Female Sacred Sources of Empowerment: Indian Hindu Women Full of Strength and Power Since Time Immemorial

Women, Religion and Social Change; New College of California; Fall 2004 Research Paper

What is feminism? What is the women’s movement? Is it a frill? Another aspect of individualism? An imperialistic western product? It is none of these things…The woman’s movement is a major, global and most profound shift in both human relations and thinking in modern times. Who is thinking and acting? It is the women who are at the bottom of the social structure. Margaret Mead, the eminent anthropologist, when asked about the most important periods of human development in all history, identified four such periods: …evolution; …ice age; …industrialization; …and —the period of the Woman’s Movement. After these periods nothing was the same again, she said. What is changing? Everything! When women begin to move, the whole social structure begins to shift!…Going to the great religions of the world, she [woman] finds her experience there largely encapsulated in man’s language and patriarchal structures…What, then, do women really want?  They seek to reclaim their lived experiences in past history in all fields of knowledge. They want their experience to be part of the present. Finally, they want to ensure that their lives and experiences will be included and counted significantly in a vision of a better world for the future…to see their experiences and contributions become an integral part of the world knowledge and a dynamic for structural change in human relations and social justice. -Frances Maria Yasas, “Woman Reclaiming Her Experience”

The Goddess, in Hindu religious tradition, encompasses both creative and destructive capacities, and as a myth model for women this duality serves as both a divine role model and an immanence to be experienced here on Earth.[1] The Goddess’ presence plays such a vital and essential role in women’s lives in India, I believe, because of some of the cultural obstacles they face on a daily basis. Vedantic law in general, the Laws of Manu, the Stridharmapaddhati and the Yatidharmaprakasa are just a few of the texts that place restrictive measures on all aspects of women’s lives. For example, in these texts, women are not to do things independently of their fathers or husbands; spiritual independence cannot be achieved even when a woman has devoted herself to a ‘proper’ life as a wife; there are six conditions that assist in a woman’s descent into hell: recitation of sacred texts (japa), performance of austerities (tapas), going on pilgrimage, renunciation, mantra chanting and deity worship (temple worship is included in this) and the only auspicious way to perform these things is to meditate on her husband as God, meditate on his deity of choice, assist with any of his ritual duties, and so on.[2] Although the West assumes that these laws are strictly adhered to, there is evidence of popular alternative stories, myths, scripture and female leaders in Hindu culture that show that women are not always willing to emulate the static icons of traditional womanhood.

The evidence of these alternatives does not necessarily mean that the average Hindu woman tries to fully emulate those actions directly, but they do perceive these stories, myths, scriptures and women as powerful, assertive, dynamic and accessible role models.  In fact, even traditionally “powerful” role models are not understood by Hindu women as wholly emulative. One must not infer that the powerful models of Radha, Sri, Sri Laksmi or Mahadevi give permission to women to commit adultery, to discard their husbands, or to take to fighting in battles. Kali Ma is also not looked to as a realistic model for women to emulate by hanging out in cremation grounds and beheading any men that come across her path. In this way Hindu women understand these divine females as symbolic models and affirmations of their power as females and all the potential that comes with that. Hindu women realize that the Goddess is ‘up there’ while they are ‘down here’ and therefore they do not wish to be the Goddess, but to manifest Her strength and auspiciousness within themselves.

I do not believe that all of the alternatives aim to displace men altogether in the public and private spheres, in an attempt to place women singly at the center of society, but rather offer them a “level playing field” in terms of self-actualization. These alternatives serve women as support and encouragement in decision-making; they give women alternative models of behavior to consider in their everyday experiences. What is essential in the West in attempting to understand their particular influence on Indian Hindu women is the differentiation between power and authority. Rita Gross says of this differentiation, that women encompass a largely unreported, complex set of rituals that are absent of men’s participation and that serve to empower women within their everyday experiences and that this power may not directly reflect public authority, which should and does not imply that they are powerless.

I would then offer, that in terms of everyday experiences, alternative myths, narratives and average women serve to infuse the average Hindu woman with empowerment. Because of India’s long-held tradition of drawing from the epic poems and stories of their culture/religion to cast molds of appropriate behavior, the process of retelling these narratives with women playing more active roles only serve to encourage women to regard their everyday actions as multi-faceted. No longer do women only have the compliance of Sita to Ram’s oppressive, cruel treatment of her in the Ramayana or the secondary nature of the Goddess to show women their appropriate place in society as alongside their husbands and nowhere else. They have various stories, myths, and earthly role models that represent dynamic, supportive, powerful alternatives to reflect upon.

Traditional (?) Dharma for Indian Hindu Women

The Laws of Manu, a famous Indian epic of proper social conduct seems to be the most popular piece of literature reference for persons convinced that Indian Hindu women have experienced an ominous, severely oppressive atmosphere since time immemorial.  But books such as R.C. Majumdar’s Great Women of India, casts a different light on women’s reality and their overall position in society; his research shows that between the Rig Vedic era and 1200c.e. women enjoyed many freedoms. Some of the respectful behavior toward women included: women were not allowed to be killed on any account; daughters of outcastes were not considered as such, although sons were; way was made for women in crowded streets, regardless of caste; exemption from ferry tax; women (wives) held certain rights over particular properties given to her as gifts; men were often liable to a heavy fine for deserting a virtuous wife; women could reattain their ordinary rights after committing adultery, which was not always available to men. Also Mujamdar points out that women studied the Vedas and had a part in constructing Vedic hymns and played a particularly important part in constructing fine arts, dancing, manufacture of bows and arrows, making of baskets, weaving of cloth and participation in outside agricultural work, as well as many of them leaving their marks as famous scholars and authors.[3]

During this Vedic period there is evidence of some male authors aggressively countering any texts or positions taken up by other men seeking to defile the veneration of or equality of women to men. Varahamihira’s Brihat Samhita is one such example,

Tell me truly, what faults attributed to women have not been also practiced by men? Men in their audacity treat women with contempt, but they really possess more virtues (than men)…Men owe their birth to women; O ungrateful wretches, how can happiness be your lot when you condemn them? The shastras (scriptures) declare that both husband and wife are equally sinful if they prove faithless to the marriage vow; men care very little for the Shastra (while women do); therefore women are superior to men.[4]

