Embodying Devī: Śākta Narratives of Healing and Transformation
2. What Is Devī?
2.1. Devī as Ādiśakti/Primordial Power
From this state of expansion, Sabrina explained that Devī contracts Herself through creation into as many forms as there are beings in existence “just to have the sheer joy of the experience”, which is the main purpose of everything. This is known as her līlā or divine play that manifests the māyā or illusion of relative reality as we experience it, which is interpreted in a positive manner by the Śākta tradition (Mukhopadhyay 2020, p. 51). This creative impulse takes effect by virtue of the trifurcation of Devī’s power into the power of will (icchāśakti), the power of action (kriyāśakti), and the power of knowledge (jñānaśakti) (Brooks 1990, p. 97).One thing I think is absolutely essential is not to use the article “the” because we never say, “the God,” unless we’re referencing a lesser god. She is Goddess, no “the”. Capital “G”. She is reality. She is the underlying reality within, without, She’s not an archetype. Yes, there’s a certain way that we can functionally look at Her as a role model, but She’s beyond the collective unconscious. She’s everything […] She’s the grand, undifferentiated, so vast, my mind can’t even conceive it […] She’s absolute consciousness […] She’s the form and the formless, the immanent and the transcendent, She’s all of that […] She’s God.
While attempting to describe this experience, Amazzone stated that “[i]t’s like different levels of intimacy with a person. And I get to just experience another side of Her.” As Margaret specified, although each goddess is different,There’s a definite feeling or mood and I think that’s the thing about Durgā, she has so many forms that to distinguish between the forms, one of them is like “what mood is that? What bhāva is that form?” […] having that mood, that form, will be one of the markers […] mostly it’s this feeling or mood: I am in the presence. That’s what it is.
[…] they work together, as much as singularly. But as a field of consciousness, not just a symbol: a living thing that you can personally interact with […] So, it really is a field of consciousness that is moving through all of it, it’s not me doing a ritual and then transgressing reality. I think it’s real in-and-of-itself.
When I asked if she attributes agency to Devī then, she remarked that although unlike some of her fellow kula members, she does not feel that it is authentic to use language like “Maa made this happen,” she does believe that Devī has agency. Later, she mentioned that she is convinced that her encounters and interactions with the deities during visualization are really happening in another realm, due to how vivid they are, which highlights how the practitioner may relate to both the transcendent and immanent forms of Devī. Kaylah similarly referred to the manifestation of Devī’s presence in nature while explaining how despite having lost her yoga studio and job due to the COVID-19 pandemic, she still feels sustained and like everything is going to be okay. She attributes this to how her connection with Devī has been strengthened by moving to a remote area that is surrounded by forests and “all this Maa energy”. She feels as though the sudden changes and hardships that she has endured, and which led to this move, have purposefully brought her closer to that energy and granted her far more opportunities to immerse herself in it.There’s vast wilderness here where you can literally step outside and feel the bhāva, feel the qualities […] I feel like that pulse and all of the qualities of nature are constantly surrounding me and I relate it to Devī directly.
2.2. Devī as Self
From this non-dual view, it follows that everything required to reach the absolute is already contained within oneself; thus, the body is utilized as an altar in sādhanā and worship that is concentrated on the different levels of the body and its subtle energetic counterpart is imagined and experienced as being tantamount to worshipping and bringing oneself into contact with Devī (Samuel 2008, p. 286; Timalsina 2012, p. 74). As an esotericist for the past forty years, Brenda explained that the Hellenistic system of theurgy, which posits that “we are all part of deity and can interact with deity in the world and in ourselves”, had played a central role in her life. However, it completed her life arc to discover this principle being carried out and experienced as a living system through Tantra and Śrīvidyā. When asked what Devī is, she responded:We’re always practicing to remember that we’re not these bodies, we’re not these thoughts, that the greater reference is this particular form [of Devī] and these different forms [goddesses] have different functions, so different experiences when we’re in that sādhanā […] She IS us and we’re working to uncover that […] She’s absolutely not separate, so it’s about how you can hear your intuitive voice (buddhi) and begin to see and extend that to “there She is, in that tree, in that cat,” and it’s not just a concept, it’s really having an experience […] what is your experience of Her, and what is that inner knowing telling you? […] we don’t need anyone between us […] She’s outside ourselves in the sense of being unlimited—we are limited. We are Her, but our consciousness is limited, it’s in this container, and we can only go so far when we’re identifying with our body and our mind and so forth […] what graces us is that She takes these anthropomorphic forms so that we can relate to Her.
Inhabiting one’s body with such a co-extensive view through practice allows for an intersubjective sense of self to develop over time, meaning that many things otherwise held to be separate and closed off from one another are instead experienced as being in relation and thus liable to influence, overlap, penetrate, exchange, or share something of themselves with each other (Johnston 2010, p. 352). Indeed, tantric philosophy and sādhanā blur any strict distinction perceived between inner and outer levels of “reality”, that is to say, between the physically manifest “out there” and what is internally experienced and imagined. As Kaylah expressed:What I understand is that Devī is us, that we carry Her also, so there’s this gigantic, infinite consciousness of which I am a very small part. But I am part of that consciousness, and I can tune into other parts of that consciousness that are greater than me and help to sustain me when I am in difficulty. Also, to expand me to the joy of living and the joy of sādhanā in its ultimate goal, which is to merge my consciousness into that great consciousness.
Do I believe that there is a goddess or deity of the feminine divine? It’s because I’m here to experience it. It is me […] it’s really, really all about self-awareness and connection, self-awareness that you are a source, that you have a connection to Source […] it [the practice] gives you more connectivity to the world around you and to the world within you.
Others, like April (see Section 2.4) who espouses a non-theistic view, overcome this difficulty by interpreting it differently. In her words: “I come at it from the perspective that the divine is no different from me, versus like I am the divine, if that makes sense.” Besides, some also emphasized how their life paths as householders, with partners, children, or certain responsibilities and careers, require them to resist fully merging into this realization and to maintain their normative ego identity so that they can function socially and carry out their roles.[…] you believe that you are ultimately the deity. I feel like there’s more acceptance for that, but I still don’t think that I’m a deity. I mean first of all, I’m learning all of the time, just constantly learning about what these ideas might mean and the complexity of them. But I certainly don’t think that I’m a deity. But I definitely have much more self-compassion.
2.3. Devī as Maa: Supportive Mother and Loving Presence
[…] I’ve really sensed the gentleness and motherliness of that and come to see their powers as very much transformative and into the light, or a more loving consciousness […] Even the fiercer manifestations have a sweet and loving side that can be felt because they are essentially all mothers […] They’re like mothers that birth my soul into maturity, into the world.
The sense of familiarity that characterizes the kind of love that is felt to derive from connecting with Devī’s presence was further described by Rachel as follows:There’s a presence of love, an ultimate feeling that my life has deeper meaning through this work—that I am in the process of life and that I’m cherished and loved, and that I’m meant to be here doing this. It’s a re-finding or a re-remembering of the soul self.
