Gendering the Spirit (Durre Ahmed)

Eric Winkel, Ph.D.

Posted Nov 18, 2002      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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Religion has not faded but has catapaulted to the front of much human activity, and not just as a ғnuisance.

Durre Ahmed begins the book with an overview of scholarly treatment of religion, and exposes the parochialism of much scholarship which dismisses religion out of hand or which assumes that women cannot be part of ԓreligion, because ԓreligion is patriarchal and negative to the feminine.

Durre Ahmed re-opens the concept of heresy, and changes our focus from doctrine to the play of the divine, to mysticism, and to strong female saintly figures. Religions in the past had to redraw their inclusionary circles wider to include miracles and spiritualities and saints that had gained followings. Religions, especially state ones like Islam in Pakistan, also draw exclusionary circles to define Lal Ded as a Muslim and not a Hindu, for example. And finally, circles are being drawn so tightly and narrowly that great hosts of Muslims, for example, find themselves outside of the pale circles drawn by forces in Pakistan. ԓHeresy now becomes support for human rights, or international law, or participation in age-old cultural activities that have now become insufficiently ԓIslamic.

Readers may not be aware of the mass of texts and concepts and attitudes that stifle the feminine in conventional Hinduism. Madhu Khanna offers an intriguing look, working from male-authored and legitimized tantric texts, into devotion toward female power. Students of Hinduism will recognize a number of manifestations of this in Madhu KhannaԒs reports, such as kumari-puja and Sri Ramakrishna Paramhansas initiation by a female Tantric. In her discussion of menstruation, which is a terrible pollution in one orthodoxy and in the tantric ғheresy a fluid worthy of offering to the divine, I was reminded of the concept of haram in Arabic. Haram means something one stay outside of, and it also is the sacred precinct. The tantric concepts too force a return to the potent ambiguities of the real.

Without gaining access to the depths, to the shadows, we make religion, and the divine, lop-sided, seeing only one aspect of reality. So, as Durre Ahmed says, the problem is not with religionԗit is with our one-sided view of it; and the problem is the same with ourselves and our bodies:  without gaining access to the dualities and male-female in our own bodies, we have a lop-sided view of ourselves. And this insistence on seeing only one side is the Jungian definition of neurosis.
After the chapters establishing theoretical approaches and methodologies, the contributors make case studies. The studies are fascinating glimpses into lived spirituality.

We learn about the forgotten women of Anuradhapura, where historiographist Buddhist nuns shaped the religious terrain of third century Sri Lanka, Mother Victoria as a mutya figure in the Philippines, Madhobi Ma, and Lal Ded, who walked the vales of Kashmir nakedwhy should she dress, as there were no real men around?

Gendering the Spirit is engaging, insightful, and above all, inspiring. Sometime last year I had the thought that the biggest methodological block hindering the social sciences is simply lack of care for the subjects. This book is based on intelligent, thoughtful, and deeply involved scholarly work, and the result is equal measures penetrating-insight (which is masculine) and understanding-compassion (feminine).