The Triumph of the Goddess: The Canonical Models and Theological Visions of the Devi-Bhagavata Purana


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The author of the Devi-Bhagavata Purana endeavored to demonstrate the superiority of the Devi over competing masculine deities, and to articulate in new ways the manifold nature of the Goddess. Brown's book sets out to examine how the Purana pursues these ends. The Devi-Bhagavata employ many ancient myths and motifs from older masculine theologies, incorporating them into a thoroughly "feminized" theological framework. The text also seeks to supplant older "masculine" canonical authorities. Part I of Brown's study explores these strategies by focusing on the Purana's self-conscious endeavor to supersede the famous Vaisnava Bhagavata-Purana

The Devi-Bhagavata also re-envisions older mythological traditions about the Goddess, especially those in the first great Sanskritic glorification of the Goddess, the Devi Mahatmya. Brown shows in Part II how this re-envisioning process transforms the Devi from a primarily martial and erotic goddess into the World-Mother of infinite compassion.

Part III examines the Devi-Gita, the philosophical climax of the Purana modeled upon the Bhagavata Gita. The Devi Gita while confirming that ultimate reality is the Devine Mother, avows that her highest form as consciousness encompasses all gender, thereby suggesting the final triumph of the Goddess. It is not simply that she is superior to the male gods, but rather that She transcends. Her own sexuality without denying it.

Excerpts From Reviews:

"In this Purana the apotheosis of the Goddess in India is most fully presented. Given the intense interest in the Goddess, and in goddesses generally, it is important to have Brown's close study of the Devi-Bhagavata. One entire area of readership will be those interested in the construction of the Ultimate Reality on feminine terms."

- Diana L. Eck, Harvard University

" He has accomplished an unprecedented task, that of seeing this Purana's vision whole, against its historical backdrop, with a sharp eye for how its vision reworks familiar material. The scope and importance of what he accomplishes should not be underestimated. Hindu worship of the Goddess has been especially resistant to historical analysis and is therefore of particular interest, both to indologists and to those with an interest in gender studies. :

- Thomas B. Coburn, St. Lawrence University
- C. Mackenzie Brown is Professor of Religion, Trinity University.



Interest in the feminine dimensions of transcendence as revealed in mythologies, theologies, and cults of goddess figures throughout the world has been keen in recent years both among those concerned with "Women Studies" and among religion scholars generally. The Hindu tradition in particular has attracted considerable attention because of its rich development of religious perspectives that emphasize the feminine aspect of ultimate reality.

The Great Goddess, or Maha-Devi as she is known in India, burst onto the Hindu religious stage in the middle of the first millennium of the Christian era. Prior to that time, there were many goddess traditions in India. But it is in the Devi-Mahatmya (C. A.D. 500-600) of the Markandey Purana that the various mythic, cuitic, and theological elements relating to diverse female divinities were brought together in what has been called the "crystallization of the Goddess tradition." After that time, there were few if any attempts by Hindus to elucidate the nature of the Goddess and her activities that did not take the Devi-Mahatmya's vision of the Devi directly or indirectly into account. This study is concerned with a text, the Devi-Bhagavata Purana, composed and compiled some five to ten centuries later, whose roots are deeply embedded in the soil of the Devi-Mahatmya. The Devi-Bhagavata in many ways represents a justification or vindication of the Goddess tradition, as well as an elaboration of it.

I came to this work from somewhat the opposite direction of the historical development indicated above. My original immersion into the world of the Hindu Goddess came with an investigation into a late Krsnaite text, the Brahmavaivarta Purana (c. fourteenth to sixteenth century). While the supreme reality, according to this work, is the cowherd god Krsna, the primary soteriological figure is that of his amorous consort Radha, who emanated from her spouse's left side at the beginning of creation. Through worshipping her, one may attain salvation quickly and easily, while devotion to Krsna is arduous and time consuming. In developing the soteriological dimensions of the divine feminine, the Brahmavaivarta availed itself of many older Sakta notions, identifying Radha with sakti (power), maya (illusion), and especially prakrti (nature). The Brahmavaivarta clearly was familiar with many of the themes and stories of the Devi-Mahatmya, but assimilated them into a Vaisnava-Krsnaita framework that ontologically if not devotionally subordinated the feminine to the masculine.

One of the most intriguing sections of the Brahmavaivarta Purana is its second book, the "Prakrti Khanda," which serves as a kind of encyclopedia of goddesses, telling their major myths and providing a comprehensive structure that unites all the goddesses as manifestations of Prakrti. My earlier study of the Brahmavaivarta focussed on this book. An interesting fact I stumbled upon in the course of the research was that the "Prakrti Khanda" had been taken over, in large part verbatim, by another Purana, the Devi-Bhagavata, forming the latter's ninth book. Here was my introduction to this Sakta text. I immediately formed in my mind the idea of someday comparing the conception of the divine feminine in these two Puranas, the Krsnaite text emphasizing the amorous side of the feminine, the Sakta work stressing the maternal.

