The fourth Mahavidya is Bhuvanesvari, whose form closely resembles that of Tripurasundari. Even more than the goddess who is beautiful in the three worlds or transcends them, Bhuvanesvari is identified with the manifest world and our experience of it.
Her name consists of two elements: bhuvana, which means this living world—a place of dynamic activity—and isvari, which means the female ruler or sovereign. The name Bhuvanesvari is most often translated as “Mistress of the World,” but bhuvana is more than the earth we stand upon. It is the entire cosmos, the bhuvanatraya, consisting of the heavens, the atmosphere, and the earth. Because this is a living, dynamic phenomenon, Bhuvanesvari embodies all its characteristics and their interactions.
Some of her other names make this same point. She is called Mahamaya (“she whose magical power is great”). Maya here is the power to create a magical appearance for the delight of the spectator; that is what a magician does. She is called Sarvarupa (“she whose form is all”) and Visvarupa (“she whose form is the universe” or “she who appears as the universe”). All that we experience in this life is in fact the Divine Mother. As Bhuvanesvari she is consistently associated with the here and now.
Her images closely resemble those of Tripurasundari in several respects. Bhuvanesvari’s complexion resembles the color of the rising sun; she wears the crescent moon on her brow, and she is heavily bejeweled. This last feature affirms the value of the physical world. Sometimes she is shown holding a jeweled drinking cup filled to the brim with gemstones, reminding us that she is the source of all abundance.
The lotus on which she sits tells us that she is the source of the creation. Her full breasts symbolize her nurturing, maternal nature. As Mother she sustains all that she has given birth to, and her attitude toward all her children is most gracious.
This world, with its profusion of diversity, is her joyful play, to which she remains ever attentive. That is indicated by her three eyes, which represent her knowledge of past, present, and future. Nothing escapes her all-pervading awareness.
Bhuvanesvari is often shown holding a noose and a goad. Sri Ramakrishna used to say that it is Mother who binds and Mother who sets free, and these two implements illustrate her captivating and liberating powers. With her noose she fulfills the functions of avidyamaya, casting us into the confusion by which we mistake appearances for reality. According to another interpretation the noose represents the pancakosa, the five sheathes that surround and conceal the atman. They are the physical body (annamayakosa), its life-breath (pranamayakosa), the perceiving mind (manomayakosa), the determinative faculty (vijnanamayakosa), and the causal sheath or sense of individuality (anandamayakosa). With her goad she pushes us to overcome any hindrances—any passions or negativities or wrong ideas that conceal our true, divine nature. She urges us to reach beyond the limitations of human life drawn by body, mind and personality, and to aspire to true Self-knowledge.
The lotus is one of the most pervasive symbols in Indian iconography and its meaning can vary according to context. Here the lotuses in Bhuvanesvari’s upper hands represent growth and the vigorous energy pervading the cosmos. They also symbolize purity and perfection. Although the lotus plant has its roots in the mud, its blossom is untainted in its beauty. The lotus thus represents the state of spiritual perfection to be attained through sincere and ardent practice. Our ordinary lives may appear mired in worldliness, but we are in essence untouchably pure.
Because Bhuvanesvari is so closely associated with the manifest universe, it follows that the emphasis is on her creative power. As the physical universe begins to emerge out of the void, the first of the five elements (mahabhutas) to manifest is space (akasa). It only makes sense that there would have to be space before the remaining four elements would have a place in which to exist. Space is also the medium of sound, and this sound is none other than the creative word. The two ideas are very closely related. In the RIgveda, which is the most ancient of all Indian sacred texts, space is personified as Aditi, the great mother goddess of early Vedic times. Aditi, whose name means “undivided,” had as her physical symbol the vast, shining expanse of the sky. This space, which appears to stretch on without limit, is a visible symbol of infinity. Aditi, the great mother who gave birth to the gods, and who is all that has been, is, and will be, was also identified with Vak, the goddess of the creative word, who in turn is identified with Sarasvati and later with Durga. Western philosophy recognizes this same concept of creative power as logos. In line with this thinking, another name of Bhuvanesvari is Vagisvari, “the sovereign of the creative word,” who rules over the process of cosmic manifestation.
Along with the idea of space comes the idea of pervasion, and so Bhuvanesvari is celebrated as the all-pervading divine presence. And all-pervading means just that. We think of exterior space as beginning where our physical body ends and then stretching out into the unimaginable reaches of the universe. That is one form of space. But there is also an inner space—the space within our own awareness—and that too is infinite.
The inner space is the space of the heart. The word heart does not refer to the physical organ or even to its location in the chest. Heart means the center of awareness, the very essence of consciousness. For each of us the heart is the abode of the infinite Divine Mother. This means that wherever we go in this world, we are never away from her presence. We may often forget, and most often we do, owing to the myriad distractions which claim our attention and involve our thoughts, feelings, and actions. Still, the light of awareness is ever present, illuminating and making possible all experience. Without the Mother’s presence, there would be nothing.
In a treatise entitled Self-Knowledge (Atmabodha), attributed to Sankaracarya, the penultimate sloka (verse 67) takes up this same theme: “Risen in the space of the heart, the Self, the sun of knowledge, dispels the darkness; all-pervading and all-supporting it shines and causes everything to shine” (hridakasodito hy atma bodhabhanus tamopahrit / sarvavyapi sarvadhari bhati bhasayate ‘khilam).
Practically speaking, Bhuvanesvari, by her all-pervasiveness and identification with the universe, invites us to cultivate an attitude of universality. Any religion that lays claim to possessing the exclusive truth is indulging in a dangerous fantasy. All religions link humankind to a single reality that lies beyond this world of our petty differences yet abides in every heart and mind. Some choose to call this reality God or Heavenly Father or Divine Mother, but in truth he, she, or it is that which cannot be named, for to name is to limit, and who are we to limit the Illimitable? And why? For our own personal comfort or satisfaction, either individually or collectively? Does it serve us better to cling to our own parochial ideas of the Divine and ever to squabble among ourselves? Or to open ourselves to the Infinite, which we can never describe, but which in truth we are.
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.