Category Archives: Sakta Deities (Hindu Goddesses)

The Devi Bhagavata Purana

The Devi Bhagavata Purana is one of two Bhagavata Puranas. It exalts the goddess Devi, and the other praises the god Visnu. The Devi Bhagavata Purana is a more brief form than that of Visnu’s Bhagavata Purana. Devi only speaks half a sloka (a metric style in prose composition; a couplet (Rodrigues 564) propounding herself as the ground of all being (Brown 17).

“All this universe indeed is just I myself; there is nothing else eternal.”

The Devi Bhagavata Purana [DBP] is comprised of 12 books (skandhas), 318 chapters, and 18,000 verses (slokas). It is a Sakta Upa-Purana, the “lesser” Puranas. There are eighteen or nineteen Maha (greater) Puranas, and many Upa (lesser) Puranas that encompass the vast body of Puranic literature (Rodrigues 290). There is conflict over the exact age of the text. An old age would suggest more validity and greatness for some [See Brown “The Problem of Canonicity” (18-24); looks at both religious and academic perspectives and compares differing views of scholars], however, there is evidence that such texts are often edited, adjusted, modified, and expanded upon in order to heighten the status of the text and present it in favour of devotees. There is evidence that the Devi Bhagavata Purana is not an exception to these practices (Brown 20-21).

The goddess Devi is usually portrayed in myths as a warrior whose mount is a lion named Mahasingha, and is known to defeat many demons; however she is also the cosmic mother, especially to her devotees. She is not typically seen as the wife, consort, or sakti of particular male gods (Rodrigues 323). She is beyond being a consort to anyone, though she bears a special relationship to every deity (Hawley & Wulff 32). For her devotees, Devi is independent and embodies the powers of all the gods combined. She is known by many names, most often known as Durga (She who is Formidable), or Candi (She who is Fierce). Other names include Prakrti (matter or nature), Maya (trick or illusion), Sakti (power or ability) (Coburn 20), and Mahamaya (the great matrix of phantasmal reality) (Rodrigues 323). She is also Parvati or Kali, themselves eventually known as individual goddesses. Devi is also associated with a “horde of females known as ‘the Mothers.’” There are hundreds of females part of this group and are known to be fighting, ferocious, and bloodthirsty beings, although the maternal instinct associated with Devi runs deep in all of them (Coburn 21).

There are two particularly important festivals associated with the Great Goddess, a spring and an autumn Navaratra (“nine nights”). The spring festival evidences Devi’s associations with fertility, while the autumn celebrations draw in Devi’s marital dimension (Rodrigues 324). Instructions on sacred places, vows, festivals, such as the Navaratra, and proper worship of Devi can be found in the Devi Bhagavata Purana.

“The two nine nights vow called Navaratra are to be observed, one in the autumn and the other in the spring season. These are very dear to Me. He is certainly My devotee and very dear who for My satisfaction performs these and the other Nitya Naimittik vows, free from any pride and jealousy. He certainly gets the Sajujya Mukti with Me.” (DBP 7:38:42-43) [Mukti is freedom/release from samsara/bondage, See Rodrigues (556)]

The Devi Bhagavata Purana is only one of many texts celebrating the Great Goddess. This text takes into account many myths already told in other Hindu sacred texts and elaborates on, retells, and/or adjusts these stories. In the second book and sixth chapter, the birth of the Pandavas [the family in constant rivalry and conflict with their cousins, the Kauravas, from the Mahabharata epic] is told (Rodrigues 230). However, the Devi Bhagavata Purana makes relatively few changes, and avoids direct contradictions with the Mahabharata (Brown 21). The question of which of the two Bhagavatas is more genuine is often raised, and many scholars argue over which has more authority. The Devi Bhagavata Purana could seem, to some, to be completely aware of the “tampering” of certain myths in Visnu’s Bhagavata Purana, and therefore purposely makes fewer changes and goes back to a more ancient standard in order to gain authority over Visnu’s Bhagavata Purana (Brown 21). Puranic works, such as the Devi Bhagavata Purana emerged by the 7th century CE, though many were composed later. (Rodrigues 281), therefore it is a late Purana. There is speculation over its age and its placement as an Upa-Purana versus a Maha-Purana by many scholars, however, at present; it is in the category of an Upa-Purana, despite the conflict.

Mention of Sita, Rama, Laksmana, and Ravana [characters from the Ramayana epic] is made in the third book and twenty-eighth and twenty-ninth chapters. These two chapters describe the birth of Sita, her discovery by King Janaka, the capturing of Sita by Ravana, and Rama’s search for her. The Ramayana makes no mention of Devi worship by Rama; however, a change made in the Devi Bhagavata Purana is that Rama finds solutions to his problems in Devi worship, due to the goddess-centered worship of the text (Brown 167). In the Devi Bhagavata Purana, Rama performs the Navaratra (nine night ceremony devoted to Devi), then Devi appears to Rama, informs him of his previous incarnations [he is an avatara of the god Visnu; the birth of the various avataras of Visnu can be found in the fourth book of the Devi Bhagavata Purana], reveals his purpose to kill Ravana, and promises him the recovery of his kingdom, if Rama continues to worship her (Brown 167-168). [For further information on the Ramayana epic consult Rodrigues (2006) or Valmiki/Goldman (1996)].

The Devi Mahatmya, also known as the Durga Saptasati, is another goddess-centered text that tells of the conception of Devi. The fifth book and eighteenth chapter of the Devi Bhagavata Purana recounts the slaying of the buffalo demon Mahisa by Devi, a retelling of the myth from the Devi Mahatmya (Glorification of the Great Goddess) text. Devi is endowed with the powers and weapons of all of the gods in order to slay the great buffalo demon Mahisa.

“Visnu then addressed all the Devas to give all their auspicious ornaments and weapons, He said: — ‘O Devas! Better give, all you the various arms and weapons, endowed with strength, created out of your own weapons and give them all today to the Devi.’” (DBP 5:8:75)

Certain elements differ in the Devi Bhagavata Purana from the Devi Mahatmya, such as the weapons in which Devi slays Mahisa. In the Devi Mahatmya, she slays him by crushing him with her foot, impaling him with her spear, and beheading him with her great sword (Rodrigues 323). In the Devi Bhagavata Purana, Devi pierces the demon with her trident, and then beheads him with her discus of a thousand spokes.

The Hindu belief in karma is also demonstrated in the Devi Bhagavata Purana. Karma is the concept of causality in moral action in which good deeds are meritorious (punya) and evil or sinful deeds (papa) have painful effects (Rodrigues 551). The fourth book and second chapter states:

“O best of kings! The fruits of karma must have to be experienced, whether auspicious or inauspicious, be he a Deva, or human being or an animal; anyone who has embodied himself in fine or gross bodies!” (DBP 4:2:34)

The Devi Bhagavata Purana covers many subjects, retells many myths, tells of the benefits of worshipping Devi, instructs how to worship Devi, illustrates hells and the destiny of sinners, explains the origins of the Earth and of other deities, speaks of narratives, explains hymns to Devi, and much more. Although it is an Upa (lesser) Purana, it contains vast amounts of information and requires great study in order to fully comprehend and explain. [The entire English translation by Vijnanananda of the Devi Bhagavata Purana is available online and also in print copy; link attached below.]

Devi’s many devotees are part of the Sakta sect in Hinduism and hold her as preeminent. Devi developed as an independent goddess unattached to any male sectarian tradition, and therefore is the basis of the goddess-based sectarian tradition, Saktism. [For more information on Saktism consult Tigunait (1998) or Rodrigues (2006)]. Devi is Sakti, the power that creates the cosmos. The devotees designated as Saktas form a smaller segment of Hindu population than either Saivas (worshippers of the god Siva) or Vaisnavas (devotees of the god Visnu) (Rodrigues 278-280). Devotees recognize that Devi has an ultimate form (formlessness) and an intimate form (accessible through faith), this presents that the gods themselves cannot know the cosmic form of the goddess without the personal extension of her grace (anugraha), and this can be done only through loving devotion (bhakti) to her (Beane 56). Therefore, devotees are strongly devoted to Devi because only through this loving devotion do they receive Devi’s good graces, any less would have consequences. The benefits of worshipping the goddess Devi and reading goddess-centered texts, such as the Devi Bhagavata Purana, can be recognized in verses from the text itself:

“She regulates the hearts of all and is the Cause of all causes. Without Her worship no one’s desires can be expected to be accomplished. Therefore, O Best of Suras! Worship the Universal Mother, the Prakrti Devi with greatest devotion and with greatest purity for the destruction of your enemy…She will then surely fulfill your desires.” (DBP 6:5:6-31)


References and Related Readings

Beane, Wendell C. (1973) History of Religions – The Cosmological Structure of Mythical Time: Kali-Sakti. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Bhagavata Purana, 2 vols. text and translation. Gorakhpur: Gita Press, 1952-60.

Brown, Cheever Mackenzie (1945) The Triumph of the Goddess: The Canonical Models and Theological Visions of the Devi Bhagvata Purana. Albany: State University New York Press.

_____ (1974) God as Mother: A Feminine Theology in India: An Historical and Theological Study of the Brahmavaivarta Purana. Hartford, Vt.: Claude Stark.

Coburn, Thomas B. (1991) Encountering the Goddess: A Translation of the Devi-Mahatmya and a Study of Its Interpretation. Albany: State University New York Press.

Das, Bhagawan (1962) Krsna: A Study in the Theory of Avataras. Bombay: Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan.

Hawley, J.S & Wulff, D.M. (1998) Devi: Goddesses of India. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Hazra, R. C. (1958-63) Studies in the Upapuranas, 2 vols. Calcutta: Sanskrit College.

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

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

Pulasker, A. D. (1955) Studies in the Epics and Puranas of India. Bombay: Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan.

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

_____ (2006) Hinduism – The eBook: An Online Introduction. Journal of Buddhist Ethics Online Books, Ltd.

Tigunait, Rajmani (1998) Sakti, the Power in Tantra: A Scholarly Approach. Honesdale: Himalayan Institute Press.

Valmiki, David & Goldman Robert P. (1996) The Ramayana of Valmiki. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Van Lysebeth, André (1995) Tantra: The Cult of the Feminine. York Beach, Me.: Samuel Weiser.

Vijnanananda, Swami (trans.) (1921-23) The Srimad Devi Bhagavatam. Allahabad: Sudhindra Nath Vasu.

Related Topics for Further Investigation

Bhagavata Purana












Mahabharata Epic

Ramayana Epic



Devi Mahatmya








Durga Puja


Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic


Article written by Brianne Graham (March 2013) who is solely responsible for its content.

Taleju Bhavani and Kumari Worship

In Hindu mythology the goddess Taleju, or Taleju Bhavani, is considered to be the tutelary and wrathful form of the Goddess Durga. Durga is known to be the embodiment of all powers and to be the source of and contain all other goddesses within her (Monaghan 88). The creation of the goddess Durga was actually by the gods themselves. While the gods were resting after fighting with demons, a particular demon, named Mahishasura, took advantage of the god’s absence and declared himself Lord of Heaven and Ruler of the Universe (Harding 53). Upon hearing this declaration Visnu was outraged and “shot forth a terrible light from his forehead” (Harding 53). All the other mighty gods were similarly angry and also shot forth beams of light in the same direction of Visnu’s. The beam of lights eventually converged and from the blazing eruption of light the Goddess Durga emerged. In some scripts Taleju has also been referred to as Kali, another form of the goddess Durga known for her destructive nature. Taleju is also known by many different names such as Tulja, Turja, Tava, Tamva, Talamonde, Talesvari, as well as Manesvari (Slusser 316).