Despite (or maybe in addition to) this evidence of a liberated Hindu woman of ancient times, Gross points out that contemporary Hindu women are enjoying a new liberation from traditional restrictive religious roles never experienced by them before. With this in mind, I would caution that much academic disagreement over the exact nature of the religious and cultural history of India has continued for decades and a perception of that history varies with authors. As I have laid out in this paper, there is evidence that women enjoyed many religious and cultural freedoms in early Vedic history, but that with an increase in patriarchal worldviews those freedoms became increasingly limited. With this in mind I would dare say that Gross’ focus on the contemporary freedoms experienced by Hindu women is not a new phenomenon, rather a resurgence of former religious glory experience by Hindu women. She points out that contemporary women are able to function as gurus, initiating disciples and carrying on spiritual lineages and authority. There has also been an increase in Sanskritic studies by women in universities in India. As men increasingly abandon these studies for more lucrative careers, women may soon become the next generation and sole arbiters of Sanskritic expertise. [5]

Certainly, Gross is not entirely wrong, for there is significant additional evidence of an extremely restrictive period of time in India, that publicly relegated Hindu women and many of the goddesses to a subservient, secondary role. Tryambaka’s Stridharmapaddhati (a 17th c. text written on the absolute necessity of women’s adherence and conformity to traditional religious dharma for the sake of Hindu society) is one example of literature that laid out the limiting nature of a Hindu woman’s experience. Tryambaka believed, as did Hindu society as a whole, that when women became corrupted, due to influence of their fundamental nature, all of society was lost. This is clearly an orthodox text that sees a distinct difference between ‘(essential) woman’ and ‘(ideal) wife.’ You can see this type of sentiment reflected in the traditional goddesses’ forms: some are gentle, wives and some are fierce warriors. Sati, Laksmi, Radha and Parvati are generally perceived to be the representations of chastity, fertility and prosperity- derived from being wives, subordinate and the “seat” or source of their husbands’ power. Kali, Camunda and Durga are traditionally depicted as portraying the wild, destructive, essential side of women associated with untamed sexual urges and blood from sacrifice, battle and menstruation. Tryambaka sees this latter group, as do cultural and spiritual tradition, as essentially anti-social and dangerous and needing to be tamed, which can only be achieved through marriage. Julia Leslie points out that renunciation of men means withdrawal from the household, from women and sexual relations in particular and so while male renouncers can achieve this withdrawal completely, women can never accomplish withdraw from their essential nature as untamed sexual beings.[6]

With this line of thought, I have become aware of the limitations of divine scriptures, texts. It seems to me that the dharmic regulations for women are particularly restrictive, especially when paired with cultural traditions. They seem to be geared toward controlling women and focusing on them as a means of production for the continuation of the culture; valued for their reproductive abilities and restricted by cultural and spiritual rules in order to preserve that role. I believe that patriarchal ideology in general understands that if women were allowed to freely express their dislike of restrictive roles as wives and subservience to their husbands, choose to leave in favor of a life of spiritual renunciation or  life as an independent woman, that all women would choose to do so. I believe that this type of structure is based on fear; the fear of men that women, if allowed to choose freely their lifestyles, would be inclined to leave them altogether and ultimately destroy society’s continuation as a whole. This is essentializing of women in a way I have never thought of before: out of fear, patriarchy must believe that all women have no inherent connection to men or family; or, rather, that human nature is inherently individualistic, and more so in women than in men. Thus the need for tight control. Perhaps, ultimately, Hindu criticism of Western individualism is in fact a critique of their perception of humanity as a whole and a way to justify their “successful” control, over that supposed tendency, by maintaining these severe social regulations.

The Yatidharmaprakasa, an 18thc. treatise on renunciation within the dharmasastra, is another example of the evidence of a restrictive time for women in India.[7] This text, in addition to others, frequent reference to female ascetics, although they are usually discussed with little enthusiasm. Female renunciation is generally looked down upon in a negative light and this negativity is frequently coupled with the insistence that the perfect Hindu wife never associates with female renunciates or their act of renunciation. For association with female ascetics is comparable to association with other bad influences: courtesans, female gamblers, intellectual women and women guilty of infidelity. In fact, the Yatidharmaprakasa claims that renunciation is one of the behaviors that can send women and sudras to the depths of hell.[8]

After reflecting on the negative light cast on Hindu women ascetics, one becomes aware that the Vedic Hindu tradition values as most auspicious one’s status as a householder, or rather, the following of proscribed dharma. While this householder lifestyle is favored for both men and women over a life of renunciation, the near-absolute rejection of women following this lifestyle is much more prevalent than for men. This is supported in numerous ways, one being the traditional belief that birth as a woman assumes bad conduct in a previous life and really the only way to erase the negative karma is for a female to follow the appropriate dharma, of a householder.[9]

This really frustrates me due to the inflexibility of these kinds of structures that strictly define value in terms of what serves a society’s needs over the individual’s needs. And so it follows that cultural norms of this type, regardless of what society you are discussing,  define a person as valuable only when they are following proscribed strictures. What then of women that have absolutely no desire to be a man’s wife, are gay, do not wish to bear children or cannot bear children? Within the Hindu religious milieu, such strict proscriptions doom women to either live miserably the life prearranged for them or to face exile. This is not so for men, who have an option other than householder, to live life as a renunciate. In fact, the role of a male renunciate is auspicious and supported by the society.

To Mother or Not to Mother: That Should be the Question!

Also prevalent during the early Vedic period in Hindu society was Mother worship, and not just the divine Mother, but the average mother. This may have been heavily influenced by a particular set of social circumstance: matriarchal social structure, emphasis on the child-bearing mother and inheritance lines passing through the mother. Because of this economic and social power enjoyed by women, it would naturally follow that when conceptions of divinity were imagined, the figure of the mother would be a powerful influence.[10] In fact, during this time the belief that above celibacy as “the towering ideal of the supersocial life,” was the sanctity of “motherhood as the central ideal in the social life of this land.”[11] It followed that the belief in the instinctive love and sacrifice qualify mothers spiritually to stand above all other human relationships in regard to this phenomenal plane and therefore the supremacy of the mother into the heavens as the Divine Mother became hugely popular. [12] The push by the spiritual and social community was thus to praise women for appealing to the benign quality of a chaste woman who works to enhance the beauty and sublimity of the character, to chasten the sense plane in order to manifest the Divine Mother within her all of the time. This was and, and still is, the highest spiritual objective for women. Mujamdar posits that the reverence of the Divine Mother is responsible for the adulation of earthly mothers, as the scriptures and smritis all venerate the glory of the nurturing mother, who is regarded as the highest of all gurus, exceeding a thousand fathers.[13]

This brings into question a couple of points. First, while this seemingly is a boon for women in Hindu society, it is problematic on several levels. It essentializes women as mothers and allows them no freedom to choose to not follow the path of motherhood. It equates ability to bear children with the necessity and desire to bear them; so that to follow this ‘innate’ desire and ability is the only means of societal value and elevation of a woman’s social status and spiritual potency. Secondly, where does this leave women that have a desire to bear children, but physically are unable? What if they have the desire and ability, but their husbands lack the physical capacity? Or what of women that do not want to bear children? Are they not worthy of praise? Have they nothing of value to offer their husbands or society at large? These questions are all necessary if a fair and accurate ideal of the praiseworthiness of womanhood is to be valued in a society by all of its members.

