The concept of Shiva Shakti finds its deep roots in Yoga philosophy, especially in the Tantra Yoga tradition seen as the manifest and the unmanifest. In Yoga the union of Shiva and Shakti is seen as the union of Consciousness and Energy. One cannot exist without the other, they are the mirror image of each other. Together they become the indestructible force, the masculine and feminine that is present within each and every individual and the cosmos as a whole.
“To experience them as one and the same and break the dissolution of duality, is the aim of Tantra, and thus of Yoga.” Swami Nischalananda Saraswati
The Sanskrit word ‘Shakti’ which means force or energy refers to the primordial, active and dynamic feminine energy of the creation. It is derived from the parasmaipada verb root “shak,” which means”to be able,” “to do,” “to act.” In Hinduism Shakti is seen as the cause of creation, the element of change as well as the cause of union or liberation; its most significant form being – the Kundalini Shakti.
It is a concept used to personify the divine creative power sometimes referred to as “Adi Shakti” or “Adi Parashakti” worshipped as“The Great Divine Mother” in ancient India. The simplest expositions of the idea of the divine Energy is inherent in everything—animals, men, and gods and in the universe.
Shakti, The Power of the Feminine
JURU Yoga has been sharing ancient yoga facts every week, throwing light on the Yogic culture practiced in pre-Vedic, Vedic and Classical age. One interesting and important aspect of evidence unearthed in the pre-Vedic sites was that of the Pashupati Seal (a form of Shiva) and the pottery figurine of a female. It has been said these pottery images of the goddess whose name is unknown were kept almost in every house in the ancient Indus cities.
From the Devi’s earliest known appearance in Indian Paleolithic settlements more than 20,000 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 Shakti tradition, it has been suggested that, in many ways, “the history of the Hindu tradition can be seen as a reemergence of the feminine.” J S Hawley
“Shirshti Sthiti Vinasham, Shakti Bhute Sanatane, Guna Shaye, Gana Maye, Narayani Namaustute!”
“We bow to the first female – the eternal energy who creates, sustains and destroys all the elements i.e. tatva, and the one who is truly devoid of all the attributes at the time who encapsulates all the attributes for generation, observations and destruction.”
During the Vedic age, it seems that the society’s approach was predominantly patriarchal. Though the feminine aspect was revered through ancient history, it is clear that over a period of time women were relegated to a secondary role. But today we see that women are willing to break the barriers and defy the discriminatory social norms which prevent their empowerment, or to simply put, view them as the weaker gender.
Yogic principles have always played a significant role in shaping the ancient Indian history to the extent that it reflected in cultural practices, influenced great religions and shaped traditions, of which, Shaktism and Tantra Yoga lay great emphasis on the feminine energy for spiritual emancipation.
In the world of Yoga, the underlying concept of creation is that the universe is balanced on the masculine and the feminine energy (purusha and prakriti). The emphasis on a balanced lifestyle was not limited to finding the balance in the outside world. The external reality was always seen as a reflection of the internal reality, thus whether it was the physical union of man and woman or the balancing of the feminine and masculine energies within, both were seen as a tool to experience true freedom.
Traditionally, women were seen as the personification of Shakti. It is certain feminine qualities such as being intuitive, nurturing, caring, forgiving and compassionate that a spiritual seeker – both men and women, aspired for. However, today, the masculine -a more aggressive energy, associated with power and strength, seems to dominate the mindset. Having said this, balancing and understanding the masculine energy within is as important for women as important it is for men to embrace the feminine energy.
As a Yoga practitioner, do you think that it is this imbalance – of ignoring one element completely and allowing domination of the other, which has become the cause of the imbalance in our society? A society wherein women are looked upon as the weaker sex/gender and have to fight for freedom, equal rights, security? The recent popularity of The Me Too (#MeToo) movement which spread like wildfire globally, proves that aggression is a social problem worthy of attention around the world.
Yoga has shown us that the key to lead a balanced lifestyle is to first find balance in your own body and mind and to understand that we need both, the feminine and masculine, the Yin and the Yang, to become more mindful, to increase self-awareness, to eliminate ignorance and facilitate higher consciousness.
Shaktism went on to become a major tradition of Hinduism, wherein the metaphysical reality is considered feminine and supreme. For the devotees, called Shakta, Shakti is synonymous with the great Devi.
