Among the various paths within Indian spirituality, one of the most important is Shaktism – or the worship of Shakti (Power/Energy) which is personified as the Goddess. The philosophy is known as Shaktism and an adherent of the path is called a ShaktA. Some believe that this branch of spirituality originated at an ancient time from the root idea called Samkhya, which saw the world as a duality between Purusha – the male principle and Prakriti – the female principle. While the term Prakriti means Nature in general, the term Shakti specifically indicates energy/power. Shakti always invariable involved some form of movement, for manifested energy and power is best understood through the sense of movement, while Purusha indicated that point of stillness or immobility with respect to which the movement is perceivable. Shiva therefore represented the ultimate transcendental stillness while Shakti or the Goddess became the sum total of all motions in the Universe. The ShaktAs took this idea to an extreme proclaiming that world as we know it is entirely Shakti. In one sense they were not wrong. Consider a simple example. At any given point the earth is in motion around the sun; the whole solar system is in motion around the center of the galaxy; the galaxy itself is in motion around some point in the Universe known as the Great Attractor and so on. Therefore our whole existence as a species is subject to a constant play of subtle cosmic movements overlapping with each other in ways which we may not be able to understand consciously. And therefore the ShaktA scriptures proclaimed that it was the Goddess – Shakti personified – who creates, sustains and destroys this Universe. Overtime in the course of its natural evolution, Shaktism practically bifurcated into two major schools – the SriKula and KaliKula. SriKula considers Lalita Tripursundari as the main form of the Goddess, while Kalikula considers Kali as the chief form of the Goddess. There were other methods of classification too, based on geographical regions, but those became less prominent with the passage of time.
Though much misunderstood and occasionally reviled, one of the most fascinating offshoots from Shaktism has been Tantra. Simplistically expressed, Tantra concerns itself with the practical application of Shakti (energy) to achieve certain desired results in the world. The more esoteric aspects of Tantra deal with the idea and practice of awakening a latent spiritual energy inside the human body which can aid an individual’s spiritual growth. This energy is traditionally referred to as Kundalini Shakti. To achieve this aim Tantra utilizes a wide range of tools like mantras (mystical chants), yantras (mystical diagrams), specific visualizations along with worship of different archetypal forms of the Divine Feminine energy.
Some believe that the idea of Kundalini was first established as a powerful tool by the Hatha Yogis and Tantric Yogis of the original Naths Parampara. Possibly the earliest reference and explanation of this term comes from Sant Dhyaneshwara’s exposition of the Srimadbhagwata Gita in Marathi, known as Dhyaneshwari. The knowledge was passed down by competent Gurus to fit disciples. In the last century British writer Arthur Avalon and the Theosophists translated some of the Tantric texts into English. This brought forth the knowledge and idea of Kundalini into the public consciousness in a massive scale. A textual definition of the term Kundalini refers to the coiled up residual Divine Shakti at base of the human spine, which remains in a ‘sleeping’ state until it is awakened by force of sadhana (spiritual practices) and made to move through the six spinal centers, thus energizing them, until it finally merges with the Absolute, allegorically represented by the thousand-petalled lotus above the head. This, the Tantras said, was Shiva and this fantastic union of Shiva and Shakti- the awakened Kundalini – results in a most terrific state know as Nirvikalpa Samadhi.
However inspite of mass dissemination and wide use of the term Kundalini, the actual phenomenon still remains as much as mystery today as it was centuries ago. For no understanding of Kundalini is practically possible without an understanding of a related term, ahamkara, of I-ness. Akamkara is the force that binds and holds the human personality to the body and gives it a unique and individualized character. It is what makes each one of us separate and different from the rest of humanity. In order to maintain this personality, with all its various likes/dislikes, habits, tendencies, attachments etc, a tremendous amount of energy (Shakti) is used. By dint of sadhana when this force is made to disengage from its daily and continuous job of maintaining this limited human personality and some part of the energy is freed up, then that free energy becomes the Kundalini Shakti of an individual. And just like the ahamakara clings to ideas, opinions (of oneself) and attributes of the personality, similarly the free Kundalini can be made to attach itself to something more subtle and Divine, like the form and personality of a Devata.
One of the most important ideas pertaining to the Tantras is that the human personality is not a constant but is a product of various conditionings acquired over many lifetimes along with the environment and experiences of this lifetime. And it can be changed if the conditioning is changed. But this ordinary personality is flawed, ignorant, weak and temporary. The aim therefore is to reconfigure or finish this personality with all this attributes and transform it into a more abiding, eternal, flawless personality from one of the archetypal energies, known as Devatas. And that is possible only when the ahamkara is fully (theoretically speaking) or partially (practically speaking) made to disengaged, or forget its ordinary existence, and align itself to this greater form. One must slowly dissolve to the mundane in order to get recreated into the spiritual. And naturally such a process is not without its many difficulties, hazaards and dangers, unless one has a strong Guru to guide, either internal or external.
