The Emergence of Devi within Tantra Through the Ashta Matrikas
Written By Swami Ayyappa Giri
There was once a classic battle between good and evil, from which the ancient Sapta Matrika goddess mothers emerged victorious. It represents the ageless conflict between the forces of darkness and the towering motive within us that yearns for the highest light of truth.
Internally, the battle reflects the soul’s struggle to be free from karma, maya, and the limitations of human ego. Triumph over these limiting influences, and deliverance from illusions of identity with the external self, is the greatest achievement that a soul can make on the journey to full awareness. On a microcosmic level, it heralds the ultimate victory of divinity in achieving full awareness of the True Self; Brahmajnana, the one limitless and undifferentiated consciousness.
These primordial mothers, variously represented in a group of seven or eight, may have first been worshipped as a personification of the Pleiades star-cluster, known in ancient times as the seven sisters.
One artifact from the Indus Valley civilization found near the village of Harappa, displays seven females in a row, and is considered by some to be the earliest known reference to the Matrikas.
The story of The Mothers has appeared in various ways in a number of early manuscripts associated with yoga and tantra. Book ten of the ancient Rig Veda, makes reference to such a group of Matrikas. The first chapter of the Mahabharata also refers to a group, with the phrase Loka-matara, or mothers of the world.
These original seven goddesses, the Sapta Matrikas, are referred to in a Sanskrit inscription discovered in 2019 in the eastern Andhra Pradesh village of Chebrolu. The inscription, issued by King Vijaya, a monarch of the Satavahana Dynasty, has been positively dated back to 207 AD. The ancient sacred text Varuna Purana, relates that the Matrikas were created to help Lord Shiva in his fight against the demon, Andhaka.
When Lord Shiva inflicted wounds on Andhaka, the demon’s blood began to fall. Each drop, upon touching the earth, assumed the shape of yet another Andhaka demon. Knowing this, The Mothers appeared, and began to catch each droplet before it landed, and the demon was thus vanquished.
A similar story of the ancient mothers is found in the Vamana Purana, Devi Mahatmyam, and Devi Bhagavata Purana, all of which describe a great battle which took place between the Matrikas and the demonics, led by Kali-Durga, as they battled against powerful Asuras who were wreaking havoc among sincere and pious beings.
The epics recount that when the demons Chanda and Munda were slayed by Kali, the asura Raktabija entered the battlefield. Enraged, and with weapons drawn, Raktabija charged. Like Andhaka with Shiva, a single drop of Raktabijas’ blood, on reaching the ground, would produce yet another clone of the demon, and behind Raktabija thundered a legion of Asuras, charging on their mounted horses, chariots, and elephants.
Upon seeing the massive army assembled against them, Durga and Kali sounded an earth-shaking roar, and the great goddesses; Brahmani, Maheswari, Kaumari, Indrani, Vaishnavi, Varahi and Chamunda appeared on the field of battle to join the fight.
The grand assembly of cosmic mothers fought ferociously against the Asuras. Working together, they ensured that not a single drop of demon blood reached the earth to spawn another clone. The dynamic Kali and her Matrikas were triumphant. Lord Shiva then appeared, and in his embrace, Maha Kali was returned to the power of her stillness.
Over the centuries, the awesome lion-goddess, Narasimhi Devi, and the goddess of grace and good fortune, Mahalakshmi, have each been included independently in the Ashta Matrika fold of worship, depending on the particular tantric tradition.
We worship these emanations of the divine feminine to this day as the Ashta Matrikas. This book addresses all nine of these goddesses for they are all considered Matrikas, and in different ways, they all play an important role in the Tantric Shakta path, the Kaula tradition of the 64 Yoginis, the transformation of human limitation, and the attainment of purity of character. Kali-Durga, the primordial mother that spawned them all, will also from here on, be referred to as Kali.
Although there were immeasurable challenges in the epic battle described above, the Matrikas persisted in their grim duty, without attachment, just as Krishna advised Arjuna to do in the great war of Kurukshetra.
A number of important principles are demonstrated in this legendary clash between the divine Matrikas and the power-seeking Asuras. The primary principle is that rita (natural cosmic order of balance and alignment) and dharma (spiritual truth-light), will ultimately be victorious over that which creates adharma (disharmony in the natural cosmic order).
