Kali, Tara and Tripura Sundari
I. Mahavidya Kali
20.1. Kali is Adi Mahavidya, the primary Mahavidya. She is the first and the foremost among the Mahavidyas. Even before the Mahavidya cult came into being, she was a major goddess with a large following of devotees immersed in her mythologies, hymns and songs. She is not only the first but is also 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 and degrees.
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. The Saktisamgama-tantra says, “All the Mahavidyas, the Siddhi-vidyas, the Vidyas, and the Upa-vidyas, are different forms that Kali assumes ”. She is the exemplary Mahavidya; she alone symbolizes the fully awakened consciousness; and, she alone reveals the ultimate truth.
20.2 It is believed; the name kali first appears in the Mundakopanishad (kālī karālī– MU.1.2.4) where Kali along with Karali is one of the seven flaming tongues (lelayamana sapta jihva) of Agni. In a way, Kali is the Shakti of Agni, which has the power to transform matter into energy , symbol of life (as heat and light). Kali, the destroyer, like Agni, dissolves the material world back into undifferentiated energy, the Shakthi. And the same verse in the Mundakopanishad, names another tongue of Agni as Karali (formidable, terrible).
Bhadra-Kali, as an auspicious goddess, first appears in the Kathaka Grihya-sutra, an Agama text of the late Vedic period (followed by kathaka shakha of krishna yajur veda), where She is invoked – along with Agni, Soma, Indra, Skanda, Rudra and Shasti – with offerings of perfumes (sugandha) during the marriage ceremony.
Kali also appears towards the end of Mahabharata , when Asvatthama’s brutal assault on the fast asleep children of the Pandavas is seen as the work of kali ‘of bloody mouth and eyes, smeared with blood and adorned with garlands .. holding a noose in her hand ‘. She is kala-ratri , the night of death .
The name Kali, appears in Devi Mahatmya fourteen times, all of that in the third episode. The first of these is when the Goddess, seeing that Chanda and Munda had returned to engage her in a battle, She bristling with anger, her face becoming black as the ink (masi-varnam) , emits from her furrowed brows the Kali of terrible countenance wielding sword and a snare in hand.
The exceedingly frightening appearance of kali is described as having : wide open mouth ; terrifying lolling tongue; dried-out skin; sunken reddish eyes ; hideously roaring; carrying many-coloured skull-topped staff, wearing a garland of skulls; adorned with a garment of tiger-skin etc.
tataḥ kopaṃ cakāroccair-ambikā tānarīnprati । kopena cāsyā vadanaṃ maṣīvarṇam-abhūttadā ॥ 7.5॥
bhru-kuṭī-kuṭilā-ttasyā lalāṭa-phalakā-ddrutam । kālī karāla-vadanā viniṣ-krāntā-sipāśinī ॥ 7. 6॥
The next episode follows after Kali beheaded Chanda and Munda. 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 ). Thereafter in the text, Kali and Chamunda become synonyms.
Yasmāc-caṇḍaṃ ca muṇḍaṃ ca gṛhītvā tvamupāgatā । cāmuṇḍeti tato loke khyātā devī bhaviṣyasi ॥ 7.27
The name Karali appears twice in the final hymn to describe Kali’s terrifying mouth with protruding teeth (daṃṣṭrā- karāla vadane – 11.21) and Bhadrakali’s flaming trident (jvālā-karālam-atyugra-maśeṣ-āsura-sūdanam – 11.26).
Later, during the 17th and 18th centuries, the Tantric devotee-poets of Bengal, such as Ramaprasad and kamalakantha, envisioned Kali as the beautiful, loving Universal Mother, a most enchanting representation of the Supreme Reality. It was, of course, Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa that fully realized the Guna and Nirguna forms of the Great Mother.
20.3. Mahavidyas are symbols of female independence; and, Kali demonstrates that freedom with great abandon. She is never depicted as a submissive consort luring with charm. She is always dominant, striding on the male with a destructive frenzy. She challenges and demolishes the conventional notions about looks, manners and the limited ways of understanding things.
