Worship of god as Mother in the Indian Tradition

  • By Swami Satyasthananda
  • April 2009

OF the diverse forms of worship prevalent in India from time immemorial, worship of the Divine Mother has occupied a place of singular significance. This idea of worshipping the Divine as the Eternal Mother has not been developed in any other religion of the world as it has been in the Hindu tradition and therefore it represents a unique contribution of Hindu thought to global religious culture.

According to Vedanta, when the formless and attributeless supreme Brahman assumes form with the help of its inscrutable power, maya, it is called Saguna Brahman or Ishvara. There are two aspects to the ultimate Reality: the absolute and the relative. From the absolute standpoint Brahman is impersonal and without attributes, nirguna; whereas from the relative standpoint it is saguna, the personal God. Though these two aspects appear to be mutually exclusive, they are in fact identical, much like fire and its power to burn.

In India the personal god is worshipped in various forms and is called by various names. This has led to the formation of different sects. To Shaivas Shiva is the Supreme Deity, to Vaishnavas, Vishnu; and to Shaktas, Shakti manifests as Mother or Devi. Again, according to the different temperaments of aspirants, the same deity is addressed as father, master, friend, beloved, or mother. Sri Ramakrishna always referred to God as ‘my Mother’. The idea of addressing and worshipping God as Mother is a very ancient tradition in India. This idea finds expression in the Vedas and the Upanishads and was further developed in the Purnas and the Tantras.

Origin and Development of Mother-Worship
In India, where according to Manu ‘the daughter is the highest object of tenderness’ and the mother is revered a thousand times more than the father’, the adoration of the female principle in the Creation has been in evidence from the very beginning of civilization. Not only has God been looked upon as the feminine par excellence, the Divine Mother, but women have also been looked upon as manifestations of the Divine Mother and have been offered worship at every stage of life -- as virgins, as married women and as mothers. The Divine Mother is not only the mother of the universe; she is also the Eternal Virgin. From remote antiquity, through unrecorded centuries, right up to our own times, the conception and adoration of the feminine principle as Divine has undergone such evolutionary changes that it is difficult to exactly determine how and when the different forms of goddesses originated and developed in India’s religious history.

The following seem to be plausible reasons for the development of Mother-worship in
India: (i) the position women enjoyed at home and in society in the days when such the highest of all feminine types at home and in society; (ii) the security the aspirant feels in the natural love and consideration of the mother towards her child; and (iii) the concept that God creates sustains, and destroys the universe by his Power or Shakti. Swami Vivekananda points out a source in an old Vedic hymn to the Goddess: “I am the light. I am the light of the sun and moon; I am the air which animates all beings.” This is the germ which afterwards develops into Mother –worship. By Mother –worship is not meant difference between father and mother. The first idea connoted by it is that of energy----I am the power that is in all beings.’ Mother-worship is a distinct philosophy in itself. Power is the first of our ideas. It impinges upon man at every step; power felt within is the soul; without, nature. And the battle between the two makes human life. All that we know or feel is but the resultant of these two forces. Man saw that the sun shines on the good and evil alike. Here was a new idea of god, as the Universal Power behind all---the Mother-idea was born.

Activity, according to Sankhya, belongs to Prakriti, to nature not to Purusha or soul. Of all feminine types in India, the mother is pre-eminent. The mother stands by her child through everything. Wife and children may desert a man, but his mother never! Mother, again is the impartial energy of the universe, because of the colourless love that asks not, desires not, cares not for the evil in her child but loves him the more. And today Mother-worship is the worship of all the highest classes amongst the Hindus

We find traces of Mother-worship in the  Indus civilization has been assigned to the third millennium BCE, and is characterized by urban culture. The female figurines in terracotta
found at Mohenjo-daro are comparable to similar artifacts excavated from archaeological sites in Baluchistan, Elam, Mesopotamia, Transcaspia, Asia Minor, Syria, Palestine, Cyprus, Crete, the Balkans and Egypt. It is probable that this devotion originated from a community of ideas shared by the people of these regions. The generally accepted view is that these figurines represent the Great Mother or Nature Goddess, whose worship, under various names and forms is still prevalent in India.

