The Great Goddess Devi

She has a thousand names and faces — and countless tasks and talents. Even as a fierce warrior heroically slaying the most vicious demons, she retains her composure and radiant beauty. Westerners accustomed to a "Heavenly Father," and to seeing virginal, subdued images of the Madonna, might find Devi and her wildly vigorous feminine power quite startling.

For many Hindus, however, Devi's greatest strength is that she embodies all aspects of womanhood. In the vast pantheon, she is in the top tier, as powerful as the male gods Vishnu and Shiva. Mother goddess of India and local protector for innumerable villages, she can be quiet and nurturing. But she is also a cosmic force, addressing the creation and destruction of worlds. On occasion she is voluptuous and alluring — a playful temptress, a passionate lover. Before exams, Hindu pupils pray to her, incarnated as Sarasvati, the goddess of music and learning. Devi blesses her devotees with fortune and success.

Her most renowned victory is the slaying of a buffalo demon, a brutishly ignorant, bloated egotist. Before Devi came to the rescue, he had defeated a host of benevolent gods. With one of her 18 arms, at the height of the battle, she effortlessly pulls the demon out of his buffalo body with a red noose. Her mount, a tiger, gnaws the head. All the while, Devi is garbed in the gilded and embroidered costume of a Punjab Hills princess. In the clouds above, gods celebrate her triumph by tossing down golden blossoms.

"It is astonishing that there hasn't previously been a major exhibition about her," observes Vidya Dehejia, curator of "Devi: The Great Goddess." On view at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery through September 6, this magnificent show features 120 artworks representing a 2,500-year time span and a wide range of styles.

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