Category Archives: d. Saktism

Tara, the Goddess Who Guides Us Through Troubles

Tara is a Tantric goddess, one of the ten Mahavidyas, which translated into English means great revelations or manifestations (Kinsley 1998:57-60). In Tantrism, there is the idea that the Divine Feminine is the supreme cosmic force in the universe, equivalent to Brahman. An important aspect in Mahadevi theology is that Devi or the Great Goddess has a tendency to manifest herself in a variety of forms so as to protect cosmic stability. The ten Mahavidyas represent a common way of expressing the idea that goddesses can take many forms (Kinsley 1998:20). The Mahavidyas are also often associated with Visnu’s ten avatars or avataras, helping these avataras in their heroic endeavors, either by becoming the avatara heroes themselves, or being the ultimate force for how they are victorious (Kinsley 1998:20-21). The Mahavidyas include the famous goddess Kali. Although Kali is listed in the Mahavidyas, there is evidence that she was worshiped earlier (Kinsley 1986:161). A majority of the texts mentioning the Mahavidyas are Tantric in nature so it will be best to regard the Mahavidyas, such as Tara, as Tantric goddesses (Kinsley 1998:20-21). The Mahavidyas are often depicted as a group throughout various temples, though they can be thought of individually (Kinsley 1998:49-50). This essay will first give a description of the iconography of Tara, how she is usually portrayed in temples alongside the other Mahavidyas, both as a member of the Mahavidyas and individually as a goddess. Second, this essay will give an overview of the myths of Tara and the Mahavidyas; in particular, how Tara and the Mahavidyas were born. Finally, this essay will give a brief overview of the numerous symbolic implications of Tara and what psychological effects these terrifying goddesses have.

Kali is the first goddess in the list of Mahavidyas and Tara always comes after, being the second goddess(Kinsley 1986:162). Tara and Kali are closely interrelated. The description of Tara is almost identical to that of Kali. Tara, like Kali, is dark-skinned. Both are depicted as having their foot firmly on a corpse. In Kali’s case, it is almost always Siva, while for Tara, the corpse can be anonymous or can be Siva. Both wear necklaces of severed heads and skulls. Tara and Kali both have lolling tongues and blood oozing from their mouths while laughing terribly. They are often depicted on funeral pyres. Both Goddesses’ appearances are terrifying to behold. One of the main differences between Kali and Tara is that Tara wears the skin of a tiger while Kali is naked. Additionally, Tara appears to be pot-bellied or pregnant, while Kali is usually not. There are ideas that Kali and Tara are manifestations of one another (Kinsley 1998:100). An eighteenth-century Bengali saint, Ramprasad Sen, even used the names synonymously (Kinsley 1998:100). Kinsley describes of Tara: “She appears to be a variant expression of Kali, a kindred spirit, as it were, who expresses the same truths as Kali, only in slightly different form” (Foulston and Abbott 118). Tara portrays the dominance of the Great Goddess over the masculine, but she also exemplifies gentler aspects and qualities of the divine feminine. It is said that she rescues those who truly are faithful to her, bringing beings and people to the far shore of enlightenment, embodying the maternal, creative, and nurturant (Foulston and Abbott 119).

It is interesting to note the differences between the Hindu Tara and the Tibetan Buddhist Tara. The Hindu Tara is almost always portrayed in fierce forms like the one described in the Tara Tantra:

Standing firmly with her left foot on a corpse, she laughs loudly – transcendent. Her hands hold a sword, a blue lotus, a dagger, and a begging bowl. She raises her war cry, hum! Her matted tawny hair is bound with poisonous blue snakes. Thus the terrifying Tara destroys the unconsciousness of the three worlds and carries them off on her head [to the other shore]” (Foulston and Abbott 119).

The Tibetan Buddhist version of Tara, in contrast, is gentler in aspect. The Buddhist Tara appears as a young, playful, and charming woman, who saves people at the last moment from the jaws of death (Kinsley 1986:167-168). Nevertheless, there are fierce aspects of Tara in Buddhism as well. However, both fierce aspects of Tara, in either tradition, do save the followers who are truly devoted to them (Kinsley 1986:166-167). The most common theory of the evolution of Tara is that Tara first became popular in Tibetan Buddhist Tantrism. Then with the common similarities between Buddhism and Hinduism, and with the close proximity of Tibet and India, Buddhist Tara worship morphed into Tara’s worship in Hindu Tantrism (Kinsley1998: 96).

Regarding the myths surrounding Tara, the Hindu story of how Tara was created starts with the marriage of Sati and Siva. Tara is closely related to the other ten Mahavidyas. This story describes how Tara and the other Mahavidyas were created. Sati’s father, Daksa, creates a great sacrifice and invites all the deities to join in, except for Sati and Siva. He is embarrassed by the fact that Siva, his son-in-law, likes to do wild things, reside in graveyards, and has an ugly appearance because he coats himself in ash. When the couple finds out about this social slight, Siva himself is not offended. However, Sati is grievously insulted. She promptly says to her husband that she will go to the sacrifice all on her own. Siva is not pleased to hear this and refuses to let her go. After a long time of trying to convince Siva to let her go, and failing, Sati transforms into a fierce, terrifying goddess, sometimes known as Kali. Siva is frightened and horrified by this transformation and tries to run away. The goddess, that was once Sati, then multiples herself into a myriad of forms to stop Siva from leaving the house. These forms or goddesses, including Tara, surround Siva from all directions, Tara herself manifesting above him. Siva tries every opening or exit in the house, but finds at each exit a goddess guarding the threshold. Eventually, Siva agrees that Sati can go to the sacrifice if she calls off these terrifying aspects. The forms then tell Siva that they are called the Mahavidyas, and teach him how they all should be worshiped. At this point, different versions of the tale diverge from one another. Some versions have Sati continue to manifest the Mahavidyas in order to protect Siva while she is away from the house. Sati then, either in the form of Kali or in her own original form, goes to her father’s sacrifice and throws herself into the sacrificial fire (Kinsley 1998:23-38).

An oral story has another myth about Tara and Siva, this tale having only Tara. The tale starts after the churning of the ocean, during which a powerful poison had been created. Siva, in order to save the world from destruction, drinks up all the poison from the water. However, he falls unconscious from the effect of the poison. Tara then comes along and puts Siva on her lap. She suckles him, and the healing power of her mother’s milk brings Siva back to life (Kinsley 1998:102). This tale is similar to a Kali story where Kali is unleashed by the gods to destroy a demon army. Kali utterly annihilates the army, but now nothing is in the way to stop her from rampaging and destroying the world. Siva then comes to the world’s rescue again by manifesting himself as a baby upon the bloody wasteland of corpses. Kali hears the infant Siva’s crying. This awakens her motherly instincts and she stops to suckle the baby Siva, her blood rage quieted (Kinsley 1998:102). This similar motif of suckling Siva adds to the notion that Tara and Kali are intertwining goddesses.

Finally, turning to the symbolic, religious, and psychological significance of Tara and the Mahavidyas, Tara appears to represent the shadowy, vicious side of the Great Goddess. Yet these fierce goddesses, such as Tara, do not seem to be warriors. Although there is a notion that they are ferocious in order to protect the universe, these goddesses primarily represent the divine feminine’s superiority and dominance over the masculine, which is shown in myth with all of the ten Mahavidyas’ dominance over Siva (Kinsley 1986:163-165). The gender politics of this are obvious. Usually masculine gods are dominant over goddesses, yet here this custom is reversed. Yet perhaps it was also actually political in the sense that the goddess cults were overthrowing the god-centred cults, or perhaps it is there to be an inversion of the usual religious and social order. In orthodox Brahmin Hinduism, there are attitudes that the male is above the female, that there are certain things you should not do, like illicit sex or giving blood to the deities, and that, though the quest for moksa can give you magic powers, magical powers are distractions that hold you from your true goal (Kinsley 1998:6-7). In Tantrism, many of these attitudes are switched around: blood sacrifice to the goddesses and illicit sex are important to the rituals, and the pursuit of magic powers is a legitimate goal (Kinsley 1986:164). It could be understood that this inversion of traditional practice was created by those disenchanted with the religious authorities in order to make the forbidden acceptable.

Tara could be seen is an antimodel. As with Kali, she haunts cremation grounds, an impure environment because of the close proximity to death, and she wears necklaces of skulls and heads, and has a girdle of human arms. This depiction of the divine feminine mocks, insults, and subverts the status quo, creating a liberating effect for both sexes caught in the imprisoning social ideas. In addition to this liberation from conformity, this bloody jewelry also has an inner, spiritual importance. The bloody jewelry, in this context, is not usually to be taken literally, but as symbols of destroying residual karma. Tara wears the detached remains not of “you,” but of the false you. With her sword, she cuts away the negative qualities of the limited you, your greed, your fear, your ego, your residual karma, all falsehoods holding you back from enlightenment (Kinsley 1998:104).

Tara is a vision of the divine that challenges comfortable and comforting fantasies that we may all have (Kinsley 1998:7). She is a manifestation that while everything might seem well and good, one has to remember that all is fleeting, and one must focus on one’s own spiritual goals and not get caught in a cycle which will imprison him or her. In another context, she also represents the all-powerful determination of a true seeker of enlightenment. Her ruthlessness is inside all who have enlightenment as their goal. She comes whenever a barrier blocks the way to enlightenment. This viciousness is not to be cruel to others, but to strike inside the inner realm of the psyche and destroy the ego and the roadblocks that come in the way.

Tara, like the many goddesses such as the other Mahavidyas, shows us that there are many ways of thinking of the divine besides just one. Her fierce demeanor is paradoxical to compassionate religion, yet this terrifying complex turns out to be complementary to compassion. There is no end to the interpretations of these symbols of the fierce aspects of the divine.

Consulted Bibliography

Foulston, Lynn and Stuart Abbott (2009) Hindu Goddesses: Beliefs and Practices. Portland: Sussex Academic.

Kinsley, David (1986) Hindu Goddesses: Visions of the Divine Feminine in the Hindu Religious Tradition. Los Angeles: University of California.

Kinsley, David (1998) Tantric Visions of the Divine Feminine: The Ten Mahavidyas. Los Angeles: University of California.

