Chapter 1 – Interpretations
Meditation on Mahākālī: This brief meditation (dhyāna) invites us immediately to plunge into one of the most profound of all mysteries, the age-old question of how the universe came into being. The Hindu idea of creation differs from the naīve conception, popular in the West, that God called forth the world out of nothingness. To the Hindu mind, this idea of creatio ex nihilo—that something can come out of nothing—is illogical and absurd. Instead, according to the worldview of the Devīmāhātmya, the question to be posed is this: How does the One, which is eternal being-in-itself, manifest as the many? The question becomes an inquiry into the nature of the creative process itself, and the inquiry reveals that the creation of the universe is in fact a transition from potentiality into actuality. This truth is inherent even in the Sanskrit word for creation: sṛṣṭi literally means “emission” or “letting loose” from a latent to a manifest state.
Each of the Devīmāhātmya’s three sections begins with a meditation on one of the supreme Devī’s three primary forms. These forms—Mahākālī, Mahālakṣmī and Mahāsarasvatī—are not to be confused with Her aspects as Kālī, Lakṣmī and Sarasvatī, Goddesses of popular devotion who belong to a more immediate level of human experience. Instead, each is an immensely more powerful, cosmic aspect (vyaṣṭi) of the Devī. The vyaṣṭis are the universal energies of inertia, dynamism, and luminosity—the three guṇas, known in Sanskrit as tamas, rajas, and sattva. In the phenomenal universe, they underlie all the subsequent activities of creation, sustenance, and dissolution.
At this early stage of differentiation, the pure guṇas are still unmanifest (avyākṛtā) as causal energies. Though indescribable, they are conceived of as the four-armed forms of Mahākālī,
Mahālakṣmī and Mahāsarasvatī. Through subsequent modification (vikṛti), these in turn become manifest forms with the same names. It is these that are described in the dhyānas as the ten-armed Mahākālī, the eighteenarmed Mahālakṣmī and the eight-armed Mahāsarasvatī. This imagery is intended to facilitate the Tantric technique of visualized meditation. A physical image such as a sculpture or painting or a mental image visualized in meditation allows us to approach the Infinite through finite symbols and to interact with divinity. Such symbols correspond to psychological or spiritual truths, and every gesture, posture, color, or object associated with a Deity stands for a particular attribute or power. A few symbols have universal significance, but others are esoteric, with meanings not readily obvious or easily understood. Not all symbols are invariable in meaning, and even the interpretations found in ancient sources such as the Purāṇas may differ among themselves. Later explanations of some symbols grow increasingly divergent, but even modem reinterpretations can convey valid new insights.
Mahākālī, the Devī’s tamasic aspect who presides over the first carita, has ten hands that symbolize the ten directions (the four cardinal points, the intermediate points, and the points above and below) and convey the idea of divine omnipresence. Her sword represents the knowledge that destroys ignorance by severing what is apparent and transitory from what is real and abiding. The discus is the constantly turning wheel of time, which inexorably destroys all that has name and form.
According to the Varāhapurāṇa, the mace destroys unrighteousness (adharma). The Viṣṇupurāṇa interprets the bow as the tamasic aspect of ego and the arrows as the sensory and motor organs. Restraint or self-control is the general idea behind the iron bar. In the Devīmāhātmya’s battle narratives, the Divine Mother’s spear is a metaphor for the penetrating insight of spiritual awareness. The severed human head represents the vanquished ego and thus the triumph over the limitation of personality that obscures the infinite Self (ātman). The conch destroys ignorance; its auspicious sound symbolizes the power of awakening to divine awareness. Mahākāll’s three eyes, witnessing past, present and future, symbolize omniscience. Her blue-black complexion, more than a mere reminder of Her obscuring tamasic power, resembles the vast night sky and speaks of Her infinitude.
Invocation: The mantra OṀ namaścaṇḍikāyai (“OṀ. Salutation to Caṇḍikā”) invokes the Devī in Her supreme, samaṣṭi form. Unknown in the Vedas, the name Caṇḍikā first appears in the Devīmāhātmya. Occurring there 29 times, it is second in frequency only to the term Devī. Thus we see that the name is both of non-Vedic origin and of great importance.
