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
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.
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 naivet. Thereupon the gods became angry and
addressed their spouses rudely. Immediately, the goddesses
vanished from their midst.
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)
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)
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.
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.
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 Devi Bhagavata Purana describes the physical form of this
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
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
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.
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
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.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
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." 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."
"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."
"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.
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
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
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."
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)
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