Category Archives: Sakta Deities (Hindu Goddesses)


Dhumavati is one of the ten Tantric goddesses and is believed to have appeared between the 10th and 15th centuries (Zeiler 165). She is rarely discussed apart from the other ten Mahavidyas, and always appears to stay within a Tantric context. Up until the 19th century, Dhumavati did not develop individually and has no importance in Epic, Puranic, or Smarta literature (Zeiler 169). The only textual reference to her outside of the Tantric Mahavidya group is in the Saradatilakatantra that was written in the 11th century (Zeiler 169). Although, the first source that mentions her in detail is a commentary on the Saradatilakatanta during the 15th century by Raghavabhatta titled Padarthadarsa.

Described to be a widow, Dhumavati has dirty robes, disheveled hair and has only a few teeth (Bhattacharyya 353). She is thought of as pale, tremulous, and angry (Bhattacharyya 353) as well as rough, deceitful, unstable, and terrifying (Zeiler 174). She wears ornaments made from snakes, and her dress is made up of rags from a cremation ground (Kinsley 176). She is often depicted sitting on a cart on which there is a banner with a crow. Dhumavati is described to be tall with harsh eyes, a big nose, and asymmetrical features (Bhattacharyya 353). She holds a blowing fan and is consistently hungry and thirsty. Also described to be thin and weak, Dhumavati is said to live in ruined and deserted places (Zeiler 174). In one hand, she holds a skull bowl while the other holds a spear (Kinsley 176). She is also presented as a social outsider and can be connected to poverty, misfortune, and evil (Zeiler 174). The thousand-name hymn for Dhumavati describes her home as a cremation ground and how she sits on a corpse while also describing her embodiment of the tamas guna, meaning lust and ignorance. She is also said to like liquor and meat, which are both tamasic (Kinsley 182).

Worship of Dhumavati is meant to achieve protection from one’s enemies. It is believed that one’s enemies will either be restrained or dispelled if they use the mantra of Dhumavati (Zeiler 170). She has also been described as the destroyer of all destroyers (Zeiler 178). If supreme devotion to Dhumavati is practiced, it is said that they will achieve liberation (Dold 242), as well as rewards and ultimate knowledge (Kinsley 183). However, it is typically advised that individuals do not worship her because she is regarded as inauspicious, and married couples especially should refrain from worship as it will create a desire for solitude. (Kinsley 183). A magical ritual of Dhumavati comes from a chapter of the Phetkarinitantra Patala that describes the ritual to be in a deserted place or a cremation ground on the 14th day of the dark part of the month (Zeiler 172).

The origin of Dhumavati is contested, and there are two myths regarding how she was born. The first myth says that Dhumavati was created from the smoke that arose from Sati burning herself to death on her father’s sacrificial fire. Since she was born in funeral smoke, Dhumavati is said to have, “a sad frame of mind” (Kinsley 181). She is considered to be a reincarnation of Sati in the form of smoke. The second myth describes how Sati, Siva’s wife, was hungry and when Siva would not give her any food, she swallowed him. Once he convinced her to expel him, he put a curse on her and she was now in the form of Dhumavati (Kinsley 181). Therefore, in this myth, Dhumavati is associated with Siva and the aggressive part of Sati.

Dhumavati is considered a symbol of inauspiciousness because she is a widow and is also considered unattractive and unlucky. Widows are believed to be dangerous as well as troublemakers and should be feared and avoided. The crow that resides on the top of Dhumavati’s banner is a symbol of death, and she is also referred to as looking crow-like, thus showing her connection to dark things (Kinsley 182). A priest at a Dhumavati temple stated that she only likes those who are unmarried or widowed, and that “only unmarried people could withstand her great power and successfully spend a night alone in her temple. For a married person to do this would result in death” (Kinsley 184). This shows that she encourages solitude and independence. Dhumavati is in the form of smoke and constantly drifting which can connect to samnyasin who wander and never stay in the same place for long.

In the late 19th century, new hymns featuring Dhumavati were created in the Dhumavatitantra chapter of the Mantramaharnava. A fierce Tantric goddess, one description in her hymn known as stotra says that, “[Dhumavati] entered the cremation ground with upraised banner in the arm, after binding a garland of warriors’ heads on her head, which were cut in battle with swords and whose teeth are bloodstained” (Zeiler 177-178). It attempted to incorporate her into a non-Tantric frame while still keeping her roots. One of the reasons thought to explain why her image remained stable for seven to eight centuries was because she had only one function which was to destroy enemies (Zeiler 180-181).

Numerous contemporary works follow the transformation of Dhumavati in the Mantramaharnava and the Saktapramoda. They use both Sanskrit and Hindi, whereby all ritual instructions are in Sanskrit, and are followed by brief comments and remarks in Hindi. All hymns found in modern textual sources are still written in Sanskrit (Zeiler 183). There are only two large works that contain complete ritual instruction, and take into account all information presented in the Mantramaharnava and Saktapramoda, the first being Asli Pracin Dasa-Mahavidya Tantra Mahasastra. As well, there is the Dasa Mahavidya Tantra Mahasastra, which was published in 1998 and includes an illustration, introduction in Hindi, and essential parts of the ritual in Sanskrit for Dhumavati (Zeiler 187-188).

Dhumavati is identified with several other goddesses including Nirrti, Jyestha, and Alaksmi who are also viewed to be inauspicious and are to be avoided (Kinsley 178). They are also connected to misfortune like Dhumavati (Zeiler 184). Nirrti is identified with death, destruction, and bad luck. She is also associated with pain, and many Hindus give her offerings in order for her to stay away from them (Kinsley 178). Jyestha resembles Dhumavati in the usage of a crow as well as possessing similar physical characteristics. Jyestha’s name means “elder,” and Dhumavati is usually portrayed as an older woman. Alaksmi, the third goddess associated with Dhumavati, appears in inauspicious ways such as poverty, hunger, and thirst (Kinsley 179). Dhumavati is also connected to poverty, inauspiciousness, hunger, thirst, and bad luck. However, she is also described to be “fierce, frightening, and fond of blood,” none of which are stressed in descriptions of the other three goddesses. She is also related to Siva and Sati, while the other three are not (Kinsley 180).

In Varanasi, there is a Dhumavati temple, one of very few that exist. The central image consists of a black stone Dhumavati with large eyes, red lips, and four hands that hold a winnowing fan, a broom, and a pot while her fourth hand makes the fear not mudra, a gesture of fearlessness and protection (Kinsley 185). Her sculpture contains attributes that are more common for a married goddess, such as jewelry and the color red (Zeiler 188). Offerings such as flowers, fruit, liquor, cigarettes, and meat are common, and these offerings must be in a smoky fire. The smoke attracts Dhumavati since she is made of smoke. The smoke from incense and cremation fires is also appreciated (Kinsley 186). At this temple, in particular, blood sacrifices are sometimes performed. The temple in Varanasi is also said to exist on the spot where a part of Sati’s body fell, and was found by a sage who has a connection to Dhumavati. She looks after this local neighborhood primarily, and supports them with blessings (Kinsley 186). As such, Dhumavati is regarded here in a different light as she is viewed as approachable and auspicious since she protects those around her. This temple attracts many devotees but she is not significant in other areas of Varanasi or elsewhere (Zeiler 188-189).


















Bhattacharyya, Narendra Nath (1982) History of the Tantric Religion: A Historical, Ritualistic, and Philosophical Study. New Delhi: Manohar.

Bunce, Fredrick (2001) The Yantras of Deities and their Numerological Foundations: An Iconographic Consideration. New Delhi: D.K. Printworld.

Dold, Patricia A. (2009) “Tantra as a Religious Category in the Mahabhagavata Purana.” Studies in Religion 38:221-245. Accessed February 1, 2017. doi:10.1177/000842980903800202.

Kinsley, David (1998) Tantric Visions of the Divine Feminine: The Ten Mahavidyas. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Zeiler, Xenia (2012) “Transformations in the Textual Tradition of Dhumavati. Changes in the Reception of the Tantric Mahavidya-Goddess in Ritual, Function, Iconography, and Mythology.” In Transformations and Transfer of Tantra in Asia and Beyond, edited by István Keul, 165-194. New York: De Gruyter.


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Article written by: Courtney Derksen (March 2017) who is solely responsible for its content.

Goddesses and Women’s Empowerment

According to Knott within Hindu society women are given a lesser status than men (82). This leads to the oppression of women in both the public and private spheres of their religious and everyday lives. This pattern of oppression has led to a narrow and demanding vision of how women should behave. Women are expected to be submissive to the men in their lives, and to be the perfect wife and mother (Knott 81-82).

Through the possession of women by goddesses, they are allowed to express their frustration with the society that oppresses them in a socially acceptable way (Diesel 1998:76). Possession is also seen as a divine experience and those possessed by a goddess are honored. Possession may occur more than once in an individual’s life and there are even those who become possessed regularly and aid others in solving problems (Diesel 1998: 77). These individuals are regarded as a sort of “shaman” in their societies. Women who become possessed and help their community are seen as meaningful to their communities and are therefore held in high regard by society. This high status in the community also gives women a sense of self-worth they may not have previously had. Even if they are not appreciated in their societies being close with the deities they are being possessed by gives them dignity (Diesel 1998:77-79). Women may also use their prominence to aid other women and to increase equality in society.

The goddesses that are usually seen as role models for women are the goddesses that are “the ideal, selfless, submissive wife” (Diesel 2002:8) also known as pativrata. Despite this there are goddesses that are sometimes considered controversial that women see as role models for themselves. Kali, who is a fierce and wild goddess provides inspiration to many women in Hinduism and is viewed as a “redeemer of both nature and women” (Dalmiya, 126). Many of these goddesses have experienced trauma or abuse such as the wife of the Pandava brothers Draupadi in the Mahabharata. She had been subject to the humiliation of Duryodhana attempting to disrobe her in front of his court (Rao, 34-37). This humiliation that Draupadi endured is something that women can relate to. Because of the patriarchal nature of Hindu society women are expected to honour their husbands no matter the circumstance. Despite this expectation of women, there are many who find a model in controversial goddesses such as Kali and a variety of amman goddesses (Diesel 2002: 8-9).

