Hindu Tantric Deities

views updated


HINDU TANTRIC DEITIES Although the origins of Tantrism are lost in remote antiquity, it is certain that Tantrism was a pan-Indian movement by the fifth to sixth centuries a.d. It arose in response and in contradistinction to the orthodox Vedic religion of the Brahmans. Heterodox in nature, Tantrism tends toward obscure secret beliefs and rituals. Although it is difficult to date any of the surviving Tantric texts with accuracy, the earliest Hindu text with specific Tantric content is the Devī Māhātmya (a.d. 400–600). Various Tantric sects continued to produce texts throughout the medieval period and beyond.

Tantric rites were designed to avoid the endless cycles of rebirth and to enable practitioners to reach enlightenment (moksha or mukti) in one lifetime. In addition, Tantric rituals promise earthly enjoyment and domination (bhukti). Accomplishing the two goals is an arduous and lengthy process that can only take place under the direction of a guru. Tantrism emphasizes, in varying degrees, key practices involving intricate and complex rituals, mantras (chanting incantations), spells and magic, secret sounds and syllables and hand gestures, magical diagrams called yantras and mandalas, deliberately coded language, and restricted practices and initiations in which secret lore is passed to the student. Yogic exercises and meditation are essential components in Tantric rituals, particularly kundalīnī yoga, in which creative energy is directed upward in the body along the nerve centers (chakras). From earliest times, Tantric mystics and seers refined the "supramental" process of meditation that allowed them to scrutinize, dissect, and classify the macrocosmic and subatomic universes. Their knowledge came not through the senses but through minute observations of patterns and sequences perceived through intuitive awareness. Cultic rituals include the formation of an elaborate macrocosmic/microcosmic cosmology located within the human body in which the deity is invoked in the heart. Tantra's psycho-experimental techniques led to highly elaborate systems that were given visual expression in abstract symbolic and diagrammatic images (yantras and mandalas) that represented the deity and facilitated merging with the deity in order to bring about the shattering of the individual ego and the ultimate experience in which the seeker and deity became one.

The Tantric Goddess

Hindu Tantrism centers on the Great Goddess (Devī, the Shining One) as the supreme deity and Divine Mother. Tantric texts assert that only the Goddess is capable of granting the dual aims of mukti and bhukti. The Devī Māhātmya explains that she is eternal, supreme knowledge and the one who grants the boon of final liberation. As the sole and absolute creative force of the universe, she also sometimes is identified as shakti (power). Sometimes used as a name for the Goddess herself, shakti is the ultimate principle, the source of all; it is the dynamic, manifesting energy of creation, while the male god is the static, unmanifested aspect of reality. Yogis regard shakti as the dormant power (kundalīnī) in the body that must be awakened in order to rise to the final chakra at the top of the head to achieve liberation.

There are countless forms of the Goddess in Hinduism; one text, the Lalitāsahasranāma, provides a list of 1,008 names, but there are, in fact, far too many to obtain an accurate count. They all, however, are emanations or manifestations of Devī. The innumerable manifestations can be grouped into two general categories, the invincible aspect and the benevolent aspect, both of which nurture the practitioner in the quest for spiritual release.

Her invincible forms

Of the invincible manifestations, Durgā, Ambikā, the Saptamātrikās and later Ashtamātrikās, and Kālī are among the most prominent. The beautiful Durgā was born to slaughter the powerful demon Mahishāsura, the symbolic personification of evil and ignorance. So potent was he that the gods were unable to overcome him, thus each was compelled to surrender his individual energy (shakti) and contribute it to the collective force that was the Goddess Durgā. She disposed of the demon with ease; decimating the beast symbolizes obliteration of the tenacious human ego, the element that binds the individual to the cycle of reincarnation.

