The Devīpurāṇa and the Rise of the Goddess in Indian History: Text, Culture and Female Persona in Ancient India

Bihani Sarkar

Project advisor and co-editor: Diwakar Acharya, with editorial contributions from Shaman Hatley

Project supported by the Oriental Institute, University of Oxford

Project summary
The Goddess is prominently present in South Asian traditions both as an autonomous supreme deity and as different goddesses of every appearance and temperament considered her emanations. The project will assess how a single theological idea the ‘Goddess’ arose from the veneration of various goddesses from indigenous locales and traditions to become a major force in the South Asian religious experience. Central to this new vision of a ‘Goddess’ is her ferocity, which co-exists with her maternal benevolence and registers her autonomy. The project shall be the first to combine three different approaches to study this complex issue that finds historical expression in text and practice. It will include: (i) a close assessment of the Devīpurāṇa (The Lore of the Goddess) a profoundly influential scriptural work in Sanskrit from c. the 9th century CE marking the apogee of the rise of a Goddess; (ii) a close assessment of related liturgical materials reflecting how the traditions of the Goddess influenced the lived experience of popular religion in the medieval period; and (iii) a close assessment of current rituals of the Goddess, linked to the tradition of the Devīpurāṇa, which still thrive in north Bengal and Nepal. As such the outputs will be multifaceted. The project shall establish the first full critical edition of the text of the Devīpurāṇa, have catalogued and studied the considerable liturgical forms of this work that appeared in the medieval period, organized a multidisciplinary symposium including historians and ethnographers, produced a volume of historical studies, and, by using anthropological study, seen in what shape the rituals and ideas described in this work and in its liturgies continue to thrive in North Bengal and Nepal, where the scripture was particularly popular given the large number of manuscripts found in that region.

Research questions
More ambitious in scope than any other popular text about a goddess, theDevīpurāṇa  is a voluminous stand-alone work not attached to another text. Comprising 128 chapters of legends and rituals, it conveys for the first time in Indian history a mainstream vision of who an omnipotent Devī (goddess) is and how she is to be worshipped by all kinds of followers interested in safety and strength in dangers (durgas), magical powers (siddhis) and liberation (mokṣa). Ruling, nourishing and nurturing all beings, her uncontainable energy radiating in a multiple forms, the optimal among which is seen to be Durgā, she is essentially conceived in the penultimate chapter as a single formless entity, the fire of the god Śiva’s meditation.This bold vision of female persona, further reflected in the work by the prominence of fierce cremation ground goddesses Cāmuṇḍā and Carcikā, is reflected also in its attitude towards women, in whom the work says the Goddess inheres. It is also one of the earliest Indian mainstream religious works that shows the ecumenical nature of her devotional base: worshippers are said to be both women and outcastes, and from other religious backgrounds such as Buddhism. Envisioning the state in detail as its backdrop, the work reveals the wider context of heroic goddess worship within ancient Indian state formation. Chapters for instance on building forts, gateways, cities, royal insignia and military weapons–the concrete manifestations of the state thought to be empowered by the Devī–appear.

The project shall meet four desiderata.

(i) Absence in historical narratives of the ‘Goddess’

Given the lack of a reliable text to consult, the importance of the Devīpurāṇain the diachronic history of the rise of the Goddess in Indian religions, has been almost totally underestimated in scholarship, with only a few exceptions. This work and its related materials and rituals show that the theology of the Goddess acquired an independent and fully formed character from the time of its composition. The Devīpurāṇa marks the most formative moment in the story of ancient Indian goddess worship, when next to the traditional triad of Hindu gods, Śiva, Viṣṇu and Brahmā, the ‘Goddess’ became an equally venerated divinity.  Before it, religious materials about the goddess were either circulated in the form of Tantric texts of magic and metaphysics which required the practitioner to be initiated into a closed, secretive world; or in the form of popular legends or hymns included in larger mythological collections called the Purāṇas (as the Devīmāhātmya, the first major liturgical work from the Śākta tradition, itself was before it was independently circulated). The Devīpurāṇa was the first work that broke this distinction between secret and popular knowledge. The division between the ‘Tantric’ and ‘Purāṇic’, the two scriptural traditions embodying these two types of knowledge, is breached in the Devīpurāṇa and the worship it envisages for the Goddess. Consequently, epitomes of the Vedic religion, such as the Vedic sages, are shown to know the most transgressive of Tantric knowledge.  With this boundary broken, ‘antinomian’ practice (embodied by Tantric Śākta traditions that transgressed orthodox rules)  and orthodox Brahmanical practice (embodied by the Purāṇas) overlap.

