Donna Jordan’s book addresses gender issues by relating the origins and (r)evolution of the Sakti cult and the changing status of the goddess to that of women in society. It is about the complex ways in which the cult of the Goddess expresses the concept of the female energy (Sakti), as a Mother Goddess, goddess of fertility, war and as one who causes and cures diseases (malevolent and benevolent), undergoing significant transformations from a dominant status in matriarchal/tribal societies, to a subordinate status, through incorporation and assimilation into the formal religions of a patriarchal society with a caste and class-based structure, and yet retaining its symbolism and metaphor i.e. its revolutionary potential for feminism and the struggle for equality in women’s status down to the present day.
The potentiality of Kali-like goddesses as cultural symbols in furthering diverse political causes in modern India relating to ecology, terrorism, nuclear arms and even nationalism is emphasised. “The fierce Indian goddesses in their full mythic sense function as such a template in India”, for example, the Mahisasuramardini promoted as Bharata Mata (19 century) and used in the later Chipko movement. The myths are believed to reflect “gender and caste oppression and institutionalised violence”, their meaning “evolving over time, accumulating layers of folk myth and elite didacticism with the mode of production and dominant class ideology”.
The author’s approach involves the use of contemporary symbolic anthropology to explain the ways in which cosmologies underpin ecosystems, societies and gender and power roles and how secular power roles are often derived from ancient concepts of sacred power, especially of the goddesses.
The book ambitiously covers a vast span of time and space, spatially the ancient civilisations, South American, Mediterranean, West Asian, south Asian and East Asian, and chronologically from the fifth millennium BCE to the second millennium CE., which inevitably leads to problems of intelligible organisation and explication of the themes focused on. The account of the origins of the Goddess cult and its various implications in different social contexts covering a wide spectrum is not easy to follow as it is rather disconnected and interspersed with long quotations from secondary sources. Nevertheless, the attempt to provide a peep into the pasts of several cultures where the Goddess cult prevailed and evolved through interaction with newly emerging religious ideas in changing socio-economic contexts is commendable. The focus, however, is on the changing importance of the cult within the Brahmanic and Sramanic traditions of India.
Part I deals with Sakti’s origins in the earliest cultures — the Indus culture and its contemporary civilisations of West Asia; Warfare and male Supremacy in the Brahmanic, and west Asian religions establishing the superseding of the male over the female war goddess; Indian tribal societies with matriarchal and matrilineal forms in which the goddess cult is central.
Part II is on Historiography of the Goddess cult, which unfortunately lapses into religious history, with no critical assessment of the different trends in various studies, which is what historiography is about. Nor does it show how the present study makes an advance over or is a definitive contribution to the existing literature on the subject. The ideas relating to Sakti, taken from the works of N.N. Bhattacharya, A.K. Dasgupta, D.D. Kosmabi, and A.K Ramanujan, to mention only a few, are found scattered in Part II, which is structured in chronological phases, but not intelligibly chapterised or focused on the relevant themes.
The (r)evolution of Sakti is traced from the Neolithic principle of agricultural fertility magic, the tribal ritual drama termed hieros gamos, which is re-enacted later by the goddess and her “given” male consort, projecting the union of opposites, fertility and continuity of the female principle via the male (bull) sacrifice. Korravai, Durga, (also west Asian goddesses like Inanna) are all buffalo-sacrificing/ slaying goddesses with a lion mount (Leo) killing the astral buffalo (Taurus), fertilising the field with blood before sowing.
The author then takes us through the different phases of this evolution, in which the emphasis is rightly on the tribal fertility and martial goddess Korravai of the religion of the Tamil Sangam Age and her merging with Durga/Kali of the early medieval patriarchal brahmanical tradition as the consort of the Brhamanical male deity in a subordinate role, when the brahmanical pantheon incorporated the tribal /folk deities and Sakti emerged as Durga/ Mahisasuramardini. The Puranic Sakti cult is believed to show that the ancient warrior goddess can play a traditionally masculine role, without disturbing the patriarchal social order.
