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Is the Goddess a Feminist' The POlitics of South Asian Goddesses Edited by Alf Hiltebeitel and Kathleen M. Erndl, Oxford, Rs 595

Of all the world’s religions, Hinduism has the most elaborate representation of living female deities. The Hindu conception of female deities and one “great goddess” stem from the idea of the supreme cosmic power, Shakti, from whom all creations get form and sustainability. While Western religious traditions, mainly Christianity, are not devoid of portrayals of female deities, but lack any authentic contender to the Hindu goddess. This distinction has prompted Alf Hiltebeitel and Kathleen Erndl to work on the question of goddesses and feminism. The inter-disciplinary essays analyse the images, texts, histories and narratives of the south Asian goddesses.

Rita Dasgupta Sharma grapples with the paradox where the triumph of the divine feminine does not seem to have any uplifting effect on the lives of ordinary Hindu women, who are still burnt alive on their husbands’ pyres. But Sharma believes that while the subjugation of Hindu women, especially of the poor and low castes, still continues, there have been women in every era who have left an indelible mark on the history of Hinduism. A well known example would be Mira Bai. Sharma thinks that the problem lies not in the inability of Hindu women to identify with divine models, but rather, in the inappropriate choice of models.

Miranda Shaw, like Sharma, focusses on tantra, a religious paradigm found in both Hinduism and Buddhism. Shaw shows that the hallmark of tantra is the honour accorded to women in its philosophy and practice. One learns from Shaw’s essay how writers about tantra, both its south Asian practitioners and modern scholars, have by various means suppressed the fact that certain foundational Vajrayana Buddhist tantric texts were written by women. In fact, they powerfully challenge the widespread misconception that feminism is a distinctively modern and Western achievement.

Usha Menon and Richard A. Shweder argue that rather than promoting resistance to “the system”, goddesses serve to keep it standing. Men and women in the temple town of Bhubaneshwar, for instance, feel that the goddess Kali was morally justified in her murderous rampage because the male gods had betrayed her, sending her alone to fight the buffalo demon, Mahishasura, without telling her that the demon had received a boon from Brahma which ensured that nothing save a naked woman could kill him. In order to kill him, Kali thus had to strip. Mad at this, Kali stepped upon Shiva, but soon regained her composure out of a sense of duty as a wife to Shiva and mother to the world. Thus, Kali becomes a symbol of power, but one that is controlled from within and can be held in check.

Alfred Colins also feels that the language of female anger is subtly coded, and perhaps also suppressed, in the abstract and impersonal concepts of purusha and prakriti. Cynthia Ann Humes points out that most women express devotion to the goddess in vernacular, relying on males who know the authoritative texts in Sanskrit. As Kathleen M. Erndl observes, women’s power and suspiciousness are acknowledged, only to be controlled for patriarchal purposes. Myths and rituals suggest that goddesses take over only when men have lost control temporarily. Ultimately, the goddess returns power to the gods. Lindsay Harlan’s study of Rajput kuldevis also reinforces this.

Two essays by Jeffrey J. Kripal and Tracy Pintchman provide specific suggestions. Kripal advocates that Westerners, male or female, must be very careful about what they claim to know or understand about Hindu mythology, ritual and mysticism, since these phenomena are rooted in the Hindu way of life and socio-cultural processes to which the Westerner has little access. Complete cross-cultural understanding, according to Kripal, is impossible.

Tracy Pintchman, on the other hand, asks Western feminists to look into their own religious traditions to find an answer to why, despite strong female deities of the Hindu traditions, women in Hindu society are not more socially and politically empowered than they are in Western societies. Could the Hindu goddess traditions be a better resource for Western feminist agendas than Christian Marian traditions'

This book is not spiritually motivated, neither does it represent the Hindu nationalist wing. Rather, it’s approach is interdisciplinary, imbued by historical, textual and anthropological rigour. It could be of interest for scholars of south Asian theology, mythology, cultural studies and of course, gender studies. By framing the question, “is the goddess feminist' the editors have provided much food for thought and resources for a rewarding debate.

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