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OCHS Conference 2011: The Sakta Traditions

Project leaders

Project Directors: Gavin Flood, Bjarne W. Olesen

Project Manager: Bjarne W. Olesen

Project outline

Research in the Śaiva traditions have been quite extensively developed in recent years. Important work has been done on the Skanda Purāṇa, the Pāśupatas, the Śaiva Siddhānta, the non-dualistic Śaiva traditions, and their philosophical articulation in the Pratyabhijñā. But less work has been done on what might be called Śākta traditions, those traditions, tantric and non-tantric, focused on an independent Goddess (Devī) or on Śiva’s power (Śakti). Research has been done on the Kubjikā tradition and on Śākta oriented Śaiva traditions but a sustained research programme that inquires into the history, doctrine and practices of what might be called 'Śāktism' is a desideratum.

The aim of this project is therefore to address fundamental questions such as the clarification of the distinction between Śaiva and Śākta traditions, questions about Śākta textual lineages and their interrelationship, the clarification of doctrines and practices of the different schools, questions about the relationship between the tantric and the purāṇic Goddess traditions, questions about the relationship between local Goddess traditions (such as the Teyyams in Kerala) and the pan-South Asian traditions, raising questions about the relationship between esoteric practices and the exoteric temple cults, asking what the delimitation of Śākta doctrine is, and what developments there are in contemporary Śākta worship.

The project will be done in collaboration with the Section for the Study of Religion at the Faculty of Arts, Aarhus University.


10–11 September 2011
Somerville College, Oxford

The conference will address these questions from a number of perspectives, i.e. a text-historical or philological perspective (this would be the main one as the texts of the tradition and its text-historical boundaries are hardly established), an anthropological perspective on contemporary practice, a doctrinal or theological perspective on theological reflection based on the textual material that has been established to date, an art-historical angle, as well as a perspective of the study of religion.

The goal of the conference is thus to present an interdisciplinary survey of Śākta history, practice and doctrine in its diversity as well as to convey something of the Śākta religious world view that is distinctive and sets ‘Śāktism’ apart from other South Asian religious traditions. Any headway in this field will be of great value for the future study of religion in South Asia.

The conference is organised by the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies in collaboration with the Section for the Study of Religion at Aarhus University and kindly sponsored by the Nehru Centre, London.

Project outputs

  • An international conference to be held in Oxford.
  • Publication of the papers from the conference as a volume in the Routledge Hindu Studies Series and/or in editions of the Journal of Hindu Studies.


Saturday 10 September

9.30–10.30: Keynote: The Rise of Goddess Worship in Early Medieval India

Alexis G. J. S. Sanderson is Spalding Professor of Eastern Religions and Ethics, All Souls College, University of Oxford. He is a renowned expert on the history of Saivism and on tantric traditions. After taking undergraduate degrees in Classics and Sanskrit at Balliol College, Oxford, he spent six years in Kashmir studying with the celebrated scholar and Saiva guru Swami Lakshman Joo. From 1977 to 1992 he was Lecturer in Sanskrit in the University of Oxford, and Fellow of Wolfson College. Since 1992 he has held the Spalding Chair of Eastern Religions and Ethics in the University of Oxford, and is a Fellow of All Souls College.

11.00–12.00: On Goddesses and the Category Śakti in Early Tantric Śaivism: the case of the Niśvāsatattvasaṃhitā

This presentation explores the nature and historical development of goddesses and the category of Śiva’s “power(s)” (śakti) in the archaic Niśvāsatattvasaṃhitā. It is observed that while female deities have limited cultic importance, their significance increases in the later strata of the text, especially the Guhyasūtra. A shift from apotheoses of feminine-gendered cosmological categories to embodied goddesses appears evident, as are early developments in characteristic Śaiva doctrines concerning the roles of śakti in cosmogony and grace. The presentation also highlights some of the ways in which ritual forms and concerns of the Niśvāsatattvasaṃhitā presage those of early śākta-oriented tantric systems.