In the Kathmandu Valley the goddess Durga in the form of Taleju has a special place of worship among the Newar society. Three major cities lie within the valley Kathmandu, Patan, Bhaktapu. It has been estimated that about 5 percent of Nepal’s people live in the Kathmandu Valley which is around 600,000 people and it is thought that half of the population is comprised of Newars (Levy 35). The Newars are a people whose nation ruled long before Nepal was established. Their borders are generally accepted as having included the slopes of the hills that surrounded the Kathmandu Valley.

In this society the goddess Taleju is extremely important; she represents the political aspect of the society in Kathmandu Valley, she is the most important deity, and is the goddess to which all other goddesses pay homage. She is the tutelary goddess to the Nepalese or Malla kings and the success, greatness, and prosperity of the kingdom is controlled by her. The Malla Kings often used the Goddess Taleju in order to legitimize their rule and succession in the Kathmandu Valley. The mantra of Taleju is a mark of the ruler’s succession and is very important to receive. It is thought that if a ruler failed to receive the mantra, he was liable to lose his kingdom (Allen 15). Even when the Malla kingdom was conquered during the Shah dynasty, the new king adopted Taleju as his new royal deity, in order to prove and cement his legitimacy to the throne.

The Kumari are another form of the Goddess Taleju and are young girls considered to be the human manifestation of the Goddess Taleju. The origin of using the Kumari to worship the goddess is explained in Nepalese mythology. There are several different versions of the myth, but they all point to a Malla king upsetting the Goddess so greatly that she refuses to appear to him in her true form. One myth claims that the Goddess Taleju agreed to appear before the king Trailokyamalla of Bhaktapur and in return he had to secretly establish a symbol of the goddess and allow no one to see it. However, one day while he was worshipping, the King’s daughter walked in and saw the symbol. Taleju revoked her agreement with the King and refused to appear to him unless she was in the body of a young high-caste girl (Slusser 316). Another account implicates the King Ratnamalla and his sister Gangi as the intruder (Slusser 316). Other versions say that the King Trailokymall used to play games of dice with Durga at night and she would give him advice on the affairs of the state. Unfortunately the King became so overwhelmed by her beauty and her sexuality that he started to have impure thoughts, making it too difficult to concentrate on his actions. The Goddess perceived the thoughts of the King and was offended; consequently the goddess informed the King that he would no longer hold the privilege of seeing her in her goddess form, and instead she would appear in the body of a young virgin girl (Amazzone 72). Yet another description explains that it was the jealousy of the Queen that angered the Goddess. Not knowing that the beautiful women playing dice was indeed the Goddess Durga the Queen burst into the King’s chambers and accused him of infidelity. Outraged, the Goddess furiously stood up waving her ten arms and several of her other enraged faces came forth showing her multi-headed manifestation of the Goddess Taleju declaring that she will no longer give him her help (Amazzone 72). The King was devastated and for days he performed pujas to win back the affection of Taleju, but again she will only return to him in the body of young girl so as not to cause anymore outbreaks of jealousy (Amazzone 72).

The worshipping of the Goddess Taleju in the form of a young virgin girl, or Kumari, became a tradition in the Newar society and has continued to this day. Usually young girls between the ages of two and four are selected to take on the role of a living Kumari, but they can be even younger. Many different girls can be worshipped as living Kumaris at the same time and there are three principal Kumaris in the three cities of Bhadgaon, Kathmandu, and Patan. These girls are chosen on a measure of purity, to which there is specific criteria. In the case of the Royal Kumari of Kathmandu, physical and psychological testing is done in a rigorous examination that is carried out by a committee appointed by the King’s priest (Allen 20). A group of eligible girls is brought before the committee on an auspicious day to be examined using a list of 32 perfections thought to be found in goddesses. The young girls must be in perfect health, suffering no serious illness especially an illness that may have caused a physical imperfection, no bad body smells, black hair and eyes and most importantly the girls must not have lost any blood from things like losing teeth or the start of menarche (Allen 20). The committee is also expected to take into account the reputation of the young girl’s family and her personality. If the committee is unable to find a young girl without an imperfection, they will choose the girl who most closely portrays the ideal (Allen 20). Once there has been a selection the young girl is brought to the palace of the king where he offers her a coin. She then returns to her home until the installation rites can be formed making her the new living Kumari (Allen 20). During the wait for the installation rites the spirit of the Kumari is thought to already be entering the body of the young girl, so if she shows any negative bodily symptoms she is considered to be unworthy of the role (Allen 20).

Once the girl is officially inducted into the role of the Kumari she is taken from her parents and family, and lives separately for the remainder of her term. The young girl is given attendants and caretakers to see to her needs (Allen 24, 25). Because the Kumari is a goddess, she is allowed to behave however she wishes, and she cannot be given instruction. However, if the Kumari was to consistently behave in a manner that was unbecoming, she would not be considered fit to continue her duty (Allen 27). The Kumari is an important part of religion and events in the Kathmandu Valley and is worshipped by the inhabitants of the Nepal; she is expected to appear in various rituals and participate in the many important festivals (Allen 28).

The young girl will continue her role as a Kumari until she shows signs of being human. The two biggest signs are the loss of teeth resulting in blood, or the beginning of the girl’s menstrual cycle. Once these signs appear the young girl is disqualified and a new Kumari is chosen (Allen 22). The now ex-Kumari must give back all of the valuable garments and jewellery she possessed during her reign and proceed through the life-cycle rituals and the rituals that will lead to her marriage (Allen 22).




References and Further Recommended Reading

Allen, Michael R. (1975) The Cult of Kumari: Virgin Worship in Nepal. New Delhi: Siddhartha Press.

Amazzone, L. (2010) Goddess Durga and Sacred Female Power. Plymouth: Hamilton Books.

Anderson, Mary M. (1971). The Festivals of Nepal. London: Allen and Unwin.

Glowski, Janice M. (1995). Living Goddess as Incarnate Image: The Kumari Cult of Nepal. Retrieved from

Harding, E. (1993). Kali: The Black Goddess of Dakshineswar. Delhi: Shri Jainendra Press.

Hoek, Bert van den, Shrestha, Balgopal. (1992) Guardians of the Royal Goddess: Daitya and Kumar as the Protectors of Taleju Bhavani of Kathmandu. Retrieved from

Levy, Robert I., Rajopadhya, Kedar Raj. Mesocosm: Hinduism and the Organization of a Traditional Newar City. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Slusser, Mary S. (1998) Nepal Mandala: A cultural Study of the Kathmandu Valley. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Vergati, Anne. (2002) Gods, Men, and Territory: Society and Culture in Kathmandu Valley. Delhi: Rajkamal Electric Press.

White, David G. (2001) Tantra in Practice. Delhi: Shri Jainendea Press.



Related Topics for Further Investigation



Virgin Worship



Kathmandu Valley

Newar Politics

Taleju Bhavani

Nepal Festivals

Hindu Goddesses

Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic

[Article written by Ashley Bust (March 2013) who is solely responsible for its content.]

Sarasvati (River and Goddess)


Sarasvati, a Hindu goddess, is the embodiment of the Sarasvati River and can be thought of as one of the earlier feminine deities worshipped in Vedic culture. Not to be confused with the idea that she simply personifies the river, the Hindu belief is that the manifestation of the river is simply one part of her true being and there is a connection between this river and the transcended being of a goddess (Kinsley 57). This connection is what truly makes these places of worship holy and auspicious.

The river’s true location is a disputed issue between many scholars due to various forms of evidence, each pointing to separate regions. A popular theory which is supported by satellite imagery and archeological digs identifies the river as the one that is thought to have sustained the Indus Valley Civilization before having dried up in most parts of the desert (Kalyanaraman 2). Recent scientific attempts to place the exact location of this river have led to the distinct possibility of the Markanda River being a part of the Sarasvati River as well [More in depth maps for the candidate locations, see Kshetrimayum and Bajpai]. Along the banks of this river a great civilization is believed to have once thrived and historical finds show many settlements dotting this area. The evidence shows that this river had dried up in roughly 1500 BCE (Kalyanaraman 3). The commonly agreed upon theory of its disappearance relies on the findings of two major events that are believed to have caused this. The first major event was the Yamuna River pushing the Sarasvati River towards the Ganges River in roughly 3000 BCE while the second major event saw the Satadru River join the Indus River in roughly 2000 BCE (Kalyanaraman 5). These two events diverted the water source from the Sarasvati River causing it to gradually dry up. A massive migration ensued for the civilization having them spread out across modern day India.

Stemming from her ties with the river, Sarasvati is the patron goddess of learning, knowledge, arts (poetry and music), and science (McLeish 1). She is called upon by libraries, schools, and by those that need to create. Later as Hinduism evolved, she began to represent more of patronage towards speech through the development of mythology (Kinsley 59). She is typically found in most art forms to be an extremely beautiful woman with four arms seated on a white lotus, a white swan, or on the edge of a river bank. In her four arms she holds four objects that represent her patronage, though the exact objects may differ slightly between each representation [Commonly a book, a musical instrument, jewelry, and a pen are seen] (McLeish 1). Sarasvati is praised for nourishing the land with her waters and is prayed to by those who seek knowledge, wealth, children, and nourishment themselves. Additionally, her ties with the river make her into a being that purifies and cleanses her believers (Kinsley 11). A holiday is celebrated in her honor in the early spring (fifth day of Magha) by a puja. Hindus take this time to worship the goddess and worship her associated artifacts (books, pens, musical instruments, beads). Pictures and artwork are also hung up along buildings and walls to celebrate the day (Kinsley 64).

Sarasvati’s mythological history is spread out over the Mahabharata Epic and many of the Puranas. The epics also attempt to give reason for the disappearance of the great river attributing it to the non Dharmic actions of a cannibalistic aboriginal tribe called the Nisadas. This tribe is said to play host to all sorts of thieves, hunters, and other inauspicious vermin. In the tale, due to their actions and their failure to regard the Vedas as holy, Sarasvati decides to descend into the sands so that they cannot know her benefits [Ludvik explores the idea of the goddess moving herself for her followers further] (Ludvik 99). In one version of the creation myth, she is created by the deity Brahma from a stream of water from his side. Her beauty enters into this myth as a reason for the many faces of Brahma. According to the myth, Brahma cannot keep his eyes off of her and as she moves around him he grows his other four faces to watch her (McLeish 1). In other creation myths she has been tied to one of Krsna’s forms assigned to learning and knowledge or to be the tongue of Visnu once again showing her relation to creativity (Kinsley 58).

Stone sculpture of the goddess of learning Sarasvati, holding the Vedas, a lotus, a waterpot, and prayer beads, 12th century, from Pallu, Rajasthan, Delhi National Museum
Stone sculpture of the goddess of learning Sarasvati, holding the Vedas, a lotus, a waterpot, and prayer beads, 12th century, from Pallu, Rajasthan, Delhi National Museum

Early worship practices seem to be focused mainly on the bounty that this river provided or to the power and ferocity of its floodwaters. The river is written about in a mixture of fear and respect. It is said to be capable of destroying the mountains with its power and flooding the plains (Kinsley 10). This river is spoken about in the Rg Veda as one of the most powerful bodies of water and comes heavily praised in so much that it has given scholars difficulties at times to distinguish whether the praise is intended for the river or the goddess herself (Kinsley 10-11). So much so was the admiration of her great power that it was said that the source of her waters flowed from the heavens themselves which is now thought to have had certain ties to the Milky Way. It is thought that perhaps the Sanskrit word for the “Milky Way” might very well have been Sarasvati [Witzel looks into the reason why most other heavenly bodies were described in Vedic texts but such a large heavenly body could not possibly be overlooked] (Witzel 222-226).

