The Legend of Lalita

May 24, 2015    BY Linda Johnsen

The Goddess plays an enormous role in the yoga tradition. But because yoga is a system of spiritual practices which can easily be adapted to any religious orientation, most Indian yogis teaching in the West have not introduced their students to Hindu gods and goddesses. Instead they encourage Westerners to practice yoga within the context of their own faith.

Over the past decade, however, the Western world has seen an explosion of interest in goddess spirituality. From neolithic times till 1,500 years ago, the Great Mother was honored virtually everywhere on the globe, but during the past fifteen centuries most cultures gradually lost their traditions of the Divine Mother. Only in India has the wisdom of the Goddess been preserved intact on a massive scale; yogic lineages today still honor the Goddess as they did at the dawn of history.

Of the many great yogic goddess lineages, Lalita’s is preeminent. Self-willed and independent, Lalita is an exquisitely sensuous goddess also known as Kameshvari (“Empress of Desire”). At the same time, she is the completely devoted wife of the Supreme Lord Shiva, who is pure consciousness. She exists in a perpetual state of perfect harmony, ever benevolent, her eyes moist with compassion for all beings.

When our senses are offered to the Goddess and our thoughts are directed to the Divine, our life becomes sweet and fragrant.

Lalita is portrayed in the yoga tradition as a voluptuous young woman holding five arrows made of long-stemmed flowers, a bow made of sugarcane, a noose, and a goad. The arrows are our five senses and the bow with which they’re dispatched is our mind. When our senses are offered to the Goddess and our thoughts are directed to the Divine, our life becomes sweet and fragrant. But when we find ourselves pausing on the spiritual path, distracted by one thing or another, Lalita gently prods us along with her goad. If we resist her mild suggestion that it’s time to move forward in our spiritual unfoldment, she lassos us with her noose and drags us, like misbehaving children, back to her lap. From this perspective, life’s worst traumas are Lalita’s lariat; it is the fullest expression of her love for even her most wayfaring children.

The Glory of Lalita

The deep inner significance of Lalita’s play with her devotees (her name means “she who plays”) is revealed in the Brahmanda Purana, a thousand-year-old text from South India. In the most famous section of this text, called “The Glory of Lalita,” the following mystical tale unfolds.

Shiva, lord of the universe, was engaged in ascetic practices, absorbed in deep meditation, when he suddenly felt a flush of lust. Though two of his eyes remained shut in serene contemplation, his third eye flickered open, looking for the force which had disturbed his concentration. Sure enough, there was Kama, the god of love, grinning playfully, having just unleashed an arrow of desire. Instantly a laser-like bolt arced from Shiva’s open eye, incinerating Kama. The eyelid fluttered shut and the lord resumed his meditation.

From the ashes of love arose the demon Bhanda, flaming with desire for power, wealth, and sensual indulgence. Bhanda had an extraordinary power: whenever he made war on an enemy, half his opponent’s power would be transferred directly to Bhanda.

Bhanda quickly became a mighty king, conquering a vast dominion. The sage Narada appeared to the gods to warn them of the increasing threat Bhanda represented. “You must worship the Divine Mother Lalita,” he said, “for only she can help you ward off this menace.”

Alarmed, Indra, the king of the gods, made his way to the Himalayas to perform penances in order to gain the inner strength necessary to defeat Bhanda. On a bank of the Bhagirathi River, “blooming profusely with every kind of splendid flower,” Indra worshiped the Mother of the Universe.

The planet Venus noticed what Indra was up to and rushed to Bhanda’s court—where all Venusian pleasures were extravagantly indulged—to alert the demons. Quickly assembling an army, Bhanda hurried to the Himalayas to disrupt Indra’s penance, but seeing the demons coming to disturb her divine son’s meditation, the Mother of the Universe instantly threw up a protective barrier. With considerable effort, the demons smashed the wall but the moment it crumbled, another bulwark appeared in its place. The demon army tried again and again, but defensive walls continued to materialize out of the ether.

