Devadatta Kali (David Nelson) has been closely associated with the Vedanta Society since 1966. A regular lecturer at Vedanta Societies as well as a contributor to Vedanta journals throughout the world, Devadatta Kali is the author of In Praise of the Goddess: The Devimahatmya and Its Meaning and The Veiling Brilliance: Meditations on Shakti.
The highest spiritual truth is that reality is One. That reality, when personified as the Divine Mother, expresses itself in countless ways. The ten Mahavidyas, or Wisdom Goddesses, represent distinct aspects of divinity intent on guiding the spiritual seeker toward liberation. For the devotionally minded seeker these forms can be approached in a spirit of reverence, love, and increasing intimacy. For a knowledge-oriented seeker, these same forms can represent various states of inner awakening along the path to enlightenment.
The name Bhairavi means “frightful,” “terrible,” “horrible,” or “formidable.” The basic idea here is fear. Ordinarily we associate fear with darkness. It is not uncommon to be afraid of the dark, or rather of the dangers that lurk there unseen, but that is not the sort of fear that Bhairavi provokes, for she is said to shine with the effulgence of ten thousand rising suns.
Bhairavi may be terrifying, but she is anything but dark. If this is puzzling at first, we need to find another example where brilliant light and terror meet face to face. That example is found in the eleventh chapter of the Bhagavadgita. Arjuna had been urging Sri Krishna to reveal himself in his supreme, universal form, but when Krishna complied and Arjuna beheld it, the experience was too much for him. The Gita describes the divine glory as the splendor of a thousand suns rising at once in the sky. In that blazing radiance Arjuna beheld the boundless form of the Divine with arms, eyes, mouths, and bellies without end. Arjuna saw gods and celestial beings and whole worlds looking on with dread and wonder, some praising, some trembling in fear. On every side he saw worlds disappearing into fiery mouths, like moths hurtling into the flames of their destruction. In this overwhelming experience of the Divine, Arjuna came face to face with the birthless, deathless, infinite reality in which universes are born, subsist, and die. He was so struck with terror that he begged to see his beloved Krishna once again his familiar, gentle human form.
This experience of Lord Visnu’s universal form, his visvarupa, closely parallels the experience of the Divine Mother as Bhairavi. Just as Visnu’s forms range from the cosmic to the personal, so do Bhairavi’s. Reality is One, but it appears to us as many. We can think of Bhairavi in cosmic terms or in an individualistic sense. As a cosmic goddess Bhairavi is closely identified with Durga in her fierce form, known as Candika. Because Durga presides over the birth, sustenance, and death of the universe, she projects three primary facets, called Mahakali, Mahalakshmi, and Mahasarasvati. These extremely subtle and immeasurably powerful aspects of consciousness manifest on the material level as the three gunas, the basic building blocks and driving energies of the universe.
In her individualized aspect, Bhairavi is the power of consciousness dwelling in every human being. Then she is known as Kundalini. Basic to both the cosmic and individual aspects is identification of Bhairavi with tremendous power. In other words, in either aspect she can appear as overwhelming.
The innate capacity to know—to experience—the Divine lies latent within every human being, and spiritual life unfolds through various stages of discovery. When we set out on the spiritual path, we start our seeking by making a conscious effort of some sort, but then what we find isn’t necessarily what we expected. If we have not sufficiently prepared ourselves to receive it, the light of spiritual knowledge may blaze so strongly that we may have all of our familiar and comfortable assumptions about the world and ourselves suddenly shattered. We may have our world stood on its head, and for a while we may lose our bearings. But the extraordinary nature of spiritual discovery is that it causes us to see the world in a new light and to have a different relationship with it.
Though Bhairavi can be disconcerting or even downright frightening, she is in the end beneficent. Again, we are reminded that she is the color of fire, and what does fire do? At the physical level it burns. Its blaze of heat and light consumes whatever has form, and in this awesome manifestation of destructive power it is both magnificent and terrifying. Yet when controlled, fire can be beneficial, warming us when we are cold, cooking our food, and so on.
