The Mahavidya is a group of ten powerful goddesses in the Hindu Dharma. They encompass every aspect of the physical and spiritual realm, from motherhood and nurturance to destruction and wealth.
The ten Mahavidyas, or Wisdom Goddesses, represent various aspects of divinity that help guide the spiritual seeker on their journey to liberation. The seeker focused on devotion (Bhakti) may approach these forms with reverence, love, and increasing intimacy. The seeker focused on knowledge (Jnana) may view these forms as representing various states of inner awakening along the path to enlightenment.
The term “Dasha Mahavidya” comes from the Sanskrit, Dasa, meaning “ten,” maha, meaning “great,” and Vidya, meaning “knowledge.” The Mahavidyas are different forms of the Divine Mother, Adi Shakti, or Parashakti.
According to Hindu Puranas, the Dasa Mahavidya were created after a disagreement between Lord Shiva and Goddess Sati (a form of Shakti).
Origin Story of Dasa Mahavidya
The consort of Lord Shiva, Goddess Sati, was Daksha Prajapati’s daughter, a Brahma descendant. Sati had married Shiva against the wishes of her father. The arrogant Daksha performed a great yajna (with the sole intention of insulting Shiva), to which he invited all of the gods and goddesses except his son-in-law, Lord Shiva.
Narad Muni told Shiva about the Daksha’s Yajna, and Sati asked for Shiva’s permission, saying that a daughter does not need an invitation from her father. Shiva said that Daksha was trying to insult him, so even if Sati attended the yajna, the outcome of the sacrifice would not be positive. Therefore he tried to dissuade Sati from attending the Yajna.
Sati was enraged because he did not want to be in the Daksha’s Yajna and did not treat Sati as the mother of the Universe. She assumed different forms of the Adi Shakti to show Shiva her divine form. The oceans raged, the mountains shook, and the atmosphere was filled with wonder at her form.
It is said that Shiva was trying to escape, but the goddess Shakti stopped him each time he tried to go in a different direction. Goddess Shakti multiplied herself into ten different forms, guarding each of the ten directions. These ten forms are known as the Dasa Mahavidya. Each form has her own name, story, quality, and mantras.
Each form of the Divine Mother is a Mahavidya. The Dasa Mahavidyas are:
Kālī (Sanskrit: काली) ,Bagalāmukhī (Sanskrit: बगलामुखी),Chinnamastā (Sanskrit: छिन्नमस्ता) ,Bhuvaneśvarī (Sanskrit: भुवनेश्वरी), Mātaṃgī (Sanskrit: मातंगी), Ṣodaśī (Sanskrit: षोडशी), Dhūmāvatī (Sanskrit: धूमावती), Tripurasundarī (Sanskrit: रिपुरसुन्दरी), Tārā (Sanskrit: तारा), Bhairavī (Sanskrit: भैरवी)
First of all, Goddess Sati took the form of Kali. Her form was fearful, her hair wild and loose, her body as dark as a storm cloud. She had eyes that were set deep into her face and eyebrows shaped like curved swords. She stood on a corpse and wore a garland of skulls and earrings made from the bones of corpses.
Goddess Kali had four hands – on the one hand, she had the head of a skull, and on the other, a curved sword with blood dripping. She had mudras on her other two hands – one giving freedom from fear and the other giving blessings. She roared, and the ten directions were filled with that fearsome sound.
In the series of the ten Mahavidyas or wisdom aspects of the Divine Mother, Goddess Kali comes first, for she represents the universal consciousness where there is no time and space. She is the ultimate power and reality at the same time, emphasizing the basic tantric teaching that the power of consciousness and consciousness are one.
The Devimahatmya vividly depicts a scene with Kali and her associated goddesses ready to take on an army of Asuras. The battle culminates with the slaying of two asura generals, Chanda and Munda, and this act earns her the name Chamunda.
In the next episode, Chamunda takes on the Raktabija. He bleeds profusely in battle until the world is teeming with Raktabijas (Seeds of Raktabija). Just when the battle looks hopeless and the gods watching in despair, Chamunda roams the battlefield, eagerly drinking the blood and crushing the young demons between her grinding teeth. Finally, Raktabija falls to the ground and dies after losing all his blood.
