By Nandini Murali
The idea of the divine feminine that permeates the spiritual worldview of the author has resonated with peoples and traditions across the ages
In the beginning was the Self, the Purusha Alone, afraid,
wondering what made him lonely and fearful.
If there was loneliness and fear. There could also be
company and pleasure Restless, he split himself.
Even as a child, I recall that God for me was as much feminine as masculine. In the Hindu brahminical tradition in which I was born, and which is an intimate part of my psyche, the Hindu pantheon with its many goddesses and gods was something I took for granted.
My home resonated with the Vedic chants of Sri Suktam, Lakshmi Ashtotaram, Tiruppavai, Mahishasuramardhini stotram, and the slokas in praise of Sri Lakshmi by Sri Vedanta Desikan, a leading Vaishnavite savant. Our Shaivite friends who celebrated varalakshmi nombu ensured that we were special invitees to their homes on an auspicious Friday that celebrated the glory of the Goddess Lakshmi in the month of July-August. We also listened to Adi Shankara’s Soundarya Lahiri (a 103-verse hymn in praise of the Supreme Mother), and the stories of Krishna and the gopis (a metaphor for the individual soul yearning for the Universal soul). In temple iconography I was fascinated by the dynamic balance and equipoise of the Ardhanarishwara, and the magnificence of Kali, Durga, and Chamundeswari aspects of the Supreme Mother. In Hindu temples, there was a separate shrine for the goddess (in addition to the main shrine where she is present together with the male deity) both housed in the garbha graham or the sanctum sanctorum. In fact, etymologically, the Sanskrit word garbha means womb, an indicator of the sacrality of the feminine. Whenever we visit Tirupati, we worship first at the Shrine of Goddess Padmavati at the foothills of the mountains (Tiruchanur) before we seek the Lord’s blessings. In the Vaishnavite tradition, the feminine, the embodiment of compassion (daya) intercedes on behalf of her devotees with the Lord, and requests Him to unconditionally shower His compassion on devotees. I still recall my grandmother’s exhortation that among the eight forms of Sri Lakshmi (Ashtalakshmi), dhairiya lakshmi or the goddess of courage was paramount. Her advice has acquired a talismanic significance in my adult life.
God, the Father
When I went to a Catholic Christian school, the dominant mode of perceiving the Supreme was that of awise old patriarch. Of course, there was Mother Mary, but she was still secondary to the all-powerful male God. Artist Michelangelo’s famous painting on the Sistine Chapel powerfully illustrates the centrality of the masculine principle with God’s outstretched arm reaching out to Adam. It was a complete break from the vitality and vibrancy of the tradition of my birth. I was perplexed. Years later as an adult when I read feminist theologian Mary Daly, her iconic statement, “If God is male, then the male is God,” made me aware of the patriarchal ramifications of organised religion. However, it was not until I read the blockbuster, The Da Vinci Code, by Dan Brown that I realised that the Sacred Feminine was another face of the Supreme. The book is a trail-blazer for its mainstreaming of the concept of the Sacred Feminine – hitherto regarded as esoteric and shrouded in mystery. Drawing brilliant parallels between different faith traditions, thebook drew readers’ attention to the fact that the mutuality and interdependence of the masculine and feminine is the essence of all mystic traditions without exception. Yet, in most organised religions, the Sacred Feminine is not honoured as an equal partner.
In India the reverence accorded to the Sacred Feminine is evident in the sacrality of the land and of the sub-continent as a whole. In the Rig Veda, the Earth is personified as a goddess and in mythology, She is referred to as Bhudevi (the goddess who is the Earth). According to Indologist David Kinsley the “geographical sacrality of the Hindu tradition” is evident in the sanctity accorded to the rivers in India – all of whom with the exception of the Brahmaputra are female. In fact, the extremes of the country – Srinagar in the North and Kanyakumari in the South are named after feminine deities. The ruling deity of Madurai, where I live, is the feminine Meenakshi, and in that sense Madurai is truly a herstoric city!
