Shaktism regards Devi (lit., "the Goddess") as the Supreme Brahman itself, the "one without a second", with all other forms of divinity, female or male, considered to be merely her diverse manifestations. In the details of its philosophy and practice, Shaktism resembles Saivism. However, Shaktas (Sanskrit: , शक्त), practitioners of Shaktism, focus most or all worship on Shakti, as the dynamic feminine aspect of the Supreme Divine. Shiva, the masculine aspect of divinity, is considered solely transcendent, and his worship is generally relegated to an auxiliary role.
The roots of Shaktism penetrate deep into India's prehistory. From the Goddess's earliest known appearance in Indian paleolithic settlements more than 22,000 years ago, through the refinement of her cult in the Indus Valley Civilization, her partial eclipse during the Vedic period, and her subsequent resurfacing and expansion in Sanskrit tradition, it has been suggested that, in many ways, "the history of the Hindu tradition can be seen as a reemergence of the feminine.
Over the course of its history, Shaktism has inspired great works of Sanskrit literature and Hindu philosophy, and it continues to strongly influence popular Hinduism today. Shaktism is practiced throughout the Indian subcontinent and beyond, in countless forms, both Tantric and non-Tantric; however, its two largest and most visible schools are the Srikula, or family of Sri, strongest in South India, and the Kalikula, or family of Kali, which prevails in northern and eastern India.
Shaktas conceive the Goddess as the Supreme Deity, who is the source of the cosmos and the energy that governs and controls it. But, "nowhere in the religious history of the world do we come across such a completely female-oriented system." Shaktism's focus on the Divine Feminine does not imply a rejection of Masculine or Neuter divinity; however, both are deemed to be inactive in the absence of Shakti. In Shakta worship, Shiva is cast in an "inferior or dependent role as a servant or gatekeeper of the goddess". Shaktas declare that Shiva would be a shava (corpse) without the power of the goddess to guide him. This doctrine is emphasized in the images of Kali standing on a seemingly dead Shiva.
As set out in Adi Shankara's renowned Shakta hymn, Saundaryalahari (c. 800 CE), "Shiva when united to Shakti permeates and sustains the Universe, but [he] cannot have an iota of activity when dissociated from Shakti. This is the basic and fundamental tenet in Shaktism."
Shakti (the Supreme Goddess as Power or Energy) is considered the motivating force behind all action and existence in the phenomenal cosmos. The cosmos itself is Brahman: the unchanging, infinite, immanent and transcendent reality that provides the divine ground of all being. Masculine potentiality is actualized by feminine dynamism, embodied in multitudinous goddesses who are ultimately reconciled into one.
The noted historian V. R. Ramachandra Dikshitar expressed it thus: "Shaktism is dynamic Hinduism. The excellence of Shaktism lies in its affirmation of Shakti as Consciousness and of the identity of Shakti and Brahman. In short, Brahman is static Shakti and Shakti is dynamic Brahman. In religious art, this cosmic dynamic is powerfully expressed in the half-Shakti, half-Shiva deity known as Ardhanari.
Shaktism views the Devi as the source, essence and substance of virtually everything in creation, seen or unseen, including Shiva. Indeed, in the Devi-Bhagavata Purana, a central Shakta scripture, the Devi declares:
"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."
The religious scholar C. MacKenzie Brown explains that Shaktism "clearly insists that, of the two genders, the feminine represents 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 constitutes 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 [Shaktism] – but rather that she transcends her own feminine nature as Prakriti without denying it.
When the term "Tantra" is used in relation to authentic Hindu Shaktism, it most often refers to a class of ritual manuals, and – more broadly – to an esoteric methodology of Goddess-focused spiritual discipline (sadhana) involving mantra, yantra, nyasa, mudra and certain elements of traditional kundalini yoga, all practiced under the guidance of a qualified guru after due initiation (diksha) and oral instruction to supplement various written sources.
In its social interactions, Tantra is "free from all sorts of caste and patriarchal prejudices. A woman or a shudra is entitled to function in the role of [guru]. All women are regarded as manifestations of Shakti, and hence they are the object of 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 [thus] 'becoming female' is he entitled to worship the Supreme Being
More controversial elements, such as the "Five Ms" or panchamakara, are employed under certain circumstances by some Tantric Shakta sects. However, these elements tend to be overemphasized and sensationalized by commentators (both friendly and hostile) who are ill-informed regarding authentic doctrine and practice. Moreover, even within the tradition itself there are wide differences of opinion regarding the proper interpretation of the panchamakara, and some lineages reject them altogether.
