Category Archives: d. Saktism

Origins of the Goddess Kali

Hindu mythology is among the most colourful, sensational, and extraordinary expressed. Hindu scriptures, such as the Puranas, contain stories about different gods and goddesses. The gods and goddesses of the Hindu scripture are still strongly worshiped in India at their designated temples. Of the many deities worshiped, the goddess Kali is quite different from the others. This goddess is described as having unruly black hair, a girdle of severed hands, a necklace of human heads, a lolling tongue dripping of blood, and is often depicted naked standing over her consort, Siva. Kali is worshiped as a symbol of destruction through time and also as a symbol of motherhood.

To understand this goddess’s role in Hindu worship it is necessary to examine the origin of Kali. In KALI: The Black Goddess of Dakshineswar, the author, Elizabeth U. Harding explains the emergence of Kali. Harding explains that while the gods were resting, the demon king Mahisasura created an army and tried to proclaim himself as the ruler of Heaven. When Visnu, Siva, Brahma, and other powerful Gods heard of this they became angry and each shot forth a ray of light from their foreheads, which intensified and took the shape of a female form. “The light of Siva formed her face, Yama gave her hair and Visnu her arms. From the light of Candra, the moon God, her two breasts where formed. Indra modelled her waist and Varuna her thighs. Earth gave her hips and Brahma feet. The light from the fire God, Agni, fashioned her three eyes. Thus, all Gods contributed their power to manifest the auspicious Devi, the [Great] Mother Goddess” (ix). Each of the gods then adorned her with their weapons and sent her to battle King Mahisasura and his army.

It is in The Devi Mahatyma that Devi, in the form of Kali, fiercely destroyed the army of demons with little struggle except for the demon Raktabija. Raktabija was nearly impossible to defeat because each drop of blood that touched the ground produced a replica of the demon. Kali raised Raktabija high into the air, lapped up his drops of falling blood, and swallowed him entirely. This is just one example of Kali’s great conquests. Kali appears for a second time in the The Devi Mahatyma during the battle between the demons Canda and Munda and Durga (i.e. Devi). When Durga sees the two demons approaching her with weapons, she becomes angry and Kali springs from her dark face. Kali decapitates the two demons and is victorious with just one swing of her sword.

Wangu expresses another example of her conquests from the appendix to the Mahabharata, the Harivamsa. In this myth, the God Visnu incarnates himself as Krsna in order to kill the demon Kamsa. Kali, Krsna’s sister, is asked to incarnate herself so the two of them can be exchanged at birth in order to fool Kamsa. Kali sacrifices herself to save Krsna and in return is given a conch and discus (two symbols of Visnu) and is promised blood worship. Kali also appears in the Ramayana when Rama is threatened by a horrible monster and is immobilized with fear. Sita takes the form of Kali and slaughters the monster single handedly (see Kinsley73).

Harding describes that the name Kali is derived from the word “kala,” meaning time. Both Kali and her consort Siva represent a link to destruction and thrive off of the existence of each other. While Siva is closely linked to creation, Kali acts as his counterpart in maintaining destruction, and so their physical appearances are very opposite from each other. Siva is depicted as a fair skinned male and whose hair is done is a topknot. Kali on the other hand has black skinned female, with unruly matted hair, and is dominating Siva in almost all depictions of her. Kinsley also explains that because Kali is the fierce form of Durga, she is rarely depicted as a submissive wife. Kali’s strong traits have set the characteristics for the group of Mahavidyas. The Mahavidyas are a group of tantric goddesses, who symbolize women characters that have complete independence. Of the Mahavidyas, Kali is a great exemplar of that independence. Kali dominates Siva, literally, by standing on top of his body, and often assuming the male’s position in tantric depictions (79).

Kali is also considered the ideal Mahavidya because of her relation to the “ultimate truth” (see Kinsley 84-86). Worshipers of Kali are devoted to the Black Goddess because of her relation with the end of events. The entire Hindu religion is based on the hopes of achieving liberation, and Kali is a direct symbol of that liberation. Kinsley describes the devotion of Kali as the devotion to achieving Brahman. In Tantric Visions of the Divine Feminine: The Ten Mahavidyas, Kinsley calls her “She Who is Knowledge of the Self, She Who is Knowledge of Brahman, She Whose Form Is the Highest Brahman, and Mistress of the Mahavidyas.” (86). Devotees of Kali desire this knowledge of Brahman and dedicate their worship to the goddess of motherhood.

In Freedom from Death in the Worship of Kali, Kinsley explains that devotees of Kali can be found making blood sacrifices to the goddess throughout temples in India. The goddess is largely worshiped in Bengal and is a popular icon of worship because of her association with Siva, her relation to Vamacara tantra, and her promotion through devoted poet-saints of Bengali (188-189). The dark goddess was not accepted as a widely worshiped deity until quite some time after the Devi-mahatmya was written. Before Kali became a widely worshiped deity she was mostly adored by thieves or outcast cults of Hindu society. It was not until Kali became recognized as the consort of Siva and his incarnations that she gained a growing population of devotees. She is depicted as the fiercest form of Durga, a symbol of feminism and true knowledge in which Hindus praise in hopes of obtaining moksa.

Works Cited

Harding, Elizabeth U.( 1993) Kali: The Black Goddess of Dakshineswar. New Delhi: Shri Jainendra Press………………………………………………………

Kinsley, David (1975) “Freedom from Death in the Worship of Kali.” Numen 22, no.3 (December): 183-207.

Kinsley, David (1997) Tantric Visions of the Divine Feminine: The Ten Mahavidyas. California: U of California Press. ………………………………………………

Wangu, Madhu Bazaz (2003) Images of Indian Goddesses: Myths, Meanings,.and Models. New Delhi: Abhinav Publications………………………

Related Topics for Further Investigation

Durga Puja
Ten Mahavidyas
The Devi Mahatmya

Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic

Written by Sarah French (Spring 2008) who is solely responsible for its content.

The Ganga River

Sacred Geography

The Ganga River, often referred to as the anglicized Ganges in the west, is a major watershed of the Indian Continent, with its origin in the Himalayan Mountains at Mount Kailasa, to its drainage at the Indian Ocean (Darian 1). The Ganga is formed near the town of Deoprayag where the Alakananda River joins with the Bhagirathi River, which has its source at Gangotri Glacier (Darian 7-9). The ice cave Gaumukh in the Uttaranchal state of India, close to the Gangotri Glacier, is a well known bathing source in the waterway (Backshall 1). There are many important tributaries as well as geographical sites such as Vasudhara Falls and Lake Manasarovar that are attributed to the Ganga River. Lake Manasarovar is the highest freshwater lake in the world and is a site of religious pilgrimage. It is believed that Lake Manasarovar is the summer refuge for swans, a wise and sacred animal. In the foothills of the Himalayan mountains is Hardwar, known as Gangadvara, “Door of the Ganges” which marks the rivers geographic entrance into the North Indian Plains (Eck 1996:137). Another notable landmark is Prayag where the formerly parallel flowing Yamuna that originates near the Bhagirathi and the underground mystical Sarasvati River also join the Ganga (Eck 1996:137). The Sarasvati is a mystical river mentioned in the Rg Veda which is tied to the Ganga (Darian 58). The location of the Sarasvati is unknown, and post-Vedic Hindu literature does not detail its disappearance. Descriptions of the Sarasvati from the Rg Veda have been applied to the Ganga (Darian 58-68). Near the mouth of the Ganga is the island of Sagar, considered sacred, and which is believed to be the entrance to the netherworlds (Eck 1996:145). The Ganga is referred to by different names including “Child of the Mountains” and the “River of Heaven” (Eck 1982:74,211).

