India, Gods and Goddesses of India

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The worship of the female goddess developed into the widely practised form of devotional worship known as Tantrism. The goddess such as the Kali became the focus of worship which often involved animal and human sacrifices and ritual practices that flew in the face of wider Hindu moral and legal codes. The evidence of these practices can be still seen in the art and sculpture of some major temples. Devi, or Mahadevi is the most complex and the most powerful of the goddesses. She owes various characteristics with the combination of her descent traced back to the great Mother Goddess of the ancient times and to Shakti, the active dimension of the godhead, the divine power that underlies the godhead’s ability to create the world and to display itself. Shakti is a female divinity who is often worshipped in the form of Durga. Devi or shakti assumes gentle and terrible forms. In the gentle form she displays positive roles like fertility, protection, establishment of religious order, cultural creativity, duty and material abundance. Some important examples of these forms are Lakshmi, Saraswati, Sati, Parvati and Prithvi. In the terrible form, she plays her most fundamental protective role, guardian of the cosmos in the form of a formidable warrior. Besides supplicating the goddess for the bestowal of favor, her worshippers also invoke her for active and sometimes violent assistance against demons, terrors and disasters. This contributed to the development of a group of fierce-looking female deities. Once female deities became fully independent they responded to the usual forces in Indian religion to take on different forms. They make the vehicle as simulation of non-Hindu mythology and practice in the same way as their male counterparts. While, some goddesses have strong maternal natures, some are domestic and closely identified with male deities, some are embodiment of art and culture and associated with the wild untamed fringes of civilization and have strong independent natures and are great warriors. There are large number of goddesses in Hinduism. Apart from the innumerable village goddesses there are also the geographical goddesses associated with specific regions. Some of the important groups of goddesses are the Nava-Durgas, the Sapta Matrikas and 10 Mahavidyas.


The goddess Durga is also the consort of Shiva after Parvati. She is one of the most important female deities of the Hindus. She normally has eight arms and may hold a trident, sword, snake, bell, drum, shield, cup, bow, wheel, conch-shell, mace, arrow or water pot in her hands. She is shown seated in ‘sukhasana’ posture on a double lotus throne or on a lion. She may wear a garland of skulls. Durga’s relations with Shiva are sufficiently remote. She is referred as the ‘shakti’ of the impersonal absolute and as being worthy of worship for material gains in this world and spiritual advancement. Durga has nine popular forms called Nava Durgas which are worshipped during the Navratra festival. They are Shailaputri, Brahmacharini, Chandraghanta, Kushmanda, Skandamata, Katyayani, Kalaratri, Mahagauri and Siddhidhatri. Durga Puja is one of the chief festivals of India celebrated in September and October. It is celebrated in various parts of India in different styles but the basic aim of this celebration is to propitiate shakti, the Goddess in her aspect as Power. In this festival, the motherhood of God is emphasized. It is a ten-day festival, where each of the nine nights are dedicated to different aspects of goddess Durga. This festival is celebrated as the victory of the goddess Durga over Mahahasura, the demon in the form of a buffalo. In many parts of India a buffalo is sacrificed to commemorate this event.


The goddess Lakshmi is the consort of Lord Vishnu and the goddess of wealth and good fortune. She has four arms when worshipped on her own, but has two when shown with Vishnu. She holds a lotus in each of her upper hands. Gold coins can be seen dropping down from the palms of her lower two hands or one of them may be in a boon-giving posture. She is normally painted in a bright golden colour and is shown seated or standing on a lotus. In paintings she is sometimes shown with two elephants, half submerged in water, one on each side. Lakshmi was born from the churning of the oceans by the gods for amrita. Lakshmi is also associated with beauty and is one of the most popular Hindu female deities. It is due to the underlying human desire for wealth, she absorbed a large number of folk elements during her evolution into a widely accepted members of the pantheon. Some of these may be discerned in the qualities attributed to her as Vishnu’s wife in several of his incarnations. As Sita, she was said to have been born from a furrow, showing her link with agriculture.

This symbol is again emphasized when she is called as the Earth (Dharani). Diwali, the festival of lamps is associated with Lakshmi and is celebrated all over India. During the festival, little lamps are lit all over the house in the belief that Lakshmi will not enter a house if it is dark. Every city, town and village is turned into a fairyland with thousand of flickering oil lamps and electric lights illuminating the homes. This is also the time when all the houses are thoroughly cleaned and freshly painted, rice-flour designs are made on the doorsteps and crackers are burst by children. The new commercial year for Hindu businessmen also begins with Diwali.


