Ten Faces of the Mother

The ways to meditate are many and varied. One of them centers on an inner point of concentration, the shrine of the heart. Entering into this holy place, into the very center of awareness, the spiritual aspirant can contemplate and worship the Divine in the most personal and powerful of ways.

The divine reality, called Brahman in the Upaniṣads, is the Self of the cosmos, an inexpressible Oneness that transcends the world of form even while pervading every atom of it. Brahman is also the transpersonal essence of every individual soul—supreme Self-awareness—and it is one with its power, called Śakti. The two are an indivisible and infinitely creative unity.

Śakti reveals herself personified as Durgā, Kālī, Lakṣmī, Sarasvatī and a host of other goddesses. Each aspect is like a photo, capturing a distinct image in an instant of time. Yet in all her glorious diversity, the Divine Mother remains One—and one with Brahman. If Brahman is our very Self, then all the expressions of its power are present within us.

Ten Wisdom Goddesses

Ten aspects of the Divine Mother are known in the Tantra as the Mahāvidyās or Wisdom Goddesses. They represent distinct powers within our own consciousness that can take us toward enlightenment. They represent also the states of inner awakening along the spiritual journey. These ten faces of the Mother are named Kālī, Tārā, Tripurasundarī, Bhuvaneśvarī, Chinnamastā, Bhairavī, Dhūmāvatī, Bagalāmukhī, Mātaṅgī, and Kamalā. We will meet each of them along the way.

Accordingly, let us enter into the shrine of the heart and visualize, one by one, these ten forms of the Mother. This practice of inner visualization is called bhāvanā, a word that means “creative contemplation.” It is putting the power of our own consciousness to work. Let us start by thinking of the goal, of where we are headed.


Kālī heads the group of the Mahāvidyās, because she represents the power of consciousness in its highest form. As we enter the shrine of the heart, let us come face to face with her as a living presence.

In her aspect of Dakṣiṇakālī, she is young and beautiful and standing on the recumbent, ash-besmeared body of Śiva, who looks up at her adoringly. Śiva is Brahman, or absolute consciousness, blissfully at rest in his own glory. Kālī is that same consciousness in motion. She is the dynamic power that projects, sustains, and withdraws the universe. Yet Śiva and Kālī—Brahman and Śakti—are eternally One.

We note that Kālī is unclothed. Her nakedness is a symbol of her infinitude, as is the blackness of her skin, suggestive of the night sky. No garment can contain her. What can encompass that which is boundless? Her wild, flowing hair also represents freedom—the freedom from all the conditioning that has been imposed on us ever since birth. We behold Kālī’s three sparkling eyes. Human awareness is limited in many ways, but the Mother knows past, present, and future. The girdle of severed arms encircling her waist is another symbol of freedom. It speaks of the power to cut through the bonds of karma—a power inherent in our own mind, a freedom of choice in the moment that allows us to shape our character and destiny.

The garland of skulls adorning Kālī’s neck symbolizes the fifty sounds of the Sanskrit language, each a distinct vibration of divine energy. The garland is the alphabet of creation, illustrating exactly what modern physics reveals—that the seemingly material universe is nothing but energy vibrating in diverse ways. At the same time the imagery of the skulls reminds us that all created things are impermanent. Vibration is movement, and everything in the universe changes constantly. Change is interwoven with time, and Kālī is also time, the relentless devourer who in the end swallows up all created things. But we are getting ahead of ourselves. What the Mother manifests, she nurtures, and that is the meaning of Kālī’s swelling breasts. Then again, what she manifests, she withdraws. The power to dissolve rests in the bloodied sword she holds high in her upper left hand. This “sword of knowledge” need not frighten us; it is the power of the mind to cut through appearances and go to the heart of reality. This sword severs the false sense of self, the human ego, symbolized by the freshly severed head that Kālī dangles from her lower left hand. Once the ego is vanquished, the sense of self expands to infinity, to identity with the Divine.

