The 'Sacred' Feminine?

"Obsessed by a fairy tale, we spend our lives searching for a magic door and a lost kingdom of peace"-Eugene O'Neill, American playwright

Women have held sacred sexuality since time immemorial. In Paleolithic times, the sacred feminine was captivated in her representation. She had no voice, no soul, just a body from which all life sprung. This body was round, curved, voluptuous, and the center of worship by both men and women. But it was within this context of sexual power that woman came to be defined, her ability to give birth and nurture creation made her the ultimate icon of worship. But she was also a force to be feared. By the Neolithic era, man learned that the only way to survive and sustain his progeny, was by controlling the natural resources around him. Hydraulic engineering became necessary for civilizations to develop and produce--irrigation for floods, boats for transport, dams for storing water--were just some of the many ways men learned to control resources. But it was also in this need to control nature that men learned that the only way to become like the gods they so admired and sustain their future, would be to control women's sexual appetites. After all, women had a sexuality that could make men fall to their knees, lose their pride--unable to break away from the 'destructive' spell.

Stories in ancient folklore are testaments to this and serve as a reminder that female power produced a threat to male survival. Ancient Sumerian text tells the story of Inanna, queen of heaven and earth, the most revered goddess of ancient times. "Inanna, known to Semites as Ishtar, was also referred to as the first daughter of the moon and the morning and evening star...she was a multifaceted goddess with prolific powers, including the power over fertility and the fecundity of plants, animals, and humans" (Agha-Jaffar, 18). It is not shocking, however, that the story concludes with Inanna's descent into the netherworld when she takes her lover, the earthly farmer Dumuzi, as her husband and releases him from her capture. She then vows full loyalty to her new husband, surrendering her powers so that her husband, and all future earthly rulers from the Sumerian line, may rule as all-powerful kings. The same kings we read about on cuneiform scrolls.

Sumerian culture is not the only culture to depict women capitulating their universal sexual power to the men in their life. Another instance is the Hindu goddess Kali, or the 'Destroyer' that devours everything in her path. She is one of the wives of Shiva, and is portrayed as fierce, monstrous, and insatiable. "Her black color, suggestive of the darkness is at the beginning and at the end of life, reminds us of the inevitable confrontation with our own mortality...Kali adorns her otherwise naked body with skulls and limbs around her neck and waist" (Agha-Jaffar, 163). These skulls and limbs which are proudly exhibited are of the men in her life. As Kali is represented as the 'destroyer' of life--her autonomy makes her dangerous and must be controlled. This is what the Hindus refer to as 'shakti' or feminine sexual energy. Shakti can destroy or create life--the message in the story of Kali is clear--leave the woman independent, she may destroy life--control and channel her energy to the men in her life, she may create life.

There are numerous examples of women in ancient folklore yielding their powers to men so that the order of the universe remain stable and sacrosanct. After all, the Greeks referred to female sexual energy as 'physis', the carnal nature of woman as the fertile channel for growth. The purpose of this post, is not to criticize men for their earthly efforts in pursuit of immortality or god-like ways on earth. This has been the case since time immemorial. But perhaps it has allowed women to better see themselves in their natural state too. Not as simple consorts to powerful kings and princes, but as as a major part of the dynamic contours of early civilization. The nurturing function of woman should not be seen as a weakness, but as the fundamental strength that feeds every powerful man.

Perhaps instead of reading those whimsical fairy tales to our children, particularly to our girls, who fall asleep awaiting their 'handsome prince' to make their lives complete, it may serve us better to tell them that they are already complete. The prince still serves a necessary function--the only way he can remain a prince is by meeting his equal--a woman with strength who need not surrender to the potential evil forces on earth that make her seem inadequate and 'not good enough'. Our children, ourselves, and future generations could learn alot from the story of Inanna.

Agha-Jaffar, Tamara, ed. Women and Goddesses: In Myth and Sacred Text. Pearson Education, 2005.

First image:
'Venus of Willendorf' statuette, limestone, found in Willendorf, Austria in 1908, dated 24-22,000 B.C.

Second image:

Bas-relief stele, stone, found in Ur, 2200 B.C.

Third image:
Color lithograph of Kali draped with a necklace and skulls dances on Shiva, lettered, inscribed, and numbered 27. The British Museum, 1895.


The Modern World: La Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite!

"Our wretched species is so made that those who walk on the well-trodden path always throw stones at those who are showing a new road." - Francois-Marie Arouet, aka Voltaire (1694-1778)

Political scientists often credit our modern-day world with the outward signs associated with Americanization. Let's face it, where there is a McDonald's there is bound to be freedom, equality, and justice! But is this necessarily true? How do we account for the lack of women's rights in the Middle East that boast a McDonalds in the streets of Bahrain or Cairo? Or present-day Communism in China, where KFC and Pizza Hut appear in big cities like Hong Kong or Beijing? In order to trace the modernization of the world, historians take a look back at a time of timultuousness, huge economic disparity, and desperate voices turned silent from below. We refer to the French Revolution, a movement that first appeared in the early American colonies in the 'Spirit of '76', but solidified change once lines of French peasants stormed the Bastille in 1789. The French Revolution begged the question, who said the poor have no voice?

Bernard Lewis, author of What Went Wrong? The Clash Between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East, attributes modernity in the Ottoman Empire with the French Revolution. This revolution had no religious identity,and according to Lewis, it was not identified with the Christian West, and was therefore influential to the eastern world. The Ottomans idealized the French for their ability to change their government, grant people rights, and secure those rights through a modern constitution. The result was what the Ottomans referred to as Tanzimat, or the 'reordering' of their society--bringing rights to women, equality among Muslims and non-Muslims, and constitutions that protected the people regardless of social class and economic standing. How revolutionary indeed!

