An Overview of Divine Feminine Goddess Archetypes
Everyone has a mother. All embodied beings are born, and to be born means to have a mother. To have a human mother means to have a relationship to a person who brought us forth out of her body, who cared for us when we were at our most helpless and vulnerable. We were utterly helpless as infants: if she had not protected us, we would not be here.
For most of us, she smiled at our open gaze and spoke sweet words to us. She wrapped us up when we were cold, and comforted us when we were hurt or frightened. Above all, she fed us and kept us warm. The experiences that we had at the beginnings of our lives have created our deepest memories and associations. These are the bedrock of our conscious and unconscious lives.
Mother is the womb, the home, the beginning. She is the nest: we learn, we live with each other, we share our lives and livelihoods because we began our lives with a mother.
Our Relationship with the Mother Archetype
We all have a deep psychological imprint of mother. Our biological makeup is designed to interact with a mother, even while still in the womb. Much of this is instinct, built into the structure of our bodies and nervous systems. In fact, this primary relationship is the foundation of individual consciousness.
Mother is more than a biological entity, a creature that gives birth to us; she may not even be female. Males may function as mothers in certain circumstances, as may other family members or relatives. In nature, beings are born in all sorts of ways, and not necessarily through a biological female.
A certain kind of male frog, for example, receives the eggs from the female frog and then incubates the eggs and tadpoles until the baby frogs are born from the male’s side pouch.
For humans, Mother is an archetype: the relationship with a mother is part of our innate psychic makeup. We find someone on whom we can “project” the image and function of the Mother, whether or not that person happens to be a biological mother. In this sense, we create our mothers as much as our mothers create us.
We smile or cry or demand care of our mothers, and they respond as best they can. When the process of mothering goes as it should, she remains at the center of our psyche. She is the great being who has brought us physically and psychologically into this world.
Never mind for a moment that in our time and culture, the category of “mother” does not carry the universal meanings that it once may have had. Real mothers can have problems with parenting.
Many people have issues or problems with their parents, or have misgivings about the mothering role that they themselves are expected to play. When our relationship with a mother is damaged or incomplete, we may feel damaged or incomplete as human beings.
We may develop trust issues or suffer emotional traumas or a stunted ability to love others. This said, shortcomings in real mothering are not necessarily relevant to a meditation on mothering itself. Mothers give birth to each one of us. We have all been protected, nurtured, and taught by mothers.
All multicellular beings have been born from mothers. This is true even for the many organisms that are born from eggs. Even so-called “bad” mothers took care of us when we were at our most vulnerable and most helpless. On some preconscious level, we all remember this.
No beings come from nothing. Life produces life, and life nurtures life. Life survives only by the grace and protection of mothers. This truth is timeless and sacred – and it may not be confined to just this life.
Motherhood may be an aspect of having multiple lives. If you can accept the idea that there are more lives to live than just this one, then we have all been mothers.
We have all given birth to other beings. The Buddhists like to say that there have been so many incarnations of every being in every conceivable situation and circumstance, that in the countless eons of time, every one of us has been a mother to every other one of us. And every one of us has had every other one of us as a mother. All of us are related to everyone else through being mothers.
We are all linked in a most intimate and interdependent way. This is a sacred and beautiful concept. If it seems preposterous or silly, just accept it as a poetic conceit. Meditate on it. Contemplate it.
Divine Mother Goddess
Mother as Devi, the Goddess
On a cosmic or universal level, we can relate to Mother as a sacred being — as Devi.
Devi, a term from the Hindu religion and philosophy means goddess. It is one of the terms or metaphors used when discussing the divine. Perhaps most importantly, Devi is the archetype of the Mother as a primordial symbol in all cultures and at all times. It signifies the feminine aspect of divinity, god, or consciousness.
What exactly is connoted by the term “feminine” depends upon what religion, philosophy or spiritual disciple you are referring to. It has a renewed resonance in new age circles, invoking Celtic mystery goddesses, Hindu deities like Kali or Durga, ancient Mediterranean goddesses like Astarte, Aphrodite and Hecate, earth mothers, and gentle healing feminine archetypes of all descriptions.
The archetype of Mother includes other references or meanings. There is an awe and mystery about the divine feminine that includes mother but also includes other forces that act upon us in our psychological and biological forms.
She is Devi or Durga to the Hindus, the Universal Mother out of which all other manifestations of the goddess originate. Devi is associated with death and transformation as much as she is associated with birth and protection.
