Men and Shaktism
by Devi Bhakta
What sorts of problems are faced by men who follow Shaktism?
I was asked that question by an offline correspondent, and offered the following, admittedly partial, reply: Back when we first started the old "Shakti Sadhana" Club, some of the "old guard" from the more established, mainstream Hindu clubs came over to do some heckling. A couple of them tried to corner me on the idea that Shaktism demands complete respect,non-injury, even deference toward women, in contrastwith mainstream Hinduism, which -- as a social reality-- tends to marginalize and subjugate women.
These"hit-and-run" posts were pretty predictable: They would raise an example of a hypothetical woman, whom they described as really mean and selfish and cruel and nasty, not at all admirable. And then ask, "So --would you reverence *her*?"Well, I doubt I'm as na´ve as they seemed to think I was. I have a mother who drives me nuts sometimes, two sisters who do the same, a wife, lots of women friends, and many women colleagues. My wife often says that her female colleagues are more vicious professional competitors than her male colleagues. And in my own work, I've noted that the best women lawyers can be absolutely scary -- merciless, calculating, "take-no-prisoners" players.
The "artificial selection" process of big law firms tends -- as it does in many professions -- to reward some of the most seemingly "despicable" human beings; men and women who have completely buried their redeeming human qualities under "bottom line" concerns. In cases like that, I know, there is not much difference between women and men -- they are neither masculine or feminine; they are corporate servants. Gender is irrelevant. The other main comment the hecklers like to raise --that Shaktas (especially male Shaktas) are simply sex-obsessed. I mean, talk about a patriarchal attitude! Can you imagine saying that women who worship a Male god (in Christianity, Islam, Judaism,and most forms of Hinduism) do it because they can't stop thinking about guys?
This criticism of Shaktas becomes especially strong when we step away from viewing Devi as Mother or Child. Not coincidentally, mainstream Hinduism say these are the only two "safe" approaches to Mother for men -- i.e. because worshiping a girl-child or mother-figure effectively short circuits any possibility that erotic undercurrents will sneak into the devotee's psyche. It's like the school of thought that says men and women can't be friends because there will always be an unacknowledged sexual tension. Perhaps this is a legitimate concern in societies where unrelated men and women remain more or less socially segregated. In societies where men and women mix freely, however, it depends more on the particular man and woman you're talking about. Anyway, back to bhavas: The devotee of a male Hindu god is welcome to approach him in a number of ways --as a Friend & Confidante, as a servant to a Master, as a Parent or Child, or as a Lover. Sri Swami Sivanandawrote, "Madhurya Bhava -- in which the devotee regardsthe Lord as his Lover -- is the highest form of Bhakti. This was the relation between Radha and Krishna. ... The lover and the beloved become one. The devotee and God feel one with each other and still maintain separateness in order to enjoy the bliss of the play of love between them. This is oneness in separation and separation in one ness. "Thus, the male Krishna devotee is encouraged to view himself as a gopi [female shepherd girl], drawn to her lover Krishna like a moth to a flame. The devotee of Ram can be a devoted servant, upon the model of Hanuman. But the devotee of Devi is limited to the Parent/Child model. Now, that's okay with me; I do not consider myself enough of an adept to attempt any other approach at this stage. But even so, I have to wonder when the male Shakta who dares consider other bhakti bhavas (modes of relation to the object of devotion) is accused of being sex-obsessed. I have trouble believing that such a devotee only worships Devi's image because he's preoccupied with women (whose only role, in many Hindu theologies, is to bind men to Maya).
In fact I've had some first-hand experience with this kind of attitude: A while back, when I posted a picture of Lajja Gauri (a nude, lotus-headed form of Parvati, in birthing position) as Goddess of the Week in the Shakti Club, several founders of other Hindu clubs posted broadsides against me and the club, basically saying we'd finally proven that our minds are in the gutter, that we were "less-evolved" than the people who ran the other Hindu clubs.
Why? Because a naked Goddess is pornography, of course! Never mind the fact that I'd posted an extended essay on what the image actually symbolized, I wasn't fooling them for a minute -- I was sex-obsessed, and that was that! But does such an accusation really stand up to scrutiny? After all, if I was looking for sex on the Internet, I could certainly find more fertile ground than a club dedicated to revering the Goddess!
