In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Śākta Tantra

  • Introduction
  • Śākta Tantra—An Overview
  • Śākta Visions of Kālī
  • The Krama Tradition
  • Śaktipāta—Initiation and the Transfer of Power in Śākta Tantra
  • Śākta-upāya of Kashmirian Śaivism
  • Śākta Tantra and Philosophy
  • Śākta Tantra and Feminism
  • Śākta Tantra and Religious Experience

Hinduism Śākta Tantra
Maciej Karasiñski
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 July 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399318-0251


The term “Śākta Tantra” (Śāktism) refers to a constellation of Tantric traditions of Asian goddess worship. Śākta Tantra is considered a branch of Hindu Tantrism, together with Śaivism and Vaiṣṇavism. This article is meant as a general introduction to Śākta Tantra, a web of esoteric religious traditions that have developed in the Indian subcontinent and have focused on the worship of goddesses, the embodied “powers” (Śaktis). Studies based both on Tantric texts and on ethnographic insights often indicate the secretive nature of Śākta rituals that are followed by initiated adepts within the hermetic circles called “families” (kula). The mystical streams of Śākta Tantra do not always propagate transgressive acts but are strongly influenced by regional traditions of Mother goddesses and female spirits. One can distinguish the Śākta traditions (like Śrīvidyā) that impacted the ritualism of various Brahminic communities and others that were themselves influenced by folk cults and regional customs. There are Sanskritic traditions of Krama and Trika that belonged to so-called Kashmirian Śaivism but developed elaborate theology where goddesses played major roles, and various local cults like Kerala Śākta Tantra, where local demon-slaying goddesses are worshipped in secret ceremonies. The goddesses are praised as powerful deities that can fulfill human wishes (i.e., are invoked during so-called kāmya rites) and lead a Tantric adept to salvation. In this article, an attempt is made to indicate the main branches of Śākta Tantra and selected Śākta-related concepts and to suggest textual sources that describe the traditions from both academic and sectarian perspectives.

Śākta Tantra—An Overview

Historically, Śāktism and Tantra (Tantrism) are closely aligned to an extent that early indological narrative used both terms interchangeably. Śākta Tantra is traced in Samuel 2008 to the autochthonous worship of Mother goddesses across South Asia. Brooks 1990 focuses on Śrīvidyā and defines Śākta Tantras as mystical traditions oriented toward the worship of Śakti, the universal and all-encompassing power that reveals itself in believers’ visions as a female divinity. Urban 2003 defines the concept of Śakti and Tantra in Assam and observes that the Śākta traditions were renowned for their secrecy and elements of private worship that could involve violations of customary laws of purity and ritual sanctity through violence and transgressive or sexual rites. Śākta ritualism is often seen as an interplay of taboos and conventions; it aims at unification of sacred and profane realities. Nirmala 2018 and Hatley 2015 discuss the relationship between Tantra and śakti, divine power, manifesting itself in various traditions of goddess worship. Goudriaan and Gupta 1981 is a useful survey on literary traditions of Śāktism in Sanskrit and Indian vernaculars. Brooks 1992 analyzes the ritualism and philosophy of Śākta Tantric traditions and indicates the impact of Śāktism on the culture of South Indian Brahmins. Also, Shin 2010 links Tantra with various concepts of power, both divine and mundane, and suggests that Tantra in general focuses on empowerment. Urban 2001 indicates the impact of Śākta theology on modes of worship of deities in Bengal and in various streams of Hinduism and Buddhism. Borkataky-Varma 2019 studies the famous Śākta center, the Kāmākhya temple, and observes that not all Śākta traditions are necessarily Tantric, and that the iconography, attributes, and rituals of Śākta Tantric goddesses differ depending on their geographic and religious-historical origins.

  • Borkataky-Varma, Sravana. “Taming Hindu Śākta Tantra on the Internet, Online Pūjās for the Goddess Tripurasundarī.” In Digital Hinduism. Edited by Xenia Zeiler, 186–206. London: Routledge, 2019.

