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Dus Mahavidya– Invoking the divine energy

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As the nation celebrates Diwali, there are a few states in India observing and celebrating Kali Puja. It is the best time to discuss the The Mahavidyas or Dus Mahavidyas – the ten manifestations of Adi Parashakti in ‘Sanatan Dharma.’ If translated, they refer to ten great pieces of knowledge or wisdom.’
The development of Mahavidyas first sprung in the post-Puranic age, around 6th century C.E. and also in texts like Devi-Bhagavata Purana, especially its last nine chapters (31-40) of the seventh skandha, which are known as the Devi Gita, and soon became central texts of Shaktism.

Mahavidyas also mark an important turning point in the history of Shaktism to Tantra. The Dus Mahavidyas represent how Shakti manifests around Shiva in different directions and also symbolic of energy centres of the particular direction. Adi Parashakti literally means “The First Supreme Energy,” also referred to as the Power of Para Brahman, which is the absolute essence of the universe. She is the active energy of God that both creates and dissolves the universe.


In the series of the ten Mahavidyas, Kali comes first. The word Kali arises from the Sanskrit word “Kaal”, which means time and that is why Goddess Kali is sometimes referred as the Goddess of Death. However, Kali is the slayer of the ego in an individual. She is the supreme power and ultimate reality. A fierce representation, Kali wears a garland of 52 skulls and a skirt of dismembered arms signifying the ego is not the identification. She reflects the dark primal energy of existence and the highest consciousness. She is the pure, unmanifested energy, the Adishakti.

She is the one who killed Chanda and Munda and Raktabija. She is believed to reside in the cremation grounds – the ultimate reality where everything dissolves- perfectly representing the element of time. She juxtaposes the dualities of life – the light and the dark, the merciful and the fierce, are beginning and the end of time. She is none other than the Para Brahman, Kali– the most beautiful, benevolent and the merciful Mother.


Tara comes after Kali and depicted in similar form of that of Kali but there are differences. Tara’s complexion is blue whereas Kali’s can be black or blue. She has four arms- one holds a sacrificial sword, a severed head or skull cup in another, a lotus and scissors in the other two hands. The sword represents the power of consciousness and knowledge to cut away whatever is not real and move from darkness to light.

Slaying the ego is identified by the severed head, any bondage or false sense of identity that holds us back from realising our unlimited potential. The scissors symbolize the ability to cut away attachment and paving way for spiritual progress. She is situated above Sadashiva. Tara is prominent both in Tibetan Buddhism and in Tantric Hinduism.

Both Kali and Tara are associated with death and dissolution. Where Kali represents time (kala), Tara is more associated with fire – the fire of the cremation ground- Smashanabhairavi/ Smashantara. Fire is not just about destruction or dissolution but also refers to purification and transformation. Even though fierce in manifestation, she is considered benevolent mother, protective and showers blessings on her devotees.


As Tara is the beginning of the Universe, Tripurasundari embodies the primal desire to create. She possesses the 16 aspects of the moon and presiding deity of the Shri-Yantra. Her other names include Sodasi, Lalita, Kameshwari. The four legs of Tripurasundari’s throne are formed by the Trinity- 3 forms of Shiva (SadaShiva, Rudra, Maheshwara) and Brahma and Vishnu also signifying the collective power or energies of Brahma, Vishnu, and Rudra.


The fourth Mahavidya is Bhuvaneshwari. Her name consists of two aspects- ‘Bhuwan’ meaning sky and Ishwari meaning female ruler of the world. Bhuvaneshwari is also identified with the heart chakra or anahata chakra. She embodies the physical cosmos and considered the energy which gives shape to the creation of the world. She is considered supreme energy who creates and destroys all that is unnecessary and evil.

It is the entire cosmos that she rules. She reflects space like Lord Vishnu. In the Rigveda, space is personified as Aditi. This unlimited space is a symbol of infinity. Aditi, the great mother who gave birth to the deities, and who is all pervasive. Her energies or manifestation is extremely powerful and believed that even the navagrahas (nine planets) cannot stop her from doing anything that she intends to do.


Bhairavi is the fifth Dasha Mahavidyas. Even though she is dark, she shines as radiant as ten thousand rising suns. In Durga Saptashathi, Bhairavi is seen as the Mahakali while slaying the demons, Shumbha and Nishumbha. Bhairavi is also identified with Durga, in her fierce manifestation.
Bhairavi is one who has succeeded in mastering the Kundalini shakti and that is why yoginis practising sadhana are often referred as Bhairavi. Bhairavi is identified with Kaalraatri, a name often associated with Kaali that means “black night (of destruction).”

She is also identified with ‘Mahaapralay,’ the great dissolution at the end of a cosmic cycle, where everything is dissolved in the formless waters of procreation. Destruction is apparent everywhere, and therefore Bhairavi is present everywhere. Though Bhairavi appears to be fearsome, her protectiveness as a mother is meant to destroy the negatives and liberates us from bondage.

She is also called Shubhamkari and Sakal Siddhi Bhairavi who confers blessings to her children and devotees and destroy ignorance and guide us to light.


