Tag Archives: Shakti

Hindu Deities: Objects of Worship or Basic Principles?

Hindu Deities: Objects of Worship or Basic Principles?

As I continue to immerse myself in the teachings of Hindu spirituality, it strikes me that a lot of confusion could be avoided by distinguishing between two different uses of the gods and goddesses. The first use is as a deity or object of worship. Each spiritual practitioner is supposed to select a deity that is his favourite, called the Ishta Devata.  Ishta Devata means “desired divine-form.” I find the this approach refreshing, compared with religious traditions that require worshippers to use a single idea of God as the object of worship. In yogic philosophy, we worship a specific form of God because we like it, not because it’s some grand universal truth. There is a even a God-form for those who don’t like worshipping God with a human form called the Virata Purusha or cosmic person. The Hindu description of the Virata Purusha is pretty close to the non-embodied personal God worshipped in Judaism and Islam. The concept of the Ishta Devata (just ishta for short) allows us to have our religious cake and eat it with a healthy serving of universal toleration. I can be completely passionately devoted to the Supreme Lord of my heart, while also recognizing that this form of God is not for everyone. Yet, God remains one and indivisible. Unlike the gods familiar from Western Polytheism, the Hindu concept of deity or God-form does not involve any fundamental separation within the ultimate divine reality. All deities are understood to be so many facets or faces of the one indivisible God. Thus, we also get to have our monotheistic cake and eat it with a sweet coating of delicious polytheistic icing.

So far so good, but the problem arises when one wants to integrate the more specific teachings of various Indian spiritual texts. For example, if one is into tantra, one finds that the main language used by teachers is that of Shiva and Shakti. If one tries to learn about the spiritual path of devotion (Bhakti) one finds that the main language used is that of Krishna and Radha. So what if one wants to practice tantra, but one’s ishta is say Jesus or Genesh? Or what if one wants to practice Bhakti, but one’s Ishta is the fearsome Goddess Kali? (which interestingly enough was the case for the famous Bhakti saint Ramakrishna)? Does this prevent one from learning from the great traditions that are mainly focused on other deities?

I don’t think it has to. However, in order to not get confused, one has to draw a distinction between the deity as an object of worship (ishta) and the deity as a symbol for a universal principle of spiritual reality. To give an example of what I mean. For millions of Shaivites, the God Shiva is an object of worship. His image as a bare chested, blue skinned yogi carrying a trident and drum serve as  meditative focus for the expression of devotion for those who find this image most desirable.


Shiva is quite impressive looking.


However, in tantric philosophy, Shiva is also the name of a universal spiritual principle, namely the principle of stillness or pure unaffected consciousness. Shiva also symbolizes the masculine sexual energy connected to the phallus, and it’s tendency to penetrate things (literally or metaphorically).

Suppose one is not a worshipper of Shiva, and may or may not resonate with the kind of imagery  shown above. Nevertheless, thinking about the Shiva principle can still be very useful for understanding meditation practice. Whatever tradition one practices in, there is always something that corresponds to Shiva, some aspect of the practice that aims at stilling the mind and stepping back from the constant flux of sensations. It’s helpful to have a single unambiguous term to denote this aspect of spiritual practice, so we can use the term “Shiva” in this way. We might even use the traditional imagery of Shiva to symbolize this concept, if that imagery works for us. However, for many westerners, a different image might serve the same purpose more effectively. For example, the Hermit card of the Tarot, which expresses the same concept of stillness and worldly detachment (although without the overtones of masculine sexuality).

Like the Indian Sadhu, the Hermit embodies the stillness that comes from detachment from worldly desire


So let’s quickly sketch the meaning of some prominent Hindu deities qua spiritual principles. I hasten to add that this is by no means a deep reading of these God-forms, but just my somewhat superficial impressions of their general character. Still, I include these here because I hope it will act as a simple map to start you off in reading the texts of tantric and bhakti wisdom.

Shiva – Stillness, stability, peace, detachment, dissolution, masculinity, phallus

Shakti – Movement, creativity, manifestation, power, bliss, femininity (but not the passive stereotype of femininity)

Krishna – The Beloved, attractiveness, beauty, the concept of the ishta itself

Radha – Love, devotion, attraction, the concept of the devotee

Another way to see these two parings is as articulating two lenses on spiritual practice. The Shiva-Shakti paring is the lens of Awareness. The Krishna-Radha pairing is the lens of Love. If you agree with the statement “God is love,” you’ll likely be drawn to Krishna-Radha, if you agree with the statement  “God is Pure Being” you’ll be drawn to Shiva-Shakti. In both cases, there is an active pole and a passive pole.

