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Shakti - Power and Femininity in Indian Art
Article of the Month - March 2003 by Nitin Kumar Email the author

Long ago, there reigned a mighty king named Ila. Once while hunting, he came upon a grove where Shiva was making love with Parvati, and surprise of surprises, Shiva had taken the form of a woman to please her. Everything in the woods, even the trees had become female, and as he approached even King Ila himself was transformed into a woman! Shiva laughed out aloud and told him to ask for any boon except that of masculinity.

Thus says the Shaktisangama Tantra:

Woman is the creator of the universe,
the universe is her form;
woman is the foundation of the world,
she is the true form of the body.

In woman is the form of all things,
of all that lives and moves in the world.
There is no jewel rarer than woman,
no condition superior to that of a woman.

No wonder even the most powerful of gods, like Shiva above, crave to enter the feminine form, hoping to acquire at least some of her glorious power.

According to the Devi-Mahatmya:

By you this universe is borne,
By you this world is created,
O Devi, by you it is protected.

The earliest term applied to the divine feminine, which still retains its popular usage, is Shakti. The word Shakti is used in a bewildering variety of ways ranging from its use as a way of signifying the ultimate primordial creative power, to expressing the capacity or power of words to convey meaning. Etymologically it is derived from the root 'shak,' meaning potency or the potential to produce, an assertion of Her inherent creative aptitude.

All interpretations of the word 'shakti' hold common one parameter, namely power. Specifically, Shakti means power, force and feminine energy. She represents the fundamental creative instinct underlying the cosmos, and is the energizing force of all divinity, of every being and every thing. Devotees believe the whole universe to be a manifestation of Shakti, who is also known by her general name Devi, from the Sanskrit root 'div' which means to shine.

This feminine power has been given expression in a multitude of female figures as also in abstract representations, both in sculpture and painting.

Primarily, Shakti is depicted in art as one of the following icons:

1). The Yoni (Female Generative Organ)
2). An Independent Goddess
3). The Goddess and God Together as a Couple

The Yoni

Shiva Carries Sati's CorpseIn a tragic turn of events, Sati, the wife of Shiva ended her life by jumping into flames. She had felt slighted at the insufficient honor accorded to her husband at a ritual sacrifice performed by her father.

Shiva became inconsolable following her death. He retrieved her charred body from the fires, carried her on his back, and wandered across the three worlds performing a mad dance of seething destruction.

Fearful that Shiva in his insatiable yearning may destroy the entire manifested existence, Vishnu in his role as the preserver of the world cut up Sati's body piece by piece to relieve Shiva's burden. Her body was divided into a total of fifty-one fragments. At each of the fifty-one spots where these pieces fell, a pilgrimage center (Shakti-pitha) came into existence.

The most important and significant of these sacred sites remains the place where fell Sati's organ of generation. This place is today identified as Kamakhya in Assam, and a temple was built on the hilltop to mark the spot. It contains no image of the goddess, but in the depths of the shrine there is a yoni (vulva) shaped cleft in the rock, adored as the one belonging to Sati herself. A natural spring within the cave keeps the cleft moist. During July-August after the first burst of the monsoon, a great ceremony called Ambuvachi takes place. At this time of the year, the water runs red with iron oxide, and the ritual drinking of this elixir is symbolic of partaking the menstrual fluid of the Devi.




In the branch of Tantra known as Shaktism, the menstrual taboo is broken down and the menstrual fluid is regarded as sacred and becomes the object of veneration. A menstruating woman is placed in a special category during ritual practice. Her energy at this time is said to be different in quality, and the rhythm that occurs in her body appears to be related in a mysterious way to the processes of nature. In the chakra-puja of the left-hand Tantriks, menstrual fluid may be taken as a ritual drink along with wine, and a special homage is paid to the yoni, touching it with one's lips and anointing it with sandalwood paste. During the whole proceeding, the participant continues to offer libation from a yoni-shaped ritual vessel called the kusi.




