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Kumkum Roy

IS THE GODDESS A FEMINIST? THE POLITICS OF SOUTH ASIAN GODDESSES
Edited by Alf Hiltebeitel  and Kathleen M. Erndl 
Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2002, pp. 287, Rs. 595.00

JEWELS OF AUTHORITY: WOMEN AND TEXTUAL TRADITION IN HINDU INDIA
Edited by Laurie L. Patton
Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2002, pp. xxii 228, Rs. 545.00

VOLUME XXVIII NUMBER 7 July 2004

The turn of the millennium has witnessed revivals of various kinds. Amongst these are reappraisals of traditions that have been somewhat loosely and even simplistically classified as Hindu, implicitly, and often explicitly in terms of perspectives on the “woman question.” It may seem unfair to term these attempts revivalist: indeed, there is much that is innovative, challenging, and exciting in the anthologies under review. Nonetheless, there are ways in which one has an uneasy sense of familiar, well rehearsed arguments, often stemming from the preoccupations of colonial debates on social reform, being reworked in the present context.   I am tempted to begin with Rajeswari Sunder Rajan’s short but incisive concluding essay in the first volume. This provides a welcome reminder that academic investigations into the politics of South Asian goddesses need to be located within the context of a secular democracy under siege. She also draws attention to concerns that barely figure in the other essays in the anthology: a sharply declining sex ratio, pointing to the elimination of women, and female literacy rates that leave much to be desired. She suggests that notions of agency and empowerment through the invocation of the goddess cannot be viewed as abstractions: they are inevitably refracted and complicated in ways that are hardly touched on in most of the essays. Her cautions about the dangers of what she terms vulgar relativism, and more or less unproblematized assertions that the goddess constitutes a cultural resource, are also valuable.   Some of these concerns are also voiced by Stanley N. Kurtz and Tracy Pintchman. The latter, in particular, points to the difficulties in establishing neat equations between the religious and socio-political arenas. She also draws attention to contexts of interpretation and appropriation as critical dimensions in our understanding of goddess traditions. Hiltebeitel’s essay on Draupadi illustrates some of these possibilities.   Yet these perspectives are often lost sight of in many of the other essays. The problems this creates are most apparent in the essays that respond in the affirmative to the question posed in the title of the book. For instance, Rita DasGupta Sherma argues for a feminist reading of Tantrism, on the grounds that it offered scope for women to envision themselves as divine. At one level, such formulations are both plausible and attractive. Nonetheless, it is somewhat troubling that both feminism and Tantrism are viewed as ahistorical categories. More specifically, the implications ...


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