Vaisno Devi is a goddess in the Hindu religion. She is worshipped in northwest India where her shrine is located on Trikut Mountain in the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir (Foulston and Abbott 193, 195). Millions of pilgrims go there each year. As a mother to her devotees, she is a protector and giver of benefits (Rohe 74). She is therefore known as Mata Vaisno Devi, or Mother Vaisno Devi (Rohe 57, 68).
Hindu mythology explains that Vaisno Devi was created during the second age, the Treta Yuga, by the three goddesses, Mahasarasvati, Mahalaksmi, and Mahakali. These goddesses are manifestations of the Great Goddess, Mahadevi (Foulston and Abbott 194). They came together and used their powers to create Vaisno Devi. During the Treta Yuga the world was struggling with strife and the forces of the demonic world. The world needed a guardian, therefore the creation of Vaisno Devi (Khanna 187).
There are a variety of myths about Vaisno Devi. One myth in particular says she was born on earth as the daughter of a merchant named Ratnasagar and was named Trikuta. Trikuta wished to marry Rama, one of the ten incarnations of Visnu, but was told by Rama himself that he could not marry her as he was faithfully pledged to Sita his wife (Foulston and Abbott 50, 194). Not to be disappointed, Trikuta persisted, and eventually was told by Rama that if she could recognize him when he returned to her, he would marry her. Rama later returned as an elderly man and was unrecognizable to Trikuta. Rama then told her that he would return in the fourth age, the Kali Yuga, as Kalki, the last and final incarnation of Visnu. Trikuta could then become his consort. Until that time, Trikuta should stay on Trikut Mountain, where she ought to practice asceticism and would eventually become known as Vaisno Devi (Erndl 40-41).
Another myth describes Vaisno Devi’s appearance to a Brahmin priest thousands of years after her birth on earth. The priest, Sridhar, was holding a ritual for the purpose of attaining a male son, when Vaisno Devi appeared to him (Erndl 41). She told Sridhar to serve a feast for the villagers and those living around the village. While inviting the villagers to the feast, Sridhar met a man by the name of Gorakhnath, the leader of an order of mendicants. Gorakhnath mockingly told Sridhar that he would not be able to feed Gorakhnath and all his followers. Nevertheless, the next day, everyone gathered for the feast and they were served by Vaisno Devi. One of the mendicants, Bhairo, complained about the food, stating that he wanted meat and not the vegetarian food that Vaisno Devi was serving. Vaisno Devi told him that as the food was being served at a Vaisnavafeast, he should not complain. Bhairo became angry and reached for Vaisno Devi, but she disappeared and fled to Trikut Mountain (Erndl 41-42). Bhairo, who looked at her with lust, pursued her (Rohe 60). When she arrived at Trikut Mountain, she crawled into a cave and stayed there for nine months where she practiced asceticism. When Bhairo found her, Vaisno Devi opened the back of the cave with her wand and crawled out with Bhairo continuing to pursue her. She entered another cave and according to one version of this myth, transformed herself into the terrifying manifestation of the goddess Candi. She then cut off Bhairo’s head. As he was being decapitated, he repented, calling Vaisno Devi “Mother.” His head can now be seen as a rock at the cave’s mouth where it is venerated by pilgrims (Erndl 41-42).
The mythology of Vaisno Devi has led to the worship of her at the Holy Shrine of Shri Mata Vaishno Devi Ji on Trikut Mountain. Pilgrims climb fourteen kilometers up the mountain to the mouth of the cave. When the pilgrims reach there, they crawl through a ninety-foot tunnel which has a stream running through it called the Charan Ganga (Foulston and Abbott 196-197). At the end of the tunnel is the most important aspect of the shrine, three jutting rocks or pindis (Erndl 39). These three pindis, which are venerated by the pilgrims,each embodies the three cosmic manifestations of the Great Goddess, Mahadevi. These three manifestations are the goddesses Mahasarasvati, Mahalaksmi, and Mahakali; they are referred to as the sakta trinity (Erndl 4). The shrine of Vaisno Devi “is the only shrine in India to house natural forms of the three cosmic goddesses” (Foulston and Abbott 196). Vaisno Devi, who in turn is the manifestation of the three goddesses, Mahasarasvati, Mahalaksmi and Mahakali, holds their cosmic powers or saktis (Erndl 39). They in turn each hold the powers of the Great Goddess, Mahadevi (Tewari 4). A pilgrim goes to the shrine of Vaisno Devi only when the pilgrim believes Vaisno Devi has called him or her individually (Rohe 61-62). It has been found that “undertaking the pilgrimage annually contributes to the well-being of her devotees” (Pandya 735).
Vaisno Devi is considered by her followers to be Mahadevi, the Great Goddess herself, since Vaisno Devi is the manifestation of the three goddesses and their three powers (Rohe 71). In Hinduism, Mahadevi is the goddess who embodies sakti, the feminine power that creates and holds the universe together (Kinsley 133). Mahadevi “oversees” the “cosmic functions” of creation, preservation, and destruction (Kinsley 137). These three powers are present in the rocks or pindis representing the three goddesses, Mahasarasvati, Mahalaksmi and Mahakali (Tewari 4). Mahasarasvati holds the sakti of creation, Mahalaksmi holds the sakti of preservation, and Mahakali holds the sakti of destruction (Rodrigues 441).
