A few weeks earlier was the Navaratri festival in India that is celebrated for the victory of Goddess over Mahishasura. In the 9 days of Navaratri, we saw the 10 Mahavidyas and their forms, meanings, and some primary reading of the symbolism embedded in their forms. But what is Mahavidya? How does it come to be associated with the Goddess?
To understand this, we have to go back to the period when civilization was in the dawn. At this time the Goddess worship became popular as the Goddess became the symbol of the material world around. This is the same time when the Goddess collective started being worshipped. Following is a seal from the Harappan era where A Goddess collective is being worshipped.
In the worship of the Goddess, there are multiple female forms of the Goddess depicted performing different activities, wearing different clothes, in different backgrounds. In most cases, there will also be a male deity placed along with the Goddess who is the guardian or perhaps the caretaker of the Goddess collective. We can speculate if this has any resemblance with the matriarchal cultures pre-dating to the patriarchy, where women of a settlement valued only one male as their partner. This one male was the alpha male who competed with his brothers in the herd and won the position to be worthy of the women.
This is more evident in the worship of 7 Matrikas, 9 Durgas, 10 Mahavidyas, and 64 Yoginis where along with multiple goddesses is placed one Bhairav. One could even extrapolate this to Krishna’s Raas Leela where only one male is allowed while all others have to be female, so much that even Shiva had to take female form.
As we know, in Hinduism, the Goddess is Nature or Prakriti. Nature is not uniform everywhere. It changes its form at literally every meter and every hour. It’s an eternal dynamic ecosystem that self-creates and self-sustains. The creation of Nature happens within just as a female can create a child within. Hence, nature is always shown as a woman.
The forms of Nature are diverse and transient. Some appeal to human sensibilities, some don’t. Some are favorable to humanity, some aren’t. Some are benevolent and willing to domesticate; some are wild and beyond domestication. And all these forms co-exist. In other words, Nature can not be represented with just one form. From here, comes the idea of Goddess collective.
The Goddess collective comes in various forms starting from twin Goddesses (e.g. Chamunda and Chotila of Gujarat) where one is domesticated while the other is wild; in triad form (Tri-Ambika) like in Vaishnodevi of Jammu, Saptamatrikas as seen from the Harappan seal, Navadurgas as worshipped during Navaratri, Dasham Mahavidya of the Tantra, and 64 or 108 Yoginis.
Outside of Hinduism, the worship of Goddess collective was common before the arrival of monotheistic faiths, especially in the Greek and Roman culture like the Esther and Ereshkigal of the Sumerian culture, the fates triad goddesses of Greeks, or the al-Lat, al-Uzza and Mannat of the Arabian pagan religions. The majority of cultures saw Goddess in material form as manifestations of Earth. The female body creates new life within, like Nature, can create a culture within. Therefore, the majority of cultures saw Nature and culture (or the world) in the female form. And since the world keeps changing with time and space, the Goddess has myriad forms.
In Hinduism, the most common form of Goddess collective is the Tri-Devi – Saraswati, Lakshmi and Durga. Sarawati being the knowledge, Lakshmi being the food, wealth and bounty, and Durga being the power & strength. The most famous pilgrim where all three are worshipped in collective form is the Vaishnodevi of the Jammu region in the Himalayas.
Likewise, a less common form of Goddess collective is the twin goddesses. The prominent temple of the twin goddess is that of Chamunda and Chotila in the Chotila village near Rajkot, Gujarat – where Chamunda is the Goddess and Chotilla is perhaps her companion who takes care of the devotees when Chamunda is tired.
In Maharashtra, the twin Goddesses are worshipped during the Ganesh Chaturthi festival for three days as two mothers of Ganesha. The 2 forms are representing the Goddess in her gentle form and fierce form. Also, the two Goddesses also are seen as one in her Vedic form and the other in Tantrik form. Similarly, in Southern India, one often sees in the temples of Goddess the two forms of the Goddess – one with a full body form and one just with head. The one with a full body is a demure and domesticated form of the Goddess who is offered all clothing, jewelry, accessories, etc. While the Goddess head representing the fierce form of untamed Goddess is not put on clothes. When devotees visit the temple, they see the Goddess dressed in elaborate rich clothing and intricate jewelry blessing them with protection and bounty. However, the Goddess’s head near legs reminds them of the wild form Goddess could take if she will be ignored, or at worst taken for granted.
