Shaktism is a denomination of Hinduism that worships Shakti (or Devi)—the female principle of the divine—in her many forms as the absolute manifestation of divinity. Practitioners of Shaktism (commonly known as Shaktas) conceive the goddess to be the personification of the universe's primordial energy and the source of the cosmos. Along with Shaivism and Vaishnavism, Shaktism is one of the three primary monotheistic devotional schools of contemporary Hinduism. In the details of its philosophy and practice, Shaktism greatly resembles Shaivism, as the god Shiva is commonly considered to be the consort of Shakti.
The magnitude and significance afforded to Shaktism 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.
The roots of Shaktism burrow deep into India's prehistory. The earliest Mother Goddess figurine unearthed in India near Allahabad has been carbon-dated back to the Upper Paleolithic, approximately 20,000 B.C.E. Dating back to that period are also collections of colorful stones marked with natural triangles discovered near Mirzapur in Uttar Pradesh. These resemble stones still worshiped as the goddess by local tribal groups in that region. Thousands of female statuettes dated as early as 5500 B.C.E. have been recovered at Mehrgarh, one of the most important Neolithic sites in world archaeology, and a precursor to the great Indus Valley Civilization, suggesting yet another precursor of Goddess worship in the Indian context.
The later population centers of the Indus Valley Civilization at Harappa and Mohenjo-daro (dated c. 3300 - 1600 B.C.E.) were inhabited by a diverse mix of peoples. The majority came from the adjacent villages to seek the prosperity of the city, and they brought with them their own cults and rituals, including those involving the feminine divine. These cults of the goddess were promptly given an elevated position in the society, and went on to form the basis of Indus Valley religion. While it is impossible to precisely reconstruct the religious beliefs of a civilization so distantly removed in time, based on archaeological and anthropological evidence it has been proposed that this period contains the first seeds of what would become the Shakta religion.
As these rituals developed in the northern reaches of the subcontinent, additional layers of Goddess-centered tradition were expanding outward from the Dravidian civilizations of the south. The cult of the goddess was a major aspect of Dravidian religion, and their female deities eventually came to be identified with Puranic goddesses such as Parvati, Durga or Kali. The cult of the Sapta Matrikas, or the "Seven Divine Mothers," which is an integral part of the Shakta religion, may also have been inspired by the Dravidians.
As the Indus Valley cities were deserted, its peoples mixed with other groups, eventually giving rise to Vedic Civilization (c. 1500 - 600 B.C.E.). This was a decidedly patriarchal society in which female divinity continued to have a place in belief and worship but generally in a subordinate role, often serving principally as consorts to the great gods. Nonetheless, the Great Goddess of the Indus Valley and Dravidian religions still loomed large in the Vedas, taking most notably the mysterious form of Aditi, the "Vedic Mother of the Gods." Aditi is mentioned about 80 times in the Rigveda, and her appellation (meaning "without limits" in Sanskrit) marks what is perhaps the earliest name used to personify the infinite. Vedic descriptions of Aditi are vividly reflected in the countless Lajja Gauri idols – depicting a faceless, lotus-headed goddess in birthing posture – that have been worshiped throughout India for millennia. Here as well the historically recurrent theme of the Devi's all-encompassing, pan-sexual nature explicitly arises for the first time in such declarations as: "Aditi is the sky, Aditi is the air, Aditi is all gods. […] Aditi is the Mother, the Father, and the Son. Aditi is whatever shall be born."
Other goddess forms appearing prominently in the Vedic period include the Usas, the daughters of the sun-god Surya who govern the dawn and are mentioned more than 300 times in no less than 20 hymns. Prithvi, a variation of the archetypal Indo-European Earth Mother form, is also referenced. More significant is the appearance of two of Hinduism's most widely known and beloved goddesses: Vāc, today better known as Sarasvati; and Srī, now better known as Lakshmi in the famous Rigvedic hymn entitled Devi Sukta. Here these goddesses unambiguously declare their divine supremacy, in words still recited by many Hindus each day:
"I am the Sovereign Queen; the treasury of all treasures; the chief of all objects of worship; whose all-pervading Self manifests all gods and goddesses; whose birthplace is in the midst of the causal waters; who in breathing forth gives birth to all created worlds, and yet extends beyond them, so vast am I in greatness."
This suggests that the feminine was indeed venerated as the supreme divine in the Vedic age, even in spite of the generally patriarchal nature of the texts.
