Category Archives: Goddess and Women in Tantra

The Kula Ritual

An important text that has been used to fully introduce the Kula ritual is Dupuche’s book entitled: Abhinavagupta: The Kula Ritual: As Elaborated in Chapter 29 of the Tantraloka (2003). The Kula ritual is cited within the Tantraloka and therefore falls within tantric Saivism, particularly the Trika Saivism sect (Dupuche 8). Research of Abhinavagupta and his contributions to Trika Saivism is an important part of fully grasping what the Kula ritual includes and the ideologies that are related to it. Abhinavagupta wrote the Tantraloka, which is still an extremely important treatise within the Tantric tradition (Rodrigues 283). It is essential to note that Abhinavagupta did not fully reject the Vedic tradition, however his work is not considered to belong to Hindu orthodox work (Dupuche 8). The orthodox Vedic traditions emphasize living a pure life and then has a host of items, actions, foods, etc. that would be considered impure. The Kula ritual does not have a preference for purity or impurity. Dupuche’s even states that it “uses forbidden foods and forbidden women” (Dupuche 9).

Overall, the general idea and structure of the Kula Ritual is the ‘secret ceremony.’ It is shrouded in mystery, but at the very root of the Kula ritual; it is the worship of Perfect Beings. Dupuche describes Perfect Beings as: beings that “occupy a place midway between gods and mankind” (Dupuche 80). He further explains that these beings enjoy siddhi and try to lead others to the same state (Dupuche 80). A paper written by Karel Werner tries to explain the complicated and confusing factor of the Kula Ritual. The writer continues to suggest the “aim of the Kula Ritual is to overcome every day common dualisms” (Werner 117). Tantric tradition seeks to go beyond dualisms, which equivocate to spiritual ignorance (Rodrigues 399).  Werner goes on to explain that another overarching theme of the Kula Ritual the idea of finding one’s true self (Werner 117). The ritual has various separating factors that include: qualified and unqualified persons, men and women, niracara and sacara, pure and impure, and initiated and not initiated persons.

The elaboration of those that are qualified to practice the Kula ritual and those who are unqualified simply fall under the categories of disciple and guru or simple layperson. The category seems rather arbitrary because it implies that anyone who wishes to practice the Kula ritual would simply need to search for a guru and become his disciple. Only those that have a specific “seed” that are related to the Kula tradition may be considered qualified. Since the “seed transmission” is implied to the transfer of semen, it implies that only men can be considered a qualified, initiated guru. Abhinavagupta lists “six qualified gurus” and “six unqualified gurus” (Dupuche 74). He further goes on to dichotomize the transmission of seed and the transmittance of vibrating power of Siva. The transmission of seed is the transfer of semen (Dupuche 74). Those who do not have potent seed are seen as not functioning and therefore do not have disciples and must remain celibate. Those that do have proper functioning seed are qualified to practice the Kula tradition. Even so, the Kula ritual allows for both male and female practitioners. To understand how women are seen within the Kula ritual, one needs to be aware of how niracara and sacara are related to religious philosophy. The term niracara speaks toward those who are not attached to any ritual and the term sacara defines those who are attached to or emphasize ritual practice. Many of the qualified women that are part of the Kula ritual are considered to be niracara and therefore should be seen and treated as goddesses (Dupuche 77). The ‘officiate’ of the ritual is the guru, typically male, and because of his role with the ritual he is seen as the sacara aspect of it.

Abhinavagupta composed Tantraloka 29 in eight different sub-topics. The Tantraloka is a text that is found within the Saivism sect. It outlines a series of rituals and practices. However, Tantraloka 29 discusses the topic of the Kula Ritual. It explains specific rituals that an individual who practices the Kula ritual abides by. These topics are grouped under rituals for those who are initiated and rituals for those who are not initiated. However, as a prelude to the sub-topics there are preliminary rituals. “The Essence [of the Kula ritual procedure]” (Dupuche 70) is an important subsection within the prelude. The section has been speculated to truly be the essence of the Kula ritual as it is the opening of the Tantraloka 29 and sets the tone for the entirety of the chapter. The structure is ultimately laid out in three categories: daily, occasional, and optional rituals (Dupuche 85). Daily rituals, as with many other religions, are set to happen every day at the same time. Occasional rituals are performed during certain and specific events. Optional rituals happen at times when the practitioner chooses. While there are clearly defined rituals for the initiated and not initiated, the sub-topics are not evenly distributed. However, before the start of the categorized sub-topics there is an Opening Ritual that is involved. There stands to be four sub-topics that are involved with the initiated rituals and three sub-topics that are involved with the not initiated.

