The Mahavidya Interview

The Mahavidya Interview

Rick Archer recently interviewed Kavitha Chinnaiyan, M.D. on Buddha at the Gas Pump. The conversation revolved primarily around her first book, Shakti Rising: Embracing Shadow and Light on the Goddess Path to Wholeness

The interview opened with a short discussion on Direct vs Progressive, the topic of last fall’s SAND panel I was on. I found Kavitha’s approach sensible. Not sure why she was using a Buddhist term, but it seems a popular framing these days.

The 10 Mahavidya (great knowledge) are from Tantra and embodied by 10 goddesses. Key to understand is that the gods are embodiments of features of consciousness whereas goddesses are embodiments of the powers (Shakti) that drive creation. The first cannot function without the power of the second. In fact, consciousness itself does not arise without Shakti (liveliness).

As they discuss in the interview, these goddesses are usually portrayed with a destructive emphasis. The Wikipedia article on the topic would be a good example. There also is an emphasis on their names, forms, and stories rather than the wisdom they embody, the actual Mahavidya. “The Goddess Who Paralyzes Enemies” doesn’t point to the embodied Shakti. I found Kavitha’s approach more balanced so I wished they’d gone over more of them. But I enjoyed the discussion.

She observed that creation is just a show. What they kill is ignorance (ego identification), portrayed by the skulls. Destroy the shadow of ignorance to reveal the light. No one is killed as it is all me (mother) and all are my children.

My path is Vedic rather than Tantric so I have less expertise here. My experience has been of the Pancha Devata or 5 primary forms of God which arose progressively and spontaneously when needed to show me the next step. They embodied fundamentals in consciousness such as love, power, and action. The goddesses are what energizes these fundamentals, hence the gods all have “consorts.” (Think power behind the throne.)

This points to something else they discussed at several points – appropriate time. For example, Kavitha said it’s not necessary to worship yantras (geometric forms) as they appear when neural pathways change. I associate geometries with the Vijnanamaya kosha (intellect body) where relationship and structure are added to vibration as part of the movement into form.

This revealing is a function of clarity of consciousness or the sattva side of the equation rather than the development of stages of consciousness (Atman). They appear when there is sufficient refinement and purification to perceive on that level. The brain would indeed evolve to adapt.

Kavitha mentions an interesting point about Shri Yantra. The Shri Yantra was a higher teaching by the Shankaracharya at Jyotir Math. This is a seat of Vedanta and Sanatana Dharma, so it’s interesting they were practicing Tantra there (and may still be). The Shri Yantra is part of Mahavidya as implied above. The significance of this point? Several major teachers have come out of this math, including Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and Sri Sri Ravi Shankar.

She also spoke of Tantra’s 5 primary functions of nature: creating, sustaining, destroying, hiding, and revealing. The first three are also fundamental in the Vedic approach, embodied by Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva respectively (and their Shakti’s Saraswati, Lakshmi, and Parvati respectively). This also relates to the 3 gunas.

The other 2 are interesting. Maya is the concealer in Vedic terms. Or from a consciousness perspective, Chhandas, the object side of the dynamics of consciousness. It has a concealing aspect until it’s recognized as consciousness, revealing it.

Kavitha observes that it’s not the masculine that needs to be addressed – it’s the shadow or dark aspects of Shakti. The veils on the Mahavidya.

She observed that aversion to self can lead to a desire to destroy it but we need a stable self to embody enlightenment. I quite agree. Like myself, she felt samadhi is fundamental. To go beyond the mind and touch our true nature is the key to spiritual growth.

The way Tantra and Kashmir Shaivism are currently taught, they take a Unity perspective (Shiva-Shakti union) with a Brahman backdrop. Pure divinity beyond Brahman is not recognized.

I realized this article is weak without an exploration of the 10 Mahavidya but the interview only touched on a few. What’s available on-line really doesn’t capture the knowledge so I got a copy of Shakti Rising.

I’ll write a follow-up article after I go over the book and research within. The book description mentions “each 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…” In other words, a dark and light side.

More to come.


Last Updated on February 2, 2018 by Davidya

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  1. Michael

    Hi David!

    Great, great articles you have written in the last few weeks!!!

    Haven’t seen the inteview.