To be liberated is to go beyond all limitation, which rests on the duality of appearances. Kālī appears gentle and beneficent on the right side and fierce on the left. She extends her lower right hand in an act of boon-giving and raises her upper right hand in a gesture telling us not to be afraid. On the left her sword of knowledge dispels all fear and sets us free, and the severed head represents liberation from the bondage and terror of ego. With the stark contrast of gentle and fierce, Kālī reveals that all the dualities of life—the light and the dark, the beautiful and the fearsome—are united and reconciled in her. She is the full integration of consciousness and the recognition of our own wholeness and perfection, even in a confounding world that is her own self-expression.


Let us now contemplate the Mother as Tārā, who closely resembles Kālī. Rāmprasād, in his great devotional songs, used the two names interchangeably. We see that Tārā’s complexion is dark blue like the night sky, signifying boundlessness. She also is three-eyed, signifying omniscience. She has four arms; the left ones hold a sword and a severed head, just like Dakṣiṇakālī’s. But her upper right hand holds a pair of scissors—our ability to snip away attachments—and her lower right hand holds a blue lotus to represent her open heart. What is hers is also ours, and our open heart is one that is ready to receive her blessings.

Unlike Kālī’s hair, flowing loose and wild, Tārā’s is carefully coiffed. Kālī’s represents unconstrained freedom, but Tārā’s symbolizes the ability to direct the movement of the mind, through self-mastery, toward Self-knowledge. It is the tiger-skin around Tārā’s waist that signifies that the laws of human society cannot constrain her. Contrasted to Kālī’s nakedness, which signifies infinitude, Tārā’s minimal clothing shows that she represents either the first stage of cosmic emanation or, for the aspiring soul, the last stage before liberation.

Her jewels signify beauty and infinite wealth, and a halo of light surrounding her head radiates divine glory. Rising above the halo, the ten-headed serpent Akṣobhya, the one “free of agitation,” symbolizes the illumined state and our innate capacity for achieving the stillness of enlightenment.

Tārā sits on the body of the motionless Lord Śiva. He is the foundation that supports her, and she is the dynamism that drives the play of creation.

Much of Tārā’s symbolism can be related to death—but in fact to the death of the ego. In her compassion Tārā removes the false idea of individuality that keeps us in bondage, ever reactive to life’s ups and downs. She is the all-gracious liberator.


We turn now to Tripurasundarī with the thought that she represents consciousness in a state of divine universality, where everything in the created universe is seen essentially as divine. What this means will be revealed through contemplation.

Everything about Tripurasundarī is positive. Her name means “she who is beautiful in the three worlds.” Her complexion shines with the light of the rising sun. Her rosy color speaks of joy, compassion, and illumination.

Her four hands hold a noose, a goad, a bow, and five arrows. The noose indicates the captivating power of beauty. The goad represents the ability to dissociate from attachment. But look, the bow is made of sugarcane, and the arrows are flowers! The bow represents the cognitive power of the human mind (manas). The five arrows are the five senses (jñānendriyas). This tells us that the world we experience through the senses and understand through the mind is by nature good, sweet, and delightful—a place of beauty to be savored and enjoyed. Reinforcing that idea, a profusion of jewelry adorns Tripurasundarī’s body, signifying her splendor and also her inexhaustible abundance.

Tripurasundarī, who is Śakti in all her goodness and beauty, sits on the recumbent body of Śiva in the form of Sadāśiva, whose throne has four legs consisting of the gods Brahmā, Viṣṇu, Rudra, and Maheśvara. Brahmā is the power of cosmic emanation; Viṣṇu, of cosmic maintenance; Rudra, of cosmic dissolution. Maheśvara is the power of concealment necessary for this threefold activity. When we experience the finite many, the infinite One becomes hidden from our awareness. Resting above the four of them, Sadāśiva represents the power of self-revelation or divine grace. When we go beyond appearance and division, we know the divine unity that is our true being. The five gods—Brahmā, Viṣṇu, Rudra, Maheśvara, and Sadāśiva—represent Tripurasundarī’s five divine activities. It is she who is supreme, and the gods are her instruments of expression.

Tripurasundarī represents the state of awareness expressed by the words “I am this.” For the aspirant who retraces the steps back to the divine source, this is a high level of attainment, approaching final realization. It is an experience of the universe within the unity of consciousness. Such an experience of identity with the whole of creation results in a feeling of universal love. One who lives in this exalted state feels no separation from others and therefore becomes a fount of compassion.