The Vedic Period
There is a widespread misconception that the worship of god as Mother is a post-Vedic or non-Vedic practice. But this idea has no basis. Before dealing with the worship of God as Mother in the Vedic period however, it is necessary to say a few words about the Vedic concept of the godhead.

The history of Hinduism can be traced back to the hymns recorded in the Rig Veda. In these hymns we have the most astonishing record of the march of the human mind from the worship of the half-personified forces of nature like fire, wind, and rain to the realization of the absolute Spirit. We find the religious poets of the Vedas groping their way towards the eternal---now marching ahead, now receding, now triumphant, and now dissatisfied---leaving behind them a trail of broken images, overthrown divinities, and abandoned faiths. Nothing mattered to them except a resolute search for unity.

The gods of popular belief, being only half-personified natural phenomena, gave them the clue. One god faded away into another. The same epithets had been employed to describe more than one God. When these divinities overlapped so much, it was inferred that they must all be one in essence. Hence the Vedic poets could freely extol one god as supreme at any given time, ignoring the claims of other gods. The myths of the Vedic Samhitas are unique in attributing the idea of infinity to every one of these gods. These deities or devas-----Indra, Varuna, Vayu, and so on--- are first worshipped as gods and then are raised to the status of the Supreme Being in whom the whole universe exists, who sees every heart, who is the ruler of the universe. Again with Varuna, another idea is perceptible in germ form: evil and fear. On committing evil deeds people become afraid and ask Varuna for pardon. These ideas of fear and sin never really took deep roots in Indian soil but the germs were there.

Thus in the Vedas we see an early form of monotheism. This invoking individual gods as the highest the elevation to supremacy of one god at a time has been termed ‘henotheism’ by Max Muller. The gods are thus taken up as it were, one after another raised and sublimated, till each has assumed the proportions of the infinite personal God of the universe. The same is true of the Vedic goddesses. But this monotheistic idea did not satisfy the Vedic mind. There was an attempt to get behind these powerful gods and grasp the ‘power; of which they were the manifestations. A well known hymn says: ‘that Being is one which the wise call by various names as Agni, Yama, and Matarishvan’2.

It is difficult to pinpoint the origin of the mother goddess idea in the Vedas, but the fact that deities like Aditi and Saraswati are described by rishis as ‘motherly’ shows that the idea of the Mother underlying such Puranic deities as Uma, Durga, Parvati, and Lakshmi is undoubtedly of Vedic origin. The Vedic seer worships divinity in various devotional moods, the most elementary being that of child towards its mother. We find this manifest in such Rig Vedic phases as ‘Pita mata sadaminmanusanam; Agni is always father and mother to humans’ (Rig Veda 6.I.5 ); ‘mateva yadbharase paprathano janam janam; (Agni) sustains all beings like a mother’ (5.15.4) and ‘vayam syama maturna sunavah; (O Usha!) let us be dear to you like sons to a mother (7.8i.4).

With the simplicity of a child Vedic seers look upon heaven and earth as Father and Mother and pray to them for protection from sin and guidance in the moral order. It is worth noting that when Mother Earth is invoked or entreated, she is usually invoked with Dyaus, yet it has to be admitted that the greatness and grandeur of Mother Earth commands reverential praise from her children with whom the offering of songs is the real worship.

The Vedic conception of the Mother goddess is found best represented in Aditi who is mentioned no less than eighty times in the Rig Veda. She is the mother not only of the gods----deva—mata---but also of kings, heroes, men, and women of the entire nature---the manifest as also that which lies in the womb of the future. She is the mistress of the moral order that governs the universe and also the giver of freedom. This tradition of Aditi being the mother of the gods is found continued even in the Puranas.

