Devi in Hinduism
Visions of the divine as female, both as goddesses and as a cosmic principle, suffuse Hinduism. As we have seen, there are many mother goddesses, and most of the prominent gods of the Hindu pantheon are paired with a sexual consort or wife. Vishnu has his Lakshmi, Shiva has his Parvati, and the once great Brahma is now all but overshadowed by his wife Sarasvati, goddess of knowledge and the arts. These goddesses are thought to be the divine counterparts or complements to their gods, providing a devotee with access to divine attributes such as wealth, creative power, or knowledge and wisdom. One of the most important goddesses in India is the River Ganges. Descending to earth through the Himalayas, she is said to be the celestial Milky Way, her fall being softened by the mass of dreadlocks that cover Shiva’s head. Through subterranean channels her cleansing powers are dispersed into all of India’s rivers, which are, themselves, looked upon as the Ganges. Finally, because of its many sacred rivers, ponds, and lakes, and innumerable other holy sites, India itself is considered a goddess. As Kathleen Erndl observed, “Of all the world’s religions, Hinduism has the most elaborate living goddess traditions.” (Kathleen M. Erndl in The Hindu World, edited by Sushil Mittal and Gene Thursby, New York: Routledge, 2004, p. 159, her emphasis.) Devotees who choose the goddess Devi rather than Vishnu or Shiva call themselves Shaktas. Numbering around 50 million, they envision Devi as the creative power, or shakti, of the universe. She is seen as encompassing all the other goddesses, who express her many aspects. These partial manifestations of Devi include the consorts of Vishnu and Shiva as well as several horrific forms such as Chamunda, Bhairavi, Candi, and Kali. For example, Chamunda, the goddess of famine, is the most prominent “mother” in a group know as the Seven Mothers. An emaciated hag, she abducts and eats infants and drinks blood from her begging bowl. Likewise, Kali (“dark one”) wears a necklace of skulls and wields four savage weapons with her four arms to butcher her enemies before eating their flesh and drinking their blood on the field of battle.
The most popular manifestation of Devi, however, is the goddess Durga. A beautiful, richly clad goddess with ten arms, she moves about the world astride a lion. Her most famous myth, told throughout India, begins with the familiar defeat of the gods at the hands of the demons, and the Buffalo Demon’s rise to supreme power in the cosmos. Helpless in the face of this new ruler, Vishnu and Shiva become enraged, their combined anger producing the goddess Durga, a power far greater than either. After a prolonged battle in which the Buffalo Demon changes form many times, Durga beheads him and restores order to the universe. In late September and early October her great victory is celebrated in the Durga-Puja, a nine-day festival in which almost all the inhabitants of Bengal take part. At the end of the festival, goats and buffalos are slaughtered in her honor, and the many temporary devotional images that her followers have used to worship her during the Puja—thousands upon thousands—are thrown into the Ganges after Durga’s presence leaves them.
While it might seem that most of Devi’s manifestations are fierce goddesses, her followers nonetheless see her as their loving mother. Her violence and great power are the attributes of a protective mother who cherishes and disciplines her children, while annihilating any who would threaten them. From a metaphysical perspective,
moreover, Devi is understood as using her powers of annihilation to dispel the popular but false notion that the spirit (purusha) is superior to matter (prakriti), and that salvation is a process of liberating oneself from the material world through austerities and renunciation. Unlike the followers of Shiva, who identify their god with spirit and honor him as the great renouncer, Shaktas see Devi as the creative force of the universe and honor her as the basis for its physicality—its substance or matter. For Shaktas, therefore, the physical body is good, not evil, and the true path to salvation must unify the spirit with the body by actually subjecting the spirit to the body. In a striking reversal of the male-dominated relationship between Shiva and his consort that is envisioned by the Shaivas, a popular Shakta image depicts Devi, as Kali, dancing wildly on Shiva’s pale, lifeless body. In subordinating Shiva’s passive, austere energy to her active, creative energy, Devi is able to lead her devotees to salvation by joining physical enjoyment (bhukti) with release.
