamalini, the second of the sixteen Nityas, reads ‘Amogham chaiva vichcham cha tatheshim klinna devatam’. The import of the mantra is said to be:  the goddess symbolized by the Bija-akshara Klim is resplendent and unfailingly liberates (vichcham) the devotee.

[In the Sri Vidya tradition, the sixteen guardian deities, named as Nityas, who form the entourage, of the Devi, are identified with the phases of the moon (Chandra-kalaa); and each Nitya corresponds to a day (tithi) or the aspect of the moon during the fortnight. The sixteen Nityas are: Kameshvari, Bhagamalini, Nityaklinna, Bherunda, Vahnivasini, Mahavajeshvari, Dooti, Tvarita, Kulasundari, Nitya, Nilapataka, Vijaya, Sarvamangala, Jwalamalinika and Chitra]

Regarding the etymology of the term vicce, Bhaskararaya explains that it originated within the Dravidian language group; and, was later adopted into the Sanskrit vocabulary. He also mentions that importing terms from other languages (bhasha-mishrana) is not unusual; and, has been in practice since the ancient times.  He explains that many of the terms that are used in   Navarna and Bhagamalini mantras are well recognised in Southern languages like Kannada (karnatabhasha), Tamil (Dravidabhasha) and Telugu (Andhrabhasha).

The scholars surmise that Bhaskararaya might have related the term vicce with the Tamil word vichchu/i or vittu/i, meaning ‘to sow’ or ‘to spread’, which has the same connotation as his Sanskrit gloss manch, meaning ‘to grow’ or ‘to move’. They cite another obscure word ‘Puruchi’, which occurs only two times in the Rig-Veda   .  The term Puruchi’, here, suggests the meaning of ‘Foremost or abundant‘, which carries a similar meaning in the Tamil language.

 [śata jīvantu śarada purūcīr antar mtyu dadhatām parvatena || RV_10,018.04c|| and aśvinā pari vām ia purūcīr īyur gīrbhir yatamānā amdhrā | RV_3,058.08a||]

Bhaskararaya, then concludes that in the context of the Navarna mantra, vicce signifies ‘liberation’; and, could be taken as a synonym for the Sanskrit term mochayati – ‘to cause to be liberated’. And, when the term vicce, in the Navarna mantra, is combined with Goddess Chamunda (Chamunda-visheshanam), it gives forth the meaning that Chamunda is, indeed, the resplendent Goddess who ‘causes her devotee to be liberated.

He says that through the Navarna Mantra we invoke the Supreme Goddess and her varied powers; and, pray to her to come into our lives to fulfil our material and spiritual desires with ease (Sri Sundari sevana tatparanam / Bhogascha mokshascha karastaeva).

Thus, for Bhaskararaya, the Navarna is not only a powerful mantra that protects the devotee; but, is also a means to attain liberation (moksha-sadhana).


 The learned scholar Caleb Simmons, in his article, observes:

Bhaskararaya, in the Guptavati, provides a remarkable explanation of the mantra, ritual value of sounds and syllables, and etymology that elucidates our understanding of the relationship between mantra and meaning in which the secret and semantic are coterminous

According to Bhaskararaya, to understand meaning in mantra we must expand our understanding of ‘meaning’ as a category to include not only normative, semantic, and discursive meaning, but to include the hidden meaning of a mantra that contains a truth only perceivable through the direct insight of the initiated practitioner….

Through his introduction to the Guptavati, Bhaskararaya incorporates the Sri Vidya perspective of corresponding realities into a theory of meaning and mantra in which discursive (rational) meaning and the hidden meaning are simultaneously individual but ultimately the same.

twin roses

Salutation to you, O Devi Nārāyaī, who abides as intelligence in the hearts of all beings; and, who grants happiness and liberation, with what words, however excellent, can I praise you?

sarvasya buddhi rūpea janasya hdi sasthite svargāpavargade devi nārāyai namo’stu te 11.8

sarvabhūtā yadā devī bhuktimukti pradāyinī । tvaṃ stutā stutaye kā vā bhavantu paramoktayaḥ ॥ 11.7॥


Sources and References

Varivasya -rahasya

The secret of the three cities by Douglas R Brooks



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Posted by on March 1, 2018 in Devi, Guptavati, Tantra


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The Guptavati and Navarna Mantra – Part One


The Devi Mahatmya dated somewhere around the fourth- fifth century , also  renowned as Durga SaptasatiDurgapāhaChandi, Chandipāha and Chandi Saptashati,  composed as a long poem of about  seven hundred verses (Saptashathi) , is the  most revered scripture of the Shaktha tradition.

 Devi Mahatmya celebrates the glory and splendour of the auspicious Supreme Goddess – the Maha Devi. Chaṇḍī or Chaṇḍīka, the name by which the Supreme Goddess is referred to in Devi Mahatmya.  The text commences with salutation to Chandi: oṃ namaścaṇḍikāyai; Om̃ jaya tvaṃ devi Cāmuṇḍe jaya bhūtāpa hāriṇi [In the Devi Mahatmya, the names: Chandi, Chandika, Ambika and Durga are synonymous].

