Shakti, the Divine Feminine

Reference Library

Reference Library

The languid gaze. The elegant gesture. The whisper of silk. The goddess serenely voluptuous. The god lithe and supple. Chola Bronzes are among the world’s finest sacred sculpture, with an undeniable vitality, as though they are about to take a breath.

A first impression is over in a heartbeat, but if you take the time to look deeper perhaps you may begin to see them as their Chola creators intended – metaphors in bronze of an absolute divine beauty.

Shailja and I wrote this Reference Library to help you gain a wider understanding of the spiritual context of this extraordinary sacred art. Whether you are casually browsing or searching for something specific, if you don’t find the information you need, just ask and we’ll help you find what you need.

We don’t make any claims to scholarship for this material. It has been written from our personal perspective and,  just as it is for the other billion or so Hindu believers, we have chosen what it is true from the almost limitless array of truths Hinduism offers. You may not agree with everything you read, but one of Hinduism’s wonderful qualities is inclusiveness and acceptance and we hope you’ll accept our Reference Library in the spirit with which it is offered.


Reference Library2020-01-30T11:45:14-08:00

Lakshmi – Goddess of Abundance and Good Fortune

Lakshmi – Goddess of Abundance and Good Fortune

Lakshmi (note 1) is the Shakti aspect of Vishnu and resplendent goddess of wealth and happiness. When expressing the universal principle of beauty, Lakshmi is known as Sri (note 2). Lakshmi not only represents material wealth but also for abundance in courage, knowledge, strength, victory, children, education, etc. Wealth in all its forms is important for the preservation and happiness of life on earth and in her role as nourisher, preserver and provider, Lakshmi bestows her blessings according to the worshipper’s past karma and degree of devotion. Her worshippers are expected to adhere to a strict code of conduct and maintain utmost purity to earn her grace. In Tantric worship, she is worshipped with Mantras and yantras (mystic diagrams). 

As Vishnu’s Shakti aspect, Lakshmi provides the primal creative energy (Prakriti) to his consciousness (Purusha). He is the word, she is the meaning. He is the thought, while she is the action. Whenever Vishnu incarnates on earth in human form, Lakshmi incarnates along with him as they restore dharma to the world. She incarnated as Padma when Vishnu incarnated upon the earth as Vamana, as Dharani when he incarnated as Parasurama, as Sita when he incarnated as Rama and as Rukmini when he incarnated as Krishna.

Lakshmi is traditionally depicted sitting on an open eight petaled lotus, representing the enlightened and pure mind, as she holds lotus flowers in her two hands and holding the other two hands in Abhaya (assurance) and varada (bestowing) mudras (gestures) (note 3). Her complexion varies from pink to golden yellow or white. She is usually associated with water, illustrated by elephants standing on either side of her emptying pitchers through their raised trunks. Sometimes she is shown in the company of Vishnu and sometimes alone, showering gold coins upon her devotees. In the company of Vishnu, she is Samanya Lakshmi with lotuses in both hands with two hands and when alone, she is Varalakshmi with four arms and hands with four hands, holding a lotus, a conch, a pot of nectar and fruit respectively. As an aspect of Mari Amma (Durga), Lakshmi is also depicted with four additional hands, each carrying a bow, an arrow, a mace and a discus. 

Note 1 – translates as “She of the Hundred Thousands”.

Note 2 – Lakshmi and Sri in Vedic times were separate goddesses but amalgamated with the passage of time.

Note 3 – the lotus is Lakshmi’s primary attribute and inextricably linked as both represent immaculate purity and enlightenment. The lotus grows out of mud (samsara) but rises to the surface and opens to the sun (enlightenment). A closed lotus bud represents potential while an open flower symbolizes actualization. 

Lakshmi – Goddess of Abundance and Good Fortune2019-11-19T14:12:59-08:00

The Vedas – That Which was Heard

The Vedas – That Which is Heard

Of the entire body of Hindu sacred texts, The Vedas alone are Sruti, ‘that which was heard.’ Embedded within The Vedas are essential treatises on the nature of Atman, our soul, and its relationship to Brahman, the Ultimate Reality.

