Force has masculine connotations in societies that struggled against Nature for their survival. Nature had to be subdued and tamed so that Man could be said to have conquered it. In societies that grew in her bosom, Nature was regarded as feminine in both her gentle and fierce avatars. Nature was the complete woman: the mother, the lover, the sister, the daughter, all rolled into one. All life forces emanated from her, and behind the Supreme Being's every move there was the cycle of creation, sustenance and destruction. God was a she. And she was called the Mother Earth, the Mother Goddess. She made the moon and the earth go around the sun. She made us do what we do, and later enjoy or suffer the consequences.
When the Aryans came face to face with the splendours of the Harappan civilisation in the early part of the second millennium BC they must have been awe-struck by the power of the female deity that bestowed such opulence, even on a people so unwilling to go to war. The Aryans established their hegemony by torching Harappan cities, and then establishing their own set of goddesses. Brahmans called them Shodash-Matrika-the 16 mother goddesses.
Perhaps the 16 originated from escorts of famous patriarchal Aryan chiefs, or from the women that took care of the home and children when the men went to war. The goddesses could have been wives of various saints revered by traditional Hindus who trace their ancestry to them through gotras named after famous rishis. It is equally likely that these remarkable women were chiefs or saints in their own right. After all, they have survived millennia of patriarchy and are worshipped to this day at pre-ceremony rites (purbanga) and ritual initiations and marriages.
When they are solemnly recited, the names of these 16 mother goddesses have a hypnotic cadence, a poetry of sound connecting us to our unknown maternal ancestors: Gauri, Padma, Shachi, Medha, Sabitri, Bijaya, Jaya, Devsena, Swadha, Swaha, Mata, Lokmata, Shanti, Pushti, Dhriti and Swosti. Women may have been beaten down by centuries of supression in our society, but they are still the ones who bestow power upon their men. So, who is empowering whom?
Matrikas became even more im-portant when Vedic Hindus (and later even Buddhists to some extent) fused with animism in the mountainous regions of Kashmir, Kumaon, Nepal, Tibet and Assam. A faith emerged celebrating the primal union of the linga (the phallus, standing for male force) with the yoni (the vagina, symbolising female force). Linga was the seed, yoni the ground-together they assured fertility, prosperity and peace.
Nava Durga is another latter-day variation on the theme of matrikas. The nine goddesses are worshipped, one on each of the nine nights of Dasain this week. Priests have taken a shortcut and simplified the nine into just three main ones: Maheshwari, Mahalaxmi and Mahasarswati. They are symmetrical to the holy Hindu trinity of Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma-the destroyer, the keeper and the creator of the universe.
The original Tantric saptamatrika are made up of:
. Brahmi, who sits astride a swan, and bears a striking similarity to Sarswati, the traditional goddess of learning
. Maheshwari is a female Shiva, replete with serpent, mini-drum and trident, and riding a bull
. Barahi is boar-faced, ferocious with a garland of skulls around her neck
. Indrani rides an elephant and looks a little more reassuring, notwithstanding a whip in one of her hands
. Chamunda is a skeleton, with two teeth protruding like Dracula she looks like somone who can send a chill down the spine of sinners
. Kumari is the virgin goddess, her blessings bestow upon kings the right to rule
. Baishnabi appears riding an airborne eagle that has a snake in its beak and she has one hand raised in a gesture of blessing.
These Seven Mothers are revered as symbols of primal forces that constitute the universe. In addition to them (are you following me here?) there is Mahalaxmi, the great goddess of Dasain herself. Heavily armed with a lethal-looking trident, a bow, an arrow, an axe, a whip, a snake, a sword and a chakra (rotary blade) in her 10 hands and riding a tiger, Mahalaxmi is the very embodiment of power. She is also worshipped as Durga-the slayer of evil and protector of the good and noble.
Last, but not least, there is Astamatrika, Mother Nature at her bewitching best. It is said that one night she appeared in the dreams of King Pratap Malla and directed him to create an image of her and enshrine her. So there she is at the Mohan Chowk of Hanuman Dhoka-embodying all the forces of creation, sustenance and destruction. Ashtamatrika is also revered as Kali, the seductive destroyer. Other faiths ask followers to be perfect like the Father in heaven. All Kali asks for is love: ecstatic love, elevating love, menacing love, punishing love.
For those who worship the female form, the Mother Nature, rather than the Father in heaven, there is creation in passion. Unison is the rule of the universe. And that is the Tantric link to Dasain: perfection in union. This universal interface of creation that is possible only by submission, a submission to the partner and submission to the Supreme Source that leads to salvation. The Astamatrika mother is thus the source of all forces: hell and heaven and everything in between rolled into one. She is the woman who makes it all possible.