The opening ritual is a separated ritual that also serves as an introduction to procedure of the chapter (Dupuche 93). The mechanics of a ritual is important- and Abhinavagupta goes through it quite comprehensively. Similarly to the Vedic traditions, purity is an important part of ritual. So, to mirror certain practices one must bathe prior to the start of the ritual. The practitioner is also required to cleanse instruments that are to be used in the ritual. He mentions that after cleansing procedures, two important stages take place (Dupuche 94). The first step that a practitioner must come to is an achieved state of bliss that is called a “state of Bhairava” (Dupuche 94) and “sprinkles himself… with droplets taken from the vessel” (Dupuche 94). The droplets may be related to alcohol (wine). A further continuation of the opening ritual starts to deviate from the Vedic traditions. Many rituals within the Vedic traditions are done in the public eye. In contrast, the Kula Opening Ritual is meant to be private- to never be seen in public, to avoid societal influences may contribute to. However, while the ritual is not meant to be in public, it is also not meant to in the private space that is considered the home (Dupuche 94).

There are three great mantras used within the Opening Ritual. As previously mentioned there is a strong tie between external manifestation and the state of Bhairava. The three mantras are used as a “form of bath the external sort of which is discounted in the Kula rituals” (Dupuche 100). A keystone of the opening ritual is the filling of the Vessel. The practitioner is responsible for filling the vessel with various forbidden items such as: wine, meat, and sexual fluid (Dupuche 101). The items lead to bliss, which is considered to be one of the highest realities (Dupuche 101). However, the bliss that is mentioned within the document is related to consciousness. Within the literature, there is great implication that sacrifice is an act that is a manifested within the individual’s consciousness. Dupuche supports this claim by stating “[t]hree inter-related internal acts may be considered here since they are the essential method of all the Kula sacrifices,” and that “[i]t brings into reality the object which exists only as a desire” (Dupuche 102). By participating in the Opening ritual, the practitioner realizes his state as Bhairava and is now able to engage in Sacrifices (Dupuche 104). Within his text, Dupuche highlights the sacrifices one, two, and three. Dupuche quickly brushes over each subject. Sacrifice one is considered to be the “external celebration of splendor of consciousness” (Dupuche 105).

Sub-topic three is part number two of the rituals for the initiated. It is entitled “the Ritual of Adoration.” Sub-topic three and Sacrifice two are closely related. Sacrifice two is related to the dualism of the term sakti. It relies on the idea and philosophy that sakti is the female principle and is the principle that is seen as responsible for all activity in the world. Due to the nature of the tantric tradition, one may assume that the term refers to an actual woman. However, within Dupuche’s text, he explicitly states, “it does not refer to an actual woman” but rather “is based on the “internal sakti.” The Ritual of Adoration is concerned with sacred sites (pitha) and four stages of Krama (Dupuche 113). The sacred sites that are being referred to correspond to the sites on the practitioner’s own body, and note external landmarks, rooms, etc. These pitha correspond to spaces on the “sexual dimensions on the body” and the pitha symbolize the “sacred union of ‘the faculty and its object’ (Dupuche 115). The four stages of Krama include: emanation, maintenance, reabsorption, and a section entitled “Nameless.” The first step (emanation) is considered the “installation of the sites” (Dupuche 116). It ensures that these sacred sites are defined. The male reabsorption starts from his hands and slowly moves down his body and ends in his toes. The nine women that are to be included within the ritual are to be considered ritually impure within the classical Vedic traditions (Dupuche 117).

