Reading the Devi Mahatmya (the Durga Saptashati or the Chandi Path)
“Tcheh!” my mother used to say, employing her favourite dismissive term, when she would see me, aged about eight, staring at the illustration of a young Parvati playing, in my Amar Chitra Katha comic, “Tales of the Mother Goddess”. The coy smile, the large eyes, the sweetness Parvati dripped from every pore had me riveted, for two whole years at least.
“Parvati doesn’t look like that,” my mother would say, disgusted.
“How do you know?,” I would ask, my eyes still glued to the page. A valid question, not just because Parvati belongs to the ethereal realms, but because my mother is an atheist.
“Our goddesses don’t look like Barbie dolls,” my mother would reply and that was that. She continued to buy me Amar Chitra Katha comics however, because I devoured them. In between, of course, I was taken all over the country and shown sculptures, paintings and temples which depicted the goddesses rather differently.
Several years later, an interest in goddesses and goddess worship (and an inability to appreciate Amar Chitra Kathas any more) led to reading some academic books on the subject. I purchased a copy of the Chandi Path (also known as the Devi Mahatmyam and the Durga Saptashati) translated by Swami Satyananda Saraswati.Hymns from the Chandi were familiar to me, but I had never read the whole thing from start to finish.
What appealed to me and what stands out immediately in Swami Satyananda Saraswati’s translation was that it has the Sanskrit text in Devanagari (in a nice large font) followed by the transliteration in English which in turn is followed by the translation. Thus, if one wants to read the Sanskrit side by side with the translation, this version makes it very easy.
The Devī Māhātmya consists of chapters 81-93 of the Mārkandeya Purana, one of the early Sanskrit Puranas, which is a set of stories being related by the sage Markandeya to Jaimini and his students (who are in the form of birds). The thirteen chapters of Devi Māhātmya are divided into three charitas or episodes. At the beginning of each episode a different presiding goddess is invoked, none of whom is mentioned in the text itself.
The framing narrative of Devi Mahatmya presents a dispossessed king, a merchant betrayed by his family, and a sage whose teachings lead them both beyond existential suffering. The sage instructs by recounting three different epic battles between the Devi and various demonic adversaries (the three tales being governed by, respectively, Mahakali (Chapter 1), Mahalakshmi (Chapters 2-4) and Mahasaraswati (Chapters 5-13). Most famous is the story of Mahishasura Mardini – Devi as “Slayer of the Buffalo Demon” – one of the most ubiquitous images in Hindu art and sculpture, and a tale known almost universally in India. Among the important goddess forms the Devi Mahatmyam introduced into the Sanskritic mainstream are Kali and the Sapta-Matrika (“Seven Mothers”).
It being the occasion of Navratri, I finally embarked on a complete reading and recitation of the text, including the extra Angas (limbs or appendages) often attached at the beginning and end of the text, such as the Devi Kavacham and the Argala Stotram. I decided to recite it over nine days as is traditionally done.
These texts are meant to be spoken, not silently read, even if one is not praying or reading them as part of ritual. Reciting the text enabled a greater appreciation of the sound and flow of the language (which is especially beautiful in the hymnic parts such as in the Ya Devi hymn and the Narayani Stuti) and the meanings that attach to it (it should go without saying that it is not possible to attach a single meaning to the Mahatmya).
It is possible to say the seven hundred verses are simply telling us quite a gripping story about the Goddess destroying the asuras Shumbha, Nishumbha and Mahishasur-no doubt embedded in many people’s memory as the dark demons in Amar Chitra Katha. On the other hand, there have been several commentaries on the Mahatmyam, both ancient and contemporary, that discuss all the various layers that the verses hint at:
The sage’s three tales are allegories of outer and inner experience, symbolized by the fierce battles the all-powerful Devi wages against throngs of demonic foes. Her adversaries represent the all-too-human impulses arising from the pursuit of power, possessions and pleasure, and from illusions of self-importance. Like the battlefield of the Bhagavad Gita, the Devi Mahatmya’s killing grounds represent the field of human consciousness … The Devi, personified as one supreme Goddess and many goddesses, confronts the demons of ego and dispels our mistaken idea of who we are, for – paradoxically – it is she who creates the misunderstanding in the first place, and she alone who awakens us to our true being.
Swami Satyananda Saraswati has sought to unpack the esoteric meaning of the Mahatmya by translating not just the text but the names of the characters, by examining the root meanings of the words. For example he translates Asuras as “thoughts”. He says in his introduction:
In the case of the enemies of the Gods, Asuras, which has been rendered as “Thoughts,” primarily the root meanings of the words have been employed. Asuras in Vaidika usage is an epithet of both the Gods and their enemies alike. It means variously: spiritual, incorporeal, divine, a good spirit; an evil spirit, an opponent of the Gods. In the Puranic literature it is almost exclusively in this latter sense that the term is used. Just as the Gods or Devas are the forces of clear perception, their opponents must be those that obscure clear perception-self-centred, egotistical thoughts.
Brahma’s name is translated most often as the “Creative Capacity” and Shiva is translated as the “Consciousness of Infinite Goodness”. Take the lines “Tato-tikopa Purnasya cakrino vadanAt tatah
NishakrAm mahattejo brahmanah shankarasya cha”
They are translated as:
And in excessive rage a great light emanated from the face of He Who Holds the Discus of Revolving Time, and from the Creative Capacity and the Consciousness of Infinite Goodness
These lines could have been translated as “And in excessive rage a great light emanated from the face of Vishnu, and from Brahma and Shiva.” Satyananda Saraswati’s translation is interesting because it does not remain literal, and in not doing so, is revealing another way of looking at the Mahatmya. At times all the various deconstructed names of the characters do get a bit overwhelming and it is possible for one to lose the thread of the narration. It would have been nice to retain the names, at least in brackets. So “True Wealth” could have been followed by Lakshmi in brackets and the “Spirit of All Pervading Knowledge” by Saraswati and “The Reliever of Difficulties” by Durga.
Chandi, in this translation, is the the Goddess who tears apart all thought, though she herself is the cause of all delusion. The Chandi Path is about how Self- Conceit, Self-Deprecation and the Great Ego (the asuras) inspire selfishness and how to surrender these thoughts to the Goddess.
On the question of thought, Maya, ego and selfishness-adharma in general, there are many commentaries, including those on the Chandi. One might not agree with this way of looking at thought and the processes of the human mind, nonetheless, this is a translation that I would recommend, to be read along with other translations, as the Chandi not only contains poetic brilliance but some interesting philosophical concepts to chew over. In short, it can be read by the interested student of literature and philosophy, who may not have a particularly religious bent of mind and by the devotee.