The Great Guru Shankaracharya once went to Kashmir, wanting to engage in debate the followers of the Goddess (Shakti), known as the 'Shaktas.' No sooner had he reached the place than he was rendered immobile by a severe bout of dysentery. So seriously was he affected, that unable to get up from his bed, he for the moment, lost the power to speak.
Soon after, a twelve-year-old girl came near him and whispered in his ears: "O Shankara, do you think you can negate the cult of Shakti?"
Feeling helpless, Shankaracharya said, "Devi, I have come here for this very purpose, but right now I feel devoid of any potency. When I gain enough power to speak, only then will I be able to do so. Without Shakti, I cannot do anything."
The charming girl replied thus: "O revered preceptor, when you yourself cannot move an inch without your Shakti, how will you refute its cult? O Wise One, know me to be Shiva's Shakti - The supreme power activating this world. Charged by my own energy, you want to negate me?"
His mind now at rest, Shankaracharya bowed to the goddess, and left Kashmir as soon as he recovered.
Indeed, so indistinguishable are we from our Shakti that we often tend to take it (her) for granted, with sinister consequences. The Devi Bhagavata Purana, a primary text narrating the goddess, speaks of an episode where the great gods Shiva and Vishnu were attacked by a powerful army of demons. It was only after grappling with them for a long duration that they were able to vanquish the villains. Even though their success was due to their respective powers, they were vain enough to think it to be their individual victory, even going to the extent of boasting of their prowess before their respective Shaktis. The two goddesses, Parvati and Lakshmi, found the whole situation comical and laughed at their naiveté. Thereupon the gods became angry and addressed their spouses rudely. Immediately, the goddesses vanished from their midst.
The Gods Mollify the Goddess
No sooner had this happened than the world was plunged into turmoil. Relieved of their power, the two deities became lusterless and fell into a lifeless, deranged state. It was only after a severe penance was performed that the Great Goddess (Shakti) was pleased enough to restore herself to the two gods, saying: "The insult shown towards my manifestations has led to this calamitous state. Such a crime should never again be committed." Shiva and Vishnu, now devoid of pride, got back their previous natures and were thus enabled to perform their functions as before. (Devi Bhagavata Purana: 7.29.25-45)
Agni - The Sacred Fire
A similar instance occurred when, after the creation of worldly and heavenly beings, the perplexing question remained of the latter's sustenance. While creatures of the earth could partake of the food available there, no provision had still been made for the gods. Brahma, the creator, then decreed that the offerings poured into the sacrificial fires (on the earth), would be the food of gods. Towards this end, they worshipped the Great Goddess, who appeared before them in the form of goddess 'Svaha.'
The assembled deities then addressed her: "O Goddess, Let yourself become the burning power of fire; who is not able to burn anything without thee. At the conclusion of any mantra, whoever taking thy name (Svaha), will pour oblations in the fire, he will cause those offerings to go directly to the gods. Mother, let yourself, the repository of all prosperity, reign over as the lady of his (fire's) house."
Later, Agni, the deity of fire, approached her with some fear, and worshipped her as the Mother of the World. Then, with the chanting of sacred mantras, they were tied in the knots of holy matrimony. From then, it is believed, that whosoever pours libations in the sacrificial fire accompanied by the sacred name 'Svaha,' has all his dreams immediately fulfilled. (Devi Bhagavata Purana: 9.43)
The Kena Upanishad, a major text of Indian philosophy, narrates a profounder story, where the gods, having defeated the demons, puffed up with pride. The Highest God (Sanskrit: Brahman), that formless entity who is beyond any gender, realized their folly and revealed itself before their eyes, to grace them with repentance. However, blinded with the veil of egoism, the gods were unable to understand the vision revealed to them.
Agni Tries to Burn the Twig
The deity of fire was then deputed by the gods to enquire who the divine person in front of their eyes was. When Agni reached the Great Being, the latter asked him as to what power he (fire) possessed. Pat came the reply: "I can burn down the whole world." The manifested Brahman then placed a blade of grass between them and asked him to burn it. Using all his might, fire tried his utmost to set the twig ablaze, but could not do so.
Unable to know the Brahman, he then returned dejected to the waiting gods.
The Wind Attempts to Blow Away the Twig
Next came the god of wind. He too bragged about his ability to carry along anything with his mighty power. Faced with the same miniscule twig, he had to retreat.
