Mahavidyas: mother archetype and the great goddess

Mahavidyas, Creative Commons via wikimedia

According to Carl Jung, the qualities associated with the mother archetype are:

“maternal solicitude and sympathy; the magic authority of the female; the wisdom and spiritual exaltation that transcend reason; any helpful instinct or impulse; all that is benign, all that cherishes and sustains, that fosters growth and fertility.” [1]

In Hinduism, the mother goddess offers all of these traits, plus more. She is also the form of cosmic power and revelation.

The goddess is the slayer of demons; she defeats spiritual ignorance with her comic power. She empowers even the gods– Brahma, Visnu, and Shiva– who are powerless to battle the great demons of ignorance.

The goddess expresses herself through three primal aspects of the cosmos: creation, maintenance, and destruction. She reveals herself in the three primal forms: Prakriti (nature), expressing the primal material energy of which all matter is composed; Maya (illusion), expressing our illusionary attempts to measure the infinite; and Shakti (power), the primal power of the Cosmic Self and bestower of liberation.

The Ten Mahavidyas represent ten aspects of Shakti, and thus ten potentials of Self-liberation:


Kali is the ‘black goddess, beyond time’. Kali is said to be the mother of all. She has skulls around her neck; she stands on Shiva. She has a lolling tongue that licks blood. She kills the demons of ignorance, severing their heads and bringing them to the supreme Goddess. The Mahatmya, Markendeya Purana speaks of Kali:

“Om: Victorious, auspicious Kali, beneficent Kali, who carries the skull, the deliverer, forgiveness, peace, the supporter of all, the Divine offering, the ancestral offering, reverence to You! Be victorious, Goddess who destroys all passions! Be victorious, you who remove the afflictions of all beings! Be victorious, Goddess who pervades all As the dark night of time, reverence to You!”


Tara is the ‘star’ that guides us toward Self-knowledge. She is said to suckle Shiva. The Eight Verses in Praise of Tara (Tarashtakam) says:

“Salutations to mother Saraswathi who is of blue colour, who grants all luck and wealth, Who sits in the heart of Shiva in prathyaleeda pose, who has a smiling face, Who has three eyes similar to the fully open blue lotus flowers, who is the one who does, And who wears skull , lotus and sword , you are my only hope and so I surrender to you, Oh Goddess.”

Tripurā sundarī

Tripurā sundarī is the ‘beautiful Goddess of the three worlds.’ She is also called Lalita meaning ‘She who plays.’ She is said to play with her devotees like children. She is the supreme ruler, the one who will be our mother in our last birth. The Shankaracarya, Tripura Sundari Stotra speaks of Tripurā sundarī:

“Whose eyes are like a freshly-blooming lotus, who is dark like an autumn rain cloud — we take refuge in the wife of Lord Shiva, the three-eyed one, in Tripura Sundari, the Goddess of the beauty of the three worlds Who dwells in a forest of bliss, whose ornaments glisten with gold, who wears a great pearl necklace, whose mouth rolls with wine, who is the giver of great compassion, Who has wide eyes and wanders free — we take refuge in the wife of the three-eyed one, in Tripura Sundari, the Goddess of the beauty of the three worlds.”


Bhuvaneśwari gives shape to the creation of the three worlds or regions. The three worlds are bhūḥ (upper), bhuvaḥ (middle), svaḥ (lower). Frawley tells us: “Bhuvaneshvari represents the Void or original space in which things come into being. She is the Void in its creative form, the void within creation, from which creation springs and which supports the unfoldment of further creation.”


Bhairavi means ‘awe inspiring’. Bhairavi is the consort of Shiva. She is the goddess we pray to at the end of time. She walks the cremation ground. She is so fierce that the demons fear her.  Verse 15, of the Siva Sutras speaks to Bhairavi, as the Sakti of Bhairava (Shiva):

“She is bliss that can be experienced within oneself, she can be known only when one is freed of all thought-constructs. She is a state of one’s own Self that is Bhairava, hence she is known as Bhairavi, the Sakti of Bhairava. She is one whose essential nature is full of the delight of the unity of the entire universe. She is to be known essentially as the pure form filling (pervading) the entire universe.”


