Feminist theologians have long held that male depictions of gods serve to reinforce patriarchy. This elicits the question: Do goddesses serve in any way to subvert patriarchy?
In Mary Daly’s classic, Beyond God the Father, the feminist (Catholic) theologian examined religion as a major cause of women’s repression over the last 3,000 years. Daly’s work exposed the foundational misogyny in religion which continues to flourish. Daly made this claim despite the long-standing theological stance that God of the Abrahamic religions is unsexed. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, for example, states: “God is neither man nor woman: He is God”. God’s gender ought to be understood as figurative.
But when we turn to symbolism, ritual and informal practice, a different story emerges; one where God is gendered, where incarnate God — the son — or prophets or deified persons, are also male. Philosophies, religious symbols, juridical norms and other ideas stabilise and justify patriarchal dominance and attribute it to inherent natural reasons and not to mere social causes. Beyond merely naturalising patriarchy, the maleness/masculinity of gods fixes it into the cosmic order.
RW Conant’s 1904 book, The Manly Christ, is an obscene testimony to this. Conant asserts the manliness of Jesus in order to make the increasingly “feminised” religion, as he referred to it, more attractive to the real men of the working classes. As he stresses: “Christ stands for the highest type of a strong, virile man, and there was nothing effeminate about him.”
We could also look at the images of masculinity, sex, and the body in Buddhism. An example is available in the Ambattha Sutta from the Dingha Nikaya in the Pali canon. The Brahmin student Ambattha is sent by his famous teacher Pokkharasaati to find out if the acclaimed Gautama is really a great man. He should particularly learn whether Buddha bears the 32 physical bodily characteristics of a perfect man. Ambattha goes to meet Buddha, and behaves insultingly toward him, arrogating himself to a higher position as a Brahmin over the lower-born Sakyas. Buddha argues systematically that Kshatriyas are actually higher born than Brahmins by social convention, but that he himself considers social convention less important than conduct and wisdom. Buddha thus humbles the excessive pride of Ambattha and the student returns to his teacher to narrate what has occurred. Pokkharasaati is angered and goes himself to confront Buddha. However, upon encountering Buddha and seeing that indeed he bears all the physical marks of a perfect man, he ends up a convert.
Another masculinised body is that of Hanuman. This god’s manliness is palpable in the context of the highly masculine practice of wrestling within akharas, which always and everywhere occurs under the auspices of Hanuman murtis. Young men, always men, revere and model themselves upon the god. A crucial part of this emulation lies in the celibacy. In this framework, the seductive and thus enervating feature of women’s bodies, and feminine wiles, plays a role.
But if, as it seems, the male-sexed bodies of gods serve to reinforce patriarchy, do goddesses serve to subvert it?
Some powerful strands of feminism in the West assume so. Interventions in Indian feminism, however, generally disagree. Rajeswari Sundar Rajan, for example, in her essay ‘Is the Hindu Goddess a Feminist?’, throws into doubt the emancipatory value of the Stree-Shakti trope. Everyone seems to agree, however, that powerful goddesses do offer potential opportunities for anti-patriarchal action.
The writer is visiting professor of philosophy at Jawaharlal Nehru University