Devi Mahatmyam – An Ancient Hindu Text Encoding Profound And Futuristic Brain Science?

by Anand Venkatraman - Oct 23, 2020 07:36 PM +05:30 IST
Devi Mahatmyam – An Ancient Hindu Text Encoding Profound And Futuristic Brain Science?Mahishasura Mardini
  • Neurologist explains what makes the ancient Hindu text Devi Mahatmyam an incredibly profound and futuristic work of philosophy and science.

Neurosurgery, in many ways, can be considered the acme of Western science.

In the fine operations performed on the microscopic structures of the brain, neurosurgery harnesses the Western mind’s aptitude for rigour, reproducibility, systematisation, and concreteness.

Within neurosurgery, perhaps the most cutting-edge subfield is known as “functional” neurosurgery. While usual neurosurgery deals with structural problems, such as excising tumours, functional neurosurgery tries to influence the functioning of the brain.

My exposure to this field came while I was in residency training. I saw patients with severe tremor from Parkinson’s disease achieve extraordinary relief through a simple procedure known as ‘deep brain stimulation’. This involves the placement of a small electrode deep into the brain. When the device is turned on, the electrode sends signals into a tiny structure in the brain’s movement control network.

Almost magically, the tremor stops.

In recent years, research on deep brain stimulation has advanced to include the study of other conditions. Among the most promising areas seems to be psychiatry, especially for conditions like major depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

For centuries, many psychiatric conditions were swept under the rug as not “real” diseases.

It was thought that the only thing needed was for the patient to have more friends, or be more religious, or talk to a therapist.

Then, scientists developed medications that could blunt the symptoms. But these remained brute-force answers to a micro-circuit problem since they affected nearly the entire body in a blanket manner.

Now, finally, through deep brain stimulation, our understanding of the neural circuitry underlying these conditions has been put to use. We are able to selectively modulate tiny structures in the brain with millimetre-sized electrodes.

For me, the biggest takeaway from this technology is that human personality is based in the brain and can be moulded through appropriate intervention.

Neuroscience and Shakta Tantra

As I undertook my training in neurosciences, I was drawn, in parallel, to the Hindu traditions around the worship of the devi, specifically Shakta Tantra.

After years of studying these two fields, I realised there were multiple areas of similarity between them – similarities that were too significant to be dismissed as mere coincidence.

With several esteemed collaborators, I published the first-ever review article enunciating the links between modern neuroscience and Hindu Tantra, in Neurology India, India’s most respected peer-reviewed clinical neurology journal.

While the areas of overlap are many, one, in particular, stands out – the field known as the mantra shastra.

Mantras are unique among compositions because they are considered untranslatable if their essence is to be preserved. The Sanskrit tradition ascribes importance primarily to the sound structure, not to the linguistic meaning.

While mantras have been part of Hindu culture since the time of the Rigveda, they achieved peak importance within the tantric paths.

Especially important in Shakta Tantra was the collection of small, powerful utterances known as bija (seed) mantras, such as “Hreem”, “Shreem”, “Vam”, and “Lam”.

Unlike popular mantras such as the Gayatri (Savitri) mantra, the bijas carry no semantic meaning whatsoever.

The Gayatri mantra can be understood as a linguistic statement. It can be translated into English or Japanese or any other language. But Hreem, Vam, or Lam? Not so much.

The brilliant, penetrating modern Hindu thinker David Frawley, in his seminal work on bija mantras, has given a wonderful overview of the effects produced within the sadhaka (an individual in spiritual practice) by some common bijas.

He writes of the bija Krim that it has “… an adrenaline type effect… stimulates all the pranas and Agnis (biological fires), the circulatory and nervous systems, particularly the heart and the liver. In Vedic astrology, Krim relates primarily to the planet Mars, which is the planet of work and effort. Krim is generally a harsh or strong mantra”.

The bija Kleem, on the other hand, is the “softer, watery or more feminine aspect of Krim. As Krim is electrical or projective, Klim has a magnetic quality that draws things to us… Klim carries the Akarshana Shakti or the ‘power of attraction’. … Klim is the mantra of love and devotion, increasing the love energy within our hearts".

Then, the question arises: if bijas have no linguistic meaning, then where did David Frawley find all these meanings?

These are not textbook meanings, of course. No Sanskrit scholar would understand what you meant if you said Krim or Kleem. Unless he was also a yogi.