There is also the issue of sexual violence within Hindu society especially when it comes to things such as devadasi [marrying girls to deities] who are often in ritual slavery or used for sexual exploitation (Black 180). One example of a deity who suffered at the hands of men is the goddess Draupadi from the Mahabharata epic. Throughout the epic she goes through many traumatic experiences but her ritual purity helps her overcome the trauma of these events unharmed and unaffected (Diesel 2010:9). There are also many tales of girls and women who are connected with the amman goddesses such as Mariamman or Podilamma. After being wrongly accused of indecent acts or killed because of actions that are deemed improper, the goddesses seek revenge on those who wronged them in their past lives (Diesel 2002:13-15). These tales give women a chance to relate to the goddesses through their mutual suffering.

Being a diverse and widely spread religion means that Hinduism has sects that are different from the rest of the religion. In some of these sects’ women are equal to men and are allowed to be a part of and perform ritual practices usually barred to women (David 337). One of these sects is located in England and is a Tamil diaspora from Sri Lanka (David 338). This sect is led by a man who is often possessed by a female deity and has claimed that his intention is to establish equality between men and women. The women within this Sri Lankan community are able to participate in rituals. They are also given the opportunity to become priests within these areas if they want to (David 341-343). This equality of men and women allows women to receive the same amount of respect as men. It also diminishes the influence of the caste/class system (David 341).

Women’s status in Hindu society is expected to be that of subjection and obedience to men. Despite this woman allow themselves moments of freedom through possession by goddesses (Diesel 1998:76). This gives them a sense of power even if it is only for a short period. Those women who do not experience possession find power through the goddesses in different ways such as accepting them as role models or relating to them through shared experiences (Diesel 2002:9). Often times, these connected events relate to oppression or violence by men. In certain areas of the world, these women are beginning to receive support to be empowered and participate in rituals banned from the majority of women (David 337). Through these and other experiences women are given empowerment and can begin to feel as though they are not just there to serve men. They can feel that they are valued members of their communities.

References and Other Recommended Reading

Black, Maggie (2009) “Women in Ritual Slavery: Devadasi, Jogini and Mathamma in Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, Southern India.” Pakistan Journal of Women’s Studies= Alm-e-Niswan=Alm-I Nisvan16,1/2:179-205.

Dalmiya, Vrinda (2000) “Loving Paradoxes: A Feminist Reclamation of the Goddess Kali.” Hypatia 15,1:125-150.

David, Ann R (2009) “Gendering the Divine: New Forms of Feminine Hindu Worship.” International Journal of Hindu Studies 13,3:337-355.

Diesel, Alleyn (1998) “The Empowering Image of the Divine Mother: A South African Hindu Woman Worshipping the Goddess.” Journal of Contemporary Religion 13,1:73-90.

Diesel, Alleyn (2002) “Tales of Women’s Suffering: Draupadi and Other Amman Goddesses as Role Models for Women.” Journal of Contemporary Religion 17,1:5-20.

Knott, Kim (2016) Hinduism: a very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 81-82.

Rao, Shanta Rameshwar (2011) “The Mahabharata.” Telangana:Orient BlackSwan.

Related Topics for Further Investigation


Amman Goddesses

Draupadi Fire Walking Ceremonies


The Mahabharata


Goddess Worship

Goddess Possession



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Article Written by: Lundyn Davis (February 2017) who is solely responsible for its content.


The Mahavidyas are a group of ten goddesses from late Hindu literary tradition. They are great revelations also known as manifestations. While some of the goddesses in this group hold individual significance and can be dated back to a much earlier time, the group as a whole acts as an important iconographic and mythological expression of Mahadevi theology (Kinsley 1988: 161). This comes from the concept that the Devi, the great goddess, would manifest herself in a variety of forms. A prominent myth claims that the Devi produces different goddesses from different parts of her body. It suggests she assumes different forms at different times in order to maintain cosmic stability (Kinsley 1988:162). All ten of the Mahavidyas are often depicted in goddess temples throughout India today. While not each of the ten forms is individually celebrated, when shown as a group, the Mahavidyas represent the idea that a particular goddess dwelling in the temple takes many forms.

The origin of the ten Mahavidyas in Hindu mythology comes from a story of the creators Sati and Siva. Sati’s father, Daksa, performs a great sacrifice and invites all of the heavenly kingdoms to attend. The only couple he does not invite is Siva and Sati. The claim is that Daksa does not like his son in law because of Siva’s uncivilized habits and disheveled appearance. Therefore, he purposely neglects to invite him to the sacrifice. Siva is not offended, but Sati is greatly insulted and tells Siva that she is going to attend the sacrifice. Siva forbids her to attend the sacrifice and Sati loses her temper. First, she assumes a dreadful form and then she multiplies herself into ten forms, the Mahavidyas: Kali, Tara, Chinnamasta, Bhuvanesvari, Bagala, Dhumavati, Kamala, Matangi, Sodasi, and Bhairavi (Kinsley 1988:163).

Seated on a lotus blossom, Kamala is one of the Ten Mahavidyas who is known as the Great Wisdom Goddess. With a golden complexion, Kamala is the beautiful and fully-realized form of Laksmi, the goddess of wealth, well-being, fertility and prosperity (Kinsley 1999:179-181). In most respects, Kamala is portrayed like the goddess Laksmi. They are in fact the same goddess but Kamala is more esoteric in nature. Kamala sits, the same as Laksmi, with two hands each holding a lotus while the other two hands are bestowing blessings (Amodio 51-53). The lotus signifies purity, auspiciousness, piety and is the direct translation of Kamala’s name in Sanskrit. All of these aspects are also strongly associated with Laksmi. The lotus is a symbol of the universe, is found in every sacred diagram, and is associated with many Hindu deities. It grows from murky waters and then comes forth with large leaves and beautiful fragrant blossoms. This represents the emergence of the pure, limitless Atman (soul) from the restricted material body, and allows a devoted spiritual follower to be untouched by the murkiness of drama, attachment, and ego (Colburn 108). Additionally, the lotus is very nourishing and represents the vital nature of the spiritual path in nurturing our whole self.  

There is a slight difference in iconography between Kamala and Laksmi in that Kamala’s depiction includes two elephants with their trunks raised, a feature which is often absent from images of Laksmi. The elephants, that are depicted surrounding Kamala showering her with water, symbolize the fertile rains of monsoon that bring plants and flowers. This is parallel symbolization to the spiritual wealth that grows through the passion of regular devotion and practice (Danielou 261). The elephants also provide a sense of authority as they are symbols of royalty and status. Since Kamala is the devoted wife of Visnu, preserver of the universe, she is seen as queen and preserver of everything on earth. Kamala is often depicted wearing a dazzling crown on her head, a silk-type dress, a kaustibha gem, and a smiling face (Kinsley 1999:180).

As one of the Ten Mahavidyas, Kamala represents the unfolding of inner consciousness stemming from the foundation of creation (Pintchman 289). As the goddess of material and spiritual wealth and beauty, Kamala is primarily worshipped for her power to eliminate both material and spiritual poverty. In poor economic times, Kamala or Laksmi are worshipped in hopes of bringing material wealth. Altars to Laksmi can often be found in places of business and in individual homes. In the home, a married woman is considered an incarnation of Laksmi. This is attributed to studies that show woman possess a special ability to create wealth from very little (Sharma 1-12). Kamala is referred to as pure creative force and has the power to create beauty and wealth around us. This includes the ability to see beauty in everything. As the creative force, Kamala is also the goddess who blesses families with children. Families having difficulty conceiving or adopting children may offer worship to the powerful Tantric Goddess. Similarly, those who become happily pregnant or have a new addition to their family after much difficulty should offer thanks to Kamala as she is the goddess of fertility, childbirth, and family well-being (Sharma 26).

The profit of worshipping Kamala or Laksmi for the highest spiritual good is not only blessing of material security, but also of spiritual progress. Kamala teaches commitment to the spiritual path through riddance of the drama of our daily lives and bitterness towards others. The true nature of Kamala is the radiant beauty of the cosmos that is manifest in the material world (Kinsley 1999: 202). Kamala is the spirit of nature itself, and she is manifest in the natural world. She can be worshipped by simply spending time in nature and appreciating its profound beauty. Through recognition of her beauty in the natural world, an individual moves further towards liberation (Pintchman 289). A spiritual follower who detaches the fruits of action and finds enjoyment in the acts of service, generosity and prayer for their own sake can truly begin to grasp the inner nature of Kamala, the light of divine consciousness and connection with the self (Colburn 126). Kamala embodies the spirit of giving, receiving graciously and gratefully instead of with greed. She teaches that true wealth is measured by generosity, spiritual depth, and freedom from ego-driven desires. When followers ask something of Kamala in greed, she may grant desires with all of the associated negative consequences. Kamala does have the tendency to remind us that she is also the goddess Kali, who teaches detachment and surrender (Kinsley 1999: 62). This helps to remind followers to trust the way as they find a spiritual path that serves the highest good, instead of being seduced by our own worldly desires for the sake of material gain. In this way, Kamala can be seen as a teacher of financial responsibility in terms of learning to save, paying off debt, investing wisely and without greed, not taking what is not freely given, making charitable offerings, and not spending more than can be afforded.

Kamala can be worshipped to manifest creative vision, eliminate poverty, stabilize your home, open your heart, and deepen spiritual understanding and experience. Laksmi Puja is Kamala’s special holy day which is celebrated on the full moon of Ashvin, typically in early October (Dold, 60-62). Puja simply means devotional worship and followers do not need to wait for a specific day to worship Kamala. She is known to accept all sincere worship. A simple Laksmi and Kamala altar are very similar and can be created by placing a beautiful cloth (white, pink, yellow, or red) on a small table or flat surface that is not directly the ground. Then, one may place a depiction of Laksmi or Kamala on the surface, as well as a vase or plate of flowers, a candle or oil lamp, and some sweet-smelling incense. During Laksmi Puja, it is believed that it is beneficial to place rice stalks or an alternative form of grain at the altar as well. The grain is a symbol of abundance and the foundation of sustenance, both in the physical and spiritual sense. Many followers use a small bell with gentle sounds as it is believed that Laksmi does not like loud noises. On special days, followers will offer a basket or plate that contains a small piece of fine cloth, a small mirror, and comb (symbols of beauty in the manifest world), a small white conch or shell (symbol of clarity), and any kind of coin (symbol of material wealth). Lastly a small cup of coconut water or purified water is placed along with the offering (Hawley 180-185).

