Chapter 4 – Interpretations
4.1–2: To set the scene for the hymn that forms most of this chapter, the opening verses show the assembled Gods bowing reverently in gratitude for the defeat of their enemies. While Indra leads the Gods in praise, the ecstasy of their devotion causes their hair to stand on end.
The hymn (4.3–27) is known as the Śakrādistuti (“Praise by Indra and the Other Gods”), because Indra is called here by the name Śakra (“the powerful one”), an epithet derived from the verbal root śak (“to be able”), which is also the source of the word śakti.
Until now, the Devīmāhātmya’s verses have been cast in the anuṣṭubh meter. Each verse (śloka) of this basic Sanskrit meter consists of two halves, and each half consists of two quarters of eight syllables. A full śloka contains thirty-two syllables. The regularity and directness of the anuṣṭubh meter create a repetitive, bardic quality well suited to epic and narrative texts. In contrast, most of the Śakrādistuti is composed in the elegant, fifty-six syllable vasantatilakā meter, which conveys a complex, rhythmic sinuosity when the hymn is sung. With a matching refinement of language, the eloquent Śakrādistuti is arguably the most beautiful of the Devīmāhātmya’s four hymns.
4.3: The description of Ambikā, the Mother, Spreading Out This World as if in Preparation For Her Divine Play, is one of the text’s loveliest images. This passage, Devyā yayā tatam idaṁ jagad, is usually rendered as “to The Devī, Who Pervades This World.”
But that pallid statement of Divine Pervasiveness fails to express the True Intent. The point was not missed in the translations by Pargiter and Cobum, who take the participle Tatam in its primary, transitive sense of Extending, Spreading Out, or Expanding Something. The distinction is important, because this reading emphasizes The Active Nature Of The Devī’s Creative Role. More than merely Pervading What She Has Created, She Takes A “Hands-On” Approach To It.
When we read that She “Embodies Herself As All The Powers Of The Hosts Of Gods” and “Is Worthy Of Worship By All The Gods And Great Seers,” we recall Vāk’s proclamations in the Devīsūkta: “I Move Through The Gods Of Storm And Light, Through The Gods Of The Heavens, Through All The Gods” and “I Am Foremost Among Those Worthy Of Worship” (ṚV 10.125.1 and 3). The Devīmāhātmya’s unequivocal statement of Her Self-Embodiment As The Gods’ Powers Confirms That In Her Spectacular Emergence From Their Tejas in the second chapter (2.10–19), She Is Not Created From The Gods’ Energies but Manifests Through Them Her Own Eternally Independent Power.
4.4: From the Image Of Ambikā, The Loving But All-Powerful Mother, we pass to the image of A Goddess Whose Glory Even Brahmā, Viṣṇu, And Śiva Cannot Describe. Here Called Caṇḍikā, She Is More Than The Fierce, Wrathful Destroyer Of Evil Implicit In That Name; She Is The Transcendent Reality Beyond The Comprehension Of Even The Most Powerful Gods.
4.5: After two verses Extolling Her Cosmic Might, the next verse introduces five epithets relating to the sphere of human activity. They are śrī, alakṣmī, buddhi, śraddhā, and lajjā.
Śrī (“welfare, prosperity, abundance”) and alakṣmī (“misfortune”) form a pair relating to the reward or punishment of conduct that upholds or contravenes the natural moral order (dharma). The word śrī, found frequently in the Vedic Saṁhitās and Brāhmaṇas, denotes a deity’s intrinsic radiance; it is often found in those texts in connection with the term kṣatra, the ruling power of the ksatriya caste. As a ksatriya, King Suratha has the duty to defend the dharma, and the implication is that duty fulfilled has its rewards. Although śrī, in the present context, is an abstract quality with nevertheless material effects, Śrī Is Also A Goddess of Āryan origin who became identified with the probably non-Āryan Agricultural Goddess Lakṣmī. The first literary record to Identify Śrī And Lakṣmī As A Single Goddess Is The Śrīsūkta. This hymn, appended to the Ṛgveda in late Vedic times, also marks the earliest known occurrence of the term alakṣmī. The Śrīsūkta makes clear that Śrī-Lakṣmī is all that alakṣmī is not. If the resplendent, generous Goddess is the source of material bounty (gold, cattle, and horses), food, health, satisfaction, beauty, fame, and increase, then alakṣmī denotes the opposite: poverty and debt, hunger, disease, want, ugliness, anonymity, and misfortune.
