Women's Authority and Leadership in a Hindu Goddess Tradition

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Nanette R. Spina
  • London, England: 
    Palgrave Macmillan
    , February
     2017.
     327 pages.
     $119.99.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781137589088.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Nanette Spina’s fascinating book, Women’s Authority and Leadership in a Hindu Goddess Tradition, is a detailed ethnographic study of practices at an Adhiparasakthi Hindu Goddess temple run by a female temple society president in the Toronto, Canada metropolitan region. The book is accessibly written and will be of interest to a wide audience, including people researching religion and migration, new Hindu temples in North America, Goddess traditions, women’s ritual authority, and the dynamics of transnational religion today.

Presented in two parts, a notion of intersecting identities forms the conceptual center of this book. The four chapters of part 1 are primarily concerned with the intersection of Tamil Sri Lankan and Canadian identities, through topics such as migration and the establishment of the Adhiparasakthi mandram (temple) in Toronto. The five chapters of part 2 focus specifically on women’s participation at the mandram, highlighting evolving Hindu identities in a pluralistic social context. The comparisons in both parts are anchored by judicious discussion of transnational relationships with the Adhiparasakthi headquarters (Om Sakthi) in Melmaruvathur, Tamil Nadu, India.

According to Pew Research Center, approximately 3% of Hindus live outside of a Hindu-majority country, (“The Global Religious Landscape,” 2012), which leads to the assumption that most Hindus immigrate from a majority-Hindu country (Pew lists India, Mauritius and Nepal in this category). This is not the case for Sri Lankan Tamils, who were a contested minority in post-colonial Sri Lanka and increasingly subjected to restrictive government policies that negatively affected education and employment opportunities, which led to a civil war from 1983 to 2009 (52-57). As Spina observes, Sri Lankan Tamils’ necessary yet involuntary immigration was rooted in trauma, contributing to the Sri Lankan community clustering in the Scarborough region of Toronto and setting them apart from Tamils immigrating from India, “with whom they share many ethnic, cultural, linguistic and religious similarities” (61).

A poignant story humanizes the many immigration statistics presented and interpreted in part 1 of the book. Spina recounts the efforts by a Tamil Sri Lankan father in Toronto—in response to the January 2009 Toronto Tamil protest “against genocide in Sri Lanka”—to make certain that his pre-teen daughters growing up in Canada would have a sense of the Tamil suffering in Sri Lanka. In a letter that this single father shared with the Adhiparasakthi mandram members, he described how he told his daughters they would not be eating dinner in order “to remember those in Sri Lanka and feel the hunger and pain their relatives feel” (85). However, if his daughters would listen to him talk about conditions in Sri Lanka for fifteen minutes, they could all eat dinner. After his daughters listened, they decided that they would forgo dinner and continue discussing the situation in Sri Lanka. Moreover, the next day one of the daughters taught her classmates about the situation, and the teacher called the father “to let him know that the entire class decided to skip lunch the next day to remember the Tamil people suffering in Sri Lanka” (85). Spina describes this story as illustrating a connection between “homeland consciousness” and “diasporic consciousness;” fostering a personal connection to ethnic identity; and, in terms of the mandram community, displaying “the style of collective responsibility in which the community functions” (86).

The Toronto Adhiparasakthi mandram was created in dialogue with the Om Sakthi headquarters in India and established in Toronto in 2002 by a largely female bhajan (devotional singing) group (100, 249). Along with other members of this devotional group, the current mandram president, Vasanthi—who had attended the Melmaruvathur Adhiparasakthi temple in India prior to her immigration with her family to Canada in 1996—received permission from the guru at the Om Sakthi headquarters to establish a mandram in Scarborough (100-101). The mandram community is now over three hundred people (100) and core practices—including meditation, pūjā (worship offering), chanting, volunteer service (seva) and prostrations (123, 129-58)—as well as celebrations of major festivals such as Thaipusam (Taipūcam), the Guru’s Birthday, and Navaratri (177-193), are in accord with those performed at the Melmaruvathur temple.

Part 2 presents the major difference of Vasanthi’s female leadership of the mandram, in contrast to the Melmaruvathur temple, which is led by a male guru, Bangaru Adigalar (also known as Amma). The temple in India has progressive policies on women’s participation: Vasanthi had originally been attracted to the Melmaruvathur temple because women were performing rituals at the temple, she could worship in her own language (Tamil), and women were not barred from participating in temple activities due to purity restrictions related to menstruation (166). That Vasanthi has leadership and ritual authority over the entire mandram in Toronto is distinctive, and her leadership by example is influential for women, in which she emphasizes service (seva) to others in performing her responsibilities at the temple and at home (249). Spina’s interviews with female and male devotees confirm that they find the policies and Vasanthi’s leadership empowering (167-69, 247).

A focus on equal empowerment characterizes the collective performance of “villakku pūjā” (170, 206-208), a distinctive practice at the mandram, that sets it apart from the Melmaruvathur temple, as well as other Hindu temples in Toronto. Spina calls this ritual a “deliberate innovation,” in which devotees gather in the mandram to each perform their own pūjā, individually using a lamp. This style of worship is especially popular among Toronto devotees, as participants believe that making their own offerings, not mediated by a priest, renders the rite more efficacious, and each participant has the honor of ritual authority, creating a democratizing experience that affirms a sense of equality irrespective of gender or caste (208). This ethics of inclusivity is the foundation for the mandram as a social community (209). However, traditional Hindu social expectations for women remain operational (211-221), which can collide with ideas of equality. A new twist is that Sri Lankan women in Toronto are in many cases finding employment more easily than their husbands (264-68), challenging the male breadwinner model. As a community center, the mandram provides a vibrant social space where such issues are discussed among women (247), and their community reflections on evolving life conditions influence the next generation’s perceptions as well (268-70). 

Spina’s fine humanistic study of this emerging Hindu community in Toronto enables us to see the dynamics of memory and change specific to this case study as well as with wider resonance. Her comprehensive and clear discussion of everyday lives, aspirations, and ethics is an engaging introduction to lived Hinduism today and invaluable for the classroom and beyond.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Karen Pehilis is Professor of History and Comparative Religion at Drew University.

Date of Review: 
February 11, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Nanette R. Spina is Assistant Professor of Religion at the University of Georgia. Her research interests include Hindu traditions in India, Sri Lanka, and North America. She utilizes historical and ethnographic research methods, and has conducted field studies among religious communities in South Asia and North America including an extensive field study in Toronto, Canada. Her research focuses on Hindu traditions, religion and migration, and religion and gender.

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