In the Hindu pantheon, she is part of a trinity of divine forces that include Shiva as the destroyer, Vishnu as the preserver, and Devi, who embodies the creative or manifesting force in the universe. The Hindu concept of divinity differs from the Western notion of gods and goddesses associated with specific and limited powers and spheres of influence.
Depending upon the philosophy or religious practice or region or scripture being considered, Devi can be many goddesses. As Parvati, she is the consort of Shiva in his guise as the great Lord of the Universe. Or she can be Kali, the process of destruction and dissolution as much as creation and preservation.
The male deities Vishnu, Brahman and Shiva are metaphysical absolutes. Their feminine counterparts are experienced as Shakti, the creative expression of the cosmic absolute.
Shiva can be thought of as the unmanifest potential of the universe, the energy substratum out of which time, space, and causality come into being: picture the image of Shiva Nataraja in His cosmic dance of creation and destruction. Parvati can be thought of as the force of Prakriti, the manifested universe of name and form. Think of her as she is portrayed in a Chola period bronze, infinitely full and voluptuous. She is nature: the world of the senses. Shiva and Parvati are two aspects of the same reality, in the way the West has devised the metaphor of matter and energy as two expressions of the same underlying reality.
Devi as the Divine Feminine
Devi is beauty, as well as the creative expression of intelligence or consciousness. The divine Mother can appear as Saraswati: it is this energy that brings poetry, music and philosophy into human life. What would humanity be without language, sagas and songs, architecture, and mythologies?
Saraswati represents our ability to express and represent our symbolic and metaphysical universe. As such, she makes the forms of consciousness possible: language, meaning, and the awareness of ourselves as individual ego-minds encased in the body. As the goddess Lakshmi, she manifests as our livelihoods — as abundance, grace, beauty and charm. She makes life possible — and bearable. The consort of Vishu the preserver, she represents material and spiritual wealth and well-being.
Finally, Devi manifests as Kali, the source, origin, duration, destruction, and negation of the world. Kali is related to Kala, or time. Ultimately, she is time, space and causation. As such, she is the ultimate reality: another way of experiencing the Lord Shiva.
Devi is a metaphysical reality. But as a human being, I relate better to an abstract philosophical principle when it is more accessible and concrete. In all spiritual traditions, God is made manifest in some way that is accessible to human emotion and human experience. The Divine is represented in such figures as Christ, Goddess, Buddha, Zeus, or Mother Mary.
The divine is experienced through Yahweh, Allah, Mohammed, Moses, or some other entity that possesses a name and a presence. Personally, I like to experience the spiritual reality as a feminine presence, as Devi, especially in two forms: as Mother Kali and as Tara, the liberator and protector.
Tara is the easier to approach and to understand. She is the rescuer, the savior goddess, the one who represents the boon of fearlessness. She destroys all dangers, especially those psychic dangers of fear, doubt, and ignorance. She demands only our attention and our devotion. She is love and forgiveness personified — the ideal mother, lover and friend.
Kali is the goddess of spiritual transformation. She is the death of the limited, ego self and the liberation beyond the illusions of time, materiality, and the human form. She takes many forms and has many, many names. Similar forms of the goddess appear in the Buddhist pantheon as Nairatmya, or “egoless woman,” and Vajrayogini, the tantric deity of transformation and annihilation.
Kali is represented as standing on top of her consort Shiva, who represents a transcendental absolute reality. She holds a sword of non-dual wisdom that cuts through illusion and falsity. She also holds the severed head of a male demon that has had the temerity to challenge her. The head represents arrogance, ignorance and pride, as do the other 108 heads that she wears on a necklace around her head. Kali is fierce but compassionate.
She is terrifying to those of us who are holding on to our illusions and resisting the realities of time, transfiguration, and our own apotheosis. She is the savior goddess to those who surrender to divine revelation. Unlike Tara, she is not an easy goddess to accept or to love. But both are to be venerated as two aspects of the same goddess, the same divine reality.
How to Worship Mother as Divine Feminine
How does one approach the Mother as divine feminine? In one form, she is experienced in meditation as the simple presence of consciousness or awareness. In tantric or Kundalini practice, she is experienced as internal energy or bliss. She exists in images and statues to be worshiped and meditated upon. Finally, she exists in liturgies and prayers to the Goddess.
