The Goddess Bhuvanesvari
Within the Tantric tradition, the Ten Mahavidyas (literally meaning “Great knowledge”) are believed to be the ten forms of Mahadevi, the Great Goddess (Kinsley 57). The Mahavidyas are separate goddesses, but they are part of and understood to be different facets of Mahadevi. The term Devi is usually used to refer to the wife of Siva – whether Parvati, Durga, or Kali – but it is also used to describe other goddesses (Hawley et al., 318). Mostly, it is used to describe the Goddess, the one whose form is absolute feminine reality (Hawley et al. 318). She has many sides, all expressed through different goddesses, including the Mahavidyas. Her gentle side is worshiped through Uma, Parvati, Bhuvanesvari, Savitri, Sita, and many others (Prakashan 16). Her terrible or ferocious side is worshiped through such goddesses as Kali, Bhairavi, and Chamunda (Prakashan 16).
The first of the Ten Mahavidyas is Kali, “The Black One,” a fierce and terrible warrior (Hawley et al. 320). Following are Tara (The Goddess Who Guides Through Troubles), Tripura-sundari (She Who is Lovely in the Three Worlds), Bhuvanesvari (She Whose Body is the World), Chinnamasta (The Self-Decapitated Goddess), Bhairavi (The Fierce One), Dhumavati (The Widow Goddess), Bagalamukhi (The Paralyser), Matangi (The Outcaste Goddess), and finally, Kamala (The Lotus Goddess) (Kinsley 9). [The order and composition of the Mahavidyas varies somewhat, but for the purpose of this essay I will use the list above]. In some myths the Mahavidyas originate from Kali. In others, Sati, Parvati, Durga, or Sataksi become the source of the Mahavidyas when they assert their independence from their husbands or male counterparts (Kinsley 22). However, the Mahadevi myth is the version most widely accepted.
The Mahavidyas are charged with maintaining cosmic order and morality (dharma) by eliminating evil and corruption (Kinsley 20). Each was created to bring a positive change to the world. Kali was created to kill the demons of the world; Bhuvanesvari was created to save the world when it sank beneath the waters of the cosmic ocean (Kinsley 21). Demon slaying is a key motif. The Mahavidyas are believed to be based on the ten avatars of Visnu, his divine descendents that manifest in the physical world (Bhattacharyya 229). Each Mahavidya corresponds to an avatar. All the Mahavidyas are associated with magical powers, especially Bagalamukhi. Some have powers of attraction, others can kill a person just by willing it (Kinsley 56).
Bhuvanesvari, the fourth of the Ten Mahavidyas, embodies and controls the cosmos (Kinsley 131). According to one myth, she was created when the sun god, Surya, after receiving soma from the rsis, created the three worlds (the ancestral, human, and godly planes). Bhuvanesvari then appeared to protect and watch over the worlds, having not existed until they were brought into being. For this reason she is regarded as “mistress of the world” (Kinsley 129). She is considered part of the world or the world itself, both a source of creation and creation personified. She is queen of the cosmos. From her the world was created, and will be returned to at the end of the cycle. She is the mother of Brahma, Visnu, and Siva (Kinsley 134). Thus the cycle of creation, maintenance, and destruction is formed and maintained by Bhuvanesvari.
Bhuvanesvari is particularly associated with the earth and creation, and provides the energy needed for existence and life (Kinsley 131). She is believed to embody each of the five elements (bhutas), and to have an intimate connection to the physical world (prakrti) (Kinsley 133). Bhuvanesvari can manifest as mountains, stars, rivers, anything; she is pervasive in the physical world (Kinsley, 130). She is also known as Bhuvana (Mistress of the World), Sarvesi (Mistress of All), Sarvarupa (She Whose Form is All), and Visvarupa (She Whose Form is the World), to name a few (Kinsley 131). Unlike some of the other Mahavidyas, Bhuvanesvari did not have a wide-spread cult or following prior to be incorporated as one of the Ten (Kinsley 129).
Bhuvanesvari is beautiful, with a smiling face, flowing black hair, and a golden complexion (Kinsley 140). Sometimes, she is described as having a red, or bluish pallor (Kinsley 133). Her features are feminine: a small nose, large eyes, and full red lips (Kinsley 140). Her breasts are full and leaking milk, emphasising the motherly role she plays in the cosmos (Kinsley 11). In one myth Siva grew a third eye so that he could appreciate her beauty more (Kinsley 140). Her smiling and gentle demeanour is in contrast to some of the other Mahavidyas, such as Kali. They are still beautiful, but they are more fearsome; depicted as standing on corpses, wearing garlands of human heads, or naked and covered in blood. All the Mahavidyas are fearsome, but this aspect is stressed as a key feature in some and not in others. Kali, Tara, Bagala, Dhumavati, and Chinnamasta are always described as terrible, frightening, and fierce. The formidable nature of Tripura-sundari, Bhairavi, Matangi, and Bhuvanesvari is mentioned, but not as much emphasis is placed on this feature. Only Kamala is regarded as benevolent (Kinsley 37).
