The Bhakti Bookshelf: In Praise of the Goddess – The Devimahatmya and Its Meaning

One of the blog post drafts I mentioned in my last entry was inspired by a conversation about bhakti that I had with my friend Jo (of Strip Me Back to the Bone). I thought that perhaps I’d do a series on posts about getting started studying bhakti but I quickly realized that I don’t really know exactly  how to go about doing this. I can talk about the way that I have studied this particular devotional tradition but I’m not convinced of the efficacy of my particular progress and thus would not necessarily recommend it to others.

Nonetheless, I love bhakti a great deal and am in considerable debt to it and to the teachers who promote its presence in the world. I want to share my limited understanding of this passionate path and I hope to do so in a way that enhances others’ understanding and promotes meaningful conversation. With this in mind, I’ve decided to do a series of mini-reviews on the different books and materials I come across in my studies. Here’s the first!

In Praise of the Goddess: The Devimahatmya and Its Meaning by Devadatta Kali (translator and commentator) Published by Nicolas-Hays, Inc 2003

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This book contains a chapter by chapter translation and commentary on the Devimahatmya (also known as the Durga Saptashi or the Chandi). The 700 verse hymn is followed by six traditional angas, or ancillary texts that complement the recitation and contemplation of the hymn. Each anga appears in Sanskrit and English and is followed by a commentary. The book begins with an introduction to the history, structure, and contents of the Chandi and concludes with the Sanskrit text. It is a sturdily bound paperback that will certainly stand up to repeated readings.

I’ve wanted a copy of the Devimahatmya for several years though specifically wanted a copy with a strong translation and helpful commentary. This edition was exactly what I was looking for. It’s a clear, well-written exploration of a text that remains central to Shakta philosophy even today.

The Shakta (goddess-centered) tradition in Hinduism contributed to the bhakti movement with many eloquent and evocative hymns and scriptures, of which this is one of the most important. Devi is portrayed as the fundamental, underlying reality upon which all possible manifestations rest; she is not removed or separate from her myriad manifestations and thus can be accessed through all levels of experience. This philosophical stance collapses the dualistic/non-dualistic conundrum and allows engagement with the divine even in a state of separation. Recognizing the Mother’s presence in all her offspring and manifestation is an important part of Shakta bhakti. This stance is similar to certain aspects of Vaishnava bhakti; a difference may be that the worshiper may more easily relate to a pervading maternal divine by virtue of already having a maternal relationship to refer to.

The Devi Mahatmya tells the story of Devi’s battles with various demons, here recognized as obstacles in the way of spiritual refinement. The text also emphasizes the role that the Mother plays in releasing her devotees from these obstacles; that is, grace is identified as a necessary part of spiritual refinement. In this there’s another similarity with Vaishnava bhakti. Perhaps most significantly, the text outlines Devi’s promises of aid and support to her worshipers and indeed to anyone who calls on her with sincerity.

This is a lovely and comprehensive volume exploring many important features of the devotional path. I definitely recommend it to anyone interested in this text or in Shakta bhakta.

Book can be purchased from Biblio.com here: http://www.biblio.com/book/praise-goddess-devimahatmya-its-meaning/d/736569872

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