The Mahavidyas are ten embodiments of the Mother Goddess, each representing a different path to transcendental wisdom. A few of the Mahavidyas enjoy widespread worship throughout India, but most are obscure and enjoy the worship of tantriks.
KALI is probably the most well known. Her name could be translated as "One Who Transcends Time" or "Black One." She is the Ultimate, the Supreme Reality which dissolves the individual ego. Because most are not prepared for this total dissolution she takes on a bloodthirsty, terrifying form, but in fact she is nothing less than the compassionate mother of all. She wears a garland of severed heads and a skirt made from human arms. Her black skin is remiscent of the darkness of night, the time when we sleep and forget ourselves and our worldly troubles. She brings destruction and disorder, but only so that the ego may be stripped away quickly. Hers is the path of total liberation.
Though she keeps a low profile in orthodox Hinduism, Tara is popular with Tibetan Buddhists and tantric worshippers. She has many forms, both gentle and fierce. Her fiercest form is Smashan Tara, "Tara of the Cremation Ground." She dances amongst the burning corpses wearing a necklace of skulls. Like Kali, she is associated with death and dissolution, both of the ego and the physical body. Despite her fierce appearance she is often worshipped as a protector and regarded as the perfect embodiment of maternal love. She dances on top of sleeping Siva, who represents the universal soul asleep in the individual consciousness. She is trying to wake him up, saying: "Come on, get up and play with me! There's nothing to fear!"
Whereas Kali and Tara take on fearsome forms, SHODASHI is beautiful and alluring. She represents cosmic love, universal beauty. With her sugarcane bow she shoots arrows of attraction and enchantment. She is perpetually sixteen years old and lives in a city made from precious metals and gemstones. The four legs of her throne are Rudra (Siva as Destructive Chaos), Brahma (The Creator), Ishana (Siva as Transcendent Energy), and Vishnu (The Preserver of the Universe), demonstrating her dominance over all. She is also called Tripura Sundari, meaning "Gorgeous Queen of the Three Cities." The three cities are the three states of consciousness: waking, dreaming, and deep sleep.
The name BHUVANESHVARI means "Mistress of the World." World in this case means more than just planet Earth: Bhuvaneshvari rules the entire manifest universe, everything which has form and motion, from the most microscopic bacterium to planets, stars, and galaxies. She is the universe personified. Though we may forget it in our day to day hassles, the principal characteristic of the universe is its incredible beauty, likewise Bhuvaneshvari is said to be indescribably beautiful. Her complexion is like the rising sun. With her noose she ensnares us in the illusion of Limited Reality, the world of forms, and at the same time she uses her goad to push us toward the transcendent undifferentiated Supreme Reality.
Of all the ten Mahavidyas, CHINNAMASTA ("The Goddess Who Beheads Herself") has the most striking and startling iconography. She has severed her own head and holds it in her hand. Three streams of blood flow from her neck, one into her own mouth and the other two into the mouths of her servants. To make matters even more interesting she stands on the back of a woman who is busy having sex with the man beneath her. This imagery has many interpretations. The copulating couple are KAMA, god of desire, and his wife RATI, who represents sex itself. One traditional interpretation is that by standing on top of them Chinnamasta demonstrates that she has conquered her desires. They can also be seen as prana, the vital force, moving in two different directions: upward and downward. When the prana is brought into harmony and union then it can be controlled and used to draw the famous Kundalini up the spine, causing the head to "blow up" with experiences of cosmic consciousness. The head is also symbolic of ego and identity, so Chinnmasta by cutting off her own head demonstrates her mastery over and transcendence beyond the ego. When she removes her head she feeds not only herself, but those surrounding her: the ultimate selfless act. She is a goddess of incredible mystery and power. Who else could cut off her own head and drink the blood spurting from her carotid, all with complete focus and control? Very impressive!
The name BHAIRAVI literally means "terrifying." Just as a bright light hurts eyes long used to darkness, so the incredible brightness of Bhairavi terrifies the mind used to the "darkness" of limited thought patterns. She is said to shine with the brilliance of ten thousand suns. Of all the Mahavidyas, Bhairavi has the widest range of diverse depictions. Sometimes she is pictured in a lotus pond, looking beautiful and making gestures of blessing. Elsewhere she sits in a graveyard on top of a headless corpse, holding weapons in her hands, with a demonic face. She is associated with cosmic consciousness dormant in the individual, the Kundalini Shakti. As the lover of Bhairava (Siva in terrifying form) she is associated with destruction and divine wrath. Sometimes a mother has to be stern with her children.
The seventh Mahavidya, DHUMAVATI, is the only one who takes the form of an old woman. She is a widow, described with sagging gray skin, a nearly toothless mouth, and a fierce, ugly face. She represents the aspects of life which are most difficult to accept: poverty, disease, conflict, strife, starvation, old age, and death. She is perpetually hungry and thirsty, consuming anything she gets her hands on, hangs out in cremation grounds and graveyards, surrounded by carrion crows. She is a difficult goddess to worship sincerely, but for those who take refuge in her she is wise woman, teacher, and protector. It is said that after the entire universe dissolves only she will remain in the void to await the next cycle. She sits in a chariot without horses, which could be seen as symbolic of the immobile status of widows in traditional Indian society, or as a more universal statement: the harsh aspects of life are not going anywhere.
Once a certain demon did long meditation and penances and eventually received a siddhi (supernatural power) which caused everything he said to come true. Being a demon, he used this ability to go around telling people, animals, and gods that they were dead, thus killing them. The universe was becoming rapidly depopulated and the gods were getting worried. They prayed to the Goddess and she manifested as BAGALAMUKHI, seized the demon's tongue, and drove a nail through it. Before he lost his speech the demon humbly requested that he be worshipped along with the goddess; now they are always depicted together. Bagalamukhi rules over the tongue and the power of speech. Because speech is so often misused she is also associated with cruelty and deceit. However for those who worship her she becomes benevolent, transforming darkness into light, lies into truth. She is often worshipped for the attainment of magic powers, especially those to do with controlling, harming, or pushing away enemies. The tongue is the most difficult part of the body to control, and she is its masterful controller.
In orthodox Hinduism creativity and the arts are personified by the goddess Saraswati. MATANGI, the 9th Mahavidya, is sometimes called the "tantric Saraswati." She rules the same area: inspiration, creativity, and the arts (especially writing and music) but in all other ways she is Saraswati's polar opposite. Whereas Saraswati is pure, chaste, and heavenly, Matangi is gritty, wild, and earthly. She lives in the forest and is often described as sweaty, with "intoxicated eyes." She takes the form of a girl from the chandala caste, dark-skinned tribals considered filthy in orthodox society, in part because they eat meat. She is associated with filth, refuse, transgressive behaviour, and the lower classes of society. Traditionally she is offered the leftovers from a ritual, the "polluted" food, which explains another one of her names: Ucchista Chandali — "ucchista" means leftovers, "chandali" refers to her low-caste status. Like Bagalamukhi she is often worshipped by those who wish to attain magical powers, especially those to do with attracting or enticing other people. She is an enchantress.
The 10th and final Mahavidya is Kamala. She is often equated with Lakshmi, goddess of wealth, and indeed looks very similar and shares the same associations: money, material success, comfort, and stability. For obvious reasons she is one of the most popular Mahavidyas. She sits in a lotus blossom and showers blessings from her hands and eyes. Sacred white elephants bathe her perpetually. Some theorize that the ten Mahavidyas represent a progression from Kali (the most transcendent) to Kamala (the most worldly). But this rather misses the point: all ten goddesses have worldly significance, and all ten are paths to transcendent Supreme Reality. Jai Ma!