(ii) Lack of understanding of mythology, liturgical traditions and rituals:

The Devīpurāṇa is not just a text, rather a corpus of works, or even a cultural phenomenon. Passages attributed to it appear in a wide variety of liturgies, from medieval legal compendia from the 11th century onwards (nibandhas), to ritual guides (prayoga/paddhatis) used by priests on the ground or courts to shape royal religious practice. Hymns deriving from this work are chanted even today by South Asians during the important festival of the Navarātra. Rituals claiming to be from this work appear in a number of medieval ritual guides, and are still performed in parts of North Bengal. And yet, little is understood about the text as a multifaceted cultural entity that shaped concept and practice.

(iii) Can this scriptural text reflect historical consciousness of social change?

We will use the work to fill in a broader picture of early medieval Indian society and understand its involvement with what Sanderson (2009) calls the ‘early medieval process’ prevalent in the period of composition whereby new kingdoms arose, expanded and developed multi-faceted religious policies. We will see how the elements described in this work—Śaiva traditions active on the ground, magic, concerns about dangers, rulership, heterodox cults, pilgrimage destinations, women—can tell a narrative of this historical process. For example, through examination of textual offshoots used on the ground (such as ritual manuals), we shall see the ways whereby the work shaped the reality of political power at a time when regional kingdoms asserted themselves by tying themselves to powerful religious traditions. Using the work together with its related cluster of texts and practices past and present as an anchor allows thereby the exploration of specific historical problems concerning the social and religious history of India.

(iv) Problem of the available text of the Devīpurāṇa:

In spite of its importance, apart from the pioneering work of R.C. Hazra and recently a few others (De Simini 2016, Sarkar 2017, Hatley 2018), the Devīpurāṇa is almost totally neglected in scholarship. By far the most pressing problem is the lack of a reliable text of this work. The Devīpurāṇa has been previously available only in two unreliable editions. One of these the editio princeps published first in the nineteenth century is widely acknowledged to be highly corrupt (Hazra 1963, 35, n. 105; Hatley 2018 forthcoming 254, n. 10, Sarkar 2017, 180, n. 8). The use of Bengali script made the work less accessible to the wider academic community unfamiliar with Bengali. The newer Devanāgarī edition of 1976 on the other hand omits passages that appear in the Bengali and does not improve the former. An edition of 2013 is a reproduction of the 1976 edition. Reconstructing a reliable and representative version of the text accessible to the entire scholarly community is therefore critical for further understanding of its broader relevance.

Our chief textual source is the Devīpurāṇa, valuable manuscript transmissions of which will be used for a new critical edition, along with the available two Bengali and Devanāgarī editions. We will also be using as sources receptions of the Devīpurāṇa in Dharmaśāstric compendia-literature (nibandha) and ritual manuals (paddhati and prayoga).

Research methods
The project will utilize a multifaceted research methodology, combining philological, historical and anthropological perspectives.

(i) Establishing a Critical Edition:

The principal objective will be the completion of a full critical edition of the Devīpurāṇa, to be done in collaboration with Professor Diwakar Acharya (All Souls College Oxford) project advisor and co-editor of the critical edition. We will consult four valuable old manuscripts transmitting the oldest versions of the text that seem not to have been taken into consideration by the editors of the existing two editions.

Moreover we will produce a complete electronic version of the text improving upon the existing Bengali edition for circulation to online databases such as GRETIL (Göttingen Register of Electronic Texts in Indian Languages). We have already started the transcription of the Bengali edition.

(ii) Identifying influences and liturgical reiterations:

We will identify the influences on this work and its reiterations in all known liturgies written in the medieval period.  In this way, we shall systematically piece together how the vision of the Goddess in this work derived from previous traditions and influenced later mainstream cultural conceptions of her cult. With regard to its influences so far there has been no full assessment of the inter-textual echoes in the Devīpurāṇa, which can also reveal to us its provenance and audience. Yet initial probings have been promising and warrant further inspection. For example references from a text from a radical cremation ground sect (Brahmayāmalatantra), indicate that the work shows knowledge of even those contemporary religious specialisms operating on the fringe. Tracing precisely the religious influences shaping the Devīpurāṇa would enable a deeper understanding of its self-presentation and evolution through interaction with the wider religious landscape and the circles in which it was read and taught.

(iii) Explaining the mythology, provenance and cultic background of the work

References to a text from early devotional Śaivism (Śivadharmottara) (De Simini 2017) show that its composers were aware of this popular Śaiva movement enabling in large part the early medieval process (Sanderson 2009). The cult of the Mothers plays a prominent part in the work. The backdrop of kingship is revealed in Chapters 21,22 and 89, which describe the rituals on Aṣṭamī and Navamī, the two days of the Navarātra of critical importance for performing military and magical rituals for powers. Their content is therefore revealing about the cultural conception of political power in ancient India. Moreover, the work innovates upon the mythological tradition of the goddess by telling the story of a brand new demon whom the warrior goddess Durgā slaughtered. Representing the demon as a virtuous king– even the prototypical ruler for whom the Devīpurāṇa seems to be intended– is an important example of the growing heroism of the demon characters in the Goddess mythology.  These intertextual and thematic issues will be explored.