Chinnamasta is the fierce and nurturing mother. Her children are spiritual children whom she protects and grants boons. Chinnamasta means ‘she whose head is severed’. The severing of the head represents the sacrifice of individual identity and awakening of spiritual energy. She is the splendor of being, the surging forth of Shakti. Her great currents emerge from her sexual union with Shiva.


Dhumavati means the ‘smoky one.’ She is the widow, the void that exists between creation and destruction. She is the form of cosmic dissolution. She is a reminder to look beyond the superficial, to turn within. David Frawley says: “Dhumavati is the eldest among the Goddesses, the Grandmother Spirit. She stands behind the other Goddesses as their ancestral guide. As the Grandmother Spirit she is the great teacher who bestows the ultimate lessons of birth and death. She is the knowledge that comes through hard experience, in which our immature and youthful desires and fantasies are put to rest.” [2]


Bagalamukhi is the goddess with a face that has the power to paralyze or capture. She holds a cudgel that smashes delusions. Kinsley tells us “Bagalamukhi is associated with magical powers, which are sometimes referred to as siddhis, “accomplishments” or “perfections.” Among her epithets in her hymn of a thousand names are She Who Gives the Eight Siddhis, She Who Gives Magical and Mystical Powers (rddhis and siddhis), and She Who Gives All Siddhis.”


Matangi is a goddess of wisdom, associated with pollution. It is said that Matangi “emerges from Shiva and Parvati’s table scraps” [3].  She guides all in gaining Self-knowledge, and is said to bestow the highest knowledge of the Vedas.


Kamala is a form of the goddess Laksmi, an image of grace. Kamala means ‘she of the Lotus. Frawley speaks of the lotus: “The lotus is a symbol of unfoldment: it represents the opening of the lotuses of the different chakras of the subtle body, particularly the lotus of the heart. Though the lotus puts its roots into the mud and grows in marshlands, it produces the most beautiful flower, like the soul coming forth from the earth of the physical body.” [2]




  1. The Archetypes and The Collective Unconscious (Collected Works of C.G. Jung Vol.9 Part 1), para 157
  2. Tantric Yoga and the Wisdom Goddesses by David Frawley
  3. Tantric Visions of the Divine Feminine: The Ten Mahāvidyās by David R. Kinsley

Dhumavati: mother Image as secret and hidden

Mahavidya Dhumavati", Jaipur, Rajasthan. Ajit Mukharjee collection 1926 In Hindu goddesses: visions of the divine feminine in the Hindu religious tradition by David R. Kinsley, US public Domain via wikimedia
Mahavidya Dhumavati, 1926 In Hindu goddesses: visions of the divine feminine by Kinsley, US public Domain via wikimedia

Carl Jung tells us that “the mother archetype may connote anything secret, hidden…” [1]. In the Hindu tradition, the goddess is often associated with that which is secret and hidden. Shakti is the secret power or energy behind manifestation. All Goddess images in some way or another represent the secret and hidden aspects of being, and most specifically of the Self.

As a dialectic, the goddess represents both the unknown and that which is to be known. She is the secret teaching of and on the Self. In the Tantric tradition, it is the Goddess who reveals the nature of the Self. The idea of the ‘hidden’ is central to the Tantric Mahavidyas (the Great Wisdom). The Mahavidya are the ten aspects of the devi (Shakti). The Mahavidyas reveal the hidden truth of the Self, as cosmic Self.

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Mahavidyas: Enveloping, embracing, devouring

Mahavidyas images with a Bengali inscription: Kali, Tara, Shodashi, Bhuvaneshvari, Bhairavi, Chhinnamasta, Dhumavati, Bagalamukhi, Matangi, and Kamala. US public Domain via wikimedia
Mahavidyas images with a Bengali inscription. US public Domain via wikimedia

In Aion, Carl Jung references the symbolism of “the Orient” saying, “the enveloping, embracing, and devouring element points unmistakably to the mother” [1]. It is likley he is speaking of the Tantric Mahavidyas, the goddesses of great (maha) wisdom (vidya).