Vaisno Devi is also considered to be one of two contrasting sides to Mahadevi; the other being the goddess Kali. The contrasting sides are reflected in two different dispositions and personalities. Kali is the harsh and bloody side of Mahadevi. She is depicted with dark skin, often with a necklace of skulls around her neck, and is known for drinking the blood of demons. She is carnivorous, and as such, she is associated with animal sacrifice. Vaisno Devi is the peaceful and serene side of Mahadevi. She is associated with vegetarianism, and is not worshipped with animal sacrifice (Erndl 4-5).
In Hinduism, vegetarianism is a form of ritual purity and it is because of this that Vaisno Devi and her shrine stand out among other Hindu shrines (Foster and Stoddard 113). As illustrated in the second myth, Vaisno Devi serves only vegetarian food at the feast. This validates her status as a vegetarian. The name Vaisno is actually translated in northwestern India as “vegetarianism” even though it literally means “in the style or manner of Visnu and followers” (Foster and Stoddard 113). Vegetarianism protects Vaisno Devi’s body integrity (Rohe 69). She is closely associated with the god Visnu partly due to this vegetarian ideal (Rohe 66).
Vaisno Devi is also associated with virginity (Rohe 70). Virginity, like vegetarianism, protects Vaisno Devi’s body integrity (Rohe 69). The importance of her virginity is shown in the myth and is made apparent by Bhairo’s lust and pursuit of her. A variation of this myth says it was the goddess Kali that Vaisno Devi transformed herself into when she killed Bhairo. This was so that she, as the goddess Vaisno Devi, would not spill someone’s blood. The reason for this is because blood shedding is associated with sexual relations. In order to preserve her virginity, Vaisno Devi transformed herself into the dark and terrible Kali to shed Bhairo’s blood (Rohe 69). At her shrine, it is common for the pilgrims to abstain from alcohol, meat, and sexual relations (Rohe 70).
Vaisno Devi is also a mother as well as a virgin, and her devotees consider themselves her children (Rohe 70). There is a legend that says she changed the Charan Ganga into a stream of milk when milk was not available in the local area (Rohe 69). This myth validates her status as mother. Since Vaisno Devi is Mahadevi, and therefore sakti, it is believed all beings were born from her (Rohe 70).
Hindu art portrays Vaisno Devi as beautiful and serene. She is commonly shown to ride a lion or tiger (Erndl 4). She has eight arms and holds a conch, club, and discus as well as a bow and arrow, sword, and trident. Her clothes are red; she is gentle but strong. Beside her are her two guardsmen, the monkey god, Hanuman, and Bhairo (Erndl 4).
Partly due to variations in legends or myths about Vaisno Devi, it can be difficult to exactly pinpoint her nature (Rohe 60). No Hindu text gives definite knowledge of her, and understanding of her varies according to each person (Rohe 57). However, her shrine on Trikut Mountain adds an element of certainty to her devotees about her role as a goddess as it is a concrete place where they can go to worship her. It is on Trikut Mountain, Vaisno Devi’s home, where she reigns as the divine feminine power, giving blessings and support to her devotees.
References and Further Recommended Reading
Brown, C. MacKenzie (1990) The Triumph of the Goddess: The Canonical Models and Theological Visions of the Devi-Bhagavata Purana. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Chitgopekar, Nilima (2003) The Book of Durga. New Delhi: Viking.
Erndl, Kathleen M. (1993) Victory to the Mother. New York: Oxford University Press.
Foster, Georgana, and Robert Stoddard (2010) “Vaishno Devi, the Most Famous Goddess Shrine in the Siwaliks.” In Sacred Geography of Goddesses in South Asia, edited by Rana P. B. Singh, 109-124. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars.
Foulston, Lynn, and Stuart Abbott (2009) Hindu Goddesses: Beliefs and Practices. Thornhill: Sussex Academic Press.
Hardon, John A. (1968) Religions of the World: Volume 1. Garden City: Image Books.
Hawley, John Stratton, and Vasudha Narayanan (eds.) (2006) The Life of Hinduism. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Khanna, Madhu (2018) “Here Are the Daughters: Reclaiming the Girl Child (Kanya, Bala, Kumari) in the Empowering Tales and Rituals of Sakta Tantra.” In The Oxford History of Hinduism: The Goddess, edited by Mandakranta Bose, 173-198. New York: Oxford University Press.
Kinsley, David (1986) Hindu Goddesses: Visions of the Divine Feminine in the Hindu Religious Tradition. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Kumarappa, Bharatan (1979) The Hindu Conception of the Deity. Delhi: Inter-India Publications.
Pandya, Samta (2015) “Pilgrimage and Devotion to the Divine Mother: Mental Well-being of Devotees of Mata Vaishno Devi.” Mental Health, Religion & Culture 18:9 726-737. Accessed January 22, 2020. doi:10.1080/13674676.2015.1112771.
Pintchman, Tracy (ed.) Seeking Mahadevi: Constructing the Identities of the Hindu Great Goddess. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.
Rodrigues, Hillary (2016) Hinduism-The Ebook. Toronto: Journal of Buddhist Ethics Online Books, Ltd.
Rohe, Mark Edwin (2001) “The Greatness of Goddess Vaisno Devi.” In Seeking Mahadevi Constructing the Identities of the Hindu Great Goddess, edited by Tracy Pintchman, 55-76. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Tewari, Lt. Col. Naren (1988) The Mother Goddess Vaisno Devi. New Delhi: Lancer International.
Related Topics for Further Investigation
Vaisno Devi Mythology
Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic
This article was written by: Bernadette Remus (Spring 2020), who is entirely responsible for its content.