There exists in India a group
of strange Goddesses, ten in number. One of them
is shown holding her own freshly severed head,
which feeds on the blood flowing from her headless
torso; another holds a pair of scissors while
sitting triumphant atop a corpse;
a third is depicted as an old
and ugly widow riding a chariot decorated with
the crow as an emblem. The series continues -
an unusual assemblage to say the least.
story behind their birth is equally interesting
and paradoxically of a romantic origin:
Once during their numerous
love games, things got out of hand between Shiva
and Parvati. What had started in jest turned into
a serious matter with an incensed Shiva threatening
to walk out on Parvati. No amount of coaxing or
cajoling by Parvati could reverse matters. Left
with no choice, Parvati multiplied herself into
ten different forms for each of the ten directions.
Thus however hard Shiva might try to escape from
his beloved Parvati, he would find her standing
as a guardian, guarding all escape routes.
Each of the Devi's manifested
forms made Shiva realize essential truths, made
him aware of the eternal nature of their mutual
love and most significantly established for always
in the cannons of Indian thought the Goddess's
superiority over her male counterpart. Not that
Shiva in any way felt belittled by this awareness,
only spiritually awakened. This is true as much
for this Great Lord as for us ordinary mortals.
Befittingly thus they are referred to as the Great
Goddess's of Wisdom, known in Sanskrit as the
Mahavidyas (Maha - great; vidya - knowledge).
Indeed in the process of spiritual learning the
Goddess is the muse who guides and inspires us.
She is the high priestess who unfolds the inner
The spectrum of these ten goddesses
covers the whole range of feminine divinity, encompassing
horrific goddess's at one end, to the ravishingly
beautiful at the other. These Goddesses are:
1) Kali the Eternal Night
2) Tara the Compassionate Goddess
3) Shodashi the Goddess who is Sixteen Years Old
4) Bhuvaneshvari the Creator of the World
5) Chinnamasta the Goddess who cuts off her Own
6) Bhairavi the Goddess of Decay
7) Dhumawati the Goddess who widows Herself
8) Bagalamukhi the Goddess who seizes the Tongue
9) Matangi the Goddess who Loves Pollution
10) Kamala the Last but Not the Least
is mentioned as the first amongst the Mahavidyas.
Black as the night she has a terrible and horrific
In the Rig-Veda, the world's
most ancient book there is a 'Hymn to the Night'
(Ratri sukta), which says that there are two types
of nights. One experienced by mortal beings and
the other by divine beings. In the former all
ephemeral activity comes to a standstill, while
in the latter the activity of divinity also comes
to rest. This absolute night is the night of destruction,
the power of kala. The word kala denotes time
in Sanskrit. Kali's name is derived from this
word itself, as also from the Sanskrit word for
black. She is thus the timeless night, both for
ordinary mortals and for divine beings. At night
we nestle in happiness like birds in their nests.
Dwellers in the villages, theirs cows and horses,
the birds of the air, men who travel on many a
business, and jackals and wild beasts, all welcome
the night and joyfully nestle in her; for to all
beings misguided by the journey of the day she
brings calm and happiness, just as a mother would.
The word ratri (night) is derived from the root
ra, "to give," and is taken to mean
"the giver" of bliss, of peace of happiness.
The similarities in appearance
between Kali and Tara are striking and unmistakable.
They both stand upon a supine male figure often
recognizable as Shiva but which may also be an
Both wear a necklace of freshly
severed heads and a girdle of human hands. Both
have a lolling tongue, red with the blood of their
victims. Their appearances are so strikingly similar
that it is easy to mistake one for the other.
The oral tradition gives an
intriguing story behind the Goddess Tara. The
legend begins with the churning of the ocean.
Shiva has drunk the poison that was created from
the churning of the ocean, thus saving the world
from destruction, but has fallen unconscious under
its powerful effect. Tara appears and takes Shiva
on her lap. She suckles him, the milk from her
breasts counteracting the poison, and he recovers.
This myth is reminiscent of the one in which Shiva
stops the rampaging Kali by becoming an infant.
Seeing the child, Kali's maternal instinct comes
to the fore, and she becomes quiet and nurses
the infant Shiva. In both cases, Shiva assumes
the position of an infant vis-à-vis the
goddess. In other words the Goddess is Mother
even to the Great Lord himself.
The distinguishing feature
in Tara's iconography is the scissors she holds
in one of her four hands. The scissors relate
to her ability to cut off all attachments.
Literally the word 'tara' means
a star. Thus Tara is said to be the star of our
aspiration, the muse who guides us along the creative
path. These qualities are but a manifestation
of her compassion. The Buddhist tradition stresses
these qualities of this Goddess, and she is worshipped
in Tibet as an important embodiment of compassion.
or Tripura-Sundari is believed to have taken birth
to save the gods from the ravages of a mighty
and wrathful demon. The tale begins when Shiva
burnt down Kama, the god of love, who tried to
distract Shiva from his meditation. One of Shiva's
followers then scooped off Kama's ashes and formed
the image of a man out of them. This man then
persuades Shiva to teach him a powerful mantra.
