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Shakti and Shakta by Usha Chatterji (1968)
Source: Studies in Comparative Religion, Vol. 2, No.4. (Autumn 1968) © World Wisdom, Inc.
THE cult of the Mother Goddess is as old as humanity. It is believed that in antiquity the cult extended to all the countries and thrived in all the civilizations from the Nile and Euphrates to the Aegean Sea; “Looking to the east of the Euphrates we see the Dusk Divinity of India, the Adya-Shakti and Maha-Shakti, or Supreme Power of many names as Jagadamba, Mother of the World, which is the Play of Her who is named Lalita,” (Sir John Woodroffe).
In India, the Great Mother has been worshipped from the Himalayan mountains in the north to Cape Comorin in the extreme south; the word Cape Comorin is a corrupted form of Kanya Kumari or Kumari Devi, the Virgin Daughter, as the goddess is often called. The Vedas speak much of the goddesses. Their images are radiant with beauty, power and intelligence. From the Vedas themselves the Shakta Tantras, cult-books of the Goddess, derive their inspiration. In the Rig-Veda the goddess Sarasvati receives much homage: “Pure, Sarasvati, with all her bounties, rich in thoughts, inspires us towards truth, causes in us the required virtues, Sarasvati by her divinity awakens in us consciousness, illumines us in our thoughts.” She is intelligence, science, arts, and all knowledge.
The word shakti comes from the root “shak,” “to be able, to have power”. Any thing, any activity, has power; if the power be not visible, it is latent. This is Adya-Shakti, Primordial Energy, or the force that emanates from everything. Shakti is the kinetic quality of Brahman, the inexpressible Godhead. “Herbert Spencer, the philosopher of modern science, carrying the investigation beyond physical matter, holds, as I have already said, that the universe, whether physical or psychical, whether mind or matter, is a play of force mind, life and matter being each varying aspects of the one cosmic process from the First Cause. This again is an Indian notion.” (Shakta and Shakti, by Sir John Woodruffe). This “force” is Shakti, “The Divine Energy”, as expounded in the Shakta branch of the Hindu religion. It is the “Cosmic Principle,” the “Eternal Being,” symbolised as Jaggadamba or The Mother of the Universe. The world in Sanskrit is known as Jagat which means “the moving thing.” The Hindus believe everything to be in a state of ceaseless activity and perpetual movement.
For the Hindus the word shakti always bears many meanings shakti means “power” and in the highest causal sense is God as Mother; in another aspect, it implies the limitless universes that emanate ceaselessly from Eternal Being. The idea of Shakti, although generally implying the Diety of the Shakta or God as Mother, also equally means the “power” of God as such. “Obeisance to Her, who as Pure Being, Consciousness, Bliss, Power, exists in the form of Time and Space and all that is therein, and who is the radiant Illuminatrix in all beings,” says the Yoginihradaya Tantra.
“Today Western Science speaks of Energy as the physical ultimate of all forms of Matter. So has it been for ages to the Shaktas, as the worshippers of Shakti are called. But they add that such Energy is only a limited manifestation (as Mind and Matter) of the Infinite Supreme Power (Maha-Shakti), of Becoming in “That” (Tat) which is unitary Being (Sat) Itself.” (Shakta and Shakti, by Sir John Woodroffe).
Thus we see that the idea of godhood, for many Hindus, has not been associated with an exclusively masculine image. On the non-manifested plane, beyond godhood, there is Brahman, formless, omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent. But on the manifested plane God takes forms, and He is then addressed as Ishvara, who assumes the forms of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. On the manifested plane, some ascribe a male image to these forms, others see God through the form of a woman; God then becomes Shakti. Shakti, in fact, is the Divine Energy of God; without this energy, God is immutable; Shiva without Mahashakti remains inert.
Every deity we see in the Hindu Pantheon is a partial expression of Ishvara, or of the manifested God, and each deity is always accompanied by His consort, who is Shakti or the goddess. Brahman is beyond; beyond speech, beyond description, beyond qualification. Since It is infinite, our limited human language cannot attempt to describe It. Ishvara, on the dual plane, is personal and accessible to all; although He is not in fact separate from the Absolute Brahman He is realised as non-separable only after spiritual realisation.