The hymnist of the Śrīsūkta takes refuge in Śrī so that his ill fortune (alakṣmī) and illusion (māyā) may be driven away (ṚV Kh 2.6.5–6). The joint appearance of alakṣmī and māyā in a single breath jolts us back to Medhas’s teaching that the deluding power of māyā is the cause of Suratha’s, Samādhi’s, and indeed everyone else’s woe (1.53–55). Māyā is in some way linked to alakṣmī, and the explanation is simple. The paired terms śrī/alakṣmī reveal the same dichotomy of wholeness and fragmentation, of boundlessness and limitation, of abundance and scarcity, that we observe in other pairs that define good and evil, such as asura/sura and āditya/daitya (→ 1.67–71).
There is one other implication. Whether the Devī Confers Her Blessings of Abundance on the virtuous or Visits Misfortune On The Wicked, She Is Simply Upholding The Dharma Within The Sphere Of Dualistic Perceptions Of Right And Wrong. Apart from the moral admonition that virtue is rewarded and evildoing is punished, an inescapable fact is that sometimes adversity is revealed through hindsight to be a blessing in disguise; even alakṣmī may not be considered intrinsically bad. The hymn will return to this important idea later.
However, they appear to our practical, everyday sensibilities, good and evil are ultimately two inseparable sides of the same coin, polarized manifestations of the one reality as Mahādevī and Mahāsurī (1.77) or as śrī and alakṣmī (4.5). Without this nondualistic understanding, we would be hard put to resolve the glaring contradiction between the plea to the Devī Caṇḍikā To Destroy The Fear Of Misfortune (4.4) and Her Identification As Misfortune Itself in the very next verse! We might be forced to accept the distasteful possibility of trembling in fear before an inherently wrathful supreme being who demands constant placation.
But no. Let us observe that verses 4.3 through 5 all begin with praise and end with petition, and that they form a picture of a Goddess who receives not appeasement but love. From the maternal Ambikā the Gods request auspicious things (śubhāni); from the fierce Caṇḍikā they ask for the removal of the fear of misfortune (aśubha)\ and from the Devī of manifold attributes they ask again for protection.
This pattern of praise and petition, repeated three times, speaks of a reciprocity between the Divine Mother and Her Children And Reminds us that the second carita’s main concern is Her Active, Sustaining Aspect Within The World.
The three remaining epithets—buddhi, śraddhā, lajjā—are qualitatively different from the śrī/Alakṣmī pair. As śrī and Alakṣmī, The Devī Governs External Events That happen To People. As Intelligence (Buddhi) In The Hearts Of The Learned, Faith (śraddhā) In The Hearts Of The Good, And Modesty (lajjā) In The Hearts Of The High-Born, She Manifests As Internal Qualities Found Within human beings.
To understand what buddhi is, we need to know how a human being is constituted. Every person has a physical body (sthūlaśarīra), a subtle body (sūksmaśarīra) and a causal body (kāraṇaśarīra). The densest of the three, the physical, or gross, body has mass and is perishable.
The subtle body consists of the vital force (prāṇa), physically apparent as breath, and the internal organ (antaḥkaraṇa), the seat of thought and feeling. Buddhi, manas, and ahaṁkāra are constituents of the antahkaraṇa. Buddhi is intellect, the determinative faculty of the mind, which categorizes the impressions received through the sense organs (indriyas) through manas, the cognitive faculty.
Ahaṁkāra, the ego or I-consciousness, is the sense of individual identity, which makes the distinction between what it regards as “I” and “not-I.” Some schools of Indian thought also include a fourth component, citta (“mind-stuff’), which is the repository of memory.
Buddhi, which forms and retains conceptions, is the instrument of discernment, doubt, determination, reason, and will. According to the famous metaphor of the Kaṭhopaṇiṣad, the body is the chariot, the sense organs are the horses, manas is the reins, buddhi is the charioteer, and the Self (ātman) is the lord of the chariot (KU 1.3.3–4). As the charioteer can possess varying degrees of competence, the individual buddhi can be more or less developed. Still, of all human faculties, it remains the highest instrument of embodied consciousness (KU 1.3.10). Because of its proximity to the ātman, buddhi facilitates the flow of consciousness from the Absolute to the relative and in the opposite direction as well. Again according to the Kathopaniṣad, “The Self, hidden in all beings, does not [readily] shine forth but is seen by the seers of subtle things with the buddhi focused” (KU 1.3.12). Likewise, the Devīmāhātmya tells us that As Intelligence The Devī Dwells Within The Hearts Of The Learned (kṛtadhīyām, “Those Of Cultivated Thought”) As The Potential Power Of Divine Revelation.
