My Devi, My Shakti from Mystics and Sceptics : In Search of Himalayan Masters

    By Dr. Alka Pande 
    edited By Namita Gokhale

    O Goddess omnipresent as the personification of peace
    O Goddess omnipresent as the embodiment of power
    O Goddess who gifts accomplishments and understanding
    I bow to you, I bow to you, I bow to you again and again.
    O Devi who resides everywhere in all living beings as intelligence and beauty
    I bow to you.
    Accept my salutations again and again.

    —Devi Mahatmya53

    My mother, who was from the mountains of Kumaon, epitomized my personal Shakti. In her, I experienced the personification of the universal mother.

    I grew up in a deeply religious and traditional household, where the rituals of prayer were followed mostly by my father, with my mother not much a stickler for the ‘taam jhaam’ of pooja. The 1960s and ’70s were extremely challenging for women in India. While modernity was part of life, women in traditionally bound modern families faced myriad challenges of taking care of the home and the hearth, as well as a desire to be economically independent. In upper-class professional households, they had an extremely heavy cross to bear.

    I saw my mother and her ilk struggle with the demands of these asymmetries. She balanced the house, dealt with a successful yet patriarchalhusband, brought up four daughters and instilled in them a great sense of self-pride, respect and even a certain push to achieve. She was herself a trained musician and wrote evocative poetry amidst the relentless routine of raising her children, a dog and an often-insufferable husband.

    Once I became a wife and mother myself, I realized the extent of her quiet sacrifice and her untold repression of personal desires without the aggressive resentment of many contemporary women. I truly did a ‘namatasya namastasye’ to her in all humility.

    I was proud to be the daughter of such a strong and powerful woman who held the family together in her loving yet powerful grip of emotional strength. And it is from her that I seamlessly absorbed my deep adoration and veneration of the ‘devi’. She read the Devi Bhagvatam conscientiously and would exclaim that each and every aspect of human nature is displayed in the many stories which string the text together. My father, on the other hand, would recite the Chandi Path and wake us up at 4 a.m. a day before Navratri to listen to the Chandi Path ‘mahalaya’ from Calcutta radio, marking the day of the descent of the goddess after she has vanquished the demon Mahisasura. For my father, this ritual was a reinforcement of his faith, but for my mother it was about actually living the faith.

    I come from the Kumaon hills in Uttarakhand, at the foothills of the Himalaya, literally the land of the Devi. In fact, I regard these mountains as the abode of Shiva and Shakti. Although Shiva is supposed to reside with his consort Parvati at Mansarovar, I refer here instead to Devi who is all-powerful, often daunting, at times terrifying and chilling. She is the mother who nurtures and the goddess who combats the most frightening of demons. Devi lives and roams in the mountains and the mountains, in turn, are alive to the powerful goddess.

    As I develop and disclose my understanding of the Devi, both from my personal beliefs and my deep theoretical study, I feel blessed to have been born into a household where scientific reason was tempered with religious belief. It is because of this hybrid, fecund soil in which I was nurtured that the Devi has made a deep incision in my psyche.

    The word ‘myth’ can be traced back to imply ‘a story that is a product of words’.54 With its millennia-long existence, the Indian subcontinent abounds in myth. Stories that mix the mundane with the fantastical have been handed down orally as well through hand-inscribed verse. The Sanskrit works of such kind are mainly recognized today in two major series of works, the Vedas and Puranas.

    What is identified as ‘Hindu’ tradition today comes down from Sanatana Dharma, a deeply interpretive way of life and belief that requires no codification and no book.55 It is a tradition that conjectures temporary forms to ultimately bring us to a formless reality. ‘Religion to the Hindu is the eternal search for the divine Brahman, the search to find the One truth that in actuality never was lost …’56

    Thus, the multitude of mythological characters and the fanciful, even mutating nature of each one’s imagery represents the essence of life itself. ‘The embodied soul (jivatman) comes from the Brahman, goes through the dramas of its many lives, and then at last desires to return to its origin. All Hindu scriptures, epics, ceremonies, and festivals are charged with this spiritual connotation.’57

    One of the many rupa/svarupa/manifestations of the Devi is that of Sati or the daughter of the mind born son of Brahma, Daksha. As Daksha’s daughter Sati is also known as Daksyani. She is married to Shiva.

