Category Archives: b) Tara

Tara, the Goddess Who Guides Us Through Troubles

Tara is a Tantric goddess, one of the ten Mahavidyas, which translated into English means great revelations or manifestations (Kinsley 1998:57-60). In Tantrism, there is the idea that the Divine Feminine is the supreme cosmic force in the universe, equivalent to Brahman. An important aspect in Mahadevi theology is that Devi or the Great Goddess has a tendency to manifest herself in a variety of forms so as to protect cosmic stability. The ten Mahavidyas represent a common way of expressing the idea that goddesses can take many forms (Kinsley 1998:20). The Mahavidyas are also often associated with Visnu’s ten avatars or avataras, helping these avataras in their heroic endeavors, either by becoming the avatara heroes themselves, or being the ultimate force for how they are victorious (Kinsley 1998:20-21). The Mahavidyas include the famous goddess Kali. Although Kali is listed in the Mahavidyas, there is evidence that she was worshiped earlier (Kinsley 1986:161). A majority of the texts mentioning the Mahavidyas are Tantric in nature so it will be best to regard the Mahavidyas, such as Tara, as Tantric goddesses (Kinsley 1998:20-21). The Mahavidyas are often depicted as a group throughout various temples, though they can be thought of individually (Kinsley 1998:49-50). This essay will first give a description of the iconography of Tara, how she is usually portrayed in temples alongside the other Mahavidyas, both as a member of the Mahavidyas and individually as a goddess. Second, this essay will give an overview of the myths of Tara and the Mahavidyas; in particular, how Tara and the Mahavidyas were born. Finally, this essay will give a brief overview of the numerous symbolic implications of Tara and what psychological effects these terrifying goddesses have.

Kali is the first goddess in the list of Mahavidyas and Tara always comes after, being the second goddess(Kinsley 1986:162). Tara and Kali are closely interrelated. The description of Tara is almost identical to that of Kali. Tara, like Kali, is dark-skinned. Both are depicted as having their foot firmly on a corpse. In Kali’s case, it is almost always Siva, while for Tara, the corpse can be anonymous or can be Siva. Both wear necklaces of severed heads and skulls. Tara and Kali both have lolling tongues and blood oozing from their mouths while laughing terribly. They are often depicted on funeral pyres. Both Goddesses’ appearances are terrifying to behold. One of the main differences between Kali and Tara is that Tara wears the skin of a tiger while Kali is naked. Additionally, Tara appears to be pot-bellied or pregnant, while Kali is usually not. There are ideas that Kali and Tara are manifestations of one another (Kinsley 1998:100). An eighteenth-century Bengali saint, Ramprasad Sen, even used the names synonymously (Kinsley 1998:100). Kinsley describes of Tara: “She appears to be a variant expression of Kali, a kindred spirit, as it were, who expresses the same truths as Kali, only in slightly different form” (Foulston and Abbott 118). Tara portrays the dominance of the Great Goddess over the masculine, but she also exemplifies gentler aspects and qualities of the divine feminine. It is said that she rescues those who truly are faithful to her, bringing beings and people to the far shore of enlightenment, embodying the maternal, creative, and nurturant (Foulston and Abbott 119).

It is interesting to note the differences between the Hindu Tara and the Tibetan Buddhist Tara. The Hindu Tara is almost always portrayed in fierce forms like the one described in the Tara Tantra:

Standing firmly with her left foot on a corpse, she laughs loudly – transcendent. Her hands hold a sword, a blue lotus, a dagger, and a begging bowl. She raises her war cry, hum! Her matted tawny hair is bound with poisonous blue snakes. Thus the terrifying Tara destroys the unconsciousness of the three worlds and carries them off on her head [to the other shore]” (Foulston and Abbott 119).

The Tibetan Buddhist version of Tara, in contrast, is gentler in aspect. The Buddhist Tara appears as a young, playful, and charming woman, who saves people at the last moment from the jaws of death (Kinsley 1986:167-168). Nevertheless, there are fierce aspects of Tara in Buddhism as well. However, both fierce aspects of Tara, in either tradition, do save the followers who are truly devoted to them (Kinsley 1986:166-167). The most common theory of the evolution of Tara is that Tara first became popular in Tibetan Buddhist Tantrism. Then with the common similarities between Buddhism and Hinduism, and with the close proximity of Tibet and India, Buddhist Tara worship morphed into Tara’s worship in Hindu Tantrism (Kinsley1998: 96).