VajrayoginiBoth in physical appearance and metaphysically, the yoni is akin to the lotus flower. Both represent the perfection of beauty and symmetry. The yoni is likened to the lotus in the early stage of its opening and also in its fully open form. In addition, the lotus remains unaffected by the surface of the water where it rests, and its petals also are not soiled by the mud they spring from. Similarly, the yoni too remains perpetually pure and is not soiled by any action. The Tantric Buddhist Goddess Vajrayogini promises her approval and blessings to the man who worships her in this way:

'Aho! I will bestow supreme success
On one who ritually worships my lotus,
which is the bearer of all bliss.'

The yoni or female generative organ is thus venerated for its obvious properties of fertility and growth. In addition it is believed to be the seat of concentrated energy (tejas) which gives rise to all creation. In fact the English word for yoni, 'vulva,' has a root meaning signifying a revolving or circular motion, and indeed in occultism the vulva is conceived of as a talismanic vortex, a whirling life force that concentrates a fiery essence.

The Independent Image of the Goddess

Ravana VadhIn the Ramayana when Rama the virtuous prince, set out to fight Ravana the mighty demon, he first invoked the goddess Durga. The villain was eventually killed on the final day of the gruesome battle, which lasted for ten days.

In a continuing, unbroken tradition, this occasion is still celebrated as Durga Puja. The festivities span nine days, culminating on the tenth day in one of the biggest festivals of India, namely Vijaya Dashmi, literally translated as the Tenth Day of Victory. Significantly, in many parts this is an occasion to celebrate military might and a symbolic worship of weapons is still common. What greater paean can be sung to the power and glory of the Goddess? It is the men who go out to war, but before doing so they must invoke Shakti, deified as the Goddess Durga.

The word Durga is made up of 'Dur,' which means difficult, and 'ga,' meaning go against. Thus Durga is the triumphant aspect of Shakti, which brooks no opposition.

Maa Durga






In her iconographic representations too, Durga is invariably shown adorned with weapons, poised for battle.






Durga and the Untamability of Nature



In fact many of the narrative depictions represent her battling a hideous buffalo-demon, though, notwithstanding the essentially gruesome composition, the goddess herself is always shown of a pleasant and charming countenance, a picture of supreme beauty.






According to Shankaracharya:

Who art thou, O Fairest One! Auspicious One!
You whose hands hold both: delight and pain?
Both: the shade of death and the elixir of immortality,
Are thy grace, O Mother!

Goddess Lakshmi




The goddess embodies within herself both the creative and destructive principles which are but one and the same. While Durga is the most potent icon to express the aggressive and destructive behavior of Shakti, Lakshmi is the quintessential goddess who proclaims her creative aspect. Without exception Lakshmi is depicted in art as full-breasted (symbolizing her powers of nourishment), and wide-hipped (signifying her fertile, child-bearing capabilities).




The Lotus Goddess of the Cosmic Sea



It is also for this reason that she is almost always shown in association with the lotus, which forms one of her most important iconographic attributes.

The image of the individual goddess stresses that her divine power is not dependent on her relation to a husband-god, rather that she bears her identity through her own right and might. An apt epithet of Shakti in this context is 'Svatantrya,' meaning independence or freedom, signifying that her existence does not depend on anything extraneous to herself.




The Goddess and the God

MahakaliIn many instances, the goddess is shown coupled with the god, as wife and husband. Like all goddess imagery this too has metaphorical import. Consider for example the most evocative of such depictions: the great goddess Kali dancing over the corpse of her husband Shiva.

This is a statement of the superiority of feminine divinity, and indeed Shiva, addressing the goddess in an ancient text says: 'I, the Lord of all, am a corpse without you,' and Krishna confesses to Radha: 'Without you I am lifeless.' The intention here is not to portray the goddess as a slayer of men but as the power (Shakti) of Shiva, who without her is inert like a corpse.

