Shaktas are the worshipers of the goddess, called Shakti or Devi, in India. Popular Shaktism in Bengal is primarily an oral tradition, organized around living teachers (gurus) and sacred places ( shakta pithas ). Shaktas as a group include both laypeople and religious ascetics. Laypeople usually worship images of the goddess in the household with daily rituals ( pujas ). Ascetics may live in temples or ashrams, out in the woods, or at sacred sites. They frequently dress in red clothing, wear long and matted hair ( jata ), and have rosaries ( malas ) made of bone or rudrahha berries.
Shaktism in India is primarily of two types—the Shrikula (the lineage or family of the goddess Shri) and the Kalikula (the lineage of the goddess Kali). The first type, located Primarily in southern India, sees the goddess as the embodiment of good fortune, fertility, and wealth, and it respects the Brahmanic tradition (the mainstream Hindu tradition, which emphasizes caste and purity). The main form of the goddess here is called Shri or Lakshmi. The second type is seen mostly in northern India, especially in West Bengal, Assam, Bihar, and Orissa. The focus of the Kali lineage is upon the goddess as the source of wisdom and liberation, and it stands in opposition to the Brahmanic tradition, which it views as overly conservative and denying the experiential part of religion. Kali and Tara are the main forms of the goddess, though there are ten different forms that are worshiped (the ten mahavidyas or "great wisdom" figures). There is also worship of local goddesses, such as Manasha, the snake goddess, and Sitala, the smallpox goddess, as well as rituals to more well-known pan-Indian goddesses (such as Sarasvati, Durga, Radha, Parvati, and Gayatri Devi). These goddesses are described in stories in Bengali and Sanskrit sacred texts. All of them may be understood as aspects of shakti, the feminine power of creation and transformation.
Two of the major centers of goddess worship in West Bengal are Kalighat in Calcutta and Tarapith in Birbhum District, with different styles of Shakta practice in each. In Calcutta, the emphasis is on devotion to the goddess as Kali, the loving mother who protects her children and whose fierceness guards them. She is outwardly frightening (with dark skin, pointed teeth, and a necklace of skulls) but inwardly beautiful. She can guarantee a good rebirth or great Religious insight, and her worship is often communal (especially at festivals, such as Kali Puja and Durga Puja). Worship may involve contemplation of the devotee's union with or love of the goddess, visualization of her form, chanting mantras (sacred words), prayer before an image or symbol (yantra) of the goddess, and giving offerings.
At Tarapith, whose major religious focus is a cremation ground, the goddess is called Tara, "the one who saves," and Ugratara, "the fierce one." She is the goddess who gives liberation ( kaivalyadayini ). The forms of ritual practice ( sadhana ) performed here are more yogic and tantric (esoteric) than devotional, and they often involve sitting alone at the burning ground, surrounded by ash and bone. There are shamanic elements associated with the Tarapith tradition, including Conquest of the goddess, exorcism, trance, and control of spirits.
Both Kalighat and Tarapith are considered by Bengali Shaktas to be pithas, seats or dwelling places of the goddess. The idea of the pithas is based upon the story of Sati, which is found in different variants in several medieval texts known as Puranas. Sati was the wife of the god Shiva, and her father held a sacrificial ceremony to which Shiva was not invited. She went there and died of the insult to her husband. Shiva came to find her, went mad with grief at her death, and danced a dance of destruction with Sati's corpse in his arms. The gods feared that he would destroy the world, so they cut her body into pieces, which fell to earth. Shiva stopped his destructive dance, and the world was saved. The places where pieces of the body fell came to be known as pithas, places where the goddess would dwell forever.
Bengali Shaktism as a religion is strongly connected with Shaivism, or worship of Shiva, the husband of the goddess. While most texts speak of them as equal (or of Shiva as superior) , in practice the Shaktas focus their worship on the goddess, and Shiva is often seen as inferior or dependent, the servant or gatekeeper of the goddess. The term shakti means creative power, the power to bring into being, and Shiva would otherwise be a corpse ( shava ) without the power of the goddess to enliven him. One of the most frequently seen statues of Kali in Calcutta is the image of the goddess stepping on her husband, who is lying down like a corpse.
One form of ritual frequently practiced by Shaktas is Kundalini yoga. This involves meditation to awaken the goddess Kundalini, who sleeps in the lowest chakra (energy center) of the body, at the coccyx, and leading her up the spine into the chakra at the top of the head, where she unites with the god Shiva (and the meditator attains liberation). This practice makes use of breath control and the visualization of spiritual channels and deities within the body.
Although goddesses are mentioned in such ancient texts as the Vedas and Puranas, Shaktism was an esoteric religion practiced mainly by yogis and tantric ascetics until the eighteenth century. At that time there was a rise of Shakta devotion ( bhakti ), encouraged by the songs of such poets as Ramprasad Sen and Kamalakanta Bhattacarya. They made the religion accessible to laypeople who were not initiated into the complex meditative practices of the tantric lineages and who wished to worship the Divine Mother with love and offerings. For popular Shaktism, the goal was not liberation but an afterlife in the goddess's paradise.
In recent days, Bengali Shaktism has been strongly influenced by the nineteenth-century saint, Ramakrishna Paramahamsa of Dakshineshwar. Ramakrishna was priest of a Kali temple and worshiped the goddess throughout his life, but he also claimed to have attained spiritual realization through other paths, such as Vaishnavism, Islam, and Christianity. Modern popular Shaktism echoes this universalist sentiment, that the ultimate aim of all religions is the same. The altars of modern Shakta devotees are often filled with symbols from the different religions of the world.
See also Baul , Bengali Vaishnava
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McDaniel, June (1989). The Madness of the Saints: Ecstatic Religion in Bengal. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Sinha, Jadunath, trans. (1966). Rama Prasada's Devotional Songs: The Cult of Shakti. Calcutta: Sinha Publishing House.
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