The Sri Vidya

sri yantra

Sri Vidya, a.k.a Tripurasundari – Sampradaya No. 9

Deity: Tripurasundari, a.k.a. Lalita

Tripurasundari (a.k.a. Lalita)

Visualization:young and beautiful, red, four-armed, with goad, noose, sugarcane bow and flower arrows and seated above the lower gods Brahma, Visnu, Rudra and Isvara, on the prostrate body of a white Sadasiva


Principal Texts: Nityasodasikarnava; Yogini-hrdaya

We have seen that the theololgy of the Kaubjika includes a divinization of passion and sexual desire, since the coupling of the Goddess and Siva is responsible for the creation of reality. This theme comes to its friution in the ninth and last sampradaya of classical Saiva Tantra, knows as the Traipura and better knows as Sri Vidya, which means both “Auscpicious Wisdom” and “the Sacred Goddess mantra.” The goddess is here pictures as the young and beautiful Lalita (the Coquette, the Playful One) or Kamesvari (the Goddess of Erotic Desire), Her skin the red color of passion. She is pictured seated atop the meditationg Siva prostate in savasana, singalling that in this sect, the embodied experience of passionate desire trumps the quiescent introversive meditative state, though its still present as the ultimate ground of “pure” desire (that is, desire that arises as a spotaneous expression of embodied Consciousness instead of from conditioning). From the perspective of the Sri Vidya, desire (iccha) is the motive force of the universe, since without it nothing would arise and divine Consciousness would remain stattic. The worl of the spiritual practitioner then, is to first release her judgments concerning her own desires, judgments that cause a contraction of Consciousness, and secondly to merge her limited desire into the greater pattern of divine Will. This does not mean giving up her deisre, but rather learning to want passionately what the Goddess wants, which necessitates becoming one with Her. What the Goddess wants is simply to flow in relational patterns of ever-greater harmony, and we naturally fall into that dance when our conditioned desires that arise from a false sense of lack have fallen away. But this cannot  happen as long as we are judging or condemning them, instead of seeing that they are the same energy as divine Will constrained by our ignorance from expressing themselves in maximum harmony.

The Nityasodasikakarnava is an unsophisticated text which concentrates on external ritual and on the various supernatural effects which such ritual can bestow on the worshipper, particularly in the quest for control over women. For a deeper meaning the tradition had to turn to the Yoginihrdaya. Here one could find the internal correspondences of the external elements, the metaphysical meaning of the sequence of creation and re-absorption which the deity-sets of the densely populated sri-cakra were believed to embody. Thus the text of the ritual, though apparently concerned with erotic magic (the names of many of the constituent goddesses make this clear enough) could become the vehicle of ritualized, gnostic contemplation.

The Sri Vidya arose out of an older cult of love magic (called the Nitya cult), which sought to develop rituals to secure affections of a prospective sexual partner. Under the influence of the Tantric movement, this rapidly developed into a full blown path to liberation through worshipping the beautiful feminine radiance (Sri) that embodies the very nectar of human life. It is Sri that brings fortune and beauty to any hime, vivifying the otherwise static patterns of intertia that the masculine otherwise falls into. In time, the Sri Vidya developed rituals of worshipping Sri as a young girl (kumari) and as a fertile married woman (stri), the source of auspiciousness. The last to develop, the Sri Vidya, is also the only sect of original Saiva Tantra to survive intact to the present day, though the cost of doing so was the loss of its independence, it being assimilated and “santized” by the conservative brahmans of the Tamil South, and practiced today exclusively by them. It nonetheless kept some of its doctrries and many of its ritual intact (though the transgressive elements were excised). The Sri Vidya entered into the non-Tantric Vedanta tradition and “tantricized” it to the extent that the highest authorities of the Vedanta in the South began practicing the worship of the Sri Yantra, and still do today.

The most salient feature of the Sri Vidya is the threefold form of its central goddess, Tripura or Tripura-sundari (Beautiful in the Form of the Three Citadels). The first of the three “citadels” is her coarse (sthula) form, that is, her iconographic depiction as a 16 year old woman just come into her sexual power, bare-breasted, or (in the later tradition) wearing a red sari, symbolic of passion.