Sub-topic four is entitled: The Ritual with the Sexual Partner. There are two defined sub-sections. The main sections within this particular sub-topic are participants and the ritual. Within the Vedic tradition, brahmacaya is the student phase that promotes celibacy. Within the Tantraloka 29, Abhinavagupta describes brahman as “the bliss between Siva and sakti” (Dupuche 125). There are elements of sub-topic four that have been focused upon within Tantraloka 28. One of the key elements of Tantraloka 28 is the circle sacrifice. The circle sacrifice within the context of the Tantraloka 29 refers to the “theatrical aspect of the gathering” (Dupuche 129). This circle ritual aspect also advocates for consent of all those involved, as well as searching for the true interpretation of sakti. The ritual has three emissions that include: emanation, reabsorption, and blending. The emanation of the ritual has three trajectories in which can be viewed as subsections of emanation. The first trajectory is “Emphasis on Action” in summations focuses on the erotic nature of the Kula ritual and tries to explain the bond between bliss, Siva, and sakti. The second trajectory is Emphasis on Knowledge. This section goes on to explain differentiated though “leads to absorption and the emission of the fluid” (Dupuche 138).  The final trajectory is entitled “Emphasis on the sakti.” This section starts with defining the important of sakti and the “immediacy of her impact” (Dupuche 139). It further goes on to state that sakti goes beyond the other two trajectories and is much more complex. As a closing statement to the third trajectory, Abhinavagupta state that “sexual fluid… results from consciousness” (Dupuche 140). After the three trajectories that are housed under the first emission are explained, the second and third emissions are briefly summarized. Reabsorption (the second emission) explains the “a human of flesh and blood” reach a state of bliss, rest, and then ultimately fall into a state of non-bliss. At this point of time the circle ritual that is described above is stopped. The final emission, the “Union” or “Blending.” There are various sexual connotations and it seems that the over-all reason for such emissions is to conceive a child that would be the counterpart of Rudra (Dupuche 147).

The last ritual for those that have been initiated is “The Ritual of the Secret Teaching” or sub-topic five. The fifth sub-topic focuses on sacrifices four, five, and six. Sacrifice four is based on the body, the fifth on the Subtle-breath (prana), and the sixth is based on the mind. In a way it does make sense that all three of these sacrifices are closely related to one another. Within sacrifice four, Abhinavagupta explains that human bodies are akin to the mandala (Dupuche 148). The fifth explains that the satiation that is found within the third sacrifice also satiates the fifth sacrifice (Dupuche 149). Lastly, the sixth sacrifice is simply stated that at the highest level it is consciousness that has been obtained (Dupuche 150).

The next three sub-topics are considered to be rituals for those that need to be initiated. The first of these three is sub-topic six. There are two types of initiation: Ordinary Initiation and Initiation as the Son. After the two types of initiation are explained, Abhinavagupta goes on to explain a section entitled “On the Son who Desires Enjoyment.” The reason for ordinary initiation does not focus on the “external events” but rather focuses on the reabsorption of energy (Dupuche 154). It also is the search for the balance between liberation and sexual pleasures. It is the first step toward being initiated as a Son. After one goes through ordinary initiation, one may be able to initiate as a son. This proves to be the next step toward becoming a master within the rituals. In order to be initiated as a son one must be able to be “brought to liberation and only then can he be properly receive the enjoyment which penetration procures” (Dupuche 158). However, as this is only initiation into the Kula ritual, the initiate focuses on himself rather than the sexual aspect of the ritual (Dupuche 162). Sub-topic seven simply discusses anointing the adept and the master (Dupuche 164). Finally Sub-topic eight focuses on the penetration. This form of penetration concerns breaking through various bondages that a person find himself naturally in.

The Kula ritual is a ritual and tradition that is shrouded within a lot of mystery and secrecy. It is split between two groups of people: Those who are already initiated and those who still have yet to initiate into the ritual. There are various sexual themes that are associated with the ritual.



Basu, Srishchandra (2004) The Esoteric Philosophy of The Tantras. New Delhi: Cosmo Publications.

