According to the Hindu religion, Shakti (Sanskrit: meaning force, power or energy) refers to the active, creative and dynamic feminine principle in the universe that is often personified as a Goddess, as well as a God's female aspect or consort (Zaenher 1966).
In some systems of Hindu thought, Shakti may also be worshiped as the supreme being and principle of the universe ultimately responsible for the creation of the phenomenal world.
The concept of Shakti, as both divine energy and as the goddess is of great importance within Tantric philosophy and practice, which places much reverence on the feminine principle of creation.
Shakti derives from the Sanskrit verbal root shak, which means "to have potential" or "to be able" (Goldman 2004). In it's noun form, this root becomes shakti, feminine in gender, a general term for a "power" or "ability" (Goldman 2004). Literally, then, the female divine embodies the power of potentiality, which, as we will see, has been often related to the creation of the physical world. With Shakti, the concept of power becomes personified in the image(s) of the feminine divine.
Since the prehistoric dawn of what is now known as Hinduism, the goddess has been a central figure. Thousands of stone statues found at sites in the Indus Valley such as Harappa, Mohenjo-Daro, and Lothal, dating from 2500 to 1500 B.C.E., are feminine in their shape, with pronounced hips and busts. This suggests that Shakta religion has persisted in India for at least four thousand years (McDaniel 2004). In the south of India, meanwhile, a cult dedicated to a figure resembling Shakti was a major aspect of Dravidian religion, and eventually came to be identified with the Puranic goddesses Parvati, Durga or Kali (Bhattacharyya 1974).
While the Vedic society that superseded the Indus Valley culture was far more patriarchal than its predecessors, the Vedic literature still features a number of significant goddesses including Ushas, Prithivi, Aditi, Sarasvati, Vac, Nirrti, and Ratri. There are also number of minor ones, including Puramdhi, Parendi, Raka, and Dhisana. Several other others including Ila, Bharati, Mahi, Hotra are invoked and summoned instructed within hymns to take their share of ritual offerings. The Upanishads, philosophical commentaries marking the end of the Vedas, make little mention of the goddesses.
During the ages of the Mauryas (322–185 B.C.E.), and Shungas (185-73 B.C.E.), the cult of the feminine divine grew steadily in India, with later Vedic goddesses such as Ambika, Durga, Lakshmi/Sri, and Bhadrakali rising to prominence (Bhattacharyya 1974). Before Ashoka's (304-232 B.C.E.) mass conversion of his Mauryan empire to Buddhism, their religion appears to have been that of the Mother Goddess, whom Ashoka worshipped as Umadevi. Near the village of Lauriya, in what was once the Mauryan empire, a gold table dating as far back as the eighth or seventh century B.C.E. and picturing a naked woman with exaggerated hips and sexual organs has been excavated, possibly representating this goddess (Bhattacharyya 1974).
The worship of variosu forms of Shakti was not limited to India's northern kingdoms, and in south India, too, goddess worship was common. The great Tamil epic, Silappatikaram (c. 100 C.E.) makes repeated references to the worship of Kali and suggests the prevalence of her cult in South India, putting forth the notion that the various goddesses such as Lakshmi, Saraswati and Parvati are actually representation of one great feminine divine (Bhattacharyya 1974).
With the Puranic age came the emergence of the Devi Mahatmya, a section of Markandeya Purana (third-fith centuries CE), which is centred around the goddess (or Devi). By the time this text was compiled, the goddess seems to have accumulated aspects of goddesses from a variety of theological streams. For the poet, the various goddesses are simply manifestations of the one female divine into whom each of them were ultimately absorbed . In the concluding stages of the poem, the goddess reassures the gods of her immense power by granting them a boon that dictates that she will deliver the world from danger whenever it is possessed by demonic forces (Bhattacharyya 1974). Shaktism was also bolstered soon after between the fourth and the seventh centuries CE with the emergence of the class of ritual manuals known as the Tantras. In these books, the goddess is reached by variations of meditations and visualizations, as well as mantras, hand positions, and imagery (McDaniel 2004).