The rarer form of Goddess collective worship is that of Sapta Matrikas, Nava Durgas, Dasham Mahavidyas, or the 64 Yogini. The Matrikas are the diminutive double of Goddess with some special power. The Matrikas also represent the female form of the male deities as Brahmi/Brahmani, Vaishnavi, Maheshwari, Indrani/Aindri, Varahi, Narsimhi, Kaumari, and Vinayaki. Sometimes Chamunda is also added to the list. The combination of 7 Matrikas out of 9 above is different at different places and scriptures. When Mahishasur challenged Durga for the battle, Matrikas emerged from Durga wielding weapons of their male deity and attacked Mahishasur from all directions, until finally, the Durga slew him with her trident.
The Navadurgas represent different manifestations and phases of Parvati’s life. Parvati is the daughter of Himalaya and hence, becomes the first form – Shailaputri. When Parvati meditated on Shiva for eons to marry him, she became the Brahmacharini – she who follows Brahmacharya. When she defeated the Bhandasura before her marriage, she became Chandraghanta – the belligerent Goddess for belligerent Asuras. When Parvati revealed her Adi-shakti form as she is the origin of the world, she became Kushmanda. When Goddess took birth as the daughter of Sage Katya, she became Katyayani. When Parvati defeated asura – Andhaka by taking fierce form, she became his nightmare – Kalratri. When Shiva poured the water from Ganga onto the Parvati after her meditation for marriage, the Ganga’s water transformed her into Mahagauri. Finally, Parvati revealed her form as the Goddess of Siddhis –magical powers and esoteric knowledge.
The Mahavidyas represent the 10 different Vidyas or sources of wisdom. The Kali representing untamed primal Nature, Tara showing Nature considerate of human society, Tripurasundari representing the beauty of Nature, Bhuvaneshwari being the origin of the universe, Bhairavi being the Goddess who removes Bhaya – fear, Chinnamasta showing the violence in Nature that is part of the food chain, Dhumavati being the Goddess of disease and bad luck, Bagalamukhi showing the hypnotic powers of the Goddess, Matangi showing an all-pervasive form of the Goddess and Kamala representing the food, wealth and bounty.
The story goes that there was a son of Brahma – Prajapati Daksha who established the city-based civilization with rules and laws and norms. However, his favorite daughter – Sati, fell in love with Shiva, the mendicant of the forest and crematoriums and mountains who is indifferent to such cultural rules. When Daksha opposed their marriage, Sati left her father’s house and started following Shiva. To humiliate Shiva and Sati, Daksha arranged a huge Yagna ceremony and invited everyone except Shiva and Sati. Sati, being the daughter of Daksha, felt she should join the ceremony without invitation. However, Shiva opposed this vehemently. Finally, when Shiva tried to stop her, 10 goddesses emerged from Sati who obstructed Shiva in 10 directions from reaching Sati, while Sati left for her father’s house. These 10 goddesses are the 10 Mahavidyas.
The last form of goddess collective is the Yoginis which are worshipped typically worshipped in 64 forms. . The number 64 is special – it is the product space and time as – 8 directions (4 cardinal, 4 ordinal) and time – 8 Praharas of a day. The worship of Yoginis is unique as it is much associated with the Tantrik aspects of Hinduism and Buddhism. The most famous Yogini shrines are located at Hirapur in Odisha and Morena in Madhya Pradesh. The striking feature of these shrines is that they are circular open shrines with no roof. Circle, to represent the cyclical aspect of Nature. In otherwise temples, the main portion is called Garbhagriha, or the womb room – to show the deity is located in the womb of the Goddess. However, in Yogini shrines, there is no Garbhagriha, but a central part where a Bhairava is kept. Similar to Raasleela, one can speculate if this resembles any matriarchal cultural ritual where the women valued only one potent male. In the Raasleela, Krishna is playing the flute and Gopis are dancing around him. In Yogini shrines, one may speculate that the Yoginis play music and Bhairava dances.
To summarize, the Goddess that represents Nature manifests in different forms that keep changing with time, location, seasons, etc. And hence, to show these forms co-existing, the Goddess takes different forms and is worshipped in a collective form.
PS: During Navratri times, we posted a series of Dasha Mahavidyas and their associated interpretations, starting with the Mahavidya on day 1: Kali