Significance: Raktabija’s ability to create his replicas represents the human mind’s ordinary state of awareness. The mind is constantly in motion, and one thought leads to another in an endless succession.
The mind is always active and never fully concentrated. Metaphorically, Chamunda is the power to restrain the mind’s endless modulations, to stop them altogether. When all mental activity (chittavritti) ceases, this is called yoga: consciousness resting in its own infinite peace and bliss.
As Dakshinakali, she is portrayed as young and beautiful, standing on Siva’s supine, ash-besmeared body, who looks up at her adoringly. Siva is the highest form of consciousness, always content in its own greatness. Kali is consciousness in action that creates, maintains, and destroys the universe.
In general, we can say that all the dualities of life, the light and the dark, the beautiful and the fearsome, are united and reconciled in Kali. She represents supreme non-duality, for she is none other than Brahman. At the same time, the duality of this world is nothing other than her own self-expression.
From the Absolute to the relative and from the relative to the Absolute, Kali represents the power of transformation. For us, who wrongly think ourselves to be mere mortals, she holds out the promise of transformation from the human to the Divine.
The Goddess Tara is revered in Hinduism and Buddhism as the goddess of compassion and protection. In Hindu Dharma, she is a manifestation of the primordial female energy known as Shakti.
The name derives from the Sanskrit root “tar,” meaning “protection.” The name translates to “star” in other Indian languages. Tara’s name is derived from tri, which means “to go across.” One of her epithets is “Samsaratarini,” meaning “she who takes across the ocean of worldly existence.” Tara is, therefore, the all-gracious liberator.
Tara was originally a Hindu deity but was later adopted into Buddhism. In some traditions, she is even considered the female Buddha. Today, she is the most popular deity worshiped in Tibetan Buddhism.
Origin – It is said that during the churning of the milky ocean (Samudra Manthan), when poison came out of the ocean, Lord Shiva drank it to save the world from destruction. But Lord Shiva fell unconscious under the powerful effect of the poison. At this point, Goddess Durga appeared as Tara, took Shiva on her lap, and breastfed Him to counteract the effect of the poison. Hence Tara is said to be more approachable to her devotees because of her maternal instinct.
In tantric traditions, she may be considered an incarnation of Durga, Parvati, or Mahadevi. Goddess Tara protects those on their journey to enlightenment and earthly travelers.
In some traditions, Tara appears in different forms; the two best-known versions of her are White Tara and Green Tara. White Tara is known for the embodiment of compassion and peace, while Green Tara is known for being a great protector and overcoming obstacles.
Images of Tara often show her seated on a white lotus in the primordial waters that envelop the entire universe. From this, we understand that she is the Mother of the three worlds—of the heavens, the atmosphere, and the earth.
Much of Tara’s symbolism can be related to death—but in its broadest perspective. It refers to the death of the ego, the false idea of selfhood that keeps the individual in bondage, ever reactive, and thralldom to all life’s ups and downs.
Like Goddess Kali, Tara is sometimes shown wearing a girdle made of severed human arms, symbolizing her ability to relieve us of the burdens of karma. The scissors and sword can be seen as tools to help eliminate the ego, which is the sense of mistaken identity and source of illusion.
Tripura Sundari, also known as Goddess Shodashi, is the most beautiful of the three worlds. In Mahavidya, She represents Goddess Parvati or also known as Tantric Parvati.
Goddess Tripura Sundari is also known as Lalita and Rajarajeshwari, meaning “the one who plays” and “queen of queens,” respectively. Tripurasundari is also known as Kamala, a form of Mahalakshmi; she symbolizes wealth.
According to the description in her dhyana mantra, Tripurasundari’s complexion shines with the rising sun’s light. This rosy color represents joy, compassion, and illumination.
She is shown with four arms in which she holds five arrows of flowers, a noose, a goad, and sugarcane as a bow. The noose represents attachment, the goad represents repulsion, the sugarcane bow represents the mind, and the arrows are the five sense objects.