Related Topics for Further Investigation



Blood Sacrifice







Tripura Sundari








Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic

Written by Liberty Blair Charissage (Spring 2017)  who is solely responsible for its content.


Goddess Bagalamukhi is one of the ten Mahavidyas and the eighth supreme goddess of knowledge. There are multiple stories of origin concerning this goddess, both of which result in the reputation that she holds today. The first myth starts with a cosmic storm that threatened to destroy the universe. In the height of the chaos, Visnu prayed to Tripura-Sundari, who brought forth Bagalamukhi. Visnu watched as she calmed the storm with her great powers (Kinsley 1997: 199). The second origin myth demonstrates the more violent side of Bagalamukhi, as she was prayed to by other gods to stop the demon, Madan, from his rampage of killing people. In order to stop him Bagalamukhi pulled out his tongue to prevent the power of speech (Kinsley 1997: 200-201), which is a common tactic used by this scorned goddess. She is often depicted pulling out the tongues of her aggressors and silencing her enemies. This is one of her many gifts and powers, as she is most associated with magical powers, out of all of the Mahavidyas (Kinsley 1997: 52). In fact, many of her devotees worship her in hopes that she will bless them with several gifts such as heightened sensory abilities and the ability to overcome, outwit, and control other people (Kinsley 1997: 206). Bagalamukhi represents a state of “sharply focused consciousness” (Kinsley 1997: 56), capable of directly influencing people. The gift of “intense concentration” (Kinsley 1997: 203) is part of the reasoning behind the meaning of her name. In Sanskrit, baka means “crane” (Kinsley 1997: 202), which raises the meaning of the name “she who has a crane’s head” (Dold 59) or “the crane-faced one,” however, according to Kinsley, this reasoning is hard to believe as the goddess is rarely ever depicted with a crane’s head (Kinsley 1997: 203). Bagalamukhi is often associated with birds, such as a crow, as it has the ability to give advanced information of people’s arrival, as well as a parrot, which has the ability to grant vdk siddhi, the power to make all thoughts come true (Kinsley 1997: 203).

There are several different appearances that Bagalamukhi holds, however, she is most often associated with the color yellow and even referred to as Pitambrara-devi, “she who is dressed in yellow” (Kinsley 1997: 204). She wears yellow clothing, prefers yellow offerings, and wishes that her devotees wear the color yellow, sit on a yellow garment, and use turmeric beads when reciting her mantra (Kinsley 1997: 204). All of these wishes are laid out in the Pujapaddhati, the instructions for her worship. According to Kinsley, the color yellow holds significance in South India, as women often wear yellow clothing as it is seen as an auspicious color and symbolizes sun and gold, however the connection between Bagalamukhi and yellow is unclear (Kinsley 1997: 205). Bagalamukhi is also depicted sitting upon a throne composed of a corpse of an enemy, and decorated in red lotuses (Kinsley 1997: 207). This somewhat off-putting image illustrates the strength and command that Bagalamukhi yields as well as the violent outbursts of this goddess. The corpse can represent one of three things: a demon that the goddess has killed, ignorance or passions that Bagalamukhi has defeated or controlled, or the male figure as they are static and the female is the dynamic (Kinsley 1997: 208). Themes of sava sadhana are also possible, regarding the corpse, igniting the possibility of the corpse coming alive while in an aggressive state. The corpse can sometimes hold animal characteristics and in this case, Bagalamukhi must portray fearlessness and defeat her enemy once again (Kinsley 1997: 211).

Worship is a large part of the Hindu culture, especially worship dedicated to the Mahavidyas as it provides a “public approach” with the thought that they are able to bless their devotees and are pleased by the “devotional service” (Kinsley 1997: 59). Several goddesses, including Bagalamukhi, are said to be pleased with a blood sacrifice (Kinsley 1997: 59), however the practices vary among the goddesses. Bagalamukhi is, of all the Mahavidyas, most associated with having magical powers such as paralyzing, eradication, and control over the planets (Kinsley 1997: 59). In fact, the Mahavidyas as a group are often connected with the nine planets in order to aid the devotee to “overcome malevolent astrological influences” (Dold 57). Bagalamukhi’s followers have many different reasons to worship the goddess, many of them revolving around the idea of defeating an enemy through different methods and acquiring wealth and power. Bagalamukhi is a very powerful and revengeful goddess, who is often depicted overcoming her aggressors. Thus it is only fitting that she is able to bestow similar blessings upon her worshippers, such as gaining control over one’s enemies (Kinsley 1997: 205). There are few public temples or places of worship dedicated exclusively to Bagalamukhi; however, there are several Bagalamukhi-Pitambara temples (Kinsley 1997: 213). The most famous temple in honor of Bagalamukhi is Datiya, located in Madhya Pradesh and founded in the 1930s by Puja Swami, who had elected the goddess as his chosen deity (Kinsley 1997: 214). Worship dedicated to this goddess is done privately through an individual spiritual process called sadhana (Kinsley 1997: 213).

Overall, there are many different opinions and perspectives held regarding this Hindu devi from both sides of the spectrum, positive and negative. Some people hold the opinion that Bagalamukhi represents the “ugly side of living creatures” (Kinsley 1997: 207) and that the qualities that she possesses are both negative and undesirable. On the other hand, people believe that she represents strength and that she has power over the “vital breath,” which means control over the tongue and speech (Kinsley 1997: 207). Despite what one’s opinion on Bagalamukhi might be, one thing cannot be disputed, she is part of the Mahavidyas, making up one of the ten forms of goddess Kamakhya (Dold 57); this means that she is a very influential goddess and figure in Hindu culture. As a part of the Mahavidyas or individually, Bagalamukhi holds a dominating position by paralyzing and controlling those around her. The Mahavidyas are a high-ranking group, who have been around since the 11th century, and are known to represent several different things, all concerning aspects of life and the universe. For example, these “ten sisters” (Dold 58) have been said to represent the following: the stages of the female life, the phases of the moon, and the stages of consciousness, to name a few (Dold 58).

In conclusion, Bagalamukhi is known as a scorned goddess, well known for paralyzing her enemies and defeating those who have wronged her by removing their tongues; rendering them silent. She is one the the ten Mahavidyas and is the one most associated with magical powers and mystical strengths, which comes into play when her devotees worship her in the privacy of their homes. This powerful goddess is often associated with the auspicious color yellow and is occasionally illustrated sitting upon a throne of a corpse of an slain enemy. Her unwavering concentration is correlated with the thought that she has a crane’s head with reference to the meaning of her name, “the crane-faced one” (Kinsley 1997: 202). Bagalamukhi is a very powerful, magical, and influential goddess in the Hindu culture.





Dold, Patricia A. (2011) “Pilgrimage to Kamakhya through text and lived religion”. In Studying Hinduism in Practice, edited by Hillary P. Rodrigues, 46-61. New York: Routledge.


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


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


Pintchman, Tracy (1994) The Rise of the Goddess in the Hindu Tradition. Albany: State of University of New York Press.


Related Topics for Further Investigation


The Mahavidyas







Sava Sadhana

Bagalamukhi-Pitambara temple



Blood sacrifice


Vital breath


Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic



Article written by: Haley Tanigami (2017) who is solely responsible for its content.

Kamala: The Lotus Goddess

Kamala (“she of the lotus”), is the last in the list of the Ten Mahavidyas (great revelations or manifestations), who are a group of Tantric goddesses. Kamala’s place as the last of the Mahavidyas is not addressed in the literature. Although it may be taken as signifying a lesser importance than the others, Kamala is one of the most widely worshipped outside of her relationship with the Mahavidyas (Kinsley 1998: 223). She is portrayed as auspicious and beautiful, with a lovely golden complexion. She is seated in a lotus posture upon a lotus flower. She has four hands—two holding lotuses and two held in signs of granting blessings and giving assurance. Iconography of Kamala illustrates her being bathed in nectar by two (sometimes four) large elephants. Kamala is represented in a similar manner to the very popular goddess Sri-Laksmi, as Kamala and Sri-Laksmi are considered to be the same goddess (Kinsley 1988; Kinsley 1998).

In early literature, Kamala is referred to as Sri (Glory). She is associated with positive  and auspicious qualities such as royal power, wealth, beauty, and fertility. Sri is associated with the lotus and the elephant, important aspects of her character throughout the literature (Kinsley 1998). The elephants are thought to be symbolic of fertility and royal authority. The significance of the lotus is twofold. First, the lotus symbolizes life, fertility, and the entire created order of the cosmos. Secondly, the lotus symbolizes spiritual purity, power, and authority. Lotus flowers are rooted in mud, yet bloom uncontaminated above the water. Thus, Sri is seen as a pure life force, which transcends the material world, while remaining rooted inside it (Kinsley 1998: 225-226).

Although Sri may have at one point been an independent personality, she became more consistently known as Laksmi (Grace) fairly early in her history (Kinsley 1998). Sri-Laksmi is associated with several male figures throughout the literature. Some texts refer to her as the wife of Dharma, who is responsible for the maintenance of social order (dharma). Other texts emphasize her relationship with Indra, signifying royal authority, fertility, and prosperity. Indra’s kingly power, dominance, and success are said to be dependent on Sri-Laksmi, and in her absence, the king cannot flourish. In some texts, Sri-Laksmi accompanies the god Kubera, the Lord of Wealth, who is associated with growth and fertility (Kinsley 1998: 227).

Most importantly, Sri-Laksmi is thought to be the wife of the god Visnu. Visnu is often depicted as a divine king, associated with the promotion of dharma. Followers of Visnu seek to maintain social order (Kinsley 1998: 227). Hindu myths suggest that Laksmi is revealed, among other desirable objects and beings, when the gods and demons, seeking the elixir of immortality, churn the milky sea. She is thereby granted to Visnu, the leader of the gods (in this myth). Laskmi’s presence with Visnu allows for the security of royal authority; in her absence, royal authority weakens and deteriorates (Kinsley 1998: 227). When illustrated with Visnu, Laksmi is typically shown with two hands, rather than four. In association with Visnu, iconography of Laksmi also depicts her partaking in domestic chores, such as cooking and cleaning. She is often pictured massaging the feet of Visnu, and is shown to be much smaller than him. In this sense, she is portrayed as submissive to her husband, as his modest, passive, and loving wife (Kinsley 1998: 227).