History or HerStory?

You start with yourself

Who are you, where do you come from

I felt I was the harappan woman, at one with all those

primeval terracotta images. The strata are like that in

our own bodies, we have retained that stratification in time.

To reach out-

Those are the real images of Shakti-

They are in you!

You have the radiance and power and vitality.

Women have that power- they may have forgotten.

They need to be reminded of it.

-Chandralekha

Julia Leslie points out that dominant views are expressed as dominant culture and so any group outside of this structure is muted. Women’s experience has traditionally been defined in terms of their relationship to men, as compared to men. In general anthropology has failed to highlight this dichotomy and so it becomes important to point out that in Hindu religious texts, men have played a dominant role as creators, interpreters and directors of implementation. Leslie says, “The religious role allotted to women is defined in terms of their relationship not to God but to men. For women are given what it is considered fitting for them to do; and, as Hirschon points out, there is a close correlation between what is thought fitting for someone to do and what he or she is considered capable of doing.”[14]

Despite the overwhelming amount of textual support for the ideal Hindu woman as the pativrata (devoted wife), Mary McGee has increasingly found evidence for many alternative stories that also depict the ideal virtuous Hindu wife. In these “women-centered” stories the traditional female icon becomes “a critical player, a significant moral and social agent who brings about change…notable, respected pativratas who act willfully and independently, making decisions which often go directly against the wishes or advice of a husband, king or other dominant male.”[15] Mary McGee is interested specifically in identifying these episodes as models of women making significant decisions to act that directly conflict with the outline of appropriate pativrata behavior. Many have brushed these episodes asides as inconsequential, but McGee disagrees and believes that they represent the capacity within these pativratas to identify a morally questionable situation and act accordingly despite the traditional regulations laid upon them. With the increasing amount of these women-centered stories that McGee has gathered, it becomes clear that these are examples of a pattern of behavior and also they serve as an alternative model for Hindu women to look up to. A.K. Ramanujan says these stories “present an alternative way of looking at things. Genders are genres. The world of women is not the world of men. [The stories present] an alternative set of values and attitudes, theories of action other than official ones.”[16] Ann Grodzins Gold speaks of the absolutely essential role that myths play in the majority of Indian women’s lives. She points out, through Alan Roland’s psychotherapy work, that it is apparent that “integral to the socially contextual ego-ideal for Hindu Indians is a strong mythic orientation… women especially, traditionally experience everyday relationships within the framework of myths.”[17]

Other-Worldly Role Models

The female-centered epic poems, the Devi-Gita and the Devi-Mahatmya, describe the ultimate aspect of the universe as being the Divine Mother. She is known by many different names and forms, some beneficent and some awesome. The Devi-Gita is a less well known retelling of the Bhagavad Gita. It replaces the incarnation of the ultimate male god as Krisna with the main incarnation of the ultimate female god as Bhuvanesvari. The Divine Mother is the creator who pervades and activates the entire universe. The epic poem lovingly and beautifully describes all of her various aspects and the proper conduct of humans when praying to her. The Devi-Mahatmya is a long poem dedicated to describing the efforts of the Divine Mother as the incarnate, Yoganidra. She saves the universe from the attack of the demons Nisumbha, Sumbha, Manishasura and Raktabija. The infamous Kali Ma is introduced in this poem, as the aspect of anger that sprouts from the forehead of Durga, the form that Yoganidra takes during battle with the demons. What are so important in these poems are not their stories, as they are retellings of already established stories, rather it is their ability to recover a truth of reality manifested through the Goddess, which can ultimately serve as a source of empowerment for Indian women.[18]

One mythic woman who personifies all that is good, moral and spiritual in an Indian woman is Sita of the Ramayana. It is the epic story of the exploits of Rama and his battle with the demons, specifically with Ravana the demon king. At one point in the story, Rama’s wife, Sita, is kidnapped and held captive at Ravana’s island. Sita, throughout the story is consumed with guilt and concern for protecting her virtue. She is not necessarily described as being concerned with her own safety, only in terms of how it relates to her being a wife to the great King Rama. When she is returned to Rama (mind you, Rama did not rush to the island once he killed Ravana, instead he sent Hanuman, the monkey god, and told him to make sure that Sita was bathed and adorned with jewels when brought back before him). They have been separated for a long time and all Rama is concerned with is praising himself and his soldiers and their exploits in defeating the demons and their king. Rama demands that Sita be put through a fire ceremony, agni pariksha (where she will be set on fire and if she survives the ordeal then it means that her virtue is intact). She passes and after a while Rama deceptively has her taken to the woods and left (while very pregnant) due to the gossiping of his kingdom- although he is seemingly convinced of her fidelity, he must give in to the wishes of his people. Years later, after she has lived off of the forest and raised their twins to manhood alone, Rama wishes for her to come back but tells her she must endure one more fire ceremony. In most versions of the story Sita complies with Rama’s wish, as she loves him unquestioningly.[19]

In other versions Sita refuses and is swallowed up by the earth (which is related to her miraculous birth story). In the versions of Sita refusing to go back to Rama, she is chastised for this behavior and is likened to a filthy worm (due to having been pulled from the earth as part of her miraculous birth). She gains no power from this behavior according to popular opinion. Her resistance is obvious in even the most conservative versions of the story, but increasingly women are finding even this Sita to be not assertive enough.[20]

And so popular re-appropriations of the Ramayana’s Sita character as an explicitly empowered woman are extremely important, as Sita is an overwhelmingly popular figure in India for contemporary women and men alike. Many feminists are changing the Ramayana so that Sita is infused with strength to not accept her second class status imposed by her husband and society at large. Unlike in Western thought, traditional Hindu Indian society sees the inherent truth in the superiority of the bygone eras as opposed to the present debased Kalyuga we are living in now. Because of this, Indian women see Sita as a living model, worth emulating to the best of their ability. Many Indian women, young and old, are centering their experiences around the mythological Sita (outside of the context of the Ramayana) or the writer-as-contemporary-Sita and either their actions and/or thoughts as “asserting their moral strength” or “rebelling against what they [have] come to see as the unreasonable demands of society or family” (Menon, p.2). The retelling by feminists invade the body of the story with changes, not just the end; although one of the many endings that are new conclude with Sita dramatically demolishing the justifications used by Rama (Indian culture) for his behavior towards her,

Sita:  What? Does the emperor think that I should once more go into his…presence

and once again prove myself…? Do you think I am a mere doll? …my mind and soul revolt at the very thought…

Rama:  Come to your senses! …My word is law! …I cannot take it back! …If you do not do your duty, I must reject you!