Shaman Hatley (Concordia University, Montréal), researches the literature, ritual, and social history of Tantric Śaivism in medieval India, and religion in premodern Bengal. Hatley's dissertation, "The Brahmayāmalatantra and Early Saiva Cult of Yoginīs," analyses the history of the Śaiva cult of yoginīs and provides a partial critical edition of one of its earliest scriptural sources, the Brahmayāmala. Hatley is a contributor to the Tāntrikābhidhānakośa (‘A Dictionary of Technical Terms from Hindu Tantric Literature’), and has authored several articles and book chapters concerning tantric practices and goddess cults. His current research focuses on the ritual roles and divinization of women in early Tantric Śaivism and Buddhism. He completed his Ph.D. in Religious Studies at the University of Pennsylvania in 2007, under the direction of Harunaga Isaacson.

12.00–1.00: The (un)dreadful goddess: Aghorī in early śākta tantras

This paper proposes to examine the figure and role of the goddess Aghorī (lit. ‘undreadful’) in early śākta tantras from about the seventh to ninth centuries CE, particularly in the Brahmayāmala and the Siddhayogeśvarīmata. In addition to being Bhairava’s consort (and identical with Bhairavī, the Frightening One), Aghorī appears in various sets of eight goddesses, who may represent the eight Mother goddesses (mātṛ). She is also said to be at the origin of all yoginīs. First, I shall try to explore the relation between Aghorī and her vedic counterpart, Aghora, and then to see how she attains the status of the supreme goddess in some contexts. The question of her presence or absence on different maṇḍalas will also be raised, and the consequences such details of the cult may entail will be analysed. Finally, I shall discuss her role in the creation of a specifically śākta pantheon.

Judit Törzsök studied English and Indian Studies at ELTE University, Budapest (MA, 1992), and completed her DPhil under Prof. Alexis Sanderson’s supervision at Merton College, Oxford (2000). After a Junior Research Fellowship at Emmanuel College, Cambridge and a post-doctoral year at the University of Groningen, she was appointed Assistant Professor (maître de conférences), at the University of Lille III, where she still teaches Sanskrit and classical Indian religions and literature. In the past four years, she also lectured at the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes, Paris, where she obtained her habilitation in 2010, supervised by Lyne Bansat-Boudon. Her main research areas are pre-twelfth century śaiva tantrism (especially the early phase of goddess cults), classical Sanskrit literature (particularly drama), and purāṇic śaivism, with occasional incursions into classical Tamil devotional literature. She has published articles on various aspects of śaivism and tantrism, contributed to the Clay Sanskrit Library with two volumes, and participates in the Skandapurāṇa Project (Groningen) and the Tāntrikābhidhānakośa (Hindu Tantric Dictionary Project, Vienna).

2.30–3.30: The Śākta Co-option of Haṭhayoga

Text-critical study of the earliest texts to teach haṭhayoga (c.11th-13th centuries) shows that in its first formulations it was closely associated with traditional ascetic practice and that the aim of its techniques, which were physical, was to boost the beneficial effects of celibacy (or, at least, continence). Śākta traditions dating to a similar period had developed a system of yoga in which the yogin visualised the rising of Kuṇḍalinī from the base of the spine up through a series of cakras. This Kuṇḍalinī yoga, together with some other techniques developed in a Śākta milieu, was overlaid onto the techniques of haṭhayoga in texts such as the Vivekamārtaṇḍa, Gorakṣaśataka and Haṭhapradīpikā. The haṭhayoga taught in the latter text in particular became definitive and since its composition (c. 1450) Kuṇḍalinī-based haṭhayoga has been the dominant form of haṭhayoga, and indeed yoga more broadly conceived.

The co-option of haṭhayoga by a Śākta tradition is representative of both the development within Śāktism of a less exclusive, more universal yoga and of the formation of the Nāth saṃpradāya. The first gurus associated with the Nāth order, Matsyendra and Gorakṣa, were part of a non-celibate Śākta tradition which developed in the Deccan. Out of this tradition there developed the celibate order of Nāth ascetics whose influence ranged, and ranges, over all but the southeast of the subcontinent.

