Monday, January 09, 2006

the origins of a tradition

The Series:

feminism in indian culture
the origins of a tradition
shakthi worship and philosophy
yoni worship

* * *

feminism is usually associated with the movement that started in the west (especially in america). however, all of the old cultures in the world have feminist orientations in that they have all (at least in the beginning) worshipped mother goddesses and celebrated the feminine as divine. patriarchy eventually distorted the cultures and traditions, but nonetheless, these roots do exist. indian culture has a whole school of thought that traces back to a couple of centuries BC. *three cheers for nice ancestors! :D*

pre vedic religion was female - oriented. Aditi was the main goddess, who personified the great womb in which the whole universe was said to be contained. she holds agni in her womb as a mother contains a foetus. the feminine, being regarded as the wellspring of life, almost all the primary gods of the vedic pantheon were born of Aditi.

the vedic period seems to have marked a distinct shift to patriarchy. prithvi and surya, initially goddesses, were cast as male gods in vedic times. several of the goddesses were relegated to the background. however they made a reappearance in post vedic literature and regained their primacy in classical and medieval hinduism. puranic literature gives various names to the universal feminine power. these, and the hundreds of treatises written since 200 AD form the structural body of the philosophy and traditions of shakthi worship. hardly any of these earlier works have survived, but they are discussed in several philosophical and religious works of the shaktha system from post buddhic times to 1200 AD. this knowledge is also the basis of the tantric thought.

medieval hinduism considered women to be feminine divinity manifest. the female consorts of gods were considered the source of the gods' powers, and were often regarded as being more powerful. in several songs, epics and poems, the gods (shiva downwards) voice their inability to manifest or create without the consorts, who however, can exist and manifest without them.

kali dances on a prostrate shiva

(nb: i was thoroughly muddled at first, but this is how it seems to work - the shakthi here, is different from shiva's consort. the nature of the sum of the cosmic force is considered feminine, and this is called shakthi. she thus contains prakrithi and purush.)

in tantrik and shaktha doctrines, the feminine power continues to be held supreme. archetypal women are celebrated in different goddesses, and womanhood is the essence that raises the human being to semi divine status, freeing the mortal from the bonds of stereotypes of beauty and docility.

yashodha suckling krishna.
(far from being taboo, breasts were revered - goddesses were bare breasted,
depicted only with jewellery for adornment)

shaktha philosophy also includes male shakthas (worshippers). for them, the worship activates the feminine qualities in the male. there is sometimes even a ritual tranvestism practised (literally unman-ing), so that the male destructive ego may be shed to allow the feminine to be assumed. vaishnavism still follows this quite strictly. even in the mainstream hinduism we see today, the equal activation and harmonious fusion of male and female qualities is emphasised, using gods like ardhnarishwar.



Blogger neha vish said...

M: The economic structures prevalent during pre-Vedic, Early Vedic, Later Vedic periods might explain the decline of the status of women in the society. (It runs parallel to your post really)

My memory may be a bit rusty - but the parallel is drawn such. Non-agrarian practices in the community meant far more fluidity in power structures. This is because wealth was in terms of movable assets like livestock etc.

But the shift to a more agrarian society - meant that more communities were settling down. This begins a whole new equation of power in the societies. Where property becomes an important factor in power balances, it becomes important to retain property through sanctioned laws of inheritance - to retain power in the closed circuit of clans and families. And patriarchy becomes a model for that. To this date - tribal communities have more respect for the "feminine" and are more comfortable worshipping the "feminine" force. In Mainstream religion - clearly the "feminine" force is defined by the relationship to the "masculine" - and hence worshipped as mother or wife. It's incredible how religion and economics reflect each other.. Right from the decline of female-force worship in Vedic times - to Protestant culture and the rise of Capitalism.

Thanks for this post. Got the brain working after a while!

6:05 am  
Blogger m. said...

hullo neha! apologies - i was thinking hard about that point you brought up... but first: thanks awfully - your comment made very interesting reading! :)
im with you when you say that power politics led to putting handcuffs on women. my doubt is this: the indus valley civilisation worshipped a mother goddess i know... werent they also agrarian?
i think maybe when people shifted from subsistence farming to commercial farming is when the patriarchal power shift may have happened...because as you mention, tribal societies are less chauvenistic (if not very progressive!) in their treatment of women, and they practise subsistence farming.
its hard to say. i need to look this up some more! :)

5:12 am  
Blogger neha vish said...

m: Hhmm.. Let's see. The Harappa / Indus Valley civilization was also marked by plentiful trade. It was full of urban centres, and had thriving international trade. I would say that the economy has many facets. From one end to the other. And within the microsms of each economy various power balances would emerge.

Subsistence agriculture is definitely more of an "equalizer". Oh oh.. too much to think about.

4:27 am  
Blogger m. said...

yesh! :))

12:53 am  
Anonymous erimentha said...

I do keep doing this, sorry! Put it down to the joy of discovery... ;)

But the comments made me think of Engels' "Origins of the family, private property and the state" - you should read it!

10:03 pm  

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