First Published on March 26, 2003
I was dining with some friends last week when somehow the conversation turned to the subject of goddesses.
“We have goddesses in India,” I casually quipped.
“So what have your goddesses done for the women of your country in the last three thousand years?” my Thai friend asked.
For a minute I was stumped.
I tried to make the usual arguments; that the status of women in India wasn’t as bad as portrayed by the Western media; that there were many female scientists and doctors in my native country; that I had received many opportunities in school and college in India.
“Sure, the upper class and middle class women are liberated, but what about the lower classes?” he countered.
I said that the working class women in India too were now beginning to understand their reproductive, marital, and political rights.
“What about property rights? Women in India don’t have equality with men, right?” he questioned.
I couldn’t find any more rational explanations, so I fell back on the usual defense: “Women here aren’t all that liberated, you know,” I said.
“American women still earn far less than men and often face subjugation and domestic violence at home,” I added.
And then I embarked on a history lecture that may or may not have been rooted in fact.
Women in ancient India, I said, were far more liberated than their sisters today. I narrated the tale of Draupadi, who was married to five men and for whose honor the epic war in the Mahabharata was fought.
But was this really true? Were women in ancient India truly powerful? Unfortunately, history books scarcely deal with the hearth, so one can never be sure.
So I took another line of reasoning. I argued that, in fact, all ancient societies worshipped goddesses.
Now it was my friend’s turn to be stumped. He agreed with me.
We began to discuss the fact that most pagan, pre-Christian, animalistic religions of the world worshipped goddesses. There is ample evidence to suggest that primitive societies also held women in high esteem and were organized along matriarchal, not patriarchal lines. Women were after all the creators of life. They also happened to be much more physically resilient than men. Any pediatrician will tell you that colic and many other illnesses that used to kill and still afflict babies ail males more frequently than females.
Why was it then that the female sex was labeled as “weaker” and males began to control societies?
Why was such a big con perpetrated on earth and how?
And the con lives on. For, you have to just look at the starving bodies of female models walking on stilts on Madison Avenue ramps to know that women are still manipulated by men.
It was at this point in the conversation that my friend and I began to discuss the latest book on the New York Times bestsellers list titled The Da Vinci Code. A historical art mystery set in and around the Louvre in Paris, it centers around the life of Mary Magdalene, who, for two millennia, has been portrayed as a prostitute by male officials in the Roman Catholic Church, but who, many experts claim, was the second-in-command and wife of Jesus Christ. The reason for her vilification was obvious. It was all a matter of grabbing power and exerting control over the early church.
There are many pagan communities today who still worship goddesses and nature. Some of them happen to be in the Bay Area. Many New Agers—male and female alike—are drawn today to the story of Mary Magdalene and other ancient women like her who were powerful and who shaped life on earth for centuries to come.
But I can’t stop wondering why and how matriarchy was almost entirely eradicated from our planet.
Why patriarchy? Why did women in early societies agree to a system that was so clearly detrimental to their well-being? After all, they were the mothers of their sons. Why did they not teach their sons differently?
But then again you could ask why the women in India today don’t teach their sons differently. Why don’t they tell their sons not to take dowry instead of insisting on one?
Could it be that patriarchy, the greatest con in the history of humanity, came about because of a single flaw in the female biology and psyche? Could it be that in order to protect their young, women had to compete for resources with other women and had to use men as protectors? Could it be that their role as mothers and nurturers motivated women to fight one another, while men, in their role as protectors, learned to band together in order to battle the elements? Could it be that over time, the protector, with his weapons, began to get a fat head and began to rule the roost?
We will never know. But it is a mystery that is far more worthy of solution than the mystery of what is on Mars. Perhaps it is a mystery that is equal to the mystery of how the universe was created or how life on earth was formed or whether there is life in other galaxies.
Sarita Sarvate writes commentaries for Pacific News Service and KQED.