Fire as the light of consciousness likewise can be frightening or reassuring. This light of consciousness is sometimes called tejas, which means “resplendence.” It is through the light of awareness that we have knowledge of the world, that we experience our own existence, for better or for worse.
Another word frequently encountered in connection with fire is tapas. This is often translated as “austerity,” “mortification,” or “penance,” but all those words carry negative connotations. A more accurate translation would be ardor. Ardor is also the Latin word for flame, and along with the idea of heat and light it conveys the idea of enthusiasm, passion, and joy. In order to practice tapas, that self-purifying discipline that leads us Godward, we need that encouragement. According to one account, Bhairavi incites every form of passion, and she also grants the power to control it. That power is called yoga.
In the Mahabharata (12.250.4) Vyasa defines the highest tapas precisely as “fixing the mind and perceptive faculties one-pointedly on a single object, the indwelling Self. Vyasa’s definition of tapas is not all that different from Patanjali’s definition of yoga as “the restraint of activity within one’s own awareness” (cittavrittinirodha). It is easy to understand how tapas can be conceived of as “self-restraint,” “concentration,” or “meditation.” As we practice tapas, this metaphorical fire burns away all the impurities, limitations, and illusions of our small, ego-based self and prepares us for enlightenment. Even so, most of us harbor the fear of losing our cherished individuality; we cling to our small and imperfect selfhood out of fear. But little by little we progress. Because Bhairavi is so powerful, we must proceed with due caution. She dwells in each of as Kundalini, but we must not force her to rise, lest we harm ourselves. The best tapas is not any esoteric practice but simply the repeated attempts to rein in the mind and direct it toward the Divine. The rest will take care of itself.
Each of the Mahavidyas has more than one form. Most have a variety of representations and a proliferation of names, but none can claim as many as Bhairavi. Accordingly her images are widely divergent, and there is no single iconography to define her. Sometimes she is in the cremation ground, seated on a headless corpse. Like Kali, she has four arms. With two of her hands she holds the sword of knowledge and the demon’s head that represents the destruction of the ego. Her other two hands may display the abhayamudra, urging us to have no fear, and the varadamudra, the gesture of granting boons. More often they hold a mala, signifying devotion, and a book, signifying knowledge. The trident represents the pervasively threefold nature of her manifestation and can be interpreted in a variety of ways.
It is often said that Bhairavi represents divine wrath, but it is only an impulse of her fierce, maternal protectiveness, aimed at the destruction of ignorance and everything negative that keeps us in bondage. In that aspect she is called Sakalasiddhibhairavi, the granter of every perfection.
It is the Mother’s light that shines on every facet of our existence, making it knowable. That light sustains the created order, even though we find shadows here and there in this realm of duality. When the light grows stronger it roots out darkness from every corner. It eventually grows so bright that the created forms dissolve into pure radiance, and what remains is the state of spiritual illumination in which we have no more individuality, no more limitation—only our identification with the Infinite.
If Bhairavi represents overwhelming brilliance, Dhumavati personifies the dark side of life. We know from our own experience that life can be exhilarating, joyful, and pleasant—something we want to embrace and live to the fullest. But at other times we find that this same life can be depressing, sorrowful, painful, and frustrating. At such moments we respond with pessimism, sadness, anxiety, or anger. It is then that we no longer want to embrace life but rather to avoid its misery.
This is where Dhumavati comes in. Her name means “she who is made of smoke.” Smoke is one of the effects of fire. It is dark and polluting and concealing; it is emblematic of the worst facets of human existence. The concepts embodied in Dhumavati are very ancient, and they have to do with keeping life’s inevitable suffering at bay. Before there was the Mahavidya named Dhumavati, there were three earlier goddesses who were her prototypes. They are closely related to each other and have many characteristics in common. They share many of these same characteristics with Dhumavati as well, but with her there is also an important difference.