Even in our ordinary awareness, Tripurasundarī reminds us that the beauty of the world around us is divine. Whatever we perceive as beautiful resonates deep within. That is the significance of the flower arrows and the sugarcane bow. Yet, in our unawakened state we perceive not only beauty but feel also the pain of its fleetingness, forgetting that the source of beauty lies imperishable within the heart of our own awareness. Tripurasundarī urges us to cleanse the mind of unworthy or painful thoughts, to recognize her beauty everywhere, and to rise to the conviction that nothing is alien to ourselves.


Bhuvaneśvarī, whom we will now visualize in the shrine of the heart, closely resembles Tripurasundarī but is slightly more connected to our experience of the manifest world. Her name means that she is the ruler of this living universe. Bhuvaneśvarī embodies all facets of the three worlds of heaven, atmosphere, and earth and their interactions. She is also called Sarvarūpā or Viśvarūpā (“she whose form is the universe”), meaning that everything in this life is no other than she, the power of consciousness. She is also called Mahāmāyā (“she whose magical power is great”), because she creates a dazzling display for the spectator’s delight. That is what a magician does.

Bhuvaneśvarī’s complexion, like Tripurasundarī’s, glows like the rising sun. Her full breasts symbolize her nurturing, maternal nature. She sustains all that she has given birth to, and her attitude toward all her children is most gracious.

We note that she holds a jeweled drinking cup filled to the brim with gemstones, reminding us that she is the source of wealth and abundance. She herself is heavily bejeweled, affirming the value of the physical world. This world, with its profusion of diversity, is her joyful play, to which she remains ever attentive. Nothing escapes her all-pervading awareness, symbolized by her three eyes.

Like Tripurasundarī, Bhuvaneśvarī also holds a noose and a goad. Śrī Rāmakṛṣṇa used to say that it is Mother alone who binds and sets free, and these two implements illustrate her captivating and liberating powers. With her goad she pushes us to overcome the hindrances of passion and negativity and wrong thinking that perpetuate our human bondage. She urges us to reach beyond the limitations of body, mind, and personality and to aspire to true Self-knowledge.

The lotuses in Bhuvaneśvarī’s two upper hands hold more than one message for us as we contemplate her loveliness. They stand for growth and the vigorous energy pervading the cosmos but also symbolize the purity and perfection to be attained through sincere and ardent practice. That higher state of awareness lies hidden within us.

We find a clue to this by contemplating Bhuvaneśvarī’s creative power. As the physical universe begins to emerge out of the void, the first element to manifest is space (ākāśa). Space, which appears to stretch on without limit, is a visible symbol of infinity. Along with the idea of space comes the idea of pervasion, and so Bhuvaneśvarī is celebrated as the divine presence that fills the universe. But there is also an inner space—the space within our own heart of awareness—and that too is infinite. For each of us the heart is the abode of the Divine Mother. Wherever we go in this world, we are never apart from her presence. We may often forget her, owing to myriad distractions. Even so, the light of awareness is always there, illuminating and making possible all experience. Without it there would be nothing.

In Self-Knowledge, attributed to Śaṅkara, the author explores this same theme: “Risen in the space of the heart, the Self, the sun of knowledge, dispels the darkness; all-pervading and all-supporting, it shines and causes everything to shine” [Ātmabodha 67].


With Chinnamastā we come to an image of the Divine Mother that is provocative and deeply troubling. Living as we do in a culture that glorifies sex and violence, we still are shocked to encounter them in a sacred setting. Her name means “the decapitated one,” and Chinnamastā is shown as a goddess who has cut off her own head. The blood spurting from her neck flows in three streams—one into the mouth of her own severed head, which she holds in her left hand, and the two others into the mouths of her female attendants, Ḍākinī and Varṇinī. At the same time, Chinnamastā stands on the body of another female figure who copulates with a male figure lying beneath her. The image that meets our eyes may seem grisly and lurid, but its disturbing features embody sublime spiritual truths.

