Category Archives: d. Saktism

The Goddess Parvati

The goddess Parvati is worshiped in the Hindu tradition for her affection and beauty. Her name denotes “she who dwells in the mountains.” (Kinsley 41). Parvati is one of the many consorts of Siva, a powerful Hindu god who resides in the mountains. There are many different identities depicted of the goddess. People who view Parvati as the auspicious goddess, call her “Sarvamanagala” (Smith 50). Parvati is also represented as “Ambika”, which refers to her role as a mother, and as “Girija”, the daughter of the Himalayan mountain deity. She is also referred to as Kali, a goddess who is known as “the dark one”. This is because Parvati has a dark complexion (Kinsley 42). As well as the diverse names that describe Parvati, there are many songs, stories, stone carvings, and Pahadi paintings of the goddess.

The mythology of Parvati is largely based on her relationship with Siva. Her association with Siva is described as essential in order for cosmic reproduction to occur, which entails the preservation of the world (Kinsley 41). Sanskritic manifestations derive from the Vedas, which are developed in the Puranas. Dravidian manifestations draw from Tamil country origins, which describe distinct characteristics of the mythology of Parvati. Lastly, autochthonous tradition, also known as the folk tradition, includes legends and folk stories about Parvati (Dehejia 12). Although diverse, together, these traditions formulate a good interpretation of the goddess and describe Parvati as a “dedicated and loving wife.” (Dehejia 39).

Bronze masterpiece depicting the goddess Parvati, consort of Siva; 14th century, Thanjavur Palace Museum
Bronze masterpiece depicting the goddess Parvati, consort of Siva; 14th century, Thanjavur Palace Museum

In the Sanskritic tradition, as described in the Puranas, Parvati is a reincarnation of Sati (Kinsley 37). The goddess Sati was the first wife of Siva who takes her own life in a yajna sacrifice. The gods were concerned with Siva’s state of isolation from others. Thus, they felt that Parvati was destined to marry Siva (Dehejia 16). Himalaya, the father of Parvati, stated that in order for Parvati to become the wife of Siva, she must complete penance. However, Parvati had difficulty performing penance which led to her father asking Kama, the God of love, for assistance. Kama shot arrows at Siva, which in return, angered him. Siva burned Kama to ashes and this deeply hurt Parvati. Parvati escaped to the mountains where she performed austerities (Dehejia 19). These austerities were so frequent and intense that Siva became allured by Parvati’s physical appearance. The marriage of Siva and Parvati is subsequently arranged. Their marriage and family status is described as peaceful and pleasant. Siva and Parvati spent their time sitting on Mount Kailasa, while conversing about Hindu philosophy and engaging in sexual activity (289). However, there were times when the marriage was a challenging endeavor. Parvati and Siva would quarrel and offend each other. At times, Siva behaved so poorly that Parvati would leave him. Siva would often make comments about Parvati’s dark skin, and gave her the nickname “blackie”. Parvati removed herself from the household and settled in the forest, where she performed austerities (Kinsley 44). The legend, the Varaha Purana, states that the devi did this until Brahma granted her wish of changing her complexion from dark to golden.

Regarding the family life of Parvati and Siva, Parvati wanted and eventually gained a son to protect her from intruders coming into her apartment (Kinsley 44). At one point, however, her son would not let Siva enter the apartment. This angered Siva, who spoke of the lack of auspiciousness in Saturn, which led to the beheading of the child. The child’s head was later replaced with the head of an elephant and was named Ganesha. Parvati had two more children, Kartikaya and Andhaka. In the Sanskritic tradition, Parvati is described as being a devoted wife and mother to her sons (Dehejia 25).

Parvati's austerities (tapas) and her worship of Siva are depicted on this pillar at Darasuram Temple in Tamil Nadu
Parvati’s austerities (tapas) and her worship of Siva are depicted on this pillar at Darasuram Temple in Tamil Nadu

Parvati, in the Tamil tradition, is similar to the Sanskritic tradition because it places an emphasis on the bond between Parvati and Siva. In the 4th century, the Tamil region was ruled by Jains, and the Hindu tradition arose in the 5th century (Dehejia 26). This mythology is largely derived from the Silappadikaram and Manimekalai epics from Sangam literature. Like the Sanskritic tradition, the marriage between Siva and Parvati is an important component in both traditions; however, Tamil mythology is mainly based on Parvati and her manifestations. In the Sanskritic tradition, Siva is characterized as being powerful figure and Parvati is known as his loyal consort (Dehejia 28). In the Tamil tradition, Parvati has a split personality. There is the southern goddess, who is depicted as being dark and violent, and then there is the northern version of the devi, who is romantic and quiet (Dehejia 34).

The folk tradition includes the adivasis group. This tradition includes characteristics of Sanskritic and Tamil, but still possesses some differences. For example, instead of worshipping one particular god, the folk worship Parvati is a mixture of the 4 other consorts of Siva. Thus, the folk tradition views one goddess as having many notable features, such as affection, power, and beauty. According to the folk tradition, Khandoba and his consort Mahalsa are the equivalent to Siva and Parvati in the Sankskritic tradition. Khandoba is a deity known as the “killer of demons” and like Siva, this god is associated with the mountains (Dehejia 35). Mahalsa is a reincarnation of Mohini, whom Khandoba was deeply drawn too.

Parvati is adored by painters, poets, and musicians for her divine beauty. The goddess is worshiped in images both with and without Siva (Smith 52). Literature such as the Puranas is known to be one of the earliest and most popular depictions of Parvati. In this script, her life and relationship to Siva are expressed (Dehejia 43). The poet Kalidasa wrote Kumarasambhava, which describes the alluring devi. Along with literature, there are many songs written about Parvati that are mainly sung by women (Dehejia 57). Many women sing about the time in her life when the goddess left the home she was born in to her home in Kailasa. Along with literature and songs written about Parvati, there are also many images depicted of the goddess that are highly valued pieces of work. Temple images of Parvati and her consort Siva are worshipped four times a day (Smith 51). There exists special festivals in honor of Parvati. For example, in a temple once a year, the marriage of Siva and Parvati is re-enacted (Smith 52). The most popular marriage re-enactment occurs during the Caitra month (April-May). Another festival that honors the goddess occurs throughout nine days. This gathering, known as Navaratri, occurs in Asvayuja (October-November), and is said to be “her” time (Smith 51).

There are various images depicted of Parvati. Many images express the bond between Parvati and Siva. Some icons portray Siva as the possessor of Sakti (cosmic power), known as saktiman and Parvati as Sakti. One well known image of Parvati and Siva is the Ardhanarisvara. This image was developed in the 10th century and is made of sandstone (Dehejia 73). It depicts a half male and half female being, which accentuates the interdependent relationship between the goddess and her consort (Kinsley 50). Another icon of Parvati and Siva is known as the Wedding of Siva and Parvati, which was created in the 17th century and is made of ivory (Dehejia 82). In the image, Parvati is offering her right hand to Siva during their wedding ceremony. This icon represents the feelings of bliss and anticipation that were experienced during this festive day. Along with the many images depicted of Parvati and her unification with Siva, other illustrations relate to stories and songs in the Puranas, the Hindu culture, and other festivals and rituals (Dehejia 62).

Although Parvati has little responsibilities as a goddess, she has gained respect and adoration throughout India. The devi is a devoted mother and wife. She is worshiped for her exquisite charm and the love she shares with others (Kinsley 41). Thus, Parvati deserves recognition for representing all that beautiful, both physically and spiritually.

REFERENCES AND FURTHER RECCOMMENDED READING

Dehejia, Harsha (1999) Parvati: Goddess of Love. New Jersey: Grantha Corporation

Foulston, Lynn (2002) At the Feet of the Goddess: The Divine Feminine in Local Hindu Religion. Portland: Sussex Academic Press

Kinsley, David R (1986) Hindu Goddesses: visions of the divine feminine in the Hindu Religious tradition. Berkeley and Los Angeles, California: University of California Press

O’Flaherty, Wendy Dowger (1973) Siva: The Erotic Ascetic. Oxford: Oxford University Press

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

Smith, Daniel H (1991) Handbook of Hindu Gods, Goddesses and Saints. New Delhi: Ashish Singhal for Sundeep Prakashan

Related Topics for Further Investigation:

  • Agni
  • Arjuna
  • Devi
  • Durga Puja
  • Dyaus- pitr
  • Ganesa
  • Indra
  • Kali
  • Rg Veda
  • Sakti
  • Siva
  • Soma
  • Surya
  • Mahabharata
  • Varuna
  • Vayu

Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parvati

http://www.exoticindiaart.com/article/parvati/

http://www.festivalsinindia.net/goddesses/parvati.html

http://www.goddessgift.com/goddess-myths/hindu-goddess-parvati.htm

http://www.kamat.com/kalranga/hindu/uma.htm

http://www.nationmaster.com/encyclopedia/Parvati

http://www.religionfacts.com/hinduism/deities/goddesses.htm

Article written by: Genna Barsky (March 2009) who is solely responsible for its content.

Sakti (Cosmic Power and Goddess)

Sakti has been described by many different terms such as a goddess, a presence, and an essence, but perhaps the most comprehensive definition, and most complex, is that sakti is power. Sakti is a distinctive power that controls the universe, often thought to be the animating force of the gods (Monaghan: 261-262). While the term is often used in the context of female power, sakti is by no means limited to that concept. Wadley suggests that sakti is strength and energy based on a spiritual force that can be possessed by both men and women (55).

Sakti has its origins rooted deep in the agricultural history of India. Narendra Nath Bhattacharyya (5-9) suggests that the beginnings of the formation of organized religion, the ‘Mother-Goddess’ or “Great Goddess” may have been the center of cultic image for the Indian people. This is assumed to have arisen from the general understanding that women were the creators of life, their bodies the centers of all human creation. Even though male figures began to be incorporated into religion once the role of the male was better understood, concerning procreation, the female dominant aspect remained strong due to tries to agriculture. With the rise of pastoral culture and an increase in the trade of goods, a male dominated society appeared to emerge, pushing female deities to a secondary place in religion, as well as making sakti a subordinate part of male gods, such as Visnu and Siva. As wars and conflict began to rise throughout the Middle East, the Mother-Goddess (Sakti) appeared to have been forgotten. It was not until the age of the Gupta Empire that the atmosphere began to change and cultures began to look again to goddesses for guidance (Bhattacharyya: 63-70). Art and literature were beginning to be explored more than at any other time in recorded history. This cultural increase seems to have set the stage for the revival of goddess worship. It was during this time that the religion of Saktism was born.