21.1. It is explained that Kali manifests in countless ways. But, some aspects of her are more common than others. There are therefore varied descriptions of Kali. Each Tantric and Shakta tradition pictures her in its own light. But all sources tend to agree on her prominent characteristics.
Who is this terrible Woman, dark as the sky at midnight?
Who is this Woman dancing over the field of battle,
Like a blue lotus that floats on a crimson sea of blood?
Who is She, clad alone in the Infinite for a garment,
Rolling Her three great eyes in frenzy and savage fury?
Under the weight of Her tread the earth itself is trembling!
Shiva, Her mighty Husband, who wields the fearful trident,
Lies like a lifeless corpse beneath Her conquering feet
Kali is almost always regarded as being dark like the starlit night, with a dreadful appearance, having four arms, holding a bloodied cleaver and a severed head in her left hands, while her right hands gesture blessings (varadamudra) and reassurance (abhayamudra). She is depicted with three eyes, white teeth, garland of fifty human skulls and a girdle of seven severed human hands. Her limbs are adorned with various ornaments. Her tongue hangs out. Her laughter is most fearful. Kali who dwells in funeral pyres stands upon the corpse of a male. She is the auspicious divinity truly worthy of meditation.
21.2. Tantric text Brahma Yamala describes three forms of Kali – Dakshina (Sattva), Vama (Tamas ), and Madhyama (Rajas). Dakshina – Kali is characterized by Sattva and is pure and pristine, while the Madhyama is mixed (Rajas) and Vama is impure (Tamas).
As Dakshinakali, Kali is portrayed in her benign form as young and beautiful; gently smiling; standing with her right foot on the supine, ash-besmeared body of Siva, who looks up at her adoringly.
Kali in her merciful form is protective, benevolent and a loving Mother who liberates her children. Daksinakali is the most popular form of Kali.
Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa envisioned Kali, his chosen deity, as the love that exists at the very heart of life; and , that which endures through both life and death. Kali, he said, appears fearful only when approached through relative forms of existence and through worldly attachments. But, when one lets his identities dissolve in the submission to her out of absolute faith and love, she appears as the very fountain of joy.
Who is there that can understand what Mother Kali is?
Even the six Darsanas are powerless to reveal Her.
It is She, the scriptures say, that is the Inner Self
Of the yogi, who in Self discovers all his joy;
She that, of Her own sweet will, inhabits every living thing
21.3. Kali is the Supreme Goddess resolving and harmonizing the contrasting attributes of creation and dissolution . She is the very essence of every existence.All the dualities of life, the light and the dark, the beautiful and the fearsome, are united and reconciled in Kali.
Kali is the symbol of eternal time (Kaala) she presides over all stages of the life. Kali is consciousness in motion—the overflowing joy that projects, sustains, and withdraws the universe. And her destruction has a dual aspect; she gives birth to new life as the old one fades away in the darkness of death.
Iconography and symbolism
22.1. Kali is portrayed mostly in two forms: the popular four-armed form and the ten-armed Mahakali form .She is being described as being black or deep blue. The iconography of Kali is rich in symbolisms. It is said, Kali ‘picture is filled with awe-inspiring symbols, but they are not what they appear to be; and their real meaning is in their esoteric significance.
22.2. She is dark like mountains of collyrium. Her Black does not mean absence of color; but the absorption of all colours. It also suggests her immense power of attraction which draws the entire existence into itself. All colours reside in her. In Kali all colors dissolve. All shapes return to shapelessness, dissolved in the all pervading darkness of the eternal night. Her dark color is the ultimate reality in which all distinctions disappear.
Is my Mother, Shyama , dark?
The world says Kali is dark; but my mind says
No, she is not dark.
The black form is her sky-clad appearance illuminating the lotus of my heart,
Sometimes she is pure white, sometimes golden, sometimes blue or red;
I have never known such a Mother before; my life passes in her contemplation
Sometimes she is Purusha, sometimes she Prakriti, sometimes she is Formlessness itself;
Reflecting on these many moods of Mother, Kamalakanta simply loses his mind.
