Today, we’re going to be talking about human potential but we’re not going to be going the route of talking about neuroscience or the latest supplement or trick. We’re going to explore a story from ancient India that gives us some insight into how humans in the past viewed achieving our greatest potential. Human potentials are all the rage these days especially in the business world as our culture is extremely interested in achieving peak states of optimal performance. Now, unfortunately for us, we seem to be more distracted and more overwhelmed and stressed than ever and I think this is where the story can really help us in our current day and age. Our story today is about a goddess named Mahasaraswati. It comes from a text called, “The Devi Mahatmyam,” which was written at about four to 500 of the Common Era.
The text itself never specifically mentions Mahasaraswati interestingly enough. The story which on the surface is about the great goddess Devi, a more universal goddess actually gets infused by later traditions. Specifically, we’ll be borrowing a lot from Tantric traditions. Traditions that spread the ways this goddess manifest in the stories of the text over three goddesses, Mahakali, Mahalaxmi and Mahasaraswati. It’s Mahasaraswati that we’ll be focusing on today. What Mahasaraswati represents is the intuitive wisdom that destroys ignorance. Ignorance that comes with its twin aspects of I-ness and mine-ness. She’s actually the final step towards enlightenment, towards reaching our ultimate human evolutionary potential.
Once upon a time, as our story begins, there are two demons, Shumbha and Nisumbha. Shumbha represents I-ness or egoism. His little brother Nisumbha represents mine-ness. These two demons have defeated the gods and are busy terrorizing the whole universe. Horribly oppressed and defeated, the gods rushed to the Himalayas to find refuge with the goddess. They prayed to her for help and the goddess hears their prayers and all of a sudden a magnificent light shines forth from that light, that radiance, it coalesces into the form of the beautiful Mahasaraswati. She tells the gods not to worry, that she will defeat these two evil demons. Back at the castle of Shumbha and Nisumbha, they get word from two of their servants, two guys named Chanda and Munda, that they saw the most beautiful and radiant goddess they have ever seen that has ever walked the face of any of the worlds.
Chanda and Munda tell them, “Since you have acquired the most excellent objects in all the world, you should acquire her also.” Shumbha and Nisumbha have all the nicest things and today it’s like, “Oh, they got the nicest cars, they got the nicest clothes, the biggest houses,” so naturally, they need the most beautiful woman. The demon king sends a messenger to the goddess. He finds her and he tells her, “Oh Devi, Shumbha, he’s the greatest. He’s conquered all the gods and he sent this message for you.” He says, “I have defeated all the gods and received their sacrifices. Since you are the best jewel among women, I want you to choose either my brother or me to be your husband.” The goddess responds by telling the messenger, “Look, I don’t doubt the greatness of your king or even the truth in your words but I vowed only to marry one who can humble my pride, one who can defeat me in battle.
Go tell your master I told you this and he can do whatever he thinks is right.” The messenger goes back and naturally Shumbha is furious when he hears the message and he commands the general of his army, a demon named Dhumralochana to bring Mahasaraswati back to him by whatever means necessary. The general tracks her down and when he find her, she already tells him, she says, “Look, I know why you’re here but I’m not going to go with you unless you fight me and defeat me in battle.” Right away, Dhumralochana charges after her but the goddess simply utters the word, “Hmm,” and the demon is instantly destroyed. Dhumralochana represents something called [Piparayagyana 00:04:59] or in English we would say perverted knowledge, or wrong thinking, or distorted vision. Mantra has the ability to reduce wrong thinking instantly.
It doesn’t even really fight with it. When the mantra is chanted, thoughts are destroyed, wrong thinking is destroyed. When you’re caught up with wrong thinking in your head, mantra has the power to instantly replace that thought to destroy it. Hearing of the defeat of Dhumralochana, Shumbha is even more furious and he sends his two greatest heroes, Chanda and Munda who actually represent activity and non-activity to get her and drag her back by her hair. If they can’t get her back to him, Shumbha orders them to kill her. Chanda and Munda get to the goddess with this massive army and the Devi simply raises her eyebrow and unleashes Kali who destroys them all. Kali is this ferocious aspect of the goddess with black skin and matted dreadlock hair, red eyes and blood red tongue, blood red third eye.