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Mahavidyas: working with the ambivalent aspect of the mother archetype

An image of Durga (Shakti) under an arch displaying the Mahavidyas, with Shiva at the apex; 1930’s. US Public Domain via Wikimedia

In the image above, we see the Goddess Durga (Shakti) under an arch displaying the Mahavidyas. The mahavidyas express various forms of the Devi. Mahavidya is a Sanskrit word that speaks to the revelatory power of the mother goddess. Maha means ‘great’ and Vidya means ‘knowledge’ or ‘wisdom’.

Sitting on top of the arch, we find Shiva. Shiva is an image of the cosmic Self (Brahman). The mother goddesses express the form and power of the cosmic Self. As such, she emerges as ‘great wisdoms’, offering esoteric knowledge of the Cosmic Self. Arthur Avalon speaks to the relation of Shiva and Shakti:

“Mind and Matter are ultimately one, the two latter being the twin aspects of the Fundamental Substance or Brahman [or Shiva] and Its Power or Shakti. Spirit is the substance of mind-matter, the Reality (in the sense of the lasting changelessness) out of which, by Its Power, all Appearance is fashioned not by the individual mind and senses but by the cosmic mind and senses of which they are but a part. What It creates It perceives.”

Shiva and Shakti form two aspects or poles of the cosmic Self (Brahman). All of reality emerges as such: cosmic mind and cosmic body. For the yogi, this eternal truth is revealed within both the macrocosm (cosmic body) and the microcosm (individual body). By working to realize these poles of being, we come to know the nature of the Self.

The goddesses are forms or images of Shakti (the great mother goddess), expressing both the positive and the ambivalent aspects of the mother archetype. In some images, the goddess takes the form of loving kindness; in others, she takes a more ambivalent or fierce form. Carl Jung related such images to the mother archetype.  Jung reveals his awareness of the eternal truth of the mother when he says: “the mother archetype appears under an infinite variety of aspects” (CW 9i, para. 157).

Jung states that the mother archetype may “have a positive, favorable meaning” (ibid). The mother in her positive form provides nourishment, love, care, holding, containment, rebirth and transformation. Positive symbols include “things arousing devotion or feelings of awe, as for instance…. heaven, earth, the woods, the sea or any still waters, matter even, the underworld, the moon” (ibid). We also find “places standing for fertility and fruitfulness: the cornucopia, a ploughed field, a garden. It can be attached to a rock, a cave, a tree, a spring, a deep well, or to various vessels such as the baptismal font, or to vessel-shaped flowers like the rose or the lotus. Because of the protection it implies, the magic circle or mandala can be a form of mother archetype. Hollow objects such as ovens and cooking vessels are associated with the mother archetype, and, of course, the uterus, yoni” (ibid).

Jung also understands that there is “a negative” or “an ambivalent aspect” to the mother archetype: “the negative side the mother archetype may connote anything secret, hidden, dark; the abyss, the world of the dead, anything that devours, seduces, and poisons, that is terrifying and inescapable like fate” (ibid)

In the Devī Māhātmyam (meaning Glory of the Goddess), Shakti uses her ferocity in service of the eternal truth. The Devī Māhātmyam presents a battle between the spiritual knowledge (vidya) and spiritual ignorance (avidya). In the story, the Goddess takes on various forms, such as Durga and Kali. The goddess is the form of vidya. In such form she leads the battle against the demon Mahishasura, as the form of avidya.

The goddess uses her fierce form only in service of spiritual knowledge. She is the slayer of demons (asuras); and thus the slayer of spiritual ignorance as represented by the demons. In peaceful times, the Devi manifests as Lakshmi, a pleasant and prosperous form of the Devi.

Working with ambivalence may lead to great (maha) wisdom (vidya). The Vedas realize a link between the macrocosm and the microcosm, between the cosmic Self and the individual self, as well as between the symbolic and the actual. In working with symbolic life (microcosm), we transform our relation to world (macrocosm). This is a realization present in Vedic tradition as well as in the psychoanalytic tradition.