The practice of worship involves standing or kneeling in front of the altar and reciting Kamala’s pranama mantra. This mantra praises Kamala as the great goddess Laksmi who is beloved and grants all desires. She is seen as the goddess who encourages the spiritual life in her white form. White symbolizes the color of ultimate reality and presents her as the pure, gentle, independent, powerful, virgin goddess. Simple worship consists of additional movements and behaviours. A follower would use their left hand to ring the bell softly, while taking their right hand to wave the candle or lamp clockwise before the depiction of Laksmi three times. The mantra is repeated and the worshipper bows deeply before the image. A traditional gesture of great respect is kneeling or touching your forehead to the ground. This is when a follower can ask for blessing and offer thanks for all the blessing she has given. The puja ends with another bow. Objects used in worship hold significance and can be considered a blessing for Laksmi or saved for other special days or offerings (Kinsley 1988: 32-35). Presently at the Sri Sri Kamakhya Temple in Assam, India, the inner sanctum known as the garbha grha, which literally means “womb room”, of the temple houses is not only the pitha of Sri Sri Kamakhya Devi, but also of Matangi (Sarasvati) and Kamala (Laksmi). Therefore, when a follower receives the darsana of Kamakhya, they also receive blessing of Matangi and Kamala (Pintchman 289). Kamala is a powerful creative force that encompasses the beauty in everything. Her teachings of commitment to the spiritual path reach to eliminate poverty and create wealth among her devoted followers.

References and Further Recommended Reading

Amodio, Barbara (2011) “The Mahavidya (Great Lesson) of Sacred Transformation in Ten Mahesvan Icons of the Goddess: Secret Identities of Siva and the Goddess (Sakti) as One.” Journal of Indian Philosophy and Religion 16: 51-66. Accessed January 31, 2017. doi: 10.5840/jipr2011162

Colburn, Thomas (1988) Devi Mahatmya: The Crystallization of the Goddess Tradition. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers.

Danielou, Alain (1991) The Myths and God of Indra: The Classic Work on Hindu Polytheism from the Princeton Bollington Series. Inner Traditions: Bear & Co.

Dold, Patricia 2012. “Pilgrimage to Kamakhya Through Text and Lived Religion: Some Forms of the Goddess at an Assamese Temple Site.” In Studying Hinduism in Practice, edited by Hillary Rodrigues, 46-62. Oxon: Routledge.

Hawley, John S. and Donna Wulff (1998) Devi: Goddesses of India. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers.

Kinsley, David (1988) Hindu Goddesses: Visions of the Divine Feminine in the Hindu Religious Traditions. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Kinsley, David (1999) “Tantric Visions of the Divine Feminine: The Ten Mahavidyas.” The Journal of Religion 79, 1:179-181

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

Rodrigues, Hillary (2003) Ritual Worship of the Great Goddess: The Liturgy of the Durga Puja with Interpretations. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Sharma, Arvind (2005) Goddess and Women in the Indic Religious Tradition. Leiden: E.J. Brill.

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Lakshimi Puja

Mahadevi theology


Pranama Mantra




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Article written by: Kirsten Cole (February 2017) who is solely responsible for its content


India is a patriarchal society in which men are considered more important than women; wives are often ranked based on their husband’s social status. However, goddesses are an exception and challenge this notion, as they hold power (Sakti) over all humans and often hold presidency over male gods in the Hindu religion (Vaudeville 1). Radha is an inspirational goddess in the Hindu religion, due to her everlasting love and unbreakable devotion (Bhakti) for the god Krsna, who is one of the eight incarnations of Visnu (Mukhhopadhyay 4). Unfortunately there is no record of Radha’s individual identity before she met Krsna; therefore, they are often considered one entity with the name Radha-Krsna (Miller 13). Radha’s story is unique because it reinforces love between human and the divine (Dimock and Levertov 9).  Together, their story constitutes the attainment of the highest level of connection, passion, and love that two beings can share, which is known as Rasa.

The Gitagovinda describes the love relationship of Radha and Krsna through poetry and song, and was written in the 12th Century by Jayadeva (Miller 14). Jayadeva reveals that Radha and Krsna first encountered one another in the country Braj. This was Radha’s birth town where she was well known and often called Lali, which means darling (Vaudeville 11). Krsna was married to sixteen thousand wives, and had sixteen thousand Gopis, which are cow-herding women. Krsna’s flute had the power to make women drop whatever they were doing and join him in listening to beautiful melodies, thus attracting Radha (Dimock and Levertov 8).

Krsna and Radha knew and longed for each other before they had any first encounters, leading to the notion that they are not, and never were, separate entities at all. Rather, Radha is Krsna’s characteristic of power and strength (Sakti), and everything that he wants out of a partner; she is said to be his reason for coming into the world (Wulff 111). Radha evolved from Krsna to bring nature (Prakrti), Maya (mysterious power), and Sakti (energy) into existence (Brown 62).  This alludes to the idea that Krsna needs Radha because she is the energy and power that he transmits to all of the other Gopis when he loves them. When Radha and Krsna are apart he longs to feel the stability he encounters in her presence.

One crucial concept of importance when surveying Radha and Krsnas love is the importance of memory. It is highly recognized that both Radha and Krsna remembered each others’ encounters and the way they made each other feel, most of their relationship was spent lovingly devoting themselves to each other through their connection of memories, and the hope that they would one day reunite after huge bouts of separation. Krsna is absent for long periods of time as he goes away to the Mahabharata war, in hopes of finding his lost identity (Miller and Goswami 14, 89). Radha becomes so obsessed with the idea of Krsna that she sees him everywhere she goes, even in the trees, almost as a hallucination (Wulff 31). Radha remembers miniscule details about Krsna, and fantasizes about making love to him. Through this, Krsna can sense her love and they share a connection through wanting each other; this desire is known as Kama (Miller 20). The foundation of their relationship is that they love each other so deeply that they will do anything to stay devoted, even after great amounts of time pass without contact. Their love is eternal and they both never feel the strength of that bond with any of their other significant partners.

Radha is often perceived as Krsna’s mistress because Krsna never married her but always admired her. Radha and Krsna never marry because they desire a love without constraints and one of spontaneity (Wulff 41). Radha’s biggest insecurity is that she is forced to overcome the jealousy she experiences when she imagines Krsna participating in sexual acts with other Gopis (Dimock and Levertov 7). Radha feels intensely conflicted in her own mind, as she is aware that Krsna is attracted and involved with other women, but this does not stop her from giving Krsna all she has (even though she is also married). She is aware that she appears mad to everyone else around her, but she does not care because her feelings of love are so deep that no object, or human could change the way she feels (Wulff 38).

Radha’s love is Krsna’s Sakti; without it he would be incomplete and lost. She energizes Krsna providing him with the means to carry on as a friend, master, child, or lover (Brown 69). Because Radha is Krsna’s favourite, she becomes one with him; alone she is just a normal cow herding Gopi, but in combination with him she is considered to be a powerful mother figure who Krsna needs and desires. Sometimes she is even regarded as more important than he in the Hindu religion. The image in which Radha forces Krsna to let her put her feet on top of his head, demonstrates the power that she had over him (Miller and Brown 23,71). The two complement and complete each other; something is taken away from one being without the presence of the other.

Radha submits her complete self to Krsna in a variety of ways. First, she listens and sings with Krsna, which proves that they are emotionally surrendered to each other. Radha and Krsna can mediate and be on the same level with one another, through this they achieve Samarana, which means spontaneity, in which all expectations are lost and they are able to love each other freely without restraints of other people (Goswami 80). Radha and Krsna are trying to achieve Rasa, which is the highest level of love, in which they will no longer feel like separate entities; rather, their love will be so powerful that it joins two individuals into one being (Goswami 80).

Today Radha and Krsna are still very important deities in Hindu worship; the Hindu calendar allows them both to be praised on separate days. Radha Ashtami is celebrated in August or September, and it is to commemorate the day of her birth. On this day people fast from food and worship her (Bellenir 1). All goddesses are seen in the Hindu calendar to have both a dark (Kali) and a bright (Durga) side, to represent the waxing and waning of the moon. The light side is said to take on human form, which carries weapons, and the dark represents a cosmic mother figure (Vaudeville 3). One also finds renounced paintings of Radha and Krsna; these represent their deep love and bond. Most original paintings show Krsna alone playing his flute, although later on Radha is also shown playing. This represents that Radha is most definitely Krsna’s favourite, and therefore receives special privileges over the other Gopis (Goswami 87).

Radha and Krsna’s relationship illustrates that not only humans can attain extreme love connections for one another, but the love between a human and God is also possible. The Radha-Krsna relationship proves that the highest Bhakti, Rasa, is possible for these two as they remember every characteristic and devote their entire being to another; even when jealousy and anger take over, their devotion for one another prevails (Dimock and Levertov 13). Krsna proves his love by making Radha his favourite out of all of the women he has encountered, and Radha devotes every action to loving Krsna and being his power to continue loving her and all of his wives and Gopis (Brown 63).



Bellenir, K (2004) Religious Holidays & Calendars. Detroit: Omnigraphics, Inc.

Brown, Mackenzie. (1982) “The Theology of Radha in the Puranas.” In John Stratton Hawley and Donna Marie Wulff, eds. The Divine Consort Radha And The Goddesses Of india, p.57-72. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Dimock, Edward and Levertov, Denise (1967) In praise of Krishna: songs from the Bengali. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Goswami, Shrivatsa. (1982) “The Play and Perfection of Rasa”  In John Stratton Hawley and Donna Marie Wulff, eds. The Divine Consort Radha And The Goddesses Of india, p.72-89. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Miller, Barbara. (1982) “The Divine Duality of Radha and Krishna” In John Stratton Hawley and Donna Marie Wulff, eds. The Divine Consort Radha And The Goddesses Of india, p.13-27. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Mukhoradhyay, Durgadas (1990) In Praise of Krishna. Delhi: Br Publishing Corporation.

