Goddesh Maheshwari

Philosophical musings as far back as the Rig Veda contemplated the universe as the result of an interplay between the male principle (purusha ), the prime source of generative power but quiescent, and a female principle that came to be known as prakriti , an active principle that manifests reality, or power (shakti ), at work in the world. On a philosophical level, this female principle ultimately rests in the oneness of the male, but on a practical level it is the female that is most significant in the world. The vast array of iconography and mythology that surround the gods such as Vishnu and Shiva is a backdrop for the worship of their female consorts, and the male deities fade into the background. Thus it is that the divine is often female in India. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts from The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “One of the most striking characteristics of Hinduism is the importance of goddesses. As Hinduism developed, Vedic goddesses came to the fore. Lakshmi and Sarasvati, for instance, became the consorts of Vishnu. Other goddesses, who may have been worshipped independently outside of the Vedic tradition, gradually appeared as powerful deities on their own, most prominently, Devi, who represents the essence of female power.” [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York]

Vishnu's consort, Lakshmi, has a number of well-known incarnations that are the center of cults in their own right. In the Ramayana , for example, female characters are responsible for most of the important events, and the dutiful Sita, who resists the advances of lustful Ravana, is a much beloved figure of devotion. Lakshmi receives direct worship along with Ram during the big national festival of Dipavali (Diwali), celebrated with massive fireworks demonstrations, when people pray for success and wealth during the coming year. The Mahabharata is equally packed with tales of male and female relationships in which women hold their own, and the beautiful Draupadi, wife of the five Pandava heroes, has her own cult in scattered locations throughout India. *

Websites and Resources on Hinduism: Hinduism Today hinduismtoday.com ; India Divine indiadivine.org ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Oxford center of Hindu Studies ochs.org.uk ; Hindu Website hinduwebsite.com/hinduindex ; Hindu Gallery hindugallery.com ; Encyclopædia Britannica Online article britannica.com ; International Encyclopedia of Philosophy iep.utm.edu/hindu ; The Hindu Religion, Swami Vivekananda (1894), .wikisource.org ; Journal of Hindu Studies, Oxford University Press academic.oup.com/jhs

Shakti: Feminine Energy and Goddess Power

Jean Johnson wrote in an Asia Society article: “The term shakti refers to multiple ideas. Its general definition is dynamic energy that is responsible for creation, maintenance, and destruction of the universe. It is identified as female energy because shakti is responsible for creation, as mothers are responsible for birth. Without shakti, nothing in this universe would happen; she stimulates siva, which is passive energy in the form of consciousness, to create. Ardhanarishvara, a Hindu deity who is half male and half female, is an iconic representation of this idea. The deity is equally male and female, illustrating that the creation, maintenance, and destruction of the universe is dependent on both forces. [Source: Author: Jean Johnson, Asia Society |+|]

Adi Shakti, the Supreme Spirit without attributes

“Shakti also refers to the manifestations of this energy, namely goddesses. Some goddesses embody the destructive aspects of shakti, such as death, degeneration, and illness, while other goddesses embody the creative and auspicious powers of shakti, such as nature, the elements, music, art, dance, and prosperity. Shakti may be personified as the gentle and benevolent Uma, consort of Shiva, or Kali, the terrifying force destroying evil, or Durga, the warrior who conquers forces that threaten the stability of the universe. Goddess worshippers often view their deity as the all-powerful Supreme Being, second not even to a male god. There are enduring goddess traditions all over India, especially in West Bengal and south India. Goddesses symbolizing various aspects of power very often predominate in village culture. Village men, women, and children, when they pray for immediate needs, address a female, not a male.

Saundaryalahari said: “Only when Shiva is united with Shakti does he have the power to create” - The scholar David Kinsley writes: “Sakti [shakti] means “power”; in Hindu philosophy and theology sakti is understood to be the active dimension of the godhead, the divine power that underlies the godhead’s ability to create the world and to display itself. Within the totality of the godhead, sakti is the complementary pole of the divine tendency toward quiescence and stillness. It is quite common, furthermore, to identify sakti with a female being, a goddess, and to identify the other pole with her male consort. The two poles are usually understood to be interdependent and to have relatively equal status in terms of the divine economy...Texts or contexts exalting the Mahadevi [Great Goddess], however, usually affirm sakti to be a power, or the power, underlying ultimate reality, or to be ultimate reality itself. Instead of being understood as one of two poles or as one dimension of a bipolar conception of the divine, sakti as it applies to the Mahadevi is often identified with the essence of reality.” [Source: David R. Kinsley, “Hindu Goddesses: Visions of the Divine Feminine in the Hindu Religious Tradition” Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986, 133]