Dhumavati’s oldest prototype is the goddess Nirriti in the RIgveda. The early seers envisioned a principle of cosmic order and universal moral law that they called rita. The moral dimension of rita later came to be called dharma. The name Nirriti is a negation of rita. Whereas rita denotes order, growth, abundance, prosperity, harmony, well-being, and the goodness of life, Nirriti is the opposite. She personifies disorder, decay, poverty, misfortune, dissension, sickness, and the whole range of life’s ills, culminating in death. Nirriti was not worshiped in the same sense as other Vedic deities; rather she was ritually appeased so as to be warded off. In the Rigvedic hymn that mentions her (10.59) the refrain is, “Let Nirriti depart to distant places.” The idea was to keep her far away.
Closely related to Nirriti is Jyeshtha, whose name means “the elder.” She represents the state of decline that comes with old age, and naturally she is depicted as an old woman. She is instinctively drawn to households in which there is strife—where family members quarrel or where the adults feed themselves and disregard the hunger of their children. It is probable that she, like Nirriti, was propitiated to keep her at a safe distance.
One of Jyeshtha’s epithets is Alakshmi, This name indicates that she is everything that Lakshmi is not. She is Lakshmi’s dark mirror image. The Candi informs us that it is Alakshmi who visits misfortune upon the homes of the unrighteousness. She stands for poverty and bad luck and all the miserable things that can happen to people.
All three of these names refer to an inauspicious goddess who is portrayed as dark-skinned, signifying her tamasic nature. It is clear that she is the prototype of the Mahavidya Dhumavati, because of the striking similarities not only of character but also of iconography.
A common feature is the association with a crow. The crow sometimes appears emblazoned on Dhumavati’s banner; sometimes it sits atop the banner. Occasionally the bird is shown as huge, serving as her mount (vahana). In some illustrations a flock of crows accompanies her. In any case the crow, as an eater of carrion, symbolizes death. It is a fitting companion for a goddess of misfortune, decay, destruction, and loss.
Dhumavati, like her prototypes, is associated with poverty, need, hunger, thirst, quarrelsomeness, anger, and negativity. She is consistently shown as old and ugly, with sagging breasts and crooked or missing teeth. She is dressed in filthy rags. We can draw two inferences here. One is that the unpleasant experiences of life will eventually engender a sense of disgust that will turn us toward the Divine. The other is that the Divine is present everywhere, even in what we ordinarily consider foul or ugly. How can there be a place where the infinite Mother is not?
Unlike her predecessors, Dhumavati is characterized as a widow, and this gives a clue to her unique nature as a Mahavidya and distinguishes her from the earlier goddesses, who are to be avoided. The difference is that Dhumavati has some positive aspects.
The state of widowhood in Indian society carries a range of complexities. Conventionally widowhood is an unenviable state. Without her husband, a widow has lost her former social standing and may come to be viewed as a financial burden on the extended family. This is symbolized by the cart in which Dhumavati sits; it has nothing to pull it. Occasionally an illustration shows two birds yoked to the cart, but far from expressing empowerment, they appear to be struggling against something too big and to heavy to pull.
In the context of traditional Indian society, the fact that widows can be socially marginalized can also indicate that for them the worldly concerns of life are past. Widows are free to follow a spiritual path, to go on pilgrimages, and to engage in sadhana that would have been impossible during the years of family obligations. No longer constrained by the demands of the married state, they are in a position to apply themselves wholeheartedly to spiritual practice. There is an implied parallel here between the enforced position of widowhood and the voluntary state of renunciation known as samnyasa.
Apart from the specific conditions and observances of traditional Hindu society, is there any broader lesson we can extract that is relevant to our experience? Since the Mahavidyas are all taken to be wisdom goddesses, intent on helping us toward enlightenment, there should be some practical insight that Dhumavati can impart.
