The River Ganga (Ganges) in India is perhaps the most sacred river in the world. The goddess of the river is acknowledged as Ganga Mata (Eck 1996: 137). The river and the goddess are both worshiped as one. Ganga originates from hundreds of miles south of Kailasa in the Gangotri glacier (Darian 3). Hardwar, a place in the Himalayan Mountains also known as the Gagnadvara (“Door of the Ganges”), marks the location of the river where the Ganga River breaks out of the Himalayas and into the plains of northern India (Eck 1996: 137). The Ganges flows from the northern part of India through Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, and Bengal (Rodrigues 30). In Prayag, the Ganga joins the Yamuna River and also the mystical underground Sarasvati River, then continues from the holy city of Banaras (Kasi; city of Siva) where the river makes a “long sweep up to the north”, and then finally into Ganga Sagara where the river meets the Bay of Bengal. Ganga is sacred along its entire length (Eck 1996: 137). The river plays a very crucial role in the lives of Hindus in India. The daily rituals, myths, practises of worship, and belief in the power of the goddess Ganga and her waters are all central part of Hinduism to this day.
The purity of water has been part of Indian tradition ever since the beginning in the Indus Valley and has remained in the tradition ever since. Water is the most sacred symbol of the Indian tradition. It is said to be the purifier and the origin of the mystery of life. Ganga water is said to be the most purified water in the lives of Hindus. Hindus use the water of the Ganges in the rituals of birth and death, as well as in the rituals of the weddings. In the sacred thread ceremony (upanayana), a young man only eats bread and drinks Ganga water (Darian 14). Ganga is the place of crossing between the world of the living and dead. Ganga is said to be flowing in three worlds: heaven, earth, and netherworlds, this also refers to as triloka-patha-gamini (Eck 1996:145). There are three places in India that are known to be holy where the rites of sraddha for the dead and visarjana of the ashes are performed the most. The three places are Prayag, Kasi (Banaras), and Gaya; they are simply known as the tristhali (“three places”) (Eck 2012: 163). After dying, Hindus want their ashes to be put in the Ganga River. It is the Hindu belief that by doing this they achieve moksa through the contact with the purified water of the Ganges. If someone is dying, she or he will try to spend their last days at the banks of the Ganges. Their belief is that if they die near the sacred river, they will be delivered from all of the sins encountered during their life. Banaras, the holiest city of India and also the city of Siva, encounters millions of people from across India who bring the ashes of their deceased and spread them on the banks of Ganga if they cannot die in Banaras. In addition to spreading the ashes of the dead on the banks of Ganga, “the ordinary rite of bathing in the Ganges will usually include simple water liberations with which this nectar of immortality is offered to the departed ancestors” (Eck 1982: 215). By doing this the ancestors attain the happiness of being in heaven by virtue of the sraddha rites and also live in heaven for thousands of years to come for every single sesame seed in the traditional pinda offering (Eck 1982: 215-216).
Every day hundreds of people bathe, pray, and wash clothes in Ganga waters. People also drink and cook with the waters of Ganga. They believe that, it is one of the ways to give everyone the blessings of Ganga. Ritual purification has been important to Hindus from ancient times of pre-Aryan Indus civilization; this is shown by the remains of the large ceremonial cleansing tanks at Mohenjo Daro (Eck 1982: 217). The water of the Ganges is believed to be purifying and absorbs pollution; this is believed to be the spiritual aspect of the River Ganga. When the water of the Ganges is flowing, the pollution is believed to be carried away along with the current (Eck 1996: 144). At Ganga’s tirthas, sacred crossings, Hindus make offerings of flower to the river while shouting the phrase “Ganga Mata ki jai” (“Victory to Mother Ganges!”). Hindus also bathe in the Ganga and making offerings of the water to the pitrs and devas (Eck 1996:137-138). Ganga’s waters also play another major role for Hindus. The river provides water to the land to make it fertile and even grow many healthy crops in the season of monsoon (Darian 15-17). Ganga’s waters are said to be “liquid embodiment of sakti” and “sustaining the immortal fluid (amrta) of mother’s milk” (Eck 1996: 137). If Hindus cannot make the yatra to Ganga, making yatra to the other sacred streams is in comparison of going to Ganga. There are seven streams of Ganga that are believed to possess great purity as Ganga itself: Ganga, Yamuna, Godavari, Sarasvati, Narmada, Sindhu, and Kaveri. Ganga is also believed to be present in every other river and vice versa (Eck 1996: 137-138).
Every year Hindus participate in a festival dedicated to the worship of Ganga; that is called Ganga Dasahara. This takes place when the hot and dry season reaches its peak in May and June, and in expectation of the monsoon season. The festival runs for ten days and it concludes on the tenth day of the month Jyeshtha. On this day, Ganga’s descent (avatarana) from heaven to earth is celebrated. The banks of Ganga are crowded with bathers. A quick dip in the waters of Ganga on the day is thought to get rid of ten sins (dasahara) or ten lifetimes of sins. Hindus that want to celebrate Ganga Dasahara but cannot make it to actual Ganga River can also bathe in one of the other seven streams of Ganga (Eck 2012: 136-137). Hindus are actually praying to the life that is within the water but not to water directly (Darian 17). Another very important festival for Hindus to praise Ganga is called Kumbha Mela (pot festival). The festival occurs every twelve years and gathers millions of people; this is perhaps the world’s largest festival. The complete Kumbha Mela is held at Prayag (Allahabad), last held in 2001, also called Maha Kumbha Mela, and it was estimated that more than sixty million people were congregated. In Prayag, three of the seven sacred rivers meet; they are Ganga, Sarasvati, and Yamuna (“triveni” – “triple braid”) (Jones: 505-506). Millions of people travel to Prayag and take a dip in the Triveni while chanting “Victory to the Ganga. The mela is not just about bathing in the rivers but is about education, commerce, and spectacle. Prayag is the most famous place where the Kumbha Mela is held, but the mela is also held at Hardwar, Nasik, and Ujjain (Eck 2012: 154-155).
According to the sculptures of the goddess Ganga, she is depicted to be on top of her vahana (vehicle) crocodile (makara). Makara is viewed as a soma animal, which is an emblem of the waters, the plants, and the entire vegetal substratum of life. It is also a symbol of the unknown sea and an animal that is an object of fear. Ganga also holds a kumbha in her hands (vase of plenty) (Darian 114-115). Ganga as a goddess is known to be the “goodness” of the gods, that is her energy is praised as good. Her vicious force is purified and calmed by the hair of Siva. Ganga is also depicted as a mother where she is nourishing, embracing, and forgiving without any sight of anger. Praises (mahatmyas) of the Ganga are found in the epics of Puranas which can be read in Sanskrit. There are also many hymns devoted to Ganga, one of the most famous hymns is known as Ganga Lahari (“The Ganga’s Waves”) written by Jagannatha (Eck 1996: 138, 148-149). In Ganga Lahari, Jagannatha pictures the river as a Mother, who will love and claim the child that is rejected by everyone else. (Eck 2012: 162). Ganga accepts both the lotus and the kumbha (water pot) as symbols of auspicious blessings. Ganga’s waters are meant to be like milk and said to be the drink of life itself for humans (Eck 2012: 162).
Many myths describe Ganga having the origins of heavens. Ganga is known to be the consort of Brahma, Visnu, and Siva (Eck 2012: 160). One of the Vedic myths about Ganga’s divine descent from heaven involves Indra, who combats the serpent Vritra who is curled around the doors of the heavens and closed up the celestial waters. These waters in the heavens are believed to be called soma (nectar of the gods). When Vritra was defeated, Indra released these waters for the sustenance of the earth (Eck 2012: 137). In the mythology of the Devi Bhagavata and Brahmavaivarta Puranas, Ganga and Sarasvati both argue with each other and both curse each other to become rivers on earth and bear the sins of humans. Visnu interferes and make Sarasvati the wife of Brahma and Ganga the wife of Siva (Eck 1996: 146). Ganga is also said to be originally flowing from the foot of Visnu in the highest heaven (Eck 1982: 219). Siva’s role in the descent of Ganga is believed to the most important role. The story of the myth has been told in Ramayana, Mahabharata, and the Puranas. When Ganga descents to earth, Siva promises to catch her on his head so the fall wouldn’t shatter the earth. When Ganga falls on Siva’s head, Siva’s hair broke her fall and broke Ganga into seven streams, each flowing to a different part of India. Ganga fell to earth to purify and free the souls of the sixty thousand sons of King Sagara. The sons of King Sagara were burned to ashes by the sage Kapila because he was accused of stealing the horse that was used in the rites of ashvamedha (“horse sacrifice”). Bhagiratha, a descendent of Sagara, took upon himself to free the souls of the sons of King Sagara by doing ascetic practices in the Himalayas. Bhagiratha led the waters Ganga to restore the ashes of the sons of King Sagara and also to replenish the ocean (Nelson: 231-233), [Eck 2012: 138]. Siva and Ganga are both dependent on each other. Ganga’s living water is the only thing that can cool down Siva’s linga; without Ganga, Siva will remain the burning linga of fire. Without Siva, the fall of Ganga would have shattered the earth (Eck 2012: 140). Siva, also known as Gangadhara or “Bearer of the Ganges”, is said to be the companion of Ganga. They both are portrayed as husband and wife and sometimes in sculptures as a married couple (Eck 1996: 147). The descent of Ganga is continuous and not a single time event; each wave of Ganga touches Siva’s head before touching the earth. Ganga is the liquid form of Siva’s sakti, as well as Siva himself is sakti, the energy that forms and sustains the apparent universe. Being a liquid sakti, Ganga is God’s incarnation, God’s divine descent, freely flowing for all and embodies the energy of all the gods. After the descent of Ganga, Ganga became the “vehicle for Siva’s merciful work of salvation” (Eck 2012: 160-161).
Ganga goddess is more than a single river. Ganga is India’s prime example of all the sacred rivers in India today (Eck 1996: 137-138). The river keeps on flowing, bringing life and conveying the living tradition. Ganga is also only the best known consort of all three important male gods: Siva, Visnu, and Brahma, but she is the only goddess that had acquired the position of being consort which no other goddess can achieve. Ganga is said to be heavenly, whatever is holy, whatever is merciful, and whatever is completely auspicious is already there (Eck 1996: 150-151).
Darian, S. G. (1978) The Ganges in Myth and History. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.
Eck, D. L. (1982) Banaras: City of Light. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Eck, D. L. (1996) Ganga: The Goddess Ganges in Hindu Sacred Geography. In J. S. Wulff, Devi: Goddess of India (pp. 137-153). Berkley: University of California Press.
Eck, D. L. (2012) India: A Sacred Geography . New York : Harmony Book.
Melton, J. Gordon, James A. Beverly, Christopher Buck, and Constance A. Jones (2011) Religious Celebration: An Encyclopedia of Holidays, Festivals, Solemn Observances, and Spiritual Commemorations Volume One. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO.
Nelson, L. E. (1998) Purifying the Earthly Body of God: Religion and Ecology in Hindu India. Albany: Sate University of New York Press.
Rodrigues, H. (2007) Hinduism – the ebook. Journal of Buddhist Ethics Online Books Ltd. Retrieved from http://www.jbeonlinebooks.org/ebooks/hinduism
In the Hindu tradition, the Matrkas are groups of goddesses with various origins that are associated with violence and diseases that afflict children (Bose 36). In literature, these goddesses are often presented with more recognizable goddesses such as Kali’s precursor Camunda (Donaldson 301) and the Great Goddess Devi in battle (Donaldson 305). The size of the group of goddesses varies throughout literature and mythology, and early references to the group of “mothers” mention their innumerable size (Kinsley 1986:151). Eventually, the representation of the Matrkas evolved from unspecific groups of goddesses to an organized unit because of development in the Brahmanic tradition (Harper 97). The group is unique in that each individual goddess holds little significance and is therefore difficult to describe individually but they garner significance when mentioned as a group (Kinsley 1986:158). The Matrkas are featured most prominently in the third episode of the Devi-mahatmya (Kinsley 1986:156) but are also featured in the Mahabharata (Kinsley 1986:152) and Puranic literature (Harper 52) both as the Matrkas and the Saptamatrkas, a specified Tantric group of seven goddesses. These goddesses are not often worshipped like other significant goddesses, however worship is done for specific circumstances both in literature and tradition. Although these goddesses do not have one specific role within religious tradition, they have a very interesting origin and place within Hinduism and Indian culture.
The origins of the Matrkas is cautiously believed to be a synthesis of both Vedic and tribal goddesses that were worshipped regionally (Foulston 107). These goddesses were all seen as mother goddesses that could cause harm to children and were often featured in battles (Donaldson 301). Due to the belief that the Matrkas are drawn from tribal village-goddesses, epics and Brahmanic traditions are weary of the goddesses, possibly contributing to their negative depiction (Kinsley 1986:155). Iconographically, the Matrkas are mostly represented in calm and maternal form, often holding a child and in some instances emblems of their supposed male counterpart (Donaldson 320). These visual depictions of the goddesses heavily contrast with their physical descriptions that emphasize their fearsome natures and frightening features (Kinsley 1986:155).
Early references rarely specified their number, and it is unclear whether the same goddesses were involved every time they were mentioned (Kinsley 1986:151). During the medieval period though, and possibly after being merged into Brahmanic tradition, the number of goddesses in the group were standardized and named. Most often there are seven goddesses, the Saptamatrkas, but groups of eight and sixteen were also used in literature (Kinsley 1986:152) with up to 24 Matrkas being mentioned by name (Donaldson 318). How the Matrkas are created differ throughout the literature, however it is agreed upon that rather than divine consorts or saktis of male gods as mentioned in the Devi-mahatmya and the Devi-bhagavata-purana, they are extensions or forms of the Great Mother or Goddess, Devi as mentioned in Puranic literature (Bose 36). The popularity of these goddesses increased after 400 CE due to many casual references in literary works (Kinsley 1986:55).
The Matrkas are featured in many literary works. Most prominent is the third episode of the Devi-mahatmya, however it draws on a tradition that was established in the Mahabharata (Kinsley 1978:494). In the Vana Parva, the narrative of Karttikeya is told. In this, a group of goddesses were sent by Indra to kill Karritkeya but when they arrived they developed maternal instincts towards him and were unable to kill the child. Instead, they ask him to adopt them as his mothers. They also requested that they be elevated and worshipped in the same position as Brahma’s and Siva’s consorts as the “mothers of the world” and for permission to live off the offspring of man (Kinsley 1978:495). Karritkeya denies the last request, asking that they protect children. However, he adds a caveat that they may torment children with disease and ailments up to the age of 16. The Matrkas’ desire to be mothers and to punish men through harming children stemmed from their own lost opportunity to bear children due to their divorces (Kinsley 1986:152). Further mention in the Mahabharata includes when Karttikeya is given command of the army in which the Matrkas assist him in battle (Kinsley 186:153).
The Matrkas in the Devi-mahatmya are similar to those in the Mahabharata including their ability in battle and dangerous nature (Kinsley 1975:496). The third episode of the Devi-mahatmya includes the formation of the Saptamatrkas from the saktis of seven gods (Donaldson 304) to assist Camunda, precursor to Kali, defeat Raktabija during Devi’s battle with demon brothers Sumbha and Nisumbha (Donaldson 303). The goddesses created closely resemble the saktis they were created from (Kinsley 1986:156) but it is believed by scholars that the story in the Devi-mahatmya references a group of seven goddesses that are further representing a larger group of village goddesses (Kinsley 1978:496). This story is echoed in the Devi-bhagavata-purana (Kinsley 1986:156).
In Puranic literature, the Matrkas are always featured in battle in a supportive role (Kinsley 1986:160). In the Vamana Purana, the story stays similar to the battle in the Devi-mahatmya, however the goddesses are formed from various parts of Devi’s body (Donaldson 305), adding evidence to the belief that the goddesses are an extension of Devi herself. In the Matsya Purana, Siva created the Matrkas to help combat the demon Andhaka, who possessed the ability to duplicate from the blood spilled from his wounds. The Matrkas were instructed to drink the blood of the demon in order to kill him; because of their bloodthirsty nature they gladly complied with Siva’s request (Kinsley 1986:158). However, the blood intoxicated the Matrkas, and Siva was unable to control them or convince them to return to protecting creation, thus beginning their destructive bloodthirsty path (Donaldson 310). The Varaha Purana is based on three battles mentioned in the Devi-mahatmya, however the demons change and Camunda is dominant rather than Devi (Donaldson 308). In this version, the Matrkas were created from Camunda’s mouth and when they emerged, they were deformed and bloodthirsty. In order to control them, Siva set out guidelines for how they should quench their thirst (Donaldson 309). Puranic writers are credited with making the Matrkas mainstream through the simplification of the origins and personalities of the group. The goddesses are restricted in number, are related to male gods in name and depiction and to draw away from their dangerous nature, the Puranic writers focus the Matrkas role to assisting Devi in maintaining cosmic order (Kinsley 1986:158). This intention could stem from a need to incorporate the goddesses into the Brahmanic tradition, however it is still understood by scholars that this group is dangerous and violent, especially towards children (Kinsley 1986:160).
