Printed in the Fall 2018 issue of Quest magazine.
Citation: LeFevour, James, "Devata, Devi, and Logos" Quest 106:4, pg 26-28
By James LeFevour
In Hinduism, there are many pairs of male and female gods, devatas and devis, which express unique attributes or energies that interplay throughout the universe. The best-known are those of the Trimurti, the holy trinity of Hinduism: Brahma and his consort Saraswati, Vishnu and Lakshmi, and Shiva and Parvati. These pairs of devatas and devis represent a dual energy, called purusha and prakriti.
The Sankhya (or Samkhya) school of Hindu philosophy considers this duality to be the source of all creation. Purusha is translated as consciousness or spirit, while prakriti is the manifested universe or matter, which is constantly receiving and filled with consciousness. Together they are constantly giving awareness and form to our experienced reality. H.P. Blavatsky writes in The Secret Doctrine:
In the Sankhya philosophy, Purusha (spirit) is spoken of as something impotent unless he mounts on the shoulders of Prakriti (matter), which, left alone, is—senseless. But in the secret philosophy they are viewed as graduated. Though one and the same thing in their origin, Spirit and Matter, when once they are on the plane of differentiation, begin each of them their evolutionary progress in contrary directions—Spirit falling gradually into matter, and the latter ascending to its original condition, that of a pure spiritual substance. Both are inseparable, yet ever separated. In polarity, on the physical plane, two like poles will always repel each other, while the negative and the positive are mutually attracted, so do Spirit and Matter stand to each other—the two poles of the same homogeneous substance, the root-principle of the universe. (Secret Doctrine, 1:247)
Purusha and prakriti thus are the unified duality. It is best exemplified in the Ardhanarishvara, or the image of Shiva and Parvati as two in one. Many Hindu works of art represent this in paintings and sculpture to symbolize the unity of male and female, or consciousness and matter.
One story tells of an ancient sage named Bhringi, a devotee of Shiva. All of the sages would go to Mount Kailash to worship both Shiva and Parvati, but Bhringi would not worship the feminine aspect, worshipping only Shiva himself.
One day Bhringi wished to circumambulate Shiva as usual, but as he began, Parvati said, “You cannot just go around him. You have to go around me too. We are two halves of the same truth.” Bhringi, ignoring this, continued to go around Shiva alone. In response, Parvati sat on Shiva’s lap. Ever determined, Bhringi took the form of a small black bee and tried to slip between the two gods.
Shiva was not disturbed but amused. He took the form of the Ardhanarishvara, revealing him and his female half, fused together, as one and the same. Literally the name means the god who is one-half goddess.
Bhringi, still adamant, turned himself into a rat and tried to chew the two apart. This annoyed Parvati so much that she said, “May Bhringi lose all parts of the body that come from the mother.” In Hinduism it is believed that all the tough parts of the body, such as nerves and bone, come from the father, and soft, fluid parts, such as blood and flesh, come from the mother. Instantly Bhringi lost all his blood and flesh and became a dried heap of bones.
Bhringi repented. He learned his lesson: the male and the female are one. One does not exist without the other, and they are two halves of a whole.
From this story we can learn a few things about purusha and prakriti. Many might assume that prakriti, being the female counterpart to consciousness, is the opposite of consciousness. But actually prakriti is the holder and receiver of consciousness. All things are a combination of the two, but it is from prakriti that all known qualities come.
Another aspect of this story, which appears in many other stories about devatas and devis, is the male god’s devotion to the female. Shiva was very patient, but he did not allow the mother aspect to be disregarded. It was he who chose to turn into the Ardhanarishvara. This is to show that the creation of the universe at its essence is an expression of love. Whether that love is anthropomorphized, as it is in bhakti yoga, or it is Theosophically interpreted as energy, love is the primal cause of everything.
For those who wonder whether it is matter or consciousness that is the basis of the universe, the answer can be found in this story, although the Sankhya interpretation differs slightly from the Theosophical one. In the Sankhya, although both purusha and prakriti make up our universe, at their foundation they are eternally separate principles. Theosophy says that the two originate from the same source and that there are steps even before the differentiation of purusha and prakriti. Indeed this differentiation between matter and consciousness forms only part of the process that creates the universe.
