Ancient Female Deities
Ancient Female Deities, Now Retired
More than four thousand years ago inhabitants of the fertile region of Ganga-Jamuna delta sang hymns of praise. They sung in honor of the powers of nature, of sky, of atmosphere, of earth. They sung the hymns of awe and terror to the powers of dawn, sun, ether, night, earth-its fertility and fecundity, water, vegetation and fire. Slowly the powers were personified. They were given thousand eyes and ears, multiple heads and hands. Most of these were male but many female: mothers, and spouses of the male deities.
Consorts, spouses and mother deities were efficacious but lacked profile and power. They were easily interchangeable with one another. Their names were simply the feminine suffices of the names of the male gods. For example Agneyi was the consort of the fire god Agni; Varunani of the god of proper conduct, Varuna; Indrani of Indra the god of thunderbolt and so on. The female consorts were outer and comparatively feeble reflections of gods’ inner energy, Shakti.
The earliest ritual par excellence was the Fire/Sacrificial Ritual. Male deities had a permanent place in it but Ushas, in spite of her hymns of praise, had no significant part in the fire ritual. They remained outside the periphery of the sacrificial space. Fire, the great purifier was the main deity on the sacrificial altar. Agni was and for a long time continued to be the ultimate proving ground for female purity and faithfulness.
From these natural powers arose the first female deities such as Dawn (Ushas), Night (Ratri), Aditi (Boundless ether), Vac (Speech), fertilized earth (Gaja Lakshmi) and Gau (Cow). Although subordinate and secondary to the ancient male gods such as Surya, Agni, Varuna, Indra and Dyaus these female deities were not only important but most of the significant contemporary goddesses are rooted in them.
The most important early female deity was the dawn, Ushas. Delicate, shy and luminous, she was the lover, wife and daughter of the sun god, Surya.
Each morning Ushas lead Surya so that his brilliance and fire was revealed to the world. Her arrival drove away the night, Ratri. Dawn aroused all life and chased away the dark demons of the night. She awoke living things but did not disturb people asleep in their death. She was the mistress of time reminding humans their limited time on earth.
Ratri, the night, Ushas’ twin sister lived in the south, the abode of Yama–the god of death. She was closely related with another dark deity named Nritti who wore black and was the mistress of death, destruction and sorrow. Ratri helped people sleep and rest. Those who were restless became restful in her quiet darkness. In later years she was associated with now world famous goddess Kali.
Firm, motionless and wide earth was recognized as the life-giving and fragrant mother. Yet it was recognized that the one who creates and nourishes has dangers such as evil spirits, diseases and death inherent in it. To ward off its destructive effects and propitiate and appease the earth prayers were offered, amulets worn and sacrifices performed.
Prithvi was coupled with the sky deity Dyaus that fertilized Prithvi with rain and life sprouted. Prithvi pours forth milk like human mother for her son. Her breasts are full of nectar. She nourishes all–wicked and good, demonic and divine.
Sri was the splendor and power of the tribal head, called raja, in the age of agriculture. The economic surplus that was expressed through Indus Valley embellished terracotta figurines was now transferred to Sri. She was linked to bounty and fecundity of the earth and took over her attributes. As earth she was praised as ‘the one possessing dung.” Her two sons were mud and moisture–the ingredients of a rich soil.
Sri became wife of Kubera, the overseer of king’s treasury. She was fortune and abundance of the king. Without her there won’t be any treasury and rajas would fail to govern. In epic mythology, the overseer was pushed to the background and a spousal relationship developed between the king and Sri.
Yakshini and Yaksha Couples (Mithunas)
Yakshini was the indwelling spirit of water and vegetation. Along with her male counterpart, Yaksha, their power was personified and eulogized in the form of a couple called Mithuna. It symbolized union and completeness.
Vac, the spoken Sanskrit was identified with mighty flow of the river Sarasvati. The bountiful flow of the language was equated with the powerful flow of the river. While flow of the water fertilizes earth the flow of the speech does the same for the mind.
Excerpted from my book, “Images of Indian Goddesses: Myths, Meanings and Models,” Abhinav Publications, New Delhi. 2003.