The battle also demonstrates the importance of balancing abhyasa (consistent reverent action and effort) with vairagya (non-attachment), in order to achieve true knowledge of the indwelling Self. This balance is needed to guide a soul to eternal freedom. This is reflected in the mystical meditation, “Draw nothing toward you, push nothing away.” The degree that actions are performed with nonattachment is the degree to which the karma of such actions is lessened.
The clash of the Asuras and the Matrikas upholds the unending strength of shakti and the power of the divine feminine generally. It is a sound reminder of the often overlooked, strength of women through the ages. The blood loss described in the battle relates to prana (life-force), which the yogin seeks to retain whenever possible. The blood loss and cloning of adharmic beings that took place during the cosmic battle is also a metaphor for the inherent quality of nature which reflects back any force which pushes against it. When the knowledge of vidya (truth) moves into ascendency, a displayed countereffect of ignorance and avidya (illusion) can occur.
Maha Kali and The Mothers were engaged throughout the battle in capturing the blood droplets, and thus preserving the life force for the dharma. The judicious retention of life force is an important principle in yoga and tantra, exemplified by such practices as the Bhairavi Breath of Ecstasy,[i] Babaji’s Kriya Kundalini Pranayam,[ii] the 20 Kriyas Series, and other similar Kundalini Kriya practices. All of these techniques propel the yogin forward on the path by preserving an accumulation of pranic energy, sadhana shakti and the Grace of the Sathguru.
In the great battle, all are expressive in the harnessing of fierce impulses that are storied as emotion in the human realm. For most of us, society has cultured us into suppressing fierceness and energetic intensity, having labeled it as ‘negative emotion’. Viewed on an individual scale, when we suppress negative emotions, or perhaps impulses of sexuality, we may push those elements deep into the unconscious where these repressed emotions or desires become latent and can later resurface with surprising force. This occurrence can be circumvented through a number of yogic and tantric practices, that provide sacred vehicles for refined expression instead of repression.
In a broad sense, this battle is symbolic of the conflict within all souls between repression and elevation of awareness, between sinking deeper into the darkness of maya, or being immersed in spiritual light. In the broadest sense, the field of battle is the field of conscious awareness within each aspiring soul.
The story of the Matrikas brings many insights. A yogin who sees the relationship between God and mankind as eternally distinct, a dwaitist, ultimately experiences that bliss of difference within the soul. To that yogin, God’s lila (cosmic play), can always be enjoyed
By contrast, the person with the perspective that cosmic oneness is ultimately the sole reality, an Advaitist, may expect and aspire to merge with the undifferentiated oneness of all things, in the course of time. Advaita holds that all difference is the result of the illusion of creation – Mahamaya.
Just as the Dwaitist may choose to remain a distinct and separate soul from the cosmic source, the Advaitist ultimately experiences that all beings are engaged in a play of light, and that there are not multiple entities within the universe because the self alone exists in and through all things. This is an experience wherein there is only one source/being, referred to as Brahman in the Upanishads, and is described as the state of Nirvikalpa Samadhi in the yoga of later centuries. Yoga and tantra provide many practical vehicles to guide souls to this unified stage that is beyond even bliss itself.
Entering into a relationship with the Ashta Matrikas has a profound effect on yogins and devotees of Shakti. In some cases, long suppressed negative emotions emerge, which can then be cleared out through yogic means.
A person may have hidden emotion and desire bubbling up through the chitta (mind stuff) fueled by samskaras (mental impressions) held deep within the unconscious layer of mind. That person’s demeanor may even present itself externally without evidence of negativity or compulsive behavior, but that individual is still under the influence of their hidden drives, which must either be purified, or expressed in action at some point. The divine mothers are experts at uncovering the deepest elements of consciousness and transforming them into a teaching for the aspirant who can remain aware.
We cannot be truly purified until we deal with all elements obscured within the chitta (mind stuff). That cleansing process is the great gift of the Matrika mothers; the gift of uncovering those unhelpful and limiting tendencies, normally hidden, so that the we may purify even the subconscious depths.
The Cosmic Shakti works through these ancient mothers to uncover existing limitations, so that an individual can move through them with guidance into yogic and tantric processes.
Such deep inner-work requires great sincerity, courage, and the true desire to expand spiritually. Through Tantric sadhana, the aspirant learns to cooperate with divine will that operates in the unseen realms. A wellspring of pure love held within the heart of the divine mother to be shared with those who call to her with her sacred names, so that she may indeed know them to be her own.
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