The Origin and Impact of the Shakti Cluster
So far in my exposition of Planetary Tantra, I have described the Shakti Cluster in a couple of ways: as a console of clairaudient channels, comparable to a massive pipe organ, and as a great mandala, an iconic configuration of forces of the Divine Feminine in their Gaian or telluric expression. I have also proposed that in geophysical terms the Cluster is a turbulent rift in the electromagnetic field of the earth. Such a rift has been detected by atmospheric scientists in June 2007. It is becoming increasingly unstable due to the reversal of the magnetic poles of the planet. E-M field reversal is a much-discussed phenomenon with ramifications that are, as yet, little understood. Effects of the increased turbulence due to this event can be seen in violent winds, superstorms, and atmospheric disturbances, "dakini weather."
In describing the Shakti Cluster, several approaches are valuable as this is a vitalistic and numinous phenomenon of immense depth and scope. It is both mystical and telluric at once. In terms of religious imagination, I would say that the Shakti Cluster is equal in magnitude and complexity to the concept of "God," the Divine. But doing so, I mean no comparison to "the Creator," the paternal father god who fashions the world as a potter makes a pot. The Aeon Sophia does not create the earth, she animates it by total immersion with the geophysical and atmopheric elements of the planet, as described in the paraphrase of the Gnostic vision myth by Irenaeus (Against Heresies, Book 4). "The world as we know it came about due to a mistake, an anomaly," (NHC, The Gospel of Philip). The creation of our planet is anomalous because in the usual order of cosmic events, so the Gnostics taught, an Aeon from the Pleroma (galactic center) does not immerse itself dynamically in the physics of planetary evolution that transpire perpetually in the galactic limbs.
The Aeon Sophia at first emanated the Anthropos template from the galactic center and them implanted it in an encircling limb, third from center. This she did in tandem or "consort yoga" (see below) with another Aeon, Christos. This pair Sophia-Christos realized, configured, and projected into the galactic limb the genetic potentiality of the human species, Anthropos—a feat of panspermia, as it is now understood. The human species on this planet is not the creation or progeny of a father god, nor even the offspring of a divine couple: it is the novel, open field, experimental expression of the creative imagination of those Aeons.
With the Shakti Cluster, we come directly into the presence of the Divine, the Aeon Sophia in her planetary or telluric manifestation. The Cluster represents a specific aspect of the Divine, the feminine polarity of Shakti, the force that materializes the sensory world and manifests in sentient beings as the capacity to become excited, thrill to pleasure or danger, respond to attraction, surrender to awe and recognize beauty.
The mystery of Shakti resides in what makes us perceive the sensory world. As don Juan said to Castaneda, "The mystery is not so much what we perceive, but what makes us perceive." This pithy remark resonates with the statement of Wilhelm Reich, "Sensation is the greatest mystery of natural science." The supernatural impact of Shakti is present in every sensation that reaches your body, or proceeds from your body. The essence of this impact, which resides in your life-force, is a shock-wave or pulsation, called spanda in Sanskrit. To experience the Shakti Cluster first hand, while standing in the presence of wild nature, is to feel oneself embedded in a massive tremor that coheres like a huge drop of water vapor in the air, and trembles.
Such are some intimations of the Shakti Cluster. In this short essay, I will indicate the origin of the Cluster as far as it may be detected in the history of mystical experience. As John Myrdhin Reynolds observed (The Golden Letters), even though mysticism is a timeless, transhistorical phenomenon, and the quest for our connection to the Divine lies beyond history and conditioned existence, mysticism nevertheless has its own history. So does the Shakti Cluster.
My discovery of the Shakti Cluster happened at a particular moment on saturday, August 9, at my home in Andalucia, Spain. The discovery was prompted by the remark of a woman who had entered my life the day before, 8/8/08. She came from the USA to see me on the understanding that we would explore together the notion of "consort yoga." This is a term in Tibetan Tantra referring to intimate collaboration, which may or may not involve sexual union, between two adepts of Vajrayana, formally or ritually known as the dakini (woman) and the daka (man). The most famous instance of consort yoga in Tibetan Tantra involved its founder, the Indian mahasiddha Padma Sambhava and Yeshe Tsogyal, a Tibetan princess. Their conjugal mystical experimentation presents the prototype of consort yoga—Vajrayana Romance, as I like to call it.
