In Spirit: Kamakhya, Terrifying Feminity

Written by

Mariette Raina
October 7th, 2018

Kāmākhyā, the city of the goddess. Red is everywhere, whether it is the rituals, puja, or the fabrics whose priests, pujari, are wearing in temples. The colour represents the feminine energy. Arriving at Guwahati Airport, a taxi takes us to Kāmākhyā. It is often at the top of the hills that we find important temples of the goddess, important not only for their size or wealth but especially for their esoteric scope.

Legend says that when his wife Sita was killed, Shiva began to roam the country with his cosmic dance, carrying his wife on his shoulders. In the ravage that his mourning created, Vishnu intervened and then cut Sati, whose pieces fell in different parts of the country. These places became the 51 Śakti Pīṭha. For hundreds of years, they have been favourite pilgrimage destinations where the goddess is revered.

“Taken as a whole, these Pīṭha comprise the full body of the Goddess” (Diana Echk).  

These places became the 51 Śakti Pīṭha. For hundreds of years, they have been favourite pilgrimage destinations where the goddess is revered. The sexual organ of the goddess, her yoni, fell on the mountain of Kāmākhyā. The village became a reknown place for its transgressive tantric rituals.

“Kāmākhyā is for a literary Tantric tradition the place where a secret and deviant sexuality is practiced, where secret rites, which worship the goddess through sex, take place.” (Loriliai Biernacki)

The first day of visiting, I venture into an alley beyond the typical path where puja shops line the path. There are only houses. As the steps go up, quickly my faithful companion and myself arrive at the top of a small path to arrive in what seems to be the original rainforest. We starts to descend for 15 minutes to finally discover a beautiful Banian with incomparable roots that marks the entrance to a majestic temple. Here, two men receive us with unselfish generosity. They show us a little cave in which we enter to present our respects to the deity. As we come out, one of the men beckons us to go back and make us understand as best that we should come out on the other side. We then return to the cavern, crawl on some kind of slippery steps and wade through stagnant water sandwiched between two huge rocks, finally emerging on the other side where three beautiful Ganesh are waiting for us. He then tells us to follow the few steps that lead to a new cave, this time further down, and out again by a slot so small that it takes a game of contortion placement to not stay stuck. 

We are invited by the young pujari in the central enclosure of the temple where the sacred fire smokes, surrounded by tridents, trishul, flowers and devotional objects.


Across India, the temples of the goddess are often built up inside the mountain itself. The walls are the rocks, the enclaves become niches of veneration. In Kamakhya, the metaphor is pushed to its climax, where the visit of the temple resembles a journey inside the earth, inside the being. The goddess is the hill herself, the mountain is her own body. It is said that when the sex organ of the goddess fell on the hill, it became stone. Loriliai Biernacki writes, when mentioning another legend where Sati immolates herself by fire to follow her dear husband on the pyre, that “the disintegrated ash of the human maintains the image of the chaste woman while the petrified body part of the goddess becomes the locus of the transgressive, where witches and black magic proliferate.”

In Tantric ritual, the female representation that is embodied by the image of the goddess is terrible and full of power. The goddess controls her own sexual energy. The more she is independent of her male counterpart, the more she is terrifying. But this image of the goddess full of agency is not antinomic with that of the protectress, or with that of the male practitioner’s partner of the tantric rituals mentioned in some ancient texts.

Indeed, these mentions are not “men” or “women” on the physiological level but are to understand on the archetypal level. In this sense, each role can be assumed by both a man as well as a woman. The important point not being the physical sex of the person, but the archetype that becomes alive through their body. Femininity, as a married or benevolent woman, is therefore not the antithesis of the energy of the devouring goddess. Both images of the feminine exist simultaneously on parallel levels and in different aspects of life.

“These two poles of the chaste wife and the witch converge in the image of Satī who is at once the image of the chaste wife and, in Kāmākhyā, the iconic formula for profligate sexuality and black magic. That both these representations arise out of the single figure of Satī points to a fundamental identity between these two images of woman, two sides of a single coin.” (Loriliai Biernacki)

At the metaphysical, archetypal level, the man is the inert male potential and the feminine energy is the potential of manifestation. Shiva is full Static Consciousness, Shakti the movement by which he can reveal himself as “Without the power and energy of Shakti, Shiva, it is said, is a shava, a corpse.” This is how Kali is often depicted standing on Shiva, where “Shiva is small and inert because he depends on Shakti who extends his spiritual presence in the world.” (Diana Heck)

In Devanagari, Shiva is written शिव. If we remove the “i” which is placed in front of the “sh”, then “shiva” becomes “shava” शव, corpse. The “i” is the energy, the Shakti, by which Siva can be incarnated. Even in the very heart of the composition of the word and the relationship of its letters (it is said that Sanskrit is the perfect language of the Gods), the static male principle becomes active principle when it is associated with the feminine energy.

