Does Goddess Worship in India Have a Feminist Underpinning?

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. 

Radha and Krishna making loveHowever, 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.

Durga BattleThe 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…

Kali by raja ravi varmaNot 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]

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  1. The answer is that women are normally women, and women are only usually men.
    What matters to women it’s emotional relationships with other women. The end is women evil rivals or they are each other’s babies.
    What matters to men is power, the more power the better.
    You take a powerful superman in a woman’s figure and try to understand him as a woman.
    The female gods are babies that are invisible like cupids.

  2. I agree with the article. It all stems from the seperation of man and woman and the interpretation of traditions to serve the most powerful of a periode..We still do the same.
    Recently I`ve watched a documentary on BBC about a village in Bhutan which is closed to the rest of the world by a deep canion and snow 6-8 months a year.In this village there are a lot more men than women.The situation at the household that the presenter stayed was as follows.The woman had married two brothers and the three stayed in one house.They said that their law permitted that and there were a lot of households as theirs in the village.Later on one of the husbands said ” This way the property of our father stays in one family”..
    Well in my opinion this is the main reason that this is happening.Power and money.

  3. Raj

     /  August 17, 2013

    such thoughts come from man hating obsession and perversion that Man is bloody wrong and to be blamed for all that happens in UNIVERSE

    • Women rising up successfully in self-defense against rapists you think is evidence of man hating? Hmmm. I suppose that explains the psychology behind India’s history of female genocide.

      • Gud reply!!!

      • Jacie Dell

         /  October 30, 2015

        Yes, this is the problem. We are seeing all these horrible things happening to women, and women are called “man haters’ for standing up for ourselves! That mentality, of calling women man haters simply for challenging the brutality against us, is part of the problem as well.

  4. Reblogged this on maha's place.

  5. jobin

     /  September 5, 2013

    First of all i have to say that goddess worship in india has nothing to do with feminism, just because most of the religious books regarding goddess worship was written by men.Most men have fetishes about being controlled or dominated by a woman(just like some women have rape fantasies).As a man,while making love,i always enjoy a woman in a commanding position and me and my lover have great sex in such positions.When i ask one of my male friends to try a woman on top position,he says that he enjoys it but will never dare to do it,as he belive that it will degrade him in his relationship with his partner.So this is the mentality of a typical indian male.He might wrote books about super heroic female goddess,but will never want a woman to dominate him in any sector of life……

  6. Parimal Kumar Datta

     /  March 12, 2014

    Congratulations! Indeed your article is thought provoking. Your study will be enriched if you study my books entitled Tantra its relevance to modern times and Studies in Taratantra published by Punthi Pustak, Kolkata.The website —parimal kumar datta tantra speaks of these two books.
    I offer my thanks to you for the article
    May Mother Kali blessyou


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