Category Archives: The Ten Mahavidyas

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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The Mahavidyas (Great Revelations) is a group of ten goddesses worshipped in the Hindu tradition, who are believed to be different manifestations of the Mahadevi (Great Goddess). To Hindus the Mahadevi is a transcendent female reality who, much like Visnu, is believed to maintain the cosmic order (Kinsley 1986:161). The Mahavidyas are first discussed around the 10th century CE in the Mahabhagavata Purana. In this narrative the goddess Durga, in the form of Sati, weds the god Siva. Siva insists that Sati should not attend her father’s yajna (sacrifice) because they were intentionally not invited. However, Sati is adamant about disrupting the sacrifice and in a state of anger she transforms herself into ten transcendent forms, the Mahavidyas: Kali, Tara, Tripura-sundari, Bhuvanesvari, Chinnamasta, Bhairavi, Dhumavati, Bagalamukhi, Matangi, and Kamala. [Refer to Kinsley 1998 for individual descriptions of each Mahavidya]. Siva is so frightened when he is surrounded by the Mahavidyas that he gives Sati permission to attend the yajna (Benard 2). This is the most prevalent Mahavidya creation story, but there are multiple alternative versions that depict the goddesses as being forms of Parvati, Kali, or Sataksi (Kinsley 1998:22).

The Mahavidyas appear in tantric and puranic Hindu texts. The tantric texts focus on the rituals involved in worshipping the goddesses, while late puranic texts contain detailed stories describing the origins of the Mahavidyas. They are also mentioned in certain goddess hymns, such as the Durga-calisa, a popular forty-verse hymn dedicated to the goddess Durga (Kinsley 1998:15). The Mahavidyas are sometimes likened to the ten avataras (incarnations) of Visnu, who play a positive role in the cosmos. However, in the Hindu literature, focus is placed on the group’s diversity of form rather than their contributions towards maintaining the cosmic order through their actions (Kinsley 1998:21). The Mahavidyas appear most often in painted depictions in temples, although sometimes they may be shown in stone or metal carvings. They appear in temples where the primary goddess is one of the Mahavidyas, as well as in temples where the primary goddess is not one of the ten goddesses (Kinsley 1998:15).

Chinnamasta, literally meaning “the severed head” (Benard 4), distinguishes herself from the other Mahavidyas with her shocking, dramatic, and gruesome iconography. This goddess is depicted as self-decapitated and standing in an aggressive manner as she holds her severed head on a platter in her left hand and her kartr (sword) in her right hand. Three streams of blood gush from Chinnamasta’s neck and are drunk by her own head and two yoginis (female practitioners of yoga), Varnini and Dakini. All three of them are nude, with unkempt hair, and wearing garlands of skulls. Chinnamasta is sometimes shown standing upon Kama (the god of sexual desire) and his wife Rati, who are copulating on a lotus or cremation pyre (Kinsley 1986:173 and Kinsley 1998:144). Chinnamasta also appears in tantric Buddhism. She goes by the name of Chinnamunda, a form of Vajrayogini. Scholars believe she first appeared in Buddhism before entering the Hindu tradition. The iconography of this goddess in Buddhism is very similar, except she is not depicted as standing on top of a copulating couple (Kinsley 1988:161).

The Ten Mahavidyas (Marble image of the goddess Chinnamasta at a Tantric shrine in Ramnagar, near Banaras)

The most popular account of Chinnamasta’s origin appears in the Pranatosini-tantra. It states that the goddess Parvati, Siva’s wife, goes bathing with her two attendants, Dakini and Varnini. The two women are hungry and ask Parvati for food. She tells them to wait and they can eat once they are home. However, after further begging from her companions, the merciful goddess and Mother of the Universe, severs her head with her fingernails and her blood nourishes her attendants. Following this event, Parvati is henceforth known as Chinnamasta (Kinsley 1998:147). This origin story emphasizes maternal self-sacrifice in order to satiate her companions. Scholars note the interesting choice of blood instead of maternal milk for nutrients. The nourishment symbolizes renewal of the universe (Kinsley 1998:150).