    With the geometry forms: I have read that they see it as signs of clarification in Tantra and sub tantra paths like dzogchen. They are described as “things the natural mind does when it is sufficiently cleared”. In fact dzogchen states that one needs to let these geometric visions flow and grow and that will lead to an “relaxation of the elements” which causes other signs etc. In the end the elements themselves are karmically purified if one lets these things just happen and there are techniques to stimulate that like the sky mediation, sun mediation and dark retreat.

    Tantra in its full form is incredible fascinating! they have a preparatory phase, then the creation stage and then the completion stage. In the creation stage one visualizes enlightened deites within, whorships them, and then visualizes that the deity is in ones body, that one is the deity.
    They have subtle energy yoga (tummo is relativly well known; where one generates so much heat that one can sit in the snow in winter) and then the more advanced clear light yoga.

    Tantra is still secretive about its whole process but they also have the ageless body, light body etc. And it is said that the tamill siddhas were tantra practicioners. In the full tantra it seems that all we know about spirituality and alchemy is in there (they have the deity work, energy work, samadhis, working with the different forms of bliss, sexual work, alchemy, nondual work etc.) so it might come from another time as it is so complete. They talk about very advanced enlightenment, perfect health and incredible siddhis and all must be totally embodied.
    they sometime hint at brahman and very seldom it seems at something beyond brahman.

    Here is a link to a free book that shows all of their practices (solo practices and a lot of the sexual stuff also) and gives some background about the history etc). that book is quite advanced but very much worth reading if one wants to read what they did in tantra and still do in more closed lineages. It therefore goes beyond what we today see about tantra.

    much love

    1. Hi Michael
      To me, a lot of this stuff unfolds naturally when it’s time if you have the right foundation. There is no need visualize things that are not experienced (real for you), etc. That has the tendency to create identifications and barriers. Too many techniques have devolved into ways of control rather than opening.

      To be clear, seeing geometric forms doesn’t dissolve attachment to the elements but rather may indicate that level of clearing is going on.

      While I’m no expert, any book that associates Tantra primarily with sex has little to do with actual Tantra. Thats right up there with a book on Yoga being all about sweating.

      1. Amaryllis

        Interesting. Only this morning in meditation I was enjoying the beautiful geometric forms that formed in my mind’s eye. It’s nice to read about some of their possible reasons for arising, but I suspect I will never know their meaning, unless it comes from an inner knowing. So for now, I’ll just enjoy the show and stay out of analysing/theorising… Thanks David 🙂

        1. Hi Amaryllis
          That’s the right approach. Enjoy what arises but don’t invest in them or try to favour them.

          Later, the intelligence in what you experience becomes more conscious. (the process of experience itself) This brings understanding of much of what is experienced. That’s the origin of a lot of the traditional texts.

  2. Herwig

    Very interesting interview. Thank you for the link.
    I wonder why you seem to insist on separating „Vedic“ and „Tantric“. True, the word tantric is also used by Buddhist traditions, but there are tantric elements in nearly all ancient cultures. And is not Sri Shakti Parameshvari, one of the „Big Five“, the Pancha Devata? Even after his initiation to Vedanta, Sri Ramakrishna convinced his teacher of the Glory of the Divine Mother. Do you have serious doubts about Adi Shankara‘s authorship of the Soundarya Lahari?
    I do not know what practices are applied to initially start the Kundalini rising – to me it just happened. I suppose much is being kept secret because there is so much misunderstanding, especially concerning the „left-hand path“ etc, and it is definitely not recommended to mess around with Her without proper guidance.
    So I am not an expert and I do not claim to be enlightened. But my experience, as far as it reaches, tells me that She is neither a mere „companion“ or supplement of some male nor is Kundalini Shakti just „energy“. It is rather a question of personal preference whether we feel more attracted to a male or a female concept of the personal God. Srividya certainly has a stonger Bhaki aspect. To me this seems to be an inherent feature because, while mantras work with the subtle sense of hearing, Kundalini appeals to the second tanmatra. You feel it. At times extremely intensely.

    „Das ewig Weibliche zieht uns hinan“ J.W. Goethe, final line of Faust II („The eternal female draws us upward“).

