Devi Mahatmyam, which is popularly known as Chandi, is the most widely read scripture that extols the glory of the Divine Mother. Samadhi, a merchant and Suratha, a king—both approach a sage called Medhas and ask him a question as to how despite one being aware of it, delusion enters into one’s life. The sage replies that all creatures, including humans, possess knowledge derived from the senses. However, even humans, the best among creatures, are deluded by the power of Mahāmāya and are thrown into the pit of attachment, residing in the great marvel of transmigratory existence. It is through Her power that the whole world is deluded. She, who is called Bhagavati, creates the entire world and, when propitious, bestows even supreme knowledge, the cause of final liberation. Nonetheless, she is also the cause of the bondage of transmigratory existence.
Then Medhas, the sage, goes on to explain the glory of the Divine Mother to Suratha and Samadhi.
The Divine Mother is eternal and embodies the entire world. The whole universe is pervaded by her. Despite this, she incarnates herself to destroy the evil forces.i
Next Brahma extols Yoganidrā, a manifestation of the Divine Mother, in glorious terms:
त्वयैतत् पाल्यते देवि त्वमत्स्यन्ते च सर्वदा ।
विसृष्टौ सृष्टिरूपा त्वं स्थितिरूपा च पालने ॥
“By you, this universe is borne, by you this world is created. By you, it is protected. O Devi, you always consume it at the end. It is you who are of the form of the whole world. At the time of creation, you are of the creative force; at the time of sustenance, you are of the form of the protective power; and at the time of the dissolution of the world, you are of the destructive power.” ii
The divine Mother is worshipped in almost all sects of Hinduism. Generally, the Mother finds a place of worship as the consort of different manifestations of the Supreme Reality like Shiva and Vishnu, and the incarnations like Rama and Krishna. However, it is the Tantra philosophy and cult that gives the utmost place to the Divine Mother, based on the ennobling concept of Shiva and Shakti. The glory of the Divine Mother that we have dwelt on so far will be further revealed to our intellect if we understand the wonderful philosophical ideas enshrined in the scriptures of the Tantra tradition.
The Ultimate Reality is an absolute principle called by the name Brahman in Vedanta. Tantra calls it Shiva. Here Shiva is not a person but a tattva, the principle, which is unchanging and of the nature of pure consciousness. It is conceived to have two forms: Niṣkala and Sakala. While the former is the undivided state of Shiva, the latter is of the shape of this entire existence, apparently divided into innumerable names and forms that make up this universe. In other words, it is none other than the unchanging and undivided absolute principle called Shiva, which appears in the relative plane as the world, having innumerable forms of sentient and non-sentient entities with countless differences.
Underlying this universe is a cosmic energy that manifests in the form of all physical entities and the mind. Whatever we experience, feel, and come across is but the gross manifestation of this subtle spiritual energy. This spiritual energy is infinite, while the whole universe is nothing but its partial expression. This is called parā-śakti in Tantra scriptures. The word Shakti etymologically denotes power, ability, energy, and strength.
What is the relation between Shiva and Shakti when both are said to be the ultimate cause of the whole existence? This forms the crux of the Tantra philosophy.
We can cite three examples to understand the unwavering relationship between Shiva and Shakti. First is of the great ocean appearing to be ever turbulent on the surface, with mountain-like waves splashing the shores at all times. However, we know that beneath these choppy waters, there is quietness and stillness found below the surface. In the same manner, Tantra says that the Ultimate Reality, though one and without a second, appears in two aspects. The dynamic aspect is the cosmic energy which is the backdrop of the entire universe, from which it raises, continues to sustain and merges with at the time of dissolution. It is called by the traditional name of Shakti. This dynamic Shakti has its counterpart in Shiva, the absolute static form of Reality, that can be termed the substratum or edifice of the whole existence. In Tantra, they are not different, but expressions of the same Ultimate Reality; Shiva is Shakti and in turn, Shakti is Shiva.
The next example is that of corn with two halves embedded in a single sheath, which appears to be one single entity for an onlooker. Though it is factually one entity, it has two parts. This example reveals the philosophical significance Tantra attaches to the fact that the Ultimate Reality, as in the Sankhya theory, is not two-fold (Purusha and Prakriti), but ontologically one and only one, but expressed in two ways—Shiva, the static absolute, and Shakti, the dynamic relative. The non-duality is strictly adhered to, but the homogeneity, unlike Advaita, is not preferred. A non-dual Reality, it is affirmed in the Tantra, is bound to have endless expressions in various forms and names, while still maintaining its monistic nature. Shakti, the relative aspect that forms the seed from which the whole creation originates, undeniably is of a non-dual nature, since Tantra affirms repeatedly that these two expressions (Shiva and Shakti) are in unison with each other shaping the Ultimate Reality.