Tradition tells of forest-dwelling sages (rishis) who developed a level of consciousness that enabled them to ‘hear’ in their hearts the truths of the universe, hence That Which is Heard. The rishis interpreted these truths to create The Vedas, the core of Hindu belief.

Another origin myth says Brahma created The Vedas whole, spreading them throughout the four directions of the cosmos from the four mouths of his four faces (note 1).

However they came to be, The Vedas are consist of four texts, passed down orally from Brahmin father to son before being transcribed into written Sanskrit some 3500 years ago (notes 2 and 3). As Sruti, The Veda’s four books of hymns, rituals, mantras, theology, are deemed scripture and therefore fixed.

Rig Veda is the oldest of the four and a collection of over 1,000 hymns over 10,000 verses, most of which praise one or another of the Vedic gods, such as Agni, Indra, Varuna, etc. Some of the Rig’s verses remain in use today for rites such as mantras, prayers, funerals and weddings. Some scholars believe some of these prayers and rituals are pre-historic; the Agni fire sacrifice being one (note 4).

Sama Veda is the basis for hymns sung using specific melodies derived from the Rig Veda.

Yajur Veda is a compilation of ritual mantras believed to have psychological and spiritual powers. Mantras are used in ritual and spiritual practice to carry the thoughts and prayers of devotees to the gods and goddesses.

Athar Veda, sometimes called ‘The Veda of magic formulas,’ a compilation of hymns describing esoteric knowledge of things like the treatment of ailments, the making of and defence against spells, domestic rituals such as rites of passage, as well as more in-depth theosophic treatises.

As documents written by mortals, The Vedas have been subject to endless examination, and these observations are set down as the Samhitas, Brahmanas, Aranyakas, as well as early and late Upanishads, and all are deemed sacred by association with The Vedas.

While it is The Vedas, which are the foundation of Hindu belief and practice, it is the early Upanishads which elevate its core values. They were extracted from The Vedas over time and continue to evolve to the present day, where they are widely known as the Vedanta. In turn, the philosophical aspects of the Vedanta are discussed at length in the Brahma Sutra, which delves further into the concept of Brahman and Atman, critiques of other dharmic options such as Buddhism and Jainism, advice on achieving moksha through intense meditation and the benefits of spiritual knowledge.

In south India, The Vedas (Sanskrit for knowledge) are known as Marai (Tamil for ‘hidden, secret, mystery’) and the core of Hindu belief interpreted from a uniquely Tamil perspective. The worship of Shiva and Vishnu, in particular, bear the hallmarks of ancient pre-Vedic beliefs, possibly due to Harappan origins. South India was spared the turmoil of successive invasions such as those suffered in the north, so the old Vedic beliefs remain cohesive.

In pre-Vedic south India, the elemental forces affecting people’s lives were little understood. Mysterious natural events, such as monsoon rains and disease, were appeased through ritual sacrifice and over time the supernatural powers which oversaw these events took physical form as the gods and goddesses of the Hindu pantheon. Deities were believed responsible for almost any event beyond the control of individuals and ritual offerings of prayer, flowers and symbolic food items to the gods and goddesses remain fundamental to the practice of Hinduism.

Over a span of centuries ancient Tamil beliefs, practices and mythology were being absorbed into Vedic beliefs and practices, but that process was interrupted in the 8th century AD when  a devotional revolution took place in south India as the Bhakti movement was born. Wandering Tamil poet-saints singing passionate devotional hymns to Shiva, Vishnu and Shakti ignited a new, intimate, personal mode of worship independent of ritual, gender or caste and its focus on a personal connection between worshipper and deity remains the standard practice throughout Hinduism. Temple worship with priestly intermediaries is common, but Bhakti is the preferred mode of worship for daily puja rituals.

Over 600 years, these hymns and poems were compiled as sacred texts, the Triumurai for those devoted to Shiva, and the Naalayira Divya Prabhandham, dedicated to Vishnu. They were composed in the Tamil language rather than the Vedic Sanskrit, and their passionate devotional hymns and poetic descriptions of the deities became a guide and reference, not just for Hindu scholars, musicians and dancers, but to Chola bronzesmiths as well.