As I began work on the Devi-Bhagavata, I soon found my focus of attention shifting. The ninth book (the "Prakrti Khanda" slightly adapted to its new Sakta context) was in many ways anomalous, representing a very late addition to a more fundamental core. As I became familiar with the older parts of the text, it became evident, from a historical point of view at least, that a comparison of the Devi-Bhagavata with the famous Vaisnava Bhagavata Purana (c. tenth century A.D.) would prove more illuminating. For the original portions of the Devi-Bhagavata, I concluded, were composed in part as a reponse to the Bhagavata. Moreover, the inspirational seed of the Devi-Bhagavata was clearly the Devi-Mahatmya, suggesting the need for a careful comparison between these two texts. This double shifting of focus is reflected in the first two parts of this book, constituting the bulk, which are devoted to elucidating the relationships between the Devi-Bhagavata on the one hand, and the Bhagavata and Devi-Mahatmya respectively on the other.

My interest in examining these relationships was not purely, nor even primarily, historical but theological. That is, I wished to evoke from the comparison of these texts, especially from their mythological materials, the distinctive, vision of the Goddess that is the Devi- Bhagavata's. My use of a text-historical approach thus differs in intent from that of certain scholars in the past who utilized such a method in hopes of discovering some pristine, original version of a myth or myths, enabling these scholars (they thought) to discard later additions as irrelevant accretions. Today, however, for an increasing number of students of mythology, the "later additions" may represent interesting and valid new insights into the older versions, or even reveal new insights into aspects of reality obscured in the earlier myths.

Admittedly, the application of a text-historical method in the realm of Puranic studies is fraught with difficulties, given the fluid nature of the Puranic tradition, partly oral and partly written" Some Puranas are largely compilations, made over many centuries by many hands. Others may represent relatively integrated and "original" creations of a single composer, though always rooted in previous tradition as the very name Purana ("ancient happenings") implies, and always subject ~o late: additions and revisions. Moreover, for many Puranas, there IS no single recognized text as such, but rather multiple versions, the published editions representing only one small number of the total available in manuscript form, which in turn may represent only a part of all versions, including oral. In the present case, however, the major texts involved, that is, the Devi-Bhagavata, the Bhagavata, and the Devi-Mahatmya (part of a Purana), are fairly well integrated texts and their individual text histories are not entirely obscure. These circum- stances make feasible a historical reconstruction of the development of various mythic themes and motifs that culminate in the grand vision of the Goddess appearing in the Devi-Bhagavata.

My interest in this magnificent theological vision extended beyond simply observing what this vision was for the Devi-Bhagavata composer (s) or what it meant to later Hindu' listeners or readers. There is a sense then, in which I have grappled with what this vision might mean: could mean, even does mean for myself, for my relationships with wife and children, for my teaching and interaction with students and for my response to the world and cosmos at large. If it has the ability to move my Hindu brother or sister, am I not less of a scholar, less of a valid interpreter of Hindu life, less of a human, if I am unable to find within myself a similar capacity to be inspired by the grandeur of the Devi-Bhagavata's vision? I do not claim to be moved in the same way as those among us who are Hindus, or more specifically Saktas. I am sure I have understood less than they, and have undoubtedly misunderstood much of what the Goddess is in herself, and what she signifies to her Hindu worshippers. Whatever limited understanding I have gamed, however, has been increased, not diminished, by the personal struggle to engage her directly.



The Vindication of the Goddess in the Puranic Tradition

Goddess figures and feminine imagery appear in many of the world's religious traditions, but often such goddesses have fallen into eclipse and such imagery has become peripheral or subordinate to masculine metaphors of the divine. This was not the fate of the feminine in India. From one standpoint, the history of the Hindu tradition can be characterized as a reemergence of the feminine. This book addresses itself to certain later phases and aspects of this development within the Hindu world.

In the ancient, pre-Aryan period of India, the archaeological evidence, largely in the form of feminine figurines and ring-stones suggestive of the yon; (vulva), points to an early fascination with female powers of fertility and with female divinity. In the mid-second millennium B.C., Sanskrit-speaking Aryan invaders brought into the subcontinent a robust, martial world view that was predominantly masculine in its spiritual orientation. The goddesses (or the Goddess?) of the pre-Aryan culture' fell silent.