This comforting reunion was also referred to by Amazzone when she responded to my question of what she aspires most to attain through the practice:The relationship to the deity is the sweetest thing […] It’s remarkable to me to just sit and within a minute of establishing the field, there’s like a feeling of bliss. It doesn’t extend the entire time, but there’s this sense of homecoming that’s very physical—literally like I was washed over, I’m in the presence of this love or this presence that is love.
Similarly, Cheryl described what she experiences when she engages in deity yoga as follows:I want to merge. I want to return home to Her and to that sense of how at home I have felt with this connection to Her, whether it’s in sādhanā or through some mystical experience I’ve had. There’s so much in that heart space that has been so real and so resonant.
While giving examples of the latter, she referred to how some forms of Devī and their corresponding practices provide her with strength and a sense of being carried and less alone in the world, while others she turns to when she feels a need to be nourished. This supportive quality is something that Kaylah also strongly experiences through the practice:For me, it feels like this overall merging with the Mother in a way that I’ve never been loved in the physical. Each form of Her offers a different essence of that deeper love.
She further described her experience of this quality as being accompanied by a positive kind of humbleness and humility that overcomes her when the connection to it is strong in the following sense:There’s a connection and a protective, almost like the many arms of Devī, that are there to hold that space for me, so that maybe when the world gets tough, I don’t have to hold it all by myself.
This constitutes an example of darshan, an ecstatic experience of mutual recognition between the devotee and deity, during which the devotee not only sees the deity, but also experiences themselves being seen by the deity while in its presence (McDaniel 2018a, p. 236).That I’m important enough to be seen, but I’m humble enough to realize that I don’t have to carry the world, it’s not my responsibility […] the connective Spirit showing me that I’m important and loved but balancing that with the sense of being, when you get those direct experiences, of being humbled […] and gracious and full of gratitude to have the experience in the first place. It’s like that deeper sense of gratitude to be privileged enough to experience this.
Another way of responding to and questioning Devī’s neglect is through the tragic or karuṇā rasa that it evokes, which consists of sadness and pity for the plight of others that can be transformed into compassion (McDaniel 2018b, pp. 122, 127–9). When Amazzone’s kula gathers, they ‘dedicate’ the power that they have cultivated together in practice (meaning they intentionally direct it) to whatever global cause or conflict appears to need upliftment or resolution, and they do the same for fellow members within the kula who may be going through a hard time and unable to practice themselves. This is something that they are also encouraged to do in their private practice, and it involves surrendering to Devī’s wisdom as one would do when falling at the feet of one’s mother and asking for advice. As Amazzone put it: “it’s like: Okay Maa, what is the greater picture? We don’t know but please respond to the distress or the suffering of others.” As an independent social worker and lawyer, Margaret has found Devī to be very much responsive to this. As she explained:And what about a true devotion, when you’re there at the bedside of your beloved who’s dying? And as much as it’s killing you and breaking your heart, you’re crying to Her, or you haven’t given up on Her. And I think that’s what is so important, is to be able to experience our devotion in the most painful and horrific of times and continue.
These examples demonstrate how Devī’s functions as universal Mother or doer of miracles (namely, “aghatanaghatanapatiyasi, that is, the feminine divine who is able to make the impossible possible”, Dr. Anway Mukhopadhyay, personal communication, 23 February 2022) and Ādiguru (primordial/first teacher) or vidyā (knowledge/wisdom) itself can overlap for devotees. As Mukhopadhyay (2020) put it, “[…] her compassion manifests itself through her enlightening function as a divine guru” (p. 84), the latter of which will be further elaborated in Section 2.5.I will take problems to Her in my own sādhanā and I’m amazed at how things unravel for the best outcome in my work. Ideas are given or pathways are opened up, as if by magic. Solutions found, changes of heart in the right people. Justice […] I’ve had to deal with HUGE corruption issues […] or wrong, poor decisions that have affected people’s lives very negatively, and I’ll be given some information or just a strength to see something through or speak something that needs to be spoken, or be silent when needed. It’s as if it’s bigger than me this stuff and it is in service to others, if that makes sense.
In her book Goddess Durgā and Sacred Female Power, Amazzone (2010) explains this issue further through the example of how Sri Mata Amritanandamayi Devi, better known affectionately as Amma, has addressed it:To get out of the limitations of Mary, who’s not even a god, she’s a mother of a god, but she doesn’t even have divine status, she’s the virgin or the whore, and it’s like “okay, well where do I fit in?” And to experience myself as Kālī, who defies all of this consensus reality.
Thus, as the Devī Māhātmyam teaches, “[…] the Goddess is female because of her embodiedness and creative power, but she is also female because of her wondrous, compassionate use of virile power in service to others.” (Humes 2009, p. 316). While Humes’ (2009) fieldwork in Vindhyachal has indicated that perceiving these qualities as suggesting an isomorphism between Devī and human women is not common among devotees who are not Śākta, Śaiva, or tantric, and sometimes not even espoused by these, others have suggested that this correspondence makes it easier for female practitioners to identify with Devī than it is for male ones who must transcend their gender to do so (Dobia 2014, p. 70; cited in Mukhopadhyay 2020, p. 124). Furthermore, there exists accounts of sādhakī who were thought to have progressed in their practice and achieved enlightenment more rapidly than their male counterparts for these reasons (Mukhopadhyay 2020, p. 88). Such a view was also held by Swami Vivekananda, who believed that since the spiritual wisdom that had been transmitted to him via his guru Ramakrishna was essentially derived from the ultimate guru and mother Kālī, it would be more effective and productive to entrust it to female recipients (ibid., pp. 133–34).She contends that we must all cultivate the qualities of “universal motherhood”, qualities of fierce compassion, protection, courage, and unconditional love. Anyone—woman or man—who has the courage to overcome the limitations of the mind can attain the state of universal motherhood […] The love of awakened motherhood is a love and compassion felt not only toward one’s own children, but toward all people, animals and plants, rocks and rivers—a love extended to all of nature, to all beings […] This love, this motherhood, is Divine Love—and that is God.(p. 207)
2.4. Non-Theistic Interpretations of Devī
When I asked what identifying with the deity in practice means to her then, she responded:Right […] The orientation that I take is that these are our essential natures […] they’re just myths to show us things about ourselves and they’re teachings. They are not doers; they are frameworks to understand life a little better.
