Shailaputri – First of the NavaDurga

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The first night of NavRatri is dedicated to Ma as Shailaputri – the Daughter of the Mountain. As noted in the introductory piece, the Mountain in question refers to King Himavat – the Lord of the Himalayas, and the father of Parvati [‘[Daughter] Of the Mountain’] in this particular cycle of Her incarnation. However, I shall also advance a rather intriguing ‘alternate’ linguistic theory, which would perhaps situate Her more clearly within the overarching mythic cycle as the reincarnation of Lady Sati – but more on that later.

Now, if you have just joined us, and have come from a more ‘Abrahamic’ perspective on theology, you are no doubt wondering how it is that a God can die? Or, for that matter, perhaps more astoundingly, be quite literally (mythologically speaking) reborn. These are fair questions, albeit with full answers well beyond the scope of this piece. Suffice to say, that the previous incarnation of Parvati was rendered deceased (at least directly) by Her own hand – casting Herself upon the pyre of the most inauspicious [not least in the sense of there pointedly being no Shiva there – auspiciousness Himself] horse-sacrifice being carried out by Her father, Daksha.
Yet rather frequently in Hindu mythology, “Death Is Not The End” – in fact, for many figures of note, it is instead “Only The Beginning”. So it is with Parvati; whereby, not least because of the Eternal nature of Shakti [the feminine-connoted ‘power’ which both precedes, transcends and even outlasts and ultimately unmakes the universe), a re-incarnation was perhaps going to be inevitable. Not, of course, that this assuaged the grief of Mahadev upon learning of His Beloved’s rather incandescent mortality impairment.

With the eminent foresight that one would unquestionably expect from the MahaRani, the One who has most eminent claim to the title of Chakravartin – as She is the axis around which the wheel of Mundi truly turns – Parvati therefore managed to be reborn in the Court of King Himavat and Mena/Minavat (Daughter of Mt Meru) – the latter, according to some myths, having previously been a retainer of Lady Sati and in this light granted a particular boon of giving birth to a very specific daughter …

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This was fortuitous for two reasons. First, Himavat proved to be a far less conceited and much more reasonable figure than had been Daksha. But second, just as the Himalayas is known as the DevaBhumi – the Land of the Gods – the ‘deeper’ Himalayas were especially favoured by Lord Shiva as a retreat; and following His recoiling from the world after what had happened with Lady Sati, He had retired to them to lead the existence of a renunciate ascetic – His only distractions from the unutterable pain of losing His other half, the austerities and cannabis, and perhaps the natural beauty of this most radiantly inhospitable setting.
Uma’s appearance here in the Himalayas, then, can clearly have been no accident. Although I have no doubt that no matter where They are or Who and How They wind up … the Divine Couple will nevertheless find Their way back to Each Other. Indeed, even the End of the Universe, the Death of Time Itself , is not enough to keep Them apart for long.
But to turn back to Shailaputri for a moment – this is, after all, supposed to be Her piece 😛 – if Lady Sati represents an exemplar of married womanhood (unfortunately, with all of the evidently potentially lethal contradictions which such a role can entail :S ), then Shailaputri is somewhat at the ‘opposite end of the spectrum’ , being the Maid of the Mountains – young, unmarried, and setting out into the world upward in search of Her destiny. This mirrors the path of the Devotee, the neophyte who is just beginning their journey toward greater illumination and empowerment, and for whom much of the world is seen with the exhilarating glittering of fresh and unjaded eyes.
In all senses, then, She is Pristine.
The very close connection between Her and the Mountains, the Earth, also connotes Her role as a figure rather akin to “Mother Nature” – the Princess of the Mountains, and therefore in implicit command of all the natural phenomena and such to be found within Her and Her Father’s domain; but also, as we shall see, ‘nature’ far more broadly afield, as symbolized cosmologically via the positioning of the Mountains at the ‘center’ of creation [and, indeed, Meru, who would therefore be regarded as Shailaputri’s maternal Grandfather, *is* one of the key Axis Mundi in Hindu mythic geography], from whence radiates out all .. particularly in the form of rivers, the slow movement of glaciers and agglomerations of eroded material from Them out into the broader world. In a certain sense, then, all that is around us is ultimately derived from the Mountains, in one way or another – and just as the sea-bed fossils still to be found amidst the highest peaks of the Himalayas demonstrate (for this was once the now ‘akashic’ Ocean of Tethys in the far-distant past when dinosaurs still roamed), to Mountains they may somewhat inevitably return. Even, come to think of it, should they slide under the crust of the Earth via subduction zone to be spurted forth once more through volcanism activity.
The ‘mythic’ situation of Shailaputri, then, standing freshly (re-)formed following the terminus of a previous span of existence in most dread fire and destruction (for such, surely, we must regard the apparition of VeeraBhadra and in some tellings BhadraKali, too, amidst the pageantry of Daksha’s Folly, following Her self-immolation thereupon), resonates most strongly with what has just been said about physical (as well as mythical) geography, and plate tectonics. As it connotes a ‘return to the Center’, from outside margins … there to begin the helicase ascent toward the Heavens where the Absolute more, most truly lies. This ‘final’ goal having been elucidated somewhat in my introductory piece, and effectively – after a sort – presenting as the ‘reunification’, the ‘re-realization’, the ‘re-membrance’ of the ascending Maid and then Mother of the Mountains with the ‘perfect’ [‘Siddhi’] status of Siddhidhatri as one of Shakti’s highest forms here within this realm.

