Aspects of Devi
There are many approaches to looking at Devi: chronological, religious, by function. Here we have chosen to observe Devi by her six main functions, beginning with her most forceful and dynamic form and moving toward increasingly less potent forms. Devi is first seen as a cosmic force, where she creates, annihilates, and recreates the universe, often to destroy demonic forces that threaten world equilibrium. Next, in her gentle, radiant dayini form, she is the gracious donor of boons, wealth, fortune, and success. As heroine and beloved, Devi comes down to earth and provides inspiring models for earthly women. Devi is then seen as a local protector of villages , towns, and individual tribal peoples, where she is concerned only with local affairs. In her fifth form, Devi becomes semi-divine forces, manifesting herself through nature, fertility spirits, and celestial nymphs. Finally, she is also represented in woman saints, who are born on earth but endowed with deep spirituality and other-worldly powers.
As cosmic force Devi creates, annihilates, and recreates the universe. Of awesome appearance, she destroys demonic forces that threaten world equilibrium wielding weapons in multiple arms that testify to her ability to perform multiple tasks simultaneously. This category includes her form as Durga, slayer of the buffalo demon; black Kali; the emaciated Chamunda; and Devi herself.
[IMAGE: Dancing Devi. India, state of Rajasthan, Bikaner, ca. 1725. Opaque and transparent watercolor, ink, and silver on paper. Lent by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Fletcher Fund, 1996. In this elegant and restrained drawing from the desert kingdom of Bikaner in the state of Rajasthan, the Great Goddess executes a graceful dance upon a lotus. The rounded contours of her gown, its pattern of delicate leaves and flowers, and the lazy droop of the full lotus leaves evoke aspects of the goddess connected with fertility and abundance. Her many weapons, rendered in silver paint, remind us of her extraordinary powers. This large drawing was apparently envisioned to serve as an individual image and not be included in a narrative manuscript.]
Durga, the great Warrior Goddess, represents the lethal energy of divine anger when turned against evil. It is Durga's story which is one of the three great stories in Devi Mahatmya. The world was under attack by Mahisha, the most evil demon in the world, who took many different forms, including that of a buffalo. The male gods, fearing total annihilation endowed Durga with their powers. Riding a lion into battle, Durga slew the buffalo by cutting off its head and then she destroyed the spirit of the demon as it emerged from the buffalo's severed neck. It is through this act that order was established in the world. Durga's victory and power are celebrated every fall throughout India in the Durga Puja. Durga is among the most widely represented visual forms of Devi throughout the Indian subcontinent. She is seen in stone, bronze, wood, clay, and paint; her image is reintegrated in the contemporary world in oil on canvas and with powdered pigment in fiberglass.
[DEFINITION: Durga's Powers: Symbolized by her multiple arms each of which carries a different god's weapon: the trident of Shiva, the disk of Vishnu; the conch and noose of the god Varuna; the spear of god Agni; the bow and arrow of the god Vayu; the thunderbolt of the god Indra and the bell worn by his elephant; the scepter of the judge of death and the sword and shield of the god Yama; and the axe of the god Vishvakarman, along with other weapons and armor.]
[IMAGE: At the Hub of Things, 1987. By Anish Kapoor (British, b. 1954 in India). Fiberglass and powdered pigment. Lent by the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution. Gift of the Marion L. Ring Estate, by exchange, 1989. Covered in vivid blue powdered pigment, this fiberglass concave hemisphere symbolizes Devi in her deep blue form of Kali (literally, dark-skinned one), the great cosmic mother. On a visit to India in 1979, British sculptor Anish Kapoor was intrigued by the mounds of colored powders piled up in stalls outside Hindu temples. Back in Britain, he started exploring the possibilities of using these powdered pigments, first on their own, and then to cover his fiberglass hemispherical depths, ovals, and rounded cavities--all intended to evoke femininity and the Great Goddess. The form of this sculpture suggests the hidden depths of the womb, as well as the burial mound. It thus evokes both life and death and speaks in terms of eternity and timelessness. Just as the fascination of the voice rests in the overwhelming power of the notions of fear, darkness, and the unknown, so too the power and enchantment of the goddess Kali is built on feared darkness, and an apprehension of eternity. Gazing into that deep blue void is a dizzying experience that both alarms and exhilarates. This fear and exhilaration are elements celebrated also in the deep blue goddess Kali.]
Kali may be said to represent the darker side of Devi's power. Her emergence is chronicled in the third story in the Devi Mahatmya. She emerges from Devi's forehead as a burst of furious energy. Kali overpowers and beheads two demon generals, Chanda and Munda, and when she carries their heads to Devi and she is named Chamunda. She is often portrayed as emaciated, black, and with a necklace of skulls. (The story continues in which Devi, Kali and a group of matrikas, or mothers, destroy the demon brothers Shumbha and Nishumbha. In the final battle against Shumbha, Devi absorbs Kali and the matrikas and stands alone for the final battle.)
[IMAGE: Kali Drinks the Blood of Rakabija. Folio from a Devi Mahatmya. India, Punjab Hills, Guler, ca. 1780. Opaque watercolor on paper. Lent by Mr. and Mrs. John Gilmore Ford. During a fierce battle in which the Great Goddess demonstrates her omnipotence by defeating powerful demons who terrify even the gods, she encounters the fierce Raktabija. Every drop of blood he sheds turns into another demon as it touches the earth. A unique strategy has to be devised to contain him. A fiery burst of energy emerging from Devi's forehead takes the dark skeletal form of goddess Kali. With her huge mouth and enormous tongue she ferociously laps up Raktabija's blood, thus preventing the uprising of further demons. Rajtabija appears twice in the painting. In the upper quadrant we see him righting with numerous dancing demons springing from his blood; to the lower right, his twisted torso lies bloodless and conquered.]
The third story of the Devi Mahatmya shows Devi in her universal shakti (literally energy or power). This is the most abstract way of defining or naming the Great Goddess. Here Devi is central to the creation myth; she is the power that induces the god Vishnu's deep slumber on the waters of the cosmic ocean prior to the creation of the world which is a continuous cycle of creation, destruction and recreation. Vishnu lies on his serpent that is coiled in the form of a couch. Two demons arise from Vishnu's sleeping body and set out to slay Brahma who is preparing to create the next cycle of the universe. Brahma sings to the Great Goddess, asking her to withdraw from Vishnu so he can waken and slay the demons. Devi agrees to withdraw and Vishnu wakes and kills the demons. Here Devi serves as the agent who allows the cosmic order to be restored to the world. This is the first story told in the Devi Mahatmya. However, this tale has rarely inspired artistic creations, perhaps because Devi's role is one of quiet withdrawal rather than dynamic action.
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The Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC 20560.