Sanatana Dharma as a Liberating Force for Women
by: Dr.Frank on Jul 11 2005 12:00AM in Religion
Prologue: Shakti Ascending
The twentieth century witnessed the re-emergence of appreciation for the feminine aspect of God. The concept of God as Goddess, while long the norm in Sanatana Dharma (Hinduism), Yoga spirituality and other pre-Christo-Islamic religious traditions, has achieved wider acceptance in the Western world only in recent decades. As the twenty-first century begins, we find ourselves entering an era in which the more feminine qualities of compassion, nurturing, tolerance and love are rapidly replacing the outmoded anthropomorphic notion of God as a judgmental and vengeful old man in the sky so prevalent in the Abrahamic religions.
Coupled with the new acceptance of the importance of the feminine aspects of the Divine, we have also seen a growing recognition of the realm of nature as something that is itself a reflection of God's love in this world. Nature is no longer seen as something apart from God, wild and untamed. But rather, nature is now increasingly recognized as being an essential and especially sacred part of God's grace upon us. And more, an increasing number of both theologians and lay-persons alike are beginning to see nature as being distinctly feminine in essence – a fact that Sanatana Dharma and Yoga philosophy has known and taught for over 5000 years. The Earth is not a static dead rock floating in space that exists solely for man's economic purposes. The Earth was not created by God to be partitioned into artificial geographic regions, over which men will then foolishly war with one another. Rather, she is a living being, a mother, a woman, a Goddess, whom we are to love, respect and nurture - as she so patiently nurtures us. In the Hindu tradition, Mother Earth even has a name: Bhu-devi. In Sanatana Dharma, the dual issues of respecting the ways of nature and respecting women are ultimately inseparable concerns.
This work is dedicated to exploring the nature of the feminine aspect of Divinity as seen from the unique perspective of Sanatana Dharma. Sanatana Dharma is the world's most ancient continuously practiced spiritual tradition. It is a wise and venerable tradition. It is a tradition that contains within its ancient teachings some of the most profound, rational, and progressive ideas about the natures of both woman and God. Sanatana Dharma represents a philosophy and world-view that has spiritual liberation as its primary goal. In addition to Sanatana Dharma's vision of achieving the spiritual liberation of all living beings, Sanatana Dharma contains within its philosophical traditions a more immediate visionary framework for the liberation of women. Within the concept of Shakti, we find a profound and spiritually oriented philosophy of women's liberation. It is my hope that this brief introduction to the concept of Shakti will encourage my readers to explore further the teachings of Sanatana Dharma.
The Shakti Principle: Encountering the Feminine Power of God
The intricate dynamics of power and gender has grown to become an increasingly important topic within the realm of present day society - and justifiably so. Though representing half of the human race, women's voices, needs and inner psyches have, more often than not, been relegated to a place of unimportance in the history of the Western world. Throughout the history of post-Classical European civilization, the nature of the feminine was misunderstood, neglected and, in some cases, practically demonized. Consequently, for millennia women have been deprived of much of the power - political, economic, spiritual, even sexual - which men so take for granted. Recognizing the imperative need to correct this historic imbalance, many modern feminist leaders attempted to devise an ideological framework through which they felt that the roots of this imbalance could be properly understood. Additionally, there have been many attempts to wrest control over the primary mechanisms of power, specifically in the political and economic sectors. As a result, what were at one time conceived as the exclusive domains of the male gender have now begun to open up to women.
Feminism as a political movement has, unfortunately, had very mixed results. On the one hand, feminism succeeded to a large degree in opening up to women previously exclusively male arenas. On the other hand, the positive and life-enhancing qualities of the feminine aspect of human nature – and especially the spiritual dimension of the feminine - has been to a very large extent denigrated by the very feminist leaders who claim to speak for women. In the modern West, power is no longer equated with the testosterone laden half of the human race. The question, however, is should this have ever been the view of Western civilization?
For, while it may have been the tradition in the post-Classical West to naturally equate power with the masculine, this is not at all a universally held outlook. One world-view that offers us a fresh and radically different approach to the issue of power and the feminine is found in the philosophy and culture of Sanatana Dharma (otherwise known as “Hinduism”) - and specifically in the Vedic concept of Shakti. Within the metaphysical framework of Shakti, we discover the concept of the feminine as being nothing less than the very manifestation of power itself. Power itself, by very definition, is intrinsically feminine according to the Dharmic world-view. In the following work, I'll accomplish three tasks: 1) I'll examine the concept of Shakti as it is found throughout the history and various schools of thought of Sanatana Dharma; 2) I'll explore the historical implications that this concept has contributed in forming the traditional Dharmic view of the nature of the feminine and the subsequent role of women in the social context; and finally 3) I'll share some thoughts on the important role that the principle of Shakti can potentially play in helping to bring about a reemergence of the much neglected and crucially needed feminine in our own Western culture. In addition to serving as a liberating force for women specifically, I believe, the principle of Shakti has the ability to bring about a spiritual renewal of each of us as individuals, as well as of our increasingly global society as a whole.
