Chapter 11 – Interpretations
11.1–2: By way of introduction to the fourth and final hymn, the Nārāyanīstuti (11.3–35), Indra and
the other Gods, this time led by Agni, approach the Devī in a spirit of thanksgiving. Here She is called
Kātyāyanī (→8.29), a name used interchangeably with Caṇḍikā, Ambikā, and Durgā to denote Her
all-powerful aspect, presiding over the functions of creation, preservation, and destruction.
11.3: Along with the preceding verse, the first four verses of the Nārāyanīstuti (11.3–6) and six near
the end (11.29–34) are in a meter called upajāti, which has forty- four syllables per śloka. Like the
elegant vasantatilakā meter of the Śakrādistuti, it imparts an eloquence to the exalted praise of the
verses that frame the main body of the hymn. Reverting to the anustubh meter, the hymn’s central
portion (11.7–28), like that of the Aparājitāstuti, has the character of a litany.
The Nārāyanīstuti has other features in common with the preceding hymns. Like the Śakrādistuti,
it comments on the action of the foregoing narrative, and with all three other hymns it shares common
language and themes. In a sense, it is a summation of all that has gone before, and on that
comprehensiveness rests its reputation as a central statement of Śākta theology and devotion.2
The opening verse concisely presents the themes of divine intervention (as removal of suffering),
divine motherhood, sovereignty, and protection. The order of presentation progresses from the
personal and immediate relationship with the Devī, Who offers refuge and alleviates suffering, to the
cosmic understanding that She is the Mother of the universe, Who rules over all that is moving and
11.4: The themes here are support and nurture. The word ādhāra means both a physical support or
substratum and a sustaining power. Since the verse also specifies that the Devī abides in physical
form as the earth (mahī, having the connotation of ground, soil, or land), ādhāra is best understood
as the energy that supports it.
Because the Devī exists in the form of water (ap), everything thrives (āpyāyaté). Although the two
Sanskrit words are unrelated (the verb deriving frompyai, “to swell, increase, overflow”), their
alliteration and the coincidental connection of water and overflowing make for powerful imagery
grounded in the world of nature. The much earlier Ṛgvedic hymns repeatedly refer to the Āpah
Goddess, “the Waters,” as “our Mothers.” Semipersonified as spirits of the primeval water, these
plural Goddess were identified with the universal principle of motherhood.3 According to one
hymn, before heaven and earth came into being, the Waters received the primal germ that contained
the Gods, all gathered together (ṚV 10.82.5–6). Even in later Vedic texts, which explore the idea of
water as the basis of all fertility, the Āpah Goddess retained their original connection to natural
Combining the imagery of earth and water, the Nārāyaṇlstuti’s second verse preserves primordial
memories of the Mother Goddess as the earth itself and as the waters that cause it to bring forth its
abundance. It praises the energy supporting this life-sustaining power of heaven and earth as the
Devī’s unsurpassable strength.
11.5: Next, the hymn celebrates māyā as both the deluding power that binds (avidyāmāyā) and the
power that leads to the knowledge that liberates (vidyāmāyā). This single verse summarizes a longer
passage (1.53–58) in which Medhas explains how Mahāmāyā, Viṣṇu’s meditative sleep
(yoganidrā), hurls people “into the whirlpool of attachment (mamatā, literally “My-ness”) and
“seizes the minds of even the wise and draws them into delusion.” Yet, “it is She Who graciously
bestows liberation on humanity.”
In the earlier passage, Medhas calls Mahāmāyā “the meditative sleep of [Viṣṇu,] the lord of the
world” (yoganidrā jagatpateh) (1.54). The Aparājitāstuti employs the epithet Viṣṇumāyā, the
deluding power of Viṣṇu (5.14–16). Both expressions carry the idea of possession, even though in
the first instance Viṣṇu is clearly subject to the Devī’s power at that point in the story. The present
verse makes a subtle but significant departure with the term Vaiṣṇavī śaktih, which does not mean
power as Viṣṇ__________u’s possession (that would be viṣṇoḥ śaktih or viṣṇuśaktiḥ, but power in the Devī’s
own right, operative through but not necessarily belonging to Viṣṇu. The distinction may seem
hairsplitting, but the broader implication is not. Even as māyā, the Devī is supreme (paramā).
