The Great Guru Shankaracharya once went to Kashmir, wanting to engage in debate the followers of the Goddess (Shakti), known as the 'Shaktas.' No sooner had he reached the place than he was rendered immobile by a severe bout of dysentery. So seriously was he affected, that unable to get up from his bed, he for the moment, lost the power to speak.
Soon after, a twelve-year-old girl came near him and whispered in his ears: "O Shankara, do you think you can negate the cult of Shakti?"
Feeling helpless, Shankaracharya said, "Devi, I have come here for this very purpose, but right now I feel devoid of any potency. When I gain enough power to speak, only then will I be able to do so. Without Shakti, I cannot do anything."
The charming girl replied thus: "O revered preceptor, when you yourself cannot move an inch without your Shakti, how will you refute its cult? O Wise One, know me to be Shiva's Shakti - The supreme power activating this world. Charged by my own energy, you want to negate me?"
His mind now at rest, Shankaracharya bowed to the goddess, and left Kashmir as soon as he recovered.
Ignoring Shakti (At Our Own Peril)
Indeed, so indistinguishable are we from our Shakti that we often tend to take it (her) for granted, with sinister consequences. The Devi Bhagavata Purana, a primary text narrating the goddess, speaks of an episode where the great gods Shiva and Vishnu were attacked by a powerful army of demons. It was only after grappling with them for a long duration that they were able to vanquish the villains. Even though their success was due to their respective powers, they were vain enough to think it to be their individual victory, even going to the extent of boasting of their prowess before their respective Shaktis. The two goddesses, Parvati and Lakshmi, found the whole situation comical and laughed at their naiveté. Thereupon the gods became angry and addressed their spouses rudely. Immediately, the goddesses vanished from their midst.
The Gods Mollify the Goddess
No sooner had this happened than the world was plunged into turmoil. Relieved of their power, the two deities became lusterless and fell into a lifeless, deranged state. It was only after a severe penance was performed that the Great Goddess (Shakti) was pleased enough to restore herself to the two gods, saying: "The insult shown towards my manifestations has led to this calamitous state. Such a crime should never again be committed." Shiva and Vishnu, now devoid of pride, got back their previous natures and were thus enabled to perform their functions as before. (Devi Bhagavata Purana: 7.29.25-45)
Shakti - The Burning Power of Fire
Agni - The Sacred Fire
A similar instance occurred when, after the creation of worldly and heavenly beings, the perplexing question remained of the latter's sustenance. While creatures of the earth could partake of the food available there, no provision had still been made for the gods. Brahma, the creator, then decreed that the offerings poured into the sacrificial fires (on the earth), would be the food of gods. Towards this end, they worshipped the Great Goddess, who appeared before them in the form of goddess 'Svaha.'
The assembled deities then addressed her: "O Goddess, Let yourself become the burning power of fire; who is not able to burn anything without thee. At the conclusion of any mantra, whoever taking thy name (Svaha), will pour oblations in the fire, he will cause those offerings to go directly to the gods. Mother, let yourself, the repository of all prosperity, reign over as the lady of his (fire's) house."
Later, Agni, the deity of fire, approached her with some fear, and worshipped her as the Mother of the World. Then, with the chanting of sacred mantras, they were tied in the knots of holy matrimony. From then, it is believed, that whosoever pours libations in the sacrificial fire accompanied by the sacred name 'Svaha,' has all his dreams immediately fulfilled. (Devi Bhagavata Purana: 9.43)
Shakti - The Power of the Gods
The Kena Upanishad, a major text of Indian philosophy, narrates a profounder story, where the gods, having defeated the demons, puffed up with pride. The Highest God (Sanskrit: Brahman), that formless entity who is beyond any gender, realized their folly and revealed itself before their eyes, to grace them with repentance. However, blinded with the veil of egoism, the gods were unable to understand the vision revealed to them.
Agni Tries to Burn the Twig
The deity of fire was then deputed by the gods to enquire who the divine person in front of their eyes was. When Agni reached the Great Being, the latter asked him as to what power he (fire) possessed. Pat came the reply: "I can burn down the whole world." The manifested Brahman then placed a blade of grass between them and asked him to burn it. Using all his might, fire tried his utmost to set the twig ablaze, but could not do so.
Unable to know the Brahman, he then returned dejected to the waiting gods.