Once the Kundalini is awakened in an individual, as per Tantras, it is then made to self-identify with a form of the Divine Mother who then safely guides the journey of this transformation process. For an awakened Kundalini can also accentuate/blow-up various pre-existing weaknesses or identify with something other than the Divine and eventually wreck havoc on the individual. It is because of this danger associated with the process that the ancients would guard this knowledge and made sure that the experience is transmitted only through the medium of a competent Guru who was capable of protecting the disciple from missteps and damage. On the other hand, for the right individual, it was/is one of the fastest means of spiritual progress. Sometimes as the Kundalini Shakti passes through the various chakras in the subtle body, it can manifest different supernatural abilities in an individual. But this is not compulsory and varies from person to person. However what definitely happens with a Kundalini awakening is a marked change in the personality and behavior of the individual in some way or the other. New worlds open up and many older ideas and habits and rigid notions can get replaced totally or in parts, and this is easily noticeable to others. In some extreme cases an awakened Kundalini can shoot up straight to the head and produce fantastic spiritual experiences and generate a virakti – detachment and dislike – for the world around. But that is rare. One interesting problem with trying to awaken this Shakti is that the more one thinks of Kundalini, lesser the chance of experiencing an awakening. For the I-ness has to learn to forget the constituents of the personality, including mental ideas about ourselves and what we want to be, or not want to be, before Kundalini can awaken. It is difficult to experience the Kundalini, however the far greater difficulty lies in purifying and deconditioning this Shakti until it reaches the Absolute. For that needs a transformation, as opposed to forceful suppression, of the six ripus – Kama (lust), lobha (greed), krodha (anger), mada (arrogance), moha (attachment), jealousy (matsarya) – or energies which distort the purity of this Shakti. Mostly this is lifelong process. The lesser is the ego attachment to these things, the greater is the Shakti available to an individual. Or stronger is the identification of the Kundalini Shakti with the Devata, greater is the manifestation of the Devata’s energy in the sadhaka’s life. No two cases of Kundalini Shakti awakening are exactly equivalent, even though the two people maybe worshiping the same form of the Devata. Therefore, because of the extremely individualistic nature of this path, dogmatic ideas are mostly unhelpful, and may they cause more hindrance to the sadhaka.
One may wonder why exactly is Kundalini referred to as the Mother in Tantra. Is it mandatory to do so? No it is not, but it is a good safeguard. Shakti, any shakti, is a force almost mechanical in its activity. A knife can cut through anything including the wielder of the knife. And this is no ordinary Shakti but a vast amount of force. By personifying and indentifying this force with the concept of the Divine Mother assures a protection for the sadhaka against many pitfalls and dangers, for once the bond is forged, indeed it behaves as a mother to a child (the sadhaka).
Though each experience of Kundalini has its own uniqueness, yet there are some broad classification that can be done. Again, to understand this, we have to understand our Ahamakara properly. This I-ness works not only through our mind, but also through our pranas and the physical body. So depending on which part or parts of the being cause a turning of Ahamkara into Kundalini, will open certain possibilities and limit certain others. This also explain, if properly understood, why in some cases of Kundalini awakening may lead to various kinds of trances, or a remembrance of past lives, or even certain occult abilities. But this is too complex a topic to be dealt with completely in this writeup. Moreover the very act of writing down things whose reality is at a most subtle level can cause much distortion in the idea. Loss in transmission is a very real possibility in such things!
Kundalini in Tantra
Now that we have a basic understanding of what Kundalini maybe, we will see how this helps in Tantra, or for that matter any other aspect of life. One of the typical features of a powerfully awakening Kundalini is a tremendous inner concentrated ability of focus. This is way beyond normal powers of concentration. It is infact so intense that it can create a reality or open up occult realities for the sadhaka. Now Tantra deals with the art of using rituals for various purposes. In every ritual there are two components – the rules of the ritual and the Shakti of the individual. Togther they bring success. Which means if a person without sufficient Shakti performs a ritual with perfection, yet it may produce no results. So whenever a person has the freedom to use his own Kundalini Shakti, it gives a strong energy at his disposal which can be used for perfection in any ritual worship, or for that matter many other mundane areas of life. This is one of the biggest practical uses of the Kundalini Shakti. All sorts of magical or occult practices succeed based on the usage of this Shakti. Of course, one can turn this entirely to the spiritual realms and not bother with anything mundane, but that is a matter of individual paths. One example best illustrates this point. Once Swami Vivekananda, not yet world famous, had exorcised a haunted house where he and his brother disciples were staying using a fistful of sand from the banks of a river nearby. In most cases that would be an impossible thing to do, but Swami Vivekananda could do it because of the tremendous force of an awakened Kundalini Shakti working through his mind and body.
Thinking about awakening Kundalini is often a fruitless exercise. Rather a seeker is better off trying to reduce the impact of the six ripus on his consciousness, such that when an awakening happens, there will be lesser amount of troubles and hazards to deal with. Except for rarest of rare cases, having a competent master/mentor/friend/guide/guru who can help one digest the effects of Kundalini is almost mandatory.