Massive bas-relief depicting how the sage Bagiratha (upper left) performed austerities to lift a curse and cause the Ganga to flow; Mahabalipuram, India
Massive bas-relief depicting how the sage Bagiratha (upper left) performed austerities to lift a curse and cause the Ganga to flow; Mahabalipuram, India

As a Goddess:

In Hindu tradition, the Ganga is regarded as a goddess and is thus known as Ganga Mata, or “Mother Ganges” (Eck 1996:136). The Ganga embodies the sacred geography of India as she is the essential hub of India’s development, civilization and religious culture. The Ganga’s descent to earth is known as her avatarana, and her revered descent marks the return of life-giving water for cultivation of many of India’s primary resources (Eck 1996:137). Furthermore, the Ganga is worshipped as the embodiment of female energy known as sakti, and is also sacred for her mothering capacities (Eck 1982:72). Although Hindu goddesses often have an ambivalent nature, being both nurturing and destructive, the Ganga is worshipped primarily for the nourishment she provides while her potentially destructive nature is mostly overlooked. The entire length of the Ganga is considered sacred and is scattered with many auspicious crossings known as tirthas, which are the objectives of many pilgrimages (Eck 1996:137). In iconographic representation, the goddess Ganga is mostly depicted as a women atop her mount (vahana), a makara or crocodile. She holds a kumbha, the vase of plenty (Darian 114). The makara is an ambivalent creature. It may be regarded as an animal form of the God Soma, and is an emblem for the waters, plants and vegetal layer of life (Darian 114-115). However, the makara is also a symbol of the unknown ocean and an object of fear (Darian 114-115).

The Goddess Ganga atop her crocodile (makara) mount on a bas-relief carved on a column at Mahabalipuram, India
The Goddess Ganga atop her crocodile (makara) mount on a bas-relief carved on a column at Mahabalipuram, India

Myths on the Goddess:

There are many myths about the Ganga, who is considered consort to both Siva and Visnu (Eck 1996:137). In the mythology of the Devi Bhagavata and Brahmavaivarta Puranas, Ganga quarrels with Sarasvati, the other consort of Visnu, and both curse one another to become rivers. For this behavior, Visnu allows Ganga to become wife of Siva, who breaks her mighty torrent through his hair (Eck 1996:146). Siva, also known as Gangadhara, “Bearer of the Ganges,” is the companion of Ganga and they are often depicted in sculptures together as bride and groom (Eck 1996:147). This intimate union between Siva and Ganga often angers the other consort of Siva, Parvati, which causes great jealousy (Eck 1982:219). The Ramayana, Mahabharata, and other Hindu literature describe the myth of Ganga falling from heaven to revive the sixty thousand sons of King Sagara. Flowing from Siva’s hair and being caught by Bhagiratha led her to become the purifying water for Sagara’s sons (Eck 1996:145).


The festival of Ganga Dashara is celebrated on the tenth day of the month of Jyestha, when monsoon rains signal the descent of the Ganga from heaven to earth (Eck 1996:143). The Ganga Dashara is regarded as the birthday of the Ganga and bathing in the water is believed to destroy sins of ten lifetimes (Eck 1996:143-144). In one Vedic myth, Indra combats the serpent Vrtra that has trapped the celestial waters and by defeating Vrtra releases the sacred Ganga waters (Eck 1996:143).

The Sanctity of Water:

Water has been an important symbol of spirituality in India since the beginnings of the Indus Valley Civilization (2500 to 1500 BCE) (Darian 15). Ganga water is used in many ceremonies including daily rituals, death rituals, weddings and births. The sacred thread ceremony (upanayana) in Bengal requires the participant to consume only bread and Ganga water (Darian 14). The Ganga is considered to be flowing in three worlds; heaven, earth, and the netherworlds, often referred to us triloka-patha-gamini (Eck 1996:145). This has become important in death rites, as the Ganga is a place of crossing from the world of living to the dead. Cremated remains arrive daily in the city of Banaras where they are immersed in the Ganga, as those sanctified by Ganga water will reside in heaven (Parry 24). Furthermore, ritual cleansing has been historically important to Hindus, as shown by the archeological remains of ceremonial cleansing tanks at Mohenjo Daro and other sites (Eck 1982:217). The Ganga waters are considered to be purifying and an absorber of pollution. They naturally serve as an abundant and accessible source of sanctifying flowing waters for a wide variety of Hindu ritual activities. The name Ganga is derived from the verb gam meaning “to go” which emphasizes the energetic, flowing nature of the water (Eck 1996:144). As the water absorbs the pollution, it is believed to also carry it away, thus erasing sins of lifetimes in “an instant!” (Eck 1996:144). Many pieces of Hindu literature such as the Rg Veda and epics, praise the Ganga. Merely chanting the name of the Ganga is believed to relieve poverty, bad dreams and even protect from the inauspiciousness of being bespattered by crow feces (Eck 1996:138). Pilgrims often make offerings of flowers to the Ganga while calling out “Victory to Mother Ganges!” Hindus frequent pilgrimage sites (tirthas) all along the course of the Ganga. They bathe in its waters, and even use the water to make offerings (Eck 1996:138). Ganga water is also collected and taken to homes and temples for other rituals (Eck 1996:138).

The Ganga is more than a single river. In Hindu belief, it is a representation of all of India’s sacred waters, and thus aptly demonstrates the cultural significance of water (Eck 1996:139). Since the Ganga’s waters are not accessible to all Hindus, especially those in the diaspora (i.e. outside India), other waters are substituted and transformed into the sacred fluid, merely by adding drops of Ganga water to them, or by uttering mantras of praise to the Ganga (Eck 196:138). This capacity for transformation is not restricted to the Ganga. There are said to be seven rivers that may be used as a sacred water source and hold the same sanctity, including the Ganga, Yamuna, Godavari, Sarasvati, Narmada, Sindu and Kaveri (Eck 1996:138). However, the Ganga is regarded by pious Hindus as the foundation of all rivers and, therefore, visiting any river in India, or the world, with reverence, is considered to be akin to visiting the Ganga itself ( Eck 1996:138).

References and Further Recommended Reading

Backshall, Stephen (2004) Birth of a River. National Geographic Traveler. Vol 21 (8).

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

Eck, Diana L. (1996) Devi: Goddesses of India. Berkeley: University of California Press, Ltd.

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

Fuller, C.J. (2004) The Camphor Flame: Popular Hinduism and Society in India. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Parry, Jonathan P. (1994) Death in Banaras. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Related Topics for Further Investigation


Alakananda river

Bhagirathi river

Gangotri Glacier



Sarasvati river




Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic

Article written by Allie Becker (April 2008) who is solely responsible for its content.

Kali and Western Feminism

There are different views of the Hindu religion and the symbolism of Kali in the east and west. Women in the west often feel desolate in a world of patriarchy and some have sought empowerment through interpreting the eastern goddess (Kali) in ways that apply to their circumstances. In the east, Hindu women and men have also done this but in different ways.

