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Hinduism: Fertility and Ancient Goddess Worship

Hinduism: Fertility and Ancient Goddess Worship
© 2014 Joshua Seraphim, Leilah Publications
All Rights Reserved.

kaliAn increasing number of scholars are studying the sacred feminine in ancient religions.  This sacral study is a trend in contemporary theology and academia.  Why is that?  The extensive study of ritual, texts, and artifacts in ancient religions reflects a re-enchantment of the feminine from patriarchal phallo-centrism.  Western religious traditions are rife with solar-phallic worship as Hindu culture and religion is pregnant with goddess iconography and devotion.  The purpose of this essay is to explore, albeit in an abbreviated manner, possible iconic threads of fertility ritual and worship in ancient Vedic-Aryan culture and religion.

The religions of early Indus valley civilizations focused upon pastoral rites, address of regional warfare, and agrarian fertility.  Early cultivators of the Indus Valley civilization shared a universal commonality with societies that also developed along rivers such as the Nile and Euphrates.  Civilizations that mature and settle along rivers ascribe myth to the development of their societies along these rivers, with the rivers often taking a feminized maternal quality, providing sustenance for agrarian culture, harvest, and ‘destroying’ the known world with flooding.

Scholars suggest the existence of a centralized religious and political authority at ceremonial centers such as KalibanganHarappa, and Mohenjo-Daro.¹ Pastoral rites were necessary to induce fertility to ensure clan continuity, agrarian harmony with lunar cycles, progeny, and success of the tribe in warfare.  A large number of terracotta figurines found along the ancient Indus suggest a traceable presence of the sacred feminine in ancient Hinduism, providing a cultural thread of the “proto-Siva-Sakti.”  Archaeological findings indicated an urban Indus Valley Culture centered on commerce, trading with the Sumer city-state.  Artifacts with feminine motifs relating to fertility rites in the well-preserved Mohenjo-Daro suggest iconic powers of the sacred feminine in goddess worship.  Knipe theorizes such nude figurines were “frequently linked with symbols of vegetation or of animals, including real animals and composite or mythic creatures.”

This iconographic symbolism includes pregnant figurines often seated upon tigers, lions, or other mythic beasts.  Animals were depicted as mounts of yaksis in Jainism, Hinduism, and later Buddhism.  These mythic creatures also were motifs pertaining to fertility in Mesopotamia and Canaan.  Knipe associates horned masked animal figures with the culture of Elam, seated in yogic posture.  Such a figure scholars mistakenly identified with a proto-Siva, a deity associated with the Phallus in the Vedas.  The arrival of Vedic culture is believed to have replaced an earlier matrilineal culture with a patriarchal one.

The sacrificial rites of the Rg-Veda serve as a mid-point between pastoral fertility worship of the Indus Valley, and Vedic asceticism of patron Brahmins.  Fertility rites and feminine motifs discovered point to a coalescent archetype in cultures, a mother-goddess who grants fertility of women, animals, and successful agriculture.  Unlike Biblical canon, and its officiators, which obscure and subordinate the role of the sacred feminine, the complexity of Vedic rites and literature includes the sacred feminine as potent consort Devas.  The pantheon of the sacred feminine connects with mythic powers controlling fate and destiny, similar to Zoroastrian deities such as Zurvan in the Avesta scriptures.  Many sacred rivers in India are referred to as being goddesses, or the primordial blood of a supreme Devi.  In the film, “The Long Search” {330 Million Gods}, the Ganges is referred to as a Maha Devi, a great goddess that heals and “purifies aught she touches.”

Although suggestive of Upanishad traditional practices such as ascetic Yoga, the lingam, or mahalinga, is a symbol latent in ancient patriarchal religions evolving from solar-phallic worship, and the myth of the dying “god,” i.e. that myths of the Christ, Mithra, and Osiris.  This writer believes theologians have perhaps overlooked, oversimplified even, the concept of sacrifice in petition for fertility in procreation and agrarian harvest.  Sarasvati is associated with an ancient river of the same, and is a manifestation of a primordial maternal-sexual deity.  Such fertility goddesses, reflected the primordial Devi, polyvalent and often tri-functioning, similar to the Vedic patriarchal pantheon.

