Does the worship of goddesses in India have a feminist under-pinning? This is one of the questions I was looking at while researching for my book Sex and Power.
The answer to my question I found, was both ‘Yes’ and ‘No.’ I discovered that there were two main streams of religious thought that had completely different origins and were diametrically opposite in how they viewed women, feminine sexuality and power. One of them, based in the tradition of the Vedas, was extremely patriarchal in its leanings, and even though it had goddesses, like Sarawati for instance, it regarded them as passive, inert manifestations whose sole aim was to nurture and sustain the men.
The other stream of religious thought was that of the Shaktas. These were worshippers of ‘Shakti’ which is the female personification of power as a concept. Below is an excerpt from Sex and Power on the feminist underpinning of the Shakta philosophy.
At the very core of the Shakta philosophy lay the seeds of a feminist rebellion. The Shakta goddesses revolutionized the concept of the feminine in India, turning the [earlier] Vedic male version of it upside down. These goddesses…unequivocally rebuff[ed] the bovine placidity of the Vedic goddesses [and] being invincible warriors..could destroy as adeptly as they could create.
Fundamentally there was a face-off between the earlier dominant male sexuality and the revolutionized female one. Female sexuality [now] was not just candidly but often aggressively expressed…It was believed that the goddess was sexuality incarnate. She possessed names like Kamya (desired), Rati (sexual intercourse), Mohini (enchantress) and Kamarupini (Lust in the flesh)…An insatiable lover, the goddess was demanding with the men she opted to be with.
However, the issue of her choice was crucial. Often she broke social parameters of caste and clan to be with a lover she desired…Both Radha and Sati, in choosing their respective mates, violated revered conventions of caste, class and decorum. Radha, a married woman of a noble clan, fell in love with the dark-skinned, low-caste cowherd, Krishna…She declared that love had its own rules and that [for Krishna] she would be willing to set fire to her house and leave. In bed with Krishna she often initiated ‘a bold offensive,’ climbing astride him…Sati, a Brahmin girl, fell in love with Shiva who representative of the Chandalas, the lowest and most despised outcastes…When they set up their home in the Himalayas, the legend goes, they shared an intense sexual chemistry, engaging in sex for such prolonged periods of time that they would cause seismic disturbances in the cosmos which terrified the gods.
The question of a woman’s choice was even more important where the age-old custom of rape or marriage by rape was concerned. No longer was a woman a man’s privilege to take as and when he willed. [In the form or Kali or Durga] the goddess dealt with would-be rapists with a devastating vengeance…flaunting her insurmountable skills as a warrior. Even more emasculating to the patriarchal order was the fact the goddesses battalion consisted entirely of female warriors…After a bloody battle…she would decapitate her enemies and wear [these men’s] heads in a victory garland around her neck…
Not only was the female no longer an object of sexual conquest for men but the notion that [the function of] femininity was to be aesthetically pleasing for men’s sexual stimulation was also challenged. She did not [always] have to be fair, young, curvaceous…[but could also be] old, dark and gaunt, with shrunken, pendulous breasts and…disheveled hair…with a garland of human heads…The idea was that even in her most repulsive form the goddess was sacrosanct. The Shakta movement proclaimed all femininity to be sacred, a strongly feminist statement that outright challeng[ed] the Vedic scheme that itemized and appraised women in context of use. [excerpt from Sex and Power: Defining History, Shaping Societies, Penguin Global, 2009, pp. 150-165]