Ultimately, she explained, the practice is about “the best way to embody something that we need to have” in order to become aligned with and express “the things that are most real in us in order to participate in harmony.” When we do the latter, we are fulfilling our dharma, which she defines as our “instinctive role in the world.” Although her belief in the principles of karma and dharma may seem to clash with being an atheist, she provided a lengthy explanation of how they are scientific and part of how the natural world works, which will be discussed once more in Section 4.3. Furthermore, this is not unknown in the traditional literatures, where an atheistic orientation might be combined seamlessly with karma-dharma doctrines. This sensibility—that karma and dharma are natural (scientific) laws of the cosmos—can be assimilated by practitioners into their Western scientific worldviews with little concern or revision (Dasgupta 1992, p. 258).5[…] it’s kind of like changing up your wardrobe to feel a little bit different. If you’re having a shit day and you put on a sun dress […] people respond to you differently and you’re like “wow, the world isn’t that bad.” You didn’t do anything different. You just put on different clothes and then you started interpreting the world differently because the world responded differently to you. So, when you do these practices, what is the wardrobe that you’re bringing into the world? I don’t really know how else to describe it. You’re just kind of tapping into different energies, like what clothes are you putting on? How are you presenting yourself to the world? […] And how does that affect the world around me?
In response to her statement about belief being unnecessary, I asked “What about devotion?”, to which she replied: “Devotion happens on its own. It’s not something you have to force. Devotion happens when you have the experience.” Then, I asked her whether Maa can be qualified as a universal force, and her answer emphasized Devī’s ineffable nature as follows:So, when I use the word “Maa” when I say “Maa is doing this” or “Goddess is doing this”, I think I want to just frame it in the context of my agnosticism, which is still very much there. So, it’s not like this dogmatic belief in this literal entity or being that is out there and has omnipotent control and power over my life. As a human being, I think it’s important to take responsibility for my own choices and I’m turned off by dogmatic religious beliefs in general. I think it’s dangerous and limits human beings. And so, when I say “Maa is doing this” or “Goddess made it all happen”, I’m not meaning it in a literal way, even though I am. It’s truly my subjective experience that I do not universalize. I think what I can say is truth with a capital ‘T’ for me is that the mystery is, at the end of the story, unknowable and unnameable. And She will always be a mystery in that way. So, any time we try to frame it in terms of dogmatic, rigid beliefs about who or what this thing that we’re calling Maa is, I get cringy and I don’t want that to be interpreted as the narrative that I’m espousing. I want it to be understood that you don’t have to be a believer to follow this path. It’s not about belief, it’s about direct experience.
Thus, as these testimonies of some of Amazzone’s students who have been in the kula the longest will continue to demonstrate throughout this article, the way the practices and their effects can be flexibly approached through practitioners’ individual beliefs, intentions, and needs renders them accessible and efficacious even to those who hold a more secular or agnostic view of what Devī is.That’s a good way to put it. I would say Maa is a reality that is experienced in different ways through different mind-body configurations. Whether She’s an energy, a force, a field of consciousness, the matrix that we’re all swimming in. You could try to bring in concepts from physics or quantum physics but they would all fall short.
2.5. Devī as Mantra, Wisdom, and Ādiguru
Therefore, what is recited from the Devī Māhātmyam are not mere verses but “[…] mantras, verbal manifestations of the Goddess herself” (Coburn 1991, p. 133) that are immediately revelatory and bring “[…] the reciter [to] participate  in the very reality of the Goddess” (ibid., p. 117). This stems from the concept found within Vedic literature that speech (vāc) is the earliest form of the manifest world as energy and personified as a goddess, while transcendental or sacred sound (śabda-brahman/the Absolute as Sound) is a primordial substance that can exert physical effects. This substance is sometimes likened to an earlier notion of rasa as a liquid essence, or bound with prāṇa, a vital wind or breath of a vibratory nature, both of which are thought to pervade the cosmos and sustain life, while enabling the individual through contact to experience their innate consciousness and immortality (Padoux 2010, pp. 166–7, 173–4; Timalsina 2015, p. 51; Wilke 2014b, p. 134). Since the form that speech takes as the very first expression of the world is said to be the Sanskrit language, the latter is referred to as Mātṝkā or Mother, the power of which is spread across its fifty phonemes (varga), which thus become conceived of as Mātṝkās in the plural sense of being embodiments of mother deities who are divided into eight different groups according to their cosmic functions. Tantra took this a step further with the concept of bīja (seed) mantras, which are series of monosyllabic sound patterns posited to contain the heart of their own respective deities. In addition, the phonemes came to represent the limbs of deities. As formulaic arrangements constituted of Sanskrit syllables and phonemes, mantras (also referred to as vidyā when respective to female deities) are therefore the very embodiment of deities that are birthed from the Mātṝkā. Altogether, these tantric concepts brought a complex visual dimension to japa (mantra recitation), enabling an identification between the practitioner’s body, that of the deity, and the cosmos, which will be further touched upon in Section 3.2 (Timalsina 2015, pp. 51–52; Timalsina 2016, pp. 7–8; Wilke 2014b, pp. 134–5).She is the speech, the content of the speech, and the speaker at once […] Devi’s words are, as it were, not just words producing knowledge, but Knowledge/Wisdom transmitting itself through words […] they are not knowledge-producing, but knowledge-bearing.
3. Encountering and Merging with Devī
3.1. Sensuous Meaning-Making: Mantra
Prior to being in Amazzone’s kula, Sadie experienced this “attunement” when her teacher of Trika Śaivism whispered her first transmission of a tantric mantra into her ear—her entire body began shaking, and the more she worked with the mantra and her body’s physical response to it, the more she felt her own vibration “kind of shift to accommodate the mantra” and became cognizant of other frequencies over time. This, she states, paved the way for her being sufficiently attuned and receptive to that of Goddess later on. Elena believes that there is a science behind this capacity of mantra to change “our little cell-body-wardrobe” that Western medicine has yet to catch onto, and Cheryl similarly referred to its capacity to “shift the chemistry of the cells and blood […] and heal the patterns contained in the body and through our actual DNA.” Such statements are consonant with how Śākta practitioners also refer to mantra as “[…] vidyā, literally meaning both knowledge and science” (Brooks 1990, p. 62). Another interesting analogy of mantra as “[…] the technological software of Tantric sādhanā” (ibid.), like that of the radio, was made by Margaret, who said that “meaning […] gets revealed as it needs to be” because mantras are[…] you’re trying to align with the deity sonically, and so you’re trying to turn the station from static to pure sound. So, a lot of these sounds that are included in mantras, they’re there for a specific reason, to calibrate your energy in that aligned way.
When I asked Sallie if it was possible to articulate more precisely how she responds to chanting mantra at an embodied level, she struggled to describe it in words:[…] like keys to a Lamborghini, to a car. They’re all very different and have different effects. They have power. Let’s just say, they work when they need to and they teach you what they’re doing […] the energy is formed and the presence is invoked and the effects are made or the knowledge and the download is given. But mantra is like a vibration, and it locks onto whatever is in my unconscious, where it needs to go, or my psyche. And then, as if by an encryptment [sic], pulls up that unconscious part of me to resonate at exactly the same vibration as the mantra and then poof, the work is done, and it floods the system.
