Women in Ochre Robes is an engaging and intimate ethnographic portrait of contemporary sannyasinis in India; women who have renounced the orthodox val...moreWomen in Ochre Robes is an engaging and intimate ethnographic portrait of contemporary sannyasinis in India; women who have renounced the orthodox values of family life and domestic obligations in order to pursue the path of spiritual liberation. This is all the more remarkable when one considers that, as Khandelwal points out, the Sannyasa tradition was created for and by men, and so Sannyasinis not only may face opposition from family & friends in pursuing renunciate status, but also may face opposition from male ascetics.
This book is no disengaged account of these women's histories - Khandelwal places herself within the text, so as much as this book is an examination of the complexities of sannyasini lives, it is also an engaging account of the author's pursuit of her research, and her own encounters and responses to life within communities of ascetics. This approach provides a rich background context to the author's research, and also acknowledges that ethnology is itself, "a form of human relationship."
Women in Ochre Robes brings out a central problem in the study of renouncer traditions in India - the notion that householder and renouncer stand as dichotomous opposites. Khandelwal prefers to speak of 'tensions' rather than oppositions, and notes for example, that whilst renouncers relationship with their families changes once they become sannyasa, they may still maintain connections with their families - that whilst renouncers are no longer thought of as being of society - they are still enmeshed within a complex network of social relationships. Khandelwal also astutely points out that the phenomena of female renunciation itself provides a critique of anthropology's tendency to represent the lives of people in other cultures as overdetermined.
Khandelwal focuses in detail on her relationships with two sannyasinis - Anand Mata and Baiji, exploring how both these women reconcile the tensions and contradictions of renunciate detachment and social engagement. She notes, for example, that sannyasinis tend to discourage other women from following their example, not out of a blind belief in 'orthodoxy' but that it is contrary to the ideals of sannyasi to recruit followers. She provides a thoughtful and pithy examination of how the thorny issue of authenticity is resolved amongst sannyasas and their disciples. Khandelwal says that whilst there are no 'objective criteria' for making such evaluations, there are, nonetheless, 'discernable patterns' by which real saints are distinguished from the merely fraudulent and that the distinction between the holy man and the freeloader are often subtle. The fraudulent ascetic is a common figure in Indian literature, both ancient and modern. Khandelwal notes that:
"It was generally assumed by most people I met that, while the vast majority of sadhus are frauds, genuine saints do exist, and discrimination is required to distinguish between them. Using one's faculty of discrimination means not only comparing one sadhu with another or "shopping around" but also testing them." (p162)
Khandelwal also provides an intriguing perspective on the 'mutuality' of gurus and disciples, and in particular, how disciples interpret the behaviour of their gurus. Whilst there is great potential for abuse within this kind of relationship, there is also the possibility of the guru becoming 'trapped' by the disciples expectations - a point also examined by Agehananda Bharati in his book, Light at the Centre.
Khandelwal poses the question "How are the gender identities and roles of women affected when they enter the world of renunciation?" She argues that Sannyasinis reject the notion that 'women must become men' (either metaphorically or through rebirth) and says that whilst they distance themselves from female householders, they do not reject femininity itself. Whilst there is a common refrain that to be a renouncer is to be indifferent to matters of gender, Khandelwal notes that despite otherworldly indifference (the ideal) women who renounce "remain attentive to the ambiguities and ambivalences of gender issues within the renunciate sphere. She discusses how the very real problem of sannyasinis being treated as objects of male sexual attention can mean that sannyasinis, rather than being able to wander at will, often have to be circumspect in their behaviour. Khandelwal says that during the course of her research, she received warnings not to visit ashrams alone or speak to unfamiliar sadhus. "It is clear", she says, "that ochre robes do not provide an escape from the perils of being a woman in North India."
Khandelwal argues that whilst the renunciate ideal imagines gender as ephermeral, as one looks deeper, the categories of Brahmanic ideology are reproduced and even elaborated - so that women may be denigrated and masculinity privileged at the same time that maternal qualities such as compassion & nurturing are held up as renunciant ideals.
Women in Ochre Robes is a deeply fascinating book, all too welcome given the current lack of accessible material on contemporary Indian women's religious experience. Khandelwal presents a highly nuanced and complex picture of the lives of sannyasinis and the world they inhabit - a world that encompasses the philosophical, personal, social and emotional aspects of experience. Highly recommended.(less)
Of all the scholarly works I have read over the last couple of years, Encountering Kali is without doubt one of the most impressive. Divided into two...moreOf all the scholarly works I have read over the last couple of years, Encountering Kali is without doubt one of the most impressive. Divided into two seconds, covering respectively - Kali in the texts and contexts of South Asia and Kali in Western settings and discourses - the various contributions highlight the widely diverse contexts within which Kali appears.
Contributions to this collection range from Patricia Lawrence's fascinating field research on Kali worship in Sri Lanka against the backdrop of civil war to Hugh B. Urban's review of Kali in the Colonial imagination, and Cynthia Anne Hume's Wrestling with Kali which focuses on British Colonial-era and South Asian portrayals of Kali and focuses in particular on Kali's imagery with respect to the so-called Thuggee cult. Also of interest is the fieldwork of Usha Menon and Richard A. Shweder, in investigating the local meanings of Kali iconography in the temple town of Bhubaneswar in 1991, and how those meanings have come to become associated with narratives that uphold Hindu family values - especially those encouraging female self-restraint and self-control.
