The modern interpretations of the ten Mahavidyas have turned out to be surprisingly diverse; although, perhaps the most common understanding of the ten Mahavidyas is that they were direct personifications of Sati/Kali, one of the supreme Goddesses. According to the lore, the ten Mahavidyas were said to have been manifestations of the supreme Goddess Sati, after Siva insulted her during an argument. Consequently, Sati reveals herself as Kali, before manifesting into the ten Mahavidyas. Collectively, the ten Mahavidyas are thought to be an expression of compassion and protection demonstrated by the supreme Goddess to free her followers from chaos (Dold 57, 58, 59).
Bagalamukhi or Bagala (she who has a crane’s head) is one of the ten Mahavidyas, but myths of her origins also come with various interpretations. These origins seem to illustrate several distinct variations of Bagalamukhi’s character. For example, the first myth associates Bagala with the God Visnu, where she plays a role similar to one of his avatars, in which, Visnu comes across a cosmic crisis that threatens to annihilate the universe and after requesting for aid, Bagala emerges and restores the cosmic balance (Kinsley 1998: 193, 194).
The next origin myth describes Bagalamukhi’s well-known ability of Stambhana (to stun or paralyze). Bagala is often associated with paralyzing enemies, and defeating enemies with Vak siddhi (the power of speech). In this myth Bagala stops the demon Madan, a demon who is able to destroy and kill just by speaking. Bagala is often portrayed by grabbing the demon’s tongue, stopping him from uttering any more words before destroying him (Kinsley 1998: 194, 195).
The third and final myth recounts the origin of both Dhumavati and Bagalamukhi. This origin myth is similar to the encounter that the ten Mahavidyas have with Siva, in which Bagalamukhi is a manifestation of Siva’s wife. However, in this version, Bagala is manifested after Parvati devours Siva. Soon after Parvati consumes Siva, smoke begins to be released from Parvati’s body. Consequently, Siva emerges from Parvati’s body, followed by Siva punishing her by stripping her of the marks and adornments of marriage, leaving her a widow. Parvati is then branded Bagalamukhi for eating Siva, and from her smoke or her maya (the power of illusion) emerges Dhumavati. This myth relates closely to the meaning of Bagalamukhi’s name, in which, similarly to how a crane would eat, Bagala swallows Siva whole (Shankaranarayanan 94, Kinsley 1998: 195, 196).
Bagalamukhi is known by many epithets, and each one suggests a distinct representation of her particular characteristics. For example, her name Bagalamukhi comes from the Sanskrit word baka, meaning “crane”, in which she has been commonly associated with. However, some scholars have suggested that the original name of Bagalamukhi is a misinterpretation, as she is rarely depicted as having a birds’ head, and that she was actually called Valgamukhi. Further still, there seems to be some inconsistencies to the meaning of the name Valgamukhi. Rama Shankar Tripathi of the Kasi Visvanath temple, believes that valga in Sanskrit means “bit” and refers to Valgamukhi’s ability to master one’s opponents, similar to how a bit is used to lead a horse around. Moreover, another informant of Kinsley’s said that valga means “paralyze”, referring to her ability of stambhana or “paralysis”. The names that Bagala is recognized by all seem to be related to her strong association with magical or supernatural powers, and her ability to attract and immobilize others. Although, it is difficult to interpret each name individually, it is perhaps best to consider each opinion to better understand the significance of each one of Bagalamukhi’s names (Kinsley 1998: 196, 197).
One of Bagalamukhi’s most-used epithet is Pitambara-devi [also seen with Visnu, see Kinsley 1998: 193], “she who is dressed in yellow”, and unlike Bagalamukhi, this name reflects more of her features of devotion and veneration (Kinsley 1998: 198). Bagala is often portrayed as being yellow in complexion, dressed in yellow garments, and dressed in yellow ornaments and garlands (Kinsley 1988: 162). When worshiping Bagalamukhi/Pitambara-devi, devotees are directed to be clothed in all yellow, use yellow turmeric beads and, when possible offer yellow items (Shankaranarayanan 95). However, the problem with the name Pitambara-devi is although she is often said to prefer yellow, the reason why she does, and how it is related to Bagalamukhi are rarely mentioned in literature (see Kinsley 1998: 198-199).
