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An Introductory and Comparative Study
By Ernest A. Payne
Dover Publications, Inc.Copyright © 1997 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
MANY elements in Indian religion have been neglected, or adversely criticised, simply because they have been distasteful to Western students, and although no real effort has been made to understand them. Rabindranath Tagore, in one of his latest and wisest books, Creative Unity, reminds us that 'when a stranger from the West travels in the Eastern world he takes the facts that displease him and readily makes use of them for his rigid conclusions, fixed upon the unchallengeable authority of his personal experience. It is like a man who has his own boat for crossing his village stream, but, on being compelled to wade across some strange watercourse, draws angry comparisons, as he goes, from every patch of mud and every pebble which his feet encounter.' Such an attitude can be charged with all too much truth against many of those who have written of Hinduism.
Saktism is one of the phases of Indian religion which has received much condemnation and abuse; it is also one of the phases which has been little studied. Writers have been content to follow one another in expressions of disgust, rather than embark on the difficult task of examining it. In the account of the Saktas given by Hopkins, for example, words like 'obscenity', 'bestiality', 'pious profligacy' frequently occur, and he tells us that 'a description of the different rites would be to reduplicate an account of indecencies of which the least vile is too esoteric to sketch faithfully.' Language almost equally violent is to be found in the pages of William Ward, the Abbé Dubois, H. H. Wilson, Monier Williams, Barth, William Crooke and many lesser known writers. Yet throughout India, and particularly in Bengal, there are hundreds of thousands of Saktas, and they are the product of one of the most important and widespread movements within Hinduism, a movement which, however dark some of its expressions may be, has produced some remarkable types of genuine piety, and a considerable literature, and which has in recent times had able apologists.
We are coming increasingly to realise that 'no error has ever spread widely that was not the exaggeration or perversion of a truth.' If we would convince men of the inadequacy of their religious conceptions, and the harmful results of their religious practices, we must first seek to understand and appreciate the ways in which they have expressed their experiences, and without hesitating to condemn, where we feel that to be necessary, we must use what truth may be there as a stepping-stone to something higher. However crude, superstitious and repellent Saktism may be on certain of its sides, it must be studied if it is to be combated effectually.
The numerous Tantras form the chief literature of the sect. Until 1913 none of these had appeared in translation in the West, and even in India it was not till about 1900 that the first English version of a Tantra was published. Of late years, however, a Western apologist for Saktism has issued a series of works which have prepared the way for a more scientific study of the movement. Translations of Tantras, works on Sakta yoga, and general introductions to different phases of the subject have since 1913 come fast from the pen of a certain Arthur Avalon. Sir John Woodroffe has now acknowledged himself as chiefly responsible for these books, but as he was assisted by another writer, who prefers to remain anonymous, it seems better to quote sometimes Avalon and sometimes Woodroffe, according to the name on the title-page of the work in question, rather than to ascribe everything to the latter. Unfortunately, these books are far from easy to read; they are badly written, and are largely uncritical in method. The zeal of a convert often runs away with his judgment. Woodroffe refers in one of his works to his 'strong bent towards the clear and accurate statement of facts,' but he is obviously interested far less in the history and development of ideas, far less in their truth, than in the meaning attached to them today by the average sincere and intelligent worshipper. Students of Indian religion, however, owe him a great debt for having opened up this important and difficult field. What he has already accomplished may be seen by comparing the older accounts of the Saktas with those of Helmuth von Glasenapp in his various books on Hinduism, or with that from the pen of Sten Konow in the new edition of Chantepie de la Saussaye's Lehrbuch der Religionsgeschichte. Both Glasenapp and Konow make frequent use of Avalon's Tantrik Texts. Another German scholar, Heinrich Zimmer, has attempted to explain Indian ritual art in general by means of the principles laid down in these Tantras.
This changed attitude is due almost entirely to the publications of Arthur Avalon. A beginning has also been made, however, with the translation of Sakta poetry, and new and rich material is placed at the disposal of the Western student.
The three chief characteristics of Saktism are its idea of the Deity as Destroyer, its conception of God as Mother, and its attention to ceremonial. Each of these features can be paralleled in other forms of Hinduism, but nowhere are they so combined and emphasised as in this sect.