By Her the entire universe is deluded (sammohita). Some translations of this verse render the
adjective as “enchanted,”4 or “bewitched,”5 and given that the third carita’s general focus is on the
sattvic Devī, the idea of Her enchanting beauty is reasonable. Monier-Williams’s Sanskrit-English
Dictionary defines sammohita in both negative and conceivably positive terms as “stupefied,
bewildered, fascinated, enraptured.” But sammohita derives from sammuh, to which the same
dictionary ascribes only the pejorative connotations of stupefaction, bewilderment, confusion,
perplexity, and unconsciousness. In the overall context of Medhas’s discourse on the reason for the
king’s and the merchant’s misery (1.53–55), to which the present verse clearly alludes, the likely
rendering of sammohita is “deluded.”6
The same Mahāmāyā is, when gracious, the cause of liberation in this very world (11.5). The
adjective prasanna, meaning either “gracious” or “pleased,” leaves open the question of whether
liberation is freely bestowed or earned. When the Śakrādistuti praises the Devī as “good fortune in
the dwellings of the virtuous and misfortune in the abodes of the wicked” (4.5), it intimates that in this
world of cause and effect we earn the consequences of our actions. Yet that same hymn extols Her
compassion even toward the wicked, whose misconduct She subdues (4.21). Thus we learn that the
Mother operates through both principles. Similarly, Śrī RāmaKṛṣṇa answered the perennial
philosophical question of grace and self-effort with the simple but profound teaching that the breeze
of divine grace is always blowing and one needs only to set the sails of the mind to catch it.
The intimate relationship between grace and self-effort is further borne out by the adjective
prasanna itself. It derives from the verb prasad, meaning either “to settle down, to become clear or
calm” or “to become satisfied, pleased, or gracious.” The former meaning reminds us of Patañjali’s
teaching that enlightenment follows upon the restraint of thought-waves in the field of consciousness
(YS 1.2). For the restless, finite mind to open itself to the calm of infinite awareness, effort is
necessary, but without the underlying constancy of divine consciousness in the first place, all effort
would be futile. As with the concept of śraddhā (→ 4.5), we see an element of interaction between
the human and the Divine. The word prasanna, with its range of meaning, validates equally the
jñāni’s self-effort in stilling the thought waves of the mind and the bhakta’s intimate partaking of the
Mother’s love, which we may call divine grace.
11.6: “All forms of knowledge are your aspects” relates to ideas expressed earlier: “you are the light
of understanding” (1.79), “you are the treasury that holds the taintless Vedic hymns” (4.10), and “you
are the intelligence by which the essence of all scriptures is understood” (4.11). Śakti is pure
consciousness (cit) and contains within Herself all possible modifications of consciousness, which
include the manifold forms of knowledge. The supreme, absolute knowledge (vidya) is unitary, but
this verse speaks of “knowledges” in the plural (vidyāḥ), referring to the relative or lower forms of
knowledge that include all branches of learning: the sciences, philosophy, politics, agriculture,
medicine, commerce, and every other intellectual or practical skill.
The laud that all women are Her aspects and by Her alone is this world filled echoes the Devī’s
abiding presence in the form of Mother, incarnate not only in all women but in every creature (→
The rhetorical question, “What praise can be sung to you Who are beyond praise?” recalls the
Brahmāstuti’s similar utterances (1.82–84), designed to suggest divine ineffability.
11.7: Switching to the anustubh meter, which will continue through verse 11.28, the hymn now
assumes the character of a litany.
“O Devī, Who have become all things” echoes Medhas’s teaching that She has the world as Her
form (1.64). This is an unequivocal statement of pariṇāmavāda, the doctrine that the multiplicity we
experience as the universe is an actual transformation of the ultimate unity and not merely an
appearance. Just as clay is transformed into a pot through a change of form but not of substance, or as
thread is woven into cloth, the Divine Mother Herself takes form as Her creation. In this point the
nondual Śākta philosophy differs from Śamkarācārya’s Advaita Vedānta, which embraces
vivartavāda, the doctrine that the created universe is not a transformation but only an appearance—
neither real nor wholly unreal—superimposed on the sole reality of the immutable Brahman.
The Śākta philosophy considers the physical universe—called virāj, the Devī’s cosmic body—to
be the supreme intellect permeating the aggregate of gross forms; in other words, consciousness
manifest as matter. The term virāj (literally, “ruling far and wide, excellent, splendid”) derives from
a root meaning “to rule, shine, be beautiful, be eminent” and underscores the miraculous nature of the
creation and its inherent worth. If we concede that the universe is “just māyā,” we should do so with
the Śākta understanding that māyā is nothing less than the creative aspect of divinity. Śākta
nondualism proclaims that the natural universe, however imperfect in our experience, is “absolutely
saturated in the Divine.”7 It is a point that the Devīmāhātmya makes emphatically: “She is eternal,
having the world as Her form” (1.64).
