Salutation to the Devī

Salutation to the Devī, to the great Devī.
Salutation always to her who is auspicious.
Salutation to her who is the primordial cause, to her who is gracious.
With minds intent, we bow down to her.

The annual Durgā Pūjā is the climax of Navarātrī, literally “nine nights,” which is in fact a ten day observance. I like to call this the “Hindu High Holy Days,” because it is a very special time of year. During that time we are called upon to intensify our spiritual practice by chanting the Divine Mother’s name, repeating the mantra Jaya Śrī Durgā. Navarātrī also gives us the opportunity to turn our minds toward the Divine Mother in her fierce, benevolent, and knowledge-giving aspects. One of the observances is to turn the attention on the first three nights to the Mother in her aspect as Kālī or Durgā. We can appeal to Kālī in her destructive aspect and ask her to destroy all our ignorance—all of those faults and failings that keep us from living a life centered on the Divine. Or we can appeal to her as Durgā, the fiercely protective mother as portrayed in the Devīmāhātmya.

The Devīmāhātmya is the foundational sacred text of Goddess-worshiping Hindus, the Śāktas. It consists of three narrative sections, each recounting how the Mother engaged in battle with hordes of demons and conquered them all. The text is a psychological allegory. The demons represent all of our shortcomings, faults, and failings as unenlightened human beings. They threaten our wellbeing, and the Mother always comes to the rescue. We often hear it said that a person is “battling inner demons.” We all do—whenever we confront those negative tendencies that threaten to make us miserable and disrupt our lives and those of others.

What are these demons? Well, for a start: ignorance, stupidity, arrogance, vainglory, misjudgment, forgetfulness of our own higher nature, defense of our own lower nature (the ego) and all that goes with it: that “I” am always right, “I” am entitled, “I” deserve it all (often at the expense of others). The demons that assail us daily are insatiable desire and greed, anger, vanity, envy. And propping them up at every turn is delusion—moha—the failure to see ourselves and all else for what we and they truly are and then denying even that failure. The Devīmāhātmya configures these shortcomings as horrific monsters that would do credit to a studio makeup artist in Hollywood. Sometimes even the gods, our higher impulses, seem defenseless against them. And here is where Durgā comes in. She is in truth our supreme Self, the realization of which dispels our every ignorance-based fault and failing and grants us enlightenment, liberation, and unending bliss.

As we progress in our spiritual life, the battles grow ever more subtle and refined. Accordingly, on the next three nights of Navarātrī it is customary to turn the attention to the Divine Mother in the form of Lakṣmī. She is the benevolent form of the Mother who grants prosperity. We can ask her for what we need—and no more—and then ask for her blessings of well-being for others. Lakṣmī is often thought of as the goddess of wealth, but what is the measure of true wealth? Not gold, but the positive virtues of courage, tranquility, generosity, kindness, devotion, and the desire for liberation.

That leads to the final three nights of Navarātrī, when attention turns to the Mother in the form of Sarasvatī. She represents the spiritual knowledge that first attracts us, then draws us onward, and finally grants enlightenment.

The Devīmāhāhatmya’s three narratives reflect this inward and ever-refining process of spiritual growth, through colorful, action-filled scenes of the Divine Mother battling fantastic demons. But, as in the Bhagavadgītā, the battlefield is in reality the human mind, and the enemies are all of the dark, destructive impulses, forces, and negative psychological attitudes we deal with on a daily basis. Their leader, the chief demon, is only a personification of the human ego. And it is always the higher Self, personified as the Devī, who wins in the end.

Along with these three graphic tales of conflict, the text also contains four hymns celebrating the Devī’s role in our spiritual journey and her certain victory. These hymns are wonderful outpourings of praise. Ordinarily when we think of a hymn of praise, we might just scratch the surface and think that it is a collection of beautiful words that exalt the Divinity. We, the worshipers, can pour out our heart’s love and devotion, and the form of God or Goddess whom we praise just drinks it all in. Is that what this is all about?

Ask yourself, what need does God have for our adoration or praise? If God is already all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-pervading, what can we add to that perfection? If you think this through, you might conclude that, in the end, hymns of praise are pretty useless.

But of course, that’s not the case.

