Worship of the Goddess in Hinduism
by Sarah Caldwell
© By Sarah Caldwell, Harvard Divinity School
Sponsored by 25th Anniversary Conference of the Sri Venkateswara Temple in Pittsburgh, 2000
Yaa devi sarvabhuteshu buddhi rupena samsthitaa
Namastasyai namastasyai namastasyai namo namaha
To that goddess who dwells within all beings in the form
of intellect, I bow again and again and again
– Chandi Path (Devi Mahatmya), Ch. 5, v. 20
On a recent visit to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, I wandered through the Indian art gallery. Ensconced against the southern wall of the gallery stands a glorious life-size granite image of the goddess Durga, voluptuous, lithe and graceful, her foot poised delicately on the severed head of the buffalo demon Mahishasura. Visitors meander past casting bemused glances at her soft yet powerful body and her knowing smile. Of all the images of Hindu deities, it is perhaps this conflation of supreme power and tender loveliness that most arrests the visitor’s eye and challenges our concepts about the divine. It was a similar image of Durga that first caught the eye of Professor Tom Coburn, a distinguished scholar of Sanskrit who has translated the great scriptural account of Devi’s triumphs, the Devi Mahatmya, in his book Encountering the Goddess. In an article written for the Indian journal Manushi, Professor Coburn has described his initial enchantment with Durga, a love affair that led to a lifetime of distinguished scholarship and study.
South Asian religions have given birth to some of the loveliest and most sublime images of feminine divinity the world has ever seen, as well as some of the most mysterious and powerful. These range from graceful miniature paintings of Sita pining for her beloved husband Rama, or Radha awaiting a tryst with Krishna in a forest grove to imposing images of Durga and Kali gracing south India’s stone temples. In villages throughout the subcontinent, Devi takes the form of a simple rock, a mound of mud, a wooden carving, a bronze statue, a painting, a poster, a sword, a tree, as she receives the loving attentions of worshippers, blesses homes and agricultural fields, and watches over the fate of her children. Of the world’s living religious traditions, it is only in Hinduism that such extensive worship of divinity in the female form may be found.
The Hindu goddess in all her myriad of forms has also been celebrated in poetic verses of praise for many centuries. The ancient Tamil classic, Cilappadikaram, eulogizes its benighted heroine, Kannaki, who in her rage at a king’s injustice, tore off her left breast and burned the city of Madurai to the ground before rising to the sky as a goddess. The exquisite Gita Govinda of Jayadeva details in verses heavy with longing and love the ecstatic union of Krishna with the beautiful Radha. In pleading, begging, railing, desperate lines, the Bengali Ramprasad Sen explores the depth of love and despair that is the love of the dark Mother Kali. The Saundarya Lahari (often attributed to Adi Shankara) details the magnificent, radiant form of the Devi as queen of the universe, and reveals the esoteric meaning of her form as the Sri Yantra, the geometric pattern of energies that describes the inner workings of the universe.
Yet the Hindu apperception of the feminine divine goes far beyond even this almost infinite wealth of images and poetry. Hindu philosophy also includes sublime and intellectually sophisticated theologies of the Goddess. Shakta theology in particular, unlike any other living religious tradition, attributes supreme divinity, power over creation, all speech, nature, mind, and liberation, the universe itself, to Devi, the Goddess, who exceeds even the great gods Shiva, Vishnu, Indra, and Brahma, upon whose bent backs she sits in glory. In astounding philosophical terms, Shakta theology propounds a doctrine that unites devotion to the goddess’s supremely attractive feminine form with subtle apperception of the inner workings of the universe. Furthermore, tantric religious traditions provide specific means for ritual worship of and yogic meditation upon the goddess, directing the worshipper to a state of complete identification and union with her. These precious traditions of Hinduism, kept secret and revealed only to a few initiates for millennia, are beginning to be known better today and to be shared with a wider circle of devotees. Within this great tradition lie the potential seeds of a revolution in the way human beings conceive of our world, ourselves, and one another. It is well worth studying and understanding the great tradition of goddess worship in Hinduism, for the benefit of oneself and humanity at large.
