Category Archives: H. Major Hindu Sects, Deities and Purāṇic Myths

Siva Nataraja Bronzes (Origins)

Shiva (Siva) Nataraja: Re-examining the Origins of Nataraja Bronzes

Bronze masterpiece of Siva Nataraja (King of the Dance). 11th century CE, Government Museum, Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India.

One of the most recognizable Hindu icons, both inside and outside India, is the standardized depiction of Shiva Nataraja (Shiva king of dance) seen in places as far apart as Chidambaram, Tamil Nadu and the CERN nuclear research center in Geneva, Switzerland. This particular standardization of Shiva Nataraja seems to have arisen under the rule of the Chola queen Sembiyan Mahadevi, as the first fully three dimensional stone carvings in this style appeared during her reign, though questions have been raised about earlier origins (Srinivasan, 434). This standardized form is distinctive and easily recognizable in several ways. First, this particular style of Shiva Nataraja is distinct from not only depictions of other deities, but also other depictions of Shiva as cosmic dancer, by the raised left leg held high across the body at the level of the hip with the foot at knee level (Srinivasan, 433). The supporting right leg, and indeed all the limbs save the lower left arm, are deeply bent giving an appearance of movement paused in a single frame (Kaimal, 392-3). Though held straight, the left arm does faintly bend at the wrist and the hand is held in a relaxed gesture known as gajahasta or “elephant hand” (Kaimal, 393). His lower right hand is held, just above the wrist of the lower left, in abhayamudra, a gesture of fearlessness seen frequently in Indian and Indian-influenced art (Kaimal, 393). The two upper arms hold a damaru drum (right) and a flame (left) (Srinivasan, 433). The foot of the supporting right leg rests on a dwaf, Apasmara, the demon of ignorance (Srinivasan, 433). Finally, in the bronzes, though not in the stone depictions commissioned by queen Sembiyan Mahadevi, Shiva is surrounded by a ring of flames (Srinivasan, 433). The popularity of this image has far outlasted the Chola dynasty, and inspired many speculative interpretations of the iconography present.

Detail of a Siva Nataraja or Natesa (Lord of the Dance) image, with his four arms holding the drum and fire, and displaying the fear-not (abhaya) mudra and the gajahasta (elephant hand) mudra.

Origin of the Image

It is generally accepted that the style of bronze Nataraja we see today originated, or at least rose to prominence, during the reign of queen Sembiyan Mahadevi of the Chola dynasty during the tenth century (Dehejia, 209). Mahadevi was a great patroness of the arts, she commissioned numerous pieces of art and even engaged in the refurbishment of several brick temples, rebuilding them in stone (Dehejia, 209). Mahadevi made the job of archeologists in our own time somewhat easier by re-inscribing previous information about donations and patrons in the temples she refurbished, providing a rich historical record (Dehejia, 209). Notable in regard to the Nataraja image is that it seems to have appeared first in bronzes and stone carvings during her refurbishments (Dehejia, 209). While the similarity of these Nataraja images to present depictions in this style is undeniable, the peculiar raised foot and four armed form being present, doubts have been raised recently about a definitively Chola origin (Srinivasan, 432).

There are certainly examples of images and sculptures which could have contributed to the present Nataraja image exemplified at sites like Chidambaram and CERN, so a pre-Chola origin is not out of the question. One of the earliest possible ancestors of the Chola-era Nataraja is a stone figure from the Harappan civilization, which shares the raised leg posture with the Chola-Nataraja (Dehejia, 32). Granted, a single oddity from a civilization that died thousands of years before the Chola rose is a tenuous connection at best, but Srinivasan points to numerous other examples which may indicate a continuous line of artistic evolution culminating in the Nataraja images we see today.

One of Srinivasan’s suggested precursors is a Satavahana statue, of Shiva as Lakulisa the ascetic, from Andhra Pradesh in southeastern India, the statue is dated to around the first or second century B.C.E. (Srinivasan, 434). What is remarkable about this statue is that, already as early as the first or second century B.C.E., we see the theme of Shiva trampling a dwarf which appears not only in Chola-era Nataraja images but in Pallava depictions as well (Srinivasan, 434).

The Pallava dynasty, in fact, is where Srinivasan asserts that the image of Shiva Nataraja we are familiar with today rose to prominence. Prior to the Chola overthrow of their dynasty around 850 C.E., the Pallavas ruled in the Tamil regions of south India from about 550 C.E., themselves having risen from the older Andhra dynasty (Srinivasan, 434-5). When the Pallava king Mahendravarman Pallavan converted from Jainism to Shaivism a burst of Hindu art in stone was produced (Srinivasan, 435). We can surmise that these stone icons were probably a distinctly Pallava innovation in the Tamil region by inscriptions at Mamallapuram praising Mahendravarman for building in “neither brick, nor timber, nor mortar.” (Srinivasan, 435).

What is interesting about these Pallavan stone icons is that the depictions of Nataraja among them show the four-armed Shiva with the raised leg and dwarf, of which there are no prior examples outside the Tamil region in stone or metal (Srinivasan, 435). Examples of Shiva Nataraja from outside the Pallava-controlled Tamil region show Shiva in the chatura tandava posture with both feet touching the ground and knees splayed outward, as opposed to the bhujangatrasita karana posture in which one leg is raised at hip level across the body which we see in the Chola bronzes (Srinivasan, 435). In addition, the dwarf is not present in any of these chatura tandava examples (srinivasan, 435). The number of arms also differs from the four-armed depictions seen in the Pallava and Chola examples, we see eight arms in Gupta examples from the Sirpur region of central India dating to the fifth century, and sixteen arms in a Chalukyan example from Badami in south-west India dated to the sixth century (Srinivasan, 435).

The earliest clear approximation of the Chola style Nataraja we see is on a Pallava pilaster from a cave temple at Siyamangalam, dated to the seventh century (Srinivasan, 436). This icon stands in the bhujangatrasita karana posture, although with the right leg raised, his lower right hand is in abhaya mudra with his upper right hand holding a lamp or bowl with a flame (Srinivasan, 435-6). This statue does differ additionally from the Chola examples in that its lower left arm extends out away from the body rather than across the body, though it retains the gajahasta gesture (Srinivasan, 435-6). Furthermore, the upper left hand holds an ax and the dwarf is not present under the foot of the supporting leg (Srinivasan, 435-6). This is paralleled in an eighth century cave painting from Ellora in Maharashtra, attributed to the Rashtrakuta dynasty, as well another Pallava stone icon in the Tirukkadaimudi Mahadeva temple in Tirucchinampundi (Srinivasan, 436).

While evidence seems to suggest that, in the cave temples constructed by Mahendravarman stucco and wood images are most likely to have been the norm, a seventh century verse by the poet Appar mentions Shiva’s “sweet golden foot raised in dance”, so we can not rule out bronze processional icons (Srinivasan, 436). In addition, the mention of Shiva holding a drum in the image worshipped at Tillai (now Chidambaram) from the same seventh century verses by Appar seems to indicate that this aspect of the standardized Nataraja icon was already incorporated during the Pallava dynasty (Srinivasan, 436).

Hindu bronzes have not often been attributed to the Pallavas, due largely to a lack of inscriptions on the bronzes themselves, however there is no definite way to date solid metal artifacts with any known method (Srinivasan, 436-8). What we can do, however, is group metal artifacts by shared ore sources based on lead isotope content (Srinivasan, 437). There are some metal artifacts which have been attributed to the Pallavas, for instance a bronze of Shiva dancing in the urdhvajanu pose found in Kuram (Srinivasan, 440). This bronze is attributable to the Pallavas in part because of the forward facing dwarf, as opposed to the sideways facing dwarf in the Chola Natarajas, in addition it shares a metallurgical profile with other artifacts from the reign of Paramesvaravarman Pallavan I (Srinivasan, 440).

This Pallava metallugical profile becomes interesting in regard to two Nataraja bronzes previously attributed to the Chola dynasty, which share the lead isotope content of the Pallava bronzes and the left legged bhujangatrasita karana posture and four armed form of the Chola bronzes, with the hands of each arm bearing the same gestures and implements (Srinivasan, 440). The first, from Kunniyur, differs from Chola images in that it lacks the flying locks of hair found in the Chola bronzes, though the ring of fire is surprisingly present, a date around 850 C.E. is suggested (Srinivasan, 440-1). The second, a small bronze from the British Museum, differs in several ways; the raised leg does not cross the body, the dwarf faces forward, and both the flying locks and circle of flame are not present (Srinivasan, 440-1). This second bronze has been dated to around 800 C.E., making it the oldest known Pallava bronze of Shiva Nataraja (Srinivasana, 440-1). This may indicate that the ring of flame was the latest addition to the Nataraja icon.

It may be that these two Pallava images show an evolution from wood carvings of Shiva Nataraja due to their compactness and lack of flowing locks, both indicative of the limits of wood’s tensile strength, we see these same limits in modern wood carvings of Nataraja (Srinivasan, 440). This may explain the increasingly flared out and circular nature of the icon in Chola times as the tensile strength of bronze was understood to allow for these stylistic changes.

These issues of tensile strength may also indicate that properly three dimensional stone carvings of this style of Nataraja came later than the bronzes and were, in fact, modelled on pre-existing bronzes. We see the emergence of three dimensional stone Natarajas in this style during the reign of Sembiyan Mahadevi, and these images bear the signs of a struggle to represent the style found in the bronzes in a medium with lesser tensile strength (Srinivasan, 441). For instance, in the stone Nataraja from Manavalesvarar temple at Tiruvelvikudi, we see a strut disguised as clothing supporting the lifted leg and crossed left arm to allow for a more expansive image which would make more sense in a bronze casting (Srinivasan, 441-2). The lifted leg of an eleventh century Chola sculpture at the Gangaikondachalapuram temple is propped up by a rough basal strut, while in several other examples the lifted leg is completely broken off (Srinivasan, 442). These struts may even have been inspired by the runners which facilitate lost-wax casting, though they are usually removed from the finished product (Srinivasan, 442). All of this seems to indicate that the style of Nataraja statue attributed to the Chola dynasty was already well developed as such, and likely in bronze, during the Pallava dynasty.

Iconographic Interpretation

An influential, and enduring, interpretation of the Nataraja icon was offered close to one hundred years ago by Ananda Coomaraswamy in “the Dance of Shiva” (Kaimal, 390). While Coomaraswamy’s interpretation is certainly compelling, and likely responsible for the popularity of the Nataraja icon in the west and its interpretation by Western scholars for the last hundred or so years, there is some reason to doubt its accuracy in reflecting the way that the Pallavas and Cholas interpreted this icon when they developed it (Kaimal, 391). Kaimal offers three fairly compelling reasons for questioning Coomaraswamy’s interpretation. First, the question of if it is even possible to properly recover the original meaning of these objects, given the fragmentary evidence from medieval India (Kaimal, 391). Second, Kaimal questions whether a single interpretation is sufficient, noting that objects of art take on different meanings during different times and in fact live multiple symbolic ‘lives’ (Kaimal, 391). Finally, Kaimal draws attention to the fact that Coomaraswamy based his interpretation on texts written several centuries after this style of Nataraja rose to prominence (Kaimal, 391). On this last point, Kaimal also reminds us that there is no simple equivalence between text and sculpture, both mediums have their own “spheres of eloquence” which do not always overlap entirely (Kaimal, 391).

Kaimal is cautious not to completely reject Coomaraswamy’s interpretation however, as it does reflect the significance of the icon to devotees in the thirteenth century and later (Kaimal, 392). While elements of the thirteenth century interpretation could have, and in all likelihood did, derive from earlier interpretations, Kaimal offers three different interpretations which may reflect the meaning of this icon for devotees in the tenth century and possibly earlier (Kaimal, 392). The first interpretation, that Nataraja was used as a kind of emblem of the Chola dynasty is certainly compelling and well argued by Kaimal. Though, while it could serve as the subject of a book in its own right, this interpretation does not tell us much about the symbols within the icon or their origin, which are the primary foci of this paper.

Kaimal’s second interpretation deals with the origin, or synthesis, of this Nataraja icon in Chidambaram (previously Tillai). When Appar wrote about Tillai in the seventh century, it was already an ancient and well established center of many sects, including sects devoted to Vinshnu and the goddess (Kaimal, 391). Kaimal points to earlier interpretations of Nataraja from Tillai which see the tandavam as a dance much more associated with Shiva’s destructive aspects than with the lofty philosophical interpretation of Coomaraswamy (Kaimal, 401).

