Dasha (Ten) Mahavidya – Part I




Dasha (Ten) Mahavidya – Part I

Posted by VIBHOR MAHAJAN on JANUARY 6, 2016


There is a deep quintessential need in the human psyche for a mother. It is said; the Goddess was humankind’s earliest conception of divinity. Among the Shakthas who worship Mother Goddess, the source of all existence is female. God is woman. She is the principle representation of Divinity. She is that power which resides in all life as consciousness, mind, matter, energy, silence, joy as also disturbance and violence. She is the vibrant energy that makes everything alive, fascinating and wonderful. She is inherent in everything and at the same time transcends everything. Her true nature is beyond mind and matter; she is not bound by any limitation. She is Arupa. When she is represented in a form, her intense representation is a Bindu the dimensionless point about to expand immensely. The Bindu symbolizes her most subtle micro form as the universal Mother, womb, yoni, creator, retainer and also the receiver of the universe.

The Goddess in Tantra as “Bindu” denotes what is hidden; the secret, the subtle and the most sensitive. She represents the source of all that is to be known, to be searched and to be attained with dedication and effort; she is Durga. The seeker is drawn by a fascination to know her. She is the mystery and allure of all knowledge. She is at once the inner guiding power, the knowledge and its comprehension. She is Vidya. Ordinarily, Vidya stands for knowledge, learning, discipline and a system of thought. But, in the context of Tantra it has an extended meaning. Here, it variously refers to a female deity, to the personification of her consciousness; or to the manifestation of her wide variety of powers in specific forms at different times for different purposes. Her varied forms-dynamic and static-   are interpreted as explicit instances of her absolute nature. And each of her Vidya is an illustration of her primordial energy as Adi prakrithi or Adi parashakthi.

The Devi, in the Tantra represents consciousness functioning at different levels of the universe -inward and outward. She also is the source of diverse principles, energies and faculties which make the manifested and unmanifested universe. When the countless diversity that occurs in nature, in humans and in all existence, is personified they are visualized by the Tantric through idioms that are familiar to him. He views each of that as a specific manifestation of the Devi. He recognizes each expression of her as a Vidya. Those symbolic Tantric visualizations are named Mahavidya, in awe and reverence. Though Her Vidya is infinite, for the purpose of Tantric Sadhana, they are usually classified as being ten: Dasha Mahavidya. Each tradition of Tantra has its own set of Dasha Mahavidyas. Generally, the ten important Mahavidyas enumerated in the shaktha upa-puranas, Maha Bhagavata Purana and Brahaddharma Purana are taken as standard forms (Kali, Tara, Tripura Sundari (Sodashi), Bhuvaneshwari, Bhairavi, Chinnamasta, Dhumavati, Bagalamukhi, Matangi and Kamala). They are described as the ten great gupta ( secret ) Mahavidyas. Further, each of the ten has within itself many layers; each carries many names; and, each form has its own sub-variations. Whatever is their numbers, names, order of appearance or their diverse forms, all represent the natures of one and the same reality. Kali is included in all the enumerations and she is regarded the Adi (primary) Mahavidya. Each of the other Mahavidya shares some of her characteristics. 

The Origin of Mahavidya’s

The origin of Mahavidyas as a group is unclear. There are various explanations based in mythologies of the Mahadevi the Great Goddess and in the Tantra texts. But all explanations seem to suggest that the Mahavidyas, as a group of ten, is of comparatively recent origin. The Mahavidyas is a combination of three well established deities –Kali, Tara and Kamala; couple of deities that already had marginal presence; and other deities, perhaps of local origin, who figure exclusively in the Tantric Mahavidya cult. All the Mahavidyas, whatever might be their origins and individual dispositions, are associated with the Shiva cult. As a rule, they are depicted as dominating over Shiva, the male.