The other idea, which follows naturally and inevitably upon the doctrine of pariṇāma and which
bears enormous weight, is contained in the eight-syllable compound, bhuktimuktipradāyinī. Its
modest appearance belies its significance and leaves us wondering whether our author(s) found it so
obvious as to warrant little more attention than that. For in that single expression lies a key to
understanding the whole of the Devīmāhātmya.
The first element (bhukti, “worldly enjoyment”) is implicit in earlier passages such as verse 4.15,
which specifies the pleasures of honor, wealth, love and progeny that the propitious Devī bounteously
bestows in this world. But its dramatic juxtaposition to the second element (mukti, “release”),
signifying eternal liberation from this world, causes us to regard both in a new light.
We recall that the framing story concerns a king and a merchant who have each suffered betrayal
and loss. The resulting inner turmoil follows them into the peaceful forest retreat of a holy man, who
exposes the nature of their suffering by relating three stories of similarly dispossessed Gods, evil
demons, and the always- triumphant Devī. The first story reveals that She Is The Supreme Reality Who
Manifests As The Universe. Perceived through our own veiled awareness, this universe appears
polarized, filled with the clashing dualities of light and darkness, pleasure and pain, right and wrong,
good and evil. The second story, through the example of Durgā’s defeat of Mahiṣāsura, instructs the
king how to live in the world, rewarded with the enjoyments that result from virtuous conduct. The
third story, relating the destruction of Śumbha and Niśumbha, teaches the world-weary merchant how
to break the bonds of saṁsāra and attain mukti, realization of the infinite, ever-blissfiil Self.
But for the king, there is a caveat. The word bhukti derives from the same verbal root, bhuj (“to
enjoy, use, consume”), as the noun bhoga, which broadly encompasses enjoyment, eating, sexual
pleasure, feeding upon, ruling over, and experiencing pleasure or pain. Bhukti, although worldaffirming,
carries the implicit warning that in the relative universe, where opposites define each
other, to reach for one is to embrace both. Mukti, to the contrary, is world-transcending. The
expression bhuktimuktipradāyinī tells us that the dazzling splendor of the universe is here for us to
enjoy, but we must play by the rules, the dharma. Even then, the very fact of living an embodied
existence leaves us subject to the inescapable processes of birth, growth, maturation, decline, death,
and rebirth. The only way to escape the wheel of saṁsāra is to return to the ineffable source of the
world’s bewitching wonder. Finally, one who is enlightened (prabuddha, literally “awakened”)
recognizes that The Divine Mother Is Both Nature and Spirit and that bhukti and mukti belong to a
Single Consciousness. The Devī presents both options, and the choice is ours.
Like the preceding verse, this one ends with the rhetorical question of how the Ineffable Devī can
11.8: The expression buddhirupeṇa (“in the form of intelligence”) occurred in the Aparājitāstuti
(5.20–22) and carries the identical meaning here. The first line of the present verse merely restates
the idea more eloquently.
The theme of heavenly reward arose previously in the Śakrādistuti (4.18 and 23), and the
commentary on those verses explained that in the Hindu cosmology, heavens and hells, like the earth,
belong to the relative plane of existence and are no more than transitory states of reward or
The final phrase, nārāyaṇī namo ’stu te (“salutation be to you, Nārāyaṇī”), serves as the refrain
of the next fifteen verses. Nowadays, the name Nārāyaṇī is regarded as an epithet of Viṣṇu’s
consort, Lakṣmī. It is the feminine form of Nārāyaṇa, which the Manusmṛti applies to Brahmā, but
which the Mahābhārata applies to Viṣṇu and his avatāra, Kṛṣṇa. Nārāyaṇa signifies universal
consciousness, inhabiting all forms: human beings, animals, and plants; mountains, rivers, and forests;
the sun, the moon, and the distant stars.10 The name is a compound of nara (“man, human being”) and
ayana (“going, walking, path, progress, place of refuge”), meaning that Nārāyaṇa (or, in this case,
the Divine Mother Nārāyanī) is the ultimate resting place or goal of all humanity.11
11.9: “The moments of ever-passing time” refers not only to the constant change or transformation
(pariṇāma) inherent in the time-space continuum but also and more specifically to the relentless,
destructive power of time, which brings the universe to periodic dissolution within the never-ending
11.10: Sarvamahgalamāngalye means “to [you Who are] the good of all good” (or “the
auspiciousness of all that is auspicious”). Beneath the surface of all that is auspicious, the Divine
Mother is the very essence of auspiciousness. She Herself is Śivā, the auspicious one.