Chanting, japa, or repeating mantras in ritualistic worship are not things that appeal to everyone. It can be argued — and has been — that ritual worship or the worship of deities is not essential to spiritual practice. It is also argued that specific liturgies lead to idolatry and to the weaknesses and potential divisiveness of religious practice and spiritual dogmas.
It is often argued that it is better to be free of religious symbolism and ritual practice, and simply to meditate on the heart chakra or compassion or some other uplifting concept. These are all good points — and yet, the presence of the divine in one’s life is as powerful and potent an expression of our humanity as is our reason and our human love.
Why would we want to deny its personification as gods and goddesses? The meaning of Yahweh is “I AM”: ultimately, this is all that God really is. The gods and goddesses manifest as archetypes simply because it is in our nature as human beings to manifest them. In the words of one of my liturgies, the gods and goddesses do not exist except as a means to allow us to experience the true nature of reality. Reality in this sense means to experience the inner and outer presence of THE PRESENCE, as my own guru once put it.
There are as many ways to experience the divine Mother as there are devotees to experience her. One way is to allow the manifestation of the divine Mother in ordinary life. This involves a little fantasy and role playing, but don’t our jobs, marriages, trips to the supermarket and to the dentist — our ordinary life in general – call for some role playing anyway?
Our lives are devoted to fantasy and make-believe: the fact that we believe in the roles and dramas we enact is all the more reason to stop, look, and listen. All of these thoughts and opinions and make-believe are also forms of the divine manifestation. Devi is the manifestation, out of the emptiness of pure potential, of our lives and us.
As we all know, there is nothing really out there. Or, if you prefer, you can say that it is all hydrogen and specks of dust. Yet to us, our political parties, neighborhood parties, retirement parties and every other party happen day after day, throughout our lives. Where does this intense activity come from? What or who manifests it? Why not call it the Divine Mother? She is the cosmic womb from which everything that exists, exists. In the Hindu metaphor, she is Shaki: the power or energy of the divine that appears as everyone and everything in the universe of names and forms. The Divine Mother is our lives and in many ways, she is us.
Shakti; The Mother’s Divine Manifestation
As devotees of Shakti, the divine Mother, we should find her sacred presence everywhere. I remember seeing Mother Kali dancing in a shopping mall. My spouse and I were emerging from a department store in a huge shopping mall in Maryland, when I spotted Mother Kali. She was a wonderfully exotic looking black woman with waist-length hair wearing middle-eastern clothing, heavily jeweled and formidable looking. She was standing near an improvised stage by the food court, looking through a box for additional CDs. Two of her brightly dressed apprentices were slowly dancing arm in arm to entertain the crowds of holiday shoppers with a choreographed routine.
I said to my wife, “Look over there — its Ma Kali”. She thought it might be the two dancing apprentices, but they were far from the real thing, like ordinary devotees next to a master. Kali herself danced next, and the change was electrifying: a middle-aged black woman, lithe, quick, sharp, and delicate as a cat as she moved carefully and liquidly around the stage. Her dance genuinely summoned the goddess. As I watched from the upper balcony, she shot a quick glance around at the assembled shoppers. I was inwardly reciting a hymn to Kali: “It will be auspicious if she looks at me.” Her glance shot by, but I couldn’t tell if she was looking at me. Isn’t that just like all incarnations of divinity? We can never quite tell if they are really looking at us or not.
On that day, I was preoccupied with an important decision that I was soon to make — a decision that would change my life dramatically. As it usually happens, I was thinking that this was my decision to make. But, as I watched the black woman dancing, a story came into my head from a biography of Vivekananda.
Vivekananda was the world-famous disciple of Ramakrishna. Ramakrishna is a great saint of modern India and a fervent devotee of Mother Kali. Vivekananda, his greatest student, travelled extensively throughout Europe and America at the beginning of the last century, preaching brilliantly about Vedanta and Indian philosophy. His work made it possible for later teachers like my guru Gururaj to be understood in the West.
Gururaj would sometimes talk about Vivekananda, and even once claimed to be an embodiment or reincarnation of Vivekananda. In the story as I remembered it, Vivekananda is concerned about restoring a ruined shrine to Kali, whom many Hindus worship as the mother of the universe. No sooner does he think this, however, then the voice of the Mother comes to him and admonishes that it is She herself that restores or destroys her own temples, not any work of the ego or the human will. God alone does everything. We can do nothing by ourselves. I myself heard a similar inward voice that day, warning me that I can decide nothing. I can do nothing. It is an illusion that I am the agent of my life. God alone acts.