The Wind Attempts to Blow Away the Twig
Next came the god of wind. He too bragged about his ability to carry along anything with his mighty power. Faced with the same miniscule twig, he had to retreat.
It then fell to the lot of Indra, the king of gods, to approach the Great Being. No sooner had he tried to do so, than the latter vanished, and instead appeared in the sky, the beautiful goddess Uma, also known as Parvati. (Kena Upanishad: 3.1-12)
The Highest Shakti (Shrimad Devi Bhagavatam, Book Twelve, Chapter 8)
The Devi Bhagavata Purana describes the physical form of this goddess:
A virgin blooming with fresh youth, the luster of her body was like the rising sun. Shining on her crown was the digit of the moon. She was holding a noose and goad in her two hands and the other two arms displayed the mudras of boon granting (varada) and fearlessness (abhaya) respectively.
Her body, decked with various ornaments, looked auspicious and exceedingly lovely. She was like the wish-fulfilling tree (Kalpa Vriksa). Three-eyed, her face was endowed with the beauty of ten million cupids (Kamadeva).
Her clothing was red and her body was covered with sandal paste. She was the Cause of all causes, and the embodiment of compassion (karuna-murti).
Seeing her, the hairs on Indra's body stood on ends with ecstasy. His eyes were filled with tears of love and deep devotion and he immediately fell prostrate at the feet of the goddess, singing hymns in her praise. (Devi Bhagavata Purana: 12.8.52-60)
The goddess then instructed Indra regarding the essence of the Supreme Reality, stressing that it was the power of Brahman (manifested as herself), which was responsible for victory over the demons, and the gods were but instruments in the grander design.
The Strange Couch and the Vision of Shakti as the Power of All
The Goddess Seats the Trinity in a Golden Chariot
The goddess is however sometimes more assertive in driving home the truth. When the three gods - Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, on eve of the creation of the world, sat perplexed as how to go about it, she appeared before the trio, seated them on a golden chariot and took them on a round of the numerous universes created by her.
The Great Goddess
At one instant, they came upon a strange and beautiful bed, with Lord Shiva forming its mattress. Its four legs were Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva and Dharma respectively. Seated over it was a divine lady, wearing red garments, garlands, and also smeared with sandal paste of the same color. Her eyes were dark-red and the beautiful crimson-lipped lady was lustrous like the rising sun; beautiful like ten million Lakshmis. She had a sweet smile on her face and held in her four hands a noose, goad, and two mudras indicating readiness to grant boons and fearlessness respectively. Never before had the gods seen such a form. All merciful, and in the full bloom of youth, the goddess had blossoming breasts which surpassed even the buds of a lotus (in softness).
Suddenly, the four-armed lady transformed herself, and instead revealed to them a young woman with infinite eyes and limbs. The gods stood transfixed, dazzled by this spectacular vision celebrating the supremacy of Shakti.
The Three Gods, Transformed into Females, Venerate the Goddess
Wishing to pay obeisance to her, the gods then got down from their chariot and approached the goddess. No sooner had they done so than she transformed them all into beautiful, young maidens. When they reached near her smiling form, the goddess looked at the female-gods affectionately, and the latter too stood around her, admiring each other appreciatively. When they bowed at her feet, they beheld in her mere toenails, a reflection of the entire universe.
The Devi is Venerated by Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva
The three then sang hymns in her praise, asking her: "We have forgotten your sacred mantra of creation. To be able to continue the cycle of creation, preservation and destruction, kindly initiate us again into your mystery."
Purusha and Prakriti
To this, the Great Goddess replied:
"There is no difference at all between the Great God (Purusha) and myself. It is only for the sake of the world that we appear as two. In absence of this manifested world, there is neither the male, not female nor androgyne."
Surya - The Powerful Sun
"Nothing in this world is devoid of me. I enter into every substance, and making Purusha the instrument. I do all the actions. I am the coolness of water, the heat of fire, the luster in the sun and also the soothing rays of the moon, which are but manifestations of my power."
"If abandoned by me, this universe becomes motionless. If I leave Shiva, he will not be able to kill demons. A weak man is declared to be without any Shakti, nobody says that he is without Shiva, or without Vishnu. Those who are timid, afraid, or under one's enemies - they are all called Shakti-less; no one says that this man is Shiva-less and so forth."
