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Visions of the Divine Feminine in the Hindu Religious Tradition
By David Kinsley
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESSCopyright © 1986 The Regents of the University of California
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GODDESSES IN VEDIC LITERATURE
The Hindu tradition affirms Vedic literature as the foundation, the sacred source, of Hinduism. This body of literature, which is exceedingly vast and varied, is held to be eternal and alone is classed as sruti, "that which is heard," or revelation. It is therefore important to survey this literature even though goddesses do not play a central role in the religion that is central to these texts. Another important reason for looking at Vedic literature is that some scholars have argued that the great goddesses of later Hinduism are in fact the same beings mentioned in the Vedas, only with new names.
The Rg-veda, the oldest and most important Vedic text for a study of goddesses, is a collection of mantras, or hymns, celebrating deities, divine presences, or powers. The hymns were sung by rsis, great sages who the Hindu tradition affirms did not compose the hymns but heard them directly and then transmitted them, probably in a cultic, sacrificial context. The beings who are celebrated in the hymns of the rsis are numerous and diverse. The Rg-vedic pantheon, moreover, seems highly unstructured, and it is difficult to reconstruct a coherent Indo-Aryan mythology on the basis of the Rg-veda, which is primarily interested not in describing the mythological deeds of the deities but in praising the gods in a ritual context—a ritual context that unfortunately is also difficult to deduce in any detail.
It is clear nevertheless, that a few deities dominated Rg-vedic religion. Agni, Soma, and Indra, all male deities, are praised repeatedly throughout the Rg-veda and are the most important gods if frequency of occurrence in the hymns is any measure of their significance. Such gods as Varuna, Mitra, Surya, Brhaspati, Visvakarman, and Tvastr are also fairly significant male powers. Although many goddesses are mentioned in the Rg-veda, none is as central to the Rg-vedic vision of reality as Agni, Soma, or Indra, and only Usas among the goddesses could be considered on a par with the male deities of the second rank. We should therefore keep in mind while studying the goddesses in the Rg-veda that although there are many female deities they do not, either individually or collectively, represent the "center" of Rg-vedic religion. In most cases they are mentioned infrequently and must have played minor roles compared to the great male gods of the Rg-veda.
In the Rg-veda the goddess Usas is consistently associated with and often identified with the dawn. She reveals herself in the daily coming of light to the world. A young maiden, drawn in a hundred chariots (1.48), she brings forth light and is followed by the sun (Surya), who urges her onward (3.61). She is praised for driving away, or is petitioned to drive away, the oppressive darkness (7.78; 6.64; 10.172). She is asked to chase away evil demons, to send them far away (8.47.13). As the dawn, she is said to rouse all life, to set all things in motion, and to send people off to do their duties (1.48, 92). She sets the curled-up sleepers on their way to offer their sacrifices and thus renders service to the other gods (1.113). Usas gives strength and fame (1.44). She is that which impels life and is associated with the breath and life of all living creatures (1.48). She is associated with or moves with rta, cosmic, social, and moral order (3.61; 7.75). As the regularly recurring dawn she reveals and participates in cosmic order and is the foe of chaotic forces that threaten the world (1.113.12).
Usas is generally an auspicious goddess associated with light (6.64) and wealth. She is often likened to a cow. In Rg-veda 1.92 she is called the mother of cows and, like a cow that yields its udder for the benefit of people, so Usas bares her breasts to bring light for the benefit of humankind (3.58; 4.5). Although Usas is usually described as a young and beautiful maiden, she is also called the mother of the gods (1.113.12) and the Asvins (3.39.3), a mother by her petitioners (7.81), she who tends all things like a good matron (1.48), and goddess of the hearth (6.64).
Usas observes all that people do, especially as she is associated with the light that uncovers everything from darkness and with rta, moral as well as cosmic order. She is said to be the eye of the gods (7.75). She is known as she who sees all, but she is rarely invoked to forgive human transgressions. It is more typical to invoke her to drive away or punish one's enemies. Finally, Usas is known as the goddess, reality, or presence that wears away youth (7.75). She is described as a skilled huntress who wastes away the lives of people (1.92). In accordance with the ways of rta, she wakes all living things but does not disturb the person who sleeps in death. As the recurring dawn, Usas is not only celebrated for bringing light from darkness. She is also petitioned to grant long life, as she is a constant reminder of people's limited time on earth (7.77). She is the mistress or marker of time.
The goddess Prthivi is nearly always associated with the earth, the terrestrial sphere where human beings live. In the Rg-veda, furthermore, she is almost always coupled with Dyaus, the male deity associated with the sky. So interdependent are these two deities in the Rg-veda that Prthivi is rarely addressed alone but almost always as part of the dual compound dyavaprthivi, sky-earth. Together they are said to kiss the center of the world (1.185.5). They sanctify each other in their complementary relationship (4.56.6). Together they are said to be the universal parents who created the world (1.159) and the gods (1.185). As might be expected, Dyaus is often called father and Prthivi mother. There is the implication that once upon a time the two were closely joined but were subsequently parted at Varuna's decree (6.70). They come together again when Dyaus fertilizes the earth (Prthivi) with rain, although in some cases it is said that together they provide abundant rain (4.56); it is not clear to what extent Prthivi should be exclusively associated with the earth alone and not the sky as well.