The Vedic Concept of God
Each of the major world religions has divergent and exclusive views on what constitutes the ontological and substantial nature of the Absolute (For a definite examination of the essential differences between the world's major religions vis-à-vis Sanatana Dharma, please refer to my work on the topic: A Philosophical Critique of Radical Universalism). The three Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam hold an Anthropomorphic-Monotheistic conception of the Absolute. For these religions, the Absolute consists of one, superlatively powerful being, who interacts with his creation, intercedes actively in human history, and exhibits many of the same emotive features (including anger, judgment, jealousy, vengeance, etc.) of his human devotees. Jainism is Anthropotheistic in outlook. For Jains, the Absolute consists of the sum total of liberated beings. For Buddhists, the only Absolute worthy of adherence is the nothingness (shunya) that constitutes the true nature of reality. Sanatana Dharma is a Panentheistic Monotheism. For Sanatana Dharma, the Absolute is seen in terms of the concept of Brahman, who is both perfectly transcendent, yet simultaneously imminent in all of creation. All that is perceivable and conceivable has its very existence secured due solely to the sustaining presence of Brahman. Brahman is omnipotent (all-powerful), omniscient (all-knowing), omni-present, wholly good, and the source of all attributive excellences to their maximally conceivable degree. Both philosophically and in terms of history, Brahman has been seen in both personal (saguna) and impersonal (nirguna) terms by the great rishis (seers), yogis and acharyas (preceptors) of Sanatana Dharma. Seen in predominantly saguna terms, the highest concept of Brahman (God) in Sanatana Dharma consists of God as a Monistic-Duality. God is One (sat-ekam), unitary, indivisible, and inviolable in essence, yet God is to be simultaneously conceived as a dual co-Absolute moiety of masculine/feminine.
As a somewhat comparable example, we know that in Christianity, even though God is taught to be one supreme, anthropomorphic, monotheistic being, he is at the same time viewed as three distinct aspectival beings in the form of the Trinity – “Father”, “Son”, and “Holy Spirit”. God is seen as being three, and yet one. In a somewhat similar manner, in Sanatana Dharma, the Supreme God is simultaneously one, and yet is also a dual being, composed of both masculine and feminine aspects, co-Absolute, co-Infinite, co-Eternal, and together constituting the source of reality. God is seen as being two, and yet one. While Christianity proffers a Trinitarian ontology of God, Sanatana Dharma upholds a “Dualitarian” ontology. God, for Sanatana Dharma, is actually God/Goddess. God is two – yet simultaneously One. The feminine aspect of God, Shakti, is thus seen to be a crucial and indispensable component of the Godhead in both ontological terms, as well as in the functional process of cosmic creation. Indeed, significantly, the very word “Brahman” itself is neither an exclusively masculine nor exclusively feminine noun, but takes the neuter form in Sanskrit grammar. This fact very clearly demonstrates the mutually correlative relationship in which God and Goddess hold one another.
In a strictly philosophical sense, of course, when the terms “feminine” and “masculine” are used in both the context of Dharmic ontology, and throughout the contents of this paper, these terms are not in any way referring to genders in a sexual or biological sense. Rather, the terms are referring specifically to purely metaphysical categories and conceptual constructs, the substantial content of which does not refer to “men” and “women” in the normative sense.
The Nature of Shakti
The Sanskrit word Shakti can be translated as meaning “power”, “force” or “energy.” It is derived from the parasmaipada Sanskrit verb root “shak,” which means “to be able”, “to do”, “to act”. This energetic power is witnessed in all the various phenomena of life. It is the nourishing force responsible for the growth of vegetation, animals, human beings, and of the very Earth Herself. It is what is responsible for the kinetic movement of all things. The planets revolve around the sun as a result of the hidden power of Shakti. It is Shakti that makes the winds blow and the oceans churn. Shakti is manifest as the very affective ability of all the forces of nature. She is the heat of fire, the brilliance of the sun, the very life force of all living beings. In human beings, she is seen as the power of intelligence (buddhi), compassion (daya) and divine love (bhakti), among her many other functions (Sharma, 1974; Goswami 1995). It is the power of Shakti that “...keeps the gods in their position, makes a man virile or makes a sage of a man” (Sharma, 1974). Without the enabling presence of the metaphysical principle of Shakti, all physical creation would be rendered impotent.