Andrew Harvey and Anne Baring in The Divine Feminine write that the image of the goddess as the Great Mother can be traced as far back as 25,000 BC or perhaps even longer. The Great Mother was venerated and worshipped as the fertile womb that gave birth to everything. Symbolically, she was the “great cave of being” from which all life ensued and returned, much like the flow and ebb of the waves of the ocean.In dreams and mystical traditions, the cave symbolizes a place of revelation and communion with the unseen ground of being. The earliest images of the Great Mother are figurines of goddesses carved from stone, bone, and ivory around 22,000 years back. The Great Mother subsumed within her the three dimensions of sky, earth and underworld. She was the very life force that throbbed in the rhythm of sunrise, sunset, the moon, and stars, plants, trees, animals and humans. “All these were her children and she was the numinous presence within her manifest forms, continually regenerating them in a cyclical process that was without beginning and without end… The image of the Great Mother reflected something deeply felt – that the creative source cares for the life it has brought into being in the way that an animal or a human mother instinctively cares for the life of her cub or her child,” write Harvey and Baring.
The Great Mother
The primordial experience of the Great Mother is the basis of later cultures across the world. In the archaic and pre-literate cultures of the Palaeolithic an Neolithic Periods, we see the Great Mother as a symbiotic signifier of people’s relationship with the earth. In these two periods we see a proliferation of different images for the goddess that profoundly reflected the images of birth, death and regeneration. Cave paintings of the Palaeolithic period suggest that the people revered the feminine principle as seen in the florid representations of the female anatomy. Further in the Neolithic period, the invention of agriculture and the centrality of woman’s role also reinforced the high visibility and reverence accorded to the Mother Goddess. Later on, the goddess cult was very powerful in Phyrgia in the eighth century BC (Matar), Egypt (Isis), Greece (Gaia, Demeter, Persephone, and Artemis), Rome (Magna Matar or Great Mother), Hebrew (Ishtar), Ireland (Celtic goddesses) and of course, India. In its original sense, psychology is an extension of spirituality. The famous Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung was deeply influenced by Vedanta. The concept of anima (the feminine image in a man’s psyche) and animus (the masculine image in a woman’s psyche) and the Great Mother archetype are central tenets in Jungian psychology. According to Jung, the Great Mother archetype is more than just the common or ordinary biological relationship. Rather, it refers to the universal need (in our collective unconsciousness as Jung termed it) in humans for someone or something to fulfil or provide the role of nurturing us. Worshipping the feminine as embodiment of the Supreme is paramount in the Indian mystical and metaphysical tradition and religion. The Sacred Feminine is a central feature of the mystical tradition of Judaism (Kabbalah, the Goddess Shekinah), in the Gnostic Gospels (Sophia, the Divine Mother), and in Sufism. When the monotheistic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam)became institutionalised, the Sacred Feminine was expurgated. In the Sankhya metaphysical tradition of India, the split person of the Self (purusha) is prakriti. The two entities are complementary like the Taoist yin (feminine) and yang (masculine). In the language of the common person, purusha translates as ‘man’ or ‘culture’ and prakriti as ‘nature’. The connotations of purusha as man/culture and prakriti as woman/nature apparently reflect the patriarchal values of domination of men and submission of women.
In Tantric symbology, purusha is represented by male, right, mountain, upward pointing triangle, dot, and Om. Prakriti by female, left, river, downward pointing triangle, circle, and Sri. In the post-Vedic period the need for a divinity couched in concrete terms and not the abstract language of metaphysics gave rise to the personification of purusha and prakriti. The former was personified as Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva; and the latter as Lakshmi, Saraswati and Shakti.
In the Indian tradition, Devi or the Great Mother Goddess is often perceived as ambivalent and contradictory. On one hand, she is the benevolent and nurturing Mother; on the other, she is terrifying and fierce. But these are not mutually exclusive qualities and the Great Mother is a composite of all these – it is the situational exigencies that determine which of the qualities will be activated. Indologist Wendy O’Flaherty divides Indian goddesses into two distinct categories: goddesses of the tooth who are ferocious and erotic (Tara, Kali, Bhairavi, and Chinamasta) and goddesses of the breast who symbolise auspiciousness, fertility, and abundance (Lakshmi, Sita, Saraswati, and Tripurasundari). Another Indologist Lynn Gatwood says that there are two distinct types of the Sacred Feminine principle in India. The first is the Devi free from divine male control and the other who is defined by spousal control as typified by the spousal goddesses. Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, the great Indian mystic, affirmed that “Brahman and Sakthi are identical”. The core of his mysticism was a playful relationship with the Divine, similar to a bond between mother and child. The notion of a Divine Mother is the core of Ramakrishna Parahamsa’s philosophy. “The eternal unchanging formless Brahman (Nirguna Brahman) is real, so is the dynamic Sakthi at play. Brahman and Sakthi are identical. If you accept the one, you must accept the other. It is like fire and its power to burn.