Caṇḍikā means “the violent and impetuous one,” whose anger and fierce passion, according to the commentator Bhāskararāya, inspire awe. Nevertheless, this literal meaning should not limit our understanding of Caṇḍikā as only a fierce, horrific Goddess. She is the ineffable Devī, whose many and varied manifestations in the course of the mythological narratives will reveal also a benign side that is maternal, protective, physically beautiful, and salvific.
Moreover, the Guptavatī, Bhāskararāya’s great commentary on the Devīmāhātmya, boldly asserts that “Caṇḍī[kā] is the highest Brahman,” the supreme nondual reality. She is Saṁvit, the Pure, Unitary Consciousness that projects the three Vyaṣṭis in the process of cosmic manifestation. In the language of the Śāktas, these energies are called, respectively, Mahākālī, MahāsarasvatI and Mahālakṣmī.
This threefold differentiation, Bhāskararāya notes, is described in the Svetaśvātaropaniṣad (SU 6.8) as Brahman’s icchā (“will”), jñāna (“knowledge”), and kriya (“action”)— the divine will to create, the knowledge for doing so, and the action that carries out the intent. For Bhāskararāya, power (śakti) and the possessor of power (śaktiman) are one and the same, and the vyaṣṭis are non-different from the Devī’s ultimate unity.
Accordingly, the name Caṇḍikā represents both the formless Absolute in itself (Ādyā Śakti, or nirguṇa Brahman in Vedantic terms) and that same reality in association with its inseparable, threefold power (the Devī’s samaṣṭi form, or saguṇa Brahman). It is important to remember that this so-called aggregate (samaṣṭi) form, which is triguṇa (“consisting of the three guṇas”), is not the result of the combined energies of the vyaṣṭis; it is instead their source.
The Prādhānika Rahasya, which is part of the earliest commentary on the Devīmāhātmya, describes the supreme Devī as Laksyālakṣyasvarūpā (“with and without distinguishing characteristics”) (PR 4). In essence, divine reality is both definable and indefinable—at once immanent and transcendent. In the 18th century this paradox was voiced by the Bengali poet Kamalākānta in the epithet śunyasyākāra (“the form of the formless”). Such utterances reflect the true sense of the mantra OṀ namaśCaṇḍīkāyai: “Salutation to the absolute consciousness that manifests as the created universe.”
1.1: OṀ and aiṁ are not words in the ordinary sense but bījas (“seeds”). A bīja is the essential sound of a primary cause or principle from which something is produced. As a syllable of concentrated power with its own distinct vibration, a bīja is the essential component of any mantra. OṀ, the first and greatest of all mantras, is the mahābīja (“great seed”) that represents the absolute Brahman. It is the source of all other bījas. Aiṁ, the bīja of Mahāsarasvatī, proclaims that the Divine Mother’s nature is Pure Consciousness.
In the opening scene of the Devīmāhātmya, the sage Mārkaṇḍeya relates to his disciple Krauṣṭuki Bhāguri the history of the world throughout its cosmic cycles. The setting is the present, or seventh age, and to explain what will come to pass in the eighth, Mārkaṇḍeya recounts the story of a king, a merchant, and a seer who lived long before, during the second age. From verse 1.46 onward, Medhas, the seer of Mārkaṇḍeya’s tale, becomes the narrator and relates the Devīmāhātmya’s three myths concerning the Divine Mother’s activities. Mārkaṇḍeya returns as narrator in verse 13.6 to bring the Devīmāhātmya to its conclusion.
1.2–3: The purpose of Mārkaṇḍeya’s story is to relate how Sāvarṇi will become the ruler of the eighth cosmic age through the authority of the Devī, here called Mahāmāyā. In Purāṇic cosmology, a period of cosmic manifestation, called a day of Brahmā, lasts 4,320,000,000 human years. This scheme need not be taken literally but does indicate the ancient Indian awareness of the vastness of time. A day of Brahmā is divided into fourteen ages (manvantaras), each with its own mythical progenitor and sovereign (manu). Although Sāvarṇi, the future manu, is described as the “son of the sun God” (→ 13.22), he lived in the second manvantara as a mortal king named Suratha.