“The Hindu tradition also considers women the vessels of shakti. This identification with shakti acknowledges women as the vessels of both creative and destructive power. Like many modern cultures, Hindu culture has a hard time reconciling the biological compulsion of these two powerful forces. Some feminists and scholars criticize this identification because they believe it has led society to label women either as saints or sinners, with little room in between. They argue that women, like benevolent goddesses, are expected to exhibit forgiveness, compassion, and tolerance of others’ transgressions. If they conform to this role, patriarchal society accepts them; if they do not, and attempt to exhibit independence and assertiveness, they are considered destructive, disrupting community and family social structures. However, others argue that the idea of shakti can be used to empower Indian women to resist patriarchy.

Shiva and Parvati
On Goddess worship, Arthur Basham, a well-known historian of India, wrote: The theme of shakti perhaps grew out of a conflict and eventual compromise between a powerful matriarchal culture that existed in India before the Aryan migrations (2500, B.C. [B.C.E.]) and the male-dominated society of the Aryans. The Mother Goddess of the Indus Valley people never really gave place to a dominant male. The Earth Mother continues to be worshipped in India as the power that nurtures the seed and brings it to fruition. This basic reverence of an agricultural people affirms that man is really dependent on woman for she gives life, food and strength. Mother Goddesses were worshipped at all times in India, but between the days of the Harappa Culture (2500-1500 B.C. [B.C.E.]) and the Gupta period (ca. 300-500) the cults of goddesses attracted little attention from the learned and influential, and only emerged from obscurity to a position of real importance in the Middle Ages, when feminine divinities, theoretically connected with the gods as their spouses, were once more worshipped by the upper classes…by the Gupta Period the wives of the gods, whose existence had always been recognized, but who had been shadowy figures in earlier theology, began to be worshipped in special temples [Source: Arthur L. Basham, Wonder That Was Indiad Revised Edition [London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 1967], 313).

Early Hindu Goddesses

Lakshmi is the goddess of wealth and generosity. She is also the goddess of good fortune. Lakshmi is represented as a beautiful golden woman with four arms. She is usually shown sitting or standing on a lotus. Two elephants holding garlands in their trunks shower her with water. Lakshmi is the wife of the god Vishnu. [Source: British Museum]

Prithvi is the goddess of the earth. She is also a goddess of fertility. Prithvi appears as a cow. She had three children with the god Dyaus. Her daughter Ushas is the goddess of the dawn. Her two sons were Agni, the god of fire, and Indra, the god of thunder.

Ushas is the goddess of the dawn. She wears red robes and a golden veil. Ushas rides in a shining chariot driven by seven cows. Ushas is friendly to humans and is a giver of wealth to all people. She is the daughter of Dyaus and sister of Agni and Indra.

Devi and Her Incarnations


Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts from The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “The Great Goddess Devi appears in myriad forms. As Lakshmi, goddess of wealth and beauty, she is one of the most popular deities in India and is sometimes shown flanked by two elephants who honor her by pouring water over her head with their trunks. Devi, in the form of Lakshmi, is Vishnu’s wife. Devi also appears as Vishnu’s wife in two of his incarnations: when he is Rama she is Sita, and when he is Krishna she is Radha. [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York]

Parvati is another form of Devi. In Hindu mythology, she is the reincarnation of Shiva’s first wife Sati, who killed herself because of an insult to her husband. (The traditional custom, now outlawed, in which a Hindu widow throws herself upon her husband’s funeral pyre is called suttee, a word derived from Sati. As the name implies, suttee recre- ates Sati’s final act of loyalty and devotion to her husband.) Beautiful Parvati was born to lure the mourning Shiva into another marriage, thus taking him away from the life of the ascetic into the more active realm of husband and father. Like Lakshmi, Parvati represents the ideal wife and mother. She is portrayed as a perfect balance between purity and sensuality.