Vaudeville, Charlotte. (1982) “Krishna Gopala, Radha, and The Great Goddess.” In John Stratton Hawley and Donna Marie Wulff, eds. The Divine Consort Radha And The Goddesses Of India, p.1-13. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Wulff, Donna. (1996) “Radha: Consort and Conquerer of Krishna” In John Stratton Hawley and Donna Marie Wulff, eds. Devi: Goddesses of India, P. 109-112. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Wulff, Donna. (1982) “A Sanskrit Portrait: Radha in the plays of Rupa Gosvami” In John Stratton Hawley and Donna Marie Wulff, eds. The Divine Consort Radha And The Goddesses Of india, p.27-42. Berkeley: University of California Press.


Related Research Topics

  • Braj
  • Durga
  • Devi
  • Gitagovinda
  • Gopi
  • Jayadeva
  • Kali
  • Lali
  • Maya
  • Prakrti
  • Rasa
  • Sakti
  • Samarana


Related Websites


Article written by: Cassandra Poch (April 2016), who is solely responsible for its content.

Mohini and the Churning of the Ocean of Milk

Mohini is a manifestation of Visnu in the myth of the churning of the ocean of milk. The myth starts out with a war between the devas (representation of good) and the asuras (representation of bad), but the devas were losing due to an unfair advantage on the asuras’ side (Glucklich 158). The asuras got help from Siva who had given them the ability to resurrect from the dead after the devas had killed them (Glucklich 158).  Because of this, the devas sought after Brahma to help them. He suggested that instead of fighting with the asuras they should partner up with them to summon Visnu to help them churn the ocean of milk in order to gain “the nectar of immortality” (Glucklich 158). Visnu plays a vital role in this myth because he manifests in many forms to help the devas and the asuras to churn the ocean. Visnu takes on forms to be: the foundation for the churning stick (a tortoise), the churning rope (a serpent), and of course Mohini (Kinsley 67).

Mohini (a female representation of Visnu); Delhi National Museum, 2017

While the ocean was churning, various other things emerge before the nectar of immortality. Once it appeared out of the ocean the devas drank, which is when Mohini appears as a seductive woman who distributes the nectar and beheads Rahu, an asura disguised as a deva, before he can swallow the nectar (Glucklich 159-160). With the nectar and Visnu’s weapons, the devas defeat the asuras as they retreated (Glucklich 160). Some believe that the nectar of immortality was a euphemism for Soma (Glucklich 160) while others interpret it as a “representation of the abundance of earth” (Kinsley 68). This shift between sexes often has bad or negative connotations in religious myths. Normally, when a god, or anyone for that matter, is turned into a different sex (usually men turning into women) it is form of punishment or a curse, with the exception of Mohini (Parasher-Sen 45). Earlier versions of the myth were short and did not use Mohini’s name but rather spoke of an anonymous woman (Visnu in disguise) who took back the immortality nectar that the asuras had stolen (Parasher-Sen 48). A different rendering of this myth believe that Mohini’s role was to cheat the asuras out of their share while distributing the immortality nectar (see Parasher-Sen 48). In the Vayu Purana version of the myth, Brahma says a mantra that brings Mohini out of the ocean, and when he sees her he is so pleased by her looks (Parasher-Sen 48).

Part of the churning the ocean myth is the chase of Mohini by Siva. There are several versions of this part of the myth. In the Bhagavata Purana, after seeing Mohini, Siva loses his senses and runs after Mohini. He becomes so overwhelmed with passion that only after he ejaculates, he realizes that Mohini is really just a manifestation of Visnu and that he had been fooled (Parasher-Sen 48).  In the Agni Purana once Mohini turns back into Visnu, Siva asks him to turn back into his female form. When he does, Siva becomes naked and grabs Mohini by the hair until she frees herself and runs away. He follows her and it is unclear if he catches her again but whereever his semen drops is where sacred places of lingas and gold appear (Parasher-Sen 48). These ‘connections’ between Mohini (Visnu) and Siva was said to have created a child (Aiyanar) which turns Mohini into a mother figure instead of a temptress (Parasher-Sen 49).

The final part of the myth is the binding of Visnu and Siva which creates Harihara. Harihara is an androgynous figure which is created by Visnu who is often, but not always, composed as feminine and Siva who is always depicted as masculine (Parasher-Sen 45). Even though Visnu reverts back to his masculine form before the binding with Siva, he is still considered to be the feminine side (Parasher-Sen 45). Although the Harihara is described as being androgynous, with Visnu possessing the female body parts, it is rare to find a depiction of this (Parasher-Sen 51). It is hard to find sculptures of Harihara with Mohini on the side of Visnu, although there are instances of this representation (Parasher-Sen 51). The feminine side (Visnu/Mohini) is often depicted holding either a wheel, a conch, or a mace in one hand and a crab in the other, while wearing a crown and crocodile earrings (Parasher-Sen 51). While the masculine side (Siva) is often holding a trident, sword, drum, rosary, battle-axe, or a skull while wearing serpent earrings and a ‘top-knot of hair’ with a crescent moon (Parasher-Sen 51).

Mohini can be considered many things: the seducer of Siva (Parasher-Sen 46), the nectar distributor (Parasher-Sen 48; Glucklich 159-160; and Kinsley 67), the mother of Aiyanar (Parasher-Sen 49), and the deceiver of asuras (Parasher-Sen 46). Some scholars think that Mohini is important to the Hindu culture because she helps show women in a more positive light, and that the transformation from a male to female is not always a curse but rather a gift (Parasher-Sen 56), and in the case of Mohini, a necessity to stop the bad from becoming more powerful than the good.


Glucklich, Ariel (2008) The Strides of Visnu. New York: Oxford University Press.

Kinsley, David R. (1986) Hindu Goddesses. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Parasher-Sen, Aloka (1999) “Images of Feminine Identity in Hindu Mythology and Art: The Case of Visnu-Mohini.” Indian Journal of Gender Studies, Vol. 6, No. 1: 43-60.







Vayu Purana                                                                                                                            


Bhagavata Purana

Agni Purana




Sculpture/Art Work





Article written by: Michaela Klein (February 2016) who is solely responsible for its content.

The Devi Mahatmya

Many ancient cultures have traditions believing in the power of a mother goddess. Hinduism is one such religion that still has a strong culture of goddess worship that has continued to develop over the years. There are many indications of the importance of fertility and the importance of worshiping feminine power in the remains of the Indus Valley Civilization, which was discovered in the 1920’s. Female figurines as well as seals were found depicting the female figure (Coburn 15).

The Devi Mahatmya is one of the first texts in the Hindu tradition to equate female divinity with the principle of Brahman, which is ultimate reality (Abbot and Foulston 12). It is part of a larger text called the Markandeya-Purana. However, out of all of the texts in the Markandeya-Purana, the Devi Mahatmya has the most commentaries and is mostly viewed on its own as opposed to with the full text. The term Devi Mahatmya translates to “Greatness of the Goddess”. The text is all about the myths of Hindu goddesses and was originally in Sanskrit (Coburn 1). It was likely written in the sixth century and is still used today to worship the goddess (Kinsley 489). The text mostly narrates tales of battles between the goddess (Devi) and various demons, but takes place within a larger story. Throughout the Devi Mahatmya the goddess is referred to by over 200 different names. Several of these names describe characteristics of the goddess, while others convey honour. Many of them refer to goddesses that have been mentioned in other Hindu literature. (Kinsley 490).

The Devi Mahatmya is usually presented in three sections. Each section is about a specific goddess and has its own seer and deity. These three sections contain different chapters and are unequal in length. The first section is chapter 1, the second consists of chapters 2-4, and the third spans chapters 5-14. These three sections that make up the Devi Mahatmya are often surrounded by appendages or angas. These are subsidiary texts that the Devi Mahatmya relies on and they come before and after the main text.  These angas discuss ritual use of the Devi Mahatmya (Coburn 100).

The Devi Mahatmya tells of three battles between the goddess, Devi, and different demons. These three battles make up the three sections of the text. The frame story, which connects these episodes, is that there is a sage that is teaching his two pupils about the identity of the goddess. The sage tells his pupils about the three battles. The first section and battle of the Devi Mahatmya tells how the demons Madhu and Kaitabha were defeated. The second section is about the goddess’ defeat of the demon Mahisa. The third section is the myth of Sumbha and Nisumbha (Coburn 22-24).

In the first section, the goddess is associated with the deity Visnu. The goddess takes on the characteristics of the great male god. When associated with Visnu the goddess is characterized by negative qualities such as sleep and delusion (Kinsley 491). These characteristics are referred to as maya and the goddess is referred to as Mahamaya ten times in this episode. Although maya has negative overtones it also has positive ones such as the ability to create (Kinsley 498-499).  The two demons in this section, Madhu and Kaitabha, are said to have come out of Visnu’s ear to harass Brahma, the creator god. In this story, the goddess is able to awaken Visnu so that he can defeat the two demons. He fought them for five thousand years and then he was finally able to defeat them. He granted their last wish and killed them on land by cutting off their heads (Coburn 39).

The second section of the Devi Mahatmya has the goddess born from the strength and power of many different gods (Kinsley 492). This section is unique because it describes the birth of a completely new god. In this episode, the demon Mahisa conquers the gods and expels them from heaven to wander the earth. Hearing about this, Visnu and Siva became angry and out of a fiery splendor, known as tejas, the goddess was created. The goddess was created from different aspects of each god and given different weapons from all of them (Coburn 40). Together, this new goddess and the other gods had been expelled fought in a battle against Mahisa’s army. They fought until Mahisa’s army begged them to stop and Mahisa was slain. At the end of the battle flowers were released from heaven (Coburn 44). The goddess in this episode is praised by the gods and continued to protect the worlds.

The third section is the longest section of the Devi Mahatmya and consists of the most chapters. This episode begins with the gods going to the Himalayas (Kinsley 491). The demons Sumbha and Nisumbha hear of this great goddess and send two of their generals, Canda and Munda, to abduct her and bring her to him in order to get married. The generals believe that they will be able to take the goddess with ease and little effort. They approach her confidently and with pride forgetting that she is all-powerful. As they approach, the goddess first lets out a mantra that has the power to create and destroy, and then goes on to destroy the two generals. The king demon, named Sumbha, who had given the orders for the goddess to be abducted is angered when he hears that his two best generals have been destroyed by a woman (Amazzone 63). When he attacks, the goddess goes on to destroy both Sumbha and his brother Nisumbha; The Devi Mahatmya makes it very clear that the goddess is universal and all-powerful (Abbot and Foulston 66).