Regarding the myths surrounding Tara, the Hindu story of how Tara was created starts with the marriage of Sati and Siva. Tara is closely related to the other ten Mahavidyas. This story describes how Tara and the other Mahavidyas were created. Sati’s father, Daksa, creates a great sacrifice and invites all the deities to join in, except for Sati and Siva. He is embarrassed by the fact that Siva, his son-in-law, likes to do wild things, reside in graveyards, and has an ugly appearance because he coats himself in ash. When the couple finds out about this social slight, Siva himself is not offended. However, Sati is grievously insulted. She promptly says to her husband that she will go to the sacrifice all on her own. Siva is not pleased to hear this and refuses to let her go. After a long time of trying to convince Siva to let her go, and failing, Sati transforms into a fierce, terrifying goddess, sometimes known as Kali. Siva is frightened and horrified by this transformation and tries to run away. The goddess, that was once Sati, then multiples herself into a myriad of forms to stop Siva from leaving the house. These forms or goddesses, including Tara, surround Siva from all directions, Tara herself manifesting above him. Siva tries every opening or exit in the house, but finds at each exit a goddess guarding the threshold. Eventually, Siva agrees that Sati can go to the sacrifice if she calls off these terrifying aspects. The forms then tell Siva that they are called the Mahavidyas, and teach him how they all should be worshiped. At this point, different versions of the tale diverge from one another. Some versions have Sati continue to manifest the Mahavidyas in order to protect Siva while she is away from the house. Sati then, either in the form of Kali or in her own original form, goes to her father’s sacrifice and throws herself into the sacrificial fire (Kinsley 1998:23-38).

An oral story has another myth about Tara and Siva, this tale having only Tara. The tale starts after the churning of the ocean, during which a powerful poison had been created. Siva, in order to save the world from destruction, drinks up all the poison from the water. However, he falls unconscious from the effect of the poison. Tara then comes along and puts Siva on her lap. She suckles him, and the healing power of her mother’s milk brings Siva back to life (Kinsley 1998:102). This tale is similar to a Kali story where Kali is unleashed by the gods to destroy a demon army. Kali utterly annihilates the army, but now nothing is in the way to stop her from rampaging and destroying the world. Siva then comes to the world’s rescue again by manifesting himself as a baby upon the bloody wasteland of corpses. Kali hears the infant Siva’s crying. This awakens her motherly instincts and she stops to suckle the baby Siva, her blood rage quieted (Kinsley 1998:102). This similar motif of suckling Siva adds to the notion that Tara and Kali are intertwining goddesses.

Finally, turning to the symbolic, religious, and psychological significance of Tara and the Mahavidyas, Tara appears to represent the shadowy, vicious side of the Great Goddess. Yet these fierce goddesses, such as Tara, do not seem to be warriors. Although there is a notion that they are ferocious in order to protect the universe, these goddesses primarily represent the divine feminine’s superiority and dominance over the masculine, which is shown in myth with all of the ten Mahavidyas’ dominance over Siva (Kinsley 1986:163-165). The gender politics of this are obvious. Usually masculine gods are dominant over goddesses, yet here this custom is reversed. Yet perhaps it was also actually political in the sense that the goddess cults were overthrowing the god-centred cults, or perhaps it is there to be an inversion of the usual religious and social order. In orthodox Brahmin Hinduism, there are attitudes that the male is above the female, that there are certain things you should not do, like illicit sex or giving blood to the deities, and that, though the quest for moksa can give you magic powers, magical powers are distractions that hold you from your true goal (Kinsley 1998:6-7). In Tantrism, many of these attitudes are switched around: blood sacrifice to the goddesses and illicit sex are important to the rituals, and the pursuit of magic powers is a legitimate goal (Kinsley 1986:164). It could be understood that this inversion of traditional practice was created by those disenchanted with the religious authorities in order to make the forbidden acceptable.