The view of Sri-Laksmi’s passivity differs between schools of thought in Hinduism (Kinsley 1998). In the Pancaratra school of thought, Laksmi plays an active role alongside Visnu in maintaining the balance of the cosmos. She takes over many of Visnu’s roles as creator of the universe and regulator of dharma. In the Sri-Vaisnava school of thought, Sri-Laksmi has a less significant cosmological role, but plays the role of indulgent and forgiving mediator between Visnu and his devotees (Kinsley 1998: 227).

Laksmi has a large following of worshippers, and she is well-known throughout Hindu culture (Kinsley 1998). There are several annual festivals in the Hindu tradition that are dedicated to the worship of Laksmi. She is worshipped by those seeking wealth, prosperity, good luck, and fertility. Merchants worship their account books to encourage Laksmi to reside within them. Farmers worship their crops to promote Laksmi’s presence. Cow dung is also worshipped as a symbol of Laksmi’s powers of fecundity. Worship of Laksmi is thought to drive away bad luck and misfortune, associated with her inauspicious counterpart, Alaksmi (Kinsley 1998: 228).

Less significant to Sri-Laksmi’s following is her role as Kamala among the Ten Mahavidyas. The Ten Mahavidyas include an eclectic array of characters, ranging from fierce goddesses like Kali and Tara, who are associated with images of severed heads and corpses, to goddesses with more benign and desirable qualities, such as Kamala (Kinsley 1998). The Mahavidyas are portrayed both individually and as a group in many goddess temples across Northern India (Kinsley 1998: 1). There are many myths regarding the significance and origins of the Mahavidyas (see Kinsley 1988: 161-165, 1998: 22-36).

The most common understanding is that the Mahavidyas are distinct manifestations of the same goddess (Kinsley 1988, 1998; Dold 49). Oral and literary accounts describe the story of the goddess Sati. The king Daksa, Sati’s father, does not invite Sati’s husband, Siva, to his Vedic ritual. Siva forbids Sati from attending the ritual, and Sati, furious with her husband, becomes the ten Mahavidyas to show Siva her power. The Mahavidyas, surrounding Siva, frighten him so that Sati may get her way. The fear-inspiring Mahavidyas cause Siva to flee, allowing Sati to attend her father’s ritual (Dold 49).

Despite the lack of definite consensus on the origins of the Mahavidyas, many descriptions of their characteristics are consistent across origin myths. The Mahavidyas are frightening, they possess magical powers, and they are dominant to male characters (Kinsley 1998: 36-38). It has also been suggested that the Mahavidyas serve to maintain dharma, or the cosmological order of the world (Kinsley 1988: 161; Kinsley 1998: 38; Shankaranarayanan 3). Many interrelationships between the Mahavidyas have been suggested, including their representation as sisters; forms of great goddesses; stages of life, consciousness, creation and destruction; and the lunar phases (see Kinsley 1998: 38-49).

The Mahavidyas are worshipped in temples, or in Tantric fashion (Kinsley 1998). During temple worship, rituals are performed by priests, and people may join in public worship of the goddesses. Many of the more inauspicious Mahavidyas accept blood offerings, given in the form of animal sacrifice, in addition to offerings of flowers, incense, and fruit. Worship of the Mahavidyas in temples involves conceptualization of these goddesses as existing outside, above, or beyond the worshipper, similar to the worship of other Hindu deities (Kinsley 1998: 49-50). During Tantric worship, the mantra of an individual goddess is recited repeatedly, in combination with specific hand gestures, offerings, and other details (Kinsley 1998: 49-55). Kamala is among the few Mahavidyas to have several temples across India dedicated to her as an individual goddess, as she is most often worshipped as Sri-Laksmi (Kinsley 1998: 49).

In the context of the Mahavidyas, Kamala is recognizable as Sri-Laksmi; however, there are significant differences in her character. In many ways, Laksmi’s qualities appear to be altered in order to make her a better fit for the Mahavidyas (Foulston and Abbott 124; Kinsley 1998: 228-229). As a part of the Mahavidyas, Kamala remains a symbol of beauty and prosperity. She is generally still flanked by elephants, who symbolize sovereignty and fertility, maintaining Laksmi’s association with these qualities. Similarly, her consistent association with the lotus maintains her representation of creative consciousness and ritual purity (Kinsley 1998: 228; Shankaranarayanan 110-111).

Differing from her portrayal as Sri-Laksmi, in the context of the Mahavidyas, Kamala is notably independent from Visnu and other male characters (Kinsley 1998). She is often depicted as seated on a lotus alone, with neither Visnu nor elephants by her side. This greatly contrasts with the way Laksmi is depicted with Visnu, emphasizing the role of the Mahavidyas as independent goddesses, separate from (or dominant to) male characters (Kinsley 1998). As a part of the Mahavidyas, Kamala is separated completely from marital and domestic contexts. In addition to her auspicious and desirable qualities, Kamala is also given more fear-inspiring qualities when she is associated with the Mahavidyas. For example, Kamala’s role as a demon slayer is not portrayed outside of the context of the Mahavidyas. Laksmi is associated with others who slay demons; however, it is only in association with the Mahavidyas that she herself performs any slaying. Kamala’s association with more fierce qualities illustrates the tailoring of Laksmi’s character to meet the fearfulness of the Mahavidyas (Kinsley 1998: 228-230).



Dold, Patricia A. (2011) “Pilgrimage to Kamakhya Through Text and Lived Religion.” In Studying Hinduism in Practice, Hillary P. Rodrigues (ed.). London: Routledge. pp. 46-61.


Foulston, Lynn and Stuart Abbott (2009) Hindu Goddesses: Beliefs and Practices. Portland: Sussex Academic Press.


Jones, Constance, and James D. Ryan (2007) Encyclopedia of Hinduism. New York: Infobase Publishing.


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.


Pintchman, Tracy (2014) Seeking Mahadevi: Constructing the Identities of the Hindu Great Goddess. Albany: State University of New York Press.


Rodrigues, Hillary P. (2016) Hinduism—the Ebook: An Online Introduction. Journal of Buddhist Ethics Online Books.


Shankaranarayanan, S. (1972) The Ten Great Cosmic Powers (Dasa Mahavidyas). Pondicherry: Dipti Publications.



Related Topics for Further Investigation










Mahabhagavata Purana











Tantric Goddess Worship





Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic


This article was written by: Dalaine Kubik (Spring 2017), who is entirely responsible for its content.


Dhumavati is one of the ten Tantric goddesses and is believed to have appeared between the 10th and 15th centuries (Zeiler 165). She is rarely discussed apart from the other ten Mahavidyas, and always appears to stay within a Tantric context. Up until the 19th century, Dhumavati did not develop individually and has no importance in Epic, Puranic, or Smarta literature (Zeiler 169). The only textual reference to her outside of the Tantric Mahavidya group is in the Saradatilakatantra that was written in the 11th century (Zeiler 169). Although, the first source that mentions her in detail is a commentary on the Saradatilakatanta during the 15th century by Raghavabhatta titled Padarthadarsa.

Described to be a widow, Dhumavati has dirty robes, disheveled hair and has only a few teeth (Bhattacharyya 353). She is thought of as pale, tremulous, and angry (Bhattacharyya 353) as well as rough, deceitful, unstable, and terrifying (Zeiler 174). She wears ornaments made from snakes, and her dress is made up of rags from a cremation ground (Kinsley 176). She is often depicted sitting on a cart on which there is a banner with a crow. Dhumavati is described to be tall with harsh eyes, a big nose, and asymmetrical features (Bhattacharyya 353). She holds a blowing fan and is consistently hungry and thirsty. Also described to be thin and weak, Dhumavati is said to live in ruined and deserted places (Zeiler 174). In one hand, she holds a skull bowl while the other holds a spear (Kinsley 176). She is also presented as a social outsider and can be connected to poverty, misfortune, and evil (Zeiler 174). The thousand-name hymn for Dhumavati describes her home as a cremation ground and how she sits on a corpse while also describing her embodiment of the tamas guna, meaning lust and ignorance. She is also said to like liquor and meat, which are both tamasic (Kinsley 182).

Worship of Dhumavati is meant to achieve protection from one’s enemies. It is believed that one’s enemies will either be restrained or dispelled if they use the mantra of Dhumavati (Zeiler 170). She has also been described as the destroyer of all destroyers (Zeiler 178). If supreme devotion to Dhumavati is practiced, it is said that they will achieve liberation (Dold 242), as well as rewards and ultimate knowledge (Kinsley 183). However, it is typically advised that individuals do not worship her because she is regarded as inauspicious, and married couples especially should refrain from worship as it will create a desire for solitude. (Kinsley 183). A magical ritual of Dhumavati comes from a chapter of the Phetkarinitantra Patala that describes the ritual to be in a deserted place or a cremation ground on the 14th day of the dark part of the month (Zeiler 172).

The origin of Dhumavati is contested, and there are two myths regarding how she was born. The first myth says that Dhumavati was created from the smoke that arose from Sati burning herself to death on her father’s sacrificial fire. Since she was born in funeral smoke, Dhumavati is said to have, “a sad frame of mind” (Kinsley 181). She is considered to be a reincarnation of Sati in the form of smoke. The second myth describes how Sati, Siva’s wife, was hungry and when Siva would not give her any food, she swallowed him. Once he convinced her to expel him, he put a curse on her and she was now in the form of Dhumavati (Kinsley 181). Therefore, in this myth, Dhumavati is associated with Siva and the aggressive part of Sati.

Dhumavati is considered a symbol of inauspiciousness because she is a widow and is also considered unattractive and unlucky. Widows are believed to be dangerous as well as troublemakers and should be feared and avoided. The crow that resides on the top of Dhumavati’s banner is a symbol of death, and she is also referred to as looking crow-like, thus showing her connection to dark things (Kinsley 182). A priest at a Dhumavati temple stated that she only likes those who are unmarried or widowed, and that “only unmarried people could withstand her great power and successfully spend a night alone in her temple. For a married person to do this would result in death” (Kinsley 184). This shows that she encourages solitude and independence. Dhumavati is in the form of smoke and constantly drifting which can connect to samnyasin who wander and never stay in the same place for long.

