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The Divine Feminine In Indian Tradition 
By Jagdish C Joshi 


Ancient Indian culture as revealed in Sanskrit texts was strongly oriented towards masculine goals. The social system was overwhelmingly patriarchal and Sanskrit works largely devoted themselves to giving an account of male hierophanies, a phenomenon that occurred over most of the world.

However, from the fourth century AD the religion of Goddess become as much a part of the Hindus as the religion of God and about the same time female hierophanies develop. In these we have a reasoned exposition of the nature of Goddess, of her process of creation, of her relation to God and of her relation to her worshippers.

The phenomenon of feminine theology in the Brahminical religious tradition is unique because all over the world the female gods were replaced by male gods. Diana and Berecynthia, Isis and Cybele were exiled with the coming of Christianity although female hierophanies reappeared in the figures of Mary and the female saints. However, the figure of the virgin and its supporting theology are subordinate to her son.

It is therefore quite interesting to analyse the Hindu religious tradition, which discusses the feminine theology in detail. It is important to note that it is not a description of female icons. On the other hand it strives to express possibilities of the Goddess rather than her iconic limitations. It seeks to construct a theology that does not restrict feminine values in the world of the sacred by the strictures of subordination to which women were and are still subject in the secular world.

Of all the religious practices and beliefs concerned with feminine divinities it is Shaktism which gives the Goddess a place of supreme importance. In this tradition female is raised above the male as Durga is described as Shakti, the energy of cosmos. Without her, we are told in one of the texts that the world is lifeless and even Shiva, the great god (maha deva), is merely a corpse (shava). It is further remarked that the world without her ``though living is dead as it were''. An analysis of these legends, doctrines and abstract philosophies indicates that first, the Goddess is portrayed as power, and the female Shakti element is identified as the essence of reality, the male element playing a subservient role. Secondly, she is identified with Prakriti, the primeval matter. As such she is identified with existence itself or that which underlines all existent things. The emphasis is not on the restricting aspect of the matter but on the feminine principle, the Goddess as the ground of all existence. Thirdly, she is described as giving food to nourish all life and yet she is said to take life and to cause decay. Life and death, therefore, is the process through which the female energy is continuously recycled according to the myths associated with the Goddess. Fourthly, the Goddess, according to the various religious texts, incarnates in herself all the brilliance and power that the gods collectively possess and her pervasive magic gives them sufficient definition to be able to do battle with the power of evil.

It is an exuberant celebration of the various forms of Devi, the Goddess, and their role in her victory over demons who are supposed to be tormenting the people of this earth. Besides, she is described as the embodiment of supreme eternal knowledge (vidya) which becomes the cause of release (mukti) from bondage. Moreover, the Goddess is described as the primary ontological reality. The gods derive their bodily forms from her and all material existence proceeds from her.

Similarly, Goddess Kali is said to be an embodiment of maya, prakriti and shakti. Thus she may be understood to express the nature of these qualities or the truths inherent in these ideas. Maya is often understood in terms of the magical quality of creation, which lends to reality a mysterious and unpredictable quality leading at times to destruction. The darker aspect of reality as maya is represented in Kali's wild appearance and behaviour. Moreover, prakriti is the basis of the material word and is lush and teeming; so is Kali who symbolises eternal time and thus represents growth, decay, death and rebirth. Besides she is shakti, power or might and represents the tendency of the divine to action and to displace. In the midst of eternal night she stands upon `non-existence', the static but potentially dynamic state that precedes manifestation. In that capacity she is able to allay the terrors of those who invoke her and also bestow gifts of true perception leading to liberation.

Thus we see that the Indian tradition preserves and constantly reaffirms the idea of pervasive and dominant female divinity, an idea which was a widespread and early religious experience of humanity.



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