I was particularly interested in exploring consort yoga because it is said in Nyingma tradition that tertons, or treasure-finders, can optimize their art of detecting and retrieving sacred wisdom teachings by the benefit of working in tandem. Consort yoga, then, is the paramount demonstration of the Tantric buddy-system.
The initial moment of discovery was totally spontaneous. Early in the afternoon, my would-be consort was riffling a book entitled Yantra by a religious art historian, Madhu Khanna. I had also read through the book, more or less, and I had certainly come across the section that my mystical partner signalled to me, though I did not register its significance until the moment she noted it. This section is titled: "Dasha-Mahavidyas: the Shakti-cluster of the 'Ten Great Wisdoms' ". When she read out this title aloud, almost casually as she sipped her tea, I was instantly electrified. First demonstration of consort yoga: what is disclosed in tandem has higher amplitude and stronger definition than what is discovered alone. The moment she read that title, I had a total flash of the Shakti Cluster as it would then develop in my imagination, and present itself to my direct perception in heightened awareness.
In my experience, the discoveries of a terton are always total and instantaneous. You receive the entire terma in one flash, and then you take time to work out the content. Musical composers such as Mozart and Scriabin have reported a similar phenomenon. Scriabin resorted to the notion of "fourth-dimensional vision" to explain how his symphonies came to him totally complete, with every note in place. He then merely had to take the time to write out what he heard. He did not compose the symphony, he merely transcribed it. So it is with termas.
In the limited, historical definition given by Madhu Khanna, the Shakti Cluster is the group of ten Mahavidyas or wisdom goddesses of Indian origin. They are pictured in temples as an integral group, usually composed into a circle. These graphic images are not of ancient provenance, but relatively recent. Quite rapidly in the days ensuing the initial flash, my vision of the Cluster expanded from the ten figures described by Khannu to an array of eighteen deities. I did not conceptually work out this format, it simply constructed itself in my imagination. You might call this process imaginal discovery. All the while that it was taking shape, I was in constant rapport with my newfound dakini, or "tantric consort," who remains to this day intimately involved with the disclosure of Gaia's lucid dream.
I emphasize that the Shakti Cluster of my elaboration did not result from the workings of a single mind, a male mind alone, but from the romantic resonance of her mind and mine. It was the fruit of consort yoga.
Scholars do not know much about why these ten goddesses called the Mahavidyas would be associated in a close-knit way, or how and when and where this particular aggregate of manifestations of Kali first emerged. But it does appear to be somewhat recent in historical terms. Graphic and iconographic representations of the Mahavidyas occur in Indian temple art dating from a couple of centuries ago, not earlier, it seems. Textual legends of the Mahavidyas are scant, but some versions have been identified. Today the Mahavidyas are central to a growing cult, a spinoff of the fanatical and widespread worship of Kali among the lower classes in India. They are particularly revered for their alleged power to grant personal wishes to their devotees, including the wish to be rich, idle, and forever young. Hence the term desideristic, from the Latin desideratum, "what which is desired." There is also a dark side to divine indulgence, it appears. The Mahavidyas are known for conferring the power to numb, paralyze, and kill. These witches are a dangerous lot, not sweet, nourishing mother types. In a future essay, I will consider why any kind and decent person, who finds the notion of harming others to be offensicve and objectionable on ethical and spiritual grounds, would consider trafficking with such powers.