There are important ancient texts that are written around the Shaktism tradition, such as the Sruti, Smriti, Devi Mahatmya, the Devi-Bhagavata Purana, and Shakta Upanishads such as the Devi Upanishad. In the Rig Veda, for example, at least 40 goddesses are mentioned. These include: Sarasvati, goddess of wisdom; Ushas, the dawn; and Aditi, who is depicted as”birthless”. She is found in the Ramayana, where she is called Devi. In the Mahabharata there are two hymns dedicated to her. The various manifestations of the goddess are ubiquitous throughout the Puranas.
In Shaktism, it is believed that Shakti (the goddess Prakriti) evolves her own being into 36 tattvas, or constituents of reality, in order to create the universe. Shaktas or the followers of Shaktism, approach the Devi in many forms; however, they are all considered to be but diverse aspects of the one Supreme Goddess.
The love of deities may be passionate or obedient, wide-ranging or focused, ordered or wild, and these could be the reasons why Shaktism has been dismissed by certain scholars as a superstitious practice. As Friedhelm Hardy explains, there is intellectual bhakti which emphasizes loyalty and obedience, and there is ecstatic, emotional bhakti which is overwhelming and intoxicating.
In parts of India where Shaktism has always played a predominant role such as West Bengal, certain Yogic principles have been incorporated to modulate the emotional extremes of bhakti devotion. Certain bhaktas also identify themselves as Yogis or Tantriks and unlike most Yoga practices where getting trained under a Guru is emphasised upon, many Shaktas never undergo any initiation and claim to get instructions for yoga practices directly from the Goddess who appears in their vision/dream.
At the same time you come across Shaktas who claim to be Siddha Gurus with followers who practice and teach Yoga to their disciples to control the spontaneous ecstatic experiences they may experience as a result of bhakti. However, like in every other religion or culture, believers have had difficulties in putting their high spiritual ideals into actual practice. But the philosophy of Yoga has always encouraged the practitioner to view these Shaktis as energies that are within us and represent a state of balance for our conscious existence.
“Tantra” is considered one of the sub-traditions of Shaktism, which refers to techniques, practices and ritual grammar involving mantra, yantra, nyasa, mudra and certain elements of traditional Kundalini Yoga. But in the early centuries of common era, newly revealed Tantras centring on Vishnu and Shiva also emerged.The practice was adopted by people from various backgrounds, caste and religion.
Tantra is best seen as an accumulation of practices and ideas; especially when it comes to viewing female energy, which is not looked upon for carnal pleasures but as the one who gives birth, and Yoga, which is towards death, bows before Shakti.
Tantra practice has been divided into three distinct groups based on the level of awareness that the follower is able to cultivate. The lowest group includes those who worship the material world, pashu. The second group includes those who worship an underlying reality with blind faith devoid of experience, veer. The third group consists of those who live in higher awareness, divya.
Awakening of the Kundalini is the process of higher awareness or higher mind, which is beyond the notion of time, space and object. In Tantra it is known as atma darshan (vision of the soul) when the liberated energy and consciousness are freed from the physical body. In Yoga,the physical body is seen as the storehouse of prana shakti, the mind is the storehouse of manas shakti, and soul (higher mind) is the storehouse of atma shakti. The three energies depend on each other, whatever the mind dwells upon, the entire Shakti is absorbed in that.
“As one thinks so he becomes.” Chandogya Upanishad.
This is where the role of senses comes to play and it is upto us to either strive for higher knowledge or indulge in sensual pleasures. The Yogic techniques, if practiced regularly and sincerely, can guide us towards a state of higher consciousness. They awaken the force of our atman. Tantra has been commonly but incorrectly labelled as “yoga of ecstasy” driven by senseless ritualistic libertinism. This is far from the diverse and complex understanding of what Tantra means to those Buddhists, Hindus and Jains who practice it.
It was assumed that Tantra does not follow Yoga philosophy. Yes, rituals are the main focus of Tantra, and emotions, eroticism and Kama/sex are universally regarded in Tantric literature as natural means of transformation of the deity within, to “recapitulate the bliss of Shiva and Shakti” or “root of the universe” whose purpose extends beyond procreation and is another means to spiritual fulfillment.
“By the yoga of vajroli practice, perfection of the body fructifies. This auspicious yoga even brings liberation alongside with sensual involvement (bhoga).” Hatha Yoga Pradipika, verse 103.