Although the Matrkas are mentioned in varying numbers, seven goddesses are most often referred to as the Saptamatrkas. The significance of the number seven stems from the Indus Valley Civilization, in which seals have been discovered featuring seven female figures that are believed to be “officiants or ministrants of the goddess” (Harper 6). In addition to the seals, the heptad recurs so frequently that it implies the heavy significance of the number seven in Indus culture (Harper 6). In early folk tradition, there were many groups of seven female deities that brought disease and bad luck (Harper 34) and communities would often be subject to these various deities’ wrath for disregarding their worship and as a result be plagued with various diseases and ailments (Harper 41). In Vedic literature, the heptad is also very prominent. The Rg Veda contains the division of the universe into seven regions and in the Artharva-Veda and Kathaka Samhita there are references to seven suns (Harper 13). Even though it seems that the origin of worship to female heptads did not emerge from Vedic literature but rather aboriginal or tribal traditions, the number seven in both cultures seems to represent regeneration of people and the universe (Harper 45).
The Seven Goddesses, Saptamatrkas, of Vedic literature are adaptations of village goddesses and because the village goddesses and Vedic goddesses share many characteristics, they were mutually acculturated in order to be incorporated in Hindu tradition (Harper 52). They are a systematically refined form of the earlier Matrkas that represent the Great Goddess Devi and the cosmic powers of creation, preservation and destruction (Foulston 109). The goddesses named are Brahmani, Vaisnavi, Mahesvari, Kaumari, Varahi, Indrani and Camunda (Foulston 111). The names of these goddesses are similar to the male deity whose sakti they were formed from, however, it is understood that they are not in any way consorts of male deities instead are from the sakti and body of Devi (Foulston 111). Identified as tantric goddesses, they were very popular between the fourth and sixth centuries (Foulston 109). The similarities between the significance of seven and of the Seven Mothers allowed for the mutual acculturation of the Saptamatrkas between Brahmanic and aboriginal traditions (Harper 52). When the Saptamatrkas were accepted into orthodoxy, through being featured in Vedic literature, they contributed to the recognition of some aboriginal deities in Brahmanic worship.
As the Matrkas are associated with harm to children, most worship that is directed at them is essentially to keep the spirits of the goddesses away from their families. This includes shielding children’s beauty from the world, both in speech and in reality (Kinsley 1986:154). Most worship of these goddesses is done in fear of what may come; however they are worshipped for positive reasons as well. The Saptamatrkas are often worshipped for personal spiritual renewal, which touches on the shared belief that the Seven Mothers represented renewal and rejuvenation (Foulston 112). In the Kadambari, Queen Vilasavati worships the Matrkas because of her desire to have a son (Kinsley 1986:156), possibly implying that the Matrkas can influence fertility. The Nayta-sastra speaks to worshipping the Matrkas before setting up a stage for theatre and dance and presenting offerings to the Matrkas at times of indecision and at cross roads in one’s life is encouraged by both Caruddatta of Bhasa and Mrcchakatika of Sudraka (Kinsley 1986:155).
The Matrkas have a vast and diverse history in both Vedic and folk tradition. Their origins and nature differ through the course of Hindu literature. It is generally understood that they are extensions of Devi and are often featured as bloodthirsty and very dangerous. They are dangerous to children and very formidable in battle. However, their portrayal in Hindu iconography portrays them as soft maternal figures. This juxtaposition brings out the two sides of the goddesses that are mentioned in the story of Karritkeya, maternity and danger. It is evident that the Matrkas have evolved over time to fit in the Brahmanic worldview, although their fearsome, dangerous nature remains embedded in both orthodox and folk tradition.
REFERENCES AND FURTHER RECOMMENDED READING
Bose, Mandakranta (2010) Women in the Hindu tradition: rules, roles, and expections. New York: Routledge
Donaldson, Thomas (2002) Tantra and Sakta Art of Orissa Vol. 1. New Delhi: D.K. Printworld (P) Ltd.
Foulston, Lynn and Stuart Abbott (2009) Hindu goddesses : belief & practices. Thornhill: Sussex Academic Press (Canada)
Harper, Katherine Anne (1989) Seven Hindu goddesses of spiritual transformation : the iconography of the Saptamatrikas. Lewiston: E. Mellen Press.
Hawley, J. S., and D. M. Wulff (eds.) (1996) Devi: Goddesses of India. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Kinsley, David (1978) “The Portrait of the Goddess in the Devi-mahatmya.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Vol. 46, No.4 (Dec.,1978): p 489-506. Oxford: Oxford University Press
Kinsley, David (1986) Hindu goddesses. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Evidence of the importance of femininity in the Hindu religion dates back to the Indus Valley Civilization in 2500 BCE (Rodrigues 31), the source of thousands of terracotta female figurines (Hawley and Wulff 1). Further evidence lies in Vedic scripture that dates back to 1500 to 1000 BCE (Rodrigues 496). Vedic literature is still revealed today and has with numerous references to goddesses and women (Hawley and Wulff 2). Evidently, Hindu goddesses were and still are embedded in all aspects of life and land (Foulston and Abbott 1). This close association between India’s geography and the divine is an ongoing theme throughout the Hindu religion. This is evident when one listens to the traditional stories told and heard throughout India (Eck 11). Pilgrimages, rituals, and festivals related to India’s landscape still continue today and help illustrate how symbolic the geography of India really is.
Hindu goddesses are known to represent seemingly complex notions such as power and energy. These same goddesses can be found manifesting in simple forms such as water and rivers throughout India (Foulston and Abbott 2). The symbol of water signifies potentiality, fluidity, and a vehicle for creation (Baartmans 210). Water, according to the Vedas is all encompassing; it is foundational to the universe (Baartmans 214-215). Rivers, as sacred entities, are said to be known as “the great descenders” (Eck 18-19). In fact, the latter portions of the Rg Veda claims that anyone bathing where the Ganga and Yamuna meet will rise to heaven (Eck 145). Further evidence for this lies in the Padma Purana, as it states that bathing and drinking in the junction between the Ganga, Yamuna, and Sarasvati allows one to achieve freedom (Eck 147). The belief that these river goddesses can grant access to heaven or freedom, which are common goals in Hinduism, demonstrate the extent to which Hindus believe in the power of these goddesses.
India’s rivers and their goddesses are intricately entwined. They form trivenis, or “triple-braids,” as they meet in different forms throughout the land (Eck 7). These trivenis are often interpreted symbolically as “sacred crossings” or tirthas and represent “spiritual ladders to heaven” (Eck 10, 140). The rivers are pilgrimage sites for both humans and the goddesses (Eck 167). Humans visit these holy sites to gain freedom and a deeper devotion to their faith. The river goddesses visit other rivers seeking support when exhausted by their own pilgrims (Eck 167).
River goddesses are referenced by the Vedas as “mothers” (Eck 166). The seven “mother-rivers” are the oldest collection of rivers in India (Eck 167). In modern India, the focus of worship lies around the seven rivers known as the saptanadi: the Ganga, Yamuna, Sindu, Narmada, Godavari, Krsna, and the Kaveri (Eck 168). The water belonging to these river goddesses is said to be analogous with milk belonging to the mothers themselves, as well as soma (Eck 138), a sacred plant and intoxicating beverage (Rodrigues 67). It is the mantras, or sacred verses, (Rodrigues 168) of these rivers and goddesses that are recited while performing modern Hindu water rituals.
Ganga, the holiest of all Hindu rivers (Oestigaard 130), is also known as the goddess “Mother Ganga” (Eck 131). According to myth, the water of Ganga divides into many streams as it descends from the heavens (Kinsley 188). Therefore, Ganga and the rest of the Hindu sacred river goddesses are said to have a divine descent from heaven (Eck 138 – 140). Together, the Ganga and Sarasvati Rivers purify, nourish and fertilize the land of India (Kinsley 57). Today, Hindus worship Ganga by bathing along her river and offering flowers, oil lamps, and even ashes of loved ones while performing sraddha rites, or death rites (Eck 163), in her waters (Eck 131-132). Ganga Dusehra is a ten-day celebration of Mother Ganga on the tenth day of the third month, Jayeshta (Dwivedi 27). During this festival, Hindus bathe in Ganga’s waters, take her clay home with them, chant her name, and meditate along her banks (Dwivedi 28). Bathing in Ganga’s waters is also regarded as a purifying practice during other festivals, such as Makara Sankranti, a harvest festival (Dwivedi 32-33).
Now extinct, the river Sarasvati used to be associated with her cleansing properties (Eck 145). Today, the goddess Sarasvati is largely recognized as being associated with the theme of arts and learning (McDermott 3608), creativity and knowledge (Ludvik 1), oral artistry and culture in general (Kinsley 55). Sarasvati is also either the daughter or wife of Brahma, the source of creation (Kinsley 55). As a river, Sarasvati is commonly known as representing both purity and abundance. According to Vedic literature she is also known as a “healing medicine” (Kinsley 56). Currently, Sarasvati is celebrated on the fifth day of the twelfth month, Phalguna, during the spring festival called Vasant Panchami (Dwivedi 30). During the celebration, Hindus will often wear bright colors, especially yellow, to welcome the arrival of the spring season and honor Sarasvati (Dwivedi 30). Hindus tend to partake in ancestor worship, Pitri-Tarpan, and rooftop kite flying on Vasant Panchami (Dwivedi 31).
Myth claims that Krsna, a highly worshipped deity, was forced to grow up in and came to love the lands surrounding the Yamuna River (Eck 170). Many believe that Ganga’s love for Krsna stems from the mergence of Ganga and Yamuna at the site of Prayag (Eck 170). This union is also regarded as sacred to the Hindu religion as death in this location was once thought to be fruitful (Dwivedi 138). Also taking place in Prayag is Kumbh Mela, the world’s largest religious gathering (Gupta 1329). Every twelve years Prayag, Haridwar, Nasik, and Ujjain take turns hosting Kumbh Mela celebrations in which millions participate in the purifying practice of bathing at the union of the Yamuna and Ganga Rivers (Gupta 1329). It is regarded as highly sacred to do so when the planets align correctly and a full moon is present (Gupta 1329). Yamuna is recognized as the “daughter of the sun” and the “waters of love” (Eck 169-170). Many Hindus sing hymns and visit Divya Shila, the Divine Stone, and the Ma Yamuna temple at Yamunotri to worship the image of Yamuna (Eck 169-170).
Narmada runs through central India and is known to have the most sacred sites along its riverside (Eck 467). Although there are many myths on the subject of Narmada’s creation, it is widely accepted that both the river and goddess were formed by the very sweat of divine Siva’s face (Eck 172). Another common belief is that Narmada’s main role on earth is to relieve mortals of their sins (Eck 173). Parikrama or Pradakshina, meaning circumambulation, is the highly recommended pilgrimage of the Narmada (Eck 170). It is common for Hindus to divide this nearly nine hundred mile hike into sections. By doing so, what would be a three year journey, is instead, completed over one’s lifetime (Eck 171). Shri Narmada, within the Narmada Mandir temple, is a sacred shrine dedicated to Narmada. Offerings such as white candy Prasad, incense, and split coconuts are brought here to worship Narmada (Eck 173-174).
According to legend, the river and goddess, Godavari, descended to earth on a hill called Brahmagiri as a form of Ganga. Godavari is also known by the name, Gautami, due to a myth involving the sage, Gautama (Eck 175). In this myth, Gautama killed a cow, committing the worst sin possible according to the Hindu religion. Godavari is now commonly referred to as Gautami because of her heavenly descent that relieved Gautama’s sin (Eck 176). Pilgrims today commonly visit a well on top of Brahmagiri, a shrine dedicated to Siva, the ritual bathing site, the Chakra Tirtha, and the Gangadvara, a symbolic representation of the “Door of Ganga”, through which they worship Godavari (Eck 176). Another common pilgrimage to worship the deity Godavari, is to Nasik, famous for the settlement of Rama, Sita, and Lakshmana in the Ramayana (Eck 177), a prominent Hindu epic (Eck 470). This site hosts millions of Hindu pilgrims for mela, or bathing festivals (Eck 467) During mela, the waters are infused with numerous floating lights (Eck 178).
The river Kaveri is said to be the goddess, Vishnumaya, a deity worshipped by lower castes (Hoeppe 126), in liquid form. According to the Puranas, Kaveri was sent by Visnu to water the land as she descends from the heavens and becomes a symbol for blessing (Eck 179). The Kaveri River is the site of many famous Hindu pilgrimage temples such as, Shrirangapattanam, Shivasamudram, and the most well known temple of Visnu on the island of Shrirangam (Eck 180).
Pushkaram is a popular Hindu festival in which the twelve main rivers and their goddesses are celebrated at different astrologically determined times once every twelve years (Dalal no page). The seven “mother-rivers” (Eck 167), previously mentioned, are included in these twelve as well as the Bhima, Tapati, Tungabhadra, Indus, and Pranahita Rivers (Dalal no page). Other minor rivers may be worshipped such as the Tamraparni and the Sangutirtham, but these are less popular (Dalal no page). Ancestor worship, bathing, and making offerings is said to grant spiritual benefits because it is believed that the divine bathe in these rivers during this festival (Dalal no page).
Performance of sraddha or visarjana, the “committal of ashes to the river” is commonly done on the rivers of India (Eck 163). Prayaga, Kashi, and Gaya, the tristhali or “three places”, are popular sites for these death rituals (Eck 163). Many myths surround these acts, but one of the most widespread beliefs is that the rivers can grant liberation or moksa (Eck 147). In the past, one of the death rituals was to commit suicide at Prayaga in hopes to obtain moksa (Eck 165). A common tradition is to honor the loved one’s ashes, release and sink them in the river, and offer rice balls, pindas, to connect the deceased with their deceased ancestors in heaven (Eck 164). It is said that for ten days following a death, one rice-ball a day is to be sacrificed on an altar bordering a river (Oestigaard 158).
The importance of water is displayed in verses dedicated to various deities and also in its life-giving contribution to creation of the universe (Oestigaard 239). With ritual purity and pollution playing such a large role in Hinduism, water and rivers, as life-giving elements, are especially prone to pollution. Pilgrimages, daily bathing, relieving of sins, and countless offerings to the rivers and their goddesses are all efforts to achieve and maintain purity. The consequences of these acts can have negative, polluting effects on the rivers and goddesses themselves (Eck 183-184). In Hinduism, death is regarded as the greatest source of impurity (Oestigaard 241). With that said, India’s rivers and river goddesses face a dilemma both physically and spiritually, as clothes and charcoal from death rituals (Oestigaard 199) are constantly polluting the sacred rivers, with the Yamuna River being the most polluted of them all (Eck 184). Although impure objects should not be cast into the water, it is still a daily occurrence (Narayanan 184). Despite the ongoing restoration efforts, “the rivers that are said to have descended to earth as sources of salvation are now, in their earthly form, in need of salvation themselves” (Eck 188).
REFERENCES AND FURTHER RECOMMENDED READING
Hawley, John Stratton (1998) “The Goddess in India.” In Devi: Goddesses of India. John Hawley and Donna Wulff (ed.). Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Private Limited. pp. 1-28.
Baartmans, Frans (2000) The Holy Waters: A Primordial Symbol in Hindu Myths. Delhi: B.R. Publishing Corporation.
Dalal, Roshen (2010) Hinduism: An Alphabetical Guide. New Delhi: The Penguin Group.
Dwivedi, Anil Kumar (2007) Encyclopaedia of Indian Customs and Rituals. New Delhi: Anmol Publications Pvt. Ltd.
Eck, Diana L. (2012) India: A Sacred Geography. New York: Random House, Inc.
Foulston, Lynn and Stuart Abbott (2009) Hindu Goddesses: Beliefs and Practices. Eastbourne: Sussex Academic Press.
Gupta, Om (2006) Encyclopedia of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh (In 9 Volumes). Delhi: Isha Books.
Hoeppe, Gotz (2007) Conversations on the Beach: Fishermen’s Knowledge, Metaphor and Environmental Change in South India. New York: Berghahn Books.
Kinsley, David (1987) Hindu Goddesses. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.
Ludvik, Catherine (2007) Sarasvati, Riverine Goddess of Knowledge: From the Manuscript-carrying Vina-player to the Weapon-wielding Defender of the Dharma. Leiden: Koninklijke Brill NV.
McDermott, Rachel Fell (2005) “Goddess Worship: The Hindu Goddess.” In Lindsay Jones, ed. Encyclopedia of Religion. p. 3607-3611. Detroit: Gale, Cengage Learning.
