Chapter 5 – Interpretations

Meditation on Mahāsarasvatī:

Mahāsarasvatī, Who presides over the third carita, is the Devī’s Sattvic Sspect. She Has Eight Hands, which hold the Symbols Of Her powers. In common with Mahākālī or Mahālakṣmī, She Holds The Bell, Trident, Conch, Mace, Discus, Bow and Arrows. Only the Plough is new, and its obvious symbolism relates to agricultural fertility. But metaphorically, the plough furrows through the individual consciousness, creating auspicious impressions and allowing seeds of wisdom to be sown. Although only implied, Mahāsarasvatī’s Complexion Is White, Signifying the Sattva Guṇa And Its Properties Of Purity And Knowledge. The wonderful imagery that compares Her Beauty To That Of Moonlight Shining At The Edge Of A Cloud Also Expresses Her Gentle, Auspicious Nature.


5.1: The bīja klīm signifies The Devī’s Essential Nature As Pure Bliss (ānanda). As noted previously, the Tantric bīja mantras that open the three caritas—ai, hrīm and klīṁ—equate The Divine Mother, Or Śakti, With Saccidānanda—Infinite Being- Consciousness-Bliss—expressed by the Vedic bīja mantra OṀ. Thus the three caritas of the Devīmāhātmya reflect in turn The Divine Mother’s Three Essential Qualities.


5.2–4: Once again the asuras, who represent the forces of chaos—the antithesis of order (ṛta, dharma)—seize what is rightfully the sovereignty of the Gods. In the previous carita when Mahiṣa made himself the lord of heaven, we may assume that he also appropriated the Gods’ shares of earthly sacrifices and their wealth, although this material theft is not mentioned. To the contrary it is specified, elaborately so, in the third carita. Here the Gods’ circumstances after the depradations of the asuras Śumbha and Niśumbha parallel the situation of the merchant Samādhi, whose family stole all his material wealth. Even as the myth of Mahiṣāsura is directed to the king, whose concerns as a sovereign ruling by divine right bridge the celestial and earthly realms, the story of Śumbha and Niśumbha is intended for the merchant, a common man whose involvements with business, wealth, and family belong entirely to this world.

Unlike the myths of Madhu and Kaiṭabha or Mahiṣāsura, the story of Śumbha and Niśumbha is seldom mentioned in Sanskrit literature before the time of the Devīmāhātmya. In all likelihood Śumbha and Niśumbha belonged originally to a mythic tradition of northern, non-Aryan, nonliterate pastoral tribes for whom the supreme divinity was the Great Goddess in both fierce and maternal aspects. At some later date they became associated with the story of the cowherd boy, Kṛṣṇa Gopāla. A passage in the Harivamśa concerning the birth of Kṛṣṇa identifies them as mountain demons who will be slain by the goddess Nidrā Vindhyavāsinī, an incident also alluded to in the Devīmāhātmya (11.41–42).


5.5–7: Dispossessed and driven out from heaven, the Vedic Gods, instead of appealing to Viṣṇu and Śiva as they did before, appeal directly to the Devī. Recalling Her promise to intervene whenever remembered in times of misfortune (4.32–35), they proceed to Himālaya, the greatest mountain, and praise Her there. This mountainous site is not the Vindhyas, as one might expect, given that wild region’s association with Śumbha and Niśumbha. Instead, the locale shifts to the more civilized Himālayan region associated with Śiva and signals a move away from the localized goddess Vindhyavāsinī toward a universalized understanding of The Devī.


The Gods appeal to Her as Viṣṇumāyā (5.7), a name unknown in Vedic or epic texts. Its obvious meaning, at least from the Vaiṣṇava Tantra standpoint, is that She is the Śakti of Viṣṇu, and in support the Kālīkāpurāṇa defines Viṣṇumāyā as that which makes everything manifest or unmanifest through the guṇas. However, the name also resonates with the name Yoganidrā, employed earlier in the Devīmāhātmya to express the Devī’s own supreme power (1.54, 1.70–71), for it was that goddess, closely associated with Vindhyavāsinī, who had settled over Viṣṇu’s eyes as his meditative sleep. From the Śākta point of view, Viṣṇumāyā, therefore, is the one who subjects

even Viṣṇu to Her power.