In this explanation (Swami Muktibodhananda) it is clear that according to tantra, sensual involvement can be the means to Yoga. It is but a form of sense interaction, and it is approached as the experience of the mind not physical body. On knowing what the physical experience is and by evolving one’s subtle awareness, the experience can be reawakened in the mind without involving the physical senses.
Sanskrit word ‘tan’ means the warping of threads on a loom, which implies interweaving of teachings as thread into a text or technique. Similar concepts are Agamas, Samhitas and Sutras. For eg: the word atma-tantra means doctrine or theory of the soul/self.
The word ‘esoteric’ often used to describe Tantra does not imply that it is complex, but means that it is sort of hidden, not immediately present to the senses. The esoteric aspects of Yoga, such as the subtle body and cosmic mind can be understood through the technique.
Matrikas, or fierce mother goddesses that later are closely linked to Tantra practices, appear both in Buddhist and Hindu arts and literature between the 7th and 10th centuries. Also called Matar or Matri, Matrikas are a group of mother goddesses who are always depicted together, as Ashta Matrikas or Eight Matrikas, namely: Chamunda, Varahi, Kumari, Indrani, Brahmani, Vaishnavi, Maheshwari and Lakshmi.
Matrikas are also seen as the personified powers (Shakti) of different Devas. In Shaktism, they are described as “assisting the great Shakta Devi (goddess) in her fight with demons. But what if you approach this war of good and eveil from a Yogi’s point of view? Are you inspired to see this as a war between the self and the ego? Victory over ego, destruction of illusion and ignorance and celebration of self-realisation?
In Tantra, the fifty or fifty-one letters including vowels as well as consonants from A to Ksha, of the Devanagari alphabet itself, the Varnamala of bija, have been described as being the Matrikas themselves. The Matrikas are considered to be the subtle form of the letters (varna). These letters combined make up syllables (pada) which are combined to make sentences (vakya) and it is of these elements that mantra is composed.
Research shows that there is a link between the 8 Matrikas and the 64 Yoginis or Tantric Goddesses. The Yoginis are considered as manifestations of daughters of the Matrikas. It is said that each of these 8 Goddesses manifested as 8 themselves, resulting in the celebrated 64 Yoginis.
When speaking of Yoginis in ancient India, it is the Chausathi Jogini Temple in Odisha that is often cited. Built during the 9th century, it is considered a tantric temple where the main idol is of Kali – who stands on a human head representing the triumph of the heart over the mind. The temple is built in a circular fashion.
There are around 56 Jogini idols centring on the main idol of Kali. There is a central altar (Chandi Mandapa) which has the remaining 8 Goddess idols on all 4 sides. Though the religious viewpoint throws light on the battle in which Goddess Durga, in her 64 avatars, standing on an animal, demon, and human head, defeated the demon, a more Yogic approach would be to view the inner conflicts as demons and the body and mind as the battlefield.
A Yogi or Yogini would see each idol, expressing various emotions from rage, sadness, pleasure, joy, desire and happiness, as Shakti, associated with a certain level of realisation in the awakened woman and man. Manifestation of these energies within – ultimately leads to the attainment of miraculous powers (siddhis) which in Tantra Yoga are manifested in the yantras, mantras, kriyas and pujas.
The absence of any concrete archaeological and textural evidence fails to throw light on the royal patronage of Yoginis and the so called Yogini cult remains a hypothesis. Some authors claim that it could be the rise of patriarchal and puritanical wave (with the start of the Vedic period) that resulted in the decline of feminine hold over spiritual path.
Scholarly redundancy as a result of one particular sect/community’s attempts to have an upper hand in socio-political issues and religious ideologies has also been a common and popular practice of those in power.
“In fact, a thousand years ago, before the building of the grand temple complexes of India dedicated to male deities such as Vishnu and Shiva, before the arrival of Islam that preferred a bodiless God, India saw temples exclusively dedicated to womanhood — the circular temples of the yoginis.
Few still survive. There are two in Odisha: Hirapur near Bhubaneshwar and Ranipur near Bolangir. And there are three in Madhya Pradesh at Bedaghat near Jabalpur, at Mitaoli of Morena district, near Gwalior and the not-quite circular ruins in Khajuraho. These temples were abandoned long ago for mysterious reasons.” Devdutt Pattanaik.
Though for centuries women have been regarded as the weaker sex (around the world), it has also been proved that women have a greater capacity to suffer, sacrifice and endure. Traditional Yoga texts even go on to explain that Siddhis manifest more easily to a woman because of her highly evolved intuitive faculties.
