This article is part of the opinion column – Beyond Occident – where we explore a native perspective on the Indian diaspora.
With over one billion followers worldwide, Hinduism, also known as the Sanatan Dharma, is the third-largest faith tradition globally. It is also the oldest tradition with an unbroken and recorded history of over 5,000 years. Hinduism is also the only significant faith tradition that recognizes and then manifests through various rituals and worship, the divine form of feminine. In Hindu cosmology, both feminine and masculine forms are accorded equal status.
Womanhood is generally associated with the notions of fertility, benevolence, and bestower in most indigenous traditions. As symbolic of life and fecundity, motherhood is viewed and celebrated, both conceptually at an abstract level and manifest, in fertility rites throughout the indigenous ‘pagan’ cultures. Hinduism being one of them, is not different in this aspect.
In the Hindu tradition, the notion of Divine is a complex interplay between purusha — the Self, the Spirit — and prakriti — Nature, the undifferentiated matter of the Universe. In addition, shakti (power) is recognized as the energizing principle of the Universe. It is feminine, and it represents both creation and divinity. It embodies the primordial Energy of the Universe – the ādi shakti.
In the Hindu scheme of things, the notion of purusha and prakriti represents the opposite creative tension that renders them inseparable. They end up being the mirror image of each other. On the other hand, brahmana is the ultimate Consciousness that transcends all qualities, categories, and limitations.
Mata (mother) Sita, one of the main characters of the epic Ramayana by Valmiki, embodies prakriti. According to Lavanya Vemsani, a professor of Indian History and Religion at Shawnee State University, the symbolism of nature prakariti in Sita’s life events is “unmistakable.” The spontaneous nature of Sita, Vemsani writes, “can be understood as the natural expression of prakriti (nature), symbolized by forest and female spontaneity in classical Indian literature, especially the Ramayana.”
According to the legend, Sita was born out of the earth, not from a womb (ayonija). She is described as the daughter of bhūmi (the earth). In the Ramayana, when Raja Janak, Sita’s father, plowed his fields, she sprang up from behind the plow. This, according to Vemsani, “brings to mind the spontaneous sprouting of plant life from the earth in its most natural form, as in the wild… [and thus] the birth of Sita indicates… her closeness to the spontaneous life and her affinity to nature (prakriti).”
Sita spent 14 years of her life in a forest as vanavāsa (forest exile). During this period, several events such as Sita being dragged off by Viradha, the proposal by Shurapanakha, and the “golden deer” — represent the unfulfilled desires of forest dwellers. Though these desires result in a loss for Sita, it is “in conformity with the nature of the forest where one can desire anything that is likable, spontaneously,” writes Vemsani.
Sita’s end of life is as natural as her birth as she returns to the earth upon her death.
On the other hand, shakti is seen as the abstract supreme creative power, the cosmic Mother, out of which all creations come about. It is a universal energy force. While the ultimate reality in the universe is considered and conceived as a powerful, creative, active, and transcendental female, it manifests itself in various forms: mother goddess, warrior goddess, etc. As Uma or Parvati, she is the gentle caring consort of Shiva. As Durga, she rides a tiger which represents the ego and arrogance that must be tamed. In shakti form, the feminine divinity is seen as the fierce savior and protector of the cosmos when in danger.
Hindu epics are full of Devi (goddesses) stories of the protectors of the righteous and the destroyer of enemies. Kaikeyi and Satyabhama accompanied their husbands to the battlefield. Chandragupta Maurya (century 3rd BCE), the founder of one of the largest empires of the Indian subcontinent, had his bodyguard corps comprised exclusively of women.
The underlying duality of the Hindu feminine divinity allows us to understand the role of women in Hindu society. This role is conceptualized through shastras (treatises), puranas (legends and lore), and itihasa (record of important events). Through examples of behavior, these texts establish explicit role models. However, a general rule of thumb in interpreting Hindu texts is to avoid exclusive reliance on foreign translations and academic works as they are often fraught with inaccuracies.
Avatans Kumar is a columnist, public speaker, and activist. He frequently writes on the topics of language & linguistics, culture, religion, Indic knowledge, and current affairs in several media outlets.