Chinnamastā’s own severed head imparts a wealth of meaning. The mouth is the organ of speech, and speech (vāk) is creative energy (śakti). To reinforce that idea, Chinnamastā and her two female attendants, like Kālī, wear the garland of skulls, the alphabet of creation. With its face the head is the part of the body associated with individual identity. We recall that the severed head that Kālī holds symbolizes release from the limitation and bondage of the individual ego. By severing the head, the Mother reveals her own nature as the unconditioned, infinite, and boundlessly free Self. Her decapitated state likewise represents liberation. The idea of perfect freedom is reinforced by her nakedness, which again reminds us that the Infinite can neither be covered nor contained.

The blood spurting from Chinnamastā’s neck represents the life force that animates the universe. The first stream flows into her own mouth, showing that she is self-sustaining and dependent on no other. The streams that flow into the mouths of her two attendants show that she sustains all living creatures.

Beneath Chinnamastā’s feet the amorous couple, Kāma and Rati, reflect graphically the higher spiritual interaction of consciousness and its power. According to the Upaniṣads, it is Brahman’s own desire, or creative urge, that initiates the process of manifesting the universe.

How does Chinnamastā relate to Kāma and Rati? In two ways. At the cosmic level the Divine Mother is firmly in control of the creativity by which the universe comes into existence. At the personal level her position on top of the couple signifies mastery over desire. In that second reading Chinnamastā represents self-control and the conquest of worldly desires.

Despite the violence of the imagery, it is important to note that Chinnamastā does not die; she is very much alive. In philosophical terms the message here is that the Self is by its very nature indestructible and eternal. In practical terms, if the act of decapitation is viewed as an act of self-sacrifice, then the message is that selfless acts will not hurt us. To the contrary, any selfless act will diminish the ego. Chinnamastā, then, symbolizes our own power to relinquish a smaller, inferior identity for one that is infinitely greater and grander.


Just as Chinnamastā brought to mind images we rarely, if ever, associate with spiritual life, so will one dramatic theme that we associate with Bhairavī. Her name means “frightful,” “terrible,” “horrible,” or “formidable.” We often associate fear with darkness, or rather with the dangers that lurk there unseen, but that is not the sort of fear that Bhairavī provokes, for she is said to shine with the effulgence of ten thousand rising suns.

There is a similarity here to Arjuna’s overwhelming experience in the eleventh chapter of the Bhagavadgītā. The vision of God in his universal form brings Arjuna face to face with the birthless, deathless, infinite reality in which worlds are born, subsist, and die.  Bhairavī represents that same experience, for she too embodies the very power of the cosmos. That same power of consciousness, embodied in every human being, is known as Kuṇḍalinī. In either aspect, cosmic or individual, she can overwhelm.

The spiritual journey unfolds through stages of discovery, and what we find along the way may not always be what we expected. If we are unprepared to receive it, the light of spiritual awakening may disconcert us, putting to flight our familiar, comfortable assumptions about God, the world, and ourselves. But the extraordinary nature of spiritual discovery is that it causes us to see everything in a new light, and in the end Bhairavī is always beneficent.

Contemplating this goddess of fiery complexion, we can understand her better with the help of the Sanskrit words tapas and tejas. Tapas is often translated as “austerity,” “mortification,” or “penance,” but those words send a negative message. The legendary sage Vyāsa defines the highest tapas as “fixing the mind and perceptive faculties one-pointedly on a single object, the indwelling Self” [Mahābhārata 12.250.4]. In order to practice that discipline, we need encouragement. A more helpful translation of tapas would be ardor. Ardor is also the Latin word for flame, and along with the qualities of heat and light it conveys the idea of enthusiasm and passion. Bhairavī is said to incite every form of passion—and also to grant the power to control it.

As we practice, the metaphorical fire of tapas burns away the impurities, limitations, and illusions of the small, ego-based self and prepares us for enlightenment. All along, we may continue to harbor the dread of losing our cherished individuality. We cling to our small and imperfect personalities out of fear, but little by little we progress. Because Bhairavī is so powerful, we must proceed with due caution. She dwells in each of us as Kuṇḍalinī, but we must not force her to rise, lest we harm ourselves. The best tapas is not effortful practice but simply the continual remembrance of reining in the mind and redirecting it toward the Divine. The rest will take care of itself.