It is important to note that while sakti is first and foremost defined as a “power”, the term sakti can also be used when referring to the multiple names that represent not only goddess characteristics but also the individual goddesses that sakti is embodied within. Devi, Kali, Sati, and Durga are only a few of the forms that are often used as interchangeable terms for Sakti. Devi is perhaps the most frequently used term when referring to “the Goddess.” Devi represents a philosophical view of the universe; she is the embodiment of creation and order (Monaghan: 82-83). Wadley’s research (154-177) among the people of Karimpur reveals a number of ritual pujas (devotional worship by Hindus: Rodrigues: 559) done in honor of Devi. Asarhi is conducted between June and July; a puja is done in order to gain shelter and protection for the rainy season. Pujas are also dedicated to Devi for the purposes of protection in other sessions and for the prosperous marriages of young girls (Wadley: 164-174).

Kali is a direct representation of time, and the inevitability of death. Her images are frightening, often associated with bodies and blood. Ernest Payne quotes the Yogini Tantra, in his work ‘The Saktas”; wherein images of “skull-necklaces”, “lolling tongue”, “corpses as ear ornaments” and “streams of blood dripping from the corners of her mouth” are used to portray Kali (22). What must be understood is that this portrait of “the Goddess” is not only meant to inspire fear in her worshipers but also a sense of awe concerning her power (Payne: 109-119). An interesting story shared (and condensed) by Monaghan is that of the wild dance Kali shared with Siva; they danced so fiercely that they nearly destroyed the world itself (Monaghan: 164-166).

The story of Sati is the story of a devoted wife, one so concerned with her husband’s honor that she sacrifices herself. Upon the death and dishonor of her husband Rudra (also identified as Siva), Sati threw herself on the funeral fires of her husband (Kumar, 2003). Widows’ throwing themselves on the funeral fires of their husbands is a practice that has been outlawed in India for many years, but the practice still bears her name.

Durga is often looked upon as the goddess of the flame (Monaghan, 1981). The tale goes that in a great battle, as a last hope the gods combined their fiery breath and from it brought forth Durga, the first of the female goddesses. Monaghan suggests that Durga represents the powers of combat and the sphere of intelligence (88-89). An interesting ceremony preformed by the Durga worshippers of Bengal has been suggested to possibly link present day “Shakti” worship to worshiping practices of the past (Onishi: 100). Specific plants are identified with specific goddesses in this ceremony and called by name: Brahmani, Kalika, Durga, Karttiki, Siva, Raktadantika, Sokarahita, Camunda and Laksmi, each goddess is also assigned a specific color i.e. yellow, red, black, pink, blue, gray, white and ‘turmeric’-yellow. The figure that is made central in the ceremony is given the coordinating colors of fire, and the other figures are placed around it. Onishi believes that this ceremony may have been passed down from the Indus Valley Civilization tying the rite to the assumed original roots of Hinduism (7-9, 96-103). While little is truly known about the Indus Valley Civilization, the comparison shows how there could be a connection between present day practices and the past history of Saktism.

Small towns and villages throughout India often worship their own forms of the Great Goddess (Sakti), an example of this is the village of Vindhyachal, that is mentioned in Hawley & Wulff’s text concerning the goddesses of India (Humes: 49). The local goddess of Vindhyachal is known by the name of Vindhyavasini. The most well known myth concerning Vindhyavasini involves the baby Krisna. Krisna’s uncle (Kamsa) wishes to kill him as an infant but when Vindhyavasini discovers his plan she puts herself in the place of Krishna, in the form of an infant girl. When Kamsa attempts to kill her she transforms into her eight-armed form, threatens his life, and sores off to the mountains of Vindhya (49-51). Humes suggest that Vindhyavasini may be a very early representation of the Great Goddess and may have been a completely independent goddess before she was incorporated into the Krisna myths (50-51). Vindhyavasini is a relevant example of the feminine sakti; due to the fact that her myths depict her as being independent, without a consort and her powers exceed that of many of the male deities (51). The Mahabharata and Harivamsa texts both mention Mahadevi who dwells in mountains of Vindhya, which coincides directly with the myths of Vindhyavasini. This can be taken as an example of how many of the goddess myths contained within Hindu texts can be interconnected and the names often interchangeable. Vindhyavasini, Durga, Sati, Kali and Devi are all examples of how individual goddesses can represent the Great Goddess. Individual texts describe each of these goddesses as having different forms of embodied powers, these descriptions are testaments to the different ways in which sakti can be expressed.

The most central text to many of the goddess cults, even in the present day, may be the Devi-Mahatmya (DM) (Tambs-Lyche: 17-19, 79, 118). Sankhya philosophy is found in this text, which breaks the world up into two main powers, prakti and purusa. Purusa is the ‘male’ aspect of the universe and forms what may be called consciousness and control, while prakti is the female universal manifestation, which centers on all mental and material processes. Prakti is the generating power that forms the cosmos according to these texts. Sakti is regarded as the prakti that all women are born with, according to the DM. The Shakti Tantra Shastras are the primary texts for Saktism, or those that worship Sakti as a form of the Mother Goddess (Kapoor, 2002). Kapoor states that the Upa-Puranas are the only texts actually written for the direct use of the Sakti cults.

Throughout this paper it has been suggested that there are possibly innumerable names and characteristics that can be attributed to sakti. However, one common theme prevails throughout the studies, sakti is power. Many authors may vary in the ways they prefer to portray sakti, whether it is the fearsome representation of Kali or Sati’s embodiment of spousal devotion, every description conjures images of strength and power that may not be equaled by any other male deity. The Goddess is life and death, healing and pain, wrath and mercy. While a paper such as this cannot due true justice to the vast literature available, hopefully it has ignited a spark that will lead to a better understanding of sakti and the power that is available therein.

References and Related readings

Beane, Wendell (1977) Myth, cult, and symbols in Sakta Hinduism. Leiden: E.J. Brill.

Bhattacharyya, Narendra Nath (1974) History of Sakta religion. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers.

Brighenti, Francesco (2001) Sakti cult in Orissa. New Delhi: D.K. Printworld.

Dwyer, Graham (2003) The divine and the demonic: supernatural affliction and its treatment in North India. New York: Routledge Curzon.

Hawley, John Statton & Wulff, Donna Marie (1996) Devi: Goddesses of India. London: University of California Press.

Kapoor, Subodh (2002) A short introduction to Sakta Philosophy. New Delhi: Indigo Books.

Kumar, Nitin (2003) Shakti – Power and Femininity in Indian Art. Article of the Month.

Kumarappa, Bharatan (1979) The Hindu conception of the deity. Delhi: Inter-India Publications.

Monaghan, Patricia (1981) The book of goddesses and heroines. New York: E.P. Dutton.

Onishi, Yoshinori (1997) Feminine multiplicity: A study of groups of multiple goddesses in India. Delhi: Sri Satguru Publications.

Payne, Ernest (1997) The Saktas. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers, 1997.

Rodrigues, Hillary (2006) Hinduism-The Ebook. The Journal of Buddhist Ethics: Online Books.

Smith, Daniel & Chary, Narsimhachary (1991) Handbook of Hindu gods, goddesses, saints. Delhi: Sundeep Prakashan.

Tambs-Lyche, Harald (2004) The feminine sacred in South Asia. New Delhi: Manohar.

Wadley, Susan Snow, (1975) Shakti: The power in the conceptual structure of Karimpur religion. The University of Chicago Studies in Anthropology, Chicago.

Related Topics for Further Investigation

Adi-Sakti

Adyakali

Animal sacrifice

Bana-Durga

Brahmanas

Buddhism

Canda

Death

Devi

Devi-bhagavata

Devi-Purana

Dharma

Durga

Durga-Kali

Elephant Demon

Haimavati Uma

Indus Valley

Jainism

Kama-deva

Kali

Kalijai

Kali-Puja

Kali-Sakti

Laksmi

Lila

Mother right

Nagamatas

Navami

Nine Durgas

Parvati

Prakrti

Puja

Puranas

Purusa

Rudra

Rama

Sacrifice

Saivism

Saktas

Saktism

Sati

Sita

Siva

Siva Purana

Sri

Sri-Laksmi

Tantrism

Uma

Universal Body

Universal Motherhood

Vaisnavism

Noteworthy websites related to the topic

http://www.exoticindia.com

http://www.dharmacetrak.com/shakti

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sakti

http://www.sakti.com/

http://www.britannica.com

http://www.sakti.in

http://www.usp.nus.edu.sg/post/india/literature/sml10.html

http://www.vnn.org/editorials/ET0510/ET12-8845.html

http://www.tantra-ifc-the-art-of-conscious-love.com/Goddess_worship.html

Article written by: Nicole Whale (March 2008) who is solely responsible for its content.

The Great Goddess Durga

“I am the power that manifests everywhere
I am life, I am death,” says the Mother (Tewari 31)

The Great Goddess of the Hindu tradition is Durga. She is Sakti (cosmic energy), everything in all parts of the universe (Tewari 8). She is worshipped throughout India in various forms and known by an incredibly extensive list of names. These names and representations will be explored here, along with the myths which surround the Goddess. Associated with the gods of the Hindu pantheon she is an unstoppable force known for slaying demons and spurring the gods into action. There are early depictions of feminine figures from the Indus Valley Civilization of the first/second century BCE, but there is no concrete proof that these figurines and icons are goddesses comparable to Durga. Although the Vedas mention goddesses, there is no overwhelmingly powerful feminine figure which stands out as the Great Goddess (Chitgopekar 59).

Other Hindu texts such as the Puranas and the Epics are more instrumental in depicting the cult of the Goddess, which thrives among devotees in almost every village, town and city in India (Chitgopekar 4). Puranas such as the Kalika Purana and the Skanda Purana articulate the legends that give Durga dimension and an aura of strength. The Mahabharata is the earliest text that describes Durga as the slayer of Mahisha the buffalo-demon (Chitgopekar 62). Although Valmiki’s original Ramayana depicted Rama worshipping the Sun seeking aid in his quest against Ravana, Krttivasa’s Bengali version describes Rama worshipping Durga in the sun’s stead (Chitgopekar 61), invoking the Great Goddess to aid him in his battle. The most authoritative text on Durga however is the Devi Mahatmya, a fifth or sixth century CE text from the Markandeya Purana. This compilation can be considered to be raising Durga’s position within the Hindu sectarian traditions (Chitgopekar 70). These texts describe the origin of the Great Goddess Durga. This deity is similar to others in the Hindu pantheon with a great variety of physical representations, names and myths, which will be explored here.
Reading the Hindu texts in search of Durga’s stories requires one to have a better knowledge of her names, so she can be recognized. The Goddess’ names vary in origin and meaning and all lend us insight into such aspects as her role to her devotees, how she was created, what exploits she has undertaken, and her physical forms. The name Durga means “she who is difficult to go against” (Chitgopekar 76) [Chitgopekar notes that scholars translate her name differently, but all denote that she is an incredible, almost unimaginable force]. The name Durga can also be attributed to some of her exploits. As Chitgopekar explains, the Skanda Purana indicates that the name of Durga is given to the goddess Parvati, consort of Siva, when she kills the demon Durga. A myth from the Devi Mahatmya, however, states that the Goddess acquires this name when she slays the demon Durgama. Her qualities as a goddess are denoted by her names as well. Durga is often called “Mother of the Universe” or “Universal Mother” (Dutta 17). As Uma, Siva’s consort, she is seen as a protector and a mother figure. The name Kali identifies the opposite, and is revered as a destructive force. Along with others of the same nature, these names indicate that “the Goddess Durga embodies within herself three forces: Creative, Preservative and Destructive. They are her three primal qualities: Sattva, Rajas, and Tamas” (Dutta 18).

