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DEVĪ Special women and men who serve as possession ritualists in India today often insist there are 101 goddesses. For clients seeking answers to their personal problems, these ritualists may assume the facial, bodily, and vocal guises of one or more than a dozen goddesses who briefly descend on and enter them. It would not be difficult to solicit from their oral narratives the names of far more than 101 goddesses, and some Sanskrit texts declare 1,008 is the right number. Possession ritualists often mention one particular goddess who is Ādishakti—primal "energy" (shakti), the original, a goddess who is Parashakti, the transcendent source of all others and the ground of being itself. Sometimes this Ur-goddess is given a name, Devī, a great Goddess behind all manifestations, as Vishnu is the transcendent god behind all avatāras. Devī, the feminine form of deva, or "god," occurs in the Rig Veda and subsequent Brahmanical texts. Devī continues to hold two meanings, one an alternate name for a particular known goddess, another as generic term for "the goddess," sometimes augmented as Mahādevī, or "great goddess." Goddesses in general are called "mother" (mātā or amma), and it is significant that with respect to shakti as her nature, every female, regardless of age and experience, is also "mother" and therefore a goddess representation. This overview identifies major goddesses of the Hindu textual and ritual tradition but keeps in view the yellow circle on a wall in millions of kitchens, a patch of turmeric paste known simply as Devī.

Goddesses in Prehistory and the Vedas

Recent archaeology has interpreted upright triangular stones in a nine-thousand-year-old hunter-gatherer site as evidence of a goddess cult, an altar not unlike those still in use today. Substantial excavations in urban levels of Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro revealed multitudes of terra-cotta female figurines, indicating widespread popularity of goddess cults in the Indus Valley in the third and second millennia b.c. One of many remarkable Indus seals (DK 6847) seems to depict a goddess in a fig tree about to receive the sacrifice of a markhor goat, a kneeling male worshiper with hands raised in reverence, and a line of seven female figures beneath. Another seal has a female giving birth to a tree, and many show a powerful buffalo-headed god. Until the Vedas, however, there are no texts to provide names, myths, or rituals.

Although gods such as Indra, Varuṇa, Agni, and Soma take the lion's share of Rig Vedic hymns, some of the most beautiful poems are addressed to goddesses, many of them in contexts of creation, primal energy, elemental powers, and motherhood. An archaic primal pair invoked in the dual is Dyāavaprithivī (Dyaus-Prithivī), literally sky and earth, but also bull and cow, father and mother, immortal parents of the gods. The earth, Prithivī, is also known as Bhūmi, as in 10.18.11, a funeral hymn beseeching her to cover the deceased as gently as a mother covers her child. Invoked in the Rig Veda, although rarely mentioned in Vedic literature as a whole, is Sītā, the plowed "furrow." Ushas, or "dawn," is addressed in twenty hymns celebrating her as lovely daughter of heaven and sister of the star-lit night, Rātrī, another goddess. Aditi, the "boundless," free of all restraints, is mother of eight Ādityas, including Mitra, Varuṇa, and Aryaman, gods of sovereignty, order, and principle. As personifications of speech, Vāc and Sarasvatī are both key figures whose roles remain prominent through Hindu tradition. On the cosmic plane, it is Vāc who forthrightly declares supremacy as the first being worthy of worship, a queen with multiple forms and locales (Rig Veda 10.125), and at the personal level, according to the later Grihya Sūtras, her name should be heard three times at birth in an infant's first appropriation of sacred wisdom. Like Purusha, three-quarters of Vāc remains unmanifest. Vāc has recently been interpreted not merely as goddess of ritual speech but as goddess of victory in war. In addition to her link to speech, Sarasvatī is associated with sacred rivers, both celestial and terrestrial. An entire assembly of the wives of the gods, devānāṃpatnīh., is addressed in early Saṃhitās and receives special offerings in twice-monthly sacrifices according to Brāhmaṇa texts.

In the early Saṃhitās, shrī is a term denoting royal power, prosperity, good fortune, radiance, and beauty. Personified as a goddess in Shatapatha Brāhmaṇa, born of Prajāpati's creative heat, she astonishes an assembly of nine gods and the goddess Savitrī, each of them lacking, then appropriating, one of her ten potent qualities. This myth is a prefiguration of later accounts of the collective powers of Devī, unique among deities. The ShrīSūkta (hymn) praises the goddess along with elephants and lotuses, symbols of abundant rain and fertility. As Shrī is Lakshmī, or good fortune, her sister Alakshmī is a negative power, misfortune. In post-Vedic texts, Shrī-Lakshmī, alongside Pārvatī and Durgā, becomes one of the three most popular goddesses of classical Hinduism and is most frequently paired with her husband Vishnu.