Many of the less obvious symbols built into the Tamil Nataraja sculptures do indeed point to an association with the destructive aspects of the creative cycle, and many of these symbols appear on depictions of other wrathful aspects of Shiva all over India (Kaimal, 401). For instance, the skull often present in the hair of Nataraja icons and the serpents which encircle his limbs often receive special emphasis in images of Shiva’s destructive aspects, such as the ‘enraged’ face on the giant three-faced Shiva at Elephanta (Kaimal, 402). These often indicate Shiva as Aghora, associated with cremation grounds and destructive ecstasy, as well as drawing an association with similarly adorned goddesses such as Kali, Chamunda, and Nishumbhasudani (Kaimal, 401). These wrathful goddesses also share the characteristics of deeply bent supporting legs and multiple arms splaying out in an explosive and energetic fashion (Kaimal, 402). That these symbols were present in earlier forms of Shiva and other gods/goddesses may indicate that they were redeployed to allow this icon to participate in a symbolic conversation which was already ongoing, and this interpretation would fit nicely with a gradual evolution of the form from the Pallava dynasty through the Chola standardization (Kaimal, 404).

The association with goddesses is interesting in regard to another possible origin of the icon. One of the origin myths laid down in the Chidambaramahatmya, a tenth century text reflecting the Sanskritization of the Tamil cult at Tillai into a pan-Indic cult, tells of a dance competition in which the goddess already resident at Tillai, Tillai Amman, resented Shiva’s encroachment and challenged him to a dance competition (Kaimal, 407). Shiva won the competition by taking a raised leg posture, which modesty prevented the virginal goddess from copying (Kaimal, 407). This loss split the goddess in two, the wrathful virginal aspect retreated to a shrine outside the temple walls, while her benign aspect became Shiva’s wife and remained in the temple where her worship continued. This may reflect an earlier tradition being replaced by, or syncretized into, a more pan-Indic cult rooted in Upanishadic Hinduism rather than the local Tamil culture. This Sanskritization of a local cult may reflect political or social changes brought about as a result of empires growing larger and larger which had to unify disparate belief systems without abolishing them.

Another myth, also presented in the Chidambaramahatmya support the hypothesis that symbols present in the Nataraja icon derive from earlier cults which where absorbed in, and Sanskritized by, the Nataraja cult. The “Pine Forest myth” relates the story of Shiva visiting several sages who were living in a pine forest to punish them for their devotional inadequacies (Kaimal, 406). Shiva arrives in the form of a nude and mirthful ascetic, Bhikshatana, who was sexually irresistible to the wives of the sages, he was accompanied by Vishnu in his female form, Mohini, who proved distracting to the sages themselves (Kaimal, 406). When the sages realized their humiliation they became infuriated and attacked Shiva with various objects which he incorporated into his dance (Kaimal, 406). After incorporating the objects hurled at him by the sages, Shiva’s dance intensified until it encompassed all of creation (Kaimal, 406). As the sages saw this dance they became enlightened by the cosmic proportions of Shiva’s true form and instituted the worship of Shiva in an aniconic form as the linga, which we see carried on at Chidambaram today (Kaimal, 406).

It is the particular items thrown at Shiva, and their incorporation into his dance, which interest us here. The items were: a skull, which Shiva wears in his hair; serpents, which adorn Shiva’s limbs and hair; a dwarf, which he tramples underfoot; a tiger, to which are attributed the shredded appearance of Shiva’s flowing garment; and the fire and drum which we see in Shiva’s two upper arms as well as the flaming ring within which he dances (Kaimal, 406). It certainly is not out of the question to see this legend as a possible reference to earlier Tamil cults, represented by the items, being displaced by and absorbed into the cult of Shiva as a pan-Indic god. This interpretation would further support the idea of a unification of disparate local cults as the empire grew to incorporate, and accommodate, more cultural groups. This is by no means the last word on the origins of the Nataraja icon, but it may indicate that a reappraisal is in order.

Works Cited

Dehejia, Vidya. Indian Art. Phaidon, 2011, London.

Kaimal, Padma. “Shiva Nataraja: Shifting Meanings of an Icon” in The Art Bulletin, 81, 3. College Art Association, 2009, New York.

Srinivasan, Sharada. “Cosmic Dancer: On Pallava Origins for the Nataraja Bronze” in World Archaeology, Vol. 36, No. 3. Taylor & Francis, 2004, Abingdon.

Article written by Logan Page (Dec. 2018), who is solely responsible for its content.

Ramprasad Sen and Bengali Saktism

Ramprasad Sen (1718-1775) was a prominent poet during the 18th century. Though precise details regarding Ramprasad’s childhood and upbringing are often mixed with legend, he is said to have been born to Tantric Brahmins in Bengal, and is remembered for showing a skill and inclination toward poetry and music from a young age (McLean 42). Ramprasad’s upbringing is also characterized by his diligent religious study, especially that which focused on the Navya Tantric-scripture of Krishnananda Agamavagisha, the well-known 16th century Sreehattan Pandita and Tantra Jain Sadhaka (McLean 42). In adulthood, Ramprasad would achieve renown for his love songs, especially of a sort known as bhakti, still popular today.

The ecstatic loving fervor expressed in Ramprasad’s poems, directed toward the goddess Kali, has since come to encapsulate the devotional energies which the Bengali Saktas feel at the epitome of their faith. Appropriately, Ramprasad has since come to be recognized as one of the greatest poets in Indian history. The following work will evaluate Ramprasad Sen, the bhakti movement he originated from, and explore the intense devotion to the Goddess Kali which is present in many of Ramprasad Sen’s poetic works. Interestingly, the life of Ramprasad is very much intertwined with myth and legend which have arisen after his death, meaning that many of the pivotal experiences outlined by biographers are perhaps apocryphal. That said, the vast influence which Ramprasad has exerted over the Bengali Sakta canon and religious practice will form the core of this examination. Particular focus will be paid to the ways in which, despite his Tantric background, Ramprasad deviated from traditional devotional poetry, and even used his works as a platform for criticism of traditional Bengali Saktism.

Ramprasad Sen’s bhakti poetry can best be described as the product of its author’s unyielding devotion to the Hindu goddess Kali. This goddess is known as a destroyer of evil, and oversees, by such action, one of the four groups of tantric Saivism known as Kulamarga (Kinsley 116). Periodically throughout history, this goddess has been worshipped by her adherents directly, through devotional practice. In this role as religious icon, Kali is alternatively described as the Divine Mother, or the Mother of the Universe. Under Hindu Saktism and Tantrism, Kali was often thought to be the Brahman, both a powerful protector and the goddess who would provide moksa (Kinsley 116). Given the prominence that Kali has held in Tantric Brahmin worship, it is perhaps unsurprising that Ramprasad chose her as the object of his life’s poetic work.

Accounts of Ramprasad’s family life also reflect the powerful presence that the goddess Kali held in his life. One such account found Ramprasad building a fence and asking for his daughter’s help, a task he performed while reciting his poetry to Kali. When his daughter appeared, she chastised him for his singing to a goddess who would never appear. After helping him with the fence, Ramprasad and his daughter separated, but later he learned that his daughter had been in another town since morning, and realized he had been visited by the Divine Mother (McDaniel 2018: 45). Another perhaps apocryphal story about Ramprasad Sen’s early life concerns his work as an accountant in Kolkata. At this work, he is said to have busied himself writing poems to the Divine Mother in his workbooks. When exposed, he was not punished by his employer, but instead hired as a poet for the accounting firm (McDaniel 2018: 45).

One final account tells that Ramprasad would spend long hours lost in meditation, “often while standing deep in the Ganges river,” and the boat workers would listen to him as they passed (McDaniel 162). The account indicates that one day “the Maharaja Krishnachandra of Nadia” passed by and heard Ramprasad as he recited his devotional poetry, and was so impressed that “he asked [Ramprasad] to be his court poet” (McDaniel 162). Without strong evidence, there is no way to know whether either of these three accounts of Ramprasad’s early life are true, but the persistence of these legends of are themselves a testimony to the power of Ramprasad’s poetry and influence. In particular, it reflects the prominence that Ramprasad’s works would attain in Bengali Saktism, as considered in the section below.

The movement which would seize upon Ramprasad’s works as basis for a its literary and religious tradition is known as Bengali Saktism. This faith describes Kali as a goddess to be worshipped either as a “powerful force or life and death,” or as a “tantric and yogic goddess who [provides] supernatural knowledge,” but a third variant, one less prominent than the rest, would form the focus of Ramprasad’s work (McDaniel 2018: 44). Within Sakta devotion, and in Ramprasad’s poetry, the goddess is understood as a “loving mother who saves her devotees from painful rebirth,” as well as provides them with protection from harm and “entrance to her heaven” (McDaniel 2018: 44). In Ramprasad’s work, by contrast, his poetic vision of the Divine Mother manifest not as a loving mother, but with Kali taking the form of either “the universal mother or [an] innocent girl,” a figure which is “sometimes frightening on the outside, but inwardly loving and compassionate” (McDaniel 2018: 44). Ramprasad’s ecstatic works of devotional poetry to this dynamic figure would influence Bengali Saktism from then on, and has come to typify the effusive love which such adherents express for the goddess Kali.

Given the strong role which Ramprasad’s works play in epitomizing modern Bengali Sakti ecstatic devotion, there is certainly much evidence to indicate that Ramprasad’s choice of subject was directly compelled by his faith. In particular, biographers present evidence to show that Ramprasad’s poetry is derived from the Kularnava Tantra, that millennia-old work of epistemology and logic upon which much of Tantric practice is based (McDermott 71). Official accounts will also refer to Ramprasad’s long years spent practicing “kundalini yoga meditation,” a variant common to Bengali Sakti communities (McDermott 71). There is evidence of this faith derived from Ramprasad’s works themselves, some of which provide “descriptions of Kali derived from [the] Tantric dhyanas” (McDermott 71). There is also Bengali Sakta religious precedent for the great deal of ecstatic loving fervor which flows through Ramprasad’s works. McDaniel (2018: 44) indicates that Ramprasad’s works, and his life, are an embodiment of the ecstatic states outlined in the Kularnava Tantra, a major text of the Bengali Saktas. This work describes ullasa, or the “ecstatic joy…which occurs during ritual practice,” where the practitioner seeking the highest (divya) state described as the “ecstatic or blind madman” (McDaniel 2018: 46). Ecstasy at this level brings loss of control, described in by Bengali Saktas as feeling like “[the adherent’s] limbs are stretched, his hair stands on end, [and] he laughs and cries and stutters” (McDaniel 2018: 46). While in this state, known as divyonmada, or “ecstatic madness,” individuals are made “beyond control by the body and the senses,” and will paradoxically “[gaze] outward but [look] inward,” and thus are seem as the “equivalent to the God Shiva Bhairava” (McDaniel 2018: 46). During his life, Ramprasad was frequently described as a madman, a factor which does much to support the use of his works and ambition as a basis for Bengali Sakta ecstatic practice. Though such textual evidence is persuasive, there is also strong evidence to indicate that Ramprasad’s poetry diverged from the purely devotional and traditional Tantric poetry to which it is often compared.

As described by Schelling (2011: 14), Ramprasad’s bhakti poetry was often purely devotional, but this author ascribes its endurance in the Bengal popular imagination to the ways in which it diverted from tradition. Schelling (2011) cites the intimacy of Ramprasad’s works, or its often playful or scolding tone, as well as its deep esotericism and profusion with symbolism, as key areas where it diverges from traditional devotional work (Schelling 14). Moreover, in addition to these works lacking uniform devotional intent, they also contain a wealth of confessions of doubt “concerning the kindliness of [Kali]” which indicate a much more complicated relationship between author and subject (McDermott 71). Moreover, Ramprasad’s works included a range of heartfelt criticism against the “scriptures, images, pilgrimages, and surface acts” upon which the faith of so many people was often predicated (McDermott 71).

Accordingly, Ramprasad’s poetry is notable for the considerable depth and complexity he brings to its subject. His works focus upon “a single great goddess,” often called Kali but sometimes referred to as “Durga, Bhairavi, Sita, Uma, [or] Kalika” (McDaniel 2018: 45). These works emphasize not just the greatness and power of Kali, but tell of “passionate love which must be experienced, and cannot be found in books or philosophies” (McDaniel 2018: 45). Reflected in Ramprasad’s poetry, this intense and worldly love, as emphasized in devotion, was a way for Ramprasad (and Kali bhakti practitioners) to “[draw in] the goddess like a magnet attracts iron” (McDaniel 2018: 45). Of the poems not directed toward Kali herself, Ramprasad’s work also includes “songs of secret sadhana practices,” but each is unerring in its focus upon the act of devotion and the ecstasy to would result from such practice (McDaniel 2018: 45).

