HINDU CONCEPT OF DEVI (GODDESS)
(DISCOURSE BY N.R. SRINIVASAN—2006)
In Hindu Mythology Mother Goddess comes before Trinity—Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. Before starting any Vedic ritual, mantras are chanted to the presiding deity of the holy waters. The presiding deity is Goddess in the form of the river. Any kind of creativity of bestowing of life seems to evoke a symbolism of motherhood. This correlation explains the common practice of calling the rivers "mothers" a custom which is most noticed in the case of "Matha Ganga" but common for other rivers as well. The prayer is addressed to the rivers such as Ganga, Yamuna, Saraswathi and others. The holy waters are prayed to make their presence in the waters, to purify the place where ritual is done, to purify one who takes bath in it and the assembly who witness the ritual etc. This is expressly stated in the Mahanarayanopanishad and the popular verse "Ganga cha Yamuna chaiva Godavari Saraswati; Narmadaa Sindhu Kaveri jalesmin sannidhim kuru--Oh Goddess Ganga, Jamuna, Saraswati, Godavari, Narmada, Sindhu and Kaveri, please make your presence in the water used for the ritual". Vedas consider river water as primordial womb—"he who was born of old……was born of water—right from waters, the soul drew forth and shaped a person"—Kathopanishad. The kalasa sthaapana (pot filled with water) puja starts with one such worship of mother as the first step of in all pujas normally.
Worship of Mother Goddess is known as "Srividya" and occupies a special place in Hindu spiritual practice. This is a very ancient system that has a long history tracing back to Vedas. Puranas, poetic verses and shlokas praise the Mother-goddess and give a detailed account of her powers. Hindu Goddess is uniquely popular and is a positive figure of feminine piety, grace and power in India, in the Hindu Kingdom of Nepal and wherever Hinduism flourished and practiced.
Durga, the militant Mother Goddess, is the most popular of all incarnations. She is worshipped as Mahishasura Mardini (Killer of Mahishasura) during autumn festival of Dussehra-also called Durga Puja in Bengal, where it is the most important of all Hindu annual festivals. Durga is then represented as ten-armed woman warrior, brandishing her weapons, riding on a lion and vanquishing the demon-buffalo, Mahishasura. The image refers to a well known mythical event narrated in the Devi Mahaatmya, a text dating back to7th Century AD, which is being recited as an essential component of Durga Puja, singing the glory of Goddess Durga. The righteous Durga has indeed another face, that one of the more ambiguous Kaali, the "Black One", a figure of fury and destruction-although Kaali, too, ultimately fights evils.
In the Devi, Mahatmayam, Kaali is born from Durga's fury; she seems to embody Durga's furor, surging when she loses control or when she faces an awesome enemy. Despite her fearful appearance, Kaali, the most important of Hinduism's Goddesses, is widely worshipped in most of North India, particularly in Bengal and Assam regions, where she is the object of Shakti cult. In Southern Culture of India (the so called Dravidian culture), Kaali is worshipped and popularly called Mariamman. There are many famous temples in the South exclusively built for Mariamman, including one in Singapore, where Tamilians dominate the Hindu population. She is worshipped especially by caste followers of Sudra Varna Dharma. Animal sacrifice was once very prevalent among them, which is now banned.
The belief among Bengalis is that Durga, a manifestation of Parvathi, daughter of Himavan, a spouse of Shiva, leaves her husband's place on the 7th day of the month of Aswin (sept/oct) and comes down to earth for her devotees' sake and stays for 10 days i.e. till Vijaya Dasami, after which, she returns to Kailasa, where she and Shiva have their abode. The worship of Shakti dates back to Rigveda where she is praised as the supporter of the earth living in heaven. Uma of golden hue of Kena Upanishad is the 'Great Mother of the Universe'. The Saivas made her the consort of Shiva. She is known as Shakti, Devi, Chandi, Chamundi, Durga, Uma and Mahaamaaya. Shakti is the Power of Existence, Knowledge and Bliss of Brahman (the Supreme) and is inseparable form "It". Shiva is the pure indeterminate Brahman, while Shakti, the Power of Maaya, makes him determinate, endowed with the attributes of Knowledge, Will and Action. Saundarya Lahari of Sankara says: "Shiva when he is united with Shakti is able to create; otherwise he is unable even to move. Maaya or Prakriti, the matrix of the world, lies within Shakti. The souls mistake themselves as "finite and many" due to the influence of Maaya. Liberation is due to Knowledge that the so called soul is non-different from Brahman. Knowledge of Shakti leads to the above knowledge. The Shakti Aagamas or Tantras glorify the Supreme as the Mother of the Universe under one of the names and forms of Devi. In the Tantras, the female aspirant is looked upon as an embodiment of Shakti and, she is worshipped through rituals like "Kumari puja" (virgin worship) and Shakti upaasana (goddess worship).
