Chapter 8 – Interpretations
8.1–7: Śumbha loses all reason upon news of the second failed mission and the loss of his two servants. Overpowered by lust and rage, he marshals the vast numbers of his demonic hosts, clan by clan: the Udāyudha (“with upraised weapons”), the Kambu (“plunderer”), the Koṭivīrya (“eminently brave”), the Dhūmra (“smoky”), the Kālaka (“dark, black”), the Daurhṛda (“evil-hearted, villainous”), the Maurya (possibly “destroyer”), and the Kālakeya, also expressing darkness. This mobilization is the next step in the steady escalation.
8.8–10: At this point the Devī’s opposing forces consist of the lovely Cāṇḍikā- Ambikā, Her lion, and the horrific Kālī. Here the text employs various forms of sound to express divine power: the bowstring’s resonance, the lion’s roar, the clanging of the bell, and—drowning them all out—Kālī’s bloodcurdling howls. “Filling every direction” signifies divine omnipresence.
8.11–21: As the enraged asura throngs circle round, the Devī multiplies Her forces. She calls forth seven śaktis or individual energies from the bodies of the male Gods (8.13). Each śakti, personified as the God’s female counterpart, displays the specific signs of the corresponding deity: his form, adornments, weapons, and vehicle.
From Brahmā emerges Brahmāṇī, riding in a swan-yoked chariot and personifying sattvic, purifying power. In Hindu tradition the swan (hamsa) possesses the ability to separate milk from water, metaphorically to distinguish what is true and abiding from what is impermanent and fleeting. When repeated many times over, haṁsa, haṁsa, haṁsa… is perceived in reversal as the mantra so ‘haṁ, so ‘haṁ, so ‘haṁ…, meaning “I am that,” “I am Brahman.” Brahmāṇī’s prayer beads symbolize japa (repetition of the mantra) and therefore contemplation of the Divine. The waterpot, symbolizing wealth, fertility, and immortality, also contains Her power of purification in the form of holy water.
Māheśvarī is the feminine derivative of Maheśvara (“Great Lord”), an epithet of Śiva as the destroyer of ignorance and the lord of yogis. She appears riding the bull Nandi, a symbol of dharma, who stands on the four legs of truth, purity, compassion, and generosity. Māheśvarī is bedecked with Śiva’s traditional symbols: the trident (signifying creation, preservation, and dissolution), serpents (symbolizing immortality, fertility, regeneration, and the eternal cycle of time), and the crescent moon (symbolizing passing time, measured by the lunar waxing and waning).
Kaumārī is the śakti of Śiva’s son Kumāra (Skanda), the war God represented as a beautiful youth. As his power, She challenges the spiritually ignorant to battle and thus offers the opportunity for inner growth. Her peacock, Paravāṇi, represents alternatively the glory of the manifest universe or the bewitching power of avidyāmāyā. What distinguishes the two readings is merely a difference of
attitude regarding the world.
Viṣṇu contributes three śaktis to the group of seven. First comes Vaiṣṇavī, the śakti of his supreme form, who emerges mounted on the fabulous bird Garuda and holds the symbols of conch, discus, mace, bow, and sword. Traditionally, Viṣṇu has ten avatāras or earthly incarnations, which follow an evolutionary progression through the forms of fish, tortoise, boar, man-lion, dwarf, the axwielding Paraśu Rāma, the Rāma of the Rāmāyaṇa, Kṛṣṇa, the Buddha, and the yet to be born Kalki, whose arrival will mark the end of the present yuga, or world-age. Vārāhī is the śakti of Viṣṇu’s third or boar incarnation. The ferocious Nārasiṁhī, half-woman and half-lioness, symbolizes the awakening of human consciousness within the physical (animal) body. Whatever it may have meant to the author who conceived it, for us the image of constellations being scattered by the toss of Nārasiṁhi’s mane reflects with rare poetry that human consciousness is not limited to the confines of the physical body and surrounding environs, but soars through the power of imagination to the realm of the stars.
Aindrī, like the all-seeing Indra, has a thousand eyes, wields the thunderbolt (vajra) that represents strength, and rides upon the elephant Airāvata, an imposing mount for the chief of the Vedic Gods. The scholar Thomas B. Cobum notes that Aindrī and the names of the other śaktis, except for Brahmāṇī, are not feminine versions of the male names but derivative forms that mean “belonging to” or “proceeding from.” He suggests the reason, especially in Aindrī’s case, may be to break with the earlier mythological concept of goddess-as-consort in order to express the idea of goddess-as-power. In the Ṛgveda and throughout the epic period, Indra’s consort is well known as Indrāṇī. The name Aindrī, first found in the Devīmāhātmya, refashions Her identity as independent from Her previous role of divine spouse.
Just as we understand the radiance (tejas) of the male Gods from which the Devī’s form coalesced (2.9–19) to represent not their own individual powers but Her power inherent in them, here, too, we should regard the śaktis not as the Gods’ own powers but as diverse manifestations of the one Śakti. She Herself makes this point clear later on, when She identifies the śaktis as projections of Her own power. When they withdraw, it is not back into the Gods from whom they emerged, but directly into Her (10.5–8).
