The goddess Bhu Devi has been in Hindu culture, existing with various names throughout the myths and stories of Vedic texts, and built into the geography of India itself. Within the earliest Vedic texts, the goddess of the earth was known as Prthivi, and is depicted as the female principle of Dyaus, the male deity of the sky (Kinsley 8). It is said in the Rg Veda that Dyaus fertilizes the earth with rain, as Prthivi supports and encompasses the growing earth (Kinsley 8). The hymn of praise found in the Artharva Veda is solely dedicated to Prthivi and the feminine principle. It also discusses the image of Visnu—as well as other associated male deities—striding over Prthivi, either protecting her, providing for her, or seen as consorts (Kinsley 9). Prthivi is found later in Hinduism, and often called Bhu Devi, appearing in myths that show her fertile, maternal nature (Kinsley 17). In the Garuda Purana’s form of cosmogony, Visnu is said to deposit is virya (energy or semen) in Laksmi (Pintchman 154), and reinforces the connection between these two principles that is needed for creation. Visnu is told to be a lover of the Earth in early texts. He is depicted conquering a demon in dharmic form, and rising up with the earth from the bottom of the ocean. This earth (bhumi) brought up from the depths is envisioned as the beautiful goddess Bhu Devi (Nelson 154). Bhu Devi’s plea for help is said to bring about many of the incarnations of Visnu, personifying her vulnerability to the fragile soil of the earth (Nelson 272) and her need for the preserver, Visnu. Sri, commonly known as Laksmi or Sri-Laksmi, refers to riches, prosperity, and abundance (Kinsley 19). Sri embodies compassion in her being, and in her manifestation as Bhu Devi, she is often portrayed as the goddess of reproduction and nurture (Nelson 96). The relationship between Laksmi and prakrti can be seen in the myth explaining how Laksmi appeared in her three forms when the lord created the three gunas of prakrti: Sri the sattva guna, Bhu the rajas guna, and Durga the tamas guna (Pintchman 154). This shows the supreme lord Visnu as Purusa, corresponding to Brahma and the rajas principle (Pintchman 155). With Brahma the creator and Bhu the prosperous/nurturing, a better understanding of the rajas guna is given through the personification of these deities. [A detailed account on the arrangements and categories of prakarti is told in Pintchman (1994)].
Extended knowledge and philosophies came through the Tantric Srivaisnavism, as verses are told of Bhu Devi’s greatness and her part as a spouse to Visnu, along with consorts Sri or Laksmi (Nelson 56). In Srivaisnavism, Visnu (the supreme deity of the school) is maintained as the central cosmological figure while Sri is seen as a “devotee’s advocate” (Kinsley 32) in her conversations with Visnu. Sri, as a mother goddess is told to be the mediator between the devotees and Visnu (Hawley and Wulff 93), much like a mother is the mediator between children and their father. Sri-Laksmi is later revealed as the nectar of creation, filled with power, beauty, and riches within the Pancaratra school of thought stemming from Srivaisnavism (Kinsley 21). Due to the connection Laksmi has as the sap of existence, she is also often worshipped with Soma, the essence of plant and organic life (Kinsley 27). Laksmi plays a central role in the universe’s creation and evolution as the sakti of Visnu within the Pancaratra school of thought (Kinsley 30). This school is what begins to gain the goddess independent ground in the pantheon of deities. In the tenth and eleventh centuries, gurus wrote multiple hymns in praise of the greatness of Sri. These hymns towards Sri led the emergence of the mutual love and an inseparable relationship between Sri and Visnu (Hawley and Wulff 90). She is a goddess of nurture, prosperity, and a giver of wealth as seen from tales in the Sri Vaisnava group of worshippers (Hawley and Wulff 87). In the Samhitas, the earth goddess—Prthivi or Bhumi—is shown to have three aspects of nature: the physical earth sustaining living creatures, the universal mother of physical creation, and matter itself that is formed in the cosmogonic creation (Pintchman 30). The process of creation is said to continue when Visnu and Laksmi enter mahat (material existence) and give rise to consciousness and egoity (Pintchman 155).
The personification of nature into Bhu Devi, as well as other mother goddesses, is seen around India in the natural sites that hold the transcendent feminine qualities of nurture and growth [For specific geographic information depicting the mother goddess see Kinsley (1986)]. These sacred sites mimic the feminine principle (sakti) that women themselves are expected to uphold towards their husbands within the culture (Nelson 95-96). Where it is a man’s dharma to ritually worship the gods, it is the woman’s responsibility to further worship her husband and gain sakti in the household. The goddess Kali is seen as large, dominating, and as a force that may bring death, while auspicious goddesses such as Laksmi and Bhu are small and controlled by their male counterpart (Hawley and Wulff 14). Kali often used as a reminder of how women are less fearful when auspicious and dharmic, keeping men as the authority figure in both the household and in the rest of Hindu culture. A common iconographic depiction of Laksmi is of her kneeling before Visnu to either massage his feet or show her submissiveness (Kinsley 28). In turn, the image of Visnu as a lover of earth also motivates Vaisnava movements to take increased care of the earth as a dharmic action (Nelson 155). “Bhudevi’s primary role is that of an injured supplicant who is oppressed by wicked rulers” (Kinsley 179) in need of Visnu’s help, whereas the Vedic goddess Prthivi was seen as a broad, ongoing source of fertility in the early hymns.
Sri Vaisnava temples contain separate shines for Visnu and Sri. While the primary image of Visnu is shown and worshipped with Sri or Bhu on his chest, Sri is often worshipped alone (Hawley and Wulff 98). Some schools such as Tirumala-Tirupati address Visnu as Sri-nivasa (he on whom Sri abides), Sri being a vital part of their worship (Hawley and Wulff 104). The story of Padmavati told in the Tirumala-Tirupati temple is also shown in local legends of Sri becoming a local human girl after a fight with Visnu (Hawley and Wulff 100). Padmavati (Sri incarnate) is followed by Visnu and eventually united in Nacciyar Koil, after being raised by the holy man Medhavi, having found her under an asoka tree (Hawley and Wulff 100-101). This story has many parallels to the Ramayana, in the finding of Sita on land being ploughed, further associating the princess Padmavati to Sri, though her identification as Sri is still questioned today (Hawley and Wulff 100). The name Padmavati itself is linked to the Sanskrit padma, meaning lotus (Hawley and Wulff 100), suggesting Padmavati to be connected to the goddess Laksmi, an extention of Sri.
Within the past century (around 1970), a prominent theologian of the Sri Vaisnava school of thought wrote a prayer to the “Eight Laksmis”, called the Asta Laksmi Stotram, and viewed as the eight manifestations of Sri (Hawley and Wulff 104). In temples dedicated to Asta Laksmi, traditional silver, and decorative jars with the eight engraved manifestations on the sides are traditionally used in worship (Hawley and Wulff 105). Use of a symbolic jar as one of the manifest forms of the goddess is also seen with the Ghatasthapana (jar installation) during worship of the Great Goddess, Devi (Rodrigues 86). The jar is made out of clay with grain planted inside of it, thus symbolizing the Goddess as earth and soil, making a connection to Bhu Devi as well as the Vedic goddess Aditi (the suggested mother or wife of Visnu) who is a supporter of the earth (Rodrigues 86). This jar, much like the one for Asta Laksmi, is made out of metal or unbaked clay and symbolizes the body of Devi (Rodrigues 273). The jar is said to be the abundant earth itself, an all-encompassing container holding each of the life-nourishing elements (Rodrigues 86). When water is poured into the jar, it is representative of these liquid elements of creation, and is consequently associated to Sri-Laksmi in her material prosperity or prakrti (Rodrigues 87-88). There is an ongoing parallel to many of the rituals pertaining to the earth goddess Bhu Devi, in the idea that life-forms temporarily endure but eventually return to their ultimate source, the earth goddess herself (Rodrigues 273).
