Literary Shelf

The Female Face of God

Paulo Coelho tries to invoke the female face of God, especially in his novel, By the River Piedra I Sat Down and Wept. This powerful idea has been a constant factor in the works of Coelho. All energy is basically feminine and yet it has to fight for recognition in the realms of formal religions, and social and cultural set-up. This has been one of the greatest ironies of human civilization. Coelho has his own way of presenting things. By the River… is not a very long novel. It is very artistically created. The atmosphere, the symbols and the thrust areas have been carefully chosen.

'River' and 'Weeping' - both these words refer to water. Water is a feminine symbol; it refers to creation and regeneration. Both the symbols do not possess any definite shape. Both 'river' and 'weeping' acquire shape and color as per the circumstances; they can be widely and differently interpreted. The word 'I' in the title brings sensitivity. 'I' makes the title genuine and sincere. The biblical reference is obvious. If we look at the title, we will find it to be strange. At the same time, it is loaded with meaning. By the biblical reference, religion comes into picture. The sentence sends strong religious as well as feminine signals. This is how I will interpret the novel. Religious and feminine sprits have been combined. Here is an acceptable alternative to the present understanding of religion. The masculine tone of formal religions all over the world is intimidating, monopolistic and quite unfair.

The figure of Eve dominates Western literature. Eve is the looming Western archetype for women in general; so much so that theword 'Eve' stands for all girls and women. We can quote thousands of literary and ordinary expressions to prove the point. Now going further, we can see that Eve is a weak symbol for whole womanhood. Jung said long back that Eve represents the natal stage of female consciousness. Eve stands for instant gratification. She cannot think. She cannot wait. She does not know the meaning of higher ideals like sacrifice and purity. She is shown to be born out of Adam's ribs. The vicious male conspiracy could not have gone further in showing the earthly creator (woman) being born of a man's ribs. 

Eve is of course the cause of everyone's fall. This is one thing common among all formal religions. Hindu scriptures also hold the woman to be the tempter. The archetype shows the man as an ascetic absorbed in meditation. A woman (an Urbashi or a Rambha) appears, dances, and seduces him to carnal pleasures. This is very cruel of formal religions.
Coelho presents an alternative in the form of Mother Mary. A pure woman holding her child by the side of a fountain or river is the dominating picture of this novel. We get a refreshing alternative female image. 'How much time must pass before we accept a Holy Trinity that includes a woman? The Trinity of the Holy Spirit, the Mother and the Son?' (148)

The concept of 'purity' becomes very typical when one speaks of women. Purity, chastity, virginity - traditional religions all over the world have burdened the female folk with these heavy ideas. Guilt seems to be a female forte. How often our mindset has been corrupted by pictures of a girl confessing and a man listening to her confessions. Coelho does not shy away from treading into forbidden territories of female purity. He is talking about religion. He is talking about an alternative spirituality. He cannot ignore the all important issue of a woman's purity. Coelho's idea takes a great burden off the shoulders of women. No one is marginalized. Purity is in the mind. Self respect is the highest incarnation of purity. 

To live with one man compromising one's own dignity is no purity. There is no nobility in forced suffering. Suffering without a purpose is weakness.

Therefore we have a prostitute touching saintly who follow rules, and let the heavy laden go hang!

' … 'I swear that I will never set foot in a church ever again. Once more, I've been abandoned by a family and this time it has nothing to do with financial difficulties or with the immaturity of those who marry too young. A curse upon all those who slam the door in the face of a mother and her child! You're just like those people who refused to take in the Holy Family, like those who denied Christ when he most needed a friend!' (55-56)

Religions across the globe have become institutions without spirit. They follow the rules but do not follow the intention behind those words. That is why women are generally at the receiving end of all religions. That is why a new faith, a new order, a new beginning is required that recognizes the female face of God, does not shun women in the name of purity, and does not exploit them physically or heights in Eleven Minutes.
Maria's profession does not prevent her from experiencing true love. Similarly in The Witch of Portobello, Athena is declared a witch but actually who throw her away are satanic. The following lines that I quote mark the hypocrisy and devilishness of the institution of formal religion. These words are also important because they mark the strength of a woman who can raise her voice. 

'A curse on this place!' said the voice. 'A curse on all those who never listened to the words of Christ and who have transformed his message into a stone building. For Christ said: Come unto me all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.' Well, I 'm heavy laden, and they won't let me come to Him. Today I've learnt that the Church has changed those words read: 'Come unto me all ye emotionally.

Coelho's writing directly connotes to spirituality, mysticism, Sufism, and alternative ways to pray God. In By the River… , he is bold to suggest that God should be prayed in the female face and female ways. His method of conveying this message is unique. There is mist in the atmosphere. There is rain. There are men and women silently weeping, mediating, and moving in trance in far away dream-like locations. The method is beautiful.

The Witch of Portobello by Paolo Coelho is another example where he sets out to resurrect 'fallen women', women who have been cast away from society. He is interested in very fundamental questions like 'what is purity', 'what is justice', 'who can actually deliver justice' etc. The power of one human being or for that matter a group of human beings to pronounce verdict, to declare someone as 'good' or 'bad' is questionable.

