Feminine Divinity, Symbolism of Shakti and Women’s Empowerment in Contemporary India

   May 28, 2016

   Dr. Adityanjee


Feminine Divinity, Symbolism of Shakti and Women’s Empowerment in Contemporary India


Feminine Divinity, Symbolism of Shakti and Women’s Empowerment in Conte…

Since 1947, India has been somewhat isolated globally because it stands alone and is not part of any of the usua…


Since 1947, India has been somewhat isolated globally because it stands alone and is not part of any of the usual groups or clubs. India is not a white or western country, it is not an Islamic country, it is not an Arabic country, it is not a communist country and it is certainly not a military dictatorship. It was part of non-aligned movement which did not have any natural commonality in its members. India still remains isolated because it stands alone on many international fora owing to India’s unique ancient history. India was described as a “functioning anarchy” by a former US ambassador to India John Kenneth Galbraith. Break-up or disintegration of India has been ritually predicted and invoked by so many western analysts and thinkers. Numerous international conspiracies have been hatched since 1947 to materialize support for further partition of India. Some have even refused to accept the nation-hood or statehood of India in a geo-political sense. Others have erroneously credited the British colonial empire for bestowing the sense of nationhood on India as a unique colonial contribution.
As India changes its direction and gathers some self-confidence, there has been resurgence of talk in the mainstream media and academia for the last two years about the threats facing the so-called “Idea of India”. The terms like “Idea of India” and “Intolerance” have been utilized as code-words or proxy to pillory Hindu traditions and Indian Renaissance. There seems to be an obvious nexus between Indian mainstream media and the western mainstream media in an exercise in bashing India, Indian tradition and Indian growth trajectory. Isolated incidents have been magnified. Indeed, the naysayers and the “Nattering Nabobs of Negativism” have predicted impending doom for India. Heinous crimes against women, though very unfortunate, have been given so much prominence in the media as if they were normative occurrence in India without taking into consideration the positive aspects of Indian society and Indian traditions. The movie “India’s Daughter” by Leslee Udwin was a prime example of this India bashing exercise. The western protagonists and their Indian acolytes, owing to an inherent Hindu-phobic and anti-India bias, have failed to take into consideration the frequency of such crimes in US or UK or elsewhere in the world presenting a very sensational and distorted picture of India.
Powerful international and local forces are at work to portray our Hindu tradition as sexist, anti-women, misogynist and anti-feminist. India’s leftists, liberals, card-carrying communists, caste-ists, Islamists and feminists have built up a de facto “alliance of convenience” and a political “coalition of the willing” in conjunction with the western NGOs that funnel monies to these local groups. There is a method to this madness. Alliance of Indian feminists, nay, Femi-nazis with their western sponsors poses a real national security threat to the fabric of the Indian nation. Women are the real fabric of the nation. A nation can be defeated only if its women are subjugated by fraud, deception or brute force. While pillorying Indian (read Hindu) society as patriarchal, misogynist and anti-women, these groups fail to appreciate the plurality and the extreme diversity of Indian traditions with still prevalent matriarchal subcultures in the contemporary Indian society, e.g.; the Nairs in Kerala, some sections in Kinnaur, Himachal Pradesh and the Khasis in Meghalaya. People in Kinnaur, HP follow a matriarchal system; they also practice polyandry following the historical example of the Pandavas from Mahabharata times.

Ancient India and Concept of Devi, the Divine Femininity:

