“It is also important to note that all three of the terms that we will explore—prakrti, sakti, and maya—are grammatically feminine terms.”
“It is also important to note that all three of the terms that we will explore—prakrti, sakti, and maya—are grammatically feminine terms. One might argue, therefore, that the association of these principles with female gender rather than male gender is rooted in their linguistic valence. It is evident, however, that no matter what the origin of the association of these principles with femaleness, they are identified clearly in the Puranas as feminine not only in their grammatical values but in their very essences.”
“The term prakrti has several meanings, including 'original or primary substance,' 'nature, character,' 'fundamental form, pattern, standard,' 'the original producer of the material world, Nature, ' and ' goddess, the personified will of the Supreme in the creation.' 1 Thomas Coburn observes that the best way to circumscribe the primary meanings of the term is to describe it as ' word that has been used to designate the material world in varying relationships to the divine.'2 Prakrti refers to an abstract, cosmic principle of materiality as well as manifest matter itself. The term sakti, from sak, 'to be able,' means 'power,' 'bility,' 'strength, ' 'energy,' and so forth.3 The term sakti often denotes a cosmic principle of energy that is described as the active dimension of Brahman, the Absolute. As a cosmic principle, sakti both causes creation to come into existence and sustains it.
The presentation of the Goddess as both prakrti and sakti implies that underlying the Brahmanical Hindu understanding of the feminine is some deeper connection between the two. There is in fact yet another principle, maya, that serves to link them. The term maya comes from ma, 'to measure,' and can denote Brahman's creative yet delusive power or the material form that results from the activation of such a power. As the first, maya is often equated with sakti; as the second, with prakrti. Like the other two, maya is often understood to be a cosmic feminine principle, and the use of the term tends to stress the illusory, impermanent, and/or changeable nature of creation in relation to the fully real, eternal, and unchanging nature of the Absolute.
Many scholars have noted the associations between some or all of these principles and female gender in Hindu thought in different contexts. Susan S. Wadley, for example, asserts that in the Hindu tradition 'The female is first of all sakti (energy/power), the energizing principle of the universe. The female is also prakrti (Nature)the undifferentiated Matter of the universe.' 4 Wadley touches upon the link between sakti/prakrti and female gender in mythico-religious and philosophical contexts, but her main concern is the way in which the association of these principles with femaleness is reflected on the social level in the expectations established for the behavior of women. David Kinsley briefly discusses these three principles in relation to the goddess Kali in particular and to the Hindu Great Goddess in general. P. G. Layle looks at the way in which these and other terms are used as epithets of the Goddess in the Devi-Bhagavata Purana, and Coburn does the same with respect to the DeviMahatmya.5 None of these scholars, however, has explored the origins and nature of this symbolic complex across a wide range of scriptures.
The development of these various principles in Brahmanical Hinduism and their association with female gender can be traced historically through the various layers of Brahmanical texts. In the earliest scriptures of the Brahmanical tradition, the Vedas (ca. 1500 B. C. E. -ca. 300 B. C. E. ), different goddesses are linked with materiality and/or power but not in a systematic or normative manner. Rather, there are several narrative and speculative strands that adumbrate such associations but do not articulate them clearly or directly. In the post-Vedic era up to the end of the classical period in India (ca. 300 B. C. E. -ca. sixth century C. E. ), we find an increasing preoccupation with systematic formulations of beliefs and increasingly standardized articulations of cosmic structures and processes as distinct philosophical schools emerge. In this period, a normative conception of the meaning of the term prakrti emerges within the context of Samkhya philosophy. An understanding of sakti as a cosmic power also begins to emerge, although the most elaborate formulation of this notion is fully articulated only in the ninth century and later, when Tantric literature begins to appear. 6 The concept of maya, too, begins to come into its own. These three principles are not identified with any particular goddess or goddesses during this period; in fact, they are not even necessarily conceived to be female in gender.
Toward the end of the classical period and in the postclassical and medieval periods (ca. fifth/sixth century C. E. sixteenth century C. E. ) different conceptual and mythological threads are woven together in the Puranas, and there emerges a notion of a Great Goddess, Devi (Goddess) or Mahadevi (Great Goddess), who is consistently identified as prakrti, sakti, and maya. The symbolic complex that is formulated in these texts participates in the medieval Brahmanical tendency to synthesize divergent elements and represents the confluence of various streams of thought already present in diverse conceptual and narrative environments. Vedic narrative themes in which different goddesses are associated with matter and energy come together with systematic formulations of the principles prakrti, sakti, and maya in later literature, and a new narrative emerges.
This study fills a gap in the available scholarly literature on the Goddess by exploring the rise of the Great Goddess historically in relation to these three cosmic principles and the ways in which the Goddess is formulated and elevated in Brahmanical Hindu discourse from Vedic times to the late Puranic period. There are five main purposes of this study: (1) to trace the origins and development within the Vedic-Brahmanical tradition of motifs that associate goddesses with materiality and power; (2) to examine the formulation of the principles prakrti, sakti, and maya individually; (3) to illuminate the development of the mutual association of all these elements; (4) to explore the resulting formulation of a Great Goddess characterized specifically as prakrti, sakti, and maya; and (5) to probe the cultural implications of this material with respect to gender issues.