Tara could be seen is an antimodel. As with Kali, she haunts cremation grounds, an impure environment because of the close proximity to death, and she wears necklaces of skulls and heads, and has a girdle of human arms. This depiction of the divine feminine mocks, insults, and subverts the status quo, creating a liberating effect for both sexes caught in the imprisoning social ideas. In addition to this liberation from conformity, this bloody jewelry also has an inner, spiritual importance. The bloody jewelry, in this context, is not usually to be taken literally, but as symbols of destroying residual karma. Tara wears the detached remains not of “you,” but of the false you. With her sword, she cuts away the negative qualities of the limited you, your greed, your fear, your ego, your residual karma, all falsehoods holding you back from enlightenment (Kinsley 1998:104).

Tara is a vision of the divine that challenges comfortable and comforting fantasies that we may all have (Kinsley 1998:7). She is a manifestation that while everything might seem well and good, one has to remember that all is fleeting, and one must focus on one’s own spiritual goals and not get caught in a cycle which will imprison him or her. In another context, she also represents the all-powerful determination of a true seeker of enlightenment. Her ruthlessness is inside all who have enlightenment as their goal. She comes whenever a barrier blocks the way to enlightenment. This viciousness is not to be cruel to others, but to strike inside the inner realm of the psyche and destroy the ego and the roadblocks that come in the way.

Tara, like the many goddesses such as the other Mahavidyas, shows us that there are many ways of thinking of the divine besides just one. Her fierce demeanor is paradoxical to compassionate religion, yet this terrifying complex turns out to be complementary to compassion. There is no end to the interpretations of these symbols of the fierce aspects of the divine.

Consulted Bibliography

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

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

Kinsley, David (1998) Tantric Visions of the Divine Feminine: The Ten Mahavidyas. Los Angeles: University of California.

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Written by Liberty Blair Charissage (Spring 2017)  who is solely responsible for its content.

The Goddess Sati

The goddess Sati may be recognized by her relationship with the great god Siva as she is his first and second wife. Sati is more than this, however; she is known by many names and is worshiped as her reincarnation Parvati. Her whole being may in fact be summed up to lure Siva into marriage so that he may be incorporated into more of the world, such as to keep creation enlivened and to enter the householder role in order to release his stored energies in a positive fashion (Kinsley 1986:35).

The origins of Sati are unknown, she is not a Vedic goddess but there are references to the wife of Siva in some Vedic literature by the name of Ambika. This name, however, is later used to represent other goddesses. Another name used for Siva’s wife is Rudrani. It is not certain whether these goddesses are in fact Sati, and therefore, whether or not Sati’s origins are in Vedic literature. Later Sati goes by one of her modern and more common names, Uma Haimavati in the Kena-upanisad, although her role is not as Siva’s wife. Just as suddenly as she appears in this text she disappears, and though this may seem untrustworthy other texts reference this as proof of her origins in past Hindu tradition (Kinsley 1986:36).  One of the earliest references using the name Sati is in the Hindu epic the Mahabharata where she is described as living with Siva in the Himalayas (Rodrigues 298). In addition to the textual evidence, there is some archaeological evidence for her origins and history, including coins that have an image of a goddess that is linked with a Siva symbol (Kinsley 1986:37).

The main myth of Sati is also important in her history as it provides insight into her characteristics and life. She was the beautiful daughter of the god Daksa, considered the male Vedic creative deity. Sati desires the god Siva, the destroyer, and through her devotion and ascetic practices she finally attracts Siva’s attention and becomes his first wife. Her motives for wanting to be his wife are not clear, and in some texts it is Brahma who sets up their marriage as he wants Siva to feel sexual desire. In the Siva-purana, specifically the Rudra-samhita, Brahma says that if Siva does not involve himself in the created world then creation cannot continue. When Siva starts noticing Sati he develops kama (desire), which he has not felt before and the couple are married. After their union the couple retreat to the mountains for love-play (Kinsley 1986: 37-38). Siva and Sati are very much in love as told in the Kalika Purana, Siva painting Sati’s feet, gathering flowers to make her garlands and he becomes invisible to surprise her with embraces (McDaniel 40). The couple stay there for many years, but the marriage is not a happy occasion for everyone. Daksa does not approve of Siva due to his messy appearance and different habits. In order to disgrace Siva, Daksa plans a yajna, or sacrifice, but does not invite either Siva or Sati. Sati is very insulted by this and shows up at the event only to be snubbed again by her father (Rodrigues 298). This frustrates her even further and in her rage she commits suicide by closing the nine doors of her body and while sitting in an asana, or yoga position, sends her spirit out her tenth door, or the top of her head (McDaniel 40). When Siva hears of Sati’s death he becomes furious and creates terrible beings that kill Daksa, the divine hosts, and destroy the sacrifice. He then takes Sati’s body and travels the universe, grieving. This upsets the cosmic balance of the world and Visnu is called upon to end the turmoil. While Siva is traveling Visnu follows him and cuts off pieces of Sati’s body, which fall to earth and become holy places or pithas. When Siva realizes that Sati’s body is gone he returns to the mountains and continues his normal practices (Kinsley 1986: 38).

