The worship of female deities has a long history in India and today it remains one of Hinduism’s prominent religious features. In the Indus Valley civilization numerous female figurines suggest that women were given a sacred status by virtue of their capacity to nurture new life. The Vedic pantheon as well contains several goddesses. It is true that during the Vedic period male gods were in the ascendancy, but in later classical and medieval Hinduism, the worship of the Goddess came into its own and regained a central place in popular religion. Today, Shaktism, the worship of the Goddess, is regarded as a major Hindu religion alongside Shaivism and Vaishnavism.
The Names of the Goddess
When speaking of the female divine in India it is common to refer to the Goddess in singular. This is because all the particular goddesses are form of Devi or Mahadevi, the great Goddess. In myth and in worship there are countless goddesses, which are often treated as distinct deities, particularly at the popular level. Just as different gods represent the one God, so the different goddesses manifest the one Devi. Ultimately, Devi and Deva symbolize the trans-personal Brahman.
Although the name Devi is commonly used, more frequently she is known to devotees with various words meaning “mother”. Interestingly, however, not but a few goddesses have children. And those who do have children acquire them by unusual means.
We can classify the many manifestations of the Devi into two broad categories. The first is the category of consorts: those goddesses who are the wives and companions of the great gods. The second group comprises the independent goddesses, those who are not associated with male divine figures by way of marriage. A goddesses’ relationship to a male god determines her basic character. Those who are divine consorts are seem as benevolent, gentle and life-giving. The independent unmarried goddesses are malevolent, terrifying and lustful.
The Gods and Their Consorts
Each of the great gods of Hinduism is married. Brahma, the creator, is married to Saraswati. Shiva is married is to Parvati. Vishnu is married to Lakshmi. We can also mention the consorts of Vishnu’s avataras. Rama is married to Sita. Krishna’s consort is Radha. In temples, the male gods rarely appear without their female counterparts. But the goddesses, even the married ones, may appear without their husbands in temple icons. For example, Lakshmi is not only Vishnu’s wife, she is also the goddess of good fortune and wealth. At the start of a new fiscal year, business persons commonly worship her and pray for prosperity.
The Devi Saraswati is almost always worshipped alone and never with her consort Brahma. Saraswati is the goddess of music and education. Brahma, despite his status as one of the three cosmic deities, has very little role in popular Hinduism. Temples devoted to him are extremely few. Saraswati, on the other hand, is very important. She is often venerated at school festivals and prayed to before tests.
Unlike Lakshmi and Saraswati, Parvati is usually not worshipped alone, but together with Shiva. In mythology, Shiva has many different wives, such as Durga and a host of others. They can all be viewed as forms of Parvati. Shiva’s wives were probably local village goddesses that were incorporated into Shaivite religion.
The consorts of Vishnu’s avataras are revered mainly for their relationship to their male counterparts. Sita, the wife of Rama, is considered the ideal wife because of her fidelity and obedience to her husband. Radha, Krishna’s consort, is the image of the devotee with a passionate love for god.
The Independent Goddesses
It seems quite clear that the independent goddesses are not considered divine exemplars of femininity. Of course it would be a mistake to say that the gods and goddesses are necessarily, by virtue of being divine, images of the ideal human life. The goddesses and gods are different from us no matter how much like us they may appear.
The goddesses who are independent and autonomous often appear as celestial deities, like Vishnu and Shiva. Many of the myths about the Devi depict her engaged in activity akin to that of the great male gods, such as protecting the cosmos from powerful demons. Sometimes she is portrayed as accomplishing difficult tasks that the male gods cannot.
The great Durga Puja, celebrated in Bengal, is a nine-day affair that memorializes the victory of the devi as Durga over a powerful buffalo demon. This is one of the most popular festivals in Hinduism. The celebration is based on a story that tells how the gods were too impotent to defeat an army of demons. Vishnu and Shiva themselves were unable to control the demon army and had to create the goddess to do so. Thus Durga was born from the combined anger of these two great gods.
Durga proceeds to defeat the demon leader after a long and vicious battle. After her triumph she promises to return whenever the demons grew too powerful.
One of the striking differences between the gods and goddesses is their realm of activity. In general, the gods are seen as celestial. Goddesses are terrestrial. Although the earth is the stage for many of the gods’ activities, the link between earth and goddess is much stronger. This connection is shown in many ways. For example, the earth itself is a goddess. She is named Budeive, literally “earth goddess”, or more loosely “mother nature”. Rivers are also goddesses, such as the Ganga. As rivers, goddesses nourish the world with their water. The entire land of India is a goddess, Barat Natta, or “mother India”.
It is important to mention one final manifestation of the Goddess. This is the embodiment of the Devi as actual human women. Such incarnations of the Goddess are not uncommon. For some, specially powerful woman, such as Indira Gandhi, might be regarded as the Goddess in flesh. Sometimes the incarnation is a less well-known woman who is believed to personify the qualities of the mother Goddess.
Continues at: The Independent Hindu Goddesses and the Creative Power