— Kamalakanta Bhattacharya (c. 1769–1821)
22.3. Naked, clad by space, the Digambari is resplendent in her nakedness. She is unrestrained and boundlessness; free from all limitations and all illusions. She is beyond name (nama) and form (rupa) and all conditional existence. Kali’s nakedness signifies her absolute (nirguna) nature.
22.4. Her three eyes govern the three forces of creation, preservation and destruction. They are also said to represent the sun, moon, and fire; the three modes of time (kaala): past, present and future which she governs.
22.5. Her garland of fifty human heads is said to represent the fifty letters of the Sanskrit alphabet (varnamala), as also the power of her mantra, symbolizing her as the repository of power and all knowledge. The girdle of the seven severed human arms that circles her waist is said to represent the versatility and the freedom of choice inherent in all beings.
22.6. Her laughter is the expression of her absolute domination over all existence. It mocks at those who in folly of their vanity try to oppose her.
22.7. Kali’s four arms represent the complete circle of creation and destruction, which is contained within her. Her two right hands dispel fear (abhaya) and bestow boons (varada); assuring salvation. She holds out the promise of transformation. With her sword she cuts the knots of doubts (samshaya) and eight types of delusions and negative traits (hatred, doubt, fear, shame, back-biting, conformity, arrogance and status consciousness – Kularnava Tantra). It is also the sword of wisdom and discrimination (viveka) that cuts through ignorance and destroys falsehood. The freshly severed head of a demon dangling from her left hand is the small ego, the false identities, the crippling limitations that bind human thinking.
23.1. In the hierarchy of manifestations, Kali stands at the highest, the most abstract aspect of divinity. All the dualities of life, the light and the dark, the beautiful and the fearsome, are united and reconciled in Kali. To reach her one has to abandon all prejudices, inhibitions; and discard all attachments, even the attachments to ideas and concepts.
Kali Kali Mahakali Kalike Papanasini
Kreem Kreem Kreem Hum Hum Hreem Hreem Dakshine Kaalika
II. Mahavidya –Tara
24.1. In the group of the Mahavidyas, Tara comes next to Kali. Tara closely resembles Kali in appearance. And just as Kali, Tara too displays gentle (saumya) or fierce (ugra) aspects. She was a prominent goddess well before the Mahavidya cult came into being. Tara has a much wider presence outside the Mahavidya periphery, especially in the Tantric traditions of both Hinduism and Tibetan Buddhism. The Tantra regards Tara as potent as Kali. Tara also figures in Jainism. In the Vaishnava lore Tara was one of the goddess who fought along with Durga to defeat the thousand-headed Ravana.
24.2. In all the three traditions, Tara the blue goddess is a guide and a protector; and helps to tide over the stormy sea of troubles and turmoil of life (Samsara-tarini). She is Tarini, deliverer or saviour; one who saves guides and transports to salvation. Tara is the deity of accomplishments and is often propitiated by business persons for success.
24.3. Tara is associated with the speaking prowess. And, some texts equate Tara to Sarasvathi the goddess of learning; and call her Neela (blue) Sarasvathi seated on a lotus. As she is the goddess of speech, she is related to breathe that manifests sound. Breath is the primal sound of life. Breath in which the sound originates is the carrier (transporter –Tarini) of knowledge conveyed through the sound of speech. Tara is the un-manifest speech that resides in breath and consciousness.
24.4. In the Buddhist tradition, Tara is the common name applied to a large number of feminine deities of its pantheon, who embody many adorable virtues of the feminine principle. It is said; those benign deities are named Tara (Tarini) because they rescue (trayate) us from the eight outer fears (i.e. the fears of lions, elephants, fire, snakes, thieves, water, bondage, and evil spirits) ; as also from the eight inner fears (i.e. he fears of pride, ignorance, anger, jealousy, wrong views, attachment, miserliness, and deluded doubts).
Hence, Tara, in Tibetan branch of Vajrayana Buddhism, is worshiped as the Mother of Mercy and Compassion. Tara, here, is understood as reflecting certain aspects and metaphors of Buddhist virtues symbolized by Bodhisattva.