In the Sakta Tantra, Goddess Tripura Sundari is supreme, and the gods are her instruments of expression. Through them, she presides over the universe’s creation, maintenance, and dissolution and the self-concealment and self-revelation that lie behind those three activities. Self-concealment is the precondition and result of the cosmic manifestation, and self-revelation causes the manifest universe to dissolve, disclosing the essential unity.
With this in mind, the eighteenth-century commentator Bhaskararaya proposed that the name Tripurasundari should be understood as “she whose beauty precedes the three worlds,” meaning that she is divinity in its transcendental glory. However, the name is usually taken in an immanent sense to mean “she who is beautiful in the three worlds.” Present here is the idea of a triad, a grouping of three that plays out in many different aspects of the phenomenal world.
Tripurasundari represents the state of awareness that is also called the sadasivatattva. It is characterized as “I am this” (aham idam). Cosmic evolution is the outward flow of consciousness (pravritti). Spiritual practice reverses that flow, so for the yogin, this stage is a very high level of attainment, close to final realization. It is an experience of the universe within the unity of consciousness.
Even in our ordinary state of consciousness, Tripurasundari is the beauty we see in the world around us. Whatever we perceive externally as beautiful resonates deep within.
The fourth Mahavidya is Goddess Bhuvaneshvari, whose form resembles Tripurasundari. Her name consists of two elements: bhuvana, which means this living world—a place of dynamic activity—and isvari, which means the female ruler or sovereign.
The name “Bhuvanesvari” is often translated as “Mistress of the World,” but bhuvana is more than the earth we stand upon. The entire cosmos, the bhuvanatraya, consists of the heavens, the atmosphere, and the earth. Because this is a living, dynamic phenomenon, Bhuvanesvari embodies all its characteristics and interactions.
She is called Mahamaya (“she whose magical power is great”). Maya is the power to create a magical appearance for the spectator’s delight; that is what a magician does. She is called Sarvarupa (“she whose form is all”) and Visvarupa (“she whose form is the universe” or “she who appears as the universe”). All that we experience in this life is, in fact, the Divine Mother. As Bhuvanesvari, she is consistently associated with the here and now.
According to “Pranatoshini Grantha”, Brahma wanted to create the Universe and did intense Tapasya to invite the energy of Creation, Kriya Shakti. Parameswari, pleased with his Tapasya, responded to his invitation and came as Bhu Devi or Bhuvanesvari.
She is red in color, seated on a lotus flower. Her body is resplendent and shining with jewels. She holds a noose (paasham) and a curved sword (ankusham) in two of her four hands, and the other two assume the mudras of blessing and freedom from fear. She resides in Shiva’s heart.
Bhubaneswari is the Supreme Empress of Manifested Existence, the exposer of consciousness. Essentially, Goddess invites us to cultivate an attitude of universality through her all-pervasiveness and identification with the universe.
The third Mahavidya is Chinnamasta. She is also known as Prachanda Chandika. Chinnamasta (“she who is decapitated”) is a form of the Divine Mother shown as having cut off her own head. This is her story:
Origin Story: According to Panchatantra Grantha, once Parvati went with her friends Dakini and Varnini to take a bath in the Mandakini River. Parvati was feeling very happy and filled with love, which caused her complexion to darken, and the feeling of love completely took over. On the other hand, friends were hungry and asked Parvati for food. Parvati requested them to wait, said she would feed them shortly, and began walking.
After a short while, her friends again asked for food, telling her that she was the Mother of the Universe and that they needed food now. Goddess Parvati laughed and, with her fingernail, cut her own head. The blood spurted out in three different directions immediately. Her two friends drank the blood from two directions, and Goddess drank from a third direction.
Since she cut her own head, she is known as Chinnamasta. Chinnamasta shines like a lightning bolt from the Sun. She demonstrates the rare courage needed to make the highest possible sacrifice.