The ‘Durga Sukta of the Taittiriya Aranyaka is one of the most beautiful hymns in the Vedas. Therein Agni is conceived of as the Divine Mother Durga, the resplendent goddess, blazing in her power:

Tamagnivarnam tapasa jvalantim vairocanim karmaphalesu justam
Durgam devim saranamaham prapadye sutarasi tarase namah
I take refuge in the Goddess Durga, fiery in her luster and radiant with ardency, who is the power of the Supreme manifest in diverse forms, residing in actions and their results. O thou skilled in deliverance us, you steer us expertly across difficulties; salutations to thee.3

In another Vedic hymn Rishi Kushika invokes Night as Mother. She is the daughter of the heaven above pervades the worlds, protects all beings from evils, and gives them peaceful shelter in her lap, mother as she is. In later Puranic texts Night is described as originating from maya, the creative power of Brahman, and is called Bhuvaneshwari the sovereign mistress of the worlds. In the Durga Saptashati Mother Durga is given many epithets ending with the word ratri or night----kalaratri, maharatri, and so on.

The most striking and comprehensive concept of the Divine as Shakti in the Vedas is found in the ‘Devi Sukta’. The whole hymn is an ecstatic outpouring of the realization of Brahman by Vak, the daughter of the sage Ambhrina. Realizing her all pervasive identity she exclaims:
It is I (as identical with Brahman) who move in the form of the Rudras, the Vasus, the Adityas and all other gods… I am the sovereign power (over all the worlds ) bestower of all wealth, cognizant (of the Supreme Being) and the first among those to whom sacrificial homage is to be offered; the gods in all places worship but me, who am diverse in form and permeate everything… I give birth to the infinite expanse overspreading the earth my birthplace is in waters deep in the sea; there from do I permeate variously all the worlds, and touch the heaven above with my body. It is I who blow like the wind creating all the worlds; I transcend the heaven above, I transcend the earth below this is the greatness I have attained.

In the Upanishads
The Mother Goddess makes her appearance in the Kena Upanishad as Uma Haimavati, the power of Brahman. Having defeated the asuras, the devas led by Agni, Vayu, and Indra----were puffed up with pride. They considered themselves all-powerful without knowing where exactly their power came. Brahman appeared before them in the form of a yaksa to remove their conceit-----to show them that they were not only powerless but they also did not realize this fact. He asked Agni to burn a straw and Vayu to lift it. Both failed. To Indra the yaksa did not even grant an interview. When Indra felt humbled, Knowledge (of Brahman) made her appearance in the form of Uma, in all her splendor. She told Indra that the yaksa was none other than Brahman, the ultimate Reality, the source of all powers. The Devi Bhagavata dwells elaborately on this legend and records Indra’s adoration of the Supreme Mother through various hymns. According to Shankaracharya and Sayanacharya, the Vedic commentator, Uma, who imparts the knowledge of Brahman is vidya or ‘spiritual knowledge’ personified.

The Mundaka Upanishad also speaks of seven female powers----kali, karali, and so on---personifications of the flames of the sacrificial fire. The Shvetashvatara, a later theistic Upanishad, refers to the ‘innate power of the Supreme, concealed by its own nature. The sages realized that this power, maya, is none other than Prakriti or primordial nature of infinite variety, with knowledge and action as its natural forms’ (4.10;6.8)

In the Epics and Puranas
It is difficult to say with any degree of certainty if any of the ceremonials and worship rituals of the Divine Mother in any of her currently popular forms---Durga, Chandi, or Kali—were in vogue, as we know them today, during the Epic age of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. In the ‘Balakanda’ of the Ramayana we do get the story of goddess Uma, the youngest daughter of Mount Himavan, who was married to Rudra and was 'highly respected by all gods, including Brahma. The Mahabharata also mentions Pradyumna’s worship of Goddess Katyayani and Aniruddha’s hymn to Goddess Chandi. Of particular importance is King Yudhish-thira’s hymn to Goddess Durga.6 This hymn contains some descriptions of the Goddess which we are familiar with from Puranic times. In some recensions of the text we find another hymn to Durga chanted by Arjuna at the instance of Sri Krishna.7

Before we deal with the worship of the Divine Mother in the Puranas and Tantras we need to briefly review the origin and development of the idea of Shakti in India. In the concept of Shakti we find a happy blending of two elements, one empirical and the other speculative. On the empirical side is Shakti’s role in Puranic cosmogony. It is a universal human experience that there can be no creation without the union of two elements----the male and the female. By analogy with this empirical fact the Rishis conceived of the role of the primordial Father and primordial Mother in the origination of the universe. The Mother held a very important position in many ancient communities; hence it was natural that the cosmic Mother should become the most important deity. The linga and yoni---representing the masculine and feminine respectively----have been the traditional symbols of Shiva and Shakti since ancient times. In virtually every Shiva temple the deity is depicted in the dual aniconic linga-yoni form representing the eternal union of Shiva and Shakti.