    ‘Devi’, from the Sanskrit word ‘div’ meaning ‘to shine’, is the luminescent one. ‘Sakti means power, force, the feminine energy, for she represents the primal creative principle underlying the universe.’58 Crucially, the primordial truth that precedes the existence of everything is the mother goddess, Devi. This doctrine of conceiving of God as ‘Mother’ is one of the outstanding characteristics of Hinduism and is not to be confused with the more widely prevalent practice of worshipping a feminine deity as a guardian of a particular sphere. In Hinduism, Devi, when conceived of in all her completeness and not merely in one of her manifestations, is revered as ‘the source of sustenance as the supreme cosmic force’.59

    As Lord Shiva’s consort, Goddess Sati was the precursor to Parvati. The story goes that Sati’s father, Daksha, once held a yagna—a ceremony—to which Shiva (and in extension, Sati) was not invited. This story, as well as Shiva and Sati’s marriage, goes back to even older myths of a continued animosity between Daksha and Shiva.60

    When Sati realized that they were not invited to the ceremony, she was furious. She marched to her father’s house and immolated herself in the sacrificial fire of the yagna. The grieving Shiva is then said to have lost himself in a cosmic dance of destruction—the Rudra Tandava—with her charred body on his shoulders. The tandava is the dance of Shiva and has a number of manifestations. It is a dance of creation, preservation and destruction. The intensity of Shiva’s grief coupled with anger led him to dance the vigorous and horrific dance of destruction, which would lead to the dissolution of the world. Worried, the gods looked to Vishnu to find a solution to this chaos. Vishnu then employed his rotating disc weapon, the sudarshan chakra, which sliced through Sati’s body.

    So vigorous was Shiva’s dance that the angas (dismembered parts) of Sati’s corpse were scattered across the land from the north to the south and the east to the west. The sites where the angas fell are revered across the Indian subcontinent today as the Shakti peethas, meaning the seat of the divine entity, Shakti or Devi.

    The Bhagavat Purana, according to which Sati self-combusts, lists 108 ‘siddhapeets’ where her ashes fell to the ground. After her departure from the realms of existence, seeing the dishevelled order of things, the gods and sages prayed to Devi. Pleased, Devi appeared as blinding iridescence and promised to return as Shiva’s wife and Himalaya’s daughter.

    Folklore was associated with certain locations on earth that became holy at the touch of Sati’s severed body parts and ornaments as they detached from her being. These were intertwined with the sacred geography of various rivers and ancient consecrated spots. They evoke the Mother Goddess as both nourishing and destructive aspects of the earth and the divine force behind the existence of the cosmos.

    There are thousands of tirthas in India, some well-known across the country, and some only locally. The great tirtha cycles include the seven sacred cities (saptapuri); the four divine abodes (char dham), one at each compass point; and the ‘seats’ (pithas) of the goddess, each corresponding to a part of the body of the goddess Sati. The whole of India adds up to a body cosmos.61

    Myths are situated within historical periods. The same myth told in the medieval period of India as articulated in the Puranas (a body of scriptures of later Hinduism) may differ from earlier contexts and meanings. The nature of legends associated with Devi worship changes across time and space. She has been revered both independently as well as in relation to iconic male deities such as Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma.

    Folklore has a unique place in the Indian context because the traditional way of passing down knowledge from generation to generation has mostly been oral. ‘Even after scripts had evolved there was always a preference for the transmission of knowledge through oral rather than written means,’62 as stated by Lolitha Vardharajan. Additionally, much exchange took place between oral and written transmission: ‘… the ongoing interaction of the oral and the literate constitutes one of the most remarkable and unique features of Indian literary culture.’63

    The Devi Mahatmya of the Markandeya Purana (a sixth-century section) provides the central premise of the myths explored in our journey through the Peeths. According to this milestone text, the divine feminine, Devi, is a sovereign power free of (male) partners, superiors and inferiors.

