Shaktas are followers of the Goddess Shakti, the divine consort of the Great yogin Shiva. Shakti represents the active aspect of the universe, the energy that runs through every living being and every cosmic process. She is the active female aspect of the Universe, whereas Shiva represents the passive male aspect. She is His Power, but ultimately they are One and the same.
The ultimate aim of the Shakta is to attain, through the practice of rituals and exercises designed to shape and develop his consciousness, a state of being that will allow him to experience the truths contained within the scriptures and mythology of the Shaktas. In other words, the Shakta aims to experience for himself the veracity of the teaching that ultimately he is One and the same as Shiva and Shakti; to achieve the realisation that “[t]he individual/embodied spirit (Jivatma) is one with the transcendent spirit (Paramatma)”. The act of merging oneself with the Deity becomes in effect a form of worship of the Deity, indeed the supreme form of worship.
Avalon explains that the Shaktic scriptures, known as the Tantras, don’t spend a lot time justifying a particular view of the universe, but instead emphasise the necessity of Sadhana i.e., practise, as “the means by which happiness may be attained”. So that those methods that help to bring the initiate closer to certain kinds of validating experiences assume a primacy over any kind of rational speculation. Not that such rational speculation doesn’t contribute towards one’s understanding of the Tantrist teachings — but it must take second place to the attainment of those experiences that ultimately prove the truth of what one must otherwise take on faith (“Attain a pure disposition, and thus only will you attain that certainty, that experience which will render any questions unnecessary”).
As Avalon states of the Vedanta in general: “It is a fundamental error to regard [them] as simply a speculative metaphysic in the modern Western sense.” In fact reason is denigrated as a restricted version of the full manifestation of Shakti given in Samadhi. The contents of the Vedanta, it is generally understood, are to be proved by direct experience, experience that is gained through spiritual practice: “nothing (in these matters) is established by argument”.
The teachings and the scriptures of the Shaktas have it that there are two different kinds of experience, whole/full and incomplete. The incomplete experience (that which pertains to ordinary non-enlightened mortals) is said to be an experience of parts of the Whole in which consciousness is directed outwards; whereas the whole/full experience is said to be the Experience-Whole (it emphatically cannot be an experience of the Whole since that seems to assume there is some kind of vantage point outside of the Whole which is a contradiction). The essential limitation of incomplete experience is that it is framed within the constraints of time and space: this type of experience arises from the facility of the Supreme Being to perceive itself as divided into limited parts of the Whole. The Supreme Experience (called Purna) on the other hand takes place outside of the categories of time and space and is therefore an experience of changelessness. The latter experience gives us reality as it truly is – since what is truly real is defined to be that which is changeless.
The Tantras describe a process whereby the universe evolves so that the absolute unity (the union of Shakti and Shiva) present at the beginning of creation is gradually broken apart by the power of Maya. Maya, or ‘The Will to Be Many’, turns out to be another form of the Supreme Power, Shakti: it is said to be the aspect of Shakti which contracts the primal consciousness into many finite centres of awareness, each of which is constrained to dwell in its own reality tunnel.
It is interesting to note that the Shaktas do not regard this partial experience as illusion: Maya, is not as Avalon tells us “rightly rendered [at least in this context] as illusion”. According to his interpretation the Tantrists cleave to the belief that man essentially is his limitations, that one cannot get past these constrictions, without ceasing to remain a man, since it is these very constrictions which define us as human beings.
The Tantrists claim, according to Avalon, that we can say of a changing thing that it is real — but only with respect to a finite centre of experience (it is even said that the Supreme Being cannot Himself experience what a mortal man can without bringing Himself down to Earth so to speak and becoming a man). An idea that has tantalising parallels with the Christian dogma that Jesus, seemingly a human being, was God Himself having taken on a human form.
As mentioned above, the human mind is defined the result of the limitation of the Universal Consciousness into a finite centre. There are none of the problems that usually arise in dualist philosophies regarding how a immaterial mind substance could possibly interact with a material universe here: mind and matter are both manifestations, or different modes, of the power of Shakti and consequently there are no such difficulties.
Like many other mystical schools, the Shaktas accept the validity of the identification of microcosm with macrocosm — a teaching which we in the West are more familiar with in the form of the expression “As above so below”. For example, “What is here is elsewhere. What is not here, is nowhere” from Visvasava Tantra. Self-knowledge is crucial here, the exhortation to “know thyself” is validated in an important sense by the fact that the “life of the individual is an expression of the same laws which govern the universe”.
Personally the thing that I find most intriguing about these teachings is the claim that it is possible to verify them experientially and that they therefore needn’t be taken on faith, and more specifically this idea that you yourself could reach a state of certainty that would brook no possible doubt. Can I have a truly objective experience that occurs out side of any subjective frame of experience? Can I experience something outside of those categories of space and time that seem to frame my every experience? What would Kant have said to this?