Moreover, Dalmiya (2000: 126) describes bhakti poetry as of “feminist significance,” as reflected not just in the “paradoxical” shifting attitude its author holds toward the subject, but due to each of these shifts in tone reflecting “a devotee’s worshipful attitude towards Kali” (Dalmiya 127). This author indicates that the “mother-child motif at the core” of Ramprasad’s work represented “not only a dramatic construction of femininity but of selfhood in general” (Dalmiya 125). As Ramprasad challenged the definition of devotional poetry through the “indigenous worshipful attitude of Kali-bhakti,” he transformed what had been an art form predicated on worship and devotion alone into a far more dynamic instrument (Dalmiya 125).

The transformative power of Ramprasad’s poetry is stressed in other works. In McDermott’s (2001: 71) analysis, this author explains that this poet’s biographers, no matter how stymied by anecdotal accounts, have also sought to offer a view of this eminent artist somewhat ‘divorced’ from “solely Tantric terms” (McDermott 71). This author indicates that some authors will describe Ramprasad not as a mere devotee, but as a bhakta, a “poet who transformed, rather than accepted wholeheartedly, the esoteric Goddess of Tantric heritage” (McDermott 71). The result of the poetry and legacy of Ramprasad, thus lies in his unwavering focus on expressing love for the goddess Kali, and the influence of that love, as expressed in his works, upon the Bengali Sakta tradition. Aside from the undeniable beauty of Ramprasad’s poetry, their legacy is thus felt as much by its deviation from classical poetic art forms as by its embodiment of them. A century after Ramprasad’s death, Yogendranath Gupta would argue that all of the “miracle stories” were comprised of “faith and devotion (visvasa and bhakti).” This is an indication that Ramprasad’s poetry, and his role as sadhaka (religious practitioner) who “softened the hard wood of kaula-sadhana”, the traditional Sakta practice, “through syrupy streams of bhakti and love” (McDermott 71). This description is notable for its acknowledgement that Ramprasad’s works were less an epitome of Bengali Sakta practice as a force for change in this faith.

To this end, while Ramprasad’s work has found a central place in Bengali Saktism, his poems are perhaps most notable for the ways in which they divert from this tradition. To indicate where Ramprasad’s work deviates from Sakta practice most strongly, it is important to consider the different kinds of bhakti practice. McDermott (2001: 71) indicates that there are three types of bhakti, namely (1) Vaisnava bhakti, described as a “dualistic devotion based on external image worship,” (2) Nirguna bhakti, which focuses on a “formless conception of the divine,” and (3) Saka bhakti, under which the goddess is “not understood as a real presence ‘out there’ but as a symbol of the world or of the self,” which can be “introjected into the spiritual physiognomy of the body” through kundalini yogic practice (McDermott 71). Under this formulation distinguishing between variants upon bhakti practice, the sort which is best-emphasized in the work of Ramprasad is the third type, Saka bhakti. While Ramprasad’s language may be interpreted by adherents of the first type (Vaisnava bhakti) as being purely devotional in nature, this “Vaisnavized perspective” often fails to account for Ramprasad’s symbolism, and for what is symbolized by the ecstasy which is strongly emphasized throughout his works (McDermott 71). Specifically, this author indicates that whenever Ramprasad mentions the act of loving Kali, or the idea of keeping Kali in his heart, he is in actuality “referring to [Kali’s] visualized presence in the heart,” and not “thinking of a particular [goddess whom] he worships within an external, dualistic framework” (McDermott 71). The result of Ramprasad’s intent is an art form co-opted by Bengali Shaktism which contains only superficial resemblance to the works which inspired it.

A promising alternative inspiration for Ramprasad’s works has been theorized as derived from the work of the “esoteric Bauls” (McDermott 71). Ramprasad’s songs addressed to the mind, as an example, “mirror the language and concerns of Baul maner manus songs,” themselves focused on a “man of the heart” (McDermott 71). Moreover, both Ramprasad’s works and those by the Bauls represent the mind as a bird, as well as “the body as a place of sadhana,” likened to a boat, as well as “reliance on a guru,” each of which are less emphasized or not present in traditional Bengali Saktism (McDermott 71). For this reason, McDermott (2001) argues that it is reductive and disingenuous to describe Ramprasad as a bhakti poet, despite centuries of subsequent literary works and religious tradition among the Bengali Saktas people suggesting otherwise (McDermott 71).

This work has touched upon the reductive power of religious symbolism over time. So enamored were the 16th-century Bengali Saktas with the depth of Ramprasad’s stated devotion to the goddess Kali, they neglected the deeper criticisms and complexity of these symbolic and esoteric works. In the intervening centuries, Ramprasad’s works have come to be celebrated for their ecstatic devotion alone, but they have lost much of the intricacy of the author’s original voice. Though Bengali Sakta celebrations are renowned for their fervor, their ‘basis’ in Ramprasad’s works, considered the epitome of their practice, is perhaps less direct than it seems.


Dalmiya, Vrinda (2000) “Loving paradoxes: A feminist reclamation of the goddess Kali.” Hypatia 15, no. 1: 125-150.

Gross, Rita M. (1978) “Hindu Female Deities as a Resource for the Contemporary Rediscovery of the Goddess.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Vol. 46, No.1: 269–291.

Kinsley, David (1998) Hindu goddesses: Visions of the divine feminine in the Hindu religious tradition. Berkley: University of California Press, 1988.

McDaniel, June (2004) Offering Flowers, Feeding Skulls: Popular Goddess Worship in West Bengal. Oxford University Press.

McDaniel, June (2018). Lost Ecstasy: Its Decline and Transformation in Religion. Springer: Oxford University Press

McDermott, Rachel Fell (2001) Mother of My Heart, Daughter of My Dreams: Kālī and Umā in the Devotional Poetry of Bengal. Oxford University Press.

McLean, Malcolm (1998) Devoted to the Goddess: the life and work of Ramprasad. SUNY Press.

Schelling, Andrew, ed. (2011) The Oxford Anthology of Bhakti Literature. Oxford University Press.

Related Research Topics

“The Alvars”

“Bhaskararaya (1690-1785”


“Kali Puja”

“Nirguna bhakti




“Tamil Literature”

“Tridevi” & “Navaratri”

“Understanding Sanskrit”

“Vaisnava bhakti


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This article was written by Zach Myrtrunec (Fall 2018), who is entirely responsible for its content.


Of Sanskrit origin, the term Trimurti is composed of the roots tri, being ‘three’ and murti, being ‘form,’ referring to the three-deity nature of the Hindu Trinity (Dent 2012). The origins of the Trimurti are thought to stem from the Harappan Civilization of pre-Aryan India but appear in later writings and art (Chakravarti 1986). The associated deities of the Trimurti are Siva, Visnu, and Brahma in the Puranas, though there are antecedents to the Trimurti in Vedic texts and art forms that are still under speculation (Vitsaxis 1977). To understand the complex nature of the evolution and rise of the Trimurti, the origins of its deities and their development with the expansion of Aryan culture and religion must first be examined.

The intermingling and interchanging of deities and their respective names in the Vedas allowed a fluid base for the concept of the Trimurti to begin its bout. Rudra is the fearsome Vedic god of howling wind, who represents fear and destruction (Chakravarti 1), but also a generous healer in the Vedas (Flood 122). Although he is not regularly mentioned in Vedic literature, his character is one that is built upon as the Aryans encounter the Harappan Civilization (more generally the Indus-Valley Civilization). Included in Vedic literature are the Aranyakas, Brahamanas, Samhitas, and the Upanisads. The worship of a proto-Siva deity in the Indus-Valley Civilization predates the arrival of the Aryans in the Indus Valley. This proto-Siva is arguably shown on seals dating back to near 3000 BCE (Flood 122). A seal from Mohenjo-Daro pictures the figure sitting with the soles of its feet together, arms rested above its knees, and horned headdress (trait associated with Siva) (Nagar 58), and others include animals or people surrounding the proto-Siva as shown by Chakravarti (plate 1). Such is evident of the gradual integration of non-Aryan beliefs into Indo-Aryan religion, and the beginning of the non-Aryan proto-Siva being impressed upon Rudra (Chakravarti 22-23). Synonyms of Siva (yajurveda, bhavas, sarva) were attributed to Rudra in Vedic literature, and Siva was used as an adjective in the Vedas, ascribed to multiple gods, particularly to Rudra, where the first linking of Siva to the Vedic god Rudra can be observed. Siva was later incorporated into the Trimurti and became predominate in the Hindu tradition (Chakravarti 73).

In the Svetasvatara Upanisad, Rudra, among other deities (isvaras), is given the title of Great God (mahesvara), and is regarded as having the qualities of the Trimurti (creator, preserver, destroyer); Rudra is the precedent of the Trimurti that officially appears later in the Puranas. There were examples of a triad in the Vedas, one example being in the Rgveda, where Agni is revealed to have three forms (sun, lightning, fire) (Chakravarti 54). Three deities in unison can be noted, as there is a tendency to reduce many gods to three major ones, namely those of the Trimurti in later texts (Chakravarti 54). An example (Chakravarti 54) in the Rgveda is as follows: “May the Surya protect us from the sky, Vata from the air, Agni from the earthly regions” (RV X, viii. 1). In the Upanisads, Visnu is linked with Surya, the Vedic sun god (Chennakesavan 48). Evidence of this correlation is slim, however, it does offer a connection from the Vedic proto-triad.

Brahma remained as the creator in ancient texts when Siva and Visnu were extolled on a much larger scale (see Glucklich 148). The dualism between Siva and Visnu is an antecedent for Trimurti doctrine that emerges later in the Puranas (Chakravarti 54). Rival, but not evidently hostile, cults, the Saivas and the Vaisnavas worshiped Siva and Visnu respectively (Chakravarti 54, 174). It was likely in efforts to harmonize the aforementioned cults in the Gupta period (approx. 300-600 CE) that brought such doctrine into being (Basham 310).

The first legitimate accounts of the Trimurti as an entity in Hindu literature appear in the Puranas, which date prior to 200-300 BCE (Bharati 106). The Puranas are diverse in the ways they are written as they were compiled over time by many authors (Bharati 106), and are thence named for the deity that they regard (Bharati 128). Differing from Vedic literature, Puranas encourage worship of a single, all-encompassing deity that has dominion over all reality, even though they exalt the three deities of the Trimurti as well (Matchett 138). Constructed to encourage greater religious devotion and awareness (bhakti), the Puranas, with time, introduced new means of worship in Hindu society; pilgrimage  (tirthayatras), alms (dana), and observances (vratas) began to replace certain Vedic rituals, shaping the common religious practices among the general majority of Hindus (Bharati 128). It is important to note that, in regards to dharma, the Vedas are considered authoritative over the Puranas, despite their significance among Hindus (Bharati 27). There are three groups (sattva, rajas, tamas) that the eighteen major Puranas are divided between, each devoted to a member of the Trimurti (Bharati). The rajas Puranas regard Brahma as a force maintaining equilibrium, capable of action. Visnu’s qualities of preservation and renewal are conveyed in the sattva Puranas, and Siva’s destructive nature is displayed in the tamas Puranas (Dallapiccola 2002).

The Trimurti is associated with the three gunas sattva, rajas, and tamas (Dallapiccola 2002; Sharma and Bharati 73). The guna to which Brahma correlates is rajas, as Visnu is to sattva and Siva is to tamas. Bharati (313) explains that gunas describe temperament or attributes. Brahma’s rajas guna is the quality of activity, the sattva guna is characteristic of Visnu’s stability and purity, and the rajas guna equates to the dark nature of Siva.

As Glucklich (148) notes, textual evidence for the roles of the Trimurti deities can be found in the Matsyapurana as well, which states, “Brahma creates the universe, Visnu fosters it, and at the end of the kalpa, Siva destroys it.” This further reinstates the central concept which the Trimurti endure. The significance of the Trimurti as creating, preserving, and destroying forces support the encouragement of worshiping a single figure that overshadows all reality (Matchett 138).

Sharma and Bharati (72) recall the poem, Kumarasambhava, of Kalidasa (approx. 400-500 CE) in which the creator, preserver and destroyer aspects of the Trimurti are regarded as being representative of birth, life and death, and morning, noon and night (see also Dallapiccola 2002).