5.8: This verse announces the Aparājitāstuti (“Hymn to the Invincible Devī,” 5.9–82). This hymn is a great celebration of the Devī’s immanence, praising Her Various Aspects From The Formless Abstraction Of Supreme Power To Specific Forms Assumed By That Power. Thus, every form offers the possibility of a tangible way to relate to the Divine. Although celebrating Her immediacy, the Aparājitāstuti is the Devīmāhātmya’s only hymn to address the Divine Mother in the third person. Perhaps the more reverential tone is intended to impress upon us the Devī’s aweinspiring majesty as She reveals Herself in and through Her reation.

The thinking behind this hymn shows a spiritual kinship to the ecstatic fourth, fifth, and sixth chapters of the Śvetāśvataropaniṣad, another outpouring in praise of divine immanence, which beholds divinity as fire, the sun, the moon, and the starry firmament; as woman, man, youth, and maiden; and as a host of natural images such as the dark blue butterfly, the green parrot with red eyes, the thundercloud, and the seasons. According to the Upaniṣad, the source of this creation is the blissful one (śiva), who assumes various forms (anekarūpa) and remains hidden in all creatures (sarvabhūteu gūḍha) (ŚU 4. 14–15), having brought everything forth from its own nature (svabhāva) (ŚU 5.5).

The Aparājitāstuti is a treasury of divine names and epithets. Many of them individually carry a host of associations and ideas, and the English language lacks the equivalent terms to express the fullness of the Sanskrit original.


5.9: Although the opening line contains the names Mahādevī (the feminine form of Mahādeva, an epithet of Śiva) and Śivā (the feminine form of śiva, “auspicious”), there is no specific attempt here to identify the Devī as Śiva’s consort. The line should be approached purely and simply as a salutation to the Great Goddess (Mahādevī) who is auspicious (śivā) in Her own right. In the second line the Gods bow to Her Who Is Prakṛti, The Divine Energy Which Manifests As The Universe. Moreover, She Is Bhadrā (“Gracious, Auspicious, Favorable”), and the linking of the two terms creates a positive view of a world that simultaneously emanates from and is pervaded by The Divine Mother.


5.10: The Devī Is Also Raudrā (“Violent, Impetuous, Fierce, Wild, Inauspicious”). This adjective derives from the name of Rudra, a Vedic storm God once connected to Indra and especially to Agni and, in post-Vedic times, absorbed by Śiva, who originally may have been a non-Āryan deity. The name derives from the verbal root rud, meaning “to howl,” and the adjective here expresses The Frightening Destructiveness Of The Devī’s Terrible Aspect.

The verse is quick to remind us, however, that She is also nityā, self-existent and constant. The ever-changing circumstances of the physical universe, however violent they may appear at times, take place against the eternal changelessness of divine reality, the reality that is gaurī, the shining, selfluminous consciousness, and also dhātrī, the support of the world.

In India, where the blazing heat of the sun can be brutal, moonlight is looked upon as cool and soothing. Likening the Devī to moonlight and saying that She Herself has assumed the form of the moon emphasizes Her benign aspect. She is indeed sukhā, bestowing happiness, pleasure, delight, and comfort in our lives. However, the apparent redundancy of this line—that She is moonlight and has the form of the moon—remains puzzling until we realize that it embodies a more profound truth. We find the explanation in the Devīgītā, written probably between the 13th and 16th centuries and incorporated into the 12th-century Devībhāgavatapurāṇa. Here the moon/moonlight metaphor reappears in connection with the analogies of the sun and its brilliance and the classic fire and its heat to express the inseparability of consciousness and its power (DG 2.5). The Devīmāhātmya uses the lunar imagery to explain the absolute identity of Śakti as pure consciousness with Śakti as creative power. A deceptively simple, poetic phrase becomes the expression of ultimate nondualism.


5.11: The usage of kalyāṇī (“auspicious, beautiful, lovely”) in the Ṛgveda commonly denotes feminine beauty, and other Vedic texts link the word to themes of agricultural productivity and the nurturing cow. In one instance, the Atharvaveda declares Kalyāṇī the immortal one who becomes born as the manifold diversity of human life. Not surprisingly, the present verse links Her auspiciousness to vddhi (“growth, prosperity”) and siddhi (“attainment”). Although She appears as the good fortune of kings, the second line cautions that She also appears as their misfortune, an obvious reference to worldly responsibility and the consequences of good and

