The Cosmic Play of Power: Goddess, Tantra and Women

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  • Book Name The Cosmic Play of Power: Goddess, Tantra and Women
  • Author Sanjukta Gupta
  • Language, Pages English, 431 Pgs. (HB)
  • Last Updated 2023 / 05 / 22
  • ISBN 9788120835429, 8120835425

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The Cosmic Play of Power: Goddess, Tantra and Women
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In Hindu theology Divine Power is conceived as a divine woman — the Goddess. Sometimes she is wholly autonomous and sometimes she is the divine spouse of the creator God, Siva or Visnu. She is also held to be the evolving material source of every created phenomenon. Religious texts like Puranas and Tantras have thoroughly investigated the mysterious nature of the Cosmic Goddess. Tantra as a religious practice endeavoured to show how through ritual and Yoga one may achieve realization of the mystery of the Supreme Goddess. Authors in Sanskrit and modern Indian languages, have poured out their ecstatic devotion to the Goddess. She is close to the heart of the passionate devotee, who adores her as mother or daughter — a mortal emotional bond with the divine so peculiar to Hindus. She is also sovereign Power a little part of which reigning royalties covet to possess in order to be good rulers. As the divine woman she is represented in all women. Therefore women should be holding a high position amongst Hindus. But the question is, do they? In spite of the obvious contrary evidence, women do succeed in carving out a very important position in Hindu religious practices by having their alternative religious rituals highly valued by Hindu society. Goddess, Tantra and Hindu women have a very complex interrelationship.


About the Author

Sanjukta Gupta taught at Visva Bharati University and Jadavpur University in India. After 967 she taught at the University of Utrecht, Netherland and Oxford University, U.K. She has published extensively on the Indian philosophy of idealistic monism, on Vaisnava and Tantric Hindu religions, and on Hindu women.



Over the length and breadth of South Asia countless South Asians - Hindus, Buddhists, Jams - worship goddesses. Muslims do so too. For instance, in the early nineties I went to the south of Kolkata to visit a shrine of the Tiger god, Dakiarãya (the king of the south) at Dhabdhabi, a small village in the 24 parganas(S), West Bengal. In a village near Dhabdhabi I came across a little shrine with an image of a mother goddess surrounded by tiny clinging babies. I came to know that the local Muslims managed this shrine and a Muslim boy fetched the key from the caretaker so that I could go in and have a good look at the image. Unfortunately, I could not find any name of the goddess. Another goddess who is very popular amongst some middle class Bengali Hindu women in Kolkata is called Asãn Bibi, an obviously Muslim name [asan may indicate that she removes all problems of life, muskil asãn].

However, in this collection of essays, we are interested only in the Hindu Goddess Sakti and goddesses saktis. Sakti subsumes all aktis who are but aspects of herself. In Hindu theology one is constantly confronted by this contradiction: it incorporates both monotheism and polytheism within its concept of God (dess). We have to either accept it or find a way around it. I shall come back to this topic and try to explain the Tantric and Puranic ways of solving this problem.

The second problem is to find a fixed character for the goddess. She can be either terrifyingly destructive (ugra), or compassionate and motherly (saumya). She can have anthropomorphic or theriomorphic forms or even can be represented in an aniconic form, such as a black triangular pebble. The most famous of her theriomorphic forms is Varahi or Vartãli (boar-faced) goddess. She can be depicted naked, can even appear loathsome, Cãmunda, or can be exquisitely beautiful and bedecked as a queen. Her rituals can be public or esoteric. Finally, she may be both ferociously demoniac and irresistibly seductive as the repository of erotic enjoyment (rasatmika). Goddesses like Kali, Tara, Camunda, are fierce and ugly to loathsome in appearance, and yet for countless Hindus they are the ultimate refuge to escape the trials and tribulations of life the results of one’s own acts in one’s previous lives. The Goddess is the cosmic mother and only a mother’s love has sufficient indulgence for her children, her loyal devotees to forgive their sins.