Most significantly, Shakti is an exclusively feminine principle. Shakti is synonymous with the great Devi, or the Great Goddess of Sanatana Dharma, and is also found to be secondarily manifest in all the many natural and indigenous, pre-Abrahamic religious traditions of the world. As the great Devi, she is omnipresent in Hindu society via her many forms. She is propitiated by all segments of Hindu society, but especially by women. According to Professor Klaus Klostermaier, “...childless women implore her to conceive. In times of epidemics, it is the goddess who is implored to grant health and relief” (Klostermaier, 1990). Shakti has always been a living force throughout the long history of Sanatana Dharma.
The Importance of Shakti Throughout the Tradition of Sanatana Dharma
The importance of goddesses is evident throughout all the various sects and schools of thought of Sanatana Dharma (Gatwood, 1985). Additionally, the presence of goddesses is seen throughout the long literary tradition of India. In the Rig Veda (c. 3800 BC), for example, at least 40 goddesses are mentioned. These include: Sarasvati, goddess of wisdom; Ushas, the dawn; and Aditi, who is depicted as “birthless” (R.V., 10.7.2.). The very word “Shakti” itself appears in the Rig Veda some 12 times. Two of the word's derivatives, “shaktivat” and “shakman,” respectively appear twice and five times. Part of the Rig Veda text is known as the “Devi Sukta” and is certainly a recognition of Shakti as a cosmic principle. Shakti is directly addressed as the great Devi in the Atharva Veda (1.6.1). Shakti is also seen in the later Itihasas, or Epics of India. She is found in the Ramayana, one of these epics, where “...she is called Devi, and is respected by all” (Sharma, 1974). In the Mahabharata, the other great epic of India, there are two hymns dedicated to glorifying her. The various manifestations of the goddess are ubiquitous throughout another set of Hindu scriptures known as the Puranas. Indeed, the Devi Bhagavata Purana is entirely dedicated to her. One would be hard pressed to find a sacred work anywhere in the entirety of Hindu literature in which there is not at least some mention of a feminine power.
Sanatana Dharma's respect for Shakti is not limited to the religion's literary heritage. The various schools of Vedic philosophy (shad-darshanas) also took this principle quite seriously. The Mimamsakas, for example, are a school of philosophy that held that Shakti was no less than the inherent power of all things. The Naiyayika school of logicians attempted to explain Shakti in terms of being the function or property of any cause. For the Vedanta school, the most important tradition of Indian philosophy, Shakti was “...conceived as the activity of a cause revealing itself in the shape of an effect” (Dev, 1987). Of all the various schools of Vedic philosophy, however, the school most influential in helping to formulate a theory of Shakti is the Samkhya school.
Samkhya teaches the dualistic doctrine of Prakriti/Purusha. According to this principle, there are two radically distinct metaphysical principles at play during the creation of the cosmos: matter (Prakriti) and spirit (Purusha). Prakriti is the primordial matter that is present before the cosmos becomes manifest. It is material substance in the form of pure potentiality, pure energy. It is as a direct result of the devolution of this original matter-energy substance that the universe, with all its diversity of names and forms, comes into being. Prakriti is seen as being “...the power of nature, both animate and inanimate. As such, nature is seen as dynamic energy” (Rae, 1994). Prakriti is originally inert, immobile, and pure potentiality by nature. It is only as a direct result of her contact with the kinetic Purusha principle that she then unfolds into the variagatedness that we see before us. Sudhir Gupta explains this process of devolution from the perspective of a Shakta, or a devotee of Shakti, the Great Goddess:
The universe with all its diversity and multiplicity remains equated in the divine volition as conception before manifestation. It is manifested in the course of basic evolution, started under the influence of the creative volition of the Divine Mother. The Universal Mother in Her Absolute Self admits of no mutability, change or division. (Gupta, 1977)
Thus, Shakti is seen as being antecedent to the principle of Prakriti, with Shakti being the instrumental cause, in the form of the Devi, or the Great Goddess, and Prakriti serving as the material cause. Shakti, as a transcendent being, exists prior to matter (Prakriti).
