My first encounter with the writings of Dr. Neela Bhattacharya Saxena was her blog Stand Under the Mother Principle. Saxena is a Professor of English and Women’s Studies at Nassau Community College in NY, where she teaches The Goddess in World Religions, a course that she created. She is interested in world religions, global literature, science fiction, and classical Indian music – and like me, sees life and the life-giving Divine through both Eastern and Western lenses, and experiences life as a woman of color in a world colored by the ugliness of colonialism and racism. And then there are other similarities: her fascination with sacred blackness, her connection to interfaith and pluralism through her personal Buddhist and Hindu practices – I could go on…
So I traveled with her, in her most recent book, the Absent Mother God of the West: A Kali Lover’s Journey into Christianity and Judaism, where she “examines how the Divine Feminine was erased from the western consciousness and how it led to an exclusive spiritually patriarchal monotheism with serious consequences for both women’s and men’s psychological and spiritual identity.” It became a window into her scholarship and spiritual practice that fueled my desire to read the works she references and visit the places she does. The Introduction begins with Saxena’s first physical encounter with a black icon of the Divine Feminine: at a shrine in the Einsiedeln Benedictine monastery that is the home of a Black Madonna. As a Bengali woman, Saxena’s blood courses with the power of Durga, Kali and Tara, forms of the Divine Feminine in Hinduism, and so her journey to find the Absent Mother God of the West is part scholarship, part personal experience – and fully compelling. It leaves us with hope that we will yet find a balance by reclaiming the suppressed Mother God in the Western hemisphere – something possible because of the multitude of representations of the Great Goddess still found in the Eastern hemisphere where the most of the world’s billion Hindus live: India. While she seems to stumble over use of “Hindu” and “Hinduism,” and instead refers to India and Indic, India’s Divine Feminine, Devi, is explained perfectly: “For some reason, she could not be erased from India’s religious and spiritual horizons in spite of its own patriarchy and the country’s many encounters with imperial powers bent on ‘civilizing’ and converting this ancient land to its ‘superior’ ways…. I also assert to speak of Her in spite of aspersions cast on Her because She does not help and supposedly presides over the ‘oppression’ of women in India, a country that is still beset with its colonial and neocolonial baggage.”
In six chapters, starting with Carving Kali: A Hindu/Buddhist Perspective, the author explains where she is coming from, travels through ancient lands, including a visit to the three goddesses of Greece, chronicles the slow destruction of the Mother God, the rise of the Mother of God in early Christianity, arriving at the Black Madonna and leading us to hope in the final chapter about the Jewish Shekhinah. Saxena recasts her own role – she is no longer an Indian woman academic with a “third world victimhood” but comes from a position of privilege because she takes her “Gynocentric” heritage for granted, where the Mother God is liberated. In the academic setting – Saxena has been a teacher at Nassau Community College for decades, and is able to draw from her rich classroom discussions, on how the term goddess can have a wide array of meanings, going from “Greek Goddesses to Hollywood sirens to pornography”; how a female is more of a receptacle than an empowered being; or that femininity is split between the binary of the virgin and a temptress. Living in a largely patriarchal monotheistic culture, she provides additional nuance to the oppressive framework of Abrahamic theology: the “paradox of a disembodied male God” – where the divine images so common to her Hindu practice are deconstructed because graven images are forbidden and giving a form to the Divine is seen as sacrilegious.
Saxena’s references to Indic Devi and Indic Dharmas provide pearls of wisdom, such as this explanation of Kali:
“She is the fiercest among the goddesses of Hinduism where the collective consciousness continues to create forms even as it understands the evanescence of forms. Depending upon one’s propensity or karmic make-up, one can simply worship Kali as an image of divinity, delve into Her mythic representation, see Her as a philosophical concept, or imbibe Her as a Tantric transformative force who could effectively rewire one’s nervous system.”
Her commentary on contemporary society leaves us with thoughts to ponder, as this from the chapter on Matricide:
“… a now almost cliched term, “patriarchy.” It has been so naturalized event in its feminist critique that questioning the world’s assumptions has been like questioning “God.” I had written before that there is no single patriarchy. If we assume all cultures are patriarchal, we give a sort of legitimacy to it by normalizing it. Then as womanists and global feminists have pointed out, there is no single feminism either.”
She introduces the reader to fascinating scholarship and new knowledge, exemplified by this quote from Daniel Matt’s The Essential Kabalah: The Heart of Jewish Mysticism, from the chapter Shakti Shekhinah: Immanence Returns to the West: “‘The rabbinic concept of Shekhinah, divine immanence, blossoms into the feminine half of God, balancing the patriarchal conception that dominates the Bible and the Talmud.’” These references resonated – and others seeking common threads in our inter-religious understanding may find the analogies she draws on, the scholars she refers to and quotes, equally uplifting. And she even brings Leonard Nimoy into it – and his controversial Shekhinah Project – through the following:
“Nimoy’s claim, which he made in a television interview was quite striking: that the “Live Long and Prosper” symbol, the V sign of the Vulcans in the series Star Trek, is actually the symbol of Shekhinah, the feminine aspect of the Hebrew God. It is perhaps no coincidence that it denotes a downward triangle which is both the symbol of the Tantric Mahayoni and in its deepest aspect, an empty marker, a gateway or a threshold into the Divine Feminine or a different reality in many mystical and shamanic traditions of the world .”
While the book takes one on a complex journey between faiths and philosophies, physical places and the Divine Feminine in her multitudinous forms, Dr. Saxena’s concluding words provide strength: “…the time has surely arrived for balancing the masculine with the feminine values both in our divine images and in our response to the world with an equitable vision beyond the ideal of equality.”
An interview with the author on Common Threads, hosted by Fred Stella, can also found be found here.
For those who want to explore further, this book “is a continuation of her journeys into Kali consciousness,” which began in a book written a decade ago: In the Beginning was Desire, where she discusses the role of Kali within Indian culture, through a study of texts ranging from the Rig Veda, to Rabindranath Tagore’s Chandalika, Girish Karnad’s Hayavandana, and Suzanne Ironbiter’s Devi.