Condensed version originally posted on Coming of Faith
During my last semester of college, I took a Theology class with Father Whalen. One day, he asked us, “If I told you that God would be here tomorrow, ready to meet with anyone who would come, right in Marillac Hall, first floor, would you go?” The question spurred students to think about their faith or doubt, their relationship with God, their guilt or their love.
But I was struck by the image of God that came to my mind when he asked that question: an old White man in a suit, sitting awkwardly in one of our typical classroom desks. As a Hindu, who grew up with hundreds and hundreds of images from which I might visualize what God looks like, why did I end up thinking of an old White man? Perhaps because that is generally what American culture tells us God looks like (aside from the occasional Morgan Freeman). I thought again, conjuring up another image, and Krishna, the beloved raincloud-dark god, came to mind. Though the image was more familiar, felt closer to what moved my heart when I thought of “God,” why again did I think of a male form? After Krishna, I thought of Shiva, Vishnu, Brahma, Surya, Ganesha, before any female forms like Durga or Kali came to mind. It seemed less because the image of keeping Kali pent up in a stuffy classroom would be a bad idea, and more because of something having to do with this word, “God.”
Is God an inherently gendered word?
Regardless of religion or spiritual path, many would argue that God is genderless, or beyond the confines of labels which we superimpose on human experience. Yet, while God is frequently referred to as male (“Him, He”) and even as gender-neutral (“It, Their,” or always using “God” or “God’s”), it still feels a bit jarring to hear God referred to as “She” or “Her” in colloquial speech. Theoretically, we may readily ascribe what are traditionally feminine characteristics to God, such as tenderness, softness, an enveloping presence, nurturing, accommodating. But something within us might bristle against thinking of God as our Mother, though we frequently refer to God as our Father.
At our deepest essence, we are beings beyond the construct of gender, but we occupy bodies in a world where gender matters. We grapple with questions of sexual preference and gender identity in our public and private lives. In our religious lives, we may challenge traditional gender roles in who is allowed to teach, to serve, to guide. We’ve settled into a world where we’ve grown used to God being a “Him.” “Him” even seems the same as recognizing God as gender-neutral. But what would it mean for us to feel surprised if we heard God speak, and it was in the voice of a woman?
Perhaps there is some relationship with how we think of femininity societally and the worthiness and sacredness ascribed to femininity in our spiritual lives. Stories of the major forms of Shakti (the feminine principle) such as Durga and Kali are well-known and frequently told in Hindu settings. However, when it comes to more earthly incarnations, people are often unaware of the stories of female rishis, scholars and sages, like Gargi and Lopamudra, or of spiritual seekers and poets like Mirabai and Mahadeviyakka. In America, if a new temple is opening up near you, it will more likely be a Shiva, Vishnu, Rama or Krishna temple, and is much less likely to be a Parvati or Lakshmi temple.
At the same time, the issue of a gender divide is not so black and white. While women are usually not priests in most temples (depending on the sampradaya, spiritual tradition, of the temple), many Hindu temples and organizations have women occupying significant roles on executive committees, in scholarly or teaching positions, and involved in community outreach. Women do often become sadhvis or swaminis, venerated as teachers and guides in the monastic or sacred ascetic ways of life. In the Buddhist community as well, women are gaining voices as important scholars in various branches of Buddhist philosophy, and female monasteries are increasing in prominence. In America, many student leaders in college-campus Hindu organizations, like Hindu Students Council, are young women.
Hinduism is the only major world religion that widely engages with Devi (God-as-Mother or the Goddess) within nearly all of the indigenous traditions and philosophies encompassed within its religiopolitical umbrella. Tantric Buddhism would be closely related group subsumed within the larger categorization of “the Dharmic traditions.” Yet, as a product of the sociocultural climate of the places we live in, Hindu women, just like many other women in society, face the same questions and subtle indicators of a lack of privilege from time to time, even in religious spaces. For example, when an opinion we share is only taken seriously once a man voices it, we are forced to wonder, “Is this happening because I am a woman?” This type of experience is a shared struggle for all women, and is not intrinsic to Hinduism. But men do not have to think of how their gender might affect how they are perceived or how they hold themselves as often as women do, though religious spaces may arguably lessen that gap.
Engaging with the Goddess is one powerful way to use religion to increase egalitarianism across the gender spectrum. If both men and women alike can see God with a feminine face, we are likely to change whichever internal sociocultural biases we have against women that might be in place. This does not mean that simply celebrating the nine-night festival dedicated to the Goddess, Navratri, you are not a misogynist. There are plenty of people who claim to worship the Devi but contribute to the abuse or degradation of women in explicit and subtle ways.