Dupuche, John R. (2003) Abhinavagupta: The Kula Ritual: As Elaborated in Chapter 29 of the Tantraloka. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers.

Muller-Ortega, Paul E. (1997) The Triadic Heart of Siva. Delhi: Sri Satguru Publications.

Rodrigues, Hillary. (2006) Introducing Hinduism. New York: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.

Sastri, Gaurinath (2002) Rituals and Practice of Tantra Vol. I. India: Cosmo Publications.

Sastri, Gaurinath (2002) Rituals and Practice of Tantra Vol. II. India: Cosmo Publications.

Werner, Karel. (2005) “Review of Books.” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 15#1 (April): 116-118.


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Tantraloka 29








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


The Sakta Pithas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


References and Further Recommended Reading

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

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

kalighat Kali Temple.”

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

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

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

The History of Kamakhya Temple Assam.”


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



The Matrkas (Mothers)

In the Hindu tradition, the Matrkas are groups of goddesses with various origins that are associated with violence and diseases that afflict children (Bose 36). In literature, these goddesses are often presented with more recognizable goddesses such as Kali’s precursor Camunda (Donaldson 301) and the Great Goddess Devi in battle (Donaldson 305).  The size of the group of goddesses varies throughout literature and mythology, and early references to the group of “mothers” mention their innumerable size (Kinsley 1986:151). Eventually, the representation of the Matrkas evolved from unspecific groups of goddesses to an organized unit because of development in the Brahmanic tradition (Harper 97). The group is unique in that each individual goddess holds little significance and is therefore difficult to describe individually but they garner significance when mentioned as a group (Kinsley 1986:158).  The Matrkas are featured most prominently in the third episode of the Devi-mahatmya (Kinsley 1986:156) but are also featured in the Mahabharata (Kinsley 1986:152) and Puranic literature (Harper 52) both as the Matrkas and the Saptamatrkas, a specified Tantric group of seven goddesses. These goddesses are not often worshipped like other significant goddesses, however worship is done for specific circumstances both in literature and tradition. Although these goddesses do not have one specific role within religious tradition, they have a very interesting origin and place within Hinduism and Indian culture.

The origins of the Matrkas is cautiously believed to be a synthesis of both Vedic and tribal goddesses that were worshipped regionally (Foulston 107). These goddesses were all seen as mother goddesses that could cause harm to children and were often featured in battles (Donaldson 301). Due to the belief that the Matrkas are drawn from tribal village-goddesses, epics and Brahmanic traditions are weary of the goddesses, possibly contributing to their negative depiction (Kinsley 1986:155). Iconographically, the Matrkas are mostly represented in calm and maternal form, often holding a child and in some instances emblems of their supposed male counterpart (Donaldson 320). These visual depictions of the goddesses heavily contrast with their physical descriptions that emphasize their fearsome natures and frightening features (Kinsley 1986:155).

Bas-relief of the group of goddesses known as the Matrkas (Mothers) (Ellora, India)
Bas-relief of the group of goddesses known as the Matrkas (Mothers) (Ellora, India)

Early references rarely specified their number, and it is unclear whether the same goddesses were involved every time they were mentioned (Kinsley 1986:151).  During the medieval period though, and possibly after being merged into Brahmanic tradition, the number of goddesses in the group were standardized and named. Most often there are seven goddesses, the Saptamatrkas, but groups of eight and sixteen were also used in literature (Kinsley 1986:152) with up to 24 Matrkas being mentioned by name (Donaldson 318). How the Matrkas are created differ throughout the literature, however it is agreed upon that rather than divine consorts or saktis of male gods as mentioned in the Devi-mahatmya and the Devi-bhagavata-purana, they are extensions or forms of the Great Mother or Goddess, Devi as mentioned in Puranic literature (Bose 36). The popularity of these goddesses increased after 400 CE due to many casual references in literary works (Kinsley 1986:55).

