Major Hindu Sects
& Puranic Mythology
 
The Epics are followed by the Puranas, a genre of literature that develops the concerns of orthodoxy in relationship to the growing prominence of bhakti approaches to worship. Deities from the Vedic pantheon begin to fade in importance, whereas theistic sects dedicated to particular gods and goddesses, often encountered in the Epic literature, become the focus of attention. There were also trends to amalgamate minor cults under the rubric of a particular, all-encompassing diving figure, such as Siva, Visnu, or the Devi. The sectarian dimensions of Hinduism were not solely evident through bhakti. ... Here we examine the histories of the three major theistic sectarian traditions within Hinduism — namely, the Saivas, the Vaisnavas, and the Saktas. ... The Puranas elaborate upon mythic exploits of Siva, Visnu, and the Devi, as well as the worship traditions of various related gods and goddesses. (IH, 189)
The foremost concern of the Puranas is to align the world-view of Vedic Hinduism with rapidly expanding bhakti theism. In these texts we again encounter Hinduism’s remarkable malleability and adaptability. In the voices of the rsis who are depicted as recounting the tales and teachings, we note the process of Sanskritization and universalization at work in which the democratizing features of the bhakti path are progressively incorporated, granted legitimacy, and systematically defined by orthodoxy. The rise of bhakti opened the rights and capacity for ritual worship to women and all classes. By formulating the appropriate methods of such worship, through puja, pilgrimage, and so on, the Puranas distinguish these practices from yajna, while yet locating them within a newly configured, broader orthodox universe. Srauta Brahmins were those who persisted in adhering to the most orthodox of practices — namely that described in the sruti literature. However, Smarta Brahmins began to follow the teachings in the smrti literature — namely the Dharma Sastras, the Epics, and Puranas. (IH, 191)
The origins of Siva worship are traced by some to the Indus Valley Civilizations where a few stone seals depict a figure often referred to as the “ithyphallic proto-Siva.” However, it is not unambiguously clear if the figure represented on these seals is ithyphallic, or even if it is anthropomorphic, and thus highly speculative to label it as Siva. Similarly, speculations that rounded elongated stones found at Indus Valley sites offer evidence of linga worship are also unconvincing. Rg Veda hymns to Rudra (“Howler”) first mention the word siva, which means “auspicious.” Rudra is portrayed as clad in animal skins, a terrifying god of storms, both destructive of cattle and human beings, and yet offering protection from disease if propitiated. Shaggy-haired, he brandishes a sharp weapon and fast arrows. ... By the time of the Svetasvatara (Having White Mules) Upanisad, composed perhaps earlier than the fourth century BCE, we have the first evidence of a bhakti-like sentiment developing. The text reflects a shifting emphasis from the monism (i.e. centered on the One, Absolute Reality) of the earlier Upanisads, such as the Chandogya, to a qualified, theistic monism or dualism. Rudra, also called Siva and Mahesvara (Great Lord), is referred to in a monistic manner, as the eka deva (One God), who is both transcendent and within the hearts of all created beings. He is equated with Brahman, the origin of all things, and is said to be a magician who generates and upholds the cosmos through his power (sakti). Through a combination of yogic practice and divine grace, the devoted soul may gain union with the Lord. ... Siva is widely worshipped among Hindus today, perhaps equaling, if not outnumbering the percentage of Vaisnavas. However, such sectarian designations are poor indicators of actual practice, since Hindus who might label themselves as Vaisnavas are still likely to visit Siva temples and celebrate some Saiva holy days. Smarta Brahmins, who are a mainstay of Hindu orthodoxy, include Siva among the five deities they hold worthy of worship. Thus Saivism has moved from its marginal, anti-Aryan status during the early Vedic period into the very core of Hindu orthodoxy. (IH, 194-6)
 
We encounter a reference to the earliest known Saivite sect, the Pasupatas, in the Mahabharata. However, much earlier in composition than the Epics, the Atharva Veda (15.5.1-7) refers to a group of ascetic warriors known as vratyas in connection with a group of seven gods, including Mahadeva, Pasupati, Rudra, and Isana, each associated with different regions, and each of whom are later identified with Siva. It is possible that the vratyas, who were marginalized by Aryan society, and who practiced yogic-like rites of breath control, and tantric-like ritual sexual intercourse, may have been a source, or one of the early configurations of Saivite, or proto-Saivite sects.
 