Fire, as the light of consciousness, is sometimes called tejas, which means “resplendence.” It is the nature of light to shine and the function of light to illuminate. The Mother’s light shines on every facet of our existence, making everything knowable. It sustains the created order, and even though we find shadows here and there, when the light grows strong enough, it dissolves the created forms into pure radiance. What remains is the state of illumination in which limitation vanishes and only infinite Oneness remains.


If Bhairavī’s face is too bright for most of us to look upon, Dhūmāvatī’s may be frightening in its darkness. We know that life can be exhilarating, joyful, and pleasant, but sometimes it is depressing, sorrowful, and painful. When life hurts, we respond with pessimism, sadness, anxiety, or anger. We see this in Dhūmāvatī, whose name means “she who is made of smoke,” referring to darkness, pollution, and negativity.

A goddess resembling Dhūmāvatī is first found in the Ṛgveda. There she is called Nirṛti, a name that negates the principle called ṛta. Ṛta denotes cosmic order, growth, abundance, prosperity, harmony, wellbeing, and the goodness of life; Nirṛti personifies disorder, decay, poverty, misfortune, dissension, sickness, and the whole range of life’s ills, culminating in death. Nirṛti was not worshiped in the same sense as other Vedic deities; rather she was ritually appeased to keep her far away. The refrain of her hymn is, “Let Nirṛti depart to distant places” [Ṛgveda 10.59].

Nirṛti survived in later times as Jyeṣṭhā, “the elder,” who represents the decline of old age, and as Alakṣmī, who visits misfortune upon the homes of the unrighteous. A common feature of Nirṛti, Jyeṣṭhā, Alakṣmī, and Dhūmāvatī is their association with the crow, which sometimes appears emblazoned on Dhūmāvatī’s banner or perched atop the flagpole. As an eater of carrion, the crow is an apt symbol of death and a fitting companion for a goddess associated with misfortune, decay, and loss.

Linked also with poverty, need, hunger, thirst, quarrelsomeness, anger, and negativity, Dhūmāvatī appears as old and ugly, with sagging breasts and crooked or missing teeth. She dresses in filthy rags. The point, perhaps hard to accept, is that the Divine is present everywhere, even in what we ordinarily consider as foul or ugly.

Significantly, Dhūmāvatī is portrayed as a widow, who in traditional Indian society stands to lose her former social standing and become marginalized. This is symbolized by the cart in which Dhūmāvatī sits; it has nothing to pull it. Life appears to be going nowhere. Is there a broader message here? Haven’t we all felt at one time or another that life is going nowhere? Haven’t we ever felt disempowered and despairing? Don’t we all have to face eventual misfortune and loss?

Like Kālī, Dhūmāvatī symbolizes the erosive power of time that robs us of loved ones, of our own youthful beauty and vitality, of health and strength, and of whatever else contributes to our fragile happiness. Everything that we cling to for security is transient, and in the end we all face even our own mortality.

But she who takes also gives. Dhūmāvatī is the wisdom that tells us to cultivate detachment. She holds a bowl of fire in one hand and a winnowing basket in the other. The fire symbolizes that all things pass away. The winnowing basket, used to separate chaff from grain, represents the wisdom to distinguish between the fleeting and the permanent. Even though her stalled cart represents an external life going nowhere, Dhūmāvatī empowers us inwardly to reach for the highest, and there is nothing to stop us once we are resolved. In the end, she points the way to joy.


What a rich diversity of thoughts, feelings, and capabilities we have discovered through contemplating these forms of the Mother enshrined within the heart. Next we turn to the elusive Bagalāmukhī. Ideas about her vary widely, and the opinions of what she means often seem disconnected and arbitrary. Her elusiveness calls for fresh thinking. Let’s begin by focusing on one particular feature.

Bagalāmukhī is consistently associated with powers outside the range of normal human experience and with one in particular, called stambhana. As ordinarily understood, this is the power to immobilize, paralyze, or restrain an enemy. We envision her stopping an adversary by grasping his tongue with one hand and striking him on the head with the other. It’s a rather curious image, but its intent is very serious. The tongue represents speech—not just language but the entire range of creative power inherent in consciousness. The adversary is the unruly ego-self. Bagalāmukhī exercises the ability to restrain its self-assertion.

