I’ve been a dabbler my entire life. As a child, I was determined I would be a world-class violinist, this gave way to piano, cello, guitar, ukulele, and mandolin (only two of which I can play at a sub par level). I wanted to be a poet, novelist, and famous song-writer. I played basketball, softball, and competitive cheerleading. I never dedicated myself to one task.
In keeping with my nature, I’ve dabbled in religion. In middle school, I prayed quiet prayers to the Lord and Lady. I spent most of my life worshiping YHWH. I researched old Pagan gods and goddesses. When introduced to Hinduism, I stared wide-eyed at images of Ganesh, Shiva, and Parvati.
Growing up with YHWH as my deity, I just accepted God’s maleness. I didn’t like it, but I couldn’t do anything about it. When I read my Bible, I read about the sinful things that Biblical men did (David, Solomon, etc), and silently pouted that they got to lead despite their sinful nature. I hated how I had so few examples to look at in the Bible as a young woman who wanted more than children. The only leader I wanted to emulate was Deborah, but even she spoke poorly about women when mocking a compatriot (Judges 4:9).
When my faith wavered I looked to Hinduism for their goddesses and differentiated ways of describing men and women in tales. I felt smart and rebellious. Why couldn’t I worship a goddess? Why did YHWH even have to be a God? Couldn’t YHWH be beyond gender? I didn’t know the answers to my questions, so I kept reading and learning about alternative models of divinity.
In a religion class freshman year of college, I had to watch a film called Sita Sings the Blues (available to watch here, uploaded by the filmmaker) Sita retells the story of the Ramayana through Sita’s eyes with jazz music. The Ramayana tells the story of Rama and Sita, the perfect husband and wife according to Hinduism. The story is too impossibly long to sum up effectively, but I will do my best to explain the bare-bones.
Rama is banished from his father’s kingdom. Sita goes with him to the forest. Sita is then kidnapped by Ravana, the demon-king of Lanka. Rama and friend, Hanuman, save Sita and ask her to prove her purity by fire. She passes with flying colors. Rama eventually returns to power of his kingdom, but his people doubt her purity. He sends her to the forest while she’s pregnant. Rama eventually finds her in the forest, asks her to prove her purity so she can come home. Sita refuses, instead asking the earth to swallow her whole if she’s pure. She is then swallowed by the earth and Rama mourns his wife.
I was utterly fascinated by this story. We have Rama, the ultimate man who serves as husband, father, and king, and Sita, the ultimate woman devoted to her husband and children while maintaining her virtue. I fawned over them in my class and in my personal time, but I never stopped to consider how problematic Rama and Sita’s relationship. While Sita is given a distinct place of virtue, she’s still another woman whose value is placed on her purity and dedication to a man. Rama is a great warrior and powerful rule, he follows Vedic (Hindu scripture) laws for behavior. Sita is a mother and wife who follows Vedic law. She isn’t allowed to rule or have autonomy in herself.
Nepal has a concept called “Kumari Devi” or living goddess. In these instances, pre-pubescent girls are picked through a strenuous process and are treated as the living embodiment of the goddess Durga. Through this, they are worshipped and treated with the utmost respect. I celebrated this too, another way of defying what I saw as male-centered Christianity. This, however, still focuses on purity. The girls are pre-pubescent, so disregarding extreme circumstances, they have never had sex. The goddess “leaves” the young girls whenever they have their first period. Once this girl reaches adult womanhood and was acceptable for marriage, she is no longer fit to host the goddess.
I romanticized these Hindu concepts of the Divine in an attempt to gain what I saw as a more equal representation of gender within divinity, but the religion didn’t make the situation any better for women or sexual minorities.
It’s easy to see goddesses and assume gender equality. Despite Parvati’s divinity, she’s still explicitly described as a dedicated wife because of the importance of marriage in Hindu society. While Shiva spends months and years in the forest meditating and being the ultimate yogi, she waits for him. She has her own power and consciousness, but she waits for her husband to return rather than pursuing her own desires.
Hinduism and other eastern traditions can easily be interpreted as better for women without actual improvement. I thought focusing on Hinduism would show me (and, maybe the world) a better way to respect and honor women, but it was really more of the same—with better pictures.