Shakti is Power in general and includes every particular form of it like motion, kinetic, gravitation, heat, elasticity, electricity etc. Force is power translated to material plane. Energy and power are represented by subtle mind and gross matter respectively. Mother Goddess breaks into Power and becomes active for creation, maintenance and dissolution. Worship of 'Parabrahman' as 'Paraashakti', the feminine form, especially as Mother yields quick results; it is in the nature of Mother to forgive faults of her children. This is the basis of Shakta Philosophy.
Vedas glorify goddesses in various mantras--Sri Sooktam, Deevee sooktam, and Saraswathi Sooktam in Rigveda Samhita; Neelaa Sooktam and Bhoosooktam--in Taittareya Samhita and Durgaasooktam in Taittareya Aranyakam. Sankara, Vedanta Desika and several other gurus have composed devotional hymns in glorification of Goddessess, Lakshmi, Saraswati, Durga, Annapoorna and others. Thus goddesses have been glorified and worshipped from very early Vedic period to the modern days.
Worship of Goddess has found favor with great spiritual leaders like Adishankara, Vedanta Desika and Ramakrishna Paramahamsa etc. Paramahamsa is a person who has attained Samaadhi, the super-conscious state of mind. Ramakrishna Paramahamsa said: "when you desire anything, pray to Mother Kaali in a lonely place, with tears in your eyes, and your wishes shall be fulfilled". He also said it is possible to attain Self-realization within three days. Mother worship, in brief, consists of mantra Panchadasi, the Yantra, Srichakra and Tantra of the ultimate union with the Supreme.
Saraswati is glorified and worshipped in Vedic rituals as Devi and sacred river as seen in Rigveda Samhita-"Ambitamae nadeetamae devitamae… Ima Brahma jushaswa vaajineevati". In Puranas, Saraswati is wedded to the creator Brahma. The creator needs to be associated with the Goddess of knowledge, since creation has to be supported by the knowledge to create. All creative endeavors can spring forth from and sustain themselves only by knowledge of what and whom to create. Saraswati means, one who gives "saara" (essence) of "sva" (own self).
Lakshmi Gayathri in Srisooktam of Rigveda Samhita glorifies goddess Lakshmi and offers prayers to her, and, refers to her as the consort of Vishnu-"Mahalakshmi cha vidmahe vishnupatnee cha dheemahi; tannoe Lakshmee prachoedayaat"--we meditate upon Mahalakshmi, the consort of Lord Vishnu, the resplendent lady; May that Lakshmi prompt us in all our deeds. Wealth besides material prosperity includes the noble values of life, the power of the mind and the intellect, moral and ethical qualities etc. In order to maintain life, one must possess the wealth to do so. The God of Maintenance Vishnu has, therefore, necessarily to be associated with the Goddess of Wealth.
In Kenopanishad, Parvati is addressed as Uma, the daughter of Himavaan, resplendent with many ornaments. Indra approaches Uma to get the knowledge of Brahman as he considers her, the most knowledgeable and authoritative amongst gods. He thus came to know Brahman through Uma.
Earth is addressed as Goddess Earth and offered prayers in the following mantra of Maha Narayanopanishad (30), "Oh Goddess Earth, you bear the trampling of horses and chariots and the strides of Shri Mahavishnu. I bear you with reverence on my head; protect me always…. You are well known as Bhoomi, Dhenu, Dharani and the supporter of all the worlds".