To understand better how this works, we must take a closer look at the creative power of consciousness, known as vāk, and at its four levels. The highest level, transcending manifestation, is parā vāk—supreme consciousness-in-itself, the unconditioned reality. It is our divine nature, ever present, unchanging, and all-illuminating. Parā vāk is the infinite ocean of consciousness on which the waves of manifestation rise and fall.

The initial stage of manifestation is paśyantī vāk, the visionary urge for self-expression. Everything begins here in an intuitive flash—whole, complete, without sequence, instantaneous.

Next, ideas begin to emerge in logical sequence. This level of conceptual awareness is called madhyamā vāk, the intermediate, or formative, phase of experience.

As ideas become more and more definite, they take form as language. This is known as vaikharī vāk, the level of articulate speech. In its subtle form it is the unspoken thoughts in our mind, now shaped into words, phrases, and sentences. Its gross form is what comes out of the mouth—the expression of our thinking embodied in physical sound. Through this principle of the fourfold vāk, which operates at the universal as well as the individual level, all that makes up our lives comes into manifestation.

Identified with body and mind, our experience of self is that of the ego which Bagalāmukhī confronts. Each ego is a center of awareness in a sea of otherness, and often one such center feels the need to control the others. But at a higher level we realize that control of one’s own ego-self is nobler and better, but much harder. Bagalāmukhī symbolizes our innate power to take control of our own mind. This stambhana in the highest sense is yoga—what Pataïjali defines as the restraint of the mind’s activity, culminating in the experience of the Self as pure, unconditioned consciousness. Pulling us by the tongue, Bagalāmukhī draws us there.


At first glance the Tantric goddess Mātaṅgī looks very much like the Vedic goddess Sarasvatī. Both play the vīṇā and hold a book and a string of prayer beads. Together these objects symbolize the interrelated aspects of sound, knowledge, and power. The sound of the vīṇā represents creativity. The book stands for the knowledge and wisdom transmitted through the word. The beads represents divine energy of the mantra and the direction of the mind Godward.

It is a well-known truism that knowledge is power. Our own experience verifies that the more we understand how something works, the better we can make it work to our advantage. This fact underlies every acquired skill in any field of learning or technology. Similarly, the more we know about the internal instrument that is the mind, the more self-mastery and spiritual progress we will gain.

How does Tantric Mātaṅgī differ from Vedic Sarasvatī?  Vedic Hinduism represents orthodoxy and the establishment, with many rules concerning social custom and ritual purity. The Tantra lies outside those boundaries. Open to men and women of all castes or no caste at all, excluding no one, it is remarkably egalitarian.

In Vedic society the regulations of ritual purity dictate that the food to be offered to a deity must be prepared according to strict rules of physical and mental cleanliness by one who is deemed fit for the task. Once offered, the food is rendered blessed and is distributed to devotees as prasāda. Unlike prasāda, any other leftover food is called ucchiṣṭa and is regarded as highly polluting. A person who comes in contact with it is rendered ritually impure. Interestingly, it is this very ucchiṣṭa that Mātaṅgī accepts as an offering. This dramatic reversal of normal procedure shows that she is the mother of the marginalized.

The message? There is a danger that the idea of purity can become an end in itself, and slavish observance of custom can become a form of spiritual bondage. When Mātaṅgī demands the transgression of rules, she is not encouraging irreverence but asking us to think seriously about indoctrination. From our earliest days we are conditioned regarding what is proper and what is not. People caught up in conventional piety can be all too quick to judge others, and their sense of right and wrong may leave no room for compassion. They also tend to be deluded by the pride of their own perceived moral excellence. That is not conducive to spiritual growth.

Our conventional view of life is heavily conditioned, but the consciousness that is our divine nature is entirely unconditioned, and Mātaṅgī wants to remind us of that. She empowers us to question the conventional and familiar, to think things through for ourselves, and to see the Divine in everything.


