The divineness of Devi

November 21, 1997

DEVI: Goddesses of India. Edited by John S. Hawley and Donna M. Wulff. University of California Press 352pp, Pounds 38.00and Pounds 13.95. ISBN 0 520 20057 8 and 20058 6.

Goddess (Devi) worship is nowhere more alive than in India. Of all the world's religions Hinduism is the most replete with feminine dimensions of the divine, yet the abundant symbolic resources of the Devi have only begun to be explored in recent years. A full history of Devi worship still needs to be written, but this splendid volume makes a substantial contribution by providing us with a greater understanding, not of feminine images of God, but of the Goddess as ultimate reality. Minds exclusively schooled in the monotheistic traditions of the West may find it hard to conceive of an Absolute with such a myriad of female forms. As John Hawley points out, "a more complete rhapsody on the divine feminine'' is difficult to imagine, although we are left with a picture that "is very mixed, and something almost viciously paradoxical''.

The book contains 12 essays on ancient and modern aspects of the Goddess, five of them published earlier in somewhat different form. In two parts, they deal with the Goddess as supreme being and consort of a male God, followed by goddesses who mother and possess. The independent, generic Devi of universal, cosmic significance is different from the multitude of regional and local goddesses at village level, each with their own stories and rites, but somehow always linked to the Great Goddess. These finely crafted studies are grounded in meticulous textual and empirical research in contemporary India. Specialists on Hinduism will find that much of what is familiar from earlier publications is here supplemented by new findings and insights, so that a fuller and more challenging picture of the Devi emerges. Hawley has provided an excellent prologue on the multiple perspectives of the Devi; the individual essays have detailed notes; the volume gains much through its comprehensive bibliography, numerous illustrations, and a helpful glossary of Indian terms - all of immense help to anyone interested in goddesses.

There has been a paradigm shift in scholarship on religion, of which this book is a good example; a move away from exclusively text-focused studies to a more complex investigation of the subtle interplay of oral and performative features of religious life. Different disciplinary approaches and multiple research strategies are needed which do not uniquely privilege texts but analyse them within their social context, thereby demonstrating that the ideas expressed in religious texts are parallelled, confirmed or contrasted by social practice.

I can only mention a few ideas from the book's rich content. The first concerns the historical delay in western knowledge about the Great Goddess.Given that the classic text of Indian goddess worship, the Devi Mahatmya, was translated as early as 1823, it is extraordinary that western scholars paid so little attention to it when compared to the influence exercised by the translation of the Bhagavad Gita in 1785. Western scholars probably could relate more easily to the male god Krishna. With the rise of the women's movement, a new interest in the Goddess appeared in the West, and although little has been made by western women of the available resources of Hindu female imagery and symbolism, one essay here shows how western feminists have drawn, eclectically, on the powerful goddess Kali, herself so paradoxical and enigmatic. Also very interesting are newly created modern goddesses, such as Santoshi Ma and Bharat Mata, "Mother India", whose cult, so important for Indian nationalism, has led to the "militant matriotism" of contemporary fundamentalist Hindu politics - but it is also clear that this power has benefitted men more than women.

Although one has to ask oneself how far goddesses are a creation of the male imagination rather than being related to the actual experience of women, this book powerfully reflects the sheer joy, playfulness, abundance and goodness of life, and the intimate union of immanent and transcendent horizons mirrored in the multiple splendour of the Goddess.

Ursula King is professor of theology and religious studies,University of Bristol.

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