1.4–34: One of the functions of the Purāṇas is to chronicle the history of the ruling Āryan dynasties. Verses 1.4–16 present a brief account of Suratha’s reign and establish his character as just and virtuous. Verses 1.17–25 introduce the merchant Samādhi and identify him also as a good and righteous man. Having suffered betrayal and loss, each of them seeks refuge in a holy man’s Forest retreat (āśrama). In the tranquil setting, Suratha continues to suffer mental and emotional turmoil over recurring thoughts of his lost kingdom. Samādhi, in his despair, fails to understand his own lingering feelings of love toward the family that betrayed him.
1.35–38: When the king, the merchant, and the seer meet, we recognize that they represent the three higher castes of Indian society. Medhas, a brāhmaṇa, belongs to the priestly class; Suratha, a ksatriya, to the class of kings and warriors; Samādhi, a vaiśya, to the class engaged in trade or agriculture. In the traditional fourfold caste system, these three upper classes are called “twice-born,” because their privileged access to the Vedas signifies an initiatory second birth. Such a privilege is not shared by the śudra, a member of the fourth, or servile, caste.
Additionally, the names Medhas, Suratha, and Samādhi identify Mārkaṇḍeya’s characters as archetypal. The word medhas means “insight”; suratha means “he whose chariot is good”—a metaphor for the king’s unimpeachable conduct; samādhi signifies union with the Divine—a fitting name for the merchant, who is poised to disentangle himself from worldly attachment.
1.39–45: The king’s appeal to Medhas marks the first step of the spiritual journey that he and Samādhi are about to begin. Suratha confesses that feelings of possessiveness toward his lost kingdom torment him unceasingly and that the merchant’s loving concern for the family that robbed and humiliated him persists. How can the two of them, who should know better, react so illogically?
When the king declares, “Ours is the perplexity of those who are blind to right understanding,” he assumes that he and Samādhi are possessed of superior knowledge, although vulnerable to the same pitfalls as those who are less wise. Medhas’s task will be to show the king and the merchant how very wrong they are.
1.46–50: In order to distinguish between ordinary knowledge as the king understands it and higher, spiritual knowledge, Medhas begins with the example of sense-perception, or knowledge in its most concrete form. He points out that animals and humans alike have sensory awareness, although the faculties of perception differ according to genus and species. Despite those differences, both human awareness and nonhuman awareness are expressions of the same underlying consciousness.
1.51–52: In the more complex area of behavior, Medhas points out that birds ignore their own hunger for the sake of their young; but humans, hoping for future reward, harbor ulterior motives in begetting children. It is not that birds are altruistic and people are scheming. Birds act out of instinct, but humans possess the additional faculties of reason and will. What Medhas means to demonstrate is that even those forms of awareness that relate to behavior belong to the category of lower knowledge and are subject to the delusion (moha) inherent in the world.
1.53: If even the basic acts of seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, and touching do not reveal an objective world as it really is but only our flawed experience of it, how much more fraught with confusion the world becomes when experienced through the additional filters of reason, emotion, memory, and will! Given imperfect data, our reason may easily draw the wrong conclusion, or it may take more than one path to different ends. Emotion colors everything. Memory is selective at best and rarely impartial. Will all too often arises from an ego motivated by self-interest, desire, or expectation. Since all knowledge as we understand it is thus relative and imperfect, we are, indeed, subject to delusion.
The cause of this delusion, says Medhas, is the Goddess Mahāmāyā. That name, which occurs only in the first carita, can mean either that the Devī possesses great māyā or that She Herself is the Great Māyā. Either way, Māyā is the power that produces the cyclical flow (saṁsāra) of this everchanging world. It is the power of self-concealment that imposes the interwoven limitations of time and space upon the infinite, absolute consciousness. And it is the power that projects the sense of personal identity, the ego, that beclouds the underlying unity of reality.
1.54: Medhas also refers to Mahāmāyā as Yoganidrā, another name of the Devī that occurs only in the first carita. Its meaning will soon become evident.
1.55–58: When Medhas says that not even the wise escape Mahāmāyā’s deluding power, he is simply stating that nothing in this world is as it seems to be. Time and space distort our perceptions, and we know the universe not as it is but only as we individually experience it. For example, from our vantage point the moon appears to be much larger than the stars, but that is an illusion created by its proximity to the earth. The stars only appear tiny in comparison because they are so distant.
