Devi Mahatmayam, composed in 400-500 CE, is the definitive text of the Shakta tradition, and one that established the Goddess as the supreme creatrix, entrusted with the functions of creation, sustenance and destruction. It could well be the first recorded instance, at least in the Indian subcontinent, where a scripture accords the Goddess supremacy, and celebrates her independence, her power, her intelligence, her uncompromising protection of dharma, her essential femininity, her graceful compassion, and her universal motherhood.
The three central episodes of the Devi Mahatmayam revolve around the allegorical slaying of ignorance by the Goddess. Rapacious demons, symbolic of afflictions of mind and ego, wreak havoc on heaven and earth, symbolic of one’s inner environment. In the first episode, two demons attack Brahma as he prepares to launch a new cycle of creation. He calls out to Vishnu for help, who is asleep. Brahma then petitions the Goddess in her form as Yoganidra (yogic sleep), who withdraws from Vishnu, causing him to awaken. So, while Vishnu does the actual slaying, Devi enables him. She lifts the veil of ignorance from him, an awakening occurs, and the afflictions of mind and ego are slain.
In the second episode, Devi makes her debut as warrior goddess Durga, invoked to overcome the shapeshifter, Mahishasura. Astride a lion, she engages Mahishasura in fierce battle where he changes form each time she is about to kill him, suggesting the slippery nature of the ego and the many manifestations of ignorance that constantly attempts to subdue it. Eventually, Durga vanquishes Mahishasura because of her alertness. Pinpointing the exact moment he is about to change out of a buffalo’s body, she swiftly decapitates it. To better the wiles of the ego, one needs to be ever aware of its movements, and as it begins to draw one’s witness-consciousness into a play of emotions and thought patterns, act quickly in wielding the sword of discrimination to end its hold.
The third episode of Devi Mahatmayam comprises a cluster of stories that introduce an aspect of the Goddess that is perhaps the most feared and the least understood. Kali is mistress of time (kala) and transience, who keeps the cosmic balance by ensuring an end to created life. The reason Kali is such a powerful icon is because she uses the negative impulses of anger, retaliation, vengeance and violence, to create balance and harmony. She is never a slave to these emotions, as most of us are, but their mistress. She channels the basest of human instincts to generate positive power, and is never overcome by them. This alchemy of energy, whereby negativity is not to be destroyed but transformed into its exact opposite, is central to the practices of Shakta Tantra.