    For the Devi Mahatmya, maya is not complementary or subordinate to Visnu, as other texts would have it. Nor is prakrti balanced—or superseded—by the principle of maleness, purusa, with which it is so often paired. Nor is sakti paired with, or subsumed in, the male god Siva. In Devi, these qualities stand on their own, constituting reality in a manner that is independently female.64

    She, in fact, has female counterparts equally representing her in areas such as the battlefield; for instance, the ten Mahavidyas and the seven Matrikas. In the Devi Mahatmya, Shakti ‘is a singular and universal phenomenon— as a phenomenon that Devi simply is’.65

    There are three Shakti peethas (manifestations of the Devi Shakti) with which I have a deep personal engagement. These are: the Naina Devi temple in Nainital, Uttarakhand the Jwalamukhi temple in Kangra, Himachal Pradesh; and the Kamakhya temple in Guwahati, Assam. These three temples not only represent three very different aspects of the Devi, they have also manifested their deep presence in my life. As with most Shakti peethas, these three Devis also reside in the Himalayas, encompassing a sacred geography within it.

    Every time I go to my home in Nainital I always visit the Naina Devi temple, which I have been visiting since I was a young child, clinging to my mother’s saree pallu as she paid homage to the Devi, who was part of our ‘ishta’ deva. The Naina Devi image overlooked the beautiful Naini lake and was close to the mysterious Paashan Devi temple, which supposedly draws a death by drowning every year to propitiate the goddess.

    In the ‘pahads’ or the hills of Kumaon, Naina Devi is not just part of everyday prayers but is also associated with the local ritual of ancestor worship known as the ‘jaagar’. The jaagar is a local festival celebrated in each village with its typical flavour, where alcohol is very much part of what we would today probably call pagan rites associated with the Devi. It is consumed while watching the jagaria—who is supposed to be the receptacle for the local god or goddess who has entered his body.

    The Jwalamukhi temple is dedicated to Jwalamukhi, the Goddess of Light, also known as the Flaming Goddess or ‘She of the Flaming Mouth’. She is also the kula devi of the Pande community of the remote Paliyun village off Barechinna on Almora Road.

    An ugra peetha, with ‘tantric’ overtones in the rituals of worship, Jwala Devi is not worshipped in the form of the Devi, but in the flames which emerge from different caverns at this temple site. The temple is known for its huge havan/yagna kund, where the rituals of fire worship are conducted with honey, ghee and foxtail nuts, sans black til or jaun, which are essential ingredients in havan samagri otherwise.

    Over the years, as I continued my engagement with my everyday rituals, I started believing in the power of the Devi, and the powerful women whom I saw around me, particularly my mother, seemed to be the embodiment of the primordial goddess.

    One day, Kamakhya effortlessly entered my mind space and, lo and behold, I found myself at her temple! My last visit to the Kamakhya temple was an unforgettable one. I was invited by my friend Mala Barua, who was writing a book on the temple and also capturing the visual history of the temple through photography.

    Seeing the temple through the lens of another powerful woman was an unusual and insightful experience for me. As I went down the narrow, dark staircase, I finally reached the sanctum sanctorum where the mountain cleft submerged in cool dark waters that symbolize the yoni of the great goddess. I dipped my fingers in the holy water and brought it to my forehead and a cool calm descended on me. It was as dark and mysterious as the energy of Kamakhya.

    Mala took me on a round of the Dus Mahavidya Temples, which are all situated in and around the Kamakhya Temple precincts. However, as I was entering the temple of Tara, I suddenly got a phone call that my eighty- nine-year-old father had been rushed to the ICU at a hospital in Delhi. I was quite startled and troubled, as I had lost my mother to lung cancer seventeen months prior. And there was my father having a huge ruptured ulcer, bleeding profusely. But I knew in my heart that he was protected by the powerful Devi. My father’s second name being Tara, I wondered how the goddess would not protect him.