One of Durga’s most widely recognized roles is as a great demon killer, and has been given names appropriate to that role as well. She is known as Mahisasuramardini, the buffalo trampler, which Chitgopekar describes as her “most well-known epithet.” (13)Her demon killing forms relate to the names she is given in various myths. Names such as Parvati and Himavati, daughter of the mountain (Chitogopekar 79), introduce certain stories of her creation that are written in the Hindu texts. Alternatively, names such as Dasabhuja, ten armed one (Chitogopekar 79), or Trinayani Durga, three-eyed Durga (Dutta 16), provide us immediately with a mental image of the Goddess. The Goddess’ multiple forces are also revealed in her imagery. At times called Gauri, the fair complexioned one, we think of her more compassionate side, whereas the names Kali and Shyama, the dark complexioned one, denote her terrifying destructive persona. The nomenclature of the Goddess indicates a rich, complex and detailed history. The legends and representations of the Goddess indicated by her names reveal the intensity and importance of her powers; it can be said with certainty that the role of the Goddess in the Hindu pantheon is not one to be overlooked.

Durga as Mahisasuramardini (Crusher of the Buffalo Demon) (Bhaktapur, Nepal)

Durga’s iconic representations are also important tools for understanding her power. A popular image of Durga is that of her in her ten-armed form killing the buffalo demon Mahisa with one leg over her lion. The Goddess holds weapons from different male gods, linking their power to her. Chitgopekar and Dutta disagree on some of the weapons they list as being in her possession. Dutta’s list includes Siva’s trident, Agni’s dart, Indra’s thunderbolt, Varuna’s conch-shell, Vayu’s bow, Kubera’s club, Yama’s iron rod, Vasuki’s snake and Surya’s shield and sword (Dutta 12). Chitgopekar agrees with Siva, Agni, and Indra’s contributions but adds that Durga held a string of beads and a water pot from Brahma, Visnu’s discus, an axe from Visvakarman, a cup of wine from Kubera [The Great Goddess is depicted as drinking from this cup of wine regularly while in battle with Mahisa. (Chitgopekar 25)] and claims that Varuna’s gift was not a shell but a noose instead. Surya’s gift is also disputed; Chitgopekar asserts that the gift from this Sun God was instead the rays of the sun being on all pores of her skin (Chitgopekar 19). These gifts are an important part of Durga’s story. By endowing her with their emblems the gods of the Hindu tradition show that they place their faith in her to destroy the demon Mahisa who threatened them and whom they could not overcome. Part of Durga’s physical representation is that she is beautiful beyond measure. This beauty is unparalleled (Dutta 12) and attracted some demons to their ultimate death. As discussed previously, the Goddess incarnates in different forms, including Kali, one of her most worshipped shapes. Kali is dark skinned, and has four arms. Two arms hold weapons to “frighten the demons and inflict punishments,” while the other two offer blessings to her followers (Tewari 30). Kali’s tongue is dripping with blood which indicates her role as the goddess of destruction. However, keeping with the theme that the Great Goddess encompasses all creation, preservation and destruction, we are reminded by Kali’s tenderness, portrayed by her feminine form, that “destruction is the beginning of creation” (Tewari 30).
Durga fulfills a great many roles, the three most important being the Creator, the Preserver and the Destroyer of the universe. All other duties she has can be categorized within these three. Vaisno Devi is regarded by some as the ultimate form of this creative Sakti. She is the power that drives the Gods into action (Chitgopekar 49). She is linked to the three great Gods of the Hindu tradition and their great power. Named after the gods with whom she is associated, the Great Goddess can be referred to as the creative force Brahmani, the preserving force Vaisnavi, or the destructive force Rudrani (Dutta 18). Another important role of Durga is that of a protector for her worshippers. In the Skanda Purana the Goddess states that her followers would be spared from the torments of life by invoking or worshipping Her (Dutta 4). One major event dedicated to the worship of the Great Goddess is the Durga Puja. Also known as the Durgotsava or Dasahara, it is celebrated in the Bengal month of Asvina which correlates with the season of autumn. The celebration culminates with the victories of good over evil, principally the triumph of Durga over Mahisa and Rama over Ravana, and signifies the defeat of internal enemies by the devotee (Chitgopekar 102). Durga’s victory against Mahisa has been taken to signify not just the fight between gods and demons or good versus evil, but also the concepts of truth and mental illumination triumphing over falsehood and ignorance (Dutta 22). The Goddess thus has a role in aiding people in finding illumination, a goal in the Hindu tradition. Durga plays many other roles in the lives of her followers including bestowing divine wisdom and spiritual wealth (Dutta 21). Durga has great meaning to people of all castes because her multitude of roles allows her to deal not only with the expansive concepts such as the creation of the universe, but also deals with the internal struggle of all people.

Durga, the Great Goddess is incredibly popular because she has the ultimate power. Her forms and myths denote a deity that can be considered almost unparalleled in strength and thus deserves the respect and worship she is given throughout India. The study of Durga is so rich and detailed however that it requires to be researched with much more depth and dedication to have a complete understanding and respect for the Great Goddess.

References

Chitgopekar, Nilima (2003) The Book of Durga. New Delhi: Penguin Books India

Tewari, Lt. Col. Naren (1988) The Mother Goddess Vaishno Devi. New Delhi: Lancer International

Dutta, Abhijit (2003) Mother Durga: An Icon of Community & Culture. Calcutta: Readers Service


Related Readings

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

Foulston, Lynn (2002) At the Feet of the Goddess: The Divine Feminine in Local Hindu Religion. Portland: Sussex Academic Press

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

Jagadiswarananda, Swami (1953) The Devi-Mahatmya or Sri Durga-Saptasati: (700 mantras on Sri Durga). Madras: Sri Ramakrishna Math

Dilwali, Ashok & Malhotra, Sanjana (2001) Ma Vaishno Devi. New Delhi: K.G.M. International


Related Websites


http://www.pantheon.org/areas/mythology/asia/hindu/articles.html

http://www.exoticindiaart.com/article/sakti

http://www.sanatansociety.org/hindu_gods_and_goddesses/durga.htm

http://www.shivashakti.com/durga.htm

Related Topics


Kali
Laksmi
The Devi Mahatmya
Sakti
Durga Puja
Puja
Ramayana
Mahabharata
Siva
Brahma
Visnu
Skanda Puran

Mahisa

Written by Kristina Larkin (Spring 2008) who is solely responsible for its content.

Ganga: Goddess and Sacred River

The goddess of the river Ganges is known as Ganga, and she and the river are worshipped as one. The river plays an integral role in the lives of the millions of Hindus in India. Ganga’s myths, forms of worship, usage in daily rituals, and faith in her power all have an extremely important place in Hinduism today.

Many myths describe Ganga as having heavenly origins, and illustrate her descent (avatarana) to earth in various ways, all involving association with the important male gods Brahma, Visnu, and Siva. In one account, Ganga descends to earth using Siva to break her fall. As she falls through his hair, she becomes divided into many streams, each flowing to a different part of the earth. She does this in order to wash over the ashes of the sixty thousand sons of King Sagara, in order to purify and free their souls. His sons had deeply offended the great sage Kapila, who, in anger, burned them to ash. Eventually, Bhagiratha, a descendent of Sagara, takes upon himself to free the souls of his ancestors by doing many austerities. After centuries of doing this, Ganga appears and grants his wish and goes to earth. Another variety of the myth describes that the god Brahma, who, holding Ganga in his water pot, pours her onto Visnu’s foot when it stretches into the heavens (Kinsley 188-189). The three parts of the Ganges have their own names. The section remaining in heaven is known as Mandakini. The earthly portion is known as Ganga, and the part that goes to the final region is called Bhagirathi (Singh 48). All accounts of the myth stress the importance of Ganga’s heavenly, divine nature, and of being made sacred by coming into contact with Visnu and Siva. Due to Ganga’s descent from heaven to earth, she becomes a continuous link between the earthly and heavenly realms (Kinsley 192). It is because of this link that the Ganges is so revered as a way to be in closer contact with the divine.

Ganga is related in the myths to various deities, but it is the relationship between Ganga and Siva that is the most emphasized. Both are dependent on each other. It is only Ganga who can cool the lingam of Siva; otherwise he would always be as a burning linga of fire, and it only with Siva’s help that Ganga does not flood the earth. Both are vehicles for each other. This relationship is demonstrated through the daily ritual of pouring water over the Siva linga (Eck 148).

Bas-relief depicting the goddess Ganga atop her crocodile (makara) mount at Kelaniya Temple, Sri Lanka
Bas-relief depicting the goddess Ganga atop her crocodile (makara) mount at Kelaniya Temple, Sri Lanka

When depicted in different art forms, Ganga is shown as a fair complexioned woman, wearing a white crown and sitting on a crocodile. Many deities are depicted holding special objects, and Ganga is no exception. When shown with two hands, she holds a water lily and a lute. If having four hands, she carries a water lily, a water pot, a rosary, and one hand is held in a protective position (Singh 47). Poet seers of the Vedas started the tradition of praising Ganga for her blessings and power centuries ago. Many praises (mahatmyas) of Ganga can be read in various Sanskrit epics and Puranas, and there are also numerous hymns devoted to the goddess, one of which is known as Jagannatha’s “Ganga Lahari.” These praises and hymns emphasize her greatness, glory, and life giving waters. Different levels of protection and help is also said to be achieved through certain actions involving Ganga. For example, chanting Ganga’s name alone is believed to reduce poverty or get rid of bad dreams. Bathing in Ganga’s waters or being cremated on her banks can even result in liberation (moksa) (Eck 138-144).

