The Mother Goddess and Tantric Shaktism.[ September 2004 ]

Devi Bhakta

I recently obtained a copy of an out-of-print text called "The Indian Mother Goddess," by Bhattacharyya, Narendra Nath, (author of "A History of the Shakta Religion"). Edition. South Asia Books, New Delhi, 1977.


Nowhere in the religious history of the world do we come across such a completely female-oriented system as Shaktism.

In its present form, Shaktism is essentially a medieval religion [i.e. its ritual details evolved in the Indian medieval period, around 500-1000 CE], but it is a direct offshoot of the primitive Mother Goddess cult which was so prominent a feature of the religion of the [Bronze Age] agricultural peoples, who based their social system on the principle of mother-right. ...

A rudimentary form of Shakta beliefs and practices can presumably be traced to the ruins of the pre-Vedic Harappa civilization. The earlier Vedic tribes, whose material cultures and social institutions have been revealed in the Rig Veda, appear to have disliked the conception of the Female Principle owing to their patriarchal bias, but [even] they had to incorporate some female deities into their pantheon.

There was a revival of the pre-Vedic Mother Goddess cult in the post- Rigvedic age, probably due to the initiation of the Vedic tribes into the agricultural way of life and agricultural rituals; and since then, the Female Principle never ceased to be an important cult of the people. It was so deep-rooted in the Indian mind that even in sectarian religions like Vaishnavism, Shaivism, etc, the Female Principle had to be given a prominent position. Even the basically atheistic systems like Buddhism and Jainism could not avoid this popular influence. Later Buddhism is, in fact, nothing but a disguised Tantric cult of the Female Principle.

The cause of the increasing popularity of the Female Principle from the beginning of the Christian era was evidently connected with the changing social pattern rising out of the new economic conditions resulting from changes in the mode of production, expansion of internal and external trade, centralized state authorities, and the growth of urbanism.

The caste system had [also] by this time become a regular social institution. The agriculturalists and other professionals, apart from the priestly, warrior and trading classes, did form the majority of the population, and it was the religion of this majority the Mother Goddess of the agriculturalists that found its way into the higher levels of society under diverse historical conditions. The higher religions, in order to make themselves popular among the masses, had to make compromises with the existing cults and beliefs, and this was one of the processes through which the female divinities of the lower strata of society could have easy access therein.

Goddesses in considerable number came from the tribal peoples who, unable to maintain themselves by their traditional mode of production, had to come in contact with the advanced peoples, in were put in different social grades on the basis of the quality of social services they offered to the existing class society.

The mass strength behind the Female Principle placed goddesses by the side of the gods of all religions; but by doing so, the entire emotion centering round the Female Principle could not be [entirely] channeled. So the need was felt for a new religion, entirely female- dominated; a religion in which even the great gods like Vishnu or Shiva would remain subordinate to the Goddess. This new religion came to be known as Shaktism.

In its developed form, the Shakta religion became almost identical with Tantricism. It should be pointed out in this connection that Tantric ideas generally regarded as the basis of the Shakta religion profoundly influenced different religious sects and radically changed their views and practices.

"Tanticism," as S.B. Dasgupta rightly observes, "is neither Buddhist nor Hindu in origin. It seems to be a religious undercurrent, originally independent of any abstruse metaphysical speculation, flowing from an obscure point of time in the religious history of India."

There is reason to believe that primitive Tantricism was a practical means to stimulate the generative powers in nature, and as such it was closely related to the Mother Goddess the puissant and eternally active "Shakti," representing the force of life in nature. We find a considerable degree of unity among people in different parts of the world in respect of such primitive beliefs. There are traces of Tantric rituals in the material remains of Harappa and Mohanjodaro. In later Vedic literature also we come across sex rites associated with agriculture, and this stream of thought and action did not cease to exist in subsequent ages.

The primitive basis of the Tantric Panca-mkara or Paca-tat=tva the use of madya (wine), māmsa (meat), matsya (fish), mudra (cereals) and maithuna (sexual intercourse) can be established on investigation. Sexual rites related to fertility magic are common to all forms of primitive religion, as Frazer and Briffault have wonderfully demonstrated. Erotic practices associated with the goddess cult are older than the Tantric and Taoist texts themselves.