    My understanding of the Devi is intuitive and emerges from witnessing my parents’ adoration of her. My father, from a Shakt background, and my mother, from a Vaishnava background, both venerated and believed in the power of the Devi Maa. Over the years, as I trained to be an art historian and completed my doctoral work on Shiva and Shakti in the form of Ardhanarisva, the knowledge I piece together on Devi was gathered from multiple sources: the Puranas (Devi Bhagavat Purana, Shiva Purana, Skanda Purana, Kalika Purana, Vishnu Purana, Matsya Purana, etc.); local and cultic folklore; Shaivite and Shakta texts (Shakti Peetham Stotram by Adi Shankaracharya is significant); and studies on Tantra along with Tantric texts (most importantly, the Tantra Chudamani).

    For believers like me, both the rational and irrational belief in the power of the Devi, drawn from the multitude of legends and myths, are testimony to India’s vast heritage of received knowledge from shruti (heard wisdom) and smriti (memory). This is probably the essence of Sanatana Dharma, and how it operates.

    —Devi Mahatmya66

    You are the supreme knowledge as well as the great nescience,
    The great intellect and contemplation,
    As also the great delusion,
    The great goddess as also the great demon
    You are the primordial cause of everything
    Bringing into force the three qualities (sattva, rajas and tamas)
    You are the dark night of periodic dissolution
    You are the great night of final dissolution and the terrible night of
    delusion

    54 David Leeming, Oxford Companion to World Mythology (Illustrated ed.). (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).
    55 Alka Pande, ‘Shakti: 51 Sacred Peethas of the Goddess’, in Arputha Rani Sengupta (ed.), Cult of the Goddess (D.K. Printworld, 2015). 56 Ibid.
    57 V. (2008). Shakti: Realm of the Divine Mother (Illustrated ed.). Inner Traditions.
    58 Alka Pande, ‘Shakti: 51 Sacred Peethas of the Goddess’, in Arputha Rani Sengupta (ed.), Cult of the Goddess (D.K. Printworld, 2015).
    59 C.L. Bharany, ‘The Supreme Is Female’, in Arputha Rani Sengupta (ed.), Cult of the Goddess (D.K. Printworld, 2015).
    60 David R. Kinsley, Hindu Goddesses: Visions of the Divine Feminine in the Hindu Religious Tradition (Volume 12) (Hermeneutics: Studies in the History of Religions) (First ed.), (California: University of California Press, 1988).
    61 John Stratton Hawley and Donna Marie Wulff, DEVI: The Goddesses of India, (New Delhi: Aleph Book Company, 2017).
    62 Lotika Varadarajan, ‘Oral Testimony as Historical Source Material for Traditional and Modern India’, Economic and Political Weekly, 1979.
    63 Sheldon Pollock, The Language of the Gods in the World of Men: Sanskrit, Culture, and Power in Premodern India (First ed.) (California: University of California Press, 2009).
    64 John Stratton Hawley and Donna Marie Wulff, DEVI: The Goddesses of India, (New Delhi: Aleph Book Company, 2017).
    65 Ibid.
    Devi Mahatmyram: Sri Durga Saptasati, available at https://www. anandamayi.org/ashram/Durga.pdf

    Dr Alka Pande is an art historian, author and curator with two post-graduation degrees one in history and the second in history of art. Followed by a PhD in Art History and a Post-Doc in Critical Art Theory, University of London. She is Recipient of the Charles Wallace Award, Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters by French government, Australian-India Council Special Award, L’Oreal Paris Femina Women award and Amrita Sher-Gil Samman. She built the collection of Indian Artists for the Essl Museum, Vienna, Austria. (2010). The Divine Gesture Gallery at the City Palace Museum, Udaipur, and the Outdoor Sculpture Park for the Fateh Prakash, a Taj Property at Udaipur (2020). Dr Pande has also authored a number of books on Indian Art and Culture. Ardhnarisvara: The Androgyne Probing the Gender Within, Body Sutra, Shringara: The Many Faces of Indian Beauty, Pha(bu)llus: A Cultural History. She was the Artisitic Director of Photosphere an initiative of the India Habitat Centre in 2016 & 2019, the Project Director of the First Ever Bihar Museum Biennale, 2021. Currently, Dr Pande is a consultant art advisor and curator of the Visual Arts Gallery, India Habitat Centre, New Delhi.

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