Roxanne Kamayani Gupta's Kali Mayi: Myth and Reality in a Banares Ghetto offers a poignant account of her meetings with a female Kali devotee; and how this illustrates the differences between how Kali is thought of by Western and Indian women. The final essay in the collection, Kali's New Frontiers by Rachel Fell McDermott, reviews how Kali is presented on the Worldwide Web, and discusses how the representation of Kali by Western feminists and New Age groups is, by turns, fuelling the rise of a new wave of critique of inappropriate cultural borrowings.
This is an excellent collection of essays and as such, deserves a place on the bookshelf of anyone with a serious interest in Tantra or Goddesses in general. (less)
Ellen Goldberg's book is the first extensive study of Ardhanarishvara: the Lord Who is Half Woman. She examines the influence of Ardhanarishvara throu...moreEllen Goldberg's book is the first extensive study of Ardhanarishvara: the Lord Who is Half Woman. She examines the influence of Ardhanarishvara through iconography, mythology, devotional poetry and the role of Ardhanarishvara in Hatha Yoga practice. She also provides a critical analysis of the image in terms of the gender construction of 'male' & 'female' and androgyny across cultures.
In the first chapter, Goldberg critically examines the representation of Ardhanarishvara in temple iconography. She points out that Ardhanarishvara should be understood as a symbolic representation of theological norms and doctrines - and that in general, iconography functions as a meditational and devotional aid for devotees. She analyses different representations of Ardhanarishvara - looking at differences in features such as the number of arms, or mudras dispalyed. For Goldberg, Ardhanarishvara represents "a paradigm of sacred human knowledge - a symbolic cultural landscape, formulating, regualting and legitimising religious and ideological presuppositions including gender, on the one hand, while also providing a diagnostic paradigm for mapping the transformations of human consciousness through the subtle conjunction of the male and female form."
The second chapter - Ardhanarishvara and Hathayoga - deals with Ardhanarishvara in Hathayoga practice - how the often convoluted concepts relating to various elements such as nadis, chakras, kundalini, etc., move the practitioner towards an inner reconciliation of "all apparent dualities". Citing the work of Susan Bordo, Goldberg asserts that through the various practices of Hathayoga, "culture is made body" - so Hathayoga practice cannot be seperated from "a systematic network of patriarchal insitutions that oftentimes promote images of male dominance and female subordination." Goldberg points out that women's bodies are not considered the "normative models" on which yoga practices are based - that few, if any of the Hathayoga classics have been written from the perspective of female practitioners. An example of this trend that springs to mind is the 16th century Sat-Cakra-Nirupana Tantra, translated by Arthur Avalon as The Serpent Power wherein all references to the esoteric anatomy of the yogin are couched entirely in male terms. Goldberg is rightly wary of metaphysical claims to sameness which, on examination, show one-sided (male) gender assumptions, and "subtle mechanisms of negation and absorbtion."
In the third chapter, Goldberg turns to an examination of Ardhanarishvara in devotional poetry - in particular, Tamil devotional poetics, and also the Ardhanarishvara Stotra, which has been attributed to Adi Sankara. Goldberg demonstrates, through her analysis, how Tamil Saivite poems uses highly stylised representations that relate to the rules of temple iconography. Whilst the poems are primarily devotional - invoking for the listener the presence of the deity through the poet's ecstatic experience, Goldberg asserts that these 'verbal icons' also encode normative patterns of gender & behaviour. She analyses these patterns in terms of a dialectical relationship between nature and culture. Goldberg also provides a translation of the Ardhanarishvara Stotra and subjects its imagery to a thorough analysis to uncover its gender markers. She asserts that rather than uncritically accepting "the illusion of equality in androdgynous images" (be they Western or Eastern) what is required is a critique of their 'subtle' gender constructions.
In chapter four - An Indian and a Feminist Perspective of Androgyny, Goldberg draws on the work of Wendy Doniger (Women, Androgynes and other Mythical Beasts) and Kari Weil (Androgyny and the Denial of Difference) in order to present a general overview of the image of the androgyne. She also provides a critical review of Feminist responses to the concept of androgyny, such as the 'psychological advocates' of androgyny such as Sandra Bem and June Singer; the critics of androgyny offered by Mary Daly and Adrianne Rich, and the "third phase" critiques of Toril Moi, Kristeva and Luce Irigaray - who highlight the problem of an androgyny which promotes wholeness or sameness by negating difference. This is a useful chapter for anyone interested in the cross-cultural analysis of the androgyne, although Goldberg maintains, justifiably in my opinion, that the image of Ardhanarishvara cannot be understood outside of its cultural context. Interestingly enough however, she also feels that feminist theory "could benefit from Indian philosophy's living application and experiential understanding of androgyny."