The text adulates Maha Devi as the greatest warrior; and rejoices Devi as Chandi the destroyer of evil and its tendencies. She is the protector of the world; and, she does so from time to time by assuming various forms. She is also Ambika the mother who shelters and nurtures; and, also Durga the goddess who saves us from all sorts of miseries and difficulties (Duritha-nivarini). And, it is She who, just as a boat, ferries the devotees across oceans of existence (Bhava-Tarini). Her splendour and beauty is sung   and exalted by countless other names and forms.

The Goddess is celebrated in various manners (lalapanti) as: joyous (madantika); proud (manini); auspicious (mangala); and; prosperous (shubhaga). And, she is beautiful (sundari) and pure (shuddhamata); as also modest (lajja), intelligent (matistu), satisfied (tripta) and She is thriving (pusta), wealthy (lakshmirupa) and extremely lovely (lalitha)

Madantika manini mangala ca shibhaga ca sa sundari shuddhamati / lajja matistu-stirists ca pusta lakshmi rupa lalitha lalapanti //

The Shaktha tradition reveres the Divine Mother as the Universal Creative Power, the All Pervading source of change within and identical to the changeless reality, Brahman. The Devi Mahatmya 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. The Devi Mahatmya asserts its faith that her Ultimate reality is really the ultimate; and it is not merely feminine.


Over the centuries, innumerable commentaries have been written on the Devi Mahatmya. Of these, the two are highly recognized; and, are very often quoted.

One;  The Nageshi  , is written by Nāgeśa Bhaṭṭa / Nāgoji Bhaṭṭa / Nāgoji Dīkita (1678-1755?) , a erudite scholar, grammarian and philosopher who is said to have  lived at a place , then  called as  Śṛṅgaverapura , in the upper region of the Ganga, near Vārāasī. He is described as the grandson of the famous Grammarian, Bhaṭṭoji Dīkita (late 16th–17th century), author of the Siddhānta-Kaumudī – a celebrated commentary on the Ashtadhyayi of Panini.  His text re-arranges the Sūtras of Pāini under appropriate heads; and, renders it easier to follow. The work was later edited in three (madhya, laghu and Sara) abridged versions (Laghu-kaumudi) by his student Varadarāja, reducing the number of rules to 723 (from 3,959 of Pāini).


The other is the Guptavati (implying the hidden knowledge or path), an authoritative commentary on the Devi Mahatmya, by Bhāskararāya Makhin (1690–1785-?), (Bhasuranantha Natha), son of Konnamamba and Gambhiraraya of Vishvamitra gotra, an encyclopaedic author (of about 52 works on a wide range of subjects); well versed in Vedic and Tantric traditions; the celebrated authority on the philosophy and practice of Tantra; and, especially on the Sri Vidya Upasana.  His writing is marked by refreshing directness and precision. Though his dates are rather uncertain, it is generally assumed that his writing-career lasted from the beginning of the 18th century, till about 1768.

The two scholars – Nāgoji Bhaṭṭa and Bhāskararāya – might perhaps have been contemporaries, sharing, for the most of their life, the same time-span. While Nāgoji Bhaṭṭa lived in the region of the Ganga on the North; Bhāskararāya, later in his life, settled down on the banks of the Cauvery in the South.

But, it appears that Bhaskararaya had his Upanayana in Varanasi. And, he also had his early education in Varanasi under the scholar Narasimha-dhvarin. There is also a mention of Bhaskararaya having participated in a debate conducted at Varanasi; and, also of having performed there the Soma Yajna and such other Yajnas. Further, a manuscript of Avaidika-adarśana-sagraha, a compendium ascribed to the great scholar Gaṅgādhara Vājapeyin, and preserved in the Sarasvati Mahal Library at Tanjore, is said to have been prepared by Bhāskararāya, who is described as the resident of Varanasi (likhitam etat kāśī –vāsi-Bhāskararāyea).

Further, by about the closing decades of the sixteenth century, Varanasi had developed into a powerful intellectual centre, drawing into its bosom erudite scholars, jurists, Grammarians etc., learned in various disciplines; and, also those who produced voluminous innovative texts of authority (niraya). Kashi, the city of lights, was the home of the Mother Annapurna, who sheltered and nurtured (annadātryā) aspiring, ardent students who came to her from every part of the subcontinent, right from its southern tip at Rama-sethu to the snowy slopes of the Himalayas-(āsetubandhataam ā ca tuāraśailād), seeking knowledge and freedom from delusion (Jnana-vairagya siddhartham).  It is, therefore, likely that in such an invigorating academic environment, where many scholars lived, thrived (āvasad asau vārāasīm ddhimān) and debated, the two intellectuals – Nāgoji Bhaṭṭa and Bhāskararāya – had met and interacted.

The Guptavati is said to have been completed by Bhaskararaya, in Pramoda-nama Saka Samvatsara 1797 (that is, about 1740-41 CE) , during the latter part of his life, while he was at Chidambaram. Further, Bhaskararaya has quoted in his Guptavati and Manjusha a work relating to Grammar, at least on two occasions, extracts from Nāgoji Bhaṭṭa’s commentary on the Devi Mahatmya. It would therefore, appear that Nāgoji Bhaṭṭa’s commentary was composed much earlier. And, it is also likely that Bhaskararaya might have been, slightly, the younger of the two.

