Worship of god as Mother in the Indian Tradition

  • By Swami Satyasthananda
  • April 2009

In the Tantras       

THE conception of God as Divine Mother attained its fullest flowering at the hands of the Shakta followers of Hinduism. They not only developed the elaborate forms and rituals connected with Shakti-worship, but also gave a profound philosophical basis to their faith and practice. The vast Tantra literature represents not only the various cults and ritualistic practices of Shaktism but also its religious ideology and philosophy. It would not be incorrect to say that in Shaktism Mother-worship attained its culmination.

According to Shakta philosophy enshrined in the Tantras, the ultimate Reality as pure unchanging Consciousness is called Shiva, and its power appearing as the flux of mind and matter in Creation is known as Shakti – the Cosmic Power or Primordial energy. Shiva is pure Being, devoid of all relativity. Shakti is the active Personal Being and includes all individual souls. The opening verse off the Saundaryalahari reads: ‘Shiva, when he is united with Shakti, is able to create; otherwise he is unable even to move.’ Shiva and Shakti have been described as prakasa, light, and vimarasa, reflection. The first semblance of relationship appearing within the Absolute is Shiva termed Vimarsa; this is the source of the world of distinctions. Vimarsa or Shakti is the power latent in the Absolute, the pure Consciousness.

Shakti is the Absolute personified, Consciousness that becomes a subject and also passes over into its opposite the non-self or the object. If Shiva is cit, consciousness, Shakti is citi-sakti, the formative energy of consciousness. Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva perform their respective functions of creation, preservation, and destruction in obedience to Shakti. In the perfect experience of ananda, Shiva and Shakti are indistinguishable; the two coalesce into one Being. Shiva answers to the indeterminate Brahman in a state of quiescence; Shakti is determinate Brahman----endowed with iccha, will, jnana knowledge, and kriya, action----that projects the whole objective universe. Shiva and Shakti are one, since power is inherent in existence. But though they are identical, there is an apparent difference between them from the phenomenal standpoint. Brahman in its transcendental aspect does not change, but as Shakti, it does. This Shakti or Primordial Energy goes forth in a series of emanations which the Tantras term tattvas, of which thirty-six are described.

The Tantras also speak of three states of the Divine Mother: (i) para, the transcendental, which is beyond mental categories; (ii) suksma, the subtle, which is embodied in the mantra; and (iii) sthula, or gross, which is the form she takes to guide and help devotees who worship her and meditate upon her. The Divine Mother can assume various forms to meet the spiritual needs of devotees. The Mahavidyas are ten such forms, each with distinctive attributes.

The Ten Mahavidyas
• Kali, also called Shyama, is three-eyed, dark-complexioned, fierce, and irascible. She sports a garland of decapitated human heads and a girdle of severed hands, and holds a decapitated head and a bloodied cleaver in two of her hands, while the other two arms gesture bestowal of boons and fearlessness. She s given many other epithets according to the predominance of certain attributes: Smashana-Kali dwells in cremation grounds, Raksha-Kali guards against famine and epidemics, Bhadra-kali is her benign form that can be worshipped in homes, Guhya-Kali and Siddha-Kali are objects of adoration for advanced practitioners of Tantric disciplines and Maha-Kali is the cosmic form of the deity.
• Tara, as described in the context of the Mahavidyas, is much like Kali. She is dark, short, and large-bellied, wears a tiger skin and a necklace of severed heads, sports her hair in a single braid and stands upon a burning pyre. Her worship was especially popular in Kashmir. She is also revered as an important deity---in such forms as Sita-tara, Shyama-tara, Pita-tara, Nila-tara and Khadiravani-tara---in Mahayana Buddhism.
• Shodashi is the benign form of the Devi---a beautiful girl of sixteen with a ruddy complexion, worshipped from Kashmir to Kerala. In her the divine power reached its fullness. Her name signifies this fullness of beauty and grandeur much like the full moon displaying all its sixteen parts. Because of her beauty and grandeur she is also known as Tripurasundari and Rajarajeshwari. Nearly fifty forms are attributed to her which shows her wide popularity.
• Bhuvaneshwari is another benign form of the Devi. Her sattvic nature is reflected in her bright complexion. Her control of the elements is represented by the noose and goad that she holds, and her grace by the fruit in her hand.
• Bhairavi has a red complexion, sports a garland of severed heads, and holds a rosary and a book in two of her four hands, the other two bestowing boons and fearlessness. Siddha-bhairavi, Tripura-bhairavi, and Bhuvaneshwara-bhairavi are some of the other names of this deity. She is associated with Batuk-bhairava as her consort.
• Chhinnamasta stands naked in the cremation ground with a blood-stained scimitar in one hand and her own severed head---drinking the warm blood gushing from her headless trunk—in the other.
• Dhumavati is visualized as a pale, tall elderly, edentulous, querulous widow, with disheveled hair and dirty clothes. Afflicted with hunger, she holds a winnowing basket in her hand and is seen astride a crow.
• Bagala is golden hued with the head of a crane. Seated on a lotus she has a noose and a thunderbolt in two of her hands. She holds an enemy by the tongue while chastising him with a club. According to the Sammohana Tantra she manifested herself near the Haridra Lake in Saurashtra, in response to Vishnu’s penance to help quell a storm that threatened to destroy the worlds.
• Matangi or Sumukhi, manifested on earth when the Devi was propitiated by Rishi Matanga, according to the Brahma Yamala. Dark colored, she is seen seated on an ornamented throne has the crescent moon on her forehead and wields a noose a goad, a sword, and a shield in each of her four arms.
 Kamala is the goddess of prosperity---and is thus a manifestation of Lakshmi. She is golden-hued and exquisitely beautiful and is described as seated on a red lotus, holding lotuses in her hands, and attended by elephants pouring out pitcherfuls of water over her.

