Goddess Images

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GODDESS IMAGES India is unique in its multifaceted goddess worship. Unlike the goddess worship of the ancient Western world—which has largely vanished, except in the veneration of the Virgin Mary as a semi-divine figure, or in modern attempts to revive ancient pagan goddess cults—Indian goddess devotion is a vibrant living tradition. For her worshipers the Goddess sums up all the powers of this life and the hope of salvation in the next. Worshipers of Mahadevi (the Great Goddess) seek bhukti, meaning the enjoyment of the things of this life, as well as mukti, the quest for spiritual liberation in the hereafter. There are many different paths to these two goals, and the complexity of goddess imagery reflects this. Buddhists, Jains, and Hindus honor the Goddess in a variety of roles. She is the source and support of life and the architect of death and destruction. She brings forth life, nurtures creativity, embodies wisdom, destroys the wicked, and takes the dead. Her many images reflect this array of meanings.

Forms of Goddess Images

There are hundreds of forms of the Goddess in India; sometimes she is recognized as immanent in natural phenomena such as Prithvi, or Mother Earth, or the holy river Ganga, or the sacred mountain Nanda Devi, but more often artists create her imagery to fulfill a multitude of social roles and designations. Traditionally, artists followed prescriptive religious and sculptural texts in portraying the image of the Goddess in her various forms. However, this does not mean that subject matter, styles, or media remained static over time, or over the vast geography of the Indian subcontinent. Regional schools, individual artists, patrons, developments in ritual, and diversity of materials all contributed to the rich variety of goddess imagery.

As the origin of life, the Goddess is represented as Lajja Gauri, whose neck sprouts a lotus blossom rather than an identifying head. She is shown with her legs splayed in a birth-giving posture, her two hands holding lotus buds, symbolic of regeneration. As Lajja Gauri, she is beyond the specifics of particular identity and is the nondifferentiated conduit of all life and creativity.

Sri Lakshmī, goddess of wealth and fertility, is worshiped by both Hindus and Jains. Lakshmi-is said to have emerged from the churning of the primordial milky ocean. She is often depicted emerging from a lotus and lustrated by elephants, representing the wealth of the monsoon rains. These are reminders that the Goddess is intimately connected to the primordial waters, the fertilizing rains, and the nourishing sap of creation. This iconography can be traced throughout the centuries and became the modern ideal in the nineteenth-century Raja Ravi Varma oleolithographs. Ravi Varma's articulation remains the most common representation of Lakshmīin contemporary commercial calendar prints.

As Paārvatī, or Uma, the Goddess is the ideal consort. Her iconography reflects the Indian notions of idyllic beauty, with long limbs, graceful hands, narrow waist, wide hips, and full breasts. During the South Indian Chola period (c. a.d. 850–1279), bronze artists delighted in the loving depiction of these attributes. In these images the Goddess is never cloaked in drapes or veils; her beauties and perfections of fluid form are sensuously revealed as if she were almost nude. However, we must remember that when in worship, the Goddess would have been clothed in silks, jewels, and flower garlands.

The Goddess may also represent the tragic aspects of existence: she sums up decay, destruction, disease, and death. As Kālī or Chamunda, she is the embodiment of all these dark powers of unmaking. As Kālī (the Dark One), she is shown in seventeenth- through nineteenth-century paintings with black skin, disheveled hair, and angular jutting arms and legs. She is often shown dancing in ecstatic violence amid the carnage of battle. As Chamunda, she is represented as a withered hag, with desiccated breasts, protruding ribs, and crazed eyes, maw agape, ready to consume her victims. She frequently wears a garland of severed heads and is ornamented with snakes and scorpions.

The Goddess is sometimes depicted in groups such as the Sapta Matrkas, a collection of seven angry (ugra) deities. Their images were usually installed in ancillary shrines located next to Shiva temples. Yoginis were groups of goddesses who ruled the occult and violent forces of tantric Hinduism. Yogini worship arose in the seventh century; followers were attracted by the promise of magical powers. Yoginis were worshiped in groups of 64, or sometimes 42 or 81 images. Yogini rites took place in unusual hypaethral temples (open to the sky) situated in remote rural areas. Yogini imagery reflects the complexity of identity and ritual; there are bear-, goat-, rabbit-, cow-, elephant-, and snake-headed yoginis, as well as more easily identified goddesses such as the Sapta Matrkas, Chamunda, and Kālī, who are also incorporated into the yogini groups.

The Power of the Goddess

The Hindu goddess represents shakti, the catalyzing energy of the divine. In eighteenth- and nineteenth-century paintings, Kālī is frequently revealed with hair disheveled, tongue lolling, standing astride the corpse of her consort Shiva. Shiva is inert, except for his erect phallus. This is a reminder that without the sexualizing and energizing presence of shakti, the divine feminine power, the male gods could not perform their necessary roles for the harmonious balance of the cosmos. Hindus thus say: "Shakti ke bina, Shiva shava hai," which means, "Without Shakti, Shiva is a corpse."

Unlike the Hindu Goddess, the Buddhist Goddess is, in theory, a more passive presence representing salvific wisdom rather than active good works. As Prajnaparamita (Perfected Wisdom), the personification of the Prajnaparamita Sūtra, she is spiritual insight par excellence. She is portrayed as a beautiful young woman, often holding a copy of the Prajnaparamita text as her defining attribute. As Tara, she is the savioress of Buddhism, and the divine consort of the bodhisattva Avalokiteshavara. Tara represents spiritual knowledge, the passive balance to the male Avalokiteshvara's active compassion. Within Tantrayana Buddhism it is essential that wisdom and compassion unite to form enlightenment. This union is graphically represented in the images of the male and female divinities in sexual embrace.

