The Shakti Principle

Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati

In the traditional idea of Shakti we find a blending of two elements, one empirical and the other speculative. On the empirical side the idea of Shakti is associated with cosmogony. It has been the un-contradicted experience of man from the dawn of understanding that there cannot be any origination whatsoever without the union of the two principles of Shiva and Shakti, the Male and Female aspects. The human analogy was naturally extended to the universe as a whole, and thus we came to the concept of the primordial Father and Mother.

In India, from the age of the Indus civilisation of Harappa and Mohanjo-daro down to the present, the Father God is represented by a linga (the male symbol) and the Mother Goddess by the yoni (the female symbol). This conceptual representation of Shiva and Shakti by the linga-yoni is quite common and in many temples the two are worshipped in their symbolic form. In both Hindu and Buddhist literature the lord (male deity) is symbolically represented by a white dot (shveta bindu) thus suggesting the likeness with semen, while the devi (female deity) is symbolically represented by a red dot (rakta bindu) to suggest the analogy with menstrual blood containing the ovum.


From the speculative side it was observed that everything which existed, did so by virtue of its power or powers. So God who exists as the creator, preserver and destroyer of the universe must possess infinite power through which He creates, maintains and destroys. In. fact, His very being presupposes infinite power by virtue of which He himself exists. This belief is a universal one. Tantrics tend to view this power or universal energy as something like a female counterpart of the possessor of the power. Shakti, being conceived as the counterpart of the possessor (Shiva), came to be recognised as the consort of Shiva.

This is responsible for the fact that, not only in the Shakti tradition (believers in Shakti in whatever form as the supreme deity) but in almost all other traditions - the Saivas (believers in Shiva as the supreme) the Sauras (believers in the Sun), the Ganapatyas (believers in Ganesha), and the Vaishnavas (believers in Vishnu) - an important place is occupied by Shakti. There is seldom a god or demi-god for whom a consort is not conceived as an inseparable shakti.

A strong belief in this Shakti has brought about a popular synthesis among philosophies like Sankhya, Vedanta, Vaishnavism and Tantra. Sankhya speaks of 'Purusha' and 'Prakriti' as two independent and ultimate realities whose interaction is a mere attribute resulting from the contact of the two. In the Puranas and other literature. Prakriti is plainly conceived of as being the female counterpart of Purusha, and as such the two realities have been practically identified with the Shakti and Shiva of the Tantras. In a similar manner the principle of Maya (illusion) has been conceived as the Shakti of Brahman, These pairs were later viewed in the form of Vishnu and his Shakti, Lakshmi: of Sita and Ram, and later of Radha and Krishna. Thus, in popular belief, Shiva-Shakti of the Tantras, Purusha-Prakriti of Sankhya, Brahman-Maya of Vedanta, and Vishnu-Lakshmi, Sita-Ram and Radha-Krishna of Vaishnavism, all mean the same.

The philosophy of Shakti is clearly suggested by the two passages in the Brihadaranyak Upanishad (1:4, 1:3) where it is said that in the beginning was the Cosmic Being as the Atman in human form, who could never feel satisfied and content for he was all alone. So he desired a complementary aspect. His being was something like a natural point where the ultimate principles of male and female lay unified as it were in a deep embrace. He divided himself into two, male and female, which formed the first pair, and all the pairs of creation are said to be the replicas of this original pair.

These passages of the Brihadaranyak Upanishad have been used extensively in the Puranas, Tantras and later Buddhist and Vaishnava Sahajiya in which Shakti played an important part. Whatever has been created in this phenomenal process has been created from the union of the two - energy and matter, the consumer and the consumed. They represent the two aspects of the one non-dual truth, one internal and the other external; one illuminating, unchangeable and immortal and the other obstructive, gross and perishable.

Distinct mention of the various powers of God is found in the Swetaswatar Upanishad, in which it is said "'Various powers are heard of this Brahman. It possesses power as knowledge and power as force or activity by virtue of its very nature." (6:8). "Know Maya (the unspeakable mysterious power) as Prakriti and the possessor of the Maya as the Great Lord Maheshwara (a name of Shiva)" (4:10). "He who is one and colourless brings forth various colours through the agency of his various types of powers" (4:1), The possessor of Maya created the universe, and beings are fettered by his Maya.