The solution to this conundrum lies in the word reciprocity. An act of praise is a two-way proposition. This is clearly laid out in the Jewish mystical tradition, which holds that God created human souls in order to receive his love, and that they, in turn, would love him back. Wherever there is a lover and a beloved, there is also the relationship: the loving. If you throw in a dash of Sanskrit here, you get the idea that bhakti—devotion—is the relationship between the devotee—the bhakta—and the divine beloved—the iṣṭadevatā.

Seen in this light, a hymn of praise is the expression of that relationship. And the real benefit accrues not to the divine beloved, who already being the fullness of perfection wants for nothing, but to us, the spiritual aspirants who are seeking the way back to that same divine perfection.

We are going to look at a few verses from the “Aparājitāstuti.” This is perhaps the best-known of the Devīmāhātmya’s four hymns. You may know it by its popular name, the “Yā Devī” hymn. Its opening verse begins this article.

The word aparājitā means “unconquered” and is often translated as “invincible.” This is the hymn to the invincible Devī. Despite all the fierceness and strength of her demonic foes, the Devī always wins out. Despite the seeming strength of all our faults and imperfections and challenges, in the end it is our own higher nature that will triumph.

The verses of the “Yā Devī” hymn can show us the way. So, although they seem on the surface to be our words of adoration for the Divine, at a deeper level they provide spiritual instruction and insight to us. And that is how we shall approach some of these verses now.

Between the five verses at the beginning of the hymn and the two at the end, there are twenty-one verses that celebrate the Devī as abiding in all beings in various forms.

“Abiding in all beings” means that the transcendent reality that is Brahman, Devī, or Śakti, is also immanent—here and now. While the Divine transcends everything we can perceive or even think about, at the same time it is ever-present, pervading and saturating everything—including ourselves.

Śrī Rāmakṛṣṇa explained this with wonderful clarity when he said: “That which is Brahman is verily Śakti. I address That, again, as the Mother. I call It Brahman when It is inactive, and Śakti when It creates, preserves, and destroys. It is like water, sometimes still and sometimes covered with waves” (Gospel, 283).

We’ll take a closer look at eight of the twenty-one verses that form the central part of the hymn. These follow a distinct pattern. An example of the first half of the verse is: yā devī sarvabhūteṣu—”to the Devī, who in all beings”—śaktirūpeṇa saṁsthitā—”abides in the form of power.” The word śakti, “power,” changes in each of the verses. The second line of each verse is identical: namastasyai, namastasyai, namastasyai namo namaḥ—”salutation to her, salutation to her, salutation to her again and again.”

From the verse just quoted, we learn that the Devī abides in every created thing as śakti. There are two basic ways of understanding this word. The Devanāgari script in which Sanskrit is written makes no distinction between what we call capital and lowercase letters. When written in the Roman alphabet with a capital Ś, Śakti is the name of the Divine Mother herself, personified as the creator, preserver, and dissolver of the universe. The word śakti, written with a lowercase ś, means “power,” “energy,” or “force.” It is said that Mother is the sum total of all the energy in the universe. Modern physicists speak of the basic forces of the universe, such as the gravitational force, the electromagnetic force, the strong nuclear force, which keeps things together, and the weak nuclear force, which allows for disintegration. So in that sense, śakti is the power or force through which the whole of creation becomes manifest.

But along with this power of manifestation, another nuance of the word śakti provides a whole other layer of meaning. Śakti derives from the verbal root śak, “to be able,” and we can draw from this not only the idea of ability, but of possibility.  The manifest universe is a realm of untold possibilities, and that is because Śakti, the creative power, is the power of limitless creativity. We do not live in a universe where everything is predetermined and merely unfolds according to some divinely preordained plan. Some religions do believe in absolute predestination and the corresponding rigor of God’s will, but the Śākta religion views the universe as the Divine’s own spontaneous self-expression. The universe is a place of infinite possibility, and for the spiritual aspirant every day holds the promise of a new and ever-renewing adventure.

The next verse we’ll consider is actually the one that occurs last in this central litany of twenty-one verses: “To the Devī, who in all beings abides in the form of error ….” What?

Yes, you heard correctly. Error. If you had just heard everything that goes before this, you would be no less confounded. The other verses extol the Mother as present in all beings in mostly positive ways. Why end with a splash of cold water in the face? If that’s how we feel, then the error is in our misunderstanding and not in the verse itself.