Note 1 – It is said that Brahma created the seers solely to hear The Vedas and share them with humankind.

Note 2 – As facilitators of temple ritual, young Brahmins were, and are, required to memorize the Vedic hymns and mantras they will perform throughout their lives with subtle nuances of intonation and rhythm. Fastidious cross-checks ensure virtually no errors occur as this sacred knowledge is passed down through generations, and this oral tradition remains strong even today, with one Brahmin family in south India reportedly having passed The Vedas down without error for 3000 years.

Note 3 – Exactly when The Vedas were written down is unknown and likely to remain so. Contemporary Hindu nationalists in India claim The Vedas pre-date any other world religion, but because memory and speech leave no trace, that assertion is impossible to confirm. What no historian disputes, however, is Hinduism’s place as the world’s oldest living religion.

Note 4 – When Shailja and I married, the ceremony involved a series of sacrificial rites in Sanskrit around the temple’s sacred fire, all features of Vedic rituals.

The Vedas – That Which was Heard2019-11-07T09:38:55-08:00

Saraswati – Goddess of Knowledge and Music

Saraswati – Goddess of Knowledge and Music

Saraswati is young, beautiful, graceful, and alongside Uma and Lakshmi, very much the Maha Devi, or Great Goddess. She fearlessly challenges the great male gods when they try to manipulate her and the only female goddess to keep her name, rank and power intact throughout the millennia. It was Saraswati who organized and transcribed The Vedas, again out of the formless Brahman. She is also responsible for all non-Vedic knowledge (note 1), music, yoga, ritual, speech, Sanskrit and the units of measurement and time (note 2). She personifies civilized behaviour, refined taste and the arts.

She is always dressed in spotless white, the colour of light, knowledge and truth, and seated either on a white lotus or swan. She may have four arms or less often just two. If four, she may hold the same attributes as Brahma or a stringed instrument (veena), representing the arts and sciences, and all emotions and feelings expressed in speech or music (anuraga). Finally, Saraswati is often depicted near water, a reference to her ancient Rig Veda history as a river goddess (note 3).

In the Vac Sutra, Saraswati boasts:

“I move among the Gods, I hold them, sustain them… whosoever breathes, sees, hears or eats does so because of me… I create powerful creators and embed them with wisdom and sight… my powers overflow the universe.”

Note 1 – On the fifth day of spring, the festival Vasant Panchami honours Saraswati by teaching young children the alphabet. It is also an Indian tradition that if you step on a book (a symbol of knowledge and therefore Saraswati), you must perform a mudra of apology with the right hand.

Note 2 – Time (Kala) is another term for Yama, the god of Death. At the time of one’s death the soul (Atman, or essence) may depart one of two ways; the Way of the Gods, which brings it through days, bright fortnights, the half-year of the northern course of the sun, to the full year and eventually to Brahman; or the Way of the Ancestors, through nights, dark fortnights, the half-year of the southern course of the sun, and, failing to reach the full year, eventually back to earth clinging to raindrops. If the soul happens to fall upon a plant and that plant is subsequently eaten by a man, the man may impregnate a woman, and thus the soul may be reborn.

Note 3 – Saraswati is also the name of a river which once flowed in the Thar Desert but lost due to a shift in monsoon patterns. It is believed to be on the banks of the Saraswati that The Vedas were composed.  

Saraswati – Goddess of Knowledge and Music2019-11-07T16:46:15-08:00

The Nature of Brahman

The Nature of Brahman

Brahman is the basis, source and support of everything in the universe. Its nature is Absolute Being (sat), Consciousness (chit), and Bliss (ananda). Brahman is eternal, infinite, formless, all-embracing, and everything that ever was, is now, or ever will be. Brahman is the Ultimate Reality.

Using mere words to define a concept as vast and complex as Brahman is bound to fail; therefore, Hinduism has developd a reductive device to help us approach and feel connection to that which cannot be comprehended in its entirety.

