Kamakhya – the Goddess of Desire…

The Indian Great Goddess, Adya Shakti, is not only wise, valiant and the source of creation, she is also very much in touch with her sexuality, fertility and related bodily functions. She is worshipped as yoni (vulva) in her Kamakhya form. The name Kamakhya literally means ‘She whose title/definition is Sexual Desire.’ The Kalika Purana, an important Hindu text, gives the description of the innermost cave of the main temple where the deity resides –

‘Inside the cave there exists a very lovely pudendum on the stone which is 12 angulas (9cm) in width and 20 angulas (16 cm) in length gradually narrowing and sloping… It is reddish in colour like vermillion and saffron. On that female organ the amorous Goddess Kamakhya … The primordial force resides in five different forms.’[1]

The main Kamakhya temple is situated near the city of Guwahati in Assam, India.

Kamakhya Temple in Assam

Kamakhya Temple near Guwahati, Assam

According to another important text, the Devi Bhagavata Purana

‘…in Kamakhya-yonimandala[2] …the goddess…dwells forever, the site being the jewel of all the holy places. No sacred place can excel this one in which the goddess is seen menstruating every month… It will not be an exaggeration if it be said that though the wise persons have identified the entire world with the body of the goddess, the said Kamakhya-yonimandala has no second in reflecting her real glory.’[3]

Goddess sculpture in the Kamakhya temple.

Goddess sculpture in the Kamakhya temple.

The relevant myth with slight variations is the story of Sati, an incarnation of Adya Shakti (Primal Power), and daughter of the celestial king Daksha. She married Shiva, the destroyer god, the personification of the Great Time, the first Yogi, without her father’s consent and angered him. Once when Daksha organised a gathering of the most honoured gods, goddesses and celestial beings, he purposefully left out Shiva and Sati from the invitee list. His intention was to publicly reject Shiva as a god of any importance. Sati could not believe her father would do this on purpose and decided to attend the ceremony anyway. Shiva refused to attend and tried to stop Sati from going, but in vain.

Sati reached her natal home and were publicly humiliated by her father. Shiva too was insulted and maligned in his absence. In anger and pain, and in protest, Sati burnt herself to death. Shiva reached the spot in a terrible rage and inconsolable grief. He sent his most terrifying aspect to kill Daksha; then he picked up the lifeless body of Sati on his shoulders and started dancing the tandava (dance of destruction). Everything went in turmoil and the whole creation came under imminent threat of annihilation. But Shiva in his terrible grief proved unstoppable by any force in the universe. The god Vishnu devised a plan to stop Shiva’s madness and sent his weapon to slice away Sati’s body without Shiva noticing. Sati was sliced into pieces which fell in various parts of the earth. Shiva came back to his senses and stopped when he realised Sati’s body had incrementally disappeared from over his shoulder and creation was saved. Wherever these pieces of Sati’s body fell, it became auspicious; and temples were built over them. These 51 temples of Adya Shakti are called the Shakti Peethas (Abodes of Shakti). The place where her yoni fell, became the abode of Mother Kamakhya, one of her forms.

This picture is not of the main temple is Assam as photography is not allowed within the main temple. This is the Kamakhya Yoni worshipped at the Kamakhya Temple in Devipuram, Andhra Pradesh.

This picture is not of the main temple is Assam as probably photography is not allowed within the main temple. This is the Kamakhya Yoni worshipped at the Kamakhya Temple in Devipuram, Andhra Pradesh.

It has been argued that yoni worship is a much older tradition than the myths themselves. According to Biswanarayan Shastri, the yoni is regarded as the symbol of creation and worshipped with the utmost regard. The creative female force is conceived as the visible symbol of the invisible female and is identified with the Goddess.[4] Every year the festival of Ambubachi celebrates her menstruation for four days; the temple is closed during these days and when re-opened is considered the most auspicious time to pray to the Mother.[5]

Brenda Dobia writes about an interview she conducted with a temple priest on her pilgrimage to the Kamakhya temple –

‘He repeatedly affirmed the yoni’s fundamental role in srishti, creation, and elaborated Kamakhya’s central importance as the yoni of the Earth itself. Significantly, the annual Ambuvaci festival which celebrates the menses of the Goddess involves a ritual remembering and replenishment of her powers, with Tantric adherents from Goddess sites all over the sub-continent converging there. Julia Jean reports that the regeneration of both the Earth and the devotees at this time is understood to derive from the shakti (power/energy) in the menstrual blood of the Goddess.’[6]

