Listen to the discussion between Narada, the celestial sage, and Narayana, Lord Vishnu, about the divine attributes of Devi, the Mother of the world, as described in the Srimad Devi Bhagavatam (Book IX).
Narayana said: The great Devi, the highest Prakriti, is recognized as five-fold. When engaged in the work of creation, she manifests as: (1) Durga, (2) Lakshmi, (3) Saraswati, (4) Savitri or Gayatri and (5) Radhika.
Narada then asked: Who is this Prakriti? Why did She manifest Herself in these five forms and what are Her characteristics?
Narayana replied: Who is there in this world that can describe fully the characteristics of Prakriti? However, I will explain to you what I have heard from my father, Dharma. The word prakriti is comprised of two parts: the prefix pra denotes 'intensity', 'excellence', and the root kriti means 'action', 'creation'. So the Goddess, the Devi, who is most excellent in the work of creation, is known as the Devi Prakriti. Then again the meaning of Prakriti can be viewed in the context of the gunas, or qualities of nature, of which Prakriti is comprised. Here the syllable pra signifies sattoguna or balance, the syllable kri, rajoguna or activity, and the syllable ti, tamoguna or stability.
The great Devi who exists before creation as the nature of Brahman, the (unlimited, ever-expanding consciousness, is called Prakriti after creation. Before creation, this intelligence of the nature of Brahman remains beyond the three gunas, but when influenced by the gunas she becomes the primal force of creation. Then by Her will, the five forms of Devi emanate from Her for the purpose of creation and to bestow blessings and grace upon the bhaktas or devotees. These five forms are: (1) Durga Devi, (2) Lakshmi Devi, (3) Saraswati Devi, (4) Savitri or Gayatri Devi and (5) Radhika Devi.
Durga comes first as she is the most auspicious and beloved of Shiva. This eternal, all auspicious Devi is the presiding deity of all the Devas, and when pleased, she destroys all the sorrow, pain and troubles of the devotees who take refuge in her. She bestows all the auspicious things upon them, including dharma, name and fame, bliss, happiness and even moksha, final liberation. She is the greatest refuge of the bhaktas, who are in great distress and come to her for protection. She saves them from all calamities and suffering. This Durga Devi is of the nature of fire and pure light. She is omnipotent and resides always with Shiva. She is worshipped by all the siddha purushas or perfected souls. The eighteen siddhis, spiritual powers or perfections, all reside in her, and when pleased, she bestows them upon her devotees according to their wishes. This great Devi is of the nature of consciousness, intelligence, memory, peace, prosperity, beauty, contentment, kindness, forbearance, hunger, thirst, nourishment, drowsiness, fatigue, sleep, shadow and error. She is sung of in the Vedas and Shastras as Mahamaya, the nature of the universe. In reality, she is the infinite and eternal Shakti of Shiva and of all creation.
The second shakti of the Paramatman or supreme consciousness is Lakshmi or Padma Devi. She is of the nature of pure or shuddha sattwa, which is higher than sattwa, and is the presiding deity of all wealth and prosperity. The very beautiful Lakshmi Devi is a complete master of the senses, and is free from greed, lust, delusion, anger, vanity and egoism. She is totally devoted to Lord Vishnu and to her bhaktas. Her speech is very sweet, and she is very dear to her Lord, being his very life and soul. This Devi resides in all grains and vegetables, and so she is the source of life of all beings. As the heavenly Lakshmi, she resides in Vaikuntha, the abode of Lord Vishnu, always in his service. As the royal Lakshmi she resides in palaces, and as the griha, or household, Lakshmi, in the homes and families of devotees. She is the trade of merchants and the mercy of saints who are engaged in uplifting others. She is the beauty that is seen in all living beings and things; the glory and fame of those who have done good works, and the power and valour of great kings. As such, she is worshipped and revered by all.
The third shakti is Saraswati, the presiding deity of knowledge, speech, intelligence and learning. She is all the learning of the endless universe and she resides as intelligence in the hearts of all human beings. She is memory, wit, light, splendour and creative genius. She is the power in poetry and the light of understanding that gives real meaning to the various philosophical works. She explains all the difficult passages so that we can understand them and removes all confusion and doubt. She is the power in us that writes books, argues, debates, judges, sings and plays musical instruments. As the goddess of speech, she presides over the knowledge and oration of all subjects. In fact, all beings earn their livelihood by taking recourse to her. She is ever serene and peaceful, holding the vina and book in her hands. Her nature is shuddha sattwa, modest and loving. Her colour is white, like the snow-clad mountains, the white sandal, the kunda flower, the moon or the white lotus. She always repeats the name of the Lord, while turning her jewelled mala. Her nature is ascetic and she is the bestower of the fruits of tapasya. She is the Siddhi, power and perfection, and vidya, knowledge, of all and grants success to all. Without her, the whole host of humanity would remain dumb, like the multitude of the dead.
