Shakti Sadhana

What is Shaktism
 by Devi Bhakta
I've been meaning to write something on this for a long time, but the final straw that finally made me sit down and do it was the recent post in which a certain "Uriya Baba" (I have never heard of him before, but I'm guessing he's a Shaiva or Vaishnava swami) was quoted as saying, "Disengage yourself from this body, a place of humiliation, a despicable bag of wastes, urine and excreta (your body)."Uday, who posted that quote, later explained it further, saying: "Ultimate truth is atma, soul, or say supreme power, God. Rest all is myth. complete materialistic world is a myth."

"My problem with these posts is simple: Thay have nothing to do with Shaktism! In fact, they are diametrically opposed to the very spirit and teaching of Shaktism! To reject this world or to dismiss one's own body in a temple of Devi is as wrong as it would be to proclaim, "Embrace Christ!" or "Submit to Allah!" while standing among the worshipers here. It's simply poor taste. However legitimate such diverse religious sentiments may be in their proper place, they do not belong in a forum devoted to Shaktism. In fact, many Shaktas would consider such remarks to be nothing less than a provocation, a slap in the face -- a direct insult to their faith, to the Goddess Herself!

Please don't take me wrong: I am *not* arguing that Uriya Baba is "wrong" or that Shaivism or Vaishnavism or any other religion is "wrong." I am simply setting forth what Shaktism considers "right;" that is, what distinguishes our path from all the others. For me to do any less would be to do a disservice to Devi, the religion that extols Her as Supreme, and the devotees who follow Her faith.


Let's begin with a basic definition. When faced with the hard question, "Are you a Shaiva (devotee of Shiva) or a Shakta (devotee of Goddess)?" the easy (and all-too-typical) answer is to say, "It doesn't matter! Shiva and Shakti are One!" Which is fine -- it is a good answer and -- at a vastly high level of abstraction -- it is ultimately the right answer. But it's also a refusal to answer, in a certain sense, and it is almost ridiculously vague for the vast majority of devotees, who have a long climb ahead before reaching that lofty spiritual peak.

But let us try to rephrase the concept in a more useful way: Both Shaivism and Shaktism agree that the Ultimate Divine contains the Feminine the Masculine, and the Neuter, while simultaneously transcending all such gender distinctions. And you don't have to take it from me. Devi Herself states as much in the "Devi Bhagavata Purana":

"I am Manifest Divinity, Unmanifest Divinity, and Transcendent Divinity. I am Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, as well as Saraswati, Lakshmi and Parvati. I am the Sun and I am the Stars, and I am also the Moon. I am all animals and birds, and I am the outcaste as well, and the thief. I am the low person of dreadful deeds, and the great person of excellent deeds. I am Female, I am Male, and I am Neuter."

By way of explanation, the Sanskrit scholar C. MacKenzie Brown clarifies that pure Shaktism "clearly insists that, of the two genders, the feminine respresents the dominant power in the universe. Yet both genders must be included in the ultimate if it is truly ultimate. The masculine and the feminine are aspects of the divine, transcendent reality, which goes beyond but still encompasses them. Devi, in her supreme form as consciousness thus transcends gender, but her transcendence is not apart from her immanence."

Brown's analysis continues, "Indeed, this affirmation of the oneness of transcendence and immanence constituites the very essence of the divine mother [and her] ultimate triumph. It is not, finally, that she is infinitely superior to the male gods -- though she is that, according to the [Shaktas] -- but rather that she transcends her own feminine nature as Prakriti without denying it."

The next question we must ask is, exactly does it mean -- in practical terms -- to be a Shakta, rather than a Shaivite? In a way, this question is like a version of the famous paradox, "Which came first, the chicken or the egg?" Only, in our case, the question becomes: "Is Shiva a manifestation of Shakti, or is Shakti a manifestation of Shiva?" At the most basic level, if you answer the former, you're a Shakta; if the latter, you're a Shaiva.

That's not just a matter of semantics, either! The choice a devotee makes has definite ramifications that go far beyond those highfalutin intonements that "All is One." Because however true that may be in the Ultimate, Ultimate sense, we need to choose and stick with a path that will take us to that One.

