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Sakti bodies – III: Geographies of power

“O twice borns! wherever the pair of feet and the other parts of the dead body of Sati had fallen, Mahadeva being attracted and out of deep attachment to Her stayed Himself, in all those places, assuming the shape of a linga.”
Kalika Purana 18:46

In the previous post in this series I briefly examined an element of a long narrative which expounds the relationship between the goddess and Siva. This narrative, known as the Daksha-Jyagya has many different versions, and is thought to have its earliest form in the Mahabharata. This time, I’m going to begin with that part of the narrative which concerns events after the Goddess attends Daksa’s sacrifice. Sati, in protest against the insult against Siva, and in many versions of the narrative hurls herself into the sacrificial fire and is burned to death. The (10th century) Kalika Purana however, has the Goddess “leaving the world” by her own yogic powers (yogagnina):

“The Daughter of Daksa having given her serious thought over the matter and remembering the terrible deeds of Daksa once again flew into a rage.
Then Sati, with eyes burning red in anger by adopting a posture of yoga closed all the nine doors in her body and made an indistinquished sound (sphota).
By that sound her spirit went out from her body by breaking the tenth door.
Then the gods in the heaven having seen her (Sati) dead, with eyes full of tears, made the loud exclamation of ha ha in sorrow.”
Kalika Purana 16. 47-50 (quoted in Foulston, 2004, p84)

Siva, mad with grief at the death of the goddess, carries the body of Sati off on his shoulder, and wanders around the world, stamping his feet and causing earthquakes. In some versions, the gods ask Vishnu to intervene, and Vishnu uses his discus to cut Sati’s body into pieces. In another version of the narrative, Brahma, Vishnu and Sani (Saturn) enter the corpse of the Goddess by means of yoga, and dismember it bit by bit. This latter element of the narrative, according to Sircar (2004) is a later addition to the main narrative, in texts such as the Devibhagavata and the Kalika Purana to explain the origin of the sakti-pithas.

The narrative of the dismemberment of the Goddess bears a similarity to earlier cosmogenic accounts of creations such as the Purusa-Sukta found in the Rg Veda (translation). The Purusa-Sukta expresses the simultaneity of unity in diversity (transcendence and immanence) found in the later Mahadevi narratives in the figure of the Cosmic Person who is sacrificially dismembered and gives rise to the world, the planets, all beings (both mortal and immortal) the seasons, all knowledge – and the social order – all sharing the same essence and interrelated.

Sakti-pithas: seats of the Goddess
Whatever the version of the narrative, the places where the parts of Sati’s body fall become pithas – (“seats” or “benches”) places of power where particular instantiations of the goddess are worshipped, sometimes accompanied by a form of Bhairava-Siva. There are various listings of Sakti-pithas, ranging from 4 to 108, and equally, a wide variation as to which part of Sati fell in which place. The circa-eighth century Buddhist Hevajra Tantra for example, locates four Sakti-Pithas: Jalandhara, Uddiyana, Kamarupa, and Purnagiri. (There are also similar pilgrimage spots for parts of Siva or Krisna). Over time, the four mathapithas (“great seats”) were joined by upapithas (“secondary seats”) although again, there is no agreement as to the exact distinction between a mathapitha and a upapitha. The Mahapithanirupana which Sircar (2004) dates as a late medieval text, gives the location of fourteen Sakta-pithas in West Bengal (see this article for further discussion). Occasionally, lists of pithas which are identified with different body parts of the dismembered Goddess are supplemented with places associated with the ten Mahavidyas. As I have indicated, there is no single authoritive listing of sakti-pithas; there are regional variations where local sites claim ownership of a body part of Sati, and it is possible that the 108 Sakti-pithas given in texts such as the Devibhagavata Purana are an attempt to connect many local goddesses to the Mahadevi. As Surinder Bhardwaj (1983) observes, this lack of an absolute opinion as to what constitutes the “holiest place” in India “underscores the basic differences between Hinduism on the one hand and Christianity, Islam and Judaism on the other.”

