By Devadatta Kali
This month’s reading is from a lecture given at the Vedanta temple in Hollywood, on November 10th 2002. Devadatta Kali has been closely associated with the Vedanta Society since 1966. A regular contributor to Vedanta journals throughout the world, the author’s book Chandi, In Praise of the Goddess: The Devimahatmya and Its Meaning, is due to be published by Nicholas-Hays in December, 2003.
In The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, M[ahendranath Gupta] records a Sunday afternoon with some visitors to Dakshineswar in the winter of 1883. One of the visitors was well versed in the shastras [the sacred Hindu scriptures], and the conversation caused M. to fall into a pensive mood. Having some knowledge of Vedanta, he later asked Sri Ramakrishna, “Is the world unreal?”
“Why should it be unreal?” Sri Ramakrishna responded. “What you are asking is a matter for philosophical discussion.” Later that evening Ramakrishna returned to M.’s question and asked him again, “Why should the universe be unreal?” He continued, “The Divine Mother revealed to me in the Kali temple that it was She who had become everything. She showed me that everything was full of Consciousness. The image …, the altar …, the water-vessels …, the door-sill …, the marble floor …—all was Consciousness.
“I found everything inside the room soaked, as it were, in Bliss—the Bliss of Satchidananda. I saw a wicked man in front of the Kali temple, but in him I also saw the Power of the Divine Mother vibrating. “That is why I fed a cat with the food that was to be offered to the Divine Mother. I clearly perceived that the Divine Mother Herself had become everything (M., 345-346).”
On many other occasions, M. recorded similar teachings, and on one point Sri Ramakrishna was particularly emphatic. “… Brahman and Shakti are identical. If you accept one, you must accept the other. … You cannot conceive of the sun’s rays without the sun, nor can you conceive of the sun without its rays. … One cannot think of the Absolute without the Relative, or of the Relative without the Absolute (M., 134).”
Another time Sri Ramakrishna said: “That which is Brahman is also Kali, the Mother, the Primal Energy. When inactive It is called Brahman. Again, when creating, preserving and destroying, It is called Shakti. Still water is an illustration of Brahman. The same water, moving in waves, may be compared to Shakti, Kali (M., 634-635).” “Water is water, whether it moves or is still (M., 835).”
These are consistent teachings of Sri Ramakrishna, spoken from his own experience, but they are not the teachings of Sankara’s Vedanta. Without question, Ramakrishna was well versed in Vedantic teaching. We know that toward the end of 1865, he took initiation from an austere monk named Tota Puri, practiced the disciplines of Sankara’s Advaita Vedanta and in a short while attained nirvikalpa samadhi, the realization of nondual consciousness. But four years earlier Ramakrishna had undergone an intensive course of Tantric sadhana, taught to him by an itinerant holy woman known as the Bhairavi. She was a Shakta, a worshiper of the Divine Mother.
Nor was this Sri Ramakrishna’s first exposure to Shakta teachings. Earlier still, at the age of 19, when the young Ramakrishna agreed to be employed as a priest at the Dakshineswar Kali temple, he was trained by his older brother Ramkumar in the Mother’s worship and in the recitation of the Chandi, the great scripture on the Divine Mother (Saradananda, 133-134).
The Chandi declares that the Mother is the supreme reality and that she herself has become this universe. We do not know who composed the Chandi, only that its author or authors created the most widely known and most sacred of all Shakta texts about sixteen hundred years ago. Some of the traditions preserved in the Chandi are inconceivably older. We know from the evidence of archeology that some of the Chandi’s ideas on the Motherhood of God go back six thousand years or more. Votive statues that survive from neolithic India and Pakistan portray a goddess in two different aspects: either as a nurturing mother with hand held to breast, or as a hooded, deathlike figure.
This dual distinction of the Divine Mother in auspicious and terrible forms is an enduring feature throughout the history of Indian religion and survives to this very day. Throughout the ages the tribal cultures and high civilizations that rose and fell on Indian soil left their mark on the 13 chapters of the Chandi. Prominent among the many and diverse influences is the Devisukta, a hymn of eight verses found in the most ancient Hindu sacred text, the Rig Veda.