(iv) Documenting ritual practice:

Descriptions of the worship of the goddess in the Devīpurāṇa influenced– either by attribution or by direct influx– the liturgical traditions of the pan Indic festival of the Navarātra in the kingdom of Mithilā and in small princely kingdoms in Bengal. We will locate and document rituals linked specifically to this work in Nepal  (for example in the area around the Paśupati Temple) and North Bengal (for example in the erstwhile princely state of Cooch Behar). This will enable us to see to what extent this scripture continues to shape the wider Indian cultural expression of worship, and to thereby study to what extent the Goddess still remains a force to be reckoned with in South Asian culture.

Research goal
The specific outputs of the project will be a critical edition of the ‘Devīpurāṇa’, a conference on the social and historical context of this work and its liturgical materials, and an edited volume of articles resulting from the conference.The wider intellectual outcome of the project within five years will be a more nuanced, historical understanding of the salience of the Goddess in South Asian cultural history and current practice.The critical edition and its accompanying historical and ethnographic studies would be the first concrete contributions to this wider understanding.Above all this project through textual criticism, history and ethnography will have illuminated the complexity and pervasiveness of the conception of female divinity.

Research context
The study of the mythologies of the goddess has brought to our attention the singular importance for Śāktism as a whole of the Devīmāhātmya, ‘The Goddess’s Eulogy’, a liturgical work describing the origin myths of the demon slaying heroic deity Durgā. However, more influential than the Devīmāhātmya was the The Lore of the Goddess, a work from the same genre of texts, quoted as a religious authority (pramāṇa) by over 15 commentators and composers of ritual guides between the 10th and the 15th centuries. Around 30 manuscripts are recorded in Nepalese archives. Textual parallels can be located in medieval scriptural works such as the Agnipurāṇa, the Śivadharmottara and the Brahmayāmalatantra. The range of rites described within the Devīpurāṇa formed the basis for ritual guides from East India to teach the autumnal goddess festival of the Navarātra, including those from the royal court of Mithilā, thereby influencing religious practice on the ground.

Within the history of the rise of the Goddess, the Devīpurāṇa marks a turning point. In a cultural landscape in which epitomes of female virtue and modesty abound, it exalts a female persona from the more radical Śākta traditions at odds with orthodox (Brahmanical) conceptions of the female. She is autonomous, blazing with energy, bedecked in skulls and bone ornaments, wild not mild, the destroyer of all for continued recreation, the bestower of both liberation and magical powers. Tantric rituals of magic, deemed suspicious by Brahmanism, in which these radical forms of the goddess were to be propitiated, appear in profusion. Chapter 9, called ‘The Garland of Words, contains magical spells for invisibility, possession, stopping rain, creating rain, controlling beings, making someone mad, stopping an enemy army etc. invoking the cremation ground (śmaśāna) goddess Cāmuṇḍā. Hatley 2018 shows the Devīpurāṇa’s adaptation of the legend of the demon Khaṭvāsura from an antinomian goddess-centred Śaiva text, the Brahmayāmala known to a closed circle of intiates in that occultic system.The result is the continuous presence of transgressive ritual that breaks Brahmanical notions of purity within the worship prescribed by the Devīpurāṇa. However, in the Devīpurāṇa this ritual can—and should– be performed by the general orthodox laity, especially by rulers interested in powers, not requiring initiation into closed systems. The presence of these examples of Tantric knowledge from fringe radical traditions in a work claiming to be orthodox (Vedic) shows the theological subterfuge utilized by the composers (as the 12th century writer Vallālasena too had suspected). These will enable the understanding of the complex, layered belief system of the work, which became that underlying Śāktism, and the strategies whereby points of tension in goddess worship were justified as part of the mainstream view.

Implications for the broader development of research in the field
By addressing the relation between Tantric and Purāṇic traditions, scripture and liturgy, text and practice, the interaction of the Goddess tradition with those of Viṣṇu and Śiva, the synthesis with local goddess cults and their belief systems through the lens of the Devīpurāṇa, the project will illuminate central questions in the field. The critical edition and volume of studies on this work will be the first of their kind. Moreover, by situating this work within a broader historical context and using it as source to reconstruct the socio-political landscape of medieval India in which it was embedded, the project would shed light on Indian history in the period between c. 8-9th centuries CE.