First, the principle of Brahman is divided into two realities; Brahman itself – unchanging, absolute Truth and absolute Reality; and Maya, the illusion of our perceived reality, an illusion which lives, dies and is reborn on the wheel of time.

Brahman is also divided into characteristics that are deemed male (Purusha) and female (Prakriti), attributes embodying as individual gods and goddesses, each with their own set of responsibilities and temperament as well as a unique human-like physical form. For example, when Shiva embodies the Purusha principle, it is Uma who embodies the Prakriti. 

“Ye yatha mam prapadyante tanstathaiva bhajamyaham.”  

“I come to you in whatever form you worship Me.” 

   Bhagavad Gita 4:11

Generally speaking, the deities are not divine in their own right but specific physical manifestations of Brahman (note 1). A metaphor might be that if Brahman was a vast cosmic diamond, the individual gods and goddesses are facets rather than individual diamonds.

Note 1 – Followers of sects such as Saivites or Vaisnavites or Shaktics, however, may argue their chosen god or goddess is Supreme over all other concepts or manifestations of Brahman.

The Nature of Brahman2019-11-08T05:37:00-08:00

Mantra – The Sacred Sound

Mantra – The Sacred Sound

Mantras, (tr: mind instrument) are central to the ritual traditions of Hinduism. They are syllables, words, phrases or sentences having sacred power when repeatedly chanted, whispered or thought, usually in Sanskrit. The literal meaning of the Mantra’s content is of less importance than its vibrational quality and are usually used in combination with an action of some sort, such as when making a ritual offering or when meditating to clear the mind of day to day clutter, allowing it to focus and concentrate. Should a specific Mantra be gifted from a guru to a student it is empowered or brought to life in much the same way an icon is empowered when inhabited by a deity.

Mantra’s origins are Tantric and therefore strongly associated with the Shaktic energy permeating all planes of existence from the most sacred and subtle to our own base earthly level. Tantrics believe the Mantra itself is divine as if it were a deity in its own right.

The ultimate Mantra is, of course, the syllable OM (pronounced ahh–uhh–mm), which is identified with Brahman, the Ultimate Soul.

If white contains within it every colour in the spectrum, then OM contains every sound in the cosmos’ vibrational spectrum. It is believed that once our vibration matches that of the universe, slowly repeating OM clears the mind and connects us to the cosmos. OM is considered to be the essence of The Vedas distilled into one syllable and found in virtually all Vedic rituals from daily pujas to Vedic temple sacrifice. OM is also sacred to Buddhists and Sikhs.

Other mantras are prayers, such as the timeless Gayatri Mantra which is so important to Hindu belief it is embodied as the goddess, Gayatri. For many Hindus the Gayatri Mantra may be the only Sanskrit prayer they know;

Aum
Bhuh Bhuvah Svah
Tat Savitur Varenyam
Bhargo Devasya Dheemahi
Dhiyo Yo Nah Prachodayat

“O thou existence Absolute,
Creator of the three dimensions,
W
e contemplate upon thy divine light.
May He stimulate our intellect
and bestow upon us true knowledge.”

(Rigveda 3.62.10)  

Our favourite version of the Gayatri Mantra is sung here by Deva Premal; https://youtu.be/yQjHSIHPJfw 

Mantra – The Sacred Sound2019-11-07T16:30:12-08:00

Uma – The Divine Feminine

Uma – The Divine Feminine

Just as Brahman, the Ultimate Reality, is without form, it’s Force of Life, Shakti, is formless as well. When the power of Shakti takes physical form it manifests as the Great Goddesses (Maha Devis); Saraswati, Lakshmi and Uma (note 1), while goddesses such as Kali and Durga embody other more specific aspects of Shaktic power (note 2).

A foundational belief in Hinduism is that Shakti (female) and Purusha (male) energy are interconnected and interdependent; two halves of the complete divine whole. Uma is Shiva’s, dynamic creative energy and the force of life which connects all beings and the means of their moksha, or spiritual release.