The Shiva corpse may in fact be interpreted as representing the Tantric adept performing one of his yoga exercises, the 'shavasana,' or posture of the corpse,' in which the yogi lies on his back utterly relaxed in mind and body. All his energies are abandoned and symbolically externalized in the figure of the Shakti dancing above him. The purport being that detached from his feminine side, the yogi is incomplete and as good as dead. This belief is expressed in the words: 'shivah shakti vihinah shavah' 'Shiva deprived of Shakti is a corpse (shava).' This statement recurs in most of the Tantras in one form or another.

Devi with Sword and Severed HeadTo regain his Shakti and return from his trance like state, the power of the goddess must repossess and complete him. This metaphysical process of union is depicted graphically through the act of sexual intercourse. But it is no regular act of making love. Here it is the woman who rides the male. In this inverted sexual position, the female straddles the male and is the prime mover and active power. This reverse act of lovemaking is known in Sanskrit as viparita-rati.

It signifies the feminine urge to create unity from duality and its constant aspiration to unite with the male principle. This is emphasized in the Gandharva Tantra where it is written that 'She who is the sun, moon, and fire, lays down the purusha (male) and enjoys him from above.' She (Shakti) is the active lover of a quiescent Shiva and her union with him is critical for him to be able to assert his divinity and powers. The very first verse of the Tantric text Saundaryalahari states: 'If Shiva is united with his Shakti he is able to exert his powers as a Lord; if not, the god has not even the strength to move.' Indeed, she is the potency that dwells in each of the male gods and the spark that arouses them to action.

In fact She is His Power. If we accept the ancient Hindu precept that divinity resides in each individual, we realize that Shakti is the inherent power that lies in each of us. This is independent of the gender of the individual in question.

A Resource for Obtaining a Husband like Lord Shiva




Another popular image which shows the goddess as Shakti united with her god is the Shiva linga. This is a composite icon which shows a yoni and a linga (male generative organ), conjoined together.






Shiva Ling


Though it is commonly believed that the Shiva-linga shows the male organ penetrating the female, an actual physical appraisal points to a contrary direction.

The yoni forms a pedestal and the abstract geometrical shape of the urdhvalinga (erect phallus) rises out of the yoni (womb). The linga does not enter the yoni (as is popularly believed), rather it emerges from the yoni. According to scholar Stella Kramrisch, this fundamental relationship of linga and yoni has been obscured by patriarchal interpretations. Nevertheless, the ever-creative yoni does assert itself, for the goddess as Shakti is the essential creative matrix, underlying all that which exists.


References and Further Reading

  • Elgood, Heather. Hinduism and the Religious Arts: London, 1999.
  • Maxwell, T.S. The Gods of Asia (Image, Text, and Meaning): New Delhi, 1997.
  • Mookerjee, Ajit. Kali (The Feminine Force): London, 1995.
  • Shaw, Miranda. Passionate Enlightenment (Women in Tantric Buddhism): New Delhi, 1998.
  • Subramanian, V.K. Saundaryalahari of Shankracharya: Delhi, 2001.
  • Tigunait, Pandit Rajmani. Sakti The Power in Tantra: Pennsylvania, 1998.
  • Zimmer, Heinrich. Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization: Delhi, 1990.

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Article Reviews

  • Very, very good article and information.
    - worship
    13th Apr 2009
  • Iam very excited to know more about the worship of shakti`s lotus to gain bliss and fullfillment. Hope you will write more about it and looking forward for your wonderfull knowledge you gave us. Thank you so much for giving us this secret knowledge.
    - suresh (
    11th Apr 2009
  • This is the best information I had so far in Goddess Shakti worship.I hope you will write more on about the worship of her lotus and its benefits that we will get by doing it.Thank you so much for your very daring information.
    - Kamana
    5th Jun 2008
  • You established a parallel between bride burning and the Western crime of husbands killing wives for insurance money, if this comparison is valid then we should to be able to establish a similar parallel for the case of western women killing their husbands for insurance money. So what are the Indian circumstances for a woman killing her husband. All in fun -- Doug

    For a more general question who/what was Shaakti's father?
    - doug
    12th Jan 2008
  • Excellent, excellent article. I am glad you straightened out the misinterpretation of the shivaling. My mother was appauled at what westerners believed it meant.