The Hindu philosophical scriptures known as the Upanishads, which mark the end of the Vedas, provide the goddesses with little attention. The great Kena Upanishad, however, tells a tale in which the Vedic trinity of Agni, Vayu and Indra, boasting and posturing in the flush of a recent victory, suddenly find themselves bereft of divine power in the presence of a mysterious yaksha, or forest spirit. When Indra tries to approach and identify the yaksha it vanishes, and in its place the goddess appears in the form of a beautiful yakshini. Here she is equated with the monistic essence of the universe:
"It was Uma, the daughter of Himavat. Indra said to her, 'Who was that yaksha?' She replied, 'It is Brahman. It is through the victory of Brahman that you have thus become great.' After that he knew that it was Brahman."
Of the Upanishads listed in the Muktika – the final Upanisad of the Hindu canon of 108 texts, cataloging the preceding 107 – only nine are classified specifically as Shakta Upanisads. They are here listed with their associated Vedas; i.e., the Rigveda (RV), the Black Yajurveda (KYV), and the Atharvaveda (AV):
The canonical Shakta Upanishads are much more recent, mostly dating between the thirteenth and eighteenth centuries. While their archaic Sanskrit usages create the impression that they belong to the ancient past, none of the verses can be traced to a Vedic source. For the most part, these Upanishads are sectarian tracts reflecting doctrinal and interpretative differences between the two principal sects of Srividya upasana (a major Tantric form of Shaktism). As a result, the many extant listings of "authentic" Shakta Upanisads are highly variable in their content, inevitably reflecting the respective sectarian biases of their compilers. For non-Tantrics, the Tantric contents of these texts call into question their identity as actual Upanishads.
Between 400 B.C.E. and 400 C.E. came the age of the Epics, wherein India's two most perennially famous tales, the Mahabharata (c. 400 B.C.E. - 400 C.E.) and the Ramayana (c. 200 B.C.E. - 200 C.E.), came into currency. The Mahabharata is replete with references to Shakta worship, suggesting goddesses of the later Vedas such as Durga, Śrī, and Ambika, whose cults became very popular in subsequent ages, must have been widely worshiped during this time. Although mainstream followers of the Vedic religion did not yet count Shiva and Devi within their pantheon, the tribal basis of the Mother Goddess cult seems to have continued on in the days of the Mahabharata, as it survives even today. The Mahabharata suggests that the goddess resides in the Vindhya mountain Range, where she is worshiped by the hunting peoples, who provided her with offerings that appeased her hunger for wine and meat. However, it is in the Mahabharata's Durga Stotras  that the Devi is first revealed in her true character, comprising numerous local goddesses combined into one all-pervasive goddess. This fascination with the goddess continues a trend following from the later Vedic period down to the age of the Maurya Empire (322-185 B.C.E.) and Shungas Empire (185-73 B.C.E.), in which the cult of the feminine divine grew steadily. In fact, it appears that the original tribal religion of the Maurya kings before their mass conversion to Buddhism was that of the Mother Goddess.
The Ramayana, meanwhile, marked the definitive entry of the titular hero's wife Sita into the Hindu pantheon, where she became one of the most popular goddesses. Her wifely dedication and submissiveness to Rama has been interpreted by many followers of bhakti as the devotional ideal. Aside for Sita, however, no goddess of a supreme, Shakta-like character appears within the narrative.
The great Tamil epic, Silappatikaram (c. 100 C.E.) was one of several other literary masterpieces indicating the popularity of the goddess cult in South India during the period in which it was composed. Once again, the idea is put forth in this epic that the various goddesses represent different aspects of the same supreme power.
The vast body of religious and cultural compilations known as the Puranas, most of which were composed during the Gupta Empire (c. 300 - 600 C.E.), provide not only the authoritative body of Indian mythology, but also laid the bedrock for much of popular Hinduism, including Shaktism. The most important Puranic Shakta text is by far the Devi Mahatmya, found in the Markandeya Purana. Composed c. 400-500 C.E., the text draws upon a variety of older myths and legends pertaining to the goddess and synthesizes them into a unified narrative. This narrative is based upon three male figures: a dispossessed king, a merchant betrayed by his family, and a sage whose teachings lead the king and merchant beyond existential suffering. The sage instructs his charges by recounting three different epic battles between the Devi and various demonic adversaries. Most famous is the story of Mahishasura Mardini, one of the most ubiquitous images in Hindu art and sculpture in which the goddess slays the Buffalo Demon Mahishasura. Among the other important goddess forms introduced by the Devi Mahatmyam into the Sanskritic mainstream are Kali and the Sapta-Matrika ("Seven Mothers"). This work marks the birth of "independent Shaktism," where the Goddess is elevated to the rank of the supreme divinity. Contemporaneously, the cult of Shakti asserted itself as a distinct philosophical and denominational entity which held the female divine to be worthy of worship in and of herself.
