I touched on the Mahavidya in The Mahavidya Interview but needed more research to do a proper job. As I mentioned there, the Dasha Mahavidya (10 great knowledge) are from Tantra and are embodied by 10 goddesses. While the gods are embodiments of laws of nature, the goddesses are embodiments of the powers (Shakti) that drive them and all of creation. The first cannot function without the power of the second.
These goddesses tend to be portrayed with a destructive or dark emphasis, like in the Wikipedia article on the topic. There also is an emphasis on their names, forms, and stories rather than the wisdom they embody. The actual Mahavidya would be more fundamental than “The Goddess Who Paralyzes Enemies.”
As a result, I went over Kavitha Chinnaiyan’s book Shakti Rising to draw out the actual Mahavidya, the light and dark expressions she lists, and some commentary. I’ve included material from other sources and my own take on this. My background is Vedic rather than Tantric but I find exploring other decent sources can bring out different nuances in the experience.
The author says “the Mahavidyas are not mere consorts of male deities — here, Shakti takes center stage to bring forth time, space, evolution, and destruction.” But this is after saying “In tantric philosophy, the masculine force is called Shiva, and Shakti is his dynamic energy.” It still places Shiva (pure consciousness or being) as the foundation. I would suggest the Shakti’s arise from pure Divinity prior to Shiva They bring liveliness to alertness, giving rise to consciousness (Atman), Shiva, and then the dynamics of creation.
In other words, if these are the 10 fundamental Shaktis, they will be primordial – not aspects of something else.
“The Mahavidyas not only make up the creative forces on the cosmic scale, but also the forces within us that lead to either suffering or to freedom. Just as Shakti creates the cosmos, so she gives birth to our identity. And just as the cosmos limits the unlimited divine Shiva-Shakti, our identity limits our true limitless nature. This limitation is the root cause for our pervasive sense of lack.”
“each [Mahavidya] with a veiled face representing a destructive quality that perpetuates ignorance and suffering, and a true face representing the wisdom that stimulates profound transformation and liberation…”
Kavitha has used the Yama’s and Niyama’s of Yoga to describe the light (true face) of a Shakti. Its shadow is its absence. We can see these as the fundamental challenges of life and the benefits of mature Self Realization.
While the yama’s and niyama’s are widely seen as practices, they are also the effects of practice as the limbs of yoga are like legs on a table. Pull one leg and the others come along. They are NOT rungs on a ladder you work up as is often described. That thinking comes from the idea that samadhi is difficult to achieve.
Kavitha also notes the goddesses are in sequence. “the shadow and light aspects of the Mahavidyas are described in sequence, where the shadow of one [goddess] leads to that of the subsequent one. Each shadow fortifies those of the others, rendering us tightly bound to the I-self. The light of one opens to the light of the subsequent deity, opening us progressively to knowledge of the Self.” Yet she also notes each deity is “a path unto herself.” “The light of any one Mahavidya opens to that of the remaining nine…”
“This is the way of tantra, which leads us to light through our darkest shadows, our worst fears, and our greatest pain.”
Note that this sequence is not the same as that listed in the Yoga Sutra.
In the Vedic tradition, they speak of the 3 gunas or qualities of nature, also of the 3 primary gods in charge of creating, sustaining, and destroying. Tantra has a similar approach but adds hiding and revealing. The Vedas speak of this as the illusory world and Maya or as Chhandas, the “covering” or object aspect of consciousness. By creating objects, the dynamics of consciousness become lost in what we’re experiencing. Infinity is lost in the detail
The 10 Mahavidyas
1 – Kali (time)
shadow: aggression, more subtly as self-righteousness
light: non-violence (yama), allowing things to be as they are
Time consumes all, death, letting go and moving on brings new life. Time brings dualities.
Light brings freedom from time, fear of death.
In coiled kundalini (Shiva in crown)
2 – Tara (star & to cross) primordial vibration, AUM, leads to creation
shadow: self-deception, inauthenticity, validation and justification
light: truth (yama)
Spiral rounds of progressive self-recognition give rise to the 5 elements, each denser.
Will, knowledge, and action become shaktis in next 3 goddesses.
Tara has 3 forms – white, blue, and multicoloured. (this differs in Buddhism)
3 – Tripura Sundari (beauty of the 3 [lower] worlds)
shadow: obsession and confusion
light: non-clinging (yama)
Embodies iccha shakti – Divine will, hence related to desire and dharma.
Will leads to the expression of the 3 gunas which give rise to the 5 elements.
