Absent Mother God of the West

A Kali Lover's Journey into Christianity and Judaism

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
Neela Bhattacharya Saxena
  • Lanham, MD: 
    Lexington Books
    , December
     2015.
     208 pages.
     $80.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781498508056.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In Absent Mother God of the West, Neela Bhattacharya Saxena sets out to read Western Judeo-Christian monotheism(s) against the grain of a hyper-masculine and singular God, seeking to unsettle his monolithic reign with glimpses, traces and underground currents of the “Mother God” — the feminine divine. While this book joins an established tradition of feminist theological critique, and efforts at reclaiming suppressed aspects of the feminine in Judeo-Christian androcentric dualist thought, Saxena’s unique perspective as a Hindu/Buddhist Kali-loving Indian woman, to use her own words, and her grounding in an overtly gynocentric tradition, make for a valuable contribution to this field. The paucity of God-related female-gendered language and sacred symbolism in Western monotheism is all the more stark against the all-encompassing multiplicity of the Indic Mother God, which Saxena takes as her departure point. Indeed, while many Western women had to “remember, and, failing that, invent” a Divine Feminine, to borrow an oft-quoted injunction from Monique Wittig, Saxena draws on a living, unbroken tradition in which the Absolute, or supreme reality, as well as all manifestation, are conceived of in female form.

Absent Mother is thus a destabilizing, decolonizing reading of Judeo-Christian “God the Father” narratives, and a critique of the range of social, economic, psychic and ecological trouble they engender. It also signals the unfolding of a paradigm shift occurring across varied disciplines, which Saxena traces back to the resurgence of the Divine Feminine. She advances a simple premise, one that feminists have long written about but which bears to be stated and re-stated: “Without the concrete presence of the Mother God or the idea of the Divine Feminine available to the religious and non-religious alike, that has historically presided over the nondual unity of all, a culture is in danger of becoming unbalanced in its orientation. This orientation has been about a rigid control and mechanical mastery over all things marked ‘female’” (xxiv).

While neither patriarchy nor misogynist attitudes are the prerogative of the West alone, Saxena argues that a lack of alternative narratives dangerously deepens the dualist split in the West. In contrast, her exposition of her own spiritual-symbolic context (Chapter 1, “Carving Kali”), highlights nonduality, immanence, paradoxical “pregnant nothingness,” and playful multiplicity as the hallmarks of the Divine Feminine as the Shakta goddess, be her name Kali, Durga, or Prajnaparamita of Buddhist Vajrayana tradition. These traits lend themselves to complexity, plurality, and flux, in contrast to the now much-maligned rigid separation between spirit and matter, which, as it becomes mapped onto other polarized airtight categories manifests in patriarchal chauvinism, racism, and gynophobia. Saxena expresses the hope that a more “balanced” metaphysic can give rise to a more ethical, ecologically and socially compassionate framework. She writes that an “emptying of perspectives is facilitated by the total Indic Tantric system,” and thus a sincere journey outside of one’s cultural and spiritual context involves a suspension of identities (24). Regardless of whether or not a total emptying of perspectives is possible, such a goal makes for a valuable dialogical tool.

Saxena’s search for the absent Mother God of the West begins in Greece, and, in fact, among pre-Christian Attic goddesses. While neither Christian nor Jewish, the Greek goddesses allow Saxena to access a particular layer of Western intellectual history which later adopts the Judeo-Christian paradigm as its main spiritual dogma. Tracing continuities in symbol, epithet, and iconography that persist from classical Greece into the later worship of the Virgin Mary, she examines ways in which Greek, and later Enlightenment patriarchal dualisms contributed to the erasure of the feminine from the realm of the divine (Chapter 3, “Matricide”). Of course, this is only one version of a “Western” genealogy (Saxena does not venture into Celtic or Slavic pre-Christian or pagan traditions, for example), but it serves as a case study of deconstructing popularly-accepted hegemonies.

No religion is defined exclusively by theologians, and in the latter part of the book Saxena turns to examine traces of the Divine Feminine in popular and mystic traditions, as these are often sites of resistance to institutionalized orthodoxy. Saxena examines three manifestations of the “Mother God”: the Theotokos, or Mother of God (called Parthena in Greece, as Athena once was); Mary Magdalene, who encompasses several converging figures from Gnostic Eve to the Black Madonna; and the Shekhinah, the hidden, indwelling presence of God in Jewish Kabbalist mysticism. The particulars of this journey of discovery will feel familiar to scholars of feminist spirituality, but Saxena’s almost dialogical movement between Western and Eastern symbol systems is a valuable contribution. In the chapter on “Shakti Shekhinah” Saxena presents perhaps her most sophisticated and detailed analysis, offering a systematic comparison of Shekhinah and the Indic Shakti. Drawing on the Deleuzian “plane of immanence”, Spinoza’s monism, and the writings of Gershom Scholem and Raphael Patai among others, she demonstrates the profound overlaps in the mystic and philosophical discourse around these figures, as well as in their associated symbolism.

While at times Saxena’s journey may seem idiosyncratic and not representative of the traditions she claims to enter, it is well to remember that it is offered as a mythopoetic intervention, not as an exhaustive study. Indeed, the possibilities inherent in a system wherein the feminine is central to the conception of the sacred are startling. At the same time, Saxena does not advocate a simplistic and wholesale adoption of one tradition over another, and she speaks out repeatedly against the violence of proselytization. Instead, she identifies a spiritual-intellectual trend which is gathering momentum in various quarters, and offers a working vocabulary for its conceptualization. She links the resurgent interest in immanence, difference, chaos, and pre-Socratic metaphysics with an idea she refers to as “the Name of the Woman” (113). I choose to read it as slyly turning the expression cherchez la femme on its head, offering the sign of woman not merely as an essentialized category, but as a complex sign of a multiplicity, an interplay of fullness and emptiness, a creative ambiguity potentially resulting in a much-needed awakening.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Nika Kuchuk is a doctoral student in the Department of Religion at University of Toronto​.

Date of Review: 
May 22, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Dr. Neela Bhattacharya Saxena is professor of English and women's studies at Nassau Community College.

Add New Comment

Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.

Log in to post comments