Of all the Mahavidyas, Bagalamukhi is the one whose meaning is the most elusive. Her symbology varies widely, and its interpretation shows little consistency. The opinions of one informant often bear little relation to those of another, and even while making spiritually valid points they can seem rather arbitrary and disconnected. There is no satisfactory explanation even for Bagalamukhi’s name. The word bagala is not found in the Sanskrit lexicon, and attempts to link it to baka (“crane”) are less than convincing.
One of her common epithets is Pitambaradevi, “the goddess dressed in yellow.” Her dhyanamantras also emphasize the yellow color of her complexion, clothing, ornaments, and garland. Her devotees are instructed to wear yellow while worshiping her and to employ a mala made of turmeric beads. Even her few temples are painted yellow. Although her verbal descriptions consistently emphasize the color yellow, her pictorial representations are strangely sparing in their use of the color. More often Bagalamukhi is shown wearing red or orange. There is no consensus on what the color yellow is supposed to mean either. The most plausible explanation out of several is that yellow, being the color of the sun, represents the light of consciousness.
The rest of Bagalamukhi’s symbols evoke similarly vague and widely divergent interpretations and produce no clear picture of what this Mahavidya is all about. This situation calls for fresh thinking. The explanation that follows is in large part unique but is based on a trail of clues found in her mantra.
Bagalamukhi is consistently associated with siddhis, which are yogic powers with magical properties. For a genuine spiritual aspirant such powers are obstacles to be avoided. That said, one such power is stambhana, the power to immobilize, to paralyze, to restrain an enemy. Proper understanding of what stambhana means spiritually is essential to knowing who Bagalamukhi is.
The first thing to keep in mind is that according to all schools of Indian philosophy the world of our experience consists of three levels—the gross or physical, the subtle or mental, and the causal or potential.
Illustrating the principle of stambhana at the gross level, there is an incident from the life of Holy Mother, Sri Sarada Devi, that took place around 1889 in the village of Kamarpukur. There a devotee named Harish returned home after a series of frequent visits to Sri Ramakrishna at Dakshinesvar and, after his mahasamadhi, to the monks at the Baranagore monastery. Harish, who sometimes behaved erratically, had neglected his wife and family during that time. To remedy the situation, his wife administered drugs and spells, and Harish became visibly deranged. One day he caught sight of Holy Mother on the road and began to chase her. When she reached the family compound, she found that no one was at home. She began to circle the granary, all the while with Harish in pursuit. After going around it seven times, she could run no farther. Then, as she told it, she stood firm and assumed her own form. Putting her knee on his chest, she grabbed hold of his tongue and slapped his face so hard that he gasped for breath, so hard that her fingers reddened. At that moment the usually gentle Sarada Devi revealed herself in the form of Bagalamukhi and enacted the physical stance of stambhana.
This concrete symbolism represents a principle that penetrates through every level of our existence and beyond, all the way back to the essence of our being. In this incident we witness the actual presence of Bagalamukhi as a living counterpart of the painted images and verbal descriptions that show her stopping an adversary by grasping his tongue and striking him.
The tongue represents speech, or vak, which is elsewhere personified as a goddess. Vak is more than the spoken word; it is the divine creative power that encompasses the entire range of consciousness. Shown holding on to her adversary’s tongue, Bagalamukhi has the ability to render motionless the creative and destructive power of consciousness in any of its manifestations. These encompass motion, thought, and intention, the manifest forms of speech at the gross, subtle, and causal levels.
Beyond them the supreme level of speech is consciousness-in-itself, the ultimate, unconditioned reality. Emanating from it, intention, thought, and motion are the three stages of creativity that account for this world that we experience. The Chandogya and Taittiriya Upanishads contain passages explaining how Brahman, seeing itself as One, intended to express itself as the many, then thought out a plan, and then set it in motion. Tantric teaching defines these three stages as icchasakti (the power of will), jnanasakti (the power of knowledge), and kriyasakti (the power of action). This is how consciousness works at the cosmic or universal level.
At the individual level that same consciousness works within each of us, infusing everything we feel, think, or do. This internal awareness is also vak, the power of speech, but again the spoken word is only the end-product and grossest manifestation.
There are four levels of speech. The highest is para vak, the supreme, infinite consciousness without qualities or conditioning. It is our divine nature, our true Self—ever present, unchanging, and illuminating all of our experience. Next, pasyanti vak, isthe visionary stage, the urge for self-expression. Everything in our life’s experience begins here in a flash. Every feeling, every idea we formulate, everything we act upon, begins in an instantaneous flash of awareness. When we begin to think about whatever has flashed, ideas begin to take shape in logical sequence. This level of awareness is called madhyama vak, the intermediate, formulative phase. As the ideas become more and more definite, they assume a form expressed in language. This is vaikhari vak, the level of articulate speech. Vaikhari vak is both subtle and gross. The subtle form is the thoughts in our mind, now shaped into words, phrases, and sentences but not yet uttered. The gross form is what comes out of the mouth—the expression of our consciousness embodied in physical sound.
As long as we identify with the body and the mind, our experience of self is that of an individual amid the duality of “I and other.” We often feel the need to control the other, and sometimes that is legitimate, but not always. At a higher level we realize that control of self is a nobler and better, but much harder, discipline. Bagalamukhi symbolizes our innate power to go within and take control of our own awareness. That taking control is yoga, which Patanjali defines as the cessation of constant modulation (cittavritti) within our own field of awareness. Only by taking hold of the activity within our awareness and stopping it can we be freed from worldly bondage and rest in the peace and joy and glory of our own true nature.
Stambhana in the highest sense is yoga. After duly observing the ethical practices of yama and the ennobling disciples of niyama, we are ready for asana. Sitting quietly stops the motion of the body, which in turn calms the metabolic functions and prepares us to quiet the mind. The remaining states of pratyahara, dharana, dhyana, and samadhi are a continuum of ever decreasing activity, culminating in the experience of the Self as pure, unconditioned consciousness. Pulling us by the tongue, Bagalamukhi is drawing us there.
Devadatta Kali (David Nelson) has been closely associated with the Vedanta Society since 1966. A regular lecturer at Vedanta Societies as well as a contributor to Vedanta journals throughout the world, Devadatta Kali is the author of In Praise of the Goddess: The Devimahatmya and Its Meaning and The Veiling Brilliance: Meditations on Shakti.