Goddess in Hinduism

By Thich nu Minh Tam 

Hinduism, Persian word literally means “people and culture of the Indus River region,” is the variety of religious beliefs and practices making up the major religious tradition of the Indian subcontinent.

According to World Religions Dictionary, Hinduism had its primary beginnings in two distinct sources dating from sometime in the third millennium B.C. to the middle or late second millennium B.C.The first is the Indus Valley Civilization associated with the cities of Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro.The second early source was the religious beliefs and practices of the Aryan peoples who invaded Northwest India.

The central core of this paper is focussed on Goddess in Hinduism, therefore, we engage directly to the main points of the topic.

As scholars declared that “from archaeological excavations at Indus Valley region, small pieces of terra cotta and stone scuplture have been found that deal primarily with animals, with emphasis upon the male, while representations of humans concentrate upon the female.We can see there are, however, many female figuratives specially dressed and in various dancing poses.These, along with hundreds of doughnut and phallic shaped stones, clearly indicate a strong interest in fertility, and have led some scholars to claim a Mother Goddess cult for the Indus Valley peoples.

Hinduism presents the most developed example of feminine dimensions of the sacred in the contemporary world.In theistic sects of Hinduism, feminine images of deity are as numerous, popular, and well-developed as male aspects of deity.They are worshiped and portrayed alone or with their husbands consorts.Kali, Durga, Sarasvati, Laksmi, Sakti, Ganga, andParvati are some of the most important goddesses.As is always the case in traditions with well-developed imagery of feminine dimensions of the sacred, these goddesses cannot be easily summarized because they are so involved in every facet of human life and longing.

A.Meanings of feminine dimensions of the sacred.

It is difficult to generalize about so much material from so many times and places, but the topic is important because scholarship has often either simply ignored the overwhelming mass of data regarding feminine dimensions of the sacred or interpreted it negatively.

Four interpretive generalizations can be made.First, goddess religions are in general this-worldly and life-and -world affirming.The goddess gives birth to all things and nurtures them.Intimacy and joyful participation in life are major themes.Basic life process, especially birth and sexuality as well as all aspects of the human, embodied condition, are affirmed.Second, though it may seem paradoxical at first, female sacred beings are also intimately connected with death.The Hindu goddess Kali is the best-known example of this theme.In her imagery, as with many other goddesses, there is realistic and graphic emphasis on death.However, rather than being some kind of morbid fixation, the goddess’ connection with death is part of the general affirmation of embodiment and life.The limits of the life process are accepted without embellishement.The first two generalizations, when combined, mean that first two generalizations provide an immanent sacred power which is less alienated from basic cosmic and bodily realities than is characteristic of religions without strong feminine traditions.Third, while connections with birth, motherhood, and sexuality are prominent in goddess imagery, female sacred beings are by no means confined to maternity or materiality, but are involved in a broad range of cultural activities and culturally valued goals.In Hinduism, the goddess Durga defeats in single combat the demon who had overwhelmed the male deities, and Sarasvati promotes the arts and education.

The final generalization concerns the relationship between a symbol system involving feminine dimensions of the sacred and the social system that gives rise to the symbols.Do goddesses reflect some sort of feminine dominance?Do societies that worship a goddess allow women more independence, respect, and power than societies that are not oriented toward a goddess?Or are female sacred beings some further device to limit women to prescribed roles and then glorify those roles?Such questions will be clarified in some certain degree with these following detailed explanations:

B.Goddesses in Hinduism.

As Sri Aubindo writes in his book “Sri Aubindo on the Mother (p.447),”: “The mother is the consciousness and force of the Divine, or, it may be said, she is the Divine in its consciousness - force.The Iswara as Lord of the cosmos does come out of the Mother who takes her place beside him as the cosmic Sakti – the cosmic Iswara is one aspect of the Divine,”we can realize that goddesses have been revered in India from ancient times to the present.Archaeological evidence from the Indus Valley Civilization and from earlier village cultures indicates that feminine deities were widely worshiped from around 2500 B.C.The earliest religious text in India , the Rig Veda (ca.1400 B.C.), also mentions a varietyof goddesses worshiped by the Indo-Aryans.However, in the literary traditions of India goddesses remained subordinate to male deities, usually as their wives or consorts, until the end of the Epic period (AD. 400).Goddessesonly began to rival male deities in Sanskrit literature around the 6th century AD.At that time, several goddesses began to appear prominently as world protectors, saviors, and creators of the cosmic order.Furthermore, there appeared a being known primarily as the Great Goddess who subsumed within herself all manifestations of the divine feminine and revealed all the Hindu characteristics of supreme divinity.Today hundreds of local goddesses are known and dominate the religious life of the majority of Hindus, especially of lower castes and in the villages in all regions of India.

1.Goddesses in ancient India. 