Another story, which represents the all-encompassing power of the devi, has to do with Durga. The Markandeya Purana tells of an asura, or demon, named Mahishasura, who was made nearly unkillable. Mahishasura attacked the dwelling place of the gods, conquered their army, and set to rule in their stead. The gods took refuge under Lord Brahma, who took them to Lord Shiva and Lord Vishnu to ask for help. When Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva heard of the misdeeds of Mahishasura, pure energy blazed forth from them. The other gods witnessed a fiery crest blazing forth in all directions like a mountain peak aflame with the sun. The light illuminated the three worlds and concentrated into the form of the devi called Durga, which means “the invincible.”
Durga’s face was the light of Shiva, her ten arms were from Vishnu, and her feet were from Brahma. The Trimurti, along with the other gods, then gave her weapons and divine objects to help with her coming battle. The beautiful Durga, covered in jewels and golden armor and equipped with many divine weapons, set out against Mahishasura. She produced a tremendous sound, which filled all space. Oceans boiled and mountain chains rose, while older ranges crumbled in landslides.
Mahishasura’s armies, awestruck, were effortlessly reduced. Mahishasura took the form of a lion, but Durga beheaded it. Then Mahishasura was killed as a man and as an elephant. Finally he took the form of a wild buffalo. Durga pushed Mahishasura to the ground with her left leg and pierced him with Shiva’s trident. Then, with another of her ten hands, she wielded her bright sword and beheaded him, so at last he fell dead. The devatas and devis all bowed to Durga and sang her praises. Then she disappeared, promising to come again when needed or when they prayed to her.
In his Introduction to Hindu Symbolism, I.K. Taimni explains that this final stage, where the devas now have the ability to call on Durga, is especially significant. He compares this story to the individual conquering the lower self. The ability to gain guidance from one’s higher self marks a definite stage in spiritual development, which he says is indispensable for treading the path. Though we are consciousness in matter, with all the qualities that arise in such a condition, the goal is to purify ourselves and realize our true identity.
In this purana, the writer, the sage Medha, reminds us that the feminine contains within her all the powers of the masculine. Durga is literally made of all the qualities of the devatas. As Taimni explains:
The Devatas and Devis are shown in male and female forms because the function and the corresponding power which enables that function to be exercised are related to each other as two poles, or positive and negative principles. In fact, the existence of the manifested Universe depends upon the primary differentiation of the one Reality into two polar aspects, one positive the other negative, the positive aspect being the source of all functions and the negative aspect the source of all powers.
In the case of Durga, she is the female power or counterpart of all the Devatas, so she does not just represent the nature of one function but rather the entire nature of Prakriti. One might say she holds within her the power of Saraswati, Lakshmi, and Parvati, and many other devis in this sense.
Taimni says that the male is positive and the female is negative. Another way of looking at this is to say from the male, or from purusha, comes all action. The female, being the receptive foundation, is the basis of all manifestation. This is why Durga is shown as so much more powerful than the male devatas. The male is the energy of consciousness, and she is the experience of all those qualities.
The Bhagavad Gita and the Logos
In Notes on the Bhagavad Gita, the nineteenth-century Theosophist T. Subba Row discusses the true nature of Krishna. His presentation helps us to comprehend not only the devata, represented in this case by Krishna, the avatar of Vishnu, but the source of the universe and our relation to it as human beings.
In the Bhagavad Gita, Arjuna says to Krishna: “Prakriti and Purusha, also the Field (kshetram or matter) and the Knower of the Field, and so also knowledge and what is to be known, these I wish to know, O Kesava.”
Krishna replies, “This body, O son of Kunti, is called ‘the field.’ He who knows it thus, the wise call him ‘the knower of the field.’ And know Me, O descendant of Bharata, as the Knower of the Field in all the fields. In my opinion, that is knowledge, which is the knowledge of the field and of the knower of the field” (Bhagavad Gita 13:1̶̶3).
