The Mahavidyas are a group of ten goddesses from late Hindu literary tradition. They are great revelations also known as manifestations. While some of the goddesses in this group hold individual significance and can be dated back to a much earlier time, the group as a whole acts as an important iconographic and mythological expression of Mahadevi theology (Kinsley 1988: 161). This comes from the concept that the Devi, the great goddess, would manifest herself in a variety of forms. A prominent myth claims that the Devi produces different goddesses from different parts of her body. It suggests she assumes different forms at different times in order to maintain cosmic stability (Kinsley 1988:162). All ten of the Mahavidyas are often depicted in goddess temples throughout India today. While not each of the ten forms is individually celebrated, when shown as a group, the Mahavidyas represent the idea that a particular goddess dwelling in the temple takes many forms.
The origin of the ten Mahavidyas in Hindu mythology comes from a story of the creators Sati and Siva. Sati’s father, Daksa, performs a great sacrifice and invites all of the heavenly kingdoms to attend. The only couple he does not invite is Siva and Sati. The claim is that Daksa does not like his son in law because of Siva’s uncivilized habits and disheveled appearance. Therefore, he purposely neglects to invite him to the sacrifice. Siva is not offended, but Sati is greatly insulted and tells Siva that she is going to attend the sacrifice. Siva forbids her to attend the sacrifice and Sati loses her temper. First, she assumes a dreadful form and then she multiplies herself into ten forms, the Mahavidyas: Kali, Tara, Chinnamasta, Bhuvanesvari, Bagala, Dhumavati, Kamala, Matangi, Sodasi, and Bhairavi (Kinsley 1988:163).
Seated on a lotus blossom, Kamala is one of the Ten Mahavidyas who is known as the Great Wisdom Goddess. With a golden complexion, Kamala is the beautiful and fully-realized form of Laksmi, the goddess of wealth, well-being, fertility and prosperity (Kinsley 1999:179-181). In most respects, Kamala is portrayed like the goddess Laksmi. They are in fact the same goddess but Kamala is more esoteric in nature. Kamala sits, the same as Laksmi, with two hands each holding a lotus while the other two hands are bestowing blessings (Amodio 51-53). The lotus signifies purity, auspiciousness, piety and is the direct translation of Kamala’s name in Sanskrit. All of these aspects are also strongly associated with Laksmi. The lotus is a symbol of the universe, is found in every sacred diagram, and is associated with many Hindu deities. It grows from murky waters and then comes forth with large leaves and beautiful fragrant blossoms. This represents the emergence of the pure, limitless Atman (soul) from the restricted material body, and allows a devoted spiritual follower to be untouched by the murkiness of drama, attachment, and ego (Colburn 108). Additionally, the lotus is very nourishing and represents the vital nature of the spiritual path in nurturing our whole self.
There is a slight difference in iconography between Kamala and Laksmi in that Kamala’s depiction includes two elephants with their trunks raised, a feature which is often absent from images of Laksmi. The elephants, that are depicted surrounding Kamala showering her with water, symbolize the fertile rains of monsoon that bring plants and flowers. This is parallel symbolization to the spiritual wealth that grows through the passion of regular devotion and practice (Danielou 261). The elephants also provide a sense of authority as they are symbols of royalty and status. Since Kamala is the devoted wife of Visnu, preserver of the universe, she is seen as queen and preserver of everything on earth. Kamala is often depicted wearing a dazzling crown on her head, a silk-type dress, a kaustibha gem, and a smiling face (Kinsley 1999:180).
As one of the Ten Mahavidyas, Kamala represents the unfolding of inner consciousness stemming from the foundation of creation (Pintchman 289). As the goddess of material and spiritual wealth and beauty, Kamala is primarily worshipped for her power to eliminate both material and spiritual poverty. In poor economic times, Kamala or Laksmi are worshipped in hopes of bringing material wealth. Altars to Laksmi can often be found in places of business and in individual homes. In the home, a married woman is considered an incarnation of Laksmi. This is attributed to studies that show woman possess a special ability to create wealth from very little (Sharma 1-12). Kamala is referred to as pure creative force and has the power to create beauty and wealth around us. This includes the ability to see beauty in everything. As the creative force, Kamala is also the goddess who blesses families with children. Families having difficulty conceiving or adopting children may offer worship to the powerful Tantric Goddess. Similarly, those who become happily pregnant or have a new addition to their family after much difficulty should offer thanks to Kamala as she is the goddess of fertility, childbirth, and family well-being (Sharma 26).
