It is Friday – Devi’s Day ! And so therefore, as has become our custom – a fine work of art depicting the Goddess. In this case, an 18th century Yantra of Sri Bhuvaneshvari – The Empress of the Worlds.
This theonym is, as with many things in the Tantric sphere, an elegant contradiction in terms for its application. For Bhuvana means a ‘space for Being’ – indeed ‘Bhu’ ( भू ) is directly cognate with our English ‘Be’.
Why is this a paradox as applies Bhuvanesvari? Because She is, properly speaking, ‘above and beyond’ Being and the Universe, the Worlds … and yet is also to be found within the Worlds quite pervasively.
“In this world, but not Of this world”, to reference a certain other religious tradition, is not quite an adequate understanding – as in truth, She is the world(s), as well as being a-priori to, above and beneath them.
This understanding for Bhuvaneshwari is seen in some of Her other associated theonymics – ‘Vishvarupa’ [Vishva – ‘Universal’, Rupa – ‘Form of’, ‘Expression’] , ‘Sarvarupa’ [Sarva here meaning ‘All’], and of course, MahaMaya.
This last epithet deserves its own capacious explication – which I have done earlier, elsewhere; but suffice to say that while you often hear ‘Maya’ rendered as ‘Illusion’, the archaic Sanskritic sense for it more means ‘Power’, ‘Potency’, of a supernatural or difficult to comprehend nature. Here, it is doing ‘double duty’ – referring both to Her great and irrepressible might, as well as the ‘tapestry of creation’ that is the universe. ‘Her Robe’, we might say – it is the fabric of reality (and there is a ‘Kali’ in relation to PIE *Kel reference also here – ‘Veil’, ‘Covering’, worn over the incomprehensible beauty beneath). Hence, ‘MahaMaya’ we find effectively referring to the reality we experience (and much beyond that) as being the ‘Great Illusion’ yet also the immense literally cosmic potency required to produce, maintain, and operate this. Such power is not, in truth, illusory – it is the very opposite. It is a direct expression of the only thing (well, only Being) that is really capital R Real.
To speak more to this innate construct and concept – what we find with Devi as Bhuvanesvari is Devi being Brahman: The Absolute. And yet also doing the ‘active expression’ of this both as our reality and into our reality itself. This resonates most strongly with the Vedic theology around Vak Devi (and it is at this point that I should often reference the excellent theology of Sayana upon the matter, as well as my favourite RigVedic Hymnal – RV X 125 – the famed DeviSukta), wherein we again have the Absolute and a-priori ‘Speaking’ (more properly, ‘Singing’) in order to evoke everything and all into being. And thence being the most powerful force existing within the universe, continually ‘resculpting’ it to be in accordance with Her Grand Design (Rachana). We humans are able to access some measure of this most immense potency – not only by petitioning other and more mighty beings who are closer to Her than we are, but also via our mastery over that inherently ‘human’ faculty of the potency of Speech. Indeed, as Frantz Fanon once observed, speaking both changes us and inherently ‘upholds’ a vision, a civilization, a world. When we speak and impart concepts, receive concepts, meditate upon concepts via their processing and thence expression, we are actively participating in this noospheric ‘flow’ and cyclical currents of the creation. When we speak in the ‘Empowered Speech’ that is Sanskrit, we are beginning to move more into the ‘divine’ sphere rather than the mundane force of mere conception in lowly human terms. Sanskrit is a portion of the Language of the Universe – hence why speaking in it, in the proper and appropriate manner and with the proper and appropriate intents, understandings, auxiliary supports … is able to reshape the loka-lized portion of that universe itself far more efficaciously than merely shouting at the world in modern English. Runes, too, as I have long maintained, are fundamentally coterminous in this regard – small ‘knots’ of reality-stuff that we might make use of to reshape things and tether forces so they emanate out according to our (hopefully divinely concordant) Design.
It should therefore come as no surprise to find that another theonym of Bhuvanesvari is ‘Vagisvari’, with Vagishvari meaning the Empress of / Who is (Divine) Speech (Vag being Vak – and Vak quite closely etymologically cognate with ‘Vox’, ‘Voice’). And, similarly, Vak Devi’s frequent co-identified theonymic expressions familiar to us from the Vedas – Sarasvati and Aditi – are also stated as perspectives or labelings for Bhuvanesvari.
‘Aditi’ is important in this regard – as ‘Limitless’, ‘Infinite’ is just exactly what She is. ‘All And Everything’, once more – effectively indescribable even in Sanskrit, and so given the ‘negative theology’ epithetic labelling of ‘Without End’ or Constraint.