Narayanan, Vasudha (2001) “Water, Wood, and Wisdom: Ecological Perspectives from the Hindu Traditions.” Daedalus, Vol. 130, No. 4: 179-206
Oestigaard, Terje (2005) Death and Life-Giving Waters: Cremation, caste, and cosmogony in karmic traditions. Oxford: Archaeopress.
Rodrigues, Hillary (2006) Hinduism: The Ebook. Journal of Buddhist Ethics Online Books, Ltd.
The goddess Bhu Devi has been in Hindu culture, existing with various names throughout the myths and stories of Vedic texts, and built into the geography of India itself. Within the earliest Vedic texts, the goddess of the earth was known as Prthivi, and is depicted as the female principle of Dyaus, the male deity of the sky (Kinsley 8). It is said in the Rg Veda that Dyaus fertilizes the earth with rain, as Prthivi supports and encompasses the growing earth (Kinsley 8). The hymn of praise found in the Artharva Veda is solely dedicated to Prthivi and the feminine principle. It also discusses the image of Visnu—as well as other associated male deities—striding over Prthivi, either protecting her, providing for her, or seen as consorts (Kinsley 9). Prthivi is found later in Hinduism, and often called Bhu Devi, appearing in myths that show her fertile, maternal nature (Kinsley 17). In the Garuda Purana’s form of cosmogony, Visnu is said to deposit is virya (energy or semen) in Laksmi (Pintchman 154), and reinforces the connection between these two principles that is needed for creation. Visnu is told to be a lover of the Earth in early texts. He is depicted conquering a demon in dharmic form, and rising up with the earth from the bottom of the ocean. This earth (bhumi) brought up from the depths is envisioned as the beautiful goddess Bhu Devi (Nelson 154). Bhu Devi’s plea for help is said to bring about many of the incarnations of Visnu, personifying her vulnerability to the fragile soil of the earth (Nelson 272) and her need for the preserver, Visnu. Sri, commonly known as Laksmi or Sri-Laksmi, refers to riches, prosperity, and abundance (Kinsley 19). Sri embodies compassion in her being, and in her manifestation as Bhu Devi, she is often portrayed as the goddess of reproduction and nurture (Nelson 96). The relationship between Laksmi and prakrti can be seen in the myth explaining how Laksmi appeared in her three forms when the lord created the three gunas of prakrti: Sri the sattva guna, Bhu the rajas guna, and Durga the tamas guna (Pintchman 154). This shows the supreme lord Visnu as Purusa, corresponding to Brahma and the rajas principle (Pintchman 155). With Brahma the creator and Bhu the prosperous/nurturing, a better understanding of the rajas guna is given through the personification of these deities. [A detailed account on the arrangements and categories of prakarti is told in Pintchman (1994)].
Extended knowledge and philosophies came through the Tantric Srivaisnavism, as verses are told of Bhu Devi’s greatness and her part as a spouse to Visnu, along with consorts Sri or Laksmi (Nelson 56). In Srivaisnavism, Visnu (the supreme deity of the school) is maintained as the central cosmological figure while Sri is seen as a “devotee’s advocate” (Kinsley 32) in her conversations with Visnu. Sri, as a mother goddess is told to be the mediator between the devotees and Visnu (Hawley and Wulff 93), much like a mother is the mediator between children and their father. Sri-Laksmi is later revealed as the nectar of creation, filled with power, beauty, and riches within the Pancaratra school of thought stemming from Srivaisnavism (Kinsley 21). Due to the connection Laksmi has as the sap of existence, she is also often worshipped with Soma, the essence of plant and organic life (Kinsley 27). Laksmi plays a central role in the universe’s creation and evolution as the sakti of Visnu within the Pancaratra school of thought (Kinsley 30). This school is what begins to gain the goddess independent ground in the pantheon of deities. In the tenth and eleventh centuries, gurus wrote multiple hymns in praise of the greatness of Sri. These hymns towards Sri led the emergence of the mutual love and an inseparable relationship between Sri and Visnu (Hawley and Wulff 90). She is a goddess of nurture, prosperity, and a giver of wealth as seen from tales in the Sri Vaisnava group of worshippers (Hawley and Wulff 87). In the Samhitas, the earth goddess—Prthivi or Bhumi—is shown to have three aspects of nature: the physical earth sustaining living creatures, the universal mother of physical creation, and matter itself that is formed in the cosmogonic creation (Pintchman 30). The process of creation is said to continue when Visnu and Laksmi enter mahat (material existence) and give rise to consciousness and egoity (Pintchman 155).
The personification of nature into Bhu Devi, as well as other mother goddesses, is seen around India in the natural sites that hold the transcendent feminine qualities of nurture and growth [For specific geographic information depicting the mother goddess see Kinsley (1986)]. These sacred sites mimic the feminine principle (sakti) that women themselves are expected to uphold towards their husbands within the culture (Nelson 95-96). Where it is a man’s dharma to ritually worship the gods, it is the woman’s responsibility to further worship her husband and gain sakti in the household. The goddess Kali is seen as large, dominating, and as a force that may bring death, while auspicious goddesses such as Laksmi and Bhu are small and controlled by their male counterpart (Hawley and Wulff 14). Kali often used as a reminder of how women are less fearful when auspicious and dharmic, keeping men as the authority figure in both the household and in the rest of Hindu culture. A common iconographic depiction of Laksmi is of her kneeling before Visnu to either massage his feet or show her submissiveness (Kinsley 28). In turn, the image of Visnu as a lover of earth also motivates Vaisnava movements to take increased care of the earth as a dharmic action (Nelson 155). “Bhudevi’s primary role is that of an injured supplicant who is oppressed by wicked rulers” (Kinsley 179) in need of Visnu’s help, whereas the Vedic goddess Prthivi was seen as a broad, ongoing source of fertility in the early hymns.
Sri Vaisnava temples contain separate shines for Visnu and Sri. While the primary image of Visnu is shown and worshipped with Sri or Bhu on his chest, Sri is often worshipped alone (Hawley and Wulff 98). Some schools such as Tirumala-Tirupati address Visnu as Sri-nivasa (he on whom Sri abides), Sri being a vital part of their worship (Hawley and Wulff 104). The story of Padmavati told in the Tirumala-Tirupati temple is also shown in local legends of Sri becoming a local human girl after a fight with Visnu (Hawley and Wulff 100). Padmavati (Sri incarnate) is followed by Visnu and eventually united in Nacciyar Koil, after being raised by the holy man Medhavi, having found her under an asoka tree (Hawley and Wulff 100-101). This story has many parallels to the Ramayana, in the finding of Sita on land being ploughed, further associating the princess Padmavati to Sri, though her identification as Sri is still questioned today (Hawley and Wulff 100). The name Padmavati itself is linked to the Sanskrit padma, meaning lotus (Hawley and Wulff 100), suggesting Padmavati to be connected to the goddess Laksmi, an extention of Sri.
Within the past century (around 1970), a prominent theologian of the Sri Vaisnava school of thought wrote a prayer to the “Eight Laksmis”, called the Asta Laksmi Stotram, and viewed as the eight manifestations of Sri (Hawley and Wulff 104). In temples dedicated to Asta Laksmi, traditional silver, and decorative jars with the eight engraved manifestations on the sides are traditionally used in worship (Hawley and Wulff 105). Use of a symbolic jar as one of the manifest forms of the goddess is also seen with the Ghatasthapana (jar installation) during worship of the Great Goddess, Devi (Rodrigues 86). The jar is made out of clay with grain planted inside of it, thus symbolizing the Goddess as earth and soil, making a connection to Bhu Devi as well as the Vedic goddess Aditi (the suggested mother or wife of Visnu) who is a supporter of the earth (Rodrigues 86). This jar, much like the one for Asta Laksmi, is made out of metal or unbaked clay and symbolizes the body of Devi (Rodrigues 273). The jar is said to be the abundant earth itself, an all-encompassing container holding each of the life-nourishing elements (Rodrigues 86). When water is poured into the jar, it is representative of these liquid elements of creation, and is consequently associated to Sri-Laksmi in her material prosperity or prakrti (Rodrigues 87-88). There is an ongoing parallel to many of the rituals pertaining to the earth goddess Bhu Devi, in the idea that life-forms temporarily endure but eventually return to their ultimate source, the earth goddess herself (Rodrigues 273).
The ritual art tradition of the kolam is no exception, as it is an essential part of creating auspiciousness in the Tamil Nadu homes. These drawings, both elaborate and simple, are a sign of women’s energies within the four goddesses the ritual involves: Bhu Devi, Laksmi, Mu Devi, and Tulasi Devi. Mu Devi is a goddess of laziness and poverty, the opposite to the consorts of Visnu: Laksmi, Tulasi Devi, and Bhi Devi (Nelson 270-271). The kolam artwork made in the early morning is slowly removed throughout the day by movement of people in and out of the house. Returning the markings back into the soil shows Bhu Devi’s fragile nature, bringing remembrance back to the natural world, as well as making Bhu Devi one of the first thoughts women have each day (Nelson 273). The modern women who have continued the tradition of kolam hold the ideology that the earth as a divine being is capable of cleaning itself, causing elephant dung or pollution to be absorbed by the goddesses of the rivers and the earth (Nelson 277). To better understand this concept, the kolam is seen as a way to ask forgiveness from Bhu Devi for the previous days neglect of her well-being (Nelson 279). Sri-Laksmi, another consort of Visnu is worshipped in the form of cow dung due to her association with agricultural fertility (Kinsley 20). Often depicted on a lotus flower, Laksmi can be seen in the symbol of the lotus growing from the navel of Visnu (Kinsley 21) and as such marks the beginning of manifest creation of the earth and cosmos.
The link between Bhu Devi and the earth goes back to the very beginnings of Vedic religion, personifying and making connections to the geographic landscape. As seen in the ideologies of schools from then into modern day, the earth goddess is worshipped in many forms, and seen in names such as Prthivi, Sri and in Sri’s avatara, Laksmi. The fertility of Bhu Devi, seen in many of the rituals reinforces the great importance of the land, growth, and the cyclical way of life.
Bibliography and Related Readings
Coburn, Thomas (1996) “Devi: The Great Goddess.” In Devi: Goddesses of India. John Hawley and Donna Wulff (eds.). Berkeley and Los Angeles, California: University of California Press. pp. 31-48.
Hawley, John (1996) “Prologue: The Goddess in India.” In Devi: Goddesses of India. John Hawley and Donna Wulff (eds.). Berkeley and Los Angeles, California: University of California Press. pp. 1-28.
Kinsley, David (1987) Hindu Goddesses: Visions of the Divine Feminine in the Hindu Religious Tradition. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publ.
Mumme, Patricia (1998) “Models and Images for a Vaisnava Environmental Theology: The Potential Contribution of Srivaisnavism.” In Purifying the Earthly Body of God: Religion and Ecology in Hindu India. Nelson (ed.). Albany: State University of New York Press. pp. 133-161.
Nagarajan, Vijaya (1998) “The Earth Goddess Bhu Devi: Toward a Theory of ‘Embedded Ecologies’ in Folk Hinduism.” In Purifying the Earthly Body of God: Religion and Ecology in Hindu India. Nelson (ed.). Albany: State University of New York Press. pp. 269-295.
Narayanan, Vasudha (1996) “Sri: Giver of Fortune, Bestower of Grace.” In Devi: Goddesses of India. John Hawley and Donna Wulff (eds.). Berkeley and Los Angeles, California: University of California Press. pp. 87-108.
Pintchman, Tracy (1994) The Rise of the Goddess in the Hindu Tradition. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Rodrigues, Hillary (2003) Ritual Worship of the Great Goddess: The Liturgy of the Durga Puja with Interpretations. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Sharma, Arvind (1998) “Attitudes to Nature in the Early Upanisads.” In Purifying the Earthly Body of God: Religion and Ecology in Hindu India. Nelson (ed.). Albany: State University of New York Press. pp. 51-60.
The Navadurga Tradition of Bhaktapur, Nepal: An Ethnographic Account
The following paper is an ethnographic report that describes the Navadurga tradition of Bhaktapur, Nepal. All data collected was generated through qualitative research means relying mainly on the use of observations and interviews with the tradition’s practitioners and followers. I collected all the data used for the composition of this paper over the summer of 2014 in the months of June, July, and August. This paper will first provide a brief introduction to the geographical area of the study and the tradition itself. The paper will then proceed with a section discussing the collection of the information followed by a historical account of the tradition and finally the tradition as it is practiced today by discussing the tradition’s membership, activities, operations, and relations.
Nepal is a land locked county in South Asia bordered by India and China (specifically the region of Tibet). Nepal is a country rich in culture, language, landscape, history, and religion. Not only is Nepal home to the Himalayas and Mount Everest, but it is also the birthplace of the Buddha, and one of the only countries in South Asia (including Southeast Asia) to remain autonomous and free from colonial rule. Like India, Nepal’s most practiced religion is Hinduism, a complex religion that encompasses thousands of deities, thousands of ritual practices, and even competing and sometimes contradictory beliefs. The Navadurga tradition of Bhaktapur, Nepal is an excellent example of a Hindu tradition that is contradictory in some of its practices from that of mainstream Hinduism.
The Kathmandu Valley of Nepal is made up of three major cities, Kathmandu (the nation’s capital), Patan, and Bhaktapur. Kathmandu and Patan have both experienced rapid modernization and development that has caused the cities to loose some of their traditional customs, culture, architecture, and beliefs. Lying on the outskirts of the valley, Bhaktapur has managed to preserve and retain more of its traditional customs, culture, architecture, and beliefs than the other cities have. Bhaktapur’s population is mainly comprised of Newars, an ethnic group that accounts for less than ten percent of the country’s population, and is indigenous to the Kathmandu Valley and the areas surrounding it. A tradition important to the Newar community of the greater Kathmandu Valley, and specifically the citizens of Bhaktapur, is the Navadurga tradition.
The Navadurga is translated as the nine Durgas, referring to nine different forms of the great goddess Durga. To most of the Indian subcontinent Durga is the divine mother, presider over the seasons of life, death, and birth, the liberator of the oppressed and marginalized, and warrior. She is often depicted with eight to eighteen arms, each of which yields a different weapon. Most Hindu deities wield specific items that allow for them to be easily identified. Durga, however, holds the weapons of other deities, including Śiva’s trident and Visnu’s discus, reinforcing her characteristics as a warrior and liberator. Durga’s power is representative of the feminine principle of the cosmos known as Shakti. The goddess Durga is said to have as many forms as there are beings on the planet. Her many forms come in a variety of dispositions and include many female deities from the Hindu pantheon. Such goddesses include Laksmi the goddess of prosperity; Saraswatī the goddess of creativity; Lalita the goddess of light; Vajrayoginī the goddess of power; and Kālī the goddess of transformation and death. Durga is not mentioned in the Vedic scriptures, Hinduism’s earliest literature. The Vedas speak of the goddesses Vac and Ratri, but neither of these goddesses is associated with battle or blood sacrifices, both of which are important aspects of Durga today. Although the Vedas do not portray the wrathful manifestations of Durga some aspects of the Great Goddess are portrayed. The goddess Vac is believed to be an early representation of the goddess Saraswatī, who as previously mentioned is one representation of the Great Goddess. Durga is specifically mentioned in the Puranic literature, which emerged after the Vedas. The Puranas attempted to assume status as the fifth Veda, however it was unsuccessful and is now considered secondary Hindu literature. The Devī Mahatmya arises out of the Markandeya Purana and provides a narrative of Durga’s victory of the buffalo demon Mahishasura. The Devī Mahatmya is the most integral piece of literature on the goddess Durga. Although Durga was not mentioned in the Vedas she has become an important Hindu figure across the Indian subcontinent.
The most widely celebrated festival in Banaras, Indias is for the goddess Durga is Navarātra (Nine Nights) this festival is celebrated over nine nights, each night marked by a journey to one of the nine different Durga temples. More than fifty thousand Hindus participate in the festival each year. The traditions of Bhaktapur differ significantly than the traditions in Banāras. A major distinction is that the festival for the Navadurga lasts for several months rather than nine nights. Another distinction is the use of iconography; in Banāras full images are created and displayed for worship, whereas the tradition in Bhaktapur uses masks that are worshipped when they are stationary and on display, in addition to when they are worn and move around. The use of masks in Durga traditions is a unique practice to Bhaktapur. Mask use, however, is not a unique practice. The Balinese employ the use of masks in various traditions and rituals, specifically when portraying the Ramāyana, a great Hindu epic. The masks used by the Balinese are sacred heirlooms that are treated as gods; when they are not in use they are placed inside the temple next to the main images of the deities to be worshiped and given daily offerings. There are several parallels between the mask use in Bali and Bhaktapur, mainly the reverence and homage paid to them and their ceremonial use. Differences between the use of masks is that the Balinese masks are heirlooms passed down to the next generation whereas the tradition in Bhaktapur begins each year by constructing new masks and ends by cremating them. Bhaktapur’s use of masks is a unique practice within Hinduism and is deeply established within Bhaktapur’s community.
