Lalita – also known as Tripurasundari, Sridevi, Rajarajesvari, Kamesvari, and Sodasi, is considered by her devotees to be a great goddess (Mahadevi) who surpasses all others. All other gods & goddesses are either created by Lalita, or subservient to her will.
Lalita is the principle goddess of Srividya, which is centred on the infamous Sri Yantra. She is also one of the ten Mahavidyas.
David Kinsley describes a temple to Rajarajesvari, where it is said that she has the power to attract people and that “one can feel the pull of her strength when taking her darsan. … No one is strong enough to spend the night in her temple, and after a while she drives people crazy who stay in her presence. Her priests do not last for long.” (Mahavidyas, p115).
The Sthula – the physical or gross image is the goddess as an anthropomorphic icon. This aspect of the goddess is the focus for puja and devotion. There are many meditational verses (dhyanasloka) which describe her in fine detail, and thus provide a basis for contemplation. Works such as the Lalitasahasranama (the thousand names of Lalita) are both liturgical and theological texts for understanding and worshipping the goddess. In the Lalitasahasranama for example, Lalita is identified as the Great Empress of the Universe (v2), seated on the Lion’s throne (v3), having emerged from the fire-pit of consciousness (v4), and shining with the brilliance of a thousand suns (v6). Lalita’s physical form is considered by some devotees to be a ‘gateway’ to her more esoteric aspects – the goddess as mantra and as yantra.
Lalita is identified with every aspect of the goddess in every possible form and depiction. She is primarily depicted as benign (samya) and beautiful (saundarya) rather than as horrifying (ghora) but she encompasses all possible oppositions. She is, for example, identified with both Kali and Durga.
Lalita is said to rule over the universe in the manner that a queen or king presides over a kingdom. She acts as a protectoress, slaying demonic enemies; removing fear and granting boons to her devotees. Her auspiciousness includes material prosperity, well-being, and power. One of her popular epithets is Rajarajesvari – “queen of kings.”
As a great goddess, Lalita performs the three principle cosmic functions of creation, maintenance and destruction, either enacting them herself or directing Brahma, Visnu and Siva.
Lalita is also supremely attractive, beautiful, and sensuous. The Lalitasahasramana describes her erotic qualities in great detail (quotes) and she is said to be the actual form of the god of desire, or that the god of love (Kama) received his powers from her glance.
Lalita and Bhanda
The central myth in which Lalita features is the defeat of the demon Bhandasura, as recounted in the Lalitopahkyana.
This tale begins with Kama, the god of love, interrupting Siva’s meditation, at which Siva burns Kama to ash with his burning glance. Out of the ashes, the leader of Siva’s ganas – Citrakama – creates the image of a man. This being then petitions Siva to teach him a powerful mantra, which Siva obligingly does. Either as a result of his practice of the mantra – or Siva’s pleasure at hearing the mantra, the man formed from ash is granted the power of gaining half the might of one’s adversary, and the power to rule the worlds for sixty thousand years. Siva praises the being with the words Bhand! Bhand! (Good! Good!) from whence comes his name – Bhanda, but because the being was born from the fire of Siva’s anger when he destroyed Kama, he becomes a terrible, wrathful demon. He builds a city rivalling the might and splendour of the heavenly city ruled by Indra, and lays siege to Indra’s city. By this time, Bhanda’s sixty thousand year reign under the protection of Siva has lapsed.
With Indra’s city still under siege, the sage Narada counsels Indra to petition Tripurasundari for aid. Indra instructs his allies – the gods, to offer their own flesh and blood to the goddess. At the end of these rites, the goddess appears to them and soothes their fears, and the gods begin to sing her praises. Lalita is pleased by these devotions and agrees to defeat Bhanda, and grant the boons of all those who worship her. The gods arrange the marriage of Lalita to Siva, but although Lalita honours her husband, she declares her independence. After some years pass (these things are not done in a hurry), Lalita and her army of shaktis go off to battle Bhanda and his army. Lalita creates a variety of special weapons from the noose and the goad that she carries, and is accompanied by the yoginis who preside over the Sri Chakra and all of whom are emanations of her. Bhanda is amused by the idea of an all-female army, and boasts that they will be as weak and ineffective as the name of their leader Lalita (“the lovely”) suggests.
