Shakti: The Liberating Power
The Rise and Fall of the Ancient Mother Goddess
Ty Koontz – Laughing Man Magazine, Vol 4, Number 3, 1983.
uman beings have conceived and worshipped the Divine Personality in female form since prehistoric times. In the Upper Paleolithic Age, when religion took the form of fertility rituals and celebrations, the stylized image of Woman became a dominant religious symbol. Our Stone Age ancestors carved female figurines from bone, ivory, and stone, portraying exaggeratedly fleshy women with large, pendulous breasts, protruding bellies and vulvas, fat thighs, and minimally delineated heads and limbs. These carvings were associated with the mystery of birth, fertility, and generation, and they were used as fertility charms or for ritual purposes.
When the nomadic lifestyle of the Paleolithic hunter-gatherer culture gave way to the lifestyle of the Neolithic Age, these “Great Mother” statuettes acquired new meaning. Whereas women had played a lesser. role in the hunting-gathering stage, their involvement in agriculture and in the domestication of animals greatly boosted their social status. In response to this new social environment and increased dependence on the fertility of a fixed locale, new cults sprang up, dedicated to the veneration of the Earth Mother, the Goddess of fertility and the creator of life.
The names and forms of the Mother Goddess are legion, and her worship appears to have been worldwide. According to Robert Graves, “the whole of Neolithic Europe, to judge from surviving artifacts and myths, had a remarkably homogenous system of religious ideas, based on worship of the many titled Mother Goddess.”1 In prehistoric Egypt, she was worshipped as Nuit, the sky goddess. In preclassical Greece, she was the earth-mother, Gaea. To the ancient Chinese, she was known as Nu Kwa, who restored the shattered heavens to harmony. To the Dahomey people of Africa, she is Mawu, who created human beings out of clay and water. As late as the sixteenth century, she was worshipped in Slavic countries as the Great Goddess Mokosh. She is
Amaterasu, the Divine Ancestress, in Japan; Tara, the protectress and Divine Consort, in Tibet; Bachue, who had intercourse with her son to create the human race, in Colombia. To the Amazon River people, she appears as Ituana, the Goddess of the afterworld; and in Australia, she takes the form of the Wawalag Sisters, who brought agricultural, civilization to the continent.
1. Carlene Spretnak, Lost Goddesses of Early Greece (Berkeley: Moon Books, 1978), p. 12.
Today, this ancient matriarchal religion has been nearly universally suppressed by a global patriarchy. The cult of the Mother Goddess has all but vanished. The once powerful Goddess, worshipped in ecstatic, life-affirming fertility ceremonies, has become the tamed and weakened fairy-tale goddess of Western civilization–Mother Nature. The energetic and passionate worship that characterized the “barbarian” cults of the Mother Goddess was left no place in the left-brained, orderly patriarchal society, whose -religion”‘ tends toward asceticism, abstraction, and tacit hostility toward the feminine. The cruelties of the Spanish Inquisition and the feverish witch-hunts of the period from 1450 to 1722 (the date of the last witch execution in Scotland) marked the final, bloody suppression of the ancient European matriarchal religion.
However, in Western civilization the ultimate blow against the ancient religion has not been . dealt by patriarchal Christianity, but by science. Religion itself is a `feminine” enterprise: In its concern for right relationship to spirits and/or the Spirit and to invisible forces that shape human lives, religion emphasizes intuitive, emotive, and subjective experience. But science, in affirming only the “masculine” position of the logical, objective observer of materially measurable events, has excluded “feminine” spiritual and psychic events (which are necessarily participatory and non-measurable) ‘from its realm of reality. With materialistic science as the arbiter of truth, it has become no longer necessary to hunt witches. They are simply denied-existence. Ironically, the paternalistic religions, which created the milieu that spawned science, have themselves been undermined and weakened by the scientistic denial of all things spiritual.
Shatki in Modern Times
Whenever one part of the psyche is suppressed, it will inevitably reassert itself, generally either consciously and reactively or unconsciously and neurotically. The present-day feminist movement represents the backlash to the lopsided dominance of paternal institutions and their propensity toward subordination of women. In an effort to reestablish the value of the feminine, women scholars have unearthed the ubiquitous cult of the Mother Goddess and our lost heritage of matriarchal religion. Concomitantly, we are witnessing the appearance of a renewed interest in occult, psychic, and spiritual phenomena. The signs of change are everywhere, from witch covens in New Jersey, to “the Force” of the Star Wars films, to the rising popularity of Kundalini Yoga, to the appearance of New Age Tarot decks, to the emerging interest in Oriental medicine and psychic healing techniques. The Shakti, the feminine principle, is making a reappearance to Western consciousness.