James Mallinson has a BA in Sanskrit from Oxford and an MA with a major in ethnography from SOAS. His DPhil. thesis at Oxford was a critical edition of the Khecarīvidyā, a Kaula work on khecarīmudrā, an important technique of haṭhayoga. After his DPhil. he translated Sanskrit poetry for the Clay Sanskrit Library for six years. He then spent a year teaching Sanskrit at SOAS and is now helping to set up an institute of Indian classical studies at Lavasa in India while continuing his research into yoga and yogis.

3.30–4.30: Varieties of melaka in the Jayadrathayāmala 

The encounters with yoginīs, called melaka or melāpa, constitute the core of the post-initiation tantric practice in the Vidyāpīṭha texts, and priya- and haṭha- varieties were well known to the pre-Abhinavagupta śaiva tantric literature. This presentation will explore the nature of the haṭhamelaka as it is described in the Jayadrathayāmala, including its relation to the practice of provoked possession (āveśa), as well as of some other rare varieties of melaka that can be found in this text only.

Olga Serbaeva Saraogi, Post-doc. researcher (Habilitation) at the faculty of Philosophy, Indogermanisches Seminar, Abteilung für Indologie, University of Zurich.

5.00–6.00: The Śakti of the Caṇḍālī

The 11th century Tantric text, the Yonitantra, evokes a Yantra representing the Yoni in which the central divinity is presented as Caṇḍālī, a woman belonging to what Dumont has labelled “the old prototype of the Untouchable”. Other Tantric texts ascribe the same significance to the Caṇḍāla woman or to women belonging to other low castes, most prominently the Ḍombī, the washer woman. What are the reasons behind this antinomian tribute to the lowest of low-caste women in Tantric texts? An answer to this question can be approached by a study of the representations of these castes in other literary genres. This paper will present an analysis of these literary images and on that basis address their use in Tantric texts.

Mikael Aktor is Associate Professor of History of Religions at Institute of Philosophy, Education and the Study of Religions, University of Southern Denmark. He holds a PhD from University of Copenhagen, a part of which was carried out at School of Oriental and African Studies, London. His field of expertise has so far mostly been within the study of Dharmaśāstra, in particular with a focus on caste and Untouchability. Today he is engaged in a research of North Indian Śaiva temple ritual and temple sculpture as part of a general interest in ritual studies and religious aesthetics.

Sunday 11 September

9.30–10.30: Yoginīyoga/Yogin as Yoginī: On the sādhana of female deities in Indian tantric Buddhism of the tenth to twelfth century

Harunaga Isaacson was born in Kuma, Japan, in 1965. He studied philosophy and Indology at the University of Groningen (MA 1990), and was awarded a PhD in Sanskrit by the University of Leiden (1995). From Fall 1995 to Summer 2000 he was a post-doctoral research fellow at the Oriental Institute, Oxford University. After holding teaching positions at Hamburg University and the University of Pennsylvania, he was appointed Professor of Classical Indology in the Department of Indian and Tibetan Studies, Asien-Afrika-Institut, Hamburg University, in April 2006. His main research areas are: tantric traditions in pre-13th century South Asia, especially Vajrayāna Buddhism; classical Sanskrit poetry; classical Indian philosophy; and Purāṇic literature. Prof. Isaacson is a member of the board of Indo-Iranian Journal (since 2003) and the Governing Committee of the INDOLOGY Discussion Forum. He is also presently Director of the Nepal Research Centre and General Director of the Nepalese-German Manuscript Cataloguing Project (both positions held since April 2006), funded by the Deutsche Forschungs Gemeinschaft.

11.00–12.00: Four Goddesses and a Liṅga: The So-called Śaktiliṅgas and Similar Sculptures

The paper will discuss types of liṅgas featuring four goddesses facing outward. These include a complex Tantric sculpture from Nepal (17th century) and its possible prototypes, the so-called śakti- or devīliṅgas found in Bengal, dating from the 9th to 13th centuries. A major problem is the identity of the four goddesses and the significance of these sculptures. The paper will also address the more general phenomenon of feminine liṅgas, namely liṅgas serving as a focus of goddess cult worship.