This goes beyond thinking of God as having abstract “feminine” qualities. This is also about seeing divinity present in the female body. It is empowering to hear about sacredness being associated with the female body more so because globally, female bodies are the most objectified, trafficked and abused. When we think of God extending a caring hand to us, we might imagine Michelangelo’s famous rendering of God’s muscular, strong hand reaching towards the fingertip of Adam. What if instead we could imagine Adam reaching for a hand strengthened with the experiences of motherhood, yet still soft, lovely, bangles delicately slipping around the wrist?
This does not mean that seeing God as male or genderless is detrimental to our self-concept. We just must learn to integrate these concepts in balance with seeing femininity in God. The Hindu and Buddhist traditions include a wealth of literature and ritual which engages with the divine feminine, be it through worship of the Sri Chakra, readings in Vajrayana texts, or through art. Even the Abrahamic traditions include the concept of God-as-Mother if you look hard enough, as the interiority of the heart, God as the place within which we can rest.
Women face certain challenges because they embody femininity, but even men are made to feel less worthy for exhibiting “feminine” behaviors. A deeper exploration of the sacred feminine and masculine seeks to deconstruct the gender-specific boundaries we place on feeling and behavior as much as it strengthens any exploration of gender identity. For example, we may automatically assume that aggression is a male characteristic, but it is undoubtedly an integral part of the femininity of goddesses like Durga and Kali. Similarly, while compassion is often culturally thought of as being a feminine trait, an epithet of the very masculine god Shiva is karunavataram, “the incarnation of compassion.”
In addition, there is no one image of the Devi, nor one specific set of feminine characteristics with which we must limit all aspects of female experience. There is sensual, alluring, beautiful Lakshmi; wise, artistic, intelligent Saraswati; strong, powerful, independent Durga; dark, esoteric, wild Kali; and many, many, many more. Some women might find themselves reflected in one or two, though the potential of every single goddess resides in everyone. Seeing femininity represented in our spiritual life affirms for us that we belong here, we have an important place in the world beyond just being a spouse, daughter, or whatever other roles we take on.
But is it even important for us to think of the different ways in which God is gendered? We understand from research in race and psychology that seeing a lack of representation of People of Color in leadership positions and in popular media can reinforce ideas of one’s otherness, invisibility, or feelings of lack of belonging. By utilizing the various forms in which Shakti manifests, and exposing more people to female-centric illustrations of God, we refuse to accept one or two stereotypical ways for females to be, and empower women with choices as to what constitutes their personal concept of femininity. Similarly, perhaps a general reluctance in one’s religious community to name God as Mother or Goddess reinforces women’s feelings of being secondary, less important, or as a companion and not a traveler in one’s own right on one’s spiritual journey. This does not reflect that male superiority is intrinsic to any practice of Hinduism or Buddhism, nor that the religious tradition itself is hesitant to acknowledge divine femininity, but rather that like much of society, we have culturally started to place slightly more value on male portrayals and characteristics the Divine.
I was involved in planning a women’s panel for Dharma Conference, an event dedicated to discussing both ancient and contemporary issues across the Dharmic traditions, when various questions of what it meant to bring gender to the forefront of our minds in our spiritual work.
On a community or organizational level, are we supporting authentically female-led spiritual work? Are women only providing support to men’s initiatives rather than leading their own, born from their own creativity and desires? Do women feel that the work they are doing is just as important as the work men are doing? Are there female-led spiritual spaces that are well-supported by the organization? Whose stories do we tell, and who is in charge of telling them? Do we make a point to promote the work of female scholars? Are any of our service initiatives specifically aimed towards helping with global women’s rights issues? Do we provide people or spaces in which women’s experiences of gender identity, menarche, childbirth, marital status, menopause, and other developmental issues can be discussed? Are we afraid of having any awareness of tritiya-prakriti (third-gender) issues? Do we truly respect the opinions and needs of children?
On a personal level, how does it feel to address God as “She” on a daily basis? How does it feel to have a relationship with God like that of a mother, sister, female friend? If women are to be viewed as keepers of the home/internal shrine, while men are viewed as keepers of the temple/external shrine, how can we reflect on the importance we are giving the home shrine? Do we see the home shrine as important as the temple, or do we see it as inferior? Some may donate hundreds of dollars over the course of the year to their local temple, but completely neglect or do not even have a sacred area at home dedicated to meditation and worship. Why have we made it so? Which goddesses’ spirits do we see reflected in our own personality?
Considering sacred femininity does not impose dualism on our concept of God. It allows us to even out the influences of male-dominated institutions in society and religious traditions. Across cultures and religions, we have always recognized a strong, fascinating pull from the vama-marga, the “left side” of God, feminine aspect of spiritual experience. It is up to us to harness both ancient and modern spiritual understandings of Shakti to aid us in the very human struggles associated with gender in our world. Ultimately, we can move humanity towards a state of not static equilibrium, but towards the dance of the inner masculine and feminine, a dynamic balance which is not bound by gender at all.