evil actions (→ 4.5). The terms previously used in the Śakrādistuti were śrī and alakmī. Here, they are lakmī and nairtī The latter derives from Nirṛti, the name of an abstract but nonetheless terrifying Vedic goddess. Because She personified adversity, calamity, infertility, disease, and destruction and presided over death, She was the focus of propitiatory rituals. The noun nirti (“decay”) derives from the verb nirṛ, meaning “to separate, to disjoin,” illustrating that whatever is subject to decay and dissolution is separate from the whole. Nirṛti is the opposite of the related word ṛta, which signifies the universal moral order. Once again, we see that chaos and cosmos, asura and deva, evil and good, reflect the underlying principles of fragmentation and wholeness. Elsewhere in the Mārkaṇḍeyapurāṇa, outside the chapters that form the Devīmāhātmya, Nirṛti appears as the

daughter of Adharma and Hiṁsā (Unrighteousness and Injury); She in turn gives birth to Naraka and Bhaya (Torment and Fear). Again, we are reminded of the intimate connection and fluid boundary between evil-doing and misfortune.

The present verse begins with an invocation of The Auspicious Kalyāṇī and ends with one of Śarvāṇī, Śiva’s Consort And Destructive Power At The End Of A Cosmic Cycle. Encompassing the benign and the terrible, it reminds us that the same Divine Mother Who Sustains Life And Makes It Joyful also calls it into dissolution.


5.12: Earlier we saw that Ma Durgā’s name means “difficult of access or approach” and suggests Her Unassailability And Protective Nature Against Worldly Adversity Or Durga, which literally means “rough going” (→ 4.11). The compound durgapārā means “She Who Takes Across (Rescues, Saves, Protects From) Difficulties.” Note how beautifully the first line resounds: durgāyai durgapārāyai sārāyai sarvakāriyai. It means that Ma Durgā, Who Sees us through the worst of circumstances, is also The Essence (sārā) And The Maker Or Doer (Kāriṇī) If All Things, in other words The Divine Mother Who Herself Appears As And Acts In The Universe.

Khyāti (“She Who Makes Known”) and Ksṇā (“She Who Is Dark”) refer to Her dual Powers Of Revelation and Obscuration, Of Liberation And Bondage. Emphasizing the latter, dhūmrā (“She Who Is Smoky, Dark”) refers to the Veiling Power Of Avidyāmāyā.


5.13: The first line restates the final idea of verse 5.11, that The Same Great Goddess Who Sustains Life also calls it into dissolution. She Is Most Gentle (Atisaumyā) And Most Fierce (Atiraudrā). The adjective saumyā conjures up visions of the moon’s cool serenity, and raudrā evokes the tempest’s fierce howling—starkly contrasting images from nature that declare the polarity of a benign yet terrifying deity.

The five introductory verses (5.9–13) of the Aparājitāstuti proceed from an opening statement of divine transcendence to the recognition that the Devī dwells in and acts through all that exists. She Is Both The World’s Support (Jagatpratiṣṭā) And The Creative Action (Kti) That Animates It.


5.14–16: The hymn’s central portion (5.14–76) consists of the well-known litany of twenty-one nearly identical ślokas, of which nineteen differ from one another only by one word. In each case that word is the initial element of the compound ending with -rūpea, meaning “in the form of… ” Each such word is a feminine noun expressing an attribute or personified abstraction of divinity. The tendency to personify abstract qualities, found earlier in the Ṛgveda, may be far older, since people of prehistoric times are thought to have observed the phenomena of their surroundings and then formulated philosophical abstractions, which in turn became personified as deities. By the time of the Devīmāhātyma, what originally may have been considered multiple divinities had come to be

understood As Diverse Powers Of One Supreme Deity. The Aparājitāstuti unites in a single litany a dazzling series of such personified attributes, which we would consider both “positive” and “negative,” for such is the nature of the world we experience. Each epithet makes a self-contained statement, yet in relation to one another they reveal a broader picture. Since recitation of the hymn allows no time to contemplate those relationships, what we sense instead is the incantatory, cumulative effect of the words.

The peculiar numbering of this sequence, which counts each śloka as three, serves in part to extend

the Devīmāhātmya’s total number of verses to seven hundred in conformity with the alternate title, Śrī Durgāsaptaśatl (“Seven Hundred Verses to Śrī Durgā”). Because each of the ślokas contains the salutation namastasyai uttered three times, some interpreters consider the salutations as directed to the Devī’s tamasic, rajasic, and sattvic aspects. This interpretation is convincing in all instances only if we consider that on the level of observable phenomena nothing exists in a pure guṇa state but is the result of the mixing of all three guṇas in complex patterns. Thus, an attribute like intelligence (buddhi), while predominantly sattvic by nature, can be tinged with any of the three guṇas. Sattvic buddhi is directed to the attainment of higher, spiritual knowledge; rajasic buddhi is concerned with secular knowledge; tamasic buddhi is directed to nefarious ends.