Sita (fiercely): How dare you! It is I who reject you![21]

Additionally, new poems and plays and even dances are seeking to reclaim Sita’s dignity through depictions of Sita as not robbed of her voice of opposition to her mistreatment and the personhood inherent in her which has been denied by traditional patriarchy.  “She [Sita]…stands as the perfect type of ideal womanhood in the hearts of Hindu women of all castes and creeds,” so says Swami Abhedananda.[22] It is precisely the upholding of this ideal by most Hindus, secular and religious, and the resulting glorification that bothers so many India women as well and has furthered the push to uncover these alternatives myths and/or create the new one. McGee points to an editorial letter in Manushi (a feminist journal from India) that sums up this frustration that many Indian women feel when daily assaulted with the essentializing iconic Sita:

The ideals, ethics and morality heaped upon women since time immemorial are suffocating and killing. The adjectives used to praise us have become oppressive. Calling us loving, they have locked us in the closed room of culture; calling us gentle, they have reflected us in a mirror of helplessness, calling us kind, they have tied us in cowardice, they have handcuffed us with modesty and chained our feet with loyalty, so that far from ruin, we have not been able even to walk…Now we must refuse to be Sita’s. By becoming a Sita and submitting to the fire ordeal, woman loses her identity. This fire ordeal is imposed on women today in every city, every home. Our exclusion from the scriptures, from temples, from smritis, is also our strength.[23]

The Earthly Goddesses

I too have given agnipariksha,
Not one – but many
Everyday, a new one.
However, this agnipariksha
Is not to prove myself worthy of this or that Ram
But to make myself
Worthy of freedom.
Every day your envious, dirty looks
Reduced me to ashes
And everyday, like a Phoenix, I arose again
Out of my own ashes … … …
Who is Ram to reject me?
I have rejected that entire society
Which has converted
Homes into prisons.

Madhu Kishwar, Yes to Sita, No to Ram!: The Continuing Popularity of Sita in India

Devi worship, particularly in the Sakta tradition, is much more inclusive of women as practitioners, leaders, sources of sacred transmission of the Tantras and their female gurus and saints rank higher than in the Vaisnava and Saiva traditions.[24] Such is the case in the Sakta tradition; generally, Sakta devotees adhere to the premise of the supremacy of the worship of the Divine Mother and Sakti (the feminine, creative, active aspect of the universe). Additionally, women are considered, irrespective of race or caste, to be an incarnation of Sakti. This is not something that they must pursue outside of themselves, but rather they are inherently born with this aspect. The roots of Saktism’s belief structure explain that Sakti created and pervades the cosmos and that this Divine Energy cannot be separated from the physical form it takes as human females- as they are reflections of each other. Therefore by their very nature, women serve as sacred sources of power in the Sakta tradition.[25]

It must be made clear, that adherence to this tradition does not necessarily mean overt equality for women, but it can be used as a source of subversive empowerment. Many women in Sakta families find that they enjoy more relative freedoms than do women of Shaivite or Vaisnavite families. Recent reclamation of Sakti  by contemporary Indian women are allowing for Sakti to be seen as a binding, unifying force to empower women across communities in order to overcome great obstacles, a task that a solitary woman could not accomplish alone. Many personal accounts attest to the fact that women are determined to do battle with the centuries old traditions that are still overt in their cultures today. Geeta Sen quotes Mircea Eliade as saying, “Deeds by the Goddess legitimize the new models for women who are moving from private into public spheres of life; women who battle against social injustices and political wrongs. Deeds by the Goddess valorize the new image of the independent, dynamic woman, who is emboldened to flout conventions and codes of femininity.”[26]

Saktism is certainly not the only sect of Hinduism in which women can carve out alternative lifestyles. There are average women in nearly all villages that have attained extraordinary religious stature that serve as leaders in their communities, albeit often outside institutionalized structures. These women are additionally amazing due to their ability to function as community leaders outside of the popular tradition of acceptance of male ascetics or in addition to their domestic obligations. Erndl says, “Such women draw on the power of the Goddess and become powerful themselves.”[27] Erndl points to powerful myth-models as serving as sources of power for women such as these and the most popular manifestation of that spiritual power is possession (or playing as it is popularly known in Northwest India) by the Goddess as an expression of immanent divinity in which earthly women can participate. Possession is seen as a gift of grace and a channel through which Her devotees can receive darshan.[28] Erndl says,

The most dramatic way in which devotees experience the Goddess is through her possession of human, usually female, vehicles…Devotees approach the possessed person, worship her as the Goddess, ask her for help with their problems, listen to her pronouncements, and receive her blessings. Thus, possession is a means for the Goddess to participate in the world of humans and for the medium and her audience to participate in the Goddess’ divinity. In Hinduism there is no clear dividing  line between divine and human; gods can become humans and humans can become gods, and it is often unclear which is which. The worship of Goddess-possessed women as Matas (Mothers), as manifestations of the Goddess is the case in point. Such women are said to embody the sakti of the Goddess, that is, to become human icons.[29]

Tara Devi is one such woman; she is a thirty-four year old householder, married with four children and has been experiencing possession by the Goddess for eight years. She has a temple attached to her home (built by her devotees), her husband believes in her power and possession, as does the majority of the village, and she helps her devotees with various afflictions (sorcery and spiritual and physical health).  Tara Devi, like many other women saints throughout India, serve their devotees not for their own benefit but for the benefit of the entire community. And as discussed before, for many of them, their power also lies not in completely stepping out of their social boundaries (Anandamayi Ma, discussed below, and Tara Devi both fulfilled their dharma of getting married, and Tara Devi performs domestic chores in addition to serving her devotees), but by incorporating her societal expectations with a divine calling which no can argue against.[30] Tara Devi and thousands of women like her “have drawn on a mythic model, a very real female power, to transform their personal identities. But this transformation is not just a private affair. Their personal experiences have had public consequences. They serve as sacred sources, giving strength and empowerment to other women.” [31]

