Devī Bhāgavatapurāṇa Book 1 Chapter 3 Reflection

Chapter 3 begins by enumerating the various purāṇa based on their linguistic nomenclature and ties each of the 18 purāṇas to a specific deity. It then clarifies the length of each purāṇa and the 28 incarnations of Veda Vyāsa.

It is quite interesting to note the oxymoronic character in the text that contains overt misogyny when discussing women:

“The more so because women, Śudras, and the lower Dvijas are not entitled to hear the Vedas; for their good, the Purānas have been composed.”

Verses 18 – 24

It seems from this view that the text markedly differentiates between the transcendent goddess and the mundane woman. The transcendent goddess is placed upon a marble pedestal and worshiped, but the mundane woman is positioned as subaltern, not worthy of even reading the Vedas. The marble pedestal is elevated, but the glass ceiling is much higher.

In one sense however, as the author indicates, the purāṇas do have a progressive character in that they are accessible to women, bringing a rich spiritual tradition for women to engage in outside of the Vedic patriarchy. Nevertheless, it is no surprise that Gayatri Spivak famously concluded, in her work Can the Subaltern Speak?,

“The subaltern cannot speak. There is no virtue in global laundry lists with ‘woman’ as a pious item. Representation has not withered away. The female intellectual as intellectual has a circumscribed task which she must not disown with a flourish.”

(Spivak 2010)

In the intellectual climate of the Vedic culture, how can a woman rise to prominence if she cannot read the Vedas? The irony of this transcendent goddess juxtaposed to the mundane woman extends even further in that the origin of speech in the Vedas is derived from the goddess Vāc,

“The most remarkable speculation about sound is found in the Rig-Vedic hymn 1.164, which speaks of Vāc (Latin vox, “voice”), a feminine deity, as the “mother” of the Vedas. She is said to have four “feet” (pāda), or aspects. Three of these are beyond the ken of mortals, and only one is known, belonging to human speech. Only the seers (rishi) know how to track down Vâc in her secret dimension. A second hymn (10.71.4) expresses regret at those who see and hear without seeing and hearing Vâc”

(Feuerstein 2023, p. 52)

In terms of theological revelation, perhaps the purānic author is guilty of the latter point, hearing and seeing in a limited capacity without hearing and seeing Vāc in her ultimate capacity as both mundane and transcendent. Indeed, Ramakrishna upon glimpsing the mundane woman Ramani, a sex-worker, declared “Mother I see that thou art in that form too,” elevating him to the patron saint of the theater house in Bengal (Nikhilananda 2017, p. 985).

C. McKenzie Brown recommends Kinsley’s article to address the irony of misogyny in a goddess centered text, but the article may no longer be available in internet sources:

“Of special relevance for those interested in Women Studies is Kinsley’s article, “The Image of the Divine and the Status of Women in the Devi-Bhagavata-Puragia [sic]” (Anima 9:50-56, 1982). Kinsley contrasts the Devi-Bhagavata’s exalted vision of the Goddess with the Puranic author’s traditional, low view of women”

(Brown 1999, p. xiii)

It is important to bear in mind the structural presence of misogyny in the varṇāśrama system, in which the priestly Brahmanical class remains entrenched in patriarchal dominance into the modern era. A feminist reading of the text will necessarily require a separation between the authors revelation and the authors cultural influence upon that revelation. I hope to remain always critical of misogyny appearing in śastric sources, carefully indicating how the influence of power structures ultimately corrupts the process of divine revelation.

As such, modern goddess worshipers must be able to understand the cultural context in which misogyny occurs, and re-assert the role of the goddess as an amalgam of transcendent worship and mundane femininity. As Creatrix, Her transcendent and mundane forms are equally sacred. Therefore, I will argue that the goddess is in fact a feminist, that Her worship and Her revelation provides a solution to heteropatriarchal norms. Indeed, Vrinda Dalmiya argues that Ramprasad Sen’s Kālī-bhakti provides an “antidote to patriarchal thinking” (Dalmiya 2000, p. 17). I wrote my master’s thesis as a corollary to Dalmiya’s work, arguing that Ramakrishna’s Kālī-bhakti must work in much the same way as Ramprasad Sen’s. In fact Ramakrishna often turns Brahmanical thinking on its head,

“How can a man conquer passion? He should assume the attitude of a woman. I spent many days as the handmaid of God. I dressed myself in women’s clothes, put on ornaments, and covered the upper part of my body with a scarf, just like a woman. With the scarf on I used to perform the evening worship before the image”

(Nikhilananda 2017, p. 1029)

In each reflection, I will continue to call out misogyny where it appears and attempt to offer clarity as well as a critique rooted in modern feminist theory without abandoning Kālī-bhakti.

1. Brown, Cheever Mackenzie. The Triumph of the Goddess the Canonical Models and Theological Visions of the Devī-Bhāgavata Purāṇa. Boulder, CO: NetLibrary, Inc., 1999.

2. Dalmiya, Vrinda. “Loving Paradoxes: A Feminist Reclamation of the Goddess Kali.” Hypatia 15, no. 1 (2000): 125–50.

3. Feuerstein, Georg. The Yoga Tradition: Its History, Literature, Philosophy, and Practice. Prescott, AZ: Hohm Press, 2013.

4. Nikhilananda. The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna. New York, NY: Ramakrishna Vivekananda Center, 2017.

5. Spivak, Gayatri. Can the Subaltern Speak?: Reflections on the History of an Idea. Edited by Rosalind C. Morris. New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2010.

8. Vijnanananda. Srimad Devi Bhagavatam. New Dehi, India: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers , 2020.

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