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An Overview of the Devi Mahatmya

The Devi Mahatmya is a prominent Hindu text narrating the divine victories of various goddesses who are essentially a part of the same divine feminine energy or shakti. It was written between the 5th and 6th centuries C.E. and was the first time shakti assumed a supreme position in a text of this importance. The Devi Mahatmya captures the extreme aspects of the Goddess— from her frighteningly fierce and destructive (although ultimately benevolent) powers to her infinite love and grace. When most Hindus think about the Devi Mahatmya, the second part of the text which deals with the victory of Durga (a form of the Goddess) over the evil demon Mahishasura comes to mind.

The text is divided into three parts. Different forms of the Goddess appear in each part. A benevolent form of the Goddess, Devi, appears in the first part as the consort of Vishnu. Although not the central actor in the story, She allows Vishnu to defeat two demons who are trying to destroy Brahma (the Creator) as he recreates the universe.

In the second part, the Goddess Durga displays her fierce anger as she defeats the demon Mahishasura. Durga’s image is prominent in the Hindu imagination. Durga rides a tiger and has many arms in which she holds various weapons. These weapons include a mace, a sword, a trident spear, a bow and arrow, a chakra (a sharp-edged disc that is thrown at the opponent) and a conch shell (the sound of which is the call for war in ancient India). In spite of these characteristics, she carries a calm smile on her face expressing her benevolence.

The last part of the Devi Mahatmya involves the darkest aspect of the Divine Goddess, Kali. Unlike Durga’s benevolent smile, Kali’s long, hanging tongue inspires fear. But it is precisely this dark aspect that defeats the demon Raktabija. Raktabija seems invincible against all attacks as his drops of blood transform into more demons. Kali laps up the blood with her tongue and is able to defeat the demon.

The Devi Mahatmya is embedded within a larger narrative. However, the Devi Mahatmya is considered a stand-alone text. Furthermore, the text of around 700 verses is often used in a ritual context. The verses are considered mantras, or chants to be sung or spoken out loud. Chanting the Devi Mahatmya is considered to have a power in and of itself. It is often chanted during the festival Navaratri (Nine Days of the Goddess) during which the worship of Durga is central. There are other Goddess festivals and rituals according to other local traditions that also involve the chanting of the Devi Mahatmya.

The forms of the Supreme Goddess in the Devi Mahatmya inspire reverence and admiration for Her fierce powers to defeat evil and restore justice. Although several commentaries have been written on the significance of these complex narratives, the place of the text in the ritual context of chanting gives believers an opportunity to ask for the Goddess’ awesome power and benevolence to manifest in their own lives.

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