She is the one whom Brahma of the lotus-seat praised
for the purpose of destroying Madhu and Kaitabha,
She is said to be Vishnu's super-conscient sleep,
She is Mahakali in whom tamas (inertia) predominates.
At the end of a kalpa - a day of Brahma, measuring the duration of the
world - when the universe was resolved into primeval waters, Vishnu in
mystic slumber was reclining on the thousand-hooded Sesha in the
Kshirasagara (ocean of milk). Brahma was seated on the lotus sprouting out
of Vishnu's navel. At that time, two demons Madhu and Kaitabha, born out of
the earwax of the sleeping Lord, sought to slay Brahma. Perturbed, Brahma
prayed to the goddess Mahamaya dwelling as mystic slumber in Vishnu's eyes:
O you who are the soul of everything, how can I extol you?
By you, even he who creates, sustains and devours the world, is put to sleep,
Who is here capable of extolling you?
Let Vishnu the master of the world be quickly awakened from sleep
Let him be aroused in order to slay these two great asuras.
Thus extolled, the goddess drew herself out from Vishnu's eyes, mouth,
nostrils, arms, heart and breast and appeared before Brahma in all her
splendour as Mahakali.
In the painting we see her dark frame beautifully silhouetted against
slate-grey waters, a commanding, majestic presence. The lofty waves of the
ocean in the background encompass the divine vision of the artist. Smaller
waves surge aloft on all sides. What is of particular notice in this
painting is the slight tilting of the lotus due to Brahma's weight. Besides
effectively balancing the entire composition, it is an eloquent testimony to
the artist's attention to sensitive detail. On the emergence of Devi, Brahma
's hands are stretched in a laudatory gesture and the two faces turned
towards her reflect his relief and joy at her appearance. The two demons,
Madhu and Kaitabha, on the other hand, seem to have frozen in their tracks
on seeing her.
The story, however, does not end here. This myth has another deeper level of
meaning, which we must pay attention to if we are to appreciate it fully.
The series of events in this myth allegorize a very human situation. The two
demons born of the ear-wax of Vishnu may be metaphorically understood as
prejudices and biases in the human psyche which arise from the vicious habit
of hearing evil as also readily accepting others' opinions. Brahma, the
creator of the universe, represents the innate creativity of the mind
engendered by this habit of relying on second-hand knowledge. The artist's
own contribution to the scene is the emerging rays of light at the right
corner of the painting which may be interpreted as rays of hope for human
welfare and progress. At such moments the sincere seeker of truth who prays,
like Brahma in the myth, to the Divine Mother to remove the veil of
ignorance - here compared to the state of sleep - and to awaken the mind's
innate capacity to discern truth.
The word Maha (great) is prefixed to the Goddess Kali in order to emphasize
her sovereignty over time. The word Kali refers to one who devours time -
Kaalam grasyati ya sa kali -i.e., one who transcends its divisions or
barriers, signifying thereby that there is no time-limit for her, for she is
infinite, without beginning or end. Mahakali's three eyes represent this
subjugation of time in its three divisions, trikala, as past, present and
future. Here, a point needs to be made. In Indian mythology, time is not
conceived eschatologically. It is rather thought of as a cycle perpetually
rotating on the axle of infinity. The chakra (wheel) in one of the right
hands of the Goddess is the Kalachakra (wheel of time). Not only is she the
vanquisher of time, she is also the one who holds all time in her hands. Her
omniscience, omnipresence and omnipotence are symbolized by the expanse of
ten faces and ten legs, projecting their knowledge and sway in all
directions. In each of her ten arms the Goddess bears a weapon. The sage
Markandeya gives us the following general explanation for these:
These are not really weapons
rather they represent the great elements which the Supreme bears,
the conch in the hand of the god represents space,
the discus symbolises wind,
the gada (mace) signifies tejas (light),
and the lotus, water.
