There are numerous gods and goddesses that are presently being worshipped, and/or have been worshipped in the past within Hinduism, and one of these goddesses is the deity Jyestha. This goddess is distinctive because she is associated with inauspiciousness, disgrace, misfortune and discord. She is recognized as the elder sister of the better known and worshipped goddess of good fortune and beauty Laksmi, and is acknowledged as the complete opposite of Laksmi (Orr 26). Jyestha’s name is thought to derive from the female head of polygamous households, the senior wife, elder/eldest or jyestha wife (Lesley 120). According to professor David Kinsley, in his book Tantric Visions of the Divine Feminine: the Ten Mahavidyas, Jyestha is one of three goddesses that the higher goddess Dhumavati identifies as or with; the other two being Nirriti, who is known specifically as the goddess of deadly hidden realms and sorrows, and Alaksmi, who is known specifically as the goddess of misfortune (1998:178-9). Dhumavati, also known as the Widow Goddess, is one of the Ten Mahavidyas or Tantric Wisdom Goddesses, and her name translates to “she who abides in smoke” (Gadon 5). None of these goddesses are particularly well known or worshipped in the current widespread Hindu tradition (Orr 31; MET; Kinsley 178). Less often in India, Jyestha is also identified with Sitala who is known likewise as an inauspicious goddess, the goddess of smallpox, who carries a broom and rides a donkey just like Jyestha, as will be discussed below.
In all four versions or identities of the goddess Dhumavati (Nirriti, Jyestha and Alaksmi), she is associated with being ugly and frightening. Kinsley describes Dhumavati as black-skinned, tall, wearing dirty clothes, having a long nose and teeth, and having sagging breasts. She is associated with riding in a chariot that displays a banner depicting a crow, and usually she is seen carrying a skull bowl, a spear, a broom, winnowing fan, a torch, or a club (1998:176). Similarly, in existing depictions of Jyestha, she is illustrated as older in age with black or red skin, having a wide face with a long, prominent nose; having large sagging breasts that rest upon her swollen stomach and wide waist. Her hefty stomach matches her large and drooping lips, cheeks, arms, calves, and thighs. This goddess is typically seen holding a blue or white lotus, sometimes making the symbol of protection, and having a water pot somewhere in the depiction. She is shown sitting at ease, graceless, legs apart, with her knees spread wide (Gadon 7). She adorns a mark of marriage upon her forehead, which is an important aspect of her character, and many large pieces of jewelry. She, too, is shown as having a banner with a crow on it, and having a bundle of sticks near her that are thought to be a broom. In some cases she is seen riding a donkey, as is Alaksmi, a lion or a camel; in other depictions she is seen riding on a chariot being pulled by lions and is followed by tigers. The crow emblem that Jyestha is depicted with holds a negative association within the Hindu tradition. Leslie Orr and Julia Leslie discuss in their writings that crows are symbols of bad luck, famine and are associated with being bringers of misfortune. They are even believed to be evokers of other inauspicious deities such as Nirriti and Tama (Leslie 119; Orr 26). The depiction of the assumed broom connects Jyestha directly to the household, this is because brooms are used by women and servants in the home in order to sweep away physical impurities, as well as to ward off misfortune (Leslie 120).
Two assistants can be seen following Jyestha, which are thought in some cases to be her son and daughter (Leslie 115-8; Kinsley 1998:178). The male attendant is depicted as having a bull’s head, wearing a crown and holding a stick or club in one hand and with the other hand either pointing or holding a cord or rope. The woman is presented as young, with an attractive bosom and holding a lotus while also wearing a crown. Both of these figures are seen with one leg hanging and the other folded underneath their body (Leslie 118). These characteristics of the two followers of Jyestha can be seen clearly in the sculpture that is currently on exhibit in the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art (MET) in New York City. As described on their website, the piece is dated to between 500 and 1000 CE and is noted to have come from South Asia (MET). In addition to her bull-headed son and beautiful daughter, she is seen holding a blue lotus and is pictured with a crow. Some of her other characteristics are not as notable in this piece as with others, but she is clearly seen as has having large arms as well as having a stomach that is protruding from the piece. “The picture that emerges- of an unattractive older woman, unsmiling and indolent, flanked by the ideal offspring (a powerful son and a beautiful daughter), served by solicitous female servants, marked by the inauspicious, cawing crow and the protective, chastising power if the household broom- suggests a deliberate link with a real or at least archetypal human figure” (Leslie 120).
The widely accepted account or myth of how Jyestha was brought into existence is explained thoroughly by Leslie. The gods and demons decided to churn the sea in an attempt to recreate the universe to try to obtain the nectar of immortality. During this churning it is believed that Jyestha was created accidentally, as well as many other items and deities; such as the goddess Sri, the nectar of immortality, poison, the moon and the sun, to name a few (Leslie 120-1). The story of her creation can be found in the Padmapurana, where it is explained that she is granted a place “in every home in which strife prevails, in which liars use harsh language, in which sinful and evil-minded men are asleep at the time of the twilight ritual. Wherever skulls, long hair, ashes, bones, chaff or charcoal are to be found” there will be a place for her (Leslie 121). It does not give an indication of how long ago this took place, but Kinsley notes that she seems to have appeared very early in the Hindu tradition (1998:178).