In addition to explicit goddesses, the Rig Veda and Atharva Veda mention more than fifty names of those who might be described as feminine powers. A markedly contradictory pair is Nirriti and Anumati, the former concerned with denial, destruction, and death, the latter with assent, prosperity, and life. The two are ritually balanced in a manner found later in a single goddess. The Gnaḥis an archaic group connected with speech and poetic meters. Rākā, Sinīvālī, and Kuhū (e.g., Atharva Veda 7.46–48) are shadowy females who may carry an Indo-European heritage as midwives of destiny, a trio similar to the Moira, Parcae, Norns, and Dieves Valditoyes of ancient Greece, Rome, Scandinavia, and Lithuania, respectively. As guardians of the embryo and shapers of human fate, their concerns are sacred space, time, and life substance. Already in the early Saṃhitās there appears a tension between the sacrificial cult with supervisory masculine deities and cosmic concerns and the folk religion of the Atharva Veda, which permits glimpses of unchecked feminine powers, particularly concerning life-cycle mysteries and certain other domestic rituals, charms, and spells.

The Saṃhitās do not name Durgā. However, myths and cults of Sumerian Inanna (the later Akkadian Ishtar), the powerful goddess of sexuality, fertility, and war, may have influenced the growth of similar goddess traditions from the Mediterranean and Anatolia eastward through Iran to the Indus and adjacent regions. Inanna's ally as mount or companion was a lion, and her central narrative included the death and resurrection of her lover/husband Dumuzi (Akkadian Tammuz). Myths and cults of a goddess similar to Durgā of the later Purāṇas may have been fundamental to some regions of northwest India and Afghanistan prior to, and then contemporary with, the Rig Vedic Aryans.

Epics and Purāṇas

Although composition of the two great Sanskrit epics occurred in the broad period between about 500 b.c. and a.d. 400, certain archaic features suggest an older legacy for some myths. Several Vedic goddesses and feminine powers endure in the Mahābhārata and Rāmāyaṇa, numerous others appear for the first time, and heroines such as Savitrī, Draupadī, and Sītā live on to become favored goddesses many centuries after their initial epic roles.

A goddess not in the Vedas who becomes as popular as Lakshmī is Pārvatī, daughter of the mountain Himālaya. As Lakshmī is wedded to Vishnu, Pārvatī is best known as the consort of Shiva. She goes by many names, including Gaurī, Umā, and Kālī. Frequently she is said to be a reappearance of Satī, the wife of Shiva who immolated herself in a sacrificial fire when Shiva was insulted by her own father, Daksha. Shiva went berserk at this cruel loss and bore her body into the skies until Vishnu, tasked with returning Shiva to order, sliced Satī into pieces, which fell to earth and became her pīthas, or centers of worship. This myth, taken up in several of the Purāṇas, explained the origin of more than fifty sites of Devī scattered throughout India, and reinforced in Satī-Pārvatī the connections with earth that had begun with Rig Vedic Prithivī, Bhū, and no doubt hundreds of nameless regional goddesses.

Despite the ascetic-minded Shiva's opposition to fathering a child, and without a normal birth, Pārvatī's maternal cravings were satisfied by the creation of two sons in separate myths. Kārttikeya (or Skanda) was born of Shiva's fiery semen spilled in the Ganges. Like a doll, Gaṇesha was made by Shiva from cloth for Pārvatī to nurse as son. Shiva and Pārvatī reveal the same tension between creative asceticism, fueled by the performance of austerities (tapas) for extensive periods, and thunderous lovemaking, also for vast ages until all the gods are alarmed by earthquakes. According to the Purāṇas, the sometimes fractious pair engage in endless games of dice, with throws corresponding to the cycle of yugas. Pārvatī always wins. She is credited with the emergence of Shiva's third eye when she playfully covered his eyes during his meditation.

For the most part, the benign aspects of Pārvatī are sufficient to stabilize and domesticate the wild side of Shiva, the outsider god. When seated in her yoni, his permanently erect liṇga represents totality, an order canceling chaos. In the language of philosophy, she is prakriti, primal matter that complements his transcendent spirit, purusha. As the left side of Shiva when he becomes Ardhanārīshvara, the god who is half female, Pārvatī provides the same completeness as when her yoni encircles his member in myth and in the temple and shrine altars that later became standard for Shaiva worship.