The Devisukta (RV 10.125) declares that the Goddess is the power expressed through all the gods, that they are united in her who shines with consciousness, that her presence is all-pervading, that she supports all of creation, that she is the source of righteousness and the revealer of truth, that she is the source of all worlds, yet that she shines transcendent beyond them. Among Shaktas this Vedic hymn is held in high esteem and is considered to be the source from which the entire Chandi sprang. Later, the Chandi itself was elaborated upon in the Puranas and Tantras. Still later its imagery inspired the Bengali mystics, Ramprasad and Kamalakanta, whose devotional songs so often evoked ecstatic moods in Sri Ramakrishna.
The Chandi goes by two other names. The most common and widely recognized is Devimahatmya [The Glory of the Goddess]. The other is Sri Durga Saptashati [Seven Hundred Verses to Sri Durga]. In reality the Chandi contains fewer than 700 verses, and the number 700 is arrived at only through creative means, such as counting a half verse as full or a full verse as three. There must be a good reason for this, and indeed there is.
The author or authors of the Chandi were Shaktas, devotees of the Mother, and they wanted their work to be recognized as comparable to the Vaishnavas’ great scripture, the Bhagavad Gita, which consists of 700 verses. They wanted to show that their view of God as Mother was as valid as the Vaishnava view of Krishna as the supreme God. Of course, both texts represent ancient traditions, and even the oldest Hindu scripture, the Rig Veda, proclaims: ekam sat vipra bahuda vadanti—“Truth is One, the wise call it by various names.” Many centuries later, Sri Ramakrishna taught the same when he said: “Krishna is none other than Satchidananda, the Indivisible Brahman. … That which is Brahman is also Kali. … He who is Krishna is the same as Kali (M., 1012).”
In drawing comparison to the Bhagavad Gita, the authors of the Chandi wanted specifically to emphasize the Divine Mother’s role, like Krishna’s, in upholding the moral order of the universe and in leading humankind to liberation through the highest knowledge of the Self. The Chandi and the Gita have much else in common. Each is an independent text embedded in a larger work. The Gita belongs to the Mahabharata; the Chandi is an interpolation in the Markandeya Purana. Each is a synthesis of spiritual and philosophical knowledge drawn from diverse sources. Each begins with the story of one or more human beings in crisis, who will learn from a teacher in human form the way beyond all suffering. And each involves the battlefield as a metaphor for the field of human consciousness.
The Bhagavad Gita begins on the battlefield, with Arjuna surveying the armies of his kinsmen on both sides, arrayed for battle. Plunged into despair at the thought of killing his friends and relatives, he turns to his charioteer, Krishna, who is none other than God in human form. Krishna then delivers one of the world’s great spiritual messages. The Chandi begins with King Suratha, likewise plunged into an existential crisis after losing his kingdom in battle.
A wise and just ruler, Suratha discovers that even his trusted ministers have turned against him, and on the pretext of going hunting, he mounts his horse and flees for his life. After riding for some time into a dense forest, he comes to the ashram of a holy man named Medhas. This forest retreat is a place of great calm and natural beauty, where even the ordinarily ferocious tiger abides peacefully with the gentle deer. Yet Suratha knows no peace. His mind churns in agony at the thought of everything he has lost: his kingdom with its riches and privilege, the loyalty of his subjects, the glory of power. These thoughts torment him ceaselessly.
One day another visitor arrives. His name is Samadhi, and he is every bit as despondent as the king. Once a prosperous merchant, he has been cast out by his wife and sons, who seized his wealth out of greed. He is deeply hurt by their betrayal and cannot understand it, being himself a man of good character. Most of all, he cannot understand why he still feels love for those who caused his deep humiliation and pain. And so, the king and the merchant approach Medhas the seer and ask why they are so miserable. Surely, as men of knowledge they ought to know better, but they are deeply perplexed.
“You say you are men of knowledge,” Medhas remarks. “Do you know what knowledge is?” He explains that what the king means by knowledge is only the experience of the objective world. Through the senses, men, birds and beasts alike share such a knowledge, each species according to its own capacity. Such knowledge is relative. In every way, the knowledge gained through the senses is conditioned by time and space, and we are constantly deceived. Medhas explains further that animals act out of instinct; but humans have the added capacity to reason and make choices, although such choices are most often driven by self-interest and the expectation of results.