The Sadhanamala, a highly specialized Buddhist tantric text, is a collection of Dhyana slokas (composed perhaps between the 5th and the 11th century), which deals with the Vajrayana Buddhist Tantric meditative practices; and , it provides detailed instructions on how the images of 312 Buddhist deities are to be visualized and invoked; each with its appropriate Mantra . The descriptions are meant to aid meditation; and, also to serve as a practical guide to the sculptors and painters. It enables the practitioner to visualize the nature, disposition, virtues and detailed iconographic features of a deity.
Green Tara is one of the most beloved figures in Tibetan Buddhism. As a Bodhisattva, she has sympathy for all beings, as a mother does for her children. She helps people pass beyond the troubles of earthly existence and move toward enlightenment. She also protects people from numerous worldly dangers.
The Sadhanamala describes ten different types of Green Taras. Each Tara is distinguished from the other , based of her symbolism, appearance, Mudra, and iconography.
Khadiravani Tara; Mahasri Tara; Vasya Tara; Arya Tara ; Mahattari Tara; Varada Tara; Durgottarini Tara ; Dhanada Tara; Jahguli Tara; and , Parnasaban Tara
[For more on Green Tara, please check here]
Khadiravani Tara is commonly described as Shyama Tara, because of her dark green complexion. She is of the nature of green light. Her face is very peaceful; lighted with a slight smile. Her eyes, very loving and compassionate, are not opened wide; but, are fine and a little rounded. Tara’s eyes express compassion, loving kindness that a mother gives her beloved only child. Her hair is very dark, half tied up and half loose, and decorated with an Utpala (dark blue lotus) flower at the crown. Tara is adorned with various kinds of ornaments; such as: necklaces, bracelets, armlets, anklets, and so on.
Khadiravani Tara, through her right hand gestures Varada Mudra, granting sublime realization. Her left hand holds the stem of another utpala flower, with three fingers standing upright to signify refuge in Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha.
Mahasri Tara is represented as seated on a golden throne, over the seat of moon, covered with many kinds of flowers (such as: Asoka, Champaka, Nagesvara and Parijata), displaying the Vyakhyana Mudra, imparting instructions. She is decked with ornaments and crown bearing the insignia of Amoghasiddhi.
24.5. In contrast to the Buddhist Tara who is described as a benevolent, compassionate, gentle and spirited young woman, eager to help and to protect, Tara as Mahavidya is a rather fearsome goddess striking terror. She is also moody and harmful. But at times, Tara-Mahavidya can also be benevolent and compassionate.
25.1. Tara is described as seated in the pratyalidha asana on the chest of a corpse stretched on a white lotus; she is supreme and laughing horribly; holding cleaver, blue lotus, dagger and bowl; uttering the mantra Hum. She is of deep blue colour; her hair is braided with serpents, she is the Ugra-Tara. Her tongue is always moving. Her forehead is decorated with ornaments made of bones. She bestows magical powers. A noticeable feature of Tara’s iconography is the halo of light that surrounds her head. And, rising above her head is the ten headed serpent Akshobhya (the unperturbed or unshakable) symbolizing her yogic powers.
25.2. Between Kali and Tara there are some similarities as also some differences. As said earlier, Tara’s physical appearance resembles that of Kali. Like Kali, she has three bright red eyes; has four hands holding sword or head chopper, a scissors, a severed head and a lotus; wears the garland of skulls; is richly is bejeweled and has snakes for ornaments; dances on a corpse. Both Kali and Tara are strongly associated with death and dissolution; both stand upon inert male figure. And, both are associated with Shiva. Brahad-dharma purana mentions Tara as representing time, just as does Kali. Whereas Kali is the power of time (kala) that inexorably causes all created things to perish, Tara is associated with fire, and particularly the fires of the cremation ground.
