Images of Her 3

‘The simplest and most profound meaning of the image of the Goddess is the legitimacy and goodness of female power, the female body, and female will. The image of the Goddess is transformative because the image of God as male has been deeply internalized in western culture.’ — Carol P. Christ, Rebirth of the Goddess: finding meaning in feminist spirituality, page 8.

Artist: Alexi Francis

Artist: Alexi Francis

 

 

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Durga — the mother, the warrior, the goddess

One of the most potent and widely worshipped form of the Primal Mother, Adya Shakti is Ma Durga. Her win over evil is marked every year by her worship, celebration and festivities. The occasion is variously called Durga Puja (Spiritual Festival of Durga), Navratri (the Nine Nights), Dusserah (the Ten Days), etc.

Ma Durga is a warrior goddess. In Hindu mythology Goddess Adya Shakti or the Primal Power took the form of Durga to battle with Mahishasur (the Buffalo Asur). An Asur is a powerful cosmic creature with destructively and negatively used supernatural powers.[1] Durga battled Mahishasur and ultimately defeated him. She rode on a lion and wielded a multitude of powerful weapons in her multiple arms. She is power in its rawest, most primal form. She inspires awe, fear and love at the same time.

Photography: shestirs

Photography: shestirs

The myth of Durga starts with the myth of Mahishasur (the Buffalo Asur). Mahishasur was an extremely powerful Asur. He pleased the gods through his penance and received the boon he asked for – that he will never be slayed by man or god or any other Asur. He then started threatening the three worlds by his newfound might and invincibility. He conquered the earthly and netherworlds and defeated the gods in heaven. Nobody could kill or stop him. At this hour of crisis, the gods called on the Primal Power, the original Mother of All, Adya Shakti to come to their rescue. In general, Adya Shakti does not manifest in one particular form. She is in all — everything that exists. But for this task she needed to manifest in all her awesome power in one form. The gods are all her parts, her creation and their capabilities and powers are all her reflections. So they decided to join their powers to give Adya Shakti the shape of a warrior goddess. The powers of the gods met and an immensely powerful goddess emerged – Durga, she who is unknowable, she who is invincible in all her forms. Parts of her body, her attire, her ornaments were all made by the gods from their individual powers. She is described as ‘the woman so stupendously huge her head grazed the sky while the ground sank beneath the weight of her feet.’[2] When she took shape, her beauty and power stunned the gods and they bowed down to the Mother in reverence and awe. They gifted her their weapons symbolising their individual powers.

Artist: Hoon

Artist: Hoon

Durga challenged Mahishasur in battle. Her battle cry sent chills down the back of the Asur army. After a fierce battle of nine nights and ten days, she defeated him and his army. This battle is celebrated in India every year as Durga’s festival.

Durga is fierce and beneficent at the same time. In her many arms (often said to be ten, or eighteen, or a thousand) she holds both the symbols of destruction and sustenance. She destroys the harmful and preserves the good in us. She is the protector who comes to our aid when we need her. She also shows us the extent of the power of a woman, a mother and a goddess and our connection to her. In later posts I will describe Durga’s connection to her earthly daughters and sons in modern India.

Artist: Poonam Mistry

Artist: Poonam Mistry

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[1] Asurs are often translated in English as demons. But that does not capture the true essence of the word. Asurs are far more than demons. Often more spiritually evolved than humans, they can contact the gods directly. They often please gods by their penance and yoga and manage to receive their blessings (as gods in Hindu mythology are also bound by certain laws of the universe, including giving one what one deserves). But most of the time the Asurs turn out to be self-centred, power hungry individuals, who use their god or goddess-gifted capabilities negatively and then have to be stopped by the gods and goddesses themselves.

[2] Linda Johnsen, Living Goddess: Reclaiming the Tradition of the Mother of the Universe (Yes International Publishers 1997) page 87

The Great Mother Rising

‘The Great Mother in Her many aspects — maiden, raging warrior, benevolent mother, death-dealing and all-wise crone, unknowable and ultimate wyrd — is now powerfully reemerging and rising again in human consciousness as we approach the twenty-first century. Isis, Mawu-Lisa, Demeter, Gaia, Shakti, Dakinis, Sekhinah, Astarte, Ishtar, Rhea, Freyja, Nerthus, Brigid, Danu — call Her what you may — has been with us from the beginning and awaits us now. She is the beauty of the green earth, the life-giving waters, the consuming fire, the radiant moon, and the fiery sun. She is Star Goddess and Spiderwoman; she weaves the luminous web that creates the universe. As earth, the great planetary Spirit-Being, She germinates life within her dark womb.’[1]