Bhuvanesvari’s beauty is said to reflect the beauty of creation and the physical world (Kinsley 141). She is gracious and kind, giving the world all it needs to survive. She protects creation and fights against sources of disorder, restoring the cosmic balance so that the world may thrive. Bhuvanesvari is said to have developed a third eye to better watch over creation (Kinsley 141). Often, she will appear as different manifestations to slay demons and restore balance (Kinsley 134).
Bhuvanesvari is depicted with a noose and goad; both symbols suggest control (Kinsley 141). Some believe that she uses the goad for discipline and to control evil emotions such as anger, lust, and obsession. The noose symbolizes the barriers that keep us from knowing our true selves (atman), and by proxy, attaining liberation (Kinsley 141). However, countless interpretations exist. Her other two hands convey gestures of fearlessness and conferring boons (Kinsley 141). She also appears with a red lotus and a jewelled bowl, symbolizing growth and wealth (Kinsley 141). Not surprisingly, worship of Bhuvanesvari is believed to bring the devotee material wealth and spiritual well-being (Kinsley 143).
She is seated on a lotus, a position of power with connotations of creation (Kinsley 142). In another creation myth, Brahma is depicted sitting on a lotus flower growing out of Visnu’s navel. The lotus symbolises power, purity, and transcendence (Kinsley 142). Also, a crescent moon is present on her forehead, believed to symbolize replenishment, the endless cycles of creation and destruction, from which the world is produced each time (Kinsley 142).
Bhuvanesvari does not have a consort, which is unusual for female deities in the Hindu tradition. The same is true for the other Mahavidyas, although some believe that they are loosely associated with Siva, who is sometimes portrayed as the consort of the Goddess (Kinsley 62). For those who are associated with male deities such as Kali, Tara, and Kamala, the association is down-played or ignored when they are worshiped as part of the Mahavidyas (Kinsley 63). If they are depicted with male counterparts, they dominate him, most often by standing on his prone form (Kinsley 63). Bhuvanesvari is, however, associated with the formless Brahman, one of Visnu’s avatars, as are all the Mahavidyas (Kinsley 16).
Devotion to Bhuvanesvari is believed to confer auspiciousness, attraction of others to you, control over others, especially enemies, and the power to manifest any spoken thought (Kinsley 143). Tantric worship of the Mahavidyas culminates in self-awareness and is said to awaken the deity within oneself (Kinsley 51). This enlightenment is key to achieving moksa or liberation. Also sought after is heightened sensory perception (Kinsley 51). Furthermore, boons may be granted by the goddesses to devout followers, bestowing wisdom and magical powers (Kinsley 51). Temple worship varies considerably between the Mahavidyas. Some, like Kali and Laksmi (Kamala) have temples throughout India. Others, including Bhuvanesvari, have few places of worship. Temples that worship the Mahavidyas as a group are also rare (Kinsley 16). However, depictions of the Mahavidyas can usually be found on temple walls dedicated to most goddesses (Kinsley 15).
In conclusion, Bhuvanesvari plays a minor if any role within the Hindu tradition. Her role becomes somewhat more prominent within Tantric worship, but she is still a minor goddess. Other Mahavidya goddesses receive more attention in both, such as Kali and Kamala, also know as Laksmi. Despite her important function in the world, writings on her are few and far between. She is almost never studied or worshiped outside the group of Mahavidyas. This is unfortunate for she plays a pivotal role in the cosmos and her character and worldly position demand more attention.
References and Recommended Reading
Bhattacharyya, Narendra (1977) The Indian Mother Goddess. Delhi: Manohar Book Service.
Donaldson, Thomas (2002) Tantra and Sakta Art of Orissa. New Delhi: D.K. Printworld.
Hawley, John & Wulff, Donna (1996) Devi: Goddesses of India. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Kinsley, David (1997) Tantric Visions of the Devine Feminine: The Ten Mahavidyans. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers.
Pitchman, Tracy (1994) The Rise of the Goddess in the Hindu Tradition. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Prakashan, Rekha (1980) The Little Goddesses (Matrikas). New Delhi: Caxton Press.
Rodrigues, Hillary Peter (2003) Ritual Worship of the Great Goddess: The Liturgy of the Durga Puja with Interpretations. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Samuel, Geoffrey (2005) Tantric Revisionings: New Understandings of Tibetan Buddhism and Indian Religion. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers.
Tewari, Naren (1988) The Mother Goddess Vaishno Devi. Delhi: Lancer International.
Tantric Goddess Worship
Vishnu (Ten Avatars)
Websites for Further Reading
Article written by Emilyne Jankunis (Spring 2012), who is solely responsible for its content.