Since the river is such a major physical feature and is so important in Hindu mythology, it is only natural that it has major significance in people’s daily lives and rituals. One such role is that played in death rituals. Many Hindus want their ashes or bones put into the Ganges, because they believe that in doing so, they are guaranteed a safe journey to the ancestral realm. It is believed that one can receive liberation immediately through contact with the Ganges. This can occur either by dying in the Ganges, or simply having its water put on the lips right before death. The link that Ganga provides to the heavens from earth is once again observed in the belief that when one’s ashes touch the waters, they are rejuvenated and strengthened enough to make the journey to heaven (Kinsley 193 -194). If one is particularly devout, he or she will try to spend their last days on the banks of the river. They do this according to the belief that one who dies there will be delivered from all sins. These actions strongly support the belief that the Ganges has the power to provide deep spiritual cleansing (Singh 83). Varanasi, which is India’s holiest city, sees the journey of millions of Hindus each year, who come to cremate their dead and wash in the waters (Hammer 80). At the cremation ceremony, the funeral pyre is usually lit by the eldest son. As it burns, a priest will chant Vedic verses. The following day, the ashes are gathered up and taken to Haridwar, a holy city and the place of the headwaters of the Ganga. The ashes are then placed into the holy water (Singh 84). Haridwar is also known as Gangadvara, or “Door of the Ganges”, and is a place of pilgrimage (Eck 137). People want to be cremated on the banks of the Ganges so that they are in her care.

This characteristic of being caring points to another major faith in Ganga, which is her portrayal of being motherly and loving. She is commonly known as Mother Ganges. As Mother, she has the powers of compassion and comfort, and is a provider of blessings to her children (Kinsley 193). Her motherly care can lead to a place that is free from sorrow, fear, old age and death. The goddess is also said to be aware of everyone’s deepest fears and desires. Ganga takes these feelings upon herself, leaving the individual purified and strengthened. Everyday, millions bathe in and drink from the river, and pray on its banks. Using the water for washing, bathing, and cooking is a way to make sure one can receive Ganga’s blessings and grace (King 155-161). Ganga’s waters are understood to be the life giving, immortal liquid (amrta) of mother’s milk (Eck137). The waters are life giving, both physically and spiritually. Physically, the river gives life to the land, making it fertile. The Ganges can create and support life, and is often appealed to in order to ensure healthy crops. Spiritually, the water can purify and cleanse one of pollution. Flowing water has cleansing capabilities, and the power to get rid of one’s daily impurities. This can be done by simply pouring water over one’s head, or taking a ritual bath. These methods are often approved as a way to remove pollution (Kinsley 189-194). In these ways, Ganga fulfills the role of universal mother, protector, and purifier.

Pilgrim journeys are a major way of life for many Hindus. Different festivals, the customs and castes of an individual’s community, and one’s life crisis’s and rituals all dictate how and when a pilgrimage may take place. Millions of pilgrims travel to the Ganges each year. For many, the natural beauty of the river and the Himalayas is very calming, and can be a way to express emotion towards the gods. Pilgrims come to the Ganges seeking healing, and to be rid of any pain or suffering. Hindus from all over the world travel to Haridwar to pour the ashes of loved ones into the river and to make offerings (Kinsley 160-163). Many come to not only appeal to Ganga, but also to touch, see, and bathe in the river itself. The physical river is worshipped as one may worship the image of a deity. Garlands of flowers are often placed around the neck of the image; in this case, garlands are strung out across the river (Kinsley 196). Flower offerings are common, as each day, thousands of pilgrims will drop bags filled with flowers into the river, as offerings to Ganga (Hammer 79). The mahatmyas (praises) say that every part of the Ganga is a tirtha, which is a spiritual ford and a place of pilgrimage (Eck 142).

A certain special event in the endless worship of Ganga is the day known as Ganga Dasahara. It is recognized as the birthday of the Ganga. The banks of the river are filled with bathers, and it is said that by going into the water at this time, ten lifetimes of sins are destroyed. This day celebrates Ganga’s descent (avatarana) from heaven to earth, and is done in expectation of the eventual monsoon rains (Eck 144). Another extremely important Hindu festival is Kumbha Mela. This festival is often considered the most extravagant and impressive, for at any given time there can be more than twenty million people present. It celebrates the glory of Ganga, and all her richness and power. It reenacts a cosmic event when, at a certain astrological union, the Ganga waters became nectar. The main purpose is to have a ritual bath in the river, and millions of pilgrims make the journey to participate in this festival and wash away their sins. There are many processions with elephants, dancing, music, and the general feeling of happiness and joy. These feelings are often increased by the closeness and presence of the Ganges (King 171-172). Gifts to the Ganges are very common, and pilgrims will give many different kinds. Milk, fruit, saris, jewelry, and coins, and many others are all presented as gifts to Ganga. Various offerings are also done, especially in cases of appealing for future prosperity and health. Newly married couples will bathe in the river after marriage and after the birth of their child. Women will wash in the river for fertility and to give birth to a son, and some will contribute a basket filled with clothing or cosmetics (suhagpitari) to Ganga. The gift is believed to ensure the long life and prosperity of their husbands and family (King 177).

The Ganges River can be viewed as an embodiment of life, purity, and power. From its use in daily tasks to more spiritual applications, the Ganges maintains its place as a dominant entity in Hinduism. In recent years, pilgrimage to the Ganga has become more popular. The Ganga is a very powerful force, and she is the link between nature, humans, and divinity (King 187). Respect and adoration for physical nature is reflected in the spiritual importance given to the sacred river and the general landscape. The Ganga is proclaimed to be the most supreme river of all, and all agree that her power is unending and divine (Eck 137-138).

Bibliography

Eck, Diana L. (1996) “Ganga: The Goddess Ganges in Hindu Sacred Geography.” In J.S. Hawley and D.M. Wulff (eds.) Devi: Goddesses of India. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Hammer, Joshua (2007) The Ganges: Sacred and Profaned. Smithsonian November 2007

King, Anna S. (2005) “Waters of Devotion”. In A.S. King and J. Brockington (eds.) The Intimate Other: Love Divine in Indic Religions. New Delhi: Orient Longman

Kinsley, David (1998) Hindu Goddesses: Visions of the Divine Feminine in the Hindu Religious Tradition. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publications.

Singh, Dharam Vir (2003) Hinduism: An Introduction. New Delhi: Rupa & Co.

List of Related Research Topics

Brahma

Visnu

Siva

Mahatmyas

Ganga Lahari

Puja

Ganga Dasahara

Kumbha Mela

Pilgrimage in India

Moksa

Related Websites

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ganga_in_Hinduism

http://www.exoticindiaart.com/article/ganga/

http://www.sanatansociety.org/indian_epics_and_stories/the_life_of_ganga.htm

http://www.dollsofindia.com/ganga.htm

http://www.webonautics.com/mythology/ganga2.html

http://www.hinduwisdom.info/articles_hinduism/197.htm

Written by Genevieve Golas (Spring 2008) who is solely responsible for its conten

Origins of the Goddess Kali

Hindu mythology is among the most colourful, sensational, and extraordinary expressed. Hindu scriptures, such as the Puranas, contain stories about different gods and goddesses. The gods and goddesses of the Hindu scripture are still strongly worshiped in India at their designated temples. Of the many deities worshiped, the goddess Kali is quite different from the others. This goddess is described as having unruly black hair, a girdle of severed hands, a necklace of human heads, a lolling tongue dripping of blood, and is often depicted naked standing over her consort, Siva. Kali is worshiped as a symbol of destruction through time and also as a symbol of motherhood.

To understand this goddess’s role in Hindu worship it is necessary to examine the origin of Kali. In KALI: The Black Goddess of Dakshineswar, the author, Elizabeth U. Harding explains the emergence of Kali. Harding explains that while the gods were resting, the demon king Mahisasura created an army and tried to proclaim himself as the ruler of Heaven. When Visnu, Siva, Brahma, and other powerful Gods heard of this they became angry and each shot forth a ray of light from their foreheads, which intensified and took the shape of a female form. “The light of Siva formed her face, Yama gave her hair and Visnu her arms. From the light of Candra, the moon God, her two breasts where formed. Indra modelled her waist and Varuna her thighs. Earth gave her hips and Brahma feet. The light from the fire God, Agni, fashioned her three eyes. Thus, all Gods contributed their power to manifest the auspicious Devi, the [Great] Mother Goddess” (ix). Each of the gods then adorned her with their weapons and sent her to battle King Mahisasura and his army.

It is in The Devi Mahatyma that Devi, in the form of Kali, fiercely destroyed the army of demons with little struggle except for the demon Raktabija. Raktabija was nearly impossible to defeat because each drop of blood that touched the ground produced a replica of the demon. Kali raised Raktabija high into the air, lapped up his drops of falling blood, and swallowed him entirely. This is just one example of Kali’s great conquests. Kali appears for a second time in the The Devi Mahatyma during the battle between the demons Canda and Munda and Durga (i.e. Devi). When Durga sees the two demons approaching her with weapons, she becomes angry and Kali springs from her dark face. Kali decapitates the two demons and is victorious with just one swing of her sword.

Wangu expresses another example of her conquests from the appendix to the Mahabharata, the Harivamsa. In this myth, the God Visnu incarnates himself as Krsna in order to kill the demon Kamsa. Kali, Krsna’s sister, is asked to incarnate herself so the two of them can be exchanged at birth in order to fool Kamsa. Kali sacrifices herself to save Krsna and in return is given a conch and discus (two symbols of Visnu) and is promised blood worship. Kali also appears in the Ramayana when Rama is threatened by a horrible monster and is immobilized with fear. Sita takes the form of Kali and slaughters the monster single handedly (see Kinsley73).

Harding describes that the name Kali is derived from the word “kala,” meaning time. Both Kali and her consort Siva represent a link to destruction and thrive off of the existence of each other. While Siva is closely linked to creation, Kali acts as his counterpart in maintaining destruction, and so their physical appearances are very opposite from each other. Siva is depicted as a fair skinned male and whose hair is done is a topknot. Kali on the other hand has black skinned female, with unruly matted hair, and is dominating Siva in almost all depictions of her. Kinsley also explains that because Kali is the fierce form of Durga, she is rarely depicted as a submissive wife. Kali’s strong traits have set the characteristics for the group of Mahavidyas. The Mahavidyas are a group of tantric goddesses, who symbolize women characters that have complete independence. Of the Mahavidyas, Kali is a great exemplar of that independence. Kali dominates Siva, literally, by standing on top of his body, and often assuming the male’s position in tantric depictions (79).

Kali is also considered the ideal Mahavidya because of her relation to the “ultimate truth” (see Kinsley 84-86). Worshipers of Kali are devoted to the Black Goddess because of her relation with the end of events. The entire Hindu religion is based on the hopes of achieving liberation, and Kali is a direct symbol of that liberation. Kinsley describes the devotion of Kali as the devotion to achieving Brahman. In Tantric Visions of the Divine Feminine: The Ten Mahavidyas, Kinsley calls her “She Who is Knowledge of the Self, She Who is Knowledge of Brahman, She Whose Form Is the Highest Brahman, and Mistress of the Mahavidyas.” (86). Devotees of Kali desire this knowledge of Brahman and dedicate their worship to the goddess of motherhood.