In addition to her maternal, productive characteristics Prthivi (usually along with Dyaus in the Rg-veda) is praised for her supportive nature. She is frequently called firm, she who upholds and supports all things (1.185). She encompasses all things (6.70), is broad and wide (1.185), and is motionless (1.185), although elsewhere she is said to move freely (5.84). Prthivi, with Dyaus, is often petitioned for wealth, riches, and power (6.70), and the waters they produce together are described as fat, full, nourishing, and fertile (1.22). They are also petitioned to protect people from danger, to expiate sin (1.185), and to bring happiness (10.63). Together they represent a wide, firm realm of abundance and safety, a realm pervaded by order (rta), which they strengthen and nourish (1.159). They are unwasting, inexhaustible, and rich in germs (6.70). In a funeral hymn the dead one is asked to go now to the lap of his mother earth, Prthivi, who is described as gracious and kind. She is asked not to press down too heavily upon the dead person but to cover him gently, as a mother covers her child with her skirt (10.18.10-12).
The most extended hymn in praise of Prthivi in Vedic literature is found in the Atharva-veda (12.1). The hymn is dedicated to Prthivi alone, and no mention is made of Dyaus. The mighty god Indra is her consort (1.6) and protects her from all danger (12.1.11,18). Visnu strides over her (12.1.10), and Parjanya, Prajapati, and Visvakarma all either protect her, provide for her, or are her consort. Agni is said to pervade her (12.1.19). Despite these associations with male deities, however, the hymn makes clear that Prthivi is a great deity in her own right. The hymn repeatedly emphasizes Prthivi's fertility. She is the source of all plants, especially crops, and also nourishes all creatures that live upon her. She is described as patient and strong (12.1.29), supporting the wicked and the good, the demons and the gods. She is frequently addressed as mother and is asked to pour forth milk as a mother does for a son. She is called a nurse to all living things (12.1.4), and her breasts are full of nectar. The singer of the hymn asks Prthivi to produce her breasts to him so that he might enjoy a long life. Prthivi is also said to manifest herself in the scent of women and men, to be the luck and light in men, and to be the splendid energy of maids (12.1.25).
In sum, Prthivi is a stable, fertile, benign presence in Vedic literature. She is addressed as a mother, and it is clear that those who praise her see her as a warm, nursing goddess who provides sustenance to all those who move upon her firm, broad expanse. The Rg-veda nearly always links her with the male god Dyaus, but in the Atharva-veda and later Vedic literature she emerges as an independent being.
Although the goddess Aditi is mentioned nearly eighty times in the Rg-veda, it is difficult to gain a clear picture of her nature. She is usually mentioned along with other gods or goddesses, there is no one hymn addressed exclusively to her, and unlike many other Vedic deities she is not obviously associated with some natural phenomenon. Compared to Usas and Prthivi, her character seems ill defined. She is virtually featureless physically.
Perhaps the most outstanding attribute of Aditi is her motherhood. She is preeminently the mother of the Adityas, a group of seven or eight gods which includes Mitra, Aryaman, Bhaga, Varuna, Daksa, and Arhsa (2.27.1). Aditi is also said to be the mother of the great god Indra, the mother of kings (2.27), and the mother of the gods (1.113.19). Unlike Prthivi, however, whose motherhood is also central to her nature, Aditi does not have a male consort in the Rg-veda.
As a mothering presence, Aditi is often asked to guard the one who petitions her (1.106.7; 8.18.6) or to provide him or her with wealth, safety, and abundance (10.100; 1.94.15). Appropriate to her role as a mother, Aditi is sometimes associated with or identified as a cow. As a cow she provides nourishment, and as the cosmic cow her milk is identified with the redemptive, invigorating drink soma (1.153.3).
The name Aditi is derived from the root da (to bind or fetter) and suggests another aspect of her character. As a-diti, she is the unbound, free one, and it is evident in the hymns to her that she is often called upon to free the petitioner from different hindrances, especially sin and sickness (2.27.14). In one hymn she is asked to free a petitioner who is tied up like a thief (8.67.14). In this role as the one who binds and loosens Aditi is similar in function to Varuna, who in fact is one of her sons. Aditi thus plays the role of guardian of rta, the cosmic-moral order. As such she is called a supporter of creatures (1.136). She supports creatures by providing or enforcing rta, those ordinances or rhythms that delineate order from chaos.
