- The Mahavidyas (maha great, vidya knowledge) are 10 (dasha) goddesses who are grouped together in various literary, iconographic, and mythical contexts in India. It is a tantric grouping, though some of the goddesses are from a nontantric, nor-mative context.In TANTRISM, a VIDYA is equivalent to a MAN-TRA, but used for goddesses (the term mantra is restricted to devotion to male divinities). It is understood in the tantric context that the mantra or vidya and the divinity are identical. Therefore this group of 10 goddesses can be logically referred to as the 10 vidyas. Each of these goddesses can in fact grant the ultimate “knowledge” or vidya that can lead to liberation from birth and rebirth.The 10 goddesses constituting the Mahavidyas are KALI, Tara, Tripura-sundari (Sri Lalita), Bhu-vaneshvari, Chinnamasta, Bhairavi, Dhumavati, Bagalamukhi, Matangi, and Kamala (LAKSHMI). Kali is the fierce black goddess, the ruler over time (kala), who helped DURGA defeat the demons in order to restore order to the world.Tara, known as “She who takes one across the ocean of birth and rebirth,” is more prominent in Buddhism. Iconographically, she very much resembles Kali, as she is depicted seated or stand-ing upon the supine SHIVA. She is associated with the cremation ground and images of skulls. Tara reveals, however, a nurturing aspect that is usu-ally not found with Kali. At Tarapith in Birbhum, Bengal, she is depicted nursing Shiva from her breast.Tripurasundari is none other than Sri Lalita, the 16-year-old goddess who is the transcendent One. She is usually shown with a benign aspect, although she is in fact the incarnation of all god-desses, whether benign or fierce.Bhuvaneshvari, who is often seen as the embodiment of the physical world, is vermilion in color, has three eyes, and wears a jeweled crown. She has a smiling face and a crescent Moon on her brow. She can be depicted with two, six, or 20 hands holding various objects including the lotus and a bow. She is usually depicted sitting in the cross-legged, “lotus position” yogic posture and is generally shown without clothing. A god-dess described in the text Prapancasara called Dasha Mahavidya 119 JPrapanceshvari appears to be identical to Bhu-vaneshvari; this text is the fullest source for details on Bhuvaneshvari. In most aspects she resembles SARASVATI. In tantrism, her worship resembles in many details the worship of Sri Lalita.Chinnamasta has the most startling repre-sentation of all these goddesses. She stands, self-decapitated, with her head in one hand and the large cutting instrument in the other. On two sides attendants drink her blood. She stands on the recumbent, copulating couple of Kama, god of love, and RAT I, his mate. As does Kali she wears a necklace of human skulls, and, as does SHIVA she has a cobra encircling her upper body. Her body is naked, except for ornaments. One myth has Chinnamasta as a form of PARVATI, the consort of Shiva. Another sees her as Parvati in the form of CHANDI. In both myths the goddess is begged for food by her attendants and cuts off her head to offer them her blood. There are specific texts that outline the worship of this goddess with mantras and YANTRAS.Bhairavi (the fierce goddess) is described as wearing red silk and a garland of severed heads (again as does Kali). Her breasts are said to be smeared with blood. She has three eyes with a crescent Moon on her forehead. She smiles, wear-ing a jeweled crown. She is shown with four or 10 hands. She holds a sword and a begging bowl in two of them. She is sometimes shown in sexual intercourse sitting astride Shiva. The literature often regards Bhairavi as Mahadevi, or Supreme Divinity. She is seen as supreme above even the male divinities BRAHMA, Shiva, and VISHNU. Unusual epithets call her “Fond of semen and menstrual blood” and “She who dwells in the YONI [the vagina].” Such epithets show her transgres-sive, tantric character.Dhumavati, the widow goddess, is a rare and unusual personage. She is seen as black in color, ugly, old, and angry. She has hanging breasts, a long nose, and dirty clothes. She rides a convey-ance that has a banner with a crow on it. She has only two arms. In one hand is a winnowing basket and the other shows the “boon-granting” (VARADA MUDRA) gesture. (But sometimes she will hold a begging bowl made of a human skull and a spear.) Dhumavati is only rarely found independently of the Mahavidyas.Dhumavati’s origin myths show her being born from the smoke of the funeral pyre of the prototypical self-immolated goddess, SAT I. Another myth shows her as a form of Sati, forced to become a widow through a curse of Shiva. Her separate temples are few. At her temples liquor, meat, and a marijuana drink are offered in addi-tion to the usual offerings. Though her mytho-logical history seems to depict this goddess as dangerous, she is approachable in temples and offers boons and protections, as any other local goddess.Bagalamukhi is depicted on a lion throne. She has a yellow complexion and wears a yellow dress and yellow ornaments. She is surrounded and covered with things of yellow. One myth shows this goddess as a form of Sri Lalita. In a more popular myth she stops a demon named Madan who is killing people merely by speaking. She grasps his tongue and he becomes her devotee and therefore is not killed; there are iconographic and pictorial depictions of this event. In another myth Bagalamukhi is created by a curse of Shiva upon Parvati.Bagalamukhi is associated with magic and occult power. She is often approached for magical powers such as the ability to immobilize or attract people. Sometimes, as with all of these tantric deities, she is associated with sexuality and sexual intercourse. As have several of the Mahavidyas, she has aspects that belong to Kali and she is sometimes said to sit upon a corpse, often while holding on to the tongue of the demon described in her myth.Matangi is an unusual goddess who prefers offerings that are “polluted” in the Hindu sense, food that has been partially eaten or left over, things that have menstrual blood on them or have touched the dead. She is depicted as a 16-year-old girl, with blue or greenish skin and three eyes, wearing red clothing and accoutrements, seated on a corpse. She has two or four hands. In one tale she emerges from leftover food that Shiva, Parvati, Vishnu, and Lakshmi have just eaten.Another myth calls Matangi a sister of Shiva, cursed by Parvati to be reborn in an untouchable (Dalit) family, forced to survive on leftovers and other polluted things. Matangi is also sometimes associated with the giving of magical powers.The final of the 10 Mahavidyas is Kamala. She is identified with Lakshmi and carries Lakshmi’s typical characteristics and iconography, except that she is never shown in conjunction with her husband, Vishnu.Further reading: David Kinsley, Tantric Visions of the Divine Feminine: The Ten Mahavidyas (Berkeley: Uni-versity of California Press, 1997); Sarbeswar Satpathy, Dasa Mahavidya and Tantra Sastra (Calcutta: Punthi Pustak, 1992.)
Encyclopedia of Hinduism. A. Jones and James D. Ryan. 2007.
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