Passive Active
Love Krishna Radha
Awareness Shiva Shakti

It’s interesting to reflect upon why the genders of the deities are switched relative to Western assumptions. In Western symbolism, it is the feminine that is typically cast in the role of the Beloved. Think of the Arthurian legends and the role of the fair maiden as devotional object of the active questing knights. We might think that Hindus just have more enlightened conceptions of gender, until we stop and realize that India is an extremely patriarchal society. The case of Shiva is easier to explain. When it comes to consciousness (or in the West rationality)  it’s clear that masculinity is associated with greater detachment and in that sense passivity. Yet, the active side of the male comes into play with respect to love and sex.  Here, we tend to cast the man as the great active devoted lover, which would make us think that Radha should be masculine and Krishna feminine.

It helps if we understand that God-forms are always a compromise between the need to symbolically embody a spiritual principle, the need to serve as an attractive object of worship, and the need to conform to societal norms. I think that Krishna represents a sort of compromise between wanting to preserve the masculine power of the Godhead and wanting to make God the Beloved (in the mythology he is after all a politically powerful king and warrior in addition to being the universal Beloved). In Krisha’s iconography, he is often depicted as displaying outrageously feminine beauty with wide hips, doe eyes, and feminine body language. This imagery is intended to be romantically and erotically exciting for both male and female devotees of all sexual orientations.

The male God who embodies the ideal of feminine beauty

Yet, since straight male worshippers need some way to rationalize their homoerotic feelings for Krishna, they are told to conceptualize themselves as Radha, the female lover of Krishna. So the masculine-feminine wires are all mixed up. Both sexuality and gender identity become fluid in the realm of spiritual practice, which is glorious as far as I’m concerned. The Krishan-Radha dynamic is almost identical, minus the pictures, in Judaism, where male Rabbis conceive of themselves Kabbalistically as God’s female lovers.

Hence in addition to the four principles of Shiva, Shakti, Krishna, Radha we have to think about who is playing what role. Which principles are being identified with by the human worshipper and which with the Godhead.

Christianity is an interesting case, that displays some interesting recursive complexity. Jesus is, of course, the Beloved, hence he embodies the Krishna principle. Yet, at the same time, his life and works are the Radha principle, and the poor, sick, and downtrodden of humanity are collectively the Krishna of Jesus himself. Since in addition to worshipping Jesus directly, devout Christians often try to imitate or embody Jesus in their actions, the Beloved of Jesus becomes the Beloved of Christians. This explains Mother Teresa’s statement that she saw her Beloved Jesus in all the sick and hungry she served. For it’s easy to see how Jesus as Beloved could become merged with the Beloved of Jesus. As a result, Jesus makes a powerful ishta for those for whom God is found through acts of selfless service to the needy.

Which brings me to another point. Certain deities were designed with certain types of spiritual practitioners in mind. Jesus is strong fit for karma yogis, those who realize God through selfless service. Krishna is a natural choice for bhakti yogis, those who realize God through devotion. Shiva alone is the ideal for jhana yogis, those who realize God through detached meditation, and Shakti-Shiva is the ideal for raja Yogis and tantra yogis, who realize God by becoming intimate with power and creativity. Of course, there is no telling what deity one will be drawn to. I mentioned earlier that Ramakrishna a bhakti saint had the ishta of Kali. On the face of it a goddess who symbolizes the primal destructive forces of the universe doesn’t seem like an ideal choice for a yogi whose primary practice is devotional love, but it worked for him. Human nature can never be squished into a system, and I thank God for that.

I’d love to hear your thoughts. If you enjoyed reading this post, please write a comment.

~May you love yourself as God loving Godself!


Letting Shakti Lead


I’ve been starting to work with a very simple but profound set of instructions from a tantric yoga meditation teacher named Sally Kempton. Her book, Meditation For the Love of it,  has an amazing chapter called Letting Shakti Lead. Shakti, in this context, is a reference to the spontaneous, dynamic, creative energy within ourselves. It’s also called kundalini, lifeforce, divine presence, soul, or countless other terms in various traditions. Interestingly across numerous traditions both Eastern and Western, this creative divine energy is associated with the divine feminine principle.

In Therevada meditation, everything is dominated by the masculine principle of pure awareness, detachment, or stillness. In tantra, this is called the Shiva principle. Many spiritual paths favour one of these two principles. The traditions which aim primarily at dissolving the identification with the body, with emotions, and with thoughts, are favouring Shiva over Shakti, while those traditions that emphasise emotion-driven worship and ritual are favouring Shakti over Shiva. The Kashmir tantra tradition taught by Sally Kempton appeals to me because it seeks to balances the two.  By working inwardly in a meditative container with the dynamic energy of Shakti, the process balances stillness and dynamism.

Shakti literally means power. In theistic language, Shakti is the divine power of creation, God coming into manifestation through the various subtle worlds all the way down to the fully manifested physical reality. Shiva is the upwards flowing current whereby created beings dissolve and return to their divine source in the pure no-thingness of the unmanifest. Of course, God in the broadest sense is neither the unmanifest nor the manifest, but rather that which unifies the two. This is what the kabbalists meant by Ein Sof (Endlessness) or what the Zen teachings are probably indicating by saying that Samsara is Nirvana.

