Praise be to her – the chants of Shakti

During Navaratri, many ritual offerings are made to the Mother Goddess, including chants and recitals. Over centuries, these hymns have become a part of Shakti worship.

It is almost dusk. The sun will set in a few minutes. In many homes, people have started chanting the Lalita Sahasranama, a lyrical exaltation of the feminine aspect of life.

Sahasranamas (hymns invoking the 1008 names of a deity) are an important part of ritual worship in India. But the most popular ones are those invoking Vishnu and Goddess Lalitha.
Lalita Sahasranamam is a part of the Brahmanda Purana and was told by Hayagriva to sage Agastya. Over centuries, it has become a very popular text among those who follow the Shakta principles and has been used in the invocation of the mother Goddess. While Adi Sankaracharya wrote a commentary on the Vishnu Sahasranamam, Bhaskararaya wrote a commentary on the Lalita Sahasranamam.

A major contribution of Adi Sankara to the cult of Shakti worship comes in the form of Soundarya Lahari. Dr P K Sundaram writes in his work on Soundarya Lahiri that Sankara gives the idea of Devi an imagery: “When Devi opens her eyes, there is creation and when she closes them, there is dissolution. She remains in existence even when the world process has ceased to be.”

The importance attributed to Devi can be understood from the opening lines of this hymn, where Adi Sankara says, “Shiva, united with Shakti, becomes able to manifest. If otherwise, this God knows not even how to pulsate.” Adi Sankara makes Shakti the divine power and raises her to the level of the philosophical absolute. The imagery of the divine mother created by Adi Sankara went on to have a deep influence in the sphere of art as well in the centuries to come.

Many of the works of Sankara were available to the masses only in the last 100 years, thanks to the efforts of T K Balasubramania Iyer who ran the Vani Vilas Press in Srirangam. Over a century back, he brought out an authoritative collection of the works of Adi Sankara, at the behest of the then Sankaracharya of Sringeri. Thus, Adi Sankara’s works, including several hymns, were available to the masses.One such work written by Adi Sankara dedicated to Lakshmi, is the Kanakadhara stotra. “The story goes that, as is expected of students, Sankara went from house to house begging for alms. The lady of one house was so poor that she could give Sankara only a berry. Out of compassion, Sankara composed Kanakadhara Stotra praising Lakshmi who was so pleased that she caused a stream (dhara) of gold (kanaka) berries to fall in the poor woman’s house,” says mythologist Devdutt Pattanaik. In some ways, Sankara sees oneness not only in Saraswati, Lakshmi and Parvati, but also in Shakti and Shiva.
In the eastern part of the country, it’s a popular ritual to read the Devi Mahatmyam or Durga Shaptashati (also known as Chandipaath). In fact, since the 1930s, Chandipaath has been a regular programme on All India Radio, in West Bengal, heralding the arrival of Navaratri.
These verses are a part of the Markandeya Purana and extol Durga as the central force of creation. The most celebrated parts of the Mahatmyam are her battles with Mahishasura and the final parts depict her battle with asuras such as Chanda, Munda, Raktabeeja, Shumbha and Nishumbha.Usually, during festivals, the middle chapters depicting her battle with Mahishasura are read. With the combined energies of all the devas and trimurtis, Durga, holding different weapons in her ten hands, riding a lion, laughs loudly and sends shockwaves across the world. As Durga approached the Vindhyas, Mahishasura tried to capture her. He attacked her in various forms, each of which was destroyed by Durga. Finally, he took the form of a buffalo, which she caught with a noose and tied up before transfixing him with a trident, after which she killed him.” This imagery of Durga was captured by Adi Shankara in the Mahishasura Mardini stotram, which continues to be popular to this day in households.

This story was published today in The Times of India, Chennai

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