The severed head, as an iconographic symbol, represents liberation. Each person’s individual identity is a state of conditioning or limitation, dependent on qualities. By severing the head, the Mother reveals herself in her true being, which is unconditioned, infinite, and boundlessly free. Her nudity reinforces the idea of freedom, symbolizing that she cannot be covered or contained by any garment. Because she is infinite, she is also autonomous.
Dakini, on the left, is black; Varnini, on the right, is red. Chinnamasta, in the middle, is white. Black, red, and white represent the three gunas or basic universal energies (Sattva, Rajas, Tamas). Sattva, symbolized by White, is the highest gunas, but all three belong to the Prakriti. Nothing exists apart from the Mother, whose ability to take many forms manifests as the grandeur of the universe.
The blood spurting from Chinnamasta’s neck represents the life force (prana) or cosmic energy that animates the universe and sustains all life. The first stream flows into Chinnamasta’s own mouth. She is self-existent and dependent on no other. The streams flowing into her attendants’ mouths represent the life force in all living creatures.
The name Bhairavi means “frightful,” “terrible,” “horrible,” or “formidable.” Goddess Bhairavi provokes different fear, for she is said to shine with the effulgence of ten thousand rising suns.
She has many names, including Tripura Bhairavi, Sampath Praja Bhairavi, Kaulesh Bhairavi, Siddhida Bhairavi, Bhay Vidwamsi Bhairavi, Chaitanya Bhairavi, Kameshwari Bhairavi, Nitya Bhairavi, and Rudra Bhairavi.
Bhairavi is seen mainly as the Chandi in the Durga Saptashati who slays Chanda and Munda. Sometimes she is in the cremation ground, seated on a headless corpse.
She has four arms. With two hands, she holds the sword of knowledge and the Rakshyasa’s head, representing the ego’s destruction. Her other two hands may display the abhayamudra, urging us to have no fear, and the Varadamudra, the gesture of granting boons. They often hold a mala, signifying devotion, and a book, signifying knowledge. The trident represents the threefold nature of her manifestation and can be interpreted in various ways.
It is often said that Bhairavi represents divine wrath, but this is only because of her fierce, maternal protectiveness to destroy ignorance that keeps us in bondage or in Samsara. In that aspect, she is called Sakalasiddhibhairavi, the granter of every perfection.
Goddess Dhumavati represents the dark side of life. Dhumavati means “she who is made of smoke.” One of the effects of fire is smoke. It is dark, polluting, and concealing; it is emblematic of the worst facets of human existence.
Origin Story: According to Pranatoshini Tantra, once Devi Sati, due to satiate her extreme hunger, swallowed Lord Shiva. At Lord Shiva’s request, She later regurgitated Him. After this incident, Lord Shiva rejected her and cursed her to take a form of a widow.
A common feature associated with Dhumavati is a crow. The crow sometimes appears on her banner; sometimes, it sits atop it. Occasionally the bird is shown as huge, serving as her mount (vahana).
She is associated with poverty, needs, hunger, thirst, quarrelsome, anger, and negativity. She is consistently shown as old and ugly, with sagging breasts and crooked or missing teeth. She is dressed in filthy rags.
Dhumavati embodies the destructive force of time that takes away our loved ones, physical strength and energy, health, and anything else that contributes to our happiness. Everything we rely on for safety is, by nature, temporary. In the end, we all have to confront our own mortality. That is the fundamental issue of human existence.
She is also known as Bagala for short and as the “goddess who paralyzes enemies.” In later tantric yoga, Bagalamukhi is associated with the practice of pranayama. Her name is a combination of Bagala and Mukhi. Bagala, which is the distortion of the original Sanskrit root Valga (वल्गा), means bridle.
The headgear used to control a horse is known as a bridle. Hence Bagalamukhi means the Goddess who has the power to control and paralyze the enemies. Due to her capturing and paralyzing powers, She is also known as Devi of Stambhana.