These themes, along with others, are also apparent in the imagery of this goddess. Chinnamasta depicts the way that life, sex, and death are intricately intertwined. Her image juxtaposes gruesomeness (a bloody decapitation) and intimacy (the couple engaging in sexual union). Kama and Rati provide Chinnamasta with a vital energy that she then transfers to the yoginis to provide nourishment and sustainment. Scholars interpret this as showing the necessity of death in order to renew and replenish the cycle of life (Kinsley 1986:173). Chinnamasta’s image shows giving and taking, creation and destruction, and life and death. The distinction between receiver and giver vanish (Oestigaard 104). Her image depicts the cyclical nature of the universe and the harmony of seemingly opposite forces that are required to maintain the cosmic balance (Kinsley 1986:175). Normally the nudity and disheveled hair associated with Chinnamasta’s image would indicate a loss of public respectability, but instead these characteristics reveal her sense of freedom and abandonment of societal values (Benard 107).

The decapitated head is essential to all depictions of Chinnamasta, as indicated by the literal translation of her name. The way that Chinnamasta offers her head on a platter is similar to the way that animal sacrifices are carried out in the Hindu tradition. Sacrifices portray devotion and nourishment for a particular god or goddess. In Chinnamasta’s case, her self-sacrifice provides nourishment for her two devotees (Kinsley 1998:151). The severing of the head also represents disposing of the belief in a permanent, material self (Benard 96).

Like Chinnamasta and her two female companions, a number of Mahavidyas wear garlands made of severed heads or skulls. These are thought to represent letters or sounds, especially when presented in numbers of fifty or fifty-two. They are believed to give birth to all creation. In this way, the heads are objects of power, since they hold a person’s identity and essential being (Kinsley 1998:153). The importance of the head in Hinduism is illustrated in the Purusa creation story. Many important elements originate from Purusa’s head, including the Brahmin class, Indra, Agni, the sun, and the moon (Benard 93).

Chinnamasta’s location on top of a copulating couple is interpreted in two opposing ways. The first, and most common, interpretation of Chinnamasta’s superior position is that she has overcome her sexual and selfish desires. She is believed to display the yogic virtue of self-control. This interpretation is supported by the goddess’s hundred-name hymn in the Sakta Pramoda that refers to her as Yogini (female yogi) and Madanatura (she who cannot be overcome by Kama) (Kinsley 1998:154). The alternative explanation suggests that the sexual energy of the couple is being transferred to Chinnamasta. Supporters of this theory point to images of Chinnamasta sitting, instead of standing, on the couple. This physical position does not suggest overpowering of the couple’s sexuality (Kinsley 1998:155-156).

Public and private worship of Chinnamasta is not popular due to her aggressive nature and worshipping her is viewed as dangerous. It is said that those who worship her are of three types: yogis, world renouncers, or heroic in nature (Kinsley 1998:164). Tantric practices allow a practitioner to develop siddhis (supernormal powers) and achieve the ultimate goal of liberation. The Sakta Pramoda, Tantrasara, and Sri Chinnamasta Nityarcana outline the worship rituals for Chinnamasta. There are nine sections of practice prescribed by the Sakta Pramoda including visualized meditation, drawing of the yantra (sacred diagram), and explication of the mantra (sacred utterance). [Benard 1994 can be consulted for further details on these nine areas of practice]. Recitation of Chinnamasta’s 108 names is also included in her worship rituals (Benard 24). Not surprisingly, the majority of her names are fierce sounding. For example, she is referred to as Mahabhima (great terrible one), Candamata (mother of fierce beings), Krodhini (wrathful one), and Kopatura (afflicted with rage) (Kinsley 1998:164). Chinnamasta is one of two Mahavidyas who can only be worshipped using the left-handed path, the other goddess being Bhairavi. This type of worship can be extreme, involving sexual intercourse outside of one’s marriage and nighttime sacrifices involving meat and wine. This contrasts with the other Mahavidyas who can be worshipped by either the right-handed path or both paths (Kinsley 1998:166).

There are no known festivals devoted to Chinnamasta, but the Mahavidyas are worshipped as a group during important goddess festivals including Durga Puja and Kali Puja (Saxena 65). During these festivals the Mahavidyas are included on the tableau of the feature goddess (Kinsley 1998:18). There are only a few temples devoted exclusively to Chinnamasta, most likely a reflection of her limited following. These temples are found in northern and eastern regions of India and in the Kathmandu Valley in Nepal. An important temple is located in Cintapurni in the northern state of Himachal Pradesh. Although the temple is simply known as the Cintapurni Temple, paintings of Chinnamasta and her two attendants mark the entrance, along with a label that states Chinnamastaka Mandir. Inside the temple a stone pindi, an aniconic representation of the goddess, covered with a red cloth comprises the shrine’s central figure. Another important Chinnamasta temple is located by Rajrappa Falls in Bihar, another northern state of India. The temple holds a stone depiction of the beheaded goddess bearing her head in one hand and a sword in the other. Devotees in the area believe that Chinnamasta was cut into twelve pieces during a fight with an asura (demon) and that the temple marks the spot where her head landed (Benard 145-146).

