Sakti or Saktism is the manifestation of GOD in female form in HINDUISM and the groups that worship it. Sakti is a word in Sanskrit, an ancient language of India, that means “power” or “energy.” It is a female divine principle and the power of all the gods. At a higher level of abstraction, some Indian schools of thought distinguish between spirit and nature. Spirit is male, nature is female. Spirit is also eternal and unchanging—inactive and inert. Nature is active, energetic, and creative. As such, some people consider it better to worship the active principle or sakti. People who worship sakti in its various forms are called saktas. Taken together, their beliefs and practices are called Saktism.

Sakti is as much an abstract principle as a divine being. It may refer to the highest god or to the consort of a god, especially S IVA. In personal form sakti is most generally known as Devi, “the Goddess.” Hindus know many GODDESSES, whom they usually revere as mothers. They may think of all of them as different forms of Devi or as different, independent goddesses. Some goddesses have fi erce characters; others are benign. Two well-known fi erce goddesses are DURGA and KALI. Benign goddesses include Annapurna, Gauri, and PARVATI. In addition, most villages have their own goddesses. A common goddess at this more popular level is the goddess of smallpox. She is worshipped in order to keep the disease away.

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Many Saktas worship the goddess through PUJA. They pray and offer gifts to her with the help of images and sacred symbols, such as the Sri-cakra-yantra. This yantra consists of a series of fi ve triangles pointing down and four pointing up, surrounded by stylized lotus petals, which are themselves surrounded by a rectangular border. One distinctive feature of such worship among forms of Hinduism is that saktas’ gifts may include the SACRIFICE of animals, such as goats. Animal sacrifi ce especially characterizes the worship of Kali and the village goddesses. Saktas also sometimes engage in practices that show special devotion or the possession of special powers, such as walking on fi re or entering into trances.
Saktism is closely associated not only with devotional worship but also with tantric Yoga. Through this yoga Saktas seek ultimate realization and release. Tantric yoga aims to awaken the internal life force. This force is a form of sakti, and it is often envisioned as KUNDALINI, that is, a coiled serpent sleeping at the base of the spinal column. When awakened, the kundalini is visualized as moving upward through the sushumna. In this school of thought, people possess not only a body made up of coarse matter but also a subtle body made up of fi ne matter or energy. The sushumna is a part of the subtle body. It is situated along the spinal column and serves as a channel for energy. The kundalini moves through seven centers of the subtle body known as CAKRAS, “circles.” The uppermost cakra is located at the top of the skull. When the kundalini reaches it, the practitioner experiences ultimate realization and release.

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Saktas use many techniques to achieve these results. Their techniques tend to emphasize the use of feminine and material elements. Some practitioners belong to groups that are called “left-handed.” Their activities violate normal social conventions. These activities include the use of intoxicants, the eating of meat, and the ritual practice of sexuality—all in search of ultimate realization.

The worship of goddesses is very old on the Indian subcontinent. It appears to have been prevalent in the Harappan or Indus Valley period, almost 5,000 years ago. From these roots Saktism came into being by about the year 500 C.E. Today, right-handed Saktas, those who observe normal conventions, are prevalent in southern India. Left-handed Saktas are prevalent in northern and especially eastern India. Perhaps the most famous Sakta was RAMAKRISHNA Paramahamsa, a priest of the goddess Kali in Kolkata (Calcutta). An ecstatic, he had visions not only of Mother Kali but also of JESUS and MUHAMMAD.