Updated: Nov 10
This November, Hindus around the world will partake in Diwali, a five day festival of light which celebrates the triumph of good over evil. The five days of Diwali commemorate righteous gods’ victories over demonic forces, such as Lord Krishna vanquishing the demon Narkasur and Lord Ram defeating the villainous Ravan. Though non-Hindus may be familiar with Diwali’s origins, including Lord Krishna and Lord Ram’s stories, few are aware of the roles that Hindu goddesses play during the holiday. During the five days of Diwali, Hindus engage in puja (worship) of each devi (goddess) in the Tridevi, which is the three major Hindu goddesses: Lakshmi, goddess of wealth, Parvati, goddess of fertility, and Saraswati, goddess of wisdom. Though each devi possesses her own unique characteristics and portrays different aspects of femininity, their powers combine to form shakti, or divine feminine energy and strength.
Lakshmi Pujan: The Goddess of Wealth
Salutations to the primordial cause of creation
who resides in her divine abode and is worshiped by the demigods.
[She] holds a conch, discus, and mace in her hands.
Salutations to you, oh Devi Lakshmi
-Recitation from the Padma Puran
Hindus partake in Lakshmi Pujan, or the worship of the Goddess Lakshmi, on Dhanteras, the first day of Diwali. They honor the goddess of wealth by bathing her likeness in milk and offering her flowers. Devotees may also bathe coins, since wealth represents Lakshmi. The puja memorializes devi’s origin story; to attain the nectar of immortality, the demons and demigods worked together to churn the ocean of milk for a thousand years. In addition to attaining the nectar and other divine objects, Lakshmi rewarded their perseverance by emerging from the ocean of milk on a lotus flower.
In addition to representing wealth and the fruits of perseverance, Lakshmi is known for her incarnation, or avatar, as Sita, the princess of Mithila who married Lord Ram. When Ram was exiled to the forest for 14 years, Sita remained the epitome of courage and loyalty; rather than wait for her husband's return in the luxury of a palace, she decided to join him, despite the uncertainty and discomfort she would face. Ram gave Sita several chances to renege her decision, but she remained steadfast. In the midst of their exile, Sita is kidnapped by the demon Ravan; he flatters her, offering a life of comfort and riches in exchange for their marriage. In spite of her predicament, Sita takes a blade of grass, stating that Ravan’s proposition was as insignificant to her as the grass in her hand. In addition to bravely refusing the powerful, ten-headed demon, Sita admonishes him, stating that her kidnapping will lead to the ruin of his kingdom.
Lakshmi as Sita embodies the divine feminine through her bravery and loyalty. In the face of danger, Sita maintained equipoise and fortitude, never succumbing to desires for comfort. She remains the ideal of courage and loyalty for millions of Hindu women. As they engage in Lakshmi pujan, they commemorate her fearlessness as well her association with wealth.
Kali Chaudas: The Goddess of Fertility
Jaya Chandi, Digambari, Shankari, Kaushiki, Bharata, bhiti hare;
Jaya Devi jagan mahi, dina daya mahi, Shailastute, karunani kare…
Praise the fierce one, the sky-clad goddess, consort of Lord Shiva, the nurturer, vanquisher of fear;
Praise the goddess of the Earth, the compassionate one, daughter of the mountain, the merciful one…
Hindus celebrate several occasions on Kali Chaudas, the second day of Diwali. In addition to remembering Lord Krishna’s victory over the demon Narkasur, devotees also offer worship to the god Hanuman. Worshippers also pray to the holiday’s namesake, Kali, the goddess of time and death, for protection from negativity and good fortune.
Kali is intrinsically connected to another member of the Tridevi, Parvati. Parvati, goddess of fertility and motherhood, took several incarnations, like her counterpart Lakshmi. Her most notable incarnation was the form of Durga, who was born to vanquish the shape-shifting demon, Mahishasur.
