Hinduism has a rich ancient tradition of goddess veneration, and stands out amongst today’s major world religions with its reverence for the feminine aspect of divinity. Such veneration was once much more prominent worldwide, and can be seen in various traditions descended from the ancient Religion of the Sun.
Hinduism’s many goddesses are generally understood to be forms or aspects of one great Spiritual Mother, whose primordial energy, called Prakriti (nature) or Shakti (energy), is said to underlie creation. This all-encompassing female deity is sometimes referred to as “Mahadevi,” which means “Great Goddess.” Hinduism’s many goddesses are often held to embody or represent her different roles and attributes.
Among her roles is that of a fierce warrior who destroys evil and rescues her children from the powers of darkness—her children being those who exist in creation. It is this aspect which the majestic and formidable goddess Durga and the ferocious goddess Kali portray. Both goddesses are also used to personify the great Mahadevi in Hindu iconography, as they exemplify her supreme power.
Durga and Kali are depicted as unassailable warriors, bearing weapons primed for battle and slaying hordes of demons. Kali, whose name means black or dark one, is in some accounts portrayed as Durga’s most fearsome form or manifestation1 with a ferocious appearance, wearing the severed heads and arms of the demons she has slayed. While formidable and powerful, both Durga and Kali are also portrayed as merciful and compassionate, aiding those oppressed by evil.
The battles they wage can be seen as more than mythical however, as a metaphor for the struggle between light and darkness within the human psyche. Hindu folklore presents the warrior Goddess as a higher power one can petition to ask for the destruction of “enemies,” “robbers,” and “deadly evils” within, and thereby be rescued from sin. The inner enemies slayed by the Goddess are described in traditional hymns as being evil desires and passions like lust, anger, and greed.
Traditional Sanskrit Songs (Stotras) to the Goddess
This understanding can be found in traditional songs of veneration to the Goddess, such as Chalisas. These are Sanskrit stotras—odes or hymns of praise—consisting of forty-verse prayers written for song.2
An example is the “Durga Chalisa,” often sung at a festival in honor of Durga called Navratri (or Durga Puja),3 held over nine nights around the Autumn Equinox.4 The verses praise Durga as the mother of creation who pervades and nurtures the universe, destroys everything at the time of dissolution, terrifies and slaughters demons, and has the power to end miseries and sorrow, and bring redemption. It praises a number of Goddesses in the Hindu pantheon as various forms of the same great Spiritual Mother.
The following excerpt from “Durga Chalisa” conveys how a person afflicted and tormented by various desires like passion and lust, which are described as “enemies,” can meditate on or direct attention toward the Mother Goddess, and pray to her to ask her to kill these enemies arising within. (Note that “Bhavani” is another name or form of Durga):
O Mother! Severe afflictions distress me
and no one except Your Honoured Self can provide relief,
please end my afflictions.
Hopes and longings ever torture me.
All sorts of passions and lust ever torment my heart.
O Goddess Bhavani! I meditate only upon you
Please kill my enemies O Queen!
~ “Durga Chalisa”5
“Sri Kali Chalisa” is another forty-verse traditional song, in this case eulogizing the Goddess Kali. This hymn describes the Goddess as primordial energy, the mother of the world, the source and mother of all beings, and describes in detail her formidable appearance and ability to battle and slaughter demons.
Like the previous hymn, it also describes how a person oppressed by evil states within can pray to the Mother Goddess to destroy them. The verses call out for Kali to overthrow the “prime enemies” of “lust, anger, infatuation, and avarice” within—states in the human psyche described as “robbers” and “deadly evils.” Deliverance from these evil states is said to bring one closer to Rama and Krishna. These are divine heroes and savior figures in Hindu mythology, believed to have been born on earth as manifestations of the God Vishnu in human form to restore spiritual principles and turn back the tide of evil.
I am in a perilous predicament, O Mother, and know not whom [else] to call for help.
I am being pursued on the rough roads of life by four robbers who are bent upon turning me against the lord of the house of Raghu, Rama.6
These are my prime enemies, the sovereign lords of all the deadly evils; lust, anger, infatuation and avarice.
