The Great Mother

After playing with the developmental aspects of our physical, ego bound existence briefly over the last few weeks, the intuition spontaneously drives to exploring the archetypal, the collective and the symbolic aspects of the mother and the father in greater depth. These writings that follow are not my own ( cited the author at the end), but the selection of these has an autonomous quality to itself, and based on this exploration, its a guess that the next few writings will be dedicated to myths and legends about mother and father from various cultures.

Today, I was drawn to Kali – the Divine Mother. And one can see how the feminine, even in this contemporary society, exists in various facets of the Divine Mother. The more things change, the more they remain the same. Certain level of preliminary knowledge of Hindu deities may be helpful… 🙂

When the gods lay exhausted after warring with the demons, the evil demon king Mahisasura declared himself Lord of Heaven, the Ruler of the Universe.

News of the balsphemy reached Vishnu‘s ears, and in anger he shot forth a terrible light from his forehead. Shiva descended from his lofty state of meditation and beamed a sharp ray in the same direction. Brahma, Indra and other gods did likewise. The rays intersected, and the blazing concentration took the shape of a woman.

The light of Shiva formed her face, Yama, the god of death, gave her hair, and Vishnu her arms. The moon god formed her breasts, Indra modeled her waist, Varuna, the god of the sky, sculpted her thighs. Earth gave her hips, and Brahma, the creator, her feet. Agni, the fire god, fashioned her eyes. All gods contributed their power to manifest the auspicious Devi – the Mother Goddess – Kali.

To arm and empower her, Shiva gave her his trident, Vishnu, the second god of the trinity, gave her his powerful discus, and Indra – the king of gods, a thunderbolt identical to his own. Surya, the sun god, bestowed his rays on the pores of her skin, and Varuna, the god of ocean, gave her a divine crest jewel, earrings, bracelet and a garland of unfading lotuses.

“Victory to the Mother” shouted the gods as the Devi fought evil. The demons changed their form, shape and color and tried to escape, but who can escape the Great Mother? All demons were slaughtered. The war went on and on and on. Caught by Devi, some were bound by the noose, spitting blood. Like a child pulling a toy train, she dragged them over the battlefield where scores of demons already lay split into two by the sharp slashes of her sword.

The Mother’s terrible presence filled even the sky. Black clouds gathered and terrifying lightening lit up the gahstly shapes on the ground. There were demons without arms, without legs, demons torn asunder in the middle of their trunks. Mahishasura too was killed with her spear.

Dust clouds carried the stench of singed skin and rotting flesh to the blood red horizon. The demons had been killed, their blood flowed. There was nothing left to kill, but the blood intoxicated Mother continued the carnage – smashing and slashing the dead demons all over again.

The gods became filled with fear. Who was going to stop her? There was only Shiva who could. Besmeared with ashes, the third God of Hindu trinity went to the battlefield and lay down motionless among the corpses while the gods watched.

The intoxicated Davi staggered across corpses until suddenly she found herself standing on top of a beautiful male body – nude and besmeared with white ashes. Awed, she stood still for a moment, looked down at him, and saw straight into the eyes of her husband Shiva. When she realized that she was touching her divine husband with her feet – an unthinkably disrespectful act for a Hindu wife – Kali stretched out her tongue in shame and the destruction came to an end. In her present form, Kali represented a particular manifestation of Sati, Shiva’s consort.

Shiva‘s consort Sati also manifests as dashamahavidyas (translated, it means 10 superior learnings) Kali, Tara, Sodasi, Bhuvanswari, Chinnamasta, Bhairavi, Dhumavati, Bagala, Matangi and Kamala.

Each of these menifestations symbolize specific universal functions. The black Kali is an embodiment of time – the primordial energy. The blue Tara personifies the power of aspiration and spiritual ascent. Sodasi represents perfection, Bhuvaneswari embodies infinite peace. Both of them appear in the color of dawn, the rising sun. Sodasi is a 16 year old girl representing purity/virginity and innocence. Bhuvaneswari nourishes the three worlds with her large breasts that ooze milk. Chinnamasta is the end of existance and wears the colors of a million rising suns. Bhairavi is the embodiment of destruction. Dhumavati is the night of cosmic slumber, her hair is disheveled, she has no teeth. Bagala is the embodiment of illusion with her yellow complexion, her head resembling that of crane. Matangi dispels evil, and the color of her skin in black. Kamala is beautiful, the goddess of prosperity, wealth, fertility, crops, and good luck, also called Lakhmi. Her complexion is the color of lightening. The tenth mahavidya sits on a lotus flower.