We have referred to these principles as 'cosmic,' but it may not be clear what is meant by this term. Prakrti, sakti, and maya are often portrayed as cosmological principles, that is, structures inherent within creation. But they are also essentially cosmogonic, and they play key roles in the many accounts of creation found throughout the various scriptures constituting the Brahmanical Sanskrit canon. 7 One finds some of the richest descriptions of the nature and function of prakrti, sakti, and maya in the context of these creation accounts. It is in this context also that we often see the assimilation of these principles to one or more goddesses. Apart from the cosmogonic accounts, descriptions of cosmology that mention these principles usually offer rather thin descriptions of their nature and often appear to assume that their cosmogonic functions are understood. This study, then, will focus somewhat heavily on cosmogonies not by design but simply because much of the relevant data is found in the accounts of creation that appear throughout the various texts that constitute the Brahmanical canon.
Apart from questions of data, however, detailing the mechanisms of cosmogony and the resulting cosmology appears to be one of the central concerns of the tradition. Much attention is given to these topics, and one finds a great number and variety of cosmogonic hypotheses and narrative accounts across a broad range of different Brahmanical philosophical and mythological texts. One of the primary reasons for this emphasis on reflection about cosmic processes may be that cosmogony and cosmology in and of themselves are rich and meaningful categories. Cosmogonies describe fundamental categories and forces that are assumed to shape creation; these then help determine the essential nature of the universe, its structure, and the laws that govern it. In proposing to articulate truths about the world, descriptions of cosmogony and cosmology detail the confines within which it is assumed that humans as well as other kinds of beings must function. The centrality of our three principles and the Goddess with whom they are identified in descriptions of cosmogony and cosmology indicates their fundamental importance in Brahmanical Hindu conceptions about reality.
Since the symbolic complex that this study explores is largely related to issues of cosmogony and cosmology, we will focus only on those aspects and functions of the Great Goddess that are most clearly and directly related to such issues. Some may object that the present study does not pay enough attention to the Goddess's important soteriological functions. The Goddess's role as the dispeller of illusion who helps one achieve liberation (moksa) is indeed fundamental to her identity. Yet this role is essentially epistemological, for in such contexts the Goddess's salvific power is related to her identity with spiritual knowledge (vidya) or her ability to grant or lead one to such knowledge. The principles with which this study is concerned, on the other hand, are not primarily epistemological but are, generally speaking, ontological; that is, they are structures that are portrayed as structures of being, not knowing. This study will therefore address the soteriological functions of the Goddess only when they are relevant to the project at hand.
It is also important to note that all three of the terms that we will explore—prakrti, sakti, and maya—are grammatically feminine terms. One might argue, therefore, that the association of these principles with female gender rather than male gender is rooted in their linguistic valence. It is evident, however, that no matter what the origin of the association of these principles with femaleness, they are identified clearly in the Puranas as feminine not only in their grammatical values but in their very essences.”
Tracy Pintchman, The Rise of the Goddess in the Hindu Tradition
State University of New York Press (1994) pp. 3-7
1. Sir Monier Monier-Williams, A Sanskrit-English Dictionary, rev. ed. (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1988), p. 654.
2. Thomas Coburn, Devi-Mahatmya: The Crystallization of the Goddess Tradition (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1984), p. 186.
3. Monier-Williams, Sanskrit-English Dictionary, p. 1044.
4. Susan S. Wadley,” Women and the Hindu Tradition,” in Women in India: Two Perspectives, edited by Doranne Jacobson and Susan S. Wadley (Columbia, Mo. : South Asia Books, 1977), p. 115.
5. See David Kinsley, The Sword and the Flute: Kali and Krsna; Dark Visions of the Terrible and the Sublime in Hindu Mythology (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1975), pp. 109-114, 133-139, and Hindu Goddesses: Visions of the Divine Feminine in the Hindu Religious Tradition (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1986), pp. 133-137; P. G. Layle, Studies in Devi-Bhagavata (Bombay: Popular Prakashan, 1973), pp. 147-169; and Coburn, Devi-Mahatmya, pp. 123-127, 146-153, 180-186.
6. In dating Tantric literature from the ninth century, I am following Teun Goudriaan. Other scholars have argued for earlier dates. For a discussion of the dating of the Tantric literature and a summary of different scholars' views, see Sanjukta Gupta and Teun Goudriaan, Hindu Tantric and Sakta Literature, vol. 2, fasc. 2 of A History of Indian Literature (Wiesbaden: Otto Harrossowitz, 1981), pp. 19-21.
7. The term"cosmology"refers to reflection regarding the page_215 Page 216 general nature and structure of the created universe.”Cosmogony,” on the other hand, refers to accounts of the act of creation or birth (gonos) of the cosmos itself.
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