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Matrikas

Matrikas

मातृका, mātṝkā

sanskrit lit. "Divine Mother"

a group of female deities that are always depicted together.

Usually Matrikas refer to seven divine Mothers (Saptamatrics), however, if you dive into Indian literature and architecture, you can find a wide variety of variations with a number from five to ten. In Nepal, the Ashtamatrika cult is more widespread.

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(9th century sculpture from Madhya Pradesh depicting seven Matrikas, Shiva (far left), and Ganesha (on the right)).

According to some views, the cult of Matrikas is extremely ancient, rooted in the civilization of Harappa and Mohenjo-daro, reaching 3 millennia BC., which is more of a hypothesis as there are no evidences of this fact.

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(Supposed image of Saptamatrikas, approximately 23 B.C., from Mohenjo-daro)

In general, the main narrative in which Matrikas are mentioned can be classified as follows:

  • Durga’s battle with Raktabija;
  • Shiva's battle with Andhakasur;
  • The story of the birth of Skanda.
  • Agamas

Skanda and the Matrikas

The earliest unambiguous literary mention of Matrikas is found in Mahabharata (1st century AD), however, their number is not named.

The legend says that Indra, fearing rivalry, sends Matrikas to kill Skanda, but, seeing Skanda, Matrikas, on the contrary, were filled with a desire to look after him. They asked Skanda to become their son and their breasts began to ooze milk, which Skanda accepted. In Vana-parva, chapter 225, two Matrikas are mentioned without names, but with a description of their character:

"...and that woman among the Mothers, who was born from Anger, with a spear in her hand, carefully guarded Skanda, as a mother guards her own son, and that red-colored angry daughter of the Sea, who fed on blood, pressed Mahasena to her chest and was his nurse like a mother."

According to another version of Skanda's birth, eight martial mothers emerged from Skanda's body when he missed Indra's blow with vajra. Their names are Kaki, Halima, Malini, Brihali, Arya, Palala, Vaimitra. And although Karttikeya divides them into shiva and ashiva categories (beneficial and negative), they all together still remain those who kidnap children.

Another version of the appearance of Matrikas goes back to another story of Mahabharata, where the six ex-wives of rishis, who were unjustly accused of cheating on their husbands and who were considered the real mothers of Karttikeya, come to him with a request to accept them as their mothers. As a whole, they were called Mahamatrikas. The story goes that Karttikeya fulfilled their wish and asked if there was any other unspoken wish on their part? They replied that, firstly, they wanted to be revered throughout the world as great goddesses; and secondly, because they have been dishonestly deprived of the opportunity to have children, in retaliation, they want to feed on human children. Karttikeya in return gave them the gift of protecting children, and also said:

"In your various forms, you can inflict suffering on the children of asuras until they reach the age of 16. I grant you an eternal violent nature. You will live happily with this gift and be revered by all."

Goddess victory over Raktabija

According to Devi-Mahatmya, Matrikas emerged from the bodies of the male Gods (Vishnu, Shiva, Indra, etc.) as their Shaktis to help Durga on the battlefield with the Asuras, led by Shumbha and Nishumbha (who were granted with grace that no male can defeat them). Each Matrika had a weapon corresponding to her male incarnation, vahana, and a flag.

In a later version of Devi-Mahatmya and Vamana-Purana (chapter 56) Matrikas emerged from various parts of the body of the Goddess.

When Chanda and Munda were killed, Raktabija came to the battlefield with his countless army. Chandika (Kaushika) made a terrible cry and out of her mouth came Maheshvari riding a lion and Brahmani, sitting on his vahana – a swan. From her neck appeared Kaumari riding a peacock, from both hands of the Goddess, sitting on Garuda, Vaishnavi appeared. From the back of Kaushika came Varahi riding Sheshanaga, from her breasts – Mahendri on an elephant, from the sounds of the heartbeat – terrible Narasimha appeared, frightening the universe with her claws. Before the final battle with Shumbha, all the Matrikas dissolved in the body of the Goddess.