These ten aspects of Sati, the supra-feminine energy, represent the various manifestations of motherhood and the feminine power.

Aside from these, Sati – the Divine Mother – exists in many other forms. Navadurga (nine manifestations of Durga), Shailaputri (daughter of the mountain), Brahamcharini (goddess of perseverence), Chandraghanta (goddess of light, consciousness), Kushmanda, Skandmata (goddess of transformation), Katyayani (the virgin goddess of purity and innocence), Kalaratri (goddess of time), Mahagauri, and Siddhidatri. A brief recap of the Dasha-Mahavidya and Nava-Durga is here.

After dying at the feet of her father, Sati is later reborn as Parvati, or Uma, the daughter of the Himalayas. She represents Durga, the powerful protectress, Lakshmi, the goddess of fortune, Saraswati, the goddess of learning, Chamundi, the godess of death, and also as Varahi, Aindri, Vaishnavi. The Divine Mother also appears as Narasimhi, Shivaduti, Maheshwari, the white godess Ishwari, Kaumari as well as Brahmi.

There is but one feminine energy, and these are all powerful aspects of Her being, different facets of the Divine Mother.

Humans are all deluded, attached to finite things, incapable of comprehending the absolute, infinite Truth. The cause of this illusion is Maya, the Divine Mother of illusion. Whoever seeks freedom from illusion must therefore worship the Divine Mother,  for she alone can empower one to uncover her secrets and regain the Truth. Man overcomes avidya – ignorance – if he worships Shakti (energy = Sati, Parvati, Kali), the feminine aspect of creation.


The tale’s bewildering gore and sentimentality are allegorical, but it still means something to the Hindu society today in that the archetypal Mother is an integral part of the Hindu psyche. In the West, the woman is seen as a wife, as a consort, in India, the woman is first and foremost a Mother. And earthly mothers are representatives of the Divine Mother, and wield enormous power.


The legend represents  the psychological state of humanity, the war being representative of the struggle between our divine and our demonic self. The demons represent every dominant passion – Sumbha is the embodiment of lust, Nisumbha is greed, Mahisasura represents anger, and so on.  And “whenever our passions are in danger of being eradicated or suppressed, they change their form and color and try to escape in disguise. The story illustrates this thru the shape changing demons who try to escape the wrath of Devi.  Our passions and instincts are so rooted in us that they often seem indestructable, since one that is killed is always replaced by another, and so on.  .  . as the goddess fought with the demon Raktabija, from whose every drop of blood shed on the ground sprouted a demon with fresh vigor and ferocity. It is the awakening of the Mother within, that is, full consciousness of the divine power working in and thru him, that makes man strong and surcharged with immense power of God”

The Tantric interpretation of Kali standing on top of her husband is as follows:

The Shiv tattava (Divine Consciousness as Shiva) is inactive, while the Shakti tattava (Divine Energy as Kali) is active. Shiva, or Mahadeva represents Brahman, the Absolute pure consciousness which is beyond all names, forms and activities. Kali, on the other hand, represents the potential (and manifested) energy responsible for all names, forms and activities. She is his Shakti, or creative power, and is seen as the substance behind the entire content of all consciousness. She can never exist apart from Shiva or act independently of him, i.e., Shakti, all the matter/energy of the universe, is not distinct from Shiva, or Brahman, but is rather the dynamic power of Brahman.

Symbolically, there are two distinct ways of perceiving the same absolute reality. The first is a transcendental plane which is often described as static, yet infinite. It is here that there is no matter, there is no universe and only consciousness exists. This form of reality is known as Shiva, the absolute Sat-Chit-Ananda — existence, knowledge and bliss. The second is an active plane, an immanent plane, the plane of matter, of Maya, i.e., where the illusion of space-time and the appearance of an actual universe does exist. This form of reality is known as Kali or Shakti, and (in its entirety) is still specified as the same Absolute Sat-Chit-Ananda. It is here in this second plane that the universe (as we commonly know it) is experienced and is described by the Tantric seer as the play of Shakti, or God as Mother Kali.

