KAMALA: THE LOTUS GODDESS

By editor - 12.2 2019

Kamala (“she of the lotus”), is the last in the list of the Ten Mahavidyas (great revelations or manifestations), who are a group of Tantric goddesses. Kamala’s place as the last of the Mahavidyas is not addressed in the literature. Although it may be taken as signifying a lesser importance than the others, Kamala is one of the most widely worshipped outside of her relationship with the Mahavidyas (Kinsley 1998: 223). She is portrayed as auspicious and beautiful, with a lovely golden complexion. She is seated in a lotus posture upon a lotus flower. She has four hands—two holding lotuses and two held in signs of granting blessings and giving assurance. Iconography of Kamala illustrates her being bathed in nectar by two (sometimes four) large elephants. Kamala is represented in a similar manner to the very popular goddess Sri-Laksmi, as Kamala and Sri-Laksmi are considered to be the same goddess (Kinsley 1988; Kinsley 1998).

In early literature, Kamala is referred to as Sri (Glory). She is associated with positive  and auspicious qualities such as royal power, wealth, beauty, and fertility. Sri is associated with the lotus and the elephant, important aspects of her character throughout the literature (Kinsley 1998). The elephants are thought to be symbolic of fertility and royal authority. The significance of the lotus is twofold. First, the lotus symbolizes life, fertility, and the entire created order of the cosmos. Secondly, the lotus symbolizes spiritual purity, power, and authority. Lotus flowers are rooted in mud, yet bloom uncontaminated above the water. Thus, Sri is seen as a pure life force, which transcends the material world, while remaining rooted inside it (Kinsley 1998: 225-226).

Although Sri may have at one point been an independent personality, she became more consistently known as Laksmi (Grace) fairly early in her history (Kinsley 1998). Sri-Laksmi is associated with several male figures throughout the literature. Some texts refer to her as the wife of Dharma, who is responsible for the maintenance of social order (dharma). Other texts emphasize her relationship with Indra, signifying royal authority, fertility, and prosperity. Indra’s kingly power, dominance, and success are said to be dependent on Sri-Laksmi, and in her absence, the king cannot flourish. In some texts, Sri-Laksmi accompanies the god Kubera, the Lord of Wealth, who is associated with growth and fertility (Kinsley 1998: 227).

Most importantly, Sri-Laksmi is thought to be the wife of the god Visnu. Visnu is often depicted as a divine king, associated with the promotion of dharma. Followers of Visnu seek to maintain social order (Kinsley 1998: 227). Hindu myths suggest that Laksmi is revealed, among other desirable objects and beings, when the gods and demons, seeking the elixir of immortality, churn the milky sea. She is thereby granted to Visnu, the leader of the gods (in this myth). Laskmi’s presence with Visnu allows for the security of royal authority; in her absence, royal authority weakens and deteriorates (Kinsley 1998: 227). When illustrated with Visnu, Laksmi is typically shown with two hands, rather than four. In association with Visnu, iconography of Laksmi also depicts her partaking in domestic chores, such as cooking and cleaning. She is often pictured massaging the feet of Visnu, and is shown to be much smaller than him. In this sense, she is portrayed as submissive to her husband, as his modest, passive, and loving wife (Kinsley 1998: 227).

The view of Sri-Laksmi’s passivity differs between schools of thought in Hinduism (Kinsley 1998). In the Pancaratra school of thought, Laksmi plays an active role alongside Visnu in maintaining the balance of the cosmos. She takes over many of Visnu’s roles as creator of the universe and regulator of dharma. In the Sri-Vaisnava school of thought, Sri-Laksmi has a less significant cosmological role, but plays the role of indulgent and forgiving mediator between Visnu and his devotees (Kinsley 1998: 227).

Laksmi has a large following of worshippers, and she is well-known throughout Hindu culture (Kinsley 1998). There are several annual festivals in the Hindu tradition that are dedicated to the worship of Laksmi. She is worshipped by those seeking wealth, prosperity, good luck, and fertility. Merchants worship their account books to encourage Laksmi to reside within them. Farmers worship their crops to promote Laksmi’s presence. Cow dung is also worshipped as a symbol of Laksmi’s powers of fecundity. Worship of Laksmi is thought to drive away bad luck and misfortune, associated with her inauspicious counterpart, Alaksmi (Kinsley 1998: 228).

Less significant to Sri-Laksmi’s following is her role as Kamala among the Ten Mahavidyas. The Ten Mahavidyas include an eclectic array of characters, ranging from fierce goddesses like Kali and Tara, who are associated with images of severed heads and corpses, to goddesses with more benign and desirable qualities, such as Kamala (Kinsley 1998). The Mahavidyas are portrayed both individually and as a group in many goddess temples across Northern India (Kinsley 1998: 1). There are many myths regarding the significance and origins of the Mahavidyas (see Kinsley 1988: 161-165, 1998: 22-36).

