Was Mother Kalawati a Feminist? (Part 1) by Vibha Shetiya

VibahI recently assigned my students an article by Kathleen Erndl – “Is Shakti Empowering for Women? Reflections on Feminism and the Hindu Goddess.”[1] I’m sure, like Erndl, many have been fascinated by this question, especially within the Indian context. Does the presence of an abundance of goddesses necessarily translate to social empowerment for women? The answer is indeed complicated in that one cannot reify all goddess worshippers under one static rubric.

Having said that, however, I would like to posit that generally speaking, it would be fair to say Indian culture is a patriarchal one, and that the presence of a goddess tradition does not translate to independence for women. Firstly, the kind of goddesses worshipped by both men and women, are not necessarily the assertive, independent kind. They are often those such as Lakshmi and Saraswati who are maternal and nurturing, and important in their own right. All too often, however, these virtuous traits have been used to disempower women, to keep them in their “socially assigned places.”

There is evidence from early Hindu literature that the above goddesses may initially have been independent forces, but they soon came to be tamed as consorts of male gods; Lakshmi as Vishnu’s wife, and Saraswati as Brahma’s. Second, fierce and independent goddesses such as Kali and Durga may have a large following, but it is only in certain cases such as in Tantric theology specific to the goddess Shakti, identified with Kali, that ritual practices may do away with gender roles, that both male and female members have equal access to Kali. But the important question would be – outside of the ritual context, how do practitioners of Tantra regard women? In other words, do women have equal social – and not merely equal ritual – status? I am not an expert in Tantric discourse, but judging by various commentaries, I have reason to believe that this does not necessarily translate to gender equality in the social setting.

My quest here, however, is to provide an example of what a community with a strong, female leader may look like. I thought of this example because I have been intrigued with and fascinated by my own family experience regarding the cult of Kalawati Aai or Mother Kalawati (I do not use the term “cult” derogatorily as “a group with a powerful and controlling leader” but in the classical sense of “practices centering on an object of reverence”). My aim is to provide a picture of often conflicting ideals within the Hindu setting, to shed light on how this can play out on the ground. My information on Kalawati Aai – considered a saint by her devotees – comes from hearsay and hagiographical accounts for I never met her; she died almost forty years ago.[2]

Shri_Kalavati_Mata-imageKalawati Aai was born as Rukmabai Kalyanpurkar in what is today the state of Karnataka, India, in 1908. According to hagiographical sources, as a toddler itself, she professed a devotion for Lord Krishna. As she grew older, she channeled all her energies towards him, not unlike the female saint, Mirabai.[3] And like Mirabai, she is said to have nurtured a longing for Krishna, to the point that she saw herself as “wed” to the god. But as was the norm in those days, she was married off at fourteen, much against her wishes, to a gentleman named Rajgopal – an irony, note her followers, in that Gopal is one of the various names of Lord Krishna.

Being one to accept things the way they turned out, she threw herself into domesticity, dedicating her wifely devotions to her family, which included in-laws. Tales abound of how she would arise before family members to ensure their comfort by heating water for the entire household’s morning chores, having breakfast ready for them, and being at the service of her husband before he left for work. In short, she was the ideal wife, ideal sister-in-law and ideal daughter-in-law.

Tragically, after the birth of her second son in 1927, her husband died leaving her a widow at nineteen. Bereft, with two children to take care of in a world that dictated “women should be under the control of their fathers and husbands,” she decided there was no point in living. She approached a well with the intent of killing herself, when she is said to have been accosted by a sage who told her that she had been born to “bring life to others” rather than to end her own prematurely. It is at that moment she had an epiphany and all her sorrows are said to have dissolved to the point that family and friends were astonished by her now ultra calm demeanor.

A few months later, tormented by the visions she had of seeking god and moksha (salvation), she left her parental home leaving her children behind with the intention of never returning. Her family, of course, was not only aghast by her decision, but also livid; it wasn’t just a question of abandoning her children, it was also the idea that women of good breeding did not up and leave home to seek refuge in a strange environment, albeit a “godly” one. When they found her at her guru’s religious retreat, the beseeching to return home soon turned into reprimands and threats of abandoning her forever. Suffice it to say nothing worked.

