chapter  7
22 Pages


ByKathleen M. Erndl

Worship of goddesses or divine feminine manifestations is surely one of the oldestreligious expressions on the Indian subcontinent, though as a sectarian or textual movement it became integrated into the more orthodox Sanskritic tradition at a relatively late period. Çåkta, that which pertains to Çakti, the power of the universe conceived of as a goddess, is often considered to be the third major Hindu sectarian tradition, after Vai‚~ava (worship of Vi‚~u) and Çaiva (worship of Çiva) traditions, but it is much more difficult to delineate than either of those. For one thing, all Hindus worship goddesses as part and parcel of a nonsectarian polytheism. For another, goddesses and concepts of çakti saturate the Vai‚~ava and Çaiva traditions. It is a common saying that all Bråhma~s are Çåkta because of their daily recitation of the preeminent Gåyatr⁄-mantra, the prayer to the sun which is personified as the goddess Såvitr⁄ or Gåyatr⁄, the wife of Brahmå and mother of the Veda. If one defines as Çåkta those who worship goddesses, from the Bråhma~ priest who recites his daily Gåyatr⁄ to the men and women of even the lowest castes who propitiate their village and family goddesses, then Çåktas are to be found everywhere. But there is also a sense in which Çåktas are difficult to find, either in scholarly literature or as a label of self-identification among practitioners. In scholarly literature Çåktism is often ignored, subordinated to Vai‚~avism or even more commonly to Çaivism, or conflated with Tantrism. It is often misunderstood, especially by Western scholars, even to the point where in a recent world religions textbook, a scholar of Hinduism declares-erroneously-that Çåktism cannot be considered a mårga or path to liberation because it is concerned only with obtaining worldly benefits for the worshiper, not liberation from the realm of saµsåra (Hein 1993). Because of Çåkta association with unorthodox Tantric practices and nonVedic or tribal cultures, some goddess worshipers are hesitant to label themselves Çåkta and practice their tradition in secret or under the guise of Çaivism. As a Bengali saying goes, one should be “Vai‚~ava in public, Çaiva in private, and Çåkta in secret.”