Like Durgā, Sāvitrī is a goddess who may have had pre-Vedic Indus Valley Civilization roots before surfacing in the Mahābhārata. She is the indomitable heroine who outwits Death himself to resurrect her young husband, Satyavān, in a myth that was expanded in many Purāṇas and served as the source for a woman's vrata (vow), widely practiced today. Sāvitrī is associated with another archaic female, Rohiṇī, both the "red girl" or bride at menarche and the "red star" Aldebaran in solar-stellar time reckoning.

The two principal figures in the Rāmāyaṇa of Vālmīki, perhaps the earlier of the two epics, are Rāma, heroic warrior prince of Ayodhyā, and his wife Sītā, who was said to have appeared as a "furrow" in a crop field. To the central narrative belong the abduction of Sītā by the demon Rāvaṇa, king of Laṇkā, the subsequent battle for her rescue, Rāma's doubts about her chastity during captivity, her exile to the forest, and two conflicting endings to the narrative. In one she voluntarily steps into a funeral fire and is consumed, then is restored to a royal life by Brahmā, who declares her to be the virtuous goddess Lakshmī, even as Rāma is Vishnu. In the other version, a late addition, the earth, her mother, opens to accept her back, and the epic continues without her. Later regional versions of the Sanskrit Rāmāyaṇa followed in Tamil, Hindi, Bengali, and other languages from the twelfth century on, and Sītā became not only a permanent member of the pantheon but also a role model of loyalty and suffering for all women.

The Mahābhārata perpetuated particular groups known as mātāras or mātrikās (Mothers), variously seven, eight, nine, ten, or sixteen in number, usually considered to be on the dark side of feminine power. One prominent list of seven is the saptamātrikās, often identified as wives of the seven Rishis, as well as the constellation Pleiades. Along with Skanda-Kārttikeya, mātrikās can be demonesses afflicting a fetus or child with disease or death up to the age of sixteen. They are grahas (seizers), often confused in popular etymology with the nine celestial grahas of astrological reckoning.

It is the Purāṇas that elevated to greater prominence the goddesses Lakshmī and Pārvatī, wives of the two greatest gods, Vishnu and Shiva, along with Sarasvatī, now the wife of Brahmā, and a number of other goddesses, including great rivers such as Gaṇgā (the Ganges) and Yamunā. Lakshmī was featured in both epics as a treasured product of the churning of the ocean by warring gods and demons and this myth became a stock reference in the Purāṇas. But one Purāṇa, the Mārkaṇḍeya, emerged with a definitive set of myths of Mahādevī, the great goddess. Chapters 81–93 are an oft-recited sixth-century text known as the Devī Māhātmya. In the ongoing wars between gods and demons, the latter, the Asuras, are victorious and the world imperiled. No god, not even Vishnu or Shiva, can stand against Mahisha, the buffalo-headed Asura champion. The salvation of the world occurs only when the combined tejas, fiery splendor, of all the gods merges into a woman who becomes the invincible Devī. In detailed descriptions of horrific combat, Devī, aided by her ferocious lion, is called Caṇḍikā, Ambikā, Shrī, Durgā, and some thirty other names as she easily dispatches demon hordes and generals with trident, spear, arrows, sword, noose, thunderbolt, discus, and other weapons provided by the powerless gods. First, Mahisha is beheaded by her sword, then as Devī turns into the dreaded Kālī, with black face and lolling tongue, the demon pair Caṇḍa and Muṇḍa meet the same fate. Next, Raktabīja, whose every drop of spilled blood becomes yet another demon, falls lifeless as the insatiable goddess with cruel laughter drinks his blood. Finally, in ultimate victory, she spears to death the last demon pair, Shumba and Nishumba, kings who had foolishly attempted to woo this beautiful, deadly goddess.

While the majority of goddesses are married and more or less subordinate to their divine husbands, it is the independence of ferocious and warlike Durgā and Kālī that sets them apart and suggests an indigenous, non-Aryan heritage. Durgā became known as Mahishamardinī, slayer of the buffalo-headed Mahisha, and her autumn festival, Durgā-pūjā, celebrated her victory, complete with the beheading of a buffalo. Some versions of her career have Mahisha as her lover or husband, slain and resurrected as her devotee, and still today Pōtu Rāju takes that role in Andhra Pradesh. Tales of impassioned warriors who decapitate or disembowel themselves in self-sacrifice before the goddess are extensions of this motif, literal variants of the symbolic themes of ātmayajña in epic as well as later bhakti traditions.