Now, there are a few things going on here. But at this early stage of not just her life and that of her children, but also of the narrative which has yet to unfold, would it be possible to say that this act of her defying social norms in search of moksha was, at least at face value, a feminist one? I have more to say about Rukmabai, but it will have to wait till the next post.

[1] In Is the Goddess a Feminist: the Politics of South Asian Goddesses, eds. Alf Hiltebeitel and Kathleen M.

Erndl (New York: New York University Press, 2000). Shakti is the feminine principle behind creation in Hindu theology.

[2] Hinduism does not have an overarching body that deals with issues of canonization; a person is considered a saint by his or her own devotees.

[3] Mirabai was a historical figure who probably lived in the fifteenth or sixteenth century in northern India. The term “bai” basically means woman; when attached to a name, it could be used to mean “lady” as in Lady Mira. In the olden days, in certain parts of India, “bai” was often attached to female names at birth, hence Rukmabai.


Vibha Shetiya was born in India and raised in Zambia before moving back to India as a teenager. She has been living in the US since 1999. Vibha moved to Albuquerque last year from Austin where she completed her dissertation on feminist versions of the “Ramayana,” an ancient Hindu epic. She will be teaching a class on eastern religion at University of New Mexico this coming fall.

Categories: Female Saints, Feminism, General, Herstory, Hinduism

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18 replies

  1. I am so glad you have joined our blog community so that we can think through the issues concerning Goddesses and women together.

    I think we need a definition of feminism to answer your questions. RR Ruether offered this one on our blog:
    “Feminism basically means the affirmation of the full humanity of women. This means that all the ways women have been defined as inferior, secondary and dependent on men since the rise of Patriarchy roughly six-to ten thousand years ago are rejected. It means that women are affirmed as fully human, not partly human or complementary to the male, but with all human attributes and capacities, in relationships of both autonomy and mutually with other humans, male and female, as well as the ecosystem.”

    I see several issues needing further exploration that are raised by your post:
    1. I agree with your general assessment that Goddesses do not equal the full equality of women in Hindu cultures. However, Mother Goddesses in a patriarchal framework may still support certain kinds of female power, including the power of the mother to manipulate and control the lives of her sons and to control many aspects of the extended family household, including manipulating and controlling her sons’ wives. Even though you or I might not want this kind of power, it is power, albeit distorted power.
    2, With regard to Mother Kalawati, obviously her choices as she saw them were limited: she did not have the option to raise her children and to pursue her own salvation. This raises the question of to what extent an other-worldly definition of salvation can ever be female friendly? Also for me whether it is a definition that is already warped by patriarchy/patriarchal denial of the value of the body and the world.
    3. If Mother Kalawati made a “feminist” decision to choose “self” or “salvation” over culturally defined roles, is this decision itself feminist?
    4. Did she help other women to achieve it too? In other words did she question patriarchal constrictions of women’s roles? Should we expect her to be able to do that too?
    5. Did she choose to follow a male-defined definition of salvation which is other-worldly and may be wrong?

    Wish we could discuss all of this in person.


    • Carol, you raise fascinating questions! I am hoping my next post will be able to address some of your queries, but again, I am seeking answers there too as there are so many things I find difficult to assess.
      Let me address your questions point by point:
      1. Absolutely! It is not at all uncommon to see Indian women wielding a lot of power within the family. In fact once when we watched Bend It Like Beckham in class (here in America), a student asked a question – do women really have that much power over the household? He was referring to Jasminder’s mother, who is like most Indian mothers in that it is she who often has the final say in what goes on inside the house. It was then that I realized, oh yes, this definitely can be seen as power, even though, as you mention, I may not view it as so, especially given that I see so many other factors working against women. But yes, I’m sure it brings some sense of satisfaction to many women, and I agree, it is power, albeit a distorted one. Thank you for bringing that up!
      2. I had never really given much thought to the gendered aspect of salvation itself – would it have been possible for her to raise her children in her quest for moksha? Within this particular Indian context – no, precisely because the search of moksha has been defined by males in power.
      3. Exactly – that is what I want to know too; can it be a feminist decision? Obviously it was something she wanted and she pursued it, whereas most women in a similar position would have given up and settled down.
      4. This will have to wait for my next post.
      5. This question, of course, is tied up to #2. It is clear that there was a set way of seeking salvation; she did not come up with her own methods.