The idea of the Devī As Faith In The Hearts Of The Good cannot pass without comment, owing to the differing concepts of faith (śraddhā) in Eastern and Western religions. The East emphasizes experience; the West emphasizes belief. According to the Hindu view, merely saying, “I believe, I believe,” will not whisk one into a state of salvation. At some point, doubt can even be a sign of healthy engagement in the quest for spiritual truth. Śraddhā is not blind acceptance but initially a working hypothesis of trust in the guru’s teaching, an attitude to be cultivated along with prescribed practices, such as meditation and mantric repetition, which provide experience.
The Ṛgveda devotes an entire hymn (ṚV 10.151) to śraddhā, which is less a Personified Goddess than a principle containing the seeds of later personification in the Brāhmaṇas. The hymn characterizes śraddhā as confidence on the part of worshipers that their sacrifices will produce results. Won by the yearnings of the heart (ṚV 10.151.4), śraddhā is invoked to render effectual the Vedic sacrifice. The concluding phrase, “O śraddhā, endow us with belief,” indicates that, for the Hindu, the conviction of belief is the product of experience carried out in trust. Śraddhā entails expectation and reveals once again a bridge of reciprocity between the human and the Divine.
The role of lajjā (“modesty”) in spiritual awakening is self-evident. Modesty entails the lessening of ego and an outward expansion toward unity, just as its opposite—self-aggrandizement—only increases one’s alienation from others—and from the limitless divine consciousness. Through Mahāmāyā’s confounding power, the intoxication of self-importance brought about Madhu and Kaiṭabha’s downfall. Through modesty, the beneficent Devī leads Her children to greater harmony and awareness.
4.6–7: After a transitional verse that previews the theme of the Warrior Goddess, verse 4.7 marks a sudden return to the cosmogonic theme of the Brahmāstuti. “You Are The Cause Of All The Worlds,” the Gods proclaim. In this and the next four verses, the Śakrādistuti elaborates eloquently on ideas set forth with spare matter-of-factness in the earlier hymn.
Śākta philosophy recognizes the Devī As Both The Efficient And The Material Cause Of The Universe, The Driving Force And The Substance Of Creation. The differentiation of the guṇas is a step away from timeless, perfect unity and toward the emergence of a polarized universe with all its potential for inevitable inequalities and conflicts. But even while The Devī Is An All-Pervasive Presence Within Her Often Glorious, sometimes messy Creation, She Also Remains Ever Perfect And Apart From The Imperfections And Deficiencies Of Relative Existence. She Is At Once This Entire World Composed Of Parts (Aṁśabhūtam) And The Primordial, Undeveloped (Avyākṛtā) And Therefore Supreme (Paramā) Prakṛti From Which All Things Take Form.
That is the inscrutable mystery of being/becoming sung by an Upaniṣadic seer: “That [Brahman] is infinite, this [universe] is infinite. From out of the infinite [Brahman] emanates all [this universe], … yet the infinite [Brahman] alone remains” (BU 5.1.1). In the face of this mystery, the present verse again praises The Devī As Unfathomable Even To The Great Hari (Viṣṇu), Hāra (Śiva), And The Other Gods.
She Is The Cause (Hetu) Of This World And Also The Resort (āśraya) Of All. Here we observe a shift from the cosmic to the personal. Comparing the two Sanskrit terms, which occur strategically at the beginning and the midpoint of the verse, we see that Hetu (“Impulse, Motive, Cause, Reason”) Suggests Outward Motion, Or Manifestation; and āśraya, from the verb āśri (“To Adhere To, To join”) Implies Uniting With The Source. For The Devī and humans alike, the relationship is intensely personal.
4.8: This verse recalls the opening words of the Brahmāstuti, tvaṁ svāhā tvaṁ svadhā (1.73), but the lyrical elaboration over the terseness of the original statement adds a note of personal warmth. We learn that The Devī not only Manifests As The Sacrificial Mantras But That Through Them She Confers Satisfaction. Again, this relates to the reciprocity inherent in the concept of śraddhā (→ 4.5).
4.9: If the Devī Is The Cause Of All The Worlds And The Power That Confers Efficacy on the human activity of ritual worship, here She Is Also Seen As The Cause Of Liberation, An Idea Introduced In The First Carita (1.56–57). Now we learn in greater detail that She Is Also The Motivating Power Behind The Conditions And Practices For Attaining That Goal.
Comprehensive spiritual practice (sādhana) cannot succeed without the resolve to persevere. It means continually reining in the senses and consciously rejecting attitudes and actions that could obstruct progress. Vrata, translated here as “austerity,” denotes variously a religious vow, an ascetic observance such as fasting or sexual abstinence, a devotional act or, broadly, an entire way of life.
Such a way of life was systematized in Patañjali’s Yogasūtra, a philosophical and practical manual that predates the Devīmāhātmya by as much as seven centuries. Patañjali, who synthesized various yogic practices known in his time into a sādhana known as rājayoga (“the kingly path”) or aṣtāṇgayoga (“the eight-limbed path”), prescribed an eightfold practice for spiritual enlightenment.