In classical Hinduism, neither Durgā nor Kālī is a mother, the two sons of Pārvatī are born without her assistance, and Shrī-Lakshmī, while closely associated with agricultural fertility and the ideal wife to Vishnu, is not celebrated as a mother. And yet first the epics and then the Purāṇas featured groups of mātrikās (mothers), many of them destroyers of children. A late assembly, documented from the tenth century, is said to haunt every cremation-burial ground. Popularly known in North India as Mahāvidyās, they are another illustration of a great goddess with multiple forms, in this case ten. They include Kālī as leader, Tārā, Tripura-sundarī, Bhuvaneshvarī, the self-decapitating Chinnamastā, Bhairavī, Dhūmāvatī, Bagalāmukhī, Mātaṇgī—all fierce—and one benign cohort, Kamalā, a variant of Srī-Lakshmī. Tantric worship centers upon them, particularly the vāmācāra, or left-hand path, whereas the comparatively benign Durgā may be favored by the moderate right-hand path of yoga. The seven mothers lived on, often as neighborhood goddesses of epidemic disease. One of the most deadly on the subcontinent until the mid-1970s was smallpox, Mother Pox: ShītalāMātāin the North, Māriyamman in the South, and Manasāthe serpent goddess in Bengal.

The tenth-century Bhāgavata Purāṇa contains popular myths of Krishna and the gopīs, the souls of humans who adore him and, although married women, long to unite with him, deplore his absence, and go as a lamenting group to find him. Until Krishna eventually multiplies himself to dance with all the gopīs, one among them seems to be successful in love-play with the god. It remains for the Gītā govinda, a twelfth-century Sanskrit devotional poem by Jayadeva, to provide her name, Rādhā. Like Sāvitrī, Draupadī, and Sītā, this singular heroine is elevated to goddess status in the Brahmavaivarta Purāṇa and the Devī-bhāgavata Purāṇa. A portion of the latter work, known as the DevīGītā, became popular as an independent text at some point between the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries. The emphasis in the Devī-Bhāgavata and its Gītā encapsulation is on Devī as cosmic Mother, sovereign of all, nurturer, and provider of saving wisdom.

Major Purāṇas were adapted into Tamil, and numerous sthalapurāṇas focusing on regional temple and pilgrimage traditions of South India were produced in Sanskrit, Tamil, or both languages. Several great temples became known for annual festivals celebrating the sacred marriage of goddesses and gods. Best known is the Madurai temple tradition, observing the wedding of Mīnākshī and Sundareshvara and following a Tamil text titled Shiva's Sacred Games. Mīnākshī, the "fish-eyed goddess" and queen, is a form of Pārvatī, as Sundareshvara is a manifestation of Shiva; their marriage lasts for ten or more days in the month of Citrā (April–May). The heroine-goddess of the Tamil epic Shilappatikāram is Kannaki, punisher of an unjust kingdom, who destroys Madurai in her all-consuming wrath by tearing off her left breast and hurling it at the city.

Goddesses in Action

Only a fraction of existing goddesses have been mentioned at this point. And new goddesses do emerge. In the 1950s the goddess of contentment SantoshīMā was worshiped by a small following. In 1975, however, a film-musical, Jay SantoshīMā, expanded her circle of devotees nationwide, and vows, fasts, tracts, shrines, temples, and pilgrimages quickly followed. And living goddesses also appear. Ammachi, born in Kerala in 1953, has traveled with devotional musicians throughout the United States to give darshan (sight) to her devotees. The ecstatic career of Ānandamāyi Mā (1896–1982) spread her following from East Bengal in the 1920s to more than a score of ashrams and gained the attention of India's ruling elite.