What is error? We’ll start with the English word. Error derives from the Latin verb errare, which means “to wander.” Now let’s look at the Sanskrit. The word for error is bhrānti, and it derives from the verbal root bhram. And guess what? That also means “to wander.” The Divine Mother abides in all beings in the form of awareness, but it is an awareness that has wandered, or strayed from, the truth of her—and our—essential being.

And something else about this wandering: Another Sanskrit word that conjures up images of wandering is saṁsāra. Taking this to signify the ever-repeating round of birth, death, and rebirth, we often think of this cycle as a wandering, a roaming through ever-repeated states of existence—a transmigration through lifetime after lifetime. It is the Mother’s doing. Its cause? Again, ignorance of our true, original nature—a wandering away from the truth of our oneness with her, only to get ensnared in a world of ever-changing appearances.

In a sense this concluding verse of the litany, speaking of error, has come full circle from the first verse. That first verse said that in all beings the Devī is called Viṣṇumāyā—the divine power that simultaneously veils her own true being as the One without a second and also projects the world of diversity. Think about it. The supreme Self that is Devī or God or Brahman is infinite and without qualities. In order to project this world, which is made of countless finite beings and things, all of which possess qualities of every imaginable sort, she must first conceal her unlimited, inexpressible oneness. Only then can she express her inexhaustible creativity—her śakti—through all that we experience in this world of manyness. That is why divine power, or māyā, is said to have two aspects: āvaraṇaśakti—the concealing power—and vikṣepaśakti—the projecting power. It’s all her divine play, and whether we know it or not, we are players in a game of cosmic hide and seek. Or to put it another way, we’ve wandered off, taking the One to be the many, and it’s a matter of finding our way back to the highest truth.

The next verse we’ll consider is the one that says, “To the Devī, who in all beings abides in the form of activity.” The Sanskrit word is vṛtti, and it has several shades of meaning. A very basic one is “activity.” Look around and you will see indeed that the world is a place of motion. In fact, the Sanskrit word for world is jagat—literally “that which moves.” So our lives are marked by nearly constant activity. The world around us is in continual motion. During the day the sun moves through the sky, from its rising in the east to its setting in the west. The wind blows, the ocean’s surface pulsates in the form of waves. Everything in the universe is in motion, from the stars in the distant galaxies to the invisible and inconceivably small subatomic particles that make up physical matter.

But that is only part of the picture. What about the human mind? Is that also not in constant motion? Its activity is what allows us to experience this world through the five senses. It then engages in another form of activity—thinking about what we are experiencing now or have experienced in the past. It goes even deeper than that, trying to make sense of it all, sometimes by forming abstractions and philosophies.

And all this illustrates another, more specialized meaning of the word vṛtti. It is a technical term in the Yoga school of philosophy, and it means the activity, or the thought-waves, of the mind. It is because the Devī abides in all beings in the form of activity that we are able to experience this world at all. It is a realm of constant motion, and our individual minds that experience it are likewise ever active.

Notice that I said “individual minds.” They engage not only in activity but in interactivity. We all interact in countless ways with the physical world, with other living creatures, and most of all with other human beings. Some of those interactions—hopefully most—are positive and pleasant, but that’s not always the case. And in the course of living our lives we all accumulate a whole lot of negative baggage. Every one of us is a walking storehouse of feelings and thoughts, memories, opinions, and deep impressions—for better or worse. Is there any verse in the “Yā Devī” hymn that acknowledges this? Of all the verses, there is one that stands out, because it tells us how to deal with this essential problem of human existence.

“To the Devī, who in all beings abides in the form of forgiveness.” This verse definitely addresses the baggage we lug around with us. Any person who takes an honest look within is likely to discover some undesirable things, maybe mildly undesirable but maybe out-and-out toxic. What does forgiveness have to do with it?

There’s probably not a person alive who has not felt resentment at one time or another. If it’s a fleeting response to what you consider a slight, an insult, or an injustice, it may arise and then evaporate with little harm done. But what happens when a person harbors resentment and lets it become a recurring thought—maybe even finding some sort of perverse enjoyment in revisiting it? It festers, and its poison begins to seep into that person’s entire experience of life. That person may become habitually resentful—of specific circumstances, of other people, of life in general. Such a personality may even begin to look for affronts where none were intended, and that’s no way to live. What’s the secret to expelling this poison? In a word, forgiveness.

