- Shakti is the primordial creative, sustaining and destructive power of all existence. Although con-ceived as female in nature, Shakti is not an indi-vidual goddess, but rather a dynamic quality that all goddesses (and even all women, at least within the SHAKTA TANTRIC tradition) are said to possess. Unbridled, uncontainable, spontaneous, ecstatic, blissful, and fierce, Shakti flows from manifesta-tion to dissolution. She is the power to give forth and to withdraw.The concept of Shakti is an ancient one and has pre-VEDIC, prepatriarchal origins. She is often traced to archaeological discoveries from the INDUS VALLEY CIVILIZATION (3500–1700 B.C.E.) and to other prehistoric cultures throughout western and central Asia. In India the belief and worship of her all-pervading nature were pushed under-ground during the Vedic period. Shakti regains importance in classical and medieval Hinduism, in which in many cases this primordial power is personified as Devi, the GODDESS, and held in even higher regard than the male deities. Epic texts such as the Devi Bhagavata, Devi Purana, Kalika Purana, Markandeya Purana, and Mahabhagavata Purana accept and worship Shakti as the supreme nature of reality.From earliest times the concept of Shakti appears in discussions of fertility as well as in reverence of the divine as mother of nature and cosmos. In the RIG VEDA the term Shakti is not mentioned; however, various goddess manifesta-tions (Ratri, USHAS, ADITI, PRITHIVI, Vac-Sarasvati, goddesses) indicate the presence and influence that would later develop into the central figures of the Shakti cult (KALI, DURGA, Ambika, Uma) that are worshipped today.The later Shakta Upanishads and tantras (see TANTRISM) contain philosophical references to Shakti that equate her with BRAHMAN. In these texts the dynamic, all-pervading nature of brahman and Shakti as the fabric underlying all existence cannot be separated into two. In the Shakta UPA-NISHADS as well as in the later Shakta tantras we find references to Shakti’s independent omnipo-tent nature where the complementary receptive qualities of the masculine force as Shiva are “but a corpse” without her activating power.In the epic RAMAYANA, Shakti does not have the independent cult status that we find in the later epics; however, she is held in high regard. In the MAHABHARATA, Shakti once again regains the agency and importance that are evident in the prepatriarchal traditions. Here we learn of her invincible power as Durga and the Matrikas. She is also referred to as Kalika, Ambika, Bhadrakali, Parvati, Mahadevi, and by other names.Shakti continues to gain importance in the puranic texts, the earliest of which, the Mar-kandeya Purana, with its 13 chapters called the Durga Saptasai and Devi Mahatmya, elaborate the primordial all-pervading power of Devi. Here she is philosophically conceived as pure conscious-ness; the creator, preserver, and destroyer; the one and the many manifestations of supreme divinity. Shakti is both immanent and transcendent, illu-sive and manifest, moving and unmoving. She is knowledge, will, and action behind all existence. Here we find Goddess as the absolute reality, and yet she incarnates from time to time to help the gods to carry out her divine work. She also appears to help her devotees conquer the bonds of human suffering and the limitations of the physi-cal realm in order to achieve liberation.In the Markandeya Purana, the goddess is identified with PRAKRITI, the natural sustaining power of existence. She takes on various roles as mother, nurturer, warrior, lover to experience the LILA (play) of her divine consciousness. In the Devi Bhagavata Purana, Shakti is divided into three forms or qualities of existence: sattva (purity), rajas (passion), tamas (inertia).As Mahasarasvati, Mahalakshmi, Mahakali, the Goddess takes the universe from creation to destruction and back to creation again. The Goddess’s distinct iconographic forms are expres-sions of her multiple nature. She has both benevo-lent and pacific as well as wrathful and terrifying qualities. Her benevolent manifestations include Uma, Gauri, Parvati, Lakshmi, Sarasvati; her ter-rifying ones include Chamunda, Kali, Durga, the Mahavidyas, the Yoginis, and Matrikas.In the Shakta tantras Shakti becomes Para-shakti, the supreme reality who before manifest-ing through the physical world remains in a state of unmanifest repose. In this respect she is ineffable and indescribable. She is worshipped as Mahamaya or Mahadevi in addition to the numer-ous epithets that emphasize the myriad facets of her all-pervading nature.The acknowledgment and worship of the nature of reality as female, as the mobilizing energizing primordial force called Shakti, speaks strongly to the inherently autonomous nature of women. This concept of divinity as female ulti-mately lies in the biological reality of the female body, in particular the power of the womb. Today statues, YANTRAS, and other iconic objects of Shakti worship are not mere representations of Goddess and her ultimate power, but rather embodiments of her Shakti.Further reading: Narendra Nath Bhattacharya, His-tory of the Shakta Religion (New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharial, 1996); Pushpendra Kumar, Shakti Cult in Ancient India (Varanasi: Bhartiya Publishing House, 1974); Ajit Mookerjee, Kali: The Feminine Force (New York: Destiny Books, 1988); Jadunath Sinha, Shakta Monism: The Cult of Shakti (Calcutta: Sinha Publishing House, 1966); Jagdish Narain Tiwari, Goddess Cults in Ancient India (with special reference to the first seven cen-turies A.D.) (Delhi: Sundeep Prakashan, 1985); David Gordon White, Kiss of the Yogini (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2003); Sir John Wood-roffe, Sakti and Sakta: Essays and Addresses (Madras: Ganesh, 1965).
Encyclopedia of Hinduism. A. Jones and James D. Ryan. 2007.