In this article we will recapitulate the venerable place, honor and respect given to women in the ancient Hindu tradition. We will also review the historical vicissitudes of the status of women in ancient, medieval, colonial eras and in modern India. We also delineate and emphasize those foreign factors that adversely influenced the status of women in the Indian society and subjugated them in the colonial era that lasted approximately one thousand years. We also discuss the very uniquely Hindu concepts of Devi (female divinity), Shakti and the veneration of Shakti as the ultimate mother and its symbolic use in women’s empowerment in the contemporary Indian society.
Female divinity is unique to Hinduism. The word Devi in Sanskrit means the illuminated or the illustrious one. Like the holy trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Mahesh or Shiva, there is divine female trinity of Saraswati, Lakshmi and Uma, all three equally holy, divine and worthy of worship in their own right. Woman always comes first in various Hindu traditions, be they Vaishnava, Shaiva, Tantra, Vama-marga, Vedanta etc. That is why we have expressions like Sita-Ram, Radhey-Shyam and Gauri-Shankar. It is never Ram-Sita, Shyam-Radha, Laxami-Narayan or Shankar-Gauri. Shakti comes first, and Shiva comes afterwards.
Hindu Males always follow, venerate and vow to protect the females, as the divine mother who gives birth, as loving daughter to be given away as kanyadanam during marriage (the ultimate danam a Hindu male can do for the perpetuation of human race), as sister to be protected or as wives to be cherished as ardhangini. The concept of mother-goddess is so deeply enshrined in Hinduism that per Bhagwat Purana there are seven mothers: the one who gives birth (biological mother), wife of your teacher (gurupatni), wife of priest (brahmani), queen (rajpatni), cow (dhenu or gaumata), one who raises you (foster-mother or dhatri) and earth (Prithavi). There is a saying: mata prithavi, putroham prithivyam!
All Hindu rituals are conducted primarily by women, men have to sit quietly and follow the women. Woman is the leader; man is the follower and the participant. A Hindu man is incomplete without his wife during religious rituals and yajanas just as even Rama was incomplete without Sita during the ashwamedha yajana!  He had to have a statue of Sita sit by his left side while performing the yajana. During the festival of Navaratras, the Devi, the feminine divinity, the Goddess is worshipped in her nine different forms!
These nine different forms are Durga, the invincible mother, Bhadrakali, the mother of fortune and wealth, Amba, the universal mother, Annapoorna that feeds the world by providing Anna, Sarvamangala that brings peace and joy to the world, Bhairavi, the divine mother that brings good to good people & evil to bad people, Chandika, the fierce one, Saraswati, the goddess of learning & beauty, Bhavani, the Goddess of mercy, and Mookambika, the Goddess of Shiva and Shakti. The symbolism that woman comes first and the man just follows her becomes apparent when one watches the contemporary Hindi TV serials be it Kum Kum Bhagya, Pavitra Rishta, Suhasini or Woh Rahane Waali Mahlon ki! The female lead character always epitomizes the Hindu woman as Shakti, as a warrior princess or Durga who fights for her rights, defeats the evil and always protects the good but in that arduous, long-drawn journey, she also sacrifices her personal needs while nurturing others in her family!
Let us make no mistake. There are enormous cross-cultural differences in the gender roles and gender behaviors in Indian society versus western societies. However, in Hindu context the women have traditionally exercised tremendous political power through their fertility, i.e. progeny unlike the West where women exercise their power and autonomy using their sexuality and art of seduction. Indian society has historically emphasized dignity and honor of women instead of a pseudo-equality and gender role substitutability. The concept of the divine mother as the originator of the srishti is so unique to Hinduism only. Invoking divine qualities in the mother Goddess gives a unique and special status to Hindu women who have attained motherhood and in no way diminishes them for exercising their fertility unlike so in Western societies. In fact, the suffix or the title Sreemati in Sanskrit literally means the lady who who possesses wealth and prosperity!
A famous quote from Manu Smriti, that has been demonized by the leftist cabal as anti-women, states:  
यत्र नार्यस्तु पूज्यन्ते रमन्ते तत्र देवता: ।
यत्रैतास्तु न पूज्यन्ते सर्वास्तत्राफला: क्रिया: ।।
Yatra Naryastu Pujyante Ramante Tatra Devata 
Yatraitaastu Na Pujyante Sarvaastatrafalaah Kriyaah
Meaning: “Where Women Are Honored, Divinity Blossoms There; And Where They Are Dishonored, All Action Remains Unfruitful.”
That is the essence of and epitome of the exalted status given to women in ancient Indian culture and Hindu tradition.