Deity or Ishvara is within the pale of human cognisance and description. Shakta is the worshipper, the devotee, the knower of Shakti. Shaktas believe that the real nature of Shakti is beyond speech, description and conception. They identify Shakti with Brahman the Absolute. But just as Ishvara, Being, appears under three principal aspects as Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, so do the manifested multifarious aspects of Shakti correspond to the various goddesses, inasmuch as the Maha-Shakti is manifested in different images.
The aspect of Shiva-cum-Shakti represents the dual concept of being and power. Shiva is the power-holder; He is “being-consciousness bliss” while Shakti is power and becoming. Shiva represents the consciousness aspect of the real; Shakti represents this aspect as mind, life and matter. Shiva is the release or liberation (moksha) aspect of the real, while Shakti is the form of the universe as samsara, the World’s Flow. But before passing through this vast universe of samsara and there acquiring the grace of the Mother, there is no liberation or release for beings. As Shiva-Shakti are in themselves one, similarly moksha and samsara are at root one. Ardhanarishvara, the image of Shiva and Shakti shown as an androgyne figure, illustrates the equality and indispensability of the two. The Indian mind has by this concept consciously or unconsciously defined the status of womanhood. Art and literature abound on this subject. Shiva-Shakti: Shiva symbolises the unchanging aspect of the reality and Shakti its changing aspect. “… God in mother form as the supreme power which creates, sustains and withdraws the universe… God is worshipped as the great Mother, because in this aspect, God is active and produces, nourishes and maintains all…”
The Shakta who worships her lotus feet, the dust of which are millions of universes, knows the power aspect of the immanent Being which is therefore called Shakti. In her static transcendent aspect the Mother or Shakti is of the same nature as Shiva or “the God”. Philosophically speaking, Shiva is the unchanging consciousness and Shakti is its changing power appearing in mind as well as matter. Shiva-Shakti is therefore consciousness-power. The Indian bird which is often referred to in metaphysical doctrines as Hamsa, the Swan, symbolises this same truth: Ham being Shiva and Sah being Shakti, this bird, as it swims in the blissful waters of the mind, symbolises their union. The central idea of the Indian religions is that the universe or cosmos is an order. It is not a chaotic entity, without bindings or relations or rule; therefore one has to be the perfect knower, the Jnanin, in order to swim first in the ocean of life, then in the ocean of bliss.
It is Brahman acting through Its trinity of powers (Ichchha=Will; Jnana=knowledge; Kriya=action) which is really the cause of all. It is out of this conjunction of the three, that the world (Samsara) with its ceaseless flux and influx of births, deaths, transformations and transitions, mutations and reincarnations is drawn in, as it were, at the end of a cycle to reappear in a ceaselessly new creation until liberation is achieved. The cremation ground, which is one of the high places of the Shakti worshipper, is but the symbol of this cosmic dissolution. The Shakta should not only visit it every day but should meditate on its sacred ground and be aware of it constantly in his mind. We have known many Shaktas who after a full day of work in an office would spend their nights at the burning-ghat in meditation.
The image of Mahakali dancing on the sacred soil of the cremation ground over the white breast of Shiva as he lies inert, attended by jackals feeding on a bleeding skull, is not a rosy picture of God. But it is eminently symbolic of the cosmic truth, which does not have to comply with the wishful thinking of mankind.
The goddess under this aspect is called Kali, because she devours kala or Time. Her black flowing hair is time itself. The white bones of the dead are strewn around her; like the scene of the burning ground they symbolise the dissolution of all things. Her own dark form is the Void (Shunya). As Digambari she is naked, but Her nakedness is space itself. “The series of universes appear and disappear with the opening and shutting of Her eyes”. The Mother’s play or this cosmic manifestation is a continual process of creation, maintenance and dissolution, usually symbolised by the Hindu Trinity, Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. She is standing on the white breast of Shiva, because Shiva is the transcendental aspect of consciousness. “She and He are the twin aspects of the same.” The garland of skulls hanging around her neck (varnamala), fifty-one in number, according to some Shaktas represent the letters of the Sanskrit alphabet; according to other devotees they signify supreme knowledge. In a general way these letters symbolise the universe of names and forms (namarupa).