The goddess Parvati, the consort of Lord Shiva, is represented as a fair and beautiful woman. Few miraculous deeds are claimed for her. It is only when she appears as Durga, Kali, etc., that she manifests divine powers and exhibits a very different spirit. When Parvati is shown alone, she may hold a javelin and a mirror in her two hands. If she is four handed, two of her hands exhibit the protection and boon-giving position and two carries a javelin and a chisel. As Kali she became an ascetic whose severe penances were intended to attract the attention of Shiva. When Shiva teased her about her black skin, through penances she changed her color to gold and was then called Gauri. Parvati is worshipped as a minor deity in a Shiva temple. Between the 5th and the 13th centuries, from being merely the consorts of the male deities, and their active partners, female deities became independent and objects of worship in their own right in which they have a temple and were the main icons in that temple. It was around this time that Parvati became a major deity as Durga and Kali.


Saraswati, the goddess of learning and knowledge, is represented as an extremely beautiful woman with a milk white complexion. She normally wears white clothes, sits or stands on a water lily and has four arms. With one of her hands she presents a lotus to her husband, by whose side she constantly stands, and in the other hand she holds a book of palm leaves indicating learning. In one of her left hands she has a string of pearls and in the other she may hold a small vase or the hand may be in a boon giving pose. She is also represented with two arms, playing a stringed musical instrument called the Veena. She may also hold a conch, wheel, noose, skull cap, cup of ambrosia, goad and mace. She presides over and protects the arts and is credited with the invention of writing. She is also the goddess of speech, the power through which knowledge expresses itself. In the Vedas, Saraswati is described mainly as a river but in the hymns she is described as a river and deity. Her origins are obscure but it is possible that she once had something to do with the river Saraswati in Rajasthan or with water in some other way.

Goddess Saraswati

At all events, it seems to have been associated with the creative properties that water has for seeds and vegetation. Being the goddess of learning, she is worshipped when a child is given instructions for the first time in reading a writing. Many schools in India start classes with a mass prayer to the goddess. In the Saraswati Puja or the Vasant Panchami, the goddess Saraswati is worshipped. In this festival, the musical instruments, pens, paint brushes and books are cleaned and placed on an altar. These are worshipped as being the abode of the goddess. In the absence of an image, sometimes an ink pot or flowers are placed on a book and prayers from the scriptures are chanted.


The river Ganga is the most sacred river in India. Most of the holy cities of India like Rishikesh, Haridwar, Varanasi, Allahabad are located on the banks of the Ganga. Those who die within the specified limits of Ganga go to the heavenly world. If after cremation the ashes are thrown into the Ganga, then also the same purpose is served. No Hindu can speak a falsehood with the Ganga water (Gangajal) in his hand. The goddess Ganga is represented as a fair-complexion woman, wearing a white crown and sitting on a crocodile. She holds a water lily in her right hand and flute in her left hand. When shown with four hands she carries a water-pot, lily, rosary and has one hand in a protective mode. The story of Ganga’s origin is very interesting. Sagar, a king of Ayodhya, had no children. After doing a long penance, he got sixty thousand sons. He then decided to perform a horse sacrifice. Indra, the lord of the heavens, when heard of this, got scared and stole the horse and took it to the nether region. The sixty thousand sons reached the nether region after searching him on earth and manhandled a sage by mistake, thinking he had stolen the horse. The sage got angry and cursed them and turned them to ashes. Sagar on hearing this prayed to Goddess Ganga to come down to earth with her water to bring salvation to his sons. His son and grandson also carried out the penance and it was only Bhagirath, the great grandson, who managed to propitiate Ganga. The Goddess Ganga came down on earth in a rush, but her impact was reduced after her water was carried by the Shiva’s mated hair. She was led to the nether regions by Bhagirath. Hence the Ganga is divided into three parts which are Mandakini, Ganga and Bhagirathi. The Mandakini remained in the heavens, whereas the Ganga came down to earth, and the Bhagirathi flow in the nether region, and is named after the king Bhagirath.

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