Triveni Journal

1927 | 11,233,916 words

Triveni is a journal dedicated to ancient Indian culture, history, philosophy, art, spirituality, music and all sorts of literature. Triveni was founded at Madras in 1927 and since that time various authors have donated their creativity in the form of articles, covering many aspects of public life....

The Concept of Shakti in Indian Thought

A. Ranganathan

In Sanskrit literature one can go as far as the Vedas for a reference to an exalted aesthetic experience but one could probably choose no better example than the vision of Uma Haimavati in the Kena Upanishad. This experience is perhaps more properly termed noetic than aesthetic. Here we have the invocation of the Devi, the belief in divine inspiration and the awareness of the need for humility before a vision is realised. This supremely beautiful form of the Devi is not of human invention but revealed to Indra as Brahma-Vidya, “Chidroopini”; “in order to awaken him to the truth.” Concerning the interpretation of this concept Shankara observes: “It is quite appropriate that she should be described as supremely beautiful: ‘like one bedecked with gold’, for this saving knowledge (Brahma-Vidya) is the fairest of fair things.” And this concept of Chit-Shakti, inseparable from the Brahman, is described metaphorically as para-Brahma-mahishi (Queen and Consort of the Supreme Brahman) in Shankara’s Soundaryalahari.

The philosophy of Shaktism has three unique features. Its philosophy is strikingly similar to that of Kashmir Shaivism. For the highest reality in both the systems is termed Shiva-Shakti. Again both these systems not only reject the Advaitic doctrine of illusion, but also revolve around the universe of appearance derived from the Ultimate Reality. There is a fundamental difference, however, between Kashmir Shaivism and Shaktism. In the Kashmiri scheme of things, the primal stir of the will to manifest (Spanda) is attributed to Parama Shiva. This relatively greater stress on the creative aspect of Shiva distinguishes it from the other system which accords the primacy to Shakti. As Shakti is Brahma, it is at once Nirguna and Saguna. And to illustrate the form of Saguna Brahman as the active principle energising the universe, in contrast to the absolute Nirguna Brahman, one can cite the great lines at the beginning of Shankara’s Soundaryalahari.

            Shivah shaktya yukto yadi bhavati shaktah prabhavitum
            na ced evam deva na khalu kusalah spanditum api.

Only when united with Shakti does Shiva obtain the power to create. Without Her the Supreme cannot stir.

Another unique feature is its universality. For Uma or Durga, represented as the Shakti of Shiva, is also associated with Lakshmi in the form of Svarupa Shakti or Radha as Hladini Shakti in Vaishnava Theology. It is worth-mentioning here that Shakti in the Vaishnava sense not only constitutes the fundamental attribute of the Supreme Being but also remains in an eternal state of companionship with the Lord. And Saraswati in the form of Brahma-Svarupini is cherished as the Shakti of Brahma. Also the icons of Shakti range from the benign Parvati, the serene Prajnaparamita and Saraswati and the charming Uma to the majestic Durga and the weird and the terrible Chamunda and Kali. Again Shakti in her Mother-form is worshipped in the entire country – Kanya Kumari and Kanchi Kamakshi in Tamil Nadu, Chamundi in Karnataka, Tulaja Bhavani in Maharashtra, Ambaji in Gujarat, Kali in Bengal, Vindhya Varshini in Uttar Pradesh. Jwalamukhi in the Punjab, Kamakhya in Assam and Kshira Bhavani in Kashmir.

The Tantric theory of creation that emerges from the representation of Manidvipa (the Island of Jewels) is consistent with the metaphysics of the Shakta Darshana. The Island, in relation to the surrounding Ocean symbolizing universal consciousness, is viewed as the metaphysical point of view. This point of power is “The Drop” (Bindu) in its Oceanic setting. And Jagad-Amba (the universal mother) who sustains the energy of the Bindu, is represented as the Vimarsa-Shakti signifying deliberation.

Perhaps the most unique feature about the Tantra is the fact that it makes no distinctions as regards worship. The Gautamiya Tantra declares that the Tantra Shastra is for all castes and also for women. Also women are entitled to be Gurus. Indeed the Maha Nirvana Tantra states that if a man were to speak rudely to his wife, he ought to fast for a whole day. However, its essential significance lies in its Sadhana (religious and devotional practices). Interestingly enough, a Tantrik poem (Anandastotra) ridicules the learned chatterers who indulge in futile discussions around the shores of the “Lake of Doubt.” It is appropriately called the Religion of Power. For it is based on a philosophy that does not speculate but experiments with the reservoirs of power which is transfigured in the seventh century Pallava relief of Mahabalipuram entitled “Devi Mahishasuramardini” (The Goddess slaying the Buffalo-demon). The sculptural variations of this theme can be seen at the Rameshwara Cave of Ellora, the Vitadev temple at Bhuvaneshwar and at Singsari in Eastern Java. Again the Tantrik concept of Shakti as an aesthetic category is illustrated in the innumerable Mithuna images at Khajuraho, Bhuvaneshwar and Konarak. Here it symbolizes the continuous flow of energy out of the amatorial figures locked in an eternal embrace of creative unity. As Dr. Stella Kramrisch writes in her Indian Sculpture “The validity of the Mithuna symbol in Indian art is in the visualization of the power which effects the union of the male and female principles.” And in the ultimate analysis, the innumerable sculptural representations of the various Gods and Goddesses, Yoginis (female anchorities), Serpent Goddesses (Naagiuis), Shardulas (mythical lions) and amatory couples reflect the immanence of Shakti in the creative process.

Although God is no more female than male or neuter, the Shakta Darsana is based on the female aspect of Divinity. To borrow a metaphor from the Tamil mystic poet Thayumanuvar, Shakti is like the rays that surround and irradiate the sun of Godhead. Here the focus is on the active aspect of the immanent God as Shakti. While Shiva is regarded as the unchanging consciousness, Shakti symbolizes the changing power manifesting Herself in mind and matter. Naturally, Shiva-Shakti constitutes consciousness and its power. And this philosophy of Shiva-Shakti, arising out of the dual aspects of the one Brahman, can be perceived though its Trinity of Powers (Iccha-Will, Jnana. Knowledge, Kriya- Action). One form of Shakti has been visualized by Sri Aurobindo as towering above the world and linking creation with the unmanifest mystery of the Divine. In another form of Prakriti, which is outlined in the Gita, She creates, contains and supports all human beings. Yet another form of Shakti, as envisaged by Sri Aurobindo, is the role of the mediator between the human personality and the Divine Nature.” “Descending into the Universe”, says Sri Aurobindo*, “She consents to the great sacrifice, puts on the form of ignorance in order that she may lead it to the Light into the forms of Falsehood and Error that She may convert it to Truth. This sacrifice is the holocaust of Prakriti,”

* Sri Aurobjndo: The Mother, Section vi.

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