With the fall of the Gupta Empire around 700 C.E. came the closure of what had historically been the supremacy of north India over the south. From this time forward, religious movements of the South now began influence those of the North (Bhattacharyya 1974). For instance, Korravai, the Tamil goddess of war and victory, came to be identified with Durga, who was thereafter venerated as the Divine Principle transcending all other manifestations of the goddess. Durga was also identified with other southern female conceptions of the divine such as the Bhagavati of Kerala, Saraswati/Vac, Srī/Lakshmi, and Cinta Devi, among others. In this variety of female divinities synthesized under the character of Durga, devotees were now able to contemplate power, beneficence and wisdom all in one goddess (Bhattacharyya 1974).
In the late medieval era (1300-1700 C.E.), worship of Shakti also gained some further devotional momentum alongside the fruition of the bhakti movement, primarily with the introduction of the Devi-Bhagavata. In this text, the goddess is attributed theological supremacy, and is considered the provider of the primordial energy that: 1) enabled Lord Brahma to create the universe, 2) allows Vishnu to sustain it and 3) will enable Shiva to destroy it (Bhattacharyya 1974). The book also delineates the process by which local goddesses came to be recognized as manifestations of the one supreme Shakti (Bhattacharyya 1974). The latter portion of the Devi-Bhagavata, the Devi Gita, has the goddess identify herself as the supreme creator, equivalent to parabrahman, possessing the creative force of maya. This notion of the goddess as the supreme entity in the universe is continued on in the Kalika Purana, where she is described as prakriti, the basic matter of the physical universe (Bhattacharyya 1974). Similarly, the Devi Purana delineates the significance of the various names by which the goddess is adressed in the Devi Mahatmya. Thus, the all-powerful goddess in these texts is certainly worthy of devoted worship.
Subsumed under the umbrella of Shakti are numerous myths dealing with specific goddesses. All, however, point in some way to the supreme divine power of the feminine principle. In describing her creation, one particularly famous myth involves shows how Durga, a popular form of the goddess, saved all of humanity from destruction:
The crisis began when the demon-king Rambha made love to a female buffalo, creating a son Mahishasura who possessed the ability to oscillate between human and buffalo form. After much prayer and penance, Mahishasura was granted boon by Lord Brahma that rendered him invincible to any man or god. Mahishasura proceeded to wreak havoc over the earth and the heavens, and so the gods searched for a solution. Eventually, the trinity of Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva came together and bestowed their energy upon their consorts, Sarasvati, Lakshmi, and Parvati, respectively, merging them as one. This all-powerful, unified goddess was called Durga. Bedecked with ornaments and wielding the strongest weapons of the gods in her many arms, Durga engaged the demon son of Rambha. After an arduous battle, she slayed the demon in his buffalo form as no man or god could, thereby liberating the earth and the heavens from evil.
In her function as the supreme divinity and also the obvious archetype of fertility, Shakti's mythology sometimes holds her solely responsible for the creation of the universe. One oral folk song performed annually on Madesvara Hill in Karnataka tells a tale in which primordial gender roles are opposite of those in usual Sanskrit tellings. In this story, the goddess comes into being three days before the rest of the cosmos. She grows up quickly and finds herself desperate for a man to satiate her emergent sex drive. She creates Brahma in the hope that he will bed down with her. However, Brahma refuses her advances, uncomfortable with the thought of sleeping with his own mother. Shakti promptly incinerates him with fire generated from the palm of her hand. The next day, she creates Vishnu and attempts to seduce him, but he too resists for the same reasons as Brahma and is also burnt by Shakti's palm. The next day, Shakti creates Shiva. Seeing what has happened to his brothers, Shiva, although uncomfortable, agrees to be her husband, offering to teach her his skills. He begins to teach her the Tandava, the dance of destruction, with Shakti following along by mirroring his movements. Suddenly, Shiva performed a move in which he puts his hand on his forehead. Following along, Shakti burns herself with her fiery palm. In the wake of her incineration, Shiva observed the two heaps of ash that had been his brothers and revived them. Together, the three gods decide that the heap of ash that was their mother should be divided into three smaller heaps. When these three heaps are given life, they become Sarasvati, Lakshmi, and Parvati (Ramanujan 1999).