Ontological Moiety: The Dynamic of Divine Consortship
The dynamic of Prakriti/Purusha is seen mirrored in another closely allied concept: the divine consort dynamic, or what I call Ontological Moiety. According to the teachings of Sanatana Dharma, Shakti, energy, cannot exist in a vacuum, devoid of meaning and purpose. If there is a discernable energy in any form, it must be an energy that is purposefully mediated and directed by a conduit. Without such purposeful mediation, this energy will lose all functional capacity. Thus, the metaphysical interplay of the symbiotically interdependent dyads of energy/conduit, feminine/masculine, goddess/god, Prakriti/Purusha, Shakti/Shiva, represent the natural dynamism necessary for the functionality of conceptual and perceptual reality as we know it.
In a clear reflection of this dyadic dynamism that I call an Ontological Moiety, almost every male divinity (deva) of the Hindu . necessarily has a metaphysically feminine counterpart, a consort, a goddess. This Ontological Moiety, god/goddess principle is a foundational idea that is an indispensable element of every major sect of Hinduism. We see that in every major tradition of Sanatana Dharma, the Supreme Being is ultimately, not just God, but God in the form of God/Goddess. In Vaishnavism, Shaivism and Shaktism, the three largest traditions of Hinduism, the Supreme is ultimately seen as God/Goddess. In orthodox Vaishnavism, for example, the highest ontological Supreme is expressed as the God/Goddess Shriman Lakshmi-Narayana. In Vaisnavism, Sri-Lakshmi is viewed as being co-Absolute, co-eternal, and co-omnipresent with Narayana, and is able to offer liberation, grace, and bhakti in Her own right. Indeed, it is said that the esoteric truth of God's nature is that Narayana is never unaccompanied by Sri-Lakshmi. Even when Narayana descends upon the Earth in the form of avataras, Lakshmi always has Her own avatara who accompanies Narayana. Rama has Sita. Krishna has Radha. The Divine Couple are inseparable. (For a further analysis of the nature and role of Sri-Lakshmi in the Vaisnava tradition, see my paper on the subject: “Visnu-shakti: An Ontological Analysis of the Role of Sri-Laksmi as the Transcendent Feminine Power of the Vaisnava Tradition”). Similarly, for Shaivism, the Ontological Moiety is Shakti-Shiva. In the Shakta tradition, it is Prakriti-Purusha.
These goddess-consorts are said to personify nothing less than the essential energy of the god, without which, the god will be rendered impotent and powerless. Thus, rather than speaking of gods and goddesses in Sanatana Dharma as merely personified divinities, it is more correct to speak of these god/goddess dyads as integral and symbiotic moieties. In the words of Ernest Payne:
The energy of Vishnu and Shiva was personified as a goddess and identified with Prakriti, the primary source of the universe. The connubial relations between Devi and her husband were held to typify the mystical union of the eternal principles, matter and spirit, which produces the world. (Payne, 1933)
So essentially integral is the relationship between a particular male divinity and his Shakti that one is thought incapable of having a meaningful existence without the other. The relationship between god and goddess is similar to the relationship of the sun with sunshine, respectively. The sun is the medium that gives stability and purpose to the energy of sunshine. Both the sun and the sunshine represent two functionally distinctive elements of the one same unitive object. If one of the dual elements were missing, the composite whole would be rendered devoid of conceptual integrity. It is not possible to comprehend the existence of one without the other. The male and the female, masculine and feminine, god and goddess, give mutual meaning and being to each another, both in this world, and in the transcendent realm.
We have a vivid example of the interdependence of God/Goddess found in the grammatical rules of classical Sanskrit. It is said that in her manifestation as Shiva's consort and source of energy, Shakti is embodied in the “i” of his name. According to the rules of Sanskrit, if a consonant is not followed by a specified vowel, it is automatically assumed that this consonant is then followed by the vowel “a” by default. Consequently, without this empowering “i” in his name, Shiva becomes shava, or “a lifeless corpse”. It is the empowering presence of Shakti that gives Shiva his very life. Thus it is the feminine principle that is the animating force of life itself.
Both the feminine and the masculine are necessarily present in the Divine. This is dramatically illustrated in the image of Ardhanarishvara, the representation of God as being half man and half woman. Veneration of God necessarily entails veneration of the Goddess. They are two aspects of the same one being and are, as such, mutually dependent upon one another in the form of an Ontological Moiety. God and Goddess, masculine and feminine, are one.
