An underlying theological assumption in texts celebrating the Mahadevi is that the ultimate reality in the universe is a powerful, creative, active, transcendent female being. The Lalita-sahasranama gives many names of the Mahadevi, and several of her epithets express this assumption- She is called, for example, the root of the world (Jagatikanda, name 325), she who transcends the universe fVisvadhika, 334), she who has no equal (Nirupama, 389), supreme ruler (Parames- van, 396), she who pervades all (Vyapini, 400), she who is immeasur- able (Aprameya, 413), she who creates innumerable universes (Aneka- kotibrahmandatanani, 620), she whose womb contains the universe (Visvagarbha, 637), she who is the support of all (Sarvadhara, 659), she who is omnipresent (Sarvaga, 702), she who is the ruler of all worlds (Sarvalokesi, 758), and she who supports the universe (Visvadharini, 759).

In the Devi-bhagavata-purana, which also assumes the ultimate priority of the Mahadevi, she is said to be the mother of all. to pervade the three worlds, to be the support of all (1.5.47-50), to be the life force in all beings, to be the ruler of all beings (1.5.51-54), to be the only cause of the universe (1.7.27), to create Brahma, Vishnu, and Siva and to command them to perform their cosmic tasks (3.5.4), to be the root of the tree of the universe (3.10.15), and to be she who is supreme knowledge (4.15.12). The text describes her by many other names and phrases as it exalts her to a position of cosmic supremacy.

One of the central philosophic ideas underlying the Mahadevi, an idea that in many ways captures her essential nature, is sakti. Sakti means "power"; in Hindu philosophy and theology sakti is understood to be the active dimension of the godhead, the divine power that under- lies the godhead's ability to create the world and to display itself.3 Within the totality of the godhead, sakti is the complementary pole of the divine tendency toward quiescence and stillness. It is quite common, further- more, to identify sakti with a female being, a goddess, and to identify the other pole with her male consort. The two poles are usually under- stood to be interdependent and to have relatively equal status in terms of the divine economy.

Texts or contexts exalting the Mahadevi. however, usually affirm sakti to be a power, or the power, underlying ultimate reality, or to be ultimate reality itself. Instead of being understood as one of two poles or as one dimension of a bipolar conception of the divine, sakti as it applies to the Mahadevi is often identified with the essence of reality. If the Mahadevi as sakti is related to another dimension of the divine in the form of a male deity, he will tend to play a subservient role in relation to her.5 In focusing on the centrality of sakti as constituting the essence of the divine, texts usually describe the Mahadevi as a powerful, active, dynamic being who creates, pervades, governs, and protects the universe. As sakti, she is not aloof from the world but attentive to the cosmic rhythms and the needs of her devotees,

In a similar vein the MahadevT is often identified with prakrti and mayd. Indeed, two of her most common epithets are Mulaprakrti (she who is primordial matter) and Mahamaya (she who is great mayd). These ideas have negative connotations in certain schools of Hindu philosophy. Samkhya phiiosphy and yogic spiritual techniques describe prakrti as the web of matter in which one's spiritual essence, purusa (literally, the male), is enmeshed. Yogic exercise aims at reversing the spontaneous tendencies of prakrti to reproduce and specify itself. In the quest for liberation prakrti represents that from which one seeks free- dom. Similarly, most schools of Hindu philosophy identify maya with that which prevents one from seeing things as they really are, Mayd is the process of superimposition by which one projects one's own ignorance on the world and thus obscures ultimate truth. To wake up to the truth of things necessarily involves counteracting or overcoming maya, which is grounded in ignorance and self-infatuation. Liberation in Hindu philosophy means to a great extent the transcendence of embodied, finite, phenomenal existence. And maya is often equated precisely with finite, phenomenal existence.'' To be in the phenomenal world, to be an individual creature, is to live enveloped in maya.

When the Mahadevi is associated with prakrti or maya, certain negative overtones sometimes persist. As prakrti or mayd she is some- times referred to as the great power that preoccupies individuals with phenomenal existence or as the cosmic'force that impels even the gods to unconsciousness and sleep. But the overall result of the Mahadevi's identification with prakrti and mayd is to infuse both ideas with positive dimensions. As prakrti or mayd. the Devi is identified with existence itself, or with that which underlies all existent things. The emphasis is not on the binding aspects of matter or the created world but on the Devi as the ground of all things.

Because it is she who pervades the material world as prakrti or maya, the phenomenal world tends to take on positive qualities. Or perhaps we could say that a positive attitude toward the world, which is evident in much of popular Hinduism, is af- firmed when the Devi is identified with prakrti and maya. The central theological point here is that the MahadevT is the world, she is all this creation, she is one with her creatures and her creation. Although a person's spiritual destiny ultimately may involve transcendence of the creation, the Devi's identification with existence per se is clearly in- tended to be a positive philosophic assertion. She is life, and to the ex- tent that life is cherished and revered, she is cherished and revered.

As sakti, prakrti, and maya, the Devi is portrayed as an over- whelming presence that overflows itself, spilling forth into the creation, suffusing the worid with vitality, energy, and power. When the Devi is identified with these well-known philosophic ideas, then, a positive point is being made: the Devi creates the world, she is the world,8 and she enlivens the world with creative power. As sakti, prakrti, and maya. she is not understood so much as binding creatures to finite existence as being the very source and vitality of creatures. She is the source of creatures-their mother-and as such her awesome, vital power is revered.

The idea of brahman is another central idea with which the DevT is associated- Ever since the time of the Upanisads, brahman has been the most commonly accepted term or designation for ultimate reality in Hin- duism. In the Upanisads, and throughout the Hindu tradition, brahman is described in two ways: as nirguna (having no qualities or beyond all qualities) and saguna (having qualities). As nirguna, which is usually affirmed to be the superior way of thinking about brahman, ultimate reality transcends all qualities, categories, and limitations- As nirguna, brahman transcends all attempts to circumscribe it. It is beyond all name and form (nama-rupa).

As the ground of all things, as the fundamental principal of existence, however, brahman is also spoken of as having qualities, indeed, as manifesting itself in a multiplicity of deities, universes, and beings. As saguna, brahman reveals itself especially as the various deities of the Hindu pantheon. The main philosophical point asserted in the idea of saguna brahman is that underlying all the dif- ferent gods is a unifying essence, namely, brahman. Each individual de- ity is understood to be a partial manifestation of brahman, which ultimately is beyond all specifying attributes, functions, and qualities.

The idea of brahman serves welt the attempts in many texts devoted to the Devi to affirm her supreme position in the Hindu pantheon. The idea of brahman makes two central philosophic points congenial to the theology of the Mahadevi: (1) she is ultimate reality itself, and (2) she is the source of all divine manifestations, male and female (but especially female). As saguna brahman, the Devi is portrayed as a great cosmic queen enthroned in the highest heaven, with a multitude of deities as the agents through which she governs the infinite universes. In her ultimate essence, however, some texts, despite their clear preference for the Devi's feminine characteristics, assert in traditional fashion that she is beyond all qualities, beyond male and female."

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