Creation has always been a process of trial and error starting from the big bang or what the Vedas teach as the utterance of the bija (seed) sound of creation, OM. Like all trial and error processes, we are still evolving through the parts that do not work so well for the whole. These are parts we disown and exclude despite being part of us. Sanatana Dharma’s creation stories begin with its own Holy Trinity, very similar to Christianity’s Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in the forms of Lords Bhrama, Vishnu and Shiva . They are not a polytheistic version of “GOD,” as much as the agents of God’s conscious (Atman or Brahman).
Lord Brahma, the father of creation, and Lord Vishnu, the son in charge of its preservation, were having struggles in the early days of making the universe. There were conflicts, divisions and worst of all, beings created that would not procreate. They knew they needed the help of Lord Shiva. Shiva, who as the Holy Spirit was quite immersed in samadhi (divine union) and uninvolved in the affairs of creation. He had not yet stepped into his role of reabsorption through his forms of Rudra. Shiva’s essence is purusha, the field of life’s potential in consciousness. Unbothered with the manifestation of the universe, Lord Shiva was the first true yogi that all yogis ultimately model themselves after, even today. This was about to change.
As Lord Brahma contemplated what to do, he went to Vishnu for support. They both agreed that the creation of the universe could only move forward with the help of Shiva. They knew that their own work with creation came with the Mahadevi, the Mother of the Universe, who had taken forms as their respective counterparts, Saraswati and Lakshmi. They knew seducing Lord Shiva from his dhyana (absorption) in samadhi, would require the Mahadevi to agree to take a third form and become Shiva’s beloved. Their own personal attempts, as well as the attempts of Lord Kama (desire, aka Cupid) had been no match for Shiva’s unwavering focus (dhrushti). The only one left, who had a chance was the Mahadevi. From this moment on, Lord Brahma engaged in many austerities and penances to gain the Mahadevi’s favor and be granted an audience with her.
He eventually succeeded and she appeared before him. She was sympathetic to his dilemma and agreed that Lord Shiva would have to become involved in the worldly affairs of creation for it to move forward at all. She also did not feel keen on tricking him into this. Through divine guidance she received Lord Shiva’s consent. Lord Brahma requested the Mahadevi to incarnate as the daughter of his son, Lord Daksha, who had already suffered the loss of 1000 sons in these early days. In his family she would be known as Sati. The Mahadevi agreed on one condition. She was clear that her participation in the incarnation of Sati was contingent on maintaining respect as the Mother of the Universe. Brahma agreed and went to his son Daksha who also proceeded to engage in many austerities to the Mahadevi so she would be born to him and his wife Akshani. There was no instant gratification in the early days of creation, so it took awhile before he too won her favor.
Daksha and Akshani had 24 daughters. They each represent an aspect of shakti (power) and Sati was their youngest embodying truth. From a very young age she was devoted to Lord Shiva and prayed to him regularly. She was talented, beautiful and dedicated in her commitment to gaining Lord Shiva’s affection. As she grew older, so did her love for all of Shiva, which she expressed through arduous austerities dedicated to him. Through her tireless devotion and spiritual purity she began to disturb his samadhi. Eventually the distraction became too great for him as she started to consume his awareness. This was around the time that her father Daksha was arranging her svayamvara (a ceremony where a woman chooses her husband from a group of suitors)
As the years passed, Daksha rose in importance amongst the Devas. This began to feed his sense of superiority. He became a prajapati, the Lord of all Born Beings. In his self importance, he started to loose sight of Lord Shiva’s divine role and did not consider him appropriate marriage material for his daughter. The two also had encounters where Daksha felt Shiva did not acknowledge him with due respect. In his Daksha’s eyes, Shiva dressed weirdly, covered himself in ashes and was too attentive to creatures like snakes and goblins. Daksha felt “those” creatures were beneath him. Shiva’s appearance lacked the finery or sophistication of the more “suitable” Devas. In the forming of the universe through purusha there is also the effect of maya (illusion…really ignorance) which is manifested in the world. Everyone one who takes form, including the great Lords Brahma and Vishnu are susceptible to maya. In any case, Shiva was excluded by Daksha as a potential husband to Sati.