Nāgoji Bhaṭṭa and Bhāskararāya were both Advaitins by tradition; and, were followers of Sri Shankaracharya Parampara, the non-dualist Advaita philosophy. And, both had enormous reverence towards the Jagadguru Sri Adi Sankaracharya.

tripurasundariBhāskararāya was a firm believer in the doctrine of Advaita (Advaita siddantha); and, was also proficient in all branches of learning. But, his religious philosophy was based in the Ratna-traya-prakshika of Sri Appayya Dikshita (1520–1593), which upheld the Shiva-Shakthi combine as the Absolute. Bhāskararāya, however, was essentially a Shakta following the Kaula-sampradaya. And yet, he frequently quoted from the works of Sri Sankara; and, revered him as the very incarnation of Sri Dakshinamurti, the Universal Teacher.

Though Nāgoji Bhaṭṭa and Bhāskararāya were both Advaitins, they differed in their orientation towards the Advaita doctrine. Nāgoji Bhaṭṭa, in his commentary on the Devi Mahatmya, adopted the Vivarta Vada of the Advaita School, in order to explain the emanation of the Devi and her varied forms. And, Bhāskararāya adopted the alternate view, that of the Parinama Vada (particularly, Shakthi Parinama Vada) , to explain the myriad forms of the Devi and Her manifestation in all the existence. It is said; their commentaries on the Devi Mahatmya are recognized by these two distinct approaches.


[The relation between the cause and effect is one of the basic problems discussed among the Indian thinkers.  And, in fact, the divisions among the Indian theories of causation are based on this factor.

To put it simply: There are two major theories of causation in the Indian philosophies. The one known as the A-satkarya-vada propounds that the effect exists independent of its cause. And, when something new occurs, it is distinctly different. It is a view held by the Buddhists and the Nyaya-Vaisesika School.

Against this position, the Satkarya-vada asserts that the effects pre-exist in their cause. The effect is nothing but the extension of the cause itself, albeit seen in different form and mode. This is the view held by the Schools of Advaita and Samkhya.

In other words: the argument, here, is that an effect either derives its essence from its cause; or, it does not. The Satkaryavada is the theory of the pre-existence of the effect in the cause; and, A-satkaryavada is the theory of the non-existence of the effect in the cause before its production.

The A-satkaryavada is divided into Arambhavada advocated by Nyaya-Vaisesika and the Mimamsa Schools; and the Patityasamutpada followed by Buddhism.

And, the main exponents of Satkaryavada were Samkhya-Yoga and Vedanta. The Jaina theory took a middle course, which   is often called as Sad-Asatkaryavada.

As regards the Satkaryavada, there are again two branches: Vivartavada and Parinamavada.

 (1) The Vivarta-vada regards the effect as the mere appearance (Vivarta) or a superimposition of the effect over the cause. This School argues that the ultimate reality is unchanging; and, all kinds of differences that one sees are only apparent and illusory. It is the view advocated by Kevala Advaita Vedanta followers of Sri Sankara.

The Vivarta Vada affirms that the changeless Brahman is the substratum (adhishthana), the primary cause of all existence; and, everything is pervaded by the Brahman. And, the Brahman, the Absolute, is indivisible; and, there is nothing outside Brahman. But, it says that in the relative world, the things might look diverse and distinct because of the effects of the Maya or the superimposition (Adhyasa) of the relative (vyavaharika) over the Absolute (para_marthika). Such apparent (vivarta) distinctions as one finds in the world are not real; but, are mere appearances. That is to say; the world that we know in our day-to-day experience (Vyavaharika) is only relatively real; and, it is subject to contradictions. It is only a make-believe appearance of the Absolute Reality (Paramarthika), which is infinite, beyond all distinctions and attributes (Guna). The appearance of the world as if it is distinct or real is a distortion or false apprehension of the Reality (Maya).

(2) The other, Parinamavada or Vikaravada, regards the effect as the actual transformation of the underlying cause. It believes that through a causal process, change actually occurs; and, the cause takes the shape of effect. That is to say; a cloth, in effect, is not different from its cause, the threads. This argument is advocated by Samkhya and Yoga.

The Samkhya School explains the process of evolution or unfolding of the primary cause, the Prakrti through the principle of Parinama Vada. The Tantra follows the Samkhya ideology.

A branch of the Vedanta School, which follows the Parinama Vada, is also based in the faith that an effect exists in its cause in un-manifested form before it is revealed. The effect is always related to its cause. Accordingly, the Brahman, the Ultimate reality, the substratum of all existence is the primary cause. The Universe as we experience is a transformation (Parinama) of that Brahman; and, it is real. While Brahman is the cause; the Universe, its transformation is the effect. And, the effect is as real as its cause.