Among the Mahavidyas, Kali is the foremost. Though Kali makes her specific appearance in the Devi-Mahatmya as an emanation of Durga, she combines in herself the virtues and powers of many Vedic deities. She inherits the all – pervasive sovereign power and splendor of Devi, the mystery and darkness of Rathri, dark as the bright starlit night who is Mayobhu (delighting), Kanya (virgin), Yosha Yuvathi (youthful) , Revathi (opulent), Bhadra Shiva (auspicious)  and Pashahasta (holding a noose); the mercy of Durga who transports her devotee over all the difficulties; the occult power and delusion of Viraj  the Maha-Maya , the goddess of heaven (divi maayeva devata) and the Dhirgajihvi (long tongued) ; the death, destruction and dissolution of Nirrti; and the timelessness of Kala. Kali is also one of the seven tongues of Agni (Kali, Karali, Manojava, Sulohita, Sudhumravarna, Suphulingini and Visvaruchi). Kali is thus associated with darkness, night, time, mystery, fire, and immense power of attraction. She is also the source and the residue of all energies.  

Tara the savior (Taarini) is as potent as Kali. She is said to be the form that Mahadevi took in order to destroy the thousand-headed –Ravana. Tara has strong presence in the Buddhism (especially the Tibetan Buddhism) and in Jain pantheons also. Among the Mahavidyas, Tara is next only to Kali; and she resembles Kali in appearance more than any other Mahavidya. Tara as Mahavidya is not entirely benign; she could be fierce and horrifying.

Among the Mahavidyas, Kamala is the best known and adored even outside the cult. Kamala of the Mahavidya is a reflection of Shri for whom a Suktha of fifteen riks is devoted in the khilani attached to the fifth Mandala of Rig Veda. The Devi Mahatmya which is a part of the Markandeya Purana celebrates Mahalakshmi as the immense potential (sarva-sadhya) and the mighty Shakti of Devi, the destroyer of Mahisha. However, as Mahavidya, Kamala is not endowed with all those powers nor does she enjoy the same prestige as Mahalakshmi in Tantra or Lakshmi in the orthodox tradition. Kamala is invoked mainly in rituals seeking wealth, power and hidden treasures. Kamala in her Mahavidya form is associated with Shiva and not with Vishnu.

Sodashi as Mahavidya is also referred to as Tripura Sundari the most beauteous in all the three worlds. She along with Kali and Tara is reckoned as Adi (primordial) Mahavidya. She is associated with sixteen phases of the moon or sixteen modifications of desire. Sodashi as Tripura Sundari, Lalita and Rajarajeshwari are the important goddess in the Sri Vidya tradition. But, as Mahavidya her belligerent aspect as Tripura Bhairavi is stressed.

Bhuvaneshwari is related to Prithvi (the Mother Earth). In the Puranas she is associated especially with Varaha Avatar of Vishnu. Broadly, Bhuvaneshwari, whose extension is the world, represents substantial forces of the material world. The other Mahavidyas: Chinnamasta, Bagalamukhi, Dhumavati and Matangi are rarely mentioned except as Mahavidyas. These along with Bhairavi are primarily tantric deities of funeral pyres and graveyards.

Appearances and Characteristics

Kali is Adi Mahavidya, the primary Mahavidya. She is the first and the foremost among the Mahavidyas. She is not only the first but the most important of the Mahavidyas. It is said, the Mahavidya tradition is centered on Kali and her attributes. Kali is the epitome of the Mahavidyas. The rest of the Mahavidyas emanate from Kali and share her virtues and powers in varying shades.

The Mahavidyas, as a group, form a most wonderful assimilation of contrasting elements and principles in nature. They all are intensely feminine, asserting the supremacy of the female. One could say they are the ‘anti-model’ of traditional docile housewife. They totally reject every authority and any type of dominance. They aggressively put down and overpower male ego and its arrogance. Their agitation often transforms into dreadful wrath. And that truly underlines the nature of the Mahavidyas. Though the Mahavidyas are female they are not depicted as a wife. In the hymns devoted to some Mahavidyas their male spouses are mentioned. But, that minor detail is never stressed, as that is a weak and an insignificant aspect of their individuality. Mahavidyas are also not associated with Motherhood or fertility.

