Eight Verses Praising Śrīdevī Mahākālī
- Brahmin Vararuci
Degé Tengyur, Vol. 28 (rgyud ’bum, sha), folios 271.b–272.a.
Translated by Catherine Dalton and Andreas Doctor
under the patronage and supervision of 84000: Translating the Words of the Buddha
Warning: Readers are reminded that according to Vajrayāna Buddhist tradition there are restrictions and commitments concerning tantra. Practitioners who are not sure if they should read this translation are advised to consult the authorities of their lineage. The responsibility for reading this text or sharing it with others who may or may not fulfill the requirements lies in the hands of readers.
Praising the Lady Who Rules Disease, or, as it is alternatively titled, Eight Verses Praising Śrīdevī Mahākālī, is a short praise to the Dharma protector Śrīdevī Mahākālī. The text is included in the Compendium of Dhāraṇīs section of the Degé Kangyur as well as in the Tantra section of the Degé Tengyur.
This text, which appears in both the Degé Kangyur and Tengyur under the alternative titles Praising the Lady Who Rules Disease (Toh 1090) and Eight Verses Praising Śrīdevī Mahākālī (Toh 1777), is a short praise to the goddess known as Śrīdevī Mahākālī. According to The Tantra of the Flaming Ḍākinī (mkha’ ’gro ma me lce ’bar ba’i rgyud, Toh 842), which recounts the origin story of this goddess and her attendant (and half-sister) Rematī, the two are protectors of the Dharma who have taken vows to guard the followers of the Buddha’s teaching.1 Within the Kangyur, the praise is part of a group of small group of texts concerned with Śrīdevī Mahākālī and Rematī.2 The praise appears to have been included in the Tengyur based on an assumption that it was authored by a historical person, the brahmin Vararuci. However, this authorial attribution seems to be incorrect and was likely caused by the text’s rather confusing pedigree (see more below).
As for Śrīdevī Mahākālī and Rematī, in The Tantra of the Flaming Ḍākinī (Toh 842) we find an elaborate origin story for these two goddesses.3 In this tantra both Śrīdevī Mahākālī and Rematī form the aspiration to jointly protect the Dharma in the future—continuing in their respective roles as “the Lady” (jo mo) and “the Servant” (khol mo). Central to their activity as Dharma protectors is the bodhisattva Vajrapāṇi, who blesses Śrīdevī Mahākālī and Rematī at several crucial junctures in their lives and finally, following their conversion to the Buddha’s teaching, confers on them extensive empowerments and instructions so that he becomes their main spiritual teacher.
A common series of epithets used in the Kangyur texts for Śrīdevī Mahākālī (and occasionally Rematī as well) is “Yama’s Sister” (gshin rje’i lcam mo), “Wife of the Demon” (bdud kyi yum), and “Sovereign Goddess of the Desire Realm” (’dod pa’i khams kyi dbang phyug ma). The background for these epithets is explained in The Tantra of the Flaming Ḍākinī, where they all refer to events in the first of Śrīdevī Mahākālī’s past lives. According to this tantra, Śrīdevī Mahākālī was originally born as a divine girl called Red Cāmuṇḍī. Her father was Mahādeva, her mother was Umadevī, and her brother at that time was called Yama Mahākāla. Hence, she is “Yama’s Sister.” At some point Red Cāmuṇḍī rescues a nāga from the attack of a garuḍa and subsequently gains fame under the name White Conch Protectress. Unfortunately, she is soon thereafter tricked into marriage with the rākṣasa king Daśagrīva and so becomes “Wife of the Demon.” Later, White Conch Protectress (together with Rematī) flees his kingdom and, once free, prays that in her next life she may meet the Buddha and become the sovereign goddess of the desire realm. This aspiration is eventually fulfilled when White Conch Protectress and Rematī (now in a subsequent lifetime) encounter the Dharma protector Ekajaṭī and receive from her the names Black Śrīdevī Mahākālī and Yakṣa Rematī, respectively.