In Freedom from Death in the Worship of Kali, Kinsley explains that devotees of Kali can be found making blood sacrifices to the goddess throughout temples in India. The goddess is largely worshiped in Bengal and is a popular icon of worship because of her association with Siva, her relation to Vamacara tantra, and her promotion through devoted poet-saints of Bengali (188-189). The dark goddess was not accepted as a widely worshiped deity until quite some time after the Devi-mahatmya was written. Before Kali became a widely worshiped deity she was mostly adored by thieves or outcast cults of Hindu society. It was not until Kali became recognized as the consort of Siva and his incarnations that she gained a growing population of devotees. She is depicted as the fiercest form of Durga, a symbol of feminism and true knowledge in which Hindus praise in hopes of obtaining moksa.

Works Cited

Harding, Elizabeth U.( 1993) Kali: The Black Goddess of Dakshineswar. New Delhi: Shri Jainendra Press………………………………………………………

Kinsley, David (1975) “Freedom from Death in the Worship of Kali.” Numen 22, no.3 (December): 183-207.

Kinsley, David (1997) Tantric Visions of the Divine Feminine: The Ten Mahavidyas. California: U of California Press. ………………………………………………

Wangu, Madhu Bazaz (2003) Images of Indian Goddesses: Myths, Meanings,.and Models. New Delhi: Abhinav Publications………………………

Related Topics for Further Investigation

Durga
Devi
Siva
Durga Puja
Brahman
Indra
Visnu
Ten Mahavidyas
Tantra
The Devi Mahatmya
Kamsa
Brahma
Krsna
Mahabharata
Ramayana

Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic

http://www.sanatansociety.org/hindu_gods_and_goddesses/kali.htm

http://www.dollsofindia.com/kali.htm

http://www.goddess.ws/kali.html

http://www.crock11.freeserve.co.uk/ramay.htm

http://www.sacred-texts.com/hin/maha/index.htm

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/K%C4%81l%C4%AB

http://www.mantraonnet.com/kali-text-images.html

Written by Sarah French (Spring 2008) who is solely responsible for its content.

The Ganga River

Sacred Geography

The Ganga River, often referred to as the anglicized Ganges in the west, is a major watershed of the Indian Continent, with its origin in the Himalayan Mountains at Mount Kailasa, to its drainage at the Indian Ocean (Darian 1). The Ganga is formed near the town of Deoprayag where the Alakananda River joins with the Bhagirathi River, which has its source at Gangotri Glacier (Darian 7-9). The ice cave Gaumukh in the Uttaranchal state of India, close to the Gangotri Glacier, is a well known bathing source in the waterway (Backshall 1). There are many important tributaries as well as geographical sites such as Vasudhara Falls and Lake Manasarovar that are attributed to the Ganga River. Lake Manasarovar is the highest freshwater lake in the world and is a site of religious pilgrimage. It is believed that Lake Manasarovar is the summer refuge for swans, a wise and sacred animal. In the foothills of the Himalayan mountains is Hardwar, known as Gangadvara, “Door of the Ganges” which marks the rivers geographic entrance into the North Indian Plains (Eck 1996:137). Another notable landmark is Prayag where the formerly parallel flowing Yamuna that originates near the Bhagirathi and the underground mystical Sarasvati River also join the Ganga (Eck 1996:137). The Sarasvati is a mystical river mentioned in the Rg Veda which is tied to the Ganga (Darian 58). The location of the Sarasvati is unknown, and post-Vedic Hindu literature does not detail its disappearance. Descriptions of the Sarasvati from the Rg Veda have been applied to the Ganga (Darian 58-68). Near the mouth of the Ganga is the island of Sagar, considered sacred, and which is believed to be the entrance to the netherworlds (Eck 1996:145). The Ganga is referred to by different names including “Child of the Mountains” and the “River of Heaven” (Eck 1982:74,211).

Massive bas-relief depicting how the sage Bagiratha (upper left) performed austerities to lift a curse and cause the Ganga to flow; Mahabalipuram, India
Massive bas-relief depicting how the sage Bagiratha (upper left) performed austerities to lift a curse and cause the Ganga to flow; Mahabalipuram, India

As a Goddess:

In Hindu tradition, the Ganga is regarded as a goddess and is thus known as Ganga Mata, or “Mother Ganges” (Eck 1996:136). The Ganga embodies the sacred geography of India as she is the essential hub of India’s development, civilization and religious culture. The Ganga’s descent to earth is known as her avatarana, and her revered descent marks the return of life-giving water for cultivation of many of India’s primary resources (Eck 1996:137). Furthermore, the Ganga is worshipped as the embodiment of female energy known as sakti, and is also sacred for her mothering capacities (Eck 1982:72). Although Hindu goddesses often have an ambivalent nature, being both nurturing and destructive, the Ganga is worshipped primarily for the nourishment she provides while her potentially destructive nature is mostly overlooked. The entire length of the Ganga is considered sacred and is scattered with many auspicious crossings known as tirthas, which are the objectives of many pilgrimages (Eck 1996:137). In iconographic representation, the goddess Ganga is mostly depicted as a women atop her mount (vahana), a makara or crocodile. She holds a kumbha, the vase of plenty (Darian 114). The makara is an ambivalent creature. It may be regarded as an animal form of the God Soma, and is an emblem for the waters, plants and vegetal layer of life (Darian 114-115). However, the makara is also a symbol of the unknown ocean and an object of fear (Darian 114-115).

The Goddess Ganga atop her crocodile (makara) mount on a bas-relief carved on a column at Mahabalipuram, India
The Goddess Ganga atop her crocodile (makara) mount on a bas-relief carved on a column at Mahabalipuram, India

Myths on the Goddess:

There are many myths about the Ganga, who is considered consort to both Siva and Visnu (Eck 1996:137). In the mythology of the Devi Bhagavata and Brahmavaivarta Puranas, Ganga quarrels with Sarasvati, the other consort of Visnu, and both curse one another to become rivers. For this behavior, Visnu allows Ganga to become wife of Siva, who breaks her mighty torrent through his hair (Eck 1996:146). Siva, also known as Gangadhara, “Bearer of the Ganges,” is the companion of Ganga and they are often depicted in sculptures together as bride and groom (Eck 1996:147). This intimate union between Siva and Ganga often angers the other consort of Siva, Parvati, which causes great jealousy (Eck 1982:219). The Ramayana, Mahabharata, and other Hindu literature describe the myth of Ganga falling from heaven to revive the sixty thousand sons of King Sagara. Flowing from Siva’s hair and being caught by Bhagiratha led her to become the purifying water for Sagara’s sons (Eck 1996:145).

Festivals:

The festival of Ganga Dashara is celebrated on the tenth day of the month of Jyestha, when monsoon rains signal the descent of the Ganga from heaven to earth (Eck 1996:143). The Ganga Dashara is regarded as the birthday of the Ganga and bathing in the water is believed to destroy sins of ten lifetimes (Eck 1996:143-144). In one Vedic myth, Indra combats the serpent Vrtra that has trapped the celestial waters and by defeating Vrtra releases the sacred Ganga waters (Eck 1996:143).

The Sanctity of Water:

Water has been an important symbol of spirituality in India since the beginnings of the Indus Valley Civilization (2500 to 1500 BCE) (Darian 15). Ganga water is used in many ceremonies including daily rituals, death rituals, weddings and births. The sacred thread ceremony (upanayana) in Bengal requires the participant to consume only bread and Ganga water (Darian 14). The Ganga is considered to be flowing in three worlds; heaven, earth, and the netherworlds, often referred to us triloka-patha-gamini (Eck 1996:145). This has become important in death rites, as the Ganga is a place of crossing from the world of living to the dead. Cremated remains arrive daily in the city of Banaras where they are immersed in the Ganga, as those sanctified by Ganga water will reside in heaven (Parry 24). Furthermore, ritual cleansing has been historically important to Hindus, as shown by the archeological remains of ceremonial cleansing tanks at Mohenjo Daro and other sites (Eck 1982:217). The Ganga waters are considered to be purifying and an absorber of pollution. They naturally serve as an abundant and accessible source of sanctifying flowing waters for a wide variety of Hindu ritual activities. The name Ganga is derived from the verb gam meaning “to go” which emphasizes the energetic, flowing nature of the water (Eck 1996:144). As the water absorbs the pollution, it is believed to also carry it away, thus erasing sins of lifetimes in “an instant!” (Eck 1996:144). Many pieces of Hindu literature such as the Rg Veda and epics, praise the Ganga. Merely chanting the name of the Ganga is believed to relieve poverty, bad dreams and even protect from the inauspiciousness of being bespattered by crow feces (Eck 1996:138). Pilgrims often make offerings of flowers to the Ganga while calling out “Victory to Mother Ganges!” Hindus frequent pilgrimage sites (tirthas) all along the course of the Ganga. They bathe in its waters, and even use the water to make offerings (Eck 1996:138). Ganga water is also collected and taken to homes and temples for other rituals (Eck 1996:138).

The Ganga is more than a single river. In Hindu belief, it is a representation of all of India’s sacred waters, and thus aptly demonstrates the cultural significance of water (Eck 1996:139). Since the Ganga’s waters are not accessible to all Hindus, especially those in the diaspora (i.e. outside India), other waters are substituted and transformed into the sacred fluid, merely by adding drops of Ganga water to them, or by uttering mantras of praise to the Ganga (Eck 196:138). This capacity for transformation is not restricted to the Ganga. There are said to be seven rivers that may be used as a sacred water source and hold the same sanctity, including the Ganga, Yamuna, Godavari, Sarasvati, Narmada, Sindu and Kaveri (Eck 1996:138). However, the Ganga is regarded by pious Hindus as the foundation of all rivers and, therefore, visiting any river in India, or the world, with reverence, is considered to be akin to visiting the Ganga itself ( Eck 1996:138).

References and Further Recommended Reading

Backshall, Stephen (2004) Birth of a River. National Geographic Traveler. Vol 21 (8).

Darian, Steven G. (1978) The Ganges in Myth and History. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Eck, Diana L. (1996) Devi: Goddesses of India. Berkeley: University of California Press, Ltd.

Eck, Diana L. (1982) Banaras City of Light. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Fuller, C.J. (2004) The Camphor Flame: Popular Hinduism and Society in India. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Parry, Jonathan P. (1994) Death in Banaras. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Related Topics for Further Investigation

Deoprayag

Alakananda river

Bhagirathi river

Gangotri Glacier

Hardwar

Prayag

Sarasvati river

Sakti

Tirthas

Mohenjo-Daro

Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic

http://www.exoticindiaart.com/article/ganga

http://www.dollsofindia.com/ganga.htm

http://www.mydivineplanet.com/theholyganga/ganga.htm

Article written by Allie Becker (April 2008) who is solely responsible for its content.