If you overthrow them (and abandon me not to my troubles), I would be blessed with devotion to the enemy of [the demon] Mura, namely, Lord Krsna [Krishna].
~ “Sri Kali Chalisa”7
An alternative translation of the above verse renders the four prime enemies as “lust, anger, attachments, and greed.”8
Another traditional forty-verse Sanskrit song to Kali is the “Shri Mahakāli Chalisa.” (Although both this and the previous song are also simply called “Kali Chalisa.”) It describes Kali as primordial energy, an everlasting flame, as both a personal mother and mother of the earth, and as a fierce warrior with the power to kill and diminish demons, terrify negative beings, and dissolve the troubles of her devotees.
The following passage speaks of her ability to remove pain, “negative thoughts,” and sorrow from those who pray to her and seek refuge in her. The Goddess is described as having power to free a person from the trappings of an illusory materialistic perception of life (Maya), to bestow knowledge, and to grant spiritual liberation (Moksha). Note that “Maa” is the short version of “matar” which means mother in Sanskrit, while “Kali-yuga world” refers not to the goddess Kali, but to the present age of darkness and degeneration (Kali Yuga) the world is said to be in.
You eliminate deep sorrow of whoever takes refuge in you[…]
Please have mercy, Maa Kali
We are ignorant, foolish and caught up in the illusion of Maya[…]
Please break us free from this
Please have mercy, Maa Kali
Mother Bhavatarni9 grant us Moksha [spiritual liberation] Destroyer of pain, remove my sorrows
O Maternal mother
Please have mercy, Maa Kali
No one can distract anyone who prays to you
You remove your devotees negative thoughts
Please have mercy, Maa Kali
I am trying to reach your path in this Kali-yuga world
Please attract me closer to you
Give me knowledge to overcome and be close to you
Please have mercy, Maa Kali
Praise to the form of Mahakali
You are the energy, you are the light, the everlasting flame
The Mother… you are adorned and loved
Be merciful Maa Kali
~ “Shri Mahakāli Chalisa”10
Musical renditions of this and “Durga Chalisa” with English subtitles can be found in the Indian/Hindu section of the traditional music resources page.
Asking for Forgiveness and to Be Rescued from Sin
Another traditional Sanskrit song is the “Devi Aparadha Kshamapana Stotram,” which is a prayer seeking forgiveness from the Goddess Durga. The verses touch on the theme that sincerity, humility, and self-honesty are more important than ritual procedures when praying to the Mother Goddess. They convey how a person can pray to the Spiritual Mother in repentance, and how, despite having committed wrong or failed in their duties due to “ignorance” or “sloth,” if they are sincere and admit their mistakes, they can still find forgiveness and refuge from the Mother—who is said to have the power to destroy sorrow.
I don’t know how to recite Your mantra, how to worship You with yantra,
Nor do I know how to welcome you or meditate upon you.
I don’t know how to pray to you or how to do Your mudra.
Nor do I know how to open my heart to you and tell you of my suffering.
But this I know, Oh MA!
That to take refuge in you will destroy all my sorrow.
Because of my ignorance, poverty and sloth,
I have not been able to worship Your feet.
But Oh Mother! gracious Deliverer of all,
All this should be forgiven,
For a bad son may sometimes be born,
But a bad mother, never…
Oh MA! You have so many worthy sons on earth
But I am a worthless,
Yet it isn’t right that You should abandon me
For a bad son may sometimes be born in this world
But a bad mother, never…
~ “Devi Aparadha Kshamapana Stotram”11
The following verses describe the Spiritual Mother as an “ocean of compassion” whose great love never fades, even if one has committed “mistakes after mistakes.” It conveys how the Mother bestows her love on those who remember and turn to her to repent of their mistakes; she is said to hold the power to uplift and save the fallen that turn to her, by removing their sins.
(O Mother) I have not worshipped You as prescribed by tradition with various rituals,[…]
(On the other hand) What rough thoughts did my mind not think and my speech utter?