This view of the triple salutation conforms to the twice-stated instruction of the Vaikṛtika Rahasya that the Aparājitāstuti is to be chanted in worship of The Divine Mother’s Supreme Form, Who Contains The Three Guṇas Within Herself (VR 7 and 23). Alternatively, the threefold nature of the salutation may refer to the Divine Presence In All Three Planes Of Actualized Existence—the causal (motivating), the subtle (psychical) and the gross (physical). It is important to remember here that these planes are not spatial realms but states of consciousness. Considering that the Aparājitāstuti is a hymn of divine immanence, it ought to recognize that everything in the empirical universe has a subtle (sūkma) and a causal (para) dimension behind its gross (sthūla) manifestation and that all three exist in potential form even within the undifferentiated Visnumāyā.

Hindu tradition supports either approach. The three-guṇa reading reflects the Sāṁkhya model of

the universe, with its emphasis on the elements of creation. The three-plane reading reflects the

understanding of the Upaniṣads as to how the universe contains causal, subtle, and gross levels of


The Devī, “Who In All Beings Is Seen As Viṣṇumāyā,” Is The Creative Power That Is Inseparable From And Ultimately One With The Self-Luminous Absolute. Viṣṇumāyā is a threefold power, consisting of tamasic āvaraaśakti (the power that conceals the transcendental unity of the divine Self), rajasic vikepaśakti (the projecting power that sustains the universe), and sattvic ānaśakti (the liberating power of knowledge). Containing the perfectly balanced, unactivated guṇas, Viṣṇumāyā is the unmanifest Śakti, whose subsequent progression from the One to the many anticipates modem science’s Big Bang.


5.17–19: We can define cetanā as a state of awareness that has emerged from absolute and unchanging consciousness (cit or savit) and developed the distinction between subject and object. Cetanā is both percipient and perceptible, and it not only signals a cosmic event in the unfurling of creation but also abides within each individual as the causal body (kāraṇaśarīra), also known as the sheath of bliss (ānandamayakośā). It is the veil of nescience (avidyā) covering the self-luminous ātman and appearing to limit the infinite consciousness. In the state of’dreamless sleep, when there is no longer any awareness of the four outer sheaths (the physical body, life-breath, sense perception, and mental activity), the ānandamayakosa alone remains to conceal the infinitude of the divine Self. Without it, we would attain enlightenment every time we fell into deep sleep.


5.20–22: Buddhi, the instrument of intelligence, discerns, doubts, determines, reasons, and wills. Although it is a limited manifestation of consciousness, it is the highest faculty of the human mind and possesses the potential power of divine revelation. 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).


5.23–25: In Chapter 1, Medhas identifies Mahāmāyā with Yoganidrā, “who had settled over Viṣṇu’s eyes as his blessed sleep.” That passage (1.70–71) makes a clear connection between nidrā (“sleep”) and Yoganidrā, who it says is the ruler, sustainer, and dissolver of the universe. She is the power that projects form out of Her own formlessness. She deludes all creatures by limiting their awareness and perpetuating cyclical existence (saṁsāra). When the Devī is said to abide in all beings in the form of sleep, that refers to Her cosmic aspect as the creator of the physical universe. Within the individual, sleep is one of three possible states of embodied consciousness. In dreamless sleep (suupti) there is no awareness of the world, the body, the mind, or the ego. This state is not unconsciousness, for everything that exists is a form of consciousness; instead, it is a state marked by the cessation of thought. In the dream state (svapna) the mind acts, but independently of the body and the exterior world. In waking (jāgrat) the mind experiences the physical world. These three states of consciousness correspond to the causal, subtle, and gross planes. They exist as finite forms of awareness distinct from the infinite, transcendental consciousness called Brahman or turīya (“the fourth”).

The metaphor of sleep used to express the duality of knowledge and nescience— of absolute and partial consciousness—is also found in verse 21 of the Durgāstotra. That hymn from the Mahābhārata proclaims that of the various kinds of knowledge, Ma Durgā Is Herself the Knowledge of Brahman, and as the Great Sleep (Mahānidrā) She is the Knowledge of embodied creatures.


5.26–28: So far, the litany section of the hymn has dealt with consciousness in progressively more differentiated forms. At some point along the continuum of being/becoming, we passed imperceptibly into the realm of the physical universe. The attributes of the next sixteen verses become ever more specific or reified, and we are more likely to experience them as they appear to us rather than to regard them as expressions of the one consciousness which, in reality, they are.