[Indeed, one can also trace out a not entirely dissimilar ‘arc of (re-)ascent when considering the example of Lord Hanuman in the Ramayana – wherein Bajrang Bali is consigned to Earth, and stripped of His Siddhis, in order to allow Him to progress back up toward ‘full’ Godhood [I am oversimplifying and using slightly askew theological terminology here for a non-specialist audience] via the sanskara of positively imprinted experience that can ‘reshape’ His ethical nature and personality back toward ‘The Light’]. [It also, helpfully and handily displays a very different approach to the concept of ‘Moksha’ than an array of Vaishnava and Buddhist philosophies would put forward – insofar as the ‘liberation’ thusly entailed does not mean sublimation and dissolution, but rather ‘unfettering’ – an understanding which is definitely supported in the ancient Upanishadic metaphors around the ‘chains of Karma’ being loosened, entailing and enabling complete freedom of action. Just what we would expect from the all-powerful – indeed, Adi-Powerful, Ma Shakti!]

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What I have said also chimes in rather intriguingly with that aforementioned ‘alternative’ linguistic speculation I had thought upon when researching this piece. You see, while Sanskrit is capable of being a most eminently precise language when it comes to many religious terms … it is also capable of, in an almost playful way, combining and conflating both the meanings within a word [such as the way in which “Kaal” connotes ‘Death’, and ‘Time’, as well as ‘Iron’, and ‘Darkness’], as well as previously different words in together. It is not quite accurate to think of these as “folk etymologies” or “false friends” – as due to the nature of Sanskrit, these processes tend to reveal previously ‘hidden’ qualities of the concept or persona being talked about.
Now, the ‘fields of meaning’ for Shaila [which, much to my surprise – and perhaps slight horror – is actually likely etymologically related to the Australian and New Zealand female given name and epithet of “Sheila”], are not simply concerned with mountains and mountain-related concepts such as stones (including, potentially, ‘precious stones’ a la jewels, per Pali interpretation), foundations, and the apex portion of the support skeleton of a dwelling from which everything else hangs. But with slight changes in inflexion, produce terms for the scarf or veil often worn by a married woman (an element which it has in common with a comparable although not directly cognate Old Norse term – Faldr – which has much the same meaning, and which is derived from the visual similarity between this head-covering and a snow-capped mountain peak], harvesting (including, interestingly, of fossils – bringing into the present elements from the very much archaic, indeed verily pre-historic or even Primordial past!], Iron, and camphor, but also for form, beauty, piety, dispositions, traditions, virtue, and proper conduct. (We therefore have both renderings of the modern English term – Habit 😛 )
I suppose you could say, then, that ‘Shailaputri’, would also connote via somewhat homophonic resonance, not only “Daughter of the Mountain” – but also the best daughter, the beautiful girl, one born of a line of ancient and emphatically pious conduct (for such, ultimately, is why Sati ‘exited the stage’ [this, too, is a well-attested Shaivite-Shakta metaphor; that of the God and Goddess as supreme actors/dancers/singers in the ‘Cosmic Play’ – नटित नटार्ध नटी नट नायक नाटितनाट्य सुगानरते] , and in the Shakta incarnation/expression lineage is She situated], an exemplar of a daughter and maid.
However, it goes deeper. For there is also the related term ‘S(h)ala’ – which refers to a house, a home, a hall … and perhaps more interestingly for our purposes (although ‘Nilaya’ is also an attested Name and Nature of the Goddess), derives ultimately from the Proto-Indo-European “kel” [‘to cover’, ‘to protect’], that gives us an array of similar terms in Western Indo-European languages – as well as, in my reckoning, the “Kaal” we see in “Kali”. This is doubly appropriate, as in addition to the mythic account whereby it is *Kali* to whom the consort of Raj Himavat gives birth … we also see here, then, the Kali ‘hidden’ (another pun – both “hidden” and “conceal” are similarly derived) within the outwardly perhaps more ‘innocuous’ exterior of Ma as Shailaputri. Although I would be *vastly* over-reaching to infer a ‘Daughter of Death”, except in symbolic terms as a reference to the reincarnation and its reasoning for occurrence.
Or would I … for there is also the “Shula” term – which while nominally … or, I should say, *nominatively* … derived from a slightly different root, works out as referring to a ‘peak’, a ‘point’, a ‘sharpness’ – and therefore, an instrument of wounding, weather a weapon (no, that is not a typo – it is a hailing! As found out by the most unfortunate fate of the skeletal travellers at RoopKund ‘neath the Triple-Mountains of TriShul – which is surely aptly nama’d here!] , or an instrument of justice (an axis about which a corpse’s body of criminality is to be found – not that I am necessarily seeking to imply that the world at large is a criminal, except if we are talking about the Nordic cosmogonic myth of Ymir); and in an abstract sense, sorrow, grief, and pain. The dual connotations *there* then, would be of a child of suffering – which is clearly evocative, once again, of the regrettably literal self-sacrifice of Sati which gave rise to Shailaputri in the first instance; but also, via the focus upon the ‘point’, the ‘peak’ of the mountain, the ‘tip of the spear’ – further supports the regality of Her. As well as connecting back to the supremely well-armed nature of the Goddess in the vast majority of Her Aspects, Forms, and Incarnations – and, with what I have just said about a Spear further in mind, the most excellent insignia of both Shiva and Shakti in the form of the Trishula , which additionally connotes ‘samrajya’ over the ‘three worlds’ with each of its three supremely sharp tips, as well as the flensing power to discern and dissect truth from illusion as the Supreme Deities are enjoined to do.
Yet even these were not what initially caught my eye and turned my hand to spelunking amidst etymological-mythography. Rather, it was by chance stumbling across an array of very similar terms in non-Sanskrit languages – including the “Sila” in Serbian [‘Force’, ‘Power’, ‘Strength’, and ‘Violence’ – also, apparently how “The Force” of Star Wars fame is translated in that language] with close cognates in other Slavic and some Romance languages; as well as terms in the Baltic languages which refer idiomatically to ‘new growth’ upon a previously barren area of land (the rather more direct rendering would be of a coniferous forest on a sandbar, [and it is worth noting the strong linkage of even the term “coniferous” , ‘fir tree’, etc. to the Mountain Queen Indo-European divinity detailed in my previous Bharat Mata article, amongst further conceptual linkages between the Goddess in question and ‘silvic’ or forest/tree life – perhaps this even forms a ‘branching point’ of sorts with the wild woodland Goddesses so prominent in Romano-Greek myth],), and with a hypothesized chain of derivation wherein the word for the ‘barren land’ in question would previously have meant an area ‘burned’. The ‘skel’ root in question, entirely unsurprisingly, also providing us with the modern English terms of ‘Skull” and “Skeleton” – which fits most aptly with both the iconographic depictions of many of the more wrathful forms of Devi, wherein She is frequently bedecked with Mundamala [a garland or a necklace of skulls], often carrying a Kapala [a skull-cup] from which She may drink, equipped with a Khatvanga [a ‘skull-staff’] , and even, in some cases, quite directly has a Skull visage – as is the case particularly with Chamunda.