An early story involving the Trimurti under its respective name is in the Devipurana. Mahadevi tells Visnu that the god Brahma will be born through his navel, and that Rudra will be born from between Brahma’s eyebrows (Mani 147). Brahma is to have the quality of activity (rajoguna), Rudra, darkness (tamasaguna), and Visnu is to be the preserver (sattva) of the world that Rudra will eventually destroy [Rudra here is homologous to Siva]. The Vamanapurana Mani (147-8) states “the Eternal Being is Brahma, Visnu, Siva.” Various stories in the Puranas involve all three Trimurti, who do not act as a unified deity, rather are portrayed more often as individualistic deities. A myth in the Lingapurana that involves Brahma, Siva and Vishnu also denote superiority in the triad as residing with Siva (Chakravarti 138-9). In this myth, Brahma and Visnu are in conflict over who is the rightful creator of the universe, when the sight of an expansive linga (phallus) that is aflame interrupts their quarrels. To locate the top of the immense ligna, Brahma turns himself into a swan, and flies off in search of it; to locate the bottom, Visnu takes the form of a boar and runs to search. They do not succeed in their attempt, as the linga was larger than they had thought it to be, and so they praise it. The linga is that of Siva, and so by praising it, they also bowed to him. Another example of Siva’s superiority over Brahma and Visnu in the triad is in the inscription on the Aug Chamnik that conveys Siva’s dominance over Brahma and Visnu, which stand with folded hands before him (Chakravarti 174).

Some scholars believe that a relief (raised sculpture), excavated from the ancient kingdom of Gandhara in modern-day Pakistan, detailing a single body with three heads, those of Siva (center), Visnu (proper right), and Brahma (proper left) is a depiction of the Trimurti (Chakravarti 56). Vitsaxis (1977) notes that although popular iconography of the three faces of Siva tend to have little differentiation from one another, in classical iconography, particularity in sculptures, there is a different expression on each of his three faces, possibly corresponding to his different attributes or revealing three different deities constituting the Trimurti. Another possible occurrence of Siva with Visnu and Brahma is depicted on a Huviskian coin (approx. 100-200 CE) where Siva wields his trident (trisula), and the symbolic weapons of Visnu (cakra: discus) and Indra (vajra: club)  (Chakravarti 54, 148).

While art forms and the literature containing Trimurtic doctrine remain and continue to be consulted by Hindus today, the implication of the Trimurti is rather limited. Unlike the familiar example of Christianity, the Hindu Trinity did not gain momentum or significant influence in the Hindu tradition (Basham 310). The strong tendency towards polytheism among Hindus meant that praising three deities equally was an abstract form of worship, which ultimately undermined any wholesome worship of all three deities together as one (Basham 310).


 Basham, A. L. (1988) The Wonder That Was India. London: Sidgwick & Jackson.

Bharati, Dayanand (2005) Understanding Hinduism. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers Pvt. Ltd.

Chakravarti, Mahadev (1986) The Concept of Rudra-Siva Through the Ages. New Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Chennakesavan, Sarasvati (1980) A Critical Study of Hinduism. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Dallapiccola, Anna L. (2002) Dictionary of Hindu Lore and Legend. London: Thames & Hudson Ltd.

Dent, Susie (2012) Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. London: Chambers Harrap.

Flood, Gavin 2004. “Saiva.” In The Hindu World, edited by Sushil Mittal and Gene Thursby, 119-139. Abingdon: Routledge.

Glucklich, Ariel (2008) Strides of Vishnu: Hindu Culture in Historical Perspective. New York: Oxford University Press.

Hinnells, John R., and Eric J. Sharpe (1972) World Religions Education in Hinduism. Newcastle upon Tyne: Oriel Press Limited.

Jamison, S. W., and M. Witzel. 1992. “Vedic Hinduism.” In Hinduism: Critical Concepts in Religious Studies (2015), edited by Will Sweetman, 258-350. Abingdon: Routledge.

Mani, Vettam (1975) Puranic Encyclopedia: A Comprehensive Dictionary with Special Reference to the Epic and Puranic Literature. New Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Matchett, Freda (2005) The Blackwell Companion to Hinduism. Edited by Gavin Flood. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

Nagar, Shantila (1998) Indian Gods and Goddesses: Vol 1. The Early Deities from Chalcolithic to Beginning of Historical Period. Delhi: B. R. Publishing Corporation.

Sharma, Arvind, and Ray Bharati. 2000. “Chapter VI: The Hindu Trinity (Trimurti).” In Classical Hindu Thought: An Introduction, 72-75. New York: Oxford.

Vitsaxis, Vassils G. (1977) Hindu Epics, Myths and Legends in Popular Illustrations. New Delhi: OUP.


Related Topics for Further Investigation







Rajas Puranas





Sattva Puranas


Tamas Puranas









Related Websites

This article was written by: Hannah Bouma (Fall 2018), who is entirely responsible for its content.




One of the most obscure goddesses in the Hindu religion is the Tantric goddess Kubjika. The obscurity is due to the fact that she is mainly worshipped by a small Newar cult called the Transmission of the Mother (avvakrama) in Nepal (Dyczkowski 2004: 253). Although recognized as a great Indian goddess (Mahadevi), comparable to Kali, she is practically unknown outside Nepal. The proof of her once being an Indian goddess comes from the Kubjika Tantras. They describe her as the goddess of the city of Candrapura and the land of Konkana, India (Dyczkowsi 2004: 129). While she is quite a unique goddess physically and figuratively, she also shares many common characteristics with other, better known goddesses, specifically those worshipped in India. Another cause of her obscureness is the fact that she is found only in the Kaula Tantras, specifically the Sakta Kaula Tantras, which are mostly unexplored to those outside the Newar cults (Dyczkowski 2004: 193). The unusualness of this is that these Tantras are very large for such an unknown goddess. Although it has been determined that Kubjika was at one point a Southern Indian goddess, most of the manuscripts dedicated to her, the most celebrated being the Kubjikamatatantra, come from Nepal, where Kubjika is primarily worshipped (Dyczkowski 2004: 175-176).

The Kubjikamatatantra is a very large Tantra with over 66 manuscripts. A Tantra is a text composed of many scriptures that describe techniques and rituals including meditative, sexual practices, yoga, and religious practices. As a great goddess, Kubjika is the energy of universal, absolute consciousness and is said to be both creative and destructive (Dyczkowksi 2001: 43). Today Kubjika is most well-known as an erotic goddess and a hunchback. Though there are other goddesses in Hinduism who are considered erotic and are ugly, Kubjika stands out among them, by the methods by which she is worshipped and those who worship her. She is also unique in that she incorporates other goddesses into her own appearance and actions.

Kubjika and the cult associated with her were not discovered until the late 1980’s due to the secretive nature of her story. In actuality, the first texts on Kubjika date back to 11th century, in the Kathmandu Valley in Central-Eastern Nepal. These are Tantric texts that describe the following and worshipping of the goddess Kubjika, such as the Kubjikamatatantra and the Manthanabhairavatantra. The schools dedicated to the worship and study of the goddess Kubjika are known as the Kubjikamata, where the Kubjikamatatantra is studied (Dyczkowski 2004: 112). These schools are most commonly found in Nepal, the center for the cult of Kubjika. This cult consists of the Newar people of Nepal.

The Newar people make up approximately half of the current population of the Kathmandu Valley (“Newar People”: 2007). Their language comes from the Tibeto-Burman family, compromising of 250-300 languages, spread throughout Asia. The Newar people were strongly influenced by Indian religious institutions as their population is mostly Hindu and Buddhist. Although influenced by India, the religious tendencies in Nepal were unique in their own right. They are known for combining older forms of practicing Hinduism with newer, more modern approaches as well (Dyczkowski 2001: 2). While they do still focus on more common, major, typically male gods such as Visnu and Siva who fit within the outer domain, the cults like those of the Newar people, have tendencies to put their religious focus on smaller, more obscure, typically female goddesses such as Kubjika, who are found within the inner domain (Dyczkowski 2001: 2).

Another unusual practice of the Newar people is that they believe strongly in ancestral worship. They believed that elderly men and women had the opportunity to achieve the level of a deity by going through specific rites of passage (Dyczkowski 2001: 17-18). This belief caused the uncommon and odd religious tendencies of the area. This abnormal form of faith explains why said cults were not discovered by outsiders until quite recently, as they remain to this day, quite secretive. It is common practice in Hinduism to keep the teachings of the Tantras a secret and the Newar people are strong believers in this tradition (Dyczkowski 2001: 2). Mark Dyczkowski was one of the first outsiders who discovered Kubjika in 1981 when he received a copy of the Kubjikamatatantra as a wedding gift from another scholar, which inspired him to further investigate the subject. He found that Kubjika was a Hindu Tantric goddess who originated in India but is mostly unknown to all those except the Newar people. The proof of worship was not existent until Dr. Dyczkowski found himself as part of the Kubjika cult in 1987. Dr. Dyczkowski’s acceptance into the cult allowed him to share their traditions and beliefs with the world, allowing other people and scholars to explore it aswell.

The initiation into the Newar cults of Kubjika was not a simple nor common occurrence. Intiation was restricted to only high caste, or twice-born Newar people. Another restriction is that only the Rajopadhyaya Brahmins, the former family priests of the Malla kings, can give initiation to those who do not belong to their own family. The Malla kings ruled Nepal from 1201-1779CE and declared themselves Ksatriyas (“Malla”: 2018). Also known as Karmacaryas, they were able to initiate their own family members into the cult. The Karmacaryas were also unique in the sense that they focused their worship on the mother goddesses, such as Kubjika, who were believed to be protecting their community. These initiates made up a small group who were the sole worshippers of Kubjika and other goddesses. They worshipped in private shrines that were only accessible to the cult members. The worship of Kubjika is not traditional in the sense that she does not have a clear iconic form and is mainly only worshipped in her mandala. At home initiates perform daily worship by tracing a triangular diagram into the palm of their hand with one of their fingers and at the beginning of the rite, imaging said triangular diagram as the yoni (vulva) of Kubjika (Dyczkowski 2004: 176).

Another unusual aspect of the cult is that it consists primarily of householders. The householder stage (grhastha) is the middle/second stage of life. It is the stage for marriage and achieving kama (pleasure) and artha (skill/power) which appeals to the erotic tendencies of the goddess Kubjika (Dyczkowski 2004: 176).  In addition to all the specifics, Kubjika was also regularly worshipped through stones (pitha) instead of the more common methods of openly worshipping other Hindu gods and goddesses in temples (Dyczkowski 2001: 19). The stones were found in human settlements and the countryside and were believed to be watching over and protecting the area in which they are found.  The size of the protection zone was dependant on the status of the stone.

Kubjika was a goddess who was described with many identities and forms, although there is little photographic/artistic evidence of said forms. The Tantras describe her origin as an embodiment of the creature of desire (iccha) of the god Bhairava [her “father”] (Dyczkowski 2001: 41). In one of her iconic forms she is shown with six faces. Amongst those six faces, the uppermost face is the goddess Para and is described to be as white as milk and possessing 17 energies (Dyczkowski 2004: 182). The top head is Malini, the face of the sky and is white to represent peacefulness. The eastern face is Siddhayogesvari, a face described to be full of rage, which is also adorned with the form of the mantra. The southern face is Kalika, the worst looking face with large protruding teeth and described like a dark-blue lotus. The northern face is that of the goddess Tripura. This face is red like a pomegranate flower and is round like a full moon, portraying peace and bliss. The last face is the face of Umakhecari and is also white.  Each of the six faces was said to have three eyes, one for the sun, one for the moon, and the one in the middle was for fire.

Although there are stories in the Kubjikamatatantra describing her origin, there are no stories or myths as to how and why these other goddesses came about as Kubjika’s faces. In this form she had 12 arms each carrying a different item. These items included, the stick of the world, a great lotus [symbol of beauty and fertility], an ascetic’s staff (khatvanga), a noose, a rosary, a bouquet of brilliant jewels, a number of scriptures held along with a conch (sankhapala), a skull, a trident, the gesture of fearlessness, the gesture of granting favours, the mirror of Karma, and the five immortal substances (Dyczkowski 2004: 182). She is depicted sitting on a lion throne, adorned with many ornaments. The lords of snakes serve as her anklets (connection to Siva), zone, belt, chock, and tiara. She also wore scorpions as rings on her fingers. On her head she wears a garland of vowels and a necklace of letters along with a necklace of 50 scorpions around her throat (Dyczkowski 2004:182).

Kubjika’s iconic form is generally described as bright and often blue, and the goddess Kali and her darkness is the shadow-like counterpart of Kubjika (Dyczkowski 2001: 39). Her heart shines like a clean mirror, her face shines like a newly risen sun, her hair in a topknot made of light that emulates lightning, and her breast place made of brilliant energy. Her weapon is the Fire of Time that was known to lick up the worlds and was hard to bear which starts to describe her destructive side (Dyczkowski 2004: 182)

Some of the most interesting aspects of Kubjika is how she is described as many different goddesses. The primary being the goddess of pottery which is still very known today but the others being more definitive. In her Kubjikamata schools, she is known as a tree goddess (Dyczkowski 2001: 70). She is also considered a lunar goddess, similar to the goddesses Kali and Tripura, who she shares connections with. Kubjika’s creative and destructive tendencies are perpendicular to the shift between light and dark we see with the moon. Her lunar whiteness is also representative of Sukra which means female sperm, thus matching her eroticism. Along with these two qualities, she is also considered a goddess of fire which closely relates to her destructive side.