First comes yama, the five ethical precepts of non-injury to others (ahiṁsā), truthfulness (satya), non-stealing (asteya), chastity (brahmacarya), and abstention from greed (aparigraha). These are to be observed in thought, word, and deed. These precepts differ radically in some respects from Vedic sacrificial practices, which has led some scholars to believe that they stem from an ancient monastic asceticism that may have been practiced in Harappan times.
Next, having cast off all faults (as the Devīmāhātmya puts it), the aspirant needs to cultivate the five positive qualities of niyama: physical and mental purity, contentment, self-discipline (tapas, directing one’s energy), study (reading holy texts and repeating sacred mantras), and devotion. In other words, applying body, mind, and heart to the task.
The first two limbs of yoga concern general dos and don’ts as preliminary requisites. The remaining six apply specifically to the practice of sitting for meditation. They are āsana (posture), prāṇāyāma (control of the breath), pratyāhāra (withdrawal of the mind from the objects of sense perception), dhāraṇa (concentration, literally “holding” the thought), dhyāna (actual meditation, which is profound reflection, defined as the unbroken flow of consciousness toward its object), and samādhi (a state of complete absorption in the Divine).
Not prescribing anything as systematic as Patañjali’s rājayoga, the Devīmāhātmya nevertheless agrees with it in recognizing interior, purely mental forms of worship that involve feelings of devotion and control of the thought-waves that arise as modifications of pure consciousness.
Additionally, later passages (12.9–13, 12.21–22, 13.9–12) introduce the externals of formal temple rituals, sacrifices, and pious acts. The outward acts of ritual worship, such as the offering of flowers, incense, lights, water, and perfume, along with mantric recitation and certain mental processes, are symbolic enactments that shape the consciousness of the worshiper and make it receptive to the experience of spiritual truth.
For the Tantric practitioner (sādhaka), the physical body is not something to be despised, but a form and dwelling place of the Divine Mother and an instrument of liberation. Within the body, Tantric physiology recognizes seven centers of awareness (cakras), represented as lotuses, five positioned along the spine from the base to the throat, and two more at the level between the eyebrows and at the top of the head. Lying coiled like a serpent in the lowest cakra is the indwelling Śakti, called kuṇḍalinī. While She sleeps there, the human being is fully awake to the physical world but oblivious to the spirit. Śrī Rāmakṛṣṇa taught that when human consciousness is concerned only with physical survival, pleasure, and the exercise of power, the kuṇḍalinī dwells in the three lower cakras: the mūlādhāra, at the base of the spine; the svādhiṣṭthāna, at the level of the genitals; and the maṇipūra, at the navel. Spiritual awareness dawns, he said, when the kuṇḍalinī rises along the susumnā, the channel within the spine, to the anāhata cakra, at the heart level, where one experiences the awakening of love and the wonder and glory of something beyond the embodied self. Once the kuṇḍalinī reaches the viśuddha cakra, at the throat, the sādhaka becomes established in spiritual life, and there is no turning back. Henceforth, all thought is directed toward the Divine. At the ājñā cakra, between the eyebrows, one experiences savikalpa samādhi, wherein one sees the Divine, although a separation of worshiper and worshiped remains. Finally, in the sahasrāra, the thousand-petaled lotus at the crown of the head, nirvikalpa samādhi brings the realization of oneness with the formless Divine. In Tantric terms, Śakti is united with Śiva, and the material universe vanishes into the infinite, transcendental unity.
Because of its highly esoteric nature, kuṇḍalinī yoga or anything resembling it is difficult to trace historically. There is no mention of it in the Devīmāhātmya. Nevertheless, the Śākta sādhana so minimally sketched in the text engages the aspirant at every level—physical and mental, gross and subtle—in the process of transformation from matter to spirit. The Devī, as the cause of such practice (vrata), is The Means To Attainment. As The Blessed, Supreme Knowledge (Bhagavatī Paramā Vidyā), She Is The Goal In Itself.