Concept of Shakti in Hindu Tradition:

Shaktism is the worship of the Supreme being as the Divine mother in the form of Shakti or Devi. Etymologically, the word Shakti in Sanskrit is derived from the “shak” dhatu or root which literally means “CAN DO”! Shakti literally means one who “CAN DO”! Shakti is the eternal supreme power. Shaktiman is the one who has Shakti, who is endowed with Shakti, i.e. energy! Shakti is the one who can accomplish victory over evil by the virtue of her creative energy force. In Hindu traditions, woman is the vessel of Shakti. The identification with Shakti stipulates woman as a fountainhead of both creative and destructive power. Each Hindu God has his Shakti, Brahma has Saraswati, Vishnu has Lakshmi and Shiva has Gauri or Parvati. Each is incomplete without his Shakti.
Unlike Hinduism, in Christianity the myth has been created that Jesus was celibate and his historically acknowledged wife Mary Magdalene was a fallen woman. A prostitute who had merely become his disciple! In Islam, the woman has just one-fourth the value of a man in testamentary capacity! Shakti, the supreme energy force, is the personification of God in all the Indic traditions including Hinduism, Sikhism, Jainism and Buddhism. The Tibetan New Year Losar is essentially a celebration of Shakti. Even the 10th Sikh Guru, Govind Singh worshipped goddess Durga and named his fighting sword Chandi as a symbolism of Shakti.
There are four Adi Shaktipeethas in Shakti tradition. Fifty-one Shaktipeethas are located all over the entire Indian subcontinent. In ancient Indian history and literature (carried through oral traditions), there are honorable mentions of women as Shakti, a divine feminine energy force or Urja. Examples are Mahishasur Mardini or Kali, Chandi, Durga a warrior goddess. There are other examples of women warriors in ancient Indian history. Kekayi, the youngest wife of King Dashratha obtained those infamous three boons from him by saving his life in the battlefield. Naturally, the question arises as to what Kekayi was doing in the battlefield except for combat!
In tantric tradition, the woman is considered of higher status than the man. Tantra stipulates that mortal women are “life-itself” and Goddess-like because they embody the principle of Shakti. The institution of Bhairavi in Tantra and Vamamarga tradition does not suggest exploitation or anti-women attitude of Indian society. Bhairavi in Tantra tradition epitomizes the powerful feminine achievement by embarking a journey of supreme spirituality, sublime sensuality and symbiotic sexuality with her Bhairava who just follows her and is by her side, every step of the way, in her raising the kundalini energy! And yes, Bhairavi is not ashamed of her symbiotic sexuality because it is the ultimate life-force and she is the protagonist, she is the leader (and not the cheer-leader), she is initiator! Bhairavi, in that particular tradition, is neither repressed nor oppressed nor exploited!

Women in Medieval India:

Aberrations like Sati, Jauhar and Purdah systems were tactically introduced into Indian society as a result of foreign invasions, barbarian practices and sexual slavery rampant among the foreign invaders. One is not justifying or rationalizing these horrific practices but using a Durkheinian framework in order that one could understand the origin of Sati and Jauhar as altruistic obligatory societal practices. While we see the treatment of Yazidi women in third millennium by the Islamic State and treatment of captured girls by other Jihadi groups like Boko Haram, we can understand the underpinnings of bravery and fortitude inherent in the medieval practices of Sati and Jauhar. Once the assaults and capture of women by foreign invaders stopped, Sati and Jauhar as institutionalized, normative societal practices also disappeared. To be captured in war and being treated as a sex slave is more humiliation and objectification of women compared to the institution of Jauhar. One had to be really brave to defend one’s honor and give up the ultimate sacrifice, i.e. that of one’s life.
Even in the British colonial history of India we have legends of warrior princesses like Rani Laxami Bai of Jhansi who fought the British in the 1857 war of independence. Rani Chenamma of Kittur was the first Indian ruler to lead an armed rebellion against the British East India Company in 1824. This notion of woman as a warrior princess i.e. an emblem of Shakti is not confined to Hinduism alone but also influenced Islam as well in medieval India. Chand Bibi, the regent of Bijapur and Ahmed Nagar was a prime example of an Islamic warrior queen who defended Ahmed Nagar against Mughal invasion by Akbar.