Gudrun Bühnemann is Professor and Chair of the Department of Languages and Cultures of Asia, The University of Wisconsin-Madison. For more information, see her webpage,

12.00–1.00: Devī worship as point of departure for a comparative project

In the history of religion especially in the comparative study of religion goddess worship is a very underestimated and under prioritized exploratory field. General books on the history of religion either mentions goddesses in the periphery as the spouse of a god or as seen in a evolutionary scheme, where goddess worship is either placed as part of the archaic state of religion, as a part of a primitive fertility cult or maybe mentioned in relation to small isolated non patriarchal societies. And some scholars even tries to explain the nowadays veneration of goddesses as for example the Virgin Mary in Christianity as weak survivals of these earlier stages.
My paper will try to outline how research on devī-worship in the Hindu tradition is a very important exploratory laboratory to overcome this deficit.  It is not only a fact that among the world religions, Hinduism has by far the most vigorous and diverse goddess mythology as well as independent goddess worship, it is also a fact that in Hinduism we find the most elaborated understanding of the Goddess.

Marianne C. Qvortrup Fibiger, Ph.D. and associate professor at the Section of Religious Studies at the Faculty of Arts at Aarhus University. She is especially interested in contemporary Hinduism and has done fieldwork different places in India as well as in Sri Lanka, Kenya, England, Mauritius and Denmark. She is interested in Śāktism from at least three perspectives: 1) As an important part of the Hindu tradition also in Diaspora 2) How or if local goddess worship corresponds with or relate to the textual background. 3) How research on Śāktism could be an important stepping stone in an understanding of Goddess worship as such.

2.30–3.30: Snakebite Goddesses in the Śākta Traditions: Roots and Incorporations of Tvaritā, Kurukullā, and Bheruṇḍā

Goddesses associated with snakes and healing snakebite are well known to anthropologists of modern Śākta traditions; Manasā in the Northeast and Nāgāttammaṉ in the South come immediately to mind.  In Jainism we have Padmāvatī, and in Buddhism various goddesses like Jāṅgulī, Kurukullā, and Mahāmāyūrī specialize in curing snakebite.  The origins of many of these goddesses remain obscure, but my research into the largely unedited Śaiva Gāruḍa Tantras suggests that some of them were popularized by this early corpus.  In this paper I focus on those snakebite goddesses of the Gāruḍa Tantras who were incorporated into the wider and increasingly influential Śākta traditions of the ninth–twelfth centuries: Bheruṇḍā, Tvaritā, and Kurukullā.  What do we know about their early identities and how did incorporation as nityās transform them?  The latter two were also incorporated in Jain and Buddhist Tantra respectively, and are still worshipped today.  My paper also presents evidence that Purāṇic chapters on these goddesses are directly borrowed from Tantric sources.

Michael Slouber is a Ph.D. candidate in South and Southeast Asian Studies at UC Berkeley.  His research interests include Śaivism, Śākta Traditions, and History of Medicine.

3.30–4.30: Śākta Influence in the Goddess Cults of Malabar

This paper will attempt a synthetic overview of textual, ethnographic, and historical sources in Malayalam, Tamil and Sanskrit related to the cultural historical role and adaptation of Śākta worship in the temple cults of prominent goddesses in northern Kerala.   Based ethnographically in the formerly royal shrines and temples of this region, where special Śākta priests conduct daily rites of worship with blood sacrifice and alcohol, and preside annually over festivals of spirit possessed incarnations of the goddess, I will cast a textual eye back over the Indological and literary record in a survey of the cultural history that eventuated in today's ritual configuration. This region seems to have preserved important evidence for the amalgamation of a Śākta cult, with its hybrid priestly officiants, into the worship of local war goddesses under specifically royal patronage.  My survey intends to highlight the nature of this evidence in its inter-relations as pointing the way forward to further Indological and ethnographic research.

[John] Rich[ardson] Freeman is a cultural anthropologist with a background and research interest in Indology (Sanskrit and Dravidian languages and literatures). He currently teaches courses on Indian civilization, Hinduism, and the anthropology of religion for the faculties of History and Religion at Duke University.  His special area of research is Kerala, where he has carried out many years of ethnographic and textual work on the Teyyam traditions of spirit possession in Malabar, the wider region's Brahmanical system of temple worship, and the literary history of Malayalam in its cultural relations with Sanskrit and Tamil.