I’m often asked about the inspiration behind my books Markswoman and Mahimata. The answer varies, because there are so many things that come to mind: the science fantasies I read as a teen; Star Trek, which aired weekly on our lone television channel and which the entire family watched, along with assorted friends and neighbors; the comics I borrowed from the local bookstore (they had a lending scheme, much more affordable than buying books.)
But the bedrock of my world building for the Asiana duology was Hindu mythology. I grew up listening to stories from the epics and the Puranas. And the stories that most fascinated me were those of the Mother Goddess in all her terrible, beautiful forms, ranging from the fearsome warrior Kali to the lovely Tripura Sundari. So today, I want to tell you about the Dasa Mahavidya, or the Ten Great Wisdoms: ten forms of Adishakti, as manifested by Sati, the wife of God Shiva.
The story goes that Shiva wanted to prevent Sati from attending a ritual sacrifice conducted by her father Daksha, the world-king and son of God Brahma. Daksha had invited all the gods and goddesses except them; in fact, his whole purpose was to insult Shiva, because he hated Shiva, and Sati had married him against his wishes. Shiva knew that nothing good would come of Sati going to her father’s palace. In fact, being Trikaldarshi (knowing all three aspects of time), Shiva knew exactly what would happen, but it appears that knowing fate does not allow even Gods to change what lies ahead.
When Shiva forbade Sati from going, she became enraged. She manifested ten forms of the Mother Goddess, one for each cardinal direction (N, S, W, E, NE, SE, SW, NW, skyward and downward). They surrounded Shiva, preventing him from escaping. These ten forms are known as the Dasa Mahavidya. Eventually, Shiva had to agree to let Sati go to her father’s ritual – with rather terrible consequences, I might add. Daksha insulted Sati and she immolated herself, bringing the wrath of Shiva down on Daksha and his army. In his grief and rage, Shiva invoked his Veerbhadra avatar who decapitated Daksha. But that’s a story for another day.
Each Mahavidya has her own unique name, appearance, mantras, and powers. Here is a brief description of each.
Kali, The Supreme Reality
Kali is the first among the Mahavidyas, because she comes before time, and before light itself. Black-skinned and four-armed, she wears a garland of fifty-two skulls, representing the letters of the Sanskrit alphabet, and also the mortality of her human children. In one of her hands she holds the sword of enlightenment, and from another hand dangles a severed human head, representing the ego.
My favorite story of Goddess Kali is how she destroyed the demon Raktabija. He had a boon that every drop of his blood that fell to the ground would duplicate his entire form. Kali lopped off his head and stretched her long tongue to drink all his blood before it could fall. After vanquishing the demons, Kali began a wild victory dance. The gods begged Shiva to stop her before she destroyed the world. Shiva lay down on her path, and she stepped on him by mistake. When she noticed her husband below her feet, she calmed down. That is why she is often depicted like this, with her foot on Shiva.
Tara, The Compassionate
Similar in appearance to Kali, Tara is the maternal, peaceful aspect of the goddess, who helps her devotees cross the turbulent seas of deceit to the shore of enlightenment. She is sometimes depicted as breastfeeding Shiva, and the reason for that is a very interesting episode from the Puranas called Samudra Manthan, or the churning of the ocean. The gods formed an alliance with the asuras (demons, for lack of a better word, but they are practically cousins to the gods and there is often little to choose between the two) to churn the ocean for the nectar of immortality which they would then share amongst themselves (the gods were lying – they had no intention of sharing). The churning released a number of things from the ocean, including a terrible poison that could destroy all three worlds. Shiva drank the poison to save all of creation, but fell unconscious from its effects. Goddess Tara appeared, put him in her lap, and suckled him. The healing power of her milk brought him back to life.
Tripura Sundari, The Beautiful
The third Mahavidya is named Tripura Sundari. Tri means three, pura can refer to city or citadel or world, and Sundari means beautiful. So her name literally means she who is beautiful in all three worlds: the material, the astral, and the causal. A less literal, but more meaningful interpretation is that she represents the beauty of pure perception, the supreme consciousness above everything else. She is most often represented as seated on Shiva who is lying on a throne. The legs of the throne are formed by the gods Brahma, Vishnu and various forms of Shiva. This shows her supremacy to all the other gods. Her origin story is fairly complicated; suffice it to say that it involves the killing of a powerful demon, the meddling of various gods, the death of Kamadeva, the god of love, by an angered Shiva, and his subsequent reincarnation.
Bhuvaneshvari, The World Mother
Bhuvana means universe and isvari means sovereign. The fourth Mahividya is the ruler of the entire cosmos. The universe begins and ends in her. Just as Kali represents Time, so Bhuvaneshvari represents Space. These two Mahavidya thus represent the two main aspects of the Mother Goddess: the infinite, and the eternal. Bhuvaneshvari also represents maya, or illusion, which veils ultimate reality. My favorite story about her goes like this: once, the Gods Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva were arguing over who among them was most important and powerful in the universe. The Goddess Bhuvaneshvari intervened and enlightened them that she was the creator of the universe, and also of themselves. Then she gave them her shakti, or energy, in the form of the Goddesses Saraswati, Lakshmi and Parvati to help them create, preserve and manage the world – until its ultimate destruction, when the cycle will start anew.