Having introduced the region, topic of this study, and provided a brief contextual account of similar traditions this paper will now begin to present a full account of the Navadurga tradition of Bhaktapur. It begins by explaining the methods used in the research to generate the information for this paper. This is followed by a historical account of the tradition’s origins, and then outlines the tradition as it is practiced today. Specific aspects of the tradition to be discussed include its membership, operations, activities, and relations.
The information gathered for this paper was mainly collected directly from Bhaktapur, Nepal over a three-month period (June, July, and August) in the summer of 2014. Visits were made to Bhaktapur on a weekly, or biweekly basis to conduct interviews or observe various aspects of the religion such as rituals or ceremonies, preparation for such activities, or the daily actions of the members of the Navadurga community. The following section will discuss and reflect on the methods utilized to gather the information in addition to my personal experiences in conducting the research.
Prior to arriving in Nepal preliminary research was conducted to familiarize myself with Durga, the Navadurga, the use of masks in Hinduism, and Bhaktapur. This was beneficial in building an initial base of knowledge that became useful when talking with members of the Navadurga community, observing the various activities, and conducting interviews. The research in the field would have benefitted had I done more preliminary research on a wider range of topics. This will be discussed at more length in the end of this section. Once in Nepal research was done directly with the locals through interviews and observations.
Interviews serve as the main source of information for this study. A total of twenty-two (22) individuals were interviewed. Of the twenty-two individuals interviewed seventeen belong to the Navadurga community and the remaining five are citizens of Bhaktapur. The five informants outside of the Navadurga community consisted of a one local historian, two tourist guides, and two individuals who pay homage to the Navadurga at their various festivals and ceremonies. The seventeen interviewed from within the Navadurga community consist of performers (both dancers and musicians), priests, community leaders known as Nayas, and various other individuals who participate in the tradition through some other capacity. All but two of the individuals have asked to remain anonymous. Of the twenty-two individuals interviewed only eight individuals will be frequently cited. That is because these eight individuals were able to give additional insight into the topic that the other individuals were either not able to share due to a lack of knowledge or because they were not comfortable sharing. Included in the eight individuals who will be frequently cited are the two individuals who did not ask to remain anonymous, leaving six individuals who will be provided with pseudonyms. Table 1 presents information regarding the individuals’ experiences and base of knowledge of those who have been assigned pseudonyms. Information that was widely agreed upon will not be cited in this paper.
Naya in training, learning from his father and the other Nayas
A senior Naya
A young Naya
Performed as Duma when a child, comes from a family line of temple priests
Priest and performer
* note: Roshan was also a translator
Interviews were conducted with the use of a translator and were recorded using an audio recorder. The interviews were initially based of a basic questionnaire and then evolved along with the conversations as they progressed. Interviews were conducted with either one individual or in groups of two or three. Due to the nature of the topic being studied individuals were hesitant to answer some of the questions or felt as though they were not educated enough to answer properly. Those interviewed were very concerned that they might misrepresent something or share the wrong information, making conducting the interviews very difficult. In fact, a month into my research I found that the information I was collecting from the individuals not to be consistent. After some time I had realized that when I asked certain questions that pertained to information that the Navadurga community regards as sacred and secret they would fabricate their answers. This was a reoccurring theme in many of the interviews, so much so that I decided to start my research again having modified how I approach certain questions and the interviews in general. For this reason you will notice that there are rarely any citations from interviews held in June, except for the interviews held with the two individuals familiar with the interview process; these individuals are Dr. Purushottam Lochan Shrestha (a historian) and Kedar Raj Upadhyay.
One adjustment made to the way interviews were conducted was a change in the translator I used. Originally I had hired a translator recommended to me from a colleague that was not familiar with Navadurga. I believe this had a detrimental effect on the work I was doing, as the translator knew less about the tradition than I had. Following the restart of the interviewing process I was introduced to a young individual named Roshan [pseud.], a son of one the Navadurga temple’s priests. Roshan had recently graduated from with bachelors of tourism, was proficient in English and was very knowledgeable on the Navadurga tradition. He was also eager to secure experience working with tourists (although I consistently claimed not to be a tourist). Hiring Roshan had a very positive impact on my research by opening new doors and creating a more comfortable and familiar environment for the interviewing process; all of the members of the Navadurga community either knew him or were related to him. Not only was Roshan excellent as a translator, but he also proved to be a very valuable informant himself. The more time I spent with Roshan the more inclusive the community became of me and the more I was able to learn.
Observing the community in action and witnessing specific events provided an excellent source for gaining new information as well as to confirm information received from informants. During my time there this summer I was able to observe the rituals and ceremonies of Sirja, Gathemangal, and Ganesh Chaturthi. I was also able to witness the preparations being made for Dashain and the daily puja performed at the temple, except for the puja done in the sacred room that I was not permitted to enter. I was also able to capture images from all of the events I attended, some of which will be shared in Appendix A.
Reflecting back on my experiences collecting information and researching in Bhaktapur I can think of modifications that would have benefitted the information collection process. First and foremost this research would have benefitted from more additional preliminary research. Having only taken one university course on Hinduism the knowledge I poses is basic at best. Had I been more familiar with topics such as Tantra, gender roles, puja, and Hinduism in general I would have been better able to pick up on certain aspects that I had otherwise missed. The most beneficial alteration made to my approach was using someone like Roshan, someone knowledgeable about the Navadurga, as my translator. While I was conducting research in Nepal I was also working an internship with a local environmental non-governmental organization. It was because of this position I was only able to visit Bhaktapur on a weekly or biweekly basis. Spending time with Roshan made connections grow faster and provided new opportunities that helped make the most out of the time I was able to spend in Bhaktapur. If I were to repeat a similar situation in the future I would hope to find an individual as resourceful as Roshan.
The largest hindrance to my research was certainly the internship. I lived and worked in Patan and had to take the local bus out to Bhaktapur, travel time would amount to somewhere between three to four hours each day I travelled. The next time I conduct field research I will certainly ensure that it is my only project and that I immerse myself in the environment of my study. I missed many opportunities because of my internship, whether having to miss an event for work or having to schedule interviews. Although a common practice in the West, setting up meeting times is not a frequent practice of the citizens of Bhaktapur. Often I would meet an individual and have a brief conversation with them to find out that they would make an excellent informant, however, I would be on my way somewhere so I would have to set a time to come back and talk with them. More often than not, the potential informants would not show up to the meeting place, or they would come along at a leisurely pace while I waited for the afternoon. Had I lived in Bhaktapur and was able to focus solely on this research I know it would have had yielded significant benefits.
The Origin of the Navadurga
Few people in Bhaktapur know the story of the origin of the Navadurga tradition. Having spoken with the locals many are familiar with the Navadurga, their processions through the streets of Bhaktapur, and their use of masks and dance. However, not many are acquainted with the story behind the tradition; except for the Navadurga community and citizens who have sought education on the topic. Robert I. Levy is the leading scholar on the city of Bhaktapur and provides an account of the origin story in his book Mesocosm. This section of the paper will present the story as told by Levy followed by key differences and distinctions made by informants from Bhaktapur. The following is a summary of the origin story as presented by Levy:
The Navadurga inhabited the forest Jwala, which was located Northeast of Bhaktapur. As people passed by, the Navadurga would capture them, kill them, and then drink their blood as a sacrifice to themselves. One day the Navadurga captured a man by the name of Sunanda, who was a Ācāju (a priest of farmer origin). Unlike most Ācāju, Sunanda was an expert in Tantric knowledge and mantras (a sacred utterance) and was able to bind the Navadurga, restricting their movement with the use of a mantra. Embarrassed, the Navadurga pleaded to Sunanda to forgive them, and in exchange they would not sacrifice him. Rather than releasing them, Sunanda shrunk them, placed them in his basket and brought them back to his home in Bhaktapur where they were placed in a chest and received periodical worship.
Time passed, the amount is unknown, until one-day Sunanda’s guru, Somarā Rājopādhyāya (a Brahmin) came for a visit. Somarā Rājopādhyāya had a deep and intricate understanding of Tantra and had conveyed to Sunanda that he had not been worshiping the Navadurga properly. Therefore, Somarā Rājopādhyāya took the chest containing the Nine Durgās back to his own house in the Palisāche neighborhood, where he hid them. Somarā Rājopādhyāya worshiped the Navadurga in secrecy using Tantric bidyā (secret arts) and made sacrifices to them. The Navadurga were forced to dance and tell stories using the movements of their hands. Sometime prior, the Navadurga had informed Sunanda and Somarā that should anyone else see them they would be released from the spell. This made Somarā Rājopādhyāya act very surreptitiously; he told his wife to never look into the room where the Navadurga were kept locked up. One day Somarā Rājopādhyāya had left the house and his wife peeked into the room and saw the Navadurgas dancing. The stories differ in what happened to Somarā’s wife; some say that the Navadurga killed her as a sacrificial offering, others say that she was simply severely scolded by her husband. Regardless, the Navadurga, now released from their Tantric binds, escaped from the Brahmin’s home.
Upon their escape, the band of deities captured, sacrificed, and ate a pig at the place known as “Bha: Dwākhā.” Upon his arrival home, Somarā Rājopādhyāya was informed that the Navadurga have escaped. He immediately began pursuing them and with the beating of a small drum and the use of mantras he was able to freeze the Navadurga in their flight in the upper part of the city known as “Swaga Lwaha.” Somarā pleaded with the Navadurga to return to his house. However, this was not possible since the Navadurga had consumed a pig, making them ritually impure and thus impossible for them to reenter the Brahmin’s home. Since the Navadurga could not return to the Brahmin’s house they made the suggestion that a pyākha (dance drama) be arranged where the Navadurga would enter into the performers, allowing for the whole city to be able to see and worship them. Somarā established a god-house for the Navadurga and commissioned to the Gāthā community the authority and responsibility of performing each year as the Navadurga.
An alternative ending to the story is given where Somarā Rājopādhyāya instructed one of his students, an Ācāju to capture the Navadurga in a spell. After some difficulty the student was able to capture them, he then placed them into a god-house in the district of the city where the Gāthā reside. At the request of Somarā the Gāthā cared for the Navadurga and learned their dances. Somarā taught both the Ācāju and the Gāthā all the necessary Tantric procedures they would need. And thus, still following Somarā’s instructions, the Ācāju and the Gāthā still perform their duties for the Navadurga today.
The origin story as told by Levy provides a very thorough overview; only a few distinctions need to be made. The alternate ending to the story is reflective of the Navadurga community’s (Gāthā) perspective, whereas the first ending is reflective of the Brahmin’s perspective, minus a point or two. An informant of mine, Kedar Raj Upadhyay, claims to be the descendent of Somarā, the Brahmin priest from the story. Kedar makes the key distinction that the reason the Brahmin had to pass on the tradition, that is the responsibility and the authority of the Navadurga practices, to the Gāthā, a low ranking caste, was a form of punishment for breaking the oath of secrecy. Another key distinction made is that Somarā had two wives, one Brahmin wife and another low caste wife, and some believe that it was because the lower caste wife saw the Navadurga that the tantric bond was broken releasing the deities. As mentioned previously, the alternate ending provides the account believed by the Navadurga community (also known as Gāthā). The only difference in the story believed by the Gāthās is an element of predestination. The Gāthās say that while Somarā taught the Ācāju a Gāthā brought a delivery of flowers to Somarā, this Gāthā happened to have as many sons as men were needed to carry out the tradition’s practices, providing an easy solution as to who should assume the responsibilities and leadership of the tradition. The Ācāju, or priest, is now called Karmacharya, a role that will be elaborated upon later in this paper.
Some additional points can be made about the history of the tradition that is not included within the origin story. The Navadurga tradition began in the twelfth century of the Common Era under the Malla dynasty, who reigned over Nepal for six hundred years. The Malla were followers of Shakti gods (female), because they believed that the gentleness of the male deities could not protect their nation, king, and countrymen, whereas the dangerous Tantric goddesses could protect all three. Bhaktapur had temples built in cardinal points throughout the city for each of the Navadurga, replicating the Navadurga yantra thereby increasing the tantric power as a means to protect the city. Figure 1 presents a drawing done by Dr. Purushottam Lochan Shrestha of the layout of the Navadurga’s individual god houses with that of the Navadurga yantra. Each point on the periphery is a god-house as well as the point in the center. During the period of Malla rule over Nepal tantric practitioners knew that divinity could transfer itself into wood, stone, and
metal so they began running experiments to see if the divine could transfer into the human body. These experiments happened in the twelfth century and were found to be very successful. It is from this point that the Navadurga tradition as it is known today began. Furthermore, an interesting component of the Navadurga traditions is the use of pigs in sacrifice. Pig sacrifice is not a common practice in Hinduism, animals typically sacrificed include, sheep, goats, chickens, and buffalo. The central use of the pig in the tradition and from the origin story also began in the twelfth century. During that period the Muslim Turks established a powerful kingdom in northern India around Delhi and began to expand their control over the area. In an effort to preserve their culture and traditions the Newars of Bhaktapur adopted the use of pig sacrifice since the Muslims think poorly of pigs and avoid them. The efforts made by the Newars of Bhaktapur successfully preserved the beliefs and traditions of the Malla dynasty so that they could still practiced today.
The Navadurga Today
The Navadurga tradition as practiced today is an intricate tradition that relies solely on the tradition’s keepers, who have been referred to as the Navadurga community throughout this paper, and from the local patrons who provide their support. The Navadurga festival is the longest festival in the area, spanning over nine months and including many specific rituals and ceremonies, and encompassing several other festivals. This section of the paper will present the tradition as it is found today, first by identifying the traditions membership, then its activities such as ceremonies, rituals, and preparations, in addition to its relations and operations.
The first group of membership to be elaborated upon will be that of the Navadurga themselves. The name Navadurga refers to the nine Durgas who are Mahālaksmī ,Mahākālī, Kumārī, Vārāhī, Brāhmanī, Bhadrakālī (also known as Vaisnavī), Indrānī, Maheśvarī, and Tripurasundarī. Each of these goddesses has a dyo-chen (god house) located in a specific area in the city of Bhaktapur that together form the shape of the Navadurga yantra (figure 1). Of these goddesses Mahālaksmī is the paramount deity; she draws power from Taleju and gives it to the Navadurga. Mahālaksmī does not have a mask; instead she is represented as a silver repoussé that is carried in the lead of the Navadurga processions to showcase her superior position. The Navadurga tradition involves an additional six deities who are Bhairav, Sweto Bhairav, Śiva, Ganesh, Sima and Duma. Bhairav is the leader of the Navadurga and assumes that role in the performances. Sima (tigeress) and Duma (lioness) are the protectors of the Navadurga and accompany them everywhere. All of the deities aforementioned are represented in the Navadurga tradition in some fashion. There are thirteen masks who represent all but Mahālaksmī and Tripurasundarī. As mentioned previously Mahālaksmī is represented in a silver repoussé that is carried in front of the processions. Tripurasundarī’s representation is disagreed upon. Some informants say that Tripurasundarī is represented in the three musical instruments played, while others insist that she is represented by the Kolachen (human skull cap used a cup).
As mentioned earlier there is a specific community who acts as the sole authority and keeper of the Navadurga tradition. This community prefers to be called Banmala. Other names used for them include Gāthā, as used by Levy, and Gunkā. These names provided are the surnames used by the community. While a majority of them identify themselves as Banmala, you may also find some of the other variations, dependent upon how the individual’s forefathers decided to identify themselves. The Banmala are a low caste group that traditionally farmed and sold flowers to the greater community. Today some still occupy this traditional role, however others have began to farm other crops such as rice and barley. The Banmalas are the tradition’s keepers; they alone fulfill the requirements of the tradition as well as occupy an overwhelming majority of the positions in the tradition. Other individuals or communities assist and will be elaborated upon shortly. The Banmalas provide all of the performers, known as Gana, for the tradition. The Gana includes twelve dancers and three musicians. In addition to the Gana, the Banmala also occupy the roles of temple priests (additional priests from other communities come to perform specific rituals), temple caretaker (known as the Nakin, also to be elaborated upon shortly), the tradition’s leaders (the Naya), as well all other roles needed to upkeep the tradition. The roles of Gana, Naya, and Nakin are restricted to Banmalas only. Should a Banmala marry someone from outside of their community both they and their offspring will not be allowed to assume a position within the Navadurga tradition. As previously mentioned there are other groups or individuals from outside of the Banmala who assist in the tradition. Table 2 presents the various other groups or individuals who assist along with their respective role. These groups either assist as a whole or there is a specific individual from the group that is responsible for completing the tasks (those who are individuals are marked with an asterisk). Some of the groups fill very minor roles, specifically the Shakya, who interestingly enough are the highest caste in the Newar community but assume the least important role within the tradition. This is an interesting contradiction to mainstream Hinduism. The Shakyas are the highest caste in the Newar community, however, they assume a very minor role in the city’s dominant tradition. All of these roles listed in Table 2, regardless of how small they may seem, are important aspects of the tradition.