A primary lesson is that misfortune may look different in retrospect. It is universally acknowledged that something that seemed painful or unfortunate at the time might have been for the best after all, in short a blessing in disguise. Most of us need look no further than our own lives or the lives of people we know for examples of disappointments, misfortunes, frustrations, defeats, or losses that led to positive transformation. Similarly, adversity can build character and turn an ordinary soul into an extraordinary one.
Another lesson is that with the ticking of the clock we inevitably face losses of one sort or another, and we must come to terms with them. Dhumavati represents the erosive power of time that robs us of loved ones, of our own youthful strength and vitality, of our health, and of whatever else contributes to our fragile happiness. Everything that we so desperately cling to for security is by nature transient. In the end we all face our own mortality. That is the fundamental problem of human existence.
The image of Dhumavati, old and ugly and alone and miserable in her cart of disempowerment, tells us what to do. The lesson is to cultivate a sense of detachment. Note that Dhumavati holds a bowl of fire in one hand and a winnowing basket in the other. The fire symbolizes inevitable cosmic destruction: all things shall pass away. The winnowing basket, used to separate grain from chaff, represents viveka, mental discrimination between the permanent and the fleeting. Even though her stalled cart represents an external life going nowhere, Dhumavati empowers us inwardly to reach for the highest, and there is nothing to stop us once we are resolved. In the end, she points the way to liberation.
Of all the Mahavidyas, Bagalamukhi is the one whose meaning is the most elusive. Her symbology varies widely, and its interpretation shows little consistency. The opinions of one informant often bear little relation to those of another, and even while making spiritually valid points they can seem rather arbitrary and disconnected. There is no satisfactory explanation even for Bagalamukhi’s name. The word bagala is not found in the Sanskrit lexicon, and attempts to link it to baka (“crane”) are less than convincing.
One of her common epithets is Pitambaradevi, “the goddess dressed in yellow.” Her dhyanamantras also emphasize the yellow color of her complexion, clothing, ornaments, and garland. Her devotees are instructed to wear yellow while worshiping her and to employ a mala made of turmeric beads. Even her few temples are painted yellow. Although her verbal descriptions consistently emphasize the color yellow, her pictorial representations are strangely sparing in their use of the color. More often Bagalamukhi is shown wearing red or orange. There is no consensus on what the color yellow is supposed to mean either. The most plausible explanation out of several is that yellow, being the color of the sun, represents the light of consciousness.
The rest of Bagalamukhi’s symbols evoke similarly vague and widely divergent interpretations and produce no clear picture of what this Mahavidya is all about. This situation calls for fresh thinking. The explanation that follows is in large part unique but is based on a trail of clues found in her mantra.
Bagalamukhi is consistently associated with siddhis, which are yogic powers with magical properties. For a genuine spiritual aspirant such powers are obstacles to be avoided. That said, one such power is stambhana, the power to immobilize, to paralyze, to restrain an enemy. Proper understanding of what stambhana means spiritually is essential to knowing who Bagalamukhi is.
The first thing to keep in mind is that according to all schools of Indian philosophy the world of our experience consists of three levels—the gross or physical, the subtle or mental, and the causal or potential.
Illustrating the principle of stambhana at the gross level, there is an incident from the life of Holy Mother, Sri Sarada Devi, that took place around 1889 in the village of Kamarpukur. There a devotee named Harish returned home after a series of frequent visits to Sri Ramakrishna at Dakshinesvar and, after his mahasamadhi, to the monks at the Baranagore monastery. Harish, who sometimes behaved erratically, had neglected his wife and family during that time. To remedy the situation, his wife administered drugs and spells, and Harish became visibly deranged. One day he caught sight of Holy Mother on the road and began to chase her. When she reached the family compound, she found that no one was at home. She began to circle the granary, all the while with Harish in pursuit. After going around it seven times, she could run no farther. Then, as she told it, she stood firm and assumed her own form. Putting her knee on his chest, she grabbed hold of his tongue and slapped his face so hard that he gasped for breath, so hard that her fingers reddened. At that moment the usually gentle Sarada Devi revealed herself in the form of Bagalamukhi and enacted the physical stance of stambhana.