Kubjika is known as a creator, as described in her erotic ways, but also a destroyer, comparative to the goddess Kali (Dyczkowski 2001: 62). She had darkness within her that was feared. The creator aspect of Kubjika’s personality is also associated with her hunchback figure. The purpose of her being hunchbacked is so that she was able to impregnate herself without a second party by licking her own vulva and creating her own bliss and pleasure (Dyczkowski 2004: 242). This benefits the goddess and makes it easy for Kubjika to expand the universe as she can do it independently. As explained in her origin myth found in the first three chapters of the Kubjikamatatantra, she becomes hunchback due to the embarrassment of being asked to be the god Bhairava’s teacher by giving him a favour of empowerment (ajna), which in simple terms, comes from her vulva (Dyczkowski 2004:179). This event also explains how the goddess Kubjika is androgynous. During her realization (as told in the myth, see Dyczkowski 2004: 176-184) she takes the form of Linga (phallus). During her embarrassment, she must transition from Linga to Yoni (vulva). This transition explains how she is capable of being male and female, thus meaning androgynous. When Kubjika is in the form of Yoni she is aroused and fertile and the energy that comes with this is the flow of her emission, which is Sukra (female sperm) and Sukravahini (she who causes sperm to flow) (Dyzckowski 2004: 181). These factors are what makes her the most well known as being an erotic, hunchbacked goddess.

The goddess Kubjika, although widely unexplored, is very unique and full of depth. The small Newar cult that worships her has chosen to remain secretive and exclusive. Still centered in a small region in Nepal, they embody Hindu orthodoxy while also creating and following their own methods of practicing Hinduism and worshipping the gods and goddesses. The Newar people have very strict initiation rites and keep to themselves which explains why the goddess Kubjika was not made known to the rest of the world until the 1980’s. The goddess herself has very few evidential forms and is worshipped primarily by her mandala, stones, and very small, private shrines, very unlike the large one’s seen dedicated to better known Hindu gods and goddesses. She is know known mainly as the erotic, androgynous, hunchbacked goddess who embodies the faces and characteristics of other goddesses such as Tripura. She has a very detailed iconic form that is similar to other great goddesses in India, as represented by her multiple heads and arms, which indicate power. It is proven that she was originally from India, though she is practically unknown in that region today. The goddess of pottery, trees, and fire is very important in the Sakta Kaula Tantras and the Hindu religion in general.


Avantazi, Beatriz and Gutman, Alejandro (2013) Tibeto-Burman Languages

Dyczkowski, Mark (2001) The Cult of the Goddess Kubjikā. Stuttgart: Nepal Research Centre; No. 23

Dyczkowski, Mark (2004) The Journey in the World of the Tantras. Varanasi: Indica Books

Goudriaan, T. and Schoterman, J. A. (1988) The Kubjikamatatantra; Kulalikamnaya Version. Leiden: Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Gupta, Kanchan and Prine Pauls, Elizabeth (2007) Newar People. Encyclopaedia Britannica

Setis, Veenu and Matt Stefon (2009) Tantra; Religious Texts. Encyclopaedia Britannica

Wikipedia contributors. (2018, October 28) “Malla” (Kathmandu Valley). Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia

Wikipedia contributors. (2018, October 31) Hindu iconography. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia

Wright, Daniel (1990) Malla (Kathmandu Valley). Wikipedia


Related Topics for Further Investigation





Kathmandu Valley

Kaula Tantra





Malla Kings


Newar people

Rajopadhyaya Brahmins

Sakta Kaula Tantras


Transmission of the Mother





Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic

Article written by: Shay Routly (October 2018) who is solely responsible for its content.


Vaikuntha Visnu with avatar heads (Kashmir, 7th century CE), Museo Del Arte Orientale (MAO), Turin, Italy.

The core concept of Vaisnavism is the worship of Visnu as the supreme deity of the Vedic pantheon and ultimate reality in a panentheistic sense. This essential idea appears in one way or another in most Vaisnava sects today, however  not all groups practice the religion the same way nor do they point to the same literature as the most important source material (Chari 31-34). The actual period during which Vaisnavism arose is unclear, however there is inscriptional evidence of a Vaisnava sect as early as the 2nd century B.C. (Chari 21) and there was certainly a well-established tradition by the 6th century A.D. (Jash 933). To understand Vaisnavism and its many faces it is necessary to understand its history, including what texts it derives its theology from.

A monotheistic approach centring on a single god within the Hindu multiplicity can be traced all the way back to the Rg Veda (Chari 4). Although this text praises many deities – recognizing the individuality of them all – there are a few verses which have been pointed out as evidence for a monotheistic take on the pantheon, such as the much-quoted line “There is one Being (sat) but wise men call it by different names (ekam sat vipra bahudha vadanti)” (Chari 5). The Upanisads offer an even clearer description of this idea in the form of Brahman and Narayana, which constitute the Supreme Reality that Visnu is associated with (Chari 4). Narayana specifically refers to a very panentheistic concept of ultimate reality as apart from and a part of creation (Chari 13-14). This concept gives a solid Vedic base for the later vision of Visnu; in fact, the Ramayana directly associates him with Narayana: “Rama, you who have truth as your valour. You are the god Narayana…. Sita is Laksmi and you are Visnu” (Doniger 202-203). Because of these monotheistic readings of the Vedas, Vaisnavas often retrospectively cite them as a true source of Vaisnava doctrine (Chari 13), however in reality Visnu is a very minor character until later in Hinduism (Jash 933). After the Vedas, the Agamas – religious treatises surrounding proper modes of religious worship – realize Vaisnavism in full, elaborating on concepts of the Supreme Deity found in the Vedas. The Vaisnava Agamas emphasized exclusive worship of Visnu and introduced practices of arca (worshipping the god in an image form), the consecration of icons, the building of temples, and prescription of daily rituals, all in a specific Vaisnava style (Chari 15).

It is after the Agamas, however, that perhaps the biggest development occurs. That is with the two great epics of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, both of which feature Visnu as their hero.  In the Ramayana, dharma is of key importance but in terms of Vaisnava doctrine the most valuable concept in this story is self-surrender or prapatti (Chari 263). An example of this tenet is the episode wherein Vibhisana deserts his worldly life for the refuge of Rama, visualizing the spiritual process of total surrender to God. This epic is also a great celebration of Laksmi. In most sects of Vaisnavism Laksmi, or Sri, is inseparable from Visnu, so the celebration of her firm dharmic character in the Ramayana is as much a testament to her as it is to Srivisnu (Chari 17). In the Mahabharata, Vaisnava doctrine is broadly consolidated, and this is particularly compelling evidence for Vaisnavites as Visnu himself in the guise of Krnsa is expounding much of these beliefs. The Bhagavad Gita especially reads almost like an encyclopedia of Vaisnava doctrine when read from that perspective; it points out three different potential paths of worshipping Visnu (jnana, karma, bhakti), it describes the essence of his endlessness, it lays out the state of complete focus on Visnu that is necessary to be a Vaisnavite, and it contextualizes many of the existing forms of Hindu worship in a Visnu-centric way (Chari 123-138).

Visnu directly associates himself with Narayana and the Bhagavan (the ultimate soul that is one with Brahma), and heavily endorses bhaktiyoga – an essential element of Vaisnavism – in this text. Bhakti worship is a huge development not just in Vaisnavism but in all of Hinduism. Although there is evidence of a concept like bhakti worship in older sources, it is not until the Bhagavad Gita that bhakti is focused explicitly on (Prentiss 17). As well, this text is the very first to prescribe the practice as a direct path to moksa. Bhakti gained popularity and was transfused into many different sects due to its ability to satisfy multiple spiritual goals at once, and appeal to most people:

“…bhakti presented an alternative to dominant forms of religiosity, both the asocial sannyasin [renouncer] and the temporally defined practice of ritual. In the former, religious experience was engendered by physical separation from society; in the latter, time was the mechanism by which religious experience was set apart from social formations. In contrast, bhakti represented the possibility of religious experience anywhere, anytime” (Prentiss 20).


The essential practice of bhakti is characterized by devotion and love for God for no other purpose than to the loving itself. The philosophy of bhakti is fundamentally simple:  “…those who honour me [Visnu] with devotion, are within me, and I am also in them.”  (Patton 109). A devotee must be entirely committed to and entrenched in thoughts of Visnu and in doing so they will become one with Visnu as the absolute reality. But within this simplicity, there is much room for debate regarding what constitutes such a state of focus, what is or is not devotion, and many other aspects of the practice (Prentiss 9). However, despite the uncertainty surrounding much of it, the essential goal of bhakti is always the same, and that is to be united with God in a loving union – not just to enter into the Supreme Reality that is him through moksa, but also to culminate a relationship of mutual love during ones human life.

Somewhat contemporary to the epics are the Puranas, companion literature for the Vedas that contain stories of the conception of the universe and the lives of important Hindu figures, such as Krsna. The oldest Purana is the visnupurana which provides precedents for all the basic Vaisnava doctrines. Some of these important precedents include explicitly titling Visnu as the Godhead – that which all emanates through – and associating him with Brahman of the Upanisads (Chari 18-19). The six attributes of Visnu are also introduced in this text. These attributes are not the only in Visnu’s possession, as the Bhagavan he has an unlimited amount of attributes but they are simply seen as the six most important qualities. The first is jnana, which here means omniscience, then sakti meaning power, bala meaning strength, aisarya meaning lordship, virya meaning energy, and tejas meaning splendour (Chari 188-190). Another key contribution of the Puranas is affirmation of the inseparability of Sri and Visnu, although Sri provides different skills and qualities apparently, Sri and Visnu are one so they actually share all their traits (Chari 19).

A key figure in the development of Vaisnavism is the acarya Ramanuja. He was a major contributor to Vaisnava literature, propagating Vaisnava cult through the written forms and apostles (Chari 23). Much of his works owes its basis to his predecessors, Nathamuni and Yamuna. Nathamuni rediscovered the hymns of Alvars, composers of Tamil verses dedicated to Visnu, and arranged them into four parts. He also introduced recitation of Vaisnava hymns as part of worship and advocated for self-surrender as the more important aspect of devotion to God as opposed to rigid bhakti-worship(Chari 23). Yamuna expanded on some of this, especially the concept of self-surrender which he wrote a concrete doctrine for (Chari 23-22). From this, Ramanuja ventured to carve out a solid space for Vaisnava worship in the orthodox schools of Hinduism which were evolving simultaneously. He criticized the advaita vedanta, which was popular at the time, especially because it did not recognize bhakti as a legitimate way to moksa. He worked to establish Visnu as the supreme Ultimate Reality, and the worship of Visnu for the sake of a blissful divine experience as the best goal for humankind. His discussions and doctrines also elaborated on a key aspect of Vaisnavism, the organic relationship between God, the soul, and cosmic order in the “body-soul” (Chari 25). In addition, he also described moksa and bhakti in explicit terms, especially how combining jnana, karma, and bhakti creates the most effective path to moksa (Chari 24-26).

After Ramanuja propagates Vaisnavism throughout India there is a blossoming of distinctive sects with unique beliefs and practices. Madhvacarya began the Dvaita school which is dualistic and supports bhakti as means to moksa; it also promoted the Dasa-kuta devotional movement that saw bands of saintly persons singing devotional songs (Chari 32). Ramananda instigated a school in Northern India that saw Rama especially to be Brahman. He did not believe in the caste system and instead supported universal brotherhood (Chari 32-33). Nimbarka started the Dvaita-dvaita school which maintained that Brahman was Radha-Krnsa and did not advocate temple worship; he saw self-surrender more than bhakti as means to moksa (Chari 33).