If even our simple sense perceptions are so misleading, how much more confounded are we by the added factors of reason, will, memory, emotion and expectation? The operative principle here is that nothing in this world is as it seems to be. Not only are the king and the merchant perplexed, Medhas explains, everyone is, because even the wise are thrown into the whirlpool of delusion by the blessed goddess Mahamaya. “Who is this Mahamaya?” the king asks. “Whatever there is to know about her, all that I wish to learn.”
And so we arrive at the heart of the Chandi. The story of the king, the merchant and the seer acts as a frame that encloses three additional stories which Medhas relates to instruct his two disciples. Each story is a mythical account of the Divine Mother’s fierce, bloody battles with demons. Now, we must not dismiss a myth as a piece of fiction merely because it does not describe a historical event or the world as we know it. Instead, a myth takes us beyond the realm of fact and into the realm of meaning. Through symbols, it plumbs our deeper levels of understanding and brings to light elusive truths that are difficult to convey by ordinary means.
The Platonic philosopher Synesius of Cyrene summed it up in a single sentence: “Myths are things that never happened, but always are (Greer, 45).” The Chandi is an allegory. Its battlegrounds represent our own human consciousness, and its events symbolize our own experiences. The demons represent all the evils in the world and all that is wrong within our minds and hearts. The Divine Mother is our own true being, and her clashes with the demons symbolize the outward and inward struggles we face daily.
Because there are three myths, the Chandi naturally falls into three parts, and they can be related to the three gunas, the basic universal energies or qualities of sattva, rajas and tamas. The first part tells about the Divine Mother in her dark, deluding aspect that ensnares humankind in the bonds of ignorance and attachment. It teaches us about the nature of reality and asks us to question: what are divinity, the universe and humankind?
The second part presents the Mother as the fiery and active power that vanquishes evil and upholds the moral order of the universe. It teaches us how to live in this world, where we are torn between good and evil, right and wrong, enjoyment and suffering.
The third part reveals the luminous, benevolent form through which the Mother grants enlightenment and liberation. It shows us how to transcend the world through the higher knowledge of the spirit. Side by side with grisly narratives of bloodshed and slaughter, the Chandi integrates four hymns that are rich in philosophical and theological content. Of surpassing beauty, these hymns are sublime outpourings of devotion. The variety of material in the Chandi is a convenient reminder that overall this text can be approached in more than one way. Its stories can be taken as allegories relating to our own behavior and circumstances. Its hymns inspire us to devotion for the personal forms of God as Mother; and its deeper, philosophical and esoteric interpretation leads us to the realization of God as the impersonal supreme reality.
Medhas’s first myth is short and to the point. During a period of cosmic dissolution, Vishnu lies sleeping on the thousand-headed serpent Shesha, who drifts on the waters of the undifferentiated ocean. Sitting on a lotus that grows from Vishnu’s navel, Brahma, the Lord of Creation, surveys the four directions. Suddenly two demons, named Madhu and Kaitabha, spring forth from the wax in Vishnu’s ears and attempt to kill Brahma. Frantically he tries to awaken Vishnu, but the god is held in the power of Mahamaya, who is settled over his eyes as his blessed sleep.
And so Brahma praises Mahamaya with a hymn. She allows Vishnu to awaken, and he battles with the demons for 5000 years, but without victory. At this point Mahamaya intervenes again. She confounds Madhu and Kaitabha with delusions of their own might and grandeur. Look at us, the demons think. Not even Vishnu, the Supreme Lord, can conquer us. Because he has fought so well, let us offer him a boon. These big, lumbering demons are comical in their stupidity, and at this point we can almost hear them gasp, “Oops! Did we make a mistake?”
Of course they did, because Vishnu replies, “There is only one boon to ask: that I destroy the two of you here and now.” In a last-ditch effort to save themselves, Madhu and Kaitabha look around and see only the endless cosmic ocean. “Very well,” they say, “but on one condition: slay us where water does not cover the earth.” The outcome of this story hinges on a pun, because the Sanskrit words for “earth” and “thigh” are almost the same. And so, Vishnu lifts the two demons to his thighs and cuts off their heads. It is said that a pun is the lowest form of humor, and this is fitting, because Madhu and Kaitabha represent the lowest form of human awareness, densely shrouded in ignorance. Their unprovoked attack on Brahma reminds us of the senseless violence in our own world, where members of one religious or political or ethnic group attack people of other groups only because they are different.