In its most abstract sense, Shakti refers to the cosmic energy that allows the ineffable male aspect of god to bring the universe into material creation. Shakti provides God with the skill of maya which enables him to manipulate prakriti and thereby shape forms as we perceive them in the phenomenal world. These distinctly "feminine" powers of maya, illusion, and ultimately Shakti itself, were conceptualized as negative entities in the Upanishads, as they were thought to blur one's ability to perceive the true, ineffable Brahman, thereby impeding the progress of the soul (or Atman) to spiritual liberation. However, this ancient view does not represent the full spectrum of Hindu thought on the matter. The Kulacudamani Nigama, for example, states that even God himself could not rise to his position of supremacy were it not for Shakti's entrance within him (Walker 1983). God, as it were, requires the power of Shakti before he can perform any of his great feats of creation (Avalon 1978).
Tantric thought has historically held women to embody Shakti, the essence of life itself. Accordingly, Tantric philosophers believed that each woman possesses goddess-like characteristics, and are often referred to as Shaktiman, or "possessor of shakti" by these thinkers (Avalon 1978). To mistreat a woman is a severe transgression in the Tantric fold. Shakti the goddess also played an indispensable role in Tantric soteriology. Final mystical union with Shakti, according to Tantric sages, occurred at the precise instant of death. At this point, Shakti would absorb both the soul and the body of the dying sage, bestowing a sensation of unmatched bliss upon him. This was, and still is, the highest reward for the Tantric practitioner (Walker 1983).
Shakti also shares theological traits complementary to Shiva. Shiva is often represented iconographically and symbolically by the linga, a phallic object of devotion. The conjoined presence of Shakti, his eternal compliment, has traditionally been represented by the yoni (meaning "divine passage" or "place of birth" in Sanskrit), a corresponding vulvular symbol. Shakti, then, was the female organ itself, speaking to her infinitely fecund creative power. Yonis are often found in close proximity to Shiva-lingas in Shakta temples, usually forming the base of the phallic structure. This attempts to demonstrate the eternal interdependence of the male and female in material creation.
Shakti embodies the active energy and power of male deities, with whom she is often personified as a wife. For example, among the Trimurti (the three most prominent gods in Hindu myth), Brahma's Shakti is Saraswati, the goddess of learning, harmony and artistic endeavor, Vishnu's Shakti is Lakshmi, the goddess of beauty and fortune, and Shiva's Shakti is considered to be Parvati, a goddess of the mountains and motherhood.
This latter relationship between Shiva and Parvati is one of the most remarkable between god and goddess in the Hindu tradition. Together, Shiva and Parvati are thought to embody an absolute state of oneness, and are often pictured together as the aforementioned Ardhanarisvara. This divine being is depicted as being split into male and female halves along a central vertical axis in order to convey this message. The term 'Ardhanarishvara' is a combination of three words-'ardha', 'nari', and 'ishvara', meaning "the Lord whose half is woman." Some scholars translate the term to read as the more equalitarian 'half male' and 'the half female' (Marglin 1989). Most feminists, however, interpret the "Lord who is half woman" to suggest the inherent maleness of the divine, in accordance with the typical Shaivic advaitic view, and therefore his perpetual supremacy over the female aspect of reality (Goldberg 2002).
Although Shiva and Shakti are seen as one in the form of 'Ardhanarishvara', together they share in a multiplicity of powers, which are themselves collectively referred to as the five shaktis. These are 1) the ability to conceive of each other as separate, 2) absolute satisfaction in their unity, 3) divine will, 4) full and complete knowledge, and 5) the power to act (Zaenher 1966).
In addition to her ubiquitous role as wife of the gods, Shakti is also viewed more generally as a spirit wife. That is, she is attributed the power to incarnate her spirit within an earthly wife or mistress. Alternatively, she appears as an entirely spiritual being, serving as a guardian angel, of sorts, in the lives of human beings (Walker 1983).