Spiritual Surrender and Devotion to the Divine
This brings up the devotional attitude of surrender to the divine feminine. When we have a decision to make, some of us like to invoke Tara, Durga, Kali, Mother Mary, or whatever form of the divine Mother we are personally devoted to.
If we have been doing intense spiritual practice, we can even visualize God or Devi as our guru and ask him or her what to do. The divine Mother or God or our guru may even tell us — but we are really just talking to ourselves. We may hope for some voice of higher wisdom, and we may get one, but in one way or another, it’s really just our inner selves that we are talking to. This inner voice, or inner guru as it is sometimes called, is a tricky thing. If we are lucky, and sufficiently wise, it is our divine natures we are invoking and not just another form of the bewitching and misleading ego consciousness: this latter entity is merely the voice of our fears, doubts and illusions. It is easy to be fooled.
So, who or what is it that we invoke, when we invoke the divine Mother? I like to think of her as everything that forms the entire fabric of our existence, both inner and outer experience. This is the whole manifest universe of thought, word, deed, objects, and selfhood — everything.
Because this world seems to exist, and furthermore, seems to exist as something that we can conceive of and even participate in, I think of it as feminine: alluring, terrible, seductive, all-pervasive, loving, powerful, merciful, forgiving, remorseless, beautiful, and empty.
Empty, because ultimately, it is nothing but the ceaseless play of consciousness, without form, substance, or duration. But, this is getting too philosophical and conceptual. Mother is best experienced directly, not through concepts and ideas. The divine Mother is not philosophy or an idea about experience, but experience itself. This is why you can see the entire manifest universe in the form of a bewitching black woman dancing in the vast shopping mall of the universe. The whole mystery of manifestation exists in each and every moment of the divine dance. Mother and I exist just for each other: God and her devotee.
While I rarely “pray” to the divine in a conventional sense, I always remember: “God’s will be done.” Like most people, I am involved in the world. I live far from some monastic ideal of renunciation and detachment. I do my spiritual practices every day, without fail, as an expression of my devotion and love.
I probably meditate and contemplate the divine reality more than most people, but I do so without expectations. The Mother is what she is — and I accept that. But it is also true that the divine Mother gives her devotees what they secretly want in their heart of hearts, with all the joys and sorrows that come with an involvement and identification with the manifest world of space and form.
Whatever we may think we want or fear, we will be all consumed by our life. It is our own nature that propels us into the world, into action and into endless activity. The divine manifests itself in the world through each one of us. That manifestation IS God, IS the Goddess. And that Goddess is no other than myself: not myself in my ego dream of separation and division, but in her true guise as the Mother itself. Though all of my existence transpires within my own awareness, that consciousness is itself divine. It IS the Mother.
My hope — or my prayer, if you like — is that in surrendering my own illusion of individual self, I will be enacting God’s will: my submission to the Will of the embodied universe. Gururaj, after a lifetime spent actively doing all the things in the world that he was born to do — teaching, fathering, meditating, being the guru to many of his devotees — wrote a mysterious poem of resignation shortly before his death.
The world goes on
through its twists and turns,
I go on in its meandering ways
but I am still!
Who wants to watch
the waves of life’s ocean…. floundering
Gururaj Ananda Yogi, May 1988
I get shivers when I read that poem. Vivekananda too, after a very active life of teaching and traveling, came to realize a higher kind of resignation to the will of the Mother. He had done it all, and he had his fill of it.
Vivekananda (in a letter to a disciple):
“The whole world is a mere child’s play — preaching, teaching, and all included. ‘Know him to be the sannyasin who neither hates nor desires.’ And what is there to be desired in this little mud-puddle of a world with its ever-recurring misery, disease, and death?… This rest — eternal, peaceful rest — I am catching a glimpse of now in this beautiful spot. ‘Having once known that the Atman alone, and nothing else, exists, desiring what, or for whose desire, shall you suffer misery about the body?’ I feel as if I had my share of experience in what they call ‘work’. I am finished. I am longing now to get out…May Mother gather me soon to Herself never to come back any more. These works and doing good etc. are just a little exercise to cleanse the mind, I have enough of it. This world will be world ever and always. What we are, so we see it. Who works? Whose work? There is no world. It is God Himself. In delusion we call world–neither I nor Thou nor you, it is all He the Lord, all one.”