Shakti as Co-Creator
The intimacy of God and Goddess can be more clearly illustrated by examining one of the sacred stories involving the co-creative function of Devi that is found in the Devi Bhagavata Purana. Importantly, although this scripture is clearly a Shakta Purana dedicated to glorifying the great Goddess, the Devi Bhagavata Purana describes Vishnu/Krishna as being the supreme God (IX. 2. 12 - 23) who “...is said to be the root and creator of all” (Dev, 1987). For even the great Devi, ultimately Vishnu/Krishna is seen as being the absolute source of all existence and the one true God. According to this account, Krishna was at one time the only being in existence. Desiring to create the universe, He apportioned His inexhaustible essence into two co-Absolute parts, the left being female and the right male. That female was none other than Radha, the eternal consort and Shakti of Krishna, and who is described as being the Mula Prakriti, or the root source of all existence. From the transcendent conjugal sport of Radha and Krishna a golden egg was born that was the repository of the material from which our universe was created. Thus Devi existed antecedent to even Prakriti as Prakriti's causal and material agent. Creation, then, is depicted in the Devi Bhagavata Purana as proceeding from Krishna, the Supreme Being of Sanatana Dharma, via the power of Radha, His consort and Shakti. Thus both God and Goddess are responsible for the manifestation of Creation.
The Metaphysical Interplay of the Masculine and Feminine
The relationship that is enjoyed between God and Goddess in Sanatana Dharma is one of the mediator of power (shaktiman, the masculine principal) and the power itself (Shakti, the feminine). Each is ineffectual without the existence of the other. While the possessor of power is the guiding force as to the power's direction and purpose, it is the power itself that provides the ability to perform any task. To use a rudimentary example, we might say that God is similar to the computer while the Goddess is the electricity that makes the computer's functioning possible. Both are different, yet essential, components if a computer is going to have any functional meaning. Shaktiman is the principle that gives guidance and direction to power. Shakti is the vital, life-giving force of God, as well as the personification of His power, inner effulgence, and essence. As Shrivatsa Goswami explains this concept:
On the transcendental plane this functional duality implies the split of the Absolute into power or potency (shakti), the subjective component, and the possessor of power (shaktiman), the objective one. On the phenomenal plane too there exists such a duality. (Goswami, 1985)
Together, the Deva and Devi, the God and Goddess of Sanatana Dharma, are the “Able” and the “Ability”, respectively. While distinction can be seen between a) the power of ability and b) the able one who projects the power of ability, they are at the same time one and the same. For one gives meaning to the other. In the same way, though an apparent distinction can be seen between God and Goddess, they in actuality together constitute the one Supreme Being in the form of an eternal, transcendent Ontological Moiety. Moreover, this principle of Shakti is not relegated solely to the realm of the Divine, but is clearly reflected in the lives of each and every human being.
Made In Goddess's Image: The Feminine Principle Instantiated
What is true on the macrocosmic level is also the rule on the microcosmic. As above, so below. Human beings too are said to participate in the interplay of shakti and shaktiman; and in so doing, replicate the perfect wholeness of God/Goddess in their lives. For in Sanatana Dharma, every woman is said to be a partial manifestation of the divine Shakti. Every man, likewise, is a replication of the divine Shaktiman. The Atharva-veda readily confirms this fact: “Women and Men are both born from the Supreme Being; Women are manifestations of the Supreme Being, as are men” (8.9.11cd). The power of Shakti, the feminine principle, is believed to be directly present in creation in the form of our mothers, sisters, daughters, and wives. As the contemporary feminist author Elinor Gadon explains, “the truth of the Goddess is the mystery of our being. She is the dynamic life force within. Her form is embedded in our collective psyche...” (Gadon, 1989). As a natural consequence of this view, Sanatana Dharma encourages all people to have both respect and reverence for women. While Shakti is primarily present as personified in woman, however, she is also present in man in the form of his vitality and strength.
The Shakti Principle in Spiritual Practice
There are many traditions of spiritual unfoldment in India that teach the notion that Shakti resides within each and every human being, and that spiritual liberation can be achieved by the proper utilization of the feminine principle within. One example of such a tradition is the path of Kundalini-yoga. According to Kundalini-yoga philosophy, Shakti resides at the base of the spine in the form of the kundalini energy. The goal of this path of Yoga is to raise this vital energy through the various energy centers (chakras) of the subtle, or astral, body. As each energy portal is open, the yogi achieves newer and higher levels of spiritual realization and power. Once this Shakti has reached the top chakra located at the crown of the head (sahasrara-chakra, “the chakra of the thousand-petaled lotus”), full self-realization, personal empowerment, and liberation can be achieved. This very process is itself, interestingly, described as the union of Shiva and Shakti (Dev, 1987).