Interestingly, although these epithets are all related to a specific past life of Śrīdevī Mahākālī, in the related Kangyur texts they are also at times used in reference to Rematī. In fact, even though The Tantra of the Flaming Ḍākinī clearly presents Śrīdevī Mahākālī and Rematī as two distinct individuals, it seems at times in the Kangyur literature as if their names and epithets are used almost interchangeably, in reference to both—almost as if the two protectors at times share the same identity. An example of this is found in the tantra Verses Praising Śrīdevī Kālī (Toh 671) where Śrīdevī Mahākālī is praised as “Sovereign Goddess of the Desire Realm, Wife of the Demon, Yama’s Sister, Śrīdevī, Black Rematī, Black Devourer.”4 The seemingly indistinguishable nature of the two protectors is also evident from the titles assigned to the praise in the Degé Kangyur (Toh 1090) and Tengyur (Toh 1777). The Kangyur title, Praising the Lady Who Rules Disease, is a clear reference to Rematī, who is said to at one time have drunk from a pond infected with disease, following which she is able to cause illness in others by breathing on them. She is also said to carry some of the infected water with her in a pouch concealed on her body. In this way she can infect others with disease but also cure them, if she decides to.5 On the other hand, the Tengyur title, Eight Verses Praising Śrīdevī Mahākālī, is a clear reference to the other protector, Śrīdevī Mahākālī. So in the very titles of this praise, the conflation of the identities of the two protectors is already apparent.
In India, the epithet Śrīdevī (Glorious Goddess) is broadly applied to a range of peaceful and wrathful goddesses, but in Tibet the name is mostly identified with the wrathful Dharma protector Palden Lhamo (dpal ldan lha mo; Palden Lhamo being the Tibetan translation of the Sanskrit Śrīdevī), who, just like Śrīdevī in India, also appears in several manifestations.6 In the Kangyur, however, the appearance of Śrīdevī Mahākālī, as well as that of Rematī, is always nearly identical.7 Their iconography is described primarily in the tantra called The Verses Praising Śrīdevī Kālī (Toh 671) and in Praising the Lady Who Rules Disease (Toh 1090), and the reasons behind many of their characteristic features are described in The Tantra of the Flaming Ḍākinī (Toh 842). In these works, both goddesses are described as black in color, riding a donkey, wearing shackles as adornments, and holding a skull and a sword.8 They are wrathful in appearance, with bloody fangs and bloodshot eyes, and wear a garland of fresh skulls. Besides such traditional wrathful ornaments, both goddesses also keep a lion and a snake as ear ornaments, while the sun adorns their navels. To readers familiar with the iconography of Śrīdevī / Palden Lhamo in the Tibetan traditions, the many similarities are clear. However, it should be kept in mind that Śrīdevī / Palden Lhamo has several distinct manifestations in Tibet, so not all the features of Śrīdevī Mahākālī and Rematī apply to all manifestations of Śrīdevī / Palden Lhamo.
As for Rematī, she also appears to have been linked to the similarly named Indian goddess Revatī, but the situation with these two names is somewhat complicated. In the Kangyur, the name Rematī (phoneticized as re ma ti) nearly always references the protector Rematī, as she appears in the group of texts centered on this goddess, riding on a donkey and holding her various implements.9 On the other hand, in non-Buddhist Indian literature the name Revatī commonly refers to various other goddesses (e.g., Durgā), who often, but not always, have a wrathful and protective nature. However, Revatī is also the name of a rākṣasī who is associated with the illness and mortality of children.10 In Tibetan literature, the name Revatī is most often translated and rendered as nam gru, which has roughly the same semantic range.11 Of its various referents, it is the rākṣasī demoness Revatī who in the Kangyur occasionally is linked with the Dharma protector Rematī.