The Devi Mahatmya is still used in the Hindu tradition today. It is one of the most influential texts in the tradition and is used to worship the goddess at different Hindu rituals and gatherings. One of the gathering in which the Devi Mahatmya is used is the Durga Puja. The Durga Puja is the most popular festival, it is celebrated once a year in Kolkata and devotees get to “gaze upon the Goddess’s face.” (Abbot and Foulston 157). It is one of the largest pilgrimage experiences within Southeast Asia, millions or people take part in this pilgrimage in order to worship the goddess. The festival takes place over nine nights and part of the festival is the recitation of the Devi Mahatmya and her victories over the demons (Amazzone 48).

Although the Devi Mahatmya is an ancient text in the Hindu tradition it still stands out among all of the other texts. It is one of the most influential texts and is unique because it tells tales of the great goddess. It has been used all throughout the Hindu tradition and is still used today at festivals and to worship the goddess.


References and Further Recommended Reading

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

Amazzone, Laura (2010) Goddess Durga and the Sacred Female Power. Maryland: Hamilton Books.

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

Coburn, Thomas B. (1988) Devi Mahatmya: The Crystallization of the Goddess Tradition. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Hawley, John Stratton and Donna Marie Wulff, (1996) Devi: Goddesses of India. Berkeley:University of California Press.

Kinsley, David (1978) “The Portrait of the Goddess in the Devī-Māhātmya.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion Vol. 46 No. 4: 489-506. Accessed January 30, 2016.

Kinsley, David (1975) “Freedom from Death in the Worship of Kali.” Numen 22(3): 183-207. Accessed February 3, 2016. Doi: 10.2307/3269544


Related Topics



Markandeya Purana


Durga Saptashati










Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic


Article written by: Ana Ferzacca (March 2016) who is solely responsible for its content.














Bharat Mata

The figure of a maternal goddess connected to the land is not a new idea in Hinduism, however, it was not until the conception of Bharat Mata (Mother India), that the worship of the country of India itself as a goddess began to emerge (Foulston 204).  What distinguished Bharat Mata from the much older goddess of the Earth, Prithvi, is Bharat Mata’s association with the specific geography of India (Ramaswamy 564). The subcontinent of India itself becomes a goddess and a mother who is sustained by the sacrifice of her children (Kinsley 181). Bharat Mata embodies all that is India: the land, the people, the religion, the culture, and even the politics. This image of a single Mother representing an entire nation was a way to arouse “the national sentiments of the population as a whole,” (Thapar 88) since it was the duty of the collective to protect the Mother from outside dangers (Thapar 88).

One of the earliest depictions of Bharat Mata is in Bhuedeb Mukhopadhyay’s Unabima Purana (‘The Nineteenth Purusa’), where she is portrayed as a widow and the epitome of what it means to be Aryan (Foulston 204-205). Not long afterwards, in 1873, she appeared in Kiran Chandra Bandyopadhyay’s play, Bharat Mata, as a trodden down motherland (Foulston 205). It, however, was not until her appearance in the nationalist novel Anandamath (Abbey of Bliss or The Sacred Brotherhood) written by Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, that the character of Bharat Mata began to gain popularity (Foulston 205). The novel was written during the late nineteenth century, a time when the Indian independence movement was at its height, and as a result the figure of a mother who required the protection of her children against outside aggression took on a more central role in India’s fight for political freedom (Kinsley 181).

Chatterjee’s novel itself is set during the late eighteenth century in a Bengali community during the famine of 1770. Anandamath follows a group called the ‘Order of the Children,’ who worship a Mother goddess, as they work to free themselves as well as their Mother from the tyranny of their oppressors (Foulston 205). One of the more significant scenes in the novel occurs when the character of Mahendra is taken into the ‘Order’s’ temple by the chief monk. Once in the temple, Mahendra is shown three different forms of the Mother goddess. The first form depicts the Mother as she was in the past. This form portrays her as Annapurna, the goddess of plenty. The next form of the Mother goddess depicts her in her current state. In contrast to the first form, this form is portrayed as Kali, naked and disheveled. Kali’s nakedness is seen as visually representing all that has been taken away from India since it had been under British rule (Foulston 206). Additionally, Kali is adorned with skulls (Foulston 206) and severed arms (Kinsley 181). The skulls signify the death of the land caused by the famine (Foulston 206), while the severed arms represent the sacrifices that will need to be made in order to free the Mother from British oppression (Kinsley 181).

The final form of the Mother is what she would be if she were liberated: a mighty, ten armed goddess, yielding a weapon in each hand, with the enemy crushed at her feet. This depiction of a supreme warrior draws on the image of the great goddess Durga (Foulston 206 and Ramaswamy 562). Excited by the prospect of this radiant Mother, Mahendra asks when she will once again attain this form to which the chief monk’s reply is, only when all of her children recognize her as true Mother (McKean 254). The chief monk’s reply emphasizes that the only way that liberation, both political and spiritual, can be obtained for the ‘Order’ and the Mother is through complete devotion to and sacrifice for the Mother (McKean 254). It is only when all of the Mother’s children are willing to serve the Mother and sacrifice themselves for her, like the members of the ‘Order’ are willing to do, that the Mother goddess will once again become great (Kinsley 182). This statement can also be seen as paralleling modern Hindu nationalistic rhetoric by suggesting that “anyone who wants a place in India should view India as their sacred land and their Mother” (Foulston 207-208), thus establishing a separation between the devoted children of Bharat Mata and those that would seek to oppress the Mother and her children.

Chatterjee’s Anandamath, in addition to providing one of the first clear figures of the Mother-goddess, also depicts Bharat Mata in the form of a song of praise, which has since become a national song, entitled Vande Mataram (Hail to the Mother or I bow to Thee Mother) (Foulston 207).  Incidentally, this song of praise to the Mother goddess in the novel was actually written before the novel itself and has resulted in numerous translations being produced (Foulston 208).  Among the translations that have been produced is one by Sri Aurobindo, who was an early proponent of Indian nationalism (Foulston 207). The slogan “Vande Mataram” quickly became popular apart from the novel, as the idea of “the Motherland and the stirring nature of her anthem have been attractive to many seeking their own identity” (Foulston 208). The slogan “Vande Mataram” was used politically for the first time in 1905 at demonstrations for the partition of Bengal. At this point in time, both Hindus and Muslims joined together to shout the slogan. However, by 1921, Hindus used the same slogan against Muslims during the Calcutta riots; thus Vande Mataram is regarded by many Muslims to be anti-Islamic (Foulston 208).

This hymn of praise to the Motherland became “the rallying cry for an emergent patriotic cult of Bharat Mata” (Ramaswamy 558) seeking Indian independence from the British (Foulston 208 and Ramaswamy 558). Even though India is now an independent country, the idea of a Mother-goddess is still very prevalent in India. The Indian national anthem for example, which was first sung in 1911, similarly expresses the same sentiment as Chatterjee’s Vande Mataram (Kinsley 183).

In the Anandamath, Bharat Mata is associated with the fight against British colonialism, however, over the years there has been a transition so that the figure of Bharat Mata has become more closely associated with Hindu nationalism as opposed to Indian nationalism. (Foulston 209). Whereas, during the Indian independence movement, Hindus and Muslims fought alongside each other to free the Mother, the image of Bharat Mata and national identity is now deeply embedded in Hindu piety and activism which is symbolized by the temples erected for Bharat Mata (Gupta 104 and McKean 264). The first temple dedicated to Bharat Mata was erected in 1936 in Banaras (or Varanasi) in which Bharat Mata is represented by a relief map of a still undivided India (Foulston 209). The purpose for building the temple was an “attempt at creating a composite religious and national identity and was seen as a place . . .  where all could worship.” (Gupta 102). The desire to create a place where there was no distinction between Hindu and Muslim, people of high caste and people of low caste, however, was undercut by the Hindu symbols that adorned the temple. On the gates of the temple, for example, the slogan Vande Mataram was inscribed. Since its use against Muslims in 1921, this slogan has been considered by many Muslims as anti-Islamic. The use of Vande Mataram on the gates of the temple only served as a way to further alienate the Muslim population and embed the image of Bharat Mata in Hindu nationalism (Foulston 209-210 and Gupta 103-104).

A second temple for Bharat Mata was constructed in 1983 at Haridwar, which is an important pilgrimage city for Hindus, by Swami Satyamiterand Giri, the leader of the Vishva Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council or VHP)(Foulston 210). In comparison to the temple in Banaras, this eight-storey building depicts the figure of Bharat Mata standing on the map of India holding stalks of grain and an urn of milk in her hands (Foulston 210). The Mother goddess herself takes up the first floor, while the other floors are occupied by “a variety of deities, national heroes and virtuous women satis, some of whom have burned themselves on their husband’s funeral pyre” (Foulston 210). The incorporation of both Hindu symbols and deities with national martyrs in the Bharat Mata temple in Haridwar associates the national Indian identity with the Hindu identity, and is thus able to convey to its visitors a particular configuration of what a unified India looks like (McKean 277).

Before the consecration of the Bharat Mata temple in Haridwar, the Vishva Hindu Parishad promoted the worship of Bharat Mata via a six-week tour of India. The Vishva Hindu Parishad organized the Ekatmata Rath Yatra (One Mother Chariot Procession) integration ritual, where 400 litres of Ganga water as well as “images of Ganga Ma, Siva, and a temporary shrine to Bharat Mata” (Foulston 210) were taken all over India. During the worship of Bharat Mata, religious leaders as well as Hindu nationalists warned the participants that Hinduism was under threat due to the government’s positive treatment of minorities, particularly Muslims” (Foulston 210-211). Thus the Bharat Mata temple at Haridwar portrays the figure of Mother India in terms of Hindu ideals and values, ultimately presenting Bharat Mata as Hindu.