The only reasonable explanation I can come up with is that these meanings are subtle, triggered at secondary levels in our brains by the sound structure of the mantras.

Bouba-Kiki Effect and Mantra Shastra

When I first learnt about bija mantras, I recalled a famous experiment I had read about.

In 1929, German psychologist Wolfgang Köhler went to the island of Tenerife and asked the natives to assign the words “takete” and “baluba” to two shapes – one jagged, one smooth.

Several decades later, the brilliant Indian-American neurologist V S Ramachandran performed a similar experiment with two groups of people – American college students and Indian Tamil speakers. He showed them two shapes and said one was named “Bouba” and the other “Kiki”.

Which shape would you label "Bouba" and which one "Kiki"? (Picture: Wikimedia Commons)
Which shape would you label "Bouba" and which one "Kiki"? (Picture: Wikimedia Commons)

Astonishingly, people from different cultural and linguistic backgrounds would come up with the same answer – assigning the name Kiki to the jagged one and Bouba to the smooth one.

Even children as young as two and a half years of age showed this preferential matching pattern.

In other words, there is something about the sound structure itself that is triggering visual representations in our brains.

And it’s not just visualisations that sound can trigger.

Imagine, for example, the secondary-level, subtle signals sent by two sounds, say, the harp and drum sounds in the videos below.

Listen to them with your eyes closed for a few seconds.

The harp may call forth associations of smallness of size and stature; perhaps a young child, puppy, or small bird that may have similarly high-pitched voices, a certain “cuteness”, or maybe a sense of flow or liquidity, like a river.

The harsh “boom” of a big drum, on the other hand, might call forth mental images of largeness, perhaps like a large animal or a big, powerful man, perhaps one’s father in early childhood. It may set off associations of deep voices and thence of authority, perhaps a suggestion of mass, inertia, and stability, like a boulder.

We may not be conscious of perceiving these additional features immediately upon hearing these sounds. But these associations are definitely in there, deep within the networks in our brains, running in the background, parallel to millions of other processes.

Could it be that the initial training in the mantra shastra was to force our attention towards appreciating these subtleties?

Devi Mahatmyam

The Devi Mahatmyam, otherwise known as the Durga Saptashati or the Chandi Paath, is one of the central texts of the Shakta tradition. It is known, as they say, from Attock to Cuttack, Kashmir to Kanyakumari.

Part of the Markandeya Purana, the Devi Mahatmyam contains about 700 shlokas. These shlokas are in 13 chapters, which are grouped further into three categories known as the Prathama Charitra, Madhyama Charitra, and Uttama Charitra.

The story is framed as Rishi Markandeya telling a tale – about a king named Suratha and a merchant named Samadhi, who have been struck by recent misfortune. Suratha and Samadhi approach the sage Medha for guidance.

The wise Medha tells them the stories of the great goddess, she who is the Mahamaya, who creates attachments and, therefore, can remove them through her grace. She is the one who can relieve them of their distress.

When one reads an English translation of the Devi Mahatmyam, one is at a loss to explain why it has attained the stature it possesses since it reads pretty much like any other tale.

The basic outline will sound familiar to any Hindu.

We hear them time and again in our epics and Puranas.

The devas have some problems with asuras. They are dejected because the asuras are powerful. They pray to a great god (a goddess in this case), who then fights the asuras in battle and defeats them, and order is restored.

In the first section of the Mahatmyam, two asuras named Madhu and Kaitabha are born from Vishnu’s earwax while he is in deep sleep. They try to kill Brahma. Brahma invokes the devi, who withdraws deep sleep from Vishnu so that he may stand and fight. She proceeds to delude the asuras, ultimately helping Vishnu to slay them.

In the second section, the devi slays Mahishasura, the buffalo-headed asura, and his army of various secondary malign characters. It is this story that forms the basis of the famous Mahishasura Mardini stotram (hymn).

In the third section, the devi in her various forms defends the devas from the leaders of the asuras, Shumbha and Nishumbha. She first destroys their followers, the asuras Dhumralochana, Chanda, Munda, and Raktabija, and ultimately slays Shumbha and Nishumbha too.

Now, if we say this is all there is to it, then I personally cannot begrudge Macaulay’s statement in his infamous Minute on Education: “A single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India.”

Thomas Babington Macaulay introduced Western concepts to education in India
Thomas Babington Macaulay introduced Western concepts to education in India

If one of the most important books of the Shakta path is just a collection of tales that sounds like Aesop’s fables, one can see why Macaulay went on to decry the teaching of Indian students in Indian languages.

