There is no other religion or civilisation in the world that has deified and revered Shakti the way Hinduism has done. In fact, all other religions have kept the female aspect dormant and subdued in a manner that it rarely finds mention in their religious or spiritual discourse. In the Greek and Roman civilisations though goddesses did find a place, but it was far from the exalted concept of Shakti that assumed shape in the Bharatiya culture.
Ancient seers in Bharat clearly distinguished Shakti as an entity that stands out in the cosmos. Call it Prakriti, Shakti or Devi.
It finds its first expression in Rigveda itself when Maya and Shiva are mentioned as two facets of the cosmos. But the concept is crystallised explicityly later in Durgasaptshati in Markandeya Purana when Shakti, personified as Devi, is extolled as:
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“That which creates the world, that which sustains the world and that which merges it again in infinity..”
(not annihilates) The universal divine energy expresses itself in ever fresh creativity that is inspired by the Absolute (Shiva). Not an abstract idea, but a manifestation of the supreme consciousness. The Mimamansa school of philosophy, in fact, goes on to treat it as separate Dravya (force or substance). Living and throbbing.
The story goes that Adi Shankaracharya, initially a staunch Shaivite, during the course of a scholarly interaction (shastrarth) with a Tantric in Assam was made to realise experimentally Shakti as an entity. He later recognised Shakti as an active form of Shiva that assumes form of Mahatripura Sundari.
“A conscious power or energy constantly pulsating as “I”, as Sri Aurbindo would elucidate later.
Even Budhhist philosophers, harping largely on nihilism, gave a shy recognition to the concept when they referred to the fact that Shunya and Shakti are two separate conditions. Isn’t is coming close to the Shiva-Shakti concept? The Budhhist, though, have temples dedicated to Devi Tara.
The Bharatiya culture has since been celebrating, adoring and worshipping Shakti during the Navratras as much as in their daily life. In fact, embodiment of Shakti is concomitant to all the main male deities. Be it Brahma, Vishnu or Shiva in form of Goddesses Saraswati, Laxmi and Parvati, respectively. Even Lord Rama and Lord Krishna would be incomplete without their consorts, Sita and Radha, respectively.
Not just that. A step further is when Lord Shiva is worshipped as Ardhnaarishwar (half man, half woman) as if underlining that but for Shakti even Shiva would remain absolutely static.
In due course Shaktayas (worshippers of Shakti) formed a separate school of philosophy which comprised the study of 10 Maha Vidyaas and 64 Yoginis and has its foundation on the premise that all maya (the cosmic play) is driven and propelled by Shakti. And that comes close to the thesis that the play of Prakriti (Nature) also rests on Shakti. All that we see in the Nature is demonstration of that power.
The Shaktya would, in fact, extend it further to enunciate that Sarvam Shambhviroopam (all around us is manifestation of Shambhvi ie Shambhu’s consort).
No wonder we have Shakti Peeths (temples of Shakti) spread around all over the country, something one would not come across in any other part of the world.
Adi Shankaracharya’s Saundaryalahri and Sri Aurbindo”s Savitri are among the outstanding elucidations of the glory of Shakti.
However, complexity to the concept of Shakti worship sneaked in as Tantrics became its main propagators and animal sacrifice came to the fore.
Some of the prehistoric Shakti temples are still witness to animals being hacked in full public glare apparently to propitiate the Goddess. A practice that, perhaps, needs to be revisited. Adi Shankaracharya initiated it ages ago when he sought to substitute animal sacrifice with other symbolic practices like bursting a pumpkin or a coconut to propitiate the Goddess.