Tag Archives: Kali

Dasha Mahavidya – Part Two

Continued from Part One -Introduction to Mahavidyas

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. She is often addressed as Bhagavathi and Aarya. 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 deitiesThe 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 karālīMU.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. 

Kali By Richard B. Godfrey 1770

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.

O Kali, you are fond of cremation grounds
So I have turned my heart into one
You love to dance in the light of burning pyres
At the dead of the night
Mother, come and dance unceasingly
In the cremation ground of my heart
Where all my earthly desires burning to ashes
Prasada waits with his eyes closed.
Kali, greatly terrifying, laughing loudly,
Elokeshi sporting disheveled hair flying in all directions
With fearful fangs, four arms holding a cleaver, a skull,
And gesturing mudras bestowing boons and dispelling fear,
Wearing a garland of skulls,  tongue rolling wildly,
Digambari garbed in space in her nakedness,
Free from covering of all illusions
Thus I meditate on Kali My Mother,
Dwelling in the cremation ground of my heart
My Mother dances joyfully
Prasada watches with great delight
… Ramprasad Sen (1718-75)

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.

Dakshinakalkali dance photo

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

kali kali2

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 colors 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 is 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.

Kali - Mahavidya kali karali

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

Khadgahaste Mundahaste Kali Kali Namostu Te
Kali chakra

Kreem Kreem Kreem Hum Hum Hreem Hreem Dakshine Kaalika

Kreem Kreem Kreem Hum Hum Hreem Hreem Swaha


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.


lotus blue

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.

Khadiravam Tara

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.

Mahasri Tara

lotus green

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.

Tara - Mahavidya

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

Tara chakra

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.

Tripurasundari 4

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-aksharaka 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).

Tripura 1Tripura 2

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

tripura chakra

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

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 pictures are taken from internet


Posted by on October 6, 2012 in Mahavidya


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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, abounding with limitless potential, 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 dasa-maha-vidyaaha 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.

It could also be said; the Mahavidyas epitomize the empowerment of women. They seem to demonstrate how much power women can wield ; how they can work independently; and,  how they can fight and overcome  the challenges of life on their own.

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 worshiped 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, honor, 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 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 well-being 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.


[Dr. Sabareswar Satpathy, in his Dasa Mahavidya and Tantra Shastra (Punthi Pustak, Calcutta, 1992) , attempts to rationalize the composition and the sequence of the Ten Mahavidyas.

According to Dr. Satpathy, the Dasa Mahavidyas represent the different stages in the creation, evolution, sustenance and progression of one’s life in this world.

He explains ; the Devi as Mahavidya is both Vidya and A-Vidya. She encompasses all the Gunas in their entirety. She is both Sat and A-sat; She is the power that manifests in Jada as also in Chetana forms of existence. There is nothing beyond the Devi; everything in the Universe resides within Her.

For instance; Maha-Kali or Adi-shakthi the primordial power represents Iccha-shakthi, the power of the intense will or resolve, which prompts and initiates action. She is Chit-shakthi-swarupini; the very embodiment of resolute willpower.  She is Maha-Maya that binds the determination and action together. She is boundless; and is beyond the limitations of time and space. The Khadga (sword) in her hands represents the power of action. She is also immensely merciful; and, grants Bhukthi and Mukthi – the good here and hereafter – to those who surrender to her completely with guileless love and devotion.

Tara, who follows, symbolizes the power of action (Kriya-shakthi) , prompted by the will of the Maha-Kali. Tara is all about action; and, she presides over all actions as also on the fruits of action in this world. If a person performs her or his actions without a selfish motive and without craving for its fruits, Tara severs the bonds that tie the action (Karma) and its fruits (Phala). The sharp Katri (scissors) in her hands symbolises the means to grant freedom from attachment to earthly desires.

But, any sort of action needs to be guided by knowledge (Jnana). And, Mahavidya Sodashi represents that power of knowledge (Jana-shakthi). The Pasha (noose) and the Ankusa (goad) in her hands symbolize worldly fetters and human compulsions. And, the bow and arrow she holds indicate that when true knowledge dawns on a person, she or he is freed forever from the bondages of limited existence; and, attains liberation.

She sits over and controls the five Pretas (ghouls) who represent the sequence of evolution, creation, sustenance, dissolution and involution; the whole gamut of A-Vidya that binds all this existence. It is only the Sodasi Maha-Vidya that has the power to grant liberation from the limitations of earthly existence.

What follows creation is its sustenance; and, that is taken care under the aegis of Mahavidya Bhuvaneshvari. While she holds a goad and a noose in two of her hands, she gestures Varada (grace) and Abhaya (assurance) through her two other hands. She is Leela-mayi, who is actively involved with the conduct, maintenance and protection of the world and this existence.

The Mahavidya Tripura Bhairavi is the guardian deity of the three levels of existence, the three worlds (Tripura): Bhu (the physical plane), Bhuvar ( the intermediate space) ,and Suvah (the upper regions). She holds a rosary and a book in her two hands – representing spiritual knowledge. And, in her two other hands she confers boons (Varada) ; and protection (Abhaya) and warns against  falling prey to the  false and  misleading ways.

The Mahavidya Chinnamasta , holding her own severed head and drinking blood gushing out from her severed throat, symbolizes supreme detachment from the world and total disregard to what is dear and near to one. She is of the world; but, is not involved with it in any manner.  She preaches the individual (Jiva) to steadily move towards liberation; away from worldly existence and its bonds. It is said; her iconography suggests that pure consciousness is attained only when one discard the bodily awareness.

The  Mahavidya Dhumavathi, pictured as an old widow, dressed in unclean robes, riding a rickety chariot pulled by a crow,  is said to represent the negative and the ugly, but all the same the inevitable aspects of life. She is described as Vivarna, Chanchala and Rusta (pale, restless and coarse). She is the smoke that covers knowledge. It is through her help one passes from ignorance towards knowledge.

The Mahavidya Bhagalamukhi represents the valiant spirit the confronts and fights the enmity that that one comes faces as she or he attempts to acquire position or power in life. Therefore, one needs to propitiate the Mahavidya Bhagalamukhi; and seek blessings and support to protect oneself from the evils (Sarva Dustanam) that one confronts in life.

The Mahavidya Matangi represents the worldly power that dominates over the rest. She, therefore, is addressed as Raja Matangi or Matangini. She is the guardian deity of the Kings; and protects the kings and the kingdoms.

The Mahavidya Kamalatmika represents the rich and auspicious aspects of life. She bestows riches and affluence on one, who is devoted to her.]



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 center (Tirtha) associated with the Dasha Mahavidyas – as a 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 – Mahishasura-mardini -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 worshiped. 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 worshiped 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 worshiped 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 significance and meanings, or their symbolism. 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 worshiped 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 honor 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 worshiper and the worshiped 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 – man-made’ demarcations of beauty-ugliness, cleanliness –polluted, or goodness-profane etc . In fact, he overstates his intentions 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 installments 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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