In the late 19th century, new hymns featuring Dhumavati were created in the Dhumavatitantra chapter of the Mantramaharnava. A fierce Tantric goddess, one description in her hymn known as stotra says that, “[Dhumavati] entered the cremation ground with upraised banner in the arm, after binding a garland of warriors’ heads on her head, which were cut in battle with swords and whose teeth are bloodstained” (Zeiler 177-178). It attempted to incorporate her into a non-Tantric frame while still keeping her roots. One of the reasons thought to explain why her image remained stable for seven to eight centuries was because she had only one function which was to destroy enemies (Zeiler 180-181).

Numerous contemporary works follow the transformation of Dhumavati in the Mantramaharnava and the Saktapramoda. They use both Sanskrit and Hindi, whereby all ritual instructions are in Sanskrit, and are followed by brief comments and remarks in Hindi. All hymns found in modern textual sources are still written in Sanskrit (Zeiler 183). There are only two large works that contain complete ritual instruction, and take into account all information presented in the Mantramaharnava and Saktapramoda, the first being Asli Pracin Dasa-Mahavidya Tantra Mahasastra. As well, there is the Dasa Mahavidya Tantra Mahasastra, which was published in 1998 and includes an illustration, introduction in Hindi, and essential parts of the ritual in Sanskrit for Dhumavati (Zeiler 187-188).

Dhumavati is identified with several other goddesses including Nirrti, Jyestha, and Alaksmi who are also viewed to be inauspicious and are to be avoided (Kinsley 178). They are also connected to misfortune like Dhumavati (Zeiler 184). Nirrti is identified with death, destruction, and bad luck. She is also associated with pain, and many Hindus give her offerings in order for her to stay away from them (Kinsley 178). Jyestha resembles Dhumavati in the usage of a crow as well as possessing similar physical characteristics. Jyestha’s name means “elder,” and Dhumavati is usually portrayed as an older woman. Alaksmi, the third goddess associated with Dhumavati, appears in inauspicious ways such as poverty, hunger, and thirst (Kinsley 179). Dhumavati is also connected to poverty, inauspiciousness, hunger, thirst, and bad luck. However, she is also described to be “fierce, frightening, and fond of blood,” none of which are stressed in descriptions of the other three goddesses. She is also related to Siva and Sati, while the other three are not (Kinsley 180).

In Varanasi, there is a Dhumavati temple, one of very few that exist. The central image consists of a black stone Dhumavati with large eyes, red lips, and four hands that hold a winnowing fan, a broom, and a pot while her fourth hand makes the fear not mudra, a gesture of fearlessness and protection (Kinsley 185). Her sculpture contains attributes that are more common for a married goddess, such as jewelry and the color red (Zeiler 188). Offerings such as flowers, fruit, liquor, cigarettes, and meat are common, and these offerings must be in a smoky fire. The smoke attracts Dhumavati since she is made of smoke. The smoke from incense and cremation fires is also appreciated (Kinsley 186). At this temple, in particular, blood sacrifices are sometimes performed. The temple in Varanasi is also said to exist on the spot where a part of Sati’s body fell, and was found by a sage who has a connection to Dhumavati. She looks after this local neighborhood primarily, and supports them with blessings (Kinsley 186). As such, Dhumavati is regarded here in a different light as she is viewed as approachable and auspicious since she protects those around her. This temple attracts many devotees but she is not significant in other areas of Varanasi or elsewhere (Zeiler 188-189).


















Bhattacharyya, Narendra Nath (1982) History of the Tantric Religion: A Historical, Ritualistic, and Philosophical Study. New Delhi: Manohar.

Bunce, Fredrick (2001) The Yantras of Deities and their Numerological Foundations: An Iconographic Consideration. New Delhi: D.K. Printworld.

Dold, Patricia A. (2009) “Tantra as a Religious Category in the Mahabhagavata Purana.” Studies in Religion 38:221-245. Accessed February 1, 2017. doi:10.1177/000842980903800202.

Kinsley, David (1998) Tantric Visions of the Divine Feminine: The Ten Mahavidyas. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Zeiler, Xenia (2012) “Transformations in the Textual Tradition of Dhumavati. Changes in the Reception of the Tantric Mahavidya-Goddess in Ritual, Function, Iconography, and Mythology.” In Transformations and Transfer of Tantra in Asia and Beyond, edited by István Keul, 165-194. New York: De Gruyter.


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Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic


Article written by: Courtney Derksen (March 2017) who is solely responsible for its content.

Goddesses and Women’s Empowerment

According to Knott within Hindu society women are given a lesser status than men (82). This leads to the oppression of women in both the public and private spheres of their religious and everyday lives. This pattern of oppression has led to a narrow and demanding vision of how women should behave. Women are expected to be submissive to the men in their lives, and to be the perfect wife and mother (Knott 81-82).

Through the possession of women by goddesses, they are allowed to express their frustration with the society that oppresses them in a socially acceptable way (Diesel 1998:76). Possession is also seen as a divine experience and those possessed by a goddess are honored. Possession may occur more than once in an individual’s life and there are even those who become possessed regularly and aid others in solving problems (Diesel 1998: 77). These individuals are regarded as a sort of “shaman” in their societies. Women who become possessed and help their community are seen as meaningful to their communities and are therefore held in high regard by society. This high status in the community also gives women a sense of self-worth they may not have previously had. Even if they are not appreciated in their societies being close with the deities they are being possessed by gives them dignity (Diesel 1998:77-79). Women may also use their prominence to aid other women and to increase equality in society.

The goddesses that are usually seen as role models for women are the goddesses that are “the ideal, selfless, submissive wife” (Diesel 2002:8) also known as pativrata. Despite this there are goddesses that are sometimes considered controversial that women see as role models for themselves. Kali, who is a fierce and wild goddess provides inspiration to many women in Hinduism and is viewed as a “redeemer of both nature and women” (Dalmiya, 126). Many of these goddesses have experienced trauma or abuse such as the wife of the Pandava brothers Draupadi in the Mahabharata. She had been subject to the humiliation of Duryodhana attempting to disrobe her in front of his court (Rao, 34-37). This humiliation that Draupadi endured is something that women can relate to. Because of the patriarchal nature of Hindu society women are expected to honour their husbands no matter the circumstance. Despite this expectation of women, there are many who find a model in controversial goddesses such as Kali and a variety of amman goddesses (Diesel 2002: 8-9).

There is also the issue of sexual violence within Hindu society especially when it comes to things such as devadasi [marrying girls to deities] who are often in ritual slavery or used for sexual exploitation (Black 180). One example of a deity who suffered at the hands of men is the goddess Draupadi from the Mahabharata epic. Throughout the epic she goes through many traumatic experiences but her ritual purity helps her overcome the trauma of these events unharmed and unaffected (Diesel 2010:9). There are also many tales of girls and women who are connected with the amman goddesses such as Mariamman or Podilamma. After being wrongly accused of indecent acts or killed because of actions that are deemed improper, the goddesses seek revenge on those who wronged them in their past lives (Diesel 2002:13-15). These tales give women a chance to relate to the goddesses through their mutual suffering.

Being a diverse and widely spread religion means that Hinduism has sects that are different from the rest of the religion. In some of these sects’ women are equal to men and are allowed to be a part of and perform ritual practices usually barred to women (David 337). One of these sects is located in England and is a Tamil diaspora from Sri Lanka (David 338). This sect is led by a man who is often possessed by a female deity and has claimed that his intention is to establish equality between men and women. The women within this Sri Lankan community are able to participate in rituals. They are also given the opportunity to become priests within these areas if they want to (David 341-343). This equality of men and women allows women to receive the same amount of respect as men. It also diminishes the influence of the caste/class system (David 341).

Women’s status in Hindu society is expected to be that of subjection and obedience to men. Despite this woman allow themselves moments of freedom through possession by goddesses (Diesel 1998:76). This gives them a sense of power even if it is only for a short period. Those women who do not experience possession find power through the goddesses in different ways such as accepting them as role models or relating to them through shared experiences (Diesel 2002:9). Often times, these connected events relate to oppression or violence by men. In certain areas of the world, these women are beginning to receive support to be empowered and participate in rituals banned from the majority of women (David 337). Through these and other experiences women are given empowerment and can begin to feel as though they are not just there to serve men. They can feel that they are valued members of their communities.

References and Other Recommended Reading

Black, Maggie (2009) “Women in Ritual Slavery: Devadasi, Jogini and Mathamma in Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, Southern India.” Pakistan Journal of Women’s Studies= Alm-e-Niswan=Alm-I Nisvan16,1/2:179-205.

Dalmiya, Vrinda (2000) “Loving Paradoxes: A Feminist Reclamation of the Goddess Kali.” Hypatia 15,1:125-150.

David, Ann R (2009) “Gendering the Divine: New Forms of Feminine Hindu Worship.” International Journal of Hindu Studies 13,3:337-355.

Diesel, Alleyn (1998) “The Empowering Image of the Divine Mother: A South African Hindu Woman Worshipping the Goddess.” Journal of Contemporary Religion 13,1:73-90.

Diesel, Alleyn (2002) “Tales of Women’s Suffering: Draupadi and Other Amman Goddesses as Role Models for Women.” Journal of Contemporary Religion 17,1:5-20.

Knott, Kim (2016) Hinduism: a very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 81-82.

Rao, Shanta Rameshwar (2011) “The Mahabharata.” Telangana:Orient BlackSwan.

Related Topics for Further Investigation


Amman Goddesses

Draupadi Fire Walking Ceremonies


The Mahabharata


Goddess Worship

Goddess Possession



Noteworthy Website Relating to the Topic

Article Written by: Lundyn Davis (February 2017) who is solely responsible for its content.


