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Snapshot
  • The motif of the seven goddesses was popular in the ancient world. Today, India is the only culture which still celebrates the seven mothers. And the big day of these celebrations, is Deepavali.

Deepavali – popularly Diwali – has many puranic and historic narratives associated with it – each with its own local significance to various parts of India. For north-Indian Hindus, it marks the return of Sri Rama to Ayodhya. For south-Indian Hindus, it marks the slaying of Narakasura – the asura son of Vishnu and Goddess Earth in a battle with Krishna, the incarnation of Vishnu himself, aided by Krishna’s wife Satyabhama, who is considered as the personification of Goddess Earth.

There are other associations, too, like it was the day Krishna lifted the Govardhan Hills, and that day Lakshmi emerged from the celestial oceans during the churning.

Then, we have Buddhist and Jain significance to the day. Such a range of puranic narratives associated with Deepavali has often baffled those who can think only one event associated with any festival.

So, in south India, Deepavali is seen by Dravidianists fascinated by colonial Protestant religion, as ‘evil Aryan conspiracy’ or ‘Brahminical appropriation of original Buddhist festival’. What such narrow ‘deconstructions’ miss and what the rich evolutes of puranic narratives have conserved and hidden within them, is a deep association the festivals have with the much important association this Hindu festival has with the goddess tradition.

The goddess tradition once existed, the world over. No particular culture can claim exclusive ownership over her. However, if there is one culture where the flame of goddess worship has been kept always alive and nurtured to evolve various branches and flourish, it is only in India one finds that. The goddess is, in other countries, a lost tradition and a lost vital dimension of consciousness. They try to rediscover her through fiction and fantasy – from Da Vinci Code in fiction of pseudo-history, to Wonder Woman in the comics. They try to reconstruct what they have lost through bits and pieces – slowly through trial and error in an agonising way.

But in India, the goddess and her traditions live and continue to evolve.

One vital aspect of the goddess tradition is the worship of the seven goddesses, who are related to Deepavali. The association is preserved in north-Indian Hindu calendar, where the festival happens in ‘Krittika’ or the month associated with the constellation Pleiades – the celestial seven sisters. In Tamil Nadu, in the month of ‘Karthikai’, the seven goddesses who nurtured the warrior son of Shiva, born from the fire of his third eye, are honoured in a festival of light. The centrality of the seven goddesses to the pan-Indic festival of light is preserved in both north and south India in their own ways. While the colonial Indologists to the current Marxists concentrate on what divides India focusing always on the so-called differences mapping them to ethnic and racial divisions, a woman scholar from Baada (or Bardi) an indigenous Australian tribe, Munya Andrews, in her study of the worldwide sacred lore related Pleiades, points out the deeper significance of the seven goddesses to the Hindu festivals of light:

... the Pleiades are related to another well known Indian celebration, Diwali or the Feast of Lanterns. Although it is held in honour of the goddess Lakshmi, there are more ancient ties to these stars, as will be seen. To begin with, this five-day festival that is a central feature of the Hindu calendar is held every year between late October and mid-November, which is known in India as ‘the Pleiad month, Kartik,’ after the son of the Pleiades. This alone should indicate that the Krittika are intimately linked to this particular event, but their relationship goes even further. 

Pointing out that Diwali is a ‘corruption of the Sanskrit word Deepavali, which literally means a row of lights’, she sees the lamps lit on Deepavali night as ‘symbolising stars glowing in the Krittika night skies’ deriving support for her stand from ‘the Indian poet of the fifth century CE, Kalidasa’, who had described the Krittika as having ‘the shape of a flame.’ Down playing of this link by ‘some writers’ is to her ‘an attempt to silence the voice of the Sisters’, which in turn is for her ‘the way in which patriarchy often erodes women’s history and spirituality.’