Moreover, the starlight we see twinkling in tonight’s sky has traveled through vast reaches of space over vast stretches of time, and the stars that emitted it may have ceased to exist millions of years ago. Medhas refers to this deluding Goddess as “Blessed” and reassures that Mahāmāyā has two aspects. As Avidyāmāyā She is the veiling power that binds through the limiting sense of individuality, and as Vidyāmāyā She is the liberating knowledge that breaks asunder every bond. Finally, this passage marks the first appearance of two additional themes that will recur throughout the text: that of Divine Grace and that of the Devī’s supremacy over all the male gods.
1.59–64: Two words in Medhas’ statement, “She is eternal, having the world as Her form. She pervades all this” (1.64), are particularly revealing. The adjective nitya (“eternal”) originally meant “found inside of” or “innate.” During the Ṛgvedic era, its usage expanded to connote “one’s own, constant, permanent.” By the time of classical Sanskrit, nitya had acquired the meaning of “eternal,” colored by the idea that eternity implies an interior, intrinsic and unchanging quality that is readily equated with the nondual Absolute.
The word jagat (“world”), from a verbal root meaning “to go,” portrays the world as a realm of motion, life, and activity. Previously, verse 1.56 described the natural world with the poetic expression carācaram (“moving and unmoving”). To understand this imagery in terms of “animate and inanimate” would be to miss the point entirely. Those English terms, derived from the Latin anima, with its multiple connotations of air, breath, life, mind, and soul, imply a distinction between sentient beings and dead matter.
To the contrary, the Śākta worldview understands all material forms, “moving and unmoving,” as emanating from Divinity. Whether brilliantly shining like the sun, in constant motion like the wings of a hummingbird, or seemingly inert like an outcropping of granite, everything is pervaded by consciousness. When Medhas utters the words Nitya and Jagat in the same breath, he is saying in effect that the Devī is both the immutable ground of existence and the dynamic universe ‘It’ supports.
1.65–66: The Devī manifests as the universe and pervades everything. “Yet She emerges in various ways,” Medhas continues. Beyond taking form as the varied natural forces and objects of the material world, She manifests as personified Goddesses, some of whom we shall meet in later chapters. She does so “to accomplish the purpose of the gods,” whose function is to defend the cosmic order against the chaos wrought by demonic forces. But the Devī is in no way subservient to the gods; for whenever they fail, She Herself, who is immeasurably more powerful, must intervene. She who manifests as this world (1.64) enters into this world (1.66). The universe becomes Her sphere of activity, and that activity (carita) is the subject of the three tales Medhas now begins to relate.
1.67–71: According to Purāṇic cosmology, at the end of a kalpa or day of Brahmā, the manifest universe dissolves back into the causal, or potential, state. The traditional Vaiṣṇava symbolism for such an interim period represents the supreme God, Viṣṇu, in meditative sleep (yoganidrā), stretched out on the thousand-headed serpent Śeṣa, who floats on the undifferentiated ocean of potentiality. Predating the Devīmāhātmya, an earlier and more elaborate account of the Madhu and Kaiṭabha myth, found in the Mahābhārata (MBh 3.194), extols Viṣṇu’s blazing splendor and might and characterizes Him as the eternal One, source of all and Creator of the world. The lotus growing from his navel is as radiant as the sun. Brahmā himself, intimidated by the demons Madhu and Kaiṭabha, awakens the sleeping Viṣṇu, unaided, by shaking the lotus stalk.
This and other early Vaiṣṇava versions of the myth found in the epic literature make no mention of the Devī. In the Devlmāhātmya’s retelling, only a trace of the original Vaiṣṇava outlook remains in verse 1.67, where Viṣṇu enters into yoganidrā presumably of His own volition. But note the change of emphasis three verses later. He is now in the power of the Devī, who as the Goddess Yoganidrā has taken the active role of settling over His eyes. Viṣṇu is no longer omnipotent; instead it is the Devī who controls the universe in both its manifest and unmanifest states. Also, Brahmā’s shaking of the lotus stalk is no longer the cause of Viṣṇu’s awakening; instead, to release the sleeping God from Yoganidrā’s spell, Brahmā must praise “Her Who rules the universe, Who sustains and dissolves it.. ..Who is incomparable” (1.71).
