Goddesses and Women by Sharma

Arvind Sharma, ed. Goddesses and Women in the Indic Religious Tradition. Leiden: Brill, 2005. Hardcover, x + 170 pp.

This monograph contains the following six essays:

  1. Roles for Women in Vedic Śrauta Ritual by Stephanie W. Jamison
  2. Tibetan Fairy Glimmerings: Dākinīs in Buddhist Spiritual Biography by Victoria Kennick Urubshurow
  3. Women, Earth, and the Goddess: A Śākta-Hindu Interpretation of Embodied Religion by Kartikeya C. Patel
  4. Women in the Worship of the Great Goddess by Hillary Rodrigues
  5. Between Pestle and Mortar: Women in the Marathi Sant Tradition by Vidyut Aklujkar
  6. Śankara on the Salvation of Women and Śūdras by Katherine K. Young

Sharma—a professor of comparative religion at Montreal’s McGill University—is well known for his various contributions to the study of the female gender in the world’s religions. Therefore, when he expresses his surprise at the originality of the essays included in the present work, we can prepare for a sumptuous fare of academic delights. Indeed, the scholarly contributions are uniformly excellent.

I was especially impressed with Jamison’s opening essay based on her painstaking research into what most would regard as tedious ritual texts. She managed to unearth all kinds of fascinating details that show the important and highly symbolic role bestowed on the sacrificer’s wife in the Vedic śrauta rituals. Clearly these rituals continue the pregnant sexual symbolism of the archaicRig-Veda.

Urubshurow’s essay on the mysterious Tibetan dākinīs, whose exact nature has baffled many students of Vajrayāna Buddhism, has ingeniously identified three levels of explanation of dākinī as: (1) subtle wind; (2) inspiration, and (3) psychological archetype. She also offers an illuminating discussion of the dākinī phenomenon from the perspective of synchronicity (the subtle connection between inner and outer reality) and the role of the imagination in the perception of dākinīs.

Patel’s essay seeks to “retrieve what is feminist/ womanist” in Śāktism—the Hindu tradition that revolves around the worship of the Divine Mother. Selecting the notion of embodiment as her principal criterion, Patel sees the Goddess as “female body” of which the Earth and female gender are but manifestations. She equates woman’s “own nature” ( sva-bhāva) and what she explains as “own religion” ( sva-dharma) as the physiological process of menstruation. The latter part of the equation, which is more questionable, is intended to move away from the traditionalist interpretation of sva-dharma as social obligation. The notion that woman’s sva-bhāva is menstruation has a traditional basis according to which the menstrual cycle corresponds to Nature’s great rhythms. She rightly points out that menstruation is far more than a biological process. The “menstruating” Goddess is the all-pervading matrix of existence through which everything is interconnected. The Hindu social reality is constructed on this theological understanding.

The Goddess theme is continued in Rodrigues’s essay, which examines various forms of Goddess worship in India, such as worship at the household shrine, in temples, through pledged devotional activities and observances, pilgrimages, and also personal spiritual disciplines ( sādhana). The author’s specific focus is on the Navarātra (“Nine Nights”) rituals in which the body of the Goddess is ritually recreated, rejuvenated, and purified. These rituals are a reminder that women are a manifestation of the cosmic Mother.

The role of women in the 13th–17th-century Sant tradition of Maharashtra is ably presented by Aklujkar. Unlike some of the other essays, hers is not so much analytical as descriptive. She focuses on the two women Sants Janābhāī and Bahinābāī, who were associated with the famous male saints Nāmdev and Tukārām respectively and whose devotional life was exemplary. It would appear that women mystics of the Sant tradition faced the added challenge of having been considered naturally flawed by dint of their femaleness. As Bahinābāī put it, “A woman’s body is a body controlled by someone else.” Hence the spiritual destiny of women Sants was largely out of their hands.

In the final essay, which is something of a detective story, Young examines Śankara’s writings for evidence that it was he, as widely asserted, who denied women and śūdras the very possibility of liberation. She concludes that Śankara did not bar women or śūdras from formal renunciation and therefore also did not teach that they could not attain liberation. The culprit of this teaching appears to have been Śankara’s disciple Sureśvara.

Copyright ©2006 by Georg Feuerstein. All rights reserved.
Reproduction in any form requires prior permission from Traditional Yoga Studies.

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