An especially distinct sect of Vaisnavism was founded by Sri Krsna Caitanya (Chari 33-34). The unique element of this sect is the concept of a devotees relationship to God, which is framed as bhakti but in a particularly loving and somewhat romantic-erotic in nature. The pivotal imagery for this concept comes from the tales of Krsna as a boy playing with the gopis as they are found in the Bhagavata Purana. The central allegory made in these stories is that the gopis long for Krnsa as an image of the devotee longing for their god, the erotic themes of the stories accentuate the metaphysical overtones implied beneath the descriptions (Doniger 228). The intimacy between lovers is seen as a parallel for the ideal closeness between one and one’s God: as such the use of sexual imagery visualizes this nebulous concept. When Krnsa steals the gopis clothes and forces them to stand before him naked there are obvious erotic themes playing out involving submission and vulnerability. These exact same concepts can are mirrored in the implied spiritual counterpart of the scene where a devotee is stripped of their concealing features to reveal their fundamental self in the face of God. “Though they were greatly deceived and robbed of their modesty, though they were mocked and treated like toys and stripped of their clothes… they were happy to be together with their beloved” (Doniger 230). The gopis are perfect devotees, even after having their identity and pride taken away by God – in other words, after having performed self-surrender – they find joy in the presence of God. This heightened emotional attitude towards Vaisnavism began a large movement, associated with Radha-Krsna, that affected multiple sects, but is perhaps most prevalent still in Caitanya Vaisnavism (Chari 34).

Despite the differences in all these different sects and schools of Vaisnavism, there are still overarching themes. Bhakti and self-surrender are always prevalent concepts, urging devotees to give up the cemented concepts of the self in favour of love for Visnu in hopes of joining with him eventually. The basic metaphysical concept of Visnu’s absolute presence and being is always involved. Krsna describes himself as: “… whatever powerful being there is – be it splendid or filled with vigour, it comes to be from only a small part of my brilliance,” (Patton 122). Indeed this is essentially the belief of Vaisnava philosophy and theology. The human being is just a small aspect of the indescribable enormity of Visnu, and so to pay reverence to him and to love him is to accept the truth of existence. Only through reflection on Visnu in this insurmountable way can one become joined with him spiritually and when one is properly joined with him it becomes clear that there truly is nothing else but Visnu. “Joined in this way, with me as the highest goal – you will come to me alone.” (Patton 110).



Chari, S.M. Srinivasa (1994) Vaisnavism: Its Philosophy, Theology, and Religious Discipline. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Private Limited.

Patton, Laurie L. (trans.) (2008) The Bhagavad Gita. London: Penguin.

Prentiss, Karen (2000) The Embodiment of Bhakti.Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Doniger, Wendy (1994) Hindu Myths: A Sourcebook Translated from the Sanskrit. New Delhi: Penguin.

Sarbadhikary, Sukanya (2015) Place of Devotion: Siting and Experiencing Divinity in Bengal-Vaishnavism. Oakland: University of California Press.

Jash, Pranabananda, and Prabananda Jash (1979) “Vaisnavism in Ancient Southeast Asia” Proceedings of the Indian History Congress 40: 932-942

Sircar, Mahendranath, and Shastri Indo-Canadian Institute (2000) Studies in Vaisnavism and Tantricism. New Delhi: Bharatiya Kala Prakashan.

Mishra, Kishore Chandra (2002) “The History of Vaisnavism in Western Orissa” Proceedings of the Indian History Congress 63: 181–190.

Toffin, Gerard (2012) “A Vaishnava Theatrical Performance in Nepal: The Katti-pyakhã of Lalitpur City” Asian Theatre Journal  29:126-163.

Glucklich, Ariel (2008) The Strides of Vishnu: Hindu Culture in Historical Perspective. New York: Oxford University Press.

Related Topics for Further Investigation











Tamil Hymns














Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic

Article written by: Margaret Kieper (November 2018) who is solely responsible for its content.


The goddess Jyestha (9th century CE), National Museum, Delhi,

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.

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

Tama                                      Pitari

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.


Saivism is known to be the oldest and the most dominant sect of Hinduism sect alongside with Vaisnavism, they are centered on the two supreme deities (Rudra-Siva and Visnu) respectively who are recognized in most established, significant Hindu literature (Gonda 64). In Saivism, the worship of the deity Siva maybe traced back to the Indus Valley Civilization (Rodrigues 212). However, in the Rg Veda, there was no mention of Siva; instead, he was first introduced as Rudra the “Howler.” Rudra-Siva is known as the God of Storms, destroyer of cattle and human beings (Rodrigues 212). Siva is worshipped through a linga (phallic emblem) that could be traced to the 1st century BC and is mentioned in the Mahabharata; however, in the Ramayana, there were less encounters with Siva compared to Visnu. Siva’s powers are often viewed by how destructive he is during battle. The deity is often referred as a Lord, master and many-sided (Gonda 13).

The sect emphasises the worship of Siva. Going more into depth, Siva is regarded by many as the Supreme Deity in Hinduism realm. Rudra was first introduced as the chief of an indefinite host of manifestation of a deity (Gonda 4). Siva is considered to be a complex deity throughout the Rg Veda. Both Visnu and Siva are known to be ambiguous figures based on their background. On one hand, Siva demonstrates strong heroic attributes and represents as a Supreme Deity; however, on the other hand, he is looked at as a deva (powerful demon) and the God of Storms. This demonstrates that both deities embody divine like qualities (Gonda 12). As mentioned before, Siva is a complex deity because of the different identities he holds. Throughout history, the deity is claimed many different names during different periods; for example, in the earliest school, Pasupatas, Siva is claimed to be Pasupati (Lord of the Cattle). Throughtout the Rg Veda, Siva was first regarded as Rudra. However, the name Siva is commonly used throughout different texts and literature.

Saivism is still a huge sect in Hinduism today. Temples and shrines are still placed in India today to worship deity Siva. Over time, there have been many schools that have developed. Visnu and Siva are often compared to another based on their placements in the Epics. Siva is perceived in many different forms, making him known as many-sided; however, Siva is regarded as one of the most important deity and Supreme being. The linga is a key symbol in this sect, as it appears in many temples and shrines. The linga is a representation of a male presence; the representation of Siva could be depicted through many different interpretations. The sect can be broken down too many different branches, such as the trantic groups Kalamukha and Kapalikas, that are no longer present, but made an impact in modernity. Saivism is dominant even to this day and is one of the most popular sects in Hinduism.

The worship of Siva takes place throughout temples and shrines made at home containing different images (Flood 151-152). The temples are most sacred to many Saivites, and different blessings radiate from the emblem depending on the location of the temple. Most temples, shrines, and sanctuaries contain different symbols and images; however they all worship the Supreme Deity, Siva. As mentioned before, the Saiva temples are consistent in Siva being worshipped through the form of a linga and in association yoni (womb) which is the female association; though the meaning of the symbol is up to interpretations (Holm 92). The symbol is usually depicted through temples and a linga and also what seems to be the face of Lord Siva represented with four or five faces. The five different faces are to represent the five elements of the universe. In some cases, the linga represents a “fiery column of light” (Holm 92-93). Every manifestation is presented through the linga making this emblem extremely important to the worship of Siva. It would be rare for a shrine or temple not to have one present. Linga was more commonly known with the non-Aryans, however throughout history and time, more and more individuals started to use the phallic emblem. As the worship of Siva has become more common throughout India, there are many festivals where worshippers sing and chant and offer devotions. Siva is depicted with his animal, Nandi, the Bull that symbolises fertility (Holm 93).

There are many schools of Saivism, but the earliest is a bhakti group known as the Kalamukha that derived from one of the first schools, the Pasupatas (Rodrigues 213). The Pasupatas maybe traced back to the 2nd century. Pasupati can translate to Pati (lord) of Pashus (cattle). As many schools and sects of Hinduism, each have their own set of stages in life. The Pasupatas stage of life starts with a period of moral development: this stage requires a devotee to gain a guru to have initiate them and to guide. The action of smearing ashes on their bodies thrice daily. Throughout this stage, the action of smearing ashes on their bodies thrice daily, as this is a ritual. Next, is their change of behaviour in the public sphere, which includes different speech and crude behaviour. Finally, they reached seclusion: this stage focuses on extreme mediation and is believed to have a final union with Rudra before the recognition of Siva being Rudra (Flood 156-159). The movement was influential in South India, however it gradually faded away as more Siva worshippers disagreed with some of their early rituals.

The Kalamukha “Black Face” first explored the realm of bhakti and ascetic (severe self-discipline) in some extreme form (Flood 154-156). They are considered to be extreme devotees of Siva. As mentioned before, modern Saivites do not agree with the old rituals of the Kalamukha. The Kalamukha emphasised the need for sacrificial rituals that contain both animals and humans. Their name of “Black Face” is most likely derived from their process of renunciation, where a black streak of ash is prominent on the individual’s forehead. Most of these devotees were found near temples where women stayed to attend to the offer patron deity and to a temple prostitution (Stefon 1). The earliest set of devotees of Siva, they are no longer present and gradually faded away as their rituals were not accepted by the majority of Saivites.

As modernity began to spread throughout India and the different major sects of Hinduism, more schools and comparisons began to pop up. Visnuism and Saivism are often compared to one another (Gonda 1). Another devotee group would be the Kapalikas known as “skull bearer”; they were also known for their very extreme rituals, such as cannibalism. This group of people worshipped Bhairava-Siva which led them to becoming a Saivite sect. They are known for eating from a skull bowl and worshipping the gods through a pot of wine (Lorenzen 8). Similar to the Kalamukhas, they covered themselves in funeral ashes. Both of these sects was shown hostility because of their crude practices. Both of these Saivite devotees are considered to be a tantric group (Lorenzen 37).

Most sects worshipping only one god are regarded monotheistic. There are divine figures that are worshipped to maintain good fortune and merit (Gonda 62); individuals come together to worship a deity in hopes of gaining both fortune and merit. There are many cult practices that contain higher deities which includes Siva. Siva urges the need for Saiva diksa (initiation into a Siva order) (Gonda 64). Most sects each share the similarity of trying to reach the final goal, which is final liberation. In order to reach this, the individual must initiate through a guru that is classified as a Brahman. All finalized initiation is considered to be a manifestation of Siva himself (Gonda 64). Gurus are an important role when reaching final liberation as they help their mentee with mantras (sacred utterances) through their process. After learning the mantras, the individual is now entitled to perform certain ritual rites. Reaching full purification is another life goal many want to achieve (Gonda 65). These stages are achieved through different ways, depending on the path the individual decides to take. Some achieve Brahman which is a key aspect to Saivism. Brahman is the supreme existence or the absolute reality one wants to achieve. Saivism explores the deity of Siva and many Hindus today follow this sect as it dominates throughout India today.



Flood, Gavin (1996) An Introduction to Hinduism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gonda, Jan (1996) Visnuism and Sivaism. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers.

Holm, Jean (1994) Picturing God. London: Printer Publishers.

Lorenzen, David Neal (1968) “The Kaplikas and Kalamukhas Two Lost Saivite Sect” The Australian National University 1-325. Accessed October 22, 2018.

Rodrigues, Hillary (2005) Hinduism The ebook: An Online Introduction Journal of Buddhist Ethics Online.


Related Topics for Further Investigation



Indus Valley Civilization

Rg Veda

The Epics







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Article written by: Jacqueline Paule (November 2018) who is solely responsible for its content.


Balarama is an ancient Hindu deity who is believed to be the incarnation of Lord Visnu, a very important deity in Hindu mythology. Visnu is believed to be the protector and preserver of the universe. He plays an important role in the great triad that includes Brahma, the creator, and Siva the destroyer (Wilkins 116). During times of great disaster and chaos, Visnu takes physical forms on earth time and time again as different avatars to maintain order and protect the universe from evil and destruction. These avatars are known to be the Dasa Avatar, dasa meaning 10. According to the myth of their origin, both Balarama and Krsna are incarnations of Visnu himself, Balarama is said to be his eight avatar. (Wilkins 220).

Balarama is also believed to be the incarnation of Ananta Sesa, the serpent king. Ananta meaning endless and Sesa meaning the end. This snake deity is said to have 1000 heads that hold the bare the weight of the entire world (Wilkins 221). Ananta Sesa is considered to be the king of all snakes as well as a great force of nature that maintains the positioning of all the planets (Swami 11). Although Sesa is only considered to be a reincarnation of a part of Visnu, Balarama is still considered a Visnu avatar (Wilkins 221). There is some disagreement as to which deity rightfully belongs as the eighth avatar. Some agree on Balarama being included as one of the ten Avatars, simultaneously accepting Krsna to have been Lord Visnu himself on earth. Others may consider both Balarama and Krsna as the eighth of the ten avatars together (Wilkins 221).

