Shakti Sadhana
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In the first age of the gods, existence was born from non-existence.
The quarters of the sky were born from Her who crouched with legs spread.
The earth was born from Her who crouched with legs spread,
And from the earth the quarters of the sky were born.
Rig Veda, 10.72.3-4



Aditi




INTRODUCTION

Devi in Her form as Aditi is also known as Lajja Gauri, Adya Shakti, Matangi, Renuka, and many other names. She is the most ancient Goddess form in the religious complex that is today referred to as Hinduism.

This mysterious, lotus-headed Goddess, who is always portrayed with legs opened and raised in a manner suggesting either birthing (her posture is the traditional Indian village posture for giving birth) or sexual receptivity, is most frequently referred to today as Lajja Gauri. But She is undoubtedly rooted in India's prehistory -- probably orginating in the Neolithic Indus Valley (Harappan or Saraswati) Civilization.

For example, the religious historian N. N. Bhattacharyya refers to "a seal unearthed at Harappa, show[ing] a nude female figure, head downwards and legs stretched upwards, with a plant issuing out of her womb," which may be a proto-Aditi/Lajja Gauri figure. Similar images, sculpted as recently as the 19th century, can still be found in Rajasthan (part of the region where the ancient Harappan Civilization flourished).

In discussing the seal (and the wealth of other apparent Goddess figurines associated with Harappan Civilization), Bhattacharyya posits that "in the pre-Vedic religion of India, a great Mother Goddess, the personification of all the reproductive energies of nature, was worshiped. ... The Harappan Magna Mater [Great Mother] was probably reflected in the [later Vedic] conception of Aditi, the mother of the gods, thought to be a goddess of yore even in the Rig Veda itself." And indeed, the Vedic description of Aditi does suggest a rather comprehensive deity:

Aditi is the sky
Aditi is the air
Aditi is all gods ...
Aditi is the Mother, the Father, and Son
Aditi is whatever shall be born.
Rig Veda, I.89.10

"Aditi," Bhattacharyya concludes, "was the most ancient mother of the gods, whose original features [had become] obscure even in the Vedic age." And despite Her extreme antiquity, Lajja Gauri is still actively worshiped even today as a "fertility goddess" in some remote, rural locales. But we must not forget that the totality of Her original (and eternal) significance is much greater than this.

During the 6th to 12th centuries CE, in fact, the cult of Aditi/Lajja Gauri grew prodigiously; Her images proliferated in central India -- both in small terra cotta figures for use in home shrines, and in large (even life-size) stone sculptures for richly endowed temples. By the 13th century, however, She began a long slide into obscurity. Scholars partially attribute the decline to India's Muslim and later British Christian rulers and their intolerant attitude toward portrayals of human (and particularly female) nudity and sexuality. Another possible factor was the rise of the Tantric Goddess cults, which developed subtler, more abstract ways of depicting the primal, creative force of the Divine Feminine.



HER STORY


The first scriptural references to Aditi appear in no less exalted a source than the Rig Veda itself. Here, She is also referred to as Uttanapad (a term literally describing Her posture; see the passage quoted at the top of this page). The eminent Sanskrit scholar, Wendy Doniger O'Flaherty, identifies this Vedic Goddess as "the female principle of creation or infinity":

"[This] creation myth centers upon the image of the Goddess who crouches with legs spread (Uttanapad). This term, often taken as a proper name, designates a position associated both with yoga and with a woman giving birth, as the Mother Goddess is often depicted in early sculpture: literally, with feet stretched forward, more particularly with knees drawn up and legs spread wide."

O'Flaherty's colleague, Carol Radcliffe Bolon, agrees that the "form of the Goddess most widely known today as Lajja Gauri fits the Vedic descriptions of the Mother of the Gods, Aditi," but notes that the unlettered artisans who carved Her images and the devotees who worshipped Her were probably unaware of this formidable pedigree.

In this case, however, ignorance of priestly interpretations was probably not much of a handicap: Lajja's visual message seems abundantly clear. Her frequent juxtaposition with the Shiva linga (an aniconic, phallic form of the Divine Masculine Principle), and Her association with lions and the god Ganesh, suggest beyond a doubt that She was considered a manifestation of the Supreme Devi, specifically Parvati (who is also called Gauri). Her size (always equal to Shiva's), and the prominent display of Her full breasts (suggesting life-giving nurture and sustenance) and yoni (vulva, womb; suggesting generative, creative power) indicate that She probably served as a Feminine counterpart to the Masculine linga.

Several myths exist concerning Lajja Gauri, but scholars consider them to be inauthentic, late attempts to replace the Goddess's original, forgotten lore. Many of these tales involve a dominant Lord Shiva testing his wife's modesty by publicly disrobing Her, whereupon Her head either falls off or sinks into Her body from shame, thereby proving Her purity -- and providing a Shiva-centered explanation of how such a boldly self-displaying Goddess got a name like "Lajja Gauri" -- literally, "Modest Parvati" or "Ashamed Parvati."

