Kamakhya – The Mother Goddess
The Mother Goddess Kamakhya, sometimes referred to as the “five-fold goddess,” is a significant focus in Tantric worship (Nicholas 174). The goddess has her history rooted in the myth of Sati, and as a result the Kamakhya temple is a frequent spot for worship and pilgrimage (Nicholas 174). Kamakhya is often thought of as a powerful and dark goddess, a goddess of desire, and is thought to exist in the form of a yoni (female reproductive organ) at the Kamakhya temple in Assam (Urban 2001: 779-780).
Characteristics and Iconography of the Goddess
Kamakhya, as mentioned above, is believed to reside in a stone yoni (female reproductive organ) at her temple of worship, and is regarded as the goddess of desire (Urban 2001: 231). Kamakhya, like many Hindu deities is depicted with many heads, and multiple arms (Newell 246). However, she is also said to exist in many forms (Mishra 40). Kamakhya is generally depicted as a younger female adorned in a red sari, and having six multi-colored heads and twelve arms. It is also common to see images of the Siva and a lion accompanying depictions of Kamakhya (see Fig. 60, Mishra 189)
Historical Background – The Myth of Sati
In order to fully understand Kamakhya’s role as a goddess it is important to understand her historical context. The myth of a Sati is a prevalent myth in Hinduism and describes the events following Siva and Sati’s marriage. King Daksa, under the urging of the gods, reluctantly gave his daughters’ hand in marriage to Siva, the destroyer god (Urban 2001: 787). Daksa later decided to hold a large ritual, in which he spitefully excluded Siva. Sati was offended by the rebuff of her husband and committed suicide at the ritual in retaliation, becoming a sacrifice herself (Urban 2001: 787). Siva became distraught upon finding out about his wife’s death. He went to the ritual, slew Daksa, and begins wandering the cosmos carrying Sati’s body on his shoulders (Urban, 2001, p. 787). The god Visnu is disturbed by this image and sends a discus to slice her apart (Urban 2001: 787). Thus, as the distraught Siva wondered the earth, parts of his beloved’s body were dropped upon the earth (Urban 2001: 787). There is said to be 51 different spots where parts of Sati’s dismembered body fell, referred to as pithas, or sacred sites (Urban 2001: 788). It is Sati’s yoni that is said to have fallen at Assam, and it is a stone yoni, which represents the Tantric Mother Goddess Kamakhya (Urban 2001: 788). This pitha is where the Temple of Kamakhya came to be erected, and is the site of abundant worship for Kamakhya today (Urban 2001: 788).
The myth of Sati is likely the most common reference to Kamakhya. However, scholars speculate that she may have been a figure in the tribal religions of primordial Assam (Urban 2001: 789). The Kalika Purana even insinuates that Kamakhya was worshiped by the Kiritas, aboriginal people who lived in the Himalayas around 600 BCE (Urban 2011: 232). It has also been suggested that the word Kamakhya came from Ai Kamakhya a goddess worshiped by an Assamic ethnic community called the Bodos (Mishra 15). Regardless, Kamakhya is presently viewed as being empowered with sakti (goddess power), and this likely derives from her connection with Sati, who was reborn as the goddess Parvati. There are various versions of this classical myth in different texts.
Significant Textual References
There are several texts, which discuss the mythical origins of Kamakhya, each having slightly different details, which contribute to different practices in accordance with the preferred myth. The Kalika Purana and Yogini Tantra both offer versions of mythical origin (Mishra 144-146).
The Kalika Purana depicts Daksa as the son of Brahma. This version of the story portrays Daksa as a worshipper of the goddess, Devi. In answer to a boon (wish) Daksa was given a daughter who was a rebirth of Devi; this daughter was, of course, Sati (Mishra 144). The rest of the myth was similar to the one, which is summarized in the section above.
The Yogini Tantra depicts a very different myth of origin for the goddess. This myth depicts a conceited Brahma, who aggravates Devi (Mishra 145). Devi creates Kesi, a male demon, whose purpose is to destroy Brahma. Brahma concedes to give up his arrogance and seeks assistance from Lord Visnu. Visnu helps negotiate with Devi, who explains the reasoning behind her creation of Kesi. Following Brahma and Visnu’s prayer to Devi, Devi kills the demon in Kesipura, the site of the gods’ prayer (Mishra 145). Kesipura subsequently becomes a site of worship as Devi said that the place contained the yonimandala (literally the essence of yoni; Devi’s in particular) (Mishra 144-146). Devi then names the deity, which presides over the pitha, Devi Kamakhya (Mishra 146).
Depending on which origin myth one believes in, worship practice and treatment of the goddess may vary.
Worship Sites, Religious Practices, and Festivals Centered Around Kamakhya
The Kamakhya temple is located in the former province of Assam atop Nilachal hill in the city of Guwahati (Mishra 23). Many pilgrimages are made to this Sakta temple, and Kamakhya is thought to be pivotal in tantric worship and in the beliefs and practices of Assamese society. This pitha is even thought to be the site of Kamakhya’s yearly menstruation (Urban 2011: 231). The site itself actually consists of multiple complexes, including the central Kamakhya temple and two shrines devoted to the deities Laksmi and Sarasvati. The temple is considered an auspicious site, and offerings are often made to the mother goddess, in an effort to deter illness or disastrous events (Mishra 7). Blessings are given to Kamakhya on special occasions including marriage, and a child’s first solid feeding (Mishra 7).