Sometimes Revatī (nam gru) and Rematī even appear to have been considered identical. For example, the text In Praise of the Goddess Revatī (lha mo nam gru la bstod pa, Toh 1091) ties the name nam gru directly to the name Rematī. However, this text is extracted from the longer text The Great Tantra of Supreme Knowledge (rig pa mchog gi rgyud chen po, Toh 746), in which only the name nam gru is used and the name Rematī does not occur. Moreover, in Toh 1091 the name Rematī is only found in the opening homage and the concluding colophon—sections of the text that were presumably added after the praise was extracted from Toh 746.12
Indeed, in Toh 746 the figure to whom the name applies is described as “the rākṣasī nam gru (Revatī), who has great strength and great diligence and kills children in the threefold world,”13 as well as “the terrifying lady of the dark night, Yama’s Sister.”14 Therefore, it is clearly the rākṣasī Revatī who appears in Toh 746, not the protector Rematī. Still, the mention of her as “Yama’s Sister” does of course link her to the Kangyur literature on Rematī. As further evidence of such a link, The Secret Tantra of the Wrathful Vajra Mind (rdo rje gtum po thugs gsang ba’i rgyud, Toh 458) uses both re ba ti15 and re ma ti16 to refer to the same figure (who is also identified in both occurrences as “Yama’s Sister”).
With this is mind, one could perhaps argue that Rematī and Revatī are to be considered equivalent.17 However, there are also reasons to see them as separate names for two distinct beings. First, only the name Revatī is attested in Sanskrit, whereas Rematī is overwhelmingly the name found in Tibetan-language sources. Second, the physical appearance, activity, and narratives connected with the rākṣasī Revatī are significantly different from those of the protector goddess Rematī, who appears in the Kangyur literature with a much more elaborate iconography and a fully developed role as a protector of the Dharma. Whereas Revatī mostly plays a supporting role in the tantric literature of the Kangyur as an obstacle maker who needs to be pacified, Rematī plays a much fuller character with a complex origin account and more developed practices associated with her.
On the other hand, as we have mentioned above, there are instances where texts in the Kangyur clearly link the two names to a shared identity. When, how, and why Revatī and Rematī—two figures who are clearly distinct in significant ways—were linked in some texts in the Kangyur are therefore questions that remain unanswered, and so this topic requires further research.
Besides the two versions of this praise (Toh 1090 and Toh 1777) that we present in translation here, a third witness is found in the Kangyur text Verses Praising Śrīdevī Kālī (Toh 671). This tantra consists of twelve individual praises to Śrīdevī Mahākālī uttered by a host of divine, semidivine, and human actors, and one of these twelve praises is the one contained in Toh 1090 and Toh 1777. It seems in fact that the standalone Kangyur and Tengyur recensions of the praise were most likely extracted and adapted at some point from the version of the praise found in Toh 671.18 None of these texts includes a translator’s colophon, but the Denkarma imperial catalog lists a text by the long title Praising the Lady Who Rules Disease Composed by the Brahmin Vararuci (nad kyi bdag mo la bstod pa bram ze mchog sred kyis byas pa), which almost certainly refers to our Praising the Lady Who Rules Disease (Toh 1090). So the text must have already been extracted from Verses Praising Śrīdevī Kālī (Toh 671) by the early ninth century.19
In Verses Praising Śrīdevī Kālī, each of the twelve praises is spoken by a different member of Vajrapāṇi’s retinue. However, in this tantra this particular praise is not spoken by the brahmin Vararuci but rather by Yama, the Lord of Death. Instead, it is only in the subsequent praise in the tantra that the brahmin Vararuci begins to speak. It therefore appears that when the praise was extracted to form a standalone text, the authorial attribution—which in Verses Praising Śrīdevī Kālī precedes, rather than follows, each praise in the tantra—was misrepresented in the extracted text. In this way it appeared as if it was the brahmin Vararuci who was the author of the praise, rather than the Lord of Death. This is presumably also the reason why this extracted passage was included in the Tengyur, as the editors of the Tengyur may have assumed that the figure Vararuci, whom they identified as the author of the adapted text, was a historical person, rather than the ahistorical Vararuci who appears in Verses Praising Śrīdevī Kālī and elsewhere in the tantric literature centered on Śrīdevī Mahākālī and Rematī.20 Perhaps it was thought that Vararuci was the identically named historical person(s) known to have authored several grammatical and astrological treatises? In any case, it seems that the praise in Toh 1090 and Toh 1777 should be attributed to the Lord of Death, not Vararuci.