We do not have many informations about the concerning worship goddesses in the Indus Valley Civilization and the village cultures surrounding it.From the many seals and figurines dicovered, it seems clear that goddesses were central to the religion of this ancient civilization in Northwest India and that they had something to do with agriculture, fertility, and vegetative life generally.Although many goddesses were in Vedic literature, it is clear that male gods dominated Vedic religion and continued to dominate Indian religions until a late date.

Prthivi is the goddess associated with the earth.In most of the hymns addressed to her, she is a wife of Dyaus Pita, God of sky.They are called “parents of all gods.” Dyaus produces the earth with rain and Prthivi produces all forms of life.She supports humans and life, and is praised as a nourishing, wealth and abundance.

Another goddess is Sarasvati who is associated in Vedic texts with a river in Northwest India.In later Hinduism, she becomes the wife of the God Brahma and is associated with wisdom and learning.She is praised for her might and her fertility and is petitioned to grant her worshipers wealth, long life, and sons, as are most Vedic deities.

The most prominent figure is goddess Aditi.She is the Infinite, the Boundless Expanse, a primordial goddess of Vedic Hinduism, mother of the gods and particualrly mother of the Adityas, a class of sovereign deities.She is the limitless sky, but also the earth as well, and a cow who provides milk for the gods.As she is “bondless” she is invoked to free her devotees form distress and evil.Her sons, the Adityas, six, seven, eight, or twelve in number, include Varuna as paramount, Mitra, Aryaman, Daksa, and others.

In Vedic sources,male deitiesplay an important role while minor goddesses are associated with the forest, abundance, progeny, and sacrifice. Nearly all these goddesses are benign and provide wealth and long life.

2. The Epic period (400 B.C. – A.D. 400)

The most important goddesses of the Epic period are Parvati, Laksmi, and Sita.

Parvati, daughter of the Himalaya Mountains, is also known as the wife of Shiva, whom she wins through severe austerities.Sometimes she is said to be a reincarnation of the goddess Sati.She continues as one of the most important Hindu goddesses to the present day.In general, Parvati plays the role in Hindu myths of domesticator of the ascetic god Shiva.She dotes on her husband and involves him in the important affairs of protecting and maintaining the world.As his partner in his cosmic dance, she balances the destructive tendencies of some aspects of his dance.Parvati is described as patient, protective of the world, and supportive of domestic life and provides a model for Hindu women.

The goddess Laskmi, also known as Sri (good fortune), is mentioned in pre-Epic literature, and a long hymn to her is found in a late appendix to the Rig Veda.She plays a central role in the Epic period.She is really associated with wealth, prosperity, and kingly power.She also represents good luck.In later Hindu literature, Laskmi is invariably Vishnu’s wife and serves him dutyfully.Today in India, Laskmi is worshiped especially by merchants and is petitioned to grant wealth and success.Her annual festival is held in the autumn, and people of all castes take part in it to seek her blessings.

The presence of various groups of female beings in the Epics probably indicates the beginning of a process whereby the Sanskrit tradition, dominated by an elitist Brahmin group, recognized the presence and the importance of a great many local and regional goddesses who had been worshiped for centuries by most of the Indian population.However, there is no evidence in literary sources up through the end of this period that goddesses had assumed preeminent positions in the pantheon.Various goddesses may well have dominated local worship at this time, but this is difficult to prove on the basis of the literary and iconography evidence.

3.The Medieval Period (ca. A.D. 600 –1850)

In the medieval period, goddesses Laskmi, Parvati, Sarasvati continue to dominate worship of the divine feminine in Hindu literature and iconography.However, besides them, there are some other goddesses who play an important role not less.These goddesses are Durga, Kali, and Radha.

Durga, which means the inaccessible one, is a famous Hindu goddess who slayed the buffalo demon. She is an independent goddess and is declared by her devotees to be the highest manifestation of deity.In her mythology, she assumes as the leader of the gods in the endless struggle between the gods and demons, and like Visnu, she is said to descend to the world from time to time to defeat various demons.Her festival takes place at the harvest season and many animals’ blood sacrifices are offered to please her.The blood offered to her in worship is probably believed to reinvigorate the earth, form which so much vitality has been reaped by man during the harvest of his crops.

Kali, Sanskrit word literally means “the Black One,” is a bloodthirsty goddess of terrible appearance and fearsome habits.Her hair is disheveled, her fangs sharp, her breasts pendulous, her stomach shrunken, and her demeanor fierce.She is usually said to be naked except for a garland of severed heads and a girdle of severed arms.Her favorite dwelling place is the cremation ground, where she is often pictured seated on a corpse, and she has been associated for centuries with thieves and is infamous for having been the patron goddess of the Thugs.Kali is worshiped mostly in Bengal and also associated in mythology with Durga and Parvati.It is said that Kali dominates Shiva for destructive acts.People offer animals’ sacrifices to Kali, and her thirst for blood being seemingly unquenchable.