In mythology, Uma is believed to be the incarnation of Shiva’s first wife, Sati, who immolated herself when Shiva was insulted by her father. Lost in mourning, Shiva had withdrawn into extreme asceticism, causing problems with the world, so the gods caused Uma to be born to lure Shiva into the active, sensual realm of husband and father. Uma civilizes him, therefore making him accessible to mortal worship. Uma is Shiva’s, dynamic creative energy, the Force of Life connecting all beings and the means of their spiritual release (moksha).

Shiva acting alone may perform acts of cosmic significance and protect the world from evil, but it is only in the company of Uma that Shiva’s grace is bestowed upon an individual soul. In iconography, the two are rarely depicted without each other. For example, when Shiva manifests as Nataraja, his power is considered incomplete unless a figure of Uma stands nearby.

A striking feature of many Chola Bronzes depicting The Divine Couple is their sensual intimacy. In the depiction of their marriage they tenderly hold hands and in others he will often be shown fondling her breast or gently turning her face to his. There are also many written references to their lovemaking in the sacred texts or the hymns of the Naynmar poet saints. In Hinduism it is believed the ecstasy of sacred union of worshipper with their deity is closely related to the bliss of sexual union with one’s beloved. 

Uma’s identity hasn’t always been defined by her relationship with her husband or sons, however. She was born a princess, daughter of Himavat, the personification of the Himalaya mountains, and the apsara (angel), Menā, and grew up to become an ascetic, demon-slayer, roles which morphed into those of Durga, the ultimate demon slayer, and Kali the fierce protector. As Vedic patriarchal attitudes toward goddesses prevailed, Uma lost a great deal of her earlier status and independence Balance was restored, however, when assertive, dynamic Chola queens such as Sembiyan restored Uma’s stature as a goddess in her own right. 

Smooth and curved her stomach,

like the snake’s dancing hood,

her flawless gait mocks the peacock’s grace,

with feet soft as cotton down,

and waist a slender creeper,

Uma Devi is one half of Shiva, lord of sacred Pundarai.”

Sambandar, Nayanar poet-saint.

When standing alone, Uma is the ideal of feminine beauty and wears the clothing and adornment of a queen, including the sacred thread of an ascetic – a throwback to her origins as a Himalayan renunciate goddess. She stands in tribhangasana, the threefold stance, with her hip to one side, her left arm hanging gracefully at her hip in the elegant lolahasta (note 3). Her right hand holds a (missing) lotus, symbolizing purity, in katakamudra. Sitting alone she may be Shiva Gami (Beloved of Shiva), Boga Shakti (Pleasure of Shakti) or as Somaskanda, a family group with Shiva and her second son, Murugan, and on occasion, Ganesha. 

As mother to sons, Ganesha and Murugan she is Boga Shakti and shown seated in lalitasana, the pose of royal ease (note 2).

In both these roles, she embodies the ideal balance of purity and sensuality and invariably portrayed as a slender, sensuous woman of great beauty.

Note 1 – Uma is known outside of south India as Parvati, Aparna, Lalita and Shailja (Daughter of the Mountains) from her origins as a Himalayan ascetic.

Note 2 – female deities such as Uma, Kali and Durga were originally indigenous tribal deities, worshipped in their own right without male consorts. Over time, however, as the Tridevi were absorbed into the Vedic patriarchal pantheon they were assigned supporting roles as wives to the male gods.

Note 3 – when a Great Goddess stands alone they can be difficult to differentiate when all depict the ideal female form. If their breasts are bare they live in heaven and if they they wear a breast band, or kuchabandha, they live here on Earth; or in the case of Bhu Devi, second consort of Vishnu and Earth Goddess, lives within the earth. Somewhat more difficult is the headgear. Uma’s hair is worn in the style of an ascetic, in dreadlocks and arranged to look like a crown and bound with jewels, while Lakshmi and Saraswati wear kiritamakuta and are actual crowns

Uma – The Divine Feminine2019-11-07T16:55:14-08:00

Hindu Sects

Hindu Sects

For most Hindus, their belief and practice is a loosely defined spiritual philosophy, however, the core foundation of Hinduism, The Vedas, is very specific about the nature of God as an overarching principle encompassing all other concepts of Divinity. Most Hindus would rather simplify their spiritual life by focussing their devotions upon one, or perhaps two or three particular deities and self-identify as members of one or more of the four main sects within Hinduism.