8.22–28: The Śākta view of the Devī as superior to and independent of the male Gods becomes abundantly clear when Śiva, who so far seems to have had the role of a bystander, finds himself surrounded by the seven śaktis and makes the unexpected remark, “Let the asuras quickly be slain for my satisfaction.” This is not just puzzling, but presumptuous. At least the Devī finds it so, because immediately from Her body steps forth Her own śakti, more terrifying than all the others. Here called Aparājitā (“the unvanquished one”), this śakti orders Śiva himself to deliver an ultimatum to Śumbha and Niśumbha! Note the symmetry here with Śumbha’s employment of Sugrīva as a messenger. Accordingly, this immensely powerful śakti is also named Śivadūtī (“She whose messenger is Śiva,” 8.28). The point of this name, and of the incident that prompted it, is that no God, however powerful, is superior to the power (śakti) of the Divine Mother.
8.29–39: Inevitably another battle breaks out after the asuras confront the Devī, here called Kātyāyanī. Later described as gentle-faced and adorned with three eyes (11.25), Kātyāyanī was probably the family goddess of the Āryan sages known as the Kātyas. The name reveals Her Vedic credentials, although Her three eyes suggest a later Śaiva influence.7 Sources earlier than the Devīmāhātmya, notably the Durgāstotra and Aniruddha’s hymn from the Harivamśa, equate Her with Durgā. The Vāmanapurāṇa describes Her incomparable effulgence as shining throughout the world. Without question, the name Kātyāyanī is equivalent to the names Durgā, Caṇḍikā, and Ambikā in signifying the Devī’s supreme form.
Once again, the Devī makes a playful, effortless assault on the asuras. While She remains serene and seemingly above the fray, the śaktis engage more intensively in the battle, each according to Her unique abilities. The contrast between the fierce Kālī and the lovely Brahmāṇī is especially instructive. Kālī’s energy is shown as raw and brutal as She slashes and batters away (8.32). Brahmāṇī, on the other hand, demonstrates a gentler power. Call it conscience or innate goodness. We have all been on the verge of doing something we know to be wrong, when an inner voice appeals to our higher sensibility and restrains us. That nobler impulse is symbolized by the sprinkling of Brahmāṇī’s holy water, which leaves Her enemies—and our disgraceful urges—sapped of strength (8.33).
Verse 8.39 refers to the seven śaktis collectively as the mātrgaṇa (“band of mothers”). Known also as the Saptamātṛkās (“Seven Little Mothers”), or simply as the Mothers, these fierce goddesses fight for the preservation of the world. Although they are extremely ancient in origin and originally quite different in character, the allegory of the Devīmāhātmya presents them as individualized and internalized powers in the sādhaka’s struggle for spiritual enlightenment.
8.40–52: When the demon Raktabīja strides onto the battlefield in the wake of the fleeing demons, he simultaneously makes his first appearance in Sanskrit literature. His very name (“he whose seed is blood”) identifies him as a force to be reckoned with, for whenever a drop of his blood falls to earth, another demon of equal size and strength springs up. Although only one of Śumbha’s retainers, he possesses immense power—enough to warrant as much attention in the text as the chief asura, Mahiṣa, did in the second carita. The account of each one’s battle scene runs to twenty-three verses. The Mothers’ attacks fail to kill him but only draw the blood from which countless other asuras proliferate until utter terror seizes the Gods (8.52). Note the symmetry between their terror and the fear that earlier gripped the asuras who fled from the wrathful Mothers (8.39).
8.53–63: Caṇḍikā only laughs at the Gods’ despair, because even this fierce battle is nothing but Her
divine play. Ever in control, She instructs the gruesome Cāmuṇḍā-Kālī to drink the drops of Raktabīja’s blood as they fall, and soon the asura lies dead. Allegorically, Raktabīja’s amazing replicative ability and the rajasic redness of his blood symbolize the almost unstoppable power of desire. Here we must make the distinction that not all desire is evil. Like everything else in the universe, desire comes in many colors, depending on the particular mixture of the three guṇas. The Devī Herself takes form as desire, expressed by the metaphor of thirst in the Aparājitāstuti (5.35–37). But the kind of desire Raktabīja represents is not the divine thirst to experience the joys of the creation, but an aggressive, perverted grasping that stems from the ego’s aching, existential deficiency. Such desire never remains satisfied for long, and the more it is gratified, the more it proliferates. The ghastly image of Kālī lapping up the copious flow of Raktabīja’s blood, which swarms with nascent demons, illustrates graphically that desire is best dealt with before it gets out of hand. Here Kālī’s destructive power manifests as a protective, beneficial force.
Esoterically, Kālī’s slaying of Raktabīja relates to consciousness at a broader and deeper level. Raktabīja’s replicative power symbolizes the working of the mind, whose every wave (vṛtti) gives rise to others. The battle with the Mothers recalls Patañjali’s instruction to counter negative thoughtwaves with their opposite. Much to our dismay, just as a conscious attempt to “think good thoughts” often results in arousing our awareness of their opposite (for such is the nature of our dualistic mode of thinking), the Mothers’ attacks only draw more blood and create more demons. Patañjali’s advice is to counter negative thought-waves with positive ones and then to relinquish identification with both. According to Śākta sādhana, here is where Cāmuṇḍā-Kālī comes in. Cāmuṇḍā is the power of concentrated awareness that leads to the awakening of spiritual consciousness, and Her slaying of Raktabīja symbolizes that awakening through the destruction or cessation of the vṛttis. The grisly scene of Raktabīja’s destruction illustrates the meaning of the Navārṇamantra (7.23–27): that Cāmuṇḍā is the Divine Mother acting to grant passage from the relative to the Absolute. She alone is the liberating knowledge that stills the vṛttis and brings union with the Divine.
While the Gods rejoice at Raktabīja’s defeat, the Seven Little Mothers revel in a blood-intoxicated dance that preserves the distant memory of their primordial, violent nature.