She is fearfully unattractive. Some might even call her ugly or abominable. Uncouth and dirty, her skin is of a smoky hue and she wears no ornaments. Her limbs are bony and long, she has gaps in her rotting teeth, her hair is disheveled. She wears the attire of a widow, her once-white robe filthy and flung uncaringly over her thin frame. Her eyes are haunting and she bears a grain sorting winnow in one hand while the other is formed in a boon-bestowing mudra. She rides alone on a horseless cart with a crow as her banner.
Such is the fearsome and disgust-evoking iconography of Dhumavati, the seventh of the Mahavidyas. Possibly the most misunderstood of them all, She is feared or worshiped for attaining siddhis in left-hand tantra. Except for a handful of temples, She is not worshiped in common culture being considered “Alakshmi” (the opposite of Lakshmi who stands for abundance and goodness). Yet, Dhumavati reigns supreme when understood in the right context and especially when known experientially. Very simply, She represents the Non-Being that is eternal and both prior to Being as well as what remains after Being comes to an end.
The beauty of the Mahavidyas is that each of them represents two sides of the coin of various aspects of wisdom – the positive and the negative. Thus, Chinnamasta represents both the separation of Creation from the Creator as well as the end of that separation. Bhairavi represents fear as well as its dissolution. Sundari represents the transcendence of the Creator from His Creation as well as His immanent presence in Creation as itself. Similarly, Dhumavati represents the darkness of ignorance as well as that of its potentiality as wisdom, just as the potentiality of a tree is present in its seed. This is one aspect where Tantra differs from Yoga and Vedanta – Tantra is not merely about transcending our limitations but about embracing them. In this intimate embrace and allowing of our negativities, that which we desperately push away and resist becomes transformed. Tantra is inner alchemy, the conversion of all that is unwanted and impure in us to pure gold. Yet, this alchemy is not one of efforting and manipulation but that of complete surrender.
On a cosmic level, it is said that Being (Creation) arises out of Non-Being. It is hard to imagine Non-Being, because it is outside of the scope of time and space which form the basis for mental understanding. The birth of Being from Non-Being is represented by Chinnamasta, the forceful thunderclap that results in the beginning of time (Kali) and space (Bhuvaneshwari) and arises from the tapas of intense concentration of Non-Being (Bhairavi). The coming into Being would be purposeless if it had full knowledge of its origin from Non-Being and its true nature as that Non-Being (Creator). A movie is best enjoyed when we lose ourselves in it and identify completely with the characters in it! Thus, Chinnamasta results in “cutting off” of this knowledge of our true nature. However, when the Creator creates, He descends into it and becomes the very thing. Thus, Creation (Being) is never actually cut off from the Creator; it is just that the spark of self-awareness remains embedded in ignorance. Dhumavati represents this darkness of ignorance; however, She is not totally black in color but is depicted as being of a smoky hue due to the spark of light that remains embedded in the darkness. Her ugly appearance represents the ignorance-bound distortion of truth. Moreover, this ignorance is so deep-seated that the witness principle that is always present as self-awareness also remains obscured. This witness principle is Shiva (Purusha). Since Shiva appears to be nonexistent in this dense ignorance, Dhumavati is depicted as a widow. Mythological stories describe Dhumavati consuming her consort (Shiva) in Her insatiable hunger, which is the power of the force of ignorance (greed, lust, hatred, cruelty and so on). Dhumavati willingly houses Herself deep in matter, driving evolution through increasing degrees of self-awareness from inconscient forms to animal life forms to humans.
On an individual level, Dhumavati represents the inertia and tamas that weighs us down again and again. Even after prolonged sadhana, the darkness that lies hidden deep within the subconscious can (and does) continue to haunt us. As long as we desire to transcend Her force, She will continue to taunt us, for Hers is not a force to be transcended but surrendered to. In several forms of sadhana, the focus is to plunge deep into the very source of ignorance. In this inquiry, one can dive deep into the dark Void of Non-Being (Dhumavati). This Void takes us away from the pain of existence and here we experience deep peace and bliss. It is tempting to stay here, away from the other darkness of our hidden demons (also Dhumavati). Thus, She is both the darkness of ignorance as well as the merciful darkness of the Void. Like Her winnow that holds the grain along with its impurities of stones and dirt, She holds both of these aspects of darkness within Her austere form. When this Void is known, there is often the strong temptation to remain here, to not engage in life at all and to view the world to be a non-existent illusion (Maya). This nihilistic viewpoint drains one of “juice” and sooner or later, Dhumavati emerges again, bringing up all the submerged stuff of our unresolved darkness. In this, Dhumavati’s compassion is unmatched. Her insistence upon our full processing and embracing of our dark side is manifested so that we can sever all those filaments in the cord of our perceived separation from the Creator. Neither plunging into nihilism nor standing separate from life will do – all of it must be seen as the play of the One in the Many. The Creator does not stand apart from His Creation – He becomes one with it. Therefore, the true meaning of Maya is that the world appears to be a certain way due to distortion of truth; it is not that the world does not exist. This distortion of truth (Maya) is the result of avidya (ignorance of the true nature of Being).
How must we worship Dhumavati in inner sadhana? Her worship is that of allowing and opening to all that arises within and without. On the path of self-inquiry, we first learn to abide in the sense of “I Am” prior to thought. Over time, there is a gradual shift of identity from being a person to being this witness prior to body and mind. Further, there is a sense of a greater witnessing that is even beyond this I-sense that can on occasion lead to experience of the great Void. As we rest here, the advice of the sages is to “stop doing” – the doing of a deliberate practice such as bringing attention to this or that or manipulating the arising experience in any way. Inner stillness is the necessary requisite for the welcoming of Dhumavati. Remaining still, we allow all thoughts, emotions, reactions and stories to arise as and when they do. Instead of getting engaged in the story, we notice the arising with curiosity and “do nothing” to force the thought or emotion away. The energy of the stuff is deeply allowed to arise “as is”, without engagement by the mind, without labeling. The energy of the fear, shame, guilt, anger and the rest of the “darkness” is embraced fully in the loving space of “not doing”. All these aspects that were pushed away are welcomed into the stillness, and fully acknowledged to be our very own self, just as the so-called positive aspects are. They are all equally us. Every time these aspects are fully allowed and embraced thus, there is a deep relaxation that occurs that can be felt in the body, like the uncoiling of a tightly wound spring. This inner practice goes on all the time, even when engaged in outer activity. In every moment, we can welcome our reactions and conditioned mind into this vast Void – Dhumavati is known as the darkness within darkness. This welcoming and loving embrace of our darker/shadow selves is the alchemical process where Dhumavati as Alakshmi transforms into Lakshmi. Thus, as this great Void, She is the Non-Being prior to existence (the evolution of sadhana) and that which remains after its dissolution (“doing nothing”).
In this sweetness of self-acceptance, surrender to the great silent Void and inner intimate worship, Dhumavati, the great compassionate Mother graces us with the fortitude to come to the presence of the next Mahavidya, Bagalamukhi.
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