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.

 

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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.