Hinduism’s Cosmology of the Divine Mother

On the occasion of Navarātrī, Dirk Gysels, historian and civil servant of the Belgian kingdom, spoke, at the request of his daughter Freya who runs a centre of devotional and ritualistic yoga to the north of Antwerp, about the “Cosmology of the Divine Mother”.  I present the major  lines of the discourse of Dirk, who himself practises Śākta spirituality.

In contrast with our own Christian upbringing which taught us a very small world, Tantra knows an infinite number of universes, themselves already as large as the modern physicists’ universe. All these together are the Mother, all universes are part of it, but  the Mother is not just the physical dimension, She encompasses deeper, more subtle levels of reality as well. Navarātrī is the time to contemplate this.

We have a heart but also a mind. Let us, after all the heartfelt bhajans andabhiśekams, approach this question with our mind. We have recited the Durgāsaptaśati, the “Sevenhundred Verses of Durgā”. Those verses not only contemplate the presence of the Mother in phenomena which we, from our dualistic mindset, see as ‘good’, but also in less wholesome phenomena like forgetfulness, thirst, sloth, etc.  In Christianity, divinity is always associated with goodness; it doesn’t know what to do with evil. But the Divine Mother is everything. She is śāntamaṅgala, and raudra, i.e. “peaceful”, “auspicious” and “furious, stormy”. The raudra aspects are worshipped too. So there is no dichotomy between ‘good’ and ‘evil’. There is no separation between ‘me’ and the rest of reality, and more importantly, there is no rift between the Divine and the world. We don’t usually call it “unity” in Tantra, but non-duality, no-two-ness. So for whom do we dopūjā? For something outside or inside yourself? Everything is the Mother, so the Mother worships the Mother. By playing this game, we reach unity.

“Divine Mother” as a choice of words that wells up from the heart: Devī,Ambā. The realization of Devī is rather called Śakti, but ultimately the two are exchangeable.

We know the gross level, but there are subtler levels. The Mother is on all levels. We can start our description from the top and give a top-down explanation or we can begin at the most obvious level of Her reality and present a bottom-up explanation. See it as a ladder, a stairway with different sports.  Now, we start at the summit, on the highest level. From this vantage point, we will survey the 36 tattvas. Tattva is “thatness”: a definition to order everything.

As we know, light is both conceivable as particles and as waves. The particle side is tattva, substance; the wave part is best conceivable in the words of Śaṅkaraānanda laharīsaundarya laharī, “wave of joy, wave of beauty”.

Now let’s look at tattva from the angle of the Śakti philosophy. Most of these texts, mostly from Kaśmīr, have not yet been translated, and much has been lost, but now texts are dug up and translations are seeing the light of day. Once this was the preserve of a spiritual elite, now is the age of democratization of information.

Most Hindu philosophies see consciousness as the origin of everything. In the West, René Descartes said: “I think, therefore I am”, but even there, being isn’t equal to thinking. And in today’s views, matter is the basis of everything, while consciousness is but an epiphenomenon. But here, the origin is consciousness.

Every tattva has spanda, vibration, pulsation, as explained in the bookSpanda Kārikā. We live in a sea of vibrations, and the interference between these vibrations is sometimes harmonic, sometimes dissonant.

When talking of manifestation, let’s be clear: we mean emanation, not creation. In the Devī tradition, consciousness emanates by concealing itself. Mercifully this kind of “veiling”, tirodaṇā, takes place, otherwise there would simply be too many possibilities. (And as some astrophysicists speculate: there may be an infinite number of realities, universes in dimensions unknown to us.)

In the oldest philosophy of India, Sāṁkhya (“enumeration”), there are 24 +1tattva’s; here, this number is expanded to 36. Sāṁkhya is a dualistic worldview, and dualism is contrary to the experience of the yogis, so 11 extra tattvas are added to unite the two poles.

So, starting above, these eleven are:

1. Static consciousness, that in which everything rests, the “power of consciousness” (cit-śakti),= Śiva.

2. The light’s mirror (prakāśa-vimarśa), has the quality of ānandabecause it makes consciousness self-conscious, = Śakti. This concept of vimarśa is the key to understanding all manifestation. Static consciousness, when it becomes self-aware, needs mirrors in which it can see itself. All the countless phenomena , all the trillions of conscious entities, serve as mirrors for the static consciousness, as modes of expression  of śakti.

3. Sadā-Śiva, the “eternal Śiva”, has intentions, will, resolve (saṁkalpa), the “power of intention” (iccha-śakti); represented byArdhanarīśvara, the “Lord who is half woman”.