She instantly destroys the army of Chanda and Munda and destroys Chanda and Munda themselves. Part of what sustains egoism and mine-ness are the occurrence of mental processes of action and inaction. Both action and inaction can be harmful. If they’re guided by egoism, I-ness or Shumbha, then action creates karmic entanglements, further suffering, further entanglements in the world while inaction intensifies dullness of the mind. If you’re being inactive out of selfish reasons, out of laziness, it simply creates dullness of the mind. Shumbha hears again that his soldiers have been defeated. He goes into a complete rage. He summoned every demon in his army, every family of demons in all the world absolutely everyone, their cousins, anyone and everyone that he can communicate with, he sends out the message.
He commands them all to go after her. This massive army arrives. All the great forms of the goddess appear and together they easily defeat the demons and set a fierce wind that blows dark clouds away. The goddesses just wipe through the demons. One demon in particular though, a demon by the name of Raktabīja had a particular boon that made him particularly difficult to destroy. Anytime he was cut and a drop of blood fell from his body, a new demon just like him would arise. A demon in full battle armor, just as ferocious, just as deadly, and just as ready for battle. The Devis are fighting him and they realized that every scratch they make creates numerous copies of the demon. In only moments, thousands of these powerful Raktabijas fill the entire battle field.
The goddesses quickly realized what’s happening. They see all these demons starting to multiple. Mahasaraswati tells Kali to open her mouth wide and take in all those drops of blood that fall from Raktabīja. The goddesses continue destroying the demons but before any drop of blood get spilled, Kali comes and laps them up so you drink up all the blood so that no new demons could form. It’s not long before the original Raktabīja remains and is destroyed by the sword of the Devi, of the goddess. Swords represent discrimination. What does Raktabīja represent? He represents the outgoing thought waves of the mind. One simple thought can multiply into a never ending stream of thoughts. If left uncheck, the mind simply multiply itself infinitely with more and more thought.
We can all easily realize this in our own lives when you have one thought, it easily creates another thought and another and another. Even if you try to get rid of one thought, it simply creates more thoughts by having thoughts to get rid of and destroy that thought. It’s a never ending stream of thought. It’s discrimination, the sort of discrimination that’s going to cut through this to understand what’s actually going on in the mind to cut these thoughts off. Once distorted visions are destroyed, that was Dhumralochana. Once the effects of action and inaction are dealt with and once the endless outpouring of thoughts is destroyed, one finally moves into the place, into the castle, the fortress of the demons Shumbha and Nisumbha. The very source of I-ness and mine-ness.
As we move through the story, we’re actually moving through specific psychological states of being. We’ve moved through wrong thinking, we’ve moved through the effects of action and inaction and how when everything is guided by egoism, all we’re doing is creating more and more thoughts, more and more anxiety and suffering for ourselves and the world. Ultimately, what we’re getting at is that you can’t achieve your highest potential if you’re constantly busy and bogged down by continuous thinking that’s guided by your ego. You also won’t get anywhere by not doing anything. We’re not saying, “Well, the ego driving everything is the problem so I just won’t do anything,” because that doesn’t work either. As we said before, it just creates more dullness in the mind.
After all these demons so far are destroyed, finally, what’s left is the last of the armies of Shumbha and Nisumbha. Now, when Nisumbha sees Saraswati, he’s utterly overwhelmed by her beauty. He says to her in a very chauvinistic tone, he’s like, “Whoa, you are way too pretty to be fighting. Why are you fighting in such a terrible war?” A beautiful woman shouldn’t even be fighting in battles. To which the goddess responds, she’s like, “Look, wimp, don’t even bother with your silly words. Either fight me or go run away to the lower worlds. Don’t waste my time with your ridiculous talk. Either fight me or leave.” This epic battle ensues. Mahasaraswati is fighting Nisumbha and his demon army, she’s hacking away at all these bodies left and right, blood is covering every inch of the battlefield.