Brahma, the god of creation, had granted Mahishasur conditional invincibility; he could be killed by no man or god. Too arrogant to believe he could be killed by a woman, Mahishasur declared himself more powerful than even Brahma, demanding that all worship him. After Mahishasur usurped the realm of the gods, Parvati, incarnated as the warrior goddess Durga to vanquish him. In addition to her divine strength, Durga possessed ten arms, each yielding a celestial weapon. As she engaged in battle with Mahishasur and his allies, her fury rose to a crescendo. Out of her head emerged the goddess Kali, the embodiment of feminine rage. Kali is most often depicted with black or blue skin, a necklace of skulls, a skirt of arms, and her tongue lolling. She brandishes a knife in one hand and the head of a demon in another. The ruthless goddess kills Mahishasur and razes his entire horde of demons, allowing the gods to return to their abode.
During Kali Chaudas, many Hindus celebrate Kali’s defeat of Raktabij, a demon whose forms multiplied any time a drop of their blood was spilled. As a result, he terrorized the earth. To prevent Raktabij from multiplying, Kali devoured the demon and his copies whole, without spilling their blood. In honor of her victory, Hindus offer her sweets and perform her puja.
Non-Hindus who are familiar with Kali’s brutal form will be surprised to learn that the goddess, in addition to representing feminine ferocity and death, is also worshiped for her nurturing qualities; she’s even given the moniker “Kalima”, or Mother Kali. These qualities arise from Kali’s relationship to Parvati.Though Kali is not an incarnation of Parvati herself, she is an extension of Durga; therefore, she and Parvati are two sides of the same coin. While Kali’s violence and furor seem inconsistent with her portrayal as a gentle mother figure, her multifaceted persona demonstrates how women and femininity contain multitudes. Rage and maternal qualities are both aspects of feminine power; one does not negate the other.
Chopda/Sharda Pujan: The Goddess of Wisdom
Dehi, Dehi Sharda
Gnanam Dehi Sarvada
Prema roopini Sharda
Bhaktim Dehi Sarvada..
You embody Knowledge
You are the manifestation of love
You embody devotion.
On the day of Diwali, Hindus in North India seek blessings for the next financial year in Chopda or Sharda Pujan. Worshippers pray to Sharda, also known as Saraswati, goddess of knowledge, for sound fiscal judgment and prosperity in the new year. As a member of the Tridevi, Saraswati represents wisdom, eloquence, and musical prowess, in addition to embodying one of India’s holy rivers. When depicted with four arms, Saraswati holds her instrument, the vina, in two hands, representing artistic skill. The manuscript she holds symbolizes learning, while the prayer beads in her other hand represent spiritual knowledge.
Hindus see Saraswati as the inspirer of creativity. When Saraswati was created, Brahma declared that she would, “...dance especially on the tongues of learned people.” In addition to inspiring the Rig Ved, Saraswati is also responsible for rescuing the devas from dire straits, including retrieving the devas divine elixir and subduing the god of fire, Agni, when no other deva could. She also used divine powers to heal injured or ill devas, including Indira, god of rain.
While Saraswati’s form projects beauty and grace, the mythos surrounding Saraswati epitomizes the concept of knowledge as power. Saraswati’s wit, wisdom, and creativity exist in tandem with Lakshmi’s bravery, Parvati’s maternal compassion, and Kali’s rage.
Tridevi and Diwali
As a young student of Indian classical music, my music teacher taught me several hymns venerating aspects of the Tridevi. I remember feeling empowered by their rhythm and lyrics, despite my partial understanding of the Sanskrit words. Perhaps the hymns allowed me to embody shakti in my own way.
Similarly, during Diwali, Hindus partake in several rituals, including Lakshmi pujan, Kali puja, and Sharda puja, to revere and embody the divine feminine. Although Tridevi’s stories are not the most public-facing narratives of Diwali, they represent a significant facet of Hindu traditions during the holiday. Moreover, celebrating the Tridevi during Diwali reminds Hindus, especially Hindu women, that femininity is versatile and complex. Though maternal, nurturing qualities may represent an aspect of femininity, they do not contradict rage, bravery, and other capabilities. Each of these characteristics are a form of shakti.
To celebrate Diwali and your inner shakti, please consider donating to Project Stree’s Diwali Drive (Venmo @ProjectStree). The proceeds fund Diwali care packages that include sweets, oil lamps, school supplies, rangoli stickers, and essential sanitary pads for menstruators in rural areas. Help us make this festive season special for women and girls across Gujarat.