The theme of hunger (kudha) occurs in the Devīsūkta, where Vāk reveals that: “Through me alone every mortal lives [literally, “eats food”] who sees and breathes and hears what is said, not knowing that he abides in me” (ṚV 10.125.4). In the same spirit, Viṣṇu, in the Harivamśa, hymns the Devī Nidrā (“Sleep”) as “the hunger of all creatures.”

Hunger has a concrete meaning to all life forms, whether they possess the intellect to reflect upon it or merely respond to it instinctively. It is a primary motivation that sustains physical life. When our hunger is satisfied, we say we are full, and significantly, the Sanskrit word for “full,” pūra, is the key to the higher understanding of this verse. Pūra is an epithet of the Absolute, which is complete in itself: “That [Brahman] is infinite (pūrṇam), this [universe] is infinite (pūrṇam). From out of the infinite [Brahman] (pūrṇāt) emanates all [this universe] (pūrṇam), . . . yet the infinite [Brahman] (pūrṇam) alone remains” (BU 5.1.1). As physical hunger signifies lack in the material realm, existential hunger is similarly a state of incompleteness, of being cut off (diti) from the fullness of divine reality (Aditi). As hunger abiding within all creatures, the Devī keeps us in the embodied state, separated from our true wholeness and bound (dita) by māyā’s limitations.


5.29–31: Chāyā means “shade” or “shadow.” In the physical universe it is a visible manifestation of tamas that results from the blockage of light. Metaphorically, chāyā is the blockage of the light of pure consciousness by the veiling power of Mahāmāyā. The shadow thus cast is the material universe, which is nothing less than the formless Devī appearing as form. We must remember that She is the Shadow, that which casts the shadow, and the light—the universe, its cause, and its Divine Source.


5.32–34: The word śakti means “power, ability, strength, energy.” As a common noun, śakti also means the power of any male God, often personified as his consort. (We shall meet several such śaktis in the course of Medhas’s narrative.) When capitalized, Śakti is the singular, ultimate power, regarded as feminine. Everything in the universe is nothing other than the Divine Mother Herself, shining vibrantly in every form. The Kahopaniṣad teaches that the sun, the moon, the stars, lightning, and fire do not shine by their own light, but by Brahman’s: “That shining, everything shines” (KU 2.2.15). In Śākta terms, we might say, “She shining, everything shines.”


5.35–37: Thirst (tṛṣṇā), like hunger (5.26), has a gross form involved in sustaining physical life, and a metaphoric meaning: a thirst for life itself, that is to say a longing to enjoy the objects of sense. Recalling the triple salutation of this and the other verses that form the body of this hymn, we can consider that sattvic thirst is the desire for ennobling experiences that convey a sense of the sacred; rajasic thirst is the desire for excitement; and tamasic thirst could be sexual lust, which is the mind’s most intensive identification with physical matter.


5.38–40: While tṛṣṇā, particularly in its rajasic and tamasic forms, sustains bondage, kṣānti (“forgiveness, patience”) is one of several auspicious attributes named in the hymn that have the opposite effect. The opposite of forgiveness is resentment, which reinforces the initial mental impression (saṁskāra) of a wrong done to us. With sustained ill will, the cumulative mental energy causes the saṁskāra to develop into a vāsanā, a persistent tendency or character trait. The antidote for this kind of bondage is forgiveness, or letting go. Severing the attachment to our own hurt feelings, we experience in forgiveness a liberating sense of expansion beyond ourselves. Moreover, forgiveness plays a healing role in three different ways, regarding the harm we have done to others, the harm others have done to us, and the harm we do to ourselves. Forgiveness releases us from the past and opens our lives to renewal.


5.41–43: The word jāti (“order”) comes from the root jan, meaning “to be born, to come into existence.” Jāti is one’s own form of existence as determined by birth— the genus, species, or class to which each thing belongs. Acorns produce oak trees, humans give birth to babies, and each creature brings forth according to its own kind.

A look at the world around us reveals an order in which we can infer the presence of an intelligence at work. Organic life forms (plants and animals) are composed of cells, and those cells, like inorganic forms (minerals), are composed of molecules. Molecules are made of atoms, which are highly organized systems of still smaller particles or waves, acting in an orderly fashion. The author(s) of the Devīmāhātmya did not have the electron microscopes, particle accelerators, or the developed mathematics that allow modem scientists to study the quantum universe, but they did have the intuitive knowledge that divine intelligence operates in and through everything.