Meanwhile Indra called the rest of the gods together and announced, “Bhanda’s army is so powerful there is no way we can defeat him on our own. We will have to dig a fire pit a mile long and propitiate the Goddess with human sacrifice.” So they lit a great fire and offered a human body, as they chanted the mantras sacred to the Mother of the Universe.

A circular mass of blazing light materialized over the fire. At the center of the shining wheel sat the Great Goddess, resplendent as the rising sun. The gods recognized Lalita immediately: she was the life force of the entire cosmos, the quintessence of beauty and desire, adorned in robes the color of pomegranate, smiling at them with a loving glance as cool as moonlight. In her four arms she held a noose, a goad, a sugarcane bow, and five arrows tipped with flower petals.

What is the text saying? To those initiated in the yoga tradition, the meaning is clear. It isn’t possible to annihilate the force of desire within ourselves, because this force arises from Kameshvari, the Empress of Desire who is none other than the Mother of the Universe herself. Attempting to suppress his desires, Shiva tried to obliterate Kama, god of sexual desire, but another powerful entity instantly took Kama’s place. Unlike Kama, who represents the sacred movement of nature to cherish others in order to reproduce itself, Bhanda represents distorted, aggressive, selfish lust.

The Divine Mother protects him from the onslaught of the demons—his own anti-divine impulses—so long as he remains in this fortress, a yogic state beyond thought and desire.

Indra, “he who attains mastery through control of the senses,” resorts to the Himalayas to do spiritual practices which will restore a healthy, God-centered lifestyle. In yogic literature a mountain often represents the spinal column, which remains upright and unwavering in meditation, unshakable as the Himalayas themselves. On the bank of the Bhagirathi River, where Indra does penance, is the mouth of the sushumna, the subtle nerve current which is the conduit for kundalini, beginning at the base of the spine and emptying into the brain. The “flower-strewn” city where Indra meditates is the sahasrara chakra, the thousand-petaled lotus at the top of the brain. Holding his consciousness in this highest chakra, Indra enters nirvikalpa samadhi, the deepest state of meditation, where he becomes impregnable. The Divine Mother protects him from the onslaught of the demons—his own anti-divine impulses—so long as he remains in this fortress, a yogic state beyond thought and desire.

But it is not Indra’s destiny to sit withdrawn in meditation for the rest of his life. His dharma, or life purpose, is to rule the gods—that is, to rule his inner divine powers so that he can act successfully and beneficently in the world. So he mentally summons all his internal energies to make the supreme sacrifice, the one form of human sacrifice which is genuinely spiritually effective: offering every cell of one’s own body into the fire pit of kundalini. Then, having purified himself physically, emotionally, and mentally, Indra becomes fit for the vision of the Mother of the Universe, the Supreme Power of Consciousness herself. She—the source of universal consciousness—is seated in a luminous orb just above the thousand-petaled chakra at the top of the head.

The text goes on to say that at the sight of the Power of Consciousness, the soul and its inner senses fly into ecstasy. Smiling at the upturned faces of the enraptured gods, which glowed with the reflection of her own light, the Goddess said, “My dear ones, be joyous! I will remove your fear. I bless all of you with virtue, prosperity, and fame, and with loving spouses, devoted children, and trustworthy friends.”

Hearing that the Mother of the Universe was manifesting in a visible body, sages and cosmic intelligences like Brahma the Creator rushed to the scene. Catching a glimpse of the Mother’s supremely beautiful face, and seeing the magnificent city which the cosmic architect Vishvakarma had instantly built for her, Brahma thought, “It is no more appropriate for a woman to rule such a city alone than for a king to rule a kingdom without a queen. The Supreme Goddess must have a husband, but who in all these worlds is worthy of her? Only Lord Shiva himself, but he sits in meditation, naked as pure consciousness, so she may not accept him.”