Devi-Bhagavata Purana mentions ten Matrikas who helped Chamunda in the battle against Raktabija: Kali, Brahmani, Maheshvari, Vaishnavi, Indrani, Varahi, Narasimha, Shiva Duti, Kaumari, Varuni (Book Five, chapter 28).

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Shiva's battle with Andhakasur

The story of Andhakasura is repeated in variations in Varaha Purana, Matsya Purana, Shiva Purana, and Linga Purana.

Matsya Purana says that the battle took place in the forest of Mahakala: Shiva, using his bow Pashupata, wounded Andhaka, who could recreate a complete copy of himself from every drop of his blood. To prevent this, Shiva created seven Matrikas that looked intimidating and thirsty for blood. At some point, Matrikas were fed up with the blood of the killed clones of Andhaka and could no longer help Shiva. Then Shiva turned to Vishnu for help, who created the goddess Shushka Revati. She drank all the pouring blood in one moment and Shiva was able to defeat Anhaka with the help of his trishul. At the last moment, Andhaka repented and, by the grace of Shiva, became a gan.

In Shiva Purana, the story is similar: Anhakasura with his army came to Mount Mandara to take away the most beautiful woman in the world – Parvati. The general of the army, Bali, fighting with one hand, managed to defeat all the Devas who came to protect her and swallowed them. Shiva, who rushed to the rescue, using all his weapons, forced Bali to expel the Devas back and, in retaliation, swallowed Shukracharya to deprive the asuras of support. Then Andhakasur himself decided to attack Indra. Protecting him from the blows of Andhaka, Shiva pierced the body of the asura with his trishul, but each drop of blood, falling on the ground, created a new Andhakasura. Then Vishnu created Matrikas, who had time to drink the blood of Ankhakasur before drops were falling to the ground.

Eventually Ankhakasur was defeated and asked for mercy.

According to Varaha Purana (chapter 27), out of Shiva's anger, when he, dancing in fury, raised the pierced Andhaka above him, a flame came out of his mouth, from which Yogeshvari manifested. From the other Devas, the corresponding seven goddesses manifested.

Agamas

Suprabheda Agama says that Saptamatrikas were created by Brahma to destroy the demon Nirrita.

It gives a short description of these Goddesses: Brahmani should be portrayed like Brahma; Maheshwari – like Maheshwara; Vaishnavi – like Vishnu; Varahi as a small woman with a fierce face and holding a plow as a weapon; Kaumari  –like Kumara, and Indrani – like Indra, and finally, Chamunda has a terrifying sight with tousled hair, she is dark in color, she has four arms: in one of her hands she holds trishul, in the other – kapala.

All Matrikas in the text are described in a sitting position and each of them has four hands: two of them in abhaya and varada mudras, and the other two hold weapons corresponding to male hypostases.

Matrikas’ Nature

Thus, out of the excerpts above, one can sum up the nature of Matrikas. They adore to drink blood, eat flesh, and are associated with diseases and other unfavorable things. Their worship was prescribed to protect pregnant women and newborn children from problems and illnesses, as well as people in general from epidemics. They live at crossroads, in trees, along the banks of rivers and lakes, in caves and burial places.

Ashtamatrikas in Varaha-Purana are described as manifestations of eight weaknesses inherent to people:

  • Yogeshwari symbolizes kama (desire);
  • Mahesvari – krodha (anger);
  • Vaishnavi – lobha (greed);
  • Brahmani – mada (pride);
  • Kaumari – moha (delusion);
  • Indrani – matsarya (envy);
  • Chamunda – paishunya (slender due to malice);
  • Varahi – asuya (finding flaws in someone's piety).

Alphabet as a manifestation of Matrika

Matrika is a well-known goddess of the alphabet, mentioned in many tantric texts. Her name is usually associated with the womb or source (yoni), i.e. the source of all mantras, all shastras and, moreover, of everything from which the world is created.

This explanation is most often used by interpreters, who also call her "Mother", "Matri". For example, Narayanakantha, in a commentary on Mrigendra Tantra, says that she is related to Shiva and that her name is Matrika, because she is like Mother: she gave birth to everything that this world consists of. Kshemaraja chants her name as the one who manifested all the mantras and tantras. He also says in other comments that she is the cause of the Universe created from everything that is manifested, and of the Universe that manifests everything. Kshemaraja also gives a non-dual explanation of Matrika: as the Mother of all mantras, she is associated with the illumination of non-duality (abheda) through Shabdarashi, the deity of the alphabet.