The feminine principle, as mother and procreative, generous and fertile (such as Lakshmi for example) becomes more and more terrible as she gains her independence (like Kali). Nevertheless, there is no opposition, but rather a continuum of the face of the Goddess being more exoteric (benevolent) or esoteric (terrible). Nor is this continuum to be understood as a linear evolution, but rather as a vertical simultaneity, in which the goddess symbolizes a unique principle, taking various faces according to the perspective one adopts. René Guénon goes even further when he writes that:

“In India, we can speak of esotericism in the proper sense of this word, because we do not find there a doctrine with two faces, exoteric and esoteric; it can only be a question of a natural esotericism, in the sense that each one will deepen more or less the doctrine and go more or less according to one’s own measure of one’s own intellectual possibilities, for there are, for certain human individualities, limitations that are inherent to their very nature and that it is impossible for them to cross.”

The Goddess who represents the resorption of the manifestation towards the full Consciousness, the death of all dynamics, is Chamunda. Her emaciated body is the incarnated metaphor of the being who dies to himself, of the ego which is empty of its creative potential, of the being dying to himself in the recognition of his own Consciousness.

In Kāmākhyā’s caves, enclaves and crevices, one finds the small oil lamps that illuminate the wet shade and the recesses. This voyage to the caves of the goddess, the experience of extricating oneself from the rocks awakens the feeling of being given birth, of coming out of the sex of the Goddess.

On the spiritual path, it is considered that the devotee has two births: the birth of the incarnated body and the birth of self-realization to his true identity. The cave appears as a form of the physical metaphor of the inner birth of Consciousness. If the goddess is venerated, it is, behind her image, the dynamics of revelation to my deep nature that is.

Back in Varanasi, I share with my Indian friend my Kamakhya’s discoveries, eager to know her point of view. She tells me two important things: firstly, the act of extricating itself from the cave is also a metaphor that expresses that life and the path leading to the realization of one’s true nature requires a work and sacrifice, that this is not an acquired given. Secondly, she explains that nowadays, people still make animal sacrifices, but have forgotten the true meaning of this act. She explains that “to cut off the head means the death of the ego because the mind is in the head, the identification comes from the mind. Therefore, the act of cutting the head is the destruction of the ego. The only thing we should give to the goddess is ourselves, as that’s the ultimate offering. ”

The one who sees the reality is no longer attached to his image, not because he is “detached” but simply because he has seen clearly that it is only a creation of the mind, a simple reflection of the Creative Consciousness expressed through one of the forms of unlimited manifestation. This realization, when it is incarnated in the body and in each of its cells, allows certain particular beings to exist and eventually bear witness to this Reality. In India, the lineage of the great masters knows the names of Nisargadatta Maharaj, Ramana Maharshi or Sri Anandamayi Ma, or more recently Jean Klein, and even some that are not from the Indian culture but who resonate of the same recognition, such as Byron Katie.

“People ask me how I can live if nothing makes sense and I am nobody. It’s simple. We are experienced.” (Byron Katie)

The culture of India has shaped in a very colourful way this journey of initiation, the journey back to oneself. Temples, sculptures and art become the deepest and simplest teaching, hidden for the one who is not ready to meet oneself, and so obvious for the one who is called. As Éric Geoffroy beautifully stats it while speaking about Sufism: 

“How to explain a spiritual experience most often ineffable – because related to invisible realities – if not by symbols? The symbol, precisely, has the function of pointing out the realities of the phenomenal world to realities of a higher order, where they have their principle and their end.” (Eric Geoffroy, An Endless Dazzle)

So, it is finally only about this. Let the symbols evaporate, forget the images, keep only the perfume, be guided by what lies behind. Give yourself to nothing, bathe in the intensity of the gaze that observes what naturally presents itself. This is where the real journey begins, finally.

These articles are written as part of monthly publications of Never Apart magazine. Although based on academic content and field observations that follow an anthropological methodology, the articles are written in accessible language. They are presented as a form of travel diary where mingles narrative of direct experiences, reflections and academic references. Mariette feeds her stories with photos she takes during these trips, some of ethnographic nature while others are more artistic.

Mariette has a master degree in anthropology from the University of Montreal. She teaches a yoga that echoes the philosophy of non-dual tantric Shaivism from Kasmir. She is regularly travelling to India to follow up her research on esoteric traditions from the Tantras. Mariette is also a visual artist, using photography as field notes and cultural exploration.

