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Major philosophical thinkers and schools: Shaktism

Major philosophical thinkers and schools: Shaktism

  • Root of Shaktism (a Hindu denomination that focuses worship upon Shakti or Devi):
    • 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 Sanskrit tradition.
  • 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.

Shaktism in Veda:

  • Female divinity continued to have a place in belief and worship during Vedic period, but generally in a more subordinate role, with goddesses serving principally as consorts to the great gods.
    • The most important of the female deities mentioned in the Vedas is Ushas. Number of hymns in the Vedas are dedicated exclusively to her. The three divine mothers mentioned in the Rig Veda from whom the Vedic gods took their birth are Aditi, Prithvi and Saraswati. Prithvi continued to exist in later Hinduism as Bhudevi (goddess of the earth)
    • Also the appearance, in the famous Rig Vedic hymn Devi Sukta, of two of Hinduism’s most widely known and beloved goddesses:
      • Vac, identified with the present-day Saraswati; and
      • Sri, now better known as Lakshmi.

Shaktism in Upanishads:

  • Kena Upanishad tells an early tale in which the Devi appears as the shakti, or essential power, of the Supreme Brahman.
    • It begins with the Vedic trinity of Agni, Vayu and Indra boasting and posturing in the flush of a recent victory over a demon hoard – until they suddenly find themselves bereft of divine power in the presence of a mysterious yaksha, or forest spirit.
    • When Indra tries to approach and question the yaksha, it disappears, replaced by the Devi in the form of a “highly adorned” yakshini.

Shaktism in Epic:

  • While “no goddess of a purely Shakta character” is mentioned in the Ramayana, the Mahabharata is full of references that confirm the ongoing vitality of Shakta worship.
  • Mahabharat refers to the goddess residing in the Vindhyas, the goddess who is fond of wine and meat and worshiped by the hunting peoples.
    • The ongoing process of Goddess-worshiping indigenous peoples coming into the fold of the caste system brought with it a religious reflex of great historical consequence.
    • However, it is in the Epic’s Durga Stotras that the Devi is first revealed in her true character, comprising numerous local goddesses combined into one, all-powerful Female Principle.
  • The great Tamil epic, Silappatikaram (c. 100 CE) was one of several literary masterpieces amply indicating the cult of the Female Principle in South India during this period – and, once again, the idea that Lakshmi, Saraswati, Parvati, etc., represent different aspects of the same power.

Shaktism in Puranas:

  • The important Puranas from the Shakta standpoint are
    • Markandeya Purana,
    • Brahmanda Purana,
    • Devi-Bhagavata Purana,
    • Devi Purana and
    • Kalika Purana.
  • Devi-Mahatmya:
    • It is an important text in Shaktism, was inserted into the Markandeya Purana by about the 7th century.
    • Here, for the first time, the various mythic, cultic and theological elements relating to diverse female divinities were brought together.
    • This text contains verses in praise of the Devi (goddess) and speaks of her many exploits, including how she vanquished the demon Mahishasura.
    • The stories narrated in the Devi-Mahatmya are accompanied by verses in which the gods praise her in various ways.