One feature of goddesses in India is their high visibility in daily life. They do not remain passive images waiting for worship. Knowing that goddesses specialize in māyā (illusion), people may glimpse them in the night, or hear ankle bells when they pass by. Every village, town, or great metropolis has multiple neighborhood goddesses, each belonging to a specific zone—literally, her turf—connecting crop fields, the food given by her soil, and her devotees who reside and work upon her. Her borders are well defined, even in a crowded city, and her festivals—for example, the nine nights of Durgā-pūjā—are ritual occasions to reinforce her lines of control vis-àvis other goddesses, gods, and demonic powers. In South India, those who are possessed by a fierce neighborhood goddess may rage from border to border demanding blood; the culminating rituals before her image are the beheadings of goats, surrogates in modern times for the buffalo (Mahisha) of a few decades ago. All goddesses, gentle vegetarians as well as the passionately horrific, may be carried in processions to circumambulate the neighborhood or entire village. The most violent may be extremely reluctant to leave their temples, particularly ancient ones, and must be coaxed, coerced, then forced out to maintain the borders. The goddess Gaṇgamma, a heap of coiled and knotted jute ropes in a grain basket, will be lowered once a year from her guardian post high in the rafters. Goddesses of epidemic diseases such as poxes, cholera, and plague may live right on the neighborhood border. Once a year, in the hot season when diseases strike, they will be invited into the neighborhood, where each becomes "sister" to all residents. In some regions, the goddess sleeps on every hearth, and no cooking can be done. The expectation is that each honored guest (and her dread disease) will depart with as little damage as possible.

Neighborhood possession ritualists capable of harboring goddesses and spirits of the dead will be routinely consulted by pople who desire to know the well-being of their deceased loved ones, particularly children, or who crave answers to everyday problems such as oppressive dreams, a lost watch, "body weakness," and the like. Those possessed will exhibit in speech and movement all the mood swings of the goddess between states of rage and repose. Devotees expect consistent ambiguity, the very nature of shakti in a world that betrays malevolence and benevolence in unforeseen measure.

Suffixed with the honorific "Mother" (mātā in the North, amma in the South), neighborhood goddesses may have personal names known only to a limited region. A farmer, fisher, or washer-caste person may, for example, find in a plowed field or the river an old goddess image or a curiously shaped stone, set it up for the community, and someone will provide the name by which it will be worshiped. Traits in her local lore or iconography may link her to a classical, textual goddess, but in some cases she appears to stand alone in a private oral tradition.

Today innumerable goddesses receive worship in home shrines, usually located close to cooking and dining areas. They are represented by small framed lithographs or images of brass, wood, terra-cotta, or a patch of turmeric paste on the wall with saffron lines and dots. Most goddesses receive special pūjā (worship) during the bright half of a lunar month, sometimes as many as half a dozen different goddesses in fourteen days. But even the inauspicious dark half will contain days, such as every eighth for Kālī, or the seventh of Shrāvaṇa (July–August) or eighth of Phālguna (February–March) for the pox goddess. In many regions, Thursdays or Fridays of certain months are days to leave the house and worship in a temple or roadside shrine of Lakshmī, while certain Tuesdays are reserved for Gaurī, who also has multiday festivals, depending on regional customs, in Vaishākha (April–May) and Bhādrapada (August–September). The Sāvitrī vrata (vow) is fulfilled in Jyeshṭha (May–June) when women water, then wrap thread around a banyan tree as many as 108 times while hearing again of the cleverness and persistence of Sāvitrī in resurrecting her husband Satyavān from the grasp of Yama. This vow shelters her own husband from death and therefore herself from painful widowhood. Sītā's birthday is in Vaishākha, and in Shrāvaṇa ( July–August) the swinging festival for Rādhā and Krishna is a joyous five-day celebration. The busiest festival of the year is Navarātra, the "nine nights" of Durgā-pūjāat autumn harvest time in Āshvina (September–October), when neighborhoods create on bamboo frames paper and clay images of Durgā that are worshiped, paraded, then abandoned in a river. As goddess of learning, Sarasvatīis worshiped earlier in the same month, particularly by teachers, students, and musicians. Kārttika (October–November) is exceptional for Lakshmī and the festival of lamps, but there is also a special Kālī pūjā. Caitra (March–April) begins the new year and the hot season with another Navarātra featuring goddesses on the move every night, and the bountiful harvest-mother Annapūrṇāis honored in the home or a local shrine.

David M. Knipe

See alsoGoddess Images ; Shiva and Shaivism ; Vishnu and Avatāras


Brown, C. Mackenzie. The DevīGītā, the Song of the Goddess: A Translation, Annotation and Commentary. Albany: State University of New York, 1998. Sanskrit text translated with detailed comments on this brief portion of the much longer Devī-bhāgavata Purāṇa.