 
The Pasupatas, the earliest known of the Saiva sects, were founded in about the second century CE by the semi-legendary Lakulisa (Lord of the Club), who was later regarded as an incarnation of Siva himself. Their practices involved a sequence of stages, beginning with a relatively traditional period of moral development with their guru in a temple. During this phase they were expected to smear their bodies in a bath of ashes thrice daily. This was followed by a period of antinomian public behavior, such as speaking gibberish and lewdly gesturing to women. Those who scorned them would end up absorbing the Pasupata’s bad karma, and relinquish their own merit to the practitioner. The next stages were ones of seclusion accompanied by intense meditation, and they would ultimately resort to the cremation grounds, surviving as they could, until their death and final union with Rudra. The Pasupatas gave rise to the Kalamukhas, whose name simultaneously evokes a crescent moon forehead ornament, a dark, ash-smeared face or forehead, and the ending of time, all features associated with Siva. The Kalamukhas smeared themselves in the ashes of corpses. Both groups flourished in South India between the seventh and fourteenth centuries, and the Kalamukhas even had their own temples. ...

An influential sect of philosophical Saivism, the Saiva Siddhanta (Ultimate Goal of Saivism), developed through influences from the Nayanars, whose poems, contained in the Tirumurai, are included in their canon of authoritative texts. ... The Lord (Siva) is both transcendent, yet immanent in all aspects of creation. As Sadasiva, he emits the world out of pure playfulness. He maintains the world, reabsorbs it, conceals himself, and reveals himself through grace. Souls (pasu), which are different from the Lord, become entrapped in the creation through ignorance, karma, and maya, which constitute the three impurities (mala). ... The soul must be freed from all three impurities to be liberated. This is achieved through three practices: 1) proper conduct (carya), which is mostly orthodox worship of the Smarta Brahmin style, 2) ritual worship (kriya), which follows tantric styles of puja, and 3) meditative disciplines (yoga), all performed in the spirit of deep loving devotion (bhakti). ... Upon liberation, Siva reveals himself, and the soul eventually realizes its pure state as equal to Siva, although it does not become Siva, the Lord. ...
The Virasaiva (Heroic Followers of Siva) sect was formed by Basava, also known as Basavanna (1106-1167), mainly in Kannada-speaking regions of South India. Followers of this Saiva sect were decidely anti-orthodox, rejecting temple worship, pilgrimages, sacrifices, and the caste system, although they themselves have come to be regarded as a caste within the Hindu fold. ... The Virasaivas do not promote image worship, since they believe that Siva is everywhere, making no particular abode more sacred than another. However, as an insignia of their beliefs, they do wear a linga on a necklace, which they worship daily. ... The Virasaivas’ criticism of the caste system led them to promote marriage between castes, including Brahmin women and Untouchables. This attracted members of the lower, disenfranchised classes to their ranks, but unleashed waves of persectuion by orthodox Hindus. Nevertheless, they have endured, and now claim a sizeable and influential community of about six million followers in the state of Karnataka. ...

Goraksanatha (Hindi: Gorakhnath) is traditionally attributed with the authorship of the first treatise on Hatha yoga, and is one of the great teachers within the ancient Nath sect of Saivism. ... [Hatha Yoga texts] outline the relationship between the macrocosmic creation and the microcosm of the human body, which mirrors or parallels it. Through the practice of various yogic techniques centered on bodily discipline, one can move energy through the body and induce a fusion between macrocosm and microcosm, leading to liberation. Followers of his sect worship Siva as Bhairava, and are known as Naths, Gorakhnathis, or Kanphata (Split Ear) Yogis, because of the large earring that is placed during an initiation ceremony through the central hollow of their ears. Some carry a trident, a symbol of Siva. The sect is regarded as being in decline, although they are widespread throughout India. (IH, 196-9)
 
