Book Reviews

Is the Goddess a feminist?

Following the two anthologies studying the Devi by Hawley and Wulff in 1982 and 1998, the millennial year brings us 14 papers'10 by women scholars--put together by concentrating on south Asian goddesses in the perspective of feminism. Rita Gross answers the question that Hiltebeitel and Erndl turn into the eye-catching title of the book with 'It depends on who the devotees are and how the term feminist is defined.' The key to the answer, she argues, lies in the subtle interaction between the Goddess and her devotees. Both sexes are comfortable with powerful goddesses, and therefore with charismatic women in India, instead of seeing them as negative and feared entities as do Western scholars of Hinduism.

Rita DasGupta Sharma, Miranda Shaw and Kathleen Erndl's papers are the most interesting in correcting the prevalent view that Indian traditions block-out women. The Gorakhnath tradition of the Kanphata yogis was far in advance of the orthodox Hinduism's chauvinistic doctrines about stri-dharma in permitting widow remarriage, divorce and initiating girls at the age of 12 along with boys, practicing initiation by female siddhas.

Tantric texts specially revere women adepts and roundly condemn to perdition the Tantric who refuses to initiate a chandala, a yavana and a woman, considering them low. Vajrayogini's consort Candamaharosana is ready to cut to pieces male scoundrels who fail to honor women. The Krama school of Kashmir Saivism was founded by yoginis. As in the Mysteries of Astarte and Demeter, men participating in Vajrayogini rites had to fulfill elaborate requirements serving to preserve women's religious sovereignty. The tradition of the female initiator has revived strongly in modern India in the numerous god women with large followings: Sarada Ma, Anandamayi Ma, the Mother, Amritanandamayi Mai, Jyotir Ma, the Brahmakumaris etc. This tradition is free of priestly ordinance and nothing bars a woman contacting the Great Goddess through a private experience. Shaw makes an invaluable discovery that English renderings of Sanskrit texts invariably changed female references to male, as did the Tibetan versions. She exposes the Western fallacy enshrining patriarchy as universally normative, failing to recognize Tantric Hinduism and Buddhism's celebration of women's independent religious quest. This fallacy was a tool in the hands of British imperialists to project their rule as needed to liberate Indian women. She notes that British policies deprived women of property, legal rights, social status and religious and artistic expression (devadasis were condemned as prostitutes and their art driven into extinction). She pleads for deconstructing the cross-cultural monolith of patriarchy as a paradigm of universal oppression of women so far as India is concerned, since here feminism was not a modern Western introduction. Turning the question on its head, she asks, 'Can we be called feminists by Vajrayogini standards?'

Kathleen Erndl's investigation of how the concept of Shakti has empowered Hindu women and been adopted in Indian feminism supplements these papers. This feminism is not a Western import but has its roots in the Shakti cults of old, so that it is not a negative reaction of rebellion, but a rediscovery of a positive creative force empowering men and women alike. Shakta female saints have higher status than their Vaishnava counterparts. Unlike in the West, speaking of God as female is not shocking to the Hindu tradition. However, the challenge facing Indian feminists is how to generate a sense of commonalty among women cutting across caste, class, language and kinship barriers. 

Cynthia Humes contradicts Erndl's thesis, drawing upon fieldwork regarding Vindhyavasini Devi to find a persistent emphasis on the great gulf existing between ordinary women and the Great Goddess. The Devi Mahatmya is seen not as about a great woman but about a goddess, precluding identification in terms of all that is socially termed 'feminine'. The later text Devi Bhagavata makes the goddess expound negative attributes of women's nature and refashions the goddess as femme fatale for enemies and mother for devotees.

Alfred Collins attempts a psychological hermeneutic of Samkhya, reading into the epic tales of Nala and Damayanti, Savitri and Satyavan the actions of Prakriti towards Purusha. The female of the pair saves the male, virtually becoming her spouse's guru. He takes this further to show that Prakriti's purushartha is to transform herself to reveal the true Purusha, in the process destroying the overreaching ego of the deluded Purusha (Ravana, Mahishasura).

Lindsey Harlan studies theRajput clan-goddesses (kula devis) who exact a very high price for protection: the men must sacrifice themselves to sate her. The goddess is at once Shakti, wife and queen, which creates a tension because of the inherent dichotomy: the wife's dharma is to protect her husband's life so that he outlives her; but the warrior's dharma is to die in battle, not in bed. The tension is resolved through the solution of sati, which exonerates the wife, or the extreme instance of the Hadi Rani who decapitates herself to encourage her doting husband to die in battle. 'The demure domestic female is ultimately also a consumer. Like the divine kuladevi protector, her protection comes at a high price: the sacrifice of men in battle.' However, there are also stories like that of Jamvai Mata of the Kachwahas where the chaste wife saves her husband from the blood-lusting kuladevi. Jains (from Jina, conqueror) descended from these families transmogrify these martial goddesses into domestic ones in keeping with their non-violent doctrine.