The third type of example is a famous one often quoted by none other than Sri Ramakrishna himself. In a conversation, he says:
“Brahman and Shakti are like the snake and its wriggling motion. Thinking of the snake, one must think of its wriggling motion, and thinking of its wriggling motion, one must think of the snake. Or they are like milk and its whiteness. Thinking of milk, one has to think of its colour, that is, whiteness, and thinking of the whiteness of milk, one has to think of milk itself. Or they are like water and its wetness. Thinking of water, one has to think of its wetness, and thinking of the wetness of water, one has to think of water.” iii
The Ultimate Reality is always non-dual; it always remains an all-integrated universal principle, with none whatsoever excluded from it. However, one cannot confine it from taking different expressions, forms, and names. Visualizing the dynamic aspect of Reality is but one of the perspectives, the other being seeing it from only the absolute perspective. Advaita, holding on to the absolute standpoint, condemns the relative aspect of Reality to be Maya, a great illusion. Tantra, on the other hand, avows the inherent potency of the Ultimate Reality to appear not only as pure consciousness but also express itself in the form of this universe with its multitudes. As ontologically not different from Reality, both are of the same stature and significance to a spiritual seeker. Hence, a devotee of Shakti does not condemn the world to be somewhat less real, but delights in it as the veritable abode of the play of the Divine.
Sri Ramakrishna, in the above passage, leaving no obscurity, says that one can not think of Shakti without Shiva for they are in no way different but inherent manifestations of the same Reality. As such, Tantra gives equal importance to both; but as a choice of preference, extends the dominant position to Shakti and extols it in theological terms as the Mother of the Universe.
Mother of the Universe
Devi Mahatmyam gives a vivid description of the Divine Mother as the source of the whole world. A sage sings in praise of the Mother:
हेतुः समस्तजगतां त्रिगुणापि दोषै-
र्न ज्ञायसे हरिहरादिभिरप्यपारा ।
मव्याकृता हि परमा प्रकृतिस्त्वमाद्या ॥ ७॥
You are the origin of all the worlds! Though you are possessed of three guṇas you are not known to have any of defects (like passion) attached to them. You are incomprehensible even to Vishnu, Shiva, and others. You are the resort of all! This entire world is composed of an infinitesimal portion of yourself! You are verily the supreme primordial Prakriti untransformed! iv
The idea of Maya or Prakriti being the origin of the universe is prevalent in many Indian schools of philosophy. Advaitins say such an entity is delusional and has no reality and, therefore, to be rejected. However, the dualistic schools hold that Prakriti is but the creative power of the Supreme Lord, theologically symbolized in the female consorts of the Divine like Parvati, Lakshmi and the like. It is through this creative power that the the Lord assumes the status of creator, not himself. However, Tantra places Prakriti on still a high pedestal independent of any male consort, and the Divine Mother who represents the idea is perceived to be the origin and substratum of the whole universe. For Shakta, the devotee of Mother Goddess, Prakriti is not an abstract principle but the Divine Mother herself adored and worshipped in the form of Durga, Lakshmi, Bhavani, and other innumerable feminine forms.
The idea of equating the origin of the world to a feminine principle is not confined to India alone. We find in many ancient traditions the practice and corresponding philosophical and theological ideas that state that a Great Mother is the source of this universe, just like an earthly mother gives birth to her child. The feature of giving birth is a special characteristic shared by all women, and this empirical fact is extended to the entire cosmos, giving rise to the wonderful idea that there is a Universal Mother who has given birth to everything on this earth—sentient, non-sentient, human, animals, plants, mountains, forests, stars, galaxies, and all that make up this dynamic universe.
The idea of the Divine Mother was not confined to a belief system but has been actualized and realised in transcendental experiences by the great mystics like Ramprasad and Sri Ramakrishna. To them, the Mother was a living presence of divine consciousness with whom they identified throughout their lives. The mystical union with the Mother explicitly finds resonance in Ramprasad’s songs, in which he expresses through sweet and beautiful sentiments the unalloyed joy he has found himself in the blissful association with the Divine Mother. In one of those songs of mystical significance, Ramprasad compares his mystical vision to drinking the wine of divine bliss:
I drink no ordinary wine, but Wine of Everlasting Bliss,
As I repeat my Mother Kali’s name;
It so intoxicates my mind that people take me to be drunk!
