Conceiving the Goddess

Caleb Simmons

This volume is the second by the editorial team of Jayant Bhalchandra Bapat and Ian Mabbett. Following their reflections on ‘top–down’ and ‘bottom–up’ processes in The Iconic Female (Clayton: Monash University Press, 2008), they have again drawn together scholars from Australia (plus one from the Czech Republic and one from India) to reflect on issues of appropriation and goddesses in Indian religions.

The volume is grounded by an introductory chapter in which the editors provide seven possible varieties of appropriation in Indic religions. While these varieties might seem slightly elementary at first, they give a certain cohesiveness to the overall project and neatly frame their subsequent reflection on ‘the concept of “appropriation”’ (pp. 6-8). For the volume, the editors propose a working definition of appropriation: ‘It takes place when a group adopts an element of practice or belief that was not previously its own in order to protect or enhance its status, or to enrich the experience of its members’ (p. 6). Building upon this definition they emphasize the interplay between the ‘vertical dimension’ (e.g. factors emphasizing social factors) and the ‘horizontal dimension’ (e.g. factors derived from geographic context and economic influences) that shapes how deities (etc.) change over time. In this review, I will not attempt to discuss the essays present in the volume but will focus on a few that were particularly striking in regards to the interplay described by the editors in this introduction.

Let me begin with Greg Bailey’s chapter (Chapter 3, The appropriation of the goddess into the Purāṇic narrative: Integration/Appropriation in the Vāmanapurāṇa). Bailey’s contribution is a unique essay within the collection in which he explores the processes of appropriation and integration through the sub-narrative of Pārvatī and Andhaka in the Vāmana Purāṇa and the sub-narratives of marriage and Brāhminical values embedded within it. Bailey studies these stories in order to see the ways that the Purāṇas collected, catalogued, adapted, and made space for a variety of practices from various local traditions though doing so under the authority of brāhmins and their hierarchy of values. He argues ‘the difficulties these marriages raise can be seen as analogous to the process where the originally non-Brāhminical goddess is integrated into the Brāhminical pantheon of deities and panoply of myths’ (p. 57). After a fun recap of the narratives, Bailey turns to his analysis of figures, places, and practices that the sub-narrative and its embedded narratives contain. The keys to his analysis are the enforcement of Brāhminical values regarding marriage, the vague varṇa identity of several characters, location, and regional royal marriage practices. The author concludes ‘from this perspective it is clear that the Brāhmins who composed and recited the Purāṇas were more concerned with presenting diversity within unity rather than describing the process whereby this occurred. They were not bothered with diversity. In truth, they welcomed it. Rather, they were motivated within bringing all local customs into a Brāhminical framework and letting them continue to exist’ (p. 74). Bailey’s essay doesn’t necessarily provide a paradigm-changing new theory of appropriation in the Purāṇas, but its persuasive prose and measured approach to the complexities involved in the processes whereby local and Pan-Indic traditions intermingle provides a great example of sound scholarship that helps us to understand appropriation in a fuller, more nuanced way.

Bapat’s own essay (Chapter 4, The Yakṣinī Devī of Mangaon: Appropriation of a Jain goddess by Brāhminic Hinduism) is not as clearly refined as many of the others. In the essay, the author states that he will be examining an example of forceful appropriation of a Jain goddess through which she was recast as the Hindu goddess Durgā. The essay, however, is primarily a reproduction of his field notes that recaps his search for the Jain Gurav community from 4-6 January 2007. This is followed by a brief and problematic history of Jainism and its demise in the Koṅkan region that is primarily taken from the legend of Śaṅkara found in the fifteenth chapter of the Marathi Śivalīlāmṛta. Based on this brief history of forceful conversion he states ‘Jains would have been killed or converted to Hinduism in large numbers and their temples converted to Śiva shrines. Even their gods were hinduised and worshipped as such. The Jain goddess Yakṣiṇī at Mangaon was removed from her small shrine and installed in the main temple as Durgā’ (pp. 99-100). Perhaps it is because of the focus on the field report and the lack of corresponding analysis or the dearth of historical data upon which he makes his claim, but this reviewer was not convinced by the author’s argument regarding the processes through which Yakṣiṇī became associated with Durgā. The rhetoric of forced conversion has often masked a much more nuanced process of such ‘conversions’ or appropriations, and given the material presented by Bapat’s notes it seems likely that the goddess of Mangaon and her priests were potentially much more heavily involved in the process than the author suggests. By way of conclusion, Bapat says that he will elaborate more on the Jain Guravs in a forthcoming essay; I hope that he will also return to Yakṣiṇī at Mangaon to help us to understand this fascinating case a little more.

Bapat’s essay is contrasted with Madhavi Narsalay’s chapter on Jogāī of Ambe that examines the same broader geographical area (Chapter 9, From Śaktipīṭha to Kuladaivata: The appropriation of goddess Jogāī of Ambe). In this chapter, Narsalay contextualizes the evolution of the goddess’s cult within textual, epigraphic, folk, and historical data, producing a thorough study of the movement of this goddess and the community that worshipped her through both space and social status. Through this nuanced approach, we can see the complexities that shaped the goddess that includes royal patronage, Sanskrit textual traditions, Tantric and Nātha practice, and polito-religious agency. Or as the Narsalay puts it more succinctly and much more poignantly: appropriation ‘is a process which involves cross-fertilisation of various religious and cultural forces’ (p. 207).

The final essay that I wish to consider is the final chapter of the volume by Martin Hříbek that examines contemporary examples of goddess appropriation in India (Chapter 12, Modern appropriations of Devī). I was thrilled to see an essay of this sort in the collection because, in many ways, contemporary examples can help us to theorize about historical possibilities as we see similar processes unfold before our eyes. In this chapter, Hříbek gives an introductory examination to Bhāratamātā and Manushi Svaccha Nārāyaṇī in order to ‘explore the continuities of the modern creative process exemplified by the late nineteenth-century [goddesses]’ (p. 258). The author frames these continuities within the theology found in the sixth-century Devīmāhātmya in order to show the Sāṃkhya foundations of Bhārātamātā and Svaccha Nārāyaṇī’s ‘trinity of forms’ (pp. 259 and 274). While I admire the attempt to ground this material within the literary and philosophical traditions of goddess traditions, the connection was not immediately apparent or convincing, and the material might have been better served through an exploration of medieval kings and goddess practices. This, however, did not deter from the overall effectiveness of the article. Instead, Hříbek’s contribution, especially the section on Svaccha Nārāyaṇi, demonstrates how goddesses have been effectively instrumentalized for a variety of purposes and how the attendant practices can become meaningful for certain communities.

Conceiving the Goddess is a thought provoking book that forces its reader to deeply consider the processes through which Indian religion changes. The collected essays range widely in their topics and the persuasiveness of their argumentation; however, with each essay a careful reader will inevitably reflect on the material under discussion and test (even if casually) those theories against their own research. Therefore, I recommend this volume for scholars and students of Indian religions, especially those interested in goddess traditions, who are interested in the dynamics of religious change.