The temple of the Great Mother Kamakhya is located in modern India in the district of Kamrup (literal meaning, embodiment/manifestation of desire) in the state of Assam. It is named after the ancient kingdom of Kamrup (or Kamarupa) which took its name from the presence of goddess Kamakhya. The superfast cross-country train that runs daily between my city and Kamrup is officially called the Kamrup Express. As a teenager, I remember being intrigued by the name of the train and the ‘mysterious’ place it connected us with. With years, the sense of mystery had given way to a feeling of awe at the myths of this Mother who shares the most intimate pains of my womanhood, who bleeds like I do; who is defined by her sexuality and yet holds the capability to lend her name to entire kingdoms and districts in the past and in the present.

This too is a picture of a family of mother worshippers in the Kamakhya Temple at Devipuram, Andhra Pradesh

This is a picture of a family of Mother worshippers in the Kamakhya Temple at Devipuram, Andhra Pradesh

There are many more Kamakhya temples dotted around India, but the Kamrup Kamakhya is the predominant in fame. Again, the menstruating goddess is found in other forms in many places in India who too are worshipped as forms of Adya Shakti herself – for example, goddess Bhagavati in the Chengannur Mahadeva temple in South Kerala.[7] The temple website says –

‘…[The] festival of this Temple is Triputharattu which is considered as a symbol of fertility. This festival is connected with a menstruation ceremony, which is observed periodically in the temple. That is why this temple is also considered as Shakthi Peedam (a local language version of the word Shakti Peetha).’[8]

In Orissa, the annual festival of the earth goddess (Harchandi) is called the Raja Parba (literally, menstruation festival). The earth is believed to be menstruating on these days and the worshippers refrain from ploughing, digging or interfering with her in any other ways.[9] To Harchandi’s worshippers, women’s menstruation is the gift from and continuous with the menstruation of the goddess.[10] In my marital home in Orissa, my in-laws celebrate the earth mother’s menstruation with utmost respect and love; women wear new clothes and dress up to mark the renewal of mother earth. Intriguingly, one of the main rituals for this festival is for girls to swing on a rope-swing. This in all probability symbolises female exuberance and fertility as a creative force.

A poster of the Menstruation festival of the goddess or Raja Parba

A poster of the Menstruation festival of the goddess or Raja Parba

Another poster

Another poster

Raja_Doli_khela_Odia_festival

A girl’s first menstruation too is celebrated by women as a gift of the goddess; it is one of the most significant days of her life. My sister-in-law was extremely disappointed that I could not travel from the UK to India for her daughter’s first menstruation rite. It is almost as if I had not been able to attend a close relative’s wedding. In the Shakta (Shakti worship) traditions, menstruation is not just a biological fact; the cyclical changes in a woman’s body are believed to represent the cyclical changes in the environment, the seasons and in the very order of the cosmos.[12] But the Great Mother’s close relationship with the bodily processes of menstruation, sex and birth do not devalue her divinity or her status as the all-powerful primal force in the universe, nor undermine the notions of her wisdom. She is a woman, a lover, a mother, a creator, a protector, a warrior, and the all-knower, all-powerful all in one.


[1] Kalika Purana, as quoted by Biswanarayan Shastri, ‘The Mother Goddess Kamakhya’ (2005) 1(2and3) Ishani  available at

https://www.indianfolklore.org/journals/index.php/Ish/article/viewArticle/284 (accessed 21 May 2011)

[2] The word yonimandala in all probability means ‘the circle of the yoni’ or ‘the place of the yoni.’

[3] Devi Bhagavata Purana, 8.38.15-18 trans. follows N.N. Bhattacharyya, The Indian Mother Goddess (New Delhi: Manohar, 3rd edn, 1999)

[4] Biswanarayan Shastri, ‘The Mother Goddess Kamakhya’ (2005) 1(2and3) Ishani (online journal. See note 1 above for the url)

[5] Same as above.