According to David Kinsley (Tantric Visions of the Divine Feminine), there are five origin myths of the Mahavidyas, two being supported by textual sources. These literary materials are late, found in puranic writings of the 14th Century. In one version, Daksha, a Hindu father god type, proposed a great sacrifice, convening all the gods and goddesses of the celestial realm but exluding his daughter Sati and her husband, the rude and antisocial shaman, Shiva. Sati is outraged at this exclusion, but Shiva is indifferent to the snub. Sati decides that she will attend the event, even though she has not been invited, but Shiva forbids her to do so. She flies into a rage against him, and when he tries to flee from her, she explodes into the ten forms of Kali that come to be known as the Mahavidyas. In these forms, she confronts him from all directions. Each goddess has a dreadful and menacing appearance, but Shiva eventually recognizes the loving expression of his wife among them. Confronted with this array of daunting female powers, including the notorious "war goddess," Kali herself, Shiva concedes and allows Sati to attend the sacrificial rite of the gods. At the ceremony, she bizarrely sacrifices herself by jumping into the ceremonial fire, leaving her ten phantasmal forms behind with Shiva.
Brahmins and Hindu traditionalists cite this myth as the justification or precedent for the practice of sati, the ritual in which a widow voluntarily burns herself on the funeral pyre of her departed husband.
A second, supposedly tantric version of the Mahavidya origin story, reported orally to Kinsley, tells how Shiva, living with his wife Parvati (who replaced Sati), decides to leave his mountain retreat, but Parvati objects. She blocks his passage in all directions by taking the ten forms of the wrathful goddesses who are all manifestations of Kali. The tantric treatment of this myth involves many associations and correlations to directions, the limbs of the human body, the five senses and five elements, etc. In short, a complex iconography and ritual format. Both in tantric practices and in the popular cult of the Mahavidyas, these goddesses oversee ceremonial magic and the acquisition of occult powers or siddhis, including harmful and lethal ones, as just noted. Ritual interactivity with the Mahavidyas is essential to the practice of Kala Tantra.
These late origin myths are problematic due, obviously, to contamination by sexist notions derived from the paternal religion of Brahminism. Nevertheless, the myths suggest the superior power of the goddess over men and male deities, and promise the empowerment of personal desires through the wrathful forms of the Divine Feminine. Overcoming the domination of patriarchy and exercising supernatural powers are, I would advise, two dominant themes that arise with the emergence of the Shakti Cluster at this time in human history.
With the Cluster, we are not looking back to some primordial event or indigenous truth that legitimates this configuration; rather, looking forward to a time in the near future when wrathful goddess power will become accessible as a source of supernatural endowment, providing the magical skills needed for the ultimate defeat of patriarchy. The emergence of the Shakti Cluster signals the inception of a magical battle in the cause of the goddess, Kali. But if Kali is a wrathful expression of the earth goddess Gaia, as I propose, then the magical battle will be in Gaia's cause, on her turf, the planet itself. Devotees of Mother Kali and the Mahavidyas will be on the frontline of that battle. The battle occurs in human imagination, in the natural world, and in society, simultaneously. This conflict is global and terminal.
The Shakti Cluster is a recent event in the religious imagination of humanity. I cannot emphasize this point too strongly. Those of us who champion the planetary goddess Gaia-Sophia and view the earth as her embodiment, tend to look back to lost cultures and the few extant indigenous societies for validation of her presence and supreme importance. The task of "goddess reclamation" pioneered by woman scholars such as Merlin Stone is backward-looking. Classic studies, such as The Great Goddess by mythologist and prehistorian Jean Markale, highlight the value of the Divine Feminine in the remote past in order to reconnect us to it today: to remind us of, and bind us into, our lost roots. The Shakti Cluster does nothing of this sort. It brings our attention to the present moment in history and the near future, the last 200 years of Kali Yuga. It is a strange attractor charged with "shock and awe" that propels us ahead toward the future of humanity, anticipating the next mutation of our species.
Although the validation of the Shakti Cluster will not be found in the antiquity of its origins, there is some historical background for the Cluster considered as an event testified by direct mystical experience. The generative moment occured in the 10th Century, suggesting the signal date of 968 CE which I have associated with the Grail Quest of Parzival in Europe. In a parallel and synchronous development, there was a key development in Asia. Its setting was the the amorphous movement of mysticism called Kashmiri Shaivism, a subset of the vast spectrum of Asian Tantricism.