It then fell to the lot of Indra, the king of gods, to approach the Great Being. No sooner had he tried to do so, than the latter vanished, and instead appeared in the sky, the beautiful goddess Uma, also known as Parvati. (Kena Upanishad: 3.1-12)
The Highest Shakti (Shrimad Devi Bhagavatam, Book Twelve, Chapter 8)
The Devi Bhagavata Purana describes the physical form of this goddess:
A virgin blooming with fresh youth, the luster of her body was like the rising sun. Shining on her crown was the digit of the moon. She was holding a noose and goad in her two hands and the other two arms displayed the mudras of boon granting (varada) and fearlessness (abhaya) respectively.
Her body, decked with various ornaments, looked auspicious and exceedingly lovely. She was like the wish-fulfilling tree (Kalpa Vriksa). Three-eyed, her face was endowed with the beauty of ten million cupids (Kamadeva).
Her clothing was red and her body was covered with sandal paste. She was the Cause of all causes, and the embodiment of compassion (karuna-murti).
Seeing her, the hairs on Indra's body stood on ends with ecstasy. His eyes were filled with tears of love and deep devotion and he immediately fell prostrate at the feet of the goddess, singing hymns in her praise. (Devi Bhagavata Purana: 12.8.52-60)
The goddess then instructed Indra regarding the essence of the Supreme Reality, stressing that it was the power of Brahman (manifested as herself), which was responsible for victory over the demons, and the gods were but instruments in the grander design.
The Goddess Seats the Trinity in a Golden Chariot
The goddess is however sometimes more assertive in driving home the truth. When the three gods - Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, on eve of the creation of the world, sat perplexed as how to go about it, she appeared before the trio, seated them on a golden chariot and took them on a round of the numerous universes created by her.
The Great Goddess
At one instant, they came upon a strange and beautiful bed, with Lord Shiva forming its mattress. Its four legs were Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva and Dharma respectively. Seated over it was a divine lady, wearing red garments, garlands, and also smeared with sandal paste of the same color. Her eyes were dark-red and the beautiful crimson-lipped lady was lustrous like the rising sun; beautiful like ten million Lakshmis. She had a sweet smile on her face and held in her four hands a noose, goad, and two mudras indicating readiness to grant boons and fearlessness respectively. Never before had the gods seen such a form. All merciful, and in the full bloom of youth, the goddess had blossoming breasts which surpassed even the buds of a lotus (in softness).
Suddenly, the four-armed lady transformed herself, and instead revealed to them a young woman with infinite eyes and limbs. The gods stood transfixed, dazzled by this spectacular vision celebrating the supremacy of Shakti.
The Three Gods, Transformed into Females, Venerate the Goddess
Wishing to pay obeisance to her, the gods then got down from their chariot and approached the goddess. No sooner had they done so than she transformed them all into beautiful, young maidens. When they reached near her smiling form, the goddess looked at the female-gods affectionately, and the latter too stood around her, admiring each other appreciatively. When they bowed at her feet, they beheld in her mere toenails, a reflection of the entire universe.
The Devi is Venerated by Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva
The three then sang hymns in her praise, asking her: "We have forgotten your sacred mantra of creation. To be able to continue the cycle of creation, preservation and destruction, kindly initiate us again into your mystery."
Purusha and Prakriti
To this, the Great Goddess replied:
"There is no difference at all between the Great God (Purusha) and myself. It is only for the sake of the world that we appear as two. In absence of this manifested world, there is neither the male, not female nor androgyne."
Surya - The Powerful Sun
"Nothing in this world is devoid of me. I enter into every substance, and making Purusha the instrument. I do all the actions. I am the coolness of water, the heat of fire, the luster in the sun and also the soothing rays of the moon, which are but manifestations of my power."
"If abandoned by me, this universe becomes motionless. If I leave Shiva, he will not be able to kill demons. A weak man is declared to be without any Shakti, nobody says that he is without Shiva, or without Vishnu. Those who are timid, afraid, or under one's enemies - they are all called Shakti-less; no one says that this man is Shiva-less and so forth."