In addition to Kundalini-yoga, there is an entire denomination of Sanatana Dharma dedicated to the realization of the Great Goddess, known as Shaktism. The tradition of Shaktism is most influential in West Bengal and Assam. Its influence, however, has been felt throughout the length and breath of South Asia. While some references to Shaktism can certainly be found in the ancient Vedic literature (Sharma, 1974), it is the works known as the Tantras that are considered most authoritative by adherents. Philosophically, the teachings of Shaktism seem to occupy a middle position between the dualism of the Samkhya school and the extremely monistic interpretation of Vedanta posited by the great philosopher Shankara (8th century CE).
Unlike the philosophy of Shankara, for Shaktism the world is not seen as being merely an illusionary phenomenon (mithya); it is in fact extremely real. In Shaktism, it is believed that Shakti (the goddess Prakriti) evolves Her own being into 36 tattvas, or constituents of reality, in order to create the universe. The present diversified universe that we see around us is nothing less than the creative manifestation of the uncreated Goddess Prakriti, or Shakti. Prakrti, both in the form of this world and the human body, is in fact viewed as a potential vehicle for salvation. In practice, Shaktism stresses the potentially sacramental nature of the human body due to its being the locus of spiritual unfoldment as a result of the presence of Shakti-devi (Kumar, 1986). For Shaktas, as for the majority of Hindus, women are greatly respected as being the personifications of Shakti in human - and therefore very spiritually accessible - form.
The Immediate Impact on Women
How has this uniquely positive view of the feminine affected the Hindu perspective on the nature and role of women in the Vedic community? How do metaphysical principles translate to social reality? Men and women are clearly different in a variety of ways. What the precise extent and implications of these difference are, however, are very crucial questions. When acknowledging natural distinctions between the genders that are empirically verifiable realities, it is important to not leap to extreme conclusions about the implications of such differences. To make the irrational claim that there are no differences between the genders, and that any such discernable differences are nothing more than mere social constructs – as many of the more shortsighted feminist theorists attempted in the 1970s – is a claim that is no longer taken seriously by anyone, including most modern women's rights advocates. On the other hand, to artificially accentuate gender differences in such a manner as to unjustifiably claim the superiority of one gender over the other, or as an excuse to oppress women, is clearly going too far in the opposite extreme. What the concept of Shakti has to offer humanity is a balanced, integrated, and healthy approach to the nature of gender, in which the natural distinctions between men and women are acknowledged and celebrated, but without one gender being artificially relegated to a place of inferiority merely due to these discernable differences.
Like all other ancient and authentic religious traditions, Sanatana Dharma teaches that, while women and men naturally share much in common (such as the same degree of aptitude for intelligence, moral goodness, spiritual development, courage, etc.), their different psycho-physical states and outlooks should not be overlooked. In very general terms, while men tend to exhibit more aggressive, cerebral (i.e., more mentally absorbed), and self-promoting tendencies, women have a propensity to be more nurturing, intuitive, mature, wise, and giving. While there are certainly always exceptions to any general rule, these very general characteristics are, nonetheless, not negated by the exceptions. Both masculine and feminine qualities are positive and necessary, and it is in the holistic combination of all of these qualities that we find the most effective basis for creating a society that is healthy, progressive, nurturing, just, and spiritually oriented.
Interestingly, it is precisely the positive feminine qualities of nurturance, intuition, maturity, wisdom, and generousness that are to be aspired toward in spiritual life - by both men and women. Both men and women should strive to become more loving, more nurturing, more intuitive and giving in all of our inter-personal activities. As is inevitably true for every other religion and culture known to history, individual Hindus have sometimes had difficulty putting their high spiritual ideals into actual practice. Overall, however, the record of Sanatana Dharma vis-à-vis the treatment of women has been an overwhelmingly positive one in comparison to almost any other religion in the world today. As a result, according to Klaus Klostermaier:
Traditional Hinduism is still strongly supported by women; women form the largest portion of temple goers and festival attendants, and women keep traditional domestic rituals alive and pass on the familiar stories of the gods and goddesses to their children. (Klostermaier, 1994)
As we will see, Hindu women have not only historically enjoyed the respected status of being the repository of Shakti, but have very often actually had the opportunity to wield quite a bit of actual power and authority in the everyday world.