The fourth shakti is Savitri or Gayatri Devi, the mother of the Vedas and of all the varnas, or classes, of human beings. She represents the knowledge that is revealed in the Vedas, Vedangas and chandas. She is the seed of the tantras and mantras, and is well versed in all the shastras. Her colour is perfectly white, like pure crystal. She is shuddha sattwa and her nature is pure bliss. Being an ascetic herself, she is the tejas, brilliance, tapasya, spiritual effort, and japa of all the Sadhakas, yogis and tapasvis. Being ever pure, she resides always in Brahma loka, the abode of Brahma, and all the sacred places of pilgrimage and worship receive her blessing. She is eternal and superior to all. She is the nature of Parabrahma and the bestower of moksha. She is the fiery shakti and the presiding deity of Brahma tejas, the brilliance of super consciousness. The whole world is purified by the touch of her feet.
The fifth shakti is Radhika. She is the presiding deity of the five pranas and the life and indweller of all. She is most beautiful and always brings good fortune. Her glory is infinite. She is the 'other half of Sri Krishna and is not inferior to him in any way. She is eternal, the first of all and the essence of all. She is of the nature of highest bliss, contentment and joy. She is most auspicious, highly respected and worshipped by all. She is the lady of the Rasa Lila of Sri Krishna and from her has sprung the rasa mandalam, the divine circle dance, of which she is the grace and ornament. She dwells always in rasa or divine dance and her abode is Goloka, the highest spiritual dimension. She transcends the three gunas and is nirakara, beyond form. She assumes forms only to show favour to her bhaktas. The learned pandits read about her glories and the munis meditate upon her, but they never see her. Even Brahma and the other Devas could not perceive her, yet everyone in Vrindavan saw her very easily. From her all the gopikas or cow girls have emanated and every female in every universe springs from a part or a part of a part of her. She bestows all wealth and prosperity.
Thus the five highest forms of Devi have been described. Now hear about those who are the parts of these Prakritis: (1) Ganga Devi, (2) Tulasi Devi, (3) Manasa Devi, (4) Sasthi Devi, (5) Mangala Chandika Devi, (6) Maheshwari Kali Devi and (7) Basundara Devi.
Ganga sprang from the lotus feet of Lord Vishnu. Her nature is shuddha sattwa and she is white in colour, like the white lotus or like milk. She shines like the full moon. Her form is fluid and she is eternal. She is the power of purification which washes away all sins. She is sweet to touch, drink and bathe in. She gives final liberation to the living souls and leads them easily to the abode of Goloka. She is the first of the flowing rivers and the holiest amongst the places of pilgrimage. She is the rows of pearls in the matted locks adorning the crown of Mahadev's head. He offered to contain her descent from heaven, and thereby imparted to her a part of his ascetic nature. So she is the tapasya of the tapasvis of Bharata Varsha, the land of light, India, and she purifies the three worlds.
Tulasi is the consort and ornament of Lord Narayana. All acts of worship, sadhana and spiritual resolve are performed by her. She is the presiding deity of all the trees and flowers in the land of Bharata. Being pure and holy by nature, she is able to bestow merit upon others. At her sight and touch, nirvana can be attained. Apart from her, there is no other power in this Kali Yuga to purify the sins of man. The earth is purified by the touch of her lotus feet, and all the tirthas or sacred places desire to have her within their precincts. Like a kalpa vriksha, wish-fulfilling tree, she grants all desires and even bestows moksha upon those who yearn for it. Without her touch of purification, all acts in this world become fruitless. She grants blessings to all women and is considered to be the most holy plant.
Manasa Devi is the daughter of Kasyapa Muni and the disciple of Lord Shankara. She is therefore highly learned in all matters pertaining to the shastras and is the presiding deity of all the mantras. She is also considered to be the daughter of Ananta Deva, the primordial serpent which upholds the Earth, and so is held in great respect by all the Nagas or serpent beings. Being the mother and the lady of the Nagas, she is very beautiful to behold and is carried by them. She is decorated with ornaments of serpents and reclines upon a bed of serpents. She is a siddha yogini and is honoured by the Nagendras, the celestial serpent beings. She is a devotee of Lord Vishnu and is ever engaged in his worship. She is of the nature of tapas and the bestower of the fruits of tapas. After performing tapasya for three hundred thousand years, she became the foremost of the ascetics in Bharata Varsha. She is ever merged in Brahman, and her whole body shines with Brahma tejas, the brilliance of super consciousness.
