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The Great Goddess alive and well

Published: 
Wednesday, February 15, 2017

One of the most important prayers in the Hindu tradition reads: “Tvameva Mata cha Pita Tvameva, Tvameva Bandhu cha Sakha Tvameva, Tvameva Vidya Dravinam Tvameva, Tvameva Sarvam Mama Deva Deva.”

Translated in English, this Sanskrit prayer means: “You truly are my Mother and You truly are my Father, You truly are my Relative and You truly are my Friend, You truly are my Knowledge and You truly are my Wealth, You truly are my All, my God of Gods.”

In the Hindu tradition we see God both in male and in female. In fact, some Hindu religious leaders will even proclaim that God is in the neuter, in the wind that blows, the sun that shines, the moon at night and even the waters. The Hindu sees God in His Creation!

Two western writers, John Stratton Hawley, professor of Religion at Bernard College and a director at Columbia University and Donna Marie Wulff, associate professor of Religion at Brown University have edited a book in English titled Devi, Goddesses of India, in which they point out: “One of the critical developments in the recent history of Western religion has been the effort to make clearer contact with the feminine dimension in religious experience. This has taken a myriad of forms.

“Women are now ordained ministers and rabbis in a number of communities where a few years ago the idea would have been laughed away. Gender-neutral language is mandated in many hymnals, prayer books and new translations of the Bible. Much attention has been focused on feminine images for God in the scriptures and elsewhere.

“Groups of women have laboured to rescue the word witch from its infamous past by becoming witches themselves—and demonstrating whose infamy it actually was, when witches were burned at Salem and elsewhere.

“Finally, there has been a determined assault on the very history of Western religion in an effort to discover at its origins a Goddess who was widely worshipped before the champions of patriarchy suppressed her. Could she not be worshipped again? Indeed she is.

“The Abrahamic faiths nonetheless place many barriers in the way of seeing the divine as feminine. Those who assert that a coherent culture of the Goddess once prevailed across the Mediterranean world and Europe acknowledged that it has long since been defiled, broken, obscured. In the task of reconstruction—at the scholarly level as well as in the realm of practice—great creativity will be required before Westerners can discover the Goddess again.

“Not so for India. All through the archaeological remains of the Indus Valley Civilization, which created a new standard of culture for South Asia in the third and second millennia BCE, one finds a distinctive set of female terracotta figurines—thousands of them. We cannot tell exactly what functions they served or what they meant to those who made and kept them, but there seems no question about their ubiquity or importance.

“Moreover, the styles of modeling they display were carried forward into subsequent ages. Female sculptures from the Mauryan period (fourth to second centuries BCE) and even later often look very much alike their Indus prototypes. By that time one also has much clearer evidence of a religion that projected the divine in both masculine and feminine terms. True, the Aryan civilisation that became increasingly dominant in North India at the level of high culture from 1000 BCE onward allotted only minor roles to goddesses, but the material evidence shows that the indigenous culture never died out.

“In fact, one scholar recently suggested that ‘the history of the Hindu tradition can be seen as a re-emergence of the feminine.’ As the Sanskrit textual tradition developed up through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries CE, the place of the Goddess in it became evermore firmly established.

“Thus, in the religious life of Hindus today, there is no need to resuscitate the Great Goddess. She is alive and well. She proliferates in every new form of herself (many would say, in fact, that she is fundamentally plural rather than singular), and she animates the religious lives of hundreds of millions of people. Her generic name in Sanskrit and the many Indian languages related to it is ‘Devi,’ a word that, like its Latin and Greek cognates dea and thea, means simply ‘goddess.’ This is a book about Devi, singular and plural, the Goddess and Goddesses of India.”

Hindus in T&T and throughout the Hindu world set aside an entire week for special devotions to the female aspect in the form of a young virgin. This period of prayer and worship is showered upon young girls who have not yet experienced their menstrual cycle.

In recommending the book, Devi, Goddesses of India, Elaine Pacels of Princeton University wrote, “The monotheistic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam have severely limited the portrayal of the divine as feminine. But in Hinduism, ‘God’ very often means ‘Goddess.’ This extraordinary collection explores 12 different Hindu goddesses, all of whom are in some way related to Devi, the Great Goddess. They range from the liquid goddess-energy of the River Ganges to the possessing, entrancing heat of Bhagavati and Seranvali.”

Thus, in the religious life of Hindus today, there is no need to resuscitate the Great Goddess. She is alive and well. She proliferates in every new form of herself (many would say, in fact, that she is fundamentally plural rather than singular), and she animates the religious lives of hundreds of millions of people.