Mahanarayanopanishad glorifies and offers prayers to Durga in Durga Gayathri Mantra (gaayanat traayati iti--that which protects you by singing/chanting) "We meditate upon Durga who belongs to Katyayana gotra (lineage) and who is the resplendent maiden. May that Durga prompt us " Here Durga is given the same status along with the male deities of Narayana as in Vishnu gayathri, Rudra in Rudra gayathri, Ganesha in Ganesha gayathri etc, in the same Upanishad.
The Gods and Goddesses are the first self revelation of the Absolute, the male being the personification of passive aspect of the female, the activating energy (Shakti). Uma represents Prakriti (matter). Uma and Parvati are her maiden names. She is also popularly referred as Annapoorna meaning "Bestower of Food". 'Anna' though translated as 'food' has a wider connotation and includes all material objects of wealth, which are food for five sense organs.
All three Goddesses (Lakshmi, Saraswati and Parvati) together are represented by the fierce looking Goddess Durga or Kaali. Kaali is worshipped by a seeker to invoke his/her latent power of destroying and thereby meaning annihilating all his/her negative tendencies and qualities which veil his/her Higher self. The benign aspects of Shakti are Saraswati, Lakshmi and Parvati. The terrible aspects of Shakti find expression as Kaali and Durga.
The role of the Goddess in Indian political life has been fairly documented as it is associated to two themes which have generated a number of researches:
- Women's participation in anti-colonial movement from 1880 to 1947 (the image of Mother India, Bharat Mata and Sita, the distressed).
2. Political careers of Indira Gandhi and Jayalalitha in a male dominated politics. The Goddess is brought on the political stage only in times of crisis, big or small, civil disobedience, war, emergency, electoral campaign and political change of guard. The transgression permitted by the reference to the Goddess does not persist once a more normal situation is back.
During Dasain, the Nepalese equivalent of Durgapuja festival, Goddess is worshipped as Durga, a fearful woman warrior and the triumphant one. In the other face of the Goddess, a little girl is chosen to embody the Goddess for few years (until puberty), as the living image of Durga. Each year, the Kumari puts a Tika, i.e. Red auspicious mark on the forehead of the King, a gesture which signifies that she, the Goddess protects his legitimacy over the kingdom.
It may not be too far from truth if we conclude that it is undeniable that the lone male symbolism of deity has been a major contributor to the exclusion of women from positions of respect or authority in western society and religion. If approached critically and carefully, the Hindu Goddesses are the greatest stimulant to peoples' imagination and to peoples' speculation about the meaning of the Goddess to those societies where females had been denigrated and denied in the imagery theological tradition. If one only calls God "He" then such a God is not the Supreme Being but a personification of a male centered view of reality. As our culture is dominated by male energy, not of a higher but lower order, naturally we project this idea upon God as well. God is both male and female and beyond both male and female. One can call the Divine "he" relative to masculine qualities of the Cosmic Being like strength, justice, will or discernment. One can call God "She" in reference to its feminine qualities like, love, devotion and receptivity. One can call God as "It" (Brahman /Atman) relative to its neutral qualities like infinity or pure existence. In Hinduism, God is symbolized and represented by attractive power of He, She, It, Bisexual (ardhanaareeshwara, linga- yoni union etc), Hermaphrodite images (Narasimha, Hayagriva etc) with the ultimate goal of "Ekam viprah bahuda vadanti"--the One the wise call or represent by many names and forms"
On September 2, 2014 Prime Minister Modi while addressing a gathering in Japan said: If the Hindu female o pantheon was likened with a ministry, then education was with Goddess Saraswati, Finance with Lakshmi, Security with Mahaakali, Defense with Durga and Food Security with the goddess Annapoorna!
This lecture has been prepared by extracting, abridging and editing texts by N.R.Srinivasan for Vedanta class, at Sri Ganesha Temple Nashville, from the following sources:
- T.R.Viswanathan, Sanatana Dharma, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Mumbai, 400007, India.
- Nitin Kumar, Every woman a Goddess-The Ideals of Indian Art, Exotic India, 2000.
- Nora Mandasamy, Saraswati Devi, Shakti Sadhana, Internet.
- Rita M. Gross, Hindu Female Deities, Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Oxford University Press.