O Mother) I have sunk in Misfortunes and therefore [I am] remembering You now (which I never did before),
O Mother Durga, (You Who are) an Ocean of Compassion, …
(Therefore) do not think of me as false (and my invocation as pretence),
(Because) When children are afflicted with Hunger and Thirst, they naturally remember their Mother (only),
O Jagadamba (Mother of the Universe), What is surprising in this!
The graceful Compassion of the (Blissful) Mother always remains fully filled,
(Because) in-spite of the son committing Mistakes after Mistakes,
The Mother never abandons the son.
(O Mother) There is no one as Fallen like me, and there is no one as Uplifting ( by removing Sins ) like You
Considering thus, O Mahadevi, Please do whatever is proper (to save me).
~ “Devi Aparadha Kshamapana Stotram”12
In Hindu Scripture
The theme of Durga saving people from sins is also found in the Mahabharata, an ancient Hindu epic. The following passage occurs when the wise King Yudhishthira, exiled in the wilderness with his brothers, decides to pray to Durga for assistance. The verse describes the nature of the Goddess, illustrating how one can call out to the Goddess for help in times of distress and sin, and be relieved of their burdens:
“[The goddess Durga is] always decked in celestial garlands and attired in celestial robes, — who is armed with sword and shield, and always rescues the worshipper sunk in sin, like a cow in the mire, who in the hours of distress calls upon that eternal giver of blessings for relieving him of their burdens.”
~ The Mahabharata 13
The Devi Mahatmyam is perhaps the most well-known Hindu sacred text about the Goddess vanquishing evil. It narrates the awesome feats of the “Warrior Goddess” in her battles with demonic forces. The text tells the story of a great battle between forces of light and darkness, where the Goddess Durga plays a central role as the Divine feminine force of supreme power, appearing to the devas (angels) when they are in need of help and protection from the asuras (demons), which threaten to take over the universe. With various weapons and an incredible power she destroys the demonic forces, ultimately leading them to victory.
The passage below describes the goddess Durga going into battle, conveying her fierce and incredible power and capacity to destroy evil.
Honoured with ornaments and weapons by the remaining gods too, the Goddess roared with loud laughter again and again. The entire sky was filled with her immeasurable stupendous roar and great was the echo that reverberated. All the worlds were frenzied and the oceans raged.
The earth quaked and the mountains rocked in the wake of the Warrior Goddess, the great unity of the innate powers (saktis) of all the gods. “Victory to you,” exclaimed the gods in joy to her, the lion-rider. The sages extolled her bowing their bodies in salutation. Seeing the three worlds agitated the foes of the gods, marshalled all their armies and rose up together with uplifted weapons.
Exclaiming in wrath, [the demon] Mahishasura rushed towards that sound, accompanied by innumerable asuras. Then he saw the Goddess pervading the three worlds with her effulgence. Making the earth bend with her footstep, scraping the sky with her diadem, shaking the nether worlds with the twang of the bow-string, she stood there covering all the quarters with her thousand arms.
Then began the battle between that Devi and the enemies of the devas, in which the quarters of the sky were illumined by various arrows and missiles hurled at each other. She, the Goddess Durga, the embodiment of the lethal energy of divine anger turned against evil, set herself to destroy the armies of [the demon] Mahishasura.
~ Devi Mahatmyam14
This story of the Warrior Goddess fighting and defeating demonic forces in the Devi Mahatmyam is celebrated at Durga festivals, in art and religious iconography and in classical dance and songs, like the “Mahishasura Mardini Stotra,” which eulogizes her victory over the demons.15
A live performance of the “Mahishasura Mardini Stotra” with a dance.