Again, it was observed that all existent objects were associated with intrinsic powers. So the Supreme Being, who is responsible for the creation, preservation, and destruction of the universe, must posses infinite powers to carry out these functions. The very fact of its existence presupposes infinite powers. Though the belief in the powers of the Divine is universal, it is lent a special color in India by the dominant Indian tendency to view this power this universal energy as a female counterpart or consort of the ‘possessor of that power’. Thus Shakti came to occupy an important place in the religious consciousness of not only the Shaktas----for whom Shakti is supreme---but also of virtually every other religious sect, including the Shaivas, the Sauras, the Ganapatyas, and the Vaishnavas.

This strong belief in Shakti has fostered a popular synthesis of such apparently contradictory philosophies as Sankhya, Vedanta, Vaishnavism, and Tantra. The Sankhya speaks of Purusha and Prakriti as two independent ultimate realities whose interaction is of the nature of an object and its witness, the ‘accidental’ contact of Prakriti being a mere attribution on the unattached Purusha. In the Puranas and related popular religious literature Prakriti is plainly conceived of as Purusha’s female counterpart, and the Prakriti and Purusha of the Sankhyas become identified with Shakti and Shiva in the Tantras. Similarly, in Vedanta the principle of maya is viewed as the Shakti of Brahman. In later popular religious traditions these pairs came to be identified with such deities as Vishnu and Radha.
Though we have traced the origin of Mother worship to the Vedas as well as to pre-Vedic cults, it is in the Puranas and the Tantras that the concept of Shakti as Mother-Goddess attained remarkable development. We find many of the feminine deities of the Vedas and the Upanishads gradually becoming the Supreme Goddess in the Puranas and the Tantras. Such relations may be traced between the Vedic Goddess Ratri and the Puranic deities Kali and Parvati. In the Brihaddevata Devi Vak is addressed as Ratri, Saraswati, Aditi and Durga.8

In the vast and varied corpus of Puranic literature where the abstract principles of the Vedas and the Upanishads are manifested in more concrete forms, Shakti appears in the form of such deities as Chandi, Durga, Jagaddhatri, and Annapurna. The voluminous Devi Bhagavata is devoted to the celebration of various exploits of the Great Goddess. Another important Shakta text is the Devi Mahatmya or Durga Saptashati, also known popularly as Chandi. Comprising thirteen chapters from the Markandeya Purana, this text elaborates upon the concept of Shakti as the Great Mother and the highest Truth through allegory and is regarded as the most sacred text of the mother-worshippers of India.

In the Chandi the goddess has been mainly styled Devi” but she became well-known in later times as Durga. The epithet ‘Durga’ has been variously interpreted in Puranic and Tantric literature, the central idea being that of the Mother Goddess who saves us from every misery and affliction, from all danger and difficulty. She is also called Chandi, the fierce goddess, in which form she incarnates herself for the purpose of destroying the asuras whenever they threaten the mental peace and heavenly dominion of the devas. Durga is also worshipped as Annapurna or Annada, the giver of food, and as Jagaddhatri, one who upholds the world. In spring she is worshipped as Vasanti, the spring goddess.

In the ‘Devi Kavacha’ an auxiliary of the Chandi, the Devi is conceived of in nine forms, Nava-durga: Shailaputri, daughter of the mountains; Brahmacharini, dwelling in Brahman; Chandraghanta, who has the moon for her bell; Kushmanda, the fertile,; Skandamata, mother of the war god Skanda; Katyayani, the daughter of Rishi Katyayana; Kalaratri, the dark night of dissolution; Mahagauri, the light of knowledge; and Siddhidatri, the bestower of success. The Devi is also conceived of in three forms according to the preponderance of each of the three gunas: of sattva, Maha-saraswati; of rajas, Maha-lakshmi,and of tamas, Maha-Kali.

