Sakta vidyas have grown in practice in the past millennium. It follows from a famous saying that in Kali Yuga the most effective forms of worship are Devi and Ganapati (kalau Candi Vinayakah). There are many sakta vidyas, but two schools of them are most popular – Lalita Sampradaya and Candi Sampradaya. Devatas like Lalita, Bala and Rajarajeswari are worshiped in Lalita sampradaya and devatas like Durga and Candi are worshiped in Candi Sampradaya.
There are many vidyas/variants under Sri Vidya. Two major ones are Pancadasi (mantra with 15 syllables) and Shodasi (mantra with 16 syllables). Of these, Shodasi is counted under dasa maha vidyas. The original seer of Pancadasi is said to be lord Dakshinamurthy Himself. There are 12 variants in Pancadasi called Manu vidya, Candra vidya and so on. The seers of these include Agastya, Lopamudra, Durvasa and others.
Pancadasi is said to be the Gayatri of Sri Vidya. The distinct feature of this is the 15 syllables are classified into three groups of 5 syllables each, called 3 kutas/khandas. These are Agni, Surya and Soma khandas (this is the reason she is called Tripura Sundari, as she presides over these three transcendental worlds). The mantra is said to be the sound-form and the body of the Mother Goddess, with Agni khanda as her head, Surya khanda as her trunk and Soma khanda as the lower half. Thus realizing the total essence of the mantra is realizing the Mother. The story of Lalita Tripura Sundari narrated in Brahmanda Purana symbolically explains the entire vidya, in which Devi kills Bhandasura, the king of Asuras. The three devis that wage this battle against the powers of ignorance, Lalita, Syamala and Varahi preside over the divine powers of Will (Iccha), Knowledge (Jnana) and Action (Kriya) and represent these three khandas of the Pancadasi.
The Sri Suktam of Rig Veda. It has fifteen Riks, equal to the number of beejas in Pancadasi. Adding Sri Gayatri it becomes 16 Riks, equal to the number of beejas of Shodasi.
Lalita rahasya nama found in the Brahmanda purana, is said to be the compendium of all sakta vidyas, though primarily the text for Sri Vidya. It is a consciousness overview and is called Yoga Sahasra. Lalita Trisati, which has a commentary by Adi Sankara, is the stotra form of Pancadasi.
Sri Vidya is found in tantras like Rudra Yamala.
Upadesa and alternative
The Sri Vidya needs initiation. However Lalita Sahasra nama, can be read as a stotra without initiation. Namavali, where each name is used as a mantra for worship, can be done only by one having initiation into the vidya.
Usually the initiation of Pancadasi happens after an initial initiation into another Tripura Sundari mantra like Bala. Lalita and Bala are the Saguna and Nirguna versions of the vidya respectively. Hence the former also has nama mantras.
Candi is the other most popular Sakta vidya. Candi is also worshiped as Durga, Camundi, Mahisha mardini during the nava ratris for Vijaya Dasami.
Candi navakshari (9 syllables) is the primary mantra of this vidya, though there are many vidyas as part of this. Devi Mahatmya of Markandeya Purana, which is also called Candi Saptasati, narrates the story of the Mother slaying Mahishasura. She assumes 9 different forms on nine days to eliminate the Asura along with his army.
Candi vidyas are found in tantras like Rudra Yamala.
Upadesa and alternative
The Candi/Durga vidyas, including Candi Saptasati need initition from a guru. The stotras like Mahishasura mardini Stotra, Durga Astottara, Durga Sahasraa can be read without initiation (not as namavali).
Dasa maha Vidyas
The smarta-srautas follow the procedures laid down in Kalpa, epecially the Srauta Sutras. Tantrics follow the procedures laid down in the Agamas. These practices overlap, and are not exclusive. The seed mantras too, overlap.
There are three systems of worship, samaya madhyama and kaula. While samaya acara is smarta-acknowledged, the other two are tantric. Kaula marga involves is more of vamacara tantra. Tantra texts like Rudra Yamala and Kularnava Tantra deal extensively with these vidyas, their philosophy, prayogas, austerities and results.
Worship is to be done according to the taste and the nature of the worshiper. The austerities one should follow will also follow these to a good extent. Devotion is primary and one does not have to impose impossible austerities on himself to please devata. Devi is praised as sukharadhya, one who could be worshiped with bliss.
