Devi

Definition

by
published on 05 December 2015
Durga, Aihole (Jean-Pierre Dalbéra)

Devi, also known as Mahadevi or 'Great Goddess', is an all-embracing Mother Goddess first worshipped in India in Prehistoric times. In the Vedic period, she was assimilated into the Hindu pantheon and so came to represent the female energy or Sakti (Power) of her husband Shiva. Both Devi (meaning goddess in Sanskrit) and Sakti may also be used more generically to reference any female Hindu goddess, especially Parvati, Lakshmi, and Sarasvati. Devi is most often manifested as the fearsome female warriors Durga and Kali, both of whom famously killed a number of terrible demons in Hindu mythology. Devi is also the mother of Nandi, Shiva's doorkeeper and bull; Skanda, the six-headed god; and Ganesha, the elephant-headed god.

Devi's character has two opposing sides represented by various separate female deities: as Uma, the benevolent, and as Durga, the terrible. It is as the latter, more fierce personification that she is most frequently worshipped. Her dark side can also take the form of the fearsome black goddess Kali. The deity has a myriad of many other names and may, for example, also be referred to as Vindhyavasini, Kanya (the Virgin), Mahamaya (the Illusion), and Bhutanayaki, the queen of the Bhuta, those ghosts and goblins who haunt graveyards, make the dead live again, and trick the living so that they might feast on their flesh.

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The Two Sides of Devi: Uma & Durga

Devi's more benevolent side is worshipped as Uma, and this facet of her character is represented as both beauty and light. This softer side is also referred to as Jaganmata (Mother of the World), Gauri (Yellow and Brilliant or Golden), Bhavani, Haimvati, and Parvati (the Mountaineer).

Devi's dark side is the terrible Durga who has ten arms, an impressive armoury of weapons, and who rides a magnificent Lion. 

Devi's dark side is represented as the terrible Durga (the Inaccessible) who has ten arms, an impressive armoury of weapons, and who rides a magnificent lion or tiger. This side is further manifested in the forms of Kali, Kalika or Syama (the Black Goddess); Candi or Candika (the Fierce), in which guise she killed many a demon or asura; and Bhairavi (the Terrible). Worshippers of this face of Devi seek her favours and dark powers and so make blood sacrifices and perform wild rituals in the ceremonies of Durga-puja, Carak-puja, and the Tantrikas which call on Durga's sexual and magical powers.

Devi Slays Mahisa

Devi appears in various episodes of the Mahabharata, the Puranas, and other, later, Hindu religious texts. One of Devi's most famous mythological escapades is her slaying of Mahisa, the demon who had the body of a man and the head of a buffalo, as told in the epic poem the Candipat (or Candi-mahatmya), which is part of the Skanda Purana. Ambitious Mahisa wanted to take over the world, no less, and so led an army of demons to wage a 100-year battle with the gods. Doing rather well, Mahisa managed to kick most of the gods out of heaven, forcing them to wander the earth as mere men.

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Eventually, the situation got so bad that Brahma gave a rousing speech to his fellow gods Vishnu and Shiva during which he told of Mahisa's great mischief. Outraged, the two great gods became so furious that divine fire blazed from their mouths. At the same time, fantastic energies came forth from the similarly indignant bodies of Indra, Yama, and all the other gods. Swirling around heaven, this tremendous energy condensed into a single mass and formed the terrible goddess Durga. As with many Hindu tales, this is but one version of Durga's birth. In other versions, Devi has already long existed as the daughter of Himavat, the personified deity of the Himalaya Mountains, and in this episode she is only given weapons by the angered gods. These arms include a discus, trident, bow, sword, dagger, harpoon, and a noose

Durga is given the task of seducing and then killing the troublesome Mahisa. Hiding herself in a refuge on the sacred Blood-red Mountain (aka Tawny Mountain) and spending her time performing acts of asceticism, the goddess set four young boys as guards, one on each face. Mahisa's followers came across these guards and wondered just who they were protecting. Disguised as birds, they managed to access the sanctuary and so caught sight of the lovely goddess. Returning to Mahisa, they aroused his desire to possess Durga. Accordingly, he disguised himself as an old man and so gained access to the refuge. Mahisa then revealed himself and boasted of his tremendous wealth and power so that Durga might be persuaded to marry him. Durga's somewhat dismissive response to this proposal was to transform herself into fire. Then, riding her lion, she swung her formidable array of weapons, but Mahisa wisely fled the scene to fight another day. The goddess would have to employ more subtle means to rid the world of the buffalo demon.

Durga and Mahisa soon met again on the battlefield in a terrible clash which shook the mountains. The problem for Devi was that whenever she tried to strike Mahisa with a fatal blow he transformed into another creature - from a buffalo to a man to a lion, then to an elephant and back to a buffalo. At this moment, the goddess pounced and, straddling the creature, stabbed him in the neck with her trident. At this, the spirit of Mahisa came out of the mouth of the dying buffalo and Durga finally killed him by lopping off his head. From the heavens there then came a tremendous roar as the gods rejoiced at the fall of this awful demon.

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Kali

Worship

The goddess is particularly worshipped by Shaktism and Shaivism, denominations of Hinduism. She is revered at Vindhyavasini, near the Ganges in Uttar Pradesh and the goddess often takes that name. This is the point where the Vindhyas Mountains meet the sacred river Ganges. A statue of the goddess there is perpetually offered fresh blood. Durga is also worshipped in the nine-night festival Navaratri which is celebrated across India and Nepal.

Representation in Art

As Durga, the goddess is most frequently portrayed as a beautiful yellow woman riding her lion. As Kali, she has a black skin and terrible features which drip with the blood of her victims. As the Black Goddess, she also wears snakes and garlands made from skulls and decapitated heads.

Durga slaying Mahisa is a popular subject in Hindu art. One of the earliest representations is in a cave temple near Mallapuram dating to the 7th or 8th century CE and on the mid-8th century CE Kailasanatha temple at Ellora. In the latter relief sculpture, a four-armed Durga rides her prancing lion which stomps over Mahisa's followers while the goddess faces the Buffalo Demon brandishing her array of weapons. The earliest shrine dedicated specifically to Devi is found at Cidambaram and dates to the 12th century CE.


About the Author

Mark Cartwright
Mark holds an M.A. in Greek philosophy and his special interests include ceramics, the ancient Americas, and world mythology. He loves visiting and reading about historic sites and transforming that experience into free articles accessible to all.
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Cite This Work

APA Style

Cartwright, M. (2015, December 05). Devi. Ancient History Encyclopedia. Retrieved from https://www.ancient.eu/Devi/

Chicago Style

Cartwright, Mark. "Devi." Ancient History Encyclopedia. Last modified December 05, 2015. https://www.ancient.eu/Devi/.

MLA Style

Cartwright, Mark. "Devi." Ancient History Encyclopedia. Ancient History Encyclopedia, 05 Dec 2015. Web. 18 Nov 2017.

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  • c. 1,500 BCE - 500 BCE
    The Vedic Period in India.
  • c. 700 BCE
    Indian scholars codify and reinterpret Aryan beliefs to create the Upanishads texts forming the basis of Hinduism.
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