Sarasvati is mentioned throughout the Veda Samhitas but is mainly praised in the Rg Veda though her heavy ties to sacrificial rites also have her mentioned in the Yajur Veda as well. She is invoked into ceremonies typically for the purpose of purifying the process as her powerful association with water might suggest (Kinsley 11). The river that she embodies is seen as a holy site and the Rg Veda makes mention of the banks of the river as being one of the holiest places to perform these sacrifices (Ludvik 14). She is sometimes associated with a male counterpart by the name of Sarasvant, a river god, who is typically only referred to during sacrificial ceremonies. His exact nature is relatively unexplored but offerings are also made to him during these rituals (Ludvik 11). Her ties to speech make her a crucial deity in the performing of these rituals since Hindu beliefs consider the recitation of a mantra to be the equivalent of summoning a deity to your presence. Along with speech she also represents the idea of thought itself through knowledge, an integral part of speaking to the gods (Kinsley 59).

Since Sarasvati is seen as such an early emerging deity, it is only natural that she become the mold for later goddesses that will appear. River goddesses that can be seen as later versions of Sarasvati may include Ganga and Jumna (Kinsley 56). Though it may be noted as Hinduism progresses and evolves, her association with the river becomes less distinct and she takes on a role much more fitting to her patron status rather than her status as a river goddess (Kinsley 57).

Artwork that Sarasvati inspired also evolved over time and she is accepted to be one of the most culturally influential goddesses for the art that she inspired. An early prototype image for the goddess or even possibly an image of the goddess herself appears as early as 200 BCE at a Buddhist site. This figure carries much of the iconic symbols that are now associated with the goddess [Ludvik discusses this further with more emphasis on the relevance to the time period] (Ludvik 227-229).




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


Ghosh, Niranjan (1939) Sarasvati in India art and literature. Delhi: Sri Satguru Publications.


Kalyanaraman, S (1997) Sarasvati River. Chennai: Sarasvati Sindhu Research Centre.


Kinsley, David (1987) Hindu Goddesses. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.


Kshetrimayum, K. S. and Bajpai, V. N. (2011) Establishment of Missing Stream Link between the Markanda River and the Vedic Saraswati River in Haryana, India Geoelectrical Resistivity Approach. Current Science 100 #11 (June): 1719-1724.


Ludvik, Catherine (2007) Sarasvati: Riverine Goddess of Knowledge: from the Manuscript carrying Vina-player to the Weapon-wielding Defender of the Dharma. Boston: Brill’s Indological Library.


McLeish, Kenneth (1996) Sarasvati Bloomsbury Dictionary of Myth. London: Bloomsbury Publishing Ltd.


Witzel, Michael (1984) Sur le chemin du ciel. Leiden: Institut Kern.


Related Topics for Further Investigation

Indus Valley Civilization



Rg Veda






Sarasvati Puja










Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic


Article written by William Beninger (April 2012) who is solely responsible for its content.

The Goddess Kamakhya

Kamakhya – The Mother Goddess

The Mother Goddess Kamakhya, sometimes referred to as the “five-fold goddess,” is a significant focus in Tantric worship (Nicholas 174).  The goddess has her history rooted in the myth of Sati, and as a result the Kamakhya temple is a frequent spot for worship and pilgrimage (Nicholas 174).   Kamakhya is often thought of as a powerful and dark goddess, a goddess of desire, and is thought to exist in the form of a yoni (female reproductive organ) at the Kamakhya temple in Assam (Urban 2001: 779-780).

Characteristics and Iconography of the Goddess

Kamakhya, as mentioned above, is believed to reside in a stone yoni (female reproductive organ) at her temple of worship, and is regarded as the goddess of desire (Urban 2001: 231). Kamakhya, like many Hindu deities is depicted with many heads, and multiple arms (Newell 246).  However, she is also said to exist in many forms (Mishra 40). Kamakhya is generally depicted as a younger female adorned in a red sari, and having six multi-colored heads and twelve arms. It is also common to see images of the Siva and a lion accompanying depictions of Kamakhya (see Fig. 60, Mishra 189)

Historical Background – The Myth of Sati

In order to fully understand Kamakhya’s role as a goddess it is important to understand her historical context. The myth of a Sati is a prevalent myth in Hinduism and describes the events following Siva and Sati’s marriage. King Daksa, under the urging of the gods, reluctantly gave his daughters’ hand in marriage to Siva, the destroyer god (Urban 2001: 787). Daksa later decided to hold a large ritual, in which he spitefully excluded Siva. Sati was offended by the rebuff of her husband and committed suicide at the ritual in retaliation, becoming a sacrifice herself (Urban 2001: 787). Siva became distraught upon finding out about his wife’s death. He went to the ritual, slew Daksa, and begins wandering the cosmos carrying Sati’s body on his shoulders (Urban, 2001, p. 787).  The god Visnu is disturbed by this image and sends a discus to slice her apart (Urban 2001: 787). Thus, as the distraught Siva wondered the earth, parts of his beloved’s body were dropped upon the earth (Urban 2001: 787). There is said to be 51 different spots where parts of Sati’s dismembered body fell, referred to as pithas, or sacred sites (Urban 2001: 788). It is Sati’s yoni that is said to have fallen at Assam, and it is a stone yoni, which represents the Tantric Mother Goddess Kamakhya (Urban 2001: 788). This pitha is where the Temple of Kamakhya came to be erected, and is the site of abundant worship for Kamakhya today (Urban 2001: 788).

The myth of Sati is likely the most common reference to Kamakhya. However, scholars speculate that she may have been a figure in the tribal religions of primordial Assam (Urban 2001: 789). The Kalika Purana even insinuates that Kamakhya was worshiped by the Kiritas, aboriginal people who lived in the Himalayas around 600 BCE (Urban 2011: 232). It has also been suggested that the word Kamakhya came from Ai Kamakhya a goddess worshiped by an Assamic ethnic community called the Bodos (Mishra 15). Regardless, Kamakhya is presently viewed as being empowered with sakti (goddess power), and this likely derives from her connection with Sati, who was reborn as the goddess Parvati. There are various versions of this classical myth in different texts.

Significant Textual References

There are several texts, which discuss the mythical origins of Kamakhya, each having slightly different details, which contribute to different practices in accordance with the preferred myth. The Kalika Purana and Yogini Tantra both offer versions of mythical origin (Mishra 144-146).

The Kalika Purana depicts Daksa as the son of Brahma. This version of the story portrays Daksa as a worshipper of the goddess, Devi. In answer to a boon (wish) Daksa was given a daughter who was a rebirth of Devi; this daughter was, of course, Sati (Mishra 144).   The rest of the myth was similar to the one, which is summarized in the section above.

The Yogini Tantra depicts a very different myth of origin for the goddess. This myth depicts a conceited Brahma, who aggravates Devi (Mishra 145). Devi creates Kesi, a male demon, whose purpose is to destroy Brahma.  Brahma concedes to give up his arrogance and seeks assistance from Lord Visnu. Visnu helps negotiate with Devi, who explains the reasoning behind her creation of Kesi. Following Brahma and Visnu’s prayer to Devi, Devi kills the demon in Kesipura, the site of the gods’ prayer (Mishra 145).  Kesipura subsequently becomes a site of worship as Devi said that the place contained the yonimandala (literally the essence of yoni; Devi’s in particular) (Mishra 144-146).  Devi then names the deity, which presides over the pitha, Devi Kamakhya (Mishra 146).

Depending on which origin myth one believes in, worship practice and treatment of the goddess may vary.

Worship Sites, Religious Practices, and Festivals Centered Around Kamakhya

The Kamakhya temple is located in the former province of Assam atop Nilachal hill in the city of Guwahati (Mishra 23). Many pilgrimages are made to this Sakta temple, and Kamakhya is thought to be pivotal in tantric worship and in the beliefs and practices of Assamese society. This pitha is even thought to be the site of Kamakhya’s yearly menstruation (Urban 2011: 231). The site itself actually consists of multiple complexes, including the central Kamakhya temple and two shrines devoted to the deities Laksmi and Sarasvati. The temple is considered an auspicious site, and offerings are often made to the mother goddess, in an effort to deter illness or disastrous events (Mishra 7). Blessings are given to Kamakhya on special occasions including marriage, and a child’s first solid feeding (Mishra 7).

Temple of Goddess Kamakhya (Kamarupa, Assam)

The goddess Kamakhya manifests in ten forms, referred to as the Mahavidyas (Dold 46). These ten expressions of the goddess are believed to dwell at the Kamakhya temple, and it is suggested that the Mahavidyas collectively exude the goddess’s protective and compassionate attitude towards her devotees (Dold 59). Thus, many practices relating to Kamakhya involve her manifestations. One of the practices relating to Kamakhya’s Mahavidyas is that of wearing a talisman, or kavaca (Dold 59). Kavaca’s are typically worn by a devotee when attempting to invoke a deity (generally a goddess, such as one of the Mahavidyas) in an appeal for their protection (Dold 59).  It is even suggested that the Kamakhya temple site is actually encircled by the goddesses, and because of this devotees are protected from harm during worship (Dold 60).

Countless rituals and celebrations occur at the Kamakhya Temple, and so for simplicity, only a few will be discussed. Daily worship at the temple consists of a priest offering praise to the goddess, followed by offering of food and potentially the sacrifice of a male goat. Purity norms are adhered to during daily worship (Mishra 59). Daily worship of a deity is called nitya puja, and presently the Tantric method is applied to Kamakhya’s nitya puja (Mishra 47). Religious songs (Nam) are often performed by the local women in Assam. This is done to encourage the beneficial presence of the deity (Dold 60).

Ambuvaci is a festival honoring the mother goddess during what is believed to be her annual period of menstruation (Mishra 51). Held sometime towards the end of June, Ambuvaci is considered a time of impurity. Subsequently the festival begins with the shrine being covered in red fabric, and when the temple is re-opened the adornments are removed and the shrine receives a purifying ceremonial bath (Mishra 52). Pilgrims often come for this festival, during which they sing songs of praise to the goddess, and engage in philosophical discussion and story telling (Mishra 53).

Spiritual Tantric practitioners frequently visit the temple. Kamakhya is viewed by these devotees as being an omnipresent goddess with the power to defeat universal forces of impurity (Urban 2001: 778-779). Dr. Hugh Urban, describes Assamese Tantra as being “center[ed] around the optimization and harnessing of power on all levels – cosmic, physical, social, and political” (2011: 780). Ironically Tantra, violates religious taboo, and through impure practices, such as manipulation of certain substances, sacrifice, and eroticism, a practitioner hopes to set free the sakti embodied in Kamakhya (Urban 2001: 780-781). It is said that this violation of social norm is a form of asserting one’s own superhuman power (Urban 2001: 793).  Submitting to one’s desire can be thought of also as a energizing and awakening act (Dobia 67). In Tantric practice, it seems that Kamakhya is depicted as dark and powerful and associated with desire, while other views tend to see Kamakhya being equally powerful, but associated with feminity and fertility.

Thus, Kamakhya is seen in diverse ways. It is represented in various forms, but her omnipresence and her central importance at Kamakhya temple seem universal to worshipers of this multi-faceted goddess.

References and Further Recommended Reading

Dobia, Brenda (2007) “Approaching the Hindu Goddess of Desire.” Feminist Theology, 16 no. 1: 61-78

Dold, Patricia (2011). Pilgrimage to Kamakhya Through Text and Lived Religion. In Rodrigues Hilary (Eds.), Studying Hinduism in Practice (46-61). New York, NY: Routledge.

Mishra, Nihar Ranjan (2004) Kamakhya: A Socio-cultural Study. New Delhi: D.K. Printworld.

Newell, Margaret Zo (2011). “Picturing the Goddess: Bazaar Images and the Imagination of Modern Hindu Religious Identity.” PhD Dissertation Submitted to the Faculty the Graduate School of Vanderbilt University, 246.

Nicholas, Ralph (1976). Review of “Worship of the Goddess According to the Kalikapurana.” Journal of Asian Studies 36, no. 1: 172-174.