She is addressed as sarvārthasādhike, because She fulfills every aim or purpose (artha). Human
life has four such aims (puruṣārthas): kārna (fulfillment of desire), artha (acquisition of wealth),
dharma (fulfillment of duty), and mokiṣa (liberation). Some spiritual teachers like to reorder the
purusārthas as dharma-artha-kāma-moksa, because placing dharma first guarantees that righteousness
will be the guiding principle for all the rest. Note that dharma, kāma, and artha relate to worldly life
(bhukti) and that moksa is liberation (mukti) (→ 11.7). This distinction mirrors the difference
between Suratha’s concerns, which remain this-worldly and centered on the first three aims, and
Samādhi’s single remaining goal, which is spiritual liberation. Recognizing that, we see that the
expressions sarvārthasādhike and bhuktimuktipradāyinī are virtually synonymous.
As śaranyā, the Divine Mother grants shelter and protection from all fears and dangers; in
suggesting an unassailable place of refuge, the epithet is closely related in meaning to the name
Durgā. Tryambakā (“three-eyed”) refers to divine wisdom and omniscience, and gaurī or Gaurī (→
4.38–42) denotes pure, shining consciousness.
This highly significant verse is older than the rest of the Nārāyaṇīstuti, being identical to the final
verse of the Vedic Śrīsūkta, whose eight concluding ślokas were appended to the original hymn
probably in Brāhmaṇic or Upanisadic times.12
11.11: As the universal power, the Devī Nārāyaṇī encompasses the threefold energies of creation,
preservation, and destruction, generally personified in the Hindu pantheon as the Gods Brahmā,
Viṣṇu, and Śiva. These ultimately are not separate deities but different aspects of the one Īśvara
(“Lord”), the transcendent Brahman associated with its inseparable power, variously called māyā,
śakti, or prakṛti. But according to Śākta theology, the powers of creation, preservation, and
destruction (srstisthitivināśāḥ) belong to the Devī alone (→ 1.75–76), and all three functions are
not merely singular events in the cosmic life cycle but interconnected processes in the daily, ongoing
life of the natural world (→ 1.78).
The supreme Ādyā Śakti is sanātanī (“eternal, perpetual, permanent, primeval”), the uncaused
cause of all things. Because the three guṇas are inherent within Her, She is their source (guṇāśrayā);
and because She projects and becomes the universe through the differentiated energies of those same
guṇas, She is also their embodiment (guṇamayā). This same kind of circularity arose earlier in
connection with the Devī’s characterization as both the source and manifestation of intelligence (→
4.10 and 4.11) and expresses once again the Śākta understanding of the seamless unity of
11.12: The Divine Mother, Who is all-compassionate, comes quickly to the rescue of those who turn
to Her in times of calamity. This verse offers an eloquent, personalized expression of the same theme
previously met in verses 4.17 and 11.3.
11.13–19: This passage praises the Seven Little Mothers in their original order of appearance in the
eighth chapter, mostly repeating the initial descriptions (8.12–21) but amplifying the information
about Vārāhī and Aindrī. The Purāṇic allusion to Vārāhī’s lifting up the earth on Her tusks
symbolizes the power of physical sustenance (11.17).13 Aindrī’s slaying of Vṛtra (11.19) is a Śākta
reinterpretation of a Ṛgvedic myth concerning the drought demon Vṛtra, who withheld the heavenly
waters from creation. When the thunderbolt of the storm God Indra breached the drought demon’s
strongholds—a metaphor for clouds—the waters poured down upon the earth to fill the rivers and
make the land fertile.14 Indra’s role in releasing the rain thus assures the earth’s ability to sustain life.
The Devīmāhātmya refashions this ancient myth by ascribing Vṛtra’s destruction to the female śakti,
Aindrī, Who is the source of Indra’s empowerment.
11.20–21: These verses extol the Divine Mother’s terrifying forms as the bloodcurdling Śivadūtī and
the crone-like Cāmuṇḍā, Who is Kālī as the slayer of Caṇḍa and Muṇḍa as well as of Raktabījā
(→ 8.53–63). Her destructive power, which annihilates evil, is praised through the symbolism of Her
devouring mouth; but in the next breath, the garland of skulls adorning Her neck and symbolizing the
letters of the Sanskrit alphabet becomes a metaphor for creative power, relating Her to Vāk, the
Ṛgvedic feminine face of the supreme reality.