      I very much appreciate all your comments in helping me look at Mother Kalawati in different and deeper ways. I hope Part 2 “picks your brain” too! And yes, I wish we could have this discussion in person.


  2. Goddess worship cannot right all the wrongs inflicted by patriarchy’s misogyny, and as you rightly say, the worship of goddesses in India does not translate to liberation for women on a social level. However, there is a question that relates to the inner life of women and its relation to their/our bodies: do women who grew up in a culture that worships goddesses have the same distorted body image that Western women, who grew up without goddess, have? Maybe goddess worship does not directly translate into social equality, but it may it not protect women from life-long body loathing?


    • Hmmm, interesting question, Majak. I do know for certain that the traditional idea of beauty for an Indian woman is what people here in the West would call “curvy” – thin waist, large breasts, large hips and thighs. Carvings on temple walls depict women exactly thus. But till you raised it, I hadn’t really given thought to whether this was the result of goddesses being depicted thus. However, and this will problematize the issue further – in the past two decades or so, the idea of beauty in India has changed. The opening up of the economy has provided a lot of exposure to Western culture, and one idea that is becoming increasingly popular is that of being tall and skinny. I hear of more and more teenagers eating lesser and lesser so as to avoid getting “fat.” This, though, is a phenomenon that is mostly restricted to upper class people living in cities.


      • In the west, women have been taught by Christianity that the female body is the source of sin and temptation, and that female bodies are dirty and evil. I think Majak was asking if the Goddesses traditionally give Indian woman a sense of the goodness of the body and their bodies. How do Indian women feel about their bodies, do they feel they are auspicious, good, sacred? Does the other-worldly tradition teach them to despise their bodies or give them contradictory messages? How do Indian women negotiate that?


      • This is rather difficult to answer because there are so many contradictory aspects. In short, I would say women aren’t specifically taught to loathe their bodies, but the female body itself could be a site of both auspiciousness and pollution. Married women are considered to be the goddess Lakshmi and should be revered as such, but women are also polluting when they menstruate. A bride is akin to a goddess, but a widow is inauspicious. Carvings on temples exaggerate women’s bodily proportions, goddesses are artistically depicted as very feminine – their curves evident through the finery they are bedecked in, and they clearly bear marks of wifehood – but they are usually desexualized in their descriptions. Unless of course it is Kali. She challenges norms when she chooses to wear minimal “clothing” – a skirt of severed hands, and a necklace of skulls. She has her long hair loose and disheveled as she dances, out of control, on corpses. That she stands outside the margins of orthodoxy could speak volumes about attitudes towards women’s sexuality and bodies, I think. When it comes to other-worldly concerns, sexuality for both males and female must almost always be reigned in (except in Tantra). (Apologies for the delay in responding – the past few days have been super busy)


  3. More please! Looking forward to your next post.


  4. Can’t wait to read your next post – what happened next??!!


  5. I agree with Carol’s comments. The element that struck me as missing, in terms of modern day feminism and liberation, is the ability of every woman to get an education, find a job, earn her own living, and support herself, while extending her life into various interests. The real tragedy would seem to be the necessity to be “married off” at 14 and have children immediately, when the girl had not found her own way into life at all.


  6. I need a few more details to help me understand your question a bit better.
    1. In Kalawati Ai’s Hindu community, could a widow re-marry?
    2. As a widow, would she retain custody of her children, or would her children be raised by her in-laws? If her in-laws wanted custody of the children, would they be given custody over her because they have a ‘male’ head of household?


