shakti pithas
   Shakti pithas (seats or altars of the SHAKTI) are sites sacred to the divine mother that are embed-ded in the Indian landscape. Legends around these sites can be found in the puranas and tantras (see TANTRISM), however, the stories and number of actual pithas vary; most commonly shakti pithas are located in India, Nepal, Tibet, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.
   The most popular story of how these pithas were created is found in the Puranas and tantras (Devibhagavata, VII, ch. 30; Kalika Purana, XVIII) and dates to the late medieval period. In this later development of a much earlier legend, the god DAKSHA is hosting a YA J N A (fire sacrifice) but does not invite his daughter, SAT I, because she has mar-ried the ascetic god SHIVA, and Daksha does not approve of Shiva’s antisocial qualities.
   When Sati learns that all the other deities have been invited to this ceremony and only she and her husband have been excluded, she is outraged and confronts her father at his temple. Staying true to his socially defiant ways, Shiva shows no concern about this family insult and refuses to go with her.
   Sati arrives alone and confronts her father. According to this version of the myth, Daksha grossly insults both his daughter and her wayward husband. To assuage her grief, Sati throws herself on the fire. She dies but her body does not burn up in the flames. Hearing of the loss of his wife, Shiva becomes mad with grief. Inconsolable, he wanders the Earth carrying his beloved on his shoulder.
   In order to stop Shiva’s dance of destruction and to relieve him of the burden of his grief, the gods BRAHMA and VISHNU decide someone must intervene. Vishnu, the great preserver, follows Shiva and cuts away at Sati’s body. The fallen pieces of her body and limbs create over 50 shakti pithas, which today are worshipped as sites sacred to one of the many manifestations of DEVI such as Kameshvari, Tara, Ambika, and Gauri. A bhairava or fierce form of her beloved Shiva is often associ-ated with each of these sites. These pithas have also been associated with the 51 letters of the Sanskrit alphabet.
   The earliest mythological explanation of the pithas can be found in the RIG VEDA (X.61.5–7). Here we find the earliest association between the sacrifice and desecration of body parts that later is central to the Sati dismemberment myth.
   Other legends tell of four important pithas that are associated with the four cardinal directions. These four sites (Kamarupa, Uddiyana, Jaland-hara, Purnagiri) have been important pilgrimage centers to yoginis and yogis. Some legends speak of seven pithas; others speak of as many as 108 across the subcontinent.
   Clearly these sites point to local cults of wor-ship of the goddess in various manifestations. Today many of these places have become pilgrim-age centers to the goddess as Shakti: Ambika, Parvat, Sati, Durga, Kaliet, and others. The various legends in the tantras and Puranas are later myth-ological explanations for what were originally sacred Goddess sites.
   For millennia the Goddess has been embed-ded in the natural landscape. Lakes, ponds, or pools have been conceived as her yoni; double hills or mountains, her breasts. The pitha asso-ciated with the Goddess’s breasts at Jalandhara-giri, and her yoni or sexual organ at KAMAKHYA remain two of the most frequented and revered sites for contemporary pilgrims. To ancient peo-ples the Earth itself was the divine mother, and the popularity of these sites reflects an attempt of later cultures to integrate these earlier tradi-tions into their worship in order to attract more followers.
   At the pithas the Goddess is usually wor-shipped in an iconic form. Often she is revered as a stone that has been painted red (red is the color of Shakti). Sometimes eyes and other anthropo-morphic features are added. Originally these sites were worshipped under various names of the local tribal deities that later became syncretized into the Brahminic fold of goddesses. This is evident, in part, from the great variations in the lists of shakti pithas and the names connected with them.
   Further reading: K. C. Aryan, The Little Goddesses (Matrikas) (New Delhi: Rekha Prakashan, 1980); D. C. Sircar, The Sakta Pithas (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, 1973).

Encyclopedia of Hinduism. . 2007.

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