Sensing the Creator’s thoughts, Shiva materialized before Brahma’s eyes. For this special occasion, the lord of the universe assumed a stunningly handsome form, draped in gorgeous robes and gems. Then Shiva turned to look at the Goddess. Shiva, the ascetic god who had incinerated the force of lust, found himself melting like butter in the hot sun before the bewitching beauty of the Mother of the Universe, who embodied in herself the very essence of sexual power.

Smiling, Lalita announced, “Whatever I say or do is according to my own will alone. Whichever man accepts me as his wife must also accept my complete independence.” Saying this, she pulled the garland from her neck and tossed it into the sky. It circled the heavens before finally landing around Shiva’s neck. In this handsome, garlanded form Shiva became known as Kameshvara, “the Emperor of Love.” He and Lalita were immediately united in marriage, to the great delight of the assembled deities.

There was no honeymoon. The Divine Mother had promised to free the gods from fear, so immediately she set out to meet Bhanda in battle. The Brahmanda Purana lovingly describes the powerful military commanders who accompanied her, all awesome and intelligent shaktis, demi-goddesses eager to free the world from evil, riding in extraordinary chariots the likes of which had never been seen on earth. This section of the scripture too is entirely yogic: the shaktis are the innate energies of the subtle body, and their chariots are the yantras or sacred mandalas in which these energies embody themselves when yogis worship their yantras with reverence.

When Bhanda heard that an army of women was approaching his city, he howled with laughter. His younger brother soberly cautioned, “It is Shakti (divine power) which gives every victory. We have reason to fear anyone who becomes a seat of that energy. Don’t underestimate these attackers because they are women. Remember the goddess Kali is the fiercest warrior of all. Let’s find out who these women are before we counterattack.” But Bhanda could not be persuaded; after all, he could effortlessly draw into himself half his enemy’s strength. Who could possibly defeat him?

The Inner Battle

The author of the Brahmanda Purana details the ensuing rout, as the women warriors decimate Bhanda’s clueless male troops. Every phase of the battle represents a stage of spiritual self-purification. In one episode, for example, the demon general Balahaka overcomes Lalita’s shaktis with a boon he long ago received from the Sun God. Whenever he looks at an enemy with anger, rays of hot light shoot from his eyes, paralyzing his opponent. Seeing many of the shaktis overcome by this force, the demi-goddess Tiraskaranika covers his eyes with an impenetrable veil. While he staggers in confusion, she lops off his head. In case anyone has missed the purport of the allegory—that anger is such a debilitating force it can defeat even the purifying energies of the Higher Self—the author pointedly explains that it was actually Balahaka’s own temper which blinded him.

Bhanda turned to his chief sorcerer for help. Grinning maliciously, the sorcerer prepared a special yantra, a geometric design infused with curses, and hurled it into the camp of the shaktis. Suddenly the demi-goddesses, always eager to serve Lalita, found themselves giving in to lassitude and despair. “Why should we fight injustice in the world? What difference will all our self-sacrificing efforts make in the end? We’re throwing our lives away for nothing. And why should we practice such strict self-disciplines? We’re not going to become enlightened in this lifetime anyway. Why not relax and enjoy life a little? Let’s get some sleep.”

Of all the shaktis, only the two supreme commanders, Dandanatha and Mantrini, were so firmly established in their spiritual practices that they remained unaffected by discouragement or sloth. They hurried to Lalita to report, “Empress, the demon army is attacking and our warrioresses are sleeping!”

Lalita was not in the least distressed, but began to laugh! From her beautiful peals of laughter a huge, ungainly form began to coalesce. He had the muscular body of an extremely strong but quite corpulent young man, with the head of an elephant. This is how Ganesha, the popular elephant-headed god of Hinduism, was born.

Lalita was not in the least distressed, but began to laugh!