- Swami Devaroopananda, Mantra Pushpam, Ramakrishna Mutt, Mumbai, 1998.
SHAKTI PEETHAAS--DESTINATION FOR ALL YOUR SPIRITUAL NEEDS
The Shakti Peethas are places of worship consecrated to the goddess Shakti or Sati, the female principal of Hinduism and the main deity of the Shakta sect. They are sprinkled throughout the Indian subcontinent.
The Legend of Shakti Peetha
It is believed that Lord Brahma performed a yajna to please Shakti & Lord Shiva. Goddess Shakti emerged, separating from Shiva and helped Brahma in the creation of the universe. Brahma was extremely happy and decided to give Shakti back to Shiva. Therefore his son Daksha performed several yagna to obtain Shakti as his daughter in the form of Sati. His yagna paid off as Sati was brought to this universe with the intention of marrying her to Lord Shiva.
Lord Shiva’s curse on Brahma had Lord Brahma’s loose his fifth head due to his lie in front of Shiva. Daksha started hating Lord Shiva because of this and decided not to let Lord Shiva and Sati get married. However, Sati got attracted to Shiva and finally one day Shiva and Sati got married. This marriage only increased Daksha’s hatred towards Lord Shiva.
Daksha performed a yagna with a desire to take revenge on Lord Shiva. Daksha invited all the deities to the yajna except Lord Shiva and Sati. The fact that she was not invited did not deter Sati from attending the yagna. She expressed her desire to attend the yagna to Shiva, who tried his best to dissuade her from going. Shiva eventually relented and Sati went to the yagna. Sati, being an uninvited guest, was not given any respect at the yagna. Furthermore, Daksha insulted Shiva. Sati was unable to bear her father’s insults toward her husband, so she immolated herself.
Enraged at the insult and the injury, Shiva in Veerabhadra avatar destroyed Daksha’s yagna, cut off Daksha’s head, and later replaced it with that of a male goat as he restored him to life. Still immersed in grief, Shiva picked up the remains of Sati’s body, and performed the Tandava, the celestial dance of destruction, across all creation. The other Gods requested Vishnu to intervene to stop this destruction, towards which Vishnu used the Sudarshana Chakra, which cut through the Sati’s corpse. The various parts of the body fell at several spots all through the Indian subcontinent and formed sites which are known as Shakti Peethas today.
Four Adi Shakti Pithas
Note: Various sources have been used to conduct detailed research on the Shakti Peethas. The sources include: the Shiva Charitra, the Yogini Tantra, Tantra Chudamini, the Devi Bhagvad and the Ashta Shakti.
Several Hindu religious texts like the Shiva Purana and the Devi Bhagvad put four Shakti Peethas in the centre of the cosmic energy that governs Shaivite philosophy:
- Bimala (Pada Khanda)
- Tara Tarini
- Dakhina Kalika
The Ashtashakti Purana and the Kalika Purana (written in Sanskrit) talk at length about these Adi Shakti Peethas:
“Bimala Pada khandancha, Sthana khandancha Tarini (Tara Tarini), Kamakshya Yoni khandancha, Mukha khandancha Kalika (Dakshina Kalika) Anga pratyanga sanghena Vishnu Chakra Kshyta nacha”
Whereas the Brihat Samhita actually goes on to identify exactly where these places are.
Bimala: The idol of the goddess Bimala is located within the temple complex of the Jagannath Temple complex in Puri. Just beside it is the famous Rohini Kund. It is believed that the ‘pada’ or feet of Adi Shakti or Dakshayani fell there and a shrine was later erected for the worship of her feet. This temple is considered the first of the Shakti Peethas. Lord Jagannath is worshipped as the Bhairav protecting Parvati’s feet. This shows an interesting fusion of Vaishnavite and Shaivite philosophies.
Tara Tarini: The goddess Tara Tarini is representative of the ‘sthana’ or breasts of Mata Sati. Situated in Behrampur, Odisha, this shrine has been the most fortunate of all. Not only has it witnessed the presence of revered avatars of Vishnu like Shree Ram Chandra and Shri Krishna but also great masters of meditation and sages like Jagadguru Shankaracharya and Balayogi Neelkanthi. It has acted as a meeting ground for centuries for various religious traditions like the Vedic cult, the Brahmanical cult, Hinduism and Buddhism.