The fundamental meaning behind all of these images is the recognition in Hinduism of divine energy as a feminine force, Shakti, which literally means “power.” This power takes a wide variety of forms, including nature, creation, life force, movement, mind, and strength, as well as the power to dominate or destroy. Early Samkhya philosophy viewed reality as fundamentally dual, consisting of Purusha, the conscious Self (seen as Male), in interaction with Prakriti, nature and the phenomenal world, including the mind (understood as a Female principle). The processes of yoga referred to in the Upanishads and formally codified in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali in the 2nd C BCE are designed to extricate the pure, eternal, unblemished Self from its intricate identification with the phenomenal world, both external and internal, in the form of thoughts and perceptions. Techniques of self-control and meditation were developed to allow for the recognition of the Self’s separateness from Prakriti, and to cultivate direct self-awareness free of the mind and senses.
The philosophy of Vedanta rejected the dualistic claims of the Samhkya system, reinterpreting the feminine principle of Prakriti as Maya, the illusory power of the divine Brahman (transcendental Self). The feminine Maya had no intrinsic reality, but was merely a projection of Brahman, appearing as a great seductress ensnaring the mind and senses and drawing them away from awareness of their fundamental nature as Self or Purusha. Ascetic disciplines of fasting, celibacy, and meditation detached the mind from its natural outward-moving tendency and turned it forcibly inward; intellectual disciplines such as viveka (discrimination) and vairagya (detachment) sought to penentrate and dissolve the unreality of Maya. Buddhist and Jain philosophy, which developed in the same period as the late Upanishads (around the 6th C. BCE), also relied upon this theory and hence emphasized asceticism, detachment, and the rejection of the pleasures of the ensnaring phenomenal world. Women, who were relegated socially to the role of wives and mothers, were naturally seen as antithetical to the aim of moksha or liberation from the snares of samsara, cyclical, desire-motivated existence. Thus during this influential early age of Indian religious thought, the feminine principle of divinity as well as human women were identified as obstacles to the real aim of human life, moksha, or permanent spiritual liberation from the cycles of rebirth.
Of course, while forest-dwelling ascetics and yogis attempted to break their attachments to the world, a different, life-affirming strain of Hindu practice and belief flourished unbroken from the Vedic period to the present. The fundamental symbolism of the ancient Vedic fire rituals was the creative power of the sacrifice, resulting from the coming together of the female and male life forces (symbolized by the spark created from the friction of the fire-sticks rubbing together). Human reproduction and well-being, not moksha, were the fruits sought by supplicating the divine powers in the Vedic fire ritual. Although goddesses played a relatively minor role in the Vedic ritual corpus, by the Classical period (1st-11th C. CE) of Hinduism, their presence was central. As temples and devotional Hinduism underwent a dramatic period of growth in response to the challenge of Buddhism and Jainism, goddesses rose in importance. Powerful and appealing female divinities embodying every possible aspect of existence began to be envisioned in temple sculpture and eulogized in hymns of praise.
In temples, rituals of puja (worship) were performed daily to goddesses, sometimes as wives or consorts of powerful male deities, but sometimes alone, as in the case of Durga, Saraswati, Mahalakshmi, and many others. The iconography of these female divinities drew heavily from the very ancient sculptural tradition of yakshis, female fertility spirits, whose smiling, ample, voluptuous frames adorned the gateways of early Buddhist and Jain temples from the 5th c. BC. The ideal of feminine divinity was from the beginning identified with life force, erotic beauty, sexual fertility, motherliness, and power. Even the goddess of war, Durga, was envisioned as a supremely attractive and desirable young woman at the height of her potential reproductive powers (though remaining a virgin, and hence channeling those potential powers toward other aims for the benefit of the world). Only the goddesses of disease and destruction, such as Sitala, Manasa, Mariyamman, and Kali, were sometimes shown as haggard, emaciated, and ugly; yet even these goddesses were revered and propitiated, as part of the inevitable cycle of life and death. The Hindu goddess in all her forms was always linked to this complete acceptance of the ever-changing, transformative cycle of life.