Urban, Hugh (2001) “The Path of Power: Impurity, Kingship, and Sacrifice in Assamese Tantra.” Journal of American Academy of Religion 69, no. 4: 777-816.

Urban, Hugh (2011) “The Womb of Tantra: Goddesses, Tribals, and Kings in Assam.” Journal of Hindu Studies 4, no. 3: 231-247.

Related Topics for Further Investigation

Staircase of Kamakhya Temple (Legend)

Folk Medicine and Kamakhya


The Yogini Tantra

The Kalika Purana

Noteworthy Reading Related to the Topic

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

Dold, Patricia (2004) “The Mahavidyas at Kamarupa: Dynamics of Transformation in Hinduism.” Religious Studies and Theology 23, no. 1: 89-122.

Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic

Article written by Majken Villiger (Spring 2012), who is solely responsible for its content.

The Goddess Matangi

Matangi: The Ninth Mahavidya

Matangi is the ninth object of transcendent knowledge, also known as the ninth Mahavidya (Donaldson 597). The Mahavidyas are most commonly a group of ten goddesses, but sometimes can be increased by three or six (Thakur 69). The Mahavidyas have been known as a group since around the tenth century C.E (Kinsley 1). They are said to all be different expressions of the same goddess, who take on different forms for the needs of her devotees (Kinsley 2). It is said that “each Mahavidya is one facet of a multi-faceted Great Goddess and that each facet contains all the others” (Kinsley 39). Though some of the Mahavidyas are popular on their own, Matangi is rarely associated apart from the group (Kinsley 2). However, Matangi is still a unique goddess with many traits that make her powerful.

Earliest traces of Matangi arise in the story from the Divyavadana, a Buddhist collection of stories. There is a story of a low caste girl, whose father-in-law is said to be the king of elephants. In this story, there are parallels to Matangi’s power to attract and control, as well as distinct ties to nature (Kinsley 212). All these are important to Matangi as a goddess; however, they merely show hints of her characteristics, not a story of the goddess herself. All in all, this paints a picture for the beginnings of this tantric goddess, with many more origin stories to follow.

Matangi has several different forms throughout various Hindu texts. Most often, she is a beautiful girl with a dark or black complexion. She has beautiful long hair, elements of nature around her, and intoxicating eyes (Kinsley 14). In Tantric texts, Matangi usually has two-four arms and sits upon a gem-throne or a corpse-seat (Donaldson 599). In her arms, she holds a combination of different objects, most commonly a vina, a kartska, a kapala, a sword, a noose, a goad, a shield, a club, or a mace (Donaldson 599). Matangi is said to be represented by the colors blue-green, however some scholars associate her with black, due to her dark complexion (see Kinsley 42-43). In the Kubjika Upanisad, Matangi is said to be the blue one, who has blue garments, blue perfumes, blue ornaments, and a blue parrot (Goudriaan 320). When Matangi is depicted with four arms, those four arms are said to be the representation of the four Vedas (Donaldson 597). Other common names for Matangi are Rajamatangi, Sumukhi-matangi, and Ucchista-matangi (Donaldson 599). Though Matangi’s depictions change depending on the text, she is a well-known and original goddess who illustrates great power throughout her forms.

Matangi is said, much like the other Mahavidyas, to have certain magical or psychic powers (Kinsley 220). She has the power to grant her devotees desires such as the power to gain control over others, to have everything one wishes come true, and attract people (Kinsley 220). In addition, she can destroy her devotee’s enemies and make her devotee rich, powerful, and a great poet (Donaldson 597). If one wishes to obtain any of these demands, the devotee must sacrifice different elements or combinations of elements to a fire, all while reciting Matangi’s mantra (Kinsley 221). An example would be if one wanted power to attract others, salt and honey would be offered to the fire (Kinsley 222). Also, successful worship of Matangi must be completed during the night, with offerings to her sacrificed at midnight (Goudriaan 320). If a devotee is to follow Matangi’s rituals, they may request any boon they desire.

Matangi is best known for her unconventional desire for pollution. This is based on one of her origin myths, from the Sakti-samgama-tantra (Kinsley 213). Matangi is said to have been created from the leftover food (uccista) of Siva and Parvati, requesting more leftover food as sustenance upon arrival (Kinsley 213). Siva then pronounced that Uccista-matangini would henceforth be the bestower of all boons (Kinsley 213). This myth is profound because leftover food is believed to be polluted in the Hindu tradition and not fit for a god or goddess. Matangi requests left over foods from her devotees and is said to request the uccista to be from their stained hands and mouths (Kinsley 215). Matangi is believed to consume many dangerous materials such as animal heads and clothing worn by a person before they had died, which are known as chwasas (Kinsley 218). Matangi not only requires her devotees to offer her polluted substances but also to be in a polluted state when worshipping her (Kinsley 7). To be in a polluted state means that the devotees would not need to bathe, fast, or do any other vows before worship (Kinsley 216). Also, devotees can be menstruating when worshipper her, even offer her clothe with menstrual blood on it, which is seen as highly polluted (Kinsley 216). Matangi is worshipped for being polluted, and thus must be worshipped by polluted devotees. To be polluted is a taboo in Hindu worship, thus this makes Matangi an interesting exception to Hindu conventions.

Matangi, in relation with her association to pollution, is also seen as the outcaste or low-caste goddess (Kinsley 217). In two of her origin stories, Matangi is seen as a Candala or untouchable women. The first origin story is from the text Pranatosini-Tantra, which has strong ties to the origin myth of the ten Mahavidyas. In this myth, Siva tests Parvati’s faithfulness and in turn Parvati tests Siva by disguising herself as a Candala woman. She then seduces him to make love with her, which in turn makes him extremely polluted. For falling for her trick, Parvati asks Siva for a boon, which Siva grants. She requested that this Candala form would last forever and be referred to as Uccista-candalini (Kinsley 213). This solidified Matangi’s role as a low-caste goddess and hence she was forever subject to life as a Candala. In another origin story, Matangi is the sister of Siva and is obsessed with purity and pollution. After ill-talk against her brother’s polluted behaviour, Parvati cursed her to be re-born as an untouchable. Saddened by her fate, she approaches her brother who grants her desire to be worshipped by people on spiritual journeys to Varanasi (Kinsley 214). Matangi’s ties to the lower classes are solidified by a group in Nepal known as the Pores or known by their caste name: Matangi (Kinsley 218). This group collects and accumulates the debris of others castes and disposes it (Kinsley 218). They are dealing with the pollution of others, and thus are constantly in a state of pollution. The significance of these individuals being known by the caste name Matangi shows not only the Tantric goddesses’ link to low castes but also their pollution.

Matangi can also be associated with the forest and nature. Many scholars say that Matangi is the goddess of the hunter tribes (White 469). This stems from the third origin myth of Raja-matangini, in the Svatantra-tantra, where this goddess helps Matanga subdue all creatures (Kinsley 219). This gives her a close connection to the goddess Savaresvari, who is also known as the mistress of the Savaras, a tribe that dwells in the forest (Kinsley 219). In the Nandyavarta-tantra, Matangi bears quite a few epithets that link her thousand-name hymn with Savaresvari. Matangi is called “She Who Lives in the Forest, Who Walks the Forest, Who Knows the Forest, Who Enjoys the Forest, and Savari” (Kinsley 219). As well, in her hundred-name hymn from the Rudrayamala, Matangi, much like Savaresvari, is said to love music (Kinsley 219). Also, in the Sarada-tilaka-tantra, Matangi is said to have leaves painted on her forehead and flower garlands in her hair, as well as have the ability to control wild animals; all which associate her with Savaresvari (Kinsley 219). Furthermore, Matangi is often said to be the daughter of Matanga, who was most likely a hunter, giving her true lineage to nature (Donaldson 212). Matangi, as a goddess of the hunter tribes, gives this tantric goddess power over living things residing within nature.

Matangi is also often referred to as the elephant power, who is in charge of restoring peace, calm, and prosperity after the terror of the night (Donaldson 596). In the Matangi Tantra, her dhyana declares that she, as the elephant power, is the delight of the world (Donaldson, 596). Also, the Matangi Tantra gives a description of Matangi which is quite unique to her classification as an elephant power (Donaldson 596). She is portrayed as sitting on a jeweled throne, her feet being honored by the hosts of the gods, whom she looks upon with three lotus eyes. She is also said to shine like a blue lotus, yet still resemble the forest fire which consumes the habitat of the demons. She holds a noose, a sword, a shield, and an elephant in her lotus hands (Donaldson 596). This is unique because images of Matangi do not often have her holding an elephant, directly correlating to her power. Matangi is also seen as erotically dominant, which is why she is commonly referred to as an impassioned female elephant. Matangi’s name literally means “she whose limbs are intoxicated (with passion)” (Kinsley 218). All in all, Matangi’s power as an elephant further solidifies the diverse nature that encompasses this tantric goddess.

According to many scholars, Matangi is also a representation of Sarasvati, the goddess of culture and learning (Dold, 2011: 59). This is evident in a few historical sources and depictions, most notably in the Swami Shastri (Kinsley 21). As well, in the Sarada-tilaka-tantra, she is playing a vina, a characteristic distinctive to Sarasvati (Donaldson 597). This notion is also confirmed by posters from the Kamarupa temple that depict her with a vina, represented in the main temple’s garbhagriha (Dold, 2004: 120). Sarasvati, and in comparison Matangi, was created to spread music and education, as well as help acquire liberating wisdom (jnana) (Kinsley 21). Furthermore, she is said to represent the sixty-four arts (Kinsley 209). Since she is the deity reigning over fine arts, she has the power to embark artistic ventures such as composing poetry (White 472). Overall, this creates an opposing representation of Matangi, who is most commonly depicted as a low-caste, polluted goddess. This final representation adds to Matangi’s complexity as the ninth Mahavidya.

All in all, Matangi is a goddess with many forms and traits. She serves to represent a wide array of people; from the lower-castes, to the hunter tribes, to the arts. Matangi’s desire for pollution also makes her an exception to many Hindu conventions for worshipping gods and goddess. Matangi serves as a facet of a larger Great Goddess, while still maintaining unique traits for her devotees to worship.

Bibliography and Related Readings

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

Dold, Patricia A (2004) The Mahavidyas at Kamarupa: Dynamics of Transformation in Hinduism.”  Journal of Religious Studies and Theology. 23(1), 89-122.

Donaldson, Thomas  E (2002) Tantra and Sakta Art of Orissa Vol.II. Delhi: DK Printworld Ltd.

Goudriaan, Teun  (1993) Ritual and Speculation in Early Tantrism. Delhi: Sri Satguru Publications.

Kinsley, David (1998) Tantric Visions of the Divine Feminine. Delhi: University of California Press.

Thakur, Manoj K (2001) The Tantras: An Introductory Outline. Delhi: Book Land Publishing Co.

White, David G (2000) Tantra in Practise. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers.

Related Research Topics
















Related Websites

Article written by Sarah Sampson (Spring 2012), who is solely responsible for its content.

The Goddess Bhuvanesvari

The Goddess Bhuvanesvari

Within the Tantric tradition, the Ten Mahavidyas (literally meaning “Great knowledge”) are believed to be the ten forms of Mahadevi, the Great Goddess (Kinsley 57). The Mahavidyas are separate goddesses, but they are part of and understood to be different facets of Mahadevi. The term Devi is usually used to refer to the wife of Siva – whether Parvati, Durga, or Kali – but it is also used to describe other goddesses (Hawley et al., 318). Mostly, it is used to describe the Goddess, the one whose form is absolute feminine reality (Hawley et al. 318). She has many sides, all expressed through different goddesses, including the Mahavidyas. Her gentle side is worshiped through Uma, Parvati, Bhuvanesvari, Savitri, Sita, and many others (Prakashan 16). Her terrible or ferocious side is worshiped through such goddesses as Kali, Bhairavi, and Chamunda (Prakashan 16).