Followers of Shaktism, commonly known as Shaktas, acknowledge Shakti as their primary divine archetype, and seek to recapitulate in the phenomenal world the union of the Shiva and Shakti. This is often performed by restraining the senses during the act of intercourse, in which the male partner staves off ejaculation in hopes of re-channeling seminal flow to the base of the spine (Zaenher 1966). With this act, the male participant realizes for himself the all powerful nature of Shiva, eternally chaste while at the same time ithyphallic (Zaenher 1966). As well, this process supposedly fuses male and female principles (purusha and prakriti respectively), as one. Through this recapitulation of divine embrace, the inseparable nature of male and female is realized by the sexual partners, and the distinction between material creation and moksha, or liberation, dissolves along with all other opposites. This kind of sexual union, as it were, serves the Shakta as a temporary experience of salvation, as it provides the most obvious earthly representation of the transcendence of opposites that characterizes the divine (Zaenher 1966). This state can also be experienced on a non-sexual level through mental concentration. Just as Shiva and Shakti are one in their eternal love, yet also eternally distinct, so too is the human soul fused with the divine at the culmination of this process, while still remaining individual. Among the Kashmir Shaivites, for instance, liberation itself is described as becoming one with Shiva and his five shaktis.
There are 51 important centers of Shakti worship located in a variety of locations in the Indian sub-continent, including India, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bangladesh, Tibet, and even Pakistan. These are called Shakti Peethas, and a popular legend explains their origin. At some time in the Satya Yuga, the older god Daksha performed a sacrifice in hopes of taking revenge upon Shiva, who had married his daughter Sati, an earlier incarnation of Parvati, against his wishes. Daksha invited all the gods to enjoy in his sacrifice, save for Shiva and Sati. Furious with her father's unshakable disapproval of her new husband, Sati killed herself. Enraged and mournful, Shiva picked up the remains of Sati's body and carried it over the entirety of the universe, causing various cosmic disturbances along the way. The entire pantheon of gods had to combine their efforts in order to stop this, and in the process Vishnu's disk sliced the corpse of Sati to pieces. The various parts of her body fell at numerous spots all throughout the Indian subcontinent and formed the Peethas as they are known today. Each Peetha is noted for the particular body part or piece of jewellery that fell to earth from Sati's body at the location on which the respective temple is built. Two of the most famous of these temples are the Varanasi temple located at Manikarnika Ghat on banks of the Ganges river in Madhya Pradesh, where her earring is said to have fallen, and the Shiva temple at Shuchitirtham in Tamil Nadu, where the teeth of her upper jaw allegedly landed.
In addition to these 51 Peethas, there are many other temples devoted to various incarnations of Shakti in most of the villages in India. Rural people often believe that Shakti is the protector of their village, who dispenses punitive measures upon evil people, cures wasting diseases, and generally concerns herself with the welfare of the village. Villagers celebrate Shakti festivals at least once a year. The Shakti goddess and her incarnations are especially popular in south India, in the states of Tamil Nadu, Kerala, and Andhra Pradesh, where she is also known as Amma (meaning 'mother'). Some examples of such incarnations popular in these regions are Gangamma, Aarti, Kamakshamma, Kanakadurga, Mahalakshmammma, Meeenakshamma, Poleramma, and Perantalamma.
Shakti, as both a concept of creative cosmic energy, and in the persona of a Goddess, is a figure of immense importance of Hinduism. Shaktism exists today as one of the most popular systems of theistic worship in contemporary India, and represents one of the most enduring example of goddess worship that the world has ever known. The magnitude of the significance afforded to Shakti illustrates the theological reverence for the female within the Hindu tradition, and points toward the fundamental necessity of a female image of the divine in religious experience. Interestingly enough, while the worship of Shakti venerates the power of not only the goddess but also every woman on earth, women within Hindu society still hold a position which is generally disadvantaged.
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