Since her earliest appearances as the Mother goddess worshiped by a community of renouncers in Chatterjee’s Anandamat, the figure of Bharat Mata has “continued to transform, adapting to differing political agendas (Sen 173). In her earliest form, Bharat Mata was a figure that created unity amongst all Indians. The image of Mother India quickly became associated with the fight for Indian independence, as it was up to the children to free the Mother from the oppression of British rule. At the time when India was suffering under British rule, the idea of a maternal figure that required devotion and self-sacrifice from her children was a beneficial way to unite the entire populace of India against a common cause. The fusion of the land, the people, and the Mother as one served to instill the idea that the only way the people could be free is if the Mother is freed and vice versa. The Indian nationalism associated with Bharat Mata has since shifted towards Hindu nationalism. While the nation of India is still “figured as a loving Mother surrounded by her devoted children,” (McKean 252) the figure of the tyrannical oppressor has now shifted from the British to the secular state as well as Muslims (McKean 252).  In this figure of Bharat Mata, “nationhood, culture and religion have become part of a package deal” (Sen 173).  There is no longer a separation between the spiritual and the political. The figure of Bharat Mata has become a representative of what it means to be an ideal Hindu.



Duara, Prasenjit (1991) “The New Politics of Hinduism.” The Wilson Quarterly, Vol. 15, No. 3: 42-50.

Foulston, Lynn (2009) Hindu Goddesses: Beliefs and Practices. Portland, Oregon: Sussex Academic Press.

Gupta, Charu (2006) “The Icon of Mother in Late Colonial North India: Bharat Mata, Matri Bhasha and Gau Mata.” In Beyond Representation: Colonial and Postcolonial Constructions of Indian Identity, edited by Crispin Bates, 100-122. New York: Oxford University Press.

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

McKean, Lisa (1996) “Bharat Mata: Mother India and Her Militant Matriots.” In Devi: Goddesses of India, edited by Hawley, John S. and Donna M. Wulff, 250- 280. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Ramaswamy, Sumathi (2005) “The Goddess and the Nation: Subterfuges of Antiquity, the Cunning of Modernity.” In The Blackwell Companion to Hinduism, edited by Gavin Flood, 549 – 566. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell.

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

Sen, Geeti (2002) “Iconising the Nation: Political Agendas.” India International Centre Quarterly Vol. 29, No.3/4: 155-175.

Thapar, Suruchi (1993) “Women as Activists; Women as Symbols: A Study of the Indian Nationalist Movement.” Feminist Review, Palgrave Macmillan Journals, Vol. 44: 81–96.


Related Topics for Further Investigation


Vishva Hindu Parishad

Ekatmata Rath Yatra

Vande Mataram

Unabima Purana

Indian Independence



Bankim Chandra Chatterjee

Bharat Mata temple in Varanasi

Bharat Mata temple in Haridwar


Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic


Article written by: Barbra Entz (March 2016) who is solely responsible for its content.


The Sakta Pithas

The Sakta Pithas are places of worship, created to worship Hindu goddesses and or places of sacred capacity regarded as seats of the Devi (the Great Goddess). Sakti is known as the female principle of Hinduism and means ‘power’. Sakti is worshipped under many different names such as Durga, Ma, Devi and so on. These places of worship are spread throughout India, often with 51 places of worship in total, most of which are in Bengal or Assam (Payne 1). The 51 Pithas or places of worship are first described in the Mahapithanirupana or Pithanirnaya manuscript. (Sircar 3). Although it is not exactly evident when these manuscripts were composed, it is probable that they were prepared in the Medieval period (Sircar 4). However, it was not until later that works were prepared for Saktism to be greater studied and understood (Payne 15).

Related to these places of worship is an ancient myth depicting how these Pithas, or places of pilgrimage, came to be created. This myth involves the goddess Sati who is regarded as the wife of the great god Siva. There are many different legends and stories that go along with the naming and placing of these Pithas, as every author writing on the Sakta Pithas present different lists as to where the body parts fell. This myth is one that can be described as grim and violent, and thus has not received much attention as far as research goes. However, Saktism is a very important religious movement within Hinduism, and there are millions of Saktas or worshippers of Sakti throughout India (Payne 14).  With any religion, the origins of certain myths can vary making it complex to comprehend. In this article, we will examine the well-known myth of the Sakta Pithas, which tells how they came to be created. We shall also examine some of the legends of the Pithas in regards to their placement and names

One of the most ancient myths, which although not directly connected to the Pithas, provides a parallel symbolic motif. It tells a story of incest between a father, the creator god Prajapati and his daughter, the goddess Usas. The gods became disgusted with this act of incest and, requested Rudra to destroy Prajapati. Rudra thus pierced Prajapti with an arrow and Prajapati proceeded to fall to the ground, which is thereafter used in sacrificial rituals. Since Prajapati represents sacrifice his body could not simply be destroyed.  This version of the myth can be found in the Puranas or Tantras (Sircar 5).

Although the above is an ancient tale, with no direct connection to the Pithas, it grows from there into the well-known Daksa-Yajna Story approximately in the fourth century CE (Sircar 5). This tells of the mother goddess, in the form of Sati, who was a daughter of the “great king Daksa”. She took on this form of Sati in order to marry Siva (Courtright 39). After the couple was married, they went to live in Siva’s home at Mt. Kailasa. Following their marriage Sati’s father, Daksa Prajapati, hosted a sacrifice inviting all the gods but excluded his daughter Sati and his son in law, Siva. Dadhici, (Daksa’s priest), warned against the exclusion of Sati and Siva. He stated that without the ‘great God’, Siva, the ritual would be ineffective (Courtright, 39). However, Daksa believed that Siva was a terrible son in law and that he did not deserve to attend the ritual. Sati, enraged that she and her husband were not invited to her father’s sacrifice, decided to attend nonetheless. Upon attending the sacrifice, Sati was greatly mistreated by her father. Due to this mistreatment, Sati is said to have thrown herself into a fire feeling broken hearted and hurt. News of Sati’s death reached Siva, who furiously headed to the sacrifice and completely destroyed the scene. Some versions of the myth say that he beheaded Daksa. Others say that it was Virabhadra who destroyed the sacrificial ritual and beheaded Daksa (Courtright 41).

The further progression of this myth was added in the later part of the Medieval period, to justify the creation of the Pithas. It tells how Siva roamed around mad with despair carrying Sati’s body. Sati’s body was eventually cut piece by piece out of Siva’s hands; each piece was a different body part, which fell to the earth, thereby creating the holy sites of the Sakta Pithas. Some versions of the myth state that it was Brahman, Visnu and Sani that freed Siva from carrying Sati’s body, while others state that it was Visnu alone. As Sati’s body fell to the earth it spread Sakti or power across India. This spreading of Sati’s body, which not only created the Sakta Pithas, but which offers a mythic rationale for why the entire landscape of India is sacred, is the final portion of the myth.

Courtright suggests that there is a link regarding the creation of the Sakta Pithas and the ancient sacrificial ritual of sati practiced by widows upon the death of their husbands. However, different circumstances resulted in the immolation of Sati versus the sacrificial practice of sati performed by Hindu wives. Sati’s immolation was due to the harshness of a father towards a daughter and her husband while sati is a sacrifice performed by widows to accompany their husband after death (Courtright 37).

The locations where Sati’s body parts fell, or the Pithas, are often connected with linga, which represents Siva. Hindus believe that both worship of the linga and yoni should be held in the same high regard (Sircar 7). The locations, names and traditions of the Pithas differ throughout history. Many writers used a great deal of imagination when creating the lists of Pithas, so there is a great deal of variation amongst them (Sircar 32). However, many texts speak of the four Pithas also known as the Adi Pithas. The Adi Pithas are considered the major sites of Sakti worship, associated with the northern, southern, eastern and western regions of India (Sircar, 17). One early tradition, written about in the Catususpithatantra, indicates the four Adi Pithas as “Atmapitha, Parapitha, Yogapitha and Guhyapitha” (Sircar 11). Due to the fact that Saktism and the worship of Sakti and the Sakta Pithas are not strictly linked to Hinduism, and are also worshipped in Buddhism and Jainism, there are various names and traditions of the Sakti Pithas amongst these groups. The Hevajra Tantra, a Buddhist religious text, lists the Adi Pithas as “Jalandhara, Odiyana, Purnagiti and Kamarupa” (Sircar 12).

Popular writings about the Sakta Pithas speak of the Adi Pithas or the four Pithas and also state that there are a total of 51 Pithas. However, A section of the Kalika Purana contributes an account of seven Pithas as opposed to four: Devikuta, where the two feet of Sati fell, Uddiyana, where the two thighs fell, Kamagiri, where the pudendum muliebre fell, the eastern borders of Kamarupa, where the navel fell, Jalandhara, where the two breasts fell, Purnagiri, where the neck and shoulders fell and once again the borders of Kamarupa, where the head fell. The Rudrayamala, a Tantric text, mentions ten holy sites, rather than four. This tradition discusses sites in Kamarupa, Jalandhara, Purnagiri and Uddiyana, similarly to the Kalika Purana.  The Matysa Skanda and Padma Puranas list the large number of 108 Pithas in total. Such variations seem to derive from the writer’s fabrication and the imagination (Sircar 32). Although the list of names for the Sakta Pithas vary and are plentiful, the Kamarupa Pitha is commonly mentioned in many of the lists. Another commonality is a list of countries connected to a high level of Sakti worhip, namely: Gandahara, Uddiyana, Jalandhara and Kashmir (Sircar, 16). Two of the best-known temples that are widely acknowledged as Sakta Pithas by most worshippers today, are Kamakhya and Kalighat.

One of the oldest and most popular sites of goddess worship is Kamakhya temple, located at Guwahati, Assam. The legend of this site, as forwarded by the current temple management, tells of the king of Nepal approaching a sage known as Vatsayana. He was seeking advice on how to convert the popular ritual of human sacrifice to a more socially accepted rite of worship.  Vatsayana suggested the worship of a Tantric goddess named Tara in place of sacrificial rituals. The worship of Tara spread reaching to the Garo Hills where local tribes worshipped a fertility goddess named Kameke. As time went on the Tantric goddess Tara, and the fertility goddess Kameke were linked with the legend of the Sakta Pithas and began to be worshipped as Devi. This site is said to be where Sati would escape to spend time with Siva. It is also said to be the location where her yoni fell (

The Kalighat is an ancient site located in city of Calcutta (Kolkata), on the bank of the Hooghly river, and said to be where Sati’s toes and right foot fell. A well-known, newer temple, dedicated to the goddess Kali, is now situated there. Legend has it that a devotee’s eye was caught by a ray of light while passing the Bhagirathi river. Upon moving toward the light the devotee found a human toe carved in stone. After discovering this stone foot the devotee immediately began praying to the mother goddess.  The temple was originally a small hut, constructed in the early 16th century. It was founded by Chowringee Natha, son to the king of Bengal. Kalighat was lavishly reconstructed in 1809 by the Chowdhrys family, transforming it from a small hut to a beautiful site. The government of Bengal has taken a great interest in this temple, as it has become a main tourist attraction (

The Sakta Pithas have not been well studied; perhaps this is because scholars in the past have regarded the myth and the tradition of the Pithas negatively instead of attempting to understand their complex origins. However, these sites attract many pilgrims from far and wide, and will continue to serve as an important place of worship for centuries to come.


