Who Is Shakti?

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Śakti (power)

Shakti definition

Shakti is the divine mother & feminine entity, one-half of the cosmos’ primal parents.

Shakti is the creative power behind her eternal consort, Shiva, and the innate power of the universe.

Stone bas relief of Shakti in the complex of Angkor Wat, Siem Reap, Cambodia
Stone bas relief of Shakti in the complex of Angkor Wat, Siem Reap, Cambodia

Shakti deep dive

Shakti is the energy that enlivens the world and holds the macrocosm together – Divine Reality in motion and the cause of all creation.

She is the means through which we can know and enter the state of Shiva, Absolute Consciousness. The Divine Mother penetrates through the veil of illusion, providing us with a guiding force throughout life.

In the Shakta traditions, she is worshipped as the supreme Goddess and ultimate deity. Other Tantric traditions, shown by the quote from Kaula scripture below, teach that Shiva and Shakti are equals, two aspects of One.

शक्तिशक्तिमतोर्यद्वद् अभेदः सर्वदा स्थितः |
अतस् तद्धर्मधर्मित्वात् परा शक्तिः परात्मनः || १८ ||

There is never the slightest separation between Shakti and her Host (i.e. Shiva); thus, because there can be no separation between a quality and that in which it inheres, the Power (śakti) of the Supreme Being is itself Supreme (parā). || 18 ||

Vijñana-bhairava-tantra, verse 18 – translation from Hareesh Wallis.
Statue of Aadi Shakti Goddess Durga and Lord Shiva on entrance of Nataraja Temple, Chidambaram, Tamil Nadu, India
Statue of Aadi Shakti Goddess Durga and Lord Shiva on the entrance of Nataraja Temple, Chidambaram, Tamil Nadu, India

Sally Kempton, a meditation and traditional Tantra teacher, writes in Awakening Shakti that Shakti has five ‘faces’:

  1. The power to be conscious
  2. The power to feel ecstasy
  3. The power of will or desire
  4. The power to know
  5. The power to act

She is the dynamic energy that gives Shiva his power, enabling the creation, preservation, and dissolution of the entire universe and everything in it.

Shakti is both transcendent and immanent. Meaning, she is beyond the material yet everything that we are and experience is her too. This includes our own individual consciousness!

There is nothing that is not Shakti.

Reality is her dance, as the tradition teaches. Just as we daydream and create an entire experience with our imagination, Shakti does the same with the world.

She expresses the fullness of consciousness; all the way from taking our first breath, the formation of new stars and planets, and falling in love, right through to natural disasters, illnesses, and war. Both violence and peace are manifestations of the Divine Mother.

In her desire to express herself, she takes on the form of the Goddesses within the Hindu pantheon.

two hands holding a swirling universe

The Goddesses

Goddesses are mediators between your pysche and the deep structures of the cosmos

Sally Kempton

Let’s take a look at the big three manifestations of Shakti, though there are many. These three Goddesses represent different aspects of the universal Mother, they are all manifestations of her energy.

1. Durga/Kali

Durga, meaning fort in Sanskrit, is one of the most popular mother goddesses in India. She is the warrior archetype; an icon of power, strength, and liberation.

Her fierceness is depicted in the story of her creation; unable to defeat Mahishasura, the buffalo demon, Vishnu, Brahma, and Shiva used their powers to bring to life the demon-slaying goddess Durga.

An ode to her eternal strength, she emerged from the Ganges and defeated the demon much like she protects humanity and combats forces of evil within our lives.

a colourful statue of goddess kali
Goddess Kali

2. Lakshmi

The goddess of abundance, prosperity, wealth, and fertility. She is the serenity of nature, the conception of a baby, a stable income or a big lottery win, beautiful art, fresh fruit, and colorful flowers.

The story of Lakshmi starts with Sage Durvasa and Lord Indra. Durvasa offered Indra a garland of flowers which Indra felt he was better than and, instead of accepting the gift himself, gave the garland to his elephant.

Durvasa felt disrespected and thought the Lord had an inflated ego, thus cursing Lord Indra’s kingdom.

His kingdom soon became barren; nature died, the people became poor, minds became corrupted, and all produce refused to grow. Even the demons invaded the city after the gods became too weak to protect it.

Confused and defeated, the gods asked Vishnu to restore their city. He suggested they churned the ocean to regain what they once had, including the elixir of immortal life.

After much hard work and lots of churning, Lakshmi arose from the ocean along with the elixir and returned immortality to the gods along with the growth of Indra’s kingdom.

And so we can see that the city died because Lakshmi had left it, all because Lord Indra refused to acknowledge the beauty that he was offered with the flower garland.

Without Lakshmi, there is no beauty or prosperity at all.

She is all around us, all we have to do is look, appreciate, and give thanks!

a statue of Goddess Lakshmi during a Diwali celebration
Goddess Lakshmi during a Diwali celebration

3. Saraswati

Shakti in this form is the goddess of knowledge, the arts, learning, and wisdom. With the Vedas in her hand, she represents absolute truth.

Before Saraswati, there was disarray. By its very nature, the formlessness of the cosmos was fluid and without structure… but Brahma wanted to bring order to the chaos.

Enter the Goddess Saraswati, an embodiment of knowledge and wisdom.

Her wisdom guided Brahma, enabling him to make sense of and form from the formless – the heavens, the earth, the planets, and the stars were born. And we have Shakti’s sagacity to thank for it!