Relevance of Symbolism of Shakti:

Modern Indian women are second to none in taking leadership roles in various fields including business, industry, corporate world, sports, politics etc. Everyone knows the important, all pervading role of the Rajmata starting from Rajmata Helena Maurya in the famous political dynasties in India! Therefore, the social narrative of girls and women in a resurgent India has to change from that of Abala to Sabala and from Shanti to Shakti and from survivor to strong and from seductress to security-provider. Luckily, we do have numerous female role models for young girls to emulate and aspire. Many of them have achieved those leadership roles without much help only with the power of one. We are fortunate to have women leaders in India serve as chief ministers, as prime minister and as president. In contrast, US has not been able to have so far a woman president since it achieved independence in 1776. Women in India have equality and right to vote since the Republic was promulgated in 1950. Not so in the US where women got suffrage only in 20th century. Women of Indian origin have served as astronauts, e.g. Kalpana Chawla and Sunita Williams. They have served as CEOs of companies like Kiram Majumdar Shaw in India and Indira Nooyi of Pepsi in the US.
As a society, we can change our thinking, modify our attitudes and participate in a systematic manner in female re-empowerment, emancipation and individual self-actualization. That calls for changing the entire narrative of the Hindu society and decolonizing the Hindu mind. It also involves discarding the aberrant practices that were reflexively manifested in a kneejerk manner as society’s survival mode “fight or flight” responses. The Shakti paradigm is so integral to Hinduism and India that we have enough individual and institutional role models for young girls already. What we really need to do is to devise multi-dimensional strategies and action plans to re-internalize the Shakti symbolism in day to day life in order to re-establish the respect and the primacy of women in the contemporary Indian society. The focus has to be on nurturing the girl-child instead of fighting for a right-based approach that turns woman into a man. This also brings into question as to how we are utilizing our limited fiscal resources for the purpose of women’s empowerment.
A number of state governments across the political divide have instituted official schemes to support girls by providing some sort of gift in the form of money to be paid at the time of marriage. Fiscal incentives for education of girl-child have been introduced in a graduated manner in some states like Madhya Pradesh. The state and local governments must also provide facilities for free classes of martial arts to women for self-protection instead of merely buying mangal-sutra or giving money for marriage or dowry by the state (Dhanalaxami, ladali beti etc). Teaching martial arts to women for self-protection is a very important aspect of women’s re-empowerment. Mary Kom is a boxing legend who was nominated to Rajya Sabha recently. Santosh Yadav the has world record for being the only woman to scale Mount Everest twice. What a wonderful role model for young Indian girls! We should teach Judo, Karate, Tae kwon-do, mixed martial arts, fencing or Kalaripayattu to the girl-child free of cost for their self-protection. The state and local governments need to make budgetary allocation for women’s only gyms to teach martial arts. Let them become Durga, Kali, Chandi, or Mahishasur Mardini! More power to women! More Shakti to women! Women can do it!

Shakti Symbolism in Contemporary India:

I will use case-studies at individual level and institutional level to illustrate how re-internalization of the Shakti symbolism in Hindu polity as divine, creative and supreme force can change the social narrative, increase aspirations and create obvious role models for young girls, leading to women’s re-empowerment and self-actualization from cultural grass-root levels.
It becomes clear when one reviews the following Hindu prayer:
yA devi sarvabhuteshU shaktI roopeNa samsthitA
namastassyai, namastassyai, namastassyai, namO namAh
For that goddess who is established for all the people in the form of Shakti
I bow to thee! I bow to thee! I bow to thee!

Military Participation of Indian Women:

As a nation, we need to promote the role of women in our Armed forces just like it is in IDF (Israeli defense force). We have now Indian women as air-force pilots. Lok Sabha speaker Honorable Mrs Sumitra Mahajan rightly got upset recently with the BJP MP Meghwal for saying that women are afraid of flying Mig-21. Women are being inducted in the Indian Navy. Women should be and must be given permanent commission in the Indian Armed Forces if they follow the rigorous fitness standards and are willing to make the ultimate sacrifice of life in combat missions just like their male counterparts! In answer to a question asked in parliament, the home ministry replied that there are 65,739 vacant posts in the Central Armed Police Forces. There is no reason why a special recruitment drive should not focus on women’s recruitment in the central police forces. Considering the vacancy for officers in Indian armed forces, recruitment of women and awarding permanent commission will go a long way. Even in the civil aviation sector, Indian women took the lead and created history by operating the world’s longest continuous flight from Delhi to San Fransisco in an “all-female crew” on the occasion of the International women’s day! Yes, Women of India, you CAN DO it!
Role of Indian Women in the UN Peace-keeping Missions:
A contingent of 125 Indian women officers and support personnel recently served in the UN peace-keeping mission in Liberia. UN chief Ban Ki-moon praised and thanked India’s women peacekeeping unit in Liberia. Hailing them as an inspiration for all, he emphasized that their conduct served as an example of how women can help the UN in its efforts to combat sexual exploitation and abuse. Through their work, they managed criminality, deterred sexual and gender-based violence and helped rebuild safety and confidence among the local population. He paid rich tributes to the outstanding contribution of the Government of India in support of the UN peace operations.