This myth contains many underlying themes in the Hindu tradition such as a wife’s loyalty, the cosmic balance and Siva’s role in the universe. Before Sati, Siva lived in the mountains to practice austerities and was disinterested in the world around him. Nonetheless, when he is married he engages himself in the world and develops a householder role. His awakening desire is important for the universe because with the release of his seed creation is enriched and enlivened (Kinsley 1986:38). There are also some tensions in this myth, between deities and even references to unease between religious and caste groups. For example in the early period of Hindu history the Saivites, at the time considered a non-Vedic unorthodox group, have disagreements with the orthodox Brahma worshipers, who follow the Vedic tradition. These groups are paralleled in the myth, Siva representing the Saivites with his ascetic practices and dissociation with Vedic sacrificial rituals, whereas the orthodox group is represented by Daksa, the son of Brahma. In the myth this conflict is mediated by Sati, as she brings Siva into the householder role. Although Siva demonstrates his power and his dislike of yajnas when he destroys Daksa’s ceremony, in the restoration myth he is incorporated into the orthodox tradition and returned to order when the yajna is reenacted (Rodrigues 299). Another theme in this myth is the connection between Sati and Siva, as their union may represent many things. For example, the traditional union between a deity of the earth and a deity of the sky is expressed by the relationship between Sati, who represents the sky and Siva who represents the Himalayas. Historically this union creates and sustains life as the marriage between Sati and Siva allows creation to continue (Kinsley 1986:40). In a simpler association Sati represents the yoni while Siva represents the linga, and in one version of the myth when Sati falls and creates pithas Siva follows and embeds himself in her yoni, keeping him on earth (Kinsley 1986:39).

Sati’s name and suicide may be paralleled with the act of sati or widow immolation, where a widow, showing undying loyalty to her husband, will burn herself alive on his funeral pyre (Rodrigues 563). This act was widely accepted in the medieval period and the word sati means “faithful wife”, so there is an association between the act and Sati’s suicide as a devoted wife. This correlation is obscure at best though, because the purpose of sati is for the wife to follow the dead husband, whereas in this myth Siva is not dead, and Sati’s death causes him great sadness and finishes their relationship rather than continuing it (Kinsley 1986:40-41).

After her death, Sati is reincarnated as Parvati, “she who dwells in the mountains” or “she who is of the mountain”. Parvati’s life is essentially the continuation of the life of Sati, and in some myths she agrees to be reborn with the goal of luring Siva into desire and marriage. In other myths she says that she is rewarding Mena, Parvati’s mother, with her birth, as Mena was very devoted to Sati. In other versions Sati and Parvati are both seen as embodiments of the great goddess Mahadevi to retain the balance between dharma and adharma (Kinsley 1986:42).