Kali is known as an “unconventional mother” who “destroys as well as creates” and “takes as well as gives life” (Sugirtharajah par. 15). She plays a significant role in feminist views as a devi worshipped in the east and west. Devi can be defined as “the ultimate source and holder of active power (sakti) in this world; the creator and sustainer of all” (Waterstone par. 4). In the sixth century Devi-Mahatmya Kali is referred to as the mistress of the universe and is finally equated with other goddesses (McDermott 297). Kali embodies characteristics of the different stages in a woman’s life such as “the Virgin, the Mother and the Crone” associated with “purity, maternity and wisdom” (McDermott 286). She has been compared to other religious figures who “preside over love and war, or who are paradoxical, or who have dangerous character” (McDermott 284). She is also worshipped as the “holy-mother” (Waterstone par. 11), though she has also been depicted as “slaying demons on the battlefield” (Waterstone par. 8). These different depictions confirm Kali as a union of opposite concepts. Thus, she resembles power, freedom and equality for many women in both eastern and western societies.

Kali’s polar and conflicting attributes have been especially captivating to females in western society and religions. Maya Waterstone argues that women need “a new means of empowerment and feminine role models that break the mould” (par. 3). Rachel McDermott suggests that westerners see their lack of goddess worship as caused by patriarchal groups (283). The symbols that Kali exemplifies (those of sexuality and the various opposing concepts) are weak in western religious imagery (McDermott 285) and Hindu goddesses in the west are seen as “symbols of and models for women’s empowerment” (McDermott 283). The repressed characteristics of Kali (her potent, sexual, dark sides) can be liberating for women (McDermott 288). She seems to provide them an outlet for the release of anger and her entire principle brings “healing in a male-dominated world” (McDermott 291). Women in the west have made use of her imagery (depicted standing atop Siva’s chest, crushing him) to liberate themselves from patriarchy (McDermott 295).

Conversely, McDermott argues that westerners have misused textual material to believe what they desire about Kali. Westerners believe that she was “degraded from a paradoxical, all-encompassing deity … to a fragmented, dark and dangerous goddess” at the hands of patriarchy (McDermott 299); while historical accounts prove that she has progressed from “a minor, bloodthirsty goddess toward a universally compassionate mother” (McDermott 299). Westerners have changed their view of Kali to focus mostly on her demonized form instead of her current domesticated depiction in Hinduism. In the east images of Kali have been “beautified” by adding ornaments and dress showing this historical progression. Kali changed from a tantric icon to a domestic one who is now used to “uphold Hindu family values, especially those encouraging self-control and self-restraint” (Menon 81).

By contrast, in the east, goddesses are worshipped by both Hindu men and women. Sugirtharajah’s research reveals that the feminist ideals in the west are not completely “applicable in Indian context” (par. 3). Hinduism is a hierarchy of different social groups with further divisions within those groups. Women in Hindu society also have differing roles, one of which is to serve their husband. This has to do with “dharma” (generally translated as ones “duty”). A woman is expected to follow her dharma which has more to do with her duties as a grandmother, mother, and wife and less to do with her actual rights (Sugirtharajah par. 11). Although some argue that this oppresses women in Hindu society, others recognize that women play other important roles. Females in Hindu society have the “divine feminine power” of sakti (sacred force, power or energy) and without this power gods like Siva (the masculine) are powerless (Sugirtharajah par 14).

Sugirtharajah’s research reveals that different Hindu texts are contradictory concerning women. How women are to be treated is outlined in the Dharma Sastras and the Laws of Manu; which are patriarchal treatises (Sugirtharajah par. 10). Though these patriarchal standards are challenged in some popular epics where women like Sita (in the Ramayana) and Draupadi (in the Mahabharata) are depicted as devoted wives to their husbands, yet their actions challenge the patriarchal definitions of “wifely behavior” (Sugirtharajah par. 9).

According to Sugirtharajah the “oppression” that westerners believe Hindu women face can also be challenged by the political goals both males and females accomplished over time. Men fought for the rights of women against rituals such as sati (self-immolation of the widow on the funeral pyre of her husband) and child marriage. They also fought against the “negative colonial and missionary representation of Hindu women” (Sugirtharajah par. 13). Women and men alike worked to bring an end to colonial rule of India during Mahatma-Gandhi’s influence. Goddesses like Kali played an inspiring role in this as the “British rulers feared her wrath” (Sugirtharajah par. 15) and a feminist publishing house was set up in Delhi and used the name “Kali” (Sugirtharajah par. 16). Hindus (men and women) used feminine worship as a means of comfort while they were under the British rule because they were empowered by the female sakti. The British viewed this feminine worship as “weak and vulnerable” of the Hindu men (Sugirtharajah par. 16). By contrast, although the British viewed Kali as masculine, Hindus do not “assign rigid gender controls” (Waterstone par. 10) and thus would not see the worship of a female devi as “weak” or “vulnerable” (Sugirtharajah par. 16).

Although the east and west have differing opinions of the Hindu tradition and the goddess Kali, true understanding of the cultural practices surrounding these differences must be considered. Between the eastern and western societies Kali plays substantially different roles. She empowers and motivates women in the west and is a sense of hope and an iconic mother figure for Hindu men and women in the east.


Waterstone, Maya (2006) “Could the Indian Goddess empower Western women?

Religious Studies Review 2.2 (Jan): 20(4).

Sugirtharajah, Sharada (2002) “Hinduism and feminism: some concerns.” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 18.2: 97(8).

McDermott, Rachel Fell (1996) “The Western Kali.” In Devi: Goddesses of India.

John S. Hawley and D. M Wulff (eds.). Berkeley: University of California Press.

Menon, Usha and Richard A. Shweder (2003) “Dominating Kali” In Encountering Kali In the Margins, at the Center, in the West. Rachel Fell McDermott and J. J Kripal (eds.). Berkeley: University of California Press.

Further Recommended Reading

Hiltebeitel, Alf and Kathleen M. Erndl (eds.) (2002) Is the Goddess a Feminist? : The Politics of South Asian Goddesses. New Delhi, OUP.

McDermott, Rachel Fell and Jeffry J. Kripal (eds.) (2003) Encountering Kali in the Margins, at the Center, in the West. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Related Topics for Further Investigation


Feminism (in the East & West)







British Colonial Rule in India

Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic (a temple in Laguna Beach, CA devoted to Kali)

Article written by Brittany Bannerman (Spring 2008) who is solely responsible for its content.

Manasa: the Hindu Snake Goddess

Manasa is the Snake Goddess whose name derives from the Sanskrit root manas, meaning of the mind. Her names include Padmavati, in connection with the lotus leaf born goddess Laksmi and Visahari in vasahari vidya orthe science of poison removal”, as she is believed to be the curer of snake bites (William 15,16). The story of her existence begins when Siva slips away from his wife Durga to meditate by the banks of the Kalidaha pool. There, he is stimulated by the erotic setting, and thinking of his beautiful wife Durga, spills his semen. It runs down the stalk of a lotus leaf to the underworld and there Manasa is born from it. Vasuki, king of the nagas (serpents) grants her reign over all snakes. Thus she is the Nagesvari or Queen of the Snakes. Certain scholars suggest that the Nagas were not originally snakes, but in ancient Indian art are depicted as people with cobra hoods who were worshipped as gods and demigods by the ‘solar race’ peoples and in many instances some civilizations revered the serpent and the sun as closely connected. The Nagas were people who claimed descent from the Sun and used the hooded serpents (cobras) as their totem (Khumar Maity 15 and 25).