Madhu and Kaitabha, in their near-bestial state, recognize no higher reality; they are violent, ugly creatures intent on gratifying their base instincts, often expressed through the thrill of intimidation or brute force. In their physical strength they grow exceedingly vainglorious. But of course pride goes before a fall, and their own arrogance becomes their undoing. Through the hymn that Brahma addresses to Mahamaya, the universal deluder, we learn much about the universe we inhabit. This hymn, the Brahmastuti, is composed in highly symbolic language that is often difficult to interpret, but it reveals profound insight into the nature of the cosmos. Although the ideas are expressed in devotional terms, the concepts are scientific even by today’s standards.
The Brahmastuti tells us that creation is a process of manifestation that flows from the One to the many. The Divine Mother is the infinite, nondual consciousness as well as its dynamic creative power; and she is ever present throughout all of creation. Before manifestation, she is the bindu, the dimensionless, nonlocalized point of concentrated shakti that contains within itself all possibilities. This sounds very much like the Big Bang theory and especially like a recent refinement of it, known as the Cosmic Inflation theory. This proposes that the entire universe popped out of a dimensionless, contentless point and immediately expanded to cosmic size in a miraculous way, suggesting the agency of a higher power.
Let us not forget that the Sanskrit word for “power” is shakti. According to Brahma’s hymn, the Divine Mother gives birth to the universe, supports it and draws it back into herself in an ever-repeating cycle, because creation is without an absolute beginning or an absolute end. In this process, she who is nondual consciousness veils her radiant boundlessness with the limitations of time and space, name and form, cause and effect. Through these limitations she projects the finite world of our experience—a world that is both dark and dazzling, terrifying and enchanting.
The Divine Mother is the all-encompassing source of good and evil alike, who expresses herself in every form. Yet beyond this apparent multiplicity, everything—be it spirit, mind or matter—is ultimately one. Philosophically, the Chandi agrees with Sri Ramakrishna’s answer to M.’s question, “Is the world unreal?” But when Ramakrishna first replied that it was a matter for philosophical discussion, he recognized that among themselves Hindus hold more than a single opinion. A follower of Sankara’s Advaita Vedanta would answer, “The world seems real as long as we experience it, but once we attain knowledge of Brahman, the phenomenal world vanishes. We think we see a snake in the semi-darkness, but when the light reveals it to be a rope, the perception of the snake vanishes.”
According to the Vedantin, the world is no more real than the misperceived snake. This position is called vivartavada, the doctrine of appearance, because the phenomenal world is thought to be a mere appearance superimposed upon the transcendental unity of Brahman. The Shakta philosophy takes a different position. When thread is woven into cloth, it undergoes a change of form but not of substance. In becoming cloth, thread takes on the additional qualities of cloth, but in substance it is still thread. In the same way, the Divine Mother, who is pure energy and consciousness, assumes all the names and forms and characteristics of the creation, even while remaining the pure energy and consciousness that is her true nature. This view is called parinamavada, the doctrine of transformation.
We find it in the Chandi, where Medhas says of the Divine Mother: “She is eternal, having the world as her form (DM 1.64).” And also in Sri Ramakrishna’s reply to M.: “The Divine Mother revealed to me in the Kali temple that it was She who had become everything (M., 345).” There is one more point: whichever way we choose to view the world, we still have to live in it. And that is what the second part of the Chandi is all about.
Medhas’s second story is intended especially for the king. Suratha, like Arjuna in the Gita, belongs to the ruling and warrior caste, whose duty is to uphold the moral order of the world. In the story that Medhas relates, an ill-tempered buffalo demon, named Mahishasura, wages war against heaven, casts out the gods, and usurps Indra’s throne. When the dispossessed gods seek Vishnu’s and Shiva’s help, the Divine Mother herself comes to the rescue.
