Devi is the great goddess of the Hindus, Mahadva. As the consort of Shiva, she is worshiped in various forms corresponding to her two aspects: benevolence and fierceness. She is Uma, “light”; Gauri, “yellow or brilliant”; Parvati, “the mountaineer”; and Jaganmata, “the-mother-of-the-world” in her milder guise. The terrible emanations are Durga “the inaccessible”; Kali, “the black”; Chandi, “the fierce”; and Bhairavi, “the terrible.”

Shiva and Devi are regarded as the twofold personalization of Brahman, the primeval substance. Like Vishnu, Shiva has no direct connection with the tangible elements in the universe and is obliged to emanate a manifestation, an emission of energy, Shakti, which myth has conceived as a wife or daughter. In Hindu iconography the presence of the Shakti is vitally important because this female-companion of the deity attracts and helps the devotees. The height of worship of Devi was during the period of the Tantras, the seven centuries onward, when release was discovered possible through mithuna, “the state of being a couple.” However, the earliest depiction of this embrace by devotees is a carving on one of the Buddhist monuments at Sanchi, dating from the second century BC. Other licentious rites, which are remnants of this, are still performed around the world in hopes to promote the fertilization of the soil. Another example is the racy and sexual insinuations frequently heard at wedding receptions. In the Golden Bough (Source: 10) is a description of certain Indonesian peoples participating in a rope-pulling ceremony to produce rain and assure the growth of their crops. During the ceremony the men and women partook in a tug of war, and when pulling against each other they imitated by their movements the union of the sexes. At the close of the Vedic era there were apparently several goddesses acknowledged as wives of Shiva, or Rudra, while other goddesses were worshiped by different castes throughout India. These diverse deities eventually coalesced into the one great goddess, Devi, whose ultimate origin may have been the mother goddess of the Indus valley civilization. “Supreme, Devi holds ‘the universe in Her womb’: she ‘lights the lamp of wisdom’ and ‘brings joy to the heart of Shiva, Her Lord’.” So wrote Sankara in the ninth century, and today the Divine Mother remains the greatest power in Hinduism.

Durga , a beautiful warrior maid of yellow yew seated upon a tiger, was the first appearance of the great goddess. The circumstance of her miraculous arrival, a sort of potency welling up from the combined wraths of the gods, was the tyranny of the monster-demon Mahisha, who through terrific austerities had acquired invincible strength. The gods were afraid of this water-buffalo bull because neither Vishnu nor Shiva could prevail against him. It seemed that the joint energy of shakti was only capable of vanquishing Mahisha, and so it was the eighteen-armed Durga who went out to do battle. After titanic combat, she overwhelmed the bull and its weapon, an appalling mace. Thereafter, the ascendancy of Devi was guaranteed: the gods in times of need surrendered to her every weapon and power; she became “the All-comprehending One.”

The manifestation of the goddess as Kali is the most shocking appearance. She is depicted standing on the prostrate body of Shiva, who is lying on a lotus bed. Dressed in fetching attire and decorated with precious ornaments, Kalie also wears a girdle of several arms and a necklace of skulls. Her tongue lolls from her mouth, probably savoring the taste of blood. She has four arms. One left hand grasps a bloody sword, the other dangles a head by the hair, one right hand confers a blessing, and the other bids her devotees to be without fear. She has absorbed the inexorability of Rudra, and Shiva as Bhairava. Yet there is both life and death in this form of the Divine Mother. “Your hands,” Sankara said “holds delight and pain. The shadow of death, and the elixir if immortal life are your!” A.G.H.


Cotterell, Arthur, A Dictionary of World Mythology, New York, G. P. Putman’s Sons, 1980, pp. 69-70