Why are there so many forms of the divine feminine? The Hindu Goddess embodies all aspects of the psyche, but especially the threshold regions of birth, death, and intuition. She is often the birthing, witnessing, and destroying aspects of religious consciousness. It is the Goddess who usually brings forth new life, nurtures it, and brings about its death and reabsorption into the divine matrix. In Buddhism these aspects of the divine feminine represent a less physical role and instead represent the growth and maturation of gnosis.

Historical Development of Goddess Images

If we look at goddess images strictly from the standpoint of historical development, we can see an almost continuous divine female presence throughout Indian history. Megalithic constructions from Kerala indicate that it is most likely that goddess worship was in force in the Indian subcontinent from prehistory. The numerous terra-cotta figurines from the Indus Valley Civilization (c. 2300–1750 b.c.) are evidence for the ubiquity of the female image in historical antiquity. Because the Indus script has not been adequately deciphered, we cannot know if or how these figures were in worship, but we can surmise from their numbers that they were of significance to the Indus Civilization, and that they probably represent a cult of the Goddess.

Again, with the evidence of numerous terra-cotta figurines, as well as stone rings decorated with nude female forms and vegetative motifs, we can surmise that the Goddess was of continuing religious importance during the Maurya period (323–185 b.c.). Despite the intervening rise of male-dominated Vedic religion, the Maurya period figurines are strikingly similar in style and iconography to the earlier Indus Valley images.

By the first century b.c. we begin to find stone sculptures of yakshis. Yakshis are female nature spirits, goddesses of the earth and vegetation, and particularly trees, whose origins can probably be found in the ancient pre-Vedic goddesses. The yakshis were conduits of fertility, pulling up the invigorating sap of creation from the bowels of the earth. The yakshi cult must have been a powerful focus for devotion, for we find yakshi imagery at many early Buddhist sites. This indicates that early Buddhism, while focused on a primarily atheistic philosophy, was also sufficiently pragmatic to accommodate itself to the needs of the laity. At Buddhist sites such as Bharhut (c. 100 b.c.) and Sanchi (25–50 b.c.), we find many sculptures of these auspicious divinities closely associated with specifically identifiable trees, such as the mango or the ashoka. The yakshi's direct, wide-eyed gaze is touched with a sweet smile; her figure is broad-hipped, full-breasted, with a narrow waist. She is lavishly ornamented with jewels, and her hair is arranged in elaborate braids. She raises an arm above her head to grasp a branch, and a leg is poised to kick the trunk, indicating that it is she who pulls up the sap of creation and brings the trees into flower and fruition.

Some of the earliest Buddhist female images represent Hariti, the goddess of children and smallpox. Hariti represents the ambivalence associated with the divine female: she is the guardian of children, but also ravages children with her fevers. Hariti images from the Kushana period (c. late 1st–3 rd centuries a.d.) reflect the syncretic religious atmosphere of the period. In an image from Sahri Bahlol the goddess is portrayed as queenly, with high pearl encrusted diadem; she wears a Greek chiton, but has tusklike fangs. In one of her two right hands she holds a wine cup, perhaps an allusion to Dionysian cults present at this time, and in the other she supports one of her five hundred children; in one of her two left hands she holds a trident to ward off evil (an emblem associated with the Hindu god Shiva), and in the other a vase of purnaghata shape, indicating the vase of endless prosperity associated with the pregnant belly of Mother Earth.

As Indian religions developed, the identities of goddesses become expanded in texts such as the Devi Mahatmya of the Mārkaṇḍeya Purāṇa (5th–6th centuries a.d.). The story of Durgā slaying Mahisa, the ever transformative buffalo demon, is a favorite theme, appearing in stylized form as early as the second century. In the more elaborate narrative sculptures of the struggle, such as the great seventh-century Pallava period relief at Mamallapuram, the Goddess is shown as the epitome of the continuous fight between good and evil, knowledge and delusion. The artist has depicted her as ever vigilant; her face and posture are graceful, but uncompromising. The battle portrayed is furious, but the Goddess's eventual victory is indicated by her assured pose and the recoiling posture of the demon. The Goddess offers moksha (liberation) to her devotees, the narrative battle image promising that just as she will quell the demons representing ego and self-delusion, she can surely guide her worshipers to salvation from their own egotistical desires and self-deceptions.

Identities and images of the Goddess continue to evolve. In 1996 activists of the Hindu right wing condemned the contemporary Muslim Indian painter M. F. Husain for his nude portrayal of Sarasvatī, the goddess of learning. Despite the ubiquity of nude or almost nude goddesses in antiquity, the celebrated artist was assailed for his supposed insult to the dignity of the Goddess. The politico-religious clash brought about a national debate on the meaning and the suitable representation of the Goddess in art, as well as the ownership of image and meaning. This debate, as farcical as some aspects of it were, reiterated to many that images of the Goddess, aesthetically pleasing as many are, were not intended solely as works of art, but as docetic tools to provide the worshiper with the physical means to take darshan (the viewing) of the divinity. The constructed image provides a physical nexus for the devotee and the Goddess to see and be seen by each other, and to provide the visual inter-action necessary for the incorporation of the divine reality into the mind of the worshiper.

Mary Storm

See alsoIndus Valley Civilization ; Jain Sculpture ; Monuments ; Sculpture: Buddhist


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