The application of structural theory to the Puranic myths of Siva reveals that his persona embodies a bipolar character. He is the supreme yogi, given to such fierce asceticism that not blood, but ash flows within him. He has generated immense inner heat (tapas) through his austerities and can release it through his wisdom or third eye, located on his forehead. He will annihilate the cosmos at the end of time, and thus when categorized in a triad with Brahma and Visnu, he is regarded as the Destroyer. However, Siva is also highly erotic in nature. His asceticism is associated with the accumulation of enormous creative power, symbolized by his erect phallus. This is the sign (linga) of Siva, and is the icon with which he is most often worshipped in temples and shrines. For Saivites, Siva embodies the full spectrum of creative, preservative, and destructive dimensions of the divine. The erect linga represents erotic power, his associations with fertility and creative potential, and his destructive capacities. The erect phallus has not spilt its seed, and thus symbolizes how Siva restrains creation from emerging. (IH, 199-200)
 
 
The Sanskritization of Shiva
The myths of Sati and Parvati are so closely interconnected that they are often regarded as the same goddess. Typically Parvati is viewed as an incarnation of Sati. ...
Sati is portrayed as having intensely desired to be the spouse of Siva, and who, through her ascetic practices and deep devotion, eventually wins his attention. They are duly wed and retire to the mountains for love play. However, Sati’s father, Daksa, does not like Siva’s unconventional appearance and habits. When Daksa plans a great yajna, he invites all the divine beings, but deliberately does not invite his daughter and Siva. Emotionally agitated by the snub, Sati attends the sacrifice only to be further humiliated, at which point she commits suicide, in some versions by casting herself into the sacrificial fire. Siva, enraged by what has transpired, generates terrible beings, which defeat the celestial hosts, destroy Daksa’s sacrifice, and kill him. Eventually, Daksa is resuscitated, the sacrifice is restored, and Siva is included among the guests. ...
 
 
The foregoing myths, which exist in numerous variations, suggests a sectarian, and cultural, tension between Brahma worshippers (i.e. orthodox, Aryan, Brahmin, Vedic) and Saivas (i.e. unorthodox, non-Vedic). Daksa is sometimes associated with Prajapati, or regarded as a son of Brahma. Siva, who is unconventional, and uninterested in Vedic sacrificial rituals, the householder’s social life, and so on, is brought into the social order through his marriage to Sati. However, there is a tense relationship between the households of the bride and groom. Some see a relationship between Sati’s suicide and the HIndu tradition of widow immolation that bears the same name. However, this is tenuous at best because Sati’s husband, Siva, is neither dead nor in need of salvation. Siva, who embodies the wandering ascetic’s lifestyle, is shown to be greater than the Vedic deities, whom he defeats, and his destruction of the yajna is clear evidence of a disdain for sacrificial religion. In the restoration myth we see Siva once again brought back into social order by being incorporated into the orthodox pantheon in which the sacrifice is reinstituted. ...
 
 
Parvati’s worship may originate among non-Aryan mountain-dwelling tribes. ... If one weaves together her story based on various Puranic accounts, Sati reincarnated as Parvati and was born to Himavat, the deified Himalaya Mountains, and his wife, Mena. ... Since a demon named Taraka had received a boon of invincibility against all but a son of Siva, and threatened the cosmic balance, the gods enlisted the aid of Kama, the god of love. Kama, a splendidly handsome youth, shot Siva with flowery arrows of love, fired from his bow fashioned out of sucarcane and strung with honeybees. Enraged by the awakening of desire that had disrupted his meditative calm, Siva destroyed Kama with fire from his third eye. However, he was already smitten by Parvati, who, like Sati, had already been engaged in intense devotion and ascetic practice to attract Siva’s attention. Siva eventually restored Kama to life.
 

