The emergence of Devi as an aspect of the supreme deity
by Nandi Virakanath
The Goddess tradition in India has a rich and vibrant history. She is often seen as ambivalent and contradictory, on the one hand benevolent and on the other terrifying and fierce. In attempting to explore how Devi has emerged and developed as a symbol of the supreme I will firstly look at how goddesses have appeared in the Vedas and discussions around pre-Vedic goddess worship. Then briefly look at the epic and classical periods and explore the Devi -Mahatmya in a little more detail as a principle example of the Devi in the Puranas. Finally I will discuss the worship of Devi focusing on pilgrimage, sacrifice, tantric sadhana and possession.
Devi is the name for the great goddess in Hindu religion. She is seen by her followers as the ultimate, the one the supreme creatrix of the universe. There is a distinction between Devi the great mother goddess and the pantheon of goddesses that exist within the Hindu 'tradition'. Many of these Goddesses are identified with Devi, as she is seen to appear with many names and forms whilst always remaining the single supreme being.
Wendy O'Flaherty divides Indian goddesses into two categories, goddesses of the tooth who are erotic, ferocious and dangerous, and Goddesses of the breast, auspicious, fertile and bountiful. The former forms of the Goddess would include Kali, Tara, Bhairavi and Chinamasta. Whilst the later would include Laksmi, Sita, Sarasvati and Tripurasundari. Lynn Gatwood however adopts another perspective arguing that there are two distinct types of divine female principle in India. One, which she refers to as Devi, being free from divine male control and the other who is defined by such control. The later she refers to as the Spouse Goddess.
David Kinsley points out that whilst there are Hindu texts and traditions asserting unambiguously that the various female deities are all manifestations of the Goddess, and that various scholars have approached the goddess with this basic theological assumption, it may not be an entirely useful approach. In seeing the goddess in this way we may be prevented from:
'...viewing such goddesses as Laksmi, Parvati, and Radha as deities containing individually coherent mythologies of their own.'
Personally, I think that the interrelation between the various goddesses and the idea of Devi as the one goddess is the result, like much of Hindu religious thought and practice, of a complex set of relationships and cross fertilisations that have emerged over a long period of time and in a wide variety of settings.
The Rig Veda mentions many goddesses but none of them are as central to the text as the male deities Agni, Soma or Indra. Indeed with the exception of Usas, the dawn, none of the other goddesses mentioned are even as important as the secondary male gods. This does not mean however that the Rig Veda is unimportant in understanding the Hindu goddess. Kinsley points out that some scholars have argued later Hindu goddesses to be the same deities as appear in the Vedas but with new names. Personally I feel that given the possibility of pre-Aryan goddess worship, discussed below, it may be more useful to think of a continuing tradition that grew up alongside Vedic religion. Further more there are signs that elements of the Vedic goddesses merged with Goddess worship of later times and helped to make the religion of Devi acceptable to those who followed the Veda. Klostermair identifies four goddesses from the Rig Veda who could be seen as important elements for the later development of Devi worship (saktism). These are Prthivi the earth, Usas the dawn, Aditi mother of the gods and Vac, speech.
Prthivi is associated with the earth and is seen as stable, fertile and benign. She is addressed as mother and regarded as warm, nurturing and a provider of sustenance. In the Rig Veda she is linked with the male god Dyaus but appears as an independent being in the Artharva Veda and other later Vedic literature.
Usas is identified with the dawn in the Rig Veda, praised for driving away the darkness, she rouses life and sets things in motion. She also gives strength and fame and like Prthivi is called mother. She is refered to as 'she who sees all' and in this regard is invoked to drive away or punish enemies and as a skilled huntress who wastes away people's lives. Perhaps in this figure of Usas there is a hint of the goddess as both nurturing and fierce.
Aditi is interesting in that she almost featureless physically. She is described in the Rig Veda as the mother of the gods, the mother of kings and the mother of Indra. She is invoked for protection and wealth. Her name means the unbound one. It is also of note that though she is mentioned nearly eighty times in the Rig-Veda she at no time appears as a consort to any of the gods.
