Friday, May 12, 2006

The Da Vinci Code meets the Kamasutra: Is this Gospel for Modern Women?

In the most recent edition of “The Ark” on ABC Radio National, called “Sex in Hinduism”, Rachel Kohn interviews Wendy Doniger. She has been invited by the Art Gallery of NSW to prepare for their “Goddess Exhibition” commencing in October.

[Reader: Ah, that’s what this is about—Schütz is on the “Goddess” theme again!]

Doniger no dummy. She is Director of the Martin Marty Center and Mircea Eliade Distinguished Service Professor of the History of Religions in the Divinity School at the University of Chicago. She knows her stuff.

The program is interesting to listen too (no transcript is available, only MP3) for a perspective of sexuality in a non-Abrahamic tradition. At one point, Doniger bemoans the fact that our religions (I guess she means Jewish, Christian and Muslim) don’t celebrate sexuality as do some parts of Hinduism—eg. the part that gave us “The Kamasutra”! But she also points out that on the other hand there were parts of Hinduism that rejected not only lustful sexuality, but marriage and family as well! Even in the Kamasutran tradition, it was fine for the husband to have sexual relations with another woman (provided she didn’t belong to a man—her father or her husband!) but not for the wife (as Rachel remarks “Why am I not surprised!”).

There is a lot of talk about the sexuality of the gods, which leads to this fascinating snippet. Rachel asks Doniger:

“So in this tradition which has God as both male and female, and which is quite free and open in expressing its sexuality, why do women come off as inferior? Why are they the curse?”

To which Doniger replies:

“I am always surprised that feminists in particular and people in general think that a country that worships a female divinity would be good to women. It’s just the opposite. The more powerful women are deemed to be—they have something called “shakti” which is a feminine power—when men think of women being powerful, being the embodiment of a sort of goddess--well, they’re scared of them! You’d better lock them up! What if they also became lawyers or politicians? The world would not be a safe place.

“So it is precisely the recognition of a female divinity or a divine female power which ever way we want to think of it which leads to a totally regressive legal system when it comes to women and the keeping of women down, of keeping them locked up and so forth.

“I’m always surprised that feminists think that goddesses would be good for women. In one of the few countries we know where Goddesses are widely worshipped, women have a very rough time of it to this day.”

This dovetails very well with my reflections on that bloody book by Dan Brown, The DaVinci Code. There he presents Goddess Worship and Karmasutra style “sacred sex” as being the great liberating force of humanity—especially for women—while Christianity and Judaism and even Islam get the big thumbs down for misogynism.

The fact is that historically—as Doniger points out—goddess worship has not led to emancipation of women. Rather it has led to the justification (and even sacralisation) of prostitution and the enclosure of women in the household.

My Muslim friends point out that in the Middle East, Islam brought a degree of emancipation and legal protection to women far in advance of what was culturally traditional—even if in our eyes today it may still appear to fall below the full demands of modern feminism. The latter movement, it must be acknowledged, was the product of a philosophy of the dignity of each human being developed within a Western Judeo-Christian culture.

Whichever way you look at it, there is no historical support for the assertion that the goddess worship is a correlate of the freedom and dignity for women in society.

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