The goddess (devi) is both the source and the affirmation of life. In early Indian religions, this concept is deified in a variety of forms. While we lack a historical understanding of the quasi-magical-religious function of the earliest images of the female form on view in this exhibition, we identify them as goddesses.
A bit later, we witness the emergence of deified females who have identifiable roles associated with the protection of children and with the life-affirming powers of water. The former finds expression in goddesses who originally may have been devourers of children—that is, the bearers of disease. Over time some were placated and thus acquired more benign aspects. The enthroned goddess with a cornucopia and children, from northwestern India, represents this tradition.
A second association is with the creation of life. This female principle is expressed in a number of ways; as the bearer of life, we see the appearance of the cult of the yakshi—personified female nature spirits—who embody the fecundity and fertility of nature. They survive in sculptures from the early centuries B.C. and were appropriated into Buddhist and Jain worship about the first century A.D.
The other powerful expression of the goddess as the source of life in early India is the personification of the great rivers of the subcontinent. Three rivers of northern India—the Ganges, the Yamuna, and the now-lost Saraswati—were worshiped as some of the most ancient deities of India. Sri Gaja-Lakshmi, the benign goddess being bathed by a pair of elephants—a metaphor for the life-giving powers of the monsoons—emerged to denote auspiciousness, prosperity, and good fortune. Saraswati, revered by Hindus, Jains, and Buddhists alike as the embodiment of wisdom and knowledge, is one of the earliest goddesses to have cult images made in her honor. The Jain mother goddess Ambika embodies the maternal principal.
About the sixth century a variety of early sources on devi in her myriad forms were brought together in the seminal text the Devi Mahatmya. Primarily devoted to narrating the origins of Durga and her relationship to the pantheon of male deities, the text represents Durga as the ultimate destroyer of demons. It also introduces the awesome forms that emerge from her being, Kali and Camumda, who give expression to Durga's terrible aspect, as do the seven matrikas (mothers).
The worship of the goddess continues to shape Hindu practice today, with Sri Lakshmi pouring down golden coins as its most popular expression.