The Sakti-Pithas are pilgrimage centres, where the goddess reveals herself. They are sometimes located near bodies of water, and are frequently associated with natural formations which embody the goddess in aniconic form. Jalandhara for example, can be translated as “the place that bears (-dhara) the net or flames (jvala – flames or jala -net) of the goddess. Close to the town, in the Kangra Valley, is a cave wherein natural gas leaks from the rocks. The small flames produced by the gas are worshipped as the manifest form of the goddess Jvalamukhi – “(the goddess) whose mouth is made of flames” – and sometimes related to the fall of the Goddess’ tongue. Four of the Goddess’ toes from her right foot are said to have fallen at Kalighat in Southern Calcutta, and the Kali Temple there has a long history of association with tantric ritual and pilgrimage. Sanjuka Gupta (2003) says that the Kali statue there is decorated with an expensive sari which conceals the body of Kali, except for her face, hands and parts of her feet – and notes the temple’s association with the name carana-tirtha – “pilgrimage place of the feet”.

The most famous (and possibly the oldest) of the Sakti-pithas is Kamarupa, the abode of the goddess Kamakhya (translated by Biernacki (2007) as “the Renowned Goddess of Desire”), near the city of Guwahati, in Assam. In many texts, Kamarupa is the place where the yoni of Sati fell to earth, hence it is considered to be the most important of the Sakti-pithas. The Kamakhya temple, atop a hill called Nilakuta (“the Blue Mountain”) is strongly associated with tantric practices, and is one of the rare instances where there are statues of the ten Mahavidyas. In a cave underneath the temple, there is a yoni-shaped rock cleft, moistened by a natural spring. Between the seventh and eleventh day of Asadha (June-July) the goddesses’ annual period of menstruation is celebrated. Foulston (2004) describes this event: “…the monsoon rains swell the Brahmaputra River flowing under the temple. Because of the composition of the underlying rock it oozes out of the fissure in the yoni in a reddish stream. For the first three days, the temple is closed but is re-opened on the fourth day, when it attracts huge numbers of pilgrims and tourists alike.” Foulston writes that devotees wear red clothes during this festival, animal sacrifices are offered to the Goddess, and that the menstrual blood of the Goddess is thought to cure any illness (p193).

Biernacki quotes a seventeenth century Tibetan report of the Kamakhya temple: “there are so many witches (dakinis) and various kinds of demons and devils there that even a person who has fully mastered the Tantras can hardly stay there.” She also relates a story relating to the goddess Kamakhya – that each night, Kamakhya performs a dance for Her own pleasure, when the temple doors are closed. A priest named Kendukalai gains the favour of the goddess through his great devotion to her, and is allowed to watch the goddess dance. He makes the mistake of telling the king, Naranarayan, about this dance, and naturally the king wants to see the goddess dance. The priest arranges to have the king spy on the dance of the goddess through a crack in a wall, and Kamakhya – when she realises what is happening, strikes the unfaithful Kendukalai down dead, and curses the king so that he and all his descendants may never have the sight (darsana) of the goddess.

The Kalika Purana says that the goddess Kamakhya has a five-fold nature, and that Her five “secret forms” are Kamakhya, Tripura, Kamesvari, Sarada and Mahotsaha. It also states that Kamahya resides in a stone, and that “When a mortal person has touched this stone, he will attain immortality; if he is an immortal one, he will stay in Brahma’s abode; if he stays there, he will attain liberation.” (73) “The greatness of that stone, in which Kamesvari is present, is wonderful; iron when having come into contact with it in a secret place wil turn to ashes.” (74) The Kalika Purana contains extensive instructions for the five-fold worship of Kamakhya; each instantiation of the goddess having their own mantra, yantra, dhyana, and attendant saktis, yoginis, etc.