Shiva and Shakti
"So, the creation that you are about to perform, know Shakti to be the cause thereof. When you will be endowed with that Shakti, you will be able to create the world. Vishnu, Shiva, Indra, Agni, Moon, Sun, Death, and all the other deities are able to do their karmas only when they are united with their respective Shaktis. This earth, when united with Shakti, remains fixed and becomes capable to hold all beings inhabiting it. If it be devoid of this power, it cannot support even an atom." (Devi Bhagavata Purana: 3.6)
She then created from her body the three goddesses - Saraswati, Lakshmi and Parvati, and offered them to Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, entrusting the couples with the functions of creation, preservation and destruction respectively.
Shankhachuda, Before Commencing Battle with Them, Bows Before Shiva, Kali and Karttikeya
An enlightening case is of the demon named Shankhachuda, who defeated in battle even the mighty army of Shiva, which was led by the latter's wife, the great Kali herself and their son Karttikeya.
Puzzled, Shiva reasoned with Vishnu regarding the villain's apparent infallibility. The two deities then came to the conclusion that his invincible Shakti stemmed from the unflinching devotion and chastity of his loving wife Tulsi.
Vishnu, then taking on the form of Shankhachuda, approached the innocent Tulsi, who, mistaking him for her husband, welcomed him into her arms with rapturous joy. Vishnu, the great lord of the world, then shared her bed and engaged in physical union with her. But the chaste wife, finding this time her experience quite different from what she used to enjoy before, argued all the time within herself and at last questioned him: "O Magician! Who are you? By spreading your magic, you have enjoyed me. As you have taken my chastity, I will curse you."
The lord, fearing the curse of a pure woman, assumed his original self. Seeing his divine form, Tulsi fainted. When she regained her consciousness, she cursed Vishnu: "You merciless lord, your heart is hard as a stone, so may you too turn into a stone."
Thus because of this curse does Vishnu manifest himself in the stone known as Shaligrama, found only on the banks of the river Gandaki in Nepal, where, with tiny teeth, millions of insects incise slow rings of torture into his body of stone, carving strange and sacred sculptures. Those of these pieces, that fall into the river, are considered the most auspicious. Hence did the lord take upon himself the anguish of Tulsi on separation from her husband.
Before leaving however, Vishnu did not neglect to bless the virtuous lady, who by her chastity and unblemished character, had acted as the power behind the scenes, protecting her spouse. The lord hailed her saying: "Your hair will transform into sacred trees and as being born of you, they will be known by the name of Tulsi. The whole world will perform their rituals with the leaves and flowers of this Tulsi plant. Therefore, O fair-faced one! You will be reckoned as the chief amongst all vegetation. All the sacred pilgrimages will reside at the bottom of the Tulsi tree, where I and all the other deities will sit, waiting in anticipation to be blessed by a falling leaf."
Offering Water to Tulsi
To this day, this auspicious plant occupies a place of honor in the homes of devotees, as the archetypal symbol of our 'Shakti at home,' venerated by innumerable modern day women, still following the glorious standards laid down by Tulsi.
Truly does say the Devi Bhagavata Purana elaborating on the concept of Shakti:
She is the Heavenly Lakshmi (Swargalakshmi), residing in the heavens, the Royal Lakshmi (Rajalakshmi) in the palaces of kings and in the ordinary families of the world, she is the Household Lakshmi (Grihalakshmi). (9.1.26)
Long ago, there reigned a mighty king named Ila. Once while hunting, he came upon a grove where Shiva was making love with Parvati, and surprise of surprises, Shiva had taken the form of a woman to please her. Everything in the woods, even the trees had become female, and as he approached even King Ila himself was transformed into a woman! Shiva laughed out aloud and told him to ask for any boon except that of masculinity.
Thus says the Shaktisangama Tantra:
Woman is the creator
of the universe,
the universe is her form;
woman is the foundation of the world,
she is the true form of the body.
In woman is the
form of all things,
of all that lives and moves in the world.
There is no jewel rarer than woman,
no condition superior to that of a woman.
No wonder even the most powerful of gods, like Shiva above, crave to enter the feminine form, hoping to acquire at least some of her glorious power.
According to the Devi-Mahatmya:
By you this universe
By you this world is created,
O Devi, by you it is protected.
The earliest term applied to the divine feminine, which still retains its popular usage, is Shakti. The word Shakti is used in a bewildering variety of ways ranging from its use as a way of signifying the ultimate primordial creative power, to expressing the capacity or power of words to convey meaning. Etymologically it is derived from the root 'shak,' meaning potency or the potential to produce, an assertion of Her inherent creative aptitude.
