Dhumavati personifies the dark side of life. We know from our own experience that life can be exhilarating, joyful, and pleasant—something we want to embrace and live to the fullest. But at other times we find that this same life can be depressing, sorrowful, painful, and frustrating. At such moments we respond with pessimism, sadness, anxiety, or anger. It is then that we no longer want to embrace life but rather to avoid its misery.
This is where Dhumavati comes in. Her name means “she who is made of smoke.” Smoke is one of the effects of fire. It is dark and polluting and concealing; it is emblematic of the worst facets of human existence. The concepts embodied in Dhumavati are very ancient, and they have to do with keeping life’s inevitable suffering at bay. Before there was the Mahavidya named Dhumavati, there were three earlier goddesses who were her prototypes. They are closely related to each other and have many characteristics in common. They share many of these same characteristics with Dhumavati as well, but with her there is also an important difference.
Dhumavati’s oldest prototype is the goddess Nirriti in the RIgveda. The early seers envisioned a principle of cosmic order and universal moral law that they called rita. The moral dimension of rita later came to be called dharma. The name Nirriti is a negation ofrita. Whereas rita denotes order, growth, abundance, prosperity, harmony, well-being, and the goodness of life, Nirriti is the opposite. She personifies disorder, decay, poverty, misfortune, dissension, sickness, and the whole range of life’s ills, culminating in death. Nirriti was not worshiped in the same sense as other Vedic deities; rather she was ritually appeased so as to be warded off. In the Rigvedic hymn that mentions her (10.59) the refrain is, “Let Nirriti depart to distant places.” The idea was to keep her far away.
Closely related to Nirriti is Jyeshtha, whose name means “the elder.” She represents the state of decline that comes with old age, and naturally she is depicted as an old woman. She is instinctively drawn to households in which there is strife—where family members quarrel or where the adults feed themselves and disregard the hunger of their children. It is probable that she, like Nirriti, was propitiated to keep her at a safe distance.
One of Jyeshtha’s epithets is Alakshmi, This name indicates that she is everything that Lakshmi is not. She is Lakshmi’s dark mirror image. The Candi informs us that it is Alakshmi who visits misfortune upon the homes of the unrighteousness. She stands for poverty and bad luck and all the miserable things that can happen to people.
All three of these names refer to an inauspicious goddess who is portrayed as dark-skinned, signifying her tamasic nature. It is clear that she is the prototype of the Mahavidya Dhumavati, because of the striking similarities not only of character but also of iconography.
A common feature is the association with a crow. The crow sometimes appears emblazoned on Dhumavati’s banner; sometimes it sits atop the banner. Occasionally the bird is shown as huge, serving as her mount (vahana). In some illustrations a flock of crows accompanies her. In any case the crow, as an eater of carrion, symbolizes death. It is a fitting companion for a goddess of misfortune, decay, destruction, and loss.
Dhumavati, like her prototypes, is associated with poverty, need, hunger, thirst, quarrelsomeness, anger, and negativity. She is consistently shown as old and ugly, with sagging breasts and crooked or missing teeth. She is dressed in filthy rags. We can draw two inferences here. One is that the unpleasant experiences of life will eventually engender a sense of disgust that will turn us toward the Divine. The other is that the Divine is present everywhere, even in what we ordinarily consider foul or ugly. How can there be a place where the infinite Mother is not?
Unlike her predecessors, Dhumavati is characterized as a widow, and this gives a clue to her unique nature as a Mahavidya and distinguishes her from the earlier goddesses, who are to be avoided. The difference is that Dhumavati has some positive aspects.
The state of widowhood in Indian society carries a range of complexities. Conventionally widowhood is an unenviable state. Without her husband, a widow has lost her former social standing and may come to be viewed as a financial burden on the extended family. This is symbolized by the cart in which Dhumavati sits; it has nothing to pull it. Occasionally an illustration shows two birds yoked to the cart, but far from expressing empowerment, they appear to be struggling against something too big and to heavy to pull.
In the context of traditional Indian society, the fact that widows can be socially marginalized can also indicate that for them the worldly concerns of life are past. Widows are free to follow a spiritual path, to go on pilgrimages, and to engage in sadhana that would have been impossible during the years of family obligations. No longer constrained by the demands of the married state, they are in a position to apply themselves wholeheartedly to spiritual practice. There is an implied parallel here between the enforced position of widowhood and the voluntary state of renunciation known as samnyasa.
Apart from the specific conditions and observances of traditional Hindu society, is there any broader lesson we can extract that is relevant to our experience? Since the Mahavidyas are all taken to be wisdom goddesses, intent on helping us toward enlightenment, there should be some practical insight that Dhumavati can impart.
A primary lesson is that misfortune may look different in retrospect. It is universally acknowledged that something that seemed painful or unfortunate at the time might have been for the best after all, in short a blessing in disguise. Most of us need look no further than our own lives or the lives of people we know for examples of disappointments, misfortunes, frustrations, defeats, or losses that led to positive transformation. Similarly, adversity can build character and turn an ordinary soul into an extraordinary one.
Another lesson is that with the ticking of the clock we inevitably face losses of one sort or another, and we must come to terms with them. Dhumavati represents the erosive power of time that robs us of loved ones, of our own youthful strength and vitality, of our health, and of whatever else contributes to our fragile happiness. Everything that we so desperately cling to for security is by nature transient. In the end we all face our own mortality. That is the fundamental problem of human existence.
The image of Dhumavati, old and ugly and alone and miserable in her cart of disempowerment, tells us what to do. The lesson is to cultivate a sense of detachment. Note that Dhumavati holds a bowl of fire in one hand and a winnowing basket in the other. The fire symbolizes inevitable cosmic destruction: all things shall pass away. The winnowing basket, used to separate grain from chaff, represents viveka, mental discrimination between the permanent and the fleeting. Even though her stalled cart represents an external life going nowhere, Dhumavati empowers us inwardly to reach for the highest, and there is nothing to stop us once we are resolved. In the end, she points the way to liberation.