From Heaven to Household: The Many Tales of Shakti

Article of the Month - Sep 2006

This article by Nitin Kumar

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The Great Guru Shankaracharya once went to Kashmir, wanting to engage in debate the followers of the Goddess (Shakti), known as the 'Shaktas.' No sooner had he reached the place than he was rendered immobile by a severe bout of dysentery. So seriously was he affected, that unable to get up from his bed, he for the moment, lost the power to speak.

Shridurgasaptashati: An illustrated Book of the Glory of the Goddess

Soon after, a twelve-year-old girl came near him and whispered in his ears: "O Shankara, do you think you can negate the cult of Shakti?"

Feeling helpless, Shankaracharya said, "Devi, I have come here for this very purpose, but right now I feel devoid of any potency. When I gain enough power to speak, only then will I be able to do so. Without Shakti, I cannot do anything."

The charming girl replied thus: "O revered preceptor, when you yourself cannot move an inch without your Shakti, how will you refute its cult? O Wise One, know me to be Shiva's Shakti - The supreme power activating this world. Charged by my own energy, you want to negate me?"

His mind now at rest, Shankaracharya bowed to the goddess, and left Kashmir as soon as he recovered.

Ignoring Shakti (At Our Own Peril)

Indeed, so indistinguishable are we from our Shakti that we often tend to take it (her) for granted, with sinister consequences. The Devi Bhagavata Purana, a primary text narrating the goddess, speaks of an episode where the great gods Shiva and Vishnu were attacked by a powerful army of demons. It was only after grappling with them for a long duration that they were able to vanquish the villains. Even though their success was due to their respective powers, they were vain enough to think it to be their individual victory, even going to the extent of boasting of their prowess before their respective Shaktis. The two goddesses, Parvati and Lakshmi, found the whole situation comical and laughed at their naivet. Thereupon the gods became angry and addressed their spouses rudely. Immediately, the goddesses vanished from their midst.

Devi Worshipped By Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva

No sooner had this happened than the world was plunged into turmoil. Relieved of their power, the two deities became lusterless and fell into a lifeless, deranged state. It was only after a severe penance was performed that the Great Goddess (Shakti) was pleased enough to restore herself to the two gods, saying: "The insult shown towards my manifestations has led to this calamitous state. Such a crime should never again be committed." Shiva and Vishnu, now devoid of pride, got back their previous natures and were thus enabled to perform their functions as before. (Devi Bhagavata Purana: 7.29.25-45)

Shakti - The Burning Power of Fire

A similar instance occurred when, after the creation of worldly and heavenly beings, the perplexing question remained of the latter's sustenance. While creatures of the earth could partake of the food available there, no provision had still been made for the gods. Brahma, the creator, then decreed that the offerings poured into the sacrificial fires (on the earth), would be the food of gods. Towards this end, they worshipped the Great Goddess, who appeared before them in the form of goddess 'Svaha.'

Brahma-Vishnu-Shiva In The Worship Of Devi Kali

The assembled deities then addressed her: "O Goddess, Let yourself become the burning power of fire; who is not able to burn anything without thee. At the conclusion of any mantra, whoever taking thy name (Svaha), will pour oblations in the fire, he will cause those offerings to go directly to the gods. Mother, let yourself, the repository of all prosperity, reign over as the lady of his (fire's) house."

Later, Agni, the deity of fire, approached her with some fear, and worshipped her as the Mother of the World. Then, with the chanting of sacred mantras, they were tied in the knots of holy matrimony. From then, it is believed, that whosoever pours libations in the sacrificial fire accompanied by the sacred name 'Svaha,' has all his dreams immediately fulfilled. (Devi Bhagavata Purana: 9.43)

Shakti - The Power of the Gods

The Kena Upanishad, a major text of Indian philosophy, narrates a profounder story, where the gods, having defeated the demons, puffed up with pride. The Highest God (Sanskrit: Brahman), that formless entity who is beyond any gender, realized their folly and revealed itself before their eyes, to grace them with repentance. However, blinded with the veil of egoism, the gods were unable to understand the vision revealed to them.

