Saktism is a sectarian movement centered on the devotional worship of the Mother Goddess who is simultaneously referred to as Sakti (power and energy), Devi (Goddess), Parasakti (supreme power), Adyasakti (first or primordial Power), Mulaprakti (primordial matter) and/or the Mahadevi (Great Goddess) (Foulston & Abbott 10). The adherents to this particular Hindu path – those who see their path to salvation through the concept of the Great Goddess – are called Saktas. Saktism assures its adherents of protection from natural calamities and a procurement of worldly luxuries and happiness. Saktas conceive the Mother Goddess as the personification of primordial energy and the source of all divine (Basu 4). By some she is worshipped as the primary deity, by others she is part of a great pantheon of goddesses and all goddesses are a manifestation of her. In some goddesses she manifests herself as benign and in others she is ferocious. Each goddess is worshiped as a reflection of the feminine principle of sakti, that energy which manifests itself in creation and destruction (Basu 7).
The Great Goddess, as praktri (primary matter) and sakti (energy), manifests herself, by her maya, into her many and various powers. In Saktism maya is not considered a negative illusionary power, instead it is perceived as a positive creative force and Sakta texts emphasize the non-difference between matter and spirit (Foulston & Abbott 16). The Sakti is, as Saguna Brahman, both ultimate reality and the source of divine manifestation (Kinsley 1986: 137). Saktas believe Sakti, in any of her manifestations, is responsive to the pleas of individual devotees and can quickly come to their aid if needed (Kinsley 1986: 139). They also believe that devotion (bhakti), to any of her incarnations, is a means to be liberated from karma and the cycle of samsara (Kinsley 1986: 153).
Sakti is often pictured as a distant awesome figure who sits on a heavenly throne. She is understood to be approachable and always available to her worshipers (Kinsley 1986: 139). For Saktas, divinity can be described by invoking groups of divine females including the seven Mothers, the nine Durgas, the 64 Yoginis, or the ten Mahavidyas. Sakti is said to have qualities that are manifested within the goddess triad that includes Mahalaksmi, Mahasarasvati and Mahakali (Rodrigues 2005: 242). As Mahasarasvati, she is seen as the power that presides over creation, as Mahalaksmi she shows her preserving aspect, and as Mahakali she is associated with destruction (Rodrigues 2005: 242). Some Saktas believe that Durga is the Devi’s favourite form and that as Durga she is ferocious and an invincible warrior who battles evil and demons of various kinds (Kinsley 1986: 138). All goddesses, whether within a group or not, are considered different manifestations or forms of the one all-encompassing Goddess (Dold 46). The reason the divine feminine needs so many names is that they convey different aspects of her nature and each are an expression or form of her and symbolize the various aspects of her character (Foulston & Abbott 10).
To better understand Saktism, it is helpful to understand how Saktism began and how it developed over the millennia. The beginnings of mother worship in South Asia can be traced back to the terracotta figurines found in the Indus Valley that date back to 3000 BCE (Basu 3). It has been anthropologically noted that as agriculture develops, often mothers figure as the guiding forces of their society (Basu 3):
The magical rites designed to secure the fertility of the fields seem to belong to a special competence of the women who were the first cultivators of the soil and whose power of childbearing had, in primitive thought, a sympathetic effect on the vegetative forces of the earth (Bhattacharyya 4).
As time passed, throughout India, the tribal cults of early female deities seem to have become woven into the more intellectual doctrines (as found in the Vedas) that later migrated into their territories (Basu xii).
In the Rg Veda, the deities are predominantly patriarchal. The few goddesses mentioned maintain a subordinate position and at no time, either individually or collectively, represent the ‘centre’ (Kinsley 1986: 7). There is no one great goddess in Vedic literature, and there is no evidence it was conceived that all the individual goddesses are manifestations of one great goddess (Kinsley 1986: 18). It should be noted however that the qualities of the goddesses mentioned in the Vedas appear in later Hinduism in various forms and with some of their characteristics (Foulston & Abbott 46). It therefore seems apparent that following their arrival in India, the Vedic people came into contact with the indigenous population and were influenced by their cults and rituals which resulted in the adaption of Vedic goddesses to popular culture. It also resulted in non-Vedic goddesses finding a place in the pantheon and the gradual penetration of the mother cult becomes apparent in later Vedic writing and Brahmanical religious worship (Basu 3).
It was the Gupta age, between the fourth & sixth centuries and during the height of the writing of Puranic literature, that the Mother Goddess cult truly developed (Basu 5). The Puranas are the Hindu texts concerned primarily with myth and legend. They built upon the Upanishads, and describe the supremacies of various Gods to convey the multiple manifestations of Brahman (Foulston & Abbott 11). It is thought by some scholars that in the Gupta Age the “need was felt for a new religion, entirely female dominated, a religion in which even the great gods like Visnu or Siva would remain subordinate to the goddess” (Basu 65). This new religion came to be known as Saktism.