Balarama and Krsna are the sons of Vasudeva; Balarama was born to Rohini first and Krsna was born to Devaki (Rao 997). It is believed that Visnu plucked two of his own hairs, one white and one black to take a physical form as an avatar. Balarama and Krsna are believed to have been birthed from these two hairs (Wilkins 220). Visnu’s white hair was magically moved from Devaki’s womb to Rohini’s, thus leading to the birth of Balarama. Balarama was supposed to have been Devaki’s seventh child, but Devaki was said to have had a miscarriage when the fetus was magically moved from her womb to another. The baby born to Rohini was first named Samkarsana as he was considered to have been “dragged” from womb to womb (Rao 997). The baby was later renamed Balarama. He was said to have been the source of great spiritual power, Bala. through which he could attain the highest sense of bliss, ramana (Swami 11). Apart from Balarama, he was also known as Rauhineya, as he was the son of Rohini (Rao 997). Other names also given to him were Balabadra and Balabadrarama (Rao 997).

Balarama is depicted as a young man dressed in blue garments who has a very fair complexion. He wears a single golden earring, only on one side called the kundala and his hair is tied back (Rao 1000). Balarama is sometimes depicted with two arms and at other times with four. He is shown holding his weapons of choice, a club and a plough in either hand. The club in the right hand symbolizes death and the ploughshare in his left hand is to signify the principle of time (Rao 1000-1001). If illustrated with four arms, Balarama holds his weaponry in two hands, a conch in the third hand and a discus in the fourth (Rao 1001). Holding a discus in the fourth hand is similar to the depiction of Visnu holding a discus or cakra in his hand as well. This similarity between the two depictions of the deities makes sense as Balarama is an incarnation of Visnu himself. The weapons belonging to Balarama may suggest why he is also regarded as the god of agriculture and farming. The Lucknow Museum in India is home to an ancient stone idol of Balarama that dates back to the second century B.C.. The ancient idol depicts Balarama standing with a great serpent acting as his hood behind him, while he is holding a plough in his hands (Rao 999-1000).

Balarama and his mother Rohini, were placed under the care and protection of Nanda Maharaja, the foster father of Krsna (Swami 40). At the age of one Balarama was brought to Nanda and Yasoda to be brought up with Krsna. The two of them grew up side by side, Krsna and Balarama partook in many adventures together. Both Krsna and Balarama hold great power, this is known from the stories of their childhood (Wilkins 222). One story in particular was when Balarama was in the woods with his peers, the cow herders. They requested Balarama to shake a fruit tree that belonged to a demon named Dhenuka. Balarama obliged and shook the tree to obtain the delicious fruit, but as he did Dhenuka emerges ready to attack him. With ease Balarama grabbed Dhenuka’s legs and swung him over his head. Dhenuka died instantly as he was thrown with such strong force.

After the defeat of Dhenuka, the boys spent much of their day playing in the orchard. A demon named Pralamba took the form of a young boy and joined the boys as they played. During their game, Pralamba requested Balarama sit on top of his shoulders, Balarama did as he asked and instantly, Pralamba ran off with him on top of his shoulders. Balarama began to panic as the demon had grown to an enormous size, Pralamba was now as big as a mountain. In fear, Balarama called to Krsna for help in hopes that his brother would come to his rescue. Instead of stepping in and defeating the demon himself, Krsna reminded Balarama of all the might and power he held. He reminded him of who he truly was and advises him not to fear the demon, as he himself is capable of much more. Balarama held what Krsna said to be true and unleashed his power on Pralamba. He squeezed the demon with just his knees and bashed his head with the might of his fists. In an instant, Pralamba was successfully defeated (Wilkins 222-223). This story shows that Balarama is an important deity who holds great strength. He too is an avatar of Visnu and holds immense wisdom and power.


References and Further Recommended Reading:

Rao, S.K. Ramachandra (2003) Encyclopedia of Indian Iconography: Hinduism – Buddhism – Jainism: Volume II. Delhi: Sri Satguru Publications.

Swami, A.C. Bhaktivedanta (1970) KRSNA The Supreme Personality of Godhead. Boston:  ISKON PRESS.

Wilkins, W.J (2009) Hindu Mythology. New Delhi: D.K. Printworld (P) Ltd.


Related Topics for Further Investigation:

Das Avatar










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Article was written by: Deepika Anupindi (October 2018) who is solely responsible for its content.


Saktism is a sectarian movement centered on the devotional worship of the Mother Goddess who is simultaneously referred to as Sakti (power and energy), Devi (Goddess), Parasakti (supreme power), Adyasakti (first or primordial Power), Mulaprakti (primordial matter) and/or the Mahadevi (Great Goddess) (Foulston & Abbott 10). The adherents to this particular Hindu path – those who see their path to salvation through the concept of the Great Goddess – are called Saktas.  Saktism assures its adherents of protection from natural calamities and a procurement of worldly luxuries and happiness.  Saktas conceive the Mother Goddess as the personification of primordial energy and the source of all divine (Basu 4).  By some she is worshipped as the primary deity, by others she is part of a great pantheon of goddesses and all goddesses are a manifestation of her.  In some goddesses she manifests herself as benign and in others she is ferocious.  Each goddess is worshiped as a reflection of the feminine principle of sakti, that energy which manifests itself in creation and destruction (Basu 7).

The Great Goddess, as praktri (primary matter) and sakti (energy), manifests herself, by her maya, into her many and various powers.  In Saktism maya is not considered a negative illusionary power, instead it is perceived as a positive creative force and Sakta texts emphasize the non-difference between matter and spirit (Foulston & Abbott 16). The Sakti is, as Saguna Brahman, both ultimate reality and the source of divine manifestation (Kinsley 1986: 137).  Saktas believe Sakti, in any of her manifestations, is responsive to the pleas of individual devotees and can quickly come to their aid if needed (Kinsley 1986: 139).  They also believe that devotion (bhakti), to any of her incarnations, is a means to be liberated from karma and the cycle of samsara (Kinsley 1986: 153).

Sakti is often pictured as a distant awesome figure who sits on a heavenly throne.  She is understood to be approachable and always available to her worshipers (Kinsley 1986: 139). For Saktas, divinity can be described by invoking groups of divine females including the seven Mothers, the nine Durgas, the 64 Yoginis, or the ten Mahavidyas. Sakti is said to have qualities that are manifested within the goddess triad that includes Mahalaksmi, Mahasarasvati and Mahakali (Rodrigues 2005: 242).  As Mahasarasvati, she is seen as the power that presides over creation, as Mahalaksmi she shows her preserving aspect, and as Mahakali she is associated with destruction (Rodrigues 2005: 242).  Some Saktas believe that Durga is the Devi’s favourite form and that as Durga she is ferocious and an invincible warrior who battles evil and demons of various kinds (Kinsley 1986: 138).  All goddesses, whether within a group or not, are considered different manifestations or forms of the one all-encompassing Goddess (Dold 46).  The reason the divine feminine needs so many names is that they convey different aspects of her nature and each are an expression or form of her and symbolize the various aspects of her character (Foulston & Abbott 10).

To better understand Saktism, it is helpful to understand how Saktism began and how it developed over the millennia.  The beginnings of mother worship in South Asia can be traced back to the terracotta figurines found in the Indus Valley that date back to 3000 BCE (Basu 3). It has been anthropologically noted that as agriculture develops, often mothers figure as the guiding forces of their society (Basu 3):

The magical rites designed to secure the fertility of the fields seem to belong to a special competence of the women who were the first cultivators of the soil and whose power of childbearing had, in primitive thought, a sympathetic effect on the vegetative forces of the earth (Bhattacharyya 4).

As time passed, throughout India, the tribal cults of early female deities seem to have become woven into the more intellectual doctrines (as found in the Vedas) that later migrated into their territories (Basu xii).

In the Rg Veda, the deities are predominantly patriarchal.  The few goddesses mentioned maintain a subordinate position and at no time, either individually or collectively, represent the ‘centre’ (Kinsley 1986: 7).  There is no one great goddess in Vedic literature, and there is no evidence it was conceived that all the individual goddesses are manifestations of one great goddess (Kinsley 1986: 18).  It should be noted however that the qualities of the goddesses mentioned in the Vedas appear in later Hinduism in various forms and with some of their characteristics (Foulston & Abbott 46).  It therefore seems apparent that following their arrival in India, the Vedic people came into contact with the indigenous population and were influenced by their cults and rituals which resulted in the adaption of Vedic goddesses to popular culture.  It also resulted in non-Vedic goddesses finding a place in the pantheon and the gradual penetration of the mother cult becomes apparent in later Vedic writing and Brahmanical religious worship (Basu 3).

It was the Gupta age, between the fourth & sixth centuries and during the height of the writing of Puranic literature, that the Mother Goddess cult truly developed (Basu 5).  The Puranas are the Hindu texts concerned primarily with myth and legend.  They built upon the Upanishads, and describe the supremacies of various Gods to convey the multiple manifestations of Brahman (Foulston & Abbott 11).  It is thought by some scholars that in the Gupta Age the “need was felt for a new religion, entirely female dominated, a religion in which even the great gods like Visnu or Siva would remain subordinate to the goddess” (Basu 65).   This new religion came to be known as Saktism.

The Sakta Puranas are whole texts in which the Goddess is the supreme deity.  There are remnants of Vedic deities in the Puranas, such as Prithivi, but the Goddess’s most prominent personalities are those that are pleased with the non-Vedic practice of blood-sacrifice; a practice that is likely based on popular local aboriginal goddesses (Foulston & Abbott 69).  Though the presented goddesses may have originated from non-Vedic sources, they are still presented in the Puranas in a palatable orthodox way (Foulston & Abbott 76).  The primary Sakta Puranas are the Devi-Mahatmya and the Devi-Bhagavatam which speak of the supremacy of the divine feminine (Foulston & Abbott 11).

In the Devi-Mahatmya the Devi, or Mahadevi, is shown as the personification of all aspects of energy, being simultaneously creative, preservative, and destructive (Foulston & Abbott 12).  The text implies, by constantly addressing the Devi by different names, that all goddesses are in reality one being (Foulston & Abbott 19).         The Devi Bhagavatam retells a number of Puranic myths from a feminine perspective and goddesses are shown as being identical to Brahman as well as eternal and independent of male authority (Foulston & Abbott 14).  This text is also explicit in its understanding of the Mahadevi as encompassing both benign and terrible aspects.  Both aspects are presented as required in order to maintain the dharmic balance of the cosmos (Foulston & Abbott 19).

By about 500 CE, the common goddesses of Saktism included Parvati, Durga, Kali, Amba, Tripurasundari, Lakshmi, and Saraswati (Bhattacharyya 107).  Indeed, the Puranas enumerate 108 names of the Great Goddess (Bhattacharyya 106) and it is in the Puranic texts we find some goddesses being grouped together; such as the seven mothers (whose worship was adapted for Brahamical ritual tradition) and the ten Mahadividyas.  All groupings exemplify how the Great Goddess manifests herself in a variety of forms at various times for different reasons (Foulston & Abbott 117).

Tantrism is sometimes considered synonymous with Saktism and while both Tantrism and Saktism share some characteristics, the two traditions are distinct (Foulston & Abbott 104). Both Tantrism and Saktism evolved with the assimilation of non-Vedic deities and traditions (such as blood sacrifice) within Brahmanical traditions (such as complex ritual worship).  Tantrism also includes a focus on the feminine principle that views all women as manifestations of Sakti (Bhattacharyya 107). But not all Saktas consider themselves to be followers of the esoterical ritual tantric tradition; many Sakta reject tantric forms of worship and instead focus on devotional worship (bhakti) or follow Vedic procedures (Rodrigues 240).

The worship practices of most Saktas are similar to the worship practices of other Hindus but sometimes include elements that in orthodoxy are considered polluting.  Like many Hindus, Saktas will most often worship in their home before a shrine created for their favorite deity (Foulston & Abbott 135).  Most villages will have their own goddess and she will be revered at the local shrine. There are times when people will join a larger congregation and worship the Great Goddess – in one form or another – in their local temples.  The later Puranas provide instruction on temple construction and ritual performance for the deity to which the particular text is dedicated (Foulston & Abbott 132). Unlike religious worship in the West, the worship of deities in Hinduism is generally an individual affair.  There are no formal services, though there are regular times of day when the priests perform puja.  Temples become the focus during festivals, when many people gather to witness and participate in rituals that particular manifestation of the Great Goddess requires (Foulston & Abbott 135).  Saktas celebrate most major Hindu festivals, as well as a huge variety of local, temple or deity specific observances.

In the process of the evolution of Saktism a number of places came to be associated with Sakti worship and came to be regarded as sacred Sakta pithas (Basu 5).  The belief in the sacredness of the land in India has contributed to the concept of sacred sites connected to goddesses (Foulston & Abbott 186).  This idea of a sacred landscape is thought to have combined with a belief in the myth of the dismemberment of Sati  – the landing places of her scattered body created the locations of sacred sites – and these sites became Sakta pithas (Rodrigues 2005: 240).  There are some scholars who believe the myth of Sati’s death was used to connect many local goddesses with the Sakta Devi (Foulston & Abbott 186).