Kamakhya: Located on the Neelachal Hill in Guwahati, Assam, the Kamakhya temple stands for the Yoni Khanda of Mata Sati. It is the main temple that is situated amidst a number of temples dedicated to Sati. The Kamakhya Temple, alongwith the Kalighat Temple, has been covered in detail later on in the series.
Kalighat: Situated in Kolkata, West Bengal, the Kalighat Mandir enshrines the Mukha Khanda of Dakshina Kalika. The name Calcutta is rumoured to be derived from the word Kalighat. The temple is now on the banks of a small river called the Adi Ganga- the original course of the Hooghly river.These four peethas have been covered individually but it is important to get some sense of the importance of the Adi Peethas. They are central to the spiritual science associated with the Shakti Peethas and are regarded as centres of cosmic, spiritual power.
The Divinity of Science: Shakti Peethas
Shakti peethas are those pockets of divinity that govern Hindu spiritual life. Every devotee knows what his spirituality means to him. The reason why I use the word spirituality and not religion is because to every person, his religion appeals to him differently and individually but the one thing that connects all believers is their spirituality. India is a land of divinity; our myths, legends and even the stories we heard as children from our grand-mothers acts as a force that strengthens our beliefs every step of the way. Spirituality connects you with The Supreme, and The Supreme manifests itself in every atom of a devotee’s spirit. Temples in India are perhaps manifestations of that divinity in spirituality. If you’re a true devotee, only you know that inexplicable pleasure of a ‘darshan’.
What is it that makes the Shakti Peethas such important spiritual symbols? Is it the centuries of myth and legend associated with them? Is it the grand scale of architecture, art and culture that has gone into establishing them? Or is it simply the belief of those million devotees whose prayers to The Mother binds them together in universal harmony and fraternity?
These questions are difficult to answer. Religion is one of the most inexplicable emotions and the very spirit of devotion is unquestionable. One of the primary reasons why Shakti peethas are important symbols of spirituality is perhaps because in religious literature, they are regarded as important sources of Shaivite energy. A branch of spiritual theory focuses on the power and chemistry of energies. Shakti peethas are symbols of love and rage: the most powerful forces of energy that have existed till date, and it is these forces that combine with the believer’s devotion to give rise to a positive spectrum in the universe. But to a non-believer, what are these forces made up of? Where do they come from? A theory states that positive spectrums are created perhaps by devotion as much as by mythology. These positive energies govern celestial order and bring prosperity to the lives of all those it touches.
Even psychologically, these energies serve to strengthen us. You might have wondered why a visit to a temple relieves you to the extent it does. Scientifically speaking, your body sends signals to your brain reaffirming doubt and providing security. Your body, mind and soul are as affected by these energies as by physical elements in nature. Note, for instance, the study that shows that all the Shakti Peethas are located at points of extreme energy-detection. What is this energy that cannot be discussed? All these areas are pulsating with emotions and forces that have been hard to describe. Miracles have been witnessed in the areas surrounding Shakti Peethas…devotees have never been disappointed by what The Mother had to offer them. There is just something different about those who have visited all; devotees speak of a strange sense of fulfilment that envelopes them after they have sighted Sati Mata in her parts, only to find her in her entirety.
South East Asian tourism has often made use of these Shakti Peethas to develop their programmes. What is rather unfortunate is the fact that places of devotion are gradually being converted to tourist hubs. People from around the globe accumulate in these Shakti Peethas without really knowing their spiritual significance. The architecture is marvelled at, the historical aspects are discussed but seldom do non- believers find the inner tranquillity that believers do in such places. Over the next few articles, we will be looking at what constitutes the essence of each of the fifty two shakti peethas, when is the best time to visit, the daily schedules and how to get there. What is most important to carry with you, however, is not a garland of flowers or money as offering but devotion in your heart. If you’re still waiting for your spirituality to call out to you, this trip is worth your time.