Interestingly, while our home grown Marxists love to tie vedas and puranas with patriarchy, Andrews shows otherwise:

The more ancient religious texts of the Vedas and the Purana, on the other hand, clearly state the Krittika are flames in their own right. They point out that the ‘forty nine original fires’ of Hindu traditions include both the Krittika and the Rishis, along with Agni and several other Indian deities. Several writers have suggested the diverse feasts of lanterns in several Asian countries, including those of China and Japan, may also have originated from this earlier association of the Krittika.
(Munya Andrews, The Seven Sisters of the Pleiades: Stories from around the World, Spinex, 2004, pp 179-80)

The seven goddesses tradition has ancient roots in India. In vedic society, the ‘seven mothers’ of the Krittika occupied an exalted place. Indologist Dr Prithvi Kumar Agrawala points out that they ‘are regarded in the Taittiriya Brahmana as the ‘mouth’ or chief of the lunar mansions’ and also as ‘the head of Prajapati’. Their association with Agni is also ancient and important. The seven stars are named in Taittiriya Brahmana as Amba, Dula, Nitatani, Abhrayanti, Meghayanti, Varshayanti and Chupunika. Crucially, ‘these names also occur as appellations to the bricks connected with Agni in the Taittiriya, Maitrayani and Kathaka samhitas.’ The term Amba is also the term for the Mother Goddess herself. In Atharva Veda, Nitatani, name of one of the Pleiades is also the name of a plant, which is venerated as goddess (devi) and said to heal all diseases.

According to Dr Agrawala, three of the names of Krittikas – Abhrayanti, ‘forming clouds’; Meghayanti, ‘making cloudy’; Varshayanti, ‘causing rain’ – may point to the rainy nature of the Krittika month.

A famous seal from Mohenjodaro called the ‘Pleiades sign’ shows the seven figurines, a sacrificial scene and a huge ram. Asko Parpola, who despite being rooted in Aryan or Indo-European and Dravidian divide, uses the vedic texts and Hindu practices to decipher the Harappan symbols, and points out that ‘the first asterism of the Vedic star calendar was the Pleiades.’ Parpola further points out that the shift from Rohini to Pleiades, which is consistently conserved from vedas to puranic lore, took place in the third millennium BCE. He associates the seven maidens with “the ‘seven mothers’ aspects of Durga, the goddess of war and victory”. He also associates with the seal the vedic and puranic narratives of the six of the Pleiades as “the ‘mothers’ or wet-nurses of the war-god Rudra-Skanda” (Deciphering Indus Seals, 1994).

In one of the childhood exploits of Skanda-Murugan, he tamed a fierce ram that emerged from the yagna done by sage Narada. According to Skanda Purana, this goat was the Bhuta born from the Atharvana hymn and the drop of nectar.

Indologist Stella Kramrisch explains the importance of this in the conceptual evolution of Hindu temples themselves:

“the sacrificial goat born from the Agni’s heat carries the gods and the sacrificer upwards to heaven and to light in the Sukta of Atharvan; the goat-Asura born from the Sukta swelled by pride sinks down and on his the gods stake their stand and the temple is built up; ... The Asura-bhava (pride) of the Chagasura lays him low, ‘at the feet of Siva’ on the surface of the earth.” (Kramrisch, The Hindu Temple, Volume I, 1976)

Thus the Krittika or the Pleiades seal is a very important link that unites various concepts and contains the seeds of later day developments of Hinduism. The fact that the bricks with the names of the Krittika stars are the ones that enclosed and nurtured the vedic fire in the yagna connects the puranic description of the six Krittika women taking care of the fiery son Skanda born of the fire of Shiva’s third eye.

Kartikeya by Raja Ravi Varma. (Wikimedia Commons)  Kartikeya by Raja Ravi Varma. (Wikimedia Commons) 

The ancient association of Amba with the star names may explain the fact of only six Krittika women being foster mothers of Skanda, with the seventh mother being the goddess herself.

The strong influence of the seven celestial mothers of Krittika, which we find in Harappan-vedic symbolism, has continued to become all pervasive in India. It is at the basis of the Sapta-Matruka worship. The Rig-Vedic hymn 1.164.3 speaks of ‘the Seven Sisters… in whom the names of the seven Cows are treasured’. These are celestial sisters. Then there are the terrestrial seven sisters. At the dwelling place of Varuna, he is surrounded by his seven sisters (8.41.2). Varuna is the horse that resides in the water (1.163.1). Varuna thus connects both the celestial seven sisters and terrestrial seven riverine sisters. After all, both the celestial and the terrestrial oceans are his two thighs (Atharva Veda 4.16). The same Atharva Veda hymn also speaks of Varuna as ‘contained in the drop of water.’ This provides us a connection between Varuna and Rudra-Skanda. Pointing out the ‘Rudra’s identity with Rohita, the ‘red’ rising sun, whose rays may be conceive as arrows killing the demon of the night’, points out that ‘Rudra’s variant name Skanda connects him with the ‘jumping’ (skand-) seed-drop.’

