Metaphors of the God­dess

Dev­dutt Pat­tanaik (Au­thor and mythol­o­gist. His lat­est book is Shyam: An Il­lus­trated Retelling of the Bha­ga­vata)

India Today - - COVER STORY -

In Hin­duism, god can­not be divine with­out the god­dess. There is no Vishnu with­out Lak­shmi. No Shiva with­out Shakti. No Brahma with­out Saraswati. But it is a mys­tery for many why Hin­dus, for whom divin­ity is both male and fe­male, treat women so badly. Aren’t women god­desses? Why are they then con­sid­ered un­clean when they men­stru­ate? Why are daugh­ters con­sid­ered a bur­den, de­nied ed­u­ca­tion and re­sources, side­lined in favour of sons?

The ques­tion we have to ask is: are they treated bet­ter or worse in re­li­gions where god is avowedly male, where his mes­sen­gers are male. Take the Bible, for ex­am­ple, where we learn that ev­ery daugh­ter of Eve is ‘pun­ished’ with the pain of child­birth and a de­pen­dent sta­tus for sub­mit­ting to the devil in the gar­den of Eden. In the Qu­ran, there is no ref­er­ence to any women by name with the sole ex­cep­tion of Mariam, the vir­gin mother of Je­sus.

All re­li­gions, it would seem, are in­her­ently pa­tri­ar­chal. Some fem­i­nist an­thro­pol­o­gists are of the opin­ion that un­til the con­cept of prop­erty rights emerged, the world was ma­tri­ar­chal, based on a mother god­dess, who is the earth. But prop­erty rights gave rise to in­her­i­tance rights and so fa­ther­hood be­came im­por­tant. With that the fe­male divine lost her priv­i­leged po­si­tion and was over­shad­owed by the fa­ther god.

Not so in Hindu mythol­ogy. Lak­shmi may be vi­su­alised as mas­sag­ing Vishnu’s feet, but she will not be dis­re­spected. She can leave Vaikun­tha if she is in­sulted and Vishnu has to work hard to bring her back. Shakti stands on an equal foot­ing to Shiva, con­vers­ing with him on mat­ters of Veda and Tantra, a con­ver­sa­tion over­heard by sages, who trans­mit this wis­dom to hu­man­ity. Radha dances with Kr­ishna, but she is not his wife. Sita, who per­forms the agni parik­sha, to prove her chastity, re­fuses to re­turn to Ay­o­d­hya, after be­ing cast out of the palace. Of course, a fem­i­nist read­ing of Hindu mythol­ogy will find codes that show the god­dess, though present, is in­fe­rior to god and even de­nied agency.

Per­haps the rea­son for this is that we take Hindu and es­pe­cially Pu­ranic mythol­ogy lit­er­ally. We as­sume Lak­shmi and Durga em­body women, rather than ideas. In the mytho­log­i­cal vo­cab­u­lary, the male form is used to em­body the mind and the fe­male form to em­body mat­ter. The un­en­light­ened de­pen­dent mind is Brahma, the en­light­ened in­de­pen­dent mind is Shiva, and the en­light­ened de­pend­able mind is Vishnu.

The Ra­mayana and Ma­hab­harata, which deal with mor­tal char­ac­ters, re­flect so­cial mores in dif­fer­ent pe­ri­ods of his­tory. In them we re­alise that the an­cients thought of women as far more sex­u­ally ag­gres­sive and de­mand­ing. They had to be con­trolled through mat­ri­mony and ma­ter­nity for the sake of so­cial or­der. To­day, we still be­lieve that women who dis­play sex­ual con­fi­dence are not do­mes­ti­cated enough, that they are wild spir­its who need to be tamed. It re­veals the con­tin­u­ing hold of an­cient ideas on mod­ern times.

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