Neerja Bhanot’s story:

This is an awe-inspiring, jaw-dropping example of the bravery of a 23 years’ young Indian women who gave the ultimate sacrifice of her life while doing her duty and protecting those under her protection like modern day durgA who fought the demons of Abu-Nidal terrorist group! Neerja Bhanot was the senior flight purser on Pan Am Flight 73 flying from Mumbai to the US, carrying 361 passengers and 19 crew members which was hijacked by four armed Libya backed terrorists on 5 September 1986 at Karachi airport in Pakistan. After the terrorists boarded the plane, Neerja informed the cockpit crew. The three-member American cockpit crew of pilot, co-pilot and the flight engineer literally fled the airplane. She decided to save the passengers instead of saving herself and took charge as the senior-most cabin crew. The terrorists shot an American to death and threw his body on to the tarmac. The terrorists then ordered Neerja to collect the passports of all the passengers in order to identify the other Americans. Neerja and her crew hid the passports of the 41 Americans on board; some under a seat and the rest down a rubbish chute so that the hijackers could not differentiate between American and Non-American passengers. After 17 hours, the hijackers opened fire and set off explosives. She opened one of the doors, flung open an emergency chute, and started assisting passengers to escape. She was shot dead while protecting three unaccompanied American children from a hail of bullets. She was recognized internationally as “the heroine of the hijack” and was the youngest recipient of the Ashok Chakra Award India’s most prestigious gallantry award for bravery during peace time. She posthumously received multiple awards for her courage from the US and Tamgha-e-Insaniyat from Pakistan.

Women commander escorting Obama for guard of honor:

The theme of this year’s Republic day parade was Nari Shakti (woman power). The republic day parade saw woman contingents of the army, navy and the air force marching down Rajpath for the first time. Government of India must be commended for this initiative. It created a powerful symbol of women’s empowerment and provided an excellent role modern for all the young Indian girls who saw a proud Wing Commander Pooja Thakur, the first lady officer leading the Inter-Service Guard of Honor inspected by US President Barack Obama at Rashtrapati Bhavan. Pooja Thakur said in an interview that she hoped that she would inspire more women to join the armed forces

Demography and Shakti:

India is facing the terrible menace of feticide and female infanticide because of traditional preference for a male child. Infant Mortality Rate in India for 2014 is 43.19 per 1000 live births. While the rate for male child is 41.9 deaths/1,000 live births; for females it is 44.63 deaths/1,000 live births (2014 estimate). Indian society has to change the attitude towards female feticide. Mother-in-laws, wives and mothers also participate in female feticide; so do some female doctors, radiologists and nurses! Female feticide is a problem of the entire society. Similarly, in cases of honor killings, sometimes, female relatives are equally guilty across the religious divide in India.
Gender ratio is an important statistic revealing decline in female population compared to that of men in India. While gender ratio in 1947 was almost equal, later on there was alarming decrease in number of females. This decline in post-independence era is due to availability of advanced medical technology for prenatal sex selection and female feticide. Asian countries like China and Pakistan also show similar trends in declining gender ratio. Main reason for decline in gender ratio is selective female feticide and female infanticide. Biased treatment, selective neglect of the girl-child and positive preference for male child are the reasons behind declining gender ratio. In the 2011 Census, the gender ratio in India was 940 females per 1000 of males. Per Census 2001 there were only 933 females per 1000 males. For the last two of the decades there has been a slight increase in the gender ratio due to sustained campaigns by the government in banning prenatal sex determination. Despite this, there are some states where the gender ratio is still low. Major outlier is the state of Haryana which has the lowest gender ratio in India of 877 of females per 1000 of males. 
In Puducherry and Kerala, the number of women is more than the number of men because of selective emigration of males for jobs abroad. Kerala has 1084 females per 1000 males. In more advanced states like Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra where the gender ratio 2011 is showing considerable signs of improvement. The main cause of this gender bias is lack of awareness & inadequate education. The declining gender ratio, if not corrected and normalized soon can eventually create tremendous sociological and law and order problems for the nation. There are some important lessons to be learnt from save the girl child campaigns. These campaigns have to be re-invigorated at all levels and applied irrespective of religion. We have to find a way ahead to mitigate this social malady.

