At first glance Matangi looks very much like Sarasvati. The main point of similarity is the vina that she plays. Like Sarasvati, she may be shown holding a book and a japamala as well. Together these symbolize the interrelated aspects of sound, knowledge, and power. The sound of the vina represents creativity, which is the power of consciousness to express itself. The mala also represents the power of sound, but in the form of the mantra. The book stands for the wisdom and knowledge transmitted through the word. The parrot that accompanies Matangi also has associations with speech.
It is a well-known truism that knowledge is power. Our own experience verifies that the more we know about something, the greater will be our ability. The more we understand how something works, the better we will be able to make it work to our advantage. This fact underlies every acquired skill relating to any field of learning and any form of technology. It follows that the more we know about the internal instrument that is the mind (antahkarana), the more mastery we will gain over it also.
Like Bagalamukhi, Matangi is often associated with yogic or magical powers that can be invoked to exert influence over our environment or over other people. Again, knowledge is power, but this sort of power is something that the genuine spiritual aspirant should have no interest in cultivating. Rather than to seek mastery over others, it is higher and nobler by far to seek control over the impulses of one’s own lower Self.
Still, others try to exert power over us, and this points us to the difference between Sarasvati and Matangi. From the earliest days of the RIgveda, Sarasvati has been one of the most venerated forms of feminine divinity. As such, she is the Vedic goddess par excellence. In contrast, Matangi is in many ways the quintessential Tantric goddess.
Throughout Indian religious history the Vedic thread represents orthodoxy and the establishment, centered on a priesthood charged with performing the Brahmanical rituals. The Tantric thread, in contrast, lies outside the boundaries of Vedic orthodoxy. It is not the strict religion of the male-dominated establishment but one that has always been open to men and women alike and to members of any caste. It excludes no one and embraces those at the margins of society. Tantra is remarkably egalitarian, perhaps in response to an orthodoxy rigorously governed by ideas of ritual purity.
Many of Matangi’s myths involve questions of purity. These narratives often associate her with tribal peoples, hunting, and forests, which stand at the periphery of civilized society. Matangi is definitely an outsider, and the questions of purity revolve especially around matters of caste and food.
Her keeping company with candalas, or untouchables, calls to mind an incident in the life of Sankaracarya, who was born an orthodox brahmana. Once he was walking with his disciples along a lane in Varanasi when they spotted a candala approaching. Fearing the outcaste’s polluting touch, Sankara ordered the poor creature out of the way. Surprisingly that lowly fellow responded with a discourse on the unity of atman and the intrinsic worth of all human beings. Sankara was so humbled that he was moved to compose a poem declaring that the divine Self shines forth equally from the high-born and the untouchable.
The question of ritual purity is a vital one when it comes to food. The food that is to be offered to a deity is prepared with great care and according to strict rules of physical and mental cleanliness. It is then offered to the deity, who consumes a portion. The rest, rendered blessed, is distributed to devotees as prasada, or divine grace. One willingly and gratefully partakes of it. Apart from prasada, any other leftover food is called ucchista and is regarded as highly polluting. A person who comes in contact with it is rendered ritually impure. Interestingly, it is this very ucchista that Matangi demands as an offering. This is a dramatic reversal of normal procedure. Additionally a devotee offering ucchista to Matangi should also be in a ritually impure state, defiled by the leftovers of others and unwashed.
What is going on here? In a society so attentive to the rules of ritual purity, there is a danger that this idea of purity can become an end in itself, and slavish observance can become a form of spiritual bondage. When Matangi demands the transgression of rules, she is not encouraging irreverence at all but a response to the constraints of indoctrination. From our earliest days we are conditioned to hold certain ideas about what is proper and what is not. Our sense of right and wrong may become devoid of compassion. People who run around being conventionally pious all the time are usually unaware of their own failings and can easily become deluded by the pride of their own perceived moral excellence.
Tantric teaching speaks of eight fetters, and the one that is particularly relevant here is sila, undue concern over proper conduct. Like every other fetter, sila is a mental attitude that imposes its influence on us and impinges on the essential freedom of the Self. Sometimes it takes a jolt to break free from these ingrained attitudes. Our ordinary awareness is heavily conditioned—saguna. The consciousness that is our divine nature is entirely unconditioned—nirguna. Sadhana is basically a process of deconditioning.
The distinction of purity and impurity imposes a dualism on the way we view the world. Only when we see through our lower notions can we appreciate the Tantric teaching that the true nature of impurity is not the ritual pollution we have been trained to fear but our own existential limitation. We have been so involved with trifling concerns that the crux of the matter has eluded us entirely.
In Tantric teaching the word for impurity is mala. Mala arises through the atman’s association with maya, the Divine’s own power of limitation. The imperfect finite soul is only a contracted form of the perfect, infinite Self. Mala is the impurity of our finitude, and it takes three forms.
The impurity called anavamala is the consciousness of limited individuality: “I am small (anu) in my own sense of separateness, lack, and inferiority.” Anavamala is the imperfection of a diminished sense of self. It is also the root impurity that gives rise to the other two malas.
As the sense of individuality evolves into a sense of separation, it produces the sense of “I and other.” This further condition of impurity is known as mayiyamala: “I am apart from what I experience around me.” Mayiyamala plunges us into the world of duality, and our mental activity gets caught up in a process of contrast, comparison, and exclusion. Focusing on the diversity around us, we are distracted from the unity within that is our original, divine nature.
The third impurity involves the interaction of the limited interior I and the multiple exterior other. This is karmamala, the bound and binding state of human action: “I act out of necessity, driven by my own sense of want.” Our actions are never free and spontaneous; they always bow to the conditioning that binds us, and their effects in turn prolong the bondage.
As long as the malas color our awareness, they hold us captive. As long as we chase after the conventional notions of purity and piety and shun their opposites, we are caught up in a reactive chain. Matangi’s example teaches us to face our false notions head on and be free.
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.