The Aryan world view, however, was not without sensitivity to the feminine, as seen in its reverential attitude toward certain aspects of nature that were perceived as revelatory of feminine power or beauty: night, dawn, and the life-giving rivers such as the Sarasvati. For the next millennium and a half, though, at least on the level of the official priesthood and religious elite, that is, within Sanskritic-Brahmanical circles, the most engaging deities were males: Indra, general of the gods; Varuna, overseer of cosmic order; Agni, the fire god who served as messenger between the human and divine; Soma, identified both with the moon and the sun, and with the divine food of the gods; Rudra, the wild mountain lord and precursor of Siva. In the last centuries of the pre-Christian era, the great masculine gods of the later bhakti Dr devotional movements, Siva and Visnu, began to assert themselves.

What had happened to the female divinities of the pre-Aryan culture? Perhaps they were simply overwhelmed by the deities of the irrvaders. More likely, in my view, they went "underground," surviving In the hearts and minds of the nonliterate, "uncultured" peasants, eventually percolating back to the surface of orthodox Brahmanical spirituality and interacting with the fragments of feminine divinity never completely absent there. In any case, by the beginning of the first millennium A.D., we find a number of goddesses emerging from non- Sanskritic obscurity, often as the spouses of the long renowned male deities and thus largely subordinate. Hymns to goddesses in the late portions of the great Mahabharata epic and in the Harivamsa (c. A.D. 100-300) reveal the increasing importance of female deities in Brahmanical devotional life.

Around the middle of the first millennium A.D., perhaps in north- western India, the several individual goddesses with their somewhat fragmentary feminine symbolisms coalesced into the figure of the Great Goddess, the Maha-Devi, independent of and far superior to any male god. This "crystallization" of the Goddess tradition, appearing in the Devi-Mahatmya of the Markandeya Purana, was a powerful synthesis that has influenced the self-understanding of Hindus to the present day. Through it, millions of Hindus have apprehended something of what it means to be human in a universe that infinitely transcends the human and yet which is pervaded by the very human quality of a woman's care (and anger). The reemergence of the divine feminine in the Devi- Mahatmya was thus both the culmination of centuries-long trends and the inspirational starting point For new investigations into the nature of feminine transcendence.

The Devi-Mahatmya, in the fresh enthusiasm kindled by its integrating vision of the one Great Goddess, assumes rather than contends that she is supreme. While bearing witness to her transcendent status, the Devi-Mahatmya is disinclined "to pursue speculative matters, and it Focuses instead on the myriad ways that the Goddess is operative within the world." Thus, her absolute superiority to the historically most prominent male deities of the time, including the holy triumvirate (Trimurti) of Brahma, Visnu, and Siva-responsible for the creation, preservation, and destruction of the universe according to earlier, masculine conceptions of how the world works-is simply affirmed with little ado. Often, she just quietly assumes the place of her male "predecessors" Dr manifests herself as the controlling power behind their actions. Thomas Coburn summarizes the situation succinctly:"the DM[Devi Mahatmya] does not argue that ultimate reality is feminine, nor does it propose it as a deliberate alternative to understanding ultimate reality as masculine. Feminine motifs are, of course, pervasive of the DM. But insofar as the DM is concerned to 'demonstrate' anything, it is that ultimate reality is really ultimate, not that it is feminine."


  Acknowledgements xv
  Introduction: The Vindication of the Goddess in the Puranic Tradition 1
  Part I The Two Bhagavatas: Contending Revelations and Visions of the Divine  
1. The Origin and Transmission of the Two Bhagavata Puranas: A Canonical and Theological Dilemma 17
2. Horsing Around with Visnu: A Case of Capital Murder 34
3. Who Slew Vrtrasura? Deception, Redemption, and Grace in the Two Bhagavatas 53
  Part II The Two Devi-Mahatmyas: Revisions Within the Tradition  
4. The Three Great Adventures of the Devi: Heroic Eroticism and Maternal Compassion 81
5. The Great Manifestations of the Devi: Maha-Kali, Maha-Laksmi, Maha-Sarasvati 132
6. Of Merchants and Kings: Worship and Its Fruits in the Frame Stories of the Devi-Bhagavata and Markandeya Puranas 153
  Part III The Two Gitas: The Harmonization of Traditions and the Transcendence of Gender  
7. The Devi Gita and the Bhagavad Gita: Self-Revelations of the Supreme Reality 179
8. Gita-Reflection in the Mystic Islles: Narada's Journey to the White Island and the Trimurti's Journey to the Jeweled Island 201
  Conclusion: The Triumph of the Goddess 213
  Appendix: Three Theories on the Text-History of the Devi-Bhagavata Purana 219
  Notes 233
  INDEX 311


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