After Jyestha’s creation, there are conflicting myths or stories about her remaining life, and how she became associated with those who worship her. In some myths, Jyestha marries a brahmin hermit who later seeks advice from the great sage Markandeya about what to do with his wife because she continuously runs away in fear covering her ears after seeing and hearing Vedic rituals (Leslie 121). Markandeya tells the husband/brahmin that Jyestha cannot live amongst the people and places where the religious live and worship. She is so irreligious, antisocial and inauspicious that her husband abandons her in an area where local divinities are worshipped and tells her that she must support herself on the offerings made by the women devotees. This leads to her repenting her ways and turning to Visnu for help (Leslie 122). A second myth of Jyestha’s life that is told holds some key similarities. In this one, Jyestha marries a sage named Dussaha who quickly discovers that she cannot bear to witness or hear any religious activity (Kinsley 1998: 178). Dussaha complains about this to Visnu, and is told to take her where inauspicious activities occur; such as homes where families fight, or parents do not care for their children. Jyestha is eventually abandoned by Dussaha, and she again turns to Visnu to ask for help sustaining herself. He tells her that she will be sustained by the offerings from women (Kinsley 1998: 179).
As noted in the myth of how Jyestha was created, she is attracted to homes in which chaos, unruliness and inauspiciousness occur. She was rightfully abandoned by her husband, in both myths explored, and made to live off of the offerings left to her specifically by women devotees. Leslie notes this importance because of the connection between those women who are making the offerings and this inauspicious goddess; “…she is reduced to living off the offerings made by women, that is, the offerings made by the largest segment of society traditionally excluded from orthodox ritual and sacred knowledge” (Leslie 122). Jyestha is able to sustain herself off of these female offerings because women in the Hindu tradition are thought to be less pure than their male counterparts, for the most part. However, Leslie also notes that she is likewise worshipped by male devotees who ask for an increase in wealth, an end to misfortune and success to their wives and children (122). Why draw attention to yourself from this ugly and inauspicious goddess at all? It is believed that offerings made to Jyestha will leave the family who made the offerings alone and when leaving, take all of their inauspiciousness with her (Leslie 122-3).
Worship of this goddess has decreased immensely in the past centuries, however during some point of time in the past it seems that she had a widespread following (MET; Kinsley 178). According to the MET website, her earliest appearance can be traced back to northern India in the fourth century. There is also a chapter on the worship of Jyestha found in the Baudhayanagrhyasutra which is dated between 600 and 300 BCE. Many images of her have been found in south India that date back to the seventh and eighth centuries, indicating that it was during this time that she was extremely popular (Kinsley 1998:178; Leslie 114). The MET website also suggests that her cult following either began to diminish or was already in its downfall in the post-medieval era. Orr, however, notes a specific case in Tamil Nadu where the worship of Jyestha can be dated from the eighth to the eleventh century, which would indicate that her cult following began to decline during the medieval era; it was through the eleventh century that the auspicious goddess Laksmi overtook her sister’s role and became more widely worshipped (Orr 26;31).
Today, the goddess Jyestha is very rarely worshipped. Her image receives very little attention, and is hidden away in corners, removed or thrown away completely. However, in the places that the deity Jyestha is still recognized, she is feared (Leslie 114). Leslie furthers this observation with an example from a temple in Uttaramerur, southern India where Jyestha is still recognized. “In the Kolambesvara Temple in Uttaramerur, an image of Jyestha is kept with its face to the ground for fear that an upright image would bring death to the village. Legend has it that this belief has been proven correct several times” (Leslie 114).
The decline of Jyestha’s cult worship is hinted at in different articles, but Orr discusses it in detail. In the Hindu tradition, changes were taking place in many different ways, including terminology related to the deities. Specifically discussed is the term pitari, which now is understood to mean “village goddess,” whereas once, around one thousand years ago, it meant a goddess belonging to the “great tradition” (Orr 30). More simply put, when talking about deities in the Hindu tradition, goddesses that were once worshipped as great goddesses turned into lesser known and worshipped village deities. “From the eleventh century onward some of these goddesses were displaced even from this position; the images of saptamatrkas (seven mothers) were removed and installed as guardian deities in small village temples, becoming pitaris in the modern sense of the word” (Orr 30). Jyestha, or one of her alternate identities, was one of these goddesses that was turned from a great goddess into a village deity. Orr further suggests that this change in meaning could point to de-Sanskritization (Orr 30). This is also an explanation as to why Jyestha is only worshipped in villages such as the aforementioned Uttaramerur, because she is known as the village deity to this southern India community.
Bibliography and Related Readings
Elgood, Heather (2004) “Exploring the Roots of Village Hinduism in South Asia.” World Archaeology, Vol. 36, No. 3: 326–342. Accessed October 3, 2018. doi: 10.1080/0043824042000282777.
Foulston, Lynn, and Stuart Abbott (2012) Hindu Goddesses: Beliefs and Practices. Brighton: Sussex Academic Press.
Gadon, Elinor W. (1998) “Revisioning the Female Demon.” ReVision, Vol. 20, No. 3: 3-30.
K.G., Krishnan (1981) Studies in South Indian History and Epigraphy volume 1. Madras: New Era Publications.
Kinsley, David R. (2008) Hindu Goddesses: Visions of the Divine Feminine in the Hindu Religious Tradition. Berkeley: University of California Press.
_____ (1998) Tantric Visions of the Divine Feminine: the Ten Mahavidyas. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers.
Leslie, Julia (1992) Roles and Rituals for Hindu Women. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers.
Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art (2011) “Jyeshtha Flanked by Her Children.” The Met’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. Accessed October 09, 2018. https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/38136.
Orr, Leslie C. (2005) “Identity and Divinity: Boundary-Crossing Goddesses in Medieval South India Author.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Vol.73, No.1: 9-43.
Rao, Gopinatha, T.A. (1981) Elements of Hindu Iconography. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers.
List of Related Research Topics
Dhumavati The Ten Mahavidyas
Nirriti The Padmapurana
Alaksmi The Baudhayanagrhyasutra
Sitala The saptamarkas
Laksmi The Kolambesvara Temple
Visnu The recreation of the universe
Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic
Article written by: Kaitlyn Haarstad (October 2018) who is solely responsible for its content.