By the power of this mantra, one could gain half
the might of one's adversary. But because he was
generated from the ashes of Shiva's wrath he is
transformed into a fierce demon. Intoxicated with
his new found power he proceeded to rampage the
kingdom of the gods. Apprehending defeat and humiliation,
the gods all propitiate Goddess Tripura-Sundari
to seek her help. The goddess appears and agrees
to help them. Taking the battlefield she heaps
a crushing blow on the mighty demon, thus saving
Iconographically this Goddess
is shown seated on a lotus that rests on the supine
body of Lord Shiva, who in turn lies on a throne
whose legs are the gods Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva,
This is a direct and hard-hitting
portrayal of the Goddess dominating the important
male deities of the Hindu pantheon, a central
belief of the Mahavidya ideology. She is the savior
of all, the Last Refuge.
She holds in her hands a pair
of bow and arrows. The bow significantly is made
of sugarcane, a symbol of sweetness. Her darts
thus are sweetness personified. One of her epithets
is 'Tripura-Sundari,' meaning 'One who is beautiful
in the three realms.' Another of her names 'Lalita'
implies softness. These two qualities give rise
to images that depict her as ravishingly beautiful
and of unsurpassed splendor.
The word 'Shodashi' literally
means sixteen in Sanskrit. She is thus visualized
as sweet girl of sixteen. In human life sixteen
years represent the age of accomplished perfection
after which decline sets in. Indeed sixteen days
form the completed lunar cycle from the new moon
to the full moon. The full moon is the moon of
sixteen days. This girl of sixteen rules over
all that is perfect, complete, beautiful. Her
supreme beauty too has an interesting story behind
Once upon a time Shiva referred
to Kali (his wife) by her name in front of some
heavenly damsels who had come to visit, calling
her "Kali, Kali" ("Blackie, Blackie")
in jest. This she took to be a slur against her
dark complexion. She left Shiva and resolved to
rid herself of her dark complexion, through asceticism.
Later, the sage Narada, seeing Shiva alone, asked
where his wife was. Shiva complained that she
had abandoned him and vanished. With his yogic
powers Narada discovered Kali living north of
Mount Sumeru and went there to see if he could
convince her to return to Shiva. He told her that
Shiva was thinking of marrying another goddess
and that she should return at once to prevent
this. By now Kali had rid herself of her dark
complexion but did not yet realize it. Arriving
in the presence of Shiva, she saw a reflection
of herself with a light complexion in Shiva's
heart. Thinking, that this was another goddess,
she became jealous and angry. Shiva advised her
to look more carefully, with the eye of knowledge,
telling her that what she saw in his heart was
herself. The story ends with Shiva saying to the
transformed Kali: "As you have assumed a
very beautiful form, beautiful in the three worlds,
your name will be Tripura- Sundari. You shall
always remain sixteen years old and be called
by the name Shodashi."
A modern text gives the legend
of origin of Bhuvaneshvari as follows:
'Before anything existed it
was the sun which appeared in the heavens. The
rishis (sages) offered soma the sacred plant to
it so that the world may be created. At that time
Shodashi was the main power, or the Shakti through
whom the Sun created the three worlds. After the
world was created the goddess assumed a form appropriate
to the manifested world.'
In this form she came to be
known as Bhuvaneshvari, literally 'Mistress of
Bhuvaneshvari thus remains
un-manifest until the world is created. Hence
she is primarily related with the visible and
material aspect of the created world.
More than any other Mahavidya
with the exception of Kamala (mentioned later),
Bhuvaneshvari is associated and identified with
the energy underlying creation. She embodies the
characteristic dynamics and constituents that
make up the world and that lend creation its distinctive
character. She is both a part of creation and
also pervades it's aftermath.
beauty is mentioned often. She is described as
having a radiant complexion and a beautiful face,
framed with flowing hair the color of black bees.
Her eyes are broad, her lips full and red, her
nose delicate. Her firm breasts are smeared with
sandal paste and saffron. Her waist is thin, and
her thighs, buttocks, and navel are lovely. Her
beautiful throat is decorated with ornaments,
and her arms are made for embracing. Indeed Shiva
is said to have produced a third eye to view her
This beauty and attractiveness
may be understood as an affirmation of the physical
world. Tantric thought does not denigrate the
world or consider it illusory or delusory, as
do some other abstract aspects of Indian thought.
This is made amply clear in the belief that the
physical world, the rhythms of creation, maintenance
and destruction, even the hankerings and sufferings
of the human condition is nothing but Bhuvaneshvari's
play, her exhilarating, joyous sport.
One day Parvati went to bathe
in the Mandakini River with her two attendants,
Jaya and Vijaya. After bathing, the great goddess's
color became black.
After some time, her two attendants asked her,
"Give us some food. We are hungry."
She replied, "I shall give you food but please
wait." After awhile, again they asked her.
She replied, "Please wait, I am thinking
about some matters." Waiting awhile, they
implored her, "You are the mother of the
universe. A child asks everything from her mother.
The mother gives her children not only food but
also coverings for the body. So that is why we
are praying to you for food. You are known for
your mercy; please give us food." Hearing
this, the consort of Shiva told them that she
would give anything when they reached home. But
again her two attendants begged her, "We
are overpowered with hunger, O Mother of the Universe.
Give us food so we may be satisfied, O Merciful
One, Bestower of Boons and Fulfiller of Desires."
this true statement, the merciful goddess smiled
and severed her own head. As soon as she severed
her head, it fell on the palm of her left hand.
Three bloodstreams emerged from her throat; the
left and right fell respectively into the mouths
of her flanking attendants and the center one
fell into her mouth.
After performing this, all
were satisfied and later returned home. (From
this act) Parvati became known as Chinnamasta.
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