As far as supernatural abilities go, Bagalamukhi has more association with mystical or magical powers than any other Mahavidya. These magical powers are also known as siddhis, “perfections” or “accomplishments”, and are mentioned in some of her hymns. Bagala is said to be worshiped to receive these mystical powers and to control, paralyze, attract or kill one’s enemies, and to gain wealth and auspiciousness. Bagalas ability to paralyze is believed to apply to one’s own thought, motion and initiative, in which she can give the power of intelligent and forceful speech to defeat any enemy (Kinsley 1998: 199).
In the Sankhyayana-tantra, Bagala is connected to Brahmastra (the missile of Brahma), a weapon used in war. There are also special sections in the Sankhyayana-tantra in regards to worship and the attainment of Bagala’s magical powers. Furthermore, some texts have specific instructions of worship for different kinds of siddhis that are sought from Bagala. For instance, the siddhi maruna (the ability to destroy an adversary through pure will) is attained through the burnt offerings that must take place in the fires found on cremation grounds, and that the offerings should include the blood of a female buffalo and mustard oil. Additionally, the siddhi uccdtana (the ruining or upsetting of a person), crow and vulture feathers should be burned as an offering, and so forth for each of the other siddhis (Kinsley 1998: 199, 200).
Bagalamukhi is often depicted in a sava sadhana position, where she is shown to be seated on top of a corpse (Kinsley 1998: 201). There are several theories regarding why Bagala is portrayed in this position. One interpretation is that the corpse is said to belong to the demon Madan that Bagala defeated in battle (see Kinsley 1998: 194, 195). Another explanation suggests that the corpse represents the passion or ignorance that Bagala has conquered or controlled. That is, the corpse that are shown with Bagala are bodily rhythms that are being mastered through yogic control. A third explanation describes Bagala and the corpse as analogous to that of Sakti’s and Siva’s image of reality, in which Bagala/Sakti represents the power of creation, while the corpse/Siva represents the immobile, unchanging aspects of reality.
Furthermore, some believe that the presence of the corpse is related to Sava Sadhana (spiritual practice with a corpse). The details of Sava Sadhana are referred to in numerous tantric texts, and provide specific instructions regarding this practice. The texts include guidelines for selecting a proper location, time, and what kind of corpse should be used. For example, a suitable location for Sava Sadhana would be a forest or a mountain, and should take place on the eighth lunar day, on a Tuesday night. The corpse should be undamaged, from a low caste, preferably a young Candala (an untouchable), who has committed suicide, drowned, or died from lightning, a spear, a snake or in battle. Corpses that belong to a person who had an immoral life, died of starvation, was famous, or who had a strong attachment to their spouse should be avoided (Kinsley 1998: 202, 203).
Temples and shrines that are dedicated to Bagalamukhi are rare, since worshipping her is primarily done through individual means. However, there are some temples devoted to Bagala located throughout India. One temple housing the image of Bagalamukhi is in the old district of Varanasi in Northern India. The temple is connected to a resident’s house, but is open to the general populace. Farther north, near the border of Pakistan, another temple that is affiliated with Bagala is in the woods of Bankhandi, Himachal Pradesh. Interestingly, the notion that Bagala’s tradition is more common in the northern parts of India may be from the fact that she is quite influential in areas of Nepal. Bagala’s most famous place of worship is in Datia, Madhya Pradesh, established in the 1930’s by Puja Swami. Bagalamukhi was Puja Swami’s chosen deity, and he believed that she could benefit India during India’s independence movement (Kinsley 1998: 207, 208).
REFERENCES AND FURTHER RECOMMENDED READING
Dold, Patricia (2011) “Pilgrimage to Kamakhva Through Text and Lived Religion.” In Studying Hinduism in Practice, Hillary P. Rodrigues (ed.). London: Routledge. pp. 46-61.
Kinsley, David (1988) Hindu Goddesses: Visions of the Divine Feminine in the Hindu Religious Tradition. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Kinsley, David (1998) Tantric Visions of the Divine Feminine: The Ten Mahavidyas. Delhi: University of California Press.
Shankaranarayanan, S. (1972) The Ten Great Cosmic Powers (Dasa Mahavidyas). Pondicherry: Dipti Publications.
Related Topics for Further Investigation
Indian Independent movement
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Article written by: Ryan Fukuda (February 2017) who is solely responsible for its content.