The Sakta Puranas are whole texts in which the Goddess is the supreme deity. There are remnants of Vedic deities in the Puranas, such as Prithivi, but the Goddess’s most prominent personalities are those that are pleased with the non-Vedic practice of blood-sacrifice; a practice that is likely based on popular local aboriginal goddesses (Foulston & Abbott 69). Though the presented goddesses may have originated from non-Vedic sources, they are still presented in the Puranas in a palatable orthodox way (Foulston & Abbott 76). The primary Sakta Puranas are the Devi-Mahatmya and the Devi-Bhagavatam which speak of the supremacy of the divine feminine (Foulston & Abbott 11).
In the Devi-Mahatmya the Devi, or Mahadevi, is shown as the personification of all aspects of energy, being simultaneously creative, preservative, and destructive (Foulston & Abbott 12). The text implies, by constantly addressing the Devi by different names, that all goddesses are in reality one being (Foulston & Abbott 19). The Devi Bhagavatam retells a number of Puranic myths from a feminine perspective and goddesses are shown as being identical to Brahman as well as eternal and independent of male authority (Foulston & Abbott 14). This text is also explicit in its understanding of the Mahadevi as encompassing both benign and terrible aspects. Both aspects are presented as required in order to maintain the dharmic balance of the cosmos (Foulston & Abbott 19).
By about 500 CE, the common goddesses of Saktism included Parvati, Durga, Kali, Amba, Tripurasundari, Lakshmi, and Saraswati (Bhattacharyya 107). Indeed, the Puranas enumerate 108 names of the Great Goddess (Bhattacharyya 106) and it is in the Puranic texts we find some goddesses being grouped together; such as the seven mothers (whose worship was adapted for Brahamical ritual tradition) and the ten Mahadividyas. All groupings exemplify how the Great Goddess manifests herself in a variety of forms at various times for different reasons (Foulston & Abbott 117).
Tantrism is sometimes considered synonymous with Saktism and while both Tantrism and Saktism share some characteristics, the two traditions are distinct (Foulston & Abbott 104). Both Tantrism and Saktism evolved with the assimilation of non-Vedic deities and traditions (such as blood sacrifice) within Brahmanical traditions (such as complex ritual worship). Tantrism also includes a focus on the feminine principle that views all women as manifestations of Sakti (Bhattacharyya 107). But not all Saktas consider themselves to be followers of the esoterical ritual tantric tradition; many Sakta reject tantric forms of worship and instead focus on devotional worship (bhakti) or follow Vedic procedures (Rodrigues 240).
The worship practices of most Saktas are similar to the worship practices of other Hindus but sometimes include elements that in orthodoxy are considered polluting. Like many Hindus, Saktas will most often worship in their home before a shrine created for their favorite deity (Foulston & Abbott 135). Most villages will have their own goddess and she will be revered at the local shrine. There are times when people will join a larger congregation and worship the Great Goddess – in one form or another – in their local temples. The later Puranas provide instruction on temple construction and ritual performance for the deity to which the particular text is dedicated (Foulston & Abbott 132). Unlike religious worship in the West, the worship of deities in Hinduism is generally an individual affair. There are no formal services, though there are regular times of day when the priests perform puja. Temples become the focus during festivals, when many people gather to witness and participate in rituals that particular manifestation of the Great Goddess requires (Foulston & Abbott 135). Saktas celebrate most major Hindu festivals, as well as a huge variety of local, temple or deity specific observances.
In the process of the evolution of Saktism a number of places came to be associated with Sakti worship and came to be regarded as sacred Sakta pithas (Basu 5). The belief in the sacredness of the land in India has contributed to the concept of sacred sites connected to goddesses (Foulston & Abbott 186). This idea of a sacred landscape is thought to have combined with a belief in the myth of the dismemberment of Sati – the landing places of her scattered body created the locations of sacred sites – and these sites became Sakta pithas (Rodrigues 2005: 240). There are some scholars who believe the myth of Sati’s death was used to connect many local goddesses with the Sakta Devi (Foulston & Abbott 186).
One such Sakta pitha is for the goddess Kamakhya in Assam. This modest temple draws worshipers from all over India and is most sacred at one particular time of year when the seasonally swollen river is viewed as the goddess’s annual menstruation. Devotees wear red clothes, representing Devi’s blood stained garments. Animal sacrifices are made and Kamakhya’s power is so strong as to produce sacredness from something that is usually considered profane (Dold 46).
Laksmi, Parvati, Sati, Prthivi and other benevolent versions of the Great Goddess are understood to be the parts of the transcendent divine who is oriented toward upholding and protecting the world. Worshipers revere these incarnations in order to ensure fertility, protection regarding the establishment of dharmic order, cultural creativity, wifely duty, wisdom, and material abundance; they are also the embodiment of female beauty (Kinsley 1986: 140). But Saktas are especially drawn to more ferocious goddesses, like the great Durga or Kali, who are seen not only as protectors but also as destroyers.