There are different stories that tell how the ten vidyas came, in Devi Bhagavata, Siva Purana and Tantra Texts. According to the one in Devi Bhagavata: when Sati devi wanted to attend her father Daksha’s yajna, Siva did not like it. When she insisted, He got angry. Then Sati took even more terrible form and Siva got afraid and started running. Then Sati assumed ten forms and stood in all ten directions so he cannot runaway. These ten forms are ten maha vidyas.
The brief of these vidyas is given below. We can consider an example for the nature of symbolism, in the description of Kali that follows. Devi is actually worshiped as Agni-sikha and Agni kunda samudbhava, who emerged from fire altar. While male deities are to be worshiped from feet to head, Devi is to be worshiped from head to toe. Agni khanda as seen above as the first of triad in sakta vidyas is indicated here. Her feet are said to be the abode of bliss, and the goal of all sadhana. Agni vidya thus is inherent in all sakta sadhana. Agni of Veda is found as the combination of Agni and Sarpa in Purana (Kumaraswamy-Subrahmanya). Another common feature is that all vidyas speak of devata as having three eyes, the third eye standing for transcendental knowledge emerging from chit/tapas. Moon-adornment is another common feature. The Agni-Aditya-Soma is picturized here – Agni as the sikha or hair, Soma as adornment and Aditya as the face of Devi Herself.
Tripura Sundari as the name suggests, is the most beautiful form of all devatas. The mahavidya of Tripura Sundari is called Shodasi, the 16 letter vidya. This is the most comprehensive vidya in Sakta.
She is the most pleasant form of Sakti and is hence called Lalita. She is said to live in Mani Dvipa along with Kameswara the Lord, the glorious celestial Island that is beyond the reach of men, manes and gods. The Island is located in the midst of the ocean of immortality (sudha sindhor-madhye). Sri Cakra is said to be the model of Universe, which represents the Sri Vidya worldview. Thus Devi is called Sri Cakra Sancarini, the one that dwells in Sri Cakra. In fact the Sri Cakra is worshiped as Devi Herself. The worship is elaborate, and involves worship of Devi along with her major associates, and is comprehensive.
Tripura Sundari is the most famous vidya and is been practiced by men like Adi Sankara. The seer of this is said to be Lord Dakshinamurty Himself. This vidya uses Lakshmi, Bhuvaneswari and Bala beejas.
Bhuvaneswari as the name suggests, is the presiding deity of all the worlds. Apart from being a Maha Vidya, Bhuvaneswari is the principal beeja of Sri Vidya, in fact of all Para Vidyas in Sakta. (There are different beejas for different worlds, and the one for Aditya loka is referred here.) Aditi, the Mother of Gods praised in Veda, is the same deity.
Bhuvaneswari is a pleasant form of Sakti, and is praised as having Moon adornment, three eyes, ever smiling, holding varada (boon-granting mudra), abhaya (fear-dispelling mudra), pasa and anuksa. Bhuvaneswari is the supreme Goddess, beyond all worlds. Bhuvaneswari loka, is praised similarly as Mani dweepa, as unreachable to men manes and gods. This is a Sakta worldview and there is no presence of any other man there – there are lakhs of goddesses serving Devi. Devi Bhagavata describes these worlds. One can enter those worlds only by the grace of Devi Herself, and the moment one enters one becomes female, meaning one cannot enter a state of seeing Devi unless he transcends gender-consciousness.
Kali is ferocious and terrible form of Devi. Kali is the feminine of Kala, and the sakti of Kala. She is worshiped as laya karini, the one causing dissolution of universe.
While Kali is praised in multiple forms, common attributes in those are that She is dark in hue, wearing a skull garland, naked, with a smile and extended tongue, standing on (life-less) Siva.
However since Devi is devata and not literally a person these are not to be taken as physical attributes and are quite symbolic. For instance the word used for nudity is digambara, which means having the directions for Her clothes. This not only speaks of nudity but indicates the infinity of Her form that is covered only where directions end. Wearing skull-garland too, is interpreted in multiple ways – one is that Brahma is beheaded at the end of creation life cycle and the skulls in the garland are as many as the mahakalpas that elapsed so far. There is a yogic interpretation, that Devi wears the skulls of Her devotees, implying She always resides in the skulls of Her devotees. Usually these representations are only picturized differently in case of different devatas. In case of teevra devatas skull is shown and in case of satvic devatas bowl is shown. For example Gayatri Devi is shown as holding bowl and her description says kapala/skull. The same concept is shown differently in different cases to suit the context. Standing on Siva is also symbolic, of the state in which all manifestation is dissolved in the unmanifest.