Artisan who creates the masks each year. This role is passed down from generation to generation
The clay workers who provide the clay for the masks
Sacred priest of the Navadurga who performs specific rituals. Such rituals include the puja at Ganesh Chaturthi and Dashain
Also performs rituals and puja, such as the cremation of the masks
Colour the sacred thread
Musicians who perform at some events. Different from the musician members of the Gana
Newar priests who perform special puja
Kill the buffalo during Dashain
Repair damaged jewelry
* Note: the names marked refer to a specific individual from their respective community.
The involvement of the Banmala in the tradition can be broken down into four positions or roles. There are the Gana (fifteen individuals), the Naya (eight individuals), the Nakin (one individual), and periodical roles of assistance (number of individuals varies dependent upon the event). The periodic roles are filled according to availability and vary in their responsibilities. These positions are not dictated in the same fashion as the other roles of the Naya, Nakin, and the Gana. The Gana is made up of twelve dancers and three musicians. The musicians are responsible for playing the traditional instruments known as the khin (a large drum played on both sides), ta (small cymbals), and kya (large cymbals). The remaining twelve
members of the Gana are performers who dance and wear the masks throughout the festival. These twelve members wear the masks of Bhairav, Mahākālī, Vārāhī, Kumārī, Bhadrakālī, Brāhminī, Indrānī, Sweto Bhairav, Maheśvarī, Ganesh, Sima and Duma. Young Banmalas between the ages of five to twelve wear the masks of Sima and Duma. The Gana occupy their roles on a yearly basis, although they may be chosen to perform back to back in either the same position or another one; the rotation cycle comes from a sacred book that will be discussed later in this section. Gana members have to follow specific rules while in their position; such rules include not sharing food from the plates of others except for from fellow Gana. They can not wear their costume or ornaments outside of the specified performance areas, they must always act in a respectful manner; they are restricted to only one meal on performance days, they must be barefoot whenever they are in their ceremonial costume, and finally they may not participate in funeral rights during performance or ritual periods. When the Gana are learning their roles during the off months of the Navadurga tradition they are restricted from coming in contact with women, and must visit their respected god’s/goddess’ dyo-chen (god house) everyday to worship and pray. The Gana positions are restricted to men only. The only position occupied by a woman is the role of Nakin.
The Nakin is a specific role that takes care of the Navadurga temple and performs the daily puja. The daily puja is known as Nitya puja and the Nakin performs it twice a day, once after sunset and again before sunrise. The Nakin position operates an annual cycle, each year a new woman will assume the position. The Nakin must live on the temple grounds and act as a guard to protect the images, keep the temple clean, perform daily puja, and take on additional responsibilities during various ceremonies and rituals.  Such responsibilities include purifying the Gana before performances and preparing for feasts that are held at the temple. The Nakin must be married. If she is widowed during her time as Nakin she will be replaced. The Nakin has more specific responsibilities over the course of the year than any other member of the Navadurga tradition. The Nakin’s role is another contradiction to mainstream Hinduism. Women are typically not the caretakers of temples as they are not able to become as ritual pure as their male cohorts.
The Naya are the leaders of the tradition. There are eight Nayas in total who work collectively as the managers of the tradition.  The Naya are experts and knowledgeable about all aspects and roles of the tradition. They ensure that the temple has all of the supplies it needs to perform all of their required rituals, events, and ceremonies of the tradition as well as care for the ornaments and clothes and manage all of the performances. Such supplies include oil, food, animals for sacrifice, and all essential items for offerings. The role of Naya is a family position that is passed from father to son. If a Naya does not have a son he will instruct his oldest nephew from among his own siblings. It is unknown how the linage of the Nayas was chosen. Like the other positions, the role of Naya operates on an annual cycle; the number of Nayas who are active in their position changes each year. Also like other positions, the Nayas selected each year is predetermined in a book that is kept secret. The Nayas are the sole caretakers of the unnamed book that provides some sort of mechanism for selecting the people who will fill the various roles of the tradition each year. The name and origin of the book are kept secret; interestingly though they are comfortable revealing its existence.
The Tradition’s Activities
The Navadurga tradition is unique in its use of masks, its mobility, and in its social roles. While wearing the masks, it is believed that the gods who are represented come to manifest themselves in the humans. This instance is an excellent example of an aspect of the Navadurga tradition that contradicts mainstream Hinduism. While wearing the masks the Banmala, a low ranking social group, becomes regarded as divine and assumes a position on the top of the social hierarchy. While wearing the masks the Banmala are believed to transcend the normal social order as well as normal human capabilities. During this time the beings are able to do things not normally done by humans, such as drinking liters of alcohol and eating hundreds of eggs. While wearing the masks the Gana also drink blood from sacrificed animals. Most sacrifices to the Navadurga are pigs, however, buffalo, goat, sheep, chicken, and ducks are also sacrificed. The concept of sacrifice and blood offerings can be found in the tradition’s origin story in addition to being a common practice in Durga worship. Of the Navadurga, Bhairav is the member mainly responsible for conducting the sacrifices. Some instances require Mahakālī to perform the sacrifice, and if neither Bhairav nor Mahakālī are able to perform the sacrifice than Varahi is responsible for it. This order is reflective of the order of importance of the deities and is also reflected in the order of dance performances. The Gana perform their dances in the following order: Bhairav, Mahakālī, Vārāhī, Badrakālī, Kumārī, Maheśvarī, Brāhmanī, Ganesh, Indrānī, Sima, Duma, and finally Sweto Bhairav. The Navadurga tradition follows an annual cyclical pattern that begins with Gathemangal.
Gathemangal is a Newar festival that is dedicated to cleansing away demons. Constructing figures built from straw, to represent the demons, and then burning them removes the demons. The festival is marked with loud music and processions of people carrying torches through the streets to light the straw built demons at each cross-road. For the Banmalas this day marks the beginning of the new Navadurga cycle. Every year new masks are made at the beginning of the Navadurga cycle and then cremated at the end. When the masks are cremated the city of Bhaktapur believes that the Navadurga has left their city to go into the countryside to ensure that the agricultural cycle begins. During this time while the Navadurga are away the city becomes occupied with demons. On Gathemangal the Prajapati provide the Banmala with the clay that is used to build the masks. In turn the Banmala take this clay to the Chitraker’s home to be worshiped as Śiva and sacrifice a chicken as an offering. This marks the beginning of the construction of the new masks and the return of the Navadurga to Bhaktapur, which is why the city is being cleansed from demons. The masks need to be completed by Dashain, which is less than two months away. Gathemangal happens in accordance with the lunar calendar and marks the start of a rigorous training period for the Gana. During this training period the Gana have to adhere to the rules listed above under membership and must perform puja at their respective god’s house each day.
The next annual event is Ganesh Chaturthi, a festival dedicated to Ganesh. The Navadurga have their own event that coincides with this festival. At this time the Gana make a procession from the Navadurga temple to the Nasadyo temple where the Karmacharya will perform the ritual and sacrifice a sheep. Nasadyo is a tantric god of wisdom and knowledge that is worshiped by the Gana everyday from the period of Gathemangal to Dashain so that they may be granted the knowledge necessary to perform their roles. Following the sacrifice of the sheep all Gana members eat a piece of the raw flesh combined with beaten rice. The Gana who performs as Brāhmanī takes a piece of the sacrificed sheep to the Brāhmanī temple to performs a specific puja ritual. After these rites have been completed all of the Gana members return to the Navadurga temple where a feast is being prepared. The sacrificed sheep is butchered and cooked for the feast and the sheep’s hide is removed, stretched, and framed and placed in the sun to dry. The temple will use the sheep hide for some task, such as to repair a damaged drum. Following the feast the Gana perform their first dance of the season. This is the only dance that the Gana perform in public that they do not use their masks for, since the masks have not yet been completed. These dances are not expected to be perfect, since it is some Gana’s very first public performance. Each performer will perform an independent dance, except for Indrānī, Sima, and Duma who all perform together. Following these dances a group number is performed in honour of Ganesh, with the Ganesh Gana in the center.
The next event in the annual cycle is Dashain, the largest Durga festival. By this time the Chitraker will have completed the masks and they are placed on display on the ninth day of Dashain where the citizens of Bhaktapur come to give them offerings and puja.Offerings typically consist of egg, fish, meat, wine, and set Newar food dishes (beaten rice, dal, and spicy potatoes). Before the masks are displayed they are taken to the Taleju temple in the palace compound (Durbar Square) of Bhaktapur where they receive initiation rituals. These rituals are unknown as the members of the Banmala would not share this information; they did however say that the masks received similar initiation rituals as Hindu people. Following their initiation the masks are then regarded as divine and set out to be worshipped by the public. On the tenth day of Dashain Brāhmanī is worshiped in the morning and then a buffalo is sacrificed at the Brāhmanī temple. Following the sacrifice the Navadurga make a procession towards the Taleju temple in Durbar Square. Prior to making the procession the Karmacharya hands each performer their masks, symbolic of the Karmacharya’s, or Ācāju’s, role in capturing and placing the Navadurga into the care of the Banmala. The Taleju image is removed from the temple and placed at the front gate to greet the Navadurga. Having greeted the Navadurga the Taleju image is then taken on procession with them throughout Bhaktapur; this is the only time that the Taleju image is removed from the temple.
Following Dashain the Navadurga Gana journey around the Kathmandu Valley where they perform specific rituals in each community they pass through in addition to being commissioned by patrons to come perform private rituals. The Navadurga travel to the following destinations:
Kavre District: Nala, Banepa, Dhulikhel, Panauti, and Shreekhandapur.
The Navadurga are prohibited from using vehicles. Instead they walk everywhere; they go with bare feet. It is believed that they cleanse the areas they walk through from disease, which is why they must walk everywhere.
After visiting the surrounding areas and performing their rituals at each one the Navadurga season begins to come to an end. Sirja and De-chā-mukego, the last supper and last ceremony, mark the conclusion of the Navadurga season. The De-chā-mukego is the final procession of the Navadurga through Bhaktapur that ends at the Taleju temple. Within the temple compound the Navadurga have their last supper (Sirja) and then return to each of their own respective god house. The next day the masks are cremated at the Brāhmanī temple funeral pyres. The cremation marks the end of the annual Navadurga cycle and it is believed that the goddesses have left Bhaktapur to attend to the fields, crops, and farmers. After the Navadurga have left the city compound a sacred room in the Navadurga temple is sealed off until the Navadurga return, in the next two to three months. After this point the Banmala community begins to train the new Gana and prepare for the next annual cycle.
Relations Between the Locals and the Navadurga
The Navadurga of Bhaktapur are the city’s protectors from violence, disasters, disease, and illness in addition to ensuring agricultural prosperity. The Navadurga dance is a symbolic representation of the struggles, responsibilities, and discipline of the society in which it is based. A common belief in Bhaktapur is that the ringing sounds of the music played by the Navadurga Gana not only give the rhythmic signals to the dancers but also removes all obstacles caused by evil beings. It is for this reason that the Navadurga perform in so many communal areas throughout the Kathmandu Valley. The local people not only believe that the Navadurga remove obstacles and illness, but also that they answer wishes and provide blessings for those who worship them and give them offerings. Those who give the Navadurga money receive Prasad, a gift, in the form of flowers, plants, sacred thread, or food. The sacred thread is tied around the wrist and/or the neck using a specific knot according to tantric beliefs to grant the individual purity in their life. One informant’s grandmother stated that the Navadurga also assist in the digestive system. She recommended that you be careful about what and how much you eat during the months when the Navadurga have left the city. The relationship with the Navadurga and the local populations is of reciprocal nature. While the locals rely on the Navadurga for protection and as removers of obstacles and illnesses, the Navadurga rely on the locals for financial, social, and physical support. The local community donates the clothes worn by the Gana and the Gana must keep and use these clothes until new ones are donated. It is believed that the clothes hold Shakti power which would be lost if the clothes were washed, therefore the clothes remain unwashed and unchanged until the community provides new ones. It is typical for the outfits to be worn for years before they are replaced. While the Navadurga protects the locals they in turn are also in need of protection. Although the Navadurga are gods, they posses the bodies of humans during the Navadurga rituals and become vulnerable. On several instances the Navadurga Gana have been attacked or stolen from while wearing the masks, resulting in broken bones, lost artifacts, and offended deities. The Navadurga rely on the local people and authorities to ensure that the spaces they occupy for their rituals remain safe and sacred. The Navadurga tradition as operated by the Banmala relies heavily on the local community for financial support in order to maintain the traditions as it is practiced today.
The Navadurga tradition relies heavily on its patrons for financial support. The tradition costs approximately 900,000 NRS (Nepali Rupees) per year, without accounting for inflation, which is equal to $10, 537.41 CAD (at an exchange rate of $1 CAD to 85.41 NRS). While this amount seems small from a western perspective, it is a large sum for the people of Nepal. Most of the community members are labourers and a labourer’s salary may range from $80-$250 CAD per month. This total covers the maintenance of the temple, the daily necessities (such as oil for the lamps), the supplies for specific rituals, and animals for sacrifice. The Navadurga make a small earning by renting a few small pieces of property either for farming or in the city to be used for small storage spaces or stores. The remainder amount of the costs is collected throughout the Navadurga festivals from either privately commissioned rituals or from the crowds of people at Navadurga ceremonies and events. The members of the Navadurga tradition do not receive any monetary compensation for their roles. This places a huge strain on the members of the tradition since the various roles last for a whole year when one includes training periods. Members are permitted to work when they are not training or performing. However, the type of work they can do is limited due to the demanding schedule of the tradition and the odd hours it requires. These strains cause a lot of Banmala to remove themselves from the tradition and focus on earning a living and providing for their families. Modernization and westernization are challenges and obstacles faced by the Navadurga tradition. In years past the tradition had the patronage of the royal family, which secured the tradition and brought with it ample support. However, today the government of Nepal does not provide any subsidies or support for religious traditions. Modernization also has effects on the individual and collective values. In past periods the sacred was closely aligned with people’s values, and the positions in the Navadurga tradition would have carried prestigious value. However, today values are beginning to be reflective of the western practice of materialism, which lures the Banmala towards jobs, and positions that do not allow for them to commit the time necessary for being an active member of the tradition.
This paper has presented a report of the Navadurga, a Hindu tradition from Bhaktapur, Nepal. The Navadurga employ interesting and unique practices not present in other traditions. Such practices include mobile deities, the use of masks, an integral female position, and a unique inversion of social roles. It is interesting how interdependent the Navadurga and Newar community of the Kathmandu Valley are. The Navadurga are just as much reliant on the community as the community relies on them. The Banmala have managed to preserve the ancient Navadurga practices due to their rigorous dedication. Although they face many strains I am hopeful that the tradition will remain for many more generations in to the future.
I would like to thank the University of Lethbridge for providing me with the opportunity to travel to Nepal and experience this amazing tradition. I have learned and grown from this experience in countless ways and know that this growth will benefit me in my future endeavors. I would also like to thank my Professor Dr. Hillary Rodrigues for believing in my capabilities and helping me make this all possible. Finally I owe a lot of gratitude to the Banmala for allowing me to conduct this research and for welcoming me into their community and sharing their stories with me. I will cherish the memories built throughout this experience for the rest of my life. Thank you.
 Laura Amazzone, Goddess Durgā and Sacred Female Power (Lanham, MD: Hamilton Books, 2010), 3.
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Gutschow, Niels. “The Astamātrkā and Navadurgā of Bhaktapur.” In Wild Goddesses in India and Nepal, edited by Axel Michaels, Cornelia Vogelsanger, and Annette Wilke, 191-216. Vol. 2. Berlin: Peter Lang, 1994.
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Rodrigues, Hillary P. “Divine Times: Goddess worship in Banāras.” In Studying Hinduism in Practice, edited by Hillary P. Rodrigues, 131-45. New York: Routledge, 2011.
[Article written by: Brandon McNally (December 2010) who is solely responsible for its written content and pictures.]