Called on to obliterate the demons, Shumba and Nishumba, the goddess appeared in the world again as Ambikā in order to wage war on the mighty pair and their demonic forces. The battle was so unrelenting and dangerous that the gods, unable to fight themselves, sent aid in the form of the Saptamātrikās, or the Seven Mothers. They are Brahmānī, Māheshvarī, Kaumārī, Vaishnavī, Vārāhī, Indrānī, the relinquished shaktis of six major Hindu gods, and Chāmundā, the most virulent energy of the Goddess that issued from Ambikā's forehead. Her best-known name in her dark, violent, and formidable form is Kālī; by virtue of her unparalleled valor in defeating the demon generals, Chanda and Munda, however, she was given the name Chāmundā. The Saptamātrikās always appear in a group and are placed strategically in Shiva temples to indicate a point in the circumambulation of the temple when the seeker and deity may merge. Specifically, the Saptamātrikās embody the seven chakras through which the kundalīnī progresses until it is released from the body, at which point the worshiper attains enlightenment. The Saptamātrikās are iconic symbols representing in linear fashion the process of transcendence as it unfolds in the body. Some versions of the myth add an eighth goddess to the group (Astamātrikās). In Nepal, the Astamātrikās became the standard. The Devī Māhātmya identified the eighth as Nārasimhī; various texts give other names.

The invincible Kālī is the manifestation of the goddess often worshiped by Tantric seekers in east India and Nepal. Kālī, the same potent form of the goddess as Chāmundā from the Saptamātrikā group, has been extricated for separate worship. As the final member of the group of seven, she is the deity who presides at the instant of enlightenment. She has a savage power, accompanied by a horrifying howl. She was so intoxicated by her bloody rampage on the battlefield that she could not stop, even when the victory was secure. Wildly, she continued killing through a dance that threatened to topple the universe. Finally, her husband Shiva (in this story he represents the passive potential of creation) lay prone in her path. Inadvertently, she stepped on him, realizing at last that she had been out of control. Thus, her appearance is frightening and portrays her dangerous character; she is extremely scrawny, dark skinned, and wears ornaments of severed heads and snakes and an apron of severed hands. She drinks blood, as witnessed by her lolling red tongue and the blood-filled skull cup that she holds. She is the supreme symbol of death and simultaneously new life, that is, a blissfully enlightened life that relinquishes the ego and overcomes all fear of death. While she is celebrated in iconic form for temple worship and festivals, she is represented by her distinctive yantra for the initiate engaged in ritual.

The Dasa Mahāvidyās (Ten Great Wisdoms) form a group of ten goddesses whose aim is to stretch one's awareness beyond comfortable standards. Several of them threaten the accepted social order and challenge the worshiper to reject the conventional. Their origin derives from a quarrel between Shiva and Pārvatī. The angry Shiva attempted to leave his wife, who then multiplied herself ten times in order to block all the directions and prevent his escape. Each of the ten Mahāvidyās revealed a new truth to Shiva. Not only was Shiva forced to acknowledge the superiority of the goddess, but he became enlightened as well.

The first Mahāvidyā is Kālī, who represents ultimate destruction. She removes attachments and fears. Tārā, the second, is compassionate. She carries scissors for severing attachments and stands, like Kālī, on the prone body of Shiva. The third, Sodashī, is a beautiful sixteen-year-old girl. She provides inspiration and awareness in the three worlds. Bhuvaneshvarī, the fourth, is the mistress of the phenomenal world. She too is beautiful, unlike the fifth of the group, Bhairavī, who is the Goddess of Decay. Symbolically, she destroys all impediments to clearing the mind and sustaining the yogic state. The sixth is a shocking goddess known as Chinnamastā. She chops off her own head to feed her two daughters. From her neck issue three streams of blood: two pour into the mouths of her offspring and the third flows into the mouth of her own severed head. Her role is to halt the activity of the mind and to remove ignorance. The ugly Dhūmāvatī, as the dark widow, brings destruction, hunger, and thirst. To worship her is to induce a nondual state of consciousness. Bagalāmukhī is a dynamic deity who is invoked to obtain siddhis (supernormal powers). She holds the tongue of a demon to still his evil speech. She paralyzes the tongue so that no evil words are emitted and thus thwarts the accumulation of negative karma. The ninth goddess, Mātangī, symbolizes death and impurity through her association with the untouchable class. Finally, Kamalā is beautiful, with a golden complexion; she grants gifts of power, peace, and prosperity in the material world.

While the goddesses mentioned here are still actively venerated in Hinduism, worship of the sixty-four yoginīs has been abandoned. The yoginīs were obscure and esoteric deities that had a following by the ninth century a.d.; they maintained their status in Tantric circles until the fourteenth century. Little can be affirmed, however, about the specifics of their worship because the few texts that survive cloak the esoteric knowledge in coded language. The central figure was Bhairavī, a ferocious form of the Goddess. Yoginīs were both benevolent and malevolent and engaged in a dance of destruction. The goal for their devotees was acquisition of siddhis, or supernatural powers, and the acquisition of all sixty-four siddhis led to perfection. There is an obvious but still rather poorly understood relationship of the sixty-four yoginīs to the Astamātrikās. Some scholars regard the yoginīs as attendants of the goddesses of the eight chakras; thus eight goddesses times eight attendants resulted in a total of sixty-four forms. Others view the yoginīs as manifestations of the eight Mātrikās.

