|The Goddess can take an almost infinite number of forms: some are frightening and warlike, and some are auspicious and filled with benevolent power. In her different forms, she goes by different names: Parvati, Lakshmi, Shri, Kali, Durga. In all forms, she is Devi, "the Goddess." She is also referred to as "mother" -- amma, ma, mataji. The Goddess is often associated with the earth and nature -- Vishnu's second wife, for example, is Bhu, literally "Earth." Different forms of the Goddess are worshiped according to the specific desires or personal affiliations of the devotee. Saraswati, the Goddess of learning, is often the focus of devotion of students and priests, while Shitala Devi is worshiped for protection from disease.
The glory of the Goddess was first extolled in text in the Devimahatmya, a portion of the Markandeya Purana (5th-7th centuries), but her worship was ultimately closely linked to the development of tantra, a Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist phenomenon that grew out of both non-elite folk traditions and scholarly and philosophical traditions. Tantra advocated complete acceptance of the world in the quest for enlightenment. Through certain practices, called sadhana, the devotee transforms this world -- and, in direct relation to it, the body -- into a means of achieving and experiencing enlightenment. Worship of the Goddess is particularly associated with tantra, and is known for its inclusion of practices (particularly blood sacrifice) that are outside brahminical, mainstream tradition.
The figure of Durga, as described in detail in the Devimahatmya, is known as "Mahishasuramardini," the killer of Mahisha, the demon (Figure 1). She is commonly portrayed riding her vehicle, the lion, and with the demon underfoot. Kali, an intensely powerful and ferocious form of the Goddess, is born of Durga's forehead, according to the Devimahatmya, and is known for killing the two demons Chanda and Munda, which earned her the epithet "Chamunda."
Goddesses are also worshiped in benign and auspicious forms -- for example, Parvati, the wife of Shiva. The divine family, consisting of Shiva, Parvati, and one or both of their children, Skanda and Ganesha, is a common motif in Hindu devotional art (Figure 2). Parvati is herself known for her yogic abilities: she won the devotion of her husband, Shiva, through these practices. In the middle of the first millennium, the great Sanskrit poet Kalidasa recounted the tale of their courtship and marriage in his play Kumara Sambhava. Goddesses are commonly portrayed in association with Gods -- Shiva is associated with Parvati, Vishnu with Lakshmi, and Krishna with Radha -- but this association with male deities does not mean that the Goddess holds a subordinate position. Devotees of the Goddess assert her primacy and independent power, just as devotees of other deities see their chosen form of God as an overarching and complete form of the divine. Gods who are ordinarily portrayed as male, such as Shiva, can also be portrayed as half female, emphasizing the importance of the feminine aspect of the divine: associated with power (shakti), Goddesses are essential to Gods, as well as independent actors in their own right. Goddesses are also represented by the yoni, a shape that evokes the female form and is often displayed in association with the shiva linga.
< previous next >