About the Book
This volume explores the delicate subject of gender and religion with honesty and clarity focusing on one of mankind's earliest and most textually rich religious traditions, Vaishnavism. Steven J. Rosen has brought together eight essays by leading academics, poets and practitioners, who shed light on the lives and teachings of specific female saints throughout history. This book also examines general principles regarding the worship of Krishna and how such principles impact on the lives of both men and women today.
About the Author
Steven Rosen (Satyaraj Das) is a freelance writer and author living in the New York area. Among his more popular books are Food for the Spirit: Vegatarianism and the World religions; Inida's Spiritual renaissance: The Life and Times of Lord Chaitanya; The Six Goswamis of Vrindavan; Om Shalom: Judaism and Krishna Consciousness and The Lives of the Vaishnava Saints: Shrinivas, Narottam, and Shyamananda.
Mr. Rosen frequently contributes to academic journals and other magazines such as Vegetarian Times, The Animals Agenda, Dance Pages, and Back to Godhead, the magazine of the Hare Krishna movement.
While Hindu society is generally considered patriarchal, it boasts an ancient tradition of Goddess worship as well. This is traceable to the ancient Veda, where goddesses such as Usas, Vac, Ratri, Aditi, Sarasvati, Prthivi and other minor female divinities have left their mark. As Hinduism developed, goddesses like parvati, Tara, Chinnamasta, the Mahavidyas, and the Matrkas began to get more and more popular. This culminated, of course, in the worship of a generic goddess, known as Mahadevi, who is called Durga, Kali, Uma and so on, according to her various manifestations and the regions in which she is worshiped. She is the divine sakti of the universe.
From the Vaisnava point of view, the divine feminine energy of the universe implies a divine energetic source; the skti, it is said, comes from the saktiman. The goddess is related to a god. Thus, the goddess as she manifests in the various Vainava traditions always has a male counterpart. Sita relates to Rama; Laksmi belongs to Narayana; Radha has her Krsna. Vaisnavism, when seen from this perspective, may appear like the most patriarchal of the systems of religion found in India.
However, those who study the tradition deeply, delving into the tantric literture and the mystical aspects of early Vaisnava thought, find quite another dynamic at work. Vaisnavism, for such serious students, becomes a type of Saktism where in the purna-sakti or the most complete form of the divine feminine energy, is worshipped as the preeminent aspect of divinity, eclipsing even the male Godhead in certain respects. For example, in Sri vaisnavism, Laksmi is considered the divine mediatrix, without whom access to Narayana is not possible; and in the Gaudiya tradition Radha is seen as the Supreme Goddess, for it is said that She controls Krsna with her love. As one prominent sadhu has said, "The only reason we have anything to do with Lord Krsna is that Sri Radha loves him to much! When she leaves the Rasa dance, he cannot go on; when she steals his flute, as in Gita-govinda, he nearly loses his mind."
Although she is, in this sense, Supreme, her predominant position is only a manifestation of lila. Theologically, the male and female aspects of divinity are one-equally hole. Male and female Moiety. As the tradition teaches (Caitanya-caritamtra, Adilila, Ch. 4 texts 95-98), jagat-mohana krsna, tanhara mohini/ataeva samastera para thakurani//Radha-purna sakti, krsna purna sktiman/dui vastu bheda nai, sastra paramana//mrgamada, tara gandha-yaiche aviccheda/agni, jvalate-yaice kabhu nahi bheda//radha-krsna aichesada ekai svarupa/lilarasa asvadite dhare dui-rupa: Lord krsna enchants the world, but Sri Radha enchants even Him. Therefore She is the supreme goddess of all. Sri Radha is the full power, and Lord krsna is the possessor of full power. The two are not different, as evidenced by the revealed scriptures. They are indeed the same, just as musk and its scent are inseparable, or as fire and its heat are nondifferent. Thus Radha and Krsna are one, yet they have taken two forms to enjoy the relationship of lila." This is the secret position of the goddess in the Vaisnava tradition and hopefully, female practitioners of Vaisnavism will eventually benefit from this preeminent position of the feminine Deity.
