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  • The God of Male Things

    WESTERN FEMINIST movements in the early 1970s confronted an uncomfortable truth: the notion that God was male dominated every aspect of religion. As feminist philosopher Mary Daly summed up, “If God is male, then the male is God.” The question of gender, religion and faith has been a very contentious one. Feminists have looked into histories of ancient civilizations and various religious traditions to understand different notions of power, and they have despaired that religion and tradition are so entangled with patriarchy that they can never be a source of liberation.

    Faith and religion mediate many of the value systems and roles defined for women by various social institutions. Feminist critiques have often pointed out that religious texts, spaces and structures are largely male dominated and women’s lives within these spiritual spaces are shaped and controlled by male-centric processes within communities. Spirituality, as we all know, is popularly explained as transcendence to a greater reality which is beyond daily, mundane realities. But whatever its transcendental nature, it is grounded in the social realities of the time in which it is practiced and taught. Be it established religion or smaller sects, they have been shaped and propagated in a social and cultural context. They have a vested world view—one that includes images of women largely created by men.

    And yet, on the other hand, some effort has gone into understanding the experiences and works of women who took the spiritual path. In a society where there is an overwhelming expectation for women to marry and procreate, women renouncers and spiritual leaders are not easily accepted and even called deviant. We have several examples throughout history like Akka Mahadevi, Meerabai and Lalladevi who were socially ostracized. These women subverted many popular notions of womanhood. It is valuable to understand how gender gets constructed and operated in such instances. Nuns, Yoginis, Saints and Singers: Women’s Renunciation in South Asia edited by Meena Khandelwal, Sondra Hausner and Ann Grodzins Gold, and published by Zubaan, is a very interesting exploration of this.

    The book chronicles the experiences of women renouncers from diverse traditions and faiths. Using their experiences as a basis, it talks about issues and questions around gender, faith and communities. The book is a moving and fascinating account of women in spirituality negotiating “the rocky terrains of desire, attachment, family, sexuality, ego and expectation.” It’s easy to call religion just another product of patriarchy and forget about it but harder—and more important—to engage with religion and keenly listen to women who are inside it…. Read the book!

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    One Response

    1. As a non-Indian woman who practiced a monastic spiritual path in India for years, I say there is an added cross-cultural dynamic for women like me and gender issues are a part of it.

      You grow up with one set of values and then are thrown smack dab into the ocean of another.

      Will read the book.

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