This month Dharma Deen Alliance explores the concept of divinity as being feminine. We will discuss its existence in both Hindu and Muslim traditions and elaborate on its deeper meaning and metaphysical significance. And just as Muslims fast for Ramadan, during Navratri Hindus fast for 9 days.
Part 1: The Divine Feminine in Hinduism
In this creation, I am one, and I am many as well, in various forms
– Srimad Devi Bhagavatam 6:11
I am the Father of the Universe, the Mother of the universe, the Creator of all
– Bhagavad Gita 9:17
The concept of the Divine being worshiped as a Holy Mother may seem strange as most people would say that God is gender-neutral and lacks human traits. The reality is that people of all faiths ascribe human-like qualities to the Creator. Some see God as vengeful and angry, punishing people through great floods, earthquakes, and plagues. Others view that same God as all-loving and forgiving, bestowing blessings and offering protection in times of need. Then there are those who (unfortunately) view the Absolute as a competitor, commanding followers to take out opponent religions through conversion or suppression. While most people agree that the Almighty has no gender they see no contradiction in using terms like “Father,” “Lord,” or “King.” So if it’s odd that God is worshiped as Mother to some, shouldn’t it then also be equally strange that fatherly characteristics are assigned to something that transcends human characteristics? This will be discussed more later.
The Abrahamic faiths, just like the dharmic religions, also have a concept of female divine energy. In Judaism the Hebrew shekhina means “presence of God” and is described as feminine. As in Hinduism, shekhina is characterized as inseparable from and a functional part of the Creator. When revelations such as the Ten Commandments were delivered to the prophets, it was transmitted through shekhina’s energy. In Catholicism, adherents honor the Virgin Mary as the mother of Divinity. The equivalent of shekhina in Arabic is sakina in Islam (see Part 2 for the Muslim perspective on this).
In dharmic traditions, sakina’s counterpart is referred to in Sanskrit as shakti. Shakti is the manifestation of cosmic power. It’s the divine force that creates and sustains the universe.
What is Navratri?
Navratri is a festival of nine nights. The tenth day generally culminates with feasting and marks the anniversary of when the Goddess Durga slayed Mahishasura, a demon that terrorized both Earth and the heavens. This narrative is also a metaphor with a deeper spiritual meaning. During these nine nights Hindus fast and appeal for spiritual wealth, knowledge, and strength in slaying their own personal Mahishasuras/demons such as pride, ignorance, or attachment to trivial matters of the world. These internal demons battle to steer the mind and soul away from its Higher purpose.
Why worship a Divine Mother?
In Sanskrit nirguna Brahman means the Supreme Divine without form and human qualities. The opposite is saguna Brahman which means Divine form with qualities. Worshipping God as Sacred Mother or Holy Father (saguna Brahman) does not necessarily mean rejecting a gender-neutral, formless Supreme Being (nirguna Brahman). Swami Sivananda once elaborated on this point: “it is easier to establish a conscious relationship…in terms of benevolent fatherhood or affectionate, kindly motherhood than by the concept of an unfathomable void.”
Building up devotional qualities by viewing Brahman in the same way a child adores his/her parents becomes much easier to grasp. Since life comes out of a mother’s womb the Creator is more accessible to one’s mental capacity when the universe is viewed as the womb of the Mother’s creation. For some seekers it would be hard to open their heart and mind to an abstract, formless Being, and since a child calls out for their mother in times of need, worshipers of the Goddess call out to their Holy Mother when longing for protection or peace of mind.
Shakti manifested in human form
South Asia has a long and rich history of women who are living examples of shakti. The Vedas, which are the foundational scriptures of Hindu culture contain several texts and prayers that were written by female sages. The famous mystic Ramakrishna learned meditation and shakti worship through his female guru Bharavi Brahmani. Before his passing, he appointed his wife Sarada Devi, also a devout worshiper of Mother Kali (a manifestation of Durga), to be his successor. Sarada Devi initiated anyone who approached her into the spiritual path regardless of social status or gender. She also made it her life’s work to build Vedanta centers all over the world and spread meditation practice to the masses. Anandamayi Ma, an advanced yoga practitioner set up temples in various cities and attracted students of all religions desirous of divine bliss. She’s mentioned in the book Autobiography of a Yogi. A more recent example is the “Hugging Saint.” Amma has traveled the globe embracing thousands of people for hours on end at public events. She preaches that devotion must be go hand in hand with the karmic act of helping the downtrodden. Environmental activist Vandana Shiva works on behalf of exploited peoples and is author of Vedic Ecology. Many examples of women both out in the public eye to women of strength privately acting behind the scenes abound, each beaming shakti in their daily life, serving humanity and executing dharma.
For suggestions on charitable works and various ways to celebrate Navratri visit:
Community building with Shakti Seva
Further reading The Esoteric significance of the Devi Mahatmya
Part 2: The Divine Feminine in Islam
The Arabic term Allah is in fact a container term that holds within it all the diverse names of the Divinity throughout time. Traditionally Muslims use names for God such as “True”, “Ever-Living”, “Merciful”, “Compassionate”, “Subtle” and so on. These names are called the Asma ul-Husna, or the 99 Most Beautiful Names of God. This is by no means an exhaustive list, they are simply among the most prominent names used for God in the Qur’an, and can be used to invoke various aspects of Allah. Like the concept of yin-yang in Daoism, the Asma ul-Husna is made up of two complimentary sides, one being Jamal (Beautiful) and the other Jalal (Powerful). For example, God is both the Creator and the Destroyer, the Punisher and the Pardoner, the Kind and the Avenger, the Hidden and the Manifest, the Constrictor and the Expander, etc. Though appearing to contradict each other, they instead meet in the name Allah, which unites opposites.
Within Islam, God is the creator of everything, even that which we see as negative in the world. As in yin-yang, these can also be considered masculine and feminine aspects of one single Divine Essence, Jamal being in the feminine and Jalal being the masculine. Without reinforcing negative gender stereotypes, it is important to not take this literally to mean male and female in a dogmatic sense, but instead it is a way of unveiling the feminine within the divine, a subject often overlooked in the Islamic discourse. Speaking of and calling upon God using the Jamal names can be thought of as, in a sense, invoking the feminine qualities of God.
Beginning with the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), Islamic scholars and sages have expressed the central role of the feminine principle within the Din (religion). The Prophet famously said: “I was made to love three things from your world: women, perfume, and the comfort of my eye is in prayer.” Muslims have taken this hadith (prophetic saying) as one important indicator of the Prophet’s love of the feminine. Women are mentioned interestingly even before prayer, the sacred devotional act in Islam. The 13th century Spanish Sufi Ibn al-Arabi elaborated on this by saying that women are “the most complete and perfect contemplation of Reality”. And Maulana Jalaluddin Rumi says that, “The eternal mystery of Allah’s uncreated Essence is the Divine Feminine.” In another verse he says that “Woman is the radiance of God. She is the Creator.” Taken together, these verses offer a challenge to any patriarchal, male-centered interpretation of the Divine in Islam.
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