Nirrti (also: Nirriti) sometimes features in the group of Lokapalas.
She is the guardian or regent of the South-West and is often featured in temple iconography. For example, the Rajarani Temple outside Bhubaneswar features a statue of Nirrti controlling the South-West direction. She is depicted on this temple holding a sword and a severed head, and standing over a prostrate body.
Contemporary texts tend to portray Nirriti as demonic or destructive and she is often linked to Kali, Alakshmi or Dhumavati. David Kinsley, in his book on the Mahavidyas, contends that there is little evidence to suggest that Kali is related to Nirrti, but opines that Dhumvati is an “amalgamation” of the qualities of Nirrti, Jyestha and Alakshmi. Arthur Avalon, writing in Shakti and Shakta does stress that Nirrti is both “goddess of misfortune” and the “remover” of misfortunes.
Nirrti is derived from the root nir – meaning “to go out”, “(to) be deprived” or “dissolved.”
One suggestion for the meaning of Nirrti I have come across (although I cannot recall the source) is that nir-r means “to go out”, “to be deprived of” or “dissolution” and rta refers to “that which is right” or “the law” (literally, the course of things or “natural order” – which later becomes synonymous with dharma) which would give us – “(that which is) beyond (i.e. goes against) the order” or “that (which) dissolves the law.
rta (also rita) is commonly translated as “rule”, “law”, “cosmic order”. Its antonym is druh (deceiving, lying, seeking to hurt ). Both rta and druh are active, i.e. druh might be a lie that is actually carried out, or an untruth which is not just conceived, but is pronounced and acted upon. It is the active power of rta by which the sun moves in the sky; that rivers flow – and by extension, that people speak the truth (satya) and perform their obligations.
Generally, Nirrti is associated with calamity & misfortune; death (particularly untimely death); poverty and infertitility. There are also some indications that she is associated with stealing children. The Rakshasas – with whom she is associated – are related to disrupting the sacrificial rituals.
Nirrti in the Vedas
In the Rg Veda Nirriti is the personification of destruction, calamity, corruption and death. She is also however, the abode or place of dissolution or decay. A verse in the RV (RV 7.104.1,9-11) describes the ‘realm’ of Nirriti as an endless pit without light or warmth – a placed reserved for those who act against the basic ideals of Vedic society. Those who are condemned to the realm of Nirriti do not receive nourishment from the offerings of their descendents, nor from their own accumulated merit. The following Hymn from the RV implores her to leave the sacrifice alone and to “depart to distant places” so that no calamity may befall:
“His life hath been renewed and carried forward as two men, car-borne, by the skilful driver. One falls, then seeks the goal with quickened vigour. Let Nirrti depart to distant places. Here is the psalm for wealth, and food, in plenty: let us do many deeds to bring us glory. All these our doings shall delight the singer. Let Nirrti depart to distant places. May we o’ercome our foes with acts of valour, as heaven is over earth, hills over lowlands. All these our deeds the singer hath considered. Let Nirrti depart to distant places. Give us not up as prey to death, O Sorna still let us look upon the Sun arising. Let our old age with passing days be kindly. Let Nirrti depart to distant places.”
Rg Veda, Hymn LIX
A curse which can be found in the Atharva Veda reads:
“Whenever yonder person in his thought, and with his speech, offers sacrifice accompanied by oblations and benedictions, may Nirriti, allying herself with death, smite his offering before it takes effect! May sorcerers, Nirriti, as well as Rakshas, mar his true work with error! May the gods, despatched by Indra, scatter (churn) his sacrificial butter; may that which yonder person offers not succeed!”
Nirriti in later texts
In the Mahabharata Nirriti is the wife of Adharma (unrighteousness) and the mother of three sons: Bhaya (“fear”); Maha-Bhaya (“great fear”) and Mrityu (“death incarnate”). Another version of this text says that she is the daughter of Adharma and Himsa (“violence or injury”). She is also however, one the creations of Brahma, as recounted in the Bhagavatam:
“Here is the story of Nirrti . Brahma’s creative energy was showing on his body and mind. Narada popped out from the lap, Daksa trotted out of his thumb, Vasistha spiraled out of his breath, Bhrgu crawled out of his skin, Kratu muscled his way out of his hand, Pulaha sprouted out of his navel, Pulastya wriggled out of his ear, Angira gushed out of his mouth, Atri brimmed over the eyelid, Marici dawned out of his mind, Dharma burst out of his right breast, Adharma scratched his way out of his back, the god of love (Kāma) blossomed out of his heart, Anger bounced off his brow, Greed gyrated on his upper lip, the goddess of Speech (Vak) vaulted out his of mouth with the aid of a pole of nimble wit, the oceans rained down from his phallus, Nirrti plunked out of his anus, and the sage Kardama stepped out of his shadow. Dharma was Lord Narāyana Himself. Thus, Brahma’s creations came out of his body and mind.”
According to the Agni Purana the spirit of the “doer of bad deeds” leaves the body through the anus. The implication is that if the Jiva leaves the body through the lower orifices (rather than, for example, the head) then the future of the Jiva is bound to the lower worlds.
Birds of ill-omen
In a section of the Taittiriya Samhita which lists the various animals to be sacrificed to the gods, the pigeon, owl and the hare are listed as being sacrifices to Nirrti. Both pigeons and owls were considered to be inaspicious birds and there are is charm in the Atharva Veda which refers to the pigeon as the “messenger of Nirrti”. There are folk stories in North India in which Bhutas – believed to be the spirits of those who have suffered untimely deaths – take on the form of owls (Skt: ulaka). In the Dharmasastras, the cry of an owl is considered an inauspicious sign – a student of the Vedas who hears the owl is enjoined not to continue his studies until he has slept.
The association of owls and Nirrti is quite interesting, as later, the owl becomes the vehicle of Lakshmi. This might be an instance of the goddess “conquering” an animal associated with misfortune or delusion and taking it as her vehicle – as with Ganesa and the rat/mouse.
In later texts Nirriti seems to change sex – for example the Mahanirvana Tantra describes Nirriti as a god of dark green hue, seated upon a horse and bearing a sword.