In many cases, such embodied experiences enable practitioners to overcome the questioning mind, which demonstrates how the body is related to as a medium for the authentication of the experience of the real (Meyer 2012, pp. 28–29). Rachel discussed how the unexpected physicality of her experiences during the practice repeatedly challenged her tendency of always wanting explanations and cemented her faith in the unknown. As an example of this, she recounted one of her first experiences of learning the mantra of a goddess in the kula: “That night, I slept with a fever, sweating, and I had a crazy rash that was traveling all over my body.” The next day, when Amazzone asked the kula how their night had gone, Rachel was amazed to hear one woman after another recounting similar symptoms. In response to this, Amazzone reassured them that these are typical effects of the practice that are associated with the bhāva induced by the rasa of the goddess it was focused upon, and signs that it is working. Indeed, the latter are what Abhinavagupta, the late tenth to early eleventh century exegete of Trika Śaivism, qualified as vyabhicaribhāvas—secondary emotions or signs that in this case, the practitioner or devotee shifted into an empathetic, single-pointed state of resonance or immersion with the deity that allowed them to savor its rasa or emotional essence, which, depending on the specific kind of the latter, can manifest as sweating, trembling, hairs standing on end, or tears of joy, among many others (Biernacki 2011, p. 265; McDaniel 2018b, p. 122). This highlights the active and felt dimension that is attributed to the act of listening in Indian culture, with the recipient of the rasa conveyed by the mantra being qualified as sahṛdaya or “one of the same heart” with it (Mukhopadhyay 2020, p. 154). The transformative and liberating potential of attaining such a state lies in how it involves a transcendence of the egoic self and the dichotomy between self and other (or subject and object) that moves the individual toward universality and enables an expansion of their subjectivity (Biernacki 2011, pp. 267–9). This in turn calms the vṛttis, which Tantra defines as “the activities of mind that produce bondage and suffering” (Fields 2001, p. 165). Rachel emphasized that she had not been given any indication that this was possible beforehand and did not associate her symptoms with the practice until Amazzone framed them in this way. She further explained that these types of experiences made her[…] I have a very specific experience, like when I’m chanting the Sanskrit alphabet with precision in a very specific pattern, I can feel … it’s kind of likened to … the only way that I can express it, is that it feels like little windmills kind of going off and lighting up in different directions. But I’ve also experienced a kind of mapping of light with the different sounds and the activation of those sounds in a specific way, in a specific pattern. I can feel … I mean, feel isn’t even the right word, it doesn’t do it justice, the word ‘feel’, but like I can “feel” pulsations, vibrations, a mapping of light, little windmills, certain things activated in my physical and subtle body very poignantly.
Although Brenda had a similar experience, unlike Rachel, she was already aware of this possibility and anticipated it as a sign of her progress. She explained that when she first started learning mantra recitation, she felt something during choir practice (a hobby apart from the kula and practice) and humorously asked herself: “What is that? I have a rash! The stigmata have arrived! I’m somebody now!”[…] more conscious of the physical things as perhaps having a meaning, whereas before I wasn’t living that consciousness. I want to almost say that I didn’t have enough respect for myself to pay attention to my body or think that my body could be related to my overall Being […] so now I make a point of mentioning them and then Laura or other people in the kula will give feedback. And it’s been fascinating in doing different practices, it’s so beautiful that women all over the world, doing a variation on a similar practice, are having similar experiences, it’s just wild. And even having similar symptoms, spiritual experiences, daydreams—just across the spectrum, where you’re like: “what the fuck just happened to me?” So, that’s been reassuring and also very reinforcing, let’s say to be like: “Okay, I had this wild experience, I don’t know what’s going on.” And to hear that five or ten other people had a similar type of thing—it’s like “wow, thank you, I can keep going forward with renewed assurance.”
Once the repeated work of mimesis allows integration to happen, a “habitus”7 becomes formed, meaning that these dispositions and uses of the body that are patterned in a specific way gradually become like second nature (Csordas 1990, p. 11; Csordas 2011, pp. 140–1), constituting a “knowing” how without thinking, or performative thinking (Humphrey and Laidlaw 1994, p. 136). April referred to all of this in her own way, explaining that sādhanā constructs “a different visceral memory in your body that becomes more automatic” over time, allowing one to turn to a specific practice for its intended effect without needing to make a conscious effort to reach it. Margaret described the immediacy of this shift as being like “getting into a Tardis”, while Sallie explained that the different kinds of “feeling tones” that her body has become attuned to experiencing in a very vivid and palpable way upon encountering a deity in practice create pathways that enable her to directly re-establish that connection with the deity upon recollecting them.I think there are many moments, I’m sure you’ve heard this too, where people say that the mantra becomes you. And if we believe, which I do, that the mantra is just an embodiment of the deity, there are these moments where it’s almost like a slip stream or something—you’re coming in and out, you’re melding. So, my experiences have been that sort of slip stream […] you get to a place where the mantra becomes you or the mantra takes over.
Since we had previously been discussing spontaneous experiences of non-dual expansiveness and oneness with everything that she has had, I asked how this experience of mantra compared to those moments, as well as when she normally tries to identify with the deity, to which she responded:I’ve had experiences with chanting where the mind has become very quiet and absorbed into the mantra, but this was the first shift I had where the mantra actually was my voice. Like I’m talking to you in these words, the mantra was actually MY voice, MY language, my real song, versus me somehow outside chanting a mantra, or getting absorbed into the vibration and floating on the vibration. It actually became me singing a song, but they were my words, this is who I was. It became my voice, it was my song, my language, it was me singing this out to the world: “HEAR ME, HEAR THIS, I AM SPEAKING TO YOU!” Versus me chanting and visualizing and being absorbed and having beautiful experiences. I became this presence where this was my song and I was speaking it out into the world for others to hear.
When I asked her how long this lasted, she explained:I was sound itself, vibrating this love, almost like the difference for me I guess with the mantra and when this happened, I could compare it to feeling like you are the sun and shining on all, whereas the other experience, the sun was just part of me—it was larger than being the sun, but the sun was within it. With this mantra experience for me, I felt like it would be being the sun and just singing forth this vibration of love that is beaming in all directions. So, in that sense, definitely more expansive, zillions of times more than when it was just me speaking the mantra as Sabrina, bringing in a sense, awakening Her in as a concept, knowing She lives within me, but still a concept, even though I might embody overwhelming qualities of love, compassion, curiosity. This was definitely a full embodiment of being-as, but still not the same as the other experience.