Erndl, Kathleen M. Victory to the Mother: The Hindu Goddess of Northwest India in Myth, Ritual, and Symbol. New York: Oxford University, 1993. A study of Sherānvālī, the Lion Rider, in the Panjab, Haryana, Chandigarh, Delhi, and Himachal Pradesh; 20 illustrations.

Harman, William P. The Sacred Marriage of a Hindu Goddess. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989. Madurai is the locus of the annual ten-day festival marriage of Shiva and Mīnākshī; appendix with translation from Tamil of the chapter on sacred marriage from Shiva's Sacred Games; 20 illustrations.

Hawley, John S., and Donna M. Wulff, eds. Devī: Goddesses of India. Berkeley: University of California, 1996. Thirteen essays divided between the "goddess as supreme and goddess as consort" and "goddesses who mother and possess"; 31 illustrations.

Hiltebeitel, Alf. The Cult of Draupadī. 2 vols. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988–1991.

——. Rethinking India's Oral and Classical Epics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999. These three volumes track Draupadī from her origins as heroine in the Sanskrit Mahābhārata to her career as goddess of a popular South Indian cult; the third volume also considers numerous other oral epics, including Muslim as well as Hindu; 34, 38, and 18 illustrations.

Kinsley, David. Hindu Goddesses: Visions of the Divine Feminine in the Hindu Religious Tradition. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986. A comprehensive and reliable introduction, with chapters devoted to major goddesses and groups; 17 illustrations.

——. Tantric Visions of the Divine Feminine: The Ten Mahāvidyās. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997. Monograph on Kālī and other fierce goddesses known since the tenth century in North India as a group called the Mahāvidyās; 41 illustrations.

Knipe, David M. "Balancing Raudra and Sānti: Rage and Repose in States of Possession." In Vidyārṇavandanam: Essays in Honour of Asko Parpola, edited by Klaus Karttunen and Petteri Koskikallio. Helsinki: Studia Orientalia, 2001. Study of possession ritualists who embody and speak as goddesses in coastal Andhra; 4 illustrations.

Kumar, P. Pratap. The Goddess Laksmī: The Divine Consort in South Indian Vaisṇava Tradition. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1997. A study of Shrī Lakshmī from the Pañcarātra Āgamas through Rāmānuja to contemporary Shrī Vaisṇavism.

Meyer, Eveline. Aṇkāḷaparamēcuvari: A Goddess of Tamilnadu, Her Myths and Cult. Wiesbaden: Franz Steiner, 1986. Detailed monograph on myths and rituals of the fierce goddess Aṇkāḷamman̄ and her devotees; 25 illustrations.

Michaels, Axel, Cornelia Vogelsanger, and AnnetteWilke, eds. Wild Goddesses in India and Nepal. Bern: Peter Lang, 1996. A good introduction discusses the choice of "wild" in the title; 18 essays from Sanskrit and vernacular sources on a variety of regional and classical goddesses, including Durgā, Kālī, Draupadī; 45 illustrations, 9 in color.

Parpola, Asko. "Vāc as a Goddess of Victory in the Veda and Her Relation to Durgā." Zinbun: Annals of the Institute for Research in Humanities, Kyoto University 34 (1999): 101–143.

——. "The Religious Background of the Sāvitrī Legend." In Harānandalaharī, edited by Ryutaro Tsuchida and Albrecht Wetzler. Reinbek: Dr. Inge Wezler Verlag für Orientalistische Fachpublikationen, 2000. These two essays summarize and update his earlier works with important insights on pre-Vedic and Vedic roots of Sāvitrī, Gāyatrī, Rohiṇī, Vāc, Durgā, Kālī, and traditions of sacrifice.

Pintchman, Tracy. The Rise of the Goddess in the Hindu Tradition. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994. A survey of the feminine principle in Vedas and Purāṇas, with attention, to prakṛti, māyā, and shakti in philosophical discourse.

Shulman, David D. Tamil Temple Myth: Sacrifice and Divine Marriage in the South Indian Saiva Tradition. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University, 1980. Chapter 7 examines in detail Tamil motifs of Devī as bride—reluctant, lustful, murderous, maternal, and double; 6 illustrations.

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Alternate Names

Mahadevi, Kali, Durga, Parvati

Appears In

The Vedas


Wife of Shiva

Character Overview

Devi is the major goddess in the Hindu pantheon, or collection of gods. Known both as Devi (which in Sanskrit means “goddess”) and Mahadevi (”great goddess”), she takes many different forms and is worshipped both as a kind goddess and as a fierce one. In all of her forms, she is the wife of the Shiva (pronounced SHEE-vuh), the god of destruction.

