Heroic Shāktism: The Cult of Durgā in Ancient Indian Kingship

Caleb Simmons

From the very first Sanskrit verse with which the author opens the text’s prologue, Bihani Sarkar immerses the reader into the intriguing bloody, violent, political, and devout world of ancient and medieval Indian royal devotion to war goddesses, summarily referred to as the Durgā cult. Sarkar’s work is tour de force that will undoubted serve as the new scholarly authority for understanding the development of royal goddess traditions.

Over the course of the book, Sarkar develops a broad history of the Durgā cult which rises in the third century in the wake of the Skanda royal cult that had dominated the Kuṣāṇa Empire and that rose to prominence after the fracturing of the imperial mode of polity in the aftermath of the Gupta Empire in the mid-late 6th century. The author argues that from the 3rd century to the 7th century there was a rise of non-brahminical ‘forest (āṭavika) kingdoms’ for whom Durgā-worship was a central feature of their political process. During this timeframe, Durgā-worship was appropriated from ‘tribal’ ritual practice into the Sanskrit cults of Viṣṇu and Śaiva, what the author describes as an ‘ecumenical’ period of heroic śaktism (p. 18). The 8th century to which Sarkar dates the Devīmāhātmya marked the beginning of the apex of the Durgā cult in which sovereignty was linked to the martial goddess. This century, however, also inaugurated major changes to the tradition as it lost its ecumenical character, and by the 11th century, the Durgā cult underwent radical transformations as Smārta rituals began to dominate the royal practice. Through this period, the cult of Durgā shifted away from its core identity as antinomian with the blood-intensive ritual program shifting toward vegetarian modes of praxis.

Chapter Overview

Sarkar makes her argument over the course of seven chapters divided into three parts. The first four chapters (Part I: Beginnings) develop the chronology of the rise and ossification of the Durgā cult, beginning with the fierce Vaiṣṇava goddess of death and sleep from the Gupta period, Nidrā-Kālarātrī and the incorporation of the goddess in the Śaiva tradition in first and second chapters. Chapter 3 examines the transition from Kuṣāṇa’s royal ritual program that centered on the deity Skanda to the rise of Durgā-worshipping small forest kingdoms in the aftermath of the Gupta Empire. Chapter 4 ends the chronological section of the book with a detailed look at the maturation and subsequent sanitization of the martial Durgā cult from the 7th to the 11th centuries. In the fifth chapter (the only chapter in Part II: Synthesis), examines the processes through which the Durgā cult coalesced by merging the identities of regional royal martial goddesses within one overarching cult. The next section (Part III: Belief Systems and Rituals) turns to the symbols and performance of sovereignty in the Durgā cult ritual program. Chapter 6 examines myths of kingship and sovereignty, and how the goddess figures into the ‘myths of civilization.’ Chapter 7 examines the role of public spectacle of Navarātri in the performance of sovereignty as it enacts the relationship between the king and the goddess.

Kingdoms, goddesses, and broad historical analysis

While the entire book is an amazing work of scholarship, due to space restraints this review will focus on the author’s method of analysis that spans the entire book. To demonstrate the method, this review briefly discusses portions of Chapters 3 and 6 in which the author discusses the Cālukya kingdom as representative samples of the larger work.

The goal of Heroic Shāktism is to tell ‘the history of the relationship between sacred and mundane power between the 3rd and 12th centuries as it unfolded in Indian courts’ (p. 1). Given the wide chronological and geographic aim of the book, the author moves quite rapidly through a progression of different places, regions, kingdoms, goddesses, and primary sources. The array of materials that is analyzed is indeed remarkable, and Sarkar nimbly moves the reader through these materials to provide a convincing overview of the emergence of royal goddess cults and their increasing role in the Indian royal court. The analysis is erudite and anyone familiar with Alexis Sanderson’s paradigm-shifting broad historical arguments (e.g. ‘The Śaiva Age’) will certainly recognize a similar method in Heroic Shāktism.

Of course, with this approach there is a tendency toward covering a broad swath of material instead of a sustained analysis of any one narrative, inscription, or kingdom. As a result, it is often hard for the reader to truly grasp the nuances of the Durgā cult and how it was shaped and/or was shaped by the political process, leading to more questions than answers. The first example of this comes from Chapter 3 and Sarkar’s discussion of the Cālukyan kings of Badami. Sarkar frames the Cālukyas as the ‘first great entrepreneurial lineage following the Guptas’ that instituted goddess worship at the core of their imperial program (p. 99). While this is momentous in the broad historical narrative that Sarkar is presenting, the author dedicates less than two pages to the kingdom (even a large part of that is in reference to the Kadambas’ gotras), only discussing one inscription that records that Pulakeśin II was ‘caused to flourish by Kauśikī’ and that ‘other later inscriptions’ say Cālukyan kings was ‘obtained their kingdom by the grace of Kauśikī’s favour’ (p. 100). Outside of the four inscriptions cited, it is unclear how pervasive this rhetoric was or if it was utilized in specific contexts, like after a great military victory. A more thorough contextualization and close reading of the inscriptions would have made the important moment of transition more convincing. That is not to say that the reviewer disagrees with the conclusion, rather the evidence presented was too laconic to fully demonstrate the claims that the Cālukyan kings envisioned the goddess as the source for political power.

In Chapter 6, Sarkar returns to the Cālukya kingdom and their ‘consistent’ ‘evokation’ of goddess as the source of political power in order to frame a broader discussion of who the goddess granting sovereignty to the first king of a lineage (p. 179). The goddess’s centrality within the process of king-making is elaborated through the Orissan cult of Stambheśvarī and inscriptions that record the Dhenkanal-Talcher king Tuṣṭikāra’s land grant to brahmins. In this example, the author provides a little more context and detail of the inscription, but only to support her conclusion that these ‘secular’ records show that ‘the belief that a goddess had granted power was better known as a political philosophy of kingship in its early days, before acquiring a more conventional religious character in sacred literature’ (p. 179). The reviewer highlights this section because it, again, features the limits of broad historicization of a phenomenon, like the Durgā cult. A deeper analysis would surely nuance this anachronistic division of secular and sacred in which Stambheśvarī was the ‘pramāṇa invoked to authorize the land-grant to the recipient brāhmaṇa’ because of the king’s devotional relationship with goddess and her role as sovereign over a physico-religious landscape or kṣetra, and that this record was far from ‘secular’ (p. 179).


Heroic Shāktism is a paradigm-shifting work that forces scholars of South Asian religions, history, and goddess traditions rethink the role of royal goddesses and kings’ devotion in the broader shifts of the political process. It is essential for anyone interested in religion and kingship in Gupta/post-Gupta India. Portions might be useful for advanced undergraduate readers, but it is primarily geared toward specialists.