    on a side note though - Adavita - as someone who has lived as much in the west as in india, and whose ancester commited sati and is STILL glorified because of it, you seem to be rather on the defensive. There is much HARD evidence that proves India is still very patriarchal and this cannot be continually blamed on western or islamic invasion. Yes, there are many successful females in India, yet there are many many more gender TARGETGED attrocities than in the western world against their own women. For a starting point, check the latest population statistics/ ratio of women:men in India. The west is also patriarchal, but it makes itself look good by comparing to India.
    - Maya
    9th Apr 2007
  • This was a good article on Shakti. I believe a lot of Tantric sexuality that we read about crept into the main literature at a later stage. One needs to go for the main message. Rest does not matter.
    Some people in this board are talking about Sati. Sati is illegal in India and is a rare occurrence. That is why when Roop Kanwar of Rajasthan committed Sati, it made her into a media celebrity. She has a cult following there.
    I live in US and i have seen what free-sex and the so called "love marriages" have done to couples.
    Arranged marriages in India in the past were supposed to be meeting of souls and go beyond just physical union. Anyone saying such union is loveless needs to have his/her head examined. Every second marriage in US is a failure. So, what is happening to these "union of love"? Why are they failing?
    - rsridhar
    14th Jun 2003
  • Thank you for this, I didn't know any of it and I've enjoyed learning about it.

    Could I ask about the pantheon though, as, like I said, I really am ignorant on the Hindu gods? Shiva, I'm assuming, is the Father God, akin to Jupiter or Odin; who would be his main consort, if there is such a goddess? Would this be Shakti, in feminine form, Herself?

    Devotees believe the whole universe to be a manifestation of Shakti, who is also known by her general name Devi, from the Sanskrit root 'div' which means to shine.

    :-o This has also got to be the root meaning of the word 'divine'! Cool! I love finding out things like this! :-o I've just sussed that Diva also has that root! The -a suffix in Celtic terms can mean 'priestess', though 'anna' or 'ana' more often means so.

    In fact many of the narrative depictions represent her battling a hideous buffalo-demon, though, notwithstanding the essentially gruesome composition, the goddess herself is always shown of a pleasant and charming countenance, a picture of supreme beauty.

    I thought that this was an interesting and more truthful representation of the Crone aspect. I wish Western sources were as honest about it. Here we need more to be led by the hand and mollycoddled into understanding the Crone, by the majority of our representations having her as an aged woman.

    The image of the individual goddess stresses that her divine power is not dependent on her relation to a husband-god, rather that she bears her identity through her own right and might. An apt epithet of Shakti in this context is 'Svatantrya,' meaning independence or freedom, signifying that her existence does not depend on anything extraneous to herself.

    So here She is the Virgin aspect, in its original meaning.

    This is a statement of the superiority of feminine divinity, and indeed Shiva, addressing the goddess in an ancient text says: 'I, the Lord of all, am a corpse without you,' and Krishna confesses to Radha: 'Without you I am lifeless.' The intention here is not to portray the goddess as a slayer of men but as the power (Shakti) of Shiva, who without her is inert like a corpse.

    Which is also reminiscent of Cerridwyn empowering Taliesin, in the Welsh mythology; and all the other stories where the God dies and is resurrected by the Goddess, in whatever form they are taking.

    Though it is commonly believed that the Shiva-linga shows the male organ penetrating the female, an actual physical appraisal points to a contrary direction.

