First Major Text on Hinduism’s Great Goddess Is Compiled Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

A remarkable work, the Devī Māhātmyam was the major and foundational text relating to the great goddess of Hinduism. It was the first text to explore the wonder of the goddess in her myriad forms.

Summary of Event

The Devī Māhātmyam (also known as the Śrī Durgā Saptaśatī, or “the seven hundred verses to Durga,” and translated into English in 1963 as Devī Māhātmyam: The Glorification of the Great Goddess), is the earliest extant text specifying the complex nature of the great goddess of Hinduism and recounting the three most important myths associated with the goddess, or Devī. The proposed dates for the compilation of the work, based on linguistic studies, spans two centuries between 400 and 600 c.e. The language of the work is classical Sanskrit, arranged in verse. Perhaps as a way of sanctioning some of the revolutionary notions put forth, the Devī Māhātmyam was appended to an orthodox Hindu text, the Mārkaṇḍeya Purāṇa (c. 300-600 c.e.; English translation, 1904). Although the name of the author is not known, he was probably a learned Brahman priest, versed in Tantric teachings, and was undoubtedly connected to the court of the powerful imperial Guptas of north India. The text may have had a long oral tradition before it was rendered in written form. Originally and to this day, the text is chanted on sacred occasions, particularly during the Durgā Puja, the major festival in the northeastern part of India.

Devī Māhātmyam is divided into thirteen chapters and consists of seven hundred mantras or verses. It describes the three primary aspects of the divine goddess and the astounding events associated with each manifestation. Although the text provides many names, manifestations, and embodiments for the goddess, it is made clear that there is only one great divine mother goddess; she is a tremendous force that explodes into a thousand forms. The three aspects of the goddess depicted are Mahāmāyā, also called Svāhā (chapter 1); Caṇḍikā or Chaṇḍikā, also called Durgā (chapters 2-4); and Ambikā, also called Kālī (chapters 5-13).

The story of Devī Māhātmyam is told to a disenfranchised king and a disillusioned merchant by a great sage named Medhas. He implored the disheartened king and merchant to meditate on the great goddess because only she could bestow all blessings as well as spiritual liberation. So that his listeners might understand her true and complex nature, he expounded on her three greatest accomplishments, explaining that she is the very embodiment of the universe and that she manifests in order to accomplish deeds no other can attempt.

To illustrate the point, Medhas related the following tale. While the god Viṣṇu (the preserver) slumbered on a serpent raft in the primordial ocean at the beginning of time, Lord Brahma (the creator) emerged from a lotus sprouting from Viṣṇu’s navel. Soon thereafter, two horrible demons, Madhu and Kaiṭabha, were born from the wax of Viṣṇu’s ear. They were determined to kill Brahma. Unable to take action, Brahma evoked the goddess Mahāmāyā. It was she, the embodiment of universal power (śakti), who was able to awaken (enliven) Viṣṇu so that he could destroy the terrible demons that threatened the destruction of the universe.

The second myth is of the famous battle between the goddess Caṇḍikā and the horrifying demon king Mahiṣa. Having conquered the army of the gods, Mahiṣa seated himself on the divine throne and claimed sovereignty over all while the gods were forced to wander the earth as mortals. The gods met, and from their collective fury, each issued forth a fiery force (śakti) that collectively combined to form the goddess Caṇḍikā. After she was outfitted with their weapons, she was ready to undertake what they were unable to accomplish. Immediately, she began battling the demonic forces. She exterminated, without effort, millions on millions of demons. Once Mahiṣa’s forces were destroyed, Caṇḍikā came after the evil demon king. Each time she administered a fatal blow, the fiend immediately arose in another shape. Finally, as she decapitated the head of the demon who had taken the form of a powerful buffalo, Mahiṣa began to leap from the buffalo carcass in a human form. Before he could emerge fully, however, she annihilated him.

The third event concerns the two most formidable demons of all, Śumbha and Niśumbha, who had taken over the world of the gods. The gods invoked the mighty goddess Ambikā. Answering their pleas for help, she commenced a battle that raged, creating a horrible field of slaughter. Ambikā, by calling forth her own darkest essence, enticed the terrible black goddess Kālī to emerge from her body in order to take on the slaughter of the demon generals Caṇḍa and Muṇḍa. Also, among the terrible fiendish forces was one in particular, Raktabīja (Bloodseed) whose drops of blood multiplied into many hundred more demons. Kālī lapped up Raktabīja’s blood before it hit the earth and demolished him easily. Also joining battle with the goddess were the eight goddesses called Śaktis, the life force of eight gods; their fierce natures easily helped crush the demonic forces.

The text ends with the goddess granting boons to the king and merchant. The king desired his kingdom restored to him; the merchant sought supreme enlightenment.

Significance

The work is not only innovative but also groundbreaking. Until Devī Māhātmyam, goddesses in India were largely overshadowed by the mighty presence of the gods. Although goddesses occasionally were mentioned in the Hindu religious writings known as the Vedas and Upaniṣads and many were the focus of local cults across India, their relative status was minor. The text was the first to address matters of gender. Its proclamation is loud and clear, and it presents the revolutionary view of the ultimate reality as being feminine. The great goddess is the source of all creation. For the first time, the most ancient fertility goddesses, revised and newly exalted, were given full recognition in the patriarchal Brahmanical religion. The text presents a structure in which the many names and forms of the goddesses are united in a comprehensive and complex organization. Most important, Devī Māhātmyam provides an underlying philosophical foundation for the worship of the goddess. The concept of śakti, female energy that gives birth to and enlivens the entire universe including the male gods, is the vital core of the sophisticated Tantric philosophical teaching.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Coburn, Thomas B. “Devī Māhātmyam”: The Crystallization of the Goddess Tradition. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1984. Exploration of the Hindu concept of the feminine as being the ultimate view of reality. Provides a careful scriptural analysis of the text. Bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Coburn, Thomas B. Encountering the Goddess: A Translation of the “Devī Māhātmyam” and a Study of Its Interpretation. Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 1991. An excellent translation from the Sanskrit of the Devī Māhātmyam with important insights into the text. Bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jagadisvarnanada, Swami, trans. Devī Māhātmyam. Madras: Sri Ramkrishna Math, 1972. An important early translation into English with the accompanying Sanskrit text.

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