While Sati’s marriage to Siva was dysfunctional due to family disapproval, with disastrous consequences, Parvati’s parents endorse and support her marriage. She becomes a domesticating influence on her antisocial husband, whose appearance, interests, and behavior are outside the margins of orthodox notions of propriety. She mediates both his erotic and his ascetic dimensions, channeling them into dharmically appropriate manifestations of sexuality within marriage. (IH, 200-3)


Vaishnavism
Visnu is praised in five Rg Veda hymns, and mentioned in a few others, where he is called the supporter of heaven and earth. He is also referred to as trivikrama (the three-stepping), which initially identifies him with the Sun’s movement through the skies. Later references to his three steps connect them with saving the gods by defeating demons. In the Brahmanas, Visnu is also linked to Purusa, the primal sacrificer and sacrifical victim, from whom the whole creation emerges. There are a few occurences in the principal Upanisads linking him to the supreme Brahman. Unlike many scholars, Vaisnavas do not consider the relatively thin references in the Vedic sruti literature to be an indication of Visnu’s minor status at the time of their composition. However, it is evident that Visnu’s mythology is primarily developed within the Epics and Puranas. (IH, 207)
 
Bhagavata Purana
Srimad Bhagavatam

The 10 Avataras of Vishnu
Introducing Hinduism, 211-5

1. Matsya: The Fish avatara manifested and rescued the sage Manu from a great deluge. Manu had rescued the fish by nurturing it in progressively larger containers and finally releasing it into the ocean. The fish warned him of an impending flood and advised him to build a large boat, and to take with him a combination of seeds and beasts. It is Visnu himself who dictates the Matsya Purana while in his Fish incarnation, as he towed the boat to a high mountain peak. Manu then became the forefather of all human beings.
 
2. Kurma: The Tortoise avatara manifested when the gods and demons decided to churn the Milk Ocean to produce amrta (Nectar of Immortality). At this time both groups were mortal. The Tortoise’s shell served as the pivot upon which Mount Mandara was placed to serve as the churning rod. The serpent Vasuki was the churning rope, and the gods (sura, deva) and the demons (asura) struck a truce and toiled together, finally producing the desired ambrosia. Several items emerged from the churning, including Kamadhenu (or Surabhi) the wish-granting cow, and a deadly poison that threatened the entire creation. Siva drank this poison which lodged in his throat turning it blue. In certain Sakta versions of this myth, the Devi suckles him back to life. Visnu then assumed the female form of Mohini, whose captivating beauty distracted the demons. The gods drank the amrta, granting them immortality. Only the demon Rahu’s head received immortality, since he disguised himself as a god before being discovered. He was beheaded by Visnu’s discus.
 
3. Varaha: The demon Hiranyaksa (Golden Eye) had sunk the earth into the bottom of the cosmic ocean to prevent the gods from being worshipped. Visnu took up the Boar incarnation, dove to the ocean bottom, and dug up the earth with his tusks. As he swam upwards the demon engaged him in a battle of cosmic proportions. Visnu placed the earth, personified as the Earth Goddess, on his lap, and slew Hiranyaksa. The kings of the Gupta Dynasty were patrons of the Boar incarnation of Visnu. An impressive sculpture of the Boar avatara is also found in a temple site built by the Chandella Dynasty at Khajuraho in Northern India.
 
4. Narasimha: Hiranyaksa’s brother Hiranyakasipu (Golden Garment) despised Visnu. When his own son, Prahlada became a devotee of his enemy, the demon attempted to kill the pious boy. However Visnu intervened on several occasions. The demon was fearless because he had performed intense austerities through which he had attained a boon from Brahma. He had ascked for immortality, which could not be granted, and so he requested that he should die neither by day nor by night, neither indoors nor outdoors, not on land, in the air, or in water, nor should he be killed by man or beast, or by any weapon. Brahma granted the boon, and the demon grew arrogant and unafraid of any divine retribution. One day, exasperated at his son’s devotion, Hiranyakasipu readied to kill Prahlada on the spot, arrogantly challenging Visnu to appear and face his death. At that moment, at dusk (neither night nor day), Visnu appeared from a pillar in the doorway (neither indoors nor outdoors), in the dreadful form of Narasimha (Nrsingha) the Man-Lion (neither man nor beast). He raised Hiranyakasipu onto his lap (neither on the ground nor in the air), and disemboweled him with his claws (not a weapon). A massive granite sculpture of Narasimha is located at a ruined temple site in Hampi, the ancient capital of the South Indian kingdom of Vijayanagara.
 