Rituals of worship to the goddess today take place in almost infinite variety, but their aim is always to propitiate and increase Shakti, divine energy, manifest as life force. This life force may take the form of health and healing from disease, the auspicious growth of plants and abundance of food, marital happiness and sexual enjoyment, reproductive health and the birth of children, wealth and success in work activities, intellectual and artistic skill and acumen, or victory over one’s enemies. The force that perpetuates life is the holiest thing in the practice of Hinduism, supremely auspicious, and it is this auspiciousness that Devi represents. In her life-perpetuating form, the goddess is beautiful, benevolent, fertile, motherly, attractive, full of knowledge, compassion, and desire. She embraces and enlivens all aspects of reality. Pictured as an idealized queen and wife, endowed with supernatural beauty and virtue, adorned with magnificent ornaments and always bestowing grace and bounty, the Devi in this form is Saumya, benevolent. She is the object of desire, and is usually shown as the wife or consort of an appropriate male divinity, whose power or Shakti she is (e.g., Lakshmi-Vishnu, Parvati-Siva, Radha-Krishna, Sita-Rama, etc.).
Throughout the Hindu world, elaborate, extensive temple rituals and festivals celebrate the goddess’s wedding to her divine spouse (examples include Meenakshi Kalyanam, Rama-Sita Kalyanam, Parvati-Siva Swayamvaram, etc.). The extraordinary dedication of time, resources, and priestly knowledge to the periodic reenactment of these divine weddings underscores the profound spiritual significance of the marital bond. In fact marriage is considered the most important samskara, or rite of passage, in the human lifespan. In the marriage ritual the bride is identified with the goddess Lakshmi, adorned and worshipped as the bringer of supreme auspiciousness into her new family. As she undertakes her new responsibilities as wife and mother, a woman joins the daily round of domestic worship conducted by women of the family, centering around the kitchen shrine. Upon rising in the morning she will bathe and draw a kolam or rangoli on the doorstep, to welcome the goddess Lakshmi into the home. In all her activities the wife and mother embodies the divine feminine force of life, auspiciousness, and joy. It is she who is believed to keep the husband and children alive and happy through her careful attention to their welfare and satisfaction, through cooking, fasting, prayer, teaching, and self-care and beautification. The auspiciousness of goddess Lakshmi, so necessary to life in the world, is also celebrated lavishly at Diwali, the festivals of light and life in dark times.
Sometimes it is the mother aspect of the goddess that is emphasized in Hindu worship; here she is represented iconographically on her own, not as part of a spousal pair. The forms of the independent mother goddess are almost infinite, and are especially important on the local, village level in India. Most villages have a local mother goddess who is believed to have arisen in that particular geographic location and who is intimately tied to the welfare of the village. She functions as the protector, provider, and punisher of the village, and must be constantly propitiated, worshipped, and consulted in order to assure order and avert disease and disaster. Kali, Sitala, Mariyamman, and Durga embody the wrath of the fierce aspect of the goddess in forms known throughout India. Although this form of goddess worship is prominent in village shrines, it is also very important at the temple level, particularly in Bengal and Kerala, where temples to Kali or Bhagavati predominate. Often the temple festivals in these regions are tied to the agricultural cycle, and the goddess is believed to undergo a periodic reproductive cycle akin to that of human women. Ritual worship takes place during the hottest season, when the goddess is understood to be undergoing her menstrual cycle, and in need of sacrificial offerings and excitement before a period of rest and renewal.
