Sukumari Bhattacharji’s Legends of Devi
is a captivating narration of various
legends and folk tales about the
revered Devis of the Hindu pantheon.
The goddesses not only epitomise the
forces of good fighting over evil, but
also the source of worldly wellbeing.
Their forms are many, ranging from
the fierce to the benign.
Intrinsically human in their frailties
and shortcomings, most of the
goddesses have attained divine status
owing not so much to their
supernatural powers as to their
devotion, determination and sacrifice.
This colourful collection of
mythological tales remain closely
woven in the fabric of Indian life and
culture and often reflect the
ceremonies, beliefs and value systems
of a particular age.
Ramananda Bandapadhyay’s vivid
illustrations are symbolically rich.
Specially commissioned for this
edition, they in themselves constitute a
storehouse of information on
Sukumari Bhattacharji is a Sanskrit
scholar of renown. Her published
works include The Indian Theogony and
History of Classical Sanskrit Literature,
among many others. She has received
acclaim as an astute Indologist with a
fine sense of literature, history and
cultural movements. She is forthright
in presenting her analysis of some of
the legends and narrates them with
penetrating insight. Although her
work has sometimes evoked mixed
reactions among scholars, they have
not been able to ignore her analysis.
She taught Sanskrit at the Jadavpur
University, Kolkata, for a considerable
period of time and after her
retirement, has been a visiting fellow
at a number of institutes. Her writings
have acquired added significance at a
time when Sanskrit texts are often
misinterpreted or misquoted.
Sukumari Bhattacharji received the
Ananda Puraskar for literature in 1988.
Ramananda Bandapadhyay is one of
the finest exponents of the Bengal
School of painting. His communication
with his viewers is easy and he
exhibits a deep knowledge of his
subject. He displays a keen awareness
of colours and mostly uses earth tones.
His drawings reveal an intense search
for beauty, lyricism and musicality
together with robustness and grit.
Ramananda was born on 14 April,
1936. He studied art at the Kala
Bhavan in Shantiniketan from 1953 to
1959 under the tutelage of Nandalal
Bose. Later he taught at the Purulia
Ramakrishna Mission School. He has
served as the Director of Museum and
Art Gallery at the Ramakrishna
Mission Institute of Culture, Kolkata.
The worship of the Devi or Goddess in India dates back to the period
of the Indus Valley Civilization. It became widespread and was
accompanied by complex rituals after the Aryans settled on the
land. The nomadic Aryans who invaded India between 2500 and 1500 B.c.
were mostly cattle-rearers. They perhaps did not have any knowledge of
the art of cultivation, but they were powerful warriors and soon
subjugated the indigenous population.
Gradually they were lured by the security of a settled agrarian life and
they picked up the skills of agriculture. The joy of a rich harvest produced
by a fertile soil watered by the Ganga and the Yamuna was a novel
experience for the nomadic hordes. For the first time they had the means
to produce a steady supply of food. Therefore the earth or Prithivi, which
enabled them to gain this security, came to be praised as a goddess —a
fertile female provider. To them she was like a mother who sustained
them and their cattle, on whose firm’soil they pursued their whims and
pleasures. With corn ripening on the earth, they saw a woman with
golden breasts : from her flowed all blessings and happiness.
The Atharvaveda was the first text which contained a detailed
description of Prithivi as Bhumi or land. Through a beautiful hymn this
Veda states, ‘Let her, the wife of all the past and future kings make us
possess vast tracts of land. She holds everything, is the abode of all
treasures — firm with golden breasts — the repose of everything that
moves. We shall milk her for honey - let her sprinkle us with splendour.
Let this land, mother of mine, yield milk for me, her son. Let her hills,
snow-peaked mountains and forests be pleasant unto me. Brown, black,
speckled and red - of all complexions — this firm land, this earth,
protected by Indra - may I inhabit it unharassed, unsmitten and
unwounded....Mortals wander about among what she created. She holds
the bipeds and the four-footed....What redolence rose out of thee, O
Prithivi, that which the plants contain in them, as also the water....’
