The Bloomsbury Research Handbook of Indian Philosophy and Gender

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Veena R. Howard
  • New York: 
    Bloomsbury Academic
    , October
     352 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In the final chapter of The Bloomsbury Research Handbook of Indian Philosophy and Gender, Nikky-Guninder Kaur Singh describes her experience "studying, interpreting, and translating” the Guru Granth Sahib from a “feminist subjectivity—that of a Sikh academic woman living in the twenty-first century United States” as one of empowerment (328). She follows this with an exploration of the feminized origins of the five Ks, Sikh symbols of religious identity, and the masculinization of the Sikh male as the symbol of Sikh identity (337–339). This powerful statement of self not only situates Kaur Singh within her work but forces the reader to consider their own perspective, privilege, and relationships to their communities. She forces us to reflect upon the outcomes of our own work, which if limited solely to economic and employment advantages becomes part of the colonial project and does more harm than good.  

From the list of contributors, it is clear that this volume succeeds in presenting a diverse group of voices. This is a conscious choice and one that makes the book stronger. However, on that point I do want to briefly question the editorial decision to exclude first names from the bibliographic entries in the majority of the chapters. Though first names are not always a clear indication of gender, to strip away the first names of authors makes it difficult to judge the gender balance of source materials and denies authors of those cited works identity.  

The two chapters of part four focus on Gender and the Feminine Divine. Here Rita D. Sherma in her chapter “God the Mother and Her Sacred Text: A Hindu Vision of Divine Immanance” and Raj Balkaran in “The Story of Saṃjñā, Mother of Manu: Shadow and Light in the Māraṇḍeya Purāṇa” examine the Devī Māhātmya (DM) from very different but complimentary perspectives. Sherma discusses the key elements of the divine feminine in the c. 400-600 CE work and the importance of that femininity to understand the ontology of divinity. This chapter works well in tandem with Balkaran’s rethinking of how to approach the DM and other Puranic literature. Much of Balkaran’s chapter deconstructs that of Doniger to offer a view free from “historicism, philological and structural reductions” (269). He argues against the practice of pulling the myths out of their textual context to compare stories about the same character and instead asks us to read the myths within the wider narrative in which they exist. This reduces the academic need for an original or authentic myth and instead as parts of individual works that offer their readers familiar stories with their own individual points on femininity, morality, etc. Doniger has long been a target of right-wing criticism and Balkaran deftly avoids reiterating those points. Instead, he carefully examines methodology and provides an example of how to evolve from past approaches rather than simply dismisses them. It is a wonderful example of critiquing a controversial scholar in an honest and useful way.  

Several chapters (Introduction, Ana Laura Fuenes Maderey, and Chakravarthi Ram-Prasad) reference Western feminists in order to demonstrate that though these ideas have helped shape Western scholarship, Indian philosophy has its own viewpoint. These cultural markers indicate that the expected readership is made up of those educated in the West. Only Ram-Prasad spends a significant amount of time on these ideas but integrates them nicely into a discussion of gender performativity in Tamil theopoetics.  

Veena R. Howard’s chapter “Women’s Liberation in Jainism: Understanding Philosophical Debates and Cultural Dialectics” carefully examines the debates within Jainism on the ability of women to attain liberation, especially those that revolve around women’s karmically flawed bodies. Here we find that through reincarnation into a male body or with a body deemed biologically female but with male markers (liṅga) liberation is possible for women. She also points out that these markers of “biological sex” are of three kinds do not necessarily correspond to physical sex (67).  

Similarly, in Carol S. Anderson’s chapter “Gender in Pāli Buddhist Traditions” we find faculties (indriya) defined as male/masculine and female/feminine that correspond to the Pāli understanding of the gender binary but that go beyond physical characteristics to encompass behavior and appearance (201). This chapter asks us to carefully consider different definitions of “male” and “female” over time and place. These definitions lead to a discussion of changes in sex within one’s lifetime in which “good karma leads to a sex change from female to male, and weak or bad karma leads to a change in sex from male to female” (211). This change occurs not only in gender performance but in the change to genitalia as well (211).  

Overall, the work’s authors use the most up-to-date language on sex and gender with the full knowledge that these English terms must clearly be defined and questioned as they are ever changing and often not fully defined in English-language discussions of sex and gender. The work proves a model for scholarship that respectfully and thoughtfully approaches gender as a lived—in the past, present, and future—experience and an open question.  

About the Reviewer(s): 

Patricia Sauthoff is a postdoctoral fellow with the AyurYog project at the University of Alberta in the Department of History, Classics, and Religion. 

Date of Review: 
June 18, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Veena R. Howard is associate professor of Asian religions at California State University, Fresno, USA.


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