Four primary desires: purpose, comfort, pleasure, and liberation.
She is described as “Lalita – the playful one”, “Tantric Parvati” and “Moksha Mukta.” Extolled in the Lalita Sahasranama. Some consider her the highest aspect.
Tripura also refers to the 3 regular states of consciousness – waking, dream, sleep. Samadhi is turiya, “the fourth.”
4 – Bhavaneshwari (Goddess/Queen of the worlds)
light: surrender (niyama)
jnana shakti: Divine knowledge
Provides the space for creation to unfold in, limits the Divine into space.
Limit prakasha (luminance) – limitless potential. All possibilities to specific choices.
5 – Tripura Bhairavi (terror or awe-inspiring of the 3 worlds)
shadow: Inertia, tamas
light: perseverance (niyama)
kriya shakti: Divine action, Karma yoga, tapas (warming), organs of action.
The doer claiming the action.
6 – Chinnamasta (the beheaded)
shadow: addiction (to the I-self, suffering, knowledge, senses)
light: appropriate cultivation of sexual energy (yama)
The divine beheads itself and forgets its true nature. Divine hides from itself so there can be creation. This is principle of hiding.
The concealing power of desire is necessary to sustain the cosmos and the I-self. We confuse our attachments and desires with our dharma.
Brahmacharya as “thoughts and behavior that lead to realizing Brahman” [or one who’s teacher is Brahman] – rather than celibacy. She correlates the rise of kundalini with the shift from tamas to rajas to sattva.
7 – Dhumavati (smoky one)
shadow: ignorance (from identification)
light: self-reflection (niyama)
Void of ignorance of our true nature, void that form arises in and falls back into. Most misunderstood.
Associated with the dark night of the soul, value of non-doing and witness.
Worshiped for attaining abilities, opposite of Lakshmi.
8 – BaglaMukhi (“bridle face” – face with power to control)
shadow: clutter, esp. mind.
light: purity (niyama) of various levels
Power of stillness, turiya, witness.
Devotion as an expression of materialist self-validation rather than to source.
Also called Pitambari Maa in N. India
9 – Matangi (I-Am)
shadow: taking language and labels literally, objectively
light: non-stealing (yama)
The separating power of language [intellect dividing vs uniting]
Without labeling every experience, we can feel the divine in it.
10 – Kamalatmika (lotus, clad in water)
shadow: conflict, spiritual bypassing
light: contentment (niyama), bliss
“Her sweet laughter saturates every subatomic particle, shape, and form as it arises.”
Journey of head to heart, bliss.
The 10 are also associated with the 10 avatars of Vishnu although I don’t know these connections. They’re not in the same sequence.
The book Shakti Rising goes into far more detail and has a lot of excellent commentary on a wide range of related subjects. It also includes various practices for both transforming shadow and inquiry.
I disagree with some of her emphasis and approach. Readers of this blog know I favour an effortless mantra meditation for culturing samadhi. Thus, some of her book suggestions like picking any word for a mantra I would consider a mistake. Transcending massively amplifies the effects of the sound used so you want to ensure it’s suitable. Picking your own mantra is like suggesting you pick your own drug at the pharmacy.
The point of this exercise for me was to see if I could draw the essential Shakti’s from the list. But then Shakti herself pointed out there was 5 essential Shakti’s. I then had a doh! moment. Of course! The pancha devata are 5 and would have 5 Shakti’s behind them. Seems I’m a slow learner, but the exercise did bring this out.
We can think of this like Prana. There is one prana or life force. In our body it expresses as 5 pranas: breath, digestion, elimination, etc. It then further branches into 10 pranas for even more specific functions.
In other words, I would consider the “Dasha Mahavidya” to be a high teaching about 10 Shaktis within creation but they’re not the fundamental ones that come from beyond creation – they arise from the dynamics of consciousness.
For example, I’ve mentioned time (#1) is an effect of the process of experience and space (#4) is an effect of consciousness aware of itself. Primordial vibration (#2) happens on the bliss kosha, the 3rd layer in.
The author also mentions only 5 koshas, not all 7. From that perspective, the Mahavidya are fundamental as the dynamics of consciousness are beyond the bliss kosha. She also mentions awareness being unable to know itself even though that’s a fundamental feature of higher stages.
This commentary is not to diminish the teaching. This was a fascinating exploration, different from how I experience this. It is my orientation to always look to the fundamentals. When you understand the underlying process, everything after that makes sense.