Kali and Western Feminism

There are different views of the Hindu religion and the symbolism of Kali in the east and west. Women in the west often feel desolate in a world of patriarchy and some have sought empowerment through interpreting the eastern goddess (Kali) in ways that apply to their circumstances. In the east, Hindu women and men have also done this but in different ways.

Kali is known as an “unconventional mother” who “destroys as well as creates” and “takes as well as gives life” (Sugirtharajah par. 15). She plays a significant role in feminist views as a devi worshipped in the east and west. Devi can be defined as “the ultimate source and holder of active power (sakti) in this world; the creator and sustainer of all” (Waterstone par. 4). In the sixth century Devi-Mahatmya Kali is referred to as the mistress of the universe and is finally equated with other goddesses (McDermott 297). Kali embodies characteristics of the different stages in a woman’s life such as “the Virgin, the Mother and the Crone” associated with “purity, maternity and wisdom” (McDermott 286). She has been compared to other religious figures who “preside over love and war, or who are paradoxical, or who have dangerous character” (McDermott 284). She is also worshipped as the “holy-mother” (Waterstone par. 11), though she has also been depicted as “slaying demons on the battlefield” (Waterstone par. 8). These different depictions confirm Kali as a union of opposite concepts. Thus, she resembles power, freedom and equality for many women in both eastern and western societies.

Kali’s polar and conflicting attributes have been especially captivating to females in western society and religions. Maya Waterstone argues that women need “a new means of empowerment and feminine role models that break the mould” (par. 3). Rachel McDermott suggests that westerners see their lack of goddess worship as caused by patriarchal groups (283). The symbols that Kali exemplifies (those of sexuality and the various opposing concepts) are weak in western religious imagery (McDermott 285) and Hindu goddesses in the west are seen as “symbols of and models for women’s empowerment” (McDermott 283). The repressed characteristics of Kali (her potent, sexual, dark sides) can be liberating for women (McDermott 288). She seems to provide them an outlet for the release of anger and her entire principle brings “healing in a male-dominated world” (McDermott 291). Women in the west have made use of her imagery (depicted standing atop Siva’s chest, crushing him) to liberate themselves from patriarchy (McDermott 295).

Conversely, McDermott argues that westerners have misused textual material to believe what they desire about Kali. Westerners believe that she was “degraded from a paradoxical, all-encompassing deity … to a fragmented, dark and dangerous goddess” at the hands of patriarchy (McDermott 299); while historical accounts prove that she has progressed from “a minor, bloodthirsty goddess toward a universally compassionate mother” (McDermott 299). Westerners have changed their view of Kali to focus mostly on her demonized form instead of her current domesticated depiction in Hinduism. In the east images of Kali have been “beautified” by adding ornaments and dress showing this historical progression. Kali changed from a tantric icon to a domestic one who is now used to “uphold Hindu family values, especially those encouraging self-control and self-restraint” (Menon 81).

By contrast, in the east, goddesses are worshipped by both Hindu men and women. Sugirtharajah’s research reveals that the feminist ideals in the west are not completely “applicable in Indian context” (par. 3). Hinduism is a hierarchy of different social groups with further divisions within those groups. Women in Hindu society also have differing roles, one of which is to serve their husband. This has to do with “dharma” (generally translated as ones “duty”). A woman is expected to follow her dharma which has more to do with her duties as a grandmother, mother, and wife and less to do with her actual rights (Sugirtharajah par. 11). Although some argue that this oppresses women in Hindu society, others recognize that women play other important roles. Females in Hindu society have the “divine feminine power” of sakti (sacred force, power or energy) and without this power gods like Siva (the masculine) are powerless (Sugirtharajah par 14).

Sugirtharajah’s research reveals that different Hindu texts are contradictory concerning women. How women are to be treated is outlined in the Dharma Sastras and the Laws of Manu; which are patriarchal treatises (Sugirtharajah par. 10). Though these patriarchal standards are challenged in some popular epics where women like Sita (in the Ramayana) and Draupadi (in the Mahabharata) are depicted as devoted wives to their husbands, yet their actions challenge the patriarchal definitions of “wifely behavior” (Sugirtharajah par. 9).

According to Sugirtharajah the “oppression” that westerners believe Hindu women face can also be challenged by the political goals both males and females accomplished over time. Men fought for the rights of women against rituals such as sati (self-immolation of the widow on the funeral pyre of her husband) and child marriage. They also fought against the “negative colonial and missionary representation of Hindu women” (Sugirtharajah par. 13). Women and men alike worked to bring an end to colonial rule of India during Mahatma-Gandhi’s influence. Goddesses like Kali played an inspiring role in this as the “British rulers feared her wrath” (Sugirtharajah par. 15) and a feminist publishing house was set up in Delhi and used the name “Kali” (Sugirtharajah par. 16). Hindus (men and women) used feminine worship as a means of comfort while they were under the British rule because they were empowered by the female sakti. The British viewed this feminine worship as “weak and vulnerable” of the Hindu men (Sugirtharajah par. 16). By contrast, although the British viewed Kali as masculine, Hindus do not “assign rigid gender controls” (Waterstone par. 10) and thus would not see the worship of a female devi as “weak” or “vulnerable” (Sugirtharajah par. 16).

Although the east and west have differing opinions of the Hindu tradition and the goddess Kali, true understanding of the cultural practices surrounding these differences must be considered. Between the eastern and western societies Kali plays substantially different roles. She empowers and motivates women in the west and is a sense of hope and an iconic mother figure for Hindu men and women in the east.


REFERENCES

Waterstone, Maya (2006) “Could the Indian Goddess empower Western women?

Religious Studies Review 2.2 (Jan): 20(4).

Sugirtharajah, Sharada (2002) “Hinduism and feminism: some concerns.” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 18.2: 97(8).

McDermott, Rachel Fell (1996) “The Western Kali.” In Devi: Goddesses of India.

John S. Hawley and D. M Wulff (eds.). Berkeley: University of California Press.

Menon, Usha and Richard A. Shweder (2003) “Dominating Kali” In Encountering Kali In the Margins, at the Center, in the West. Rachel Fell McDermott and J. J Kripal (eds.). Berkeley: University of California Press.

Further Recommended Reading

Hiltebeitel, Alf and Kathleen M. Erndl (eds.) (2002) Is the Goddess a Feminist? : The Politics of South Asian Goddesses. New Delhi, OUP.

McDermott, Rachel Fell and Jeffry J. Kripal (eds.) (2003) Encountering Kali in the Margins, at the Center, in the West. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Related Topics for Further Investigation

Kali

Feminism (in the East & West)

Ramayana

Mahabharata

Mahatma-Gandhi

Sakti

Dharma

Devi

British Colonial Rule in India

Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kali

http://www.sanatansociety.org/hindu_gods_and_goddesses/kali.htm

http://www.kalimandir.org (a temple in Laguna Beach, CA devoted to Kali)

http://www.goddess.ws/kali.html

http://www.hinduismtoday.com/archives/1995/11/1995-11-04.shtml

Article written by Brittany Bannerman (Spring 2008) who is solely responsible for its content.

Manasa: the Hindu Snake Goddess

Manasa is the Snake Goddess whose name derives from the Sanskrit root manas, meaning of the mind. Her names include Padmavati, in connection with the lotus leaf born goddess Laksmi and Visahari in vasahari vidya orthe science of poison removal”, as she is believed to be the curer of snake bites (William 15,16). The story of her existence begins when Siva slips away from his wife Durga to meditate by the banks of the Kalidaha pool. There, he is stimulated by the erotic setting, and thinking of his beautiful wife Durga, spills his semen. It runs down the stalk of a lotus leaf to the underworld and there Manasa is born from it. Vasuki, king of the nagas (serpents) grants her reign over all snakes. Thus she is the Nagesvari or Queen of the Snakes. Certain scholars suggest that the Nagas were not originally snakes, but in ancient Indian art are depicted as people with cobra hoods who were worshipped as gods and demigods by the ‘solar race’ peoples and in many instances some civilizations revered the serpent and the sun as closely connected. The Nagas were people who claimed descent from the Sun and used the hooded serpents (cobras) as their totem (Khumar Maity 15 and 25).

Snake worship or ophiolatry is an ancient cult among Indians and other races of the world. It is believed that the fear of the snake and the wonder of it brought about its worship all over the world to become a universally revered divinity (Khumar Maity 11). Serpent worship and its cult following in India may have been contributed to by the Proto Dravidians with the worship going as far back as the Harappan culture of the Indus Valley. However, even though historical evidence is lacking in its origins, snakes can still be seen on the proto-ithyphallic Siva seal (Khumar Maity 12, 13). Snake worship is closely tied with the god Siva and Manasa being the daughter of Siva is believed by most scholars to be the reason for her snake worship (Khumar Maity 24). It is also believed that snake worship went hand in hand with those civilizations that worshipped the sun. It is an ancient folklore belief that should anyone bring harm to a snake he/she will fall to leprosy and sterility (Khumar Maity 13). Snake worship and the Nagas are also referenced in Indian literature and religious books, such as the Vedas, the Mahabharata, the Puranas and the Jatakas (Khumar Maity 14).

In the mythic account Manasa returns, ascending the lotus leaf from which she descended and presents herself in front of her father Siva, urging him to take her home with him to Mount Kailasa. Reluctantly, he agrees and hides her in a flower basket for he fears what his wife Durga will think. Before he can explain her existence, Durga finds her in the basket and mistaking her for one of her husband’s temptresses beats her and blinds her in the left eye. This is how she became known as ‘the one eyed goddess’ (William 42). Her left eye is known as her “evil eye” or bisadrsti. It is her poisonous eye from which she can kill with one glance as she releases all her malignant powers with it. Her right eye is her nectar eye or amrtanayan in which she can restore life to whomever she has killed with her left eye. It is believe in India that those people who are blind in one eye possess the evil eye and are seen as an ill-omens ( William 17). In classical Indian mythology as well as modern folklore the evil eye or ‘poison eye’ is a characteristic of most snakes. Manasa is equated with Kadru, the mother of the serpents, who is also one eyed (William 18).