5. Vamana: The Dwarf avatara appeared to restore a balance when the demon Bali, a grandson of Prahlada, had conquered the three worlds. Although he was a dharmic demon, it was still necessary to restore the heavens to the gods, and so Visnu appeared before Bali in the guise of a dwarf (or a young Brahmin boy). Bali was pleased by the Dwarf’s pious behavior and granted him whatever he wished for. The Dwarf asked for whatever he could cover in three steps. Surprised at the meager request, Bali granted it, at which point Visnu grew to enormous proportions. In his three steps he took back the triple world sending Bali down into the underworld realm, Patala, with his third step. The three steps of the Dwarf avatara resonate with Visnu’s three stepping (trivikrama) feat alluded to in early Vedic literature. An excellently rendered image of the Dwarf avatara is found in the Vamana temple at Khajuraho in Madhya Pradesh.
 
6. Parashurama: Parasurama was a human incarnation of Visnu. He manifested as a warrior Brahmin, who rectified the cosmic balance by restoring power to the Brahmin class by slaying an entire lineage of arrogant ksatriyas who stole his father’s wish-granting cow and eventually killed his father. He wielded an axe given to him by Siva. In other myths, he beheads his own mother Renuka.
 
7. Rama: There is an interesting confrontation between Visnu’s next incarnation, Rama, and Parasurama. When Rama strung and broke the bow of Siva to win Sita’s hand, his feat elicited the attention of Parasurama, who challenged him to battle. Parasurama offered Rama the bow of Visnu, claiming it to be more powerful. Rama quickly strung that bow as well, inserted one of Parasurama’s own deadly arrows into it, but desisted from slaying him since he was a Brahmin. Instead he destroyed all of Parasurama’s sacred abodes. This episode is a revealing confrontation between sectarian and varna-based streams of discourse, in which the ksatriya hero, Rama, whose dharmic nature surpasses most Brahmins, gains supremacy over the Brahmin warrior, Parasurama, regaining status for the ksatriya varna. However, both are accommodated as divine manifestations of Visnu, and the ksatriya Rama affirms deference to the Brahmin Parasurama, whom he refuses to harm. Parasurama is still worshipped in Kerala, and his mythic deeds are believed to have produced the land of Kerala itself.
 
8. Krishna: The Krsna avatara is immensely popular in Hinduism, undoubtedly due to the influence of the Bhagavad Gita. Krsna’s mythology, which was developed in the Harivamsa, and subsequently in Puranic accounts, proved to be highly captivating. His cult and life story is an amalgam of a number of components fusing the worship of Vasudeva, Visnu, Govinda, and other deities, with bhakti and tantric elements. In the Bhagavana Purana, although Krsna is portrayed as an avatara of Visnu, the text’s tone is centrally devoted to Krna who is for all intents and purposes the supreme form of divinity. The centrality of Krsna is a defining feature of Gaudiya (i.e. Bengali) Vaisnavism. Krsna’s mythic life offers human beings a divine persona that lends itself to affection. He is not a remote deity, abstract and devoid of character, but an irresistibly attractive human being. ... (see IH, 215-7 for full account)
 
9. Buddha or Balarama: Visnu’s ninth avatara is Balarama in some accounts and the Buddha in others. Balarama is regarded as Krsna’s older brother and in iconographic depictions wields a plough and a mace. Fond of alcohol and impetuous in nature, he is light-skinned and is often identified with Visnu’s endless serpent Sesa. He is said to have remained neutral in the Mahabharata war, when Krsna sided with the Pandavas. The Buddha  is a problematic inclusion in the series, because his teachings against the varna system and Vedic authority are regarded as heterodox. It likely derives from a period when Buddhism had grown in popularity and efforts were being made to come to terms with it. However, in some Puranic sources, the orthodox explanation is that Visnu incarnated as the Buddha to teach a false doctrine and thus lead the demons astray. Naturally Buddhists do not regard the Buddha as an incarnation of Visnu.
 
