The Saktas An introductory and comparative study

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Item Code: IHD54
Publisher: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers Pvt. Ltd.
Author: Ernest A. Payne
Language: English
Edition: 1997
ISBN: 8121507820
Pages: 165
Cover: Hardcover
(b&w.illus.: 6)
Other Details 7.2" x 5"
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Book Description

From the Jacket

The chief characteristics of Saktism are the 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 emphasized as in this sect. The Saktas are the followers of Sakti, which means energy - the active principle in the universe, and which is personified as a goddess. Form the primordial Sakti every other form of activity proceeds. Under many different names it is worshipped as Devi or the Mother. 

The present work attempts  to describe the sect, and outline its practices; consider the rise of Sakta ideas in the religious literature of Hinduism; and indicate some possible causes of its popularity, and the origin of some of its beliefs. The author tries to convince that Saktism is not just about awe, dread and propitiation but love and tenderness are also its characteristics. 


THIS study was embarked upon at the suggestion of the late Dr. J. N. Farquhar, to whom all those interested in Indian religion owe so much. But for his generous help and encouragement it would never have reached its present form. It is intended merely as an introduction to the subject, based upon the literature already available in Europe.

It is difficult to be consistent in the transliteration of Indian words, particularly when authors are quoted who vary greatly in the systems they adopt. In general an effort has been made to follow the scheme used by Dr. Farquhar in his Outline of the Religious Literature of India.

I am indebted to many friends who have drawn my atten- tion to books, read the MS., and helped in other ways. Special thanks are due to Dr. Edward Thompson, of Oxford; the Rev. W. Sutton Page, of the London School of Oriental studies; and the Rev. E. C. Dewick, of Calcutta. Marburg is making a name for itself among German universities for its interest in Comparative Religion. Much of the work for this book was done there.

In dealing with this subject I have endeavoured to keep in mind the words of the Apostle Paul, which form the motto of Regent's Park College, where I received a part of my training: ‘Prove all things; hold fast that which is good.'


MANY elements in Indian religion have been neglected, or adversely criticised, simply because they have been distaste- ful 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 unchallenge- able 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' fre- quently occur, and he tells us that' a description of the differ- ent 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 Abbe 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 move- ments within Hinduism, a movement which, however dark some of its expressions may be, has produced some remark- able 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 perver- sion 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, how- ever, owe him a great debt for having opened up this important and difficult field. What he has already accomplish- ed 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 Lehrbucb 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 publi- cations 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 Ramakrishna (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 Ramakrishna, 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 con- tinues 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 modem 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 modem 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.


IIThe Cult of the Goddess6
IIIThe Goddess and Her Worshippers22
IVThe Growth of Sakta Ideas in Hindu Literature33
VThe Tantras49
VINon-Aryan Influences Favouring Saktism61
VIIThe Sankhva and Vedanta Philosophies75
VIIIThe Background in Bengal (A)81
IXThe Background in Bengal (B)93
XSome Kindred Religious Phenomena (A)107
(i)The Worship of the Numinous108
(ii)The Mother-Goddess of the Mediterranean114
XISome Kindred Religious Phenomena (B)118
(iii)The Mystery Religions118
(iv)The Worship of the Virgin Mary124
XIIThe Impermanence of Saktism128
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