This also, clearly, produces a nexes of associations with the Cremation Grounds wherein Kali dwelleth, as both a burning place, and one wherein the corpses of the deceased, and consequent illusions are ‘burned away’ – leaving skeletons, skulls, or simply ‘earth’ and ash [‘Vibhuti’] .

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But to bring things back once more to Ma Shailaputri and the circumstances of Her Incarnation – it would also connote that out there in the akashic ‘background’ of the term, that we have a Daughter of the Pyre … and, going forward, the notion of fresh new life , wilderness even, springing up from what was previously dry and dessicated dead-land or desert.
This, then, handily illustrates both the Path of Ma Shailaputri – springing forth from deva-station (for such was the ruin of the palace and sacrifice of Daksha following Lady Sati’s self-immolation and the consequent Rage of Rudra via Veerabhadra et co), into desolation (for such was the state of the Heart of Shiva following the Death of His Beloved – the universe Howled with grief & rage, for They are the Universe] … and to it bringing with Her new life, new love, the “re-enchantment of the world”. But also, with the implicit connotations of the restoration and reinvigoration of tradition and piety – as well as the sincere support of violence & rulership with which this grand mission [a figurative translation indeed for Dharma-Yuddha – this being subtly tied to our broader work in that field via the Devi Bhagavatam and the key situation of Durga therein) may be upheld.
And the ‘shadow’ understanding that contained within and intrinsic to this new beginning … is also the ultimate End. Indeed, the Ekpyrosis, the Pralaya, the Funeral Pyre for all of creation. And thus the cycle goes on, around, again. Periodically becoming renewed via ‘sendings’, ’emissaries’ from the Axis about which the Universe truly turns. As noted beforehand, exactly that connotated by the Mountain, and the Daughter Therefrom.
“Shailaputri”, we might say 😛
वंदे वाद्द्रिछतलाभाय चंद्रार्धकृतशेखराम |
वृषारूढां शूलधरां शैलपुत्री यशस्विनीम्‌ ||
Iconographically, the customary depictions of Ma Shailaputri tend toward an ‘elegant simplicity’ – She is generally shown associated with a white bull, NandiJi (this also connoting the conveyance of the seeking Devotee upon their destined path of enlightenment), wielding the Trishula (the meaning of which is discussed above), crowned with the Crescent Moon (which as we shall see, grows more full with empowerment), often bearing a lotus flower (with the customary meanings of beauty, purity, blessing, bounteousness; and, as a point of interest, the metaphorical value inherent in the way in which the lotus – an emblem of beauty and divinity – grows from the empty, barren earth) and/or with a hand posed in Abhaya Mudra (connoting blessing, the removal of fear – also helping to signify Her role as a Guide), and occasionally wearing a head-scarf.
ॐ देवी शैलपुत्र्यै नमः॥

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