This concrete symbolism represents a principle that penetrates through every level of our existence and beyond, all the way back to the essence of our being. In this incident we witness the actual presence of Bagalamukhi as a living counterpart of the painted images and verbal descriptions that show her stopping an adversary by grasping his tongue and striking him.
The tongue represents speech, or vak, which is elsewhere personified as a goddess. Vak is more than the spoken word; it is the divine creative power that encompasses the entire range of consciousness. Shown holding on to her adversary’s tongue, Bagalamukhi has the ability to render motionless the creative and destructive power of consciousness in any of its manifestations. These encompass motion, thought, and intention, the manifest forms of speech at the gross, subtle, and causal levels.
Beyond them the supreme level of speech is consciousness-in-itself, the ultimate, unconditioned reality. Emanating from it, intention, thought, and motion are the three stages of creativity that account for this world that we experience. The Chandogya and Taittiriya Upanishads contain passages explaining how Brahman, seeing itself as One, intended to express itself as the many, then thought out a plan, and then set it in motion. Tantric teaching defines these three stages as icchasakti (the power of will), jnanasakti (the power of knowledge), and kriyasakti (the power of action). This is how consciousness works at the cosmic or universal level.
At the individual level that same consciousness works within each of us, infusing everything we feel, think, or do. This internal awareness is also vak, the power of speech, but again the spoken word is only the end-product and grossest manifestation.
There are four levels of speech. The highest is para vak, the supreme, infinite consciousness without qualities or conditioning. It is our divine nature, our true Self—ever present, unchanging, and illuminating all of our experience. Next, pasyanti vak, isthe visionary stage, the urge for self-expression. Everything in our life’s experience begins here in a flash. Every feeling, every idea we formulate, everything we act upon, begins in an instantaneous flash of awareness. When we begin to think about whatever has flashed, ideas begin to take shape in logical sequence. This level of awareness is called madhyama vak, the intermediate, formulative phase. As the ideas become more and more definite, they assume a form expressed in language. This is vaikhari vak, the level of articulate speech. Vaikhari vak is both subtle and gross. The subtle form is the thoughts in our mind, now shaped into words, phrases, and sentences but not yet uttered. The gross form is what comes out of the mouth—the expression of our consciousness embodied in physical sound.
As long as we identify with the body and the mind, our experience of self is that of an individual amid the duality of “I and other.” We often feel the need to control the other, and sometimes that is legitimate, but not always. At a higher level we realize that control of self is a nobler and better, but much harder, discipline. Bagalamukhi symbolizes our innate power to go within and take control of our own awareness. That taking control is yoga, which Patanjali defines as the cessation of constant modulation (cittavritti) within our own field of awareness. Only by taking hold of the activity within our awareness and stopping it can we be freed from worldly bondage and rest in the peace and joy and glory of our own true nature.
Stambhana in the highest sense is yoga. After duly observing the ethical practices of yama and the ennobling disciples of niyama, we are ready for asana. Sitting quietly stops the motion of the body, which in turn calms the metabolic functions and prepares us to quiet the mind. The remaining states of pratyahara, dharana, dhyana, and samadhi are a continuum of ever decreasing activity, culminating in the experience of the Self as pure, unconditioned consciousness. Pulling us by the tongue, Bagalamukhi is drawing us there.
At first glance Matangi looks very much like Sarasvati. The main point of similarity is the vina that she plays. Like Sarasvati, she may be shown holding a book and a japamala as well. Together these symbolize the interrelated aspects of sound, knowledge, and power. The sound of the vina represents creativity, which is the power of consciousness to express itself. The mala also represents the power of sound, but in the form of the mantra. The book stands for the wisdom and knowledge transmitted through the word. The parrot that accompanies Matangi also has associations with speech.