Finally, it comes to Nisumbha trying to kill Saraswati’s ride. She’s actually riding on the top of a lion. Mahasaraswati’s left with no choice. She cuts off his head. In these stories, the head typically represents the ego. Here, we have the source of the ego that’s creating a sense of mine-ness, this is mine, and disconnecting it from the body. It gets cut off and separated from the body. All that’s left now is Shumbha and his army. The remaining parts of his army form around Shumbha and he approaches to fight her. Think of this big massive demon towering seven feet tall with bulging muscles and covered in armor, ferocious look on his face. He too is totally smitten by her beauty. He’s thinking to himself like, “Wow, this is the most beautiful woman in the entire world, in all the worlds and I absolutely have to have her.
I must and if I don’t, I would die trying.” Shumbha comes to her and he says in a similar chauvinistic way, “Devi, women shouldn’t fight. You should go play your musical instrument instead. You’re too beautiful for the battlefield.” It’s like some guy saying that, “All women belong in the kitchen.” Saraswati, Saraswati, just smiles and kind of brushes them off and responds to him with like, “Look, don’t waste your time in vain conversation if you don’t actually want to fight me then fight Kali instead.” She looks over to Kali and she’s like, “Oh, Kali, do kill this demon. Will you?” The goddess cuts off his arms, cuts off his feet and legs so that nothing but his torso and his head are left. This image always comes back into my head of that scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and the encounter with the black knight where King Arthur cuts off the black knight’s arms and legs.
Yet still the knight is like barking at him, he’s like, “Oh, it’s just a flesh wound. I’m invisible. I’ll bite your leg off.” He simply won’t admit defeat. Shumbha won’t admit defeat. The ego simply isn’t willing or even perhaps doesn’t know how to admit defeat. Finally, with no other choice, she cuts off his head. With his death of course the world and the gods rejoiced. There’s peace and bliss and white doves flying out of everywhere, angels singing like, “Oh,” all of that kind of stuff. Then, how does all this tie into human potential? If egoism, I-ness is born of non-discrimination between the ultimate self and the [chita 00:16:53], the mind stuff of not understanding who our true self is, who we really are.
We don’t understand ourselves as this great expansive universal self, we think of ourselves as all this stuff contained in our mind, all the stuff of our ego. If I think to myself I have particular name, I have a particular body. I have likes and dislikes. I am separate from other things because I’m over here and they’re over there. Because of this ignorance, the soul is unable to separate itself from the mind. When there’s identification with the mind, one thinks, “The mind is mine. All that comes from the mind is also mine. The body, the pranas, the energies, the senses, these are all mine. Friends, family, possessions, they’re all mine too.” That’s why Nisumbha mine-ness is actually the little brother of Shumbha.
Mine-ness is the little brother of the ego, of I-ness. When we’re coming from the ego and mine, we start to think of things as mine. We have possessions, my thoughts, my stuff. This over here is mine and that over there is not mine so I have to protect what I have and get more of what’s over there. Devi can’t be owned. Enlightenment is not something of the mind or the ego. An example we can use is a doll made out of salt. It can’t fathom the depths of the ocean because it would dissolve into the ocean. The mind can’t possess the goddess in the same way. The great self is exposed only when the little self is dissolved. When you dissolve into the great ocean, there’s no little self left. There’s no ego. The Devi, the goddess cannot be owned by this limited ego because it operates from an entirely different scale.
When the goddess is realized, there’s no more limited mind. No more limited self. No more ego. It’s through the process of destruction of our small limited self that the full potential of a human being can be realized. Earlier in the podcast, we talk about these different goddesses throughout the story. We were emphasizing specifically the story of Mahasaraswati today. All right, but where the story has come from is that earlier Mahakali has broken things down, taken away our initial barriers, our ego protection, and exposed our wounds. Mahalaxmi comes along to heal those wounds. This is actually where a lot of journey stop, it’s like, “Hey, we’re healed it’s all good like we don’t need to go any further.”