The Statue of Goddess Saraswati with Full Moon Background
A statue of Saraswati in Bali

Shakti as kundalini

She is also the coiled energy that sits at the base of the spine, the Muladhara (Root Chakra).

The process of self-realization is the process through which Shakti consciousness moves through the chakras until it reaches the Sahasrara (Crown Chakra).

Sometimes called the kundalini snake or serpent, she’s a transformative energy that holds within her the power of awakening.

Shakti as Maya/Bhuvaneshwari

Because she represents the fullest expression of universal consciousness, she also expresses herself as duality and cosmic illusion.

In the form of Maya, she separates herself from Shiva and fools us into thinking we are separate from the whole when in actual fact this is simply One (Shakti) manifesting herself as millions of individual things.

Thus through this perceived separation, the ego gets caught up in a game of duality and believes that joy is only to be found outside of itself.

Shakti in your life

Connecting with Shakti

Start with inviting the energy of Shakti into your daily life, acknowledging that everything that happens is a result of her.

Use her universal force as a gift to bring you closer to knowing the Self. You may do this through:

  • Praying
  • Dancing or moving your body
  • Mantra
  • Setting up an altar & making offerings
  • Tune into the energy of your subtle body, perhaps feeling the buzzing between your two hands when you hold them close, acknowledging this too is an act of Shakti
  • Practice the Shakti Mudra
  • Meditating on and visualizing the goddesses
  • Yoga asana
  • Pranayama practices

I would also recommend researching the various goddesses that exist within the pantheon and choosing one to work with. Every aspect of Shakti is different, and, depending on our situation and what we want to call in, we will want to work with different goddesses.

Every goddess has different mantras, offerings, pujas, etc., so these specific practices will bring a stronger energy of that specific goddess into your life.

a group of people dancing and smiling outside

Embracing Shakti & the patriarchy

‘If there is to be a future, it will wear the crown of feminine design’

Sri Aurobindo

Whatever your gender, embracing the sacred feminine is an incredibly important part of life.

For women and minority genders in particular, the patriarchy has dictated what it means to be a person:

What it means to be useful, to be a good employee, to be a leader, to be a good parent, to play the ‘right’ role in a household, to be conventionally attractive, and essentially, what it means to be an ‘acceptable’ woman and fit the required mold.

The patriarchy has suppressed many women’s and minority genders’ ability to live freely. They have been, by and large, confined to the household and had the patriarchy’s idea dictated to them of what the feminine should be.

This system has taught us that a woman is submissive, conforming, nice or inoffensive, quiet, maternal, and emotional. Without complying with these expectations, they run the risk of being rejected by a society that is based on patriarchal values.

Historically, only half of the population has had access to real power; the ability to make political decisions (or even decisions about their own body), play leading roles in the world, and effect change.

Yet Shakti teaches us that we all have the ability to be transformative like Kali, powerful like Lakshmi, intelligent like Saraswati, and fierce like Durga.

We (all genders) are all vessels of Shakti, and channeling her in any aspect can help us to freely express every part of ourselves and realize the immense power that we hold inside of us:

The light and the shadow, the power for complete creation and audacious destruction.

a woman's hands holding sparkling light

Gender essentialism

With the rise of neo-tantra (a new form of tantra that has no scriptural basis in classical Tantra – find out more here. Basically, the modern use of the word tantra is just a homonym & the practices have no sources from Indian Tantra), gender essentialism has become a problem.

It’s common to identify Shakti with women and Shiva with men, especially as the representation of Shiva and Shakti is that of a man and a woman, but these personifications are just metaphors.

Every person has aspects of masculine and feminine within them, neither aspects are exclusively male or female.

Classical Tantra was vehemently inclusive of all genders and castes. How could everyone not be seen as equal when we are all manifestations of the one divine Consciousness?

(So, every gender should connect with the power of Shakti.

Tuning into the Goddess may be especially useful for women, reconnecting us with a sacred part of ourselves that has never been given the space to unfold. But don’t forget that the patriarchy has huge consequences for men too, so we all benefit from connection to Shakti!).

people putting their hands together in a circle

The creative play of Shakti

Remember, everything in this life is Shakti’s creative play: the excitement, the sadness, the grief, the desperation, and the joy.

All of the outer and inner turmoil is the creative play of the Divine Mother.

Precisely because everything is the work of the Goddess, we must treat everything with reverence. There is no good or bad, there is only an extent to which one can see the nature of reality and the extent to which that reality is veiled by illusion and attachment.

When the illusion starts to fall away, we understand that Shakti, in her total, uninhibited freedom, expresses her fullness.

That is her dance; every experience and emotion is a gift of the Goddess (and yes, sometimes it feels like total crap). In fact, the more potent and, what we may call, ‘bad’ our emotions are, the more potential there is for us to drop into their power for awakening.

They are gateways!

We want to become intimate with every part of her creation. If you’re still confused, I would recommend watching Ruper Spira’s explanation of how to deal with negative emotions.

The same way in which heat cannot be separated from fire, we (the Self) cannot be separated from our own creative expression & inherent dynamism (Shakti).

Her energy is our birthright.

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To go deep and expand your yogic knowledge, access our free Yoga Terms Encyclopedia, where we host a profound wealth of ancient and timeless yogic wisdom in an accessible modern format.

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Liz is a Qigong and Yoga teacher based in Gloucestershire with a love for all things movement, nature & community. She strives to create a trauma-informed space in which everyone is empowered to be their authentic selves. www.elizabethburns.co.uk

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