Many ancient cultures have traditions believing in the power of a mother goddess. Hinduism is one such religion that still has a strong culture of goddess worship that has continued to develop over the years. There are many indications of the importance of fertility and the importance of worshiping feminine power in the remains of the Indus Valley Civilization, which was discovered in the 1920’s. Female figurines as well as seals were found depicting the female figure (Coburn 15).
The Devi Mahatmya is one of the first texts in the Hindu tradition to equate female divinity with the principle of Brahman, which is ultimate reality (Abbot and Foulston 12). It is part of a larger text called the Markandeya-Purana. However, out of all of the texts in the Markandeya-Purana, the Devi Mahatmya has the most commentaries and is mostly viewed on its own as opposed to with the full text. The term Devi Mahatmya translates to “Greatness of the Goddess”. The text is all about the myths of Hindu goddesses and was originally in Sanskrit (Coburn 1). It was likely written in the sixth century and is still used today to worship the goddess (Kinsley 489). The text mostly narrates tales of battles between the goddess (Devi) and various demons, but takes place within a larger story. Throughout the Devi Mahatmya the goddess is referred to by over 200 different names. Several of these names describe characteristics of the goddess, while others convey honour. Many of them refer to goddesses that have been mentioned in other Hindu literature. (Kinsley 490).
The Devi Mahatmya is usually presented in three sections. Each section is about a specific goddess and has its own seer and deity. These three sections contain different chapters and are unequal in length. The first section is chapter 1, the second consists of chapters 2-4, and the third spans chapters 5-14. These three sections that make up the Devi Mahatmya are often surrounded by appendages or angas. These are subsidiary texts that the Devi Mahatmya relies on and they come before and after the main text. These angas discuss ritual use of the Devi Mahatmya (Coburn 100).
The Devi Mahatmya tells of three battles between the goddess, Devi, and different demons. These three battles make up the three sections of the text. The frame story, which connects these episodes, is that there is a sage that is teaching his two pupils about the identity of the goddess. The sage tells his pupils about the three battles. The first section and battle of the Devi Mahatmya tells how the demons Madhu and Kaitabha were defeated. The second section is about the goddess’ defeat of the demon Mahisa. The third section is the myth of Sumbha and Nisumbha (Coburn 22-24).
In the first section, the goddess is associated with the deity Visnu. The goddess takes on the characteristics of the great male god. When associated with Visnu the goddess is characterized by negative qualities such as sleep and delusion (Kinsley 491). These characteristics are referred to as maya and the goddess is referred to as Mahamaya ten times in this episode. Although maya has negative overtones it also has positive ones such as the ability to create (Kinsley 498-499). The two demons in this section, Madhu and Kaitabha, are said to have come out of Visnu’s ear to harass Brahma, the creator god. In this story, the goddess is able to awaken Visnu so that he can defeat the two demons. He fought them for five thousand years and then he was finally able to defeat them. He granted their last wish and killed them on land by cutting off their heads (Coburn 39).
The second section of the Devi Mahatmya has the goddess born from the strength and power of many different gods (Kinsley 492). This section is unique because it describes the birth of a completely new god. In this episode, the demon Mahisa conquers the gods and expels them from heaven to wander the earth. Hearing about this, Visnu and Siva became angry and out of a fiery splendor, known as tejas, the goddess was created. The goddess was created from different aspects of each god and given different weapons from all of them (Coburn 40). Together, this new goddess and the other gods had been expelled fought in a battle against Mahisa’s army. They fought until Mahisa’s army begged them to stop and Mahisa was slain. At the end of the battle flowers were released from heaven (Coburn 44). The goddess in this episode is praised by the gods and continued to protect the worlds.
The third section is the longest section of the Devi Mahatmya and consists of the most chapters. This episode begins with the gods going to the Himalayas (Kinsley 491). The demons Sumbha and Nisumbha hear of this great goddess and send two of their generals, Canda and Munda, to abduct her and bring her to him in order to get married. The generals believe that they will be able to take the goddess with ease and little effort. They approach her confidently and with pride forgetting that she is all-powerful. As they approach, the goddess first lets out a mantra that has the power to create and destroy, and then goes on to destroy the two generals. The king demon, named Sumbha, who had given the orders for the goddess to be abducted is angered when he hears that his two best generals have been destroyed by a woman (Amazzone 63). When he attacks, the goddess goes on to destroy both Sumbha and his brother Nisumbha; The Devi Mahatmya makes it very clear that the goddess is universal and all-powerful (Abbot and Foulston 66).
The Devi Mahatmya is still used in the Hindu tradition today. It is one of the most influential texts in the tradition and is used to worship the goddess at different Hindu rituals and gatherings. One of the gathering in which the Devi Mahatmya is used is the Durga Puja. The Durga Puja is the most popular festival, it is celebrated once a year in Kolkata and devotees get to “gaze upon the Goddess’s face.” (Abbot and Foulston 157). It is one of the largest pilgrimage experiences within Southeast Asia, millions or people take part in this pilgrimage in order to worship the goddess. The festival takes place over nine nights and part of the festival is the recitation of the Devi Mahatmya and her victories over the demons (Amazzone 48).
Although the Devi Mahatmya is an ancient text in the Hindu tradition it still stands out among all of the other texts. It is one of the most influential texts and is unique because it tells tales of the great goddess. It has been used all throughout the Hindu tradition and is still used today at festivals and to worship the goddess.
References and Further Recommended Reading
Abbot, Stuart and Foulston, Lynn (2012) Hindu Goddesses: Beliefs and Practices. Eastbourne: Sussex Academic Press.
Amazzone, Laura (2010) Goddess Durga and the Sacred Female Power. Maryland: Hamilton Books.
Coburn, Thomas B. (1991) Encountering the Goddess: A Translation of the Devī-Māhātmya and A Study of its Interpretation. New York: State University of New York Press.
Coburn, Thomas B. (1988) Devi Mahatmya: The Crystallization of the Goddess Tradition. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.
Hawley, John Stratton and Donna Marie Wulff, (1996) Devi: Goddesses of India. Berkeley:University of California Press.
Kinsley, David (1978) “The Portrait of the Goddess in the Devī-Māhātmya.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion Vol. 46 No. 4: 489-506. Accessed January 30, 2016. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1463045
Kinsley, David (1975) “Freedom from Death in the Worship of Kali.” Numen 22(3): 183-207. Accessed February 3, 2016. Doi: 10.2307/3269544
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Article written by: Ana Ferzacca (March 2016) who is solely responsible for its content.