4.10: As Śamkarācārya, the greatest philosopher of Advaita Vedānta, noted in his commentary on the Brahmasūtra, the Vedas declare from the earliest times that the world comes forth from the Word (śabda, literally “sound”). “With sound as your essence” calls to mind the Vedic Goddess Vāk, The Creative Word Through Whom And From Whom The Universe Comes Into Existence. According to Śākta philosophy, Divine Reality and its power of self-expression (vāk) are one and inseparable. To simplify an immensely complex subject, Pure Consciousness is Unchanging, Motionless, and therefore Soundless (Aśabda). That same reality as creative energy is dynamic, and its initial motion manifests as the vibration of sound (śabda). Vāk or śabda—the terms are interchangeable—assumes increasing degrees of manifestation in its descent from the motivating (causal) level of the initial creative ideation to the plane of the physical universe with its imperceptible (subtle) sound and its audible (gross) sounds of articulated speech. Recognizing an unbroken continuum through all levels of existence, Śākta Tantra regards mantra as the actual presence, or embodiment in sound, of A Deity. In the broadest sense, śabda is the flow of Consciousness from the One into the many.
The process by which the One manifests as the many through the creative Word is described in various ways by different philosophical and religious systems, which impose a profusion of synonymous or overlapping technical labels in order to delineate the successive stages of divine emanation. The important thing to remember is that these stages are not incremental steps at all but merely points along a continuum. In reality, Divine Consciousness remains indivisible as it flows along a seamless spectrum of being/becoming. Swami Brahmananda, a disciple of Śrī Rāmakṛṣṇa, put it simply: “Show me the line of demarcation where matter ends and spirit begins.” Throughout the apparent diversity of the universe abides the all- pervading unity, which is constant (nitya).
“You are the treasury that holds the taintless Vedic hymns” means that The Devī Is The Source Of The Eternal, Most Sacred Hindu Texts. From Her Springs the Hindu Tradition’s Highest Authority. The word veda itself means “knowledge” in the sense of the liberating awareness that sees the Divine Reality as it is. The Vedas record that knowledge, revealed to ancient seers in states of deepest contemplation.
The phrase “embodying the three Vedas” reflects the belief that the Ṛgveda, Yajurveda, and Sāmaveda are, respectively, the forms of Mahākālī, Mahālakṣmī and Mahāsarasvatī. (The reference to three Vedas excludes the fourth and youngest, the Atharvaveda.) In no uncertain terms this verse expresses the Śākta correlation of Divinity and Mantras. The Devī Is Both the Source Of The Sacred Vedic Verses And Their Manifestation.
The phrase “sung to resound joyfully at the sound of your holy name” is a free rendering of “recited with delight over the udgītha.” This term refers to a particular method of chanting the Sāmaveda’s hymns of praise. In a general sense, the word udgītha also signifies OṀ, the highest name of divinity, approximating the sound of the primal vibration that initiates the birth of the universe.
The second half of the verse shifts from How The Devī Manifests As The World To How She Acts In It. Through the power of the Vedas, which are An Expression Of Her Own Supreme Power, The Beneficent Devī Engages In Conferring Well-Being And Prosperity Upon The World. Of course, in the polarized, relative universe, well-being has its inevitable companion, tribulation; but the verse reminds us that The Merciful Divine Mother Is Also “The Supreme Destroyer Of Pain In All The Worlds.”
4.11: According to Indian grammarians, the subtle form of śabda is called śphota, literally “bursting, opening, expansion.” Sphota is the eternal, indivisible, imperceptible energy underlying the gross śabda, the articulated sounds that make up words. It is sphota that transmits the idea, which “bursts” or flashes on the mind when speech is heard (or read). Curiously, sphota is manifested by the sounds of speech even while it manifests the meaning of speech. In the language of Śākta devotionalism, we find the same idea: The Devī Is At Once The Source Of The Vedas, Their Embodiment, And The Intelligence By Which Their Essence Is Understood. The word for “intelligence” used here is medhā (“knowledge”), which carries the connotations of insight and latent power; the word for “essence” is sāra, which additionally means “power” or “energy.” Again, what this describes is the unbroken flow of energy-consciousness.
In a sudden shift from the abstract, the remainder of this verse calls The Devī by three personal names: Durgā, Śrī, and Gaurī. This marks the first appearance in the text of the name Durgā, even though the entire second carita centers on Ma Durgā’s slaying of Mahiṣāsura, and even though an alternative title of the Devīmāhātmya is Śrī DurgāsaptaśatI (“Seven Hundred Verses to Śrī Durgā”).
Durgā is Sanskrit for “difficult of access or approach,” and the suggested analogy to a citadel or fortress underscores both Her Unassailability And Her Protectiveness. What She Grants is refuge from Durga, worldly adversity (literally, “rough going”). Like the names Ambikā And Caṇḍikā, the name Durgā Relates To The Devī’s Supreme Form.
