The Sakta group of followers within Hinduism believes in the Feminine principle as the Brahman or the Supreme Consciousness, and their worship revolves around various Devi images, many of which are popularly associated with Shiva. However, Devi sakti is also associated with Vishnu-Krshna from an early period in Indian history. Besides Sri or Lakshmi, who we see as Vishnu’s consort, there is one more aspect of the feminine principle associated with Vaishnavism that was once a popular form of worship across India, known as Ekanamsa.
The Durgastrotras in the Mahabharata and Aryastava of the Harivamsa (HV) describe Ekanamsa as being born to Yasoda and Nanda (Yasodagarbhasambhutam… | Nandagopakule jatam…). It is the same description that is found in Markandeyapurana, and the ‘Narayanstuti’ in it describes her as the infinitely powerful Vaisnavasakti (ch. 91, v. 4: Tvam Vaisnavisaktiranantavirya visvasya vijam Paramasi maya).
Ekanamsa- Krshna- Balrama in Harivamsa
In HV, Sri Krishna is mentioned as Vishnu’s avtar, while Balaram is the manifestation of Seshnaag. Here and there in the HV are references to the third figure in the triad as Ekanamsa, Nidra, and Kali, which are all in close associations with Krishna and Balarama. There are three such specific interactions – when the devi (as Ekanamsa/ Kali) appears at the time of Krishna’s birth; mention of a previous interaction when devi Kali played a role in the killing of the asura Kalnemi (who has come back in the form of raja Kansa, Krishna’s uncle) by Vishnu; and once again the devi appears in Dwaravati, the city which Krishna built for his Vrisni clan/ Yadavas, as the city gears up for completion and celebrations, where she is greeted with showers of unhusked rice, flowers, and roasted grains of rice. The Yadavas worshipped her as Ekanamsa devi, who is a yogakanya (here the term yogakanya or yogastri, as per Kautilya, denotes a woman who acts as per methods that are kept secret or who is in secret service), and one who appeared only once alone (ekam) to save Krishna. Her position is between Balrama and Krishna with a golden lotus in her hand, uniting the two brothers, and her abode is in the Vindhya mountains with multiple temples across the country in her name (denoting a strong group of followers of this devi, possibly in the BCE and early CE).
The HV gives a detailed description in chapters 45-47 of Vishnu’s plan to end Kansa’s rule, and in 47.10 we find the presence of Nidra (personified sleep, a form used by the maya of the yogis- nidramayam yogam), who is shown also as an aspect of Time or Kalrupini in 47.24, a person who is capable of performing all kinds of maya (Yogamaya). Nidra’s role, as we see in HV, is that of precisely carrying out all of Vishnu’s instructions, from behind the scenes. She is responsible for all out of the ordinary incidents that took place during Krishna’s birth, and is symbolic of the magical power or energy of Vishnu. This best explained in the lines from HV 48.10 – vishnoh sarirajam nidram visnor nirdesakarinim (Nidra coming forth from Vishnu’s body, obeying His orders).
The devi is seen full form and glory in HV 48.28-30, where Kansa smashes Devaki’s eight child, a girl, onto a rock. Even before the body touches the rock, the soul, which is Nidra devi, moves out and appears in her full divine form, a four armed young woman in black and yellow clothes. She then pronounces a curse at Kansa saying that as he had hurled her infant body against a stone, similarly his dead body will be dragged on the ground of the arena where he will be killed. The hymn which starts from the end of ch. 47 also depicts this devi as Katyayani or Durga, the feminine power that is beyond the ordinary. As Nidra we find she helps Vishnu in establishing dharma by carrying out his instructions using her powers of maya or magic to create confusions in minds of those doing adharma; and also in working towards Vishnu’s welfare (Sri). As Kali she also has the same magical powers of creating confusion and making things appear different than they actually are.
The oldest references in terms of iconography of the devi is found in Brhtsamhita, where she is said to be of two, four, or eight armed. When two armed, devi stands between Krishna and Balrama in katihasta position (left hand), while her right hand holds a lotus. Vishnudharmottara also gives the same description which says- Ekansapi kartavya devi padmakara tatha | Katihastavamahasta sa madhyastha Rama Krsnayoh (Book III, ch. 85, 71-2).
Some interesting points on Ekanamsa devi :
- Interestingly in the epic Mahabharata Ekanamsa is never named as Subhadra. In Mahabharata the one who is named as Subhadra or Bhadra is also Krishna’s sister, but from another of Vasudeva’s wife (as Krishna says- mamaisa bhagini…saranasya sahodara). Arjuna falls in love with Subhadra, and elopes with her with Krishna’s consent. So, the ancient wooden triad at Puri is actually Devi Ekanamsa, with Krishna and Balarama. It is in BrahmaPurana, which was compiled later, where the names are mixed up and Ekanamsa is turned into Subhadra, and the devi is now worshipped in Puri in this name.
- The worship of Ekanamsa was popular in the eastern parts of India, which is evident from the found fine bronze murti of the triad from Imadpur in Bihar of the Pala era, which is now in the British Museum (the cover picture). Here the iconography departs from the given textual references, wherein we see the two armed devi standing on a lotus and holding a mirror in left hand, while her right hand is shown in varadamudra.
- The devi when four armed carries a book and a lotus in her left hands, while her right hands are seen in varadamudra and carrying an aksmala. When eight armed her hands carry a water pitcher, a bow, lotus, book, varadamudra, arrow, mirror, and aksmala.
(all references given within the writing itself)