Do we need a pathetic, skinny, ugly looking widowed Goddess? And on top of that, she smells like a cemetery and is covered by smoke! First, let us get to the mythology surrounding Dhumavati. Legends have it that once Goddess Sati was tormented by great hunger. So she requested Lord Siva to satisfy her hunger. But Lord Siva refused to indulge her. We have seen in other slots that the Lord is not into house-keeping. He prefers to wander like a mendicant having no time for house-hold niceties! Sati requests repeatedly for food. Since he was not responding, Sati said “Well, then I will have to devour you!” and swallowed Lord Siva himself. He persuaded her to disgorge him and she did that with reluctance. Lord Siva then cursed her, condemning her to assume the form of the widow endowed wuth the advantages or disadvantages that goes with that status. Hearing this, smoke emanated from her appearance and clouded her beauty. Lord Siva told her that from now onwards her enchanting appearance would be known as Dhuma or Dhumavati. They separate and the Goddess becomes a loner. No sweat! She chooses a crow as her vahana and recluse in a cemetery. It is not the end of the world, is it?
MAHAVIDYA: Dhumavati is the seventh Mahavidya. The Mahavidyas represent some or other incarnation or manifestation of the Divine Mother. They are regarded as Vidyas or different approaches to Tantric knowledge. The range of these ten goddesses covers the whole of feminine divinity, from horrific goddesses at one end, and a ravishingly beautiful and loving on the other. Dhumavati contains within herself all potentials and shows the latent energies that dwell within us. Among the Vidyas, She represents uncontrolled negative energy of the cosmos, hence shown as a widow.
DHUMA: ‘Dhuma’ means ‘smoke’, so Dhumavati means one who is composed of smoke. Thus she is the smoky form of Shakti. She obscures what is evident and known to reveal the hidden and the profound. As the eternal widow, She is Shakti without her Siva. She therefore reveals all that is imperfect, the disappointments, sorrows, humiliation, defeat, loss and loneliness, and all the negative states in our ordinary existence in order that we may transcend it. Life is a struggle and one learns from the negative experiences and treating them as lessons in wisdom. This is what Dhumavati set out to teach by implication.
DEPICTION: Dhumavati is the Divine Mother at the time of the deluge when the Earth was under water. Upon exit, She is called Alakshmi, the one who is without lakshmi or radiance. The Dhumavati Tantra says that she is ugly, old, thin, unsteady, and angry. Her ears are hideous and rough, she has elongated teeth, and her breasts are drooping and hang down; something contrasting with the usual pomp and ceremony celestial depictions. Notwithstanding her ugly and fearsome appearance, she makes a boon conferring gesture, Varada mudra or knowledge giving gesture, Cinmudra. In one hand she holds a winnowing basket. She is tall and wears filthy garments. She is said to be fierce, frightening and fond of blood. She is sometimes shown holding a agni-pot with fierce fires.
The Prapancasarasara-samgraha describes her. ‘She has a nose shaped like a crow’s beak. She is sometimes said to resemble a crow, which appears as her emblem atop her chariot. It is carrion eater. Indeed, she herself is sometimes said to resemble a crow. It is also her vahana. She has black complexion and wearing ornaments made of snakes. Her dress is made of rags taken from cremation grounds. She holds a spear and a skull-cup, kapala in her two hands. The spear is sometimes replaced by a sword.
Another description in the same text says Dhumavati is aged with a wrinkled, angry face and cloud-like complexion. Her nose, eyes, and throat resemble that of a crow's. She holds a broom, a winnowing fan, a torch, and a club. She is cruel and frowning. Her hair appears disheveled and she wears the simple clothes of a beggar taken from a cemetery. Her breasts are dry. Her hair is grey, her teeth crooked and missing, and her clothes old and worn. The dress she wears has been taken from a corpse from cremation grounds. She is said to be the embodiment of the tamas guna, the aspect of creation associated with lust and ignorance. She constantly yearns for food and drink and is never satisfied. Always hungry and thirsty, She likes to create conflict or quarrels and invokes fear. She is always terrifying in appearance. Her thousand-name hymn says that she likes liquor and meat, both of which are tamsic. She has the disposition of a widow. The goddess tends to be in a sad state of mind and is quarrelsome. Her eyes are fearsome, and her hands tremble. Her eyes are glaring red, stern, and without tenderness. Her lips too are red, covered with blood’.
SYMBOLISM: The symbolism associated with Dhumavathi explains that she points out the negative aspects of life, asking us to develop a sense of detachment. It also implies learning from the negative aspects of life.
MYTHOLOGY: The Siva-Sati-Dhumavati myth is a manifestation resembling an old woman always tormented by great thirst and hunger. She is considered to posses great powers. This myth represents Dhumavathi’s destructive affinity. Siva contains or creates the world but Dhumavathi consumes Siva himself. Thus she embodies unsatisfied desires. She makes herself one by swallowing Shiva, an act of self-assertion, and perhaps independence. She is cursed and rejected by her husband but she moves along despite all this and also her status as widow.