First from Vishnu’s brow, then from the bodies of all the other gods, a great radiance shines forth and coalesces into the beautiful form of Durga. The gods bow to her, recognizing that their own individual powers are only aspects of her supreme power. After Durga has slain Mahishasura’s forces, she stands on the blood-soaked battleground facing the buffalo demon himself. Mahishasura, bellowing in confrontation, represents willfulness and monumental rage. Under his frenzied wheeling, the trampled earth breaks apart, his blasting breath tosses mountains into the air, his lashing tail causes the oceans to overflow, and overhead his mighty horns tear the gently floating clouds to shreds.
Consider the symbolism: the power of human anger and greed threatens to destroy everything it touches: the goodness of the nurturing earth, the stability of the mountains, the expansive beauty of the oceans, the innocence of the gentle clouds. Under Durga’s attacks Mahisha changes form—from buffalo to lion to man to elephant, every time eluding her deathblows. But she resolves to slay him, and when Mahisha returns to his mighty buffalo form, she pins him beneath her foot and thrusts her spear into his side. Instantly Mahisha reveals his true demon form, and Durga beheads him with her great sword.
Like Mahisha, we go through life dissatisfied, often agitated, sometimes full of rage; and the causes of our misery change over time. One day it’s this, the next day it’s something else, and so it goes. Until we can pin down the root cause, our discontent cannot be overcome, and like Mahishasura that cause is loath to reveal itself. Mahisha represents more than monumental rage. His anger is one of six passions that afflict our human awareness. The others are lust, greed, pride, jealousy and delusion. Let’s analyze them. Lust, or desire in general, is a longing for gratification. We want something. Why? Because we feel something is lacking. We feel deficient, limited or separated in some way. When we fail to satisfy a desire, a common response is anger. Or when a desire is satisfied, a common response is greed: we want more. And so we’re caught in an ongoing cycle. To make matters worse, we can add pride and jealousy to the mix.
Let’s define pride as a false sense of superiority designed to convince us we’re not deficient after all, but in fact better than anyone else. And so we think—until someone else comes along whom we see as richer, more powerful, more attractive or happier than we are. Then we fall prey to jealousy—an apprehensive resentment of someone else’s better condition in life. All this adds up to delusion: we are caught up in a misreading of who and what we really are. The Sanskrit word for delusion, moha, comes from a root meaning “to lose consciousness,” and herein lies the key to understanding.
The Divine Mother is infinite consciousness. When she projects herself as the universe of name and form, that consciousness appears divided among all beings. This apparent fragmentation creates the sense of individuality. Each individual self experiences its existence in terms of “I, me and mine,” as well as “not-I, not-me and not-mine.” And so the trouble begins. The root cause of our inner existential discontent and our outward conflicts is the feeling deep down inside that we are limited, separated and incomplete. We mistakenly identify with the limited ego, when in fact we are the limitless atman. That atman, abiding in every person, is the true Self—the one, undivided reality whose essence is pure being-consciousness-bliss.
Just as Mahishasura is about to be beheaded by Durga’s sword of knowledge, his glance meets hers, and he gets a fleeting glimpse of that truth—that his true identity lies dispassionate and blissful beyond the raging whirlpool of his passions. After he is slain, the gods celebrate Durga’s triumph over Mahishasura in the longest and most eloquent of the Chandi’s four hymns. Known as the Shakradistuti [Praise by Indra and the host of gods], it invites us to reflect on the themes of good and evil, fate and free will, karma and divine grace.
The hymn praises Durga as “good fortune in the dwellings of the virtuous and misfortune in the abodes of the wicked (DM 4.5).” On the surface, this verse implies reward and punishment by a personal deity. The deeper, philosophical meaning points to an impersonal balancing principle at work in the universe, the law of karma. Either way the message is the same: our deeds have consequences. A central theme of the hymn is the question of good and evil. A working definition might go like this: good is that which takes us toward the Divine—toward harmony, love and unity; evil is that which distances us from the Divine and creates hatred, injury and disunity in our lives.
Additionally, referring to the fierce battle that has just taken place, the hymn asks how Mahisha, even though enraged, could be moved to strike the Mother’s gently smiling face. From this we can add another dimension to our definition of evil: that it is intentionally profaning. In the world around us we witness continual assaults on all we hold sacred. War, terrorism, genocide, the corruption of the innocent, the logging of irreplaceable forests, and the remorseless pollution of the air, water and earth that support our very existence—what evil moves humans to commit such terrible acts?
