The worship of Shakti dates back to the Rig Veda where she is praised as ‘the supporter of the earth living in heaven’. Worship of Shakti in the form of Durga is mentioned in the Mahabharata at the beginning of Bhishma Parva where Krishna advises Arjuna to offer worship to Durga before starting for the battle and pray for success in the war. There is a hymn in the Virata Parva sung byYudhishthira in praise of Durga. In the Kena Upanishad we have an instance where Devi brought the Devas to their senses when they became arrogant by their victory over Asuras.
Many names are given to Shakti each indicating her characteristics like Kumari - maiden, Kali - black in complexion or time as destroyer, Kapali - the wearer of the garland of skulls, Mahakali - the great destroyer, Chandi - the fierce. Some of the other names by which she is referred are Devi, Chamunda, Durga, Uma and Mahamaya etc.
The word ‘Shakti’ has got several philosophical connotations. The Supreme Spirit cannot perform the three functions of creating, preserving and destroying without the help of energy. Shakti is that primordial energy. When Ishwara creates He is dominated by the energy known as Vak or speech, when He preserves, by that of Sri or Lakshmi and when He dissolves, by that of Durga. Shakti is the Ishwari, the source, support and end of all existence and life.
Shiva is the pure indeterminate Brahman. while Shakti, the power of Maya. makes Him determinate, endowed with the attributes of knowledge, will and action. Saundaryalahari says: ‘Shiva, when He is united with Shakti, is able to create; otherwise He is unable even to move’. Devi Suktam, which is in honor of Shakti, the primeval energy of life, tells that she stretches the bow of Rudra to kill the hater of the Brahman and that she pervades the heaven and earth. She is the original power ever at play. Vedanta asserts that the acts of creation, preservation and destruction, the Universe itself and all its living beings are the manifestations of Shakti, the Divine Power known as Maya.
Thus Sri Ramakrishna says: ‘Brahman and Shakti are identical and inseparable. If you accept the one you must accept the other. It is like fire and its power to burn. If you see the fire, you must recognize its power to bum also. We cannot even imagine the one without the other. Similarly we cannot think of Brahman without Shakti or Shakti without Brahman. The world stands solid because the Primordial Energy stands behind it. If there is no supporting pole no frame-work can be made.’ (Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna).
Such a sum total of Universal Energy is worshipped as Mother. Mother is the first manifestation of power which is considered as a higher concept than the father. She is life, intelligence and love. To call on God as Mother is the most characteristic feature of Hinduism..
While Mother worshippers are common all over India, their hold over Bengal and other eastern parts of our country is unique especially in the Navaratri festivals. During these festivities Durga Saptashati which is also known as Devi Mahatmyam or more popularly as Chandi is recited by reverent devotees as a part of regular worship. This is a very sacred text used by the Hindus for daily chanting like the Gita. .
The recitation of Devi Mahatmya is done during the Sharad Navaratri (Oct. - Nov.) in India, other countries in Indian Subcontinent and all over the world where Hindus are settled. The text is also recited during the Vasantha Navaratri (March - April) in Uttaranchal, Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh and other states of north India, where Devi temples occupy a prominent place like Vaishno Devi, Kangra, Chamunda, Naina Devi, Jwala Devi etc. .
Devi Mahatmya is the ritual text for performing Chandi Yajna. This is one of the most popular Yagnas conducted throughout India. This is performed for the general welfare of the people..
By far the most important text of Shaktism, the text has a central place in Shakta ritual. Devi Mahatmyam is seen as an attempt to unify the Vedic male pantheon with the pre-existing mother goddess cult possibly dating back to the 9th millennium BC, and an attempt to define divinity as a female principle