Shakti (or Sakti) is the Tantric title for the Great Goddess (Devi), realized as a sexual partner and as the innermost animating soul of man or god, like the Greek Psyche, Roman Anima, Gnostic Sophia, and the Kabbalistic Shekina, all based on the Skati. Jung declared her to be the figure known as My Lady Soul: “Every mother and every beloved is forced to become the carrier and embodiment of this omnipresent and ageless image, which corresponds to the deepest reality in man.”
Shakti is translated “Cosmic Energy.” (see Soul of the World) She implies “power, ability, capacity, strength prowess; regal power; power of composition, poetic power, genius; the power or signification of a word or term; the power inherent in cause to produce its necessary effect…[S]hakti is the female organ; shakti is the active power of a deity and is regarded, spiritually and mythologically, as his goddess-consort and queen.” The Tantras say, “the female principle antedates and includes the male principle, and…this female principle is the supreme Divinity”
Tantric doctrine stipulates mortal women are “life-itself” and Goddess-like, because they embody the principle of Shakti. The sages say, “…hold women in great esteem and call them Shaktis and to ill treat a Shakti, that is, a woman, is a crime.” A Tantric synonym for “woman” was Shaktiman, “Mind of Shakti” or “Possessor of Shakti.”
In Hindu Shakti is the eternal and supreme power, variously described as manifest energy, the substance of everything and all pervading. The Vedic meaning of Shakti is “energy.” In Hinduism Shakti is a term for the manifestation of the creative principle. However, the concept of Shakti is derived from the hoary past and brahminized in later centuries. The concept of the supreme power as female, a mother, a womb, a vulva is not found in the pre-eminently patriarchal scriptures of the Aryans, but arises, to be made respectable by the higher castes, from the submerged prehistoric mother cults of the earliest people of the subcontinent.
A Shakti was also a spirit-wife, or feminine guardian angel, who could be incarnate in the earthly wife, mistress or whore, or a wholly supernatural figure. “An important division of the ‘mythology of woman’ is devoted to showing it is always a feminine being who helps the hero to conquer immortality or to emerge victorious from his initiatory ordeals…Every Teleut shaman has a celestial wife who lives in the seventh heaven, where he meets her and makes love to her during his ecstatic journeys.”
The final union with Shakti occurs at the moment of death, according to the Tantric mystics. She was both the individual and the cosmic goddess absorbing the body and soul of the dying sage into herself, an experience of unsurpassable bliss on his part. “The possession of her, the cosmic Shakti, the living embodiment of the principle of beauty and youth eternal, is the ultimate quest, the very highest prize.”
The Kulacudamani Nigama said not even God could become the supreme Lord unless Shakti entered him. All things arose from their union, but she said, “There is none but Myself Who is the Mother to create.” The Lalita Sahasranamam said, “The series of universes appear and disappear with the opening and shutting of Her eyes.” As God required her power before he could do anything at all, so her worshipper on earth required the power of his own Istadevata, Shakti, or fair-love.”
Likewise, the Middle-Eastern mystics such as the Sufis kept to a similar belief. They proclaimed such a fair-love or fravashi essential to any man’s enlightenment. By the Christian Gnostics Shakti was worshipped by such names as Sophia, Pneuma, Eide, or Anima. Some Gnostic writings used sexual symbolism to describe the union of one’s soul after death with Shakti, as in the Mandaean Liturgies for the Dead: the soul or “image” (Eide) embraces and caresses the dead man like a beloved woman. This Tantric idea came to the West by the Avesta doctrine that, after the death of a believer, his own conscience would overcome him “in the form of a fair maiden.”
In Hinduism, for accuracy it should be noted, Shakti means eternal and Supreme Power, variously described as manifest energy, and substance of everything, and all-pervading. In the Vedas the term means energy. Presently Shakti is both connected with and identical to the power of the gods Shiva, Vishnu, or Brahma, the great Hindu triad. From the most ancient Hindu scriptural times Shakti, under a variety of names, is linked to Shiva, the Lord of Sleep (and his various guises, especially Rudra). Shiva is said to be helpless without the divine energy, Shakti. The two, coupled in sexual union, are the two inseparable forces that impregnate the universe with life in all of its forms. Without Sakati, Shiva is merely the Void. “He has no visible form,” the Linga-arcana Tantra states. “What can be expected from the worship of nothingness?” Shiva (or Rudra), thus a corpse, cannot be worshipped without Shakti. The Goddess is the source of all, the universal Creator. Shakti does not even need Shiva; as eternal Virgin (Kumari) she does not depend on any one any power, for she is the One Itself as Power.
Shakti, energy, is the personification of a god, recognized in Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism. In the more specific context, the Salti identifies the creative force of the god Siva, particularly the ugra or violent aspects of Durga and Kali. The Shakti may frequently have the same characteristics and carry the same attributes as the principle god. In Tantrism, the Shakti defines the unity of opposites, which is the yoni sexuality that unites with the lingam of Shiva. A.G.H.
Walker, Barbara G, The Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets, New York, HarperCollins, 1983, pp. 929-930
Rice, Edward, Eastern Definitions: A Short Encyclopedia of Religions of the Orient, New York, Doubleday, 1978, p. 308
Jordan, Michael, Encyclopedia of Gods, New York, Facts On File, Inc. 1993, p. 224
Cotterell, Arthur, A Dictionary of World Mythology, New York, G. P. Putman’s Sons, 1980, pp. 69-70