Cult of The Goddess

The deity of fire was then deputed by the gods to enquire who the divine person in front of their eyes was. When Agni reached the Great Being, the latter asked him as to what power he (fire) possessed. Pat came the reply: "I can burn down the whole world." The manifested Brahman then placed a blade of grass between them and asked him to burn it. Using all his might, fire tried his utmost to set the twig ablaze, but could not do so.

Unable to know the Brahman, he then returned dejected to the waiting gods.

Next came the god of wind. He too bragged about his ability to carry along anything with his mighty power. Faced with the same miniscule twig, he had to retreat.

It then fell to the lot of Indra, the king of gods, to approach the Great Being. No sooner had he tried to do so, than the latter vanished, and instead appeared in the sky, the beautiful goddess Uma, also known as Parvati. (Kena Upanishad: 3.1-12)

The Devi Bhagavata Purana describes the physical form of this goddess:

A virgin blooming with fresh youth, the luster of her body was like the rising sun. Shining on her crown was the digit of the moon. She was holding a noose and goad in her two hands and the other two arms displayed the mudras of boon granting (varada) and fearlessness (abhaya) respectively.

Her body, decked with various ornaments, looked auspicious and exceedingly lovely. She was like the wish-fulfilling tree (Kalpa Vriksa). Three-eyed, her face was endowed with the beauty of ten million cupids (Kamadeva).

34" Superfine Bhogashakti (Seated Parvati (Uma) | Madhuchista Vidhana (Lost-Wax) | Panchaloha Bronze from Swamimalai

Her clothing was red and her body was covered with sandal paste. She was the Cause of all causes, and the embodiment of compassion (karuna-murti).

 Seeing her, the hairs on Indra's body stood on ends with ecstasy. His eyes were filled with tears of love and deep devotion and he immediately fell prostrate at the feet of the goddess, singing hymns in her praise. (Devi Bhagavata Purana: 12.8.52-60)

The goddess then instructed Indra regarding the essence of the Supreme Reality, stressing that it was the power of Brahman (manifested as herself), which was responsible for victory over the demons, and the gods were but instruments in the grander design.

The Strange Couch and the Vision of Shakti as the Power of All

The goddess is however sometimes more assertive in driving home the truth. When the three gods - Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, on eve of the creation of the world, sat perplexed as how to go about it, she appeared before the trio, seated them on a golden chariot and took them on a round of the numerous universes created by her.

Mahavidya Shodashi (Tripura Sundari) as Visualized in Her Dhyana Mantra

At one instant, they came upon a strange and beautiful bed, with Lord Shiva forming its mattress. Its four legs were Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva and Dharma respectively. Seated over it was a divine lady, wearing red garments, garlands, and also smeared with sandal paste of the same color. Her eyes were dark-red and the beautiful crimson-lipped lady was lustrous like the rising sun; beautiful like ten million Lakshmis. She had a sweet smile on her face and held in her four hands a noose, goad, and two mudras indicating readiness to grant boons and fearlessness respectively. Never before had the gods seen such a form. All merciful, and in the full bloom of youth, the goddess had blossoming breasts which surpassed even the buds of a lotus (in softness).

Suddenly, the four-armed lady transformed herself, and instead revealed to them a young woman with infinite eyes and limbs. The gods stood transfixed, dazzled by this spectacular vision celebrating the supremacy of Shakti.
Wishing to pay obeisance to her, the gods then got down from their chariot and approached the goddess. No sooner had they done so than she transformed them all into beautiful, young maidens. When they reached near her smiling form, the goddess looked at the female-gods affectionately, and the latter too stood around her, admiring each other appreciatively. When they bowed at her feet, they beheld in her mere toenails, a reflection of the entire universe.