Shaivism, where Shiva is worshipped as the Supreme Deity in the sense that other gods and goddesses are manifestations of Shiva. Shaivism was the dominant sect in the Chola Period and remains so in south India today,

Vaishnavism dominates within Hinduism overall with some 70% of Hindus believing that Vishnu, or one of his iterations such as Krishna, is Supreme over all other gods,

Shaktism holds the female aspects of God as Supreme. While certainly a minority it’s followers are no less devoted to Shakti in all her manifestations, such as Uma, Kali or Saraswati,

Smartism generally rejects the sectarian belief in one god above all. It holds to a Vedic belief that the six primary gods of Hinduism; Shiva, Vishnu, Shakti, Ganesh, Murugan and Surya (the Vedic Sun god) manifest the formless Brahman more or less equally.

True to the pluralist and inclusive nature of Hinduism, each sect’s followers freely borrow beliefs and practices from each other.

“Brahman is the One, the One alone, in Brahman all deities become One alone.” 

The Artharva Veda

Other sects may venerate less popular deities such as Krishna, Murugan or Ganesha, but do so with the fervour and dedication of the major sects. If such a group, or sect, has a defined philosophy and led by a particular guru, it is said to be sampradaya. An example would be The International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), commonly referred to as the Hare Krishna movement, formed in 1966 by A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada.

Hindu Sects2019-11-07T16:12:15-08:00

Hinduism in The Chola Empire

Hinduism in The Chola Empire

When Vedic Hinduism reached south India around 2400 BP, the indigenous Tamil culture was fully established. Both traditions were rooted in common animist origins, and Vedic gods blended with their Tamil counterparts almost seamlessly. For example, the pastoral god Murugan, “the red god seated on the blue peacock who is ever young and resplendent,” merged with the north Indian Skanda and retains a large following even today. Murugan’s mother, the fierce war goddess, Korravai, united with Kali. Mayon, a black rural divinity, shares many of the same characteristics as Krishna Gopala. Lalita, “Beautiful Goddess of The Three Cities,” is the Tamil equivalent of Lakshmi.

A thousand years later, in the centuries leading up to the time of the Cholas, dissatisfaction with Vedic tradition was feeding widespread frustration among ordinary worshippers. Deep within the temple’s inner sanctums, the priests and a select few of the royal elite would have direct contact with the gods while the lesser castes waited in the entrance hall. This worship by proxy left the population spiritually unsatisfied, but change was in the air. Seemingly out of nowhere came the Alvars and Nayanars, itinerant poet-saints, male and female, high caste and low, who wandered through south India singing passionate devotional hymns to Shiva, Vishnu and Shakti. This new personal connection with God sparked a devotional revolution known as Bhakti. It’s ardent, unstructured emotional style of worship contrasted sharply with the old Vedic temple rituals and the Tamil people wholeheartedly embraced these poet-saints and this new devotional style (note 2). They rejected not only the idea of salvation through Brahmin controlled ritual but Vedic divisions of gender and caste. Bhakti spread beyond the Chola borders and into India and eventually throughout Asia, where it remains the dominant form of worship. As the movement spread, Bhakti freed not just Hindus but Buddhists and Jains to perform their devotions when, where, and how they chose. Their relationship with God was now personal and far more gratifying. Chola craftsmen, too, found inspiration in the hymns and poems of the saints, creating in bronze the vitality, grace and beauty the poets had created in words.

