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Devimahatmya

This is one of Hinduism's most beautiful manuscripts. Written on palm-leaf, the Devimahatmya is a Sanskrit hymn extolling the Goddess as the Supreme Principle of the Universe. It was copied in 'Newari' script in 1549 and illuminated in Nepal with 32 miniatures and painted covers in the reign of Jayapranamalla of Bhaktapur (1523–?1550) for the use of the king.

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Devimahatmya

The Goddess slays the buffalo-demon, and protects the gods Vishnu and Brahma from harm. Bhaktapur, Nepal, 1549
British Library Or. MS 14325, ff.1v-2
Copyright © The British Library Board

What is Hinduism and where is it practised?

Hinduism is one of the world's oldest religions, dating back 3,000 years to the Indus Valley in modern-day Pakistan. There is no single founder or central historical figure. Among world religions, it has the most adherents after Christianity and Islam: of India's population of 1.14 billion, over 80% – more than 900 million people – regard themselves as Hindu. In addition, Hindus are found elsewhere in the Indian subcontinent (Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Pakistan) and its maritime spheres (Indonesia [Bali], Fiji, Guyana, Trinidad and so on). There are around 560,000 Hindus in the UK.

What do Hindus believe?

Hindus believe that existence is a cycle of birth, death and rebirth, governed by karma: the quality of the next life is determined by one's conduct in the previous one.

There is an omnipresent, eternal being called Brahman, who created everything, and various deities are worshipped, including Ram, Siva, Lakshmi and Hanuman. The vast majority of Hindus worship only one of these (normally either Vishnu or Siva) as the Supreme Principle of the Universe, while duly acknowledging a selection of the others for personal worship. Some worship the Goddess (Devi, under various names) as the Supreme Principle, and this Glorification of the Goddess, the most important text in her worship, acknowledges her as encompassing all the other divinities.

The Goddess is widely worshipped by adherents of the other great Hindu divinities, especially in eastern and southern India and Nepal; at her great festival in the Autumn, the Dasera, her victory over the demons who have been oppressing the gods is celebrated.

What other Hindu festivals are there?

There are many holy days in the Hindu calendar. The most familiar is Diwali, the Festival of Lights (and fireworks); the date varies but by coincidence it is usually only a few days away from 'Firework Night' (5 November) in the UK.

What are Hinduism's holy texts?

Hinduism contains a vast body of scriptures, principally the Vedas and the Upanishads; other texts include the epic stories of Mahabharata and Ramayana.

What do these illustrations show?

Shown here are the opening folios.

The upper one shows the donor and his family worshipping the Goddess in the act of killing Mahishasura, the buffalo-headed demon.

The lower folio shows Vishnu asleep on the cosmic ocean with Brahma seated on a lotus emerging from his navel; the newly-manifested Goddess raises the sleeping god to kill the demons menacing Brahma. On the right, the merchant Samadhi is attacked by robbers hired by his family, and King Suratha rides into exile.

The story of the goddess is explained to both of these by the sage Medhas over the course of the hymn.