Artist: F. Rassouli

Artist: F. Rassouli


[1] Monica Sjoo and Barbara Mor, The Great Cosmic Mother (Harper San Francisco, 1991)

Saraswati… in you and me…

‘In you and me, Saraswati flows through that moment when we choose a creative path or make an intention. She lives in the ever-new creative instant when inspiration arises within the field of your consciousness. When an idea takes form, you can find her as the inner impulse that comes from somewhere deeper than your ordinary mind, ready to dance on your tongue. She undulates in the stillness before the notes come forth as your power to make connections between apparently disparate things, as the power to understand language, as intelligence in all its forms, as insight and rhetoric, and as the intuitive knowing that lets your recognise your own awareness as the field of enlightenment.. .

At her subtlest, Saraswati lives in that pulsing space at the root of sound, where silence gives birth to creative possibility. A hymn to Saraswati, by the Tantric sage Abhinavagupta praises this subtlest form of Saraswati like this: “No one knows your nature, nor is your inner reality known. You are the whole universe and you exist within it.”‘ – Sally Kempton, Awakening Shakti (Sounds True Inc 2013)

Artist: Danny O'Connor

Artist: Danny O’Connor

Ganga – the Purest One

In Sanskrit literature, Ganga has been portrayed in her most magnificent form. She has 108 names in Sanskrit including Jahnavi and Bhagirathi. She is also described as flowing in three streams and hence referred to as Tripathaga (one that moves in three paths) or Trisrota (one that has three streams).[1] She is an extraordinary beauty, but she is also powerful and unpredictable. She is independent minded and does not always move within the traditional boundaries of behaviour. She is the giver of life and at the same time taker of life. Her benevolence can change the lives of millions of people for the good, while her contempt can turn into a population’s worst nightmare.

Artist: Eric Zener

Artist: Eric Zener

One of her very well-known Sanskrit hymns says –

O Divine Ganga, the One revered by the gods,

The Saviour of the three worlds by your liquid restless touch.

The Immaculate One who resides on the head of Shiva,

Let my mind dwell on your lotus-like feet.

O Bhagirathi, the One who bestows happiness,

The power of your holy waters is exalted by the wise,

Your glory and grace is not fully within the grasp of my limited intelligence,

Protect me, Merciful Mother, from my own ignorance. (My own translation)

Ganga’s touch is experienced by the devotee like the touch of a divine Mother – loving, graceful and life-giving. By washing away everything that is harmful (spiritually and physically), she gives the ultimate gift to her children – the ultimate comfort of knowing one is taken care for, that one’s mistakes, and misdeeds have been forgiven.

She was also immortalised in the collection of poems named ‘Ganga Lahari’ (Waves of Ganga) written by a seventeenth century poet, Jagannatha. I have found the English translation of only one of his verses –

‘I come to you as a child to his mother.

I come as an orphan to you, moist with love.

I come without refuge to you, giver of sacred rest.

I come a fallen man to you, uplifter of all.

I come undone by disease to you, the perfect physician.

I come, my heart dry with thirst, to you, ocean of sweet wine.

Do with me whatever you will.’


[1] Ashok Chandra Shukla and Vandana Asthana, Ganga: A Water Marvel (Ashish Publishing House, 1995) page 44

Ma Ganga — the River Goddess

Ganga is a river goddess. She is revered in the Hindu culture as the ultimate purifying presence. She is believed to purify everything she touches to the extent that her touch can absolve any person from all his past sins. Even after death, if the ashes of one’s cremated body receives the touch of Ganga, the departed soul is believed to surely reach the heavens. Her water is essential for the successful completion of all Hindu rituals.

Geographically, the River Ganga has its source in the Indian Himalayas in the Gangotri glacier; it flows south-east through northern India and meets the sea in the eastern state of West Bengal. It is the largest river in India, which along with its numerous tributaries and distributaries drains the great Gangetic plains of northern India and makes up the largest mangrove forest in the world – the Sundarbans – at its delta on the Bay of Bengal. For thousands of years great kingdoms have risen and fallen along its banks. Ganga’s importance in the history and development of the Indian civilisation is unquestionable.

River Ganga as pictured in the modern-day town of Hrishikesh

River Ganga as pictured in the modern-day town of Hrishikesh

In religion and mythology, Ganga is the daughter of the King of the Mountains Himalaya or Himavat and the elder sister of the goddess Parvati. She was born and brought up on earth, but due to her incomparable purity and grace, she was summoned to the heavens to take her place among the gods and goddesses. She is also considered the flow of the ‘cosmic ocean.’ The cosmic ocean from which the universe arose is said to enter the universe through a particular point in the form of Ganga and thus purifies it.