In this particular context the khadga (sword) in one of the right hands of
Mahakali is the viveka-vijnana-mahasina, i.e., 'the wonderful sword of
knowledge and discrimination' which destroys ignorance and helps us to
discriminate between relative truths and eternal verities. The fact that
such discrimination is picturised as a sword also expresses the belief that
this understanding severs the shackles of bondage to material things. Hence,
the sword is also considered a symbol of renunciation, as is apparent from
the following line quoted from the Vishnu dharmottara Purana:
The sword Nandaka represents vairagya with which
The bondage of the world is broken.
The gada (mace) signifies stability. Describing the icons of the deity in
the chapter devoted to Pratimalakshana in the Vishnu Dharmottara Purana,
Gada deva kare nityam sarva bhutvashankari
i.e., the mace in the hand of God subdues all creatures in this maya. In her
left hand, hand the Goddess holds a bow, which symbolises the sankalpa
(power of desire of the mind, which creates the phenomenal universe. By
shooting with the mind as bow the arrows of the five sense-elements, she
creates the universe, a projection of the mind through the senses. The
shankha (conch) symbolises sound and its carrier space.
In the third hand on her left side, Mahakali does not hold a weapon. She
holds a severed human head. If we look carefully at it, what strikes one's
attention is the expression of absolute serenity on its face. It personifies
the bliss that comes from surrender to the Divine; the fact that the head is
severed from the body emphasizes the falling away of all worldly attachments
auxiliary to such surrender.
This is the allegorical significance of the story of Mahakali in the light
of which we can understand the following invocation to her:
O thou who drove away Madhu and Kaitabha,
O giver of good to Brahma, salutation to thee!
Give the form, give the victory, give the fame,
Kill the enemies.
Rupa (form) here stands for sayujya (oneness) with the deity; jaya (victory)
stands for selfrealisation; yasha (fame) stands for true knowledge bestowing
salvation; killing the enemy stands for destroying all kama (desire), krodha
(anger), lobha (greed), moha (attachment) and ahankar (pride).
This painting of Mahakali is a complete picture in itself, signifying
artistic beauty. Verily, the artist has been engrossed in meditation while
pictorialising the feelings of his heart.
The bright white complexion of Brahma and his yellowish upper garment
symbolise the detachment and tranquility of his mind; yet the red lower
garment speaks of the intensity of his anger. Both the rear faces of Brahma
reflect the feeling of perplexity and fear he is struck with on seeing the
demons, Madhu and Kaitabha; yet Brahma's front faces appear to be happy and
peaceful on the instant emergence of Devi. The lotus flower has tilted a
little with the body weight of Brahma; and with the emergence of Devi, one
hand of Brahma stretched in a stance of joyful gratitude indicates his peace
All the faces of Devi Mahakali are effusing wrath and anger; yet her
motherhood and her tender and effulgent limbs bring into the limelight the
sacredness of the womanly beauty. There are weapons and missiles galore in
the hands of the mother Goddess; yet her breasts are covered with a yellow
garment. In fact, her heart is wrathful, but the motherhood in her
predominates. The darkish effulgent complexion of her limbs has a tinge of
the bluish light of yogic sleep, which speaks of love and affection
springing forth from her heart. Goddess Mahakali is looking spellbound at
the demons who would now be the first to mount an attack on Brahma. Both the
demons with their teeth bared are looking fearful. The red color of the
demons symbolises wrath and anger. The lofty waves are surging aloft on all
sides. Verily, the artist has very dedicatedly laboured in painting these
minute details. The shimmering blue waters are so dexterously matching the
blue complexion of Goddess Kali. The painter's brush has worked wonders in
producing the subtle effect of light and shade. The rouge of the sky speaks
of diversity in unity. The weapons and missiles in the hands of Devi signify
the dignity of the realistic painting talent of the artist. The three
dimensions (or divisions) of space not only speak so high of the balance
maintained in the trisection but also are breathtaking.
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