[6] Brenda Dobia, ‘Approaching the Hindu Goddess of Desire,’ Feminist Theology, 16 (2007) 61, 74

[7] Biswanarayan Shastri, ‘The Mother Goddess Kamakhya’ (2005) 1(2and3) Ishani (online journal. See note 1 above for the url)

[9] Kartikeya C Patel, ‘Women, Earth and the Goddess: A Shakta-Hindu interpretation of Embodied Religion’ (1994) 9 Hypatia 69, 78

[10] Same as above.

[12] Kartikeya C Patel, ‘Women, Earth and the Goddess: A Shakta-Hindu interpretation of Embodied Religion’ (1994) 9 Hypatia 69, 72-73

Most beautiful Hymn to Durga

This is one of my favourite renditions of one of the most powerful hymns to Ma Durga. Its a very long hymn. I will post the translation once I find a satisfactory one or once I do it myself. In gist it describes the attributes of the goddess Durga and bows down to her. She is called the merciful one, the victorious one, the terrible and beautiful one, the auspicious one, the three-eyed one, the beautifully attired one, the mother, the daughter of the mountain, the wife of Shiva, the sister of Vishnu. Her victory over Mahushasur (the Buffalo Asur) is hailed. Her immense strength, immeasurable power and her beauty is praised.

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

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

Adya Shakti: the Primal Power

‘The Divine Mother’s magic is ancient as life itself. She existed before Gods and mortals, and she will still exist even after the great dissolution. Mother is pure energy in subtle form, but in times of need or just out of the desire to play, she manifests.’[1]

The name Adya Shakti or Adi Shakti literally means ‘primal power’ or ‘primal energy.’ In Hinduism she is the power or energy infusing the whole existence. In other words she is not only powerful, but power itself. She herself is the power/energy/force that permeates all creation including the animate, inanimate and the divine. All the other goddesses in the Hindu pantheon, are just manifestations or incarnations of Adya Shakti. She is the entity from which the universe is created, and sustained, and she is what everything will withdraw back into at the end of their lives.

A popular modern representation of Adya Shakti

A popular modern representation of Adya Shakti

The word Shakti in Sanskrit has a far larger import than the words power and energy in English. In fact there is no direct translation of Shakti. Sir John Woodroffe writes – ‘there is no word of wider content in any language than the Sanskrit term meaning “power”. For Shakti in the highest causal sense is God as Mother, and in another sense it is the Universe that issues from Her Womb.’[2]

Her other name is Adyakali, literally meaning ‘primal darkness’. She is the darkness from which light issues, the nothingness from which something is born, and the unmanifest from which everything manifests. Wendell Beane describes Adyakali as ‘pre-dynamically the Unmanifest, the Primeval, and the Supreme,’ as the ultimate symbol of timelessness – the Not-time – the one without beginning and without contingency.[3]

The Mahakali Stotram (a Hymn to Mahakali) says –

‘Without feet, you move faster than air; without ear, you do hear; without nostrils you do smell; without eyes, you do see; without tongue you do taste all tastes.’ (My translation)

She is not one particular form – nor does she have the known sense perceptions. Yet she senses everything. The idea of Adya Shakti is that she is immensely powerful, power herself; she is generally manifested in everything that we see in this universe, including the life force that moves in it. She is often described as neither male nor female, yet both male and female at the same time; as an entity that is beyond the descriptive categories of male and female; yet when she manifests herself in a particular form, she takes the form of an immeasurably powerful goddess. The following is a translation of a hymn to her found in the Mahakala Samhita:

‘Thou art neither girl, nor maid, nor old. Indeed thou art neither female, nor male, nor neuter. Thou art inconceivable, immeasurable Power, the Being of all which exists, void of all duality, the Supreme Brahman, attainable in Illumination alone.’[4]

The Sanskrit word Brahman here means truth or reality. The goddess is the representation of the ultimate non-duality. She encompasses everything in the universe, indeed she IS everything, including what we categorise as light and dark, creation and destruction, good and bad, female and male, youth and senility, left and right, inside and outside, physical and spiritual, yesterday and today. She is the ultimate non-dual unbroken reality.