According to this School, the primary cause potentially contains in it, all the effects as its Shakthi (power). At its will, the potential or the un-manifest (A-Vyakta) transforms into the manifest (Vyakta). Thus, what is called as creation is nothing but the manifestation of what was already present, in a seed-form, as un-manifest.  Thus, the world, as the effect, has arisen from the supreme Reality; and, it cannot be unreal.]


Thus, both the Vivarta Vada and the Parinama Vada subscribe to the view that Brahman is both the material and the efficient cause of the entire universe. And, from the Absolute point of perspective view there is nothing but Brahman; everything is Brahman. There is nothing outside the Omnipresent Brahman.

But,   there is a subtle metaphysical difference between the two points of view. And, it was only during the post-Sankara period of the Advaita Vedanta that   the dichotomy of the Vivarta and Parinama Vada came to fore.

Nagoji Bhatta followed the Advaita School, which asserted that all this existence is mere appearance (Vivarta) of the One as many; and, what we experience is the superimposition of the relative over the Absolute. 

Bhaskararaya, also an Advaitin, had the faith that there is but one Reality. But, as a follower of the Tantra, he adopted the Parinama-Vada which saw the effect as the transformation of the cause; and, as being real. In this respect he was closer to Samkhya.


However, Bhaskararaya took a broader view. Though he was mainly a follower of the Parinamavada, from the point of view of metaphysics, Bhaskararaya had immense respect for the Kevala-advaita of Sri Sankara Bhagavatpada.

In his Varivasya Rahasya, which in its 167 slokas discusses the worship-details according to the Shakta Agamas, Bhaskararaya expresses the view that tough there might be metaphysical difference between the two Schools; it would be foolish to treat them as opposing camps. They are just two points of view of the same Reality.

In all his works, Bhaskararaya invokes the blessings of Sri Sankara with deep reverence and devotion. He points out that Sri Sankara himself does not oppose Parinamavada , as he does not reject the effects as unreal (1.4.26 and 2.1.14); but, does speaks in favour of the Parinamavada in his Brahma Sutra Bhashya (praktiś ca pratijñā dṛṣṭāntā anuparodhāt: 1-4-23) and also in Saundaryalahari.  (According to Bhaskararaya, Saundaryalahari is a composition of Sri Sankara**; and, Parinamavada is at the heart of it – tvayi parinatayam (35), a recourse to meditation on Saguna-brahman). Further, Bhaskararaya, in his Varivasya Rahasya, does not oppose Vivarta Vada; and, agrees with the views expressed in `Vakya Shuddhi’, a work of  the Kevala-advaita School.

Thus, Bhāskararāya was endowed with a broader all-comprising vision of the Divinity. And, therefore, it might not be appropriate to pigeonhole him into a particular slot.

** sa jayati mahan prakasho yasmin druishte na druishyate kimapi |
kathamiva tasmin jnate sarvam vijnatamuchyate vede ||


Further, Bhaskararaya, as an ardent devotee of Sri Vidya, adopted the Shakthi Parinama Vada, which regards the Supreme Mother, the Shakthi as the Brahman, who transforms (Parinama) herself into manifold Universe. The Devi as Shakthi appears in her three fold appearance as Iccha (will), Kriya (action) and Jnana (knowledge). She is Tripura Sundari who is represented in her Sakara, the manifest form, as the Sri Chakra, protecting all who submit to her (sriyate sarvair iti).

The Devi is Tripureshwari, the Supreme ruler of the Universe. Here, Tripura denotes the totality (Samvit) of the Universe in its three-folds – Sthula (gross), Suksma (subtle) and Para (transcendent).

Bhaskararaya follows the dictum that any apparent diversity essentially pre-supposes an underlying unity (abedha-purvaka hi bhedah). Thus, for Bhaskararaya, the Samasti the aggregate and Vyasti the separate are essentially not different. They merely are the un-manifest (A-yaktha) and the manifest (Vyaktha) forms of the one Supreme Reality, the Devi. And, Her multiple forms should not be taken as secondary or diminished form of reality. The ultimate is ever the Ultimate.

She is the Absolute, unchanging and also evolving, at once. The Devi declares: My manifestation in creation is only another facet of my existence, which involves no duality, in the same way as waves surging up in the ocean remain the same water. Therefore, there is the faith that in whatever form a particular goddess appears, even if she is known by different names, it is in reality only her, the Supreme Śhakthi.

Bhaskararaya repeatedly asserts that all those varied forms represent the ‘true’ un-manifested ultimate reality of the Devi. All forms of the goddess are different avenues to her. He explains; such multiple manifestation of ultimate reality within the concrete and abstract realities is central to the Sri Vidya doctrine and its practice.

For instance ; in the Sri Vidya tradition, the other goddesses re regarded as the manifestations of  the  varied aspects of  the Supreme deity  , Lalitha Tripurasundari, the beneficent  (soumya), extraordinarily lovely (Lalitha)   Mother  who rules over all the three levels of existence in the Universe.

Thus, for Bhaskararaya, rooted in the Shakta philosophy and the Srividya, all the varied forms of the Goddess are but the diverse aspects and manifestations of the same Reality, the Devi. And, he recognizes the ultimate Reality, in its integrated form (Samasti), as the Mula Prakrti, Mahālakṣhmī or Chandi or Brahman, the One who transforms into many. He cites a line from Soundarya-lahari (97) and declares that ‘the deity named Chandi is the highest Brahman’; ‘She is the Queen through whom the crown is inherited’. From the Absolute unity, Mahālakṣhmī evolves into innumerable elements of the world as we perceive it.

