The Dance of Shiva and Shakti

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Editor’s note: The author reminds us that long before the advent of Quantum Physics, the sages of Bhārat had declared that behind all the names and forms of this universe is One Energy, whom they called Shakti.


What is the nature of the physical world that we see around us? Matter is made up of atoms, science told us. And what are atoms made of? Protons, neutrons and electrons. And what are they made of? It turned out they were made of numerous sub-atomic particles called hadrons. But these are unlike particles of dust or grains of sand. Sub-atomic particles are not things!

The search for the ultimate building block of matter ended with the shocking finding that there is nothing! That Matter at its core is empty! There is nothing there that could be called a thing. Henry Pierce Stapp, an eminent Physicist says:

If the attitude of Quantum mechanics is correct. . . then there is no substantive physical world in the usual sense of this term. This is not a weak conclusion that there may not be a substantive physical world but rather that there definitely is not a substantive physical world.

Cited in Gary Zukav (1980), The Dancing Wu Li Masters: An Overview of the New Physics, p. 82

In the depths of Matter, a continuous interaction of sub-atomic particles is going on at unbelievable speeds. There we can never find any substance or structure, concepts which we invariably link with material things. Instead, what we find are patterns of energy interacting with each other. It is a continuous dance of energy.

There are no boundaries, no structures there. No outlines of chairs or trees. Only a whirling energy. In a continuous dance since eternity. At the deepest level of matter, matter vanishes. What remains is an undefinable dance of energy. In fact, the implication of the most famous equation in history i.e., Einstein’s E=mc² is simply this: Mass and Energy are one and the same.

The solidity of the material world is nothing but an illusion. There is no solidity anywhere because as per Einstein, Mass is made up of Energy which has no physical presence. What we see and what we touch, is an illusion. Matter is empty. In other words, the underlying reality of the physical world is vastly different from what we perceive though our senses.

Now if the material world is nothing but an interaction of sub-atomic particles that have no physical existence and matter is in fact empty, how are we seeing this solid world of trees and mountains; buildings and motor cars? How is this illusion being conjured up? Mystery! Science is baffled. If solidity, mass, is nothing but energy – what is the nature of that energy? What is the source of that energy? Mystery again. Science doesn’t have a clue.

We perceive a tree. The form of the tree with its attributes of solidity – the roots, the tree trunk, the numerous branches with their foliage, the fruits or the flowers – appears as a stable form. A constant process of cellular formation (creation), maintenance (preservation) and cellular death (destruction), the sap of life (energy) flowing through every cell, the gravitational pull (energy again) holding it to the ground – all these things are happening simultaneously.

All this is nothing but a flow of some unknown energy. This momentous activity remains hidden from our sight. What we see and perceive is a “tree.”

It was only in the twentieth century that the physicists were forced to concede that behind and underneath the magic show of this world of “names” and “forms” what lies is some kind of Energy. But what is the nature of this Energy? Where lies its source? What gives it the infinite capacity to create, maintain and destroy numerous forms through eternity? About these ultimate questions, science maintains its silence. Because it has no answers.

What the physicists discovered only in the last century, ages back, before the advent of Quantum Physics, the sages of this land called Bhārat had declared that behind all the names and forms of this universe is One Energy. They called it Shakti.

And because this Energy happens to be the womb of all creation, of all names and forms – it was conceived as a Feminine principle. Hence it was worshipped as the Mother – the Divine Shakti. What we see with our eyes is a world in movement. That is why it is called Jagat – that which moves. And what moves is Energy – Shakti.

Thus, it is sung in the 5th adhyāya, verse 12 of the Devi Mahātmaya (also known as Sri Chandi):

yā devī sarvabhūteṣu śaktirūpeṇa saṃsthitā । 
namastasyai namastasyai namastasyai namo namaḥ ॥

To that Devi who in all Beings is abiding in the form of Shakti,
Salutations to Her, Salutations to Her, Salutations to Her, Salutations again and again

The Divine Shakti – Excerpt from ‘The Synthesis of Yoga’

But this creation is not only Energy or Shakti. There is one more ingredient that is an essential part of Jagat. The philosophies of Sankhya, Vedanta and Tantra have always maintained that the universe, or creation, is made up of two basic ingredients: Energy and Consciousness. We have in Sankhya the terms Purusha and Prakriti, in Vedanta we find Brahman and Jagat (or Maya), and Shiva and Shakti in Tantra. These are the two fundamentals of the universe.

Without the movement of Shakti (energy) there cannot be any creation. But this Shakti moves according to certain laws, it follows patterns. All the energies that we can think of – nuclear energy, gravity, electricity, heat, wind – all follow laws and patterns. Had it not been so, the Energy would have been chaotic and the universe would have collapsed in a chaos. But what we have is not chaos, but cosmos (harmony). That is because the Shakti follows laws and patterns.

The orbits of the planets follow fixed patterns. The stars are born; thereafter they develop, mature and die following a certain pattern. All forms of life have the phases of birth, growth, maturity, decay and death. All the laws of nature indicate that there is an intelligence that is built into the very fabric of the universe.

The universe is not inert or dead; patterns, intelligence, laws are the software that run the universe. And intelligence, laws, patterns, order, harmony indicate only one thing: Consciousness. Shiva represents this Consciousness.