Snake worship or ophiolatry is an ancient cult among Indians and other races of the world. It is believed that the fear of the snake and the wonder of it brought about its worship all over the world to become a universally revered divinity (Khumar Maity 11). Serpent worship and its cult following in India may have been contributed to by the Proto Dravidians with the worship going as far back as the Harappan culture of the Indus Valley. However, even though historical evidence is lacking in its origins, snakes can still be seen on the proto-ithyphallic Siva seal (Khumar Maity 12, 13). Snake worship is closely tied with the god Siva and Manasa being the daughter of Siva is believed by most scholars to be the reason for her snake worship (Khumar Maity 24). It is also believed that snake worship went hand in hand with those civilizations that worshipped the sun. It is an ancient folklore belief that should anyone bring harm to a snake he/she will fall to leprosy and sterility (Khumar Maity 13). Snake worship and the Nagas are also referenced in Indian literature and religious books, such as the Vedas, the Mahabharata, the Puranas and the Jatakas (Khumar Maity 14).

In the mythic account Manasa returns, ascending the lotus leaf from which she descended and presents herself in front of her father Siva, urging him to take her home with him to Mount Kailasa. Reluctantly, he agrees and hides her in a flower basket for he fears what his wife Durga will think. Before he can explain her existence, Durga finds her in the basket and mistaking her for one of her husband’s temptresses beats her and blinds her in the left eye. This is how she became known as ‘the one eyed goddess’ (William 42). Her left eye is known as her “evil eye” or bisadrsti. It is her poisonous eye from which she can kill with one glance as she releases all her malignant powers with it. Her right eye is her nectar eye or amrtanayan in which she can restore life to whomever she has killed with her left eye. It is believe in India that those people who are blind in one eye possess the evil eye and are seen as an ill-omens ( William 17). In classical Indian mythology as well as modern folklore the evil eye or ‘poison eye’ is a characteristic of most snakes. Manasa is equated with Kadru, the mother of the serpents, who is also one eyed (William 18).

Manasa appears in many forms. One is her true self which is envious, malicious and easily angered where she kills with no remorse and is compared to resemble the cenga fish, a snake-headed fish that is so revolting it is deemed unfit to eat. Her true form is compared to a one-eyed, fish-faced limping old hag (a witch) (William 21). Another form is the conventional, beautiful and voluptuous goddess with four arms and yellow tinted skin. Her body is decorated only with snakes, much like her father Siva. Her vahana (vehicle) is either the swan or the snake. The Sij plant; of the cactus family, is sacred to Manasa as it has abilities to cure poisons, but on most occasions is not used for worship (William 21, 22). She is usually depicted in two different forms of iconography, one being her four-arm depiction and the other, a two armed one. In her four armed image she is surrounded by a canopy of seven snake hoods and in her upper right and left hands she holds a snake and a pot, her lower hands are holding a rosary and a manuscript. Some other depictions of her four-armed image include one with one of her hands in the ‘granting a wish posture’ (varada mudra). Her two-arm depiction is of her seated on a lotus flower, under the canopy of seven snakes, a lotus bud in her right hand in the varada pose and a snake in her left hand (Khumar Maity 207-209). Her most common dhyana, which gives a description of her characteristic features and recited in Manasa worship is, “I adore the goddess, the mother of snakes, whose face is like the moon, who is graceful in appearance, the bountiful, who rides on a swan, the noble one, who wears a red garment, who always gives boons of all kinds, who has smiling face, who is adorned with gold, gems and various other beautiful jewels (obtained) from snakes, who is accompanied by eight snakes, who has prominent breasts, who is a yogini and who can take any form at will” (Khumar Maity 212). However, despite Manasa’s many forms it does not appear in the Sastra literature that any sort of image worship takes place, but more over worship in the form of earthen images does take place as well as placing a red colored stone under a sij tree (Khumar Maity 221 and 265).

Manasa is worshipped during the rainy season (June-August), as the rain and floods force the snakes out of their lairs and the chance of getting bit is significantly higher. During this time it is a communal celebration where some villagers will gather clay pots, garlands, conch-shells, iron bangles, red-bordered saris, incense and food offerings like mangos, melons, bananas and sweets. One or more male goats are also sacrificed. The goddess is represented, herself, by a sacred pot (Manasar-bari), filled with water. This represents her fertility and makes reference to the fertility of the snake. As it is believed the goddess also has inherent power over fertility she is worshipped by women who wish to become mothers (Khumar Maity 269). She is also, in some places known as a curer of diseases, the rain-giver as she is worshipped during the rainy season and since snakes are believed to be the guardians of treasure, Manasa is also seen as a wealth giver (Khumar Maity 273). Manasa is worshipped by all classes and in many different places which include near a sij tree of bush, in the home or in private shrines and in some villages, by the bank of a river (Khumar Maity 266).

Her puja (worship), by the Bauris caste, who are low class earthen workers, perform the ceremony during the rainy season outdoors on an earthen altar. Sticks of bamboo are placed in each corner of the altar and tied together with a cotton thread. The altar is marked with vermilion (red) as is the sacred pot where a mango twig is placed upon it. Among other offerings that are placed on the altar, such as milk, plantain, incense, sandal, lighted lamps, rice (Khumar Maity 269), a sij twig is also placed on the altar, wrapped in red cloth. Both the sij plant and the pot are independent symbols of Manasa (Khumar Maity 265). After the sacrifice of the goat, or goats in some cases, the performer of the ritual, (any of the villagers can perform the ceremony) places the blood of the goat in another pot and offers it to the goddess asking for protection and wellness. Many other personal sacrifices can be made at this time as well (William 23).

Other forms of worship on a higher class scale include a complex formal rite performed by Brahman priests who rely on manuals and utilize specific prayers, breathing techniques (pranayam) and hand movements (mudra) to be followed exactly when performing the worship. A priest consults manuscripts for each step of the puja: the lifting of a flower, the dabbing of a spot of vermilion on the image, the formalized mudras and mantras all done while Sanskrit formulae is recited in the background. The use of Sanskrit is the major difference between the high class Brahmin worship and that of the low class Bauris village worship (William 24). Another type is the household worship which takes place in Aug-Sept, known as acanthine or non-cooking. During this time it is forbidden to light the stove, and rice is cooked the day before and left out in uncovered pots. It is believed by the householders that the goddess will keep the food safe from contamination so it will be safe to eat the next day. The women of the household make earthen images of the goddess called alpana with the rice paste upon the oven and a sij plant is placed over the oven‘s burners. The cold rice is eaten along with cold vegetables after it has been put in cold water, this is called panta bhat (William 23, 24) and then tea is heated on a small fire and drank to end the day and ceremony.

The Jhanpan is a annually held festival where snake charmers gather in the streets and exhibit numerous tricks with their snakes. The charmers risk their lives as it is believed that they are inspired by the goddess, otherwise known as possession or bhar. The snake charmers carry their snakes in small wicker baskets called jhanpis and will often allow the snakes to bite their arms and curl around their neck as part of the spectacle (Khumar Maity 309).

Some scholars believe that the Manasa cult and worship are dying out and will disappear within a century, as enthusiasm for her worship is low and confined to the uneducated small villages as modern medicine removes Manasa’s utility from the more modern villages and worshippers (Khumar Maity 320-321).


Khumar Maity, Pradyot (1966) Historical Studies in the Cult of the Goddess Manasa; A Socio- Cultural Study. Calcutta: Punthi Pustak.

Smith, William (1980) The One-Eyed Goddess; A Study of the Manasa Mangal. Uppsala: Almqvist & Wiksell.

Other Readings

Hindu Goddesses: Vision of the Divine Feminine in the Hindu Traditions by D. Kinsley

Indian Mother Goddess by N.N. Bhattacaryya

Manasa-Goddess of Snakes The University of Chicago Committee on Southern Asian Studies, Reprint series no. 13, 1961

Evolution of Hinduism in Medieval Bengali Liturature: Siva, Candi, Manasa by T.W. Clark

The Female Lingam: Interchangeable Symbols and Paradoxical associations of Hindu Gods and Goddesses by Gabriella Eichinger Ferro-Luzzi

Related Research Topics

The Goddess



Snake Worship

Written by Kelsey Jesperson (Spring 2006), who is solely responsible for its content.