Bhairavi The Fierce
Bhairavi is the fierce manifestation of the goddess, quite close to Kali herself. She hates and punishes evil-doers. Her consort is Bhairava, the equally fierce manifestation of God Shiva.
One of Bhairavi’s forms is Chandi, a ferocious goddess who helps Kali destroy the demon Raktabija, he of the boon regarding spilled blood. Chandi is also famous for destroying the demons Chanda and Munda. She is fearless, and inspires fearlessness in her devotees as well.
She is often depicted seated on her loyal donkey, her mouth stained with demon blood, another hand holding a blood-stained sword. But she is not only a warrior goddess. Bhairavi is also the goddess of speech, with the potential to destroy all opposition to spiritual growth. She is thus the remover of all obstacles, physical and mental, on the path of spiritual evolution.
Chhinnamasta, The Self-decapitated
This is one the most frightening forms of the goddess, and yet how benign the explanation for her severed head is. Yes, the goddess decapitates herself! She holds her severed head in one hand, a scimitar in the other. Three jets of blood spurt out of her neck, one feeding her own severed head, and the others beings drunk by two attendants, Jaya and Vijaya. She is often depicted nude and red-skinned, standing or sitting on a copulating couple. Do you see all the contradictions? Life-giver, life-taker. Blood, death, sex, sacrifice. The symbolism is pretty heavy and there are various stories behind it.
The version I like best: one day Parvati (the wife of Shiva, and the reincarnation of Sati) was bathing in a river when her two attendants Jaya and Vijaya became hungry and begged her for food. The generous goddess decapitated herself to feed them her blood. Apparently, she rejoined her head after they were satisfied.
Dhumavati, The Widow
I find it deeply interesting that one of the Mahavidya is depicted as a crone – an ugly old woman. A widow, in fact, associated with all things inauspicious. She is often shown riding a crow or a horseless chariot in a cremation ground. Her name means the smoky one, and legend has it that she can kill demons with her stinging smoke. One of her origin stories has her arising from the sad smoke of Sati’s burning body (remember, she immolates herself in anger and grief).
But my favorite origin story goes like this. One day Sati was very hungry, and asked her husband Shiva for food. When he refused , she consumed him to satisfy her hunger. Obviously, that upset him, and he requested her to disgorge him. She complied, but he cursed her to be a widow, and she took this form.
You might think there is nothing to worship in this form. You would be wrong. Dhumavati teaches us to go beyond appearances and illusions, and seek inner truth. She is a giver of knowledge, a rescuer from trouble, and a bestower of boons.
Bagalamukhi, The Vanquisher
No, she’s not really called “The Vanquisher”, but it is apt. She is a goddess of great occult power, who smashes her devotees’ misconceptions with her cudgel, who paralyses and silences her enemies. She is often depicted beating a demon with a cudgel in her right hand, while she pulls out his tongue with her left hand, denoting the ability to stun or paralyze an enemy into silence.
The story goes that there was once a demon called Madan who gained Vak-siddhi, by which whatever he said came true (siddhi means supernatural power). He used it to great destructive effect, killing many people. The gods requested Bagalamukhi’s help. The goddess grabbed the demon’s tongue and thus neutralized his power.
Matangi, Goddess of Outcastes
Matangi is another form of the goddess associated with inauspiciousness, and therefore also deeply interesting to me. She is described as Chandalini, a low caste Hindu who deals with the disposal of dead bodies. She is associated with groups outside conventional Hindu society including those who dispose of waste, work in cremation grounds, and in meat processing. She is also associated with tribal groups who dwell in forests. She is offered left-over food with unclean hands. Thus she represents the divine self which is “left over” when all else perishes.
In many ways, Matangi is closely related to Saraswati, wife of Brahma and the goddess of knowledge, music, wisdom and art. That is why one of her forms is depicted as playing the veena. The parrots represent speech and the veena represents music. However, while Saraswati embodies the orthodox knowledge of the upper caste Brahmins, Matangi embodies the knowledge that is beyond mainstream conventional society. For all these reasons and more, this is one of my favorite forms of the goddess.
Kamala, The Lotus Goddess
The last of the ten forms is none other than Lakshmi herself, the goddess of wealth, and wife of Vishnu. She is a deeply important deity in Hinduism and is worshipped along with the elephant-headed Ganesh by many Hindu households. Of course, she is associated with all things auspicious and wonderful: wealth, riches, happiness, beauty, and grace.
As for my favorite origin story, remember the Samudra Manthan, or the churning of the ocean that I talked about above? Lakshmi was one of the goddesses to emerge from the foam of the churning ocean, lotus in hand. Yes, many minor goddesses emerged too. The Samudra Manthan is probably a whole post by itself.
The names and forms of the goddess are many, yet the ultimate truth is one, which is a basic tenet of many traditions of Hinduism. I didn’t see it that way when I was a child, of course. Then, stories were just stories. But the most powerful stories are those that stay with us, that we think more about as we get older, that have layers we can peel one by one, discovering something new each time. This is how Indian mythology feels like to me – a vast, rich treasure house of stories with multiple versions that never fail to delight, entertain, and illuminate.
(Note: A version of this article first appeared in Catherine Schaff-Stump’s Fantastic History.)