Many other women have broken traditional societal mandates and become leading figures in Hindu spirituality and culture, such as Anandamayi Ma and Amritanandamayi (AmmaChi). These two women saints are extraordinary  because in them was identified the source of all creation, the Divine Mother. Anandamayi Ma, “The Blissful Mother,” as a child was known for being meditative and withdrawn and particularly sensitive to religious ceremonies and the Divine. At the age of thirteen, Anandamayi Ma married Ramani Mohan Cakravarti, better known as Bolanath; their marriage was never consummated and remained a very untraditional union in every sense for the entire duration. Eventually, Bolanath took initiation from Anandamayi Ma and accepted her as his guru, as did much of India. She was a Saivite and Vaisnavite spiritual practitioner and performed various siddhis (extraordinary yogic abilities) in benefit of her devotees.[32] AmmaChi’s devotion to God was noticed at a young age, she says, “From childhood I had an intense love of the Divine Name. I would repeat the Lord’s name incessantly with every breath and a constant flow of divine thoughts was kept up in my mind no matter the place where I was or the work I was doing.” She has suffered many hardships, but this has not diminished her devotion to charitable works, to encourage those interested in a monastic life, to take charge of an orphanage sheltering approximately four hundred orphans and inspiring humility, compassion, simplicity, patience, love for fellow beings and selfless service into the hearts of millions.[33]

One of my favorite stories of an average woman challenging normative behavior is that of Shobhag Kanvar, as described by Ann Grodzins Gold. When Gold met her, Shobhag Kanvar was a 55 year old high-caste woman, married with four children. While most would define her life in terms of traditional kinship identities as a daughter, wife, mother, mother-in-law, and grandmother, she is also known for her devout relationship to the local deity, Dev Narayan, and His temple. She is totally illiterate and yet a fountain of unending knowledge of rituals, devotional stories and songs and is considered a religious expert in her village. She holds an honored place at temple festivals and the priests daily visit her home to enjoy tea and talk. In fact, the main priest of the temple gives her a substantial share of the offerings for her help with female pilgrims at the shrine.

Shobhag Kanvar’s story is particularly interesting for me because of the way  which she perceive herself is much different than how the rest of the village does; she defines herself as a devotee, and yet the rest of the village sees her as a rebel of sorts because her freedom and behavior is not appropriate for a woman of her caste.  Gold relays the local lore about Shobhag Kanvar’s “liberation” from strict adherence of typical domestic dharma,

One day…Shobhag Kanvar’s husband had had enough. He forbade her to continue her participation in the group of Dev Narayan’s devotees. They had strong words and she appeared to accept his authority. However, that night after he was asleep in his bed, Shobhag Kanvar took down the family sword from its place on the wall, climbed astride her husband’s chest, and poised the weapon over his neck. ‘Let me continue to worship Dev Narayan as I have been,’ she demanded. He complied. The image, of Shobhag Kanvar holding the sword over her husband’s neck, is both climax and punch line of the tale…One main strategy in Shobhag Kanvar’s complex life was to claim that she never infringed the rules of propriety…Her husband, as the gossips constructed their encounter, violated her self-image by accusing her of misconduct and thus aroused her rage.[34]

Further mythologizing Shobhag Kanvar’s resistance to confinement and neglect of her devotional duties, and particularly entertaining, was the resulting “bawdy insult song” (gali) constructed by the villagers. The village women sing this song, gleefully, about one another, substituting different husband’s names, as a praise of Shobhag Kanvar as a representation of a self-image that contradicts that of a restrained wife,

That lewd hussy X’s wife lifted a load, yes!

She climbed on his chest and pissed on his mustache,

Yes-oh-yes!

She climbed on his chest and pissed on his mustache,

Yes-oh-yes!

Get away wanton women, what have you done?

Yes-oh-yes![35]

During post-colonial times in India, many Indians were looking for a new image to describe their newly liberated country. Abanindranath Tagore provided this image to the Indian people by creating Bharat Mata, the incarnation of the Indian subcontinent. This is not an entirely unique concept, as Hindus for centuries have regarded India’s land mass as feminine, usually in the forms of Devi or Sati. None the less, Tagore’s new image is enjoying an increasing popularity amongst average people, politicians, activists, writers, artists and film makers. Her iconography depicts a beautiful woman, painted in auspicious watercolors, empowered with four hands in which she possesses  four symbols of the reconstruction of India [food (anna), clothing (vastra), a manuscript- symbolic of education (siksha) and spiritual beads (diksha)]. This iconography is full of contradictions of what her image is truly conveying: Is she a virgin? Is she married? Is she a renunciate? Is she a goddess? Is she mortal?[36]

“The nation’s identity lay in the culture and more specifically in its womanhood. In the changed political and social environment the image of womanhood was more important than the reality. Historians and laymen would complete the process by ensuring, through continued writings in the twentieth century, that the image also came to be perceived as the reality.”[37]

Indian director, Mehboob, released a film entitled “Bharat Mata,” in which the lead actress gained the reputation of a film goddess; in other words, simply playing the role of Bharat Mata imbibed this woman with power as a screen goddess which earned her the actual worship of many Indians who truly believed in her connection to Bharat Mata. Katherine Mayo wrote a book with the same title, as did Pranay Gupte on Indira Ghandi. Other authors and filmmakers are imaging their heroines against a map of India, an indication of Bharat Mata. So the icon is in fact being related to mortal women, and not just in the symbolic sense but in reality.[38]

In fact millions of Indians perceived female political leaders as the incarnations of the Divine, who could use their gender to their and the nation’s advantage. Indira Ghandi, Jayalitha, Mamata Bannerji and Mayawati are a few such leaders who rose to power with no leadership backgrounds but skilled at survival and harnessing avenging fury, much like the Goddess,  to empower their efforts. In fact, many followers perform ritual ceremonies of adulation to these women; essentially this popular behavior is the merging of politics and religion. Madhu Kishwar says of this,

“As with all the ferocious goddesses of Indian mythology and village lore, Jayalitha justifies her authoritarian ways and her vindictive politics as the legitimate response of a woman long wronged and exploited by men, until she rose in fury. Mamata has built her political career more in the tradition of an avenging deity than a politician…Mayawati does not use any personal history of persecution but claims to be avenging the collective, historical insults heaped upon the entire Dalit community. In short, women who prove themselves stronger and more commanding than men in India are able to use their gender to advantage rather than it becoming a liability for them.”[39]

Alternatives- Ultimately Harmful or Helpful?

Narratives are important conveyors of envisioned as well as applied moralities.