"Shiva and Shaki are one and [s]he who worships the one necessarily worships the other. But whereas the Shaiva predominantly worships Shiva, the Shakta predominantly worships Shakti. … Each will adopt that which most suits [her or] him.. As the `Ahirbudhnya Samhita' of the Pancharatra Agama says, the aspects of God[dess] are infinite, but no philosopher can seize and duly express more than one aspect." (Woodroffe, "Shakti and Shakta: Essays and Addresses," 1918; 1987 Reprint).

So yes, Shaivism and Shaktism are similar, but they also have extremely important differences -- just as Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy are closely related forms of Christianity, but with fundamental splits of doctrine and practice.

To hugely oversimplify, Shaivism posits Shiva as the Supreme One, Without a Second. Shakti manifests from His left side and devolves into the visible Universe. She is Maya, Illusion, a mere projection of Shiva, Who is the real truth and who remains unmanifest. All of this life is a dream, without substance. Our only goal is to pierce that veil, to get past Shakti so to speak, and thereby find Shiva. That's where comments like Uriya Baba's "bag of excrement" come from; why worry about your body or your world if it's all just one big lie keeping you away from Shiva?


NOTE (5 August 2006): I wrote this essay blue moons ago, but recently received the following comment from a member (dhalsim108) on my preceding generalization:

I would like to inform you that this statement is completely non-representative of Kashmiri Shaivite views. For a summary of them, I will point to you the website There, John Hughes writes, "Although Kashmir Shaivism and Advaita Vedanta both teach nondualism, the non-dualism of Kashmir Shaivism is quite different from that of Advaita Vedanta. Essential to this difference is Advaita Vedanta's proposition that this universe is untrue and unreal, that it is a false projection of maya. This theory is completely opposed to the Kashmir Shaiva theory of reality. To counter this proposition Kashmir Shaivism argues that, if Shiva is real, how could an unreal substance emerge from something that is real? If Shiva, the ultimate essence of existence, is real, his creation must also be real. For the Kashmir Shaiva this universe is just as real as its creator..." Kashmir Shaivism holds that the world is real, being in essence the same as Shiva Himself. Furthermore, unlike in the advaita vedantism of Adi Shankara, Kashmir Shaivism holds that the body is not merely a "bag of excrement" but the very vehicle through which one will ultimately merge with the Ultimate. Indeed, this form of Shaivism and Tantric Shaktism seem to be a lot less dissimilar than it previously seemed. I understand that you were "hugely oversimplifying", but please note that less educated people will read and believe what you say, especially the people who frequent ShaktiSadhana, whom I think by and large hold a great deal of respect for you, as I do."

And so, dear reader, with that caveat in place, I return you to the essay. Thanks, dhalsim108! - DB


But let us now look at Shaktism. Again, this is a vast oversimplification, but here we see Shakti as the Supreme One, Without a Second. To devotees of Shiva or Krishna or Rama who would scoff that we are giving Her far too much importance, we can quote the Rig Veda, the most ancient scripture of Hinduism where Devi says:

"I am the Sovereign Queen; the treasury of all treasures; the chief of all objects of worship; whose all-pervading Self all Devatas [god and goddess forms] manifest; whose birthplace is in the midst of the causal waters; who in breathing forth gives birth to all created worlds, and yet extends beyond them, so vast am I in greatness." (Rig Veda, Devi Sukta, Mandala X, Sukta 125).

And if sheer belief and faith are not enough for the devotee, Shaktism appeals to logic and reason as well. Take for example the Shakta/Tantric belief (here formulated in the Vishvasara Tantra) that "What is here, is elsewhere. What is not here, is nowhere." That maxim expands to explain that our human bodies and experiences are not mere "bags of excrement and urine," but microcosms of the Supreme Reality. By looking into ourselves, the Tantras say, we can find every Truth!

So let us look at what we know of Creation: In our little microcosmic world, we know that only Woman can give birth. And so we deduce that, in the Macrocosm, only Shakti can give birth. Furthermore, science has proven that every fetus, as a matter of biological fact, begins as "female" -- the human male is, in essence, a modified female, and not vice-versa. And so we say, Shiva emerged from Shakti, and not vice-versa.


This understanding causes us to "split" from Shaivites in other ways as well. Because the Shaivite says that Shiva (i.e. the Transcendent, the Unmanifest) is the only thing that'sreal, it follows that Shakti (i.e. Maya, Illusion, the Manifest Universe) is false. Vaishnavas (followers of the third and most popular of the three main Hinduschools, i.e. devotees of Vishnu, Krishna, Rama) believe basically the same thing. Such a philosophy can cause one to turn within, neglecting or devaluing one's body, one's family, the feminine gender, one's planet! Why bother?