Sati was single minded and had already committed herself to Lord Shiva. When she did not see him amongst the gallery of suitors at her svayamvara, she took the matter in her own hands. She threw a garland of flowers meant for her betrothed up in the air while focusing on Shiva deep in her heart. Before landing on the ground, Shiva appeared, allowing the garland to fall over his shoulders. In that moment, only Sati had seen him in all his splendor before he disappeared again taking the garland with him. He had fallen in love upon meeting her but under maya felt unsure of her nature, so he tested her purity. He appeared at the ceremony again but disguised as an old beggar. This did not fool Sati. She immediately recognized him through his divine aura. Again she selected him in front of an audience to the dismay of her father Daksha even after Lord Shiva shed his disguise and made it clear who Sati had chosen. At this moment Shiva became completely devoted to her with love. Daksha still could not see the all prevailing spirit of Lord Shiva as purusha. He could not grasp that he was the potential from which life forms. Similarly he remained unknowing of the essence of Sati, as the Mother of the Universe. She as shakti is the capacity that allows his potential to take form into prakriti (nature) that is life. Daksha, despite his ignorance, loved his daughter deeply as his lost sons. He felt betrayed by her departure with Shiva. Once the two were married, Lord Shiva began pervading through creation with beloved Sati by his side.
Sati and Shiva were immersed in love and unified as one being. Their unification brought forth mountains, clouds, rain, flowers, lakes, rivers. Each new creation an amusement and adoration for the other. Shiva playfully teased Sati and then adorned her with various jewels giving him ample opportunity to enjoy her body close to his. They were insatiable for each other and never apart. Together they chose Mount Kailash in the Himalayan range, which exists today in Tibet. Their home lay high above the clouds with a vast plane below making a home to lakes, lotus flowers, blossomed trees and all sorts of amazing creatures like cranes and peacocks. They chose to live secluded in this remote area of the earth while dressing it up with their deep love affair.
The creation of the universe was finally evolving and its complexity ever growing along with its challenges. Lord Daksha presiding over the fruits of this creation arranged a large fire ceremony called a yajna (ritual sacrifice) as part of his responsibility. It was to be the largest ritual fire ceremony done so far. Even today, this yajna is recreated every year in Kerala for 27 days as thousands of pilgrims attend it during the summer in a spectacle similar to the Kumbh Mela. Daksha included everyone of consequence except Lord Shiva and Devi Sati. Sati who missed her family and sisters could not imagine that her father was capable of doing this intentionally. She was positive that there was some innocent explanation. Betrayal was an implausible explanation of this oversight. She pleaded with Lord Shiva to attend. He refused and said, “You go on your own without me, if you must.” Torn between her husband and the family she was born to and missed deeply, she compromised.
She went to her family home to attend the yajna without her beloved. She was greeted warmly by her mother, her sisters and their families. Unfortunately, when she turned to her father he did not even acknowledge her until she confronted him. He scolded her for attending without an invitation, remaining committed to his ignorance at the expense of the yajna. A father rejecting and dejecting his own child with such public disrespect, an act of exclusion rich in sin. Sati gave her father a chance to see his short sightedness and encouraged him to place stava (appeasement) on Lord Shiva. Instead, with aggrandizing hubris, he uttered the word vasta (goat) instead. “So be it, let your head turn into that of a goat,” she said definitively. As the words left her lips, his head took form of a goat with a matching speech. Fear gripped everyone in attendance and even the earth began to tremble with the force of her taking a stand. At this moment, Sati as the Mahadevi had no choice, but to keep her word to Lord Brahma while protecting the sanctity of Lord Shiva’s divine nature. The Mahadevi let her spirit leave the body of Sati, which fell into the burning fire. So divine and powerful was the Devi’s form as Sati’s body that it did not burn.
It did not take long before word of Sati’s departure reached Lord Shiva. Upon hearing this news, that his beloved was no more, he was overwhelmed by pain in his heart. The loss of her immersed him in the fracture of maya and he lost himself in her absence. He could not accept that she was gone. He immediately transformed into his destructive form as Rudra and went to the yajna. He offered Daksha an opportunity to rectify the matter in hopes that Sati would return. Daksha sounding like a goat, had his speech temporarily restored. He reacted through disgust. “I never gave you my daughter willingly, how can I give her back to you now. Why would I lower myself to a loathful being like you.” He still could not see Shiva beyond the ghosts and goblins that followed him loyally and whom he protected. Seeing his loyalty to ignorance and committed arrogance, Lord Shiva killed him. Beyond the act of vengeance, it was a message to all those in attendance who protected Daksha’s ignorance, especially out of fear of him as a prajapati. The situation steadily spiraling out of control, Lords Brahma and Vishnu pleaded with Shiva to restore Daksha and allow the yajna to proceed. They assured him that due respect would be paid to both him and Sati. Even though she was gone, they were forever one being regardless of circumstance. Shiva conceded while restoring the destruction he created though remaining stricken in grief over Sati’s departure. He took her body and carried it over his shoulders and began a tandava (destructive dance) as the rites of the yajna continued.