However, the author’s understanding of Korravai as the female counterpart of Aryan war God Indra is questionable. It is the “spousification” of the goddess as the consort (Uma or Parvati) of Siva, which is important, by rescripting the Tamil myths of war and battlefield and merging the tribal legends into the Puranic/Sanskritic mythology, identifying tribal deities with epic heroes, based on conceptions of bhakti and individual salvation. The elite Brahmanic gods thus created the saviour goddess Durga (Devi Mahatamya), who was formed of the tejas of all the gods to slay the buffalo demon. The structural binary of cosmic war of the Deva-Asura conflict served the male interests of the brahmanical patriarchal society and its caste system. The changing religious landscape is attributed to the institutionalisation of land grants to brahmanas and the temple and the emergence of feudalism with the complex divine pantheon organised as a kind of “feudal” imperial court, although the feudalism theory is a subject of continuing debate. Certainly the change was towards a stratified patriarchal agrarian society, wherein the woman is assigned a subservient role like the consort of the Brahmancial male deity, a role that is reflected in the Indian misogynistic law codes bracketing women with property (chattel) and sudras. The author’s views on Sati are ambiguous, as she does not directly relate it to the patriarchal codes.
Interestingly, parallels are drawn even from pre-Islamic Semitic, animistic polytheism of Arabia, (goddess Manat, al-Lat and al- Uzza,) centering round the worship of the supreme cult object of Arabs, the Black-stone (later Kabah), who were replaced with male gods in Islam, as in Indian brahmanic sacred texts, the ritual pilgrimage to the Black Stone being appropriated as an Islamic tradition.
It is difficult to accept that the period from 300 to 700 AD marks the rise of the Sakta counter culture (as claimed in chapter 8), for the goddess became only part of a predominantly male dominated pantheon. Overwhelming evidence for the emergence of a Sakta counter culture occurs only after the 12 century AD leading to the Tantric Vamachara and Kaulamarga cults of the Brahmanical and Sramanic Buddhist (Vajrayana) and Jain (Yogini cult) and the Hindu Sahajiya. The undue importance given to the Islamic invasions (8 century to 17 centuries) for the emergence of the Tantric cults, ignores the changing trends within the religious history of this period, due to the incorporation of various economic, ethnic and tribal groups into the brahmanical order as lower castes. This also necessitated the revival of earlier fierce, autonomous, tribal goddesses of protection and destruction as the Yoginis, Yakshis and Dakinis of a counter tradition. The Yoginis were never “spousified” and the Yogini temples of medieval times occur only in the tribal belt of north east, Bengal, southern Uttar Pradesh, Orissa, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, with a rare example in the Coimbatore district of Tamil Nadu.
The author points out that the influence of Tantrism in the development of the goddess cult is significant, as it revived the tribal Shamanistic rituals like blood sacrifice (animal and human), offering meat, liquor, violence or self-mutilation (fire walking and hook swinging), frenzied spirit possession performance and other extreme forms of worship, both esoteric and erotic, practised by Yogic cults in the early and late medieval periods (700-1300 and 1300-1700).
The author’s wrong assumptions, e.g., the presence of the buffalo slaying goddess on the Indus seals and identification of the unicorn as a stylised water buffalo and her interpretation of the Aryan invasion based on secondary works, which are highly divided in their theories of Aryan invasion, the decline of Harappan culture and its connection with the Vedic Aryan, have led to contradictory statements lacking in clarity.
Folklore in the vernacular languages of India is given greater salience as containing a vast resource of mythology, folk songs, folklore, oral and documented history relating to women’s attitudes and values, though other categories of sources like archaeology and sculptures are largely used.
The rich bibliography and the wealth of information that the book contains makes it a valuable reference work.
Origins and Historiography of Indic Fierce Goddesses: Donna Jordan; Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers Pvt. Ltd., 54, Rani Jhansi Road, New Delhi-110055. Rs. 1595.
(R. Champakalakshmi is a retired professor of history, Jawaharlal Nehru University)