The most common understanding is that the Mahavidyas are distinct manifestations of the same goddess (Kinsley 1988, 1998; Dold 49). Oral and literary accounts describe the story of the goddess Sati. The king Daksa, Sati’s father, does not invite Sati’s husband, Siva, to his Vedic ritual. Siva forbids Sati from attending the ritual, and Sati, furious with her husband, becomes the ten Mahavidyas to show Siva her power. The Mahavidyas, surrounding Siva, frighten him so that Sati may get her way. The fear-inspiring Mahavidyas cause Siva to flee, allowing Sati to attend her father’s ritual (Dold 49).

Despite the lack of definite consensus on the origins of the Mahavidyas, many descriptions of their characteristics are consistent across origin myths. The Mahavidyas are frightening, they possess magical powers, and they are dominant to male characters (Kinsley 1998: 36-38). It has also been suggested that the Mahavidyas serve to maintain dharma, or the cosmological order of the world (Kinsley 1988: 161; Kinsley 1998: 38; Shankaranarayanan 3). Many interrelationships between the Mahavidyas have been suggested, including their representation as sisters; forms of great goddesses; stages of life, consciousness, creation and destruction; and the lunar phases (see Kinsley 1998: 38-49).

The Mahavidyas are worshipped in temples, or in Tantric fashion (Kinsley 1998). During temple worship, rituals are performed by priests, and people may join in public worship of the goddesses. Many of the more inauspicious Mahavidyas accept blood offerings, given in the form of animal sacrifice, in addition to offerings of flowers, incense, and fruit. Worship of the Mahavidyas in temples involves conceptualization of these goddesses as existing outside, above, or beyond the worshipper, similar to the worship of other Hindu deities (Kinsley 1998: 49-50). During Tantric worship, the mantra of an individual goddess is recited repeatedly, in combination with specific hand gestures, offerings, and other details (Kinsley 1998: 49-55). Kamala is among the few Mahavidyas to have several temples across India dedicated to her as an individual goddess, as she is most often worshipped as Sri-Laksmi (Kinsley 1998: 49).

In the context of the Mahavidyas, Kamala is recognizable as Sri-Laksmi; however, there are significant differences in her character. In many ways, Laksmi’s qualities appear to be altered in order to make her a better fit for the Mahavidyas (Foulston and Abbott 124; Kinsley 1998: 228-229). As a part of the Mahavidyas, Kamala remains a symbol of beauty and prosperity. She is generally still flanked by elephants, who symbolize sovereignty and fertility, maintaining Laksmi’s association with these qualities. Similarly, her consistent association with the lotus maintains her representation of creative consciousness and ritual purity (Kinsley 1998: 228; Shankaranarayanan 110-111).

Differing from her portrayal as Sri-Laksmi, in the context of the Mahavidyas, Kamala is notably independent from Visnu and other male characters (Kinsley 1998). She is often depicted as seated on a lotus alone, with neither Visnu nor elephants by her side. This greatly contrasts with the way Laksmi is depicted with Visnu, emphasizing the role of the Mahavidyas as independent goddesses, separate from (or dominant to) male characters (Kinsley 1998). As a part of the Mahavidyas, Kamala is separated completely from marital and domestic contexts. In addition to her auspicious and desirable qualities, Kamala is also given more fear-inspiring qualities when she is associated with the Mahavidyas. For example, Kamala’s role as a demon slayer is not portrayed outside of the context of the Mahavidyas. Laksmi is associated with others who slay demons; however, it is only in association with the Mahavidyas that she herself performs any slaying. Kamala’s association with more fierce qualities illustrates the tailoring of Laksmi’s character to meet the fearfulness of the Mahavidyas (Kinsley 1998: 228-230).

 

REFERENCES AND FURTHER RECOMMENDED READING

Dold, Patricia A. (2011) “Pilgrimage to Kamakhya Through Text and Lived Religion.” In Studying Hinduism in Practice, Hillary P. Rodrigues (ed.). London: Routledge. pp. 46-61.

Foulston, Lynn and Stuart Abbott (2009) Hindu Goddesses: Beliefs and Practices. Portland: Sussex Academic Press.

Jones, Constance, and James D. Ryan (2007) Encyclopedia of Hinduism. New York: Infobase Publishing.

Kinsley, David (1988) Hindu Goddesses: Visions of the Divine Feminine in the Hindu Religious Tradition. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Kinsley, David (1998) Tantric Visions of the Divine Feminine: The Ten Mahavidyas. Delhi: University of California Press.

Pintchman, Tracy (2014) Seeking Mahadevi: Constructing the Identities of the Hindu Great Goddess. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Rodrigues, Hillary P. (2016) Hinduism—the Ebook: An Online Introduction. Journal of Buddhist Ethics Online Books.

Shankaranarayanan, S. (1972) The Ten Great Cosmic Powers (Dasa Mahavidyas). Pondicherry: Dipti Publications.