Chinnamasta is a very distinctive Hindu tantric goddess and is easily recognized by most Hindus because of her dramatic iconography (Kinsley 1986:177). This goddess represents cyclical renewal, cosmic balance, nourishment, and self-control. Despite these positive characteristics, her influence in the Hindu tradition remains small due to her fierce essence and more extreme worship rituals. This restriction is reflected in the small number of Chinnamasta worshippers, festivals, and temples limited to northern India and its surrounding areas.




 Benard, Elisabeth Anne (1994) Chinnamasta: The Aweful Buddhist and Hindu Tantric Goddess. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

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

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

Oestigaard, Terje (2006) “Heavens, Havens and Hells of Water: Life and Death in Society and Religion.” In Water: Histories, Cultures, Ecologies. Marnie Leybourne and Andrea Gaynor (eds.). Perth: University of Western Australia Press. pp. 94-105.

Saxena, Neela Bhattacharya (2011) “Mystery, Wonder, and Knowledge in the Triadic Figure of Mahavidya Chinnamasta: A Sakta Woman’s Reading.” In Woman and Goddess in Hinduism: Reinterpretations and Re-envisionings. Tracy Pintchman and Rita D. Sherma (eds.). New York: Palgrave Macmillan. pp. 61-75.


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Mahabhagavata Purana



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Article written by Lauren Hall (March 2013) who is solely responsible for its content.

The Goddess Matangi

Matangi: The Ninth Mahavidya

Matangi is the ninth object of transcendent knowledge, also known as the ninth Mahavidya (Donaldson 597). The Mahavidyas are most commonly a group of ten goddesses, but sometimes can be increased by three or six (Thakur 69). The Mahavidyas have been known as a group since around the tenth century C.E (Kinsley 1). They are said to all be different expressions of the same goddess, who take on different forms for the needs of her devotees (Kinsley 2). It is said that “each Mahavidya is one facet of a multi-faceted Great Goddess and that each facet contains all the others” (Kinsley 39). Though some of the Mahavidyas are popular on their own, Matangi is rarely associated apart from the group (Kinsley 2). However, Matangi is still a unique goddess with many traits that make her powerful.

Earliest traces of Matangi arise in the story from the Divyavadana, a Buddhist collection of stories. There is a story of a low caste girl, whose father-in-law is said to be the king of elephants. In this story, there are parallels to Matangi’s power to attract and control, as well as distinct ties to nature (Kinsley 212). All these are important to Matangi as a goddess; however, they merely show hints of her characteristics, not a story of the goddess herself. All in all, this paints a picture for the beginnings of this tantric goddess, with many more origin stories to follow.

Matangi has several different forms throughout various Hindu texts. Most often, she is a beautiful girl with a dark or black complexion. She has beautiful long hair, elements of nature around her, and intoxicating eyes (Kinsley 14). In Tantric texts, Matangi usually has two-four arms and sits upon a gem-throne or a corpse-seat (Donaldson 599). In her arms, she holds a combination of different objects, most commonly a vina, a kartska, a kapala, a sword, a noose, a goad, a shield, a club, or a mace (Donaldson 599). Matangi is said to be represented by the colors blue-green, however some scholars associate her with black, due to her dark complexion (see Kinsley 42-43). In the Kubjika Upanisad, Matangi is said to be the blue one, who has blue garments, blue perfumes, blue ornaments, and a blue parrot (Goudriaan 320). When Matangi is depicted with four arms, those four arms are said to be the representation of the four Vedas (Donaldson 597). Other common names for Matangi are Rajamatangi, Sumukhi-matangi, and Ucchista-matangi (Donaldson 599). Though Matangi’s depictions change depending on the text, she is a well-known and original goddess who illustrates great power throughout her forms.