The earth began to destabilize beneath everyone as earthquakes led to volcanic eruptions. Mountains melted as torrential floods formed from monsoons disintegrating the soil into speeding rivers of mud. In other parts of the Earth, fires burned wild and spread as tornados of wind consumed everything in sight. Vishnu and Brahma were momentarily paralyzed witnessing the destruction of the planet unfolding in the blindness of Lord Shiva’s anger and sorrow. In a hasty move, Lord Vishnu raised his chakra (discus) and hurled it towards Sati’s body, separating it into 51 pieces. Some scriptures report 108, but let’s try to keep life simple. The pieces of her body fell to the earth consecrating the Shakti of the Mahadevi where her parts landed, penetrating the soil and stones below. These are the 51 seats of concentrated power of the sacred feminine that manifests the universe around us. They are the sites of pilgrimage to experience this Shakti. As Sati’s body was no longer whole, Lord Shiva’s dance came to a halt. His senses gradually began to restore themselves as his passionate maelstrom subsided.
Narada, a devoted disciple of Lord Shiva approached him tenderly. “You are the lord and protector of the universe. Why are you are destroying what you are meant to protect?” Shiva replied, “I lost sight of myself and am better now. Let me return to Sati’s body so she can return to me.” Narada, explaining what transpired, encouraged Lord Shiva to go to what is still known today as Kamakhya in Assam, India where Sati’s womb fell to meditate. He assured him that she would certainly return to him. Consoled by Narada, Lord Shiva left.
Lord Vishnu and Brahma went to Kamakhya to pay their respects to Lord Shiva, who they found in engaging in his yogic practices once again. When Lord Shiva saw them, he asked, “ Will Sati ever return to me?” Brahma reminded him, “We are all destined to be born and die to be born again. We are all subject to decay. This is the nature (pakriti) of creation” They reassured him that of course she will return to him as she also returns to them. They shared with him that Sati, like Saraswati, and Lakshmi are forms of the Mahadevi and does not exclusively belong to him alone. While she only gives parts of herself to them, she gives her a whole self to Shiva. Together, the three decide to pray to the Mahadevi in hopes of encouraging her blessing upon them.
After a long earnest meditation by the three, she appears not as Sati but in thousands of female forms. She’s beautiful, presenting herself from young to old, big to small, in a spectrum of color and adorned simply to countless jewels. Her clothes changing along with her song and dance as she conveys her infinite nature. The three are mesmerized as they experience her profound shakti forming the vast complexity of pakriti. Her nature evolving through change. Seeing that they are unable to approach or speak to her in this overwhelming display, she compassionately greets them in a static form.
Brahma and Vishnu request her to return as Sati. She stated that she cannot with her body destroyed but promises to be born again to rejoin Shiva. She tells them that in taking form and coming to Shiva, that they all seem to loose sight of their divine truth in maya. She bestows a necessary teaching on each of them as a lesson that could easily be mistaken for as punishment. Really its was an opportunity for them to embody their divinity deeper. Lord Brahma, she destined to be born and die over and over again. He was told that he would go to sleep at the end of each divine day and during each divine night in his sleep create something new. Lord Vishnu was also destined to sleep four months out of the year. Lord Shiva, being fond of appearing as a beggar, would always be seen as a beggar to his followers and belong to the Ghostland, while remaining rich in all respects.
The Mahadevi also being satisfied with their prayers bestowed a blessing to each. Lord Brahma, would go on to create different classes of human beings, who would all be adored, even by the Devas. Lord Vishnu would be worshiped by all the gods. He would be a friend and protector to all living beings. He would go onto pervade the universe in countless forms continuing to incarnate to establish dharma and eliminate adharma (absence of dharma) over the ages. She promises to accompany him in each of his incarnations as a form of Lakshmi. She goes on to describe the 24 avatars that would represent Lord Vishnu’s incarnations over the ages like Rama and Krishna. To Lord Shiva, she promises to return again soon to be by his side again. Eventually she returns as Parvati and does not leave him after this incarnation. In this incarnation she is born to King of the Mountains, Himavan. As her father, he understands her true nature and that of her beloved Lord Shiva. His love and respect for them never wavers.
The 51 Shakti Peeths remain forever associated with the story of Sati as Lord Shiva’s first wife. Like the contradictions in the Puranas, so exists contradiction with the number of Peeths and their locations. There is no one universally accepted list. My list is a a consensus agreement of the many different lists. Regardless, each site is associated with one of Sati’s body parts and an aspect of the Mahadevi by one of her many names. In addition, each site has an aspect of Lord Shiva present in one of his forms as a Bhairava, serving as both a protector but also an annihilator of ignorance. Each place is a home of consecrated power, as well as a symbol of a balanced union between the Divine Feminine and Divine Masculine that is needed for creation to be. Symbolically the merging of Shiva and Shakti. The creative moment when purusha transitions to pakriti. It is a teaching of transforming the potential of the soul through birth into a body that carries us through our maya so we learn to embody our light for the evolution of all creation.