In India, almost everything sacred is female. In Tamil Nadu, South India, all is Mother: the nation (Mother India), the local language (tamilttāy), the Kavery River (also known as Ponni), the innumerable village goddesses, even the late chief minister and film actress Jayalalitha. Does attributing motherhood to divinity do anything to undermine patriarchy? The answer, at least from where I sit, is no.
To write about divine motherhood is, like any other activity, embodied. I write this at my desk in Pondicherry, in an apartment a few blocks from the Bay of Bengal and closer yet to another revered Mother—the Mother of Sri Aurobindo Ashram. I live part-time here and part-time in a rural village of about five hundred people in inland Tamil Nadu, where I am researching so-called “Hindu” gods and goddesses.
For context: I am a white American woman who grew up Catholic. My ongoing tussle with the patriarchal constructs of Catholicism was partly enabled by feminists such as Mary Daly who invited us to imagine a world “beyond God the Father.” Is there, can there be, such a world? More than twenty-five years after Daly’s book, when I was in graduate school, Kathleen Erndl and Alf Hiltebeitel answered, in their book Is the Goddess a Feminist?, basically, “It depends.”
The answer may be true—but for me remained unsatisfying. After writing one book on Marian devotion and possession in India, in which I too answered with a complicated “maybe,” I have continued to research the connection between patriarchy and goddesses for a second book. This time I seem to be coming down harder on female divinity, Marian or not.
Possessed by the Virgin: Hinduism, Roman Catholicism, and Marian Possession in South India followed the lives of three Tamil women in South India who claimed to be possessed by Mary and who attracted hundreds and, in one case, thousands of people for healing. It examined Marian possession in the context of the much larger local phenomenon of goddess possession in India—and it argued that this Mary helped women both to resist and also to reside more comfortably within hegemonic power structures. Since the book’s publication, I have returned to Tamil Nadu—this time to study lineage gods and goddesses known as kula teyvams. In India, almost every family has a kula teyvam, and many if not most of them are mother goddesses. So far, my fieldwork suggests that they do very little to undermine patriarchy—though they may help some women persevere within a decidedly patriarchal world.
The village, which is suffering from drought, is agricultural and comprised mainly of people from the Vanniyar caste, the district’s dominant community. More than half the villagers worship a female kula teyvam, and almost all worship a goddess regularly. They also follow local kinship rules: marriage is endogamous and lineage is traced through the male line. The village is patrilocal—a woman, upon marriage, moves to the home of her husband—and dowry is still practiced, as it is in most Tamil society. Women are expected to marry and bear sons. Sex is forbidden outside of marriage, and women and girls are held to tight supervision. Men and women are expected to marry within their caste. The prohibitions against marrying outside of caste are powerful, and attempts to stray from this prohibition are often met with violence. While children are increasingly pursuing higher education or professional training after high school, the average educational level does not exceed primary school. In these ways and more, this village falls in line with the norms of many, if not most, villages throughout Tamil Nadu.
My friend Mohana, a thirty-two-year-old married mother of two boys, worships male and female gods equally. Three years ago, when her five-year-old son was diagnosed with testicular cancer, she chose to worship a male god—not her husband’s kula teyvam, Murugan, who is also male, but the village god, Andavar. Her son Thamizh now seems to be cancer free—though Mohana cannot be sure because the government hospital she takes him to each month repeatedly loses the blood samples and tells her to return the following month. Meanwhile, once a year for three years, Mohana has offered a special puja (worship practice) to Andavar in the village square. Her mother, who lives about an hour away, also made a special trip to the Murugan temple in Palani, but that was far, and Mohana could not afford to go with her. Before that, when Thamizh was two, Mohana prayed furiously to the goddess Muthu Mariyammal. A neighbor had tripped and spilled boiling water over her son; Mohana tore off his shirt—and along with it, most of his skin, except for his eyelids. She chose to pray to Muthu Mariyammal, the goddess of smallpox and measles, because her son’s eyes reminded her of the postules—or “eyes”—that the goddess is famous for both inflicting and healing. His skin is now seamless, a rich coffee color.
Goddess worship can be coercive: Mohana prays annually to the local goddess Ammaichar when the patriarchal rules of the village expect it. On the most recent festival of Bogi Pongal, Mohana walked in bare feet along the hot tar road to the family field on the village outskirts. One hand balanced a stainless steel pot on her head, full of ritual items; the other grasped the hand of Thamizh, who kicked pebbles along the way. Upon reaching the corner of the field, Mohana set up the requisite triangular rocks, decorated them with white chalk and red dots of kumkumam powder, and stoked the ritual fire crouched back-to-back with her co-sister (sister-in-law). Rather than sharing the space amicably, they did not speak—their husbands forbade it—while their mother-in-law looked on to make sure they performed the ritual properly. The reason for the two young women’s silence: their husbands are brothers fighting over land and water, and they do not speak though they live under the same roof. Their wives are caught in a complex patriarchal web of power relations that restrict their micro-movements, even in acts of goddess devotion. Elder women like their mother-in-law police younger women. For the first few years of Mohana’s marriage, this mother-in-law would not let her venture far from the front stoop.
The presence of goddesses can mean very little in the face of pathological violence against women. In the 1980s, when the village was comprised of about 350 people, at least three women reportedly died by murder related to domestic or honor-related violence, and at least one died through neglect. The murders remain unprosecuted. Honor killing in India—the killing of a relative, especially a girl or woman, who is perceived to have brought dishonor on the family, usually through trespassing marriage norms—remains prevalent in this district of Villupuram as well as throughout India. In the village, these women are worshipped as goddesses by their families in formal rituals. They are pūvāṭaikkāri, girls or women in the family who have died, usually in an untimely fashion. Many people also consider pūvāṭaikkāri to be kula teyvams, though perhaps secondary ones.
While structural power relations of the village continue to oppress women and people of non-dominant castes, worship of pūvāṭaikkāri and other goddesses can offer some women and men space to work out unresolved dramas and traumas related to the loss of loved ones, and to seek divine justice in the face of a serious lack of state justice. In this way, goddess worship may give them a sense of security in an otherwise precarious and sometimes violent world. It does not, however, enact structural change.
In the introduction to The Immanent Frame’s forum on “Divine fatherhood,” the editors asked whether there are “unexpected ways that linking together gods and fathers…produces specific pathological forms.” Now, for this forum on “Divine motherhood,” they have asked: “How does imagining or performing divine motherhood open new forms of transcendence, or immanence—or how might it more fundamentally alter the terms in which we think (sic.) the divine and the maternal?” Rather than answer this question directly, I would invite us to reflect on the social positions that enable its very imagining, and to recognize its embedded (and often embodied) assumptions. One assumption is that imagining divine motherhood necessarily opens “new forms of transcendence, or immanence.” Perhaps we could marry this question with the earlier one on divine fatherhood, and ask whether and in what situations linking goddesses and mothers “produce specific pathological forms.” We might also ask what pathologies the United States continues to stoke at home while picking fights across oceans, allegedly for the rights of women.
Female divinities do not necessarily open up new forms of transcendence or immanence for women, nor do they translate into a more egalitarian world. The worship of a goddess—or of any deity “beyond God the Father”—does nothing as such to improve the lot of women. Female deities may offer some women tools for psychic survival when all odds seem stacked against them. They also, however, can keep them bound to enduring practices that do nothing to grant them the liberties that so many feminists hold dear.