Shakti Peethas – A Travel Guide
Spirituality is best enjoyed when nurtured. If you have recently felt Shaivite energies calling out to you, if you feel the restlessness of spirituality engulf you and if you’re planning to make a spiritual journey across the Shakti Peethas, now would be a good time to make the pilgrimage. Here are a couple of pointers you must keep in mind before venturing out on what will be the greatest journey of your life.
- There are fifty-one Shakti Peethas in all, littering the Indian subcontinent. A good idea would be to start from your birthplace. In Hindu mythology, the birthplace is accorded special respect as the source of your life-force. When Sati Mata’s body fell in different parts of Asia, these shrines were converted into magnificent temples under the patronage of different kings. It is often rumoured that these holy places have more than just a temple that’s special to them. Miraculous healings and great tales of prosperity all around.
- A good idea would be to travel east from your birthplace. If there are no Shakti Peethas east, travel south. There are places with more than one shakti peethas, and usually they are close by. You can get from one shakti peetha to its adjacent one in less than a day. Travelling east is considered auspicious and it would also be logical to follow one direction.
- Until and unless bound by age and health issues, it is best to visit these places by train rather than by flight. Not only is it cost-effective, but the time lapses would also give you space to revel in the glory of what you have witnesses. Most peethas would be a bus ride or a train ride apart. Travelling the length and breadth of the subcontinent by land – only if time allows you to do so, of course- is a great idea.
- You meet many of the same Mother’s creations whom you are worshipping and you also find out things about your country that you didn’t know. The sights you see will be worth it! The clouds are the abode of Gods, as many grandmothers would tell ever-so-believing little children- but the best way of finding God is perhaps by land.
- Avoid travelling alone as much as you can. Unfortunate as it may be, due to various reasons, these places are bursting to the brim mostly throughout the year. Several kinds of people make visits to these pilgrimage spots and often, with motives that are far from holy. These “tourist spots” that are always crowded are a great place for pickpockets and kidnappers to earn their living.
- Speaking of those who use the name of God to perpetrate evil in the world, also be wary of eve-teasers and ‘organisations’ that ask for donations. Do not trust these people with your money for you never know what happens to it later on. Your level of devotion is not dependent on money and God will love you no matter how much you put into the donation box. If you really do want to spread the love, a good idea would be to visit trusted NGOs in and around and speak to them regarding how you can be of use. Converting your spiritual journey into a social one is a beautiful idea…there are more than one ways of reaching out to your Creator!
- Money is not the important factor. Your time is the most precious gift you can give away; once the prayers for the day are done, look around for orphanages and old age homes that need volunteers.
- Avoid eating out too much during these spiritual tours, especially roadside food. Several places have had incidents when people have lost their lives due to severe food poisoning. Unfortunately, the goodness restricts itself within temple walls.
- If you suffer from breathing problems, avoid the peak hours of the day for visiting temples. The temple tends to get very crowded and you may even feel claustrophobic. A very good idea for you is to visit at dawn. Not only is the temple relatively less crowded, you get to witness the holiness of morning prayers that will simply make the rest of your day. Honestly, there is no better way of starting your day!
- It is better to plan ahead, but do not think about planning your entire trip from the very beginning. There are several organisations that have fully planned trips to the shakti peethas , but these tend to be either too expensive or have too jam-packed a schedule. In case you miss the arati at one place, you will have to skip that and move on to the next which will leave you with regret at the end of your journey. The best idea would be to plan the first ten in advance, and while you’re on the seventh, make calls and start the planning process.
- It is better to make arrangements in local dharamshalas rather than expensive hotels, the simple reason being that you get a taste of the real spirituality you are in search of. Living simply for this while only serves to enhance your pilgrimage. You may also book guest houses that are available for rent in all these places.
- Walk as much as you can. Again, if health and age allow you, I would really suggest you to conduct as many walking tours as possible. It is said that shakti peethas have divinity in the soil. Be as closely attached to the soil as possible. Meet new people, attend all the temple functions possible.
The most important tip to follow is simplicity but safety. It is rather sad that one has to talk about safety issues while discussing spirituality but so be it. The Shakti Peethas are worth the visit but you must be wary. There are people waiting to cheat you at every step of your spiritual awakening… perhaps part of the pilgrimage is learning to follow the path of spirituality fused with modern-day practicality!