11.22: The first line of this verse enumerates auspicious qualities seen in the previous hymns: good
fortune (4.5, 5.11 and 5.56), modesty (1.79, 4.5, and 5.44), great knowledge (1.77), faith (4.5 and
5.50), prosperity (1.79), the mantra svadhā (1.74 and 4.8), and constancy (dhruvā is synonymous
with nityā in 1.73 and 5.10).
But in a dramatic shift the next line returns to darker epithets from the Brahmāstuti: kālarātri, the
great night (→ 1.78) and Mahāmāyā, the great illusion (→ 1.77), both relating to tamasic power.
This passage illustrates the impossibility of translating Sanskrit terms that have no English equivalent.
For lack of anything better, we follow Pargiter, Jagadīśvarānanda, and Cobum in rendering
mahāmāyā as “great illusion,” even though that is somewhat misleading. The Śākta philosophy does
not understand māyā as illusion in the sense of mere appearance or unreality (→ 1.53–58) but as the
experience in time and space of self (ego) and not-self, rather than the experience of the
undifferentiated wholeness of Self (ātman).15 If, in the present passage, the inadequacy of language
forces us to accept the definition of māyā as “illusion,” then we should think of it as the illusion of
separation. And we should never forget that in the Śākta understanding, both experiences, the partial
and the full, are real.16
11.23: Contrasting the benign and the terrifying, the first line continues the imagery of the preceding
verse, but the second line turns petitionary immediately before the refrain. This pattern of praise and
petition characterizes the next five verses as well.
Sarasvatī, Who is named in the text only once, is an ancient aspect of the Devī, recognized since
early Vedic times. Her name means “abundantly flowing,” and She was venerated first as the deified
Sarasvatī River, believed to originate in the celestial realm. In the later Vedic age, She was
understood as the flow of thought into the great, shining sea of consciousness17 and repeatedly
identified with Vāk.18 As such, Sarasvatī-Vāk represents the intelligent power pervading creation.
Even today She is revered as the beneficent goddess of knowledge and the arts.
In the present verse, Sarasvatī is readily identified with intelligence (medhā) and well-being
(bhūti), although the latter word, denoting also prosperity and wealth, can be linked as easily to
Lakṣmī. The epithet bābhravi derives from Babhru, a name the Mahābhārata applies variously to
Krsṇa-Viṣṇu or Śiva. Ostensibly, it denotes the śakti associated with one or the other of those Gods,
and its proximity to tāmasi (“O dark one”) suggests a more likely connection with Śiva. Thus, the
multiple names and epithets seem to associate the Devī with Brahmā, Viṣṇu, and Śiva, and suggest
once again that the Divine Mother transcends sectarian boundaries. For a verse that begins with the
idea of divine wisdom, this would be a fitting theme.
11.24: The appeal to Durgā as existing in the form of all reminds us of the Śākta acceptance of
pariṇāmavāda, the doctrine that the Mother transforms Herself into Her creation, a position that
Medhas expressed when he said that the world is Her form (1.64). Praising Her sovereignty and
possession of all power, the verse establishes Her universal supremacy. Asking for protection from
fear, it echoes a similar request in the Śakrādistuti (4.4).
11.25–28: The Divine Mother’s portrayal as gentle, terrible, and protective, together with the mention
of specific weapons, creates in these four verses a parallel to the final four verses of the Śakrādistuti
(4.24–27). In both hymns, the mantras are intended to ward off evil. At the end, the contrast of bright
and dark seen above (11.22–23) is artfully transformed into a symbol of victory, as The Devī’s Sword
(Right Knowledge), smeared with the asuras’ gore (ignorance), blazes with the light of truth.
11.29: Marking a return to the upajāti meter, with which the hymn began, this verse rephrases the
Śakrādistuti’s assertion that the Devī is “good fortune in the dwellings of the virtuous and misfortune
in the abodes of the wicked” (4.5), tying the consequences to divine pleasure or displeasure. The
Devī’s ability to thwart all aspirations when displeased stirs memories of the fearsome Vedic
goddess Nirrti, alluded to in the Aparājitāstuti (→ 5.11).
A new idea appears in the second half of the verse, where the Devī’s power to grant refuge is said
to work indirectly through the agency of those who have taken refuge in Her.
11.30: Summarized in a single brief verse are the three overarching themes that successively
dominate the three divisions of the Devīmāhātmya: first, that the Divine Mother is the One Who
Projects the many; second, that She intervenes in this world to destroy evil; and third, that She alone is
capable of granting liberation.