It is a well-known truism that knowledge is power. Our own experience verifies that the more we know about something, the greater will be our ability. The more we understand how something works, the better we will be able to make it work to our advantage. This fact underlies every acquired skill relating to any field of learning and any form of technology. It follows that the more we know about the internal instrument that is the mind (antahkarana), the more mastery we will gain over it also.
Like Bagalamukhi, Matangi is often associated with yogic or magical powers that can be invoked to exert influence over our environment or over other people. Again, knowledge is power, but this sort of power is something that the genuine spiritual aspirant should have no interest in cultivating. Rather than to seek mastery over others, it is higher and nobler by far to seek control over the impulses of one’s own lower Self.
Still, others try to exert power over us, and this points us to the difference between Sarasvati and Matangi. From the earliest days of the RIgveda, Sarasvati has been one of the most venerated forms of feminine divinity. As such, she is the Vedic goddess par excellence. In contrast, Matangi is in many ways the quintessential Tantric goddess.
Throughout Indian religious history the Vedic thread represents orthodoxy and the establishment, centered on a priesthood charged with performing the Brahmanical rituals. The Tantric thread, in contrast, lies outside the boundaries of Vedic orthodoxy. It is not the strict religion of the male-dominated establishment but one that has always been open to men and women alike and to members of any caste. It excludes no one and embraces those at the margins of society. Tantra is remarkably egalitarian, perhaps in response to an orthodoxy rigorously governed by ideas of ritual purity.
Many of Matangi’s myths involve questions of purity. These narratives often associate her with tribal peoples, hunting, and forests, which stand at the periphery of civilized society. Matangi is definitely an outsider, and the questions of purity revolve especially around matters of caste and food.
Her keeping company with candalas, or untouchables, calls to mind an incident in the life of Sankaracarya, who was born an orthodox brahmana. Once he was walking with his disciples along a lane in Varanasi when they spotted a candala approaching. Fearing the outcaste’s polluting touch, Sankara ordered the poor creature out of the way. Surprisingly that lowly fellow responded with a discourse on the unity of atman and the intrinsic worth of all human beings. Sankara was so humbled that he was moved to compose a poem declaring that the divine Self shines forth equally from the high-born and the untouchable.
The question of ritual purity is a vital one when it comes to food. The food that is to be offered to a deity is prepared with great care and according to strict rules of physical and mental cleanliness. It is then offered to the deity, who consumes a portion. The rest, rendered blessed, is distributed to devotees as prasada, or divine grace. One willingly and gratefully partakes of it. Apart from prasada, any other leftover food is called ucchista and is regarded as highly polluting. A person who comes in contact with it is rendered ritually impure. Interestingly, it is this very ucchista that Matangi demands as an offering. This is a dramatic reversal of normal procedure. Additionally a devotee offering ucchista to Matangi should also be in a ritually impure state, defiled by the leftovers of others and unwashed.
What is going on here? In a society so attentive to the rules of ritual purity, there is a danger that this idea of purity can become an end in itself, and slavish observance can become a form of spiritual bondage. When Matangi demands the transgression of rules, she is not encouraging irreverence at all but a response to the constraints of indoctrination. From our earliest days we are conditioned to hold certain ideas about what is proper and what is not. Our sense of right and wrong may become devoid of compassion. People who run around being conventionally pious all the time are usually unaware of their own failings and can easily become deluded by the pride of their own perceived moral excellence.
Tantric teaching speaks of eight fetters, and the one that is particularly relevant here is sila, undue concern over proper conduct. Like every other fetter, sila is a mental attitude that imposes its influence on us and impinges on the essential freedom of the Self. Sometimes it takes a jolt to break free from these ingrained attitudes. Our ordinary awareness is heavily conditioned—saguna. The consciousness that is our divine nature is entirely unconditioned—nirguna. Sadhana is basically a process of deconditioning.
The distinction of purity and impurity imposes a dualism on the way we view the world. Only when we see through our lower notions can we appreciate the Tantric teaching that the true nature of impurity is not the ritual pollution we have been trained to fear but our own existential limitation. We have been so involved with trifling concerns that the crux of the matter has eluded us entirely.
In Tantric teaching the word for impurity is mala. Mala arises through the atman’s association with maya, the Divine’s own power of limitation. The imperfect finite soul is only a contracted form of the perfect, infinite Self. Mala is the impurity of our finitude, and it takes three forms.
The impurity called anavamala is the consciousness of limited individuality: “I am small (anu) in my own sense of separateness, lack, and inferiority.” Anavamala is the imperfection of a diminished sense of self. It is also the root impurity that gives rise to the other two malas.
As the sense of individuality evolves into a sense of separation, it produces the sense of “I and other.” This further condition of impurity is known as mayiyamala: “I am apart from what I experience around me.” Mayiyamala plunges us into the world of duality, and our mental activity gets caught up in a process of contrast, comparison, and exclusion. Focusing on the diversity around us, we are distracted from the unity within that is our original, divine nature.
The third impurity involves the interaction of the limited interior I and the multiple exterior other. This is karmamala, the bound and binding state of human action: “I act out of necessity, driven by my own sense of want.” Our actions are never free and spontaneous; they always bow to the conditioning that binds us, and their effects in turn prolong the bondage.
As long as the malas color our awareness, they hold us captive. As long as we chase after the conventional notions of purity and piety and shun their opposites, we are caught up in a reactive chain. Matangi’s example teaches us to face our false notions head on and be free.
The series of ten Mahavidyas begins with Kali and ends with Kamala. Both are aspects of the Divine Mother who are widely worshiped in their own right apart from the context of the Mahavidyas. In this way they differ from aspects such as Dhumavati, Bagalamukhi, and Matangi, who lack similar independence and a widespread popular following.
One way of analyzing the Mahavidyas places Kali first because she represents the transcendental experience. This same scheme places Kamala last as the aspect most closely connected to the here and now. The error here is to regard Kali and Kamala as separate. In truth, the Divine is one, and the enlightened soul perceives unity, not difference.
Another approach categorizes Kali as fierce (ugra) and Kamala as gentle (saumya), but that is an oversimplification. Kali is not without tenderness and beneficence, and Kamala, although overwhelmingly auspicious, is not exclusively so. Again, Mother is One, and she is all.
Kamala is portrayed as making the gestures of boon-giving and fearlessness. 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. Obviously Kamala is Lakshmi, who is portrayed in the identical manner, but in the context of the Mahavidyas there are also significant differences.
Lakshmi is a very ancient form of the Divine Mother. In Vedic times she was known as Sri. As she appears in the Vedic hymns, Sri represents light, radiance, luster, glory, and prosperity. She is the divine resplendence and power inherent in every deity.
In late Vedic times, in a hymn known as the Srisukta, Sri is identified with Lakshmi, who may originally have been a non-Vedic agricultural goddess. The Srisukta already associates her with the lotus and the elephant. The lotus represents cosmic order, life, and fertility. The universe unfolds like the blossoming of a lotus, and the creation is accordingly vibrant, beautiful, and good. The lotus also represents purity. The plant is rooted deep in the mud, but the exquisitely beautiful flower it produces is untainted. Similarly, water beads up on the lotus leaves and immediately runs off, so the lotus represents serene detachment as well as incorruptibility. Besides purity, the lotus is a symbol of spiritual authority, and the lotus on which Lakshmi-Kamala is seated is in fact a throne.
The elephant stands for similar qualities. The water showered from its trunk represents rain, and rain is tied to fertility, growth, increase, well-being, and wealth. The elephant, being the mount of kings, is also a symbol of authority.
