Devi Mahatmyam was the next text I picked up to read after Tulsi Ramayana. It is seemingly a small text, with only 700 verses. The Gita Press edition I had was small with Sanskrit Shlokas in big font. However, it took me more than two months to do the initial reading. I can’t say I understand the text completely, but yes I have started the journey to explore the layers of meanings it carries.
Before I started reading, I looked for commentaries as the Gita Press version had only a translation. This is when I discovered ‘In Praise of the Goddess’ by Devdutt Kali. It became my companion for the next two months to read the Devi Mahatmyam. Every morning I would read the Sanskrit Shlokas from Gita Press copy and then sit through the day to understand it with the help of this book.
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At the end of my expedition (yes, it was no less than an expedition), I decided to give a talk on Devi Mahatmyam. That is when I again read this whole book to make my notes for the talk.
Devdatt Kali has structured the book very well. He gives you an introduction to the Shakta tradition, for which Devi Mahatmyam is the primary text. He then explains the various layers of the book beginning with the story that is most apparent. Throughout the book, where the stories gave back stories, he not just tells you the story but also tells its various versions of the story as they occur in different scriptures.
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There is the text of Devi Mahatmyam with its Uchharan or the way to pronounce it and with its simple English translation. I did not use this part of the book as I can read Sanskrit. I used the Gita Press translation in Hindi. However, if you do not read the Devanagari script, this would be really helpful.
He explains the structure of the books including the 6 Angas or 6 limbs that are before and after the main text. It puts the text in the context of rituals associated with the text. Explanation of the three Charitas that depict three different aspects of the Devi will help the first-time reader understand the text better.
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The explanation of the four Stutis sung by Devtas when they needed the help of Devi and when they wanted to thank the Devi for all her help are beautifully explained.
After every chapter, Kali gives a commentary on the chapter. He sets the context of the chapter. Then he explains the Swaroop of Devi or the manifestation that she has taken in the chapter and what it means for us. He then explains the important verses. And sometimes even important words in the chapter. Once you read his commentary, it becomes very easy to understand the chapter.
I liked the way he explained every Ayudh or the weapon of the goddess. Every name that she takes throughout the Devi Mahatmyam. He explains every Asura or demon, starting with its etymology. And then explaining its esoteric meaning before explaining its inner manifestation inside us. He explains in detail, how the Devi fights the various Asuras.
The best part of the book is that it is written for anyone who wants to study Devi Mahatmyam. It helps you understand the very complex text in as simple a way as possible. It also gives you references to other texts that you can read for further exploration.
Language of the book is simple but without losing the depth required for a layered text.
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If you want to read Devi Mahatmyam, I would definitely recommend keeping this translation and commentary by Devdatt Kali next to you. It would help you understand the text at many levels. Especially if you are a beginner in the tradition like I am.
Thanks to the publishers Motilal Banarasidass for sending me the book.
As a text, I think it is an important text not just for the followers of Shakta tradition, but also for understanding the Shakti that is inside all of us. I hope more women read it and realize the strength within us that we just need to invoke at the right time.