Sasthi Devi is a sixth part of the Mulaprakriti or primal creative principle, hence her name Sasthi, which means sixth. She is highly regarded as one of the sixteen Matrikas or little mothers. Being a Matri shakti, force of the Divine Mother, she protects all children with a mother's affectionate heart. She is the bestower of sons and grandsons in the three worlds and the godmother of all. She remains near every child in the form of an aged yogini. Her worship is prevalent everywhere and is conducted throughout the twelve months of the year. After the birth of a child her auspicious worship is performed on the sixth day in the lying-in chamber and again on the twenty-first day. The munis also bow down to her with reverence and visit her shrines regularly.
Mangala Chandika goes from one house to another, over land, water and air, benefiting and uplifting the people. She is worshipped on Tuesdays, and when pleased, she grants all desires. She gives sons and grandsons to women, and wealth, prosperity, fame and welfare to all. Chandika emerged from the face of Mulaprakriti. She is Mangala because of her auspicious nature at the time of creation, but at the time of dissolution her nature becomes furious and terrible.
Maheshwari Kali sprang from the forehead of Durga Devi to slay the two demons Shumbha and Nishumba. She is the half-part of Durga, and embodies her fiery and energetic qualities. Her beauty and splendour appear like millions of suns arising simultaneously. She is the foremost shakti and the most powerful. In one breath she can destroy this whole Brahmanda or universe. She is of yogic nature and when pleased she grants success to all undertakings.
Basundara Devi is also a part of Mulaprakriti and is honoured as the Earth Goddess. Brahma and the Devas, the munis and the Manus or fathers of mankind, as well as all human beings, sing hymns in praise of her. She is the support of all and provides an abundance of grains and foodstuff. She is the source of all gems and ornaments, and bears in her womb all the precious metals. All the best things of this world issue from her and she is the refuge of all. All people, high and low, worship her. All living beings live through her and she bestows all sorts of wealth and prosperity. Without her, all sentient and insentient beings would cease to exist, being without any substratum upon which to rest.
The word shakti comes from the root shak, which means the divine power by which the universe is created, maintained . and destroyed. Shakti, the power, and shaktiman, the wielder of the power, are one and the same. All doctrines of creation are based on two fundamental principles: being and becoming, changelessness and change, one and many. The pure spirit, in its own nature, is being and never becomes. The evolutes derived from the principle of becoming constitute Nature, which is essentially in constant motion. The world is manifested by consciousness, or Shiva, in association with Shakti, cosmic vibration. The whole universe is born from the varied forms of movement of Shakti. Shiva is Brahman and Shakti is Brahman. Shiva is the transcendent aspect and Shakti is the immanent aspect of the one Brahman, who is both Shiva and Shakti. The mother creates and the father wills the creation. From their union creation comes. Thus Shakti is not the diminutive handmaiden of the Lord, but the Lord Herself in her aspect of Mother of the Universe.
This Shakti is both nirguna, formless, and saguna, with form, chitshakti, the power of consciousness, and mayashakti, the power of nature. She exists in the pure, potential state of union within the Nishkala Shiva, pure consciousness beyond time and space. However, from Sakala Shiva, pure consciousness, which is influenced by time and space, Shakti issues forth. This is the first kinetic aspect of Shakti in which sattoguna is predominant. This is the state of Paramakasha, the cosmic space, from which nada, the cosmic sound vibration, is born. Shakti becomes further kinetic through the activation of rajoguna, which is akshara avastha, the state of imperishable sound vibration. Then under the influence of tamoguna, the avyakta avastha, or unmanifest state, comes into existence.
This evolution of the three gunas is the Parabindu, the supreme point from which creation emerges, known as Devi. She is the highest Prakriti, or Mulaprakriti, which is the source of all elemental creation. This Devi is not jada or inert, but infused with cosmic consciousness and the power to bring it into manifest existence. In order to understand this principle, we can compare it with a grain of gram, which contains two halves in undivided union, covered by a husk. The two undivided seeds are Shiva and Shakti, and the husk is Shiva-Shakti. This Parabindu unfolds into the threefold aspects of bindu, bija and nada; or iccha shakti, will, jnana-shakti, knowledge, and kriyashakti, action. This is the mysterious Kama Kala, the initial urge to become many, which is at the root of all the mantras, or sound vibrations, and of all the aspects and dimensions of creation.