Mahavidyas are symbols of female independence; symbols of the ‘other’ ways of being feminine; the way that threatens the male. They are highly independent, rebellious, and stubborn; and over-domineering as if possessed of ferocious obsession to pulverize and grind the male ego into abject submission. Their wrath burns down every type of male arrogance. Incidentally, it is said, each Mahavidya is so independent and exclusive that she relates only to just a few that are close to her, but not to all the Mahavidyas in the group. By all accounts, the Mahavidyas as a group and as individual deities are the most bizarre set of goddesses in any religion or in any culture.  The Mahavidyas have fierce forms; terrifying demeanor; agitating minds; strange and exotic characters   ; untidy habits; shocking behaviors; and destruction-loving nature. They enjoy strong association with death, violence and pollution. Some of the Mahavidyas are ghoul like deities of cremation grounds and corpses, sporting wild disheveled hair, hideous features, dancing naked and sometimes copulating with an inert male stretched flat under them. In most cases they preside over strange tantric-magical rituals. It is their outrageous aspects that set them apart from the other deities.

Mahavidyas are a distinctive group of deities, and far different from the deities worshipped in the polite society. The Mahavidyas giving way to violent emotional expressions are shown as performing loathsome, socially despicable roles, indulging in all that is forbidden in a normal society. And in fact, they challenge the normally accepted concepts and values in an established social order. They bring into question the very notions of beauty, goodness, honor, respect, decency, cleanliness and physical comfort. There is another way of looking at their forms that are often disturbing and difficult to bear. This perhaps was the way they were intended to look. Mahavidyas are not meant to be pleasant or comforting. Their ambiguous, enigmatic, contradictory and paradoxical nature and behaviors are intended to shock, jolt and challenge our conceited way of looking at the world that keep us in bondage. They kick hard to awaken us; and point out that the world is really much different from what it appears to be; and it surely is not designed to satisfy our comforting fantasies. Mahavidyas are ‘anti-models’, provocative energies urging us to shed our inhibitions, to discard our superficial understanding of beauty, cleanliness, goodness or the proper way of doing things. They, in their own weird ways, challenge us to look beyond; and to look deeper and experience what lies beneath the façade of the ordinary world. From an aesthetic point of view Mahavidyas suggest a flight from reality and take you to a totally different world, which is poignant, restless and aggressive. The interesting aspect of the Mahavidyas is that the images seem to have sprung from intuition or from a non-rational source, and yet they bring home the realities of life. Pointing out to reality is in the nature of Tantra outlook. Tantra takes man and the world as they are and not as they should be. It is said; the images should be viewed in the light of the meanings which underlie and generate the image. In case, the image and its meaning are disassociated, it then becomes a mere repulsive picture.

The Mahavidyas in general are a strange amalgam of contradictions: death and sex; destruction and creation. In her creative aspect, Mahavidya is an enchantress – ‘the fairest of the three worlds’, radiating her   benign powers. In her negative aspect her intensely fierce nature is made explicit by her terrifying features. But at the same time, every Mahavidya is neither totally negative nor totally positive. Each is a combination of many awe inspiring virtues and magical powers. From the gross descriptions of ferocious deities Kali and Dhumavati it might appear they are devoid of pleasing, benevolent and such other positive virtues. But, their namavalis (strings of one thousand and eight names) sing and praise them as oceans of mercy. In contrast, Kamala, given her association with Shri, surprisingly, carries within her demeanor a few fierce or terrible aspects. The Mahavidyas cannot easily be classified as those that are strictly of fierce (raudra) or benign (saumya) nature. A couple of the Mahavidyas are pictured as beauteous, amorous and benevolent. But in the ambience of death and destruction in which they are placed and in the overall context of the Mahavidya tradition, they are meant to be fearsome, demanding submission of the male. For instance, the beautiful goddess Tripura Sundari’s terrible form as Tripura Bhairavi is taken as her authentic Mahavidya aspect. The Mahavidyas, when pleased, might bless an adept; but that is   often by destroying or harming or suppressing the adept’s enemies or opponents. Thus destruction is at times the Mahavidyas mode of blessing. 

Each of the Vidya’s is great in its own right. The notions of superiority and inferiority among them should never be allowed to step in. All are to be respected alike. The differences among them are only in their appearances and dispositions. And yet they all reflect various aspects of the Devi. The might of Kali; the sound-force (sabda) of Tara; the beauty and bliss of Sundari; the vast vision of Buvaneshwari; the effulgent charm of Bhairavi; the striking force of Chinnamasta; the silent inertness of Dhumavati; the paralyzing power of Bagalamukhi; the expressive play of Matangi; and the concord and harmony of Kamalatmika are various characteristics, the distinct manifestations of the Supreme consciousness of the Devi that pervades the Universe. The tantric text Mundamala-tantra, however, makes a sub classification in three levels.  