More useful clues to Her actual meaning may be found in the oral folktales that still circulate about Her in rural India. For example, as noted above, She is often referred to as Matangi, the "outcaste goddess" form of Parvati, who is known for ignoring and flaunting society's rules, hierarchies and conventions. Elsewhere, She is called Renuka, an outcaste woman beheaded by a high-caste man. Rather than dying, Renuka grew a lotus in place of her head and became a Goddess. These stories -- both involving the deification of an outcaste woman -- seem to suggest the irrepressibility of the Feminine Principle, its transcendence of and ultimate superiority over any manmade social systems that would attempt to contain or control the pure force of feminine creative power. And lest we underestimate the primal persistence and importance of this archetype to the human psyche, recall that the oldest known sculpture made by a human being -- the so-called Willendorf Goddess or "Venus," c. 30,000-40,000 BCE -- also depicts a nude female deity with a flower for a head.


This is a graphite and chalk drawing I made of Lajja Gauri, in 2002, based on a seventh-century sculpture.





This is a stone sculpture of Lajja Gauri from the Sangameshwara
Temple, Kudavelli, Kurnool District,Andhra Pradesh,
India, c. 650 CE, now in the Alampur Museum.





This sculpture is also from the Sangameshwara Temple
complex, Kudavelli, Kurnool District, Andhra Pradesh,
India, c. 650 CE.





This is a stone sculpture from Naganatha Temple, Bijapur District, Karnataka, India, c. 650 CE, now in the Badami Museum.


NOTE: If you feel that Lajja Gauri deserves a special place in your personal worship, you can purchase the statuette shown below at Sacred Source, an online store that "carries 500+ multicultural Goddesses and deity statues and images."



HER ICONOGRAPHY

Whatever Lajja Gauri's ultimate origins, She is clearly a very auspicious Goddess. Everything about Her suggests life, creativity, and abundance. Her images are almost always associated with springs, waterfalls and other sources of running water -- vivid symbols of life-giving sustenance. Her belly usually protrudes, suggesting fullness and/or pregnancy; in earlier sculptures, Her torso was often portrayed as an actual pot, another ancient symbol of wealth and abundance. Lajja Gauri's head is usually a lotus flower, an extremely powerful, elemental symbol of both material and spiritual well-being. (Interestingly, today's images of the popular Goddess Lakshmi -- patroness of wealth and material fulfillment -- are also rife with water, pots and lotuses.) The often vine-like portrayal of Lajja Gauri's limbs suggests a further creative association -- the life-giving sap of the plant world; She is vegetative as well as human abundance. Her images are virtually always prone, laying at or below floor level in her characteristic uttanapad posture, as though rising from the Earth itself, a manifestation of the primordial Yoni from which all life springs. Indeed, Her birth/sexual posture unambiguously denotes fertility and reproductive power. This is Devi as the Creatress, as Mother of the Universe, as the Life-Giving Force of Nature, in a bold, uncompromising display of the Divine Feminine Principle. The late scholar David Kinsley, who wrote several popular studies of the Goddess in India, noted that Lajja Gauri's headlessness is meant to focus Her devotee's attention away from Her individual personalities, and upon Her cosmogonic function as the Source of Everything That Is. He wrote in 1986:

"Some very ancient ... examples have been discovered in India of nude goddesses squatting or with their thighs spread ... The arresting iconographic feature of these images is their sexual organs, which are openly displayed. These figures often have their arms raised above their bodies and are headless or faceless. Most likely, the headlessness of the figures [is intended to] focus attention on their physiology, [placing the] emphasis on sexual vigor, life, and nourishment."

Without a doubt, the most comprehensive monograph to date on Lajja Gauri is Bolon's Forms of the Goddess Lajja Gauri in Indian Art, published in 1992 by Penn State University Press. Bolon judges that the final image shown on this page (the large sculpted image at right) is probably the finest Lajja Gauri sculpture still in existence. Here is her lyrical description of the idol:

"The modeling of the female figure is supple and sensitive. The suggestion of soft, sagging stomach flesh, like the slackening of a woman's abdomen after childbirth, is masterly. The breasts are firm with folds of flesh beneath them. The arms and shoulders are delicate and feminine. The legs, in uttanapad, are spread more naturally than in other [Lajja Gauri] images with the knees up, the feet are flexed with soles up, and the toes are tensed. The nude body is ornamented with necklace, channavira [body-encompassing jewelry that hangs from the neck, crosses between the breasts, passes around the waist and up the back], girdle, bracelets, and armlets that are like a vine tendril wrapping around the arms and actually ending in a leaf. Tassels of the anklets also seem plantlike. There is a cloth woven through the thighs.

"... The half-open lotus flower, sitting like a ruff on the shoulders, is turned three-quarters toward the viewer. The goddess holds, to either side of her lotus head, a half-open, smaller lotus flower, the stalk of which winds around her hand. The fingers themselves have a tentril-like quality. The fingers of the right hand seem to form a svastika, symbol of fortune and well-being. No doubt, the suggestion of her relation to vegetation is intended. ... This image is a masterpiece of fluid modeling and conscious symbol-making."

Aum Maatangyai Namahe





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