In Hindu tradition, there are many gods and goddesses for various purposes. For example, Hindus believe in Agni as the sun god, Indra as the storm god, Vayu as the wind god and so on. Yamuna is a Hindu goddess (devi) of the river, who is also known as Yami. In Hindu mythology, Yamuna devi is the daughter of the sun god Surya and his wife Saranyu, and also the sister of the death god Yama. In Vedic tradition, the twins Yama and Yami were the first mortal human pair. Yamuna first appears in the Ṛg veda as Yami, where she urges cohabitation with Yama her brother to perpetuate the human race. However, Yama is very religious thus he refuses Yami’s incestuous overture. Therefore, Yamuna portrayed as a goddesses of boundless love and passion, who does not follow the dictates of reason in expressing her emotion (Kumar, James). This incident did not break their sibling relationship or diminish the affection of Yamuna for her brother. Although Yami’s brother Yama is the god of death, he is considered to be one of the most dharmic entities, becoming also known as the “King of Righteousness” (Haberman 137). After a long time when Yama visits her sister, she treats him with honour and delightful food which pleased Yami. Then he confers upon her a boon that if any brother and sister come together to worship Yamuna and bathe in her sacred water then they will never see the gates of hell (Kumar, James). In the Hindu tradition, the fifth day of Divali or the second lunar day after the new moon in the month of karttika (Oct–Nov), popularly called yamadvitiya or bhaiyaduj, is dedicated to Yama and Yami. On this day brothers and sisters come together and express their love and gratitude for each other. Hindus believe that she is a very powerful goddess, who manifests life-giving forces and blessings. According to ancient beliefs, Yamuna is considered pure and whoever takes a dip in her holy waters may not have fear of death. Moreover, anyone can diminish the reactions of his sinful activities. She is claimed as the consort of Siva and Visnu. Her waters are said to be the liquid embodiment of sakti.
Yamuna is the largest tributary river of the Ganges in Northern India. The Yamuna River, also known as the Jamuna River in Bengali, and is the largest tributary river of the Ganges (Ganga) in northern India. This river unites with Ganga after receiving water from all the major tributaries. Without the Ganga, Siva would remain the scorching, brilliant linga of fire; without Siva, the Ganga would flood the earth (Hawley, Wulff, and Marie148).Yamuna might be the Goddess of Love par excellence in the Hindu pantheon, and is often referred to as a river of love (Haberman 116). Moreover, she is a goddess of exquisite love and compassion. In the pantheon of Hindu goddesses, it would be difficult to find one more representative of divine love than Yamuna (Haberman 104). The rivers Ganga and Yamuna, along with the now dried Saraswati, are the most sacred rivers in India. The source of the Yamuna lies in Yamunotri Glacier, on the south western slopes of Banderpooch peaks, which lies on the Mussoorie range of Lower Himalayas, in Uttarkand, north of Haridwar. Yamunotri temple is a shrine dedicated to the goddess Yamuna and is one of the holiest shrines in Hinduism. According to Hindu scripture, Yamunotri is famous as one of the four most sacred pilgrim places. During the peak season of late May and early June, people from all social backgrounds and all walks of life: rich and poor, young and old visit this pilgrim place. Moreover, some pilgrims prefer to ride horses although walking is considered to be the most auspicious mode of transportation (Haberman 49). Others are known as Gangotri, Badrinath, and Kedarnath. These are all in the Himalayas. In winter, when snow covers the place, the Yamunotri temple closes down, and the image of Yamuna devi is carried down to the tiny mountain village of Kharsali where she continues to be worshipped for six months. This temple is reopened every year on the third day of the bright fortnight of the lunar month vaishakha (April–May). Some argue that the river is only free and pure in the mountains (Kumar, James).
In Hindu religious texts, especially in Puranas, there are many myths interconnecting with Yamuna and Krsna, another Hindu god and also known as a divine playboy (Haberman110). Krsna was taken across the Yamuna River on the night of his birth, as his maternal uncle planned to kill him. However, Vasudeva, Krsna’s father carried him in a basket on that rainy night and after reaching in front of the Yamuna River, it is said to have parted to make path for Vasudeva. The river Yamuna is closely connected to the Mahabharata and Lord Krsna (kumar, James). Yamuna River was blessed by Krsna when he fell down into the river from his father Vasudeva’s hand while crossing the river. He used to play along with his cowherd friends on the banks of river Yamuna during his childhood. This river is a recurring image in all stories of Krsna: she watched his father carry him across the river to Gokul, and she watched him herd (Haberman 114). In an article titled “Yamuna and the Environment,” Devendra Sharma writes, “Yamuna exists in Krsna, and Krsna exists in Yamuna.” She is the primary lover of Krsna. The bhagvatapuraṇa, however, narrates a story of the marriage of Yamuna and Kṛṣṇa. Once when Kṛṣṇa and Arjuna are walking along the banks of the Yamuna, they spot a young and beautiful woman absorbed in deep penance and austerity. When Arjuna approaches her, she discloses her identity as Kalindi, daughter of the sun, and expresses her desire to marry none but Viṣṇu-Kṛṣṇa. Impressed with her devotion and love, Kṛṣṇa takes Kalindi- Yamuna to Dvarka (now Dwarka, a city on the banks of the Gomati River near the Arabian Sea), where she becomes his wife (Kumar, James). Yamuna bountifully makes her love for Kṛṣṇa accessible to all her devotees and with her divine powers increases their bhaktibhava (feeling for devotional love). She removes all obstructions and impurities that keep devotees from direct access to the divine love of Kṛṣṇa. At Braj, the bluish-green waters of Yamuna assume a darker hue, indicating her divine union with the dark-skinned Kṛṣṇa (Haberman 117).
In the Puranas, “Kaliya Daman” is one of the famous stories of Krsna and Yamuna. Kaliya was a poisonous snake who used to live in the depth of the river Yamuna and terrorized the people of Braja. Lord Krsna killed this poisonous snake. From the history of Yamuna, she appears as a triple goddess because of flowing in three directions. As a triple river, Yamuna is said to flow on the earth, where she is known as Bhagirathi, in heaven, known as Mandakini, and in the underworld, known as Patala Ganga or as Bhogavati (Darian 69). Moreover, she is one of the blessing goddesses among all Hindu goddesses and Hindus believe that she grants blessings especially for marriage, children, health, and other domestic concern.
The Yamuna River is also well known for ritual baths and purification. People come to do their worship in this river. There are three primary centers of Yamuna worship in Braj- Vishram Ghat in Mathura, Keshi Ghat in Vrindaban, and Thakurani Ghat in Gokul (Haberman 100). The ancient stone steps lead down into the river and are always lineal with crowds of colourfully dressed people to worship Yamuna. Women especially wear beautiful green saris and greet Yamuna with a copper pot full of milk, sticks of incense, baskets of red roses, food and so on. They scoop water from the river, take 3 sips, and then pour it on their head. In this way they do their puja. At the end of the worship, they lights three sticks of incense, wave them before the river, and insert them into the sands by their side. This act of worship can be seen on the sixth lunar day of the fortnight. In almost all the arati hymns sung during her services, she is addressed as “Mother Yamuna,” and those who come to worship her daily greet her with the same epithet (Haberman 108). In addition, Yamuna Chath is celebrated on the sixth day of the bright half of the lunar month chaitra, which usually falls on April in solar calendar. This festival known as Yamuna Jayanti, is considered to be the celebration of Yamuna’s birthday. Hindu people celebrate this occasion with much happiness and redundant. The women step forward to the river to offer sweets, red sindur powder, and uncooked rice. Finally they offer a red sari along with necklaces, bangles, a comb, bindis, and a mirror to the goddess Yamuna, laying them on the sand at the edge of the water. This occasion and puja is occurred at Vishram Ghat by the priests and they seem to be very busy with more formal pujas for families and groups of pilgrims who come to worship the Yamuna. Then, later, the priests bring those items back to those women (Haberman 97). Whenever the offerings have been made, the priests led the group in singing a famous hymn to Yamuna, the ‘Yamunashtakam,’ written by the Vallabhacharya in the sixteenth century. After completing the hymn, Hindu people start to celebrate the climax of the birthday party by dressing the river goddess with a sari that stretched from shore to shore, with the aid of eight wooden boats.
The river Yamuna, the major tributary of the Ganges River has one of the most populated areas of Asia in its basin. This river is now polluted, especially downstream from Delhi. However, there are some cultural views of this pollution. Some Hindu people, who are devoted to Yamuna devi, think that the water of this river can never be impure even though it gets polluted. They believe the goddess Yamuna has the power which can save the quality of this river’s water and also can handle all the pollutants sent her way. Therefore, the water of Yamuna can never harm any living things on this earth. On the other hand, others feel this pollution is causing harm to humans, animals and also the goddess Yamuna. They think that this river’s water needs to be clean so that people can be free from various diseases caused by this polluted water. Nowadays, some Hindus have stopped bathing and using water from this river, which has caused various diseases. In the Yamuna Nagar district, rapid industrialization is taking place due to urbanization. The Yamuna River’s water was polluted by humans and heavy metals. In addition, organic compounds and large number of industrial effluent is thrown into this river which does not have apparent deleterious symptoms but led to accumulation of heavy metals in various parts of plants (Narwal 159). The existing heavy metals can be harmful for the ecosystem. To get rid of these heavy metals some possible approaches should be taken by all human beings in order to keep the environment clean and safe such as: avoid making industries near the Yamuna River, throwing organic compounds to the river, and also keeping the surface area of the river clean as much as possible. Moreover, water, air, trees, lands all are environmental resources which are beneficial to the society. Among them, water is one of the main resources of the environment without which people cannot pass a single day (Narwal 163). Yamuna River is an important river that flows through India’s capital New Delhi and supports various socio-economic activities in this basin. Even though this river is polluted, any improvement of the water quality can improve the utility of the river along with the citizens’ welfare (Nallathiga, Paravasthu 263).
To sum up, it can be said that the goddess Yamuna is a loving goddess and is believed to have the power to purify a person and make him or her fearless towards death. The worshippers of Yamuna devi, used to bath in the Yamuna River to wash away all their sins and to be purified. However, nowadays, it is not possible for them to take bath in this river’s water due to the serious pollution. This river’s water is not only important for the ritual bath, but also plays an important role in socio-economic condition. Therefore, it is the government’s and the citizens’ duty to keep this river’s water clean and should control the heavy metals in the environment which is causing damage to it.
Darian, Steven G. (2001) “Ganga and Artemis: Two Versions of a Single Theme.” The Ganges in Myth and History. Delhi, India: MotilalBanarsidass Publishers, 1st Indian ed.
Gupta, Linar (1993) “Ganga: Purity, Pollution, and Hinduism.” Ecofeminism and the sacred, ed. Carol Adams, 99-116. New York: Continuum.
Haberman, David L. (1952) “Goddess of Love.” River of love in an age of pollution: the Yamuna river of northern India. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Hawley, J., & Wulff, D. (1996) “Ganga: The Goddess Ganges in Hindu Sacred Geography.” Devi: Goddesses of India. University of California Press.
Kumar, Bidisha and James, George (2013) “Yamuna.” Brill’s Encyclopedia of Hinduism. Edited by: Knut A. Jacobsen, Helene Basu, Angelika Malinar, Vasudha Narayanan.Reference.University of Lethbridge. 09 April 2013 http://0-referenceworks.brillonline.com.darius.uleth.ca/entries/brill-s-encyclopedia-of-hinduism/yamuna-COM_1030220?s.num=0&s.f.s2_parent=s.f.book.brill-s-encyclopedia-of-hinduism&s.q=yamuna
Nallathiga, R., & Paravasthu, R. (2010) “Economic value of conserving fiver water quality: results from a contingent valuation survey in Yamuna river basin, India.” Water Policy, 12(2), 260-271.
Narwal, G. (2009) “Studies in Environmental Pollution: Absorption of Heavy Metal by Some Vegetable Plant Parts from Polluted Irrigation Canal Water and River Water at Yamuna Nagar.”Proceedings of World Academy of Science: Engineering & Technology, 51159-164.
Article written by Sonia Jerin (April, 2013), who is solely responsible for its content.
Beauty is often thought of solely in its external form, usually toward a material object of one’s desire, but in Tantric teachings, beauty lies in the truth, leading to the realization of the Ultimate Self or the Absolute (Frawley 86). The goddess Tripurasundari embodies the means by which beauty is derived through the perception of the universe where one can eventually determine Brahman (the Absolute) (Frawley 89). In Sankrit, Tripurasundari’s name breaks down into Tri “three” Pura “cities” and Sundari “Beauty” therefore meaning the “Beauty of Three Cities” (Brooks 59; Frawley 89). She represents a pathway that enables a worshipper to find samadhi (state of consciousness), giving her the designation as a Vedic goddess of knowledge, which she expresses through her triple natured characteristic.
Her tripartite theme is repeated in multiple forms under the three different cities (these cities are sometimes referred to as worlds). The cities represent how one experiences consciousness within our three bodies: the senses (eyes), the mind and the heart, each symbolizing a city (Frawley 89). Consciousness can be experienced by two different pathways either through the physical, astral and causal pathway or through matter, energy and thought (Frawley 89). Consciousness itself can also be split into waking, dream, and deep sleep (Brooks 125; Frawley 89). When combining these components and separating them into the various cities respectively they form one of the multiple tripartite natures of Tripurasundari.
Tripurasundari is often represented through her iconic yantra (instrument) of a Sri Cakra (holy wheel) (Foulston & Abbott 119). Yantras are very important in Tantric Hinduism, often used during the contemplative yogic practice of sabija samadhi (using an object to help concentrate on the topic of contemplation) as a medium for worship of the goddess. This symbol depicts nine interlinking triangles that fan out from the central point (bindu); they are encircled by two rings of lotus petals all of which are enclosed by a square (Bose 112).
Another important channel of worship is through her Sri Vidya mantra (Bose 112; Foulston & Abbott 119). There are multiple versions of the mantra containing either fifteen or sixteen syllables (Brooks 87; Bose 112;Frawley 92). These mantras follow Tripurasundari’s nature of three where each line represent three sections of the goddess’s body. The three kutas (sections of the mantra) are divided as follows: the first kuta is Tripurasundari’s head, kuta two is her torso and kuta three embodies the area below her hips (Frawley 92). The mantra also ties in the goddess’ relation to the male gods Brahma, Visnu, and Siva (Brooks 94; Frawley 92). The mantra combines both of Tripurasundari’s bodily representations and the male gods sections to relate to the Rig Veda, Yajur Veda, and Sama Veda (Frawley 92). At the end of each kuta is the syllable Hrim and if repeated by itself this sound is often enough to be used as worship (Brooks 94; Frawley 91). In the instances where a sixteenth syllable is spoken (Srim), patrons are found to be repeating all sixteen vowels in the Sankrit language (Brooks 96; Frawley 92).
Tripurasundari is a strong and dominating goddess within Tantric Hinduism which has led to feminine theology based schools and cults. She is linked to the Trika schools where the Sati trinity of the supreme energy exists in the triple patterns (cities, existence, consciousness, etc.) of Tripurasundari (Bose 112).
Tripurasundari is known by many different names across various texts and stories. One of the most famous narratives describing Tripurasundari’s various forms is Lalitasahasranama, portraying over a thousand of her identities and spiritual characteristics (Foulston & Abbott 133). One of these names is Lalita, meaning lovely (Brooks 59). Also known as the Divine Mother, Lalita is the most beautiful and blissful goddess, who resides on Mount Meru (a cosmic mountain), evoking the concept that awareness (of Self) is a joyful experience (Frawley 89). It is unknown if Lalita and Tripurasundari were once combined as one supreme goddess of if they represented two separate goddess (Brooks 59). Both Lalita and Tripurasundari uses the Sri Cakra as her symbol (although there slight variations in multiple forms of the yajna [Brooks 189-199]), as well as Om for her manta, both of which combine to represent her significance in the universe.
Sodasi (she who is sixteen) is another version of Tripurasundari as a young girl whose childlike nature and innocence, often described as a virgin, and is associated with the sixteen-syllable mantra (Brooks 1107; Frawley 90). Tripurasundari is also known as Rajarajeshavai (Supreme Ruler of the Universe or the Queen of Kings) whose authority wills followers to yield to her spiritual command in order to gain insight and knowledge of the Absolute (Brooks 61; Frawley 90).
Commonly, in the Hindu tradition all goddesses may be referred to as one single being known as Devi (goddess) or Mahadevi (great goddess) (Kinsley 132). The Lalitasahasranama text describes numerous goddesses of the Mahadevi all of which assert their own claim to some form divine sakti (power) (Kinsley 132). Many theologies and mythologies account for the various goddesses at differing times in history, often building on one another in order to describe a specific characteristic of the feminine deities more clearly. In one account, Devi is said to manifest herself through the Mahavidyas. Mahavidyas, translated as “Great Knowledge”, can also be referred to as the Dasamahavidyas, the “Ten Great Revelations” (Foulston & Abbott 116).
Tripurasundari is one on the ten Mahavidyas. Historically, the ten goddesses that compose the Mahavidyas have each individually been mentioned in mythology prior to the origin of their group manifestation in the story of Siva and Sati (Kinsley 161). Kinsley gives a brief description of the origin of the Mahavidyas (Kinsley 162). Sati, daughter of King Daksa, is the consort of Siva. Daksa invites all gods and goddesses to the performance of a grand yajna (ritual); however, his invitation does not include Sati and Siva due to Daksa’s aversion for Siva. Greatly offend by not receiving an invitation, Sati declares that she will still attend the yajna. Siva tries to forbid Sati from going to the sacrifice but she becomes enraged and transforms herself into the ten Mahavidyas scaring Siva with their fearsome nature.