According to him, Indian languages were “languages in which, by universal confession, there are no books on any subject which deserve to be compared to our own.”

However, it has become increasingly clear to me that this is most certainly not the case.

Macaulay’s mind, owing to his upbringing and education, was simply incapable of understanding a text like the Devi Mahatmyam.

These texts were vastly superior to anything he had been exposed to previously. He was, therefore, unable to appreciate their importance. He just assumed they were all rubbish.

Expecting him to grasp their value would be like expecting a chimp to appreciate a book on quantum mechanics.

Inner significance

It is well known, by those who do even small amounts of sadhana and meditative practice, that the Devi Mahatmyam carries an inner meaning that is different from what appears on the surface.

This video provides a fantastic overview:

The first verse of the Devi Mahatmyam goes something like this, in English translation, setting the stage for the tale to come, as it were.

Rishi Markandeya says to a listener:

“Savarnih Suryo-Tanayo Yo Manuh Kathyateshtamah, Nisamaya Tadutpattim”

“Please hear from me about the origin of Savarni, who is the son of Sun god, and the eighth Manu, in detail.”

Swami Krishnananda, the great disciple of the renowned Swami Sivananda, had some beautiful insights about the Devi Mahatmyam.

I cannot do it justice by summarising it, so I have simply provided his words here below:

“Every sloka, every verse of the Devi-Mahatmya is a Mantra by itself. I will tell you how it is a Mantra, by giving only one instance, that is the first sloka itself.

'Savarnih suryatanayo yo manuh Kathyate-shtamah’

This is the first sloka, Savarnih Surya-Tanayah.

It is all a Tantric interpretation and a very difficult thing to understand. But I am giving you only an idea as to what it is all like.

Surya represents fire, the fire-principle.

'Surya-Tanaya' means that which is born of the fire-principle.

What is it that is born of the fire-principle? It is the seed 'Ra'.

According to Tantric esoteric psychology, 'Ram' is the Bija Mantra of Agni. In the word Savarnih, 'varni' means a hook; so add one hook to 'Ram'.

Yo Manuh Kathyate, ashtamah.

Eighth letter--What is Manu? It is a letter in Sanskrit.

Eight letters are Ya, Ra, La, Va, Sya, Sha, Sa, Ha.

The eighth is Ha. Add Ha to it.

Ha, Ra and one hook, make 'Hreem'. (I believe Swamiji here means the “ee”-ki matra in Devanagari, which is hook-shaped.)

Savarnih Suryo-Tanayo Yo Manuh Kathyateshtamah, Nisamaya Tadutpattim,

--you hear the glory of that, the sage says.

So, the first verse means: "Now, I shall describe to you the glory of 'Hreem'." This Hreem is the Bija of Devi.

…I am giving you only the case of one Mantra. Like this, every Mantra is full of inner significance.”

The Devi Mahatmyam is, therefore, unlike literature from other societies.

While a regular book is a unidimensional, linear work, running from start to finish, the Devi Mahatmyam is different, like a 3D or 4D creation, with layers of meaning.

Each layer acts on a different “plane”, which, from a neuroscientist’s perspective, might be understood as different networks within the brain.

And when I say layers of meaning, I don’t mean it in the way your high-school English teacher did when she tortured straightforward books to extract convoluted meanings.

I mean meanings that are consistent, which can be easily understood – the only requirement is that you need to have the right cognitive tools. In other words, your brain should be trained appropriately.

Hierarchy of Needs, Hierarchy of Hindrances

English-educated modern Indians are familiar with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

The psychologist Abraham Maslow created a pyramid-shaped hierarchy, within which he arranged the psychological “needs” of the human organism.

At the bottom were the most basic and fundamental needs relating to the physical body, progressively going up to “self-actualization” at the top of the pyramid.

Maslow's Hierachy of Needs (Picture: Wikimedia Commons)
Maslow's Hierachy of Needs (Picture: Wikimedia Commons)

This hierarchy is, of course, strongly reminiscent of Hindu ideas on the Purusharthas and the multiple yoga paths outlined in the Gita, and many other authors have commented on this aspect (here and here, for example).

According to Swami Krishnananda, the Devi Mahatmyam also describes a hierarchy – the hierarchy of barriers faced by a sadhaka on the road to liberation.