The second quarter of this verse, “You are Durgā, The Vessel Free Of Attachments That Takes One Across Life’s Difficult Ocean,” relates to a far older verse from the Ṛgveda in praise of Aditi (ṚV 10.63.10). There, in a long string of epithets, The Ancient Great Mother Is Praised As Incomparable Earth-and-Heaven (The Shining Totality Of Manifest Creation As A Personified Deity), Which In Its Goodness Is Well-Protecting, Granting Secure Refuge, And Safely Guiding. Aditi is then Likened To A Divine Ship, Well-Fitted With Oars, Free Of Defects, And Admitting No Water. “Let us board this ship,” sings the hymnist, “for our well-being.” We already know that śrī (“light, lustre, radiance, splendor, beauty”) was originally the Vedic term for the inherent glory of any God or Goddess. Later personified as a Goddess, Śrī merged with Lakṣmī, Viṣṇu’s beneficent consort, associated with fertility, growth, and abundance.
Contrasting with Śrī’s solar brilliance is the gentler lunar resplendence of Gaurī (“White, Yellowish, Shining, Beautiful”), Otherwise Known As Pārvatī, The Benign Wife of Śiva.
Appearing in rapid succession, Durgā, Śrī, and Gaurī—three names of Śākta, Vaiṣṇava, and Śaiva affiliation—together Forms A Comprehensive Vision Of The Divine Mother That Crosses Sectarian Lines And Speaks Of Her Universality And Oneness.
4.12–23: The core segment of the Śakrādistuti concerns the battle with Mahiṣāsura and acts as a commentary on the two foregoing chapters. First it introduces the themes of evildoing (4.12), Divine Wrath (4.13–14), Divine Grace (4.15–17) and Redemption (4.18), which it then intertwines in a repetitive summation (4.18–23). At face value, the twelve verses form a theological lesson on the relationship between human beings and a personified deity. On a deeper level the passage works as psychological or philosophical allegory. Both readings have much to teach us.
First we will consider the outward, or religious, meaning. How could Mahiṣāsura, even in his anger, bring himself to commit an act of violence toward The Exquisitely Beautiful, Gently Smiling Durgā (4.12)? While inviting us to contemplate the nature of evil, the question simultaneously defines evil as the profanation of anything that should be revered. The annals of history are strewn with accounts of such disregard for the sanctity of human life, human achievement, and the natural world. They record countless acts of slaughter, pillage, and persecution, which have claimed innumerable lives and toppled untold noble endeavors. Even today, we live with continual affronts to all we hold sacred: we witness terrorism, warfare, genocide, the cutting down of irreplaceable primeval forests, and the remorseless pollution of the very air, water, and earth upon which all life depends. How can we, like Mahiṣāsura, be moved to commit such acts, to condone an uncaring cruelty that inflicts physical and emotional violence upon the defenseless, corruption upon the innocent, disparagement upon the wise? In malevolent thoughts, hateful words, and injurious deeds, collective and individual evil is the human face of Mahiṣāsura’s rage.
Inevitably, we see The Devī’s Face no longer Gently Smiling But Wrathful. Note the Rajasic Imagery Of Her awful Countenance, Reddened Like The Rising Moon (4.13). With this abrupt shift arises the question of why such a horrifying vision does not instantaneously destroy its beholder, for Her Destructive Power Is Formidable And Swift (4.14).
Before divulging the answer, the hymn draws our attention to The Devī’s Benevolent Side. To those who live according to the dharma, She Is Generous With The Blessings Of Material Bounty, Progeny, And Honor. When remembered, She Increases The Righteous Acts Of The Already Righteous (4.15) And The Mental Serenity Of The Already Serene. And She Dispels The Distress Of Those Who Live In Poverty, Suffering, And Fear (4.17).
Even toward transgressors She Is Benevolent (4.18). This is the crux of the entire second carita, stated and restated in the next five verses (4.19–23) as if to make sure the point is not lost. The Divine Mother Is Benevolent Toward The Virtuous And The Wicked Alike. Her Grace Is Unconditional, Even Though Its Expression May Take Dramatically Different Turns.
Why, then, does the horrific vision of Divine Wrath not destroy its beholder? Let us compare Mahiṣa’s and the Devī’s rage (4.12–13). We cannot equate the two. Mahiṣa’s destructive rage is just that, destructive. The Devī’s Is Righteous Indignation On A Cosmic Scale. Her Purpose Is To Restore Happiness To The World (4.18) By Subduing The Misconduct Of The Wicked (4.21), a role that echoes Kṛṣṇa’s dictum in the Bhagavadgītā: “Though I Am unborn and imperishable, the lord of all creatures, controlling my own nature (prakṛti), I manifest myself by my own power (māyā). Whenever righteousness (dharma) declines and evil (adharma) rises up, I come forth to protect the good, to destroy the evildoers, and to establish righteousness. I Am born in every age” (BhG 4.6–8).
