What’s Shakti?

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Shakti is the Hindu concept of female power, primarily associated with goddesses in the Shaktism sect. It is a divine, creative, and procreative force that works with maya and prakrti, and is part of the threefold nature of the goddess. Líla, or divine play, brings pleasure through the goddess’s creation and illusion. Other Hindu sects also recognize the importance of the goddess, but as a complementary power to male gods.

Shakti is a Hindu religious concept which means female power. While considered feminine in nature, it is usually reserved as a term used to discuss the power of Hindu goddesses, rather than human females. Shakti is divine or sacred feminine power. The sect of Hinduism which devotes itself to the goddess is known as Shaktism, and a member of this sect is called a shakta.

Shaktism is not the only sect within Hinduism that recognizes the power and importance of the goddess. Other sects like Vaishnavism and Shaivism also have a place for shakti. However, in these other sects, it is thought of as a complementary power to that of the corresponding god. In other words, goddesses are the consorts of gods, and therefore their power is important as a compliment to male power, virya.

For someone who is dedicated to Vishnu, or Shiva, shakti is ability, life force, creative and procreative power. Virya, the male god power, is authority, an energy that tames, directs, builds and gives purpose to shakti. However, for a shakta, the goddess’s shakti may take on a more important role outside of her association with the masculine force. Within Shaktism, it is the real power behind the male god, an abstract and all-pervading power.

The semantic difference here is subtle. Perhaps the simplest way to distinguish Shaktism is to say that it is primarily dedicated to the goddess and her shakti. This concept is more appropriately called Adi Shakti, or the supreme shakti. It is not just the divine feminine power but the ultimate feminine power behind all creation.

When we talk about the goddess and her shakti, there are a few things that need elaboration. First, this goddess can generally be considered Maha Devi, or the great goddess. Shakti is, of course, also a power possessed and associated with the many manifestations of Maha Devi, such as Durga, Kali, Parvati, Saraswati, Lakshmi and so on.

The concept should be understood as part of a threefold power, the threefold nature of the goddess. Shakti, again, is divine power and creative energy. It works in tandem with maya and prakrti. Maya is illusion, the illusory power of the goddess. Shakta theology sees this as a positive and creatively powerful illusory power, rather than a cunning and deceptive power. Prakrti is the nature or material manifestation of maya and shakti. Prakrti is both the body of the goddess and all other material forms, as these are part of her body.
In addition to the concepts of shakti, maya and prakrti, a fourth concept comes into play in terms of the nature and function of a goddess. This fourth concept is líla, or divine play. The purpose of líla is to bring pleasure through play. The four aspects of the goddess work together in the following way: The goddess creates (shakti) all material forms (prakrti like the goddess herself) with the illusion that these forms have an existence separate from her (maya) for her own purpose divine pleasure (líla).

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