Although Matrika is not mentioned in Mulasutra, she is mentioned several times in Nishvasa. Uttarasutra praises her as the source of all worlds, and Nayasutra describes the practice for sadhakas associated with each akshara. Guhyasutra develops these practices further where Matrika corresponds to Vagishi and Kundalini.

The same Uttarasutra clearly states that Matrika is an alphabet consisting of eight groups of syllables (vargas). It is mantra, vidya, and is therefore related to other mantras, especially Pindakshara or Navatman, which also have eight parts.

Eight vargas correspond to the following goddesses (according to Artharatnavali's commentary on Nityashodashikarnava 1.1):

  • a-varga (vowel group) – Brahmi;
  • ka-varga (ka, kha, ga, gha, ṅa) – Maheshvari;
  • ca-varga (ca, cha, ja, jha, ña) – Kaumari;
  • ṭa-varga (ṭa, ṭha, ḍa, ḍha, ṇa) – Vaishnavi;
  • ta-varga (ta, tha, da, dha, na) – Varahi;
  • pa-varga (pa, pha, ba, bha, ma) – Indrani;
  • ya-varga (ya, ra, la, va) – Chamunda;
  • śa-varga (śa, ṣa, sa, ha, kṣa) – Mahalakshmi.

Worship

Varaha-Purana says that Brahma dedicated Ashtama-tithi to Matrikas: on this day it is prescribed to honor them with devotion, using only bilva. Then the worshiper will gain good fortune, wealth and health.

Saptamatrikas, together with Yogeshvari, constitute one of avaranas of yantras of various Deities – Sri, Ganapati, etc., who are revered during tantric pujas.

The composition of Sapta- and Ashta-Matrika groups

Saptamatrika group consists of two Vaishnava-Shaktis (Vaishnavi and Varahi), two Shaiva-Shaktis (Maheshvari and Kaumari), Brahma-Shakti (Brahmani), Indra-Shakti (Indrani) and Devi-Shakti (Chamunda). Thus Saptamatrikas consist of six Deva-Shaktis and one Devi-Shakti.

In the case of Ashtamatrikas, the diversity increases, given that the eighth Mother can be Yogeshwari (Shaiva-Shakti) or Narasimha (Vaishnava-Shakti). In Nepal, Mahalakshmi is revered as the eighth instead of Narasimha.

Some researchers state that presence of Indrani is a consequence of the loss of its significance by the Vedic pantheon, and only Indra, the head of the Gods, and his shakti, remained some influence. However, the absence of Surya's shakti does not explain this fact, given that Surya is still an important and widely revered Deity from the time of Vedas for many Hindus.

Iconography

An interesting feature is that usually in the first place Ganesha, a deity who grants success in undertakings and removes obstacles, is depicted in front of Shakti and Virabhadra or Bhairava closes the list, less often Natesha or Vinadhara (Dakshinamurti). Starting from the 5th-6th centuries AD such order of depiction of Matrikas becomes, if not ubiquitous, then ordinary.

Saptamatrikas, according to one possible explanation, represent the seven destructive tendencies of the human being. When they are indulged, they destroy all the well-being that comes from a mother who raised a child. These aggressive tendencies create a kind of anti-maternal attitude in children. They must be restrained and controlled by two male energies: on the one hand, this is Vinayaka, also known as "born by Parvati", who reveres all women as his mothers; on the other hand, it is Virabhadra who can invoke motherly virtues in any woman.

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(Depiction of five Matrikas, 3rd-4th century AD at Ganesha temple in Kirtipur)

There is some specific in the sequence of Goddesses listing, which is given in traditional texts. It reflects the cycle of creation and reminds us that this whole world is Shakti. The first, usually, is called Brahmani, symbolizing the process of creation, the original nada, pranava, OM is Brahmani. Further, Vaishnavi gives symmetry, beauty and harmony to the created world. Maheshwari is present in the hearts of all living beings, breathing life and individuality into them. Kaumari, Guru-guha, the innermost guide that resides in the heart of everyone, inspires to develop and evolve. Varahi – strength and persistent, intention to move beyond pleasure. Indrani is the supreme power, intolerant of any kind of unrest, and self-control. And finally, Chamunda is the destroyer of delusions and evil tendencies, by destroying them she paves the way for spiritual awakening.

