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 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 God, why did I end up thinking of an old white man?
I thought again, conjuring up another image. Krishna, the beloved raincloud-dark god, came to mind. Though the image was more familiar, why again did I think of a male form?
Regardless of their spiritual path, many argue that God is beyond the confines of the gender labeling superimpose on human experience. Why, then, is it so jarring to hear God referred to as “She” or “Her” in colloquial speech?
We readily ascribe traditionally feminine characteristics to God: 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. Maybe there’s some relationship between how we think of femininity and the sacredness ascribed to femininity in our faith.
In Hindu literature, stories of the major forms of Shakti (the feminine principle) such as Durga and Kali are frequent. But people know less of female scholars and poets like Gargi, Lopamudra, Mirabai and Mahadeviyakka. Women often occupy significant leadership roles in Hindu temples and organizations, and are prominent scholars and teachers as well. However, these same Hindu women may face situations where their gender seems to be a hindrance in their work, for example, when their opinion is not taken seriously unless a male voices it. How we engage with women in religious spaces often reflects societal issues women face everywhere.
Engaging with the Goddess is a powerful way to increase egalitarianism across the gender spectrum. If we can see God with a feminine face, we can disentangle spirituality from patriarchy. Let me be clear: celebrating the nine-night festival dedicated to the Goddess, Navratri, does not make you a feminist. Many worship the Devi while simultaneously contributing to the abuse and degradation of women.
It’s not just about seeing God as having abstract “feminine” qualities. It’s about seeing divinity in the female body. It’s empowering to hear the female body being associated with sacredness because globally, female bodies are the most objectified, trafficked and abused. Loving and ascribing sacredness to a female body is a radical act.
By using the various manifestations of Shakti and exposing more people to female-centric illustrations of God, we’re refusing to accept the stereotypical ways for females to be. We can empower women, giving them choice in their personal concept of femininity.
It was when I planning a women’s panel for the upcoming Dharma Conference that gender floated to the forefront of my mind.
On a community or organizational level, are we supporting authentically female-led spiritual work? 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 experiences of gender identity, menarche, childbirth, marital status, menopause, and other developmental issues can be discussed? Are we afraid of having any awareness of third-gender issues?
The answers disappointed me. Even in my personal life, outside the institutional level, I see room for improvement.
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, while men are viewed as keepers of the temple, how can we reflect on the importance we are giving the shrine of the home? Which goddesses’ spirits do we see reflected in our own personality?
Considering sacred femininity will not impose dualism on our concept of God. Instead, it will restore balance. Across cultures and religions, we have always recognized a strong, fascinating pull from the vama-marga, the “left side” of God, the feminine aspect of spiritual experience. We can move humanity towards the dance of the inner masculine and feminine, a dynamic balance left unbound by gender.
Sarika Persaud is a PsyD candidate at Pace University, and general secretary on the national board of the Hindu Students Council. She blogs on dharma, psychology and science at sword + flute.