Shakti is Power, Energy—the active principle of the universe which is personified as a goddess. Every form of activity—however it be named—proceeds from the primordial Shakti. Shakti pervades the entire universe. It is worshiped as Devi, or the Divine Mother. This worship is popularly known as Shakti Puja; people have been performing Shakti Puja from time immemorial.
It can be seen through the different phenomena of life itself. Durgā Sapta Śati says, ‘yā devī sarvabhūtesu śakti rūpena samsthitā’, meaning "every one of us has the inherent power called Śakti, which is a part and manifestation of Parā Śakti, the Supreme Goddess." The powers of gods came to be known and worshiped by different names and epithets—the Vaisnavī Śaktis like Laksmī, Śrī, Prthivī etcetra, and Śaiva Śaktis like Durgā, Pārvatī, Kālī, and so on. The trinity of Brahmā, Visnu and Śiva work through their Śaktis for the creation, maintenance and annihilation of the world.
The Divine Mother commands as much respect and worship as the other gods and incarnations. There are numerous shrines across the country dedicated to the various forms of the Divine Mother. Feasts and festivities in her honor are an important component of the calendar.
:: Śāktism and the Śākta ::
The worshipers of Shakti are called Śāktas. The Śāktas have their own beliefs, doctrines, tradition, symbols, cult, myths and rituals. These constitute Saktism, the tradition of the Śāktas. According to this tradition, the highest reality is the Divine Mother, the personification of primordial energy, the controller of all forces, the power behind divine and cosmic evolution, and the source of all that exists. Śāktism is based on Vedic mantras and Upanishadic philosophy. It has been propagated by Advaita Vedantins, including prominent ones like Shankara Acharya. According to this tradition, Shakti is identical with Brahman. Shakti and śaktimān (the locus of shakti) are one.
The Puranas mention the prevalence of Śāktism during various historical periods, beginning with Vedic times. But it gained prominence in the epic period.
The origin of Śāktism was spontaneous. It is said to have evolved out of the pre-historic Mother Goddess concept, symbolizing the facts of primitive life. But its development was manifold—not through any one particular channel, but several—like a lot of streams, some big some small, issuing from a single source. The tribal cults of the female deities were woven in the texture of the intellectual and rational scheme of the doctrine upheld by the higher religions.
Śākta literature was written by many great saints, sadhakas, and scholars in different languages in Bengal, Assam, Kashmir, the sub-Himalayan region, and South India. Much of this literature is in Sanskrit, and gives a vivid description of the Śākta religion. It is commonly held that Śāktism is synonymous with Tantra. Tantric ideas profoundly influenced different sects and radically changed their views as well as their practices. But some scholars hold the opinion that Śāktism and Tantra are two separate entities. The term Śākta has a wider import than the appellation Tantric. Also, Śākta literature may be traced back to the Vedas, whereas Tantric literature has a different origin.Dr Winternitz says, ‘When we speak of Tantra, we think primarily of the sacred books of the Śāktas.’ Sri Ramakrishna explains the issue thus: ‘The Śāktas follow the Tantra, and the Vaishnavas the Purāna. There is no harm for the Vaishnavas in speaking publicly of their spiritual practices. But the Śāktas maintain secrecy about theirs. For this reason, it is difficult to understand a Śākta.’
:: The Śākta Philosophy ::
Śākta teachings were originally passed on from teacher to student, or guru to śisya, in an esoteric manner; as a result, these teachings remained uncodified for long. Over the last several centuries, many Śākta sadhakas and scholars have contributed to the progress of the Śākta philosophy. The ‘knowledge portion’ of Tripura-rahasya throws much light on the Śākta philosophy. The Sri-vidya-ratna-sutra, attributed to Acharya Gaudapada, is also a useful Śākta text. Abhinavagupta’s works established Śākta philosophy on a firm foundation. Punyananda’s Kamakala-vilasa is an authoritative work on Śākta philosophy. The best exposition of Śākta philosophy is probably Bhaskararaya’s Setubandha, dated to the eighteenth century. Sir John Woodrofe and his associates elaborately expounded the Śākta philosophy during the first three decades of twentieth century. In 1937, Panchanan Tarkaratna expounded the Brahma Sutra and Isha Upanishad from the Śākta viewpoint. This attempt was furthered by Mahamahopadhyaya Gopinath Kaviraj. Though originally based on Sāmkhya philosophy, Śākta philosophy has been deeply influenced by the non-dualistic school of Vedanta. It however shares its terminology with the other schools of philosophy.