“Multiplying your own form into many” has repeated illustrations throughout the text. In the battle
with Mahisa’s army Durgā multiplies Her powers by heaving the sighs that become Her legions (2.53).
In the confrontations with Śumbha and Niśumbha, She first summons Kālī from Her scowling brow
(7.6), then the Seven Little Mothers from the bodies of the Gods (8.12–13), and finally Śivadūtī from
Her own form (8.23). Brahmā’s hymn calls Her the supreme reality (1.73) that differentiates (1.78)
and abides as the soul of everything (1.82), an idea taken up by the subsequent hymns and the
Prādhānika and Vaikrtika Rahasyas. In Chapter 10, the process is reversed when the Devī tells
Śumbha, “I Am alone here in the world. . . . These [śaktis] are but projections of My own power, now
entering back into me” (10.5). Beyond the allegory lies the metaphysical truth that the One becomes
many while still and ever remaining one.
The second theme initially appeared when Medhas explained to Suratha and Samādhi that although
the Devī is eternal (transcending the universe of time, space, and causation), She manifests in the
world to accomplish the purpose of the Gods—to uphold the cosmic and moral order (1.66). The
theme of divine intervention is inseparable from the fact that struggles inevitably arise in the world of
We have seen time and again that the Devī always wins, for She is the supreme, ultimate, and only
power in the universe. No one other than She can accomplish what She does, for the destruction of
ignorance is synonymous with spiritual liberation, the predominant theme of the third carita.
11.31: Previously, the text linked the Devī to Vedic knowledge, calling Her “the treasury that holds the
taintless Vedic hymns, … the blessed Devī, Who embodies the three Vedas” (4.10) and “the
intelligence by which the essence of all scriptures is understood” (4.11). The Nārāyaṇīstuti repeats
that She “abides in all forms of learning, in the sacred texts that are the lights of understanding, in the
primordial wisdom of the Vedas.” This insistent motif seeks to integrate the Devī’s many non- Vedic
forms into the hallowed Vedic tradition by identifying Her with the supreme knowledge.
Yet, immediately following the imagery of dazzling light and soaring consciousness, this verse
plunges into the abyss. Determined to affirm simultaneously the Mother’s Vedic credentials and the
unshakable, primal conviction that the Devī has Her benign and terrible sides, the author characterizes
Her as Mahāmāyā, The Great Deluder Who Casts Her Dark Spell of attachment over the universe. Since
this last idea is phrased as a rhetorical question, the intent is once again to express the uniqueness of
11.32–35: Many details relating to The Devī’s Protective Role will be elaborated in Chapter 12, of
which these verses are a foretaste. The specific language of this passage is not original to the
Devīmāhātmya but drawn from older hymns, such as the Mahābhārata’s Durgāstava and
The euphony of verse 11.33, which cannot be duplicated in English, warrants mention. Note the
alliterative use of the element viśva (“all, universe”), appearing six times, and the similarity of
bhavatī (“[you Who are] worthy of adoration” or “revered one”) and bhavanti (“[they] become”).
To mark the end of the hymn and the transition back to narrative, verse 11.35 reverts to the standard
11.36–39: The exchange between the Divine Mother and the Gods runs parallel to the corresponding
passage following the Śakrādistuti (4.31–37). In each instance, She offers a boon, and the Gods
respond. But there are differences as well. In the fourth chapter, the Gods answer that with the defeat
of Mahiṣāsura nothing remains to be done; still, they ask that the Devī intervene whenever future
misfortune arises and that She bestow Her abundance on any mortal who praises Her with the hymns of
the Devīmāhātmya. In Chapter 11, the Gods’ request is simply that She annihilate their enemies and
allay the misery of the three worlds.
11.40–42: The Devī’s prediction of Her future manifestations in the world (11.40–55) builds upon
Medhas’s earlier declaration that although She is The Eternal Reality Who Embodies Herself As The
Universe And Pervades It, She Emerges Also In Other Ways (1.65). When She Manifests specifically to
uphold or restore the dharma (“to accomplish the purpose of the Gods”), She is said to be born in the
world (1.66). For a fuller understanding of the remarkable passage that follows, we must look to the
Mürtirahasya (“The Secret Relating to Forms”), the last of the Devīmāhātmya’s six angas.