Parvati is the daughter of Himavat, the deity of the Himalayas and his wife Mena, and she is described as being very beautiful but dark-skinned being given the nickname Kali “the dark-one”. A sage comes to her home he looks at the markings on her body he predicts that she will marry a naked yogi, or Siva. Unlike Sati’s parents, Himavat and Mena are honored to have Siva as their son-in-law and the god Kama is sent to stir lust in Siva so that he will notice Parvati. This does not work as planned, as Siva is annoyed by Kama’s attempts and kills him with fire from his third eye. Parvati is not deterred by this and she begins austerities to create tapas. Tapas has many functions; in this case it is an extreme heat produced by praying that makes the gods uncomfortable so that they grant the ascetic wish, thus preventing the world and themselves from being burned. Through her persistence Siva finally notices Parvati and falls in love with her and they are soon married (Kinsley 1986:42-43). The couple then retreat to Mount Kailasa for love-play and they engage in love-making that shakes the cosmos. During their passion they are interrupted by the gods who are afraid of the quakes, and Siva accidentally spills his seed outside of Parvati which passes to the Ganges where it is incubated and becomes the child Karttikeya. Their child makes his way back to his parents where Parvati then welcomes him as her own son (Kinsley 1986:43).  Parvati also conceives her own son, Ganesa. As the tale goes, while Siva was away Parvati yearns for her own child and creates a boy out of her own body, who she then he asks to guard the entrance of her home to prevent anyone from entering and disturbing her. When Siva arrives home Ganesa blocks his path, angering Siva who cuts off the boy’s head. This greatly distresses Parvati and she orders Siva to bring Ganesa back to life. Siva complies and while looking for a new head for the boy encounters an elephant, whose head he takes and places on Ganesa’s body, reviving him in the process (Rodrigues 302). In this way Sati fulfills her role as a maiden, then as a wife and even later a mother.

Sati also has an alter ego that is named Kali. In the Vamana Purana it is written that Parvati receives this name as she is dark-skinned, but when Siva uses this name in teasing Parvati, she becomes irritated and performs austerities to become the “golden one”, or Gauri. Her dark sheath is left over however, and it transforms into Kausiki the ferocious battle queen who in turn creates the goddess Kali (Hawley and Wulff 79). In the Mahabhagavata-purana Siva forbids Sati to disrupt her father’s yajna and in doing so he makes her very angry. In her wrath she transforms into a fearful woman who is plainly unlike the graceful Sati. She loses her composure, her hair messy and her temperament fiery; she develops four arms and her wagging tongue lolls out of her mouth. She is also garbed in a garland of human heads and a half-moon crown. This terrifying form of Sati is known as Kali. Siva is so afraid by this he tries to flee but to prevent his escape Sati blocks his way with her ten different forms, the Mahavidyas or wisdom goddesses. Siva is so shocked and terrified by this that he finally allows Sati to go to the sacrifice (Kinsley 1997: 23-25).

Worship of Sati varies because when pieces of Sati’s body fall to earth they create pithas, or holy sites where it is believed the goddess shows her powers. Even in modern times these sites are visited by pilgrims and are worshiped. (McDaniel 3). The number of sati pithas varies between accounts, as little as four to as many as one hundred and ten sites are recorded (Kinsley 1986; 186). These pithas may be stones or statues, but some believe in a variation of the Sati myth where the earth was created from her dismembered body, and the separate pieces of her body each have different levels of power. The pieces with the most power are recognized as sacred stones called thakurs. A temple built where there is a stone may be revealed and then recognized as a sati pitha, and new sites have been preserved throughout history, even in the present day (McDaniel 31-32). The most documented and well known site is Kamarupa in Assam, and some of the newest sites from the ninteenth and twentieth centuries are Adyapitha and Tarapitha in West Bengal (Kinsley 1996;186)(McDaniel 33).

References and Related Readings:

Dallapiccola, Anne L. (1944) Dictionary of Hindu Lore and Legend. New York: Thames and Hudson Press

Hawley, J.S., and D.M. Wulff. (1996) Devi: Goddesses of India.

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

Kinsley, David R.  (1996) Devi: Goddesses of India. Berkeley: University of California Press

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

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

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Article written by: Briana Smith (April 2010) who is solely responsible for its contents.

The Ten Mahavidyas

When discussing the ten Mahavidyas, it may seem like a daunting task to understand how goddesses, one with a garland of skulls, another with clothing made of severed body parts, and a third with a habit of cutting off her own head, can be highly regarded within the Hindu tradition, but they are. These obscure beings are regarded as being significant to the basic themes of Hindu beliefs and spirituality (Kinsley 1998:1). “It seems that there is logic to the group as a whole and that even its most outrageous members, if understood within their proper context, reveal important spiritual truths” (Kinsley 1998:1). The idea of this group of ten goddesses has been around since the early medieval period (Kamakala-khanda 65-66); specific goddesses within this group even predate this time and continue to be well known in the present day.