The story of Siva and Sati gives one of the most famous depictions of the ten goddesses involved in the group: Kali, Tara, Tripurasundari, Chinnamasta, Bhuvanesvari, Bagala, Dhumavati, Kamala, Matangi, and Bhairavi. Foulston and Abbott state that “Each of the individual goddesses is associated with a particular mental perfection (siddhi) or mode of perception”, symbolizing various stages of consciousness (Foulston & Abbott 117). Kali (the black goddess) is portrayed as the primary Mahavidyas shown as a fierce and dangerous goddess who is seen standing atop Siva (Foulston & Abbott 118; Kinsley 162). Tara (the goddess guide through troubles) is the second goddess in line of the Mahavidyas and she like Kali embodies a fierce and powerful essence associated with death and destruction (Foulston & Abbott 118; Kinsley 162). In her images she greatly resembles Kali and standing in an almost identical position on top of Siva’s corpse. Tripurasundari is often shown to follow Kali and Tara in the manifestations of Devi. Also depicted sitting astride a prone Siva, she is sometimes described as being fearful and dangerous, however this is in contrast to her usual auspicious, beautiful and benign characteristics (Foulston & Abbott 119).
Tripurasundari is sometimes described as her form as Sodasi, the young sixteen year old girl. In whichever form she is illustrated, Tripurasundari is said to have a complexion as red as the rising sun and she is wearing a crown upon her head with an image of a crescent shaped moon (Frawley 91). She is associated with the moon, which symbolizes one of the three bodies, the mind; again this represents how her beauty can cause transcendence and lead to a blissful joyous state (Brooks 125; Frawley 90). She is shown sitting naked upon a prone Siva amidst copulation on top of a cot wearing multiple adornments. The cot’s legs are composed of the gods Brahma, Visnu, Rudra, and Indra (sometimes known as Mahesvara) signifying her energy’s control and complementary role with the male god Siva and his four other forms (Kinsely 163; Frawley 91). Frawley (91), describes the symbols that she carries within her four hands. In one hand she holds a sugar cane bow while another clasps five flower arrows. The bow represents the mind, the arrows signify the five senses and she uses these items to shoot worshipers with delight, leading to a blissful state and consciousness in which one can become aware of the Absolute. Her other hands contain a noose which captures patrons with her beauty and the hook in her fourth hand is used to sever one’s illusion of beauty as an external object.
With in the Hindu tradition, may theologies present the duality between male gods and female goddesses as being the pivotal factor of creation under the control of Brahma (Bose 113). The prior description of Tripurasundari and Siva’s Tantric union represent the polarities of creation between the male static principle and female dynamic principle (Bose 113). Although Siva is seen as the Supreme god in his fivefold element with Brahma (the creator), Visnu (the preserver), Rudra (the destroyer), and Mahesvara (or Indra; Ignorance) his principle essence of creation is unable to sustain its ability without the cosmic sakta (power) of Tripunasundari (Bose 113; Frawley 91). She is the sustenance that drives Siva’s power by means of her triple natured energy of creation, preservation, and destruction (Bose 112). She is known for both her creative and destructor roles in creation but often the destructive role is suppressed, only being brought to attention during mythologies such as the story of the ten Mahavidyas.
Tripunasundari is an important goddess within the Tantric tradition. Her essence is embodied in the trilogy nature relating to all categories of the cosmos and control over the god Siva and his role in the creation of the universe. Her beauty signifies her ability to guide her followers along a pathway that leads to the pure perception of the universe ultimately realizing a clear consciousness that can lead one to the awareness of Brahma, the Absolute. These components make her a powerful goddess among the many that comprise the great goddess Mahadevi.
REFERENCES AND FURTHER RECOMMENDED READING
Bose, Mandakranata (2000) Faces of the Feminine in Ancient, Medieval, and Modern India. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.
Brooks, Douglas Renfrew (1996) Auspicious Wisdom: The Texts and Traditions of Srividya Sakta Tantrism in South India. New Delhi: Manohar Publishers & Distributors.
Foulston, Lynn & Abbott, Stuart (2009) Hindu Goddesses: Beliefs and Practices. Eastbourne: Sussex Academic Press.
Frawley, David (1996) Tantric Yoga and the Wisdom Goddesses: Spiritual Secrets of Ayurveda. New Delhi: Shri Jainendra Press.
Kinsley, David (1986) Hindu Goddesses: Visions of the Divine Feminine in the Hindu Religious Tradition. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Santosi Ma is one of the newest goddesses to be worshipped extensively within the Hindu religion. Santosi Ma gained the majority of her followers after the 1975 release of “Jai Santoshi Ma” which can be loosely translated into “Hail to the Mother of Satisfaction” (Lutgendorf 10). Although the worship of Santosi Ma is seen as widespread in India, the majority of her followers are women who reside primarily in the region of Northern India and Nepal.
The mythological background of Santosi Ma starts with her creation by her father, Ganesa, the powerful elephant god. Although hesitant at first, Ganesa creates a daughter at the request of his sons. As Santosi Ma grows older, she learns that she has a following of worshippers on earth. The story focuses on one worshipper in particular named Satyawati. Satyawati is the daughter of a Brahmin priest that falls in love with a poor man named Birju. Because Birju is from a lower caste, their relationship is frowned upon and not permitted. Satyawati prays to Santosi Ma and promises to continue to worship her and visit all of the goddess’s shrines if she is allowed to marry Birju (Vas 26). Although Birju is a peasant, a marriage is arranged between Satyawati and Birju and Satyawati begins her journey to fulfil the vows made to Santosi Ma. As Santosi Ma gains more followers, Visnu, Siva and Brahma come to earth in ascetic disguises and come forth to accept one of Satyawati’s offerings that she left for Santosi Ma. This action taken by the gods makes their wives Brahmani, Laksmi, and Parvati furious and the goddesses appear in one of Satyawati’s dreams and threaten that if she continues in her devotion to Santosi Ma the goddesses will punish her. Satyawati disregards the threat and continues in her devotion to Santosi Ma. The three goddesses deliver on their threat and separate Satyawati and Birju to punish her for her continued devotion to Santosi Ma. Birju departs on a sea voyage and Brahmani, Laksmi and Parvati cause a horrible storm, but unbeknownst to them Santosi Ma saves him (Vas 26). Brahmani, Laksmi and Parvati transcend in disguise to the village where Satyawati and Birju lived and report that he has been killed. Later when the goddesses come to find out that Santosi Ma has saved Birju they cause him to forget about Satyawati and he falls in love with a rich merchant’s daughter named Geeta. Satyawati’s misfortunes continue and she is so devastated that she decides she is going to take her own life. A sage learns of this and urges Satyawati to continue to worship Santosi Ma and for twelve consecutive Fridays perform a vrata, or a ritutal observance, in Santosi Ma’s name. The vrata includes providing offerings of jaggery, or sugar cane, and roasted chick peas to Santosi Ma’s temples along with fasting and ritual worship of the goddess. Satyawati does so, but on the twelfth Friday she cannot gather the appropriate offering. She prays extensively to Santosi Ma and the goddess comes to earth disguised as an old village lady and gives Satyawati the twelfth offering needed (Vas 26).
The three goddesses are persistent in their punishment and they start a fire in the forest where Satyawati is performing her offerings. But because of her continued love and devotion for Santosi Ma, Satyawati is unable to be burned. When she completes her twelve consecutive offerings to Santosi Ma, she pleads with the goddess to have her husband returned to her. Birju hears a voice encouraging him to return to his village with his new riches and he finds Satyawati. Satyawati is so enthralled with Santosi Ma’s blessing that she installs a shrine in her household and invites Birju’s family members to come perform a puja, or a religious ceremony in Santosi Ma’s name. Birju’s family is upset by his newfound wealth and slips lemon juice into the milk offering to Santosi Ma (Vas 27). Sour tastes, such as lemon juice, are considered a taboo offering to any deity, so Santosi Ma curses the puja and kills all children in attendance. Because the puja was held in Satyawati’s household, she is accused of poisoning all of the children. Even in these dire circumstances Satyawati continues her devotion to Santosi Ma and prays to her that being accused of such a horrible act will not only ruin her reputation, but also the loving relationship between a devotee and deity. Due to Satyawati’s continued devotion, even in the most horrible of conditions, Santosi Ma appears in person and restores the children’s lives in honour of Satyawati. After Santosi Ma descends to earth, Brahmani, Laksmi and Parvati admit that they were testing Satyawati and were actually pleased to learn that she continued her devotion to Santosi Ma and that they not only bless Santosi Ma, but pray that she will be worshipped throughout the world (Vas 27).
Because Santosi Ma is now worshipped extensively throughout parts of India there are certain festivals and ritual practices associated with her name. The festival commonly associated with Santosi Ma is Raksha Bandhan, the festival of siblings. This festival celebrates the close tie between siblings, primarily a brother and a sister (Freed & Freed 587). This festival is particularly important to the worship of Santosi Ma as it was her two brothers that urged their father, Ganesa, to provide them with a sister after they had attended a Raksha Bandhan festival. This auspicious festival starts by gathering for worship and to encourage the blessings of the gods. The sister then provides her brother (or other male relatives if a brother is not available) with a sacred thread known as a rakhi while chanting different mantras. The sister is to provide her brother with gifts, typically sweets, clothing, etc. along with the rakhi and genuinely pray for his well being. In return for this deed, the brother provides his sister with gifts and promises of protection. After these rituals are performed the day is to be enjoyed with other family members singing, dancing and eating (Hawley & Wulff 4).
Another important aspect of Santosi Ma is the performing of a vrata in her name. A vrata is a disciplined religious vow or observance to a certain deity that lasts a certain time frame. The observance typically includes some form of fasting, ritual worship and recitation of the hearing of a katha or story (Lutgendorf 24). Vratas are extremely regarded as a very crucial component in the art of the devotion and worship (Keyes & Daniel 147). It should be noted that vratas are performed to numerous deities and may be performed by anyone in Hindu society regardless of caste, gender, etc. (Brown 252). The vrata performed in Santosi Ma’s name is addressed in the text titled “Sukravar vrat katha”. This text provides a manual with rules and guidelines on how to perform a vrata in honour of Santosi Ma. The text is to be read by the worshipper, or any literate female in the family, and not by a priest. With regards to worship of Santosi Ma, priests are not used as the worshippers are primarily female (Keyes & Daniel 151). The vrata is to be performed on a series of consecutive Fridays (as Fridays are viewed as an auspicious day of the week) doing a puja, or ceremonial worship, to images of Santosi Ma while burning incense and providing offerings of roasted chick peas and sugar cane. The worshipper is then to recite (or listen if they are illiterate) the katha and can feed the remainder of the offering to animals such as a cow. They are also not to eat more than one meal on this day and should not serve any foods that are bitter or sour in nature. The time frame of the vrata varies for different worshippers. Some worshippers do a fixed time period, such as sixteen weeks, and others perform the vrata until a certain wish of the worshipper is fulfilled. At the time the wish is fulfilled the worshipper should prepare a large, celebratory meal which again should not contain any sour or bitter items. This meal is viewed as the conclusion of the vrata (Lutgendorf 25).
Before the release of “Jai Santosi Ma” in 1975 the worship of the goddess was relatively small. There was one known temple in Rajasthan, specifically in the city of Jodhpur, which had been dedicated to the worship of Santosi Ma since 1967. Most current worshippers did not know of Santosi Ma, or her history, before the release of the feature film. After the film premiered was when she gained popularity and an almost cult like following. Her images were being added to temples and in some cases, such as in Jodhpur, temples were being converted or built solely in her honour.
To conclude Santosi Ma has become one of the most worshipped goddess within the Hindu religion. She was brought to fame by the release of a Bollywood film which featured her mythological background. There are numerous festivals and religious practices associated with the goddess. These include the festival of siblings, Raksha Bandhan, and a vrata performed in Santosi Ma’s name. This vrata also includes the recitation of a puja. Currently Santosi Ma has millions of followers, and temples dedicated to her worship, and is seen to her followers as the ultimate or supreme uniting deity (Hawley & Wulff 7).
Brown, C. Mackenzie (1998) “The Devī Gītā: The Song of the Goddess; a Translation, Annotation, and Commentary”. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Das, Veena (1981) “The Mythological Film and its Framework of Meaning: An Analysis of Jai Santoshi Ma”India International Center Quarterly, Vol. 8, No. 1, 43-56 (March)
Erndl, Kathleen M. (1996) “Victory to the Mother: The Hindu Goddess of Northwest India in Myth, Ritual, and Symbol” History of Religions, Vol. 35, No. 3 (February), 281-282
Freed, Stanley A.; Freed Ruth S. (2000) “Hindu Festivals in a North Indian Village” Anthropos, Bd. 95, H. 2, 592-593
Hawley, John Stratton; Wulff, Donna Marie (1997) “Devī: Goddesses of India” Journal of the History of Sexuality, Vol. 8, No. 2 (October)
Lutgendorf, Philip (2002) “A Superhit Goddess: Jai Santoshi Maa and Caste Hierachy in Indian Films” Manushi Vol. 131, 24-37
Wadley, Susan S. (1983) “Vrats: transformers of destiny” Karma: an anthropological inquiry 146-162
The Mahavidyas (Great Revelations) is a group of ten goddesses worshipped in the Hindu tradition, who are believed to be different manifestations of the Mahadevi (Great Goddess). To Hindus the Mahadevi is a transcendent female reality who, much like Visnu, is believed to maintain the cosmic order (Kinsley 1986:161). The Mahavidyas are first discussed around the 10th century CE in the Mahabhagavata Purana. In this narrative the goddess Durga, in the form of Sati, weds the god Siva. Siva insists that Sati should not attend her father’s yajna (sacrifice) because they were intentionally not invited. However, Sati is adamant about disrupting the sacrifice and in a state of anger she transforms herself into ten transcendent forms, the Mahavidyas: Kali, Tara, Tripura-sundari, Bhuvanesvari, Chinnamasta, Bhairavi, Dhumavati, Bagalamukhi, Matangi, and Kamala. [Refer to Kinsley 1998 for individual descriptions of each Mahavidya]. Siva is so frightened when he is surrounded by the Mahavidyas that he gives Sati permission to attend the yajna (Benard 2). This is the most prevalent Mahavidya creation story, but there are multiple alternative versions that depict the goddesses as being forms of Parvati, Kali, or Sataksi (Kinsley 1998:22).
The Mahavidyas appear in tantric and puranic Hindu texts. The tantric texts focus on the rituals involved in worshipping the goddesses, while late puranic texts contain detailed stories describing the origins of the Mahavidyas. They are also mentioned in certain goddess hymns, such as the Durga-calisa, a popular forty-verse hymn dedicated to the goddess Durga (Kinsley 1998:15). The Mahavidyas are sometimes likened to the ten avataras (incarnations) of Visnu, who play a positive role in the cosmos. However, in the Hindu literature, focus is placed on the group’s diversity of form rather than their contributions towards maintaining the cosmic order through their actions (Kinsley 1998:21). The Mahavidyas appear most often in painted depictions in temples, although sometimes they may be shown in stone or metal carvings. They appear in temples where the primary goddess is one of the Mahavidyas, as well as in temples where the primary goddess is not one of the ten goddesses (Kinsley 1998:15).
Chinnamasta, literally meaning “the severed head” (Benard 4), distinguishes herself from the other Mahavidyas with her shocking, dramatic, and gruesome iconography. This goddess is depicted as self-decapitated and standing in an aggressive manner as she holds her severed head on a platter in her left hand and her kartr (sword) in her right hand. Three streams of blood gush from Chinnamasta’s neck and are drunk by her own head and two yoginis (female practitioners of yoga), Varnini and Dakini. All three of them are nude, with unkempt hair, and wearing garlands of skulls. Chinnamasta is sometimes shown standing upon Kama (the god of sexual desire) and his wife Rati, who are copulating on a lotus or cremation pyre (Kinsley 1986:173 and Kinsley 1998:144). Chinnamasta also appears in tantric Buddhism. She goes by the name of Chinnamunda, a form of Vajrayogini. Scholars believe she first appeared in Buddhism before entering the Hindu tradition. The iconography of this goddess in Buddhism is very similar, except she is not depicted as standing on top of a copulating couple (Kinsley 1988:161).
The most popular account of Chinnamasta’s origin appears in the Pranatosini-tantra. It states that the goddess Parvati, Siva’s wife, goes bathing with her two attendants, Dakini and Varnini. The two women are hungry and ask Parvati for food. She tells them to wait and they can eat once they are home. However, after further begging from her companions, the merciful goddess and Mother of the Universe, severs her head with her fingernails and her blood nourishes her attendants. Following this event, Parvati is henceforth known as Chinnamasta (Kinsley 1998:147). This origin story emphasizes maternal self-sacrifice in order to satiate her companions. Scholars note the interesting choice of blood instead of maternal milk for nutrients. The nourishment symbolizes renewal of the universe (Kinsley 1998:150).