(Quoted in The Life of Swami Vivekananda, Vol II, pg. 119)
This might sound a little extreme, or even faintly negative. It doesn’t sound especially positive or “life-affirming.” But who are we to affirm life — or anything else, for that matter? Life affirms itself. The manifest universe is doing a very good job of manifestation, whether we like it or not, and we get to be included in it. After all, we ARE it. That last line of Gururaj deserves some careful meditation. Is he saying that he does or does not enjoy watching those waves of the world? Is he floundering, or is it the world that flounders? Who knows? Who cares? It’s all Mother’s doing. She’ll tell us when to come in from play.
The Divine Mother as Ananda; Bliss
Who, finally, is Mother? Beyond divinities and symbolism, Mother consists of this mysterious union of existence, consciousness, and ineffable joy that the Advaita philosophy calls Sat Chit Ananda. The Tibetan Buddhists call it the Dharmakaya in its formless aspect, the Sambhogakaya in its power to be aware, and the Nirmanakaya in its manifest or expressed form. The Catholics have their Trinity, and the Jews simply state, “I AM.” This is Consciousness as Being. Awareness arises co-dependent with Shiva, the primordial Being. Without awareness, there is no activity of Consciousness. This is symbolized by the Sleep of Brahman. The activity of awareness is experience-in-the-world, which is another way of saying that it is Mother’s manifestation as Shaki, the primordial activity and expression of consciousness.
The divine union of Shiva and Shakti is the union of manifestation and the un-manifest source. Out of this divine union arise the self and the object of awareness. This is embodiment, or what the tantric practitioners call mandala. This I what I experience as Kali or the divine Mother: the universal expression of wisdom, energy, ecstasy, and knowledge.
Kali is the timeless awareness out of which Time arises. She is Formless and Un-manifest: out of her arise both the inner world of thought and perception and the outer world of objects and attributes. She is always still and is always in motion. She is causality and Karma. She is without personality, and She is the supreme personality — the only personality, the universal “I.” Not surprisingly, she enjoys herself. She is the enjoyer: the knowing aspect of consciousness and the experience that experiences itself. She is never without action. She is Existence, Consciousness, Bliss. She is the Supreme Self, the only self, and my true self — the “me” which manifests as personality in the world.
Her great devotee is the 19th century Indian saint Ramakrishna,
“My Mother is the principle of consciousness. She is akhanda satchidananda; indivisible Reality, Awareness, and Bliss. The night sky between the stars is perfectly black. The waters of the ocean depths are the same. The infinite is always mysteriously dark. This inebriating darkness is my beloved Kali….”
Reality with attributes, saguna brahman, has been unanimously declared by the Vedas, Puranas, and Tantras to be Mahakali, the primordial energy of awareness. Her Energy is like the rays of the sun. The original sun is attributeless Reality, nirguna brahman, boundless awareness alone. Proceed to the Original through its Radiance. Awaken to non-dual Reality through Mother Kali. She holds the key. —
Sri Ramakrishna in “Great Swan”, by Lex Hixon, p.184
So, who is Kali? Who can say what the Mother truly is? We can only lose ourselves in astonishment at the beauty and majesty of this world, which she creates. Beyond thought, beyond the mind, she is the being that looks into our eyes when we look up into hers. She is also that which looks out of our own eyes. With hope, fear and expectations, we love her, and she, through her divine grace, returns this love.
About the author, Jeffry Carr: Jeffrey Carr has been active with meditation and spiritual practice for over 40 years. He is a full teacher in the American Meditation Society, a senior teacher in the Tibetan Buddhist Center of Philadelphia, and has completed a 2-year program in the Clearlight Meditation Teacher Training program of the Clearlight Meditation Institute.
Carr grew up in San Diego, CA and has recently returned after a career as an art professor at a number of colleges and universities and then as the dean of an art school in Philadelphia. Some of his artwork can be seen here: www.jeffreycarr.work.
He has been a disciple of Gururaj Ananda Yogi for over 35 years, and is a long-term student and practitioner of Tibetan Buddhist and Dzogchen traditions. Carr’s interests and experience include Zen meditation, the teachings of his root guru, Gururaj Ananda Yogi, Non-dual Advaita Vedanta, Tibetan Buddhism, Dzogchen, Non-dual Saiva Tantra, and emerging contemporary traditions of non-dual spirituality.