Shaivism is named after Shiva, a term for the infinite unitary consciousness at the origin of the world and our subjective experience of it. In short, the Divine Source. Shaivite teachings designate this source as male, Shiva, contrasted to the female power, Shakti, which is Shiva's power to manifest the worlds and their witnesses, considered apart from its power merely to witness itself, inert and unmanifested. In Shaivite philosophy, consciousness is the one reality and matter is identical with it but appears by the effect of illusion to be separate. The world is not an illusion, as stated in the strict monism of Advaita Vedanta, but appears by illusion to be separate from the Divine Source. The perception of duality and separation is illusional, not what is perceived.
This view differs from Advaita (non-dual) teaching that what our senses perceive is a falsity, pure and total illusion. Like Tibetan Buddhism, Kashmiri Shaivite philosophy is phenomenalist: affirming the reality of the apparent sensory world, the true and veracious nature of phenomena. H. V. Guenther, a Buddhist scholar noted for his particularly lucid exposition of Tantric phenomenalism, wrote (Yuganaddha):
By contrast to Shaivism, Shaktism, or "goddess worship," takes the phenomonalist approach even deeper into the sentient and transient world. Shaktism is a related school of Asian Tantricism that emphasizes direct experience of the manifesting power of the Divine, Shakti, rather than absorption in the unmanifesting ground consciousness, Shiva. The aims of mystical practice in these two philosophies are different. In the Shakta approach, the world is not an illusion, either, but participating in the way it arises and dissolves is considered to be more interesting than the yogic feat of union, dissolving consciousness back to an unmanifested state where nothing at all appears or happens apart from the radiant presence of the Divine beholding itself. The Shakta remains faithful to phenomena and for that reason is often regarded as a degenerate mystic, a dualist and hedonist.
My treatment of the Shakti Cluster and Planetary Tantra takes a Shakta approach, rather than a Shaivite approach: I recognize and explore the divine and supernatural aspects of the manifested world, warts and all. I favor and foster mysticism centered on goddess power, Shakti, Devi, the Divine Feminine. It appears that the Shakta approach was first suggested on Western terms by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the British Romantic who coined the term "natural supernaturalism," even though Coleridge did not have the dakini connection that would have allowed him to elaborate this theme in the manner I do today....
The first evidence of organized and textually attested Shaivism comes from around 750 - 800 CE. (Note that this is the moment of the inception of Tibetan Buddhism or Vajrayana, undertaken by the Indian mahasiddha Padma Sambhava who went to Tibet in 747 CE.) The movement achieved social definition around 1000 CE. The earliest masters such as Kallata and Ramakantha initiated a tradition of teaching through karikas or short verses, to be recited and remembered. The main collection of such verses, the Spanda-Karikas, "Verses on the Divine Pulsation (Spanda)," are attributed to various mystics who lived around 1000 CE. No single author can be identified, by the extant collation of the verses is often credited to a revered sage called Vasugupta.
It is fair to assume that Vasugupa, or his like, had a profound mystical experience of the nature of reality, a veracious realization of the Divine Source. The karikas record this experience and prescribe how to attain it. They consist of extremely cogent, compressed statements: "The nature of our self-awareness is identical to that of the eternal witness who is filled with spanda shakti, the essence of which consists of quivering light." Spanda means pulsation, tremor.
A well-known contemporary exponent of Shaivite "divine pulsation" is Daniel Odier, whose message about Tantra and desire resonate in some ways with my emergent presentation of Kala Tantra. Odier, who teaches and transmits a form of Devi-inspired Asian Tantra, relies on the Spanda-Karikas and a related text, the Vijnanabhairava Tantra, and he cites the Abhinavagupta (fl. c. 975 - 1025), one of the superstars of Kashmiri Shaivism.