Kali is found as mantra in Veda while Purana has different stories. The most famous is in Candi Saptasati of Markandeya Purana. Durga created Kali on the day she fought Raktabeeja. Raktabeeja bas a boon that his clones emerge from every drop of blood that spills down. So Kali spread her tongue on the entire land so there is no blood spilling down. Thus Raktabeeja was slain. Kali vidya uses Kali beejas.
Tara is from the word-root meaning float, cross. Tara or Taresi is the goddess that causes bhava tarana (as she is also called bhava tarini) or crossing the ocean of life/causal transformation/transmigration.
There is an opinion that Tara is primarily a Bauddha vidya, and was practiced more in China. One can get the siddhi of the vidya more easily when practices there. A unique aspect about this vidya’s practice in India is that its initiation should be given only by women. In occasions when a man has to do the upadesa to another man, it should be given indirectly through a woman.
Tara is worshiped in multiple forms, like Neela Saraswati, Ugra Tara, Smashana Tara. Tara is said to be the presiding deity for knowledge and wisdom. Tara vidyas use Bhuvaneswari and Tara beejas.
Chinnamasta is said to be the most terrible form of Devi. As the name suggests, the head of this form is separated from the trunk. She holds her head in a hand. There are fountains of blood gushing out of the neck, the middle one drunk by her head, the other two by her two associates. This is a profound yogic significance and separation of “head” is indicative of a great siddhi where one fully transcends his gross-subtle sheaths of consciousness.
Chinnamasta is called vajra Vairocani, the sakti of Vajra-weilding lord of devatas - Indra. Indra is the supreme lord of deities according to Veda, and Chinnamasta is thus seen evidently as developed from Vedic vidyas.
Chinnamasta is a teevra devata and its initiation is not to be given easily. One would get great siddhis through the upasana, however the consequence of mistake too would be serious. Vasistha Ganapati Muni is said to have attained Kapala Bhedana as well as Swarna Siddhi through the worship of Chinnamasta. Improper practice of powerful Mantra Vidyas especially of Teevra Devatas can have devastating effects, right from mental derangement to destruction of families. Kamya, para and astra siddhis all are possible in this vidya. The primary beeja is of ferocity, anger, strength and nourishment.
Bhairavi is an ugra devata, but is picturized as ever smiling. She is worshiped in many forms. Bhairava too is worshiped in many forms, like Asitanga, Ruru, Bhishana, Samhara, Bala, Kala, Naga. Bhairavi sadhana involves Naga vidya and snake-hiss is the primary beeja.
Dhumavati is the only widow-form of all devatas. She is visualized as ash-hued, sharp and terrifying looks, long nose, with no kunkum/Tilaka on her forehead and ever interested in quarrel. She is a teevra devata and is described differently in different allegories. She is worshiped as Jyestha Devi or Tamas, Vriddha Kali, Katyayani, Dhumra Varahi (boar faced), Nisa (night) Devata.
Dhumavati vidya involves many prayogas along with upasana. This vidya is associated with crows and it is said that towards siddhi one can see crows giving the message of success. Smoke-flaring is the primary beeja of this vidya (the name itself suggests this, Dhuma means smoke).
Bagala mukhi means having crane-like face.
She is praised as golden-hued, wearing yellow clothes and holding various weapons. Bagala Mukhi is picturized as holding the tongue of the enemy, implying she presides over stambhana (blocking the enemy’s actions) vidyas.
Apart from a lot of siddhis, Bagala Mukhi is worshiped for astra vidyas and prayogas. It is said that there is no better vidya for stambhana than Bagala. Bagala vidya uses beejas for stambhana.
It is said that when Matanga Maharsi was doing tapas to please Kali, Devi appeared to him in this form and hence came to be known as Matangi. She is also called Syamala. While Kali is a terrible form, Syamala is a pleasant form. She is praised as syama-marakata varna or light emerald colored, and holding a parrot. It is said that towards siddhi of Matangi vidya one gets to see parrots around. The places where Matangi is worshiped, and around Matangi temples we see a lot of parrots. In fact it is not a coincidence that the different kshetras of devatas resemble the qualities explained in their stories. For example one gets to see crows around Dhumavati upasakas, parrots around Matangi upasakas, monkeys around Rama temples and so on. Towards southern Tamil Nadu, which is called Kumara Kshetra we get to see a lot of peacocks, towards Bengal which is a Sakti kshetra we get to see tigers and so on.