When battling evil, The Devī Confers Her Grace Even Upon Evildoers (4.18–23). Instead of annihilating the wicked without hope of redemption, She Purifies Them By The Touch Of Her Weapons So That They May Attain The Higher Worlds (4.19), Even Though They May Have Committed Enough Evil To Keep Them Long In Torment (4.18). In the Hindu view, there is neither annihilation nor eternal damnation. Hell, and even heaven, are not places in which to spend eternity, but transitory states of punishment and reward between lives on earth. The Devī Does Not Blind the asuras With The Intense Light Flashing From Her Weapons, Because She Wants To Reveal Instead The Salvific, Moonlike Radiance Of Her Face (4.20)—another metaphor for The Unconditional Grace That Excludes None. Whether Chastening The Wicked Or Blessing The Righteous, Her dual Aspects Evoke Visions Of Incomparable Strength, Ravishing Beauty, And Infinite Compassion. She Is A Fearsome Warrior Goddess Intent On The Victory Of Good Over Evil; She Is Also A Loving Mother Worthy Of Trust And Devotion. Either way, She Is Beneficent (4.22), because even Her Horrific aspect Leads The Wicked To Redemption (4.23).
Beneath this theology of a personal Goddess Who Intervenes In Mundane Affairs Lie Subtler Psychological And Philosophical Truths. The battleground is an interior one of the human heart and mind, where conflicts rage daily between the polarities of right and wrong, love and hate, duty and pleasure. The Devī Is The Indwelling Divine Self that calls us to the Highest Aspirations; the asuras represent everything that is selfish, ignorant, and destructive in the human ego.
“Virtue is its own reward,” as the saying goes. A philosophical interpretation of verses 4.15 through 17 suggests that living in accordance with the dharma confers a sense of well-being and harmony with the larger universe. But what about transgression? Eventually there comes a day of reckoning, of recognizing the true nature and the consequences of one’s misdeeds.
The first carita of the Devīmāhātmya understands The Universe as an Emanation of Divine Consciousness, Functioning Intelligently At Every Level. According to this impersonal view, the instrument of justice operative in the universe is the law of cause and effect, known as karma. Simply put, no good deed goes unrewarded and no evil deed escapes unpunished. But karma is splendidly more complex than that. Karma (“act, action, deed”) refers equally to an individual action (mental, verbal, or physical), its consequence, and cumulative effect. Each action generates a reaction that becomes in turn the cause of another action, forging a karmic chain that becomes the imprisoning power of saṁsāra. Because every action creates a mental impression (saṁskāra), and those impressions accumulate into ingrained tendencies, our actions determine what we become.
Karma determines not only what we become but what happens to us. In this web of cause and effect are interwoven different kinds of karma. Prārabdha (“commenced”) karma, being already activated, governs what happens to us in the present lifetime as the result of actions in past lives. It is beyond our control, like an arrow that has already been shot. Internally, it governs habitual, compulsive, or self-willed activity; externally it operates through the agency of other people or forces of nature to deliver the consequences of past actions. Sañcita (“gathered up”) karma is the latent aggregate of deep impressions created either in this life or a previous one. It has yet to be activated but remains dormant during the present life, like arrows in a quiver. Karma that comes to fruition in this lifetime as the result of actions also performed during the present life is called āgāmi (“coming up”). The terms āgāmi and kriyamāṇa (“being done”) are sometimes used interchangeably, although there are technical differences between the two. Kriyamāṇa karma more specifically pertains to what we do in the present moment. Of course, even in the present moment our actions are likely to be influenced by underlying mental impressions—those programmed patterns of response created by ourselves in this and previous lifetimes, which form our character. But the present moment offers the freedom either to follow the existing impressions or to cultivate new ones, in other words, to determine our destiny.
Kriyamāṇa karma is within our control. Some would interpret this freedom of choice as an expression of Divine Grace.
When misfortune strikes, we suffer the consequences of previous actions. “What did I ever do to deserve this?” we may lament, but later we may talk about a “blessing in disguise.” The most painful lessons are often the most instructive. Physical or emotional suffering may awaken us to the preciousness of life, adversity may inspire heroic resolve, and the hurts inflicted upon us may awaken us to compassion for others. Chastened and purified, we grow in character and behold our world with new insight and wonder. Seeing The Devī About To Strike The Final Blow, Mahiṣa is overcome with rapt awe at the recognition Of Her Salvific Grace. This powerful metaphor means that whenever the higher Self defeats the baser impulses within us, we become open to greater awareness.
In theistic language, a God or Goddess Is Said To Possess The Power To Mitigate The Painful Consequences Of Karma Through Divine Grace. In an impersonal, philosophical sense, we can understand grace as the higher awareness (jñāna) that reveals the world in its true light and severs our attachments, thereby lessening our pain and dispelling the shadows of fear. Whichever interpretation we choose, the Devīmāhātmya instructs that grace is unconditional and withheld from none (4.18, 4.21).
