In his latest, Pattanaik seeks to inform us about the contexts in which the feminine divinity was founded and how it has shaped, or been shaped by, social constructs
7 Secrets of the Goddess
Mythologies across the world are replete with tales of goddesses, sometimes as the supreme primordial force from whom all things originate, and at other times as the consorts of powerful gods. One recurrent theme in these tales is that goddesses, no matter what their powers be, are deemed a part of a pantheon. Nowhere does a goddess stand at the fount of a monotheistic religion. Whereas a god, whose masculinity is forcefully established by scriptures and sermons, is the foundation on which at least three of the world’s major religions are built. It is in this backdrop that mythologist Devdutt Pattanaik seeks to inform us about the contexts in which the feminine divinity in many religions has been founded and how it has shaped and been shaped by social constructs, with his book, 7 Secrets of the Goddess, the third so far in the 7 Secrets series.
Pattanaik begins with a chapter on ‘capitalisation’—to elucidate how ‘goddess’ and ‘Goddess’ (and devi and ‘Devi’) differ—telling the reader that the addresses of the feminine divine mirror the evolution of gender relations. Here, the intention of the author perhaps is to establish that mythologies are centred on the very human constructs of gender. The author looks at seven goddesses—Gaia, Kali, Gauri, Durga, Lakshmi, Saraswati and Vitthai—and the many tales featuring them and tries to explain property, ownership, sexuality, hierarchy and other issues that have been examined by scholars through the prism of gender.
A problem with 7 Secrets… is that some of the tales don’t lend themselves to the ‘secrets’ that are established by the author. For example, the interpretation of the practice of self-mutilation (by male worshippers) or the sacrifice of a male animal as part of goddess-worship as being symbolic of castration or discarding the ‘male gaze’ is rather convoluted. Pattanaik posits that it can be seen as an act of sacrifice to stay forever close to the goddess who only seeks the company of only the most deserving male. By ridding himself of his masculinity, the worshipper no longer has to compete with other males for the goddess’ favours, the author offers. Here, masculinity is confined to the ‘male gaze’, summarily cloaking other patriarchal constructs of gender. In that vein, what are we to make of Abraham’s attempted sacrifice of his son Issac? Would the interpretation of this, as a discarding of earthly filial relations in an attempt to remain in the favour of a paternalistic and patriarchal god, stand ground?
That aside, the chapter on Lakshmi is perhaps the most insightful because through the goddess’ ‘secret’—that wealth can liberate—the author examines the processes of wealth creation and holding throughout history. He makes an interesting juxtaposition of asuras and devas to underline the Marxist and capitalist perspectives, respectively, on wealth and wealth-holding, though careful enough to say the popular Hindu imagination of devas as good and asuras as evil is a “convenient translation than a correct one”.
Pattanaik’s book offers the reader many known and unknown tales of the goddesses, all the while attempting to inform one’s understanding of these tales. One may or may not agree with his positions, but contemporary debates reflected in mythologies make for a compelling read!