The final chapter Sakti and Parvati: A new Interpretation - Goldberg proposes a 'new' reading of the relationship between Siva and Parvarti. She reviews the major elements of her thesis thus far - how the androgyne acts as an encoded cultural motif both in terms of cosmogenesis and human processes. She also notes that "issues of equality" between men and women is an entirely modern concern (although I do feel it is worth recalling that many of those interested in Indian religious concepts often use them in such a manner as to assume an 'equality' which, on examination, may not actually be present). Goldberg also cites Diane Hoeveler's analysis of the androgyne in the Romantic literary tradition, particularly her observation that the British Romantic poets created their female alter-egos, only to 'destroy' them by the end of the poem. Goldberg finds a similar pattern in Hathayoga practice whereby the practitioner absorbs and 'purifies' the feminine only to eliminate 'her' in the final stages of laya (NB: David Gordon White's Kiss of the Yogini traces the gradual internalisation of the divine Yogini into 'feminine energies' within the male body is a useful reference in respect to this process).
Goldberg turns her attention to the Indian concept of Sakti and Parvati's role as heroine - as tapasvini. She recounts the story of how Parvati wins her self-chosen husband, Siva, through her Tapas, which Goldberg sees as a sign of her agency and independence (noting that Parvati pursues Siva despite strong disapproval from her family). Turning to Sakti, Goldberg briefly reviews the historical development of this concept, from its earliest appearence in the Vedas through to the Sixth century Devimahatmya by which time Sakti is seen as fully autonomous and the primary source of All.
Overall, The Lord Who is Half Woman is a fascinating work and belongs on the bookshelf of anyone with a serious interest in androgny, Tantra, or gender studies. I can only echo Jeffrey J. Kripal who, on the back cover, says that "It has the potential to become a classic Indological work."(less)
The Divine Consort: Radha and the Goddesses of India edited by John Stratton Hawley and Donna Marie Wulf - the edition on my bookshelf is from Motilal...moreThe Divine Consort: Radha and the Goddesses of India edited by John Stratton Hawley and Donna Marie Wulf - the edition on my bookshelf is from Motilal (1995) – a 400-odd page hardback, with four colour plates (it was first published back in 1982, from Berkeley). The book is divided into two main sections. The first half of Divine Consort provides a multidimensional analysis of Radha, the consort (or mistress) of Krishna, ranging from early references to goddesses within Krishna-oriented religosity, Radha-Krishna as divine duality in Jayadeva’s Gita-govinda; examination of Radha in Puranic texts, plays; through to representations of Radha in modern Hindi poetry. These essays shed much light on Radha and her relationality to Krishna, showing for example, that she is much more than a subordinate consort (see in particular Donna Wulff’s essay on Radha in relation to the 16th century plays of Rupa Gosvami and modern kirtan performances). C. Mackenzie Brown for example, examines the emerging theology of Radha in the Puranas, noting the influences of both Samkhya and Sakta theology, whilst Shrivatsa Goswami reflects on views of Radha from the perspective of the Caitanya Sampradaya and the aesthetic play of Rasa.
The second section of the collection features essays on a diverse range of Indian Goddesses – some of which are said to be “consorts” – others, considered to be “independent”. Highlights (for me) are Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty’s considerations of the power-plays within Siva and Parvati’s marriage, Thomas Coburn’s introduction to the Devi-mahatmya, Diana Eck’s examination of the Ganga as river/goddess; Edward Dimock’s “A Theology of the Repulsive: The Myth of the Goddess Sitala” and Vasudha Narayanan’s introduction to the goddess Sri. There are also contributions from well-known scholars such as David Kinsley (Kali) A. K Ramujan (women saints) and Frederique Marglin (“Types of Sexual Union and their Implicit Meanings”).
The Divine Consort is an excellent anthology of essays. If there’s one central theme here, its the emphasis on the goddesses in relation – to other deities or to devotees – and its expression through the love-play of the goddess’ power. Something I’ve occasionally found in pagan or occult texts which mention Indian deities is that whilst there’s a strong focus on Siva or Kali, and much writing on either the (supposedly) “antinomian/transgressive” elements of Saivite tantra or goddess-focused Sakta tantra, the Vaisnava-Krishna-Radha oriented material, by contrast does not seem to be so “popular”. I do find this rather strange, as its in the Vaisnava or Krishna texts, poems and plays that one can find some of the most extensive theological expressions and considerations of the power of love, longing and erotic mutuality and union. For an introductory glimpse into the rich love-play of Radha, as well as a wealth of fascinating essays on the diverse aspects of goddess traditions and praxis in India, The Divine Consort is a good place to start. There’s a new version of this book out now, titled Devi: Goddesses of India (Univ. California Press, 1996) – however, only two of the essays from the edition I’ve reviewed here – the contributions of Diana Eck and the late David Kinsley are unchanged. Thomas Coburn, Donna Wulff and Vasudha Narayanan’s essays have been re-written, and there are seven new essays. The focus of this new edition has shifted somewhat too – whereas the contributors to The Divine Consort are mostly working out of textual analysis, this new edition is more oriented towards ethnographic accounts of lived practice. (less)