    You know, I've never thought of it in this way - with the woman acting as the male's pedestal. I like that one!
    - Mab
    4th Jun 2003
  • oh nearly forgot ian :" tragic decriminalisation of sati in modern india" huh?! what's your source for that particular howler your local evangelical gazette????
    take some advice from the bible and worry about the beam in your own eye.
    - advaita
    17th May 2003
  • i find the analysis and input of ian and aryan rather bemusing . the repeated assertion that sati is still practised in india largely stems from an archaic but still powerful and well attitude in the west that exoticises indic beliefs as irrational and immoral . i believe this to be the direct consequence of having been ,in their own belief, "the chosen people of god" in an earlier incarnation . that is to say all western tradition stems directly or indirectly from judeo-christianity or has been reshaped from an earlier pagan belief by these channels of civillizational flow. this is the reason you will find these beliefs about india still held inspite of direct proof ot the contrary . one instance of sati in fifty years is enough to mark hinduism while an absolute array of atrocities commited in even the last decade in the name of abrahamic religion leaves that belief system unscathed. no need to mention that sati is not a religious practice was never more than a fringe phenemenon-contrary to western potrayal and that it was an off shoot of jauhar where rajput women commited ritual suicide in fire when their men went out fight an unwinnable war against islamic invasions-to save themselves from kidnap and rape . simillarly the potrayal of hindu mythology and therefore hinduism as irrational eventhough these stories are esoteric allegories of theories argued elsewhere with rigorous rationality : hindu doctrine divides itself into sruti - literal truth, and smriti-allegorical data, classically and this is not a modern rationalisation of mythology as in abrahamic that all people can follow either bhakti yoga(the emotional approach which most uses these allegories),karma yoga (the approach using will)and jnana yoga (using intellect and experiential experiments)empirical proof in the form of tabulated experience . as opposed to abrahamic religion where prophets and messiahs exalt themselves to the central role in history, see "visions" and hear "voices" , judge all else and diminish the individual spiritual pursuit by making belief in their own ideas of themselves as central to the entire spiritual life of a person.
    it is popular these days to refer to the
    'rise of hindu nationalism" so just in case my point is dismissed as mere diatribe let me assert that i'm not rallying against abrahamic religion when i say these things i am trying to lift the great deception that western theology and thought has perpetrated upon itself , hopefullyconfronted with my views the vestiges of what is essentially a white supremacist syndrome will reveal themselves to those who have deluded themselves. killing your spouse for insurance is still much more common in the west than dowry deaths in india, they are both essentially acts of murder in the pusuit of greed yet one culture is demeaned using these incidents and the other is correctly seen as seperate from them. the truth is india is no more or less sexist than the west : it contains every sort of male - female relationship from the respectful and loving to the dysfuntional.
    unless this fatal flaw of distorted perception is corrected we will coninue to witness hilarious absurdities like ian's statement that most idian marraiges are loveless-which is contrary to what one would experience in the average indian household (it is merely the axiomatic assumption that any practise contrary to the western norm is doomed to fail ) matter of fact having lived in the west for 5 years now i know that there is just as strong role play in the sexes in the west as in india there are a greater number of independantly wealthy women , women legislators and politicians,women CEOs etc. etc. in india than in the west and to be honest i know more indian couples that are loving and respectful to each other than westerners although this could merely be my own personal experience.
    when the west in the form of the british chanced upon india it had already been brutalised by islamic invasion for 700 years as had only just thrown off the shackles of islamic conquest- which infact was the reason the britsh were able to take india peice-meal due to the absence of a great coherent indegenous power so soon after the resurgence of hindu civillization thru the marathas, sikhs and jats. in any event india was certainly not in it's classical condition , the myth of the civillising mission of the west was merely used to legitemise an occupation that siphoned off an approximate 8.5 trillion pound sterling in the entire raj.
    next time you see that advertisement asking for your money to save dancing bears in terrible conditions in some third world country (which lets face it terrible though their plight is comprise maybe a few hundred animals in the entire crescent from turkey to india) think about the absolute mountains of meat the west is devouring every hour.
    i ask for balance in perspective and rationality. thank you.
    - Adavita
    17th May 2003
  • The praises for the article are well-deserved since it is certainly accurate and well-written, yet I find it interesting to note that only "Ian" draws out the awe-full and horrible patriarchal implications for the satee widow-burning 'rituals' — still much practised in modern-day India. In my view it's HIGH TIME that all of us 'devotees' to the 'beauty' of Indian *artistic* achievement duly balance that with commentary on the horrific human violence and sacrifices that some (or much) of it involved.
    The Taj Mahal is a huge, and truly awe-full example !!!
    - Ayran (
    5th May 2003
  • There is an interesting characteristic in Indian language which manifests itself in the stories of Shakti, Sati and Sita - that of transformation through the words used to describe a deity. Sita's self-immolation as a reproof to Rama for having questioned her chastity whilst in the court of Ravana at Lanka reflects Sati's self-immolation for shame of her father. Similarly, in the Chhinnamasta icon, the goddess's self-decapitation and immolation takes place as part of the ritual of trampling herself into submission as Shiva's Shakti.
    - Ian
    23rd Apr 2003
  • I am really pleased to read your article on"Shakti" the realy power on the earth.I was doing pooja of shivlinga from so many years but i was not knowing the detailed story after it.I have really enjoyed your this article and your last week article on Lord Shiva.I really appreciate your efforts to made this article.
    - Bindu Shah
    14th Apr 2003
  • I've written to you before, Nitin, and once again, I must write of my appreciation for this article! Not only is the article beautifully crafted, but the information held within it is captivating. I felt like I was at the feet of a master storyteller. Thank you, once again!
    - Kathy Robles
    7th Apr 2003
  • I just wanted to offer praise and adulation for a wonderful March article on the various forms of Parvati and your incorporation of Tantric texts! It made for a highly informative and fascinating read. I also enjoy the hypertext links that you include for illustration of certain concepts, objects, etc. More importantly, because I am a burgeoning scholar studying the appropriation of Tantra in the U.S. I was quite pleased with the "further reading" section.