Vaishnavism and Shaivism

The elaboration of this Shakti-vada is to be found in most of the Puranas, Upa-Puranas, samhitas and mainly in the Tantras, both Hindu and Buddhist. There is no systematic discussion on the philosophy of Shakti in the Puranas, even in the Markandaya Purana, which contains the Chandi, the most important text of the Mother worshippers in India; discussion on Shakti in the Puranas is sporadic and scrappy. The main discussions are found in Tantric literatures. So far as the Hindu tantras are concerned, they seem to have flourished in the two borders of India-Kashmir in the north-western border and Bengal, the easternmost province.

So far as the tantric literature of Bengal is concerned, scholars are disposed to think that none of these texts were composed earlier than the 10th century A.D. The tradition of the tantras in Kashmir seems to be earlier. The well-known Trika school of Kashmir Shaivism seems to have derived many of its ideas from the earlier tantras of Kashmir, some of which have been quoted and referred to in important texts of Shaivism. The Kashmir school of Shaivism most probably flourished between the 9th and 10th century A.D.

Some of the tantric texts must have been composed earlier but it has to be noted that some of the Samhita texts belonging to the Pancharatna school of Vaishnavism (sometimes referred to in the Trika school of Kashmir Shaivism) were composed earlier than the Shaivite texts, and the Ahirabudhya Samhita, belonging to the Pancharatna school, contains a good exposition of the philosophy of Shakti, though of course of Shakti as associated with Vishnu and not Shiva.

It has been said in this text that the ultimate being has two aspects, one of which is the inactive or negative state, where all his creative impulses lie dormant within Him, and the whole universe lies infinitely contracted in. Him as a mere possibility and potency. This negative state may be said to be a state of nothingness. Even in this state there is Shakti, but she remains perfectly absorbed in the Lord, as if in a union of deep embrace. With the urge of the first creative impulse, there comes from within the Lord, a determination (sankalpa), which results in his 'willing'. This 'willing' of the Lord may be recognised as the first vibration of the Shakti - the first cosmic rhythm in the absolutely calm and quiet ocean.

When Shakti first wakes from her absorption in deep embrace, into the first vibration of activity, she acquires something like independence and tends to manifest herself in her triple functions of 'willing' (icchha), 'knowing' (jnana), and 'activity' (kriya), These three functions are symbolised by the inverted triangle, yantra of the Mother Goddess. Sometimes it Is held that Shakti is nothing but a figurative representation of the Lord, for the power cars never be viewed as being a separate entity from the agent that possesses the power.

The rise or awakening of Shakti therefore means the awakening of the Lord from his infinitely contracted state to the state of full-fledged 'I-ness'. Shakti is thus the full 'I-ness' of the Lord. Her nature is infinite bliss. This Shakti can again be viewed in two of her aspects - the internal aspect in which she coexists with and is in the Lord (samavayini shakti), and the external aspect in which she, as Prakriti, and the repository of the three natural qualities, manifests herself as the external universe.

According to the tantric texts of Kashmir also, Shakti inheres in the Ultimate Being as a latent potency of infinite possibilities, as a seed of the future worlds, mobile and immobile. As the Ultimate Being is real and eternal, so is Shakti, who is coexistent with Him. The awakening of Shakti is something like a self-projection of the 'I-ness' of God which is accompanied by an internal process of self creation.

Shiva and Shakti

There are different views on the relation of Shiva and Shakti as propounded in the Puranas and Tantras. One view holds that neither Shiva nor Shakti represents the absolute truth; that the absolute reality is a State of neutrality where Shiva and Shakti remain in a state of perfect union (yamala). This is called the 'samarasya', where all things become one in a unity of blissful realisation. Shiva and Shakti ate two aspects of the one truth - the static and dynamic, the negative and the positive, the abstract and the concrete, the male and the female.

Another view holds Shiva as the Ultimate Being to whom Shakti eternally belongs. Nevertheless, neither Shiva nor Shakti is 'real' without the other. As Shakti cannot be conceived of without Shiva, so also Shiva becomes 'shava' (dead) without Shakti. The two are therefore eternally and inseparably connected.