4. Īśvara, the “Lord”, is what religions call God; consciousness feels part Śiva part Śakti. Some texts equate this level with the primordial syllable Oṁ.

5. Śuddha-vidyā, pure wisdom, often the divine word. All vibrations of all mantras, the  essence of all mantras; if a yogi rises to this level, he is a mantreśvara. Hence in this tradition the importance of mantras. This is the finest level of mantra, recitation is only the gross form. The mantra is a hyperlink to the Goddess,=  the “power of action” (kriya-śakti). All divinities are embedded  in thisŚuddha-vidyā as subtle sonic , yet unmanifest, conscious energies.

6. The first manifestation is Māyā, “that which measures”, and thus restricts, makes finite instead of infinite; also known as Māyāśaktior Mahāmāyā. This is not to be interpreted in its Advaitā Vedāntasense of “(the world as) illusion”. The five highest Śaktis come together in the karaṇabiṇḍu, the “causal point”, like an open hand of which the fingers contract. Yoga amounts to reopening the hand.

7. The next five are the kañcukas, “armours”, starting with kalā, restrained “autonomy”, limited “agency”, as contrasted with omnipotence.

8. Vidyā, restrained “knowledge”, as contrasted with omniscience.

9. Rāgā, restricted “desire”, as contrasted with fullness. Desire is not something to shun: it is the contracted expression of iccha-śakti.One can desire out of lack of something and this leads to bondage or one can desire to express his or her own fullness. So one should not kill desire but transmute it .

10. Kāla, finite “time”, moment after moment, as contrasted with eternity, the timeless simultaneity of absolute Consciousness.

11. Niyati, which can mean determinedness, destiny, causality, “finitude”, as contrasted with omnipresence. Niyati being causality is the force that binds the beings to their karmas.

After these eleven, we get the 1 + 24 tattva-s of Sāṁkhya: 1 is the Puruṣa, the “person” or unit of consciousness, the individualized Śiva. The other 24 are Prakṛti, “nature”, the physical version of Śakti. This includes not just matter but also all phenomena that we would call “mental”, i.e. consciousness of anything, consciousness wrapped up in any process, as opposed to pure consciousness resting in itself. Number 1 of these 24 ispradhāṇ, the “first” or principle, 2 is buddhi, the “understanding” meaning the power of discrimination; 3 is ahaṁkara, the “I-maker” or ego; 4 ismanas, the “mind”. The rest consists of the five sensory organs (jñānendriyas), five action organs (karmendriyas: elimination, sex, locomotion, handling, speech), five fields of each of the senses, and the five elements. The highest and lowest tattva are strongly united: Śiva andPrthivī, the element earth.

In Prakṛti, everything is characterized by the 3 guṇas or “qualities”: the dark and heavy (tamas), the turbid and energetic (rajas), and the transparent and weightless (sattva).

Everything is a play of these tattvas. All these tattvas are Ganeṣa/Ganapati, “Lord of categories”, the offspring of Śiva and Śakti. Their other child isKārttikeya (“Son of the Pleiades”) or Ṣanmukha (“six-faced”), or with his Tamil name: Murugaṇ. So Murugaṇ represents the going from gross to subtle, the reascension to his parents Śakti and Śiva. The “six faces” are the 6 cakras, the spear with which he is depicted is the Kuṇḍalinī. UnlikeAdvaitā Vedānta, wrongly identified with “Indian thought”, this system doesn’t see the  world as just an “illusion”. The world is an emanation ofŚiva, the variety of trillions of souls is but the manner in which Śiva meets himself.

The whole system is the Mother. You could call Her the zero-tattva. She is called Mātā Tripurasundarī (“beautiful one of the three cities”) or Lalitā(“playful, spontaneous”). The pouring-sacrifice (abhiśekam) that we do for Her, also has a subtler level. It is ritualistic too, but interiorized: the manas-pūjā or “mental ritual”. But that is another story.

So much for Dirk’s explanation in Heide (Kalmthout) on the last day of Navarātrī.


Koenraad Elst (°Leuven 1959) studied at the KU Leuven, obtaining MA degrees in Sinology, Indology and Philosophy. After a research stay at Benares Hindu University he began fieldwork for a doctorate on Hindu nationalism, which he obtained magna cum laude in 1998. He regularly blogs at koenraadelst.blogspot.com on issues pertaining to Hinduism today. The above article was reprinted by Hindu Human Rights from Koenraad Elst: Who Is a Hindu?, Delhi 2002.