Manasa appears in many forms. One is her true self which is envious, malicious and easily angered where she kills with no remorse and is compared to resemble the cenga fish, a snake-headed fish that is so revolting it is deemed unfit to eat. Her true form is compared to a one-eyed, fish-faced limping old hag (a witch) (William 21). Another form is the conventional, beautiful and voluptuous goddess with four arms and yellow tinted skin. Her body is decorated only with snakes, much like her father Siva. Her vahana (vehicle) is either the swan or the snake. The Sij plant; of the cactus family, is sacred to Manasa as it has abilities to cure poisons, but on most occasions is not used for worship (William 21, 22). She is usually depicted in two different forms of iconography, one being her four-arm depiction and the other, a two armed one. In her four armed image she is surrounded by a canopy of seven snake hoods and in her upper right and left hands she holds a snake and a pot, her lower hands are holding a rosary and a manuscript. Some other depictions of her four-armed image include one with one of her hands in the ‘granting a wish posture’ (varada mudra). Her two-arm depiction is of her seated on a lotus flower, under the canopy of seven snakes, a lotus bud in her right hand in the varada pose and a snake in her left hand (Khumar Maity 207-209). Her most common dhyana, which gives a description of her characteristic features and recited in Manasa worship is, “I adore the goddess, the mother of snakes, whose face is like the moon, who is graceful in appearance, the bountiful, who rides on a swan, the noble one, who wears a red garment, who always gives boons of all kinds, who has smiling face, who is adorned with gold, gems and various other beautiful jewels (obtained) from snakes, who is accompanied by eight snakes, who has prominent breasts, who is a yogini and who can take any form at will” (Khumar Maity 212). However, despite Manasa’s many forms it does not appear in the Sastra literature that any sort of image worship takes place, but more over worship in the form of earthen images does take place as well as placing a red colored stone under a sij tree (Khumar Maity 221 and 265).

Manasa is worshipped during the rainy season (June-August), as the rain and floods force the snakes out of their lairs and the chance of getting bit is significantly higher. During this time it is a communal celebration where some villagers will gather clay pots, garlands, conch-shells, iron bangles, red-bordered saris, incense and food offerings like mangos, melons, bananas and sweets. One or more male goats are also sacrificed. The goddess is represented, herself, by a sacred pot (Manasar-bari), filled with water. This represents her fertility and makes reference to the fertility of the snake. As it is believed the goddess also has inherent power over fertility she is worshipped by women who wish to become mothers (Khumar Maity 269). She is also, in some places known as a curer of diseases, the rain-giver as she is worshipped during the rainy season and since snakes are believed to be the guardians of treasure, Manasa is also seen as a wealth giver (Khumar Maity 273). Manasa is worshipped by all classes and in many different places which include near a sij tree of bush, in the home or in private shrines and in some villages, by the bank of a river (Khumar Maity 266).

Her puja (worship), by the Bauris caste, who are low class earthen workers, perform the ceremony during the rainy season outdoors on an earthen altar. Sticks of bamboo are placed in each corner of the altar and tied together with a cotton thread. The altar is marked with vermilion (red) as is the sacred pot where a mango twig is placed upon it. Among other offerings that are placed on the altar, such as milk, plantain, incense, sandal, lighted lamps, rice (Khumar Maity 269), a sij twig is also placed on the altar, wrapped in red cloth. Both the sij plant and the pot are independent symbols of Manasa (Khumar Maity 265). After the sacrifice of the goat, or goats in some cases, the performer of the ritual, (any of the villagers can perform the ceremony) places the blood of the goat in another pot and offers it to the goddess asking for protection and wellness. Many other personal sacrifices can be made at this time as well (William 23).

Other forms of worship on a higher class scale include a complex formal rite performed by Brahman priests who rely on manuals and utilize specific prayers, breathing techniques (pranayam) and hand movements (mudra) to be followed exactly when performing the worship. A priest consults manuscripts for each step of the puja: the lifting of a flower, the dabbing of a spot of vermilion on the image, the formalized mudras and mantras all done while Sanskrit formulae is recited in the background. The use of Sanskrit is the major difference between the high class Brahmin worship and that of the low class Bauris village worship (William 24). Another type is the household worship which takes place in Aug-Sept, known as acanthine or non-cooking. During this time it is forbidden to light the stove, and rice is cooked the day before and left out in uncovered pots. It is believed by the householders that the goddess will keep the food safe from contamination so it will be safe to eat the next day. The women of the household make earthen images of the goddess called alpana with the rice paste upon the oven and a sij plant is placed over the oven‘s burners. The cold rice is eaten along with cold vegetables after it has been put in cold water, this is called panta bhat (William 23, 24) and then tea is heated on a small fire and drank to end the day and ceremony.

The Jhanpan is a annually held festival where snake charmers gather in the streets and exhibit numerous tricks with their snakes. The charmers risk their lives as it is believed that they are inspired by the goddess, otherwise known as possession or bhar. The snake charmers carry their snakes in small wicker baskets called jhanpis and will often allow the snakes to bite their arms and curl around their neck as part of the spectacle (Khumar Maity 309).

Some scholars believe that the Manasa cult and worship are dying out and will disappear within a century, as enthusiasm for her worship is low and confined to the uneducated small villages as modern medicine removes Manasa’s utility from the more modern villages and worshippers (Khumar Maity 320-321).

REFERENCES

Khumar Maity, Pradyot (1966) Historical Studies in the Cult of the Goddess Manasa; A Socio- Cultural Study. Calcutta: Punthi Pustak.

Smith, William (1980) The One-Eyed Goddess; A Study of the Manasa Mangal. Uppsala: Almqvist & Wiksell.

Other Readings

Hindu Goddesses: Vision of the Divine Feminine in the Hindu Traditions by D. Kinsley

Indian Mother Goddess by N.N. Bhattacaryya

Manasa-Goddess of Snakes The University of Chicago Committee on Southern Asian Studies, Reprint series no. 13, 1961

Evolution of Hinduism in Medieval Bengali Liturature: Siva, Candi, Manasa by T.W. Clark

The Female Lingam: Interchangeable Symbols and Paradoxical associations of Hindu Gods and Goddesses by Gabriella Eichinger Ferro-Luzzi

Related Research Topics

The Goddess

Nagas

Siva

Snake Worship

Written by Kelsey Jesperson (Spring 2006), who is solely responsible for its content.

The Goddess Kali

Kali is one of the more recognized deities in the Hindu pantheon. She is seen as both terrifying and beautiful by those who worship her. There are a number of different stories related to her origin and who she was, Siva’s wife or his daughter. Kali means many different things to the people who worship her. Kali is worshipped in a variety of different ways. All of this goes together in order to form a number of different, all important, versions of this important Hindu goddess.

Kali is typically depicted as terrifying and powerful. In one common representation she is seen standing upon Siva’s more impotent body. She is dominating him. Throughout depictions of Kali, Siva’s appearance changes from looking peacefully asleep, unconscious or sexually aroused. Kali is shown as dark, with long wild, matted hair. She wears a necklace of human heads and a belt of severed human hands. Her earrings, two dangling infant corpses, complete her attire. Her tongue is most often depicted as lolling from her mouth. Her hands wield an array of weaponry. In other depictions her face appears more friendly, her hand up and facing us, a symbol of peace. In one particular drawing of Kali the cosmos are in her hair. These are the images most commonly seen by her followers (McDermott and Kripal 27, 81, 175, 176).

Image of the goddess Kali with upraised sword and extended tongue in a Tantric practitioner's home in Banaras
Image of the goddess Kali with upraised sword and extended tongue in a Tantric practitioner’s home in Banaras

The tales of Kali’s origins tend to differ from sect to sect. One story tells of a demon, Darika, who became powerful and conquered the three worlds (heaven, earth and the underworld). A Sage named Narada approached Siva in desperation about the events taking place. Siva, enraged, opened his third eye which was full of fire. Out of this fire Kali was born. After some difficulties she was able to overcome the demonic entity (Caldwell 19-20). Another story describes Kali as an alter ego of the goddess Parvati, representing Parvati’s extreme rage and violent nature. In that story Kali is Siva’s wife instead of Siva’s daughter (McDermott and Kripal 64). Following the theme of emergence from other goddesses, in the Devi-Mahatmya Kali was said to have emerged from Durga’s angry brow as she rode onto the battlefield taking the physical form of Durga’s anger (Caldwell 122). One more account tells of Durga turning into Kali in order to defeat the demon. After the demon was defeated Durga continued as the destructive Kali, to solve this problem the gods enlisted Siva to go and lie in Kali’s path. When Kali stepped upon him she experienced lajja (being a civilized, moral being) (McDermott and Kripal 87-89). Inherent in this is that Kali could be both an asura (demonic) and a deva (divine), or perhaps neither. Worshippers tell that only an asura could defeat a demon as powerful as Darika but others say that she has to be a deva because she was born from Siva. An answer by some to this paradox is that Kali is both deva and asura (Caldwell 21). All of the origin stories of Kali share a common thread, that of a violent being who exists to do battle with demons on the behalf of the gods.

Along with the various accounts of her history there also exist different beliefs of what Kali actually represents. Some of her worshippers view her as a motherly figure. Mothers are usually portrayed as persons with an unfailing devotion towards their children and in turn children give the same devotion back to their mothers. At first glance Kali does not appear to be a goddess one would want to love as though she was a mother, having such a terrible appearance and seemingly destructive nature. These destructive natures of Kali can be symbolic of a mother’s tough love. A mother has enough love to discipline a child when they begin to misbehave but will also never abandon them. It is said that to be Kali’s child is to suffer and to be disappointed in worldly desires and pleasures. She is the cosmic mother who keeps the world moving and helps her creatures, and is wearied and miserable from the suffering of her children (Caldwell 160-162). On the other hand Kali is seen as the epitome of a demon’s anger. Kali’s tongue represents her grotesque habit of ripping apart her victims and drinking their fresh blood. She is death and destruction (McDermott and Kerali 61). In addition to these contradicting views Kali is also seen to be putting dharma into perspective, by reminding her children that certain pieces of reality are unpredictable and unavoidable (McDermott and Kripal 34-35). The dichotomy of Kali is at times extreme.

There are a number of different rituals used in the worship of Kali and also a festival (Navaratra) in which she and the other goddesses are celebrated. A major dramatic possession ritual, called Mutiyettu, occurs in Kerala. This is a ritual in which male actors dress up as Kali as well as other deities and demons to act out the creation story involving the demon, Darika. The actors don incredibly elaborate costumes especially the actor playing Kali. He paints his body in black carbon grease and then decorates the black with white designs. The actor will wear a muti (an elaborate head piece) made of fresh coconut frond ‘hair’ where two live snakes are located. Red cetti flowers are tied around the actor’s wrists. The dramatic ritual takes place upon a stage in the middle of the night with a small musical ensemble as accompaniment. When the ritual begins the actors act out the story of Kali’s origins and during this ritual the actors claim to become possessed by Kali herself (Caldwell 81-87). Another form of worship is Hindu brahmins also taking care of idols representing Kali as though they were Kali herself (putting her to bed, feeding her, etc) and also performing puja as a form of worship to Kali (McDermott and Kerali 127). This great effort put into celebrating and caring for the goddess shows how important she is to her followers.

