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.
Continue reading “Was Mother Kalawati a Feminist? (Part 1) by Vibha Shetiya”