“All the attainments which a man attains by perfection of vajroli, a woman can also achieve.” Hatha Yoga Pradipika.
A woman is considered to be more aware of her own subconscious mind and that of others. By practicing the Yogic technique, vajroli, she can withdraw the bindu (ovum), maintain kechari mudra spontaneously, allowing her individual consciousness to move into the universal mind space. The yogic technique can also help avert loss of energy during a woman’s menstrual cycle, thus banishing all taboos around menstruation, such as regarding it is an obstacle or labeling women as unfit for spiritual progress.
One can still find references of Yoginis who had attained enlightenment in Hindu and Buddhist tantra traditions. In Tantric Buddhism, Miranda Shaw states that a large number of women like Dombiyogini, Sahajayogicinta, Lakshminkara, Mekhala, Kankhala Gangadhara, Siddharajni, and others, were respected yoginis and advanced seekers on spiritual path. Jomo Sangchen Jomo (Tibetan monk) has also compiled a list of 108 Female Siddhas (Dakinis or Yoginis). In Indian history, there are mentions of female saints who rejected social norms in favor of meditative practices or bhakti Yoga. Laleshwari / Lal Ded, Meerabai, Gangasati, Andal, Janabai, Akka Mahadevi and Sarada Devi are a few examples with legends abound and several miracles attributed to them.
“The Kundalini Shakti sleeps above the kanda. This shakti is the means of liberations to the Yogi and bondage for the ignorant. One who knows this is the knower of Yoga.” Hatha Yoga Pradipika, Verse 107
It is this Shakti which when regularly generated, moves through nadis (Ida and Pingala) and activates the chakras and manifests into specific psychic abilities or Siddhis. Both men and women can avail these Siddhis and both men and women can achieve union with the One when the Kundalini Shakti rises through the Sushumna nadi and merges with the Divine source itself, from which she is inseparable and of whom she is the subtlest manifestation.
Be it Tantra Yoga, Hatha Yoga, Kriya Yoga or any form of Yoga, it is clear that it is only when Kundalini Shakti is activated – it leads to liberation or enlightenment. Known by many names, while Kundalini is asleep in Mooladhara chakra, she is mostly depicted as a cobra coiled three and a half times around a smoky grey Shivalingam. These three and a half coils are said to represent:
- The form of Om mantra,
- 3 states of existence – conscious, subconscious and unconscious.
- 3 qualities of nature / Prakriti or Shakti – tamas, rajas and sattva.
- 3 forms of Goddess – Durga, Lakshmi and Saraswati
The half coil represents the fourth dimension or any other dimension beyond the third, turiya. The smoky Shivalingam represents the sukshma sharira or the subtle body. In a Yogi, the Kundalini has her head lifted up as the practice begins to awaken the Kundalini. She rises through one of several pathways in the subtle body and reaches whatever level is possible, based on the sadhak’s condition. Several blockages may impede her ascent, but she continues to rise and when she is perfectly straight from the Mooladhara to the Sahasrara, passing through the Sushumna nadi, her ultimate goal is achieved, our spiritual fulfillment.
The Bliss of Non-Duality
Shakti – the primordial cosmic energy is all-pervasive in all her manifestations and in all her omnipotent avatars. She is in all the five elements, she is wild and yet she is the source of perfect harmony and balance. She creates and she destroys. She is the agent for change and she is stability. She is pure love, she is sensual, she is worthy of worship. She is ferocious and she is the protector. Everything in nature is a part of Shakti, she is reality and she is also your grand illusion.
“When you don’t go within, you go without.” Yogi Bhajan
She is everywhere, and yet she is invisible, like the dormant kundalini. She is the prana but she is also the subtle energy that gives rise to prana. She is the seeker and she is the ultimate bliss. She is Yoga-Shakti, Shiva-Shakti. She has to be experienced if she has to be transcended.
Hatha Yoga Pradipika commentary by Swami Muktibodhananda
Coburn, Thomas B. Devi-mahatmya: the Crystallization of the Goddess Tradition. Motilal Banarsidass: New Delhi, 1984.
The Life of Hinduism, by John Stratton Hawley (Editor), Vasudha Narayanan (Editor)
Hawley, John S. and Donna M. Wulff, eds. The Divine Consort: Radha and the Goddesses of India. Beacon Press: Boston, 1982.
Brooks, Douglas Renfrew (1990). The Secret of the Three Cities: An Introduction to Hindu Shakta Tantrism.