Shakti, like her personification as the Mother Goddess, can appear in a multitude of forms, each with its own quality. In one aspect she is the Mother as creator, from whose womb the cosmos issues forth. From a different perspective, she is the Mother as sustainer, from whose breasts flow life-giving milk, the energy and materials necessary for survival. She is the source of power for magical practices and the protectress in times of danger. She is the Kundalini Shakti, the spiritual energy that transforms the yogi. On a more mundane level, she is the matter and energy we manipulate technologically for our comfort, and it is she who scientists observe and attempt to master through knowledge and technology.
However, the Goddess also displays a darker side. She is the energy unleashed in nuclear bombs. She is Kali, the goddess of destruction, who wears a necklace of human heads and a girdle of severed arms. Her law is the law of the jungle-eat and be eaten. She is the force behind the hurricane (which we rightly give a female name) and the awesome power of the tornado. She brings death to her children as suddenly, unhesitatingly, and energetically as the lightning bolt leaps from the cloud.
Her names may be multitudinous and her qualities contradictory, but out of this seeming confusion she emerges as a Living Principle: “the vital principle of the visible universe which has many faces: gracious, cruel, creative, destructive; ‘ loving, indifferent-the endless possibility of active energy at the heart of the world.”2 Seen as a whole, she represents the sacrificial nature of manifest existence, The Goddess gives birth and she sustains her creatures, but she also brings life to an end. She reminds us that created life is transitory and ultimately must be transcended.
2. Leonard Nathan and Clinton Seely, Grace and Mercy in Her Wild Hair (Boulder, Colo.: Great Eastern Book Co., 1982), p. 4.
This quality of the Goddess as a goad to self-transcendence is still capable of informing the spiritual practice of individuals today in India, which looks back upon a long tradition of worship of the Goddess, most notably in the form of Kali or Shakti. While worship of the Mother Goddess was almost completely suppressed in most parts of the civilized world, it thrived in India, a country which has demonstrated an unusual tolerance for religious variety. There, the Goddess is still recognized and venerated in many of her ancient forms, As Maya, she embodies the power of illusion by which this fleeting world is made to appear attractive and consoling. Under her spell, the self-created concerns of the ego seem to make perfect sense. In her terrible aspect as Kali, she is the antidote to Maya-Kali represents the end of everything the ego would grasp and hold. Paradoxically, while Maya seems benign, she is a spidery temptress who snares men and women in webs of self-possession. Kali, on the other hand, looks gruesome and menacing, but the very aspects that would normally inspire negativity can also be seen as signs of her benign, liberating power:
“Her raised and bloodied sword suggests the death of ignorance, her disheveled hair suggests the freedom of release, and her girdle of severed arms , may suggest the end of rasping. As death or the mistress of death she grants to him who sees truly the ultimate boon of unconditioned freedom…. Her two right hands, the upper making the mudra [ritual gesture] of “fear not” and the lower making the mudra of granting boons, convey to him who would seek his true spiritual destiny the knowledge that death is only the passing away of the non-essential and the gateway to ultimate freedom.”3
Kali, who is a form of the Goddess Shakti, is usually shown dancing on the corpse-like body of Shiva. As such, she represents the female dimension of Energy or Power, while Shiva represents the male dimension of Consciousness. But the two are One Reality-Shakti/ Shiva. They are as inseparable as food and its taste, fire and its heat, the sun and its light. Thus, Kali is the consort of Shiva in the sense that she is the Energy of Consciousness, but she is not “other” than Shiva. In Master Da Free John’s expression of this truth, the two are Consciousness and its Radiance, and together they are the Radiant Transcendental Being Who is Reality.