The question of purity becomes important in connection with establishing the female face of God because a woman is a source of creation. All women are ultimately mothers. All girls are future mothers. This is how religion perceives women. The production house must be pure; only then the product will be good. All human beings identify with their mothers. The figure of 'mother' lies at the core of anyone's consciousness. Therefore, there is this burden of purity. This burden of purity is perhaps the greatest reason why the Western world has drifted away from religion. Women have found it impracticable. Women are the carriers of culture and religion and family traditions. Once women do not identify with a set of religious beliefs, it gets impossible to perpetuate those ideas in practice. This is the reason why new beliefs are required. Every age must have its own interpretation of religion.

There is no problem with an Oriental soul accepting the female face of God. God is worshipped in her various female incarnations throughout the Oriental belt of consciousness. In the Western dogma, God is strictly male. Coelho's effort is to change that. Mother Mary must be included in the trinity. He hopes to engulf the materialistic, dry, hopeless world with the waves of female consciousness. Water, shapelessness, tears, flexibility, generosity, creativity will finally defeat reason, masculinity, physical power, cruelty, competitiveness and a new world order will be created. That is why there is this deliberate effort to shun away reason. Coelho's world is incomplete without miracles, prophesies, trances, voices, phantoms and so on.

Marginalization as a concept has been under severe intellectual scrutiny in the recent past. It all depends on the frame of mind with which we view a scenario. West-centric, male-centric, reason-centric, moneycentric world-view marginalizes a number of significant segments of orld. Following Paolo Coelho's blog also helped me in understanding things from his perspective. Rumi, Rabindranath Tagore, a farmer, sometimes a Sufi saint are his persons of the week. There are beautiful Jataka or Zen tales. The following one is significant as it underlines parameters of justice.

'During one of Bankei's classes, a pupil was caught stealing.
All the disciples demanded he be expelled, but Bankei did nothing.
The following week, the pupil stole again. The others, irritated, demanded that the thief be punished.
"How wise you all are," said Bankei. "You know what is right and wrong, and you can study anywhere you like. But this poor brother - who does not know what is right or wrong - has only me to teach him. And I shall go on doing that."
A flood of tears purified the thief's face; the desire to steal had disappeared.'
( dated 1.10.10)

This is the sprit of inclusiveness that the feminine religion will propagate.

This female face of God is evoked basically to generate self-worth and self-respect in people who think that they have fallen or people who have faced big tragedies or people burdened with unspeakable guilt. If we look closely, this will include the whole of present day society. There is lots of unhappiness around. The pressure to be successful, to be happy, and to be presentable - this pressure has marred the beauty of life. Coelho's effort is to revive the original sense of wonder in living.

These lines are good-

'Try to feel good about yourself even when you feel like the least worthy of creatures. Reject all those negative thoughts… surrender yourself to dance or to silence or to everyday activities… Everything is worship if your mind is focused on the present moment." (Blog: 28.8.2010)

Happiness is a relative term. There is nothing like absolute happiness in this world. Society tries to define how ideals should be manifested in reality. Currently, for example, the ideal of beauty is to be thin, and yet thousands of years ago all the images of goddesses were fat. It's the same with happiness: there are a series of rules, and if you fail to follow them, your conscious mind will refuse to accept the idea that you're happy.

The element of 'conditions apply' vanishes the moment one thinks of God as Mother. A mother never puts conditions on her love towards her children. God is mother. The moment we accept this, many things get uncomplicated. Whether you worshipped regularly or not, what you ate, what you did and with whom - all these considerations get dissolved and at once one feels accepted. The idea of performance curbs your potential. Start doing what you want to do and everything else will be revealed to you. Believe that God is the Mother and looks after her children and never lets anything bad happen to them. As children there is no problem in crying. Accept your weaknesses. In order for us to liberate the energy of our strength, our weakness must first have a chance to reveal itself. 

This is a big lesson indeed. If I will not accept my follies, my wickedness, my dirty thoughts, how am I going to overcome them. Acceptance of evil is the first step towards defeating it. I quote,

'In order for us to understand the powers we carry within us and the secrets that have already been revealed, it was first necessary to allow the surface - expectations, fears, appearances - to be burned away.' (Blog: 4.10.2010)

Coelho again and again advocates nurturing of doubts. One day this is how his blog began,

'Lord, protect our doubts, because Doubt is a way of praying. It is Doubt that makes us grow because it forces us to look fearlessly at the many answers that exist to one question.' (Blog: 7.10.2010)

There is no point in taking oneself too seriously. The possibility of change, growth and improvement is one the noblest human attributes; we must not lose them. Ego, hardened attitudes, dogmas, written laws, rituals - they tend to destroy the purest of human gifts, namely, adaptation, acceptance, improvisation, amalgamation. In the end, we have to say that human spirit must prevail. The lesser the formal rules, the better.

A new definition of morality, a new concept of religion is emerging. Every age needs its own ideas. We must have our own set of beliefs. The present moment demands that everyone must follow one's own religion. I will close this discussion with a quotation by Coelho:

'Yes. The world is at a point when many people are receiving the same order: Follow your dreams, transform your life, take the path that leads to God. Perform your miracles. Cure. Make prophesies. Listen to your guardian angel. Transform yourself. Be a warrior, and be happy as you wage the good fight. Take risks.' (By the River…, 151)

1. Coelho, Paulo. 2008. By the River Piedra I Sat Down and Wept. New York: Harper Collins.
2. Coelho, Paulo. 1993. The Alchemist. New York: Harper Collins.
3. Coelho, Paulo. 2007. Eleven Minutes. New York: Harper Collins.
4. Coelho, Paulo. 2007. The Witch of Portobello. New York: Harper Collins.


More by :  Prof. Shubha Tiwari

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