The Bhagavad Gita sometimes refers to prakriti as “the field” or “the body,” which is an approximate translation of kshetram. From this we learn that purusha and prakriti are so interwoven in our physical reality that they can be described as the knower and the body. Everything, even the phenomena of our conscious being, is an experience of the varying degrees of purusha and prakriti.
Subba Row explains that even though purusha and prakriti make up the manifested universe, there is difficulty in saying that those two are the root of everything. Parabrahman is the absolute reality, and Parabrahman has no consciousness and no matter to it in the earliest stage of creation. These things manifest in the Logos and are perceived from the Logos. So it can be more accurately stated that consciousness and matter, purusha and prakriti, begin at the second stage of the outpouring of the Logos. Their intermingling can be understood as the building of our manifested universe.
In the Bhagavad Gita, Arjuna addresses Krishna: “You are the supreme Brahman, supreme Goal, the most sacred Being (Purusha), who is Eternal, Divine, the Primeval God, Unborn (and) the Mightiest” (Bhagavad Gita 10:12).
These titles can lead to confusion in the reader. How can Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita be Supreme Brahman, the absolute reality itself, as well as purusha, the half of a whole at the same time? Subba Row’s interpretation enables us to see the Bhagavad Gita from a new perspective. Instead of looking at purusha and prakriti as the building blocks of our experienced reality, let us see them as part of a bigger process, as one stage of the Logos.
Before the Logos began there was Parabrahman. Then with Force came the First Logos, which is the unconscious Universal Mind. The Second Logos was life in the form of duality—spirit and matter, purusha and prakriti, male and female. The Third Logos utilizes the previous stage to manifest the universe.
Subba Row explains this by relating it to a human being. The light from the Logos shines upon humankind, and goes from subtle body to subtle body as though it were reflected from mirror to mirror in the same way that light shines from the sun. First it falls upon the karana sharira, or causal body, and from there it goes to the sukshma sarira, or astral body, and finally upon the sthula sharira, or physical body. If the light from each higher body were not reflected, the lower body would wither and die. According to Subba Row, the Sankhya recognizes only these three bodies in the individual, and does not account for the light of the Logos itself, which Theosophists know as the atma or Self.
This same process can be understood to apply to the planes, which the Logos is actively creating. Beneath the light of the Logos comes the devachanic plane, then the astral plane, and then the physical plane. Each plane is vivified by the plane above it, and all goes back to the light proceeding from the Logos. As a note to Theosophists, these divisions could be made into seven planes, but Subba Row chooses to relate them only to the three bodies of Hinduism.
In short, the Sankhya teaches that all the manifested universe comes from the intermingling of male and female energy, as represented by the devata and the devi. Purusha is the male of pure consciousness, which combines with the female of prakriti, or matter, to create all known qualities of the universe and all sentient beings. Theosophists know that duality as a part of the process that is the Logos.
Subba Row encourages Theosophists to go beyond the Sankhya and to recognize their own atma, which is the synthesis of both polarities. Mankind’s atma is the manifesting light of the Logos, and those who choose to follow it back to its source will know the Logos as their true identity.
Blavatsky, H.P. The Secret Doctrine. Two volumes. Wheaton: Quest Books, 1993.
Gopal, Madan. India through the Ages. New Delhi: Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, 1990.
Smoley, Richard. The Dice Game of Shiva: How Consciousness Creates the Universe. Novato, Calif.: New World Library, 2009.
Subba Row, T. Notes on the Bhagavad Gita. Pasadena, Calif.: Theosophical University Press, 1978.
Taimni, I.K. An Introduction to Hindu Symbolism. Adyar, India: Theosophical Publishing House, 1980.
V, Jayaram. The Bhagavadgita: Complete Translation. New Albany, Ohio: Pure Life Vision, 2011.
James LeFevour, M.S., is a former employee at the TS’s Olcott national headquarters . His lectures through the Theosophical Society can be found online at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Acjs23-d5f4 and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WfxHkGQ0A9Q