The goddess Kamakhya manifests in ten forms, referred to as the Mahavidyas (Dold 46). These ten expressions of the goddess are believed to dwell at the Kamakhya temple, and it is suggested that the Mahavidyas collectively exude the goddess’s protective and compassionate attitude towards her devotees (Dold 59). Thus, many practices relating to Kamakhya involve her manifestations. One of the practices relating to Kamakhya’s Mahavidyas is that of wearing a talisman, or kavaca (Dold 59). Kavaca’s are typically worn by a devotee when attempting to invoke a deity (generally a goddess, such as one of the Mahavidyas) in an appeal for their protection (Dold 59). It is even suggested that the Kamakhya temple site is actually encircled by the goddesses, and because of this devotees are protected from harm during worship (Dold 60).
Countless rituals and celebrations occur at the Kamakhya Temple, and so for simplicity, only a few will be discussed. Daily worship at the temple consists of a priest offering praise to the goddess, followed by offering of food and potentially the sacrifice of a male goat. Purity norms are adhered to during daily worship (Mishra 59). Daily worship of a deity is called nitya puja, and presently the Tantric method is applied to Kamakhya’s nitya puja (Mishra 47). Religious songs (Nam) are often performed by the local women in Assam. This is done to encourage the beneficial presence of the deity (Dold 60).
Ambuvaci is a festival honoring the mother goddess during what is believed to be her annual period of menstruation (Mishra 51). Held sometime towards the end of June, Ambuvaci is considered a time of impurity. Subsequently the festival begins with the shrine being covered in red fabric, and when the temple is re-opened the adornments are removed and the shrine receives a purifying ceremonial bath (Mishra 52). Pilgrims often come for this festival, during which they sing songs of praise to the goddess, and engage in philosophical discussion and story telling (Mishra 53).
Spiritual Tantric practitioners frequently visit the temple. Kamakhya is viewed by these devotees as being an omnipresent goddess with the power to defeat universal forces of impurity (Urban 2001: 778-779). Dr. Hugh Urban, describes Assamese Tantra as being “center[ed] around the optimization and harnessing of power on all levels – cosmic, physical, social, and political” (2011: 780). Ironically Tantra, violates religious taboo, and through impure practices, such as manipulation of certain substances, sacrifice, and eroticism, a practitioner hopes to set free the sakti embodied in Kamakhya (Urban 2001: 780-781). It is said that this violation of social norm is a form of asserting one’s own superhuman power (Urban 2001: 793). Submitting to one’s desire can be thought of also as a energizing and awakening act (Dobia 67). In Tantric practice, it seems that Kamakhya is depicted as dark and powerful and associated with desire, while other views tend to see Kamakhya being equally powerful, but associated with feminity and fertility.
Thus, Kamakhya is seen in diverse ways. It is represented in various forms, but her omnipresence and her central importance at Kamakhya temple seem universal to worshipers of this multi-faceted goddess.
References and Further Recommended Reading
Dobia, Brenda (2007) “Approaching the Hindu Goddess of Desire.” Feminist Theology, 16 no. 1: 61-78
Dold, Patricia (2011). Pilgrimage to Kamakhya Through Text and Lived Religion. In Rodrigues Hilary (Eds.), Studying Hinduism in Practice (46-61). New York, NY: Routledge.
Mishra, Nihar Ranjan (2004) Kamakhya: A Socio-cultural Study. New Delhi: D.K. Printworld.
Newell, Margaret Zo (2011). “Picturing the Goddess: Bazaar Images and the Imagination of Modern Hindu Religious Identity.” PhD Dissertation Submitted to the Faculty the Graduate School of Vanderbilt University, 246.
Nicholas, Ralph (1976). Review of “Worship of the Goddess According to the Kalikapurana.” Journal of Asian Studies 36, no. 1: 172-174.
Urban, Hugh (2001) “The Path of Power: Impurity, Kingship, and Sacrifice in Assamese Tantra.” Journal of American Academy of Religion 69, no. 4: 777-816.
Urban, Hugh (2011) “The Womb of Tantra: Goddesses, Tribals, and Kings in Assam.” Journal of Hindu Studies 4, no. 3: 231-247.
Related Topics for Further Investigation
Staircase of Kamakhya Temple (Legend)
Folk Medicine and Kamakhya
The Yogini Tantra
The Kalika Purana
Noteworthy Reading Related to the Topic
Kinsley, David (1986) Hindu Goddesses: Vision of the Divine Feminine in the Hindu Religious Tradition. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Dold, Patricia (2004) “The Mahavidyas at Kamarupa: Dynamics of Transformation in Hinduism.” Religious Studies and Theology 23, no. 1: 89-122.
Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic
Article written by Majken Villiger (Spring 2012), who is solely responsible for its content.