Hindus show deep reverence to the earth as the Mother Goddess. From the most ancient times, rivers, mountains, hills, the sky, and in fact all of the earth, have been respected as the body of the goddess itself. The river Ganga, the most important of the Hindu river goddesses, is an embodied liquid divinity, whose grace flowing over the bather’s body can be felt to empower, cleanse, purify, heal, and enlighten. The Shakti Pithas, locations where parts of the goddess’s body mythically fell to earth and installed themselves, are seats of power where pilgrims can directly experience the goddess. Hills, mountains, stones, and anthills all manifest miraculous powers throughout the Indian subcontinent, and are ancient places of pilgrimage and renewal. Before building a house, undertaking cultivation of plants, starting a ritual, or beginning a dance, Hindus pray to Bhumi Devi, the earth goddess, for her blessings and forgiveness.
Perhaps the most important festival to the goddess is Navaratri, the nine nights of worship dedicated to the goddess Durga. This festival takes place in some form throughout the Indian subcontinent in the bright moon fortnight of the Hindu months of Chaitra (March-April) and Ashwin (September-October). The sacred text recounting the destruction of a series of demons by the goddess Durga or Candi, the Chandipath, is recited each evening for nine nights. On the eighth day a homa or fire sacrifice is offered to Durga Devi in celebration of her triumph over evil. The nine nights of worship are divided into groups of three, recognizing the triple form of the goddess as Durga/Lakshmi/Saraswati. Durga or Camunda is the goddess of power, destruction of negativities, and fierce strength in the face of adversity and evil. The story of her destruction of demons symbolizes the need fiercely to confront one’s own limitations and negative qualities and eliminate them. Lakshmi, goddess of prosperity and abundance, represents the ability to enjoy, share, and love, made possible by self-purification and the recognition of the divine manifest in all. After cultivating moral purification and an attitude of optimism and generosity, Saraswati, goddess of higher knowledge, finally is propitiated as the one who makes it possible to realize divine wisdom and light. The festival of Navaratri, like many forms of Hindu worship, incorporates many levels of meaning. It can be a harvest festival, a time for family and friends to gather and share, a time of rest and renewal, a time of fasting and penance. Spiritually, Navaratri can be a recognition of the necessity to destroy old habits to make way for new experiences and knowledge, a celebration of growth and rebirth, and a profound experience of the goddess as one’s inner power of consciousness.
A unique aspect of Hinduism not found in other world religions is the recognition of an intimate link between the goddess and the force of intellect, mind, and speech. This is reflected in contemporary Hinduism in the person of the goddess Saraswati. Portrayed in spotless white garments and seated upon a swan, Saraswati holds in her hands a palm-leaf manuscript and a veena (the Indian lute), symbolizing her power over speech, literature, learning, and the arts. School children venerate Saraswati to excel in their studies, and often place their schoolbooks and pens upon her alter toward this end. The identification of the goddess with speech and intellect has ancient roots in Hinduism. Vedic hymns recognize Vac as the power of speech, the power that inspired the production of mantras. The identification of the goddess with language is later elaborated in Shaiva philosophy, where the fifty letters of the Sanskrit alphabet are collectively referred to as Matrika Shakti, the power of the “little mothers” (the letters themselves). By calling the letters “mothers,” the sages drew our attention to the creative, generative powers of language. In this concept the goddess manifests to create the universe through pulsation (Spanda), which animates the mind as subtle thoughts, and emerges on the physical plane as speech. All of material creation is also embodied in the subtle vibrations of this divine speech, and mantras, which encapsulate these energies, when properly pronounced, can actually recreate material reality.
Shaiva philosophy envisions the Godhead as consisting of the inseparable pair Shiva and Shakti, Being and Consciousness. Neither exists without the other. These two are imagined as a divine husband and wife engaged in endless erotic play. This image signifies the deeper meaning of the Self (prakasha-illumination) enjoying the manifold phenomena continually unfolded by Shakti (vimarsha-reflective consciousness). In fact the mind with its constant inner movement is nothing but a dancer entertaining the witnessing conscious self, ever still and unaffected yet deeply enjoying the play of consciousness. In this metaphor the process of conscious existence is itself a great love affair, a union of Shiva and Shakti, Being (Sat) and Consciousness (Chit), leading to inner bliss (Ananda). A shift in awareness allows us to recognize all of reality as nothing but this blissful play, the dance of Shiva and Shakti.