The ritual art tradition of the kolam is no exception, as it is an essential part of creating auspiciousness in the Tamil Nadu homes. These drawings, both elaborate and simple, are a sign of women’s energies within the four goddesses the ritual involves: Bhu Devi, Laksmi, Mu Devi, and Tulasi Devi. Mu Devi is a goddess of laziness and poverty, the opposite to the consorts of Visnu: Laksmi, Tulasi Devi, and Bhi Devi (Nelson 270-271). The kolam artwork made in the early morning is slowly removed throughout the day by movement of people in and out of the house. Returning the markings back into the soil shows Bhu Devi’s fragile nature, bringing remembrance back to the natural world, as well as making Bhu Devi one of the first thoughts women have each day (Nelson 273). The modern women who have continued the tradition of kolam hold the ideology that the earth as a divine being is capable of cleaning itself, causing elephant dung or pollution to be absorbed by the goddesses of the rivers and the earth (Nelson 277). To better understand this concept, the kolam is seen as a way to ask forgiveness from Bhu Devi for the previous days neglect of her well-being (Nelson 279). Sri-Laksmi, another consort of Visnu is worshipped in the form of cow dung due to her association with agricultural fertility (Kinsley 20). Often depicted on a lotus flower, Laksmi can be seen in the symbol of the lotus growing from the navel of Visnu (Kinsley 21) and as such marks the beginning of manifest creation of the earth and cosmos.
The link between Bhu Devi and the earth goes back to the very beginnings of Vedic religion, personifying and making connections to the geographic landscape. As seen in the ideologies of schools from then into modern day, the earth goddess is worshipped in many forms, and seen in names such as Prthivi, Sri and in Sri’s avatara, Laksmi. The fertility of Bhu Devi, seen in many of the rituals reinforces the great importance of the land, growth, and the cyclical way of life.
Bibliography and Related Readings
Coburn, Thomas (1996) “Devi: The Great Goddess.” In Devi: Goddesses of India. John Hawley and Donna Wulff (eds.). Berkeley and Los Angeles, California: University of California Press. pp. 31-48.
Hawley, John (1996) “Prologue: The Goddess in India.” In Devi: Goddesses of India. John Hawley and Donna Wulff (eds.). Berkeley and Los Angeles, California: University of California Press. pp. 1-28.
Kinsley, David (1987) Hindu Goddesses: Visions of the Divine Feminine in the Hindu Religious Tradition. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publ.
Mumme, Patricia (1998) “Models and Images for a Vaisnava Environmental Theology: The Potential Contribution of Srivaisnavism.” In Purifying the Earthly Body of God: Religion and Ecology in Hindu India. Nelson (ed.). Albany: State University of New York Press. pp. 133-161.
Nagarajan, Vijaya (1998) “The Earth Goddess Bhu Devi: Toward a Theory of ‘Embedded Ecologies’ in Folk Hinduism.” In Purifying the Earthly Body of God: Religion and Ecology in Hindu India. Nelson (ed.). Albany: State University of New York Press. pp. 269-295.
Narayanan, Vasudha (1996) “Sri: Giver of Fortune, Bestower of Grace.” In Devi: Goddesses of India. John Hawley and Donna Wulff (eds.). Berkeley and Los Angeles, California: University of California Press. pp. 87-108.
Pintchman, Tracy (1994) The Rise of the Goddess in the Hindu Tradition. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Rodrigues, Hillary (2003) Ritual Worship of the Great Goddess: The Liturgy of the Durga Puja with Interpretations. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Sharma, Arvind (1998) “Attitudes to Nature in the Early Upanisads.” In Purifying the Earthly Body of God: Religion and Ecology in Hindu India. Nelson (ed.). Albany: State University of New York Press. pp. 51-60.
Related Research Terms
Gunas of Prakrti
Article written by Sharayah Dawood (March 2015) who is solely responsible for its content