The word Sakti means 'energy.' Power or Force is conceived as the active principle in the universe, and is personified as a goddess. From the primordial Sakti every other form of activity proceeds. Under many different names it is worshipped as Devi or the Mother. In its cult, it must be confessed at once, it has been connected with what has been generally and, in the main, rightly regarded as the most debased side of Hinduism. The worshipper seeks to obtain 'power' by the most varied means. It has been, in many places, a religion of blind terror, of uncomprehended forces, of the terrible mystery of life and death. Awe, dread, propitiation have been its characteristic notes. Yet tenderness and love have also been present, and only these words can be used to express the attitude of many Saktas to their goddess. Side by side with the abominations of Saktism we have to set the poems of the great eighteenth century poet Ram Prasad. The first stage in the conversion of Ramakishna (1833-86), the famous Bengali saint and mystic, came when he began to frequent the temple of Kali (one of the best known of the more terrible forms of the goddess) at Dakshinesvara, and although he passed through various phases, in which Vaishnavas, Muhammadans and Christians influenced him, yet he always regarded Kali as the chief manifestation of God, and as the Divine Mother of the Universe, and before her idols he worshipped. The influence of Sakta ideas, mediated probably by Ramakishna, can also be traced in the references to God as Mother to be found in the writings and addresses of Keshub Chunder Sen (1838—84), and the Swami Vivekananda (1862—1902). The same line of thought continues in the writings of Sister Nivedita, the enthusiastic disciple of Vivekananda, and in a different direction, though quite distinctly, in that curious one-time Roman Catholic, Brahmabandhav Upadhyaya (1861-1907).
The appeal which Sakta ideas have made to men and women like these has been insufficiently recognised. Nor has the more philosophical side of the sect received due attention. 'God is worshipped as the Great Mother,' says Woodroffe, 'because in this aspect God is active, and produces, nourishes and maintains all. But this is for worship. God is no more female than male or neuter. God is beyond sex ... the Power or active aspect of God the immanent is called Sakti. In her static transcendent aspect the Mother, or Sakti, is Siva or the Good. That is, philosophically speaking, Siva is the unchanging Consciousness and Sakti is its changing Power appearing as mind and matter. Such philosophical justification for certain Sakta beliefs can be found in the Tantras, as well as in more modern works like the Principles of Tantra, which Avalon has translated and edited. In Saktism, indeed, as elsewhere in Hinduism, we have two orders of religion living side by side. They are mutually tolerant, indeed each assumes the other to be a phase of itself; one is philosophic, the other popular; one universalistic, the other local; one spiritual, the other magical.
Too often Western writers have concentrated their attention on the second. Yet it is equally unsatisfactory to look only at the higher side. The sect has had most of its adherents among the more primitive peoples of India. Nowhere have the sexual emotions been more deliberately exploited in the name of religion, nowhere have the animal instincts and dark imaginings of early man been given greater scope. Saktism is a movement as complex as any within Hinduism. We propose first of all to describe the sect, and to outline its practices; then to consider the rise of Sakta ideas in the religious literature of Hinduism. An attempt will be made to indicate some of the possible causes of its popularity, and the origin of some of its beliefs. The background in Bengal and Assam will then be filled in in greater detail, for only with that background in mind are we in a position to understand the fine examples of intense devotion and touching faith to be found among the Saktas. Moreover, it is this background which helps to explain the close connection in certain places between Saktism and some of the extremer phases of the modern Nationalist movement. Finally, with the object of the better understanding of the sect, some comparisons with other systems of belief and practice will be made.CHAPTER 2
THE CULT OF THE GODDESS
THE boundaries and extent of the sect are difficult to determine. The female energy of any deity in the Hindu pantheon may be worshipped, and one can trace Sakta ideas not only in Hinduism but also in Jainism and Buddhism. As an organised sect, however, Saktism is linked closely with Saivism, and the goddess is regarded as one of the many forms of the consort of Siva. The abundance of names and epithets is, at first, somewhat confusing, but they enshrine within them much of the history of the movement. 'Just as Siva has 1,008 names or epithets,' says Monier Williams, 'so his wife possesses a feminine duplicate of nearly every one of his designations. At least one thousand distinct appellations are assigned to her, some expressive of her benignant, some of her ferocious character.' Among those that most frequently occur are Kali, the dark goddess, whose name came to be connected with the word for 'time' and so 'death,' and who is regarded as the Destroyer; Durga, which may be an aboriginal word, though it is generally taken to mean 'inaccessible,' either as a description of the goddess herself or because she is pictured as the slayer of a demon whom it was difficult to get at; Bhairav, the terror-inspiring; Chandi, the fierce one; Parvati, the mountain goddess, daughter of Himalaya; Kumari, the maiden; Um, whose characteristics are gracious, and who may originally have been a mountain goddess, though a connection is also possible with amma, the common name for the mother-goddesses of the Dravidians; Gauri, a goddess of harvest, who may have got her name from the ripe corn, or from the yellowish Gaura buffalo. Around these and the many other names numerous legends cluster. They show how long and complicated has been the history of the sect.