Just as Mātaṅgī is the Tantric counterpart of Vedic Sarasvatī, Kamalā is the Tantric version of the beloved goddess Lakṣmī. Like Lakṣmī, the four-armed Kamalā sits on a lotus and holds lotus blossoms in her two upper hands. Even her name means “lotus.” Flanked by two elephants, she makes the gestures of boon-giving and fearlessness.

The lotus and the elephant both have great symbolic value. The lotus represents cosmic order, life, and fertility. The universe unfolds like the blossoming of a lotus, and the creation is accordingly vibrant, beautiful, and good. The lotus also represents purity. The plant is rooted deep in the mud, but its exquisite flower is taintless. Also, water beads up on the lotus leaves and immediately runs off, so the lotus represents serene detachment as well as incorruptibility. The water showering from the elephant’s trunk is symbolic of the rain that brings fertility, growth, increase, well-being, and wealth. The lotus and the elephant alike are symbols of authority: the lotus forms the throne, and the elephant is the mount of kings.

The main difference between the Vedic and Tantric goddesses is that Lakṣmī is revered as the consort of Viṣṇu and regarded in orthodox Vaiṣṇavism as subordinate to him. In contrast, Kamalā is not a consort but the independent and all-powerful Divine Mother. Additionally, Kamalā, like Kālī, embraces the light and the darkness, for she too is the totality.

Kamalā’s primary symbols of the lotus and the elephant, symbolizing purity and authority, place her in polar opposition to Mātaṅgī, who asks us to question the conventional purity laws and the authority that imposes them. How can we reconcile the positions of these two Wisdom Goddesses?

In truth, all ten Mahāvidyās are faces of the same reality. In the end, spiritual life is about regaining our forgotten purity and lost autonomy through recognizing our identity with the Divine. Then questions of purity and impurity evaporate. To know the true Self in its unconditioned oneness is to become purity itself. Questions of authority likewise evaporate.

We must not forget that Kamalā also relates strongly to the world of the here and now, and that she can play an important part in our everyday lives. Devotees pray to her for good fortune, prosperity, abundance, and well-being—for all the good that life has to offer. There is no harm in that, as long as we ask only for enough and we also pray and strive for the well-being of our brothers and sisters. Beyond that Kamalā calls us to aspire to a higher wealth, the riches of dharma, which include devotion, kindness, compassion, truthfulness, and all other forms of moral excellence more precious than gold. Virtue will in turn lead us to seek the still higher experience of Self-realization, the ultimate goal of human life.

Summing up

The ten Mahāvidyās stand for different stages of spiritual awareness and the varied powers of heart and mind that can take us back to our original perfection. The Mother who dwells within us, in her infinite creativity, assumes all these forms and countless more. Throughout her play of creation, she is ever ready to bestow her grace in whatever way fulfills our need.

Among the Mahāvidyās, Kālī stands first because she represents the supreme power of consciousness both to manifest the universe and to set us free. It is she who beckons us back to the ultimate unity beyond individual selfhood.

Tārā represents the state just before illumination, and her message is that we can reach perfection. She is the capacity for illumination inherent in all of us.

Tripurasundarī symbolizes the state of seeing the Divine in everything, and Bhuvaneśvarī is the state of seeing everything in the Divine. Both of them grant us the vision of universality.

Chinnamastā screams out that the divine power needed for Self-realization dwells in each of us. She represents the strength to conquer desire and lift our awareness to freedom.

Bhairavī cautions that we must prepare ourselves carefully for this spiritual awakening. If we are not ready to receive the divine magnificence, its brilliance may overwhelm us.

Dhūmāvatī represents the inner wisdom to understand the nature of adversity, impermanence, and loss, as well as the strength to cope with them.

Bagalāmukhī symbolizes the power in our own awareness to restrain the ego’s negative impulses and base tendencies. She draws us irresistibly toward our own divinity.

Mātaṅgī warns us not to take pride in good behavior and not to allow prejudice to stand in the way of love, compassion, and unity. There is not a speck of this universe that is not holy.

Finally, Kamalā, granting abundance and good fortune, calls on us to be selfless toward others. Realizing that we are one with divine love, we become that love. And so, in the here and now Kamalā offers us an easy and direct path to the Divine.