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|Goddess of children, reproduction and vegetation|
|Consort||Skanda when identified with Devasena|
Shashthi or Shashti (Sanskrit: ?????, ?a??hi/?a??i, literally. "sixth") is a Hindu folk goddess, venerated as the benefactor and protector of children (especially, as the giver of male child). She is also the deity of vegetation and reproduction and is believed to bestow children and assist during childbirth. She is often pictured as a motherly figure, riding a cat and nursing one or more infants. She is symbolically represented in a variety of forms, including an earthenware pitcher, a banyan tree or part of it or a red stone beneath such a tree; outdoor spaces termedshashthitala are also consecrated for her worship. The worship of Shashthi is proscribed to occur on the sixth day of each lunar month of the Hindu calendar as well as on the sixth day after a child's birth. Barren women desiring to conceive and mothers seeking to ensure the protection of their children will worship Shashthi and request her blessings and aid. She is especially venerated in eastern India.
Most scholars believe that Shashthi's roots can be traced to Hindu folk traditions. References to this goddess appear in Hindu scriptures as early as 8th and 9th century BCE, in which she is associated with children as well as the Hindu war-god Skanda. Early references consider her a foster-mother of Skanda, but in later texts she is identified with Skanda's consort, Devasena. In some early texts where Shashthi appears as an attendant of Skanda, she is said to cause diseases in the mother and child, and thus needed to be propitiated on the sixth day after childbirth. However, over time, this malignant goddess became seen as the benevolent saviour and bestower of children.
Shashthi is portrayed as a motherly figure, often nursing or carrying as many as eight infants in her arms. Her complexion is usually depicted as yellow or golden. A Dhyana-mantra – a hymn describing the iconography of a deity, upon which a devotee of Shashthi should meditate – describes her as a fair young woman with a pleasant appearance, bedecked in divine garments and jewellery with an auspicious twig laying in her lap. A cat (marjara) is the vahana (mount) upon which she rides. Older depictions of Shashthi may show her as cat-faced, while another reference describes her as bird-faced.
In Kushan era representations between the first and third centuries CE, she is depicted as two-armed and six-headed like Skanda. A significant number of Kushan and Yaudheya coins, sculptures and inscriptions produced from 500 BCE to 1200 CE picture the six-headed Shashthi, often on the reverse of the coin, with the six-headed Skanda on the observe. Shashthi is also pictured in a Kushan-era Vrishni triad from the Mathura region, surrounded by Skanda and Vishakha. In Yaudheya images, she is shown to have two arms and six heads that are arranged in two tiers of three heads each, while in Kushan images, the central head is surrounded by five female heads, sometimes attached to female torsos. Terracotta Gupta era (320–550 CE) figures from Ahichchhatra show the goddess with three heads on the front and three on the back.
The folk worship representation of Shashthi is a red-coloured stone about the size of a human head, typically placed beneath a banyan tree such as those usually found on the outskirts of villages. The banyan may be decorated with flowers or strewn with rice and other offerings. Shashthi is also commonly represented by planting a banyan tree or a small branch in the soil of a family's home garden. Other common representations of the goddess include a Shaligrama stone, an earthen water pitcher, or a Purna Ghata – a water vase with an arrangement of coconut and mango leaves – generally set beneath a banyan tree.
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