As for the demons, Hindu mythology recognizes various classes of malevolent beings. The terms asura, daitya, and dānava are often applied interchangeably to demons of the first order, whose shared characteristic is a perpetual, implacable hostility to the Gods. These terms themselves shed light on the Hindu understanding of evil. In the Ṛgveda asura originally denoted a God, and its probable derivative, sura, also signified a God or sometimes the sun. But in later usage asura came to mean “demon,” the dark half of the asura/sura pair. Similarly, the word daitya forms the dark half of a pair. Aditi, one of the most ancient Indian Goddesses, is the Mother of the solar Deities, the Ādityas.
Her name signifies “Boundlessness, Freedom, Inexhaustible Abundance.” Her mirror-image is Diti, Mother of the daityas, who represent the dark forces. The name of the dānavas, offspring of the Demoness Danu, can conceivably be linked also to the word dāna (“cutting off, splitting, dividing”).
From the lexical pairs sura/asura and āditya/daitya and from the semantic pair daitya/dānava, it becomes clear that the Divine is associated with Boundlessness, Wholeness, Freedom, and Light, and that the demonic implies limitation, separation, bondage, and darkness.
1.72: The brief statement “Brahmā said” announces the Devīmāhātmya’s first hymn, the Brahmāstuti (1.73–87). Building upon the themes of Medhas’s discourse and on the Madhu-Kaiṭabha myth, the hymn centers on the Devī’s cosmogonic aspect, first celebrating Her Absolute and All-transcending nature, then extolling Her threefold powers of ‘Creation’, ‘Preservation’, and ‘Destruction’, which account for the universe as we know it.
1.73–74: In trying to express the inexpressible truth of how the One manifests as the Many, the Brahmāstuti’s first two verses use technical terms from Vedic ritual and Sanskrit prosody as metaphors. The translator’s task in dealing with these extremely difficult verses is to preserve the immediacy and eloquence of the metaphors while conveying their broader meaning. Complicating the task are the Sanskrit terms themselves, which allow ample room for interpretation.
A literal translation would read:
You are Svāhā. You are Svadhā. You are surely the Vaṣaṭkāra, having sound as your essence. / You are the Nectar, O Eternal and Imperishable One.
You abide as the Essence of the Triple Mātrā. You abide as the Half Mātrā, Eternal, which cannot be uttered specifically. / You are indeed that; You are Sāvitrī; You are the supreme Mother of the gods.
Unfortunately, such a translation makes little or no sense to most of us, unschooled as we are in the finer points of Vedic tradition.
In Vedic ritual, svāhā is the mantra of consecration intoned when an oblation to the Gods is poured into the sacrificai fire; svadhā is the mantra that accompanies an oblation to the spirits of departed ancestors. Both mantras are sometimes personified as consorts of Agni, the fire God who conveys the ritual offerings to the Gods.
During the ritual the priest who recites the sacrificial hymns utters the word vaṣaṭ to signal another priest to pour the oblation into the fire. The exclamation, reified as Vaṣaṭkāra and personified as the Deity Vaṣaṭkāra, is identified here with the Devī. In other words, it is truly through Her agency that the sacrifice is carried out. In the broader scheme of things, She who is svarātmikā (“having sound as Her essence”) is also the Agent of Creation, because the universe is potential energy made manifest through the vibration of sound, or Sacred Speech.
The idea that creation proceeds from sound (svara, śabda) is not unique to Hinduism. Judaism and Christianity hold similar views on creation through the agency of the Word. In the first chapter of Genesis, the phrase “And God said …” signals in turn the creation of light, the heavens, the earth, and all living creatures. The Johannine Gospel proclaims the Word (Logos) as the creative force coetemal and consubstantial with God. Similarly, in the Ṛgvedic hymn known as the Devīsūkta (ṚV 10.125), the Goddess Vāk (“Speech”) proclaims Herself to be both the Supreme Reality and the Source of All Becoming. One of most important Vedic Goddesses, Vāk is often characterized as the All-Pervading cosmogonic principle.
The imagery now shifts from Vedic ritual to linguistic technicalities. In Sanskrit, a mātrā is a metrical unit representing the time required to pronounce a short vowel. Metaphorically the triple mātrā refers to OṀ, which consists of the three short vowels a-u-m. The vowel a resonates deep in the throat, and the vowel u carries the vibration forward, linking it to the mouth’s foremost position, where the closed lips articulate the sound m. OṀ thus encompasses the entire apparatus of vocal production and is considered symbolic of the beginning, middle, and end of all things. As the Triple Mātrā, the Devī is Brahman’s Power of Creation, Preservation, and Destruction; and because that Power (śakti) and its possessor (śaktiman) are indistinguishable, the Devī is proclaimed here The Supreme, Nondual Reality.
The half-mātrā, written in the Devanāgarī script as the dot (bindu) that nasalizes the preceding vowel, is unpronounceable by itself. Here it stands as a metaphor for the condensed state of power immediately before the actualization of the universe, the point of all possibility (bindu) from which the creation emanates. This elusive concept recently entered Western science when a refinement in Big Bang thinking, called the “cosmic inflation” theory, proposed that the entire universe popped out of a point with no content and no dimensions and instantaneously expanded to cosmic size in a miraculous event hinting at the agency of some higher force. Symbolizing the bindu, the source of all becoming, the Half Mātrā of Brahmā’s hymn represents the All-Pervasiveness of the Divine Presence, which remains inseparable from all experience yet inexpressible in ordinary thought or language. Taken together the symbolism of the Triple Mātrā and the Half Mātrā makes the fundamental Śākta point that the Devī is both the Absolute and the Relative, the Supreme Reality and the Source of All Becoming.
Known in mythology as the Wife of the creator God Brahmā, the Goddess Sāvitrī, or Gāyatrī, is the personification of the Ṛgveda’s most sacred verse, the Gāyatrī Mantra: Oṁ bhūr bhuvaḥ suvaḥ tat savitur varenyaṁ bhargo Devasya dhīmahi dhiyo yo naḥ pracodayāt (“May we meditate upon the splendor of the Divinity, the Supreme Effulgence, and may That inspire our thoughts”) (ṚV 3.62.10). She is the Source of Sacred Knowledge, and this Gāyatrī Mantra, Her embodiment in sound, is considered the seed from which the Vedas sprang.
1.75–76: The creation, preservation, and dissolution of the universe are functions generally ascribed respectively to the Gods Brahmā, Viṣṇu and Śiva. In keeping with the Śākta point of view, the Devīmāhātmya claims that these powers belong to the Devī alone.
Periodically created, sustained, and dissolved, this world or universe is referred to here by two common Sanskrit words. Each tells us something about the nature of the universe. Jagat, already discussed (—> 1.59–64), derives from a verbal root meaning “to go” and reveals the world as the realm of motion, life, and activity. Viśva (“all”), possibly from a root meaning “to pervade,” carries the idea of Inclusiveness and Immensity, similar to the idea of Wholeness and Boundlessness evoked by the name of the Ṛgvedic Goddess Aditi. Together Jagat and Viśva express the immense and everchanging phenomenon of existence, played out against the immutable backdrop of Pure Being.
1.77: With sharp contrasts this verse characterizes the Devī as the Supreme, Liberating Knowledge (Mahāvidyā) of the changeless reality but also as the Veiling Power (Mahāmāyā) that projects the world of our experience, as Supreme Insight (Mahāmedhā) and Unbroken Continuity of Memory (Mahāsmṛti), but also as the Deluding Power (Mahāmohā) that makes things appear as other than they truly are.
She is both the Great Goddess and the Great Demoness. The so-called Bombay recension of the text alters this startling phrase (Mahādevī Mahāsurī) to the less problematic Mahādevī Maheśvarī (“the Great Goddess, the Great Sovereign”), but that evades the essential point. By one interpretation, “The Great Demoness” implies that the Devī controls Everything, Negative as well as Positive. After all, the text has established Her as the Supreme Power of the universe. Still, the deeper, nondualistic understanding considers Her the single source of all that is. We cannot dispute that both good and evil are present in the world, but we must understand that they exist only in a relative sense, because neither would be possible without the other to define it. As the source of both, the Devī encompasses —yet transcends—all duality.