The ten Mahavidyas are another set of representations of the Devi. Their origin is narrated in connection with the legend of Shiva and his consort Sati. Sati’s father Daksha undertook a big sacrifice and invited all the gods to attend it. But he deliberately chose to ignore his son-in-law Shiva because of his rustic habits and disheveled appearance. Shiva, of course, did not feel offended, but Sati did. She decided to visit the sacrifice and disrupt it. Shiva was not willing to permit this. Sati’s anger increased and she assumed the ten largely fearsome forms of the Mahavidyas: Kali, Tara, Shodashi, Bhuvaneshwari, Bhairavi, Matangi, Chhinnamasta, Dhumavati, Bagala, and Kamala. Scholars are disposed to think of the ten Mahavidyas as different local deities who were later associated with and assimilated into the great Mother Goddess tradition through legend and theology. The sadhakas, on the other hand, would take them as different aspects of the same Great Mother Shakti suited to the tastes, temperaments, and mental levels of spiritual aspirants.

It will not be out of place here to mention the denouement of the story of Daksha’s sacrifice. Sati goes to the sacrifice and unable to stand the insult heaped on her husband, ends her life by entering the sacrificial fire. On getting the news of Sati’s demise Shiva is beside himself with grief and starts roaming the universe with Sati’s corpse on his shoulder. Fearing that Shiva’s grief and anger would ruin the worlds; the gods approach Vishnu for help. Vishnu, the ever-merciful protector of the universe, quietly approaches Shiva and with his discus dismembers Sati’s corpse into fifty-one pieces. Relieved of the corpse, Shiva manages to overcome his grief while each of the fifty-one places where parts of Sati’s body fall become sacred to the worshippers of Devi.

The Durga Saptashati gives us a glimpse into the nature of the Divine mother in the hymn addressed to her by Brahma, the Creator:

You are verily that which cannot be uttered specifically. You are Savitri (the liberating mantra) and the Supreme mother of the gods.
By you this universe is borne, by you this world is created, by you it is protected, O Mother Divine and you always consume it at the end. O you who are ( always ) of the form of the whole world, at the time of creation you are of the form of the creative force, at the time if sustentation you are of the form of protective power, and at the time of dissolution of the world, you are of the form of destructive power. You are the supreme knowledge as well as the great nescience, the great intellect and contemplation and also the great delusion. The power of good is yours; the power of evil too is yours.

You are the primordial cause of everything, bringing into force the three gunas---sattva, rajas and tamas---You are the dark night of periodic dissolution. You are the great night of final dissolution and the terrible night of delusion. You are the goddess of good fortune, the ruler, and modesty, intelligence characterized by knowledge bashfulness, nourishment, contentment, tranquility and forbearance. Armed with various weapons you are terrible. Again you are pleasing, yea, more pleasing than all the pleasing things and exceedingly beautiful. You are indeed the Supreme Empress, beyond the high and low.

And whatever, or wherever a thing exists, conscient or non-conscient, whatever power all that possess is yourself.9

This is the soul-enthralling conception of the Divine Mother whom Hindus worship with great eclat in autumn. This autumnal worship of Mother Durga is especially prominent in Bengal. In the image used for this worship she is usually portrayed in the form of Mahisha-who took the form of a buffalo, as narrated in the Chandi. The Devi has a lion for her vahana, vehicle, and is accompanied by her daughters Lakshmi and Saraswati---or her companions Jaya and Vijaya---as well as her sons Ganesha the giver of success, and Kartika the commander-in chief of the gods. Kali is another popular goddess whose special annual worship is performed on the new moon night after the autumnal Durga Puja.
1. The complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, 9 vols
(Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, i-8, i989, 9, I997)
2. Rig  Veda ,
3. Taittiriya Aranyaka,
4. great women of India, ed. Swami Madhavananda and Rameshchandra Majumdar ( Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama,
5. Shvetashvatara Upanishad
6. Mahabharata, ‘Virata Parva, chap.6
7. Mahabharata, Bhishma Parva, chap. 23
8. Brihaddevata, 2.74-9
9. See Swami Budhananda, ‘Worship of God as Mother, Vedanta Kesari,

Receive Site Updates