Both Jungian and Kleinian psychoanalysis work with internal representations of the mother. Carl Jung showed that there is a psychical tendency to fear or feel revulsion toward the more ambivalent aspects of the mother archetype. From a psychoanalytic perspective, the infant splits internal representations into good and bad representations (called objects). Psychoanalysis works to integrate such splits. Melanie Klein understood that the primary and most important duality is in internal representations of the mother (You can read more about this in my post on the Mother World).

Embracing both the loving and the fierce form of the Devi may lead to an integration of the splits within the mother. It may also help us to individuate from our worldly mother, taking on a relation to the symbolic mother.

Spiritual development, in the yogic sense, is coincident with Self-knowledge or jñāna. Self-knowledge is a knowledge of the eternal truth of the Self, existing beyond duality.

A yogi works with the mother goddess in a symbolic sense, confronting the internal representations of the mother. The aim of spiritual development, as Self-knowledge, is a movement away from the literal object world, toward a more spiritual and symbolic world, and finally toward the eternal truth of the Self– beyond even the symbolic. This movement always starts with prakriti (the mother goddess as the literal world). As the yogi progresses in his work he comes into relation with Shakti (as symbolic mother goddess).

By becoming aware of our aversions and desires in relation to the mother world (Prakriti), we begin to liberate (moksha) our fusional relations with the various forms of mother, as the “object of desire” (Sri Aurobindo). To truly know Shakti, the yogi embraces both the positive and the ambivalent aspects of the Devi. Kali in her fierce from is loved just as is Lakshmi in her more pleasant form.

Through working with the Mahavidyas, the mind transforms its relation to ferocity, realizing the power of the Goddesses to dispel spiritual ignorance. In moving from the literal to the symbolic, the yogi realizes that the symbolic ferocity of the mother Goddess can be in service of spiritual development: Durga’s ferocity becomes the inner power to slay the symbolic demons of ignorance. In this realization, both the literal and symbolic are overcome in service of the eternal truth of the Self.

Such realization transforms worldly ‘desire’ into ‘enjoyment’. The Tantric idea of ‘enjoyment’ points to an ability to savor all the experiences of life, in all its myriad of forms, sensations, emotions, perceptions. To truly ‘enjoy’ life is to become one with Shiva (the cosmic Self) in his enjoyment. The Spandakarika says

“It is the lord himself as the enjoyer who is, always and everywhere, established in and through the objects of enjoyment.”

It is through working with the mother goddess– as that which is both favorable and that which is ambivalent– that Shiva (our consciousness) may unite with Shakti (life) in a realization of their non-dual union.

Sat Chit Ananda is the love, bliss, awareness– the enjoyment– the devotee knows upon the realization of the non-dual union of Shiva and Shakti. Shakti and Shiva are reunited in one’s own love and enjoyment. This love is the emergence of undifferentiated awareness. All is an expression of the cosmic Self, an eternal truth inseparable from love.


  1. Carl G. Jung, The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious – Collected Works volume 9i.
  2. Shakti and Shâkta by Arthur Avalon by Sir John Woodroffe 1918
  3. An Introduction to Tantric Philosophy: The Paramarthasara of Abhinavagupta with the Commentary of Yogaraja, translated by Lyne Bansat-Boudon, Kamalesha Datta Tripathi
  4. Commentary of the Isa Upanishad by Sri Aurobindo

Prakriti: mother nature

In Hinduism, Prakriti is the goddess of mother nature. The Sankhya Karika tells us that Prakriti means “nature” and that Mula prakriti is “original and unoriginate substance whence all substances proceed” [1].

In Shamkaya, it is understood that the cosmos is made up of two poles: consciousness and matter. These two aspects are represented by puruṣa and prakṛti. The living soul (jiva) experiences a world in which purisha and prakriti are bound and fused. It is said that puruṣa, as the cosmic consciousness, merges or identifies with prakriti (in the jiva) out of ignorance.

Continue reading “Prakriti: mother nature”