Vac is the goddess associated with speech, which is a concept of central importance to the Vedas. She is associated with the power of the rsis;
'She is the mysterious presence that enables one to hear, see, grasp and then express in words the true nature of things. She is the prompter of and vehicle of expression for visionary perception, and as such she is intimately associated with the rsis and the rituals that express or capture the truths of their visions.'
From the above, I think it is possible to see strong elements within the Vedas that may have contributed to how Devi developed and was perceived by later moments in Hinduism. However this alone may not account for such a strong tradition of goddess worship in Hinduism. Whilst the goddesses in the Vedas were still relatively minor figures, there may have been a tradition of Goddess worship predating any possible Aryan migration and the Vedic religion. Many small figurines have been found which belonged to the pre-Aryan peoples of the Indus valley. Some of these represent a small standing female figure with an elaborate headress. According to Brockington, if there is to be any religious significance attached to these figures then it may be that they point to a cult of a Mother Goddess. He points out that while such a feature is largely absent from the Vedas it is a feature of many early religions. Parpola has argued that an image of a figure battling with lions may have continuities with the Goddess Durga battling the buffalo demon. Ernl summarises the argument for an Indus valley goddess cult along the lines that the pre-Aryans worshipped primarily female fertility goddesses due to their primary reliance on agriculture. The Aryans on the other hand being nomadic cattle herders and warriors focused more on male sky deities.
In the earliest known traditions of India, the Indus Valley civilisation and the Aryan Vedic religion, there may have been currents of goddess worship. These aspects of the feminine divine in turn may have interacted upon each other in various ways. Further more Parpola has argued that there are iconographic and linguistic continuities between south Indian, Dravidian forms of Hinduism and the Indus valley civilisation. This is significant in that South India has played an important role in the development of goddess worship.
Whilst we can really know little about how goddesses were thought about or worshipped in ancient India, there is a large amount to be considered about how Devi in her various forms appeared within later Hindu traditions.
From the time of the Vedas to that of the Puranas there is little literary material relating to goddess worship. Some references to the goddess appear in the Kena and Mundaka Upanishads which date to the last few centuries BCE.
'The Black, the terrible, the Swift as the mind, The Blood-red, the Smoke-coloured, the sparkling, And the glittering Goddess - these are the seven flickering tongues of flame.'
More evidence begins to emerge from the early part of the common era. The Tamil Cankam literature mentions the Goddess Korravai, a goddess of the mountain who accepted animal sacrifice especially buffaloes. She was also seen as a goddess of war and victory to whom battle itself was a sacrifice , with the forest warriors, the Marvars, being exhorted to ritual suicide. He later myth of Durga slaying the buffalo demon may be a northern adaptation of Korravai. There are also Jain and Buddhist monuments which depict female divinities, including a Buddhist monument at Sanchi dated to the first century BCE, and a temple to the Goddess Kanya Kumari, situated on the southern tip of India which dates to the first century CE.
Erndl argues that the period of the epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana (400 BCE -400 CE), is transitional in the process of integration of goddesses into the Hindu pantheon. The goddesses appear strongly in a mythological way but not yet as major deities. They are portrayed as wives of the Gods, with little elaboration of their role, and are not yet fully absorbed into or legitimised by the Sanskrtic tradition. Gatwood sees this process as 'Epic Spousification' arguing that a central purpose of the epics was to teach Brahmanic and Kshatriya values and codes of behaviour. Ultimately Gatwood sees this as part of a process whereby local village goddesses and a non-Brahmanical Devi cult are absorbed and to some degree tamed by male Brahmanical orthodoxy.