Another important development in the worship of the goddess came within the Brahmanda Purana, which features the Lalita Sahasranama. Sahasranamas literally refer to "thousand-name" hymns, which extol the various names, deeds and associations of a given deity. Based upon textual evidence, the Lalita Sahasranama is believed to have been composed in South India between the ninth century and eleventh centuries C.E. The text is closely associated with a section of the Brahmanda Purana entitled Lalitopakhyana ("The Great Narrative of Lalita"), which takes the form of a dialogue between Vishnu's avatar Hayagriva and the great sage Agastya extolling the goddess's physical qualities and mythological exploits. The entire Sahasranama is considered to have high mantric value independent of its content, and certain names or groups of names are prescribed in sadhanas to accomplish particular meditational ends.
The Puranic age also saw the genesis of the Bhakti movement, a series of new religious matrices propounding intense devotion to personal deities. With the dissolution of the Gupta Empire around 700 C.E., religious movements of the South began to exert tremendous influence upon the religiosity of the North, often in the form of personalistic devotion. For instance, "Korravai, the Tamil warrior goddess, came to be identified with Durga, who was kendali, a Tamil word meaning the Divine Principle beyond form and name. Thus, Durga came to represent the supreme divinity for her devotees. Many of the larger southern temples of this period had shrines dedicated to the Sapta Matrika along with many other female divinities, and localized cults dedicated of Village mothers continued to flourish in this region as well. These Southern aspects of goddess worship, when synthesized with the religions of the North, elevated the status of the goddess in the developing bhakti tradition.
The Bhakti movement reached a fever pitch between 1200 and 1700 C.E. One of the more famous texts was the Devi-Bhagavata Purana, an eleventh-century text which retells the tales of the Devi Mahatmya in much greater length and detail, embellishing them with Shakta philosophical reflections, while recasting many classic tales from other schools of Hinduism (particularly Vaishnavism) in a distinctly Shakta light. The Goddess in the Devi-Bhagavata becomes more of a nurturer, comforter, and teacher of her devotees, rather than a vicious warrior. Her supremacy also becomes evident, as she declares:
"I am Manifest Divinity, Unmanifest Divinity, and Transcendent Divinity. I am Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, as well as Sarasvati, Lakshmi and Parvati. I am the Sun and I am the Stars, and I am also the Moon. I am all animals and birds, and I am the outcaste as well, and the thief. I am the low person of dreadful deeds, and the great person of excellent deeds. I am Female, I am Male, and I am Neuter."
The Devi Gita, the final and most famous portion of this vast scripture, quickly rose to prominence as the foremost bhakti-based Shakta work. The Devi Gita is dedicated exclusively to the Devi as Bhuvaneshvari, the benign World-Mother, who is actually considered superior to Shiva." Unlike the majority of the Puranic literature, the Devi Gita itself narrates no wild and bloody battles, but is instead exclusively preoccupied with the Goddess's beauty, wisdom, and the various means by which to worship her. Bhakti enthusiasts, after all, were becoming much less concerned with the goddesses/demon dichotomy of earlier texts in favor of the emotional fervor of worship.  In keeping with this evolving view, the Devi Gita consistently emphasizes love for the goddess regardless of whether or not a devotee is male or female.
Hindus in general, and Shaktas in particular, approach the Devi in a multiplicity of forms. There are thousands of goddess forms, many of them associated with particular temples, geographic entities or even individual villages. The form chosen by a particular Hindu depends on many factors, including family tradition, regional practice, guru lineage, and personal resonance, among others. The multifarious schools and sects of Shaktism offer endless varieties of practices seeking to access the various forms of Shakti; doctrinally and geographically, however, two main forms of Shaktism can be broadly classified. They are the Srikula, or family of Sri (Lakshmi), strongest in South India; and the Kalikula, or family of Kali, which prevails in Northern and Eastern India. The Brahmanical idea of Shakti has also become fused with many local traditions in villages. Village goddesses are often concerned with more sundry matters of rural life, and are thought to punish evil, cure diseases and bring boons and blessings to the people of the township over which they preside.
Among these innumerable manifestations of Shakti, there are a few highly popular goddess forms that are more widely known and worshiped throughout the Hindu world and therefore stand out among others. These principal benevolent goddesses are:
Each of these divinities is highly interconnected with the other goddesses.