I do not mean to imply by this that Vaisnava women today have it so bad. In fact, Vaisnavism is, at its heart, a religion of bhakti, and in bhakti movements women have it quite good, as the essays in this volume should make clear. However, to properly understand the social orientation of Vaisnava women in context, one must study the tradition deeply as well as the expectations and goals of the practitioners themselves. Otherwise, if we study from within our own culture milieu, with our own preconceived notions of what Vaisnava women should want for themselves and their families, we can only expect a stilted and prejudiced view of women in the Vaisnava tradition, reflecting perhaps our own Western sense of feminism and human rights.
Contemporary feminists are primarily concerned with secular reality, with achieving social and political through education and culture, while Vaisnava women are more concerned with spiritual development. Most feminists relate to religion largely as removed critics, more interested in philosophically decrying God's "manhood" than in attempting practical religious Reconstructionism or creating new religious movements founded on feminist premises. "At present," Ursula King notes, "the feminist movement is for the most part still a western, urban, middle class phenomenon where women have the necessary education and leisure to articulate a powerful protest against the deeply rooted hierarchical and patriarchal structures of oppression embedded in our male dominated culture." In short, feminism tends to be the intellectual prerogative of a small class of privileged women whose primary concerns do not necessarily focus on the religious pursuit.
And yet, women-feminist or not-do has a genuine concern when it comes to practicing religion. After all, the world's religious traditions have, for the most part, been passed down by men (and arguably, for men!). Women, even if they are saints, have often been relegated to the background of religious male orthodoxy. At time, spiritually advanced women have been downright neglected or even harassed, making their mark in religious history by a fluke as much as by their own intense devotion. A few examples are well known. As Jane Hirshfield writes,
Hildegard of Bingen, the famous eleventh-century German mystic and abbess, might easily have been excommunicated as a heretic because of her visions, had they not received the express endorsement of the pope. Teresa of Avila's writing was examined closely by the Inquisition, and she struggled at length with both Church and state authorities in the founding of each new convent of her order. Kassiane, a Greek Orthodox abbess of the ninth century, was flogged in her youth for assisting monks during a time of persecution. Antal, an eighth-century Tamil devotee of Krishna, unwittingly broke a strict taboo of his worship when she was a young child, yet, according to legend, was flogged in her youth for assisting monks during a time of persecution. Antal, an eighth century Tamil devotee of Krishna, unwittingly broke a strict taboo of his worship when she was a young child, yet, according to legend, was spared her father's anger by the direct intervention of Krishna on her behalf. Stories with a less happy outcome are those of Sor Juana, the seventeenth-century Mexican nun and woman of letters, whose outspoken defense of a full intellectual life for women eventually led to her being stripped of her books and her writing; and of Marguerite Porete, a French visionary, burned at the stake in the fourteenth century.
While it may be argued that conservatism, or a rigid view of how to practice mainstream religion, is more a factor here than is sexism-and that similar atrocities were foisted upon men as well- it cannot be denied that some of the above women, and many others as well, were castigated by their spiritual brethren specifically because of their gender. Serinity Young reminds us that almost every religion, in one way or another, associates women with evil, especially through gender specific dualities; women are often equated with the body and men with the spirit. In fact, Young goes so far as to suggest that women are often associated with evil qualities, such as blood thirstiness or death (Kali, Durga), because of a male fear of sexuality:
This point is dramatized in the many traditions that link women with sexuality by representing women as sexual temptresses who deflect men from their spiritual goals. This nation receives its fullest development in religions which, while enjoining celibacy on its religious specialists, male or female, particularly empower a male priesthood. Buddhism and Christianity offer dramatic examples of this, but Hinduism, in its valorization of the powers of celibate male sages, also contains many negative sexual images of women
All of this serves to justify the control of women by men, a justification that is perceived to be divinely given in most sacred law books. Essentially, women are represented as inadequate moral agents who, for their own protection and the protection of their victims (men), must remain under the moral supervision and social constraint of men
Inherent in all of this, of course, is a fear and denigration of sexuality.