In sum, the complex social and historical interrelations of Tantric and non-Tantric elements in Shaktism – and Hinduism in general – are an extremely fraught and nuanced topic of discussion. However, as a general rule:
"Ideas and practices that collectively characterize Tantrism pervade classical Hinduism [and] it would be an error to consider Tantrism apart from its complex interrelations with non-Tantric traditions. Literary history demonstrates that Vedic-oriented brahmins have been involved in Shakta Tantrism from its incipient stages of development, that is, from at least the sixth century. While Shakta Tantrism may have originated in [pre-Vedic, indigenous] goddess cults, any attempt to distance Shakta Tantrism from the Sanskritic Hindu traditions [...] will lead us astray.
Nonetheless, several highly popular goddess forms are known and worshiped throughout the Hindu world, and virtually every female deity in Hinduism is believed to be a manifestation of one or more of these "basic" forms. The best-known benevolent goddesses of popular Hinduism include:
Goddess groups – such as the "Nine Durgas" (Navadurga), "Eight Lakshmis" (Ashta-Lakshmi) or the "Fifteen Nityas" – are very common in Hinduism. But no group better reveals the elements of Shaktism better than the Ten Mahavidyas (Dasamahavidya). Through them, Shaktas believe, "the one Truth is sensed in ten different facets; the Divine Mother is adored and approached as ten cosmic personalities. The Mahavidyas are considered Tantric in nature, and are usually identified as:
Another major goddess group is the Sapta-Matrika ("Seven Little Mothers"), "who are the energies of different major gods, and described as assisting the great Shakta Devi in her fight with demons. According to Bhattacharyya:
"The growing importance of Shaktism [of the matrikas and yoginis in the first millennium CE] brought them into greater prominence and distributed their cult far and wide. [...] The primitive Yogini cult was also revived on account of the increasing influenced of the cult of the Seven Mothers. In Sanskrit literature the Yoginis have been represented as the attendants or various manifestations of Durga engaged in fighting with [various demons], and the principal Yoginis are identified with the Matrikas.
The beginnings of Shaktism are shrouded in the mists of prehistory. The earliest Mother Goddess figurine unearthed in India, belonging to the Upper Paleolithic, has been carbon-dated to approximately 20,000 BCE. Thousands of female statuettes dated as early as c. 5500 BCE have been recovered at Mehrgarh, one of the most important Neolithic sites in world archaeology. While it is impossible to precisely reconstruct the religious beliefs of a civilization so distantly removed in time, it is widely believed, based on archaeological and anthropological evidence, that the great Indus Valley Civilization is probably a direct predecessor of the modern Shakta religion.
As the Indus Valley Civilization slowly declined and dispersed, its peoples mixed with other groups to eventually give rise to Vedic Civilization (c. 1500 - 600 BCE). Shaktism as it exists today began with the literature of the Vedic Age; further evolved during the formative period of the Hindu epics; reached its full flower during the Gupta Age (300-700 CE), and continued to expand and develop thereafter.
The most central and pivotal text in Shaktism is the Devi Mahatmya (also known as the Durga Saptashati, Chandi or Chandi-Path), composed some 1,600 years ago. Here, for the first time, "the various mythic, cultic and theological elements relating to diverse female divinities were brought together in what has been called the 'crystallization of the Goddess tradition.'
Other important texts include the canonical Shakta Upanishads, as well as Shakta-oriented Puranic literature such as the Devi Purana and Kalika Purana, the Lalita Sahasranama (from the Brahmanda Purana), the Devi Gita (from the Devi-Bhagavata Purana), Adi Shankara's Saundaryalahari and the Tantras.
In recent times, Bhattacharyya notes, Shaktism has so infused mainstream Hinduism that it has in certain respects "ceased to be a sectarian religion," in that it presents "no difficulty for anyone to accept its essence. Recent developments related to Shaktism include the emergence of Bharat Mata ("Mother India") symbolism, the increasing visibility of Hindu female saints and gurus, and the prodigious rise of the "new" goddess Santoshi Mata following release of the Indian film Jai Santoshi Maa ("Hail to the Mother of Satisfaction") in 1975. As Johnsen notes:
"Today just as 10,000 years ago, images of the Goddess are everywhere in India. You'll find them painted on the sides of trucks, pasted to the dashboards of taxis, postered on the walls of shops. You'll often see a color painting of the Goddess prominently displayed in Hindu homes. Usually the picture is hung high on the wall so you have to crane your neck backward, looking up toward her feet. [...] In India, Goddess worship is not a 'cult,' it's a religion, [...] an extraordinarily spiritually and psychologically mature tradition. Millions of people turn every day with heartfelt yearning to the Mother of the Universe.