All interpretations of the word 'shakti' hold common one parameter, namely power. Specifically, Shakti means power, force and feminine energy. She represents the fundamental creative instinct underlying the cosmos, and is the energizing force of all divinity, of every being and every thing. Devotees believe the whole universe to be a manifestation of Shakti, who is also known by her general name Devi, from the Sanskrit root 'div' which means to shine.
This feminine power has been given expression in a multitude of female figures as also in abstract representations, both in sculpture and painting.
Primarily, Shakti is depicted in art as one of the following icons:
1). The Yoni (Female
2). An Independent Goddess
3). The Goddess and God Together as a Couple
In a tragic turn of events, Sati, the wife of Shiva ended her life by jumping into flames. She had felt slighted at the insufficient honor accorded to her husband at a ritual sacrifice performed by her father.
Shiva became inconsolable following her death. He retrieved her charred body from the fires, carried her on his back, and wandered across the three worlds performing a mad dance of seething destruction.
Fearful that Shiva in his insatiable yearning may destroy the entire manifested existence, Vishnu in his role as the preserver of the world cut up Sati's body piece by piece to relieve Shiva's burden. Her body was divided into a total of fifty-one fragments. At each of the fifty-one spots where these pieces fell, a pilgrimage center (Shakti-pitha) came into existence.
The most important and significant of these sacred sites remains the place where fell Sati's organ of generation. This place is today identified as Kamakhya in Assam, and a temple was built on the hilltop to mark the spot. It contains no image of the goddess, but in the depths of the shrine there is a yoni (vulva) shaped cleft in the rock, adored as the one belonging to Sati herself. A natural spring within the cave keeps the cleft moist. During July-August after the first burst of the monsoon, a great ceremony called Ambuvachi takes place. At this time of the year, the water runs red with iron oxide, and the ritual drinking of this elixir is symbolic of partaking the menstrual fluid of the Devi.
In the branch of Tantra known as Shaktism, the menstrual taboo is broken down and the menstrual fluid is regarded as sacred and becomes the object of veneration. A menstruating woman is placed in a special category during ritual practice. Her energy at this time is said to be different in quality, and the rhythm that occurs in her body appears to be related in a mysterious way to the processes of nature. In the chakra-puja of the left-hand Tantriks, menstrual fluid may be taken as a ritual drink along with wine, and a special homage is paid to the yoni, touching it with one's lips and anointing it with sandalwood paste. During the whole proceeding, the participant continues to offer libation from a yoni-shaped ritual vessel called the kusi.
Both in physical appearance and metaphysically, the yoni is akin to the lotus flower. Both represent the perfection of beauty and symmetry. The yoni is likened to the lotus in the early stage of its opening and also in its fully open form. In addition, the lotus remains unaffected by the surface of the water where it rests, and its petals also are not soiled by the mud they spring from. Similarly, the yoni too remains perpetually pure and is not soiled by any action. The Tantric Buddhist Goddess Vajrayogini promises her approval and blessings to the man who worships her in this way:
'Aho! I will bestow
On one who ritually worships my lotus,
which is the bearer of all bliss.'
The yoni or female generative organ is thus venerated for its obvious properties of fertility and growth. In addition it is believed to be the seat of concentrated energy (tejas) which gives rise to all creation. In fact the English word for yoni, 'vulva,' has a root meaning signifying a revolving or circular motion, and indeed in occultism the vulva is conceived of as a talismanic vortex, a whirling life force that concentrates a fiery essence.
In the Ramayana when Rama the virtuous prince, set out to fight Ravana the mighty demon, he first invoked the goddess Durga. The villain was eventually killed on the final day of the gruesome battle, which lasted for ten days.
In a continuing, unbroken tradition, this occasion is still celebrated as Durga Puja. The festivities span nine days, culminating on the tenth day in one of the biggest festivals of India, namely Vijaya Dashmi, literally translated as the Tenth Day of Victory. Significantly, in many parts this is an occasion to celebrate military might and a symbolic worship of weapons is still common. What greater paean can be sung to the power and glory of the Goddess? It is the men who go out to war, but before doing so they must invoke Shakti, deified as the Goddess Durga.
The word Durga is made up of 'Dur,' which means difficult, and 'ga,' meaning go against. Thus Durga is the triumphant aspect of Shakti, which brooks no opposition.