Devi Bhadrakali, Worshipped By Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva, And Indra (Tantric Devi Series)

The three then sang hymns in her praise, asking her: "We have forgotten your sacred mantra of creation. To be able to continue the cycle of creation, preservation and destruction, kindly initiate us again into your mystery." To this, the Great Goddess replied:

"There is no difference at all between the Great God (Purusha) and myself. It is only for the sake of the world that we appear as two. In absence of this manifested world, there is neither the male, not female nor androgyne."

 "Nothing in this world is devoid of me. I enter into every substance, and making Purusha the instrument. I do all the actions. I am the coolness of water, the heat of fire, the luster in the sun and also the soothing rays of the moon, which are but manifestations of my power."

 "If abandoned by me, this universe becomes motionless. If I leave Shiva, he will not be able to kill demons. A weak man is declared to be without any Shakti, nobody says that he is without Shiva, or without Vishnu. Those who are timid, afraid, or under one's enemies - they are all called Shakti-less; no one says that this man is Shiva-less and so forth."

63" Large-Than-Life Shiva-Uma, An Irreplaceable Complement To Each Other | Handmade | Panchaloha Bronze

 "So, the creation that you are about to perform, know Shakti to be the cause thereof. When you will be endowed with that Shakti, you will be able to create the world. Vishnu, Shiva, Indra, Agni, Moon, Sun, Death, and all the other deities are able to do their karmas only when they are united with their respective Shaktis. This earth, when united with Shakti, remains fixed and becomes capable to hold all beings inhabiting it. If it be devoid of this power, it cannot support even an atom." (Devi Bhagavata Purana: 3.6)

She then created from her body the three goddesses - Saraswati, Lakshmi and Parvati, and offered them to Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, entrusting the couples with the functions of creation, preservation and destruction respectively.

Power in the Household - The Strange Story of Tulsi Devi

An enlightening case is of the demon named Shankhachuda, who defeated in battle even the mighty army of Shiva, which was led by the latter's wife, the great Kali herself and their son Karttikeya.

Puzzled, Shiva reasoned with Vishnu regarding the villain's apparent infallibility. The two deities then came to the conclusion that his invincible Shakti stemmed from the unflinching devotion and chastity of his loving wife Tulsi.

The Glories of Tulasi-Devi

Vishnu, then taking on the form of Shankhachuda, approached the innocent Tulsi, who, mistaking him for her husband, welcomed him into her arms with rapturous joy. Vishnu, the great lord of the world, then shared her bed and engaged in physical union with her. But the chaste wife, finding this time her experience quite different from what she used to enjoy before, argued all the time within herself and at last questioned him: "O Magician! Who are you? By spreading your magic, you have enjoyed me. As you have taken my chastity, I will curse you."

The lord, fearing the curse of a pure woman, assumed his original self. Seeing his divine form, Tulsi fainted. When she regained her consciousness, she cursed Vishnu: "You merciless lord, your heart is hard as a stone, so may you too turn into a stone."

Thus because of this curse does Vishnu manifest himself in the stone known as Shaligrama, found only on the banks of the river Gandaki in Nepal, where, with tiny teeth, millions of insects incise slow rings of torture into his body of stone, carving strange and sacred sculptures. Those of these pieces, that fall into the river, are considered the most auspicious. Hence did the lord take upon himself the anguish of Tulsi on separation from her husband.

Tulsi Poojana

Before leaving however, Vishnu did not neglect to bless the virtuous lady, who by her chastity and unblemished character, had acted as the power behind the scenes, protecting her spouse. The lord hailed her saying: "Your hair will transform into sacred trees and as being born of you, they will be known by the name of Tulsi. The whole world will perform their rituals with the leaves and flowers of this Tulsi plant. Therefore, O fair-faced one! You will be reckoned as the chief amongst all vegetation. All the sacred pilgrimages will reside at the bottom of the Tulsi tree, where I and all the other deities will sit, waiting in anticipation to be blessed by a falling leaf."

To this day, this auspicious plant occupies a place of honor in the homes of devotees, as the archetypal symbol of our 'Shakti at home,' venerated by innumerable modern day women, still following the glorious standards laid down by Tulsi.