Shaktism encompasses a nearly endless variety of practices – from primitive animism through philosophical speculation of the highest order – that seek to access the Shakti (Divine Energy or Power) that is believed to be both the Devi's nature and form. Its two largest and most visible schools are the Srikula, or family of Sri, strongest in South India, and the Kalikula, or family of Kali, which prevails in northern and eastern India.
The Srikula (family of Sri) tradition (sampradaya) focuses worship on Devi in the form of the goddess Lalita-Tripurasundari, who conceived as the great Goddess (Mahadevi). Rooted in first-millennium Kashmir, Srikula became a force in South India no later than the seventh century, and is today the prevalent form of Shaktism practiced in states of South India such as Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Tamil Sri Lanka. The Srikula "family of the Goddess Sri (or Lakshmi)," , unlike Kalikula, the other school of Shaktism, respects the brahminical tradition (a mainstream Hindu tradition which respects caste and purity rules) and is strongest in South India.
The Srikula's best-known school is Srividya, "one of Shakta Tantrism's most influential and theologically sophisticated movements. Its central image, the Sri Chakra, is probably the most famous visual image in all of Hindu Tantric tradition. Its literature and practice is perhaps more systematic than [that of] any other Shakta sect.
Srividya perceives the Goddess as "benign (saumya) and beautiful (saundarya)", a contrast to Kalikula's perception of the Goddess as "terrifying (ugra) and horrifying (ghora)" Kali or Durga. However, every aspect of the Goddess - malignant or gentle - is identified with Lalita.
The Sri Chakra is worshiped as Lalita's subtle form, either as a two-dimensional diagram (sometimes drawn temporarily as part of the worship ritual; sometimes a permanent engraving in metal) or in the three-dimensional, pyramidal form known as the Sri Meru. It is not uncommon to find a Sri Chakra or Sri Meru installed in South Indian temples, because – as modern practitioners assert – "there is no disputing that this is the highest form of Devi and that some of the practice can be done openly. But what you see in the temples is not the srichakra worship you see when it is done privately.
The Srividya paramparas can be further broadly subdivided into two streams, the Kaula (a vamamarga practice) and the Samaya (a dakshinamarga practice). The Kaula or Kaulachara, "first appeared as a coherent ritual system" in the eighth century in central India, and its champion is the 18th century philosopher Bhaskararaya, who is widely considered "the best exponent of Shakta philosophy.
The Samaya or Samayacharya finds its roots in the works of a 16th century commentator, Lakshmidhara, and is "fiercely puritanical [in its] attempts to reform Tantric practice in ways that bring it in line with high-caste brahmanical norms." Many Samaya practitioners, in fact, explicitly deny being either Shakta or Tantric; however, Brooks argues that their cult remains technically both, "even if Samayins would reject this appellation."
Outside brahamanic circles, Kaula lineages remain alive and well – though their practitioners generally prefer to worship in private, in keeping with the Hindu adage, "When in public, be a Vaishnava. When among friends, be a Shaiva. But in private, always be a Shakta. The Samaya-Kaula division marks "an old dispute within Hindu Tantrism," and one that continues to be vigorously debated to this day.
The Kalikula (family of Kali) form of Shaktism is most dominant in northern and eastern India, and is most widely prevalent in West Bengal, Assam, Bihar and Orissa, as well as parts of Maharashtra and Bangladesh. Kalikula lineages focus upon the Devi as the source of wisdom (vidya) and liberation (moksha). They generally stand "in opposition to the brahmanic tradition," which they view as "overly conservative and denying the experiential part of religion." Some scholars state outright that the Kalikula school rejects brahminical tradition. These views are difficult to reconcile with the plurality of views within the larger Hindu tradition outside of the Kalikula school; the great Hindu saint, Ramakrishna, probably, one of the most famous worshippers of Kali, was born in a traditional brahmin family, and worshipped Her as the Divine Mother; furthermore, he was not a follower of the kalikula school, but rather an adherent of the smarta advaitic tradition, which considers Devi to be one of the five equal forms of the Divine. ;
The main deities of Kalikula are Kali, Chandi and Durga. Other goddesses that enjoy veneration are Tara and the all other Mahavidyas as well as regional goddesses such as Manasa, the snake goddess, and Sitala, the smallpox goddess - all considered aspects of the Divine Mother.
