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Search for the Sacred Feminine

Lakshmi, a Hindu goddess, presides over prosperity. Many feminine deities in world culture have power over the material plane, either as patrons to the poor or arbiters of wealth.

I have been studying neopaganism in the United States and the United Kingdom for about seven years.  I have written only a little bit about this work, even though I actually have spent a good bit of time on it.  The reasons for this lack of output are many, but the main one has been my primary focus on the poverty projects in Africa and Asia.  Another, however, is that I am still trying to develop my thinking about the relationship between religion and economics, in particular the crossover between these two arenas for women. One idea, still largely unformed, is that we should reclaim the feminine deities, in particular those who engage with economics, either as ministers to the poor or touchstones for prosperity.  So, for instance, the Virgin Mary in Western Christianity is seen as a patron of the impoverished, while Lakshmi in Hinduism is a goddess of wealth. Tara, in Tibetan Buddhism (as well as other variations), is the “mother of liberation,” the deity of success in work and achievement.

I have also been struck with how differently Western neopaganism–which tends to focus emphatically on the feminine divine–engages with the material plane.  The role of the goddess in these practices seems to change the value of the earth in their thinking: humans become stewards of the planet, rather than masters, and the physical aspect of life experience becomes a venue for spiritual learning rather than a barrier to enlightenment.  The writings of Starhawk, an impressive thinker and speaker, are particularly illuminating.  This subculture represents a radically different orientation toward the meaning of life, leading, in my own opinion, to a more socially and environmentally engaged way of being than the world-denouncing ways of the major religions.  (By “major” or “world religions,” I mean the related variations of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, as well as Hinduism and Buddhism, all of which value an imagined nonmaterial plane over actual life and all of which have developed a negative view of women.  In the pagan subculture, these faiths are often referred to–hilariously, in my view–as the “religions of the sky gods.” The moment of the sky gods’ coming is consistently cast as a tragic downfall into a destructive and separatist ethos.)

The statue of Guanyin greeted us at the first entrance to the temple complex in Hangzhou.

My family, friends, colleagues, and students are well aware of my musings and dabbling, so when we happened to walk into a temple dedicated to the “goddess of mercy” last week in Hangzhou, Jim smiled and winked at the synchronicity. The dark temple was filled with the scent of incense. The altar at the front door had a large statue of Guanyin, the female Buddha known “the one who hears the cries of the world.”

The incense was so strong that the Guanyin image at the back altar was nearly obscured by the smoke.

Guanyin is the patron of the poor, to whom many candles had been lighted, each shaped like a huge pink lotus. Our sense of significance magnified when we walked around to the other side of the altar and found another statue of Guanyin, this one with several tiny statuettes gathered about her hem. The temple was empty but for ourselves and a young woman in a traditional embroidered silk dress who knelt at the altar.

Behind the first temple was a courtyard, in which there were two very large metal urns, one for burning incense in offering to Guanyin and the other for burning fake money so that your ancestors could have cash in the afterlife.  The juxtaposition of an offertory to a deity for the impoverished with a depository for heavenly spending money presents the paradox of this inchoate concept with which I have been struggling.

The second statue of Guanyin had tiny goddesses dancing about her hem.

Somehow, I feel, the concern for the material well-being of others that is so often part of the feminine ethos on earth (caring for children, ministering to the poor, helping the elderly, as well as setting a beautiful table, cooking a delicious meal, sewing a lovely dress) can and should be conceptualized in spiritual terms.

Beyond the courtyard was another temple.  We ran to the door because they were closing and begged to enter.  Inside was yet another statue of Guanyin, this one huge and golden, standing maybe twenty feet tall.  In this manifestation, she had the three heads that signify past, present, and future, as well as many hands with which to hold the symbols of her purview.  Her facial expression was no doubt intended to be beatific, but to me she seemed  sweetly smug.  She was glorious.  I closed my eyes and shared the air with her for a little while, shamelessly making a few requests on behalf of my children, while Jim kindly took the photos he knew I would want.

This golden image of Guanyin towered over me. I estimate she was maybe twenty feet tall.

On the way out, we stopped again at the first temple and bought two large, outrageously pink lotus candles to light and leave behind, as well as two small ones to carry home, one for me and one for my daughter in California (who loves this stuff, too, and who I will visit next week).

Religion structures economic life in many ways.  It tells us what we can and cannot consume, whether we can charge interest, how much to give to the church, what to do about the poor, and even what jobs we can have.  Our holy scriptures often dictate family norms, which have profound and often negative implications for women:  condoning wife-beating, for instance, or pronouncing wives as inferior to husbands. Some of these precepts have specific economic import in today’s global economy:  in many Muslim communities, for instance, daughters cannot inherit wealth.

Of particular concern is the way that the world religions have excluded women from the potential to have equal spiritual status to men. So often, women cannot be priests, cannot gain access to Nirvana, cannot give holy rites, and so on.  Mary Magdalene, for all the evidence that she was seen by Jesus as the most enlightened of disciples, was slandered as a whore by the emergent Christian church.  The holy men who followed Mohammed reversed his egalitarian teachings about women. Similarly, the garudhammas of Buddhism dictate, for instance, that nuns bow to monks, though scholars do not believe these rules go back to the Buddha himself. Even Guanyin herself is said to have refused Nirvana, having heard the cries of the world and decided to return to ministry.  (It’s a nice story–but conveniently keeps the women out of heaven yet again.)

These are all acts of interpretation or imagination as much as revelation.  So, it seems to me that the challenge is to reread and reinterpret, but also to recreate and reimagine.  There is no blasphemy in suggesting that the divine, so often said to be genderless anyway, might be as feminine as masculine.  Furthermore, the core concept of femininity, something contemporary theorists have been so quick to dismiss as passive and inferior, has a compelling and exquisite beauty that I believe many women do not wish to abandon.  So, attempting to unite the ideas of compassion and abundance that so often characterize history’s goddesses seems a good way to find the perfect feminine complement to a loving and generous masculine divinity.  Actively recasting the heavens in this way may facilitate more compassionate and egalitarian reforms on the ground.  At least, that is what I have been thinking so far.


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