25.3. There are also differences in the depiction of the two goddesses. Tara’s complexion is blue whereas Kali’s can be black or deep blue. Tara holds a bowl made from a scull in one hand, a pair of scissors in another, a blue lotus in the third hand and an axe in the fourth. The scissors and sword in the hands of Tara are tools to remove the ego, the sense of mistaken identity that defines, limits, and binds. They are not weapons of death and destruction. Tara is draped in tiger skin around her waist; and is not naked unlike Kali who symbolizes absolute freedom. Unlike Kali, whose hair flows loose and wild, Tara’s hair of tawny color is carefully bunched into a topknot (jata). Whereas Kali’s hair represents absolute freedom from constraint, Tara’s is a symbol of yogic asceticism and restraint. Kali represents the highest form of wisdom or liberating knowledge; and Tara is related to the discipline of yogic practices.
Pratyalidhapade Ghore Mundalamala Pasovite
Kharve Lambodari Bhime Ughratara Namostu Te
Om Hreem Streem Hum Phat
III. Mahavidya –Tripura Sundari
26.1. Tripura Sundari (she who is most beautiful in all the three worlds) also known as Sodasi (the girl of sixteen) is usually listed as the third Mahavidya following Kali and Tara .Tripura Sundari is one of the Adi (primary)Mahavidyas .She was a well known Tantric deity even before she was grouped with the Mahavidyas. The goddess is depicted in three forms: Tripura Bala (the young virgin; Tripura Sundari (the beautiful) and Tripura Bhairavi (the terrible).The last mentioned aspect – Tripura Bhairavi – is emphasized in the Mahavidya cult. While, her other two aspects are central to the Sri Vidya tradition rooted in the worship of Sri Chakra.
In Sri Vidya, Tripura Sundari is celebrated as Lalitha, Rajarajeshwari, Kameshwari and Mahatripura Sundari the most magnificent transcendental beauty without a comparison in three worlds, the conqueror of three levels of existence. Each of these forms emphasizes a particular quality or function. In Sri Vidya, the Goddess is worshiped in her benign (saumya) and beautiful (soundarya) aspects, following the Sri Kula (family of Sri) tradition (sampradaya). Sri Vidya is still flourishing, particularly in South India.
26.2. It is said; Sundari as Sodasi of sixteen years is at a delightful stage of a woman’s life. Her nature is to play, to seek new experiences, and to charm others to her. Her innocence attracts all towards her .The other explanations mention: she is called Sodasi because the mantra of her Vidya is composed of sixteen seed syllables (bija-akshara: ka e i la hrim; ha sa ka ha la hrim; sa ka la hrim; and srim). Another explanation sates that the number sixteen is also associated with sixteen her individualized aspects, kalas or sixteen phases of moon (Shodasha kalaa). And, therefore this Vidya is also known as Chandra-kala- vidya, the wisdom of the lunar digits. The Bija-aksharas are invoked as forms of the Mother goddess. But, in the Mahavidya cult, Sodasi is also seen as the embodiment of sixteen modification of desire.
26.3. As regards Tripura Sundari, three is her dominant number. Her name is taken to mean: “she who is beautiful in the three worlds” or “she whose beauty transcends the three worlds”. She is Trividha Shakthi : Baala, Sundari and Bhairavi. The three cities (tri-pura) symbolize body, mind and consciousness. The triangle is the main motif of Tripura Sundari carrying various symbolisms: three fold process of creation, preservation and destruction; the three syllables of her mantra; three gunas and three colours; three states of awareness etc
27.1. It is explained that Mahavidyas as a group belong to the Kali-kula (family of Kali) as Kali is the most prominent Mahavidya. Kali-kula generally is opposed to the conservative Brahmanical tradition, which ‘denies the experience of the Goddess’. Kali –kula is aligned to Shakta mode of worship. Further, some aspects and dispositions of Kali, the Adi Mahavidya, are shared by all the other Mahavidyas. For these reasons, Tripura Sundari, though she basically belongs to Sri-kula, as Mahavidya (Tripura Bhairavi), displays traces of aggression (ugra) and horror (ghora). The Mahavidya Tripura Sundari (Bhairavi) is described as timeless youth, beautiful but frowning rather angrily. The Mahavidya text Sodasi- tantra –shastra describes her, at places, as ‘frightening, wild and perhaps dangerous’. The most unusual depiction of Tripura Sundari appears in the Vamakeshwara-tantrawhere she is smeared with ashes, wears tiger skin, ties her hair in a knot over the top of her head as a jata, carries a skull; and holds a snake, a trident and a drum. She has a large bull as her vehicle.