From a Tantric perspective, when one meditates on reality at rest, as absolute pure consciousness (without the activities of creation, preservation or dissolution) one refers to this as Shiva or Brahman. When one meditates on reality as dynamic and creative, as the Absolute content of pure consciousness (with all the activities of creation, preservation or dissolution) one refers to it as Kali or Shakti. However, in either case the yogini or yogi is interested in one and the same reality — the only difference being in name and fluctuating aspects of appearance. It is this which is generally accepted as the meaning of Kali standing on the chest of Shiva.

Somewhere deep in our hearts is a soft spot for the earthly and archetypal mother. Even Swami Vivekananda, the rational intellectual who brought Advaita Vedanta – with its AhamBrahmasmi (I am the Brahman) tenets – to the West, even he would acknowledge his debt to the Mother. Says he:


Mother is the first manifestation of power and is considered a higher ideal than Father. The name of Mother brings the idea of Shakti, the Divine Emergy and Omnipotence; the baby believes its mother to be all powerful, able to do anything. The Divine Mother is the Kundalini sleeping within us; without worshiping Her we can never know ourselves. All merciful, all powerful, omnipresent – these are attributes of the Divine Mother. She is the sum total of the energy in the universe. Every manifestation of power in the universe is Mother. She is life, She is intelligence, She is love. She is in the universe, and yet separate from it. She is a person and can be seen and known. . .Established in the idea of Mother, we can do anything. She quickly answers prayers.

She can show Herself to us in any form at any moment. The Divine Mother can have form, and name, or She can be without name and form, and as we worship Her in those various aspects, we can rise to Pure Beings, having neither name, nor form.

A bit of Mother was revealed in Krishna, Buddha and Christ. The worship of even one spark of Mother in our earthly mother leads to greatness.   Worship her if you want love and wisdom!

Worshipping the mother as a God is the most natural thing to do.

Excerpts from :
Kali: the Black Goddess of Dakshineswar, by Elizabeth U Harding
Shiva in Kali, Wikipedia

So what does it all mean?

Hinduism is more a philosophy and psychology of life than it is a religion. Unlike more modern religions and cultures, in Indian legends, it is the feminine, the Divine Mothers that hold immense and astonishing power.  However, all myths are created from the lifeblood of human psyche. Hinduism acknowledges and honors the immense role that mothers play in a child’s life. The mother is elevated to the position of a god in the Indian psyche. The various manifestations, names, forms of the Divine Mother are but the facets that the child confronts, negotiates and is benefited or harmed with. In psychoanalytic parlance, a Mother can be anything  from a Perfect to a Terrible Mother.

Each of these manifestations affects symbolic functions in a child’s psyche – for example in her manifestation as Saraswati, the goddess of wisdom and learning, the mother is responsible for the development of child’s intellect, impacting he child’s learning and intellectual abilities. Freud, Lacan and Jung and all those that follow, unanimously agree that developmental trauma associated with inadequate mothering leaves a child vulnerable to language and intellectual deficits. As Lakshmi, the Divine Mother blesses us with wealth, prosperity and good luck. If this aspect of the feminine is skewed, the child’s industry and academic and financial success may be affected. Thus we see how myths and legends help provide a definitive method of identifying developmental deficits thru an exploration of a person’s relationship with his caregivers.

In context of couples and family therapy too, any home where the feminine is disrespected, will rarely be a place where wisdom (symbolised by Saraswati), prosperity, industry and good luck (symbolized by Lakshmi) etc, will flourish. The destructive aspects of the Divine Mother, the Chinnamasta or the Chandi, with her aptitude and capability for total annhilation, may manifest itself symbolically.

However, by  the same token, a realization of these aspects of the feminine and acceptance of them creates an awareness of the enormous power that women posses, and the awareness places a great responsibility on women to use that power responsibly and beneficently. If the responsibility is fulfilled successfully, it will enable healthy children, and peace and health can be transmitted to the future generations. If the responsibility is not met courageously and with dedication, the resulting developmental deficits in the children will ensure chaos, want, and strife in the society. A woman is not just a woman, she is not just a consort. Like it or not, her most powerful role in the universe comes thru her ability to create life, and from her role as the one that shapes the future of the society, and of the world thru her children, and hence thru the environment that is created.