Syamala Matangi is the mother of knowledge and arts, and is praised as jnana sakti swarupini. She is the minister of Lalita Devi, and the presiding deity for wisdom. She is worshiped in different forms, Raja Syamala, Sangeeta Matangi etc. It is said that Kalidasa worshiped Matangi for the poetic genius She bestowed on him. Matangi Vidya uses the Bhuvaneswari/Kali beejas.
Kamalatmika as the name suggests is Lakshmi-form of Sakti. Lakshmi is said to be born out of the Ksheera sagara or the ocean of bliss when it was churned by Devatas and Asuras. She was taken as consort by Vishnu thereafter. Along with Her are born Soma/the Moon, Amrta (the nectar of immortality) and so on. She is worshiped for prosperity and happiness. She is also called Kamala (lotus) and that is a yogic suggestion.
According to Kavyakantha Vasistha Ganapati Muni, Kamalatmika is derived from the Vedic Madhu vidya. Kamalatmika is a pleasant form, and her grace is treated as the culmination of sadhana, as she bestows every siddhi along with desirelessness and eternal bliss (sampatti). She is worshiped as the last stage deity in all vidyas. For example She is worshiped as Siddhi dhatri in Durga Vidya, the last of nine forms of Durga. In fact She is the Sri of Sri Vidya. Auspiciousness is the primary beeja of this Vidya, though all Bhuvaneswari and Tripura Sundari beejas are used.
Other Major Sakta Vidyas
Durga is a vast set of Mantra Vidyas. Durga is from the word-roots “duH” and “ga”, meaning one who cannot be reached, known, vanquished. This form is said to be the origin of all the ferocious forms of the Mother, such as Candi and Kali.
There are nine forms of Durga called Nava Durgas. They are Saila Putri, Brahmacarini, Candra Ghanta, Kushmanda (Asta Bhuja Devi), Skanda Mata, Katyayini, Kala Ratri, Maha Gauri and Siddhi Datri. These are worshiped during Nava ratri before Vijaya Dasami (Dussera).
Durga is worshiped in many traditions. The two major traditions Sri Vidya and Candi, worship Durga. Durga is found in Veda, in different places. The Vedic mantras used to worship Durga are addressed to Agni (found in Rig Veda and a set of them, called Durga Sukta, is found in Taittireeya Aranyaka). The Vidya using these mantras is called Jatavedasi Durga. Similarly there are other vidyas, like Astakshari Durga, Sulini Durga, Asuri Durga, Vana Durga, Veera Durga, Jaya Durga and so on. Durga Vidyas are used as Para, Astra and Kamya, and worshiped in both smarta and Tantra traditions.
Saraswati is worshiped in different ways in Vedic and Tantric schools. Saraswati finds mention in Rig Veda multiple times. She is praised as a Devata and also as a river (“ambi tame nadi tame devi tame Saraswati” - RV). She is the ruler of Vak, the divine word. Word being the representative of eternal, Saraswati is the Devata associated with all forms of knowledge and truth consciousness. Saraswati Sukta expounds the study of Vak. She is also called Arnava the vast, Vag-devi, Vageeswari, .
Saraswati finds mention in some form, in almost all major vidyas. For example in Nava Durgas, She is associated with Kala Ratri. Saraswati is also worshiped as Neela Saraswati, a form of Tara Maha Vidya. She is one of the three forms of Gayatri (Gayatri, Savitri and Saraswati). Another form of Her, Ila is associated with Krishna (Ila pati). Vageeswara is an epithet of Hayagriva. Buddhi, Her aspect, is associated with Ganapati. Siva is said to be the sibling of Saraswati. Jnana Prasuna is the form in which the Mother is associated with Him at Kalahasti, Saradamba at Sringeri and so on. She is also closely associated with Indra in the Rig Veda.
In Sakta Tantra, Saraswati beeja is extensively used in many vidyas like Tara, Tripura Sundari (esp. Bala) and Matangi.
Varahi is not widely practiced in the recent times. She is one of the seven Matrikas. Also in Tripura Sundari Vidya She is the general of Lalita (iccha-jnana-kriya sakti is the triplet Lalita-Matangi-Varahi, corresponding to Devi, Her minister and general respectively). She has multiple names like Varahi and Vartali. There are multiple vidyas or forms of Varahi.
Pratyangira is the form of Mother found in Atharva Veda. It is said that Pratyangira of Atharva Veda corresponds to Vana Durga and Bhadra Kali. Dark in hue and having many hands and faces, She has a terrible form.
Besides the mantra Vidya, there are prayogas in Pratyangira. Application of Pratyangira is called Kritya.