The series of ten Mahavidyas begins with Kali and ends with Kamala. Both are aspects of the Divine Mother who are widely worshiped in their own right apart from the context of the Mahavidyas. In this way they differ from aspects such as Dhumavati, Bagalamukhi, and Matangi, who lack similar independence and a widespread popular following.
One way of analyzing the Mahavidyas places Kali first because she represents the transcendental experience. This same scheme places Kamala last as the aspect most closely connected to the here and now. The error here is to regard Kali and Kamala as separate. In truth, the Divine is one, and the enlightened soul perceives unity, not difference.
Another approach categorizes Kali as fierce (ugra) and Kamala as gentle (saumya), but that is an oversimplification. Kali is not without tenderness and beneficence, and Kamala, although overwhelmingly auspicious, is not exclusively so. Again, Mother is One, and she is all.
Kamala is portrayed as making the gestures of boon-giving and fearlessness. She sits on a lotus and holds lotus blossoms in her two upper hands. Even her name means “lotus.” She is flanked by two elephants. Obviously Kamala is Lakshmi, who is portrayed in the identical manner, but in the context of the Mahavidyas there are also significant differences.
Lakshmi is a very ancient form of the Divine Mother. In Vedic times she was known as Sri. As she appears in the Vedic hymns, Sri represents light, radiance, luster, glory, and prosperity. She is the divine resplendence and power inherent in every deity.
In late Vedic times, in a hymn known as the Srisukta, Sri is identified with Lakshmi, who may originally have been a non-Vedic agricultural goddess. The Srisukta already associates her with the lotus and the elephant. The lotus represents cosmic order, life, and fertility. The universe unfolds like the blossoming of a lotus, and the creation is accordingly vibrant, beautiful, and good. The lotus also represents purity. The plant is rooted deep in the mud, but the exquisitely beautiful flower it produces is untainted. Similarly, water beads up on the lotus leaves and immediately runs off, so the lotus represents serene detachment as well as incorruptibility. Besides purity, the lotus is a symbol of spiritual authority, and the lotus on which Lakshmi-Kamala is seated is in fact a throne.
The elephant stands for similar qualities. The water showered from its trunk represents rain, and rain is tied to fertility, growth, increase, well-being, and wealth. The elephant, being the mount of kings, is also a symbol of authority.
Purity and authority. These are two qualities that we find negated by the preceding Mahavidya, Matangi. Are these two aspects of the Divine Mother antithetical? Or is there a way to make them fit together? In many of the world’s religions, doctrinal differences smaller than this have led to hostility, schism, physical violence, and war. But the system of the Mahavidyas embraces even radical differences and manages to fit them together harmoniously.
To understand this better, we need to keep in mind that there are at least three different views of Lakshmi, depending on the sectarian standpoint of the viewer. Sri is the original Vedic goddess, who by late Vedic times had absorbed and assimilated to herself the probably non-Vedic Lakshmi. So today Lakshmi is a Vedic, or orthodox, aspect of the Divine Mother. In all likelihood, the probably non-Vedic Lakshmi also retained her original standing among her worshipers, and in that form we know her as the Tantric goddess Kamala. In the aspect in which she is best known and most widely worshiped today, Lakshmi is the consort of Visnu. This third context is that of Vaisnavism.
This adds a new layer of complexity. Vedic Sri represents the divine resplendence, power, and glory inherent in any deity. As such, Sri had connections with every male god—with Indra in regard to sovereignty and fertility, with Kubera in regard to wealth and prosperity, with the Vedic Visnu in regard to the dharma, or moral excellence. However, in the later orthodox Vaisnava religion, Lakshmi becomes subordinate to Visnu. She is now his obedient wife, portrayed iconographically as smaller and therefore less powerful than he. However, in the Pancaratra system, an early form of Vaisnava Tantra, Visnu is the inactive male principle and Lakshmi is the active female power. It is she who runs the show.
Even more so, as the Mahavidya Kamala she is all-powerful. Kamala is not a divine consort but the independent and all-supreme Divine Mother. She is not the spouse of any male deity. Interestingly, she is rarely identified with the other female forms found in orthodox Vaisnavism, such as Sita, Radha, or Rukmini. If any consort names are ever applied to her as epithets, they are Saiva names such as Siva (“the auspicious one”) and Gauri (“she who is gently radiant”). However, Kamala is not completely auspicious or one-sided. Sometimes she is called Rudra (“the howling one”), Ghora or Bhima (“the terrifying one”), or Tamasi (“the dark one”). Like Kali, the Tantric Kamala embraces the light and the darkness, for she is the totality.
This helps to explain how Kamala, although overwhelmingly associated with lotuses, which represent purity and authority, can be reconciled with Matangi, who asks us to violate the outward purity laws and to question the authority that imposes them. In the end, spiritual life is about regaining our lost autonomy. Once we have realized our identity with the Divine, through whatever form of practice, we experience our own perfection. Questions of purity and impurity evaporate. To know the reality of divine consciousness in its unconditioned oneness is to become purity itself—the ultimate purity beyond the limitation of thought. Questions of authority likewise evaporate in the experience of absolute oneness, where there is no second. This is the experience of liberation or enlightenment, wherein any imposed authority vanishes in the radiance of divine autonomy (svatantrya).
Lakshmi, or Kamala, is the Divine Mother’s most popular aspect, for she relates to the world of the here and now. Devotees pray to her for good fortune, prosperity, abundance, and well-being—for all the good that life has to offer. There is no harm in this, as long as we wisely ask only for enough and no more. Lakshmi, our Mother, urges us also to pray and strive for the well-being of all our brothers and sisters. Then beyond that she calls us to strive for a higher wealth, the riches of dharma. This dharma includes devotion, kindness, compassion, truthfulness, and all other forms of moral excellence. Virtue is our higher treasure, more precious than gold. It will lead us to seek the still higher knowledge of Self-realization that is the ultimate goal of human life.
In conclusion, all the Mahavidyas are states of spiritual awakening that we will experience within our own minds and hearts along the course of our journey back to the Divine. How often we’ve heard it said that God is love. Lakshmi or Kamala represents that love. To be saturated with the presence of Kamala is to become an embodiment of divine love. Then we come to understand her great secret: love is unique and unlike anything else, for the more of it you give, the more of it you have. And with this great secret Kamala offers us a direct path to the Divine.
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.