Parpola also points out the eminent all pervasiveness of this imagery in the most central vedic rituals: “The Rgvedic verse 10.17.11 starting with the catchwords, ‘the drop jumped (drapsas caskanda)’, is recited in a cosmogonic episode while the vedic fire-altar is being constructed. The Rigvedic verse 10.17.11 starting with ‘the drop jumped’, is also recited in the Vedic Soma sacrifice.” (Deciphering Indus Seals, 1994).

The seven goddesses along with the fiery Sun-horse associated with Varuna then can be seen throughout India – becoming part of the strands of the invisible cultural unity of the country. Indologist Stella Kramrisch of Ananda Coomaraswamy school, points to this incredible linkage in a striking passage on the terracotta sacred art found in the villages of south India. The passage is remarkable for the inherent self-contradiction in it. It makes the organic connection between the hymnal vedic imagery and the village side common worship while still making the discovery in the accepted Aryan-Dravidian binary: “In hymnic intoxication, they knew the horse as Varuna (Rg Veda 1.163.4). They knew it, for the horse had risen from the waters from the primal fount of life (RV 1.163.1). To the South Indian Dravidian peasant of today, this hymnic realization of the fiery animal, the horse of the fiery spark of life that is in the waters, of the fire that at daybreak seems to arise from the waters as glowing sun and sinks into their darkness and dies has uncannily one with the power of Aiyanar and also with the eerie fatal Seven Virgins. (Exploring India’s Sacred Art Selected Writings Of Stella Kramrisch, 1994)

The Krittikas of the heavens, thus, have played an important role in the stimulation and expansion of the goddess worship in the form of the worship of seven mothers/maidens. And the landscape in which the goddess worship grew unhindered also came to be called as the land of seven rivers.

Many scholars have problems in identifying the ‘seven rivers’ mentioned in the Rig Veda. For example, as late as 2012, Sanjeev Sanyal, in his book Land of Seven Rivers, zooms in on ‘a much smaller area covering modern Haryana and a few of the adjoining districts of eastern Punjab’, as the original Sapta Sindhu – because it was the homeland of the Bharatas – an ancient tribe that ultimately gave its name to us all.

However, it is also possible that the seven rivers here are the rivers that reflect the heavenly seven mothers. It was only in this land that the seven goddesses along with the fire of consciousness that they nurtured were realised in their full potential.

Thus, by every river or pond, every water body – from Kanyakumari to Kashmir there abounded once the seven goddesses. They were the flames of agni; they were his mothers; they formed the bricks which enclosed and nurtured the consciousness in all its splendour. They were worshiped in the sacred groves and sacred ponds; the seven aspects of the goddess and the seven stars of Krittikas. Elsewhere in the world, they have been lost. In Egypt, there were the seven Hathors – they appear either as cows or as maidens and they are present at the time of the childbirth. In the West, the seven Pagan goddesses have been lost and the modern psychiatrist Dr Jean Shindo Bolen tries to use these lost goddesses to help women reconnect with their deeper selves and understand how they can stand the challenges of the male-dominated world – in both workspace and home-front.

(Dan Kitwood/Getty Images) (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

According to Dr Bolen, the knowledge of these seven goddesses as archetypes within “provides women with a means of understanding themselves and their relationships with men and women, with their parents, lovers, and children... provides useful information for men, …to understand women better can use goddess patterns to learn that there are different types of women and what to expect from them …also provides therapists who work with women with useful clinical insights into their patients’ interpersonal and intra-psychic conflicts. And they indicate the ways a woman in a particular goddess pattern can grow.” (Goddesses in Everywoman, 1984)

In India, we simply have been given this treasure, and like the fractals, the seven goddesses from the heavens to the rivers, shape this nation. We take it for granted. Krittika then becomes the month for the remembrance of this aspect of divine feminine. Incidentally, in Tamil Nadu, apart from Deepavali in the month of Karthikai, the houses would be lit and sweet dishes would be made to honour the maidens of Krittika – who nurtured Murugan – divine warrior of Shiva.

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