The devotional practices of Shaktas take two forms, often called exoteric, or public, and esoteric, or secretive. The former largely resemble the bhakti practices of Vaishnavas and Shaivas, but with Devi’s murti as the object of devotion. The secretive practices, by contrast, include visualization techniques that use yantras, which are abstract images of the goddess; a form of Tantric discipline known as Kundalini Yoga; and the cultivation of magical powers called siddhis.
A yantra is a two-dimensional, geometric design. It typically consists of a square perimeter containing concentric circles, triangles (half of which are inverted), and arcs resembling the petals of a lotus flower. The upright triangles are spirit (purusha), the inverted ones are matter (prakriti). The interior of the square is made accessible through entrances on the square’s four sides,
which are aligned to the cardinal points of the compass. These different features of the yantra, as well as the additional shapes formed by the intersection of the circles, triangles, and arcs, correspond to different aspects of the Goddess. At the very center of the yantra is a small area that gives access to the essence of the Goddess. The devotee’s goal is to reach this point by transmuting his or her being into the Goddess herself. By metaphysically advancing though one of the entrances, the devotee crosses over into Devi’s sacred world. He or she then chants mantras and uses hand movements (mudras) to draw on Devi’s creative energy. Since this process is thought to involve the manipulation of tremendous power, the yantra is thought of as the essential tool for controlling a person’s progress and for steering him or her in the desired direction. While using the yantra, the devotee will also ingest certain substances, understood as divine aspects of the Goddess entering into his or her own body.
Figure 1.14 The Shri Chakra, a popular yantra design, with upward and downward-pointing triangles.
In Kundalini Yoga, shakti, Devi’s creative power, is envisioned as a snake sleeping in a coil at the base of the human spine. Through the use of mantras, techniques of visualizing the deities and their attributes, and other yogic procedures such as breath control, the practitioner attempts to awaken this snake and guide it through six power centers in the human body. These are called chakras (discs), and are located along the spinal column and in the head. As shakti moves up through the chakras, the deities associated with each power center are activated and join the Goddess, such that she becomes all the deities, or brahman. Since the chakras in the body correspond to different parts of the yantra diagram, yantric techniques and Kundalini-Yoga often go hand- in-hand. If successful, a practitioner will guide Kundalini from the chakra near the anus through chakras located in the sexual organs, the navel, the heart, and the throat, to the point at the top of the nose between the eyebrows. This last chakra is the “thousand-petalled lotus,” where shakti (as matter) joins Shiva (spirit).
Figure 1.15 A diagram of the human body, showing the location of the six chakras.
When this occurs, the practitioner experiences the eternal union and divine bliss of Shiva-Shakti in his or her own body.
Ritually and socially, esoteric Shaktism exists on the margins of Hinduism because it requires devotees to manipulate deities in order to gain siddhis (supernatural powers), which outsiders often suspect are used for nefarious purposes. These suspicions are rein- forced by the movement’s protocols of secrecy, for its doctrines and practices are transmitted only to devotees, only in private interactions with spiritual mentors (gurus), and only after devotees have undergone a rigorous testing and purification process. Finally, the movement also endorses certain ritual practices known as left-handed Tantra which violate conventional Hindu notions of purity.
Among these left-handed practices, those that are particularly disturbing to outsiders are ones that involve self-immolation, the Five Ms, and (it is rumored) human sacrifice. The Five Ms are five things whose name in Sanskrit begins with the letter “m”: fish (matsya), parched grain (mudra), meat (mans), alcohol (madhu), and illicit sexual intercourse (maithun). These work according to a reversal of Hindu norms, which Tantric practitioners argue is necessary in this final, corrupt age of the world (the Kali Yuga). Most Hindus consider the Five Ms to be powerful sources of impurity and bad karma. In Tantra, however, practitioners attempt to master and manipulate their dangerous power, and use it in their quest to become gods. By ingesting one or more of the first four Ms in carefully planned rituals, they internalize and absorb this power. And in those branches of the tradition that practice illicit inter- course, the male seeks to absorb the shakti of the female, who is envisioned as the Great Goddess herself.
From the book : Understanding the Religions of the World An Introduction By Willoughby Deming