Her benevolent forms

The Tantric pantheon of goddesses includes some benevolent aspects. Today in India and Nepal there survives the active worship of the Shaktipīthas, places where pieces of the body of the goddess Satī fell to Earth. An ancient myth records that the insults leveled by the goddess's father Daksha at her husband Shiva caused the goddess to kill herself in protest. In a great state of grief, Shiva picked up her body and raged across the world. Fearing cataclysmic destruction of the universe, the god Vishnu hurled his discus at her corpse, severing it bit by bit. As the body diminished, Shiva came to his senses and mourned quietly. Each place where a portion of the body fell has become a sacred spot. Shrines at the various locations protect odd stones or icons in remembrance of Satī. Within the sacred precinct, a stone representing Shiva as Bhairava attests to the eternal relationship between the goddess and the god. Tantric yogis attracted to the sacred sites had their graves located in close proximity. The Kalighat Temple in Kolkata is a Shaktipītha. The Kamakhya Temple in Gauhati houses the vagina (yoni) of Satī.

Another of the benign forms of the Tantric goddess is Lalitā Tripurasundarī of the Shrī Vidyā cult. Shrī Vidyā evolved in South India by the seventh century a.d. and later influenced Kashmir Tantrism. Obscure Tantric practices were refined in Shrī Vidyā to a point at which orthodox Brahmanism and Tantrism merged. Lalitā Tripurasundarī is the supreme deity who embodies all aspects of Devī simultaneously. She is represented in ritual by the Shrī yantra, where she resides at the center.

The Tantric God

Shiva is always linked to the Great Goddess, although in Tantrism, he often appears as the fearsome Bhairava. He is worshiped independently in Tantric rites, but more often is paired with the Goddess. The relationship of the Goddess and Bhairava is an extremely complicated one. In Tantrism, he in effect symbolizes the consecrated sacrificer; therefore, the devotee, by ritually identifying with the Godhead, achieves blissful union with the Goddess.

While Tantric rituals must conform to complex criteria, they are in and of themselves valueless unless their inner significance is understood by the practitioner; they are external rites that mirror internal conscious activity. Ultimately, the goal of the ritual is to dissolve vain distinctions between subject and object, internal and external, and to realize undivided oneness. Deities are worshiped to rid the individual of weaknesses and all fetters that prevent liberation. Once the bonds are severed, oneness is then realized through the process called "cosmicization." The process entails a fusion of the collective (the divine) with the individual seeker's consciousness. "Cosmicization" is undertaken through the use of the yantra or mandala, a diagrammed energy grid that, when combined with proper training and meditation, is the means through which union is achieved. As part of the ritual, the practitioner studies the yantra until it is committed to memory (called the absorption concentration). Once the image is perfectly constructed as a mental image, it is regarded as being one thousand times more purified than the original. The potent mind image reenacts the movements of the cosmos and embodies the divine union of opposites. Within the yantra are the trikona, consisting of upward pointing triangles, representing the God Shiva, and inverted triangles representing the Goddess. The idea is symbolized by the interaction of male and female triangles that eventually become united in the bindu, or the nucleus, symbolizing the union of all opposites, zero, infinity, creation and destruction, subject and object. The yantra is a dynamic symbol of the cosmos; hence it is represented as an expanding form emanating from the central dimensionless bindu, the sacred dwelling place of the deity. Such symbols are not static, but dynamic graphs of the creative process of cosmic evolution and involution.

Katherine Anne Harper

See alsoDevī ; Goddess Images ; Shiva and Shaivism


Bhattacharyya, N. N. History of the Tantric Religion. New Delhi: Manohar Publishers, 1999.

Brown, C. Mackenzie. The Triumph of the Goddess. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990.

Gupta, Sanjukta, Dirk Jan Hoes, and Teun Goudriaan. Hindu Tantrism. Leiden, Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1979.

Harper, Katherine Anne, and Robert L. Brown. The Roots of Tantra. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2002.