These themes, along with others, are also apparent in the imagery of this goddess. Chinnamasta depicts the way that life, sex, and death are intricately intertwined. Her image juxtaposes gruesomeness (a bloody decapitation) and intimacy (the couple engaging in sexual union). Kama and Rati provide Chinnamasta with a vital energy that she then transfers to the yoginis to provide nourishment and sustainment. Scholars interpret this as showing the necessity of death in order to renew and replenish the cycle of life (Kinsley 1986:173). Chinnamasta’s image shows giving and taking, creation and destruction, and life and death. The distinction between receiver and giver vanish (Oestigaard 104). Her image depicts the cyclical nature of the universe and the harmony of seemingly opposite forces that are required to maintain the cosmic balance (Kinsley 1986:175). Normally the nudity and disheveled hair associated with Chinnamasta’s image would indicate a loss of public respectability, but instead these characteristics reveal her sense of freedom and abandonment of societal values (Benard 107).
The decapitated head is essential to all depictions of Chinnamasta, as indicated by the literal translation of her name. The way that Chinnamasta offers her head on a platter is similar to the way that animal sacrifices are carried out in the Hindu tradition. Sacrifices portray devotion and nourishment for a particular god or goddess. In Chinnamasta’s case, her self-sacrifice provides nourishment for her two devotees (Kinsley 1998:151). The severing of the head also represents disposing of the belief in a permanent, material self (Benard 96).
Like Chinnamasta and her two female companions, a number of Mahavidyas wear garlands made of severed heads or skulls. These are thought to represent letters or sounds, especially when presented in numbers of fifty or fifty-two. They are believed to give birth to all creation. In this way, the heads are objects of power, since they hold a person’s identity and essential being (Kinsley 1998:153). The importance of the head in Hinduism is illustrated in the Purusa creation story. Many important elements originate from Purusa’s head, including the Brahmin class, Indra, Agni, the sun, and the moon (Benard 93).
Chinnamasta’s location on top of a copulating couple is interpreted in two opposing ways. The first, and most common, interpretation of Chinnamasta’s superior position is that she has overcome her sexual and selfish desires. She is believed to display the yogic virtue of self-control. This interpretation is supported by the goddess’s hundred-name hymn in the Sakta Pramoda that refers to her as Yogini (female yogi) and Madanatura (she who cannot be overcome by Kama) (Kinsley 1998:154). The alternative explanation suggests that the sexual energy of the couple is being transferred to Chinnamasta. Supporters of this theory point to images of Chinnamasta sitting, instead of standing, on the couple. This physical position does not suggest overpowering of the couple’s sexuality (Kinsley 1998:155-156).
Public and private worship of Chinnamasta is not popular due to her aggressive nature and worshipping her is viewed as dangerous. It is said that those who worship her are of three types: yogis, world renouncers, or heroic in nature (Kinsley 1998:164). Tantric practices allow a practitioner to develop siddhis (supernormal powers) and achieve the ultimate goal of liberation. The Sakta Pramoda, Tantrasara, and Sri Chinnamasta Nityarcana outline the worship rituals for Chinnamasta. There are nine sections of practice prescribed by the Sakta Pramoda including visualized meditation, drawing of the yantra (sacred diagram), and explication of the mantra (sacred utterance). [Benard 1994 can be consulted for further details on these nine areas of practice]. Recitation of Chinnamasta’s 108 names is also included in her worship rituals (Benard 24). Not surprisingly, the majority of her names are fierce sounding. For example, she is referred to as Mahabhima (great terrible one), Candamata (mother of fierce beings), Krodhini (wrathful one), and Kopatura (afflicted with rage) (Kinsley 1998:164). Chinnamasta is one of two Mahavidyas who can only be worshipped using the left-handed path, the other goddess being Bhairavi. This type of worship can be extreme, involving sexual intercourse outside of one’s marriage and nighttime sacrifices involving meat and wine. This contrasts with the other Mahavidyas who can be worshipped by either the right-handed path or both paths (Kinsley 1998:166).
There are no known festivals devoted to Chinnamasta, but the Mahavidyas are worshipped as a group during important goddess festivals including Durga Puja and Kali Puja (Saxena 65). During these festivals the Mahavidyas are included on the tableau of the feature goddess (Kinsley 1998:18). There are only a few temples devoted exclusively to Chinnamasta, most likely a reflection of her limited following. These temples are found in northern and eastern regions of India and in the Kathmandu Valley in Nepal. An important temple is located in Cintapurni in the northern state of Himachal Pradesh. Although the temple is simply known as the Cintapurni Temple, paintings of Chinnamasta and her two attendants mark the entrance, along with a label that states Chinnamastaka Mandir. Inside the temple a stone pindi, an aniconic representation of the goddess, covered with a red cloth comprises the shrine’s central figure. Another important Chinnamasta temple is located by Rajrappa Falls in Bihar, another northern state of India. The temple holds a stone depiction of the beheaded goddess bearing her head in one hand and a sword in the other. Devotees in the area believe that Chinnamasta was cut into twelve pieces during a fight with an asura (demon) and that the temple marks the spot where her head landed (Benard 145-146).
Chinnamasta is a very distinctive Hindu tantric goddess and is easily recognized by most Hindus because of her dramatic iconography (Kinsley 1986:177). This goddess represents cyclical renewal, cosmic balance, nourishment, and self-control. Despite these positive characteristics, her influence in the Hindu tradition remains small due to her fierce essence and more extreme worship rituals. This restriction is reflected in the small number of Chinnamasta worshippers, festivals, and temples limited to northern India and its surrounding areas.
REFERENCES AND FURTHER RECOMMENDED READING
Benard, Elisabeth Anne (1994) Chinnamasta: The Aweful Buddhist and Hindu Tantric Goddess. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.
Kinsley, David (1986) Hindu Goddesses: Visions of the Divine Feminine in the Hindu Religious Tradition. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Kinsley, David (1998) Tantric Visions of the Divine Feminine: The Ten Mahavidyas. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.
Oestigaard, Terje (2006) “Heavens, Havens and Hells of Water: Life and Death in Society and Religion.” In Water: Histories, Cultures, Ecologies. Marnie Leybourne and Andrea Gaynor (eds.). Perth: University of Western Australia Press. pp. 94-105.
Saxena, Neela Bhattacharya (2011) “Mystery, Wonder, and Knowledge in the Triadic Figure of Mahavidya Chinnamasta: A Sakta Woman’s Reading.” In Woman and Goddess in Hinduism: Reinterpretations and Re-envisionings. Tracy Pintchman and Rita D. Sherma (eds.). New York: Palgrave Macmillan. pp. 61-75.
The Devi Bhagavata Purana is one of two Bhagavata Puranas. It exalts the goddess Devi, and the other praises the god Visnu. The Devi Bhagavata Purana is a more brief form than that of Visnu’s Bhagavata Purana. Devi only speaks half a sloka (a metric style in prose composition; a couplet (Rodrigues 564) propounding herself as the ground of all being (Brown 17).
“All this universe indeed is just I myself; there is nothing else eternal.”
The Devi Bhagavata Purana [DBP] is comprised of 12 books (skandhas), 318 chapters, and 18,000 verses (slokas). It is a Sakta Upa-Purana, the “lesser” Puranas. There are eighteen or nineteen Maha (greater) Puranas, and many Upa (lesser) Puranas that encompass the vast body of Puranic literature (Rodrigues 290). There is conflict over the exact age of the text. An old age would suggest more validity and greatness for some [See Brown “The Problem of Canonicity” (18-24); looks at both religious and academic perspectives and compares differing views of scholars], however, there is evidence that such texts are often edited, adjusted, modified, and expanded upon in order to heighten the status of the text and present it in favour of devotees. There is evidence that the Devi Bhagavata Purana is not an exception to these practices (Brown 20-21).
The goddess Devi is usually portrayed in myths as a warrior whose mount is a lion named Mahasingha, and is known to defeat many demons; however she is also the cosmic mother, especially to her devotees. She is not typically seen as the wife, consort, or sakti of particular male gods (Rodrigues 323). She is beyond being a consort to anyone, though she bears a special relationship to every deity (Hawley & Wulff 32). For her devotees, Devi is independent and embodies the powers of all the gods combined. She is known by many names, most often known as Durga (She who is Formidable), or Candi (She who is Fierce). Other names include Prakrti (matter or nature), Maya (trick or illusion), Sakti (power or ability) (Coburn 20), and Mahamaya (the great matrix of phantasmal reality) (Rodrigues 323). She is also Parvati or Kali, themselves eventually known as individual goddesses. Devi is also associated with a “horde of females known as ‘the Mothers.’” There are hundreds of females part of this group and are known to be fighting, ferocious, and bloodthirsty beings, although the maternal instinct associated with Devi runs deep in all of them (Coburn 21).
There are two particularly important festivals associated with the Great Goddess, a spring and an autumn Navaratra (“nine nights”). The spring festival evidences Devi’s associations with fertility, while the autumn celebrations draw in Devi’s marital dimension (Rodrigues 324). Instructions on sacred places, vows, festivals, such as the Navaratra, and proper worship of Devi can be found in the Devi Bhagavata Purana.
“The two nine nights vow called Navaratra are to be observed, one in the autumn and the other in the spring season. These are very dear to Me. He is certainly My devotee and very dear who for My satisfaction performs these and the other Nitya Naimittik vows, free from any pride and jealousy. He certainly gets the Sajujya Mukti with Me.” (DBP 7:38:42-43) [Mukti is freedom/release from samsara/bondage, See Rodrigues (556)]
The Devi Bhagavata Purana is only one of many texts celebrating the Great Goddess. This text takes into account many myths already told in other Hindu sacred texts and elaborates on, retells, and/or adjusts these stories. In the second book and sixth chapter, the birth of the Pandavas [the family in constant rivalry and conflict with their cousins, the Kauravas, from the Mahabharata epic] is told (Rodrigues 230). However, the Devi Bhagavata Purana makes relatively few changes, and avoids direct contradictions with the Mahabharata (Brown 21). The question of which of the two Bhagavatas is more genuine is often raised, and many scholars argue over which has more authority. The Devi Bhagavata Purana could seem, to some, to be completely aware of the “tampering” of certain myths in Visnu’s BhagavataPurana, and therefore purposely makes fewer changes and goes back to a more ancient standard in order to gain authority over Visnu’s Bhagavata Purana (Brown 21). Puranic works, such as the Devi Bhagavata Purana emerged by the 7th century CE, though many were composed later. (Rodrigues 281), therefore it is a late Purana. There is speculation over its age and its placement as an Upa-Purana versus a Maha-Purana by many scholars, however, at present; it is in the category of an Upa-Purana, despite the conflict.
Mention of Sita, Rama, Laksmana, and Ravana [characters from the Ramayana epic] is made in the third book and twenty-eighth and twenty-ninth chapters. These two chapters describe the birth of Sita, her discovery by King Janaka, the capturing of Sita by Ravana, and Rama’s search for her. The Ramayana makes no mention of Devi worship by Rama; however, a change made in the Devi Bhagavata Purana is that Rama finds solutions to his problems in Devi worship, due to the goddess-centered worship of the text (Brown 167). In the Devi Bhagavata Purana, Rama performs the Navaratra (nine night ceremony devoted to Devi), then Devi appears to Rama, informs him of his previous incarnations [he is an avatara of the god Visnu; the birth of the various avataras of Visnu can be found in the fourth book of the Devi Bhagavata Purana], reveals his purpose to kill Ravana, and promises him the recovery of his kingdom, if Rama continues to worship her (Brown 167-168). [For further information on the Ramayana epic consult Rodrigues (2006) or Valmiki/Goldman (1996)].
The Devi Mahatmya, also known as the Durga Saptasati, is another goddess-centered text that tells of the conception of Devi. The fifth book and eighteenth chapter of the Devi Bhagavata Purana recounts the slaying of the buffalo demon Mahisa by Devi, a retelling of the myth from the Devi Mahatmya (Glorification of the Great Goddess) text. Devi is endowed with the powers and weapons of all of the gods in order to slay the great buffalo demon Mahisa.
“Visnu then addressed all the Devas to give all their auspicious ornaments and weapons, He said: — ‘O Devas! Better give, all you the various arms and weapons, endowed with strength, created out of your own weapons and give them all today to the Devi.’” (DBP 5:8:75)
Certain elements differ in the Devi Bhagavata Purana from the Devi Mahatmya, such as the weapons in which Devi slays Mahisa. In the Devi Mahatmya, she slays him by crushing him with her foot, impaling him with her spear, and beheading him with her great sword (Rodrigues 323). In the Devi Bhagavata Purana, Devi pierces the demon with her trident, and then beheads him with her discus of a thousand spokes.
The Hindu belief in karma is also demonstrated in the Devi Bhagavata Purana. Karma is the concept of causality in moral action in which good deeds are meritorious (punya) and evil or sinful deeds (papa) have painful effects (Rodrigues 551). The fourth book and second chapter states:
“O best of kings! The fruits of karma must have to be experienced, whether auspicious or inauspicious, be he a Deva, or human being or an animal; anyone who has embodied himself in fine or gross bodies!” (DBP 4:2:34)
The Devi Bhagavata Purana covers many subjects, retells many myths, tells of the benefits of worshipping Devi, instructs how to worship Devi, illustrates hells and the destiny of sinners, explains the origins of the Earth and of other deities, speaks of narratives, explains hymns to Devi, and much more. Although it is an Upa (lesser) Purana, it contains vast amounts of information and requires great study in order to fully comprehend and explain. [The entire English translation by Vijnanananda of the Devi Bhagavata Purana is available online and also in print copy; link attached below.]
Devi’s many devotees are part of the Sakta sect in Hinduism and hold her as preeminent. Devi developed as an independent goddess unattached to any male sectarian tradition, and therefore is the basis of the goddess-based sectarian tradition, Saktism. [For more information on Saktism consult Tigunait (1998) or Rodrigues (2006)]. Devi is Sakti, the power that creates the cosmos. The devotees designated as Saktas form a smaller segment of Hindu population than either Saivas (worshippers of the god Siva) or Vaisnavas (devotees of the god Visnu) (Rodrigues 278-280). Devotees recognize that Devi has an ultimate form (formlessness) and an intimate form (accessible through faith), this presents that the gods themselves cannot know the cosmic form of the goddess without the personal extension of her grace (anugraha), and this can be done only through loving devotion (bhakti) to her (Beane 56). Therefore, devotees are strongly devoted to Devi because only through this loving devotion do they receive Devi’s good graces, any less would have consequences. The benefits of worshipping the goddess Devi and reading goddess-centered texts, such as the Devi Bhagavata Purana, can be recognized in verses from the text itself:
“She regulates the hearts of all and is the Cause of all causes. Without Her worship no one’s desires can be expected to be accomplished. Therefore, O Best of Suras! Worship the Universal Mother, the Prakrti Devi with greatest devotion and with greatest purity for the destruction of your enemy…She will then surely fulfill your desires.” (DBP 6:5:6-31)
References and Related Readings
Beane, Wendell C. (1973) History of Religions – The Cosmological Structure of Mythical Time: Kali-Sakti. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Bhagavata Purana, 2 vols. text and translation. Gorakhpur: Gita Press, 1952-60.
Brown, Cheever Mackenzie (1945) The Triumph of the Goddess: The Canonical Models and Theological Visions of the Devi Bhagvata Purana. Albany: State University New York Press.
_____ (1974) God as Mother: A Feminine Theology in India: An Historical and Theological Study of the Brahmavaivarta Purana. Hartford, Vt.: Claude Stark.
Coburn, Thomas B. (1991) Encountering the Goddess: A Translation of the Devi-Mahatmya and a Study of Its Interpretation. Albany: State University New York Press.
Das, Bhagawan (1962) Krsna: A Study in the Theory of Avataras. Bombay: Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan.
Hawley, J.S & Wulff, D.M. (1998) Devi: Goddesses of India. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Hazra, R. C. (1958-63) Studies in the Upapuranas, 2 vols. Calcutta: Sanskrit College.
Kinsley, David (1986) Hindu Goddesses. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Pintchman, Tracy (1994) The Rise of the Goddess in the Hindu Tradition. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Pulasker, A. D. (1955) Studies in the Epics and Puranas of India. Bombay: Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan.
Rodrigues, Hillary (2003) Ritual Worship of the Great Goddess: The Liturgy of the Durga Puja with Interpretations. Albany: State University of New York Press.
_____ (2006) Hinduism – The eBook: An Online Introduction. Journal of Buddhist Ethics Online Books, Ltd.
Tigunait, Rajmani (1998) Sakti, the Power in Tantra: A Scholarly Approach. Honesdale: Himalayan Institute Press.
Valmiki, David & Goldman Robert P. (1996) The Ramayana of Valmiki. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Van Lysebeth, André (1995) Tantra: The Cult of the Feminine. York Beach, Me.: Samuel Weiser.