This also holds good in the case of the rites of wine and fish. Thanks to the research of Briffault, we can now easily connect the use of wine, as a pre-condition of sexual intercourse, with fertility magic. Fish is also closely associated with matriarchal beliefs as a fertility symbol. Aphrodite, the fish goddess, was worshiped as the bestower of all animal and vegetative fruitfulness, and under this aspect especially as a goddess of women. The relation between fish and the Mother Goddess is a very common feature of primitive religion.

Geometrical patterns, like the Tantric diagrams [yantras] representing the female genitalia, were well known in the Mesopotamian and Aegean world, and their appearances on the persons of certain goddesses like Artemis, Hera, Demeter, and the Chaldean Nana, suggest that these signs were employed as fecundity symbols.

Perhaps no religious literature has raised so much controversy in evaluation as the Tantras, and hence we should say a few words regarding the practical side of the Tantric cult of the Goddess, which lays special emphasis upon:

* mantras (prayers and formulae)
* bijas (syllables of esoteric significance)
* yantras (diagrams)
* mudras (special positions of the fingers), and
* nyasas (feeling the deities in different parts of the body).

The Buddhist Manjusrimulakalpa, composed about the 5th or 6th century AD, also deals with mudras, mandalas (diagrams), mantras, kriyas (rites) and caryas. The Guhyasamaja emphasizes on Prajnabhiseka, or the initiation of the adept with Prajna or Shakti, which came to denote male-female union in Vajrayana and other forms of Tantric Buddhism.

Reinforcement to the Shakti cult also came from the contemporaneous Buddhist revival, in which Tara played a very prominent part. In the Shakta Tantras, many of the Buddhist female deities were identified with Shakta goddesses. The most outstanding Shakta upheaval was furnished by the Tantras, which necessitated an understanding and an acceptance of the Female Principle in religious worship.

The aim of the Shakta worshiper is to realize the Universe within herself or himself, and to become one with the Goddess. The successive steps of the spiritual ladder are constituted by three stages:

* pasu (animal) - In the first stage, the aspirant can worship any sectarian god, but s/he must follow all the rules of social morality, and by doing so, s/he will be raised to the second, or the heroic, level.

* vira (heroic) - In this stage, the aspirant is able to get herself or himself initiated in vamacara and siddhantacara. For the correct understanding of the mystic rites, he requires proper training from a guru (preceptor). Now s/he has the right to disregard the social conventions about food and drink, since s/he has to look upon all women as manifestations of Shakti and to be free of all sorts of social prejudices.

* divya (divine) - The ritual of pancamakara -- wine, fish, meat, diagram [or grains] and coitus -- performed in the proper ways under the spiritual guidance of the guru, elevates the aspirant to the divya or divine standard, and in this stage, s/he is free to get herself or himself initiated in the kaulacara. The Kaula worshiper of Shakti is above all moral judgments, free from all worldly attachments.

The logic of Tantra is, in itself, very simple. What appears to be complicated is the technical and esoteric aspects of the rituals. In its social sphere, the Tantra is free from all sorts of caste and patriarchal prejudices. All women are regarded as manifestations of Prakriti or Shakti, and hence they are [to be regarded with] respect and devotion. Whoever offends them incurs the wrath of the Great Goddess.

Every male aspirant has to realize the latent Female Principle within himself, and only by becoming female is he entitled to worship the Supreme Being (vaamaa bhuutvaa yajet paraam). A woman, and even a Sudra (lower-caste person), is entitled to function in the role of the guru or preceptor.

It is therefore obvious that such a revolutionary system is bound to be discouraged by the orthodox upholders of Brahmancial traditions.

Besides [all of the above], the Tantra has made positive contributions to the field of material sciences, and its emphasis to this branch of learning is obviously linked with its original doctrines. This aspect of Tantra should, however, be treated in a separate work, and here our scope is limited.

Many of the Tantric texts known to us are quoted in the digests, which occupy a very important place in the literature of the Tantras.

Of the earlier digests may be mentioned the "Prapancasara", attributed to the great Sankara; and the "Saradatilaka" of Laksmana Desika. There are about half a dozen commentaries on the former, while the latter has been commented upon by Madhavabhatta, Raghabhatta and others.

Of the later digests, Krsnananda's "Tantrasara" stands unique, and it has a nice agreement with the "Saradatiliaka" regarding the description of the deities.