The Principle of Shakti and Women of Power
Unlike the accounts that are clearly observed in the majority of Western religious literature, Vedic literature is overflowing with colorful accounts of heroic, strong and brave women. There are many accounts of such women in the Mahabharata, one of India's most ancient classical epics. We find Queen Draupadi, for example, who is depicted throughout the epic as a brave and iron-willed woman. There is also Queen Kunti, who perseveres with her honor and her faith intact despite a life riddled with tragedies. Similarly, in the epic Ramayana, we meet Sita, the wife - and Shakti - of Rama, an incarnation of God. Though arranged marriages were the norm in Vedic society (as they were throughout most European cultures until only recent decades), we find that Sita chooses her own husband in a svayamvara ceremony. Also of her own free will, she chooses to accompany Rama to the forest when He is sent into exile, thus exhibiting her strength, fearlessness, and commitment to loyalty (this, despite the fact that the people of Ayodhya offered to make her queen during Rama's exile). While living in the forest, she continues to display her independent nature, as when she convinces Rama to chase the gold-spotted dear. Vedic literature is replete with such examples of strong, and heroic women.
Images of powerful women in Sanatana Dharma are not limited to the realm of literature alone. They are also witnessed throughout the living historical record of India as well. Women in the Vedic tradition have historically easily risen to heights of power within various monastic and religious hierarchical structures, parallels of which would have been unheard of in Western religion and society until only extremely recently. In the earliest Vedic era, for example, women were commonly awarded the sacred thread (upavita-sutra) of priests (brahmanas) (Gobhila Grhya-sutra 2.1.9; Klostermaier, 1994). Women were accepted as priests, shared with men the privilege of reciting the Gayatri mantra, and officiated in sacred fire ceremonies (yajna). One section of the Rig Veda (V, 28) mentions that there were multiple female rishis, or revealers of sacred truth. In this section one is specifically named as Vishvara. Of the 407 rishis responsible for revealing the Rig Veda, at least 21 of these were women. There were also very formidable women philosophers such as Sulabha Maitreyi (Mahabharata XII.320), Vadava Prathitheyi (Ashvalayana Grhya-sutra 3.4.4; Shankhayana Grhya-sutra 4.10), as well as Vachaknavi, who debated the sage Yajnavalkya of Upanishadic fame (Madhyandina Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 3.8). Interestingly, the famous Sanskrit grammarian, Panini, observed the distinction in the Sanskrit language between a) “aachaarya”, a male preceptor; b) “aachaaryani” (the wife of a preceptor), and c) “aacaaryaa” (a lady preceptor), indicating that women were thoroughly accepted as spiritual teachers (Ashtadhyayi 4.1.14). Such women saints as Andal (8th century), Mirabai (1498-1546 CE), Jahnavi (16th century), and many hundreds of others were leaders of the devotional Bhakti movement “...that initiated the religious liberation of women [and] was largely promoted and supported by women devotees” (Ibid., 1994). Both Andal and Mirabai were celebrated for being very independent minded women. Mirabai, in fact, was originally a Rajasthani princess who rebelled against her entire royal family in order to devote herself to devotion to Krishna and the path of self-realization.
Women have continued this long tradition as leaders of various Yoga and Hindu communities to this day. Such examples of this phenomenon can be seen in the forms of such modern day women gurus as Sri Anandamayi Ma, Gurumayi Chidvilasananda, Amritanandamayi (“Ammachi”), and Meera Ma, among many, many hundreds of others (Johnsen, 1994).
Indeed, both historically, as well as today, there is no stratum of authority anywhere within the leadership hierarchy of Sanatana Dharma that has not been held by women at one point or another. For every leadership position held by a man, the same positions have been held by women. This fact is even reflected in the sacred Sanskrit language, in which, for every masculine title of authority, there have always been feminine equivalents. For as long as there have been yogis, there have been yoginis (women yogis). There have been both sadhus (ascetics), and sadhvis (women sadhus); both svamis (masters), and svaminis (women svamis); panditas (scholars) and panditaas (women scholars); bhikshus (mendicants) and bhikshunis (women mendicants); rishis (seers), as well as rishikas (women seers). Considering that Indian culture has always been a culture in which religion has arguably been the most important social institution in society, it is no small accomplishment for women to have risen so high, and to have attained such religiously important titles, in the echelons of Vedic leadership.