Matangi is said, much like the other Mahavidyas, to have certain magical or psychic powers (Kinsley 220). She has the power to grant her devotees desires such as the power to gain control over others, to have everything one wishes come true, and attract people (Kinsley 220). In addition, she can destroy her devotee’s enemies and make her devotee rich, powerful, and a great poet (Donaldson 597). If one wishes to obtain any of these demands, the devotee must sacrifice different elements or combinations of elements to a fire, all while reciting Matangi’s mantra (Kinsley 221). An example would be if one wanted power to attract others, salt and honey would be offered to the fire (Kinsley 222). Also, successful worship of Matangi must be completed during the night, with offerings to her sacrificed at midnight (Goudriaan 320). If a devotee is to follow Matangi’s rituals, they may request any boon they desire.

Matangi is best known for her unconventional desire for pollution. This is based on one of her origin myths, from the Sakti-samgama-tantra (Kinsley 213). Matangi is said to have been created from the leftover food (uccista) of Siva and Parvati, requesting more leftover food as sustenance upon arrival (Kinsley 213). Siva then pronounced that Uccista-matangini would henceforth be the bestower of all boons (Kinsley 213). This myth is profound because leftover food is believed to be polluted in the Hindu tradition and not fit for a god or goddess. Matangi requests left over foods from her devotees and is said to request the uccista to be from their stained hands and mouths (Kinsley 215). Matangi is believed to consume many dangerous materials such as animal heads and clothing worn by a person before they had died, which are known as chwasas (Kinsley 218). Matangi not only requires her devotees to offer her polluted substances but also to be in a polluted state when worshipping her (Kinsley 7). To be in a polluted state means that the devotees would not need to bathe, fast, or do any other vows before worship (Kinsley 216). Also, devotees can be menstruating when worshipper her, even offer her clothe with menstrual blood on it, which is seen as highly polluted (Kinsley 216). Matangi is worshipped for being polluted, and thus must be worshipped by polluted devotees. To be polluted is a taboo in Hindu worship, thus this makes Matangi an interesting exception to Hindu conventions.

Matangi, in relation with her association to pollution, is also seen as the outcaste or low-caste goddess (Kinsley 217). In two of her origin stories, Matangi is seen as a Candala or untouchable women. The first origin story is from the text Pranatosini-Tantra, which has strong ties to the origin myth of the ten Mahavidyas. In this myth, Siva tests Parvati’s faithfulness and in turn Parvati tests Siva by disguising herself as a Candala woman. She then seduces him to make love with her, which in turn makes him extremely polluted. For falling for her trick, Parvati asks Siva for a boon, which Siva grants. She requested that this Candala form would last forever and be referred to as Uccista-candalini (Kinsley 213). This solidified Matangi’s role as a low-caste goddess and hence she was forever subject to life as a Candala. In another origin story, Matangi is the sister of Siva and is obsessed with purity and pollution. After ill-talk against her brother’s polluted behaviour, Parvati cursed her to be re-born as an untouchable. Saddened by her fate, she approaches her brother who grants her desire to be worshipped by people on spiritual journeys to Varanasi (Kinsley 214). Matangi’s ties to the lower classes are solidified by a group in Nepal known as the Pores or known by their caste name: Matangi (Kinsley 218). This group collects and accumulates the debris of others castes and disposes it (Kinsley 218). They are dealing with the pollution of others, and thus are constantly in a state of pollution. The significance of these individuals being known by the caste name Matangi shows not only the Tantric goddesses’ link to low castes but also their pollution.

Matangi can also be associated with the forest and nature. Many scholars say that Matangi is the goddess of the hunter tribes (White 469). This stems from the third origin myth of Raja-matangini, in the Svatantra-tantra, where this goddess helps Matanga subdue all creatures (Kinsley 219). This gives her a close connection to the goddess Savaresvari, who is also known as the mistress of the Savaras, a tribe that dwells in the forest (Kinsley 219). In the Nandyavarta-tantra, Matangi bears quite a few epithets that link her thousand-name hymn with Savaresvari. Matangi is called “She Who Lives in the Forest, Who Walks the Forest, Who Knows the Forest, Who Enjoys the Forest, and Savari” (Kinsley 219). As well, in her hundred-name hymn from the Rudrayamala, Matangi, much like Savaresvari, is said to love music (Kinsley 219). Also, in the Sarada-tilaka-tantra, Matangi is said to have leaves painted on her forehead and flower garlands in her hair, as well as have the ability to control wild animals; all which associate her with Savaresvari (Kinsley 219). Furthermore, Matangi is often said to be the daughter of Matanga, who was most likely a hunter, giving her true lineage to nature (Donaldson 212). Matangi, as a goddess of the hunter tribes, gives this tantric goddess power over living things residing within nature.