Saktism can be considered to exist as a specific orientation within Sanskritic Hinduism from the period of the Puranas onwards, (400 CE onwards) It is in the puranas that a developed Sakta theology and mythology emerges that emphasises the idea of a single Great Goddess, who includes within her self other forms of the goddess and indeed many of the aspects previously associated with male deities. Most significantly subsuming the roles of creator, maintainer and destroyer, normally associated with Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva respectively. Its main focus is upon the feminine power, sakti, as the energy which empowers the deity . It is closely associated with tantrism but is not an exclusively tantric doctrine.
At the beginning of the fifth century it interacted closely with Vaisnavism and Shaivism, Gatwood states that Shaktism had influenced Vaisnavism in the development of Bhakti as the main form of worship. She also argues that Saivism was highly influenced by Saktism, incorporating tantrism and 'marrying' Devi to Shiva, giving Shiva legitimisation to a claim of equal statues to the Devi. Devi's independent nature however gave way to an orthodox raising of Shiva over his wife now seen in the image of Parvati.
Arguably the most important text within the Sakta tradition is the Devi-Mahatmya from the sixth century CE .The Devi-Mahatmya is made up of chapters 81-93 of the Markendeya Purana. However it has had a considerable existence as an independent text outside of the purana and is one of a small number of puranic texts to have had commentaries written on them, having at least sixty seven , more than any of the others. The text itself focuses on three stories illustrating the greatness of the Goddess.
In the first story, which takes place before the world is created, Brahma sees two demons approaching to kill him and Vishnu. Vishnu is asleep and Brahman dwells in his navel. Realising that the Goddess dwells in Vishu's eyes as Yogidra (sleep of yoga ) sings a praise to her . In this praise the Goddess is refered to as the creator, the destroyer, Prakrti, the great Goddess and the Great demon.
After this Hymn has been recited the Goddess appears and presents her self to Brahma. Vishnu awakes and slays the demons. Erndl points out that whilst the killing of the two demons is also to be found in the Mahabhararta the Devi -Mahatmya version is different in that Vishnu's capacity to act is dependent upon the Goddess.
The second story is probably the most famous and is the one most popularly associated with the Goddess. Here we see another demon, Mahisa, the buffalo demon, defeating Indra and the other gods. Mahisa takes the place of Indra and the thirty three gods have to go to Shiva and Vishnu to tell them what has happened. Upon hearing the news Vishnu, Shiva and Brahma, through the power of their concentration, emit a 'great fiery splendour' likewise the other gods do the same. From this the Goddess is formed and each of the Gods give her a weapon. Shiva gives her a trident drawn from his own trident, Krishna gives her a discus also drawn from his own discus, Indra a thunderbolt, Varuna a noose and so on. Filling the whole of space and mounted upon a fierce lion she engages in battle with the demon. There then follows a long description of the battle and how the Goddess destroys the army of asuras. Eventually the Goddess is face to face with Mahisa and every time she tries to kill him he changes his form. First he becomes a lion, then a man, then a great elephant and then a buffalo again . At this point:
'....the angry Candika, mother of the world, quaffed a superior beverage, and again she laughed with reddened eyes.'
Then, after drinking more, she springs forward, pushes him down with her foot, beats him with her spear and as he tries to exit the buffalo form through the mouth she cuts off his head. The Gods sing a hymn to her in which they request that she return whenever they think of her. They also ask that she will appear whenever a mortal praises her with the hymn they have just sung and be concerned with his material happiness through her power. She agrees and disappears.
Erndl makes a number of points about the image of the Devi in this part of the Devi -Mahatmya. Firstly she states that the image of the goddess seated upon a lion whilst being difficult to trace in earlier Sanskrit literature may have been common in folk tradition. She goes on to link the creation of Devi here with the parallel creation of a king by the powers of the gods in the Laws of Manu emphasising the Goddess' role as supreme ruler and protector . Finally she states that the Goddess' primacy is obvious as she accomplishes that which the male deities do not.
