Mahavidyas means Great Wisdom Goddesses. There are ten different beautiful and ferocious Goddesses who are various aspects of Adi Parasakthi herself. As per Shaktism sect in Hindusim, the goddess Adi Parasakthi is the power behind the universe. Gender in Hinduism is particularly very interesting. Many people feel that Hindu mythology is mostly about male gods like Shiva and Vishnu and their various avatars. There's more to this than meets the eye. Usually, the male powers cannot be enacted without the female aspect (Shakti). Women had utmost respect in ancient Vedic times. They were on par with their male counterparts, well educated, participated in all religious rituals, were warriors, married when they desired to and gender equality prevailed in social, political and economic spheres. Now I am not sure when this whole distinguished status of women deteriorated because in epics like Ramayana, Mahabharata and other stories, women are depicted loyal and obedient and it seems like they existed to please their husbands, produce children and adhere to the patriarchal society. This reflects on the society, women have been subjugated and subordinated for a long time in India. Stories of Sita unable to defend herself from Ravana or Draupadi invoking Krishna's aid when her modesty was in peril shows us that women are weak? Does it portray Hindusim in a bad light? Let me once again remind you that Hinduism is not a religion. It's more of a philosophy and comprises of various schools of thought and traditions. A lot of views on this philosophy exist and there's so much room for interpretation. So to answer the question of how realistically was the female form portrayed in vedas and its importance, I will talk about the Mahavidyas, which I consider is a beautiful form and an example of feminism.
The Ten Mahavidyas are sometimes known as Bramhavidya and it falls under the branch of Tantra. There are many different views about the origin of Mahavidyas. But the most common story goes like this. Sati had married Shiva much to the dislike of her father Daksha. One fine day, Daksha decided to perform a yajna (Sacred Ritual) with the sole aim of insulting Shiva. He invited all the Gods and Goddesses except his son-in-law. Sati came to know about this yajna from a sage who told her all about it. When Sati approached Shiva to tell him that she would attend the yajna as a daughter needs no invitation from a father, Shiva got angry with her and forbid her from attending the ritual. Sati became furious. She felt that Shiva was being very ignorant and dominating. Her anger reflected in her eyes and to show Shiva who she really was, she took a ferocious form of a woman with wrathful red eyes. Shiva got scared and tried to run away. But he could not escape from her because she took ten different forms in each direction (North, South, West, East, NE, NW, SE, SW, Upwards and Downwards) and blocked him. The ten forms the Goddess took are known as the Mahavidyas. They are Kali, Tara, Tripurasundari, Bhuvaneswari, Chinnamasta, Bhairavi, Dhumavati, Bagalamukhi, Matangi and Kamala. Each have their own personalities and manifestations.
Kali, the destroyer of illusion, comes first among the Mahavidyas. She is described in many forms but usually she is dark skinned, wears a garland of 50 skulls representing 50 alphabets of Sanskrit, has four arms which hold the sickle and a chopped head (ego), shows the abhya (fear removing) and varada (boon giving) mudra. She is a blood thirsty deity with her tongues protruding out eager to drink blood of the demons. She wears a skirt made out of chopped hands which represents the karmas of those who have surrendered to her. Her nakedness reveals that she cannot be confined and is boundless to time and space. Kali standing over Shiva symbolises that without Shakti, there is no life, but only a corpse. Shiva is inert without Shakti.
Kali is very mysterious, but she is also the sole reality and a compassionate mother. Her origins have been mentioned in the Puranas. The divine Adi Parasakthi herself breathed Kali into life in order to destroy a demon called Raktabija who kept replicating himself each time a drop of blood was shed on the ground. In this way whenever he was chopped, he kept taking new forms. It was Kali who then fiercely killed Raktabija, crushed him and sucked the blood dry from his body. Kali is the one who liberates and destroys sins in this era.
Tara is worshipped in Tantric hinduism and Tibetian Buddhism both as fierce and gentle respectively. Tara means lusture and here she is the saviour. Legnd has it that during the churning of the ocean by the Gods and the Demons, poison and nectar were obtained. The poison which would destroy mankind was consumed by Shiva. Now Shiva was unconscious due to the powerful poison. It was the divine Goddess who took the form of Tara and breastfed Shiva and her milk nullified the effects of the poison. Tara has maternal instincts and more or less appears like Kali. Tara holds a sword that cuts off our attachments and worldly desires, a lotus on the other that represents her heart. Her hair flows loose, wears tiger skin around her waist and has three eyes which see past, present and future.
Tara is worshipped to kill our own ego and false ideas that keep us in bondage. Like Kali, Tara is also associated with death. In Buddhism, she is known as the 'mother of liberation'. She is a deity who hears the cries of humans experiencing misery in samsara.