On the other hand, even though majestically beautiful, Durga appears totally ruthless and invincible in any battle against powerful and majestic demons (asura) like the Bufthlo demon and the royal demon-brothers Sumhha and Nisumbha. She is the concentrated fighting energy of the gods, emanating as the embodiment of divine righteous fury. In the cosmic struggles between the gods, the upholders of cosmic law and order, and the demons, the powers of chaos, Durga destroys the creatures of chaos and re-establishes cosmic order. The same is true of Kausiki, a much more complicated goddess incorporating various strands of Puranic and Tantric ideas. She does not hesitate to use war tactics such as showering taunts on her enemies and challenging them in a roundabout way, misguiding them into thinking of her as a seductive woman who can easily be won over. But when real battle starts, her furious battle stance appears in the front line and she destroys the demons. This is a display of her maya.

By contrast, Vagdevi/Sarasvati, the goddess of knowledge and art, is serene, beautiful and compassionate. She represents divine wisdom/knowledge, the primal movement of the creative urge of the Creator, and is identified with divine Speech. Even so, the same Goddess can appear in a dark form and present a formidable figure. I shall come back to this while describing the Goddess KaII.

Yet another aspect of the great Goddess is manifest in Lalita/Tripurasundari and Minaksi. They are exquisitely beautiful and are very seductive goddesses. They often manifest a tension for supremacy between the male godhead and its female counterpart. In their mythology and theology they show the autonomous character of the supreme Goddess and often the male creator God recedes into the background.

In other contexts, where a male God giva is supreme, Uma/Parvati epitomizes motherhood. Her sons Ganesa and Skanda, in spite of their many acts of valour and protection, remain her little children. Parvati, together with Laksmi, also is the model of wifely perfection.

Whatever her appearance may be, for the devotee the Goddess is the adorable mother who is full of affection and is instinctively protective towards her devotees, who are indeed her children. She is also the supreme cosmic Power (Para-sakti), the indomitable and omnipotent divine Sakti from whom even a chance glance directed at the praying devotee is enough to remove all fear of existential problems. In fact devotees propitiate and invite her attention because of her natural compassion and her supreme cosmic power, which can intervene between their karma and its fruition. Only the devotees’ total dependence, trust and loyal devotion activate her grace. Her compassionate attention is seen in her glance. The supreme Goddess at Kañci in south India is called Kamaksi; the name is interpreted as ‘She whose glance fulfils all a devotee desires’.

The concept of the Goddess is intimately related to the theories and practices of the Tantric religions. The Goddess here primarily is the divine cosmic Power, which is autonomous, adamantine and indomitable. The Goddess theology is multifaceted and full of mysticism. Hence her characteristics are full of contradictions. In recent years several western and Indian scholars have been studying the theology of the Goddess and her religious ideology and practices. SB. Das Gupta, Gopinath Kaviraj, Vraj Vallabh Dviveda, N.N. Bhattacharya, Wendel Beane, Ernest Payne, Alexis Sanderson, André Padoux, Cheevar M. Brown, Thomas Coburn, David White, David Kinsley, Cynthia Flume and Rachel MacDermott, to name just a few, have done great work on this subject and have revealed its complexity.

My personal encounter with Mm Gopinath Kaviraj was the great starting point of my studies in the theology of Divine Sakti. I was further helped and my Sakti understanding was enormously enhanced by my long and intimate study of the subject with V.V. Dviveda. He is the unchallenged authority in the traditional learning of the subject with his vast firsthand knowledge of the various systems of the Sakti cult. This is enhanced by his long and deep acquaintance with rituals practised by the followers of these varied systems, though he himself is a smarta (non-sectarian and orthodox high caste Hindu), pundit. I must specially mention Mackenzie Brown and Thomas Coburn for their excellent studies in the Devi theology. I have borrowed many of their discerning observations on the nature of the Goddess as revealed in the Devi-Bhagavata Purãna and the Devi-mahatmya and other relevant Purana materials.

The corpus of Tantric religious texts is vast and is written in many Indian languages - classical, medieval and modern. There are the Agamas (technically canonical literature), commentaries, ritual manuals, eulogies, and most importantly the Epics and Puraias. Amongst these texts by far the most popular is the Devimãhatmya, which is appended to the Mãrkandeya Purana. It is also the earliest Purana to present the Goddess as supreme Divine Power, as well as the source and locus of the entire creation. Another seminal Purana celebrating the Goddess is the Devibhdgavata Purana.