The most common iconographic image of Kali shows her standing on or dancing upon Shiva.This image is usually expresses her dominating role upon Shiva, the nature of reality as a combination of stasis and activity, or the personified might of the divine.Despite her thirst for blood and terrible appearance, people approach to her for protection, fertility, and prosperity.Most ofaverage people think that if she is given blood, she will be renourished sufficiently to continue to give birth to her devotees.In this respect, she reveals dramatically the truth that metabolism itself necessitates death, that life must feed on death.

The goddess Radha is the consort of the god Krishna.She is described in early accounts as the wife of another man, so her affair with Krishna is clearly illicit and as such is taken as a metaphor of the divine-human relationship.In later Vaisnava-Krishna texts such as the Brahmavaivarta Purana, Radha has achieved the position of divine creator.Radha, Sanskrit word literally means “prosperity, success,” is one of the most mysterious figures in all of Indian literature.The fact that she is associated with Krishan is suggested that the divine pair are familiar figures in the mythology of the time.

In later poetry and myth, Radha becomes a metaphor of the soul of the devotee in its search for the love of God.As Krishna’s embodied power, sakti, she is said to represent Prakrti, the material, natural order, and in eternal dalliance with Krishna she is said to create, preserve, and destroy the universe.In popular devotion, Radha is important primarily as the embodiment of the ideal devotee of Krishna.Her passion for Krishna overcomes all struggles and obstacles, disregards propriety if necessary, and is extrememly intimate.

The appearance of these goddesses in the early medieval period indicates a growing acceptance on the part of the Sanskrit tradition of the divine feminine and is clear evidence that for millions of Hindus the highest expression of the divine is female

4.The Modern period (A.D. 1850 to the present.)

Todayin India there are shrines or temples to local goddesses in nearly every village, and it is quite likely that these goddesses have been worshiped from ancient times and have dominated the religious life of many Hindus.The name of these goddessesvary from village and from region to region, but they are usually associated with immediate concerns such as disease, prosperity, and fertility.

Of the hundredsof local goddesses worshiped today in India, two of the best known are Manasa and Sitala.Manasa is primarily associated with snakes, and her blessing is sought to avoid the tragic consequences of snake bite.There is a long Bengali poem concerning her attempts to gain the worship of Shiva’sdevotees.Sitala is worshiped throughout India and clearly represents characteristics of numerous local goddesses associated with disease.She is at once the cause of smallpox and the means by which it is cured.In her wrath she waxes hot and oppresses her victims with fever.She is especially revered at those times of year associated with smallpox.

One of the most popular goddesses of South India is Mariyammana.She is almost always associated with a specific village or hamlet, primarily as a protectress of that area.Her images are of a diverse nature and vary from elaborate, anthropomorphic images usually found in temples to small painted rocks, decorated poles, or pots of water.Whatever form she may take, her worship usually dominates local religious life.Mariyammana is almost always worshiped for pragmatic reasons.She is appealed to during epidemics and natural disasters, but especially by women who seek to have children.She is associated with disease, especially smallpox, as both its cure and its cause, and her worship typically involves pouring water over her image or symbol to cool her anger, which manifesrts itself as heat and fever.Unlike the great gods Shiva and Vishnu, her devotees are mostly from low castes, and people from the lowest castes are welcome to worship at her temples.While Mariyammana may be identified by some Hindus with goddesses of the Sanskrit pantheon, her association with local geography, concerns, and history are what imbue her worship with its intensity and popularity.

The Indian struggle for independence, during which fervent devotion to the motherland was generated among Hindus, gave rise to the cult of a new goddess, Mother India (Bharat Ma).In some respects this cult is not entirely new.Since the time of the Mahabharata various prominent have been worshiped as important goddesses.The imperial Guptas (3rd through 6th centuries A.D.) seem consciously to have cast themselves in the role of Indian subcontinent.And the famous myth of Sati tells of her dismembered body falling to earth namely India in various places and sacralizing those places as centers of goddess worship.The modern cult of Bharat Ma, however, is a clearer, more self-conscious expression of reverence for the Indian subcontinent itself.So although this goddess is depicted in anthropomorphic forms at times, in most of her temples the object of worship is a relief map of India.The cult, then, has had clear political overtones and is an inextricable mix of religion and politics.

These symbols and images of goddess’ worship have remained deeply in the Hindus’ soul and belief that lead to the role of leadership for Hindu modern women.The future may well see more Hindu women who prefer the spiritual path, at least in the last stage of their life or they are widowed.The religious research about Goddess in Hinduism has made us realized that the secret, potential, intelligent and endurant capacity and power of women in all times, all races, all religions have contributed the great part in religious life of followers and we cannot deny the important role of women’ leadership to help everyone in the right path of salvation.