Tripurasundari is known by many names across India, They are Shodasi, Lalitha, Rajarajeshwari and many more. In Sanskrit, Tri means three, Pura means town or place and Sundari means beautiful. She is the ruler of all three worlds. She is sometimes worshipped in the form of a mystical contraption known as the Sri Chakra, which is her abode. Tripurasundari offers spiritual knowledge and is usually worshipped by those who seek the truth, that is enlightenment. She is the beauty in the world around us. She holds an arrow made out of flower and a sugarcane bow. Adorned with jewels, she sits on a throne on top of Shiva, who is consciousness.
Bhandasura was a demon who could only be killed by a woman who was not born to a woman. The demon started terrorizing the whole world and all the gods went to the ultimate formless Almighty which divided itself into the a male and female form, Shiva and Adi Parasakthi. A huge yajna was performed and the universe was offered as an oblation. From the fire rose Tripurasundari, who recreated the whole universe as it was before. As per the request of other gods, Tripurasundari started a battle to kill Bhandasura and an army was raised. She was also the one who created Lord Ganesha, the remover of obstacles.
Bhuvaneswari means 'Queen of the Universe'. She is the goddess of material existence. She takes the form of the universe and is closely associated with maya (illusion). She exists as a form of supreme energy in the cosmos and was found when the Sun god tried to create more universes. She has three eyes depicting knowledge of all three worlds, large breasts symbolising her motherly nature providing nourishment to all beings in the essence of life and countless living beings are said to arise from her ornaments. The crescent moon is on her crown and she holds a goad and noose.
She is all-pervading. Just like how we think of the universe to be very vast on the outside and has never ending, space is really big. Similarly, there is an inner space. The space of our mind and self awareness, that is also infinite. She is present everywhere and is also the cause of creation, capable of turning situations in her favour by bending universal laws. She is also known as the goddess of love (Iccha shakti) because love has no boundaries.
Chinnamasta means 'she who is decapitated'. Her form is slightly disturbing to look at. She is a significant tantric deity who chopped off her own head and three streams of blood flows from her body, one which she drinks and the other two by her attendants Dakini and Varini. She is depicted nude and stands on top of a copulating couple who are Rati and Kama. Her form maybe shocking to many, but symbolises certain spiritual truths. Depending upon interpretation, she can be the embodiment of sexual energy and sexual self-control. She can be represented in the cosmic dimension where copulation leads to creation of life and also as the one who has overcome sexual desire, that is self-control and turning away the mind from flesh to the soul.
There are many legends about her origin. Once when Goddess Parvati (Shiva's consort) went to bath in the Mandakini River along with her attendants. She was thinking about Shiva and was lost in concupiscent thoughts. Her attendants were hungry and asked her for food. But she could not hear them because she was elsewhere mentally. The attendants then pleaded and told her that it was the goddesses responsibility to take care of them. Parvati at once realised her mistake and came out, chopped her head, held it in her left palm, and fed the blood to her attendants also feeding herself. The three streams depict certain energy channels in the body. Praying to her is not enough, she will only look at you when you completely surrender yourself, just like the attendants. Their calls for food went unheard, only when they said there's no other refuge and surrendered to her, she came out.
Bhairavi means terrible or frightful. She is the consort of Lord Bhairava, who is a different avatar of Shiva himself. She is also sometimes known as Tripura Bhairavi present in all three states of consciousness that is active, dream and deep sleep. Her name also identifies with the cosmic function of creation, preservation and destruction. An incarnation of Shakti, she is a warrior and slayer of demons. It is said that when she entered the battlefield, her fierce and horrible appearance made many demons weak. She is depicted differently, fierce in some and soft-natured in other texts.
Mostly she is associated with destruction. Destruction should not be taken negatively, because only from there does creation arise. Destruction of negative aspects is very vital for spiritual enhancement. In the terrifying form, the goddess is naked with four arms, wielding a sword, a cup of blood, abhaya and varada mudras, blood smeared all over her. In the calmer form, she is in the colour of a rising sun, wearing a garland made out of demons' heads, holds a book and a rosary along with the mudras. She is shown to wear a crown and is jeweled. Bhairavi is beyond the fear of death, associated with self destructive habits, liquor and tasmic food. She is present where the body decays which is a natural phase in the cycle of birth and death. She is also depicted to roam and live in cremation grounds.