She is "the loving mother who protects her children and whose fierceness guards them. She is outwardly frightening – with dark skin, pointed teeth, and a necklace of skulls – but inwardly beautiful. She can guarantee a good rebirth or great religious insight, and her worship is often communal – especially at festivals, such as Kali Puja and Durga Puja. Worship may involve contemplation of the devotee's union with or love of the goddess, visualization of her form, chanting [of her] mantras, prayer before her image or yantra, and giving [of] offerings."
At Tarapith, Devi's manifestation as Tara ("She Who Saves") or Ugratara ("Fierce Tara") is ascendant, as the goddess who gives liberation (kaivalyadayini). [...] The forms of sadhana performed here are more yogic and tantric than devotional, and they often involve sitting alone at the [cremation] ground, surrounded by ash and bone. There are shamanic elements associated with the Tarapith tradition, including 'conquest of the goddess', exorcism, trance, and control of spirits."
The philosophical and devotional underpinning of all such ritual, however, remains a pervasive vision of the Devi as supreme, absolute divinity. As expressed by the nineteenth-century saint Ramakrishna, one of the most influential figures in modern Bengali Shaktism:
"Kali is none other than Brahman. That which is called Brahman is really Kali. She is the Primal Energy. When that Energy remains inactive, I call It Brahman, and when It creates, preserves, or destroys, I call It Shakti or Kali. What you call Brahman I call Kali. Brahman and Kali are not different. They are like fire and its power to burn: if one thinks of fire one must think of its power to burn. If one recognizes Kali one must also recognize Brahman; again, if one recognizes Brahman one must recognize Kali. Brahman and Its Power are identical. It is Brahman whom I address as Shakti or Kali.
The most important Shakta festival is Navratri (The "Festival of Nine Nights", or "Sharad [Autumn] Navratri"), which together with the tenth day, known as Dusshera or Vijayadashami, commemorates the Devi's victory over various demons in the Devi Mahatmya. In Bengal, the last four days of Navaratri are celebrated as Durga Puja, marking slaying of buffalo-demon Mahishasura by Durga.
Other Navaratris include Vasanta Navaratri ("The Spring Festival of Nine Nights" or Chaitra Navatri) - celebrated during late spring to summer (March-April) in the Hindu month of Chaitra and Ashada Navaratri("The Summer Festival of Nine Nights") in the Hindu month Ashadha. Srividya lineages celebrate Vasanta Navaratri as goddess Lalita's Navratri as opposed to Durga's Navratri in the autumn. The Vaishno Devi temple in Jammu observes its major Navaratri celebration during this period. Ashada Navaratri is particularly important for devotees of the boar-headed goddess Varahi, one of the seven Matrikas of the Devi Mahatmya.
Most Shaktas worship Lakshmi ceremonially at home on this, the full moon night following Durga Puja this is also called as Khojagiri Lakshmi Puja. Another festival dedicated to Lakshmi is Diwali (or Deepavali; the "Festival of Lights"). The major Hindu holiday of Diwali, the North Indian New Year, is held on the night of the new moon in the Hindu month of Kartik (usually October or November). Shaktas (and many non-Shaktas) consider it as another Lakshmi Puja, placing small oil lamps outside their homes and praying for the goddess to come and bless them. Diwali coincides with the celebration of Kali Puja, popular in Bengal, with some Shakta traditions focusing their worship on Devi as Kali rather than Devi as Lakshmi.
Jagaddhatri Puja is celebrated on the last four days of the Navaratis, following Kali Puja. It is very similar to Durga Puja in its details and observance, and is especially popular in Bengal and some other parts of Eastern India.
There are variant dates for Saraswati Puja, depending upon region and local tradition. Commonly, on the fifth day of the Hindu month of Phalguna (January-February), students offer their books and musical instruments to Saraswati and pray for her blessings in their studies. In some parts of India, Saraswati Puja is celebrated in the month of Magh; in others, during the final three days of Navratri.
Major Shakta temple festivals are Meenakshi Kalyanam and Ambubachi Mela. Meenakshi Kalyanam observes the auspicious occasion of Devi's (as Meenakshi) marriage to Lord Sundareshwara (Shiva) is centered around the Meenakshi Amman Temple in Madurai, Tamil Nadu. It runs for 12 days, counting from the second day of the lunar month of Chaitra, in April or May. Ambubachi Mela is a celebration of the yearly menstruation of the goddess, held in June/July (during the monsoon season) at Kamakhya Temple, Guwahati, Assam. Here the Devi is worshiped in the form of a yoni-like stone over which a naturally red-tinted spring flows.