The origination of the ten Mahavidyas is not always agreed upon. Some say that the ten Mahavidyas as a whole seem to be “a medieval iconographic and mythological expression of an aspect of Mahadevi theology” (Kinsley 1986:161). There are numerous myths about the Devi in which she is described as producing these goddesses from different parts of her body (Vamana-purana 30.3-9). The Devi is thought to assume these different incarnations in an attempt to maintain cosmic stability (Devi-mahatmya 11.38-50).

“The ten Mahavidyas, at least in part, are probably a Sakta version of the central Vaisnava idea of Visnu’s ten avataras, who appear from time to time to maintain the order of dharma” (Sircar 48). The Guhyatiguhya-tantra confirms this idea by providing a list of the Mahavidyas and associating each one with a corresponding avatara of Visnu (Kinsley 1986:161). However, the ten Mahavidyas are much more than a Sakta representation of Visnu’s avataras; they display significant contrast from the avataras in respect to their appearance and function (Kinsley 1986:161-162).

The context of the story of Sati and Siva is where the true myth of the ten Mahavidyas’ origin arises. Daksa, Sati’s father decides to perform a notable sacrifice and invites every one that resides in the heavenly spheres to attend. That is, everyone aside from his daughter and her husband Siva. Daksa disapproves of Siva’s unkempt appearance and uncivilized behavior and does not want him to taint the legitimacy of the affair (Kinsley 1986:162). Sati is outraged and makes the decision to interrupt the sacrifice, but Siva forbids her to do so. Sati becomes furious, and as she loses her temper, she embodies an appalling form before eventually transforming and multiplying into ten forms, the ten Mahavidyas (Kinsley 1986:162).

Kali, “the black goddess”, is a perfect example of a goddess that is known outside of the goddess cluster. Although the order, names, and number of the Mahavidyas can vary according to different sources, Kali is always included, and is typically named first. Kali is commonly referred to as the most important or primary Mahavidya (Woodroffe 361). In some occurrences, it appears that the rest of the Mahavidyas originate from Kali, or are in some way differing embodiments of her (Kinsley 1998:68). Descriptions of Kali are altered depending on which account is being looked into, but sources tend to agree on several characteristics. Kali is almost always regarded as being a dark presence with a dreadful appearance. She is considered to have four arms, but what they hold are not always agreed upon (Kinsley 1998:67-68). Some sources cite Kali as holding a bloodied cleaver and a severed head in her left hands, while her right hands gesture blessings and a symbol of “fear not” (Kinsley 1998:9). Others say that along with holding a severed head, she carries a jar full of liquor mixed with meat (Kinsley 1998:68). She is commonly regarded as being horrific looking, covered in blood and body parts. Whatever her description, Kali has taken her place as the primary Mahavidya. The Saktisamgama-tantra explicitly says, “All the deities, including the Mahavidyas, Siddhi-vidyas, Vidyas, and Upa-vidyas, are different forms that Kali assumes” (Bhattacharyya & Dvivedi 7-8). Several authorities then view Kali as a symbol of ultimate reality; she truly reveals the nature of fully awakened consciousness (Kinsley 1998:79).

When the Mahavidyas are listed, Tara is typically immediately listed after Kali. This placement would suggest a proposal of importance to the group. Her physical appearance is indeed the most similar to Kali among all the other Mahavidyas; the significance is often interpreted as being comparable to that of Kali. There is a great possibility that the Hindu Mahavidya Tara was developed from the Buddhist bodhisattva Tara, but whereas the Buddhist Tara is often known as being compassionate, the Hindu Tara is almost always fierce, dangerous, and terrible to witness (Kinsley 1998:92). Tara is frequently described as having three bright red eyes. (Kinsley 1998:98). Much like Kali, Tara is often depicted as having a sword and a severed head in her hands; Tara also wears a garland of skulls around her neck (Rai 179-180).

Tripura-sundari is typically listed third, following Kali and Tara in the list of the Mahavidyas. Her name translates to “She who is lovely in the three worlds” (Kinsley 1998:113). She is listed under multiple names, but is also said to be a primary Mahavidya, suggesting that she represents absolute reality. Tripura-sundari’s dhyana mantra portrays her as such: “She shines with the light of the rising sun. In her four hands she hold a noose, a goad, arrows, and a bow” (Unknown 193).