What the French did do, differently than other colonial powers, is allow the local indigenous practices throughout the Ottoman Empire to continue. Unlike the British, for example, who sought to Anglicize their colonies in the hopes of 'civilizing' them, the French rather permitted the locals to modernize without completely westernizing themselves. Christianity was not forced onto the natives of the Ottoman Empire, but rather granted equal status with Islam. Britain, on the other hand, sought to impose Christian beliefs on colonial natives through missionary practices--often associating Christianity with modernization in places like China and India. France's model gave eastern countries little reason to oppose modernizing themselves and eventually opened them up to adopting western practices.

The French Revolution was not a revolution that threatened a major colonial power like the American Revolution did. It was rather a revolution for change, remodeling its own government along enlightenment principles such as adhering to the 'people's will' and not the will of the aristocrats and nobles. It personified Rousseau's social contract theory that argued the virtue of man was not the power of his purse, but the moral standard to which he lived. Although Rousseau is known as the founder of socialism, he came at a time in French and European history when bread was scarce to the majority and women like the Austrian Marie Antoinette would rise to power in France at the pure young age of 15 for having 'French connections'.

The French Revolution was a societal reordering for economic equality and although it did not successfully bring permanent stability to France, it enumerated the necessity for the people to be heard over the ineptitude of their elitist government. From 1789 onward, independence movements spawned the Atlantic through Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Far East. Do we attribute the growing modernization of the world to 20th century America's 'big guns' and military paternalism? Perhaps slightly. But what really marks the long-lived creative histories among nations thirsty for economic stability and individual rights is the year 1789. France's revolution had no religion associated with it, it sought to change government from within, and grant power to the poor through social discourse. Rousseau said it best in his book, The Social Contract, when he wrote, "All men are born free, but everywhere they are in chains".


Sayonara, Mr. Gandhi...

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi is a name and persona not fully understood by the West. Today, we often refer to him as the 'thin man in the loin cloth, who helped bring his country to independence', but we know little to nothing about his beliefs, his struggles, and his ability to transcend cultural and religious barriers. Here in the west, we carry no comparable measure to the 'man in the loin cloth', but we often briefly reference him when we discuss civil disobedience or nonviolence. Sure, we had Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960s and Henry David Thoreau in the 1840s, but whom do we admire today? Where is the man or woman who speaks truth against the majority? Can he or she be found in the political scene today?

I argue no. A man like Gandhi would be killed, labeled a heathen or unconscionable liberal with little or nothing to offer today's political scene. In fact, during his second civil disobedience campaign of the 1930s, Winston Churchill spoke of Gandhi in the following words, "It is alarming and also nauseating to see Mr. Gandhi, a seditious middle temple lawyer, now posing as a fakir of a type well known in the east, striding half-naked up the steps of the viceregal palace, while he is still organizing and conducting a defiant campaign of civil disobedience, to parley on equal terms with the representative of the king-emperor." Tell me, was Churchill fair in his reference?

Gandhi was born in the town of Porbandar in Gujarat from a family of grocers (members of the vaishya caste). He lived at a time when his contemporaries stood for little to nothing meaningful--men like Stalin, Hitler, and Mussolini. His attempts towards social reform were sparked by an event that took place in his early 20s when he was pushed off of a train for sitting in first class on his way to Pietermaritzburg, South Africa. Ben Kingsley who played Gandhi in the 1982 film by Richard Attenborough stated that the lesson learned from Gandhi's life is that 'you don't throw young men off of trains' as the result could be catastrophic. Regardless, from 1893 onward, Gandhi would swear loyalty to satyagraha (satya = truth, graha = force), and thus emerged an active and nonviolent movement amassing support from peasants, farmers, industrialists, and capitalists alike.

Gandhi grew more revolutionary in spirit as he faced and witnessed discrimination in South Africa. By 1906, he took a vow of brahmacharya (celibacy) after his wife and he fostered four sons. Furthermore, his vow of satyagraha, or civil disobedience, helped to abolish the indentured labor system in India on part of the British Raj by 1916.

Gandhi's demand for swadeshi, a movement of spinning thread that began in 1905 after Lord Curzon partitioned Bengal, became the focal point of swaraj (self-rule). No longer could Indians afford to trust the British by the early 20th century, but rather turn to their own devices for all-out independence. In addition, Gandhi worked with people from all facets of class consciousness--landlords (pattidars) and industrialists alike, in order to help gain rights for the planters or workers abused by the local governments.

So where is Mr. Gandhi today? Men who take it within their own hands to change the wrong in the world? Henry David Thoreau in his 1849 essay, 'On Civil Disobedience' wrote, "That government is best which governs not at all, and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have." Thoreau went on further to question the morality of the law in America arguing that such unjust laws must be challenged. He wrote, "Can there not be a government in which majorities do not viritually decide right and wrong , but conscience? in which majorities decide only those questions to which the rule of expediency is applicable? Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to legislation? Why has every man a conscience then? I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward." Perhaps asking for another Gandhi is wishful thinking, idealistic and unrealistic. But the idea of such a man walking this earth gives us the hope that perhaps we can become better people, making rightful changes for the will to survive. Mr. Gandhi was such a man, and we shall not take his memory for granted.
The Story of My Experiments with Truth by Mohandas K. Gandhi, 1929.
"On Civil Disobedience", Henry David Thoreau, 1849.
Gandhi by David Arnold, 2001