Real forgiveness is not the facile act of mouthing the words “I forgive.” Sometimes we do this, hoping that people will be impressed by the excellence of our character. Or such utterances may be a coping mechanism in the worst of times, but do we really mean them, even if at the time we think we do?

No. Real forgiveness is something else. Real forgiveness means severing the bonds of attachment to your own hurt feelings. What happens when you let go of the hurt? You feel lighter, because the burden has been lessened. You feel the heart expand beyond itself, and that expansion frees you from the weight of your former resentment.

Forgiveness heals in three ways. First, as just explained, if others have wronged you, your forgiveness of them releases you from the toxic burden of resentment, anger, or hate that you have been carrying around. If you have harmed others, their forgiveness of you can be an inspiration. It can ennoble you by its goodness, free you from any burden of guilt, and make you want to be a better person, like the one who forgave you. The third kind of forgiveness is purely internal. If you have harmed yourself by failing to recognize your own worth and have lived your life in self-destructive ways, the forgiveness of self is a great healer and the doorway to a better life.

In every way, forgiveness offers a release from the past and the prospect of renewal. Let go! By holding on to the darkness, how can you embrace your inner light? By holding on to the small and particular, how can your arms be free to embrace the divine fullness that is your birthright?

The word translated as “forgiveness” is kṣānti. And it has another lesson to teach us. It can also mean “patience” or “forbearance.” How can we apply that in our everyday living? We’ve already learned that true forgiveness is letting go of something painful from the past, and letting go of every lingering attachment to it. Can we think of patience as letting go of something before it happens?

Think about a time when you’ve felt impatient because of something a person is doing or saying but not as you would do or say it. What does that feel like? It feels like an internal agitation, and it makes you annoyed. To let go of something before it happens means not to anticipate that it will happen. Not to be constantly on the defensive. Whenever you anticipate something, you create an expectation. You set yourself up to be either pleased or displeased, delighted or disappointed. You put yourself into reactive mode, and your state of mind will depend on people or circumstances outside of yourself. Is that the way you want to live, always at the mercy of others?

The way out of this is patience or forbearance. By letting go of your reaction to something before it even happens, you free yourself from a lot of emotional anguish, annoyance, hurt feelings, and toxic resentment. Put another way, you act with equanimity because you’ve been able to cultivate dispassion. And remember, dispassion is not indifference. It is a positive state of mind by which you rise above your petty emotions and see things more as they truly are and not as your ego would like them to be.

Let’s recall how each of the twenty-one verses of the hymn’s central litany goes: “To the Devī, who in all beings abides in the form of … [a particular quality], salutation to her, salutation to her, salutation to her again and again.” Yes, we are praising the Devī, but that is the least of it. Each verse functions as a triple affirmation. First, we are relating to the Divine while ascribing positive, noble attributes to her. Second, by going deeper, we notice that each verse says that she dwells in every one of us in the form of that particular quality. That places all of these higher virtues near at hand. We don’t have to reach outside of ourselves to grasp a virtue like forgiveness. It’s already within us. And third, because of that, each of these verses of praise to the Divine is in fact a means to our own personal empowerment. Every one of those divine qualities is ever present, ready to guide how we live our lives and pursue the spiritual goal. This hymn of praise tells us that we are that good; let’s remember that and let it show in our every thought, word, and deed.

Now let’s look at four more of the hymn’s noble qualities and see how they can take us ever closer to the spiritual perfection that is the supreme fulfillment of life. These are: humility, compassion, beauty, and contentment. Each one is a powerful spiritual tool.

In the matter of patience, the word ego came up toward the end. The ego is the sense that “I am a unique being.” It is based on division or separation. I have forgotten my identity with the divine and now think of myself as separate or different, small and inadequate. The last demon whom Durgā slays in the Devīmāhātmya is Śumbha, who represents the ego, the sense of “I-ness.” And right before that she slays his brother Niśumbha, who is dearer to him than life itself. Niśumbha embodies the sense of “my-ness.” This affords a tremendous insight into the nature of the human condition. When we identify with the ego, we identify with its smallness, limitation, separateness, and inadequacy. And then we feel compelled to do something about it. We grasp onto things that we think will make us feel bigger and better. We claim them as our own: my body and my mind—as if they were objects; my possessions, my territory, my rights, my likes, my dislikes, my opinions. With more than seven billion egos in this world today, acting both individually and collectively, it’s a recipe for perpetual conflict.