“Youth who shines as a ruby,
In a cluster of emeralds!
Being who enters my heart,
Stirring memory!
Come to me in my sleep,
Be my friend,
Give me refuge in your grace,
O dweller in Avatuturai!”
Saint Appar

As often occurred when orthodox Hinduism is confronted with a powerful new spiritual energy, it absorbed key practices into itself. And when the Chola kings also fell under the spell of Bhakti, Brahmin priests eased their restriction on access to the gods and royal craftsmen were directed to re-create the temple’s stone-carved deities in bronze, portable images which could be carried in procession about the temple within view of worshippers. Over time these bronze figures began to acquire the persona of both divine and earthly kingship. The deity would have a sacred bedroom, where it would be awoken, bathed, offered food and drink (puja), adorned in sumptuous silks, jewels and fragrances before being carried in procession. The deity would preside over daily rituals and ceremonies, and in the evening would be ritually ‘put to bed.’ For annual festivals, these processional bronzes (utsavamurti) are carried by bearers or atop wheeled vehicles, outside the temple grounds to great fanfare (note 2). Such processions continue today, and the sensory onslaught has to be experienced to be appreciated.

Note 1; Four thousand of these hymns, the Naalayira Divya Prabhandham, were collected from all over south India and within the four thousand, eleven hundred verses, the Tiruvaymoli, came to be known as the Tamil Vedas (note 2) and deemed every bit as authoritative as The Vedas from the north. The hymns were passed down orally through generations before being committed by scholars to pen and palm leaf.

Note 2; An extreme example may be the processional vehicles carrying Jagannath, an image of Krishna. A fresh one is constructed every year and is a massive 45 feet high and 35 feet wide and long. 

A photograph showing a processional car carrying a devotional image.  

Hinduism in The Chola Empire2019-11-10T15:44:27-08:00

Shakti as Uma, Mari Amma and Kali

Shakti as Uma, Mari Amma and Kali

In Hindu mythology, Shakti manifests as Devi, an overarching term for the goddesses, Uma (Parvati), Mari Amma (Durga) and Kali (note 1). Originally all three were independent and powerful goddesses in their own right; however, over time their roles expanded to include that of the creative energy of Shiva in their role as his consort. While Uma came to represent the gentle beauty with a will of iron, the roles of Mari Amma and Kali became goddess-warriors who restored balance when demons threatened to upset the Dharma. Their roles as demon destroyers in popular mythology, however, would have been overshadowed by Shiva as demon-slayer. 

Kali and Mari Amma are variously known as each other’s incarnation, however Tantric belief and practice focus upon Kali as the embodiment of Shaktic power and the center of many Tantric texts, rituals and iconography (note 3). In Shaktic Tantrism it is Kali who instructs Shiva in the arts of Tantra and it is Kali to whom Tantrikas turn when evil threatens.

“Most fearful, her laughter shows her dreadful teeth. She stands upon a corpse. She has four arms. Her hands hold a sword and a head and show the gestures of removing fear and granting boons. She is the auspicious divinity of sleep, the consort of Shiva. Naked, clad only in space, the goddess is resplendent. Her tongue hangs out. She wears a garland of heads. Such is the form worthy of meditation of the Power of Time, Kali, who dwells near the funeral pyres”. Kali Tantra

As the maternal and creative aspects of Shakti, Mari Amma, Kali and Uma, were revered throughout the Chola homeland, especially in the rural areas; Mari Amma as Goddess of Rain and protector from disease, and Kali as the ferocious demon slayer. Their festival worship has a distinctly non-Vedic feel with dancing, fire walking, as well as mouth and nose piercings.

Note 1 – As aspects, or facets, of Brahman, Hindu gods and goddesses are known by many names in different times and places, but their roles and characteristics are held in common. These names are very much a matter of geographic and cultural context, but in this Reference Library, I use the name by which they would have been known in south India at the time of the Chola Empire.

Note 2 – In the sect of Shaktism, it is believed that Devi is the Supreme Being and, therefore, above all other gods. As such, she is known as Maha Devi, or The Great Goddess. 

Note 3 – This embodiment often takes the form of Mahakali or Great Kali. In her ten hands, she holds the attributes most associated with individual gods (Shiva’s trident, for example), implying their power only comes through Mahakali’s grace.

Shakti as Uma, Mari Amma and Kali2019-11-08T05:42:57-08:00
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