When taking her trajectory into consideration, this experience is all the more remarkable: having always struggled with languages and then suffered a mini stroke during her late 40’s that impaired her ability to articulate as easily as before, Sabrina was intimidated by the idea of reciting the seven hundred verses of the Devī Māhātmyam when she joined the kula and felt overwhelmed with sadness, convinced that it would not be possible for her. Yet, she found herself amazed at how practicing chanting the Sanskrit alphabet “blew open” her pronunciation and enabled her to “make leaps and bounds” in overcoming her limitations. This has convinced her that “the sacred Sanskrit alphabet, the phonemes, are portals—they are energies that will open up and make the impossible possible”, unlocking their meaning within oneself as part of the process. She also believes that japa may have transformed a potentially cancerous, rare, and fast-growing tumor that she was initially diagnosed with into a harmless fibroadenoma. After her first examination, she began intensely directing healing mantras associated with Kālī’s nurturing aspect as Bhadrakālī into her breast, in addition to befriending the tumor and having fellow practitioners do energetic work on her. Following the biopsy report that came after the surgery, the surgeon, whom she qualifies as being very good, was surprised by the change in diagnosis. Although she cannot be sure that the japa caused this and acknowledges that it may have been a misdiagnosis, she said that she would do it again, just in case.Once I finished the mala, I just remained in silence with that sort of feeling and it just kind of faded, very gently, to where I was just sitting there and tears began to flow because it was kind of like “oh my gosh, wow.” And this deep knowing of “this is what I want to be, I want to be the conduit, the beacon for others that are thirsty, that can come and drink of this because it’s such a treasure, such a jewel.”
3.2. Sensuous Meaning-Making: Nyāsa and Mudra
When I asked what it is about doing these gestures that brings sacredness into presence for her as an atheist, she related it to how it alleviates her depression:[…] I love nyāsas so much, they are like little mantras living in your hands. I love that because it makes everything feel sacred and special. And suddenly, you’re conscious of what you are doing with your hands: are you flipping somebody off? Are you putting all of this love and whatever into an Excel sheet? Are you cooking for somebody that you love? What are you doing with these mantras that are living in your hands?
Sadie, who also qualifies herself as being very kinesthetic, described her experience through the following striking metaphor:That’s a really good question […] I want to feel love in the small ways that I can […] when you put love into your fingertips, it makes them a little bit sweeter. It’s entirely just to do with being a little bit happier—not happy, I hate the word happy—joy, experiencing more joy because joy comes from the inside and doesn’t always look like happiness […] if you put loving mantra into your fingertips, you’re going to be less inclined to like flip somebody off or punch somebody in the face. If you put love in your fingertips, you are going to act differently. If you put mantra into your tongue, you’re going to be a little bit kinder toward others. So, I think it almost just sensitizes you to the energy you’re putting out into the world, is how it should be simplified.
When I asked her if it can be articulated as assisting her in entering the right mental state as well, she responded:I find nyāsa to be a very powerful practice […] mantra with nyāsa to me, is like pouring gasoline on the fire. The mantra is the fire, and the nyāsa is the gasoline. And it just makes it that much more felt, embodied, and physically tangible. All of my experiences of kuṇḍalini have been the result of either asana [postural] practice or nyāsa—that physical, tangible energy that I’m able to feel has needed that practice.
Similarly, while attempting to explain how her consciousness momentarily melds in and out with the mantra/deity, Rachel stated with regards to nyāsa that:Yeah, and it’s funny, when you said ‘mental state’, I was like: “It’s not really mental.” The barrier between the mental and physical definitely collapses in these practices […] It’s like you enter into a completely different field and the consciousness becomes shifted.
Besides those who identify as being highly responsive to touch, others, like April, who qualify themselves as being not very embodied, also find nyāsa to be a useful technique:[…] depending on the technique—sometimes you install them on yourself, sometimes the deity installs it on you, sometimes you install it on the deity—I think that interchange helps you sort of shift those boundaries.
Thus, while nyāsa, like mantra, does not convey meaning in the conventional sense, its meaningfulness to the practitioner also unfolds from the change in perspective and disposition that its performance effects. Moreover, as Sabrina pointed out, it is “hugely powerful in preparing the body/mind to be even more receptive” to the state of absorption that is involved in japa and what can potentially emerge from it.They are a helpful reminder that this [sādhanā] is not a mental process. It’s a way of switching states, of telling my mind “Right now, I am here in my body, in my mortality, I’m only here because of this visceral body and I’m paying attention to a different way of experiencing the world”, which I think to me is really important because I’m so mental. So, it’s like pulling back into the body.
4. Transformative Impact
4.1. Self-Acceptance, Compassion, and Resilience
Sadie admitted that it is not always possible to accomplish this, but that when someone does trigger her anger and she experiences it, instead of allowing herself to get caught up in it, she will ask herself what it is teaching her. This is part of cultivating the view that, as Amazzone put it, “everything in life is sādhanā […] everything’s an opportunity for transformation, for empowerment, for upliftment and merging.” Besides, when Sadie finds herself faced with situations that would have formerly plunged her into months of depression and she is able to absorb and digest them instead, and then move on with her day, she realizes the extent to which the practices have really made her more resilient. Likewise, Rachel, who is forty-eight years old, reported how the practice has brought her more equipoise, inner peace, and courage, all of which have allowed her to deal and be fully present with negative emotions that she normally avoided confronting, like anger, for the first time in her life. Along similar lines, Margaret commented that the range of emotions have become less frightening to her, and that she finds herself feeling okay with whatever state she is in. This was also expressed by Kaylah, who is fifty-four years old and joined the kula six years ago, as follows:You learn that what is happening right now is not about you, it’s not about them, it’s about the way the two of you are meeting right now because of past experiences.
As Amazzone explained, the more a practitioner can be a witness to their own pain and allow it to run its course without judgment, spiritual bypassing, or denial, and then modify their behavior accordingly, the more they come to realize that they are in fact able to be in control or to choose how and who they want to be. She specified that this is something that her male Kaula Śākta guru emphasized twenty years ago, namely: that to be a yoginī, one must learn to respond, rather than to react. With this acceptance and realization of one’s ability comes a relaxation that further enables trust and confidence in oneself to develop. As Sallie put it, with Tantra “there’s a fundamental realization and understanding that as a human being, we’re fine just the way we are, and if we do these practices, then it’s doing the work.” This was elaborated upon by Sabrina, who explained thatWhen the outer world affects your inner world, you go to Maa, to the Mother, to your practice […] I feel like it’s preventative. I feel like when I do my practice, that it protects and that I have a certain “okay, something just happened, I can deal with this, I’m strong.” It gives me that confidence within and that’s probably why I’ve stuck with it for so long.
According to April, a common misconception is to equate becoming less reactive in this way with becoming less emotional overall, which may be perceived as being merely an act of dissociation or escapism; she argued, as Amazzone does, that on the contrary, the practices can make one even more emotional because they make the exchange or boundary between oneself and the outside more fluid and less restricted. Cheryl provided another example of a narrowing of the felt gap between self, others, and the external world. She is fifty-three years old and has been part of the kula for about five years, and a yoga practitioner for about eighteen years. She said:[…] at any moment, one is perfectly being as only one can be […] In the Absolute view, every moment is just as it should be—an ever-flowing immersion into a multitude of experiences for the One […] the more I can relax into that, and trust that it’s all just streaming perfectly as it is, whether that’s painful or pleasant or happy or constricted, it helps release the suffering, being those stories that we attach to the pain or the joy, whether we’re trying to push something away or cling to it. And the more that I can relax into the stream, the more I trust that the coming and going, my not knowing, is all okay and I don’t have to figure it out.