These battles have been understood in the Hindu tradition to have an inner symbolic meaning beyond a purely mythical one. The battles of the Goddess have been described as representing “the inner battle between the divine and the demonic forces within the human psyche.” In this struggle, human consciousness is said to be the battleground, with the demons “symbolic of the psychic forces within the shadow,” which is the subconscious of the human psyche, filled with ego states that oppress consciousness.16
The Devi Mahatmyam thus has been interpreted as showing how the “Warrior Goddess” works to rescue human consciousness from this inner darkness. In this respect, she has been described as a “Divine Mother [who] is our own true being.” Thus, this story is held to convey how “The Devi, personified simultaneously as the one supreme Goddess and also the many goddesses, confronts the demons of ahamkara or ego” in the human psyche. These demons/egos are said to be formed of “tamas” (darkness) and “rajas” (passion)—attributes that “in turn give birth to other [inner] demons of excessive craving, greed, anger and pride, and of incessant… compulsive inner thought processes.”18
Thus the myth has thus been called an “allegory” for “the transformation of human consciousness.”19
And, as the story conveys, it is only through the help and intervention of the Goddess—sought and requested by those oppressed by evil—that the demonic forces are overcome.
The Bhagavad Gita
The Bhagavad Gita is a section within the Mahabharata containing the timeless teachings of Krishna imparted to the warrior prince Arjuna, before they are to wage a great battle against forces of evil. The great battle can be seen as signifying the importance of confronting evil both within oneself and in the world—indeed Krishna emphasizes both aspects in his teachings to Arjuna.
Shortly before the great battle commences in the Mahabharata—and before the dialogue between Arjuna and Krishna begins that forms the Bhagavad Gita—Krishna tells Arjuna to pray to Durga for help to overcome his enemies—another example of the warrior goddess associated with overcoming evil forces in Hindu mythology:
…”Beholding the Dhartarashtra army approach for fight, Krishna said these words for Arjuna’s benefit.”
“The holy one said,–‘Cleansing thyself, O mighty-armed one, utter on the eve of the battle thy hymn to Durga for (compassing) the defeat of the foe.”
Thus addressed on the eve of battle by Vasudeva [Krishna] endued with great intelligence, Pritha’s son Arjuna, alighting from his car, said… [a] hymn [to Durga] with joined hands.
~ The Mahabharata20
The following excerpt comes from the Bhagavad Gita itself. Krishna tells Arjuna that the greatest enemies on earth exist within. They are desire and anger, which derive from passion (called rajas in Hindu cosmology).
Krishna explains that desire dwells in the mind and senses and from there covers over wisdom, destroys discernment and “confounds the soul,” which in this context refers to human consciousness, the spiritual part within the human body. He tells Arjuna to “control the senses” and then “slay” desire.
My Lord! Tell me, what is it that drives a man to sin, even against his will and as if by compulsion?
Lord Shri Krishna:
It is desire, it is aversion, born of passion. Desire consumes and corrupts everything. It is man’s greatest enemy.
As fire is shrouded in smoke, a mirror by dust and a child by the womb, so is the universe enveloped in desire.
It is the wise man’s constant enemy; it tarnishes the face of wisdom. It is as insatiable as a flame of fire.
It works through the senses, the mind and the reason; and with their help destroys wisdom and confounds the soul.
Therefore, O Arjuna, first control thy senses and then slay desire, for it is full of sin, and is the destroyer of knowledge and of wisdom.
~ The Bhagavad Gita translated by Shri Purohit Swami21
However, Krishna conveys that overcoming desire requires a power higher than the mind and intellect. He states that by knowing a power beyond the mind and with it’s help, one can “kill thine enemy, Desire, extremely difficult though it be.” Note that the Sanskrit word translated as Him/His below is often literally rendered as “Self,” and is used to refer to both human consciousness as well as higher consciousness depending on the context. Thus this verse illustrates how human consciousness can overcome egoic desire if it knows and calls upon the help of higher consciousness—the higher divine power of the Being.
It is said that the senses are powerful. But beyond the senses is the mind, beyond the mind is the intellect, and beyond and greater than intellect is He.
Thus, O Mighty-in-Arms, knowing Him to be beyond the intellect and, by His help, subduing thy personal egotism, kill thine enemy, Desire, extremely difficult though it be.
~ The Bhagavad Gita translated by Shri Purohit Swami22
In the Religion of the Sun, the Spiritual Mother is held to be a primary aspect of one’s higher Being, with the role and power to eliminate ego states within a person and thereby liberate consciousness—a role vividly depicted in a number of excerpts featured on this page.
