Tarka #005

On the Divine Feminine


On the Divine Feminine

The goddess, strong woman, nurturer and warrior, benevolent and fierce, is an exciting, invigorating, and challenging way to conceptualize the divine. Especially for those coming from a Judeo-Christian background, the idea of the feminine divine might come as a welcome reprieve from masculine divine imagery, yet, as with any religious tradition or practice, the Devi-Goddess requires context.

The articles in this issue of Tarka approach the goddess from three distinct perspectives.  Firstly, we have three introductory style essays. “Yoginis of Past and Present,” by Laura Amazzone discusses Yoginis, the structure of Yogini temple worship, and the Yogini as a practitioner.  Next, Devadatta Kālī, aka scholar David Nelson, details aspects of the ten wisdom goddesses that are known in Tantra as the Mahāvidyās in “Ten Faces of the Mother.” Then, Colombia scholar Chün-fang Yü traces the evolution of the male Bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara into the female, Chinese, goddess Guanyin (Kaun Yin) with her article, “From Bodhisattva to Goddess: Guanyin and Chinese Buddhism.” 

Secondly, we have two articles that are practitioner oriented and present analysis of practice and devotional techniques for approaching and understanding goddess traditions.  “Salutations to the Devī,” by Devadatta Kālī looks at three examples of Goddess worship, Navarātrī, Durgā Pūjā (the finale of Navarātrī), and the classic text on Durgā, the Devīmāhātmya. Then Kavita M. Chinnaiyan examines the Mahāvidyās in “Embracing the Divine Feminine, Darkness and All,” for lessons on how to live authentically by looking at what it means to be feminine or divine, and how the way that these concepts are defined in popular culture may clash with classical, Hindu concepts of the divine feminine.  

Third, and lastly, we have a selection of articles that critically engage goddess the study of goddess traditions with modern questions of feminism and transgender studies and comparative studies. All of the articles in this final grouping have been previously published and are reproduced here with permission from the author.  

Post-colonial scholar, Rajeswari Sundar Rajan’s “Is the Hindu Goddess a Feminist?” points out that Hindu-goddess figures are rarely invoked as role-models for young women. Even if the example of the goddess might be used to account for certain unconventional behaviors, it will not necessarily save women from the social repercussions of behavior that, while acceptable for a goddess, is unacceptable for a Hindu woman.  She also raises some important questions about the kind of power that is admired and evoked through the traditions that emphasize the warrior mother.

Partially, in response to Sundar Rajan’s article, Vrinda Dalmiya’s “Loving Paradoxes: A Feminist Reclamation of Kali,” delves into a particular look at how devotion to Kali in the work and tradition of the eighteenth century, Bengali poet Ramprasad Sen, demonstrates a radical reconstruction of selfhood and a deconstruction of the “master identity” that is an important facet of feminist and post-colonial movements.  

Next, Cathryn Bailey’s, “Embracing the Icon: The Feminist Potential of the Trans Bodhisattva, Kuan Yin,” follows upon Chün-fang Yü’s introductory piece.  Here, Bailey argues that the simultaneously universal and particular aspects of Kuan Yin, demonstrated in his/her use of upaya, or “skillful means,” opens up aspects of feminist discourse that tend to get stuck in either grandiose visions or essentialist pitfalls.  Bailey writes, “[Kuan Yin] lives out the promise that our beliefs about who and what we are need not be reified into weapons we might use to beat one another up, but can instead sere as conceptual and imaginative tools with which we might help one another negotiate a lovely, difficult world.”  

The two final essay’s in this issue are both comparative, tracing some of the striking narrative parallels that exist between radically different cultural contexts.  David Gordon White’s, “Ḍākinī, Yoginī, Pairikā, Strix: Adventures in Comparative Deomonolgy,” looks at the narratives of transgressive acts of female esoteric practitioners from across geographically and religiously different parts of the world.  White’s careful study of particular of witches or yoginī’s who devour people suggests a migration of narratives that moves both west to east and east to west.

Laura Amazzone’s second article in this issue, “Hungarian Shamanism and Shakta Tantrism,” uncovers some surprising parallels between the Hungarian folk belief in the goddess Boldogasszony, the goddess of life and abundance, and the goddess Durga and the Matrikas of Nepal.  This study reveals a pattern of shared characteristics, actions, and spiritual practice across two very different cultures and is suggestive of a history of shared narrative, much like that discussed in White’s article.

This issue of Tarka is accompanied by two related courses.  These are, “Yogini: Empowering Mandalas of the Divine Feminine,” taught by Laura Amazzone and “Navarathri: An Inner Path to Shakti,” taught by Kavitha Chinnaiyan.  Both of these are available in the “Learn” section of the Embodied Philosophy website.

~ Stephanie Corigliano, Tarka Managing Editor