The worship of Shakti is classified under two main heads: pasvacara and viracara. Different spiritual exercises are prescribed by the Tantras for different groups of aspirants. Pasvacara is the code of conduct for aspirants with marked inertia and ignorance and viracara for comparatively advanced votaries with significant ambition and energy.

The Kularnava Tantra gives a more elaborate classification of tantric practice: (i) vedacara, (ii) vaisnavacara, (iii) saivacara, (iv) daksinacara, (v) vamacara, (vi) siddhantacara, (vii) kaulacara. Each successive stage represents a more advanced practice---the kaulacara being the culmination of tantric discipline. The first three stages comprise pasvacara, the two next viracara while the two final stages represent divyacara, the state of the siddha or adept.

Vedacara lays stress on the cultivation of cleanliness of body and mind. Aspirants in this stage are to rise early in the morning---two hours before with prostrationsctice meditation and prayer. They should honor the spiritual guide with prostrations, practice japa of the Divine Mother’s mantra, meditate on her as seated on the thousand-pillared lotus in the crown of the head, worship her with the prescribed accessories, and contemplate the Supreme Power with undivided attention. Purity is the watchword of Vaisnavacara. It lays stress on cultivation of devotion and vigilance in performance of one’s duties. Aspirants in this stage are to practice continence in thought, word, and deed and give up jealousy and hypocrisy. Saivacara emphasizes cultivation of jnana, besides the primary disciplines of the earlier stages.

Dakinacara aims at consolidating the gains of the three preceding stages. In this stage the sadhaka practices worship of the Divine Mother with offerings and meditation on her divine form in the dead of night. With Vamacara begins the more difficult practice of renunciation in the midst of objects of enjoyment. In this stage the guru introduces the sadhaka to esoteric practices involving flesh, wine, and women as objects of veneration. Siddhantacara involves devoted worship of the Divine Mother at night with offerings purified by the mystic power of mantras. By this means even objects previously considered impure may now be offered to the Divine Mother. It is in this stage that the aspirant arrives at a definitive understanding of the relative merits of the paths of the paths of enjoyment and renunciation.

Kaulacara is the stage when the Divine mother or Brahman becomes a reality to the aspirant. The Kaula, as the aspirant is now called, can worship the Divine Mother without consideration of time, place, or ritualistic details. Kaulas often behave in peculiar ways. At times they may appear insane, at other times ghoulish---their diverse divine moods manifesting through weeping, laughter, singing, and dancing. Established in same-sightedness, they view clay and sandal paste, friend and enemy, palaces and burning ghats, money and grass as being the same. They are so immersed in the thought of the Divine Mother that other objects and thoughts have no place in their minds.