10. Kalki: The final incarnation of Visnu is the Kalki avatara, who has yet to come. He will either be or ride a white horse and wield a weapon of immense destruction. He will destroy the unrighteous at the end of the Kali Yuga, and usher in an era of dharma.
          Many observers have noted a sort of evolutionary scheme in the system of avataras, which begin with an aquatic creature (fish), and then move from a reptile (tortoise) towards more normal human life forms (man-lion, dwarf). The avataras then progress to more spiritually evolved human forms (Rama, Krsna, etc.). What is evident, however, is that the avatara scheme has enable a wide array of deities to be incorporated under the rubric of Vaisnavism. The concept of avataras continues to be advanced by various sects. Thus Sri Caitanya is often regarded as an avatara of Krsna, and Swami Bhaktivedanta is held by many of his disciples to be an incranation of Caitanya.

 

 
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The tenth book of the Bhagavata Purana gives the standard account of the childhood and youth of Krishna.  Growing up a simple cowherd in Gokula, he amused himself with the other gopalas. When he reached young manhood, he won the hearts of the gopis by his beauty and by the sound of his flute. This selection ... tells of the unspeakable joys of union that the gopis experienced, after having suffered the unbearable pain of Krishna’s absence. (Indian Religions, 213-4)
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Thus the Gopis loudly lamented, singing and babbling in various ways, yearning for a sight of Krsna.
     And Sauri [Krsna] appeared to them, a love god for the god of love himself, incarnate before their very eyes, garlanded, clothed in yellow, and with a smile on His lotus-face.
     When they saw their love had come, the women’s eyes grew large with delight, and all stood up in the same instant like the limbs of the body when the breath of life enters them.
     One [Gopi] took Sauri’s lotus-hand in her clasped hands. Another lifted on her shoulder His arm smeared with sandal.
     Another slender [Gopi] took the chewed remains of His betel nut in her clasped hands. One, feverish [with love], pressed His lotus foot (anghri) to her breasts.
     One, distracted with the violence of her love, knitted her brow, bit her lips, and stared at Him as though she would kill Him by onslaughts of sidelong glares.
     Another could not be satisfied, though she drank in the nectar of the lotus of His [very] face and savoured it with unblinking eyes, like the sages (santah) [who contemplate merely] His feet.
     One took Him into her heart through the orifices of her eyes, shut them, and remained (aste) embracing Him there, all the hairs of her body on end, immersed in bliss like a yogin.
     All were enraptured at the sight of Him, a feast for the eyes, and shook off the pain [they had suffered] from separation from Him, like people who reach the All-knowing one (prajnam). (Indian Religions, 214)
 

The Gopis spoke:
“Some people love in return [only] those who love them, and some, the opposite. Others love neither [those who love them nor those who do not]. Tell us truly, sir, [why is this?]”
The Lord spoke:
     “My friends, those who love in reciprocation are striving only for their own ends. There is no [loving] friendship (sauhrdam), no moral behaviour (dharma) in that, merely serving one’s own ends and nothing else.
     “People who, like parents, love those who do not [necessarily or at first] love them are full of compassion. In this there is moral behaviour (dharma) beyond reproach and loving friendship, my lovely-waisted ones.
     “[Now] some people, who do not love even those who love them and still less those who do not, are people [sufficient in themselves] who delight in themselves, [or] they are people who have obtained all that they require, [or] they are ungrateful, [or] they wrong their elders.
     “But I do not [always visibly] love [in return] creatures even when they love me, in order that they may continue to follow me (anuvrttivrttaye), just as a poor man who gains wealth and loses it is then aware of nothing else, sunk in anxious thought about that [lost wealth].
     “In the same way I loved you, my women, and concealed [the fact, so that it was] beyond your knowing
— [you] who for my sake gave up this world, your traditions (veda) and your relatives in order to follow me. My loves, you should not be angry with me, your lover.
     “I cannot, even in the life-span of Brahma, make return to you, whose devotion (samyuj) to me is irreproachable, for you have sundered the unwearing fetters [that bound you] to your homes. May that be your reward.” (Indian Religions, 215-6)
 