Ritual bathing and purity were associated with purity necessary to conduct Vedic sacrifices.  In the agrarian traditions, nude feminine figurines display a prominent association with ritual bathing in sacred rivers, anthropomorphized as the mahadevi.  Purity reflected the fertility of the soil and female womb.  Contemporary explorations and re-enchantment with the sacred feminine in ancient religions indicates a common thread of goddess iconography.  Flood supports this thesis by suggesting “the innumerable goddesses of local traditions are generally regarded by Hindus as manifestations or aspects of a single Great Goddess or Maha Devi (emphasis mine), whose worship may go back to pre-historic times if sixth- or fifth- millennia terracotta figurines are taken to be Goddess images.”

Later Vedic traditions of Vaisnavisn and Saivism coagulated the sacred feminine into puranic and tantric practices.  Orthoprax Vedic practice indicates early fertility worship to expiate fecundity of soil and sexual procreation.  The Goddess guaranteed generation of all material form, agricultural fertility, and ritual purity during sacrificial offerings to Soma and Agni.  Local fertility-domestic goddesses at times became regionalized, approached, and worshiped in idealized forms of the sacred feminine.  Female baked clay motifs, according to Flood, were located at Mergarh, Sheri Khan Tarakai, and Mohenjo-Daro in the Indus river valley.

Though several devi are mentioned in Rg Veda texts, scholars are speculative on the importance of devi in sacrificial rites.  Flood lists PrthiviAditiUsasNirrti, and Vac, each with unique significance and function in early Vedic theology.  Again, overlooking the significance and abundant findings in ancient Indus Valley culture of feminine figurines, personification of rivers, petitionary fertility rites, and scholars can only speculate on the worship of a primordial Maha Devi.  Textual evidence suggests this trend began in the medieval period of Hinduism, though to rely solely upon scripture would be a polemic against the influence of the sacred feminine in ancient religion.

Evidence should be researched to thread the evolution of Indus valley and Dravidian goddess worship centered upon fertility, and Brahmanic goddess worship focused primarily upon Vedic sacrifices.  While the Devi clearly takes on a subordinate, ambivalent position in early Vedic literature, certain goddesses such Sarasvati survive into later Hindu literature.  Evidence of fertility worship and rites from the Veda and archaeological findings indicate a non-Vedic devotion to the sacred feminine that survived and evolved into Medieval Hindu literature.

The iconography of the goddess and the sacred feminine in Hindu texts are “notorious for their erotic and antinomian” context in a collection of scriptures termed Tantras.  Such texts were regarded as heterodox by the orthodox Vedic ecclesia.  The virtue of Tantra and the sacred feminine to the dignity of Hindu culture and religion is prevalent.  The motive is that all men and women perceive to a certain degree, the everlasting wail of the ‘First Noble Truth,’ that everything is sorrow and religion consoles them by either an authoritative denial or perpetuation of this truth.

There is more misperception spoken of and written about Tantra than nearly all religions of the world.  A good sum of this outside approach to esotericism is fostered by the idea that there is something of a foreboding mystique about Tantra, even perhaps a sense of aversion to its transgressive elements.  Tantra is the method, the ritual, and the act of the divine manifestation exclusive to the sacred feminine.  Sexuality is employed in diverse elements of Tantra, yet Tantra further is concerned of integrating antinomian divine applications.

Tantric practice is arguably the most advanced form of Hinduism, adjacent to the arts of yoga.  Collectively, Tantra and the theological understanding of Kali and Durga almost has been unequivocally misperceived and condemned by scholars foreign to the practice.  Only a limited portion of the vast compilations of Tantric literature has the public had access to.  The fraction of these exclusive and obscure texts is now more available to the curious scholar with the assistance of information technology.

The sacred feminine energy of the manifest universe is referred to as Sakti, and its devotees, Saktas.  The Great Goddess in the feminine schema is called by the generic, Devi, and Durga is one of the most noticeable iconic representations of the Goddess.  Durga is a violent warrior-goddess known for her legendary slaying of the buffalo demon, Mahisa.  Early Tantric texts such as the Todala Tantra recognize the cult of Durga as a representation of Devi.  Gender symbolism in the Tantras, as Knipe offers, is often contradictory with a feminized material world ensnaring the masculinized world of the spirit.  Knipe states the male deity usually self-sacrifices to the female deity Durga {or Kali}.  The unmanifest Brahman is polarized when the “deity may often declare both genders and also genderlessness.”  {Knipe 1991; 113}