Highly intelligent like all elephants, Ganesha immediately sensed what was wrong. Pausing only a moment to bow to his mother, he quickly sprinted away to locate the evil yantra which had cast a stuporous spell over the women warriors. He found it almost immediately and smashed it to pieces with his tusk. Instantly the shaktis leaped to their feet, eager to resume battle. Lalita was so delighted with her son’s excellent service she granted him the boon that he would be worshiped before any of the other gods. That is why to this day whenever Hindus begin a worship service they always start by honoring Ganesha first.

Ganesha represents firm determination. Whenever the mind is resolute, all obstacles are overcome, enthusiasm is sustained, and victory is ensured. The root of determination is self-confidence and a sense of humor.

Bhanda then decided to attack by night, a tactic completely against the code of Hindu chivalry. Noting that Lalita always sent her shaktis to fight while she herself remained hidden in the background, observing and controlling their motions, he planned to surround her in the darkness and lead the attack from behind. This surprise attack caught the shaktis off guard; many of them were seriously wounded. Then the undying cosmic intelligences who bask eternally in Lalita’s glow drew their bows of prana (breath or life energy) and staved off the onslaught. Injured women warriors were carried into Lalita’s presence, where a loving glance from her eyes, ever moist with mercy, instantly healed their wounds.

The text is warning that selfish desires and self-defeating impulses can invade even the more advanced states of meditation. When these distractions are experienced, the seeker is advised to practice pranayama, breath control, to still the disturbances in the mind. And if at any time one feels frightened or defeated, withdrawing one’s awareness and placing oneself fully in the light of the Goddess, the divine consciousness within which is the source of all healing power, will restore one’s faith and energy.

Mantrini and Dandanatha, Lalita’s two generals, were concerned at the near success of Bhanda’s last assault, and analyzed their defensive strategy carefully. They quickly saw, and repaired, weak areas in their bulwarks, representing those aspects of our personality with which we subvert our best efforts. All parts of our being must be balanced and in harmony if we are to avoid defeating ourselves. The further one progresses in spiritual life, the higher the stakes become. Vedic literature is replete with stories of great yogis who advanced to high stages of spiritual practice, only to tumble to subhuman levels because some shadow in their mind had never been exposed to the light of self-awareness.

Mantrini and Dandanatha decided to protect their forces with a rampart of blazing fire. Only a tiny gate would be allowed in the rampart, where the Goddess’s troops could come and go. The entrance would be guarded day and night by powerful shaktis who never sleep. Thus the abode of the Supreme Consciousness was surrounded by a garland of impassable flames.

This ring of fire is often mentioned in yogic literature, where it has been described variously as a golden disk concealing the innermost truth, a shining beacon many glimpse at the time of death (and through whose blazing light only enlightened souls can pass), or the Inner Sun. This is not a metaphor but a literal experience reported by many advanced meditators, who claim it is like looking into the combined light of a thousand rising suns. The holiest of all verses in the ancient Vedas, the gayatri mantra, invokes the enlightening wisdom of this very experience. “We meditate on the Inner Sun, the most splendid light in all the worlds. Please illumine our hearts and minds, and make our lives radiant!”

The entrance to the realm beyond this light is said to be accessible to those who never sleep. Under laboratory conditions, yogis have demonstrated the ability to remain fully conscious, aware of everything occurring in the room around them, while scientific instrumentation unambiguously shows that the yogi’s body (including his brain) is in a state of deep sleep. The ability to remain lucid not only during dreams but even in deep sleep is one of the powers the Goddess grants advanced meditators in the yogic tradition.

“Darling, you’re much too young! You’ve barely finished your training and you don’t have any experience in combat. Let powerful women like Mantrini and Dandanatha fight instead.”

Next Bhanda sent his own sons into battle, certain that these exceptional warriors would vanquish the Goddess. Learning that Bhanda’s sons were poised for battle, Bala’s face lit with excitement. She ran to Lalita begging, “Mother, mother, please let me fight the demon princes!” Bala was Lalita’s nine-year-old daughter—in fact the Sanskrit word bala means “young girl.” Lalita swept her daughter up in her arms and laughed. “Darling, you’re much too young! You’ve barely finished your training and you don’t have any experience in combat. Let powerful women like Mantrini and Dandanatha fight instead.”