3. David R. Kinsley, The Sword and the Flute (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975), p. 143.
Shakti has been courted as the power behind shamanistic and occult practices representative of the third stage of life, she has been worshipped as the object of religious ceremonialism typical of the fourth stage, and she has been venerated as the transforming Spirit-Energy, the driving force of Kundalini and Tantra Yoga, which pertain to the fifth stage of life. But the highest form of Shakti worship is to enter into relationship with her as the Liberating Power, the graceful Energy who attracts the devotee beyond herself to the Realization of Shakti/ Shiva, the Radiant Transcendental Being. As Master Da Free John expresses it;
“The Shakti in this Form is the Divine Being as a Living Person. Her Force is not that of Creative Energy but of Love for the Source, Love for the Transcendental Condition, Submission to the Transcendental Condition. She transcends her Creative Aspect and is only Submission to the Source. She dies in that Source. She attracts some rare individuals to become Her devotees and brings them into a state of Embrace and ultimate Unity with Her in which She then dies or submits Herself to the Transcendental Condition. She does this when the devotee has achieved a state of Unity with Her through Her attraction. Then Her death becomes the devotee’s death, not ordinary personal death but perfect death, the transcendence of the ego in Transcendental Self Realization.”4
4. Da Free John, The Fire Gospel (Clearlake, Calif.: The Dawn Horse Press, 1982), p. 117.
In her form as the Liberating Power, the Goddess is not a mere symbol for the all-pervading Energy of the cosmos or even Divine Grace. To her most earnest devotees, she appears as a living Spirit Being or Divine Personality. Ramakrishna, the nineteenth-century saint of Dakshineswar, provides a moving and colorful example of someone in modern times who worshipped Kali as a living Personality. In his pursuit of the vision of Kali the young priest began to spend his waking hours solely in meditation and in serving her temple. As his love for Kali deepened, he either forgot or set aside the formalities of worship. Sitting before her image, he would sing her praises for hours. He complained that he felt like a child separated from his mother. In agony, he would rub his face against the ground and weep bitterly. Soon, he was barely able to eat, and he gave up sleep altogether.
One day when he was looking on Kali’s sword in her temple, he decided to end his miserable life. Like a madman, he jumped up and seized the sword, when (in his words) “suddenly the blessed Mother revealed Herself. The buildings with their different parts, the temple, and everything else vanished from my sight, leaving no trace whatsoever, and in their stead I saw a limitless, infinite, effulgent Ocean of Bliss.”5 He collapsed in unconsciousness, swallowed up by bliss. When he regained consciousness, , .. the first word he spoke was “Mother.”
This vision of Mother Kali only increased his devotion. He longed to see her uninterruptedly in meditation and with eyes open. In the midst of weeping in longing to see her, Ramakrishna would fall into a trance and find Mother Kali smiling before him, offering him consolation and instruction. He received many visions of her, and at times he would feel her breath or hear her voice. He began to act strangely in his love-mad worship of her. In her temple, he would reel to her throne like a drunkard. Seeing her image as a living Person, he would chuck her on the chin and talk and joke with her, During worship ceremonies, he would take a bit of the food offering, beg her to taste it, and hold it to her mouth until he was satisfied that she had really eaten it. At night he would hear her light steps climbing the stairs to the upper story of the temple, her anklets jingling. He would see her black form silhouetted against the sky, her long hair flowing.
Some of Ramakrishna’s associates began to fear that he was insane. But he had passed beyond the realms of conventional sanity and insanity. He was God-mad, intoxicated with Divine Bliss. One day, performing what conventionally would have been an act of desecration, he fed a cat the food offering intended for Kali. Later, he gave the following explanation: “The Divine Mother revealed to me in the Kali temple that it was She who had become everything. She showed me that everything was full of Consciousness. The image was Consciousness, the altar was Consciousness, the water-vessels were Consciousness, the doorsill was Consciousness, the marble floor was Consciousness-all was Consciousness. I found everything inside the room soaked, as it were, in Bliss-the Bliss of God…. I clearly perceived that all this was the Divine Mother-even the cat.”6
5. Swami Nikhilananda, trans., The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, abr, ed. (New York: Ramakrishna ‘-Vivekananda Center, 1974), p. 20.
6. Ibid., p. 23.
Whereas Ramakrishna’s relationship to Kali was like that of a child to his Mother, Swami Vivekananda, a devotee of Ramakrishna, at times approached Mother Kali more in the mood of a fully grown son demanding his inheritance. Unlike Ramakrishna’s vision of her as a loving young Mother, Vivekananda saw her as the terrible Goddess. To him, Kali represented pain, illness, death-all that one would tend to shirk or fear in life. He felt she must be squarely faced: “There must be no fear. No begging, but demanding-demanding the Highest! The true devotees of the Mother are as hard as adamant, and as fearless as lions.