Matangi is also often referred to as the elephant power, who is in charge of restoring peace, calm, and prosperity after the terror of the night (Donaldson 596). In the Matangi Tantra, her dhyana declares that she, as the elephant power, is the delight of the world (Donaldson, 596). Also, the Matangi Tantra gives a description of Matangi which is quite unique to her classification as an elephant power (Donaldson 596). She is portrayed as sitting on a jeweled throne, her feet being honored by the hosts of the gods, whom she looks upon with three lotus eyes. She is also said to shine like a blue lotus, yet still resemble the forest fire which consumes the habitat of the demons. She holds a noose, a sword, a shield, and an elephant in her lotus hands (Donaldson 596). This is unique because images of Matangi do not often have her holding an elephant, directly correlating to her power. Matangi is also seen as erotically dominant, which is why she is commonly referred to as an impassioned female elephant. Matangi’s name literally means “she whose limbs are intoxicated (with passion)” (Kinsley 218). All in all, Matangi’s power as an elephant further solidifies the diverse nature that encompasses this tantric goddess.

According to many scholars, Matangi is also a representation of Sarasvati, the goddess of culture and learning (Dold, 2011: 59). This is evident in a few historical sources and depictions, most notably in the Swami Shastri (Kinsley 21). As well, in the Sarada-tilaka-tantra, she is playing a vina, a characteristic distinctive to Sarasvati (Donaldson 597). This notion is also confirmed by posters from the Kamarupa temple that depict her with a vina, represented in the main temple’s garbhagriha (Dold, 2004: 120). Sarasvati, and in comparison Matangi, was created to spread music and education, as well as help acquire liberating wisdom (jnana) (Kinsley 21). Furthermore, she is said to represent the sixty-four arts (Kinsley 209). Since she is the deity reigning over fine arts, she has the power to embark artistic ventures such as composing poetry (White 472). Overall, this creates an opposing representation of Matangi, who is most commonly depicted as a low-caste, polluted goddess. This final representation adds to Matangi’s complexity as the ninth Mahavidya.

All in all, Matangi is a goddess with many forms and traits. She serves to represent a wide array of people; from the lower-castes, to the hunter tribes, to the arts. Matangi’s desire for pollution also makes her an exception to many Hindu conventions for worshipping gods and goddess. Matangi serves as a facet of a larger Great Goddess, while still maintaining unique traits for her devotees to worship.

Bibliography and Related Readings

Dold, Patricia A (2011) “Pilgrimage to Kamakhya Through Text and Live Religion” in Studying Hinduism in Practice. Hillary Rodrigues (ed.). London: Routledge. pp. 46-61.

Dold, Patricia A (2004) The Mahavidyas at Kamarupa: Dynamics of Transformation in Hinduism.”  Journal of Religious Studies and Theology. 23(1), 89-122.

Donaldson, Thomas  E (2002) Tantra and Sakta Art of Orissa Vol.II. Delhi: DK Printworld Ltd.

Goudriaan, Teun  (1993) Ritual and Speculation in Early Tantrism. Delhi: Sri Satguru Publications.

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

Thakur, Manoj K (2001) The Tantras: An Introductory Outline. Delhi: Book Land Publishing Co.

White, David G (2000) Tantra in Practise. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers.

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Article written by Sarah Sampson (Spring 2012), who is solely responsible for its content.

The Goddess Bhuvanesvari

The Goddess Bhuvanesvari

Within the Tantric tradition, the Ten Mahavidyas (literally meaning “Great knowledge”) are believed to be the ten forms of Mahadevi, the Great Goddess (Kinsley 57). The Mahavidyas are separate goddesses, but they are part of and understood to be different facets of Mahadevi. The term Devi is usually used to refer to the wife of Siva – whether Parvati, Durga, or Kali – but it is also used to describe other goddesses (Hawley et al., 318). Mostly, it is used to describe the Goddess, the one whose form is absolute feminine reality (Hawley et al. 318). She has many sides, all expressed through different goddesses, including the Mahavidyas. Her gentle side is worshiped through Uma, Parvati, Bhuvanesvari, Savitri, Sita, and many others (Prakashan 16). Her terrible or ferocious side is worshiped through such goddesses as Kali, Bhairavi, and Chamunda (Prakashan 16).