Shaiva philosophy explains that the potential for this awareness lies within every person, in a dormant form known as Kundalini Shakti. This divine power is envisioned as a sleeping snake coiled three times in the base of the spine, at an energy center known as the muladhara chakra. In order to realize the play of divine Being and Consciousness taking place within us, it is necessary to awaken this sleeping goddess that resides within the body, and to purify oneself through spiritual disciplines, devotion, and study. The practices of Kundalini Yoga awaken and cultivate this subtle form of the goddess, which is in fact divine consciousness, leading it toward the energy center located in the crown of the head, the sahasrara chakra, said to be the abode of Lord Shiva. When the goddess as Kundalini Shakti unites with Lord Shiva, divine bliss and permanent liberation from suffering and ignorance ensue. The practices of Kundalini Yoga are thus another form of worship of the goddess within one’s own body, as one’s own consciousness and true inner self.
A form of Hindu worship that unites all aspects of the goddess and aims to attain not only well-being in the world, but also supreme spiritual knowledge and ultimate liberation, is the tantric practice of Sri Vidya, the Supreme Wisdom. In Sri Vidya practice, Devi is worshipped as Tripurasundari, the Beauty of the Three Worlds. Tripurasundari is envisioned as Rajarajeshwari, Queen of the Universe, Goddess who holds the key to all knowledge and powers. She is the supreme creator; all worlds and powers dwell within her body in the form of minor Devis, who are each enumerated and propitiated through the worship. The essence of Sri Vidya practice is encoded in the texts Lalita Sahasranama and Saundarya Lahari, which are recited daily in many parts of India, but can be properly understood only through initiation by a guru of the tradition. Through the use of mantras (sacred syllables embodying the energies of the goddess), mudras (ritual hand gestures that awaken subtle energies and seal the relationship of the seeker to the chosen deity), guided meditation, and external puja (offerings of various kinds) to the Sri Yantra, a complex geometric representation of the goddess as the entire universe, an initiate installs the goddess into his or her own body and then proceeds to move backwards through the process of creation to dissolve his or her consciousness back into its source.
One feature of the worship of Hindu goddesses that is seen throughout India is the tendency to venerate groups of goddesses, who are yet understood to be emanations of a single Devi. This tendency reflects the realization that nature has the tendency to multiply and proliferate. From a single fertile cell, two, four, eight, sixteen, thirty-two, sixty-four cells arise through division of the the original one, leading to an almost infinite array of cells which then arrange themselves into different functions and form a human body. Throughout the natural world this tendency to proliferate and multiply signifies life. After a period of growth, decay sets in and the cells begin to decay and degenerate, eventually leading to death and reabsorption into their source, the material elements from which life arose. This basic pattern of proliferation and decay extends to all of creation, including the mineral world and the universe of stars, planets, and galaxies. It is this profound understanding of the patterns underlying the phenomenal universe that is reflected in the tendency to portray goddesses in enumerated groups. The oldest of these is the Seven Mothers (Saptamatrika), who scholars have suggested represent the Pleiades, an important constellation of the tropical night sky; others suggest that they also may represent the seven chakras or energy centers identified in the subtle physiology of Kundalini Yoga. Hindu iconography also celebrates Eight Lakshmis (Ashtalakshmi), Nine Durgas (Navadurga), Ten Great Wisdom Goddesses (Dasa Maha Vidya), Sixteen Phases of the Lunar Cycle or digits of the moon (the Nitya Kala Devis), and 64 Yoginis (esoteric female teachers). Each of these groupings has profound meaning in tantric practice. In the tenth century circular temples to the 64 yoginis were constructed in East Central India, in the center of which worshippers would conduct secret rites to identify themselves with the creator pair Shiva/Shakti. In that golden age of tantric knowledge, human females played the role of teachers and adepts as well as wives, servants, and partners to male yogis. Temples such as the Kailasnath temple in Kanchipuram, Tamilnadu, which preserve images of these human yoginis in postures of instruction and veneration, let us know that during this period, the goddess, in her aspect as teacher, sexual partner, and creator of life, was overtly worshipped in the person of human women.