The first of the Ten Mahavidyas is Kali, “The Black One,” a fierce and terrible warrior (Hawley et al. 320). Following are Tara (The Goddess Who Guides Through Troubles), Tripura-sundari (She Who is Lovely in the Three Worlds), Bhuvanesvari (She Whose Body is the World), Chinnamasta (The Self-Decapitated Goddess), Bhairavi (The Fierce One), Dhumavati (The Widow Goddess), Bagalamukhi (The Paralyser), Matangi (The Outcaste Goddess), and finally, Kamala (The Lotus Goddess) (Kinsley 9). [The order and composition of the Mahavidyas varies somewhat, but for the purpose of this essay I will use the list above]. In some myths the Mahavidyas originate from Kali. In others, Sati, Parvati, Durga, or Sataksi become the source of the Mahavidyas when they assert their independence from their husbands or male counterparts (Kinsley 22). However, the Mahadevi myth is the version most widely accepted.

The Mahavidyas are charged with maintaining cosmic order and morality (dharma) by eliminating evil and corruption (Kinsley 20). Each was created to bring a positive change to the world. Kali was created to kill the demons of the world; Bhuvanesvari was created to save the world when it sank beneath the waters of the cosmic ocean (Kinsley 21). Demon slaying is a key motif. The Mahavidyas are believed to be based on the ten avatars of Visnu, his divine descendents that manifest in the physical world (Bhattacharyya 229). Each Mahavidya corresponds to an avatar. All the Mahavidyas are associated with magical powers, especially Bagalamukhi. Some have powers of attraction, others can kill a person just by willing it (Kinsley 56).

Bhuvanesvari, the fourth of the Ten Mahavidyas, embodies and controls the cosmos (Kinsley 131). According to one myth, she was created when the sun god, Surya, after receiving soma from the rsis, created the three worlds (the ancestral, human, and godly planes). Bhuvanesvari then appeared to protect and watch over the worlds, having not existed until they were brought into being. For this reason she is regarded as “mistress of the world” (Kinsley 129). She is considered part of the world or the world itself, both a source of creation and creation personified. She is queen of the cosmos. From her the world was created, and will be returned to at the end of the cycle. She is the mother of Brahma, Visnu, and Siva (Kinsley 134). Thus the cycle of creation, maintenance, and destruction is formed and maintained by Bhuvanesvari.

Bhuvanesvari is particularly associated with the earth and creation, and provides the energy needed for existence and life (Kinsley 131). She is believed to embody each of the five elements (bhutas), and to have an intimate connection to the physical world (prakrti) (Kinsley 133). Bhuvanesvari can manifest as mountains, stars, rivers, anything; she is pervasive in the physical world (Kinsley, 130). She is also known as Bhuvana (Mistress of the World), Sarvesi (Mistress of All), Sarvarupa (She Whose Form is All), and Visvarupa (She Whose Form is the World), to name a few (Kinsley 131). Unlike some of the other Mahavidyas, Bhuvanesvari did not have a wide-spread cult or following prior to be incorporated as one of the Ten (Kinsley 129).

Bhuvanesvari is beautiful, with a smiling face, flowing black hair, and a golden complexion (Kinsley 140). Sometimes, she is described as having a red, or bluish pallor (Kinsley 133). Her features are feminine: a small nose, large eyes, and full red lips (Kinsley 140). Her breasts are full and leaking milk, emphasising the motherly role she plays in the cosmos (Kinsley 11). In one myth Siva grew a third eye so that he could appreciate her beauty more (Kinsley 140). Her smiling and gentle demeanour is in contrast to some of the other Mahavidyas, such as Kali. They are still beautiful, but they are more fearsome; depicted as standing on corpses, wearing garlands of human heads, or naked and covered in blood. All the Mahavidyas are fearsome, but this aspect is stressed as a key feature in some and not in others. Kali, Tara, Bagala, Dhumavati, and Chinnamasta are always described as terrible, frightening, and fierce. The formidable nature of Tripura-sundari, Bhairavi, Matangi, and Bhuvanesvari is mentioned, but not as much emphasis is placed on this feature. Only Kamala is regarded as benevolent (Kinsley 37).

Bhuvanesvari’s beauty is said to reflect the beauty of creation and the physical world (Kinsley 141). She is gracious and kind, giving the world all it needs to survive. She protects creation and fights against sources of disorder, restoring the cosmic balance so that the world may thrive. Bhuvanesvari is said to have developed a third eye to better watch over creation (Kinsley 141). Often, she will appear as different manifestations to slay demons and restore balance (Kinsley 134).

Bhuvanesvari is depicted with a noose and goad; both symbols suggest control (Kinsley 141). Some believe that she uses the goad for discipline and to control evil emotions such as anger, lust, and obsession. The noose symbolizes the barriers that keep us from knowing our true selves (atman), and by proxy, attaining liberation (Kinsley 141). However, countless interpretations exist. Her other two hands convey gestures of fearlessness and conferring boons (Kinsley 141). She also appears with a red lotus and a jewelled bowl, symbolizing growth and wealth (Kinsley 141). Not surprisingly, worship of Bhuvanesvari is believed to bring the devotee material wealth and spiritual well-being (Kinsley 143).

She is seated on a lotus, a position of power with connotations of creation (Kinsley 142). In another creation myth, Brahma is depicted sitting on a lotus flower growing out of Visnu’s navel. The lotus symbolises power, purity, and transcendence (Kinsley 142). Also, a crescent moon is present on her forehead, believed to symbolize replenishment, the endless cycles of creation and destruction, from which the world is produced each time (Kinsley 142).

Bhuvanesvari does not have a consort, which is unusual for female deities in the Hindu tradition. The same is true for the other Mahavidyas, although some believe that they are loosely associated with Siva, who is sometimes portrayed as the consort of the Goddess (Kinsley 62). For those who are associated with male deities such as Kali, Tara, and Kamala, the association is down-played or ignored when they are worshiped as part of the Mahavidyas (Kinsley 63). If they are depicted with male counterparts, they dominate him, most often by standing on his prone form (Kinsley 63). Bhuvanesvari is, however, associated with the formless Brahman, one of Visnu’s avatars, as are all the Mahavidyas (Kinsley 16).

Sakta devotees at Bhuvanesvari Temple (Kamarupa, Assam)

Devotion to Bhuvanesvari is believed to confer auspiciousness, attraction of others to you, control over others, especially enemies, and the power to manifest any spoken thought (Kinsley 143). Tantric worship of the Mahavidyas culminates in self-awareness and is said to awaken the deity within oneself (Kinsley 51). This enlightenment is key to achieving moksa or liberation. Also sought after is heightened sensory perception (Kinsley 51). Furthermore, boons may be granted by the goddesses to devout followers, bestowing wisdom and magical powers (Kinsley 51). Temple worship varies considerably between the Mahavidyas. Some, like Kali and Laksmi (Kamala) have temples throughout India. Others, including Bhuvanesvari, have few places of worship. Temples that worship the Mahavidyas as a group are also rare (Kinsley 16). However, depictions of the Mahavidyas can usually be found on temple walls dedicated to most goddesses (Kinsley 15).

In conclusion, Bhuvanesvari plays a minor if any role within the Hindu tradition. Her role becomes somewhat more prominent within Tantric worship, but she is still a minor goddess. Other Mahavidya goddesses receive more attention in both, such as Kali and Kamala, also know as Laksmi. Despite her important function in the world, writings on her are few and far between. She is almost never studied or worshiped outside the group of Mahavidyas. This is unfortunate for she plays a pivotal role in the cosmos and her character and worldly position demand more attention.

References and Recommended Reading

Bhattacharyya, Narendra (1977) The Indian Mother Goddess. Delhi: Manohar Book Service.

Donaldson, Thomas (2002) Tantra and Sakta Art of Orissa. New Delhi: D.K. Printworld.

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

Kinsley, David (1997) Tantric Visions of the Devine Feminine: The Ten Mahavidyans. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers.

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

Prakashan, Rekha (1980) The Little Goddesses (Matrikas). New Delhi: Caxton Press.

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

Samuel, Geoffrey (2005) Tantric Revisionings: New Understandings of Tibetan Buddhism and Indian Religion. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers.

Tewari, Naren (1988) The Mother Goddess Vaishno Devi. Delhi: Lancer International.

Related Topics







Demon slaying





Durga Purja


Kamala (Laksmi)









Tantric Goddess Worship



Vishnu (Ten Avatars)


Websites for Further Reading

Article written by Emilyne Jankunis (Spring 2012), who is solely responsible for its content.

The Goddess Sati

The goddess Sati may be recognized by her relationship with the great god Siva as she is his first and second wife. Sati is more than this, however; she is known by many names and is worshiped as her reincarnation Parvati. Her whole being may in fact be summed up to lure Siva into marriage so that he may be incorporated into more of the world, such as to keep creation enlivened and to enter the householder role in order to release his stored energies in a positive fashion (Kinsley 1986:35).

The origins of Sati are unknown, she is not a Vedic goddess but there are references to the wife of Siva in some Vedic literature by the name of Ambika. This name, however, is later used to represent other goddesses. Another name used for Siva’s wife is Rudrani. It is not certain whether these goddesses are in fact Sati, and therefore, whether or not Sati’s origins are in Vedic literature. Later Sati goes by one of her modern and more common names, Uma Haimavati in the Kena-upanisad, although her role is not as Siva’s wife. Just as suddenly as she appears in this text she disappears, and though this may seem untrustworthy other texts reference this as proof of her origins in past Hindu tradition (Kinsley 1986:36).  One of the earliest references using the name Sati is in the Hindu epic the Mahabharata where she is described as living with Siva in the Himalayas (Rodrigues 298). In addition to the textual evidence, there is some archaeological evidence for her origins and history, including coins that have an image of a goddess that is linked with a Siva symbol (Kinsley 1986:37).

The main myth of Sati is also important in her history as it provides insight into her characteristics and life. She was the beautiful daughter of the god Daksa, considered the male Vedic creative deity. Sati desires the god Siva, the destroyer, and through her devotion and ascetic practices she finally attracts Siva’s attention and becomes his first wife. Her motives for wanting to be his wife are not clear, and in some texts it is Brahma who sets up their marriage as he wants Siva to feel sexual desire. In the Siva-purana, specifically the Rudra-samhita, Brahma says that if Siva does not involve himself in the created world then creation cannot continue. When Siva starts noticing Sati he develops kama (desire), which he has not felt before and the couple are married. After their union the couple retreat to the mountains for love-play (Kinsley 1986: 37-38). Siva and Sati are very much in love as told in the Kalika Purana, Siva painting Sati’s feet, gathering flowers to make her garlands and he becomes invisible to surprise her with embraces (McDaniel 40). The couple stay there for many years, but the marriage is not a happy occasion for everyone. Daksa does not approve of Siva due to his messy appearance and different habits. In order to disgrace Siva, Daksa plans a yajna, or sacrifice, but does not invite either Siva or Sati. Sati is very insulted by this and shows up at the event only to be snubbed again by her father (Rodrigues 298). This frustrates her even further and in her rage she commits suicide by closing the nine doors of her body and while sitting in an asana, or yoga position, sends her spirit out her tenth door, or the top of her head (McDaniel 40). When Siva hears of Sati’s death he becomes furious and creates terrible beings that kill Daksa, the divine hosts, and destroy the sacrifice. He then takes Sati’s body and travels the universe, grieving. This upsets the cosmic balance of the world and Visnu is called upon to end the turmoil. While Siva is traveling Visnu follows him and cuts off pieces of Sati’s body, which fall to earth and become holy places or pithas. When Siva realizes that Sati’s body is gone he returns to the mountains and continues his normal practices (Kinsley 1986: 38).