The quoted verse prays that one may receive Devi’s grace, have the vision of her Supreme form, achieve self-realization, and enjoy the sweetness of Supreme Brahman, which She indeed is

girāmāhurdevī druhia- ghiī-māgamavido /  hare patnī padmā hara-sahacarī-madritanayām

turīyā kāpi tva duradhi-gamani-asīma-mahimā/  mahāmāyā viśva bhramayasi parabrahma-mahii 97


The   Tantra ideology asserts that the Chandi, the Brahman, is both One and many; the universe is an emanation of that sublime principle; and it is real, not Maya. The Tantra seeks to realize that truth which is already there. And, it regards action (karma) and knowledge (jnana) as complementing each other.  It believes that the best possible manner for attaining liberation (mukthi) is through the harmonious combination (samuchchaya) of knowledge (jnana) and action (karma) along with sincere dedication and devotion (Bhakti). The culmination of its practice (upasana) is the direct experience (Anubhava) of bliss (ananda) realizing one’s identity with the Supreme Goddess Mahadevi (pratyabhijna).

Though, at the outset, the Tantra adopts the duality of the Samkhya; yet, in its application , it attempts to reunite the dichotomy of the material and efficient elements. In contrast to the classical Samkhya-yoga model, in which the Yogi achieves isolation (Kevala) of Purusha, the Tantra attempts to reunite Purusha and Prakriti as Shiva and Shakthi. Here, the Shakthi is the Supreme Reality. She is One and many; pervading the universe in and out.  Thus Tantra recognizes (pratyabhijna) the unity of the creator and the creation.  That relation is symbolically represented by Sri Yantra.

The entire concept seems to follow a certain pattern:  of One (Brahman); two (Shiva and Shakthi); three (Sat, chit and ananda); and four (when all the three are absorbed in the fourth; which is reuniting of the individual adept and the Absolute). A similar pattern is laid out in Mandukya Upanishad where the three levels of consciousness culminate in the fourth, the Turiya. Similarly, the three levels of speech (Pashyanti, Madhyamā and Vaikhari) dissolve into the fourth state of the transcendent Para (Sabda Brahman)/


Chaṇḍī or Chaṇḍīka is the name by which the Supreme Goddess is referred to in Devi Mahatmya. Bhaskararaya, in his Guptavati, the commentary on the Devi Mahatmya, asserts that Devi as Chandika is indeed the Brahman, the Supreme non-dual reality. She is Samvit, the pure intelligence, which is self-luminous (Prakasha); and, is unaffected by the limitations of time, space and causality (Desha, Kaala, Karana). She is also Vimarsa, the unrestrained (Svatantrya) power of action (Shakthi).  The relation between these two principles is said to be like that of the lamp and its light; the knower and the known. Vimarsa is explained as the principle of ‘illumination’ (Prakasha) becoming aware of its own self (Ahamta).

The two aspects (Prakasha and Vimarsa) – Shiva and Shakthi – constitute one integral whole – the Para-Samvit, the Supreme essence of all existence, represented by Bindu, the dimensionless point. The Devi, Maha Tripura Sundari, as Samvitti (pure conscious energy), is symbolized by Bindu, in the ninth enclosure (Bindu-chakra Avarana or Sarva-ananda-maya chakra), at the heart of the Sri Chakra.

[The Bindu at the heart of the Sri Chakra is technically described in terms of three elements or qualities: Nada, Bindu and Kala. Here, Nada refers to the sound in its primordial sense, which is the un-articulated essence which precedes the three subsequent levels of speech- (Pashyanti, Madhyamā and Vaikhari). Nada is the supreme Para Vac, equated with the latent Sabda Brahman, which is the substratum of all sound-principles manifest in the universe.

As regards the Bindu, it is used in a variety of contexts, to indicate different types of forms and properties. When Bindu is mentioned in the context of the Nada, it generally, indicates the permanent or the static element that underlies the emerging form of sound. It is the basis for expansion (prapancha) that assumes the physical shape of sounds and the Beejaksharas of the Sri Chakra.

Kala is the third aspect of the Bindu at the centre of the Sri Chakra. It indicates the inherent capacity of the One to assume many forms.]


Bhaskararaya attempts to reconcile and harmonize various viewpoints of  Kevala Advaita; Parinamavada; Samkhya-Yoga; Tantra; and, Beda-abedha of Bhaskara, the Vedantin. The doctrine of Difference in identity (avikara-parinama-vada) believes that the creation, as it were, is the transformation (Parinama) of the Absolute Brahman; and again, the Absolute is both identical and different from the diverse universe (Bedha-abedha). Brahman is identical with the diverse manifest world, because it is both the material and efficient cause. And, it is different in as much as the world (prapancha), essentially, is the transformation of One into many.

