* insert banal opening riff from the final countdown*
Moving on, I’ve been noticing with growing anxiety that in the past few weeks, feminism has been on the receiving end of the blogosphere’s malapropos attention. But don’t groan, I’m actually not going to be a part of it (yes, yes, you heard me). I was merely being a philistine on the sidewalk, so to speak. War with respect to women, equality and religion etc; were some of the pre-eminent issues slung back and forth in the altercations.
One school of thought shunned organized religion altogether, claiming that organized religion was a patriarchal institution in itself and it did not make sense for women to play into the hands of the patriarchy while fighting for equal rights within the trenches of pietism. And I have to say (albeit grudgingly) that there is an iota of truth in this particular argument, irrespective of the fact that I don’t agree with it completely.
Personally I’m no atheist (I’m not insanely hindutva either, a trifle confused maybe), but Hinduism as we know it today has left me in a state of bitter disdain. Overt sexism, bigotry and hate enshrouded in pseudo religious doctrines don’t do much for my personal politics. Religion as I see it is amaranthine, its purity based on fealty alone, and nothing else. A part of my feminism is intertwined with religion; and frankly I have secretly nurtured a longing for the simplicity and the edification of faith in pre-vedic times.
There was a time, before the Aryan invasions extended their web of patriarchy over the land, a time when a single Goddess was considered as the Mother of all, the Goddess of the skies and the heavens, the Mother who gave birth to the universe and She was called Aditi.
“In the first age of the gods, existence was born from non-existence.
The quarters of the sky were born from Her who crouched with legs spread.
The earth was born from Her who crouched with legs spread.
And from the earth the quarters of the sky were born.
Rig Veda, 10.72.3-4”
Aditi is this abstruse oft-ill represented figure in religion as we know today. The Aryans toned down her all encompassing importance and made her subservient to a man i.e. she became the dutiful wife of Sage Kaashyapa who had twelve other wives. She was however delegated the role of mother of the Devas and the Ashuras characterizing the Aryan stereotype of a woman being important with respect to her relation with a man; a mother (of sons) or a wife (of a great man, in this case it was Kaashyapa).
This adjuvant representation of Aditi stands for everything she is not. Aditi literally means 'free from constraints' or 'the limitless one', which in itself is a nod to the fact that she is above and beyond the bonds that fetter her, permeating the cosmos and the cognizance of all that is living.
Unfortunately her physical representation was obscure at best even during the Vedic times, although ancient Harappan tablets do show a goddess with a lotus for a head and spread legs, indicating fertility and/or sexual responsiveness and this image could be a strong possibility of bearing Aditi’s likeness. For one, the representation of spread legs can be construed as giving birth to the universe and all living beings, but there are a lot of tangential stories floating around as to why she has a lotus for a head. The most accurate stories however are the oral folktales (surprising, I know) passed on from generation to generation by word of mouth.
One tale takes precedence in my mind, and somehow its connotations left a resonant impression. The tale goes thus:
“ Aditi was also known as Renuka in some circles. She is beheaded by an upper-caste man because she openly flaunts his authority. Instead of wasting into nothingness, she grows a lotus for a head and becomes a Goddess.”
This story edifies all that I hold dear: freedom, the breaking of social barriers created by man-made prejudices and the utter irrepressibility of the feminine spirit shattering the archaic ‘women are weak’ myth.
With the advent of the Aryans however, the idea of the all-powerful feminine was uprooted and many a goddess succumbed to the ritual patriarchal conversion and were turned into male deities and they were pushed to the background or they had minor roles as wives of the gods. Which upsets me, but it also leads me to wonder as to why this conversion was necessary. Was it because the Aryans were known for their pomposity, calling themselves the superior ones or the aggresives ones and the idea of an all-encompassing goddess was too diaphanous for their warrior-like sensibilites? Or was it because a powerful vanquisher god (Indra, as He was the chief deity of the Rig Veda) was more appealing to their culture of nomadic conquests, and a mother goddess seemed too grounded for their way of life initially?
It leaves me a tad nonplussed, but as I gave the Rig Veda translation a once-over I noticed that Aditi was represented with great importance albeit not too often, but represented none the less.
Oh and lest I forget, here's some food for thought: The oldest known statue (circa. 24,000-22,000 B.C.E) dubbed the Venus of Willendorf is of a woman with exaggerated sexual organs and a flower for a head. Red ochre was used to color the vulva of this statue, clearly indicating the importance of menstrual blood (unlike the sad downslide of religion as we know it today, specifically Hinduism which considers menstrual blood unclean). I cant help but wonder if this has any connection to Aditi, and her representation. It seems like a pretty strong co-incidence, doesn't it?
Venus of Willendorf:
Subsequent posts will probably be on the goddesses Usha and Surya. And yes, Surya was initially a goddess (gasp), blame the Aryans for the age-old patriarchal conversion, yet again.
I would love to have more information on Surya and I will be eternally grateful if you could leave ideas or suggestions in the comments.
Disclaimer : The Aryan invasion theory is disputed and is yet to be disproved/proved (although scholars on both sides will claim otherwise, it's still being debated). That doesn't take away the crux of this post: the existence of an all powerful mother goddess, Her representation in the Rig Veda and the conversion of goddesses into gods by the Aryans or indigenous warring tribes. This information is not disputed.
Since I did mention that the theory is yet to be disproved/proved, I'll let this post stay as is.
Post script: I want to give a shout out to Neha for bringing this wonderful post to my attention. It's up at at global voices: Where is the most dangerous place in the world to be a child?
Be sure to swing by.
P.P.S: This is worse than painful. Please go here for frequent updates. Also go here for help.
We live in a scary world.