This myth contains many underlying themes in the Hindu tradition such as a wife’s loyalty, the cosmic balance and Siva’s role in the universe. Before Sati, Siva lived in the mountains to practice austerities and was disinterested in the world around him. Nonetheless, when he is married he engages himself in the world and develops a householder role. His awakening desire is important for the universe because with the release of his seed creation is enriched and enlivened (Kinsley 1986:38). There are also some tensions in this myth, between deities and even references to unease between religious and caste groups. For example in the early period of Hindu history the Saivites, at the time considered a non-Vedic unorthodox group, have disagreements with the orthodox Brahma worshipers, who follow the Vedic tradition. These groups are paralleled in the myth, Siva representing the Saivites with his ascetic practices and dissociation with Vedic sacrificial rituals, whereas the orthodox group is represented by Daksa, the son of Brahma. In the myth this conflict is mediated by Sati, as she brings Siva into the householder role. Although Siva demonstrates his power and his dislike of yajnas when he destroys Daksa’s ceremony, in the restoration myth he is incorporated into the orthodox tradition and returned to order when the yajna is reenacted (Rodrigues 299). Another theme in this myth is the connection between Sati and Siva, as their union may represent many things. For example, the traditional union between a deity of the earth and a deity of the sky is expressed by the relationship between Sati, who represents the sky and Siva who represents the Himalayas. Historically this union creates and sustains life as the marriage between Sati and Siva allows creation to continue (Kinsley 1986:40). In a simpler association Sati represents the yoni while Siva represents the linga, and in one version of the myth when Sati falls and creates pithas Siva follows and embeds himself in her yoni, keeping him on earth (Kinsley 1986:39).

Sati’s name and suicide may be paralleled with the act of sati or widow immolation, where a widow, showing undying loyalty to her husband, will burn herself alive on his funeral pyre (Rodrigues 563). This act was widely accepted in the medieval period and the word sati means “faithful wife”, so there is an association between the act and Sati’s suicide as a devoted wife. This correlation is obscure at best though, because the purpose of sati is for the wife to follow the dead husband, whereas in this myth Siva is not dead, and Sati’s death causes him great sadness and finishes their relationship rather than continuing it (Kinsley 1986:40-41).

After her death, Sati is reincarnated as Parvati, “she who dwells in the mountains” or “she who is of the mountain”. Parvati’s life is essentially the continuation of the life of Sati, and in some myths she agrees to be reborn with the goal of luring Siva into desire and marriage. In other myths she says that she is rewarding Mena, Parvati’s mother, with her birth, as Mena was very devoted to Sati. In other versions Sati and Parvati are both seen as embodiments of the great goddess Mahadevi to retain the balance between dharma and adharma (Kinsley 1986:42).

Parvati is the daughter of Himavat, the deity of the Himalayas and his wife Mena, and she is described as being very beautiful but dark-skinned being given the nickname Kali “the dark-one”. A sage comes to her home he looks at the markings on her body he predicts that she will marry a naked yogi, or Siva. Unlike Sati’s parents, Himavat and Mena are honored to have Siva as their son-in-law and the god Kama is sent to stir lust in Siva so that he will notice Parvati. This does not work as planned, as Siva is annoyed by Kama’s attempts and kills him with fire from his third eye. Parvati is not deterred by this and she begins austerities to create tapas. Tapas has many functions; in this case it is an extreme heat produced by praying that makes the gods uncomfortable so that they grant the ascetic wish, thus preventing the world and themselves from being burned. Through her persistence Siva finally notices Parvati and falls in love with her and they are soon married (Kinsley 1986:42-43). The couple then retreat to Mount Kailasa for love-play and they engage in love-making that shakes the cosmos. During their passion they are interrupted by the gods who are afraid of the quakes, and Siva accidentally spills his seed outside of Parvati which passes to the Ganges where it is incubated and becomes the child Karttikeya. Their child makes his way back to his parents where Parvati then welcomes him as her own son (Kinsley 1986:43).  Parvati also conceives her own son, Ganesa. As the tale goes, while Siva was away Parvati yearns for her own child and creates a boy out of her own body, who she then he asks to guard the entrance of her home to prevent anyone from entering and disturbing her. When Siva arrives home Ganesa blocks his path, angering Siva who cuts off the boy’s head. This greatly distresses Parvati and she orders Siva to bring Ganesa back to life. Siva complies and while looking for a new head for the boy encounters an elephant, whose head he takes and places on Ganesa’s body, reviving him in the process (Rodrigues 302). In this way Sati fulfills her role as a maiden, then as a wife and even later a mother.

Sati also has an alter ego that is named Kali. In the Vamana Purana it is written that Parvati receives this name as she is dark-skinned, but when Siva uses this name in teasing Parvati, she becomes irritated and performs austerities to become the “golden one”, or Gauri. Her dark sheath is left over however, and it transforms into Kausiki the ferocious battle queen who in turn creates the goddess Kali (Hawley and Wulff 79). In the Mahabhagavata-purana Siva forbids Sati to disrupt her father’s yajna and in doing so he makes her very angry. In her wrath she transforms into a fearful woman who is plainly unlike the graceful Sati. She loses her composure, her hair messy and her temperament fiery; she develops four arms and her wagging tongue lolls out of her mouth. She is also garbed in a garland of human heads and a half-moon crown. This terrifying form of Sati is known as Kali. Siva is so afraid by this he tries to flee but to prevent his escape Sati blocks his way with her ten different forms, the Mahavidyas or wisdom goddesses. Siva is so shocked and terrified by this that he finally allows Sati to go to the sacrifice (Kinsley 1997: 23-25).

Worship of Sati varies because when pieces of Sati’s body fall to earth they create pithas, or holy sites where it is believed the goddess shows her powers. Even in modern times these sites are visited by pilgrims and are worshiped. (McDaniel 3). The number of sati pithas varies between accounts, as little as four to as many as one hundred and ten sites are recorded (Kinsley 1986; 186). These pithas may be stones or statues, but some believe in a variation of the Sati myth where the earth was created from her dismembered body, and the separate pieces of her body each have different levels of power. The pieces with the most power are recognized as sacred stones called thakurs. A temple built where there is a stone may be revealed and then recognized as a sati pitha, and new sites have been preserved throughout history, even in the present day (McDaniel 31-32). The most documented and well known site is Kamarupa in Assam, and some of the newest sites from the ninteenth and twentieth centuries are Adyapitha and Tarapitha in West Bengal (Kinsley 1996;186)(McDaniel 33).

References and Related Readings:

Dallapiccola, Anne L. (1944) Dictionary of Hindu Lore and Legend. New York: Thames and Hudson Press

Hawley, J.S., and D.M. Wulff. (1996) Devi: Goddesses of India.

Kinsley, David R. (1986) Tantric Visions of the Divine Feminine: the Ten Mahavidyas. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Kinsley, David R.  (1996) Devi: Goddesses of India. Berkeley: University of California Press

McDaniel, June. (2004) Offering Flowers, Feeding Skulls: Popular Goddess Worship in West Bengal. New York: Oxford University Press.

Rodrigues, Hillary. (2006) Hinduism- The Ebook. Journal of Buddhist Ethics Online Books

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Sati pithas





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Article written by: Briana Smith (April 2010) who is solely responsible for its contents.

Siva and Kali

There are many different deities that can be found in the Hindu tradition, two of which are Siva and Kali.  This article will be focusing on these two gods through the discussion of different myths associated with them, primarily dealing with those myths that associate the two of them together.  Before getting into the different myths, it may be beneficial to first introduce these two gods a little further.  This will provide a better understanding of the various characteristics that are associated with each of the gods, which will be beneficial in the discussion of the different myths presented later in the article.

Siva, whose name when translated means “auspicious”, is primarily identified as the supreme ascetic, or yogi.  He is depicted with long matted hair that is often tied up in a topknot.  He has bracelets of snakes, a trident, and is usually riding a bull (Nandi).  Siva is known as “the destroyer,” who is responsible for destroying the cosmos at the end of time.  He is also known as “the creator,” who through his ascetic practices stores up his seed, the source of all creation, and is often depicted with an erect phallus known as the linga, which is one of the most worshipped symbols in Hindu practice (Rodrigues 296-297).  An interesting aspect of Siva is that his persona is often described as embodying a bipolar character (Rodrigues 296).  On one hand, Siva is the ideal ascetic (yogi) spending all of his time in meditation generating knowledge, and storing his seed preventing creation, while on the other hand he is described as extremely erotic by nature.  Stories found in the Puranas associate Siva with Parvati and provide evidence to his erotic nature.  Another interesting note is that Siva has also been described as being confused, or torn, between these two different aspects, at times trying to understand why Parvati appeals to him since he is such a perfect ascetic (O’Flaherty 4-7).

Kali, whose name can be translated to mean “dark time,” symbolizes the destruction that time brings to all things (Rodrigues 319-320).  She is described as being dark skinned and wild looking, with her tongue sticking out.  She is usually naked wearing only a belt of severed arms, a necklace of human heads, serpent bracelets, and the bodies of children as earrings.  She is frequently found on a battlefield with weapons and a severed head in her hands, usually drunk on the blood of her enemies, and engaged in a furious rampage (McDermott and Kripal 26).  The origin of Kali varies in different myths, some of which will be discussed later.  Many of the myths involve her being brought into being during times of battle, which result from the transformation of different female goddesses such as Durga, Parvati, Sati, and Sita (McDermott and Kripal 24-26).

There are many different myths in Hinduism that show an association between the two deities, Siva and Kali.  The exact degree of this association is under debate, with many claims identifying Kali as a consort of Siva (McDermott and Kripal 23).  One story supporting the consort theory can be found in the Mahabhagavata Purana.  In this story Kali and Sati are identified as the same being.  Kali, as the Great Goddess, creates Brahma, Visnu, and Siva.  They are then each required to fulfill a test for the honor to win her as their wife.  For this test she appears before them in a horrible form that actually made Brahma, and Visnu both turn away from fear.  Siva, being the only one that did not turn away, won the right to marry her after her birth as Sati, the daughter of Daksa (McDermott and Kripal 47).

Another story that supports the consort theory of Kali and Siva involves the creation, and death of Ganesa.  Ganesa was created as a son to Siva and Durga, while Siva was away.  Because Siva was gone, Durga ordered Ganesa to guard the door while she took a bath.  When Siva came back he discovered this young man guarding his door.  Siva was not aware that this young man was his son, as he had been away at the time of Ganesa’s creation.  After trying to get into the house, and being stopped by Ganesa, Siva chopped off the head of Ganesa (which the gods later replaced with an elephant’s head in an attempt to calm Durga).  Upon discovering what had happened to her son, and after being unable to find Ganesa’s head, Durga became enraged, turning black.  She then started to kill men, and drink their blood, and the gods started to call her Kali Ma (McDaniel 236-237).

As is shown by the story of Ganesa, many of the stories about the origins of Kali actually have her being created through the anger, or grief of other goddesses.  The goddesses, through their emotions (usually anger), are transformed into Kali.  Another example, also involving Durga, occurs during the battle with the demon Mahisasura.  Durga was created by the gods to destroy Mahisasura who, due to a boon given to him by the gods, would only able to be killed by a naked female.  Durga had gone into the battle without knowing this condition.  Eventually she was notified of this boon, and after stripping noticed that Mahisasura would stare at her yoni, providing her the opportunity to finally defeat him.  After Durga had destroyed Mahisasura, she became so embarrassed and enraged by this boon the demon had, that she turned into Kali and set about trying to destroy the world.  Kali (Durga) felt that a world with such gods should not be in existence.  The gods then, out of fear, turned to the ascetic Siva to try to calm her down.  Siva, seeing the world was in danger, lay down in front of Kali, so that while she was dancing in her fit of destruction she would step on him.  The moment Kali stepped on Siva she stopped her dance out of shame and embarrassment for having stepped on her husband, and turned back into Durga (McDermott and Kripal 84-85).  Another interpretation of this story actually suggests that Siva was sent to have sex with Kali to calm her down.  By her dancing on top of him, his linga actually entered her, and she stopped her dance of destruction calming down and turning back into Durga (McDaniel 238).