In some traditions, she is an incarnation of the goddess Kali. Bagalamukhi translates as “the one who checks the mouth.” She is so-named for her power to silence speech and still the mind. In yoga, such a state helps the yogi find peace and higher states of consciousness/
Origin Story: Once, an asura named Ruru, the son of Durgam, performed severe penance to win the favor of Brahma. Since Ruru was already very powerful, the Gods became very apprehensive of what might happen if he obtained a boon from Brahma. So they did Aradhana (propitiation) to yellow water (Shree Maa says here that yellow intuitively means peace). Pleased with their Tapasya, the Divine Mother appeared as Bagala. Bagala is the Goddess who stops all motion at the appropriate time, silences the mouths and words of all evil beings, and controls their tongues. May that Goddess bless us with stillness when it is appropriate!
The Shaktisamgama-tantra narrates the birth of Ucchishta-matangini. Once, the god Vishnu and his wife Lakshmi visited Shiva and his second wife Parvati (a reincarnation of Sati) and gave them a banquet of fine foods. While eating, the deities dropped some food on the ground, from which arose a beautiful maiden who asked for their leftovers. The four deities granted her their leftovers as prasad, food made sacred by being first consumed by the deity. This can be interpreted as the Ucchishta of the deity, although due to its negative connotation, the word Ucchishta is never explicitly used in connection to Prasad. Shiva decreed that those who repeat her mantra and worship her will have their material desires satisfied and gain control over foes, declaring her the giver of boons. From that day, the maiden was known as Ucchishta-matangini.
Matangi is often described as an outcast and impure. Her association with pollution mainly stems from her relation to outcast communities, considered polluted in Hindu society. These social groups deal in occupations deemed inauspicious and polluted, like the collection of waste, meat-processing, and working on cremation grounds.
Matangi is regarded as a Tantric form of Saraswati, the goddess of knowledge and the arts of mainstream Hinduism, with whom she shares many traits. Both embody the music and are depicted playing the veena. They are also both said to be the Nada (sound or energy) that flows through the Nadi channels in the body through which life force flows. Both are related to rain clouds, thunder, and rivers. Though both govern learning and speech, Saraswati represents the orthodox knowledge of the Brahmins, while Matangi—the wild and ecstatic outcast—embodies the “extraordinary” beyond the boundaries of mainstream society, especially inner knowledge.
Kamala is the tenth of the ten Mahavidya Goddesses. Goddess Kamala is considered the supreme form of the goddess in the fullness of Her graceful aspect. She is not only compared with Goddess Lakshmi but also considered Goddess Lakshmi. She is also known as Tantric Lakshmi. The goddess in the form of Kamala bestows prosperity and wealth, fertility and crops, and good luck. Hence She is Devi of both Dhan and Dhanya, i.e., wealth and grains.
Kamala is portrayed as making the gestures of boon-giving and fearlessness. She sits on a lotus and holds lotus blossoms in her two upper hands. Even her name means “lotus.” She is flanked by two elephants. Kamala is Lakshmi, who is portrayed identically, but in the context of the Mahavidyas, there are also significant differences.
Kamala is not a divine consort but an independent and all-supreme Divine Mother. She is not the spouse of any male deity. Interestingly, she rarely identifies with the other female forms found in orthodox Vaisnavism, such as Sita, Radha, or Rukmini. However, Kamala is not completely auspicious or one-sided. Sometimes she is called Rudra (“the howling one”), Ghora or Bhima (“the terrifying one”), or Tamasi (“the dark one”). Like Kali, the Tantric Kamala embraces the light and the darkness, for she is the totality.
Kali represents unfettered absolute reality; Tara is an expanded state yet bound by the physical; Bagalamukhi the fierce concentration; Kamala and Bhairavi with the satisfaction of physical well-being and worldly wealth; while the other Mahavidyas symbolize the worldly needs and desires that eventually draw into Kali.
Also, Kali, Chinnamasta, Bagalamukhi, and Dhumavati are characterized by their power and force – active and dormant. Tara has certain characteristics of Kali and certain others of Sundari. And she is also related to Bhairavi, Bagalamukhi, and Matangi in aspects of sound-force (sabda) express or implied. Whereas Sundari, Bhuvaneshwari, Bhairavi, Matangi, and Kamalatmika have qualities of light, delight, and beauty. The Tantras speak of Kali as dark, Tara as white, and Sundari as red.