These works describe numerous forms of Shaktis, a number of them being classes as the Mahavidyas or Vidyas, and the Nityas. The "Tantrasara" quotes two lists of Mahavidyas from the "Malinivijaya" and "Mundamala". Some later Tantras correlate the ten Mahavidyas with the ten Avataras of Visnu.

Besides the digests, the Shakta-Tantric ideas were enriched by the contributions of the outstanding Shakta philosophers and commentators like Bhaskararaya of South India, Nilakantha of Maharastra, and others.

The traditional 77 Agamas belonging to the Shakti cult are divided into five subhaagamas, which teach practices leading to the knowledge of liberation; 64 Kualaagamas, which teach practices intended to develop magical powers; and eight misraagamas, which aim at both.

Shiva and Shakti stand in the Tantras in the relation of prakasa and vimarsa respectively, the former quality being of the nature of pure consciousness, impersonality and inactivity. Bhaskararaya defines Vimarsa as the spontaneous vibration of the Prakasa, the power which gives rise to the world of disctinctions, but which remains latent in the absolute. The potentiality of the whole object-world exists as the Vimarsa or Shakti.

Prakriti or Maya is looked upon as the substance of Shakti, under whose direction it evolves into the several material elements and physical portions of all sentient beings. Instead of the 25 tattvas of the Sankhya, here we have 36, classed into Sivatattva (or the absolute); Vidyatttva (or the subtle manifestations of Shakti); and Atmatattva (or the material universe, from Maya down to the earth).

The individual, under the influence of Maya, looks uper herself or himself as a free agent and enjoyer, and it is only the knowledge of Shakti that leads her or him top the way of liberation. Jivanmukhti, or liberation in this life, is admitted -- which depends on self- culture, and on the awakening of forces within the organism.

The origin of Shaktism was spontaneous, evolving out of the prehistoric Mother Goddess cult and symbolizing the facts of primitive life. But its development was manifold, [occurring] not through any particular channel, but like [many diverse] streams -- some big, some small -- issuing from a single source.

Each of these streams -- and also their combined courses -- have to be understood on the basis of:

* the material mode of life, which provides the rationale for the types of religious beliefs; and

* the practices developing among peoples belonging to different cultural grades; and

* the diverse historical conditions under which the Female Principle made its way into other forms of Indian religious systems.

From the 10th Century onward, the Shakta-Tantric cults gained a qualitatively changed character and became woven into the texture of all the religious practices current in India. It was due to the fact that the Shakta-Tantric cults:

* offered a sharp criticism and rejection of all external formalities in regard to religious practices and spiritual quests;

* revived the mystical, obscure and esoteric (but protestant and heterodox) elements of the existing religious systems; and

* upheld a new philosophy of life, which consisted in the recognition of (a) the guru as essential for any spiritual exercise and quest; (b) the human body as the seat and habitat of all religious and spiritual experience; and (c) the experience of ultimate reality as one of inexpressible happiness and absolute non- duality.

In the field of social life, the Shakta-Tantric principles offer a set of values quite opposite in character to the authoritarian and patriarchal structure upheld by the writers of the Smrtis and violently enforced in practice by the ruling class. We do not know whether the Shakta-Tantrikas were really persecuted for their radicalism, but there is evidence to show that attempts were made from different corners to blacken their ideals.



With regard to the 5'M's...

'Mamsa, in the crude sense, is meat-eating; in the subtle sense, control of the tongue or speech. Similarly, Matsya or fish eating - in a subtlesense means the opening of the Vishuddha Chakra. Madya, or drinkingwine, means drinking the divinenectar from the Sahasrara Chakra.

Mudra, or use of crude symbols,became the use of subtle symbols.

And Maethuna or sex relations - in the subtle sense - means unity of the unit and consciousness, or the mystic union of Shiva (consciousness) and Shakti (the creative principle)'.

Addapted from 'TANTRA Yoga & Meditation, P.R. SARKAR'S CONTRIBUTION TO TANTRA'

The author has also suggested that the 5'M's stem from a reintroduction of Tantra into India, from China; there could well be parallels between the philosophy of the Yin and the Yang, and Shiva- Shakti.

I do not associate wine with India, but with the Mediterranean; I have heard that the proto-Vedic settlers to the Indus Valley drank alcohol (and ate meat) but the details are lacking. Can anyone enlighten me please, on the subject of wine from Mediaeval India?

In my own mind, I am fairly convinced that the 'gross' identity of the 5'M's purposely conceals an esoteric symbolism.