Some would say that this goes against the feminist philosophies. But though the feminists have given us a level of personal freedom, isn’t it time that we balance that personal freedom with personal responsibility? We all want authority, but authority comes with personal responsibility. The mistake feminists made was in asking for equality. Women are not equal, they are different, and therein lies their enormous power. To ask for equality is to relinquish that power which nature has endowed us with. Trying to beat men at what evolution has endowed them with, is meaningless. Trying to relinquish what evolution has spent zillions of years refining in our psyche, is sheer stupidity. I have never figured out why a lot of women want to become “like” men – aggressive, competitive and ruthless. It bespeaks of their lack of confidence in their own womanhood. If we don’t recognize and revere our own creative and regenerative power, and the power of compassion and kindness, if we don’t claim such qualities for ourselves in the world, if we continue fighting for the equality that underlines masculinity, aggression and hegemony, the world will continue to deteriorate because there is no one to nurture and nourish it. And eventually we will lose those qualities too, for nature eliminates what is not useful to life and existence. But imagine for a moment – what would life be if there were no feminine qualities in the world ?

So worship of the Divine Mother, the feminine becomes a symbolic act, not to be taken literally. It concerns being respectful, and grateful, towards the compassionate, nurturing, creative and regenerative aspects of the self, the family, and the environment. For it is only by accepting this difference – embodied by the dance of Shiva and Shakti – that the union of the opposites can bear meaningful fruit.

I close the post with a beautiful excerpt from Heinreich Zimmer’s book called Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilizations. In my psyche, it has always represented the ideal to be striving towards -the concept that represents Jung’s union of the opposites.

Shiv and Shakti, Anima and Animus, Yin and Yang

It seems there is a god, creator and destroyer of all the worlds. Not once, but many times, the god has brought forth a universe with all its myriad forms. Many times he has danced in the flames of its awful destruction. Sometimes the god is called Shiva, and his power to create is gathered in the stillness, the retention of semen, of unrevealed potetential, and displayed in the erect and potent phallus. When the god ejaculates, worlds are made manifest. Those through whom the god may be revealed will do the same.

It seems there is a goddess, creator and destroyer of all the worlds. Not once, but many times, the goddess has brought forth, pouring her creative powers into a universe, giving life and form to all its manifestations. Many times she has eaten it all back, devouring and destroying, only to create again. Sometimes she is called Shakti, and her power to create is revealed in her stillness, seated upon a lotus throne in the center of a golden isle, in the center of an ocean of unrevealed potential. When the goddess gives birth, the worlds of the being and becoming are revealed. Those thru whom the goddess is revealed may do likewise.

Manifest love and desire

And sometimes Shiva and Shakti sit together in passionate exchange, each in turn asking and answering questions of the other, not complementary in their dialogue, but co-creative of wisdom.

We who are their children may listen, if we will, and grow wise in our turn. Trusting ourselves and each other more, the real differences amongst us can emerge and be savored. They are the Two, but we are the many, and we may each discover, not The Other, one and only, but many others, with whom the dance, the dialogue of life, becomes ever more subtle, nuanced, and varied.


More links:
Artwork on Kali

9 responses to “The Great Mother”

  1. Reblogged this on Madhu Sameer and commented:

    On the occasion of Navaratras, the 9 days of the Mother, I reblog this with reverence. May the Godess bless and keep us all.

  2. Hi everyone,

    I truly immensly enjoy your website, keep up the good work!

  3. what about Hindus husbands do they not take any role in this life of raising a child? and also tell us about African mothers too.

    1. Hi Mary,

      Thanx for your comment. Good to see you here.

      As you can see, the child Ganesha in one of the picture is sitting on Shiva’s lap. In contrast, I don’t think there are any pictures or stories of Cronos or Zeus tending to their children.

      Husbands are vary involved in child rearing in India, but in a different way than their Western counterparts.

      About African families, I will try my best in the days to come. Please be patient with me as the creative urge can neither be owned, not controlled.


  4. Hello Madhu, you are truly learned about the Indian myths and philosophy. This post is a treasure trove of information for yoga students such as myself, many thanks for your efforts.

    1. Thank you Karin. Writing enables a process of learning for me too….it coheres my experiences into thoughts.

      I am glad you found this useful. All these various names and forms create confusion and people start thinking Hindu’s worship so many gods and goddesses, whereas in our psyche, they are seen as being the same.

      I exist as an individual, a mother, an employee, a friend, a partner, a daughter, a therapist….etc. Within these roles I have to perform positive and negative roles. The essence is still the same. I am still the same. All these other states are merely momentary shifts in consciousness….where perceptions of me become different.

      I found that the song Bitch by Meredith Brooks simplifies for the Western mind, the concept of symbolized forms in Indian mythology.

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