The theistic, devotional approach allows us to draw a parallel between the Devīmāhātmya and the Bhagavadgītā. Telling Arjuna to perform every action as an offering to him, Kṛṣṇa expounds the same themes of unconditional grace, mitigation of karma, and universal liberation: “Thus shall you be freed from good or evil consequences, the bonds of your actions. Steadfast on the path of renunciation, liberated shall you come to me. I Am alike to all beings; to me none are hateful or dear. But those who worship me with devotion are in me, and I in them. If even an evildoer worships me with utter devotion, he should be regarded as good, for he is rightly resolved. Quickly he becomes righteous and attains eternal peace. O [Arjuna], know that my devotee shall never perish” (BhG 9.28–31). To sum up, evil can be defined as intentionally injurious and profaning. It inevitably invites punishment, just as virtue invites reward, either through the direct agency of a personal Deity or through an impersonal, intelligent process called karma. Divine Justice and Divine Blessing alike purify and open us to greater awareness of the Divine Reality that is in the end benevolent toward all.
4.24–27: Reverting to the anuṣṭubh meter, the Śakrādistuti’s last four verses assume a vastly different character from the main portion of the hymn. Changing from an outpouring of praise, these last verses are a formula to ward off evil. First the maternal Ambikā’s Specific Powers Of Protection Are Invoked, Then The Fierce Caṇḍikā And The Mighty Iśvarī (“Sovereign, Ruler,” The Feminine Form Of “Lord”) are called upon to guard the four cardinal directions. Next entreated are The Devī’s Fierce And Gentle Forms In The Celestial, Atmospheric, And Terrestrial Realms, And Finally The Whole Panoply of Her Powers Is Invoked For All-Inclusive Protection.
4.28–30: Like verses 4.1–2 before the hymn, these three also serve to frame an especially sacred portion of the Devīmāhātmya. The reverence that The Gods Show The Divine Mother with offerings of flowers, perfumes, and incense reflects elements of the Hindu ritual worship even as it is practiced today.
4.31–37: The recurring theme of reciprocity between The Devī And Her Creation takes shape here as a dialogue between Her and the Gods, whom She is ready to reward. When they say that with the slaying of Mahiṣāsura nothing remains to be done, they mean that for now all is well. Note that they leave open the possibility that evil may rise up again. In fact, its resurgence is a foregone conclusion as long as the universe exists, and they would like the assurance of future help for themselves and for “whatever mortal shall Praise You with these hymns,” referring to the four hymns of the Devīmāhātmya.
4.38–42: The inclusion of humans in the Gods’ request indicates a new direction for the third carita.
In the first carita, Medhas’s cosmically remote tale of Madhu and Kaiṭabha centered on Mahāmāyā’s tamasic, deluding power.
In the second carita, Medhas presented Ma Durgā, the slayer of Mahiṣāsura, as an example of The Devī’s Rajasic Power. Addressing the king’s concerns, he pointed out the link between heaven and earth, drew a comparison between Divine and royal power, and illustrated the human responsibility of upholding the dharma.
In the third carita, Medhas will tell how the Sattvic Devī, As The Slayer of Śumbha and Niśumbha, confers Spiritual Liberation. This most elaborate story of all, comprising several distinct episodes, will be meant for the merchant, and its orientation will be decidedly terrestrial and human.
The Devī’s third, sattvic, Manifestation Emerges From The Body Of Gaurī. The adjective Gauri means “White, Yellowish, Brilliant, Shining, Beautiful.” Its Feminine Form is also the name of The Divine Mother. All instances of this name/epithet in the Devīmāhātmya refer to the Devī’s Supreme Form.
The Sakrādistuti hymns Her as “Gaurī, [the shining Goddess] who abides with the moon-crowned Śiva” (4.11), thus identifying Her with Pārvatī or Śakti. The Aparājitastuti tells us that She is the eternal one who sustains the universe (5.10). According to the Nārāyaṇīstuti She is all-knowing (11.10). Omniscience equates Her with infinite consciousness, which is self-luminous and shining (Gauri).
The second carita described Ma Durgā As Manifesting Through The Fiery Splendor That Emerged From The Bodies Of The Gods. From other evidence in the Devīmāhātmya and on the authority of the Vedic Devlsūkta, we understand that those Gods Are But Differentiated And Fragmented Aspects Of Her Own Power.
In the third carita Medhas will describe The Devī’s Direct Manifestation From Herself. The important point to be made is Her Essential Unity, and the third carita will make that abundantly clear.