-Mary McGee [40]

McGee brings a very valid point that deserves attention; she says that Narayana Rao has pointed out that often times these stories’ authors subvert authority, while at the same time seemingly respecting it. McGee is curious as to whether the women retelling these stories are aware of that subversiveness and are able to utilize them as alternative, authority-challenging ideologies.[41] As I am not an Indian woman and have not yet traveled to India, I cannot answer her query in this essay, but I would like to address the idea of challenging the system through implicit inferences as opposed to overt ideologies.  As discussed before in this paper, ideas of challenging the system and liberation are different for women all over the world; for Asian women, in particular, a dismantling of the traditional family and a separation of the sexes is not in their scope of what it means to be liberated or to hold power. Could it be that a real and viable challenge of authority and power for Indian Hindu women consists of a challenge that does not drastically attempt to overturn their reality and also maintains a certain level of respect for their fathers, kings and families at large? While I believe this is possible, and actually happening all over India, this is not to imply that the alternative women-centered stories that do in fact turn “appropriate” pativrata behavior on its head are not just as valid as those that do not so explicitly challenge social norms.

Women in Manipur often make “a formal expression of deference to male authority; yet female defiance of male dominance is a profound feature of their culture…women often laugh ‘behind their scarves’ at the air of authority assumed by a man; yet outwardly they approve, and demand submission from his wife.”[42] The point here is that women’s resistance is defined in the West generally as that which shirks all norms and distances the victim from the oppressor, be it person or cultural practice. In India resistance is more often than not slight deviations from the norm. Their scope does not lessen their power, as might be believed in the West. The main characteristic of a worldview is that it is self-defining, says Leslie. The muted group’s perception may not completely fit into the dominant worldview and therefore it becomes important to focus not on description, but rather on evaluation by all members of society. For surely, all of the women of India, throughout time, have not perceived themselves wholly as invaluable and have illicited various forms of resistance, either extreme or subtle. Indian women often “create[d] their own positive construct…For Indian women rarely want to be men; nor, as a general rule, do they seek the ‘freedoms’ of Western women.”[43] In fact, many Asian women do not agree with the separatism that Western culture in general, and Western feminism in particular, espouses as the means to liberation and power. Many Asian women do no want to encourage a distancing of themselves from males or the destruction of the “family.”[44]

Dianne Jenett’s essay “Cooking up Equality: Pongala at Attukal Temple in Kerala, South India,” illustrates the capacity of power women hold with participation in traditional rituals. Attukal Pongala is a yearly ritual held in the spring in Thiruvananthapuram (the capital of Kerala), and most recently is observed by over a million women.  The ritual is an offering to the goddess Bhagavati, in which many of the participants believe that they are empowering themselves to increase the Goddess’ Shakti (power) and therefore her ability to bestow blessings on all of Her devotees.[45] Dianne points out that the process is one of reciprocity, the woman asks the Goddess to bestow a particular blessing, such as “If you give my husband a job…if my son recovers…if my daughter passes her exam…” and in return she promises to offer Pongala.[46] This serves as additional evidence of the power of women to determine the fate of her family.

In fact, Jenett found that most women who participated in the Attukal Pongala “emphasized their pride in acting collectively as women, but not in opposition to men” and says that she observed that the majority of Indian women regard Western women and feminists as anti-family. She was informed by Malayali feminists that the Western focus on independence and individualism leaves no room for an understanding of the complex nature of the joint family system and the agency a woman holds within this system, as well as the lack of desire to experience the hardships a woman left alone would face. She says, “For the women themselves, however, the themes of interdependence, unity and equality are uppermost…”[47]

Jenett’s interviews of several women at the Attukal Pongala, in her essay  show that women are challenging the traditional social norms in various ways, many of which seem to bend to the will of the traditions, but in fact are a challenge to aspects that continue the inequality of the system at large,

“Although the average age of marriage for women has been twenty-two, several of the women of this age I spoke to did not want to get married before they had a good job. Most marriages are arranged, and if a girl has a good job her parents don’t have to pay dowry, so as Asha, a college-educated young woman, remarked, she would be ‘self-sufficient’ in the marriage and ‘not a burden’ if she had a job. Two young women commented with humor that they knew their mothers were offering Pongala and asking the Devi for good husbands for their daughters, while they themselves are asking for jobs!”[48]

In this way, not only are these women asking for equality and respect within a marriage, they are directly challenging the long-held tradition of dowry and the hardships it brings to the parents of females. Consequently, this can serve to change the traditional displeasure of having female children, due to the strains it has put on families to produce dowries suitable to prospective husbands and their families, into a situation where the female is empowered to enter into a marital union as an economically-equal partner.

Pongala also serves the women themselves in yet another capacity. Participation in the ritual means a vacation from the daily duties of most women and provides a time of relaxation and revival of energies to face the rest of the year. “Peace of mind and a reduction in tension was mentioned by many women as one of the benefits of Pongala.”[49] This seemingly benign consequence of participation can be perceived as just the opposite: a defiant act by the women to break from tradition as the sole executors of domestic chores, as well as breaking the traditional belief that they must not do anything, particularly spiritual activity, without their husbands, fathers or brothers.

McGee highlights the famous story of Savitri and the yearly vrata, Vata Svitri, a ritual which allows women to ask for the blessing of longevity of their husband’s life and to be promised the same husband for the next seven lifetimes as an alternative myth. McGee goes through this story and highlights many of Savitri’s independent and willfull actions which contribute to an alternative perception of the pativrata’s appropriate behavior.[50] But I would like to take this opportunity to analyze this idea of the vrata being the opportunity for women to ask for blessings for their husbands’ lives. What is not stated is the most important aspect of this ritual, in my opinion. First, I am going to assume that not all Hindu women are required to participate in this ritual, as McGee states, “…women who observe this day…” (italics my addition, to make a point)[51] I would say then, that a husband who’s wife participates in this ritual can count himself as a lucky man, and in this way, the female has some control over the divine blessing of the longevity of a male’s life. Second, the blessings asked for by the wives can initially be perceived as benefiting only the husband, with the wife as the secondary beneficiary. But I would argue that the wife is the ultimate beneficiary, as widowhood is a most inauspicious and economically devastating predicament for a woman to be in. Additionally, for Asian women who enjoy and rely upon their families as the anchor of their reality, blessing your family, or husband, is a very powerful, self-fulfilling action.

McGee says of the alternative sources of women’s empowerment, “While some of the decisions of these women go against the wishes of the dominant male, indicating disobedience or disrespect, the happy ending that comes as a result of a woman’s agency glosses over her episodic transgressions; however, had the ending been anything but happy, the woman most certainly would have been blamed (as other stories and traditions, not considered here, illustrate).”[52] My question is where is the room for imperfection? Can imperfection not contribute to liberation or challenge of the system at large? What about stories of women who utilized moral agency to challenge a situation that was not beneficial to all involved and the story still did not end happily? I feel that stories of that nature are beneficial to women as well as the ones in which women find themselves vindicated after disobedience. For not all women are equipped with overwhelming insight and wisdom, to assume so is to essentialize them. I would venture to say that such stories of courage that end unhappily could serve to show that though women may not have all of the answers (as many of us do not), we more often than not have courage and heart, and ultimately that is what counts. The idea that it is okay to make mistakes is appealing to me in terms of learning what does and does not work on the path to creating a more just society. Social movements are rife with mistakes, ‘two steps forward, one step back,’ and that is what contributes to the education and growth of a social movement.