BOWL: The bowl of fire she holds burns ignorance and also indicates that all things are eventually destroyed. Agni is twice born. Enlightenment comes more with unlearning rather than learning. Agni, god of fire acts as the divine model for the sacrificial priest. In Rig Veda 126.96.36.199, Agni is the messenger who carries the oblation from humans to the gods, bringing the gods to sacrifice, and interceding between gods and humans. When Agni is pleased, the gods are generous. Agni represents the cultivated, cooked and cultured aspects of Vedic ritual
WINNOWING BASKET: The winnowing basket is viveka, the power of discrimination that separates the grain- real from the chaff-unreal. On an outer level, she seems like poverty, destitution, and suffering, the great misfortunes that we all fear in life. But in truth, she asks us to look beyond small ambitions. Asatoma satgamaya.
WIDOWHOOD: Dhumavati projects the end and the miserable part of woman’s life. She may portray that she is old and sulking widow who has nowhere to go. But she symbolizes that she is free from its obligations and constraints. She favors the unmarried, the single and the widowed. She instills a desire to be alone and an aversion to worldly things. She encourages a certain kind of aloofness and independence; and sets one on the spiritual path.
Dhumavati represents a typical old widow of the orthodox society. Although a widow was considered unfortunate or inauspicious, she was free to undertake spiritual pursuits such as pilgrimages and vratas that were not easily possible in her younger days while she had to shoulder family responsibilities. For some of those women who found their married life oppressive, widowhood might come as a sort of relief. Good riddance, we say! Like the traditional sanyasin, a pious widow is outside the society free from its constraints and obligations.
Dhumavati symbolically portrays the disappointments, frustrations, humiliation, defeat, loss, sorrow and loneliness that a woman endures. She is the knowledge that comes through hard experiences, after the youthful desires and fantasies are put behind. Dhumavati thus represents a stage of woman’s life that is beyond worldly desires, beyond the conventional taboos of what is polluting or inauspicious. She desires to be free and at the same time she likes to be useful to the family and to the society.
CROW: Se rides on a crow. Sometimes it is shown pulling the chariot. It is her emblem . She is also shown riding on it. It is a scavenger bird feeding on half burnt corpse: it is a symbol of death and inauspiciousness. Dhumavathi’s crow shaped nose is also an invitation to death. On the other hand crows are also symbolic of hearing the ‘unheard’ sounds as they can hear very low sound frequencies, that which the human ears cannot hear. They also show remarkable intelligence. In other faiths, the raven symbolizes death and the other worlds reflecting the realms of both the living and the death. In Hindu belief, crows are considered ancestors as seen during sraddha practice of offering food or panda.
CEMETARY: Dhumavati is associated with the moonless night. She is a widow. She is unmovable and unmoved. She is depicted astride a horseless chariot in a cremation ground filled with smoke. She ends ephemeral expectations because the adherent cannot see and nor imagine them, base desires and false ambitions for the same reason, and egoism. She grounds Her worshippers in the transformation of death. She is regarded as preparing adherents for Kali but is complete in Herself.
SMOKE: Smoke billowing out of a quenched fire is her nature. Dhumavati’s youth and freshness are burnt out; and what remains is the smoke of her spent life. And like smoke she is restless and wandering. Her nature is not brightness. The smoke usually is dark, polluting and concealing. ‘Tatha tena idam avrtam’ is a phrase from Gita 3.38. It means ‘so this is covered by that.’ …. Lord Krishna uses the allegory -Smoke coming from the fire can cover it; a mirror covered by a coat of dust and fetus covered by the womb. In the same way, Kama and the gunas cover viveka – the knowledge of what is to be done and not to be done.
SADHANA and TANTRA: Sadhana of Dhumanavati as unorganized divine energy leads to total awareness. Worship of Dhumavati is done in a completely naked state, in a crematorium or a lonely spot on the darkest nights in the descending moon cycle. When we stop focusing on the outer forms and notice the background space instead, we begin to see her.In her temples near Varanasi, Dhumavati despite her aloofness is regarded as a guardian deity who looks after the village folk and blesses with worldly happiness.
To Tantrics, She is no longer the inauspicious and dangerous goddess approached only by the Tantrics. Her Dasa Mahavidya mantra contains only one bija syllable: the power to obscure, hide but also, protect and prepare. Dhumavati is also interpreted by some Tantra scholars as "the aspect of reality that is old, ugly, and unappealing. She is generally associated with all that is inauspicious: she dwells in areas of the earth that are perceived to be desolate, such as deserts, in abandoned houses, in quarrels, in mourning children, in hunger and thirst, and particularly in widows.
Goddess Dhumavati is a good teacher. By obscuring or covering all that is known, Dhumavati reveals the depth of the unknown. Dhumavati obscures what is evident in order to reveal the hidden and the profound.