Goddesses with Attitude

Imma Ramos 29 October 2009

Imma Ramos compares visual representations of Hindu and Buddhist goddesses

Sex, violence and power – not necessarily things we would associate with revered Buddhist and Hindu goddesses. The Indian folklorist A.K. Ramanujan divided goddesses into two – those of the breast, i.e. wives and mothers, and those of the tooth, single, fierce and out for a kill. Durga and Kurukulla are unquestionably ‘of the tooth’.

Embodying the concept of Shakti, or divine energy, they are sacred super-heroines with a shared aim: to remove obstacles to enlightenment. The notion of the goddess as dynamic and active arose during the 1st millennium AD as a result of the development of Tantric texts describing goddesses in their wrathful forms as the sources of supreme potency.

According to the Hindu text, Devi Mahatmya, Durga was created from the combined forces of the gods who each gave her a weapon. Armed, dangerous and riding a lion she went to defeat the powerful buffalo demon Mahisha who the gods had been unable to subdue. A gory battle ensued in which she emerged triumphant – paintings usually depict the moment when she delivers her final blow, decapitating him. Peace is restored and her superiority over the other gods is confirmed.

The 18th century Rajasthani painting of Durga featured here is devotional. Multi-armed and serenely beautiful, she simultaneously fights an array of demons. Her name literally translates as ‘Hard to Get’ and her erotic appeal is undeniable – Mahisha was torn between wanting to destroy her and wanting to marry her. The inscription on the reverse describes her as a ‘Destroyer of Illusion’. According to Hindu and Buddhist philosophy, illusion or Maya is a result of falsely making a distinction between opposites including mind and body, the self and the universe.

In painting, the iconography of Kurukulla presents her as a classic Tantric female Buddha. She is adorned with a garland of severed heads, a skull crown and other bone ornaments as she dances on a corpse with wild abandonment. Although it might appear sinister, it is symbolic of her understanding and mastery of the illusion of life and death and triumph over ignorance.

In the 18th century Tibetan thangka Kurukulla is set within a ring of flames. She carries a bow and arrow with which she vanquishes selfishness and the ego. Her typically red appearance emphasizes her primal energy.

Buddhist monks newly initiated into Tantric practices often invoke Kurukulla through thangkas, while Durga’s victory over Mahisha is celebrated in Bengal every October and hundreds of clay idols are made in her image. Feisty, dangerous and wise, images of Durga and Kurukulla help devotees overcome negative mind-sets.

Imma Ramos