1.78: The term usually translated as “Primordial Matter” or “Nature” is Prakṛti, a verbal noun that implies not inert, insentient matter but a dynamic process. Latent within the unmanifest prakṛti (mūlaprakṛti or māyāśakti) and existing in a state of perfect, nonactive equilibrium are the three basic energies or guṇas, called tamas, rajas, and sattva. When the Devī upsets their balance in the process of transformation from potentiality to actuality, there arises a bipolar tension in which tamas veils consciousness, sattva reveals it, and rajas becomes the force through which the one acts upon the other. Combining and recombining in patterns of ever-increasing complexity, the gu
Beyond saying that the Devī is “Primordial Matter, differentiating into the threefold qualities of Everything,” this verse tells us nothing more about the creative process. The later Prādhānika Rahasya and Vaikṛtika Rahasya offer two different, mythologically expressed scenarios of how the Unmanifest becomes Manifest. Both agree that the Supreme Devī contains within Herself the three guṇas, represented as the unmanifest four-armed Mahākālī, Mahālakṣmī, and Mahāsarasvatī. According to the Vaikṛtika Rahasya, these three Unmanifest (Avyākṛta) Vyaṣṭis then assume the Manifest (Vikṛti) forms of the Ten-Armed Māhākālī, the Eighteen-Armed Mahālakṣmī, and the Eight-Armed Mahāsarasvatī, described in the Devīmāhātmya’s three dhyānas. Such imagery can only hint at the Inscrutable Cosmic Process by which the One projects ‘Itself’ as the Manifold Universe. In truth, there is no partition in nature; All is Continuous.
Because they are Vaiṣṇava Tantric texts, the Rahasyas refer to the Devī in Her supreme aspect not as Caṇḍikā but as Mahālakṣmī. They regard the Unmanifest Mahākālī (Tamas) and the Unmanifest Mahāsarasvatī (Sattva) as proceeding from—not coequal with—the Unmanifest Mahālakṣmī, who they contend contains the power of all three guṇas. This creates a confusion in nomenclature, because in the Vaiṣṇava context the name Mahālakṣmī denotes the Devī’s Samaṣṭi form and not merely Her purely Rajasic Vyaṣṭi Form.
The three terms Kālarātri (“Dark Night”), Mahārātri (“Great Night”) and Moharātri (“Night of Delusion”) all have “Night” as their second element, which underscores the first carita’s emphasis on the Devī’s Dark, Tamasic quality. Beyond that, each term carries a specific meaning.
In the mythical language of Purāṇic cosmology, a day of Brahmā is followed by a night of periodic dissolution (kālarātri) of equal length—4,320,000,000 human years—while Brahmā sleeps. Three hundred sixty such days and nights constitute a year of Brahmā, and Brahmā is said to live for one hundred years, a time span well in excess of three hundred trillion human years. After that, everything in the universe dissolves completely into the Absolute, and the correspondingly long period of dissolution is called the Great Night (Mahārātri). Then the Cycle of Creation begins anew. Creation has no absolute beginning, because the self-existent One alternates between states of Potentiality and Manifestation. In one sense, Creation is an event marking the beginning of time-space, but in another sense it is an ongoing process that continues for as long as the universe endures. In the same way, Dissolution, creation’s inseparable companion, is not only a future event of cosmic catastrophe but also a continuous process inherent in the natural world. The passing of the seasons and the rhythms of the agricultural cycle, for example, demonstrate the interplay of life and death necessary for the continuance of the here and now. On the microcosmic level, matter in the form of ephemeral subatomic particles constantly crystallizes out of energy and dissolves back to its source, while in the vast macrocosm, over inconceivably long eons, galaxies are born, live, and die. The threefold process of interdependent creation-preservation-dissolution is Śakti’s pulsating dance of existence.
The “Terrifying Night of Delusion” (Moharātri) differs qualitatively from the other night-based terms. It refers not to a lesser or greater unmanifest phase in the cosmic cycle but to the manifest state of nescience (avidyā) through which the vast majority of us experience the world, bound by the delusion of attachment and unaware of our own Divinity. In short, it denotes the human condition.
1.79: After such dark imagery, Brahmā now extols the Devī with the attribute of Dazzling Light, both as Perceptible Splendor (śrī) and the Metaphorical Light of Understanding. The many meanings of śrī include “Light, Luster, Radiance, Splendor, Glory, Beauty, Grace, Loveliness, Prosperity, Good Fortune, Wealth, Majesty.” Brahmā then names the positive, beneficial qualities that śrī engenders, often personified as Goddesses in later Vedic literature. The word Puṣṭi, translated in an abstracted sense as “Contentment,” originally related to the raising of livestock and the accompanying benefits of Nourishment, Prosperity, and Well-Being. Occurring frequently in the Vedas, the concept of Puṣṭi preserves ties to India’s age-old pastoral culture.