Shakta theory and practice are closely associated with the mystical dimensions of yoga. The deep study of the power of sound as manifest in sacred syllables and mantras is an important contribution of the Shakta system. Sabda, the eternal word, is none other than Shakti. It manifests the objective world through its primal creative moment termed nada, bindu, and bija. Every letter of the alphabet is imbued with the power of Shakti; and mantras----words or phrases framed from these letters in accordance with their inner powers---are important means for accessing Shakti. Every mantra is a divine creation, and the whole body of mantras is identical with Shakti.

Tantra also tells us that within the human frame there are numerous subtle channels of power called nadis. The most important of these is the susumna, spanning the spinal column from the sacral plexus to the crown of the head. Along the susumna are important centres of power called cakras, represented by mystical lotuses. The first of these, the muladhara, is at the base of the spine. It houses the dormant Shakti called kundalini, coiled round the primordial linga representing Brahman, like a serpent. Shakta yogic practices activate the kundalini and induce it to ascend through the susumna. As the kundalini passes through each of the cakras it provides the sadhaka with unique spiritual experiences and powers.

The Shaktas have also developed the use of mystical diagrams----yantras or mandalas, often engraved on metal plates----ritual gestures or mudras, and ritual procedures for sacralization of the human body, nyasa, using mystic syllables called bija. Each of the deities worshipped by the Shaktas has an associated yantra, which is usually placed in the centre of a lotus-diagram with the bija of the particular goddess inscribed a certain number of times on each peral. The Sri-cakra is one such yantra representing the orbit of the earth, the nine triangles within it denoting the nine continents. In the centre is the dot or bindu representing Shakti as presiding over the cakra. These yantras are as efficacious in manifesting the deities as mantras. To the Tantric, the consecrated yantra is none other than the deity itself.

Great Worshippers of the Divine Mother
From its very beginnings Hindu civilization has given birth to great men and women devoted to the Divine Mother. Sri Rama worshipped Devi Durga on the eve of his fight with Ravana. Rukmini worshipped Durga and sought her blessings for her marriage with Sri Krishna. Shankaracharya, the great Advaitic philosopher-saint, is well known not only for his commentaries on Advaitic texts, but also for his soul-stirring devotional hymns to the various gods and goddesses of the Hindu pantheon. He composed several hymns in praise of the Divine Mother and also installed the images of the goddesses. Kamakshi and Sarada at Kanchipuram and Sringeri. His lucid exposition of the concept of Shakti is manifest in his hymns:

Sivah sakya yukto yadi bhavati
Saktah prabhavitum
Na cedevam devo na khalu kusalah
Atas-tvam-aradhyam hari-hara-
Pranantum stotum va
Katham-akrta-punyah prabhavati

Shiva is able to project this universe only if he is united with Shakti, otherwise the Deva is not even capable of moving. Therefore, how can those who have done no meritorious deeds ever strive either to worshipped even by Hari, Hara, Brahma, and others?

Bhavani tvam dase
Mayi vitara drstim sakarunam
Iti stotum vanchan
Disasi nija-sayujya-padavim

To the devotee desirous of thus praying to you: ‘O Bhavani, please cast your compassionate glance on me, your servant, even as he begins saying “O Bhavani you bestow on him sayujya, union with your feet---the sayujya that is illumined by the crowns of Vishnu, Brahma, and Indra ( 22 ).

In modern times Shakti worship has especially flourished in east India. The songs of such Tantric adepts as Ramprasad and Kamalakanta not only reveal an exquisite poetic sense but also deep philosophical insights about Tantric practices born of their own realizations. This process reached its culmination in Sri Ramakrishna, who showed how the Divine Mother could become a living reality in our lives, and also in Sri Sarada Devi, whose acceptance of the fruits of Sri Ramakrishna’s sadhana in the form of Devi Shodashi and the wonderful expression of motherhood in her life show us how this divine motherhood can actually manifest in human form for the all-round uplift of society. In this sense they represent the fulfillment of the worship of the Divine Mother that has captured the Indian mind for millennia.

Reference 10. Shankaracharya, Saundaryalahari.
Also read
1. Durga Worship
2. Tribute to the Indian Women
To read more articles of Prabuddha Bharata visit www.advaitaashrama.org
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