  • Maha Vidya –  the extraordinary Vidyas, consisting Kali and Tara;
  • Vidya – the normal Vidyas consist deities Shodashi (or Tripura), Bhuvaneshwari, Bhairavi, Chinnamasta and Dhumavati; and
  • Siddha Vidya – the Vidya for adepts refers to Kamala, Matangi and Bagalamukhi.

It is also said that Mahavidyas are indeed various expressions of the Mother: Kali is Time; Bhuvaneshwari is space; the piercing word is Tara; the flaming word is Bhairavi; and expressed word is Matangi. Chinnamasta combines light and sound in her thunderclap; Bagalamukhi stuns and stifles the flow free flow of things. The luminous desire is Sundari; and the delightful beauty is Kamala. The Sadhaka prays to Kali to grant him virtues of : the generosity of Chinnamasta; the valor in battle of Bagalamukhi; the wrath of Dhumavati; the majestic stature of Tripura Sundari; the forbearance of Bhuvaneswari; and control over enemies like Matangi.

Kali is said to represent unfettered absolute reality; Tara an expanded state but yet bound by the physical; Bagalamukhi the fierce concentration; Kamala and Bhairavi with satisfaction of physical well being and worldly wealth; while the other Mahavidyas symbolize  the worldly needs and desires that eventually draws 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 the white; and Sundari as red.

Worshiping the Mahavidyas

The Mahavidyas are not goddesses in the normal sense of the term. The worship of Mahavidyas – as a group- is generally not temple oriented; and, there is no pilgrim center (Tirtha) associated with the Dasha Mahavidyas- group. They are also not associated with prominent geographical features such as hills, rivers, river-banks or trees.  The worship of one Mahavidya might differ from that of the others.The Tantra texts specify which path should be taken in worshipping a particular Mahavidya. For instance, the worship of Kali, Kamakhya , Tara, Bhairavi, Chinnamasta, Matangi and Bagala involve strongly individualized left-handed tantric rituals, rooted in their specific Mantras and Yantras, conducted in secrecy. The worship of these divinities requires great rigor, austerity, devotion, persistence and a sort of ruthless detachment. The left-handed worship practice of Mahavidya is very difficult and is filled with risks and dangers. Its practice is not considered either safe or suitable for common householders, as it involves rituals that cannot be practiced normally. The text also mentions that Sodasi, Kamala and Bhuvaneshwari prefer right-handed worship practices. And at the same time, the texts clarifies that both the paths are appropriate . And Mahavidya could be worshipped in either manner depending upon the inclination and the nature of the worshipper.

Though some of the Mahavidyas are worshipped in their temples, the private places marked out in the cremation grounds seem to be favored places for tantric rituals, especially in the case of Kali, Tara, Bagalamukhi, Chinnamasta and Dhumavati. In the extreme forms of this class of worship (vamachara) the deities, the Sadhakas and the ritual practices are associated with blood and corpses. Their worship is characterized by the pancha tattva or pancha makaara (five ‘M’); rituals performed employing five forbidden or highly polluting elements: madya (liquor) ,mamasa (meat), matsysa (fish), mudraa (ritual gestures or parched grains causing hallucinations) and maithuna (sex). By partaking the polluted and forbidden things the Sadhaka affirms his faith that there is nothing in this world that is outside the goddess; she pervades all; and within her there are no distinctions of ‘pure’ or ‘impure’. He attempts to erase the artificial or man made distinctions and be one with his goddess. These five elements carry various esoteric interpretations according to the nature of worship undertaken: tamasika (pashvachara), rajasika (vichara), or divya (sattvika sadhana).


This mind, like a firefly, flashes into existence,
Just to call lovers of the Dark One!
Having been summoned into my beloved Kali,
Her Blackness so mystical, so absorbing,
the mind disappears into Her,
like a candle dropping into the midnight ocean,
even the cry of ecstasy is lost in Her depths!
Yet those who gaze into Her unfathomable Void
take on a glow that those with sight can see!
How sublime to reflect Her Dark Light!
How sublime to share Her grace-filled gifts!
Extinguish yourself in Her this very instant!
She has waited so long, so patiently to embrace you – Her beloved.

~ Kalidas