A Garland of Forgotten Goddesses
Tales of the Feminine Divine from India and Beyond
- ISBN: 9780520375758
- Published By: University of California Press
- Published: December 2020
The seed for A Garland of Forgotten Goddesses: Tales of the Feminine Divine from India and Beyond (in a nod to the floral metaphors in both its title and throughout its chapters) was planted during a conference panel at the 2016 meeting of the American Academy of Religion (Preface, xi). Edited by Michael Slouber, this volume consists of twelve essays, each centered on independent case studies of Hindu goddess worship in South and Southeast Asia. Divided into three themed sections, each of which comprises four chapters, all of the essays discuss “how the feminine divine has been construed and reckoned with in the religious imaginations of Hindus” (1) in an impressive array of linguistic, regional, and historical contexts.
The volume’s central objectives are outlined in the introduction. Here, readers are rapidly presented with a familiar narrative that highlights the worship of god as female as a ubiquitous and defining attribute of many, if not all, Hindu traditions. Recognizing that goddess-oriented topics are especially well-represented in general survey texts on Hinduism, such as those by David Kinsley (Hindu Goddesses: Visions of the Feminine Divine in the Hindu Religious Tradition, University of California Press, 1988) and Thomas Coburn (Encountering the Goddess: A Translation of the Devi Māhātmaya and a Study of its Interpretations, State University of New York Press, 1991), the editor immediately explains that the book’s chapters were designed to be accessible to non-experts who may otherwise lack specialized knowledge of Hindu goddess veneration. However, the sacred beings featured in this volume are not as popular and well-researched as, for example, Durga and Kali, two major deities in Hinduism (4). The goddesses that constitute the focus of this monograph have up to now been understudied in Anglo-European literature about Hindu deities (2). Their names include those of Svasthānī, Rāṣṭrasenā, Tvaritā, and Kāmeśvarī. The minimal attention they’ve enjoyed thus far has tended to follow monistic paradigms and proclivities toward Sanskritization that regard them simply as forms of a broader, pan-Indian goddess like Durga or Kali (10). Hence, the book proposes to rescue its divine subjects from academic obscurity and highlight their localized identities (11).
The contributors of each chapter advance this goal by foregrounding original English translations of influential primary sources related to individual goddesses. The translated sources are preceded by compact introductions that communicate suggestions of themes that readers might pay attention to during their reading. Longer analyses appear thereafter which supply more contextual details and interrogate linkages between their objects of inquiry and broader Hindu goddess cults (10-11). The sources engage with a wide range of languages, regions, genres, and time periods. Although Sanskrit-language materials claim the lioness’ share of the volume’s contents, one can also expect to engage with vernaculars like Gujarati, Hindi, Kannada, and Newari. Notably innovative however is the inclusion of a Javanese text, a move that encourages readers to revise understandings of Hinduism as an exclusively Indian religion. Hence, by centering original documents in its chapters, the volume will indeed become a valuable resource for students and scholars wishing to pursue original research on less understood South and Southeast Asian traditions of the feminine divine.
The names of the volume’s three sections are: “Demons and Battle,” “Miracles and Devotees,” and, finally, “Tantra and Magic.” As its title suggests, Part 1 relates four tales of destructive battles waged by different goddesses against a fearsome assortment of forces from the underworld. Chapters 1, 3, and 4 introduce excerpts of premodern Sanskrit texts from Kerala, Kashmir, and Bengal. Outstanding among these is chapter 2, which is comprised of a Kannada ballad of uncertain origin that describes the vanquishing of the demon Aisāsura by the divine sisters Cāmuṇḍi and Uttanahaḷḷi (42-59).
Part 2 of the volume recounts narratives of engagement and intervention by female deities in the lives of human devotees from Nepal, Rajasthan, and Gujarat. This section diverges from its predecessor by underscoring the social, political, and gendered resonances of these goddesses in present-day South Asia. The chapter on Svasthānī, whose name literally means “Goddess of One’s Own Place,” dexterously expands the semantic valences of the term “devotee”; as protectress of the context-sensitive concept of “one’s own place,” Svasthānī simultaneously oversees the welfare of individual, local, and national imaginaries (132).
Part 3 reflects upon the ritual dimensions of Hindu goddess worship through examples from Eastern Java, Nepal’s Kathmandu Valley, Northeast India, and North India. The four sources spotlighted in this section include references to Tantric manuals meant to direct practitioners towards either summoning the goddess’s physical presence or visualizing the goddess’s corporeal form, as is the case of Kāmeśvarī (263).
Appearing throughout the volume are meditations on the often-complex interactions between provincial, transregional, and internationally based Hindu goddess traditions. All of the chapters interrogate at least some iteration of the following questions: (1) What happens when a larger, Mother Goddess tradition bumps up against a localized one? (2) Does the local cease to exist as a distinct entity upon becoming affiliated with the more universal? These are inquiries of great importance to academic discussions, not just within the context of Hindu studies, but throughout the humanities more broadly. As such, A Garland of Forgotten Goddesses is a welcome supplement to the crowded subfield of studies on Hindu goddesses. It is certain to adorn syllabi and reading lists of both undergraduate classes on Hinduism and more advanced seminars on female divinities. Its contributors deserve many garlands and accolades for being part of this fine work.
Aditya Bhattacharjee is a PhD candidate in religious studies at the University of Pennsylvania.
Aditya BhattacharjeeDate Of Review:March 21, 2022