Shakti is Energy and Shiva is Consciousness and together they make up this Jagat or creation. That is why they are married. Shiva is husband; Shakti, the wife. The universe is the result of their union. That is why one of the most revered and powerful symbols in Sanatana Dharma is the Shiva linga embedded in the yoni, which is a representation of the union of Shiva and Shakti.

That is why we find even when we are worshipping the Mother Goddess, Shiva is always there in the background. Because they are a couple and without their union, creation is not possible. In the vigraha, the union of Shiva and Shakti is represented in the form of ardhanārīshwar where the right side of the body is Shiva and the left side, Devi or Parvati. They are one and inseparable.

That is why we find even when we are worshipping the Mother Goddess, Shiva is always there in the background. Because they are a couple and without their union, creation is not possible. In the vigraha, the union of Shiva and Shakti is represented in the form of ardhanārīshwar where the right side of the body is Shiva and the left side, Devi or Parvati. They are one and inseparable.

~ Ardhnarishwara at Darasuram; photo by Suhas Mehra

In the Shiva Purāna, we find the charming story of a contest between Ganesha and Kartikeya about who between them could circumnavigate the universe first. Kartikeya, known for his warrior like qualities takes up the contest in right earnest and mounts on his peacock and immediately sets off on his journey.

But Ganesha remains relaxed and leisurely does the pradakshinā around his parents Shiva and Parvati and claims that he has actually circumnavigated the universe. For the universe is nothing but the union of Shiva and Parvati (Shakti), i.e., Consciousness and Energy. And of course, he is declared the winner!

Consciousness without Energy is inert, lacking in dynamism and movement. And Energy without Consciousness is chaotic and destructive. Creation is not possible in either scenario. Only a harmonious union of Shakti and Shiva results in creation. So, the universe is actually Shiva-Shakti or Chit-Shakti. In his book Shakti and Shakta, the authoritative Tantric scholar Sir John Woodroffe writes:

“Shiva is the transcendent and Shakti is the immanent aspect of the one Brahman who is Shiva-Shakti… By the union of Shiva and Shakti creation comes (Shiva-Shakti samayogat jayate Srishti Kalpana). As all in the universe is both Shiva and Shakti (Shiva-Shaktimaya).”

~ John Woodroffe, 1927 (Third Edition), p. 249

In the Spiritual Heritage of India, Swami Prabhavananda writes,

“The Shakti or God the Mother, is not distinct from Shiva, or Brahman, the Absolute of the Upanishads, but it is the power of the Absolute.

In the transcendental plane, which is static, where there is but one undivided, absolute existence, and where there is no universe, the truth is known as Shiva, or the Absolute Existence-Consciousness-Bliss; but in the active, immanent plane, that is the plane in which the universe is known, there is experienced by the seer the play of Shakti of God the Mother.

“Sri Ramakrishna was wont to say that just as fire and its burning power are inseparable, so inseparable are Brahman and Shakti.

‘When I meditate upon Reality as at rest, that is, without the activities of creation, preservation, and dissolution, I call it Brahman. When I meditate upon Reality as creative, I call it Shakti. In either case, I am concerned with one and same truth, the difference being only in name and aspect. In the Upanishads a figure is given of the female spider and her web. The spider weaves her threat out of herself and then lives upon it. God the Mother is both the container and the contained.’” (Quoted from The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna).

~ Swami Prabhavananda, 1960, p. 145

In other words, Shiva is static; Shakti is kinetic. In iconography or in the language of symbolism we have the passive Shiva lying on the ground and the active Kali (Shakti) revelling in her dance on his very body. This vivid imagery has been expressed by Sri Aurobindo in the following manner in Savitri, Book I, Canto IV:

This is the knot that ties together the stars:

The union of Shiva and Shakti is the knot that ties together the stars (the universe). The connection between the two is one of abhinna bhava sambandha, i.e., non-separation. They are the male and female aspects of the same Unity which is neither male nor female.

The Two who are one are the secret of all power,
The Two who are one are the might and right in things.

~ CWSA, Vol. 33, p. 63

Shiva and Shakti – the Two together, are behind all the power, might and right in things – in other words, behind the Jagat.

His soul, silent, supports the world and her
His acts are her commandment’s registers.

~ CWSA, Vol. 33, p. 63

Shiva’s soul is silent because Consciousness is inert but it supports the Jagat as represented by Shakti.

Happy, inert, he lies beneath her feet:
His breast he offers for her cosmic dance
Of which are our lives are the quivering theatre…

~ CWSA, Vol. 33, p. 63

Shiva offers his body for Shakti’s cosmic dance (movement and creation) and our lives are nothing but a part of this drama (quivering theatre).

In a thousand ways he serves her royal needs;
He makes the hours pivot around her will,
Makes all reflect her whims; all is their play:
This whole wide world is only he and she….

~ CWSA, Vol. 33, p. 62

In whatever ways Shakti expresses herself in various forms, the consciousness moulds itself accordingly….in a thousand ways he serves her royal needs. He consents to whatever she wills and reflects her whims, because consciousness shapes itself according to the forms that Shakti creates.

Consciousness sleeps in the rock, awakes in the plant, moves about in the animal and thinks and becomes self-aware in man. Consciousness follows the mould and the structure created by Shakti.

And what about the myriad forms of this Jagat? This maddening variety of matter and life forms? They are all her whims; all is her play. At the same time, everything is a union of Shiva and Shakti.

The whole wide world is only he and she.


~ Design: Beloo Mehra

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