The Goddess Kali

Kali is one of the more recognized deities in the Hindu pantheon. She is seen as both terrifying and beautiful by those who worship her. There are a number of different stories related to her origin and who she was, Siva’s wife or his daughter. Kali means many different things to the people who worship her. Kali is worshipped in a variety of different ways. All of this goes together in order to form a number of different, all important, versions of this important Hindu goddess.

Kali is typically depicted as terrifying and powerful. In one common representation she is seen standing upon Siva’s more impotent body. She is dominating him. Throughout depictions of Kali, Siva’s appearance changes from looking peacefully asleep, unconscious or sexually aroused. Kali is shown as dark, with long wild, matted hair. She wears a necklace of human heads and a belt of severed human hands. Her earrings, two dangling infant corpses, complete her attire. Her tongue is most often depicted as lolling from her mouth. Her hands wield an array of weaponry. In other depictions her face appears more friendly, her hand up and facing us, a symbol of peace. In one particular drawing of Kali the cosmos are in her hair. These are the images most commonly seen by her followers (McDermott and Kripal 27, 81, 175, 176).

Image of the goddess Kali with upraised sword and extended tongue in a Tantric practitioner's home in Banaras
Image of the goddess Kali with upraised sword and extended tongue in a Tantric practitioner’s home in Banaras

The tales of Kali’s origins tend to differ from sect to sect. One story tells of a demon, Darika, who became powerful and conquered the three worlds (heaven, earth and the underworld). A Sage named Narada approached Siva in desperation about the events taking place. Siva, enraged, opened his third eye which was full of fire. Out of this fire Kali was born. After some difficulties she was able to overcome the demonic entity (Caldwell 19-20). Another story describes Kali as an alter ego of the goddess Parvati, representing Parvati’s extreme rage and violent nature. In that story Kali is Siva’s wife instead of Siva’s daughter (McDermott and Kripal 64). Following the theme of emergence from other goddesses, in the Devi-Mahatmya Kali was said to have emerged from Durga’s angry brow as she rode onto the battlefield taking the physical form of Durga’s anger (Caldwell 122). One more account tells of Durga turning into Kali in order to defeat the demon. After the demon was defeated Durga continued as the destructive Kali, to solve this problem the gods enlisted Siva to go and lie in Kali’s path. When Kali stepped upon him she experienced lajja (being a civilized, moral being) (McDermott and Kripal 87-89). Inherent in this is that Kali could be both an asura (demonic) and a deva (divine), or perhaps neither. Worshippers tell that only an asura could defeat a demon as powerful as Darika but others say that she has to be a deva because she was born from Siva. An answer by some to this paradox is that Kali is both deva and asura (Caldwell 21). All of the origin stories of Kali share a common thread, that of a violent being who exists to do battle with demons on the behalf of the gods.

Along with the various accounts of her history there also exist different beliefs of what Kali actually represents. Some of her worshippers view her as a motherly figure. Mothers are usually portrayed as persons with an unfailing devotion towards their children and in turn children give the same devotion back to their mothers. At first glance Kali does not appear to be a goddess one would want to love as though she was a mother, having such a terrible appearance and seemingly destructive nature. These destructive natures of Kali can be symbolic of a mother’s tough love. A mother has enough love to discipline a child when they begin to misbehave but will also never abandon them. It is said that to be Kali’s child is to suffer and to be disappointed in worldly desires and pleasures. She is the cosmic mother who keeps the world moving and helps her creatures, and is wearied and miserable from the suffering of her children (Caldwell 160-162). On the other hand Kali is seen as the epitome of a demon’s anger. Kali’s tongue represents her grotesque habit of ripping apart her victims and drinking their fresh blood. She is death and destruction (McDermott and Kerali 61). In addition to these contradicting views Kali is also seen to be putting dharma into perspective, by reminding her children that certain pieces of reality are unpredictable and unavoidable (McDermott and Kripal 34-35). The dichotomy of Kali is at times extreme.

There are a number of different rituals used in the worship of Kali and also a festival (Navaratra) in which she and the other goddesses are celebrated. A major dramatic possession ritual, called Mutiyettu, occurs in Kerala. This is a ritual in which male actors dress up as Kali as well as other deities and demons to act out the creation story involving the demon, Darika. The actors don incredibly elaborate costumes especially the actor playing Kali. He paints his body in black carbon grease and then decorates the black with white designs. The actor will wear a muti (an elaborate head piece) made of fresh coconut frond ‘hair’ where two live snakes are located. Red cetti flowers are tied around the actor’s wrists. The dramatic ritual takes place upon a stage in the middle of the night with a small musical ensemble as accompaniment. When the ritual begins the actors act out the story of Kali’s origins and during this ritual the actors claim to become possessed by Kali herself (Caldwell 81-87). Another form of worship is Hindu brahmins also taking care of idols representing Kali as though they were Kali herself (putting her to bed, feeding her, etc) and also performing puja as a form of worship to Kali (McDermott and Kerali 127). This great effort put into celebrating and caring for the goddess shows how important she is to her followers.

All these aspects of who and what Kali is to different people are important in gaining a solid knowledge of the deity. Her warlike representation shows how important violence is to her character. The different tales of her creation all share a central theme of showcasing her as the violent defender of gods against demons. How her followers see her highlight this further. Lastly there is the dedication shown to her by her adherents in the festival and the treatment of her effigies, pointing out how important she is to these people. This all goes together to give a proper view of the important Hindu goddess, Kali.


Caldwell, Sarah (1999) Oh Terrifying Mother: Sexuality, Violence and Worship of the Goddess Kali. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

McDermott, Rachel Fell and Kripal, Jeffrey J (2003) Encountering Kali: In the Margins, At the Center, In the West. Los Angeles: University of California Press.

O’Flaherty, Wendy Dowger (1973) Siva: The Erotic Ascetic. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Chitgopekar, Nilima (2003) The Book of Durga. New Delhi: Penguin Books India.

Onishi, Yoshinori (1992) Feminine Multiplicity: A Study of Multiple Goddesses in India. Delhi: Sri Satgaru Publications.

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.

Related Topics for Further Investigation



The Devi Mahatmya



Noteworthy Websites

Article written by Chelsee Ivan (April 2006), who is solely responsible for its content.


The goddess Kali is often described as fierce, black or dark, she has a lolling tongue, fangs and her dancing can destroy the world. Her necklace, girdle and sacred thread are snakes, she is also known to lie on a bed of snakes (Kinsley 1975:81). She is often naked with long unkempt hair. She is adorned with corpses, as a girdle, necklace, or earrings. She has long sharp fangs and often has claw like hands with long nails and often has blood smeared on her face. On the battlefield she is known to get drunk on the blood of her combatants (Kinsley 1986:116). In many descriptions she has four arms, her two left holding a bloodied cleaver and a freshly severed head, her two right making the signs of ‘fear not’ and one who confers boons (Kinsley 1996: 77-8). Her descriptions are ferocious and somewhat terrifying yet throughout various aspects of the Hindu tradition she is looked upon with love and devotion. She represents for many the manner for witch to face their fears of death and the unknown. Her association with death and destruction is evident in her favorite abodes of the battlefield and the cremation grounds. Kali has long been a goddess on the periphery of society worshipped by the people who occupy the same status, the thieves and the lowest castes.