Shakti or power of spirit is considered as pure consciousness; by constant evocation in us of that idea we ultimately release ourselves from the bonds of matter. Prakriti, which is the ground of Maya-Shakti, is veiled. In order to pierce through this thick layer of illusion or to pass beyond Maya, we have to identify ourselves with Supreme Spirit or Shakti, the pursuit of which is the path of light. This is the central inspiration in all the Hindu sects, or in religions emanating from Hinduism.
The desire of the universe creates the endless chain of life, like an endless silver tissue of illusions; but the moment the sword of knowledge is unsheathed the tissue is cut through. The darkness of Maya, as emanated by Maya-Shakti, is temporary, yet it will last as long as the knowledge of the Divine Mother is denied by ignorance (avidya); nevertheless those in quest of that supreme knowledge of the Mother are never denied the attainment of knowledge. At the Shakta’s invocation, Shakti from her impersonal aspect becomes personal; as Ishta-Devata she initiates the Shakta and shows him that it is within himself that the realm of pure consciousness is to be found. Then Shakta and Shakti become one; but, until then, it is a hard, long battle, for the “ego” is difficult to efface. It is this “ego” of the Shakta which deludes him on all the erroneous paths, thus causing him ceaseless sufferings as well as temporary pleasures, through its arousing of greed, desire, pain, deaths and births; victory over the “ego” is the immersion of the Shakta in the Shakti.
Maya-Shakti is an attribution of Shakti by which She projects her creation, her infinitely varied creation of which there is no beginning and no end—except in the cosmic dissolutions, which are periodic. The outward garb of Shakti is the phenomenal world, her projected creation is like a dream, as the Vedanta describes it. Shakespeare spoke truly when he said that “we are such stuff as dreams are made of.” Shakti procreates out of her will the Cosmos, which she absorbs and dissolves in the regular cosmic dissolution. The whole of life, visible or invisible, is the underlying substance of being in-itself.
Maha-Kali or Maha-Shakti or the Great Mother is that life.
Sir John Woodroffe says “The whole world is a living manifestation of the source of all life which is Absolute Being. It is sometimes made a reproach against Hinduism that it knows not a “living god”. What is meant I cannot say. For it is certain that it does not worship a “dead god,” whatever such may be. Perhaps by “living” is meant “personal”. If so, the charge is ill-founded. Ishvara and Ishvari are rulers in whom all personalities and personality itself are. But in their ground they are beyond all manifestation or that limitation which personality, as we understand it, involves. Man, the animal and the plant alone, it is true, exhibit certain phenomena we have commonly called “living”. But it does not follow that what does not exhibit the phenomena which belong to our definition of life is itself altogether “dead”. Life cannot emerge from the “dead”. Life comes from life. Where the visible ends or the invisible begins, where the plant life, vegetable and animal life begins and ends, there is really no clear line of demarcation. This entire gamut of existence is referred to Maha-Shakti or Maha-Maya. The Great Mother creates her own dreams, absorbs, re-creates continuously.”
Shakti or Maha-Maya manifests Herself in all forms of life or matter and non-matter. In plant life, for instance, she manifests Herself. All ancient Hindu documents talk of the sensibility both of plants and minerals. Udayana said that plants have a dormant consciousness. Chakrapani affirmed also that plants possess a kind of “comatose consciousness”; whatever degree of sensation might separate the lowest animal from the highest of vegetable or plant-life, the matter is uniquely one of degrees. Even Manu mentions the pleasure and pain of plant-life. These ancient Hindu notions of “all-pervading life” come from the idea of a Cosmic Principle, underlying everything. In the epic of Mahabharata the sage Bhrigu tells the sage Bharadwaj that plants possess various kinds of senses as they react to sounds, heat, vision, smells and taste. So, we see what universal qualities were vested in these ancient Indian sages.
The Great Mother creates, destroys, transforms constantly. The man who has realised the divine soul he is carrying within himself must do everything in his power to break the shackles of illusion. He must liberate himself by meditating on the Mother, in order to lose his identity as atma (soul) in Paramatman (Supreme Spirit).
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