I recently assigned my students an article by Kathleen Erndl – “Is Shakti Empowering for Women? Reflections on Feminism and the Hindu Goddess.” 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.
Kalawati 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. 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.
 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.
 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.
 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.