David Kinsley: Tantric Visions of the Divine Feminine (Motilal Banarsidass, 2008, pp. 318)
Over a yuga has passed since the publication of the first study by a western scholar of how the Indian religious tradition conceives of the Divine Feminine. In the uproar over the patriarchal and male chauvinist prejudice that is said to infest India’s scriptures like a black plague, a basic fact is lost sight of. No other living religious tradition in the world presents such a continuous and richly diverse record from prehistoric times of worshipping the Divine as Feminine. Years back, it was in Hindu Goddesses that David Kinsley provided a synoptic view of this right from the prehistoric Indus civilization and the pristine Vedic theogony through the itihasa-purana and tantric pantheon, down to the village deities. His work inspired several investigations into this neglected area by Hawley, Wulff and Coburn.
But how do we make sense of a tradition that worships a hag, or a goddess who chops off her own head and directs the spouting blood into the mouths of two yoginis and her own; or one who, seated on a corpse, plucks out a demon’s tongue; another whose terrifying form has to be worshipped with polluted offerings in a cremation ground; and yet another who straddles her consort on a funeral pyre? The particular importance of David Kinsley’s book lies in the examination of how the “left-handed way” conceptualises the feminine principle.
Being intensely individualistic, this form of worship is very different from the Vedic and Puranic sacrificial ceremonies that involved the community. This group of goddesses presents a veritable “anti-model” for women, quite the opposite of the doormat of a housewife. In them the predominant theme is the oxymoronic coupling of death and mating, with the goddess almost invariably naked and in the dominant (“reverse”) position. In some cases even the offerings are of items that are traditionally branded as polluting. The sacrifices these goddesses demand are invariably of male victims. The curious phenomenon that this conceptualisation is entirely by male devotees needs deeper research. Kinsley provides information, hitherto unknown, that there are female sources on tantric Buddhism which scholars have ignored. Yet another instance of chauvinistic blindness? None of these western scholars have noted that the earliest hymn devoted to a goddess occurring in the Rigveda X.125 is also the only one composed by a woman: the seer Vak, daughter of rishi Ambhrin. This oldest mantra is also the most sublime of all invocations to the Divine Feminine. Vak, experiencing the Supreme Goddess, Adi Shakti, as her Self declaims, “It is I who, creating the universe and all worlds, wholly pervade them like the wind. Though I transcend the heavens and this earth, yet by my glory have I manifested creation.” It is precisely this sublimity that one seeks for in the tantric vision and is left baffled, bewildered by the deliberate piling up of horror upon horror. For, the essence of the left-handed path is achieving transcendence through plumbing the depths of the other extremity.
Actually, this group of ten spans the spectrum from the horripilatingly dreadful to the sublimely benign with its celebration of Chinnamasta at one end and Kamala at the other. One could, perhaps, argue for a gradual progression towards the latter end, and even a successive attenuation of the horrifying aspect. The concept of Kamala comes as the last, after Tripura-sundari, the beauty of the three worlds celebrated in the Lalita sahasranama whose symbol is the Shri Chakra, Bhuvaneshvari, whose body is the world symbolised by the inverted triangle, and Matangi, the outcaste who insists upon being worshipped with offerings of leftover food. These three are represented as lovely sixteen year old maidens, the latter two appearing without any consort while Lalita appears seated upon a reclining Shiva. Similarly, the other Mahavidyas are quite independent of him and indeed their very manifestation is in defiance of him. Dhumavati, of course, appears as a widow, consort-less, originating, like Bagalamukhi, in Sati swallowing Shiva when he would not assuage her hunger. However, the purpose behind worshipping this form remains quite obscure. Despite being a widow, the hymn invoking her makes her the creatrix of dance and enjoyer of erotic activity and liquor.
Kinsley’s research brings out the important finding that each Mahavidya is a facet of the multifaceted Great Goddess, each containing all the others. This is revealed in the invocatory verses addressed to any one of them which usually ascribe to her the names of many of the other nine. He does not, however, take into account the very different version found in the Devi Purana 139.135. Here Shiva invokes the Supreme Shakti of eight vidyas to destroy Subal and Dundubhi at the request of Vishnu and the gods. Knowing weapons will be ineffectual, she discards her youthful form and becomes over a hundred, withered, networked with veins, and with sunken eyes, pale lips, gaping mouth-cavern, limbs a-tremble, a snake on the head, her left hand on the left thigh, the right hand on her back, encircled by eight vidyas astride ox, lion, elephant, peacock, garuda, bear, black-spotted deer respectively. These vidyas dwell specially with women in the inner apartments as clan-deities. To the pulinda and shabara tribes they give siddhi in the left handed way. They are established with prostitutes, gopis, tribals (Hun, Khas, Turani, Kol) and in Hastinapur, Ujjaini, Kamakshya, Kishkindhya, Bhot country, Koshala, Raadh, Mahodaya, Varendra land, Vidisha, Jalandhar. This crone obstructs the Danava Sharabh’s way, telling him to lie with her and not discard her as old. The moment he holds her hand to lift her up, he falls dead.
Another version in this Purana narrates that after Parashurama brought Kalika from Yashoda beside the northern sea and established her in Ayodhya, nine Durgas emerged from her and were established in Mahodaya. Chapter 150 of Devi Purana speaks of her form as Vaivasvati, riding a buffalo, with boar-like face, drinking from a skull and holding a staff. As Aghora, she has a terrifying face, clad in lion and deer skin, wearing a necklace of heads with skull and pike in hand. As Karali of the terrible face, her hair is put up, she wears a necklace of skulls, her mouth is full of meat and she delights in black coloured offerings, meat and liquor. As Vikata she rides a camel, has holds noose and staff in huge hands, sports a terrifying mein, has black sandal paste smeared on her body, is surrounded by scorpions and cockroaches, delights in fish, fat and bloody meat.
Thus, the ten Mahavidyas are by no means unique. Their multiforms exist in the nine Durgas, the eight Vidyas, the seven Matrikas (sometimes 16 and even 92 in the Vana Parva of Mahabharata). This last group is equally intriguing, for they are associated with Karttikeya and steal or torment children till puberty. Like the ancient Greek goddesss Hecate, they are said to reside at crossroads, in caves, mountains, springs and cremation grounds and speak a variety of tongues. All these characteristics point to a non-Vedic, folk or tribal character celebrated so powerfully in the icon of Vindhyavasini even today which has been well analysed in Hawley and Wulff’s Devi .
The problem with Kinsley’s work lies in his failure to grapple with the riddle of the Tantric approach. One is disappointed that he restricts himself to putting together painstakingly whatever details are available regarding the form and functions of each of the ten Mahavidyas and does not seek to resolve this riddle. The tantric’s tapasya, as M.S. Srinivasan explains so lucidly in “The yogic vision of Tantra”, is to see the adorable mother behind all the passions of the lower nature. The terrible and repulsive forms of the Mahavidyas are worshipped precisely in order to train the Tantric yogi systematically to envision the Divine Mother even in all that appears to be dark and disgusting in life. Thereby, he grasps the key to sublimate and master the forces of his own lower nature, rising spiritually by those very things that cause man’s downfall. However much distorted by the ego, every desire is in essence the expression of some power of the immanent Divine. Removing the distortion leads to each taking its proper place to perform its right function according to the supreme law of bliss infusing all creation. Sri Aurobindo put it so well in Savitri: none can gain heaven who has not passed through hell.