Cheryl further explained that this dissipation of self-judgment and shift into self-acceptance and love has given way to an unconditional source of compassion within herself that has stopped her from judging others and led people to react differently in her presence, feeling seemingly safer to open up about themselves in a deeper way. What’s more, it has increased her desire and attempt to assist the planet. In her words:I’ve gone from a place of being almost unable to be in my own skin, to coming into a place of “I’m okay”, and into now a really authentic place of self-love. And I feel over the years that is because of Her and the practices. You know, through the mythology stories and the mantra and devotion, Her many forms are my many forms. And Her many forms are the infinite forms of expression that we see in all people through our relationships. And it’s brought the polarity or duality closer to the center of all that is, as is.
She specified that this ‘opening to be of service’ is gradually achieved by becoming the deity in practice. When I asked her what the shift into the state of being the deity is like, she answered:It’s beyond the individual and into the collective that the practices open me up to. I would attribute it to the practices themselves and just that devotional action of consistency and opening to be of service.
Besides, by embodying the qualities and natures of different deities or simply bringing oneself into their presence for different purposes, one is enabled to explore and engage different facets of oneself, which Audrey explained can bring one a sense of beingIt becomes an “I am Her” and I see through Her eyes. And I can be of service for Her. It’s not the same, but in a similar way where I connect to my ancestors who aren’t in a body, and I am that for them, I am in a body right now, and if not me, then who? And I think that that is really the essence that makes me feel purposeful, that it’s not just about paying the bills.
This integrative impact of the practice was also touched upon by Sadie in the following manner:[…] centered and balanced and better able to interact with the many pieces that are your life […] Like you can go and be with Kālī and cry or rage or scream or ask or hug or laugh or dance, you know, whatever it is […] But it’s like you come out on the other side of whatever engagement you do with whichever field of energy with a deeper knowing and trust in yourself and in the universe, and yeah, the experience is healing and it is transformational. Like if you’re going in with pain, you can come out on the other side with a change, there’s a shift. And it’s also very empowering to feel like you can do something and that there’s so many ways that one can interact with the world, like doing a ritual.
When you are doing these sādhanās, there starts to become a point where there’s not a separation between life on the cushion and everything else that’s happening outside […] the sādhanās start to integrate all the different parts of yourself, so you’re not splitting in all these different places and you’re not compartmentalizing, you’re not putting like “oh, this is this part of my life and that is that part of my life, and these are two things never to meet.” It’s just like everything is everything, and everything is part of a cohesive whole.
4.2. Improved Interpersonal Relationships and Interactions
As an extension of this, Margaret also elaborated upon how focusing on a particular goddess that is associated with devotion and surrender to love in her practice improved her interpersonal relationships as follows:[…] has been incredibly healing. It’s such a perfect state of union with opposites. To have that brought to my own consciousness, what that looks like, in this ridiculous consumerist world with failed marriages and domestic violence and problems with gender. That was a gift to have that brought to my own mind and heart as realizable within my own self, it has been extraordinarily valuable. Particularly his and her devotion, the perfection of that union, no matter what is going down: pain and darkness. It’s a love that can’t be damaged by anything and it’s not idealistic, ‘cause it faces and sees all. It’s quite profound. I don’t want to be too Goddess-focused, but I am, only for me because it’s an enigma, men and women’s dynamics, let’s get this right. And that’s coming forward.
So, it has COMPLETELY addressed some stubborn grief that I had which really made me quite nervous about the world, distrusting of others, in a lot of pain, but not conscious of it. So, I’ve experienced a lot of catharsis. And I’ve seen therapy and worked therapeutically with people for many years. But the difference here was the insights that I was given at the same time as the capacity to love again stronger than before or in a much larger way. I have a deeper love that’s growing for humanity as a collective, and for all life, very different to before […] it’s an expansive process and that’s been beautiful. And I’m noticing that I don’t see others as enemies, even if they’re behaving badly. There’s more of a trust of the wisdom it has brought, which is that every single situation is Her and if I’m in tune with that, She uses it to create something beautiful […] actually this consciousness is revolutionary, it’s beyond the mind and it really allowed me to open my heart again bigger. And know that I’m gonna be okay in a stronger way than I’ve ever known in my soul. Genuinely, I know that any circumstance that I’m given, I’ll be just fine. It’s priceless, it is! And it brings a lovely confidence.
This was similarly experienced by Sabrina, who is fifty-six years old and has been in Amazzone’s kula for the past four years but maintains distant ties with a teacher of Trika Śaivism and a Śākta Kaula one in a Kālī kula of a vāmamārga lineage, both of whom initiated her in remote villages in India over two decades ago. She explained how working with Kālī as her iṣṭa-devī (“cherished/personal deity,” the deity toward whom one feels the closest affinity and upon whom one’s worship and practice is most centered) enabled her to change from being a very introverted and shy person who was sometimes a doormat, to being someone who is able to establish boundaries when necessary and speak up for herself, in a way that has benefitted her interactions with others. Referring to Kālī’s tiger-like fierceness, she stated thatI can’t even imagine living the way that I was living before with no boundaries or very limited boundaries, or boundaries that would just get steamrolled and I would allow that to happen over, and over, and over again.
However, she cautioned that this initially led her to taste aggression, in a way that made her feel empowered over others for the first time. This was to such an extent that people began commenting on how she can be scary at times, which was very much unlike her usual self. When I asked her “What specifically made you taste aggression in the practice, how did you cultivate that level of intensity?”, she answered:She taught me or is teaching me how to be more fearless and this may not be the correct definition of the two words, but I see courage as doing something when you’re afraid, and I see fearlessness as getting over that fear and doing it.
Initially, she did not seek the guidance of her teacher, as she chose to relish in the power. But once she realized how this was negatively affecting others and making her into a person that she did not want to be, she asked her teacher and Maa to teach her how to be empowered and assertive without being aggressive, which eventually led to her reach a more balanced state. She explained that “the intent combined with the mantra, combined with the guidance of the guru, starts to change that, starts to tweak that.” She also emphasized the importance of quieting the analytical mind and trusting that the practices will work, and gave the example of tarpana (libation), during which one imagines water and mantras being poured over a deity that is seated within a specific chakra in one’s body (Rao 2019, p. 82):Kālī mantras and being initiated into them. They definitely can bring up our own anger, our own buried aggression. As an introvert or shy person, a lot of what you hold within, it becomes depression, it becomes internal bitterness. These energetic mantras can be very heating and can stimulate a lot of these unconscious things or consciously suppressed things that you’re holding down—they start to bubble out. And with the guidance of a teacher, they help you sort through that.
She added that learning to cultivate boundaries in this balanced way over time led certain relationships to dissolve abruptly and others more naturally, in addition to enabling her to experience and understand both sides of conversations “in this very chaotic time of the pandemic and here in the U.S., civil unrest” in a much more relaxed, fluid, and unperturbed way. The significant impact that this has had on her was further described toward the end of our interview in the following way:[…] cooling and purifying, letting these emotions filter through like running the garden hose into the dirty bird bath, eventually the clean water is going to wash it away. You don’t have to sit there and think about it. The practice of holding the hose there will do it for you.