Shakti Symbolism and Challenges Ahead:

We still have the challenge of improving the female literacy rate in India. Though the government has made a law that every child under the age of 14 should get free education, the problem of illiteracy is still at large. In 1947, the literacy rate was only 12%. In the 2011 census, literacy rate in India was 74.04%. The female literacy level per 2011 census is 65.46% where the male literacy rate is over 80%. While the adult literacy rates are lower and can not be increased, focus has to be on improving the literacy rates for younger population. The numbers of children who do not get education in the rural areas are still very high. Female literacy rate is still lower than male literacy rate because people in rural areas do not value education for girls. Many parents in rural areas do not allow their female children to go to schools because of cultural and social reasons. That has to change and a massive campaign for education for girl child has to be mounted in each state taking into consideration the demographic, geographical and social factors. Some of the state governments are providing free bicycles to girl-child for going to school. These fiscal incentives should be means tested and should selectively target rural areas.
Despite government efforts to provide free education, the social factors including early marriages for females in rural areas prevents improving the female literacy rates. There must be no discrimination of girl-child based on religion! Prime Minister’s “Beti Padhao, Beti Bachao” scheme is very important in this regard. As an affirmative action, public sector banks must give zero-interest loans for higher education to girls. Usually, the parents will not mind taking loans for their sons but do show some reluctance to take educational loans for daughters. The education of a girl child is very important, not for the particular child alone, but also for her future family and for the entire nation.  All the stake-holders including state governments, grass-root NGOs and activists have to work towards improving the education of the girl-child besides the government. Charities like Ekal Vidyalaya, Pratham and Asha should give priority to education of the girl child. The number of schools in rural areas have to be increased to improve access to elementary and primary education. States like Bihar and UP with low literacy rates have to be given special attention to improve overall literacy rate as well as female literacy rates. There are other challenges that need to dealt with regarding Indian women of Islamic faith. These include oral triple talaq, burqa, underage marriages, short-term contract marriages for monetary consideration, religiously sanctioned polygamy etc.


The role of women in a resurgent modern India is changing very fast. The medieval stereotypes must no longer be used to attack India or Hindu society. The traditional respect and honor for women in Hindu society and use of Shakti symbolism will go a long way in re-empowering women and consolidating their equal, if not superior and special, role in the modern Indian society. There is no need for a futile battle of sexes. It is fight of the entire Hindu society. It is part of a national struggle for fulfilling national aspirations. However, we do not need the international press, mainstream media in India, Indian and international Femi-nazis or leftist groups to indulge in finger-poking in the eye. It is important that while re-empowering women, we do not resort to half-baked measures and start introducing quotas and reservations. While affirmative action is required especially in rural areas, we must also adhere to the concept of merit. Indian women are bright enough not to require any quotas or reservations. We as a society need to understand the geo-political power dynamics and avoid orchestrated and biased campaigns by agenda-driven activists and foreign funded NGOs whose one-point agenda is to deride Hinduism and India.
We do have the capability of bringing a radical transformation of Indian society so that it can regain its lost glory and advance in the modern world in all possible ways without losing our spiritual, cultural and religious moorings! We must not shy away from invoking the ancient Hindu concepts of the Divine mother or Devi and the Supreme energy force or Shakti in women’s empowerment in modern India. The symbolism of Shakti and re-internalization of the image of Shakti in her various forms in Hindu society will serve as an excellent role model for women worldwide.


Source: World Hindu News (WHN)