Mahavidyas: working with the ambivalent aspect of the mother archetype

An image of Durga (Shakti) under an arch displaying the Mahavidyas, with Shiva at the apex; 1930’s. US Public Domain via Wikimedia

In the image above, we see the Goddess Durga (Shakti) under an arch displaying the Mahavidyas. The mahavidyas express various forms of the Devi. Mahavidya is a Sanskrit word that speaks to the revelatory power of the mother goddess. Maha means ‘great’ and Vidya means ‘knowledge’ or ‘wisdom’.

Sitting on top of the arch, we find Shiva. Shiva is an image of the cosmic Self (Brahman). The mother goddesses express the form and power of the cosmic Self. As such, she emerges as ‘great wisdoms’, offering esoteric knowledge of the Cosmic Self. Arthur Avalon speaks to the relation of Shiva and Shakti:

“Mind and Matter are ultimately one, the two latter being the twin aspects of the Fundamental Substance or Brahman [or Shiva] and Its Power or Shakti. Spirit is the substance of mind-matter, the Reality (in the sense of the lasting changelessness) out of which, by Its Power, all Appearance is fashioned not by the individual mind and senses but by the cosmic mind and senses of which they are but a part. What It creates It perceives.”

Shiva and Shakti form two aspects or poles of the cosmic Self (Brahman). All of reality emerges as such: cosmic mind and cosmic body. For the yogi, this eternal truth is revealed within both the macrocosm (cosmic body) and the microcosm (individual body). By working to realize these poles of being, we come to know the nature of the Self.

The goddesses are forms or images of Shakti (the great mother goddess), expressing both the positive and the ambivalent aspects of the mother archetype. In some images, the goddess takes the form of loving kindness; in others, she takes a more ambivalent or fierce form. Carl Jung related such images to the mother archetype.  Jung reveals his awareness of the eternal truth of the mother when he says: “the mother archetype appears under an infinite variety of aspects” (CW 9i, para. 157).

Jung states that the mother archetype may “have a positive, favorable meaning” (ibid). The mother in her positive form provides nourishment, love, care, holding, containment, rebirth and transformation. Positive symbols include “things arousing devotion or feelings of awe, as for instance…. heaven, earth, the woods, the sea or any still waters, matter even, the underworld, the moon” (ibid). We also find “places standing for fertility and fruitfulness: the cornucopia, a ploughed field, a garden. It can be attached to a rock, a cave, a tree, a spring, a deep well, or to various vessels such as the baptismal font, or to vessel-shaped flowers like the rose or the lotus. Because of the protection it implies, the magic circle or mandala can be a form of mother archetype. Hollow objects such as ovens and cooking vessels are associated with the mother archetype, and, of course, the uterus, yoni” (ibid).

Jung also understands that there is “a negative” or “an ambivalent aspect” to the mother archetype: “the negative side the mother archetype may connote anything secret, hidden, dark; the abyss, the world of the dead, anything that devours, seduces, and poisons, that is terrifying and inescapable like fate” (ibid)

In the Devī Māhātmyam (meaning Glory of the Goddess), Shakti uses her ferocity in service of the eternal truth. The Devī Māhātmyam presents a battle between the spiritual knowledge (vidya) and spiritual ignorance (avidya). In the story, the Goddess takes on various forms, such as Durga and Kali. The goddess is the form of vidya. In such form she leads the battle against the demon Mahishasura, as the form of avidya.

The goddess uses her fierce form only in service of spiritual knowledge. She is the slayer of demons (asuras); and thus the slayer of spiritual ignorance as represented by the demons. In peaceful times, the Devi manifests as Lakshmi, a pleasant and prosperous form of the Devi.

Working with ambivalence may lead to great (maha) wisdom (vidya). The Vedas realize a link between the macrocosm and the microcosm, between the cosmic Self and the individual self, as well as between the symbolic and the actual. In working with symbolic life (microcosm), we transform our relation to world (macrocosm). This is a realization present in Vedic tradition as well as in the psychoanalytic tradition.

Both Jungian and Kleinian psychoanalysis work with internal representations of the mother. Carl Jung showed that there is a psychical tendency to fear or feel revulsion toward the more ambivalent aspects of the mother archetype. From a psychoanalytic perspective, the infant splits internal representations into good and bad representations (called objects). Psychoanalysis works to integrate such splits. Melanie Klein understood that the primary and most important duality is in internal representations of the mother (You can read more about this in my post on the Mother World).

Embracing both the loving and the fierce form of the Devi may lead to an integration of the splits within the mother. It may also help us to individuate from our worldly mother, taking on a relation to the symbolic mother.

Spiritual development, in the yogic sense, is coincident with Self-knowledge or jñāna. Self-knowledge is a knowledge of the eternal truth of the Self, existing beyond duality.

A yogi works with the mother goddess in a symbolic sense, confronting the internal representations of the mother. The aim of spiritual development, as Self-knowledge, is a movement away from the literal object world, toward a more spiritual and symbolic world, and finally toward the eternal truth of the Self– beyond even the symbolic. This movement always starts with prakriti (the mother goddess as the literal world). As the yogi progresses in his work he comes into relation with Shakti (as symbolic mother goddess).

By becoming aware of our aversions and desires in relation to the mother world (Prakriti), we begin to liberate (moksha) our fusional relations with the various forms of mother, as the “object of desire” (Sri Aurobindo). To truly know Shakti, the yogi embraces both the positive and the ambivalent aspects of the Devi. Kali in her fierce from is loved just as is Lakshmi in her more pleasant form.

Through working with the Mahavidyas, the mind transforms its relation to ferocity, realizing the power of the Goddesses to dispel spiritual ignorance. In moving from the literal to the symbolic, the yogi realizes that the symbolic ferocity of the mother Goddess can be in service of spiritual development: Durga’s ferocity becomes the inner power to slay the symbolic demons of ignorance. In this realization, both the literal and symbolic are overcome in service of the eternal truth of the Self.

Such realization transforms worldly ‘desire’ into ‘enjoyment’. The Tantric idea of ‘enjoyment’ points to an ability to savor all the experiences of life, in all its myriad of forms, sensations, emotions, perceptions. To truly ‘enjoy’ life is to become one with Shiva (the cosmic Self) in his enjoyment. The Spandakarika says

“It is the lord himself as the enjoyer who is, always and everywhere, established in and through the objects of enjoyment.”

It is through working with the mother goddess– as that which is both favorable and that which is ambivalent– that Shiva (our consciousness) may unite with Shakti (life) in a realization of their non-dual union.

Sat Chit Ananda is the love, bliss, awareness– the enjoyment– the devotee knows upon the realization of the non-dual union of Shiva and Shakti. Shakti and Shiva are reunited in one’s own love and enjoyment. This love is the emergence of undifferentiated awareness. All is an expression of the cosmic Self, an eternal truth inseparable from love.


  1. Carl G. Jung, The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious – Collected Works volume 9i.
  2. Shakti and Shâkta by Arthur Avalon by Sir John Woodroffe 1918
  3. An Introduction to Tantric Philosophy: The Paramarthasara of Abhinavagupta with the Commentary of Yogaraja, translated by Lyne Bansat-Boudon, Kamalesha Datta Tripathi
  4. Commentary of the Isa Upanishad by Sri Aurobindo