This bounty of the earth made the Aryans prosperous but at the same
time it also increased their fear of attacks by other nomadic and hostile
tribes as well as the indigenous inhabitants of the land they had forcibly
conquered. Their fields and granaries were open to plunder and
pestilence. Lakshmi, the protector of splendour, wealth and prosperity
now took the pride of place. But in this case the Aryans faced an
When the Aryans occupied northern India, it was inhabited by an
agrarian people who worshipped their corn goddess by her original
name, Lakshmi, because she was associated with mud and moisture and
she symbolized harvest, the pre-Aryans’ material prosperity. Later,
when the nomadic pastoral Aryans learned the methods of cultivation
and raised their own harvests, they too dedicated it to Lakshmi. But their
prosperity could only be established by crushing, defeating and driving
away the pre-Aryan goddess of harvest or the pre-Aryan Lakshmi.
So, this pre-Aryan Lakshmi was now named Alakshmi, and looked
upon as an evil rival. She was fashioned crudely out of mud, water and
cowdung in memory of her old epithet, Karishini, fanned with a
winnowing fan and thrown away.-For only when the pre-Aryan
prosperity was abolished, could Aryan success and _ agricultural
prosperity be established. The interesting thing about the Lakshmi of the
Rigveda was her synonyms — Jyaya or Jyeshta meaning ‘elder’ or ‘eldest’.
This signified that she was the earlier goddess, later ousted by the Aryan
goddess of prosperity.
Water had always played an important role in Aryan rituals. The Ganga
was the most beautiful river with the longest course in northern India.
Ganga has been regarded as a goddess ever since the later-Vedic age,
when the Indus Civilization flourished on her banks. Her mythical
connections with heaven, the ocean, the Himalayas, the sage Jahnu,
Brahma, Shiva and Vishnu as well as the other goddesses added to this
image of sanctity. Even today this goddess is worshipped as the bestower
of earthly gifts and even of ultimate liberation. The River Yamuna mingles
with Ganga at Prayaga, a very holy place of pilgrimage. Both are
considered to be major goddesses in the Hindu pantheon.
Many of the other rivers marked the boundaries of the early settlements
which grew on their banks. The Sarasvati and Drishadvati were two such
The accumulation of wealth provided the Aryans with leisure which in
turn created an ideal situation for the growth of knowledge, the arts and
crafts. Sarasvati, as the goddess of learning, was now treasured. But even
before the coming of the Aryans, during the Rigvedic age, the river
Sarasvati was believed to possess healing properties and was associated
with the Asvins, the primary healing gods of the Vedas. This river also
demarcated the eastern boundary of the early Aryan settlement ; the
Manusamhita states that Brahmavarta, the ancient habitat of the Aryans,
lay between the Sarasvati and the Drishadvati. The latter river
disappeared under the arid sandy tracts long ago.
Sarasvati played a major role during the early phase of the growth of
the Aryan settlements and the flowering of their culture. The Aryans
were a completely illiterate, pastoral and nomadic people, who could not
read or write, so the spoken word, or Vak was very precious to them.
Their culture, essentially a sacrificial religion, was based on Vak, the
spoken mantra or spell. Concurrently, their cattle found a lush pasture on
the banks of the Sarasvati. As they settled down, the Aryans created a
complicated and elaborate sacrificial ritual, the matrix of most of their
learning. Hence the river became synonymous with knowledge. These
two concepts merged to create the identity of the goddess Sarasvati. In
one of the myths we are told that while a bargain was being driven with
the demons, or rather the non-Aryans, Vak deceitfully came over to the
Aryans ; in reality, this is a history of the Aryan language and culture
prevailing over that of the indigenous people. As the goddess of logos,
Vak is also mentioned in a few Vedic myths.
Soon the Aryans became known for their wisdom and wealth. As a
result the fear of attacks on their well-planned communities also
increased. The warriors were always on the alert. But it was becoming
increasingly difficult for them to protect themselves and their
possessions. They needed strength, courage and fortitude to ward off the
constant invasions. Interestingly, in most of the myths dating to this
period, the non-Aryans were referred to as demons — uncivilized, evil,
lascivious, with strange magical powers. To fight these evil beings the
Aryans created the cult of Shakti and the Matrikas or mother goddesses
which were in reality female emanations of the male gods but much more
powerful. Goddesses like Durga, Chandika, Chamunda and Kali gained
tremendous importance in the pantheon. They were either personified as
powerful and awe-inspiring warrior women, armed to the teeth or like
Kali, Chamunda, Dhunavati and Chhinnamasta they assumed horrific
forms. Their very bearing was expected to strike terror among the
enemies of the Aryans. The worship of these goddesses was
accompanied by intricate rituals and sacrifices and often stretched over a
number of days.
