- The worship of the goddess in India probably began in Neolithic times. There are several figurines from goddess 167 Jthe INDUS VALLEY CIVILIZATION (c. 3600–1900 B.C.E.) that appear to be goddess figurines and indicate a focus on the divine feminine.In the RIG VEDA (c. 1500 B.C.E.), the oldest of India’s extant texts, the primary divinities AGNI and INDRA are male, as are the great majority of divinities mentioned. Some important goddesses, however, are also cited. Perhaps most important is VACH, goddess of speech. Since speech in its form as MANTRA is the locus or primary source of ritual power in the VEDIC context, the goddess of speech is all-encompassing. In fact, in Rig Veda (X.125) a verse to this goddess of speech shows her to be an all-encompassing reality, surpassing all the male gods. Other important goddesses in the VEDAS are USHAS, RAT R I, and ADITI. Ushas is the goddess of the early dawn light, possibly before sunrise. Ratri is her sister, who is the goddess of the night. Aditi is understood to be the mother of the male gods. Another goddess, SARASVATI, is hailed in the Rig Veda as an important river. She gains later fame, beginning with late Vedas when the same name is used for the goddess of learning. Finally, Shaci, the wife of Indra, is frequently mentioned and sometimes taken to be all-powerful.Hinduism developed by mythically interlink-ing the male gods VISHNU and SHIVA, among oth-ers, to various local divinities throughout India. Vishnu is found in the Vedas, where shiva (the auspicious) was an epithet of the god RUDRA. As theistic Hinduism developed, these gods emerged as a sort of cultural meeting place for various local mythic traditions. They are, in essence, amalgams of characteristics derived from different, and perhaps sundry, cultural sources. As the ARYANS moved east and south, many local divinities were identified with these greater divinities. Some of them, such as GANESHA, the elephant-headed god, for instance, became members of a larger family; Ganesha became the son of Shiva.In this context, local goddesses were under-stood to be wives of Shiva and Vishnu. It is pos-sible that SAT I, Shiva’s first wife, derived from just such a local non-Aryan cultural complex. PARVATI, his second wife and the daughter of the Himalaya mountain, may well have been a distinct divin-ity in ancient times. Later, as DURGA and KALI became recognized as wives of Shiva, many of the local goddesses lost some or all of their original character and began to be understood as Durga or Kali under other names. Parvati was probably the model, here, as many local goddesses under other names are identified with her, too—for example MINAKSHI of Madurai.As was the case with Shiva, certain goddesses became identified with Vishnu’s wife, Lakshmi; they may be seen as Rukmini or Radha the wife and lover, respectively, of Vishnu in his form as KRISHNA. Some are identified with SITA, the wife of RAMA, another AVATA R of Vishnu.Vishnu and Shiva are the main divinities for VAISHNAVISM and SHAIVISM, respectively (the god-dess-oriented sect of SHAKTAS is discussed later). They are both loosely related to the divinity BRAHMA, who has a clear post-Vedic development. Very few male divinities around India become associated with him, but there are many goddesses who are identified with his wife SARASVATI, god-dess of wisdom and learning.The development of the two main Hindu cults to Vishnu and Shiva began with the great India epics (c. 700 B.C.E. to 100 C.E.). In the early centuries of the Common Era, additional texts recounting their deeds, incarnations, and adventures began to emerge, called PURANAS. At about this time the cult of Mahadevi, or the Great Goddess, began to develop as well; texts such as the Markandeya Purana (c. 300–600 C.E.) actually praised the goddess as the supreme being above Shiva and Vishnu. This represented the beginning of the cult of the Shaktas, who focus their worship on the goddess as SHAKTI (supreme divine energy). Undoubtedly, Vedic divinities such as Vac helped form the model for this development, but the cul-tural roots of the Great Goddess must be seen to be in the pre-Aryan substratum of Indian culture, in which goddesses were probably worshipped from Neolithic times.Kali or Durga became the main object of wor-ship for goddess-oriented Hindus, but it must be understood that there are many, many goddesses throughout India of independent origin who are identified with these “greater” divinities. In the Shakta context TANTRIC forms of worship are more likely to be found, though the Shaivites have also always had a well-developed set of tantric cults drawing on the same prehistorical sources in Indian culture. There are also rare cults of Vaishnavite tantra. Sometimes these tantric cults took up the worship of the DASHA MAHAVIDYA, a pantheon of goddesses joined for specialized worship. These included well-known goddesses such as Kali and Lakshmi, who are worshipped alongside specialized cult goddesses such as SRI LALITA or other more unusual divinities such as Dasha Mahavidya, who is worshipped with pol-luted things such as cloth that has been stained by menstruation (see PURITY/POLLUTION).In Shaktism ferocious, frightening forms of the divine feminine are common; they often are worshipped with the understanding that since the goddess is all of reality, we must learn to love her in the most frightening, dark forms to understand her totality. In tantrism this realization about the divinity takes the form of engaging in activities in a ritual context that are usually forbidden, such as eating beef or having sex with someone to whom one is not married. This is done in order to compre-hend the divinity beyond all social or mental con-ception. This sort of tantric practice involves only a very small minority of goddess worshippers.Further reading: N. N. Bhattacharya, The History of the Tantric Religion (Delhi: Manohar, 1982); Cornelia Dim-mitt and J. A. B. van Buitenen, Classical Hindu Mythol-ogy: A Reader in the Sanskrit Puranas (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1978); John Stratton Hawley and Donna Wulff, eds., The Divine Consort Radha and the Goddesses of India (Berkeley: Graduate Theological Union, 1982); David Kinsley, Hindu Goddesses: Visions of the Divine Feminine in the Hindu Religious Tradi-tion (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986); ———, Tantric Visions of the Divine Feminine (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997).
Encyclopedia of Hinduism. A. Jones and James D. Ryan. 2007.