Jai Ma!



As all are aware that tantra texts were written in cryptic and obscure language 5M's fall under the same category.

In our human body ther are only two organs devoid of bone. One of such is situated in our throat region composed of Meat. This organ has its own significance in yoga.
When the yogi can reverse his tongue and touch this fleshy organ (it is a part of Mudra in yoga) it results in evolving and bestowing him higher yogic strenghts to progress him to higher regions.

Hence Mamsa implies the above. Not eating meat or sarifices which me unfortunately see today.


" When the yogi can reverse his tongue and touch this fleshy organ (it is a part of Mudra in yoga) it results in evolving and bestowing him higher yogic strenghts to progress him to higher regions."

Are you referring to Kechari Mudra ?



I must return to the subject of 'wine' in the Tantric tradition:-

Sanskrit scholars, help me please -

Is the original meaning of 'madya', that of 'wine', or does it basically mean 'that which intoxicates', surely - in this context - a metaphor of subjective transcendency?

We need to consider carefully what has been discussed.

The 5'M's generally concern breaking taboos - this is not unknown in Hinduism: nocturnal meditation within a cremation ground, for example, is a form of Kali Sadhana which breaks taboos regarding bodily pollution.

Why is this done? The psychological shock involved, in breaking social taboos, is possibly utilised - consciously or unconsciously - by the worshipper, to attain a state of higher awareness - in this case, an exalted awareness of Maha Kali.

But if the Panchamakara or 5'M's are about breaking taboo, what of 'Mudra', which is often rendered as 'parched grain'; this in turn, has been seen as an oblique reference to the ingestion of the ergot fungus,

Faces of Ma

I might tactfully suggest that someone partaking of both alcohol and the hallucinogenic ergot, might be a little beyond the fifth 'M', Maethuna or ritual sex - or certainly of deriving much in the way of metaphysical insights from the experience?

Alcohol, meat and wine are strictly taboo items for the vegetarian Hindu; grain certainly isn't a taboo item, in itself; and neither is the sexual act - there is no real consistency in these 5 items, in relation to the so-called 'left hand path' of Tantra, it seems to me.

We know that Tantra is an esoteric system - it is accordingly far more likely that what we have here, in the Panchamakara, is a coded allusion to something else.

Is it possible, then, that many - especially, but not exclusively, in the West - have interpreted these perhaps coded allusions, concerning secret metaphysical techniques, literally?

And after all, wasn't that exactly the purpose of those who formulated the code, and thus distanced the sacred, from the profane?


devi_bhakta wrote: The traditional 77 Agamas belonging to the Shakti cult are divided into five subhaagamas, which teach practices leading to the knowledge of liberation; 64 Kualaagamas, which teach practices intended to develop magical powers; and eight misraagamas, which aim at both.

Devi Bhakta,

At Ranipur-Jharial, Orissa, there stands a circular 11th century Tantric temple, containing 64 Yoginis. The Yogini figurines occupy niches within a circular wall, facing and surrounding a square shrine, at the centre of the circle, which contains an image of Shiva, called "Bhairava".

Could you kindly comment on the 64 Kulaagamas in the context of the 64 Yoginis, please - there must surely be some relation?

Devi Bhakta

The temple you mention certainly exists; and there are indeed 64 Yoginis. And yes, the number 64 has a certain numerological resonance in tantra (for example, there are also the "64 Arts," 64 petals on certain chakra lotuses, etc) ...

As for the correlation you suggest, however, I am simply not qualified to expound on it. It may exist; it seems a plausible theory. Beyond that, I would defer to more knowledgeable members.

Thanks for your query. I'm sorry I can't be more helpful, but I'm glad you've found this series of posts useful.


Ann Moura has suggested quite persuasively, that an earlier stratum of belief existed in the Indus Valley region, which she refers to as 'Sindus', prior to Vedic culture.
She thinks this previous culture may have been Dravidian, and that the duality of Shiva-Shakti [and indeed Shaktism] stems from this time.

Her book is entitled 'The Evolution of a World Religion: Origins of Modern Witchcraft'.

Devi Bhakta

Megalith6 you write: *** Ann Moura has suggested quite persuasively, that an earlier stratum belief existed in the Indus Valley region ... prior to Vedic culture. ***

This is not a theory; it is objectively true. The cities of Mohanjodaro and Harappa were archaelogically excavated beginning in the 1920's; there was indeed a vast, sophisticated civilization (the Harappan or Saraswati Civilization) in the pre-Vedic ages. If you review the first post of this series, Bhattacharya refers to the Harappan culture.