They are not the least upset if the whole universe suddenly crumbles into dust at their feet! Make her listen to you. None of that cringing to Mother!”7
In the fall of 1898, Vivekananda underwent a period of intense devotion to the Mother. Songs to her were constantly on his lips, and he was conscious of her Presence guiding him, as if she were a person in the room. Overflowing with love for the Mother, he adopted a solitary lifestyle, so that he could devote himself entirely to the contemplation of Kali. One evening, the anticipated revelation came. He had centered his “whole attention on the dark, the painful, and the inscrutable in the world, with the determination to reach, by this particular road, the One behind phenomena.”8 Struck by a sublime vision of Kali, he wrote the poem “Kali the Mother,” which contains the following lines of terrible rapture:_
After the final word of the poem was written, the pen fell from his hand and he dropped unconscious to the floor in an ecstatic trance.
7. His Eastern and Western Disciples, The Life of Swami Vivekananda (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1981), pp. 380-81.
8. Ibid., p. 379.
9. Swami Nikhilananda, Vivekananda: A Biography (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1953), p. 273.
The Goddess as the Agency of Grace
While Ramakrishna approached Mother Kali as a child, and Vivekananda approached her as an adult son, there is a third method of approach to the Goddess employed by the Hindu and the Buddhist Tantric sects: the practice of consorting “sexually” with the feminine aspect of the Divine Being. In lefthanded Tantrism, actual ritual coition with a female partner, who is treated as a living embodiment of the Shakti, is employed to achieve ecstatic union with the Female Principle. This practice is known as the “heroic” path, due to its obvious pitfalls and “dangers.” In the more advanced stages of the path, the practitioner consorts with superhuman, female Spirit Beings, known as “devis” in Hindu Tantrism and “dakinis” in Buddhist Tantrism.
It was this path that was employed by Drukpa Kunley, the Divine Madman of medieval Tibet. In the course of his wanderings after the completion of his own sadhana or spiritual practice, this God-Realized beggar engaged in sexual intercourse with numerous women-no longer for his own benefit but in order to quicken their spiritual progress through his Tantric embrace. Additionally, he worked with many Spirit Beings, initiating the benign ones as guardians and protectors, and binding the demonic beings to prevent their ability to do harm.
Like Drukpa Kunley, Master Da Free John has never held sexuality to be inimical to spiritual practice. During the final six years of his sadhana he was a married householder. At the culmination of his sadhana, the Goddess Shakti herself assumed the role of his spiritual guide and, ultimately, became his Tantric Consort, Taking the part of the Divine Consort, she became the means of his Enlightenment. As he describes this process:
“In my own life, therefore, I have Consorted with this great Goddess as Force, but then as a Person. Ultimately, you see, She submitted Herself to me in the event of my own Transcendence and became not Mother, not Guide, not Guru, but the Loved (Me, the Lover, and She dissolved, became completely Identical to the Transcendental Self … became the Consort of the Self, became nothing but the Radiance of the Self. ‘10
After his God-Realization, Master Da was no longer related to the Goddess as an “other.”. Her Power became an Agency of his Spiritual Transmission to devotees.
“The Shakti, the Goddess Force, the Transmitted Power that works through the Adept is not other than the Transcendental Divine, and not other than the Adept, but is simply the Attractive Power, the Grace Function, the Agency of the Divine. It is the Power of Attractiveness that draws living beings not merely into subtle planes and conditions of Nature, but into the Divine Condition Itself. “11
To worship the Goddess alone is to submit to chaos – at times she is the gentle summer rain and at other times she, is the hurricane. She is Kali, the madwoman who eats her own children, and she is Maya, who tempts spiritual aspirants with deluding experiences. In herself, she is not the Power of Illumination, but simply the Energy of endless change. But in the Adept she is wedded to Shiva-her Force is unified with Consciousness. In her service to the Adept, she becomes the Power of Grace that enables his Realization to be of use to devotees. This is the great opportunity to be found in the company of all God-Realized Adepts, and the present offer of Master Da Free John:
“I entered into the God-State via the Goddess. This is the characteristic aspect of my sadhana. And, having Identified with the Source, I am your means of Realization. I stand in place surrounded by the circle of the Spirit-Power. My devotees do not practice the way of submission to the Goddess, because I am the Goddess. I have been the devotee of the Goddess to the point of Realization. Such a process of Realization does not occur very often, but when it does, the Spiritual Master is the Son of God and Goddess. He is Identified with both, and therefore all aspects of the way of Realization are manifested and magnified in the Spiritual Master and developed in his Company. “12
10. Da Free John, The Dreaded Gom-Boo or the Imaginary Disease That Religion Weeks to Cure (Clearlake, Calif.: The Dawn Horse Press, 1983), p. 333.
11. From an unpublished talk given by Da Free John on January 26, 1983.
12. Da Free John, The Fire Gospel, p. 118.