The Matrkas are featured in many literary works. Most prominent is the third episode of the Devi-mahatmya, however it draws on a tradition that was established in the Mahabharata (Kinsley 1978:494). In the Vana Parva, the narrative of Karttikeya is told. In this, a group of goddesses were sent by Indra to kill Karritkeya but when they arrived they developed maternal instincts towards him and were unable to kill the child.  Instead, they ask him to adopt them as his mothers. They also requested that they be elevated and worshipped in the same position as Brahma’s and Siva’s consorts as the “mothers of the world” and for permission to live off the offspring of man (Kinsley 1978:495). Karritkeya denies the last request, asking that they protect children. However, he adds a caveat that they may torment children with disease and ailments up to the age of 16. The Matrkas’ desire to be mothers and to punish men through harming children stemmed from their own lost opportunity to bear children due to their divorces (Kinsley 1986:152). Further mention in the Mahabharata includes when Karttikeya is given command of the army in which the Matrkas assist him in battle (Kinsley 186:153).

The Matrkas in the Devi-mahatmya are similar to those in the Mahabharata including their ability in battle and dangerous nature (Kinsley 1975:496). The third episode of the Devi-mahatmya includes the formation of the Saptamatrkas from the saktis of seven gods (Donaldson 304) to assist Camunda, precursor to Kali, defeat Raktabija during Devi’s battle with demon brothers Sumbha and Nisumbha (Donaldson 303). The goddesses created closely resemble the saktis they were created from (Kinsley 1986:156) but it is believed by scholars that the story in the Devi-mahatmya references a group of seven goddesses that are further representing a larger group of village goddesses (Kinsley 1978:496). This story is echoed in the Devi-bhagavata-purana (Kinsley 1986:156).

In Puranic literature, the Matrkas are always featured in battle in a supportive role (Kinsley 1986:160). In the Vamana Purana, the story stays similar to the battle in the Devi-mahatmya, however the goddesses are formed from various parts of Devi’s body (Donaldson 305), adding evidence to the belief that the goddesses are an extension of Devi herself. In the Matsya Purana, Siva created the Matrkas to help combat the demon Andhaka, who possessed the ability to duplicate from the blood spilled from his wounds. The Matrkas were instructed to drink the blood of the demon in order to kill him; because of their bloodthirsty nature they gladly complied with Siva’s request (Kinsley 1986:158). However, the blood intoxicated the Matrkas, and Siva was unable to control them or convince them to return to protecting creation, thus beginning their destructive bloodthirsty path (Donaldson 310).  The Varaha Purana is based on three battles mentioned in the Devi-mahatmya, however the demons change and Camunda is dominant rather than Devi (Donaldson 308). In this version, the Matrkas were created from Camunda’s mouth and when they emerged, they were deformed and bloodthirsty. In order to control them, Siva set out guidelines for how they should quench their thirst (Donaldson 309). Puranic writers are credited with making the Matrkas mainstream through the simplification of the origins and personalities of the group. The goddesses are restricted in number, are related to male gods in name and depiction and to draw away from their dangerous nature, the Puranic writers focus the Matrkas role to assisting Devi in maintaining cosmic order (Kinsley 1986:158).  This intention could stem from a need to incorporate the goddesses into the Brahmanic tradition, however it is still understood by scholars that this group is dangerous and violent, especially towards children (Kinsley 1986:160).

Although the Matrkas are mentioned in varying numbers, seven goddesses are most often referred to as the Saptamatrkas. The significance of the number seven stems from the Indus Valley Civilization, in which seals have been discovered featuring seven female figures that are believed to be “officiants or ministrants of the goddess” (Harper 6). In addition to the seals, the heptad recurs so frequently that it implies the heavy significance of the number seven in Indus culture (Harper 6). In early folk tradition, there were many groups of seven female deities that brought disease and bad luck (Harper 34) and communities would often be subject to these various deities’ wrath for disregarding their worship and as a result be plagued with various diseases and ailments (Harper 41). In Vedic literature, the heptad is also very prominent. The Rg Veda contains the division of the universe into seven regions and in the Artharva-Veda and Kathaka Samhita there are references to seven suns (Harper 13). Even though it seems that the origin of worship to female heptads did not emerge from Vedic literature but rather aboriginal or tribal traditions, the number seven in both cultures seems to represent regeneration of people and the universe (Harper 45).