The praise is included in the Compendium of Dhāraṇīs (gzungs ’dus) section of the Degé Kangyur and other Tshalpa-lineage Kangyurs that include a separate dhāraṇī section.21 In Tshalpa-lineage Kangyurs that lack a section so named, the text is found in the Tantra section, but only in the equivalent but unnamed dhāraṇī collection constituting part of the Tantra section. It is not found in any Kangyurs belonging to the Thempangma grouping, such as the Stok Palace Kangyur, nor do we find it in the Dunhuang collections. It is also included in all four recensions of the Tengyur, presumably since the colophon of the work identifies it as having been authored by the brahmin Vararuci. It seems likely that the work’s inclusion in some Kangyurs, despite also having a (mistaken) authorial attribution in both its Kangyur and Tengyur recensions, may be related to its being part of the Compendium of Dhāraṇīs, which seems to have been compiled on the basis of an earlier collection or collections of dhāraṇīs and associated ritual texts.22 These collections, known in Sanskrit as dhāraṇīsaṃgrahas, appear in South Asia and Tibet—including at Dunhuang and as extracanonical Tibetan dhāraṇī collections—and often include praises as well as dhāraṇīs and dhāraṇī sūtras.23 As mentioned above, the present work has been preserved under two titles: the recension included in the Kangyurs is titled Praising the Lady Who Rules Disease, while that in the Tengyurs is titled Eight Verses Praising Śrīdevī Mahākālī.
The praise is not extant in Sanskrit and does not appear to have been translated into Chinese. This English translation was produced based on both the Degé Kangyur and Tengyur recensions (Toh 109024 and Toh 1777), with additional reference to the notes from the Comparative Editions (dpe bsdur ma) of the Kangyur and Tengyur, as well as to the recension of the praise found in Toh 671. We have listed some, but not all, major differences between Toh 1090/1777 and Toh 671 in the notes to the translation. However, in general we have attempted to translate Toh 1090/1777 as an independent text without incorporating the many different readings in Toh 671.
nad kyi bdag mo la bstod pa. Toh 1090, Degé Kangyur vol. 101 (gzungs ’dus, waM), folios 255.a–255.b.
nad kyi bdag mo la bstod pa. bka’ ’gyur (dpe bsdur ma) [Comparative Edition of the Kangyur], krung go’i bod rig pa zhib ’jug ste gnas kyi bka’ bstan dpe sdur khang (The Tibetan Tripitaka Collation Bureau of the China Tibetology Research Center). 108 volumes. Beijing: krung go’i bod rig pa dpe skrun khang (China Tibetology Publishing House), 2006–9, vol. 98, pp. 892–94.
dpal lha mo nag mo chen mo la bstod pa brgyad pa. Toh 1777, Degé Tengyur vol. 28 (rgyud, sha), folios 271.b–272.a.
dpal lha mo nag mo chen mo la bstod pa brgyad pa. bstan ’gyur (dpe bsdur ma) [Comparative Edition of the Tengyur], krung go’i bod rig pa zhib ’jug ste gnas kyi bka’ bstan dpe sdur khang (The Tibetan Tripitaka Collation Bureau of the China Tibetology Research Center). Beijing: krung go’i bod rig pa dpe skrun khang (China Tibetology Publishing House), 2006–9, vol. 14, pp. 1714–17.
