- The term Shakta refers both to the practitio-ner/devotee and to the faith, a female-centered religious tradition that evolved out of prehistoric Mother Goddess worship found in civilizations across the globe. The word Shakta derives from the divine feminine power or SHAKTI and indicates a worshipper of the Goddess primarily. Evidence of this Earth-based and female-centered tradition on the Indian subcontinent dates back perhaps as early as the INDUS VALLEY CIVILIZATION (3500 B.C.E.–1500 B.C.E.), where numerous Harrapan seals portraying female figures associated with vegetative symbolism have been found.The pre-Vedic Hindu tradition, with its God-dess-centered worldview, is often traced to the art and archaeological remains of the Harrapan and Mohenjo-daro civilizations. Although the point is contested, many scholars believe these findings definitively point to an early Earth-based, female/goddess-centered religious tradition.Evidence for this tradition is clear as early as the fourth century, although Shakta itself is a relatively late post–eighth century term applied to those cults, scripture, or persons associated with the worship of the Goddess as Shakti. Before this time the term used for this type of Goddess worship was kula or kaula, a word also used to refer to clans of a female lineage, as well as to menstrual and female sexual fluids. It seems that this belief system whether called Kaula or Shakta, centered on the Goddess and her YONI, or sexual organ, as the primordial force of Earth and cosmos.A Shakta views the female principle as the ani-mating, dynamic force behind all existence while the male principle, especially in the later medieval tantric traditions, is considered to be the quies-cent, receptive force. In the Shakta tantric world-view, the masculine principle is a complementary force to the all-pervading female power. “Shiva without Shakti is but a corpse, it is said.”Central to Shakta theology is recognition of the interrelationships among the agricultural, lunar, and female reproductive cycles. All of existence is conceived as the power, wisdom, knowledge, and action of a Great Goddess. Shak-tas perform magical rites in order to ensure the continuation of both humans’ and Earth’s fertil-ity. Stones, trees, water, and iconic and aniconic images all are worshipped as embodiments of Shakti or the power of Goddess. Ritual practices also focus on placating deities in order to prevent natural disasters and illness. To a Shakta, the mys-teries of death as well as birth are considered the Goddess’s domain, stemming from the belief that we all originate from and will eventually return to the great Mother Goddess.From earliest times Shaktas have worshipped deities in multiple as well as singular form; they believe that the collectives are ultimately just dif-ferent aspects or manifestations of the supreme Goddess herself. These deities have strong asso-ciations with the natural and human landscape: trees, mountains, hills, bodies of water, and the female body—in particular the sex organs and sexual fluids. Yakshis and YAKSHAS (tree and nature spirits), Grahanis, Matrikas, and Yoginis (goddesses and semigoddesses who are always depicted with animal totems/vehicles) embody both benevolent and malevolent qualities. These deities are connected to the threshold experiences of women’s existence: childbirth, menstruation, sex, illness, and death.Devotees share the belief in the great goddess, Mahadevi, who assumes many forms to defeat any forces that are threatening the natural equi-librium of the Earth and cosmos. Each of these forms carries benevolent as well as malevolent qualities and all have crucial roles in the birth, fruition, preservation, and inevitable destruction of existence.Within the Brahminic fold, Shaktas today wor-ship goddesses such as PARVATI, Gauri, Ganga, LAK-SHMI, SARASVATI, and Uma for their pacific natures. At the same time the wrathful, often destructive goddesses such as DURGA, KALI, CHAMUNDA, and the Matrikas and Yoginis are propitiated, revered, and especially held in awe.Within the Shakta worldview all women are regarded as inherently divine. The ebb and flow of women’s menstrual cycles in accordance with the 28-day lunar cycle are important to this tra-dition. The potency of kula, menstrual blood or other female fluids, plays a central role in rites and practices. The blood is revered for its vibrational potency and is offered to deities such as Kali, Durga, and the Matrikas as a means to pacify as well as worship.Although in orthodox practices animal sac-rifice has in some cases apparently replaced menstrual blood offerings, no female animals are offered to the deities. In many of the tantra texts relevant to this tradition, one finds descriptions of women that honor and revere their female nature; for example: “Women are divinity, women are vital breath. Women are goddess, women are life. Be ever among women in thought.” This is the nature of a Shakta. Contrary to the later Brahminic traditions’ immaterial conception of the universe as BRAHMAN, the Shakta views the divinity as both immanent and transcendent.Further reading: Narendra Nath Bhattacharya, History of the Shakta Religion (New Delhi: Munshiram Mano-harial, 1996); ———, History of the Tantric Religion (New Delhi: Manohar, 1999); Vidya Dehejia, Yogini Cult and Temples: A Tantric Tradition (New Delhi: National Museum, 1986); Jadunath Sinha, Shakta Monism: The Cult of Shakti (Calcutta: Sinha Publishing House, 1966); David Gordon White, Kiss of the Yogini (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2003); Sir John Woodroffe, Sakti and Sakta: Essays and Addresses (Madras: Ganesh, 1965).
Encyclopedia of Hinduism. A. Jones and James D. Ryan. 2007.