Although here, again, we find a subtle paradox. For whilst it is stated that She is ‘above and beyond’ quite literally everything (whilst still, simultaneously, being everything) – She also both has and does not have ‘Attachment’. She is regarded as above and unconstrained by relationship – and yet simultaneously is spoken of as having a Consort in the mighty Tryambaka (the Three Eyed One – Rudra; although a variant translation of some utility would place ‘Tryambaka’ as ‘Of the Three Mothers’ … and therefore, the Three Worlds). This ‘Rule of Three’ symbolism is a frequent occurrence within Hindu cosmology and metaphysics, with the universe often spoken of as comprised of sets of ‘three’ – ‘Three Worlds’, ‘Three Energies’, and so forth.
Now there is quite a lot more that I can and should say about Devi as Bhuvanesvari, but we shall leave much of that for another occasion. And instead move to address the question that some readers probably have about my opening line – namely, where the depiction of the Goddess is supposed to be in this image.
And the answer is : Everywhere.
Hindu devotional art is a truly fascinating sphere. We are often used to thinking of depictions of deifics in a sort of pseudo-photographical or portraiture sense. We relate to so much of the world via our eyes (or other unalloyed sensory inputs), and so therefore we want to be able to see visually what something looks like in order to be able to recognize it and thusly engage with it. We can then add another ‘layer’ to the insight when it comes to the hermeneutics of iconography – we know that particular visual elements stand for particular concepts, and so therefore we see more than initially meets the eye. A woman wielding a trident and accompanied by a tiger, for example, is the Goddess wielding the most mighty of weapons and accompanied by Her Vahana; with a sword standing for ‘sharpness of the mind’ and insight, a water-vessel bearing the empowerment which comes from pious rites and is so necessary for ideal life (indeed, life itself), you get the idea.
However, some forms of devotional artwork aren’t merely there to be looked at (and technically speaking, Murtis – devotional statues that are living embodiments of the divinities in question – are in this category as well due to Their role in our worship), but to be more actively engaged with – and thus help to convey understandings, condition the mind, and both form and guide through the relevant mental exercises of spirit involved in them.
A Yantra is a ‘mechanism’ (a fair translation) precisely because of that. It is also often somewhat of a ‘map’ – of reality, the universe, the Goddess ; which doesn’t simply tell us ‘where’ things are, but also shows ‘how’ things are, and the coursing progression of natural forces and Divine energies which make up (and continually remake) same.
So it is with this fine exemplar.
Housed within the four parameters we find three major rings – concentric circles which delineate three general ‘spheres’ (‘worlds’, ‘planes’). Around these rings we find lotus petals (a lotus being significantly iconographically salient for Ma as Bhuvaneshvari – along with quite an array of other deific expressions, of course; I have likely written about the general meaning elsewhere), with each one of these inscribed with written characters presenting a component to a Mantra. The idea is that one can circumambulate the ring reciting the individual portions and thusly comprise a string which helps to both mentally and sonorously ‘guide’ one’s journey – a ‘spiralling’ (and thankfully an upward one at that) mediated also by the Guardian Forces Who are keyed to each ‘step’ of the pathway and thusly mentioned via the vocalizations involved. The Lotus is an apt visual metaphor here – not merely because of its multiple layers of petals etc. but also because it stands for ‘purity’. The pathway of petals is, therefore, a pathway of ‘purification’; each step representing an additional ‘cleanse’ as compared to the previous and a movement closer and closer to the ultimate purity of the higher and thence Highest Devi-ne.
In the central ring, we find two triangles superimposed – a design which has its own saliency of meaning often encountered elsewhere and which is often inferring a union of Male and Female. Downward for Female (ShaktiKona) – and interestingly often linked to Water; Upward for Male (ShivaKona) – linked to Fire (Agni). These Two effectively stand at the center and radiate out all else. However, within the interlocking triangles, we find another circle – and there, there are no words (we are beyond these) : only another downward facing Shakti triangle, surrounding the central (infinite) energy point that is the Bindu (the full circle – or ‘dot’). The symbolism of this ought be obvious.
Although it is worth emphasizing that there is also an ‘elemental progression’ to this cosmological as well as cosmogonical guide schema (Rachana is, again, exactly the right Sanskrit word to use – and does not have an entirely easy English equivalent for both the plan and its active execution). The outer quadrilateral format represents the Earth element (Prithvi), the circular rings within stand for Air (Vayu) and atmosphere above, the Fire and Water we have already mentioned – although of course, it is necessary to note that the archaic Vedic cosmological congealment features The Waters as both liminal sphere upon this universe of ours and therefore an ‘a-priori’ out of which true wonders can arise. One of which being Fire (reasonably coterminous also with the Sun, particularly in terms of ‘from the Waters’ origination) – hence, here we have the Fire above the Air / Atmosphere and the Waters ‘above’ and beyond (yet also intersecting with) even that. Meanwhile, the Ether – the Akasha – the highest-most and conceptual space which is directly (co-)identified with Her (Bhuvaneshwari) , we find within that central realm both within and yet Above All.
And within that? The Infinite. The Axis about which all else turns and hangs in dependence.
‘Ya Devi …’
Jai Mata Di !