Major Myths

In the form of Durga, Devi is a warrior goddess charged with protecting the gods and the world from powerful demons. The gods used their combined strength to create Durga when they were unable to overpower a terrible buffalo demon named Mahisha (pronounced muh-HEE-shuh). They gave Durga ten arms—so she could hold many weapons—and a tiger to carry her into battle. Durga and Mahisha fought a long, terrible, and bloody battle in which the two opponents changed shape many times. Durga finally managed to kill the demon by piercing his heart with a trident and cutting off his head.

Devi also takes gender forms. As Sati (pronounced suh-TEE), a loyal wife to Shiva, she burned herself alive to defend his honor and prove her love. When Shiva refused to let go of Sati's burning body, the god Vishnu (pronounced VISH-noo) had to cut her body out of his arms. Her remains were then cut into fifty pieces and scattered to different places that became shrines. As Parvati (pronounced PAR-vuh-tee), Devi is a gentle and loving wife who went through great sacrifice to win Shiva's love. Parvati has a softening influence on the harsh god and is often portrayed as an idealized beauty or pictured with Shiva in domestic scenes.

Another, and quite different, form of Devi is the fierce Kali (pronounced KAH-lee). Like Durga, Kali defends the world from demons, but she can go into a rage and lose control. When she blindly begins to kill innocent people, the gods have to intervene. On one occasion, Shiva threw himself among the bodies she was trampling to bring her out of her madness. Images of Kali show her with black skin, three eyes, fangs, and four arms. She wears a necklace of skulls and carries weapons and a severed head. She is usually portrayed with her tongue hanging out in recognition of her victory over the demon Raktavira (pronounced rahk-tah-VEER-uh). To make sure that Raktavira was truly dead, Kali had to suck the blood out of his body because any drop that fell to the ground would produce a duplicate of him.

There are numerous other forms of Devi. As Uma (pronounced OO-ma), she appears as the golden goddess, personifying light and beauty. As Hariti (pronounced huh-REE-tee), she is the goddess of childbirth. As Gauri (pronounced GAH-ree), she represents the harvest or fertility, and as Manasa (pronounced mah-NAH-sah), she is the goddess of snakes. When she takes the role of mother of the world, Devi is known as Jaganmata (pronounced jahg-ahn-MAH-tah).

Devi in Context

It is not uncommon in Hinduism for one god or goddess to have many different forms. For example, the god Shiva is known as Rudra (pronounced ROOD-ruh) in his fierce and wild form, and Bhairava (bah-ee-RAH-vah) in one of his more destructive forms. Sankara (pronounced SAHN-kah-rah) and Sambhu (pronounced sahm-BOO) are two of the god's more helpful or beneficent representations.

In the case of Devi, the one single goddess can serve a great number of functions to those who worship her, depending upon the form of Devi they praise. This makes her one of the most important figures in the Hindu religion.

Devi and her many forms probably date back to the mother goddess worshipped in India in prehistoric times. Ancient civilizations around the world, including India, worshipped mother goddesses because in human fertility they saw a parallel to the fertility of the earth around them—the growth of plants and abundance of wild and domesticated animals they relied on for survival. While these mother goddesses eventually became secondary to male gods in much of the world, Devi has retained a place of great stature in India.

Key Themes and Symbols

Because Devi can be found in so many different forms, she may symbolize many different things. For example, Sati and Parvati symbolize love and loyalty. The goddess Saraswati (pronounced sah-rah-SWAH-tee) symbolizes knowledge, art, and science. Durga and Kali both can represent strength and vengeance. In addition, Kali often symbolizes uncontrollable violence and rage. Most often, however, Devi symbolizes motherhood, fertility, and beauty.

The image of the goddess as Kali is perhaps the depiction best known to those outside the Hindu culture, and her fierce wild image can be bewildering to Western eyes, to whom she resembles a black, fanged, bloodthirsty beast. But in the Hindu faith, she represents the unformed, terrifying, true chaotic beginning of all things—the origin, the mother, but also death and destruction. Her blackness symbolizes the void, the beginning of everything, including space and time. Her nakedness represents her freedom from illusions. Her breasts represent her motherhood of all.

Devi in Art, Literature, and Everyday Life

Devi appears throughout ancient Hindu literature in her many forms. Some of these forms were once considered separate goddesses, such as Kali. Each of these different forms is depicted differendy in Hindu art. For example, Kali is often depicted as having four arms, blue skin, and wearing a necklace of human heads. Saraswati is shown with yellow skin and wearing white.

