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Is the Goddess a Feminist?:the politics of South Asian Goddesses.
Alf Hiltebeitel & Kathleen M. Erndl (eds.). 
Sheffield Academic Press 2000. Pb £14.95.

Questions in Latin begin with the word nonne if the answer ‘Yes” is expected and with  num if the answer ‘No’ is expected. I has thought it likely that the question in this book’s title would be answered with ‘No’ — the patriarchal structure of Indian society is often used as an argument against any relation between goddesses worshipped in a culture and the status of women. Instead I find that the authors on the whole answer ‘Yes’ to the question — a ‘Yes’ with a great many qualifications and reservations, but nonetheless a ‘Yes’. The authors disagree with each other and even, on occasions, with themselves. Their answers depend on the meaning they give to the terms ‘goddess and ‘feminist’, as well as on which goddesses (or aspects of the Great Goddess) they discuss — the editors have no attempted to impose uniformity. This nuanced approach makes a refreshing change from the “Oh yes it is — Oh no it isn’t” tone of much of the discussion between those in the goddess movement and its critics. In particular, it shows up the dogmatism of Cynthia Eller’s recent book (reviewed by Asphodel Long in WW 73 and see my review of Eller’s book).

Of the fifteen authors in this book, only one is given as having been employed in India. Apart from one in Australia, the rest are academics in United States universities. Many of them have carried out research in India and other Asian countries, but the names suggest that only five are of Asian origin. The term “South Asian goddesses” refers primarily to the goddesses of India, but not exclusively so; goddesses in the Nepalese and Tibetan traditions are considered. Also, these goddesses are mostly Hindu. In its strictest form Buddhism has no deities, but goddesses occur in both popular Buddhism and Tantrism; the latter has both a Buddhist and a Hindu form.

Rita Gross, whose article is entitled simply Is the Goddess a Feminist?, gives what is to me the clearest answer to the question. She says (p. 104) “[I]n the long run, if the goddesses’ devotees are feminist, then the goddesses will either come to be seen as feminists or will be abandoned by their feminist devotees. And if the goddesses’ devotees are anti-feminist or non-feminist, then the goddesses will not be feminists, whatever their appearance to outsiders.” She indicates (as do other contributors) that feminism may need to be seen differently in India from the way it is seen in the West. “Western feminists tend to evaluate women’s status and well-being in terms of women’s autonomy and self-determination. … But in societies in which individualism is less pronounced and much less valued, very few people, male or female, have much autonomy.” (p. 106) “[T]he Hindu devotees of these Hindu goddesses may well become more frequently and more overtly feminist, though in Hindu not Western terms. Then the Hindu goddesses will easily and naturally become feminists, though some, such as Kali and Durga, seem more attuned to the role than others, such as Sita and Lakshmi.” (p. 109)

Gross indicates (p. 108) that “Because both men and women are used to and comfortable with divine images of female strength and power, powerful women should be less frightening than they are to Westerners.” She remarks (p. 108) that “no American woman could possibly obtain the political position of Indira Gandhi.” Here I feel her view is more localised than she realises. She has never had to suffer the rule of Margaret Thatcher. But I suspect that Indira Gandhi never faced the anti-woman sentiment that Thatcher attracted — even when it was Thatcher’s policies that were being criticised, the terms of the criticism often dwelt on the fact that Thatcher was a woman.

Similar conclusions are reached by Kathleen Erndl and Rita DasGupta Sherma. Sherma says (p. 25) that “there have also been women in every era of Hindu history who have left an indelible mark on the religious legacy of India. … It is my contention that the availability of models of the divine feminine has been instrumental in the emergence of female spiritual adepts throughout Hindu history.” Erndl (p. 92) remarks that “It is not inevitable that wherever shakti or the Goddess can be found there will be positive implications for women; indeed, examples of the opposite can be found. The purpose of this essay is … to suggest some ways in which shakti has been empowering for Hindu women and has been consciously embraced in contemporary Indian women’s movements.” She writes about several modern Indian women gurus and holy women. She looks at various feminists and activists, pointing out (p. 97) that “many Indian feminists are expanding their own visions of feminism to include a spiritual dimension and are finding powerful resources within their own traditions.” She says that shakti and Goddess images are being used to generate a feminist consciousness among more traditional women, for whom powerful religious images carry more weight than political rhetoric and analysis.

Miranda Shaw looks at Vajrayogini, “the supreme goddess of the Tantric Buddhist pantheon. As a fully enlightened being, or female Buddha, she embodies the pinnacle of spiritual attainment.” (p. 166) “The prevailing Western view has been that the women of Tantric Buddhism were dominated, marginalized, and exploited by their male cohorts.” (p. 167) She challenges this view, using “explicitly feminist historiography and hermeneutics, [and applying] modes of historical and textual analysis that have already been under refinement for decades in fields such as biblical and classical scholarship.” (p. 168) She points out that one should not presume male authorship of sources generated by communities of men and women, and that it is also necessary to inquire explicitly into women’s interpretations of the goddesses and their practices of worship. She exposes various mistranslations, in which non-gendered and female references in Sanskrit end up as male references in English.

She questions the whole framework of Tantric scholarship in the West. “Western scholars on the whole have simply interpreted the gender dynamics of  Tantric Buddhism in accordance with their own cultural norms.” (p. 173) They have presumed that male dominance is a universal cultural invariant. They have not challenged the general impression of Indian women as a collectively oppressed group.. This viewpoint was “Originally designed to justify colonial oppression, [and] it is continually manipulated in our popular media today to perpetuate the myth of Western superiority, as well as to commend Western patriarchy as moderate in comparison to other, more virulent ‘oriental’ forms.” (p. 176)

“In Vajrayogini’s vision … women are never required to do anything to assist, appeal to, seek the approval of, or gain legitimacy in the eyes of men. Women are enjoined only to pursue their primary purpose, which is to attain enlightenment.” (pp 171–2) Vajrayogini is an emphatic, impassioned advocate of women and prescribes how men are to view and treat them. (p. 170) In conclusion, Shaw says (p. 178): “Western culture in general and Western feminism in particular must cease to be the yardstick against which all others are measured. Therefore, I believe that asking whether Vajrayogini can be can be considered a feminist is not the most pertinent question. I believe that we should rather ask: by her standards, can we?”

Other articles discuss different goddesses and aspects, and reach different conclusions. Menon and Shweder suggest that the answer to the question is “yes and no, but mostly no.” (p. 151). However, I feel that this is partly because of their limited notion of the various forms of feminism. Similarly, Kripal (p. 240) asks whether the South Asian evidence lends itself easily to a Western reading of Kali, and concludes that the answer is “an unequivocal and definitive ‘maybe’.”

Most of the writers ask about the South Asian goddesses in relation to women of the region. But there is also the question of how Western women can relate to them. Gross, in particular, suggests (p. 110) that “the symbolism, imagery or mythology familiar to Hindu goddesses might help us to think through certain issues, problems, or lacks in Western religious discourse.” Gross is well aware of the issues this raises, that Kali in America (for instance) is not identical with the Hindu Kali, and that superficial shopping in the great spiritual supermarket is objectionable, but that deep, thorough, long-standing immersion in another religious context can be of great value. (p. 111) Pintchman questions the value of Western use of Hindu goddesses, whereas Dobia gives an account of her own encounters with Hindu goddesses, as well as telling us some of the legends and the poems of praise.

This book is a joy and a valuable resource for anyone interested in feminism and the goddesses of South Asia.

Wood and Water 74, Spring 2001
© Daniel Cohen

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