The militant Durga, another incarnation of Devi, was created by the gods to kill a demon that the male gods, even combining their powers, could not vanquish. Durga holds in her multiple hands the weapons lent to her. The conch shell, a war trumpet which in spiral form symbolizes the origin of existence The war discus, a wheel-shaped weapon with a sharp cutting edge A club or mace, symbol of authority and the power of knowledge The lotus, symbol of transcendence and purity 31 her by the gods; for instance, Shiva’s trident and Vishnu’s war disk. She also holds a sword, bell, and rhyton (drinking vessel) shaped like a ram for drinking the blood of demons she has killed. Despite her awesome powers, when she kills the demon Mahisha, her face is serene and beautiful and her body is the female ideal. Violent, ferocious images of the goddesses Chamunda and Kali symbolize the darker side of the Great Goddess, who in these forms kills demons, repels evil, defeats ignorance, and protects the devotee and the temple.

Favorite Hindu Goddesses

Annapurna, the goddess of nourishment and abundance, is an aspect of the goddess Parvati and is often depicted with a pot overflowing with rice and a vessel filled to the brim with milk. She is the deity that beggars often prey to.

Ganga in Hardiwar

The Ganges is named after Ganga, a river goddess who descended from heaven and had her fall broken by Shiva’s hair. She is the second wife of Shiva. Her sisters are Yamuna, Godavari, Saraswati, Narmada, Sindhu and Kaveri. Prayers honoring all these holy relatives are recited in the holy river when the bathers submerge themselves to be purified. Ganga represents fertility because she provides water for land. She is often depicted with a bowl of water in one hand and lotus flower in another, sitting on a "makara", a legendary sea monster.

Garelaisama. is a female deity associated with edible plants and good luck in hunting as is said to have the power to keep drunk people from quarreling. Whenever an animal is caught a piece of meat is cut off and immediately offered to Garelaisama. In the past hunters often tried to kill only male animals so as not upset the female deity. If one was accidently killed the hunter prayed for forgiveness.

Other Hindu goddesses: 1) Savitri, goddess of movement; 2) Usha, daughter of the sky and her sister night; and 3) Saraswati, goddess of wisdom and knowledge (See Brahma);


One of the most popular goddesses of Hindu mythology, Lakshmi is the goddess of wealth, purity, good fortune and beauty. She is Vishnu's consort and wife. She has two or four arms and is often shown seated on a lotus flower between two elephants with their trunks raised above her, sprinkling water on her. She is often depicted holding a lotus blossom, conch, disc and mace of Vishnu. Many people worship her because she brings good fortune.


Lakshima is commonly portrayed as a beautiful woman with four arms, standing on a lotus flower. There is usually one, or sometimes two elephants behind her. She is often depicted sitting beneath Vishnu, massaging his feet. Hindus worship Lakshmi at home as well as in the temple. Friday is believed to be the most auspicious day for her worship. Hindus believe that anybody who worships Lakshmi sincerely, and not in greed, will be blessed with fortune and success. It is said that Lakshmi resides in places of hard work, virtue and bravery, but leaves whenever these qualities are not apparent any more.

According to the BBC: “ Lakshmi is particularly worshipped during the festival of Diwali. This festival commemorates the epic story, Ramayana. Ramayana is the legend of Lord Rama's battle with the demon Ravana, in which Lakshmi features. In the story of Ramayana, Sita is married to Lord Rama. Hindus believe Sita is an incarnation of Lakshmi. The story tells us that Rama had been cast out of his rightful kingdom, and had gone to live in a forest with his wife and brother. The battle between Rama and the demon Ravana begins when Ravana abducts Sita from the forest. The epic follows the story of Rama defeating the demon, and his eventual return to his kingdom. [Source: BBC |::|]

“As the three heroes, Rama, his brother Lakshman and Sita, returned home, people lit candles to guide their way in the dark. In honour of this, on the second day of Diwali people light candles in their homes to guide Lakshmi, in the hope that she will bestow good fortune on their home for the coming year. After worshipping Lakshmi on Diwali, many Hindus gamble and spend profusely, believing that Lakshmi has bestowed good fortune upon them. In addition to this, two days before Diwali, a festival called Dhantares is celebrated to seek more blessings from her. During this time Hindus buy gold and silver and start new business ventures.

Lakashima and the Churning of the Milky Ocean

Lakshima was born in the Churning of the Ocean of Milk. She descended to earth as one of Vishnu’s avatars. She is sometimes depicted as Sita, the wife of Rama, or Rukmini, the consort of Krishna. She appears with each of Vishnu’s incarnations. When Vishnu came to earth as Vamana, the dwarf, Lakshmi appeared as a lotus.

