Bhuma Devi (Bhumi Devi or Bhu Devi) (Sanskrit: "The goddess who is the earth") is a Hindu earth goddess and the divine wife of Varaha, an Avatar of Vishnu. She is also considered one of the two divine wives of Vishnu himself along with Lakshmi; accordingly, Bhudevi and related goddesses representing or personifying the earth often accompany incarnations of Vishnu.1 She is also known by the names Bhumi, Bhudevi, or Bhuma Devi, as well as the epithets Dhra, Dharti, Dhrithri, all of which refer to her sustaining beneficence as "that which holds everything."
Bhudevi's Vedic precursor seems to have been Prithvi Mata (Sanskrit: "Earth mother"), the primordial goddess of the Rigveda. One of the oldest Aryan dieties, Prithvi shares many common traits with other Indo-European earth goddesses such as the Greek Gaia, in that she is personified as a mother and is closely paired with a fatherly sky god as her consort. In fact, Prithvi and her husband Dyaus Pita are frequently addressed in the dual by the compound dyāvāprthivī, probably expressing the idea that earth and sky exist as complementary half-shells. Rg Veda 6.70 suggests that eventually the two were seperated by the decree of Varuna.
Prthivi and Dyaus are considered the creators of the various living creatures, and together they also sired many divine children who became the progenitors of the rest of the Hindu pantheon. Enumerated among their children is Indra, who eventually overthrew his father to become the supreme sky god. According to legend, when Indra killed Dyaus, Prithvi applauded his deed and then married him. Prthivi was also the mother of Agni, the god of fire. It is said that when Agni was born, Prithvi and Dyaus fled away from the fiery deity in fear.
Prithvi represented the female principle of fertility, and she was frequently praised by Vedic texts in this supportive capacity. She is the source of all vegetation, and thereby responsible for agricultural bounties. In her associations with such gifts, she was commonly symbolized as a cow. The Vedic cult also seems to have commemorated her nurturance in at least one ritual wherein a cake made of newly harvested barley or rice mixed with clarified butter was offered to the Sky father and mother earth. The offering may also have consisted exclusively of clarified butter, as this was considered the sap of the heaven and earth. Hymns dedicated to Prithvi in the Vedas praise her for her sustaining fecudity as well as her incredible stability. The most significant of these hymns is that found in Atharva-veda 12.1, which emphasizes her nourishing dispensations and also identifies male sky or rain gods such as Indra, Parjanya, Prajāpati and Viśvakarma as her protectors and/or consorts. Regardless of these forms of recognition, Prithvi does not seem to have been attributed with the importance of the earth-mother goddesses in the Greek and European mythological traditions, which is understandable considering the patriarchal worldview of the Vedic Aryans.
MythologyPrithu chasing Prithvi, who is in the form of a cow.
The Puranas (fourth - thirteenth centuries C.E.) nuanced various aspects of Prthivi's character and as a result, the more independent figure of Bhudevi began to emerge. The Vishnu Purana, for instance, provides an account of Prithvi/Bhudevi's birth. During the reign of Prithu, the earth would not yield fruits, and so a terrible famine developed. Prithu vowed to slay the earth, thereby forcing her to give up her precious resources. Terrified, the earth assumed the form of a cow. Prithu gave chase to the beast, pursuing her all the way to the heaven of Brahma. Finally, the earth turned to her pursuer and informed him the magnitude of sinfulness associated with the murder of a woman. The king retorted by asserting that the murder of one for the benefit of many is actually a virtuous act. She then warned Prithu that a kingdom without the earth would be utterly devoid of support. In order to make amends, the earth-as-cow offered to use her milk to fertilize the dessicated landscape, so long as Prithu flattened the land so that it would be conducive to the flow of the nourishing liquid. Prithu accepted these conditions, and had the land plowed up and smoothened, thus marking the beginning of agriculture. Prithu then milked the earth and his kingdom was able to overcome their famine when all varieties of corn and vegetables sprouted forth. Because she was thereafter considered the daughter of Prithu, the earth-goddess was given the epithet Prithvi.
According to the Puranas, Bhudevi is the consort of Varaha, Vishnu's third avatar. In the story of their pairing, Bhudevi takes on the role of the earth in its most literal, elemental form, while Varaha assumes the form of a boar. When mother earth is carried off by asuras and submerged under the vast ocean by the orders of the demon Hiranyaksha, Varaha comes to her aid, diving deep down into the great waters. At ocean's bottom he kills Hiranyaksha and steadies Bhudevi on his snout, carrying her above the water once again. He then maps the geography of the earth as it is known today, sculpting mountains and valleys, and dividing it into the continents. This mythological pairing of Bhudevi and Varaha is consistent with a common motif during the Puranic period which linked earth goddesses and the avatars of Vishnu. Other examples of this trend include Sita, wife of Vishnu's incarnation Rama, and the divine couple Lakshmi(fittingly a goddess of fertility and plenty) and Vishnu himself. The general storyline in these legends involves the despair of the incarnation's earth-personifying consort as a result of her mistreatment by the powers of evil-the earth's call for help subsequently triggers the descent of the sky god to restore dharma. This is hardly a surprising development, considering the typical associations made in Vedic mythology between earth goddess with the sky god.
With Varaha, Bhudevi bore a son by the name of Narakasura. Narakasura grew to become a powerful demon king, due in large part to a boon he received from Lord Brahma dictating that he could be killed by no being save for his mother. With this capacity, Narakasura mistreated the gods and accumulated a harem of women numbering in the tens of thousands. His tyrannical reign lasted many eons, and eventually Vishnu took birth again in order to save the universe at the request of the gods, this time incarnated as Krishna. Krishna took Satyabhama as his third wife, and she has subsequently been identified as an avatar of Bhudevi. When Satyabhama heard of the Narakasuara's mistreatment of women, particularly the godly matriarch Aditi, she became enraged. Krishna not only granted her his permission to fight the demonic despot, but he lent her Garuda as a mount to aid in her imminent battle. Satyabhama journeyed to the capital of Naraksura's kingdom along with her husband and initiated a battle with the son she had birthed in her
Sita, the wife of the titular character Rama of the Ramayana (400 B.C.E.-400 C.E.), is closely associated (if not identified) with Bhudevi. Sita's name itself derives from the Sanskrit word sītā, or "the line made by the plow," an obvious reference to her miraculous origin from a field in the Balakanda the first book of the epic. Hence, Sita is born not from the womb of a woman but rather from the womb of the earth itself, and for that reason she has been regarded as a daughter of Bhudevi. Throughout the story, however, she becomes something of an earth goddess herself and therefore a representation of Bhudevi in her own right; after all, she is also identified in the Balakanda as an incarnation of Sri-Lakshmi, who herself has been related to the bounty of the earth and Bhudevi. Sita, in the tradition of Bhudevi, continues this mytheme of the fertile, feminine earth, which is fructified by the masculine sky incarnate in the person of Rama. Considering that the Balakanda, along with its pointed divinization of its main characters, is widely agreed to be a later addition to the Ramayana, this suggests that these characteristics of the earth goddess were intentionally foisted upon Sita rather than aspects of her original character.2
In the Uttara-Kanda, the final book of (and another later addition to) Valmiki's Ramayana, Rama banishes Sita to the forest due to unsubstantiated public suspicions that she compromised her chastity under captivity of the demon-king Ravana. Rama insists upon having Sita go through with the exile in spite of the fact that she has already survived the Agni pariksha-the harrowing task of walking through fire-in order to prove her chastity to him. Later on Rama realizes the error of his ways and eventually seeks out Sita in the forest, begging for her return to Ayodhya. At this point Sita requests that Bhudevi take her back, and she is promptly swallowed into a cleft in the soil, never to be seen again. Not only does this deus ex machina provide Sita with some measure of justice in the face of the intense suffering she has experienced, but it also reaffirms her inextricable connection with the earth mother.
Typical devotional pictures or statues of Bhudevi depict the goddess as a shapely woman with dark skin. Her physiognomy is that of a conventional human, who she is sometimes shown with four arms. She is usually heavily adorned with a crown and no shortage of jewellery, an indication of her status as a queen in Vishnu's heavenly kingdom. One of the most common contexts in which Bhudevi is depicted happens to be as the consort of Vishnu, in which she appears as one of two forms of Lakshmi (the other being Sridevi) who sit on either side of the enthroned god. In this role, she personifies fertility, while Sridevi represents wealth and knowledge, together illustrating the primary blessings bestowed by Lakshmi upon humanity. Another common representation of Bhudevi places her at the side of her Puranic consort Varaha. In these sorts of images, she is relatively small compared to the boar-god, and commonly he is shown carrying her to safety atop his nose or in his arms.
Bhudevi continues the lineage of the earth goddess which has been a persistent element of Indo-European mythology as well as that of the entire world. Elements of Bhudevi have been present since Vedic times in the figure of Prthvi, and have continued on with other popular female figures such as Sita, Satyabhama, and Lakshmi, all of whom inherit characteristics of the earth goddess. Aspects of this mytheme have also been associated with venerable Hindu women throughout history. For example, Andal, a tenth century Tamil saint and the only female included among the Alvars, is herself considered to be a manifestation of Bhudevi; accordingly, her hagiographies credit her birth to the soil underneath a Basil plant.
- ↑ Nagaran, 168.
- ↑ David Shulman, "Fire and Flood: The Testing of Sita in Kampan's Iramavataram," in Many Ramayanas: The Diversity of Narrative Tradition in South Asia (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991), 90.
- Dallapiccola, Anna. Dictionary of Hindu Lore and Legend. London: Thames and Hudson, 2002. ISBN 0500510881
- Kinsley, David. Hindu Goddesses: Vision of the Divine Feminine in the Hindu Religious Traditions. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988. ISBN 978-0520063396
- Mani, Vettam. Puranic Encyclopedia. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1975. ISBN 0842608222
- Nagaran, Vijaya Rettakudi. "Soil as the Goddess Bhudevi in a Tamil Women's Ritual." In Women as Sacred Custodians of the Earth: Women, Spirituality and the Environment. Alaine Low and Soraya Tremayne, editors. New York: Bergham Books, 2001. ISBN 1571814671