On the level of ordinary experience, jāti functions as a differentiating but also ordering power. The

world is filled with forms of every conceivable shape, size, color, or other quality, and ideally everything should coexist harmoniously. Accordingly, some Indian philosophers recognize jāti as an abstract universalizing principle, because The Divine Mother’s Universe necessarily has to partake of and reflect Her own nature.


5.44–46: Earlier, we noted the significance of lajjā as the diminution of ego (→ 4.5). This important attribute of modesty occurs in all four of the Devīmāhātmya’s hymns and in the Mahābhārata’s two hymns to Ma Durgā as well. The Durgāstotra additionally links modesty with good fortune and intelligence (verse 56), a triad repeated in Viṣṇu’s Praise of Nidrā in the Harivaṁśa (verse 54). Such recurring connections suggest a traditional understanding that the Divine Mother smiles upon those who act wisely.


5.47–49: Śānti f“peace”) is a welcome condition in the often conflict-ridden world. Spiritually, śānti is the inner peace that comes with the higher knowledge that lessens and ultimately frees us from attachment to the physical body, sensory experiences, and ever-shifting states of mind. It is evenness of mind in happiness and sorrow. In the Harivamśa, Śānti is personified as the daughter of Śraddhā, the subject of the next verse.


5.50–52: Śraddhā (“Faith”) was understood originally as confidence on the part of the Vedic worshipers that their sacrifices would produce results, and that the trust thus engendered would lead to the strength of unwavering conviction. Since śraddhā entails expectation, it forges a bridge of reciprocity between the human and the Divine (→ 4.5).


5.53–55: Kānti means “beauty,” and particularly feminine beauty or loveliness. We experience beauty in countless ways—in nature, in art and music, in human thoughts and deeds—and in every such experience the Devī is revealing Herself and inspiring wonder. Beauty is the Divine Mother’s way of reminding us of Her presence. How often we speak of “truth, goodness, beauty” all in the same breath. That is because beauty is a gift of divine grace. Together with the other auspicious qualities named in this hymn, such as forgiveness, modesty, compassion, and contentment, loveliness belongs to a class of the Devī’s manifestations that signify an expansion of consciousness and reveal glimpses of the larger divine reality.


5.56–58: Lakmī (“good fortune”) is the Divine Mother’s gift of abundance and happiness. The Durgāstotra (verse 56) links good fortune with modesty and intelligence and suggests a further connection between them and dharma. In the Devīmāhātmya, the Śakrādistuti also links lakṣmī and dharma in calling the Devī “Good Fortune In The Dwellings of the Virtuous” (4.5).


5.59–61: The term vtti (“activity”) allows for more than one interpretation. In the physical world (jagat, literally “that which moves”), we perceive vitti as the constant motion and change in all things. Even something as seemingly inert as a stone teems with activity, as electrons orbit the nuclei of its atoms. Beyond the physical motion of the material plane lies the subtler activity of the mental plane. And so, within human consciousness, vṛtti is defined as a thought wave or modification of the mind, an impulse of energy that flows out through the senses and makes knowledge of the exterior world possible. Behind the subtle vṛtti that makes the outer world manifest through perception lies the motivating impulse of the causal dimension. As the cause of differentiated thought-forms that arise from the undifferentiated ocean of consciousness, vṛtti and moha share a parallel, which is to say limiting, function.

However, unlike moha, which only keeps us in delusion, vṛtti can be harnessed to lead us toward enlightenment. In the Yogasütra, Patañjali declares with startling simplicity, “Yoga is the control of activity in the mind” (yogaś cittavttinirodha) (YS 1.2). He defines yoga as the restraint (nirodha) of the thought waves (vṛttis) in the field of consciousness (citta), which encompasses the functions of manas, buddhi, and ahaṁkāra. Patañjali distinguishes between vṛttis that increase our ignorance and bondage and those that foster knowledge and freedom. In his prescribed sādhana, harmful thoughtwaves are first neutralized by intentionally raising their opposites, replacing “bad” thoughts with “good” ones. Then even the “good” thought-waves must be stilled in order to experience the infinite consciousness beyond all form.


5.62–64: The physical universe is a manifestation of consciousness. In order for the universe to remain in a manifest or actualized state, continuity is necessary. That continuity is provided by the particular form or modification of consciousness known as smti (“memory”).