The vast landscape of goddess worship in Hinduism is impossible to grasp in a single lifetime, much less in a brief essay. However the richness of this tradition, and its potential to contribute to the religious understandings of people the world over, is immense. Many people throughout the world are seeking to improve the relations of humans to their physical world, and to one another. In the profound sacred geography of Hinduism, which reveres the earth as a goddess, are plentiful resources for regenerating the ecological awareness of human beings. Whether through participation in pilgrimages to sacred rivers and mountains; through the celebration of the beauty, wisdom, and power of the manifold goddesses in the exquisite rituals of puja; through initiation into the profound mysteries of Kundalini Yoga and Shakta tantra; or simply through the recognition of divinity in the human body of every man and woman, Hindu tradition offers the world an almost infinite array of ways to sacralize every aspect of mundane existence. From cooking to business to pleasure to knowledge, Devi is the source from which all success and joy arise. For those seeking ultimate knowledge, the Sri Vidya practice is arguably the most elaborate and esoteric form of worship of the goddess, and also one of the most theologically complex. It would take many lifetimes to fully grasp the depth of the symbolism and beauty of the ritual practice encoded in its tradition. This form of understanding of goddess has great potential to expand our concept of the divine in many religions. Women, especially those raised within Hinduism, should be encouraged to read and study deeply the meanings of these great traditions, and to realize the presence of the goddess within their own minds and bodies. Men can learn to respect and revere the feminine as well as masculine qualities, and to see Devi in all women. Such an attitude, that embraces all of creation and all beings as pulsations of divine love, will heal and uplift our world.
References and Further Reading:
Bhattacharyya, Narendra Nath. The Indian mother goddess. 3rd enl. ed. New Delhi : Manohar Publishers & Distributors, 1999.
Brooks, Douglas Renfrew. The secret of the three cities: an introduction to Hindu Sakta tantrism. Chicago : University of Chicago Press, 1990.
____________. Auspicious wisdom: the texts and traditions of srividya sakta tantrism in south India. Albany, NY : State University of New York Press, 1992.
Brown, Cheever Mackenzie. The triumph of the goddess : the canonical models and theological visions of the Devi-Bhagavata. Albany : State University of New York Press, 1990.
____________. The Devi Gita: the song of the Goddess; a translation, annotation, and commentary. Albany : State University of New York Press, 1998.
Caldwell, Sarah. Oh Terrifying Mother: Sexuality, Violence, and Worship of the Goddess Kali. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Coburn, Thomas B. Encountering the goddess : a translation of the Devi-mahatmya and a study of its interpretation. Albany, N.Y. : State University of New York Press, 1991.
Dehejia, Vidya. Yogini, cult and temples: a tantric tradition. New Delhi : National Museum, 1986.
____________. Devi : the great goddess: female divinity in South Asian art. Washington, D.C. : Published by the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution in association with Mapin Publishing, Ahmedabad and Prestel Verlag, Munich, 1999.
Hawley, John S., and Donna M. Wulff, eds. Devi: goddesses of India. Berkeley : University of California Press, 1996.
Kinsley, David R. Hindu goddesses: visions of the divine feminine in the Hindu religious tradition. Berkeley : University of California Press, 1986.
____________. Tantric visions of the divine feminine: the ten mahavidyas. Berkeley : University of California Press, 1997.
Pintchman, Tracy. The rise of the Goddess in the Hindu Tradition. Albany, N.Y. : State University of New York Press, 1994.
Woodroffe, John George, Sir. Sakti and sakta: essays and addresses. 8th ed. Madras : Ganesh, l975.