The three sections of the text represent the tamasic, rajasic, and sattvic stages, which appear sequentially in the sadhaka’s ascent.

At the tamasic level, which is the initial set of barriers, we must transcend the two forces that are the most basic of drives – like and dislike, addiction and aversion. And these two are represented by Madhu and Kaitabha.

At the next level of rajas, the devi destroys Mahishasura. Mahishasura represents stubbornness and inertia.

At the final level, sattva, the enemies are the most subtle.

Dhumralochana is clouded perception, as can be guessed from the word dhumra, “smoky”, and “lochana” or eye. Chanda and Munda represent lust and anger. Shumbha is ego and Nishumbha is self-loathing and attachment to externalities.

The Brain is Malleable

Modern neuroscience has tried to pin down some of the circuitry involved in pleasure and aversion in animals. More than 50 years ago, we knew that rats would self-administer a pleasurable stimulus through an electrode that connected to their brains’ reward network.

But this is a field that is still in its infancy. Undoubtedly, sustained research in the future will reveal to us the networks that provide the grounding for behaviours such as stubbornness, anger, ego and so on.

Vast research studies in recent years have conclusively proven that meditative practices reshape the brain.

Much of the work has been on Buddhism because it is prevalent in the West, and also because its origin as a missionary tradition makes it easier to understand than the more organic Hindu systems.

Within the Hindu tradition, transcendental meditation, which is a form of mantra-based practice, has been studied extensively by neurologists.

There is conclusive evidence that mantra practice can alter function in brain networks and, given sufficient repetition, can lead to long-term structural changes.

When we tie all these threads together, the only reasonable explanation is that the Devi Mahatmyam is no mere book or story or fairy tale.

I suspect that it is a very advanced technology, one that is essentially performing surgical strikes on problematic brain structures.

It is a meticulously crafted tantric tool that deploys mantras strategically to target hindrances to a seeker’s progress.

Arthur C Clarke, the science fiction writer, once said that sufficiently advanced technology cannot be distinguished from magic.

The mind boggles at how the ancient Hindus could have crafted such a work.

Presumably, the bija mantra structure must have formed the core. Perhaps it was created first as a sort of scaffolding.

Creating the bija architecture needed to effect such specific changes in personality is something, presumably, that can only be revealed through a rishi (sage) who is in deep in sadhana or altered states of awareness, which grant access to subtle realms that are usually closed off to us in day-to-day life.

Each bija must then have been expanded into a shloka while weaving a plausible storyline that was captivating enough to keep the attention of even children.

Men Among the Ruins

In the American state of Georgia, there stands a monument known as the Georgia Guidestones. On large pieces of rock, inscribed in multiple languages, are directives on how to rebuild civilisation if an apocalyptic collapse were to ever occur.

Such fears of apocalypse are a recurring theme in many science-fiction novels and Hollywood movies – one of the most common tropes is the protagonist stumbling upon some magnificent object that the old civilisation left behind, which no one in the current era knows how to use.

When we look at Indic civilisational history, these doomsday scenarios move out of the realm of fantasy and into cold, hard reality.

The only way works like the Devi Mahatmyam could have been created, preserved, and transmitted is if there was a large, well-established network devoted to inner cultivation and rational thought – where hundreds, if not thousands, of highly accomplished individuals engaged in dialectic across geographies and times, creating works of astonishing power and beauty.

Sadly, that world is pretty much extinct.

The Hindus of today are the atomised, bedraggled survivors of a rolling thousand-year civilisational collapse. Most of us have no clue how to make sense of anything bequeathed to us by our ancestors.

That said, we’re still here, alive and kicking. That’s much better than can be said for most other similarly ancient societies. And it is a matter of great fortune for us to be alive at this time when immense knowledge is available to the average person at the click of a button.

Sitting in the comfort of our homes, we are able to read the deepest thoughts of extraordinary individuals like Sri Aurobindo and Kavyakantha Ganapati Muni. It is incumbent upon us, as seekers and scientists, to probe these mysteries further and re-establish the extraordinary intellectual culture that was able to birth such works of wonder.

Also Read: The Nataraja And Epilepsy: An Interpretation Of The Cosmic Dancer

Anand Venkatraman is a neurologist. A graduate of AIIMS New Delhi and Harvard Medical School, he is working on exploring how ideas from Tantra can help in brain recovery after injury. Twitter: @Anand_Venkatram Email:

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