Pithas and Pilgrimage
Pithas are a particular instantiation of the Pan-Indian phenomena generally referred to as tirthas – crossing places. Originally, tirtha signified a river crossing-place, but is now used to refer to places where the qualitiy of sacredness is particularly intensified. Diana Eck (1982) writes that India is “engraved with traces of mythic events. It is a living sacred geography.” Moreover, it is a geography which is continually shifting and changing according to the shifting patterns of pilgrimage and the needs of devotees. Whilst the spiritual experience of darsan is a primary motivation for pilgrimage, there are indications that contemporary pilgrimage travel in India is becoming increasingly commercialised and commodified (see Kiran Shinde paper, link below).

A particular site can be taken as representing the cosmos in its entirety, and as Wilbert Gesler and Margaret Pierce note in their paper Hindu Varanasi (2000): “To many believers, as we noted, Varanasi represents or is a model of the entire cosmos, and any sacred place, found anywhere, can also be found in Varanasi.” Diana Eck refers to the quality whereby a particularly powerful tirtha can become paradigmic of all tirthas as “spatial transposition of place”: “One can readily apprehend that the Divine dwells with equal potency in many places. Here, however, the affirmation is that the place itself, with its sacred power, is present in more than one place” (1982, p40). This enables the merits associated with a sacred place which is remote can be acquired by visiting a site which is closer to hand (a point I will return to in the next post). In a later work (1997) she examines how these spatial transpositions are being reproduced by Hindus in America.

Amita Sinha (2006) in her paper on the Sakti-pitha Pavagadh (Gujurat) says that an estimated 2.4 million pilgrims visit this particular site each year. She points out that whilst the goddess is experienced in and through the landscape, it is her mythology that “anchors” her narratives to specific sites: “myths (for the pilgrim) constitute the living history of Pavagadh and aid in the fuller understanding of Kali’s divine nature.” She describes the 5km pilgrim path to the temple as a preperation for the culminative darsan of the Devi:

“The pilgrim is made aware of Dakshina-Kali’s … simultaneous transcendence and immanence through the landscape itself.” The location of the temple, at the top of the 830-meter high hill, signifies the “transcendence of the Devi” and the “pilgrim’s arduous climb to reach the pinnacle culminates in euphoria by arriving at what feels like the top of the world. … The wind at the top speaks of the Devi’s might and lends its name to the hill – Pavagadh – castle of the winds. The culmination of this landscape experience is the darshan of Kali, to see and be seen by her to receive her blessings, and partake of her grace.”

In the next part of this series I will examine how the sacred geographies of Sakti-pithas is interiorised and homologised with the human body in tantric texts.

Loriliai Biernacki, Renowned goddess of desire: women, sex, and speech in Tantra (Oxford University Press, 2007)
S M Bhardwan, Hindu places of pilgrimage in India: a study in cultural geography (University of California Press, 1983)
Mark SG Dyckowski, A Journey in the World of the Tantras (Indica Books, 2004)
Diana Eck Banaras: City of Light (Princeton University Press, 1982)
Diana Eck A New Religious America: How a “Christian Country” Has Become the World’s Most Religiously Diverse Nation (Harper San Fransisco, 1997)
Lynn Foulston, Stuart Abbott Hindu goddesses: beliefs and practices (Sussex Academic Press, 2009)
WM Gesler & M Pierce, Hindu Varanasi (Geographical Review, Vol. 90, No.2, April 2000)
Sanjuka Gupta The Domestication of a Goddess: Carana-tirtha Kalighat, the Mahapitha of Kali in McDermott, Kripal (eds) Encountering Kālī: in the margins, at the center, in the West (University of California Press 2003)
K. R. van Kooij, Worship of the goddess according to the Kālikāpurāna, Volume 1 (Brill, 1972)
Amita Sinha, Cultural Landscape of Pavagadh: the Abode of Mother Goddess Kalika (Journal of Cultural Geography, Vol.23, Issue 2, 2006)
Dines Chandra Sircar The Sakta Pithas (Motilal, 2004)
Kiran Shinde Pilgrimage and the Environment: Challenges in a Pilgrimage Centre (accessed 1 November, 2011)