In his Guptavati, Bhaskararaya brings together the dualism of the Samkhya with the non-dualism of the Advaita, by regarding the Devi as Prakrti and the Ultimate Reality which transforms into all this existence. The Goddess transcends dualism. The Guptavati teaches that the Goddess is at once, one and many. Everything is made of her; She is present in every particle; and, yet she is only one. Bhāskararāya writes of the Supreme divine – both as beyond this world, and also as manifest within it as a deity and the energy that propels it.


The Devi declares

I am of the nature of Brahman. From me this Universe, both void and non-void, is generated in form of Prakrti and Purusha.

Sabvarit Aham Brahma-svarupini / mattah prakrti-purusha-atmakanam jagat / sunyam ca sunyam //

I am both bliss and non-bliss. I am knowledge and non-knowledge. I am Brahma and non-Brahma. The five primordial principles and non-principles is myself. I am the whole perceived Universe.

Aham ananda-anandau / Aham vijnana- avijnanau / Aham Brama-abrahmani viditavye / Aham pancha –bhuta-anya-panchabhutani / Aham Akhilam jagat //

I am Veda (knowledge about Brahma) and non-knowledge. I am learning and ignorance. I am unborn and also born. I am up, down and in the middle.

vedo ̕hamavedo ̕ham vidyā aham avidyāham ajāham anajāham  adhaścord hva ca tiryakcāham 4

The secret teaching (Guptavati) of the Devi Mahatmya is that the Goddess pervades everything that exists; be it good or bad.  Because the reality is veiled by Māyā, we tend to perceive things as opposites: good and evil; sacred and profane; etc. But, the Truth is that there is no real duality – everything is Her.


Bhāskararāya, an Advaitin and also a Tantra Sadhaka, fuses the dualist representation with the monist principle.  He asserts that the absolute reality of the universe Brahman, as Mahālakṣhmī, evolves into many. He asserts that the Absolute Mahālakṣhmī can take the nature of Chaṇḍikā, as Chaṇḍikā-Mahālakṣhmī.

The Devi Mahatmya adores Mahālakṣhmī as Devi in her universal form as Shakthi, in highly abstract philosophical terms. She is the primordial energy (Prakrti), the primary cause (sarva-sadhya). She is both devoid of form (nirakara) and filled with forms (sakara).   She is beyond all forms and Gunas, but, assumes varied forms to create and operate the world. The Devi is Lakshya-alakshya-svarupini, the one with and also the one without the attributes. She is at once, immanent and transcendent. She is the form of the formless (Sunyasya-akara). She is both manifest (jadathmika) and un-manifest (Arupa). She is the essence of all things (Sarvamayi; 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 sustains the worlds (Jagad-dhatri). The universe is her sphere of activity (nityaiva sā jaganmūrtistayā sarvamida tatam).  Everything in the universe is a minute expression her inscrutable power (Yoga Maya). She is the ultimate goal of yoga. 

Thus, in the Devi Mahatmya, Mahālakṣhmī is the primordial aggregate energy (Samasti) manifesting in distinct terms (Vyasti) as Maha-Sarasvathi, Mahālakṣhmī and Maha-Kali.

According to Bhaskararaya, Chaṇḍikā-Mahālakṣhmī, the Absolute principle, verily, is devoid of form (nirakara); not ordinarily perceptible (alakshya); and , without attributes (nirguna) ; yet, she is characterized by the three Gunas (triguna); and , she pervades through her three representations (avatars).

Bhāskararāya explains: the Absolute, Mahālakṣhmī, can take the nature of Chaṇḍikā. And, the Chaṇḍikā – Mahālakṣhmī, the primordial energy, the Turiya (the highest or the fourth), assumes those three distinct forms. And, each is identified with a Guna (tendency): Mahālakṣhmī (rajas), Mahākālī (tamas) and Mahāsarasvatī (sattva).  And, She appears as three aspects of existence as Sat-Chit-Ananda, the reality, consciousness and experience. Although they are represented as three distinct images, they are virtually one (a-bhinna); and, this is true not only for the three Goddesses, but also for all other forms of the Maha Devi, the Supreme Goddess.

In the Sri Vidya tradition, the Bija (seed) Mantra Hrim, equivalent to the Pranava Om, represents the Supreme reality, the Great Goddess. It is said; just as the tree, the flowers, and the fruit, emerge from the seed, so also do the three different aspects of the Devi-namely; Mahākālī, Mahālakṣhmī, and Mahāsarasvatī – emerge from the Maha Bija mantra , Hrim.

According to Bhāskararāya, at one level, Mahālakṣhmī is the highest Brahman. On the second level, Mahālakṣhmī is the deity Chaṇḍikā manifesting the Guas. Then, on the third level, there is a Mahālakṣhmī as one of the three aggregate forms (i.e. one of the Guas).

As Sat, Mahālakṣhmī is the power of coordination (sandhini). She is Vama, the left aspect, who is the power of action (kriya) that is causation. She is Lakshmi goddess of plenty, and fortune.

As Chit Mahālakṣhmī is the power of understanding (samvit). She is the power of will (iccha), and of the flow knowledge. She is Sarasvathi, the goddess of learning.