Bala was adamant. “Mommy, I’m going to fight!” Her eyes twinkling with delight, Lalita dressed her daughter in her own armor and lent her her own weapons. Riding in a palanquin, Bala unleashed a torrent of arrows on Bhanda’s unsuspecting sons. Within moments, all of them lay dead and the young girl returned home triumphantly. During the entire encounter, Mantrini and Dandanatha never left Bala’s side for a moment. They allowed her to fight her own battle, but were ready to swoop to her protection at a second’s notice if the need arose.

Readers may object, “But Lalita just got married! How can she already have a nine-year-old daughter?” And yet, who do you imagine you are if you don’t realize that you are Bala? Lalita is the all-pervading consciousness/power which creates, sustains, and annihilates the cosmos. You are her dearest child, eager, like her, to express your creativity, to maintain your personal universe, and then to turn your attention away when you lose interest. Lalita redresses evil on a cosmic scale; you fight for what you believe is right on your own scale. If you have truly passed through the tests metaphorically described in this text, then you are no longer a human personality adrift in an ocean of births and deaths, but truly are the goddess Bala, that is, the Higher Self, a glorious, infinitesimal portion of your Mother, the Self of the Universe.

Whether you are male or female, you are the daughter of the Goddess. You ride into the “battle” of earthly experience in your palanquin—your physical body—but all the while Mantrini and Dandanatha, the protective energies of the Queen of the Universe, are watching over and protecting you.

But in this vast and fearsome universe there may be forces so powerful that neither you nor even great cosmic intelligences can overcome them. Bhanda—the reproductive energy of nature gone bad, the desire to merge with another turned to self-aggrandizement, the sacred magnetism of love used to manipulate or destroy, love subsumed in lust—can be so overpoweringly compelling that even great saints are humbled by its ferocity. As Bhanda himself finally approaches to do battle, Lalita at last rises from her throne in the sahasrara chakra. The gateway in the circle of fire which keeps all profane thoughts from entering the holy of holies within spontaneously widens, and the Mother of the Universe herself descends into physical consciousness to meet her greatest foe. When we have done all we can to purify ourselves, then divine grace descends to destroy the final obstacles which are simply beyond our capacity to overcome.

Bhanda attacks Lalita with weapons of fear, illness, materialism, apathy, and destruction of the sacred teachings. Lalita responds with weapons of courage, vibrant health, spiritual insight, active compassion, and selfless, enlightened spiritual mentors. Finally Bhanda unleashes all the forces of perdition, designed to rip human society to pieces. In retaliation, from the tips of the Goddess’s fingers emerge the great saints who manifest on earth to restore order and righteousness.

At the culmination of this final confrontation Bhanda launches his most terrifying missile, called mahamoha, “the supreme delusion” that anything exists anywhere in the universe that is not completely sacred and divine. Lalita blasts it to pieces with her own missile, called shambhava, “divine awareness.” And then the Mother of the Universe overcomes Bhanda, selfish lust born from the ashes of love, with the most powerful force in the universe, maha kameshvara, “pure divine love.”

In the conflagration Bhanda’s capital city Shunyaka is also destroyed. It contained everything Bhanda had ever won for himself. Its name means simply “emptiness.”

Bhanda’s fatal error was believing himself invincible because he had been granted the boon to drain half his enemy’s might in any encounter. Since he never made the effort to understand who Lalita is, and never realized that she is the Supreme Primordial Energy, it didn’t dawn on him that half of infinity is still infinity. No matter how much energy he drained from the Mother of the Universe, her resources would remain inexhaustible.

