Chapter 12 – Interpretations
12.1–30: Most of Chapter 12 is in the form of a phalaśruti, a conventional listing of the merits and benefits of reciting or hearing a sacred text. Here the Devī herself instructs that Her māhātmya is to be recited and heard with a collected mind (12.2, 12.4, 12.7). Full, unwavering attention is essential to all forms of sādhana, including ritual worship and meditation, and must be given likewise to singing the Divine Mother’s praises. Besides attentiveness, devotion is paramount (12.4, 12.7, 12.12).
The text recommends the times and places for recitation: on certain auspicious days during the lunar month (12.4), during the great autumn festival (12.10, 12.12), and in the Devī’s sanctuary (12.9). Historically, temples to Durgā were well-established by the sixth century ce.1 What the text adds to our knowledge is that recitation of the Devīmāhātmya draws the divine presence to those places and renders them holy (12.9). The great autumn festival (12.10, 12.12) also was well- established by the time of the Devīmāhātmya. Either it is an ancient prototype of the modem, autumn Navarātri, or the present-day festival is its direct continuation, a harvest celebration with roots in the agricultural cycle. Of this there can be no doubt; even the yellow complexion of the Durgā images made for the occasion call to mind the golden fields of ripened wheat and rice glowing in the autumn sunlight. The description of formal pūjā, accompanied by the recitation of the Devīmāhātmya, and the sacrificial Homa fire (12.10), applies to the Durgā Pūjā today as well as then. During this festival period it is highly likely that worship then, as now, took place in the temples as well as in private dwellings, for the text makes a concession to those not skilled in the arts of worship and sacrifice, saying that even acts imperfectly performed will be gladly received (12.11).
At the same time, the recitation of the text alone is as pleasing to the Devī as lavish offerings, ritual worship, and the observance of other religious duties (12.21–22). The verses, or mantras, themselves have the power to draw the reciter or hearer toward divinity (12.20), to remove impurities (12.23), and to produce an auspicious mind (12.25). The māhātmya is thus “the supreme way to well-being” (12.7).
When properly recited or heard, the Devīmāhātmya provides access to its inherent power. Even as the sacred verses draw the individualized consciousness toward the universal consciousness, the Devī’s energy proceeding through the sacred words destroys every misfortune (12.2) so that no evil will befall Her devotees (12.5). Because it protects from “misfortunes arising from wrongdoing” (12.5), the Divine Mother’s power over the law of karma is a manifestation of Her grace. The text confirms that Her devotees “will be freed by my grace from all afflictions” (12.13), among them poverty and separation from loved ones (12.5).
The six dangers listed in verse 12.6 are of two kinds: those arising from human agency (enemies, robbers, kings, and weapons), and those arising from natural disasters (fire and flood). These are two categories within the “three kinds of calamity,” which the māhātmya is said to put to rest (12.8). The three categories are defined as adhibhautika (stemming from the actions of others in the objective world external to oneself), adhidaivika (concerning the Gods or divine agency operating through material objects—the so-called “acts of God,” such as earthquakes, fires, and floods), and adhyātmika (concerning oneself, such as physical illness, mental distress, and self-inflicted suffering).
This triad affects our physical as well as our psychological well-being. In regard to the body, the recitation of the text wards off “misfortunes born of pestilence” (12.8) and childhood seizures (12.18), and it “grants freedom from disease” (12.23). Additionally, it protects against physical threats (12.6, 12.26–30), including those from natural disasters, wild animals, warfare, crime, and societal injustice. These last-mentioned verses are extraordinarily rich in material found in earlier hymn texts, and we find that verses 12.26 through 28 actually quote from those sources: the Ṛgvedic Rātrī Khila, the Durgāstotra, the Durgāstava, and Viṣṇu’s Praise of Nidrā from the Harivaṁśa. Most pervasive is the reference to forests, usually characterized in the earlier hymns as “dreary” to emphasize the dangers lurking therein. What distinguishes the concluding passage (12.26–30) from other portions of the phalaś__________ruti is its exclusive emphasis on danger within the physical environment. Based on much older texts, which indicate that those ideas were widely attested and even standardized, this final portion of the phalaśruti proper is obviously of very ancient origin.
The verses of the phalaśruti that deal with psychological or nonphysical dangers are not found in those earlier sources. Verses 12.13 through 15, after emphasizing the positive material benefits of wealth, grain, and progeny, turn to the question of fear in general; they connect the Devī’s prowess in battle and the destruction of enemies to fearlessness, well-being, and rejoicing. The linkage of the allegorical victories, representing psychological and spiritual growth, and the resulting fearlessness recurs in verse 12.24. Concerning more specific forms of mental well-being, it is said that the recitation or hearing of the text “turns nightmares into sweet dreams” (12.17), relieves anxiety caused by the ill-boding of stars and other evil portents (12.16–17), and nullifies the influence of evil spirits (12.19, 12.23). Blaming psychological discomfort (as well as actual misfortune) on adverse astrological influences or demonic possession may seem quaint in light of modem science, which has identified other causes of anxiety or dysfunctional behavior and developed other methods of treatment; nevertheless, the power of spiritual healing has a validity that science is increasingly willing to acknowledge.
Looking outward to the societal sphere, wherever discord erupts within human relationships, recitation of the Devīmāhātmya is said to effect reconciliation (12.18). The Devīmāhātmya’s benefits thus apply to all areas of human existence and endeavor, promoting social harmony and justice, physical health and safety, and psychological and spiritual wholeness.
12.31–35: Medhas now retums once more to the scene of the Gods assembled before the Devī. Having vanquished Śumbha and Niśumbha and having restored the natural order, Caṇḍikā vanishes from sight.
12.36–41: Medhas now finishes the discourse he began in the first chapter. Through the three myths, he has fulfilled the king’s wish to know everything about The Devī (1.60–62). Everything has been an elaboration of verse 1.66: “Although She is eternal, when She manifests to accomplish the purpose of the Gods, She is said to be born in the world.” Now he brings the narrative full circle: “Thus, O king, does the Blessed Devī, though eternal, manifest again and again for the protection of the world” (12.36). The remaining verses (12.37–41) summarize the major points that The Eternal Devī Takes Form As The Creation, Sustains for a time the drama of life within a universe polarized between enchantment and terror, and then dissolves it all back into undifferentiated, self-luminous bliss.