Traces of Sakta worship occur almost all over India, though its greatest hold has been in Bengal and Assam. The Himalayas are regarded as the abode of Siva and his wife; the mountain Gauri-Sankara, which is near to, though not identical with, Everest, bears their names. The Cape at the southern end of the Indian peninsula has a temple to the virgin-goddess, and its name, Comorin, is said to be a corruption of Kumari Devi. Sister Nivedita tells how the Swami Vivekananda arrived there once too poor to pay for a ferry across to the shrine, and so was compelled to swim the shark-infested strait. In the west, at Hinglaj, in Baluchistan, Parvati is worshipped by many pilgrims, and even by the local Muhammadans. Over 1,500 miles to the east is the Kamagiri or Nilachal hill in the old kingdom of Kamarupa, where stands one of the most holy of all the shrines. In Central India, near Mirzapur, is a temple where Kali is worshipped under the name Vindhyacalavsini, 'dweller in the Vindhya mountains,' and this is one of the most important centres from the historical point of view. Kali was also the tutelary goddess of Chitor in Rajputana.
One of the chief legends of the cult, which seeks to explain the sanctity of the chief places of worship, is evidence of its widespread character. It is said that Sati, the wife of Siva, died of sorrow because of the discourtesy shown to her husband by her father Daksha. Overcome by grief and remorse, Siva wandered about the world, carrying his wife's dead body on his head as a penance. The other gods were afraid lest Siva should by this means obtain excessive power, so Vishnu pursued him, and with successive blows of his discus cut the body to bits. It fell to earth in fifty-one pieces, and around each there grew up a ITLπITLthasthana, a sacred place to which pilgrimages are made. Glasenapp has collected many of the details about these shrines in his Heilige Stätten Indiens. At Kamagiri the generative organs (yoni) of Sati are said to have fallen, at Hinglaj the top of her head. Kalighat, near Calcutta, is probably today the most famous centre of Sakta worship, and there some of the toes, or, according to other accounts, a finger fell. The tongue came down at Jvalamukhi, in the Panjab; the temple lies over flames of burning gas, and these are worshipped instead of an image. At Jajpur, in Orissa, at Mount Girnar, in the Bombay Presidency (where the Aghoris, ascetics who despised everything earthly, and eat human flesh and excrement, used to assemble), at Kangra, in the Panjab (whose famous Durga temple was plundered by Mahmud of Ghazni in A.D. 1009), at Ujjain, capital of Malwa and one of the seven sacred cities of India, and at Kasi or Benares, another sacred city (Sati's ear-rings fell in the Manikarni pool there, where now stands the so-called 'Monkey Temple'), the goddess is worshipped. In spite of her dismemberment by Vishnu, she was reborn as Uma, according to the legends, and is now identified also with Durga and Kali.
J. N. Bhattacharya, in his Hindu Castes and Sects, suggests that most of the Brahmans in Bengal, Mithila and the Panjab are Saktas of a moderate type. How little or how much this can mean will be clearer when we have considered the divisions within the sect, and the relations to it of certain other groups. Hindu eclecticism makes such a study very difficult. As soon as the observance of the ancient sacrifices prescribed in the Srauta-sutras began to decline, we find orthodox twice-born men, known as Smartas, worshipping the five gods, pañcha deva, Vishnu, Siva, Durga, Surya and Ganea, in what is called Pañchayatanapuja. The same temple may contain shrines to all of these deities, the one in the centre being regarded as the special patron, or istadevata. A man may therefore worship Durga without really identifying himself with the Sakta sect.
The Devi has, however, her own distinctive temples and shrines. The older ones were often built in or near the cremation-ground or smasana, for there at dead of night certain of the more primitive and revolting rites were performed. Many of the Sakta ascetics lived in the graveyards, and Indian literature contains many memorable descriptions of their horrors, to some of which we shall have occasion later to refer. Weak mortals were held to do the goddess service by loving, begetting, slaying, because Nature appears to create only to destroy, to create only because she destroys. Life and Death seem to go hand in hand, the one but the shadow of the other.
Excerpted from The Saktas by Ernest A. Payne. Copyright © 1997 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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