Vasugupta, Abhinavagupta, and other Shaivites devoted a lot of words to explain that there in no succession in time. A verse in the Spanda-Karikas states:
The Indian sages put huge effort into explaining how linear time appears to "flow," even though in reality it does not. This paradox (or illusion, if you prefer) is said to be understood, first-hand and not theoretically, when the mystic realizes "the glorious powers of the group of shaktis." The Spanda-Karikas use the term shakti-chakra, "aggregate of the shaktis," conceived as a circle or wheel (chakra) of feminine powers of manifestation arising from the Divine Source. As far as I know, this would be the first textual reference to the mystical-telluric event I am calling the Shakti Cluster. I discovered the prototypal shakti-chakra in the Spanda-Karikas four months after my imaginal discovery of the complete configuration of 18 components.
The Spanda-Karikas state that the shakti-chakra is an aggregate of twelve feminine divinities, not ten or eighteen. This constellation of the cosmic feminine power has a mirroring effect (vimarsha in Sanskrit): it produces the manifest worlds of the universe and their witnessing subjects from the Divine Source, Shiva, in the way a mirror produces the image of a city in front of it. This mirroring is a magical effect of the Divine Light of the supreme ground awareness, Shiva. In effect, the "Light of the Supreme" is the mirroring surface. The Shakti of Shiva, his manifesting power, is like the silver backing of the mirror, which materially permits the transparent glass to hold an image:
The Spanda-Karikas record the direct testimony of mystics who have realized the ultimate reality of the universe, so it follows that their attestations apply to the entire range of phenomena, not just in the ultimate cosmic scope but also within every lesser scale or nested dimension of cosmic order. Thus, what the verses say about the universe at large holds true equally for the local phenomena of one galaxy and one planet in that galaxy. What is true of the entire universe is also true specifically of any part of it, including the earth. The Spanda-Karikas allude to telluric or planetary phenomena by the term bhuta, "terrestrial elements." Bhu is the Sanskrit word for earth, physical planet. Bhudevi is a sacred name for the earth goddess, Gaia-Sophia. The verses say, "Shakti-chakra means the group or aggregate of manifold formative forces of the earth-realm (bhutas)." Clearly, the Shakti Cluster of Kashmiri Shaivism can be regarded as a local, planetary, telluric phenomenon, as much as a cosmic or universal one.
According to the sublime realization of Vasugupta and his peers, this aggregrate of shakti powers is twelvefold, not tenfold. But in a most interesting twist, the twelve divine powers so described are all variations of a single feminine power, Shristi Kali—a manifestation of the time goddess, Kali! The twelve aspects of Shristi Kali, "creative ideation in time," described in the Spanda-Karikas present an early prototype of the Shakti Cluster as a "time vortex" or temporal black hole, if you will. This image is consistent with current scholarship on the Mahavidyas. Madhu Khannu says that these feminine powers, being each and all expressions of Kali, "represent forces that are related to the powers of time." Others writing on the ten Mahavidyas make the same point: "To this supreme Time-force, Shakti of Kala, the Tantrics give the name Kali. Tantra asserts the adoration of Kali, the Time-force, as the first and paramount discipline of mystical knowledge" (S. Shankaranarayanan, The Ten Great Cosmic Powers).
I won't excogitate on possible correlations between the twelve manifestations of Kali in the Shaivite shakti-chakra and the ten Mahavidyas. Suffice it to say, they are not self-evident and, due to the semantic obscurity of the metaphysical jargon in the Spanda-Karikas, hardly worth working out. Nor will I by sleight-of-mind show how the twelve enfold into ten. Such contrivances of the male mind just don't jive with the rich, spontaneous orchestration of the Shakti Cluster.
The point is, Vasugupta around 1000 CE presented a prefiguration of the Shakti Cluster, based on the firrt-hand experience of veteran mystics. This was a momentous event in the history of planetary mysticism, and a signal moment in Planetary Tantra.
Material by John Lash and Lydia Dzumardjin: Copyright 2002 - 2017 by John Lash.