By Dr. Sree Padma, Executive Director at the ISLE Program, Research Assistant Professor of Asian Studies at Bowdoin College, and author of The Vicissitudes of the Goddess - available on Oxford Scholarship Online. The introduction is now free and available for one month.
This book contains many of my own evolved perspectives rooted in my personal experience, but I have included only those that have been corroborated by primary sources. The major aspiration I pursued in writing this book involved constructing a detailed history of fertility goddess traditions in India with a specific focus on the local goddesses of Andhra Pradesh. I did this in order to show how these same goddess traditions predate many religious practices that came to be integral to emergent ’Hinduism’. Other trajectories of note in this book include a consideration of the deification of women and how that controversial process has been related to, or anchored in, the conceptuality and symbolization of the fertility goddess, one that continues to inform the contemporary cults of village goddesses (gramadevatas).
What is unique about this book? For various reasons that I explore, there persists many misconceptions about fertility goddesses. One is that they do not have any “history”. Even if it is agreed theoretically that many agricultural societies, including India’s, venerated fertility goddesses historically, the general scholarly understanding is that it is impossible to establish a coherent history about them, given the popular orientation of the cult. This book challenges this misconception by stitching together historical remains of the literary/liturgical and material culture of these goddesses from the pre-historic past to the present. These include symbols, anthropomorphic images and mythologies of goddesses substantiated by inscriptions, literature, and interviews with contemporary devotees. This exercise produced an unexpected result: fertility goddess traditions not only are now inextricably intertwined with India’s emergent major religions, but they enriched these other religious traditions by providing them with an artistic vocabulary, a mythic imagination and an opportunity to develop rapport with the general village social and cultural milieu.
To illustrate the goddess’ historical emergence, consider below the decorative “pot”, later commonly identified as the womb of the goddess (that generates growth). The pot’s deployment in ritual contexts provided an artistic, symbolic vocabulary for various Indic religions. In combination with other goddess symbols, such as lotuses, chakras, srivatsas, svatstikas, nagas, trees, etc, the pot has been adopted extensively into Buddhist, Jaina and Hindu temple art as an auspicious sign.
At the same time, the pot was progressively rendered in artistic depictions from the beginning of Common Era to the 9th century, evolving eventually into the very shape of the anthropomorphic goddess. The outlines of her figure, especially the core body of the pot as the waist and womb, are clearly incipient in the early specimens below.
In later artistic representations (below), thighs, legs and genitalia are attached to the pot.
In its final stages of evolution, it is no longer a pot representing the womb of the goddess, but a naked goddess in anthropomorphic form with a lotus as her head. The lotus is also one of the primary goddess symbols. In this form, the goddess flexes her legs and thighs as though giving birth.
Several of these naked goddess images made between the 7th and 11th c. have been placed in temple shrines and are still worshiped for the promotion of fertility. Simultaneously, pots continue to be used in goddess ritual contexts as worshippers carry pots with water or food on their heads in processions to celebrate the goddess festival even to this day (see below).
I am impressed with how Oxford Scholarship Online (OSO) has made my book available not only on a secure website, but also in the same format as the actual book, with figures interspersed within the text for clarity. This is a wonderful convenience for scholars and students who can now access any portion of the book from any location.
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