    This chapter explores the relation between terms “Śākta” and “Tantra” in the context of Tantric rituals of the goddess Tripurasundarī. The study indicates also the online religiosity of Śākta Tantra in the modern age (e.g., online rituals and Tantra in social media), with special reference to the Kāmākhya temple.

  • Brooks, Douglas Renfrew. The Secret of the Three Cities: An Introduction to Hindu Śākta Tantrism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990.

    The book introduces the philosophy and ritualism of Hindu Śākta Tantra, with a special reference to Śrīvidyā Tantra. The author defines the central concepts of South Indian Śrīvidyā and offers a translation of Tripurā Upaniṣad in the light of Bhāskararāya’s commentary.

  • Brooks, Douglas Renfrew. “Encountering the Hindu ‘Other’: Tantrism and the Brahmans of South India.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 60.3 (1992): 405–436.

    DOI: 10.1093/jaarel/LX.3.405

    The article considers the power paradigms in Tantra and investigates the relationship of Tantra with orthodox Hinduism. The research focuses on Śrīvidyā Tantra and its influence on the culture of South Indian Brahmins.

  • Goudriaan, Teun, and Sanjukta Gupta. Hindu Tantric and Śākta Literature: A History of Indian Literature. Wiesbaden, Germany: Otto Harrassowitz, 1981.

    A classic study on Tantric and Śākta literary traditions. The book is divided into two parts, the first surveying Tantric literary works in Sanskrit and the second about selected Tantric texts written in modern Indian languages (Hindi and Bengali). This Indological work may serve as an introduction for students of Tantra and Śākta cults.

  • Hatley, Shaman. “Śakti in Early Tantric Śaivism Historical Observations on Goddesses, Cosmology and Ritual in the Niśvāsatattvasaṃhitā.” In Goddess Traditions in Tantric Hinduism: History, Practice and Doctrine. Edited by Bjarne Wernicke-Olesen, 16–32. London: Routledge, 2015.

    This study elaborates on the idea of Śakti and the roles of goddesses in the early form of Tantric Śaivism. The author not only discusses the various aspects of goddess worship in Tantric rituals but presents a historical context of those traditions. Readers may learn about cosmology and theology of early Śākta Tantra, the cult of Mother goddesses, and the principles of the ritualism.

  • Nirmala, V. The Principle of Śakti in Kashmir Śaivism: Function and Evolution. Ernakulam, India: Sankaracharya University Press, 2018.

    This detailed study, based on the author’s PhD thesis, analyzes the rise and evolution of Śakti in the sub-streams of Kashmir Śaivism. The author discusses the notion of power and traces the idea of Śakti to the earliest stream of Kula tradition.

  • Samuel, J. The Origins of Yoga and Tantra: Indic Religions to the Thirteenth Century. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511818820

    The book traces the history of yogic and Tantric cults through the ages and investigates spiritual routines in several religious traditions of South Asia, including Buddhism and Jainism.

  • Shin, Jae-eun. “Transformation of the Goddess Tārā with Special Reference to Iconographical Features.” Indo-Koko-Kenkyu: Studies in South Asian Art and Archaeology 31 (2010):17–31.

    A study on the goddess Tārā and the development of her cult in early Indian tradition and in Hinduism and Buddhism.

  • Urban, Hugh B. “The Path of Power: Impurity, Kingship and Sacrifice in Assamese Tantra.” American Academy of Religion 69.4 (2001): 777–816.

    DOI: 10.1093/jaarel/69.4.777

    The paper explores the relations among Tantra, power, and ritualism in the context of Assamese history. The author focuses on the meaning of Śakti and its multiple connotations: spiritual, social, and political.

  • Urban, Hugh B. “The Power of the Impure: Transgression, Violence and Secrecy in Bengali Śākta Tantra and Modern Western Magic.” Numen 50.3 (2003): 269–308.

    DOI: 10.1163/156852703322192419

    The article discusses the role of “impure” or transgressive rites in Śākta Tantra of Bengal and deliberates on similar practices in Western Magic. Adapting Foucauldian discourse analysis and Bataille’s theories of transgression, the author indicates social and political implications of sexual rites in Bengali Śāktism. Urban’s study investigates also how Tantra became associated with “spiritual sex” in popular Western discourses.

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