The profit of worshipping Kamala or Laksmi for the highest spiritual good is not only blessing of material security, but also of spiritual progress. Kamala teaches commitment to the spiritual path through riddance of the drama of our daily lives and bitterness towards others. The true nature of Kamala is the radiant beauty of the cosmos that is manifest in the material world (Kinsley 1999: 202). Kamala is the spirit of nature itself, and she is manifest in the natural world. She can be worshipped by simply spending time in nature and appreciating its profound beauty. Through recognition of her beauty in the natural world, an individual moves further towards liberation (Pintchman 289). A spiritual follower who detaches the fruits of action and finds enjoyment in the acts of service, generosity and prayer for their own sake can truly begin to grasp the inner nature of Kamala, the light of divine consciousness and connection with the self (Colburn 126). Kamala embodies the spirit of giving, receiving graciously and gratefully instead of with greed. She teaches that true wealth is measured by generosity, spiritual depth, and freedom from ego-driven desires. When followers ask something of Kamala in greed, she may grant desires with all of the associated negative consequences. Kamala does have the tendency to remind us that she is also the goddess Kali, who teaches detachment and surrender (Kinsley 1999: 62). This helps to remind followers to trust the way as they find a spiritual path that serves the highest good, instead of being seduced by our own worldly desires for the sake of material gain. In this way, Kamala can be seen as a teacher of financial responsibility in terms of learning to save, paying off debt, investing wisely and without greed, not taking what is not freely given, making charitable offerings, and not spending more than can be afforded.
Kamala can be worshipped to manifest creative vision, eliminate poverty, stabilize your home, open your heart, and deepen spiritual understanding and experience. Laksmi Puja is Kamala’s special holy day which is celebrated on the full moon of Ashvin, typically in early October (Dold, 60-62). Puja simply means devotional worship and followers do not need to wait for a specific day to worship Kamala. She is known to accept all sincere worship. A simple Laksmi and Kamala altar are very similar and can be created by placing a beautiful cloth (white, pink, yellow, or red) on a small table or flat surface that is not directly the ground. Then, one may place a depiction of Laksmi or Kamala on the surface, as well as a vase or plate of flowers, a candle or oil lamp, and some sweet-smelling incense. During Laksmi Puja, it is believed that it is beneficial to place rice stalks or an alternative form of grain at the altar as well. The grain is a symbol of abundance and the foundation of sustenance, both in the physical and spiritual sense. Many followers use a small bell with gentle sounds as it is believed that Laksmi does not like loud noises. On special days, followers will offer a basket or plate that contains a small piece of fine cloth, a small mirror, and comb (symbols of beauty in the manifest world), a small white conch or shell (symbol of clarity), and any kind of coin (symbol of material wealth). Lastly a small cup of coconut water or purified water is placed along with the offering (Hawley 180-185).
The practice of worship involves standing or kneeling in front of the altar and reciting Kamala’s pranama mantra. This mantra praises Kamala as the great goddess Laksmi who is beloved and grants all desires. She is seen as the goddess who encourages the spiritual life in her white form. White symbolizes the color of ultimate reality and presents her as the pure, gentle, independent, powerful, virgin goddess. Simple worship consists of additional movements and behaviours. A follower would use their left hand to ring the bell softly, while taking their right hand to wave the candle or lamp clockwise before the depiction of Laksmi three times. The mantra is repeated and the worshipper bows deeply before the image. A traditional gesture of great respect is kneeling or touching your forehead to the ground. This is when a follower can ask for blessing and offer thanks for all the blessing she has given. The puja ends with another bow. Objects used in worship hold significance and can be considered a blessing for Laksmi or saved for other special days or offerings (Kinsley 1988: 32-35). Presently at the Sri Sri Kamakhya Temple in Assam, India, the inner sanctum known as the garbha grha, which literally means “womb room”, of the temple houses is not only the pitha of Sri Sri Kamakhya Devi, but also of Matangi (Sarasvati) and Kamala (Laksmi). Therefore, when a follower receives the darsana of Kamakhya, they also receive blessing of Matangi and Kamala (Pintchman 289). Kamala is a powerful creative force that encompasses the beauty in everything. Her teachings of commitment to the spiritual path reach to eliminate poverty and create wealth among her devoted followers.
References and Further Recommended Reading
Amodio, Barbara (2011) “The Mahavidya (Great Lesson) of Sacred Transformation in Ten Mahesvan Icons of the Goddess: Secret Identities of Siva and the Goddess (Sakti) as One.” Journal of Indian Philosophy and Religion 16: 51-66. Accessed January 31, 2017. doi: 10.5840/jipr2011162
Colburn, Thomas (1988) Devi Mahatmya: The Crystallization of the Goddess Tradition. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers.
Danielou, Alain (1991) The Myths and God of Indra: The Classic Work on Hindu Polytheism from the Princeton Bollington Series. Inner Traditions: Bear & Co.
Dold, Patricia 2012. “Pilgrimage to Kamakhya Through Text and Lived Religion: Some Forms of the Goddess at an Assamese Temple Site.” In Studying Hinduism in Practice, edited by Hillary Rodrigues, 46-62. Oxon: Routledge.
Hawley, John S. and Donna Wulff (1998) Devi: Goddesses of India. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers.
Kinsley, David (1988) Hindu Goddesses: Visions of the Divine Feminine in the Hindu Religious Traditions. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Kinsley, David (1999) “Tantric Visions of the Divine Feminine: The Ten Mahavidyas.” The Journal of Religion 79, 1:179-181
Pintchman, Tracy (1994) The Rise of the Goddess in the Hindu Tradition. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Rodrigues, Hillary (2003) Ritual Worship of the Great Goddess: The Liturgy of the Durga Puja with Interpretations. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Sharma, Arvind (2005) Goddess and Women in the Indic Religious Tradition. Leiden: E.J. Brill.
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Article written by: Kirsten Cole (February 2017) who is solely responsible for its content