The first of the Ten Mahavidyas is Kali, “The Black One,” a fierce and terrible warrior (Hawley et al. 320). Following are Tara (The Goddess Who Guides Through Troubles), Tripura-sundari (She Who is Lovely in the Three Worlds), Bhuvanesvari (She Whose Body is the World), Chinnamasta (The Self-Decapitated Goddess), Bhairavi (The Fierce One), Dhumavati (The Widow Goddess), Bagalamukhi (The Paralyser), Matangi (The Outcaste Goddess), and finally, Kamala (The Lotus Goddess) (Kinsley 9). [The order and composition of the Mahavidyas varies somewhat, but for the purpose of this essay I will use the list above]. In some myths the Mahavidyas originate from Kali. In others, Sati, Parvati, Durga, or Sataksi become the source of the Mahavidyas when they assert their independence from their husbands or male counterparts (Kinsley 22). However, the Mahadevi myth is the version most widely accepted.

The Mahavidyas are charged with maintaining cosmic order and morality (dharma) by eliminating evil and corruption (Kinsley 20). Each was created to bring a positive change to the world. Kali was created to kill the demons of the world; Bhuvanesvari was created to save the world when it sank beneath the waters of the cosmic ocean (Kinsley 21). Demon slaying is a key motif. The Mahavidyas are believed to be based on the ten avatars of Visnu, his divine descendents that manifest in the physical world (Bhattacharyya 229). Each Mahavidya corresponds to an avatar. All the Mahavidyas are associated with magical powers, especially Bagalamukhi. Some have powers of attraction, others can kill a person just by willing it (Kinsley 56).

Bhuvanesvari, the fourth of the Ten Mahavidyas, embodies and controls the cosmos (Kinsley 131). According to one myth, she was created when the sun god, Surya, after receiving soma from the rsis, created the three worlds (the ancestral, human, and godly planes). Bhuvanesvari then appeared to protect and watch over the worlds, having not existed until they were brought into being. For this reason she is regarded as “mistress of the world” (Kinsley 129). She is considered part of the world or the world itself, both a source of creation and creation personified. She is queen of the cosmos. From her the world was created, and will be returned to at the end of the cycle. She is the mother of Brahma, Visnu, and Siva (Kinsley 134). Thus the cycle of creation, maintenance, and destruction is formed and maintained by Bhuvanesvari.

Bhuvanesvari is particularly associated with the earth and creation, and provides the energy needed for existence and life (Kinsley 131). She is believed to embody each of the five elements (bhutas), and to have an intimate connection to the physical world (prakrti) (Kinsley 133). Bhuvanesvari can manifest as mountains, stars, rivers, anything; she is pervasive in the physical world (Kinsley, 130). She is also known as Bhuvana (Mistress of the World), Sarvesi (Mistress of All), Sarvarupa (She Whose Form is All), and Visvarupa (She Whose Form is the World), to name a few (Kinsley 131). Unlike some of the other Mahavidyas, Bhuvanesvari did not have a wide-spread cult or following prior to be incorporated as one of the Ten (Kinsley 129).

Bhuvanesvari is beautiful, with a smiling face, flowing black hair, and a golden complexion (Kinsley 140). Sometimes, she is described as having a red, or bluish pallor (Kinsley 133). Her features are feminine: a small nose, large eyes, and full red lips (Kinsley 140). Her breasts are full and leaking milk, emphasising the motherly role she plays in the cosmos (Kinsley 11). In one myth Siva grew a third eye so that he could appreciate her beauty more (Kinsley 140). Her smiling and gentle demeanour is in contrast to some of the other Mahavidyas, such as Kali. They are still beautiful, but they are more fearsome; depicted as standing on corpses, wearing garlands of human heads, or naked and covered in blood. All the Mahavidyas are fearsome, but this aspect is stressed as a key feature in some and not in others. Kali, Tara, Bagala, Dhumavati, and Chinnamasta are always described as terrible, frightening, and fierce. The formidable nature of Tripura-sundari, Bhairavi, Matangi, and Bhuvanesvari is mentioned, but not as much emphasis is placed on this feature. Only Kamala is regarded as benevolent (Kinsley 37).

Bhuvanesvari’s beauty is said to reflect the beauty of creation and the physical world (Kinsley 141). She is gracious and kind, giving the world all it needs to survive. She protects creation and fights against sources of disorder, restoring the cosmic balance so that the world may thrive. Bhuvanesvari is said to have developed a third eye to better watch over creation (Kinsley 141). Often, she will appear as different manifestations to slay demons and restore balance (Kinsley 134).