What’s the solution? From a spiritual point of view, it’s the cultivation of humility or modesty—lajjā in Sanskrit. It’s an attitude that we would all do well to cultivate, but first we have to understand what it is, or rather what it is not. Humility is not self-abasement. True humility lies not in thinking yourself to be beneath anyone else. Yes, one who is truly humble makes the other person feel important but never at the cost of denying his or her own worth. A truly modest person recognizes the divine essence in everyone—including oneself. To deny your own worth only denies the divinity within you. It dishonors the Devī, who is said to abide in all beings in so many different ways.  

Humility or modesty is not only a rejection of pride, which we consider its opposite, but at a deeper level it is the rejection of the cause of pride, which is, paradoxically, our own feeling of inadequacy. That feeling of unworthiness stems from what Śrī Rāmakṛṣṇa called “the rascal ego,” and what the Devīmāhātmya portrays as the demon brothers Śumbha and Niśumbha—”I-ness” and “my-ness.” Because of this ego, we define ourselves by how we look, what we own, what we do, and what we hope or fear that others will think of us. All that gets erased by the cultivation of modesty.

Practicing humility also makes it that much easier to practice another major virtue, and that is compassion. We all know that compassion is one of the central elements of Buddhist teaching, and it is extolled here in the “Yā Devī” hymn as well. What is it? We might think that it means feeling pity for those who are in distress or who are less fortunate than we are. But that’s not a good definition, because what does that contribute to their betterment or ours? A more workable definition of compassion would be any action that lessens the suffering of others. Yes, we can feel bad about someone else’s distress or misfortune, but for it to be compassion we have to do something about it. The word compassion embraces not only a sympathetic attitude but a commitment to active service.

But even that is not the end of it, because compassion also does something to us. Compassion is an opening of the heart, a reaching out that allows us not only to understand how others feel but also to feel a oneness with them. Compassion takes us beyond our own petty concerns and tears down the walls of self-centeredness. It melts away the sense of isolation that the ego has imposed on every one of us. Compassion is the quintessential noble quality—a divine quality—and when expressed in our attitudes and behavior it makes us receptive to the Divine.

And one more thing: When we are compassionate, we do not judge. How many times have we heard that God’s love is unconditional? If we would emulate the Divine, then why not refrain from judging? Compassion is a great leveler, and when put into practice it leads to our own practice of unconditional love. And quite paradoxically, this great leveler raises us up. The practice of compassion exalts us, and our lives become a blessing to others. Think of the great saints, and what comes to mind? Their compassion.

Another verse declares: “To the Devī, who in all beings abides in the form of beauty, salutation to her, salutation to her, salutation to her again and again.” How do we experience beauty? In many ways. Let’s start with the experience of nature. This is universal for all people of all times and places. How readily we can become inspired by the vastness of the sky, the radiant colors of a sunset, or sunlight sparkling on the surface of the ocean like countless diamonds. Think of a red hibiscus flower in the perfection of full bloom—the kind we offer to the Mother during ritual worship. Now think of that same flower before it was picked, as adorning a hibiscus bush covered in an abundance of such blossoms. The joy we feel at its beauty is a reflection of the Mother’s own divine joy in creating it. According to the Śākta philosophy, the world is the Mother’s own self-expression, and it comes from the overflowing of divine joy—the ānanda that is her essential nature.

The great philosopher-seer of Kashmir, Abhinavagupta, also linked the experience of beauty to spirituality. He affirmed that the inspiration of beauty offers a fleeting glimpse of one’s own higher Self. And we’re not just talking here about natural beauty. Abhinavagupta wrote that any experience of beauty—in art, music, dance, drama, or literature—is accompanied by a flavor, a joy, that provides a momentary glimpse into the joy that lies at the heart of reality. Beauty is more than an end in itself. It inspires and ennobles us and makes us want to be better, simply because it momentarily gives us a glimpse of our own higher nature. Understood in this way, this verse of the “Yā Devī” hymn can provide us with the inspiration that will t