In her iconographic representations too, Durga is invariably shown adorned with weapons, poised for battle.
In fact many of the narrative depictions represent her battling a hideous buffalo-demon, though, notwithstanding the essentially gruesome composition, the goddess herself is always shown of a pleasant and charming countenance, a picture of supreme beauty.
According to Shankaracharya:
Who art thou,
O Fairest One! Auspicious One!
You whose hands hold both: delight and pain?
Both: the shade of death and the elixir of immortality,
Are thy grace, O Mother!
The goddess embodies within herself both the creative and destructive principles which are but one and the same. While Durga is the most potent icon to express the aggressive and destructive behavior of Shakti, Lakshmi is the quintessential goddess who proclaims her creative aspect. Without exception Lakshmi is depicted in art as full-breasted (symbolizing her powers of nourishment), and wide-hipped (signifying her fertile, child-bearing capabilities).
It is also for this reason that she is almost always shown in association with the lotus, which forms one of her most important iconographic attributes.
The image of the individual goddess stresses that her divine power is not dependent on her relation to a husband-god, rather that she bears her identity through her own right and might. An apt epithet of Shakti in this context is 'Svatantrya,' meaning independence or freedom, signifying that her existence does not depend on anything extraneous to herself.
In many instances, the goddess is shown coupled with the god, as wife and husband. Like all goddess imagery this too has metaphorical import. Consider for example the most evocative of such depictions: the great goddess Kali dancing over the corpse of her husband Shiva.
This is a statement of the superiority of feminine divinity, and indeed Shiva, addressing the goddess in an ancient text says: 'I, the Lord of all, am a corpse without you,' and Krishna confesses to Radha: 'Without you I am lifeless.' The intention here is not to portray the goddess as a slayer of men but as the power (Shakti) of Shiva, who without her is inert like a corpse.
The Shiva corpse may in fact be interpreted as representing the Tantric adept performing one of his yoga exercises, the 'shavasana,' or posture of the corpse,' in which the yogi lies on his back utterly relaxed in mind and body. All his energies are abandoned and symbolically externalized in the figure of the Shakti dancing above him. The purport being that detached from his feminine side, the yogi is incomplete and as good as dead. This belief is expressed in the words: 'shivah shakti vihinah shavah' 'Shiva deprived of Shakti is a corpse (shava).' This statement recurs in most of the Tantras in one form or another.
To regain his Shakti and return from his trance like state, the power of the goddess must repossess and complete him. This metaphysical process of union is depicted graphically through the act of sexual intercourse. But it is no regular act of making love. Here it is the woman who rides the male. In this inverted sexual position, the female straddles the male and is the prime mover and active power. This reverse act of lovemaking is known in Sanskrit as viparita-rati.
It signifies the feminine urge to create unity from duality and its constant aspiration to unite with the male principle. This is emphasized in the Gandharva Tantra where it is written that 'She who is the sun, moon, and fire, lays down the purusha (male) and enjoys him from above.' She (Shakti) is the active lover of a quiescent Shiva and her union with him is critical for him to be able to assert his divinity and powers. The very first verse of the Tantric text Saundaryalahari states: 'If Shiva is united with his Shakti he is able to exert his powers as a Lord; if not, the god has not even the strength to move.' Indeed, she is the potency that dwells in each of the male gods and the spark that arouses them to action.
In fact She is His Power. If we accept the ancient Hindu precept that divinity resides in each individual, we realize that Shakti is the inherent power that lies in each of us. This is independent of the gender of the individual in question.
Another popular image which shows the goddess as Shakti united with her god is the Shiva linga. This is a composite icon which shows a yoni and a linga (male generative organ), conjoined together.
Though it is commonly believed that the Shiva-linga shows the male organ penetrating the female, an actual physical appraisal points to a contrary direction.
The yoni forms a pedestal and the abstract geometrical shape of the urdhvalinga (erect phallus) rises out of the yoni (womb). The linga does not enter the yoni (as is popularly believed), rather it emerges from the yoni. According to scholar Stella Kramrisch, this fundamental relationship of linga and yoni has been obscured by patriarchal interpretations. Nevertheless, the ever-creative yoni does assert itself, for the goddess as Shakti is the essential creative matrix, underlying all that which exists.
articles by Nitin Kumar (Exotic India