Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific
Issue 22, October 2009
Jayant Bhalchandra Bapat and Ian Mabbett (eds)

The Iconic Female:
Goddesses of India, Nepal and Tibet

Melbourne: Monash University Press, 2008
ISBN: 978-1-876924-66-9, xiv + 230 pp.

reviewed by Saumitra Chakravarty

  1. This collection of ten essays, the first to be published by Monash University on Indian religions, is part of the proceedings of a seminar conducted by the Monash Asia Institute. The themes of the essays range from the iconography of the goddess to her non-iconic worship through symbol and chosen human medium, from her tribal following and folk images to her appropriation into andro-centric Brahminical Hinduism as consort to a powerful male pantheon of gods. She is an embodiment of sakti (feminine power) which in Hindu mythology, itself is a creation from the tejas of the male Hindu trinity for the purposes of destruction of male demons threatening divine supremacy:

    Devanam Karyasiddhayarthabhavirbhavati
    (Devi Mahatmya, 73:54)

  2. As the editors Jayant B. Bapat and Ian Mabbett point out in their introductory essay, this androcentric appropriation of the Goddess is the result of what sociologist M.N. Srinivas calls the process of 'Sanskritization,' which has also led to the take-over of goddess temples and religious rituals as the monopoly of Hindu upper-caste men. This leads not only to a reduction of her autonomy but also of the importance of her tribal manifestations in ethnic and lower-caste worship. This book, on the whole, moves away from Vedic Hindu mainstream religion into the Little Tradition of Goddess worship. The Goddess is often de-mythologised in ethnic communities or becomes a non-iconic symbol concerned with fertility and motherhood, disease and affliction and assumes shapes both benign and terrifying. Different schools of Goddess research have resulted in sharply demarcated frontiers of study.
  3. Andrea di Castro's essay on 'The Archaeology of the Goddess' shows links between triangular pre-historic Goddess icons with concentric decorations (dating back to 13,000 B.C.E.) representing Sakti (the Feminine Principle), and modern Mushar tribal hunter-gatherers worshipping Bansuri/Banaspati (forest goddesses) at the same site. Originally the Devi Chandi was also a hunter goddess before her Sanskritised image in the Devi Mahatmya. He also shows the link between the site of the nativity of the Buddha in Lumbini with the archaic cult site of a fertility goddess Rummini (etymological similarities noted), where Mayadevi (Buddha's mother) may have offered worship. However, the author rejects notions of an uninterrupted Indian Mother Goddess cult from pre-historic to present times as essentialist and part of a pan-Indian nationalist agenda.
  4. The passive role imposed upon the Goddess in Classical Hindu mythology and the consequent paradox is the subject of two essays in this collection, Greg Bailey's, 'Parvati as Creator of Maya or Victim of Maya' and Rashmi Desai's 'When Renuka was not a Goddess.' While Bailey presents the de-mythologised image of Parvati (Siva's consort and mother of Ganesa) in the Ganesapurana (Kridakhanda), Desai concentrates on the decapitation of Renuka (wife of Brahmin sage Jamadagni) by her son Parasurama on his father's orders as shown in the Mahabharata episode. While the earlier essay suggests an Oedipal closeness between the child Ganesa and his mother Parvati. Another myth in the Bengali Chandi Mangal recounts how Parvati fashioned the child from the sandalwood and turmeric paste on her own body, thus defying Siva as the classical phallic symbol. However, Parvati is caught in the paradox of her conflicting roles of normal mother to an infant Ganesa and Mother of the World to a Ganesa manifesting himself in his incarnative, mayavic (illusory) forms to destroy demons who themselves appear disguised as embodiments of maya (maya is traditionally an asuric or demonic weapon). Parvati is unable to understand the child Ganesa's superhuman prowess and after each such encounter, offers him her breast, thus reiterating the traditional mother-child relationship. She is therefore an unwitting creator of maya as his mother, but her inability to comprehend this role makes her a victim of his maya. The title of the essay appears rather simplistic and limited in its use of the words, 'creator' and 'victim,' though limited to Parvati's demythologised role in the Ganesapurana. A passing mention of the fact that Parvati/Chandi is herself referred to as Mahamaya and Mahasuri in the Devi Mahatmya and the Kalika Purana would not have been inappropriate.
