Shiva and Shakti: The Sublime Poetry of Jnaneshwar

Who is Shiva? Can he exist without Shakti? But who is Shakti if not Shiva? 

Tattva Team
| 8 min read
April 02, 2021
Illustrations by Shreyansh Singh

Philosophers over the ages have tried to capture the transcendence of the Absolute through words, but few succeed. Language is inherently dualistic. There is the word, and there is its object, however, the absolute is non-dual, beyond description. The most famous effort to capture this non-dual Absolute through language was via negativa – neti, neti (not this, not this). In this definition, any reality that can be captured by language is, by definition, not God.

This negative definition of the Absolute by the Vedāntins would be very unsatisfactory to the followers of tantric Hinduism. For them reality is not an illusion but the very manifestation of the Absolute. The supreme consciousness congeals itself into the materiality of the manifest universe. The unmanifest consciousness, Shiva, manifests itself in this world through his inherent Shakti, the feminine principle inseparable from Shiva (or in academic-speak, they are ontologically the same but manifest differently). 

The non-dual consciousness, though devoid of all materiality, is the source of all materiality. The yogi realizes this unity of reality in the deepest recess of his consciousness. Verbalizing this ontology through poetry is exceedingly difficult. This is a far cry from the dualistic Bhakti poetry where God has a form and participates in the worldly līlā, and therefore it becomes easier to describe the deeds and glory of the Lord through poetry. Among the tantric practitioners, Jñānadeva, Lāl Ded and Utpaladeva, are some of the few saints who have composed devotional poetry. In what follows, I will highlight Jñānadeva attempt to capture this non-dual reality via poetry.

The great 13th-century saint of Maharashtra, well known for his commentary on the Bhagavad Gītā, Jñānadeva was an initiated Nātha Yogi, a practitioner of Shaiva tantra. In Nātha world-view, the reality is one; bhakti and its object is one; the name of God is God itself! When a devotee worships God in devotion, it is God worshipping God! The world appears dual due to the Shakti of Shiva, but in reality, everything is Shiva. Jñānadeva, in his brilliantly evocative Marathi poetry, Amṛtānubhava manages to capture this non-dual nature of reality, the mysterious interplay of Shiva and Shakti, that is unmatched in the history of Hindu literature. If you are lucky enough to read the first few chapters of Amṛtānubhava, please read it in the original Marathi. For our purposes, we will quote the verses from the first chapter of Amṛtānubhava, translated by S.Abhayananda.

The lover (Shiva) out of boundless love

Has become the beloved (Shakti)


Out of love for each other, they merge;

And again, they separate for the pleasure of being two


Though they perceive the universe

Of inanimate and animate creation

Emanating from themselves

They do not recognize a third


They sit together on the same ground

Wearing the same garment of light

From time past remembrance they have lived thus,

United in Bliss


Difference itself merged in their sweet union

When, seeing their intimacy

It could find no duality


Because of God, the Goddess exist

And without her, he is not.

They exist only because of each other


How sweet is their union!

The whole world is too small to contain them

Yet they live happily in the smallest particle

Jñānadeva here is trying to describe the paradoxical nature of reality. The consciousness manifests itself out of sheer fullness of its being, but this manifestation is impossible without an active principle which is called Shakti. But Shakti is the very being of Shiva. When they separate, the world of diversity manifests itself, but this separation is not possible because if everything is one, there is nothing to separate from. Jñānadeva writes,


They become two for the purpose of diversity

And both are seeking each other

For the purpose of becoming one

Each is an object to the other,

And both are subjects to each other

Only when together do they enjoy happiness


It is Shiva alone who lives in one forms

He is both the male and the female.

It is because of the union of these two complements

That the whole universe exists


Two lutes: one note

Two flowers: One fragrance

Two lamps: One light


Two lips: One word

Two eyes: One sight

These two: One universe

The entire universe is a play or manifestation of Shiva and Shakti, who are both one but manifest differently. Without Shiva, Shakti cannot exist, while Shiva cannot manifest itself without Shakti. They are twins but united in a primal bond. Jñānadeva says they are like sugar and sweetness or sun and its rays; both different and yet have the same source. In the same vein, Jñānadeva writes

Through her,

The absolute void becomes the manifest world

But her existence


Is derived from the Lord

Shiva himself becomes his beloved

But without her presence no universe exists


Because of Her form,

God is seen as the world

But he created Her form

Of Himself


Embarresed by her formless Husband

And her own graceful form

She adorned him with a universe

Of myriad names and form


Although he is manifest

He himself cannot be seen

It is only because of her

That he appears as the universal form


While he sleeps, she gives birth

To the animate and inanimate worlds

When she rests

Her husband disappears


Here Jñānadeva is describing the interplay of Shiva and Shakti. When one does not recognize Shiva, one can only see his manifestations, Shakti, but when one sees Shiva (or gain enlightenment), the Shakti disappears into the unmanifest void of Shiva. Jñānadeva says that the seeming duality of Shiva and Shakti will vanish once the devotee can set their ego aside. In the deepest state of mediation, as the ego dissolves into nothingness, at that very moment, Shiva embraces Shakti in an eternal embrace, both merging into the primal unity of the uncreated existence.  

Note: I have just captured the beginning few pages of Amṛtānubhava. Meditation on this profound poetry of Jnanadev itself is a means to transcendence. As mentioned, I have followed the translation of S.Abhayananda, which I find more poetic than other translations. Readers wanting to read Amṛtānubhava in English can also use the translation of OP Bhairut, widely used in academia for Jñānadeva studies.  

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