And second, if I just wanted to post sexy pictures, I could undoubtedly find something more explicit than7th-century statuary. More than that, the idea of denying Feminine Divinity Her Femininity -- the idea that acknowledging her sexuality is akin to blasphemy -- seems to me a fundamental misunderstanding of what Shaktism all about. Devi is not just God is drag, as I've writte else where. And for that matter, the Goddess emphatically about more than just physical attractiveness -- think of the corpse-like Chamunda, the boar-headed Varahi, etc. And the Tantric Mahavidyas all temper their beauty with fearsome traits.
Further, consider the Triple Goddess model --in which girl-child, mother, and grandmother all appear in one form simultaneously, expressing the diverse continuum of Feminine reality. All of these images force us to focus on the nature of the "Feminine" itself -- and on what the idea of the "Divine Feminine" might really mean. And that's more than just "beauty" - especially beauty as defined by mainstream, patriarchal culture. Once again, I doubt that I am as na´ve about such things are the club's detractors imagined. (I couldn't be! My younger sister, who has a fast, killer wit and is very, very funny, used to love mocking "women's culture." For example, she could single-handedly bring to life the sights and sounds of the women's dressing room at Filene's Basement on a sale day -- an experience she guaranteed would make the even most robustly heterosexual man swear off the opposite sex for life. Anyway, my answer to all of these charges was simple: To reverence woman is not to believe that she is Divine, flawless or "better" than man. It is not to want to look at pictures of (or actual) pretty girls-- or Goddesses, as the case may be. Rather, it is simply to acknowledge that you have committed to the path of the Divine Feminine -- it is a first step in practicing what you preach! I've written before on the technique of worshiping Goddess forms that one finds repulsive or unattractive -- about how, very soon, these forms reveal their beautiful message to the serious devotee, and become attractive themselves. The same thing goes for the unpleasant, nasty women (and men, for that matter) whom we meet in everyday life. In fact, it goes *especially* for such people. After all, one might think it is easiest to perceive the Divine Feminine essence in some obviously "perfect" female form -- say, a 20-year-old fashion model or "Miss World" finalist. But it's not true! Just the opposite, in fact.
Focusing on such a corporate "sex-symbol" caricature of woman can too easily make a devotee (especially a man, and especially one who is new to Shakta) fall in love with a surface, while thinking he's focusing on the unseen and hidden Feminine within. But falling in love with a form that is not obviously beautiful or kind or admirable to fall in love with the Divine Feminine hidden deep within. I'll close with a passage from Van Lysebeth's "Cult of the Feminine" (see my Amazon booklist for more info):"It might seem that [the Shakta/Tantric tenet that all women are to be revered as a manifestation of Goddess] has nothing to do with our daily lives, with the flesh-and-blood women we live with and met every day:Our mothers, sisters, wives, lovers.
Is the mystery of the Feminine concealed in *them*? Where? …"[So] what, and who, is the true woman? That is the question! Although each and every woman embodies the ultimate Female Principle, the true Shakti is becoming ever scarcer. Who is to blame?
Women, or the patriarchy that stifles them? Today, our women are like zombies, like attractive caricatures of real women. In matriarchal cultures, women can reach true fulfillment, and so can men, for the latter can evolve and grow only if they are in living contact with true women: By stifling women, men have stifled themselves.…"[But] fathoming the abysmal depth of the Feminine hidden in actual women, and gaining access to this, is precisely the stuff that Tantra is made of.
The 'Kaulavali Tantra' says, 'One should bow to any female, be she a girl flushed with youth, or be sheold; be she beautiful or ugly; good or wicked. One should never deceive, speak ill of, or do ill to a woman and one should never strike her. All such acts prevent [spiritual] attainment.'"[And for women practitioners,] Tantra believes that first and foremost the Feminine must emerge from the woman herself. She must become aware of what she*really* is, and she must integrate that awareness into the way she views herself and the world, as it becomes part and parcel of her life."
Actually, Tantra's message concerns both women and men. Every Tantric Shakti [woman practioner] is, or seeks to become, a *true* woman, one who dares to delve into her own being to discover her inner and ultimate wellsprings. She *is* the goddess - a living, present-day incarnation of the ultimate cosmic energy, although she may be unaware of it. Her true mystery is the mystery of life, that fantastic creative dynamism --which gives rise to atoms and galaxies, makes wheat sprout, makes bacteria proliferate -- is present and active at all times in all women."
Aum Maatangyai Namahe