Purity and authority. These are two qualities that we find negated by the preceding Mahavidya, Matangi. Are these two aspects of the Divine Mother antithetical? Or is there a way to make them fit together? In many of the world’s religions, doctrinal differences smaller than this have led to hostility, schism, physical violence, and war. But the system of the Mahavidyas embraces even radical differences and manages to fit them together harmoniously.
To understand this better, we need to keep in mind that there are at least three different views of Lakshmi, depending on the sectarian standpoint of the viewer. Sri is the original Vedic goddess, who by late Vedic times had absorbed and assimilated to herself the probably non-Vedic Lakshmi. So today Lakshmi is a Vedic, or orthodox, aspect of the Divine Mother. In all likelihood, the probably non-Vedic Lakshmi also retained her original standing among her worshipers, and in that form we know her as the Tantric goddess Kamala. In the aspect in which she is best known and most widely worshiped today, Lakshmi is the consort of Visnu. This third context is that of Vaisnavism.
This adds a new layer of complexity. Vedic Sri represents the divine resplendence, power, and glory inherent in any deity. As such, Sri had connections with every male god—with Indra in regard to sovereignty and fertility, with Kubera in regard to wealth and prosperity, with the Vedic Visnu in regard to the dharma, or moral excellence. However, in the later orthodox Vaisnava religion, Lakshmi becomes subordinate to Visnu. She is now his obedient wife, portrayed iconographically as smaller and therefore less powerful than he. However, in the Pancaratra system, an early form of Vaisnava Tantra, Visnu is the inactive male principle and Lakshmi is the active female power. It is she who runs the show.
Even more so, as the Mahavidya Kamala she is all-powerful. Kamala is not a divine consort but the independent and all-supreme Divine Mother. She is not the spouse of any male deity. Interestingly, she is rarely identified with the other female forms found in orthodox Vaisnavism, such as Sita, Radha, or Rukmini. If any consort names are ever applied to her as epithets, they are Saiva names such as Siva (“the auspicious one”) and Gauri (“she who is gently radiant”). However, Kamala is not completely auspicious or one-sided. Sometimes she is called Rudra (“the howling one”), Ghora or Bhima (“the terrifying one”), or Tamasi (“the dark one”). Like Kali, the Tantric Kamala embraces the light and the darkness, for she is the totality.
This helps to explain how Kamala, although overwhelmingly associated with lotuses, which represent purity and authority, can be reconciled with Matangi, who asks us to violate the outward purity laws and to question the authority that imposes them. In the end, spiritual life is about regaining our lost autonomy. Once we have realized our identity with the Divine, through whatever form of practice, we experience our own perfection. Questions of purity and impurity evaporate. To know the reality of divine consciousness in its unconditioned oneness is to become purity itself—the ultimate purity beyond the limitation of thought. Questions of authority likewise evaporate in the experience of absolute oneness, where there is no second. This is the experience of liberation or enlightenment, wherein any imposed authority vanishes in the radiance of divine autonomy (svatantrya).
Lakshmi, or Kamala, is the Divine Mother’s most popular aspect, for she relates to the world of the here and now. Devotees pray to her for good fortune, prosperity, abundance, and well-being—for all the good that life has to offer. There is no harm in this, as long as we wisely ask only for enough and no more. Lakshmi, our Mother, urges us also to pray and strive for the well-being of all our brothers and sisters. Then beyond that she calls us to strive for a higher wealth, the riches of dharma. This dharma includes devotion, kindness, compassion, truthfulness, and all other forms of moral excellence. Virtue is our higher treasure, more precious than gold. It will lead us to seek the still higher knowledge of Self-realization that is the ultimate goal of human life.
In conclusion, all the Mahavidyas are states of spiritual awakening that we will experience within our own minds and hearts along the course of our journey back to the Divine. How often we’ve heard it said that God is love. Lakshmi or Kamala represents that love. To be saturated with the presence of Kamala is to become an embodiment of divine love. Then we come to understand her great secret: love is unique and unlike anything else, for the more of it you give, the more of it you have. And with this great secret Kamala offers us a direct path to the Divine.