27.2. Tripura Sundari as Mahavidya combines in herself the determination of Kali, the knowledge of Tara; and her own beauty and grace. And, following the core ideology of the Mahavidyas, Tripura Sundari, like Kali and Tara, exercises her domination over the male. She sits on the chest of Shiva, while the four major gods support her throne as its legs.
Though Tripura Sundari is an Adi (primordial) Mahavidya, she is not regarded as representing the highest state or absolute of reality (as Kali does). But, she represents a relative state of consciousness characterized by “I am this” (aham idam).She is related to yoga and heightened awareness (consciousness).
28.1. Tripura Sundari is glowing like rising sun spreading delights of joy, compassion and knowledge. She is depicted as a beautiful young girl of sixteen, of red and golden complexion, having four arms holding a noose, a goad, a sugarcane bow, and five flower arrows. She is richly adorned with ornaments. She is sometimes shown seated on a lotus emerging out of the navel of Shiva, who is reclining below her. At other times she is seated on the chest of reclining Shiva or sitting on the lap of Shiva (Kameshwara). They are on a pedestal supported by the gods Brahma, Vishnu, Rudra, and Indra. An aura of royalty distinguishes her demeanour and her attributes.
28.2. As regards the symbolisms associated with the ayudhas she holds: the noose symbolizes attachment, the goad signifies repulsion, the sugarcane bow is like the mind and the arrows are the five sense objects .The other explanation says: the noose indicates the captivating power of beauty ;goad , the ability to dissociate from attachments; the bow , the mind (manas);and the five flower arrows, represent the five senses (jnanendriyas).The reclining Shiva represents dormant consciousness Sadashiva tattva (the ever auspicious but inert principle of consciousness) ; and Tripura Sundari is Shakthi.
Devadatta Kali explains : The four legs of Tripurasundari’s throne are the gods Brahma, Visnu, Rudra, and Mahesvara. Brahma is the power of creation or cosmic emanation (srishti); Visnu, of cosmic maintenance (sthiti); Rudra, of destruction, dissolution, or withdrawal (samhara). In a distinctively Tantric addition to this threefold activity, Mahesvara symbolizes the divine power of concealment (nigraha). When the nondual reality makes manifest the finite many, the infinite One becomes hidden from our awareness. Conversely, Siva, in the form of Sadasiva, is the power of self-revelation (anugraha), also known as divine grace. When we go beyond the appearances and division of name and form, we again experience the ineffable divine unity that is our true being. These five deities—Brahma, Visnu, Rudra, Mahesvara, and Sadasiva—represent Tripurasundari’s five divine activities (pancakritya).
In the Sakta Tantra, it is Mother who is supreme, and the gods are her instruments of expression. Through them she presides over the creation, maintenance, and dissolution of the universe, as well as over the self-concealment and self-revelation that lie behind those three activities. Self-concealment is the precondition as well as the result of cosmic manifestation, and self-revelation causes the manifest universe to dissolve, disclosing the essential unity.
Om Aim Hreem Shreem Sri Lalita Tripurasundari Padukam Poojayami Namah
Om Aim Hreem Shreem Sri Lalita Tripurasundari Padukam Poojayami Namah
Next – Part Three
Bhuvanesvari, Chinnamasta and Bhairavi
Sources and references
1. Tantric Visions and Divine Feminine by David Kinsley.
2. Ten Mahavidyas: Manifestations of cosmic female energy by Dr. PC Jain and Dr. Daljit
3. The Dasa (ten) Mahavidyas
4. Dus Mahavidyas: the ten forms of the Devi by Saipriya Viswanathan.
5. The ten Mahavidyas by Hancock-Jaime
6. The Tantric way- Art, Science and Ritual by Ajit Mookerji and Madhu Khanna
7. Mahavidyas by Veeraswamy Krishnaraj
The pictures are taken from internet