Chinnamasta is the manifestation of the Divine Mother who is shown as self-decapitated. She holds her decapitated head in one hand and a scimitar in the other while three streams of blood spurt out of her bleeding neck, which is drunk by her own severed head and two attendants standing by each side of her. Chhinnamasta is also usually portrayed as standing on a copulating couple, Kamdev and his wife Rati.

The iconography is fearsome but there are deeper spiritual significances. Maa Chinnamasta represents self-sacrifice and the awakening of the kundalini Shakti. Chhinnamasta reflects juxtaposed realities – as a symbol of complete control on sexual desire and on the other hand, the awakening of the kundalini represents the awakening in the Muladhara chakra.

The kundalini flows through the central passage in the body. The blood spilling from the throat depicts the upward-flowing kundalini, breaking all obstacles and finally resulting in enlightenment. The blood spurting from Chinnamasta’s neck represents the life force (prana) or cosmic energy that animates the universe and sustains all life Chhinnamasta signifies life, death and sex are interdependent. As Chhinnamasta is considered a dark and dangerous, she has few temples, mostly found in North India and Nepal. Her individual worship is restricted to Tantric worship by Tantrikas and yogis.

However, Chhinnamasta is recognized by Hindus as well as Buddhists. She is closely related to Chinnamunda – the severed-headed form of the Tibetan Buddhist goddess Vajrayogini.

While Dakini is light-skinned and represents the tamas guna, Varnini is red-complexioned and embodies the rajas guna and Chinnamasta in the middle is white representing sattva. Black, red and white represent the three gunas, or basic universal energies. Daknini, Varnini and Chhinnamasta can be related to the three main subtle nadis or channels, namely, Ida, Pingala and Sushumna. The self-decapitation also represents removal of ignorance and ego. The head is also the part of the body associated with identity. The severed head, iconographical, symbolising cutting off the ego and leads towards liberation.


Dhumavati also personifies an element of time and the inevitable but harsh realities of life- that everything is transient. Her name means “she who is made of smoke,” and that is what Dhumavati manifests- nothing is permanent, just like smoke. She is probably the only widow deity in Hinduism, which is indeed inspiring. The state of widowhood in Indian society carries a range of complexities and Dhumavati represents that and believed to favour the singles, widows, old people.

Dhumavati is not going anywhere- this is symbolized by the cart in which Dhumavati sits; it has nothing to pull it. She represents a primary lesson that disappointments, misfortunes, frustrations, defeats, or losses are inevitable and that one needs to go beyond these and seek positive transformation in life. Similarly, hard times can transform an ordinary soul into an extraordinary one just like Dhumavati.

Dhumavati represents this element of time that everything that we cling on to is transient. Her manifestation is a lesson to bring in a sense of detachment. Dhumavati holds a bowl of fire in one hand and a winnowing basket in the other. The fire symbolizes cosmic destruction- that all things shall pass. The winnowing basket, used to separate grain from chaff, which is embodiment of mental discretion between the permanent and the fleeting. Dhumavati is a manifestation that encourages us to empower ourselves from within and to strive to reach for the highest, and attain liberation.


She is the manifestation who signifies winning over enemies and can paralyse the enemy’s speech and intellect and wrong doings. She plays an important role to get victory in legal issues where she can paralyse the opponent. Bagalamukhi is associated with a siddhis and occult powers. She is shown holding the tongue of the enemy, which represents the ability to obstruct the enemy. Bagalamukhi embodies our inner powers to go within and take charge of our awareness and then render the enemy motionless. However, proper practise and guidance is required to achieve this state of being.


Matangi is similar to Saraswati, especially with the vina that she plays. Just like Saraswati, holds a book and a japamala signifying sound, knowledge, and power. However, Matangi is the quintessential Tantric deity, challenging the Vedic orthodoxy and establishment. She is more of an outcast and embraces men and women similarly and accessible to members of any caste, especially the marginalised. Just as in Tantra, Matangi also embraces egalitarian manifestation, against an orthodoxy of ritual purity.


Kamala is the manifestation of Lakshmi. She sits on a lotus and holds lotus blossoms in her two upper hands. Even her name means “lotus.” She is flanked by two elephants sprinkling amrit on her linking it to wealth, prosperity, fertility and good luck. Elephants hold special significance in terms of clouds and rain, interlinked to fertility and secondly, elephants also suggest royal authority. That is why she is also called Gaj Lakshmi. Devotees pray to her for good fortune, prosperity, abundance, and well-being—for all the good that life has to offer. The process and rituals in worship of Lakshmi and Kamala can differ as per practises.

The Mahavidyas are manifestations which signify spiritual awakening and enlightenment. As we embrace a manifestation, we call out and invoke that particular energy. They are the ten fundamental energies of the cosmos and doing sadhana will connect to and invoke these energies within and potentially manifest the un-manifest , depending on sadhana.

The writer is Madhabi Sarkar, working as a Senior Policy Manager with an Industry Association. The views and ideas represented here are that of her own and not of the association nor that of Opindia.

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