Man is master by divine right; the fear of God will therefore repress any impulse towards revolt in the downtrodden female. Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex 1949
It astonishes me that a well-respected yoga radio show recently spent a whole segment discussing whether God exists without once utilising the feminine pronoun. (Okay – perhaps not so surprising considering the topic was Brad Warner’s book There is No God and Why He is Always With You.)
But nonetheless, it drives me nuts that neither the show host or Warner, two obviously enlightened men in our post-feminist age, bothered to take a moment to acknowledge that God was not necessarily a HE.
Have we finally abandoned that old trope of feminism – that language matters? Seems so. Because how can it be, despite our intentions of ending social injustice and gender oppression, of ‘decolonizing yoga’, that our yoga media consistently reinforces the ultimate gender inequity of all – without a second thought?
Despite the fact that our popular and intellectual media use the term God as an all-encompassing definition of the divine, we’ve forgotten that God is not a gender neutral term – and we’ve forgotten that it carries a whole lot of historical baggage. We say that we understand that the supreme deity goes beyond gender, that it enfolds both feminine and masculine, that it doesn’t bear mentioning, that it’s a matter of semantics. And if the word Goddess was more frequently used, this might be true, but it’s not.
Of course, I realise that substituting the word Goddess in any theological discussion changes the whole tenor of the debate. But that’s the whole point, isn’t it? Women may have come a long way (at least in the west) in gaining the rights that come with personhood – but isn’t this “God Bias” evidence of the ultimate glass ceiling?
And here’s the million dollar question. Could this absence of a feminine role model occupying the ‘top spot’ have anything to do with the fact that women today are grossly under-represented in positions of power? That they compose the largest majority of people who are abused and live below the poverty line?
I think so. We’ve forgotten the word God is predicated on a paradigm of male superiority. And it stands in direct opposition to the fact that from the beginnings of the Paleolithic Age (25,000 BC ) to closing of the last Goddess temples in 500 AD, there existed religions across Europe, India and the Middle East, which honoured “The Great Mother of All” as supreme creator.
My point is this. What might have life been like for women in a society which worshipped a “Lady of Life” or “Queen of Heaven”? Well, the record shows that these women enjoyed much more freedom than their patriarchal Judeo-Christian counterparts, for a start.
Women occupied high positions such as priestesses and lawmakers, had the right to divorce, to hold and manage their own estates, buy and sell property, trade in the marketplace, and pass the inheritance of title and property from mother to daughter. And in Babylonia, any sin against the mother was a sin against the community, punishable by banishment.
According to Merlin Stone, author of When God Was a Woman this women friendly way of life ended nearly three thousand years ago.“Archaeological, mythological and historical evidence all reveal that far from fading away, this female religion the was the victim of centuries of continual persecution and suppression by the advocates of the new religions which held male deities as supreme.”
And Stone makes their legacy clear. Women who live in the same regions of the Middle East where the Goddess once flourished are today the property of their husbands without any rights of their own. And they are routinely stoned to death for trespass against God’s laws.
And all this is permitted because it was Eve’s apple eating transgression that caused God to give man the divine authority to rule over women. So it’s pretty hard to deny that, “God” as Stone points out, has played a pretty big role in “the initial and continual oppression and subjugation of women.”
Whether we believe in the existence of a literal God (or Goddess) doesn’t matter, the idea of God still shapes society. As Stone writes “Our ethics, morals, conduct, values, sense of duty and even sense of human are often developed from religious ideas, from them we learn what is socially acceptable, what is good and bad, right and wrong, natural and unnatural.”
Perhaps this is why my quest for “God” never amounted to much. While I yearned for a spiritual connection, the severe judgmental patriarch of the Old Testament never warmed my heart. It just never occurred to me that there might be an alternative.
But what I have come to see is this. It isn’t the literal sex of God/Goddess that’s important, as much as the values the gender biases embody. And while God demands obedience to earn his love- the Goddess has nothing to say about salvation. As a mother, the Goddess loves all her children – without reservation.
Perhaps this is why one of the leading characteristics of goddess-centric cultures is that they are often defined as “gift- giving”, meaning all people, no matter age, class or gender, were cared for by the community.
In contrast, patriarchy brought a new ethic of Scarcity, a world in which one had to “earn” living, where food and property were hoarded by the wealthy through imperialistic conquest. And as the archaeological record shows, it brought an end to cultures in which war was virtually unknown.
That’s why I ask again, how might life be different if God was a woman? Might “The Mother of the World” be more supportive of more equitable value system? Might “she” help young women growing up today to see themselves as equals, in possession of authority, as deserving of a violence free existence, of having the divine right to create change?
That’s why it is so important in our discourse and debate on spirituality, yoga and the new age, that we make the effort once in a while to just break with the dominant paradigm and say She instead of He. Because it pops us out of a whole mindset for a moment, it makes us conscious of all that is implied or omitted in the word God. Let’s say, specifically female empowerment?
So fellow yogis, let’s be truly progressive. Let us be at the forefront of a movement that takes the word Goddess out of the closet. Lets us acknowledge the great “She” of our yogic tradition -the primordial cosmic energy, the divine Shakti .
She is the sacred force which brings the cosmos into manifestation and without her – Shiva has no power. Their union is a necessary partnership, balancing principles of masculine and feminine, of consciousness and embodiment.
And it offers, as author Sally Kempton writes, “a profound metaphor for integration—for the union of mind and heart, of love and wisdom, that has to take place before we can be fully whole.”
And ain’t that the point.
So that’s why I’m still a feminist – and why saying the word Goddess matters. It is why as a yogini, I take heed of what the great yogi sage Patanjali’s Sutra’s had to say on Satya or truthfulness. That language is power. Our words are talismanic forces that shape reality and call the world into being.
And so I close with some words from ‘Devímáhátmya’ (The Glory of the Goddesses) a text composed approximately some 1,600 years ago in India.
“We bow to her who is auspicious beauty. Who is gracious. We make salutations again and again to her who is prosperity and attainment…Salutation to her who is the primordial cause”… With minds intent, we bow down to her.”
Om Shanti Om.