Adya Shakti: the Primal Power

‘The Divine Mother’s magic is ancient as life itself. She existed before Gods and mortals, and she will still exist even after the great dissolution. Mother is pure energy in subtle form, but in times of need or just out of the desire to play, she manifests.’[1]

The name Adya Shakti or Adi Shakti literally means ‘primal power’ or ‘primal energy.’ In Hinduism she is the power or energy infusing the whole existence. In other words she is not only powerful, but power itself. She herself is the power/energy/force that permeates all creation including the animate, inanimate and the divine. All the other goddesses in the Hindu pantheon, are just manifestations or incarnations of Adya Shakti. She is the entity from which the universe is created, and sustained, and she is what everything will withdraw back into at the end of their lives.

A popular modern representation of Adya Shakti

A popular modern representation of Adya Shakti

The word Shakti in Sanskrit has a far larger import than the words power and energy in English. In fact there is no direct translation of Shakti. Sir John Woodroffe writes – ‘there is no word of wider content in any language than the Sanskrit term meaning “power”. For Shakti in the highest causal sense is God as Mother, and in another sense it is the Universe that issues from Her Womb.’[2]

Her other name is Adyakali, literally meaning ‘primal darkness’. She is the darkness from which light issues, the nothingness from which something is born, and the unmanifest from which everything manifests. Wendell Beane describes Adyakali as ‘pre-dynamically the Unmanifest, the Primeval, and the Supreme,’ as the ultimate symbol of timelessness – the Not-time – the one without beginning and without contingency.[3]

The Mahakali Stotram (a Hymn to Mahakali) says –

‘Without feet, you move faster than air; without ear, you do hear; without nostrils you do smell; without eyes, you do see; without tongue you do taste all tastes.’ (My translation)

She is not one particular form – nor does she have the known sense perceptions. Yet she senses everything. The idea of Adya Shakti is that she is immensely powerful, power herself; she is generally manifested in everything that we see in this universe, including the life force that moves in it. She is often described as neither male nor female, yet both male and female at the same time; as an entity that is beyond the descriptive categories of male and female; yet when she manifests herself in a particular form, she takes the form of an immeasurably powerful goddess. The following is a translation of a hymn to her found in the Mahakala Samhita:

‘Thou art neither girl, nor maid, nor old. Indeed thou art neither female, nor male, nor neuter. Thou art inconceivable, immeasurable Power, the Being of all which exists, void of all duality, the Supreme Brahman, attainable in Illumination alone.’[4]

The Sanskrit word Brahman here means truth or reality. The goddess is the representation of the ultimate non-duality. She encompasses everything in the universe, indeed she IS everything, including what we categorise as light and dark, creation and destruction, good and bad, female and male, youth and senility, left and right, inside and outside, physical and spiritual, yesterday and today. She is the ultimate non-dual unbroken reality.

Another text of the goddess tradition says – ‘Obeisance be to Her who is pure Being-Consciousness-Bliss, as Power, who exists in the form of Time and Space and all that is therein, and who is the radiant Illuminatrix in all beings.[5]

Adya Shakti depicted in Temple Sculpture in South India (dating between 10th to 12th century AD)

Adya Shakti depicted in Temple Sculpture in South India (dating between 10th to 12th century AD)

Adya Shakti is worshipped and celebrated in India and in Indian communities outside India in literally thousands of forms. Some of these forms are pan-Indian, like Kali and Durga, while the others are local like Meenakshi Amman (Fish-eyed Mother) in Tamil Nadu in South India, Vaishno Devi (GoddessVaishno) in Jammu and Kashmir in North India, Amba Devi (primarily) in Gujarat in Western India and Attukal Amma (Mother Attukal) in Kerala, South India.[6]

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[1] Elizabeth U Harding, Kali: the Black Goddess of Dakshineswar (Motilal Banarsidass 1998) xvii

[2] Sir John Woodroffe, Shakti and Shakta (New Visions Publications 2007) 25

[3] Wendell Charles Beane, Myth, Cult and Symbols of Sakta Hinduism (EJ Brill 1977) 152

[4] Sir John Woodroffe, Shakti and Shakta (New Visions Publications 2007) 26

[5] From Yoginihridaya Tantra as quoted in Sir John Woodroffe, Shakti and Shakta (The New Visions Publications, 2007)

[6] Dianne Jennet, ‘A Million Shaktis Rising: Pongala, a Women’s Festival in Kerala, India’ (2005) 21 Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 35, 43