The Linga-purana portrays Kali as a result of the transformation of Parvati.  In this story Parvati is summoned to destroy Daruka as he, like the demon Mahisasura, can only be destroyed by a female.  Parvati then enters into Siva’s body, transforming herself from the poison in his throat, into the blackened, bloodthirsty goddess Kali.  Once she has transformed, and with the help of some flesh eating spirits (pisacas), she is then able to destroy Daruka, and his army.  Following the battle, Kali then becomes enraged and more bloodthirsty, threatening to destroy the world prematurely, until Siva again comes along, and is able to calm her down (McDermott and Kripal 25)

The god Siva accompanied by Kali and Ganesa, is depicted on a wall at Veeramakaliamman Temple in Singapore
The god Siva accompanied by Kali and Ganesa, is depicted on a wall at Veeramakaliamman Temple in Singapore

As most of the stories seem to indicate, in many situations involving Siva and Kali, Siva appears to play a large role in the calming, and controlling Kali.  Kali is usually portrayed as a bloodthirsty goddess who is often found on a battlefield in some kind of rampage. Kali’s behavior is also often described as erratic, causing her to be easily angered.  Siva has been known to use different techniques to control Kali, including the laying in front of her after the battle with Mahisasura.  During another similar rampage, Siva appeared on the battlefield as an infant, and is able to calm Kali by drawing out her motherly emotions (McDermott and Kripal 36).  In another story Kali and Siva engage in a dance contest in the forest (Smith 145).  In this story, Kali, having just defeated Sumbha and Nisumbha, takes up residence in a forest and begins to terrorize its inhabitants.  One of these inhabitants is a devotee of Siva, and goes to him for help in ridding the forest of Kali.  When Siva shows up he challenges Kali to a dance contest, which he eventually wins by performing his tandava dance (McDermott and Kripal 26).

As mentioned before, Siva always takes the role of calming Kali, not the other way around.  Some stories, however, indicate that Kali is rather successful at bringing out the wild and destructive side of Siva as well.  They both are said to feed off one another’s destructive tendencies, which often result in frenzied dances, threatening to destroy the cosmos.  One such instance is told in Bhavabhuti’s Malatimadhava, where Siva and Kali are found dancing madly around Kali’s temple, with the destructive nature of the dance frightening all those present, including the goddess Parvati (McDermott and Kripal 26).

The question of who is dominant in the relationship seems to be a major topic of debate in the Hindu tradition.  Images that portray the two together almost always show a naked Kali on top of Siva either engaging in sex in the “reverse position,” where the female is on top, or just with Kali standing on top of Siva, like in the story of the defeat of Mahisasura (though some argue that the image does not actually represent the location of a battlefield, but actually occurs on a mountaintop). There are also arguments as to whether it was actually Siva’s idea to lie in front of Kali, or if Kali had actually been able to throw him to the ground during his attempt to stop her rampage (McDermott and Kripal 82-85). Kali is also shown to be sticking her tongue out which has been widely interpreted as representing her embarrassment and shame (lajya) for stepping on her husband.  Another interpretation of the image is that Kali is shown dancing on the corpse of the world at the end of time, which is symbolized by her dancing on Siva who is responsible for the destruction of the cosmos (McDaniel 242-243).  The Mahabhagavata tells a different story where Siva, after having forgotten that his wife Sita was the Supreme Goddess (Kali), sees her transformed appearing as Kali, and asks for the boon to always appear at her feet as a corpse as a sign of devotion (McDermott and Kripal 49-50).  Many also identify the image as portraying the relationship between purusa and prakrti, where Siva is the inert purusa, and Kali represents the creative and active aspect of prakrti (McDermott and Kripal 53).

There are many different stories and images that include Siva and Kali.  As should have been made evident in this article, there is also a lot of controversy over the interpretation of these many sources.  These interpretations, especially those dealing with the proposed dominance of one god over the other, seem to depend largely on the degree to which each god is being worshipped.  Those that focus their worship on Siva, such as many ascetics do, would argue that he is above Kali on the hierarchy, which would be in contrast to those worshiping Kali, or that of the divine female power (McDermott and Kripal 86).

References and Further Recommended Reading

Harding, Elizabeth (2004) Kali. Delhi: Shri Jainendra Press.

McDaniel, June (2004) Offering Flowers, Feeding Skulls. New York: Oxford University Press.

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

O’Flaherty, Wendy Doniger (1973) Asceticism and Eroticism in the Mythology of Siva. London: Oxford University Press

Olson, Carl (2007) Hindu Primary Sources: A Sectarian Reader. Piscataway, N.J.: Rutgers University Press

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

Smith, David (1998) The Dance of Shiva. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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Article written by: Zack Olsen (April 2010) who is solely responsible for its contents.


Mariyamman is a goddess that is primarily worshiped in Southern India among the Tamil speaking people. She used to be associated with the disease smallpox, but since its elimination she has become associated with other diseases. [For more information on smallpox and its effect on India see Egnor (1984)]. In Tamil Nadu folk etymology, Mariyamman’s name can be taken from maru ‘she with a changed body’ or ‘she in her many manifestations’ (Voorthuizen 254). Mari can also mean “rain” as well as “changed”, which are why she is also referred to as “the changed mother” or “the rain mother” (Egnor 31).  It is believed that she possess a power that is able to cure people even if they seem too ill, as well as to help people overcome other adversities that they may face. The majority of people that turn to her belong to the lower castes but she does assist all classes (Egnor 25). She also deals more with women and problems of fertility but she is also available to men when they need it. Many people continue to worship Mariyamman in order to stay on her good side so that she won’t turn against them and their loved ones. She has often even been described as “bloodthirsty” and is still to this day described as a “wild” goddess (Younger 493). Mariyamman shares many characteristics with Sitala, the north Indian smallpox goddess. [See Dasa (1995) for more on Sitala]. Mariyamman is on par with the other major deities in the area, in terms of her popularity, status, wealth and authority (Egnor 25).

Mariyamman was once thought to have inhabited villages or small towns in Tamil Nadu and to have lived among poor rural migrants in urban areas. At one point it was only low-caste priests that worshiped her, but since then her popularity has grown among the middle-class. To the villagers of Tamil Nadu, Mariyamman is their local deity who protects them against disease and misfortune. Statues of her stand guard at the borders of the villages and protect the people against unwelcome visitors (Voorthuizen 250). Sometimes Mariyamman can be represented as a black figure protected by a cobra; other times she has the head of a Brahman, but the body of an untouchable (Voorthuizen 250).

There are many stories that are tied to Mariyamman and how she is associated with smallpox. She can be both the cause and the cure of the disease. When she is the cause, it is believed to be an act of anger or revenge for improper worship. The disease can also be seen as demons that Mariyamman protects the village from (Voorthuizen 251). Some people believe that Mariyamman manifests herself in the symptoms of smallpox. It is believed that being infected with the disease means being possessed by the goddess. The pocks on the skin are said to be visible signs of her presence and are considered to be her eyes (Voorthuizen 251). The pocks can also be considered to be “pearls”, bestowed by Mariyamman, or “kisses” (Egnor 26).  It is thought that her looks can burn her worshipper’s skin and form deep pockmarks. In some stories Mariyamman herself suffers from smallpox, she walks among the villagers as an old women with a face covered with many pock-like sores (Voorthuizen 251). Some people also believe that Mariyamman is the disease itself and any attempt to remove that disease will only anger her and make it worse (Egnor 25).

Mariyamman has many temples in which worshippers can come to. The temple in Samayapuram has one of the largest incomes and attendances. It is already one of the wealthiest in Tamil Nadu. It even surpasses its ancient and famous neighbor, the Vaisnava temple in Srirangam (Waghorne 232). Temple officials even claim that Mariyamman is the third wealthiest temple deity in India. The complex consists of the main temple, which is dedicated to Mariyamman, and six other smaller temples that are dedicated to other deities. This complex is constantly under renovation in order to hold the large amount of worshippers that visit it daily (Younger 494). Most of the worshippers that come to Samayapuram come from the neighboring city of Tirucirapalli. Worshippers come to this temple to ask Mariyamman to help with problems of fertility, sickness, marital and job problems. The reason that people come from Tirucirapalli is because they “see her as a deity who, like themselves, did not enjoy the respect of learned Brahmanas or kings of old, and does not win the approval of missionaries or the support of westernized civil servants today” (Younger 501). Mariyamman is believed to have stood up to their disrespect and because of that “ they feel that she alone can understand their individual problems, can provide a sense of unity and identity by tying together the jumble of lower castes which make up their society, can give them a sense of continuity with the village roots they still carry with them, and through those roots can tie them to the larger order of the cosmos” (Younger 501).

Another popular temple devoted to Mariyamman is located in a city called Camiyaporam. This temple also attracts a large amount of worshippers. The temple used to conduct blood sacrifices but since the Brahmin’s took control of the temple, it is no longer allowed. The images that are strewn about the temples make Mariyamman look more like a high deity. She is depicted with a white face in a sitting position, holding a cup of blood, which symbolizes the skull, as well as a dagger (Voorthuizen 250). These objects are meant to symbolize her fierceness.

There are many different festivals that are held each year in honor of Mariyamman. The month of Adi, the dry period of July-August, is when the festivals meant to honor Mariyamman generally occur. [See Egnor (1984) for more on Adi]. One of them is a flower festival, held in Pudukkottai. During this festival men and women dress in bright yellow saris and walk for miles carrying pots while families give offerings on bamboo poles. Some even shave off all their hair, while others dance ecstatically and fling themselves around (Waghorne 232). These are just a few of the things you would see during the flower festival. In another Mariyamman festival, in Narttamalai, the managers of a motorcycle plant, along with other businesses, have transformed the old festival into something new. Floats now carry proper utsava murti (portable bronze images) of goddesses on lotus buds (Waghorne 232). These floats and the people who come to see them, crowd along the old road that leads to the ancient Mariyamman temple-complex. One of the biggest festivals in honor of Mariyamman is held in Samayapuram. Approximately one hundred thousand worshippers attend this annual festival (Younger 494). During the second week of April, the road leading up to the temple is packed with people camping on the side of the road (Younger 495). Huge offering boxes become stuffed so full so quickly that a temple official has to stand nearby with a rake, pushing the money and jewelry into the box (Younger 495). This festival starts about a mile or two away from the temple and the trek consists of a hurried walk or dance that the people perform. They continue up the road towards the temple while other worshippers stand on the side of the road and watch. The intensity of the dancing builds up gradually until the worshipers reach the temple (Younger 496). From there they make offerings and gradually move onto the main shrine to worship the goddess (Younger 496). Each person performs their own kind of worship that is different from the others. Some people put themselves through a special ordeal and have a sacred weapon inserted through their cheeks or tongue. [For more information on this practice see Younger (1980)].  Some go even farther and build an elaborate shrine structure around them and anchor it to their skin by thirty or forty wires (Younger 496). Others come suspended by wires from a great boom mounted on a bullock cart and swing far above the crowd (Younger 496). To have your child touched or carried by one of these people is an important blessing. One person usually plays the role of the leader by dancing ahead and leading the party up the road toward the temple. In behind that person comes drummers that set a constant beat, two other people hold the Vowkeeper. [For more on the Vowkeeper and his position see Younger (1980)]. Others follow carrying water that they constantly throw over the head of the Vowkeeper (Younger 496). The movements of the worshippers are always sporadic. Worshippers cluster around women who have gone into a trance and claim to be “possessed” by Mariyamman (Younger 497). Once at the temple these women stand inside and out, telling fortunes to people that are walking past. The point of the festival is to reaffirm village and caste roots, as well as to associate Mariyamman of past heritage with present problems of the city (Younger 504). While the festival is considered to be old, it is the new temple renovations and the “new” power of the goddess that the audience talks about (Younger 504).