Tripura’s second, subtle (suksma) form is that of the Sri Cakra or Sri Yantra, the most popularly known mystic diagram of the Tantric tradition. This yantra (diagram for working with the energies of life) depicting the sequence of the emanation of reality from a central Point of Ultimacy (bindu), which contains them all in unmanifest form. In other words, when you look at the Sri Cakra, you are seeing the energies of creating pulsing out from the singularity at the center. This map also enables us to trace our way back to the source, finding the point of maximum centeredness from which all energies of creation and resporption are experienced as pulsing out from and returning to one’s own Self, the radiant Heart of Consciousness. Thus, the Sri Cakra is simultaneously a dyanamic map of reality, a substrate for ritual, and a focal point for meditation.

The third and most subtle (ati-suksma) form of the Goddess is Her mantra, given above. Because it has 16 syllables, She is also known as Sodasi, which means “sixteen.” Tripura’s mantra itself subdivides into three parts, which each express one of three goddesses, whose combined essences make up Tripura (note the strongly structural parallel with the Trika). Not counting OM, the first five syllables are said to express the Power of Insight (jnana-sakti), are asssociated with Vagisvari (Para Vak), and bring about liberation; the second five express the Power of Action (kriya-sakti), are associated with Kamesvari, and bring about the attainment of one’s romantic and sexual desires; the third and final set of five express the Power of the Will, or Creative Urge (iccha-sakti), are associated with Para, and remove obstacles. It is the second of these three aspects that its most prominent in the root texts of this sect.

The Sri Vidya became very successful and widespread throughout India, from Kashmir to Tamil Nadu, though it survives today only in the latter region. It was more attractive to some royal patrons than other Tantric sects, partially because it focused on enhancing the pleasures of life, not the cremation ground imagery focusaed on conquering death. The Sri Vidya came to eclipse the traditions that nurtured its development, the Trika and the Kaubjika sects. The Trika flourished for a time in the South side by side with the Sri Vidya, and wen it eventually disappeared, it nonetheless survived there through the incoporation of the principle mantra of Para Devi (SAUH) into the core of Sri Vidya liturgy.  The Trika Goddess, Para, was preserved as the heart-mantra of Tripura. This is appopriate, given the profound influence of the Trika’s doctrine, practice, and philosophy on the Sri Vidya.

In the following brief sample passage from the Heart of the Yogini (Yogini-hrdaya), we see in play some of the ideas we’ve just been hinting at. Here, the cakra, refers both to the mystic diagram and the manifest universe that it represents. As in the Kaubjika teaching given in the previous discussion (remember the strong connection between these two school in some areas), the universe is born when the inifnite Void of Consciousness manifests as the Point, the all-containing singularity from which everything flows forth. This Void is not of course an empty spoace, but is rather analogized to an ocean of life (Siva), through which undulate waves of pulsation (Sakti). When this Consciousness recognizes itself (using metaphor to point to something beyond words), the Point bursts forth in waves of emanation, beginning with the three-fold Goddess, who is iccha, jnana, and kriya, as well as knower, knowing, and known.

When one perceives the Supreme Power – who assumed the form of the whole of reality by Her own free will – as the pulsating radiance of one’s own Self, then the Cakra arises from the Point of Ultimacy, the vibrating Consciousness, the state of Absolute Potential in the form of the Void. Because that ultimate reality is the Light 0f Consciousness, and because its is wedded to the waves of pulsation, the foundation of the waves of manifest reality flow forth: the Triad of Mothers (i.e. the tripartite Sri Vidya mantra and the three main Powers)…This great bindu-born cakra of nine yonis and many mantras is replete with the Bliss of Consciousness. – Yogini-hrdaya.


  1. Sanderson, Alexis. “Saivism and the Tantric Traditions” in The World’s Religions. Hardy, F., Clarke, P., Houlden, L., and Sutherland, S. (Eds). Routledge Press, London, 1990.
  2. Sanderson, Alexis. “The Saiva Age – The Rise and Dominance of Śaivism during the Early Medieval Period.” In The Genesis and Development of Tantrism. Einoo, Shingo (Ed). University of Tokyo, Tokyo, 2009, pp. 41–349.
  3. Samuel. Geoffrey. The Origins of Yoga and Tantra: Indic Religions to the 13th Century. Cambridge University Press, NY, 2008.

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