Please note, more practice excerpts will be added as and when we find them. While we recommend the practices in these excerpts, featuring a passage from a text does not mean we can vouch for the entire contents of a text.
Jenny Resnick and Vida Norris contributed research to this article.
In the Devi Mahatmyam, Kali is described as emerging from Durga’s forehead after her face turned as “dark as ink” when she became enraged during a battle with the demons. Dr. Satya Prakash Choudhary (translator), The Glory of the Goddess – Devi Mahatmyam, p 19.
There are four Durga festivals per year in India, but the one held around the Autumn Equinox, called the Sharada Navaratri, is the most celebrated and important. It generally celebrates the triumph of Durga over demonic forces. There are regional differences, and the timing can vary each year as the date is set by the lunisolar calendar. It is always held in Autumn, but may precede or come after the Fall Equinox in some years and regions.
“Durga Chalisa” (lyrics traditional). English translation found here: http://www.indif.com/nri/chalisas/durgachalisa/durgachalisa_meaning.asp.
The house of Raghu was a royal family in the lineage of the legendary ancient “Sun Dynasty” of India. It is said to have originated with the wisdom bringer Manu, who re-initiated civilization after a great flood. Legend has it he founded the ancient city of Ayodhya and gave it to his son Ikshvaku to rule over as King. Rama was a prince born much later into the Raghu family which traced its lineage back to Ikshvaku. Rama succeeded his Father as King of the ancient Kingdom of Kosala whose capital was Ayodhya. His story is the subject of the ancient epic the Ramayana, which portrays him as an avatar of Vishnu.
“Kali Chalisa” (lyrics traditional) English translation found here: http://www.mantraonnet.com/kali-chaalisa.html.
Munindra Misra (translator), Chants of Hindu Gods and Goddesses in English Rhyme, Partridge India (March 7, 2014), p 240 . View on Google Books here.
“Shri Mahakāli Chalisa” (lyrics traditional) English translation found here: http://redzambala.com/hinduism-scriptures/mantra/shri-mahakali-chalisa.html.
“Devi Aparadha Kshamapana Stotram” (lyrics traditional) Translation by Krishna Das: http://krishnadas.com/lyrics/prayer-to-the-goddess-for-forgiveness/.
“Devyaparadha Kshamapana Stotram” (traditional) Translation found on the website Green Message: http://greenmesg.org/stotras/durga/devi_aparadha_kshamapana_stotram.php.
Kisari Mohan Ganguli (translator), The Mahabharata of Krishna-Dwaipayana Vyasa, Book 4: Virata Parva: Pandava-Pravesa Parva, Section VI, (published between 1883 and 1896), available at sacred-texts.com: http://www.sacred-texts.com/hin/maha/.
Dr. Satya Prakash Choudhary (translator) The Glory of the Goddess – Devi Mahatmyam, p. 13. accessed here: http://www.vedicastrologer.org/mantras/chandi/chandi_inner_meaning.pdf.
Vocal and dance versions can be found in the collection of Indian/Hindu traditional songs on the resources page.
Dr. Satya Prakash, written introduction to The Glory of the Goddess – Devi Mahatmyam, p 4-5.
Dr. Satya Prakash, “The inner metaphorical significance of the Devi Mahatmyam” The Glory of the Goddess – Devi Mahatmyam, p 30.
Kisari Mohan Ganguli (translator), The Mahabharata of Krishna-Dwaipayana Vyasa, Book 6: Bhishma Parva: Bhagavat-Gita Parva, Section XXIII, (published between 1883 and 1896), available at sacred-texts.com: http://www.sacred-texts.com/hin/maha/.
Shri Purohit Swami (translator) The Bhagavad Gita (first published 1935) p. 11 of online edition available at www.holybooks.com: http://holybooks.lichtenbergpress.netdna-cdn.com/wp-content/uploads/The-Bhagavad-Gita-Translation-by-Shri-PurohitSwami.pdf.