From our perspective, we’re not there yet. It’s one thing to be healed, to be adjusted, to be operating, it’s another thing to be thriving. To be operating from one’s highest potential. That’s where Mahasaraswati comes in to reveal the latent powers of the soul, of the soul uninhibited by the barriers of the mind. The story is taking us through the psychological process where Mahakali is coming along to break us down, to break down the ego. Mahalaxmi is the process that heals us, that gets us back to our baseline and it’s ultimately Mahasaraswati that brings us forth into our greatest potential. How is it done? How’s our greatest potential reached? By overcoming these two gigantic barriers of I-ness and mine-ness. Thinking that I have a separate I and an I that has a mind and has stuff that is mine.
We’re constantly caught up and our egos trying to get, trying to get things for ourselves to possess them like Shumbha was trying to possess the goddess. When we can overcome the tendency of the mind to want to acquire things for itself, we can actually offer our greatest gifts out into the world. We then become a vehicle for whatever creative expression wants to come through us. We’re not constricted by, guided by this limited oppressive sense of the mind that Shumbha represents. This really allows us then to flower as beings, it allows us to reach our greatest potential. We’re constantly caught up trying to figure out what we can get for ourselves. Our mind is bogged down. It’s clogged. It’s clouded.
The goddess comes along to annihilate these barriers of the mind as they’re destroyed, our full potential, this full potential of life can move through us. The story itself even gives us an insight in some of the tools we can use in this journey to overcome the ego. The most obvious tool is mantra, is chanting. The goddess utters the sound of hmm to destroy one of the demons. It’s not even really a fight. Mantra has this incredible power to overcome thought forms in the mind. While there are plenty of different lineages and gurus out there that offer different specific mantras, we can think about this one even more universally. What do parents often do to children to help them calm their minds before sleep? They sing them a lullaby. What is a lullaby? It’s a simple mantra repeated over and over again to help soothe and calm the mind.
They overcome the thoughts that might be filling a child’s head and preventing it from restful sleep. If you have a particular mantra that you already use, I encourage you to use that. If you’re associated with a particular lineage or you have something that already works for you, wonderful, use that. Om is a very particular mantra as well. Each of the goddesses has a particular mantra, a way in which they vibrate. Really, there’s so many different ways to approach mantra. I encourage you to find something that feels good and works for you. Even toning is a great option and a great means to get a sense of how the vibration of particular sounds move through your body. Meditation is another means of overcoming the mind.
It’s a much larger topic that would go beyond the scope of this story to break down but if you don’t already have a meditation practice, I encourage you to explore a very basic practice. Don’t feel like there’s any big complex thing you need to do or to know to meditate. Simply find a quiet place and preferably sit with a tall neutral spine and witness, witness your breath, the air as it enters your lungs and as it leaves your lungs. Witness your thoughts, witness without attachment. This is actually a great opportunity to notice the experience alluded to in our story of Raktabīja. You might witness a thought, then notice that if you attach that thought or try to do something with it, it creates another thought, then another, then another.
You can actually see the story happening within your own mind. Remember, what can help us overcome this is awareness. You just witness. Don’t try to change your thoughts, no need to direct your mind or thoughts in any way. Just witness. The ego will lose its food. It will lose its fodder. The mind will become more still and tranquil. Eventually, this will lead to an experience beyond the mind. In some days these experience might seem super available and accessible. Other days it might seem impossible and unattainable. All right, but you keep sitting, you keep witnessing. That’s the practice throughout it all.
These experiences, these states, these realizations that are going to continue on this path of reaching our fullest potential as beings. When the obstructions of the mine and ego are cleared, we’re free to allow the limitless creative power of the universe, of the goddess to move through us and ultimately offer those gifts out into the world. It’s not a dullness of the mind, it’s not a lack of activity of the brain. It’s just an experience where we are not getting stuck and tripped up by every thought of the ego throughout the mind. We are just a vehicle for this creative power of the universe. Ultimately, then able to reach our highest potential.
Listen to the story here: