Adorned By The Mantle Of Fire And The Masque Of Death

A fitting image, we had felt, to resonate with a figure encountered at various points in our work over this past year, and that we might perhaps think of as something of a ‘Para-Kali’ or even ‘Proto-Kali’ (and, of course, Chandika / Chamunda, and Durga, are also heavily in-mind here for reasons that ought prove readily apparent in Diu course).

Now, of course, I emphasize that we are not presenting this image as a depiction of the Devi (or Her female coteries and co-expressives), simply a remarkable ‘resonance’ with the conceptry for Her that we had recurrently viewed. 

For context, here’s AV-S XII 5 47-51, Griffith Translation:

“Quickly, when he is smitten down by Death, the clamorous Vultures cry:
Quickly around his funeral fire dance Women with dishevelled locks,
Striking the hand upon the breast and uttering Their evil shriek.
Quickly the Wolves are howling in the habitation where he lived:
Quickly they ask about him, What is this? What thing hath happened here?
Rend, rend to pieces, rend away, destroy, destroy him utterly.”

Although I do rather like the  Dr Tulsi Ram rendition for line 49:
“Soon after, Wolves rush into his homes and secret vaults and raise a deathly howl of loot”

And we ought also make mention of the likely proper sense for the term translated by Griffith as ‘Destroy’ in like 51 – this being kṣā, fittingly rendered by Whitney as “Scorch”.

‘Destroy’ is not inaccurate, though – the term accrues in later source-material utilized rather more … ‘broadly’ for the scorching fire that burns the worlds entire at the end of the cycle of creation.

Now, for some further ‘context’.

The figure that is being extolled at the center of these verses is identified as ‘The Brahman’s Cow’. We have elsewhere asserted that this is, in fact, a Goddess-form. And certainly, the mention for Her as an ‘Angirasi’ [Daughter of Angiras] should seem to confirm that this is an Invoked Figure. We have sought to demonstrate this via comparison to the Divine Katyayani – One of the Foremost of the Wrathful Warrior Forms of the Goddess, Mahishasura Mardini Herself. Our argument therein had hinged around the notion of ‘Katyayani’ as being, so to Speak, a ‘Daughter of Sound’. 

Katyayani’s etymological root, via the Sage Katyayana (something of an ‘etymologist’ Himself, it would appear – we do get around, particularly when Devi-directed … ) should appear to be Kai (कै), ‘To Sound’. Within the Skanda Purana’s account for Her Arrival, we find exactly this ‘in motion’. To quote from one of our earlier works devoted to Her:

“The Gods are said to have been defeated in combat against Mahishasur, even despite being lead by Indra – leading to the woeful state of the Three Worlds as the Demons rapaciously appropriate anything and everything of worth. This lamentable situation is the cause for much anger and strategizing on the part of the Gods – with, and this is of vital importance, this anger and its attendant heat (the Sanskrit word used is Gharma (घर्म) – so ‘heat’, predictably, doesn’t really capture the connotation; think ‘boiling’, ‘brew-up’ – as with various ritual preparations), issuing forth from ‘Vak’s Gate’ (Vaktradvāra – i.e. the Mouth), begins to congeal.

However, it is only once Lord Skanda, Kartikeya, becomes aware of the situation – and joins His vocal expression of Wrath (‘War-Fury’ would be the apt translation for Kopa ( कोप ) here, I think) again out through the voice-gate with those of the rest of the pantheon – that She ‘arrives’ in earnest (the relevant Sanskrit term – Samagata – simultaneously means ‘to arrive’ but also to ‘come together’, ‘conjoin’, ‘unite’).

The Purana then goes on to state (VI 1 120 13) that it is due to precisely this that She becomes known as Katyayani – as She has developed from the Wrath of the Heavens, catalyzed via the Rage of Kartikeya being introduced to this.”

As we can see – the sense here is very much one of an Invocation, surging forth from ‘Vak’s Gate’ (for She is also, of course, Vak ! ) and emergent from the assembled host of the Gods. Or, as line 53 of the aforementioned AV-S Hymnal declares Her to be … Vaisvadevi. ‘Of All the Gods’, indeed. Just as Durga is presented as coming, in later scripture. 

However, there is more we ought observe – pertaining most deepa-ly to the fire-light at the ostensible center of this image.

The Devi Mahatmyam describes the Emanation of Durga as proceeding in amidst ‘ अतीव तेजसः कूटं ज्वलन्तमिव पर्वतम् ।’ – ‘ Atiiva Tejasah Kuuttam Jvalantam-Iva Parvatam |’; which, per the Pargiter translation of the Markandeya Purana, presents this as “[The Gods beheld] the mass of intense energy there like a burning mountain”. 

An immediate parallel must be drawn with the Fire that is encountered as the very Centre of the Vedic Rite. 

SBr III 5 2 8 presents the Vak that is within the (Fire-)Altar as becoming Enraged, and having the form of a Lioness (that creature so well-known both for her terrifying roar and stalking, devouring maw). To quote from our earlier work upon the subject:

“She (Vak) is then either propitiated and satiated through a further share of offering so as to appease Her Almighty Anger … or, an option is given to ‘Exorcise’ (SBr III 5 2 8).
That is to say: the Sacrificer , instead of endeavouring to appease and to calm the Goddess – states the name of his foe, and directs the Roaring, Extirpating Force that is Her to instead seek the antagonist out and send him screaming into the Gates of the Underworld. A most ‘Cruel’ [‘Kruram’] Maw, indeed!

Furthering our archaic Kali parallels for Vak in this context, She is described as becoming ‘Ashanta’ (‘Opposite-to-Shanti’ – opposite to ‘peaceful / tranquil’, ‘wild’), and as having an element of ‘Shocati’ (‘Shucha’). The latter term being particularly interesting to our purposes, as its effective sense is eminently … funerary.

शुच् (‘Shuc’), its root, refers at once to ‘grieving’, ‘mourning’, ‘being in a state of clear (and loud) emotional distress’ … and yet also to ‘burning’, ‘consuming’, and to the gleaming, shining, radiance of fire.

The former sense instantly reminds us as to Her Husband, Rudra – a theonymic that, quite directly, means ‘The Wailer’, ‘The Howler’ (from Proto-Indo-European *Hrewdh – a term for ‘Weeping’, and with the sense effectively resonantly-reinforced via consideration of its descendant, Old English ‘Reotan’, which is also utilized to refer to (thunder)storms … which do, after all, involve the ‘(tear)drops’ of the Sky (Father), and rather loud ‘roaring’ or ‘howling’ noises from both thunder and high winds, in earnest (amsha Manyu)).

The latter, of course, remembers to us the Funerary Pyre – that most ‘Kravyada’ form of Agni (Rudra) that dwells , via very definition, at the heart of the Cremation Ground as its major defining feature. A situation that, we may say, therefore should seemingly ‘resonate’ also with the Vedic Sacral Fire of the Altar – wherein there, too, we find Agni … and yet also Vak … co-dwelling there within, Together.

We are also reminded of the term’s utilization in Shiva Purana [II 1 4 54], wherein it is the iniquities pertaining to sin and impurity that characterize the world that are invoked via the term. That is to say – those who take proper refuge with Shiva and are protected by Him, are thusly inured against the damages and the depredations of these caustic forces.

Indeed, two verses earlier in that aforementioned Shiva Purana [II 1 4 52], as a point of perhaps interest (I find it pretty cool, anyway) – it is said that the “Axe (Kuthara) of Shiva’s Name” is able to ward against same.

We mention these Shaivite Pauranika elements, of course, because the converse is also true – namely, those who are opposed to the Gods and who revel in malefic (and maleficarum-laden) conduct … well, Flame (and that Axe) is the Cleanser.

It is just that instead of the ‘general’ “background radiation” level of fire and grief that suffuses an ordinary existence through the universe at large … these other sorts earn for themselves a rather more dramatic ‘Personal Touch’.

Hence the situation aforementioned in the SBr [III 5 2 8], wherein Vak Devi – and more directly, Her Fiery, Howling Displeasure are invoked in order to have these ‘reach out’ and ‘grasp’ (assumedly about the neck – hard) the demon-praising interloper.

A most helpful ‘Illumination’ (of the sort that renders one ‘warm’ for the rest of one’s life) for What Not To Do for all those watching from the relatively safe distance away of the other side of the moral spectrum.”

To bring things back to the AV-S Hymnal with which we had initiated proceedings – a similar ‘transition’ is in evidence therein. 

The Brahman’s Cow is, of course, Divine. And we find Her taking on increasingly Wrathful guise through its course – Fiery, Foe-Destroying, and Terrific (in all possible senses to the term) to most truly Behold. 

Although, importantly, She does not only Destroy – She also Bestows. She brings back to the Brahmana that has Called Upon HER Righteous Fury, That which had been stolen from him by the invidious opposition. 

“Thou bearest off the tyrants’ strength, their store of merit, and their prayers.
Bearing off wrong, Thou givest in that world to him who hath been wronged.”
[AV-S XII 5 56-57, Griffith Translation]

“Thou takest to Thyself the honor of the scathers, their sacrifice and bestowal, their expectations.
Taking to Thyself what is scathed for him who is scathed, Thou presentest [it to him] in yonder world.”
[AV-S XII 5 56-57, Whitney Translation] 

We feel it vitally necessary to note the above – for too often has it seemed that people simply regard the Destroyer Forms of the Goddess as being concerned only with blood-lust driven deva-station and Unmaking. 

In truth, it is Violence with a Purpose. 

And it is to such trenchant purpose that we see the Goddess – quite capable of being the nurturing Mother figure, even in these Fearsome visages – adopt such Death-declaring Masques in the first instance. 

I use the phrasing ‘Masques’ there for good reason – as it connotes both the ‘Mask’ in the sense of a facial covering, and also the attendant ‘Dramatic Role’ that goes along therewith. 

As applies the former, various texts across the Indo-European sphere should seem to present these Wrathful Destroyer Aspects as being ‘Veils’ or ‘Masks’ that are donned by the Goddess. Often ‘Black’ or ‘Shadowy’ – and we are instantly reminded also of Proto-Indo-European *Kel, which means a ‘Covering’ (and should seem to etymologically underpin ‘Cailleach’ – I believe it also to be at the root of Kali). 

So, hence, upon this particular figure we find a Skull-visage – in amidst other haute couture, including that rather remarkable pleating upon the arms that conveys a further skeletal aspect to proceedings. 

A female figure that has conspicuously donned the Mantle of Death – indeed, to quote the two major Atharvanic translations we happen to have ahand …

“Consuming, burning all things up, the Thunderbolt of spell and charm.
Go Thou, becoming Mrityu [‘Death’] sharp as razor’s edge pursue Thy course”
[AV-S XII 5 54-55, Griffith Translation]

“Burning (uṣ), consuming, Thunderbolt of the brahman.
Having become a keen-edged death, run Thou out.”
[AV-S XII 5 54-55, Whitney Translation] 

We would, of course, note that ‘Brahman’ there is being utilized in its more archaic sense – as ‘Ritual Invocationary Element’. Hence the slight difference in translation between the  Griffith and the Whitney. 

And we would further observe the situation of Her becoming the ‘Kravyada’ Agni :

“Having become Flesh-eating Agni the Brāhman’s Cow entereth into and devoureth the oppressor of Brāhmans.”
[AV-S XII 5 41, Griffith Translation]

“The Brahman-Cow, having become the flesh-eating Agni, entering into the Brahman-scather, eats him.”
[AV-S XII 5 41, Whitney Translation]

Note that word – ‘Becoming’, ‘Having Become’, etc. Because just as we see viz. the later scriptural accounts viz. Devi  adopting the darkened mantle of Death via Her Assumption of the Kali Form (or, for that matter, the attestations in the SBr etc. for Vak in the Altar becoming an Enraged Lion) … there is a clear concept for the Goddess to make an exterior transition, a ‘shift’ in ‘exterior expression’ or ‘facing’ into this more baleful and ‘scorching’ (indeed, quite potentially ‘all-consuming’) Form. 

We have also, elsewhere and at some length, set out our believe (with requisite associated evidence) that it is not only the Goddess Who engages in this ‘evolution’, but that Her human emulators (and we mean that in multiple senses to the term) – the specially chosen clade of women acting as Her on-Earth and amongst us ’embodiments’ (viz. the ‘Keshini’ etc. mentioned above … and quite an array of further expressions in both the Hindu and broader Indo-European spheres) – may effectively do likewise. 

Perhaps this depiction that our associate, SW, had generated in the course of his efforts at producing illustration  for upcoming commentary viz. the Furious / Destroyer Forms of the Indo-European Goddess … may in fact be one of Her Handmaidens of more Terrestrial originations , Who has , Herself , put on the (in this case, saffron-coloured, aptly enough – the same shade, also, as flame) Mantle in active seeking to be an Embodiment of the Greater Her as an act of divine duty and immanentized piety. 

As we say – this image is NOT intended as an accurate representational rendering for Devi … but looking upon it, I could not help but be actively reminded of all of the above (plus several things more). 

And in that sense, it is fulfilling its function as a supplement to the more conventional forms of devotional artistry.

For which, as with so much else besides, we can but say it:

Jai Mata Di ! 

One thought on “Adorned By The Mantle Of Fire And The Masque Of Death

  1. Pingback: Adorned By The Mantle Of Fire And The Masque Of Death – Glyn Hnutu-healh: History, Alchemy, and Me

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