    A funny footnote: Neither Rick Archer nor his charming interview partner seems to be aware of the real reason why Shankara clandestinely slipped into the body of the king. Most biographers leave out this delicate detail. At some time in history the prudishness of the foreign conquerers must have slipped it Hindu culture. The Punanas certainly do not justify this! 😉

    sada vasantam hridaya vinde Bhavam bhavani sahitam namami
    (I prefer the traditional, rather „tantric“ translation of this verse to the modernised rather abstract and technical terminology)

    1. Hi Herwig
      Because Vedic and Tantric are different traditions with their own schools, branches, etc. There has been a lot of cross-pollination and influence of the traditions with each other, like the Shri Yantra in the Shankaracharya and the Tantra knowledge of mantra.

      Shakti as a being is universal so will show up in many traditions with many names and appearances. She’s not reserved to Tantra although Tantra emphasizes the feminine side more than some.

      And no, I have no doubts about Shankara – I’ve mentioned the story that lead to this poem here. The Divine Mother is much more than any appearance of Shakti.

      Some traditions do use techniques to try and encourage kundalini rising but i don’t recommend that as there are hazards. Better to let it rise naturally as you mention.

      I’m no expert either but I agree with that paragraph. Except that choosing the personal God goes beyond concepts. When the real thing arises, it’s not about mind at all. Anything before that is just a facsimile.

      We can also associate kundalini with fire, although I’d suggest it functions beyond an elemental nature.

      Yes, I was amused by that also. It would surprise me if Rick has not seen other explanations as the whole point of moving into the kings body was to experience what he hadn’t in his. And yes, some of the more risque references in some of the texts have been “sanitized” in some translations.

      Agreed on the verse. A beautiful part of the guru puja.

  3. Michelle

    Thanks David,
    For another insightful article, appreciate your reflection and insights on the interview which I really enjoyed, will need to watch it again. Wondered if you had seen it. Would be interesting to read her book SHAKTI RISING, look forward to your thoughts on that as there is so much to read and so much that I am reading now. I am following her teaching on deep/mantra meditation (from her website) there has been a desire for more structure to support a deepening of meditation and opening. It is really helpful to have this method and structure that the teaching and the commitment to the structure both provide. With gratitude, Michelle

    1. Thanks, Michelle
      Am enjoying the book. Don’t agree with all of it, like at one point she suggests choosing your own mantra. That may be fine if you’re immersed in the tradition but for the average person? The power of the sound is massively amplified when you transcend with it so it’s important it be suitable. Will write more later.

  4. Lorey Hobbs

    🙂 Great Post, Davidya. Vishnu first here and then the Trimurti each holding a mandala, and then later a Golden being (touch was involved), and the Golden Begin again with three others standing together a bit back and to the side. With all there were messages/kowledge.

    I will check out the interview on BatGap. Thanks 🙂

    1. Thanks. Yes, that’s a common pattern, 3 or one with 3. Tridevi with Mother Divine, for example.

      The reference to pancha devata (5 forms) was because these ones came in sequence and totaled 5. Many years later I found the reference and realized this matched, though there was some variation in the forms.

  5. Aaron White

    Interestingly enough, I watched the interview last night, and upon resting in bed for sleep to happen, a mysterious yantra appeared very briefly to me. I did some research on the internet today, and the closest one I could find that matched it was the matangi yantra.

    Thank you for the article David!

  6. K

    David – is there a reason for why different embodiments or aspects of the divine arise for different people (setting aside cultural influences). For e.g. if Shiva arose or Vishnu arose – is there a reason for this? They are clearly different embodiments at one level.

    1. Hi K
      I’ve talked about this a few times under the term personalization. If we have a strong expectation that angels will have wings, for example, it will have a strong influence on them appearing that way. We could say they’re made of mind-stuff. Higher beings are able to appear however they wish.

      There can be some instructive or reassuring value in appearing a certain way. Or shock value as in some of the depictions of the above. I had an avatar of Vishnu appear similar to what is described in Revelations in the Bible yet offered me an old Persian name. Only later did I realize who they were more deeply. Seems they wanted to avoid connotations during our initial interactions.

      Shiva once showed me only part of something to avoid engaging some preconceptions I had. etc.

      So there can be myriad reasons and part of it can be to bypass our conceptions and part to meet them. As we’re each different, the forms may arise differently. 🙂

      There is also the influence of clarity of perception, what we’re open to, and so on.

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