Denkarma (pho brang stod thang ldan dkar gyi chos kyi ’gyur ro cog gi dkar chag). Toh 4364, Degé Tengyur vol. 206 (sna tshogs, jo), folios 294.b–310.a.
Phangthangma (dkar chag ’phang thang ma). Beijing: mi rigs dpe skrun khang, 2003.
Dalton, Jacob P. “How Dhāraṇīs WERE Proto-Tantric: Liturgies, Ritual Manuals, and the Origins of the Tantras.” In Tantric Traditions in Transmission and Translation, edited by David Gray and Ryan Richard Overbey, 199–229. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016.
Dalton, Jacob and Sam van Schaik, eds. Tibetan Tantric Manuscripts from Dunhuang: A Descriptive Catalogue of the Stein Collection at the British Library. Brill’s Tibetan Studies Library 12. Leiden: Brill, 2006.
Davidson, Ronald M. Indian Esoteric Buddhism: A Social History of the Tantric Movement. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002.
Heller, Amy (1997). “Notes on the Symbol of the Scorpion in Tibet.” In Les habitants du toit du monde, edited by Samten Karmay and Philippe Sagant, 283–97. Nanterre: Société d’ethnologie, 1997.
———(2005). “The Protective Deities of the Dalai Lamas.” In The Dalai Lamas: A Visual History, edited Martin Brauen, 212–29. Chicago: Serindia, 2005s.
Hidas, Gergely. Powers of Protection: The Buddhist Tradition of Spells in the Dhāraṇīsaṃgraha Collections. Beyond Boundaries 9. Boston: de Gruyter, 2021.
Kawagoe, Eshin. Dkar chag ’Phang thang ma. Sendai: Tōhuku indo chibetto kenkyūkai (Tohuku Society for Indo-Tibetan Studies), 2005.
Lalou, Marcelle. “Les textes Bouddhiques au temps du Roi Khri-sroṅ-lde-bcan.” Journal Asiatique 241 (1953): 313–52.
Nebesky-Wojkowitz, René de. Oracles and Demons of Tibet: The Cult and Iconography of the Tibetan Protective Deities. The Hague: Mouton, 1956.
Negi, J. S. Tibetan–Sanskrit Dictionary (bod skad legs sbyar gyi tshig mdzod chen mo). 16 vols. Sarnath: Central Institute of Higher Tibetan Studies, 1993.
Orosz, Gergely. A Catalogue of the Tibetan Manuscripts and Block Prints in the Library of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. Budapest: Library of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, 2010.
Sanderson, Alexis. “The Śaiva Age: The Rise and Dominance of Śaivism during the Early Medieval Period” In Genesis and Development of Tantrism, edited by Shingo Einoo, 41–350. Tokyo: Institute of Oriental Culture, University of Tokyo, 2009.
Srinivasan, Doris. “Dangerous Devis: Bad Mothers (Matrkas) and Child Snatchers (Balagrahas).” Artibus Asiae 80, no. 1 (2020): 99–139.
Tucci, Giuseppe. Tibetan Painted Scrolls. 3 vols. Rome: La Libreria dello Stato, 1949.
Wangchuk, Dorji. “A Note on Rematī.” Pratisaṃvid. July 25, 2022.
- lha ma yin
- ’byung po
- da sha grI ba
- lha mo
- nag mo
- lha chen
- ma mo
- srin po
- dmar mo tsa muN+Di
- re ma ti
- re ba ti
- nam gru
- brgya byin
Sovereign Goddess of the Desire Realm
- ’dod khams dbang phyug ma
- dpal lha mo nag mo chen mo
- śrīdevī mahākālī
- dka’ zlog
- lha mo u ma de ba
- brang gis ’gro ba
- phyag na rdo rje
- mchog srid
White Conch Protectress
- dkar mo dung skyong ma
Wife of the Demon
- bdud kyi yum
- gshin rje
- gshin rje ma hA kA la
- gshin rje’i lcam mo