By Michael Slouber, editor of A Garland of Forgotten Goddesses: Tales of the Feminine Divine from India and Beyond
In the Internet age, memes have come to refer to images that are rapidly shared on social media platforms. The term “meme” has an interesting backstory. It was coined in 1976 by geneticist Richard Dawkins to describe how a unit of cultural meaning may spread rapidly, like a virus. Some scholars find it useful to think of religions as ancient complexes of memes that continue to shape our worlds.
One ancient meme—originating, perhaps, in the eastern Mediterranean—says that there must be either one God or many gods. Yet, why would a supreme being be bound by such an algorithmic sense of coherence? Indian civilization, my area of focus, has always presented the divine as transcending such simplistic binaries.
Another ancient meme, shared and propagated by the vast majority of the billions of religious faithful the world over, is that God is male, and that men, being made in his likeness, are the rightful rulers in families and society. Some theologians may retort that God’s gender doesn’t matter, but then why not default to feminine for a change? When God is conceived as male, what does that mean for women and people of alternative gender identities? It has tended to mean a subordinate existence, if not violent abjection.
These religious imaginings of gender—to say nothing of race or class—have real consequences that many of us live with every day. It can be refreshing to delve into alternative conceptions of the divine and what it means to lead a spiritual life. Our new anthology—A Garland of Forgotten Goddesses: Tales of the Feminine Divine from India and Beyond—offers readers just such an opportunity.
The book’s myths, legends, songs, and overheard divine conversations range from the sixth century to the twentieth and carry the potential to shake the foundation of our enduring ideas, or memes if you will, about gender and religion. The book preserves visions of the divine feminine that may be shocking to some, inspirational to others. And although not all of it portrays a feminist utopia, the stories that subject the goddesses and their followers to patriarchal and heteronormative structures are useful too; they provide an opportunity to study the perhaps counter-intuitive fact that goddess traditions have as often served to confine human women as to comfort or liberate them.
As scholars and teachers of South Asian religions, we also need to extricate ourselves from conventional ways of presenting Hinduism to our readers and students. At one time, it may have seemed fine to present a largely orthodox Brahminical view of Hinduism to the world: high philosophy, the well-worn epics and myths, and (hopefully!) a bit about goddess traditions, typically from a very limited array of sources. But we can just as fruitfully share Indian religions with students and the public through lesser-known sources and characters who have been “forgotten” or even “buried” in the narratives about that history that we continue to promote.
The sources in A Garland of Forgotten Goddesses often feature deities and people who depart from orthodox customs and norms—they do not share the current regime of memes. They complicate the dominant narratives about Hinduism and prevailing notions about the divine in general. Yet the world is hungry for a more complicated plot-line and cast of characters! The time is ripe for change. The old, the forgotten, the obscure—these can become new, vibrant, and central to our identities when we engage with them again.