*** She thinks this previous culture may have been Dravidian, and that the duality of Shiva-Shakti [and indeed Shaktism] stems from this time. ***

These assertions are less certain, but there is plenty of evidence that points in this direction, as Bhattacharya points out. If you search "Harappan" in the message archives you should find quite a lot of material on this topic.


Ann Moura goes on to explore interactions between this 'Goddess and God' culture, and its immediate neighbours in the Middle East; and quite logically, one is led to wonder - why the influence of one of the oldest civilisations on earth, is not recorded in our (western) history books ... this civilisation appears to have traded extensively with everyone around it, and must have exerted a profound influence on the younger, growing civilisations which came after it.

Why has Harappan vanished from the history books?

I believe this is a hot issue - Moura is of the opinion that Harappan religion had a deep impact on East and West, and the subsequent Vedic culture has been trying to - initially eradicate - alter 'Sind' religion to fit in with Vedic doctrine, ever since.

But personally, I don't think Moura goes far enough - in terms of linear time - since one author in particular has seen a resemblance of standing stone-centred stone circles in Britain and Ireland, to the ubiquitous figure of the Shivalinga: that well-known abstract icon celebrating the interaction between Goddess and God - which brings us back to the Sindus Civilisation.

Could it be then, that the first farmers of the European Neolithic - arriving from the East - brought not only the secret of agriculture with them, but also the worship of the Goddess and the God, as well?

Hence also my interest in the 10th century CE, Tantric circular temple at Orissa: 64 Yoginis surrounding Shiva (the standing stone at the centre) equate to the 64 petals of a lotus - flowers often being seen as beautiful emblems of the female, giving us another version of the sacred Shivalinga; almost exactly replicating in form, some of the ancient European stone circles, from the New Stone Age.

Is this not tremendously exciting food for thought?

krishnamoorthy shankar

This is for mutual information that there is no difference between vedic & harappan/mahanjadaro civilizations. please refer to a famous Sanskrit vedic scholar who has deciphered the seals of mohanjaro/harappa.

The great acharya of kanchi has said that it is clearly a myth that before the advent of Christ we have something called dark age but there existed the vedic civilization flamboyant to the fullest. let us not forget this.

The Aryan theory of people coming from north pass etc are very good fiction . They don't take into account of a lot of facts for example. sage aghastya went to south from north. he had a disciple by name tolkapiar whose grammar book is the base of Tamil(Dravidian) still the oldest book ever found. every child of Sanskrit will agree that calling calling a person as Aryan is equally popular as calling a person as Mr is popular in English.

Typically there is custom of marriage wherein from the top of Himalayas to southern tip of India we follow a custom as prescribed by the Vedas. this is the great sabthapati - revolving seven times this is common throughout India.

so is this a myth

Devi Bhakta

Thanks for your thoughtful comments. My 2 paise:

*** there is no difference between vedic & harappan/mahanjadaro civilizations. ***

I realize that this is one of several popular theories, but -- like the others -- it has neither been disposatively proven or disproven.

*** please refer to a famous Sanskrit vedic scholar who has deciphered the seals of mohanjaro/harappa. ***

Indeed, there are several "famous scholars" who claim to have deciphered the Harappan script. All have adherents (and agendas), but none have achieved general concensus, either in the religious or scholarly communities.

*** The Aryan theory of people coming from north pass etc are very good fiction . They don't take into account of a lot of facts for example. sage aghastya went to south from north. ***

You are correct that the old Aryan Invasion theory has been largely debunked. But again, it does not necessarily, logically follow from this that "there is no difference between vedic & harappan/ mahanjadaro civilizations."

*** so is this a myth ***

Maybe; but maybe not. I tend to think that the truth is somewhat more complicated.


"This is for mutual information that there is no difference between vedic & harappan/mahanjadaro civilizations. please refer to a famous Sanskrit vedic scholar who has deciphered the seals of mohanjaro/harappa."

So far as I am aware, this has not been accomplished; although there are various claims - none of which are universally accepted.

If your argument rest on the 'Indus Script', I'm afraid it is not sound.

I look forward to the day that these seals are definitively deciphered.

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