The universe of our experience is a relative universe, in which all parts exist in relation to all other parts. The process by which we experience our existence in the world is relational, and therefore all empirical knowledge is relational. Without the continuity of memory, the intellect could not function, because it could not relate anything to anything else. It would be devoid of all content except the immediate object of perception, which it would be powerless to interpret. Even the basic process of recognition would be impossible, because recognition, which follows directly upon perception, is experience associated with memory. Without the underlying continuity of memory, none of the intellectual processes could function; the buddhi could not categorize, relate, compare, infer, or determine. In short, the universe of our experience would no longer be possible.

Memory also functions apart from perception when its object is the revived impression of a previous experience. In that sense, memory bridges past and present; again, it provides continuity. This idea finds support in verse 44 of the Durgāstāva, which praises the Devī as knowledge, continuity, and mind.

The word smti has a second meaning. The Hindu scriptures belong to two classes: śruti (“what is heard” or divinely revealed) and smṛti (“what is remembered” or of human origin). The Vedas alone are śruti; everything else is considered smṛti and is authentic insofar as it conforms to the Vedas. The smṛti texts are repositories of social customs, moral and religious observances, cultural traditions, and spiritual disciplines. They include the law codes, the Sūtras, the epics (Mahābhārata and Rāmāyaṇa), the Purāṇas and the Tantras.


5.65–67: Daya (“compassion”) is one of eight epithets in the litany that deal with the Divine Mother’s auspicious manifestations, the others being forgiveness (5.38), modesty (5.44), peace (5.47), loveliness (5.53), faith (5.50), good fortune (5.56), and contentment (5.68). Four of them—the virtues of forgiveness, modesty, contentment and compassion—imply a lessening of ego or individual ignorance. The other four are more in the general nature of blessings bestowed upon people.

Compassion can be defined as any action that diminishes the suffering of others. For the Hindu, it embraces not merely a sympathetic attitude but a commitment to active service. It is a quintessentially Divine Wuality, and when reflected in human behavior, it opens us to the Divine.


5.68–70: With the other auspicious epithets, tuṣṭi (“contentment”) shares the common quality of expanded awareness. In the material world, we understand contentment as satisfaction or the fulfillment of desires, but that describes only its gross or tamasic form, and such contentment is fleeting, indeed. The higher contentment signals a sense of fullness arising from the cessation of desire. It distances us from the driving sense of lack that inevitably arises when consciousness is associated with the ego. This higher contentment is the Divine Mother’s gentle reminder that the true Self wants for nothing.


5.71–73: It is easy to understand that when the Devī abides in all beings as mother (mātṛ), She takes form as the female of the species, who gives birth and who in the more highly evolved life forms nurtures and displays maternal affection. It is the mother alone who wraps spirit in matter, and all mothers of all creatures thus replicate the process of the universal Divine Mother, who gives birth to the universe of name and form. Because male children are also Her creations, ultimately they are not different from Her, either. She dwells in every one of us, and Her indwelling presence is a constant reminder that we are never alone. Moreover, that connection is so intimate that within all embodied beings, male and female alike, the Mother’s divine radiance abides as the true Self.


5.74–76: At the end of this ecstatic litany, the final verse may come as a shock, for we are told that this same Devī abides in everything in the form of error (bhrānti)\ When understood, this is no cause for worry, but merely the hymn’s way of coming full circle. The Divine Mother is, we remember, Viṣṇumāyā (5.14), who obscures Her self-luminous, infinite consciousness in order to project the world. Because the consciousness that animates and illumines us as individuals is fragmented, limited, and imperfect, we do not experience the Devī’s shining fullness directly; instead we see Her Manifestation through the kaleidoscope of delusion (moha). We experience this sometimes Dark, sometimes dazzling world only because The Devī Abides in the Form of Error.

The English word error (from Latin errare) and the Sanskrit bhrānti (from bhram) both derive from verbs meaning “to wander.” A secondary meaning of bhram is “to waver, to be perplexed, to err.” We can understand that error is simply a wandering away from the truth, a misreading of reality that takes the finite parts for the infinite whole. The form that such error takes, the false premise upon which our unenlightened worldly existence is based, will be revealed at the very core of Medhas’s teaching by way of this final narrative concerning the demons Śumbha and Niśumbha.