The final part of the text contains a number of stories within it and I do not intend to recount them here. However what is of most relevance is that in this part of the text a number of individual goddesses make appearances and are integrated into the overall image of the Goddess. Erndl sees the text as being important in that it shows a process of indigenous religious forms going through the process of sanskritisation. Further more the text itself, she argues, can be seen as a means through which further sanskritisation can take place. Local goddesses are easily identified with the Goddess who is central to the Devi -Mahatmya . The Devi - Mahatmya is an important text because it represents the first time that a theology and mythology of the Goddess as supreme being is represented in the Sanskrit language.
There are many styles of worship within the Hindu tradition. Pilgrimage, the making of offerings (puja), recitation of mantra, sacrifice, either symbolic or actual, various rites of passage, festivals and so on. Here, however, I would like to focus on three areas of worship which are strongly associated with the Goddess. These are pilgrimage, sacrifice, tantric worship and possession.
Pilgrimage is a strong tradition within Hinduism and Goddess worship is no exception in this area. There are a huge number of pilgrimage sites associated with the Goddess and or with local goddesses. The most well known however are probably the Sakti Pithas, places of power. The Pithas provide a powerful idea of Mother India as identified with the Goddess herself. An important point about pilgrimages is that people often report feeling 'called' to them. According to Kinsley there was an attempt sometime during the middle ages to unify all the pithas associated with goddesses in to a single scheme which represented the idea that Devi underlies all the various forms of the goddesses. This idea was expressed in the mythology by an episode added to the end of the myth of Satis' destruction at Daksa's sacrifice. Shiva, in grief, picks up her body and wanders all over India slicing off parts of her body, each part falling on a particular site, until he realises that her body is gone and then regains his composure. For followers of the Goddess these places of pilgrimage are highly important and so pilgrimage has become an essential component of goddess worship. According to Erndl:
'Pilgrimage to places sacred to the Goddess is one of the most vigorous and visible aspects of the cult - indeed one could call it the focal point.'
A strong feature of Goddess worship is the use of sacrifice. The sacrificing of a buffalo to the Goddess can be seen as connected to Devi's slaying of the buffalo demon. The Goddess' drinking of wine whilst she slays the buffalo demon is also seen as representing her drinking the blood of the sacrifice. In Brahmanical forms of Hinduism the idea of the sacrifice is extracted out of the ritual, as it would be polluting. Brahmins make offerings of blood substitute to local or family goddesses. In the popular religion of the villages however, and especially amongst the lower castes, blood sacrifice is an integral part of the worship of the local goddess.
An important aspect worship in relation to Devi is that of tantra, especially in the Sakta tantric schools, who view the Devi as supreme, such as the Srividya . Tantric sadhana, spiritual discipline, has two parts. Firstly that which is described as 'external' ritual which includes the use of material substances and secondly 'internal' contemplative practices such as the recitation of mantras. The Tantric adept tries to gradually internalise the external acts. Tantric practices can be seen therefore as essentially esoteric as they represent an 'additional' class of practices, concepts and traditions outside of the accepted Hindu sources and norms.
Finally I would like to briefly turn to a more popular practice relating to the worship of Devi , possession. Possession is normally thought of as part of the 'little tradition' and confined to low caste and poor people in rural areas. Goddess possession, however, takes place in urban as well as rural areas, by low and high castes and amongst the educated as well as the uneducated. It also can occur amongst men as well as women, though the later is the most common. Possession is a way that the Goddess makes herself manifest in the world and becomes available to her devotees. It allows verbal communication between the devotee and the Goddess and also allows the human vehicle participation in her power.
In conclusion I feel that worship of the Goddess may have existed and been popular in the Indus valley before the Aryan migration and the advent of Vedic religion. Throughout the first to fourth centuries various goddesses where incorporated in to the Brahmanical religion as a way of extending and developing power over those who did not still accept their authority. In this process a rich and complex theology, saktism, developed around the Goddess which began to see her as the highest principle underlying all creation. This theology may have been informed by popular mythology and possibly influenced it in turn. Finally Goddess worship in India is a living tradition practised across all castes and social divisions and as such has been deployed in ways which can have both negative and positive messages in the lives of women and men.