Worshippers carry an image of the goddess Kali to the river Ganga for immersion at the end of Kali Puja celebrations in Banaras
Worshippers carry an image of the goddess Kali to the river Ganga for immersion at the end of Kali Puja celebrations in Banaras

The story of Kali’s birth, as it is described in the Devi-mahatmya, begins on the battlefield, with the goddess Durga. In two episodes of this text Kali represents Durga’s anger personified. In this instance Kali springs forth form the blackened forehead of an extremely angry Durga and defeats the demon’s Canda and Munda and later the demon Raktabija. The Kali that is worshiped in India today is defiantly the same as she who is presented in the Devi-mahatmya (Kinsley 1986:90-2). In relation to other goddesses Kali seems to represent their wrath and anger, a dimension of the divine feminine that is frightening and dangerous (Kinsley 1986:120).

A possible prototype for Kali is the demoness Nirrti, who is frequently mentioned in the Vedic literature. Nirrti seems to be the personification of death, destruction and sorrow, her mantra is intended to ward her off, she wears dark clothes and receives dark husks as her sacrificial offering she is also said to have a dark complexion. Nirrti is said to live in the south, the abode of death (Kinsley 1986:87). However, Kali is active in warfare and receives blood sacrifice while Nirrti does neither. About the time that Kali begins to be known in the tradition Nirrti begins o disappear, she is rarely mentioned in the epic-Puranic texts. Generally Kali represents certain realities that were previously conveyed by Nirrti (Kinsley 1986:87-8).

When Kali is coupled with a male god it is almost always Siva, she is his consort, his wife or his associate. However, she always is the one to incite his wild behaviour. The relationship that Kali has with Siva differs from that with Parvati in that Kali seems able to persuade Siva to partake in dangerous and destructive behaviour that ultimately threatens the stability of the cosmos (Kinsley 1986:116). In the relationship with Siva Kali’s inclination to wildness and disorder continue, and while she is sometimes calmed by him many times it is she who encourages him to partake in similar actions. In fact there is a South Indian tradition that tells of a dance contest between the two which end with Siva as the victor forcing Kali to control her disruptive behaviour. However, there are very few other depictions of Kali as tame and docile, most images depict either or both in destructive ways and others with Kali in her glory dominating a motionless or sometimes dead Siva (Kinsley 1986:119). In iconographic representations of the two Kali is predominantly the dominant one, she is generally standing or dancing upon Siva’s motionless body and when depicted having sexual intercourse she is always above him. This suggests that while Siva is said to have calmed Kali in the dance contest he has never successfully or continuously restrained her wild antics (Kinsley 1986:120) Kali’s association with Siva began as early as the eighth century CE, as is in Bhavabhuti’s Malatimadhava. In the Vamana-purana the names of Kali and Parvati are used interchangeably in the depiction of Siva’s wedding to Parvati (Kinsley 1986:102). Generally in relation to the goddess Parvati Kali is often mentioned in various situations, especially in Parvati’s preparations for war, in these cases Kali appears as Parvati’s alter ego.

Kali’s status in the Hindu religion has always been as an outsider, she hangs out on the peripheries of society. This is shown in the location of her temples and her favorite known haunts the battlefield and the cremation grounds. In the cremation grounds she often sits upon a corpse and is surrounded by jackals, ghosts and snakes and unlike other deities she does not have an animal vehicle but rides a ghost (Kinsley 1996:77-8). In her early history Kali was a tribal goddess who was worshiped by thieves and hunters, and so Kali has a long standing association with criminals and has been linked to the murderous Thugs as their patron goddess (Kinsley 1996:78). In the Mana-sara-silpa-sastra it is said that Kali’s Temples should be built far from villages and towns, near the cremation grounds and near the homes of Canadalas. This represents her long standing association with the periphery’s of Hindu society (Kinsley 1986:117-8).

In Tamilnad, goddesses very much like Kali were worshipped from very early on. In the Tamil epic Silappadikaram Kali is called the goddess of death and aids the bandits living the area by rewarding their blood sacrifices with victory in their pursuits. She appears in later Tamil literature as well and is widely known as a village goddess (Kinsley 1975:96-7). Kali is very popular in Bengal however she did not appear in the Bengali literature until quite late. The major festival for her worship in Bengal is Dipavali, it is during this festival, and throughout the year, that Kali receives blood sacrifice. It is in Bengal that Kali is approached as a caring and protective mother (Kinsley 1986:116). Kali’s Sakta devotion in Bengal is featured in the works of Bengal’s famous religious figures, Ramprasad Sen and Ramakrishna. Ramprasad described Kali in a world relived of all its indifference and seemingly impulsive aspects (Kinsley 1975:116). For Ramprasad Kali is the embodiment of world order, especially the darker aspects of existence. In his poetry Kali is presented as the caring presence of Mother who looks over her stubborn wet helpless children (Kinsley 1975:117). Ramakrishna approached Kali in the same way as Ramprasad, as a child. He doted on her as her official temple servant, however he did not ignore her wild and fantastic nature. She was to Ramakrishna the Mistress of a dizzying and exhilarating creation. Kali continues to retain her fierce image, yet in many of her images Ramakrishna and his wife are sitting calmly with Kali behind them comforting her trusting children (Kinsley 1975:121-4). Other areas where Kali is widely know are Assam, Orissa and western India particularly Rajasthan (Kinsley 1975:100).

In the Tantric tradition, as early as the sixteenth century, Kali figures quite prominently especially in left-handed Tantrism and Bengali Sakta devotionalism (Kinsley 1986:122). In many of the Tantric texts Kali’s position is that of the supreme deity equivalent to Brahman. In fact in the Nirvana-tantra it is proclaimed that “the god’s Brahma, Visnu and Siva are like the amount of water in a cow’s hoofprint compared to the waters of the sea,” in comparison to Kali (Kinsley 1975:110). Kali conveys the image of death, fear, destruction, terror and the all consuming aspects of reality. For the Tantric disciple these aspects of life are not to be feared or avoided, they are to be confronted boldly and thereby overcome and they also become a vehicle for salvation. It is also in this tradition that Kali is clearly the wife of Siva and they together in union create and destroy the universe (Kinsley 1975:112-3). She is no longer emancipated and ugly, in the Karpuradi-stotra she is described as young and beautiful and she is gently smiling. She is no longer a shrew or the refinement of Durga’s wrath, she has become the one who grants the benefit of salvation, she has become the symbol of the triumph over death (Kinsley 1975:114).

References and Further Recommended Reading

Beane, W.C. (1977) Myth, Cult and Symbols in Sakta Hinduism: A Study if the Indian Mother Goddess. Leiden; Brill.

Harding, Elizabeth (1993) Kali: the Black Goddess of Dakshineswar. York Beach, ME: Nicholas-Hays.

Kinsley, David (1975) The Sword and the Flute: Kali and Krsna: Dark visions of the Terrible and the Sublime in Hindu Mythology. Berkeley: University of California Press.

____________ (1986) Hindu Goddesses: Visions of the Devine Feminine in the Hindu Religious Tradition. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

____________ (1996) “Kali: Blood and Death Out of Place.” In Devi: Goddesses of India. John Stratton Hawley and Donna Marie Wulff (eds.). Berkley: University of California Press.

O’Flaherty, Wendy D. (1975) Hindu myths. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Related Topics for Further Investigation



Kalighat temple





Great Goddess (Devi)



the matrikas




The Mahabharata

The Nigamakalpataru

The Picchila-tantra

The Yogini-tantra

The Kamakhya-tantra

The Niruttara-tantra


Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic

Article written by Danielle Feader (April 2006) who is solely responsible for its content.