    • 1. Traditionally speaking, upper class, upper caste women – particular those belonging to the highest caste, Brahmin – were restricted from remarrying. But, members of Kalawati Aai’s family are said to have insisted that she remarry rather than spend time in a strange environment away from home. This is remarkable, given that she herself was a Brahmin woman, although I am not clear if this was considered the lesser of the two “evils.”
      2. This question is more difficult to answer as it would again depend on class and caste, and within that the families themselves; generally speaking, the higher the caste, the more severe the restrictions. In those days, it was not uncommon for the widow to return to her natal family along with her children, especially if she was very young, as Kalawati Aai was. What I am certain of, though, is that back then, legal action was practically unheard of. So it would be up to the family to decide, mostly the in-laws. It would depend on a lot of factors such as, do the in-laws have other sons or male heirs? Are they wealthy enough to provide for the widow and her children now that their son has passed? In modern times, in the cities, things are changing as far as both tradition and legality are concerned.

      All excellent questions that help me look at this case in so many different ways. Thank you, nmr!


      • At this point in the story, Kalawati Aai’s actions seem more motivated by a form of bourgeois nationalism (vis a vis Mahatma Gandhi’s revisionist reforms) than by feminism.


  7. Welcome, Vibya. It’s wonderful to have the voice of a Hindu feminist here. I’ve been fascinated by Hinduism for years. From my reading it seems that Hinduism is essentially an umbrella name for many different religious paths. For instance, the Hinduism of ascetic sadhus, who want to transcend their bodies to the point of abusing them, is very different from Tantra, where the body is embraced as a portal to the sacred. As a result, it’s not really possible to talk about THE Goddess in India. Even when She wears the same name, she’s understood differently by different communities (See Carol’s post yesterday).

    It’s not surprising to me that both Shakta and Tantra traditions “tend to be more inclusive of women as practitioners and more accepting of women as leaders or gurus than do Vaishnava or Shaiva traditions,” as Kathleen Erndl has written. Not only is the human body and the body of creation celebrated in those traditions, but so is shakti (at least more so than in the other strands of HInduism), the power of the goddess and of women. I think it’s too much to expect that within a patriarchally-dominated culture like India that one religious strand among many is going to liberate women in some ultimate sense. Is feminist Wicca doing that here? Instead I agree with Rita Gross when she says that here in the West goddesses are a resource to critique the Abrahamic tradition that exterminated them. In India, it seems to be much, much more complicated. I look forward to hearing how you view the situation there.


    • It is indeed, a very complicated situation in India, Nancy. There are so many contradictory aspects regarding Indian goddesses. I myself am not too sure if the abundance of goddesses necessarily translates to empowerment for women in general. But on the other hand is there a co-relation between the many female spiritual leaders and presence of goddesses in India? Moreover, while such women may be working with the system, it is still power nevertheless, as Carol points out (whether it is specifically feminism or not, and if so, what kind, is a more complex issue). And while Shakta traditions embrace the female energy within women, other traditions tend to view women suspiciously because they are aspects of shakti; they need to be reigned in because they possess this power. I would say, on the every day level, as opposed to scholarly observations, I do not find goddesses a resource for critiquing the culture. Having said that, there have been many activists/ writers who have used the figure of the goddess Sita (the “ideal Indian woman”) to comment on the unequal gender equation in Indian society. (Apologies for the delay in responding – crazy past two days!)


  8. Wonderful post, thanks very much.

    I do think that Mother Kalawati’s decision to renounce the household life in favor of her spiritual vocation was feminist, in the bell hooks sense, given that for a male to do what she did would likely have hardly raised an eyebrow. In that way she was cracking the solidity of the socialization of gender roles and set an example for others, even if pedagogy was not foremost in her mind. Also, she defied (or perhaps exploited) the laws of Manu by renouncing the authority of her father-in-law and any sons in favor of her spirituality, albeit with her male guru there there as a proxy. It would be interesting to know more about him and his status and influence in the area at the time.