One such Sakta pitha is for the goddess Kamakhya in Assam.  This modest temple draws worshipers from all over India and is most sacred at one particular time of year when the seasonally swollen river is viewed as the goddess’s annual menstruation.  Devotees wear red clothes, representing Devi’s blood stained garments.  Animal sacrifices are made and Kamakhya’s power is so strong as to produce sacredness from something that is usually considered profane (Dold 46).

Laksmi, Parvati, Sati, Prthivi and other benevolent versions of the Great Goddess are understood to be the parts of the transcendent divine who is oriented toward upholding and protecting the world.  Worshipers revere these incarnations in order to ensure fertility, protection regarding the establishment of dharmic order, cultural creativity, wifely duty, wisdom, and material abundance; they are also the embodiment of female beauty (Kinsley 1986: 140).  But Saktas are especially drawn to more ferocious goddesses, like the great Durga or Kali, who are seen not only as protectors but also as destroyers.

Durga is thought to be the Devi’s most popular form and her exploits are the mostly commonly celebrated events in Sakti mythology.  The Devi-Mahatmya establishes Durga, with her manifestation Kali, as an aspect of the Great Goddess.  In this text, Durga is regarded as the incarnate strength of the gods.  She is presented as a beautiful golden ten armed warrior goddess who is sometimes viewed as benevolent, but has not lost her non-Vedic habit of accepting blood sacrifices (Foulston & Abbott 34).  Durga is celebrated during the most important Sakta festival, Navarati (the Festival of Nine Nights).  These festivals are used to worship the Navadurgas, the nine manifested forms of Durga that slew powerful demons as described in the Devi Mahatmya.  In Bengal, the last four days of the autumn Navaratri are called Durga Puja which marks Durga’s slaying of the Buffalo Demon. It is a massive and remarkable worship celebration that consumes the city of Kolkata and includes multiple worship practices focused on Durga, including blood sacrifices (Foulston & Abbott 160).

Goddesses all over India are worshiped with blood sacrifices.  Despite the Hindu tradition of ahimsa, the offering of goddesses animal sacrifices continues as, in the eyes of Saktas, their goddesses demand blood in their worship.  They believe these goddesses, who are associated with fertility, must be periodically re-nourished: in order to give life, they must receive life back in the form of blood (Kinsley 1986: 145).

Saktism has its roots among the masses.  It evolved out of the prehistoric Mother Goddess cult and its development was organic through Hindu development (Bhattacharyya 165).  From the middle of the 19th century the cult of Sakti is said to have contributed to the growth of Indian nationalism (McKean 250).  The concept of the country in the form of a divine mother became a strong basis of the Indian freedom movement.  In the early 20th century Sri Aurobindo, Indian philosopher and nationalist, said “Mother India is not a piece of earth; she is power, a godhead, for all nations have such a devi, supporting their separate existence and keeping it in being” (McKean 255).  There have even been recent efforts by political nationalists to fashion a new manifestation of the Great Goddess in a new goddess named Bharat Mata.  She is being used by political forces as a reigning deity over the many other manifestation of female divinity in India.  Hoping to use her for the cause of religious nationalism, they present their goddess as Mother India; the identity of the Indian national state (McKean 250).

Saktism can be viewed as proof of the assimilative and unifying character of Hinduism. The one fundamental belief in Hinduism is the belief in an all-pervading and all-transcending reality which is the source of everything.  This reality has been visualized by Saktas in the form of Sakti, the Great Goddess.  Saktism allows its adherents to obtain identification with, and connection to, Ultimate Reality through the worship of their chosen goddess, whether that goddess be their village deity, Mahadevi, Durga, or even Mother India.


Basu, Anuradha (Mitra) (2009) Sakti Worship in India and Iconography. Kolkata: R.N. Bhattacharya.

Bhattacharyya, Narendra Nath (1974) History of the Sakta Religion. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharial Publishers.

Dold, Patricia A. (2011) “Pilgrimage to Kamakhya through Text and Lived Religion.” In Studying Hinduism in Practice. Edited by Hillary P. Rodrigues, 46-61. New York: Routledge.

Foulston, Lynn, and Stuart Abbott (2012) Hindu Goddesses: Beliefs and Practices. Eastbourne: Sussex Academic Press.

Kinsley, David R. (1986) Hindu Goddesses: Visions of the Divine Feminine in the Hindu Religious Tradition. London: University of California Press.

Kinsley, David R. (1996) “Kali: Blood and Death out of Place.” In Devi Goddesses of India. Edited by John Stratton Hawley and Donna Marie Wulff, p. 77-86. London: Univeristy of California Press.

McKean, Lise (1996) “Bharat Mata: Mother India and Her Militant Matriots.” In Devi Goddesses of India. Edited by John Stratton Hawley and Donna Marie Wulff, p. 250-280. London: Univeristy of California Press.

Rodrigues, Hillary (2003) Ritual Worship of the Great Goddess: The liturgy of the durga puja with interpretations. Albany: SUNY Press,

Rodrigues, Hillary (2005) Hinduism: The eBook. JBE Online Books.

Pintchman, Tracy (1994) The Rise of the Goddess in the Hindu Tradition. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Stratton Hawley, John (1996) “The Goddess in India“. In Devi Goddesses of India. Edited by John Stratton Hawley and Donna Marie Wulff, p. 1-28. London: Univeristy of California Press.


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Seven Mothers

Nine Durgas

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Article written by: Dawn Kinney (November 2018) who is solely responsible for its content.

The Kanphata Yogis

 The Kanphata Yogis refers to a monastic order of Hindu renouncers, found predominantly throughout India and Nepal, who worship the god Siva. They are also known as the Darsanis, Gorakhnathi or Natha Yogis. The name Kanphata refers to the split through the hollow of their ears and Darsani refer to the large earrings they wear through these holes, their most distinctive feature. Gorakhnathi or Nath refers instead to their supposed founder, Gorakhnath, who is also credited as the founder of Hatha Yoga. Though he is said to be the author of a large number of books it is more likely that he authored only a few and other followers of his have since added to the collection. (Bouillier 2018:18-26).

Gorakhnath takes on both the roles of founder and deity in the Kanphata Yogi order. On the one hand he is a Guru praised for his purity and asceticism, and on the other he is said to be a being born through the miraculous power of Siva and is also a form of Siva (Bouillier 2018:14). The mythology surrounding Gorakhnath’s upbringing is extensive and not all of the stories agree on all points. One popular story is that a barren woman was given ashes from Siva to eat. Instead she threw them into a heap of cow dung and 12 years later upon searching the heap of dung, a 12 year old boy was found within it. The boy was then accepted as a pupil by the mighty guru, Matsyendranath, who named the child Gorakhnath meaning filth or lord of cattle (Briggs 182). His relationship to his Guru was complicated as he acted at times as a pupil and at times as an instructor or even savior of his master, saving his master from temptations of the flesh and other worldly influences (Bhattacharyya 285). In these ways the followers of Gorakhnath through legend and mythology deify him and simultaneously establish his teachings as being directly from the Gods. Actual historical data surrounding his birth, life, and death are however largely hypothetical and many scholars disagree on the date and location of his birth (Bouillier 2013:158). In the books accredited to his authorship, he appears to have borrowed inspiration from Jainism and from Vajrayana Buddhism, both in the strong focus on the obtainment of supernatural powers, through Yogic meditation, and on the incorporation of tantric doctrines into their core ideals (Bhattacharyya 285, Briggs 259, 274-276). Examples of this focus are found in the Gorakh-bani (Sayings of Gorakh), in which their quest for superhuman powers and immortality or divinity is explained (Bouillier 2013:161). Supernatural powers are considered a gratuity, rather than the actual end goal of Hatha Yoga, which is to reach mukti or enlightenment. The ordered discipline of yoga serves as a vehicle to assist or aid the Yogi as he or she endeavors in this quest (Briggs 2, 262-265).

Kanphata Yogis take their heritage from the Himalayan foothills and share common ancestry with the Siddhas in Tibetan Buddhism, as Gorakhnath is identified as Luipada by the Buddhist texts (Bhattacharyya 284-285). A rift in the teachings between the followers of Gorakhnath and the Siddhas is illustrated in the account of Gorakhnath saving his master from lust and sensual pleasures, and so doing, changing the guidelines for his followers from the overtly sexual tantric practices of his predecessors to a chaste focus in the internal development of oneself (Bouillier 2018:16-17).  There is however a large focus on the maintenance of one’s body physically and spiritually, sexual practice of any kind is forbidden (Bouillier 2018:301-302). Many members of the tradition try to keep as far away from women as possible (Bhattacharyya 287-288), though some women, mostly widows, do join the order (Briggs 4-5).

Heavy focus is also placed upon the large earrings that they wear through the hollows of their ears. Some explain that the split through the cartilage of the ear is done in such a place as to cut through a mystical channel, thus assisting the bearer in their path to enlightenment (Briggs 6). Strict care is placed on the Yogi to protect their ears after the split has been made. There are some indications that, in the past, if one of the Yogis had the earring pulled out or their ear was mutilated in some other way that they would either be killed outright or be buried alive, though more recently banishment is a more common punishment (Briggs 8-9). These earrings, or mudra, are traditionally made of clay, but as these are easily broken they can be substituted for rings made of antler, horn, wood, precious metals, or shells. Kanphata Yogis also differ from orthodox Hindus also in their death rituals, namely that they bury their dead rather than cremate them. This practice is substantiated by the legendary dispute between Muslims and Hindus over who were masters of the earth. In response to this dispute Gorakhnath sat on the ground and called on it to yield to him, the earth then opened up and he sank below the surface (Briggs 39-40).

Kanphata Yogis and their supernatural powers have also played a part in the development of various kingdoms in the areas of Northern and Western India as well as Nepal. In Nepal in particular, a powerful Yogi is credited with using supernatural powers to assist the king of a small nation to unify the Nepalese area under one crown (Bouillier 1991:154-156). Similar stories can be found throughout India, and each Nath Monastery will generally have its own myths about the supernatural powers of the founding Yogi. These supernatural powers include controlling the weather, changing the physical size of the Yogi, exorcism, healing, the power of flight, necromantic powers, and psychic or telekinetic abilities to name a few (Briggs 271). These stories of supernatural powers gave the yogis a certain notoriety among both commoners and nobility, causing them to be warily honored lest they curse the public just as in the story of Gorakhnath’s visit to Kathmandu when he caused a drought to befall the people as punishment for receiving him poorly (Bouillier 2018:16).

Modern Day Kanphata Yogis exist largely in monasteries throughout India and South-East Asia or very occasionally as wandering ascetics and renouncers. Disciples known as Aughars rather than Yogis are inducted into the order of monastics through several stages of discipleship (Briggs 7-11). Contrary to what their name may suggest many Kanphata Yogis do not actively practice yoga (Briggs 251). They possess no official cannon of texts but instead cite a mishmash of books with varied and dubious authorship, including many texts that are nearly identical but with different titles or authors (Bouillier 2018:18-26, Briggs 252-257). Exact knowledge of the contents of these texts are also not largely stressed, but focus seems to be more on an oral tradition of legends and secret techniques which are passed down from Guru to Aughar (Briggs 7-10,251). That is not to say that the Kanphata Yogis are without modernization as they have formed the Pan-Indian Nath Yogi Association, and in some ways attempted to organize themselves by the 12 panths or branches of their order. There are currently more than 12 branches in existence but this number likely refers to an original division rather than a current one (Bouillier 2018:54-56).



Bhattacharyya, Narendra Nath (1982) History of the Tantric Religion. New Delhi: Manohar Publications.

Bouillier, Véronique (1991) “Growth and decay of a Kanphata Yogi monastery in south-west Nepal” The Indian Economic and Social History Review 28,2: 151-170

Bouillier, Véronique (2013) “A Survey of Current Researches on India’s Nath Yogis” Religion Compass Vol 7 #5 (May): 157-168

Bouillier, Véronique (2018) Monastic Wanderers: Nath Yogi Ascetics in Modern South Asia. New York: Routledge.

Briggs, George W. (1938) Gorakhnath and the Kanphata Yogis. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Jacobsen, K.A. (2012) Yoga Powers. Extraordinary Capacities Attained through Meditation and Concentration. Leiden: Brill.

White, D.G. (1996) The Alchemical Body. Siddha tradition in Medieval India. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.


This article was written by Christopher J Boehmer (Fall 2018), who is entirely responsible for its content.