    • Narayani-stuti:
      • The Narayani-stuti speaks of her Vaishnavi-shakti sustaining the entire universe.
      • It refers to her nine Matrika forms, and to her other manifestations as Lakshmi, Sarasvati, Narayani, Katyayani, Durga, Bhadrakali, and Ambika.
      • She announces that she will appear from time to time in the world, in order to destroy demons and evil.
  • Other important texts include the Lalita Sahasranama, the Devi Gita, Adi Shankara’s Saundaryalahari and the Tantras.
  • Lalita Sahasranama:
    • The Lalita Sahasranama is the thousand names of the Hindu mother goddess Lalita. It is a sacred text for the Hindu worshippers of the Goddess Lalita Devi, who considered to be a manifestation of the Shakti, and the text is therefore used in the worship of Durga, Parvati, Kali, Lakshmi, Saraswati, Bhagavati, etc. as well.
    • The Lalita Sahasranama is part of the Brahmanda Purana
    • The text operates on a number of levels, containing references not just to the Devi’s physical qualities and exploits but also an encoded guide to philosophy and esoteric practices of kundalini yoga and Srividya Shaktism.
  • Kalika Purana:
    • The Kalika Purana is an important Shakta text belonging to the early medieval period.
    • Composed in the area of Assam or in some adjoining part of Bengal, it reflects the diverse forms of the worship of Devi.
    • The goddess is described as having both a benign and a terrifying form.
      • In her shanta (calm) form, she has a strongly erotic character.
      • In her raudra (fierce) manifestation, she is best worshipped in a cremation ground.
    • The Kalika Purana describes two methods of worship:
      • Dakshina-bhava (the right method):
        • The ‘right method’ consists of various regular rites and rituals which include animal and human sacrifice.
      • Vama-bhava (the left method):
        • The ‘left method’ includes rituals involving the use of alcohol, meat, and sexual rites.
        • Although both methods have a Tantric imprint, it is stronger in the vama-bhava.
    • The Purana also contains details of the performance of the popular festival of Durga Puja.
  • Pithas:
    • The Puranas mention various sacred places associated with the different manifestations of Devi.
    • The Devi Bhagvata refers to such places as pithas.
    • The Kalika Purana mentions seven pithas, associated with places where the dismembered pieces of Sati’s body are supposed to have fallen like Kamarupa, Jalandhar, Purnagiri, Devikuta etc.
    • The number of pithas increased subsequently and this reflects a dramatic expansion in the sacred geography associated with the goddess.
    • Pilgrimages to Shakta pithas were well established in the early medieval period.

Architectural and sculptural remains:

  • Remains from various parts of the subcontinent reflect the widespread worship of Durga, as well as the allied cults of the Matrikas (usually mentioned as seven or eight in number) and the Yoginis.
  • Yoginis:
    • They were 64 in number, and are described in texts as attendants or manifestations of Durga in her battle against the demons Shumbha and Nishumbha.
    • The principal Yoginis were identified with the Matrikas.
  • The worship of the Sapta-Matrikas and Yoginis was also popular in eastern India.
    • In Orissa, several Matrika images have been found in and near Jajpur.
    • Roofless temples of the Yoginis occur at Ranipur Jharial and Hirapur.
  • Multi-armed Durga
    • Multi-armed Durga images of this period occur in large numbers, especially in eastern India.
    • They also occur in the Tamil Nadu area, where an iconographic peculiarity is the association of the goddess with a stag.
  • Nishumbhamardini:
    • Representations of the goddess as Nishumbhamardini (slayer of the demon Nishumbha) occur among the reliefs at many temples belonging to the Chola period.

Local goddesses:

  • The inscriptions of early medieval India refer to many local goddesses. For instance, those of Orissa mention Viraja and Stambheshvari, and those of Assam mention Kamakhya.
  • The Puranic tradition wove the many goddess cults together by developing the idea that the various local goddesses were manifestations of one great goddess, the great Devi.
  • In Bengal, the encounter between Brahmanism and a strong tradition of the worship of autonomous goddesses resulted in a regional cultural synthesis which gave primacy to goddess worship.
  • The Matsya Purana gives a list of 108 names of the great goddess, while the Kurma Purana invokes her with 1,000 names

The Goddess as killer of the demon Mahisha

  • The basic iconography of Durga Mahishasuramardini, which is in fact the most frequently depicted form of the goddess in sculpture, was fixed in the early centuries CE.
  • Some of the most impressive sculptural representations of Durga Mahishasuramardini were made by sculptors of the early medieval period.
  • One of the most impressive representations of Durga Mahishasuramardini is located in a niche in the Virupaksha temple at Aihole.

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