Bhuvanesvari, literally “she whose body is the world”, comes next on the list of the Mahavidyas. Bhuvanesvari is linked with the earth and with creation and is thought to be the underlying energy of it all (Kinsley 1998:131). She embodies the dynamics of the world as we know it. “In this sense…she is identified with the mahabhutas (the basic physical elements) and prakrti (nature or the physical world)” (Kinsley 1998:131). Bhuvanesvari, apart from being included in the Mahavidyas, does not appear to have a widespread following of her own (Kinsley 1998:131).

“The self-decapitated goddess” Chinnamasta is also best known for her involvement in the Mahavidyas, and does not have much of an individual following. Chinnamasta is illustrated holding her own amputated head in one hand, with a sword in the other, drinking her own blood, which is spilling from her neck (Kinsley 1998:144). Although early references to Chinnamasta have not been located, there are accounts of goddesses that are suggested to be prototypes of her, displaying familiar characteristics such as being headless, bloodthirsty, and violent (Kinsley 1998:146).

Bhairavi translates to mean “the fierce one”. She wears red clothing and is adorned with a garland of severed heads; her body is smeared with blood (Kinsley 1998:167). A hymn from the Sarada-tilaka describes Bhairavi as being in a position that oversees and proceeds over the three male deities that are typically associated with creation. She is considered to be separate from the gods and even surpassing them. This emphasis is quite common in many hymns regarding goddesses, especially in the cases pertaining to the Mahavidyas (Kinsley 1998:169). Bhairavi also assumes the role of an educator and creates the Vedas through her wisdom (Kinsley 1998:169).

Dhumavati is known as the widow goddess. She is typically depicted as being ugly, upset, and disheveled; her hands shake and her eyes are full of concern (Kinsley 1998:176). She symbolizes the painful and more burdensome aspects of life (Kinsley 1998:181). Outside of the Mahavidyas, virtually nothing is known about Dhumavati.

Bagalamukhi can be referred to as “the paralyzer”. She emits a grim disposition and is heavily intoxicated. Her complexion is completely golden, embellished by her yellow dress, ornaments, and garland (Kinsley 1998:193). Bagalamukhi is associated with having magical powers. Her devotees are said to reap the rewards of her powers (Kinsley 1998:199-200).

The Goddess Bagalamukhi (one of the Ten Mahavidyas) (Temple Painting, Patan, Nepal)

Matangi is considered to be the “outcaste” among the other goddesses within this cluster. A particular myth pertaining to Matangi touches on the idea of being polluted by associating with the Candalas, or “the untouchables” (Kinsley 1998:217).

Kamala, the final goddess of the Mahavidyas, is known as “the lotus goddess” (Kinsley 1998:223). Kamala is none other than the goddess Laksmi. Among all of the goddesses included in the ten Mahavidyas, Kamala is the most popular and well known. She is “a goddess with almost completely auspicious, benign, and desirable qualities” (Kinsley 1998:225). Kamala is often identified with a variety of blessings that humans ordinarily seek, such as power, luck, wealth, and safety (Kinsley 1998:225).

Even though a couple of the goddesses are presented as being beautiful and harmless, the context of their origin myth makes it evident that the ten Mahavidyas are intended to be fearsome deities.  Their main objective in the myth is to scare Siva into letting Sita have her way (Kinsley 1986:163-164). This overpowering embodiment displays Sita’s assertion of power, suggesting a sense of superiority (Kinsley 1986:164). In both the Brhaddharma-purana and the Mahabhagavata-purana it is suggested that Sati appears in these forms to allow her devotees to achieve ultimate realization (moksa), and so that they may achieve their desires (Kinsley 1986:164).

The ten Mahavidyas are powerful and relevant as a group, but individually, only a select few can stand on their own and parade a widespread individual following. These primary Mahavidyas personify the concept of absolute reality and complete consciousness, which is at the heart of the Hindu tradition.


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

Kinsley, David (1998) Tantric Visions of the Divine Feminine. Delhi: University of California Press.

Rai, R. Kumar (1992) Mantra Mahodadhih. Varanasi: Prachya Prakashan.

Shankaranarayanan, S (1972) The Ten Great Cosmic Powers (Dasa Mahavidyas). Dipti Publications.

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Woodroffe, Sir John (1987) Sakti and Sakta, Essays and Addresses. Madras: Ganesh & Co..


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Article written by: Jamie Hancock (April 2010) who is solely responsible for its content.