As the goddess dwelled in heaven, the inhabitants of the earthly plane remained out of touch with her beauty and purifying presence, until King Bhagiratha decided to bring her back to the earth in order to release his forefathers’ souls from a curse that only Ganga’s touch could wash away. So he left his royal luxuries and started a long, strenuous life of prayers, asceticism and penance to please the gods. At his hardships, tapasya and his commitment to his cause, the gods were finally pleased and granted him his wish that Ganga will return to earth to not only free the souls of his forefathers but will stay back to purify the earth and its inhabitants forever.

Ganga agreed to flow back to earth. But the problem was that the earth was not strong enough to be able to bear the impact of Ganga’s descent. The mighty river goddess was too big and powerful to be contained and there was a real risk of a catastrophe that would drown the earth and destroy life on it. No god or goddess thought themselves to be up to the task of tackling the huge force of Ganga’s descent. The one and only who had the ability to do this was Lord Shiva, the first yogi, the Lord of Time, the destroyer god in the Hindu Trinity, the most powerful among the gods. He agreed to receive and contain the flow of Ganga in his long flowing locks and buffer her impact when she descends to earth. Standing on the Himalayas he received the mighty goddess and eased her descent. Then he released her to flow through the mountains to the plains below to forever rid the earth of its impurities and sin. She flowed to bring life and light to the earthly beings.

Artist: Om Prakash Saini

Artist: Om Prakash Saini

The reverence and love for Ma (Mother) Ganga, as she is called, is still very relevant in India today. She is still worshipped in numerous cities and towns on her banks every day, her water is still considered auspicious, and millions of people still travel to her to take a dip to absolve themselves from their sins. People very often choose to be cremated beside the Ganga and failing that at least to have their ashes sprinkled in her waters. In life and death Devi (goddess) Ganga touches a Hindu’s life in a thousand ways and lives entwined in our daily and eternal lives.

Goddess Vak — Queen of Heaven, Mother of Speech…

Rig Veda is the oldest of Hindu scriptures dated between 1700 and 1100 B.C. Here is a description of the goddess Vak (an aspect of Saraswati) as contained in the Rig Veda. Vak or Vac is pronounced with a long ‘a’ as the ‘a’ in the word ‘shark.’

Described in the Rig Veda, goddess Vak is one of the earliest identified divinities in the Hindu pantheon. She is the powerful and creative personification of ritual speech, the basis of cosmic-ritual order. Her name means “speech.”

‘She reveals herself through speech and is typically characterized by the various attributes and uses of speech. She is speech, and the mysteries and miracles of speech express her peculiar, numinous nature.’[1]

Artist: Poonam Mistry

Artist: Poonam Mistry

She is the great flood of Ritam or truth and she inspires the seekers’ fire to reach truth in all its forms. She enables one to perceive, understand, and then express in words the true nature of things. The goddess makes it possible for rishis – the learned seers and sages – to hear, grasp, and reveal the truths of existence, to devise, and create the hymns and rituals that express the reality of their visions. She bestows vision to the seers. She gives wisdom to the wise.

Vac is called the heavenly queen, the Queen of the gods (Rig Veda 8.89) – she overflows with sweetness (5.73.3) and gifts vital power to the creation (3.53.15). She gives us the amazing riches of language and thought. The harbinger of light and strength, she gives sustenance to all, in the heavenly and earthly realm. She is the Mother, who has given birth to things through naming them. She also is the giver of friends. She helps one establish oneself in the community of ‘friends’ through the beautiful gift of language to connect with others. The more benevolent she is on someone, the person will have better gift of speech and expression, inspiring more people to connect to her/him as friends (10.71).[2]

On one level, Mother Vak is sacred speech including the hymns and ritual chants. On another level she is also ordinary speech among ordinary people. She is far more than speech and includes the power of perceiving, grasping the nature of things, naming them, and expressing the perception with coherence and form. Her nature is subtle, eternal, imperishable, and above all incomprehensible.[3] Even though she helps us to comprehend all, she herself remains incomprehensible to our intelligence. She does not reveal herself totally to us. Finally, she is not only human speech; Vak Devi (goddess) also personifies the sounds of nature (including the ones from animate and inanimate sources) with which human speech is connected. She bestows sounds with meaning, from the sound of water to that of human speech.


[1] David R. Kinsley, Hindu Goddesses: Visions of the Divine Feminine in the Hindu Religious Tradition (University of California Press, 1988) page 11

[2] Same as above, page 12

[3] Russill Paul, The Yoga of Sound: Tapping the Hidden Power of Music and Chant (New World Library, 2004) page 70