Aditi is also called widely expanded (5.46.6) and extensive, the mistress of wide stalls (8.67.12), and in this respect one is reminded of Prthivi. In fact, Aditi and Prthivi become virtually identified in the Brahmanas.
The close association between natural phenomena and such Vedic goddesses as Usas and Prthivi is also seen in the goddess Sarasvati, who is associated with a particular river. Although scholars have debated precisely which river she was identified with in Vedic times (the Sarasvati River of that period has since disappeared), in the Rg-ueda her most important characteristics are those of a particular mighty river. Indeed, at times it is not clear whether a goddess or a river is being praised; many references hail the Sarasvati River as a mighty goddess.
Sarasvati is called mighty and powerful. Her waves are said to break down mountains, and her flood waters are described as roaring (6.61.2, 8). She is said to surpass all waters in greatness, to be ever active, and to be great among the great. She is said to be inexhaustible, having her source in the celestial ocean (7.95.1-2; 5.43.11). She is clearly no mere river but a heaven-sent stream that blesses the earth. Indeed, she is said to pervade the triple creation of earth, atmosphere, and the celestial regions (6.61.11-12).
She is praised for the fertility she brings the earth. She is praised or petitioned for wealth, vitality, children, nourishment, and immortality, and as such she is called subhaga (bountiful). As a fecund, bountiful presence, she is called mother, the best of mothers (2.41.16). As a nourishing, maternal goddess, she is described in terms similar to Prthivl: she quickens life, is the source of vigor and strength, and provides good luck and material well-being to those whom she blesses. In one particular hymn she is called upon by unmarried men who yearn for sons. They ask to enjoy her breast that is swollen with streams and to receive from her food and progeny (7.96.4-6; 1.164.49). She is sometimes petitioned for protection and in this aspect is called a sheltering tree (7.95.5) and an iron fort (7.95.1), neither image being particularly fluvial.
Sarasvati is also closely related to Vedic cult, both as a participant in or witness of the cult and as a guardian of the cult. She is invoked with and associated with the sacrificial goddesses Ida and Bharati and with the goddesses Mahl and Hotra, who are associated with prayer (7.37.11; 10.65.13). She is said to destroy those who revile the gods and to be a slayer of Vrtra, a demon of chaos.
Sarasvati is described particularly as a purifying presence (1.3.10). Her waters cleanse poison from men (6.61.3). Along with rivers and floods in general, she cleanses her petitioners with holy oil and bears away defilements (10.17.10)
Anticipating her later nature as a goddess of inspiration, eloquence, and learning, the hymns of the Rg-veda also describe Sarasvati as the inciter of all pleasant songs, all gracious thought, and every pious thought (1.3.10-12). In this vein she is similar to the Vedic goddess Vac (speech), with whom she is consistently identified in the Brahmanas.
Although the significance of sound and speech as the primordial stuff of creation is primarily a post-Rg-vedic concept, it is apparent even in the Rg-veda that sound, and especially ritual speech, is powerful, creative, and a mainstay of cosmic-ritual order. The goddess Vac, whose name means "speech," reveals herself through speech and is typically characterized by the various attributes and uses of speech. She is speech, and the mysteries and miracles of speech express her peculiar, numinous nature. She is the presence that inspires the rsis and that makes a person a Brahman (10.125). She is truth, and she inspires truth by sustaining Soma, the personification of the exhilarating drink of vision and immortality (10.125). She is the mysterious presence that enables one to hear, see, grasp, and then express in words the true nature of things. She is the prompter of and the vehicle of expression for visionary perception, and as such she is intimately associated with the rsis and the rituals that express or capture the truths of their visions. In an important sense she is an essential part of the religious-poetic visionary experience of the rsis and of the sacrificial rituals that appropriate those visions.
Perhaps reflecting her role as the bestower of vision, Vac is called a heavenly queen, the queen of the gods (8.89), she who streams with sweetness (5.73.3) and bestows vital powers (3.53.15). She is described as a courtly, elegant woman, bright and adorned with gold (1.167.3). She is, like most other Vedic goddesses, a benign, bounteous being. She not only bestows on people the special riches of language, she is praised in general terms for giving light and strength; one hymn says that she alone provides people with food. She is, then, more than a kind of artificial construct, a personified abstract. She is a pervasive, nourishing deity who stimulates organic growth as well as providing the blessings of language and vision. She is often invoked as a heavenly cow (4.1.16; 8.89) that gives sustenance to the gods and men. She is also called mother, as it is she who has given birth to things through naming them. Her benign nature is also celebrated for enabling people to see and recognize friends. Bearing her mark of intelligible, familiar speech, one friend may recognize and commune with another (10.71). Thus Vac is a bounteous cow who provides, first, the lofty, discerning vision of the rsi; second, the ritual formulas of the priest; and third, the everyday language of people which enables them to establish themselves as a community of friends.
Excerpted from Hindu Goddesses by David Kinsley. Copyright © 1986 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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