The Divine Empress And The Fire God – Beautiful Newari Art And The Durga Suktam

Very, very cool ! On the left, is Maheshvari (Devi) – on the right, Agni.

Now, it might at first seem a little curious – we are used to thinking of Agni as a ‘two-faced’ figure in the iconography. Yet in a way …

These depictions are, quite literally, two sides of the same artwork. A fine ~17th (or perhaps slightly more recent) Nepali (and more specifically – Newari) hanging, likely intended for display within a Temple; and, it is conjectured, presumably part of a series of eight such hangings – each bringing together one of the AshtaMatrikas (assumedly of one of the orders of such prominent in Nepali worship) and an AshtaDikaPala.

The AstaMatrikas – Eight Mothers – are usually a collection of Eight Devi-forms that are Shaktis (and visually, ‘female counterparts’) to particular Gods; and it is not always Eight – the SaptaMatrikas, for instance, number Seven, etc.

The Newari perspective knows eight Ajimas (Ajima – Grandmother) that similarly include Eight Forms of Devi (that have corresponding male divinity counterparts) Who are Protectors of Kathmandu, in much the similar fashion to how many Indo-European cities and nations have a Goddess in such a role (c.f Athena Polias etc. for Athens; Magna Mater bearing the Corona Muralis for good reason viz. Rome; and so on and so forth – ‘Nagara Devata’, we would say, for a ‘National Deific’, as a not unrelated concept).

Maheshvari, as the name would imply (and the iconography – look closely), is the Shakti of Shiva; hence Her other prominent naming of ‘Rudrayani’ (also encountered as ‘Shivaa’, ‘Rudrani’, etc.).

Shiva is Mahesha – Maha-Isha (‘Great Sovereign’, ‘Great Emperor’ – c.f. His theonymic title of Ishvara : ‘God-Emperor’, ‘Cosmic Controller’); hence ‘Maheshwari’ as a feminine corresponding theonym.

Yet upon the surface, there is something curious here.

Namely, that we find Maheshvari alongside Agni.

This is not as unexpected as it might first appear – Agni, after all, is Rudra; per well-known Vedic conceptry upon the situation.

But the difficulty is that if the conjecture around the male deific being part of a series of AstaDikaPala (Eight Direction Protectors) depictions is held to be true – then we would expect to find Agni in the SouthEast; whilst Shiva – as Ishana (The Ruler, and per the Shatapatha Brahmana’s setting out of the AshtaMurti (‘Eight Faces’) of Rudra-Agni, the Solar Form of He) – would rule in the NorthEast (a slight shift from the saliency of Rudra in the North in certain other Vedic perspectives wherein we encounter Rudra and His Wife (and also Angi) – for instance, the Tryambakah rite we have recently discussed in some depth).

It would be tempting to presume that, perhaps, there is a temple to the Ajima Maheshvari (Mhayepi in the local tongue) around historic Kathmandu’s southeast, thus explicating the situation – yet without having looked too deeply into this, I cannot seem to see such (indeed, the North looks rather more salient in this precise regard).

In any case, it is not like we are lacking for strong conceptual resonancy to be had between the Rudra-linked Forms of the Goddess, and Agni.

The situation of Vak also within the Fire-Altar per various SBr verses [III 5 1 22-23, for instance] (and providing a useful point of connexion with other Goddess-forms to both the North and West of the Hindusphere, as we have but briefly examined elsewhere) would prove one important exemplar.

And, of course, there is the famed Durga Suktam (of the MahaNarayana Upanishad) – which is, perhaps (un)surprisingly, significantly comprised of what are in other contexts, Agni verses from the RigVeda and AtharvaVeda.

‘Agni’ verses that, in that specific context – hail most eloquently the Goddess … Who is, after all, also ‘Jataveda’ (‘From Whom The Vedas Arise’ – also the first word of the Hymnal), and is also most definitely encountered with the complexion of Flame and arrival through dedicated Tapas (c.f Her most magnificent immanentization in the ‘Mountain of Fire Blazing’ (Parvat, and both Tejas and Jvalat, being the terms deployed respectively ) described in the Devi Mahatmyam (II 4 1) at and as the circumstances of Her Appearance), as the second verse to the Sukta says.

And we have earlier sought to render, ourselves, by hand, the Fifth Verse to the Hymnal … because I had kept encountering renditions that seemed to make it out to an English speaking audience as a rather ‘peace, love, and light’ sort of verse : yet which I had instantly, even afore I knew its true provenance, recognized as something else – a War Mantra.

My own translation had read:

“We Invoke From The Highest Place The Ugran Agni [Powerful/Furious Fire], The SahaMana [‘Conquering/Overpowering/Powerful Spirit/Anger/Sentience’] Unvanquishable In Battle ;

May She Greatly Protect Us From The Universe’s Durgaani [‘Dangers’], Divinely Incinerating [‘Ksamad-Devo’] The Great Evils [‘Durita-Ati’ – also means ‘very difficult path’] [With Her] Living/Sacred Blaze [‘Agni’]”

I have since gone and looked up the verse in its original context (the entirety of AV-S VII 63) – entitled by Griffith, rather aptly as “A prayer for deliverance from affliction”; and by Whitney, in his more prosaic fashion, as “To Agni: for aid.”