The gods all rushed to congratulate Lalita on this great victory. But Brahma the Creator had one more item on his agenda. “Mother, everyone in the world is celebrating your victory. Everyone, that is, except one desolate, grieving widow named Rati. Years ago her husband Kama playfully fired an arrow of sexual arousal at Lord Shiva. The lord became angry and burned Kama to ashes. But without sexual energy, the physical universe will collapse. How can more bodies be provided for the trillions of souls who still want to incarnate to fulfill their material desires?”

Smiling, the Mother of the Universe swept the cosmos with her sidelong glance. From that loving glance a form began to coalesce, and at that moment the widow Rati felt someone materializing beside her. It was her husband, Kama, the god of sexual attraction, in a body even more handsome than the one Shiva had destroyed.

Smiling, the Mother of the Universe swept the cosmos with her sidelong glance.

“Mother, you have restored my life!” Kama gratefully called out to Lalita. “Please tell me how I can serve you!”

Lalita laughed, “My darling son, you have my blessings and my protection. Go about your business, enchanting the entire world. Tease those who repudiate your power by withdrawing their joyfulness. Embarrass those who believe they have mastered you by drawing them into scandal. And fill the lives of my devotees with delight!”

The Brahmanda Purana concludes with a series of chapters painstakingly describing Lalita’s mansion, its antechambers and waiting rooms, as well as the inner compartments where the Goddess herself dwells. Lalita’s mansion is the human body. Its inner rooms are the petals of the sahasrara chakra, the vortex of psychic energy associated with the roof of the brain. In these rooms the treasures of spirit are stored, and between these rooms lie passageways into dimensions of being utterly beyond human imagination. For most of us Westerners, these rooms are the stuff of fairy tales. But the adepts of the yoga tradition live in them.

The Liberating Power of Consciousness

The yoga tradition incorporates numerous techniques that mechanically force the kundalini energy to rise, including elaborate forms of physical purification, difficult hatha yoga postures, and extremely challenging and potentially dangerous breathing exercises involving retention of the breath. An unprepared person invites brain damage by holding his or her breath for longer than four minutes. Yet under laboratory conditions, some yogis have demonstrated the ability to nearly completely stop their respiration, heartbeat, and even brain waves for extended periods. The Yoga Sutra actually defines the word yoga as “the cessation of the waves of the mind.” In this state the static which usually reverberates in the brain is stilled, and the nonmaterial reality beyond the brain, from which the mind was projected, “shines through” into human consciousness unimpeded.

The Brahmanda Purana suggests that there are slower but safer ways of invoking the enlightening energy of kundalini than the extremely challenging techniques practiced by advanced yogis. We can clear away the demons blocking the flow of enlightened awareness simply by fighting the ordinary battles of our daily lives, rooting out the qualities in our hearts and minds that harm ourselves or others, as well as by directing our natural impulses, such as sexual desire, in a sacred rather than a selfish manner.

When the Goddess Lalita attacks, her arrows are long-stemmed flowers. She conquers not with anger or force, but with love. While Bhanda was never admitted into the Goddess’s inner chambers, little Bala was allowed in at once because Bala came running with innocent love. When we approach the Mother with that kind of pure devotion, she scoops us up in her arms and grants us victory.

Those of us today seeking to understand the inner tradition of the Great Mother would do well to turn to the perennial wisdom of the yoga masters.

The yogic path to the Goddess Lalita is called Sri Vidya (“The Supreme Science”). It leads us to the center of our own being, to the Great Goddess who is none other than the spiritual quintessence of our own divine nature. In the caves and monasteries of India’s ascetic adepts, and in the busy households of lay yogis and yoginis, the ancient worldwide tradition of the Goddess found its highest expression. Those of us today seeking to understand the inner tradition of the Great Mother would do well to turn to the perennial wisdom of the yoga masters.

Linda Johnsen
Linda Johnsen, MS, is the author of numerous books including Lost Masters: Sages of Ancient Greece and Meditation Is Boring? Her most recent book is Kirtan! Chanting as a Spiritual Practice. Visit her at