The Mahavidyas are a group of ten goddesses from late Hindu literary tradition. They are great revelations also known as manifestations. While some of the goddesses in this group hold individual significance and can be dated back to a much earlier time, the group as a whole acts as an important iconographic and mythological expression of Mahadevi theology (Kinsley 1988: 161). This comes from the concept that the Devi, the great goddess, would manifest herself in a variety of forms. A prominent myth claims that the Devi produces different goddesses from different parts of her body. It suggests she assumes different forms at different times in order to maintain cosmic stability (Kinsley 1988:162). All ten of the Mahavidyas are often depicted in goddess temples throughout India today. While not each of the ten forms is individually celebrated, when shown as a group, the Mahavidyas represent the idea that a particular goddess dwelling in the temple takes many forms.

The origin of the ten Mahavidyas in Hindu mythology comes from a story of the creators Sati and Siva. Sati’s father, Daksa, performs a great sacrifice and invites all of the heavenly kingdoms to attend. The only couple he does not invite is Siva and Sati. The claim is that Daksa does not like his son in law because of Siva’s uncivilized habits and disheveled appearance. Therefore, he purposely neglects to invite him to the sacrifice. Siva is not offended, but Sati is greatly insulted and tells Siva that she is going to attend the sacrifice. Siva forbids her to attend the sacrifice and Sati loses her temper. First, she assumes a dreadful form and then she multiplies herself into ten forms, the Mahavidyas: Kali, Tara, Chinnamasta, Bhuvanesvari, Bagala, Dhumavati, Kamala, Matangi, Sodasi, and Bhairavi (Kinsley 1988:163).

Seated on a lotus blossom, Kamala is one of the Ten Mahavidyas who is known as the Great Wisdom Goddess. With a golden complexion, Kamala is the beautiful and fully-realized form of Laksmi, the goddess of wealth, well-being, fertility and prosperity (Kinsley 1999:179-181). In most respects, Kamala is portrayed like the goddess Laksmi. They are in fact the same goddess but Kamala is more esoteric in nature. Kamala sits, the same as Laksmi, with two hands each holding a lotus while the other two hands are bestowing blessings (Amodio 51-53). The lotus signifies purity, auspiciousness, piety and is the direct translation of Kamala’s name in Sanskrit. All of these aspects are also strongly associated with Laksmi. The lotus is a symbol of the universe, is found in every sacred diagram, and is associated with many Hindu deities. It grows from murky waters and then comes forth with large leaves and beautiful fragrant blossoms. This represents the emergence of the pure, limitless Atman (soul) from the restricted material body, and allows a devoted spiritual follower to be untouched by the murkiness of drama, attachment, and ego (Colburn 108). Additionally, the lotus is very nourishing and represents the vital nature of the spiritual path in nurturing our whole self.  

There is a slight difference in iconography between Kamala and Laksmi in that Kamala’s depiction includes two elephants with their trunks raised, a feature which is often absent from images of Laksmi. The elephants, that are depicted surrounding Kamala showering her with water, symbolize the fertile rains of monsoon that bring plants and flowers. This is parallel symbolization to the spiritual wealth that grows through the passion of regular devotion and practice (Danielou 261). The elephants also provide a sense of authority as they are symbols of royalty and status. Since Kamala is the devoted wife of Visnu, preserver of the universe, she is seen as queen and preserver of everything on earth. Kamala is often depicted wearing a dazzling crown on her head, a silk-type dress, a kaustibha gem, and a smiling face (Kinsley 1999:180).

As one of the Ten Mahavidyas, Kamala represents the unfolding of inner consciousness stemming from the foundation of creation (Pintchman 289). As the goddess of material and spiritual wealth and beauty, Kamala is primarily worshipped for her power to eliminate both material and spiritual poverty. In poor economic times, Kamala or Laksmi are worshipped in hopes of bringing material wealth. Altars to Laksmi can often be found in places of business and in individual homes. In the home, a married woman is considered an incarnation of Laksmi. This is attributed to studies that show woman possess a special ability to create wealth from very little (Sharma 1-12). Kamala is referred to as pure creative force and has the power to create beauty and wealth around us. This includes the ability to see beauty in everything. As the creative force, Kamala is also the goddess who blesses families with children. Families having difficulty conceiving or adopting children may offer worship to the powerful Tantric Goddess. Similarly, those who become happily pregnant or have a new addition to their family after much difficulty should offer thanks to Kamala as she is the goddess of fertility, childbirth, and family well-being (Sharma 26).

The profit of worshipping Kamala or Laksmi for the highest spiritual good is not only blessing of material security, but also of spiritual progress. Kamala teaches commitment to the spiritual path through riddance of the drama of our daily lives and bitterness towards others. The true nature of Kamala is the radiant beauty of the cosmos that is manifest in the material world (Kinsley 1999: 202). Kamala is the spirit of nature itself, and she is manifest in the natural world. She can be worshipped by simply spending time in nature and appreciating its profound beauty. Through recognition of her beauty in the natural world, an individual moves further towards liberation (Pintchman 289). A spiritual follower who detaches the fruits of action and finds enjoyment in the acts of service, generosity and prayer for their own sake can truly begin to grasp the inner nature of Kamala, the light of divine consciousness and connection with the self (Colburn 126). Kamala embodies the spirit of giving, receiving graciously and gratefully instead of with greed. She teaches that true wealth is measured by generosity, spiritual depth, and freedom from ego-driven desires. When followers ask something of Kamala in greed, she may grant desires with all of the associated negative consequences. Kamala does have the tendency to remind us that she is also the goddess Kali, who teaches detachment and surrender (Kinsley 1999: 62). This helps to remind followers to trust the way as they find a spiritual path that serves the highest good, instead of being seduced by our own worldly desires for the sake of material gain. In this way, Kamala can be seen as a teacher of financial responsibility in terms of learning to save, paying off debt, investing wisely and without greed, not taking what is not freely given, making charitable offerings, and not spending more than can be afforded.

Kamala can be worshipped to manifest creative vision, eliminate poverty, stabilize your home, open your heart, and deepen spiritual understanding and experience. Laksmi Puja is Kamala’s special holy day which is celebrated on the full moon of Ashvin, typically in early October (Dold, 60-62). Puja simply means devotional worship and followers do not need to wait for a specific day to worship Kamala. She is known to accept all sincere worship. A simple Laksmi and Kamala altar are very similar and can be created by placing a beautiful cloth (white, pink, yellow, or red) on a small table or flat surface that is not directly the ground. Then, one may place a depiction of Laksmi or Kamala on the surface, as well as a vase or plate of flowers, a candle or oil lamp, and some sweet-smelling incense. During Laksmi Puja, it is believed that it is beneficial to place rice stalks or an alternative form of grain at the altar as well. The grain is a symbol of abundance and the foundation of sustenance, both in the physical and spiritual sense. Many followers use a small bell with gentle sounds as it is believed that Laksmi does not like loud noises. On special days, followers will offer a basket or plate that contains a small piece of fine cloth, a small mirror, and comb (symbols of beauty in the manifest world), a small white conch or shell (symbol of clarity), and any kind of coin (symbol of material wealth). Lastly a small cup of coconut water or purified water is placed along with the offering (Hawley 180-185).

The practice of worship involves standing or kneeling in front of the altar and reciting Kamala’s pranama mantra. This mantra praises Kamala as the great goddess Laksmi who is beloved and grants all desires. She is seen as the goddess who encourages the spiritual life in her white form. White symbolizes the color of ultimate reality and presents her as the pure, gentle, independent, powerful, virgin goddess. Simple worship consists of additional movements and behaviours. A follower would use their left hand to ring the bell softly, while taking their right hand to wave the candle or lamp clockwise before the depiction of Laksmi three times. The mantra is repeated and the worshipper bows deeply before the image. A traditional gesture of great respect is kneeling or touching your forehead to the ground. This is when a follower can ask for blessing and offer thanks for all the blessing she has given. The puja ends with another bow. Objects used in worship hold significance and can be considered a blessing for Laksmi or saved for other special days or offerings (Kinsley 1988: 32-35). Presently at the Sri Sri Kamakhya Temple in Assam, India, the inner sanctum known as the garbha grha, which literally means “womb room”, of the temple houses is not only the pitha of Sri Sri Kamakhya Devi, but also of Matangi (Sarasvati) and Kamala (Laksmi). Therefore, when a follower receives the darsana of Kamakhya, they also receive blessing of Matangi and Kamala (Pintchman 289). Kamala is a powerful creative force that encompasses the beauty in everything. Her teachings of commitment to the spiritual path reach to eliminate poverty and create wealth among her devoted followers.

References and Further Recommended Reading

Amodio, Barbara (2011) “The Mahavidya (Great Lesson) of Sacred Transformation in Ten Mahesvan Icons of the Goddess: Secret Identities of Siva and the Goddess (Sakti) as One.” Journal of Indian Philosophy and Religion 16: 51-66. Accessed January 31, 2017. doi: 10.5840/jipr2011162

Colburn, Thomas (1988) Devi Mahatmya: The Crystallization of the Goddess Tradition. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers.

Danielou, Alain (1991) The Myths and God of Indra: The Classic Work on Hindu Polytheism from the Princeton Bollington Series. Inner Traditions: Bear & Co.

Dold, Patricia 2012. “Pilgrimage to Kamakhya Through Text and Lived Religion: Some Forms of the Goddess at an Assamese Temple Site.” In Studying Hinduism in Practice, edited by Hillary Rodrigues, 46-62. Oxon: Routledge.

Hawley, John S. and Donna Wulff (1998) Devi: Goddesses of India. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers.

Kinsley, David (1988) Hindu Goddesses: Visions of the Divine Feminine in the Hindu Religious Traditions. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Kinsley, David (1999) “Tantric Visions of the Divine Feminine: The Ten Mahavidyas.” The Journal of Religion 79, 1:179-181

Pintchman, Tracy (1994) The Rise of the Goddess in the Hindu Tradition. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Rodrigues, Hillary (2003) Ritual Worship of the Great Goddess: The Liturgy of the Durga Puja with Interpretations. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Sharma, Arvind (2005) Goddess and Women in the Indic Religious Tradition. Leiden: E.J. Brill.

