Continued from Part 1
In my quest to find out why the Goddess plays such a significant role in Hinduism I make a fascinating discovery. I find that while the worship of the devi, mother goddess of a clan or a village dates back to ancient times, her transformation into the Supreme Goddess, the all-pervading Shakti ( cosmic energy) as we know her today, only happened in the 4th century CE. Thanks to the Devi Mahatmyam!
The scene for it however, is set almost half a millennia before that.
Around 3rd century BCE, nearly 200 years after the death of Buddha, Buddhism saw an unprecedented rise in popularity thanks to Emperor Ashoka. Alongside it Jainism also flourished. By 2nd century CE, their influence had spread far and wide. The ripples of which touched Hinduism too, giving rise to the Bhakti Movement among the Shaivite and Vaishnavite cults of South India. The path of Bhakti or personal devotion as a means to attaining the Divine now became as important as ritual worship. By the 4th century CE, Buddhism and Jainism had started to decline while the Bhakti Movement had spread all the way up to the North.
It was during this period of resurgence when Hindus were establishing new personal relationships with their gods that Markandeya composed the Devi Mahatmyam. He assimilated for the first time all the various mythic, cultic and theological elements of different goddesses across the subcontinent and put them together in a single narrative.
Now the many goddesses, the devis, become the one Mahadevi, the Great Goddess. She is greater than the sum of all her avatars and most importantly greater than the sum of all the gods. Even the great Gods did her bidding. Her’s is the cosmic womb that gives birth to the entire universe. She not only begets the universe but resides in it through the power of her veiling. Behind the veil of a myriad forms she is the One Formless Being, the primordial Prakriti( Nature). For the first time in Hinduism’s history, people see the Supreme Goddess in all her glory. And, for the first time Divinity is defined as an all-pervading feminine Shakti.
This was a big leap in the Hindu thought but it would have had little impact without the genius of Markandeya.
Dr. Satya Prakash Choudhary writes,
Part narrative and part hymn, the Mahatmyam combines beautifully the strengths of both the oral and written traditions. On one hand it is a synthesis of many myths from many sources, skilfully integrated into a single narrative in the best of the puranic tradition. On the other hand it also displays the bardic style of the vedas in the hymns. While the heroic tales of the Goddess captivate and fill the listener with awe, the beautiful hymns lift the spirits and inspire devotion.
But it wasn’t just the stories or the hymns that made the Mahatmyam important. It was what lay hidden in those stories and hymns that gave it its true significance. So profound is the text that it is believed Markandeya could only have seen it with the inner eye of his intuition.
On the face of it the Mahatmyam is simply a chronicle of the battle between the Goddess and her divine manifestations on one side and the demons (asuras) on the other. Each episode narrates a different battle that becomes increasingly complex as the story unfolds. But, like all sacred myths, this battle too does not happen on the physical earth plane. It happens at another level of reality, on another plane, revealing different layers of truths as we are led through its labyrinth.
Part myth and part philosophy, the stories address some very important existential questions that have plagued mankind since the beginning of time. Their deeper, philosophical and esoteric interpretation leads us to the realization of God as the impersonal supreme reality. While the hymns inspire devotion to the personal form of God as Mother!
The text speaks to us on so many levels and so many still remain hidden, say the sages. “Only those who have inner eyes will perceive the hidden truths; others know not.”
The Meru tantra proclaims that even Vishnu knows only three-quarters, Brahma knows half, Vyasa only a quarter while others know only a fraction of the true significance of the Devi Mahatmyam.
Sri Bhaskararaya named his commentary on the Devi Mahatmyam ‘Guptavati’ referring to its hidden and highly occult tantric nature.
It is safe to say then that I won’t be decoding the Mahatmyam anytime soon. But I am looking forward to bringing you the key stories and hymns from it over the next few days. You are welcome to dip your toes or dive into it.
Wishing you all a sublime Navratri!
(With thanks to Dr Satya Prakash Choudhary who very kindly granted me permission to use his writings along with other research materials for the purpose of writing these posts. For all his articles visit his website www.karmicrhythms.com )