Truly does say the Devi Bhagavata Purana elaborating on the concept of Shakti:

She is the Heavenly Lakshmi (Swargalakshmi), residing in the heavens, the Royal Lakshmi (Rajalakshmi) in the palaces of kings and in the ordinary families of the world, she is the Household Lakshmi (Grihalakshmi). (9.1.26) 

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  • I am confused at the shakti nature of Vishnu-Durga, elder twin sister of Krishna, as Narayani or Yoga Maya. This goddess would seem to be the shakti of Narayan and yet his twin sister when he becomes Krishna. There is a whole lot of unhealthy karma in that.
    Ian Ison June 26, 2009
  • Beautiful! Saadaya has brought so much truth to our hearts! Excellent! Thank you so much! In a moment where our planet needs so much love and intercultural understanding. Thank you again. It would be a marvalous pleasure, if I could contact you to share these views since I am conducting a research/ project to help all individuals find an opportunity of love-growth within, by understanding the culture next to us, and how inportant human spirituality-bioenergetic awaking-conciense is to the planet earth and the universe. My talents flow in the forms of art, dance, singing, tai-chi, holistic theraphies, graphic, fashion, textiles and product design, toghether with a constant search of truths in different sciences. My main target is how to spread the message as fast, as clear, as beautifully as possible to humanity. What we think and feel affects everything and everyone. Thank you again!
    Diana May 31, 2008
  • One little quibble Sheri, all religions are NOT based off your bible, paganism and hinduism are actually older than the bible so how can you say its all based off of your book? A little research will show you your error.
    AlannahBabalon156 August 03, 2007
  • Saadaya and Gabi might enloy this site I've found -- There's everything about God as our Mother there, referring to all the living traditions that talk of God as mother or daughter.
    Mary July 17, 2007
  • Amazing Jesus spoke Hebrew and Greek, Even more amazing is that so much is misunderstood. Polytheism is alive and well, one wonders how one could possible say that the Holy Ghost was female ? The bible always refers to Him as "He". The Spirit of life, one should always try and remember that all religion is based off of The Bible..As always enjoyed the information provided...
    sheri May 17, 2007
  • Thanks for another inspiring article ! I collected some information on the Mother Goddess in the World Kigo Database. Gabi Greve from Japan
    Gabi Greve December 09, 2006
  • I enjoy this article very much. So far this one held my action the most. I love all your work and I enjoy learning about your cultural. I feel connected to certain people at different times, your're one of them. Thanks and have a nice day.
    Colleen October 24, 2006
  • Thank you for sharing this info. The imperative to somehow honor Her exists in all religions, including Baha'i, Christian, Jewish (where She is known as Shekhinah and Sophia / Wisdom), Gnostic, and even at one point in Islam and in the Qur'an. This will seem blasphemous to traditional muslims, but the original Qur'an included references to 'Uzza, Manat, and Alat' as 'maidens whose intercession is to be sought'. These verses were controversial since they contradicted the rest of the Qur'an and Muhammad ended up deciding that they had been inspired by the devil and this is known as the 'Satanic verses' incident. This is very controversial, since it makes muslims question the infallibility and inspiration of the Qur'an. Originally, Allah was the supreme God of Arabs, and he had three daughters who formed a triad or trinity. Their names were Allat, Manat, and Uzza. Baha'u'llah, prophet and founder of the Baha'i Faith, which claims to be the last in the line of revealed Abrahamic religions, also authored a 'Table of Hikmat' or Table of wisdom, among his sacred scriptures, where he diluscidates the double nature of God as immanifest (male) and manifest (female), which is nature, and is receptive of God's seed-word. The identity between Shakti and nature, known as prakriti in Sanskrit, also exists in Hinduism. In spite of the fact that Baha'u'llah apparently says homosexuality is a sin in his Kitab I Aqdas ('Most Holy Book'), he also teaches obeisance to one's country's laws (therefore, if gay marriage is legal Baha'is are obliged to follow the order of the Law), and he also teaches