As Ananda, Mahālakṣhmī is the power of delight (ahladini-shakthi). She is the fierce (Raudri). She is the power of cognition, of realization, of transcendent knowledge; and the destroyer of illusions. She is also Durga, the one beyond reach.

The Creation arises from Her triple form of Shakthi; the trinity Brahma, Vishnu and Rudra took shape to create, preserve and dissolve the universe.


In the next part we shall talk of the mantra aspect, with particular reference to the Devi Mahatmya and the Navarna mantra.

Durga Killing the Buffalo Demon, 19th century

lotus offering




The part Two

Sources and References

The Secret of the Three Cities: An Introduction to Hindu Sakta Tantrism



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Posted by on February 26, 2018 in Devi, Guptavati, Tantra


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Saptamatrka – Part One – Devi


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.

goddess_maha_shakti_hi49 (1)


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.

Devi Mahatmya

Manuscript of the Devimahatmya

[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.

[ Please do read the detailed analysis of the Devi Mahatmya : The Glory of the Goddess-Devi Mahatmyam by Dr. Satya Prakash Choudhary ]

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 SaptasatiDurgapathaChandi, 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 centered 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 thirteen chapters of the Devi Mahatmya, the Chandi, are grouped into three sections comprising of three major episodes (caritras), each one describing the glory of one of the three different aspects of the Supreme Goddess; the three Goddesses identified as Maha-Kali, Mahālakṣhmī and Maha-Sarasvathi. The three forms of the Devi correspond to three Gunas: Maha-Sarasvathi (Sattva), Mahālakṣhmī (Rajas) and Maha-Kali (Tamas). Although they are represented as three distinct images, they are virtually one; and, this is true not only for the three Goddesses, but also for all other forms of the  Maha Devi , the Supreme Goddess.

[**There are 537 Sloka mantras (full Slokas); 38 Ardha-sloka mantras (half Slokas); 66 khanda mantras (part of a Sloka); 57 Uvacha mantras; and, 2 Punarukta mantras, totalling 700 altogether. The number 700 is thus not related to the number of verses, but indicates the total number of mantras in the Devi Mahatmya. Though the details of the breakup of the mantras is not important for simple recitation, these details are important for Chandi Homa, Japa and Archana.]


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. ]

The text of the Devi Mahatmya also celebrates the glory and splendour of the auspicious Devi in four sublime hymns. Bhaskararaya Makhin (18th century) regards these hymns as Sruti-s (revealed wisdom), the exalted revealed (Drsta) knowledge, equalling the Vedas, than as made, the Krta.

The four hymns are: Brahma-stuti (DM. 1.73-87) starting with tvaṃ svāhā tvaṃ svadhā tvaṃ hi vaṣaṭkāraḥ svarātmikā; the Sakaradi-stuti (DM.4.2-27) starting with śakrādayaḥ suragaṇā nihate’tivīrye; the Aparajita –stuti (DM.5.9-82) starting with namo devyai mahādevyai śivāyai satataṃ nama ; and, the Narayani-stuti (DM.11. 3-35) starting with devi prapannārtihare prasīda. These hymns describe the nature and character of the Goddess in spiritual terms:

The Brahma-stuti (DM.1.73-87) also known as the Tantrika Ratri Suktam, establishes the Divine Mother’s ultimate transcendence and her identity her as the creator and sustainer and the dissolver of the Universe. She is all compassing source of the good and the evil, alike; both radiant splendour and terrifying darkness. And yet, she ultimately is the ineffable bliss beyond all duality.

In the longest and most eloquent of the Devi Mahatmya’s four hymns, richly detailed Sakaradi-stuti (DM.4.3-27) Indra and other gods praise Durga’s supremacy and transcendence. Her purpose is to preserve the moral order, and to that end she appears as ’good fortune in the dwelling of the virtuous; and, misfortune in the house of the wicked’, granting abundant blessings and subduing misconduct (DM.4.5). ‘Every intent on benevolence towards all’ (sarvo-upakāra-karaṇāya sadārdracittā DM.4.17), she reveals even her vast destructive power as ultimately compassionate, for in slaying those enemies of the world who ‘may have committed enough evil to keep them long in torment’ (kurvantu nāma narakāya cirāya pāpam – DM.4.18) , she redeems them with the purifying touch of her weapons so that they ‘may attain the higher worlds’ (lokānprayāntu ripavo’pi hi śastrapūtā/ itthaṃ matirbhavati teṣvahiteṣusādhvī –DM.4.19).

The Devas , distressed that the Asuras have re-grouped and once again overturned the world-order , invoke the Devi in a magnificent hymn , the Aparajita-stuti or Tantrika Devi Suktam, the twenty slokas beginning with ‘ya devi sarva bhuteshu , praise to the invincible Goddess , which celebrates her immanent presence in the Universe as the consciousness that manifests in all beings (yā devī sarvabhūteṣu cetanetyabhidhīyate) . Thereupon the Devi appears on the banks of the Ganga. Her radiant manifestation emerging from the body of Parvathi embodies the Guna of Sattva, the pure energy of light and peace. Later, She takes on multiple and varied forms in the course of the battle with the Asuras.