References and Further Recommended Reading

Courtright, Paul (2011) “Searching for Sati.” Studying Hinduism in Practice. edited by Hillary Rodrigues. P.37-45. London: Routledge.

Foulston, Lynn (2009) Hindu Goddesses: Beliefs and Practices. London: Oxford University Press.

kalighat Kali Temple.”

Payne, Ernest (1997) The Saktas: The Introductive and Comparative Studies. New York: Dover Publications.

Rodrigues, Hillary (2007) Hinduism the Ebook: An Online Introduction. Journal of Buddhist Ethics Online Books

Sircar,D.C. ( 2004) The Sakti Pithas. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass

The History of Kamakhya Temple Assam.”


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Article written by Sydney Cleland (February 2016) who is solely responsible for its content.



The Goddess Camunda

The Goddess Camunda is depicted as ferocious and fear striking in Hindu storytelling. Often described as having flames shooting from her eyes, surrounded by goblins, and wearing a garland of skulls it is no wonder she is feared (Jones and Ryan 102). Yet with the fear that surrounds Camunda she is worshipped by many to help cure people of ailments and for protection. Camunda is closely associated with the Goddess Kali. Kali is the fiercest aspect of Durga and can sometimes be described as her helper (Minturn 169). Camunda is known by many names and can be worshipped in different forms. In the Tantric Saptamatrka cult Camunda is depicted as an independent sakti in the cosmic cycle. This cycle begins with Brahma, the creator, and ends with Camunda. Since Camunda is understood as the fierce goddess of destruction she is depicted at the end of this cosmic cycle which signifies the power of destruction which then leads to renewal (Foulston and Abbott 111). It should be noted that as Kali and Camunda are similar; Camunda is depicted as very ugly and Kali, while disheveled, is beautiful. Also, Camunda has an association with death while Kali is more associated with violence (Mohanty 34).

Camunda’s origin as a Hindu Goddess is recounted best in a few stories in the Devi Mahatmya. In the first story Camunda came to life when Siva, Visnu and Brahma called the Mother Goddess, Durga to stop king demon Mahisa from taking over the universe. Mahisa sent his demons Canda and Munda to find the goddess and bring her to him as he wanted to take Durga to be his wife. In the form of Parvati, Kali sprang from her brow due to Durga’s fury toward the demons. Kali decapitated Canda and Munda and presented their heads to Durga. Durga was so pleased by this that she announced to Kali that she will be worshipped and remembered as Camunda, a blend of both the demons names for which she has destroyed (Amazzone 6-7).

In the second story, which continues later in the previous battle, Mahisa is so enraged by the death of his demons that he sends Raktabija to defeat Durga. This battle is difficult and in her anger she transforms into the Goddess Candika for the battle. To her dismay, she learns that every drop of blood Raktabija loses turns into another powerful Raktabija. Feeling herself losing the battle, the Goddess calls Camunda and commands her to lick up the blood so Candika can eventually defeat Raktabija. Camunda’s complexion changed to red as she drank the blood of the enemy (Coburn 67). These stories are significant as they depict Camunda’s power and ability to defeat demons through her power and strength. These stories reiterate that goddesses are not to be thought of as weak or defenseless; they were to be feared and worshipped for their power. Camunda represents that people should be fierce, possess strength, and hold the confidence and ability to go at many things in life alone.

Camunda has been described as looking emaciated and near death to remind people of the fragility of life. She is known to cause fear from her eyes through this form. Her companion to ride is an owl, which can see in the night sky and has 360 degree perception (Amazonne 118). Also, in an image of Camunda on Bubhanesvar temple shows her so emaciated that all of her bones are showing and her eye sockets are sunken in with her eyes popping out. She has drooping breasts and a sunken in stomach (Kinsley 1988: 148). The expression on her face is consistently fierce showing teeth in most representations of her. There is also a sculpture of her in Jajpur in Orissa where she carries all of the discussed features including four arms which hold things such as a wine cup and severed heads. She also wears a necklace made of skulls and has a bald head with fire projecting from it (Kinsley 1988: 148). In history it has been told that King Pratap Singha made a garland out of severed heads from the Muslims slain in the sacrifice battle as a tribute to the goddess in her ferocious form who also wears a garland of severed heads (Urban 96).  From these defining features one can see how she is projected as a fierce Goddess.

The goddess Camunda (Kali) with characteristic garland of skulls (Taleju Devi temple, Bhaktapur, Nepal)
The goddess Camunda (Kali) with characteristic garland of skulls (Taleju Devi temple, Bhaktapur, Nepal)

Camunda is worshipped as an independent deity of the Tantric Saptamatrka. Camunda and the other seven Saptamatrika deities are worshipped for personal and spiritual renewal which leads to rebirth. With this devotion it is understood that all energy is directed towards the Great Goddess, Mahadevi, to reach the highest levels of liberation (Kinsley 1988: 150). Due to this significance Camunda is often worshipped in ancient sculpture and described in detail as a way of worshipping the Great Goddess in her more aggressive facet. Camunda’s association with death brings on more life and represents the recycling of energy (Kinsley 1988: 149).

As with all gods and goddesses in the Hindu tradition there are specific rituals and forms of worship that please such deities. These rituals can come in forms of speaking mantras, rituals, and sacrifice. Camunda is known as a deity who is worshipped through sacrifice. Historically, meat offerings and animal sacrifice, such as sheep, were made to her which seems to play into her ferocious nature (Kinsley 1988:146). In Jainism, these blood sacrifices had to end to keep with Jain practices. In the story of Saciya Nata, sweets were offered to the goddess in place of animal sacrifice. It is said that Camunda became infuriated by the change in sacrifice and caused pain to the monk. However, when seeing how well the man took the pain, she became scared and asked the man for forgiveness. From this point, Camunda no longer demanded meat as a sacrifice (Babb 142). Sacrifice may be a way in which the goddess is worshipped but she is often called upon in times of need. Camunda is also often associated with rituals to remove evil spirits and cure illness. Camunda can be called on during exorcisms to help scare away demons from the ailing (McDaniel 125).

In Bhavabhuti’s Malatimadhava, a hymn is sung that praises Camunda. She is described as having a gaping mouth, laughing in a terrifying tone, and dancing so wildly that it threatened to destroy the world. Due to this depiction of the goddess it has been known to build temples and sites of worship for Camunda far away from villages and towns yet near cremation grounds due to her proximity with death (Kinsley 1988: 147). There is a Camunda-devi temple found 15 kilometers from Dharamsala where the ten Mahavidyas are painted on the walls inside.  Since Camunda was a form of Kali this is why this temple dedicated to her depicts many goddesses. This temple is an example where the Mahadiyas appear as a group, but the temple is only dedicated to one of them, this one being Camunda (Kinsley 1986: 16).

Camunda is often worshipped during the Navaratri festival. This festival is dedicated to Durga and lasts nine nights and ten days four times a year. During the last three days of the festival, the many manifestations of Durga are celebrated, which includes Camunda (McDaniel 79). In this festival Durga is worshipped in her many forms by people reciting stories of her, addressing tantric mantra, setting up shrines, and singing her praises.

Camunda is a fascinating goddess in the Hindu tradition.  Her role as a Mahavidya and in association with Kali in historical stories solidifies her role as an important figure in Hindu religious culture. Even though her image may be portrayed as fearsome and horrifying, she is still worshipped for her power and strength. Many people gather at her temple to participate in rituals and worship her to gain relief of ailment or to further themselves towards the path of liberation.



Amazzone, Laura (2010) Goddess Durga and Sacred Female Power. Maryland: Hamilton Books.

Babb, Lawrence A. (1996) Absent Lord: Ascetics and Kings in a Jain Ritual Culture. Berkeley: University of California Press.

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.

Foulston, Lynn, and Stuart Abbott (2009) Hindu Goddesses: Beliefs and Practices. Portland: Sussex Academic Press.

Kinsley, David R. (1986) Tantric Visions of the Divine Feminine: the Ten Mahavidyas. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Kinsley, David R. (1988) Hindu Goddesses: Visions of the Divine Feminine in the Hindu Religious Tradition. Berkeley: University of California Press.

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

Minturn, Leigh (1993) Sita’s Daughters: Coming Out of Purdah: The Rajput Women of Khalapur Revisited. New York: Oxford University Press, Inc.

Mohanty, Seema (2004) The Book of Kali. London: Penguin Books.

Jones, Constance, James D. Ryan. (2007) Encyclopedia of Hinduism. New York: Infobase Publishing

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Article written by: Melanie Wasylenko (2015) who is solely responsible for its content.


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Ganga: the River and the Goddess

The River Ganga (Ganges) in India is perhaps the most sacred river in the world. The goddess of the river is acknowledged as Ganga Mata (Eck 1996: 137). The river and the goddess are both worshiped as one. Ganga originates from hundreds of miles south of Kailasa in the Gangotri glacier (Darian 3). Hardwar, a place in the Himalayan Mountains also known as the Gagnadvara (“Door of the Ganges”), marks the location of the river where the Ganga River breaks out of the Himalayas and into the plains of northern India (Eck 1996: 137). The Ganges flows from the northern part of India through Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, and Bengal (Rodrigues 30). In Prayag, the Ganga joins the Yamuna River and also the mystical underground Sarasvati River, then continues from the holy city of Banaras (Kasi; city of Siva) where the river makes a “long sweep up to the north”, and then finally into Ganga Sagara where the river meets the Bay of Bengal. Ganga is sacred along its entire length (Eck 1996: 137). The river plays a very crucial role in the lives of Hindus in India. The daily rituals, myths, practises of worship, and belief in the power of the goddess Ganga and her waters are all central part of Hinduism to this day.