There is a difference between a healthy fear and an obsessive one. Since sex is considered one of the most intense material pleasures, it is often seen as a distraction from the spiritual path-one can hardly focus on spiritual goals of one is preoccupied with bodily appetites. And so most religious traditions teach that one must be careful when associating with the opposite sex. This should not be based so much on fear as on knowledge. Furthermore, it should be underlined that a close study of the scriptures, especially in the Vaisnava tradition, reveals that it is not just men who have to be careful about sensual indulgence. Women do as well. True, the common conception is that women are the embodiment of maya, or illusion and this is supported by the sastra (yopayati sanair maya, yosid deva-vinirmita). So men must be on guard, and religious texts encourage them in this way. Nonetheless, "sexist" remarks found in the scriptures are nearly always counterbalanced by similar statements about men, often in the next verse. The conclusion, then, is that sexual attraction-for both women and men- is dangerous on the spiritual path, for it forges a bond with the body that can easily eclipse a neophyte practitioner's attempt at developing love for God. As stated earlier, although it may be tempting to judge a tradition like Vaisnavism from within our own cultural milieu, and by the standards set by its most novitiate followers, one must become familiar with the entire culture, the complete scriptural and aesthetic tradition-and one must do field work with advanced followers, appropriate representatives of the tradition-before passing any kind of realistic judgment.
For example, despite apparently sexist remarks found in the scriptures, one will notice that men who become spiritually advanced in the Vaisnava tradition rise beyond materialistic conceptions of women and in fact treat them with the deepest respect, honoring them as representative of the Cosmic Mother and perhaps even a gopi or one who is dear to Krsna. Serinity Young (quoted above), who asserts that most religions appear rather sexist on the face of it, admits that there is another side to the way women are perceived by the enlightened traditions of the world. She acknowledges, for example, that femininity is equated with knowledge and even wisdom in most of the major world religions:
Most religions value wisdom, whether understood to be a practical knowledge of the right way to live or an esoteric knowledge of the secret workings of the universe. From the Sophia of the ancient Greeks and Gnostics to the Prajna of the Buddhists, wisdom is frequently referred to in feminine terms. That this is more than just a linguistic conceit based on the word wisdom being a feminine noun in several language (i.e. prajna, Sophia) can be seen in the iconographic and literary developments of wisdom in explicitly feminine terms (Proverbs and sometimes Shekhinah). Significantly, more goddesses than gods are associated with wisdom and learning (Athena, Metis, Isis, Sarasvati, Tara)
Bhagavad-gita, too, associates wisdom with femininity, and perhaps it is this wisdom characteristic of their gender that women must call upon to eke out their place in the religious history of mankind. Such wisdom is seen, for example, in the life of Bahinabai, who suffered through an abusive marriage and yet was able to taste the bliss of true God consciousness. Mary McGee shows us, in this volume, just how Bahinabai did this, and discusses the implications of her devotion. Two essays on Mirabai, one by Andrew Schelling and the other by Nancy M. Martin, show a very different approach to stridharma-while Bahinabai chose to honor her married status, Mira did not. Only Krsna could she see as her husband. Dennis Hudson, Nancy Nayar, and Katherine Young bring us to South India, exploring the life of Antal Alvar, "another" Antal and then Srivaisnavism as whole, showing that bhakti movements are advantageous for women with feminist learnings. Jan Brzezinski comes to similar conclusion while looking at women saints in the earlier Gaudiya tradition, and Kim Knott takes this idea further in explicating the Gaudiya teaching regarding women as it has been interpreted and applied by the modern day Hare Krsna movement. My own essay delves into the esoteric sadhana of both male and female Gaudiya practitioners, who see themselves as female in the ultimate spiritual analysis.
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