    There is also an interesting gender bias in tantric phenomenology that is still present in traditional dharma traditions, or at least in Vajrayana Buddhism: in Buddhism the confounding of what is most likely oxytocin with male seminal fluid (yes millions of traditional practitioners still think there is semen outside of the pelvic region!), combined with virtually no traditional records of female phenomenal experience distinct from men, leaves many Budddhist men to consider women biologically and hence yogically inferior because of not having a penis. This is recorded (in the Lamrim Chenmo) as one reason 15th century scholar Tsongkhapa, (despite his other, remarkably ingenious work,) advised Buddhists that women were inferior to men and to pray to avoid rebirth as women. Since patriarchal social culture provides a self-fulfilling prophecy of keeping women in illiterate servant roles, such that the inferior status appeared to be “given,” such pronouncements were readily accepted without qualms. However, the less monastic traditions, with less celibacy, and hence more likelihood of intimate familiarity with female sexuality, continued the patriarchal social order with what appears to be a much softer misogyny and more prevalence of nevertheless rarely noted women teachers/saints! This may be also true of Hindu Vajrayana traditions.

    This is a long-winded way of saying that there appears to be virtually no discourse on female subjective phenomenological tantric experience indicating female roles *not* in connection with subjective male experiences, at least in Vajrayana Buddhism. It would be marvelous to find some female narratives among the diverse Hindu traditions! In Buddhist texts, the presentations are invariably from a male perspective. If the female appears at all, she is presented in her capacity of facilitating male experience, and never vice-versa! The topic has traditionally been an oral tradition in Vajrayana Buddhism, but when written material appears, it is always given from the typical male perspective. (I will be happy to be shown a contrary case). In fact, I have seen transcripts of presentations of this material by Tibetan priests to international audiences which include Q&A; when someone asks about the experience for female physiology, and the teacher remarks “I have no information about that.” Of course, women who have undertaken the traditional meditation training do have phenomenological experience, but there is of yet no suitable social space for discussing it. In the traditional culture, the patriarchal bias is so strong, even women are loathe to accept the female practitioners’ experiences as valid or worthwhile to learn anything about! I find these biases to be just as prevalent among Western Buddhist converts as indigenous. In fact, the buzz male converts get from traditional patriarchal reinforcement from the traditional religious culture, which is much more subtle in Western or contemporary social culture, may make the biases against a role for women’s religious experience even stronger!


  9. There is another interesting point about a social culture of strong goddess devotion as an antidote to misogynist expression. If favoring males with more resources for spiritual learning and formation than female is to be a gauge, then the answer for nearly any Buddhist tradition outside of the Chinese must be a clear “no” it is not an antidote. In fact, I sometimes wonder if the “cult of Tara” devotion in Vajrayana Buddhism is not on some level an acting out of atonement for what is otherwise a very pervasive patriarchal social culture. Among Hindu traditions, this might also be so, especially, as you point out, with the peaceful goddesses, especially for devotees who want the traditional patriarchal order maintained and affirmed. (The new female president of Nepal is said to be on record of considering women’s equality to be a foreign import, in contrast to the tradition of the subservient woman! She was nevertheless rewarded for the kow-tow!) I have no empirical basis to say so, but my sense is that male devotion toward the wrathful goddesses is often very confounded with fear of female fertility, menstruation, uncertain paternity, etc., and the basic human fact of historical role/need for animal protein in the diet. A lot gets projected onto the goddesses and in some sense their most profound power is in mirroring these ubiquitous yet subliminal psyche discomforts into the light of day or pitch dark of night, as the case may be! That move from subject to object is the first step of transcendence!


  10. In fact, I sometimes wonder if the “cult of Tara” devotion in Vajrayana Buddhism is not on some level an acting out of atonement for what is otherwise a very pervasive patriarchal social culture.

    In fact, I sometimes wonder if the “cult of Mary” devotion among priests and popes is not on some level an acting out of atonement for what is otherwise a very pervasive patriarchal social culture.


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