  5. Desai's essay underscores the passive submission of Renuka, a Kshatriya princess to the judgement and its execution upon her by her Brahmin husband and son on charges of infidelity. The same myth has been adopted by ethnic and lower caste societies to deify Renuka as a goddess of pustular diseases in the tribal variant of Yellamma/Mariamma/Mariatale. By choosing the former version, Desai initiates a debate on the primacy of the patrilineal order, the subjugation of women in Classical Hindu mythology and a class conflict for social and economic ascendancy that Renuka's decapitation and the ensuing wars precipitate between Brahmins and Kshatriyas. Whereas decapitation is a symbol of subjugation in the Renuka myth, it also suggests a denuding of feminine identity in the ancient iconic fertility symbol of the Lajjagauri as highlighted by Jayant Bapat in his essay. Lajja indicates modesty and 'gauri' is Siva's consort in her fair form, (The Devi Mahatmya eulogises her as 'Ya devi sarvabhuthesu lajjarupena samsthita', 85.7), but the iconic form of the Lajjagauri has been decried as 'shameless' by earlier schools of scholarship. The head is substituted by a lotus or a brimming pot (both fertility symbols) and the stone torso highlights the genital organs and breasts. While Bapat's well-substantiated analysis shows the Lajjagauri's links with Bhudevi/Prithvi (Mother Earth) and Sri/Lakshmi (Visnu's consort), in Tantric mythology, all Mother Goddesses are ultimately recognized as various manifestations of the same Adyasakti/Abheda Chandika, the original, indivisible Feminine Principle. Bapat's rather sweeping statement in concluding his essay, 'In her capacity as the mother of the world she is Parvati, the wife of Siva…Kshetrapalika…Sakambhari…Ellamma…Jogulamba…patron goddess of the village folk and tribes' (pp. 98–99), has little to do with the title of the essay and is more poetic than analytical as is also proven by his end note on Jogulamba. Nowhere are these epithets substantiated in the essay.
  6. John R. Dupuche's 'Devi and Tantric Practice,' focuses on the Kula tradition of Kashmir. This school of Tantrism as outlined by Abhinavagupta which uses only three of the sacred M's of Madya (wine), Mamsa (meat) and Maithuna (sacred sex) raises pertinent social questions on the sexual exploitation of low caste women by Tantric practitioners. Nine types of women are identified for Tantric yoni puja (worship of female genitals), most of them being married women of low or untouchable caste. Blood and sexual fluids activate the kundalini (vital energy arising from the base of the spine) for attainment of jeevanmukti (liberation in the living state). Without being judgmental, the essay analyses how Tantric goddess cults reduce social hierarchism and allow the union of the high and low, a union that prohibits lust or attachment since the woman becomes the medium of sakti, the dynamic feminine principle without which siva represents mere inert consciousness. Sacred sex was also practiced by Chinese Taoists and is known to Buddhist Tantrics. The erotic (as opposed to pornographic, as the essay points out) imagery is also seen in David Templeman's 'The Dakinis of Tibetan Hagiography.'. The wild, potent, naked, bi-sexual dakinis represent both menace and sensuality as seen in Templeman's accounts of the life of the Buddhist saint Krsnacharya and his defeat and death at the hands of a dakini. The essay also shows the clash between Buddhism (where the sensual energy is also a source of secret enlightenment for the siddhapurusha) and its temporary defeat at the hands of the superimposed Hindu yoni—symbol of the cosmic Siva-Parvati's sexual dalliance on the site of the Tibetan mandala.