Durga is thought to be the Devi’s most popular form and her exploits are the mostly commonly celebrated events in Sakti mythology. The Devi-Mahatmya establishes Durga, with her manifestation Kali, as an aspect of the Great Goddess. In this text, Durga is regarded as the incarnate strength of the gods. She is presented as a beautiful golden ten armed warrior goddess who is sometimes viewed as benevolent, but has not lost her non-Vedic habit of accepting blood sacrifices (Foulston & Abbott 34). Durga is celebrated during the most important Sakta festival, Navarati (the Festival of Nine Nights). These festivals are used to worship the Navadurgas, the nine manifested forms of Durga that slew powerful demons as described in the Devi Mahatmya. In Bengal, the last four days of the autumn Navaratri are called Durga Puja which marks Durga’s slaying of the Buffalo Demon. It is a massive and remarkable worship celebration that consumes the city of Kolkata and includes multiple worship practices focused on Durga, including blood sacrifices (Foulston & Abbott 160).
Goddesses all over India are worshiped with blood sacrifices. Despite the Hindu tradition of ahimsa, the offering of goddesses animal sacrifices continues as, in the eyes of Saktas, their goddesses demand blood in their worship. They believe these goddesses, who are associated with fertility, must be periodically re-nourished: in order to give life, they must receive life back in the form of blood (Kinsley 1986: 145).
Saktism has its roots among the masses. It evolved out of the prehistoric Mother Goddess cult and its development was organic through Hindu development (Bhattacharyya 165). From the middle of the 19th century the cult of Sakti is said to have contributed to the growth of Indian nationalism (McKean 250). The concept of the country in the form of a divine mother became a strong basis of the Indian freedom movement. In the early 20th century Sri Aurobindo, Indian philosopher and nationalist, said “Mother India is not a piece of earth; she is power, a godhead, for all nations have such a devi, supporting their separate existence and keeping it in being” (McKean 255). There have even been recent efforts by political nationalists to fashion a new manifestation of the Great Goddess in a new goddess named Bharat Mata. She is being used by political forces as a reigning deity over the many other manifestation of female divinity in India. Hoping to use her for the cause of religious nationalism, they present their goddess as Mother India; the identity of the Indian national state (McKean 250).
Saktism can be viewed as proof of the assimilative and unifying character of Hinduism. The one fundamental belief in Hinduism is the belief in an all-pervading and all-transcending reality which is the source of everything. This reality has been visualized by Saktas in the form of Sakti, the Great Goddess. Saktism allows its adherents to obtain identification with, and connection to, Ultimate Reality through the worship of their chosen goddess, whether that goddess be their village deity, Mahadevi, Durga, or even Mother India.
REFERENCES AND FURTHER RECOMMENDED READING
Basu, Anuradha (Mitra) (2009) Sakti Worship in India and Iconography. Kolkata: R.N. Bhattacharya.
Bhattacharyya, Narendra Nath (1974) History of the Sakta Religion. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharial Publishers.
Dold, Patricia A. (2011) “Pilgrimage to Kamakhya through Text and Lived Religion.” In Studying Hinduism in Practice. Edited by Hillary P. Rodrigues, 46-61. New York: Routledge.
Foulston, Lynn, and Stuart Abbott (2012) Hindu Goddesses: Beliefs and Practices. Eastbourne: Sussex Academic Press.
Kinsley, David R. (1986) Hindu Goddesses: Visions of the Divine Feminine in the Hindu Religious Tradition. London: University of California Press.
Kinsley, David R. (1996) “Kali: Blood and Death out of Place.” In Devi Goddesses of India. Edited by John Stratton Hawley and Donna Marie Wulff, p. 77-86. London: Univeristy of California Press.
McKean, Lise (1996) “Bharat Mata: Mother India and Her Militant Matriots.” In Devi Goddesses of India. Edited by John Stratton Hawley and Donna Marie Wulff, p. 250-280. London: Univeristy of California Press.
Rodrigues, Hillary (2003) Ritual Worship of the Great Goddess: The liturgy of the durga puja with interpretations. Albany: SUNY Press,
Rodrigues, Hillary (2005) Hinduism: The eBook. JBE Online Books.
Pintchman, Tracy (1994) The Rise of the Goddess in the Hindu Tradition. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Stratton Hawley, John (1996) “The Goddess in India“. In Devi Goddesses of India. Edited by John Stratton Hawley and Donna Marie Wulff, p. 1-28. London: Univeristy of California Press.
Related Topics for Further Investigation
Indus Valley Civilization
The Devi Mahatmya
The Durga Puja
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Article written by: Dawn Kinney (November 2018) who is solely responsible for its content.