All these aspects of who and what Kali is to different people are important in gaining a solid knowledge of the deity. Her warlike representation shows how important violence is to her character. The different tales of her creation all share a central theme of showcasing her as the violent defender of gods against demons. How her followers see her highlight this further. Lastly there is the dedication shown to her by her adherents in the festival and the treatment of her effigies, pointing out how important she is to these people. This all goes together to give a proper view of the important Hindu goddess, Kali.

REFERENCES AND FURTHER RECOMMENDED READING

Caldwell, Sarah (1999) Oh Terrifying Mother: Sexuality, Violence and Worship of the Goddess Kali. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

McDermott, Rachel Fell and Kripal, Jeffrey J (2003) Encountering Kali: In the Margins, At the Center, In the West. Los Angeles: University of California Press.

O’Flaherty, Wendy Dowger (1973) Siva: The Erotic Ascetic. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Chitgopekar, Nilima (2003) The Book of Durga. New Delhi: Penguin Books India.

Onishi, Yoshinori (1992) Feminine Multiplicity: A Study of Multiple Goddesses in India. Delhi: Sri Satgaru Publications.

Coburn, Thomas B. (1991) Encountering the Goddess: A Translation of the Devi-Mahatmya and a Study of its Interpretation. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Related Topics for Further Investigation

Siva

Durga

The Devi Mahatmya

Parvati

Mutiyettu

Noteworthy Websites

http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/hinduism/index.shtml

http://www.exoticindiaart.com/kali.htm

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kali

Article written by Chelsee Ivan (April 2006), who is solely responsible for its content.

Kali

The goddess Kali is often described as fierce, black or dark, she has a lolling tongue, fangs and her dancing can destroy the world. Her necklace, girdle and sacred thread are snakes, she is also known to lie on a bed of snakes (Kinsley 1975:81). She is often naked with long unkempt hair. She is adorned with corpses, as a girdle, necklace, or earrings. She has long sharp fangs and often has claw like hands with long nails and often has blood smeared on her face. On the battlefield she is known to get drunk on the blood of her combatants (Kinsley 1986:116). In many descriptions she has four arms, her two left holding a bloodied cleaver and a freshly severed head, her two right making the signs of ‘fear not’ and one who confers boons (Kinsley 1996: 77-8). Her descriptions are ferocious and somewhat terrifying yet throughout various aspects of the Hindu tradition she is looked upon with love and devotion. She represents for many the manner for witch to face their fears of death and the unknown. Her association with death and destruction is evident in her favorite abodes of the battlefield and the cremation grounds. Kali has long been a goddess on the periphery of society worshipped by the people who occupy the same status, the thieves and the lowest castes.

Worshippers carry an image of the goddess Kali to the river Ganga for immersion at the end of Kali Puja celebrations in Banaras
Worshippers carry an image of the goddess Kali to the river Ganga for immersion at the end of Kali Puja celebrations in Banaras

The story of Kali’s birth, as it is described in the Devi-mahatmya, begins on the battlefield, with the goddess Durga. In two episodes of this text Kali represents Durga’s anger personified. In this instance Kali springs forth form the blackened forehead of an extremely angry Durga and defeats the demon’s Canda and Munda and later the demon Raktabija. The Kali that is worshiped in India today is defiantly the same as she who is presented in the Devi-mahatmya (Kinsley 1986:90-2). In relation to other goddesses Kali seems to represent their wrath and anger, a dimension of the divine feminine that is frightening and dangerous (Kinsley 1986:120).

A possible prototype for Kali is the demoness Nirrti, who is frequently mentioned in the Vedic literature. Nirrti seems to be the personification of death, destruction and sorrow, her mantra is intended to ward her off, she wears dark clothes and receives dark husks as her sacrificial offering she is also said to have a dark complexion. Nirrti is said to live in the south, the abode of death (Kinsley 1986:87). However, Kali is active in warfare and receives blood sacrifice while Nirrti does neither. About the time that Kali begins to be known in the tradition Nirrti begins o disappear, she is rarely mentioned in the epic-Puranic texts. Generally Kali represents certain realities that were previously conveyed by Nirrti (Kinsley 1986:87-8).

When Kali is coupled with a male god it is almost always Siva, she is his consort, his wife or his associate. However, she always is the one to incite his wild behaviour. The relationship that Kali has with Siva differs from that with Parvati in that Kali seems able to persuade Siva to partake in dangerous and destructive behaviour that ultimately threatens the stability of the cosmos (Kinsley 1986:116). In the relationship with Siva Kali’s inclination to wildness and disorder continue, and while she is sometimes calmed by him many times it is she who encourages him to partake in similar actions. In fact there is a South Indian tradition that tells of a dance contest between the two which end with Siva as the victor forcing Kali to control her disruptive behaviour. However, there are very few other depictions of Kali as tame and docile, most images depict either or both in destructive ways and others with Kali in her glory dominating a motionless or sometimes dead Siva (Kinsley 1986:119). In iconographic representations of the two Kali is predominantly the dominant one, she is generally standing or dancing upon Siva’s motionless body and when depicted having sexual intercourse she is always above him. This suggests that while Siva is said to have calmed Kali in the dance contest he has never successfully or continuously restrained her wild antics (Kinsley 1986:120) Kali’s association with Siva began as early as the eighth century CE, as is in Bhavabhuti’s Malatimadhava. In the Vamana-purana the names of Kali and Parvati are used interchangeably in the depiction of Siva’s wedding to Parvati (Kinsley 1986:102). Generally in relation to the goddess Parvati Kali is often mentioned in various situations, especially in Parvati’s preparations for war, in these cases Kali appears as Parvati’s alter ego.

Kali’s status in the Hindu religion has always been as an outsider, she hangs out on the peripheries of society. This is shown in the location of her temples and her favorite known haunts the battlefield and the cremation grounds. In the cremation grounds she often sits upon a corpse and is surrounded by jackals, ghosts and snakes and unlike other deities she does not have an animal vehicle but rides a ghost (Kinsley 1996:77-8). In her early history Kali was a tribal goddess who was worshiped by thieves and hunters, and so Kali has a long standing association with criminals and has been linked to the murderous Thugs as their patron goddess (Kinsley 1996:78). In the Mana-sara-silpa-sastra it is said that Kali’s Temples should be built far from villages and towns, near the cremation grounds and near the homes of Canadalas. This represents her long standing association with the periphery’s of Hindu society (Kinsley 1986:117-8).

In Tamilnad, goddesses very much like Kali were worshipped from very early on. In the Tamil epic Silappadikaram Kali is called the goddess of death and aids the bandits living the area by rewarding their blood sacrifices with victory in their pursuits. She appears in later Tamil literature as well and is widely known as a village goddess (Kinsley 1975:96-7). Kali is very popular in Bengal however she did not appear in the Bengali literature until quite late. The major festival for her worship in Bengal is Dipavali, it is during this festival, and throughout the year, that Kali receives blood sacrifice. It is in Bengal that Kali is approached as a caring and protective mother (Kinsley 1986:116). Kali’s Sakta devotion in Bengal is featured in the works of Bengal’s famous religious figures, Ramprasad Sen and Ramakrishna. Ramprasad described Kali in a world relived of all its indifference and seemingly impulsive aspects (Kinsley 1975:116). For Ramprasad Kali is the embodiment of world order, especially the darker aspects of existence. In his poetry Kali is presented as the caring presence of Mother who looks over her stubborn wet helpless children (Kinsley 1975:117). Ramakrishna approached Kali in the same way as Ramprasad, as a child. He doted on her as her official temple servant, however he did not ignore her wild and fantastic nature. She was to Ramakrishna the Mistress of a dizzying and exhilarating creation. Kali continues to retain her fierce image, yet in many of her images Ramakrishna and his wife are sitting calmly with Kali behind them comforting her trusting children (Kinsley 1975:121-4). Other areas where Kali is widely know are Assam, Orissa and western India particularly Rajasthan (Kinsley 1975:100).

In the Tantric tradition, as early as the sixteenth century, Kali figures quite prominently especially in left-handed Tantrism and Bengali Sakta devotionalism (Kinsley 1986:122). In many of the Tantric texts Kali’s position is that of the supreme deity equivalent to Brahman. In fact in the Nirvana-tantra it is proclaimed that “the god’s Brahma, Visnu and Siva are like the amount of water in a cow’s hoofprint compared to the waters of the sea,” in comparison to Kali (Kinsley 1975:110). Kali conveys the image of death, fear, destruction, terror and the all consuming aspects of reality. For the Tantric disciple these aspects of life are not to be feared or avoided, they are to be confronted boldly and thereby overcome and they also become a vehicle for salvation. It is also in this tradition that Kali is clearly the wife of Siva and they together in union create and destroy the universe (Kinsley 1975:112-3). She is no longer emancipated and ugly, in the Karpuradi-stotra she is described as young and beautiful and she is gently smiling. She is no longer a shrew or the refinement of Durga’s wrath, she has become the one who grants the benefit of salvation, she has become the symbol of the triumph over death (Kinsley 1975:114).

References and Further Recommended Reading

Beane, W.C. (1977) Myth, Cult and Symbols in Sakta Hinduism: A Study if the Indian Mother Goddess. Leiden; Brill.

Harding, Elizabeth (1993) Kali: the Black Goddess of Dakshineswar. York Beach, ME: Nicholas-Hays.

Kinsley, David (1975) The Sword and the Flute: Kali and Krsna: Dark visions of the Terrible and the Sublime in Hindu Mythology. Berkeley: University of California Press.

____________ (1986) Hindu Goddesses: Visions of the Devine Feminine in the Hindu Religious Tradition. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

____________ (1996) “Kali: Blood and Death Out of Place.” In Devi: Goddesses of India. John Stratton Hawley and Donna Marie Wulff (eds.). Berkley: University of California Press.

O’Flaherty, Wendy D. (1975) Hindu myths. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Related Topics for Further Investigation

Puranas

Ramparasad

Kalighat temple

Kolkata

Malatimadhava

Siva

Raktabija.

Great Goddess (Devi)

Devi-Mahatmya

Markandeya-Purana

the matrikas

Karttikeya.

Kaurva

Pandava

The Mahabharata

The Nigamakalpataru

The Picchila-tantra

The Yogini-tantra

The Kamakhya-tantra

The Niruttara-tantra

Ramparasad

Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic

http://www.dlshq.org/religions/kaali.htm

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kali

http://www.pantheon.org/articles/k/kali.html

http://www.exoticindiaart.com/kali.htm

http://www.sanatansociety.org/hindu_gods_and_goddesses/kali.htm

http://www.artoflegendindia.com/details/PBABC001

http://www.goddess.ws/kali.html

http://www.mandarava.com/metainfo/goddess/kali.htm

Article written by Danielle Feader (April 2006) who is solely responsible for its content.