Besides the Matrikas, there were also the Tantric group of the ten
Mahavidyas, great wisdom goddesses. Of these Kali is the first, the other
nine being Tara, Shodashi, Bhuvaneshwari, Chhinnamasta, Bhairavi,
Dhumavati, Bagala, Matangi and Kamala.
Tara, the saviour, was later appropriated by the Buddhists. Shodashi
was the goddess as a sixteen-year-old pretty young girl. Bhuvaneshvari
was her manifestation as the sovereign of the universe. As Chhinnamasta
she assumed a dreadful form, in which she held her own head in her left
hand and drank the blood pouring from the trunk.
As Bhairavi she also assumed a fearful shape — a female counterpart of
Shiva in his irate and destructive mood. Dhumavati was perhaps the only
manifestation of a goddess dressed as a widow. This goddess was
portrayed as an old emaciated woman, with no beauty or grace. Ina dirty
and tattered robe and with dishevelled hair, she held a winnowing basket
in her hand. She had a long nose and her eyes looked cruel, with the
appearance of one whose hunger and thirst are insatiable. She also looked
sly, querulous and deceitful, embodying all that is held inauspicious in a
widow whose world of enjoyment had suddenly collapsed, leaving her a
perpetually insatiable wreck of unfulfilled desires. This however, was
also an indirect and solitary evidence of a widow being worshipped or
In her form as Kaumari, the goddess signified the worship of the
maiden, in Sarasvati the childless wife, and in all her forms as mother
goddesses, wives with living husbands and children were personified.
In her manifestation as Bagala, she was also called Bagalamukhi which
may have originated from the word for crane (baga), as this goddess has
a crane’s head. She was the goddess of black magic and poisonous
substances. She, strangely. enjoyed the sight of suffering and incited
strife and torment.
Matanga means elephant, and Matangi symbolized its power. Shiva
was known as the elephant-killer and Matangi was his consort. She was
conceived as a beautiful woman seated on a throne, wielding beneficial
power. Kamal, another form of the goddess, was a pretty and auspicious
woman, a consort of Sadashiva, the ever-benign.
There were again eight incarnations of the goddess as an ascetic or
yogini - Tripura, Bhishana, Chandi, Kartri, Dhartri, Hartri, Vidhayini,
Karala and Shulini. Some of the manifestations overlap as the same name
occurs in different groups.
The appearance of the goddess Kali’s various manifestations depends
on the place of her appearance and the purpose of her worship. Thus she
emerges as Shmashankali, Bhadrakali, Grihyakali, Mahakali, Rakshakali
etc. There is even a Kali of the brigands, known in Bengal as Dakate Kali,
whom robbers worship with fanfare before setting out to commit dacoity.
These manifestations associate her with the local goddesses popular
among the common people.
However, this tremendous faith in the worship of the Devis did not
translate into any special treatment of the women-folk. On the other
hand, in a strongly patriarchal society they were subjugated and often
treated very harshly. Their ability to undergo mental and physical pain
was highly lauded and this very capacity often raised them to the ranks of
a goddess. Sita and Radha are the best examples. These goddesses did not
possess any spectacular divine powers compared to the others mentioned
before. Their devotion to their consort or lover was considered to be their
The care of infants and children has always been the traditional domain
of women. Shasthi, the benign, motherly goddess embodied the divine
aspect of this power and was also supplicated to grant offspring to the
Each of these goddesses had various incarnations highlighting a
specific aspect and the diverse needs of the Aryan settlers. The
captivating and colourful tales recounted here date to the various stages
of the growth of a people and their civilization. The goddesses in these
stories, like the people who created them, possess human frailties and
faults. But the relevance of these myths has not diminished through the
ages for the very reason that they stress the age-old values of devotion,
determination, courage and faith. At the same time they weave a
colourful pattern of the life and customs of the age in which they
**Contents and Sample Pages**
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