Goddess groups, such as the "Nine Durgas" (Navadurga), "Eight Lakshmis" (Ashta-Lakshmi) and "Seven Mothers" (Sapta-Matrika) are also very common in Shaktism. No group, however, better reveals the elemental nature of Shaktism better than the Ten Mahavidyas. These goddesses are sometimes said to be the Shakta counterparts to the Vaishnava Dasavatara ("Ten Avatars of Vishnu"). Shaktas believe that it is through these Mahavidyas that the singular feminine divine is intuited and approached in ten different facets. The Ten Mahavidyas are usually identified as:
Some traditions divide these ten goddesses into two groups: the five "benevolent" Mahavidyas (usually Tripurasundari, Tara, Bhuvaneshvari, Matangi and Kamala) and the (usually Kali, Bhairavi, Chhinnamasta, Dhumavati and Bagalamukhi). The five "benevolent" Mahavidyas are typically associated with the Srikula and the five "fearsome" Mahavidyas to the Kalikula. Such divisions are extremely flexible, however.
One widely misunderstood aspect of Shaktism is its close association in the mainstream mind with Tantra – an ambiguous religious concept that suggests everything from black magic and occult practices in North India, to ritualized sex in the West. Not all forms of Shaktism are Tantric in nature, just as not all forms of Tantra are Shaktic in nature, considering the fact that Tantra is a highly variable and shifting classification, the meaning of which may differ depending on the particular historical moment, cultural milieu, and political context with which it is connected. When the term "Tantra" is used in relation to authentic Hindu Shaktism, it most often refers to a class of ritual manuals, and – more broadly – to an esoteric methodology of Goddess-focused spiritual discipline called sadhana. This involves less controversial elements of Tantra such as mantra, yantra, nyasa, mudra and certain elements of traditional kundalini yoga, all practiced under the guidance of a qualified guru after due initiation (diksha) and oral instruction. Literary history demonstrates that Vedic brahmins have been involved in Shakta Tantrism from its incipient stages of development, that is, from at least the sixth century.
More controversial elements, such as the infamous Five Ms or panchamakara (ritualistic consumption of wine, meat, fish, parched grain and participation in sexual intercourse) are indeed employed under certain circumstances by some Tantric Shakta sects. However, these elements tend to be both grossly sensationalized by commentators who are ill-informed regarding authentic Tantric doctrine and practice. Moreover, even within the Shakta tradition itself there are wide differences of opinion regarding the proper interpretation of the panchamakara (i.e., literal vs. symbolic meanings; use of "substitute" materials, etc.). Some lineages reject them altogether.
Shaktism's focus on the Divine Feminine does not preclude the significance of masculine and neuter visions of divinity. These elements are, however, deemed to be inactive in the absence of Shakti. In Hinduism, Shakti is considered the motivating force behind all action and existence in the phenomenal cosmos. The cosmos itself is Brahman, an unchanging, infinite, immanent and transcendent reality that provides the divine ground of all being. This masculine potentiality is actualized by feminine dynamism, symbolized by Shakti and embodied in the multitudinous goddesses who are ultimately reconciled into one. In religious art, this mutual dependence of Shakti and Brahman is powerfully expressed in the half-male, half-female statue known as Ardhanarisvara or "The lord who is half woman." For such depictions, the female Shakti half is represented by Parvati, and the male Brahman half is represented by her husband Shiva. While most forms of Hinduism interpret this figure to represent the necessary pairing of male and female in order to create life, and hold Shiva to be the dominant member of this dyad (evident from the literal meaning of the name), the Shakta interpretation is somewhat different. The Shakta conception of the Devi is that virtually everything in creation, seen or unseen (and including Shiva), is none other than the goddess. Shaktism holds that the feminine represents the dominant power in the universe over and above that of males. However, both genders must be subsumed within the ultimate if it is to be truly considered supreme. Shakti is not infinitely superior to the male gods; rather, masculine and the feminine are simply aspects of the singular transcendent divine.
Over the course of a worship ceremony (or puja), Shakti is worshipped via the typical means of mantras, mudras, and offerings of sweets and flowers. She is most profoundly worshipped by chanting her bija mantra, which varies depending on which specific goddess is being addressed. As is evident from the many forms of the goddess already discussed, the multifaceted nature of the goddess is of the utmost importance. The recognition of the diversity experienced by humans of the one female divine is central to sakti puja; thus, bhed, division within the one goddess, must be revealed and revered so that the full significance of Durga may be comprehended and everything may be reintegrated into the idea, form, and appearance of the goddess. These many aspects must be adored separately and as a whole, otherwise Shakti will be left unsatisfied.