The purity of water has been part of Indian tradition ever since the beginning in the Indus Valley and has remained in the tradition ever since. Water is the most sacred symbol of the Indian tradition. It is said to be the purifier and the origin of the mystery of life. Ganga water is said to be the most purified water in the lives of Hindus. Hindus use the water of the Ganges in the rituals of birth and death, as well as in the rituals of the weddings. In the sacred thread ceremony (upanayana), a young man only eats bread and drinks Ganga water (Darian 14). Ganga is the place of crossing between the world of the living and dead. Ganga is said to be flowing in three worlds: heaven, earth, and netherworlds, this also refers to as triloka-patha-gamini (Eck 1996:145). There are three places in India that are known to be holy where the rites of sraddha for the dead and visarjana of the ashes are performed the most. The three places are Prayag, Kasi (Banaras), and Gaya; they are simply known as the tristhali (“three places”) (Eck 2012: 163). After dying, Hindus want their ashes to be put in the Ganga River. It is the Hindu belief that by doing this they achieve moksa through the contact with the purified water of the Ganges. If someone is dying, she or he will try to spend their last days at the banks of the Ganges. Their belief is that if they die near the sacred river, they will be delivered from all of the sins encountered during their life. Banaras, the holiest city of India and also the city of Siva, encounters millions of people from across India who bring the ashes of their deceased and spread them on the banks of Ganga if they cannot die in Banaras. In addition to spreading the ashes of the dead on the banks of Ganga, “the ordinary rite of bathing in the Ganges will usually include simple water liberations with which this nectar of immortality is offered to the departed ancestors” (Eck 1982: 215). By doing this the ancestors attain the happiness of being in heaven by virtue of the sraddha rites and also live in heaven for thousands of years to come for every single sesame seed in the traditional pinda offering (Eck 1982: 215-216).

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

Every day hundreds of people bathe, pray, and wash clothes in Ganga waters. People also drink and cook with the waters of Ganga. They believe that, it is one of the ways to give everyone the blessings of Ganga. Ritual purification has been important to Hindus from ancient times of pre-Aryan Indus civilization; this is shown by the remains of the large ceremonial cleansing tanks at Mohenjo Daro (Eck 1982: 217). The water of the Ganges is believed to be purifying and absorbs pollution; this is believed to be the spiritual aspect of the River Ganga. When the water of the Ganges is flowing, the pollution is believed to be carried away along with the current (Eck 1996: 144). At Ganga’s tirthas, sacred crossings, Hindus make offerings of flower to the river while shouting the phrase “Ganga Mata ki jai” (“Victory to Mother Ganges!”). Hindus also bathe in the Ganga and making offerings of the water to the pitrs and devas (Eck 1996:137-138). Ganga’s waters also play another major role for Hindus. The river provides water to the land to make it fertile and even grow many healthy crops in the season of monsoon (Darian 15-17). Ganga’s waters are said to be “liquid embodiment of sakti” and “sustaining the immortal fluid (amrta) of mother’s milk” (Eck 1996: 137). If Hindus cannot make the yatra to Ganga, making yatra to the other sacred streams is in comparison of going to Ganga. There are seven streams of Ganga that are believed to possess great purity as Ganga itself: Ganga, Yamuna, Godavari, Sarasvati, Narmada, Sindhu, and Kaveri. Ganga is also believed to be present in every other river and vice versa (Eck 1996: 137-138).

Every year Hindus participate in a festival dedicated to the worship of Ganga; that is called Ganga Dasahara. This takes place when the hot and dry season reaches its peak in May and June, and in expectation of the monsoon season. The festival runs for ten days and it concludes on the tenth day of the month Jyeshtha. On this day, Ganga’s descent (avatarana) from heaven to earth is celebrated. The banks of Ganga are crowded with bathers. A quick dip in the waters of Ganga on the day is thought to get rid of ten sins (dasahara) or ten lifetimes of sins. Hindus that want to celebrate Ganga Dasahara but cannot make it to actual Ganga River can also bathe in one of the other seven streams of Ganga (Eck 2012: 136-137). Hindus are actually praying to the life that is within the water but not to water directly (Darian 17). Another very important festival for Hindus to praise Ganga is called Kumbha Mela (pot festival). The festival occurs every twelve years and gathers millions of people; this is perhaps the world’s largest festival. The complete Kumbha Mela is held at Prayag (Allahabad), last held in 2001, also called Maha Kumbha Mela, and it was estimated that more than sixty million people were congregated. In Prayag, three of the seven sacred rivers meet; they are Ganga, Sarasvati, and Yamuna (“triveni” – “triple braid”) (Jones: 505-506). Millions of people travel to Prayag and take a dip in the Triveni while chanting “Victory to the Ganga. The mela is not just about bathing in the rivers but is about education, commerce, and spectacle. Prayag is the most famous place where the Kumbha Mela is held, but the mela is also held at Hardwar, Nasik, and Ujjain (Eck 2012: 154-155).

According to the sculptures of the goddess Ganga, she is depicted to be on top of her vahana (vehicle) crocodile (makara). Makara is viewed as a soma animal, which is an emblem of the waters, the plants, and the entire vegetal substratum of life. It is also a symbol of the unknown sea and an animal that is an object of fear. Ganga also holds a kumbha in her hands (vase of plenty) (Darian 114-115). Ganga as a goddess is known to be the “goodness” of the gods, that is her energy is praised as good. Her vicious force is purified and calmed by the hair of Siva. Ganga is also depicted as a mother where she is nourishing, embracing, and forgiving without any sight of anger. Praises (mahatmyas) of the Ganga are found in the epics of Puranas which can be read in Sanskrit. There are also many hymns devoted to Ganga, one of the most famous hymns is known as Ganga Lahari (“The Ganga’s Waves”) written by Jagannatha (Eck 1996: 138, 148-149). In Ganga Lahari, Jagannatha pictures the river as a Mother, who will love and claim the child that is rejected by everyone else. (Eck 2012: 162). Ganga accepts both the lotus and the kumbha (water pot) as symbols of auspicious blessings. Ganga’s waters are meant to be like milk and said to be the drink of life itself for humans (Eck 2012: 162).    

Many myths describe Ganga having the origins of heavens. Ganga is known to be the consort of Brahma, Visnu, and Siva (Eck 2012: 160). One of the Vedic myths about Ganga’s divine descent from heaven involves Indra, who combats the serpent Vritra who is curled around the doors of the heavens and closed up the celestial waters. These waters in the heavens are believed to be called soma (nectar of the gods). When Vritra was defeated, Indra released these waters for the sustenance of the earth (Eck 2012: 137). In the mythology of the Devi Bhagavata and Brahmavaivarta Puranas, Ganga and Sarasvati both argue with each other and both curse each other to become rivers on earth and bear the sins of humans. Visnu interferes and make Sarasvati the wife of Brahma and Ganga the wife of Siva (Eck 1996: 146). Ganga is also said to be originally flowing from the foot of Visnu in the highest heaven (Eck 1982: 219). Siva’s role in the descent of Ganga is believed to the most important role. The story of the myth has been told in Ramayana, Mahabharata, and the Puranas. When Ganga descents to earth, Siva promises to catch her on his head so the fall wouldn’t shatter the earth. When Ganga falls on Siva’s head, Siva’s hair broke her fall and broke Ganga into seven streams, each flowing to a different part of India. Ganga fell to earth to purify and free the souls of the sixty thousand sons of King Sagara. The sons of King Sagara were burned to ashes by the sage Kapila because he was accused of stealing the horse that was used in the rites of ashvamedha (“horse sacrifice”). Bhagiratha, a descendent of Sagara, took upon himself to free the souls of the sons of King Sagara by doing ascetic practices in the Himalayas. Bhagiratha led the waters Ganga to restore the ashes of the sons of King Sagara and also to replenish the ocean (Nelson: 231-233), [Eck 2012: 138]. Siva and Ganga are both dependent on each other. Ganga’s living water is the only thing that can cool down Siva’s linga; without Ganga, Siva will remain the burning linga of fire. Without Siva, the fall of Ganga would have shattered the earth (Eck 2012: 140). Siva, also known as Gangadhara or “Bearer of the Ganges”, is said to be the companion of Ganga. They both are portrayed as husband and wife and sometimes in sculptures as a married couple (Eck 1996: 147). The descent of Ganga is continuous and not a single time event; each wave of Ganga touches Siva’s head before touching the earth. Ganga is the liquid form of Siva’s sakti, as well as Siva himself is sakti, the energy that forms and sustains the apparent universe. Being a liquid sakti, Ganga is God’s incarnation, God’s divine descent, freely flowing for all and embodies the energy of all the gods. After the descent of Ganga, Ganga became the “vehicle for Siva’s merciful work of salvation” (Eck 2012: 160-161).

Ganga goddess is more than a single river. Ganga is India’s prime example of all the sacred rivers in India today (Eck 1996: 137-138). The river keeps on flowing, bringing life and conveying the living tradition. Ganga is also only the best known consort of all three important male gods: Siva, Visnu, and Brahma, but she is the only goddess that had acquired the position of being consort which no other goddess can achieve. Ganga is said to be heavenly, whatever is holy, whatever is merciful, and whatever is completely auspicious is already there (Eck 1996: 150-151).


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

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

Eck, D. L. (1996) Ganga: The Goddess Ganges in Hindu Sacred Geography. In J. S. Wulff, Devi: Goddess of India (pp. 137-153). Berkley: University of California Press.

Eck, D. L. (2012) India: A Sacred Geography . New York : Harmony Book.

Melton, J. Gordon, James A. Beverly, Christopher Buck, and Constance A. Jones (2011) Religious Celebration: An Encyclopedia of Holidays, Festivals, Solemn Observances, and Spiritual Commemorations Volume One. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO.

Nelson, L. E. (1998) Purifying the Earthly Body of God: Religion and Ecology in Hindu India. Albany: Sate University of New York Press.

Rodrigues, H. (2007) Hinduism – the ebook. Journal of Buddhist Ethics Online Books Ltd. Retrieved from

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Kumbha Mela

Ganga Dasahara




Rg Veda

Ganga Lahari





Gangotri Glacier


List of Noteworthy Website


Article written by: Arth Patel (March 2015) who is solely responsible for its content.