Who is Devi

The Great Goddess, known in India as Devi (literally "goddess"), has many guises. She is "Ma" the gentle and approachable mother. As Jaganmata, or Mother of the universe, she assumes cosmic proportions, destroying evil and addressing herself to the creation and dissolution of the worlds. She is worshiped by thousands of names that often reflect local customs and legends. She is one and she is many. She is celebrated in songs and poems.

"Always Blissful Mother," by Kamlalakanta Chakrabarti
Mother, you're always blissful.
You charmed destructive Shiva,
you dance in your own joy,
and clap your hands to keep time.
O Elemental, Eternal One!
Your form is empty space,
yet the moon adorns your brow.
Where did you get your garland of severed heads,
before the universe came into being?
You are the operator,
and we nothing but machines
that run by your rule.
We stay where you put us,
and say what you make us say.
Cursing you, O Destructive One,
restless Kamlalakanta says:
With the sword in your hand
you've slaughtered my faith
together with my disbelief.

Devi is all-important in the Hindu tradition, but there are also forms of female divinity in the Buddhist and Jain religions. Today millions of Hindu men and women conduct regular pujas to Devi through one of her many manifestations. For some she is their primary deity while for others she is part of a greater pantheon. All Hindu goddesses can be seen as different manifestations of Devi. In some forms she is benign and gentle, while in other forms she is dynamic and ferocious, but in all forms she is helpful to her devotees.

[DEFINITION: Hinduism is a fusion of many religious beliefs and philosophical schools Its origins are mixed and complex: one strand is traced to the Vedas, the sacred literature written around 1100 BC by the Aryans, a people who trickled steadily into the Indian subcontinent between 1800 and 1200 BC; the other strand drew upon the beliefs of the indigenous people of India especially their faith in the efficacy of fertility symbols and faith in the power of the Mother Goddess.]

[DEFINITION: Buddhism, a faith that originated in India about 2,500 years ago, embodies the teachings of the Buddha. He devised a code of actions and thoughts to free humankind from a continual state of desire and egotism. Jainism is a faith that originated in India in the fifth century B.C. which considered knowledge to be the ultimate way to salvation.]

[DEFINITION: Puja is the act of showing reverence to a god, a spirit, or another aspect of the divine through invocations, prayers, songs and rituals.]

[IMAGE: Parvati. India, state of Tamil Nadu, Chola period, ca 1100. Bronze. Lent by a private collection. Created around the year 1100, this majestic bronze of goddess Parvati, consort of god Shiva, stands in an elegant posture with one hand extended and the other raised to hold a flower. She is adorned with multiple strands of necklaces, a simple sacred thread that rests between her breasts, and characteristic armlets and bangles. Her elegantly draped skirt, which clings closely to the contours of her limbs, rests low on her hips and is held in place by a multi strand girdle. Devotees approach Parvati in this gentle form to ask her to confer general benediction and fortune upon them. Parvati's exquisite smiling face welcomes worshipers who would never have seen her as she appears here. In a temple setting, she would have been draped with silks, adorned with gold and gem-studded jewels and multiple garlands of flowers that would have totally concealed the lines of the sculp ture. This bronze is a festival icon carried in procession during every temple festival. The double lotus upon which the goddess stands would have been inset into a rectangular pedestal with holes through it or with lugs attached so that inserted poles could rest on the shoulders of temple officers who carried the image.]

[IMAGE: Dancing Bhadrakali Adored by the Gods. Folio 45 from the Tantric Devi series. India, Punjab Hills, Basohli, ca. 1660-70. Opaque watercolor, gold, silver, and beetle-wing cases on paper (border restored). Lent by a private collection on loan to Museum Rietberg, Zurich.

"Dancing Bhadrakali Adored by the Gods"
Praised by Brahma, Madhava, Sharva, Indra
hailed by the three worlds
with laughing face
intoxicated by drinking wine and blood
she dances with delight
Once again she drinks wine--
reveling in the musical sound of her vina
she sings joyously--
once again she drinks wine
I meditate upon Bhadrakali
with the seed mantra bhaim.

Manifestations of Devi are celebrated and worshiped throughout India. While there are gods and goddesses universally worshiped in India, nearly every Hindu community has its own specific deity which governs its existence. Usually that deity is a goddess as it is always the goddess who protects a village or town and it inhabitants.

The traditional Western formulation of the Hindu trinity in which Brahma is the creator, Vishnu is the preserver and Shiva is the destroyer, observes the Hindu world on the Judeo-Christian model. Brahma is of lesser significance as he cannot act until Vishnu gives him authority to do so. The three dynamic deities are Vishnu, Shiva, and Devi, each of whom encompasses all three divine functions of creation, preservation, and destruction.

[DEFINITION: The god Vishnu is viewed as a savior who has been reborn on earth many times to conquer and balance evil. In each reincarnation, Vishnu is accompanied by an incarnation of his wife Lakshmi.]

[DEFINITION: The god Shiva is both the creator and the destroyer. He is frequently depicted with his wife Parvati, who also has numerous traits.]

[IMAGE: Mohra of Devi. India, state of Himachal Pradesh, 8th or 9th century. Brass. Lent by a private collection. This monumental mask (mohra) of Devi is a super example of the brass mohra tradition in the hills of Himachal Pradesh in northern India. Depictions of Devi and god Shiva in the form of brass or silver mohras are peculiar to the Himalayan regions where until early in this century, wooden masks of deified chieftains were widely worshiped. Groups of mohras are usually secured to chariots and taken out in procession during festivals. However, the extraordinary workmanship of this heavy and unusually large Devi mohra suggests that it was enshrined for worship within an important Himachal temple.]

[IMAGE: Goddess on a swing. India, state of Madhya Pradesh, Bastar district, 19th-20th century. Brass. Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution. Purchase S1990.6 The Bastar district of Madhya Pradesh (central India) has a vast population of tribal people who have retained old customs. The area abounds with female deities, often called matas, or mothers, some of whom are known and venerated only within a single village. Bastar's ritual brasses are either worshiped or given as offering to deities in fulfillment of vows. Here the goddess and swing were cast as one piece that was attached to the supporting structure by twisted wire. Plates on which devotees may burn incense pellets are in her hand, balanced on her head, and placed atop the shrine.]


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