The Seven Goddesses, Saptamatrkas, of Vedic literature are adaptations of village goddesses and because the village goddesses and Vedic goddesses share many characteristics, they were mutually acculturated in order to be incorporated in Hindu tradition  (Harper 52). They are a systematically refined form of the earlier Matrkas that represent the Great Goddess Devi and the cosmic powers of creation, preservation and destruction (Foulston 109). The goddesses named are Brahmani, Vaisnavi, Mahesvari, Kaumari, Varahi, Indrani and Camunda (Foulston 111). The names of these goddesses are similar to the male deity whose sakti they were formed from, however, it is understood that they are not in any way consorts of male deities instead are from the sakti and body of Devi (Foulston 111). Identified as tantric goddesses, they were very popular between the fourth and sixth centuries (Foulston 109). The similarities between the significance of seven and of the Seven Mothers allowed for the mutual acculturation of the Saptamatrkas between Brahmanic and aboriginal traditions (Harper 52). When the Saptamatrkas were accepted into orthodoxy, through being featured in Vedic literature, they contributed to the recognition of some aboriginal deities in Brahmanic worship.

As the Matrkas are associated with harm to children, most worship that is directed at them is essentially to keep the spirits of the goddesses away from their families. This includes shielding children’s beauty from the world, both in speech and in reality (Kinsley 1986:154). Most worship of these goddesses is done in fear of what may come; however they are worshipped for positive reasons as well. The Saptamatrkas are often worshipped for personal spiritual renewal, which touches on the shared belief that the Seven Mothers represented renewal and rejuvenation (Foulston 112).  In the Kadambari, Queen Vilasavati worships the Matrkas because of her desire to have a son (Kinsley 1986:156), possibly implying that the Matrkas can influence fertility. The Nayta-sastra speaks to worshipping the Matrkas before setting up a stage for theatre and dance and presenting offerings to the Matrkas at times of indecision and at cross roads in one’s life is encouraged by both Caruddatta of Bhasa and Mrcchakatika of Sudraka (Kinsley 1986:155).

Bas-relief of two of the Matrkas (Mothers) accompanied by Ganesa, the elephant-headed god (Ellora, India)
Bas-relief of two of the Matrkas (Mothers) accompanied by Ganesa, the elephant-headed god to the right (Ellora, India)

The Matrkas have a vast and diverse history in both Vedic and folk tradition. Their origins and nature differ through the course of Hindu literature. It is generally understood that they are extensions of Devi and are often featured as bloodthirsty and very dangerous. They are dangerous to children and very formidable in battle. However, their portrayal in Hindu iconography portrays them as soft maternal figures. This juxtaposition brings out the two sides of the goddesses that are mentioned in the story of Karritkeya, maternity and danger. It is evident that the Matrkas have evolved over time to fit in the Brahmanic worldview, although their fearsome, dangerous nature remains embedded in both orthodox and folk tradition.



 Bose, Mandakranta (2010) Women in the Hindu tradition: rules, roles, and expections. New York: Routledge

Donaldson, Thomas (2002) Tantra and Sakta Art of Orissa Vol. 1. New Delhi: D.K. Printworld (P) Ltd.

Foulston, Lynn and Stuart Abbott (2009) Hindu goddesses : belief & practices. Thornhill: Sussex Academic Press (Canada)

Harper, Katherine Anne (1989) Seven Hindu goddesses of spiritual transformation : the iconography of the Saptamatrikas. Lewiston: E. Mellen Press.

Hawley, J. S., and D. M. Wulff (eds.) (1996) Devi: Goddesses of India. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Kinsley, David (1978) “The Portrait of the Goddess in the Devi-mahatmya.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Vol. 46, No.4 (Dec.,1978): p 489-506. Oxford: Oxford University Press

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


Related Topics for Further Investigation




Tantric goddesses


Puranic literature





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