Kali is also often pictured standing or trampling on Shiva, her husband, which also presents some confusion. Scholars debate the symbolic meaning of these images. Is she trampling her own husband because she wants to destroy the world? Is she just asserting her dominance? There is no single, accepted interpretation.

Read, Write, Think, Discuss

In Hindu mythology, the goddess Devi has many different forms, only some of which are mentioned here. Using your library, the Internet, or other resources, find at least two other forms of the goddess Devi that have not already been mentioned. Write a description of each form, and explain why you think that form is important to Hindu mythology.

SEE ALSO Hinduism and Mythology; Shiva; Vishnu

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Devi is the major goddess in the Hindu pantheon. Known both as Devi (goddess) and Mahadevi (great goddess), she takes many different forms and is worshiped both as a kind goddess and as a fierce one. In all of her forms, she is the wife of the Shiva, the god of destruction.

pantheon all the gods of a particular culture

In the form of Durga, Devi is a warrior goddess charged with protecting the gods and the world from powerful demons. The gods used their combined strength to create Durga when they were unable to overpower a terrible buffalo demon named Mahisha. They gave Durga ten armsso she could hold many weaponsand a tiger to carry her into battle. Durga and Mahisha fought a long, terrible, and bloody battle in which the two opponents changed shape many times. Durga finally managed to kill the demon by piercing his heart with her trident and cutting off his head.

Devi also takes gentler forms. As Sati, a loyal wife to Shiva, she burned herself alive to defend his honor and prove her love. When Shiva refused to let go of Sati's burning body the god Vishnu * had to cut her body out of his arms. Her remains were then cut into 50 pieces and scattered to different places that became shrines. As Parvati, Devi is a gentle and loving wife who went through great sacrifice to win Shiva's love. Parvati has a softening influence on the harsh god and is often portrayed as an idealized beauty or pictured with Shiva in domestic scenes.

Another, and quite different, form of Devi is the fierce Kali. Like Durga, Kali defends the world from demons, but she can go into a rage and lose control. When she blindly begins to kill innocent people, the gods have to intervene. On one occasion, Shiva threw himself among the bodies she was trampling to bring her out of her madness. Images of Kali show her with black skin, three eyes, fangs, and four arms. She wears a necklace of skulls and carries weapons and a severed head. She is usually portrayed with her tongue hanging out in recognition of her victory over the demon Raktavira. To make sure that Raktavira was truly dead, Kali had to suck the blood out of his body because any drop that fell to the ground would produce a duplicate of him.

trident three-pronged spear, similar to a pitchfork

There are numerous other forms of Devi. As Urna, she appears as the golden goddess, personifying light and beauty. As Hariti, she is the goddess of childbirth. As Gauri, she represents the harvest or fertility, and as Manasa, she is the goddess of snakes. When she takes the role of mother of the world, Devi is known as Jaganmata.

See also Hinduism and Mythology; Shiva; Vishnu.

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Devī. Hindu Goddess. The term can be applied to any of the many forms of the Goddess. Initially, they may simply have been the feminine counterpart of the devas, but already by the Vedic period they appear as manifestations of the power inherent in natural phenomena, as e.g. Uṣas (dawn), Rātrī (night), Gaṅgā (Ganges), and other sacred rivers. In the post-Vedic period, many of these features were assimilated in Mahādevī (Great Goddess), who is the source of energy in the cosmos (śākti), the dynamic counterpart of Śiva. For Śāktas, Mahādevī is more than a counterpart: she is the ultimate source, for whom the other gods are servants and agents.

The major forms of Devi are Durgā, Pārvatī, and Kālī.

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Devi ★★★½ The Goddess 1960

A minor film in the Ray canon, it is, nonetheless, a strange and compelling tale of religious superstition. An Indian farmer becomes convinced that his beautiful daughter-in-law is the reincarnation of the goddess Kali. The girl is then pressured into accepting a worship that eventually drives her mad. In Bengali with English subtitles. 93m/B VHS . IN Chhabi Biswas, Sharmila Tagore, Soumitra Chatterjee; D: Satyajit Ray; W: Satyajit Ray; C: Subrata Mitra; M: Ali Akbar Khan.

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Devi in Hindu mythology, the supreme goddess, often identified with Parvati and Sakti.

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