Sadie also spoke of discernment in terms of how the practice has enhanced her sense of clarity toward others, thereby improving some relationships, while eliminating others. She explained that Devī is a housekeeper:One of the by-products or fruits of Tantra is that as we move along, the practices help cultivate our discernment for when to recognize that something is going to be digestible for someone else before we offer it […] more and more, I see myself being able to understand when to act and not to act, when to step in or step back, and be more relaxed with however it unfolds. And even when I thought I discerned well, maybe I discover that my discernment was off, and I can be relaxed with that and not so harsh and judgmental toward myself […] because I’ve tasted of this massiveness of consciousness…it’s gonna make me cry… all are well, all are well. And I don’t have to save anyone. All are well. But if I choose to act, I act. But I don’t have to have the burden of figuring it all out—who to save, who not to save—because all are well. And if I act, it’s a spontaneous quality of knowing here I act. Here I don’t. There, maybe I should have, I didn’t. All is still well.
Like Sabrina, Audrey highlighted that deity practice enables one to respond to worldly affairs and others in a much less constricted way. By repeatedly experiencing and embodying the different rasas of the goddesses, she explained that one’s sense of self and who one can be becomes expanded, while contracting back to a more limited state becomes undesirable. Although it is not always possible to maintain expansiveness and respond to external circumstances from that position, she stated thatShe cleans out, and anyone who isn’t really aligned and is extra weight, they’ve kind of been jettisoned. And I don’t want to be cruel, it’s never without grief, it’s never easy. But She does make it very clear, who is supportive of the path and who is in the way. And that’s life, you know.
When I asked Kaylah whether coming out of an immersive practice session changes the way that she experiences and interacts with the mundane or deals with situations and people afterwards, she also emphasized the impact of the positive outlook and flexibility that the practice brings:[…] if you have a deeper and broader understanding and experience of connection, power, compassion, love, there’s just so much of a bigger conversation for if you think about what you see on the news in politics, and you think about how small it is. It’s like these things are just grinding things out, it’s so tight.
In response to the same question, Margaret stated that it differs daily, but that there are times whenIt’s amazing. It just improves everything. Like doing the dishes is beautiful, scooping up the dog poo is enjoyable. The mundane is not mundane anymore. You come out of this and then you look at the world with different eyes. That’s the essence, that’s the sweet spot, that’s the liberation for me: to come out of practice and look at everything differently. I’m a gentler person for it—I don’t think that I was too harsh to begin with, but I can deal with other people. I think even maybe we emit a calm presence that everyone around us feels calmer too, I found that before. The day-to-day grind as they call it seems to be immersive as well, it’s like maybe you haven’t taken off your, I don’t want to say rose-shaded glasses, but it’s a little bit like that. That you see the world differently. You do sādhanā so that you’re able to be in the world more beautifully and view it and experience it as the comprehensively wild, fun, beautiful, intricate life that we are all living and enjoy that ride, enjoy that experience.
I’ll come out of a practice and actually the energy that I’m bringing to the “mundane” is beautiful and nothing then is mundane. Writing an e-mail or how I speak to somebody has energy in it and people pick up on that. So, there’s that non-dualism again.
4.3. Improved Mental Health and an Acceptance and Re-framing of Death
This has been the case for Sabrina, who has derived a sense of empowerment, control, trust, surrender, and relaxation from the practices, which have not only rid her of depression but significantly decreased and made manageable the anxiety that she began to experience with perimenopause, in addition to stopping the panic attacks that were precipitated by the latter. Just as significantly, it also gradually released her from what she qualifies as being the bondage of addiction to drugs and alcohol. Although she sometimes wonders when certain unbeneficial habits will go away or fears that others might re-surface, she reminds herself to trust in the practice and to heed the advice that her Indian teacher of Trika Śaivism has given her, which is: “stop—when it’s time, it will fall like the piece of fruit off the tree. Do your practice.”[…] there is something we have all felt, I believe my teachers referenced it [sādhanā] as kind of like a safety net or a rope and you’re hooked in; so, when you fall, you may fall, but you don’t fall like you used to and you don’t fall as long […] She keeps calling us back, She keeps pulling us back with her rope, like “Come on, come on, you’re straying and getting caught up in these illusions of the mind.”
After she joined Amazzone’s kula at the age of twenty, she found herself released of the existential guilt that she had always felt toward the volatility of her inner state. Growing up, the view that one’s suffering and unfortunate turns of events are a divinely ordained form of punishment exasperated her, as she had not done anything wrong to deserve it. As tantric teachings and practices emphasize that the self is a micro-level reflection of the macro-level of external reality, she came to accept that the world itself is unpredictable, ugly, and often without sense, which the notion of līlā allows for, rather than being “linear and directly cause-and-effect driven as Western society teaches us”. Once we realize this, she stated that “we can either decide to be thrown around by it or just lean into the chaos a little bit.” This acceptance of and surrender to the state of both herself and the world has brought her an unprecedented level of inner peace that has made her significantly more resilient. Related to this is also her understanding of karma and dharma, which she considers to be part of the natural world’s functioning. She explained that we are often surprised by how things do not go as we planned them because we tend to be unaware of how the way that we are acting and directing our energy is out of alignment with our true needs and dharma, our instinctive role. This interplay between our actions and their results constitutes our karma, which is something that can change daily, but the fact that one’s dharma remains intact despite this allows her to keep an open attitude that is curious toward what new possibilities might lie behind difficulties or unexpected outcomes. Kaylah humorously likes to phrase this as “shift happens.” Although Elena remains bipolar, the episodes that she experiences are now less severe, and when something difficult happens to her, she not only recovers significantly more quickly but also responds in healthier ways to it. This extends to the issue of death and the confusion that its randomness causes. As Elena explained:[…] what to do once the desires were gone, so I just lingered in the emptiness feeling like death itself, and without having the framework for a more mature relationship with death.
Indeed, for the Śākta devotee who “[…] is able to see beyond the finite world”, “[d]eath is the embrace of the Mother, so it can be valued, and not feared” (McDaniel 2018b, p. 126). When one has such realizations and experiences, disengaging from one’s solid, normative sense of self or ego during practice becomes less threatening—as Rachel described, the ‘larger sense of self’ that is gradually acquired through practice andThat’s the real chaos these teachings prepare us for: people and circumstances are in a constant state of death […] In this current path, I’ve learned that: 1) death doesn’t have to be sad; 2) the void of death is also the same void that is the ocean of awareness and that is the heart-space of the Mother; and 3) that is the same as love […] I have experienced flashes of the unconditional love that comes from the void.
[…] the ecstasy shows that what your self is doesn’t even really matter […] there’s less fear about moving to the absolute for those moments that you do […] because […] there seems to be some sense that you’re actually not losing anything, so it doesn’t have to be scary.