Related Topics for Further Investigation








Lakshimi Puja

Mahadevi theology


Pranama Mantra




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Article written by: Kirsten Cole (February 2017) who is solely responsible for its content


India is a patriarchal society in which men are considered more important than women; wives are often ranked based on their husband’s social status. However, goddesses are an exception and challenge this notion, as they hold power (Sakti) over all humans and often hold presidency over male gods in the Hindu religion (Vaudeville 1). Radha is an inspirational goddess in the Hindu religion, due to her everlasting love and unbreakable devotion (Bhakti) for the god Krsna, who is one of the eight incarnations of Visnu (Mukhhopadhyay 4). Unfortunately there is no record of Radha’s individual identity before she met Krsna; therefore, they are often considered one entity with the name Radha-Krsna (Miller 13). Radha’s story is unique because it reinforces love between human and the divine (Dimock and Levertov 9).  Together, their story constitutes the attainment of the highest level of connection, passion, and love that two beings can share, which is known as Rasa.

The Gitagovinda describes the love relationship of Radha and Krsna through poetry and song, and was written in the 12th Century by Jayadeva (Miller 14). Jayadeva reveals that Radha and Krsna first encountered one another in the country Braj. This was Radha’s birth town where she was well known and often called Lali, which means darling (Vaudeville 11). Krsna was married to sixteen thousand wives, and had sixteen thousand Gopis, which are cow-herding women. Krsna’s flute had the power to make women drop whatever they were doing and join him in listening to beautiful melodies, thus attracting Radha (Dimock and Levertov 8).

Krsna and Radha knew and longed for each other before they had any first encounters, leading to the notion that they are not, and never were, separate entities at all. Rather, Radha is Krsna’s characteristic of power and strength (Sakti), and everything that he wants out of a partner; she is said to be his reason for coming into the world (Wulff 111). Radha evolved from Krsna to bring nature (Prakrti), Maya (mysterious power), and Sakti (energy) into existence (Brown 62).  This alludes to the idea that Krsna needs Radha because she is the energy and power that he transmits to all of the other Gopis when he loves them. When Radha and Krsna are apart he longs to feel the stability he encounters in her presence.

One crucial concept of importance when surveying Radha and Krsnas love is the importance of memory. It is highly recognized that both Radha and Krsna remembered each others’ encounters and the way they made each other feel, most of their relationship was spent lovingly devoting themselves to each other through their connection of memories, and the hope that they would one day reunite after huge bouts of separation. Krsna is absent for long periods of time as he goes away to the Mahabharata war, in hopes of finding his lost identity (Miller and Goswami 14, 89). Radha becomes so obsessed with the idea of Krsna that she sees him everywhere she goes, even in the trees, almost as a hallucination (Wulff 31). Radha remembers miniscule details about Krsna, and fantasizes about making love to him. Through this, Krsna can sense her love and they share a connection through wanting each other; this desire is known as Kama (Miller 20). The foundation of their relationship is that they love each other so deeply that they will do anything to stay devoted, even after great amounts of time pass without contact. Their love is eternal and they both never feel the strength of that bond with any of their other significant partners.

Radha is often perceived as Krsna’s mistress because Krsna never married her but always admired her. Radha and Krsna never marry because they desire a love without constraints and one of spontaneity (Wulff 41). Radha’s biggest insecurity is that she is forced to overcome the jealousy she experiences when she imagines Krsna participating in sexual acts with other Gopis (Dimock and Levertov 7). Radha feels intensely conflicted in her own mind, as she is aware that Krsna is attracted and involved with other women, but this does not stop her from giving Krsna all she has (even though she is also married). She is aware that she appears mad to everyone else around her, but she does not care because her feelings of love are so deep that no object, or human could change the way she feels (Wulff 38).

Radha’s love is Krsna’s Sakti; without it he would be incomplete and lost. She energizes Krsna providing him with the means to carry on as a friend, master, child, or lover (Brown 69). Because Radha is Krsna’s favourite, she becomes one with him; alone she is just a normal cow herding Gopi, but in combination with him she is considered to be a powerful mother figure who Krsna needs and desires. Sometimes she is even regarded as more important than he in the Hindu religion. The image in which Radha forces Krsna to let her put her feet on top of his head, demonstrates the power that she had over him (Miller and Brown 23,71). The two complement and complete each other; something is taken away from one being without the presence of the other.

Radha submits her complete self to Krsna in a variety of ways. First, she listens and sings with Krsna, which proves that they are emotionally surrendered to each other. Radha and Krsna can mediate and be on the same level with one another, through this they achieve Samarana, which means spontaneity, in which all expectations are lost and they are able to love each other freely without restraints of other people (Goswami 80). Radha and Krsna are trying to achieve Rasa, which is the highest level of love, in which they will no longer feel like separate entities; rather, their love will be so powerful that it joins two individuals into one being (Goswami 80).

Today Radha and Krsna are still very important deities in Hindu worship; the Hindu calendar allows them both to be praised on separate days. Radha Ashtami is celebrated in August or September, and it is to commemorate the day of her birth. On this day people fast from food and worship her (Bellenir 1). All goddesses are seen in the Hindu calendar to have both a dark (Kali) and a bright (Durga) side, to represent the waxing and waning of the moon. The light side is said to take on human form, which carries weapons, and the dark represents a cosmic mother figure (Vaudeville 3). One also finds renounced paintings of Radha and Krsna; these represent their deep love and bond. Most original paintings show Krsna alone playing his flute, although later on Radha is also shown playing. This represents that Radha is most definitely Krsna’s favourite, and therefore receives special privileges over the other Gopis (Goswami 87).

Radha and Krsna’s relationship illustrates that not only humans can attain extreme love connections for one another, but the love between a human and God is also possible. The Radha-Krsna relationship proves that the highest Bhakti, Rasa, is possible for these two as they remember every characteristic and devote their entire being to another; even when jealousy and anger take over, their devotion for one another prevails (Dimock and Levertov 13). Krsna proves his love by making Radha his favourite out of all of the women he has encountered, and Radha devotes every action to loving Krsna and being his power to continue loving her and all of his wives and Gopis (Brown 63).



Bellenir, K (2004) Religious Holidays & Calendars. Detroit: Omnigraphics, Inc.

Brown, Mackenzie. (1982) “The Theology of Radha in the Puranas.” In John Stratton Hawley and Donna Marie Wulff, eds. The Divine Consort Radha And The Goddesses Of india, p.57-72. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Dimock, Edward and Levertov, Denise (1967) In praise of Krishna: songs from the Bengali. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Goswami, Shrivatsa. (1982) “The Play and Perfection of Rasa”  In John Stratton Hawley and Donna Marie Wulff, eds. The Divine Consort Radha And The Goddesses Of india, p.72-89. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Miller, Barbara. (1982) “The Divine Duality of Radha and Krishna” In John Stratton Hawley and Donna Marie Wulff, eds. The Divine Consort Radha And The Goddesses Of india, p.13-27. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Mukhoradhyay, Durgadas (1990) In Praise of Krishna. Delhi: Br Publishing Corporation.

Vaudeville, Charlotte. (1982) “Krishna Gopala, Radha, and The Great Goddess.” In John Stratton Hawley and Donna Marie Wulff, eds. The Divine Consort Radha And The Goddesses Of India, p.1-13. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Wulff, Donna. (1996) “Radha: Consort and Conquerer of Krishna” In John Stratton Hawley and Donna Marie Wulff, eds. Devi: Goddesses of India, P. 109-112. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Wulff, Donna. (1982) “A Sanskrit Portrait: Radha in the plays of Rupa Gosvami” In John Stratton Hawley and Donna Marie Wulff, eds. The Divine Consort Radha And The Goddesses Of india, p.27-42. Berkeley: University of California Press.


Related Research Topics

  • Braj
  • Durga
  • Devi
  • Gitagovinda
  • Gopi
  • Jayadeva
  • Kali
  • Lali
  • Maya
  • Prakrti
  • Rasa
  • Sakti
  • Samarana


Related Websites


Article written by: Cassandra Poch (April 2016), who is solely responsible for its content.

Mohini and the Churning of the Ocean of Milk

Mohini is a manifestation of Visnu in the myth of the churning of the ocean of milk. The myth starts out with a war between the devas (representation of good) and the asuras (representation of bad), but the devas were losing due to an unfair advantage on the asuras’ side (Glucklich 158). The asuras got help from Siva who had given them the ability to resurrect from the dead after the devas had killed them (Glucklich 158).  Because of this, the devas sought after Brahma to help them. He suggested that instead of fighting with the asuras they should partner up with them to summon Visnu to help them churn the ocean of milk in order to gain “the nectar of immortality” (Glucklich 158). Visnu plays a vital role in this myth because he manifests in many forms to help the devas and the asuras to churn the ocean. Visnu takes on forms to be: the foundation for the churning stick (a tortoise), the churning rope (a serpent), and of course Mohini (Kinsley 67).

Mohini (a female representation of Visnu); Delhi National Museum, 2017

While the ocean was churning, various other things emerge before the nectar of immortality. Once it appeared out of the ocean the devas drank, which is when Mohini appears as a seductive woman who distributes the nectar and beheads Rahu, an asura disguised as a deva, before he can swallow the nectar (Glucklich 159-160). With the nectar and Visnu’s weapons, the devas defeat the asuras as they retreated (Glucklich 160). Some believe that the nectar of immortality was a euphemism for Soma (Glucklich 160) while others interpret it as a “representation of the abundance of earth” (Kinsley 68). This shift between sexes often has bad or negative connotations in religious myths. Normally, when a god, or anyone for that matter, is turned into a different sex (usually men turning into women) it is form of punishment or a curse, with the exception of Mohini (Parasher-Sen 45). Earlier versions of the myth were short and did not use Mohini’s name but rather spoke of an anonymous woman (Visnu in disguise) who took back the immortality nectar that the asuras had stolen (Parasher-Sen 48). A different rendering of this myth believe that Mohini’s role was to cheat the asuras out of their share while distributing the immortality nectar (see Parasher-Sen 48). In the Vayu Purana version of the myth, Brahma says a mantra that brings Mohini out of the ocean, and when he sees her he is so pleased by her looks (Parasher-Sen 48).