I’ll go into this in more detail in a future post, but for now, let’s get down to some meditation nuts and bolts.

So here is my understanding of the letting Shakti lead meditation. I make no claim to be accurately representing Sally Kempton’s work, although my understanding was partially drawn from that work.

1. Let yourself become aware of the spontaneous inner movement or dynamism.

I love this instruction, because it starts with something that is already recognizable to vipassana meditators. In vipassana this would be called impermanence, and regarded as a disappointment relative to the masculine ideal of crystalline permanence. Yet, in the tantra paradigm, this inner pulsation is regarded as the beautiful organic ever unfolding energy of creation. That’s a pretty different take on what in some ways seems to be the same underlying phenomenon. Except that one’s take on an inner experience partly determines the significance that that experience has. So the phenomenon is actually different when you approach it with a different stance. There is no fact of the matter as to whether the Buddhist have it right or the tantric yogis have it right. It’s a matter of what works better for the individual practitioner.

2. Welcome and honour the inner dynamic energy as the Goddess and as the authentic self

This is another step that might seem superfluous at first. Yet, I think it is essential. I’ve always felt that there is a subtle misuse of the term “self” in Buddhist lingo because they regard it as essentially static and free from embodiment. For the Buddhists the self is bare subjectivity. Nothing more than the felt sense that there is something experiencing everything else. In Western culture, thinkers have used the term authentic self completely differently. We mean something that changes and grows. We mean our deepest feelings and drives, and how these shape our personality and life story. That’s simply a different understanding of what the self truly is. Subjectivity may have nothing to do with the self in this Western sense of it. Now, the idea that kundalini is our true self seems more resonant with the Western notion of authenticity than it does with the Buddhist notion of self as something pure and static. Kundalini is ever evolving, ever unfolding. It is not essentially linked to the sense of subjectivity.

3. Ask the inner Shakti “Where would you like to play today”

This reminds me of my experiences with shamanic journeying. You don’t dictate to the spirit guides where you want to go. You ask them to take you somewhere that you need to go. It’s nice to finally be able to do something similar in meditation. The metaphor of play or dancing is key to the tantric vision of reality. All reality is ultimately the free play of the divine, it’s ultimately a great spontaneous dance of Shiva and Shakti. I find this interesting too in light of the central sexual metaphor of tantra and the fact that in the kink world various types of sexual activity are also called “play.” Perhaps this is correspondence of terminology is more than a coincidence.

4. Whatever experiences Shakti leads you to, try to enter inside of it and become intimate with it.

Rather than holding ourselves back and watching the experience unfold on an inner movie screen as we do in mindfulness meditation, with Shakti meditation we dive right inside of it. We let ourselves merge with it. A tip Kempton gives, which I’ve found surprising useful, is to try to perceive the experience as if from the side, rather than frontally. Somehow this facilitates the process of slipping inside of it.

5. If difficult experiences come up, rather than focusing on suffering or dissatisfaction, focus on tenderness, longing, and love-sickness.

This is a subtle difference. It’s like micro tuning the frequency of your consciousness so that pain, frustration, and stress are transformed into very poignant feelings of romantic yearning. It’s based on the idea that all suffering, whatever it’s apparent cause, is actually nothing more than a longing for our divine beloved. The other key is that labelling this experience as ‘unsatisfactoriness’ makes the experience shows up  as something one wants to be liberated from, something one wants to bring to an end. With the subtle tweak we transform the experience from suffering to yearning, and the latter is something that we can learn to love and enjoy in it’s own right. The Sufi teachings talk a lot about this kind of thing. Think of all that romantic poetry that speaks of the lover burning up in the tender agonies of desire yet not wanting to extinguish those flames, but instead only wishing to add more fuel to them. So sweet is the pain of love’s fire.

If that kind of sentiment gets you excited, then probably, like me you have a romantic temperament, and you’re a natural for tantra. If you think it sounds stupid and trite, then you might be happier with a different spiritual path. The recognition of the divine nature of longing itself has been written about by mystics in many traditions. This is the divine Eros, who in Greek Mythology was responsible for creating the world by bringing together Heaven and Earth. By turning suffering into longing, we make it possible to live divinely infused lives while retaining our consciousness as separate individuals.  This is the way of the Bhakta, the lover of God. It’s another means of breaking out of the Buddhist paradigm. Many great mystics have talked about reaching a point where they were a hairsbreadth away from plunging into the final liberation of non-being and yet for some reason they pulled back. Some are motivated by compassion for those who remain behind (the Bodhisattva). Others are motivated by their profound love for God, and a realization that their path of service to their Beloved requires a degree of separation from Him.

Until next time, Happy Passover for those of you who celebrate!

~May you love yourself as God loving Godself