[…] so supportive to me during my time, losing two big pillars, that’s my true north for my chosen family and my birth family. It really helped me remember that it’s within me. It’s not an external thing, that I have what I need and that it is a choice in any moment to be that which I want to see in the world. It’s so hard to find the words to describe, but even with all the natural grief, processing that […] it’s like there’s such a trust in the process of all of it, that has grounded in me. And that’s something that existed before this but has really grown. It doesn’t have to be the worst transition ever for someone to leave your life and it’s like you just really have to do the work of moving through the emotions and letting them flow […] When you feel untethered, it is so valuable to be able to ground deeply into something that you know and trust, it just has this massively stabilizing effect. So, it doesn’t matter how much you feel like you’re falling apart, you’re still connected to something so much bigger and […] [t]he deity practice helps with that. It is that grounding, stabilizing space […] it helps you to still come back together again and/or stay together more than you would otherwise.
This also applies to how she copes with her husband’s deteriorating condition due to Lou Gehrig’s disease. When I asked her if one form of practice is more effective for her than others, she expressed:I have a sense of connection and a sense of being carried. So, the strength of the sādhanā and the strength of the form of Devī, whichever one I’m working with, is lifting me. I can rest in it, I’m not alone. It’s not my personal strength but the strength of Devī Herself that is carrying me forward […] that was really, really, really important. It sort of restored my life to me, which was very helpful […] just being able to have the sense that I have this container and can take it out and look at it and just basically give it to Devī and say: “This is yours, you put me here, help me move on” and have that happen, that was the ‘how.’
Like Audrey, she and her husband perform practices that are intended to prepare him for the moment of death together.[…] my go-to is mantra, probably because I’m a singer and I think of the world in sound and because I can do it anywhere. I can be driving down the road and experience an intense emotion, like if something is going on with my husband, I can go to mantra right then. Where I can’t really close my eyes and visualize while driving on the road. So, mantra would be my core I think and it is the power of the entity. It IS the power, so it immediately gets me there […] Like the third time that I’m in the emergency room this week, I’m like “I’m just gonna drop and do some chanting right now!”
Although her sense that Maa is everything/always present and her ability to respond to things accordingly is sometimes forgotten when she is involved with the circumstances of everyday life, she became able to “drop in at will” and bring herself back to it after about five years of daily practice.I feel that it’s life itself operating through me. Life itself wants to evolve, get better, more beautiful, more coherent, more cohesive […] I think what this path has done for me is it has made me want to be alive. It has made me embrace being in a human body and it has made me want to maximize my human life. To use the human life in the best way possible […] They [the practices] allow me to be out in the world in a way that I feel is a productive and well-lived use of my life […] Some pharmaceutical company would rather have me taking their medication for the rest of my life, you know. Doing these practices makes everything better […] They give me something to do with my mind. This is what it really boils down to. When I experience my mind as starting to go to the dark place, I offer it to Her and She takes it and transforms it. And it’s powerful, it’s immediate, it’s effective. It shifts my state of consciousness in the moment as I’m doing the practice and when I open my eyes again and come out and go back into my life, I’m not burdened in the same way. It’s a place to put my fear and my anger and my rage and my sadness and my grief. It’s like She can hold it all. Maa is always there, whenever I want Her, Maa is there, and She can take it. She shifts my field […] My day is completely different if I don’t get a practice in the morning, I’m wearing the shit-colored glasses, you know?
It doesn’t even really matter to me whether this is “real” objectively or not. What matters is that the experiences I’ve had were real enough for me that they healed a life-long struggle with depression.(Sadie)
What doesn’t matter is: “Well, what is it? Is it real?” I don’t know. It works. It feels real to me. “Can you prove it?” No, it works. “But if you can’t prove it…” It works, and that’s all I need to know. As [my Indian teacher of Trika Śaivism] would say, “You ask the wrong question. It is not if it is real, but does it work?” Myth, science, magic, and art live and breathe as One.(Sabrina)
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Conflicts of Interest
|Participants||Age||Occupation||Nationality||Years in Kula|
|Amazzone||50||Author, Scholar, Teacher, Spiritual Counsellor||American||Established~14 years ago|
|April||40||Graduate student in design, Mother||American||13|
|Audrey||44||Artist, Mother, Former yoga instructor, Transformational life coach and holistic healer||American||3|
|Brenda||64||Author, Retired from corporate technology||American||3|
|Cheryl||53||Yoga instructor, Holistic healer, Astrologer, Mother||American||5|
|Kaylah||54||Yoga instructor, Mother, retired registered massage therapist||Canadian||6|
|Margaret||40’s||Independent social worker/lawyer||British||2|
|Sabrina||56||Registered Nurse, Office manager||American||4|
|Sadie||44||Former research scientist, PhD student in clinical psychology, Mother||American||7|
For an account of the challenges that the vows of secrecy undertaken within tantric traditions posed to this research, including how these were methodologically navigated, and what motivated my participants to negotiate the boundaries of secrecy and openly discuss their experiences, see Perkins (2021).
My complete study will explore these theoretical perspectives in greater depth. For this paper, I include this as a framework or signpost pointing readers toward the broader theoretical questions of the entire study.
One reviewer requested that I define my use of “mainstream Hinduism” here and specify whether it is relative to caste or class. They also asked that I clarify in what sense the Devī Māhātmyam can be distinguished from “mainstream Hinduism”, while suggesting that the description of Devī as a “performer of miracles” seems to exemplify “folk and village-inflected understandings of goddesses”. As I was paraphrasing from Dr. Anway Mukhopadhyay’s (2020) book, I contacted him via e-mail for the sake of accuracy and received the following response on 21 February 2022:
A reviewer suggested that I refer to Bourdieu’s (1977) understanding of habitus; however, it is Csordas’ use of this concept that is foundational to my approach, as it is applied to the context of religious healing, ritual, and revelation, and combined with Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenological notions of embodiment, the pre-objective, intersubjectivity, and indeterminacy. As Csordas (1993, pp. 151–2) explains, Bourdieu (1977) and Merleau-Ponty’s (1962) approaches to a concept like indeterminacy are not complementary, and Bourdieu’s position cannot account for “change, creativity, innovation, transgression, and violation” (Csordas 1993, p. 152).
The topic of challenging practice-related and meditative experiences constitutes an important topic that will be further addressed by the complete version of this study, but readers are currently recommended to turn to the extensive research on it that can be found in Lindahl (2017), Lindahl et al. (2017, 2019, 2020), Schlosser et al. (2019), and Cooper et al. (2021).
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Perkins, S.-A. Embodying Devī: Śākta Narratives of Healing and Transformation. Religions 2022, 13, 1149. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel13121149
Perkins S-A. Embodying Devī: Śākta Narratives of Healing and Transformation. Religions. 2022; 13(12):1149. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel13121149Chicago/Turabian Style
Perkins, Sophie-Anne. 2022. "Embodying Devī: Śākta Narratives of Healing and Transformation" Religions 13, no. 12: 1149. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel13121149