The Goddess Laksmi

In Hindu mythology, the goddess Laksmi (sometimes called Sri), is widely recognized as a symbol of good fortune and prosperity (Fowler 36). She is regarded secondly, as the Goddess of wealth, beauty and fertility. Her origins can be traced back to pre-Vedic times but her development as a goddess has not been met without disagreement by scholars. Iconographically, Laksmi is sometimes depicted individually, however due to her dependent relationship upon her male consort Visnu, one of the three major gods of modern Hinduism, she is most often depicted alongside him. Consequently, depending on this division, Laksmi has been represented in various ways (Fowler 37). Laksmi is widely worshipped by many Hindus for various reasons; however her most significant worship is the Hindu festival of Diwali, in which she is called upon by many shop and business owners to bring good fortune and prosperity in the coming business year (Husain 146).

Laksmi has been an important element of Hindu religious life for over three millennia and the history of her development as a deity has not been presented without controversy and disagreement. The origin of Laksmi has evolved since pre-Vedic times when Laksmi may have first existed as an earth goddess (Turner and Coulter 285). The Sanskrit term “Laksmi” has also been explained as an abstract concept originally meaning a sign or an omen of good or bad luck and, accordingly, Laksmi later developed into the deity of good fortune and prosperity (Olsen 126), while Alaksmi conversely developed into the bringer of bad luck (Dhal 134).

Due to the patriarchal structure of the Indo-Aryan society, female divinities were rarely mentioned in Vedic literature as a consequence of their secondary place in Vedic religion. Laksmi as a goddess was not mentioned in the RgVeda, however, in the fifteen versus appended to the fifth book of the RgVeda, Laksmi does appear as two separate, although, relatively minor deities: Laksmi and Sri. Yet, even before this distinction, the abstract concept of Sri is mentioned several times throughout the RgVeda where it refers to benefit, advantage, riches, prosperity and well-being (Dhal 1-2). Early in the Upanishads, Sri and Laksmi are fused together to form one deity and by the time of the Puranas Laksmi is firmly established as the goddess of good fortune, prosperity, wealth and beauty (Olsen 126).

In the Ramayana, Laksmi is said to have risen, as Padma, from the ocean when its waters were churned to milk and later became the wife (sakti) or consort of Visnu. According to different descriptions, Laksmi arose from the sea of milk in some cases holding a lotus flower and in others standing on the expanded petals of the lotus (Stutley 160). In either case, the lotus flower becomes the most significant symbol associated with Laksmi. Visnu, one of the three major gods of modern Hinduism, is associated with ten divine incarnations (avatara), and Laksmi, as Visnus consort, is reborn each time along with him (Williams 70). In the Ramayana she is reborn as the wife of Rama, Sita. Laksmi is also reborn as Radha, the favorite gopi (cow-herding maidens) of Krsna (Fowler 36).

The most prominent feature of the iconography of Laksmi is her continuous association with the lotus flower on which she is most often shown standing or sitting atop. For Laksmi the lotus flower is a symbol of beauty, purity, happiness and eternal renewal. The lotus is portrayed as the throne of the gods and is generally shown along with Surya (the Vedic solar deity), Visnu and Laksmi (Jansen 47). Because Laksmi is understood as having a very dependent relationship with Visnu, they are usually depicted together; on occasion their two forms are combined into one, Visnu on the right, Laksmi on the left; the left being a position of inferiority. However, when Laksmi is depicted alone, usually in calendars or in a shrine dedicated to her in a temple, like Visnu, she usually has four arms. In two of her arms she is frequently holding a lotus blossom and from her other two arms, coins and gifts of prosperity fall from her hands, showing that she imparts blessings for those who worship her. Conversely, when Laksmi is depicted together with Visnu she is shown as having only two arms suggesting her subservient position in relation to Visnu (Olsen 137-138).

Laksmi is often depicted as a fair goddess, with a golden complexion (a demonstration of her association with wealth and corn), decorated in fine garments and precious jewels (Olsen 141). She is sometimes depicted with two attendant elephants, symbols of royalty and fertility, one on either side, spraying or watering the lotus (Jansen 92). She is also commonly depicted atop Visnus chest, or massaging his feet or being touched by his foot, another suggestion that Visnu is dominant in his relationship with Laksmi (OFlaherty 117). Laksmi has also come to be associated with the harvest, and in some cases is represented by the image of unhusked rice in a corn-basket (Stutley 160). An association with cow dung is also present, representing vegetation and fertility, due to the fertile and fruitful nature of the substance (Dhal 62).

Gaja Laksmi (Laksmi flanked by Elephants) (Srirangam Temple)

Goddesses within Hindu mythology are frequently represented by, and categorized into contrasting groups. According to some scholars, the Goddess Durga is an example of one such representation, in which Hindu goddesses are viewed as independent and fierce. Therefore, independent goddesses usually are not connected to any male consort. Scholars sometimes characterize these unconstrained goddesses as unpredictable and aggressive, and maintain that they are frequently worshipped during times of emergency (Olson 124). However, although scholars such as Hawley consider a goddesses such as Durga to be an independent and fierce goddess, he contends that these goddesses are characterized by their supremacy over all other forms of life, whether animal, human, or divine” (Hawley 9). A second representation of the goddess is epitomized by the relationship of Laksmi to Visnu, in which a goddess is shaped by her relationship to her male consort (Hawley 9). In this case the goddess is seen as dependent, subservient, and nurturing to her male partner. This dependency can be perceived in the various depictions of Visnu and Laksmi where they appear together. In there, Laksmi is most often shown at the feet of Visnu, or seated upon his chest (Hawley 88). Laksmi serves as the ideal devoted wife, and is often used as an example as such in Hindu culture. However, while some goddesses embody both traits (independent/fierce and nurturing/consorts), other goddesses appear to personify one or the other.

Laksmi is a widely worshiped deity within Hindu society especially amongst the Vaisnavites (worshippers of Visnu and/or his incarnations). Although very few temples have been erected in Laksmis honor, her picture is regularly found to grace many homes, shops and businesses across India. Because Laksmi is worshipped as the Goddess of Good fortune and Prosperity, she receives her greatest homage from those owning businesses in India during the winter festival, Diwali (feast of lamps). During this festival, terracotta lamps burning off of edible oil or ghee, are lit by families and often surround their homes and businesses, in an attempt to attract her presence (Husain 146). Laksmi is also worshipped during a festival in July and August known as Laksmi-Vrata. She is sometimes called upon by those wishing to bear children, and in some cases, Laksmi is also worshipped as the Empress of the Sea, by those who fish for a living. These fisherman offer sacrifices to Laksmi as a wish to secure a good catch and a safe journey home (Turner and Coulter 285). Laksmi is worshipped by various groups for various reasons, establishing her as an important goddess, even in present-day Hindu society.


Dhal, Upendra Nath (1995) Goddess Laksmi: Origin and Development, 2nd ed. Delhi: Delhi Eastern Book Linker.

Fowler, Jeaneane (1997) Hinduism: Beliefs and Practices. Sussex: Sussex Academic Press.

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

Husain, Shahrukh (1997) The Goddess: Creation, Fertility, and Abundance, the Sovereign of Women Myths and Archetypes. London: Duncan Baird Publishers.

Jansen, Eva Rudy (2004) The Book of Hindu Imagery: The Gods and their Symbols Holland: Binkey Kok Publications BV.