Whether we are talking about destructive actions, hate-filled speech, malevolent thoughts or even uncaring passivity, let these be a sobering reminder that our collective and individual evil is the human face of Mahishasura’s rage. Yet the hymn proclaims that even toward evildoers the Mother’s intentions are most gracious. Her nature is to subdue the misconduct of the wicked. Through her inconceivable grace, even wrongdoers who have committed enough evil to keep them long in torment are purified in battle by the touch of her weapons and are brought to beatitude.
We are reminded once again of the Bhagavadgita. Sri Krishna declares that whenever righteousness declines and evil spreads, he is born into the world to protect the good, to destroy wickedness, and to re-establish virtue (BG 4.6-8). On the theme of unconditional grace, he says: “I am alike to all beings; to me none are hateful or dear. … If even an evil-doer worships me with utter devotion, he should be regarded as good, for he is rightly resolved. Quickly he becomes righteous and attains eternal peace (BG 9.29-31).”
The story of Madhu and Kaitabha was concerned with the power of tamas: how in our ordinary state of being, we all walk around dazed and confused. In the story of Durga and Mahishasura, the power of rajas predominates. Mahishasura’s rajasic energy controls him and impels him to destructive acts, but Durga controls her own fiery splendor. Her rajas is protective of her devotees and intent on destroying evil. Through this story Medhas teaches that through active struggle, we can overcome enslavement to our passions and live virtuously, in harmony with the world.
According to Hindu teaching, life has four legitimate aims. These are dharma, artha, kama and moksha—virtuous conduct, material comfort, enjoyment and liberation. The first three form a category called bhukti, concerned with life in the world. Bhukti is the king’s immediate concern. Having fled to the forest after his defeat, he has failed to fulfill his moral responsibility, and he still feels attraction for the privileges of kingship. In other words, he has unfinished business in the world.
How different is the merchant Samadhi. World-weary and ready to renounce the pursuits of dharma, artha and kama, he is ready for moksha, spiritual liberation. For his sake, Medhas tells his third and final story, one that points toward realizing our inner perfection beyond the world. The story has a familiar beginning. Two demons, named Shumbha and Nishumbha, have dispossessed the gods, stripped them of their powers and appropriated their wealth and privilege. This time the cast of characters is much larger, and the demons seem more like us than the ones we’ve met previously.
The complex scenario passes through three phases as we move progressively inward. The Mother’s successive victories over a colorful cast of demons symbolize our own efforts at purifying our consciousness of every imperfection and misconceived notion. First the myth turns the mirror on our behavior and motivations. Next we are drawn in deeper to observe the mind and its workings, and finally we face the fundamental question of who or what we are.
We first meet Shumbha sitting in his palace amid his glittering hoard of stolen treasure. The sickening excess of it all reminds us of our own materialism run amok. Soon the two fawning servants, Chanda and Munda, enter with news that they’ve seen a young woman of captivating beauty dwelling in the Himalayas. Playing upon Shumbha’s vanity, they suggest that he who is all-wealthy and all-powerful surely must also possess this jewel among women. Little do they know that she is the Devi, the Divine Mother herself, in her sattvic aspect. In the same way, we are drawn to the world’s enchantments but forget that they are expressions of the Divine. Shumbha, his lust aroused, wants to claim her as his own, just as we want to possess all that we find attractive and desirable. And just like us, if one way fails, Shumbha will try another, and another, with growing frustration.
When his smooth-talking messenger, Sugriva, delivers a marriage proposal, we recognize in him our own lack of complete truthfulness. At first the Devi plays along with delicious irony, but after she refuses the marriage proposal, Sugriva’s honeyed words turn threatening. If cajoling and deceit don’t work, how about force? Next, Shumbha sends a dim- witted thug named Dhumralochana to fetch the Devi, kicking and screaming if need be. In other words, when we set our mind to something, how it affects others is not necessarily our concern.