Closing

Rita Gross addresses the problem of the seeming lack of power Indian Hindu women deal with despite the overwhelming amount of Goddesses in their pantheon in her book, Feminism and Religion,

Hindu social and ritual forms are patriarchal, even though their religious imagery is not. That brings up a question that cannot be answered empirically and about which opinions will vary widely. Given a patriarchal situation, are women in patriarchal religions better off with goddesses or without them? Some claim that the subservient goddesses, such as the Hindu Sita…, sanctify and valorize patriarchal social norms, making them that much harder to question. But on the other hand, deities never simply mirror human society, especially in polytheistic  mythologies. Some goddesses in virtually ever pantheon defy and reverse patriarchal stereotypes, as does Kali in the Hindu pantheon.[53]

As a researcher of contemporary Goddess worship among Hindus in India, Kathleen Erndl has been asked a similar question, “Why is it that the Hindu Goddess is so powerful, while actual Hindu women are powerless?” and “Why are Hindu women so oppressed in a religion which exalts the Goddess?” Her general response is that the first assumes the powerlessness of women and the second assumes that there must be a direct linkage of worship of the Divine Feminine and the elevated status of earthly women.[54] I believe that the evidence is overwhelming in support of several points to answer these complex questions.

First, empirical date is everywhere as to the question Gross poses about the confusion surrounding the subservience of women under patriarchal Hinduism, this essay has proven that over and over. The fact that while in the midst of an often severe patriarchal religious atmosphere,  women have both, implicitly and explicitly, acted on behalf of themselves to carve out meaningful everyday and spiritual relationships within the Hindu religious and cultural systems. This is not to say that the systems are fine as they are and provide women the most egalitarian and beneficial life experiences possible. Although this essay makes clear that Indian women have the capability to not be passive victims of a patriarchal formal religious system.

Second, women would definitely not be better off without the Goddesses! This essay outlines clearly the influence the Goddess has in their lives. She offers a multifaceted approach to everyday life experiences, giving women the power of choice; they can choose how to respond to cultural, domestic and religious demands in ways that best fit their situations. Indian women find solace in her many forms and this is evident with the vast ways in which she is conceptualized and experienced here on Earth.

Third, I would like to address the generalization that Gross makes near the end of her statement, as presented above. The mere presence of Sita or Kali Ma in the Hindu cultural and religious milieu is not sufficient to answer the initial question of whether or not Hindu women are empowered by Goddesses in a patriarchal religious system. These kinds of general naming of “powerful” Goddesses has led to much confusion and misunderstanding on the part of Western scholars to fully appreciate these Goddesses’ impact on Indian Hindu women. In this essay I have tried to highlight the absolute necessity of delving deeper into these alternative mythologies. For what is not said about them is usually more telling of their empowerment. For instance, the traditional stories of Sita are not the only versions of the Ramayana, and to make generalizations that imply such, is irresponsible. I have shown that there are popular, powerful and accessible alternatives to the traditional story line of the Ramayana. Additionally, to mention Kali Ma as the representative of religious alternatives for women in Hinduism, is also irresponsible when discussed no further than that. As discussed before, Kali Ma is an important role model for Hindu women, not because of her deeds and her behavior as they relate to everyday reality. Instead she is understood as a complex, symbolic model of the potential that all women hold within themselves.

In addressing the questions Kathleen Erndl’s frequently comes up against, the tendency of Western feminism and Western culture in general to regard situations through perceptions only relative to their situations is a problem. She is correct when she points to the assumption of powerlessness and the mere presence of Goddesses requiring the obvious and overt elevation of Earthly women. This is a tendency of Western thought, in my opinion. Admittedly, I was very guilty of this when I first started to do research and study Hinduism and how it relates to the everyday lives of its devotees. I could only conceptualize of women’s participation in ritual and domestic duties in terms of how it served their individual needs. I came to the study with the assumption that the wellbeing of the individual, irrespective of their other relationships, was all that mattered, not only to me but to the Indian women as well. And that if they truly wanted to make change and be empowered in their spiritual tradition, was to basically turn it on its head. But I have come to understand that Hindu women have broken through spiritual and cultural barriers, sometimes overtly and at times implicitly, to forge their own rituals, myths and heroines to empower them in their everyday experiences while simultaneously maintaining and strengthening their relationships.

Two points that I must not neglect that are made by Dianne Jenett are also essential to understanding women’s sources of power in India. The first is a reinforcement of the assumption of the value of individualism that is forced upon Indian women by Western scholars. It must be made clear that women do not need to be recognized as individuals to be considered powerful. Second, in her description of the Attukal Pongala, Jenett points out that the difference between Sanskritic and non-Sanskritic offering is primarily in positions of authority; in the former, a priest is given the authority to mediate between the divine and the devotee. But Attukal Pongala, whose origin is found in the Dalit communities, places authority in the direct participants of the ritual, the women that offer Pongala. Although the male priests open and close the ritual and sing the songs of devotion to the Goddess during the ritual, Dianne found the sentiment of the majority of women was, “The priests just start the fire and carry the Goddess’ water and put it in our pots; they’re not important.”[55] Dianne brings up a very important point, that Westerners often “privilege the role of the male priests.”[56] I would add here, that additionally, the perception of power in most Western minds lies in the leader of a group and not in the participants of the ritual. And so in the Attukal Pongala ritual, the women’s perception of the authoritative position is that they themselves are the most essential, and therefore most powerful, element of the ritual.

This realization is so powerful and comforting to me as I can regard the future, in which I will undoubtedly be fighting for social and economic justice, as a lonely place no longer. Distracting my focus from that kind of socially ingrained individualism of the West, I can now regard myself as part of a whole. I can now understand that community is essential and that we in the West do not have the answers as to how best to define and construct community. Although, Hinduism has not perfected the idea of community, I believe that I have learned and will continue to learn much about what it means to fight for human rights and maintain those relationships that sustain us in our battles and create that sense of community, that very community I am fighting for. I think Madhu Kishwar, one of the editors of Manushi (an Indian feminist journal), sums up my determination to not be tunnel-visioned when looking to other traditions to find help to wage my battle against social and economic injustices for women and all people,

Those of us who wish to combat or reject these ideals have, however, been largely ineffective because we tend to do so from a totally Western modernist standpoint. The tendency is to make people feel that they are backward and stupid to hold values that need to be rejected outright. We must learn to begin with more respect for traditions which people hold dear. We have to make the effort to develop an understanding of why these images of Indian women have such power over the minds and hearts of women themselves. We need to begin to separate the devastating aspects from the points of strength within the cultural traditions, and using the strengths to transform the traditions.[57]


[1] Erndl, Kathleen M. “The Goddess and Women’s Power: A Hindu Case Study.” Draft for Women and Goddess Traditions. Karen King and Karen Torjesen, eds. June 1994. p.9.