There are thousands of Shakti temples; vast or tiny, famous or obscure. Moreover, countless cities, towns, villages and geographic landmarks are named for various forms of the Devi. "In this vast country, holy resorts of the goddess are innumerable and the popularity of her cult is proved even in the place-names of India.
At various times, different writers have attempted to organize some of these into lists of "Shakti Peethas"; literally "Seats of the Devi", or more broadly, "Places of Power". Numbering anywhere from four to 51 (in the most famous list, found in the Tantra Cudamani), "the peethas [became] a popular theme of the medieval writers, many of whom took the greatest liberty in fabricating the place names, the goddesses and their bhairavas [consorts].
"The Tantras are the bible of Shaktism, [...] identifying all Force with the female principle in nature and teaching an undue adoration of the wives of Shiva and Vishnu to the neglect of their male counterparts. [...] It is certain that a vast number of the inhabitants of India are guided in their daily life by Tantrik teaching, and are in bondage to the gross superstitions inculcated in these writings. And indeed it can scarcely be doubted that Shaktism is Hinduism arrived at its worst and most corrupt stage of development.
Statements of this kind, White notes, are based principally on the ignorance, misunderstanding and prejudice of some outside observers, as well as the unscrupulous practices of certain insiders. "It is in this context that many Hindus in India today deny the relevance of Tantra to their tradition, past or present, identifying what they call tantra-mantra as so much mumbo-jumbo.
Further muddying the waters, "a number of Indian and Western spiritual entrepreneurs have been offering 'Tantric Sex' to a mainly American and European clientele for the past several decades. Presenting the entire history of Tantra as a unified, monolithic 'cult of ecstasy' and assuming that all that has smacked of eroticism in Indian culture is by definition Tantric, New Age Tantra eclectically blends together Indian erotics, techniques of massage, Ayurveda, and yoga into a single invented tradition [...] pitched at a leisured populace of seekers who treat 'Tantric sex' as a consumer product.
Nor is it uncommon to encounter assertions that the Shaiva and Vaishnava schools of Hinduism lead to moksha, or spiritual liberation, whereas Shaktism leads merely to siddhis (occult powers) and bhukti (material enjoyments) – or, at best (according to some Shaiva interpreters), to Shaivism; for example, Satguru Sivaya Subramuniyaswami has stated that in Shaktism, emphasis is given to the feminine manifest by which the masculine Un-manifest Parasiva is ultimately reached. Such claims are dismissed by serious theologians within Shaktism:
"Each of the [Divine Mother's] vidyas [aspects of wisdom, i.e. forms] is a Brahma Vidya [path to Supreme Wisdom]. The sadhaka of any one of these [Shakta paths] attains ultimately, if his aspiration is such, the supreme purpose of life – self-realisation and God-realisation, [for] realising the Goddess is not different from [realising] one's self."
Shaktism has also become a focus of some Western spiritual seekers attempting to construct new Goddess-centered faiths. An academic study of Western Kali enthusiasts noted that, "as shown in the histories of all cross-cultural religious transplants, Kali devotionalism in the West must take on its own indigenous forms if it is to adapt to its new environment. However, these East-West fusions can also raise complex and troubling issues of cultural appropriation.
Writers and thinkers, "notably feminists and participants in New Age spirituality who are attracted to goddess worship", have explored Kali in new light. She is considered as a "symbol of wholeness and healing, associated especially with repressed female power and sexuality." These new interpretations have originated from "feminist sources,almost none of which base their interpretations on a close reading of Kali's Indian background". "It is hard to import the worship of a goddess from another culture: religious associations and connotations have to be learned, imagined or intuited when the deep symbolic meanings embedded in the native culture are not available."
A powerful motivation behind Western interest in Shaktism has been suggested by Linda Johnsen, a popular writer on Eastern spirituality, who asserts that many central concepts of Shaktism – including aspects of kundalini yoga as well as goddess worship – were once "common to the Hindu, Chaldean, Greek and Roman civilizations," but were largely lost to the West, as well as the Near and Middle East, with the rise of the Abrahamic religions:
"Of these four Great Ancient Civilizations, working knowledge of the inner forces of enlightenment has survived on a mass scale only in India. Only in India has the inner tradition of the Goddess endured. This is the reason the teachings of India are so precious. They offer us a glimpse of what our own ancient wisdom must have been. The Indians have preserved our lost heritage. [...] Today it is up to us to locate and restore the tradition of the living Goddess. We would do well to begin our search in India, where for not one moment in all of human history have the children of the living Goddess forgotten their Divine Mother.