  7. The last three essays of the volume by Max Harcourt, Effy George and Marika Vicziany and Jayant Bapat focus on the cultic Goddess practices of ethnic societies through the non-iconic symbols or human mediums 'possessed' by the Goddess. Kathleen M. Erndl in an essay on 'Serenavali: The Mother who Possesses' suggests that 'possession' of human mediums by the Goddess occurs far more frequently than by male divinities, possibly because of the monistic identification of spirit and matter in Sakta theology.[1] Max Harcourt in 'The Devi's Lion-Herders,' analyses the role of the Rajput caranas (bards) of the Sagat clan in disciplining moral transgression and settlement of feuds by the practice of traga in a society torn by internecine rivalry. Traga, an act of self-flagellation, was practiced to denounce and convert the guilty, an instrument of social welfare (as opposed to the self-centred asceticism or self flagellation practiced by votaries of androcentric religions) which acquired moral force by being associated with goddess cults. Its practitioners were recognised as Deviputras. There is a similar non-iconic worship of the goddess Mammai Mataji among the Sorathiya families of Saurashtra in western India described in Effy George's essay, 'Songs in the Presence of Mammai Mataji.' Mammai (a local variant of Parvati) is worshipped during festivals through her symbols of peacock feathers, conch and swan and through her human mediums chosen from the clan, the Bhuwa Atta and the Bhuwi as his consort, who are said to be possessed by her. 'Mammai' as Hasu Yajnik notes in her essay on The Saraju-Songs[2] is etymologically derived from Mohamaya—an epithet used for the Goddess. The symbols worshipped are those which Jalan, the mythical founder of the cult brought back from Mt Kailash after the goddess Parvati cured him of snakebite. George's essay, however concerns itself more with the social festivity associated with the celebrations and the role played by the women of the clan. Only a passing mention of the absence of the name 'Mammai' in the Saraju hymns, stresses the symbolic, non-iconic content of this worship. A more detailed thematic, phonetic and prosodic analysis of the various songs dedicated to Mammai (such as other scholars on the theme have undertaken) might have been suitable to the demands outlined by the title of George's essay.
  8. In 'The Khadadevi Temple of Modern Mumbai,' the focus of Vicziany and Bapat is on the 'self-arising' stone image of Sakti and Mahisasura accompanied by other stones with seven eyes and seven mouths engraved upon them within the premises of the Colaba police station. To the Koli fisher community, the seven single eye-mouth pairs represent the seven protective water spirits. The totality of the images in the temple indicate an intersection between the Great Tradition of Classical Goddess worship and the Little Tradition associated with particular locales, seven being an auspicious number also associated with the sapta-matrkas into which the Goddess clones herself in the Devi Mahatmya. However, I think that too much attention has been paid by the authors to the minor details of the temple and the offerings (much of which is common to many Indian temples), thus detracting from the original theme.
  9. The collection, despite minor deviations from the theme outlined in the title, is wide-ranging in its scope and a useful study for researchers. The word 'iconic' however, remains ambiguous since many of the essays focus on the non-iconic forms of the goddess or on deified human 'females.' The majority of the essays focus on Indian Goddess worship and Nepal receives no more than a passing mention. By and large though, the exploration of the sociological connotations of rituals and myths and the focus on the Little Tradition, provide a new challenge highlighting the ways in which goddess cults defy the divisionism and prescriptive definitions of a patriarchal society and embrace all as the children of the Universal Mother.


    [1] Kathleen M. Erndl, 'Serenavali: The Mother who Possesses,' in Devi: Goddesses of India, ed. John Stratton Hawley and Donna Marie Walff, Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1996, pp. 173–94, p. 181.

    [2] Mariola Offredi (ed.), The Banyan Tree, vol. I, New Delhi: Manohar Publishers and Distributors, 2000, p. 206.


Intersections acknowledges the assistance of the Gender Relations Centre, Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies, College of Asia and the Pacific, Australian National University in the hosting of this site.
© Copyright
Page constructed by Carolyn Brewer.
Last modified: 21 October 2009 1350

This page has been optimised for 1024x768
and is best viewed in either Netscape 2 or above, or Explorer 2 or above.