[2] Leslie, I. Julia. “Conclusion” to The Perfect Wife. Oxford University Press: Delhi. 1989. p. 322.

[3] Majumdar, Ramesh Chandra and Swami Madhavananda. Great Women of India. Shri Gouranga Press Ltd.: Calcutta. 1953. p. 23.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Gross, Rita M. Feminism and Religion. Beacon Press: Boston. 1996. p. 60.

[6] Leslie, I. Julia. “Conclusion” to The Perfect Wife. Oxford University Press: Delhi. 1989. p. 320.

[7] Ibid., p. 318.

[8] Ibid., pp. 318-322.

[9] Ibid., pp. 319-320.

[10] Mujamdar, Ramesh Chandra and Swami Madhavananda. Great Women of India. Shri Gouranga Press Ltd.: Calcutta. 1953. p. 50.

[11] Ibid., p. 466.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid., p. 24.

[14] Leslie, I. Julia. “Conclusion” to The Perfect Wife. Oxford University Press: Delhi. 1989. pp. 327-8.

[15] McGee, Mary. “The Virtuous Hindu Woman as Icon and Agent: Ethics and Alternative Ideologies in Women-Centered Stories.” This is an unpublished essay that was used in a reader for a class I attended in my undergraduate studies, Hindu Goddesses, with permission of the author. pp. 2-3.

[16] Ibid., p. 4.

[17] Gold, Ann Grodzins. “Gender, Violence and Power: Rajasthani Stories of Shakti” in Women as Subjects: South Asian Histories. Nita Kumar, ed. University Press of VA: Charlottesville. 1994. p. 29.

[18] Sen, Geeti. Feminine Fables: Imaging the Indian Woman in Painting, Photography and Cinema. Mapin Publishing: Ahmedabad. 2002. p. 185

[19] Hess, Linda. “Rejecting Sita: Indian Responses to the Ideal Man’s Cruel Treatment of His Ideal Wife.” JAAR, Vol. 67, No. 1. March 1999, pp. 17-18.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] McGee, Mary. “The Virtuous Hindu Woman as Icon and Agent: Ethics and Alternative Ideologies in Women-Centered Stories.” This is an unpublished essay that was used in a reader for a class I attended in my undergraduate studies, Hindu Goddesses, with permission of the author. p.35.

[23] Ibid., p. 36.

[24] Bose, Namdakranta. Faces of the Feminine in Ancient, Medieval and Modern India. Oxford University Press: New York. 2000. p.114.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Sen, Geeti. Feminine Fables: Imaging the Indian Woman in Painting, Photography and                 Cinema. Mapin Publishing: Ahmedabad. 2002.  p. 185.

[27] Erndl, Kathleen M. “The Goddess and Women’s Power: A Hindu Case Study.” Draft for Women and Goddess Traditions. Karen King and Karen Torjesen, eds. June 1994. p.5.

[28] Ibid., pp. 5-9.

[29] Ibid., p. 10.

[30] Ibid., pp. 20-26.

[31]Ibid., pp. 27-28.

[32] The brief biography of Anandamayi Ma on http://om-guru.com/html/saints/anandamayi.html.

[33] Description of AmmaChi’s early years on http://ammachi.org/amma/early-years.html.

[34] Gold, Ann Grodzins. “Gender, Violence and Power: Rajasthani Stories of Shakti” in Women as Subjects:

South Asian Histories. Nita Kumar, ed. University Press of VA: Charlottesville. 1994. pp. 38-9.

[35]Ibid., p. 40.

[36] Sen, Geeti. Feminine Fables: Imaging the Indian Woman in Painting, Photography and Cinema. Mapin Publishing: Ahmedabad. 2002.  p. 17.

[37]Ibid.

[38]Ibid., pp. 17-20.

[39]Ibid., pp. 173-7.

[40] McGee, Mary. “The Virtuous Hindu Woman as Icon and Agent: Ethics and Alternative Ideologies in Women-Centered Stories.” This is an unpublished essay that was used in a reader for a class I attended in my undergraduate studies, Hindu Goddesses, with permission of the author. p.32.

[41]Ibid., p.4.

[42] Leslie, I. Julia. “Conclusion” to The Perfect Wife. Oxford University Press: Delhi. 1989. p. 328.

[43] Ibid., pp. 328-9.

[44] Gross, Rita M. Feminism and Religion. Beacon Press: Boston. 1996. p.58.

[45] Jenett, Dianne Elkins. “Cooking up Equality: Pongala at Attukal Temple, Kerala, South India.” Forthcoming article to be published in Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion. pp. 1-3.

[46] Ibid., p. 18.

[47] Ibid., p. 19.

[48] Ibid., pp. 20-21.

[49] Ibid. p. 24.

[50] McGee, Mary. “The Virtuous Hindu Woman as Icon and Agent: Ethics and Alternative Ideologies in Women-Centered Stories.” This is an unpublished essay that was used in a reader for a class I attended in my undergraduate studies, Hindu Goddesses, with permission of the author. pp. 7-9.

[51] Ibid., p. 7.

[52] Ibid.

[53] Gross, Rita M. Feminism and Religion. Beacon Press: Boston. 1996. p. 189.

[54] Erndl, Kathleen M. “The Goddess and Women’s Power: A Hindu Case Study.” Draft for Women and Goddess Traditions. Karen King and Karen Torjesen, eds. June 1994. p. 3.

[55] Jenett, Dianne Elkins. “Cooking up Equality: Pongala at Attukal Temple, Kerala, South India.” Forthcoming article to be published in Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion. p. 33.

[56] Ibid.

[57] McGee, Mary. “The Virtuous Hindu Woman as Icon and Agent: Ethics and Alternative Ideologies in Women-Centered Stories.” This is an unpublished essay that was used in a reader for a class I attended in my undergraduate studies, Hindu Goddesses, with permission of the author. p. 37.

(C) 2005 By Shannon Laliberte Parks. All Rights Reserved. Please Obtain Permission to Copy.

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