5.77–80: How do we experience the universe just described? Through the Devī Herself, Who Pervades and Presides over the instruments of consciousness and the elements of which the senses and their objects are composed. The Devī Herself Is Pure Consciousness, which is both the Source and, when modified, the Manifestation of the Perceptible World. Though translated here as “consciousness,” the term citi more accurately means “the thinking mind.” Citi is not the absolute consciousness (cit), but the Absolute’s ideational energy (sṛṣṭikalpanā) that brings about the worldprocess. The Devī Abides in Her creation as creative consciousness, pervading the entire world (jagat) that is ever in motion.


5.81–82: At this point the hymn shifts momentarily into the forty-eight-syllable vaṁśastha meter, probably to distinguish the petitionary nature of the final two verses from the laudatory nature of the rest. These verses also prepare for a return to the narrative, wherein the Gods will appeal to The Devī, Who earlier promised to intervene whenever misfortune should arise.


5.83–88: The mention of the Gaṇgā establishes the sphere of action as right here on earth. Coming to bathe in the holy river, the Devī first appears to The Gods As Pārvatī, portrayed less as Śiva’s Consort than as an Independent And Supreme Deity In Her Own Right. (When Śiva appears later in the narrative, He is decidedly subordinate to Her.)

When Pārvatī Asks The Gods, “Whom Are you Praising?” An Auspicious (śivā) Form Emerges from Her Own Body and replies, “This hymn is an appeal to Me.” This lovely manifestation, we are told, is glorified as Kauśikī, because She came forth from Pārvatī’s bodily form (kośa). In the first and second caritas, The Devī Appeared in Tamasic And Rajasic Aspects; now She Manifests In Sattvic Form. As soon as She Emerges, Pārvatī Darkens and is henceforth known as Kālīkā, or Kālī, Who will play a major role in the course of events. This play of light and dark illustrates graphically The Devī’s dual nature of Bright Auspiciousness and Dark Terror.


5.89–100: Mahiṣa was the only demon of the previous myth to be well characterized, while his attendant generals remained little more than colorfully descriptive names. In the elaborately drawn, multiple episodes of the Śumbha-Niśumbha myth, the demons possess fully developed and very human personalities.

First we meet the toadying servants, Caṇḍa and Muṇḍa, who bring news to Śumbha of a beautiful goddess whose radiance illuminates the Himālayas. Playing upon Śumbha’s vanity, they flatter him with an account of his riches and powers, all stolen from the Gods and adding up to sickening excess when concentrated in the asura’s hands. If Śumbha possesses all that, Caṇḍa and Muṇḍa ask, should he not also possess the fairest of Goddesses?


5.101–121: His lust inflamed at the thought of the beautiful maiden, Śumbha sends Sugrīva to court Her. The messenger, who represents deceit and hypocrisy, knows full well that his fine words intend to mislead. The Devī knows it, too, and ironic humor colors their exchange. With “honeyed words” spoken “in unctuous tones,” Sugrīva glorifies his hideous master by boasting of the asura’s dazzling wealth and power. Note the irony when the Devī pretends to take his words at face value, saying, “You have spoken the truth; there is nothing false in what you have said” (5.118). Sugrīva’s attempt at beguilement represents the seductive nature of the world. As Medhas earlier alerted the king and the merchant, behind the glittering façades of material wealth and temporal power, things are not as they seem.

Even the marriage proposal strikes us as odd, because Śumbha’s exact words, transmitted through the messenger, are: “Choose either me or my valiant younger brother, Niśumbha. . . (5.113). The significance of this becomes clear only much later, when we discover exactly what Śumbha and Niśumbha symbolize (→ 9.4–41).

In response, the Devī issues a challenge, citing a vow to wed only him who conquers Her in battle. This initiates an escalating series of challenges and counterchallenges that drive the narrative to its climax.


5.122–129: Piqued at the Devī’s refusal, Sugrīva changes his tone from seductive to confrontational. Insultingly, he asks how She, a mere woman alone, can hope to defy Śumbha and Niśumbha, against whom even the Gods are powerless. And he threatens Her with the humiliation of being dragged away by Her hair! This conversation ends very differently than it began, and the Devī’s bemused playfulness stands in marked contrast to Sugrīva’s increasing bluster. It is the same playfulness we saw previously when She serenely met Mahiṣa’s demon army head on. All the demons—Madhu and Kaiṭabha, Mahiṣa, and those we have yet to meet—represent human vices, weaknesses, and failings, and without exception they take themselves very seriously. The Devī Is Blissfully Beyond such silly and ultimately self-defeating posturing. Once again, She voices Her challenge to Śumbha, and with Her Last Words, “let him do what is fitting,” the chapter closes on a note of ominous expectation.