Griffith rendered it as:

“We call with lauds from His most lofty dwelling victorious Agni,
conqueror in battles.
May He convey us over all distresses, may the God Agni bear us
past our troubles.”

Whitney:

“The fight-conquering, overpowering Agni do we call with songs from the highest station; may He pass us across all difficult things; may divine Agni stride (?) across arduous things.”

There is much more I can (and most certainly should) say upon these mat(t)ers, yet this is only a brief 03:30 a.m commentary upon some excellent art of near 400 years’ antiquity; so we shall leave these concepts in earnest for another time.

I do not mean to propose that this ‘two-faced’ paubha of Maheshvari and Agni is done in such a manner precisely to illustrate the inherent coterminity of the Goddess and the God – whether as also co-expressed in the DurgaSukta or elsewhere.

But I do think that it is interesting that this was deliberately the choice of the artist or commissioner, those centuries ago, to bring together on the relevant sides, that (single-headed, no less) Agni and Shiva’s Wife and Shakti in such a manner.

As I had opened a previous piece of mine looking at the aforementioned verse of the DeviSuktam :

“Bravery will take you into the most dangerous of places. Overwhelming firepower will see you safely through them.”

‘Power’, as we all are aware, is ‘Shakti’ (and I here am also cognizant of ‘Shakti’, in the exact same pronunciation, referring to a ‘Spear’).

Me being me, I’d then gone on to turn it into a ‘Fire-Power’ tautological Proto-Indo-European pun – around Fire’s PIE predicate, *péh₂wr̥ … and yet, that term refers to ‘inanimate’ fire rather than ‘living fire’ (*h₁n̥gʷnís – whence ‘Agni’, ‘Ignition’, etc.).

It is only through Her, we may say, that that which is ‘inanimate’ can breathe with Life. Something found so magnificently in the well-known iconographic rendering for Kali above Shiva – with Shiva as ‘Shava’ (‘Corpse’) awaiting Her investiture of the fire of Life Force into Him.

Or, as so eloquently expressed by Adi Shankara in his well-known Saundarya Lahari [‘The Waves of Beauty’] –

“sivah saktya yukto yadi bhavati saktah prabhavitum
na cedevam devo na khalu kusalah spanditumapi”

Which, to render word-by-word:

“Shiva with Shakti joined (Yukta), if (Yadi) comes to be (Bhavati) empowered / endowed with (Sakta) is able to influence / manifest / effect (Prabhavitum)
If Without (Na Cet), the God (Devo) is indeed (Khalu) not capable / competent (Kusala) even (Api) to ‘pulsate’ / ‘move’ / ‘engage in mental activity’ (Spanditum) .”

Phrased in rather more conventional English:

“If Shiva is joined with His Shakti, then He becomes empowered to Manifest and Impel the Universe
But without Her, Even the Mighty God is indeed unable to even Move nor Mentally Conceive”

After all – without Devi, one cannot have Altar-Flame and therefore Sacrifice … hence why She receives first share of the Offering, even ahead of Agni [c.f SBr III 5 1 22-23, etc.] ; why She is hailed as prathamā yajñiyānām in the DeviSukta [RV X 125 3] – the first, highest, and foremost of Those Who merit worship.

It would be logical to compare this situation to that of the Hellenic figure of Hestia – to quote from the Homeric corpus of Hymns (29, in the Evelyn-White translation):

“Hestia, in the high dwellings of all, both Deathless Gods and men who walk on Earth, You have gained an everlasting abode and Highest Honor: Glorious is Your Portion and Your Right. For without You mortals hold no banquet, — where one does not duly pour sweet wine in offering to Hestia both first and last.”

Although this is, rather, understating it as applies Devi – as Her immense (and fiery) saliency is not only amidst the Altar Flame, yet also as Speech Herself (Vak – like ‘Voice’, ‘Vox’, etc.; and quite specifically as ‘Divine Speech’, in particular) and a-priori to All.

Limitless, in fact (Aditi) – and directly commensurate with (indeed, the major in-universe ‘incarnate’ expression of) Cosmic Order (Rta, Orlog, etc.).

Rather, we are reminded of Hestia’s Scythian cognate (per Herodotus – IV 59), Tabiti : a Goddess with a theonym connoting just such a ‘burning’ greatness, and said to be held highest also by the Scythians in amidst their pleasantly archaic perspective upon the Indo-European Gods.

Idanthyrsus, the famed Scythian leader who defied the Persian would-be world-emperor Darius’ demand that he bow as if to his rightful sovereign … instead declared that his allegiance in that manner was only owed to Two:

Zeus (Papaios), his Ancestor – and the Scythian Queen, Tabiti.

Or, phrased in our decidedly more modern comparative Indo-European theological terms:

The Sky Father, and the Goddess – that Radiant Queen of the Heavens (and all else under it, besides).

Agni is Rudra; Rudra is Dyaus.

And Devi? Well, She is Devi.

We can most certainly seek to express similar sentiment to Idanthyrsus (if, perhaps, without the succinctness of the famed ‘Scythian Speech’) in our perception of the Divinity depicted here upon this banner.

Jai Mata Di !

One thought on “The Divine Empress And The Fire God – Beautiful Newari Art And The Durga Suktam

  1. Pingback: The Divine Empress And The Fire God – Beautiful Newari Art And The Durga Suktam – Glyn Hnutu-healh: History, Alchemy, and Me

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