1.80–81: The contrast of opposites, illustrating the Devī’s All-Inclusiveness, continues here with imagery of the horrific and the benign. The dual portrayal of Terrible and Beneficent Goddesses that was a feature of pre-Harappan and Harappan religion endures in the Devīmāhātmya. It reflects the universal fact of our dualistic perception of the universe. The weapons mentioned here are the same ones that appear in the dhyāna on Mahākālī, symbolizing Her destructive power and the dread She inspires. The next verse praises Her Surpassing Physical Beauty. With these vivid contrasts we are dealing with a literary device known as a merism, which employs opposing pairs to imply totality. Another merism tells us that the Devī Transcends “both Highest and Lowest,” meaning Everything. In other words, She is the Absolute. In calling Her the Supreme Sovereign (Parameśvarī), Brahmā introduces the theme of Divine Omnipotence, continued in the next three verses.
1.82–84: The Devī’s Power is Unequaled. She is said to Subdue even Viṣṇu, “Who Creates, Protects, and Devours the world.” That passage, which endows Viṣṇu with the triple functions of Creation, Protection, and Destruction normally divided among Brahmā, Viṣṇu, and Śiva, once again reveals a trace of the Madhu and Kaiṭabha myth’s Vaiṣṇava origin. But any idea of Viṣṇu’s Supremacy vanishes in the next breath, which alludes to the Devī’s power over Him as the sleep-inducing Yoganidrā. Moreover, She is said to cause even Brahmā, Viṣṇu, and Śiva to assume Their embodied forms. So great is Her glory that three times Brahmā asks if there is anyone at all who is capable of praising Her.
1.85–87: Finally, the hymn pleads that Madhu and Kaiṭabha be killed. Note that Brahmā’s petition has two parts: that the Devī confound the asuras and that She rouse the sleeping Viṣṇu to slay the demonic pair. The emphasis is clear: through Her power, and not Viṣṇu’s alone, will Madhu and Kaiṭabha be destroyed.
1.88–1.103: In the original myth as told in the Mahābhārata, for unexplained reasons, Viṣṇu, upon awakening, reacts with pleasure and offers the two asuras a boon. They are too proud to accept and instead respond with haughty laughter that they should grant him a boon. Viṣṇu assents and asks that the two of them should die by his hand. Since Madhu and Kaiṭabha, strangely, consider themselves devoted to truth and dharma, they must agree; but in a final attempt to save themselves, they impose the condition of being slain where space is uncovered. Viṣṇu finds such a place atop his own uncovered thighs, and lifting them there, He severs their heads. The story unfolds very differently in the Devīmāhātmya. Responding to Brahmā’s praise, Mahāmāyā, “The Dark Goddess” (Devī Tāmasī) emerges from Viṣṇu’s recumbent figure, whereupon Viṣṇu arises and battles hand-to-hand with the asuras. After five thousand years the still undefeated Madhu and Kaiṭabha grow intoxicated with power. In their foolish arrogance they offer Viṣṇu a boon, because, as the text makes clear, they are “confounded by Mahāmāyā” (1.94). Note that the word Vimohitau (“Confounded”) derives from the same source as Moha. Of course, Viṣṇu is glad to oblige his strange combatants and makes the obvious request to slay them, adding, “What other boon is there to ask?” (1.98).
In what follows, the literary quality shows that great care was lavished on retelling this myth, however briefly it unfolds. Instead of simply trying to outwit Viṣṇu by asking to be slain where space is uncovered, as the asuras did in the Mahābhārata’s account, here the battle of wits hinges on a pun.
Realizing their fateful mistake, Madhu and Kaiṭabha survey the endless expanse of flood and ask to be killed where the earth (urvī) is not covered by water. In response Viṣṇu lifts them to his thighs (ūrvī) and slays them there.
Madhu and Kaiṭabha represent the ego in its most benighted, almost bestial, state. They attack Brahmā out of brute aggression for no reason other than that He is there. Their prowess in resisting Viṣṇu leads to self-aggrandizement, and eventually their hubris proves their undoing. The story serves as a cautionary tale that taking ourselves too seriously can have unforeseen and disastrous consequences. With this myth, Medhas illustrates the essential point made earlier that the human condition is the product of Mahāmāyā’s deluding power.
1.104: The final verse links the first carita to the second. Medhas has another story to tell and bids the king and the merchant to listen.