    This was my first newsletter and I'm looking forward to the coming months. Please let me know how I can support your endeavors to enlighten and educate as I would hate to see this service end.
    - Stephanie Williams
    24th Mar 2003
  • Even more relevant than Suttee to the dangers in promoting the story of Sati's self-immolation out of shame over her father's failings is the widespread and underprosecuted crime of bride-burning - often in revenge for unfulfilled dowry promises. Once again, the story of Sati is abused to victimise women for the failings of the paternalistic society within which they are economically and socially bound. 'In Goddess We Are Trussed' should be their motto.
    - Ian
    21st Mar 2003
  • It is important that this article should also comment on the tragic recent decriminalisation of Suttee (Sati) in modern India. It is a flawed doctrine that pressures politically powerless and economically dependent widows to regard self-immolation as meritorious or to hope for some form of karmic manipulation from the ritual. No husband would think of doing anything of the kind for his dead wife. The vast majority of Hindu marriages remain relatively loveless arranged unions. Whilst the story of Siva and Sati is charming, the consequences of its emulation are ghastly. That this practice should be allowed any chance of cultural revival is to be deplored.
    - Ian
    20th Mar 2003
  • The article on Shakti is one of the most readable and informative articles I have read. The in-depth coverage provided has to be applauded. Such a comprehensive article should be read by all those interested in Hindu heritage and culture.
    My congratulations and thanks.
    - Yatindra Bhatnagar, former Chief Editor India Post, the Indian Voice.
    18th Mar 2003
  • Again the article capivated me and pulled me in. Not only did this article touch my heart and humble me, but it also is somthing that i have been looking for in reading for my hindu research. I am a female and have come to know the power with in. And reading this magnifisent article has given me the ok, and guidence and undserstanding to the power of shakti the female spriit. and i will take that knowlegde to reach other females that don't realize their beauty and balance that is female with in. That is Shakti.
    - Red
    18th Mar 2003
  • I thank you for your most excellent article: 'Shakti: Power and Femininity in Indian Art'. I cannot tell you how much I enjoyed it. Suffice to say that it was confirmative, supportive and true.
    - Ms. Teresa Golden
    17th Mar 2003
  • This was a timely article and very apprieciated by myself.
    Thank you for sending it to me!
    - Elise
    17th Mar 2003
  • Your articles and their illustrations are outstanding! I enjoy them very much, although I have many books on Tantra, they seldom present Indian beliefs as well as you do. Please keep the articles coming.
    A devotee of Parvati,
    - Glenn Scriven
    17th Mar 2003
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