The problematical nature of the first prediction concerns the fact that having just slain Śumbha and
Niśumbha, She announces that two other asuras of the same names will arise (11.41–42). It is
important to remember that the framing story of Medhas, Suratha, and Samādhi takes place in the
second manvantara, more than a billion and a half years ago according to mythological reckoning, and
that Medhas began his story of Śumbha and Niśumbha with “long ago,” placing it in a still more
remote past. In that account, the Devī predicts the future Śumbha and Niśumbha, who will arise at the
time of Kṛṣṇa’s birth in the seventh manvantara. Her prediction is of future events that from our
vantage point have already come to pass.
That solves one vexing problem but creates a different problem for the commentator. We have used
Vindhyavāsini as powerful circumstantial evidence to trace Durgā’s origin to the Neolithic period
and to tie the origin of the demons Śumbha and Niśumbha to the non-Āryan peoples of north India
among whom the legends of Kṛṣṇa’s boyhood also arose. Here mythology and history collide, since
we have attributed all the information surrounding the later Śumbha and Niśumbha to the original
pair of demons. Admittedly, this does not stand up to rational scrutiny, but in the often convoluted and
contradictory realm of Indian mythology, which disseminates in protean fashion, we can never hope to
correlate myth and history. Our conflation of the identically named pairs of demons may in fact reflect
more the historical development of the myth than its mythological truth.
Those reservations aside, we recall that when Viṣṇu planned to incarnate as Devakī’s son, Kṛṣṇa,
it was foretold that the infant would be killed by his wicked uncle, Kamsa. In order to thwart him,
Viṣṇu persuaded Yoganidrā (Mahāmāyā) to be born simultaneously to Yaśodā. When the babies
were switched and Kamsa attempted to dash Devakī’s child against the paving stones, the baby
assumed the goddess’s eight-armed form and flew away to the Vindhya mountains, where She is still
worshiped as Vindhyavāsinī.
The Mūrtirahasya, showing its Vaiṣṇava orientation, offers a radically different portrayal of this
goddess born to Nanda and Yaśodā. It makes no mention of Her dwelling-place in the Vindhyas, even
though the Devīmāhātmya certainly does. Instead, it calls Her Bhagavatī Nandā, implying a more
beneficent deity than the bloodthirsty Vindhyavāsinī, and describes Her not as black and bird-headed
but as brilliant like the finest gold, magnificently ornamented, and identified with Viṣṇu’s auspicious
consort, variously named Indirā, Kamalā, Lakṣmī, and Śrī (MR 1–3).
Despite its gentler characterization, which is neither confirmed nor contradicted by the
Devīmāhātmya, the Mūrtirahasya is essential for understanding the remainder of the Devī’s
prediction. The text of the Devīmāhātmya is ambiguous about how many future incarnations are
meant. It seems to mention seven Goddess: the dweller in the Vindhyas (11.42), Raktadantikā
(11.45), Śatāksī (11.47), Śākambharī ( 11.49), Durgā (11.50), Bhīmādevī ( 11.52), and Bhrāmarī
(11.54). The commentator Bhāskararāya agrees with this enumeration.19 But the Mūrtirahasya
reduces the number to five by stating outright that Śatāksī, Śākambharī, and Durgā are one goddess
(MR 15). That there are five manifestations is clearly understood by comparing the parallel structures
of the Mūrtirahasya and the corresponding passage of the Devīmāhātmya.
11.43–45: After Vindhyavāsinī comes a particularly dreadful incarnation Who slays the demonic sons
descended from an asura named Vipracitti. In devouring them, Her teeth become stained red with
blood, and She is called Raktadantikā (“having bloodstained teeth”). Since the Mūrtirahasya and the
other angas became associated with the Devīmāhātmya around the 14th century, they reflect later
Tantric developments possibly unknown to the author(s) of our text. That said, the Mūrtirahasya
characterizes Raktadantikā as totally red in complexion, hair, eyes, teeth, tusks, nails, clothing,
adornments, and weapons. As early as Paleolithic times, red was a symbol of life and fertility.
Moreover, Raktadantikā is as red as the inside of a pomegranate, another symbol of fertility
frequently connected with the Mother Goddess.20 She is indeed terrifying, but to Her devotees She is
as faithful as a wife is to a husband, and She allays all fear. Broad as the earth and with mountainous
breasts, She is A Maternal Goddess Who satisfies all desires. She is known also as the Red Cāmuṇḍā
or Yogesvarī (“ruler of [divine] union”) (MR 4–11).