Because of the popularity of these two texts among the majority of Goddess-worshipping traditional Hindus, I think a brief analysis of the earlier of the two Goddess Puranas will give me an opportunity to discuss various aspects of the Goddess cult.

The canonical texts concerning the goddess are in a general way referred to as Tantra. There are countless Tantras, originating from the north, south, west, central, east and far northeast regions of India. Each Indian region abounds with local powerful protecting goddesses. These deities often have a very long and continuous presence. The popularity of the Devimahatmya lies in its successfully subsuming many of these goddesses within the Supreme Goddess: for example, Camunda, the group of war goddess called Matrka, and Sivaduti. It is now well known to the scholars of ancient Indian religions that, from the Kushana period, the sovereign Divine power Durga and the war goddesses called the seven Matrkas started appearing prominently. The novel religious attitude towards the Goddess as the cosmic sovereign, controller and protector of the divine world order found expression in the concept of Durga. Her ascendance continued throughout the early Gupta period.4 Thus the Devimãhdtmaya must belong to this period. The celebration of the goddess Durga as the embodiment of supreme power in warfare and victory, albeit at the cosmic level, together with her ethical stance for establishing the divine system of law and order, Ma, against the sudden upsurge of chaotic power of the Asuras, reflect the view of the period of the great Kushana and Gupta dynasties. This political ideology continued throughout the subsequent political history of the Hindu kingdoms.

The rise of the great monotheistic religions, at about the same time, must have had a reciprocal impetus and helped the rise of the theology of the all-powerful divine Sakti. The concept of Sakti in this theology is absolutely central to Tantra. Not only is this Sakti the divine indomitable Will (iccha), divine ominscience (,jnana), and divine omnipotence (kriyd), but also the divine sovereign power to control the creation (aisuarya).

It is very difficult to find an overarching definition of Tantra that includes all its various forms and ideologies. Very generally speaking, “Tantra is a form of religion in which worldly, temporal goods and theology are perfectly integrated. It advocates the worship of power for the attainment of power ‘tantra supported neither meekness nor passivity. Tantra is undertaken for salvation, mukti, as well as for personal gain and power, bhukti. Bhukti, literally ‘enjoyment’, is realised through power.”7 Thus power, Sakti, is central to the Tantric religious ideology and that power is based on Sakti’s possessing aisuarya, i.e. total control of the universe.

This Tantric ideology, giving full sanction to both these goals of bhukti and mukti as being of equal value, is demonstrated in the two major actors of the framing legend of the Devimahatrnya, i.e. King Suratha and the vaiya (a merchant?) Samadhi. To propitiate the Goddess the former practised the worship and meditation of the Goddess for bhukti, whereas the latter did so for mukti. Their performance of worship and meditation is termed tapas, voluntary observance of severe austerities. They restricted their food intake and often went without any food. They offered the Goddess flowers, incense, fire-sacrifices and libation of water. They deeply meditated on the Goddess and offered her bali (mainly non-vegetarian food), sprinkled with blood extracted from their own bodies; this they did to an earthen image of the Goddess, which they made themselves. Samãdhi also muttered Uapa) the Vedic hymn on the Goddess (the Dcvisükta). The succinct description of the method of propitiation of the Goddess leaves no doubt that the King and the Vaiya followed Tantric ritual worship of the Goddess.




  Introduction 1
1 Sarasvati/Vac the sacral word and the supreme cosmic goddess 37
2 Sakti the supreme divine power: The role of Laksmi in pancarata sotereology 54
3 Hindu tantrism : Sadhana puja 79
4 The worship of kali according to the Todala tantra 145
5 Mandala as an image of man 185
6 The religious and literary background of the navavarna Kirtana of muttusvami diksitar: Diksitar cycle of nine hymns to goddess tripurasundari/Sri-cakra 198
7 The domestication of a goddess: Carana-tirtha kalighat the mahapitha of kali 269
8 Kings power and the goddess 297
9 Hindu tantric and sakta literature in modern Indian languages 319
10 Women in saiva/sakta ethos 378
11 The goddess women and their rituals in Hinduism 401
12 Lalan fakir: The confluence of Islam and Hindu popular mysticism 431
  Bibliography 453
  Selected glossary 469
  Index of Indic words, texts and author 475

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