Literally means 'She who is made of smoke'. Of all the Mahavidyas, Dhumavati is considered to be inauspicious. She is weak, old and has wrinkled skin, wears tattered clothes and is holding a winnowing basket. She has dishelved hair and has no jewels and is usually depicted as a widow. She is on a chariot which bears the flag of a crow. In tantric rituals, she is sometimes associated with dark forces and black magic. In reality, she has a greater significance. We all know there is happiness and sadness in life. At times of sorrow, negativity, sadness, misery and anger is where Dhumavati comes into the picture. She asks us to look further from our sad states so we can transform ourselves from ordinary to extraordinary souls.
Nothing is permanent in this world and the clock is ticking. One day we will face things we dread and we need to make our peace with it. We cling on to so many worldly desires but they will only perish soon. We will have to deal with us being miserable, having no one to take care of just like how there is no one to pull the chariot of Dhumavati. We have to learn and cultivate a sense of detachment. She is not usually worshipped, but Dhumavati is aware of the highest form of spiritual enlightenment. She is the one who points us to seek liberation.
The origin of this name is quite debatable as there is no word called Bagala in Sanskrit. It may be derived from Valga which means woman and mukhi which is face. Some even say it means crane-face. The goddess is also known as Pitambara Devi (the one who dresses in yellow). She is known for paralysing her enemies and symbolises potent female force. She sits in the midst of an ocean on a golden throne, wears the crescent moon on her crown and holds a club in her right hand while the other one pulls out the tongue from the mouth of a demon, beating him. She originated from the form of Parvati to stop a storm that was wrecking havoc and not even the three gods Bramha, Vishnu and Shiva could stop it.
Bagalamukhi is capable of turning bad into good and vice versa. She can turn the poor to rich, speech to silence, failure to victory, ignorance to knowledge . She also teaches us to see the death hidden in life, the joy disguised in sorrow, and the failure that is hidden in success. Worshipping her immobilises evil spirits. She is also the destroyer of storms, the one that brews in our minds. Ego often manifests itself in the form of speech, this is kept under check by Bagalamukhi. A gentle reminder to be humble as well. She is often invoked to destruct enemies.
Matangi looks very similar to Goddess Saraswati, some even say she is the tantric form of Saraswati. She is depicted in different forms, sometimes with swords and books in hand, at other times a veena (musical instrument) and rosary beads. In some, she carries a noose and a goad as well. As far as Matangi is concerned, her real power is knowledge. She is also the one who is in charge of the final form of speech. Truly, knowledge is wealth and the more we learn, greater our ability becomes. Matangi is usually associated with yogic powers and also considered to be an outcast in the society. The word chandalini is used to describe her which refers to a low caste in Hinduism. The concept of caste is a very serious issue in modern society. But the vedas have always taught that elitism is a huge hindrance to spiritual progress. It is up to us to understand what the hidden meanings are behind the caste system and to practice benevolence, not authority.
The origin stories of Matangi are many. It is said she originated from the food particles that fell from heaven. Matangi questions purity. The good and the bad are all the one. The essence of Advaita philosophy is that there is only one. There is no room for non duality. We are taught to have a sense of what is right and what is wrong. But do we really know? People who claim they are pious indulge in evil activities and atheists perform good deeds. Matangi teaches us to rethink on all false notions in this world. Are they really false?
Kamala is the last of the Mahavidyas and the exact opposite of the first one, Kali. Kamala is calm. Kamala means 'the lotus goddess'. She is the only Mahavidya who is not the consort of Shiva, but Vishnu. She is extremely auspicious, seated on a lotus, depicted with two white elephants on each side showering water on her. She is a symbol for light, prosperity, wealth and welfare. She has four arms where she holds the lotus in two and the abhaya and varada mudra on the others. She is also known as Mahalakshmi, the giver of material wealth.
God is love and Kamala represents nothing but love. She can be considered as the road that takes us to infinite joy and love. She is full of grace and grants the wishes of those who worship her. It is to be remembered that asking for worldly desires is not wrong, as long as we ask wisely. It is quite evident that people want to make the best of their lives and Kamala helps us with that. She also grants the wealth of Dharma i.e. truthfulness, kindness, compassion, devotion which are way more precious than gold and money.
The Mahavidyas are just a state of our spiritual awakening. It is to be remembered that they all rise from one form that is Adi Parasakthi herself. She is the source of creation and absolute power, the other half of Shiva. They cannot exist without each other. In today's world we may easily brush this off as stories and there is nothing wrong in that. Some interpret hidden meanings from scriptures and vedas, some believe parallel universes exist on different planes where all of this is possible and some prefer not to believe. Tantric systems have existed for ages and very few practice it rigorously, well hidden from the sight of ordinary people. Like they say, known is a drop, unknown is an ocean. Only by removing the veil of ignorance do we allow ourselves to seek more knowledge. The world does work in mysterious ways.
Art by George Atherton
Other images taken from: oldindianarts(dot)in, creative commons license