Shakti and the Abrahamic Religions
Such respect for the feminine has not been as readily visible in the history of the Western world, unfortunately. The documented treatment of women in the Western religions has been a truly horrendous record - to state the situation quite lightly. The Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam have not had anywhere near the same abundant degree of women in leadership throughout their respective histories. Indeed, in Abrahamic religious institutions, the norm historically has been to actively and systematically bar women from any and all positions of authority. To this day, for example, women are barred from the priesthood, and any other important position of real authority, in the Roman Catholic Church. There are no women priests, no women monsignors, no women bishops, no women archbishops, no women cardinals, no women Popes. Thousands of wise and independent women healers and herbalists were burnt at the stake by the church during the post-Classical Dark Ages. In strict Islamic nations today, women are not even allowed to drive cars, go to the market unaccompanied by a man, or strive for an education. Throughout the radically patriarchal Islamic world, it is inconceivable that a woman could ever seek to become an imam, or a religious leader of any sort. It has only been in the latter third of the twentieth century that a reemergence of the feminine has slowly begun to take place in European and American societies, and to a very limited degree in some Western religions (specifically Reform Judaism and liberal Protestant denominations).
Honoring Our Common Mother
For too long has the nurturing influence of the Divine Feminine (Shakti) been in exile from the Abrahamic world. Thus the more masculine qualities of aggression, competitiveness, authoritarian control, and distrust have shaped the collective psyche of the Western world. Recognizing the terrible price that this gaping deficiency has wrought upon the world in the forms of war, terrorism, the environmental crisis, and the exploitation of women and children, many present day women thinkers are openly calling for a reclaiming of feminine spiritual values in many different sectors of life. In the words of Eleanor Rae: “while the feminine is not limited in its context, there are nevertheless certain key places where it is most appropriately rediscovered. These are in women, in the Earth, and in the Divinity” (Rae, 1994). By recognizing the sacred nature of women as personifications of the feminine aspect of Divinity, and by seeing the Earth, not as a lifeless object, there solely for our exploitation, but rather as the living personality of our common Mother (known in Sanskrit as Bhudevi), we can end much of the needless violence and suffering brought about by denying the feminine in our culture. Agreeing with this assessment, Vandana Shiva has written:
The violence to nature as symptomatized by the ecological crisis, and the violence to women, as symptomitized by their subjugation and exploitation, arise from this subjugation of the feminine principle. (Shiva, 1989)
Ultimately, the ecological, civilizational, and social crises the Earth is currently facing; the need of a greater role for women in positions of religious authority in society; and the much needed re-emergence of the principle of Shakti in the Abrahamic religions, are all one and the same concern. In the metaphysical concept of Shakti, we find a spiritually based philosophical framework in which many practical concerns can be both understood and powerfully addressed.
In a crystal-clear display of the ancient concept of Shakti coming full circle to occupy the center stage of current social and intellectual debate, it has finally been recognized that the feminine aspect of the very Divinity Him(Her)self has been too long neglected. In the works of such people as Matthew Fox and Vicki Noble, we are now witnessing a call for the reemergence of the concept of the sacred feminine power of God - of Shakti. In such remarkable developments as these, I venture to say that we are not so much witnessing the “Hinduization” of Western thought, as we are seeing the rediscovery of the metaphysical feminine principle as an integral, a natural, and an inseparable component of healthy religious expression, and of our very being.
These more recent developments in the West, as well as their origin in the long and positive history of the concept of Shakti in Sanatana Dharma, have shown us that the idea of a sacred feminine power originating from Divinity and, therefore, necessarily inherent in all things, is a very relevant subject for further exploration. This is true both on a social, as well as on a very personal, spiritual level. While arising from the ancient and esoteric depths of the philosophy and sacred stories (divya-katha) of Sanatana Dharma, the Shakti Principle is actually a force that has the ability to affect all human culture: politically, socially, and at the deepest levels of our consciousness.
Today, much of humanity is again beginning to hear the loving whispers of our Divine Mother call out to us from within the deepest core of our collective being; from the teachings of the world's most ancient religious tradition: Sanatana Dharma; and from the very depths of the Earth Herself. Shakti-devi is ready and eager to re-embrace us and bring us back to both a personal and a cultural state of well-being - if we will only allow Her to do so.
I wish to thank the following people for their encouragement, support and inspiration: Ms. Frances Elizabeth Morales, Param Pujya Sri Swami Dayananda Sarasvati, Mr. Vishal Agarwal, Dr. David Frawley, Mr. Sashi Kejriwal, Ms. Heather Lim, Dr. Anita Bhagat Patel, Dr. Manan Patel, Professor Mekhala Natavar, Professor David Knipe, Professor Keith Yandell, Professor Ramesh Rao, Dr. Patricia Bauhs.
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