Much of the power of the Krishna Gopala story is the contrasts it presents. Vishnu, the Supreme Lord of the universe, is the baby held in the arms of a cowherd’s wife; the creator and ruler of the cosmos is the mischievous child who steals butterballs from the neighbors and upsets his mother’s churn; the giver of all dharma and the object of all austerities is the carefree flute-playing youth who wanders flower-bedecked in the forest with his friends and wins the love of the gopis from their families and husbands. It was the work of the tradition from the Vishnu Purana onward to develop the potential of the story in all its aspects.
       Nanda, Yasoda, the cowherds, and the gopis related to Krishna with different emotions as father to son, mother to child, friend to friend, lover to beloved. But since Krishna was at the same time divine, these various relationships and their emotions could be seen as various forms of devotion to God. Human feelings were thus transformed into devotional moods suitable for devotees with different religious inclinations. Reverence, service, parental affection, friendship, or passionate love
— all could be expressed in terms of different relations to Krishna as God.  (The Hindu Religious Tradition, 106)
 

Shakti
An estimated fifty million Hindus worship some form of the goddess. ... Her power is called sakti and is often linked with the kundalini energy. Lushly erotic, sensual imagery is frequently used to symbolize her abundant creativity. ... The great goddesses have been worshipped both in the plural and in the singular, in which case one goddess is seen as representing the totality of deity — eternal creator, preserver, and destroyer. The great goddess Durga is often represented as a beautiful woman with a gentle face but ten arms holding weapons with which she vanquishes the demons who threaten the dharma; she rides a lion. She is the blazing splendor or God incarnate, in benevolent female form.
       Kali, by contrast, is the divine in its fierce form. She may be portrayed dripping with blood, carrying a sword and a severed head, and wearing a girdle of severed hands and a necklace of skulls symbolizing her aspect as the destroyer of evil. What appears as destruction is actually a means of transformation. With her merciful sword she cuts away all personal impediments to realization of truth, for those who sincerely desire to serve the Supreme. ... Fearsome to evil-doers, but loving and compassionate as a mother to devotees, Kali wears a mask of ugliness. The divine reality is a wholeness encompassing both creation and destruction. (Living Religions, 86-7)
 
 
 
Awakening Universal Motherhood
Mata Amritanandamayi
In traditional Indian society, women are secondary to men. However, there are now strong movements supporting women’s liberation from oppression. The contemporary guru Mata Amritanandamayi ordains women as priests, contrary to brahmin male domination of religion, and she argues for more recognition for women’s important contributions even within the context of the traditional division of labor, in which the woman’s place is in the home, defined by family relationships. “Amma” herself is considered a divine mother by her many followers around the world.
 
 
Mothers are the ones who are most able to sow the seeds of love, universal kinship, and patience in the minds of human beings. There is a special bond between a mother and child. The mother’s inner qualities are transmitted to the child even through her breast milk. The mother understands the heart of her child; she pours her love into the child, teaches him or her the positive lessons of life, and corrects the child’s mistakes. If you walk through a field of soft, green grass a few times, you will easily make a path. The good thoughts and positive values we cultivate in our children will stay with them forever. It is easy to mold a child’s character when he or she is very young, and much more difficult to do so when the child grows up. ...
       The essence of motherhood is not restricted to women who have given birth; it is a principle inherent in both women and men. It is the attitude of the mind. It is love — and that love is the very breath of life. No one would say, “I will breathe only when I am with my family and friends; I won’t breathe in front of my enemies.” Similarly, for those in whom motherhood has awakened, love and compassion for everyone is as much part of their being as breathing.
       Real leadership is not to dominate or to control, but to serve others with love and compassion, and to inspire women and men alike through the example of our lives. Amma feels that the forthcoming age should be dedicated to reawakening the healing power of motherhood. This is crucial. May all nations, all people, and their leaders realize that we do not have a choice. It is vitally important that we restore the lost balance in our world for the sake of humanity and Mother Earth, who sustains us all. (Anthology of Living Religions, 89-90)