Shakti manifests Prakriti, Brahman’s dynamic feminine will and creative energy. Shakti is the Divine Feminine and Brahman’s Force of Life. Prakriti consists of three types of matter, or gunas, which are the essential elements of all nature. Prakriti and it’s counterpart, the male principle of Purusha, consciousness and spirit, are interdependent, equivalent and ineffective without the other.
In mythology, just as Purusha embodies in the form of the male gods, Shakti, as the active, creative power takes physical form as Devi. This form can be one of the three Maha Devis, The Great Goddesses; Saraswati, Goddess of Knowledge, Music and Art, aligned with Brahma, the Creator; Lakshmi, Goddess of Abundance and Good Fortune aligned with Vishnu the Preserver; and Uma, The Mother Goddess of Love and Devotion aligned with Shiva, the Destroyer (note 1). As the creative, regenerative and maintaining forces of the universe each Maha Devi, as well as other goddesses such as Kali, Ganga and Mari Amma, has unique set of roles and characteristics.
“She is the creative joy of life; herself the beauty, the marvel, the enticement and seduction of the living world”
Heinrich Zimmer; Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization
In pre-Vedic times, India’s indigenous peoples venerated powerful, independent goddesses, but as Hinduism spread the divine feminine principle was absorbed into the Vedic pantheon, and in doing so the goddesses lost much of their spiritual status. Hinduism’s spiritual source, The Vedas, reflected the values of a patriarchal nomadic culture that suppressed prehistoric feminine power, therefore, the goddesses were relegated to roles as wives and consorts. Devotional hunger for divine feminine energy was not to be denied, however, and powerful deities in their own right have re-emerged; Durga, the dispassionate demon killer; Kali, the fiery protector; and of course, Uma, the cool, sensual beauty and power behind Shiva’s cosmic role. Hindu belief continues to evolve into the modern era and as the need for Shakti’s energy grows, so does the influence of her Devis.
Note 1 – Uma is known by many names, Parvati chief among them, but our Reference Library is primarily focussed on the Chola Bronzes, therefore, we refer to the deities as they are known in south India.
In Hindu mythology, Shakti manifests as Devi, an overarching term for the goddesses, Uma (Parvati), Mari Amma (Durga) and Kali (note 1). Originally all three were independent and powerful goddesses in their own right; however, over time their roles expanded to include that of the creative energy of Shiva in their role as his consort. While Uma came to represent the gentle beauty with a will of iron, the roles of Mari Amma and Kali became goddess-warriors who restored balance when demons threatened to upset the Dharma. Their roles as demon destroyers in popular mythology, however, would have been overshadowed by Shiva as demon-slayer.
Kali and Mari Amma are variously known as each other’s incarnation, however Tantric belief and practice focus upon Kali as the embodiment of Shaktic power and the center of many Tantric texts, rituals and iconography (note 3). In Shaktic Tantrism it is Kali who instructs Shiva in the arts of Tantra and it is Kali to whom Tantrikas turn when evil threatens.
“Most fearful, her laughter shows her dreadful teeth. She stands upon a corpse. She has four arms. Her hands hold a sword and a head and show the gestures of removing fear and granting boons. She is the auspicious divinity of sleep, the consort of Shiva. Naked, clad only in space, the goddess is resplendent. Her tongue hangs out. She wears a garland of heads. Such is the form worthy of meditation of the Power of Time, Kali, who dwells near the funeral pyres”. Kali Tantra
As the maternal and creative aspects of Shakti, Mari Amma, Kali and Uma, were revered throughout the Chola homeland, especially in the rural areas; Mari Amma as Goddess of Rain and protector from disease, and Kali as the ferocious demon slayer. Their festival worship has a distinctly non-Vedic feel with dancing, fire walking, as well as mouth and nose piercings.
Note 1 – As aspects, or facets, of Brahman, Hindu gods and goddesses are known by many names in different times and places, but their roles and characteristics are held in common. These names are very much a matter of geographic and cultural context, but in this Reference Library, I use the name by which they would have been known in south India at the time of the Chola Empire.
Note 2 – In the sect of Shaktism, it is believed that Devi is the Supreme Being and, therefore, above all other gods. As such, she is known as Maha Devi, or The Great Goddess.
Note 3 – This embodiment often takes the form of Mahakali or Great Kali. In her ten hands, she holds the attributes most associated with individual gods (Shiva’s trident, for example), implying their power only comes through Mahakali’s grace.
Shakti as Uma, Mari Amma and KaliTerry Curell2019-11-08T05:42:57-08:00
It is said that Hinduism is a religion of 300 million Gods, but those who say it perhaps don’t understand the symbolism of the Hindu pantheon. Truth may take 300 million forms but there is only one Ultimate Truth and it is Brahman and the entire Hindu pantheon is needed to even begin to represent Brahman’s aspects and manifestations.
He is the one, the one alone, in Him all deities become One alone.”
Hindu gods and goddesses are broadly classified as Vedic or Puranic. The Vedic gods and goddesses are the old gods, while the Puranic deities were created later. The Puranic epics, Bhagavad Gita and Ramayana, are well-loved by Hindus everywhere, while in south India, Sangam literature told stories of the lives and adventures of south India’s royalty, however, it is within the Puranas where the major deities have their stories told. The Puranas are perhaps the most important or commonly used scriptural texts; guidebooks for the whole of life and society. These sacred texts were in their final form by about 500 AD though orally passed down for two thousand years before that. The principal Puranas tell the stories of Vishnu the Preserver (Vishnu Purana), Shiva the Destroyer (Shiva Purana) and Devi, the Mother Goddess (Markendeya Purana). The Bhagavata Purana is important to the worshippers of Krishna, while Vayu (Vedic God of Air), Agni (Vedic God of Fire), Murugan (second son of Shiva and Uma), Kalki (last avatar of Vishnu), Lingam (the anthropomorphic pillar symbolizing Shiva) each have their own Purana.
These myths and legends were more than tales of high drama and superhuman feats; they told the stories of the gods and goddesses and brought them to life. No longer seen as unapproachable statues in temples or processions, these divine beings fought demons in hand to hand combat, made love, felt pain and lost their tempers, just as humans do. These tales showed them to be wise, loyal, caring, while some even had a sense of humour. In other words, they became multi-dimensional to Hindu devotees, more real, more approachable. The stories weren’t just entertainment but allegorical lessons in Dharma, the dutiful pathway. They taught Hindus, by example, how to do the right thing.
The Gods and Goddesses of HinduismTerry Curell2019-11-07T16:39:27-08:00