unity of science and religion, therefore if science provides evidence of homosexuality being genetic or biologic, Baha'is are obliged to acknowledge the legitimacy of alternative sexual orientations. Furthermore there is some Sufi-inspired / two-spirited imagery in his 'Hidden Words', Part II, Stanza 12. O Man of Two Visions! Close one eye and open the other. Close one to the world and all that is therein, and open the other to the hallowed beauty of the Beloved. Christianity is also affirming of Shakti. Yeshua the Messiah refered to the Holy Spirit as Ruach, which is a feminine word in the Aramaic language. His references to 'being born again of Spirit / Ruach', and 'being born again from water' makes it plain that the imagery is feminine because there can be no birth without a mother, without a matrix. This is what Phillip the Evangelist says in his Gospel of Phillip: Some said, Mary conceived by the Holy Spirit, they are in error. They do not know what they are saying. When did a woman ever conceive by a woman? Mary is the virgin whom no power defiled. She is a great anathema to the Hebrews, who are the apostles and apostolic men. This virgin whom no power defiled; the powers defiled themselves. And the Lord would not have said My Father who is in Heaven unless he had had another father, but he would have said simply My father. Therefore, it is inequivocal that the Holy Spirit or Ruach is feminine. Ruach means breath, which is 'prana' in Hindu mysticism and yogas, there is no life without breath, which is lifeforce. Shakti is as crucial and as life-giving as breath, therefore there is no life without Her. We know also from references to the Holy Spirit in the Gospels and in the Avesta (the Holy Spirit is known as Spenta Mainyu to the Zoroastrians and has all the same attributes in both religions, and is said to be one with God in both religions), that the Holy Spirit is engaged in healing and in awakening 'spiritual gifts', which are known as 'siddhis' in Hinduism and Tantric / Yogic traditions. Most yoga exercises involve the cultivation of breath (Ruach), which oxygenizes the body, promotes health, wellbeing, relaxation, and even accelerates healing. In addition to this medicine, the Holy Spirit is said to inspire saints and prophets, and to inspire us to perform good deeds. All the hidden potentials of the body's wisdom are activated through breath, as well as all the spiritual potentials including divine inspiration (from the Latin 'in-spirare', or to become 'in-Spirited'). For these reasons, Yeshua said that those who sin against the Holy Spirit are not forgiven in this life or the other. The Holy Spirit is the agent of God's powers among humans. In the Afro-Cuban tradition of Santeria, and her cousins in Brasil (Candomble) and Nigeria (Ifa), She is known as Oshun. It is said that She makes life worth living with her ashe (Yoruba word for medicine, power, or lifeforce), and that there is no fertility, joy, sex, life, culture, arts, or civilization without her. She personifies life-giving rivers. Most great ancient civilizations flourished surrounding rivers, including the civilizations of the Nile, Euphrates, Tigris, Ganges, Yamuna, the Yellow river in China, and many others. According to the occult system of corelations in the Ifa/Orisha system, Oshun represents the bloodstream in the human body, the rivers of our bodies, which take oxygen and nurturing energy to all the cells within the body. She is, therefore, life itself, medicine itself, She is Ashe.
    Saadaya September 23, 2006
  • It never rains in Paris: It is always difficult to believe (especially as in such times as these) that it's the law (Gods) which holds things together; and thus it obliges us to a remembrance of further servitude toward the Universe, and not the egotist pride; or false opinion that leads to nowhere or might fall down into all kinds of hellish conditions. There's always a challenge to meet things with a substance of indifference but the individuality and enjoyment of this Universe is what that substance of all indifference, and life is all about. It lets history record whether we've preserved our precious freedom or definition of independence, or have we maintained a reinforced balance of equanimity and justice in a humanitarian and Universaly harmonious way. A justice for all people that displays an embellishment of individual spirit to all people in this world of freedom and inspiration.
    Om Krshna Om Om September 21, 2006