Part of the churning the ocean myth is the chase of Mohini by Siva. There are several versions of this part of the myth. In the Bhagavata Purana, after seeing Mohini, Siva loses his senses and runs after Mohini. He becomes so overwhelmed with passion that only after he ejaculates, he realizes that Mohini is really just a manifestation of Visnu and that he had been fooled (Parasher-Sen 48).  In the Agni Purana once Mohini turns back into Visnu, Siva asks him to turn back into his female form. When he does, Siva becomes naked and grabs Mohini by the hair until she frees herself and runs away. He follows her and it is unclear if he catches her again but whereever his semen drops is where sacred places of lingas and gold appear (Parasher-Sen 48). These ‘connections’ between Mohini (Visnu) and Siva was said to have created a child (Aiyanar) which turns Mohini into a mother figure instead of a temptress (Parasher-Sen 49).

The final part of the myth is the binding of Visnu and Siva which creates Harihara. Harihara is an androgynous figure which is created by Visnu who is often, but not always, composed as feminine and Siva who is always depicted as masculine (Parasher-Sen 45). Even though Visnu reverts back to his masculine form before the binding with Siva, he is still considered to be the feminine side (Parasher-Sen 45). Although the Harihara is described as being androgynous, with Visnu possessing the female body parts, it is rare to find a depiction of this (Parasher-Sen 51). It is hard to find sculptures of Harihara with Mohini on the side of Visnu, although there are instances of this representation (Parasher-Sen 51). The feminine side (Visnu/Mohini) is often depicted holding either a wheel, a conch, or a mace in one hand and a crab in the other, while wearing a crown and crocodile earrings (Parasher-Sen 51). While the masculine side (Siva) is often holding a trident, sword, drum, rosary, battle-axe, or a skull while wearing serpent earrings and a ‘top-knot of hair’ with a crescent moon (Parasher-Sen 51).

Mohini can be considered many things: the seducer of Siva (Parasher-Sen 46), the nectar distributor (Parasher-Sen 48; Glucklich 159-160; and Kinsley 67), the mother of Aiyanar (Parasher-Sen 49), and the deceiver of asuras (Parasher-Sen 46). Some scholars think that Mohini is important to the Hindu culture because she helps show women in a more positive light, and that the transformation from a male to female is not always a curse but rather a gift (Parasher-Sen 56), and in the case of Mohini, a necessity to stop the bad from becoming more powerful than the good.


Glucklich, Ariel (2008) The Strides of Visnu. New York: Oxford University Press.

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

Parasher-Sen, Aloka (1999) “Images of Feminine Identity in Hindu Mythology and Art: The Case of Visnu-Mohini.” Indian Journal of Gender Studies, Vol. 6, No. 1: 43-60.







Vayu Purana                                                                                                                            


Bhagavata Purana

Agni Purana




Sculpture/Art Work





Article written by: Michaela Klein (February 2016) who is solely responsible for its content.

The Devi Mahatmya

Many ancient cultures have traditions believing in the power of a mother goddess. Hinduism is one such religion that still has a strong culture of goddess worship that has continued to develop over the years. There are many indications of the importance of fertility and the importance of worshiping feminine power in the remains of the Indus Valley Civilization, which was discovered in the 1920’s. Female figurines as well as seals were found depicting the female figure (Coburn 15).

The Devi Mahatmya is one of the first texts in the Hindu tradition to equate female divinity with the principle of Brahman, which is ultimate reality (Abbot and Foulston 12). It is part of a larger text called the Markandeya-Purana. However, out of all of the texts in the Markandeya-Purana, the Devi Mahatmya has the most commentaries and is mostly viewed on its own as opposed to with the full text. The term Devi Mahatmya translates to “Greatness of the Goddess”. The text is all about the myths of Hindu goddesses and was originally in Sanskrit (Coburn 1). It was likely written in the sixth century and is still used today to worship the goddess (Kinsley 489). The text mostly narrates tales of battles between the goddess (Devi) and various demons, but takes place within a larger story. Throughout the Devi Mahatmya the goddess is referred to by over 200 different names. Several of these names describe characteristics of the goddess, while others convey honour. Many of them refer to goddesses that have been mentioned in other Hindu literature. (Kinsley 490).

The Devi Mahatmya is usually presented in three sections. Each section is about a specific goddess and has its own seer and deity. These three sections contain different chapters and are unequal in length. The first section is chapter 1, the second consists of chapters 2-4, and the third spans chapters 5-14. These three sections that make up the Devi Mahatmya are often surrounded by appendages or angas. These are subsidiary texts that the Devi Mahatmya relies on and they come before and after the main text.  These angas discuss ritual use of the Devi Mahatmya (Coburn 100).

The Devi Mahatmya tells of three battles between the goddess, Devi, and different demons. These three battles make up the three sections of the text. The frame story, which connects these episodes, is that there is a sage that is teaching his two pupils about the identity of the goddess. The sage tells his pupils about the three battles. The first section and battle of the Devi Mahatmya tells how the demons Madhu and Kaitabha were defeated. The second section is about the goddess’ defeat of the demon Mahisa. The third section is the myth of Sumbha and Nisumbha (Coburn 22-24).

In the first section, the goddess is associated with the deity Visnu. The goddess takes on the characteristics of the great male god. When associated with Visnu the goddess is characterized by negative qualities such as sleep and delusion (Kinsley 491). These characteristics are referred to as maya and the goddess is referred to as Mahamaya ten times in this episode. Although maya has negative overtones it also has positive ones such as the ability to create (Kinsley 498-499).  The two demons in this section, Madhu and Kaitabha, are said to have come out of Visnu’s ear to harass Brahma, the creator god. In this story, the goddess is able to awaken Visnu so that he can defeat the two demons. He fought them for five thousand years and then he was finally able to defeat them. He granted their last wish and killed them on land by cutting off their heads (Coburn 39).

The second section of the Devi Mahatmya has the goddess born from the strength and power of many different gods (Kinsley 492). This section is unique because it describes the birth of a completely new god. In this episode, the demon Mahisa conquers the gods and expels them from heaven to wander the earth. Hearing about this, Visnu and Siva became angry and out of a fiery splendor, known as tejas, the goddess was created. The goddess was created from different aspects of each god and given different weapons from all of them (Coburn 40). Together, this new goddess and the other gods had been expelled fought in a battle against Mahisa’s army. They fought until Mahisa’s army begged them to stop and Mahisa was slain. At the end of the battle flowers were released from heaven (Coburn 44). The goddess in this episode is praised by the gods and continued to protect the worlds.

The third section is the longest section of the Devi Mahatmya and consists of the most chapters. This episode begins with the gods going to the Himalayas (Kinsley 491). The demons Sumbha and Nisumbha hear of this great goddess and send two of their generals, Canda and Munda, to abduct her and bring her to him in order to get married. The generals believe that they will be able to take the goddess with ease and little effort. They approach her confidently and with pride forgetting that she is all-powerful. As they approach, the goddess first lets out a mantra that has the power to create and destroy, and then goes on to destroy the two generals. The king demon, named Sumbha, who had given the orders for the goddess to be abducted is angered when he hears that his two best generals have been destroyed by a woman (Amazzone 63). When he attacks, the goddess goes on to destroy both Sumbha and his brother Nisumbha; The Devi Mahatmya makes it very clear that the goddess is universal and all-powerful (Abbot and Foulston 66).

The Devi Mahatmya is still used in the Hindu tradition today. It is one of the most influential texts in the tradition and is used to worship the goddess at different Hindu rituals and gatherings. One of the gathering in which the Devi Mahatmya is used is the Durga Puja. The Durga Puja is the most popular festival, it is celebrated once a year in Kolkata and devotees get to “gaze upon the Goddess’s face.” (Abbot and Foulston 157). It is one of the largest pilgrimage experiences within Southeast Asia, millions or people take part in this pilgrimage in order to worship the goddess. The festival takes place over nine nights and part of the festival is the recitation of the Devi Mahatmya and her victories over the demons (Amazzone 48).

Although the Devi Mahatmya is an ancient text in the Hindu tradition it still stands out among all of the other texts. It is one of the most influential texts and is unique because it tells tales of the great goddess. It has been used all throughout the Hindu tradition and is still used today at festivals and to worship the goddess.


References and Further Recommended Reading

Abbot, Stuart and Foulston, Lynn (2012) Hindu Goddesses: Beliefs and Practices. Eastbourne: Sussex Academic Press.

Amazzone, Laura (2010) Goddess Durga and the Sacred Female Power. Maryland: Hamilton Books.

Coburn, Thomas B. (1991) Encountering the Goddess: A Translation of the Devī-Māhātmya and A Study of its Interpretation. New York: State University of New York Press.

Coburn, Thomas B. (1988) Devi Mahatmya: The Crystallization of the Goddess Tradition. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Hawley, John Stratton and Donna Marie Wulff, (1996) Devi: Goddesses of India. Berkeley:University of California Press.

Kinsley, David (1978) “The Portrait of the Goddess in the Devī-Māhātmya.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion Vol. 46 No. 4: 489-506. Accessed January 30, 2016.

Kinsley, David (1975) “Freedom from Death in the Worship of Kali.” Numen 22(3): 183-207. Accessed February 3, 2016. Doi: 10.2307/3269544


Related Topics



Markandeya Purana


Durga Saptashati










Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic


Article written by: Ana Ferzacca (March 2016) who is solely responsible for its content.














Bharat Mata

The figure of a maternal goddess connected to the land is not a new idea in Hinduism, however, it was not until the conception of Bharat Mata (Mother India), that the worship of the country of India itself as a goddess began to emerge (Foulston 204).  What distinguished Bharat Mata from the much older goddess of the Earth, Prithvi, is Bharat Mata’s association with the specific geography of India (Ramaswamy 564). The subcontinent of India itself becomes a goddess and a mother who is sustained by the sacrifice of her children (Kinsley 181). Bharat Mata embodies all that is India: the land, the people, the religion, the culture, and even the politics. This image of a single Mother representing an entire nation was a way to arouse “the national sentiments of the population as a whole,” (Thapar 88) since it was the duty of the collective to protect the Mother from outside dangers (Thapar 88).