Of course, Bhanda is in for a surprise. His generals are slain one by one and his sons are killed in turn by Lalita’s daughter, Balamba. Both Lalita and Bhanda bring forth beings from their bodies. For example, Bhanda creates the buffalo demon Mahisasura, and Lalita responds by producing Durga, who wears the jewels given to her by the gods and weapons given to her by Siva, Visnu, Varuna, Indra, and the Maruts. Durga slays Mahisasura, as recounted in the Devimahatmya. Lalita also creates the elephant-headed Ganesa from her own laughter in order to destroy Bhanda’s own brother. Having slain Bhanda’s brother, Ganesha then causes an army of elephant-faced heroes to issue from his own mouth, in order to destroy a horde of demonic elephants. Pleased with her son’s exploits, Lalita later grants him the boon of being worshipped before all other deities.
Eventually, Bhanda is forced into the fray himself, having had all the beings he has created slain by Lalita. Lalita slays Bhanda with the missile named the great kamesvara (mahakamesvara) which has the splendour of a thousand suns.
Following the battle, the gods assemble and praise Lalita, and implore her to restore the life of Kama, the god of love, from whose ashes Bhanda was created. She does so, and the gods praise her, and Kama declares his eternal gratitude.
This myth has several features. Firstly, it serves to identify Lalita as a transcendent cosmic guardian. Several great goddesses, such as Kali and Durga, are established as being, in actuality, avataras of Lalita. In the Lalitasahasranama for instance, she is referred to as the one from whom the ten avataras of Visnu emerge from her fingernails (v80). She is also said to have created Ganesa from her laughter. So Lalita not only surpasses all other deities, she creates them with minimal effort on her part.
In the myth, Lalita shows that she is capable of ferocity, but that this is very much a controlled ferocity, expressed only by aspects of herself whilst she remains predominantly benign. Her power is thus dispositional – she delegates power to aspects of herself and only enters the battle when it becomes clear that no other power can match the adversary.
The epithet tripurasundari can be read in many different ways, such as “lovely goddess of the three cities” or “she who is beautiful in the three worlds”. According to the Kalika-Purana, she is called Tripura because she is identical with the triangle which gives rise to her charka. She may also be known as Tripura because her mantra is formed of three clusters of syllables. She is also threefold due to her roles of creator-maintainer-destroyer; also because she represents the subject (mata), instrument (mana) and object (meya) of all things. She is the measurer, the measured, and the act of measuring. Every triadic relationship – three worlds, three lights, three channels, etc., may be identified with Tripurasundari.
Sodasi – “she who is sixteen” can refer both to the common practice for deities to be described as being sixteen years old as this is considered to be the most beautiful and vigorous human age, and also that she has sixteen auspicious qualities. More esoterically, the name refers to “she who is the sixteenth” – a reference to the 15 bright and 15 dark phases of the moon, the implication being that Sodasi is that which is beyond the phases – beyond the rhythms of time. She can also be understood to be that which causes the cosmic rhythms.
The idea of Lalita as the sixteenth – the one beyond an established set of 15 is similar to the idea of a fourth state arising out of a triad, subsuming and encompassing the other elements.
“The word Lalita has eight meanings, namely brilliancy, manifestation, sweetness, depth, fixity, energy, grace and generosity; these are the eight human qualities.” The Kama-sastra says: Lalita means erotic actions and also tenderness; as she has all the above-mentioned qualities, she is called Lalita. It is said also “Thou art rightly called Lalita for thou hast nine divine attendants and your bow is made of sugar-cane, your arrows are flowers, and everything connected with you is lovely.”