A third view considers Shakti as the highest truth and Shiva as the best support for Shakti. Shakti is more important as 'the contained', while Shiva is the 'container'. Shakti is the all-creating, all-preserving and all-destroying power of which Shiva is the adhara (base).

In some of the Puranas the male deity, as the Shaktimat (the possessor of Shakti) has been described as the male aspect of the Ultimate Truth which is Shakti. It is from this point of view that the Mother worshippers would give a subsidiary place to Shiva, where the Shakti as Mother is taken to be the highest object of adoration. In this, her sovereign majesty, the Goddess, is sometimes called Lalita Devi from whom the male deity proceeds as a transformation of her own self. Apart from this conception of the Goddess, Lalita often stands as the general Mother Goddess of India. She is called Tripurasundari in the Tantras.

Puranas: Chandi Saptashati

Shakti as the Great Mother and highest truth has found an elaborate exposition in the Devi Mahatmya, (Glory of the Goddess) of the Markandeya Purana, and this portion of the Purana, comprising thirteen chapters, is regarded as the most sacred text of Mother worshippers and is known as Chandi or Durga Saptashati. Here the goddess is seen as Devi and becomes well known later as Durga. The name Durga has been variously interpreted in Puranic and Tantric literature which means she is the Mother Goddess who saves us from all sorts of misery and affliction, from all dangers and difficulties. She is also known as Chandi the fierce goddess as she incarnates whenever occasion demands, for the purpose of destroying the asuras (demons) who may threaten mental peace and the heavenly domain of the divine beings.

Durga is the Mother Goddess whose worship during the Autumn is a most celebrated one. She is also worshipped as Annapurna or Annada (goddess of corn and food). In Autumn she is also worshipped as Jagadhatri (the maintainer of the world). During the Spring she is Vasanti (Goddess of Spring). In some Of the Puranas Devi is said to be worshipped by 108 names in 108 sacred places (in the Matsya Purana, chapter 13, it is said that, though she is all-pervading and underlies all forms, the devotee desirous of attaining perfection should worship her in different places).

In the Devi Kavacha of the Chandi, the Devi as Nawadurga is described as Shailaputri, Brahmacharini, Chandraghanta, Kushmanda Skandamata, Kutyayani, Mahagauri and Siddhidatri. Other forms of Shakti are Chamunda (seated on a corpse), Varahi (on a buffalo), Aindri (on an elephant), Vaishnavi (on the bird Garuda), Maheswari (on a bull), Kaumari (on a peacock), Lakshmi (on a lotus), Ishwar (on a bull) and Brahmi (on a swan). Many of the Shaktis are associated with different godheads, such as Varahi, Shakti of Varaha (the boar-god), Narasimhi of Narasimha (the man-lion god).

Some Shakti forms are also found within the Buddhist tradition. For instance, Tara, a popular Indian goddess, is also a famous Buddhist goddess, while Chhinnamasta may be compared to Vajrayogini of the Buddhists.

The story of Chandi first introduces Shakti as the principle of great illusion (mahamaya) which prevents us from viewing the things of life and the world around us in their true perspective. It creates in the mind a fierce attachment to the world and thus binds us down to a lower plane of existence. But where does the principle of objective illusion originate? It is an aspect of the same divine power which is responsible for the creative process, and which is shaping the universe eternally to its end. It was there as one with the Supreme Being even when the cosmos was not, and it remains there absorbed in the existence of the Supreme Being even after the dissolution, as a potency, a seed of future creative manifestation. It has its sway, not only on all animates but also on the Supreme Being, and in connection with the latter it is called Yogamaya, the maya which is a direct part of the Lord.

Mahamaya, as the Mahashakti, remains absolutely inactive at the time of dissolution and this inactivity of the Shakti lulls the Supreme Being to profound sleep in the ocean of causal potency. She is the Mahakali since she contracts eternal time (kala) within her and from her time proceeds again as an endless flow of creative vibration. It is incorrect to consider this power as being spiritual alone. She is 'The' power - spiritual, mental, intellectual, physiological and biological. Whatever exists is due to Her; whatever works, works due to Her.