First my guru gives molasses for the making of the Wine;
My longing is the ferment to transform it.
Knowledge, the maker of the Wine, prepares it for me then;
And when it is done, my mind imbibes it from the bottle of the mantra,
Taking the Mother’s name to make it pure.
Drink of this Wine, says Ramprasad, and the four fruits of life are yours. v
Whenever such songs of deep mystical importance were sung in his room by the devotees, Sri Ramakrishna would become ecstatic and rise to the divine mood corresponding to the tone and spirit of the songs. It was as if the divine mood experienced by great saint poets of the past in these songs resurrected in the person of the Great Master.
Sri Ramakrishna himself had a mystical vision of the Divine Mother after a stormy sadhana and intense longing for Her realization. He would roll on the ground, crying ‘Mother, Mother’, and meditate on Her blissful form for hours. One day, the Master was ready to take his life with the very sword Mother was holding out of an intense pang of separation that made him miserable and desolate. The wonderful vision he had at that time, he describes in his own words:
“… suddenly the blessed Mother revealed Herself. The buildings with their different parts, the temple, and everything else vanished from my sight, leaving no trace whatsoever, and in their stead I saw a limitless, infinite, effulgent Ocean of Consciousness. As far as the eye could see, the shining billows were madly rushing at me from all sides with a terrific noise, to swallow me up! I was panting for breath. I was caught in the rush and collapsed, unconscious. What was happening in the outside world I did not know; but within me there was a steady flow of undiluted bliss, altogether new, and I felt the presence of the Divine Mother.” vi
Swami Vivekananda’s Kali
When Sri Ramakrishna transmitted all his powers to Swami Vivekananda, the latter felt as if Kali had entered into his being. He said later that it was the same Kali that made him work tirelessly for the rest of his life with unceasing energy and firm determination. Swamiji wanted that Shakti worship should be introduced far and wide in India, so that through that, women would stand on their own feet and assert their empowerment and independence. He was also fascinated by Kali, the terrible aspect of the Divine Mother, and through that metaphor stated that Mother is in everything— good, evil; beautiful and ugly; Mother pervades everything and has become everything. Swamiji’s mystical insight about Mother Kali has been brilliantly articulated in his poem ‘Kali The Mother’, which captivates and transports us to a new spiritual realm where we would be able to see the Mother’s presence in and throughout everything and appreciate even the terrible and fearful aspects of our life.
For Terror is Thy name,
Death is in Thy breath,
And every shaking step
Destroys a world for e’er.
Thou “Time”, the All-Destroyer!
Come, O Mother, come!
Who dares misery love,
And hug the form of Death,
Dance in Destruction’s dance,
To him the Mother comes. vii
Our Own Mother
The common mass of India hold the Divine Mother as their own, regarding her as a family member and showering unparalleled love and affection. The Mother would no longer remain Divine, but becomes the object of filial fondness and warmth. The outpouring of sentiments towards the Mother we find among the devotees, especially during Durga Puja, is not always borne out of their knowledge of that Divine power, but their fulfilment of the psychological need for someone whom they can love without any restrictions, and who loves them without any worldly considerations. The anxieties of the world do not allow one to experience such pristine love as one does when one is in communion with the Mother. In that unalloyed bondage between child and mother, the Mother no longer remains a Goddess to countless such pious souls, but fulfils the dire human psychological requisite of immaculate motherly love and unselfish affection.
The worship of the Divine Mother in the form of Durga has become an umbilical aspect of Indian culture, especially in Bengal and other northeastern states. Durga Puja is not just a religious ceremony but a celebration of all that is splendid and wonderful in the cultural life of the people of those regions. This great social festival of joy and merrymaking uplifts the spirit of ordinary people, makes them enthusiastic and buoyant about their life and the opportunities it offers in a cultural setting.
The highest ideal for Indian women is motherhood. This is very much true even in the empirical scene. But Hindus were not content with just that noble perspective about femininity. They took this great ideal even further to the cosmic realm and comprehended that all that exists comes from a Universal Mother. This is the greatest status any society has given to women in general. However, the Mother is not just the origin of all; she is in and through all, and she has become all. In the exalted state of non-duality, one would exclaim: ‘sāham; I am she’. This is the Real Mother!
i Devi Mahatmyam, prathamacharita, I Chapter
ii Ibid, 1.76
iii Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, page 290 – Give full details as in the case of complete works.
iv Ibid, 4.7
v Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, page 106
vi The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, Introduction, page … – find out the page number from the book
vii The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, 9 vols (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1–8, 1989; 9, 1997),4.384