When Dhumralochana’s brute force fails, Shumbha loses all reason and sends Chanda and Munda with a huge army to bring back “that vile woman” in any way or in any condition whatever. Notice how in Shumbha’s agitated mind “the jewel among women” is now “that vile woman.” What was once so desirable is now the cause of his misery, and his desire now is only for the triumph of his own will. Don’t we also overreact irrationally when circumstances frustrate our intentions? The struggle escalates, and the gently smiling Devi Durga calls forth the terrifying, emaciated form of Kali and eight other fierce goddesses to combat the demon hordes. Each one of these shaktis is an aspect of her own immense power. Each represents a higher function of our own consciousness.
When Chanda and Munda lie dead, a demon named Raktabija strides onto the battlefield. He possesses a unique power. Whenever a drop of his blood falls to earth, another demon of identical size and strength springs up. In the fighting, demons proliferate from his spilled blood, and utter terror seizes the gods, until Durga merely smiles and tells Kali to roam the battlefield and lap up the drops of blood as they fall. The demons arising from it soon perish between her gnashing teeth; and Raktabija, drained of blood, falls dead.
This scene bridges two levels of reality. On one level the glistening red drops of Raktabija’s blood represent the overwhelming power of desire. Like a seed, every desire that falls on the fertile soil of our mind grows to maturity and bursts with seeds for the next planting. Every desire produces the seeds of many more, and we find we are never satisfied. The ghastly image of Kali, in her red-eyed, emaciated form known as Chamunda, avidly licking up the drops of blood, tells us that desires are best conquered when nipped in the bud.
Another interpretation of the Raktabija episode takes us deeper into the mind. Patanjali, whose Yoga Sutra systematized the science of meditation more than two thousand years ago, wrote, “Yoga is the control of the thought-waves in the mind.” Anyone who has ever sat to meditate knows how difficult this is. No matter how hard we try to concentrate, the mind wanders from here to there. One thought gives rise to another. Raktabija symbolizes this normal, unruly state of human consciousness, where mental energy is scattered and unfocused. Chamunda Kali is the power of concentrated awareness that subdues the thought-waves and takes us to a calmer, purer state of consciousness.
Finally, only two demons remain, the brothers Shumbha and Nishumbha. They are almost inseparable, and the Chandi calls Nishumbha the younger brother who is dearer to Shumbha than life itself. Shumbha represents the ego, and Nishumbha is the sense of attachment, the tag-along sibling that accompanies him everywhere. Earlier we spoke about the ego as a sense of separate selfhood. What we call ego is a limiting function of consciousness that in Sanskrit is called ahamkara, literally the “I- maker.” It is both a process of consciousness and the product of that process. Along with the sense of its own individuality, this I-making principle has the power of self- appropriation that claims things as its own.
Here is where Nishumbha comes in. The attachment he represents is called mamatva, literally, “my-ness.” In a sense it is the glue that holds our identity together. We consciously attach our sense of self to things that are not the Self. We identify with our bodily characteristics, such as sex, size, shape, color. We define ourselves by our likes and dislikes, by the people in our lives and our relationships to them, by our professions, leisure activities, religious or political affiliations and countless other factors that combine in ways to make each one of us unique. We use our life’s experiences—what we do and what happens to us—to shape and reshape our identity. And so, our sense of self is constantly shifting.
Sri Ramakrishna noted how a fine new garment or a new pair of boots can change an ordinary man into a swaggering fool, or how money can make a humble man arrogant (M., 169). Is our sense of self so fragile that a slight change of circumstance can cause us to reformulate ourselves? Every factor we identify with is known in Sanskrit as an upadhi, a defining attribute. But upadhi also means a limiting adjunct. We go through life acquiring upadhis, thinking they will make our identity bigger and better, but in reality we are merely adding to our limitations. Attachments to fame, influence, wealth and possessions only make our burden of personal identity heavier. The more we are reined in by our defining attributes, the more we lose sight of our larger sense of self.
When we allow our happiness and misery to be dictated by things outside of and foreign to our true nature, we lose our autonomy. Let’s consider the third meaning of upadhi: a substitute, anything that may be taken for something else, an appearance mistaken for reality. Our defining upadhis are components of a false sense of our own identity. In the end, they are no more than worthless tokens of our separation from the infinite Self. But how we hold on to them! When the Divine Mother finally slays Nishumbha, we get a graphic image of the ferocity of the struggle. Just when she has the demon cornered, he sprouts ten thousand arms with ten thousand grasping hands. This picture of ugly desperation illustrates just how desperate we are not to let go.