OFlaherty, Wendy Doniger (1980) Women, Androgynes, and Other Mythical Beasts Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Olsen, Carl (1983) The Book of the Goddess Past and Present: An Introduction to Her Religion. In Carl Olsen (Ed), Sri Lakshmi and Radha: The Obsequious Wife and the Lustful Lover (pp. 124-144). New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company.

Stutley, Margaret and James (1977) Harpers Dictionary of Hinduism: Its Mythology, Folklore, Philosophy, Literature and History. New York: Harper and Row.

Turner, Patricia, and Charles Russell Coulter (2000) Dictionary of: Ancient Deities. New York: Oxford University Press.

Williams, George M. (2003) Handbook of Hindu Mythology. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO.

Related Readings

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

Kumar, P. P. (1997) The Goddess Laksmi: The Divine Consort in South Indian Vaisnava Tradition. Atlanta, Georgia: Scholars Press

Monaghan, P. (1997) The New Book of Goddesses and Heroines. St. Paul, Minnesota: Llewellyn Publications

Related Research Topics

Alaksmi, Durga, earth goddess, Krsna, Padma, Radha, Sita, Sri, Surya, Visnu, RgVeda, Puranas, Ramayana, Upanishads, Diwali, Laksmi-Vrata, avataras, lotus flower, sakti.

Related Websites

Written by Carlye Smith (Spring 2006), who is solely responsible for its content.

The Iconography of Sri Laksmi

Sri Laksmi is a multi-faceted goddess with many different depictions. Her iconography is complex, as she is associated with many different symbols. Her illustrations come in many forms, from the glorious and transcendent goddess of prosperity and fertility, to the more traditional image of a good and loyal wife. She is a goddess associated with many concepts; beauty, wealth, good luck, fertility, agriculture. This accounts for the complexities and range of her portrayal in sculpture, carving and illustration. All the concepts that she represents are illustrated in symbols presented in her iconography.

The iconography of the Hindu goddess Sri Laksmi is rich and intricate. A deity Identified most frequently as a goddess of fortune, wealth and fertility, the symbols of these concepts in Hinduism often appear in depictions of her (Pauwels 955). Although there are many different depictions of Sri Laksmi, the most common illustration of this deity has her clothed in a pink or red robe (sari), wearing many fine jewels and seated atop a blooming lotus flower. In this depiction known as the Gaja Laksmi, or Wealth of Animals, Laksmi is showered with water from the trunks of two elephants (Pauwels 957). This image is overflowing with symbols that describe the ideas she is associated with.

The symbol most commonly associated with Laksmi, and most other Hindu and Buddhist deities, is the lotus flower. This flower is a very important symbol to the iconography of both religions, and many deities and Buddhists who have reached nirvana (bodhisattvas) are depicted sitting or standing on top of a lotus flower (Malieckal 262). In nature, this beautiful and intricate flower grows out of the mud and mire of swamps and ditches (in Hindu depictions, it symbolizes transcendence from the spiritually ordinary). The marsh that it appears to be blooming out of represents the material plain, an imperfect place which one must rise above in order to gain spiritual enlightenment (Malieckal 263). In most portrayals of Sri Laksmi, she is often sitting or standing atop the lotus flower. To be seated serenely on the lotus flower implies her spiritual authority and her existence above the material plain (Malieckal 263).

Sri Laksmi is a young woman in most depictions, wearing large amounts of extravagant jewelry and ornaments. Illustrations of the goddess also sometimes include arches of fresh flowers other than the lotus, such as the rose. This portrayal of her as a beautiful young woman illustrates her association with beauty and fortune (Pauwels 556). Indeed she is known as a goddess of beauty. She is also associated with royalty, and her ornate appearance, her jewels and hair pieces, symbolizes this association.

Laksmi, the Goddess of Good Fortune, being showered by elephants in a temple relief at Gangaikondacholapuram Temple
Laksmi, the Goddess of Good Fortune, being showered by elephants in a temple relief at Gangaikondacholapuram Temple

She commonly is shown with milky white skin and a look of contented stillness. Typically, Sri Laksmi is shown as having four arms, but there are depictions of her with two or six arms. In the Gaja Laksmi illustrations, she has two pairs of arms (Pauwels 558). Two hands are shown holding the lotus flower, again alluding to the spiritually transcendent nature of the goddess. The other two hands pour coins forth before her (Dhal 112). These coins of course represent wealth, as do her large amounts of jewelry and ornaments. The water showered on her by the elephants depicts her association with similar rituals in which holy water is poured over the heads of royalty (Pauwels 957). Other portrayals of Sri Laksmi also show her holding a gold jar or pot. This jar is brimming with water, and contains leaves and a coconut. This image depicts the goddess’s association with fertility and abundance (Pauwels 957). The contents of the jar overflow, symbolizing abundance and, once again, wealth.

These symbols of wealth and abundance, along with the lotus flower rising from the earth, illustrate the association of Sri Laksmi with agriculture and more specifically, agricultural prosperity. Her connection to the material world, the symbolic prosperity flowing from her hand and her position atop the lotus blossom rising from the marsh illustrates her existence as a goddess of the earth (Pauwels 957). In Gaja Laksmi illustrations, prosperity flows from her hands onto the earth below, creating rich and fertile land for agricultural uses.

Sri Laksmi is the consort of Visnu, and is usually depicted sitting or standing alongside him, dressed as royalty (Dhal 78). The position of the two deities in this depiction illustrates the balance of power, the importance of both the masculine and feminine energies, and the importance of the Sakti power as she stands in equal extravagance to her male partner. There are other depictions however which show a different relationship between the two deities. In one, she is shown attending Visnu, and massaging his feet along with his other consort, Bhu Devi (Dhal 79). This depiction emphasizes the traditional relationship between a woman and her lord husband (patideva), or lord husband. This is the ideal relationship between husband and wife in Orthodox Hinduism, wherein a wife serves her husband and treats him as superior to herself (Dhal 79). This portrayal does not depict Laksmi in all her glory as a goddess atop the lotus, but as a proper wife to her husband. This illustrates her association as a passive Sakti. Her philosophical associations with Sakti power, however, are not always the same as depicted in iconography, and varies in interpretation (Dhal 146).

Sri Laksmi is closely associated with the festival of Divali, or Row of Lights. This is considered a New Year for some Hindus, and a time of warding off bad luck and misfortune, while attracting good luck and prosperity (Shomer 11). Laksmi being the goddess of luck and wealth, she is more heavily worshipped around this time of year, in hopes that she will grant prosperity in the year to come. Some Hindu families keep small clay statues of Sri Laksmi in their houses. These are kept for one year, and then replaced with new ones during the festival of Divali (Shomer 16). Since she is associated with wealth, these statues are meant to bring prosperity and fortune into the house.

References and Further Reading

Dhal, Upendra Nath (1995) Goddess Laksmi: origin and development 2nd ed. Delhi: Eastern Book Linkers.

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

Kinsely, David (1998) Hindu Goddesses. Berkeley: California Press Ltd.

Malieckal, Louis Symbolism in Hindu worship, Journal of Dharma, 9 July-Sept 1984, p 261-273.

Pauwels, Heidi The goddess Laksmi: the divine consort in South Indian Vaisnava tradition. Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 66 Winter 1998, p 955-958.

Schomer, K. (1999). Divali: study of a Hindu festival. Journal of Vaisnava Studies, 7(2), 5-36.

Related Topics for Further Investigation



Bhu Devi

The Lotus Flower


Eight Types of Wealth





Gaja Laksmi

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Written by Kristi Coleman (Spring 2006) who is solely responsible for its content.