The final hymn, the Narayani-stuti (DM.11.3-35) lauds the Devi in her universal, omnipresent aspect and also in the diverse expressions of her powers .Thereupon, the Devi  assures to protect all existence and to intervene whenever evil arises.

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 Shaktas  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 unmanifest; She is the essence of all things (sarva sattva mayi). She creates and governs all existence (Isvari), and is known by various names (nana-abhidhana-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.

The Rishi sumits to the Supreme Goddess  Chaṇḍikā : Oh Devi of incomparable greatness and power ; who cannot be described even by Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva , protect all the beings in  the entire world and  destroy the fear of evil (DM.4.4)

yasyāḥ prabhāva matulaṃ bhagavān ananto / brahmā haraśca na hi vaktumalaṃ balaṃ ca।  sā caṇḍikā akhila jagat paripālanāya / nāśāya cāśubha bhayasya matiṃ karotu ॥ 4.4


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. She , indeed,  is Brahman. 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 halfof 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.The Devi declares that since Kali presented her with the heads of these two demons, she would henceforth be renowned in the world as Chamunda.Thereafter in the text, Kali and Chamunda become synonyms. Kali and the group of Matrkas destroy the forces of the demons Shumba and Nishumba.

Yasmāc-caṇḍaṃ ca muṇḍaṃ ca gṛhītvā tvamupāgatā । cāmuṇḍeti tato loke khyātā devī bhaviṣyasi7.27

[ Bhaskararaya Makhin  in his commentary interprets Chamunda as : ‘chamum, ‘army’ and lati, ‘eats’; meaning  that Chamunda is literally ‘she who eats armies’—a  reference to Kali as Chamunda who drinks the blood-army of the demon Raktabija.]

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 vile one? See that these goddesses are my own powers entering into myself.”

ekaivāhaṃ jagatyatra dvitīyā kā mamāparā । paśyaitā duṣṭa mayyeva viśantyo madvibhūtayaḥ ॥ 5॥ 

4.3. In the final battle against Shumba, Devi absorbs into herself Kali, the Matrkas as also the countless others, and stands supremely alone . 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; 5-6)

tataḥ samastāstā devyo brahmāṇīpramukhā layam । tasyā devyāstanau jagmurekaivāsīttadāmbikā ॥ 6॥

ahaṃ vibhūtyā bahubhiriha rūpairyadāsthitā । tatsaṃhṛtaṃ mayaikaiva tiṣṭhāmyājau sthiro bhava ॥ 8॥

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, which occurs in the tenth Mandala 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”.

[  Please click here for the rendering of Devi Sukta]

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).

tataḥ kruddhā jaganmātā caṇḍikā pānamuttamam । papau punaḥ punaś caiva jahās āruṇa locanā ॥ 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, Chamunda 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.

7.5. Devadatta Kāli who has translated the Devi Mahatmya’ with dignity and eloquence befitting a sacred text  ‘, writes :  even Sixteen centuries after its composition, the Devi Mahatmya still shines as a beacon from a primordial age when men and women , enchanted by nature’s beauty and abundance , yet terrified by its fierce , destructive power , honoured the source of creation as the Great Mother….Even today, the great hymn of praise that is the Devi Mahatmya reveals to us an all-embracing vision of harmony between the Mahadevi’s abiding earthly presence and transcendental unity proclaimed by the seers of the ancient India.


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 Brilliancevisualizes 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.]

[ Dr. Satya Prakash Choudhary explains:

At one level the Devi Mahatmya chronicles the battle between the Devi and the Asuras. At another level it deals with the battle of life. At yet another level it deals with the inner battle between the divine and the demoniac forces within the human psyche, between the positive and negative.

The battlegrounds represent our own human consciousness, and its events symbolize our own experiences. The demons are symbolic of the psychic forces within the shadow. They represent all the evils in the external world that have been internalized. Whatever has been internalised in turn again manifests externally in our life.

The Divine Mother is our own true being, our inherent divinity and wholeness. Her clashes with the demons symbolize the outward and inward struggles we face daily. The Devi, personified simultaneously as the one supreme Goddess and also the many goddesses, confronts the demons of ahamkara or ego (our mistaken notion of who we are or what we identify ourselves with), of excessive tamas and rajas, that in turn give birth to other demons of excessive craving, greed, anger and pride, and of incessant citta vrttis (compulsive inner thought processes springing from past karmic residue).

In the ultimate sense, the dichotomy between the bad and the good is also a false one. There is no duality. Both are part of one single paradoxical reality. The text drives home this truth so beautifully.]

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 HarperEdwin 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


Posted by on October 6, 2012 in Devi, Saptamatrka


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Dasha Mahavidya – Part One – Introduction

The Beginnings

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.

The origin

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.

Kala one who consumes all

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.

Next:Part Two

– 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

8. The Mahavidya: the powers of consciousness conceptualized by Devadatta kali

9. Wisdom Goddesses: Mahavidyas and the Assertion of Femininity in Indian Thought

10 .Dus Mahavidya

The picture are taken from internet


Posted by on October 5, 2012 in Mahavidya


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