Goddesses in Hinduism: The Icons of Female Power

The concept of goddess has been present since the prehistoric period of the Sindhu-Saraswati civilization. Around the same time, a similar female goddess phenomenon also became noticeable in other world cultures. There are carvings of exuberant feminine deities in the Saraswati-Sindhu excavations, and there are similar figures in the Greek and Egyptian culture.

In the early Vedic period, the female aspect of the Divine was pushed to the background by the prominently masculine Brahminic tradition. Even though there appeared to be serious discrimination against women in the Vedic laws and rituals, this soon was more than compensated by assigning high status to female goddesses. The Vedas asserted man as the head of the family. Soon, however, the female goddesses projected women in an equal, occasionally superior position, thus making adequate counterchecks for a power struggle between the two genders!

Goddesses in human form also appeared later as consorts of their male gods: Parvati, the goddess of power, with Lord Shiva; Saraswati, the goddess of learning, with Lord Brahma; and Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, with Lord Vishnu. Hindus recognized women as the creative power, or Shakti. In all Hindu rituals, the female consort became an essential and equal participant. The Puranic scripture Devi Mahatmya, which was most likely compiled between the fifth and the seventh centuries, describes at length the concept and phenomenon of the supreme goddess in all her glory. Scriptures mention that Lord Rama prayed before goddess Durga, before embarking on war with Ravana. Thus woman became the symbol of power and energy in Hindu philosophy. Also when the man wants prosperity, he worships goddess Lakshmi; when he wants knowledge, he worships goddess Saraswati. Thus woman occupies the highest status, complimentary with man.

Unlike most other religions, Hinduism recognizes both the father and the mother aspect of God, the mother aspect being even more appealing to many devotees. When in distress, one is apt to approach mother more likely than father!

Introduction of such a high status to womanhood in Hinduism heralded a great revolution in human society. The downgrading of women was perhaps the legacy of the olden times, when men wielded the power by hunting and other physical activities, and women served as humble submissive partners. In many other cultures, women would have to wait until almost the twentieth century to gain equal rights. Even so, human nature betrayed its weakness time and again, and women did suffer many hardships and humiliations over the centuries in Hindu society.

Hailing the Ganges and a few other rivers as goddesses is rather unique in Hindu culture. The river, especially the Ganges, has been accorded the highest status because of its enormous contribution toward man’s life and prosperity. According to the scriptures, a few drops of water from the Holy Ganges would attain salvation for a dying man. So too the cow has been accorded the divine status. In the ancient verses of the Rig Veda, the cow is referred as goddess and is identified as the mother of the gods, Aditi. In Hindu mythology, Kamadhenu, a cow able to fulfill all desires, was the chief possession of Indra, lord of gods.

In her book Hindu Goddesses, Chitralekha Singh mentions:

“Durga worship occupies a prominent place. Her name implies that she is ‘invincible’, ‘inaccessible’, or a terrific goddess. She also appears as Uma, Parvati, Gauri, Kali, Sati, Tara, and other 1008 names. (Each name would have her special attributes.) In all these forms, the goddess conquered the demons and upheld the reign of virtue over vice.”

“The mother aspect of the Hindu goddess has been eulogized repeatedly. Alongside the energy (Shakti) component, the abundant motherly love of the female goddesses of the Hindu religion has been the subject of much study and propagation. In the recent times especially, the erotic nature of the female goddess has been severely curtailed. The mother phenomenon has been instead promoted.”

“The most popular images of Vaishnodevi, Maa Ambaji, and Santoshi Maa, may be seen as a religious movement in this direction.” 51     

This shift in the attribute of the Shakti goddess from the fierce expression of the destroyer to the loving expression of a mother has become more prominent in recent times. This, in fact, is in accordance with the basic pattern of the Hindu dynamic philosophy, which opts for change with times and situations.

One of the most popular versions of the Hindu goddess is of Kali. She is portrayed as black female with a protruding tongue, wearing a necklace of human skulls and standing over the body of her consort, Lord Shiva. Goddess Kali originally hails from prehistoric times. Her fierce looks are meant to challenge and frighten the wrongdoer. Sri Ramakrishna however adopted the recent shift in the attributes of Kali, to demonstrate the compassionate and loving motherhood.

There also has been an unmistakable spurt of activity in the female religious leadership in modern Hindu society. Sri Sarda Devi, who held the highest position of authority after her husband, Sri Ramakrishna Paramhansa, passed away, is a shining example of divinity in the human form in our own times. She adopted the ancient dictum of the Mahabharata: tasmat tikshnataram mridu, which translates to “by gentleness one can overcome the greatest difficulty in the world.” Repeatedly, she emphasized, “Do not look at the faults of others, lest your eyes should become impure.”

The energy, or the Shakti, phenomenon has often been associated with animal sacrifices. This is especially noticeable in the Kali temples, but many other Shakti goddesses, such as Vaishnodevi, Ambaji, and Santoshi Maa, as well as the present Hindu female spiritual leaders, dispensed with animal sacrifices and meat eating.

There is a growing feeling in the world that the female power of spiritual energy, Shakti, in the form of love, compassion, and the strong arm of protection will become the savior of the mankind in future.

Although there is evidence of ancient feminine deities in the pre-historic Saraswati-Sindhu civilization, the female aspect was pushed to the background in the Vedic Era due to the dominance of the masculine Brahminic tradition. Women were not even allowed to study the scriptures! Soon however this misstep was rectified. In the Upanishads we encounter two very fierce female scholars, Maitreyi and Gargi, who pose most arduous and demanding questions to the learned sages. Later, in Puranic scriptures, feminine deities assumed their full stature, in the form of female consorts to their male counterparts. As is the custom in Hindu theology, the gods often bow down to and worship each other; scriptures mention that Lord Rama prayed before Goddess Durga before embarking on his war with Ravana. Thus woman became the symbol of power and energy in Hindu philosophy. When man wants prosperity, he worships Goddess Lakshmi; when he wants knowledge, he worships Goddess Saraswati. It is rather exceptional that even rivers like Ganga (Ganges) and animals like cow were allotted the ‘Goddess’ status in Hindu culture. In more recent times, the soft loving mother aspect of Goddess has been more eulogized in preference to the fierce energy (Shakti) identity. Sri Ramakrishna worshipped Goddess Kali Maa, more in the soft motherly form. His consort Sri Sarda Devi, who held the highest position after his passing away, remains a shining example of divinity in the human form in our own times. She adopted the ancient dictum of the Mahabharata: tasmat tikshnataram mridu, which translates to “by gentleness one can overcome the greatest difficulty in the world.” Repeatedly, she emphasized, “Do not look at the faults of others, lest your eyes should become impure.”The dynamic pattern is noticeable.