One of the earliest depictions of Bharat Mata is in Bhuedeb Mukhopadhyay’s Unabima Purana (‘The Nineteenth Purusa’), where she is portrayed as a widow and the epitome of what it means to be Aryan (Foulston 204-205). Not long afterwards, in 1873, she appeared in Kiran Chandra Bandyopadhyay’s play, Bharat Mata, as a trodden down motherland (Foulston 205). It, however, was not until her appearance in the nationalist novel Anandamath (Abbey of Bliss or The Sacred Brotherhood) written by Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, that the character of Bharat Mata began to gain popularity (Foulston 205). The novel was written during the late nineteenth century, a time when the Indian independence movement was at its height, and as a result the figure of a mother who required the protection of her children against outside aggression took on a more central role in India’s fight for political freedom (Kinsley 181).

Chatterjee’s novel itself is set during the late eighteenth century in a Bengali community during the famine of 1770. Anandamath follows a group called the ‘Order of the Children,’ who worship a Mother goddess, as they work to free themselves as well as their Mother from the tyranny of their oppressors (Foulston 205). One of the more significant scenes in the novel occurs when the character of Mahendra is taken into the ‘Order’s’ temple by the chief monk. Once in the temple, Mahendra is shown three different forms of the Mother goddess. The first form depicts the Mother as she was in the past. This form portrays her as Annapurna, the goddess of plenty. The next form of the Mother goddess depicts her in her current state. In contrast to the first form, this form is portrayed as Kali, naked and disheveled. Kali’s nakedness is seen as visually representing all that has been taken away from India since it had been under British rule (Foulston 206). Additionally, Kali is adorned with skulls (Foulston 206) and severed arms (Kinsley 181). The skulls signify the death of the land caused by the famine (Foulston 206), while the severed arms represent the sacrifices that will need to be made in order to free the Mother from British oppression (Kinsley 181).

The final form of the Mother is what she would be if she were liberated: a mighty, ten armed goddess, yielding a weapon in each hand, with the enemy crushed at her feet. This depiction of a supreme warrior draws on the image of the great goddess Durga (Foulston 206 and Ramaswamy 562). Excited by the prospect of this radiant Mother, Mahendra asks when she will once again attain this form to which the chief monk’s reply is, only when all of her children recognize her as true Mother (McKean 254). The chief monk’s reply emphasizes that the only way that liberation, both political and spiritual, can be obtained for the ‘Order’ and the Mother is through complete devotion to and sacrifice for the Mother (McKean 254). It is only when all of the Mother’s children are willing to serve the Mother and sacrifice themselves for her, like the members of the ‘Order’ are willing to do, that the Mother goddess will once again become great (Kinsley 182). This statement can also be seen as paralleling modern Hindu nationalistic rhetoric by suggesting that “anyone who wants a place in India should view India as their sacred land and their Mother” (Foulston 207-208), thus establishing a separation between the devoted children of Bharat Mata and those that would seek to oppress the Mother and her children.

Chatterjee’s Anandamath, in addition to providing one of the first clear figures of the Mother-goddess, also depicts Bharat Mata in the form of a song of praise, which has since become a national song, entitled Vande Mataram (Hail to the Mother or I bow to Thee Mother) (Foulston 207).  Incidentally, this song of praise to the Mother goddess in the novel was actually written before the novel itself and has resulted in numerous translations being produced (Foulston 208).  Among the translations that have been produced is one by Sri Aurobindo, who was an early proponent of Indian nationalism (Foulston 207). The slogan “Vande Mataram” quickly became popular apart from the novel, as the idea of “the Motherland and the stirring nature of her anthem have been attractive to many seeking their own identity” (Foulston 208). The slogan “Vande Mataram” was used politically for the first time in 1905 at demonstrations for the partition of Bengal. At this point in time, both Hindus and Muslims joined together to shout the slogan. However, by 1921, Hindus used the same slogan against Muslims during the Calcutta riots; thus Vande Mataram is regarded by many Muslims to be anti-Islamic (Foulston 208).

This hymn of praise to the Motherland became “the rallying cry for an emergent patriotic cult of Bharat Mata” (Ramaswamy 558) seeking Indian independence from the British (Foulston 208 and Ramaswamy 558). Even though India is now an independent country, the idea of a Mother-goddess is still very prevalent in India. The Indian national anthem for example, which was first sung in 1911, similarly expresses the same sentiment as Chatterjee’s Vande Mataram (Kinsley 183).

In the Anandamath, Bharat Mata is associated with the fight against British colonialism, however, over the years there has been a transition so that the figure of Bharat Mata has become more closely associated with Hindu nationalism as opposed to Indian nationalism. (Foulston 209). Whereas, during the Indian independence movement, Hindus and Muslims fought alongside each other to free the Mother, the image of Bharat Mata and national identity is now deeply embedded in Hindu piety and activism which is symbolized by the temples erected for Bharat Mata (Gupta 104 and McKean 264). The first temple dedicated to Bharat Mata was erected in 1936 in Banaras (or Varanasi) in which Bharat Mata is represented by a relief map of a still undivided India (Foulston 209). The purpose for building the temple was an “attempt at creating a composite religious and national identity and was seen as a place . . .  where all could worship.” (Gupta 102). The desire to create a place where there was no distinction between Hindu and Muslim, people of high caste and people of low caste, however, was undercut by the Hindu symbols that adorned the temple. On the gates of the temple, for example, the slogan Vande Mataram was inscribed. Since its use against Muslims in 1921, this slogan has been considered by many Muslims as anti-Islamic. The use of Vande Mataram on the gates of the temple only served as a way to further alienate the Muslim population and embed the image of Bharat Mata in Hindu nationalism (Foulston 209-210 and Gupta 103-104).

A second temple for Bharat Mata was constructed in 1983 at Haridwar, which is an important pilgrimage city for Hindus, by Swami Satyamiterand Giri, the leader of the Vishva Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council or VHP)(Foulston 210). In comparison to the temple in Banaras, this eight-storey building depicts the figure of Bharat Mata standing on the map of India holding stalks of grain and an urn of milk in her hands (Foulston 210). The Mother goddess herself takes up the first floor, while the other floors are occupied by “a variety of deities, national heroes and virtuous women satis, some of whom have burned themselves on their husband’s funeral pyre” (Foulston 210). The incorporation of both Hindu symbols and deities with national martyrs in the Bharat Mata temple in Haridwar associates the national Indian identity with the Hindu identity, and is thus able to convey to its visitors a particular configuration of what a unified India looks like (McKean 277).

Before the consecration of the Bharat Mata temple in Haridwar, the Vishva Hindu Parishad promoted the worship of Bharat Mata via a six-week tour of India. The Vishva Hindu Parishad organized the Ekatmata Rath Yatra (One Mother Chariot Procession) integration ritual, where 400 litres of Ganga water as well as “images of Ganga Ma, Siva, and a temporary shrine to Bharat Mata” (Foulston 210) were taken all over India. During the worship of Bharat Mata, religious leaders as well as Hindu nationalists warned the participants that Hinduism was under threat due to the government’s positive treatment of minorities, particularly Muslims” (Foulston 210-211). Thus the Bharat Mata temple at Haridwar portrays the figure of Mother India in terms of Hindu ideals and values, ultimately presenting Bharat Mata as Hindu.

Since her earliest appearances as the Mother goddess worshiped by a community of renouncers in Chatterjee’s Anandamat, the figure of Bharat Mata has “continued to transform, adapting to differing political agendas (Sen 173). In her earliest form, Bharat Mata was a figure that created unity amongst all Indians. The image of Mother India quickly became associated with the fight for Indian independence, as it was up to the children to free the Mother from the oppression of British rule. At the time when India was suffering under British rule, the idea of a maternal figure that required devotion and self-sacrifice from her children was a beneficial way to unite the entire populace of India against a common cause. The fusion of the land, the people, and the Mother as one served to instill the idea that the only way the people could be free is if the Mother is freed and vice versa. The Indian nationalism associated with Bharat Mata has since shifted towards Hindu nationalism. While the nation of India is still “figured as a loving Mother surrounded by her devoted children,” (McKean 252) the figure of the tyrannical oppressor has now shifted from the British to the secular state as well as Muslims (McKean 252).  In this figure of Bharat Mata, “nationhood, culture and religion have become part of a package deal” (Sen 173).  There is no longer a separation between the spiritual and the political. The figure of Bharat Mata has become a representative of what it means to be an ideal Hindu.



Duara, Prasenjit (1991) “The New Politics of Hinduism.” The Wilson Quarterly, Vol. 15, No. 3: 42-50.

Foulston, Lynn (2009) Hindu Goddesses: Beliefs and Practices. Portland, Oregon: Sussex Academic Press.

Gupta, Charu (2006) “The Icon of Mother in Late Colonial North India: Bharat Mata, Matri Bhasha and Gau Mata.” In Beyond Representation: Colonial and Postcolonial Constructions of Indian Identity, edited by Crispin Bates, 100-122. New York: Oxford University Press.

Kinsley, David R (1986) Hindu Goddesses: Visions of the Divine Feminine in the Hindu Religious Tradition. Berkeley: University of California Press.

McKean, Lisa (1996) “Bharat Mata: Mother India and Her Militant Matriots.” In Devi: Goddesses of India, edited by Hawley, John S. and Donna M. Wulff, 250- 280. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Ramaswamy, Sumathi (2005) “The Goddess and the Nation: Subterfuges of Antiquity, the Cunning of Modernity.” In The Blackwell Companion to Hinduism, edited by Gavin Flood, 549 – 566. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell.

Rodrigues, Hillary (2006) Hinduism: The Ebook an Online Introduction. Journal of Buddhist Ethics Online Books, Ltd.

Sen, Geeti (2002) “Iconising the Nation: Political Agendas.” India International Centre Quarterly Vol. 29, No.3/4: 155-175.

Thapar, Suruchi (1993) “Women as Activists; Women as Symbols: A Study of the Indian Nationalist Movement.” Feminist Review, Palgrave Macmillan Journals, Vol. 44: 81–96.


Related Topics for Further Investigation


Vishva Hindu Parishad

Ekatmata Rath Yatra

Vande Mataram

Unabima Purana

Indian Independence



Bankim Chandra Chatterjee

Bharat Mata temple in Varanasi

Bharat Mata temple in Haridwar


Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic


Article written by: Barbra Entz (March 2016) who is solely responsible for its content.