Hiltebeitel seizes upon a critical question asked at a crucial juncture of theMahabharata by Draupadi that remains unanswered leading to her being dragged by her hair in a single cloth into the court followed by attempted stripping. The question Panchali ('the puppet') asks challenges men's ownership of women in patriarchy--'She raises the feminist questions of a Barbie doll'in two spheres: dharma of the family and dharma of men's court. In losing Draupadi, and lapsing into total silence, Yudhishthira seems to have lost his higher Self, which she represents. Hiltebeitel finds Draupadi ' as prakriti ' an ambivalent feminist whose question 'is one that an interculturally sensitive feminism might find interesting.' Calling in question male supremacy in kinship and family and in the men's court, this question is posed in a different class context by Mahasweta Devi's tribal heroine, Dopdi, to the Naxalite 'gentlemen' revolutionaries and remains unanswered as they rape and kill her.

Usha Menon and Richard Shweder argue that the answer to the question the editors ask is 'mostly no'. While South Asian traditions encourage the view of the goddess as an ecological feminist, this might be misleading. The Oriya tradition of Bhubanseswar goes against any feminist interpretation: without Shiva, Shakti cannot create; on her own she destroys society and nature. While in terms of physiology man is superior, in terms of culture women surpass men. The goddess' power is significant only when reined in from within, and is exercised most responsibly by enduring sacrifices and subordinating oneself to family duties. Hence, while Kali may be a symbol of feminism for Western women, in Oriya women she is neither a symbol of equality nor of social transformation.

Stanley Kurtz finds the antithesis of Western egalitarian individualism in the Santoshi Mata cult, for here the female and male deities are not just side-by-side but even within each other. He finds that the West appropriates the Hindu goddess for the purpose of marketing feminism, because the system of gender hierarchy is inherent in the goddess. In the world of the goddess separation is illusory and founded in a profound unity at the core.

Tracy Pintchman asks a basic question: whether powerful, independent goddesses are conducive to female empowerment in society. This is in the context of the theory that in goddess-less traditions the Hindu goddesses provide a resource for rediscovering the goddess. Yet, Brahmanical orthodoxy is by no means less repressive than those traditions that are devoid of goddesses. Hindu priestesses make no connection between the goddesses who posses them and women's empowerment. On the other hand, they stress the gender-free grace of the goddess and stress the submissive role of women in society. Extracting another culture's goddesses for a different individual or society's purpose deprives the symbol of the very context that makes it meaningful in the community and therefore it cannot motivate beyond the individual level. That is why empowering interpretations of Hindu goddesses are unlikely to advance the feminist cause in Western culture, whereas it might do so in Indian.

Dobia's personal account of discovering Parvati is exactly the converse of Pintchman's paper, delineating how an image of Devi brought her into touch with unfathomable depths within herself. She finds the significance of the multi-faceted Divine Mother best brought home in Sri Aurobindo's description of Mahalakshmi, Mahasaraswati, Mahakali and Maheswari. Dobia notes the struggle in various forms of the Devi to retain the transcendental perspective while dealing with social constraints of the worldly female role which make her particularly relevant for women.

Kripal's paper pursues the usual psycho-analytic thesis that sees Kali as a symbol of all that man fears most in woman and reads into the worship of the goddess the Christian 'bride-soul' homoerotic concept. The large number of male heads lying around in the myths of the goddess is seen as symbolic castration. Because of this he questions the relevance of importing the goddess into the West where sacrificing anything individual, particularly male sexual power, is non-negotiable. He doubts if the West can emulate Ramakrishna's simultaneously being a child of the mother, reject Tantra's heterosexuality and delight as Radha as the female lover of the Divine. However, precisely because Kali offers spiritual and sexual possibilities the West is not familiar with, is it worthwhile listening to the goddess' voice?

Rajan's concluding essay finds that questioning whether the Hindu goddess is a feminist leads to the exploration of multiple ramifications of feminism in the intertwined contexts of religion, politics and social movements in modern India.

All in all, the editors have put together an extremely rewarding read that challenges prevailing paradigms of feminist thought and offers alternative paths of investigation for building up a feminism that will be true to indigenous traditions predating Western feminism by far.  However, with as many as ten women contributing to this book, one is disappointed to find no follow up on the perceptive insight that all texts regarding the Devi are male-authored. In that context, the absence of any reference to the only hymn to the Creatrix, Adi Shakti, composed by a female seer is surprising. In the Rig Veda (X.125) we come across eight verses composed by Vak, daughter of rishi Ambhrin, who is described as 'Brahma-knowing'. Here Vak, experiencing Adi Shakti as her Self declaims, 'It is I who, creating the universe and all worlds, wholly pervade them like the wind. Though I transcend the heavens and this earth, yet by my glory have I manifested creation.' This sukta, set to soul-stirring music by Pankaj Mullick in the radio broadcast 'Mahishasur-mardini', reveals how the supreme goddess still resonates within Bengali households every year at the dawn ofMahalaya.


More by :  Dr. Pradip Bhattacharya

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