In Śākta philosophy, the ultimate reality is pure Consciousness, known as Samvit. It is an independent entity, and its power is responsible for all activity. It has both static and dynamic aspects: prakāśa and vimarśa. It is both immanent and transcendent. Samvit remains as pure cit-śakti (consciousness power)—also termed Parā-Prakrti—at the time of dissolution of the universe. Shakti manifests itself as avidyā or material prakrti when material entities evolve.
The evolution of the material world from pure Consciousness has been conceived as taking place in three stages—the seed stage, the mixed stage and the final stage.
This evolution involves four categories—Parameshvara, Shakti, Para-nāda, and Parā-bindu. Parameshvara is the Supreme Being with whom Shakti is in inseparable relation. The appearance of Shakti causes an unmanifested sound called Para-nāda which concentrates itself to a point called Parā-bindu. This Parā-bindu evolves into three parts—Aparā-bindu, Bīja, and Aparanāda. The Shiva element dominates in the Aparābindu and the Shakti element in the Bīja. In Aparanāda, Shiva-Shakti are in equilibrium. The sound caused by the division of Parā-bindu is called Śabda Brahman. The inseparable Shakti of the Supreme Being in the modes of icchā (will) and kriyā (functioning) is responsible for these transformations.
Shakti first manifests as icchā, the desire to create. Subsequently, it works through its two aspects: vidyā-śakti and avidyā-śakti or māyā-śakti. Both of these are conscious principles—the former is illuminating consciousness, the latter, veiled consciousness. Māyā-śakti is composed of the three gunas -- sattva, rajas, and tamas. It is therefore known as trigunā-śakti or kāmakalā, and is symbolized by a triangle. The māyā-śakti is the cause of the material world. Maya is not an unconscious principle; it is consciousness veiling itself as the shakti of the Supreme Being. Sri Ramakrishna has explained this with analogy: ‘He whom you address as Brahma[n] is none other than She whom I call Śakti, the Primal Energy’. ‘Thus Brahman and Śakti are identical. If you accept the one, you must accept the other. It is like fire and its power to burn. If you see the fire, you must recognize its power to burn also. You cannot think of fire without its power to burn, nor can you think of the power to burn without fire. You cannot conceive of the sun’s rays without the sun, nor can you conceive of the sun without its rays’ .
Shivachandra Vidyarnava, Gopinath Kaviraj, and John Woodrofe have extensively interpreted the Śākta Philosophy. Narendra Nath Bhattacharya has summed them up succinctly:
The Supreme Being of Shaktism is not a personal God. In its own nature, it is more than that. The Shakta point of view considers the reality of God as the cause of the universe. But it holds that while the effect as effect is the cause modified, the cause as cause remains what it was, what it is, and what it will be. It holds that the Supreme Being is manifested in one of its aspects in an infinity of relations, and though involving all relations within itself, is neither their sum total nor exhausted by them. Shakti, which is its functional aspect, works by negation, contraction, and finitisation. As a Mother Power, she upholds herself into the world and again withdraws the world into herself. The purpose of her worship is to attain unity with her forms and this is the experience of liberation—a state of great bliss (anandaghana). In the natural order of development, Shakti is developed in worldly things but it is controlled by religious sadhana, which both prevents an excess of worldliness and molds the mind and disposition (bhava) into a form which develops the knowledge of dispassion and non-attachment. Sadhana is a means whereby bondage becomes liberation.
By Veda Vig