The most important meaning of Saptamatrika symbolism is the hidden meaning of the cyclical nature of time and the cessation of this cycle.

In the standard versions, Brahmi symbolizes creation; The Vaishnavi Guardian occupies a central position, flanked by three goddesses on each side. The cycle of time ends with dissolution, Chamunda. She is the only Devi Shakti among the Matrikas. She is sometimes portrayed as someone who exists beyond death and time. Kala-bhairava, who is usually depicted at the end of the Saptamatrika chain, symbolizes liberation from the cycle of birth and death. Thus, Saptamatrikas personify the process of creation, preservation and death; and a liberation that transcends time.

This theory is in accordance with the views of Shaktism, which explains the creation, preservation and destruction of the universe as a function of female energy – Shakti.


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Brahmani (Sanskrit: ब्रह्माणी) or Brahmi (Sanskrit: ब्राह्मि) is shakti of Brahma. She is depicted as yellow with four heads and four arms (sometimes six). Like Brahma, she holds in four hands rosary, lasso, kamandal or lotus, and a book or a bell. She sits on her vahana – swan, or the swan is depicted on her banner. Brahmani is adorned with various ornaments and crowned with a karanda mukuta, a special form of crown.



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Vaishnavi (Sanskrit: वैष्णवी) is shakti of god Vishnu, she sits on Garuda and has four or six arms. In her arms she shankha, chakra, mace, lotus or  bow, and sword, and she is also depicted with two hands in the abhaya and varada mudras. Like Vishnu, she is adorned with jewels – necklace, bracelets, earrings and kirita mukuta crown.




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Maheshwari (Sanskrit: माहेस्वरी), Shiva's Shakti, who is also known as Maheshvara. Her other names are Raudri, Rudrani, Maheshi. She is depicted sitting on Nandi and holding trishul, akshamala, damaru, panapatra or ax or antelope or kapala or snake in her hands. She is adorned with bracelets of snakes, moon and jata mukuta.


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Indrani (Sanskrit: इन्द्राणी), also known as Aindri (Sanskrit: ऐन्द्री), Mahendri, Shakri, Sachi or Vajri. Indrani is the energy of god Indra, the god of Heaven. She is described as dark-skinned, sitting on an elephant, with two, four or six hands, in which she holds vajra, goad, lasso, and lotus. Like Indra, she is depicted as having two or three or even a thousand eyes. She wears kirita mututu on her head.



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Kaumari (Sanskrit: कौमारी), also known as Kumari, Karttikeyani and Ambika is the energy of god Skanda, the god of war. She sits on a peacock and has four or twelve arms in which she holds a spear, axe, shakti or tanka (silver coins), and a bow. Like Skanda, she has six heads, which are decorated with kirita mukuta.


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Varahi (Sanskrit: वाराही) or Vairali, shakti of Varaha-avatar of Vishnu, or shakti of Yama, god of death. Depicted with the head of a boar. In her hands she holds danda or plow, goad, vajra or sword, and a panapatra. According to another version, she holds a bell, chakra, chamara and a bow in her hands. Her head is crowned with an ornamented karanda mukuta.



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Chamunda (Sanskrit: चामुण्डा), also known as Chamundi and Charchika, is energy of Devi (Chandi). Very often she is identified with Kali because of the similarity in appearance and behavior. The black body of Chamunda is adorned with a garland of severed heads – mundamala, and in her hands she holds damaru, trishul, sword and panapatra. Three-eyed, with a sunken belly and a frightening face, she stands on a corpse or sits on a jackal.



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Narasimhi (Sanskrit: नारसिंहीं) is shakti of Nrasimha deva, the lion-headed avatar of Vishnu. She is a female lion who puts the stars in the sky into disarray by shaking her mane.



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