The buffalo demon, Mahisaura, or Mahisa, received divine boon from Brahma of invincibility amongst mortals.  Mahisa arising from Ego brings war to the Gods led by Indra in Heaven.  Potent energies manifest from the slain and angered gods in the form of Durga who is proposed matrimony by Mahisa.  Durga refutes the buffalo demon’s approach, summarily slays, and decapitates the deity, proclaiming her protection to the gods whenever invoked.  Flood offers that the myth confronts “Brahmanic models of womanhood…”  The fierce and aggressive Goddess as Durga exhibits the qualities of eroticism and traditional asceticism found in the Tantras.

Flood continues to theorize that the generic designation Devi is interchangeable with other epithets of the Goddess, such as Kali and Durga.  Later Vedic traditions of Vaisnavisn and Saivism coagulated the sacred feminine into puranic and tantric practices.  The mahadevi manifested as Durga or Kali is worshipped in the guises of natural phenomena such as drought, earthquakes, tsunamis, or in the human modes of female roles such as sister, courtesan, wife, or mother.  Flood lists the main responsibilities of the Devi as, “Durga,” slayer of the buffalo-demon, seated on or attended by a lion or tiger {when she is called Ambika}.

Durga, the ‘difficult to access,’ has ten arms and weapons, kicks and pierces Mahisa with her trident and beheads him, while yet maintaining a calm and detached demeanor….as Kali and other terrible manifestations, like Caumunda.  They are emaciated, blood- drinking, and violent forms who haunt the cremation grounds.  Kali is black or blue, garlanded with severed heads, girdled with severed arms, with rolling, intoxicated eyes and a lolling tongue.  She dances on the corpse of her husband Siva.

Tantric scholars such as David Gordon White point out the prevalence of Tantric adoration to Kali and Durga primarily in the region of Bengal in northeast India.  Such iconography of eroticism and death, invocations of terror and violence are seen as transcendent means to the paradise of the Goddess.  White states, “with the focus on death rituals, it is appropriate that the Tantric aides to transcendence are ghosts, who become helpers and protectors on the paths to Kali’s heaven.”  {White 200; 80}  The skeleton of Tantric ritual is the task of the Aspirant to identify with the deity worshipped along with its presiding macrocosm.

Transcendental experiences in worshipping both Kali and Durga force the atman out of hiding, and reveal the “spiritual materialism of the ego, how it will try to co-opt spiritual experience for its own ends.”  Such antinomian practices tend to close the gap between the scholar-practitioner and the Hindu devotee to either Durga or Kali.  Most Tantric devotees of Kali and Durga say their texts and teachings are not meant for those without highly specialized qualifications {adhikara}, and initiations…their claim are that they are the exoteric canon’s higher, esoteric extension meant only for the few.

Reductionism of esoteric and select Tantric systems distorts the religious applications of it so much that initiates often fail to recognize their own religious heritage.  In the area between religion and secularism, between scholar and practitioner, a shade emerges as a sort of Trojan Horse, pitting the speculative debate of confessional vs. secular-academic against cyclic ambiguity.  Usual understanding of Tantra and other occult arts is filtered through the discriminating government of the temporal self, in the illusion of the ego.  As one Tantrika offers, samsara is just a ‘cover’ for nirvana, allowing for the liberation of the atman amidst the terrifying nature of Durga and Kali.

Works Cited

Parpola, Asko and Hansen, Bent S. “South Asian religion and society” Curzon Press; Riverdale, MD: Riverdale, 1986.

Knipe, David M. “Hinduism” HarperCollins; New York, NY: 1991

Flood, Gavin.  “An Introduction to Hinduism” Cambridge University Press; Cambridge, UK: 1996

330 Million Gods” New York: Time Life Video; Ambrose Video [distributor], © 1989 Narrated by Ronald Eyre.

White, David Gordon “Tantra In Practice” Princeton University Press Princeton, NJ 2000

Chakravarty , Chintaharan “The Tantras – Studies on their Religion and Literature” published by Sankar Bhattacharya for Punthi Pustak Calcutta, India 1963

Knipe, David M. “Hinduism” HarperCollins; New York, NY: 1991

Flood, Gavin.  “An Introduction to Hinduism” Cambridge University Press; Cambridge, UK: 1996

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