An underlying theological assumption in texts celebrating the
Mahadevi is that the ultimate reality in the universe is a powerful,
creative, active, transcendent female being. The Lalita-sahasranama
gives many names of the Mahadevi, and several of her epithets express
this assumption- She is called, for example, the root of the world
(Jagatikanda, name 325), she who transcends the universe fVisvadhika,
334), she who has no equal (Nirupama, 389), supreme ruler (Parames-
van, 396), she who pervades all (Vyapini, 400), she who is immeasur-
able (Aprameya, 413), she who creates innumerable universes (Aneka-
kotibrahmandatanani, 620), she whose womb contains the universe
(Visvagarbha, 637), she who is the support of all (Sarvadhara, 659), she
who is omnipresent (Sarvaga, 702), she who is the ruler of all worlds
(Sarvalokesi, 758), and she who supports the universe (Visvadharini,

In the Devi-bhagavata-purana, which also assumes the ultimate
priority of the Mahadevi, she is said to be the mother of all. to pervade
the three worlds, to be the support of all (1.5.47-50), to be the life force
in all beings, to be the ruler of all beings (1.5.51-54), to be the only
cause of the universe (1.7.27), to create Brahma, Vishnu, and Siva and to
command them to perform their cosmic tasks (3.5.4), to be the root of
the tree of the universe (3.10.15), and to be she who is supreme knowledge (4.15.12). The text describes her by many other names and phrases
as it exalts her to a position of cosmic supremacy.

One of the central philosophic ideas underlying the Mahadevi, an
idea that in many ways captures her essential nature, is sakti. Sakti
means “power”; in Hindu philosophy and theology sakti is understood
to be the active dimension of the godhead, the divine power that under-
lies the godhead’s ability to create the world and to display itself.3 Within
the totality of the godhead, sakti is the complementary pole of the divine
tendency toward quiescence and stillness. It is quite common, further-
more, to identify sakti with a female being, a goddess, and to identify
the other pole with her male consort. The two poles are usually under-
stood to be interdependent and to have relatively equal status in terms
of the divine economy.

Texts or contexts exalting the Mahadevi. however, usually affirm
sakti to be a power, or the power, underlying ultimate reality, or to be
ultimate reality itself. Instead of being understood as one of two poles or
as one dimension of a bipolar conception of the divine, sakti as it applies
to the Mahadevi is often identified with the essence of reality. If the
Mahadevi as sakti is related to another dimension of the divine in the
form of a male deity, he will tend to play a subservient role in relation to
her.5 In focusing on the centrality of sakti as constituting the essence of
the divine, texts usually describe the Mahadevi as a powerful, active,
dynamic being who creates, pervades, governs, and protects the
universe. As sakti, she is not aloof from the world but attentive to the
cosmic rhythms and the needs of her devotees,

In a similar vein the MahadevT is often identified with prakrti and
mayd. Indeed, two of her most common epithets are Mulaprakrti (she
who is primordial matter) and Mahamaya (she who is great mayd).
These ideas have negative connotations in certain schools of Hindu
philosophy. Samkhya phiiosphy and yogic spiritual techniques describe
prakrti as the web of matter in which one’s spiritual essence, purusa
(literally, the male), is enmeshed. Yogic exercise aims at reversing the
spontaneous tendencies of prakrti to reproduce and specify itself. In the
quest for liberation prakrti represents that from which one seeks free-
dom. Similarly, most schools of Hindu philosophy identify maya with
that which prevents one from seeing things as they really are, Mayd is
the process of superimposition by which one projects one’s own ignorance on the world and thus obscures ultimate truth. To wake up to the
truth of things necessarily involves counteracting or overcoming maya,
which is grounded in ignorance and self-infatuation. Liberation in Hindu
philosophy means to a great extent the transcendence of embodied,
finite, phenomenal existence. And maya is often equated precisely with
finite, phenomenal existence.” To be in the phenomenal world, to be an
individual creature, is to live enveloped in maya.

When the Mahadevi is associated with prakrti or maya, certain
negative overtones sometimes persist. As prakrti or mayd she is some-
times referred to as the great power that preoccupies individuals with
phenomenal existence or as the cosmic’force that impels even the gods to
unconsciousness and sleep. But the overall result of the Mahadevi’s
identification with prakrti and mayd is to infuse both ideas with positive
dimensions. As prakrti or mayd. the Devi is identified with existence
itself, or with that which underlies all existent things. The emphasis is
not on the binding aspects of matter or the created world but on the
Devi as the ground of all things.

Because it is she who pervades the
material world as prakrti or maya, the phenomenal world tends to take
on positive qualities. Or perhaps we could say that a positive attitude
toward the world, which is evident in much of popular Hinduism, is af-
firmed when the Devi is identified with prakrti and maya. The central
theological point here is that the MahadevT is the world, she is all this
creation, she is one with her creatures and her creation. Although
a person’s spiritual destiny ultimately may involve transcendence of
the creation, the Devi’s identification with existence per se is clearly in-
tended to be a positive philosophic assertion. She is life, and to the ex-
tent that life is cherished and revered, she is cherished and revered.

As sakti, prakrti, and maya, the Devi is portrayed as an over-
whelming presence that overflows itself, spilling forth into the creation,
suffusing the worid with vitality, energy, and power. When the Devi
is identified with these well-known philosophic ideas, then, a positive
point is being made: the Devi creates the world, she is the world,8 and
she enlivens the world with creative power. As sakti, prakrti, and maya.
she is not understood so much as binding creatures to finite existence as
being the very source and vitality of creatures. She is the source of creatures-their mother-and as such her awesome, vital power is revered.

The idea of brahman is another central idea with which the DevT is
associated- Ever since the time of the Upanisads, brahman has been the
most commonly accepted term or designation for ultimate reality in Hin-
duism. In the Upanisads, and throughout the Hindu tradition, brahman
is described in two ways: as nirguna (having no qualities or beyond all
qualities) and saguna (having qualities). As nirguna, which is usually
affirmed to be the superior way of thinking about brahman, ultimate
reality transcends all qualities, categories, and limitations- As nirguna,
brahman transcends all attempts to circumscribe it. It is beyond all name
and form (nama-rupa).

As the ground of all things, as the fundamental
principal of existence, however, brahman is also spoken of as having
qualities, indeed, as manifesting itself in a multiplicity of deities,
universes, and beings. As saguna, brahman reveals itself especially as
the various deities of the Hindu pantheon. The main philosophical point
asserted in the idea of saguna brahman is that underlying all the dif-
ferent gods is a unifying essence, namely, brahman. Each individual de-
ity is understood to be a partial manifestation of brahman, which
ultimately is beyond all specifying attributes, functions, and qualities.

The idea of brahman serves welt the attempts in many texts devoted
to the Devi to affirm her supreme position in the Hindu pantheon. The
idea of brahman makes two central philosophic points congenial to the
theology of the Mahadevi: (1) she is ultimate reality itself, and (2) she is
the source of all divine manifestations, male and female (but especially
female). As saguna brahman, the Devi is portrayed as a great cosmic
queen enthroned in the highest heaven, with a multitude of deities as the
agents through which she governs the infinite universes. In her ultimate
essence, however, some texts, despite their clear preference for the
Devi’s feminine characteristics, assert in traditional fashion that she is
beyond all qualities, beyond male and female.”

Similar Posts