Clearly it is hard to label Mariyamman as just a goddess of smallpox when she is associated with so many other things. Her popularity has grown over the past from lower class worshippers to higher class Brahmins. Mariyamman’s popularity, the amount of her devotees and the amount of wealth spent in her worship does not seem to be dependent on the prevalence or even the existence of the smallpox disease (Egnor 27). Although there has been an increase in her popularity there is still very little literature that is connected with her. It is very clear that she is and always will be an important aspect of the Tamil speaking people’s daily lives and that she helps to bring a sense of identity to all her worshippers (Younger 495).

Bibliography and Further Recommended Readings

Dasa, Krsnarama (1995) Encountering the smallpox goddess: the auspicious song of Sitala. Princeton: Princeton University Press

Egnor, Margaret (1984) “The changed mother or what the smallpox goddess did when there was no more smallpox.” Contributions to Asian Studies, Retrieved from ATLA Religion Database.

Ferrari, Fabrizio (2007) “‘Love me two times.’ From smallpox to AIDS: contagion and possession in the cult of Sitala.” Religions of South Asia, Retrieved from ATLA Religion Database

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

Voorthuizen, Anne van (2001) Mariyamman’s sakti: the miraculous power of a smallpox goddess. Boston: Brill

Waghorne, Joanne (2001) The gentrification of the goddess. Quebec: World Heritage Press.

Younger, Paul (1980) “A temple festival of Mariyamman.” The Journal of the American Academy of Religion. Oxford: Oxford University Press

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Spirit Possession


Folk etymology


Class/caste system




Vaisnava temple



Blood sacrifices



Utsava murti

Sacred weapons

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Article Written by: Christina Mills (April 2010) who is solely responsible for its content.

The Ten Mahavidyas

When discussing the ten Mahavidyas, it may seem like a daunting task to understand how goddesses, one with a garland of skulls, another with clothing made of severed body parts, and a third with a habit of cutting off her own head, can be highly regarded within the Hindu tradition, but they are. These obscure beings are regarded as being significant to the basic themes of Hindu beliefs and spirituality (Kinsley 1998:1). “It seems that there is logic to the group as a whole and that even its most outrageous members, if understood within their proper context, reveal important spiritual truths” (Kinsley 1998:1). The idea of this group of ten goddesses has been around since the early medieval period (Kamakala-khanda 65-66); specific goddesses within this group even predate this time and continue to be well known in the present day.

The origination of the ten Mahavidyas is not always agreed upon. Some say that the ten Mahavidyas as a whole seem to be “a medieval iconographic and mythological expression of an aspect of Mahadevi theology” (Kinsley 1986:161). There are numerous myths about the Devi in which she is described as producing these goddesses from different parts of her body (Vamana-purana 30.3-9). The Devi is thought to assume these different incarnations in an attempt to maintain cosmic stability (Devi-mahatmya 11.38-50).

“The ten Mahavidyas, at least in part, are probably a Sakta version of the central Vaisnava idea of Visnu’s ten avataras, who appear from time to time to maintain the order of dharma” (Sircar 48). The Guhyatiguhya-tantra confirms this idea by providing a list of the Mahavidyas and associating each one with a corresponding avatara of Visnu (Kinsley 1986:161). However, the ten Mahavidyas are much more than a Sakta representation of Visnu’s avataras; they display significant contrast from the avataras in respect to their appearance and function (Kinsley 1986:161-162).

The context of the story of Sati and Siva is where the true myth of the ten Mahavidyas’ origin arises. Daksa, Sati’s father decides to perform a notable sacrifice and invites every one that resides in the heavenly spheres to attend. That is, everyone aside from his daughter and her husband Siva. Daksa disapproves of Siva’s unkempt appearance and uncivilized behavior and does not want him to taint the legitimacy of the affair (Kinsley 1986:162). Sati is outraged and makes the decision to interrupt the sacrifice, but Siva forbids her to do so. Sati becomes furious, and as she loses her temper, she embodies an appalling form before eventually transforming and multiplying into ten forms, the ten Mahavidyas (Kinsley 1986:162).

Kali, “the black goddess”, is a perfect example of a goddess that is known outside of the goddess cluster. Although the order, names, and number of the Mahavidyas can vary according to different sources, Kali is always included, and is typically named first. Kali is commonly referred to as the most important or primary Mahavidya (Woodroffe 361). In some occurrences, it appears that the rest of the Mahavidyas originate from Kali, or are in some way differing embodiments of her (Kinsley 1998:68). Descriptions of Kali are altered depending on which account is being looked into, but sources tend to agree on several characteristics. Kali is almost always regarded as being a dark presence with a dreadful appearance. She is considered to have four arms, but what they hold are not always agreed upon (Kinsley 1998:67-68). Some sources cite Kali as holding a bloodied cleaver and a severed head in her left hands, while her right hands gesture blessings and a symbol of “fear not” (Kinsley 1998:9). Others say that along with holding a severed head, she carries a jar full of liquor mixed with meat (Kinsley 1998:68). She is commonly regarded as being horrific looking, covered in blood and body parts. Whatever her description, Kali has taken her place as the primary Mahavidya. The Saktisamgama-tantra explicitly says, “All the deities, including the Mahavidyas, Siddhi-vidyas, Vidyas, and Upa-vidyas, are different forms that Kali assumes” (Bhattacharyya & Dvivedi 7-8). Several authorities then view Kali as a symbol of ultimate reality; she truly reveals the nature of fully awakened consciousness (Kinsley 1998:79).

When the Mahavidyas are listed, Tara is typically immediately listed after Kali. This placement would suggest a proposal of importance to the group. Her physical appearance is indeed the most similar to Kali among all the other Mahavidyas; the significance is often interpreted as being comparable to that of Kali. There is a great possibility that the Hindu Mahavidya Tara was developed from the Buddhist bodhisattva Tara, but whereas the Buddhist Tara is often known as being compassionate, the Hindu Tara is almost always fierce, dangerous, and terrible to witness (Kinsley 1998:92). Tara is frequently described as having three bright red eyes. (Kinsley 1998:98). Much like Kali, Tara is often depicted as having a sword and a severed head in her hands; Tara also wears a garland of skulls around her neck (Rai 179-180).

Tripura-sundari is typically listed third, following Kali and Tara in the list of the Mahavidyas. Her name translates to “She who is lovely in the three worlds” (Kinsley 1998:113). She is listed under multiple names, but is also said to be a primary Mahavidya, suggesting that she represents absolute reality. Tripura-sundari’s dhyana mantra portrays her as such: “She shines with the light of the rising sun. In her four hands she hold a noose, a goad, arrows, and a bow” (Unknown 193).

Bhuvanesvari, literally “she whose body is the world”, comes next on the list of the Mahavidyas. Bhuvanesvari is linked with the earth and with creation and is thought to be the underlying energy of it all (Kinsley 1998:131). She embodies the dynamics of the world as we know it. “In this sense…she is identified with the mahabhutas (the basic physical elements) and prakrti (nature or the physical world)” (Kinsley 1998:131). Bhuvanesvari, apart from being included in the Mahavidyas, does not appear to have a widespread following of her own (Kinsley 1998:131).

“The self-decapitated goddess” Chinnamasta is also best known for her involvement in the Mahavidyas, and does not have much of an individual following. Chinnamasta is illustrated holding her own amputated head in one hand, with a sword in the other, drinking her own blood, which is spilling from her neck (Kinsley 1998:144). Although early references to Chinnamasta have not been located, there are accounts of goddesses that are suggested to be prototypes of her, displaying familiar characteristics such as being headless, bloodthirsty, and violent (Kinsley 1998:146).

Bhairavi translates to mean “the fierce one”. She wears red clothing and is adorned with a garland of severed heads; her body is smeared with blood (Kinsley 1998:167). A hymn from the Sarada-tilaka describes Bhairavi as being in a position that oversees and proceeds over the three male deities that are typically associated with creation. She is considered to be separate from the gods and even surpassing them. This emphasis is quite common in many hymns regarding goddesses, especially in the cases pertaining to the Mahavidyas (Kinsley 1998:169). Bhairavi also assumes the role of an educator and creates the Vedas through her wisdom (Kinsley 1998:169).

Dhumavati is known as the widow goddess. She is typically depicted as being ugly, upset, and disheveled; her hands shake and her eyes are full of concern (Kinsley 1998:176). She symbolizes the painful and more burdensome aspects of life (Kinsley 1998:181). Outside of the Mahavidyas, virtually nothing is known about Dhumavati.

Bagalamukhi can be referred to as “the paralyzer”. She emits a grim disposition and is heavily intoxicated. Her complexion is completely golden, embellished by her yellow dress, ornaments, and garland (Kinsley 1998:193). Bagalamukhi is associated with having magical powers. Her devotees are said to reap the rewards of her powers (Kinsley 1998:199-200).

The Goddess Bagalamukhi (one of the Ten Mahavidyas) (Temple Painting, Patan, Nepal)

Matangi is considered to be the “outcaste” among the other goddesses within this cluster. A particular myth pertaining to Matangi touches on the idea of being polluted by associating with the Candalas, or “the untouchables” (Kinsley 1998:217).

Kamala, the final goddess of the Mahavidyas, is known as “the lotus goddess” (Kinsley 1998:223). Kamala is none other than the goddess Laksmi. Among all of the goddesses included in the ten Mahavidyas, Kamala is the most popular and well known. She is “a goddess with almost completely auspicious, benign, and desirable qualities” (Kinsley 1998:225). Kamala is often identified with a variety of blessings that humans ordinarily seek, such as power, luck, wealth, and safety (Kinsley 1998:225).

Even though a couple of the goddesses are presented as being beautiful and harmless, the context of their origin myth makes it evident that the ten Mahavidyas are intended to be fearsome deities.  Their main objective in the myth is to scare Siva into letting Sita have her way (Kinsley 1986:163-164). This overpowering embodiment displays Sita’s assertion of power, suggesting a sense of superiority (Kinsley 1986:164). In both the Brhaddharma-purana and the Mahabhagavata-purana it is suggested that Sati appears in these forms to allow her devotees to achieve ultimate realization (moksa), and so that they may achieve their desires (Kinsley 1986:164).

The ten Mahavidyas are powerful and relevant as a group, but individually, only a select few can stand on their own and parade a widespread individual following. These primary Mahavidyas personify the concept of absolute reality and complete consciousness, which is at the heart of the Hindu tradition.


Bhattacharyya, B. and Dvivdei, Vrajavallabha (1978) Saktisamgama-tantra. Baroda: Oriental Institute of Baroda.

Gupta, Anand S. (1968) Vamana-purana. Banaras: All-India Kashiraj Trust.

Kamakala-khanda (1974) Mahakala-samhita. Allahabad: Ganganath Jha Research Institute.

Kinsley, David (1986) 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. Delhi: University of California Press.

Rai, R. Kumar (1992) Mantra Mahodadhih. Varanasi: Prachya Prakashan.

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

Sircar, D.C. (1973) The Sakta Pithas. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Vasudeva, S.A. (1963) Devi-mahatmya; The Glorification of the Great Goddess. Banaras: All-India Kashiraj Trust.


Woodroffe, Sir John (1987) Sakti and Sakta, Essays and Addresses. Madras: Ganesh & Co..


Related Topics for Further Investigation

Tantric worship











Severed heads

Cremation grounds

Role of women

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Magical powers

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Article written by: Jamie Hancock (April 2010) who is solely responsible for its content.