One cannot think of the Absolute without the relative, or the relative without the Absolute,” says the mystic. For Ramakrishna, the entire creation is a manifestation of the lila (play) of the Divine Mother (Sakthi) and he invites all of humanity to participate in the Divine play with the “joy and spontaneity of Her children”.
There are several ways in which Devi is propitiated. These include puja, mantras, pilgrimages, festivals, rites of passage, sacrifice (whether symbolic or actual) and tantric worship. Tantric worship is one of the best known aspects of Eastern spirituality. Acclaimed Indologist David Frawley in Tantric Yoga and the Wisdom Goddesses says, “Tantra can perhaps be best defined as an energetic approach to the spiritual path using various techniques including mantra, ritual, pranayama, and meditation. It contains a devotional approach emphasising the worship of the Goddess and her Lord, Shiva. It contains a way of knowledge, directing us to self-realisation and the realisation of the Absolute. As such it is a complex and integrated system for the development of consciousness which has something for all of us seeking the truth.” Frawley, also an ayurvedic physician and tantrik, says that the goddess or the feminine in tantra is worshipped as Shakhi, meaning “power”. Shiva or the masculine principle stands for “peace”. Warning against the misconception of identifying Shakti as power, Frawley says that She is the power of Shiva or peace. “It is not the power born of violence or aggression. It is the power born in passivity, in silence of mind, the energy that comes forth from the Void, like life that comes forth from the womb. Shakti is not power which is asserted against something, but a power that enlivens everything from within.”
Tantric tradition also gives equal weightage to the masculine and feminine. Balance and integration is the goal of spirituality. A new consciousness is born of the union between Shiva and Shakti: kumara sambhava. In addition Frawley writes that Shakti is not external power but svashakti or one’s own power. To worship Sakthi therefore is to reclaim one’s own power, “to recognise the power of one’s own consciousness, the womb in which the energy of enlightenment is born.”
In Hinduism we also have the tradition of the dasamahavidyas or the ten wisdom goddesses. The tantric tradition of worshipping the ten wisdom goddesses (Kali, the goddess of yogic transformation; Tara, the saving word; Tripura Sundari, the beauty of the three worlds; Bhuvaneshwari, the queen of the world; Bhairavi, the warrior goddess; Chinnamasta, the consciousness beyond the mind; Dhumavati, the grandmother spirit; Bagalamukhi, the power of silence; Matangi, the utterance of the divine word; Kamalatmika, the lotus of delight) is the Sri Vidya tradition of the Saktik Tantric school. It is a rigorous path, a path of spiritual quest, leading to a gradual awakening and blossoming of the consciousness. Sri Vidya is a highly sophisticated spiritual path symbolic of the layers of consciousness. The whole Universe is Her manifestation. Interestingly, the two dominant cultures of the earth – the East and the West reflect the lateralised functions of the two hemispheres of the human brain. Traditionally, the West has been outer directed and dualistic; and the east, inner directed and monistic. The chief characteristics of the West are left brain; while those of the East are right brain. Is it a mere coincidence that the properties of the right brain reflect feminine traits such as intuition, creativity, inwardness and so on?
Alphabet versus imagery
Various theories have been put forth to explain the dethronement of the goddess culture. These include the advent of patriarchy, the creation of private property, and the decline of the hunter-gather societies that later paved the way for agriculture. While all of them certainly sound plausible, a recent point of view by author Leonard Shlain fascinated me. In his remarkable book, The Alphabet versus the Goddess, Shlain traces the decline of the goddess culture to the advent of alphabetic literacy. Using several examples from ancient cultures across the world, and from the neuroanatomy of the human brain (Shlain was a laparoscopic surgeon), Shlain presents convincing evidence that writing in any form, especially alphabetic writing diminishes feminine values and “subliminally fosters a patriarchal outlook”. According to Shlain, the chief characteristics of a feminine outlook are a holistic, synthetic, simultaneous and a concrete view of the world. A masculine outlook, however, is defined by linear, sequential, reductionist and abstract thinking.
“Goddess worship, feminine values, and women’s power depend on the ubiquity of the image. God worship, masculine values, and men’s domination of women are bound to the written word. Word and image, like masculine and feminine, are complementary opposites. Whenever a culture elevates the written word at the expense of the image, patriarchy dominates. When the importance of the image supersedes the written word, feminine values and egalitarianism flourish,” writes Shlain. Human life is all about integration and synthesis in our quest towards wholeness. The time then has certainly arrived for humanity to reclaim and honour its lost treasure – the Sacred Feminine.
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