Another text of the goddess tradition says – ‘Obeisance be to Her who is pure Being-Consciousness-Bliss, as Power, who exists in the form of Time and Space and all that is therein, and who is the radiant Illuminatrix in all beings.[5]

Adya Shakti depicted in Temple Sculpture in South India (dating between 10th to 12th century AD)

Adya Shakti depicted in Temple Sculpture in South India (dating between 10th to 12th century AD)

Adya Shakti is worshipped and celebrated in India and in Indian communities outside India in literally thousands of forms. Some of these forms are pan-Indian, like Kali and Durga, while the others are local like Meenakshi Amman (Fish-eyed Mother) in Tamil Nadu in South India, Vaishno Devi (GoddessVaishno) in Jammu and Kashmir in North India, Amba Devi (primarily) in Gujarat in Western India and Attukal Amma (Mother Attukal) in Kerala, South India.[6]

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[1] Elizabeth U Harding, Kali: the Black Goddess of Dakshineswar (Motilal Banarsidass 1998) xvii

[2] Sir John Woodroffe, Shakti and Shakta (New Visions Publications 2007) 25

[3] Wendell Charles Beane, Myth, Cult and Symbols of Sakta Hinduism (EJ Brill 1977) 152

[4] Sir John Woodroffe, Shakti and Shakta (New Visions Publications 2007) 26

[5] From Yoginihridaya Tantra as quoted in Sir John Woodroffe, Shakti and Shakta (The New Visions Publications, 2007)

[6] Dianne Jennet, ‘A Million Shaktis Rising: Pongala, a Women’s Festival in Kerala, India’ (2005) 21 Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 35, 43

Saraswati – Awesome Voice of Thunder, Voice of Heaven…

In the Hindu pantheon, Saraswati (or Sarasvati), referred to as the Mother, is the goddess of knowledge and wisdom; of learning; of words and expression. Only her blessings can give one the gift of language and knowledge. She is a peaceful aspect of Adya Shakti, the Primal Mother, the Ancient Creatress. In her currently worshipped form, Saraswati holds the symbols of learning in her hands (including a musical instrument, Veena, and the Vedas), wears white and rides a white swan. She is also often depicted with a peacock.

Modern popular depiction of Ma Sarawati

Modern popular depiction of Ma Sarawati

In the ancient Hindu scriptures, the Vedas, she is a celestial river – one of the seven sister rivers (sapta-sindhu). She is ‘horrendous in her vehemence … her impact knows no end, roaring, she moves on … [the] daughter of lightning, the voice of thunder …she… rules over all intuition.’[1] 

‘Sarasvati, a flowing onrush of creative power, is a form of the great goddess. She pours out from the source, full-fledged. She is the ineluctable impetus of creative intuition, awesome voice of thunder, the voice of Heaven. She is all movement, the vehement river of creative thought.’[2]

Her slightly different manifestation is the Vedic goddess Vak or Vac (literally, word or speech). In Sanskrit, Vak literally means ‘speech.’ Called the ‘Mother of the Vedas (the most ancient Hindu scriptures),’ Vak is also described as fierce and commanding; she strides and carries with her the other gods; wind is her breath. And most surprisingly she is described as the mother of her own father.

‘…she is the Great Goddess, exceeding axis of the cosmos, creator of the Father in Heaven, her own father, up on high. … “The heavenly oceans flowed from her and then the Word, the Aksara, the creative syllable”’[3]

'The Commander' by Freydoon Rassouli*

Artist: Freydoon Rassouli*

In the Rig Veda, Vak declares –

‘I am the sovereign power (over all the worlds … and the first among those to whom sacrificial homage is to be offered; the gods in all places worship but me, who am diverse and permeate everything. … I pervade heaven and earth. I give birth to the infinite expanse overspreading the earth.’ [4]

She is celebrated and worshipped all over modern India in homes, schools, colleges and universities. Saraswati’s blessings is still sought after by every seeker of knowledge and wisdom.


[1] Stella Kramrisch, ‘The Indian Great Goddess’ (1975) 14 History of Religions, pages 235, 246
[2] same as above
[3] same as above, page 247
[4] Kartikeya C Patel, ‘Women, Earth and the Goddess: A Shakta-Hindu interpretation of Embodied Religion’ (1994) 9 Hypatia, pages 69, 75
* Title of featured artwork: ‘The Commander’ by Freydoon Rassouli. For more paintings by Rassouli, visit www.rassouli.com