The particulars of Shakti worship also depend upon location. For example, animal sacrifice is performed in some places in India, including such major sites as Kalighat in Calcutta, West Bengal, where goats are offered on days of Tuesdays and Saturdays. Black male goats are typically sacrificed, as well as male buffaloes during Durga Puja. This practice is a controversial one, and so the brahmin performing the sacrifice is to take precautions so as not to cause pain to the animal, waiting for it to surrender before cutting off its head with a single stroke. The blood is used to bless icons and worshipers, and the meat is cooked and served to the worshipers and poor as prasad. Those who are averse to animal sacrifice, however, will use a pumpkin or melon instead, which has become an increasingly popular and acceptable substitute.
Major annual festivals throughout India dedicated specifically to the goddess include:
There are 51 important centres of Shakti worship sprinkled throughout various countries in the Indian subcontinent, including India, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bangladesh, Tibet and even Pakistan. These are known as Shakti Peethas or "places of strength," and are consecrated specifically to the goddess Shakti. According to legend, at some time in the Satya Yuga king Daksha performed a sacrifice for purposes of exacting revenge upon Lord Shiva. Daksha had become enraged when his daughter Sati had married the unconventional destroyer god against his wishes. Daksha invited the many gods to his sacrifice, with the deliberate exception of his daughter and son-in-law. Sati was unable to bear her father's persistent intolerance toward her husband, and so she committed suicide by jumping onto a pyre. Enraged at the insult and the injury, Shiva interrupted Daksha's sacrifice and cut off his head, replacing it with that of a goat. Still crazed with grief, Shiva picked up the remains of Sati's body and danced recklessly over the entirety of the universe, engendering various cosmic disturbances along the way. The entire pantheon of gods had to combine their efforts in order to stop this dance of destruction, and, in the process, Vishnu's disk (or Sudarshan Chakram) cut the corpse of Sati to ribbons. The various parts of her dissembled corpse fell at several spots all throughout India where the Shakti Peethas stand today.
In accordance with this legend, each Peetha is noted for the particular body part or piece of jewellery that fell to earth at the location upon which the respective temple is built. Among them, 23 are located in the Bengal region. Fourteen of these are located in what is now West Bengal, while seven are in what is now Bangladesh. The modern cities or towns that correspond to these 51 locations can prove to be a matter of dispute, but there are a few that are totally unambiguous, such as Kalighat in Kolkata/Calcutta and Kamakhya in Assam. In addition to these 51 Peethas, there are numerous temples devoted to various incarnations of Shakti in many of the villages in India.
The practice of Shaktism is no longer confined to India, as traditional Shakta temples have sprung up across Southeast Asia, the Americas, Europe, Australia and elsewhere, most of them enthusiastically attended by diasporic Hindus and non-Indians alike. Examples in the United States include the Kali Mandir in Laguna Beach, California, which is modeled after the Indian public temple ideal; and the Sri Rajarajeshwari Peetam, a Srividya Shakta temple in rural Rush, New York. The latter was recently the subject an in-depth academic monograph exploring diaspora Hinduism, including the serious entry and involvement of non-Indians in traditional Hindu religious practice.
Shaktism has also become a focus of some Western spiritual seekers attempting to construct new Goddess-centered faiths. Such groups include Shakti Wicca, which defines itself as "a tradition of eclectic Wicca that draws most of its spiritual inspiration from the Hindu tradition," and Sha'can, self-described as "a tradition based on the tenets of the Craft (commonly referred to as Wicca) and the Shakta path (Goddess-worshipping path of Hindu Tantra)." While these sorts of spiritual hybrids are to be expected in our current age of religious pluralism, such East-West fusions can also raise complex and troubling issues of cultural expropriation.
Shaktism stands alongside Vaishnavism and Shaivism as one of the most prominent branches of devotional Hinduism today. This popularity of Shaktism illustrates the deep reverence for the female principle within the Hindu tradition, marking it as something of an anomaly among the other great religious systems of the world. The subsequent popularity of Shaktism outside of India, not only among diasporic Hindus but also among non-Indians, may be interpreted as a step toward the fundamental necessity of the feminine divine in religious experience. Some have suggested that such goddess worship was at one point not exclusively Hindu, but also a part of Chaldean, Greek and Roman civilizations before the rise of the Abrahamic religions. Thus, Shaktism has maintained an image of the divine feminine that has largely been lost from human religious experience, and has only recently been reclaimed by western feminist theologians.
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