Shiva and Shakti
"So, the creation that you are about to perform, know Shakti to be the cause thereof. When you will be endowed with that Shakti, you will be able to create the world. Vishnu, Shiva, Indra, Agni, Moon, Sun, Death, and all the other deities are able to do their karmas only when they are united with their respective Shaktis. This earth, when united with Shakti, remains fixed and becomes capable to hold all beings inhabiting it. If it be devoid of this power, it cannot support even an atom." (Devi Bhagavata Purana: 3.6)
She then created from her body the three goddesses - Saraswati, Lakshmi and Parvati, and offered them to Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, entrusting the couples with the functions of creation, preservation and destruction respectively.
Power in the Household - The Strange Story of Tulsi Devi
Shankhachuda, Before Commencing Battle with Them, Bows Before Shiva, Kali and Karttikeya
An enlightening case is of the demon named Shankhachuda, who defeated in battle even the mighty army of Shiva, which was led by the latter's wife, the great Kali herself and their son Karttikeya.
Puzzled, Shiva reasoned with Vishnu regarding the villain's apparent infallibility. The two deities then came to the conclusion that his invincible Shakti stemmed from the unflinching devotion and chastity of his loving wife Tulsi.
Vishnu, then taking on the form of Shankhachuda, approached the innocent Tulsi, who, mistaking him for her husband, welcomed him into her arms with rapturous joy. Vishnu, the great lord of the world, then shared her bed and engaged in physical union with her. But the chaste wife, finding this time her experience quite different from what she used to enjoy before, argued all the time within herself and at last questioned him: "O Magician! Who are you? By spreading your magic, you have enjoyed me. As you have taken my chastity, I will curse you."
The lord, fearing the curse of a pure woman, assumed his original self. Seeing his divine form, Tulsi fainted. When she regained her consciousness, she cursed Vishnu: "You merciless lord, your heart is hard as a stone, so may you too turn into a stone."
Thus because of this curse does Vishnu manifest himself in the stone known as Shaligrama, found only on the banks of the river Gandaki in Nepal, where, with tiny teeth, millions of insects incise slow rings of torture into his body of stone, carving strange and sacred sculptures. Those of these pieces, that fall into the river, are considered the most auspicious. Hence did the lord take upon himself the anguish of Tulsi on separation from her husband.
Before leaving however, Vishnu did not neglect to bless the virtuous lady, who by her chastity and unblemished character, had acted as the power behind the scenes, protecting her spouse. The lord hailed her saying: "Your hair will transform into sacred trees and as being born of you, they will be known by the name of Tulsi. The whole world will perform their rituals with the leaves and flowers of this Tulsi plant. Therefore, O fair-faced one! You will be reckoned as the chief amongst all vegetation. All the sacred pilgrimages will reside at the bottom of the Tulsi tree, where I and all the other deities will sit, waiting in anticipation to be blessed by a falling leaf."
Offering Water to Tulsi
To this day, this auspicious plant occupies a place of honor in the homes of devotees, as the archetypal symbol of our 'Shakti at home,' venerated by innumerable modern day women, still following the glorious standards laid down by Tulsi.
Truly does say the Devi Bhagavata Purana elaborating on the concept of Shakti:
She is the Heavenly Lakshmi (Swargalakshmi), residing in the heavens, the Royal Lakshmi (Rajalakshmi) in the palaces of kings and in the ordinary families of the world, she is the Household Lakshmi (Grihalakshmi). (9.1.26)
References and Further Reading:
- Date, V.H. Upanisads Retold (2 Volumes) New Delhi, 1999.
- Kenopnishad (With the Commentary of Shri Shankaracharya): Gorakhpur, 2000
- Menon, Ramesh. The Devi Bhagavatam Retold New Delhi, 2006.
- Goswami, Chimmanlal and Hanumanprasad Poddar (eds.). Shrimad Devi Bhagavatam (Hindi): Gorakhpur, 2005.
- Pandey, Shri Pandit Ram Tej (tr.). Shrimad Devi Bhagavatam (Hindi): Delhi, 2004
- Poddar, Hanumanprasad. Shakti Anka (Special Issue of the Spiritual Magazine Kalyan): Gorakhpur, 2002.
- Sarma, Dr. S.A. Kena Upanishad: A Study from Sakta Perspective Mumbai, 2001.
- Sivananda, Swami. Lord Siva and His Worship Shivanandanagar, 2004.
- Vijnanananda, Swami (tr.). The Srimad Devi Bhagavatam (English) New Delhi, 1998.