11.46–50: The third manifestation is called Śatāksī, Śākambharī, or Durgā, and the question of how
She manifests claims our attention. We note that Vindhyavāsinī was born of Yaśodā’s womb (11.42),
although under supernatural circumstances. Raktadantikā’s manner of manifestation remains
unspecified; the text merely employs the participle avatīrya (“having descended, having become
incarnate”), which neither confirms nor denies biological birth. Śākambharī specifically comes into
being not born of a womb (ayonijā) (11.46). The reason is that She is the earth.
The nurturing Śākambharī is associated with fertile soil and vegetation. After a hundred years
without rain, as Śatāksī (“the hundred-eyed”), She pours Her tears upon the drought-stricken earth,
filling the rivers, reviving vegetation, and causing the land to bring forth all manner of edible plants.21
The Mūrtirahasya’s insistence that Śākambharī and Śatāksī are the same goddess signifies a union
of the earth’s dark, fertile soil and the life-giving rain that falls from the sky. Śākambhari-Śatāksī is
the ancient Vedic Dyāvāpṛthivī by another name.
But the five-verse account of Śākambharī is not without difficulties. Most translators render
āvṛṣṭeḥ (11.48) as “until the rain comes,” but that reading makes no sense if Śākambharī and
Śatāksī are the same goddess. The Sanskrit is ambiguous, because the ablative āvṛṣṭeḥ can mean
either a separation from the rain (a period of drought) or “proceeding from the rain,” “because of the
rain,” or “after the rain.” Among previous translators, only Pargiter grasped the logic of the context
and rendered āvṛṣṭeḥ as “during a period of heavy rain.”
The Mūrtirahasya describes Śākambharī as blue, with blue eyes, full breasts, a deep navel, and a
slender waist with three ripples of skin, perhaps signifying furrows. One of Her four hands holds a
cornucopia of flowers, sprouts, roots, and various fruits and vegetables, signifying the abundance of
Her physical, nurturing presence as the earth itself. Hence, Her name Śākambharī, which means
“bearing vegetables” or “nourishing with herbs.” Fulfilling every desire and removing every fear, She
is renowned also as the hundred-eyed Śatāksī and as Durgā. Subduing the wicked and dispelling all
difficulties, She is known also as Umā, Gaurī, Satī, Caṇḍī, Kalikā, and Pārvatī, all names of the
Goddess associated with Śiva (MR 12–16).
11.51–52: Historically, Bhīmādevī was an important goddess of the Himālayan region. Her mountain
shrine, as described in the seventh century CE, was a place of pilgrimage, where devotees from all
over India fasted and prayed before Her image, a naturally occurring likeness in dark blue stone. Her
name means “the fearsome goddess.” As mentioned in the Devīmāhātmya, Bhīmādevī assumes a
terrifying form in the Himālayas and kills malevolent beings for the protection of sages. She appears
to be a fierce aspect of Tārā, one of the ten Mahāvidyās, Who represent personifications of Śakti
that reveal the knowledge of Brahman.22 The Hindu Tārā is not to be confused with the usually gentle
Tārā of Tibetan Buddhism, Who represents compassion.23 Instead, She is closely identified with
Kālī24 and described in the Mūrtirahasya as blue, with shining teeth and tusks and plump breasts. In
Her four hands She holds a glittering scimitar, a small drum, a severed head, and a drinking vessel. A
solitary warrior goddess Who grants desires, She is also known as Kālarātri.
11.53–54: Finally, in order to vanquish a demon named Aruṇa, the Devī takes form as Bhrāmarī. The
name, which shows a connection to bees, belongs to an incarnation that the Mūrtirahasya describes as
glittering, variegated, and bejeweled, surrounded by an impregnable circle of light and holding in Her
hand a swarm of multicolored bees. The anga also calls Her “the great pestilence,” which is at
variance with Her usual Tantric connection with sexual arousal.25 Her description as either a great bee
or as surrounded by a swarm of bees ties in with the common symbolism of the bee as sexual desire
in Indian erotic literature.26
11.55: The Devī ends Her remarkable recital with a general pledge of protection whenever demonic
forces threaten. Summing up, we are struck by the atavistic nature of Her predicted incarnations.
These are aspects of the Goddess that hark back to very ancient times. Vindhyavāsinī connects Her to
fertility through the imagery of birds, whose eggs are an enduring and universal symbol of life and
renewal; Śākambharī-Śatāksī, to the productive union of earth and rain; Raktadantikā, to nature’s
death-dealing ferocity; Bhīmādevī, possibly to the terrifying menace of darkness; and Bhrāmarī,
either to swarming pestilence or the sexual allure that spurs the generation of new life.