Churning of the Ocean of Milk at Angkor Wat

According to the BBC: “One of the most compelling stories in Hindu mythology is that of the Churning of the Milky Ocean. It is the story of the gods versus the demons and their fight to gain immortality. It also tells of the rebirth of Lakshmi. Indra, the warrior god, was given the responsibility of protecting the world against the demons. He had protected it successfully for many years, and the goddess Lakshmi's presence had made him sure of success. [Source: BBC |::|]

“One day, a wise sage offered Indra a garland of sacred flowers. In his arrogance, Indra threw the flowers to the floor. According to Hindu belief, this display of arrogance upset Lakshmi, who left the world of the gods and entered into the Milky Ocean. Without her, the gods were no longer blessed with success or fortune. The world became darker, people became greedy, and no offerings were made to the gods. The gods began to lose their power and the asuras (demons) took control. |::|

“Indra asked Vishnu what should be done. He told Indra that the gods would need to churn the Milky Ocean to regain Lakshmi and her blessings. He then told them the Ocean held other treasures which would also help them. This included the elixir of life, a potion bestowing immortality, which would enable them to defeat the demons. Finally, the treasures began to rise to the surface. Among them, a beautiful woman standing on a lotus flower. This was Lakshmi, who had returned to the world. With her presence, the gods eventually defeated the demons and chased them out of the world. |::|

“The story of the Churning of the Ocean tells of how the gods worked together to churn the ocean. They churned for many years, but it was 1,000 years before anything rose to the surface. This story highlights the good fortune and success that Lakshmi bestows upon those who work hard and seek help sincerely. It also demonstrates that during times of success, one must never become complacent or arrogant, as success has a way of getting away from people.”

Shakti (Devi)

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Shakti, also known as Devi or Mahadevi, is the mother goddess of India and the wife of Shiva. Like Shiva, she has a benevolent and malevolent side and is regarded as both sexy and strong. Shakti is often depicted with multiple arms. Her forms and manifestations include Parvati, Gauri, and the ugly Kali — all of whom have various associations with Shiva. Her mount is a tiger.

Shakti is believed to have evolved from indigenous earth-mother goddesses, one of which existed in the ancient Indus Civilization, and is closely linked with thousands of local goddess found throughout India. These goddesses can be both beneficent and benign and powerful and destructive and often are associated with fertility and agriculture and sometimes placated with sacrificial blood offerings.

Shakti is regarded as local protector for thousands of villages and characterized as the “dispeller of the Fear of Time.” Her most famous achievement is the slaying of a buffalo demon of egoism by using a red noose to pull the demon out of the buffalo's body.

The word Shakti is also used to describe the "the essence of female energy” which in turn is closely linked with Tantrism and is regarded as the female complement to Shiva’s male energy. Shakti’s power and that of females is characterized as dark, mysterious and omnipresent. Shakti and her different forms are also closely linked to Tantrism.


Kali — the Goddess of Death — is a form of Shakti, a wife of Shiva and the daughter of a fierce mountain god. Also known as Durga, she is often pictured with three eyes, black skin, a tongue dripping blood, a necklace of skulls and a sword used for cutting off heads, and is sometimes shown with a severed head in one hand and a cobra wrapped around her neck. Kali is known for her dance of death and is revered for coming to earth and defeating the hideous demon Raktavijra, known for being ability to reproduce himself 1,000 times with each drop of his blood that falls to earth.

Like Shiva, Kali is regarded as both a destroyer and a creator of life, but is feared because she has taken her demon slaying too far, demanding blood sacrifices from humans and once almost killing Shiva. Kali is the patron saint of thieves and a creator of problems for travelers as well a goddess that delivers good things to those that worship her. She was born as a fully grown woman with ten arms and acquired her taste for blood when she killed Raktavijra and drank his blood to prevent him from reaching the earth so he could reproduce himself.

Kali is often depicted as a warrior with weapons in each hand. She rides a tiger or lion, fights with a buffalo and frequently is shown sitting on a lotus platform, holding a lotus flower, beads, a water pot and sometimes the trident of Shiva. Many of here followers feel her hostile reputation is undeserved because most her aggression is focused on defeating and slaying demons. Kali is arguable the most popular of all Hindu goddesses and is especially popular in Calcutta and Bengal in eastern India, where she is known as Durga. Explaining why Kali is so popular despite here bloodthirsty nature, a taxi driver in Calcutta, told the New York Times, "Outside, she is looking very bad. But inside, Kali is very sweet goddess. Whatever you want — house, job, car, husband, child — when you make her sacrifice, then she will give it anything."

Three Incarnations of the Goddess

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); National Geographic, the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated March 2024

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