By contrast, Shaktas say Shakti is the One; that She is Reality, and that Her reality has two aspects: The Transcendent, and the Manifest. They are both real. This world is real -- Maya is not a complete illusion, a fake -- but rather, it is a veil. Mother has given us senses, not to fool us and mislead us, but to enable us to function in a three-dimensional world of individual people and objects, all governed by the laws of physics. As long as we are in this Universe, we need these senses to function on a day-to-day basis.

"In short the world is real. It is a true experience," explains Sir John Woodroffe, an initiated Tantric Shakta and renowned Sanskritist. "Maya is not `illusion,' but Experience in time and space of Self and Not-Self."

But at a certain point in our spiritual evolution, we begin to tire of this world's transitory pleasures and satisfactions. We may still love the world very much -- the beauty of nature, the faces of our children and those beloved to us; the pleasures that this earthly body can give us sometimes -- but we begin yearning to move beyond this rather limited sense of reality. You might say that we love Shakti so much that we yearn to see the rest of Her -- her Transcendent Aspect (which you can call "Shiva" for convenience if you like, or not).

But at a certain point in our spiritual evolution, we begin to tire of this world's transitory pleasures and satisfactions. We may still love the world very much -- the beauty of nature, the faces of our children and those beloved to us; the pleasures that this earthly body can give us sometimes -- but we begin yearning to move beyond this rather limited sense of reality. You might say that we love Shakti so much that we yearn to see the rest of Her -- her Transcendent Aspect (which you can call "Shiva" for convenience if you like, or not).

The Shaivite would say that the sole, best use of this body and this world, is as a springboard to the next. While we are incarnated as conscious, sentient beings, we must work on ourselves to escape the churning wheel of samskara as soon as possible! The Shakta would agree -- to an extent. Yes, the ultimate goal of Shakti Sadhana is liberation; but we say that Devi is not only the goal. She's also the journey!


This brings us to the next Shiva-Shakti split: A Shaivite, convinced that the journey (i.e. our lives in this world) is mere illusion, will find it easy to dismiss our activities and experiences in this sphere as a mere "process or technique." From this viewpoint, the only thing this world is good for is whatever opportunity it affords us to escape it.

And the person who learns to disdain this world as illusion -- but who nonetheless feels unable to escape it -- will either be frustrated and angry on some level (which leads to ignoring or neglecting one's material surroundings, as suggested above) or they will begin to feel a sense of hopelessness and futility about their belief in Devi as Mother, since She is just `maya.'"

A Shakta correspondent recently wrote me to say, "Without something tangible to relate to, we would all be lost -- since Maa, Maya and enlightenment are beyond our senses and knowledge in this world. And at the same time, we feel there is "something" calling us, nurturing us and pulling us to the finally resting place."

And here we see another result of the Shaivite/Shakta split. Shaivites tend to dismissShaktas as, perhaps, less-evolved Shaivites! ;-) We insist upon the reality of the world, only because we are not spiritually advanced enough to let it go completely. From the Shaivite perspective, it is often said that Maya is both false (because it's fake) and true (because we spend our material lives acting like it's not fake). As for the "something" that calls us, the Shaivite explains perhaps that Mantra can produce god/dess forms in the Maya to help guide us beyond Maya.

In Shakta terms, we say yes, Mantras can produce the form of the deity whose mantra you chant. However, as a Shakta, we also believe that the world around us is Real, and so the Goddess who appears before us is a Real manifestation of Devi, not just a form or guidepost in the fog of Illusion

In that regard, someone once joked with me, asking if I really believe there is a "Big Mama" sitting up in the clouds looking down on us, or on the "Jeweled Island," which is said to be Devi's celestial abode. My response is, "Why not?" Devi can take any form -- she *is* form, after all -- and if we need a Big Mama, She'll be one for us, and if our soul needs to rest on a Jeweled Island, she'll provide it. Without getting into metaphysics, these heavenly visions -- I believe -- exist in those areas of Reality that fall between the Manifest and the Transcendent. They are a higher reality, though not yet the highest

Shakespeare wrote, in Hamlet, "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, /Than are dreamt of in your philosophy." How could we ever doubt it? To do so would merely be to project upon Her the limitations of human reason, imagination and intuition.

Thank you for your patience.

Aum Maatangyai Namahe