Bhuvanesvari is depicted with a noose and goad; both symbols suggest control (Kinsley 141). Some believe that she uses the goad for discipline and to control evil emotions such as anger, lust, and obsession. The noose symbolizes the barriers that keep us from knowing our true selves (atman), and by proxy, attaining liberation (Kinsley 141). However, countless interpretations exist. Her other two hands convey gestures of fearlessness and conferring boons (Kinsley 141). She also appears with a red lotus and a jewelled bowl, symbolizing growth and wealth (Kinsley 141). Not surprisingly, worship of Bhuvanesvari is believed to bring the devotee material wealth and spiritual well-being (Kinsley 143).

She is seated on a lotus, a position of power with connotations of creation (Kinsley 142). In another creation myth, Brahma is depicted sitting on a lotus flower growing out of Visnu’s navel. The lotus symbolises power, purity, and transcendence (Kinsley 142). Also, a crescent moon is present on her forehead, believed to symbolize replenishment, the endless cycles of creation and destruction, from which the world is produced each time (Kinsley 142).

Bhuvanesvari does not have a consort, which is unusual for female deities in the Hindu tradition. The same is true for the other Mahavidyas, although some believe that they are loosely associated with Siva, who is sometimes portrayed as the consort of the Goddess (Kinsley 62). For those who are associated with male deities such as Kali, Tara, and Kamala, the association is down-played or ignored when they are worshiped as part of the Mahavidyas (Kinsley 63). If they are depicted with male counterparts, they dominate him, most often by standing on his prone form (Kinsley 63). Bhuvanesvari is, however, associated with the formless Brahman, one of Visnu’s avatars, as are all the Mahavidyas (Kinsley 16).

Sakta devotees at Bhuvanesvari Temple (Kamarupa, Assam)

Devotion to Bhuvanesvari is believed to confer auspiciousness, attraction of others to you, control over others, especially enemies, and the power to manifest any spoken thought (Kinsley 143). Tantric worship of the Mahavidyas culminates in self-awareness and is said to awaken the deity within oneself (Kinsley 51). This enlightenment is key to achieving moksa or liberation. Also sought after is heightened sensory perception (Kinsley 51). Furthermore, boons may be granted by the goddesses to devout followers, bestowing wisdom and magical powers (Kinsley 51). Temple worship varies considerably between the Mahavidyas. Some, like Kali and Laksmi (Kamala) have temples throughout India. Others, including Bhuvanesvari, have few places of worship. Temples that worship the Mahavidyas as a group are also rare (Kinsley 16). However, depictions of the Mahavidyas can usually be found on temple walls dedicated to most goddesses (Kinsley 15).

In conclusion, Bhuvanesvari plays a minor if any role within the Hindu tradition. Her role becomes somewhat more prominent within Tantric worship, but she is still a minor goddess. Other Mahavidya goddesses receive more attention in both, such as Kali and Kamala, also know as Laksmi. Despite her important function in the world, writings on her are few and far between. She is almost never studied or worshiped outside the group of Mahavidyas. This is unfortunate for she plays a pivotal role in the cosmos and her character and worldly position demand more attention.

References and Recommended Reading

Bhattacharyya, Narendra (1977) The Indian Mother Goddess. Delhi: Manohar Book Service.

Donaldson, Thomas (2002) Tantra and Sakta Art of Orissa. New Delhi: D.K. Printworld.

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

Kinsley, David (1997) Tantric Visions of the Devine Feminine: The Ten Mahavidyans. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers.

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

Prakashan, Rekha (1980) The Little Goddesses (Matrikas). New Delhi: Caxton Press.

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

Samuel, Geoffrey (2005) Tantric Revisionings: New Understandings of Tibetan Buddhism and Indian Religion. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers.

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

Related Topics







Demon slaying





Durga Purja


Kamala (Laksmi)









Tantric Goddess Worship



Vishnu (Ten Avatars)


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Article written by Emilyne Jankunis (Spring 2012), who is solely responsible for its content.

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.


Bhattacharyya, B. and Dvivdei, Vrajavallabha (1978) Saktisamgama-tantra. Baroda: Oriental Institute of Baroda.

Gupta, Anand S. (1968) Vamana-purana. Banaras: All-India Kashiraj Trust.

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