Even with Nishumbha out of the way, there remains the ego-sense itself, denuded of all borrowed attributes. Now Shumbha, alone, stands face to face with the Mother. He points to her companion goddesses and chides her for relying on the strength of others in the fight. She answers, “I am alone here in the world. … These are but projections of my own power… (DM 10.5). ” To prove her point, the Shaktis vanish into her, and she then slays Shumbha. This final victory represents the realization of the true Self.
There is no way to describe this immediate, unmediated knowledge of the atman; but that has not stopped mystics of every religious tradition throughout history from trying to express the inexpressible experience of the Divine. In the Svetasvatara Upanishad, a text certainly known to whoever composed the Chandi, the enlightened seer proclaims, “I have known the unchanging, primeval One, the indwelling Self of all, everywhere present and all-pervading, whom the wise declare to be free from birth and eternal (SU 3.21).”
Medhas then relates how the gods again praised the Divine Mother in a fourth and final hymn. Three of its verses (DM 11.10-12) are well known in Vedanta circles. They are sung every evening around the world in temples of the Ramakrishna Order as the arati hymn “Om Sarva Mangala Mangalye.” Then, Medhas sends his two disciples to the bank of a river, where they meditate and worship the Mother devotedly. After three years she appears to them and offers each a boon. Suratha, who we remember has unfinished business, asks for the return of his earthly kingdom, followed by an imperishable kingdom in the next life. The merchant Samadhi, on the other hand, has grown wise and dispassionate. He asks for the knowledge that will dissolve the bondage of worldly existence.
Through the Mother’s grace, each boon is granted, in keeping with the Chandi’s teaching that the Divine Mother is bhuktimuktipradayini, “the bestower of worldly enjoyment and liberation (DM11.7).” How conversant Sri Ramakrishna was with the teachings of the Chandi is made clear in a conversation he had with members of the Brahmo Samaj in the autumn of 1882. In a single paragraph that summarizes the essential message of the Chandi, Ramakrishna said, “Bondage and liberation are both of Her making. By her maya worldly people become entangled in ‘woman and gold,’ and again, through her grace they attain liberation. She is called the Savior, and the Remover of the bondage that binds one to the world (M., 136).”
A short while later he added, “I tell you the truth: there is nothing wrong in your being in the world. But you must direct your mind toward God; otherwise you will not succeed. Do your duty with one hand and with the other hold to God. After the duty is over, you will hold to God with both hands (M., 137-138).” On another occasion Sri Ramakrishna said, “Sometimes I find that the universe is saturated with the Consciousness of God, as the earth is soaked with water in the rainy season (M., 260).” This calls to mind the Chandi’s third hymn, known as the Aparajitastuti, [Hymn to the Invincible Goddess].
Unlike the three other hymns, which are intimately connected to the foregoing battle narratives, this one is an ecstatic celebration of the Divine Mother’s presence in the world. It reminds us simply to see divinity everywhere around us, because the Mother abides in all beings as intelligence, order, forgiveness, modesty, peace, beauty, good fortune, compassion, contentment, and in countless other ways. We need only to remember her presence; and as a sign of her grace, it is she herself who abides in us even in the form of memory.
We conclude with two verses from this hymn: “To her who presides over the elements and the senses and is ever present in all beings, to the all-pervading Devi, salutations again and again. To her who pervades this entire world and abides in the form of consciousness, salutation to her, salutation to her, salutation to her, again and again (DM 5.77-80).”
John Michael Greer, “Myth, History and Pagan Origins,” The Pomegranate 9 (1999): 44-50.
[M]ahendranath Gupta, The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, translated by Swami Nikhilananda (New York: Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center, 1942).
Swami Saradananda, Sri Ramakrishna, The Great Master, translated by Swami Jagadananda (Mylapore, Madras: Sri Ramakrishna Math, 1952).
Cited passages from the Bhagavad Gita (BG), Chandi (DM), and Svetasvatara Upanishad (SU) translated by the author.