Photos by Mariette Raina

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Comments (3) (Hide)

  1. Sati is Shiva’s wife, not Sits.
    Sits is the wife of Ram.

  2. I enjoy your articles very much. Thank you.

  3. I enjoy your articles very much. Thank you.

    Here are my comments about it:

    1-The divine feminine speaks of an embodied experience of the truth that cannot be explained in words. Male dominated religious currents like the Vedic and Buddhist ones have attempted to integrate it into their structured training, hierarchy and philosophies, but mostly without success. The Shakta tradition has always been village/tribe/family based since long before recorded history. It speaks of an experience of the truth, not an understanding of it. To be a Shakta you need a mother, a father and a family.

    2-Most modern Indian saints come from Advaita Vedanta. Adi Shankaracharya had the genius of rounding up many philosophies, ideologies and practices into a unifying religion that took the appearance of the most popular aspects of the religions of his time: monasticism (Buddhism), ritual (Siddhanta), goddess worship (Shakta), philosophy (Brahmanical). But reading the tradition carefully, one might conclude that it is not a non-dual tradition. By demonizing the feminine as Maya and reality as an illusion, it establishes it’s non-dualism in transcendence by negating reality. Open-eyed transcendence is not the full picture. Therefore, teachers like the very popular Ramana Mahirishi or Nisargadatta Maharaj teach that awareness is your true self and nothing else. But this is only half of the equation. The world is also your true self.

    3-Animal sacrifice have been frowned upon and judged by every well fed, civilized (Indian/western) person who visited Shakta sites in the past. Make note that most of them can travel, have others do their dirty work and see themselves as above all that (shit, blood, piss, manure and butchering). I make no distinction of origin here. Now, the Shakta tradition being village/tribe/family based, it implies living close to nature in a tight community. I witnessed that in these communities animals are part of the family. They roam around, have names and receive the affection and care of their owners. They even are decorated with pigments and bindus on holidays. This is a very humane way to live for a goat or a chicken. Looking at ourselves buying meat at IGA, where does it come from? A factory where chicken are caged by the dozen, slaughtered by machines and packaged in bulk. This is not humane. No one in their right heart would eat that meat.
    When you bring a goat to Kamakhya to be sacrificed, it has had a good, free life. The owner understands that the goat is afraid to die like himself is (men do that job). As a Hindu, he is not allowed to kill. But there is a loophole to this rule: he is allowed to receive his share of the sacrifice made to the Goddess.
    Furthermore, before Mr Tampax, people understood that fertility came from the sacrifice of a little blood shed by one for the good of all (the mother). It is the natural order that for abundance to come, blood has to be shed (what greater abundance in life is there than having more family members?). Women knew that. The sacrifice of one person for the others’ welfare becomes a ritual of cohesion in the tribe/family/village. We are all grateful for the sacrifice made by the one from whom we came.
    The temple priest at Kamakhya will very gently and swiftly cut the head of the goat once she has been pacified by her owner and the atmosphere there. A piece of fur and meat will be offered to the goddess and the rest will be brought home by the family to share among themselves and with their neighbors. The atmosphere at Shakta sites is surprisingly of incredible beauty, love and meaningfulness. It is a gift of peace to the ones providing & performing the sacrifice as well as for the one being sacrificed. I wish we had the honesty of doing it like that.

    4-The Goddess is not frightening unless you fear death. You fear death when you don’t know yourself. You cannot know yourself if you are not willing to die.

    5-So, you met the hunchback. She is doubled over because she satisfies herself and need no partner. The lesson here is that all the pleasures we seek in the world come from within. With renunciation, meditation and a touch of grace, you can come to experience bliss spontaneously. Some call it Kundalini, others something else. But whatever it is, it is your birth right to be happy, at peace and fulfilled. The Goddess gives you that by showing you that bliss without contact is not painful, binding, suffering. It is rather a liberating force. When you follow your bliss, it pulls you all the way up to liberation like a horse-headed goddess pulling the heavy cart of your carcass all the way to the sky. This is tantra. Enter the Goddess’ secret place and become the one before you were born.

    6-Forget about witches. This derogatory term has been coined by the famished, self-denied and frustrated power-hungry patriarchs who hated women and forgot where they come from. They never found peace. By waging war on their senses, they enslaved and are destroying the world. Humans are nature and we sorely miss living at peace with animals and trees. I wish we would remember that.

    To conclude, I have a little poem for you:

    Dear Kaulikī,
    Remember Karavīra;
    The tiger and the snow lion that came to rest at her feet;
    She fed them with her left hand;
    Their purr echoed off the mountains for a time;
    You then went south mounted on the tiger;
    I went north with the snow lion;
    Remember your mother, she is expecting nine children.

    PS Don’t look for me, for I am the anonymous postman. If this was not intended for you, simply return it with “wrong address”. Thanx

    ©2018 MPP

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